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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: June 2011

June was one of those weird months that couldn't really make up its mind. One week I'm writing the blog while I'm wearing a fleece and wondering about putting the central heating on, then we get slapped with a heatwave. Glastonbury broke with tradition and didn't degenerate into a mudbath, Bristol nearly burnt down, a bunch of Finns sat in a car in the middle of a field and sang Queen's greatest hit, and I got grumpy about people using the wrong words. You had to be there, I suppose.


Thanks to Mr Neil Gaiman, Mythbusters will never be the same again.


I watched some of the BBC's Glastonbury coverage over the weekend, although I studiously avoided U2's set and therefore missed the tax protest shenanigans that took place. The Chemical Brothers sounded incredible, and I really wanted to see what they were doing and geek out over their kit but the BBC director's "concept" for their coverage consisted of lots of out-of-focus shots of the band, long-distance views through a field of flags coupled with home movies of fireworks and blurry versions of the stage visuals superimposed over everything. The end result looked like a distinctly below-par 1970s edition of Top of the Pops. Pendulum worked their way through pretty much the exact same set they played last time, they just looked much more tired doing it; several times I found myself wondering whether or not the guitarist was going to survive to the end of their set. Coldplay's all-the-colours-of-the-rainbow lasers were very impressive; it wasn't just that I hadn't seen that sort of light show before, I didn't even know lasers like that existed. All the same, a bunch of yellow and purple lasers couldn't compensate for a total lack of projection of any personality or character by the band themselves. In contrast, it was very evident that the Kaiser Chiefs were there to have a bloody good time and they were damn well going to make sure the audience did as well. But the stand-out performance I caught was Janelle Monae's. Her band were so, so tight - and despite there being the best part of 20 people on stage they were all impeccably choreographed. It came as absolutely no surprise to me to learn that sales of her CD on Amazon have increased by just under 5000% since the weekend, because she completely walked off with the entire festival. If you missed out on Saturday and you're in the UK, you get a chance to see her on iPlayer and I really recommend that you do so.


It's been very hot and humid over the last couple of days. When I left the nicely air-conditioned office yesterday and stepped outside, it felt like I was back in Florida. On the way home, the traffic levels felt like the beginning of summer, too: the roads were full of Glastonbury people making their way home, and some of the driving going on was scary.

When I got home, the house was very warm. I'm growing virginia creeper across the walls which takes the edge off things, and I opened the patio doors and all the windows upstairs as soon as I could, but when I went to bed the temperature in my bedroom was 25°C.

On a positive note, it turns out than if I have the electric fan on a high setting at night, the white noise it generates is enough to not only soothe me to sleep, it also masks any noise from outside that might otherwise wake me up. As a result, last night I slept for nearly six hours in a single, unbroken stretch. It's amazing what an effect that has on my levels of energy and optimism. Even though it's nowhere near as hot this evening, I'll do the same thing again tonight and see if it has the same effect.


This one's been cropping up a lot this week: the secret life of a cymbal, as filmed at a thousand frames per second. It makes you wonder how the damn things stay in one piece.


I love this picture. Captain Kirk's on the left. And that's Captain Kirk on the right.


Last night I sat down in front ot the TV with a glass or two of wine and watched The Princess Bride in honour of Peter Falk, who passed away this week. He was 83. He was an iconic figure in film, trading on his dishevelled experience to the point where, playing himself in Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, he's spotted by some passing youths. "Hey, isn't that Colombo?" one of them shouts excitedly as he shambles by. "I don't think so, " another comments. "Not with that moth-eaten coat." He retired a few years ago when Alzheimers-related dementia prevented him from working any more. We lost one of America's finest character actors, and an idiosyncratic presence on the small screen and the big, and he'll be greatly missed.


Firefox has just updated itself to version 5, which tells me it has brought together all kinds of awesomeness but which has killed several of the plugins I use including Hyperwords and - not surprisingly - Realplayer's video download plugin, which never seems to work for more than a couple of weeks at a stretch these days. Both visually and from a user standpoint Firefox 5 seems pretty much indistinguishable from Firefox 4. The differences are mainly under the hood, with over 1000 bugfixes and security patches - but they don't really warrant a whole version uptick, do they? It looks more like it's just marketing; Firefox 6 moves into beta the week after next so it will no doubt be with us before too much longer.


