Trickle Down Blog

Chris's Blog Archive: December 2022

I drew 2022 to a close in grand style with a splendid time in London, and despite a rail strike I got there and back without any difficulty at all (a welcome improvement on the previous year's trip). I also finished the second draft of my book about writing more than 100 songs for Fifty/Ninety over the summer. Christmas itself was a quiet affair, spent on my own at home. But I'm glad to see the back of 2022. It's been a pretty brutal year; not just for me, but for lots of people.

I make music. These days, I make lots of music. And the results of all that music making are available for you to listen to. My latest release on Bandcamp is a re-examination of material I created for this summer's Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge; once I'd upgraded the studio with new monitors, I found myself going back and polishing my favourite tracks and I was stunned by how much better the results sounded. The album is called The Future Never Arrives and this time around you get nine seconds short of an hour of music with strong prog and eighties pop influences.

Once again I'm making this release a name your price deal, so you can get it for free. Go get some!

GOOD RIDDANCE, 2022

I've just read the last blog entry I wrote for 2021 so that I could compare and contrast what I felt back then with this year. In lots of ways, things are much the same if not worse (the situation in Ukraine is the most obvious example, but the woeful state of things over here also makes depressingly familiar reading). I still haven't seen many of the other members of my family this year and the opportunities I've had to catch up with friends have still been few and far between. But I'm in better shape now—both mentally and physically—than I was a year ago. I'm not in as much pain as I was last December, and while the weather's not exactly encouraged me to go for a walk over the last week or so, I can entertain the idea of doing so without wincing; when I visited London earlier this month, I managed to double my daily step count and I barely noticed that I'd done so. My feet don't hurt at all, perhaps because I haven't worn my fancy shoes once this year.

Given that I finally caught Covid back in October, my general fitness levels have been holding up remarkably well. I'm still monitoring my blood pressure every day, and while its general trend is downwards, I'm seeing a lot more variation than I expected. However, I have noticed that my BP is higher if I take a measurement when the house is cold, and a quick perusal of results on Google suggests that there is a generally recognised correlation between lower ambient temperatures and higher blood pressure that is more marked with indoor temperatures than outdoor ones. That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

Setting myself the ridiculous goal of writing 100 songs in three months for Fifty/Ninety this year seems to have been a turning point for me, in many respects; it made me realise that I'm capable of much more than my subconscious thinks I am, and smashing the target by more than a dozen songs did wonders for my self esteem. I think my production chops have also come along splendidly this year, and every time I sit down in the studio and fire up the Focal monitors, I catch myself smiling. They continue to reveal nuances in my recordings that I never noticed when using the KRKs which they replaced. I'm still surprising myself with the music I make. It's always nice when I play something back that I've recorded and find myself asking the question, "Where did that one come from?"

I continued to stream regularly throughout the year on my Twitch channel, although I seem to be bucking a trend by doing so. Although the platform was one of the success stories of lockdown, it has seen a significant fall in activity this year with a drop of nearly ten per cent in active monthly broadcasters. I must admit I haven't been as active since I caught Covid; that taught me to take more care of myself than I've done in previous years. Realising that taking some time off and doing nothing wasn't the luxury I'd previously regarded it as came as a bit of a breakthrough; I've felt much, much better since I stopped pushing myself so hard (remember, I've released nineteen full-length albums in the last two years—it wasn't until people started to describe my recent work rate as "insane" that I started to think I ought to ease off a bit). Even before I caught Covid, I'd realised that I was in danger of running myself into the ground, and one of the most obvious signs of that was the increasing frequency with which I was experiencing PTSD-style flare-ups.

Cultivating mindfulness has been helpful in recognising what was going on and on the good days I had this year, I could manage to keep things in a healthier perspective than used to be the case. But there have been far too many not-so-good days this year, and intrusive, ruminating thoughts are just one of the many unpleasant side-effects that I get to experience on an almost daily basis.

