Bored On The Fourth Of July?

Beach

Image by Terri Cnudde from Pixabay

Not really. I actually wrote this a few summers ago while I was on holiday and pretty much disconnected from the internet, something that many people can’t deal with anymore, as evidenced by people I see leaving shops or the Royal Mail parcel collection point and immediately reaching for their smartphones.

Instead I was using an energy efficient, wireless information transmission media to give me something to do when not watching ships go by, fishermen fishing or birds swooping around – reading books and magazines. It was great, relaxing, not feeling that I should be doing anything else. I did even less in the afternoon after arriving – simply sitting in the sun watching the occasional boat go by and listening to the waves and birds. Me and my folks had walked into the nearby town, eaten fish and chips by the sea and done some shopping.

I wasn’t completely electronics-free, I had access to a digital TV to watch Antiques Roadtrip and thousands of songs stored on my phone to listen to but mostly I was only doing these things later in the evening, after Cider-O’Clock, when the sun was setting and, to paraphrase the cricket, bad light stops reading. If I’d relied on internet streaming services I’d have no music or TV.

If I stood in the right place I could get a faint 4G signal and my phone beeped a few urgent notifications at me but I didn’t feel the need to leap on them like my life depended on them, like they were some kind of life-sustaining manna from the cloud. For many today though the lack of connection would be unbearable – no way to know what everyone else is doing, no way of telling anyone what they’re doing – OMG people will think I’ve disappeared, or that I’m upset with them, I’ll lose their interest, or worst of all, I’ll fall off their news feeds, arghh. Some people would even worry that they’d miss something important from their work, that they should be available, just in case.

People who spend too much time online call this a digital detox but for me it wasn’t too different from being at home really, though it was refreshing to be away from the lure of Ebay – bargain hunter that I am it’s easy to just sit looking for stuff I don’t really need or in the end never actually buy. As it was the holiday was timed perfectly as at home I was still sorting out and reducing unnecessary stuff following my house move so if I’d been at home I’d have spent every spare moment digitising paperwork to then recycle.

So as the Americans celebrated their independence day (no comment) I celebrated my independence from their digital monoliths with a cider by the sea and sunset.

Buried Treasure

Record Player

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Back before music downloads were included in the singles Top 40, before downloads at all, we’d buy a song we liked as a single rather than wait for the full album, tempted by the bonus b-side and the CD era even better as they tended to have up to four tracks on a disk rather than the two of a vinyl single. This of course meant lots of B-sides, which after track 2 should have been C and D-sides but anyway since downloading took off you often tend to just get the one song, probably because people just choose to play the single on a streaming service.

There were, and are, though many artists whose leftovers from an album production are that good that they could make up a standalone album by itself, hence the occasional B-sides compilation cropping up.  Elbow’s “Dead in The Boot” is a very good example, as is REM’s “Dead Letter Office”.

There are though artists that have never released the b-sides and rarities collected together, or they’re difficult to get hold of, and I’ve recently found that Amazon comes in handy. In the early 2000s there was a group called Lemon Jelly who produced wonderful electronic and sampled music, often with folk, jazz and other musical influences. Their three albums never seemed enough so I wondered, last year, if any of their singles or EPs were on Amazon. I was overjoyed to find that many were and even better they were even available as MP3s. I was able to buy, over fifteen years after the last album, at least another LPs worth of what to me was new music, all of it as great as the albums I’d already got.

So yet again it’s amazing what you can find waiting to be rediscovered.

The Technology of Staying Apart

high angle view of woman sitting at desk

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

Traditional industries such as the one I am in don’t allow working from home, we sell glass, I haven’t got the room for the cutting table. Cloud based working though has allowed many businesses to continue through the current pandemic, many of whom have been critical. The internet of course has been fantastically useful at home for entertainment, education and information. It has been amazing how a number of technologies which once seemed niche have suddenly come of age.

