For Blog's Sake

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: February 2009

February was one of the busiest months I've had for quite a while. Unfortunately this coincided with some of the heaviest snowfall I've seen for years, which caused a fair bit of disruption. Even so, I still managed to waffle on about nothing much in particular, and you can read it all below.


The last few days have been pretty weird. I've been listening to a lot of Bowie albums from the 70s this week, particularly the Berlin works that he recorded with Brian Eno, Low and "Heroes". Wikipedia describes Low in the following manner:

"many of the songs concern lethargy, depression, estrangement, or self-destructive behaviour,"

which turned out to be much too appropriate a choice.

I've had a tremor in my left hand for a while, but on Saturday and Sunday it was particularly bad. I happened to mention it to a couple of people and was taken aback when they both responded with "I know that, you've had it for years!" At that point, I started to think that rather than putting up with it and/or ignoring it, maybe I ought to get it looked at. Now, I always feel low at this time of year and if you read through entries on this blog for the last few months you'll find several mentions of gloominess and feeling low, but last weekend I felt much worse. In fact, I haven't felt this low since I split up with my ex. I felt utterly miserable, lethargic, and aching. I was sitting there with my hands shaking and my temperature going up and down like a yo-yo. I've mentioned before that I don't sleep well, but clearly there was more going on here than a simple case of not getting enough rest. Things came to a head on Sunday night when I slept for no more than three hours and I finally decided that enough was enough.

So I've been to the doctor's. I'm now waiting for the results of a set of blood tests, but the initial verdict appears to be that I have a "moderate" case of depression and it's also likely that I have a thyroid problem. That would certainly explain a lot of the fatigue symptoms I've had over the past few months, and even if it's not exactly the nicest news at least I've taken my first steps in finding out what's wrong. Thanks also to Sallie, Roz and Becs who have all given me support over a difficult few days - it's much appreciated.


I'm still not convinced that the announcement that Elton John is producing a film to be called Pride and Predator is not some ridiculous wind-up. The world just isn't cool enough for something like this to be done properly, so I suspect it will turn out to be really dreadful. Quite why Jane Austen's novel attracts bizarre memes in this way is a mystery to me.


I've been travelling around the country again, doing lots of driving. I spent six and a half hours in the car on Tuesday, four and a half on Wednesday, and three on Thursday. So it's come to Friday and I am absolutely dead beat. I'm lucky that the work I need to do today can be done at home, and even better, I've already finished it. Just as well - I feel a bit under the weather at the moment. There may not be too many blog updates over the weekend.


It's been an interesting week. I was on a Flash CS4 training course on Monday and Tuesday, which I really enjoyed. The last time I created anything in Flash was back in the days of version 2, and it was quite a surprise to see how sophisticated it's become. A lot of things that used to take ages can now be achieved with the click of a button; no wonder the technology has caught on so much. In fact, the range of presets available in the latest version is amazing. At one point I jokingly suggested that the text tool could do with a preset to create 3D scrolling paragraphs, Star Wars style, only to find that there actually is one.

So now I need time to sit down and absorb the manual to see how we can use the technology at work to provide better graphics for training applications. There are lots of possibilities.


Despite being away for a few days, I caught a couple of very interesting programmes on TV over the week. In fact, much of the TV I've seen this week was watched via iPlayer on the BBC's site, which I watch on the Mac Mini I've got hooked up to the TV and the surround system. I never thought I'd have TV on demand living in a cable-free village, but broadband is wonderful...

The first was a programme on BBC Four called Why Reading Matters. It examined the discoveries made by neuroscientists about the effects that learning to read has on the human brain. They are surprisingly large and wide-ranging. In fact, it's been suggested that the invention of writing and reading may have been what triggered the spectacular development of scientific or abstract thought over the last couple of thousand years.

By happy coincidence, I've just finished reading Proust and the Squid by Professor Maryanne Wolf; the programme borrows heavily from the book and Professor Wolf was one of the people to appear. The programme also featured one of Ruth's professors: Guillaume Thierry of Bangor University, who was able to show the dramatic effects that Shakespeare's language evokes in the brain of the reader. It was fascinating stuff.

The second programme was part two of Sir Terry Pratchett's documentary about living with Alzheimer's. It was sad but also incredibly inspiring to watch, and it's the sort of programme that really ought to be kept permanently and widely available on the web. I used to work in the psycho geriatric ward at a hospital near London so I've seen many cases of Alzheimer's and I've known friends and relatives who have faded away as the disease ran its course. In many ways, it's harder on the people closest to the sufferer than it is on the person with the illness; eventually there is little or nothing left of the person you used to know and love. As was pointed out in the programme, as the average age of the world's population climbs, the incidence of cases will get greater and greater. Sir Terry is doing great things to help raise awareness of the disease, and with luck he will also help find a cure.


