31/12/2015

Reading - December 2015

Monday The Rabbi Took Off by Harry Kemelman (1972)
A lot of this novel (which still isn't much, since it's a short book) is about the main character going to Israel and some discussion of the situation there, including the "Arab" terrorists - interesting to note the change in terminology from then to now. The crime occurs quite late in the book. Not as good as the previous books in the series.
The Week (5 December 2015 / Issue 4051)
Minnow On The Say by Philippa Pearce (1955)
One of my favourite books as a child, a gently exciting treasure hunt adventure. I read this to Z over about a month.
Going Postal by Terry Pratchett (2004)
The usual fun, a very enjoyable new (to me) character in Moist von Lipwig and I enjoyed the subtle parallels between the sub-culture around the clacks and early internet culture.
Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)
A classic - the origin of the (paraphrased) quote "I love work; I could sit and watch it for hours" and many, many others - and marvelously suitable for reading in short bursts during down time. Like sitting down time. Short sitting down times. OK, all right, on the loo.
The Week (12 December 2015 / Issue 1052)
Aussie Grit: My Formula One Journey by Mark Webber (2015)
I'm not a particular fan of Mark Webber but he has always seemed like a down-to-earth sort of bloke and I was interested to hear what he had to say about the most definitely not down-to-earth sport of Formula 1. No-one who reaches these kind of levels in a sport is exactly "normal" - the single-mindedness required is probably beyond the comprehension of most of us - but he comes across here as being as close as it's possible to be. He was clearly badly treated at Red Bull, he doesn't like people who say one thing and do another and is pretty scathing about a number of people in the Red Bull camp, Sebastian Vettel, Christian Horner and Helmut Marko in particular. Yet in contrast to this, he's stuck with his manager Flavio Briatore for a long time, despite the man's appalling reputation. Either the world is wrong about Briatore or there are certain concessions Webber is prepared to make in pursuit of his ambitions. Full marks to him for conceding that Vettel is a better driver than he is; but there is no insight into why, or what it was that gave Vettel four World Championships on the trot in the same car that Webber was driving (even disregarding the favouritism).
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot (1939)
Poetry doesn't do much for me but this is the kind I can just about cope with. This is more about the whimsical word play than hidden meanings, and (being aimed originally at children) is just good fun. Not sure why I've not read it before, but then I've never seen Cats either.
Guitarist (January 2016 / Issue 402)
The Week (19 December 2015 / Issue 1053)
The Week (24 December 2015 / Issue 1054)
The Producer's Manual by Paul White (2012)
This year I have really started getting into guitar again, thanks the The Fretboard forum, and into the monthly "challenges" they run. In order to participate, you need to record something - and wasn't long before I realised that this is an entire new area of musical knowledge. I'd toyed with music software before - mostly trackers like Renoise - but actually recording music and then making it sound good is somewhat different. A guide was needed - and this is an excellent one. Clear attractive layouts and a logical structure, with huge amounts of good, basic information about kit (microphones, audio interfaces, etc), recording techniques, producing techniques, producing techniques and much more. Very enjoyable and destined to be referred to again and again. And good enough to be bought again as a present for a friend!
The "If You Prefer A Milder Comedian Please Ask For One" EP by Stewart Lee (2012)
I'm not sure if reading this heavily annotated transcript without having seen the actual show is a good idea or not. It is a bit like having Stewart sitting next to you while watching the DVD going, "Now in this bit what I'm doing is satirising the cliche way that comedians enter." Which does help. But shouldn't it be funny on its own, without the explanations? The beginning is laugh-out-loud funny, but only if you realise that it's done on purpose. I think if I'd seen it without context, live, I would have assumed that something had gone wrong, even though (as Lee points out), a few second's more thought would make you realise that it is deliberate, for comic effect, given that it is, you know, a comedy show. Maybe seen on a DVD, it's more obvious, because clearly he wouldn't have chosen to release it unless that's how he wanted it. Anyway, funny and interesting.
Balham To Bollywood by Chris England (2002)
Cricket isn't exactly my sport but nevertheless this is a fun, entertaining diary of an actor's time working on a cricket-based Bollywood epic out in India.

30/11/2015

Reading - November 2015

A Slip Of The Keyboard by Terry Pratchett (2014)
A collection of articles for various papers and magazines. There's a certain amount of repetition across them; maybe you could call them "themes" - such as the belittling of "fantasy" as a literary genre. Entertaining and interesting, in small, manageable chunks.
Saturday The Rabbi Went Hungry by Harry Kemelman (1966)
A period piece in some respects, and of its time, but interesting for the background in Judaism. The whole series is available in eBook form from the library, so that works for me and my shiny new Kobo Aura!
The Week (31 October 2015 / Issue 1046)
Sunday The Rabbi Stayed Home by Harry Kemelman (1969)
Again, of its time but nevertheless interesting and engaging.
The Week (7 November 2015 / Issue 1047)
Guitarist (December 2015 / Issue 401)
The Week (14 November 2015 / Issue 1048)
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)
Highly readable pop-science, as expected from Gladwell. I'm not convinced the topics covered all hang together, quite, but there are very interesting viewpoints on a number of subjects. Read it in about 3 days.
Be My Enemy by Christopher Brookmyre (2004)
Parlabane on good form. Again.
The Week (21 November 2015 / Issue 1049)
How Music Works by David Byrne (2012)
A very mixed bag of a book by the Talking Heads front man. Some of it is interesting, some of it is indulgent, some is just a bit silly. Byrne's observation of how a venue affects the music made for it is new to me (although not original, I am sure); whereas his assessment of "How To Make A Scene" is basically just a rundown of what made the CBGB's scene, with little awareness of how a myriad of other factors could come together in a myriad of ways to achieve the same end. Which is odd, because he is one of the more widely travelled "pop" stars. I got a bit impatient towards the end, which was dragging somewhat.

