Permalink entries for Chris's blog in November 2023.
I make music. These days, I make lots of music in all sorts of different genres. My latest release is an album of instrumental music which is called Lost Ideas, Forgotten Stories. This album sees me exploring the possibilities that longer pieces of ambient music can offer, so although there are just eight tracks the running time is more than an hour. It's available for streaming and download at Bandcamp along with an extensive discography of older material. I've built up quite a body of work there over the past decade or so that I'm rather proud of.
Russell T Davies has returned as showrunner for Doctor Who, and as I'm absolutely sure you already know he's brought back David Tennant as the Doctor and Catherine Tate as Donna Noble. Even for a writer as keen on retconning his way out of any sticky plot corner that he writes himself in to, this is an audacious step. If you've watched any of Mr Davies's past work, you already know that the weaker the plot he's working with is, the faster the action progresses; he trusts that glaring plot holes, nonsensical asides, and irrelevant sub-plots will rocket past so quickly that we won't have time to notice what a shambles the story actually is. If things are going properly off the rails, well, just blow a few things up. Now that the production budget has been increased (and the new episodes are pretty lavish affairs, it has to be said) he can blow lots of things up.
And if that distraction doesn't work, there's always the fallback of throwing in DRAMATIC MUSIC and trying to drown out the dialogue entirely. Murray Gold still scores the show like it was a Warner Brothers cartoon; he is incapable of handling nuance and subtlety in any shape or form.
This episode had its foot to the floor from start to finish, there were many explosions, the DRAMATIC MUSIC didn't let up for a minute and yes, it was appallingly, teeth-grindingly badly written. I felt sorry for Rachel Talalay even though this wasn't her first time in the director's chair for the show, so I'm sure she knew what she was letting herself in for. I bet her heart sank when she was given the shooting script.
For a start, Saturday's "special episode" suffered from having to introduce new viewers to what the context of the show was. Marketing had clearly given Davies the brief that he mustn't assume that anyone stumbling on to the broadcast would be familiar with any of the show's sixty-year history. With that out of the way, the rest of us got a quick refresh of the moment when Jodie Whittaker regenerated back into David Tennant's Doctor before bringing what would—in the Tom Baker days, at least—have been a gently paced, four-episode tale to a quirky but satisfactory conclusion all in just fifty-five minutes. Nobody involved here did a very good job of things, I'm afraid. The conclusion was neither quirky nor satisfying.
The opening, fourth wall-breaking pieces to camera by Tennant and Tate were a lazy solution to the problem of explaining the peril in which Tate's character was in (in which Mr Davies ignored the first, golden rule of screenwriting, which is "Show, don't tell") and this took me right out of the show, straight off the bat.
The basic story that was used is an old tale featuring Tom Baker as the Doctor which appeared, not on television, but in print. It was a comic strip created by two of 2000AD's finest (Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons) for the Doctor Who magazine. And if the hour-long show had just given us that tale, all would have been well. But no; we also had a ridiculous number of other tales to tell and a new version of U.N.I.T. to show off. And while the show's inclusivity is to be applauded with one character played by a trans actor and another by an actor with spina bifida who uses a wheelchair, Davies couldn't resist showing them off in the most crass, bombastic way possible (so Ruth Madeley's wheelchair could fire stun-gun darts and rocket-propelled grenades, because of course it could). Just like his composer, Mr Davies is also incapable of handling nuance and subtlety in any shape or form. This is particularly evident in the dialogue, which was full of deadlocks and Shadow Proclamations and heavy-handed comments about gender and absolutely none of it sounded like the sort of thing real people would say in the sort of situations the story put them in. I refuse to believe that when you're confronted by a fluffy but ultimately genocidal extraterrestrial with enormous eyes and Miriam Margolyes's voice the second thing you're going to focus on is which pronouns they use. The "courtroom scene" was, quite frankly, ludicrous. The only inspired bit of writing in the entire hour was when Donna's vocal tic of "Binary Binary Binary" from the 2008 episode Journey's End was used as a retconned foreshadowing of her future family; but we're back to using retrospective continuity again aren't we, because of course we are.
