Chris Harris's Blog Archive: January 2013

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Not a bad month, as months go; I hate getting up in the dark and getting home from work in the dark, but this year seemed easier than usual and I seemed to have more energy than I usually do in the middle of winter. At least I managed to resist the urge to hibernate better than I usually do. I don't know why, but I hope this bodes well for the rest of 2013.

 

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31 January 13 (permalink)

ZOOM?

Via Twitter, I found out that South Gloucestershire Council issues an interesting press release today concerning the development of better broadband infrastructure for the county. It sounds like it could be very good news for the village, provided we're part of the 94% of the population to whom the announcement wil apply. Rolling out fibre to the cabinet (or even fibre to the premises) sounds like just what the doctor ordered. Jumping my downstream link from 2mbps to 80 mbps? Yes, please!

TOMORROW SEES THE START OF ALBUM WRITING MONTH

The FAWM website is up and I'm counting down the hours until tomorrow, when the madness of February Album Writing Month kicks off once again. And the first of February is a Friday, so I have the whole weekend to get my creative mojo back online. I'm itching to get going, too.

My FAWM page will be where you can keep track of my progress - will I top last year's ludicrous figure of 20 songs? We'll see. At the moment I'm just hoping that the cold that has been lurking in the background for the last few days doesn't decide to make a grand entrance as I try to get things under way...

MEANWHILE

Last night I woke up at one point to hear rain lashing against the windows and tonight looks like being another wet, stormy night. Although it's been much warmer this week than it has been of late (a couple of days ago the temperature outside reached double figures) I've just caved in and switched the heating on. Since I lost weight I've found I really notice the cold more, and as today's one of my fast days (yes, I'm still on the diet) I've been feeling a bit out of sorts. I'm sitting here in a big fleece trying not to shiver and doing my best to convince myself that I haven't got a cold, although my runny nose is insisting otherwise. I suspect I might be having another early night.

27 January 13 (permalink)

HUNTER'S BRAIN

I've been watching out for birds this weekend as part of the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch. I've been a fellow of the RSPB for nearly thirty years and I've loved being a birdwatcher since I was little kid. As a pastime, I suspect it owes much of its popularity to the fact that engages lots of the parts of our brains that evolved when we had to hunt food - or run away - in order to survive. That bush is twitching; what's inside it? Is it a wren? A robin? Then the bird moves, and suddenly, instantly you recognise the shape, the colour, the way it carries itself (collectively known by twitchers as a bird's jizz, I'm afraid) and realise that, actually it's a lot bigger than you thought it was, and it's a collared dove. The only surprising visitor so far this weekend has been a black-headed gull which landed on the lawn to investigate the bread and cake I'd put out, and I've also discovered that grey squirrels use the back fence as a highway between houses. I hadn't realised they were regular visitors. The blackcap I saw last week has moved on, which is a shame; it would have been nice to add it to my list.

The weather this afternoon isn't really helping, though. This morning's brilliant sunshine has disappeared and I'm in for an afternoon of showers. Although I can see some blue sky to the north, it's just started raining again. Last night was very windy and the rain lashing against the bedroom windows woke me up a couple of times. I even heard a single rumble of thunder. As a result of this, there's just a solitary greenfinch visible in the back garden, and it looks pretty miserable.

TASK LIST

I've done the washing up and the vacuuming, I've measured the windows in the living room for new curtains, I've set the lights to come on 45 minutes later (which cheered me up no end, as it means spring is on the way) and now it's time to write some proper old-fashioned letters with a real-life, honest-to-goodness fountain pen while I listen to the early music show on the radio. Whatever you're doing this Sunday afternoon, have a good one.

26 January 13 (permalink)

CLEARING UP

What a difference a week can make. It's 6°C outside, the snow has all gone, and just now the sun was shining through the windows. Last night it chucked it down, although further north the rain still fell as snow and caused quite a bit of chaos. With the thaw, we're back to worrying about floods again. I've just put fresh food out for the birds in readiness for the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch and it's very wet underfoot but for the moment it's not raining.

HOW BIG IS A PROTON?

A real head-scratcher - new measurements of the size of the proton were published in Science this week, and the results disagree with previous estimates of the particle's dimensions. The new results suggest that the proton is 4% smaller than was previously thought, and the difference is well outside the error bars of the method used. Remember when the discovery of the Higgs particle was announced last year, and I mentioned that experimental results have to be five standard deviations away from what you'd expect to happen purely by chance in order to be accepted as a genuine discovery? The data announced in Science this week are much more definite, just a hair away from being a seven sigma result. And nobody knows why there's such a difference.

