Reduce me to a muzak fate

I love Christmas.

As well as the day itself, with all its traditions and trimmings, I mostly enjoy the build-up over the weeks beforehand, including several opportunities to freeze various appendages off while playing carols with the Menai Bridge Brass Band outside supermarkets (especially fun as a tuba player because you get to hug a large amount of very cold metal, which also happens to be a very effective collecting device for rain and snow).

One thing I don’t enjoy so much is the festive muzak they insist on playing inside the supermarkets at least a month in advance.

Actually, today (which is only one month until Christmas Eve) was the first day I noticed and was irritated by the sonic backdrop to my shopping, which seems a bit later than usual.  Only one more month to put up with it…

Fortunately, I happened to pass the beer aisle and noticed a festive brew called “Bah Humbug” (an offering from the Wychwood Brewery, whose beers I generally enjoy greatly) on special offer, so I decided that a bottle of this would provide suitable compensation for having to endure the annoying tunes.  (NB in case you were wondering, I did actually buy the beer – it didn’t even cross my mind to do otherwise and I don’t think I’d have been able to convince the store detective that they owed me a bottle in return for subjecting me to such musical torture!)

I suppose, ironically, this means that the muzak was effective, if only minimally so, in encouraging me to purchase Christmas-related products (which, presumably, is the reason they choose to inflict it on us – I hope they are not just sadists).  I’d probably better not buy a bottle of beer every time I go shopping over the next month, as it wouldn’t be good for my wallet, my waistline or my liver.  As a one-off, though, I thought it was a pretty good excuse. :)

Thinking about all this reminded me of a line from a Queen song, which I remembered as “reduce me to a muzak fate” and thought came from the song Death on two legs (on the Night at the Opera album).  Checking up by listening to a handful of tracks from my collection of early Queen albums, backed up with a swift bit of googling for the lyrics, I discovered that it’s actually from Flick of the Wrist (on Sheer Heart Attack, so I was only out by one album) and the line is actually “reduce you to a muzak fake machine”.  Still, I decided to keep my slightly mangled version of the line as the title for this post.

 

Not quite nigh!

It’s now two years since I started my Doctor Who read-through project (Executive Summary: I’m (re)reading my entire (and now complete) collection of classic Doctor Who novelisations, together with (an incomplete set of) original novels/ audio-books set in the same era, in (internal) chronological order (more-or-less)). I purposely started this on 23rd November to coincide with the anniversary of the first episode broadcast.

By now I have reached the last few stories of the Peter Davison era.  That means I’m fairly well into the stories which I actually watched when they were first broadcast on TV (throughout most of the 1980s).  I’ve previously read quite a few of the novelisations of these stories, and watched a few of them on video/DVD, but my last attempted at a systematic read-through fizzled out mid-Tom Baker and I had many gaps in my collection (which I’ve subsequently filled – for the novelisations of TV stories at any rate) so for many of these, this is my first reacquaintance with them since I watched them the first time (and I’m sure I missed some episodes at the time).  This gives an extra sense of nostalgia to my reading from now on, although in general I actually prefer many of the earlier stories (Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton are my favourite Doctors).

The story I’m currently reading is Warriors of the Deep.  This is far from being one of the best stories in classic Doctor Who, or even within its own season, but it is quite an interesting story for me to revisit for two main reasons.

One is that it’s a story where I can fairly vividly remember at least one scene from the TV broadcast over 30 years ago.  The particular scene that’s etched in my memory is one of the episode cliffhangers, in which the Doctor appears to drown in a pool of water (supposed to be something to do with a nuclear reactor’s cooling system, I think).  Of course, the Doctor didn’t drown and I think that even watching it for the first time, at the tender age of about 7, I was aware that he wasn’t going to but it was still tense and exciting.

The other reason it’s interesting is that the story was written and broadcast at a time when the Cold War was, if not at its height, still pretty much in full swing and the story extrapolates from the then-present to a future (2084 to be exact – 100 years after the story was broadcast) in which the world is divided into two political blocs (East and West, who’d have thought it!) that are at war with each other.

