Chris Harris's Blog Archive: January 2014

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January was just packed. Trips to London, walks in the country, stays at impressive-looking hotels, extensive flooding, the return of Sherlock Holmes, incidents with concrete and tornadoes on the news, and all this without the benefit of alcohol - I gave up drinking for the month. No wonder I got grumpy when iTunes fell over yet again.

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31 January 14 (permalink)

DRY JANUARY COMES TO AN END

I've been away all week. Coming home through Upton this afternoon the rugby pitches were under water again and Hanley Road, our normal route to and from Malvern, was closed. It's not a very nice afternoon out there at all with severe flood warnings in place for Devon and Cornwall, and 70 mph winds expected for tomorrow. I'm rather glad I'm staying home for the weekend.

As the month draws to a close I am considering the irony of declaring a dry January when it's been one of the wettest in history, but I've got through the last four weeks without any booze whatsoever, and I'm both surprised and rather pleased about that. I've even managed to avoid alcohol while staying at hotels and going out for meals in the evenings with my colleagues.

CLUSTERFUCK

Every now and again, I enjoy my Apple products sufficiently to find myself thinking, "I should get an iPad." But then something happens to remind me why I have, in the past, spent entire evenings shouting at my computer and cursing the day I ever decided to buy an Apple product. Like today, for instance. There's an update to iTunes available, the dialog box said. Would you like to install it? I foolishly clicked "Yes" and spent the next couple of hours wondering why I didn't Google it first. After all, last time I updated iTunes it screwed up its library so spectacularly that when I restarted the program I found it had deleted most of the podcasts I'd downloaded over the past five years, including all the TED video lectures I'd carefully collected. 200 Gb of data, gone - just like that.

This time, the first sign that things had gone awry was when Windows told me I was missing a dll when iTunes tried to restart. Then I discovered that iTunes had uninstalled the old version and, after falling over trying to install the new version, had left the old version uninstalled rather than rolling it back. That's a really elementary error, but at least this time it didn't screw up all my old files. Well, the ones that I have left, anyway. After no more than a couple of hours I'd got iTunes running again.

There have been repeated reports of problems with this release, but I was amazed to learn that the install has been left to roll out to people as it is for four days now. And let's face it, if Apple's bug fix needs you to uninstall not just iTunes, but also Apple Software Update, Apple Mobile Device Support, Bonjour, and Apple Application Support in that particular order, then you know that they're sorely in need of a bunch of software engineers who know what they're doing, because the ones they're got at the moment quite obviously haven't got a clue.

And what is iTunes doing now? Downloading an update for my phone. So far it's lost the connection with my phone once and I've had to restart the computer to resurrect iTunes, because it refused to restart after I shut it down. Hey Apple, it's just as well I didn't have anything planned for this evening, isn't it? Because it looks like I'm going to be spending most of it nursemaiding your crap install routines...

26 January 14 (permalink)

THAT'S BETTER

I'd given up and gone to bed last night before nine o'clock. I'd decided I was going to lie in bed and read for an hour or so, but after ten minutes my eyes were closing so I gave up and after switching off the light I was asleep in minutes. I was woken up at around two am by a distant rumble of thunder, but I got back to sleep after about half an hour, which is pretty good for me these days.

This morning I finally surfaced just before ten o'clock, which is the latest I've got up since Christmas. I feel like I've had a decent rest, too - the ringing in my ears is quieter and I don't feel so tired. I've had my morning coffee, which always helps.

I'm not too sure how much I'll get done today, but I'll be staying indoors. The rain is clattering on the conservatory roof right now and it looks grey and miserable outside. It's the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend but around here all the birds are sensibly sheltering somewhere dry and I can't see or hear any evidence of the garden's usual inhabitants, which is a shame.

Once thing I must do this afternoon is restring a guitar or two in readiness for FAWM starting on Saturday. I'm beginning to mull over some ideas about what I'm going to write this year, and I suspect there may be a fair bit of metal involved, so fresh strings are going to be a must.

INFANTILISING THE WEATHER

The BBC clearly believe that here in the UK we're not grown-up enough to have a proper tornado. Any report of the phenomenon occurring on British soil is only ever referred to as a "mini-tornado". And those quotation marks are important, as I presume they're intended to make the thing seem even more distanced from reality. The Beeb were at it again this morning after a tornado touched down near Chobham during yesterday's storms.

I'm left wondering just how catastrophic an event will have to be before their editorial rules are finally relaxed and we can enjoy the devastation on an equal footing with the rest of the world.

