Blog Jam

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: February 2010

Once again, February saw me start out with good intentions in attempting to write an album's worth of songs in 28 days and once again, my efforts fell rather short of my target.

This year, it was because work completely took over my life in the last half of the month. I'm sorry to say that the blog ended up on hiatus as a result...


It's been a long week - I've put the best part of a thousand miles on the car, and Monday was the only day when I got home less than twelve hours after leaving for work. Things are likely to continue in the same vein for several weeks, so you should expect things to be a bit quiet on the blogging front. It's also looking unlikely that I'll get my FAWM songs past the stage of writing the lyrics, but I still intend on coming up with 14 of the things by the end of the month.

Work's been interesting, though - one of the reasons I love working in the training industry is that you never stop learning about new things and having to acquire knowledge in areas that you never thought you'd ever need. Oh, and I also get days like last Thursday where I get paid to take photographs - how cool is that?

Post-flight inspection

Surrey Police's Eurocopter EC135 wasn't the main focus of attention on Thursday, but it's such a sleek looking piece of kit that I couldn't resist taking a picture or two while I slowly froze solid.


Thanks to Gromit for pointing me at the website once again - I'm becoming a regular visitor of theirs. Today they have an article about a concept you may not have heard about, but which still has a profound effect on your life: cognitive fluency. The first point the article makes is that if you're exposed to something - anything - multiple times, you'll find it more attractive than something similar that you've not encountered before. Robert Zajonc proposed that there was some evolutionary logic behind these feelings of familiarity - "if it is familiar, it has not eaten you yet." In other words, if we encounter something several times, it must be OK, as we're still alive to notice.

Repetition is a powerful process when we want to learn something. When you're developing a child's ability in the cognitive domain, it's one of the first tools that gets used - remember how you learned your times tables when you were at school? Repetition is also a powerful marketing tool, though. The music industry has known this for decades, which is why pop radio stations have such a limited number of songs on their playlist: you get subjected to them so many times that you find yourself humming along to mediocre songs. You've heard them so often they've become familiar. Now ask yourself this: are you more likely to buy a song that you already know, or one that you've only heard once?

The mind is a weird and wonderful thing, but as I've grown older I've realised it doesn't always work in its owner's best interests. In more general terms, as human beings we have a tendency to go with our gut feeling rather than wasting time thinking things out, and while that approach may have worked fine in our hunter-gatherer past it's causing huge problems in the present. The article goes on to discuss some of the mechanisms that psychologists have discovered which have a lot to do with familiarity and cognition. Some of the research mentioned in the article (such as the discovery that if a questionnaire is presented in a less-legible font, people answer it less honestly) is fascinating, and it reveals how easily manipulated we are as a species.

Ruth (who is studying for a psychology degree) told me a while ago about the findings of some research she's read as part of her coursework which ties in to this subject. People who have been shown films of old people were monitored as they left the screening room - and it turns out that they walked more slowly than people who were shown footage involving younger people. She also told me about research which found that displaying posters of the ten commandments in a room made people behave more honestly. What you read - even if you're not really paying that much attention to it - can manipulate your thinking in subtle ways that you won't necessarily notice. For example, the article explains that our acceptance of slogans is based on distinctly dodgy reasoning - if a saying rhymes, we rate it as being more accurate than an equivalent saying that does not! The article goes on to examine some of the ways in which our judgment becomes skewed as a result of our reliance on congnitive fluency, and looks at how we might combat this. Paradoxically, those dreadful bureaucratic forms which are so difficult to fill out may actually be getting a better response out of you than the ones that are easy to fill out, and making a list of your bad qualities may actually help your partner realise how cool you are. It's a weird world inside our heads, that's for sure.