My sleep patterns are all over the place at the moment. I get about three hours of uninterrupted sleep if I'm lucky, then spend the remainder of the night slipping in and out of wakefulness and generally getting pissed off about it. Last night I was still awake at 3am. I'm sure a lot of it is caused by stress, so I'm going to book a few days off next month and take a proper break. Let's see if ten days off work can help matters. In the meantime one of my colleagues suggested staying up for 18 hours each day and limiting the amount of time I set aside for sleep. The reasoning is that this will get me back into the habit of sleeping when I get into bed, presumably because I'll be too tired to do anything else. It makes a certain amount of sense, but I have to admit I'm not particularly enthralled by the idea.


There was a bit of a conflagration on the Gloucester Road in Bristol this morning. A couple of folks I follow on Twitter pointed me in the direction of Tom Glenny who lives over the road from the scene and shared what he saw on YouTube, commenting "it turns out I swear a fair bit when things catch fire." He's not kidding!

The weather is supposed to warm up over the next couple of days, and the forecast I saw this evening was talking about temperatures in the 30s in the south east. It really doesn't feel like that here - today has been dull and while it's not exactly been chilly, it doesn't feel particularly summery. It's been raining on and off at Glastonbury, although the place didn't look too muddy from what I saw on the TV. Maybe things will change tomorrow - I hope so, as I'm planning on doing some gardening and cooking my lunch on the barbecue.


I've spent today tidying up, vacuuming, and putting stuff in the loft. I found a box of my old diaries while I was up there, so you can expect the occasional "on this day..." posts in the following weeks. But I also spent some more time today playing on the M3. I've been editing programs, too. There is so much to learn about how the thing works - I remember getting the Roland JX-3P and even without the optional programmer I'd figured out the programming side of things in a few hours; it has the traditional voltage controlled oscillator waveform and envelope controls, and not an awful lot more than that. The M3 has screen after screen of different options, and some of them don't have any effect until you enable an option somewhere else...

I really must get round to doing some more recording with it, though. I get so carried away just jamming with the Karma engine on the thing that I haven't really composed anything since March. I think I'll be buying the memory upgrade for it next month, too - which allows access to all the programs in memory at the same time and hugely increases the sampling ability of the thing. And the sampling side of things is something that I really want to get into. I've been fascinated by the technology since I first saw the Fairlight CMI demonstrated on the TV back in the late 1970s or early 1980s: the series 2 cost £25,000 and the spec of the thing is prehistoric compared with the M3. Now I've got the technology, the question becomes: what am I going to do with it?


Boing Boing were carrying a video yesterday about a trombone modified to shoot a fifteen-foot jet of flame out of the front. There is video. I just wish whoever wrote the captions for the video had known the difference between the word "here" and the word "hear"...


Gin and Tacos on why CGI is bad for the cinema. And you know what? I agree with them. With some very notable exceptions, CGI makes films staggeringly ugly. It encourages laziness in storytelling because showing everything becomes affordable - when nothing needs to be concealed, no consideration is given to whether or not it needs to be shown. Worse, it undermines the attention of the director. Having the ability to add another couple of hundred elements to each frame on a whim doesn't make it easier to grab the audience's attention; it makes it much, much harder.

All the same, I've a soft spot for the Green Lantern, so I was sad to see the new film singled out as the paradigm of bad-for-the-eyes computer graphics masquerading as spectacle. Particularly when the name of the worst perpetrator of pixel abuse in the history of motion pictures isn't even mentioned.


One of my neighbours texted me this afternoon to say that the traffic lights for the roadworks at the top of the hill have been taken away - certainly the roundabout looked pretty much finished yesterday. That will make the journey to and from work a little easier, although the roadworks on the A4174 at Hambrook are causing lots of grief at the moment. Last night it took me twice as long as it normally does to get home.


Congratulations and celebrations are in order as Ruth found out yesterday that she will be graduating next month from Bangor University with a first class honours degree in Psychology. Well done! These last three years have gone so quickly; it only seems like a couple of months ago that we were dropping Ruth and her brother Rob off at their halls of residence, but now they've completed their undergrad work and are ready for other things. Time flies, it really does.


