Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The music room (2)

It seems that I was slightly premature in uploading one of the pictures of my new music room - my wife did a little more interior decorating today.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The music room

The pegs which we bought last week have now been fixed on the walls and guitars have been hung on the pegs. So it's time to see what the music room looks like.

In the first picture are two mandolins, an autoharp, a Yamaha PSR-E 303 keyboard and a semi-acoustic bass guitar (influenced by Paul MacCartney's Hofner violin bass) which I've had since about 1980.
The only new instrument in this picture is my Avon copy of a Gibson SG, which I bought in 1976. The door leads to the bathroom.

Here we have the piano, Washburn semi-acoustic (in stand), Ovation acoustic (on wall), MIDI keyboard (on shelf), melodica (in case, at top), two amplifiers (on piano), and a few mini-instruments which are bronzes and not for playing.

Not pictured - because they are elsewhere in the house - are a violin (playable), an oud and the bagpipes.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sgt Pepper

I wrote a few days ago about an innocuous event which occurred 50 years ago, which later took on much more importance. A few days after that event happened another, whose importance was immediately recognised - the release of The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper" album. Like the inaugural Fairport gig, this too passed me by at the time....

I've been trying to recall when I first heard any of the songs on this album. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were well-known, as they were the double A-sided single which should have been on the album, but for the others, it seems that it was several years before I heard them. I definitely recall hearing "She's leaving home" at some stage during 1969, but without knowing what it was.

My English teacher in 1969, Mr Patten (who also taught PT and unfortunately died at an early age), once played for us "A day in the life" during a class. This would have been in the autumn term of 1969, as I remember that I and my classmates knew by then how to handle an album sleeve. He was illustrating the kinetic lyrics of the middle part ("Woke up, got out of bed"), before dissing the rest of the song.

When I first went to Israel in the summer of 1972, some of my friends amused themselves by singing all the songs from "Sgt Pepper"; I remember hearing the title song and thinking "aha, they're singing Sgt Pepper", but for me, this record was already passé. Back in Bristol, someone who sort of created a group with me (we never really played a gig) asked whether we could play "Lucy in the sky with diamonds"; I had seen the sheet music in a Beatles' song book and as it didn't seem too complicated, I said yes - without having heard the song, as it had been banned by the BBC. I think I eventually heard it in 1973, and when I did, I asked myself whether "this is that wonderful song that everyone has been praising for years?"

I get the feeling that I never heard the album in its entirety until I bought the cd in 1991. Now, a new deluxe two cd version has been released: the first has a remixed version of the original album, whereas the second contains out-takes and remixes of the single. I am still underwhelmed. Without deliberately trying to be contentious, my favourite song from the album is probably "It's getting better", followed by "Fixing a hole" and "She's leaving home", although all the songs are totally eclipsed by "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane". I enjoy most of the other songs but don't feel any real enthusiasm to listen to them, unless I've been reading (once again) how the tracks were created. Typically, it is the second disc which I find more interesting: hearing the backing tracks for "She's leaving home" and "It's getting better" without vocals, which reveal hitherto unknown details.

By 1969, when I started listening seriously to music and "Abbey Road" was the Beatles album, I still preferred listening to "Unhalfbricking" (Fairport) or the first Nick Drake album. It wasn't until John Lennon's death at the end of 1980 that I (and probably many more) started listening once again to The Beatles.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Fifty years of Fairport

27 May 1967. I was just a schoolboy in short trousers, a few months shy of my eleventh birthday, waiting out my final term at Henleaze Primary School before taking up my scholarship at Bristol Grammar School. At the same time, four young men walked onto the stage of a church in Golders Green, London: they had just begun calling themselves Fairport Convention. At the end of their show, another young man approached them and said that he could drum better than their current drummer; a tradition had set in right from the beginning of having a fluid line up.