The reason is thought to be connected to the fact that the new measurements were made by firing muons at atoms of hydrogen, where all the earlier experiments used electrons. More importantly, the results give exactly the same figure as that found by the only other experiment to measure the proton's size using muons. Something different happens when a muon and proton interact, and nobody can figure out exactly what that something is. If you're a physicist, life must be very interesting these days.

ZAPPED

Way back in 774AD, something unusual happened in outer space. As a result, our planet's upper atmosphere was clobbered by a blast of high-energy radiation, which created unusual isotopes of carbon (which ended up in tree rings) and beryllium (which ended up frozen into the ice in Antarctica) in much larger quantities than usual. The event was unlikely to be a supernova, because in order to create the amount of radiation involved it would have been close enough to be noticed. The new theory, published in the notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, suggest that what happened was a short gamma ray burst caused by the collision of two neutron stars or white dwarfs. Whatever happened was an extremely rare event; it's probably just as well.

ENGAGE

As part of their development of the next generation of space vehicles, NASA have gone back to the past, taking a laser scan of an F1 rocket engine component stored in the Smithsoniam Air and Space Museum, using the data to build a new one, and firing it up. Now that's an approach for the 21st century engineering project.

19 January 13 (permalink)

GOOD CHOICE

I made the right decision yesterday, by all accounts. Filton recorded 16cm (6 inches) of snow - the third highest figure in the country - but the rest of the South West wasn't far behind. A gritting lorry got stuck in Warminster and the Mall at Cribbs Causeway closed five hours early at 4pm. Near Bath, Freezing Hill Lane is closed because of ice; I didn't see that one coming. The M48 over the old Severn Bridge is also closed because of ice and over the river in Wales a lot of homes lost power yesterday, although it's since been restored. Further north, the Telford Snowboard and Ski Centre had to shut because of the snow. And there's more snow to come, by the looks of it: Tuesday's not looking too good at the moment.

The snow that's already fallen is still lying this morning, although the temperature is gradually creeping upwards. It's 2°C outside at the moment but I've just filled the bird bath with warm water, as it was frozen solid. There's already a robin drinking from it; birds struggle to find fresh water to drink when it's freezing. I bought a five litre tub of mealworms last week and they're proving very popular with the blackbirds, starlings and robin so I've just put some more out. The blackcap that arrived yesterday is still making regular visits to the bird feeders and there are noticeably more birds in the garden than usual. I hope they stick around for the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch next weekend as I'll be recording what I see.

BIG GAME TIME

Right, my download of the latest DLC for Borderlands 2 is nearly finished, so it's time to join Sir Hammerlock and head off in search of loot. See you later!

18 January 13 (permalink)

INTERESTING WEATHER

I was planning on being in the office this morning, but I changed my mind after one look out of the window this morning. South West England has had quite a bit of snow. There was no snow here at all at 3am (I know this firsthand, as I had another restless night, and I got up and had a look to check) but by 6:30 everything had gone white.

From the kitchen window

I made the right decision, too - by ten o'clock Bristol's buses weren't running, the airport was shut, South Glos council had suspended all recycling collections, the M4 was closed eastbound between Bristol and Bath, and friends in the city were posting photo after photo on Twitter showing closed roads or crashed cars. I spent the day working on some documents while I kept an eye on the visitors to the bird table, which was very busy. Over the course of the day the number of different species I saw in the garden was well in to double figures, and one surprise was this blackcap - the first one I've seen in the garden for years.

Blackcap

I had the radio on for most of the day, and the DAB signal was noticeably worse when it was snowing heavily, creating unpleasant distortion to the sound which is normally described as "frying bacon". By lunchtime the snow had eased off considerably and the temperature actually crept above freezing, but Radio 3's transmitter gave up the ghost completely for about an hour, then came back on very low power. There was nothing to explain why on the transmitter information page, either. When I finished work for the day I went out and cleared the snow off the drive, but by the time I'd finished that it was already getting dark so I didn't bother going out for a walk to take photos.

Spare a thought for the folks on the other side of the world, though. In Australia, Sydney has just recorded a record daytime temperature of 45.8°C (that's 114°F in old money.) As for me, this evening I'm going to leave the heating on, make myself some mulled wine, and try to stay warm.

SHAKY

There was a small earthquake in the East Midlands area this morning. They're infrequent enough in the UK that they're treated as a noteworthy item of news, but it wasn't what you'd call a significant tremor. No damage was reported, but one report informed us that "a few DVDs fell off shelves."

