Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Pretty vacancy

Hi all,

If anyone knows of a junior Flash developer, someone young who wants to get started in the field of Flash work, or a freelancer with a bit of spare time to devote to some not-terribly-taxing work, push them my way. I suppose that location doesn’t really matter, unless you’re after the full-time position. Then it’s Hertfordshire, UK, people.

It’s time to expand and the work is getting beyond me now.

I’ll be asking on FB too.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Apart from being ill, which rarely improves my mood, I’ve just finished reading the excellent Moon Dust by Andrew Smith (boy, did we ever get a better cover than the US release!), in which he tracks down the nine remaining men who actually set foot on the moon during the plainly bonkers period of the Apollo missions. Hate it when a good book comes to an end, however unavoidable it obviously is.

Apollo and Concorde. Two examples of where we’re heading technologically backwards.

Ho hum.

Friday, August 17, 2007

That ain’t workin’

I know I ought to be working on the various bits of Flash programming for one of our healthcare clients, but the more I work on the TN tunes, the more easily I can find reasons to be tinkering with them, finding new sounds or a different slant on them to offer the rest of the guys when we meet up for official rehearsals in a couple of weeks.

Usually, my role as Tactical Work Avoidance Officer sees me clearing out another host tower in Oblivion or completing a quest in the huge world of Tamriel (if you don’t know what I’m on about, think yourself lucky that you’re not a computer geek like me...). Now, however, I seem to be neglecting my duties as a sword-wielding adventurer, saving the virtual world of Tamriel from certain doom, and instead find myself wondering whether I could replace a particular synth sound with something else, whether a part could be changed or removed entirely, or if I could somehow surreptitiously fit a banjo solo in somewhere.

Okay, that last bit was stretching it somewhat, but you get the picture.

Even though I’m learning other peoples’ parts (oo-err), there’s much fun to be had working out the tunes. Obviously, I’d never listened to them in this manner before, and I’m discovering some real gems tucked away in the arrangements. If there’s anyone reading this that’s a TN fan from way back and that is going to be at the gigs, fear not. The songs are NOT going to unrecognisable caricatures of their earlier incarnations. Some have so little need of input from me in terms of arrangement, and stand up on their own. Others need a little coaxing to emerge into the light, while a few need a damn good thrashing to sort them out. ;-)

Now, apart from putting that always-tempting banjo well out of reach, I need to remove two desks from my studio in order to put together a live keyboard/bass/guitar setup that isn’t the size of Mount Olympus. TTFN...

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Some of the most defining moments in TN history, certainly from the point of view of an audience member, would have to be found in a couple of large tracks, Sequences and Creepshow. The former is over sixteen minutes long, with the latter weighing in at around twelve.

Both are lyrically involved, with dark and intense subject matter, and both lent themselves to the theatricality of the frontman (whether it was Andy or Geoff) becoming the conduit for the story. While Creepshow is ostensibly about the abnegation of individual free will to that of the state in the form of meek compliance and acceptance of one’s role in society (see 1984’s media manipulation and restriction of information), Sequences took the subject of the Great War to illustrate a similar theme. Without detracting in any way from the horrific sacrifice of the individual, it went for the jugular of the will of the state, which fed an entire (and sadly willing) generation into the uncaring abbatoir of war.

I could be wrong, but I think we’re seeing the same thing happening to young Americans/Brits/‘westerners’ and a section of the followers of Islam that have both been persuaded that killing each other is a ‘patriotic duty’ that overarches any kind of personal or individual respect for freedom. From the lyric of Sequences:
If hate and war could solve anything, don’t you think they’d have solved it a long time ago?
Though there are many excellent songs about war, this one (and that line in particular) rings true. I remember quoting it to Frank, who had been through the farce of Operation Market Garden in Arnhem and, after a pause with a faraway look in his eyes, he just nodded.

So, whether you’re an atheist like me, or you have some holy book you read out of for comfort or guidance, isn’t it about time that we all started playing nice? Especially if we consider ourselves to be in any way evolved...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Plastic fantastic

So far, I’ve managed to procure five of the nine pieces of the fairing for the bike from around the world.