The wheels totally fell off everything in the last five minutes. RTD had to pull the big dramatic flourish, didn't he? Even if it destroyed the dramatic tension of the situation; the "If she remembers me, she'll die" guff that was the Doctor's entire motivation for leaving her as he did (and for staying away for the last thirteen years or so) turns out to have been a lie, and the nonsensical punchline of "Women can just let it go" literally had me facepalming on the sofa. As insults to the viewers' intelligence go, this was a doozy. It's all very well taking into account the fact that a large part of the show's audience is eight years old, but Davies seems incapable of writing on multiple levels so that their parents will get a kick out of things, too.
The Star Beast was pretty damn terrible.
Right now, I can't see myself ever buying another software synth again.
Why? Because the industry has a quaint term for their older models. They get "End-of-lifed". This doesn't just mean that the company stops selling them to new customers; it also means that they end support for them; they no longer update them to work after changes to operating systems are rolled out, and worst of all it means that if you buy a new computer, you won't be able to reinstall them (unless you're really, really lucky).
At the moment an even bigger swathe of music software is suffering this fate as support for VST2 plugins disappears. There are some good reasons for switching to the VST3 format; of course there are. But only complete idiots would decide to summarily delete the old VST2 versions of their software from their customers' machines, rendering any old project that used them unusable. And what kind of pillock would do this without telling users that the latest update would break stuff first?
Yes Native Instruments, I'm looking at you.
Because NI have done exactly this with version three of their Komplete Kontrol plugin. For the past three years I've been using it as a wrapper to load all my software synths and control them with my Native Instruments MIDI controller keyboard. And because VST3 plugins had stability issues, I've been using the VST2 version of the plugin all this time.
So now if I open any of my old Ableton Live projects, Live throws up a "plug-in not found" error message and all the soft synths no longer work. The project is borked. And I can't simply replace all the missing plug-in instances with the new VST3 version, because doing that erases all the settings of the soft synth being used. Yes, that's right; although I make a note of which particular soft synth I was using in the project file, lack of space prevented me from making a note of the specific patch; I assumed that Komplete Kontrol would communicate this with Ableton Live, but it turns out that it doesn't. So when the plug-in goes missing, the information about how it had been configured and the sounds it was making goes away. I'm not happy about that state of affairs, to put it mildly. Why doesn't the software fail gracefully, so that this doesn't happen? It's bad coding practice, and it wouldn't be tolerated in other industries.
Users, as you'd expect, have been distinctly unimpressed by this cavalier behaviour. NI have a page on their site which purports to tell you how to restore the old VST2 version of Komplete Kontrol and provide a download to the old installer.
The problem is that after doing this, although I can see the old .dll file in my plugins folder once again, Live can't. Even forcing a full rescan of all VSTs in my folders—including "blacklisted" ones that Ableton has deemed are incompatible—by holding down the ALT key and clicking the Rescan button doesn't restore the plug-in. It's not just me, either; over in NI's community forum, I can see it's a problem that other users are having as well. So I'm still screwed. I could also rant at considerable length about the astoundingly inept design of version 3's UI and the way it's actually managed to lose functionality instead of improving matters, but that's a diatribe for another day.
My old Roland synths are now more than forty years old; my ARP Odyssey is approaching fifty. They won't stop working if their manufacturer decides to roll out a change to a piece of software without asking me first. There's a lesson learned, there.
The temperature plummeted here overnight. After dropping to -5°C (23° F) the temperature remained below freezing in the back garden at lunchtime and the roof of the conservatory is still covered in frost as I type this. I'm mightily glad that the work upgrading the house's central heating system was completed before winter arrived. It's being put to very good use today.
This morning I was lying in bed after the radio came on and realised that I was putting off getting up because the house felt too cold, so I have caved in and the house's central heating system has been set to automatic once again. It's the same date on which I did so in 2021, just two days short of last year's record.
So, yeah. It's definitely winter now.
The only conversations I've had with people that I know so far this week have all been via online or phone apps, and it's been getting me down. I have no social life at all these days, and I think it's getting to me.
I was definitely in a maudlin frame of mind yesterday. I feel slightly better this morning, and I just made a bunch of business phone calls which I had been putting off for no good reason, and that has definitely improved my mood. But I still feel very down, and tired in a listless, "bleh" sort of way.