HOOKED

Amazon were selling the Battlestar Galactica box set on Blu-Ray for £35 last week, so I bought myself a copy. On Wednesday evening I sat down in front of the TV, thinking I'd have a look for ten minutes and see what it was like. I should have known better. Three and a half hours later I'd finished the first disc. I saw the original pilot when it was released as a movie (complete with a Sensurround soundtrack) at a press screening at the Odeon Leicester Square back in 78 or 79, and wasn't particularly taken with what felt like a weaker version of Star Wars. The update is a different beast entirely, and I really like it. I will be working my way through the rest of the set over the next few weeks.

16 January 13 (permalink)

THAT'S NO MOON

No, this isn't a story about the US government's response to the petition which suggested they ought to build a real Death Star, although that's worth a read as it's quite amusing.

On Monday, NASA announced some news that's much more exciting than that; they have awarded a contract to private aerospace company Bigelow Aerospace for $18 million. The contract is for orbital hardware; Bigelow will supply one of their inflatable habitat modules to the International Space Station. Don't be misled by the word "inflatable" though. This is not a flimsy mylar balloon like the early communications satellites. Bigelow have already successfully placed one of their modules in orbit, and the material they use appears to be better at withstanding micrometeoroid impacts than the rigid material used to construct the rest of the ISS.

Bigelow recently expanded their facilities, so I don't expect this to be the sort of announcement that takes years to come to fruition or is never followed up by something concrete; this is likely to happen, and happen fast. As Bigelow's modules are big - one prototype has two and a half times the internal volume of the whole of the rest of the ISS - I can't imagine that NASA will just stick with ordering one. It looks like the astronauts up there will be getting a bit more elbow room in the not-too-distant future. With SpaceX announcing that they plan to be flying people to the ISS in their Dragon spacecraft by 2015, human spaceflight is finally getting interesting again.

NEW HABIT

I have added Bob Stanley's excellent blog Croydon Municipal to my list of sites to visit daily. His take on HMV calling on the administrators this week is well worth a read and there's an excellent interview with Radio 2's Brian Matthew a bit further down the front page.

NEW MARKET

I was surprised to learn this week that if you're a smuggler these days, the money's in garlic.

13 January 13 (permalink)

SKIES WATCHED

Yesterday afternoon I caught up with this week's BBC Stargazing Live programmes, which were repeated on BBC2. They were really good, although as is traditional for such programmes the weather refused to play along and on Thursday night the broadcast site at Jodrell Bank was shrouded in fog. This made the great Lovell Telescope look very dramatic but it did stop us getting live images from the optical telecopes set up for the show, particularly the replica of Sir William Herschel's 19-inch reflector that the show had constructed in Derby.

Professor Brian Cox and Dara Ó Briain make an endearing (and knowledgeable) double act, Dr Brian May was in his element, and I'll happily watch Liz Bonnin present anything. But the show has been doing real science, scouring photographs of the surface of Mars for evidence of dust fans, known as spiders as well as promoting astronomy as an engaging, interesting and worthwhile subject for peak-time television.

UPCOMING CARNAGE

I spent quite a bit of time this weekend playing Borderlands 2, as Gearbox have been throwing special loot into the game in advance of the release of the next package of downloadable content, Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt, which comes out on Tuesday. Naturally I'll be downloading it and playing it, so expect a full report by next weekend.

HERE COMES WINTER

It's teatime on a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon and I'm half expecting it to start snowing before too much longer. Further north the weather forecast doesn't look good at all, with the east coast expecting the first proper snowfall of the winter.

Last night it was cold enough to wake me up several times, but I couldn't face getting out of bed to go downstairs and turn the heating on and I suspect that, even if it had been warmer, I would still have woken up eventually; I'm still not sleeping well. Today the temperature outside didn't rise above 2°C so I think I'll probably leave the heating on all night tonight.

12 January 13 (permalink)

THE USUAL ROUTINE

It's Saturday morning, and I'm trying to shake off the effects of being back at work since Tuesday. Coffee has definitely helped but I've really noticed the wintry aches and pains this week. Sitting in one position yesterday evening for a couple of hours while I programmed the M3 in readiness for February Album Writing Month (that's FAWM for short) - which starts in less than three weeks' time - probably didn't help matters. I feel cold, but not cold enough to click the central heating timer forwards. I feel tired, because I keep waking up during the night, and with nothing in particular planned for this morning I stayed tucked up in bed until after 10 o'clock.

