Archive for the 'Popular Culture' Category

How I Make Minecraft Fun

The following is written by my 9 year old son for his public speaking project at school:

“Hello. I’m going to talk to you today about how I make Minecraft fun.

I learn how to make Minecraft fun by watching YouTube videos, seeing how they do it and copying it onto my own worlds. If you watch YouTube you should definitely watch these people – DanTDM, Thinknoodles, and Stampy.

From YouTube I learned about mods. Mods is short for modifications and is anything that changes the Minecraft game.

Pixelmon is a Pokemon mod for Minecraft. It turns Minecraft into a Pokemon game. In Pixelmon the three starter Pokemon are the same as the Pokemon programme – Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur but there’s also one more, called Eevee and it has four different forms that it evolves into – Jolteon, Vaporeon, Flareon and Umbreon. In Pixelmon, not like the show, you can get all types of balls including the regular pokeball.

You can also add skins to Minecraft. A skin is like an outfit for your character. There are all sorts of Minecraft skins but my favourites are the Boxer Steve and the regular Alex skin. The Alex skin makes you faster and Boxer Steve makes you stronger and gives you the speed and agility. All of them together make the ultimate player.

You can also make mini games in Minecraft. A mini game is like a challenge but a game at the same time. If you want to have fun, invite friends to play with you. I’m making a mini game at the moment. I use fire charges and a dispenser and a chest underneath the ground to make it harder. I fill the chest with diamond stuff like armour and swords, ender pearls and an enchanting table. I attach red stone to every dispenser and put pressure plates everywhere and use a little bit of TNT. In my minigame we try not to get hit by the fire charges, find the chest, and when we do, run for our life.

I hope you now know how to make Minecraft more fun by using mods, skins and mini games.

Thank you for listening.”

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How to Install Minecraft Mods

Buy and install the PC version of Minecraft. This is the best version for mods. Even though I had the xbox version and the tablet version, I still needed to buy this. They don’t even link together. But it was still worth the money, because of the added fun from mods. You buy it here. At the moment it costs £17.95. With this you can download the software and you get a userid which allows you to run it on a few PCs, but not concurrently, and not to easily share worlds between the PCs with the same userid.

Next you need Forge. You download this from here. There are different versions of Minecraft. The latest one is 1.8. However I’ve found that most mods work on 1.7.10. So select 1.7.10 and select to download the recommended installer-win. Be careful not to click on the ads that say “Start Download” etc. Run the client version of it. Later you might also run the 1.8 version etc to add other mods.

Start up Minecraft. Log in and edit your profile to use the 1.7.10 version. Have a quick game on that version to get the directory files set up. Then restart it and switch the profile to Forge. Edit the Forge profile to use the 1.7.10-Forge version.

Now you need the mods. The best and safest way to get these is to take advice from DanTDM on youtube.  Watch his video reviews of mods and choose one that you want. In the information section below the video click on the “SHOW MORE” button. This will bring up a line saying something like “► Get this Minecraft 1.7.10 Mod” and a url which you should click on.

Now comes the hard bit. You need to find the right download, rather than clicking on all the ads which also say “download” but are to things that you don’t want. Click on the download button.Often you will be taken to an AdF.ly page. This is an advert that pays for the development of the mod. Don’t be tempted to click any links on this page. Just wait for the five seconds until the button changes on the top right corner to let you click through to the real download. Hopefully it will allow you to download a .jar file. If it’s an .exe then steer clear of it. If it’s a .zip file it might be ok, you’ll need to open it carefully and make sure there’s nothing dangerous inside, hopefully just a .jar file which you can extract. Some mods will have a couple of jar files as if they’ve written multiple modes they may have put common code in a shared library. If you don’t trust it then don’t take the risk. There are plenty of other mods which are just as fun and not risky.

You’ll need to put the mod in the mods directory. On my PC this is at “C:\Users\Sam Garforth\AppData\Roaming\.minecraft\mods”. You may need to change your settings as it may be a hidden directory.

Then just click the play button on Minecraft and enjoy they game, following DanTDM’s advice on how to play it.

