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Chris's Blog Archive: December 2018

Permalink entries for Chris's blog from December 2018.

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BACK TO STAYING IN

I blogged last month about how anxiety has been driving me to stay in rather than go out when I'm not at work. This week I'm on holiday, and aside from nipping to the Post Office at the weekend, I haven't left the house. This hasn't just been driven by anxieties, though; today the weather's miserable enough that it's triggered a weather warning for rain, so I feel quite justified in staying indoors. At some point today I'm expecting at least one more book I recently ordered to be delivered, so I need to be around for that, too.

Staying indoors and vegging out will do me good, I think. The amount of driving I do each week has taken its toll, and I feel like I just need to unwind, kick back a bit, and recharge my batteries. It would appear that I've still got a way to go with catching up on sleep, too. The alarm clock usually wakes me up at half past five in the morning, but this week I've been making the most of things and having a lie-in, waking up when my body feels like it. My body seems to be rather keen on staying asleep; since Friday, my sleep tracker has recorded a couple of nights where I slept for 11 hours straight. As a result it's been awarding me sleep scores in the 80s and 90s rather than the 40s and 50s I was getting at the beginning of the month.

In the finest introvert fashion I will therefore be spending the rest of the day listening to music and catching up on my reading. On wet, grey and gloomy days like this I don't feel the slightest pang of guilt when I sit in an armchair with a book for an hour or two. I have a lot of books to choose from these days. Some people might suggest I have rather too many books to choose from; one of my colleagues recently discovered the Japanese word Tsundoku and the fact that he immediately shared his discovery with me should tell you all you need to know about my book-buying habit. I need to work through the piles—and yes, there are piles—of books that I already have which have accumulated here in the living room (and there are several equally large stacks in my bedroom, too) rather than making any more purchases, but my philosphy remains simple: you can never have too many books...

WHOSE REALITY IS IT ANYWAY?

I also blogged last month about the curious tale of Jered Eames, a.k.a. Threatin, the wannabe rock star who faked a following online and then expected his non-existent fanbase to show up and see him when he organised a European tour. This week the BBC News website ran a detailed follow up story on him. So did the Rolling Stone, and their article runs along almost identical lines. Little Jered has clearly been out and about selling his carefully prepared version of events to anyone he could get to listen, and what a revealing narrative it turns out to be.

The overall impression I get of the man is that he's only tangentially connected to reality. I may not be a psychologist but I've read about the "dark triad" traits enough to recognise both narcissism and machiavellianism when I see them. The BBC and Rolling Stone reporters were both given the same treatment, designed to manipulate them (and, by extension, the reader) into accepting Jered's version of events as truth. The principal thing this reveals is how constructed that version is. It becomes blindingly obvious when the reports start to introduce perspectives from some of the other people involved, most notably from Jered's brother Scott, who told the BBC how they'd fallen out when Jered started using Facebook to claim credit for Scott's guitar work when they were in a band together. The brothers haven't spoken to each other in six years, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the fact that they were "like Moberly’s version of Oasis," gushes the Rolling Stone. In the BBC's report, Scott is the voice of reason, warning the reporter not to trust Jered. For the Rolling Stone, Scott is cast (by Jered) in the role of the abandoned brother who now recognises his sibling's greatness, hoping for a reconciliation. I suspect the differing portrayals reflect the differing amounts of willingness to accept Mr Eames's narrative in each case. I find it particularly odd that the BBC makes no mention of the purportedly life-threatening illness that is, Jered claims in the Rolling Stone interview, the thing that drives him to seek greatness.

Even though his tour imploded in chaos, it hasn't done anything to shake Threatin's belief in himself. Indeed, the complete failure of reality to live up to the man's expectations has all become part of a purported long-term master plan for global domination. In typical narcissist fashion, he's now claiming that his catastrophic tour happened exactly as he intended it to. A moment's examination is all that's needed to realise that such a claim is, quite frankly, ludicrous.

