I'm sitting in my living room listening to Radio 3 and thinking about the year as it draws to a close. My retrospective is being fuelled by a large mug of coffee, of course. One thing that struck me last night was that the energy drink I consumed before setting off - which had a mind-bending 150mg of caffeine in it - perked me up, but did no more than that. The last time I had a drink with that much caffeine in it, I had to go and lie down, I felt so bad. I suspect my tolerance has built up since we moved into the new office and got our bean-to-cup coffee machines; maybe I should cut down a little...
Reading posts by my friends on Facebook and Twitter, the general consensus seems to be that 2011 is a year most people will be glad to see the back of. Particularly on the global scale, where events were dominated by the Japanese tsunami, the Arab Spring revolutions, the collapse of the Kyoto agreement (yes, Canada, I'm looking at you), phone hacking, riots in London, massacres in Norway, and - okay, it's been a pretty dismal year. We lost John Barry, Gerry Rafferty, Forbidden Planet's Anne Francis and bassist Mick Karn, and that was just in January. In February we lost Gary Moore, which was a real shock as I'd assumed that the guy was pretty much indestructible. In the same month The Guardian finally exceeded my threshold of indignation, and I haven't bought a copy since.
But February also brought one of my highpoints of the year, as I successfully completed FAWM for the first time (helped in no small way by a spiffy new synthesiser). March saw me jetting off to Canada, and the month's blog was one of the smallest on record as a result. I was back on form in April, blogging about everything from the passing of Lis Sladen to films about typefaces and in May I was off to the first of several impressive music festivals I attended this year; the resulting blog was a real monster - even if Harold Camping had declared that the end of the world would take place before the beginning of June. Camping was subsequently awarded the IgNobel prize in mathematics "for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations." Peter Falk died in June and (sadly but somewhat predictably) Amy Winehouse in July. July also marked the passing of the space shuttle program, which had me worrying that manned spaceflight had entered a period of serious decline. By the time the end of the month came round I was knackered, as I'd seen more bands in July than I had in the past couple of years put together and the resulting blog was the largest I have ever produced. In August I bought myself an HD video recorder and ended up setting up a YouTube account; August also brought us the last episode of Warren Ellis's epic, free webcomic Freakangels. September saw me blogging at great length about Doctor Who again, but in October I was feeling very run down and blog coverage suffered quite a bit. By November I'd perked up a bit and I had a good month. I started by attending TEDx in Aldeburgh once again and staying at the Swan in Southwold; I attended an opera in Bristol, and I spent a considerable amount of time listening to music, including the new album from Kate Bush. In December I began investigating the capabilities of my latest bit of musical gear and ended up recording an album of tunes for Christmas. I'm planning on doing more recording in the next week, as I still have half my holiday left, hooray!
I was home by 11 last night. When I set off, the "Icy" indicator lit up on the dashboard, and it was raining heavily but every time it rained, the temperature went up a degree or so; by the time I'd got back home the temperature was in double figures. While the weather today is rather grey and uninspiring, it is still extremely mild. The rain had cleared away by the time I'd got to Birmingham and traffic on the M5 was very light, making the going much easier. Best of all, it was a two-barn-owl trip: one flew across the road as I drove out of Nordelph, and another crossed in front of me as I approached Chatteris.
As I mentioned above, before I set off I downed a half-litre can of energy drink and that kept me going until I pulled on to the drive, but when I got out of the car my legs were wobbly and I felt terrible. I'm glad I came home when I did, because I certainly wouldn't feel like travelling today. It feels like something crawled to the back of my throat last night and died there, so I think my New Year celebrations are going to be fairly low key. Whatever you're doing tonight, have a good one.
It's got to the point in my stay here that I'm really looking forwards to getting home again. I haven't slept well for the last couple of nights and I'm looking forwards to sleeping in my own bed. But I've been thinking about what else I miss up here at Dad's place and it's really brought home what a privileged and affluent lifestyle we lead these days because most of all I miss my espresso machine. Talk about suffering from first world problems...
On balance, I've been less put out by the fact that I've now spent several days with no access whatsoever to Twitter or Facebook or Soundcloud. The urge to catch up with what's going on in the social networks I'm a part of isn't as strong as I expected it to be. Maybe I'm diverting that attention to keeping the blog up to date and using writing as a coping mechanism, I don't know.
