Sunday, 15 February 2009

Carry On Driving - confessions of a determined motorist

This weekend has featured three important dates - Friday the 13th, Valentine's Day, and Mrs Steve's birthday.

As far as the latter two were concerned, it seemed an excellent excuse for a trip to London and a visit to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to see "Oliver", starring Jodie Prenger, Mr Bean, Dr Owen Harper, Davros and Cristatos from "For Your Eyes Only". Which was excellent, and will probably be blogged about later in the week.

Nope, this blog post is about the journey to London. On Friday the 13th. Now, I'm certainly not superstitious, but I'm starting to be swayed...

We set off from home in my trusty Honda Accord, and made our way towards the big smoke down the M40. I was merrily trundling along at ~73mph in the fast lane of the motorway when my dashboard decided to do its Blackpool Illuminations impression. The braking system, anti-lock brakes, airbag and alternator warning lights all lit up at the same time.


I pulled over to the hard shoulder and risked getting out of the car to take a peak under the bonnet. There was an engine there. Which was a good start.

We were only a mile-and-a-half from Cherwell Valley services, so I trundled along the hard shoulder (with my hazard warning lights on) and up to the junction - an act that confused a man in a silver SEAT Ibiza, who couldn't work out whether to overtake me or not despite the fact that I was doing 35mph on the hard shoulder and he was driving on the motorway...!

A very nice AA man duly arrived and took a look at the car. His instant (and, it turns out, 100% accurate) assessment was that the alternator was buggered, and was pumping out far more than the 15V it was meant to. In fact, it was pumping out somewhere in the region of 18V, enough to baffle the electrical system (hence the dashboard illuminations) and toast the battery.

However, we had to be in London in two hours time, otherwise we'd miss the show. We were still 80 minutes from our hotel, and it would take 90 minutes to get a transporter to our car.

There was only one option - we were going to have to see how resilient to ludicrous voltages the electrical system in a Honda Accord was. We were going to have to drive to London.

But there was no chance of managing this unless we could reduce the load on the battery. Which meant that every possible electrical system in the car needed to be running. So, turn on the heater, the air conditioning, the headlights, the heated rear window, the CD player, the windscreen wipers (it wasn't raining) front and rear, and keep the engine revs below 2,250 per minute. Which, in top gear, means the car is doing 48mph according to the sat nav.

Travelling on a motorway at 48mph was the scariest experience of my life so far. But, apart from the Polish lorry driver who thought that driving right up my arse, flashing his headlights and sounding his horn would somehow make my car disappear (or at least render it less solid), it wasn't too bad.

As long as we could keep all of the warning lights off the dashboard, then everything was okay. But if they lit up again, the load was too great on the battery and we needed to use more power.

..and when that happened, there was only one other power item which would sufficiently drain the output of the alternator - the electric windows.

So, picture the scene. On a clear, bright, dry afternoon, a black Honda Accord was travelling down the M40 at a steady 48mph with its windscreen wipers running, its headlights on, and with each window in turn opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and closing...

But it worked! We got to the hotel 20 minutes before we needed to leave it again to get to the theatre. It was a close thing, though.

The battery was knackered by the over-charging. On Saturday morning when I drove the car to Acton to be repaired, it seemed fine for the first 10 minutes of my journey.

Then the ABS light came on.

Then the alternator light came on.

Then the entire dashboard stopped working.

Thank heavens for sat nav. Approaching a speed camera when your speedometer isn't working is brown-trousers time unless you have a trusty TomTom displaying your speed for you!

Japanese cars? Next time, I'm buying Lebanese.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

If I were a sexist

Beyoncé Knowles, just bloody stop it.

I really, really can't stand whiney-arsed pop songs. The worst offender by quite some margin is "Because Of You" by Kelly 'Not Related To Jeremy' Clarkson - a song that's more whiney, self-centred and angst-ridden than your average teenager's LiveJournal. Not pleasant.

And so Beyoncé has joined the party with "If I Were A Boy". Now, I am a boy. If I'd written a song that basically said, "all girls sleep around, take you for granted, hang out with their mates all the time and don't give a shit about your feelings until you dump them", I'd get every feminist in the Northern Hemisphere wanting to put my bollocks in a vice. I'd also have written a really crappy pop song.