It's been another hectic and stressful week, hence no blog updates since Monday. Although I didn't get round to blogging anything, I still unearthed a bunch of stuff. I tweeted about it all so I could come back to it later and the rest of today's blog is the result.

First off, here's one for Ruth: A new species of mushroom has been garnering more than its fair share of media attention this week thanks to its Latin name, Spongiforma squarepantsii.


High technology investor and legendary UFO expert Dr Jacques Vallée spoke at the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in January this year. The theme of the event was "Contact: learning from outer space." Other speakers included Bill Clinton, so it was a pretty serious gathering, placing the UFO phenomenon firmly in context as inspiration for scientific research into new technology rather than as the domain of cranks; perhaps that's why there was absolutely no coverage of it in the media over here. Vallée's talk gets particularly interesting at about the four minute mark.

Professor Michio Kaku spoke at the same event, and he was pondering the longer term of things. Specifically, he talked about what might be possible if a civilisation survives long enough to be able to control the energy output of a galaxy. The answer, it seems, is "just about anything."


My favourite author William Gibson is interviewed in the latest copy of the Paris review. I'm going to have to find a copy, judging by this excerpt, as his drier-than-the-Atacama sense of humour is well to the fore when he talks about the creation of his first novel, Neuromancer:

"...something I’d heard about from these hobbyist characters from Seattle called the Internet. It was more tedious and more technical than anything I’d ever heard anybody talk about. It made ham radio sound really exciting."

Some friends of mine joined Bill in helping Vancouver to tidy up this week after the hockey riots that took place after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. As Louis noted wryly on the WGB, Bill is a master of disguise...


Thanks to Colin for pointing me at this video of the Porkka Playboys performing the classic Queen track Bohemian Rhapsody. In a field somewhere in Finland.

In the back of a Volkswagen Polo.


My browsing through Metafilter this week led me to the TARDIS Eruditorium. Despite the rather unwieldy name it's well worth a visit, as it has much discussion of early episodes of Doctor Who from a writer's viewpoint. If you're at all interested in finding out how television programmes are constructed, pay it a visit. And if, like me, you're the sort of person who can spend hours reading through the TV Tropes website, you should find it fascinating.


My buddy James has a new project under way which you should go and look at, as it's really cool: the Rothko Everywhere photoblog. I can still remember the first time I saw a Rothko painting, which was at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco a very long time ago. It made quite an impression. James takes Rothko's minimalist style and maps it back on to the real world in simple, elegant photographs that I find really pleasing. Go and see for yourself!


There's a very helpful link going around at the moment that points to Andrew Pepper's piece on the top 10 misused English words. It should be recommended reading for anyone who writes English (or thinks they do) because you're almost guaranteed to be surprised by his choices. After all, when was the last time you used the word "ultimate" in its true sense of "last" instead of mistakenly using it to mean "best" or some other piece of misguided hyperbole?

I have to wade through a lot of text at work and as I observed at the weekend it's not always correct. I read even more text on the Internet every evening when I get home, and while I freely admit that my own English usage is far from perfect, some of the things I read leave me sighing in frustration. It's not difficult to get things right, but it helps to know when you're getting it wrong. That's why Andrew's list is invaluable, and that's why I've listed an additional ten heinous crimes against the English language that I'd love to wipe out. So here they are!

10. Advise

Here's a word that, like "practise" means something different depending on whether you spell it with a "c" or an "s". The way I was taught to remember it is that if it's a noun, I should use a "c". If it's a verb, use an "s": so advise your friends that they should pay attention to this advice!

9. Affect

I want to affect people's behaviour and I hope this blog will have an effect. There's another combination of a verb and a noun that people frequently get the wrong way round. If you go on a diet, you'll be keen to see the effect quickly - so "effect" here is something you watch out for which means it's the noun. As for the verb, well - eating lots of doughnuts is going to affect your weight. Here, "affect" is a verb - it's doing something to your weight.

In the case of these two words, things are not that simple because in psychology "affect" is used as a noun - it describes our mental state (specifically our capacity to feel things, hence "Seasonal Affective Disorder") but that's pretty much the only context when "affect" is not used as a verb.