I first became aware of Fairport at the end of 1969, from a magazine article entitled "Sounds of the 70s", in which the writer(s) discussed acts which were expected to achieve success in the 1970s. In the time between that initial show in Golders Green and the publication of that magazine article, a mere two and a half years, Fairport had already released four albums (a fifth, 'Heyday', featuring songs from this period would be released twenty years later), had recruited and released three singers, had suffered the misfortune of the van crash on the M1 in which the drummer died, and most significantly, invented the genre called 'Folk rock' - not the wishy washy American version, but full on rock treatments of traditional songs.

1969 was quite arguably the most successful year that Fairport had. The 1970 version lacked Sandy Denny, the 1971 version lacked Richard Thompson, and in 1972, the final remaining original member, Simon Nicol, left. Several very temporary line ups appeared under the Fairport name, but it seemed that the group had run its course - after five very full years. But no: Swarbrick and Pegg put together a new line up, combining forces with some of the survivors of Sandy Denny's Fotheringay, and a stable configuration appeared ... for about a year and a half. I didn't see the five member version, but I did see the group after Sandy returned.

That line up didn't last very long, and soon the group returned to the wilderness. I went to a festival in Southend sometime in 1976 which featured a very unusual line up - their picture appears on the sleeve of the atrocious "Gottle o'geer" record, but half of the people in the photo didn't play on the record. Fortunately, Simon Nicol (who engineered GoG) returned, and there was a very strong group for the years 1977-8, which I saw several times (including two times in the same week, when I finally met someone in the group). 

But by 1979, I had emigrated and the group folded - I know for a fact that my emigration did not play any part in the group's ceasing to exist. It wasn't until around 1986 that the group reformed and recorded "Gladys' leap". Although initially this was only a temporary group, Maartin Allcock and Ric Sanders soon joined to make a permanent group - which played together for an unprecedented ten years, at which stage Maart was replaced by Chris Leslie. A year later (1997), Dave Mattacks - drummer since 1969, although not during 1977/9, left, to be replaced by Gerry Conway (ex-Fotheringay). 

That line up is still playing, twenty years on! Full marks for longevity, but the sounds that they make are boring to my ears and only make me wish to hear the original recordings. 

So raise a mug to Fairport on their fiftieth birthday! They have been a part of my life for almost ever. It has to be said that their first ten years were so much better than the latter forty years.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Aroma AG-03M Rechargable Cube Guitar Amplifier

A 5 watt guitar amplifier sized 10X14X5 cm, with an onboard rechargeable battery and a clip which allows one to attach the amplifier to one's belt, and only costing $33, including postage? Sounds too good to be true - but there is such a device - the Aroma AG-03M Rechargable Cube Guitar Amplifier. At that price, one can't go wrong, even if the amplifier is a dud.

I ordered this device from DX in the middle of April, and it arrived the other day. Today I brought it home and tried it out. First, the battery had to be charged (with a USB cable, exactly like a mobile phone) - the documentation says that the initial charge should take six hours, but it seemed to be complete after about two.

So I turned it on, connected a guitar - and had my ears blown out. Once I turned off the distortion (this is the default setting), the volume was reduced greatly - a bit too quiet. But otherwise the mini-amplifier seemed to be fine, and certainly value for money. This makes it a fine practice amp (especially as one can move around with it) and maybe a busking amp, but not a performance amp.

As with all devices these days, it is possible to add a memory card. I naively thought that I could record onto the card, but it would seem that the card's function is to play stored songs back through the amp - i.e. turn it into an mp3 player. I don't have a spare memory card at the moment to verify this, but it would seem that one can't play back songs and amplify guitar at the same time - a bad design decision as this functionality would have improved the ability to practice along with music. There is a microphone socket (3.5mm) which presumably works in parallel with the guitar.

I wish I had something like this 45 years ago.

