Chris Harris's Blog Archive: January 2011

January was a month I spent catching up, more than anything else. I spent one weekend in Lytham and the next in Norfolk, delivering Christmas presents and seeing relatives. Blogwise, I managed to find plenty to write about, with subjects ranging from roadworks to bad journalism, and from science fiction to my newly-discovered talent for making Irish coffee. It's all here.

JOHN BARRY 1933 - 2011

Mount Shinmoedake (see below) chose a fitting day to erupt, as today the music world mourned the loss of one of the true greats.

John Barry, composer of the music for 11 James Bond movies including You Only Live Twice, died of a heart attack at the weekend. He composed music for dozens of films and television series, and each time he did he transformed them into something special, cool, and memorable. During his stellar career he won 5 Oscars and composed some of my favourite pieces of music, particularly the score for Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File and the theme to the television series The Persuaders. Rest in peace, guv'nor.


The Vikings may have used polarised light to navigate, according to researchers from Hungary and Sweden. And you get a house point if you spotted that the Viking standing at the prow of the ship in the photo accompanying the story was Kirk Douglas...


Mount Shinmoedake, in southern Japan, has erupted. As the volcano was the location of Blofeld's secret lair in You Only Live Twice I guess he's going to need to relocate...


Seen via Boing Boing - the giant humungous snow pile in Michael Swanwick's back yard isn't just any humungous snow pile. It's one that lies there, leering at you and glowing in the dark. That's first-rate material for traumatising small children, any day of the week. Well done!


A comment on Charlie Stross's website led me today to a veritable gold mine of Internet strangeness, and once you get past the Geocities-style front page and the comic sans, it's well worth perusing.You'll find page after page of fringe science, eccentric inventions and out-and-out nutjob loopiness from the last century. Swing on over to Rex Research if you have a moment or two and prepare to be amazed.


A robin has discovered that the inside of its local Co-op store in Aberdeen is not only nice and warm, it also has breadcrumbs. The visitor is proving to be very popular with both staff and customers and has even started singing to them.

See, that's the difference between Scotland and England. Down here in the south west, some jobsworth would have had the poor thing exterminated as a potential health risk. Even after seven years I'm still sticking by my vow to never, ever shop at any Wyevale Garden Centre again.


Warner Brothers are NOT planning to make any more Matrix movies - well, thank heavens for that. You may remember that I was distinctly unimpressed with the last movie.


Roger Ebert's blog is running a letter from Walter Murch about the current craze for 3D in the cinema and the home. Murch's verdict is damning: 3D doesn't work, and it never will. Walter is a Hollywood legend in not one but two fields (editing and sound design) and his opinion quite rightly demands a fair bit of respect. He doesn't beat about the bush, either. In his words, 3D movies are "dark, stroby, headache inducing, alienating. And expensive."

Even before I read the letter, I must admit I had no interest in buying a 3D television. However whizzy they may be technically, the combination of having to wear glasses that don't fix my eyesight and the convergence issue that Murch discusses (which I already knew about, I'm that geeky) sounds like a sure-fire recipe for blinding headaches, and that's not something I want from my home entertainment system.


A New Year's Eve suicide bomber in Moscow was blown up before she reached her target when an unwanted text message from her phone company detonated the explosives prematurely, according to Russian security sources.

The text message was to wish her a Happy New Year.


I went back to my roots at the weekend. I was in Lytham, delivering Christmas presents to my relatives and catching up with everybody. I had dinner at my cousin's place on Saturday night, and I had a really great time. On Saturday afternoon I went for my traditional stroll along the front, and had a look at the windmill, which was looking very sorry for itself after the storms of the last couple of months...



I was reading my aunt's newspaper on Saturday morning and came across a rewrite of this story, which talks about the red giant star Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion. The article headline promised that in the next few years we might have "a second sun" shining in the sky, as Betelgeuse was "about to become a supernova" - oh dear. I chatted to my aunt about the story, how it had been reported, and how likely it was to be accurate. My aunt quickly decided it's about time she changed newspapers.