But I can't forgive 2022 for taking from us Maxi Jazz, Terry Hall, Martin Duffy, Angelo Badalamenti, Robbie Coltrane, Jet Black, Kirstie Alley, Manuel Döttsching, Christine McVie, Wilko Johnson, Keith Levine, Nik Turner, Drummie Zeb, Oivia Newton-John, Nichelle Nichols, Monty Norman, Julee Cruise, Jim Seals, Irene Cara, Andy Fletcher, Alan White, Greg Bear, Leslie Phillips, Bernard Cribbins, Dame Angela Lansbury, Vangelis, Klaus Schulze, Taylor Hawkins, Ray Liotta, James Caan, Anne Heche, Gary Brooker, Ian McDonald, Meat Loaf, Ronnie Spector, Monica Vitti, R Dean Taylor, Sally Kellerman, Peter Bogdanovich, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. That's a pretty brutal list, and it's by no means exhaustive.

I won't be sorry to see the back of this year.

HERMIT LIFE

I realised this morning that it's been more than a week since I last talked to anyone on the phone, or in real life. All of the social interaction I've had this Christmas has been through typing. I wonder if any science fiction author envisioned a future like this, back in the day? I can't think of any examples—the closest would probably be E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops, written in 1909. Somehow, I doubt such a story exists.

GET THEM OUT

Can I just remind you that Kwasi Kwarteng's autumn budget cost the country £74 Billion? It seems to me that we should be making an awful lot more fuss about this than we did at the time. A couple of months later and the Tories are still in power.

Why is that?

AFTERWARDS

As I mentioned in the last blog entry, I got my bout of sprawling on the sofa in a food coma out of the way before Christmas had even started. No, I didn't starve myself over Christmas; I had some nice stir-fried chicken and mushroom chilli noodles for my lunch on Christmas Day and a selection of small snack pies with roast potatoes on Boxing Day (because you've got to have roast potatoes at Christmas, right?) Throw in a couple of boxes of mince pies and packets of lebkuchen and I have added a couple of pounds to my weight this week, but I haven't been stuffing myself like I've done in previous years. The stollen I bought before Christmas remains unopened and there's still half of the Christmas pudding left. I've been remarkably restrained, and I feel all the better for it. I don't feel as bloated as I normally do at this stage in the festivities and I've been getting a consistent 40% of NREM sleep all week (enough that my phone's fitness app now classes this as "average" when it would have been outstanding just five years ago.) Right now, I'm sitting at the computer on a rather drizzly, grey Tuesday afternoon and just chilling out. I have a stream of big band Christmas music from the Boston radio station WGBH Jazz playing quietly on the big system in the living room, and it looks tidier in here than it has done for months. I've been tidying up. And by that, I don't just mean going around with a duster or the vacuum cleaner; I have shredded an entire bin full of papers from years back that I am never going to need again. Yet more papers have gone in the recycling bag ready for collection on Friday. The dining table still isn't completely clear, but there's enough surface visible to make eating a meal at it practicable again. I've even reorganised some of my bookshelves in a brave effort to reduce the towering stacks of unread books that have grown on most flat surfaces around the house by some form of mysterious process which I'm assuming owes something to the way The Monolith Monsters grew in the 1957 B-movie which I watched (and very much enjoyed) on the Legend channel on Christmas Day. This endeavour was somewhat less successful, but that's because I have a lot of books. Nevertheless, just making the attempt to clean up a bit has noticeably lifted my mood today. I feel like I've achieved something.

I've even been making music in the studio, although I've noticed that, post-Covid, after a couple of hours of concentrated effort I'm more or less done. So I stop; I'm very wary of forcing myself to do a bit more in each session because that might suck all the joy out of the process. Given how sustaining I find making music is for me these days, I'm not prepared to risk losing it. But I still seem to be able to create new tracks that I can listen back to without cringing. I was worried that Covid might have robbed me of the urge to make music entirely, but it doesn't seem to be the case.

I've done everything I need to do for the time being. There are no more chores to do and I have absolutely no plans for the rest of the day. In fact, I don't have any for the rest of the week—the year, even. That's a rather nice feeling.

