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Chris Harris's Blog

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Last update: May 2018

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Fort

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RESTORATIVE

This week has had its ups and downs; I woke up in the middle of the night on Tuesday in agony, with aches and pains all over and a temperature thrown in for good measure. I'm in the middle of the hayfever season at the moment - I don't know what it is that I am allergic to, but it's clearly been doing its thing for the past couple of weeks and my sinuses are not happy about it. I suspect that stress had more to do with how I felt on Wednesday. I had no energy at all and slept for most of the day. I decided that I shouldn't be worrying about work things, so I doubled down on Thursday and Friday addressing the tasks I was worried about, and they turned out to be a very productive couple of days. Now I feel more like my old self, although my sinuses still feel like someone's filled them with concrete.

I must be feeling better though, as I've just disassembled and cleaned up the rotor head on the vacuum cleaner which had lost suction, then once I was satisfied it was working properly again, I've gone round the house to freshen it up. You don't want to know how much stuff there was in the bin by the time I'd finished but the house has had a much-needed spring clean and I feel like I've achieved something by avoiding the need to buy a new vacuum cleaner.

It's the Bank Holiday weekend this weekend, and I will be spending the rest of it catching up on sleep and reading. Reading, for me, is one of the best ways I know of recuperating. Kidney disease meant that I was frequently ill and stuck at home as a child, and reading was the most accessible pastime available when you're laid up in bed or not allowed to go out and play. I developed quite a taste for books as a result, and that love of reading has never gone away.

I signed up to Goodreads shortly after I bought a Kindle, and for the last couple of years I've joined in with the site's reading challenge; this year I'm three books ahead of schedule to reach my target of fifty books read by the end of the year. It's not that much of a challenge, frankly; you should see the stacks of books I have in the living room and by my bed, all waiting to be read - and all carefully dusted!

SADDLE UP

My favourite TV show right now is The Expanse, and at the moment I'm eagerly awaiting season three, which hasn't reached the UK yet. I was delighted to see on Twitter this morning that the future of the show - which was cancelled last month by SyFy - has been secured. Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who is a great fan of the books, announced last night that the show will be moving to Prime. Hoorah!

A LONG TIME AGO

Twenty three years ago today, way back in 1995, I exchanged contracts on this house. At lunchtime I picked up the keys from the solicitors. Two hours later, the removals company arrived with my stuff, which had been in storage for several weeks after I sold my old place in Milton Keynes. My father arrived to help and by tea-time I was more or less settled in, so the two of us went out for a meal at Huntingford Mill, which at the time was a rather nice steakhouse; it hasn't been a restaurant for years as it was subsequently converted into apartments.

I'm still trying to process how long I've lived here. Before I moved in I'd never lived at a single address for longer than eight years; Dad's career in BT meant we were regularly uprooted and plonked down in a new location. That was tough as a child, and even tougher as a teenager. Here, I've had time to put down roots. I've got a lot of friends in the area that I've known for more than twenty years. That's still a novelty to me, and much appreciated.

In another 23 years it'll be 2041. I wonder if I'll still be here at the age of 80?

ALL EARS

When I moved here, if I wanted to listen to the radio I had the choice of the FM, AM, or shortwave bands. The village's location in the bottom of a valley doesn't make radio reception all that great (TV reception's never been that hot, either.) When I was a teenager I used to love being able to tune through the frequencies on my Nordmende Corvette Deluxe multi-band radio that I got when I was twelve or so (they really knew how to make consumer electronics back then - it only gave up the ghost a couple of years ago.) I knew about numbers stations long before they became a Thing, although I had no idea what I was listening to. Once I moved here, I soon gave up trying to pick up anything other than local stations, because there was no signal to pick up. I still miss roaming the shortwave bands.

Then in September of 1995 - the same year I moved in - the BBC began Digital Audio Broadcasting or DAB for short, and suddenly it was possible for me to listen to stuff on a portable radio again, even if the sound would start sizzling if I didn't get the orientation of the aerial just right.