The even better news is that, apart from one of them, most of the missing plastic bits are either quite small, or are supposed to be a different colour from the rest of it.

Of course, this was all a lot easier when the task was to find any fairing panels at all in the right colour. As it narrows down to just one or two, I’m sure it’s going to drag on and on. But still, I’ve got a bunch of old panels that I’m painting up in a suitable colour that will do until it gets dressed up in the proper outfit.

Hurrah, the path back to rideability is slowly getting shorter. ;-)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tally ho!

Today in the UK, there is a story rolling around in the news-bucket about a video that has been made by some ex-pupils from a public school (Non-Empire Citizens, this means a private school. Sorry, I don’t make the rules, just report them in all their idiocy). In this video, some youths are getting ready for the hunt. This involves sitting on a horse in a red coat, being terribly posh and sipping champagne. They then set out on the hunt for what would normally be a fox or other small and generally insignificant creature (I use that in the sense of scale, not worth).

What’s different this time is that they are out hunting chavs. Chasing them across fields (though I wouldn’t imagine that a genuine chav has any idea what a field actually is) and eventually gunning them down in glorious slow motion. Well, the last bit is actually just them leaping about a bit. There’s no blood. Pity...

This has, in typical British fashion, caused a furore among the chattering classes who, when confronted with any perceived dig at the proles, react with wide-eyed (and tiresomely predictable) outrage.

The big problem with this reaction is twofold.
  1. The video was made by kids from (relatively) privileged backgrounds, yet the kids playing the chavs (let’s not forget that this is FICTION, by the way) are also from the same school. It was done to raise a few laughs and is not the beginning of some kind of class war. If there was one afoot, I’d contend that it had already been started by the chavs and the middle- to upper-classes had only just realised they ought to turn up and do something.
  2. This story broke in the same week that a father of three was beaten to death by teenagers outside his own home, after attempting to get them to stop breaking windows in the digger parked in his own driveway.
So, I think there might just be a problem of perspective on the part of “outraged of Islington”. Once the scruffy herberts who think that ‘violence proves you’re a man’ stop acting like packs of wild dogs on the streets, perhaps the odd humorous video might be seen as just that and not the end of the world (yet again).

I thought it was rather well-made actually. A couple of pieces to look out for: When one of the chavs is pinned down on the ground, the solitary “hunt dog” is giving his arm a friendly licking rather than being terribly savage in any way, and the occasional giggling going on by the “chavs” as they run past the camera. Nice choice of music too.

I have to wonder, had this been a sketch on Rory Bremner’s show, Catherine Tate’s, or the redoubtable John Stewart’s Daily Show whether it would have caused any outrage whatsoever. Guess that’s the power of celebrity - we can’t have amateurs knocking this stuff out, can we?


Argh, my brain is starting to fry with learning the keyboard parts for the Twelfth Night gigs. ;-)

Try as I might, and I’m making copious crib-notes here, some of the parts are starting to blur into each other. One of the major difficulties is that there are constantly at least two versions of any given tune running through my head.
  1. The original version. This is the one I’m attempting to pull parts from by ear. Though I’ve got a bunch of notes to help me (thanks, Clive!), it’s realistically more easy for me to zip backwards and forwards through a tune and dissect it, before working out the sounds that most closely resemble those used at the time of recording.
  2. The “live” arrangement. This would be me sat down, thinking, “well, I can’t play that, that AND that as well,” so I need to work out what can actually be played by a keyboardist with less than six arms, and what are the most relevant parts for live performance.
  3. The “this century” version. This is the trickiest one for me. Not wanting to butcher the songs, but seeing the screaming great holes where FEEL is missing or where a section is crying out to be instrumentally rearranged to bring out the best in the tune. I’m also not really in the market for pissing off the rest of the guys in the band by breezing in and saying “No no no, do it like this, it’s much better than the way you ever did it before I came along”. That’ll go down like a lead balloon full of plague and herpes. That said, there’s a particular tune which, in my notes, I’ve christened the Twelfth Night Christmas Special as it’s a disturbingly Yule-tastic ballad, with enormous Phil Spector-like strings and (over) production. Rather than attempt to go bonkers sequencing a huge string section (which is unlikely to be played in time with live), I suggested stripping it down to a two-guitars-and-singer basic arrangement, bringing out the simple elegance of the song, and letting the singer not have to compete with eight hundred violins sawing away in the background. And that, it seems, is how we’re going to be doing it. He’s got a good voice and it also adds a lovely bit of light and shade to the set.
Harrumph. We’ll see how well the other ideas go down at the end of the month. Back to a bit of Flash programming for clients to take my mind off it...

