Vanilla Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: March 2008

This month had more of a musical theme than usual, as it saw me finally fulfilling a life long ambition and buying a theremin. It's a bugger to play, but I'm gradually getting more musical sounds out of it.

I also examined the cultural significance of rap music, contemplated recording an entire album in a month, and raved about Muse's new concert DVD.


Yeah, I know: not much happening on the blog at the moment. I've been too busy with work, trying to get two separate sets of stuff done in the same timeframe and wearing myself out in the process. There just aren't enough hours in the day or days in the week to do all that and have a life as well. By last night I was shattered and barely able to string two words together, let alone write something coherent and interesting. Even now on Saturday afternoon I feel like going back to bed. This is partly due to the weather, I suspect. It's blowing up quite windy right now and it's been raining, on and off, for most of the day so far. If they get these conditions in London later it's going to make the Boat Race rather interesting.


Many thanks to WGB legend Fuldog, who brought my attention to a new 1200-residence apartment building being built on the shores of Lake Michigan. I'd never heard of The Chicago Spire before but as a piece of architecture it's got "the future" plastered all over it. It's big, flashy, intimidating and incredibly beautiful, all at the same time. And it's no pipe-dream; the thing is under construction, right now.


I know this has been linked by just about everywhere on the Internet, but it's such an amazing story that I'm going to be a complete lemming and dive on in as well. The man who befriended a mugger is the sort of story that makes even a grumpy old misanthrope like me wonder if there might not be hope for the human race after all.


I've spent a bit of time this weekend getting my PC to talk to the TV. After downloading a new set of drivers and ATI's humungous Catalyst software suite, I now have the telly acting as a second monitor at its full resolution of 1920 by 1080. I then installed the Miro open source viewer that Boing Boing happened to mention this week because it's just been upped to version 1.2.

Not only does it let me see the latest movie trailers in jaw-dropping resolution, Miro is also better at playing video podcasts full screen than iTunes is. And not a little bit better, a lot better; with iTunes I'd get a frame rate of about one per second - with Miro, I get them through at full speed. I've downloaded the latest Hubblecasts in full HD and they are a wonder to watch. There are more HD videos available on NASA's multimedia pages too. The sad thing is that they make normal television look pretty poor in comparison.


You'll notice I've added a link to my Twitter feed at the top of the main blog page. I've been using Twitter for a while and although I don't post updates that often, I think it's great fun and a good way of recording my thoughts when I don't have the time or energy to put together a full blog update. There are some interesting folk out there using it, too.


There was one story of Arthur C Clarke's that I didn't mention last week, but which for me sums up the best in his storytelling - a massively long historical perspective, hard science, and a sense of destiny and wonder. That story is Second Dawn. Of all Clarke's stories, it's that one that springs to mind when anyone mentions him to me.

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke 1917 - 2008

I was lucky enough to discover science fiction when I was still a kid. I started with space opera, working my way through Edward Elmer Smith's Lensman novels, and revelling in the ideas that they contained. It was like mainlining Star Trek: I was staggered that somebody had thought up the idea of spaceships with inertialess drive (making them far cooler than the Enterprise) back in the 1930s. I wanted to read more of this stuff, so headed off to the library. It wasn't long before I discovered the masters: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Arthur C Clarke. Even as a teenager I knew their work was somehow special. I wanted to read everything they had written, and I would go down to the library on Saturday mornings to take out any of their novels I could find. When I got home with my latest haul I would sit down somewhere out of the way and have my horizons - and mind - expanded by dreams of interplanetary spacecraft and weird, unheard-of technologies. But even then, my approach to reading Clarke was different. Where I might read a Heinlein novel once and return it to the library so I could get another, I started buying Clarke's books so that I could read them again and again, whenever I wanted.

I still have them. I still read them. I still enjoy them.

Decades later, I can't remember how I felt the first time I read "Stranger in a strange land" or "Foundation and Empire." But I can still clearly recall the way the hair on the back of my neck stood on end when I first read The Nine Billion Names of God. It still think the story has one of the best final lines ever written. I can remember the shock I felt when I read "Childhood's End." I can remember the sense of wonder I felt when I read about a being - half man and half machine - flying through the skies of Jupiter in A Meeting with Medusa. The hero, Robert Falcon, was a cyborg, reconstructed after a horrific accident. Unlike Steve Austin, the cyborg in Martin Caidin's novel which was released the same year, Falcon is fitted with prosthetics (including wheels!) which tranform him into something which is no longer entirely human and far more interesting than a six million dollar man. Clarke was often criticised as being weak on character development, concentrating more on grander-scale imagery, but I disagree; his reflections on selfhood are as interesting as the immense cloudscape his protagonist flies through in the course of the story.