Obviously, history followed a different course; the Cold War came to an end within less than 10 years and it doesn’t currently look like the future is going to be divided quite so clearly along those particular lines (any more than it’s likely that daleks will be invading the Earth in 2064 or any of the other futures posited by Doctor Who).  Still, the purpose of most (if not all) speculative fiction (including any Doctor Who story set in the future) is arguably, if not obviously, more to comment on (some aspect of) the world as it now is (at the time of writing) rather than to actually suggest that this is what the future will look like, so this story serves as in interesting reminder (for those of us who were there) or lesson (for those who weren’t) of how the Cold War affected our thinking in the early 1980s.

If Doctor Who from back then gives me a sense of nostalgia (i.e. warm fuzzy feelings about the past and how generally nice it was, or a desire to relive it), thinking about the Cold War gives me what can probably best be described as a sense of anti-nostalgia (a profound sense of gratitude that things aren’t like that any more).

I was too young at the time to have a very firm handle on the details of the world situation but I do remember an unpleasant sense of dread that everything was about to end in nuclear winter.  I remember on at least one occasion being particularly upset when I heard a plane flying overhead and thought it must be bringing a Soviet nuke to drop on our heads.

Perhaps more disturbing than the prospect of imminent Armageddon was the fact that, as tends to be the case in wars of any temperature, there was a strong tendency to think in terms of of “us” and “them” and, in particular, to view “them” (since they were safely hidden away behind the Iron Curtain and most of us didn’t come into any real contact with them to provide counterexamples to the idea) as all the same as one another and all evil, when in fact there was just as much difference among them as among us and most of them, like most of us, were just ordinary people trying to get on with their lives.

That is, of course, a huge simplification and very much a young child’s perspective on the Cold War (and one filtered by 30 years’ temporal fog to boot).  Still, to return to the Doctor Who story, this sensation of what it was like to live in a Cold War society (as well, perhaps, as the limitations of such thinking) is well conveyed, at least in the novelisation (another one by “Uncle Terrance”).

The story is also quite interesting, at least in hindsight, as it contains echoes of cyberpunk (a genre which was taking off at the time) in a tactical computer that is controlled by a specially-trained human operative interfacing it directly with his brain.  This turns out to be a definite weak point of the system, since the whizziest computer is useless if you disable the only person around who can operate it.

By the way, the story (as you might guess from the name) is set deep under the sea, on a top-secret West Bloc nuclear missile base (this is, incidentally, the first Doctor Who story for quite a long time to return to the classic base-under-siege formula that was a staple of the Troughton era) and the real enemy turn out not to be the East Bloc but a reptilian race who ruled the world before humans were on the scene and have now awoken from long hibernation and would like their planet back, if you please.  Though, if memory serves me, not to mention the Pertwee era stories – both of which I re-read last year – The Silurians (novelised as The Cave Monsters) and The Sea Devils, they will also not turn out to be the enemy so much as the inbuilt human (and silurian) tendency to be somewhat territorial and to shoot before thinking.

According to the spreadsheet in which I’m recording my progress, I have 249 items of classic Doctor Who material in my collection and Warriors of the Deep is number 176 on the list.  Therefore I’m about 70% of the way through my collection by now and fairly well on course for finishing by next November.  If I can time it right, perhaps I’ll be able to finish the last book (“The Infinity Doctors” by Lance Parkin) on 23rd November 2015.

All things being equal(ised)

For a long time my favourite media player has been Clementine. This is a powerful, well-featured and easy to use player that also has the benefit of being available across several different platforms, so I can use essentially the same player on both my Linux box at home and my Windows PC at work.

Amongst other features Clementine, like all good media players, has a set of equalisation controls.  One of my minor niggles with the program is that access to this is buried in the Tools menu and there doesn’t seem to be any way of configuring a button on the interface or a keyboard shortcut to bring the equaliser panel up.

(Of course, since Clementine is an open-source project I could in theory hack the source code but that would involve quite a steep learning curve and way too much work, so I think I’ll just stick with using the menu.  I may see if there’s a channel for getting feedback to the dev team, in case it’s a feature they’d like to consider for future releases).

