Mystery Blog

Chris's Blog Archive: October 2016

October's always an odd month. The burst of creative endeavour that is Fifty/Ninety draws to a close and suddenly I have spare time again. That all disappeared in an effort to get my new computer up and running how I want it. Given that it's running Windows 10, I'm sure that you can imagine how that went.


I feel better this morning after getting a good night's sleep and having a lie-in, just to make sure. I've already set most of the clocks in the house back to Greenwich Mean Time, marvelling at how fast or slow some of them have become since I set them forwards in the spring. At the moment the leader is my Korg M3, which was some 20 minutes fast, although this is an unfair competition given that other things, like my analogue wristwatch, have been reset regularly over the intervening months.

GMT always feels like a bit of a personal reset, too. It'll be 21 years ago tomorrow since I left BT and embarked on a career change that saw pretty much everything in my life turned upside down. Although I didn't realise it at the time, it was a change for the better, and my professional and personal development since then has been both surprising and rewarding. It taught me that I don't have to accept the way things are, and that I can both change and grow. That has very definitely been a lesson worth learning.


There's been another big earthquake in central Italy. I'm sure I'm not the only person who will now be keeping a close watch on Mount Vesuvius, which lies to the south east of the affected region. The volcano hasn't erupted since 1944; it's extremely unpredictable, sometimes becoming quiescent for periods of thousands of years, but at other times erupting every decade. Three million people live in its immediate vicinity and if I was one of them, I'd be feeling rather nervous this morning.


It's Saturday lunchtime; I took quite a while to get going this morning. Last night on the way home from work I called in at the supermarket to do the week's shopping and fill the car up with petrol (and at 111.9p a litre, that was a couple of pence cheaper than most filling stations I've seen recently). I got home at 7 and I was so tired when I got through the door that I felt physically sick. When I get very run down, my nose starts running, my eyes feel scratchy and I start shivering. My energy levels drop through the floor. Right now, I have all of those symptoms. As I type this blog, my fingers are all over the place and I'm going to have to check the end results very carefully for typos. I'm not usually this wiped out when it gets to the weekend. I'm very much looking forwards to getting another hour in bed tonight, as the clocks go back. I really need it.

I'm gradually getting my new computer up and running. I installed Age of Empires 3 a few days ago, and after I'd set compatibility mode and installed Microsoft's very irritating DirectPlay software as suggested here it runs - spectacularly - at a resolution of 3840 x 2160. I was mystified to discover immediately afterwards that the Start menu problem I mentioned in my last blog entry has mysteriously fixed itself.

I am still shouting at iTunes on a regular basis. I had to download every app again from the iTunes store. And I had to download all my subscribed podcasts again manually, which isn't the most entertaining way to spend an evening. You'd think there would be a "download all" button, wouldn't you? If there is, I couuldn't find it - the default "download new podcasts" setting doesn't appear to be capable of figuring out which podcasts you're missing. I haven't even bothered to try and restore my old library from my last machine; I'm just going to add my music again from scratch. Thank goodness I never enabled "let iTunes manage my music" on the machine, which means that all my music folders are where I want them, not where Apple thinks they should be.

I've created a bunch of panoramic desktops from my own photos, and right now I have a spiffy photo of Portishead playing at Alexandra Palace from the I'll Be Your Mirror festival that they curated a few years ago. The resolution is so high that jpg compression from the old Canon PowerShot camera I was using is quite visible; it lends the image a weird pointillistic quality that's rather pleasing.

I also tried out the Rainmeter desktop customization tool, and while it's very striking at first glance, I found it got in the way too much, so I've uninstalled it again. I may try again when the new version is released.

I was disappointed to discover that some of my old favourite programs don't run on Windows 10 at all, but at least this will stop me filling up the SSD with a lot of crap that I don't really need. Some of my favourite old games are playable in a browser these days, so maybe I don't really need to hang on to my old 3.5 inch discs of Microsoft Arcade any more. There's always Steam, of course. But the Windows Store - that much-vaunted one-stop shop for all your software needs - still feels like the most dodgy of car boot sales instead of the slick, professional marketplace that it should be.

