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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: January 2012

January 2012 didn't really get the year off to a very good start, but I identified a major cause of my insomnia: coffee (duh). In retrospect it's clear to see that I ignored the underlying cause, which was chronic depression.

However, cutting down my coffee consumption had a beneficial effect and by the end of the month, colds and sniffles notwithstanding, I was feeling better than I had done in years.


The Shard is under construction near London Bridge Station and it's already the tallest building in London. Will Pearson has put together an interactive 360° panorama showing the view at dusk from the top, and it's absolutely breathtaking.


I was very sad to read a tweet from Questionable Content's Jeph Jacques yesterday revealing that one of my favourite bands, The Books, are calling it quits after four impeccable albums. I only saw them play live once and it was an unforgettable experience. I wish the guys all the best for the future and I'm looking forwards to hearing Nick's new CD in the not-too-distant future, but I have to admit I'm left feeling glum right now.


On the other hand, things continue to improve on the sleep front. For the last couple of nights I've been sleeping for more than six hours at a stretch. I can't remember the last time I did that but I know it was quite a while ago. It feels like my subconscious has remembered how to dream properly; I've been waking up from crazy, vivid, memorable dreams that make me look forward to sleep rather than dreading it. I feel more focussed, more energetic, and it appears I've got all this from cutting back on my caffeine intake. I'm also realising just how accustomed the body gets to strong stimulants; since I blogged about cutting back on my caffeine intake I've noticed that now, when I do have my single cup of coffee for the day, I get a very noticeable buzz from it.


After a couple of weeks on my new regime of drastically reduced caffeine intake, I'm beginning to believe it's done the trick. I'm sleeping for longer; last night I woke up after five hours or so rather than the two I was managing before Christmas. Even better, I then fell asleep again and slept for another three hours. I was soundly asleep when the alarm clock went off, which has been an extremely rare occurrence in the last few years. I'm not just seeing an improvement in the quantity of sleep I'm getting, either. The quality of my sleep has significantly improved as well - I'm getting proper, dream-filled intervals of rest. As a result, I'm beginning to wake up in the mornings feeling refreshed and energised rather than drained and exhausted.

So it looks like I am going to keep my coffee intake down to minimal levels for the foreseeable future. Although this makes me rather sad, the benefits are difficult to ignore and I'm glad the solution turned out to be such a simple one. I can always indulge in a big breakfast coffee on Saturday mornings...


Dick Tufeld died this week and the LA Times has an obituary. The first television programme I ever saw in colour was an episode of Lost In Space, and he gave his memorable voice to the robot - as far as I'm concerned, "Danger Will Robinson!" remains one of the most evocative catchphrases from those times. During his career, Mr Tufeld had a long association with Lost in Space's producer Irwin Allen, working on pretty much all of his hit shows in the 60s - he spoke the first words on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and he was the complex announcer on The Time Tunnel. When Lost In Space was remade as a big-budget movie in the 1990s, Tufeld's voice was, of course, part of the proceedings.


I wonder if this whizzy little two-wheeled electric vehicle will do any better than the Segway? The blurb says you can drive it, or just get in, tell it where you want to go, and it'll take you there by itself. So not only will it keep you dry, it will let you have a nap during your journey! I want one!


I had a Sherlock Holmes moment today. I needed to get a photograph from a contact, and because I (a) knew the filename and (b) had some other photographs with very similar filenames from him, I was able to tell him roughly when he took the photographs, and which camera he used. All thanks to the EXIF file format. When the photo arrived in my email, I checked the image information and was delighted to see that I was right on all counts.



I'm sending continued hugs and mojo to the folks out there who need it, and boy, there seem to be a lot of you this year.

With things the way they are at the moment I'm not really in a blogging frame of mind, but every now and again there are things that I have to write about, because they resonate on a deeply personal level and I feel compelled to share.