Slight fiddliness of access notwithstanding, the equaliser is pretty straightforward to use.  In the version I have on my home computer (Clementine v1.0.1 for Linux) it is a 10 band graphic equaliser with sliders marked for frequencies between 60Hz and 16kHz (both of those probably pushing the limits of my PC speakers, not to mention my own hearing) as well as a pre-amp fader.  There is also a facility for saving,  loading and deleting presets, with a fair selection of pre-installed presets, mostly named for different musical genres (such as Classical, Rock or Ska) though there are a few others named for other things (Large Hall, Full Bass etc.).  While the sliders don’t have any marked scale on them, there is a nice feature whereby you feel a definite notch as you slide through the centre point (i.e. between cutting and boosting the given frequency).  It seems to be done by momentarily pausing the fader button when you drag it through that point but it gives an impressively tactile sensation for an on-screen slider.

Most of the time I tend to leave the equaliser alone but it is sometimes quite handy to be able to tweak it.  I had a clear demonstration of this yesterday.

Earlier in the week I’d been listening to an AC/DC CD (or at least its digital representation in my media library) and had actually got round to resetting the eq to the Rock preset, which has a classic smiley face slider configuration (i.e. bottom and top end pushed up and middle pushed down a bit), though skewed slightly to the left.  This gives a nice bit of sizzle to the sound which generally works well for rock music (hence the preset is quite aptly named).

Yesterday, though, I came to play a vintage opera recording that I’d only just picked up and never previously heard (Renata Tebaldi singing  Catalani’s La Wally, c. 1950, in case you’re interested).  The sound was disappointingly thin and crackly and I thought this was a problem with the recording (it was, after all, a cheap CD of a 64 year old recording).  Then I remembered about the EQ and, on checking, discovered that it was still set to Rock.  I changed it to Classical (flat up to 3kHz and then slightly attenuated for higher frequencies) and it was immediately transformed to a much richer, fuller sound without the annoying hiss.

Apart from being able to access the EQ panel more easily, I’d like to have a facility whereby you could save your EQ preferences for each track or album in your library, rather than having to reset the equaliser manually each time.  This would be especially useful when listening, as I often do, to a mixed playlist of music from different genres.

It is obviously good to be able to adjust the equalisation of your music files in order to be able to get the best possible sound for the combination of the recording, the musical genre, your playback equipment and your own personal tastes.  Perhaps less obviously, it’s also good sometimes to be able to to vary the EQ in order to bring out different aspects of the music.  Not only could this be a way to help you listen to a familiar piece with fresh ears but it can be very handy when you are trying to transcribe a piece of music as, with a judicious choice of EQ settings, you can emphasise the particular section of the sonic spectrum that you are trying to make out and reduce the amount of clutter from everything else that might be going on at the same time.  I’ve been trying to transcribe several pieces of music in the past few days and have just been discovering how useful the EQ controls (as well as other technological marvels such as the ability to slow a piece down without lowering the pitch) can be to aid in this task.

Zapped Apples

There are many things I love about the autumn.  The colours of the leaves for one (not to mention the classic jazz tune “Autumn leaves”) and the fact that my birthday is slap-bang in the middle of the season for another.

I also love the opportunities for apple-based cooking (and eating and drinking) that autumn presents.

This year, as usual, I’ve been given lots of apples by friends who have orchards (or at least an apple tree) so I’ve been able to make plenty of apple crumble and stewed apples (both wonderful with custard and very pleasant without) and I’m planning to get a small batch of cider under way in the next few days (partly because it’s the only way I can think of using up all the rest of the apples before they start decomposing; fortunately I happen to rather like cider anyway).

Another thing I like to do with apples is something suggested to me by a friend (in fact, one of my main apple donors in previous years), who described it as a fake baked apple. The idea is that you get a fairly large apple, wash it, remove the core and score round the equator of the skin, then fill the hollow core with raisins, sugar and cinnamon (at least, that’s how I usually do it these days – I think he just suggested raisins and sugar) and stick it in the microwave for a few minutes.