31/10/2015

Reading - October 2015

Boiling A Frog by Christopher Brookmyre (2000)
Brookmyre skewers politicians (again). Comfort reading.
The Week (26 September 2015 | Issue 1041)
The Week (3 October 2015 | Issue 1042)
The Firm by John Grisham (1991)
More easy reading. A great story.
The Week (10 October 2015 | Issue 1043)
Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre (1996)
Oddly, despite loving Brookmyre's books (well, not the dull police ones he's doing now), I haven't read his first one for a long time. Not sure why - it's easily up to the same standard as most of the others.
The Week (17 October 2015 | Issue 1044)
Guitarist (November 2015 | Issue 400)
The Week (17 October 2015 | Issue 1044)
Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (1990)
A minor classic, I would argue - so much more accessible than a legion of other books about the origin of English, yet equally informative. Ideally partnered with Made In America.
Rumpole a la Carte by John Mortimer (1995)
Jovial and jolly short stories. Great fun.

05/10/2015

Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson
2011

I struggled with this book for two reasons, which are linked. The first is that it's too long and too heavy. I could have done with half the length and a lot less detail - like Steve Wozniak's autobiography iWoz, which was a nice concise read.

Being so long and somewhat imposing, and having a pompous black and white headshot of Jobs on the cover, is there to tell you that this is An Important Book About An Important Person. Which is my second problem. The myth making. The whole thing is ridiculously uncritical of its subject.

If you've read the book, you might find this judgement slightly surprising. Isaacson writes frequently and at length about Jobs's bad behaviour - the tantrums, the cruelty, the selfishness, and much else. The trouble is that really, he approves of this behaviour. He thinks it's the price we pay for "genius" and for the series of products that "transformed whole industries".

This kind of sloppy thinking annoys me intensely. I think everyone involved in writing and editing of this book should be made to stand in a classroom and write on the board, "Correlation does not imply causation." Steve Jobs behaved really badly at times. Steve Jobs "transformed whole industries" through his "genius". One does not imply the other.

Anyway, "genius"? Give me a break. On the evidence of this book, Jobs was a deliberately and pathologically unpleasant man with a massively over-developed sense of his own worth, whose only talent, if it can be called thus, was for getting his own way. In this, he was perfectly suited to advancement in our imperfect corporate culture, and perfectly placed to take credit for the achievements of other people.

And "transformed whole industries"? I think you can certainly say that Jobs - along with others at Apple, whose credit Jobs appropriated in this respect as in others - was able to spot a trend early. But Apple did nothing first, and nothing that wouldn't have happened anyway. The industries were in the process of being transformed already, by bigger forces than one man or even one company could muster.

Steve Jobs was not a "perfectionist". He was not "blunt" or "driven" or "abrasive", or any other of the many, many pathetic euphemisms used to excuse inexcusable behaviour. He was a cunt. His legacy is not the Apple products; they don't make people's lives better really. His legacy is the continuing myth that in business, it's OK to behave like a petulant five year old with Tourette's Syndrome.

The world would be better without arseholes like these, and the inescapable conclusion is that the world would have been a better place without Steve Jobs.


30/09/2015

Reading - September 2015

Modern Manners by Philip Howard (2013)
Very disappointing. Billed on the cover as "The Essential Guide to Correct Behaviour and Etiquette", it is actually a loosely organised collection of letters from a regular column in The Times, which in book form is tediously repetitive and shallow. Go and read Debrett's; it's actually quite interesting.
The Week (5 September 2015 | Issue 1038)
Love Lives by Josie Lloyd & Emlyn Rees (2003)
The style here is very suggestive of Lisa Jewell and in my opinion that's a good thing. I was reminded of this novel by a visit to friends in Littlehampton; sitting on the beach there made me wonder what it is like growing up in a seaside "resort" that is actually just a town next to a beach, and this book captures some of the sense of life in a resort somehow. Plus it's two sweet romances in one, kind of.
The Week (12 September 2015 | Issue 1039)
Friday The Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman (1964)
First in a series of murder mysteries with a rabbi as a detective. Decent plot (although I have already forgotten who dunnit) and interesting asides about Judaism. I have a couple of books in this series inherited from C's grandma, but this was read on her Kobo, and the ebook borrowed from the library. 
The Week (19 September 2015 | Issue 1040)
Rumpole and the Age of Miracles by John Mortimer (1988)
I read on Wikipedia that, contrary to my assumption, the short stories are in fact adaptations of the TV series and not the other way round. Nevertheless they work as written stories and Rumpole is such a wonderful character. Great to dip into.
Guitarist (October 2015 | Issue 399)
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)
Myth-making doorstop.

27/09/2015

Shopping 19 September 2015

Music is worthless.

Not that music has no value - artistic, emotional or other axes of measurement - but in our era of Spotify and YouTube, music is so ubiquitously and freely available that it has no monetary value. So Steve Albini says in a music conference talk from last year, and also Simon of The Indelicates, in a very interesting blog post.

Simon Indelicate argues that the commodity we pay a premium for is scarcity. In the past, he says, record companies artificially controlled the availability of music (in the sense of how many bands they would distribute), and charged accordingly. He's very articulate about the injustices and iniquities of the old business model that put so much money in the pockets of self-appointed gatekeepers - those old enemies of good music and creativity, the record companies. He thinks the internet has freed music makers to reach their audiences without having to get "approval".

I can see what he's getting at, but I think he's missing a point. So we've got much more music available now that record companies aren't "getting in the way". But you know what is scarce? My time. You know what is worth paying for? A filter. Maybe it's not "fair" that record companies decided who got to record and release their music, but I would argue that the best record companies removed the dross so I didn't have to listen to it. The music press (more unwanted taste dictators) served a similar purpose, but now it's in its death throes (The Word is long gone and the NME could well be on its last legs - being free, as David Hepworth says, is a bad sign) no-one's doing that job for me.