8. Breath

I see more and more people getting this one wrong. Breath is what comes out of your mouth when you breathe. They're pronounced differently and they mean different things. Surprise surprise: "breath" is a noun and "breathe" is a verb! Make sure you keep them that way.

7. Ensure

America is so far down the road of getting these two mixed up that most readers over there have no idea why English readers find their misuse so annoying. When you "ensure" something, you're making sure it happens. When you "insure" something, you're paying someone a lump of money on the understanding that if anything nasty happens to it, getting it repaired or replaced will be paid for: Ensure that you insure your car, or an accident could lose you money.

6. Flair

I've lost count of the number of times I've seen someone make themselves look an idiot in the mistaken belief that they are paying someone a compliment (and let's not get started on the people who complement my collection of bad writers by getting that word muddled up with "complement"...) Someone may well have a flair for pyrotechnics that they demonstrate by letting off flares; just make sure you get the usage right or there will be fireworks.

5. Loose

You loosen something so that it is not as tight. Similarly, when you loose something, you relax your grip on it and let it go - so that it will hang loose, of course. On the other hand, when you lose something, you can't find it. If you're born to lose, you're never going to win. Loose an arrow without looking where you're aiming and you will lose it. Don't be a loser!

4. Rein

Kings and queens reign over you; for example, Queen Elizabeth is in the 59th year of her reign. Just like we pull on the reins to control a horse, monarchs hold the reins of empire because they're in control. Rein in your use of horse riding metaphors or confusion will reign.

3. Pore

The verb "pore" means to investigate or examine. To "pore over" something means to examine it in great detail. This should not be confused with what you do when you pour milk over your cereal - which you might be planning on eating while you pore over that book.

2. Practice

The noun "practice" and the verb "practise" work like "advise" and "advice". It's odd, because I seldom if ever see people using the word "advice" in the wrong way. Practise using these words every day so you'll get them right. People will love it when you put your new skills into practice.

1. The apostrophe

It couldn't really be anything else in the number one slot, really. The apostrophe has lots of uses, and people who don't know what those uses are have invented many, oh so very many more. For a start, you'll see so many uses of the apostrophe to denote the plural of something that the use has gained its own name: the greengrocer's apostrophe. Nowadays, the real idiots are even managing to stick apostrophes in previously unknown territory such as the middle of verbs:


A lot of folks make the mistake of thinking that you must always use an apostrophe when you write about something that belongs to someone or something else. That's not true. Yes, you would write "that is Tom's car" but on the other hand you write "that parking space is ours." If you think otherwise, the mistake is yours. And the most common circumstance that people use an apostrophe when they shouldn't is when they mean "belonging to it." The problem arises because apostrophes are also used to signify missing letters. You're safe using an apostrophe when you mean "you are" but not when you talk about your stuff. That stuff is yours, and nobody else's. Complicated, isn't it? And the "isn't" I used there is a contraction of "is not", by the way. So remember: it's important to use an apostrophe when you shorten "it is" "it has" or even "it was" otherwise your sentence will lose its meaning.

And finally...

As a photographer, there is one crime that I hate more than all the others put together. I see otherwise intelligent people going on and on in their blogs and facebook pages about some new "lense" they've bought for their camera. Look, folks - let's be blunt about this: there's no such word.

"Lense" does not appear in any dictionary I own.

You've got it wrong, and you will now be regarded with disdain and contempt until you somehow manage to redeem yourself.

Why? Because you should have written "lens". If you're a photographer and you refer to one of your lenses as a "lense" you're going to look a prat, it's as simple as that. There may be a lot of you around, I know: Google listed a mind-numbing 12 million hits when I did a search just now. But it doesn't make the slightest jot of difference - you're still going to look a prat.

And you don't want that to happen, do you?


I know there's not been much on the blog recently. I've had a pretty miserable and stressful week at work, and the next few weeks are likely to bring more of the same. I am sick and tired of not being consulted when colleagues agree that I'll attend meetings for them, especially when they involve a two-hour car journey to get there and another two hours to get home. I am sick and tired of customers suggesting "corrections" to our work that this week managed to include abominations such as "accomadate" "re-enforce" and "toataliser" in a single paragraph. It's taken me two years to stop them spelling "prerequisites" with a hyphen; obviously I still have a long way to go.