But since my neighbours built an extension over their garage, the radio reception in my living room has pretty much disappeared. The Onkyo's tuner fares no better than my little Pure portable radio in picking up FM signals, with everything wreathed in large quantities of hiss that leaves it unlistenable. The Onkyo doesn't do digital radio, but the Pure does; even so, it struggled to pick up anything other than the local BBC signal. Radio Bristol would come and go and Radio 3 would frequently break up into the horrendous frying egg sound of digital distortion, then disappear entirely. It's been annoying, as I like to have Radio 3 playing in the background while I work. I find it's very relaxing, and it has also broadened my musical education. This month I decided enough was enough. As I've been completely revamping my home audio setup, I've added a DAB tuner to the stack. With a cheap mag-mount car DAB antenna, the new tuner was picking up everything I used to listen to, but I could still hear some of that nasty frying egg distortion. Hooking up a short run of coax and connecting the tuner to a large outdoor DAB aerial which I've hidden behind my favourite armchair made all the difference. The distortion has gone away and suddenly I can bring in dozens of digital radio stations from as far away as West Wiltshire. At the moment I have Planet Rock tuned in, which I have only been able to listen to upstairs for the last two or three years. Their signal is still ridiculously compressed, but it's nice to have the option to listen to it every now and again when Radio 3 feels too placid. And now I have a lot of new listening choices, too: I've never heard of some of the stations that appear on the tuner's menu.

I'm still going to switch everything off when the news comes on, though. I can imagine exactly what that's going to be about all day.

INEVITABILITY

My pal Leah talked me in to it last weekend: I have finally caved in and set myself up with an account on Instagram. You will have no trouble whatsoever in guessing my account name, I am sure.

There are only two photos on there at the moment but I suspect as the addiction kicks in that more - many more - will follow.

MANIA

I have come to the conclusion that the only way to get through this weekend with my sanity intact will be to avoid watching any television or listening to the radio. I'm sure the happy couple are lovely people; that's not the issue here. The media coverage of tomorrow's wedding reached preposterous levels several days ago and it's only escalated since then. The news channels are so deperate to outdo each other in degrees of obsequiousness and finding "new angles" to use in reporting something that they've been ramming down our throats for months that it's making me physically sick. Grown people should not behave like this. I have absoloutely no interest in any aspect of the proceedings whatsoever and there are far more important things going on in the world at the moment.

If you need me, I'll be in my armchair over there, reading a book. Two, actually; I already have The Church of Accelerated Redemption by Gareth L Powell and Aliette de Bodard, and Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky lined up on my Kindle. It's going to be a good weekend.

HEALTH KICK

Over the last couple of weekends I've met up with friends who were visiting the UK from America. It was lovely to hang out with them and a great excuse to get out and do touristy stuff, whether it was taking in the sights of picturesque country villages like Castle Combe and market towns like Tetbury or braving the hordes in Central London and browsing the many treasures of the V&A. During yesterday's jaunt to London I walked over 23,000 steps, a distance of nine and a half miles. That's a much healthier use of my time than sitting at home watching TV and I feel all the better for doing so, although I'll admit I'm a little footsore.

Today I even had a salad for tea and enjoyed it.

Who am I, and what have I done with me?

A DECADE OF PLAY

It'll be ten years on Thursday since I bought my Playstation 3 and rediscovered the delights of video games. I started playing video games at home pretty much as soon as I could afford a machine to plug into the TV to play Pong. I played my Atari VCS so much that I quite literally wore out the controllers. I still have a Sega Mega Drive and a bunch of games kicking around upstairs, and my Nintendo GameCube is still plugged in to the TV in my bedroom. But when I bought the PS3 I discovered I could still become as obsessed with playing a video game as I used to be as a teenager.

Over the last ten years I've chronicled some of that obsession here on the blog, including celebrating achiving my Elite Licence in Burnout Paradise and then, a month later, completing 100% of the in-game challenges and unlocking the platinum paint job for my cars. I may have grumbled repeatedly about the Gran Turismo games and their dodgy collision physics and inept driver AI, but it didn't stop me playing them for hours on end. I had more than one session playing Skyrim that lasted until it started getting light outside, and I would spend hours playing anything that involved driving cars, from DiRT, DiRT2, DiRT3 and GRiD through to Ridge Racer 7 by way of MotorStorm and Split Second Velocity. Let's not examine the amount of time I have spent playing Borderlands, Borderlands 2, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel or any of the many downloadable content packs that followed, because that is alarmingly likely to run into days, if not weeks of gameplay.

The PS3 appealed to me because it also played Blu-Ray discs (see the next blog entry below for more on that), but Sony's strange decision not to support 4K UHD discs on the Playstation 4 means that I won't be upgrading my existing gaming setup any time soon. And for the last couple of years, my game purchases have been made for the PC on Steam rather than as discs for the PS3. As I don't have a game controller for the PC, that has meant that the games I play are of a different sort, and while I enjoy playing them I don't find myself becoming as obsessed with completing them as I used to be.