Today's blog entry is therefore brought to you thanks to an interview with William Gibson I was reading at In it, he talks about his writing process and mentions something which he also talked about during his signing tour last year, something which struck a huge chord with my own limited experience of the creative act. His approach to writing involves sitting at the keyboard and "making himself available" to the part of him that creates things. That part, he says, is "where the good stuff comes from" but it can't be summoned on demand. He waits, and hopes he'll show up (and for non-fiction examples of what happens when the creative guy does show up, look no further than Distrust That Particular Flavor, which comes out in the UK on the 2nd of February.)

Sometimes, when I've been really lucky, the creative act catches something deep inside that is not accessible during everyday existence. There are times when I've drawn something or recorded something (and even, once or twice, when I've written something) that I've gone back to later and wondered how on Earth I could possibly have produced it. There's an added jauntiness to the line or a drive to the melody that is difficult to pin down as an ingredient - I just know when I come back to it that it's pretty good. This is nothing new; the ancient Greeks attributed the "good stuff" to divine inspiration. The fact that they had a pantheon of nine entities each with responsibility for a different branch of the arts (including one with responsibility for astronomy) should give you some idea of the importance they assigned to the concept (and, by extension, to the creative act itself.) Nowadays I guess we'd assign these creative forces to aspects of the subconscious, but to many of us they remain just as mysterious as they were two thousand years ago.

Even with my limited experience I know that achieving creative excellence is addictive, and in an ideal world we'd all be able to wait for inspiration to strike. If my muse decides to take the day off, it's frustrating because I know I could have done better. The problem is that in a world of deadlines, most of us can't afford the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike. We have to press on regardless. In the Salon interview, Gibson talks about Robert Sawyer's approach to writing, which is very different to his own, and it's methodical and organised and unlikely to require intervention by minor deities. But if you want your muse to help out, there are things you can do. It helps if you can set up your working environment in a way that's conducive to the creative guy showing up, William Gibson observed at last year's talks. (I'm sure being way smarter than the rest of us and extremely gifted as a writer helps him considerably, too; the professional approach is, after all, to get the work done). As for me, I've found that I succeed when I adopt the approach admirably summed up by the quote attributed to Jack London that's currently displayed on the main landing page for the February Album Writing Month website:

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

When I successfully completed FAWM last year and wrote 14 songs in 28 days, I realised that when you press on regardless of whether your muse has turned up or not, inspiration doesn't like being left out of the fun and starts turning up more regularly. So, I've taken all of the above to heart as I get things ready for this year's FAWM. I've been making a number of tweaks to my studio space to maximise the likelihood of the creative guy turning up: I've got a new high resolution monitor so I can run Ableton Live in a decent-sized window; I've got a set of active monitors on order; I've even - and this is the truly shocking part - tidied things up a bit.

Before FAWM and Nanowrimo I used to wait for inspiration to strike - well, I say "strike" but usually inspiration needed to crash into me from a power dive at Mach 2 before I'd get off my butt and do something. As a result there were years when I was lucky if I got to Christmas with a single piece that I was really proud of, although that does tend to happen when you have a full time job making increasing demands on your time. Last year I came up with several pieces that I was really pleased with and I'd written them all in the space of a month - and the shortest month of the year, at that. Then I decided to record a twelve track CD instead of sending out Christmas cards, and managed that, too. For me, the lesson is that Nike's famous slogan of "Just do it" is so successful because it can be applied in so many fields. It holds true in the arts as much as it does in sport or athletics. What's the secret of creativity as far as I'm concerned? Simple: make stuff.

So now it's nearly time for FAWM 2012 and I can't wait to see what I'll produce when my own personal creative assistant shows up again. I intend to keep him extremely busy over the next few weeks but now, if you'll excuse me, I have to install a spiffy new monitor on my DAW workstation in readiness for February 1st...

RONALD SEARLE 1920 - 2011

I couldn't let the passing of Ronald Searle on Dec 30th go unremarked. Searle's creations provided many hours of joy to me when I was a very small child, and they continue to do so to this day. While he's probably best known for his creation of the demonic school for girls St Trinian's, there are few works of literature I treasure more highly than the four books he wrote with Geoffrey Willans starring the indomitable reprobate (and appalling speller) Nigel Molesworth.