At least I'm getting round to reading a lot of books that have been on my "to read" pile for years. So far in 2023 I've read 68 books and I've written reviews of every single one of them. You can read them all here.
And I've been sufficiently motivated to put together my next album in plenty of time for the next Bandcamp Friday, which is next week. It took a couple of attempts before I came up with a cover I liked, but I think the end result is one of my more visually striking works. More on all that next week...
There are days such as today when I wish I could still drive over and spend a bit more time with my parents (as well as luxuriate in front of a roaring log fire in their living room with a glass of red wine, and a very eccentric greyhound curled up at my feet) but that's no longer possible. Fifteen years ago this week however, I was visiting their house in Norfolk and I can still remember going for a late afternoon walk along the collapsing shingle bank at Salthouse, my camera at the ready...
Shortly after I took that photograph I found myself surrounded by a twittering flock of snow buntings. They lived up to their name, too; back in those days, after the middle of October the weather up on the North Sea coast could turn wintry in a heartbeat and the car I drove was not suited to icy conditions at all so when it started to snow heavily I cut short my visit and returned home to an empty house and a job that I increasingly hated.
Life moves on, they say. I just wish it didn't do so quite as fast.
I've now been running the new boiler and immersion heater for a week, and with running the heating enough to keep the house comfortably warm and drawing a nice hot bath to soak in every night, my average energy costs are working out at £4.75 a day. It's early days yet, and the cold weather has yet to properly kick in here for the winter, but things are looking promising.
The weather is still unseasonably mild. Nevertheless, I put the heating on for a couple of hours yesterday just to see how well the new system is behaving (and flush any remaining air out of the radiators in the process). The house warmed up very nicely and my smart meter showed that it took considerably less gas to do so than it would have done with the old boiler. So I switched the heating back off again. Nearly a whole day after that, the temperature here at my desk has dropped by just two degrees. That's pretty darn impressive.
Work is continuing apace on the village's new supermarket. The Coop are opening a branch in Station Road just opposite the Railway Tavern and when I walked past the site a couple of days ago it was a hive of activity.
I'm looking forward to it opening. I'm eating too much processed food at the moment because I try to limit my shopping trips to once a fortnight, when I drive over to Thornbury or Dursley and stock up. I'm planning to change my shopping habits once the shop's open and walk down the road and shop every few days instead. My carbon footprint will shrink still further, I'll boost my steps count, I'll be eating fresher food, and I can switch to eating things which have far less preservatives in them.
It's a win all round.
Much to my surprise, the second integrated flight test of SpaceX's Super Heavy booster and Starship not only made it off the pad, they even got to carry out a successful stage separation and nearly made it to orbit. Whaddya know? The hot staging method seems to have worked!
I was pleasantly surprised to see that all thirty-three Raptor engines managed to keep going during the ascent, too. They still quit pretty rapidly after starting up again following the shutdown for the stage separation and flip manoeuvre though; that may have been what triggered the Super Heavy's FTS (Flight Termination System), because things got a teensy bit explodey immediately afterwards. It looks like Starship's FTS was triggered in the same way a minute or so later, either when its main engines shut down or shortly afterwards. Even if this had not happened, I suspect that Starship would still not have been able to return back to Earth in one piece, as it had lost an alarming number of its Thermal Protection System (TPS) tiles during the ascent.
It might be my brain refusing to cope with the size of the full stack on the pad (at around 122 metres or 400 feet high, it's almost 15 metres or 50 feet taller than a Saturn V) but while it seemed to clear the tower more quickly than it did on the first attempt, the Super Heavy still seems painfully slow to me. At first stage separation, the Saturn V was travelling at 9,919 km/h (6,164 mph) whereas the telemetry displayed at the bottom of SpaceX's coverage revealed that the Super Heavy only reached a top speed of 5,664 km/h (3,519 mph) before its engines shut down for hot staging. The altitude at this point, of 68 km (42 miles) was pretty much the same as that reached by the Saturn V first stage. Future Super Heavy launches will be using sets of upgraded Raptor 3 engines, so hopefully this is only a temporary aberration. And after all, space is hard; ticking off as many objectives as this on only the second integrated flight test is a laudable effort.
