Sunday, December 20, 2015

The True Meaning of Christmas

As I've got older (and far more outspoken about my disdain for religion) around this time of year someone usually points out how hypocritical it is for a self-confessed apostate heathen to celebrate Christmas.

Well, the thing is, I don't celebrate least not 'Jesus's Birthday'.

In the past, I've self-righteously pointed out how no-one knows when Jesus' Birthday is, and the 25th was deliberately chosen specifically to co-opt the ancient Roman festivals of 'Saturnalia' and 'Dies Natalis Solis Invicti'… after all, the easiest way to stamp out a competing belief system is to co-opt their rituals and festivals.

But, today I want to ask another question. For all of recorded history, every major culture has some sort of Festival on or around the Winter Solstice...why is that?

Here's why: Because for the vast majority of human history, Winter wasn't just a time to put on a jumper and bitch about higher heating bills. It was a terrifying, dangerous time. It's cold, nothing grows, fuel is in limited you'd better hope your harvest was successful and that the Winter is short and mild, because if it's not, people are going to die.

...and that's what the myriad of Winter Festivals are about. On the shortest day of the year, in the depths of winter, when the darkness is longest and the air is coldest, you gather around a fire with your family, friends and loved ones and act like it's the last time you'll ever see them, because it's a very real possibility that it might be. It's a time of giving and sharing, because maybe not everyone has enough...and above all, a time to tell the people you love exactly how much they mean to you.

That's what this time of year is about. It doesn't need God or Gods. It doesn't need Prophets or Forest Spirits or supernatural beings to make it special. For all of human history this has been a time of year for people to come together for the common good.

So, basically, I don't give a shit what banner you sit under for the rest of the year. I don't care if you're Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or worship your dog's left testicle.

This time of year is about getting together with your family and friends and celebrating. It's about going out of your way to help people. What it's absolutely not about is drawing lines and dividing ourselves by arguing over what name we've assigned to the things we believe in. If your neighbour is starving and you have food to spare, or they're freezing and you have space by your fire, it shouldn't matter what they call their God. If it does matter to you, I don't think you read your holy book properly, and if your holy book told you that's how to behave...then it isn't a book worth reading.

It's dark, it's cold, but if we work together maybe we'll see the light again.

So Happy non-denomination Winter Festival, people. We're halfway through the darkness. Tell the people you love that you love them, and maybe I'll see eachother on the other side.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Learning Piano with Yousician

I've wanted to play the piano for pretty much my entire life. Unfortunately, while I've owned a series of keyboards, I've always been in the position where I couldn't afford lessons and had a really hard time learning completely on my own from books.

Well, recently a Youtube ad pointed me in the direction of 'Yousician', a bit of piano teaching software, so I decided to have another run at it. I bought decent mid-range digital piano, downloaded the software and gave it a try.

The first thing I'll say about Yousician is that, while there is a free version, the 'premium' version is an absolute must. I don't mind the advertisements present in the free version, it's also time limited, where you only get to use it for about half an hour a day. At best, the free version is basically a demo. If you want to learn, get out your credit card.

To be completely fair, it's not too expensive. It's about 20 Euros a month subscription (about £15 gbp or $21 USD), or half that if you want to pay a year's subscription in advance. It's a bit of sticker shock shelling out nearly a hundred quid for a subscription...but considering the going rate for piano lessons (at least near where I live) is around £25 per hour, I'd say it's worth it.

So how does Yousician work?

You download the app to your laptop or device, and the app listens to your playing through your microphone. You start with the very basics and as you progress, you pick a 'path' to suit what you want to play: Classic, Pop and Knowledge/Creativity if you want to learn music theory and how to write your own music.

It's actually very slick. For example, you start with a very basic right-hand only melody, and the screen shows a keyboard showing what keys to hit as well as a musical stave...starting out with coloured bars showing the notes, then advancing to actual musical notation.

