Some musings I had while out for a run the other day.
There’s not a huge amount to say about running other than that I have ‘discovered’ it over the last two years it’s a now thing that I seem to be partially dependent on. When I fall out of the routine, say due to illness or tiredness from going out too late, everything seems to begin slowly unravelling. There are obviously many worse things to be hooked on so I’m not that worried about it but still it is an addiction of sorts.
Running is also the only time I really get to myself where I’m not busy, mentally speaking, with something. It is good thinking time, although this can unfortunately lead to blog posts.
Some time around 2005 I was traveling by plane on my own. I was reading Richard Dawkins’ 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker. I’d studied A-level biology so knew a bit about the mechanics of genetics (dominant and recessive alleles, experiments with fruit flies and so on) but had never really thought about it deeply or philosophically. And the book does go quite deep.
I came to a particularly astonishing passage in the book describing and explaining how all life is really connected. And it is connected in the scientific sense, not just as some vague hippie sentiment. I had a moment of sudden insight (exactly what the author intended to convey), framing all life on Earth as genetically related, interconnected, and symbiotic. Seeing life forms as essentially different configurations of vehicle for the replication of DNA. And while each species is opinionated about how best to go about the mission, all of us have (in a reduced and ultimate way) exactly the same mysterious end goal of keeping life going.
Naturally Dawkins put it much better than me, and I don’t have the book to hand, but I do remember that when the concept sank in the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood on end, and I lowered the book to my lap, stared out the window at the Earth from above for a moment and mouthed the words ‘fucking hell’.
One of those moments, anyway.
So a few days ago I was out running. I nearly always take my Bluetooth headphones and distract myself from the exertion of it all with an audiobook or podcast but on this occasion I’d been having problems with the Audible app and it was stuck in some kind of loop syncing to my watch. This was holding me up so I decided to leave the headphones at home and go ‘unplugged’. It was early. I took a route further out of town than usual, one I’d only cycled or driven before.
The weird atmosphere of the COVID lockdown has been commented on at length, but that morning the whole area felt particularly deserted. As I ran the weather started to turn. The wind picked up and whirled around so I was being rained on from all sides. It was the sort of weather that, had I just been walking, would have been miserable but I don’t mind the rain when I’m running because I get hot and so it’s refreshing (within reason).
There is not really a point or conclusion to this post, nor do I wish to imply pretentiously that I had any particularly special or unique revelation. It’s just… because I had so much time to think after the moment had passed, as I ran home, I resolved to write it down if only because it was interesting to me at the time and I want to remember it. A personal experience.
I had not passed a single person for at least half an hour. I was completely drenched but warm and in that running zone where you start to feel like a well oiled machine that could keep on going forever.
Everything seemed wilder and more overgrown than usual, brambles snaking aggressively out of hedgerows. Of course this could have just been down to the changing season and the amount of both sun and rain there had been recently but my imagination was wandering.
There was this sense of the very beginnings of nature reclaiming the land, which of course it always is until we cut it back. The trees seemed huge and impressive, twigs swishing noisily through the air as the branches swayed around. The birds were singing loudly in the canopy overhead. The wind seemed to get stronger, whipping the trees more violently, and due to the air swirling in different directions there was, I thought, a slight doppler effect applied to the birdsong which mixed in with the rain gave it a dreamlike sense.
And all of this brought me back to that moment on the plane in that way that you sometimes remember a feeling.
Yes it does sound a bit pretentious but, hell, whatever. Nature is pretty amazing.
I suppose the lesson is that I should leave my headphones at home more often, and also maybe that the most obvious outdoor weather: a nice sunny day, is not necessarily the most interesting.
My little 26 mile challenge this week has so far raised £918 for Cancer Research UK (£1,037.75 including GiftAid) which is really great. Thanks to everyone who made a donation, or shared, liked, commented on my posts about it, it all helps! Should you wish to donate, my JustGiving page is still open here.
I have combined all three running routes just to see it all together on the same map. Red, then green then blue.
I’m not a long distance runner, but for the last 18 months or so I have been getting into doing a few short runs a week – usually about 5km and more recently sometimes up to about 9km.
Basically I’m pretty happy running for up to about an hour, but I’ve not tried slowing it down and going much further.
