Half Century Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: August 2010

August was a fraught month. My Mum was very ill and had to be taken in to hospital, and I headed over to Norfolk to help out at my parents' house. However, the blog still featured an assortment of entries on subjects ranging from coronal mass ejections to the niceties of getting a perfect shot of espresso and from the Whitechapel murders to the loopiness of American right wing politics. Welcome to my world, folks...


Mum's condition is giving cause for concern and Dad and Annabelle are going to see the doctors this afternoon. It doesn't sound good, I'm afraid. I'm heading off to Norfolk.


Mum is still in hospital, and her condition is about the same. We're still none the wiser as to what's wrong with her, and the barrage of tests she's being subjected to are giving contradictory results. In someone Mum's age, that's worrying.


I spent this afternoon in London. I was there to meet up again with Victoria, who was a fellow-student on the photography course I went on last October (and we both had to think for a moment to make sure it really was just last year, and not the year before!) Victoria is a member of the Society of Young Freemen, who had organised a walking tour of Whitechapel and Spitalfields to learn about the nefarious side of the area's history. As there were some spaces left, Victoria had asked me if I wanted to tag along; how could I resist? I grabbed my camera and headed east...

Gunthorpe Street

Our tour started a few hundred yards down the road from Whitechapel Gallery, in a little alleyway called Gunthorpe Street, next to the White Hart pub. The chief Ripper suspect (at least as far as Inspector Abberline was concerned) was one Severin Kozlowski, a.k.a. George Chapman, who worked as a barber in the building's basement. As you'll see from the links above, Kozlowski was a nasty piece of work who was eventually hanged for poisoning three women with whom he'd formed a relationship. He worked close to the sites of the Ripper murders; he was a violent misogynist; when he was hanged, the murders stopped. Our guide also explained that Kozlowski spent some time in New York, and suggested that a couple of murders which happened over there may be linked. It was all rather intriguing.

As we headed north towards Petticoat Lane we heard about the dire social conditions that existed at the time. In the period from 1888 to 1891, Whitechapel was a dangerous place for women. In particular, we learned about Dorset Street, "the Worst Street in London" which was the site of one of the Ripper murders. It no longer appears on maps of the area and has been turned into a car park. As we turned north east from Petticoat Lane and on to Spitalfields we learned about gin palaces and doss houses, places where you could drink yourself into insensibility (some things never change) and then stay the night for 4d to sleep off your drunken stupor. Several of the Ripper's victims died trying to earn that paltry sum of money to pay for their nightly lodgings.

However, we also learned about other crimes that were committed in the area: a set of grisly killings known as the Ratcliff Highway murders which had taken place 77 years previously. Our guide made a convincing case for the innocence of the chief suspect John Williams, who "committed suicide" on the eve of his trial and ended up buried in a kneeling position with a stake through the heart at the crossroads outside the Crown and Dolphin pub (a crossroads burial was the traditional method of interment for suicides back then; they were not allowed on consecrated ground). A crowd of 10,000 witnessed the burial of a man who, it was claimed, had managed to hang himself despite being heavily manacled in his cell. Even a short search on the web reveals Williams wasn't the only suspect and the spotlight should fall on his drinking partner William Ablass in particular...

The Crown and Dolphin

I'd never heard of the case before, and was fascinated to learn that P. D. James had co-written a book about it back in the 1970s called The Maul and the Pear Tree. I expected it to be long out of print, but Amazon are taking orders for a new edition which comes out on November 4th. I've ordered myself a copy.

The walk was fascinating, and I highly recommend it. It took a couple of hours and I found myself in parts of London I'd never seen before. I was amazed by how many streets were still paved with cobbles; I walked down narrow alleyways that were probably little changed from the 19th Century (although I'm sure that the clientele in the pubs would be unrecognisable to anyone from back then). I got some interesting and atmospheric shots including the ones you see here, so I've created a Murder Mystery Tour set on Flickr. To finish off, we ended up in the Blind Beggar, built in 1894. This was the pub in which Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell, but it was also the pub outside which William Booth preached his first sermon, the sermon that led to to the creation of the Salvation Army. Booth preached temperance, and the Salvation Army played no small part in enabling social reforms that put paid to the awful conditions which existed in the area, but after a couple of hours walking on cobbled streets I thought a pint of London Pride was well deserved.