So, NASA have bitten the bullet. The future of manned spaceflight, at least as far as the United States is concerned, is being turned over to industry.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The potential monetisation of spaceflight is enormous, that's why folk like Richard Branson get involved. So money is likely to get spent developing a proper capability for moving things into Earth orbit and beyond, and with shareholders keen to see a return on investment, the timescales are likely to be more aggressive than anything which would have happened under NASA's jurisdiction. Someone who I'd categorise as being one of America's leading visionaries when it comes to space exploration has an article in the Washington Post today which is very much in support of the decisions that Obama's team made. His name? James Cameron. (Registration may be required to view the page; if it is, just go here first.)


It's taken 20 computers running continuously for four years to process the images that NASA released this week. They show the surface of Pluto as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, an achievement which they explain as being equivalent to taking a picture of the markings on a football from 40 miles away.


One of my heroes celebrates his 70th birthday today. Wired honour the work of HR Giger with a nice gallery showing some of his best-known (but probably not safe for work) creations.


As far as I know, over the last six months or so I've exceeded the limit on my home broadband package every month. I'm not supposed to download more than 5Gb and when I first signed up, I wouldn't get anywhere near that amount. But times have changed; these days there's lots of great stuff to watch on things like YouTube and the BBC's iPlayer, and with demos and downloadable content packages for the PS3 tempting me to click on the "download now" button it's very easy to burn through a couple of gigabytes in a weekend.

Yesterday I got an email from my ISP about it, but it wasn't what I was expecting. My 5Gb limit has been doubled to 10Gb and they've added a further "off-peak" allowance of 30Gb (which covers anything downloaded between midnight and 9am). I am a very happy bunny. It's another reason why I'm very pleased I switched to IDNet.


If you want an example of the sort of tempting stuff I'm talking about, here are some from last weekend: I downloaded both the current DLC packages for Borderlands and a fiendishly addictive little game called PixelJunk Shooter which ended up being a couple of gigabytes all in.

I haven't got very far with the PixelJunk game, as my Borderlands obsession kicked in after twenty minutes or so (and I'll get to that in a moment), but I was very impressed with the simple concept, fun gameplay and really cute graphics. You have to fly through a series of caves that contain lava and water and rescue little astronauts standing on ledges. Simple, right? Now, give your ship the ability to shoot through walls so that the water lands on the lava and cools it down into rock that can also be shot to pieces - sometimes you have to sit there hovering while you figure out how you're going to get the little guys to safety. If you have a PS3 I think it's worth investigating.

But the vast majority of my gaming last weekend was dedicated to the two DLC packages for Borderlands: Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot and The Zombie Island of Dr Ned. I'll deal with the Underdome content first, as it was the first one I tried out. I have to say it wasn't quite as engaging as I'd expected. It was worth getting for the "Bank" facility, which lets you stash weapons or artifacts that you don't want to sell. This frees up slots in your storage deck when you head off on missions which in turn means that you can gather extra loot. But the basic premise - fighting wave after wave of enemies in a medium-to-small enclosed space - feels like a never-ending succession of end-level boss fights, and I was never too keen on boss fights. They're just something to be tolerated, no matter what amusing idiosyncrasies the game designers build in. I suspect that all the bosses from the original game reappear here, which doesn't exactly motivate me to play it through. I rapidly ended up being overwhelmed, and bugged out for something a bit more entertaining.

Zombie Island is another kettle of fish altogether. The download was well over 900Mb, so I was expecting a fairly sizable chunk of new material, and I wasn't disappointed. Installing the game gave me a new destination on Borderlands' "fast travel" network called Jakobs' Cove, and when you arrive there, you soon discover that things have not been going well for the inhabitants recently. In fact, the nefarious experiments of the local doctor have turned them all into the undead. The task is straightforwards: hold off the zombies long enough to track down the rogue medic.

Doctor Ned, bears a striking resemblance to Dr Zed from the original game, save for the large pantomime-villain moustache which is pinned to his surgical mask. Indeed, the game has a wry twist of meta-content, where Ned makes frequent assertions that he's totally not the same person as that guy from the original game. Additional humour creeps in on some of the missions, too. Once again you have to locate a number of data recorders and listen to the journal entries they contain; one set details what happened to someone who sounds vaguely familiar, a hippyish sort of guy who used to hang around with a great dane and eat large sandwiches... A number of little gems like this had me laughing out loud several times as I wandered through tree-lined swamps full of brackish water, battled my way up the hill leading to the local hospital, or fought off a pack of werewolves on a moonlit beach. The new locations look amazing. Visually they have a different feel to the rest of the game but there are enough stylistic similarities that you never forget you're somewhere in the Borderlands world.