The weather is cold and damp, with the possibility of some snow over the next few days, although a very watery beam of sunlight is currently trying to make its way through the windows; this is the first time I've seen the living room in daylight since I took the decorations down and I really need to go around with the vacuum cleaner and clear away the needles which my artificial Christmas tree has shed over the floor in an uncalled-for attempt at authenticity.

SQUEAK AT THE MOON

Thanks to Anna for tweeting about the New Scientist article on Grasshopper Mice. Despite their diminutive size, the New Scientist portrays them as miniature killing machines that will kill (and eat) venomous scorpions and which - rather than going to the effort of building their own nests - seek out accommodation abandoned by other animals and move in like tiny furry squatters. Which is fine, and it makes for great reading. The trouble is that the mice also howl at the moon, and the article's accompanying video of several mice doing this is so wonderfully, painfully cute that you will find yourself wanting a family of the little monsters as pets. Beware!

THAT'S THE WAY I LIKE IT BABY

Thanks to Roz for this one. Compressorhead are a band from Berlin, composed of robots. Notice that in order to emulate Philthy Animal Taylor, the drummer (he's called Stickboy) had to be fitted with far more than the usual number of arms...

WHEN THE BREAKFAST GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GET WEIRD

The daily routine of Hunter S Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, journalist, curmudgeon, gun enthusiast and cultural icon, was not for the faint-hearted.

6 January 13 (permalink)

AFTERPARTY

I've taken down the tree and the Christmas decorations are back in the loft. Despite the fact that I spend a fair amount of every holiday season rushing around the country, I always feel a pang of sadness when I switch the Christmas lights off and put them back in their box. It's not just because it's a way of drawing the break to a close. My mother loved what she called "fairy lights" and the house in Norfolk used to be festooned with the things all year round. There are still several sets stuck around the windows which Dad has left up and when they're switched on it still makes me smile. There's something about Christmas lights that I find incredibly soothing, and I've probably acquired this attitude from Mum.

It's been a busy season. This is the first entire weekend I've spent at home for three weeks, although it feels much longer than that. If you take into account the fact that I didn't get home until the early hours of Saturday morning, I guess this weekend doesn't count either. So I've allowed myself an extra day's holiday and I'll be taking tomorrow off. Today is going to be a day for self-indulgence, too; I started off by grinding some freshly roasted beans for my coffee (and what a difference that makes) and had my latte with a croissant and a pain au chocolat. Then I soaked in the bath for half an hour - I tell you, as my Sunday mornings go, that was a pretty good one.

On Tuesday I'll be back at work, and back on the diet. But for now, it's time to chill out.

5 January 13 (permalink)

THIS IS NOT A PARADIGM

There's a blog article about Thomas Kuhn over at the Scientific American website that I really recommend reading if you have any interest in science.

I first came across Kuhn's work "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" when I was doing my master's degree, and my initial annoyance at his appropriation of the word "paradigm" to mean something that he seemed unable to define clearly rapidly gave way to a more general feeling that what he was saying was complete and utter bollocks. He misrepresents science as some sort of democratic process, where objective truth can be determined on the basis of how many people agree with a particular theory. It's Kuhn's approach to science which creationists are referring to when they counter any argument about evolution by parroting "yes, but it's only a theory," as if their interpretation of things could be made true simply because they were able to persuade more people to believe in it. Science is not a matter of belief; it doesn't work that way. And thinking about this, why is it that the theory of gravity is never called into question with the same vehemence as the theory of evolution? They are both based on observation and experimentation and they both make concrete predictions that can easily be confirmed (and, importantly, have been confirmed) by experiment.

Kuhn's Structure caught on because it represented (or rather misrepresented) science not just as a democratic process, but as a political one. But it also gained traction because the book is expressed in such a convoluted and opaque manner that it is quite difficult to establish precisely what he's trying to say. As John Horgan says in his blog,

"He was one of the most ambiguous, ambivalent thinkers I have ever encountered, which helps explain why he is still interpreted in so many divergent and even contradictory ways."

As Horgan points out, working through Kuhn's argument leads to conclusions that are, frankly, utterly ludicrous.

"Kuhn’s insight forced him to take the untenable position that because all scientific theories fall short of absolute, mystical truth, they are all equally untrue. Because we cannot discover The Answer, we cannot find any answers. His mysticism led him toward a position as absurd as that of the literary sophists who argue that all texts—from The Tempest to an ad for a new brand of vodka—are equally meaningless, or meaningful."

Again, this is not a scientific approach and it should never be represented as such. The great scientist Freeman Dyson demolishes Kuhn's arguments in a single paragraph in his book Imagined Worlds (on pages 49-50, if you're interested.) Dyson says:

"Kuhn's book was so brilliantly written that it became an instant classic. It misled a whole generation of students and historians of science into believing that all scientific revolutions are concept-driven. The concept-driven revolutions are the ones that attract the most attention and have the greatest impact on the public awareness of science, but in fact they are comparitively rare."