I'm missing my recording gear, though. In the run up to Christmas I got into the habit of making music every evening, and it feels very strange having gone an entire week without creating at least one new tune. I'm hoping that this abstinence will result in a burst of creativity when I finally get my hands on my collection of musical instruments again. One thing I plan on doing is investigating the combination of Ableton and the Rolf Harris Stylophone the twins gave me for my birthday a few years ago. How far can I push the sounds it makes? How can I use it to make rhythmic loops? Whatever I come up with, you'll no doubt hear the results here on the blog.
I woke up this morning with a sore throat. I suspect I might be carrying out another festive tradition over the next few days and coming down with a cold. I almost always find myself catching something when I take a decent break off work, but at least I've got another week (and a bit more) to get over it. Although I've been sneezing, I haven't completely lost my sense of smell. Dad has been cooking sausages wrapped in bacon this afternoon, and the house smells great. Miffy has been very interested in the results, too.
It's now approaching 5 in the afternoon, and there's no longer any doubt that I'm coming down with a cold so I've decided to head for home this evening rather than tomorrow night. The weather's not that great - I just went down the road to get some shopping and by the time I got back it was raining, but I'd rather travel tonight while I still feel up to it. I'm hoping the weather will keep the amount of traffic down.
It's been another quiet day. The weather has been pretty typical for Norfolk in December, with blustery winds blowing heavy showers across the fields at the back. The rain was hammering on the conservatory roof for most of this afternoon and I was glad to be indoors. This morning there were five pheasants on the front lawn but once the rain started they all disappeared to seek shelter.
I've been reading Jane Gregory's biography of the British astronomer and cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle, and it's been interesting reading. Hoyle believed that the Universe was continually renewed, a theory that became known as "steady state" cosmology. It was his objection to the competing theory of evolutionary cosmology that ended up giving it its popular name: "big bang" may, it seems, have been intended as a term of derision. These days, the steady state theory has fallen out of favour given the discoveries that have been made in the sixty or so years since it was proposed: the accelerating expansion of the Universe; dark energy and dark matter; the cosmic microwave background and WMAP results, and the images from the Hubble ultra deep field all point towards a cosmos that sprang into existence some 13.7 billion years ago, although Hoyle was still coming up with alternative interpretations of observational results well into the 1980s. Hoyle also had a parallel career as a science fiction writer, and I can remember reading works like The Black Cloud and October the First is Too Late when I was a child.
This evening I went and got tea from the Chinese takeaway in Holt, and very nice it was too. Now Dad and I are watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on BBC4. It's Bruce Hood's last programme tonight, and I reckon he's delivered the best set of lectures I've seen in years. He's shamelessly going for the cute audience at the moment, as he's brought on an 11 week old baby and a pen full of baby chickens to illustrate the way in which different species grow up at different rates. He summarises knowledge about the brain in an entertaining and easy to understand way, and I've really enjoyed the series.
It's a very quiet Wednesday here at Dad's house. Well, "quiet" only really applies on the ground - the occasional rumble of fast jets from one or other of East Anglia's air bases has echoed down the chimney several times this morning and the RAF and/or USAF have clearly finished their Christmas break. It's a very grey day out there, but it's not raining and the strong winds haven't reached this far south or east. Norfolk always seems to be buffered from the rest of the country and outside the holiday season, things happen at a slower pace here. I like it - but I can only cope for a few days, then I start losing my sanity. I always feel isolated coming here. There's no Internet connection and I don't even have a mobile phone signal. Coming for a visit really means dropping off the map until I get home, so you won't see these blog entries until I get back. That's not necessarily a bad thing: I spend too much of my time on the net and it does me good to unplug every now and again. So right now Dad and I are chilling out: I'm sitting in the dining room blogging on my netbook, Dad is in the lounge watching the TV and Miffy the greyhound is flaked out on the sofa. If you're on holiday too, I hope you're having an equally restful break.