And so I continue tweaking things and trying to find ways of making Windows 10 behave more like Windows 7. To me, that's a big sign that Microsoft's new OS is an abject failure.


It's always exciting when something suggests that our view of the Universe is about to change. Change brings with it exciting new possibilities, and discoveries often shed light on potential new ways of doing things. I enjoy having my world view challenged (which, it seems, is not common), and I read a lot of stuff on the web from people who hold very different perspectives to my own. Sometimes I might be convinced to adopt those new perspectives after deciding that they're better than the ones I previously held. But even when I don't, as a Fortean, I find the experience of investigating other points of view fascinating. And it helps to be familiar with basic concepts like rhetoric, framing and the Overton Window when you're reading this stuff, as they help to separate the wheat from the chaff.

One of my favourite activities online is looking at stories that have gone viral, because the ones that make it on to Facebook or Twitter frequently shed light on the poster's world view; the stuff that gets repeated is the stuff that reinforces or confirms the poster's beliefs. Facebook is actually quite savvy about this, as its "related stories" box that appears under any coversation that you join in will frequently have a link to something that utterly refutes whatever it was that the original poster shared. There, and in every other social network, confirmation bias is often easy to spot ("See? I was right!") but sometimes its effects can be more subtle. This is a polite way of saying that those stories you share are not always reliable, although if they're in a peer-reviewed journal I'm inclined to pay a fair bit more attention.

An article in just such a journal - Nature's Scientific Reports - got my attention this week, as it suggests that the evidence for dark energy is not as solid as previously thought. Jeppe Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute, together with Alberto Guffanti of Torino University and Subir Sarkar of Oxford University suggest, in fact, that the current data we have doesn't actually show that the expansion of the Universe is speeding up at all. If it isn't, then we don't need dark energy to account for it. Given that the current paradigm in cosmology is that dark energy makes up around 68% of everything there is out there, this is enough to raise a few eyebrows. Their study suggests that our earlier view of the Universe, in which it is expanding at a constant rate, may end up being reinstated as the way we think things are. That's quite an unusual thing to happen in science.

In contrast, you may also have seen a bunch of stories this week related to the continuing interest in KIC 8462852, or Tabby's Star. Researchers Ermanno Borra and Eric Trottier got a lot of attention when they claimed that they had found 234 other stars exhibiting weird behaviour that they suggest might be explained by the presence of aliens. A few days later, the SETI Institute issued a statement in response which, while describing Borra and Trottier's results as "interesting", assigned the findings a rating of 0 to 1 on the Rio Scale, which translates as "nothing to get excited about" - the scale goes up to 10. It would be amazing to find out that there is intelligent life out there, but the evidence isn't there yet.

Meanwhile, I continue to run the SETI at home screensaver, and my new computer is already hard at work helping the search. On the 22nd of October I passed the six million Cobblestones mark. As of just now, I've contributed 6,013,669 Cobblestones of computation (that's 5.20 quintillion floating-point operations) to the project since I signed up in 1999.


My new machine's arrived.

New system!

Trying to get a fresh install of iTunes to work with my phone is already driving me to distraction. You can't transfer stuff on the phone back to a computer any more, because people might actually find being able to do that useful and convenient.

I have not revised my earlier opinion that Windows 10 is an apallingly bad operating system. I'd managed to break the Start menu after a couple of hours: if I try to move a tile around the menu, it disappears and the rest of the tiles become greyed out. Searching online for a solution was no help at all, but I did find out that the problem has been around since last year, and Microsoft show no sign of being able to fix it.

The monitors really kick butt; in fact they're ridiculous. I'm running both of them at their native resolution of 3840 by 2160, and that means I can get a lot of stuff on the screen simultaneously and still be able to read everything.

It's just as well I got new glasses last weekend, though. Small text ends up being really small.