Clarke began his interest in science fiction in the 1930s, when he became involved in the burgeoning fandom movement. He got several stories published in fanzines and acquired the nickname "Ego" which stayed with him when he turned professional; he sold his first story in 1946, to "Astounding Science Fiction" magazine.

Clarke gave us Three Laws which are widely quoted throughout popular culture (even if they're not always correctly attributed). I'm sure you'll have heard at least one of them. They are:

  • When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

And then, of course, there's The Sentinel. It was written for a BBC competition in 1948, and describes the discovery of an object on the Moon by lunar explorers. It contains the seed of Clarke's most well-known work: the film director Stanley Kubrick used it as the basis for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Again, seeing 2001 for the first time was one of those childhood experiences that had a profound effect on me. It was the film that made me realise just how magical and mythical film could be, and the film left me changed forever in the best way possible.

Clarke is always described as a hard technologist in his writing. Journalists always mention his paper proposing that geosynchronous satellites could be used as communications relays that was written back in the 1940s. But he would frequently add a lyrical mysticism to his plots that always had me hooked. You can see this aspect of his work in both 2001 and Childhood's End, but it's a particularly strong theme throughout his short stories. There was an optimism in his work that I don't recognise in the writing of Asimov or Heinlein - the Americans seemed far more cynical. For Clarke, mankind has a truly magical destiny amongst the stars. Above all else, he should be applauded for that.

This week, Clarke died at the grand old age of 90 at his home in Sri Lanka. A NASA press release today best summed up how I feel:

"Although his personal odyssey here on Earth is now over, his vision lives on through his writing; he will be sorely missed."


Here's an interesting hack for Google maps: googleDrive! Drive your tiny car inside Google Maps. It's great fun.


When I got home last night I sat down in front of the TV and watched Muse's new live DVD, HAARP. The show was recorded over two nights at Wembley last summer, and the boys from Teignmouth played a blinder. It's a really, really good concert film and I really like the music. But it was the gear that really got me drooling. Apart from Chris's enviable collection of bass guitars (he seemed to be playing a different axe in every song), there was synthesiser gear a-plenty on show. One thing in particular had me pausing the DVD in a mild state of disbelief, though, and that was Matt Bellamy's collection of Manson guitars. I was sitting there thinking, "Nobody could be twisted enough to fit a Kaoss pad in a guitar, could they?"

It turns out that they could. If you're unfamiliar with Korg's demented little range of controllers, let me explain: it's a touch-sensitive screen, a bit like a laptop mouse pad, that you use to control audio or video processing by poking it with your finger. Different models let you pitch shift, distort, loop, flange, phase or distort stuff to your heart's content. Sticking one on a guitar makes the humble whammy bar seem lame by comparison. You end up with a really spectacularly over the top sound, make no mistake.

Hmmm, you can pick up the mini Kaoss pad for under a hundred quid these days; no, I must resist. I have spent enough on musical gear recently. I don't need another gizmo for the studio.

But... Ooh, shiny... Pretty lights...


I've been meaning to change how I reference stuff on here for a while, but today I finally got round to installing permalinks on the main blog page. I'll happily admit that Cory Doctorow's helpful hints on blogging on BoingBoing had a lot to do with this. Hopefully someone will find them useful.


Happy Pi Day.


Today's gem from the web: a map of the locations where rap artist Ludacris claims to have "hoes." Looking at the map, it's more than a little bit tempting to imagine that he might be exaggerating things ever so slightly for dramatic effect.

I find rap music fascinating. As a type of music, it doesn't do anything for me; if I'm honest, I have to admit that I'd rather visit the dentist than sit through an entire album. The psychological aspects of it, however, are another matter entirely. Watching a rap video on one of the many music channels that seem to be increasingly devoted to the music is like watching a train wreck in a fluorescent paint factory staffed by semi-naked women. A factory that's next door to either a gold bullion distribution centre or a major-league jewellery store. On a beach.