The kitchen has been put back together again, I've put up a shelf in the airing cupboard, and the new boiler and immersion heater are all working properly. My stress levels have accordingly dropped back to normal, for which I am very thankful. I need to find a carpenter to build a cupboard in the smallest bedroom so I've got somewhere to store the towels and bed linen, but I'm very happy with how things have gone and I'm already seeing the benefit that the new setup is making to my energy consumption.
Having said that, the weather today is wet but also exceptionally mild (the temperature is well in to double figures outside right now, which is nuts for the second half of November), so I have yet to switch the central heating system back to its automatic setting for the winter. I broke my record for this last year when I didn't cave in until the 24th, and I wouldn't be surprised if this year I break the record again.
But when I do need to fire up the boiler, I won't be stressing out quite as badly about how much money it's costing me to heat the house...
I spent a most convivial evening yesterday at the Eastwood Park Hotel down the road. It was the first Intersound Guitars show since 2019 and I went along to support Steve, Denver, Norm and the rest of the gang and pick up a fresh stash of guitar and bass strings at a knockdown price. I also had a nice chat with Tim from Blackstar Amplification and Paul from Flattley Pedals and got one or two nice bits of swag including a fistful of guitar picks to add to my collection.
It was a good evening and I left feeling suitably inspired to get back in the studio making music again, so that's what I'm going to be doing this afternoon.
The second flight test of SpaceX's Super Heavy booster and Starship is scheduled to take place at 13:00 GMT today. Hopefully this time the stack will be able to get off the pad a little faster and avoid wrecking the launch infrastructure (and the cameras and cars of enthusiasts there to cover the launch) quite as much as it did back in April.
I'm sceptical that things will go according to plan, to be honest. In fact if stage separation happens at all I'll be tremendously surprised.
All the same, it should be fun to watch.
This week Ableton announced the latest version of their Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software, Live 12. I've been an enthusiastic user since the days of version 8 and needless to say I've already placed my order for the upgrade. The new version has a bunch of new features, including some new instruments for controllers which have MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) capabilities—not that I have anything with that function (yet); version 12 will be a lo more savvy about which key you're playing in, and there are some nice tweaks to the user interface such as being able to show the arrangement view's clip view and device view windows at the same time, a feature which has been long overdue, in my opinion.
But quite frankly, a browse through the new features has left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The new functionality seems to be aimed at users who don't have sufficient musical knowledge to know which notes fit which key or musical scale and who can't hear when the note they're playing is wrong. The Graphical User Interface (GUI) still looks more or less the same as it did back in 2009 when version 8 was launched, and it's in dire need of a refresh that goes significantly beyond making a few new colour schemes available; getting Live's drag and drop to work intelligently on 4K displays is top of my "need to have" list because at the moment it sucks, but I didn't see any mention of Live's awareness of HiDPI displays in the announcement at all. It also looks like being able to change the playback speed of an entire project with one control (which you can easily do in ProTools) is something that Live users will continue to have to do without.
It's been a surprisingly hectic few days—and I'll have to admit they were also very stressful—as the house's old central heating boiler and controller in the kitchen have been replaced, along with the immersion heater in the airing cupboard.
The work hasn't gone quite as smoothly as I'd hoped. Modern boilers are far more complicated than they were back in the 90s when the house was built. It turned out that the original builders hadn't future-proofed things and extra wiring was needed; the electrician needed to feed this from the kitchen up the duct that runs the height of the house in its north west corner into the loft, then across and down into the airing cupboard. And that triggered a mammoth clear-out session in the loft. This involved me clearing out all sorts of crap from old copies of Aviation Week and empty cardboard boxes to old telephones, musty rolls of ancient wallpaper, and thirty-year-old boxes of wallpaper paste that I'd been keeping, just in case I ever got round to doing some decorating. You know how it is. In the process, I managed to split my head open on one of the rafters; when you're bald, it doesn't take much to do that. I created an impressively large pile of cardboard that I'll be putting out for recycling later this week, and my dustbin is full to the brim. It felt good to finally get rid of a lot of stuff that I really don't need any more, and I need to do much more of that.
This would have made quite a difference to the amount of space there is in the loft all on its own, but the new system uses mains water pressure instead of a gravity feed for the hot water so now both of the big old water tanks in the loft have been removed; they're not needed any more. The difference in the amount of space this has freed up is remarkable, and I need to make sure that I don't fill it up again with more crap.
