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Category: General Musings (page 2 of 2)

Sometimes I just ramble…

My Life Has a Soundtrack

A Quick Starting Note…

I plan to link to a whole bunch of music to go with this post. It’ll probably all go at the end as a massive lump until I rejig my content management system to let me conveniently link to music in a more sensible way… which may or may not ever happen. It’s not the focus of this blog, after all. If there’s not a small bunch of music links at the end, bear with me and they’ll be along eventually. There’ll probably be links in the body too…

In the meantime, here we go…

My Relationship With Musical Talent

Conspicuous by it’s absence

I’ve never had quite the relationship I’d like with music. I like to think of myself as a put-upon musician, in that I’ve never yet found a musical instrument that doesn’t hate me.

As it stands, I’ve attempted to get somewhere with a violin, a piano or keyboard, electric or accoustic guitars, bass guitar and drums. No luck. I seem to have the musical talent of a whelk. On top of that, please never,ever ask me to sing. The geneva convention probably prevents me from doing so, and if it didn’t, I’m sure they’d rectify the oversight shortly afterwards. Of course, I still attempt some form of music every once in a while.

I’ve come close to being able to make vaguely decent noises come out of guitar, bass and keyboard… but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play them in any reasonable capacity. Guitarists are usually expected to be able to play more than the first few bars of the intro to “wish you were here”, or to be able to make the guitar do what they want without causing pain to all in the vicinity. I had a slightly better go with a keyboard, and actually managed to work out the start of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” by ear alone… which a) I’m unduly proud of, considering it’s not exactly complicated and b) absolutely certain that I’ve since forgotten.

I finally understood what the hell was going on with a guitar (and similar stringed instruments) after an awesome presentation on the physics and technology of the guitar at BarCampLondon a while back (which I mentioned in another blog post nearer the time – If I remember, I might come back and link to my writeup about it). I still can’t play a guitar, but I understand them a lot more about how they work than I did. With time and patience, I reckon I could probably play some form of stringed instrument for a particular style of music. Not a style I reckon many folks would listen to, admittedly, but I reckon I could.

Likewise, it was experimenting with a keyboard after knowing a bit of physics and maths that made me finally get how they behave. It was also messing about with chords on a keyboard that made chords on a guitar start making more sense to me. Not because of how you play them, but because it’s easier to pick up on the relationships between the strings and how the waveforms interact.

As for rhythym, it was messing about with a cheap electric drumkit that made me finally get how some of that stuff worked. I couldn’t quite make my limbs behave enough to give it a proper go, but I got a much better idea of how drums work and what’s involved in playing them. it’s something I may eventually go back to when I have more space and more free time. I could carry a very, very basic rhythym, but I couldn’t do anything more complex than that.

But, even with all of that, I don’t think I’ll ever be a musician.

Can’t create, but can appreciate

I may not be able to play music in any meaningful way, but I can sure as hell appreciate it. My continued attempts to learn to make instruments make noises other than “cat put through badly oiled shredder”, “drums dropped down liftshaft” or “monkey trapped beneath piano lid” also give me more and more respect for the talent I do hear.

When I find something I like, I want there to be more of it. Which means more people need to support those artists right now, before they go away. I’ve always tried to build enthusiasm around the music that I like and spread it around. It’s a way of ensuring that a band gets a bit of reputation and survives.

How things used to be…


Very little music I like gets airplay. This has always been the case. In the past, there used to be a rock show every friday on the radio… which would play rock & metal for four hours, from eight until twelve. That was it. There were a couple of other shows, and a couple of other stations, but they mixed to good stuff in with so much utter arse that they weren’t worth bothering with. There were also a couple of TV Shows that did me some favours, for the brief time they were around, and when I got the chance to watch them… shows like snub-TV or, on certain weeks, when they had the indie or rock charts, The Chart Show.

The problem was that I didn’t have my own TV – just the one in the front room, so when I wanted to watch music shows, my folks were usually sat right there with me. I had a tape deck of my own, but that required me to have found and bought music. Which I couldn’t easily do if I couldn’t listen to it first to find it.


The problem I always used to have was that it was really difficult to discover bands, or to evangelise about a band or a song. You could hear it at random, and you could tell people about it, but you couldn’t just point at it and say “listen to this, right now!”. You had to wait for the radio to play it, usually with two fingers at the ready on the tape deck so you could record it, give the tape to your friends and tell thim “this is the one I meant” – because the chances were that the local record shop wouldn’t have it unless it was already popular. Considering a lot of the stuff I liked was never really going to get as far as popular (or had long since ceased to be so) I was unlikely to get very far. I knew there was an underground scene, but living away from cities made it largely inaccessible to me. You also couldn’t really try tapes before you bought them, and they weren’t cheap. If I saved for two or three weeks, I could afford a tape.

The problem comes a little from my rarified tastes. There’s not much “popular” music out there that I like very much. There never really has been. The closest I got was in the 80s with some of the hard-rock, metal and goth stuff, and the 90s with a bit of the shoegaze and indie stuff and, on a different tack, some of the ambient or celtic stuff.

