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Hot Maud-on-Maud Action

One of the side-effects of Having an Aspergers and mainlining every single one of the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters has been an increased interest in the period of history they’re set in, The Anarchy. It’s a bit of a misleading name, since there’s no uprising and the chaotic nature of life within the struggle for power seems to be ascribed to them long after by Victorian historians.

Ellis Peters goes into some (whimsical) depth about the personality and characteristics of the battling monarchs, casting Stephen of Blois as a good man but indecisive king prone to abandoning his projects if they did not give up fruit almost immediately (in which Stephen and I have an embarrassing amount in common), and the Empress Maud/Matilda as a great general but too given to arrogance and alienating her allies by not knowing when to forgive them. Stephen gets the accolade of being “extremely wealthy, well-mannered, modest and liked by his peers” on Wikipedia, which is probably about as reliable as the novels: Maud receives “less popular with contemporary chroniclers than Stephen; in many ways she took after her father, being prepared to loudly demand compliance of her court, when necessary issuing threats and generally appearing arrogant”. The third party in this scuffle – after Stephen was taken captive in Lincoln in 1141 – was Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda also known as Maud. So far little has been said of her in the books, beyond an aside of the effect that the Queen is a more ruthless leader or at least better general than her imprisoned husband. Obviously this is Ellis Peters’ character’s opinion, and the actual character of monarchs from nearly 900 years ago must remain to some extent a mystery, but it was enough to pique my interest in the two Mauds.

The coronation of King Stephen

Women characters in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books tend to hold a surprisingly good position: constrained by a lack of legally recognised social power, they still manage to assert themselves in every other area of their lives, often possessing as much drive, deviousness, or physical stamina as their male counterparts. They come in a full and fruitful variety of personalities, each of them with their own motive, however venal or misguided, and even the meekest and most withdrawn of them can be roused to action. The question of why Brother Cadfael was not Sister Magdalen (who has a certain amount of influence in the books even as it is) can only be answered with “because she wouldn’t have been able to range as freely”: I feel sure that Ellis Peters could just as well have had a detective heroine.

The Empress was betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor before she turned ten, and was crowned Queen of the Romans while only eight or nine: continuing her eventful early life, she was married at twelve, and had already done a measure of her growing up in a foreign court with none of her father’s family in attendance. One could perhaps forgive her from developing a somewhat abrasive personality in order to protect herself, and perhaps parallels can be drawn with the equally ambitious and married-in-early-life Margaret Beaufort (Countess of Richmond and Derby), who gave the world Henry Tudor (and later acted as regent for Henry VIII). Certainly the Empress was determined to win as much as humanly possible for both herself and her son, who succeeded from Stephen under the terms of the Treaty of Winchester. Unfortunately while this tendency to behave in a haughty and imperious manner may have been a useful survival tactic at first, it seems to have become entrenched and later proved detrimental, driving away potential allies: this attitude may have gone down better during her time as regent to her first husband, Henry V (the Holy Roman Emperor) in Italy, or she may just have been growing impatient with being denied the throne she perceived as rightfully hers, having been named as her father’s successor.

It should be noted here that Stephen was not exactly an exemplar of biddability, and both seized the crown from an absent woman to whom he had previously sworn allegiance, and imprisoned Archbishop Theobald towards the end of the civil war, for refusing to anoint his son Eustace as king while Stephen was still living (this was the practice in France, where Eustace already held land, but Pope Celestine II had banned its adoption in England).

The Queen, on the other hand, seems to have had a better turn at diplomacy (negotiating the exchange of prisoners Robert of Gloucester – the Empress’s half-brother and supposedly her most effective military figure – and the King), and a less enormously turbulent early life. The two Mauds were of roughly the same age, but while the Empress excelled in gathering the power-hungry under her banner, the Queen managed to rally the turncoat friends of Stephen – the war produced an unflattering number of about-faces from many, including Stephen’s own brother Henry – and with William of Ypres turned the tide of the war while Stephen was still imprisoned. One gets the impression that while the Empress was the more imposing figure, she was too unyielding to be able to manage the progression of her campaign as effectively as the Queen might.

