New Music : August 2015

This month I largely listened to my vinyl collection, including about a week where I had Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs on loop. I also (re)discovered Jethro Tull’s Passion Play (both on vinyl and the Steven Wilson remastered version), and have had a bit of a New Pornographers/Sea and Cake binge. As a result, I listened to very little music that was actually released this month until the last few days of the month, after which time things went back to normal.

Mac Demarco – Another One
Georgia – Georgia
Paul Smith and the Intimations – Contradictions
The Phoenix Foundation – Give up Your Dreams
Pere Ubu – The Pere Ubu Moon Unit (not on Spotify playlist)
Drinks – Hermits on Holiday
Frog Eyes – Pickpocket’s Locket
Tempel – The Moon Lit Our Path
Destroyer – Poison Season
The Bohicas – The Making Of
C. Duncan – Architect
Eleventh Dream Day – Works for Tomorrow
Toro Y Moi – Samantha (not on Spotify playlist, but available for free)

Georgia’s debut album was a bit of a bolt out of the blue. I’d not heard of her until I received the album through the post from Rough Trade, but it is pleasantly different to most of what I listen to, and very much a record for 2015.

Destroyer, Mac Demarco, Paul Smith, Eleventh Dream Day and Frog Eyes are safe bets for me. I own record by all five artists already, and between them they nicely cater for my need for interesting and intelligent song-based music. All of these records may very well be career highlights, and I’m particularly pleased that Poison Season doesn’t disappoint after the very high benchmark of Kaputt.

C. Duncan, Drinks, Tempel and The Phoenix Foundation I’d not heard of until this month, but are well worth a listen. Tempel remind me a bit of Pelican, who feature heavily in my Post Rock Classics playlist.

And then there is Pere Ubu. They are another band I own a lot of music by, and (very much like The Fall) I always try and listen to everything they put out. This one is a very short live (I think) record, but it’s interesting for fans (and probably not that interesting to anyone else). As an aside, I also picked up their Cloudland on vinyl for for a lot of money, and have been remembering listening to “Waiting for Mary” when it first came out (1989?) and thinking it was one of the best songs ever written. It’s not, but it still brings back fond memories of summer and childhood and the period of time where I was starting to discover more alternative music.

Converting documents using Pandoc

I’ve recently found myself needing to do a lot of document conversion, and maintaining documentation that needs to be available in a variety of formats (HTML, Word documents, Markdown and PDF). My tool of choice for this sort of thing is Pandoc, which is available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, although most of my usage so far has been on Linux (it’s a command line package that outputs to Dropbox, so it doesn’t matter where it runs really).

There are instructions for installing Pandoc on quite a few platforms. I’ve found that following these is generally enough, although it’s worth installing the latest version of the .deb packages rather than the one in the Debian repositories which does odd things to some of my html.

Pandoc works for me because I write everything in markdown, and Pandoc is great at taking markdown and converting it into almost anything else. The syntax is fairly simple for most document types:

For example:

pandoc input.md -s -o output.docx
pandoc input.md -s -o output.html

Conversion to PDF works the same, although I’m not a fan of wide margins, so I tweak it slightly:

pandoc -V geometry:margin=1in input.md -s -o output.pdf

Pandoc does a lot more, but the documentation is great, and the commands above should be enough to get you started.

New Music : July 2015

July has been an odd month. It’s the first month for a while I’ve spent an extended period of time in one place, and I suppose the music I’ve listened to has reflected this. I’ve had more time to read blogs and websites and hunt out new and unusual things to listen to, and I’ve also spent a fair bit of time reading this month, which tends to require a more ambient and instrumental soundtrack.

It also strikes me I’ve listened to a lot of new music thing month; certainly more than any other month this year.

The full list of what I’ve discovered (and would recommend) is:

Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion Music
Veruca Salt – Ghost Notes
OHMMS – Cold
Nordic Giants – A Seance of Dark Delusions
Carpet – Elysian Pleasure
Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge – Twelve Reasons to Die II
B Dolan – Kill the Wolf
Wilco – Star Wars
Tame Impala – Currents Anthonie Tonnon – Successor
Abyss – Pastel Ghost
Desaparecidos – Payola
Passion Pit – Kindred
Four Tet – Morning/Evening
Marsheaux – A Broken Frame
Toe – Hear You
Locrian – Infinite Dissolution
God is an Astronaut – Helios | Erebus

I’ve also caught up on a few things I missed earlier in the year, specifically Steven Wilson’s excellent Hand. Cannot. Erase. which is probably the most impressive vinyl release I’ve come across since I started buying records again.

August is another month of travelling (starting on 1st, and ending some time in early September), and I’m looking forward to exploring some of this music through headphones when I’m far away from home.

Upgrading the hard drive on a 2011 Mac Mini

I’m off work this week, and I thought it was about time I upgraded the hard drive in my Mac Mini to an SSD. I’ve had this machine for just under 4 years, and it’s been my main desktop computer throughout that time. As such it’s got a lot of data stored locally, and while it’s backed up in three different places it’s still a 4 year old hard drive that is getting a bit slow and clunky.

