Blogged Around The Bend

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: July 2013

July was the month that summer arrived. And wow, what a month it turned out to be...


I wasn't expecting to be in Norfolk today, but here I am. I've just collected Dad from the hospital in Norwich, where he's been since Friday night when he collapsed at a social event in the village. Miffy is delighted to see him home; when I got here she was obviously pining and very confused by his absence. Dad seems okay, although he can't remember anything about what happened. Let's just say he and I have differing ideas about why he passed out...


It was announced yesterday that the rollout of Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) broadband in Charfield has been scheduled for the first half of next year. As a bit of perspective, when I moved to the village I was using a 9600 baud modem to read my email and access the Internet. How times have changed, eh?


Haven't got any further with 50/90 this week. I hope that'll change when I get home.


I'm struggling a bit this evening and I don't think it will be long before I head off to bed. I didn't get much sleep last night. To start with, it was the temperature: it was 31°C in the shade of the back garden when I got home. But mostly it was the insane storm that kicked off at around half past three in the morning. It was off in the distance, because I heard very little thunder, but there were flashes of lightning happening about every five seconds for over half an hour. Bright flashes. Flashes bright enough to wake me up. As bright as if someone was letting off a camera flashgun on the other side of the curtains. I have never seen such an intense storm as this one in the UK before. Things didn't really calm down until about half past four, when the storm moved off and I managed to doze off again.

It rained a bit here, but not very much. Down in Bristol they were right underneath things, with the Ashton Gate underpass and the M32 both flooded (one lane was still shut on the motorway at 8 am). A a block of flats in St. Paul's was evacuated after a chimney was declared unsafe following a lightning strike. The story was much the same for people across much of England by the looks of things; there were several house fires as the result of lightning strikes.

Today it's only a degree cooler than it was yesterday and it's still very humid. The forecast is for cloud to break up tonight but another spell of thundery rain tomorrow, so I'm hoping that will bring the temperature down a little. It would be nice to get a good night's sleep. It would be nice to get into the back room and do some recording, too, but it's just too hot with all my gear switched on. At the moment I've got ten songs uploaded - only forty more to go!


NASA have released cleaned-up versions of the images that the Cassini probe took on Friday night. Earth is still a pale blue dot but this time the detail has improved considerably (it's more than a single pixel) and now you can see a pale brown dot next to the Earth as well - the moon.


Christopher Guest has threatened to reform Spinal Tap in an interview with The Guardian this week. Oh, I hope so. Nigel Tufnel and the gang are just the antidote we need for the dreadful state that popular music has got itself in to these days. I was lucky enough to see the Tap live at the Royal Albert Hall many years ago and I still remember one banner draped from the upper circle by devoted fans. It said "Thank God there's only one Spinal Tap." I couldn't have put it better myself.


This time, congratulations go to Rob, who has landed his dream job as a primary school teacher in deepest Cumbria. I know how much he wanted to land this particular post, and I'm sure he'll enjoy working on the right side of the Pennines for a change ;-)


It's nowhere near as hot this morning as it has been for the last week and the temperature has yet to reach 25°C in the shade of the back garden. But it's noticeably more humid. There are strange white things floating in the sky - I seem to remember them being called clouds - and it's supposed to get hotter again at the beginning of next week. With the increased humidity there is talk of us getting thunderstorms. We could do with one or two to clear the air and water the gardens; everything is looking a bit parched out there.

What a change from last year. Exactly one year ago I was sitting in Heathrow's Terminal 5 waiting to fly to San Francisco. We'd had a dismal spring and I'd hardly seen the sun for three months. I can still remember the feeling of euphoria as the aircraft rose above the clouds and brilliant sunlight flooded through my window. I wish I was flying to California again this year, I really do.


While I catch up on the blog this morning I've got the 50/90 Jukebox playing in the background. It's a great way of hearing what other FAWMers are doing as they step up to the challenge of writing fifty songs in the ninety days from the 4th July to October 1st, although the song that just played was one of mine, which was nice. Give it a listen - there's some great stuff being recorded this year. As for me, I'll be braving the heat and humidity in the back room later to make a start on song number nine. I'm ahead of schedule for the moment, and it feels good.


Yesterday was The Day that the Earth Smiled. Dr Carolyn Porco arranged for the cameras on the Cassini probe, in orbit around the planet Saturn 966 million miles away, to turn round and take a portrait of the solar system looking back through the rings, in homage to Carl Sagan's famous Pale Blue Dot photo taken by the Voyager spacecraft over twenty years ago.