I spoke to Annabelle this evening. She'd been to see Mum today and it doesn't sound good. Mum was very confused and the jaundice seems to be getting worse rather than better. The hospital couldn't provide her with the results of any tests "because the printer was broken" which doesn't really inspire me with confidence.


No developments from Norwich. Dad went to visit Mum today, and so did Andy, Anna and Sophie. I hope we'll get more information tomorrow.

I slept late this morning. It feels very strange waking up in a house by myself and I feel a bit down today. I got used to having lots of people around and now I'm rattling around in an empty house. The fact that I'll be back at work in the morning hasn't done anything to cheer me up, either.

I'm already missing Andy and Anna's American breakfasts. It was lovely to wake up to smell bacon frying (lovely in a bagel) or banana pancakes cooking (with maple syrup, of course!) Never mind; this morning's breakfast was some of the cold chicken left over from yesterday, and it was delicious. Outside, the sun is shining although there are warnings frm the Met Office that storms are on their way. The ground here is already saturated, so any more rainfall is going to run straight off the fields into the rivers and things could get interesting later tonight.


I slept like a log last night and this morning I didn't get up until 10:30. Everyone else had gone out shopping so I fixed myself breakfast and had a shower. Even though we're on holiday, Saturdays still take place at a slower pace than the rest of the week. With Mum being ill, everything is revolving around visits to the hospital so we don't have much inclination to rush off to do more holiday-related stuff.

It's not quite as windy as it was yesterday (there were very strong winds in Scotland) but the clouds are scudding across the sky from the south and the sunshine comes and goes in bursts. It's quite humid, and it feels like we ought to be getting some thunderstorms but they're only forecast further south. There are lots of weather warnings out for the south west, and I heard on the travel news that at one point today traffic jams were stretching from the M5 exit for Tiverton in Devon as far back as Cribbs Causeway. That's nearly sixty miles!

This afternoon we visited Mum in hospital again. She was very tired today, as she told us the lights had been on in the ward for most of the night and she hadn't been able to get much sleep. She also looked very yellow again, so she hasn't beaten off the jaundice yet. She's got more tests scheduled on Monday, so we'll see how things go. We called in at Annabelle's on the way back and then returned to Holt. Andy cooked chicken for dinner; he uses the American technique of brining the meat (soaking it in salty water) for an hour before putting it in the oven, and it really makes a difference to the taste. It was succulent and tasty and we all ate very well.

After that it was time to pack my stuff in the car and say my goodbyes before heading back to Charfield. It was after 10pm when I left, and there seemed to be more rabbits on the roads than cars. I could have made the whole drive home on the tank I'd filled up in Huntingdon on the way over, but I topped it up at the garage again just in case. By the time I got to the A14 it was raining, and I was dodging showers for the rest of the way home. I got back to the village just before 2:30 in the morning.


When we got to Annabelle's place this afternoon, we discovered that the rest of her family had left a couple of subtle, easy-to-miss reminders that she's celebrating today...

Birthday wishes

We dropped Annabelle's daughter off and headed over to see Mum in the hospital. She looked a little better today and she wasn't quite as yellow as she had been yesterday. She's had a few more tests but there was no news on what has been causing the jaundice, or when she is likely to be allowed home. We'll go again tomorrow and see if there's been any developments. We left the hospital and struggled through the rush hour traffic back to Annabelle's house. Norwich tends to get its road works done during the school holidays and it really screws up the traffic, particularly on Fridays. It took ages to travel a couple of miles. When we finally got back to Annabelle's place, her birthday party was under way and the house was full: there were children and dogs everywhere. It's the first party I've been to in a long time which had jelly and ice cream on the menu and very good it was too. We left just after seven and were back in Holt by eight.


This morning I finally got to see just how low aircraft fly around here. Andrew was fixing food in the conservatory at the back and he suddenly called me to look. A C-130 was approaching across the field in a slight banked turn and no more than 150 feet off the ground. It flew almost directly over the house and it was a very impressive sight.


Dad rang up this morning to see how Mum got on overnight. The hospital wouldn't give out anything useful in the way of information over the phone, but it sounded like the ward was pretty noisy last night so she wouldn't have got much sleep.