Depending on how long you cook it for (and, obviously, the related variables of the size of the apple, the power of the microwave etc.), this can end up more or less as a sweet apple sauce not quite neatly contained in an edible bag (i.e. the apple skin – it tends to ooze out somewhat, but the skin prevents it spreading too far). It’s certainly a very tasty snack or dessert.

For years I’ve been calling this concoction a fake baked apple but I’ve never really been happy with the name as it doesn’t seem to do it full justice. I think the result is probably quite similar to what you’d get if you actually baked an apple (with a hollow core filled with raisins etc.) but, while doing it in the microwave probably means its not strictly baked (I’m not sure of the exact definition of baking) it’s not really a fake either.

In the last few weeks I’ve come up with an alternative and, I think, much better name for this recipe: Zapped Apple

Powering Through

As I mentioned recently, the Menai Bridge Brass Band are celebrating our 120th anniversary this year and the highlight of our celebrations was a concert last Saturday night.

This turned out to be a memorable gig not just because everyone worked really hard and played very well, but because there was a power cut in the middle of the first half which spectacularly failed to stop us finishing the show.

Things started pretty well and, despite fairly horrible weather, we had a good turnout (I estimated that the hall – with a capacity of 400 people – was fairly well over three quarters full, although I’ve not heard an official figure for ticket sales).

The beginners’ band (with which I play trombone) went on stage first and performed three pieces, my favourite of which was an arrangement of the Andante from Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (the surprise being that this movement is played very quietly throughout except for one fortissimo – i.e. very loud – chord about 30 bars in). Interspersed with these pieces, and with the intermediate band set that made up the rest of the first half, were several videos (mostly about the history of the band).

The intermediate band (with which I also play trombone) were up next, and had a programme of five pieces to play. The third of these was the hymn tune “Nearer, my God, to thee”, which we played to accompany a (silent) video tribute to the half dozen or so members of the band who died fighting in the First World War. After this, we paused for a video greeting from a former band member who now plays with a band in Norway.

Halfway through this video the power cut out. This brought an end to the video, of course, and plunged the hall into near-darkness, illuminated only by a handful of battery-powered emergency lights. Our chairman, Brian (who was the MC for the event), did a fine job of ad-libbing while the various members of our technical crew ran around trying to locate fuseboxes etc. It fairly soon became apparent that the problem was caused by a general power cut in the area rather than a blown fuse in the building.

The next piece on the programme was a trumpet solo with piano accompaniment from our guest soloist, Gwyn Owen (a former principal cornet player of our band). This went ahead with a battery powered music stand light to illuminate Gwyn’s music and a handful of band members with torches to provide light for the pianist.

At this point it was decided to go straight to the interval while we waited to see whether the power would come back on and to consider our options in case it didn’t. Members of the band who happened to have torches (on their phones or otherwise) were dispatched to provide as much light as possible for those in the audience who wanted to go out into the lobby for refreshments, although many people opted to remain in their seats.

After a shortish interval and still no sign of returning electricity it was decided to carry on with the concert by torchlight, with members of the senior band holding torches for the intermediate band to be able to see our music to play our penultimate piece and then a short break while the bands swapped over for a slightly abridged senior band programme with the intermediate band members (at least the ones not also in the senior band) and a few other volunteers holding lights for us.

We dropped the final piece from the intermediate band set and about 3 or 4 of the 10 or so pieces that the senior band were due to play. There was just enough time in the changeover for those of us who were playing with both junior and senior bands to change our uniforms (from the polo shirts of the juniors to the white shirts, black bow ties and blue jackets of the seniors – fortunately it was the same trousers etc. for both bands) and for me to swap instruments to the Bb bass (aka tuba) that I play in the senior band.

The bits of the senior band set that remained in the programme included the three pieces I mentioned in my last post (selections from Vivat Regina by William Mathias, Belinda – the only surviving composition by our band’s first conductor, George William Senogles, and Pont Menai – newly composed for us by local composer Owain Llwyd and receiving its world premiere concert performance), as well as three of the five movements from the Narnia Suite that we recently performed at the national finals and two more solos by Gwyn Owen (accompanied this time by the full band). We finished, quite appropriately I thought, with a march entitled Death or Glory, conducted by our former conductor Dennis Williams (who was instrumental in getting the band up and running again after a slump in the 1960s and 70s) and with several former members of the band joining in.

