Of life’s great mysteries, surely among the most impenetrable is how Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf’s adolescent wet dream of an album that was released forty years ago today [October 21, 1977], came to be one of the best-selling albums in the history of the record industry, cracking the top five in some rankings, and out-selling nearly all the pillars of the rock canon.
I pose the question not out of cultural disdain from atop a critic’s ivory tower. On the contrary (and in the spirit of full disclosure), I adore Bat Out of Hell. It is like a treasured family heirloom I have carried with me through every life stage. My love of Bat Out of Hell borders on the unnatural. I own Bat Out of Hell in four different formats. I have watched documentaries on the making of Bat Out of Hell. I have even read Meat’s autobiography, To Hell and Back. And I am left wanting more helpings of Meat Loaf.
MOST SONGS give you only one perspective: She will always love you. Billie Jean was not his lover. You can check out of “Hotel California” but you can never leave.
But popular music history is studded with the occasional duet that serves more of a purpose than simply an excuse for the existence of cool harmonies, or to provide an opportunity for Paula Abdul to dance around with an anthropomorphized rapping cartoon cat—no offense, MC Skat Kat (and Posse). These duets actually use the form to explore two different, often dueling, perspectives on the same relationship…often, relationships in which men are getting called out on their bullshit.
I’ve just listened to Robert Plant’s new album, Carry Fire. It’s pretty good.
A long while after my dad’s death five years ago, I’d meant to write a blog post about the experience of grief in a digital age. As I’ve clearly become increasingly terrible at ever getting draft posts complete, the short of it was this: my dad’s mobile phone was never recovered and soon after its battery went flat any calls to his number would go straight to voicemail. He’d recently switched to a pay-as-you-go phone for his personal mobile, and so the number (and its voicemail) outlived him for many months. I know I’m not the only one that, in those months, called it a few times, just to hear his voice in the outgoing message. I’m fully aware that there are recordings of his voice elsewhere, but I guess there was something ritualistic about “trying to call him”, just as I would have before his accident.
The blog post would have started with this anecdote, perhaps spun out a little better, and then gone on to muse about how we “live on” in our abandoned Inboxes, social media accounts, and other digital footprints in a way we never did before, and what that might mean for the idea of grief in the modern world. (Getting too caught up in thinking about exactly what it does mean is probably why I never finished writing that particular article.) I remember that it took me a year or two until I was able to delete my dad from my phone/email address book, because it like prematurely letting go to do so. See what I mean? New aspects of grief for a new era.
Another thing that I used to get, early on, was that moment of forgetting. I’d read something and I’d think “Gotta tell my dad about that!” And then only a second later remember why I couldn’t! I think that’s a pretty common experience of bereavement: certainly for me at least – I remember distinctly experiencing the same thing after my gran’s death, about 11 years ago. I’m pretty sure it’s been almost a year since I last had such a forgetting moment for my father… until today! Half way into the opening track of Carry Fire, a mellow folk-rocky-sounding piece called The May Queen (clearly a nod to Stairway there), I found myself thinking “my dad’d love this…” and took almost a quarter-second before my brain kicked in and added “…damn; shame he missed out on it, then.”
If you came here for a music review, you’re not going to get one. But if you like some Robert Plant and haven’t heard Carry Fire yet, you might like to. It’s like he set out to make a prog rock album but accidentally smoked too much pot and then tripped over his sitar. And if you knew my dad well enough to agree (or disagree) that he would have dug it, let me know.
Those who know me well know that I’m a bit of a data nerd. Even when I don’t yet know what I’m going to do with some data yet, it feels sensible to start collecting it in a nice machine-readable format from the word go. Because you never know, right? That’s how I’m able to tell you how much gas and electricity our house used on average on any day in the last two and a half years (and how much off that was offset by our solar panels).