This week I got to spend a couple of days at a nuclear power station, where we were filming a training video. Usually for these things, my main job is to write the content. This week, I also found myself in front of the camera as part of a work team dressed up in contamination control clothing, hard hat, gloves and light eye protection. And for added authenticity, we were being filmed next to a working nuclear reactor!

The science fiction writer Charlie Stross got to visit one of British Energy's other AGRs at Torness a few years ago and raved about it as only a true geek is able to do. After spending a couple of days in the bowels of Heysham I totally agree with him. The charge floor at the top of the reactor, where a giant machine is used to insert and extract fuel rods, is like something out of a Bond movie. The scale of the engineering involved is awe-inspiring. Below the charge floor, reactor buildings have serious amounts of plumbing to cope with the carbon dioxide that is pumped through the reactor (it comes out of the top at a pressure of 40 bar and a temperature of around 600°C) and the water that is turned into steam when the CO2 is subsequently pumped through giant heat exchangers. Everywhere there's the hum of large lumps of machinery running and generating enough electricity to power three cities the size of Liverpool.

Sadly, I can't show you any of the pictures I took but if you ever have to enter a controlled area at a BE site I hope you'll enjoy working through the lesson we're making. I'll be the guy with the beard.


If you've known me for any length of time you'll know I'm an Eno fan. I have been for years. Initially I was exposed to his work through his collaborations with another hero of mine, Robert Fripp; as I get older I find I appreciate his intelligence, wit and general work more and more. However, I am well aware that his work doesn't suit all tastes. It evokes a contemplative, introspective mood. Much of it is placid, calm and tranquil, the sort of music to accompany walks along deserted beaches in Suffolk or ameliorate a thumping hangover on a Sunday morning. It would not be my first choice as a soundtrack for a frenetic urban environment.

From the Brian Eno feed on Twitter comes the story of what happened when a cross section of New Yorkers discovered that his ambient work Thursday Afternoon - all sixty minutes and fifty seconds of it - was playing on the jukebox of the bar in which they were drinking. They were not happy. There was no discussion of the way in which Eno uses the motif of several distinct musical events, repeated at different intervals, to create a shifting and yet consistent musical experience. They did not ponder his musical development from his first experiments with ambient music following hospitalisation after a car crash. Nor did they contemplate how the work breaks the convention of commercial music and its compulsive need to say what you have to say in three minutes or less. Mostly, they just wanted it to stop.

I don't know what sort of trickster decides to load a work such as Thursday Afternoon on to a jukebox in the first place, but I can guess the mindset of someone who selects it and presses play. And if I ever meet them, I will buy them a beer.


I woke up this morning to see yet more snow - and it was still snowing heavily. I set off for today's meeting but got no further than the bottom of the hill on the way out of the village. There was an interesting collection of cars at the bottom, some of them sideways on, so I turned round and came home. That little adventure took half an hour.

When I got home, I put the heating on to warm up. Nothing happened. I phoned British Gas. "We'll see you tomorrow afternoon," they said. What? I pay a considerable amount of money each year for a servicecare account, and they're going to take a day and a half to turn up? Mind you, after talking to some of the other folk in the village it sounds like only having to wait 36 hours is actually pretty good... All the same, I feel like I've been conned, and I will be terminating my service agreement and switching suppliers as soon as I can.

On the other hand, I got some more good pictures today. I dived for the camera after spotting a heron sitting on a neighbour's roof. It was most unusual behaviour for that sort of bird, and it looked faintly comical sitting on the tiles pretending to be a starling.


I'll probably be playing with this.


I wasn't expecting to spend today at home, but the weather had other ideas...

Snow day!

Last night, Charfield got the heaviest snowfall I've seen in the 14 years I've lived here. Luckily I was able to change my arrangements for the day and work from home, but I did sneak out to take a few (well, okay, a hundred) photographs of the village in the snow. These kids weren't going to let me go past without taking a picture of their snow family, and it turned out to be the best shot of the day! All the local schools were shut, and there were children racing around literally squealing with excitement. I'd forgotten just how magical snow can be; everyone I talked to on my circuit of the village was in a really good mood, and it was lovely to be a part of it.


February is going to be a busy month for me at work. As a result you may see very few Blog updates until we get to March. I will have regular access to Twitter, however - so I've added the Twitter feed widget to the top of the page. Expect it to be a regular fixture there from now on!

I'm also hoping to complete the February Album Writing Month challenge and come up with 14 songs in 28 days. The recording studio is ready and waiting upstairs, and I want to get at least one song written - entirely from scratch - by the end of today. It's an ambitious idea at the best of times, but I'm going to give it a go. I'll keep you up to date with how I get on.

Update (21:00) - the first song's done, and I've just uploaded it to my Apopheniacs Anonymous MySpace page if you want to give it a listen. Searching for inspiration, I decided I'm going to write songs around the ideas based in some of my favourite books, so today's track is called Anathem, after Neal Stephenson's epic novel. Enjoy!