Replacing the hard drive in this model of Mac is tricky. It requires dismantling most of the computer, and also requires a couple of non-standard screwdrivers (T6 and T8 torx). Thankfully I found some great instructions, and didn’t run into any problems dismantling the computer, removing the drive, and putting in a new SSD.

The challenge with this upgrade was that I planned on migrating to a much smaller drive (500–>240) as as such I needed to organise my data in a different way. What I’d normally do with a drive replacement would be to back the whole drive up using Carbon Copy Cloner, replace the hard drive, and then restore the backup over the new hard drive. That’s served me well with many other upgrades, but it just wasn’t an option this time round.

Analysing what was on the hard drive, it soon became evident that there was a lot of music. Over 200Gb of music in fact (that probably doesn’t surprise anyone). There was also a lot of really old data that was backed up in lots of places, but which was from very old computers (over 10 years old at least). I decided to move the music to a dedicated partition on my external hard drive (500gb, to allow for expansion), and to accept that I probably didn’t need to waste hard drive space on 10 year old files that I had multiple other copies of.

That left about 90Gb of other files, or in other words less than 50% of the new drive. I was happy with that, and started the reinstallation process. I booted the Mac Mini from the clone I made earlier (thus testing that everything works fine, as well as giving me an environment to run the actually cloning task from). I formatted the SSD with Disk Utility, and created a custom Carbon Copy Cloner one-off task that excluded the while of my music directory plus a few other things I didn’t want on the new drive. I chose the clone as the source, the new drive as the destination, and let CCC do the hard work.

30 minutes later it was done. I rebooted from the new drive and set about doing a couple of post-installation tasks. Firstly I enabled trim support on the new drive. Native support for this was rolled out in OS X 10.10.4, and it’s fairly simple to set up. I then rebooted to allow this to take effect.

I also needed to tell iTunes where it could find my music now. I opened iTunes with the ALT key pressed, and it asked me which iTunes library to use. I pointed it at the external drive, and it thought about it for a bit, and then opened with all my music exactly as it had been on the old drive. I then updated the CCC task I back up my music with to reflect these changes, re-enabled all my other backup tasks, and made sure Time Machine was happy with the new drive and that it could continue to do incremental backups. I ran each backup task manually and made sure data was being copied to the right places.

And that was all I needed to do. The computer feels significantly faster and more responsive, whilst still feeling very much like my computer. I also think that with maxed out memory and a decent sized SSD drive there probably isn’t anything else left to upgrade.

New Music : June 2015

It seems I’ve not listened to a great deal of new music in June. I suspect that a month spent all over the country might play a part in that. And yet, it’s been another month of established artists making unexpectedly good records. Franz Ferdinand & Sparks is a combination I would never have though of, and yet FFS is a great record. I am also very impressed with the new Faith no More record, which manages to sound a bit like old Faith no More and a bit like everything else Mike Patton has made in the interim. After preparing to be disappointed I’ve actually found myself listening to it a great deal. There is also a new Sun Kil Moon record, which has soundtracked my walks to work, and which pretty much picks up where the last one left off. I love it, but I suspect a lot of that love comes from a combination nostalgia and being at a similar place in life, and it may be something of an acquired taste (I acquired the taste for Red House Painters when I was at University and have lapped up everything Mark Kozelek has made since).

So the list for June 2015 looks something like this:

Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes
Faith No More – Sol Invictus
FFS (Franz Ferdinand & Sparks) – FFS
John Zorn – The Song Project Live at Le Poisson Rouge (not on Spotify playlist)
John Zorn/Mycale – Gomory : Book of Angels vol. 25 (not on Spotify playlist)
Algiers – Algiers
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
Alden Penner – Canada in Space
Brontosaurus – Our Animal Ways

Hackathon

I’ve been involved in running a Hackathon over the last week or so. I’ve never done anything like it before, but it was a really positive experience that allowed University students to learn new technologies and then use them to build working software using Agile methodology. I was very familiar with some of the technologies used, and fairly familiar with working in an Agile fashion, but despite all that I still think I learned a few things over the week.

At the start of the event I explored the word Hackathon, and noted that it was a portmanteau of “hack” and “marathon”. I challenged people to track their walking/running over the 5 days to see if they managed the same length as a modern marathon. I hit my target on Friday morning, and a few other people involved had also walked their marathon by the end of the event. Running a marathon is regarded as being quite hard (a bit like developing an application using unfamiliar technologies), but I think this event proved that seemingly impossible things can be achieved with the right attitude, and utilisation of tools and methodologies that automate and streamline things as much as possible. I also suspect this event proved that sleep is optional, and that coffee and pizza are suitable fuel for a week of development, but I tried very hard to be sensible in that respect.