At the end of the concert, band members once again used our various torches to provide light for members of the audience to safely leave the auditorium. It was too dark to be able to pack away all the equipment, as the power still hadn’t returned, so most of it had to be left for those who were able to get back the following day to help clear up.

In the space of over 20 years of gigging (I’ve lost count of how many actual gigs that is, though it’s certainly in the hundreds), I think this was the fourth time I’ve had a power cut in the middle of a gig. Fortunately on the two occasions when I was playing with amplified bands the power came back on fairly quickly and on the other two occasions (including this one) we were all using acoustic instruments and were able to continue with non-mains-powered sources of illumination so I’ve never yet had the disappointment of a gig being cancelled because the lights went out.

At the end of the day, the power cut last Saturday night only served to ensure that our 120th Anniversary Concert is one that we will remember for a very long time.

Happy Birthday to us

Of all the bands I play with, or have played with, the oldest one by quite some margin is the Menai Bridge Brass Band.

This year we are celebrating our 120th Anniversary (though I’ve only been playing with the band for about 2 years).

We have had an excellent, if somewhat busy, year to mark this auspicious anniversary, with good results in several competitions and our first trip to the finals of the National Brass Band Championships for several years (we came 12th out of 19 bands in Section 4 but, bearing in mind that each of those bands came 1st or 2nd in their own regional contests a few months earlier, that’s not a bad result at all), as well as recording a CD (the production of which should be finished within the next few days).

The other big highlight of the year is coming up in about a fortnight’s time – a concert to celebrate our anniversary.  This will take place on Saturday 1st November at the secondary school in Menai Bridge (Ysgol David Hughes), a venue which should allow an audience of around 400 people.  All three bands that fall under the umbrella of the Menai Bridge Band (the senior, intermediate and beginner bands) will be performing along with guest soloists, including Gwyn Owen, a former member of our band who was a finalist for this year’s Bryn Terfel Scholarship (and who I look forward to meeting, as he had left the band before I joined).

Concert Poster

As well as the music itself, there will be a short presentation about the history of the band.  Apart from a break during the Second World War, the band has been running continuously since its inception, although it did dwindle to a very small size for a while in the 1960s.

Amongst other items, the concert programme will include a waltz (“Belinda”) composed by the band’s first conductor, George Senogles, and a piece (“Pont Menai”) written for us this year by local composer Owain Llwyd to mark our anniversary, as well as selections from the Vivat Regina suite by William Mathias, who was a long-term resident of Menai Bridge and one of the foremost composers in Wales; all these are also on our CD (if you’ll forgive a swift plug; NB copies should be on sale at the concert).

The intermediate band will be playing a piece that has been written (or possibly is even still being written) by its conductor, Hannah, to mark the centenary of the First World War, in which several members of our band went to fight; some of them did not return.

In case you were wondering, I play with all three bands: Bb bass (or tuba to the non-brass-band world) in the senior band and trombone with the others.

If you happen to be in North West Wales on 1st November you may like to consider coming along to the concert.

 

Technology-assisted language learning #1

Recently I’ve been quite busy with language-learning related stuff (mostly Spanish, but also bits of several other languages) and I’ve been exploring some technological aids to help me.

My previous language learning efforts have mostly focused on traditional media such as books and tapes/CDs, although I have made a fair amount of use of things like flashcard software (Anki is my favourite) and internet radio stations.

In the past couple of years, I have explored some of the language apps available for my Android phone.  However, this is a device of fairly limited capacity running on an old version of the Android OS (2.something) so there were several apps I’d heard of from friends (including Simon who runs the Omniglot website) and other sources that I wanted to check out but couldn’t get to run on my phone.

A few weeks ago I got myself a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 tablet.  This has a much beefier processor than my phone, as well as a lot more memory and storage space, and runs Android 4 (the wonderfully named Ice Cream Sandwich), so should have no trouble running the pick of the current crop of apps, language-related or otherwise.

