Chris Harris's Blog Archive: December 2012

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So, that was 2012. The year turned out to be considerably more apocalypse-free than some people had predicted, but torrential rain, flooding and landslides meant it was anything but a run-of-the-mill year. Highlights for me included FAWM in February and an epic trip to North America in July and August.

This month was busy, too. There were gigs, training courses, parties, trips back to my roots in Lytham, more parties, and lots of photography.

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31 December 12 (permalink)

CHANGE OF PLAN

The phone rang early this morning. It was a very croaky Dad, who reckons he's coming down with a chest infection, ringing to suggest (if anything Dad does could ever be described as a suggestion) that I don't come over to see him in case I catch it. How you catch a chest infection from somebody else, I'm not sure - but it sounds more dramatic than saying you've got a cold, I guess. This means that I no longer have a four hour drive to look forwards to later today and I must admit that as it's chucking it down and very windy out there, this is a bit of a relief, even if it's scuppered my plans for the New Year. I'll head over when he's feeling a bit better.

I therefore ended up wandering around the supermarket at ten o'clock this morning, stocking up on milk, bread and other exciting things to keep me going through the next few days. I think I beat the rush, as it was pretty quiet. And now I'm back home, sitting at the computer listening to Beethoven's awe-inspiring Missa solemnis in D major which is playing on Radio 3.

PARTY TIME

I had a great day yesterday. Rob and Ruth's grandmother, known to one and all as Grandma Heather (or GMH for short) was celebrating her 80th birthday and I was honoured to be invited along for the day. I travelled over with Matthew and the gang and took lots of pictures. I wasn't the only one snapping away, either...

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Ruth had put together a book with photographs of all of GMH's grandchildren, and got them all to write a little dedication to her in it. She did a superb job, and the result was lovely.

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I got another photo of them all to add to the collection, too...

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Many thanks to Mike and Melanie for hosting the day.

29 December 12 (permalink)

SLIGHT RETURN

I'm at home today, working my way through six loads of washing and doing all those household chores that need doing when you've been away for a week. I got back last night from Lytham, where I spent a very enjoyable Christmas with my Aunt Mary and her cat Fleur. I was born in Lytham, and I love going back. The town seems to be doing well despite the recession, and the streets have been kitted out with some very futuristic (and bright) LED streetlights! I drove up last Sunday afternoon, and remembered why I try not to travel during the day; although the M5 was moving freely, when I got to the M6 the average speed of the traffic dropped to 30 mph or so until I'd got north of Stoke-on-Trent. I had a car full of Christmas presents to deliver and I've returned with another load to deliver next year. The Lytham air always makes me sleepy, and most nights for the past week I've been going to bed by ten in the evening. In fact my aunt, who is 90, stayed up longer than I did and she gets up before I do in the mornings as well! I was still waking up during the night, but after a week off work my sleep patterns are beginning to settle down and for the last couple of nights I've slept really well.

Going back to Lancashire is mainly about catching up with my relatives. Aside from Mary, I called in at Penwortham to see my Aunty Joan and on Christmas Day we headed over to my cousin Janet's place. Janet and Vic hosted another epic party and as always Janet had laid on some lovely food. There were twelve of us - but when I spoke to my brother Dave on Boxing Day he was over at his in-laws' house and they had 27 for dinner!

There are a number of things that I try to do every time I visit Lytham, and one of them is to have a Christmas Eve pint in The Taps in Henry Street...

Christmas Traditions

This year I had a pint of First Class, brewed by the Titanic Brewery, and very nice it was too. I also got my traditional walk on the front, although the weather wasn't that great this year so I didn't do the full hike from Mary's house to Fairhaven Lake and back. Nevertheless, the walking helped to work off one of the other traditions I have when I stay at Mary's: fish and chips from the chip shop in Station Road - with mushy peas, of course. I was pleased to discover when I got home that all the walking had achieved its objective and I hadn't gained any weight over Christmas at all. Result!