I found Jered's story particularly interesting, because the one thing that doesn't get mentioned in the press coverage is his music. If your master plan revolves around getting your tracks in front of a wider audience, surely you'd want to focus attention on what you're playing? After all, surely the whole point of going on tour is to get people to listen to your music, isn't it? Dig up one or two of his tracks on YouTube, though, and you begin to realise exactly why nobody wants to mention the music. Firstly, Eames doesn't want to push his music because he wants to be famous for being Threatin, not for his musicianship—that was clear right from the outset. But secondly, nobody else is talking about the music because it's just not very good. The Rolling Stone is either regurgitating a press release or just plain tone deaf when they use the word "anthemic" to describe one track, because the word they should be using is "derivative". Threatin's music is weak, insipid stuff. It sounds like something Bon Jovi would have discarded thirty years ago. Focus on the music, and the whole media circus that was the European tour loses any point whatsoever. Listen to the music, and the hype is killed off immediately. Because—to put it as simply as I can: his music just isn't worth your attention.

I almost felt sorry for the guy. Almost. But then I remembered that there are thousands and thousands of musicians out there who are far more talented than Mr Eames. Talented musicians who regularly play gigs to real audiences, talented musicians who have never had their moment in the limelight. They've never been interviewed by the BBC or Rolling Stone. There are insanely talented musicians out there who have to finance their creative endeavours by taking day jobs, and they are often struggling to make ends meet. They're the ones we should be paying attention to. And they're the ones who deserve our support. Which is why my coverage of the Threatin scam stops here.

FUTURE PAST

It's Arthur C Clarke's birthday today; he would have been 101. I've been revisiting his work a fair bit this year, spurred by the release of a new print of 2001: A Space Odyssey that commemorates its fiftieth anniversary. The new, "unrestored" print is truly beautiful, and I keep going back to the 4K Blu-Ray release to marvel at a film that remains one of cinema's crowning achievements. I recently reread Clarke's novelization and after reading Michael Benson's excellent new book on how the film (and the book) came into being, I gained a whole new perspective on things, namely that Stanley could be an absolute nightmare to work with, but everyone wanted to work with him because he was also a genius. It was Stanley who delayed publication of the novel; in doing so, it would appear that he cost Arthur a significant sum of money.

As is pointed out in this retrospective, written for the Guardian on the occasion of Clarke's centenary by Adam Roberts, Sir Arthur wasn't perfect either. His writing could be stultifying and wooden; in his later years he fell into the Hollywood trap of following up his best work with a deluge of sequels that were seldom of the same quality as the hits that spawned them. For sure, 2010: Odyssey Two took the findings of NASA's Voyager probes and some ideas about stellar evolution and worked them into an enjoyable if rather hand-wavy plot about the monolith turning Jupiter into the Solar System's second sun, but it's no 2001. Having said that, I enjoyed the resulting film by Peter Hyams a lot, thanks primarily to Keir Dullea's eerie return as the astronaut-superman David Bowman. When he delivers his "Something is going to happen. Something wonderful" speech, I still get goosebumps. The film wasn't as popular with the critics, although comparing it with 2001 is never going to be anything except extremely unfair. 2010 was marketed at the time as being "easier to follow" than 2001, but because it's nowhere near as obtuse or mystical as its predecessor, it can't bear the level of meticulous examination that 2001 withstood, nor does it have the same appeal that drove people to watch 2001 over and over again. It couldn't hold a candle to Kubrick's technical achievements, either. Hyams couldn't afford the teams of painters that Kubrick used to blank out any offending stars or scaffolding from his spaceship shots, and fortunately for his crew, Hyams also lacked Kubrick's obsession with achieving the impossible. The special effects, made with physical models in a time before CGI, are sometimes decidedly wonky, revealing the velvet-draped mounts that support the spaceships and the outlines of the mattes that were used to drop them into the background starfields. There were also differences in scale; Kubrick's model of the spaceship Discovery was fifty-six feet long—Hyams had to make do with one that was less than half the size. By showing the gas giant's atmosphere in motion, the FX crew got the scale of Jupiter's atmosphere totally wrong; I remember snorting in derision at that point when I saw the film in the cinema.

2010 was the last of Clarke's novels to reach the silver screen, although a very good adaptation of Childhood's End aired on the SyFy television channel in 2015 and is now available on Blu-Ray. Morgan Freeman has been trying to get a film of Rendezvous with Rama made for decades, now. As far as I'm aware, films of 2001's last two sequels (which are set in 2061 and 3001) haven't even made it to the development stage. The less said about 2061: Odyssey Three the better; it's really not very good. I'll get to 3001 in a moment.