Two Point Six Challenge
Last Sunday would have been the day of the London Marathon had it not been cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The Marathon usually raises a lot of money for charities through sponsorship so in light of it being cancelled they came up with #TwoPointSixChallenge the idea being for people to raise some money doing their own challenges based around the number 26.
Some people are running 2.6 miles, some are cycling or doing other sports or activities. Everyone’s level of ability is different and difficulty is relative. Certainly I could not have run 2.6 miles 18 months ago, but given that I run often it would not have been difficult enough now. So I decided to run all 26 miles this week.
We have already raised £336£566£722 (including Facebook donations) which is amazing, so thank you to everyone who has donated.
The main reason for this blog post is because I think giving it one last push could help it reach a few more people who might want to donate to Cancer Research.
Social media is proving to be a difficult way of reaching everyone. A friend I chatted to today said they weren’t aware I am doing it, despite me going on about it constantly online for the past two days! I am battling against the algorithms.
So if you would like to donate then that would be amazing. But even if you don’t (which really is fine) then it could help loads if you could like, share or reply to or otherwise react to my social media posts about it – as that will help to convince the algorithms that it’s interesting.
I went a bit overboard and ran 9 miles on Monday and 10 miles today so I have about 7 miles left to do. So I’m doing a marathon in three days.
Monday was all things idyllic and sunny but today was pretty hard going and in relentless driving rain. Also I foolishly took a right turn up the steepest hill in the area which goes on LITERALLY FOREVER. So now I’m feeling a bit broken. You can see my routes here and here on Strava.
I cannot fathom how people run a whole marathon in one session at any sort of speed!
Progress update 2 (29/03)
I completed it this morning. Day 3 was not too bad! What have I learned? I could probably manage a half marathon.
Please help share this!
Any shares likes, retweets and comments et cetera help more than you might realise. It would be great to get to £400. Donations are now at £722. I will top it up by an extra £100 as well. The current (and of course very serious) virus problems aside cancer remains one of the highest causes of suffering and death, and science and research are how we will eventually solve it.
And if you do want to donate please click the big banner at the top or below. And if not please do consider sharing.
I’ve lately seen a lot of convincing cases made to go meat-free. First there was The Game Changers which I watched on Netflix back in November. It did come across as fairly heavy pro-vegan propaganda, but then I thought about the old adage “follow the money”, and figured that if anyone was going to be pushing a dodgy agenda then surely the meat industry is prime suspect here. So maybe what it is, is that we’ve been hammered by pro-meat propaganda for decades and The Game Changers is a fair and timely pushback.
Anyway, it’s worth a watch, and presents some pretty convincing arguments, endorsed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lewis Hamilton among others. If I had any critique I would say it is largely anecdotal. These are high profile case studies. But evidently at least some top athletes are succeeding without any animal products in their diets. So on balance it makes a good case for veganism.
Personally while I do occasionally enjoy a burger or a steak it’s now only roughly once every six months. Health and nutrition arguments aside, surely – given the terrible environmental cost of cattle farming – we can at least cut down and start to see beef as more like a delicacy rather than something that has to be on every plate. Obviously there’s also the amount of milk we consume to to take into account. I’ve been using almond and hazelnut milk (the latter of which is great in tea!) recently but then there was that story about bees so as usual nothing is simple.
People argue at great length about nutrition and organic and so on and in my view a lot of what gets claimed is bullshit, in part because it’s hard to prove or disprove what actually happens inside your digestive system and beyond. I find Snopes good for fact-checking this kind of stuff. It seems to me that the human body is impressively versatile at dealing with whatever you chuck down your throat. But of course over the long term a healthy diet is going to be better for you than an unhealthy one. Surely the odd bad thing now and then isn’t a disaster unless perhaps you’re a high performance athlete. Everything in moderation.
Anyway, burgers aside I don’t think I’ll be giving up chicken or fish anytime soon but we do have a lot of vegetarian meals during the week and options are getting better. Quorn mince seems as good if not nicer than meat for making meals like chili con carne (technically chili sin carne I suppose).
Today this (apparently not sponsored) video by Mark Rober (remember the glitter bomb guy?) popped into my feed and I have to say those Beyond Meat burgers look very tasty. And I’ve just been informed on Facebook that they are available in Tesco. So I’m going to pick some up later and give them a try.
No I’m not going to start doing a weekly post (although I like the idea), and yes I’ve missed the first six weeks anyway but I felt like posting something random and can’t think of a better blog post title right now.