In the afternoon we left Dad to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet while Andy drove us down to Norwich to pay Mum a visit. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital is a huge new complex that opened about ten years ago. Dad says that when it was first opened, they discovered that the swish new beds that each ward had been equipped with wouldn't fit in the lifts... Whether this is true or not, most of the architectural problems seem to have been ironed out by now and the building is impressive: light and airy and very modern.

As we arrived at the ward, Mum was being wheeled off for a number of scans that, we were told, would take between twenty minutes to half an hour to complete. Just over an hour later, she arrived back at the ward. She looked a little better than she did yesterday, and it sounds like they're doing a full range of tests to see what's the matter with her. Given the fact that this has already happened several times over the past few years without any positive developments, you'll appreciate that I won't be holding my breath. Mum is scheduled for more tests tomorrow; there was no news on when she is likely to be coming home.

We called in at Annabelle's house on the way back and I met their new puppy Heidi for the first time. She's a German Shepherd/Collie cross, although there didn't appear to be much Collie in evidence. She's an enormous, boisterous, hyperactive monster with sharp teeth and even sharper claws. After she jumped up and scratched just about everyone, I managed to grab her collar and held her down on the floor. That did the trick and she calmed down a bit. It's amazing what you learn from watching daytime TV. Thank you, Mr Dog Whisperer. I said hello to Annabelle's growing collection of guinea pigs (the boys and the girls now have separate hutches, which should put paid to any further unplanned population explosions) and then it was time to head back to Holt for tea. I'm now sitting at the dining table digesting a very tasty dinner of baked salmon with new potatoes, green beans and carrots. Everyone else has gone to bed and once I've finished writing for today I think I will follow suit.


This morning there was footage on the news of a bull running amok at a bullring in Spain. After it made four unsuccessful attempts to jump the wall round the ring, it finally succeeded - and started setting about the audience. By eleven o'clock the BBC were saying 40 people had been injured (it was 18 earlier) with a ten-year-old boy in intensive care after being gored in the stomach. The bull was, of course, taken away and killed.

Although this wasn't a "proper" bullfight in that the people in the ring were trying to dodge the bull rather than kill it by stabbing it in the back with swords, it's still a barbaric practice. If this sort of event happened more often, maybe the practice (I'm not going to dignify it by calling it a sport) will die out a bit faster.


Mum hasn't been well for a couple of weeks. She's been pretty much immobile for the last couple of years as she's lost most sensation in her legs. We suspect this was caused by damage to her spinal column from a botched spinal anaesthetic when she had an operation to pin the bones in her leg after she broke it in a fall. At the moment she's a rather disconcerting yellow colour, and she's been waiting to go in to hospital for a scan to see what's causing the jaundice. She was supposed to be collected today at 2pm by an ambulance, but they didn't turn up until after 7pm.

When the ambulance crew did turn up, they were friendly, businesslike and utterly professional. However, the general standard of health care in this part of the world is questionable. Several of my parents' friends and neighbours have died after mistakes made by the local health authority and when I hear stories about people dying from internal bleeding after having minor operations, people dying after being told that the prostate cancer they were suffering from was actually a bad case of the flu doesn't inspire you with confidence. It's also interesting that none of the doctors that have seen Mum over the last two years has been prepared to diagnose what's wrong with her, presumably because if they did they would be deemed liable and Mum would be eligible for some sort of compensation. Applying Occam's razor would suggest that they know damn well what's wrong with her and are covering each others' backs.Seeing what has happened to Mum over the last couple of years makes me extremely angry. I know there are a lot of people in the NHS who do amazing work and improve the quality of life for thousands of people every year. It's just a shame none of them seem to work in this part of East Anglia.


Annabelle came up with her kids this afternoon. Things were a little calmer than on Monday! Earlier, we'd gone in to Holt to do some whopping and I stocked up on bird seed from the Bird Ventures shop. I bought ten kilograms of black sunflower seeds for Mum and Dad. They run several feeders in the garden and I doubt that a sack that size will last them more than a month! While I was talking to Mum in her bedroom the feeder outside her window was visited by a robin, blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, greenfinches and even a long-tailed tit, all within the space of ten minutes.

