I had a quiet month this month. Apart from a lovely visit from my friend Helen, I spent this month almost entirely at home apart from a couple of excursions to the supermarket, walking down to the main road through the village to see the Tour of Britain whizz through at high speed, and a trip down to Bristol to see legendary band Half Man Half Biscuit.
Much music-making took place, of course.
I make music. These days, I make lots of music. Last summer, for instance, I wrote 117 pieces of music between July 4th and October 1st. So many people asked me, "Why?" or "What on Earth were you thinking?" that I decided I'd write a book about it. The book will also introduce you to the delights of setting up a recording studio of your own, so you can do this sort of thing, too. It's called A Grand Adventure. The album features twenty tracks—most of them not previously released—that were recorded during those crazy three months. The book is included as both a .pdf file for your computer and as an .epub file for your eBook reader. I hope you'll find it interesting. It's taken me the best part of a year to write, so I hope you'll understand why this is a paid release.
Yesterday I left my 1,000th comment on someone else's song on the Fifty/Ninety website and uploaded my own 59th track. This afternoon I plan on recording number 60, and then that'll be it for the year, although the site will continue to accept new song submissions until some time tomorrow. Burr reported a couple of weeks ago that it's been the most productive year ever for the FAWM and Fifty/Ninety challenges with more than 19,000 songs being submitted to the two sites; if we haven't already done so, we're well on the way to smashing the 20,000 milestone by now. Back in August the total of songs submitted to both challenges since they started some 20 years ago passed the 250,000 mark. That's a lot of music which wouldn't otherwise exist. It's wonderful.
I've achieved all the goals I set myself for this summer's challenge. I was far less ambitious than I was last year, but all the same, I wanted to beat my most frequently-achieved Fifty/Ninety song tally of 55 songs. In fact, 2023 has turned out to be the sixth most prolific of any of the years in which I've participated (my lowest count was back in 2016, when I only managed to produce 51 songs—although in fairness I had just started at Profitability and the commute there and back took up almost all of my spare time).
But this month has also involved thinking about the future. I have no plans to move house any time soon, but when you've lived somewhere for approaching thirty years, you begin to realise that stuff could do with a refresh. In the last couple of weeks I've taken the first steps in getting some major work done on the house, including installing solar panels to offset my energy usage and putting in a battery system that will act as a UPS for the entire house for those occasions when the local electricity substation blows up (it's done so several times since I moved here) or we get power cuts (and if the Tories remain in power much longer, I can see those being a regular event).
Sadly, one of the steps I'm going to have to take is to remove the magnolia tree in the front garden, because it is now very definitely a tree rather than the small bush it was when I arrived here in 1995. Back then, it was about knee-high; I cut it back at the beginning of summer but it responds very enthusiastically to being pruned and has doubled in height since then and the tops of the branches are now level with my upstairs windows.
There are lots of other things to be done, too. But I'm going to take things at my own pace. We'll get there when we get there.
Another month, another Netbeans install. This one wasn't anywhere near as straightforward as the one back in June, however. I thought I was being clever and installed the latest version of Notepad++ before I started, but once I'd got that out of the way, things stopped running smoothly. The first time I tried running Netbeans 19, it threw up an error message informing me that it would only work with versions of Java rather more up to date than the version I've been running (which dated back to 2016, no less!) and when I clicked on the error message's OK button, Netbeans quit to the desktop. Huh.
I therefore had to download and install a more up to date version of Oracle's Java Development Toolkit so that I could point Netbeans's netbeans_jdkhome variable in netbeans.conf at it. That was pretty straightforward, so I'm now running version 21. Once I'd got that sorted out, Netbeans started up without complaining, but I then discovered that for some reason the app's font sizes were borked. Most obviously, the size of the font I was using in the code window was much larger than it had been in version 18. And I mean much larger. When I did a side by side comparison, the difference was about the same as moving from a 20 point font to a 24 point one. And all the GUI text has suffered from a similar change in size. On my displays it looks horribly clunky even after the Darcula modifications are applied. Ugh.