25 January 14 (permalink)

BLUNDERING ABOUT

My coordination doesn't seem to have improved overnight. I woke up at about 7 this morning and stumbled downstairs in the dark to get a glass of orange juice, then promptly walked into the wall by the kitchen. It didn't draw blood, but it's raised an impressive welt on the side of my head. My ears are still ringing and I think I'll be taking it easy today. And from now on when I get up before dawn I think I'll be switching the lights on before I try moving around the house...

Outside, the wind is picking up. The South West is bracing for another incoming storm tomorrow but at the moment I can hear loud birdsong coming from the back garden and there's still some intermittent sunshine to be had. The sunlight has been warm enough to kick the temperature in the conservatory up to 17°C, which is rather pleasant. Unfortunately I can see on RainToday that the next band of rain will arrive within the next hour or so, so I won't be going out for a walk this afternoon.

It just doesn't feel like January. Usually at this time of year I've come down with at least one stinking post-Christmas cold and I'm normally fighting a strong urge to hibernate. In most recent years we've had snow here by now, too - this weather is a far cry from 2010. Nick Miller was saying on the BBC's Winterwatch show this week that it's been a very warm and very damp winter so far. The emphasis was on the damp, too - the South East has had 83 per cent of its average winter rainfall already, and we're only half way through the season. As I type this, the Sun has gone in, though; I suspect the next cold front is beginning to arrive and with it, the rain.

24 January 14 (permalink)

STAYING IN

Travelling back from Malvern this afternoon it was good to see that the water levels around Upton-on-Severn and Twyning have fallen and the water has receded from Upton's rugby pitches. But the weather tonight is pretty dreadful. The Met Office has issued an amber warning for more rain in the South West on Sunday and Somerset County Council has declared a major incident for the Somerset Levels.

As far as my plans for tonight are concerned then, I'm staying at home. In fact I'm sitting here yawning my head off and it's only just gone seven in the evening. I suspect the only reason I'm still awake is the large mug of coffee I had when I got home this afternoon, because I was really flagging. Why? It's probably because after yesterday's fast day I skipped breakfast this morning and then worked right through lunch; by the middle of the afternoon I was suffering. I'd only had about 600 calories in the last 36 hours and by midday my coordination and ability to concentrate was fast disappearing. After I got back from the supermarket an iced bun and a latté were definitely required to keep me going. But even after that I feel rather under the weather with a runny nose and my ears are ringing. I really hope I'm not coming down with an ear infection with a week left until FAWM - that would really screw things up. I will avoid wearing headphones for a few days and see if it clears up.

Aside from dodgy hearing, I think I'm all set for FAWM - I have a couple of new expansion packs for EZDrummer which I will definitely be having fun with, I bought myself a looping pedal which is fantastic fun and will add an element of unpredictability to things, and like many of my fellow FAWMers this year I have acquired a cowbell.

Why?

Because whatever the piece of music, Christopher Walken says it needs more cowbell.

GOLF CLAP

Just in case you missed the fact that London's Victoria Line underground route wasn't running last night, here are the photos of the cause: builders at Victoria Station had accidentally filled a control room with quick-setting concrete.

OH CANADA

Would you want to live in a country where Irn-Bru and Marmite are banned?

20 January 14 (permalink)

SOUR MASH

It's a Monday evening and I'm at home. And at a reasonable time, too. It makes a nice change and even if I didn't sleep particularly well last night I feel pretty good. I'm in my third week without alcohol now, and I've noticed that I'm nowhere near as fuddled in the mornings as I was last month. I mentioned the results of the New Scientist study on Dry January back on New Year's Day, and as I hinted at the time, I've given it a go. I've been surprised how easy I've found it, to be honest. And this despite having a kitchen that is currently full of booze!

The folks at New Scientist found out that the benefits of not drinking alcohol in January are impressive: a reduction in liver fat of between 15 and 20 per cent, a 5 per cent drop in cholesterol and a 16 per cent drop in glucose levels. People in the study reported that they lost weight, they could concentrate more easily, were more productive at work, and they didn't feel as sleepy. Despite my regular attacks of insomnia and a never-ending set of aches and pains, I'd agree with those findings from my own experience. I feel much sharper mentally and I have lots more energy - hence being able to work eleven or twelve hours a day without feeling too knackered.

