Blog Time

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: March 2009

March was a funny old month. I spent quite a bit of it sorting myself out, but I found time to sort out my home computer and home entertainment systems as well. I found time to drink beer and watch some DVDs, though.


I went to see David Byrne last night. He was playing the Colson Hall in Bristol on the first night of his UK tour. Apart from a crazed Welshman shouting from the back, the gig seemed to go very well. As you would expect from Mr Byrne, the stage show was impressive, with choreography and dancing and everyone dressed in white. The sound was excellent, with percussion and drums separated cleanly from the instruments and DB's very distinctive voice.

As I've already commented on Twitter, I was quite taken aback by DB's attitude to the ubiquitous cameraphone. "This guy in front is a professional," he said at the beginning of the show, indicating a press photographer just in front of him who was brandishing an SLR. "For the rest of you, feel free to take pics. If we look good, post 'em on the net. If we don't, delete them." Then he waved at the balcony: "Remember your flash is only good for about five rows, so turn it off and save your batteries." People obviously did; there are a few good shots from the show already up on Flickr.

There was a nice, laid-back feeling about the gig. Security were pretty relaxed about things, and after half a dozen numbers or so the crowd had got over their self-consciousness and started dancing. That helped the band no end, and the rest of the gig was great fun. We were treated to stuff from most of the back catalogue and a really interesting version of "Help Me Somebody" from My Life In The Bush of Ghosts in which DB sang all the stuff that was originally sampled from a radio show, although as he commented wryly the use of the word "sample" came along quite a while after the album came out - back in 1981 they used the term "found audio".

It was worth the price of admission just for the moment when the whole ensemble appeared on stage wearing tutus and ripped up a version of "Burning down the house." An excellent gig.


Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. I've picked Elizabeth Parker, a British composer. I've picked her because for many years she played a pivotal role at the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop. Her compositions, such as the music for the BBC series The Living Planet are a great example of how the use of technology can augment - not simply replace - the use of traditional instruments. She was even asked by Terry Jones to contribute new incidental music to the DVD reissue of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which brings me nicely on to today's next story...


You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried. A bomb scare in London last week was triggered after workmen found something... unusual underneath a manhole cover leading to a sewer in Shoreditch. After studying the device for an hour, experts came to the conclusion that it was a copy of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Yes, the device that Graham Chapman (not Eric Idle, as the Telegraph reported) used to blow up the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog in - yes, you've guessed it, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.


I'm really glad it's Friday. This week has been a long, hard struggle for me, and I am looking forwards to not doing very much over the next couple of days. I've allowed myself the tiniest suspicion that my glum mood is beginning to lift a little today; that might be because I've actually managed to complete all the work that I needed to finish this week, it might be because the antidepressants are beginning to have an effect, or it might just be because it's a lovely day. The sun is shining, it's warm and balmy outside, the magnolia in the front garden is beginning to bloom, and the amaryllis plants on the windowsill are beginning to sprout.


I spent a few minutes today tinkering around with my router, as the wireless signal has been disappearing from time to time recently. I discovered that the firmware version I was using (version 1.30) was significantly out of date, so I upgraded to a more up to date version (version 1.38b, which judging by the number is quite a step forwards). Of course the old config file I had for the router was corrupted it when I restored it, so I then spent twenty minutes typing in all the router settings by hand once again. Still, it's all up and running now, and at the moment it seems to be sustaining a fairly respectable connection speed of 1950 kbps downstream. Believe me - for round here, that's very good indeed.

It's obviously been a busy week for upgrades. There's been quite a lot of discussion online about the latest Facebook tweaks - which I'm not really that fussed about, to be honest. Yes, I preferred the old design, but I can live with the new one. I'm less happy with the current tweaks to Twitter. Rather than the old "older" button that took you to a new page of messages, you now access older tweets by clicking on a huge button at the bottom of the home page. This loads in another bunch of messages by making the web page longer. Doing it again adds another page worth of stuff at the bottom, and so on and so on. I dunno, it just feels wrong doing it that way.

The BBC were reporting earlier this week that Microsoft had released Internet Explorer 8, but they'd jumped the gun by a couple of days; it's only today that the download has actually been available. Earlier in the week if you went to the IE home page you could only download a release candidate for version 8, not the final release. Of course, now it's available I've downloaded and installed it. IE8 does seem quicker than its predecessor, but as I use Firefox most of the time it's not really going to have any impact on my web surfing experience.

But the worst upgrade I've come across this week has to be Windows Live Messenger. There are fewer status options ("be right back" and "out to lunch" have gone, and "online" has changed to "available") and the appearance of the window has been given a radical overhaul which makes it look more like some dodgy shareware application. Needless to say the obtrusive adverts at the bottom of the window are still there, though. I downloaded sixty megs of files for this? Sheesh...