Before that, I'm going to return to that point about mysticism, as it's an important one. Clarke's scientific and technical grounding was something he was very keen to point out (although, as Adam Roberts says in his Guardian article that I linked to above, Clarke's claim to be "the father of the modern geostationary communications satellite" was nowhere near as strong as he'd like you to believe), but his stories often have a streak of the supernatural a mile wide. His interest in the metaphysical can be traced to the influence of Olaf Stapledon, a writer whose novels Last and First Men and Star Maker Clarke frequently acknowledged in interviews. I've already mentioned Childhood's End, a novel about the transfiguration of the human race that is facilitated by a race of beings who look exactly like devils. It's a perfect example of Clarke blending the metaphysical seamlessly with hard science. Characters with psychic powers crop up in his work more than once—apart from David Bowman in 2001 or the children in Childhood's End, they're central to the plot in Against The Fall Of Night.

Clarke was always able to come up with some startlingly high concepts for his stories and two that really stand out in this regard were The Star and The Nine Billion Names of God. Either one of those tales would be enough to ensure his legacy as one of SF's legendary storytellers. Tellingly, they're both short stories. For me, Clarke excelled himself in this form. It was Clarke's 1951 short story The Sentinel that formed the kernel of 2001: A Space Odyssey, don't forget. Clarke was a far better writer when he had to make every word count. His frequent failure to portray characters that are believable is forgivable when he only had a few thousand words to work with; it's less forgivable when he had the length of an entire novel to fill out. My all-time favourite tale of Clarke's is another of his short stories. It's A Meeting With Medusa, which won a Nebula award in 1971. The nature of the central character also makes Clarke's limited ability (or reticence) to develop character work for him, rather than against him. It's the gripping story of a cyborg who descends into the upper levels of Jupiter's atmosphere and encounters something wonderfully strange. The Medusa Chronicles, an "official" sequel from Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter, was published in 2016 and it's an enjoyable read. It captures Clarke's mystical side well and, like Clarke, Al and Stephen base the plot on hard science concepts as much as they can.

Clarke's focus switched from short stories to novels from the 1970s onwards, and in my opinion, that was a mistake. Few of them live up to the spirit of gleeful invention that Clarke showed so clearly in the 50s and 60s. And yet, of all Clarke's work after Rendezvous With Rama (which was published in 1973), I'm surprised to say that it's 3001: The Final Odyssey that has stayed with me. Published when Clarke was 80, it's perhaps not a surprise that its central themes are mortality and turning back the clock—after all, the central character is the astronaut Frank Poole, who was murdered by HAL in 2001. Clarke's plots often involved events in the distant past (such as Time's Arrow, written in 1950 and Encounter in the Dawn, written in 1953) but as he got older, the theme of turning back the clock was gradually displaced by musings on how to achieve resurrection. This is addressed most overtly in The Light of Other Days, which he wrote with Stephen Baxter and which was published in 2000. Arthur clearly had hopes that technology will one day become advanced enough to bring him back from the dead. Clarke's third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, after all. If that ever happens, I wonder what sort of world will await him?

WIBBLY WOBBLY TIMEY WIMEY

We're not far from the winter solstice, and here in the UK we're already getting less than eight hours of daylight each day. However, the length of each day doesn't change by equal increments at dawn and dusk until the solstice happens, nor does this immediately go into reverse the next day. It's much more complicated than that. The Sun currently sets at four in the afternoon, which is the earliest that this happens during the year. But sunrise this morning happened at 08:04, and it'll continue to happen later and later until the first week of January. This is because the Earth's orbit around the Sun speeds up or slows down during the year (because its orbit isn't circular, but an ellipse) and because the Earth's axis isn't perpendicular to its orbit, but tilted. You can calculate the effect of these two things with the equation of time, something that I've mentioned before on these pages. This also throws off the time at which the Sun is highest in the sky; it's not always at midday. Today the Sun will reach its highest point at 12:02, and two minutes out is pretty good; the time can sometimes be out by as much as thirty minutes—the equation of time was originally used to correct the time on people's sundials! At midday the Sun will be only fifteen degrees above the horizon. Right now it's shining down the entire length of the living room, and it was noticing this that prompted me to write about it today.