Kudos, then, to Beyoncé and songwriting partners Britney Carlson and Toby Gad. They avoided falling into that trap. Unfortunately, they fell into the trap of writing exactly the same song about blokes instead. Oops.

Let's take a closer look...
If I were a boy
Even just for a day

I'd roll out of bed in the morning

And throw on what I wanted and go
The male gender apologise for that fact that you're too vain to just do this. It's clearly our fault.
Drink beer with the guys
And chase after girls
I'd kick it with who I wanted
And I'd never get confronted for it
Cause they stick up for me
We also apologise for being better friends to other guys than girls are to other girls. That must be our fault too. Oh, and to suggest that all blokes chase after girls is insulting. You tart.
If I were a boy
I think I could understand

How it feels to love a girl

I swear I'd be a better man

I'd listen to her
Modest, aren't we Ms Knowles?
Cause I know how it hurts
When you lose the one you wanted

Cause he's taking you for granted

And everything you had got destroyed
That's a bit over-dramatic, isn't it? Would you like a lie down?
If I were a boy
I would turn off my phone
Tell everyone it's broken
So they'd think that I was sleeping alone
Yes, 'cause that makes perfect sense. The only way I know that someone is sleeping on their own is because their mobile phone appears not to be working. You bloody mentalist.
I'd put myself first
And make the rules as I go
Cause I know that she'd be faithful,
Waiting for me to come home, to come home.
So all girls are faithful and all boys are self-centred arseholes? Sorry, what planet did you say you were from again? Don't blame the rest of us 'cos you've only dated serial twats.

There's more, but it's just the same stuff again. If these lyrics were aimed at just one particular boy then it wouldn't be so bad, but it's a cheap pop lyricists trick to tar everyone with the same brush. Girls will buy the single because it makes them feel "empowered", because they "empathise with the singer", because they "all know boys like that", and because "they're all totally full of shit". The world is not full of blokes who can't go two days without shagging something. You need to get out more.

But you're just a girl.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Roland VIMA: just what's the point?

I love Roland. No, it's not a homoerotic fantasy. I love the Roland Corporation, musical instrument manufacturers.

The first Roland product I owned was an E-30 keyboard, back in 1989. That was replaced by an E-70 in 1991, and then an EM-2000 in 1998. A keyboard which I still own, and still use professionally. It has been battered and bruised through 10 years of gigging, and the only problem was when the power supply fizzled out a year ago.

Along with this, my pedal board is a Roland PK-7, my mixer is a Roland VM-3100, and at home I have a Roland G-70 workstation so that I can make music during the day as well.

So when Roland announce a brand new product range in the UK, I should be excited. In fact, I'm bemused.

That product is Roland VIMA, and it has been around in the US for about two years now. And it's completely and utterly pointless.

I'm not going to bother explaining what it is, because Roland have already done that in a handy video which can be found on YouTube - here, in fact. Take a look and then read on.

Firstly, and something that isn't mentioned in the video, I have a problem with the specification of VIMA. The keyboard contains 128 orchestral sounds. That's the same number as my E-30 contained. Twenty bloody years ago! By comparison, there are nearly 1,600 voices in my G-70, and over 1,100 in my 10-year-old EM-2000. This specification is, quite frankly, crap.

But my real issue with VIMA is that it doesn't actually do anything of value. It certainly doesn't do anything that you can't either already do, or can do with a PC a whole lot cheaper than a VIMA keyboard costs (about £4,995 in case you're wondering).

Let's take a look at what the YouTube video says VIMA can help you do:

Authentic Sound
I've already mentioned this - the sounds will be very good (Roland's sounds always are), but there aren't anywhere near enough of them to justify the price of the instrument.

The non-VIMA alternative: Roland's own low-end electronic pianos offer the same weighted keyboard and can be linked to a sound module for hundreds more voices than VIMA offers. A saving of at least £3,000.

