Towards a new blog

Just to say that I’ve made very posts this year because of being so busy. Next month I’ll be moving to a new blogsite with a total redesign, where I impersonate a giant cactus. I’m hoping that this will provide an upward spike in the posting rate. Ho ho.

 

Meanwhile, on the Scottish Referendum, I’d just like to say: I hope the good people of Scotland vote Yes.

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Remembering Tony Benn

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Very busy at the moment but I just wanted to say a few words about Tony Benn, who died today at the age of 88.

There have been two well-known “Tony B”s in post-war Labour politics, and no prizes for guessing which one I preferred. Tony Benn  has been an inspiration to me since I first became interested in politics at about 14 years old. There was a very good series on Channel 4 in 1987 or thereabouts called “The Writing On The Wall” which was the history of British politics from 1964 to 1981, focusing on the 1970s. Many politicians from the era were interviewed and I thought Benn came across better than just about anybody. The 1973 Labour programme with its promise of mass nationalisation of British industry captured my (retrospective) interest and at that time I wished the Labour party under Neil Kinnock would return to a radical Bennite programme. I was also a supporter of Benn when he ran for the Labour leadership in 1988 against Kinnock, but the Labour left was in decline by then and he lost badly. 

What really got me into Benn’s thinking were the extracts from his diaries – particularly the 1973-76 volume which covered his 16-month period as Industry Secretary where he attempted to implement the nationalisation strategy, not getting that far with it before being moved to Energy by Harold Wilson after threats from business representatives. The diaries really capture the feel of crisis that pervaded the country at that time, very similar to the post-2008 period in many ways.

Benn’s trajectory as a politician is interesting because in many ways he anticipated the failure of Blairism and New Labour 40 years early, because up until 1970 he was a proto-Blairite. There are interesting parallels between the 1964-70 Wilson adminstration and the course taken by New Labour, for example: the constant attempts to get friendly with business interests; the faith in an economic strategy worked out by backroom economic advisers; focus on ‘modernisation’ and faith in the “white heat of the technological revolution” and management consultants above all else; and a deepening alienation of the trade unions and the core working class vote. Benn went through all that as Postmaster-General and Minister of Technology, and came out of it convinced that the managerialist centre-left approach would never work. And in 1997 he saw it all again.

The more I think about it, the more that Tony Benn at the end of his life seems not an old man left behind by economic developments, but someone who foresaw many of those developments and – in the great crash of 2008 – saw capitalist crisis finally come to some kind of fruition. In a way, when he made his strange semi-putsch for the Labour leadership in 1981 (the deputy leadership – that always seemed an odd kind of revolutionary act), it was too soon – things hadn’t yet got bad enough for the Labour party, or the public, to realise that a turn to the radical left was what was needed. I feel we’re closer now but still not quite there yet. The ultimate collapse of the system has been staved off – maybe for a few years, maybe for a decade – by flooding the global economy with central bank liquidity and Benn didn’t live to see the revolution. But he has inspired so many activists and so much political dissent. The anti-war movement certainly, but also Occupy and the rest of the “new new left”, such as it is. Russell Brand (who apparently has a politics book coming out soon, which is good news) owes a lot to Tony Benn. As do we all.

I’ll be raising a large mug of tea tonight to one of the true greats. My thoughts are with all his family and friends, everyone who ever went to see him speak (there must be millions of us!) and anyone touched by his politics in any way.

RIP comrade.

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February 2014 Burning Lodge session

Great news: my February 2014 session for Burning Lodge is now available at Soundcloud.

For those who may not have encountered it before, Burning Lodge is an Immersion Composition Lodge. The idea is to nudge frustrated, confused, or apathetic songwriters into action by getting them to write and record an unfeasibly large number of songs (e.g. 12, or even 20) in 12 hours. The Immersion Composition Society website explains more.

I’ve been doing Burning Lodge for most of the last 7 years now and have recorded hundreds of tracks. Some of them are simply garbage, but there’s usually at least two or three good tracks in every monthly session. The great thing about immersion composition is that it forces you to cut the BS and just record STUFF. Or in my case, EMBRACE the BS and press record.