WARM

It's been nowhere near as cold this week as it was at the beginning of the month. Right now, it's 8°C outside and the overnight temperature hasn't dropped below zero for at least a week. But even taking this into account, I reckon that having my central heating system's circulation pump replaced has significantly improved its efficiency. My smart meter has consistently been showing about a 40% reduction in energy consumption since the cold snap, which is staggering. I haven't had to run the gas fire in the living room once.

I've been watching the coverage of the Christmas storm in the US and shuddering. I'm very glad we don't get the sort of weather here that they've been experiencing in New York state, for instance, where the death toll is still climbing. Things are so bad that they've banned driving and for an area that regularly experiences lake effect snow, that's a pretty strong indicator that this particular storm is out of the ordinary.

Wherever you are, I hope you're managing to stay indoors and stay warm.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

It's Christmas Eve and this year once again, I'm spending Christmas at home. I don't have to go anywhere for the next week or so, and to be honest, that suits me down to the ground.

This morning I awoke from yet another series of particularly nasty anxiety dreams—all of which revolved around my being back in full-time employment, and hoo boy, my subconscious clearly has some serious issues with returning to work in an office, to put things mildly. The sense of relief when I woke up and realised that I had been dreaming was quite extraordinary.

I spent the first of my waking hours this morning feeling groggy and befuddled. This was probably because of the large pizza I had for supper last night; I ate too much, and did so far too late in the evening and having a couple of glasses of wine was definitely a mistake. My late grandmother would regularly advise against eating cheese before bedtime because it caused nightmares. Her warning was ignored, and last night I suffered the consequences. I'm very much not on top form today. But there's more than stuffing my face with pepperoni, olives and melted cheese at play here, I think.

I've spent most of the last couple of years on my own here at home, and I remain astonished by how much this has reduced the levels of stress and anxiety from which I had previously suffered. Last night's dreams reminded me of what I used to feel like pretty much all the time, and it wasn't pleasant. The pandemic has made it socially acceptable to be a shut-in, and that has been a godsend for me. I love being at home. It's where I feel safe, and that's important, as we'll see in a moment. As my career progressed, my work/life balance became increasingly out of whack and the amount of time I could spend at home got less and less. I worked in a number of jobs where I was expected to put in long hours and travel significant distances, and as this post from 2010 observes, work was regularly eating up twelve hours of the day, five days a week. The weekends used to be when I would make up my ever-accumulating sleep deficit, and they were never long enough. Some companies will take more and more from you if you let them, and back then I let them take too much. I'm still paying the price for that. I used to find commuting utterly exhausting, even back in the 1980s when I used to catch the train into London every day. At least on a train I could close my eyes and drift off to sleep (and I became extremely good at waking up at the station before the one where I needed to disembark). But when I moved away from London I discovered that driving a car during rush hour was torture; it put me off car driving for pleasure for good. These days, whenever I have to drive long distances, if it's at all possible I do so in the late evenings. Reading the news headlines about everyone's Christmas travel woes yesterday made me physically shudder. I am so glad I won't be doing that this year.

I've never been formally diagnosed with PTSD, but the more I read about it, the more I recognise that the condition has a lot to do with my behaviour in stressful situations and the efforts I make in avoiding them wherever I can. Let's face it, with the childhood I had, ending up with the condition isn't exactly a stretch. As my sister put it a few years ago when we talked about our respective childhoods, "How could you not have PTSD?" The feeling that I get of being hopelessly overwhelmed in situations where I'm in close proximity to lots of other people has always been a part of my adult life—except, curiously, at music concerts. In any other sort of large crowd, I just want to flee; my amygdyla just can't cope any more and it flags the fact up with great enthusiasm. Every damn time. As I get older, this reaction has been getting worse. I tend to avoid such situations as much as possible these days, and even before the pandemic hit, I was spending all my time at home on my own.