The idea of doing something with such remarkable benefits doesn't appeal to everyone, though. Yesterday there was a lazy, poorly written article in the Observer by Eva Wiseman who is clearly threatened by people doing something that's good for them. But as she writes that "there's little evidence that a month without will do anything of worth", I assume she's not encountered the journalistic concept of "doing a bit of research". I guess trolling your readers is easier; she describes her job as "money for doing nothing, like me at my desk after lunch" so I guess the amount of effort she expends in writing articles isn't that great in the first place. That sort of attitude is why I don't buy the Guardian any more. It's also why I use AdBlock on the increasingly rare occasions when I visit their website. However, I was consoled by the comments section which is full of people using words like "fatuous" to describe her writing. They were adding links to the New Scientist article, too.

I'm going to carry on without alcohol until the end of the month. The first of February is a Saturday, and I may well open a bottle of something to celebrate the beginning of FAWM. But I'm going to try and keep my alcohol consumption down, and I can think of fewer more attractive ways of doing so than being intensely occupied with songwriting for four weeks.

TALKING OF WHICH...

The FAWM site is up and running, and even if I can't upload any music yet I've already made a donation to FAWM's running costs and my profile now sports its traditional and highly prized set of Rock Hands. I ordered a t-shirt, too. As my friend Martin says, "There's a party. It would be rude not to be in on it." Couldn't agree more.

TRAVELLING VICARIOUSLY

One thing I have become addicted to in recent weeks is Michael Palin's writing. He's one of the most accomplished diarists I have ever read, and reading his work is such a genial experience that when I finished the second volume of his diaries at the weekend I immediately set about acquiring some more of his books. The logical choice (it was the first thing I ordered) was Around the World in 80 Days, as it begins the day after the last entry in the diaries. As a link popped up for Pole to Pole on that page, I ordered that at the same time. Then I discovered the Travels With Palin box set of his DVDs on Amazon, and one thing led to another.

Body of Work

So much for me not buying any more books this year until I've finished the ones in my stack...

In case you're not familiar with it, East of Ipswich was written by Mr Palin and is set in Southwold. It's a 1950s period piece and Southwold plays its part rather splendidly. Jabberwocky is directed by fellow Python alumnus Terry Gilliam and is an old favourite of mine, although I'm having a certain amount of difficulty coming to terms with the fact that it was released as long ago as 1977. The box set contains a mind-boggling 20 DVDs of travel programmes including his episode of the BBC series Great Railway Journeys in which he travelled all the way to the Kyle of Lochalsh by rail. It is still the best journey that has ever featured on the show, in my opinion.

19 January 14 (permalink)

CATCHING UP

I didn't get that nap yesterday. After updating the blog I went shopping, filled the car up with petrol, fixed the wobbly tap on the bath, sorted the mail, cleared up the living room, emptied the bin in the kitchen, did three loads of laundry, typed up some notes for work, updated my music collection on iTunes, put a new playlist on my iPod and gave myself a quick buzz cut with the beard trimmer (I was beginning to look scruffy). By the time eight o'clock came round I felt like I hadn't stopped doing stuff all day and I still hadn't got around to restringing that guitar, but I feel like I put the day to good use. Boy, do I feel like it. Being on my feet for most of the day coupled with a week of climbing in, out and under the training equipment I'm working on has caught up with me and I ache all over. I turned over in bed at four this morning and the resulting pain in my right shoulder was enough to completely wake me up. I didn't really get back to sleep, either, so eventually I gave up trying and made myself breakfast (I had an almond croissant and a very large latté, in case you're wondering; it was very nice). And it's still early. The sun is shining, but after the torrential rain we got last night I think I'll forego any walk in the fields today. My boots have only just dried out from the soaking they got last weekend...

Wet Feet

I suspect that today might not be as productive. I'm off to play video games.

AND YET...

Some people enjoy getting up early but I am not one of them. Neurogeneticists at the University of California categorise people into larks or owls and I am most definitely an owl. My mood always improves when I get a few days of lie-ins and I usually feel dreadful all morning when the alarm goes off at six thirty - as it does every day when I go to work. Dr Louis Ptacek's findings intrigue me. The worst phases of depression I've experienced in the last ten years have all been associated with long stints of early rising, and once I'm able to grab a few days of rising late they have always cleared up. Never understimate the effect your sleep habits can have on your health...