This month’s session was based around a piano which an elderly relative of mine, who has recently gone into a care home, very kindly donated to us. It was a session of two parts: the first part involved doing piano improvisations, recorded downstairs with a little Yamaha pocket recorder, and then the piano tracks were processed, treated and generally mucked about with in the upstairs studio. Additional synthesizer was added in many cases.

Track by track, we have:

1 – “Keith: Jar It.” My first piano improvisation was the only one that really made sense to me as a piece on listening back, so I decided to keep it as pure, unadulterated piano.

2 – “Coffee Compounded”. This actually uses the same piano track as the second half of “Keith Jar It” but gives the track some heavy processing courtesy of the Native Instruments Kore 2 soundpack Deep Freq (or maybe it was Deep Transformations, I can’t remember). Kore 2 is, IMHO, the best thing Native Instruments ever put out, and the fact that the company abandoned it in 2011 to focus on Maschine is a tragedy.

3 – “Blue Rubber Rooster”. Another Kore 2 processing of a piano track, this time using the preset “Blue Rubber Chicken” (hence the name). Even more bonkers than the previous track!

4 – “RM Seasonings”. The RM stands for ‘ring modulator’. I remember reading something in the Julian Cope book “Japrocksampler” about how some Japanese avant garde musician used piano going through a ring modulator in the 1960s so I decided to use the ring mod at a couple of different frequencies (overdubbed) in this case to see how it worked out. It sounded best with some of the original piano signal left in the mix.

5 – “Something Good”. Another Kore 2 setting – this one seems to transform the piano into a synth pad. Quite a bit of (intentional – at least that’s what I’m claiming…) distortion in the patch.

6 – “Another Turquoise World”. Title is a tribute to Eno, of course. This was actually a modular synth doodle that I’d intended to post up last month but never got round to. So I thought I’d stick it together with one of the piano improvisations. The crazy thing was, they go together quite well, particularly at the end of the piece where it sounds to me as if I’m reacting to what the synth plays, despite the fact that it wasn’t even there at the time. This track is my submission to the February 2014 edition of the 12in12x12 project, which brings together a number of immersion composition songwriters in a monthly compilation of their best tracks.

7 – “The Exeter Exciter”. This is the piano going through a complex patch involving 2 bandpass filters (from the Doepfer A-127 module if we want to get technical) and then fed into a Lexicon MPX-1 effects unit. There is a bit of (unintentional) distortion on some of this because I set the levels wrong and was running out of time so I didn’t get the chance to go back and do it again. Put through the Lexicon it’s amazing how much like the Yamaha CP70 electric grand the piano starts to sound like.

8 – “Modular Crimes”. Again this was a weird modular thing that I had floating around from last month. In fact this is the only track this month with no piano at all – it’s all synthesised.

So there you have it – a nice (albeit all instrumental) session. Maybe next month I’ll get back into singing (and guitar!)

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Some Moore books about Alan

Been reading a lot since the new year… partly this has been inspired by doing up our spare room, getting rid of the “workshop” looking shelves which were fixed to the walls and replacing them with Ikea bookcases. This involved some intensive bookcase-construction and book-sorting work over Xmas, but it was one of the few times of the year where I had several days of spare time in a row, so it was the right time to do it. Anyway, sorting out all the books (and taking a lot of old ones down the charity shop) reminded me that there were some I’d been meaning to read for a few years which I hadn’t read yet, and so I’ve been moving on to some of those.

At the same time I’ve been buying some new stuff too… in particular a couple of books on the writer Alan Moore. Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin is very good indeed based on the 75 pages or so I’ve read since buying it yesterday at the Brick Lane Bookshop (one of the best small bookshops in London for my money, and just down the road from the 24 hour Bagel Bake shop as well, for a tasty bonus!) I have read one book by Lance Parkin previously – it was Time Unincorporated Vol 1: The Dr Who Fanzine Archives which was a very interesting hotchpotch. Indeed most of Lance’s previous output appears to be Dr Who-related. Magic Words was written with full cooperation from Alan Moore and is certainly full of extremely quotable stuff from The Man Himself.