I've just been tidying up the dining room after yesterday's party but there wasn't a lot of cleaning up to do. Dad loaded the dishwasher last night - he won't let anyone else do it, because he "has a system" where everything has to go in a particular place. All the cutlery is sorted into different categories as it's loaded into the machine; glasses are organised by type; plates are grouped by similarity. Is it any wonder I grew up with a rather skewed view of reality? I noticed this morning that Dad has cleaned the bathroom sink so much that he's taken the top layer of enamel off it. The bath is in the same state. He did the same thing with the bath when we lived in London, and when we were kids he was continuously telling us off because we'd "left soap scum" stuck to it. It was only when I grew up and left left home that I began to realise that we weren't the problem, Dad was. Even so it was several years later that it dawned on me that this sort of behaviour wasn't normal. Now when I visit, it's obvious. Dad's never been formally diagnosed with anything, but when I found out about Asperger's and then about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) my first thoughts were "that's Dad to a T." Anyone who has met Dad will, I'm sure, recognise most of the traits discussed in the social interaction section of this article on Wikipedia.
If you leave something in the wrong place you'll be informed that it "doesn't go there" and god forbid you should put things away for him and get storage locations wrong. Rather than just dealing with it and letting things stay as they are, Dad will take everything out again and put it back in the way he's used to. I think this explains why Dad always spends Christmas at home, rather than visiting me or Annabelle or Dave for more that a day trip (he hasn't visited my place in more than 15 years). Not being in complete control of his surroundings pushes him well outside his comfort zone, and I know from experience that when that happened in the past things could get very unpleasant. He's mellowed slightly in old age. At least, he's more or less given up trying to control his visitors in the same way as he controls the rest of his environment and he only shouted at the kids once yesterday. He used to get really stressed when his grandchildren came to see him and would spend a good proportion of their visit bellowing at them for doing anything that he didn't approve of. So these days we leave him to rattle around in the bungalow by himself, and he's happy with things that way.
It can still be hard work staying here, though. For example, if he disagrees with something on the telly, or doesn't like the theme tune, he will mute the TV (regardless of whether or not anyone else is watching or listening). He finds the music that BBC News plays at the top of the hour particularly objectionable, and will complain about it whenever he hears it. After the first few dozen times this has become somewhat wearing, because his comments never vary and like most of his pronouncements they take the form of a monologue rather than a conversation. Despite the fact that he made the comment when we were watching the news an hour ago, and the hour before that, we will go through the same routine as if this is a fresh insight which has just occurred to him. I realise I'm venting my frustrations here and that's not really fair on Dad but staying here can be bloody hard work. I've sat down to watch a film with him, only for him to fall asleep - and then wake up half an hour later, switch the TV off and immediately fall asleep again, leaving me sitting there staring at him in disbelief. Worst of all, I have spent most of my life worrying that I've inherited these traits from him and inflicted them on others.
So although I'm beginning to feel like my batteries are recharging a little, I'm already starting to think about returning home, and I've only been here a day. Is this a record?
My stay in Lytham was a short one this year - I didn't even go for my traditional walk on the front to photograph the windmill, as once again one of the sails has fallen off and it wasn't looking very photogenic. But my main reason for leaving today was that I wanted to get over to Norfolk in time to see my brother Dave and his family while they were visiting my father, so this morning I loaded up the car with my stuff, another batch of presents, a rug, a bunch of books, some clothes, my camera gear, and me - there wasn't room for anything else! I said my goodbyes to Mary and called in at Penwortham again to see Joan, but I was on the road leaving Preston by about 10:15. The car was nice and warm and the radio was tuned to Radio 3 so I was about as comfortable as I could be. I gritted my teeth and started my tour of the motorways of the north of England. I eased into things with a couple of miles on the M56 out of Preston before turning south on to the M61. That took me to the M60, Manchester's orbital motorway, which in turn took me on to the M62 heading east towards Leeds. Exciting stuff, isn't it? Believe me, driving along these roads is even more dull than reading about them, although I managed to break the monotony by humming one of John Shuttleworth's memorable songs as I passed one of the M62's most distinctive landmarks.
