Chris Harris's Blog Archive: May 2010

May was a bumper month for the blog, coming in as the seventh largest overall in file size since things began back in 2003. It's crammed to bursting with cool stuff like beer festivals, space elevators, video games, social networking, and - er, the Eurovision Song Contest.

Sadly it's also crammed to bursting with obituaries. This month we said goodbye to mathematician Martin Gardner, Ronnie James Dio and Dennis Hopper.


Could mankind develop and construct a space elevator in seven years? Keith Curtis reckons we could. It's an interesting read, and the graphic of the elevator compared with the Earth shows the sheer scale of the engineering required to make it happen. It would be a tough project to finish, but the point Curtis makes is that it's not an impossible one. We just need to think big.

As I read his blog, I could hear echoes of my own frustration with what's left of the space race. I was eight years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Back then, I fully expected to be able to go to the Moon for my holidays by the time I was fifty. This year I finally reach my half century, but the development of human spaceflight is still stuck in low Earth orbit with the International Space Station.

Every year the timetable for mankind's next steps to the stars slips back, and I'm beginning to think that there won't be any further significant developments in my lifetime. As a kid, it really did feel like it was the dawning of the age of aquarius, that in a few decades' time literally anything would be possible. If we could put men on the Moon, what couldn't we do? Looking back at the end of the sixties from forty years on, it feels like that was the time when the wave crested, then rolled back. The seventies failed to live up to their promise - we had a few more lunar missions, and Skylab, and that was about it. We're living in the 21st century, but as a race we're too busy pissing our resources away fighting wars and trying to get one up over on our neighbours to do anything about making all those dreams come true.

Today's headlines of massacres and environmental catastrophes make for dismal reading. Companies who took it upon themselves to act as stewards for our safety and our future are exposed every day as being far more interested in making money than in getting the job done. I was watching a BBC World report last night that was talking seriously about war between North and South Korea. At the moment, it seems like the world is being run by governments and companies behaving like five year old children. Just for once, I'd like to see some grownups in charge. At the risk of sounding like an old hippie, we need something wonderful to believe in. We need an enterprise that will make us see how great we could become. Wouldn't it be so much better if we could all embark on an enterprise to secure our long term survival? Wouldn't it be inspiring to be in at the start of the next great wave of human spaceflight? Shouldn't we be doing something to make the future better, not worse?

It's about bloody time, I reckon.


I don't have very much else to report from the web today, as I've spent most of the day so far doing some gardening. I was getting fed up with the view out of the living room window, which for the past year or so has consisted almost entirely of my magnolia tree, so I've given it quite a severe pruning. I managed to fit everything that came off the tree into a single green bin thanks to the garden shredder I bought a few years ago. I don't need the thing very often, but when I do it's worth its weight in gold. I'm pleased with my efforts, too - the living room is a lot lighter. Staying outside all afternoon means I'll probably suffer from hayfever this evening, but I've followed a formula that's worked quite well for me this year: I took an antihistamine tablet, had a bath and then dressed in a complete change of clothes, and the windows upstairs are open to the barest minimum. So far I don't feel too bad.


Ozzy Osbourne has a new album coming out soon. Last week's PR exercise consisted of his record company plonking him down in Madame Tussauds and telling him to make an exhibition of himself. The results were quite amusing and it certainly did the trick in terms of press coverage.


For a while this evening, I didn't think I was going to get the blog entry uploaded. When I opened an FTP session to my ISP and tried to upload some files, I kept getting a "disk full" message. IDNet are pretty good - I get a gigabyte of web space as part of the deal, and I was pretty sure I hadn't filled it up (and a quick check confirmed that the whole Headfirstonly website uses less than 20Mb). I put it down to a temporary glitch, and that seems to be just what it was. As you're reading this, it's pretty evident that things are working again.

This month's blog has been one of the largest I've produced in quite a while. In fact, it's in the top ten of my largest blogs ever; not bad, considering I spent the best part of a week in London. For the first time in ages, I've managed to spend a fair bit of time at home and relax. Equally, I've actually had the time to do more interesting things, rather than sitting in a pub in the evenings. I hope June will continue in the same vein, so please keep reading!


Just in case you were worrying (not very likely, but you never know about these things): the mystery of the missing sock has been solved and it has been reunited with its partner.

DENNIS HOPPER 1936 - 2010

I seem to be writing a lot of obituaries this month. This one is one that I've known would be coming for some time but it's still not pleasant having to report that the actor, photographer and director Dennis Hopper passed away yesterday. He'd been suffering from prostate cancer for some time.

In Hopper's obituary at BBC News they relate how, early on in his career, his friend James Dean gave him a piece of advice: "Drink the drink. Don't act drinking the drink." As an ideology to underpin Hopper's career, it's difficult to come up with anything better. But look at the films that are listed on his IMDB page. Just look at them. Not just the two films he made with James Dean, Rebel without a cause and Giant; you'll see classics like Cool Hand Luke, Hang 'Em High, True Romance, River's Edge and True Grit together with TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, The Time Tunnel and 24. And then there were the films that were quintessential Hopper: Easy Rider, the film that he made with Peter Fonda which made him famous; Apocalypse Now, where his rambling, improvised role as the crazed photojournalist comes very close to running off with the film; Speed, in which he really does act the rest of the cast off the screen, and of course Blue Velvet. Frank Booth has to be one of the scariest characters I've ever seen in a film. David Lynch tapped into something primal in Hopper's psyche and let out a thing that is unique in the history of celluloid, something terrifying and hypnotic. For every second of screen time he has in the film, you can't take your eyes off him. You have no idea what he's going to do next. It's an extraordinary performance.