Remote working has evolved quickly in the last few years thanks to Cloud Computing – information and even applications that you access on a computer being stored on servers somewhere else in the world, connected via the internet rather than being in the same building or on the computer itself – from the old days of clunky low-bandwidth video calling and rudimentary remote control to full team working and sharing of screens and data enabling full real-time collaboration where all participants can manipulate data in a shared space while discussing it as though in the same room. The most important area where this technology is critical is the efforts to develop a vaccine where data can be shared instantly.
  The advent of internet phones and internet based systems used by large companies has allowed call centres to be distributed, you might ring British Gas or Severn Trent Water – as I did about a blocked drain – and it seems like you’re talking to a chap in a big room full of people but maybe the background noise doesn’t seem the same, maybe that’s because he’s in his kitchen at home, in his slippers. Because the booking system for the engineers relies on internet-connected servers rather than the old wired connections within a building the computer used can be anywhere. Internet phones are the same, plug one into any internet connection and the traditional landline phone number associated with it can be used to ring it, anywhere on the planet.
  It was also a momentous day when Prime Minister’s Questions was carried out for the first time ever with barely any MPs present in the house of commons – most of them attending via video link. This could be a hint at how to do things in the future, cut travel costs and make sure that all the MPs can be there wherever they are. In fact already there are rumours (some are calling them conspiracy theories already) that universities are looking at this situation as a model for future methods of delivering lectures and that this could usher in a new business structure where companies have their workers at home all the time and wouldn’t need large offices just facilities for the servers and spaces for face-to-face meetings. The number of people commuting could be reduced too reducing road traffic and pollution as everyday work, meetings and even conferences and presentations can be done online as more people have now had to learn how to do it, the tv joke of someone sat in a suit and tie up top with pyjamas below the desk could, in the future, become normal. The nightmare flipside is being asked to take your phone and laptop on holiday with you – just in case we need you to take a few calls – ha, don’t think so.

Beyond work video calling, such as by Zoom, Skype or Facebook’s standalone devices keep family and friends in contact alongside normal phones. Online shopping allows people to get essentials while in isolation. Even volunteering, whether on a local scale or the NHS’ system has enabled volunteers to be notified on their mobile apps if someone needs medication delivering, taking to an appointment or just needs a chat with someone. Technology has truly enabled everyone to pull together and feel closer together while staying apart.
  Radio stations have set up micro studios in presenters houses, TV presenters have similarly done shows from home, adverts for TV and radio have been made remotely, many using footage from smartphones including shows specially for the lockdown including cookery and craft shows. Stock footage and image libraries have clearly been plundered for many of these lockdown-specific adverts.
  Have I Got News For You, which I just happened to see on the BBC the other night has the usual studio setup with the presenter in the middle and the two teams of panellists either side but with the guests on superimposed monitor screens instead of being present which looked surreal as they still cut to each guest as if they were there rather than showing their image full-screen.
  BBC4 have made a short series of programmes “Museums in Quarantine” featuring art experts exploring closed museums either via their online presence or via special permission to visit on their own providing a different viewpoint and something interesting to watch.
  Then there was the remotely recorded, distributed benefit concert Together At Home, which seemed to gether more comments on the artists’ homes, or home studios, than anything regarding their performances.
  Formula One and Formula E have held simulator based virtual races, using the already realistic training sims the drivers use before each race to practice for the first practice on the real thing. And even the Grand National was held virtually, all thanks to the still increasing power of computers that pack the graphical power of what used to fill a room into a desktop box – or rather a server rack full of them.

Magazines such as Fortean Times have been able to distribute their operation to their staff’s homes, having prepared years ago to be able to do so so apart from the printing and distribution the magazine can still be produced – and were even prepared for if it had to become online only for a while as they provided temporary free access to the digital edition for us subscribers. Again this is thanks to being able to create the various bits on PCs at home and then bringing them together via the Cloud, or email, into a print magazine via Desktop Publishing which is then sent digitally to the printers where the ethereal finally becomes the physical and drops on our doormat without any hint of disruption.

Home schooling has become the norm and there are numerous online resources for all ages, many of which have either always been free or have been while our lockdowns have been in place, with even the BBC providing what they’ve called Bitesize Daily – short educational programmes, as well as other online courses being provided free for people staying home to have something educational to do.  Online gaming has continued to bring people together, even if they are marauding across a virtual battlefield.  If there’s been nothing to watch on TV then there’s been the seemingly infinite resource of learning, entertainment and cat videos, YouTube to fall back on. 

There had been initial problems with systems for remote working struggling with the extra demand, such as with Microsoft Teams, but the providers have been able to quickly adapt to cope. Zoom has proved controversial too due to government security concerns concerning the encryption keys sometimes going through Chinese servers.