This year there were several stretches of roadworks on the M62, but slowing down the traffic to 50 mph seemed to reduce the congestion around Leeds and for once I didn't get stuck in a traffic jam on the motorways at all. Things changed as soon as I joined the A1(M) as I joined a queue straight off the slip road. A ten mile tailback turned out to be caused by people slowing down to look at an accident on the northbound carriageway, and I when I say slowing down I mean really slowing down. The guy in the car behind me practically stopped; people like that really shouldn't be out on the roads when anyone else is using them. Over Christmas a lot of people make longer car journeys than they're used to, and boy does it show. Everyone was in the right hand lane and nobody was in the left apart from HGVs. The result is that everybody has to travel at the speed of the slowest car driver on the road. I've never liked driving down the A1. Things are better than they used to be, and in the last 10 years all the roundabouts that used to cause horrendous tailbacks have been removed, but it's still a tediously long grind. I always look forwards to getting to Grantham because the next signed destination is Peterborough, which is where I turn off towards Norfolk. However, when the Peterborough sign does appear, my heart always sinks a little, because it's still 43 miles away...
Once I got off the A1 the going was still slow. There was a lot of traffic about, and nobody was going anywhere particularly quickly, but the queues always seemed to be led by a couple of pensioners in a Daihatsu doing about 40 mph... Things improved greatly once I got past King's Lynn; as I headed into Norfolk proper, the traffic disappeared completely. I topped up the tank at Fakenham; after 250 miles it was still half full, which was pretty good going. Four hours and 45 minutes after I left Preston, I was pulling into Dad's drive.
Dave and his family had arrived about 20 minutes ahead of me, and Annabelle and her family turned up while I was unpacking the car. Lunch was on the table and we were soon all tucking in to an impressive selection of cold meats, hot bread, crisps, salads and snacks. It was lovely to see everybody, and catch up with things; I got to meet my nephew Ben for the first time. He was suffering from colic and clearly not happy about sitting in a car for several hours, but of all the people to carry him around the house to comfort him it was his big brother Tom who managed to get him settled. It's lovely to see the bond between them.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur - that tends to happen with a house full of kids. It was good fun watching them unwrap their presents, and I got some nice loot as well! Everyone was just visiting for the day, so by nine o'clock they'd all headed back home and Dad and I were left to our own devices. We ended up watching TV for a while. BBC4 have reclaimed the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures this year and they are being given by Professor Bruce Hood (who I saw on the Uncaged Monkeys tour earlier this year) helped by Professor Vincent Walsh (who I saw giving a talk on creativity at TEDx in Snape last month). The first lecture was well presented and engaging, and the audience clearly enjoyed themselves. I found myself nodding off on the sofa after that, so by 11 I'd gone to bed. I'm glad I've got the biggest chunk of travelling out of the way for another year and as the weather forecast for tomorrow is for strong winds (and for gales in Scotland) I think I made the right decision to travel today.
It's Boxing Day, and my Auntie Mary and I are sitting watching the Springwatch Christmas Special on BBC2 and chilling out after a lovely day yesterday. My cousin Janet was playing host and there were ten of us for Christmas dinner. We were plied with turkey, sausages wrapped in bacon, sprouts, carrots, christmas pudding, mince pies; the works. When we got back I felt like I wouldn't need another meal until next year, but I have somehow managed to finish off another turkey dinner this evening. I may well be having an early night tonight.
This afternoon I was acting as computer support technician, sorting out the PC of Mary's next door neighbour. This mainly consisted of bringing pieces of software up to date and installing Windows XP service pack 3. I didn't mind doing it at all and I was supplied with a constant stream of cups of tea, mince pies and christmas cake while I watched a series of progress bars gradually fill in.
Tomorrow I head back on the road, travelling south and east to Norfolk. I'll be spending a few days with my father before I return home to the West Country. It's a long trip, and to be honest I never look forwards to making it, but I'll have plenty of things to listen to and once I get there I'll be able to chill out a bit. My brother Dave and his family are also visiting Dad tomorrow, so I hope I'll arrive before they've left (particularly as I've got a load of presents for them!)
I'm still not sleeping well, so when I woke up this morning at ten past five I decided to get up and fix breakfast, then get on the road nice and early. By twenty to seven the car was full of presents, I was full of coffee and croissants and heading north on the M5. Traffic was very light, so for once the insomnia seems to have paid off. Apart from one stretch of the motorway west of Birmingham where the central reservation was being replaced and the speed limit was reduced to 40 mph, I was able to make good time and I'd arrived at my aunt's place in Penwortham by 9:30. Joan looked very well and brought me up to speed on what's happened since I last saw her. The big news around Preston this week has been the big warehouse fire in Leyland, which has wreaked havoc with lots of local businesses - not good news at the best of times but particularly cruel in the depths of a recession. The west coast rail line had been closed for a while at the height of the fire, and with good reason: one of the hazards the fire crews were dealing with was exploding beer barrels...