Tastes & Clubs

I can appreciate a fair amount of music that does get airplay for what it is, but I don’t necessarily like it. I won’t say it’s bad… art is subjective, after all. I will, however, say very firmly that most of it’s just not to my taste. It’s not meant to be. Overweight ex-goth-metaller-indiekid-prog-rocker guys in their mid-thirties aren’t usually the target audience for pop music… especially if they’re ardent two-left-feet-that-don’t-even-work-right non-dancers like me, so aren’t interested in dancing to stuff at clubs. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate some club music in the right circumstances – which are generally when I’m rocking the lighting controls for the club and getting caught up in the vibe of the room. I did a fair bit of that to fund myself through university, and grew to appreciate a lot of different music for different reasons. I wouldn’t listen to all of it, but I can appreciate the atmosphere it can create in a club. Even as a non dancer, I can, in the right circumstances, get caught up in a good club night if the DJ is good at their job and I’m running the light show to follow the music. I can pick up on the vibe of the room and find myself getting lost in it. It doesn’t even have to be music I like – it just needs the right atmosphere in the room.

But my music – the music I li
ke – isn’t really club music. Not all of it anyway – some of it is, but usually for a different kind of club.

Music Archaeology

I’ve spent a long time finding my music via recommendations from friends, which have usually had around a one-in-three success rate if the friends know me and my tastes pretty well. Some friends have a better hit rate than others, of course, but that’s to be expected. I have tastes that have traditionally been a little outside the mainstream. On top of that, bands I like have a long habit of breaking up due to label shenanigans (or just plain falling out with each other) and scattering into a selection of new bands, with no breadcrumb trail to let you follow them. They also have a habit of doing it just after I’ve found them. I am become death, destroyer of bands!

The bands that don’t follow the “explode as soon as discovered by Eggwhite” pattern do tend to hang around, but don’t usually release music on a particularly punishing schedule. An album every few years, if I’m lucky.

This often left me starved of new music. This wasn’t too bad, as I often dug back into the past to find music that was new to me. Whilst finding this was great, and I still do dig into the past to find music on a fairly regular basis, it doesn’t help me find new, current music to share or introduce people to. It’s music archaeology, rather than music discovery.

Ticking along with the same few bands

This situation left me, for a great many years, with a small number of bands that I really liked, and who’s back catalogues I’d buy up fervently until I ran out. Then, because they were established bands, I’d get maybe a new album every year or two. Eight to Twelve new songs every year or two, from three or four different bands. Because I live in the UK, pandora wasn’t a viable option for me (it might be now, but I’m not that fussed) and because my tastes are a bit far from the beaten track, spotify just didn’t handle me very well. Love the site, but it just didn’t have content for my kind of music. I still use it, and try to make sure that all my music players scrobble to it. I found a couple of bands that way, but mostly it just liked recommending bands I already knew or that weren’t to my taste.

There just wasn’t much out there for finding me new music. There were a couple of podcasts that I listened to, such as a few from The Dividing Line Broadcast Network, but they were usually quite hit and miss for me. The better shows were pretty awesome, and probably still are, but there was so much in there that just didn’t quite grab me… and long podcasts where you don’t like 50% of the music, whilst they’re better than my luck with radio, are a lot of effort to go to for not much benefit. Too many shows themed around one band, and too much effort to work out what a song was whilst listening. Good for listening, but not so good for music discovery.

Then came Classic Rock Presents: Prog – a print magazine, with cover CDs. The magazines were good (probably still are – I think my subscription’s lapsed and I can’t remember my credentials to renew it) and I’ve picked word up a lot of good bands that way. One of which was a solo artist called Matt Stevens. More on him later. But, as had always been apparent, I’m not just a prog fan, and I don’t like all prog. That said, the cover CDs always had at least one track on them that I really liked – usually more. I’ve only had one cover cd from them that I thought was “a bit of a duffer”, and even that one still had some good stuff on it.

Then, Out of the Blue, Bandcamp!

How BandCamp got on my radar

It was actually one of the cover CDs that made me notice Bandcamp, via a guy called Matt Stevens. His song Lake Man had been on one of the cover CDs. I’d also heard his name a couple of times around the place, but hadn’t gone much further than that. But having heard a bit, I did a search, found a link, and there he was… on bandcamp. Where I could listen to a bunch of stuff for free… and where I could also buy stuff if I wanted to. I liked this model. I listened free for a while, and then decided that, at the prices he was asking, and with the amount I kept playing it over and over, he thoroughly deserved my money. So I bought both albums – physical CD and download.

Here’s another place where Bandcamp is a bit different. The amount I paid? I got to set it. There was a minimum, bit it was ludicrously low, but if I wanted to pay more, I could. I could also listen to the whole lot online before I did so – so I knew exactly what I was getting. I was impressed, so I paid over the minimum. They were easily worth twice what he was asking. So I paid twice what he was asking. I don’t regret it.

Now, I’ve not found Bandcamp to be a site that I ever intend to use, particularly. But it is one that I found myself ending up at again and again. I ended up there by following hints of interesting music from other sources – particularly from twitter (the other half of this equation). I end up there by accident so often that I’ve become familiar with the place, and have decided that they’re getting something really, really right… and that they’re worth looking at a fair bit more. I’ll be looking into them further to see how they tick, I can tell you that!