As well as "repurposing" the original Dr Zed character, the game makes clever use of other resources from the existing game. Items crop up in new ways and new contexts, triggering a nagging feeling of familiarity that adds to the unease anyone would feel while wandering through a zombie-infested town. "Dead Haven" is effectively Old Haven viewed through a red filter, but it still has a few surprises in store.

Annoyingly though, some of the bugs from the original game resurface here - for example, one of the data recorders respawns when you revisit the same location in subsequent missions. There's an awful lot of walking about, too - there's only a single fast travel spot in the entire new map, which was a pain. If you find one character (who will be familiar to anyone who has played through the main storyline) you end up having to collect hundreds - and yes, I really do mean hundreds - of items for him in order to get a fairly paltry collection of items of loot in return. I'm sure this will improve when I play through the content for the second time, but I don't know if I can face all that walking about just to find out, even if I will get another storage deck upgradein the process. So far I've played through it as Mordecai and as Lilith, and I think I'm just about zombied out.

Plus, I have lyrics to write!


Jackie Chan is on Twitter. How cool is that?


Last night I took time off from lyric writing to produce some new banners for the blog. After an hour's free association and some hasty scribbling with the Rotring pens I now have enough banner graphics to keep me going for a while. In fact, I've enough to last me until April 2014.

You'll no doubt be amused to learn that in order to make sure I won't repeat myself, I've created an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of them all, and I'm proud of that fact.

That's the way I roll.


You may be wondering why I haven't blogged about Apple's latest offering after all the hysteria in the media last month. To be honest, it's because I was distinctly underwhelmed by the whole affair. I certainly won't be rushing out to buy one. One lesson that Apple taught me when I bought my iPod Touch was that the first iteration of any device they produce is always missing essential items. These items miraculously appear after the product's been on the market for a year or so and sales are beginning to dip, leaving the early adopters with something that, by comparison, is going to really suck.

Far be it for me to suggest that this is a cynical ploy on behalf of Mr Jobs; I am sure the initial product is more than good enough to fulfil its purpose. But learning that lesson served me well with my mobile phone, as the iPhone 3Gs is a far better product than its predecessor and finally includes simple things - like cutting and pasting text - that other phones have had for years. Even now, it's not perfect; multitasking would be nice, for example.

Some of the most tech-savvy people I know are the folk at the WGB, and the reaction from them has been lukewarm. Only Mean Old Man got excited, because he'd identified a very specific niche application for the thing: showing photographs. I'm not about to spend the best part of a thousand pounds on something whose main purpose, as Charlie Brooker pointed out, will be to let me surf the web while I'm sitting on the sofa watching TV (why else would Steve Jobs choose to present the device sitting on a settee?) I'll be sticking with my Asus Eee, thank you very much. When I run Firefox on my netbook, I can see web pages without any problem. On the other hand, Apple have locked down the browser on the iPad so that anything embedded on a web page using Adobe's Flash application appears as a little blue block. I don't know if you've noticed, but Flash is a rather popular application. Lots of sites use it. At least one dimension of your web-browsing experience is therefore likely to be less rewarding than it would be on my two-hundred quid netbook.

What I find much more interesting is how Apple's announcement has uncovered the murky world of high-level corporate shenanigans. In particular, it's exposed Amazon's business practices to a degree of attention that is proving most unwelcome for them. Amazon, you see, were rather upset by the fact that some of the big publishing companies like Macmillan were supporting Apple and providing books for sale on the new iBook store so they took their ball and went home - they've removed all the books from their online store that are published by companies that upset them. Playing tough seems to have backfired on them royally, with pundits, publishers and authors all pitching in to have a go at them. Now the iPad's here, we know life will be a lot harder for Amazon, but the way they reacted seems to have evaporated any possible sympathy that people might have had for them. Scalzi suggests that Amazon's goal was to become a monopoly and they're throwing a hissy fit because Apple put paid to that idea; the way they've been throwing their weight around is pretty damning confirmation that he's right. The thing is, customers don't like monopolies - and from now on, a large chunk of the business that previously I would have done with Amazon is going to be taken elsewhere.