I was in Lytham by 11. On the way in, I called in at the local garage to top up the tank ready for next week's trek to Norfolk. That's always an epic journey (the longest it's ever taken me was nine hours) and I can't say I'm really looking forwards to it. Still, there's no sign of snow this year - in fact it's been extremely mild and the worst I've had to contend with so far was some mild drizzle once I got to Lancashire. Let's hope it stays that way.
When I arrived at Mary's I couldn't stop yawning, which I think is probably a sign that I'm finally beginning to relax a bit; I really entered into the Christmas spirit of things this afternoon and had a nap (the fact that Mary and I had a sherry with our lunch had absolutely nothing to do with this, I am sure). It's nice to be back in my home town, and I've been having a great time catching up with my relatives and getting my cat fix - although there's only one cat in the house these days. Fleur is a different animal now she's on her own. She's sociable and affectionate and lovely to have around. I'm really looking forwards to the next few days. I have my camera gear with me so taking pictures will be involved, too. But this evening I'm knackered. I've had a shower and retired to bed and it's only just gone ten o'clock. I'm hoping that sea air will help me get a good night's rest because tomorrow is going to be a busy day.
It's been a busy old month so far, which is why I haven't updated the blog for a week or so. I got the album produced, though - last weekend I managed to write four songs in 48 hours, which pleased me no end. As of yesterday, I'm on holiday. I've wrapped up most of the presents; I've done the laundry, and my stress levels are beginning to abate a little. That means it's time to update the blog with the various bits and pieces I made a note of over the last seven days.
I've noticed for years that when the news media cover a subject I know more than a little bit about, their reporting is full of errors. Josef Fruehwald noticed much the same thing in the recent coverage of a speech mode termed vocal fry. You may have noticed stories about women "putting on a creaky voice" plastered all over various high-profile websites (and the occasional shit newspaper) over the past week or so.
I was expecting him to have a go at sloppy media reporting but his article turned to be far more interesting than that, because he had a different target in his sights...
We have accounts at work with stock photo libraries so we can use their photographs in our training programs and they provide a useful and reasonably priced service. But given that the job of your average stock photo is to express a concept in a simple, easy-to-understand picture, it's very easy to cross the line separating meme from cliché and produce sloppy, first-concept-I-thought-of brainless images so unremittingly awful that they provide endless hours of entertainment for folk like you and me.
Particularly when it comes to computer hackers, it would seem. By a curious coincidence, the examples shown here all seem to dress in the same ludicrously improbable fashion. It makes you wonder how hacking ever became such a problem really: its practitioners don't exactly blend in.
One of the Internet's more interesting people is the science fiction author, painter and computer science professor Rudy Rucker. William Gibson has described him as a national treasure, and praise doesn't come much higher than that. I downloaded Professor Rucker's novel Postsingular as an eBook (he gives it away free) a couple of years ago and loved it so much I bought the physical paper copy as well. This year I also read his mammoth work the Ware Tetralogy, which he wrote between 1982 and 2000 as an examination of how technology might affect mankind's future development. It's remarkable how many of the tropes that are now a staple of the cyberpunk and singularity genres make very early appearances in it. Needless to say I follow Rudy on Twitter, and this week one of his tweets prompted me to investigate further, as it concerned the Seattle-based artist Jim Woodring. Why? Because Jim wields a 7-foot ink pen called Nibbus Maximus. The engraved metal nib is a work of art in itself, but I'd love to try using it to draw something. I suspect the results wouldn't be as impressive as Jim's, though. Given the size of the thing, producing anything coherent with it would require the user to be as well versed in the martial arts as he or she is in the creative arts.
Still, if anyone ever asks you to cite evidence that the pen is mightier than the sword, just point them at Jim's blog entry...