I have to admit, I was a bit worried at first. I was going through the exercises, passing the skill challenges...but I didn't feel like I was really learning anything. I was learning that my index finger is on the 'red' key, and when there's a red note to press that key...but it felt like I wasn't actually learning the actual notes or how to read music... It reminded me a bit of Guitar Hero or Rock Band. Sure, I was learning to play that very specific simple song, but it felt like if someone sat me at a piano without Yousician open and told me to play an A minor chord, I wouldn't have a clue...but then, after a good few hours, I had a weird experience.

I went onto a skill challenge, the notes were flowing across the screen, I was getting a bit lost, then my fingers just sort of moved to the right notes on their own. I wasn't looking at the keyboard diagram...somehow, I looked at a note on the stave and muscle memory sent my hands to the right place.

I think that's the coolest thing about Yousician. I don't know if it was specifically designed that way, but by showing you the 'easy' way and the 'hard' way at the same time, you pick up a lot without realising it.

I do have a few complaints about it, however.

The first and most obvious is that the piano version isn't available for android yet. It's available for iOS and PC, but only the guitar version is on Android. Given that it's exactly the same technology that works exactly the same way, there's no reason why there shouldn't be an android version. In fact, it's can take a guitar anywhere, and there's nothing to stop you sitting in front of a laptop or desktop PC with a guitar in your lap. Arranging a full sized, 88 key piano or keyboard in front of a screen is a lot more difficult.

After rearranging furniture to get a setup where I could sit at my piano, and see the screen, and have the piano close enough to the was really annoying that I couldn't just put my tablet on my sheet-music stand.

Secondly, and my biggest complaint, is the audio recognition. It's good enough, but it gets a bit frustrating when you know you hit the right note or played the right chord and the software tells you you did it wrong. It's accurate enough that you won't fail an exercise because of it, but given that the big selling point is that it turns learning music into a's really annoying when you know you've aced an exercise and get a lower score than you should have. I'll point out that I got this problem using both my laptop's internal mic, and an expensive Blue Yeti USB mic. There's also no support for MIDI keyboards, which is a shame because this would bypass the issue all together.

Finally, it would be nice if it included more 'classroom' type exercises. There are a few quizzes, but as someone who wants to eventually write my own music, it would be nice if there was more of a focus on theory.

However, in the end, I've attempted to learn the piano at least 5 or 6 times over the course of my life and either hit a brick wall without lessons or just got frustrated and gave up. I learned more and advanced more in two hours with Yousician than I have over weeks and weeks trying to learn from a book.

It's far from perfect, but for people like me, who can't really justify spending thousands of pounds a year on lessons, it's a good start. It's fun, there's a real sense of progression, and while it doesn't make learning the piano 'easy', it certainly makes it easier.

I'd highly recommend Yousician for anyone starting out on Piano. If you can afford one-on-one lessons, I'd definitely suggest that would be the way to go, and maybe use Yousician to help you practice...but it's fun, relatively cheap and great way to get into piano.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Terry Pratchett 1948 - 2015

It was with real, geniune sadness that I heard of the death of Terry Pratchett today.

When I was 12 years old, and dumb as a sack of hammers, I wrote to Terry. I told him I wanted to be a writer just like him, and asked all sorts of stupid questions.

He wrote back. I got a four page reponse on Great A'Tuin headed paper. He answered all my stupid questions, and wrapped it all up in a mix of sage advice and encouragement.

Time has moved on. I'm hopefully a little less stupid. I even published a book...but I still want to be a writer just like my hero Terry.

I don't give praise easily. I don't often gush. I'm cynical and I'm generally an overly-critical, jaded human being. I tell you this so you know how sincere I am when I say Sir Terry Pratchett was a genuine literary genius. His work literally shaped my life. His work had a hand in everything from my writing style to my overall sense of humor.

As simply as I can put it. The world is a better place because Terry Pratchett lived in it.

I could go on for hours about how funny he was, how he mixed comedy, fantasy, sci-fi, satire in a package that shouldn't have worked, but just did... but what I loved most about Terry's work is that he had that extremely rare ability to make you forget that you were reading.