Yes, blog post. I don’t accept that a blog post can be referred to simply as ‘a blog’, especially given that a blog is a container for many blog posts. This is one hill I am prepared to die on if indeed blogs themselves don’t die first.
I’m currently listening to Microhumans by Ali Wade, for about the seventh time since I bought a copy on Bandcamp the other day. You can find ithere and also embedded here:
I first came across Ali Wade when Tom and I saw a live show at Cafe OTO in Dalston (that’s in London).
Side note: Having just Googled that event to find the link, I’m now coming to terms with the fact that that was apparently back in twenty fifteen! My guess had been 2017. Where the hell does time go? Well, apparently we can only regard *imaginary* time as a direction like the other three dimensions, so maybe this explains it.
Anyway as you will have seen if you visited that link, Anthony Child (AKA Surgeon, whom I originally discovered via his track Magnese in Jeff Mills’ Live at the Liquid Room mix, back in 1996, and subsequently went to see DJ many times back when I lived near Birmingham, and generally is someone I hold in high regard) was doing, that night, a live improvised performance with a Buchla Easel, alongside Ali Wade who provided generative projections on a large screen. The whole thing was totally amazing, and the night was only dampened by the following two facts:
That at the end of the show I felt compelled to get up and go and slightly-drunkenly shake Anthony’s hand, and tell him how great he was only to realise mid-sentence it wasn’t the end of a techno night in 1998, and what was I doing? And that he most likely just wanted to be left alone to pack up his kit and get home, so I started to apologise then ended it awkwardly.
That I then had to get a £70-odd cab to Stansted in order to be at a meeting at 8am the following morning in an airport meeting room having slept for about 4 hours in a Travelodge. A meeting that culminated in an ultimately failed business venture that ate up much of the intervening time between now and then and, perhaps, provides a more plausible explanation than the imaginary time thing.
Anyway, following that night I have been following Ali on Twitter since and this is how I heard about his new album. Also Tony posted that Cafe OTO set to his SoundCloud here. If you don’t like that sort of thing then then there’s probably no convincing you otherwise. It is kind of niche.
Anyway. So, yes, Microhumans has got me thinking about my own endeavours to find a creative voice that I am happy with.
To provide some context, I’ve been dabbling (well no, that undersells it) but anyway I have been dabbling with making my own music for a few years now. Well… I actually started back in 1995 using a Roland keyboard hooked up to an Atari ST in the music dept at school but it has not been a sustained effort for all of those 25 years. It is something I have dipped back into over the years but I’m doing a lot more recently.
Why? Because I have this constant need to create something, and music is something I am still as obsessed with as when I was a teenager.
When the web came along the thing I was excited to create was web stuff, and it still is (that’s my career) but it has tended towards the technical side of things for me. In the early days of the web a web designer did everything: designed and built it. In all honesty there’s wasn’t much good design a lot of the time – things went straight into build. Java applet water ripple effect, marquee text, job done. Often ugly, if quaintly naïve.
But then I got inspired by people like (the late) Hillman Curtis and The Designers Republic™. I love the elegant simplicity of amazing design, and how it makes you feel. So design was what inspired me. I got a lot better. I learned about typography and book layout principles and the value of white space and grids and pace and consistency and so on. I got a job in London in a proper web design studio (that became a digital ad agency) and learned a shitload. I designed stuff for high profile names and brands. I got promoted and briefed junior designers, and critiqued their work. I became a Creative Lead at an award-winning agency.
But I was never in my mind as good as those (as I saw them) proper designers. The ones who didn’t come from a coding background, but instead had done graphic design courses or cool-sounding typography courses in Italy. The ones who used Macs long before OS X came out, when I was still playing Quake II on my self-built gaming PC.
Of course I was good at my job because they wanted ‘a me’, i.e. someone who could bridge the technical-creative gap well and make stuff that was slick to use, performed really well and looked great too. Yes, the Flash era.
Privately, while I was very happy with the work I was putting out (some really great sites), I never felt comfortable being the guy doing original concepts, designing the logo, coming up with the visual identity and so on. I could do it but my attempts usually felt too mathematical and safe. I’m happy drawing isometrically… using a ruler but never freehand.
I like logic and a grid, but sometimes you need to just be free. I suppose this restriction lends itself to certain types of design but not to all.