So at 10:30 last night I walked into the back garden, found Saturn to the right of the moon, and waved. I hope you did too.


I got to see what there is under my house yesterday.

What Lies Beneath...

I'm having a conservatory built, and this manhole has to be moved. One requirement of getting any building work done over sewers is that you get a CCTV survey done to make sure that the pipes are up to scratch and in good order. So yesterday Chris from Dyno-Rod turned up with a spool of cable, a remote camera, and an operating console. It turns out that my sewer is at the end of the run, which makes it private rather than public (which it would have been if it continued off up the road) and that is going to make organising things much simpler. Result!


As I was doing the washing up after breakfast today, I was staring vacantly at the little tree that's grown in the garden next to the bird table. It's been there about ten years now. I didn't plant it - I assumed it had self-seeded from something the birds had left behind. Even now, it's only about five feet high ; it's grown pretty much underneath the leylandii hedge at the back of the garden so it must find it tough to compete. But this morning I realised I could see flashes of brilliant red in the branches, caught in the sunshine. I went out to have a look...

Wasn't expecting that... 

So - I appear to have acquired a cherry tree.


My review of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is now up. Enjoy.


I had an absolutely lovely time in Bangor with Rebecca, Rob, Ruth and Will at the weekend. Ruth graduated with a Masters Degree in psychological research from Bangor University. We're all very proud of her!

Master of Science

As we walked to the restaurant on Saturday night past Ashley Jones Fields I was surprised to see an imposing stone circle near the beach. "I didn't know Bangor had a stone circle," I mused. But it turns out to be a relatively modern addition to the town. The traditional Gorsedd Circle was built in 1931 to celebrate the town hosting the National Eisteddfod of Wales although the meme going round the University would rather that it was built by the BBC for a production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Sadly, this is not true.


On Monday night I met up with an old friend to celebrate his birthday - by seeing Guillermo del Toro's latest movie, Pacific Rim. I really liked it. Yes, the script is occasionally dire and the acting of some of the supporting cast lurches well into scenery-chewing territory, but:

Ron Perlman.

Let me repeat that:

Ron Perlman...

I'll be writing a full review later in the week. But the short version: It's huge fun, it looks amazing, it has a marvellous score that you can actually hear, the best special effects I have ever seen, and it absolutely and positively does what it says on the tin.


On Monday night the temperature in my bedroom was 29°C (84°F) at midnight. It wasn't quite as hot as that last night, but at half past two this morning I woke up to a sneezing fit that lasted over an hour. I have no idea what set me off, as I've managed to keep the hayfever at bay for most of the summer, but I suspect it was because I'd had the windows open and an electric fan running all night. You won't be surprised to learn that, as a result, I feel rather tired this evening...


I discovered yesterday that Katsuhiro Otomo's genre-defining anime epic Akira was released twenty five years ago this week on the 16th July 1988 (which also happens to be the date of the event that happens at the beginning of the film). I can remember the first time I saw the film on its original VHS release and being completely transfixed.

The film's eponymous character has little to do with the majority of the plot. The film is primarily the story of two friends, Tetsuo and Kaneda. Kaneda is the cool one, Tetsuo his insecure and envious sidekick. Together with their small social circle they are drawn into a world of intrigue when they witness the military recapture an escaped test subject - a child-like character endowed with terrifying mental powers. From that moment on, it's safe to say without spoiling anything that things do not go well for any of them, nor do they go well for the rest of the city of Neo-Tokyo.

The story is complex and the film takes its time delivering it. Akira clocks in at just over two hours, and it doesn't really let up once. It's an incredible melange of themes including hero-worship and rivalry, the escalation of military power, nuclear deterrence, social unrest, addiction, the rise of Japan's bosozoku "speed tribes," psychic powers, the nature of reality and mankind's control over it, all underpinned by a meditation on childhood and the loss of innocence (and the scene with Tetsuo's teddy bear - which combines several of these themes - absolutely freaked me out the first time I saw it). The imagery in the film's third act attempts catharsis of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second world war in much the same way as Spielberg addressed the memory of 9/11 with his version of The War of the Worlds and, quite frankly, makes a much better job of it.