Hopper struggled with his inner demons over the years, and had a well-deserved reputation as a hellraiser. I've just finished reading Eleanor Coppola's book Notes on the making of Apocalypse Now and the brief mentions of Hopper in the book make it clear that he was quite a handful; it took them the best part of a day to get him off the set when he'd finished shooting. The Guardian obituary mentions that he was committed to a psychiatric ward in the 80s after a drug binge left him experiencing violent hallucinations, that he used cocaine to sober himself up in order to go out drinking again. His choices of film weren't always the most sober, either. Remember his role as the villain in Super Mario Brothers, or as the bad guy in Kevin Costner's Waterworld? But for every Space Truckers there was an Indian Runner; for every Last Movie there was a Rumble Fish. He was a gifted photographer, too. The more I find out about the man, the more I realise what a prodigious talent he had. His death this weekend leaves me wondering what his career would have been like if only he'd been able to act drinking the drink once in a while.


Last night a sizable proportion of Europe sat down to watch the Eurovision song contest. I put it on as background while I sat at the computer with a glass of wine and surfed the net, but then a strange thing happened. I had a tab open on Brizzly, which I use on the desktop for monitoring Twitter. A couple of friends started tweeting about the contest. Then a couple more joined in. I added a couple of messages, and they got retweeted by even more people, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the sofa running Tweetdeck on my laptop and the whole event had turned into a hilarious mixture of social networking and really bizarre musical performances. It was great fun!

Things really started to kick off with the Greek entry OPA which turned the cheese factor up to eleven. Tweets started coming in left right and centre, and it was clear that George Alkaios and his friends had got a commanding lead. Would they be outdone?

The sheer number of his messages being retweeted meant I started following Chris Addison early on in the proceedings. He was on top form: "The backing singers move towards him when he's not looking. It's like the weeping angels" had me laughing out loud and "Modulation + fist down + fireworks = power ballad = Norway does not retain title" summed up the host nation's attempt perfectly but could also have been applied to a frightening number of the other acts we were subjected to. Somebody had emailed Graham Norton with a drinking game: take a shot for every performer you see wearing a mullet haircut. "Oh no," Norton commented, "You'd be asleep by now."

Martin White (ace accordion player and permanent fixture at the Latitude Festival) spotted that many of the songs had the same structure of A minor, F, C, E and once he'd pointed it out it was very difficult not to laugh when entry after entry followed suit.

Much was made of the Russian entry Peter Nalitch (I rather unkindly suggested that they'd cloned Chris de Burgh) which descended into a melodramatic spoken section containing a "photo" which was rather obviously a very hastily-scribbled biro drawing. Peter was advised to "drop 'em to the fire" and I couldn't agree more. Having said that, I loved it - the performance was entirely in the Eurovision spirit of extreme cheesiness and utterly crap music.

Talking of crap music, I suppose I ought to mention the UK entry. Much was made of the fact that it was written by Pete Waterman, who gave the world the singing talents of Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue, remember. It was truly apalling. It was off key, the backing singers were so out of tune that replacing them with a pack of wolves would have been more melodic, and the singer (who was so memorable I can't even tell you what his name was) was wooden, lifeless and uninspiring.

Turkey had a woman dressed up as a silver version of The Stig setting about their amplifiers with an angle grinder and a band who had obviously been to at least one Muse concert, taking notes. The German entry went down well, mostly because it was hard not to feel sorry for a clearly terrified teenage German girl pretending to be either Kate Nash or Lily Allen (there was some doubt as to which she resembled more closely). German cockney is clearly a music genre with huge potential.

All us guys paid very close attention to the Armenian entry, which we eventually figured out concerned apricots. The opening shot of the apricot stone that Eva was holding up to the camera also (and I am sure not at all coincidentally) also featured a large expanse of her cleavage. She also had an 83 year old bloke (the oldest ever Eurovision contestant) playing a duduk in her backing band. How could she possibly lose?

Denmark had clearly decided not to bother writing anything original and had thrown the Police's "Every Breath You Take" into a blender along with Abba's "Fernando" and sung the results. The really frightening thing for me was that it actually sounded rather good. Portugal had clearly left the Mariah Carey-iser on full blast with their entry, which really set my teeth on edge. Then the Israeli entry sounded almost as out of tune as the UK's but by this time thanks to minifig I'd discovered that with the red button you could have the lyrics and their translations displayed on screen with each song and was marvelling at the inanities of the words. When all the performances were over (and we had to suffer through Spain's entry twice after a fan interrupted their first performance) there was a brief interlude as the votes were compiled. This was filled with a splendid flashmob style dance routine filmed across all of the Eurovision countries. The UK contingent were crap in that, too.

When the results started to come in, Striv got really worried as it looked like Greece were in with a chance. People helpfully suggested that if they did win, it would be okay to put the whole show on in a tent. But as more countries announced their votes it became clear that Germany (who, let's face it, are pretty much the only contenders able to afford to put on Eurovision next year) were going to run off with the title. I was worried for a while, but my expectations were eventually met and the UK finished in absolute last place. Mitch Benn summed up my thoughts about Pete Waterman's entry best, and he wasn't very complimentary. All in all, I had a great evening together with friends in the UK, Greece, Iceland and elsewhere. I was pretty satisfied with who won, too - even if when the contestants came back on stage at the end, it looked like nobody had told Lena Mayer-Landrut that she'd have to sing again. Somehow she managed it, the fireworks went off, the credits rolled, and I headed off to bed.


