Chris Harris's Blog Archive: March 2010

I was away from home a lot in March, so the blog didn't really get the attention it normally gets. Nevertheless, I found time to blog about a few things, ranging from the denizens of the Oort cloud to the latest in viral marketing.


I spent a mildly diverting 15 minutes this morning going round the house putting the clocks forwards by an hour; the UK switched to British Summer Time last night. These days, a lot of devices are clever enough to know about the time change: my watch, iPhone, alarm clock and video recorder all managed to figure things out for themselves. Video games consoles still need telling, it appears - which is hardly surprising given that my PS3 thought it was February 29th at the beginning of the month. But this evening it won't get dark until about 7:30, by which time I should have finished the huge stack of ironing that I'm studiously avoiding tackling at the moment. I hate ironing, and with wearing a shirt and tie to work again there seems to be far more to do at the weekends than I'm used to. Bah!


I've been catching up with David Byrne's journal this afternoon. He recently wrote a piece on working collaboratively which piques my interest because not only does it give a glimpse of somebody else's home recording setup, but it also discusses how he worked with Brian Eno on their album Everything that happens will happen today. The piece is full of sparkling little insights on the creative process. I love Mr Byrne's description of what is needed when the flow of ideas looks like slowing down: "at this point, one wants surprises and weirdness from the depths." Absolutely. People used to view inspiration as a divine gift - the word's original meaning described the recipient as literally being "breathed upon" by the gods; the best creative work always has a supernal quality about it. Even if you don't believe the creative spark is the gift of some deity or other, it leaves a kind of "!WTF?" moment that makes you marvel at the ingenuity of the human mind (and on the rare occasion's that it's happened to me, it leaves me at a loss to explain how I could possibly have come up with such a cool idea.)

I mention all this because William Gibson tweeted this week that he'd finished his latest book, which is called Zero History. In response to a question from Colin at the WGB, he said that even as he started writing the last page, he didn't know what was going to happen on it. The act of creation is a strange one, indeed.


This week I had a bit of trouble with my glasses - they fell apart - so I called in at Specsavers on the way home on Friday and they fixed them for me on the spot: no charge.

While I was there, I booked myself in for an eye test, as I've been finding it harder to focus on close objects recently and much as it pains me to admit it, over the last few months I've been struggling to read small print up close, even when I've got my glasses on. So this morning I had my eyes checked out. It turned out that although my long-range vision is pretty much the same as it was (in fact it has actually improved slightly), the prescription my eyes need for close focus work is now double what it was just two years ago. I need new, much stronger glasses. I decided to splash out on better quality lenses this time round, so I have to wait for a couple of weeks before they're ready, but I'm looking fowards to being able to read easily again.

The lenses in my eyes are also showing signs of yellowing - another symptom of increasing age which has left me feeling a bit down this afternoon. I guess I should expect things like this as I get older, but it's never nice to be reminded that you're not getting any younger...


After I wrote yesterday's blog entry, I picked up my copy of this week's New Scientist magazine, and found myself reading about a brown dwarf called Gliese 710 that astronomers think has a good chance of passing through the Oort cloud, sending a rain of comets our way. In this case, though, it's not likely to happen for another 1.5 million years so you don't need to start worrying just yet.


The outer reaches of the Solar System are cold and dark, but they're not empty. Beyond the Kuiper Belt lies the Oort cloud, a vast (if very spread out) collection of small lumps of ice and rock - and by small, I mean "less than the size of a planet"; some of them may be many miles in diameter. Some of these lumps of ice and rock occasionally fall inwards towards the sun, appearing in our night sky as comets. Spectacular they may be, but it's widely accepted that the Earth occasionally gets in the way of one of these falling lumps of ice, causing extinction events like the one that killed off the dinosaurs.

But what's out there that could throw these comets our way? Pluto was discovered because astronomers thought that something off in the dark was affecting the orbits of the outer planets, something orbiting millions of miles away but massive enough for its gravity to exert a subtle but noticeable pull on the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. But Pluto was nowhere near big enough to be the cause, and in the 1990s, work by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory showed that the orbital discrepancies didn't actually exist. Despite this, belief in the sun's binary companion contines, thanks in large part to those extinction events mentioned above. It's been suggested that cometary impacts happen on a regular basis, with an interval of between 26 and 30 million years, although this is by no means certain. If there really is a regular cycle to these impacts, the morst likely explanation would be that something comes close to the Oort cloud every 26 to 30 million years. This object would have to be big enough for its gravitational field to send comets spiralling in towards the sun in large enough numbers that the Earth gets hit. By the 1980s, this mysterious object had even gained a name - Nemesis, after the Greek goddess of retribution.