I was going to write more of an obituary than this, but when Anna retweeted the Economist's tribute (penned in the hand of Molesworth himself) I realised further effort would be pointless. Please read it: it's a work of genius.


To some less-than-inspiring ones (via MeFi). And now I need to go off and try drawing a giraffe of my own...


You might want to keep an eye on the sky tomorrow. Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is likely to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and it could come down pretty much anywhere on the planet south of Watford. Hopefully it'll come down in the sea, but given the way 2012's been shaping up so far I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't...


On Thursday night I actually fell asleep on the sofa while I was watching the TV. I'm worn out, stressed and worried about a whole bunch of different things that are going on at the moment but they don't really belong in the blog so please bear with me - this is likely to continue until at least April. I don't think the blog will be breaking any size records over the next couple of months or so.


It's 2012, and sooner or later I know I will end up writing a cheque and worrying about whether I got the date right. But each year the change in date has to be addressed on my computer more promptly: I'd set up a new set of directories on my hard drive for the photos and movies I create before New Year's Day was out. It took all of a minute to do. But getting Windows to put any pictures it finds on my phone into those directories? That's another matter entirely.

Windows 7 might be a vast improvement over Windows Vista, but it's a real dog's breakfast when you want to customise it to suit your needs. Changing picture import settings should be easy to do, but if you've come here looking for the answer you already know that it isn't (but rest easy, because there is an answer).

After you've set up the "import pictures" wizard for a new device, you can't go back to it. Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, provide a single point at which you can change the directories into which you want your new pictures to be copied. That point is a little import settings hyperlink in the dialogue box that appears whenever the phone or camera is connected to the PC. Let's emphasise this a bit more: the option only ever appears on the dialogue box displayed when I physically connect my phone to my computer. I can't adjust these settings in control panel. I can't even access that settings page by clicking on something else in control panel. I have to connect my phone, and click the link when the window pops up.

The trouble is that when I do connect my phone, if I have no new photographs to import an extra dialogue box immediately appears on top of the first one telling me that there are no pictures to import. Control focus moves to this new dialogue box and blocks the old one. In plain English, what that means is that I have to click on something in this new window before I'm allowed to do anything in the old window (which is the one with the link I'm actually interested in). And Windows interaction conventions mean that if I move the new dialogue box out of the way and try clicking on the window I want to deal with, Windows won't let me. Instead, it helpfully flashes the window I've just moved to indicate that I need to deal with the flashing window first. This, I learned pretty quickly, is not what I want to do at all, because the new interaction window (which is there purely to tell me that Windows can't find anything to do) has a single "OK" button, and guess what happens when I click on it? Yep, right first time; both windows close. This isn't just software with a lack of user-friendliness, this is proper user-malice. Douglas Adams would have strong words to say about this, I am sure. Last January I resorted to wandering around the living room taking some pictures so that the "no new photos" message didn't appear and Windows kept the first dialogue box on screen long enough for me to interact with it. The first time I wasn't quick enough (I have a fairly fast computer) and the window disappeared before I could click in the right place. On the second attempt I managed to click the hyperlink in time.

And that, believe it or not, is the workaround that's suggested in the Windows 7 forums as the best solution to the problem, which boggles my mind - Microsoft recommend you take a bunch of photos you don't need purely to give yourself an opportunity to click on something which you can't call up in any other way because their interface designers forgot to give you the option to change your settings. Here I am a year later, and there's no change to this solution: Microsoft still can't be arsed to fix things. This, I decided, will not do. So if you have a modicum of Windows-fu and are comfortable with editing the Windows registry, this is what you can do instead:

  • Run regedit
  • Find this key: HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Photo Acquisition\Camera and Portable Device
  • You'll find a bunch of strings, but the ones you're interested in are FilenameTemplate and RootDirectory for your photos and (surprisingly or not) VideoFilenameTemplateand VideoRootDirectory for your movies.
  • Modify the values (by right clicking on their labels) to match whatever you want your new storage locations to be. For my photos I used D:\My Photos\2012\iPhone\$(GroupTag)\$(OriginalFilename).$(OriginalExtension) and D:\My Photos\2012\iPhone and the values for videos follow the same pattern.

