Saturday, July 30, 2011

Death Of The White Elephant: Part II

A lot of people who work for NASA aren't very bright.

In the first installment of this obituary I accused NASA of telling fibs. Since NASA isn't an individual this requires some elaboration. As I'll explain below, what I'm really talking about is an institutional culture of deceit and delusion, the negative results of which range from compounding scientific illiteracy to people dying.

In the Fall of 1985 I started my graduate work at Queen Mary College, London. This opened many doors including the one to the departmental lounge. Morning coffee and afternoon tea provided a remarkable opportunity to hear what some very clever people were saying. These people included senior personnel from various satellite and solar system missions including IRAS, Voyager, Galileo and Cassini.

One afternoon the conversation meandered to the topic of the safety of the Shuttle. Three professors with considerable expertise in such matters gave their estimates for the likelihood of "catastrophic failure." Two independently arrived at a failure rate of 1 mission in a 100. The third said he felt that was optimistic and that before the Shuttle had begun operations he had predicted a failure rate of 1 in 25. However, since the Shuttle had already survived more than 20 missions he had adopted a Bayesian approach and upped his failure estimate to 1 in 50.

This didn't seem to me to be possible. Partly because Dawn, my future-first-ex-wife, was a school teacher, I was aware that in a couple of months the "Teacher in Space Flight" launch was scheduled. Teaching in an inner London school was certainly a dangerous profession, but Dawn's expectation of returning home on any given day was much better than 1 in 100.

I asked the assembled experts how NASA could contemplate putting a civilian in such peril.

"NASA senior managers estimate a 1 in 100,000 catastrophic failure rate," replied one. His two colleagues nodded.

"And you get 1 in 100?" I said.

"Give or take."


Several years after this conversation I read Richard Feynman's account of his work on the Rogers Commission that investigated the loss of Challenger. It gave me goosebumps. Because the criminally dysfunctional mess that was NASA, and that Feynman "discovered," was well known to the three professors at my college and anyone else who had been exposed to the inner workings of the agency.

So how could NASA's senior managers come up with estimated failure rates completely divorced from those of their own engineers (who they ignored) and reality (which is a place other people live)? Part of it is they had no choice. Now... okay this may not make any sense unless, like me, you've worked for these people, but... NASA's senior managers were compelled to assume a microscopically low failure rate of 1 in 100,000 because if they accepted a realistic estimate they would have no choice but to ground the Shuttle.

Actually, even if you have worked for NASA, this idea doesn't make any sense in isolation. You also have to understand something I'll expand upon in Part III: A lot of people who work for NASA aren't very bright.

A couple of months after this coffee-room conversation, Challenger was destroyed. Dawn and I got back from shopping and as we unpacked I turned on the TV to catch the evening news. The first shot I absorbed was of two solid rocket boosters curving away from a single trail that terminated abruptly in a roughly spherical cloud.

"I suppose they all died instantly," said Dawn, blinking damply at the screen as the 73 second flight was replayed.

It was a couple of hours after the "major malfunction" and news pundits had already enhanced some critical video clips. Something pertinent to Dawn's not uncommon supposition was readily apparent. Whatever the cause of the "explosion" it had left the SRBs relatively undamaged. Further, interest had already concentrated on a plume near the rear of the vehicle. You didn't have to be a rocket science to realize that the location of the apparent failure combined with the lack of damage to the SRBs made it quite likely that the crew cabin had survived the explosion.

"I'm afraid they probably didn't," I said to Dawn.

We still don't know for sure. The Kerwin report concluded:

"[T]he crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following Orbiter breakup due to in-flight loss of crew module pressure."

This conclusion may have been sanitized for public consumption. Lead NASA investigator Robert Overmyer was convinced at least some of the crew were not only alive as the crew module plunged towards the ocean, they were also conscious. Based on the positioning of certain flight switches, Overmyer concluded:

"Scob [Commander Dick Scobee] fought for any and every edge to survive. He flew that ship without wings all the way down... They were alive."

This raises a key question. Wouldn't it have been a good idea for the Shuttle to have some kind of escape hatch or ejector seats or something? You know, like other experimental aircraft and spacecraft.

But that would be silly, wouldn't it? The Shuttle didn't need an escape facility. The expected failure rate was 1 in 100,000.

The full and well-documented story of exactly how badly NASA screwed up is beyond the scope of my musings here. Anyone who has read Feynman's account of his investigations may, like me, have been driven to angry tears by the sheer stupidity and negligence of senior NASA personnel. The fact nobody was ever convicted of crimes relating to the death of the crew is only unsurprising because we expect so little accountability from senior personnel in federal agencies.

But at least the thorough investigation into the Challenger disaster made it clear that those seven individuals did not die in vain. The culture of deceit and delusion at NASA would be changed so that such an "accident" could never happen again.