The Queen Consort, Matilda (Maud) of Boulogne

Although history and the demands of power struggles in Europe pitted these women briefly against each other, I do not mean to hold them up as adversaries and play a puerile game of “who was better”. Far from it: I have something entirely more puerile in mind. Having read a little about both of these capable, ambitious, interesting, and clearly very intelligent women (although the Empress clearly needs to work on her humility), I’m quite keen on the idea of, as the title of this post even more puerilely suggests, some kind of historical romance alternate universe story in which the vagrancies of the civil war bring them into contact first as opponents and then as lovers. It could be quite a moving and plausible invention in the hands of anyone who does slightly more research than, say, Terry Deary.

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The Science of Communication and the Communication of Science

There are very few Christmas traditions in what I would loosely term “my family”, but one of them is that at some point I sit down with my other half and we watch the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures together and regress to being excitable ten year olds. The very first RI lectures I can remember watching on TV were to do with the progression of climate change, ice core samples, and separating out data sets. The lectures are aimed at children, much like the one – one – my school consented to take us to regarding Faraday somewhere in Bristol in the late 90s, but I have a great love of well-constructed children’s education tools and enjoy amassing Usborne language books, Horrible Histories books (and songs and clips from the  TV show, which is award-winning for a reason), and really patronising and condescending books about science written in the 1930s-50s and aimed at Curious Schoolboys. While I enjoyed children’s literature as a child I had the greatest pleasure from the books which were quite self-consciously trying to teach me things about the world more concrete than “don’t be an ass” and “learn to share, you selfish little prick”.

The rise of popular science writing and popular history writing has been an absolute boon for me: I opted out of history as soon as I could at secondary school because both of the teachers we had for it were unbearable (usually referred to in conversation as “the paedophile, and then the useless one”), and our Science teacher (we had one covering all all three of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, and took a combined exam) had given up on us as pupils before we even sat down. Consequently, and with a deeply anti-science hippy New Age parent at home during the holidays, I wasn’t given the grounding in the sciences that other students might have been, and while I’ve learnt a lot of practical skills from my mother she was never very interested in the academic pursuit of anything. No help there.

I was eventually drawn back to the sciences by a fleeting mention of quantum physics in a dreadful piece of erotic horror about serial killers when I was 17, and promptly overreached myself in trying to read people’s dissertations on the internet. I ended up falling sideways into a well-known and not exactly well-regarded book, The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra.

This post comes off the back of a couple of recent brouhahas, carefully chronicled and dissected by a friend of mine in two posts with which I agree wholeheartedly. There is a bad smell about the idea that one must come at knowledge from a specific direction and that it must be communicated in a specific way: granted, when acquiring data it is important to design one’s data collection methods (be they physics experiments, medical trials, or sociological surveys) in such a way that they will be easy for someone else to repeat as identically as possible, in such a way that contamination of the results with the trial-maker’s personal biases is as limited as possible, and in such a way to make it easy to isolate where you fucked up if you fuck up or the thing you are trying to find out turns into a shit tornado and blind-sides you with Knowledge Which Was Not Really Expected. This does not mean that the same set of rules designed to communicate information between people well-versed in a discipline’s encoded language (usually encoded that way for ease of transmission of accurate information between people who are already very well-versed in the basics, not-so-basics, and very-not-basics) should be applied when trying to impart a general understanding of the subject.

When getting ideas across to people (we were taught in my “Feature Writing” class, which I think I got my worst mark in) it’s important to consider your audience and the access that they do and do not have to specific information, language codes, and social touchstones. For example, if you are writing about something which has taken place in a culture foreign to the readers, you need to take a moment to explain the significance of culture-specific events or tragedies. Often when this happens, we draw on analogies. We say “Diwali, which is like Christmas to Hindu people”. Now you can immediately argue that it is fuck all like Christmas, but the analogy conveys in a limited number of non-sidetracking words the cultural weight of Diwali to people who have a culturally Christian background and no exposure to Diwali, and allows them to weigh up how they would feel if a terrible terrorist attack took place during Christmas, and apply it.