18 January 14 (permalink)

LONG WEEK

I'm feeling a bit run down this weekend. Work is very busy and I have been putting in far more hours than usual. But on the plus side, I got to wake up in the morning with this view from my window:

Bedroom View

I was staying at the Abbey Hotel in Malvern, and it felt rather like staying in Hogwarts. It was most enjoyable. The architecture in the town is stunning and I had a good curry on Thursday night at the Anupam Restaurant in Church Street. But it's all rather caught up with me today and my energy levels are rather low. I was woken up by heavy rain crashing against the bedroom window at about 5am this morning, and I didn't get back to sleep properly after that. I was going to restring a guitar this afternoon in readiness for FAWM (if you're going to have a go, the website will be open for business on Monday, I hear) and I need to tighten one of the taps in the bathroom but at the moment what I really want to do is go and have a nap.

ON THE MAP

The final episode of Sherlock was quite a surprise, not least when the house of the bad guy appeared on the screen...

Appledore

I took the photo above in 2010. The house is a private residence just up the road - that's the Tyndale Monument at North Nibley behind it. Holmes and Watson were pretty much round the corner and they couldn't be bothered to pop round for a cup of tea? Well, that's them off my Christmas card list, for sure.

Sunday's episode was based very loosely on the Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, but where the original adventure had one surprising plot twist, His Last Vow had what felt like dozens. I got answers to pretty much all the questions I'd asked after the first episode of this series. No wonder Mary knew what a skip code is, indeed. No wonder Sherlock saw her surrounded by the caption "liar". There were some lovely jokes, mostly at Dr Watson's expense:

Watson:

I still don't understand.

Magnussen:

...and that's the back of the t-shirt.

The resolution of the story was shocking, but not completely unexpected. Mycroft refers to the country needing a "dragon slayer" earlier on in the episode. He has either connived with or manipulated Sherlock into taking his laptop from the Christmas party. We see Sherlock's callous nature throughout the episode as he cultivates his relationship with Janine, Magnussen's PA. In the finest Chekhov tradition, Holmes knows Watson has a gun with him, as he specifically asks him about it. But it's Sherlock's signature line "I'm a high-functioning sociopath" - which has been staring us in the face for three seasons - that provided the biggest clue as to what was going to happen. With one action we finally see just how far removed Holmes can be from the rest of us.

The standard of acting this week was incredibly high. Martin Freeman's scenes in particular were a delight to watch, and his note-perfect playing of Watson's reconciliation with Mary in front of the fireplace brought a lump to the throat. Benedict Cumberbatch's parents once again managed to walk off with every scene they were in, and Cumberbatch and Gatiss brought new depth to the relationship of the two Holmes siblings. I think His Last Vow may well now be my favourite episode from the entire show.

And that final scene? When we first saw Andrew Scott in the show, he was calling himself Jim. Just remember that in Conan Doyle's works, Professor James Moriarty had a younger brother who is somewhat confusingly also called James. Now Sir Arthur was famously forgetful about continuity in the stories (for example, Watson's war wound was in his leg in The Sign of the Four but in his shoulder in A Study in Scarlet; in A Scandal in Bohemia, Mrs Hudson is called Mrs Turner) but this gives the writers an escape clause: the character we saw blow his brains out in front of Sherlock may not have been the criminal mastermind at all. Then again, remember what Moriarty's ringtone was: "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees. Very clever...

Steven Moffat has already said "we'll be back" and I can't wait to see what the team come up with for season 4.

12 January 14 (permalink)

CONTRAST

There's no sunshine this morning. Although it's above freezing right now, it got down to -2°C last night and the roofs of the houses are white with frost. The sky is a leaden grey and it feels like rain. It's cold, and damp and dismal, and I'm really glad I went out for a walk yesterday because today is a day for staying indoors and I have a stack of ironing to do. Despite my morning cup of coffee I feel dismal and lethargic (the prospect of ironing tends to do that) and I've just put the heating on.

BAH HUMBUG

I spent some time last night trying to discover what the side bit of a pair of spectacles is called. As I'm sure you guessed, I managed to find a page on the internet that explains exactly that. The reason why I was searching for such an arcane item of knowledge is simple: I have somehow managed to bend the screw that secures the right temple on my favourite pair of glasses and knackered them. As a result I'm using my backup pair of specs and as they have a gloss finish that's called "piano black" when it's applied to computer monitors, they keep sliding down my nose. That's not very helpful, really. When I tried to fix the old pair I realised that the components are so small I can't see them clearly enough to do anything about it, even with my backup pair on.