Here are the mods that we’ve tried and like and which work. I’ve tried to remember the urls but I may have made a mistake somewhere, so they’re not guaranteed to be the right ones but I’m pretty sure they are:

Some mods work together but some don’t. So you may have to store them in a separate directory and move them in and out of the mods directory as needed. If you create a world using a mod and then remove the mod then the world won’t work, so create different worlds for different mods.
I hope you find this useful. I’d be interested in any comments on improvements for this write up or comments on the individual mods.

My Thoughts on Songwriting and Pop Song Structure

A pop song is supposed to carry the listener.  It is supposed to instill emotion into him, to take him on a journey.  In my opinion the most important thing is the structure.  Obviously you can say that you shouldn’t stick to rules, and rules are made to be broken which is perfectly true.  Records that make it are usually ones with a difference (interesting chords, new sounds, clever lyrics) but they can’t be completely different they have to comply in some way with what the listener expects.  You shouldn’t try to break rules before you know what they are.  Music is about psychology, about knowing what the listener is expecting and how to manipulate their emotions.

The average successful pop song is 3 minutes 20 seconds, has 120 beats per minute, and has structure intro, verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, breakdown, chorus, chorus, chorus.  You can vary this.  I prefer songs that are slightly faster.  120 bpm is the speed to get girls in white stilettos dancing around handbags.  You can make it faster and people like me or people on ecstasy will like it more, or you can make it slower and people on cannabis will like it more but either way it will probably result in a drop in record sales.

So you have to decide what market you’re going for. My order of priority is

1) It fills me emotion when I hear it

2) Lots of people will like it

3) I can dance to it

4) It is original

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arrivi...

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Decide what drug you’re aiming at. If you’re into cannabis the chances are that you’ll like a song that drags on and on and doesn’t actually go anywhere. If you’re into ecstasy you’ll like a song that loops pretty fast and goes on forever as you’ll have forgotten what came before within a few seconds. Both the Beatles and the Jesus and Mary Chain have said that they’ve tried writing and recording songs when under the influence of drugs and when they’ve listened to the songs while sober they think they’re terrible. Both recommend drugs as a form of inspiration but that when you actually write you should be sober.

So let’s discuss the structure of a song.  First we need to define ‘up’ and ‘down’.  Going up raises the listeners emotions and going down lowers them.  The best way to do this is with the music.  The standard chords used in pop songs are I IV V. I know there are others but for the sake of simplicity let’s just talk about these.  For example in the key of C the chords would be C, F and G, the first, fourth and fifth notes in the scale.  A song usually starts on chord I where the listener is comfortable, their position of equilibrium.  Chord V is usually the place where they get excited and feel good.  Chord IV is used to lead them on and to prepare them so they’re ready for when they get to V. Obviously this is just a generalisation but we’re starting from the most traditional place as that’s where pop music itself came from.  So the chords of a 12 bar blues song (which doesn’t have a chorus per se but still fits with what I’m talking about) are I, IV, I, IV, V, IV, I. In other words you start from the position of equilibrium and make a couple of attempts to get to the position of happiness, the fact that it takes a while makes the final achievement even better and then you gradually come back down again only to do it again.  Right that was an explanation of 12 bar blues now let’s get back to modern pop music again.  (An example of pop music chords is that the verse is I IV I IV and then the chorus is V IV V IV.)  As I was saying the best way to control the listener’s emotions is with music but there are other ways.  You can gradually introduce more instruments, often at higher octaves.  Bands such as Primal Scream do this.  They take loop or verse or chorus and nothing else they just play it over and over again introducing and removing instruments to take the listener through the 3 min 20 secs of stages that I’ll describe later and it’s an adequate thing to do but personally I find it unsatisfying in the end.

Manic Street Preachers live in London

Manic Street Preachers live in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The majority of successful bands, even ‘guitar’ bands like the Manic Street Preachers use the music to carry most of the emotion and then introduce things like strings at the end to sustain the song a little longer, to raise the emotion a little bit more.  Another way to sustain the song a little longer is to raise the key, so instead of playing CFG you start playing DGA or FCD.  This is often done in Bros songs and in ‘My Girl’.