Analogies are very useful tools for introducing new information to people. They provide a frame of reference, and the frame of reference can be defined too: “like Christmas in that it is a major festival of cultural as well as religious importance and basically everyone celebrates it in this country or is aware of it happening around them even if they don’t”. Analogies can be used as stepping stones, or stepladders, to keep raising the audience’s understanding of what they are being told, until they have an adequate grasp on the situation. At each step, once understanding is established, more information can be brought in.

This is of course a lot easier in a conversation than in an article, as you can gauge the knowledge levels of your audience, solicit feedback to determine their understanding of what you have told them, and correct assumptions which have fallen short of the mark.

Analogies are priceless in helping people get to grips with new perspectives, by linking back an emotional truth to their own experiences. What they are not, cannot ever hope to be, and should not be, is wholly accurate. Apart from anything else, the only perfectly accurate map of the territory is the territory itself … which is, itself, an analogy, wherein “the territory” stands in for the expert-level information you wish to impart, and “perfectly accurate map” stands in for the analogy. Analogies are similes by nature. They state “it’s like when someone makes fun of you for your looks” or “it’s as if you walked up to someone and said HA HA I CAN HIT YOU AND NO ONE WILL STOP ME.”; an analogy is not a perfect representation of the facts, it is good enough to get someone onto the next stage of understanding.

I find that the trouble presented both by people who dislike popular science writing and the people who behave as if all writing about feminism must never contain humour is that they fail to understand fundamental tenets of human communication outside of academia. Within academia perfection or as near to perfection as we can come is vitally important. One must be able to defend one’s ideas, especially about feminism, with as much force and rhetorical and moral energy as possible. Academia is designed for competition, and breeds competitive writers.

This doesn’t work very well for communicating to the wider world the importance of the work being done both by scientists and by academic feminists. Not everyone speaks the same language code, even when we’re speaking the same language. Imperfect analogies, jokes, and relating the importance of ideas to practical applications help to break the ice and diminish the intimidating gibberish of an unknown code linked to a background that isn’t shared with the reader: the ability to treat someone as a friend and confidant who is coming with you through the confusing waters of a new but exciting idea rather than a rival to be fenced with is important.

I have seen it argued that the idea that “academic language excludes working class women from feminism” is condescending to working class women, and the argument was made by a working-class woman. Who was an academic. So perhaps the language of exclusion needs to be changed: academic code excludes women who do not have and may not want to have an academic background. Practical feminism would include people whose lives do not allow them to spend their lives writing essays and reading articles and familiarising themselves with the history and theory of a subject; practical feminism requires that analogies and commonalities are used. Practical feminism does not equate “lack of education” with stupidity and it does not value a prestige dialect over a transferable vernacular.

The same can be said of various sciences. The vast majority of people do not have the time or the inclination to dedicate on becoming scientists in the professional and academic sense. The streets still have to be swept; the tables still have to be laid; the traffic still needs to be directed. The inability or disinclination to inhale entire forests of articles should not be a barrier for a person to a) the enjoyment of learning, and b) using the principles of scientific enquiry to protect themselves from shysters and frauds. Providing the average human being with an easy-to-use shield against pseudoscience or an explanation for why thing X does not occur when thing Y is invoked is a public duty, and kindling an interest in one’s field ought to be the entire purpose of communicating about it at all.

I have an amateur’s mind when it comes to both feminism and the sciences. I came to feminism as a child, raised by a second-waver, and missed a lot of the indoctrination which has to be reversed at a later age; I came to science late, after my (arts) degree, and had a lot of anti-science indoctrination to be chipped away at. I have never made my living writing about feminism and nor, if I can help it, will I ever be required to. From the position of an invested amateur, it strikes me that true love of the sciences and a lifetime of dedication to them should go hand-in-hand, and in that love should be the joy of being able to pass on the benefits of a specific discipline or the scientific process itself onto others who have not had the chance to love it as you do. Jealously hoarding interaction with the sciences like a cantankerous, lab-coated dragon behind an impenetrable wall of “imperative” jargon is not the act of someone in love with their field, it is the act of someone in love with the prestige conveyed by enigma.