So what other approaches are there? If the internet is causing the problem, then the modern day solution is also the internet. I could find out what do my friends listen to on Spotify, or via Facebook. thisismyjam.com was a really cool take on the idea of crowd-sourcing music curation, although sadly it's now retired and archived itself. Various music services will attempt to recommend music to you based on your listening history, although I've always found them a bit hit and miss.

Although ... if it's going to be hit and miss, why not just make it completely random? Artificially reduce our field of choice and adopt an arbitrary selection policy. For example: two shops in Soho on a Saturday afternoon in September; two middle-aged music obsessives select twenty-six albums, one for each letter, based on nothing other than whim: an amusing band name, an arresting cover.

Yes, yes. This is the latest annual(ish) pilgrimage to the secondhand music emporia of Soho. Although the plural is only barely justified: there are two shops left on Berwick Street, and of those, Sister Ray has moved and reduced; Restless Records was already small. Still, a trip worth it for the obvious and welcome benefits of getting out of the house and having a good old chinwag over a few choice pints. And the fleeting chance that maybe, just maybe, we'll find ourselves blown away by something we never would have heard otherwise.

I got the letters N to Z and chose (mostly) based on no prior knowledge whatsoever. Here's what I bought, along with my initial impressions based solely on the names, cover art and my finely honed prejudices.

A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night by Harry Nilsson (1973)
Other than knowing that Nilsson was a good singer, I knew nothing about this album. It seemed as good a place to start as any.
Owl John by Owl John (2014)
"The new album from the voice of Frightened Rabbit", it says on the front, accompanied by a picture of a hipster. No, me neither. I presume it is some sort of Americana.
Cautionary Tales For The Brave (EP) by Pure Reason Revolution (2005)
Not sure what to make of this, but the title sounds a bit prog-rock.
Greatest Hits by Queensr├┐che (2000)
I assume some sort of German hard rock or metal, like Scorpions or Michael Schenker?
Getting Through by The Riptide Movement (2013)
The cover is fairly minimal, so little to go on. Probably nice enough indie/alternative.
Soul:Fi by Space Invadas (2010)
Teeth-grindingly unnecessary punctuation and spelling means this is almost certainly bad hip hop or whatever they call it these days.
Made Up Mind by Tedeschi Trucks Band (2013)
I already know that Derek Trucks is a superb slide guitarist, but not sure what to expect from his (and his wife's) band.
Ultravox! by Ultravox! (1977)
Before Ultravox were Ultravox, they were Ultravox! and John Foxx is known for being a little eccentric. 
Becoming A Jackal by Villagers (2010)
More indie. Or is it alt.country? Hard to tell.
The Original Rumble by Link Wray ()
Legendary guitarist famous for one song basically. I fully expect to find a) many copies of said hit, and b) rubbish alternative tracks.
Testament by The Wake (2000)
Nope. I'm getting nothing. It's a "best of" so presumably they've been around a while?
Angel Guts: Red Classroom by Xiu Xiu (2014)
Very little to go on with the cover, two vaguely sword shapes, crossed. Rap maybe?
Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants (1980)
Young Marble Giants were cult back in the early 80s and so their album is ripe for rediscovery by hipsters, I would have said. The card on the shelf in Sister Ray said something about "lost classic" which, of course, means nothing.
Versions by Zola Jesus (2013)
Something a bit like Lorde or similar?

31/08/2015

Reading - August 2015

The Week (1 August 2015 / Issue 1033)
The Running Man by Stephen King [writing as Richard Bachman] (1982)
I hadn't read this for a while and although I remember the basic plot, I was surprised by how detailed some of the background is. Utterly compelling, utterly believable - even if it is set (now) only ten years in the future.
The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman (2002)
Accurately identifies and articulates the oddities of the career politician. My theory that anyone who has succeeded in any sphere is not entirely normal (the level of single-mindedness required is beyond 90% of the population, I reckon) applies equally here, although one might argue with the definition of "success" in the case of most politicians. In any case, the book sets out the bizarre life of the British politician and you're left with a disconcerting sense that the job is increasingly only appealing to the kind of person you wouldn't trust to look after your cat, let alone your country. Extra marks for including the unintentionally hilarious review from William Hague: "It left me disappointed."
Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett (1993)
One of my favourite Discworld novels, mainly because it has a bit of a romantic element to it and I am a sucker for a happy romantic ending. Also I am constantly marvelling at Pratchett's lightness of touch as a narrator; he doesn't spell things out but implies them, so you feel clever for spotting them.
The Week (8 August 2015 / Issue 1034)
Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson (1995)
This is on my list of favourite books (non-fiction category) for a reason: it's such an enjoyable journey. Even though it's now twenty years old and some elements of the country he toured have changed, it's still very accurate about English people and their nature and fascinating about many places.
Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen (2014)
An easy holiday (re)read. What struck me this time is how acerbic he is about the takeover of EMAP (publisher of Q, Select etc) by corporate management consultancy bollocks. I don't blame him for getting out, but the ending of Word magazine does sound a bit sad.
The Week (15 August 2015 / Issue 1035)
The Week (22 August 2015 / Issue 1036)
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (2012)
A fantastic central concept (if slightly obvious - parallel universes are not a new idea, of course) with loads of great ideas, that simply takes too long to get going. The whole book feels like it is scene-setting - something you'd expect of the first few chapters of the book, not all fifty-two - and it ends on a kind-of cliff-hanger, presumably for the next novel (which is conveniently advertised on the inside back cover).
The Week (29 August 2015 / Issue 1037)
I Think You'll Find It's A Bit More Complicated Than That by Ben Goldacre (2014)
Bite-size chunks of Goldacre magic, which can mostly be found on badscience.net but are still nice to have in book form. The book is split into multiple sections covering various topics, but a recurring theme is the inability of journalists to understand, check or communicate basic science - a failing that, as Goldacre points out, has serious, even fatal consequences; for example, the whole MMR farce, which was almost entirely media driven. (One such takedown provoked an unintentionally hilarious "rebuttal" from a science journalist, rightly summarised by Goldacre as "explaining why health journalists can't be expected to check facts." So much for trusting any other reporting then ...). What makes Goldacre so much fun, apart from the obvious joy of watching idiots get exposed, is that his writing is funny and flavoursome.