This Christmas, I will be focusing on looking after my health a lot more than I've done previously. I said in last year's post-Christmas blog that I planned to lay off the carbs for Christmas, and that is still my plan. I won't be doing the roast vegetables and the turkey joint. My only nod to tradition is a Christmas pudding, because that's one part of Christmas that's become an essential for me. But I don't want this to be a Christmas where I stuff my face and then fall into a food coma on the sofa tomorrow evening.

The most nurturing and sustaining thing I've discovered I can do is to make music, so I'll play around in the studio a bit and work on some new tracks. And I may even go for a walk. But whatever your plans for the next few days are, whether you celebrate or not, I hope you have a calm and tranquil couple of days.

TIME FLIES

Ten years ago I was drinking a nice pint of First Class bitter in The Taps in Lytham and decompressing after an astonishing year that saw me visiting both the USA and Canada as well as writing more than twenty thousand words about Blade Runner. I was already making lots of music in my home studio, even though my post-FAWM summing up of what I'd learned shows how far I still had to travel as a songwriter; I'd only just started using eq on my recordings!

Fifteen years ago I blogged about some new software that Rob and I had started to use for keeping in touch that was called Skype. But in terms of the sheer amount of time that has passed since I started this blog, the fact that in December 2003 I was musing about whether HD-DVD or BluRay would be the next format we'd be using to watch our movie purchases on really can't be beat. It feels like it belongs to a different age altogether.

And it kinda does.

A SPLENDID WEEKEND

It's a very damp and grey Monday. The outside temperature has rocketed up to 13°C (it was -6°C overnight on Saturday) and I haven't needed to run the heating since breakfast. I'm taking it easy today and awaiting the plumber, who I'm expecting to fit a new circulation pump in the airing cupboard. I'm both warm and pleasantly chilled.

I've had a good weekend. On Saturday I was on the road before it got light on my way for another set of shows at Kings Place courtesy of the Cosmic Shambles Network who are (as I'm sure you know by now) My People. When the shows were first announced on their Patreon page, I excitedly bought a front-row seat and then realised that there were two shows on Saturday and I'd just bought a ticket for the children's matinee. Undaunted, I decided that this meant I should go to both of the Saturday shows, so I bought a ticket for the evening performance as well. It turned out to be the seat next to the one I'd been sitting in at lunchtime.

Normally for these shows I'd take things at a leisurely pace and drive over to my brother's house in Orpington the night before, deliver the Christmas presents for him and his family, and then go in to London on the train. But on Friday and Saturday there were no trains to catch. Nothing was running other than Eurostar because of very justified strike action by the RMT, so I did what I did back in November for the Royal Albert Hall concert and drove to Osterley tube station in West London, put the car in their car park (just £4 for the whole day's parking) and caught the Piccadilly Line straight to King's Cross. The roads were much quieter than expected, every traffic light I drove through was green, and the car park was almost empty, so I ended up arriving at Kings Place an hour earlier than I'd planned. Fortunately there was coffee, so I sat in the lounge and read a book for a while, then when the Newham Book Shop stall opened for business in the foyer I finished off my Christmas shopping (I had come prepared, with a large messenger bag to carry everything in; it was full by the time I left).

The matinee show was a hoot. Robin was in fine form, despite having got back from Australia and New Zealand on Thursday. He was brilliant at keeping the children in the audience engaged and involved and dealt with the occasional heckle from the louder eight-year-olds admirably. At this point I have to admit that I really should have been taking notes, because I have forgotten the names of a lot of the scientists and musicians that Robin brought on stage. I was being deluged by a torrent of fantastic things I didn't know about and that was what went in and stuck. I learned a new word from Sarah Cosgriff: Stromatopod. It's an order of carnivorous crustaceans which can grow to more than a foot in length. The Mantis Shrimp is a terrifying sea creature that punches its prey (crabs) hard enough to kill them, thanks to a clever bit of evolution that allows it to store elastic energy in appendages called raptorials that look like boxing gloves. Very hard boxing gloves. When this energy is released it's turned into kinetic energy which flicks these boxing gloves towards its prey so fast that it causes cavitation—lowering the pressure of surrounding sea water so much that it vaporises. When the bubble subsequently implodes, the "pop" that is generated is the second-loudest sound made by any living creature on the planet, at 200 dB (Sperm whales can be as loud as 233 dB, but they are much, much bigger). This was of course perfect material for a room full of kids but I found it fascinating as well, because I'm still a big kid at heart. The video of one Mantis Shrimp pummelling a crab into oblivion almost made me feel sorry for the crab. Almost. Robin introduced me to the Killer Crabs oeuvre of science fiction novels, the work of the late Guy N Smith, many years ago and I've never looked at a supermarket seafood counter the same way since. Dr Helen Czerski explained how dogs, cats, and giraffes drink and there was video of her sister's dog Loki drinking from his bowl, which got an appreciative "ahhhh" from the audience (and an even louder one when she gave the same talk to the evening audience!) I learned just how much I am not an average person (and nobody else in the audience was average, either). Roma Agrawal talked about lenses and nails and the show was closed out by a couple of songs from Jax Leonard, whom I suspect we will be hearing a lot more about in the future.