Friday, August 10, 2007

In the margins

Traffic congestion, as even the most startlingly retarded and web-fingered amongst us ought to be able to recognise, is becoming worse.

Solutions, such as they are, usually involve massive (and therefore expensive and environmentally damaging) road-building schemes which, during the time they are carried out, cause even more congestion and usually end up ‘solving’ the problem for only about six months. If at all. And this doesn’t even touch on rail ‘solutions’ (read ‘cock-ups’).

One of the slightly more forward-thinking attempts at alleviating the road congestion in the UK has been the advent of Bus Lanes, which pretty much didn’t exist when I was a kid. Eleventy trillion years ago.
Though not exactly a revolution, they are at least an attempt to persuade punters to not use a car for a journey that they can clearly see a bus making in a tenth of the time at rush hour. All niggles aside (like traveling at a time when children are allowed to use the damn things, our unique British way of needing the imagined privacy of our own car and not wanting any involvement at all with other people whatsoever, etc.), they are generally a good move and enable public transport to keep moving when other traffic is at a standstill.

Another way of cutting through traffic, especially like that shown above, is on a motorcycle. Filtering through the stationary lines of cars at a few miles an hour, intently watching for the jerk who changes lanes without seeming to find the indicator or mirrors that I’m damn sure were fitted to his/her car, can get you to your destination without adding in any way whatsoever to the congestion.

Which, circuitously, brings us back to Bus Lanes. Currently, in almost all parts of the UK, all other motorised vehicles are forbidden from using Bus Lanes. Restricting cars and trucks I understand. If there are enough of them, they just fill up the lane and the bus can’t get through. But bikes? Why? Unless there was a sudden failure of the electrics on all the bikes in a big rally (actually, if you had a big bunch of Harley Davidsons, that is a distinct possibility...) it’s rather unlikely that a broken-down or even illegally parked bike would cause much of an obstruction to a bus. Besides, the primary use of any vehicle is to get to the destination, so they would naturally keep moving. As you can see from the picture above, taxis are able to use the lanes, so how come bikes are not?

Recently, a petition on the government’s website was started:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Allow the use of “Bus Only” lanes by scooters and motorcycles throughout the UK.
Generally stated, the idea is that we (bike riders) should be able to use the bus lanes without risk of penalty at any time of the day. Bikes (unlike taxis) don’t contribute to congestion, so it ought to be a no-brainer.

Here’s the eventual, timid-as-fuck, buck-passing reply (my emphasis).
“The Government recognises that motorcycling has become increasingly popular and offers a number of benefits.

Bus lanes are the responsibility of the relevant highway authority. In February 2007, The Department for Transport issued new guidance in the form of a Traffic Advisory Leaflet 2/07 on “The Use of Bus Lanes by Motorcycles”. This makes clear to local highway authorities that it is open to them to decide whether or not to allow motorcycles to use bus lanes and encourage them to make an objective assessment of the issue.

The new guidance revises the previous Department for Transport’s advice on bus lanes, Local Transport Note 1/97: Keeping Buses Moving, which recommended that motorcycles should not normally be permitted to use bus lanes.”
So, they’ve sort of vaguely told local highway authorities to sort it out for themselves. Not recommended that they take it as the default position, just “made it clear” to local highway authorities to, erm, decide for themselves. Wow, tough stuff, eh? And just how are motorcyclists going to be able to work out whether a particular local authority is allowing or restricting usage? “Offers a number of benefits”. What? Like free healthcare and a two-for-one offer at the movies?