As you can see from the new link in my "more at" list at the top of the page, I finally got round to setting myself up with an account at Soundcloud. Soundcloud is a social media website which provides a means for musicians to share their work in much the same way that Flickr does for photographs. So far I've uploaded three pieces of my music, but more will follow. I'm in the middle of producing an album of songs for Christmas that I can give out as presents. The target is, rather predictably, to have twelve songs on the CD and last night I recorded number 7. Five to go before next week? I can do this...
I would love to visit Melbourne - just so I could play with their seven-metre-tall Giant Theremin. It's the brainchild of Australian performance artist Robin Fox, and it's an interactive exhibit - up to 8 people can play it at the same time. And why wouldn't you want to? Brilliant.
It was well below freezing here last night, cold enough that I decided to put the heating back on before I went to bed. I hate doing this, as I always wake up feeling groggy and dehydrated with my sinuses clogged and a throat like sandpaper. I think I made the right decision, though. Even when I got up after 9am, the cars and roofs over the road were still dusted with white. In the back garden, the starlings and sparrows are hoovering up the mealworms I put out yesterday afternoon.
So far this winter has been incredibly mild - I can count the number of frosts we've had on the fingers of one hand. I'm hoping that it stays that way for the next few weeks so I can get my travelling done without incident, because I don't want a repeat of last year, when I missed out on most of the events I was hoping to attend. I feel like I'm beginning to relax a little bit in the run up to Christmas: I've nearly finished my shopping and I've booked a decent chunk of time off so I get a chance to de-stress myself. When I've finished the blog I'll start putting the Christmas decorations up, I think.
Further north, the weather has been a little less hectic than things were on Thursday. I'm still boggled by the fact that a gust of 165 mph was recorded at the Cairngorm summit weather station during what my friends have dubbed hurricane bawbag (and at the time of writing it's even got its own wikipedia page). I'm even more boggled by the fact that this wasn't a record: the same station recorded a gust of 173 mph in 1986.
Meanwhile, I'm listening to some of my favourite CDs...
The Bill Evans set was recorded fifty years ago at the Village Vanguard Jazz Club in Greenwich Village on 7th Avenue South in NYC. In 2009 the US Library of Congress declared it a recording that was "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important" although if you listen to jazz much you'll appreciate that's a good case of stating the pretty bloody obvious. It features Evans on piano, Paul Motian on drums and Scott LaFaro on bass and the level of musicianship is nothing short of intimidating. Despite being recorded half a century ago, the music hasn't dated at all and it feels fresh and modern. The recording isn't perfect, by any means (the first track suddenly drops into complete silence for several seconds, the result of someone accidentally cutting power to the recording equipment) but this only adds to its charm. I love the fact that there's little attempt to isolate the musicians from their audience: the clink of glasses and occasional murmur of conversation that drifts among the music makes me feel like I was there too, sitting at a table, sipping a martini and enjoying three artists at the height of their powers showing exactly what they could do.
The other CD in that stack is the latest from They Might Be Giants, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions and I think I like it even more than last summer's Join Us. It's one of the band's occasional releases where they investigate less mainstream approaches to their music (the last one, They Got Lost, is another of my favourites). After seeing the Modified Toy Orchestra last month I've developed an interest in music that involves circuit bending; I suppose it should come as no surprise to discover that as far as TMBG are concerned it's a case of "been there, done that":
I reckon "Electronic Istanbul" is one of the finest things by any band that I've heard in ages. I can't put my finger on why - maybe it's partly because I've heard TMBG perform it in so many different ways that it's a delight to hear them pushing the things that make the track what it is into new and unexpected shapes, partly because it's got a weird combination of manic but restrained energy; maybe it's just because of the geeky lo-fi electronic trickery going on - I just know I love it. The album's also available as a download, which comes with several other videos and I highly recommend it.
Two centuries ago, nefarious goings on were taking place in East London. You may remember that I blogged about a walking tour I went on last year when I learned about the Ratcliff Highway murders, and The Maul and the Pear Tree, P. D. James's excellent investigation into the crimes, was one of the best books I read in 2010. This month Spitalfields Life (one of my favourite blogs) is recounting the story, day by day. It's well worth reading. The police force of 1811 was a very different thing to today's organisation, and while the investigation involved witness statements, enquiries and detectives, it reads like some strange, mirror-universe version of how things play out today. I never had much of a taste for history when I was at school, but in the hands of master storytellers like this, I'm hooked. You can bet I will be following the gentle author's posts over the coming weeks.