I braved the cold to wander over to the covered market at lunchtime. It was very busy despite the rail strike, with shoppers browsing the stalls while a brass band belted out a selection of old-time Christmas numbers (and while they were doing a fine job, it sounded like the cold was progressively getting to the trumpets; they eventually took a break to go and thaw out somewhere). I bought lunch in the local branch of Waitrose and found a dry bench in the sunshine to sit and eat it whilst admiring the high-level cirrus clouds that were beginning to drift in from the West, heralds of a much-anticipated change to warmer weather. Most of the King's Cross area appears to be a building site at the moment and there were a good half-dozen giant cranes looming over buildings in various stages of completion. I made a circuit of the shops in the station and picked up a few more Christmas presents and then returned to King's Place where I settled down with a book on AI that I'd discovered I needed. I'd planned to read it for a while before the evening show got under way.

Except Robin wandered past, spotted me, and suggested that I should come backstage instead, where I could drink tea and eat biscuits. I did not need to be asked twice. Robin showed me his latest treasure: a life mask of Peter Cushing, which he'd been presented with following the guided tour around the WETA Workshop he'd been on during his recent tour of New Zealand. I spent a very convivial couple of hours sitting and chatting and nerding out with Robin and his fellow presenters and was very pleased to catch up with some familiar faces from previous shows in the process. And the biscuits were very nice indeed.

The evening show kicked off at 7 pm and once again I had a front row seat, thanks to my skills at being able to decipher the URL for the advanced booking page faster than most of the rest of the Patreon crowd apparently managed to do... Ben Moor gave us a brief history of the Frisbee Tree Golf tournaments he's been organising in his local park for the last twenty years. This was right up my street, as I've been a keen Frisbee addict since I was a very small boy. I was a member of the UK Frisbee Association in my teens and still have an extensive collection of the things, even if some of them have gone brittle with age and disintegrated (and that is a disconcerting sign of my advancing age if ever there was one). Ben explained what a good way to get some gentle exercise Frisbee golf is, and he's right. I should get some practice in... Professor Chris Jackson talked about the effect that the shape of the American coastline 60 million years ago has on voting patterns in the US presidential elections. Kwame Asante talked about being a stand-up comedian and working in A&E for the NHS, and one tale of his underlined the importance of not using colloquialisms like "put your foot in it" when he was learning to be a doctor made me laugh and took me back to the days when I had to go on a course so that I could write training material in ASD-STE-100 Simplified Technical English... Latitude favourite Peter Buckley Hill somehow managed to sing eleven songs in under nine minutes (and elicited groans from the audience for most of them). Dr Kit Chapman talked about the transuranic elements and got three volunteers on stage to simulate (successfully) the production process of Californium. Marshmallows were involved; great care had been taken to close the Steinway grand piano on the other side of the stage first. Steve Pretty talked about what he described as his mid-life obsession: playing conch shells. He played a real one and a gorgeously shiny 3D-printed version which sounded just as good, and then used both of them—sometimes playing them both at the same time—to produce an EDM number on the fly (which had the Cosmic Shambles Trio nodding along in appreciation). Dr Emma Chapman had brought along the best prop of the evening with a working radio telescope and Professor Jon Butterworth talked about the ATLAS experiment at CERN and where particle physics is likely to go next after the discovery of the Higgs Boson (and I learned that the accelerator ring is approximately the same length "and the same colour" as the Circle Line on the London Underground!) Dr Christina Pagel closed the science proceedings with a powerful talk about the misogyny inherent in the fact that period problems cost the economy billions but because the problem only applies to women, nothing gets done about it. To finish the evening we were joined by Neasden's Queen of Soul herself, the one and only Mari Wilson who closed things out in fine style with a rendition of Martin and Blaine's classic song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. And as Robin wished us a happy Christmas to send us on our way, that was the end of the evening.