I suspect that this is because Netbeans wasn't handling the --fontsize 24 string in netbeans.conf properly in version 18 and now it is, but I can't find anything online which can confirm this. It meant that I couldn't change Netbeans back to how it looked in the previous version (which was how I liked it). And this was the point at which I realised just how limited the range of font sizes is that you can select from in Netbeans's look and feel settings; the next font size up from 18 point was 24. You can't use anything in between. Seriously?
However, a bit of digging on the Internet led me to an open source font called Hack, which I took one look at and downloaded on the spot. It looks much better than the old default Consola font I was using, and it's legible enough at smaller sizes, too, so I've jumped down in font size to 18 and we'll see how I get on with that.
For good measure yesterday I also installed the latest release of LibreOffice on both my "office" machine downstairs and the Monolith in my bedroom studio. I'm now running version 7.6.2 but Writer still crashes when I scroll through a document too quickly, though. I guess we can't have everything.
I had another session happily noodling away in the studio yesterday. I didn't come up with anything particularly groundbreaking, but I played with moods and atmospheres on the Korg M3, played a lot of guitar, and gave myself a bit of a workout with the Fender Jazz Bass. As a result, by close of play yesterday I'd got a minute under four hours of music written for the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge. That's less than half the amount I'd recorded in 2022, but it's still a decent showing. Today I intended doing something to get me over the four hour mark, but as you'll see in a second I'm not there yet. Once I'm done with this latest track, I'll probably call it quits for the year.
I've really ramped up my commenting, though. Last night I fired up the calculator on Windows and totted up the number of comments I'd received so far (685) and the number I'd made (950) which gives me a commenting ratio of 0.72. That's pretty good, and I intend on pushing it down even further over the next few days as I close in on my target of leaving at least 1,000 comments on other people's songs by the time the challenge finishes on Sunday.
I spent a few hours noodling away with something today, but I realised at about 3pm that I was just spinning my wheels and not making any sort of progress. In previous years I'd have gritted my teeth and ploughed on regardless, but not this year. I've bailed for the day. I'll see what I come up with tomorrow.
Yesterday the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft, more handily referred to as OSIRIS-REx, successfully returned a capsule containing about 250 grams of material from the asteroid 101955 Bennu safely back to Earth. The spacecraft was launched back in September 2016, and arrived at the asteroid in December 2018, orbited it at decreasing altitude for two years surveying the surface in fine detail, before touching down in October 2020 to take a sample. OSIRIS-REx left 101955 Bennu in May 2021 to make its return journey to Earth, which it completed yesterday, seven years and 16 days after launch, after travelling a total distance on the order of one billion miles to the other side of the Solar System and back.
I watched the return as it happened on NASA TV. I was amazed how high up the sample return capsule still was when it was acquired by the camera on one of NASA's WB-57 aircraft (a heavily modified version of the English Electric Canberra, which first flew from Warton in Lancashire in 1949; the RAF used them for photo reconnaisance for 57 years, only retiring their last one in June, 2006). The camera tracked the capsule for several minutes before its parachute deployed and it floated down to a landing on the US Army's Dugway Proving Range in Utah. The science team landed by helicopter, made sure the capsule was safe (with no unexploded charges left unused when the parachutes deployed, no nasty gases being emitted by the capsule's power system, and so on) and then oversaw the loading of the capsule into a cargo net which was slung under another helicopter and taken off for unloading and analysis.
From what was said by the commentators during the recovery, the mission has been a resounding success, issues with the deployment of the drogue 'chute (or lack thereof) notwithstanding; the capsule was intact and the samples inside will be pristine, uncontaminated examples of material from the birth of the Solar System. That quarter of a kilo of material which the capsule contains is about five times the minimum amount that the science team hoped to recover. That will be keeping many teams of scientists busy for years to come.