For one thing, when astronomers say stuff like "about to become a supernova" they mean "in the next couple of hundred thousand years or so." "Very soon" doesn't mean the same thing to an astronomer as it does to the average newspaper reader. But the rest of the story was jaw-dropping, it was so badly written. I couldn't believe how inaccurate it was. Science reporting in the tabloids has never been great, but this sank the standards of journalism to a new low. Let's be clear about this: claiming that we'd see a "second sun" in the sky is complete drivel. The facts behind the story are still interesting, but a truthful write-up isn't going to sell as many adverts in newpapers. So if Betelgeuse did go kaboom tomorrow, what would we see? Although the supernova would be bright enough to cast a shadow, it wouldn't be as bright as the full Moon. Because it's around 600 light years away, it would look something like Venus does in the evening sky, appearing as a pinpoint of light. It most emphatically would not float in our skies as a great blazing disc as bright as the sun.

I was surprised that the original article focused on Betelgeuse, though. The reason is that it appeared on an Austalian website. Although Orion is visible from Australia, residents in the southern hemisphere can see a much more likely supernova candidate in their night sky: the massive supergiant Eta Carinae. Eta Car may already be in the process of blowing up: with even the quickest glance at a Hubble Telescope image, you know you're looking at a star in trouble. Eta Car belched out two immense lobes of matter after a cataclysmic outburst in the middle of the 19th Century, an event so mind-blowingly violent that some astronomers describe it as a "failed supernova explosion." Everything about Eta Car is on a different scale. Betelgeuse is some 18 or 19 times more massive than our sun, but it's ballooned out in size so that its radius is over a thousand times greater than the sun. In contrast, Eta Car is estimated to have anything up to 150 times the mass of our nearest star, but it's packed into a space that's about a tenth of the radius of Betelgeuse. When that sucker goes bang, it's really going to go bang. It's just as well it's around 7500 light years away.

But the most important point is, we don't know when that will be. We can't predict when supernovae occur - that's part of the reason that they're so exciting when they do happen. Betelgeuse or Eta Carinae might explode tomorrow, but on the other hand they might not go boom for tens, or hundreds of thousands of years. Claiming that it's imminent so you can tie it in to some dire piece of hokum involving the Mayan calendar is just lazy journalism.

But, hey, it sells newspapers, so it must be okay, right?


I owe my continued well-being to science. When I was a kid, I had something seriously wrong with my kidneys and without a corrective operation I would have spent most of my life in wretched agony with kidney stones. The massive leaps forward that medicine took during the 20th century were all down to people who wanted to know how things really work. They were based on experiment and observation: in biology, where an understanding of the function of the kidneys and basic anatomy allowed my doctor to diagnose what was wrong, and where the development of surgical techniques enabled the surgeon to fix the problem; in chemistry, where the investigation of the properties of molecules produced anaesthetics and antibiotics that enabled me to survive without being traumatised or succumbing to infection. That being the case, I tend to be very supportive of the scientific method, and the rise in anti-scientific media coverage over the last decade or so really pisses me off. Read Bad Science, Ben Goldacre's excellent book on current media attitudes to science and you'll feel like slapping someone. That's why I blog about stories like the one above. It's not a lot, but it feels like I'm doing something to fight the rise of stupid.

Professor Brian Cox does great work to promote science on television and radio. I thoroughly enjoyed his Wonders of the Solar System series for the BBC and I can recommend getting it on blu-ray as it looks fantastic in high definition. I can't wait to see the new series he's just finished filming, Wonders of the Universe. He is very active on Twitter too, and if you've followed him for any length of time you'll know he has no time for folk who believe in Mayan calendar prophecies, horoscopes, homeopathy, or other aspects of what he categorises as "woo-woo." People who tend to ignore rational scientific evidence and tell him about their varied and imaginitive (but completely irrational) world views are roundly chastised as "nobs" (Prof Cox is from Oldham, and us Lancashire folk don't believe in mincing words.)

When the Professor appeared on the BBC's Stargazing Live shows a couple of weeks ago, he and Dara O'Briain took great pains to distinguish what the programme was about - astronomy - from astrology, or fortune telling, which falls slap bang in the middle of prime woo-woo territory. Carl Sagan once pointed out that the gravitational effects of the planets when you are born are around the same order of magnitude as the gravitational effects of the midwife. And these days, computers and the Internet make it easy to do a statistical analysis of words appearing in 22,000 horoscopes and discover that, oops, they're amazingly non-specific. Gosh, you'd almost think they were written to be totally interchangeable, regardless of what star sign they're for!