It's been a couple of years since I had an eye test so perhaps it's time for me to go off and get some new glasses. Since I hit my fifties, my eyesight has deteriorated noticeably and I now have to wear glasses pretty much all the time if I want to read anything. So this morning, I'm not only feeling lethargic, I'm also grumpy.

This irritation may also have something to do with the long days I'm working at the moment. It's not just the lack of sleep; the place where I'm working has a commercial radio station on all day, and for someone who hasn't listened to commercial radio since moving away from London in the glory days of Capital Radio (way back in 1986) it's a painful experience. I used to like Capital; they played a great mix of music and had a stunning roster of DJs which included Chris Tarrant, Kenny Everett, Dave Cash and Nicky Horne. They kept you entertained. In fact they were so good that listening to them was at least as good as listening to the music they played. In contrast, the station that I'm forced to listen to at work is - well, I'm not going to name and shame them but let's just say you couldn't make people pay to listen to radio like that - it's bland, vapid anodyne stuff. I know I'm way out of their target demographic, but the programming is the safest, most unadventurous, let's-tie-in-with-X-factor-because-they-have-a-big-audience predictability that you could possibly imagine. They seem to play the same twelve records every few hours, every day. I know that when I'm back there tomorrow they will play all the same records that they played on Friday. And Thursday. And Wednesday...

It's driving me nuts. There is no variety at all. It's just West Coast r'n'b, all the time. And I reckon at least half of everything they play features Beyoncé. How music by someone from America with an income that is significantly greater than many small countries is supposed to relate to a working-class audience in the UK Midlands, I don't know. Subjects that the DJs talk about are limited to what was on the telly, or stuff they've seen on Facebook or YouTube. Worse, the DJs talk about the artists they play with a reverence that goes beyond ludicrous and becomes downright creepy. But I'm beginning to realise that they have no experience of, or interest in any music that existed prior to 1990. In the last few weeks that I've had to listen to the station I've heard no more than three tracks that I actually liked and the oldest of them dated back to 1988.

The only ray of light in each day of audio torture is when they play an advert for an Outdoor Clothing Centre in Kidderminster that was recorded by Mr Brian Blessed. It's splendidly over the top. But that's really not enough to get me though the day. I may have to take some ear plugs with me tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I shall sigh heavily once again and then get on with the ironing.

11 January 14 (permalink)

LULL

It's a spectacularly beautiful day today. The sun is shining in a sky so blue that it doesn't look real. Perhaps I've just forgotten what a really nice day looks like, it's been so long since we had one. We've had massive amounts of rain here in the West Country over the last few weeks. Sunshine is a most welcome sight after a very grey and rainy month and this morning I decided that the day was far too good to waste sitting around indoors, so I put on my walking boots, grabbed a camera, and went for a walk in the fields.

Up The Lane

Track

North

By The Rails

Errant Cloud

As you can see, there's a lot of water lying about. The village has got off lightly, though. For the last few days I've been driving through Upton-on-Severn on my way to work, where the roads next to the river are still closed because of flooding and we've had to take a different route to our destination. The rugby pitches at the town's sports centre have been completely under water for the last week:

No Matches Today

Today it was good to get outside in the sunshine, and despite the mud (I had to put most of what I was wearing this morning into the washing machine when I got back) I feel much better for the exercise and a hefty dose of fresh air.

As I walked through the fields I saw and heard a lot of birds: robins, blackbirds, crows and redwings in particular. At this time of year birds struggle to find enough food to keep going and redwings often leave their regular haunts and move into towns and villages in search of food. With clear skies overnight, it's noticeably colder than it has been of late and the conservatory roof was frosted over this morning so when I got home I made sure that I cleaned up all the bird feeders in the back garden and put out a batch of fresh food. There was a blackbird eating the mealworms I'd put out within a minute of me closing the back door, although I did have to chase a neighbour's cat away a few minutes later. I didn't recognise it - a medium-sized black cat with a collar. I wonder it it's the one that trashed my bird table?

FACT VERSUS FICTION

I'm still hugely enjoying Michael Palin's diaries. He's made me realise that I ought to raise my game on the stuff I post here, because pretty much every entry is a delight to read. Here's an extract from his entry for Wednesday, March 21st, 1983, when he was working on the filming of A Private Function:

"The pigs are very friendly and bouncy and have been hand-reared since birth, about four months ago. We all remark on their little, pink, naked botties. Hope the crew will not get over-excited. We're shown a Vietnamese Black Pig - a mournful creature who was in a film with John Cleese - a crow which has been on TV-AM and a lion who once worked for the Post Office."