Since then I’ve been trying out several different apps for Spanish and other languages.  I will probably write about some of them in forthcoming posts.  For now, though, I want to talk about the latest one I’ve been checking out: Duolingo, which exists as both a website and an Android app (I think there’s also an iPhone version).

As far as I can make out, Duolingo is basically a community-driven project.   On their website I found the slogan “We believe everyone should have access to education of the highest quality – for free”, which is a sentiment I share.  As the name suggests, their particular focus is on language education.  They provide courses in a variety of languages, both as source (the language via which instruction is given) and target (the language you’re learning).

A couple of the friends with whom I went to Spain in August used Duolingo to pick up a bit of Spanish in advance of our trip (the most notable result of which was one of them declaring “Yo soy una manzana”, which means “I am an apple”) and have been continuing to use it since then.  At the time, I didn’t check it out myself, partly because I didn’t have my tablet and didn’t know if my phone could handle it (nor that there was a website interface) and partly because I mistakenly assumed it would only be a beginner level course that wouldn’t have anything useful to teach me.

Yesterday, I got round to installing Duolingo on my tablet for a closer look and I was pleasantly surprised.  There are courses for English-speakers on about 8 or 9 languages at present (though a few of them only seem to be available via the website), as well as courses aimed at speakers of other languages.  One nice feature is that when you start a course you can either go from the beginning or take a placement test to assess your existing level of knowledge of the target language and fast-track you to a suitable starting point.

Out of curiosity (and a desire to learn/improve all the languages I can) I started the courses not only for Spanish but also French, German, Dutch, Italian and Irish, opting for the placement test in each case.

I was quite gratified to reach Level 10 in Spanish (I’m not sure how many levels there are, and it may vary between languages, but I seem to have ended up about three quarters of the way through the available units, and poised ready to start a lesson on the subjunctive).   There seems to be a reasonable variety of different lessons and exercises, with a combination of reading, writing, listening and even speaking, so I expect that working my way through the rest of the course should be quite useful. Apparently it is based on a generalised Latin American version of Spanish, in contrast to the peninsular Spanish focus of most of the instructional material I’ve used to date, but I don’t think that should be too much of a problem.

Given that I still consider my French to be a lot stronger than my Spanish (and I can generally string together a vaguely correct sentence in French much more easily than in Spanish) I was moderately surprised that I only reached Level 7 in French.  This is probably largely due to mistakes with accents, which are generally much harder in French than Spanish (as there are more to choose from and they aren’t always entirely obvious from pronunciation) as well as the fact I’ve done a lot more writing in Spanish than French recently (I think it was mostly the written exercises that let me down in the French test).

In German, I achieved Level 5 – not too surprising considering my German was never quite as strong as my French (though in theory I studied them to the same level) and is much rustier.  I was pleasantly surprised to get up to Level 3 in Dutch since, although it’s less than a year since I last had a go at learning it, I didn’t get very far in my lessons then. Both my Irish and my Italian are languishing down at Level 1.

My main goal remains to focus primarily on Spanish for the moment but also to do some gentle revision of French and German and probably do a bit of Dutch, using Duolingo alongside various other tools for each language.  Doubtless I’ll do at least a bit with both Irish and Italian too, although those are definitely lower priorities at the moment.

Amongst the other languages apparently in development (for English-medium courses) on Duolingo are Swedish, Russian and Hungarian.  All three have for some time been on my shortlist of languages to work on (I speak some Russian, though considerably less than German or French, and a little bit of Hungarian, though only a negligible amount of Swedish as yet), so I’m looking forward to trying out those languages when they go live.

There’s no sign, yet, of any courses in English for non-Indo-European languages on Duolingo, which is a shame as I’d definitely like to break further out of the Eurocentric mould in my language studies (Swahili being the non-IE language that interests me most, though there are plenty of others).  For now, at least, it looks like I’ll have to stick with other tools for explorations in that direction, as well as for IE languages such as Catalan that are not on the Duolingo menu.  However, for the languages that are available I think Duolingo will be a very handy addition to the toolbox.