Monday will be a bank holiday here in the UK, and that means a three day weekend and the chance to unwind a little. It seems to be working - I had a good night's sleep last night for the first time in quite a while. That came as a pleasant surprise, and it contrasts starkly with Tuesday night and Wednesday night, which were dreadful. I blogged on Wednesday about how bad a night I'd had, but Wednesday night was much worse; I was still awake at six thirty on Thursday morning. When I finally did sleep it was only for about four hours or so. I got up and finished off the work I needed to do, grabbed a bite to eat and then headed back to bed. The next morning I was in the office by 7:20.

I seem to have occasional bouts of insomnia like this, fits of sleeplessness that culminate in an overwhelming and debilitating crash after which I feel much better. A three day weekend is just what the doctor ordered, as far as I'm concerned. I suspect the main cause of my problems is that I'm overweight. My lifestyle over the last few months has not helped things either; that's what staying in a pub will do to you. So since I returned home, I've tried to improve my eating habits and I'm back on the exercise bike as well. I've lost a few pounds so far but I could do with losing a lot more. I've stopped buying croissants, biscuits or crisps and although I do still snack, it's either a glass of squash or a piece of fruit rather than a bar of chocolate or a pot noodle.

Getting a half-decent night's sleep means I've got more energy today. So far this Saturday I've had breakfast (just toast and coffee), changed the bedclothes, done the washing up, emptied the bins, put four loads of washing through the machine (and in the process lost a light brown sock somewhere), and then fired up the PS3 and watched some of the extras on the Blu-Ray set of The Godfather collection (the Coppola Restoration) before finishing off Bioshock.


When I first bought 2K Games's Bioshock back last November I spent an entire evening playing it with the lights off and the curtains drawn, enjoying the supremely atmospheric experience with the surround sound turned up loud. However, as the plot progressed I felt like I was approaching my limit in terms of the game's blood and gore and general gratuitous violence. The game has an 18 certificate here in the UK and it's well deserved. The fights can be pretty graphic. However, I'd also struggled with gameplay at one or two points early on. I'd even got to the point of throwing the controller down in frustration. Back then I wouldn't have thought of consulting the Bioshock wiki or search for walkthroughs. So I'd got to a stage in the game where irritability and exasperation won out - and as I'd picked up Colin McRae's Dirt at the same time, I put Bioshock on the back burner and went back to my favourite videogame genre of racing and driving. Then the following month I got a copy of 2K's masterpiece Borderlands and all my other games were forgotten.

Fast forward six months. I picked up Bioshock 2 for a knock-down price in the supermarket this week. When I got it home, I realised I was going to feel guilty about not playing the first game to its conclusion. I didn't want to get into the "what happened next" aspects of the story without finding out "what happened first," so I put the sequel to one side and went back to the first game. It took me far less time to complete than I expected. I think this is probably because now I have so much more first person shooter gameplay under my belt. I have a much better idea of how these games progress and I've learnt how you build skills and level up. As I started to play I realised I finally *got* Bioshock. Reading the on-screen help came in useful, too. It revealed that when I'd abandoned the game last year, I'd done so just at the point where I'd unlocked the part of the game - the research camera - that gives a significant improvement in my weapons and abilities. Once I'd realised how to use the camera, gameplay became much easier and I was able to run through the rest of the story without too many more hiccups. Some of my irritations remain, however. In particular, the game's sound design can get profoundly annoying. My footsteps never seem to synchronise with what I'm doing, and quite often I'll turn around after hearing something behind me and realise that it was my character making all the noise. In other cases I'll hear someone's voice coming from somewhere quite close and wander all over the place trying to find them before remembering that from time to time it's a good idea to look up...

The cinematic style of the game becomes more apparent as you progress. The back story of each of the NPCs is gradually explained, and the characters - particularly Andrew Ryan - feel like they've just stepped out of an Orson Welles movie. I was amused to discover that the voice actor who plays Ryan is none other than Armin Shimerman - he's probably best known for playing the Ferengi Quark in Deep Space Nine, and Principal Snyder in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The plot is surprisingly rich for a videogame, with flashbacks and plot twists delivered through the discovery of taped messages. These tapes are brilliantly done; they're staged as miniature radio plays, each less than a minute long, which deliver a series of vignettes that advance the plot but which also contribute to the overall feel of the game. The use of music in the game is also first class, with a number of old standards cropping up. In particular, I think that the game would have been considerably diminished without the opportunity to stalk the city's corridors to the strains of Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea."

There are many, many references to the work of Ayn Rand (one of the main characters is called Atlas, for example). Rand's philosophy is known as objectivism, which essentially boils down to self-interest and the pursuit of happiness, or looking out for number one. With no place for altruism, I suspect that the world created by Andrew Ryan gives us a good idea of what the results of putting Rand's ideas in to practice would look like. The stage for Bioshock is a small, isolated and intensely claustrophobic world whose community has disintegrated. Society has broken down, utterly and irrevocably. As we progress through the game we learn of Andrew Ryan's role as its creator, leader and - ultimately - its dictator. Ryan clearly had no time or consideration for the "little people" he needed to keep the place running, and without them, Rapture is coming apart. So the dictator is left, hiding in his apartment behind his security systems, putting golf balls across the carpet to pass the time until his nemesis finally catches up with him.