So it should perhaps come as no huge surprise that for the last six months I’ve been recording the identity of every piece of music played by my favourite local radio station, Jack FM (don’t worry: I didn’t do this by hand – I wrote a program to do it). At the time, I wasn’t sure whether there was any point to the exercise… in fact, I’m still not sure. But hey: I’ve got a log of the last 45,000 songs that the radio station played: I might as well do something with it. The Discogs API proved invaluable in automating the discovery of metadata relating to each song, such as the year of its release (I wasn’t going to do that by hand either!), and that gave me enough data to, for example, do this (click on any image to see a bigger version):
I almost expected a bigger variance by hour-of-day, but I guess that Jack isn’t in the habit of pandering to its demographics too heavily. I spotted the post-midnight point at which you get almost a plurality of music from 1990 or later, though: perhaps that’s when the young ‘uns who can still stay up that late are mostly listening to the radio? What about by day-of-week, then:
The chunks of “bonus 80s” shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, given that the radio station advertises that that’s exactly what it does at those times. But still: it’s reassuring to know that when a radio station claims to play 80s music, you don’t just have to take their word for it (so long as their listeners include somebody as geeky as me).
It feels to me like every time I tune in they’re playing an INXS song. That can’t be a coincidence, right? Let’s find out:
Yup, there’s a heavy bias towards Guns ‘n’ Roses, Michael Jackson, Prince, Oasis, Bryan Adams, Madonna, INXS, Bon Jovi, Queen, and U2 (who collectively are responsible for over a tenth of all music played on Jack FM), and – to a lesser extent – towards Robert Palmer, Meatloaf, Blondie, Green Day, Texas, Whitesnake, the Pet Shop Boys, Billy Idol, Madness, Rainbow, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, Phil Collins, ZZ Top, AC/DC, Duran Duran, the Police, Simple Minds, Blur, David Bowie, Def Leppard, and REM: taken together, one in every four songs played on Jack FM is by one of these 34 artists.
I was interested to see that the “top 20 songs” played on Jack FM these last six months include several songs by artists who otherwise aren’t represented at all on the station. The most-played song is Alice Cooper’s Poison, but I’ve never recorded them playing any other Alice Cooper songs (boo!). The fifth-most-played song is Fight For Your Right, by the Beastie Boys, but that’s the only Beastie Boys song I’ve caught them playing. And the seventh-most-played – Roachford’s Cuddly Toy – is similarly the only Roachford song they ever put on.
Next I tried a Markov chain analysis. Markov chains are a mathematical tool that examines a sequence (in this case, a sequence of songs) and builds a map of “chains” of sequential songs, recording the frequency with which they follow one another – here’s a great explanation and playground. The same technique is used by “predictive text” features on your smartphone: it knows what word to suggest you type next based on the patterns of words you most-often type in sequence. And running some Markov chain analysis helped me find some really… interesting patterns in the playlists. For example, look at the similarities between what was played early in the afternoon of Wednesday 19 October and what was played 12 hours later, early in the morning of Thursday 20 October:
|19 October 2016||20 October 2016|
|12:06:33||Kool & The Gang – Fresh||Kool & The Gang – Fresh||00:13:56|
|12:10:35||Bruce Springsteen – Dancing In The Dark||Bruce Springsteen – Dancing In The Dark||00:17:57|
|12:14:36||Maxi Priest – Close To You||Maxi Priest – Close To You||00:21:59|
|12:22:38||Van Halen – Why Can’t This Be Love||Van Halen – Why Can’t This Be Love||00:25:00|
|12:25:39||Beats International / Lindy – Dub Be Good To Me||Beats International / Lindy – Dub Be Good To Me||00:29:01|
