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Can we fix it? Yes we can (or not)

Having recently acquired a new car, I was reading the instruction manual the other day. I can't remember exactly what one of the lamps was suppposed to say, but it was something along the lines of "there's a problem with the engine". This initially made me think of the quote I saw somewhere in a UNIX fortune file:

'Ken Thompson has an automobile which he helped design. Unlike most automobiles, it has neither speedometer, nor gas gauge, nor any of the numerous idiot lights which plague the modern driver. Rather, if the driver makes any mistake, a giant "?" lights up in the center of the dashboard. "The experienced driver", he says, "will usually know what's wrong."'

I was going to write some sort of blog post poking fun at the unspecific nature of all this, but then it occurred to me that this is actually exactly the correct level of detail to show me about my car. Apart from a few lights which I might be able to do something about - handbrake, lights, indicators, that sort of thing, I have a number of lights in my car with various designs and colours, which all mean exactly the same thing to me: "Take me to the garage".

Life's getting this way with just about anything these days. As technology gets better and better, and things get more complicated, we are increasingly unable to fix them ourselves. Hell - I'm an electronics engineer and if my DVD player stopped working tomorrow, I'd take the lid off, spend about ten minutes looking for anything obvious, throw my hands up in dismay and go to amazon.co.uk. Once upon a time, expensive bits of electronics like hi-fis came with circuit diagrams or even service manuals but there's precious little you can do now. Even with cars, where you can get a Haynes manual, people who know which end of the socket wrench to hold tell me that very soon, you have to take it to the garage where they have the right computer.

So what does this mean? In the short term, lots of kit in landfills. Cars are worth getting repaired - they cost a lot. DVD players? Maybe - depends on how good they are. MP3 players? Starts getting marginal. And that's if you *can* get someone who knows what's going on in there to fix it - good luck if it's a few years old.
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(no subject)

This is hilariously funny.

What is less funny is that I've been learning about Six Sigma in the last few days as part of my shiny new job, and it actually seems to be vaguely useful when applied in conjunction with common sense. Hrm. I may have to re-evaluate my innate mistrust of anything with the word "methodology" in the description...
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Awkward Kate

Today's post is about a fantastic new CD. It's only new in the sense that I've just bought it, not in the sense of having been recently released, but all the same, Kate Rusby's Awkward Annie is just great. Despite being fairly well exposed to the whole folk scene thing, I'd never really listened to any of her stuff - folk singers aren't always my thing and I hadn't realised just how good the production of the CD was.

She produced the whole shebang herself according to the CD case and the production is just lovely - rich and deep where it needs to be to prop up a slow melody, but dropping away in other places so as not to get in the way. No brass band, but you can't have everything and she's got someone playing a nice plunky bano from time to time. There's a fun track at the end, too, as she covers the Kinks' We Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Apparently this was on the TV, or something.

Anyway, buy it. It's sublime. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on her back catalogue soon.
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Having moved back to the UK (we live in Leicester now), there are several differences between here and there[1] which I notice on a regular basis. However, one difference of which I was hitherto unaware - when did coffee bars in Britain start serving coffee[2] in a vessel with the approximate dimensions of a bucket?

[1] "There", or I suppose "là" in this instance, being la belle Suisse
[2] Yes, coffee. Not syrupy gloop with a shot of espresso hiding at the bottom somewhere, but an Americano, which is what I believe normal coffee is called these days.
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Baroque and roll

I'm writing this sitting on a seat in front of the stage in the Conservatoire de Geneve, halfway listening to a rehearsal that's going on. It's not the first time I've been sitting around listening to other people rehearse - that tends to happen quite a lot when you're a musician - but I never thought I'd be doing it with the musical commentary going on in French and certainly not sitting here. The event? One of our good friends, Rachel Clerc (no web site - she's not that sort of girl - but if she gets famous later on then you read it here first...) is just finishing her postgraduate course thingy[1] in Baroque music, and it's her recital tomorrow. She's performing a selection of dance music with her friends and thought it would be fun to throw in a bit of diddly-dee (which should probably be spelt diddli-di over here), since she also plays Irish whistle.