Yesterday I said how underwhelmed I was by the BBC's HD output.

Ignore what I said yesterday.

I've just watched the first episode of their new series on Yellowstone, and then watched the last in the series of Nature's Great Events. Both were utterly stunning. The footage of humpback whales using a technique called bubble netting to catch huge numbers of herring (each humpback can eat up to a tonne of fish a day) was the most astonishing thing I've seen on TV for quite a while.


You know you're living in the 21st century when scientists develop a new defence against malaria that uses lasers to shoot down mosquitoes. It can even use wing beat frequency to discriminate between male and female mosquitoes and target the females, which are the ones that carry the disease. More than a little scary, I thought.


To William Gibson. The folk at the WGB have been celebrating, and there was cake.


After four months I have finally tracked down a HUMAX Foxsat HDR, so I am now able to record television programmes again rather than having to choose between staying in (and/or up) to watch them, or missing them. The ability to pause live TV is so weird that it's bound to come in useful. And roll on Saturday, when I will be watching the last matches of the Six Nations rugby in HD. Yay!

But - I have to say I'm less than thrilled with the weekday programming that is currently available on Freesat's HD channels. ITV's HD output appears about as frequently as Vesuvius erupts, Channel 4's service isn't available at all, and the Beeb only seem to show soap operas and children's programmes until eight o'clock at night. I guess I can't complain, as it's not a subscription service, but I can't help but feel rather underwhelmed by the whole thing.


Apple announces iPhone v3.0; world carries on as normal. As the guy from Engadget said about the response to the introduction of - I kid you not - copy and paste,

"Applause. Applause for a feature that every other device in the world has. Odd."


Here's what a trillion dollars looks like. I love visualisation examples such as this one. It's informative, and it helps us to understand the ridiculous amounts involved when numbers acquire lots of zeroes on the end. I believe that a lot of the problems involved with the economy at the moment have happened because the mind really isn't very good a coping with figures on this sort of scale.

It helps to have something to look at when you're dealing with other quantities too - whether it's 200 calories, the relative sizes of the planets, sun, and neighbouring stars, or the world the other side of the decimal point: down to nanoscale objects and beyond. You can find more on information visualisation at the Infosthetics Blog, but I'd also recommend a look at Edward Tufte's site to see how this sort of thing should be done.


And thank goodness; I feel absolutely knackered. I'm still not sleeping properly and even when I wake up in the morning I feel completely exhausted. I'm looking forwards to Easter and a few days R&R. Not long now!


I've been grumbling to myself recently about the monitor I use for my home PC. It's about 10 years old, and the display has been getting dimmer and dimmer. For the last year I've had the brightness set at maximum, and it's still not been bright enough. It was making life very difficult when I edited my photographs to print them or put them on Flickr, because what I've been seeing on my monitor wasn't even close to what comes off the printer, even after running monitor calibration programs and resetting the display gamma. So I finally caved in and replaced it with something more up to date:

Widescreen workspace

I've used LCD monitors at work for quite a while; at present I'm lucky enough to be able to run two, side by side at 2560 by 1024. Although it took some time to get used to them I'm a quite a fan these days. Even so, this is the first LCD monitor I've had for my home PC. I'm very pleased with it, and the resolution is ridiculous: 2048 by 1152! It means I can have several documents open on screen at the same time, and as I work at home a fair bit at the moment that comes in very useful. Text is razor sharp and easy to read, so my eyes aren't struggling to focus as much.

At the same time, I've also changed my mouse again; I've been getting a lot of shoulder pain since last November, and it occurred to me at the weekend that that was when I bought my last mouse, so I wondered whether or not the two things might be connected. I decided I'd get an alternative - with a different design - and use that for a while to see if the symptoms eased off at all. I've ended up with a Razer Diamondback G3 gaming mouse which has a very comfortable rubber coating (unlike the Intellimouse Explorer I was using, which had such a cheap coating on it that I've already worn through it in a couple of places). It also has seven customisable buttons and a very satisfying green LED which illuminates the scroll wheel. It seems to be more comfortable, and I've been using it all day so far.


I'm still up and down a fair bit; I'm afraid I have to put sleeping longer last weekend down to alcohol consumption. Since I've stopped, my sleep patterns have been the same as they were before: I wake up after about four hours. So far, I can't say I've noticed any change in my mood, either - but I've only been going a week so far and I was told not to expect much in less than a fortnight.

I'm working from home for a couple of days, and that usually make me feel less stressed so I'm hoping I'll get some decent rest at the weekend. It's going to be a quiet one, I think.


I'm pleased to be able to report that for the last two nights I've slept better than I have for years. That alone has been enough to make me feel much better, so I hope it continues.