When an equally avoidable accident did happen again, I decided I didn't want to play with rockets any more.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Death Of The White Elephant: Part I

With the Shuttle "fleet" finally decommissioned it's time to crash the ISS into the Pacific and dismantle NASA.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that on the final Shuttle launch NASA would still be lying to the American public. I hadn't watched a launch for years, primarily because they make me feel physically sick. Partly this stems from the fact that the craft is a death-trap, but the manipulative, disingenuous garbage that accompanies the Shuttle traveling "into space" also contributes to my nausea.

As those of you who have read Douglas Adams will know, space is big. When I was teaching introductory astronomy, one of the first assignments I gave was intended to give students some idea of the scale of our neighborhood. For the first time ever I've worked out the numbers using "British" units. Somebody should probably check my arithmetic.

Suppose the Earth is a basketball. On this scale the Moon would be a bit smaller than a baseball twenty-four feet away. I think that's quite an instructive image. On this same scale the Sun would be a bit less than two miles away. If you can imagine something like a spherical five-story building that is very hot indeed then you're getting a decent idea of the Sun.

So we've learned that in our immediate vicinity - our little corner of space - the Moon at only twenty-four feet away is much closer than the Sun, and the Sun is much bigger than both the Earth and Moon.

During the countdown before Atlantis commenced its eight minute journey into "space," various key personnel added whimsical speeches to their usual pre-launch routine. We were reminded of the thirty magnificent years of the Shuttle program and its pivotal role in space exploration. The notion of the Shuttle "exploring space" came up time and time again, wearing more enamel from my teeth on each occasion.

Let's put the Shuttle on our scale model of the Earth-Moon-Sun system. Remember the Moon is twenty-four feet away, the Sun almost two miles. On this scale the Shuttle orbits the basketball that is representing the Earth at a height of one quarter of an inch.

Exploring space? The Shuttle explores space in the same way an automobile going round Daytona International Speedway explores Florida. Except much less so. The idea is completely preposterous, although it does invite further comparisons between NASA and NASCAR that I'll explore in the second part of this rant.

I think what really bugs me about NASA selling the Shuttle as space exploration is that it reflects the broader NASA culture of lying to the public. And that in turn reflects a deeper culture that led to the unnecessary deaths of fourteen astronauts. NASA lied to them too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I Was Wrong About God

I was recently taken to task by someone I respect for proclaiming myself to be an atheist. His view was that, as a scientist (albeit retired), the only rational position I can take is one of an agnostic.

Up until a few minutes ago I agreed, at least in principle, with his stance. That is, I accepted that atheism is a metaphysical belief and as a belief it cannot be entirely rational.

In fact I've always had a counter-argument in my back pocket. As a scientist I'm allowed (and possibly required) to invoke Occam's razor. Since modern physics strongly suggests that we don't need God, simplicity requires that we should just do away with him altogether and move on to something more productive like game theory.

Which I did. And as I was mucking about with a payoff matrix relating to a Limit Holdem situation on the turn, it suddenly occurred to me that I was being far too wishy-washy with this God business.

Part of the difficulty here is defining exactly what it is that I don't believe in. The American Evangelist has a very different God than a liberal British Anglican. The former is the traditional, Old Testament law-giving lunatic that I (and Jesus) have described elsewhere, whereas the latter is a sort of bake-sale supervisor who no longer likes to show off the fact that he has ultimate power and dominion over everything. I see no point in worrying about pantheistic traditions. If God is in a stone and this has absolutely no impact on how the stone behaves then I really can use Occam's razor to zap that deity into meaninglessness.

It seems to me that any God worth believing in must be omnipotent, omniscient, and in some sense supernatural. "Supernatural" pretty much reduces to "creator of the Universe" since anything else would put God within the Universe and thus subject to physical inquiry and explanation. And if you created the Universe it follows you can tweak its behavior whenever you choose.

So we can't build a Godometer and attempt to detect The Almighty, but we can look at his handiwork and the way he maintains it to address the question of whether his existence is plausible. And this gets us into the heart of theology.

Theologians through the ages have devoted their lives to the question of why God allows such horrors to afflict his children. They have come up with exquisite schemes involving original sin and free will and heaven and hell. And... okay maybe I'm missing something, but isn't it all complete bullshit? It seems to me the complex stories these people weave are desperate smoke-and-mirrors routines that attempt to divert attention from something rather obvious.

Put yourself in God's shoes for a moment. You see a human being battering a cat with a baseball bat. What would you do? Not only are you all powerful, you have infinite mercy. Give me one sane reason why you wouldn't stop the human crushing the skull of the cat?

There isn't one. But God doesn't save the cat.

And that is why millions of people have written billions of words on God's refusal to prevent suffering, and why the major religions can't agree on The Answer. There cannot be an answer when the premise is false.

The cat is not saved because there is no God. Any other conclusion is irrational.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amy Winehouse

About three years ago I wrote a song about Amy Winehouse that contrasted her to Jane Austen. I'm not sure why since I never really listened to her, although a woman I care about did. And I didn't know that she lived in Camden Town...