31/07/2015

Reading - July 2015

Guitarist (August 2015 | Issue 396)
Prelude To Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1988)
I find it amusing that my copy of this book has the following quote on the front: "One of the most staggering achievements in modern SF" (from The Times). The quote's not dated but Asimov's Foundation series, staggering as it indeed is, is not modern SF and wasn't when this novel was released. This particular book is a little too long and has the trademark clunky-ness but Asimov fans quite like that, I think. A nice easy read.
The Week (4 July 2015 | Issue 1029)
iWoz by Steve Wozniak (with Gina Smith) (2006)
The world according to Woz.
The Week (13 July 2015 | Issue 1030)
This week's Week came with a free copy of the US Week of the week. I expected greater differences in reporting but as well as the format being almost identical, many of the stories were not just the same, but written pretty much the same way. Obviously there are differences in domestic reporting and it's interesting to reflect that if their political in-fighting seems trivial to me, from a distance, so does ours to anyone else.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)
Even more enjoyable the second time round. Full of great ideas even if the kitsch 80s references start to get a little too cute.
Brian May's Red Special by Brian May (with Simon Bradley) (2014)
Another read of this fascinating book. I still can't quite believe all the thought that went into the one guitar Brian and his father made. So many good ideas that haven't made the mainstream of guitar making - I wonder why not?
The Week (18 July 2015 | Issue 1031)
Forward The Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1993)
Second in the Foundation series but the last to be written, this does a decent job of pulling together some of the pieces in earlier books, but is probably one for completists really. A good read though.
Guitarist (Summer 2015 | Issue 397)
The Week (25 July 2015 | Issue 1032)
Another Man's Life by Greg Williams (2007)
Kind of male chick-lit - the cover quote compares it to Nick Hornby which is close enough. The big concept is of two men - twins - one single, one married, who decide to swap lives for a fortnight - "with hilarious consqequences", as the cliche goes. Predictably, it turns out that both of them can learn from each other. Aaaah. An enjoyable read though.

12/07/2015

Pedal Power 2015

How joining a forum can be dangerous to your bank balance

In January this year an equally guitar-obsessed colleague recommended I have a look at The Fretboard - a UK-based forum for guitar obsessives everywhere. As well giving me opportunity to put my level of interest into perspective (very mild!), it also introduced me to a much wider world of guitar equipment than I had previously found in the pages of Guitarist.

It also has a classifieds section. I had a few pedals up until the beginning of this year, but of those on the right, twelve were bought since joining the forum. I sold a few, and sold a guitar too, so I'm not out of pocket ... yet.