I find myself wondering why anyone would bother to write fiction when real life can be this interestingly bizarre...

6 January 14 (permalink)

LAST DAY OFF

It's another blustery morning here in the village. There are occasional bursts of sunshine but they don't last for long and the sky is predominantly grey as the next winter storm arrives. The coasts in the south west are being battered by waves that may reach 10 metres in height, and even though it's calmer inland, I will be staying indoors. Tomorrow I'm back at work, and back on my diet.

FAKE OUT

I'm afraid I've spent some time over the last couple of days getting annoyed with things people have posted on Facebook. By now I'm used to the gun nuts - they're American, after all, so their perceived need to own assault weapons is a cultural artefact, it's something that they will always fail to have any sense of perspective about. Pointing out how ludicrous it all is will have no effect; you just have to accept that they live in a country where people insist on their right to shoot each other, and have done with it.

The Internet of the 21st century is a place where anything goes and truth is frequently irrelevant; where people spread misinformation around, because it bolsters their ego and makes them feel important. Some stories are so utterly outlandish that I'm left amazed by how credulous people are. For example, Snopes has an entire category on false photos that are disseminated as truth. One that really got my goat was this picture of "the night sky in the mountains" which kept cropping up in my feed a couple of months ago. Eventually I took to adding comments with a link to the original photo of the Trapezium Cluster in Orion - taken with the Hubble telescope, no less - that had been cut and pasted behind the mountain skyline. The fact that the folks posting the picture had never seen a night sky that even remotely resembled that view hadn't set any alarm bells ringing. Some folks just don't go in for critical thinking. They see something, think, "that's cool" and reflexively send it to everyone else they know. Sadly, people spend time and effort creating fake pictures, fake articles, fake research, and worse to cater for the gullible. And the more attractive (and wrong) the concept, the more readily it finds takers who will propagate the untruth. Today one of my friends posted a link to a carefully-cropped photo of an advert for Breaking Bad on Netflix.co.uk to which has been added the caption, "university advertising" - to suggest, quite wrongly, that it's a poster for a university's chemistry department. Now I might be wrong, but this isn't a case of missing the point, or not understanding irony. It's just "making shit up" for laughs. Harmless, right?

Not always, no. Some of my American friends occasionally repost articles by people who are refusing to have their children vaccinated on the grounds that vaccines cause autism - this despite the fact that they don't, because someone else was making shit up. The combination of arrogance and stupidity is dangerous, because refusing to be immunised against diseases like measles and polio doesn't just put their own children at risk, it puts everybody else at risk too. Herd immunity - when everyone you know is incapable of catching a disease - protects people who for one reason or another can't be immunised. It stops the disease from spreading. Even more importantly, when a disease can no longer infect its hosts, it can't survive. Vaccination programs give us a good chance of wiping out some of the world's nastiest diseases for good; we already live at a time when smallpox has been completely eradicated. But thanks to the wingnut brigade convincing parents not to have their kids vaccinated, we've just had a measles epidemic in the UK where people died.

What a laugh, eh?

5 January 14 (permalink)

CLEANING UP

It's Twelfth Night tonight, and the Christmas decorations have just been returned to the loft for another year. I've cleaned up the pine needles that my artificial tree shed over the floor (that's authenticity for you), I've vacuumed the house, changed the bedclothes, and the washing machine is working its way through the year's first batch of laundry. Christmas may be over for another year, but after all that, I feel pooped. I'm really glad that I still have one day of my holiday left. I will be easing back into the working week on Tuesday, rather than tomorrow: the first working Monday of the year is just too horrific to contemplate from anywhere other than under the duvet. Instead, I intend to spend the day reading some of the books I've acquired over the past month, and programming the M3 in readiness for FAWM. I was hoping to go out for a walk, too, but it's chucking it down outside right now and there doesn't appear to be much prospect of things changing over the next couple of days.

UP THE ROAD

It gets clobbered every time the weather's bad - that's what you get for founding a town on the flood plain of one of Britain's biggest rivers. Tewkesbury is still flooded. Downstream, Upton on Severn is also under water. With another storm on the way and the rain expected to continue, the outlook is pretty dismal.

It's just as well we've got the Environment Agency to organise flood protection and look after us, eh? Mr Cameron says the government is spending more than ever on flood protection, so it must be true, mustn't it?

Oh.

Never mind...