Astrologers turn out to be a touchy lot, it seems. They're feeling particularly sensitive at the moment after Professor Parke Kunkle's story about changing star signs convinced thousands of people that they'd been reading the wrong horoscope - which, if you think about it, says a lot about the perceived accuracy of the things, doesn't it? The reports (and a lot of the subsequent coverage on the web) show that astrologers really don't like it if people show them up like this, particularly when people start pointing and laughing. But when you can't prove that what you do is anything other than hand-waving that confuses correlation with causation, what you gonna do? Perform experiments in a controlled environment and make measurable predictions on the outcome beforehand, based on the model you have of the process that's involved? Compile evidence to refute the counter claim and publish it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Er, no. But the poor dears have managed to set up a petition, apparently. They feel they're being hard done by, and they want Professor Cox and Mr O'Briain to stop picking on them. A fortune-teller complains about his trade's treatment in the BBC story about the zodiac, too: "The publicising of the effect - and its use to dismiss astrology - represents the "incredible bigotry some members of the scientific community display towards astrology." To which I say: a petition isn't going to change anything, folks. If you want the approval of the scientific community, you've got to behave like scientists. And if you can't do that, then prepare to be mocked.

Because that's exactly what you deserve.


I'm off to the kitchen, as there's a haggis in there with my name on it. If you're knocking back a wee dram or two to celebrate Burns Night tonight, have a great time.


I'm feeling grumpy today, so I apologise in advance for the tone of the blog. It might have something to do with the fact that I've discovered that from tomorrow, there are going to be more roadworks in the village. There's a sign by the crossroads at the top of the hill telling me I can expect long delays for the next 22 weeks while they turn the junction into a aroundabout. Oh, deep joy.

Recent "improvements" to the traffic flow in South Gloucestershire have had a variable track record. The traffic lights at Junction 14 on the M5 have to be turned off during peak traffic times in the morning because when they were first switched on they caused tailbacks several miles long. On the other hand, when I arrive at the junction in the early hours of the morning I can sit for several minutes waiting for the lights to change, even when there's nothing else on the roads.

The reason the roundabout is being built is to support increased operations at the local quarry. But traffic from the quarry, which currently has priority over traffic from the village heading for the M5 junction, will now have to give way. That's quite a big change to the traffic flow, so I guess we'll only find out if it works when everything's completed. By then, of course, it'll be too late to do anything about it if it doesn't.


Thanks to Leon for posting a link earlier in the week to Things Real People Don't Say About Advertising. Just after I visited the site, one of my colleagues sent me a link to the discussion of a new brand of lager, and the copy accompanying the pretty pictures rapidly brought that tumblr link to mind: "This juxtaposition forces you to think about the brand and becomes part of the beer drinkers dialogue."

Er, no. No. it doesn't.

And not just because the idiots who wrote it can't even use an apostrophe. The design might get an initial chuckle out of people; it's an Australian lager, the label's upside down, geddit? But the joke will wear out rapidly enough. In fact, dressing it up in the language of advertising does a very good job of killing it off at birth. As a result, I got considerably more laughs out of the pompous justification for the design than I did out of the design itself.

When marketing professionals start uttering ludicrous phrases like that one, I start wondering about good their grasp of reality is before realising that they don't actually believe what they're saying - it's an aspirational statement (and tellingly, "aspirational" is such a popular marketing term, isn't it?) What they're saying relates to how things would be in the world if marketing was the most important job that anyone could do, ever. It's wishful thinking on the part of people who believe they ought to be paid extraordinary sums of money for what they do, but have no empirical evidence available to justify their existence. So instead, they issue pronouncements like this which reflect things as they ought to be rather than as they are - it doesn't matter if the chances of these things actually coming to pass are infinitesimally small. Just saying it could really make it happen, as far as they're concerned.

Politicians do the same thing. It doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks, or what the reality of a situation might be; so long as you can come up with some way of describing things that sounds more-or-less positive, and repeat it often enough, it's amazing how many people will just nod and accept what you've said as the truth.