Following are some notes about what they are, approximately in the order I bought them, and why I bought them, primarily for my own interest in years to come.
Cry Baby Super Wah [1]
This is the first pedal I ever bought, probably in about 1986, via the classifieds in Guitarist magazine. It cost about £25. It's a late 70s Cry Baby, made in Italy by Jen and has inside it a white Fasel inductor. This is now quite a valuable model. At the time wah-wah was very unpopular, but I bought it because I read (in Guitarist) that it was a mark of skill to be able to use one. It's been with me ever since and I don't anticipate ever selling it, although it now needs some maintenance on the pot. But the Cry Baby is legendary! Watch the documentary in the link if you don't believe me!
Bright Onion Pedal Mini Looper [2]
This is the first pedal I bought on the forum this year, specifically so I could isolate the Cry Baby in a loop (it's that kind of looper). The wah is a great pedal but when it's off it still has an effect on the overall tone - and not a good one. Also perfect for auditioning pedals in a chain. Cost - £15.
DOD FX65B Stereo Chorus [3]
Back in sequence, this was bought in the early late 80s in a long-gone music shop in Amersham for the princely sum of £66 (it says on the box - the equivalent now of about £145!). No idea why I thought I needed a chorus pedal and I've never used it much, but it's a lovely wet 80s chorus.
BOSS CS3 Compressor/Sustainer [4]
Bought secondhand in the Record & Video Exchange in Notting Hill for £40 or so in the late 80s, this has had quite a lot of use but mainly (I now realise) as a boost. Given what I know now, I would have been better off with a treble booster or a Tube Screamer, but it's a classic anyway. I don't use it much now.
MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay [5]
About the same time as the DOD and BOSS I had an early digital delay pedal (a Frontline FD1200). It's long gone to the electronic graveyard but last year I decided I wanted a delay again and for some reason I wanted an all-analogue path. This got plenty of good reviews, so I went for it - cost, about £130 in Stompbox in Northwood Hills. It's a good pedal for short ambient delays.
MXR Phase 90 [6]
Another old pedal I owned long ago was a phaser made by Ken Multi - possibly a Maplins own brand thingy. It was very cheap but, even off, it had a nice effect on the sound. I wanted a phaser again and they don't get more classic than the Phase 90 ... but I was disappointed. I've since done the R28 mod and it definitely improves the sound. Cost was about £70 at Stompbox (bought at the same time as the Carbon Copy).
Electro Harmonix Soul Food [7]
At the beginning of the year I got some Amazon Vouchers from work. I'd been reading about this, apparently a clone(ish) of the legendary Klon Centaur. I've not played a Klon but I've played a J Rockett Archer (which is supposedly very close) and the Soul Food is the same kind of pedal - lots of boost and some overdrive if you want it. But compared to the Archer, it's a bit rough and shrill. Still good for boost and light drive, and contains an excellent buffer. About £50.
Electro Harmonix Neo Clone [8]
I had a bit left over on my Amazon vouchers and managed to translate this into another £50 on a chorus pedal I didn't really need. In my defence I thought the DOD was broken at the time, and its defence it does the "Come As You Are" wobble perfectly, but give I don't use chorus much, it was a bit pointless. I'd sell it but it's worth nothing really.
Joyo Tremelo [9]
I always fancied experimenting with a tremelo, mainly inspired by Jonny Greenwood I think. This was £20 on the forum. Does what it says on the tin, doesn't do a square wave trem which I realise is what I really wanted, but a good basic sound.
Marshall EH1 Echohead Delay [10]
The Carbon Copy is a great sounding pedal but because it's analogue, it's only got a short delay (about 600ms) and I decided I wanted a longer delay. This is a surprisingly versatile pedal and for £40 (off the forum) it's a steal.
Meridian SK12 Volume Pedal [11]
Very poor volume pedal acquired in a trade for my Pocket POD. A fundamental design flaw means that it cannot rotate its internal pot fully, so it either goes from off to about half volume, or goes from about half volume to full volume. The guy who sold it to me very kindly sent me a replacement pot to try, but the design issue remains. Probably only to be kept for soldering experimentation.
4114 Effects "Eight Zero Eight" [12]
I traded my EMG T-Set pickups for this. It's an Ibanez Tube Screamer (TS808) clone made by a custom effects maker in the UK. Since I traded with Dan himself, I think he must have made this for his own use. It's a bit noisy but pretty good. No idea how close it is to the original.
ZCat Poly-Octaver [13]
Bit of an odd one this. It does octave up, octave down, reverb and chorus - any or all at once. I call it "Cocteau Twins in a box". Traded my old DOD flanger for it.
Electro Harmonix Big Muff Tone Wicker [14]
Everyone needs a Big Muff. £60 in Stompbox. I'm inclined to regard the tone control as superfluous since it sounds much nicer without, but it's pretty cool whichever way. Perfect in combination with the Phase 90 - instant John Martyn on "Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail" (from Inside Out) - one of my favourite guitar sounds.
3Leaf Audio Proton Envelope Filter [15]
I bought this because it came up the FB classifieds, I was curious and then I saw an awesome demo and realised this was the pedal I never realised I needed! £75 later it was mine. It's an auto-wah which, just like a manual wah, requires a certain amount of practice, and it has a very distinct tone of its own. Great fun though.
TC Electronic Ditto X2 Looper [16]
I'd been messing around with overlaying sounds using the Echohead and realised what I really needed was a looper (the other kind of looper, one that records and plays a recorded loop for you). The X2 added a couple of interesting features, although in hindsight I could have done without them. Lots of fun working out layers of sound.
ProCo Rat [17]
Came up cheap on the forum (£40) and it's a classic, so I thought I'd give it a go. Fizzy 80s distortion a-plenty, but probably needs a properly wound up amp to sound really good.
Handmade Phase 45 clone [18]
Another purchase on the forum, this handmade custom job set me back £60. On reflection it's probably not really worth that, but it's very tidily made. Still pretty new to me and so I am still dialling it in, but it sounds like it's got real potential as a "sweetener" at the front of my chain.

09/07/2015

iWoz

Steve Wozniak (with Gina Smith)
2006

The world according to Woz

So synonymous has Steve Jobs become with Apple that most people don't even realise that there were other people involved, let alone the fact that it was arguably this other Steve who was the real driving genius behind the Apple II and Apple's original success. Steve Wozniak is certainly not short in the ego department, but as he explains, as an engineer, all he wanted was to be able to do engineering. So he never took the limelight in the same way as Steve Jobs.

In fact, Jobs doesn't get much space in this book. Wozniak spends much more time on what he obviously considers the important subject - the engineering - and appears unconcerned with, or even downright scathing of, the sales and marketing which must have been an equally important part of Apple's success. (In his few appearances, Jobs comes across as a bit of an arse.)

One thing that Wozniak does have in common with Jobs - and indeed with just about every successful person - is that he gives too much credit to his own genius, effort, application and insight - and too little to luck. If Wozniak hadn't designed the Apple II then someone else would have designed something similar or something that would have taken its place. It was clear (with hindsight) where the industry was heading and Apple was far from being the only company working in the area. History is written by the winners and the winners are often just fortunate. No-one's going to deny Wozniak is a legend, but there are plenty of unsung geniuses who just weren't in the right place at the right time.

The book is an interesting read, even for someone like me, who has no real interest in Apple as a company. It is fairly clear that it was only "written" in the loosest sense by Wozniak; he probably spent hours talking to Gina Smith who then transcribed it. The tone is surprisingly childish in some respects; maybe "conversational" would be another way to describe it - it's not particularly stylish.

30/06/2015

Reading - June 2015

The Code Book by Simon Singh (2000)
An interesting, accessible, well-written introduction to cryptography and related subjects. Its only drawback (at least in the edition I have) is that it is now out-of-date; it discusses the theoretical possibility of quantum cryptography, which now appears (incredibly) to be a reality.
Guitarist (July 2015 / Issue 395)
The Week (6 June 2015 / Issue 1025)
The Year Of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (2007)
This charts the author's attempt to fulfill all the commands in the Old and New Testaments for a year - not just the obvious ten, but all the minor, obscure, ignored or just plain daft. In doing so, Jacobs isn't attempting to grind any particular axe. It would be easy to conduct this exercise as a way of showing up the ridiculousness of religious fundamentalists or literalists, but he never does, and indeed genuinely tries to understand those who do follow those paths. However, at the end, he reaches the only reasonable conclusion; anyone religious practices a form of "cafeteria religion", and to criticise someone else's choice is pointless.
The Week (13 June 2015 / Issue 1026)
Self Made Man by Norah Vincent (2006)
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (2009)
All the various experiments Ariely and various colleagues have done to show that however logical we like to think we are, it doesn't take much to show we aren't. His main point is to try and inject some sense into market economics which (he says) is all based on the assumption that everyone acts rationally, and is summarised best in one paragraph (which I will have to paraphrase because I can't find it): we don't design roads with the assumption that everyone is always a perfect driver, so why design an economic system assuming that everyone is a perfect economist? Entertaining and thought-provoking.
The End Of Eternity by Isaac Asimov (1955)
Taken of the bookshelf for B to read, but ended up re-reading it myself. Great stuff, but inevitably dated in many respects; it's fascinating how rooted in their own time science fiction stories are, but that said it a lot easier to spot with sixty years perspective!
Jeeves And The Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse (1954)
Fantastically comic writing, of course, but even at the time this was written this must have been an anachronism. Maybe we should call it "out of time". A lovely little story to amuse.
The Week (20 June 2015 / Issue 1027)
The Week (27 June 2015 / Issue 1028)