Primal Scream

Primal Scream (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The actual structure of a song should do things to the listeners emotions on a bigger scale but similar to what I described above for chords.  The minimum you need for a song is a verse and a chorus (unless it’s 12 bar blues).  You might say that Primal Scream can get away with just one but they only just get away with it.  A band trying to break through has to be better than that.  You might think you need a middle 8 (a completely different tune in the middle).  You can have that if you want but it hasn’t been used much since the sixties.  The listener isn’t really expecting it and as I’ll explain in a minute even though it’s probably a good middle 8 in itself it actually spoils the song.  If you’ve got a good different tune then save it and build a new song around it don’t waste it.  The chorus is the up bit and the verse is the down bit.  The chorus is what the audience wants to hear and the verse is what you use to make them wait, to introduce desire and to explain the song with some lyrics so they have something to think about so the emotion given by the music means more.  A chorus should have a good hook that the audience can learn quickly and sing along with. By the end of the first hearing of the song they should know the chorus and they should want to hear the song again.  Songs based on a simple loop have the problem that the listener doesn’t feel that he has moved anywhere so although he may have like hearing the song he doesn’t need to hear the song again.

So this is it. This is the structure:

2015-05-06_07-51-27

All of these horizontal lines must be joined together by smooth lines. Their positioning depicts ‘up’ and ‘down’ as described above. This is the most important thing. The order of chorus and verse etc don’t matter, or the order of notes or chords or instrumentation but what does matter is that you take the audience through this journey of emotion. You might argue and say some records don’t do it but 99% of songs in the charts do it and I would expect that 99% of the songs you like do it. If you do something different to what the audience expects they’re just going to say ‘what the hell was that!’. You probably won’t understand why because the song will do exactly what you expect as you’ll know it but if they don’t know what to expect then this is what they’ll expect. You may say that your song is better and that they’ll like it more when they’ve heard it a few times but at the starting point of a band’s career the fact is that they won’t hear it more than once. In fact on tape they won’t listen to the whole song at all. They’ll listen to the first minute and a quarter or so

2015-05-06_07-52-14

and then when it goes to its first repeat they’ll wind it on to breakdown (the most ‘down’ part of the song). If it doesn’t have a repeat (if the chorus goes on too long or if it introduces a third and superfluous tune) then you’ll be starting to lose them. So they’ll listen to the breakdown to see what the rhythm track’s like (just like they’ll listen to the start to see what the singer’s like) and then they’ll listen to a few choruses. If there aren’t enough the listener will feel cheated, if they don’t build up or if there are too many then they’ll feel bored.

So you start with the intro. This is optional. The Jesus and Mary Chain often completely miss out the intro and just leap straight into the song. There are various problems with this. Firstly, when playing live it is very difficult to get all instruments to start playing simultaneously.  Secondly you lose 30 seconds off the length of the record.  You do need the song to be as long as possible as you need the time to get the listener interested in your song and to get it fixed in their head.  Also you get paid by the minute when the song gets played on the radio so the longer the better as long as you keep it interesting. Songs of half an hour are OK if you can keep them interesting but it is hard enough to keep a verse and chorus interesting for 3 minutes 20 sec let alone half an hour.  The intro can be a stripped down instrumental chorus to give them a taster and make them wait but don’t blow it all at once.  Alternatively it can be based on the verse, an instrumental build up to it, but don’t make it too long or they’ll get so used to the music that by the time the singing starts they won’t be listening to it they’ll just be singing the rhythm track and they’ll get very bored.  The music and singing should complement each other. Even if you play a solo over an intro verse which you may think would stop them getting bored with the rhythm track they’ll lose track of where they are in the song and just get disoriented.  They’ll be so into it that they won’t want to settle down and listen to a nice ‘down’ bit of singing.

The next bit is the first verse. This is usually quite simple or held back in the instrumentation for instance the guitar chords won’t ring on or have notes played between them, the drums will not use something e.g. snare or hi-hat so the listener concentrates on the singing.  The music for the verse is not really important in itself although obviously it should be good and have a certain shape to it (usually a IIVI kind of thing).

Next is the second verse.  Establish the tune of the verse, have some more lyrics to give it more intellectual content and let the music go a bit more but still making them wait for the excitement of the chorus.