I think I'll be having an early night this evening. Last night was spent catching up with the Twins in Stroud over a very nice curry that Ruth had cooked. I didn't get home until nearly midnight, and for the second time in four days it was nearly 1:30 when I got to bed (the other occasion was thanks to a late-night return from a business trip to Bavaria) and I think it's all rather caught up with me. I'm sitting here shivering, so I am about to cave in and switch the central heating system on.

I guess that means winter's finally here...


...for my new PC; MESH have let me down. I only found out that the delivery was going to be late when I phoned them on Friday to see how things were going. Clearly they didn't consider it important to inform me that my order was going to be delayed. I'm disappointed, but not that surprised, because this is exactly what happened the last time I ordered a machine from them. Lesson learned, I think: I won't be doing so again.

In complete contrast I ordered two new monitors earlier this week from Ebuyer and they were on my doorstep first thing on Saturday morning. I've had to shift my computer desk around a bit to make them fit, though; they're quite a bit larger than the monitors I've been using for the last few years. Well - okay - they're 28 inch UHD monitors, so they're much bigger. I'm eager to see what they do with the new system, but for the moment I'm still waiting for it to turn up. It's very frustrating.


I am now at the point where I need a separate pair of spectacles for close-focus work - and by that, I mean making sense of anything that's less than 50 cm from the end of my nose. I picked up my new glasses this lunchtime and reading a book has become easy again. But they're not for everyday use; anything beyond arm's length fades off into a mysterious blur. Trippy, but not very helpful.


Well, I wasn't expecting to have to replace one of my computers this month, but my old Dell T7500 had other ideas. It's my main "office" PC downstairs and when I tried switching it on last Sunday morning, nothing happened. Taking it apart, vacuuming out the drifts of dust (ewww) and cleaning contacts was to no avail. The motherboard had power, but the machine steadfastly refused to boot. So I've hoiked the disk drives and everything else that I could re-use out of it, and it'll be taking it to the recycling centre the next time I'm heading that way. In the meantime, this blog is being written using a fresh install of NetBeans on the studio machine upstairs. I've copied all the folders I need from the old machine's hard drives to the Monolith (the fact that it has a hot-swap bay for a SATA drive on the front panel is incredibly useful) and - touch wood - I've been able to seamlessly switch things like email and blog entries without missing a beat.

Sadly, this means that I've left Windows 7 behind. The new machine I've ordered - which once again will be supplied by MESH Computers - will have Windows 10 on it. Unless I become so frustrated by it that I dig out my old Windows 7 Professional install disc and start again from scratch, that is. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that happens sooner, rather than later; I really don't like Windows 10. It's even worse than Windows Vista, and that's saying something. A nag window from Microsoft popped up on this machine this week asking "How likely would you be to recommend Windows 10 to a friend?" and I was disappointed to discover there wasn't a reply option of "Not at all - I want to keep them."

Once again, the new machine will have the OS on a solid state drive. The old T7500 took on a fresh lease of life after I installed an SSD as its C: drive, and other than the fact that its boot manager was incredibly slow, I didn't have a problem with its performance at all, which is quite something for a computer I've been using as my main machine since December 2009. The most important criterion I used in selecting a new machine has been "how many USB sockets has it got?" Scanner, printer, graphics tablet, keyboard, mouse, video capture dongle, iPhone connector, webcam, memory stick - the list goes on and on. A lot of the spiffy gaming PC cases made these days don't have enough connectors on them, but I found something that will give me the connectivity I need in a sleek black box (no glowing components or transparent windows for me.) Roll on next Saturday, when I'm expecting it to be delivered.


Do you have a special saying that you speak aloud on the first day of the month? For me, it's "rabbits!" I can remember doing this as a small child living in Lancashire, after being introduced to the custom by my Aunty Mary. From this I infer that the superstition was prevalent in the north of England, and this is backed up by the fact that the Wikipedia page I linked to above currently carries a rather florid modification intended to promote a website about folk tales from the County That Must Not Be Named on the other side of the Pennines. The idea that "rabbits" was used as a substitute for expletives amuses me, as I don't think I ever heard my Aunt swear once in all the time I knew her. And she wasn't a superstitious type, either; I think she just enjoyed spreading what we would now think of as a meme.