Now I'm ready for Bioshock 2. My first impression is that this is Bioshock seen from the other side: this time round you play as a Big Daddy. Naturally this means that the weapons available to you and the abilities you must develop are different - for one thing, you have a massive drill bit on the end of your right arm! While I've not got very far into things, it looks to me like many of the annoyances of the first game (particularly the tile-based puzzles you had to solve to "hack" various devices) have been changed or removed altogether. Gameplay feels faster, slicker, and maybe a little easier, though I'm not complaining. I'll probably slot the game back into the PS3 later on and have another wander under the sea, stomping through the drowned world that goes by the name of Rapture...

RONNIE JAMES DIO 1942 - 2010

I couldn't let this month go by without noting the passing of one of rock music's truly legendary figures. I first heard the mighty voice of Ronnie James Dio on Rainbow's Rainbow Rising album back in the 1970s. I can remember going to a youth club in Stafford with my friends from school where the album stayed on the record player there all evening, every week. Rising was an LP with mythical qualities, one whose every aspect was discussed and dissected. Every bit of minutiae about the album was dutifully memorised - not just the lyrics but when and where the album was recorded (Musicland Studios, "sometime in Feb '76") and even who painted the cover (the great Ken Kelly, who also produced album covers for Kiss and countless memorable book covers). The album had a huge impact on me. I might have cherished teenage dreams of playing as well as Ritchie Blackmore back then but even so, I knew that Dio's ability was something utterly beyond my reach. He had an extraordinary, operatic voice that took Blackmore's music to a level that - in my opinion - Deep Purple never achieved. When the obligatory "creative differences" with Blackmore led to him leaving Rainbow after four albums, the band lost a lot of its magic that - in my opinion - it never really recovered.

When Ozzy Osbourne parted ways with the rest of Black Sabbath in 1980 it was Ronnie who picked up the pieces. Heaven and Hell, the album that resulted, is still one of the heaviest rock albums I've ever heard and I was lucky enough to see the band perform it live when they played the Hammersmith Odeon, marvelling at how Dio's diminutive figure could produce such an immense voice. After a stint with Sabbath, Dio went on to form his eponymous band and released a number of cracking metal albums of his own. In recent years he toured again with his former Sabbath bandmates under the name Heaven and Hell, and while his voice didn't quite have the power of days of yore, he still managed to outclass every other singer on the metal circuit.

By all accounts Dio never took himself seriously; he has a cameo in Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny; he contributed backing vocals on Pat Boone's version of the Dio song Holy Diver without the slightest hit of irony and he's by far the most entertaining and endearing person to appear in the documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. As I read through the obituaries that appeared following his death from stomach cancer earlier this month, it became clear that to his peers, he was a much-liked and well respected figure. In a field of entertainment where hyperbole is rampant, his description as "the greatest heavy metal singer who ever lived" is pretty much the plain and simple truth. Rest in peace, Ronnie; we'll miss you, but we'll never forget you.


I had a miserable night last night. I was tired, so I went to bed early, but then I woke up at midnight with a dry mouth and throbbing sinuses. After getting a drink of orange juice, I went back to bed - and woke up again at two, at four, at five thirty, at six fifteen...

I think it's safe to say that hayfever season has arrived. Some years I get away with only mild symptoms, but it looks like this year I won't be so lucky. At least the weather's cooled down a little, so I'll be keeping the bedroom window shut tonight. I'll take an antihistamine tablet, too. There are other treatments available for the condition, but I think I'll pass. Ewww.

Hayfever season

And look at that field - the photo was taken last weekend. Is it any wonder that I keep getting dandelions growing in the back garden?


Thanks to Allison Kipta for tweeting a link to some amazing slow-motion footage of the launch of Apollo 11. I've seen bits of the film before, but the narration is fascinating as it explains exactly what goes on in the first few moments of the launch. You can see how cooler gas is vented through the rocket nozzles to keep them cool; you can watch water flashing instantly into steam as it's pumped on to the pad. The quality of the video is outstanding - it's well worth a watch.


Guess who's coming back? Go on, guess...

MARTIN GARDNER 1914 - 2010

I was sorry to hear that the mathematician Martin Gardner died at the weekend. Whenever I started to read an article of his over the years, I knew I was about to be treated to a little jewel of stimulating, intellectual brilliance. He had a long and varied career, starting off as the author of children's books before getting a job writing articles for Scientific American at the end of the 1950s; he also had a column in the now sadly defunct magazine Omni, and contributed every month to the Skeptical Enquirer under the byline "Notes of a fringe watcher."

As far as I'm concerned, Gardner ranks alongside Carl Sagan in his efforts to make all fields of science, particularly mathematics, accessible to a wider audience. Just as with Professor Sagan, his passing is a profound loss to everyone who values rationality and analytical thought.


Last week's Aviation Week had some great pictures of designs for subsonic and supersonic airliners that might be taking passengers in 20 years or so. Unfortunately AWST's site makes anything not in theis week's issue almost impossible to find, so here's a link to a gallery of the same images over at CNET instead. Gerry Anderson fans may note the similarity of Boeing's ICON-2 design to that of a certain atomic-powered airliner rescued by the Tracy brothers some 45 years ago.