Next is the chorus. This is the hook. This is what they’ve been waiting for. Don’t try and get any complicated sentences across. The best ones are things like ‘hello, I love you, won’t you tell me your name’. This is really short and yet conveys so much.  Because of the way it scans and the music behind it the listener starts singing along with it long before they understand what it means and yet it is particularly good because it does mean something.  When the listener thinks about it on the 100th hearing they’ll get renewed interest because they’ll realise it has more depth to it than they originally thought and then they’ll go back and listen to all the lyrics again.  The chorus is usually the title.  The title could be something completely different but if someone hears the song on the radio without hearing the title they’ll go to the shop and ask for ‘hello, I love you’, for instance and the shop assistant will say ‘no, we’ve only got ‘made-up name’ and the listener will say ‘I’ve never heard of that’ and go away again.  Similarly if two people are discussing a song one will say ‘what did you think of ‘made-up name’ or even if you just look at the cover and ask yourself the question you won’t be able to remember the song but if you can hear the title in your head with its associated music then you’ll start singing the rest of the song too and you’ll know exactly what it is.  Sometimes people are attracted to a song because of its title because it means something to them already so it won’t take 100 listens to hear the words ‘hello, I love you’ but that still leaves the rest of it to hear.

As I said earlier the chorus should be more up than the verse. So the chords should be higher. If you feel that you’ve used up your quota in the verse then raise the key for the chorus. It should also be more up in that it can have crashing cymbals and may have backing singing (there can be a certain element of backing singing in the verse, but preferably not the first verse, but make sure you don’t use it all up so you have nothing to raise the chorus above the verse).  Backing singing is not only an extra instrument to raise it but it also strengthens the singing making it easier for the listener to latch onto it and get the idea that they’re supposed to sing along.  This should only be one verse long or if you wanted to do it after the first verse then it should only be half a verse.  Musically you may find it necessary to have a bridge between the verse and chorus.  This is perfectly OK as it gives the feeling of building up even more (coming back down shouldn’t take so long though).  The most important thing to remember is that the music is the most important thing.  Don’t add extra song sections to elaborate on the lyrics as the listener won’t hear many of these on first hearing and you want to make sure they do hear it again.

Next a verse again. This can be a go-for-it verse. As much backing singing and guitar riffs as you like as we won’t hear the verse again in the song and due to the music it still won’t be able to compete with the choruses. There’s no harm in repeating the first verse if you’re stuck for lyrics, in fact this may even be better as repetition helps get the listener into it and singing along as soon as possible. While I’m on this subject it’s OK to have a verse that has the same lyrics for the first three lines if the music’s changing underneath it. It’s good for the listener to get a feeling of stability, something to hold onto, while the music is actually progressing. Similarly it is good to keep the music quite monotonic in the verse to give a feeling of tension and wanting to break free and this is OK if the lyrics are changing.

Now we have a chorus again. You should have held back a bit on the earlier chorus so that this is a bit more, but if the music is good enough it won’t matter, but try using a different cymbal or something to give variety.

Now is the breakdown. This is the point where they used to have middle 8’s or guitar solos. Nowadays this is considered to be masturbation, however if it’s a fast song you’re going to need to pad it out a bit more so you could put a guitar solo in before the breakdown.  To strengthen the impact and keep it going without vocals you could double the speed of the hi-hat.  Some people say that a verse is twice the length of a chorus, some say that it’s the same length but the bit before the first chorus should be the length of two verses.  It doesn’t matter but the breakdown should be the length of two choruses.  It is basically just the rhythm track of the verse i.e. just bass and drums.  If it’s simple someone might sample it and then you’ll get loads more money.  You can do other things over it like say a few vocals or make feedback noises but the important thing is that it is ‘down’.  It lets the listener have a rest.  If they’ve been dancing and singing they can calm it down a bit but even if they’ve just been listening you need to get their adrenalin down a bit so that it has more impact when you bring the choruses back in.  The trouble with middle 8’s as opposed to breakdowns is that you don’t let them come down so they don’t feel like they’ve gone on an emotional journey.  The second half of the breakdown can start to build up.