Close regedit, and that's it - you're good to go. Trust me, it works a treat.


Sherlock, the BBC's modern-day version of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is back, and it's better than ever. Gloriously, intelligently better than ever. I've watched the first episode of the new season several times now, and I still keep spotting new stuff in it. You may want to stop reading this if you haven't seen the latest episode yet, as you should really go into it spoiler free. It's worth doing.

Still with me? Good. The direction is self-assured, and the script is wonderful. References to Sherlock's other adventures came thick and fast: "The Greek Interpreter" became The Geek Interpreter and "The Speckled Band" became The Speckled Blonde. The dialogue is snappy, witty, and deliciously off-kilter...

Mycroft (pouring tea):

I'll be mother...


There is a whole childhood in a nutshell.



I'm not the commonwealth.


...and that's as modest as he gets.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are well settled into their roles as Holmes and Watson, but the supporting cast are also brilliant - particularly Una Stubbs's Mrs Hudson and Loo Brealey's Molly (and more about Molly in a moment).

Watson (who has Holmes in a choke hold):

You may remember, Sherlock, I was a soldier! I kill people!


You were a doctor!


I had bad days!

One thing that stands out in welcome contrast to Steven Moffat's other brilliant enterprise, Doctor Who, is the scoring of Sherlock. For me, David Arnold and Michael Price's music is a delight. Like the protagonists it's understated, intelligent and subtle, with each character's main theme recurring just enough for you to get a sense of continuity as the series progresses without being overwhelmed by it (in contrast, I saw Murray Gold's work on the Doctor Who Christmas special described on Twitter as "the equivalent of musical diarrhea" and churlish as it may be, this made me laugh out loud.) But I keep chuckling as I remember more fragments of dialogue. Here's some more...


If I wanted to look at pictures of naked women I'd borrow John's laptop.


You do borrow my laptop.


I confiscate it.

Sherlock's prickly relationship with his brother took an interesting turn over a cigarette:


Smoking indoors? Isn't that one of those... law things?


We're in a morgue. There's only so much damage you can do.

Sherlock is shown as being a little more human (or at least a teensy bit more sympathetic) this time around. He reveals an unforeseen level of compassion when he finally realises he has embarrassed Molly at the Christmas party in Baker Street, and when Todd Boyce's nasty American secret service guy tries bullying Mrs Hudson - and Holmes finds out about it - Mr Neilson rather rapidly realises how much of a bad idea it was...


Just how many times did the suspect fall out of the window, Mr Holmes?


It was all a bit of a blur, Detective Inspector - I lost count...

One theme of the episode was how different characters sought or employed power - and yes, I did notice that when Watson talked about Irene Adler's "power complex", the very next shot was of Battersea Power Station. I love it. Tonight's episode is based on what is perhaps Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's greatest story - The Hound of the Baskervilles. I can't wait.


For the first time since Boxing Day when I woke up this morning I felt better than I did the day before - my Christmas cold seems to be on the way out. The weather has helped; the sun is streaming through the living room windows as I type this and my mood feels a bit lighter. I might not have had a very productive break this Christmas, but I have a feeling I really needed the rest. Now the tree is down and the decorations are back in the loft and I'm looking forwards to the evenings getting longer again.

The reason for today's title is nothing to do with my cold, however - rather it's all about the dynamics of Earth's orbit. Two days ago it was perihelion, believe it or not. That's the point in the Earth's orbit where we make our closest approach to the sun. But best of all, after today, the sun begins to rise earlier in the mornings again. And that is very welcome news.