I didn't stick around after the show, as I wanted to get home before the warm front I'd seem coming in properly arrived in the South West because rain landing on frozen ground is not pleasant to drive over; however, that meant braving the London Underground at closing time on a Saturday night, which would not be very high up in my list of things to do. Goodness me, Londoners are noisy, particularly when they've brought their own mobile disco equipment out with them. I was pleased to get back to the car at Osterley and sit quietly while it defrosted itself. Judging by the steam coming off the wing mirrors, the car's winter pack was definitely earning its keep (and since I bought a car with heated seats I have become a great fan of the technology). Back on the road I stuck to my old route home, so I didn't get lost somewhere around Hammersmith like I'd done back in November. Even after stopping off at the Bradley Stoke branch of Tesco to fill the car up again, I was home by 2 am, well before the rain arrived.

I slept late on Sunday morning and took things easy for most of the day. Even though the rain had arrived while I was asleep and was falling heavily by lunchtime, there was still a fair bit of snow around when I got up. I spent the afternoon noodling in the studio and was back on Twitch on Sunday evening. I'd only planned on doing a short show but my friends Nick and Mel popped up in the chat and I had plenty of free software to share after a month of trawling the web for new sounds, so I ended up being on air for an hour. But after two nights where I hadn't managed to get seven hours' sleep I didn't stay up too late afterwards.

And now that I've typed all this up, the plumber has been and the house is back to having a silent and fully-functional heating system once again. It'll have cost me an arm and a leg, but it's worth it and it needed doing; the impeller on the old circulation pump was knackered, as I'd suspected. Now all that remains is to put all the stuff back in the airing cupboard...

BOOSTED

I drove down to Thornbury and got my fourth Covid shot yesterday. As I was there, I did some Christmas shopping and picked up a nice haul of second-hand books from the Lions charity shop. I even trudged around the local branch of Tesco and stocked up on supplies. But I was flagging by the time I got home; even a restorative trip to the local Chinese Takeaway for tea didn't perk me up for very long. This morning, I feel rather off, and I was very tempted to stay in bed for another hour or two. I've noticed more side effects with this booster (I'm assuming that's the cause) than with any of the previous vaccines, and my arm was sore enough last night to keep waking me up when I rolled over onto it.

But another reason why I had a rough night last night might be because the temperature in the bedroom had dropped down to 11°C when I woke up at 4:30 am feeling cold. When I checked what was going on outside, there was a thick frost on the roofs of the houses opposite. At first, I thought we'd had more snow (although there's still plenty of it lying around from Sunday) so I put the heating on for an hour and went back to bed. This morning I checked my min/max thermometer and it was reading -9.1°C at 9 am even though it's bright and sunny. Overnight, the back garden had seen a minimum of -11°C (12°F). For round here, that's unusually cold. The forecast is for another couple of days like this before the wind shifts around to the south to bring some much anticipated milder weather.

This morning I have the heating on and I will be staying indoors with my most recent pile of books close at hand...