As an English student, by habit I pick apart everything I read. I enjoy the story, but I always notice where a sentence structure was a little awkward. Where the foreshadowing was a little heavy handed. Where a plot point was left unresolved or where a writer got a little self-indulgent.

With Terry's work that never happened. His writing style was flawless to the point where you just forget you're looking at words on a page, and the story, the scene, the characters just slip effortlessly from the page and into your imagination.

I thought about ending this with a quote. The problem was there are just too many to choose from, so the only real way I can think to end this is this:

Thank you, Terry. Thank you for the stories. Thank you for the universes you created...but most of all, thank you for taking the time to answer a stupid 12 year old's stupid questions. 

Friday, March 06, 2015

WTF is wrong with the UK?

Ok, I'd like someone to explain something to me.

I was on a website looking at movie props. I'll admit that most of the actual production stuff is way out of my price range but, hey, I like to look.

So I see an awesome gun that was used on Firefly and immediately geeked out...but when I looked at the page I saw the following:

"The violent crime reduction bill means that this particular prop can only be sold to customers who reside outside the UK. Generally speaking, it is illegal for a resident of the UK to buy this item."

What the fuck, England? Not only is it illegal for me to own an air rifle that you can buy in any American Walmart (marked 'for ages 10 and up)'s now literally illegal for me to own a rubber gun?

What am I going to do? Point it at someone and shout 'bang' loudly? It's literally a completely harmless object. It's not a gun. It doesn't shoot. It's a rubber or resin cast used in a movie

But of course, it looks real, so people could still use it to commit crimes!

Call me an idiot here, but I'd much rather get robbed by someone holding a fake gun than someone holding a real knife. Or, to put it another way, if someone walks up to me on the street and demands my wallet, chances are, I'm going to shit my pants and give it to them. I don't care what they have in their hands. I don't know if the guy has a knife, a gun or is just a hopped up drug addict with enough crack in their system to render them completely incapable of feeling pain. It's not worth the risk

My point is, if someone's going to commit a crime, their weapon of choice is pretty much irrelevant.

How about something a bit more practical. Instead of banning replicas, why not just say if you use a replica gun  to commit a crime, you'll be punished as if you used a real weapon? Punish the people committing the crime, not law abiding citizens.

This is where some twat points out that if the police see you with a replica gun during a crime they're going to call an armed response unit and shoot you.

My answer? Fucking good. If you're the type of arsehole that tries to rob a bank of mug someone on the street, I'm not going to miss you. Better you get shot by the police than me pay to keep you in prison for the next few years.

But what if a cop sees you just carrying your replica and shoots you?

Well, for one, I have an ounce of common sense. I'm not going to carry a replica firearm and brandish it in public. Secondly, if a cop can't tell the difference between a violent criminal and a guy outside a comic convention dressed as a stormtrooper...that cop's killing someone by mistake at some point anyway.

I wouldn't mind so much if it was even a ban on replicas of actual real guns....If I want a replica of Han Solo's blaster from Star Wars, I can't own that either unless it's painted a bright garish colour...which when you're going for authenticity kinda destroys the whole point of owning it. Sure you can have a movie prop long as it looks fuck all like the actual movie prop.

...and what's the deal with the bright colors? If you want an airsoft gun in the UK, it can't be an accurate can't even just have a bright orange tip on the barrel either. It has to be painted so at least 60% of it is a bright, primary colour like bright green or orange.

Once again, it's not like someone could disguise a real gun in five seconds with a can of spray paint.

It's ridiculous.

In my kitchen I have a large selection of knives. In my wardrobe I have my recurve bow which I could quite easily kill someone with. I can walk into any sporting goods or DIY store and buy a baseball bat, an axe, a chainsaw...any number of things I could actually murder someone with.

But, fuck that, let's make sure I can't buy a totally inert, rubber gun that's no danger to anyone.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why Santa is a Time Lord

The first question we have to ask is, why does Santa do what he does?

Seriously, who goes to that level of trouble to give gifts to people with nothing in return? Well, if we look at The Doctor's track record, he's dedicated his entire life to helping people. He's particularly fond of humans and basically exists to make people feel safe and happy.