|12:29:40||Kasabian – Fire||Kasabian – Fire||00:33:02|
|12:33:42||Talk Talk – It’s My Life||Talk Talk – It’s My Life||00:38:04|
|12:41:44||Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way||Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way||00:42:05|
|12:45:45||Shalamar – I Can Make You Feel Good||Shalamar – I Can Make You Feel Good||00:45:06|
|12:49:47||4 Non Blondes – What’s Up||4 Non Blondes – What’s Up||00:50:07|
|12:55:49||Madness – Baggy Trousers||Madness – Baggy Trousers||00:54:09|
|Eagle Eye Cherry – Save Tonight||00:56:09|
|Feeling – Love It When You Call||01:04:12|
|13:02:51||Fine Young Cannibals – Good Thing||Fine Young Cannibals – Good Thing||01:10:14|
|13:06:54||Blur – There’s No Other Way||Blur – There’s No Other Way||01:14:15|
|13:09:55||Pet Shop Boys – It’s A Sin||Pet Shop Boys – It’s A Sin||01:17:16|
|13:14:56||Zutons – Valerie||Zutons – Valerie||01:22:18|
|13:22:59||Cure – The Love Cats||Cure – The Love Cats||01:26:19|
|13:27:01||Bryan Adams / Mel C – When You’re Gone||Bryan Adams / Mel C – When You’re Gone||01:30:20|
|13:30:02||Depeche Mode – Personal Jesus||Depeche Mode – Personal Jesus||01:33:21|
|13:34:03||Queen – Another One Bites The Dust||Queen – Another One Bites The Dust||01:38:22|
|13:42:06||Shania Twain – That Don’t Impress Me Much||Shania Twain – That Don’t Impress Me Much||01:42:23|
|13:45:07||ZZ Top – Gimme All Your Lovin’||ZZ Top – Gimme All Your Lovin’||01:46:25|
|13:49:09||Abba – Mamma Mia||Abba – Mamma Mia||01:50:26|
|13:53:10||Survivor – Eye Of The Tiger||Survivor – Eye Of The Tiger||01:53:27|
|Scouting For Girls – Elvis Aint Dead||01:57:28|
|Verve – Lucky Man||02:00:29|
|Fleetwood Mac – Say You Love Me||02:05:30|
|14:03:13||Kiss – Crazy Crazy Nights||Kiss – Crazy Crazy Nights||02:10:31|
|14:07:15||Lightning Seeds – Sense||Lightning Seeds – Sense||02:14:33|
|14:11:16||Pretenders – Brass In Pocket||Pretenders – Brass In Pocket||02:18:34|
|14:14:17||Elvis Presley / JXL – A Little Less Conversation||Elvis Presley / JXL – A Little Less Conversation||02:21:35|
|14:22:19||U2 – Angel Of Harlem||U2 – Angel Of Harlem||02:24:36|
|14:25:20||Trammps – Disco Inferno||Trammps – Disco Inferno||02:28:37|
|14:29:22||Cast – Guiding Star||Cast – Guiding Star||02:31:38|
|14:33:23||New Order – Blue Monday||New Order – Blue Monday||02:36:39|
|14:41:26||Def Leppard – Let’s Get Rocked||Def Leppard – Let’s Get Rocked||02:40:41|
|14:46:28||Phil Collins – Sussudio||Phil Collins – Sussudio||02:45:42|
|14:50:30||Shawn Mullins – Lullaby||Shawn Mullins – Lullaby||02:49:43|
|14:55:31||Stars On 45 – Stars On 45||Stars On 45 – Stars On 45||02:53:45|
|16:06:35||Dead Or Alive – You Spin Me Round Like A Record||Dead Or Alive – You Spin Me Round Like A Record||03:00:47|
|16:09:36||Dire Straits – Walk Of Life||Dire Straits – Walk Of Life||03:03:48|
|16:13:37||Keane – Everybody’s Changing||Keane – Everybody’s Changing||03:07:49|
|16:17:39||Billy Idol – Rebel Yell||Billy Idol – Rebel Yell||03:10:50|
|16:25:41||Stealers Wheel – Stuck In The Middle||Stealers Wheel – Stuck In The Middle||03:14:51|
|16:28:42||Green Day – American Idiot||Green Day – American Idiot||03:18:52|
|16:33:44||A-Ha – Take On Me||A-Ha – Take On Me||03:21:53|
|16:36:45||Cranberries – Dreams||Cranberries – Dreams||03:26:54|
|Elton John – Philadelphia Freedom||03:30:56|
|Inxs – Disappear||03:36:57|
|Kim Wilde – You Keep Me Hanging On||03:40:59|
|16:44:47||Living In A Box – Living In A Box|
|16:47:48||Status Quo – Rockin’ All Over The World||Status Quo – Rockin’ All Over The World||03:45:00|
The similarities between those playlists (which include a 20-songs-in-a-row streak!) surely can’t be coincidence… but they do go some way to explaining why listening to Jack FM sometimes gives me a feeling of déjà vu (along with, perhaps, the no-talk, all-jukebox format). Looking elsewhere in the data I found dozens of other similar occurances, though none that were both such long chains and in such close proximity to one another. What does it mean?