Similarly, to care about feminism as a movement is to care about accessibility and flexibility of ideas and to be able to apply both “good enough for now” and “we can still do better” to every battle and communication. Turning every attempt to communicate feminist ideas to a wider audience into an opportunity for struggles for moral or theoretical dominance only turns away people who have contributions to make, as does walling up “real understanding” behind academic concepts. A woman should not have to attain a degree in higher education in order to be able to assert her right to self-determination or for her peers to listen to her, and the people who have climbed that particular giddy mountain may well feel that an equality of attention paid to unaccredited feminists removes the prestige of their achievements or in some way belittles the effort involved in fighting the academic battles.

Rather, in feminism and in science, the point of climbing the mountain is to make it easier for others to follow behind you. This, too, is an analogy. It is imperfect, much like the essay; I am the very spit and image of a nobody and a nothing person, hectoring the intelligent and great and good from the bottom of the damn mountain. But I would really, really appreciate it if you would continue to throw the rest of us a rope, and let the populists keep talking.

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October Links Post

Things friends & acquaintances have done

  • I wrote a poem in response to a prompt some time ago: the artist who prompted me has responded with a set of truly astounding illustrations. I wish to draw everyone’s attention both to the beautiful detail in the inkwork, and to the light on the crown and the face of the beast. Top-notch.
  • Likewise in the arts arena, acquaintance and fellow-writer Anna J Roberts has popped out another book, and this one has my cover design on it.
  • It was my birthday yesterday, and to celebrate my friend F wrote me a poem to my requirements: about fish.
  • And then my friend Kevin drew me a dude being eaten by a tentacle monster, because my friends know me.

Things strangers have done

  • Written a thought-provoking and to my mind/experience at least very accurate article about classism and academic jargon turning working-class women off feminism.
  • Created very funny and eerily accurate fake announcements on the London Underground.
  • Provided a concise and very helpful guide on content-editing your own work, which I think I will be referring back to regularly myself.
  • Created a thing, or possibly a whatsit, which scans Twitter for tweets in iambic pentameter, and then arranges them into poems.
  • Offered some handy hints for getting ahead with NaNoWriMo.
  • Made a Fibonacci cabinet, which is beautiful nerdery, or possibly a demonstration of why the Golden Ratio is so important in everything.

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September Links Post

Things I’ve done

Things my friends have done

  • Talent fountain and illustrator Kassie has at long last made it possible for people to commission her. Examples of her work can be found at the link.

Things strangers have done

  • Created a beautiful map of the London Underground out of printed circuit board, and made a functioning radio with it.
  • Used the rings of a tree to map a piano sound, and produced beautiful, chaotic music.
  • Called for submissions of short fiction to a rollerderby themed anthology.
  • Compiled a list of poetry publications who – unfortunately still a rarity – accept digital submissions. It is a particular bugbear of mine that poetry magazines, behind every other type of publication, refuse to accept poems via email or web form, especially as unlike longer submissions it is entirely possible to to attach a poem to an email without capsizing even the most stingy of email inboxes.
  • Compiled a handy ten-point list of ways not to write about comics.
  • Created a gorgeous collection of ominous clothing eerily reminiscent of the costume designs for the baddies in Lord of the Rings.
  • Written a not uncontroversial article about preventative therapy for paedophiles and hebephiles.
  • Weighed in on the subject of taboos in comedy.

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Guest Posts On Other Blogs:

A little note to say my post about PJ Harvey, “This Is Love”: PJ Harvey, Pop Music, and Female Sexual Desire has gone up at Bad Reputation.