CHRISTMASSY

In recent years I've been very late putting up the Christmas decorations. Last year I didn't do so until December 12th and the year before, I think it was probably the week running up to Christmas before I got my act together sufficiently to get everything out of the loft and assemble the tree once again. Yesterday I decided I really ought to get the ironing out of the way, tidy up the living room and get the Christmas tree set up, so that's what I did. I strung a set of white LED lights across the shelves at either side of the TV, and the results of all this look rather nice—particularly when I dug out my 50mm F1.8 Canon EF prime lens, a.k.a. the "Plastic Fantastic" to photograph the top of the tree...

Christmassy

The temperature outside dropped down to -7°C again on Friday night and I had the heating on for most of the day yesterday (and whenever I looked at my smart meter, I started whimpering). I've managed to keep the chill off the house without the figures getting too out of hand, and for the last couple of nights I haven't even bothered to fill a hot water bottle before going to bed (I don't sleep as well when I use one, which is weird). Last night it was only -4°C in the back garden but when I looked out of the window this morning, the street looked rather different...

Unexpected

There's probably a couple of inches of snow out there. Given the change in the climate here over the last decade, when the weather forecast for the area began mentioning the possibility of snow a couple of days ago, all I'd expected to see was a light dusting, because that's pretty much all that there's been here for the past couple of years. Seeing this much snow was a big surprise. There's enough of it on the conservatory roof to block out most of the light that comes in to the living room from the back. It must have done so on other occasions, but I've been struck by how noticeable it is today. I suspect it's going to stick around for a while, as there's a Met Office warning of ice and fog in place here until 11 am tomorrow morning.

The heating is on, the Christmas decorations are up, and I have no plans to do anything much for the rest of the day beyond watching the remaining episodes of Lawrence Kasdan's documentary series about Industrial Light and Magic on Disney+ (which I've been enjoying a lot) and following NASA's coverage of the Artemis I spacecraft as it returns to Earth this afternoon for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

ONE LESS ANNOYANCE

I didn't expect to be delving into the intricacies of formatting text as an e-book this year, but in writing a hundred-thousand-word account of taking part in the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge this summer, that is what I have been doing recently. And it's been driving me nuts.

I use a free open-source alternative to Microsoft Office called Libre Office and while it's good enough to get the job done, it's also riddled with bugs. It will quite frequently just disappear on me without so much as an error message. For the last week I've been discovering just how bad it is at exporting text documents to the .epub format. My chief gripe is that the exported text is absolutely full of random "span" HTML tags that seem to bear no relation to edits I've made in the document.

And yes, I know that direct formatting in Writer documents is the work of the devil and should never be used; the behaviour I was seeing will occur even after I've selected the entire document with Ctrl-A and then hit Ctrl-M to remove any direct formatting that might have crept in.

This afternoon I finally discovered here that Libre Writer treats any file information generated by its comparison or track changes functions as text to be included in the export. Switching off change tracking and disabling the generation of random numbers (which are embedded invisibly in a file to improve Writer's file comparison abilities) has finally removed all of those spurious Span tags. This is acknowledged as a bug in one of the replies, but I can't see any sign of it in the known bugs tracker, more than a year later.

The fact that Writer generates these random numbers (known as RSIDs) by default was raised as a bug back in 2014, but someone closed the bug report in 2017 because you can turn off the generation of RSIDs in Writer's options window—which completely misses the point that it's the default setting that the original bug report was suggesting should be changed. If the original bug had been addressed it would have saved me hours of faffing about trying to figure out what was broken.

There are other problems with Writer's "Export as EPUB" option as well. Importing the resulting file into Sigil still generates a warning that the file contains multiple DOCTYPE errors, but at least it's formatted a darn sight more cleanly than it was before. I guess I can't complain, as Libre Office is software that's provided entirely for free, but considering how long it's been in development (I'm using version 7.4.3 at present) you'd think that something like exporting files to different formats would be less of a challenge than it apparently is.

Still, the resulting file is now several kilobytes smaller than it was. I guess we have to be thankful for the small things in life...

FROZEN

The ice on my conservatory roof hasn't thawed out at all today. On Wednesday night it was -7°C in the back garden and that was cold enough; my buddy Alex tells me that they're getting temperatures of -30°C where he lives in Canada. Yeah, don't want that here.