Right now the audience knows the song, you’ve given them enough foreplay and leading on, they’ve had the rest. Now just go for it. Play the chorus over and over so they can sing along, let themselves go, reach their peak, and really drum the hook and title into their head so they’ll ask for it again. First play the chorus just like you did for the previous one. It’ll have more impact than that one did because it’s straight after the breakdown. Then play another with more instruments, and then another with more instruments. Keep going until you’ve filled up the 3 mins 20 secs. You might be getting bored with it and want to stop but it takes the listener that many minutes to get into it no matter how fast the song is. The guitarist might be repeating one simple loop four times for each chorus so it’ll seem like an eternity to him but the singer and listener will just hear a few choruses. You can do other things to make it more interesting like singing new words or the verse or rapping over the music of the chorus.  After that you’ll have built the listener up to such a high that he’ll want to hear it again.  Really all he’ll want is the peak at the end but if he kept hearing that over and over he’d get bored but if he keeps playing the whole emotional journey he’ll carry on wanting to hear it.  So if a band’s songs all sound the same it’s not really a problem as the beginning is still different to the end.

So that’s the structure of a song. It is also the structure of a set.

Skins RIP

TV Shows We Used To Watch - 1955 Television ad...

It has a formula, or a set of rules. It knows when to stick to the formula and when to push the rules. It never ceases to amaze me that some people don’t know the rules. That viewers can be put off by half the story without realising what the rest is. I guess this is part of the beauty of the programme that I admire so much. The ability to follow a formula and yet for viewers to be so caught up in it that they don’t notice that they’ve seen it a million times before. Most stories since Shakespeare’s time have been three act plays. They put the principal character up a tree, they throw stones at them, and then they get them down again. I.e. they put someone in a situation and then they get them out of it again. Lots of people don’t like Skins because they think it’s amoral. They see acts one and two where someone does something bad and then they switch off. They don’t realise that there’s an act three where the consequences of the actions are seen. Skins does it really well. There are so many layers of good acting, good directing, good script, good music. It’s subversive. They get their target audience who think that amorality is good, to watch and enjoy the first couple of acts, to really feel part of it, and then they hit them with the third act where they learn the consequences and because they were so bought into the bad side they really do feel the consequences. It’s not like the Cosby show or Sesame Street where they end the episode saying, this episode was brought to you by the moral ‘don’t take drugs’. It’s much more subtle than that and consequently more effective. People don’t want to be told what to think, just show it to them and they’ll reach their own conclusions.Skins is the best programme ever. There are others that are equally the best but that’s for another time.

I know it’s melodrama. I know it’s taking things to extremes and could never be real. Or rather it’s extremely improbable. But not impossible. It’s like Bergerac or Morse. You’d never have so many murders in one place but it’s a useful construct to pull different ideas into one framework. The chances of even these individual story lines occurring are one in a million but that’s the one worth writing about.

I like the fact that the actors are pretty much all unknown. There’s no baggage. No stereotyping, no expectation of what’s going to happen. They’re all great actors. However you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s no rule saying you can’t kill them off in the first episode. It’s not like The Simpsons where anything can happen but the story has to end with them in the same situation they started in so that the episodes can be shown in any order, in Skins the story does move forward. And yet the adults are all fairly well-known comedians playing it straight. A great idea giving them a certain element of familiarity and yet you don’t take them too seriously, like real parents.

There is an overarching journey for the series, but each episode is its own story. Each focuses on one character, shown from their point of view with that actor in almost every scene. At the start of the series is some stereotyping. They’ve carefully chosen a black, a white, a boy, a girl, a gay, a popular person, an outcast etc, and someone to really hate. But when the hated person, and the others, get the story from their point of view you understand that everyone’s an individual and you can actually identify with all of them, you learn to appreciate people for what they are. And then just when you’re getting too familiar with the cast and they’re all melding into one, they get rid of them all and bring a brand new cast in. It’s not like Hollyoaks where they go to college for two years and then they have to justify keeping them around. They really do move on to the next academic year and the next target audience.

I also really like the music. Again they don’t use stereotype music which brings its own baggage. It’s not heavy handed like Eastenders where the lyrics of the song always describe what’s about to happen. They use new music that you’ve never heard before. It’s relevant to the story and it’s relevant to the current scene. It’s not something you already love, it’s something you’ll grow to love.