Because the plots of each effect (orbital eccentricity and axial tilt) have different wavelengths, the results aren't the same from year to year. Gravitational forces exerted by our Moon and the other planets also have an influence on the Earth's orbit each year. At present, the Earth's orbital eccentricity is gradually getting smaller, and so is our axial tilt. These secular effects are currently flattening out the curves of the equation.

It's no wonder people don't rely on sundials any more, really.

REST YE MERRY

I went to a party on Friday night, and I consumed more alcohol there than I normally do in a month. Since I've got my fitness tracker I've seen very clearly how badly I sleep when I've had a drink or two, and the terrible night's sleep I got on Friday night confirmed this. I think I've reached the point where I prefer sleeping through the night and waking up in the morning feeling rested over booze of any description.

I still feel like I'm catching up on sleep from last month's hectic whirl of gigs and social events. This week will be much quieter, and it's my last week at work before the Christmas break. This year I'm planning on staying at home and, weather permitting, getting a decent amount of exercise by going on some long walks. I live in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. I should really get out there and enjoy it.

FINDING MY EQUILIBRIUM

I had a busy day yesterday helping to run through and analyse an event at work that we'll be running for a client next February. It was a full-on day with no downtime and lots of creative thinking required. It was great fun, but on the way home I could really feel the past week beginning to catch up with me. It was a slog driving back, too. The weather was horrible, there was lots of traffic, and the M4 had snarled up around the Bath junction thanks to a couple of accidents, so I came off at Junction 17 and drove home through the tiny hamlet of Tiddleywink, whose name always makes me smile. I arrived home much later than I normally do and by eight o'clock I was falling asleep. So I went to bed early and slept for ten hours, which is most unusual for me on a work night. I feel much better today. These days I'm feeling better than I have for a couple of years.

Even so, I'll be really glad when it's the weekend.

HECTIC IS THE WORD

My run of regular blog updates took a back seat over the past week as I had one of the most hectic and enjoyable few days I've had for months, if not years. It's been huge fun. Last month I wrote about how changing my diet is beginning to have some positive effects, including an elevation of my mood and a reduction in the anxiety that normally kicks off when I think about going out and enjoying myself. In the past week I've really pushed myself to get out of my comfort zone and go out, and it has turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive experience.

To start with, on Tuesday night I found myself at St. George's in Bristol where I saw Beverly Craven, Julia Fordham and Judie Tzuke on their Woman To Woman tour. It was an absolute delight; I've been going to Jude's shows since I was in my early twenties and I love her work but I'd never seen Beverley or Julia in concert before. It turned out I knew a lot of their songs, though! All three women shared the stage, performing backing vocals for each other's songs—after Jude sang one of her songs (I think it was "For you") Julia said she'd learnt every single vocal part of the song in her room when she was a teenager. "Never thought that it'd come in as useful as this," she told us... All three women are incredible artists and gifted songwriters; I got misty-eyed on more than one occasion. Hearing "Stay with me 'til dawn" always reminds me of a dear friend who is no longer with us, and from the stories Jude told it was clear that other people had fond memories associated with that song, too...

I was back in Bristol the following night to catch up with my friends from France, those masters of prog rock Lazuli. It was really good to see them all again. After one or two niggles with some dodgy cables during the first couple of numbers, they were off and running and despite being crammed onto a stage that was much too small to let them be the energetic performers that they usually are, they romped through a two-hours-plus set that featured some of my favourite tracks and showcased plenty of stuff from the new album including j'attends un printemps and Les 4 mortes saisons. And as you can see, they were enjoying themselves as much as the audience were.

Lazuli around the Marimba

The band always do Bristol proud on their tours and Wednesday night was no exception. Dom was as apologetic as ever about his English; "I was too busy dreaming music at school," he told us. When he said that his dearest wish was that there would never be a breakfast, keyboard player and French Horn maestro Romain started laughing. "Brexit! You mean no Brexit!" The Exchange's proprietor clearly loves the band too, and the crowd made it clear that they'd like him to bring them back for another gig next year. I got to say hello and chat briefly with most of the guys before and after the show, and the more I get to know them all, the more I realise what lovely people they are. You should definitely check them out; their new album is superb.