If you go to their homepage, it’s not hugely geared towards consumers. Sure, consumers can go there, and it has some browsing tools, but they’re not given priority on the homepage. The homepage is for artists. Bandcamp isn’t selling itself to consumers, really. The main purpose of the homepage is to sell the site to artists and explain their approach. The approach is also clearly geared to help artists sell their work to fans. It sells itself to the artists, and gives those artists a platform on which they can sell their stuff with some pretty simple charges – to me as a layman in music and finance, the setup seems remarkably fair.

Where does twitter come in?

That’s the next trick. I followed him on Twitter at the same time I bought the CDs. I also gushed a bit about how awesome they were on twitter (and rightly so – they’re awesome – buy them!).

But here’s the first kicker. He replied and followed me right back. A proper reply.

Even better, he doesn’t spam me about his music all the time – he posts like a real human being instead! If I happen to tweet about another band that he likes or works with, even without referencing him or music at all… he’ll quite often reply or chip in. Now that’s community engagement. That’s how to get and grow a fan base around your product, and how bands can help each other out right there. It’s not all about him or his music. Okay, so I think he has some fingers in other pies as well, and may benefit from pushing some other artists a bit… but if the way he pushes them my way is to engage with me personally? I think I’m fine with that. Better than fine, actually, I think it’s bloody awesome. It’s online community and social media done right.

Here’s the next kicker. He didn’t just reply to my tweets when I mentioned him or bands he has ties to. He replied to some other stuff too… if I mentioned other bands, quite often he’d reply to enthuse about them too. How often do you find a recording artist who’s prepared to froth about other recording artists with some random dude on the internet? In this case, I think the band / recording artist I frothed about and got some froth back from him about was The Echelon Effect. Where might you find their stuff? Guess. As a brief aside, just the title of one of their songs is so awesome it br
ings me out in goosebumps. I’m not exactly a floaty romantic type, but the title “Defying Gravity to Meet You” just works for me. I’m a rustic, practical, stocky country type… but as song titles go, that one’s just a winner. It hits me right where it needs to, and it helps that it’s a masterful piece of music, too. The whole album’s awesome. Go listen. I can’t listen to it enough – you have to do some listening for me!

Every now and then, I’ll see Mr. Stevens frothing about some other band, which immediately gets my attention. I’ve found quite a few that way. Initially from him as a seed, but also by following the other he mentions too. When he mentions another band, I notice. I’ve found a whole bunch of other bands from that initial seed. Some were his other projects, like Yonks or The Fierce and the Dead. Others have been more diverse, and have lead me to other bands entirely, sometimes by direct connections, sometimes by compilations.

The combination of a social network like Twitter and a platform like Bandcamp is, for me, the “killer app” for music. I get engagement with bands, and a quick and easy way to give them my money in exchange for their music.

Compilation albums – didn’t they die in the 90s?

Sometimes a bunch of the artists I’ve been discovering pull together for something incredible.

After the Tsunami in Japan, there was a charity compilation put together extremely quickly, called Hope For Japan. For an album to channel funds to disaster relief, it was the fastest I’ve seen – it was out less than a month after the quake, with all money made from it going straight to charity. I think it was put together within days of the disaster – although I don’t recall exactly how many days. I threw money at the album and don’t regret it in the slightest. You can still buy it, and I advise you to do so. The cause is a good one, and it’s 36 tracks of incredibly high quality music to boot. In fact, mentioning it has reminded me how awesome it is, and I’m listening to it now as I type.

Several of the artists I’ve mentioned above are on there. So are a whole bunch more that I’d not found yet. I still have to catch up with them, but I’ll do so in the near future. A bunch of them are going to be on bandcamp.

On top of the good cause, there’s not a duff track on there. I’ve found a bunch more artists thanks to that album as well, and have many more still to follow up on. I’m actually listening to the album now, because writing this post reminded me how high the quality is.

I threw links to it around on twitter at the time, but I really, really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s always atmosperic, sometimes brooding, sometimes uplifting, sometimes melancholy, sometimes hopeful. It’s a damned fine album.

The platform for this compilation? The way it was released? Bandcamp. The way it was marketed? Twitter and other social networks. A community of recording artists engaged with each other to pull it together, and then engaged with the public via social networks to get the word out.

A New Musical Landscape

This is probably the richest time in my life when it comes to being able to find new music that suits my taste and buy it. The barriers between me and trying new music are low for the first time I can remember. I can discover one artist, and then using Twitter and Bandcamp, that single artist blossoms out to a whole forest of them. I can engage with artists over twitter and pick up on the music they themselves like. I don’t need mainstream media to connect me to the music I want anymore (which is handy, because it never really managed it) – I can now connect directly with the artists, and give them money for their work. I can find new artists and support them. When I combine it with services like kickstater (which is a whole different conversation), where I’ve been able to help fund a couple of artists recording their first albums… and you’ve got a winning combo.

The costs of buying the music are low, and I know that a sensible amount of the money ends up with the artists themselves, not lost along the way to a host of overheads. I get to engage with the artists in a way I never could before, and for the last year or so, I’ve felt engaged with the music scene in a way I’ve never felt before.