All seven teams produced applications that worked, and some of them were really impressive. I feel very proud to have been involved in this event, and also very proud of every single student who took part. They were a credit to the University and I hope to work with as many of them as possible at some point in the future.

New Music – May 2015

May was largely about some of my musical heroes making good, unexpected, and unexpectedly good records. It was also a month where I travelled a fair bit (June will also be one of those months), and as a result I probably didn’t listen to as much music as I would if I’d been at home all month.

I’ve not written much about the new Jim O’Rourke album, and unfortunately it’s not on Spotify (and won’t be), but it really is exactly as good as I was expecting. I really didn’t think he’d ever make a song based record again, and I’ve been playing it fairly constantly since I got back to the UK on Monday.

So the list for May 2015 looks something like this:

Django Django – Born Under Saturn
Calexico – Edge of the Sun
Peter Broderick – Colours of the Night
Todd Rundgren – Global
Todd Rundgren, Emil Nikolaison and Hans Peter Lindstrom – Runndans
Jacco Gardner – Hypnophobia
The Fall – Sub-Lingual Tablet (not on Spotify playlist)
Death and Vanilla – Where the Wild Things Are
Jim O’Rourke РSimple Songs (not on Spotify playlist)
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Quarters
The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home

Egypt in Monochrome

This is probably not the album of holiday photographs that people want to see, but it’s one I’m quite proud of, and was a whole lot quicker to edit down than the colour ones. The idea behind this collection was that we carried my old iPhone everywhere we went, and just snapped random things with little or no thought as to the composition or subject.

Screenshot 2015-05-27 20.15.48
These are just the ones that are not portraits or self-portraits. Those may see the light of day another time, but I wanted to stick with pictures of things for now.

Beyond Good and Evil : Morality and Duality in Once Upon a Time

I’ve recently been watching the US TV show Once Upon a Time. I saw the first two seasons a couple of years ago, but then decided to wait until it was all available on Netflix so I could binge-watch all four seasons. For those who are not aware, Once Upon a Time takes traditional fairytales and gives them a modern twist, and also draws in more modern fairytales from recent movies such as Frozen and The Little Mermaid. One of the main themes that runs through the series is the battle between good and evil, and specifically what makes a hero and what makes a villain. As someone who is more interested in the shades of grey that all characters (and indeed people) possess, it maybe doesn’t seem like this show is something that would appeal to me, but I really do think that no character in Once Upon a Time is wholly good or wholly evil. In fact, it is the way the main characters move between the two that makes it so interesting to me.

This started me thinking about what defines our morality, and how people start on the path that ends with them being fairly close to one end of the spectrum. Do all people start out good (or at least neutral) and change according to things they do and things they see others do, or are there people who are literally born evil? I’m not sure I’m in a position to answer that question for the world in general, but I will try and answer it in the context of Once Upon a Time.

Season One of Once Upon a Time has several main protagonists. Emma Swann, her biological son Henry, and her parents Mary-Margaret and David are the heroes of the show. Mary-Margaret’s stepmother Regina (also Henry’s adopted mother) and the mysterious Mr Gold are the villains. At the start of the series they are all mostly adhering to type, although the season does chart Emma’s change from being a quite self-centred “normal person” to being the “Saviour” of the other characters (and the closest to a genuine hero by the end of the first season).

But if you scratch beneath the surface it is not quite that simple, and as the motivations and histories of all the main characters (and a plethora of minor characters) are explored, then it soon becomes evident that even the most evil characters started off with good in their hearts, and that every hero had to do some morally dubious things “for the greater good”. Additionally, the series takes fairy stories we know very well (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Peter Pan) and twists them a little, so that the audience make certain assumptions about the morality of the characters and then have those assumptions turned inside out. Compare J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Captain Hook with their Once Upon a Time counterparts and you will see that things are not always what they appear.

Telling these complex moral stories only works due to the non-linear aspect of the storytelling. Once Upon a Time was conceived by the team that created Lost, and uses the same method of flashing back to add colour and context to each character’s current predicament. And it is only through juxtaposing the scenes set in the past and in the present that a morally accurate picture of each character is painted. And even when you reach the point where you think you know how a character would act in any situation, the story throws up a scenario where villains find something or someone to die for, whilst heroes find themselves needing to perform acts that they would condemn others for even thinking about.

I’m at the end of season 4 now, and I’ve not come across one wholly good or evil character, but I have noticed a definite trend in every character who has ended up being quite dark at some point. In no case were they born that way, but instead all went through a time where they were let down or otherwise disappointed by someone they looked up to as a figure of authority or moral guidance. And if there is a moral message at all it is that no-one is born good or evil, and that everyone has the potential for both. And while nature may play a small part, moral descent and decline seems much more about nurture, cicumstance, choice and consequence.

I suspect Once Upon a Time has a few more twists to come, but I’m glad that it seems more interested in genuine character development than in telling a simple story of the battle between good and evil. I think many other TV shows could learn a lot from it.