The main OSIRIS spacecraft's journey isn't over yet. It's been renamed OSIRIS-APEX (APophis EXplorer) and is now chasing down another asteroid: 99942 Apophis. You may remember me blogging about the discovery of this one back in 2004 when it had been given the provisional name of 2004 MN4 and the alarm generated when it was discovered that its predicted path warranted a 4 on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale. We now know that 99942 Apophis won't hit us when it passes by on April 13 2029, nor will it do so on its next encounter in 2036, but it will come very close to us, all the same—it will miss Earth by not less than 31,600 kilometres (19,600 miles). OSIRIS-APEX is planned to rendezvous with 99942 Apophis a few days later, on April 18 2023.
Fifty/Ninety finishes on Sunday, and I'm at the point where I think I will be quite relieved when it does so. I'm still writing and recording tracks, but I don't think I'll be making many more this summer. I've already hit the minimum figure I'd set myself, so the pressure's off, but I think my creative well is pretty much dry and I don't want to finish things off by knocking out a bunch of stuff that I won't be happy with when I come back to listen to it in a few months' time.
But there's plenty of other stuff left to do on the site. I've been listening to other people's work and leaving comments as best I can, and by my reckoning I've left a comment on about an eighth of absolutely everything that's been posted so far this summer. My ratio of comments received to comments left is well below one, and that's exactly how it should be.
I wasn't kidding when I said in my last blog post that I don't get out much these days. My most recent Google timeline update revealed that I drove a grand total of 18 miles in the preceding month. All of that was thanks to my fortnightly shopping trips to the local supermarket. Since I discovered how much I enjoy not needing to work full time any more, I have tended to stay at home and focus on doing things that I enjoy doing, rather than things I have to do to make money. Funnily enough, when I was working full time to finance my recording studio adventures, I was too worn out from work and had too little time left in each day to actually be creative. The days when my workplace cycled between Filton, Atlanta, and Tampa—sometimes every couple of weeks—are long gone, and I don't miss them at all. My carbon footprint back then was much, much larger than I'd be comfortable with nowadays. While I'm not always happy about the life of solitude I lead these days, I find it both comfortable and sustaining. Schedules are a thing of the past, and if I don't feel like going to bed when it's well past midnight, I don't. I can always have a lie-in in the morning (and that is my greatest luxury, I reckon; I'm no longer living by someone else's clock.)
Ironically, now that my financial position is such that I could splash out on a trip or two further afield if I wanted to, I no longer have any inclination at all to do so. After a couple of years of living in a Covid-infected world, I no longer really think about travelling to foreign parts. After being subjected to the misery of economy-class global air travel as much as I have, any romance that doing so once had has long since evaporated. The last few experiences I've had of air travel were horrible and if I never fly in another aircraft, I won't be sorry.
Maybe that'll change in a few years. I'd still like to cross Devil's Tower in Wyoming and the Grand Canyon off my list of places I've visited. I used to cherish dreams of going skiing in Banff and Lake Louise. But I won't be planning anything like that any time soon.
The blog's horizons have also contracted. In past years I'd be filling entries with reports of wild and wonderful things which I'd found online. Maybe the Internet experience, post-Trump, has soured for me but I don't feel much of an inclination to do that any more. I'm sure there are still fantastic things happening out there and some of them will end up in the blog from time to time but these days I read a lot of "content" and once I've finished sighing at the poor grammar and lack of understanding of what apostrophes are for, and checked on Snopes and other sites to make sure that the story hasn't been completely fabricated, I've lost any motivation for blogging about it.
So it goes.
Yesterday I uploaded another song to the Fifty/Ninety website, and this was displayed as my 54th song of the summer. It wasn't; one of the songs on my profile is duplicated, and another is only listed because I contributed ideas for a verse's lyrics (and the lyrics changed a lot when the song was recorded). But I've now written and recorded more than fifty solo efforts since July 4th, so I've "won" the challenge on my own terms.