This is just one of those “Look at us, we had a meeting about it. Aren’t we great? Bet you didn’t have a meeting.” statements, stringing a bunch of English words together into something that looks like a coherent sentence, but is suspiciously free of meaning.

What staggers me even more is that there was, in 1997, a document drafted and passed, called “Keeping Buses Moving” that actually recommended that bikes not be allowed to use the lanes. This implies that someone somewhere actually took the time to think about it and came up with the addle-pated conclusion that somehow bikes would slow buses down. I’d love to know how.

When debating this, generally it actually has to be stated (and I’m not kidding here) that the subject is about bus lanes being used by traffic traveling in the same direction as the buses. Dear god...

Back in 2005, Baroness Hanham tried to raise an amendment in the House of Lords:
“My Lords, I return to the discussion that we had in Committee on the possibility of motorcycles using bus lanes. Primarily that would deliver important improvements in road safety, particularly for motorcyclists themselves. Moreover, increasing the safety of motorcycling would perhaps encourage more people to take up this environmentally friendly alternative to the car, which in turn would make significant contributions to the alleviation of local traffic problems.”
A good point, well made, to which Baroness Crawley came out with this platter of fresh tripe:
“As noble Lords will know, the purpose of designating bus lanes is to give priority to buses over other classes of traffic. The more other motorised vehicles are allowed to use those lanes as a statutory entitlement, the more their purpose becomes devalued. I am sympathetic to the principle of improving facilities for motorcyclists, including their use of bus lanes where appropriate. Local authorities have powers to allow other vehicles to use bus lanes if they consider that it would be desirable, and probably a minority of local authorities are pursuing that practice. We do not have the exact figures of the number of local authorities that allow motorcyclists to use bus lanes, but as the noble Baroness has said, the provision is there for local authorities to take up.”
So, allowing the use of bus lanes by vehicles which cause infinitesimal to no congestion and are much more environmentally friendly than cars would “devalue the purpose” of the bus lane? What utter drivel. I contend that buses and bikes could easily co-exist in the same space without the latter holding up the former in any way. And I’m itching for some car-industry-financed whore to attempt to prove otherwise...

Fobbing the responsibility off to scattered local authorities will result in a patchwork of confused permissions for bikes to use bus lanes and a slew of court cases featuring bikers disputing their fines, on the basis that there was no clear signposting, that will reveal the policy to be another ill-thought-out mess by an over-timid government which seems unable to apply common sense to a clear-cut situation.

Also, you have to think of the other road users’ need to know that a bike is supposed to be in the bus lane. Paramount in this is informing pedestrians. I for one wouldn’t like a kid from one area, where bikes are prohibited from using the lanes, staying at a relative’s place and getting injured by running out into the bus lane when a bike is approaching. The rider will also get hurt, by the way. You don’t plough through things and drive off on a bike...

Back to Baroness Hanham, bless her:
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. I am slightly disappointed because I thought that in Committee we were probably opening a little door to what seems to be a perfectly sensible proposal for road safety. I understand that local authorities may have their own views on this but, equally, I understand that there is consistency in most road usage. However, there is no consistency about buses using bus lanes. While it is not a matter for this amendment, noble Lords will be aware of many occasions when buses have been not in the bus lane, which takes at least half the width of the road, but in the motorists’ part of the road. So some even-handedness is required.
Hear hear, as they say. Sadly, her attempted amendment was forced to be withdrawn. It has taken a public petition to even get this tiny change in the position of government. I’m confused, don’t they work for us?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Mark Spencer, reanimator

I’ve got one of these in my back garden. Not exactly what you’d call a super-duper new cutting-edge, racing thing, but a solid old sports-tourer (with the emphasis on the tourer, not the sport). The bits of the bike that look black in the photo above (such as the tank, fairing and front mudguard) are actually a rather fetching dark metallic navy blue*.

*Which I have since discovered is called “Prussian Blue Metallic” by Suzuki.

For those interested, the GSXF750 (or GSX750F, depending on how your bike was painted) is a detuned GSX-R (R is for racing) 750 engine in a more pedestrian frame, and a much more comfortable riding position for doing anything other than screaming about at a billion miles per hour. I’ve been to Scotland a couple of times on the old girl, and she’s always been a good ride (no sniggering at the back there!).