Incidentally, talking about guitars ... I was in a guitar shop the other day, in order to buy pegs from which I can hang guitars on the wall. There was a beautiful 12 string guitar there, apparently a Fender CD-160SE 12-String V-2: this has a good sound and is smaller than I had expected - very comfortable to play. As with all guitars these days, it comes with an onboard pre-amp, which allows one to connect the output to an amplifier (or effects). The price is a bit expensive for the moment (around $800), but I'm hoping to buy it for my birthday in a few months, especially if I can spread the cost over 10 payments (as I did for the guitar pegs and the piano chair that we bought).

Monday, May 22, 2017

Puzzle from the Guardian

This puzzle comes from here:

In each of the four sectors of the outer circle, there is a two-digit number which is equal to the sum of the three numbers at the corners of its sector. The numbers in the individual circles can only be 1 to 9 and each number can be used only once. One number has been provided to get you started. Find the remaining four numbers

Friday, May 19, 2017

In blissful company

The first inkling, like many others, came from the seminal Island Records compilation, "Nice enough to eat". After the rage, fury and musical precision of King Crimson had shattered into a thousand pieces, a jaunty bass riff took centre stage. The riff was taken up by other instruments, turned into the backing for a vocal section, leading into a long trippy guitar solo, followed by a chanting section and then returning to close the song. This was "Gungamai" by Quintessence, an ode to the river Ganges. The British underground meets the Indian sound. Listening to this song now, I realise that it is based on one chord.

In those days (1970), it could be very hard to find out about groups, especially the more obscure ones. One was limited to what appeared in the music papers - in those days, only the New Musical Express and Melody Maker (Sounds joined to make a triumvirate in 1971). It would never have occurred to me to request a press package from the record company. So Quintessence were very much an unknown quality.

Intrigued by this song, I found a single by Quintessence, entitled "Notting Hill Gate", whose lyrics seemed to be "We're getting it straight in Notting Hill Gate, we all sit around and meditate". When I found myself with a few hours spare in London in July 1970, I duly headed to Notting Hill Gate, trying to find this mysterious group but did not succeed. In the following year, I saw the group in the Victoria Rooms in Bristol and was so moved by the experience that I wrote a gushing letter to either their management or to the record company. I was even more moved when the letter appeared in Melody Maker the following week - betrayed, because the letter had been transferred to a third party, elated because I had a letter published in MM.

I bought the second album by Quintessence, which had a very elaborate sleeve. This record impressed me less than their opening salvo, as lyrically it was too religious and musically it was less exciting. My enthusiasm waned demonstrably when I heard the title track from their third album, "Dive Deep", and so all things Quintessence dropped from my radar.

A few years ago, I began trying to track down the music of my youth which fell outside of the axes of Fairport, Van der Graaf and Crimso. A surprise find yielded the first two albums of Quintessence, which is when I discovered that the version of "Notting Hill Gate" which I remembered was a different - shorter and poppier - arrangement to the one which appeared on their first album, "In blissful company". These days, I find that first album more interesting that the second.

It seems that I am not alone in my renewed interest in Quintessence: a few months ago, the online music magazine Siiye published an article about the group which was very interesting, as I never knew much of their background. Following that article, another website announced that their first three Island albums would be repackaged as a double cd, and sold along with a 48 page booklet in the near future. That near future is now and the double cd has landed.

The booklet - whilst informative to a certain extent, giving a potted history of their early days - is almost unreadable, being printed in white letters on a multicoloured background. The credits page is printed in black, but on a pink background, making it also almost illegible.

And the sound ... well, I have been listening to these albums in the past few years. The rhythm guitar, when isolated, is embarrassing in its sound, but fortunately it is kept mainly in the background. The real blooper is the opening track, "Giants", which starts with the rhythm guitar playing barre chords up and down the neck, followed by a cringe-inducing vocal, "Once there were giants". Fortunately, everything picks up after that; but why start with what might seem to be the weakest track?

The compilation, consisting of their three Island lps along with both sides of the afore-mentioned single, is called "Move into the light" - the name of the song on the b-side of NHG.