But those wiring problems meant that rather than having the heating system all up and running as planned by Friday afternoon, it wasn't commissioned until yesterday evening. Over the weekend I had to use the gas fire in the living room to heat the downstairs rooms and I used a portable fan heater (which I usually keep in the conservatory to keep the plants in there from freezing during the winter's coldest nights) for heating whichever room I was in upstairs. There were problems getting access to the valves on every radiator in the house to bleed air out of them, too—because every room in the house is full of my stuff, because of course it is. Much to my surprise, I did eventually manage to get to every single one.
The final bugs in the system—which involved getting the boiler to switch on and off when it was supposed to rather than when it felt like it—are still being ironed out. John the electrician was back again this morning to make some more changes to the wiring and upgrade the controller on the wall in the kitchen, but something is still not right and although the boiler has fired up and the controller is indicating that that central heating system should be running this evening, the radiators have steadfastly remained cold. It's all turning into a bit of a nightmare, to be honest.
Much of the kitchen equipment I normally keep on the work surfaces is still stacked up on the dining table, as there's some tidying up left to do (there's a new hole in the kitchen wall where the extra cabling was put in to the aforementioned duct) and as the new heating system is a pressurised one, there are two new expansion vessels in the airing cupboard—so I have no shelves in there any more, and that means I need to find a new home for all of my towels and bed linen, but other than that, the house is now returning to normal. At least until the solar panel installation gets under way, that is...
I can already see that the new heating and hot water system is much more efficient than the old one. The house was lovely and warm this morning and yet when I wrote the original version of this post in the late afternoon, my smart meter was telling me that I'd used less than £4 of energy so far today. An equivalent day using the old setup and running the heating for over an hour would have put me at double that amount. In retrospect, that low energy consumption might have been the first indication that something wasn't working properly; it's now going up for ten o'clock at night, and the meter is still showing less than £5, but we'll see. All the same, I'm looking forward to seeing how much more my energy consumption can drop when I'm getting a sizable chunk of my electricity from PV panels.
But an even more striking difference is in the hot water pressure. My bathroom shower works properly for the first time ever. Instead of the meagre dribble I used to get, the water really blasts out. That will encourage me to take take showers rather than having a bath every day (which is what I do at present). Okay, it means I won't be getting as much reading done, but it should save me money...
Although this blog is now in its third decade, I'm still discovering new ways to break things. The latest malfunction happened when I thought that I could use the same HTML character entity (sometimes referred to as an "ampersand code") in the blog's RSS feed that I'd used to display the capital letter A with an acute accent on top of it in the title of the last blog entry. Nope. It turns out that just gets the update ignored by my aggregator, and I'm guessing yours probably does the same thing. That's why the update now refers to Storm Ciarán with a plain, standard letter A; it wasn't the result of laziness on my part. I feel like it's important that you know this.
When I got out of the bath last night, the mirror on the bathroom wall had fogged over. It's the first time that this has happened this autumn. Over the years, this has been a fairly reliable indicator that the nights are really starting to get colder (it was 4°C here last night—that's just 39°F) and it's time to start thinking about putting the central heating's controller back to automatic for the winter (I blipped it on for half an hour this morning just to take the chill off things and clear the condensation on the bathroom window; I don't want the house getting damp).
In recent years it's been nearly the end of the month before I bit the bullet and switched the controller back (in 2020 it was the 19th; in 2021 it was the 22nd; last year it was the 24th). I'm hoping that I'll be able to last out as long again this year because energy prices are still high but at least I'm in a position to do something about reducing my energy costs. As I mentioned in the blog last month, I'm having a new boiler installed later this week which will be much more efficient than the current one. The Baxi boiler I have now was the original one installed when the house was built. It's been pretty reliable, all things considered, but it's now thirty-four years old: well past its sell-by date and grossly inefficient by modern standards.
And if the AMOC really is shutting down (which I also blogged about last month), having an efficient means of heating the house in the winter could become even more important than it already is...