We watched Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs today. It gets better each time I watch it and the kids thought it was great. There are so many throwaway one-liners, so many references to other films and such an entertaining selection of characters that even afteer repeated viewings you'll still be picking up on things that you'd not noticed before. And each time I watch the film, Steve the monkey gets funnier.


After the mayhem of yesterday, Mum and Dad were worn out and spent most of the day asleep. Things were less hectic today. It was just Andy, Anna, Sophie and me at Mum and Dad's place so we were able to chill out. Sophie and I ended up playing Little Big Planet for a while - I'd not played the game in two-player mode and it was good fun, although some of the challenges and puzzles in the game were beyond us. You have to swing, or jump, or bounce to get to objects hidden within each level and in some cases we couldn't even manage to get half of them.

The others went out in the afternoon to do some shopping and I stayed behind in case Mum or Dad needed anything. Dad isn't very mobile either at the moment and I ended up popping down the road to Kelling Hospital to pick up some stuff for him. I stood around at the reception area for fifteen minutes before I was seen by anyone, and even when somebody did turn up, a woman who had arrived after me jumped the queue. It's been that sort of week.


I feel very sorry for Tomasz Schafernaker. He's got in to trouble for flipping the bird to one of the BBC's news presenters after they suggested the forecast wouldn't be that accurate. The short term weather forecasts these days are remarkably good, it's the long range weather forecast that is still very difficult to get right. Weather is a chaotic system, and tiny discrepancies in the initial state of the model used to make the forecasts can make huge differences by the time you're looking even two weeks ahead. The way the Met Office gets round this is by running loads of different models, all with slightly different versions of the initial state. They then look at how many of these runs agree with each other, which is a good sign that the weather is likely to do the same sort of thing.

Despite this, the Met Office is still an easy target for cheap shots and sniping from people who don't know any better and when you're someone like Mr Schafernaker with a high profile in the organisation you must have to deal with idiots making snide comments all day long. All I can say is I think Tomasz was quite restrained in his response. I'd probably have thrown something.


Yesterday afternoon I loaded up the car and headed over to East Anglia. We've got another big family gathering going on this week as my brother Andy is coming over from San Francisco with his family. I don't normally travel during the day but Mum and Dad are not in the best of health so they didn't really want to stay up and wait for me. As it's the summer holidays, the roads were packed. I'd left leaving until 4 because an accident on the M5 near Droitwich earlier had caused severe delays. The travel news said normal conditions were expected after 4:30 but even as that traffic jam cleared, others were happening. The traffic information signs on the motorway warned of delays on the M5 and the M42 and the traffic was getting busier and busier, so I came off the motorway altogether and headed across country, via Stow, Banbury and Northampton. The difference in the amount of traffic was amazing - people just don't seem to use A-roads any more and the B-roads I used were deserted. The trip only took me half an hour longer than normal. This morning I nipped down to Fakenham to do some shopping and got caught in roadworks, which was the only delay I've experienced on the entire trip so far.

Andy and co arrived just after 2pm, and my other brother Dave followed closely behind. An hour later my sister arrived. Dave loves playing with all the kids and he'd got them wound up within minutes. The yougest ones were all hyper, running around screaming and shouting and throwing things at each other and climbing on the furniture. They were generally getting out of control. The older kids stayed back and played on the Playstation instead. I was gutted to find out that my copy of DiRT 2 had become cracked, and no longer played so we resorted to two-player races on GT5 Prologue and various 2-player games from the SEGA mega collection. But with a house full of extremely boisterous children, running around screaming and hollering it was difficult to hear yourself think. It was all a bit much for Mum and Dad and they retired off to the back to get a bit of peace and quiet. I managed to calm things down a bit by deploying the tried and trusted solution to rowdy kids: sit them in front of a Studio Ghibli movie. Within five minutes of starting My Neigbour Totoro you could have heard a pin drop and they were utterly engrossed. Thank you, Miyazaki-san.

We managed to find a fish and chip shop in Sheringham that opened on a Monday so we all had fish, chips and mushy peas for tea. Dave eventually got the rest of his family back in the car and they left at 8, Annabelle following shortly afterwards and peace and quiet returned. They're all lovely, but when there's a house full of kids that Dave's wound up, everything is absolutely full-on all the time and it's all a bit much for the old people. And yes, I do mean me.