Monday, May 15, 2017

An unintended prophesy comes true

I am rereading Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" once again. I am 49% through the book, if anyone is interested, in a chapter entitled "Hoard". Randy Waterhouse is in a plane, flying from Manila to California. There is a paragraph which reads like the following (somewhat abridged, as I have to type this) ...

There are three messages from Kia, Epiphyte's only actual employee, the administrative assistant for the whole company .... It is some sort of a federal regulation that nascent high-tech companies ... must hire topologically enhanced twenty year olds with names that sound like new models of cars.

Obviously the above is another of Stephenson's jokes, but I don't think that he expected that one day there really would be a type of car called 'Kia'.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

DCI Banks - Wednesday's child

I wrote a few days ago about watching the televised version of this story. I had only seen the first half when I wrote - I was in for a surprise in the second half, when the story became almost a complete reversal of the original novel. It is clear that the relationship between the written word and the dramatised word is fast approaching zero.

Naturally, I had to read the novel again, especially as I remembered it as being one of the best of the early Banks novels - an arbitrary line drawn by the arrival of Annie Cabbot. This book features Superintendent Gristhorpe (Banks' superior) in a more active role than usual. It also mentions towards the beginning how Gristhorpe, as a young uniformed police officer, took parts in searches for the victims of the Moors Murders, and how he heard tapes of the perpetrators torturing children to the sound of carols - which turned him permanently off music from then on, always pretending to be tone deaf.

Which makes it very strange to read at the beginning of chapter 12 that "Besides, Gristhorpe was tone deaf; for all his learning, he couldn't appreciate music". This is a sentence which must have been written in a reflex manner; it's always something that comes up when Gristhorpe is mentioned. But as we know - having already read so at the beginning of the book - Gristhorpe is not tone deaf, he just does not like listening to music. This is a sentence which should have been removed by a sharp editor.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017


I warn in advance that this blog isn't going to mean much to anybody except myself, but it's therapeutic to get the following off my chest....

By chance, "You've got mail" was shown once again on the television of Saturday; I came home from walking the dog in the late afternoon and found my wife watching it. There's a scene early on, after Meg Ryan meets Tom Hanks at a party and discovers who he is, when Hanks writes the following: Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could pass all my zingers to you and then I would never behave badly and you could behave badly all the time and we'd both be happy? On the other hand, I must warn you that when you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.

I haven't had the dubious pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, but I did write an email to a fellow worker this morning saying that I am not prepared to compromise my principles by omitting data from a report. I also wrote that I was saddened by the amount of energy that this worker has spent trying to persuade me, and that this energy would have been put to better use in correcting the data which she doesn't want displayed.

Don't people understand that a principle of reviewing data is that everything has to be shown, warts and all? For the minute one sweeps bad data under the carpet, one loses the ability to see that something is wrong and then that something will never be corrected.

What's sad about this entire episode is that I feel terrible inside. And that's ironic: I feel bad because I did the moral thing and stood by my principles. I don't feel remorse at having written what I wrote, but I feel very uncomfortable and not sure that I can continue working with such people.

My manager (who is the CFO) supports me, but she's not the one who is fighting the battles in the trenches. I shouldn't have to fight at all.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Television detectives

I don't know why the British have a fascination with police programmes on television. As a child, I can recall watching "Z-cars", which was followed by "Softly softly". There was a tendency towards American shows during the 70s ("Starsky and Hutch" was required viewing), but the trend reverted to British shows during the 80s and 90s ('Morse', 'A touch of Frost').

At the moment, I am watching three different police programmes on television. 'Line of duty' - to which I have referred in the past - is now in its fourth season and is being shown here about one month after being shown in Britain, which is remarkable. This programme differs from others in that it shows policemen investigating policemen, as opposed to policemen investigating crimes. This is an excellent series, and one never knows what is going to happen. Apparently the show is scheduled for another two series.