It's October, and today is the first time this year that I've felt like summer is over; at nearly 11°C right now it's not exactly chilly outside - I still have the windows in the conservatory open, the virginia creeper on the house is still largely green rather than red, and the lawn is still growing vigorously enough that I will need to cut it again this week (providing it dries out after yesterday's heavy rain) - but the days have grown noticeably shorter. Despite this, the house martins were still flying in and out of the eaves of the Buthay pub in Wickwar when I drove past it on the way home yesterday. I usually rhapsodise about this time of year in the blog, because it has always been my favourite season. It's a time of contracting and withdrawing, of staying in rather than going out, and that suits my introverted nature. It's a time of year when I can feel less guilty about staying in bed for an extra half-hour at the weekends. It's a time when it feels natural to eat more fortifying meals in order to prepare for the winter that lies ahead. It is, quite frankly, a time for extra helpings of treacle sponge pudding and custard.

October is a month of mists and fog. I've already encountered some on my early morning drive to work but thankfully they have not been as severe as the winter fogs I can remember from when I lived in the Midlands back in the 1970s. I will never forget one night in particular when, arriving back in Stafford after going on a school trip to Birmingham to see the Vienna Boys' Choir at the Town Hall, the fog was so thick that you couldn't see the top of a street light when you were standing at its base. I was born after the Clean Air Act was introduced in 1956, but pollution in the 1970s was still much worse than it is now and this could amplify fogs into the sort of thing that you used to see in Sherlock Holmes movies, or in the occasional episode of Batman. No wonder that George Gershwin wrote about them; when fogs become pea-soupers they change your environment into something alien and strange and it is surprisingly easy to get lost in the streets of your home town when every landmark has been hidden from view. That experience was disconcerting enough to have stayed with me for more than four decades and I can still recall it, although I won't use the adverb "vividly" for a sensorium in which all colours have been washed out of what remains of the landscape and all that remains is the diffused orange glow of sodium vapour lamps.

October is the month when we bid farewell to summer migrant species like those house martins at the pub. I haven't seen a swallow or a swift for a while, so it would not be surprising if they have already left. I will miss hearing the swifts' headlong, shrieking flight over the village, as it's one of my favourite summer experiences. But winter migrants, such as Bewick's swans, are already on their way to our shores and I will be looking out for bramblings, fieldfares and redwings too.

October also brings to a close one of my favourite things to do over the summer...


It's the last day of Fifty/Ninety, so after I finish here I will be heading upstairs to write my last song of the event. I surprised myself by managing to get to 49 songs this year. For one thing, I didn't have the vast amounts of spare time that I did in 2014 or 2015, as I've been back in full time employment since the end of July. But I also didn't experience the same manic outburst of creativity that happened last year when I decided that I was going to write and record an album about my experiences with chronic depression, The Blackest of Dogs (which is available right now from Bandcamp) Instead I've been writing and recording at the weekends, keeping up with the calendar but never getting ahead of it. Some years are like that; it's been a slow burn year rather than an all-consuming blaze, but I still feel that I have improved my song-writing skills over the past three months.

Creativity is a bit like a muscle, in that it responds to frequent use and develops when it's deployed on a regular basis. I don't think it's an innate gift. In fact, I think it's a skill that has to be learned and, most importantly, exercised on a regular basis. After the working week takes out most of my time from Monday to Friday, I've noticed that the creative juices take time to start flowing again. It takes a couple of hours of playing and noodling on Saturday morning before I feel ready to sit down and write anything. Friday evening has been a bust for the past month or so because I've been too tired to focus on writing; last night I picked up the Telecaster in the living room and played it for about ten minutes and that was it. But today is Saturday, and I've had my coffee and croissants, so now I'm off upstairs to fire up the studio and see what I come up with.