On the inevitable dark side of things criminals have been trying to use the pandemic to con people but again technology has also helped against the online threats, Google’s Gmail for example has blocked 18 million malware and phishing attacks per day through use of machine learning to teach the system what to look out for. A massive number of emails and messages have been pretending to be from the WHO so much so that efforts have been made to specifically filter such messages to confirm authenticity.

Other technology that even I have dismissed in the past has suddenly become very useful and even I’ve used it. Contactless payment is particularly useful when food shopping, I criticised this when it came out for its potential for theft from your cards but even I have used it throughout. Online banking – which I still won’t use personally – is undeniably useful in reducing the number of people needing to use physical banks, where you have to use the ATMs for all transactions now – which of course can now take deposits, carry out transfers and so on as well as doling out cash.

It’s not only tech that seems to be, by good fortune, in place just when needed the TV channel Dave in the UK has been partnering with the Campaign Against Living Miserably for a number of months now to make people aware of the importance of staying in touch with those friends or family who are alone and at this time it’s an all the more important cause.

The Magic Jukebox

HiFi

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Back in 1996 I bought a CD player and my collection of CDs began, I was impressed at the time that this stereo had twin tape decks and could hold seven CDs, yes, seven, and it could shuffle them – a process gloriously punctuated with mechanical clanks and whirs as it swapped the disc trays around. It took a while to fill that, some albums took up permanent residence (Beth Orton, Trailer Park). Later I bought a Sony Minidisc player and was again impressed that I could store whole collections of albums on one mini disc. Of course next came a couple of little 4Gb then 8Gb MP3 players and it was mightily impressive to hold dozens of albums in a tiny aluminium box that fitted in your hand, I remember listening to every Elbow album during sunny evenings of one holiday in the Lake District, hearing some of them still brings back the memory.

According to Microsoft Zune which manages the MP3s on my main PC I have 1134 Albums from 521 Artists totalling 11565 songs. Many of these are singles, downloaded tracks and compilations but it’s a collection that’s given me my own personal radio station.
  A few years ago I saw an old advert for a 10Mb hard drive which cost thousands of pounds and today would hold a handful of documents, now I have thousands of times the storage in my pocket, this rapid rise in the size of affordable miniaturised storage has given us the ability to take so much music with us, and then broadband internet and 4G mobile took things even further.

When I lived in the town centre I liked to have some kind of background noise while using the computer for either reading or writing as it blocked out the kind of distracting noise from outside that I had to put up with otherwise, I’d have the radio on but the problems with that were firstly I spent half my time muting the radio because they were playing crap, and secondly I couldn’t seem to get a signal inside without crackly interference half the time.
  So I ditched the radio and replaced it with my own collection streamed over the internet via Google Play Music which allowed you to upload or match your own library to their servers. The hardware was made up of my old Nexus 7 tablet permanently sat in its charging cradle, mains powered and connected to a bluetooth speaker. The only problem in the early days was that sometimes it only played a song three seconds at a time, relying on slow broadband and less capacity for a large number of users, this is less of a problem now as the infrastructure of the internet improves all the time.
  Since then I’ve moved somewhere quieter but the technology has expanded. Now my phone can hold thousands of tracks itself, so my favourites are on that for use with headphones or the auxiliary adaptor I fitted to the car radio, meanwhile my newest tablet is connected to my Sony HiFi via a bluetooth adaptor doing the same job as the old one, connected to Google, so I can sit at the computer with the tablet on the desk and shuffle my entire collection or play anything I want, and if I want to go and sit on the sofa and listen I simply take the tablet with me.
  What still seemed futuristic a few years ago is the latest iteration of this – the Google Assistant, or Amazon Alexa or Apple Siri depending on your particular preference. If I feel like it I can simply yell across the living room “Hey Google, play Deacon Blue from my library” and it plays something by Deacon Blue on it’s own in built speaker – though I’d previously had it connected via Bluetooth to the Sony before the tablet took over that role.
  One strange occurrence with the Google Assistant happened recently.  I’d been asking Google to shuffle music from my extensive library regularly, the strange thing was that “she” seemed to have developed an eighties fixation – Human Leaque, OMD, ABC, Howard Jones, Spandau Ballet and more, nothing modern. They say it’s not real Artificial Intelligence yet, just programmed algorithms but sometimes I wonder.
  When shuffling the whole collection I get some surprises as many of my albums are freebies from newspapers so I get something I wouldn’t seek out, or something I’d forgotten about. I don’t pay for a streaming subscription but if you do then the choice is immense, when I bought my first CD in 1996, or my first LP in the eighties, in the days of “allow 28 days for delivery” and waiting a week for a record shop to order an album I wouldn’t have believed that within thirty years you’d be able to pick any album from hundreds of thousands and play it instantly, and even buy it to keep the same way.