You sing the blues
You're the face that's in the news
Ellen Mayhem in Gucci shoes
Everywhere I turn the dial
Lipstick-laden alligator smile

You were amazing
But I didn't want to know
Friends call me crazy but you seemed so
Very peculiar

The Gothic World
Sails of England are unfurled
Miss Jane Fox your hair is curled
In Mansfield Park you lay your head
Sense and sensibility are dead

You were amazing
But I didn't want to know
Friends call me crazy but you seemed so
Very peculiar

Remember the first time I read you
Remember the first time I heard you
Remember feeling sure that
I would never fall in love
No I would never fall in love again

In Camden Town
Coach and four or coke and crown
Mini-skirt or wedding gown
Prejudice can't bruise your pride
Sisyphus on ice you're gonna slide

You were amazing
But I didn't want to know
Friends call me crazy but you seemed so
Very peculiar

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sex In The Dark?

Over the last couple of weeks I have been asked if I was (i) dead; (ii) writing erotica. I used to get asked if I was dead a lot, but I'm glad to say that changes in my lifestyle over the last few years seem to have resulted in fewer inquiries about my continued existence. Either that or people have ceased giving a crap. I haven't been blogging primarily because I am so hacked off at the DoJ and Full Tilt Poker for making my life and that of hard-working friends way more difficult than it need be. Concerning the erotica...

No. But that is the second reason I've been blogging less.

Blind Straddle is an online monthly poker publication and has nothing to do with mounting your partner with the lights off [1]. My June contribution can be found here.

[1] Although given the editors broad-reaching media interests, that may change in future issues.

Since I'll be writing a monthly column for Blind Straddle for at least the next year, most of my poker musings will appear there rather than here. I'll save my blog for my bitter complaints about all the sorts of things I usually complain bitterly about.

If you're worried about missing anything I encourage you to sign up for Blind Straddle e-mail updates through the website. Actually, even if you're not as neurotic as me, I encourage you to check out the site for links to excellent poker resources and like the Facebook page.

The July issue comes out next week and includes some of my thoughts on how to exploit losing players by understanding their psychological weaknesses.

Friday, May 27, 2011

I Don't Know Much About Art (but I know I don't like it)

Well-known for being on the cutting-edge of intellectual innovation, Kansas is about to become the only state in the Union without an Arts Commission. Governor Brownback says we don't need one and, despite resistance from members of his own party, he seems determined to make sure we don't have one.

Those opposing Brownback's actions have largely based their arguments on fiscal considerations. The tacit assumption appears to be that Brownback is motivated by budgetary concerns. Consequently, many of the Governor's opponents have noted how much revenue the Arts Commission generates (through taxable wages, matching federal funds, and so on).

This completely misses the point. The money "saved" by abolishing the Kansas Arts Commission is a fraction of one percent of the projected budget shortfall. The issue is that Governor Brownback doesn't like art.

He doesn't like Darwin either and I doubt he is fond of Stephen Hawking.

But he loves Jesus.

Historically, of course, simultaneously loving Jesus and supporting artists worked quite well. This is one of the areas that I apparently missed in high school so I am vague on the details, but from what I can gather Christianity inspired some really spectacular paintings and ceilings and whatnot [1]. And since this appears to be the only positive contribution Christianity has made to civilization in the last couple of thousand years one might expect modern-day Christians to embrace it.

[1] Source: Stewie Griffin, Family Guy.

Given how much the Christian PR department is in need of someone who is handy with watercolors, one might hope Brownback would at least support a bit of painting. The last leaflet I received from the local Baptists, for example, is absolutely woeful. It took me several minutes to realize that the pale, flaxen-haired girl in the nightdress was supposed to be Jesus. I suppose one might allow some artistic license, but I find it hard to accept that the Son of God got his hands on a bottle of SPF-45 while wandering around the desert. Furthermore, the sheep in the background are completely out of perspective and would be the size of elephants.

And the funny thing is, many of the people currently benefiting from the Kansas Arts Commission are precisely those who are likely to paint sheep (or at least cows) grazing in a pasture, and to be on speaking-terms with Jesus.

This is where I can break my usual blogging practice of making up facts and draw on my personal experience of leading a creative writing workshop at Lawrence Arts Center. The participants spanned the spectrum from a nervous teenager looking for a friendlier environment than high school to share his prose to a delightful woman in her eighties who read her stories in a purring Gone-with-the-wind drawl. Other courses were similarly populated. A beaming guy who had recently retired from Jiffy-Lube covered in clay after successfully making his fifteenth ashtray. A bespectacled dental hygienist delighted when she finally mastered "Yellow Submarine" on the guitar.

It's conceivable (perhaps likely) that Brownback is completely unaware of the realities of publicly-funded arts programs in the state he governs, and that he assumes recipients are primarily taking photographs of people peeing on each other. I suspect, however, that there is a deeper ideological issue.