The other Alan Moore book I’ve been reading – well, actually it’s more of a serialised blog than a book – is The Last War in Albion by Dr Philip Sandifer. Phil is a humanities PhD who hasn’t managed to secure a job in academia (a situation I can fully sympathise with as my wife is in the same boat – there are just NO JOBS out there for newly qualified PhDs at the moment). So he blogs at the “Tardis Eruditorum” site which I will do a separate post on later this week as it’s deserving of its own post (or in fact many posts) – suffice to say this is the best Dr Who criticism I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a fair bit, believe me.

But The Last War in Albion is a multi-part blogpost about an ongoing literary war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (who produced “Zenith”, one of the all time high points of 2000AD comic, in the late 1980s, but has also done a lot of other work which I’ve never read). Phil posts a new instalment of TLWIA every week as far as I can see; the blog is also being compiled as a series of short books which are available on e-books (here is Part 1 on Kindle, other formats are of course available).

Although TLWIA is available for free online (with excerpts from the comics and graphic novels in question included), I’ve been buying the compilations because that puts some money in Phil’s pocket and hopefully makes it more likely that he will carry on writing this stuff. As I say he really is putting out some of the best critical writing on the Web at the moment, and the thought of this guy having to give up and get a job in the finance industry (for example) because of lack of funds would simply be an horrific loss. Tardis Eruditorum has also been compiled into books, both e-book and hardcover (for example, Phil has just updated the William Hartnell volume; the series goes up to the first half of the Tom Baker era at the moment, with the later Tom Baker and a combined Peter Davison/Colin Baker volume to follow later in 2014. On the blog he’s almost up to the 2009 David Tennant specials.

But we’re drifting off the topic of Alan Moore and I’ll have more to write about Phil Sandifer’s Doctor Who output another day. Suffice to say that anyone who is remotely interested in Alan Moore should check out Phil’s writing and the Lance Parkin book asap.

 

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SSD hard drives: a cautionary tale

Well, the return to work after the Xmas break started with a nasty surprise… my computer wouldn’t boot up. And it’s less than 2 months old.

I eventually traced the fault to the OCZ Vector SSD hard drive which was the boot disk in the system (in fact the only disk on the system; all the other hard drives are on an older computer in the next room which I’m running as a file server, for reasons that will become clear shortly). It had been working fine for 2 months and then gone – just like that. The BIOS wasn’t even seeing it as connected, suggesting that it’s completely kaput. I tried it in another computer and an external SATA caddy – still nothing.

So it’s on its way back to Scan computers – I requested a credit note against an alternative SSD from another manufacturer, but because it’s more than 28 days old they will only do a replacement (although they do say that they may be able to sort something else out if the replacement unit fails as well).

Having done some reading around it appears that the failure rate on OCZ solid state drives may be worse than other manufacturers – although I can’t find any totally reliable stats on this so I’m still a bit in the dark. I went with OCZ based on (I’ll be honest) price, and also the fact that I have an old 120 GB OCZ drive in my old computer and it’s been 100% fine for about 18 months.

Luckily I had a full backup of the drive taken only last weekend so I’ve lost very little – I guess this shows how important regular back-ups are.

It’s a shame because until this happened I was very pleased with the computer. It’s a desktop built for completely silent operation. CPU fan, power supply and case are all from the South Korean Nofan corporation and they all work brilliantly. I’m using the CR-80EH copper cooler which is basically a very large heatsink – large enough that no fan is required.

Why didn’t I want fans? Because I use this PC to record music and I was getting sick of fan noise – even relatively quiet fan noise – pushing up the noise floor. Now I’ve got a PC that’s as quiet as an iPad.

Processor is from Intel – it’s a Haswell i7 running at only 65W (the Nofan cooler is meant to be able to cool anything up to 95W but I wanted to leave a bit of headroom just in case). Anyway, it’s very fast and recording audio, running whatever plugins I want, is a breeze.

My OS of choice is Windows 7. Having seen Windows 8 in action on my wife’s computer there is no way I am touching that f***er with a bargepole. Preferably ever. By the time they remove Win 7 support (probably in about 2023 on my calculations) I’ll probably be doing anything on the zillionth generation iPad anyway and won’t need a PC except for strange experiments with Linux.