Sadly, money and the need to transport more gear than I could on a bike (plus the shitty bike weather for most of the year and having had spinal surgery) meant that she got put under a cover and pretty much abandoned. I’d spent some time amateurishly attempting a respray in a brighter metallic blue, but it was always going to be a bit of a botch-job, as it was being conducted out in the open in the back garden, in some of the windiest weather we’d had for a while...

So, sadly, a most enjoyable bike was left to rot. Every once in a while I’d lift the covers to show someone what it was like, and as the years progressed, the wrapping of cobwebs underneath the thick cover had enveloped her even more. She was less in a slumber and more in a coma from which it seemed I’d never have the time or resources to revive her.

Five years ago, eBay was not the thing it is now. Getting hold of parts for an old bike that Suzuki haven’t made in years is now a distinct possibility. That, plus finally finding gaps in the work schedule to do things for myself (like go to Canada, buy the occasional new guitar and so forth) meant that I was gradually clearing a backlog of “things to do”. The red bike, which I’ll take a shot of soon, was hauled out of its two-year stupor and got back on the road. The car, which had been misbehaving more and more, was finally serviced and put back in order. I also finally had a shed of a decent size, which I’d always planned (dreamed) might be put into service as a workshop to “fix up that old blue thing”.

I also have a pressure-washer now so, armed with that, wearing my overalls, goggles and gloves and with a selection of brushes, detergents and de-gunging liquids to hand, I gingerly peeled off the dirty old cover and revealed a very sorry-looking wreck of a bike. A thick layer of grey webbing had pretty much enveloped it and made removing the cover a pretty unpleasant task.

I set about it with the pressure washer in order to make it clean enough so I could find the bolts to undo the plastic panels of the bodywork and remove the seat and fuel tank. As soon as that was off, I then had to clean it all over again as the removal had just revealed more hideous crap and snail droppings from where things had crawled into the frame and taken up residence. Once that was done, the front and rear light assemblies came off to be cleaned and have their rust spots removed.
As you can see, she’s looking deeply sorry for herself (as you probably also would, having a naked picture paraded around the internet by your owner), with the removed pieces scattered about all over the garden and tucked away in the shed (unless they’ve been thrown away). However, even in this state, the rear wheel has cleaned up shockingly well, the carbs seem to be moving freely and all the lines and hoses appear to be intact. eBay has provided me with a couple of parts of the bodywork in a pristine, never-been-fitted state, so I continue to scour the auctions for the odd bit and piece (let’s hope the remaining bits of plastic don’t take me five years to source!) that I discover I need as I go.

It’s going to be a long project (the red bike needed three days of cleaning alone before it was back on the road), but it stops me from being sat in front of a computer all day and gets me out doing something with my hands that I find very therapeutic. Plus, with a little bit of help from eBay, I reckon I can bring her back from the dead. She deserves a few more years of fun before shuffling off to the scrapyard, just like me.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The black keys are the loud ones, right?

This morning, I will mostly be sitting down and working my way through the tunes I have to learn in order to get through the first real rehearsal in September in one piece without eliciting a smack in the mouth from the other band members for being, well, crap.