It was the third annual Charfield Beer Festival yesterday, and Becs and I went along to the evening session. It was good fun - I caught up with some of my friends, drank some fine beer and excellent cider, and had a ploughmans lunch or two to help it all down. For those of you who are interested in such things, I sampled the following beverages this year:

  • Codrington Brewery "Codger" (4.2%)
  • Codrington Brewery "Royal" (4.5%)
  • Uley Brewery "Pig's Ear" (5%)
  • Butcombe Brewery "Brunel" (5%)
  • Box Steam Brewery "Dark and Handsome" (5%)
  • Moles Brewery "Black Rat" cider (6.0%)
  • Weston's Brewery "Old Rosie" cider (7.3%)

Perhaps it's not surprising I slept well after that little lot!


I was watching the biography of Stanley Kubrick again this week. I can't believe it was ten years ago today that he died - it feels like yesterday. He was the archetypal master filmmaker, starting off as a stills photographer when he was in his early teens and turning professional by the time he was 17. And by "turning professional" I mean getting a job with America's Look Magazine, a publication that prioritised photography as a news source as well as an artistic endeavour. His knowledge of photographic technique is obvious in the composition of shots in his films. His expertise in picking just the right lens is the stuff of legend, as the veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard found out when he ignored him on the set of The Killing.

I love Kubrick's films. I have 2001: A Space Odyssey on three different formats in my collection, for a start; unless things change considerably in the future, it will always be in my top 5 list of the greatest films ever made. So today I will raise a glass in tribute to one of the true geniuses of cinema: Mr Stanley Kubrick.


I'm back from the doctor's. As I tweeted earlier, the results of my blood tests were all normal, which means no thyroid problems. That is a great relief. With no physical issues to deal with, I can start concentrating on getting my head together.

I'm now on an antidepressant and we'll see what happens over the next couple of weeks. A big thank you to everyone who has sent messages of support recently; special mention should go to Rob and Peter who both sent me good wishes as soon as I posted the results on Twitter this morning!


Coolest business card ever. Thanks to englishvoodoo at the WGB for that one, it made my day.


Aside from writing some of the best stuff on television, Graham Linehan also has a very entertaining website with the charming name of Why, that's Delightful! From it, I bring you the most satisfying YouTube clip of the year so far: Two Angry Camels in a Car.


Once again, Charlie Brooker's mad as hell, and he's not going to take it any more. On Monday, the Guardian published what I think is the best column he's ever written. Read it, and enjoy.


Although there are now people actively searching for Near Earth Objects - asteroids that orbit close enough to the Earth to stand a remote chance of hitting us - it's very likely that there are still a lot of them out there that we don't know about. One was discovered on Saturday that was heading towards us and was already very close. On Monday, 2009 DD45 passed the Earth at a distance of just 72,000 km - that's less than 45,000 miles, and a very near miss in astronomical terms. Monday was a lucky day for all of us, then.

If 2009 DD45 had been on a collision course, there would have been little we could have done with only three days' notice - forget sending Bruce Willis up in a shuttle to blow the thing out of the sky. The impact could have been equivalent to the Tunguska explosion of 1908 when it's thought that a similar sized asteroid disintegrated in the air over Siberia. We were lucky then, too; Siberia is sparsely populated. If the airburst had happened over a city, it would have utterly devastated buildings over an area of nearly a thousand square miles.

It's comforting to know that however bad things get on a personal level, on Monday at least your day turned out a lot better than it might otherwise have done.


I mentioned last month that I've been rather under the weather. I've been pretty up and down since I last blogged; I'm still waiting for the results of some blood tests, which should be ready on Friday, but last night I slept for nearly six hours straight. I haven't done that since last summer, as far as I can remember. It's progress of a sort, and for the moment I'm not feeling as bad as I was.


Many thanks to Neil Gaiman for mentioning one of the Onion's latest gems on his Twitter feed. The story of a parents' association with a difference won't mean a lot unless you've read any of the dark and disturbing stories of H. P. Lovecraft.


Less thanks to SF author John Scalzi, who has managed to infect me with one of the most insidious earworms I've heard in a long time after mentioning it on his Twitter feed. In his words:

"Damn it, I put "Still Alive" in my own brain. Note to self: Stop giving yourself earworms. Here, you have it."

"Still Alive" is the closing song to the video game Portal. And now of course, I can't stop humming the damn thing. Not only that, but I suspect I am going to have to order a copy of The Orange Box so I can play the game and get it out of my system.


At the weekend APOD went back in time a few decades; specifically, to August 10th, 1972. Imagine being on holiday in the Grand Tetons and seeing this. On YouTube you can also watch Linda Baker's very famous amateur cine film of the same event, and it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.