GERRY ANDERSON 1929 - 2012

I was very sorry to hear that Gerry Anderson had died on Boxing Day. I grew up watching his TV shows, from Supercar and Fireball XL5 to Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and UFO. As a very small boy I thought they were the best thing on television, ever. As an adult, I haven't found any reason to change that assessment. I loved watching the shows, and playing with the toys - Gerry had mastered the art of tie-in products long before George Lucas - and the shows were a great introduction to the worlds of imagination and creativity that constitute all that's best in science fiction. As I sat in my Aunt's house in Lytham reading all the tributes to him on Twitter I realised how many other children of the sixties felt the same way as I did. He changed television for the better, and he was hugely influential; if he'd lived and worked in America I reckon he'd have given Gene Roddenberry a run for his money. In the summer when I caught up with Paul, who I went to primary school with, I was amused to discover that, like me, he'd got pretty much Gerry's entire output in boxed sets of DVDs. I'll be digging out a few of those sets to watch again over the next few weeks. RIP, Mr Anderson.

22 December 12 (permalink)

THAT WAS THE APOCALYPSE, THAT WAS

Perhaps you're surprised to be reading the blog this morning; perhaps you're not. Either way, it would appear that the 21st of December 2012 passed without the world coming to an end. As a Fortean, I find apocalyptic beliefs and and millenarianism a fascinating subject. William Gibson stoked fuel on that fire when he had Milgrim, the protagonist of his novel Spook Country, read a copy of Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium, which of course I immediately went out and bought. Cohn covered the beliefs of cults as the year 1000 AD approached, but the recent Mayan hysteria shows that as a species we're still inclined to believe in stupid ideas. In recent months I've also read Leon Festinger's When Prophecy Fails, which has received at least one name check in the weekend's coverage of the non-apocalypse. The counter-intuitive finding that both books discuss is that for many cultists, the fact that the apocalypse didn't turn up as it was foretold did not undermine their beliefs; far from it. As Festinger had predicted, the core group of believers who thought that the world would end on December 21st 1954 came up with a way to rationalise their existing beliefs. They announced a revised dogma to explain why the events predicted in their prophecies had failed to occur (the explanation was, I kid you not, "we believed in the apocalypse so strongly that we prevented it from happening") and if anything, their beliefs became stronger. Indeed, their prophet continued to make ever more outrageous predictions about earth-shattering events - such as flying saucers coming down to carry off the faithful - until the continuing failure of reality to turn out as predicted (and the ridicule they were subjected to by the press) finally persuaded them to give up and take up macrame instead.

In this context, it's all too easy to point out that another cult was in the news yesterday making increasingly outrageous claims based on their belief systems, even though the central tenet of their revised theology has already been called into question and the press have enthusiastically started on the ridicule.

For the rest of us, Professor Brian Cox has declared today to be International slap a hippy with a text book day. The recommended text, should you wish to join in, is The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan. I have my copy right here; it's a wonderful book, far too good to use for physical violence. However, anyone who has to deal with the sort of person who actually believes/retweets/shares this stuff on Facebook would do well to have a copy to hand to read when they feel like we might actually have been better off if the world really had ended yesterday. It's a profoundly inspiring work.

MORE HEAVY WEATHER

It's raining here, although the precipitation is a light drizzle rather than the torrential downpours we got last month. But further west the situation is pretty bad, to the extent that South West Trains have issued a simple piece of travel advice: "Don't bother." So today I shall be doing exactly that; I've done all the Christmas shopping, the tree is up and decorated, and I have coffee and croissants.

16 December 12 (permalink)

OUT OF SORTS

It's been an odd sort of weekend. We're nearing the winter solstice, so my energy levels aren't what they should be, but last night I slept really badly, waking up at 3 am, and 5am. I'm tired, and shivery, and this afternoon I ended up deciding the best thing to do would be to take a nap, so I went back to bed for a while. I always feel run down as we approach Christmas, and I'm really looking forwards to taking a proper break. Today I really haven't accomplished anything aside from some synth programming and I can't even stir myself to get the Christmas decorations out of the loft. I'm sitting here at half past eight on a Sunday evening with a runny nose, yawning my head off, both of which are prime indicators that it's time I turned in for the night. I'll sort out the decorations tomorrow, I guess.