It's a Rachel-and-friends sort of a deal: current musician count> three recorders, two things which look like early versions of bassoons (hautboys?), one long wooden tube with a hole in the top that I don't recognise at all and a tambourine-type thing which also probably has a much posher name. It amuses me somewhat that later on, all these posh baroque instruments being wielded by presumably extremely erudite and capable players will be replaced by a few of us that Rachel met in the pub. A guy's just walked in with a large wooden box, which is presumably some sort of keyboard instrument. This is fun. Were I a baroque musician, I would be greatly tempted to find the oddest looking thing I could and learn to play that[2].

Ooh: They've just started to play in a large group. I remember now why I don't usually enjoy performances on period instruments - the damn things are hardly ever in tune with each other[3], albeit through no fault of the players. They're making a lovely noise, though. Suppositions about finding good musicians in a conservatoire were well founded. I suppose I should stop typing, or at the very least, press the keys in time.

[1] I've never quite got the hang of what all the different bits of Swiss education are called
[2] Says Aidan, the owner of a set of uilleann pipes and therefore with little room to comment...
[3] Says Aidan once again, the owner of a set of uilleann pipes and therefore with little room to comment...
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Cinema for the YouTube generation

This weekend, for those of you who weren't aware, was the 9th Festival international des très courts. It's an international competition for short films (maximum length of three minutes): there's a judging committee who give out prizes for the overall winners, and the best 50 are shown to the public in cinemas all over Europe. There's then a "Popular Vote" prize.
We'd been last year and I was looking forward to going again this year - it's a really fun evening and the entries are of a pretty good standard. The overall winner as judged by the committee was the hilarious American entry Not so Small Talk; my three favourites were:

  1. Ten thousand pictures of you
  2. Apnée
  3. Changes
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Musical links

It's a musical link day, today.

Firstly, an absolutely superb story in one of the Washington DC newspapers: Joshua Bell (yes, the Joshua Bell, the virtuoso violinist) went busking and was, largely, ignored. Story here.

Also, my little sister alerted me to Monkey Swallows The Universe, A Sheffield band who do some lovely stuff. She bought me their first CD which is beautifully mellow, but you can hear their new single (complete with video) on their web site. Great stuff.

Another Sheffield band of note are Fury of the Headteachers, who are most decidedly not mellow but who have an good sound. Musical goodness behind the link.
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Now that the hour has changed and we're officially in summer time, things look very different on my way to and from work. I've got used to leaving the house in the daylight, but the dawn is just too late for that at the moment and it gets lighter as I make my way to the station. It's only a temporary hiatus - in another week or two it'll be fully light when I leave - but it's quite nice to see the day start.

On the way back, I'm now leaving in bright sunshine (temporary weather conditions notwithstanding) and it's getting dark on my way back. I've always liked crepuscular light: I find it has a certain fragility, since it doesn't last for long and it accents different parts of the surroundings to full daylight. I walked back from the station last night along the shore of Lake Geneva, watching the sun setting over the Alps, which went a delightful shade of pink. I really must take my camera with me one of these days.
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Sheet music

One of the things that we've been doing recently is playing string quartets with some friends. We're currently working on Mozart's "Hunt" quartet and an arrangement of Corelli's Christmas concerto for quartet. It may be unseasonal, but it's still lovely.

A serendipitous discovery just before we started rehearsals a few months ago was the Mutopia project, a collection of free (as in both beer and speech) sheet music, transcribed from editions on which the copyright has expired. Printouts aren't as nice to play from as a properly bound edition (they have a habit of falling off the music stand at page turns, even when sellotaped together[1]), but you can't argue with the value for money.

It's all typeset using Lilypond, a program comparable to LaTeX. There is some flavour of TeX which can do music, but from what I remember (having played with it once, some time ago), it's a bit fiddly. Lilypond is quite nice - bashing the notes in takes a little while (and unfortunately isn't directly compatible with abc, the other ASCII standard for music, although that's nothing that a few lines of your favourite scripting language couldn't sort out) but once that stage is done, it's remarkably easy to produce pdfs of scores. It does all the things you'd expect, such as jiggling the notes around if you tell it that you want a part for a transposing intstrument.

[1] Or scotched together, as they say here. Fie, I say. Everyone knows that Scotch is liquid, and no use at all for holding things together. In fact, it's rather counterproductive - I certainly have problems holding myself together following too much Scotch.