4 January 14 (permalink)

DAY TRIPPER

I spent a fun day in London yesterday meeting up with friends from the WGB; Justin and Samantha were in town from Tennessee. It was a shock getting up before seven after a week of lie-ins, but I felt a little better after a large mug of coffee. Despite the awful weather forecast, the day started fine and clear and I drove down the M4 in brilliant sunshine. I was surprised by how quiet the roads were; I think a lot of people were still on holiday. I'd parked up in Osterley by 10:30, so before I met everyone for lunch I headed over to Forbidden Planet in Shaftesbury Avenue and stocked up on a bunch of signed first editions: Finches of Mars by Brian Aldiss, Johnny Alucard by Kim Newman, Terra by Mitch Benn, and Ecko Burning by Danie Ware. That's a really good haul, and I'm going to enjoy reading them all.

The sun was still shining so with my business in the West End completed, I walked down to the river and crossed the Thames by Waterloo Bridge. I wanted to call in at the BFI shop - always a bad idea, as I can spend serious amounts of money in there. I picked up four DVDs including the BFI's release of O Whistle and I'll Come To You which I've been meaning to buy for ages, and the shop sells it for a lot less than the price on Amazon. I also bought documentaries on Harryhausen and Hunter S Thompson and a DVD of Der Golem, a classic horror movie from 1920. See, that's why I love the place so much - there's always something really good to be picked up that you're just not going to find in your average high street retailer. As I left the shop and headed for the Queen's Walk round to London Bridge, the heavens opened. I was glad I was wearing a decent coat, as the rain had quite a bit of hail mixed in with it. I walked along the embankment past the Tate Modern with a percussive accompaniment playing on my hood.

At 12:30 eight of us descended on Nando's in Clink Street for a relaxed lunch in the warm and dry while it continued to chuck it down outside. At Nikki's suggestion once the weather had cleared up we took the Thames Clipper down the river to North Greenwich and back. As far as I can remember, this is the first time I have ever gone for a ride on the Thames...

Thames Clipper

Under Tower Bridge

The Cutty Sark was looking very spiffy at Greenwich - a far cry from how it looked after the horrendous fire back in 2007:

The Cutty Sark at Greenwich

You could almost make out the figure in Anthony Gormley's enormous sculpture Quantum Cloud:

Anthony Gormley's "Quantum Cloud"

After Nikki and the boys left us at North Greenwich to travel home on the train, the light turned positively Turneresque:

Turneresque

The Shard from Tower Pier

We disembarked at Tower Pier and after admiring the view of The Shard on the other side of the river I walked with Justin and Samantha over to The Barbican, where they had tickets to see the RSC's production of Richard II with David Tennant in the title role. As it was more or less rush hour, I decided not to head straight home, but went for a walk around my old stamping grounds. That's always a bit of a shock as several of the office blocks that I used to go to for meetings back in the 1980s just aren't there any more. 2-12 Gresham Street was demolished in 2000 and has been replaced by 10 Gresham Street. The BT Centre is still there, but London Wall is almost unrecognisable from the days when I worked in Tenter House. I headed back towards Holborn (which, at least, looked little different from a couple of decades ago) to pick up the Piccadilly Line and I amused myself by counting how many branches of Prêt I walked past; I was well into double figures by the time I turned into Kingsway. After that it was a tube ride back out to West London to pick up the car, and back on to the M4 for the drive home. It had cleared up and a new moon was hanging low in the western sky as I drove into the wind. I was back home by half past eight. That was a good day.

QUICK FIX

When I looked at one of my photos from yesterday I realised that they've already put a fix in place for the Walkie Talkie - the building in Fenchurch Street whose concave surface was focusing sunlight on things in Eastcheap and melting them. It's the black stuff on the top half of the building: a little-known engineering solution that goes by the name of "curtains"...

This is London

 

ENOUGH! WITH THE TROLLING

If I want to continue using the "new user experience" on Flickr I have to hand-code the embedding of any photo I upload that appears in the blog. Yahoo! have "improved" their sharing interface and rather inconveniently forgotten to include basic HTML embedding. This has gone on for a few weeks without any sign that they're going to fix things. So today I opted out of the beta test, and quite frankly the sooner I opt out of the Yahoo! experience as a whole, the happier I'll be. They appear to have no appreciation whatsoever of what their products are used for.

As soon as they provide the facility I'll be using Canon's Project 1709 for embedding instead. When that happens I don't expect to be adding any new stuff to Flickr because I am fed up with the way Yahoo! cynically trolls its most enthusiastic users. I'll keep the existing Flickr links, because I just can't be bothered to change them, but there won't be any more. I've had enough.