Talking about buying books brings me to another reason why I won't be buying an iPad: Apple's UK website has no mention of the iBooks store. It turns out that one of the main selling points of the thing - as a Kindle-killer - only applies if you live in the US. Is it any wonder that I'm less than imprssed by the thing?


I have a file on my USB stick where I save URLs to blog about when I get home. When my last stick died, I lost a few things that I was going to blog about. One that I managed to rediscover was from the Guardian; Paul Morley talked to Brian Eno about a typically wide-ranging selection of subjects from non-representational art to the resolution of the seemingly paradoxical image of an atheist singing in a gospel choir. It's all fascinating stuff.


Hmmm. Links that get mentioned on Metafilter are notoriously variable in quality, but this page effortlessly leaps from hard geological fact to imagined conversations with angels in the space of a few dozen paragraphs. That's pretty impressive.

There are earthquake swarms at Yellowstone on a regular basis and that's been the case for decades. There was a much larger swarm back in 1985, but the park is still there. I was trying to figure out why people find predictions of disaster so fascinating. While it may be something to do with what the Greeks called catharsis - an experience that is overwhelming enough to release existing pent-up emotions of fear or anger or powerlessness, I suspect that another reason why catastrophe exerts such an attraction over our imaginations is that on the far side of it all there's the promise of a very different life. Provided, of course, that you're one of the surviovors.

Calamity these days is often presented as a form of entertainment, the assumption being that you'll be somewhere where you can watch events from a safe distance; if you're not, I suspect you'd have more pressing concerns. A few years ago the BBC made a docudrama about what would happen if there was an eruption at Yellowstone, and the show got fairly healthy viewing figures which were helped along by exhaustive reporting on their website which discussed countless apocalyptic "what if" scenarios. A smaller scale version of the same hysteria crops up every now and again about a similar situation to the west of Naples in Italy (which admittedly is several orders of magnitude smaller in the potential for cauing havoc should anything happen.) In geological terms, eruptions probably are imminent. However, in geological terms "imminent" can equate to many thousands of years. I won't be losing any sleep about it, anyway.


FAWM seems to be going OK for me so far this year. I finished the lyrics to one song last night and started on another three!


I know - despite all the good intentions, last year I crashed and burned. By the end of February I'd managed to write just two measly songs out of the 14 that FAWM sets as a target. This year, I'm setting out on my adventures with a more realistic goal: I just want to do better than last year.

So, as soon as I've uploaded the blog update to IDNet's webserver I'm off to make a start. The most successful creative process for me seems to be to write the lyrics first and then come up with some music to fit, so this evening is going to be devoted to some lyric writing. I'll deal with the melody side of things later. I'll let you know how I get on.


Back in 2003 when I started blogging, I had to discover the majority of items for myself. These days, things are much easier: if you follow the right people, Twitter can provide a stream of cool stuff in such quantities it's like drinking from the metaphorical firehose. Thanks to Bruce Sterling's Twitter feed, for example, I've just started following Marius Watz. He's been posting some really interesting links and I really like the look of this hand-glued cardboard furniture.


And another gem revealed on Twitter: thanks to Thoughtcat for introducing me to one of the hardest online quizzes I have ever come across: Cheese or Font?


I noticed just now that my stock of blog banners is running low - in fact this is the last one I've got to hand for the moment. Considering that the blog has had a different header for each month since August 2003, I think I've done pretty well, but at some point this month I'm going to have to fire up the Rotring pens and draw a few more. For the moment - just because I can - I've created a page which displays all the banners I've created up to date, which you can view here.