Long live Bandcamp and long live Twitter, and long live other services in the same vein. Long live every band that I’ve mentioned here, and the many I’ve failed to mention. Between the lot of you, you’ve connected me to music in a way that every other medium or service in my entire life had so far failed to achieve.

It’s rare that I get to say that about what are, when it comes down to it, some pretty simple online services. It’s rare that I get to say that about anything, really.

It counts for a lot.

The Rise of the iPhone Zombie

Lurching Towards Oblivion

Every morning and every evening I have to brave the outside world to make my way from where I sleep to where I spend my days. This has never been a pleasant task, but in recent years a new threat to my sanity has risen.

It started with just the odd one or two, but now I see them everywhere. Standing or slowly walking, as if in a daze, with shoulders slumped forward and downcast eyes. Their faces, slack jawed and vacant, show a feint blue tint, more visible in darkness or in the half light of morning or evening – by the warm light of day you might not even see what they have become. Try to speak to one and, if they even notice, they will most likely not respond with anything more than a grunt before continuing exactly as they were before. Ask them to move aside and you’re likely to be met with a snarl or a growl.

They seem oblivious to the world around them as they lurch their way around the streets, paying no heed to the safety of others, or indeed of themselves. They pay no heed to events around them – stepping into traffic or stumbling blindly into each other. Such considerations mean little to them now. All that matters now is their new source of nourishment – provided to them by the sickness that has eaten into their minds. They hunger only for updates or news, which can only be supplied by their iPhone.

But it’s even more insidious than that… the iPhone plague has removed their self. Their very essence of being is gone, subsumed by updates from the other. They have no care for themselves or their immediate surroundings, only what is happening elsewhere and to other people. They, themselves are gone – all that remains is a shell that lives only to consume data.

But there is still hope…


Maybe we can save them!

The iPhone Zombie lives to consume data, and one form of data that they consume most readily is the app. It may be possible to use these apps as the vector for a form of innoculation – a means to remind these poor creatures that they have self. A small few who have been exposed to the iPhone menace have proven to be resistant, and are able to continue to function as normal human beings. We need these brave people, and we need to make use of their rare immunity.

Some of these brave few may be able to concoct our innoculation. They may be able to create apps to do the following:

  • Periodically remind the iPhone’s victim to look up and survey their immediate surroundings for hazards or annoyed people, and to move or act accordingly. If this can include a game where you score points for actively not blocking pavements (sidewalks for you american types), doorways or roads, then we might be on to a winner.
  • Periodically remind the iPhone’s victim to acknowledge the presence of the friends they are out with. Again, a game where points can be scored for engaging in meaningful dialogue without iPhone interruptions could be a good thing.
  • Periodically remind the iPhone’s victim that they have physical presence – the iphone has a camera and various motion sensors. Perhaps adding a dashboard that reminds the user that they are moving and should perhaps look where they are going, or even visually and audibly alerts them to the presence of other people (or at least, their feet) in the camera’s view. Whilst it might be beneficial to also alert based on the presence of inanimate objects, this is less urgent – sudden unexpected contact with such items has two beneficial effects: first, it tends to break the iPhone’s hold over it’s victim for a few seconds as their self is shocked back to the surface. Second, it provides the rest of us with one of the few moments of light hearted relief from the knowledge of what our friends have lost.

I’m sure there are many other ways that we could start the long, hard process of rehabilitation, but these would be a start. Lets hope they come into being sooner rather than later.

Other Strains…

The iPhone Zombie is not the only strain out there. New variants are appearing daily, but they are, as yet, less immediately obvious. This isn’t to say they’re less insidious – just that they are harder to identify.

In all seriousness

This morning, I once again had an iPhone zombie stop sharply right in front of me, completely blocking the pavement. I also saw somebody blindly step out into traffic whilst staring blankly at their iphone screen. I saw somebody miss their stop on the train because an iPhone zombie wouldn’t get out of the way of the doors, or even acknowledge the presence of people trying to get past them. Having space to view their screen was more important than other people’s journeys.

I am aware that there are many considerate and reposible users of mobile internet technology. This post is directed at the other kind. If you are reading this on your iPhone, please try not to be one of them. Look up once in a while. Try not to walk into traffic. Look your friends and faimily in the eye, and try to listen to a whole sentence once in a while without looking at your iPhone.

So, what have I been up to?

So how’s life?

In general, things have been a bit odd. I’ve had a few personal ups and downs that I’m not going to go into here, and work has been a bit of a bugbear at times, but seems to be settling down now for the most part. Other than that, I’ve been trying to get myself out and about a bit more – meeting more likeminded folks and generally getting myself back to socialising again after about a year of choosing to isolate myself instead of becoming “the unreliable guy”.

This means I’ve been doing a whole bunch of things that I might not previously have done, and on occasion may have bitten off more than I could chew (such as what I’ll refer to here as “the time of many LARPs”). I’ve also been travelling further afield to socialise, and plan to continue to do so…

So, what have I been up to in general?