The design of the film is lush, richly-imagined, and dense; not for nothing is Akira referred to as "the Blade Runner of anime." Neo-Tokyo is at once heavily stylised but plausibly real. Demonstrators flee tear gas through streets that could have been lifted from contemporary news footage. Massive skyscrapers dominate the skyline, encircling a huge crater which, we discover, has more than a little to do with the events that will play out in the film. The technology of the city is portrayed to an obsessive degree; the colonel travels around in a helicopter which is shown in sumptuous detail - so much so that you could make blueprints of it. The bikes used by the bike gangs are also lovingly rendered and Kaneda's motorcycle has become the film's iconic image; several versions of it have been built in the real world. The highly authentic renderings of machinery and architecture are all the more impressive when you remember that the film was made while computer-generated imagery was still in its infancy. Although CGI is used in one or two places (such as the rendering of the psychic waves being monitored by the colonel) the rest of the film was created using traditional hand-drawn animation techniques.

The soundtrack to the film blew me away; it was the first time I'd heard anything other than brief snatches of Japanese music and the heavy use of percussion combined with a choral backing is the signature sound of the film. For me, the distinctly non-western music used gave the film an other-worldly quality and very few films I've watched since have managed to achieve quite the same level of impact. Again, there are similarities to Blade Runner - particularly the opening drum beats drenched in reverb - but composer Tsutomu Ohashi (credited under the pseudonym Shoji Yamashiro) is very much his own master. The music is far more aggressive than Vangelis's score for BR and rather than Demis Roussos's ethereal vocal stylings there are lots of shouts, grunts and gasps. Sound effects in the 5.1 mix are striking and immersive.

The film had a significant impact on contemporary cinema. I'd argue that the only 80s film that influenced science fiction cinema more than Akira is Blade Runner. Akira is a huge influence on The Matrix; both films deal with what happens to a modest nobody with a dead-end life who suddenly acquires superhuman powers. Bullet time? Watch how time speeds up and slows down during the bike chase in Akira. The shot where Neo finally becomes The One, and the corridor flexes behind him? In Akira, Tetsuo is confronted in a corridor by soldiers firing tear gas; his force field bends the corridor in a similiar fashion. And there is a scene in both movies where the protagonist finds himself in a room full of children with psionic powers.

I think of Akira as the cinematic equivalent of a Fabergé egg, hand crafted in intricate detail that you know must have cost an absolute fortune to make. You can examine it time after time and still find out new things about it. It's the sort of thing that doesn't get churned out in huge quantities; it's something to be savoured and treasured for its individuality and that is why people still talk (and blog) about it a quarter century after its release.

To mark its 25th birthday, the film is being rereleased in cinemas for a limited run. If you get the chance to see it as it should be shown, on the big screen and (if possible) in the original Japanese rather than the English language dub then take it - you'll be in for an experience that will stay with you for a long time.


The BBC have an article about recent developments in camera technology, and being able to see through objects in photographs is the least surprising part of the story. Light field cameras that record the direction of each ray of light entering the camera as well as the more traditional colour and brightness have been around for a while; armed with this data, a computer program can produce an image that has whatever part of the subject you want in focus. So far cameras that can do this have pretty much been confined to the lab, but now it looks like they're ready to hit the street. The example photograph in the article look somewhat weird, and they reminded me of a scene in one of the Harry Palmer movies where Michael Caine's face fills a third of the screen in sharp close-up, but behind him the rest of the room is also in focus. This was achieved by using matte photography or by using a lens called a split diopter that is literally sawn in half so that it only affects part of the scene. The effect you get (without needing any computers at all) was much favoured by leading directors such as Orson Welles, Robert Wise and Brian De Palma to name just three. I wonder what those directors would do with a camera that can control focus to the degree promised in the BBC article - and what strange effects we will see when the technology becomes available for movie directors in the future...

All the same, I think I'll be sticking with my trusty Canon for the time being.


The media have been having a field day with Andy Murray's victory at Wimbledon. Even websites like Firebox have been getting in on the act. But I think the best Murray-related story I read this week was the one over at Newsbiscuit with the headline Virginia Wade admits she never won Wimbledon. The David Icke "quote" is the icing on the cake...


It's the first day of another working week, and what have I spent my time doing this evening? Replacing the light bulbs in the oven and the fridge - they've both blown in the last couple of weeks. I feel very grown up doing such tasks. For the fridge I bought an LED bulb with less than a tenth of the wattage of the one it replaces. The old bulb in the oven disintegrated as I removed it, so once again I was thankful for the pair of spencer wells that my mum bought me years ago. They do come in incredibly useful from time to time.