COLD SNAP INCOMING

After the prodigious heatwaves of the summer (at one point it got to 39°C in my back garden, which is 102°F) it seems odd to be writing about how cold it is at the moment, but the outside temperature here has barely made it to 4°C today. Tomorrow, it's supposed to be turning colder still with overnight temperatures expected to drop well below freezing for the next five days or so. At this point, the forecast for Christmas is for average temperatures and unsettled weather, so I'm expecting it to be cold and wet rather than snow. But it's still cold.

I've managed to stay warm so far, although my need to stay hydrated means I'm still drinking several litres of weak fruit squash a day and it's surprising how quickly that cools me down to the point where I start shivering. A more pleasant surprise was how much warmer the house feels today with bright sunshine coming through the windows compared with yesterday, when it was grey and overcast. There's probably also a fair bit of residual heat from yesterday hanging around, at least in the living room, because I had the gas fire on full blast for a while in an attempt to get the load of laundry that I did to dry. With the doors all shut, I was only heating one room instead of the whole house. It's rather depressing seeing my energy costs mount up on my smart meter but that was cheaper than running the central heating in every single room. This is how people used to use their houses back in the old days, withdrawing to the central core of the house for the winter and leaving the light and airy rooms with big windows to be used solely in the summer. And for the moment, the thirty-two-year-old circulation pump in the airing cupboard seems to be working properly again. I haven't needed to bleed it again, but it no longer runs as silently as it did (I can hear when the system starts up from anywhere in the house) so I'm going to have it replaced, just in case.

I just looked at the adventures I had in early December twelve years ago when my brother's kids were building igloos in their back garden and South East London was gridlocked for days. I'm just fine with the sunshine, thanks very much.

DREAM ON

Later on in the blog that month, I comment about how badly I was sleeping. There's a considerable difference between those days and now in the quality of the sleep I get. My phone now classifies nights when I get more than 40% of NREM sleep as "average" but back then, I would consistently have been getting less that 25%. In my last job, an "average" night was closer to 20%. And I would have been getting far less sleep in total, too. This morning I lay in my nice warm bed and dozed until well after 10 am before I finally got up, and I have to say it felt wonderful to be able to do that.

I'm still keeping my mind occupied, though. I'm continuing to make good progress on the book, and it's currently sitting at 103k words. I've been tightening up the structure and adding more technical stuff for people who might want to start their own home recording adventures. I've also been cutting out some of the more eccentric excursions and diversions I'd gone off on. Not all of them, though. The book still has to sound like me, after all.

The next step will be recruiting some beta testers to see what they think...

DREICH

The first of December dawned grey and foggy here, the sort of weather that we used to get towards the end of October. When I first moved to the South West, I would usually decide it was time to put the heating back on automatic at around the third week in October. This year, I only decided I needed to do so on November 24th, thus setting a new record (I keep track of these things, because I'm me).

I needed the heat this morning, as the temperature outside was -1°C overnight. The forecast for next week is showing signs of the season's first proper cold snap, too. But rising fuel costs mean that I'm being much less eager to put the heating on, and I'm not the only one. I saw this week that domestic energy usage in the UK is 10% less than it was last year. I'm lucky enough to be able to afford to heat the house and buy food to eat. A shocking amount of families in the UK are no longer as fortunate as me. That's where 12 years of Tory austerity has got us. It's funny how so many Tory party members have managed to stay grossly overweight though, isn't it? It's almost as if they weren't being affected by the need to "tighten our belts" that they're so fond of telling the rest of us about...

LOWER

Following my most recent trip to the doctor's, I needed to buy myself a blood pressure monitor to make daily checks. After my brush with Covid in October, I've been suffering from mild hypertension. I gently started exercising again, and last weekend I picked up my weights for the first time in six weeks.

Wow. I was amazed by how quickly that had a result on my blood pressure. It was dramatic; in just five days I've gone from 145/85 to 135/75. That puts me back in the "high normal" range, and has removed a major source of the stress that would have been boosting my high blood pressure in the first place.