Thierry Legault has done it again. The astrophotographer filmed the stricken Phobos Grunt Mars probe as it passed over France last week. The footage is clear enough to make out the principal components of the spacecraft, which is quite an achievement as it was passing overhead at an altitude of roughly 200 km and a speed of 27,400 kph at the time. M. Legault captured NASA's UARS satellite in similar circumstances last year. As impressive as his achievement is, I must admit to being completely awestruck by the telescope he's using - it's a Celestron C14 Edge HD, and I want one.

Incidentally, Phobos Grunt is expected to crash back to Earth some time in the next couple of weeks. As some 20 or 30 pieces of the spacecraft are expected to survive reentry, you may want to keep an eye on the skies until then.

MOJO AND BEST WISHES... the Armstrongs. I'm thinking of you guys.


I had great plans for doing lots of creative stuff over the last few days, but instead I've spent most of my time in bed. You will no doubt be pleased to hear that I will not be recording any vocal tracks in the immediate future, as my voice randomly switches to the "feeble croak" setting when I try using it for anything other than brief phone calls. I feel distinctly below par - my ears are blocked and my nose and throat are definitely ganging up on me. However, you may rest assured that I have yet to succumb to man flu; as I live on my own there isn't much point. Instead, this evening I braved the rain and wind and dragged myself around the supermarket. It turns out that when I've got a cold, I buy far more bread sticks and cheese than usual. Supper was the last of the sausages I brought home from Dad's on some fresh tiger bread, washed down with another mug of Lemsip. I may well be heading off to bed after writing this.

I hope things go better than Monday night. When I blogged about depression back in November I described how I can spend an entire night thrashing about from side to side, trying desperately to fall asleep and failing dismally - well, that was me in the early hours of Tuesday morning. I haven't had that bad a night for months, and I sincerely hope it was due to the cold or, quite possibly, the large amount of chocolate I'd consumed the previous evening. This Christmas has been most favourable to the acquisition of chocolate but I really shouldn't eat the stuff once it's gone dark.


I know we're only four days into the year right now but I fail to see how anyone is going to outdo the story Wired's Danger Room are running at the moment in terms of sheer batshit craziness for years, if not decades to come. It presents the account of two self-styled "chrononauts" called Andrew D. Basiago and William Stillings. They claim that back in the early 1980s they worked on a secret project which teleported a number of Americans to the surface of Mars and returned them safely to Earth. The returning safely bit was particularly important, as our intrepid chrononauts claim that not only did the Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) make the trip, so did a teenaged Barack Obama.

Even on an Internet that is riddled with grandiose and unfounded claims, this story has legs. Some blogs are already referring to it as "Marsgate," although the blogs in question do tend to be written by people keen on using the word "confirms" when the rest of us would probably settle for "says it happened." As for me, I'm just waiting for DARPA to come up with a critical thinking ray that can instil common sense into people.


Well, this is a turn up for the books, isn't it? For the first time in seven years, you've caught me blogging on New Year's Day. This is probably a reflection on my somewhat subdued social life of late, combined with the fact that I've still got my festive cold. I saw in the new year at home, on my own, and completely sober. It didn't make much difference: I still woke up this morning with a sore throat and blocked sinuses feeling distinctly below par. Whatever you were up to, I hope you had a significantly better time of things.

This morning I've been watching the traditional concert from the Musikverein in Vienna. The Vienna Philharmonic have been giving it large, although as Nathan Hamer observed on Twitter earlier there still don't appear to be any female musicians in Austria. It was worth watching just to see conductor Mariss Jansons belting a couple of anvils with hammers to advertise a brand of fireproof safe (a piece that's otherwise known as Josef Strauss's "Feuerfest" Op. 269). And of course, everyone was clapping along with the Radetzky March at the end. Great fun, but I think I'll stick to watching it on the telly rather than shelling out three thousand euros for a ticket...


I've not got any plans for the rest of the day, but the weather is distinctly uninspiring and it looks like it will be chucking it down later on. I'm quite tempted to go back to bed and listen to a few CDs but I know I shouldn't. Instead, I suspect I will spend the rest of Sunday indoors watching telly, playing music and drinking lots of fluids.