Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Space tourism, Amazon entanglements and journeys with Justin

 I've been following recent developments in space tourism with a sort of guarded interest, impressed by the technical achievements (even sub-orbital flight is difficult) but less persuaded by the billionaire gold-rush behind it all. It's not the timeline I wanted to be on, but it's the one we've got. 

Of the three major commercial players, it's fairly obviously the case that Space X (which hasn't yet done any space tourism) is much further along in terms of offering reliable access to orbit, which in turn benefits satellite infrastructure, human settlement (the ISS and beyond) and even space science and exploration. I presume Blue Origin will catch up in that capacity given time, but I'm not sure that Virgin Galactic's model could ever be scaled-up in that sense, and perhaps Branson isn't chasing that market anyway. As Chris Hadfield alluded to during the coverage of the Virgin hop last week, the mission profile isn't all that different to what was being done with the X-15, sixty-odd years ago. Impressive, still, but perhaps something of a technological dead-end given the enormous disparity in energy requirements between a sub-orbital lob and orbit itself. It's not always understood that circling the Earth doesn't just mean getting above the Karman line - it also means going sideways really, really fast - and that's the hard part. Still, given a choice between not going into space, and popping up above the atmosphere for a few minutes of weightlessness, I'd still take the latter like a shot.

Bezos deserves credit for offering a seat to Wally Funk, a beautiful gesture. Good PR undoubtedly but i don't doubt it was heartfelt. I'm not a tremendous fan of the business activities that have made him rich, though. As is the case with many writers, Amazon sales are a part of my income - a part I'd miss if they were absent. That also includes royalties from affiliates like Audible. On the professional side of my life, not being an idiot, nor wishing to shoot myself in the foot, I deal with Amazon as I must. I don't decry anyone who makes use of their services, either. I used to, and I still own (and occasionally use) a Kindle. On the customer side of the equation, I always found the experience of buying from Amazon to be perfectly streamlined and painless, and I never had any problems. Equally, as a consumer, I long ago made the decision to use other services where I could. This isn't so much anti-Amazon as trying to support a more diverse ecosystem of suppliers. I buy my books from Waterstones or independent retailers, while almost all my music purchases go through HMV, of which Cardiff still has a very good store. Other stuff, I just get it as and when I can, even if that means paying more and waiting longer. I don't mind.

The problem with Amazon, though, is that it's almost impossible not to deal with it. A few weeks ago I was chatting to my mate Marc. Marc's a former punk who still plays bass (electric and upright) on the Cardiff gigging scene. We often talk about music and Marc was keen to tell me of a new piece of gear he'd heard about. The only problem was, he couldn't remember what it was called. It's a kind of amp, he said, but when you play into it, it starts jamming along with you! This sounded pretty rad but I had to wait for Marc to rack his brains and come up with the product name. This he duly did, sending me a text a few days later. The item in question is called a Spark and its made by Positive Grid (I got this the wrong way around earlier). It's basically a smart speaker/practise amp in one, and it works with an app that enables all sorts of cool functions, including - but far from limited to - the jamming thing. I did some research and convinced myself that a Spark would be a good addition to my gear, so I ordered one. The prices on offer were very good, but rather than go through the palaver of importing one from the States, I looked around for UK suppliers, deliberately avoiding the easy option of using Amazon. You can see where this is going, I imagine. I got the amp a few days later, but it arrived via Amazon, in an Amazon box. It turns out I'd really only been ordering it from a third party who presumably did their business via Amazon, but none of that was apparent at the point of purchase. Obviously it wouldn't bother most people but if you've gone out of your way to spend your money elsewhere, it does rankle somewhat.

Anyway, how is the Spark? It's pretty damned excellent. I plugged in my Strat to begin with, and I was immediately impressed by the tone and the complete lack of hum. When I set up my guitars in my office, there's an awful lot of EM noise coming from computer hard drives, fans, and so on, but rigging up the Spark in the kitchen was a revelation. As was the tone control. Using the app, one can browse an enormous "tone cloud" and dial in tone settings at a single touch. I quickly found a really nice Gilmore tone that sounded great despite my hamfisted attempts at Comfortably Numb. There's also a great feature where you can ask the amp (or more properly the app) to do a chord analysis on any given song. It will then play back the song with the chords indicated, and you just play along as best you can. The rest of it, including the jamming function, I've really only begun to scratch the surface of, but the rave reviews and sales of the product do indeed seem to be justified. Here's a link if you're interested, and check out the lovely retro-design:

Positive Grid

But a cool amp is only going to get you so far, so what of learning the guitar itself? As mentioned elsewhere, I had a steady guitar tutor for about ten years, but he selfishly decided to get married and move away for work, so for the last couple of years I've been on my own. I tried a guitar class at my local adult education centre (pre-Covid, so I don't know whether it's still going) but the scheduling didn't quite work for me, so - as friendly as the group was - I dropped out after a couple of months. Since then I've been largely relying on self-directed learning, aided by books, CDs and the occasional Youtube video. Concerning the latter, I quickly realised that a lot of the most useful tutorials that kept coming up were by the same guy - an online guitar personality called Justin Guitar (aka Justin Sandercoe). I then clicked that he was the same Justin who had a column in one of the guitar mags I pick up from time to time. I really can't say enough about how good this guy is, and what a generous model he's adopted for his tutorials. You can watch a huge amount of it on YouTube, but for the full structured experience, it's worth going to his website, signing up, and accessing the various course modules he's developed. The amazing thing is that it's free. You can donate, if you wish, or buy "Justin" merch, and there are some areas like access to TAB sheets where he has to cover royalties, but a vast amount of it is just there for the taking. Clearly he's worked out a business model that functions for him (having more than a million subscribers won't hurt) but that shouldn't detract from the essential generosity of the enterprise as a whole. His books are good, too - I've started working through a couple of them - and they're as breezily informative and helpful as the videos. So, hats off to hat-wearer Justin, and I look forward to my continuing journey, wherever it takes me.


  1. Did you end up getting the Chapman Zima Blue that you really deserve? ;-)

  2. No, still torn on that. I didn't hear back from them after the initial contact.

  3. Glad to hear you like the Cardiff HMV - once upon a time I was the store manager there!

  4. I agree. Space Tourism feels more like a revenue generation scheme, which most mere mortals will never be able to afford. Whereas Space-X are doing the proper "NASA" stuff. Like yourself though, I'd go in a second if my age and bank balance weren't against me!

  5. I have good friends who are very anti-Amazon, which is tough for me as someone who self-publishes modest SF confections on there. I understand their beef but oh man, I always feel a little like my petticoat's showing under their scrutinising eyes when I announce my newest arrival.

  6. I totally get it. Hope my post didn't come across as judgemental.