Whetever Nemesis is (if it's anything at all), it's not a star. We know about all the stars in the neighbourhood, and none of them fits the description. The nearest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri, over four light years away. However, Nemesis doesn't have to be a "proper" star, and the alternatives are much less easy to find. Brown dwarfs are objects that never grew large enough for therir gravitational pressure to start hydrogen fusing into helium - the process that gives us sunshine. As a result, they don't shine like regular stars do. They do glow in the infrared, though - the result of heat generated as the brown dwarf collapses under its own gravity. The upper limit on the size of a brown dwarf before fusion kicks in is around 70 times the size of Jupiter (Jupiter has less than 0.001 of the mass of the sun), which would be plenty big enough to throw things around the Oort cloud. There are likely to be lots of brown dwarfs out there.

The recent discovery of Kuiper Belt objects like Sedna which have peculiar, highly elliptical orbits provides more evidence that an unseen companion to the sun is out there, lurking in the darkness and pulling things off course. Now, NASA have a new telescope that can detect objects out in the dark even if they don't shine brightly enough for the eye to see. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer was launched last December and its already returned some striking images. But WISE is our best chance yet for establishing whether Nemesis is real or not. I'll be very interested to see what turns up.


So, the weekend rolls around again and I'm sitting here with a cup of tea and a large Eccles cake as I run through the past week's events and discoveries. Of course, this is primarily a displacement activity, and when I finish this I will still have a large basketful of ironing to do, but that can wait for the moment.

The trouble with being so busy is that there's little time or opportunity to blog about things, and it all has to wait until the weekend - by which time I'm so knackered that usually all I end up doing is sleeping, doing the laundry, and the aforementioned ironing. Last night was a welcome change, as I had a very enjoyable meal with Rebecca and Rob at the Fleet Inn in Twyning. We hadn't been there for quite a while and I hadn't seen Rebecca or Rob since the new year. It was good to catch up. Thanks to Rob I've just been watching Eddie Izzard: Marathon Man on the BBC's iPlayer; with being away from home so much I had no idea it was on - in fact, this week I haven't watched any TV at all. Last September I blogged about Mr Izzard's remarkable achievement in running around the country to raise money for Sport Relief; watching him do it is inspiring stuff. If you haven't already sponsored him, I really think you should.

Ruth wasn't with us last night; she is still over in Bangor. She's currently doing some research on the field of haptics, which is something I've been interested in for a number of years. As far as computing goes, using haptics is a no-brainer for fields like VR or using CBT to train psychomotor skills. I was fascinated to hear that her department are using devices like the Phantom to investigate perception - I've looked at ways in which input devices like that can generate sensory feedback for some of the projects I've been involved with. Haptics is still a very young field, but there are some interesting developments on the horizon, like the use of ultrasound to create sensory impressions that can then be combined with holography to produce touchable objects that aren't really there. Imagine what life will be like when that technology makes it into your home...


I adore Charlie Stross's Laundry books. Who wouldn't love a genre that combines the cold-war espionage antics of Len Deighton's novels with the squamous and rugose horror of H. P. Lovecraft's elder gods?

The fact that there is a role-playing game forthcoming fills me with glee, even if I haven't played an RPG for years. I must have a copy!


You may not have heard about the spectacularly nerdcore way in which Valve software released news of the sequel to their mind-bending videogame Portal this month. The existing game consists of a number of rooms from which you must escape. In some of these rooms, there are small transistor radios. The latest update to the game changed the way in which these radios behaved, and it wasn't long before fans discovered exactly what it was that the radios were doing...

Now we know that Portal 2 will be out in time for Christmas for, as the poster has it, the people who are still alive.

2-player co-op mode? Can't wait.


Enough with the Internet. My ironing awaits...


Work continues to take up pretty much all of my time at the moment, which is why it's taken the best part of a week for me to get round to creating an entry for March. The job I'm doing is interesting stuff, but it doesn't leave me much in the way of spare time; this year's attempt at FAWM was a failure, although I did manage to double the number of songs I wrote compared with last year. I'm also back in a shirt-and-tie office environment, so last Sunday afternoon found me ironing a stack of shirts; it's a chore I really hadn't missed.

Now it's the weekend, and I think I'm coming down with a cold. Urgh.


I walked to Steve's Shop this morning to buy some milk and a paper - and the Guardian's Weekend magazine turned out to be a lot more interesting than usual. Aside from an interview with Matt Smith, the new Doctor Who, there's a fascinating article by Jon Ronson (of Men Who Stare At Goats fame) about a chat he had recently with Paul Davies from Arizona State University. Professor Davies is chair of the SETI post-detection task group, and he's got a book out called The Eerie Silence which considers why it might be that SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) has yet to discover any evidence of life out there beyond one tantalising, seventy-two-second blip. It's his job to organise the response should a signal ever be detected; that's quite a responsibility, to say the least. Fortunately the interview makes it clear that the responsibility is in good hands.