Second up is 'Unforgotten', which is in its second series. This shows a unit which deals with cold crimes - murders committed thirty plus years ago. This is much more a drama series than a police procedural and as such is very well written. But looking beyond the story itself, one sees several items which deserve explanation. Such a unit in real life would normally be where unwanted or burned out officers are placed; the officers in this unit are young and good at their job (the researchers are exceedingly good).

The deputy chief has even been promoted from Detective Sergeant to Detective Inspector between the first and second seasons, but no explanation - or celebration - was mentioned. The home life of the deputy chief is also unexplained: he has two teenage daughters but no wife. It's not clear whether he is a widower or abandoned by his wife; if the latter, then it seems strange that a very busy detective would win custody - unless, of course, we only see his daughters when they are with him. But this doesn't seem to be the case. A good rule of drama is "don't add unnecessary complications": whilst these scenes are supposed to make the character more interesting, they also throw up unanswerable questions.

The third programme, which has just started being shown again, is the third series of my old friend, DCI Banks. I have carped enough about this programme in the past, but I won't be returning to any of my old criticisms. The story in the opening episodes is based on a one line description of one of the better earlier Banks books, but otherwise is a completely new invention. Thus I don't know where the story is going, and instead of complaining about how the original has been adulterated, I can watch the show with new eyes. My earlier complaint about the apparent continual stroppiness of the titular character has been answered: he is now much more calm, but the stroppiness has been transferred onto his subordinates, specifically DI Morton (a character invented for the screen presumably because the actress playing DS Annie Cabbot went on maternity leave) and DS Cabbot. I doubt very much whether police officers could continue to behave the way that DI Morton does without being reprimanded. As opposed to the other programmes mentioned here - and as opposed to the books - I can't see any special characteristic which defines this programme and differentiates it from others. This lack of differentiation lowers its value.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Priority tip: default parameter values

Procedural (and report) parameters in Priority have an admirable quality: they are maintained from invocation to invocation. Thus if I run a report which requires a date parameter and I enter today's date, that date will appear automatically the next time that I run the report. Most of the time, this is a good idea, but sometimes it is better to have predefined parameters - for example, a report will run on dates from 'the beginning of the previous month' until 'the end of the previous month'.

I am not aware of a method to do this in a standalone report, but it is simple to do this in a procedure: a parameter is defined with a default value in an INPUT step. In a second step (probably SQLI, but also INPUT: there seems to be little difference), the parameter is referenced again, marking its type as 'd' in the 'extensions' subform of the procedure step. This 'd' tells the report engine to use the default value provided and not the last used value.

This technique is fine for date and numbers, but someone recently asked me to prepare a report where the customer number has a default value. Customer numbers of course are stored in the customers table, so defining the parameter would not be the same as defining an unbound date or number. Originally, I had no idea how the request could be successfully answered, but then a few days later, I stumbled on the standard 'delete parts' procedure. This procedure presents an interface similar to the search bar of a web browser: the words 'enter search here' (or similar) are displayed automatically, but these words disappear when one starts typing. In the same manner, the 'delete parts' procedure presents the standard screen for entering a parameter, but displays 'enter part number' in the space for the part number. This is the technique which can be appropriated.

Again, the process has two steps: in the first step, a variable (NOT a parameter) is given a default value, e.g.
:DEFAULT = '11143';
Then in the screen where one defines the parameter for choosing customers, one enters in the 'value' field of the parameter the predefined value :DEFAULT. One also has to enter the 'extensions' subform and mark the parameter with type 'd'. The result of the above is that the customer number '11143' will be displayed automatically although it can be overwritten.

The above is not just an academic exercise: someone else complained that a given report wouldn't work - even though it worked perfectly for me (as usual). This is a clear sign of a problem with one of the parameters being passed to the report: it transpires that I listed a range of suppliers whereas this person left the suppliers field empty. I can now improve this report with the 'default parameter from a table' technique by giving the suppliers field a default value to ensure that the report always works (unless someone perversely deletes that default value from an invocation).