The first new thing I’ll mention is that I’ve started going to the Reading Geek Nights (also on twitter as @rdggeek) which have been fun and entertaining, but also tiring. It’s about a 45 minute drive if the traffic’s good, or about 2 hours if it isn’t (as I discovered the first time I went). I’ve spoken to a fair few people there and it seems like a decent crowd. There’s even somebody who, as it turns out, went to the same school as me, just a couple of years behind me, and is also a theatre type. It’s always weird when I bump into people from places where I used to live… but it seems to be happening an increasing amount lately.

One day I expect I’ll speak at a geek night, but I have no clue what about. This is the problem of being a dabbler in so many geeky things but not totally immersed in that many… and most of the things I’ve done just don’t strike me as being as cool as the stuff I’ve seen presented there already. Then again, I’ve never exactly gone for glamour and glory – I’m generally happier staying quietly behind the curtain whilst things I’ve set up unfold without my involvement. I prefer attention to be on my work rather than on me.

Topics I’ve seen covered at the geek nights have included how a cinema works, a detailed look into 3d stereo photography and making lo-fi physical versions of classic arcade games.

Comedy in the Green

For some time now I’ve been the lighting guy (and unofficial photographer) for our local monthly comedy night. For a comedy night taking place in a village hall, it really punches above it’s weight. We’ve had some pretty big names from the comedy circuit, and more and more of the acts are people who you might have seen on TV… No matter how rough I feel, or how unenthusiastic I might be for one of these nights before they start, they’re always a laugh and I always come away having enjoyed it thoroughly.

I’ve got something of a backlog of photos from these at the moment – I’ve got three months worth of them waiting to be processed and put up to facebook and flickr. With any luck, I’ll find the time this week to process a few and put them up… then I’ll also be able to add them to this post.

If you want to know more about these, have a look at the Comedy in the Green Facebook page.

Tabletop RPGs

For the past couple of years I’ve chosen to bow out of tabletop RPGs as I had too many other things going on to be a reliable player. I’ve decided that I miss it, so I’m going to be making myself slightly less available for other things so that I can get back into it. I’ve starting off by joining a Dark Heresy: Ascension game being started by Tylorva, who co-created the the Death Unto Darkness Warhammer 40k LARP. The first real session happened recently, and the party are already butting heads and arguing over jurisdictions, which I’m just staying out of. I’m breaking with my normal tradition of playing put-upon underdogs and obsequious lackeys (too much like real life right now!) and instead going for a meaty, desensitised killing machine of an imperial guard stormtrooper. Should be interesting to see how that goes!

The Time of Many LARPs

As well as that lot, I’ve also been busy with a LARP or two. In fact, the past two weekends have included three LARPs, which was a bit much, really, escpecially considering the amount of prep that goes into some of them.

Mortals Games

I run a regular supernatural investigation LARP on the sunday of the third weekend of each month. Sometimes these are lightweight and easy to run, sometimes… not so much. The September game was one of the “not so much” ones. It wasn’t a huge game, but it was a complex one. The players had gained access to a psychiatric facility that was associated with our big ongoing conspiracy plot, and were going in on a fishing expedition to find out what evidence they could gather… which meant we had to make two rooms and a couple of twisty corridors represent a whole building. I did my usual trick of constructing a couple of extra walls with bamboo canes and plastic sheeting, and we had an NPC team of four as well our usual Storyteller team of myself and Ross – we even had female NPCs. We’ve never had those before, because the idea of Ross or myself in drag is all the wrong kinds of terrifying.

We also wanted to have plenty of patient files for the players to root through, so we’d put the time in to create around 60 of them – about 30 of which were generic “this is a patient file” files, and the other thirty or so contained an assortment of plot hints, clues, calls back to earlier plots and occasional misinformation. Then we had the internal telephone directory for the location, and a number of different costumes for the NPCs… It turns out that medical scrubs are cheap and easy to acquire via ebay, and make good garb for orderlies. A labcoat made a passable costume for a nurse, and an NPC in black with a couple of props made a reasonable security guard. Anyway – making all of that paperwork takes a surprising amount of time and effort.

We also gave the PCs two radios, and the NPCs two two-way radios… and left them to sort out who was on which channel the hard way. Always good for a laugh.

The game was a little more chaotic than I’d intended, but it seemed to play out okay, and some of the information discovered lead to a couple of issues being forced. This meant that the October game could be a (much less stressful to run) talky game, allowing the PCs to work out their issues and find some common ground again after months of splitting themselves apart. Now it’s up to the PCs to see where things go in the future, and what shape the next few games will take.

LA Confidential Game

The night before the October Mortals game was the first session of Neil’s 1940s Noir Themed “LA Confidential” game. This was my first LARP as a player for several months, and only the second for at least a couple of years. I’m playing an FBI agent, newly assigned to the only big case in town… For various (entirely in-character) reasons I was finding it a bit difficult to wrap my head around, but I enjoyed it all the same and am looking forward to the next one, at which I should have a better handle on things.

A highpoint for me in this game was the casual corruption and racism of the other police officers – I was expecting to find it hard to trust other police, but these guys have made it into something special!

The “two core scenes” approach, where half the players are in one scene and the other half in another (with “offscreen” events if you move between them) is an interesting one, and I’ll see how it plays out over time. It was a bit difficult to get started in the scene I was in – partly due to being a method
ist in a catholic church scene, and partly because a body was found and I had no jurisdiction, so stepped back and let the other cops do their thing… Now I need to wait and see if I can make it my jurisdiction before the next game – I heard hints of a few ties to the case I’m meant to be assigned to, and that should be enough.