On reflection, that's probably a good thing.

FLAWED VISION

The tenth anniversary of my PS3 purchase also means that by the end of this week I will have been watching films on Blu-Ray for an entire decade. When I started, the only film that I had to watch in HD was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and at the time I marvelled in being able to see masses of fine detail that I'd not noticed on my DVD copy, such as the cigarette ash under Leonard Rossiter's chair when Heywood Floyd meets the Russian scientists, or the cross-hatched brush marks on the front projection screen all through the opening "The Dawn Of Man" sequence. But now that a trailer has been released for the unrestored release of the film to mark its 50th anniversary, it's also clear that the 2007 disc has markedly different colour grading from the film that I saw at the Picture House in Stafford as a small boy back in 1968. The 2007 Blu-Ray has a noticeably cooler colour palette when scenes are compared side by side with those in the new trailer. I also found myself asking whether I should really have been able to notice all that fine detail in the print, given that I don't remember seeing it at the cinema. If you read Steven Soderburgh's blog about the 2007 "restoration", you will see that he absolutely excoriates it (and he's a director who is so obsessed with the movie that he made his own cut of the film, although sadly this is no longer available online). The new version has more of a bloom on it; it lacks the severe contrast enhancement of the 2007 print (look in particular at the shot of Keir Dellea as the aged David Bowman in his space suit, and notice how much less detail you can see through the visor in the new version).

A decade on from buying the Playstation, I now watch my favourite films on a new format. It's not clear whether Warner Brothers will be using the new print of 2001 for their upcoming release of the film in 4K UHD later this year, but I hope they will be doing so. When it comes out I'll no doubt buy it, regardless. Like Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, 2001 is a film that captured my imagination so strongly that it hasn't let me go, decades after I first watched it. The opportunity to see it in a new light is quite simply too good to pass up.

SPOILER FREE

I saw Avengers: Infinity War last night and aside from seeing the trailer, I had little idea what the plot involved. That is definitely the way to see the film (or any other, to be honest) so I won't be posting any reviews here, or making comments about it on social media. My lack of coverage certainly won't damage the film's phenomenal success, which saw it take more than a quarter of a billion dollars at the box office on its opening weekend. But it was a challenge making it to the show without having the contents of the film spoiled for me online. It brought home just how rapidly information spreads across the Internet these days; it is genuinely difficult to avoid popular content if you spend anything more than a couple of minutes browsing the web every day.

I can think of a number of films in the last decade where newspapers I used to read regularly gave away large portions of the plot in their coverage; it's one of the reasons why I seldom visit the Guardian's website any more, for instance. There is a certain type of person online who delights in ruining other people's enjoyment of a show and such people shoud be blocked, shunned, and nuked from orbit. I saw someone do this on Facebook last month with the plot of the first season of Netflix's "Lost in Space." In my opinion the show is an absolute stinker and I gave up five minutes in to the second episode, but if other people enjoy it, they should be able to do so without some dickhead telling them what's going to happen.

Please remember this when discussing plot points of shows. Don't be that guy.

JOURNEYING TO THE WEST ONCE MORE

In the late 70s I was a huge fan of the Japanese television series Monkey, which was broadcast in the UK with an hysterically funny dub provided by the voice talents of actors like Andrew Sachs, David Collings, Maria Warburg, Peter Marinker and Miriam Margolyes. It didn't matter how many times the series was repeated, if I discovered that it was on, I would always end up watching it. A box set of the entire run was released on DVD a few years ago, and I bought a copy immediately. It's well worth getting, as it contains a couple of episodes that were never broadcast in the UK.

I heard last year that an Australian television company was filming a new version of the show - once again, an adaptation of Journey to the West, Wu Ch'êng-ên's absurdist 16th Century novel about the adventures of the real-life 7th century monk Hsüang Tsang, a.k.a. Tripitaka - in New Zealand, although at the time, the show appeared to be making the news primarily thanks to accusations of whitewashing and cultural appropriation - not the best sort of publicity for a new show to start off with, even if its critics missed the point that the original show was guilty of exactly the same thing (because although NTV's show was filmed in China and Mongolia, the cast were all Japanese, not Chinese.) After that, I didn't hear much more about the production until the trailer appeared on YouTube just before Christmas. It was immediately obvious from the trailer that the show's casting is noticeably more diverse than your average TV fare. More importantly, it looked like it was going to be fun. When the series went live on Netflix this week, I was ready to watch.