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August Links Post

Things my friends have done

Things strangers have done

  • Someone has discovered – how, I don’t know – that there is a squid that can break off its arms and throw them at enemies. The world can always, always get weirder.
  • Made a note, at a fiction magazine, on why writing what you know isn’t always the best advice.
  • Some kind soul has uploaded a selection of public domain films, including The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, to Youtube.
  • Created an amusing little toy which will generate chunks of “Fifty Shades of Grey”-esque prose at the press of a button.
  • Made a tool which allows you to find that word that’s right on the tip of your tongue.
  • Posted a wide variety of documentaries, with a slant towards British history (the tumblr page is something of a clusterfuck of add-ons and annoying cursor-follows).
  • Made an easy-to-follow tutorial on how to make custom lipsticks using wax crayons!
  • Reported that science populariser and neurologist Oliver Sacks struggles with prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, a neurological disorder which prevents him from recognising faces. The article itself is being used in part to promote Sacks’ new book, The Mind’s Eye. 
  • Compiled a list of the “6 Most Certifiably Insane Acts of Writing“, although it is from Cracked.com so you may wish to take it with an entire cellar of salt.
  • Posted a tutorial on how to turn a t-shirt into a “tank top” which I think is Americanese for “strappy top”.
  • Laurie Penny wrote a post using her personal experience to talk about definitions of rape in the media; as you might expect from that description it is not a comfortable read.
  • Created a handy website that will transform handwriting into a font.
  • Made an interactive map of surname frequency in London.

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June Links Post

Things my friends have done:

  • Textile print designer Fiona Hogarth put on her final graduation show this month, and I nipped down to Winchester to see it.  As well as being able to check out all the finished work I’d seen progress shots of (and loaned my boyfriend to be a model for), I also had the opportunity to see what the graduands of the college were presenting to the world. One artist I particularly liked the work of and whose business/post cards were readily available was one T. Radclyffe.

Things strangers have done:

  • Written an intriguing argument on the subject of why Strong Female Characters in fiction are actually harmful to perceptions of women.
  • Produced a very elegant infographic on different types of rhetorical fallacy.
  • Codified the 22 rules of storytelling, according to a storyboarder at Pixar.
  • Explained the concept of the Male Gaze for techie audiences.
  • Created a free program for writers that analyses how often you use particular turns of phrase. I can see this being quite useful for anyone who is trying to avoid over-reliance on clichés, but there are some forms of writing in which repetition is considered a part of the experience (writing for young children, for example).
  • Chronicled how the naming of colours has potentially alerted our ability to see/perceive them.
  • Ursula le Guin has put forward a hypothesis concerning what is and isn’t “literature”, which may also help to explain for any budding “genre fiction” writers why they may have been rejected from some MA Creative Writing courses: it really is a case of it’s not you, it’s them, so feel a little better about yourselves!
  • Written a witty and heartfelt guide to dealing with bad reviews.

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February Links Post

Things my friends have done

Things I have done

Things strangers have done

  • Begun the process of reconstructing sounds from brainwaves, apparently. I cannot work out if this is cool, terrifying, or both.
  • Compiled a gorgeous selection of photographs of the most beautiful and innovative bookshops in the world. I am sad about the lack of representation of Hay-on-Wye, but deeply envious of some of the ones that are on the list. Portugal especially have apparently nailed “awesome bookshop”.
  • Interesting fellow on OKCupid showed me his music (this is not a euphemism), so naturally I am going to share it with the internet: Add Gray Fun. The two tracks I’ve listened to are sort of sparse and build tunes out of discord, which I’m very fond of as a feature in electronica. Professionally speaking I think they definitely need mixing & mastering – some work on the levels – and would personally have an annoying faff with reverb in places but overall I rather like it.
  • This fuzzy-haired scientist has an apparently supportable theory that cats make us bonkers. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.” Well, that’s not terrifying at all.
  • This Tumblr user is using police photo-fit software to try to recreate the faces of famous literary characters as described by their authors. What a fantastic concept!
  • Josie Long takes on UniLadMag and does so wonderfully.
  • When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite. Fascinating to me, and I do have a copy of a book with a title along the lines of “Same Sex Unions in Medieval Europe” waiting for me to finish reading the thousands of other books I’ve acquired and get around to it.
  • Written about The Invention of Heterosexuality, which examines how other areas of social change during the birth of psychiatry as a profession led to the creation of sexual identities connected to biological urges, and the value judgements that come with them.
  • People Like Me, a very depressing list of unfair treatment you can expect to receive if you’re viewed as being “unacceptably” fat.
  • A handy little interactive graph for women to use to determine which clothing size their measurements make them at any given clothing shop.
  • An Eight-Step Guide To Self-Editing Your Manuscript. On, completely unrelated, a very pretty blog.
  • Via that link, a useful website for determining how often you use particular words. I am cringing just imagining what would come up on mine.
  • And an io9 article about what the problem is with adverbs
  • As a confirmed over-emotional weenie about the city I live in who buys maps and cries every time she lands back at Heathrow and owns an embarrassing number of books of London photography, this post about London set to music is rather moving.
  • This fascinating blog over at Tiger Beatdown about how reality television and blogging have destroyed the ability of readers and viewers to appreciate the difference between performance and reality.
  • A very funny review of what sounds like a very awful movie (Splice).
  • In a rather timely coincidence, not long after I whined that I’d be more inclined to eat healthily if healthy food were more convenient, a friend of mine discovered COOK, who have made that leap for me.