11 December 12 (permalink)

COMFORT ZONE

It's at this time of year that I really appreciate being able to put the car in the garage overnight. Last night the temperature here dropped to -3°C. Although that's not the coldest it's been this winter, this morning the cars parked outside in the street were covered in an extremely thick frost. Next door's car had changed from black to white and when I set off for work even the roads were white. The early start meant a spectacular view, though: the Moon and Venus looked very impressive hanging low in the sky over Bristol, though I couldn't spot Mercury. This afternoon when I left the office the temperature had already dropped to -1°C and it's supposed to get even colder than that, with temperatures predicted to fall as low as -6°C by the morning, so I'm hunkering down indoors with the heating on. Wherever you are, I hope you're keeping warm too.

ARF ARF

Oh lor. Via Mitch Benn's Twitter feed this morning, this: Carry On X-Men.

QUACKING UP

Well, that's not something you see every day. No, it's not Photoshopped. It's real.

10 December 12 (permalink)

HE'S AN ARTIST; A PIONEER

I couldn't let the week go by without marking the passing of one of music's true greats, the pianist Dave Brubeck who died on December 5th, just one day short of his 92nd birthday. My father introduced me to Brubeck when I was a very small child, playing a recording of - of course - Take Five on his Ferrograph tape recorder. It was only when I was older, and had begun to learn about music as a musician, that I realised quite what an extraordinary track that is.

In fact the whole album it's taken from, 1959's Time Out is a landmark, focusing on unusual time signatures like Blue Rondo A La Turk's 9/8 as well as Take Five's effortlessly mind-bending 5/4. One reason that album became such a landmark is that it happened to be recorded by one of the most amazing jazz quartets ever formed, as joining Dave Brubeck at the piano were Paul Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass and the mighty Joe Morello on drums. Desmond died in 1977 and Morello passed away last year. It's sad to think that there's only Eugene Wright left now.

Brubeck disbanded the quartet in 1967 and moved on to develop his compositional skills in a more traditionally classical environment, and Radio 3 have been playing quite a few of those works this week in tribute. They're beautiful, uplifting pieces of music, but it's his stellar jazz work that I will treasure the most. Thanks, maestro.

LOOK UP

After I posted yesterdays blog I heard - via Twitter, before anywhere else, of course - of the passing of another hugely influential figure from my childhood, the astronomer, xylophonist, cricketer and all-round great British eccentric Sir Patrick Moore who has died at the age of 89. I was fortunate enough to meet Sir Patrick twice, and I have a CD of his xylophone music that he signed for me at the Colston Hall a few years ago. I can remember watching the Sky at Night as a very small child, and I still watch it today; watching Patrick's coverage of the Apollo program with James Burke was one of the most memorable highlights of my childhood as a complete and utter science nerd.

His impact, inspiring generations of schoolchildren to take an interest in astronomy and the night sky, was inestimable. I must admit as I drove into work this morning and Radio 3 played the Sky at Night's theme tune, Sibelius's At The Castle Gate from the first movement of Pelias and Melisande, there was a tear in my eye.

9 December 12 (permalink)

THE DAYS ARE JUST PACKED

Despite me saying I'd have more spare time for blogging this week, Sunday has rolled around again without a single new entry. What gives, Chris?

Well, for one thing, it's not been a week for the usual routine. On Monday night I didn't get home until past midnight, and on Friday I was partying in Bristol into the small hours of Saturday morning.

THE AUDIENCE IS LISTENING

On Monday night Paul and I headed up to Wolverhampton to catch guitar legend Steve Vai at the Civic Hall. I've been a fan of Steve's playing since the very early 80s, when he was a member of Frank Zappa's band. I used to read Guitar Player magazine religiously every month and when they started raving about Frank's new hot-shot guitarist I sat up and took notice. Steve's credit on the sleeve notes for Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch that came out in 1982 simply reads "Steve Vai/Impossible Guitar Parts" and that about sums up the level of Steve's playing. The first recording of his own music that I bought was the LP Flex-Able which was the first solo thing he released. It's very heavily influenced by Zappa (and features a number of other musicians from Frank's band) but over the following years Steve very much found his own voice as a composer and got better and better as a player. I first got to see him play live as a member of Dave Lee Roth's band together with that maestro of the bass guitar, Billy Sheehan - and as a musician I can't remember many other gigs where the level of talent on stage was as intimidating as that!