The tropes and conventions in play would keep an entire sociology department in Ph.D subjects until the Universe finally flickers out of existence - at the heart of rap music lurks the sort of feverish desire to one-up your mates that starts off in the playground when you're four or five. When you're that age, your place in the social order depends heavily on how many toy cars you've got, who is friends with who, or which games console you favour. Most of us grow out of it (or at least become adept at keeping the tendency well hidden) but the need to gain the esteem of others is right in there in Maslow's hierarchy - it's a basic human motivation that we have to fulfil. As far as I can make out, rap music is about embracing this behaviour and pushing it as far as it will go. The genre has been around long enough for just about every motif in the somewhat limited field of bragging about one's financial worth, criminal exploits, material possessions or sexual prowess to have been explored and every superlative enthusiastically claimed. For rap artists who want to remain creative and original, this presents a serious problem: where do you go from there?

Well, into the realms of the ludicrous, obviously.

You see what I did there?

The practice of oneupmanship was identified - and named - by Stephen Potter back in the 1950s. He made fun of it in a gently humorous way which spawned a number of books, a television series and a classic film.

However, there's a significant distinction to be made between oneupmanship and the enthusiastic self-aggrandisement practiced by rap artists. The whole point of oneupmanship is that the perpetrator makes his or her victim feel inferior without seeming to try; it's not true oneupmanship unless the result appears to have come about by accident. An analysis of this observation in greater detail might lead to some interesting comparisons between British and American culture. For example, one celebrates achievement and self-confidence, the other still treats them with a certain amount of suspicion and condescension. I think that's rather sad.


Incidentally, the attraction of social networking sites has a lot to do with tapping those same drives that Maslow identified. It's all about organising your own little tribe, keeping your number of useful relationships maxed out around your Dunbar number, getting your brain's reward centres buzzing. We literally get off on social behaviour, so having our social networks explicitly laid out on our computer screen can be like mainlining some sort of addictive drug. No wonder they're such a popular part of online life.


Good grief, as if writing a novel in a month wasn't hard enough: the folks over at FAWM picked February as the month in which their participants have to record an album. Because February is February Album Writing Month. 14 songs, written before the first of March - that's a pretty stiff challenge. Thanks (I think) to Justy from the William Gibson Board who mentioned this in a thread this week. I have a feeling I might have to have a go next year.


Anyone who writes more than a sentence a week needs to read Meg Pickard's blog entry for today. Because it's about how little people know about English grammar these days. Her article is illustrated with some fantastic examples of apostrophe abuse, too; no wonder the beleagured little mark needs its own protection society. Some mistakes are easier to spot than others, though. It's a good idea to brush up on what an apostrophe is for every now and again, just in case. The only trouble is that after looking at the photographs of all those painful examples I just want to go and lie down in a darkened room.


It's quite unusual for someone to take a photograph of an avalanche. They're not the sort of thing that can be predicted, and in most cases you wouldn't want to be around when a big one happens. So if it's a feat to take a picture of an avalanche on Earth, imagine how difficult it would be to take a picture of one happening on Mars. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has done just that.

In case you're wondering why the picture bears the caption "Ingrid's Avalanches" (it's not explained on the web page), it's because Ingrid Daubar Spitale of the University of Arizona in Tucson was the first person to notice the avalanches. She works on targeting the MRO's camera and has studied hundreds of High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) images.


Well done to Ruth, who has been offered a scholarship at one of the universities she's applied to. We're all very proud of her!


Will someone please give Charlie Brooker a hug? The grumpy bastard's been complaining this week that he's getting old, and he's only just turned 37. His neck hurts, so he went for an MRI scan. Poor dear - mine has been making crunching noises every time I move it for most of the last decade. I don't want to think what he's going to be like by the time he gets to my age, but he ought to realise that it's all downhill from here.


Jeff Healey has died from cancer at the age of 41. He was that rare thing - a guitarist with a totally unique approach to playing. I was familiar with his blues and rock work even before he appeared in the Patrick Swayze movie Road House back in 1989 (and it probably should go without saying that Healey's performance was the best thing in the movie), but he was also an accomplished jazz musician and played trumpet and clarinet as well as guitar. The music world is greatly diminished by his passing.


UPS delivered my theremin today.

Expect lots of almost-in-tune science fiction noises to follow shortly.


If you have a LastFM account you may not be aware that you can use your listening stats in all sorts of interesting ways. The wave graph in particular has got me drooling.