When it comes to marketing, I agree with the late, great Mr Bill Hicks when he said "you are Satan's little helpers." Advertising, he told us, "will ruin everything that's good."

And he was right.


For some reason this evening I decided I was going to have a go at making Irish coffee. Booze and caffeine - two of my favourite food groups! I ended up making a Scotch coffee as I didn't have any whiskey in the house, only whisky, but you get the general idea. I used the instructions at Mahalo and they worked pretty well. I've never tried making the stuff before, but by my second glass I'd decided I was rather good at it...

second time's the charm

In the interests of research I'm just having a third one to check that there aren't any problems with consistency. Things are looking pretty good so far.


Thanks to @GammaCounter for this one: Lady Gaga's song Telephone reimagined as a children's book. Genius.


"You know? Get some r 'n' r?" Neo's friend Choi was probably right. More evidence (as if I needed it) that I need to cut down on the amount of time I spend trawling the Internet comes from researchers at Stanford University, who have identified a condition known as separation anxiety in heavy users. Of course, I'm nowhere near as easily distrac-


In praise of the sci-fi corridor from the folk at I'd never really thought about how much action in SF movies takes place in corridors, but it turns out to be a lot. You only have to watch a few episodes of just about any flavour of Star Trek to realise how pervasive the corrodor can be...


Thanks to Phil for this one - a sign language student's final project: signing to Cee-Lo Green's last single, F*** You.

Pure joy, and a delight to watch.


You might want to consider making the most of Internet services like Skype or Facebook while they still exist in a usable form, because according to Evgeny Morozov the Internet is not going to be around in its current shape for that much longer. Maybe that'll reduce the likelihood of us all coming down with separation anxiety, then.


I've spent quite a lot of this weekend doing one or the other; this morning I finished reading Richard Morgan's science fiction novel Broken Angels and went straight on to start the sequel, Woken Furies. I read the first Takeshi Kovacs novel, Altered Carbon, a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. Set in a bewildering future where dying is, on the whole, a temporary inconvenience rather than the major setback it is at the moment, Altered Carbon was Morgan's first novel. It won the Philip K Dick award in 2003 (and you may recall that back in 1984 a certain William Gibson won the same award for his first novel, Neuromancer).

Broken Angels was a satisfying sequel, full of alien technology and corporate double dealing. I'm hoping Woken Furies will deliver as well. I'm only a few chapters in, but so far the writing feels looser, more relaxed; while the descriptions of outrageous weapons technology are still in evidence, they don't feel quite as - I dunno, fetishistic as the first two novels. One thing that is beginning to really annoy me about his writing is the punctuation. The books really need an attentive pass over by a decent editor. People (and things with interesting names like scorpion guns) will ask a question that does not end in a question mark; sentences often have a full stop in the middle, which makes. It difficult to make sense without rereading things, and it's beginning to grate a bit.

I've been doing some writing of my own, too. As promised, my review of TRON: Legacy is now up, as is a review of the Blu-Ray release of Inception that I got before Christmas. Enjoy.


To Ruth, who has had a paper she co-authored accepted for publication, and to Rob, whose discovery in the Alps last year has now been officially announced. I'm very proud of both of you!


I was talking to the twins about the bizarre Craig Ferguson song about Dr Who that was kicking around on the net before Christmas. They hadn't seen it, so here it is.


When an industry immerses itself in unnecessary jargon, it's usually a sign of insecurity. The entertainment industry in particular deploys some of the most wilfully obtuse and, frankly, embarrassing verbiage you're ever likely to encounter (just read the Variety website for more than a couple of minutes and I guarantee you'll feel like slapping the writers.) Even so, reading about this video footage last month made my heart heavy and filled me with despair. Why? Because of everyone's insistence on describing that little clip on YouTube as a "cold open", that's why.

Sorry, but not only is "cold open" one of the most ludicrous terms I've ever heard, it reeks of so much pretentiousness that whoever came up with it ought to be boxed sharply about the ears and sent to English classes for a couple of years.


A couple of friends have been posting pictures of their guitars and basses on Facebook recently, and they were all rather cool. But then things deteriorated and sent us looking for pictures of luthiery's less aesthetically pleasing creations, and I ended up finding this. And that's when I knew I had to stop.