When you think about it, asking someone "would you like a psychic reading?" is a fairly reliable signifier that you're not up to the task...
Here's another great story from The Paris review (I suspect I will end up becoming a subscriber).
As a teenager, the writer Bruce McAllister wanted to know if symbolism in literature was really as big a deal as his teacher insisted. So he put together a form letter and sent it off to 150 authors and asked them what they thought. He got 75 replies (and a 50% return rate is damn good result for any survey) but the returns came from an astonishing selection of writers ranging from Jack Kerouac and Ray Bradbury to Ayn Rand and John Updike. As expected, Mr Bradbury's response in particular is thoughtful, intelligent ("self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act") and encouraging ("This is a question you must research yourself.")
What an extraordinary resource those letters are. Wouldn't it be lovely to compile a similar set of responses from writers today? I would love to hear what some of my favourite writers think...
Every now and again I come across a web page that leaves me sitting there, dumbstruck. Canadian publication Vintage Wings are the latest people to reduce me to shocked silence with their article on low flying, published with the highly evocative title of Lower than a Snake's Belly in a Wagon Rut. It's crammed full of photographs of pilots flying in the most ridiculously dangerous fashion imaginable. In particular, the photograph of the four vintage Harvard trainers flying along while dragging their wheels in the sea had me staring at the screen in disbelief.
Let's make things abundantly clear: doing stuff like this is insanely risky. It may look ludicrously cool, but if doing things like this doesn't kill you, you deserve to lose your licence before it does (and you take some other people with you). I was present at Biggin Hill the day Don Bullock (who features in several of the photos in Vintage Wings's article) gave his last display and I still remember watching him throw the aircraft around the sky and thinking "I don't think he should be doing that." Moments later the Invader disappeared behind the trees. There was the awful crump of impact, a stunned silence, then the impotent wail of sirens starting up in the distance.
Bullock had six passengers on board when he turned his Douglas A/B-26 Invader into a lawn dart that day. They deserved better.
I've just spent an entertaining hour grovelling about under the desk in the studio plugging various audio, USB and MIDI cables in to bits of kit. Amazingly enough, it all seems to work and I no longer have leads trailing across my work surface. Hooray!
One from last week I forgot to mention: Avi Steinberg's wonderful (if somewhat macabre) essay on the art of the airline safety card from The Paris Review. I'm afraid I'm going to have to knock a couple of points off for leaving it to one of the article commenters to bring up a reference to Fight Club, though.
I discovered at the weekend that if I don't pack quite as much coffee into my espresso machine, I actually get much better results. Espresso isn't just about good crema; I want a decent buzz out of it too, and even slight changes to the way I prepare my shots makes a tremendous difference to the end result. I still grind my own beans, but rather than using the grinder's doser I now measure my coffee out with a scoop instead. Not only do I get a better coffee, it's less wasteful as well.
Learning from this, it shouldn't be surprising that when you analyse something that is prepared by hand, its composition is going to vary from place to place. Even so, the reports that caffeine levels in espressos served at one Glasgow coffee shop were six times higher than those at the Starbucks down the road is... interesting. I reckon coffee drinkers everywhere should applaud Patisserie Francoise for setting the level to which we should all aspire.
I'm working at home today, and I have just finished the work that would have taken me a couple more days to complete if I'd been in the office. If I'm not interrupted, I have a sort of zen mode in which I can focus entirely on a task, and ignore everything else; when I first started on my master's degree I spent one Sunday entirely in that mode from about nine o'clock in the morning until ten at night, and only snapped out of it when I realised I was feeling hungry and it had gone dark outside. Today I hit that zone for a couple of hours or so, and that was enough to get everything done. Time to get something to eat, now, I think.
I spent an enjoyable Sunday creating more music. My plan is to record an album of my stuff as a fun Christmas present for friends and family, and I've already got five or six tracks which I plan on including. A couple of them are earlier recordings to which I'm planning on giving the Ableton treatment, another will be an entirely new version of an existing song, but the plan is for the remainder to be new creations. The track I blogged about on Saturday will definitely be included; it's one of those pieces I occasionally produce that, when I come back to it afterwards I find myself thinking, "Was that really me who made that?"