I was out again on Thursday night, but this time I only had to walk down the road to the pub and catch up with my buddy Paul. We haven't had much chance to chew the fat in recent months, so much news was swapped. There was enthusiastic talk of guitars, and bands, and life in general. Now that the Tavern has changed hands, it seems to be returning to its position at the centre of social life in the village, which is just where it should be. They had Charles Wells's Bombardier on draught, so Paul and I conducted extensive quality checks during the course of the night and I'm happy to report the beer passed with flying colours, although we had another pint or three just to make sure.

NOT ENOUGH SLEEP UNTIL HAMMERSMITH

As a result of all this gadding about I averaged less than four hours' sleep on each work night last week. By Friday evening I was definitely feeling it, too. According to my sleep tracker I managed to catch up with a few extra hours on Friday night, but I was back in the car on Saturday afternoon, heading off to London and the Hammmersmith Odeon. (Yes, I know it's currently known as the Eventim Apollo. Don't care. It was The Hammersmith Odeon when I started going to gigs there in the 70s; it was The Hammersmith Odeon when I used to hang out backstage with Motörhead there in the 80s; so shall it ever be.)

If you're one of my regular readers you may remember that what seems a lifetime ago but was only back in June, I made myself extremely ill mixing antihistamines and antidepressants. I was bordering on suicidal when I should have been out and about attending one of Robin Ince's Space Shambles events at the Royal Albert Hall. We've been friends for a few years now, so Robin knew about what had happened to me, and he'd offered me a free ticket on any show on his next tour to make up for missing out. Robin is a lovely—and extremely generous—person. Me being me, I didn't like to bother him; instead, I just bought a ticket for the Bristol show as I normally do. When I caught up with him last month at the Tobacco Factory, the first thing he did when he saw me was to ask how I was feeling. Have I mentioned what a lovely bloke Robin is before? Well, he is. He then asked me if I'd got a ticket for this year's Christmas Compendium show (which has been the absolute high point of my calendar for the last three years running) and I told him sadly that I hadn't. At which point he immediately offered to arrange a ticket for me. He was as good as his word, too. He really is a lovely chap.

Things on Saturday didn't get off to the best start; at Reading I got caught in a huge traffic jam on the M4, which had been reduced to a single lane after a pile-up. That delayed me by over an hour, so by the time I arrived at Hammersmith with a couple of bags of food for the Trussell Trust's collection van, it had left and the show was already under way. For a moment I thought I was going to be making my way to my seat with a couple of carrier bags but fortunately the Trust's people were still around, so I was still able to hand them over. After giving my name at the front desk, I was handed my ticket together with a blue wristband. I didn't remember ever needing one of these before at Hammersmith, even during my Motörhead days, so I asked what it was for. "Oh, that's for the afterparty," I was told.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Did I mention what a nice person Robin is? He's touring to promote his new book at the moment, by the way. You should totally go and see him and buy the book, too. It's great; I bought a physical copy and I've got it on my Kindle as well.