There are several possible explanations, including:
- The exotic, e.g. they’re using Markov chains to control an auto-DJ, and so just sometimes it randomly chooses to follow a long chain that it “learned” from a real DJ.
- The silly, e.g. Jack FM somehow knew that I was monitoring them in this way and are trying to troll me.
- My favourite: these two are actually the same playlist, but with breaks interspersed differently. During the daytime, the breaks in the list are more-frequent and longer, which suggests: ad breaks! Advertisers are far more-likely to pay for spots during the mid-afternoon than they are in the middle of the night (the gap in the overnight playlist could well be a short ad or a jingle), which would explain why the two are different from one another!
But the question remains: why reuse playlists in close proximity at all? Even when the station operates autonomously, as it clearly does most of the time, it’d surely be easy enough to set up an auto-DJ using “smart random” (because truly random shuffles don’t sound random to humans) to get the same or a better effect.
Which leads to another interesting observation: Jack FM’s sister stations in Surrey and Hampshire also maintain a similar playlist most of the time… which means that they’re either synchronising their ad breaks (including their duration – I suspect this is the case) or else using filler jingles to line-up content with the beginnings and ends of songs. It’s a clever operation, clearly, but it’s not beyond black-box comprehension. More research is clearly needed. (And yes, I’m sure I could just call up and ask – they call me “Newcastle Dan” on the breakfast show – but that wouldn’t be even half as fun as the data mining is…)
Those of you who’ve met my family will probably already have an understanding of… what they’re like. Those of you who haven’t are probably about to gain one.
It started on a weekend in April, when my mother and I went to a Pink concert. The support act were a really fun band called Walk the Moon, who finished their energetic set with I Can Lift A Car, with its’ catchy chorus hook “Did you did you… did you know know: I can lift a car up, all by myself?” Over the weeks that followed, perhaps because of its earworm qualities, this song became sort-of an inside Rickroll between my mum and I.
At one point, she sent me a link to this video (also visible below), in which she is seen to lift a (toy) car. My sister Becky (also known as “Godzilla”) was behind the camera (and, according to the credits, everything else), and wrote in the doobly doo: “I think I’m gonna start doing family vlogs.”
At the time of writing, Becky (on her YouTube channel) has produced eight such videos (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight), reliably rolling out one a week for the last two months. I thought they were pretty good – I thought that was just because they were my family, but I was surprised to find that it’s slowly finding a wider reach, as I end up speaking to friends who mention to me that they “saw the latest family vlog” (sometimes before I’ve had a chance to see it!).
Naturally, then, the only logical thing to do was to start producing my own YouTube series, on my channel, providing reviews of each episode of my sister’s vlog. I’ve managed to get seven out so far (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven), and I’d like to think that they’re actually better than the originals. They’re certainly more-concise, which counts for a lot, because they trim the original vlog down to just the highlights (interrupted only occasionally by my wittering atop them).
- The best review? Probably five or six.
- The best episode? My favourite is six, but number two has the most views, probably the keywords “lesbian foursome” are popular search terms. Or possibly “girls peeing”. I’m not sure which scares me the most.
- Of if you just want to drop-in and have a taster, start from the latest review.
I’d just like to say a few words of praise for Andy‘s new album, The Signal and the Noise. It’s not the first time I’ve said nice things about him, but it’s the first time since he’s been recording under his full name, rather than as “Pagan Wanderer Lu”.