I got sick a couple of months ago and having tired of a "River Monsters" marathon tuned in to a program about missing Gospels. Apparently there are loads of these things, but someone called Irenaeus with a similar political agenda to Brownback decided that they were wrong and burned them.

A conservative theologian was asked whether, just perhaps, these additional texts might hold some useful information about Jesus and God and all the other stuff that Gospels tend to cover.

The theologian beamed menacingly.

"Everything I need is in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! What more could I possibly want?"

I briefly sat bolt upright on the futon before collapsing in a drizzle of mucus.

This man claims to be a scholar. And yet he has no need of additional information because everything he needs is in the Bible.

I wondered how in the hell he got tenure and dozed off.

In my dream I was Governor Brownback sitting at a big oak desk holding an ornate fountain pen. To my right there was a large Bible. In front of me were pieces of paper, each with a single word: "ART, SCIENCE, MUSIC, LITERATURE."

On each piece of paper I crossed out the word and wrote underneath: "NOT NEEDED."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Department of Justice Indicts Golf Course Owners - FBI Seizes Flag Sticks

In a move that has sent shock waves through the world of golf, the Department of Justice today charged owners of Augusta National, Pebble Beach and a dozen other well-known courses with wire fraud, money laundering, and high treason. Players arriving for early morning tee times were confronted by yellow police tape and the sign:

"Ha ha ha! You're screwed - The Feds"

In a DoJ press release that critics described as "smug with a touch of neo-fascism," it was revealed that golf courses that enable millions to enjoy this past-time have been facilitating a multitude of crimes for decades. Not only have players been wagering on the outcomes of games, the DoJ also presented evidence that the results of such wagers were often paid off in ways that violate, circumvent, and generally make a mockery of the 1961 Wire Fraud Act. While no specific examples were cited in the press release, legal analysts agree this is more than likely since the act is so vaguely worded that asking a non-Government employee if they have a postage stamp to sell could result in a three billion dollar fine and twenty-five years in prison.

Golf enthusiasts are baffled by these developments.

"I thought this was the Land of the Free!" observed Felix Baknein. "How am I threatening national security by wandering around in awful pants with my clubs?"

We posed this question to the DoJ.

"Freedom?" replied a spokesperson. "Freedom doesn't come under our jurisdiction. You should talk to... hmmm... Actually that's not really a federal matter at all. Ask the ACLU."

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Alcoves V: Alcove In Wardour Street

A hot summer evening in Soho, driving with Tony Wager through rush-hour traffic in his wheezing Triumph Herald. Dave Vanian in full make-up wearing a cape materializes.

"Hey look! Dave Va... right! TURN RIGHT NOW!"

Tony swung the car onto Wardour Street. Almost immediately we discovered that Wardour Street is one-way and the way we were going was not the one indicated by the large arrows. Tony executed a series of hand gestures to indicate to the oncoming traffic that his navigator was an idiot. I waved.

In the same way that punk had given permission and opportunity to people like me to form a band, it also prompted us to write. Fanzines sprung up as rapidly as bands and were often as transitory. Bev was now not only lead singer of The Alcoves, she was editor of Fijit. She cunningly invited me to write for the fanzine, thereby becoming my boss.

The previous day Bev had handed me a list of questions, a cassette recorder, and a spare battery for the cassette recorder.

"We've got an interview with Modern Jazz tomorrow at The Marquee," she said.


"We. Fijit."

"No, I meant who is Modern Jazz?"

Bev handed me their press kit.

"Wouldn't it be better if someone who'd heard of them did it?" I said.

"You live nearest," said Bev. "You better write down the interview too, the cassette recorder's a bit iffy."

This didn't strike me as the greatest assignment ever, but I thanked the boss anyway. It was my first interview. I'd done a couple of gig reviews, but for some reason my main role at Fijit was writing opinion pieces in which I insulted everyone who wasn't in The Alcoves or the handful of bands that we liked and gigged with. As an avid reader of the NME, I based my style on that of Julie Burchill.

Maybe it was the lack of sleep or a hypomanic episode. Possibly a reaction to The Alcoves gaining a following. Maybe I'm just a mouthy bastard. But in the space of a couple of issues of Fijit I'd unleashed largely unprovoked attacks on Phil Smee (who I'd never met), Waldo's Records (despite liking most of their releases), The Innocent Vicars (having forgotten I knew them), and another fanzine named "99% Shit" (which I did read, thereby deviating from a purist Burchill stance).

The bouncer at The Marquee seemed less than pleased to see us.

"We're on the guest list." I said.

"Ain't got no fuckin' list. Too fuckin' early."

"But we're here to interview the band," I said, waving the cassette recorder as definitive proof.

The bouncer sighed. "Wait here."

He returned a couple of minutes later with a man in a puffy shirt who identified himself as the manager of Modern Jazz and who escorted Tony and me to the dressing room.