On Monday night the support act for the evening hadn't shown up, and as we walked to our seats the lights went down, the smoke machines came on, and Mr Vai and his band took to the stage. Steve had decided to get things under way as soon as possible: "We thought we'd play for, like, four or five hours. Is that okay?" he asked the audience. Needless to say the crowd roared back in the affirmative. "Oh, sure, you say that now," Steve said, grinning. So they launched into an epic set that covered Steve's entire 30-year career as a solo artist. We got stuff off Flex-Able, Passion and Warfare, The Ultra Zone, the Elusive Light and Sound and more. Steve's tribute to his mentor Frank off the album The Ultra Zone was one of the highlights of the set for me. After trying to figure out how to play the guitar part a few years ago I'd decided he must be playing it on one of his Ibanez 7-string guitars and given up; I was therefore amazed (and a little bit depressed) to see him playing it on a 6-string. Every song was played with a different guitar, and when the band launched into The Ultra Zone (for which Steve donned laser gloves, LED suit and a welder's mask with a searchlight on the top) even the Ultra Zone guitar made an appearance.

The rest of the band were on top of their game, too. I've seen Philip Bynoe play in Steve's band before, but even though I knew just how good he is, he still managed to amaze. And those Yamaha TRB-6 basses he plays? Gorgeous. I want one. Guitarist Dave Weiner has also been touring with Steve for many years, and he had no trouble at all keeping up with Steve, wielding acoustic and electric guitars, a bit of keyboard playing and even an old Danelectro electric sitar for good measure. Drummer Jeremy Colson has been playing for Steve for ten years, and this time round he got out from behind his set to join Steve at the front of the stage... The big surprise for me on this tour was the final member of Steve's band, the electric harpist Deborah Henson-Conant. Although the harp couldn't really compete with the louder sections of the set, her playing during the quiter moments really augmented the sound and her solo spots, in which she played arrangements of Steve's music, were beautiful. Steve even got three members of the audience up on stage to give the band rhythms and melodies to play during the improvisation spot, and Steve's instructions to the band once they'd got the basics down "play something here in a phrygian, then drop out for eight and I'll do something interesting..." shows how far ahead of your average rock band these folks operate. It was awesome.

Then Steve was telling us "We've got two songs left to play." The audience responded with groans, to which Steve responded "But they're each an hour and a half long..." I'd have been delighted with that, but we did get them back on stage to play For The Love Of God and one more encore after that, but civic rules are civic rules and they had to be off the stage by eleven o'clock. Steve did take a moment to thank everyone for coming out to see him; it's hard to believe he's been playing professionally for 32 years. All in all, the band were on stage for just under three hours, and it seemed to go past in no time. As another example of how cool Steve is: before he left the stage he signed CDs and even somebody's electric guitar, he shook hands with as many people as he could, and he purposefully made eye contact with just about everybody in the audience. Nice one, Steve!

Then it was over - we tromped back to the car and drove down a deserted motorway back to Bristol. I got home just after 12:30 on Tuesday morning. Quite an evening, that was.

MORE SOUNDS

My Suite 8 box has arrived and I spent yesterday putting about 30 Gb of extra stuff on my laptop. Now all I have to do is learn how to use the stuff! The CORPUS plug-in is interesting, though. I've already had a play with it using ambient sounds recorded in the back garden, and I think it's got a lot of potential...

PARTY TIME

It was the office party on Friday night. I'd decided that wasn't driving - instead I'd booked a room at the Ibis in Millennium Square, which is conveniently located within staggering distance of the venue. I'd also dusted off my tuxedo for the evening...