I can say this for sure, though: The Signal and the Noise has finally dethroned my previous favourite Lu album, Build Library Here (or else!). It’s catchy, it’s quirky, and it’s full of songs that will make you wish that you were cleverer: so far, so good. I think that one of the things that particularly appealed to me in this album were that the lyrical themes touched on so many topics that interest me: religion and superstition, artificial intelligence, the difficulties of overcoming materialism, cold war style espionage, and cryptography/analysis… all wrapped up in fun and relatable human stories, and with better-than average running-themes, links, and connections.
One of the joys of Andy’s (better) music comes from the fact that rather than interpretation, it lends itself far better to being issued with a reading list. To which end, here’s a stack of Wikipedia articles that might help you appreciate this spectacular album a little better, for the benefit of those of you who weren’t lucky enough to have read all of this stuff already:
- Signal-to-noise ratio
- Cargo cult, and John Frum
- Numbers station and one-time-pad (you might also enjoy my 2010 blog post on one-time pads)
- Deep Blue versus Gary Kasparov, Technological singularity, and Ludditism
- Choose Your Own Adventure
Oh; backing vocals, you’re too kind! But this is just another chapter in the story of my life.
The Omniscient Narrator
The final track’s a little weaker than the rest (the actual final track, not the “hidden track” bit), and I’m left with a feeling that this was so-close but not quite a concept album (which would have been even more spectacular an achievement), but these are minor niggles in the shadow of an otherwise monumental album.
Go get a copy.
By the way; I’ve got a spare – who wants it? Spare copy’s gone to Claire as an early birthday present. Somehow she failed to preorder a copy of her own.
Looking for an alternate opinion? Here’s a guy who didn’t “get it”.
As I’m sure you’re aware, Saturday marks the final of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the musical highlight of the year. You may also know that there’s been a long tradition among our group of friends to have a Eurovision Party to mark the ocassion, generally hosted by Adam. If you’ve somehow missed this event, then here’s some background reading that might help you understand how it came to be what it is: me, 2005; Liz, 2005; Paul, 2005; Adam, 2006; Adam, 2007 (1); me, 2007; Adam, 2007 (2); Matt R, 2007; Adam on Paul’s blog, 2008; Adam, 2008; Adam, 2010; Adam, 2011; me, 2011. Like I said… a long history.
For the last few years, though, the population of Aberystwyth has been dwindling, and Adam’s parties have turned from an immense hard-to-squeeze-everybody-in ordeal to a far more civilised affair. While simultaneously, groups of ex-Aberystwyth people (like those of us down in Oxford, and those who are up in the North) have been having their own splinter satellite parties.
And you know what? I miss doing Eurovision Night with you guys. So this year, we’re going to try to bring Eurovision Night back to its roots… with technology!
Here’s where the parties are at, this year:
- Adam’s house, in Aberystwyth – mission control
- New Earth, in Oxford (hosted by Ruth, JTA, and I) – technical operations
- …and… anybody else having one this year? One of you up in the North, perhaps?
If you’re one of the usual crew, or one of our newer friends, come on over and join the party! Or if you’re going to be watching from further North (Liz? Simon? Gareth? Penny? Matt? Matt? Kit? Fi?), let me know so that I can bring you in on my proposals for “sharing the experience”, drawing together our votes, and whatnot.
And regardless of whether you’ll be joining one of these parties in person, or not, I hope you’ll be joining The Party at Adam’s and The Party on New Earth digitally. If you’re among the 17 people who are actually on Google+, come and join us in our Hangout! Dust off that old webcam and point it at you or your little party, make sure you’re in Adam or I’s “circles”, and then log in on Eurovision Night and join us via the power of the Internet! You’ll have to provide your own crisps and beer, and (unless you’re at Adam’s) you’ll need to bake your own cupcakes with adorable European-flag icing, too, but at least you can be part of the moment with the rest of us.
See you online!
I already own the best mouse in the world. Maybe it’s time for a new keyboard, too.
A few weeks ago, Adam blogged about his trip to London last year, and mentioned that, after trips out to Soho’s “G-A-Y” nightclub when he was younger, he’d often surprise himself the following morning to wake up in some quite distant travel zones of London. My favourite bit was when he mentioned that, on one ocassion, he’d…
…somehow managed to whore my way beyond the reach of the Underground.