Any plans I had on a hard-hitting, in-depth interview would have flown out the window had the dressing room had one. The place got to me. I was in the dressing room of The Marquee, someone had given me a beer, and two members of a band I had never heard of were sitting on a dilapidated sofa explaining the lyrical significance of their latest single "In My Sleep I Shoot Sheep."

They played the record over the Marquee's P.A.

It was okay.

I noticed that someone had written "Pete Townshend," on the wall behind the sofa. It occurred to me that the somebody was probably Pete Townshend.

The cassette recorder did work. I transcribed the interview and gave it to my editor. It didn't make it into the next issue of Fijit because, as far as I know, there wasn't one.

Things were beginning to fragment.

The Alcoves IV: The Bass Player Is Clueless

I may have been slightly less clueless about the local music scene had I had an older sibling, but based on events over the subsequent thirty years I may not.

Olly had an older brother Gez and thus exposure to Gez's band The Toys and their friends.

Bev was half-step-sister-in-law-once-removed to someone in The Bodies.

Roo's older sister Sally was a pink-haired punk drummer four years older than me. I fell in love with her briefly until she introduced me to Sarah who was on her way to becoming a music journalist. I fell in love with Sarah briefly and then for a slightly longer second period when it turned out she knew the folks at Zig Zag and Sniffin' Glue. Both Sally and Sarah were friends with Dawn who I married briefly and all three of them had gone to F.E. college with Nick Haeffner and others in the established St. Albans music scene.

Youth contributed to my ignorance in a second way since it kept me out of The Horn of Plenty until I was tall enough to pretend to be eighteen. John Peel went there occasionally (although I only ever saw him at The Marquee and The Lyceum), Kim Wilde worked as a barmaid, and Paul Young (when not on stage) would wander around eating toast looking absolutely delighted that he was Paul Young.

If there was nothing going on at The Horn, the Civic Hall had gigs most weekends. I had to depunk myself a bit for a Motorhead show at which ground beef filled the air. A couple of weeks later someone set my hair on fire at the Ultravox gig. I would have let it burn had I thought it would keep John Foxx in the band thereby preventing the installation of the Scottish twit with the mustache.

And there was London.

Having found that sleep was optional, I was only limited by money. This led to terrible dilemmas. I traded my 999 album for an Ian Dury and the Blockheads ticket. And I never figured out how to be in two venues simultaneously. The Pretenders or The Fall tonight? Flip a coin.

Frankly we were spoiled. There was so much music that I made the mistake of sometimes skipping opening acts in favor of the bar. At a Siouxsie and the Banshees gig in Hemel Hempstead I was elbowing my way towards a pint of bitter when I noticed the support act sounded quite good.

"Any idea who this is?" I said to the barman.

It was The Cure.

I caught their last handful of songs. The next day I stole my mother's eye-liner.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Alcoves III: Bop!

Having solved our transportation issues with the pram, the next problem was the school dress code.

I often wished, for numerous reasons, that I went to a Catholic school for girls; particularly one with a uniform that could pass for tartan. It was a wonderful thing to see the transformation that six inches of abbreviated hemline and soap in the hair could produce. However, I was forced to work within other guidelines.

Our school rules were lengthy and detailed. They included "No blatant eating in public," which meant that sucking effetely on a Polo mint outside of class was acceptable, but walking down the High Street with half a bun protruding from your gob was not.

Hair was to be kept "off the collar and off the eyebrows." Presumably this rule was added around 1964 when the last threat from electric guitars disrupting the status quo was unleashed. However, nowhere did the rules say "Thou shalt not bleach your hair and add crimson flashes."

Socks should have been a problem since I preferred dayglo pink ones and the school rules stipulated they should be "of a color that does not draw undue attention to the individual." Clearly this rule left considerable scope for interpretation, particularly by individuals like me who felt they were due a great deal of attention. I suspect the primary reason I was not asked to return home for grey ones was that the schoolmasters' attention didn't get lower than my hair.

We were compelled to wear suits. Fortunately local thrift stores were brimming with jackets with thin lapels and matching narrow trousers from the late fifties and sixties. It's quite boggling to imagine how many dead grandfathers appear in echoed outline in band photographs of the period.

Out of the indistinguishable columns of small boys in clerical grey there emerged pockets of people who clearly weren't getting enough sleep. They invariably smelled of cigarettes, and if you were silly enough to be a prefect and grab one of them by the aforementioned narrow lapels you might find they had razor blades underneath.

A bifurcation had occurred. There were now two school uniforms.

It may have been through this sartorial coding that we met The Stern Bops. Or at least how I did. I imagine Olly knew them through Gez.