Yesterday's activities revolved around creating a version of a well-known theme tune for a popular UK television series, but as the original is a copyrighted work my efforts have clearly got to remain for my personal amusement only, I'm afraid, and anyway, it's not quite finished yet.
When things like FAWM or Nanowrimo go right, they build their own kind of crazy momentum, and the creative act, when it's successful, is profoundly addictive. I'm sitting here itching to get back to recording and making some more music and hoping that the version of me responsible for Saturday's recording sticks around to help. Given that we're nearly at the winter solstice and my usual inclination at this time of year is just to hibernate, it makes me realise just how therapeutic music making can be. Given how much good this has been doing me, the question of whether the music is any good is kind of irrelevant, really. Although, of course, I think it is.
I also noticed at the weekend that the Twitter widget on the web page had stopped working. It turns out this is because Twitter have replaced it with a much better one, so I've added it to the main blog page. Looks pretty good, doesn't it?
Once I've uploaded the blog, the first thing I'm going to do is put the heating on. It's a lovely day out there with a clear blue sky, but the sun has already dropped below the roof line of the houses opposite and once direct sunlight stops streaming into the living room things rapidly get distinctly chilly. What with Scotland getting its first significant snowfall of the season, it's beginning to feel a bit like winter has finally arrived. The first Christmas decorations went up in the street at the weekend, too, so I may have to venture into the loft a bit later and retrieve my tree...
Last night I decided I'd have another noodle with Ableton before I went to bed. That ended up developing into a mammoth loop-creation session using Audacity that went on until half past one in the morning, and today I've spent a pleasant few hours beating the results into shape in Live 8. So as promised yesterday, here for your listening pleasure is my first creation using Ableton, driven by a bunch of loops that happened when I randomly adjusted the tempo controller on the M3 while it was playing a piano loop. It's called Embrace the Glitch.
Good grief, it's December. Where has the year gone? Maybe I dropped some of it behind the cushions on the sofa, because I'm pretty sure there ought to be more of it left than this. It'll be Christmas in three weeks, which just doesn't seem right. Round here, the pubs have had their Christmas decorations up for a while and the festive season in the shops seemed to start around the end of August.
At least the early onset of the Christmas retail season means that I actually remember to shop for presents - one year back in the days when I worked in London you would have found me in W H Smith's at lunchtime on Christmas Eve staring blankly at the shelves and wondering just what to buy for my friends and family. I vowed that day that I would never leave it that late again, and so far I've managed to do so. Of course, shopping online helps, too - but I must remember to flag things I buy on Amazon as "don't use for recommendations" because it makes their suggestions even more bizarre than they normally are. And that's quite an achievement.
When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted last year you may remember how I blogged about its much larger neighbour, Katla. I pointed out that historically Katla tends to erupt shortly after there's an eruption at Eyjafjallajökull and I've spent most of the last year hoping that we'd gotten away with it this time round, but the latest news from Iceland does not sound good. In the last month alone, more than 500 earth tremors have been recorded in the area around Katla's caldera, and geologists are pretty sure this means that magma underneath the volcano is on the move. If magma is moving, an eruption is more likely. If you've got transatlantic travel plans scheduled any time soon, this is definitely something to keep an eye on...
I've spent the last few evenings playing with a Novation Launchpad and Ableton Live and I have to say: the more hands-on experience I get with the thing, the more impressed I become. I have a feeling this gear will have as much of an impact on what I do for FAWM in February as getting the Korg M3 did this year. The Launchpad is a MIDI-based controller for Digital Audio Workstation software such as Ableton, and it lets you trigger samples and loops, create drum tracks, and generally remix the hell out of your digital music files. Plus, it's covered in lots of glowing, multicoloured buttons! What's not to like?
I'm not ready to let anything I've put together out into the real world just yet, as I'm still climbing a pretty steep learning curve. I will probably be pretty quiet online as a result, too: it's that sort of a gadget. Until I have something of my own to show you, here's the awesome Tim Exile showing exactly what you can do with the thing as he plays through a set of crowdsourced samples in one of his live jams. Enjoy!