So that’s my cautionary tale for today… be careful of SSD drives. Particularly if they’re from OCZ. But obviously, YMMV.

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HNY 2014: Here comes some seriously random shit

Welcome everybody.

Due to some pretty chronic blogging inactivity I’ve decided to force activity on the blog by just blogging about whatever the hell I happen to be doing in the day (or perhaps during the week) when I write the posts, rather than trying to focus obsessively on music, gardening, politics or whatever. So this will mean a fairly random collection of shit to start off with, probably with 2 or 3 posts a week. On the upside at least SOMETHING will get blogged about every week, which is a whole lot better than a big fat zero. Based on my current activities, the sort of thing which might be blogged about could include:

  • old sci-fi paperbacks (my dad keeps giving me dozens of these from various charity shops, which I then read and return to the charity shop – we ain’t got the room for them)
  • Doctor Who (mainly classic series and the “New Adventures” novels, with occasional nods to the land of Capaldi)
  • music (all sorts but particularly obscure 70s synth stuff)
  • modular synths
  • virtual synths (PC or iOS)
  • guitars and various effects pedals etc.
  • politics (largely Green Party and much of what is to the left of it, with occasional backward glances at Labour)
  • allotment gardening (if I ever get time to go to the damn thing)
  • building computers (PCs especially)
  • homebrewing.

Well that’s a fairly eclectic list (or perhaps not), but by stringing together various random shit from all that, who knows? This might be a blog worth reading.

When time allows I am going to seriously pimp the blog colour scheme and layout as well… the current grey look is very dull. It’s a bit “Genesis of the Daleks”, if you know what I mean. Whereas we want more “Colin Baker’s coat.” Seriously headache inducing!

Keep it real folks.

Hal

 

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Some thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who

As something of a Doctor Who geek, I’ve been getting into the 50th Anniversary celebrations, and I was present and correct at the TV last night, 1970s-style, for the transmission of The Day Of the Doctor.

Was it any good? Well, fortunately, yes. I was extremely pleased that this wasn’t the kind of rather dumbed down script which the series had far too many of in Series 7. It will probably take a few viewings to take in everything that was going on, and that’s fine by me… the special will be a Blu Ray purchase at some point I’m sure, and it’s nice to be able to watch these things more than once without falling asleep.

(spoiler alert from this point on…)

Initially I thought it was a shame that Chris Eccleston didn’t want to take part but in fact it was a classic example of when a production limitation works in the series’ favour. The opportunity to introduce John Hurt as the War Doctor – an incarnation disqualified from being included as one of the Doctors due to the actions he took to end the Time War – resulted in a more powerful plot than if Eccleston had been the guy who pressed the button. And Hurt was absolutely superb. But then so were Smith and Tennant. Good to see Billie Piper back as well. And I was particularly pleased to see the “old new school” 2005-style gold daleks back in full effect rather than the silly car showroom ones introduced in Season 6.

There were a few potentially confusing loose ends floating around: for example, it’s not clear how this episode links up, if at all, with The End Of Time, where it was revealed that the Time Lord high council had been in hiding since the Time War (led by Timothy Dalton) – perhaps that will be resolved later. Also there seems to have been some kind of Zygon/human piece treaty being negotiated about two-thirds of the way through the story, but it was never heard from again.  In a way it’s surprising that it took the Zygons almost 40 years to make it back on screen, as they’re pretty cool monsters. Now then, any chance of the giant prawn from Invisible Enemy making a comeback? Or the cactus guy from Meglos? We can but hope.

I think the last Doctor Who blog I did on the old blog was on The End of Time4 years ago (that really does feel like the end of time, it’s soooo long ago….) and so this is an ideal chance to say what I think of Matt Smith. I think he’s been superb; he’s played the part like a cross between a mad professor and a geeky sixth former. Now that could have been a disaster, and on paper it sounds it would be a disaster, but in fact it’s been superb – for me one of the best, along with Tennant, T Baker, and Troughton (not necessarily in that order).

And speaking of Mr T Baker… “the curator”. Utter class, and a great way to end this landmark episode.