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Daphne Oram: Sound Engineer & Composer

In 2010/2011, I worked probably not hard enough to gain a vocational qualification in Sound Engineering which promptly became useless to me due to a combination of chronic shyness and perpetual ear infections leaving me functionally deaf in one ear. Among the practical skills I learned: digital composition, tape editing, multi-track recording, analogue mixing, location sound recording, a little in the way of electronic engineering, and along with the history of musical development and notation, I also learned a little of the history of electronic music. This was supplemented significantly by Ishkur’s Electronic Music Guide, but neither in class nor in my admittedly haphazard readings outside of class did I encounter much in the way of information about the history of women in electronic music. I think the only woman my digital music tutor even mentioned was Wendy Carlos. Wendy was absolutely at the forefront of electronic musical fame and deserves every single column inch in every article devoted to her work with modular synths, but I feel disappointed that it wasn’t until a recent trip to the Science Museum for an evening event (the filming of a space-related educational program for use in the USA, which also included a choir, an orchestra, a ballet dancer, and free champagne) that I discovered Daphne Oram.

BBC Radiophonic Workshop

I’ve long been besotted and beset with admiration for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. As a great big Dr Who fan I’ve always been delighted by the tales of their early effects for the program: the ring modulator for the Daleks, the keys scraped down the piano wires, and the seminal theme tune of Ron Grainer’s (which was actually electronically arranged by another wonderful woman, Delia Derbyshire). What surprises me is that no one had really mentioned that setting this up and having electronic effects and music introduced to the BBC was the work of Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe. It would have cheered me up no end on my course (on which I was one of only two women!) to know that another woman was so important and influential in sound engineering at the BBC.

Daphne continued composing and developed a system to convert pictures into sounds. It involved drawing on 10 strips of 35mm film, which were then read by photo-electric cells and converted into sound, and became known as Oramics.

Daphne Oram, the unsung  pioneer of techno, by Giles Wilson

To me this is fascinating. Daphne Oram not only composed electronic music when the artform was still very much in its infancy, not  only drove the BBC to set up an electronic music & effects workshop, not only set up her own music studio (the first woman to do so in the UK), but designed and created an entirely new form of instrument (with the assistance of engineer Graham Wrench). I am quite shocked that she isn’t better-known or more widely talked-about, considering what she brought to television, to sound technology, and to music in general. What a remarkable, intelligent, and hard-working woman she was, by all accounts constantly driven to create and innovate. She would have been the perfect role model for the women on my course!

Daphne Oram in her studio in the 70s

Ever since hearing about optical recording in an introductory session on my course I have found the idea fascinating, and the idea that Daphne Oram used it not only to to record external music but to create music is quite electrifying.

If you’re able to get to the Science Museum I’d definitely recommend having a poke around the “Oramics” display: they have several fantastic machines from the early days of electronic music, and – my favourite – an interactive display which allows you to compose on the trot by drawing on a screen with your finger, a little like her optical recording method. For a moment, waffling with this display with a half-empty glass of champagne between my knees and headphones slipping off my too-small ears, I got to pretend that I was half the innovative genius and engineering pioneer that Daphne Oram was, and that’s a really good feeling.

(Especially as it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out some of the virtual synth settings on Logic Pro!)

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Links post: December/January

Things My Friends Do

Things I’ve Done

  • … I’ll get back to you on that.

Things Strangers Have Done

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