I felt an immediate bond. Like The Alcoves, The Stern Bops were a four-piece with three boys and a girl. And the lead singer, Ade Clarke, played bass. At this time I knew of only two people who could sing and play bass: Phil Lynott and Suzi Quatro. Ade was clearly neither of them, but he was incredibly charming and liked The Alcoves. In Dave Foster I recognized a fellow physicist and felt it best not to discuss the matter. Simon Dodds intimidated me, but that may have been because his job as a drummer required him to hit things really hard and he had red hair. I didn't see much of Tracey Thorn at first because, by virtue of having a vagina, she violated one of the oldest school rules concerning who was eligible to be a pupil. Initially she seemed stand-offish when we started playing gigs with The Stern Bops, but I discovered that this was a result of our shared problem of pre-gig nausea and frequent visits to the loo.

The Alcoves' sound was essentially an accident. "Minimalist pop" probably describes it, partly because Roo didn't use any guitar pedals and played mostly open chords producing a tinkly, clean jangle. I stuck with Rotosound flatwounds that have a naturally low-attack, poppy bop, and Olly's drumming owed a lot more to Ringo Starr than Keith Moon. And Bev sang rather than screamed.

The Stern Bops packed more of a punch. Dave played delightful lead lines over Tracey's chords while Ade and Simon provided the driving force. The Alcoves could achieve power pop with enough wattage, but The Stern Bops started there and worked up. Interestingly though, our songs had considerable thematic overlap. The period is known, mistakenly in my opinion, for songs of anarchy and nihilism. Both The Alcoves and The Stern Bops spent plenty of time in the more traditional waters of broken hearts.

"Lampshade" and "Boys Cry Too" are two of my favorite pop songs, not just by The Stern Bops but of the entire genre. One reason I started learning how to play guitar was so I could play them.

The Stern Bops sound had got me thinking about ours. I also needed to learn to play guitar so I could write guitar lines. In fact The Stern Bops had inadvertently become responsible for my ill-fated attempt to turn The Alcoves into a five-piece.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Alcoves II: Punk's Dead And We Don't Have A Van

I was watching the Bill Grundy show when the infamous Sex Pistols interview amazed everyone. This wasn't because I was tuned in to the music sub-culture. There were only three TV channels in England at that time and we'd just got done with tea.

I really had very little interest in music at all. My record collection consisted of a handful of K-Tel compilations (accidentally rendered coolish by T. Rex and The Sweet), and "Remember You're A Womble" by Mike Batt. I was thirteen.

By the time The Alcoves were ready for their first gig, the death of punk had been written on every available Tube station wall and I was spending every lunchtime at Cloud 7 record store. I wasn't usually buying anything, but it was the place to smoke cigarettes and to annoy Dave, the manager, by asking him if he'd got the new single by a band that didn't exist. ("Ummm... Five Snotty Bastards? Fink we're gettin' that in Fursday.")

I had bleached hair, an Anti-Nazi League badge, and a nicotine addiction I would never break.

And a band.

The band, however, did not have what most bands have. A van. In fact at the time of our first show none of us were old enough to hold a UK driver's licence.

One of the recurring themes of The Alcoves is that these kinds of details never seemed to bother us. And I am puzzled by this because for most of my life I have been a worried overplanner. Fortunately, our first gig at The Hoy Club in Harpenden was only a mile from The Francis Residence that served as our back-up practice space (until we discovered why you're not supposed to play a bass through regular hi-fi speakers).

We were sharing the bill with Force Majeure. The plan was to use their amps, but we still had to get the remainder of our gear to the club. This is when we discovered that drums are big.

I don't know where we found the pram. I suppose it might have been at The Francis Residence, but given that Mrs. F. hadn't given birth for fifteen years this seems unlikely. Actually, the thing was so big that it comfortably (even luxuriously) could be called a perambulator. A baby carriage, complete with heavily-sprung suspension and bicycle wheels. Had it been much bigger it would have come with a horse attached.

This really looked like DIY music. The drums were placed in and lashed to the pram with bungee cords and gaffer (duct) tape. As we pushed the contraption past afternoon shoppers the overall effect reminded me of a NASA lunar buggy with a Tosco cymbal radar dish.

When we got to the club, Force Majeure, who were clearly a real band since they wore leather jackets and had no pram, were setting up. We had just liberated the last of the drums when the lead singer flew across the stage. I was extremely impressed with the move until I realized he'd been electrocuted. Through his teeth. And that the power had gone out.

Once his band mates had determined that it was only a minor shock, Roo was dispatched back to The Francis Residence to get 13 Amp fuses.

An hour later the lead singer of Force Majeure was flat on his back again suggesting that maybe we needed an electrician.

Somebody got the wiring sorted out. I know it wasn't me. I was busily becoming acquainted with a hitherto unknown element of being in a band. Stage fright.

I didn't mention this to anyone until a couple of years later in a pub before a Split Here gig. As I'll describe in part... IX maybe, The Alcoves were not long-lived, and I was now playing in Split Here with Olly, Dai Norman and Harvey McGavin. My stage fright was as bad as ever and heightened this particular evening by the prospect of playing to several hundred people at the F.E. college.