Storm Ciarán blew through here on Thursday morning but the worst that happened locally appears to be that the bins were blown over. By eleven o'clock this morning the local bird life—which was nowhere to be seen earlier on—had clearly decided that it was all over and the sparrows were back on the feeders once again. Further afield, I was delighted to see reports this morning of the shy and elusive trampoline being spotted in the wild.
The Channel Islands got clobbered and there were even reports of a tornado being sighted on St. Helier, although in time-honoured denialist fashion this was referred to as a "mini tornado" by the news media, who adamantly refuse to believe that Europe ever experiences the real thing. Wind gusts of more than 100 mph were recorded in Jersey and in Finisterre in France, a gust of 129 mph was recorded which has set a new record for the country. Things looked pretty hectic, judging by the coverage I saw via my satellite setup. A lorry driver was killed when a tree fell on his cab in Ressons-le-Long and at least six people have been injured, some seriously.
It's Bandcamp Friday again tomorrow, so you know what that means:
The title was inspired by my habit of getting ideas for pieces of music late at night while I was lying in bed, trying to get to sleep. Even though I keep a notebook right next to the bed, there have been many times when it just felt easier to ignore the ideas I was having instead of staying awake long enough to put the light on and jot them down. I always feel guilty when this happens so this is an apology to—and eulogy for—all those compositions which will never be brought to fruition.
I've spent a lot of time on this one pulling pieces apart, going back to compositions that I thought I'd finished and radically remixing them, and even re-recording entire sections because I thought I could do better (I could, and I did).
Next up on my agenda is a "best of" album of my songs from this summer's Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge which I aim to have ready for December's Bandcamp Friday.
Back in the early days of the blog, this time of the year would be a season of misty nights and quiet, foggy mornings with the occasional frost to turn the hedgerows white. In years gone by I've enjoyed picking up a camera and taking a stroll around the village just before sunrise and when the light is right, I've been fortunate enough to capture some splendidly atmospheric photographs, if I do say so myself. Frost and fog can make anywhere look incredibly photogenic on their own, but as a combination they're unbeatable.
But it doesn't look like that's going to be happening this year. There's been exactly one frosty night here so far this autumn and the past few weeks have seen frequent spells of heavy rain. At least seven people are thought to have died as a result of flooding or fallen trees caused by Storm Babet. In Angus in Scotland, October 19th was the wettest day on record since 1891. Northern Ireland experienced double its normal monthly rainfall during October and as the document in that Met Office link observes, some central and eastern parts of England and Scotland had already recorded more than twice the October whole-month average rainfall in just the first three weeks of the month. It's been very, very wet indeed.
I've escaped fairly lightly here, although the lawn remains much too waterlogged to cut and yesterday it poured with rain again for several hours. Today, things are likely to get worse. Southern England is gearing up for the arrival of the next "named storm" in this year's series, Storm Ciarán later tonight and there's a Met Office yellow warning of rain in place here from 18:00 this evening until midnight on Thursday night. It looks like it's going to be a hectic night with winds along the coast expected to reach 90 mph. As a result, there is an amber warning of wind for the South West from 03:00 until 13:00 tomorrow and along the South Coast an amber warning will be in effect from 06:00 on Thursday morning until 20:00. I therefore have no plans to go anywhere at all for the next couple of days if I can possibly avoid it—not that this is any different from my usual routine, of course.
Last night was Halloween, and I had the busiest session of trick or treating I've experienced since I moved here in 1995. I lost count of the number of groups of kids I answered the door to, but it was well into double figures. There were some great costumes, too. I have been completely cleaned out of Haribo and there isn't much left of anything else. This is a good thing, as it will stop me from snacking on the leftovers—which I usually find myself doing for the rest of the month...
Despite the songwriting challenge of Fifty/Ninety finishing a month ago (the site goes back into hibernation today and will reopen in January, ready for February Album Writing Month) I have continued to work on music and I will be releasing an album tomorrow evening, all ready for Bandcamp Friday. As Bandcamp have been bought by Songtradr (who laid off half their staff almost immediately) I'm not sure how much longer the event will run for so I will make the most of it while I still can.
Stay tuned for more details.
In the meantime you can still get a copy of my eBook about how I wrote 117 pieces of music (lasting eight hours and nine minutes, all told) in three months last year for Fifty/Ninety on my Bandcamp page here. It includes twenty of those very same pieces.