I spent a very enjoyable evening in Wotton-Under-Edge last night with some friends. We had a couple of pints in the Star, an evening meal in the Swan, and then went up the road to the Electric Picture House to see Christopher Nolan's new film, Inception. First of all, let me say I think it's an exceptionally well-made and thought provoking film. I can't recommend it highly enough and I will definitely go and see it again. I'd studiously avoided reading any reviews beforehand and if you haven't seen the film, you might want to skip the rest of today's blog, as it's concerned entirely with the issues and concepts that the film explores. Such is the nature of the film that I'll have to write about important aspects of the plot and trust me, the less you know about the film going in to it, the more enjoyable it will be. If that's you, stop reading now.

For me the film raised some interesting points about narrative. It's interesting to look at the film as a comment on the nature of cinema itself; within the dream when Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio's character) talks to his target, the businessman Fischer (Cillian Murphy), he asks him: "How did you get here?" Fischer cannot remember if he arrived by taxi, or bike, or jet-pack, because the dream began at the crucial moment, with no preamble. Films take exactly the same approach; each scene starts at the moment it starts to get interesting. When you make a movie you don't show the characters parking before they walk in to the room (well, not unless you're George Lucas, in which case the depiction of a spacecraft being parked is often more interesting than the dialogue and the human interaction that follows it...) DiCaprio acts as the voice of the director who is effectively saying to the audience, look: the logic of film and the logic of dreaming is the same. We meet characters with no idea of who they are or how we got there and only the vauguest hint as to why they would be important to Cobb. When the scene changes, we aren't shown how the transition occurred from one point of view to the next. How could we, when each cut, each scene is a creative act made under the control of the director?

With one exception, each of the dreamers has a token, an object they take with them within the dream world that, we are told, enables them to determine whether they are currently experiencing reality or the dream. The exception, of course, is Cobb. The spinning top that he uses as his token belonged to his wife. It is not his token, therefore he can not trust what it indicates. He is unable to establish, ever, that he has escaped the dream world and so by extension neither can we. We find ourselves in the dream world without a way of determining when the dream started and with no way to tell that the dream has ended and we are being shown reality. We have no totem. The logic of this is beautiful; after all, every time you go to the movies, you are effectively sharing someone else's dream. If we extend this train of thought, the conclusion is inescapable: everything in Inception is experienced within a dream state. The final shot of the film, where we cut from the top spinning and wobbling on the table to a black screen, is - effectively - the moment at which the dream ends and Cobb wakes up, taking the audience with him out of the film. The arc of Cobb's character has been completed: he has abandoned his guilt and is reunited with his children. There are scenes earlier in the film which at first sight appear to be set in the real world, but which also have dream-like qualities. The chase in Mombassa is perhaps the most obvious example: as Cobb flees his pursuers, he runs down a narrow alleyway in which the walls are literally closing in on him. He escapes into sunlight and a miraculous rescue that is ridiculously implausible. But there are other occurrences in the movie that only make sense when the whole thing is viewed as a dream: the recurrence of the question "Do you want to become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die?"; the odd behaviour of the man in the cafe, shouting incoherently at Cobb; the point when Cobb finally reaches his children and sees the scene from his dream - the children are dressed in the same clothes, and they are moving in the same manner until the moment they turn to face him.

But for me, the absolute, final, deciding giveaway is the fact that after a ten-hour flight from Paris to Los Angeles, not a single member of the cast looks like they've spent nearly half a day asleep on an aircraft. First class travel may be more comfortable than the economy class hell I'm used to, but would they really all look that fresh? Does it look like Leonardo DiCaprio needs a shave at that point? Or Cillian Murphy? It's clearly still part of the dream.

Once we accept that this is the case, if we take the whole film as Cobb's dream, the question arises whether his wife is really dead or not. Cobb's failure to come to terms with the death of his spouse may well be a subconscious metaphor for something entirely different that the character - or the director - is dealing with, although the death of a partner is a theme that occurs many times in Nolan's films (just watch Memento, The Prestige or The Dark Night to see examples of that). Whatever his demons actually are, in working through the scenario of the Inception itself, Cobb achieves catharsis. From this perspective, the act that gives the movie its title becomes background, a MacGuffin, something to drive the movie along. The motivations of the other players in the dream become much more important and they subtly change. Ellen Page's character spends most of the film psychoanalysing Cobb, trying to get him to move on. Is she actually in the dream to ensure that Cobb's "treatment" succeeds? It seems likely (and logically consistent) that Saito is Cobb's employer in the real world as well as the dream, trying to get his star player back to match fitness. Why else would he show such dedication to the task, to the point of casting himself into Limbo?