It was said in the fifties that technology would improve life and in many little ways it does so all the time – personally it’s wonderful to be able to sit in the summer on the sofa at night, the window open with a cool breeze, looking at the stars and listening all the most fitting songs from across my collection without having to move, change cds or make a compilation in advance. “This is heaven, to me.” (Madeleine Peyroux, from the album Careless Love)

Rebooted Music – Buy, Buy and Buy Again?

Many CDs

Many CDs

Sometime in the early 2000s I bought an REM album, in a record store, and on the sticker on the case I saw the words “DELUXE EDITION” and made the mistake of not inspecting it closely. It turned out that the rest of the (much smaller) words on the sticker said “also available as a”. Hmm.

Since then I generally check if an album has a deluxe version at release but generally I don’t tend to buy albums until they’ve been out for a while, which is helpful these days.

The reason being the trend of artists (or perhaps the labels more accurately) releasing a deluxe version six months or more after the first release and expecting fans to buy the whole album again. Some bands do it right, releasing an EP after the main album and reissuing the original packaged with the extra tracks for those who are catching up but more often than not they don’t.

One noteable current example that is being commented on regularly on the radio station I listen to is Ed Sheeran’s “X” which I bought when it first came out, it’s now also available as a deluxe version and a deluxe-deluxe (Wembley) version too, with different extra tracks.  The same was true with both Ellie Goulding albums I have, there are many others I’m sure.

Our modern methods of listening to and buying music kind of makes this a moot point these days, you could just buy the extra tracks from Amazon, Google Play or iTunes, often for less than the deluxe CD but if you want to have the actual album in your hands it can get a bit pricey.

Once you’ve enjoyed an album it’s nice to be able to get just a little bit more but doing it that way, while benefiting the labels, is just going to be bad for the artists as even if the reissue isn’t their choice it’s them who often get tagged as being cynical money-grabbers.

Finding the Tracks, Lyrically Speaking

Headphones

Headphones (Photo credit: 96dpi)

“Out of a doorway the tentacles stretch of a song that I know and the world moves in slo-mo straight to my head like the first cigarette of the day.”  Elbow, Bones of You.

Earlier, out of nowhere, I remembered a song that I always associate with reading Rendezvous with Rama in the 90s because the music seemed strangely appropriate to the setting of the book.  It was in the charts at the time and was on the radio regularly but back then I didn’t buy music as I didn’t even have a CD player.  I’ve always thought it was a great song but had lost track of who it was by.

Time to find out, I thought, in these days of MP3 downloads I should have this in my collection.  Searching for “State of Mind” on Amazon wasn’t specific enough and brought up too many recent songs, then I thought that somewhere amongst all the lyrics sites one must have the words to this song.  Off to Google I went: “lyrics “I realise the state of mind that you have found me”” (the first line) returned one solitary result – and the details “Goldie – State of Mind”.  Aha.

Thirty seconds later and the MP3 single was downloading having cost me 59p.  A minute later I’m enjoying 7 minutes of blissful music.

I know the music industry took a while to accept music downloads but being able to rediscover old favourites and enjoy them again via either a snippet of lyrics or a sample of audio is one more amazing thing that the great database of the internet gives us.

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The Joys and Perils of the MP3 Shuffle

mixtape

mixtape (Photo credit: miss_rogue)

Before digital music you’d select your evening’s musical entertainment based on your mood, selecting an appropriate album or maybe even a mixtape.  If you’re unfamiliar with what a mixtape is ask a grown-up, and by the way you’re making me feel old.

Anyway, for the last decade we’ve been increasingly able to digitally store our hundreds of albums in one place and play them at our convenience without once having to get up and change the disc though up until very recently the devices that could store literally everything you have were expensive.  Now though things have changed, personally I have my entire 6,300 track collection taking up one-third of my Google Play Music store even if it did take a couple of weeks, on-and-off to upload.