16/06/2015

Self Made Man

Norah Vincent
2006

I first read this about five years along with another book - it served as an unintentional yin to the extreme yang of The Game by Neil Strauss, the notorious chronicle-slash-manual of the "art" of pick-up artists. I've often thought about it since, so I thought re-reading was worthwhile.

The book is like the equivalent of Watching The English but for (American) men - an inside view from an outsider. Norah Vincent spent a year disguised as "Ned", in largely exclusively male environments (including bowling leagues, strip clubs and a monastery) and also in mixed environments (for example, dating) as a man. She discusses and make contrasts between the way men behave amongst themselves and received women's wisdom about how and why men act; and between women's assumptions about men's motives and what she discovers to be their real motives.

Since Norah Vincent is a journalist, this is an account of her journey and resultant opinions rather than anything scientific (is the latter even possible in this context?), but nevertheless she reaches the only reasonable conclusion: whatever generalisations, simplifications and stereotypes women and men hold about each other are both right and wrong. Or, to put it another way, it's not that simple. Yes, the stereotypes exist for a reason. No, that's not the whole story. Duh.

The book struggles a bit with length, since the material doesn't quite stretch, but it would be too much for a Sunday supplement article. Still very interesting. Now if only someone would do it the other way round!

31/05/2015

Reading - May 2015

Guitarist (June 2015 / Issue 394)
The Week (2 May 2015 / Issue 1020)
Confessions Of A Record Producer by Moses Avalon (1998)
As a student of the pop music industry, I have read quite widely around the subject - not just pop bios but also the business side of things. Nevertheless this managed to surprise me in a number of respects - mostly the one-sidedness of contracts even forty years on from the most notably exploitative ones. Interesting, revealing and essential reading for anyone assuming that whoever you see on your television is automatically rich, let alone anyone thinking they might enter the business. The fact that this edition is quite old (nearly 20 years!), and as a result notably wrong about the impending digital revolution, doesn't lessen its impact.
The Week (9 May 2015 / Issue 1021)
The Week (16 May 2015 / Issue 1022)
Twentieth anniversary issue! A fact denoted by a small flag on the front cover, a brief mention on the editorial and nothing else (the thousandth issue was even less celebrated).
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan (2006)
The Week (23 May 2015 / Issue 1023)
Slash by Slash with Anthony Bozza (2007)
I couldn't name more than about two Guns 'n' Roses songs and fewer of any post GNR bands Slash has been in, but I was intrigued enough by his story to keep going through what is a fairly lengthy book. There is no way this guy should be alive! Although he says it's the music that has kept him together, there's not really much about how he arrives at it - maybe he or the publishers think that the general public won't be interested. Still, it's made me keen to go and listen to his albums ... I just have to see how long I can bear Axl Rose's voice (who btw comes across as a prize tit in this book).
The Week (30 May 2015 / Issue 1024)

23/05/2015

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
2006

I didn't know exactly what age this book is aimed at, but it's published in the UK by Electric Monkey, an Egmont imprint that specialises in teen/YA (presumably "young adult") fiction. Since Norah is eighteen in the book, and Nick a touch older, I would guess that the intended readership is therefore roughly fifteen-plus. Is the "plus" bit of that supposed to extend all the way to 46? No matter - I'm a sucker for a nice bit of romantic fiction and I enjoyed the film so I thought, let's try the original book, even if it is for kids.

Well. Um. Teen fiction sure has changed since I was that age. I can't remember exactly what I was reading when I was fifteen, but I'm pretty sure that none of the characters swore (at all), had abusive ex-boyfriends or (almost) gave blow-jobs in public places. In fact, the whole thing is much more like one of the racier Harlequin novels (maybe something from the Desire series) than what I had expected - although for Harlequin they would have to reduce the teen angst.

Oh - and seriously tone down the language. This book has probably the single highest FpP ("fuck" per page) count of any I have read recently - and when you consider that I am also currently reading Slash's autobiography, that's really saying something. I know that's how kids talk, and it doesn't offend me, but generally you don't write dialogue exactly how people talk because it doesn't come across right ("Like, um, so, he said, I dunno, something, right, and I was so, like, um ...") - unless you're going for a specific effect. Here, it just speaks of an insufficient vocabulary. Maybe that's right for the characters when speaking (although they are both supposed to be intelligent) but for their internal dialogue, it just seems lazy.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy it. It successfully captures a very teen experience; the heady, hormonal rush of meeting someone amazing and becoming so involved with them in just a few hours that you feel you know them inside out. I like the "he said/she said" format of alternate chapters from each character's viewpoint, although the motivations are still a little hazy sometimes. But it's a good read, the right length and the right ending.

Would I let my teenage children read it? Well, I actually did already know that teen fiction is a lot different from what I read. My 13 year-old has read the Hunger Games trilogy and although I haven't, I believe it's fairly grim. He wouldn't be interested in this because it's not action/thriller stuff. But my daughter? Well, it contains references to things I would like to think she doesn't need to know about until she's at least fifteen ... but maybe I'm kidding myself. I don't know.