We also know the Doctor is more or less incapable of standing still. In 'The Slow Invasion' we saw The Doctor go almost literally insane when he had to sit and wait for a couple of hours.

Finally, there's the challenge involved. The Doctor's MO is to jump at the chance of an impossible challenge and always manages to pull it off.

So, think of Santa's job. He has to do the impossible in a single night, something that will make him impossibly busy and the result is he makes people feel safe and happy.

Basically, doing Santa's job is something that fits with everything we know about The Doctor.

Then we come to the logistics.

There are approximately 2.18 billion Christians on the planet. If we divide that by the average members of a family (two parents and two kids), that's roughly 545 million homes he has to visit in a single night.

If Santa starts at most westerly tip of Alaska at GMT+12 and works his way east, finishing in Russia at GMT+12, he can guarantee himself 24 hours of darkness on Christmas Eve.  That means, in order to deliver presents to every person who celebrates Christmas, Santa has to visit roughly 22708333 homes every hour...or six thousand three hundred and seven homes every second.

Now, even if Santa could move that fast, we know that Santa doesn't just arrive, drop presents and leave. He eats the mince pie/cookies and milk you've left for him, and he can't do each house in the most efficient order because he has to avoid the houses of the kids who are waiting up to try and catch a glimpse of him.

Basically, the only way he can do it is if he has more time than is available. Long story short, he needs a TARDIS, or at least a Vortex Manipulator to allow himself to travel in time. That way, he can visit a house, drop off the gifts, eat his cookie, then travel to the next house and arrive there at the same time he's at the first one. 

Of course, this leads to problems. If he's in every house simultaneously, he's likely to meet himself, which means crossing his own timeline, leading to timey-wimey problems, and that much time travel in a single location will tear so many holes in the time-space continuum, that he'd likely leave all of Earth time-locked...just like the Last Great Time War became time-locked due to over-use of time travel.

So, it's likely he'd do maybe on street or a few streets at a time. This explains why you can hear Santa on the roof of your house sometimes. He has to walk, rather than just land the TARDIS in your living room.

This, however answers a long time question. Now that very few houses have chimneys, how does Santa get into the house? Well, the answer is obviously that Santa has a Sonic Screwdriver to let himself into houses.

But, of course, this raises another question: If Santa is delivering presents in a TARDIS, why is Santa always depicted in a sleigh rather than a Police Box?

The answer to that is obviously simple. The TARDIS isn't a Police Box, It's a TARDIS and, as such, has a chameleon circuit....a camouflage system designed to automatically blend in with it's environment.

Well, Santa, in his modern form, has been around since 1773...and what vehicle would fit most seamlessly into pre-Victorian England? A sleigh, of course...and while The Doctor doesn't experience time in a linear fashion, we know the TARDIS only got 'stuck' as a Police Box due to the faulty Chameleon Circuit in the 1960's....meaning it's entirely probable that in the 1700's, the TARDIS could indeed have been disguised as a Sleigh.

Also, as a Time Traveller, we know The Doctor wouldn't necessarily wait a year between deliveries. In fact, it would make far more sense to 'do' multiple Christmases at a time. You might as well deliver a present, hop forward in time and do next year's while you are there. So, perhaps, up to this point, The Doctor has only delivered presents when the Chameleon Circuit is working.

Of course, there's the final option. The Doctor is a genius, who literally saved the universe by jump-starting a second Big Bang. It's unlikely that he couldn't fix the Chameleon Circuit if he really wanted to. All evidence points to the fact that the TARDIS is a Police Box simply because The Doctor likes it that way.

Finally, we come to the most conclusive piece of evidence: Santa's Sack. In a single bag, he can carry enough presents for 2 billion people, and this bag can fit on a regular sized sleigh. The only way this can work is if his sack is bigger on the inside, and the Time-Lords of Gallifrey are the only known people in the known universes to have mastered this technology.

Ladies and Gentlemen. I think this is conclusive proof that Santa is a Time Lord...and most likely to be The Doctor