2 January 14 (permalink)

LULL

In stark contrast to yesterday, it's a lovely morning outside. The wind has dropped, the sky is blue, and the room is flooded with sunlight. I'm still on holiday, and I had a relatively good night's sleep; I woke up at about half past three, but I was soon sound asleep again. Never mind the health benefits of giving up drinking - just getting enough rest works wonders for me. Left to my own devices, I find myself getting up between nine and ten, three hours later than I do during the working week. That's a hefty chunk of missing sleep to deal with.

HE'S BACK

As expected, Sherlock turned out to be hugely entertaining, even if it was difficult to take in everything that happened. There were some lovely touches, such as the surprise (and distinctly non-canonical) appearance of Sherlock's Mum and Dad, who were played by Benedict Cumberbatch's Mum and Dad Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton, and Doctor Watson's fiancée Mary Morstan, who was played by Martin Freeman's partner Amanda Abbington. And Benedict and Martin (or, if you're a Daily Mail journalist, Dominic and Tim) were in fine form. They play off each other brilliantly and the first scene where they meet up again was a classic.

Some of the questions left hanging at the end of The Reichenbach Fall were tied up very nicely. I particularly liked the idea of Moriarty having unwittingly provided Holmes with a lookalike corpse. The digs at the show's fandom were good-natured and fun and giving us not one, but three explanations of how Sherlock faked his death muddied the waters with a smile or two. The fact that Watson shaves off his moustache in November made me laugh out loud. But The Empty Hearse did veer dangerously close to pure daftness on more than one occasion. At the beginning of the torture scene I found myself thinking, "Oh, please don't let that be Mycroft. That's far too much of a cop-out," but of course it was. When the tube-train-full-of-explosives-under-Parliament plot device cropped up, I found it very difficult not to start comparing the plot with V for Vendetta. The number of people who knew Holmes was still alive made for a good gag at Watson's expense, but as the number grew and grew its credibility shrank accordingly. The motorcycle race across London was far too dramatic a contrivance to be credible - as a "OMG! Quick! Do something!" device to hurry the plot along it was something much better suited to Doctor Who than Sherlock. It throws up far too many questions when you sit down and analyse it: how did Mary know what a skip code is? How did the bad guys manage to hide Watson in a public place - in the most publicly surveilled city on the planet - without detection? How were they tracking Holmes and Morstan's progress across London? Most importantly, what purpose did kidnapping Watson actually serve?

My biggest objection, though, was the dissolve to white at the episode's crucial moment. Cutting to a completely different scene and then cutting back a couple of minutes later threw me out of the show completely. It killed the dramatic tension, it confused the resolution, and it left me thinking "what?" I felt like they'd shot the scene without establishing where it was going to go, and suddenly realised in the final edit that they hadn't included it so they just chucked it in at the last possible minute. It was an uncharacteristically clumsy moment for a series that has hardly put a foot wrong since it began.

1 January 14 (permalink)

HNY

Welcome to 2014. This time a year ago I was sitting at home watching the Wiener Philharmoniker perform their New Year's Concert from Vienna and drinking coffee and this year I'm doing exactly the same thing. But while last year I headed off to East Anglia in the afternoon, this year I'm staying put. Just as well, too: the weather outside is horrible. The hedge in the back garden is flailing all over the place in the wind and it's chucking it down so much that the satellite TV signal keeps breaking up. Yet I got back from Norfolk at 11:30 last night after the quietest trip I think I've ever had. There was hardly anything on the roads at all and in the entire drive back here I think I had the windscreen wipers on for no more than a couple of minutes.

Yesterday I spent a lovely afternoon with my sister and her family in Taverham. There was home-made pizza for tea and we watched How to Train Your Dragon on the TV, drank Coca-Cola and ate crisps. At twilight we took the dog for a walk around the fields near the house and saw a barn owl float across the path in front of us as we walked through the woods. Lovely.

TAKE A BREAK

Thanks to Graham Farmelo for this one: New Scientist magazine investigates the effects of giving up booze for January. As the research team puts it, "If someone had a health product that did all that in one month, they would be raking it in." You know, I might give it a go. But not until I go back to work, I think...

COUNTING DOWN

Now that Christmas is over I can start getting ready for one of my favourite times of the year: February Album Writing Month, better known as FAWM. It's going to be great, and it's just a month away!

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