If nothing else, the gallery proves that Northrop Grumman are still the unchallenged masters when it comes to seriously weird aircraft designs. Take the one that looks like a table with a jet engine stuck on each front corner, for example.

Seriously - that was one of the ones that made the downselect? WTF?


I've been at an exhibition and conference in London this week. I've been involved with computer-based training and its close relatives for the best part of thirty years, and ITEC gives me a good opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in the field and check out new innovations in training technology and delivery.

If you have anything to do with training, your job will have a lot to do with communication. I'm not exaggerating when I say that being good at communicating is at the heart of all the work I do. I have to communicate well with subject matter experts to find out exactly what it is that I need to teach, and I have to communicate well with students or they won't understand what they're being taught.

I suppose it's not surprising that a lot of my interests involve communication in one form or another, and they all feed into my work some or all of the time. Writing, photography, and drawing cartoons are a way of communicating ideas or concepts to other people just as training is, after all. I like to keep these skills ticking over, too - one of the reasons I started keeping a blog was for the intellectual exercise of spotting something on the web and then writing a couple of paragraphs about the impressions or ideas that occurred to me as a result. Writing a few paragraphs about something helps me to organise my thoughts (in "training speak" I'd say that writing provides an opportunity to make the process of reflection explicit). As I get older, I've also arrived at the realisation that the blog is a useful prosthesis for memory: if I need to return to a useful or entertaining web page at some time in the future I know I'll be able to find the link here.

Every now and again, I'll look at a piece of writing I produced and realise that I could improve it. That's what I'm trying to do right now with this entry, which I've revised in an effort to make the chain of thought more obvious. Hopefully I'll learn a few things about good writing in the process; as I get older I find I'm more concerned than ever with improving my communications skills.

I've been on more than one course intended to develop my skills as a trainer, but some have been better than others. It's amazing how many times the instructor will start things off by trotting out some variant of the following statement:

"Only 7% of communication is expressed by what we say; 38% is conveyed by our tone of voice and 55% by body language."

Doing a search on Google for terms related to this old chestnut yields over half a million hits, and a very cursory examination of the results I got back showed that on many web pages, the statement is presented as a general, all-encompassing fact without any form of qualification. Some of these web pages (and, indeed, some of the courses I've been on) even refer back, research paper style, to the source of the statement so you can check it.

If only those people had bothered to look up that reference themselves, because that "fact" isn't true.

Let's take a moment to evaluate what we're being asked to believe here: only 7% of communication is dependant on language. The rest is about tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, posture - you name it, it's been lumped in with that other 93%. Put another way: if I watch a film that was made in a language I don't understand, then (assuming for a moment that the non-verbal, implicit signals are sufficiently common across cultures) this statement above implies that I should still be able to understand 93% of what is going on in any film ever made. Put in these terms, the statement in the previous paragraph becomes absolutely ludicrous.

In most contexts, language conveys for a lot more than 7% of the meaning in a conversation. Take that language away and meaning becomes flexible, ambiguous. As an example, we need look no further than the thousands of mashups of Bruno Ganz's performance as Hitler in Der Untergang; if you've used the Internet much over the last couple of years you'll be familiar with the meme. By removing the original subtitles and replacing them with new ones, the creators of the mash-ups mutate the pivotal scene during which Hitler becomes incensed by his generals' failure into a bizarre alternate reality, one where Hitler is raging because his XBox has broken, or because his favourite boy band has broken up, because the movie adaptation of Watchmen didn't live up to his expectations, or because Glastonbury's organisers booked a rap artist, or many other interpretations of variable worth (a reality which the film's distributor has now, finally, decided has gone on long enough).

The thing is, Provided that you don't actually speak German, the new meaning of the clip is easily accepted. We all get upset over something trivial from time to time, after all. The point I'm making is that these mashups only succeed because our understanding of what words are being spoken is utterly essential to the meaning of the scene. Without knowledge of the true meaning of the words we can hear, we are helpless to prevent the creators of the clip from completely bypassing the original meaning. I don't know about you, but it sounds to me like the words spoken must be worth a lot more than 7% of the message.

So why is the "non-verbal communication" myth perpetuated? Why is it such a seductive statement? And what was the author cited in the original reference really telling us?

As a matter of fact, I have Albert Mehrabian's book Silent Messages right here. The book does indeed examine the aspects of communication which do not rely on words, but right from the first sentence, Mehrabian takes great pains to dissociate the book's subject of study from "nonverbal behaviour." Mehrabian explains that his remit is much wider, covering paralinguistic behaviours and subtle, non-verbal aspects of speech. Speech is therefore examined in some detail, particularly in chapter five, which is the part of the book that we're interested in. That chapter covers mixed messages - the sort of exchanges where we may say to someone we know well who has just embarrassed themselves something like "you silly sod" or "you little plonker."

When Del-boy talks to Rodney like that, we know exactly what's going on. We know that these well-established characters from "Only Fools and Horses" view each other with considerable affection. Yet when we watch the clip, the words don't appear to match the context. Professor Mehrabian wanted to find out exactly what's going on. On page 76 of the book he mentions an experimental study that investigated exchanges of this type. The research team's finding was detailed and explicit enough to be quantified. The total expression of how much we like someone in the context of a mixed message (such as the one Del-boy gives to Rodney) works out like this:

Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking

There they are: those are the figures that everyone trots out to make increasingly ludicrous claims about communications skills that Professor Mehrabian is keen to debunk. They're actually to do with how much you can tell somebody likes you from the way that they talk to you. The moral of the story is simple: always check your references. Don't accept hearsay as fact. Otherwise, you may end up perpetuating more of these annoying myths.