I live such a rock and roll existence these days. The best part of my Sunday? Having a nap. I'm going to claim that my lethargy was due to the hot weather and the fact that I was woken up at quarter past five on Sunday morning by a goldfinch, which had decided that the best place to burst into its loud and irritatingly repetitive song was right outside my bedroom window.

Of course I recorded it.

What, you mean that isn't the first thing you'd think of doing?

Meanwhile as I dozed yesterday afternoon, apparently somebody won something. It was fairly easy to follow the progress of the match if you'd got your windows open as I could hear screams and cheers and bursts of clapping at regular intervals through the afternoon. Apparently the temperature on the centre court at Wimbledon reached 40 degrees yesterday. It wasn't that warm here, but last night was uncomfortably hot and even with a fan going in the bedroom, I didn't so much sleep as doze. I kept waking up every half hour or so. It's still hot and sunny out there this evening, so I suspect I won't be getting much sleep tonight, either.


The heat this weekend has rather limited the amount of work I've done for 50/90. With all my studio gear running, the back room was getting uncomfortably hot by the middle of the afternoon. Nevertheless I finished the weekend with lyrics for six pieces of music written, and I'd recorded one of them as well as an instrumental fanfare to start things off. That's not as much as I'd hoped to get done this weekend, but it's better than nothing, and it does mean I've made a start. Forty eight songs left to go!


Back in May I was blogging enthusiastically about the Grasshopper vertical take-off, vertical landing rocket that SpaceX are developing. Since then they've been pushing things even further and today they released video of the latest test flight, so here it is:

SpaceX boss Elon Musk tweeted that the footage was shot by their hexacopter drone, which makes things even more awesome, I reckon.


It's Friday afternoon and I've got the patio doors open. It's a gorgeous day here in the West Country and the forecast is for more of the same all weekend. It's about time! Meanwhile I shall be staying indoors and slaving over the digital recorder. I can feel some inspiration coming on...


The BBC will not be continuing its 3D television service when the two year trial period comes to an end because nobody's interested and putting on the glasses is "quite hassly". It took them two years to find that out?


It's the 4th of July, and I'm sure that my friends in the US are enjoying themselves today. But today also marks the start of this year's 50/90 challenge, and I know another bunch of my friends will be enjoying themselves as things get under way. As I'm writing this it's just gone quarter past five in the evening and already people have uploaded 127 songs to the site's songlist page - amazing stuff.

It's the first year I've had a go at 50/90, although I've been doing the rather less demanding FAWM since 2009 and right now I'm wondering if I might have bitten off more than I can chew. But my profile page there is up and running. This year I'm going to be using FAWM's file hosting facilities rather than Soundcloud (because I haven't got room on my Soundcloud account to host another fifth songs) but as soon as that's set up - and there's something there to listen to - I will post a link here. I will be heading upstairs to make a start on song number one later this evening. Wish me luck!


Back in the 80s, one of my friends, who was both a huge Michael Jackson fan and an even bigger Doctor Who fan, insisted that moves were afoot to let MJ play the Doctor. Needless to say I didn't believe a word of it, because frankly it sounded more than a little bit ludicrous. But I found out today that SJ was absolutely right. I'm sorry I doubted you, sir! :-)


Today I had something to eat at luchtime rather than trying to tough it out until teatime. I feel a lot better than I did on Tuesday, so I think I'll make that the standard arrangement for my 600 calorie days. And my back is feeling better, too.


Despite the forecast saying it could be brighter and less windy as high pressure builds over the UK, it's been grey and windy out there for most of the day. The prospect of a decent spell of summertime prompted much talk of barbecues and eating outdoors in the office at lunchtime, but it's not going to be happening this evening, that's for sure.


I've still got back pain and I'm being clobbered by the pollen count at the moment, which is making things somewhat unpleasant. At least I'm getting more than four hours' sleep a night at the moment, although this is chiefly because I feel knackered. I woke up a couple of times last night, which is nothing unusual, but somehow I managed to fall back into a deep sleep after the first time. Normally once I've woken up I can do little more than doze in half-hour chunks but last night that wasn't the case. I dropped into heavy REM sleep and can vaguely remember having several vivid (if mildly depressing) dreams. Needless to say I still felt tired when the alarm clock went off but I've found the best thing to do in such circumstances is to get out of bed straight away before I lose the resolve to do anything. I know my sleep hygiene could be better (you won't be surprised to learn that it's the busy mind in the BBC's list of things that stop you having a good night's sleep that I suffer from the most) but given the role that sleep appears to play in ensuring our cognitive, affective, emotional and even genetic wellbeing, I really wish I got more of the stuff.