As I sipped my beer I looked at Dai and noticed he was defining "a whiter shade of pale." I smiled weakly.

"Why the fuck are we doing this?" I said.

He replied with a smile that was upside down. "No idea."

I later figured out why the fuck we were doing it, but that can wait till part IV.

So we played our first gig. I don't know what we sounded like. For the most part we started and stopped at the same time and people clapped a lot. Those of you who have gone through this process will understand the oddity of being at the center of something that frequently seems to be on the edge of disaster. Or maybe that just reflects my personal ineptitude. But my main recollection of the "feel" of the gig was that of being in a large pram that was bouncing down a grassy hillside. Exhilarating, but with the constant threat that we were about to hit a tree.

The Alcoves

I got thrown back in time today and frankly I'm suffering a touch of psychic whiplash.

Olly, who I have known since I was eleven, sent me an e-mail about a museum exhibit in St. Albans, Hertforshire, where we both went to school. "St. Albans Punk and New Wave '76-'81" is a remarkable collection of material from perhaps the most exhilarating, blurred, confusing, and contradictory period of my life. And it has reminded me how lucky I was to be a teenager when the punk/new wave phenomenon happened.

I've been sifting through the pictures and videos on the Facebook page all day, occasionally shouting things like "whoa, he got fat," "that guy set my hair on fire," and "was it him or his brother who threatened to kill me?" It's going to take a while to metabolize all of it. But one thing that did strike me is that I've never written about how I started playing music in the first place. And since I've spent many more years as a musician than an astrophysicist or a husband or a poker player, this seems to me to be a major omission.

I also realized that one reason I've never organized this personal history is that I wasn't exactly living a granola-and-berries existence, so some of the following "details" may turn out to be vague and possibly completely wrong.

It all started at Paul Newman's house. We'd "taken the afternoon off" from school, partly because Paul had a copy of "Another Music in a Different Kitchen." We listened to it. I knew immediately that I had to be in a band. The only thing standing in my way was that I had never played a musical instrument.

One of the advantages of bipolar type II is that these kinds of obstacles are easily brushed aside. It did occur to me, however, that real musicians would be unlikely to invite me to play with them on the reasonable grounds that I couldn't play anything.

The solution was clear. I needed to form a band. And at some point learn to play an instrument. I noticed almost immediately that a bass had fewer strings than a guitar and didn't require use of the feet, so I opted for that.

My friend Roo Francis could play the guitar. Not well, to be honest, and he tended to stick out his tongue when negotiating an F-sharp minor. Still that was one step ahead of me and he seemed keen.

Olly Sagar was already playing drums in a band. This and the practice space in the basement of his parents' house impressed me greatly. The fact that his brother, Gez, was lead singer of The Toys elevated Olly even further. When I found out he could write songs I realized that I really should learn how to play bass at some point.

I also decided that we needed a woman singer. This was probably something to do with Siouxsie and the Banshees. I wasn't particularly interested in going after that kind of sound, but I really liked the structure of the band name. And "Annie and the Alcoves" had a better ring than "Andy and the Alcoves."

In fact by the time we played our first show we'd dropped "Annie and" anyway, but we had found our singer. Bev Milton. At a party in Harpenden I asked her if she wanted to be in a band. She thought I said "Do you like the home-made wine" (that I'd borrowed from my parents) and nodded enthusiastically.

The Alcoves had been formed.

But I still couldn't play bass.

A bit of research revealed that Marcus Bush, who was a year or two ahead of me at school and had long hair, was selling a bass. Actually the fact that he had long hair may mean he had left school. To be honest I'm not positive he went to my school. But somehow I found out he was selling a bass, so I got on a bus to Potters Bar with thirty-five pounds. Marcus picked me up from the bus stop and took me to his parents' house and the bass.

I wish I still had that bass. I think much of it was home-made or at least substantially altered from its original condition. It was short-scale with a rosewood neck and black body. The scratch-plate was semi-transparent and lime green. It was strung with Rotosound flatwounds. I had no idea what that meant, of course, but that's what Marcus told me.

Marcus then suggested I play around with the bass while he ate dinner. I told him I'd never played one before. He smiled, put on a Slaughter and the Dogs record, said "it's all boxes" and left.

When he came back twenty minutes later I still didn't know what he meant and couldn't play bass, but decided to buy it anyway.

I can't remember our first practice. Our early sets included "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones and The Ramones' "I Don't Care." We also covered a cover: "Denis" in the style of Blondie. We'd been playing it for weeks when I finally realized that Bev didn't know the real words for the French bit and was singing something about an umbrella.

I think the first original we worked up was "Party Day," by Olly. My first contribution was "Dead Cats in Spain."

And I am now going to reveal something about that song that I have never told anyone. The chord progression is... see I still can't read music and don't know much theory and don't actually remember the key we played it in, but... there's a six-semitone (I can count frets) jump that makes the riff sound quite odd and pleasingly punk. Except it was meant to be seven. A nice, melodic fifth. But I worked it out on bass before I'd figured out where all the notes were, wrote it down wrong, and gave it to Roo so he could learn the chords. When he played it I preferred it with the mistake.