And the next time you're in a communications workshop and someone trots out the old chestnut in general terms, just stand up, look 'em in the eye, and tell 'em:

"You little plonker."


The training event I attended in London this week was the ITEC exhibition and conference at ExCel. I was a speaker at two sessions, and did a few stints talking to visitors on our stand. It was fun, if rather hard work, and by the time I got back home on Thursday night I was knackered. Travelling on southeast rail at rush hour has convinced me that moving away from the city was definitely the right thing to do. Sometimes it's difficult to believe it's nearly 25 years since I was a daily commuter, but things don't seem to be much different and the experience is still miserable: hot, overcrowded and slow.

Even at the tail-end of the recession, there's a lot of construction going on in town, as evidenced by the view I saw out of my hotel window when I got up each morning:

The other window

I hardly recognise London when I visit these days; many of the landmarks I knew in the City have been torn down and replaced with new steel-and-glass constructions, and the road heading east towards the Docklands is a lot busier than it used to be. I still think of Tower 42 as the Natwest Tower (its cross section is shaped like the bank's logo, after all) and it used to be the tallest building in the UK. Now it's not even in the top five.


Last Saturday night I headed out to the Rangeworthy beer festival for an evening of live music and quaffable ales. It was a fine evening, and I had a great time. What did I sample?

Looking at my notes, I reckoned that Spring Mystery (brewed specially for the festival) was the best of the ales I sampled, but it was a very close-run thing and Cornish Arvor is definitely something I could spend a session or two getting to know.


Thanks to fellow wigber Colin Peters for tweeting about an essay on solitude by the literary critic (and former associate professor of English at Yale) William Deresiewicz. In the essay he discusses the role that solitude plays in personal development, chronicling its evolution from a means of religious experience to its use as a source of creative inspiration for the romantics, ending up with the stark pholosophical conflict of modernism. Solitude is, he argues, a commodity that is alien to the current generation; they seldom if ever experience it and therefore take no benefit from it and see no value in it. I recommend taking the time to read the essay (it's a shade over three and a half thousand words) because it reflects my own experience, and because I hope you'll find it thought provoking.

I've spent the greater part of my life on my own.

I like solitude. I am, by nature, introspective. Over the years solitude has allowed me to find outlets for my creativity that wouldn't exist in a more conventional, bustling, populated world. Solitude is what keeps me ticking over; it restores me when work and the rest of my life get out of balance.

The importance of solitude in enabling me to function has been brought home to me over the past few months. I've spent much of my time away from home, deprived of that solitude, and however rewarding the experience has been, it has left me drained, exhausted. There has been no time to stop and think, no opportunity to recharge my batteries. I'm okay in this sort of environment for a while, but when it became clear that "a while" was in danger of turning in to "for the foreseeable future" I realised I had to call a halt.

This week has been the first time I've spent seven consecutive nights sleeping in my own bed since the beginning of February, and it has seldom felt better.

But as I sit here at home, am I capable of experiencing genuine solitude? In his essay, Deresiewicz suggests that the answer is probably "no." In modern life, he suggests, solitude is seldom achievable because we are always in reach of our phones, our Internet connection, a television, or a book. Each of these, he argues, provides us with "the imaginitive presence of others." I love the phrase, but I've been mulling over the implications of the essay ever since I read it.

You may have noticed that I described the essay in terms of its length. Three and a half thousand words works out at five or six sheets of A4 paper. You'd probably read the whole thing in a few minutes. Reading something shouldn't be that much of a challenge - after all, a few years ago I would regularly write papers four times as long for the master's degree I was doing. Yet I skimmed the article, enough to get the basic gist of what was being said, but no more. Then I moved on to something else. Luckily, enough of what Deresiewicz was saying managed to seep in to my conscious thoughts, to the point that I found myself thinking "I need to go back and read that properly." And that's what I did.

So the first point that I'd make about the essay is that he got me absolutely bang-to-rights. I agree absolutely with his analysis of how difficult the western lifestyle makes introspection or contemplation, because he damn well caught me doing the very thing that the essay cautions against. I was not paying attention. I was letting other things divert me. On another day, I would not be writing this blog entry, because I would already have moved on to another fifteen things that were all clamouring for my attention, however misguided they might be.

And you know what? The realisation that he was right really stung.

For another thing, I was taken aback by his suggestion that reading is a barrier to solitude. Surely reading puts us in touch with our own inner voice, even when we're using it to frame the thoughts of others? The statement is explained when he sets out what reading means to the Internet generation: "Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity." This is not reading as total immersion in someone else's thoughts - this is browsing, taking snippets of shiny new thought and flying on like a magpie. Again, I sit here red-faced with embarrassment. The writing on this blog is almost entirely generated by reading habits of this kind, and I'm as guilty as anyone of letting my reading habits atrophy and wither. After five years of broadband access, I'm sure my attention span has gone into drastic decline. Where it used to take me a day at most to read a novel, now it can take months.I find myself skipping impatiently to the end of short articles in the New Scientist rather than reading through from beginning to end like I used to. I am aware exactly how ironic it is that I use my phone to check my email accounts and Twitter posts far more than I use it to talk to people.