Death Unto Darkness

This one was the biggie, really. The weekend after the October LA Confidential and Mortals LARPs was the fourth Death Unto Darkness event. I’d crewed one day of the second event, but hadn’t been able to stay for the rest for family reasons, but this one I was there for the whole thing… and there were NPCs required for the Adeptus Mechanicus – the technology based faction in the setting. Being a bit of a tech-nerd myself, this was perfect for me, and I set to work building some kit to use… and when more of the plot came out (for crew eyes only, of course) I started planning to make my kit do a few things that might be useful.

Part of the plot involved the tech priests being compromised by Necrons. Tech priests have a general tendency towards red things… Necrons have a tendency towards green things. At the point I found out this aspect of the plot, I was working on building several independently controllabnle banks of LEDs to go in my backpack so I could make it glow and pulsate. It was no extra work at all to make some of those banks of LEDs red and some of them green, allowing me to fade from red to green at the point where I was compromised – just a little bit of slightly different programming.

For those who are interested, the backpack contained around 20 ultrabright red LEDs, 20 ultrabright green LEDs, 9 ultrabright white LEDs (driven by 3 TIP120 transistors) – with the whole lot being controlled by a Seeeduino (arduino clone) powered with a 9v lithium battery. I had planend to replace the Seeeduino with a custom built Atmel ATmega328 circuit, but I didn’t have time in the end, so I stuck with the overpowered prototyping board, which at least means I can upgrade things and modify them a lot more easily for future use.

I used a keyswitch on the front of the costume to provide the input to switch from red to green – I didn’t want it happening just because I brushed a switch against something whilst moving around! I did run cabling for two LED banks to be mounted on the front of the costume as well, but never had time to build any LED arrays to make use of them, and one of them didn’t seem to be working properly anyway… so that’s something else I can put more work into in future.

All in all, I didn’t get to use this costume much, but I think it still worked okay.

The rest of the time I played a mix of either personality-free skiitari or several fairly generic gangers. From my point of view, there was a particular high point to this game… on the saturday afternoon there was a long running building-to-building fight between gangers, local wildlife and the player party. I’ve not had that much fun in a long time. A particular high-point of that high-point actually happened whilst my ganger-of-the-moment was dead. I had been trying to flank the players and had been caught behind an isolated peice of cover with only one hit left (ie: if I took any more damage, I’d be dead). As it turned out, the top of my hat was poking out above the tyres I was hiding behind, and I heard a call from the players I’d been trying to flank – “black hat behind the tyres – bolt single”, so I immedialy collapsed against my cover, dead. But my hat was still visible, and the PCs spent the next few minutes trying to flank my slumped corpse… resulting in the inquisitor himself breaking cover to head over and discover that I had already ceased to be a threat!

Another moment of amusement came in my final scene as the tech-priest… when one of my Skiitari bodyguards delivered the wonderful line “Boss? Boss? You’ve gone GREEN boss…” in such a panicked tone. I couldn’t see a damned thing at the time, so I have no idea who it was, but the delivery of that line was just so perfect.

Barring some personal stuff that put a bit of a dampener on things for me, the event was awesome, and I’m already looking forward to crewing more of them. I’d like to play it at some point, too – as I think you can’t really crew a game effectively unless you’ve seen it from the player side. Once I’ve played, I’ll be comfortable with the idea of trying to contribute to plot, which is where I think my real skills lie.

Summing up

Work continues to be heading in the right direction, but with enough bumps along the way that it’s often frustrating and stress inducing. My personal life has been throwing me a few curve balls of late, and that’s been knocking me about a bit and hindering my ability to effectively relax and deal with day-to-day stress. My health has also been… annoyingly absent.

But that’s just the downsides. In spite of all of that, I’m forging ahead and getting stuck into things again. I sidelined a lot of my hobbies a while back so I could press on with other things, and i’m officially not going to do that anymore. If it means I’m a little less reliable and dependable, then I’ll deal with that. I’m fed up with always being the dependable one at the cost of my own enjoyment – the world can suck it up and put up with me cancelling at short notice or being late every once in a while.

Punk killed prog, don’t you know?

Go out there and watch a documentary on Prog-Rock. Doesn’t matter which – any of them will do. You’ll notice one thing in common in all of them – the point at which they end, which is usually by saying that Punk came along and killed it. This really annoys me for a whole host of reasons, but mostly because it’s just lazy. What I intend to do in this post is to talk a bit about what happened after that – how the landscape changed through the 80s, 90s and up to the current day.

Having said that, it’s important to bear in mind that I am not a musician – not by a long stretch. I’d love to be, but I’ve never been able to find the time and means to learn to make intruments make the sounds I want them to make. I can play a few guitar chords, understand how piano chords work and have a rudimentary understanding of how rock drumbeats are put togther… but when it comes to putting any of that lot into any kind of structure or performance I just haven’t gained the necessary skills. What I can say, though, is that I’m passionate about listening to music and appreciating it. I’ll even go so far as to occasionally listen to music I don’t like, so that I can come to understand why other people do like it.