I replied with a comment, stating, among other things:
You owe me a fresh herbal tea. Also a new keyboard, which might never recover from the nasal spraying of herbal tea that it’s just been exposed to.
(it’s not a particularly original comment, I know: Jimmy said something similar in a comment on this very blog, about four years ago)
In any case: the week before last I received a pair of unexpected parcels. I opened the first, an Amazon box, and pulled out a note. It was from Adam, and stated that the contents were “a replacement keyboard”, assuming that “nobody’s got their wires crossed.”
A musical keyboard: this one’s powered by air (I’d have never guessed that Stagg would have made such a thing!). The musician blows into a tube while they play the notes in order to elicit a tune. It doesn’t sound bad, actually, although I do feel that it could do with a MIDI port. And an air-driven dynamo to power that port. And then a battery-powered pump so that you don’t need to blow it at all.
The second parcel continued the theme:
A selection of herbal and fruit teas, from
Asda’s Morrisons’ range. There was no note in this parcel, but it was pretty clear by now who the sender must be. I’d have been ever so confused if I’d have opened the second parcel one first.
So thank you, Adam, you crazy old fool, for making me laugh out loud yet again. I shall have to compose a song in your honour: and given the amount of air intake that’s needed to keep the keyboard playing, I shall call it, The Big Puff Song.
Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging, this last month, include:
- Code Week: hacking Three Rings code in a converted hay loft of a Derbyshire farm, as mentioned on the Three Rings blog.
- Hoghton Tower: as is traditional at this time of year (see blog posts from 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, for example), went to Preston for the Hoghton Tower concert and fireworks display, accompanied by Ruth, and my sister’s 22nd birthday. My other sister has more to say about it.
- Family Picnic: Joining Ruth and JTA at Ruth’s annual family picnic, among her billions of second-cousins and third-aunts.
- New Earthwarming: Having a mini housewarming on New Earth, where I live with Ruth, JTA, and Paul. A surprising number of people came from surprisingly far away, and it was fascinating to see some really interesting networking being done by a mixture of local people (from our various different “circles” down here) and distant guests.
- Bodleian Staff Summer Party: Yet another reason to love my new employer! The drinks and the hog roast (well, roast vegetable sandwiches and falafel wraps for me, but still delicious) would have won me over by themselves. The band was just a bonus. The ice cream van that turned up and started dispensing free 99s: that was all just icing on the already-fabulous cake.
- TeachMeet: Giving a 2-minute nanopresentation at the first Oxford Libraries TeachMeet, entitled Your Password Sucks. A copy of my presentation (now with annotations to make up for the fact that you can’t hear me talking over it) has been uploaded to the website.
- New Earth Games Night: Like Geek Night, but with folks local to us, here, some of whom might have been put off by being called “Geeks”, in that strange way that people sometimes do. Also, hanging out with the Oxford On Board folks, who do similar things on Monday nights in the pub nearest my office.
- Meeting Oxford Nightline: Oxford University’s Nightline is just about the only Nightline in the British Isles to not be using Three Rings, and they’re right on my doorstep, so I’ve been meeting up with some of their folks in order to try to work out why. Maybe, some day, I’ll actually understand the answer to that question.
- Alton Towers & Camping: Ruth and I decided to celebrate the 4th anniversary of us getting together with a trip to Alton Towers, where their new ride, Thirteen, is really quite good (but don’t read up on it: it’s best enjoyed spoiler-free!), and a camping trip in the Lake District, with an exhausting but fulfilling trek to the summit of Glaramara.
That’s quite a lot of stuff, even aside from the usual work/volunteering/etc. stuff that goes on in my life, so it’s little wonder that I’ve neglected to blog about it all. Of course, there’s a guilt-inspired downside to this approach, and that’s that one feels compelled to not blog about anything else until finishing writing about the first neglected thing, and so the problem snowballs.
So this quick summary, above? That’s sort-of a declaration of blogger-bankruptcy on these topics, so I can finally stop thinking “Hmm, can’t blog about X until I’ve written about Code Week!”