Martin Orford, the (very talented) keyboardist and founder member of IQ, summed up the art and mystery of the keyboardist’s duties thus:
Keyboards is easy. I mean, you can play keyboards when you’re drunk. The low notes are one end and the high notes the other end.
No-one likes a smart-arse, Martin... ;-) Actually though, he’s right. All the clues as to what to play are right in front of you - go right for high notes, go left for low notes. The difficulties with this gig are much the same as they would be for a guitarist, drummer, bassist or singer, coming to a series of tunes with parts already recorded by someone else, viz:
  1. The parts themselves are not natural. Though they fit with the song, another person’s rhythms are always hard to decipher. What seems natural and ‘obvious’ to me will not be so to someone else and vice-versa. I work as a musician very much based on the feel of the constituent parts of a piece. It will seem very stilted until it finally gels in my head. And may take some time to do so.
  2. Many of the parts were recorded in the 1980s. This means that, in some areas, horrid keyboard stabs and some pretty ghastly preset sounds were used. This is in no way to denigrate the band themselves, merely the time in which these things were recorded. Fuck me, we all used to think that orchestra stabs (which reached their nadir on Paul Young’s Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down) were a good idea at one point. One only has to listen to Muse, Radiohead, Coldplay, Porcupine Tree, Keane and Mansun (among many others) to hear how the textural use of sounds has evolved across the years. Thank christ...
  3. Live gigs are not the same as recorded tracks. I know that seems to be stating the obvious, but too many bands attempt to faithfully reproduce exactly what was recorded in the studio live. Recording and gigging are very different things. When playing live there is an audience. Again, this sounds bloody obvious but, as a band, your duty to the audience is to put on a show, not to please yourself with how many notes-per-second you can get into a solo or how high you can sing, or any of the many other unforgivable “muso” indulgences. Most of the parts I’m working on are undoubtedly reproducible live, but many of them will be changed. Not just because “I want to”, but to improve what the audience get to hear and see, as well as to let some more important parts, simultaneously played by other band members, to breathe a bit.
  4. Some of the parts are simply not very good. I don’t mean technically, as they’re all in time and in tune. It’s just that there are some of them that crowd out other features of the songs (see point 3), as well as some that fight against the tone of the song that they sit within. This applies almost equally to some of the drum parts which, at times, unnecessarily follow the riff of a tune, instead of offering a backdrop for the riff to stand against. Back to the keys, there is a song, essentially about fascism, which really requires some Marilyn Manson-esque soundscapes, rather than the parts already existing. So, I’m coming up with new stuff to help bring a bit of ‘edge’ to this and a good few other tunes.
  5. I’m trying very hard not to buy a huge bunch of new gear with which to do a few gigs and then not be able to find a use for afterwards. Most of my keyboard sounds are generated by plugins within my various computers, so having a big pile of rack units is a bit on the redundant side. That said, computers have a gleeful ploy of nose-diving at the most inopportune moments, and these little sods will most likely leave me soundless right at the moment I have to leap into a big, pivotal part in a tune. Hmm, tricky. So, I’m keeping one eye on a few things on eBay for possible purchase, god help my bank accounts...
Fortunately, as long as I don’t eviscerate what any of the tunes essentially are, I’ve at least got a free rein to bring something new to the table. The guys are open to suggestion, though a couple don’t seem to have heard any new bands in the last twenty years (certainly outside of prog-land), so it could be a bit of an uphill struggle to find common reference material... ;-)

With regard to point 3 above, in the panoply of neo-prog bands around at the same time as us, there were two camps. One lot that wore cheesecloth shirts, patched jeans, long frizzy hair and studiously stood around, playing deeply anorak-y, yawn-worthy, earnest music and the second lot who, though playing reasonably technical stuff, tended to show more than a passing interest in make-up, ‘stage clothes’ and general leaping about, putting on a show. The band I’m joining may well have had a cheesecloth era, but they certainly weren’t like that by the time I knew them. Make-up, spandex and beads in the hair were all part of their show, along with the liberal use of props for the singer for some of the more ‘epic’ numbers. I was also a spandex devotee (fear not, I’m far too old for all of that now, it would just be too embarrassing for words) and had by far the most outrageous haircuts of any of the prog frontmen of the time.

Rest assured, I won’t be looking much like this again (that’s me on the right). I simply don’t have the hair any more...

Nice earrings...

There’s also a large chunk of inertia to fight on my part. Not that I don’t want to do the gigs, but it means ripping apart my studio setup to even rehearse, a task that shouldn’t take too long to do, but ages to put right. Then again, that has usually meant that I put it back together in a more usable fashion, so I should probably be grateful. Or something.

Today, now that I’ve shut up a couple of my major clients by throwing tons of work back at them, I’m going to be sorting through the tunes, attempting to work out whether I can do them all with the gear I have, without tying myself in knots or wrecking my studio to do so. I’ll keep you posted...