Definitions and Ethos

I don’t think anybody will ever truly pin down boundaries between musical genres, but for this post I’m going to have to explain my definitions upfront so that we can get onto the same page.

First up, lets think about what defines progressive rock, and the ethos behind it. There are plenty of variations on this around but here’s what I’m using.

  • Prog sets to break out of the restrictions of the 3 minute pop song – When prog began, rock was dominated by short 3-4 minute songs, as only singles would get radio airplay, and that was all you could fit on a 7-inch 45rpm single. Some bands even set out to create long-form rock music, intended to have durations comparable with symphonies rather than folk songs.
  • Prog sets out to have progression within a single piece of music – Rather than being in the standard “verse, chorus, bridge” format that everything fit into at the time, the idea was to have variation and progression within a piece, much like different movements in a classical piece.
  • Prog sets out to explore beyond the prevalent norms of rhythym, melody and harmony – When prog began, rock was dominated by simple chord progressions and 4/4 time. There’s nothing wrong with those (there’s a reason they’re popular), but they’re not all there is.

For contrast, let’s think about punk:

  • Punk set out to strip music back to the bare essentials – When punk began, prog had become very self indulgent and the music was often extremely complex to perform and wasn’t always easy to listen to!
  • Punk set out to remove the distance between performer and audience – When punk began, prog musicians had set themselves apart from their audiences either by technical virtuosity, complexity of stage setup at concerts or just by sheer ego. It was also firmly rooted in the here and now, so you could relate to both it and the performers much more easily.
  • Punk set out to make making music easily accessible – Punk set out with the idea that anybody could make music, regardless of talent, training or background.

There’s probably a lot more in both cases, but this is pretty much what I’ll be working with.

The first thing that this calls to mind is that both genres, at least initially, were about transgression – albeit in slightly different ways:

  • Prog was about technological transgression first, and social transgression second – breaking technical limits on what could be performed and recorded, and pushing beyond what was popular at the time.
  • Punk was about social transgression first – breaking social limits on who should be able to make, perform and record music, and (as with prog) pushing beyond what was popular at the time.

So they’re the same?

Only in that they were both about changing things away from what they had been before. Musically, you’d probably notice the odd difference here and there.

So Punk did kill prog?

No, but it did change it and change the way it was percieved. Not all prog bands survived, and as a genre it certainly had a rocky period for a while as it fell out of favour, but it continued. But it didn’t die out. Instead, it evolved and adapted to a new environment. The ideas didn’t die or go away, but instead branched out in different directions.

Normal service will resume when I remember what normal is…

Real Life gets in the way again.

Where have I been?

Yes folks, my silence has been dictated by having too much other stuff that needed doing. I’m trying to make time to post more, but between work, holidays and other projects I’ve just not had time to pull any posts together recently.

It also seems likely that when I start up again, it won’t be with the next part of my “LARP and the User Experience” series – the next part was kicking me in the arse. The subject I’d chosen was too big to fit into a post that anybody would actually read… so I’ll come back to it when I can get past the conceptual roadblock and work out how to break it down into a number of shorter posts.

What’s next?

Instead, the next post is likely to be on a different topic of some kind. I have thoughts in my head for a music related post, which may even include a hot button rant topic for me – the misconception that punk killed prog in the 80s. I also have a few prop construction & LARP planning thoughts that could easily turn into posts.

A Brief Interlude

Long Time, No Post

As you might have noticed, it’s been a while since I posted. This hasn’t been intentional – I’ve got a backlog of things I’d like to write about, but writing blogposts takes time, and I just haven’t had any of that spare lately. Life and work have kept me far too busy for that. It’s my hope that I’ll get enough free time to write some more soon, though.

So what’s been eating my time?

Six things have been chewing up my time and spitting it out:

  • Work – It’s just been insane lately. Working with folks in the US has meant that I’ve had a lot of work calls late in the day, which means I don’t get to wind down properly. The commute is still a killer too, so I’m glad I’m working from home at least two days a week.
  • Theatre – Following on from Little Shop of Horrors, we had several meetings to try to get a night of two one act plays together… which I was going to stage manage. Regrettably, the dates available weren’t good for a group so wiped out after LSOH, so this never came to fruition. I’ve had a couple of tech meetings since then so we can plan out the next advances for the group’s tech kit.
  • Mortals Game – You’ve probably gathered from previous posts that I run a monthly live action nWoD Mortals game. That takes quite a lot of work, what with writing the plot, sourcing and making props and set dressing, etc… Not to mention the game days themselves.
  • Family & WH40K LARP – I needed to go and visit my mother, and I’d volunteered to crew the third “Death Unto DarknessWH40K live action game in the Forest of Dean. My mother lives about 45 minutes from the site of that game, and I wasn’t going to find another available weekend… so I had to do both at once. This meant I dropped Beth off at the site on Friday afternoon, then went to my mums for Friday evening, then back to the forest for late saturday morning, where I crewed for the day until one of my knees decided it was going to start locking up, so I drove back to my mums… returning again sunday morning to pick Beth up again. Whilst the relay was exhausting, it was good to see my mum, and crewing was fun.
  • Illness – Not so long ago, I had the same sinus headache for nearly two weeks.
  • The Garage – Our garage had become a dumping ground for all kinds of stuff, and it was becoming highly impractical to work in… so I put a fair bit of time and effort into clearing it out. More is still needed, but I now actually have space on the desk out there to do electronics work properly, and also to set up the workmate. I’ve even acquired and labelled crates for different kinds of junk-that-might-become-props. This clearout means that I’ve now been able to spend about an hour or two tinkering with my Arduino, and have actually built my BoArduino (an arduino clone that you can plug into a solderless breadboard for prototyping). Next step – getting kit to program an ATTiny2313, so I can build an assortment of cheap electronic gubbins.