At the heart of it all I think that I think in a technical way. I’m good with tech. I don’t generally find computers difficult. It all just seems very logical. I have the patience and thoroughness to trace a complicated problem back to its source and solve it. Other people, I note, often have a hard time figuring out how to connect to the WiFi, or whatever, but they are probably better people in other more important ways.
So I play to my strengths and I have been in well-paid jobs building complicated things for high profile companies and organisations. And it pays the bills. And it’s satisfying. And I’m good at it. But behind all of this is still the desire to create. And ideally create something not so commercial and disposable, but instead for creativity’s sake. That’s not really changed since making my first homepage on my Freeserve webspace. The Freeserve account that came on a CD-ROM from Dixons.
Despite being outwardly technical (and being labelled, sometimes to my quiet dismay, as a tech guy) I do not find technology in and of itself very interesting. It’s a set of tools. If it’s not working I will try fix it because broken tools are at best annoying. But I really want technology to be this invisible backstage presence, not the focus of anything.
So I come back to this conundrum of what I can do in my life to create something expressive and of worth. I have concluded that while I’m adept enough at design to do decent web design work I’m never going to be a graphic artist. And that no longer excites me like it did (although I still love other people’s work).
Then for a while in the mid 2000’s it was photography that I was going to do. Until I met a professional photographer and was, ironically, put off doing it professionally. Rachael is of course brilliant and was always inspirational, but seeing the realities of what it involved day to day changed my mind about choosing that career path.
I need a thing. So it’s still music, then.
Over the past few years I’ve amassed a collection of hardware music gear that helps (to my ears) create a more organic sound than what I was getting using just a computer. I want noise and imperfection due to crackly guitar pedals and overdriven mixer channels, rather than by consciously adding them with some plugin (though I have nothing at all against anyone who does that stuff well with software).
What I’ve been doing since building this new setup is, with hindsight, learning how to use – and getting over the initial novelty of working with – the equipment. I’ve done some decent tunes some of which were picked up and released by Anode Records, which was amazingly encouraging. In an environment where it’s very hard to get any honest feedback from anyone, getting at least the nod that you’re in the right ballpark is priceless. I’m pretty proud of a lot of those tracks but they are not there yet.
Since then, and this year, I’m working on some new stuff. However this time I’m going to amass a collection of material and mull it over and (I hope) probably never release most of it except for only the very best stuff once I have had time to be more objective about it.
To this end I’m using a new and anonymous identity for more ‘ambient’ music and I’ll also do some more dance floor stuff under the firstperson name.
So, to get to my point, it was on listening to Microhumans (long pre-amble over) that I realised I still have some way to go with this. Like great design, Ali’s music has a simplicity and elegance to it that shines a harsh light on my own efforts. A lot the music I have done tends too much towards being too busy even though all along I’m aiming for simplicity and elegance. I suppose, as with good design, it appears effortless when it’s done well – but in fact a lot of hidden work has surely gone into it.
This is famously the case with the creative process in general, so it is something I must keep in mind on those days when I get disheartened having finished a track I’ve been working on for days only to realise it sounds uncomfortable or too fussy.
This all reminds me of that modern-art-hater’s comment ‘I could have done that’, when looking at a Rothko. Well, no, you didn’t and also you couldn’t. But you could possibly make a rubbish emulation of it.
I’m not trying to emulate anyone else’s music but of course I am inspired by it. Earlier I was musing on whether I should again play here to my strengths. Perhaps rather than fighting against my natural tendency towards logic and technical thinking there is a way of building some interesting music around how my mind naturally tends to work. For example this could be using Max/MSP, and turning my coding skills towards making sounds. I have some ideas about machine learning that could be interesting there.
However I like the physical process of jacking things into each other and turning knobs, and that noise that comes out of the Volca Keys or the Juno chorus. I already spend too long at the computer so the thought of more coding (which is a big part of my job) puts me off the software approach… although yes there are control interfaces, and, gosh, maybe modular synths are an option although that is becoming a cliché…
I have just recorded this DJ mix, with a selection of firstperson tracks from 2017-2018. Putting it all together feels like a good way of closing this chapter. I am pretty proud of a handful of these tracks for personal reasons. YMMV of course. Learned lots and now it’s time to do something a bit different… and perhaps more considered.
People in the US might not be able to play it on Mixcloud owing to the fact they have to process a waiver form saying that I produced all of the tracks in the mix. So just under the Mixcloud embed please find a direct link to the MP3 file.