30/04/2015

Reading - April 2015

The Illustrated Eric by Terry Pratchett and Josh Kirby(1990)
The usual - very funny in places, some satire, particularly of religion in this case. Rincewind isn't one of my favourite characters but this is at the usual standard.
The Week (4 April 2015 / Issue 1016)
The Week (11 April 2015 / Issue 1017)
Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre (2013)
Just as enjoyable the second time round. Shades of The Matrix aside, there's some good ideas in here and an interesting side-line in the ethics surrounding what he calls "digital consciousness". And any Christopher Brookmyre is all right with me.
Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman (2000)
Another read of the sequel to the wonderful Adventures In The Screen Trade (although bear in mind that Goldman himself says that, in the movies, sequels are whore's films - because they are always about the money). More about the craft of screen writing this time. Entertaining but could have been a little shorter.
Wood & Steel (Winter 2014 / Volume 81)
The most comprehensive advert I have ever seen. Taylor Guitars' in-house magazine - interesting but only designed to make you want to buy more guitars (and in this it has succeeded. I would love another Taylor.)
The Week (18 April 2015 / Issue 1018)
Le Freak by Nile Rodgers (2011)
I'm not normally a fan of biographies. However this was recommended and in this case the story is so unusual that it is quite an amazing read. And if Nile appears to be a little full of himself at times ... well, he's probably got good reason to be.
The Week (25 April 2015 / Issue 1019)

31/03/2015

Reading - March 2015

What The Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell (2009)
Despite knowing about Malcolm Gladwell, this is the first book of his I've read. I can see why he is popular: the articles (all originally from The New Yorker magazine) manage to condense some complex subjects into very readable, entertaining and thought-provoking pieces. In style, he reminds me of Tom Wolfe. There's a couple of pieces about Enron and their problems - their "star" culture and dodgy financial engineering - that come a little close to home for comfort.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (~1599)
An old favourite and the only Shakespeare play I have ever read. Mainly because of the 1993 film, which we watched load and loads, 20 (gulp) years ago.
The Week (28 February 2015 / Issue 1011)
The Week (7 March 2015 / Issue 1012)
Guitarist (April 2015 / Issue 392)
One-Hit Wonder by Lisa Jewell (2001)
A lovely, warm novel, that I (re)read at almost one sitting. One of my favourites. Great characters and a good story. Why hasn't this been made into a film?
The Week (14 March 2015 / Issue 1013)
Adventures In The Screen Trade by William Goldman (1982)
An absolute classic and a must for anyone with a passing interest in film, or in fact anyone who has ever watched a film. One of the kind of books you find yourself quoting at people whenever the subject comes up. I've re-read it many times.
The Week (21 March 2015 / Issue 1014)
The Week (28 March 2015 / Issue 1015)
Behind The Scenes At The Baked Bean Museum by Hunter Davies (2010)
Hunter Davies is probably best known as the author of the only authorised Beatles biography (a title he is likely to retain forever now), but I first came across him in the pages of Punch magazine in the 70s. This book is sub-titled "My Search For Britain's Maddest Museums" but my guess is that was imposed by the publisher, since the only really eccentric museum is the one in the title. The rest seem perfectly understandable - unusual maybe, but no more than others. He only visits eighteen, out of what I am sure are many more, and at least three of those are proper, legit businesses (or owned by one), like the National Football Museum in Preston (now in Manchester), or the money museum in Edinburgh. So really it's just a wander through a miscellany of museums. Entertaining enough though.

16/03/2015

We get the politicians we deserve

"Every nation gets the government it deserves"
Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821)


When you consider the hatchet jobs, launched by a media desperate to fill yawning caverns of space, and consumed by a complacent public uncaring about the collateral damage it causes to real people and real lives, you have to wonder who would willingly place themselves in that position. Perhaps people who are sufficiently thick-skinned or arrogant enough to not care about other people - at all?

When you consider the dredging up of personal information, the assumption by everyone that anything about a politician's life is fair game because they are in the public eye, and knowledge of which is regarded as a right by the general public rather than the invasion of privacy it is, you have to wonder what would motivate someone to put themselves there. Perhaps someone whose main aim is to further their own interests rather than to help people?

When you consider the pathetic small-mindedness of the political game-playing that rejoices in scoring the most trivial of points off the opposition rather than debating genuine issues and the demonising of people based on a slight difference of opinion, all a result of attempting to appeal to a public that refuses to understand or engage with the real issues, you have to wonder what kind of person suits that role. Perhaps someone sufficiently small minded and trivial to play the game well or think it worth playing?

We get the politicians we deserve.

07/03/2015

Organized

Morgan
2000

As I have mentioned before, my last great single buying period (er, OK, the only one) threw up a surprising number of good tracks. One of my favourites is a perky, organ-led groove called "Miss Parker" by the mysterious "Morgan". I knew nothing about it at the time and despite occasional searches, nothing more for some time.

I finally got round to buying it ten years later and, even later than that, some information emerged. "Morgan" is Morgan Nicholls, originally the bass player with Senseless Things, minor-league indie faves from the early 90s. This is a whole lot more prosaic than I expected from the single, to be honest.

Still, it shouldn't and doesn't detract from the album. Despite showing obvious influences - from acid jazz days (and JTQ in particular), most obviously on something like "When I Close My Eyes", plus a bit of Lemon Jelly (the Tom Jones sampling "At The Flamingo Hotel") - Organized (great title) stands up by itself. Stand out tracks: "Miss Parker" of course (although I prefer the Dust Brothers remix) and the laid back, hazy, Hammond-drenched "Soul Searching Part 1". "Something He Said" is also nice in a groovy, late-90s way. Well worth investigating.