When I read that a neuroscientist reckons that head transplants should be possible any day now, my reaction was (a) technically it should actually be referred to as a body transplant and (b) this. I saw The Thing With Two Heads as half of a Saturday morning show at the Odeon in Stafford when I was a kid, and it looks even worse than I remember.


You may already have seen it, but if you haven't, this competitor on America's Got Talent performing the bullet time sequence from The Matrix as interpretive dance is well worth a watch. The fun starts about a minute in, and then just gets more and more outrageous.


Motörhead have just cancelled the remainder of their European tour after their frontman developed a couple of health issues. I wish him a speedy recovery.


I dunno, I'm really tired this evening and my back is still aching from the weekend's gardening session. At work today I had to keep stretching to ease the kinks out, and I feel about 150. Last night I was mixing some tracks and started listening with my eyes closed so that I wasn't distracted by the PC's display; I fell asleep before the third piece of music had finished playing. By nine o'clock I'd given up and gone to bed and I suspect I'll do the same thing tonight.

Right now I feel clumsy and slow, and you wouldn't believe the number of typos that I found in the last paragraph after I'd written it. I'm on a 600-calorie day today and I haven't had anything to eat yet, which might explain why I'm feeling below par. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany recently found just how badly being hungry can affect cognition even in simple organisms such as fruit flies. The article is fascinating reading: drosophilia's willingness to take risks increases as a function of how long it's been since it had a decent meal. If it's hungry enough, it'll even risk flying into places with carbon dioxide levels that would otherwise send it buzzing off to safety. The behaviour appears to be caused by the neurons that govern its flight reflex: they become less active when the fly is hungry. "It is fascinating to see the extent to which metabolic processes and hunger affect the processing systems in the brain," comments Dr. Ilona Grunwald-Kadow, who led the study team.

Don't kid yourself that we're better than the fruit flies when it comes to this sort of thing, either. Other studies have shown that human willingness to take risks is also affected by hunger. So if you've got an important project meeting tomorrow afternoon, it might be a good idea to have a decent lunch first. As for me, I'm going to have my tea before I write anything else.


I ordered the latest Joe Satriani CD from Amazon today. I will always prefer a physical object over a nebulous download, so I ordered the plastic disc rather than a bunch of electrons. But Amazon's new Autorip feature was a surprise: because I bought the physical album, I was emailed a link to Amazon's cloud player where I could download mp3 files of each track as well. Despite the fact that the album hasn't even been posted to me yet, I'm already listening to it, which is rather nice, I thought. So far I'm really impressed - I thought the last couple of albums Joe released were getting a bit safe and predictable. His work is never boring, but Unstoppable Momentum is more like the Joe I remember of old - fiery, unusual and surprising. Music retail may also become fiery and surprising in the near future, too: Amazon seem to be setting themselves up to eat Apple's lunch, so I will be very interested to see how these two behemoths treat each other as the new business beds in.

One artist I'll happily buy downloads from is Judie Tzuke. Yesterday she launched an interesting new musical venture on her website, called Song Club. If you want to join (and why wouldn't you?) you pay for a year's subscription, and this gets you access to a new song to download every month and (if you pay a little extra) a CD at the end of the year with all the songs collected together (see? I still can't kick the habit of wanting something tangible...) The first track is called Uneasy, and I've already played it three times. I love it: it's got lush, layered harmonies, blended with drums, bass, tasteful piano and mellotron strings - and when Jude hits the high note as she sings "I choose this life" that voice of hers can still make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I hope Song Club is a resounding success and I'm looking forwards to a musical treat every month over the next year!


I took the new Duckworth Lewis Method CD with me to work yesterday, so I was listening to it on headphones for the first time. That really brought home what a well-crafted piece of work it is. The production is lovely. But as I was listening to the track "The Laughing Cavaliers" I thought I could hear, very faintly, someone making a noise that took me right back to my childhood. You can hear the original version of that sound exactly one minute and twelve seconds in to this clip of Ivor the Engine on YouTube. Phonetically, I'd render it as "pshh-t-kuff".

Me being me, I sent a tweet to Duckworth Lewis Headquarters (who follow me on Twitter) mentioning my suspicions. I didn't for one minute expect the reply that came back: a "well done" from Tommy Walsh - Duckworth himself! I was grinning like a loon all evening.