There has almost certainly been more as well, but this is what I can remember right now.

Changing the Word

Half finished posts from the archives #2

Calculator. Computer. Software.

What do these three words have in common? Well, they all involve technology, but that’t not what I’m getting at. They all have the letter R in them? Again, it’s true, but not what I’m getting at. What about their meaings? Got it yet? How about I put it this way:

Caclulator – One who performs calculation. From “calculation” (n), which is from the late latin calculationem (n), which is in turn from the latin Calculare (v.).

Computer – One who counts or sums up. From the “Compute” (v.), meaning to count or sum up, from the latin Computare (v.).

Software – “woolen or cotton fabrics,” also, “relatively perishable consumer goods,” from soft (adj.) + ware (n.).

Events of Language

Sometimes, something happens which forever changes the meaning of a word. Of course, whole new words can be invented… but from time to time an existing word just goes through a midlife crisis and comes out of the end as something different entirely. Using the examples above, the events are easy to understand. “Calculator” switched from being a person who did a job to the tool they used around the time of the invention of the mechanical adding machine – the first recorded use is in 1784. The first use of the word with recognisably the same implications it now carries was in 1946. The first acknowledged switch of the word “Computer” from being a person to being a device for the same purposes was in 1897, referring to a mechanical calculating machine. The first use in the sense by which we now understand it was in 1937, and then only in a theoretical sense, referring to a Turing Machine. It was only in 1945 that the true modern meaning (“programmable digital electronic computer”) came to be. Software has an even stranger history – it’s a word that leapt in to being fully formed in 1960, and just happened to flatten another perfectly good word in the process. There’s no connection between the two meanings. The modern usage of the word is simply a way of saying computer related things that aren’t hard (adj.) + ware (n.). An opposite to hard was needed, and soft fitted the bill. The fact that prior to that point “software” meant cloth and preishable consumables rapidly became irrelevant.

World changes, word changes

In each case, the world had changed in a way that meant a word’s meaning was changed. There are plenty more words like this out there, and in each case, thinking of the words and how they came to be tells you something about a cultural or technological change. There are plenty of words that are in the process of making such transitions, or where extra meanings have been added, sometimes becoming the first thing that leaps to mind when you see them. For example, would you expect a film called “Alien” be about somebody who owes fealty to somebody in another country? Or about a strange visitor from another country? The usage implying extraterrestrial origin didn’t appear until the 1940s, and even then it was an adjective – an alien being or an alien device. “Alien” as a noun – “an alien” – didn’t appear until the mid 1950s. Then there’s the political and entymological football that is the word “gay”. Everyone knows it’s modern connotations, and most people understand the “happy and full of joy” meaning as well. But what about “brilliant and showy”, or (with the same pronunciation and derivation but a different spelling – gey) a tramp who sells himself when he has no other means to live. Or a young beggar who travels with an older beggar for tutelage? How about as an adjective implying promiscuity? That last meaning sounds like a modern use of the word, but actually dates back to the seventeenth century! The word itself has been the rope in a tug-o-war between legitimate use, euphemism, slang and empowering reclamation to the point where it’s become so charged as to be dangerous to use in polite society!

Sudden Upheavals

Most of the changes talked about beforehand are slow, gradualt evolutions. But sometimes it doesn’t work like that. For example, there used to a be word that meant “like a titan”, but doesn’t anymore. Well, technically it still does mean that, but in two hours on the night of the 14th and 15th of April 1912 the word came to mean something else. One “unsinkable” ship, one iceberg and a couple of unfortunate decisions… and the word “Titanic” can never be used to name a ship again. Disasters like this steal words from the language and it takes a long time to put them back… if it ever happens.

Out with the old…?

The majority of words that have had their meanings abruptly changed by the ever advancing world, though, are roles or job titles that have been replaced by tools to do those jobs. How long do we expect to wait before “shop-assistant” becomes a device of some kind? Have you been to Argos lately, and seen how the shop assistants role has dwindled to almost nothing. What about when you want to buy some music? How often do you ask the shop-assistant in the music store for recommendations these days? Or do you just look at what iTunes or recommends? How long until “manager” becomes the name of a piece of software that prioritises resources and facilitates the achievement of a function… no, wait – we’re already seeing software components that do just that, and are called managers. They’re not quite at the point of making decisions on their own yet, but in some people’s eyes that just makes the word fit even better…

Reference Materials

  • [url=]Online Entymology Dictionary[/url]
  • [url=]The All Knowing Wikipedia[/url]
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