28/02/2015

Reading - February 2015

Guitarist (March 2015 / Issue 391)
Simon's Cat by Simon Tofield (2009)
Cute but nowhere near as funny as the YouTube cartoons. K is enjoying it.
The Week (7 February 2015 / Issue 1008)
The Week (14 February 2015 / Issue 1009)
Quirkology by Richard Wiseman (2007)
A compendium of studies into the way people think and act. Mostly fairly trivial things (the kind that make you think, "people get paid for researching this?"), but some that have serious consequences, like what unconsciously affects who people vote for (clue: nothing to do with policies). Very anecdotal but well footnoted, but a few too many occurrences of phrases like "although later studies have called this into question" - which makes me think that perhaps the initial study, however interesting, shouldn't be quoted.
The Second Book Of General Ignorance by John Lloyd & John Mitchinson (2010)
More amazing facts etc. Mostly very interesting (and with an occasional overlap with Quirkology, above), but sometimes a little too little varied in tone - "here's another thing everyone is wrong about". More for dipping into than anything else.
Simon's Cat in Kitten Chaos by Simon Tofield (2011)
Actually rather wearing after a while. Didn't finish it, despite the fact that doing so would only have taken about 10 minutes.
The Big Issue (16-22 February 2015 / Issue 1141)
The Week (21 February 2015 / Issue 1010)
How To Bake by Paul Hollywood (2012)
A good introduction to a number of types of baking, including bread. Feels a bit like a short book about bread that got expanded with other baking so that they could charge more for it, but decent amounts of info on bread-making techniques and equipment, and including some approaches and recipes I haven't come across before. Good illustrations. Suffers from a common issue with recipe books, which is that it is nicely bound but won't stay open at the page you want while you try actually make the recipe!
Lunarbaboon Vol 1 by Chris Grady (2014)
Lunarbaboon is my favourite web comic and so last year I put some cash down for my first Kickstarter project to get a copy of the first book. It contains comics from the first year, so I've mostly read them, but I think they're good enough to preserve. The book is now more generally available - buy a copy!

31/01/2015

Reading - January 2015

The Week (3 January 2015 / Issue 1003)
The Book Of General Ignorance by John Lloyd & the QI Elves (2006)
aka "The Stephen Fry Lectures", or the scripts of facts he reads out after the "contestants" on QI have finished making jokes. Its possible origin as prompt cards on the TV programme may account for the slightly irritating written style, using a sentence per paragraph in the manner of a Daily Wail article. Still, choc-full of interesting tidbits to be quoted at people (although no citations for verification).
Guitarist (February 2015 / Issue 390)
The Week (10 January 2015 / Issue 1004)
One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013)
Endlessly entertaining but also just a bit endless. Bryson seems to be finally suffering from an ailment common to other very successful authors (notably J.K. Rowling); an over-indulgent editor. A lesser-known author would be more robustly curtailed, one feels. Bryson's trademark asides and fascinating details are all here, but perhaps a little more than necessary. Still, a very interesting book about a time in history that feels close, yet so far away.
The Auto-Biography by Mark Wallington (2013)
A very amusing "life in cars", in which the author recalls the various cars of his life and how they have been interwoven into his own life story, from his parents' first car to his own current car. This is not an enthusiast's nerdy, dull recital but an average man's story. Good fun.
The Week (17 January 2015 / Issue 1005)
The Week (24 January 2015 / Issue 1006)
Inside Out: A Personal History Of Pink Floyd by Nick Mason (2011)
Originally published in 2004 but reissued and updated with additional material about what looks likely to be the definitively last proper Floyd reunion, the 2005 Live 8 concert (although you never know I guess). Gently amusing and gently interesting, but didn't really capture me much. Whether this is because I've never been a massive Floyd fan, or because (auto) biographies don't really interest me, or because of the sense of detached irony that Mason brings to his commentary, I don't know. Took me a long time to finish.
Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan (2014)
A sweet, warm book about a woman who escapes to an outpost of south England and ends up opening a bakery. A nice mix of a little drama and a little love; possibly could have done with being a touch shorter (we all know how it's going to end, stop spinning it out!) but very pleasant nonetheless.
The Week (31 January 2015 / Issue 1007)

30/01/2015

The Art Of Doing Nothing

Mark Owen
2013

Not really nothing at all

I've been going through a Take That phase for some reason. Take That have achieved something no other band I can think of have: their reunion/comeback has been more of an artistic success than the original incarnation. Much of the original Take That material sounds callow, while the second time round the hit songs are pinnacles of pure pop: tracks like "Patience", "Shine", "Rule The World", "Greatest Day" and "The Flood".

The latter track comes from Progress, the big reconciliation album with Robbie Williams. Perhaps inevitably there was an accompanying documentary, and one thing struck me while watching it, which was this clip of Mark Owen recording a vocal - headphones on, so all we can hear is his voice and not the track. Until then I hadn't realised how noticeable his rhotacism is - he can't pronounce his "R"s. It doesn't stick out in the context of a track but, once you start listening for it, you can hear it - and I personally find it rather endearing.

Obviously Gary Barlow and Robbie have had their solo careers but less well known is that Mark Owen has also released four albums. They haven't been particularly successful - he's quoted as saying that he doesn't have Ferraris, he has his solo albums. I decided to have a listen (what a wonder Spotify is) and chose, for no particular reason that I can remember, this one, which is the most recent.

I wasn't expecting much, but have been pleasantly surprised. There are a good number of very listenable tracks. The first to grab me was the first track, "Giveaway", an unexpectedly moody and atmospheric start to an album, with a nicely echo-ey, electronic feel. "Stars", which was the lead single, has more of a beat and a great chorus. My current favourite is "Heaven's Falling", which builds nicely and even has a kind of rap section (which I quite like).

All are pretty electronic in feel, mostly based around initial synth chord sequences (which, if videos of the tour are to be believed, Mark played himself), and all build in a similar, but effective, way. He's clearly learned a thing or two over the twenty years of working with the best writers and producers, and I guess he can call on a few people too. Some tracks are a little derivative ("Raven" is a dead ringer for Coldplay) but overall, great pop.