Dave Barry's humour hasn't really made it across to this side of the pond as much as it should have done, but his review of the past year made me laugh. Here are a couple of highlights that had people in the office wondering what I was snorting at:

May - On the terror front, New York City police, alerted by Times Square street vendors, discover a smoking SUV packed with explosives — a violation of many city ordinances, including the ban on smoking. Fortunately, the car bomb is disarmed, and a suspect is later captured at Kennedy Airport by sharp-eyed TSA officers trained to spot suspicious behavior. Ha ha! Just kidding, of course. The suspect is captured by U.S. Customs agents at the last minute after boarding a Dubai-bound plane filled with passengers who, like the suspect, had all been carefully screened by the TSA to make sure they were not carrying more than three ounces of shampoo.

June - Apple finally releases the long-awaited iPhone 4, which incorporates many subtle improvements, the cumulative result of which is that it can neither make nor receive telephone calls. It is, of course, a huge hit.

I have made a resolution to read more of his stuff this year. I'm obviously going to enjoy it.


I went to see TRON: Legacy last night. I'm still mulling over my review, which will end up on my films page in due course, but one of the trailers I saw was for a bizarre animated Disney film coming out next month called Gnomeo and Juliet. Despite the film being a Disney production, it felt more like an Aardman film. The whole thing has a profoundly British ambience and the cast list is extraordinary: the title roles are played by James MacEvoy and Emily Blunt and the supporting cast includes Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, Jason Statham, Hulk Hogan, Dolly Parton and Ozzy Osbourne.

Just imagine ending up in the same room as that combination of people. Just imagine it.


Christmas is over for another year, the tree has been taken down and the decorations are back in the loft. Today is my last day of freedom before I head back to work and I'm spending it inside, as it's been pouring with rain for most of the day. At two o'clock in the afternoon it's so dark and gloomy that I've lit a couple of candles to brighten the place up a bit.

It's been a very different break for me this year as I've spent most of it at home; I'd usually drive the best part of a thousand miles over Christmas, but this year the furthest I've driven in the last two weeks has been to the local supermarket. It's been quiet and relaxing, although I don't really feel rested because I'm really out of shape at the moment. This year I really need to improve my fitness levels. I won't be going out for a walk today, though. I'm going to wait until it's a bit nicer out there.


Yesterday brought news of the passing of singer songwriter Gerry Rafferty, Forbidden Planet's Anne Francis and bass legend Mick Karn. News that the former bassist with Japan had died came as quite a shock; at 52 he was only a couple of years older than I am. He had a unique sound; check out Japan's Visions of China for an example that still sounds amazing a couple of decades on. He was a huge influence on my bass playing, and one of the main reasons I started playing fretless in the first place. He'll be greatly missed.


Happy birthday to Hayao Miyazaki, who is 70 today. If you've never seen My Neighbour Totoro, you should remedy this situation immediately. And then consider this photograph. Lovely.


Let's hope 2011 turns out better than 2010 did, shall we?

Have you noticed how many people on TV have been hailing 2011 as "the start of a new decade"? I'd lay money on the fact that eleven years ago a lot of them were hailing 2000 as "the start of a new millennium." I wish people would make up their minds...


You know how I said last month that I wanted to focus on being more creative this year? Well, you can hear the first results of that resolution here. It's another musical collaboration between members of the William Gibson Board - and particular thanks should go to Mel for providing the vocals! I want to get back in to songwriting this year - if I can manage one new track a week, I'll be very pleased with myself. I am also planning on doing justice to FAWM this year. Maybe the third time's the charm; if I manage 14 songs in 28 days I'll be well ahead of my target for the year.

I've also been back in the kitchen, and there's a fresh batch of home made curry bubbling away on the hob as I write this. I haven't really cooked proper food for months, as it's been far too easy to chuck a ready meal in the microwave or the oven. I'd forgotten how satisfying it is to make something for myself. It smells really good, too.


Just in case you didn't catch Jools Holland's show on New Year's Eve, you'll want to watch this. It's The Dambusters March, played on toy cats.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Toy cats.

It comes in for a lot of stick, but British television really is the best in the world, you know.