This brings me on to my third point. Access to the Internet shapes much of what I do at home. I find myself returning to the keyboard to check my friends' pictures on Flickr, to read people's comments on the WGB or Twitter, to check my stats on this blog. Activity comes and goes in little, bite-sized, easy to assimilate snippets. Technology has other implications, too - I have a Humax Freesat box that caches everything through its hard disk drive, giving me the ability to pause live TV and then continue when I'm ready. It's a feature I never thought I'd use, but I do. In most cases, it gets used because I need to recap what's been said after I realise that because of one distraction or another I haven't been paying the slightest bit of attention to the programme. Even if I miss a show entirely, it's no big deal anymore. The plethora of channels on digital television and the paucity of new content means that if I miss a programme, it's not a problem - I know it will be on again in a few days. I don't need to worry about missing anything, but I find that I'm not worrying about paying attention, either.

Things came to a head this week when I sat down to watch Avatar (yes, I caved in and bought it on Blu-Ray) and realised by the time that I'd got half-way through the movie that I'd had to pause it five times. I'd had a phone call; I wanted to check something about an actor who appeared in the film; I wanted to get something to eat; Someone sent me a text message so while I was using my phone I ran Tweetdeck to see what my friends were doing; the room was getting cold so I got up to close the window. When I resumed playback for the sixth time I thought to myself: "This is crazy." I've had the concepts and issues from Deresiewicz's essay on my mind for most of this week, but when Colin posted the link and I read the thing, things came in to focus.

My use of technology is a major contributing factor to my inability to sustain concentration for more than a few minutes of a time, at least when it comes to entertaining myself. Conversely, I started working on a document this week and when I look up I was startled to discover that three hours had passed by. Clearly I am still capable of maintaining focus, just not when the purpose is something as trivial as entertaining myself. My recreational activities consist of one distraction after another (and I just caught myself using my phone to see if I'd received any text messages in the last four hours or so). After reading Deresiewicz's essay I have decided that this will not do. I am going to train myself to concentrate properly again. I will watch television programmes without pausing them. I will watch films in their entirety, from start to finish, without acknowledging any interruptions. I will read articles in magazines and newspapers without skimming and abandoning them. And more to the point, I will also get out in the garden and do stuff that doesn't require access to the information highway, 24/7.

So now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to mow the lawn.


The result of last week's election has upset a lot of people who thought they'd be able to influence how things pan out. As I said on Friday, a lot of people who thought they were on to a sure thing have been given a rude awakening. One of them was Rupert Murdoch, who owns Sky News and a handful of the country's newspapers. Whether it's been stories about Gordon Brown's spelling in The Sun or just presenting the result as a fait accompli in The Times, it's clear Rupert was very keen on the Conservatives getting in. In the past year there have been signs that he feels that one of News Corporation's main competitors - the BBC - is far more successful than it ought to be. So he's been carefully laying the groundwork for the Conservatives to gut the organisation once they're in power with some well-placed criticisms of Auntie planted in The Times. It appears that it's perfectly acceptable for big business concerns to influence government in this way. Except when it's somebody else doing the same thing, eh Rupert? Then last week, just to make sure of the election outcome, The Sun ran a craven piece on David Cameron making out that he was some sort of combination of the Terminator and the Six Million Dollar Man.


It didn't quite work.

Now, as everyone scrambles to negotiate a deal and come to some sort of power-sharing arrangement, the recriminations have already started. Lord Ashcroft was not happy at all. He started off blaming the TV, but then seemed to have decided it was David Cameron's fault. Over at Sky News, the frustration is clear and the mask has begun to slip - just have a look at their reporter Kay Burley talking to someone campaigning for electoral reform yesterday, for instance...

This, remember, is brought to you by the company who market their news coverage in the US as being "fair and balanced."

And the guy Burley is belittling has some good points to make. The Liberal Democrats got 23% of the vote - that's nearly a quarter of all the votes cast on Thursday - but ended up with fewer than 9% of seats in parliament. In fact, they got more votes than they did last time, and lost nearly a tenth of the seats they held. That can't be right, can it?

I had great hopes before the election that the UK was finally moving away from the old two-party system, but now I'm not so sure. Nick Clegg's performance on the TV debates gave the Lib Dems a boost in the opinion polls, but that didn't translate into more seats in parliament. Rather, votes were shared out more evenly between Labour and Conservative candidates. Nobody got a clear mandate to take over and here we are, left stuck in the middle. It's going to be an interesting few weeks - and I wonder how long it'll be before Rupert starts pushing for another election?


Oh, just go and read Stephen Fry's latest blog. It puts the wibblings above to shame.


I know that our ten-week election campaign in the UK is mercifully short when you compare it to the marathon money-burning exercises that take place across the Atlantic, but I'm still glad it's all over. The former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has lost her seat, although I think pretty much everyone saw that coming, what with one thing and another. Lembit Opik is now an ex-MP as well.

There are still a few results to be declared but to nobody's surprise except, it seems, the news media and the members of all the political parties, we've ended up with a hung parliament. Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party were desperate to scare us into thinking convince us that this would be a bad thing, but cynics like me reckon that this is because it means that the government will now have to negotiate with the opposition if they want any chance of introducing changes in legislature, rather than just railroading them through parliament. Given some of the laws that have been passed in the last decade or so that's a bloody good thing too. One thing's for certain: nobody was looking particularly smug this morning, and that can only be a good sign for the rest of us.