Modern MP3 players now have decent, large displays, and of course phones and tablets have music player apps so you can idly scroll though lists of albums and tracks and then feel the unbridled joy of seeing a track you haven’t heard for ages and instantly enjoying it.  Having your entire collection there at your fingertips can rekindle your love of the music and bring back, Proust-like, memories of summers listening endlessly to a favourite album.

Then, if you’re brave, there’s the ability to not just shuffle tracks on an album or a playlist or the limited selection on a device, a selection carefully, er, selected for a particular mood or whatever stage in your life you’re at, but your entire musical history.  It has been said that MP3 players have a mystical ability to choose appropriate music for your situation, my car stereo has done that to me many times – played a song that has reminded me of lost love or given me hope when I’m down, and when it has thousands of tracks, all personal to you, to choose from anything can happen.

You sit down to listen to some tunes, your device plays some great songs, many you’d forgotten about, you feel fantastic.  Then it happens, the first bars of a song play and before you can hit “skip” you’ve got tears pouring down your face as the song so intimately linked to a person or event, to feelings of loss and grief come flooding back.  I’ll be honest it happens to me, “My Immortal” by Evanescence does it to me every time.  Sometimes though even this can be cathartic, reminding you of the good times too.

Hold On, And On, And On

Típica cabina roja de Londres - Red telephone ...

Típica cabina roja de Londres – Red telephone box – London (Photo credit: Arabarra)

In my work I’m regularly put on hold as suppliers find out whether they’ve got something, when I can have something or why I haven’t received something.  Most of the time the hold music is cheesy, generic and bland but mostly irritating which I suspect is to encourage you to hang up and go get a coffee instead.  Some companies have even started replacing the music with constant ads for their products, one of my suppliers never really changes the product range and I’ve found myself saying, without thinking, “I know about that, we buy it already”.

Which reminds me; always bear in mind that when you’re on hold the person on the other end can often hear you even if you can’t hear them so don’t be impolite unless you want them to know you’re pissed off.

New research by TalkTo and ResearchNow has found that people spend on average 10-20 minutes per week on hold, which equates to 43 hours in a lifetime.

Only twice in twelve years have I been impressed by being on hold.  Once was with a company which used “I Need a Little Time” by The Beautiful South.  The other was a firm who always had a good variety of good, modern, well-known songs to listen to while you waited, you felt slightly disappointed when it ended.  There was one song they played I hadn’t heard since I was clubbing years before and, I’m not embarrassed to say, I did dance to it behind my counter.  Which is one way to spend those 43 hours of your life you’ll never get back.

But It’s a Bargain

The volume rocker of the Amazon Kindle 2

The volume rocker of the Amazon Kindle 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve just noticed on Amazon.co.uk that the top five kindle books at the moment are all priced between £0.20 and £0.99.  Is this a coincidence or is it the same reason I also bought the number one book (besides it being a QI book) – only 20p, I’m having that!

I’m sure they’re all good books but it also shows that almost giving content away can give a book, or music, momentum in the sales charts.  It’s only really been possible thanks to digital media’s lower distribution costs and the benefit is that once people have tried it they’ll tell others about it and maybe they’ll still buy it even if it’s at a higher price later.

The music industry needs to pay attention.  It isn’t devaluing, it’s marketing.

HBCD

Compact Disk

This could make me feel old but I’m not going to let it.  This year the CD celebrates its thirtieth birthday.  I was seven when I watched the famous demonstration on Tomorrow’s World of how you could spread jam on it (clean it off) and it would still play.  They didn’t mention that it you cleaned it with anything more scratchy than a swan’s tail feather and then played it in a less than perfect CD player it would skip more than, oh I don’t know, a bush kangaroo.  But in those early days Sony and Philips’ shiny new disc and player were the future of high quality, high fidelity digital music in a time where computers still had mono screens and games consoles still had faux-mahogany cases.

Today MP3 downloads and streaming services like Spotify are said to sound the death knell for CDs, like those same hypnotic discs were meant to do for vinyl.  I still buy most of my music on CD because I like the experience of getting a new album, opening the case, putting it in the CD player and listening to it all the way through while looking at the booklet.  Once it’s on the computer it’s all to easy to skip tracks and shuffle it with all the other albums.  But then I’m the same with books.  Sales may fall but I’m sure there will be plenty of people like me willing to buy them for some time still.

So happy thirtieth you little iridescent disc you, many happy returns, or should that be repeats.