Dyson points out that Kuhn examined a single scientific revolution in his book, the "revolution in theoretical physics that occurred in the 1920s with the advent of quantum mechanics." This was one of just six concept-driven scientific revolutions that Dyson enumerates. The rest were tool-driven. In a Wired interview, he expands this, saying:

"The Galileo revolution in astronomy was a prime example. The telescope was a tool that turned everything upside down. And X-ray crystallography turned biology upside down. The Crick-Watson discovery of the double helix was not a concept, it really was just the result of having a good tool to analyze the DNA molecule with."

In other words, scientific revolutions usually take place because we discover new and better ways of looking at things. When we see things in greater detail, we come up with better ways of explaining what's going on - and more importantly, we become able to make more accurate predictions about what might happen in the laboratory when we conduct an experiment, or what we might see when certain events take place, such as Arthur Eddington's observations during the solar eclipse of 1919 which showed that light behaved exactly how Albert Einstein predicted it would. The Universe works in accordance with the theory of general relativity rather than classical physics; the beliefs of the people concerned were irrelevant. The scientific revolution that Albert Einstein triggered didn't take place because he was good at persuading people to believe in his theory, it happened because general relativity was better at describing how everything works.

In the end then, Kuhn himself ended up unable to support the assertions he'd made. Freeman Dyson relates how he met Kuhn at a scientific meeting in 1962:

"(I) complained to him about the nonsense that had been attached to his name. He reacted angrily. In a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone in the hall, he shouted, ‘One thing you have to understand. I am not a Kuhnian.’”

We should consign him to the history books together with his paradigm shifts, and move on.

BACK HOME

I got home last night just before half past twelve. It wasn't a bad drive back, and traffic was pretty light. When I got back to the village, I wondered what was going on: a bank of low cloud over Little Bristol was flickering like something out of Close Encounters. It looked very strange, but as I drove down the road at the side of the railway line I realised we weren't being invaded; a track maintenance crew were doing some welding.

This morning I've been doing more laundry, drinking coffee, and replenishing the bird feeders. Stroppy robin is trying to eat all the meal worms before the collared doves hoover them up. There's a pair of wood pigeons on the table by the window, and a bunch of chaffinches, greenfinches, dunnocks and sparrows tucking in to the fresh seed. It's nice to see.

4 January 13 (permalink)

IN THE EAST

I'm still at my Dad's place in Norfolk. He's looking much better than he was before Christmas and his new conservatory is very nice indeed...

Nice aspect

The difference in the soundproofing was striking, particularly on Wednesday, when it rained. You could always tell when it was raining with the old conservatory, as its roof used to rattle loud enough to hear from anywhere in the house. The roof of the new conservatory is much more robust and much thicker, and you can hardly hear the rain at all. The house also seems much warmer, which suits Miffy the greyhound - she's getting on in dog years these days and she spends most of her time asleep on the sofa or on her bed next to the radiator in the hall. She's still delighted to see visitors and when I arrived she ran in and out of the house wagging her tail, which was a lovely welcome.

We've had a pleasant few days working through Dad's collection of DVDs of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. It was very bizarre seeing television detective Frank Cannon - the actor William Conrad - in the role of the Mikado, and even stranger seeing Frankie Howerd as Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore. As you can tell from the cast, these weren't new productions. They were recorded back in 1982 at Twickenham Studios but they were very entertaining nevertheless.

Tonight I'm going to call in to see my sister before heading home. I'll have driven just under 1000 miles in the last couple of weeks, but I have a long weekend before I get back to work.

1 January 13 (permalink)

HAPPY NEW YEAR

I'm sitting at the computer with sunlight streaming through the windows and I can't see a cloud in the sky. The weather for the next two weeks is supposed to be much drier, which is good news for people in the south west. Dad rang up yesterday evening sounding much more like his old self, so I'll be heading over to East Anglia for a few days.

HAVE THEY FINALLY NOTICED?

At least one MP seems to have got the message. Gloria de Piero has been researching why MPs are so loathed. The responses she's received are unequivocal, such as: "The vast majority of decent, fair-minded, law-abiding [people] in this country have lost all faith and trust in politicians and the political system, which is confirmed by the low turnouts in general and local elections. The politicians then describe the low turnouts as 'apathy', which could not be further from the truth." The comment thread below the article makes interesting reading, too.

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