The other person I’d like to give an honourable mention to is Paul McGann, for a superb 7 minutes or so in the web minisode “The Night of the Doctor“. A taste of what might have been had BBC/Fox not stuffed up so royally in 1996. No idea if there is any chance of more McGann appearances, but it would be great if they were, as the guy is brilliant.

One last thing… the appearance of John Hurt has moved all the subsequent Doctors up 1 so that Peter Capaldi will now be No 13. Which means that, by rights, when he’s dead, he’s really dead… no more regenerations. (Unless we believe the bizarre line inserted by Russell T Davies that the doctor can actually regenerate 507 times… er yeah, right.) But certainly the writers will find a way out of that…

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Twitter/Facebook trolling: where are the boundaries of “free speech”?

I watched a documentary about internet trolls on ITV’s Tonight programme a couple of nights back – it was called “Fear and Loathing Online” and can be viewed here.

In itself the documentary was rather simplistic in the way that all 30-minute documentaries tend to be simplistic (it was the death of Panorama on the BBC when they cut it from an hour to 30 minutes, and ITV has also gone downhill since the days of World In Action (which I was particularly fondly disposed to since it used Mountain’s absolutely kickin’ “Nantucket Sleighride” as the theme music).

The most interesting bit was an interview with one of the leading trolls, a right-wing blogger who I’m not going to link to as I don’t want to give the guy any more publicity than he already has. However there was some unexpected local relevance to me as one  of my local papers, the Essex Chronicle, had a cover story about this troll: he lives in Braintree (only a few miles from me) and has apparently been forced to leave home because of death threats.

The troll had agreed to be interviewed by ITV for the programme. He was insistent that there was a clear boundary between ‘trolling’ and ‘cyberbullying’ with the former being legal and acceptable and the latter being illegal and unacceptable. The reason this guy was facing death threats was that he had posted messages about the Hillsborough disaster and the James Bulger case that had offended some people so much that those people had issued death threats against him.

He was very much of the opinion that tweets about the James Bulger case and the Hillsborough disaster were a case of acceptable free speech (he had found them “amusing”, apparently) whereas death threats were not.

It’s important to realise that the issue raised here is not one of “free speech vs censorship” but is actually about where to draw the line over what constitutes acceptable free speech and what doesn’t. This becomes pretty obvious if we imagine one of the people who made the death threats to the troll saying, “I found it amusing – the troll chose to take offence at it”. If the people who made the death threats had actually acted on them (e.g. attacked the troll, or the troll’s house) then that would clearly not be an issue of free speech but of criminal violence. But if these people are only making death threats – not acting on them – then it could be argued that this is just another manifestation of free speech. Particularly if they fell back on the defence that “it was only meant to be a joke” which is, after all, what the troll did when confronted about his Hillsborough/Bulger tweets.

Admittedly, if person A were to issue a death threat to person B and then claim a right to free speech to avoid any legal action being taken against him or her, that would be a pretty extreme definition of “free speech”. But to me it’s not much more extreme than the troll arguing that he has an unconditional right to post material which others may find offensive.

Similarly, the fact that some of the people who reacted very negatively to the Bulger/Hillsborough tweets posted the troll’s real name and address online (that was what gave the death threats force; it’s hard to send a credible death threat to an anonymous Twitter avatar, after all) gave the troll great concern, but once again the people who posted the address could argue that they were just exercising their right to free speech.

Overall, I have a strong predisposition towards free speech because of the way that governments and big business can use censorship to cover up their crimes and misdeeds. But the moral of this story is that there are actually very few advocates of unconditional free speech out there… the troll supported a notion of free speech that gave him maximum freedom to publish his “amusing” tweets, but stopped short of endorsing freedom for others to make death threats, or publish people’s names and addresses. So, in practice, he believed in censorship – he just drew the line in a way which was the most convenient for him. Useful to remember this next time you hear libertarians insisting on their right to offend.

 

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Hello Underground

Welcome to my new blog, which replaces three old blogs: giroscope, the golf ball and groscope. This blog will, at the moment, mainly be featuring music (particularly modular synth based) with occasional mentions of politics, gardening, and maybe even some other stuff thrown in. 

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