Sure, they've got a photo of your house. But did you know Google have been snooping your WiFi to find out what your network's SSID is, and the MAC address of your router? It's supposed to help them "provide a better service" in determining your location on Google Earth, but the German Government isn't convinced, and has told them to stop it.


The photography website Lightstalking has a great article on why some people almost always take awesome photographs. There's a lot of truth in what they say - much of it simply comes down to knowing what a camera can do. In the age of digital photography, learning about the capabilities of your camera has never been easier- because you can experiment without worrying about how much it's costing you to have all those shots developed. The physicist Neils Bohr once described an expert as "someone who has made all the mistakes it's possible to make in a narrow field." You learn from making mistakes; if you don't take enough pictures to make those mistakes, how are you going to learn?

I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating because it reinforces what Bohr said. A friend of a friend was once lucky enough to meet legendary photographer Ansel Adams, and they asked him if he had any advice for an aspiring photographer. The master's response has stuck in my memory since I first heard it. He said, "Take 10,000 snaps. Then you might be ready to take a photograph." We're living in an age where taking 10,000 snaps has never been easier, or cheaper. So get out there and start snapping!


Let's face it, none of these is going to make the Kessel run in under twelve parsecs: thanks again to Mr Pope for this list of the top ten Star Wars cars. I was disappointed that the JL421 Badonkadonk didn't make the list, but I was amused by how many of the pictures were obviously taken at the Burning Man festival held every year in the Nevada Desert.


Professor Stephen Hawking has been in the news a lot over the last couple of weeks, advising mankind against trying to contact extraterrestrials (if they exist). Aliens, he says, will look upon us as Columbus and the people who followed in his footsteps looked at the inhabitants of America. It did not go well for the natives, says Hawking, and it will not go well for us.

Not everyone agrees with him. The Canadian futurist George Dvorsky has come up with five reasons why he believes Hawking is just plain wrong, and they make interesting reading. In particular, he makes the point that spacefaring civilisations are likely to be computer-based machine intelligences, or "post-biological" (thus doing away with all that messy reliance on food, breathable atmosphere, gravity or suspended animation). As a result, they're less likely to be interested in the sort of resources we have to offer. Dvorsky gets extra points for having a photo from the notoriously bad SF movie Robot Monster on his page, too.


It's the May Day Bank Holiday Monday tomorrow, and of course the weather has lived up to expectations. Solihull has had thunder, lightning and hail - it's not been that bad down here, but I've spent the weekend indoors. The place is looking tidier than it has done for weeks, as I've been doing a bit of spring cleaning and throwing lots of crap out. I've had BBC6 music on the radio for the past few hours, listening to Jarvis Cocker talking to Michael Palin and - as it's a Sunday - Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone, which is pretty much my favourite show on the radio at the moment. His music selection this week has been a fascinating mixture of the familiar and the new, and I will be buying Frederic Anthony Rzewski's album Coming Together when it comes out; nowhere seems to have it listed yet.


I've also been working my way through various DVDs that I bought recently. On Friday night I finally got to see District 9, and the film was every bit as good as I was expecting. WETA do a grand job in producing convincing aliens, and the scenes of the spaceship over Johannesburg look amazing. Sharlto Copley's performance is extraordinary and the fact that I can't wait to see what he does with the role of Howlin' Mad Murdoch means I will go and see the new A-Team movie.

However, the Sony blu-ray disc of the film fell well short of expectations. There's no sign of Neill Blomkamp's original short Alive in Joburg that was the kick-off point for the movie. The "trailer" link on the disk turns out to be for a movie about Sony's former cash cow Michael Jackson that you'll already have seen once because it plays automatically when you load the disk - bizarrely, you don't get the trailer for District 9 at all. There are some lovely examples of the CGI that was used in the film, but they're tied in to a menu system that makes out that the disc is an official MNU publication - a trope that was funny back in the days of Robocop, but is now one of the most tired and played out clichés it's possible to commit. I was very disappointed to find out that there's minimal explanation of how the special effects were achieved. But worst of all, the first couple of times I tried playing it in my Playstation 3 (which is, I might add, a Sony piece of hardware), the thing fell over entirely leaving me swearing at a blank screen. C'mon Sony, get your act together; you only bloody well came up with the media standard in the first place, after all...


Thanks to the New Scientist's Feedback column for introducing me to the delights of the Quackometer. It's a page that allows you to check other websites for signs of what Feedback rather endearingly call "fruitloopery" - the tendency of merchants promoting esoteric cures and products to apply scientific-sounding jargon to enhance the appeal of their wares. These signs can include whole paragraphs written in UPPERCASE, using scientific terminology in an inappropriate context (the word "quantum" scores particularly highly here) and, of course, claiming that the establishment wants to clamp down on their activities, frequently citing the example of a famous 17th Century astronomer. Carl Sagan put it best: "Yes, they laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Newton. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

The Quackometer assigns each site a score from 0 to 10 canards (which, it explains helpfully, is the internationally agreed SI unit of quackery). I will let you investigate on your own how high a score your favourite site for UFO contactees, homeopathy or holistic wellbeing achieves, but I have to admit I was disappointed when I discovered that both the Labour Party and Conservative Party websites both come up with a score of zero. Shame!