I'll spend this afternoon in the studio to see if anything else springs to mind, but I'm not rushing things. On Wednesday I put together a drum track for a song at 130 bpm and once I'd done that, I spent more than half an hour playing along to it on the Fender Geddy Lee signature Jazz Bass I bought myself as a birthday present. That was fun, but it didn't lead me anywhere that sounded like a new song.
Yesterday, I slowed down the same drum track to 85 bpm and as soon as I picked up the Jazz Bass again, I knew what I was doing. The song just flowed, and when I'd finished, I was really pleased with the results. Songwriting is a weird thing. This year I've been listening to my "muse" more attentively than I've done in the past, and I think I've been creating better songs as a result of that. There have been far fewer of them, yes; but when I go back and listen to what I've written so far this summer I'm satisfied with almost all of them. There's still more than a week of the challenge left and I want to get at least 56 songs completed, which will better my tally for 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2018 and equal my performance in 2014. But the quality of what I've done this year is, I think, noticeably superior to pretty much all of my output for those years.
I just wish I could get more people to listen to it.
I don't seem to get out much these days. I went down to Bristol last night and realised as I drove down the M32 that it was the first time I'd been into town since June.
I was off to see Half Man Half Biscuit at SWX. I am ashamed to say that this was the first time I've managed to get to see them play live despite being a fan of their music for the best part of forty years (I still have a Betamax tape of their appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test back in 1986...)
We got lots of old stuff like "F***in' 'ell it's Fred Titmus!" "The Trumpton Riots" (of course) and even "All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit". We also got many of my favourites including "Renfield's Afoot", "The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train)", "For What Is Chatteris...", "National Shite Day", and "We Built This Village (On A Trad. Arr. Tune)". The final encore was, needless to say, "Joy Division Oven Gloves".
The blog's title today was a comment by Nigel made part way through the set when a roadie brought out towels for each member of the band. Despite us being half-way through September it was a warm day, and inside the venue, conditions were even warmer. He was in affable mood. "I thought there was another band on after us when I saw the schedule," he said at one point. "It'd be a great name for a metal band: Strict Curfew 10 pm. And there'd be an umlaut over the 'U' of course, although that would really require it to be an 'O'." And now I want to form a metal band with that name, of course.
It was a lot of fun, but I must admit I get somewhat irked when younger members of the audience decide to stand right in front of me and then proceed to hold their phone up at my eye level to record two– or three–minute sections of the show on their phone, which of course had its screen set to its absolute maximum brightness. I found myself thinking of this article that appeared in the Guardian recently and wishing I could have struck the miscreant repeatedly about the head with a rolled-up newspaper containing the printed version. The behaviour of much of the crowd left a lot to be desired.
The Tour of Britain came through the village yesterday and—true to form—ITV4 cut to a commercial break just as the breakaway pack got here. There was a brief glimpse of the peloton looking back up the road with The Plough in the background when coverage returned, but that was all we got, because by that point the race leaders had already slogged most of the way up the hill to Wotton-Under-Edge.
I was at the foot of Charfield Hill, camera at the ready. As the tour came through in the opposite direction from last time, they were going faster than nine years ago. Much faster, in fact; they must have been doing well over the speed limit.
I got a few decent photographs. Wout van Aert (above) was still leading the general classification when the stage finished at Gloucester. He went on to win the overall tour; it's the second time he's done so. But the stage was won by Norway's Rasmus Tiller (Uno-X Pro), who was looking very comfortable in the peloton as everyone came through.
The hot weather must have been quite a challenge, but the pace that the peloton sustained through Uley up Crawley Hill to Nympsfield was astonishing. Just experiencing those conditions on foot left me with a lot of respect for every rider taking part.
I decided yesterday afternoon that, regardless of the heat, I was going to stream on Twitch for an hour or so. That turned out to be a rather rash decision. Even though my streaming setup only uses LED lights rather than the old-style incandescent type, the temperature in my home studio after I'd been going for forty-five minutes had hit 31.3°C (that's 88.3°F).