Looks like I got side-tracked again. I think I'll leave The Alcoves in the practice space as they get ready for their first public performance. Which involved a pram, several electric shocks, and four encores.

And thanks to everyone who contributed to the St. Albans exhibit and the Facebook page. It's produced a remarkable day.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Wit And Wisdom Of The Poker Gods

Rather than incur the further wrath of the deities mentioned in the title, let me simply state that I was banging out a very healthy ROI in a certain game offered at Stars when it went poof! Further details below.

Dear PokerStars:

I'd like to congratulate you on what I believe is a first in the history of online poker. By abolishing the SNG Double-or-Nothings you have actually REDUCED consumer choice! Well played! I imagine you were concerned that with all the exciting possibilities you offer, some of us might get dizzy or flee in panic.

You have prominently announced in the SNG lobby that the new Fifty50s are pretty much the same thing as DONs. This is, of course, complete nonsense from a game theoretical point of view. If you could interrupt that jabbering nitwit Negreanu from making abysmal TV commercials he could explain the differences. Although one difference that doesn't need explaining is that, for the turbos, the rake is higher for the Fifty50s than the DONs! Oh man, you've really made my day.

And may we expect the Fifty50s to include Pot-Limit Omaha? Because currently they do not appear to and I would hate for something like this to get overlooked in your latest attempts to revolutionize online poker.

Flushed and royally pissed off,

Kat Martin

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Heretic's View Of The Holdem Hegemony

Every time I hear No-Limit Texas Holdem described as "The Cadillac of Poker," I reach for my water pistol [1]. I imagine the phrase is supposed to communicate the idea of sophistication, luxury, exquisite engineering, performance, and so on. The reality is that Holdem is a stripped-down, simplistic variant of the Holy Game. It has quite a bit of horsepower and torque, but very little finesse. Rather than a Cadillac, I have always thought of No-Limit Holdem as a pick-up truck. Something like a basic-package F-150.

[1] I am a pacifist, but own a small stockpile of water weapons in an attempt to maintain some order in the Kattery.

But for literally billions [2] of players, "poker" and "Holdem" are now synonymous. At poker forums and training sites, all other forms of poker get shuffled (*cough*) off to boards with titles such as "Other Games" and, even worse, "Variations." Indeed one forum where I make a nuisance of myself has a weekly "Variation Night" at which one of the weird games that isn't NLHE is played. It's as if everyone downs poker tools for an evening, so that instead of playing REAL POKER we all bugger about with way too many cards while following rules apparently designed to harsh everyone's mellow.

[2] Despite being born in England, I follow the American convention of using "literally" when I mean "figuratively."

So how did this sorry state of affairs come about? My thorough and totally unbiased research in this area has revealed that the villains are a bunch of fat Texans [3]. These unscrupulous tubbies realized that, in order to separate the average tourist from his (never her; see "Super System I") money in the fastest possible time, they would need to play a game that only took a minute to learn. It's the oldest rule in the book. The Shell Game, for example, would have been a total disaster had it involved twenty-five shells, several beads of varying colors, and rules derived in some cunning manner from the Fibonacci Sequence.

[3] The term "Texas rounder" is assumed by most to be derived from Texans "driving around" looking for sheep to fleece. In fact the etymology reflects the fact that all were corpulent.

I can even offer some anecdotal evidence that supports this hypothesis. Specifically, before the No-Limit Holdem Boot Boys took over card rooms in this and other countries [4], NLHE cash-games were almost unheard of. The limit version of Holdem was played for the eminently practical reason that weak players busted out far too rapidly when playing the no-limit form. A good LHE player could leave his victims standing in their underwear while sympathizing with them about their "rotten luck." The approach of the Fat Texans was to leave their victims naked in the parking lot, sometimes bleeding from head wounds. While the latter makes for better movies, it does very little to encourage customers to return to the felt.

[4] I include Canada in this category despite the ongoing debate, originating with Dave Barry, as to whether Canada is technically a country.

From a personal stand-point, the situation is not all bad. On the one hand, I am somewhat insulted that the Omaha-8 table at The Mirage is invariably the one in the drafty corner, as if it is being cordoned off from the "real poker." On the other hand, its location places it next to a large ashtray and the bathrooms, thereby making it ideal for someone who chain-smokes and drinks half a dozen club-sodas-two-limes-no-ice per hour.

But what does this say about our poker culture and the future of the Holy Game? Are the generations that follow us really going to be condemned to the simplistic, one-dimensional bullying of NLHE? Will the great poker tales of the years ahead be dominated by "I ran KK into AA! Can you believe it!? Talk about a bad beat!"

Orwell got it backwards. Two cards good, four cards better. 31Hz 'nuff said.