I made my way to my seat as unobtrusively as I could. I'd missed Brian's D-Ream reunion, a talk on parasites by Steve Backshall, and Professor Sophie Scott recreating the part of her Royal Institution Christmas Lectures from last year where she rendered Robin incapable of speech using transcranial magnetic stimulation (can't find a video online, but you can read this transcript of the RI lecture). I made my way to my seat in the stalls as Robin introduced Nish Kumar, who talked about Jesus, embarrassing relatives, and Brexit. He was followed by Mark Miodownik, who gave a talk about the relative sizes of organisms that was illustrated by a video of a cat scampering away after a ten-storey fall from a balcony on a block of flats. It was so unexpected and graphic that there was a loud collective gasp from the audience and a woman a few seats along in my row expressed her surprise with considerably more vehemence. After the remains of Mark's experimental balloon subjects had been cleared from the stage, Grace Petrie came on to perform her anthemic song Black Tie, the sixth track on her excellent new album (which I am listening to right now as I type this, as it happens). Grace was accompanied by Steve Pretty and the band (who all spent the entire evening sitting at stage right while things went splat, bang or WHOOOMPH just a few feet away, which impressed me greatly). Professor Brian Cox then gave a talk about a video clip of a computer rendering of a black hole that was produced by the same team who did the special effects for Christoper Nolan's film Interstellar. Black holes are deeply weird things and their gravity bends light in unexpected ways that mean you can see things that are directly behind it. Starlight gets bent into circles. It looked lovely, but it made your eyes go funny. Brian then introduced the gang from the Festival of the Spoken Nerd, a.k.a Matt Parker, Steve Mould, and Helen Arney who sang about the Banana Equivalent Dose as a measure of radiation exposure. I had no idea that a week in Cornwall gave you as much of a dose as it does! Matt and Steve donned impressive banana costumes for the finale of the song and judging by Helen's reaction they hadn't told her that they were going to do so! I was hugely entertained by the song and have already added the B.E.D to the Standard Routemaster Units system of measurements that I have developed over the last decade and a bit... The curtain came down and Samuel West kept us entertained while gear was shifted and plugged in. "Sam's parents make the best canal journeys show EVER," Robin told us, and he's not wrong. The curtain rose to reveal one of my favourite improvising musicians, Beardyman, who got Brian to say "Universe" and then made a complete EDM track out of it with every other component of the music beatboxed on the spot. He really is jaw-droppingly good and I would love to be talked through how on Earth he put it all together. He made it look effortless. He was improvising loops while he edited Brian's voice!

After the interval the second half started with science demonstrator Greg Foot attempting to do twelve demonstrations in twelve minutes. He brought the Spoken Nerd gang back on to help, and Robin and Brian were conscripted too. Robin helpfully pointed out at one stage that the flashing light at stage front meant that things were running over, but given that things were glowing in the dark, gently fluorescing, fizzing energetically, squirting foam all over the place or just loudly going bang, nobody seemed to mind that much. Steve Pretty and the band then attempted to explain the entire history of music accompanied by a robot drummer, and they made a good job of doing so. Robin then introduced Compendium favourite Andrea Sella with the immortal words, "He's a proper chemist—which means he's usually missing one or both eyebrows." The good Doctor did not disappoint, either. Large balloons burst into flames with a selection of interesting colours. He was followed by Kevin Fong, who told the story of Apollo 8 and what happens to Lunar conspiracy theorists when they challenge Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin to swear on the bible that he really did go to the Moon... The awesome Rachel Parris came on to tell a very funny story about writing a song for X Factor, was entertainingly rude about Simon Cowell (and why not) and then performed said song, which contained absolutely every cliché that Mr Cowell has forced his roster of artists to perpetrate over the last decade or two. I was in fits of giggles. The curtain comes down again so the crew can set up for this year's mystery band, and Robin and Brian are joined on stage by Sean Keaveny from BBC 6music, special effects wizard Andrew Whitehurst, and Professor Fay Dowker who talk about the computer graphics clip we saw earlier. Andrew explained that they used general relativity to generate the imagery and what they initially thought were glitches in the rendering turned out to be a representation of gravitational lensing not previously known; the team ended up co-authoring a scientific paper with Kip Thorne about the results! Producer Trent came on stage to give Robin the thumbs up and the curtains rose to reveal...

Orbital!

Orbital at Hammersmith

I just sat there grinning madly while they played a quick set of hits that included Halcyon On and On and finished off with—of course—their version of the Doctor Who theme tune. They sounded amazing and the light show was spectacular.

And then I found myself in the upstairs bar having a pint in the company of some very nice people and it turns out that they all think Robin is lovely too. I would have quite happily stayed until the early hours but the Hammersmith staff had to get home, so we were all politely asked to call it a night; I thanked Robin as profusely as I could (and shook hands with anyone who didn't get out of the way fast enough including producer Trent Burton, Steve Pretty and Professor Brian Cox, who are all lovely too) and headed off to the tube station. I left Osterley at 1:30 am and got home at 4, but it was six in the morning before I got any sleep. I was buzzing; always the sign of a good night. Sunday was, quite understandably, a bit of a write-off. I'm still catching up on sleep, and it'll be Wednesday in a few hours.

But it was worth it.

It was so worth it. What an amazing evening. I'm going to remember that one for years.