The only thing that jars in the film is the fact that Cobb takes his wife's token from the safe and sets it spinning to prove to her that she cannot trust what is real. I didn't understand this. The two of them are in Limbo, a raw world manufactured out of their subconscious desires and memories. The world of Limbo is fantastical, legendary, and cleaarly imaginary. This is known by every participant in the story. Why would someone believe it to be real? The only change I would have made to the film would be to reverse Cobb's act. Consider what the implications would have been for the movie if Mel had set the top spinning before she closed the safe door. As this is Limbo, she would expect the top to still be spinning when she opened the door again. Then when Cobb opens the safe, his act of betrayal would be to stop the top spinning. This effectively demonstrates to his wife that the fantasy world in which the live is actually the real world. As this is clearly not the case, there is a much stronger reason for her to fall into psychosis. Furthermore, Cobb's transgression becomes an overtly negative act. When he interferes with the function of the token, the action is destructive, not creative. His own actions would then work against the theme of the film, underlying his subconscious urge to betray himself. He would be stopping something that was already in motion - forcing an ending - rather than setting something in motion, establishing a beginning and, crucially, enabling inception to take place.

Ah well, you can't have everything. The rest of the film is such good fun that it's not really fair to pick on a niggle like that. the cast are exceptional and the visuals are stunning. I still have no idea how they got Joseph Gordon-Levitt flying up and down a lift shaft in zero gravity and the scenes within the van had me convinced they really had driven the entire team off the side of a bridge. As a tour-de-force, it's awe-inspiring. The music plays a huge part in establishing the atmosphere and it's superb. I noticed Johnny Marr's name crop up in the credits as the guitar player. The score is, I believe, some of the best work that Hans Zimmer has ever produced and the idea of taking the opening bars of the Edith Piaf song and slowing them down to provide the main musical motif for the score is inspired.

As a film to promote discussion and analysis with your friends afterwards, I don't think you'll come across better subject matter this year. I can't wait to buy the blu-ray and learn how they did it.


I'm on holiday for a week, so it's probably my fault that the weather has deteriorated so much. It's been thrashing with rain for most of today so far, so I've left the garden to its own devices. I'm about to head off to Wotton with some friends for the rest of the day, so the lawn will have to wait for another week before I get round to cutting it. It's a shame the weather's been so poor, as it's the Bristol Balloon Fiesta this weekend. When I drove in to work on Friday morning the sky over Bristol was full of balloons. According to the BBC's report, 81 balloons managed to launch which is quite an achievement; the weather has severely curtailed the amount of flying that gets done in recent years. I doubt that many balloons will be flying today and the forecast for tomorrow doesn't sound that great.

Despite the unpredictable weather, the Fiesta draws huge crowds. Half a million people are expected to visit the city this weekend and the Fiesta provides a huge boost to tourism in the area. I hope they manage to enjoy themselves in the rain.


Yesterday I reached the grand old age of fifty, which is why this month's blog has a half-century reference in it (you see what I did there?). I'm afraid I spent the day at work, but it was still good. For one thing, I was involved in a business meeting over lunch at a local pub. In the afternoon, I was making a cup of tea in the tea room when Christian called me back to my desk to take a phone call. When I got there, the phone was ringing out: there was nobody there. Of course, when I turned round, everyone else was standing behind me, grinning. Our office manager handed me a birthday cake complete with lit candles. It was completely unexpected, and a lovely surprise. Thanks, too, to everyone who sent cards, or tweets, or messages on Facebook. It was all rather splendid.


Professor Brian Cox, that is. He works incredibly hard to promote science in the UK and he seems a genuinely nice guy. His show Wonders of the Solar System is showing in America at the moment. Unfortunately for the professor, that means the fruitcake brigade have latched on to his Twitter account and have been sending him all manner of weird, wonderful or just plain deranged versions of popular scientific theories. When he replies he doesn't mince his words: "Any suggestion that the world will end in 2012 is total and utter bollocks." Oh yes. I'd love to see this sort of thing developed into a television series. A show that encouraged critical thinking, full of scientists saying what they really think about fringe philosophies? You could cart on a selection of nutters to espouse their theories, and then cruelly mock carefully analyse them. It'd be unmissable.