Today it's still very hot outside, and tomorrow is forecast to be hotter still. The Met Office have issued a yellow warning of thunderstorms from 2pm tomorrow, but I'm right on the southern edge of the affected area here. Right now I've got the windows open in an attempt to get some fresh air circulating through the house, but everything smells of smoke because someone, somewhere nearby is burning what smells like domestic rubbish (which would be illegal).
Oh, the joys of autumn...
The Tour of Britain comes through Charfield tomorrow afternoon. The race gets live coverage on ITV4, and I'm rather hoping that this year they don't cut away to a commercial break just as the leaders reached the edge of the village, which is what happened the last time the tour came through here, nine years ago.
I've blogged about the meteorological event known as an omega block before, but yesterday I was watching the Met Office's Alex Burkill presenting the latest ten-day trend video on YouTube to see how much longer the current very warm weather would continue, and discovered that there's one over eastern Europe right now and that's what's caused the lack of change in our weather for the last few days.
And it has been very warm this week. When I'm working in my bedroom studio it hasn't been taking long for the temperature in there to climb above 30°C (86°F). Outside, it's been sunny and muggy and last night it was still 25°C (77°F) outside at 9 pm. This morning, there's a lot more cloud about but it's still uncomfortably warm. I've had the curtains at the front of the house drawn for the last couple of days to try and keep the heat out, but after several days of this the house is much warmer than is comfortable for me.
I'll be back working on music later, which will warm the studio up again and I'll be keeping an eye on the temperature in there before deciding whether or not to do anything on Twitch this evening.
I took a couple of days off from making music this week. Instead, I spent my time hanging out with my friend Helen, who was visiting the area. We had a couple of very nice meals prepared by someone else, chatted about old times, and drank rather a lot of coffee. I had a lovely time.
But for the last few days I've been back at it; I've sorted out the problems I'd given myself by putting the wrong gauge strings on my Ibanez RG770 and throwing the fine balance of its Floyd Rose tremelo system completely out of whack, and I was anxious to play in its new set of strings so they could settle down and I could clamp them in place. It's easier with the Parker Fly and the Squier Strat, which also have fresh strings but don't have locking nuts; there has been much playing of guitars in HFO headquarters this week.
I also contributed some lyrics to a song and was very kindly added as a collaborator there, so my current tally on my profile page on the Fifty/Ninety site stands at 46 songs, although one of those is a duplicate entry, and I'm not counting it. That means I'm 90% of the way to the site's target of writing fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st. I'm working much more slowly than I did last year. By September 7th in 2022 I'd uploaded eighty-one tracks! But I really think that in taking things at a much more stately pace I have managed to ensure that the quality of the music I've been making has been noticeably and consistently higher. I've been doing good work, even if I say so myself. And with plenty of buffer built up, it's been much easier to just shut things down and walk away for a day or two if I feel like I've run out of steam, creatively speaking.
For one track that I recorded this week I decided that rather than walking away, I'd post it just as it was, even though I'd planned to add another half-dozen tracks of guitar and synth to it. Ironically, if you judge a track's popularity by how many comments people make on it, this track has ended up being the most popular thing I've done for a couple of weeks! I love the mystery of the process by which music connects with people. It's completely unpredictable, although I have noticed that a funny title can often draw people in for a listen. I think that'll be one of the items I list when I do my traditional "things I've learned from Fifty/Ninety this year" blog post next month.
But no, at the moment I'm not planning on writing another book-length version this year...
Yes, it's the first Friday of the month once again, which would be an exceptionally good day to wander over to Bandcamp and pick up a copy of my e-book (in pdf and epub formats) about how I went nuts and wrote and recorded more than 100 pieces of music last summer for Fifty/Ninety. And you get 20 of those songs in the album included with the book as well.
Just click here.