As a result of all this, at the moment I'm getting no more than three hours of uninterrupted sleep every night, and I'm suffering badly. Last night I was tired, stressed out and fed up; while I was listening to a CD after tea I nearly burst into tears a couple of times. The last time I felt this bad was a couple of years ago when I ended up on antidepressants. I really don't want to go down that route again, because although they mitigate the worst effects of depression all I ended up wanting to do was sleep for twelve hours a day, and however tempting that might be it's not something I can do while holding down a full-time job. As a result I ended up feeling like a zombie and my powers of concentration evaporated. So for the moment I'm trying to tough my way through things and catch up with rest at the weekends, but it's difficult.

I'd gone to bed by 9:30, but just to cap off a dismal week I ended up being kept awake by the neighbourhood kids playing football outside until nearly 10 o'clock. I really don't understand why they need to play in the street when there's an open field less than two minutes' walk down the road where they could play and make as much noise as they wanted without disturbing anyone. Even when the noise finally stopped, I slept very badly and this morning I've been up since 5:30.


Rather than lying in bed fretting about something I can't change, this morning I decided to get up, have breakfast, and actually do something instead. After a croissant and pain au chocolat together with a very nice latte, "something" in this context turned out to be learning about the program editing function on the Korg M3. After half an hour or so I'd managed to come up with a patch that sounded not unlike the electric piano sound Peter Gabriel used around the time of the So album (which is mostly a Yamaha CP70 with a lot of chorus). To try it out, I played along with a couple of Gabriel's CDs. It compared pretty well, I thought.

When I'd finished doing that, it was still only half past seven in the morning. Even after I'd read right through this week's New Scientist magazine, did the washing up, and put some laundry away it was still earlier than I normally get up on a Saturday.


It's two weeks to the solstice, but here in the South West it's been decidedly chilly. I've ended up wearing a fleece this afternoon. Meanwhile, it's been snowing on the summit of Snowdon. Whatever happened to summer?


I was delighted to discover this morning that it's World Gin Day. Cheers!


I've been meaning to write about the introduction of a new piece of technology for a couple of weeks now, ever since I got my hands on an example of it. It's one of the most impressive inventions I've seen in a very long time and I believe it's a real game changer in a field that hasn't really seen much in the way of innovation for decades, if not centuries. It's brilliant in its simplicity and from personal experience I can testify that it really works. I give you: the easy-open jam jar lid.

The invention, called the Orbit Lid, comes to us via the jam and marmalade manufacturer Duerrs - I like their Seville orange marmalade on a slice of toast for breakfast at the weekend and the idea for this blog entry came after I discovered my latest jar was fitted with the lid. The design is simple - they've separated the flat top of the lid from the sleeve that fits around the jar; turning the sleeve raises the lid and breaks the seal so that the top comes off easily. Much less force is required to open a new jar - Crown (the company behind the lid) reckon it takes about half the amount of force, but when I tried it, I reckon it took even less than that.

You'd think a successful bit of technology like this would be all over the media, but no. I haven't seen any mention of it at all. This is a great oversight as far as I'm concerned. So spread your marmalade, and spread the word!


Very well done to Ruth, who completed her last day as an undergraduate yesterday. It's amazing how fast the last three years have gone by; it doesn't seem that long ago we were dropping her off at the halls of residence in Bangor...


Yet another link via Jason Kottke: the combination of Nine Inch Nails and NASA is irresistable. Have a look at this short video of imagery from the Cassini Mission to Saturn.

The movie uses raw imagery from Saturn exactly as it was received from the spacecraft. Cassini has been in space for a long time - it launched on October 15th 1997 - so I shouldn't really be surprised by the amount of crap that's visible on the image sensors, but the movie really brings home how much in need of a clean Cassini's cameras are. Normally when NASA shows us the final versions of the stills, all those little circles caused by out-of-focus dust have been processed out by computer. Not here. Never mind, though; when your subject matter is as awesome as this, dust on the camera isn't going to ruin anything, is it?