VIMA Tunes
These are just glorified MIDI karaoke files, and you can download thousands of them free-of-charge by doing a quick Google search. Pretty much any decent keyboard these days can play back karaoke files, and most of the higher-end ones have a TV output so you can see the lyrics on a big screen. Failing that, a free PC program such as vanBasco's Karaoke Player can play back MIDI karaoke files through your PC's soundcard and display the lyrics too. All VIMA adds is the ability to overlay the lyrics onto still pictures. Is that really worth £5,000?

The non-VIMA alternative: You're reading this, so you have a PC. Download vanBasco's Karaoke Player and grab some .kar files from the web. Total cost - £0.

VIMA's ability to display the score or a "virtual piano roll" (an utterly pointless display if ever I saw one) is matched by high-end Roland and Yamaha keyboards and electronic pianos. These will set you back pretty much the same amount of money as VIMA, but are vastly superior instruments. If you're happy to forsake the weighted keyboard action, you can cut the cost considerably. With a PC, downloadable program MIDI-Notator (which only costs $20 to buy) lets you take a MIDI file, pick some tracks and print out the score.

The non-VIMA alternative: How about a Yamaha PSR-S900? A saving of about £4,000 - and a much better instrument than VIMA.

Audio CDs
What?! It can play Audio CDs and you can play along with them?! Wow. The only other way to do that is to play an audio CD and then play along with it. You know, like you can do as long as you own a CD player. No point whatsoever.

The non-VIMA alternative: Play an audio CD. Then play along with it using any musical instrument you care to mention.

The ability to remove the vocal line from commercial CDs is always massively fudged in adverts such as the VIMA video. The only way to remove the vocals is to remove all the parts of the original recording that are panned to the centre of the stereo spectrum. This removes the lead vocal, but may also remove any number of other parts. Usually, what it fails to remove is the effects (echo, reverb, and so on) that were applied to the lead vocal in the studio, leaving you with an ethereal-sounding version of the original. And, of course, if the original was a mono recording, this doesn't work at all. Regardless, a free add-on is available for the also-free WinAmp that does exactly the same thing, and which works with mp3, wma and wav files as well as audio CDs. There's also a free add-on that lets you change the pitch and tempo of any sound file as it plays back.

The non-VIMA alternative: WinAmp and the add-ons are free.

Slide Show
Now we enter the realm of complete and utter pointlessness. A slideshow on your TV with musical accompaniment? Let's see now...

Pretty much every digital camera comes equipped with a cable that lets you connect it to a TV set. They also have a slideshow mode that lets you view all of the stored images as a slideshow. So connect your camera to the TV, put it in slideshow mode, and then play a CD along with it, or something. Or whatever musical instrument you have to hand.

If VIMA let you record the results, it would have a point. But it doesn't! Utterly, utterly useless.

The non-VIMA alternative: Play the slideshow and play music along with it. It won't cost you any extra money. If you have a current-generation games console (XBox360, Wii, PS3) it's even easier - and at least £3,700 cheaper than VIMA!

See above, but substitute the word "slideshow" for the word "video". This is even more pointless, because absolutely every digital video camera comes with TV connection cables!

Portable Audio Device
Oh good grief - it gets worse! £5,000 for a glorified iPod dock?! They're just taking the piss now.

The non-VIMA alternative: Connect your mp3 player to a TV or hi-fi using the cable that came with it (or one that will cost <£10 from Maplin if it wasn't provided).

Well, this is just an amalgam of some of the things mentioned above (although what's the point of being able to connect the live feed from a video camera to your TV set? You're in the same bloody room as the resulting picture... can't you just look at it?!). The section about VIMA Tunes pretty much covers all of this. The only thing that you might need to match the capability of VIMA is the ability to connect a second microphone. No problem; a microphone mixer (which would allow you to connect up to four microphones) costs about £12 from Maplin.

The non-VIMA alternative: see above, plus that £12 mic mixer!

Sorry, Roland, but is the massive compromise in terms of the quality of the actual keyboard instrument really worth the extra £4,000 or so over a "normal" keyboard just for the ease-of-use that putting all of these (mostly pointless) features into one device? When a decent keyboard and a laptop can do all that and much, much more for much less money?

I'll get excited about a new Roland product range just as soon as they find the plot again.