The writing is brilliant. It credits the viewer with intelligence. It reminds me of Mad Men. In most TV they tell you something’s going to happen, then it happens, then they tell you it happened and explain why and the effects of it. In Skins it’s like someone’s gone through and deleted 80% of the lines. They just show you things happening. If you’re intelligent then you know all the other stuff. Sometimes there’s a reaction shot. If it was on ITV you’d then say a line in your head and then they’d say it on TV. On Channel 4 there’s no need.

So people who complain that the series isn’t what it used to be are missing the point. Life moves on. Music does, fashion does, issues do. And the programme does too. It’s an excellent framework to bring in new stories and new actors. So I don’t understand why they’re scrapping it. I will miss it.

A new broadcasters’ business model?

Svolta nella Social TV: SKY sigla un accordo c...

Svolta nella Social TV: SKY sigla un accordo con Zeebox (Photo credit: paz.ca)

What should be the new broadcasters’ business model given that “advertising revenues are shrinking”.

Personally I never watch adverts. With Sky+ I go past them. Even before that I used to make cups of tea etc. Broadcasters need you to be so gripped by a programme that you don’t want to miss the return from the adverts. But in general the channels I watch are channels I pay for, including the BBC with the license fee. I guess there’s indirect advertising through product placement, and even sponsorship, and maybe banners in football grounds. I pay a fortune to TV companies for far more content than I could ever watch.

Is it true that “advertising revenues are shrinking”? That advertising money to broadcasters is dropping, rather than ROI from advertising dropping. Surely if the advertising can be shown to make money then it will still come, although it may be redistributed.

Targeted advertising could make the adverts more effective and so the advertisers could pay more to get to fewer people. As the ‘broadcasters’ deliver to viewers individually and know more about the viewers this can be effective.

Making twitter feeds available to the broadcasters could create a twitter feedback loop. It could just help reduce every programme to the lowest common denominator. But twitter is also good for making people watch things in real time. If my friends are chatting about a programme I’m watching, and journalists etc too, then I want to be there with them seeing their comments about things as they happen. Reading the feed a few days later when I watch the recording is not the same. The discussion enhances the programme, like in the old days when families watched TV together.

The partnership of Sky with Zeebox, combined with internet connected TVs and media streamers could change everything. Zeebox can/could connect to all the TVs on the LAN and know what you’re watching. It could report directly to the TV company to say whether you’re watching their programme, and whether you’ve switched it off. It enhances the viewing substantially in terms of helping you discuss the programme with your friends and so making you watch it in real time. Being able to select your “friends” based on common interests means that one programme doesn’t need to be reduced to being suitable for the whole family we can have the audience groups selecting and refining themselves instead.

Maybe we’re heading back to event television with good quality targeted programming.

The Internet killed the music industry, not.

Home Taping is Killing Music

Home Taping is Killing Music (Photo credit: diebmx)

Some people say that SOPA is due to the effect of downloads on the music industry. This leads me to wonder we really know what the effect was. I know that a few years ago there was a massive drop in sales due to piracy. Empirically that was because the pirates/consumers understood the new world a lot faster than the big corporations. Nowadays I see the likes of iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and last.fm with sophisticated recommendation engines and really easy to use interfaces for purchasing music legally, with a much lower cost for delivering the music and yet they charge not that much less for purchasing it. People can buy the music without having to pay to travel to a shop, so more impulse buys and more speculative ones, they can pay to download it without a risk of viruses and without being restricted to only the more popular albums. Spotify, last.fm, sky etc are “making” people pay to listen to albums they already own. New artists/start up bands as well as very established ones are selling music directly to the people on-line and probably making more money than they did when the corporations were involved. Touring artists like Prince are giving their albums away and still making a fortune from the tour. Lady Gaga says she’s happy with the amount of money she makes even though she’s the most pirated artist. I know Lily Allen is moaning that she’s not making money because she’s stopped touring and people aren’t buying her music but she’s only famous because the bootlegs of her music spread for free over the net, and I bet she makes a lot from The X Factor etc using her music as the backing track to the sob stories. I know I consume a lot more music than I used to and through the choice and availability that the net brings and the sophisticated recommendation engines and the information about discographies on wikipedia, and I spend a lot more, particularly on concerts. So although there was a significant dip in music revenue due to piracy I doubt that this has continued.


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