And I loved it. I ran through the first four episodes in one sitting. It's just as mad and irreverent as the 70s show, the cast are without exception brilliant, and the fight scenes put other "chop-socky" TV series that are currently on air to shame (and yes, I'm looking at you, Iron Fist.) Your favourite tropes from the original series are all present and correct: Monkey's flying cloud, his use of body hair for magical purposes and his magic staff all come into play, although as is evident from the trailer he's been imprisoned for quite a while, so his powers aren't always what they should be and when he first uses them, things... don't exactly go according to plan. Tripitaka still reins in Monkey's excesses by praying, which results in the monkey king's gold crown tightening; Pigsy's still a glutton, the travellers are still headed West to collect the sacred scrolls that will return peace and light to the world, and the script is still swimming with knowing asides and rampant anachronisms. If you're a fan of the original show, pay close attention to a song that you'll hear somebody sing in episode four. It should sound very familiar...

The casting takes the gender swapping approach of the original show and runs with it, so where Tripitaka was played as a boy in the 70s version by the Japanese actress Masako Natsume (who, sadly, died from leukemia at the age of just 27 a few years after completing her work on the show), in the new series Tripitaka is played as a girl pretending to be a boy, by the Kiwi actress Luciane Buchanan. The river god Sandy is played as a slightly loopy goth chick by the Aussie actress Emilie Cocquerel. Monkey himself is played by Thai actor Chai Hansen who with perfect judgment plays him as a somewhat petulant and none-too-bright glam-rock pop star. Monkey knows he looks good, so there is much preening and posturing, which is a hoot; but Hansen can hold his own when it comes to fighting, too - there is a lot of leaping and somersaulting about. And then there's Pigsy, played by Josh Thomson, whose perpetually exasperated demeanour conveys the attitude of a guy who knows full well that he's the smartest person in the room, but whose ambitions are continually frustrated by his own baser proclivities. Instead of being able to use his intellect to his advantage, Pigsy has resigned himself to a life of being manipulated by his own desires and needs (and as the show starts these are being exploited mercilessly by his demon girlfriend Princess Locke, played with absolute glee by Manchester's very own Bryony Skillington). Until Tripitaka comes along, that is. Thomson brings pathos and spot-on comic timing to the role, and he's a joy to watch on screen, particularly when he's reacting to the antics of the rest of his fellow travellers...

PIGSY:
(to TRIPITAKA) You can't be seen around here!

TRIPITAKA:
(pulls her scarf across her face)

PIGSY:
Seriously? That works for you?

I'll be watching the remaining episodes this evening (there are only 10 episodes, and each is only 25 minutes long and therefore perfect for binge watching) and I earnestly hope that the show is picked up for another season.

MAYDAY

Today is Beltane, one of the four traditional Gaelic festivals, which was traditionally held to mark the beginning of summer and usually celebrated by the ritual lighting of bonfires.

Over on Twitter, the League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith has been having fun as he tweets his adventures during a short break on the Scottish island of Summerisle. I'm sure he'll be fine...

UH OH

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC for short, is a network of circulating currents that brings warm water from the tropics up to our cooler, northern latitudes. It's what drives the Gulf Stream, which helps to moderate the UK's climate and while it's not the only thing that keeps our winters from being as harsh as those, say, in Bangor, Maine, it's definitely a contributing factor. For comparison, while Bangor is at the same latitude as Marseilles in Southern France, it has an average highest temperature during January of just 27°F (that's -2.6°C) while Marseilles manages a balmy 55°F (that's 13°C).

In recent years there have been reports that the AMOC may be weakening as a result of fresh water from melting ice being introduced into the northern Atlantic. The circulation is thought to be driven by the dense, salty water of the Gulf Stream sinking as it cools. Fresh water isn't as dense as salt water so the sinking effect is weakened and, it was suggested, the circulating currents would also weaken in turn and, perhaps, fail altogether. Now, studies published in the scientific journal Nature report that the currents of the AMOC are weaker than they have been for a thousand years. It may be in danger of collapsing entirely, as the paper in that first link points out. That will turn off the flow of warm water to Western Europe's coasts.

It may seem perverse, but one of the side-effects of global warming is likely to be that the UK's weather will get cooler over the next few decades. Given how disruptive even a modest snowfall can be around here, this is unlikely to be good news, even if you're an avid skier.