We had tables at the Bristol Spiegeltent in Waterfront Square for the evening, and once the place had warmed up (it was bitterly cold outside, believe me) it turned out to be a very enjoyable evening indeed. The food was excellent and served quickly and without fuss, and as we ate, cabaret entertainment was provided. It followed a fairy tale theme, so the master of ceremonies was Prince Charming, two ugly sisters roamed the audience embarrassing people, there was a big bad wolf puppet accompanied by Little Red Riding Hood, a chanteuse and a dancer, a puppet show called the King of Pain, and an evil stepmother who turned out to be a contortionist. The high point was when the young girl who played Red Riding Hood got to sing "It's only a paper moon" - I've no idea of the girl's name, but I reckon you'll be finding out before too much longer, because her voice was quite extraordinary.

After the cabaret finished there was a live band - the International Jazz Disaster - who played a great selection of music, and so did the DJ, so we danced the night away. The evening got even better (and noticeably hazier) when I discovered the cocktail bar was serving mojitos...

I think I finally got to bed at around 2am, and I haven't done that for a while. That was a great night.

2 December 12 (permalink)

THE OLD ROUTINE

Now that the pressure of making my word count for NaNoWriMo is off, I'm beginning to relax a bit. It's a good feeling. People in the street have started putting up their Christmas lights, and the fact that it's going to be Christmas in a little over three weeks is beginning to sink in. Even the weather has been Christmassy, with hard frosts overnight and snow in Scotland and the north of England. Yesterday morning I had to pour some hot water in the bird bath in the back garden, as it had frozen solid. It was nice to crunch over a frosty lawn to the bird table rather than squelching through a waterlogged one, too.

This year I've seen a lot more birds in the back garden, and a wider variety of species, too: I was working on the novel last weekend and a flock of long-tailed tits briefly flashed across the garden. For all their festive connotations, robins can be stroppy buggers though; when I put some seed and mealworms out yesterday, the local (and very tame) robin spent the first ten minutes trying to drive all the sparrows and dunnocks away from the bird table. More and more birds kept arriving and he got more and more aggressive, chasing one away and then rushing back to drive off the three more that had landed on the table while his back was turned. Eventually some woodpigeons and collared doves turned up, and he flew off in a huff.

I have to admit that writing the blog this morning is largely motivated by procrastination; today will be a day of doing the household chores, as I have a huge stack of ironing to do and the house rather obviously neads a cleaning session. There are books and papers scattered around the living room on every available flat surface, the evidence that the carpet hasn't seen a vacuum cleaner for a month is abundantly clear, and I really need to get things shipshape before I can think about putting up my Christmas decorations. But this evening I will be back in the studio installing software and learning about the extra bits of Ableton that come with Suite 8. Yes, Ableton sent me an email making me an offer I couldn't refuse - a hefty discount off the upgrade from Live 8 to Suite 8 and a free upgrade to Suite 9 when it's released. I've been an Ableton user for a year now, and I love the difference it's made to the recordings I make. It presses all my geek buttons, and it's enabled me to do stuff that I never thought I'd be able to achieve in a single-room setup like mine. I've been hankering after the full version for a while now, and this week I finally took the plunge.

BANDWIDTH

So last night I spent a couple of hours downloading the install file for Suite 8, all 1.6 Gigabytes of it. I try to do most of my downloading after midnight, as I have a greater data allowance in the wee hours of the morning than I do during the day. It sucks, but the days of "all you can eat" bandwidth are running out fast. My daytime data allowance is just 5Gb a month, and given that I downloaded the Mr Torgue's Campaign of Carnage DLC for Borderlands 2 on Friday night (which came in at a hefty 1.5 Gb) you can see how rapidly I can burn through my allowance if I don't download at night (when my allowance rises to 25 Gb). I've got iTunes 11 to download yet, as well; I'm sure that will be another huge download.

At least the increase in my connection speed appears to be holding - last night I was getting a sustained 239 kB/s download rate, which is way, way better than I was getting in the summer. It seems to be fairly stable, too - I've only had to reboot my router once over the last month. In comparison, Dad had to reboot his router yesterday to get his internet connection back - for the first time since July...

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