Hmmm. Kind of like this, in fact.


Johann Hari's latest column focuses on Britain's transformation into a secular society, and I think it's safe to say that the church does not come out of this well. Religion has been a useful method of imposing social control for millennia, but in the UK at least, it's rapidly becoming marginalised.

I know that religion is very important to a lot of people, but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. I've just spent half an hour trawling through my library trying to find an attribution for the quote "I don't have a problem with God; it's his fan club I can't stand" but couldn't find one. But I agree with the sentiment a hundred per cent, especially when I read about the antics of people like the Westboro Baptist Church. You might remember them as the red-faced, angry people with placards picketing the funerals of servicemen killed in the war in Afghanistan. I'm not linking to their site, and even typing their name makes me want to go and wash my hands, but I must admit it's funny when they bite off more than they can chew. Moral of the story: never piss off a comics convention.

All joking aside, if Westboro are tolerated by other Christians rather than being soundly and thoroughly condemned; if this sort of thing is allowed to happen; something somewhere in that belief system is very, very broken. I'm definitely with Mr Hari on this one. Count me out.

GRRR (4)

The Coffee Italia debacle continues. Despite the fact that I cancelled the order on Friday, I received a shipping notification this morning. Five phone calls to the London office today have gone unanswered. Folks, If you're thinking of dealing with this company, learn from my experiences and don't touch them with a barge pole.


Sunday evenings won't be quite as exciting now the BBC's series Sherlock has finished its first run. Episode three more than made up for last week's effort. Don't take that the wrong way - the second episode was only mediocre by comparison to episodes 1 and 3; it was still far better than anything else on the telly. Last night's show delivered a gripping and rapid-fire plot that kept me watching right to the end and left me wanting more. Much more.

Sherlock has turned out to be a polished, professional flagship drama, the kind that shows Auntie can still be great if she really puts her mind to it. The cast have been wonderful. The ensemble of Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Mycroft and Mrs Hudson are note-perfect and I notice that several reviewers are already comparing them to the Scooby Gang, nothing to do with the cartoon Great Dane but rather the collection of regular characters that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer such watchable television. Cumberbatch's Sherlock in particular has been very good - the sequence last night where he questioned a missing businessman's wife, suddenly switching from tearful reminiscence to blunt sociopath was mesmerising. But it's not just the performances that have made the show so enjoyable. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have successfully transferred the detective to the 21st century; the series succeeded because in doing so they took care to retain much of the original's intelligence, its attraction and idiosyncrasies. The updates are sensible, for the most part: Dr Watson now publishes a blog, Holmes's unfortunate predilection for smoking opium has disappeared and he now slaps on a nicotine patch or three instead. I found these changes both amusing and prudent. After all, should anyone feel obliged to select Holmes as a role model (and there are far worse choices out there), nicotine as a recreational chemical is far less limiting to one's career... Other aspects of Holmes's character, such as his talent for carrying off outrageously heavy disguises, have yet to surface but it's early days yet.

Last night we got a direct reference to the original story A Study in Scarlet (Holmes doesn't know that the Earth revolves around the sun - in the original novel, he dismisses the fact with the immortal line "I can't be bothered with minor details.") After that, we were plunged into an updated version of the Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans with elements of The Five Orange Pips thrown in for good measure, and I'm sure there were many other references that I missed. However clever anyone gets with a "reimagining" of old classics, it's important to retain the distinguishing features that made the originals so popular. For any Sherlock Holmes adaptation to succeed, that means it must retain as much of Conan Doyle's genius as possible. This series has managed things very well, and apart from anything else, it's given me a great excuse to read through all the original adventures again and spot the bits that Moffatt and Gatiss decided to use!

There were other, more modern references to be had as well: as soon as we saw the Golem's distinctive silhouette rising in Vauxhall Arches, I twigged that the Czech assassin was going to be an homage to Rondo Hatton, the original Creeper, although most people these days will consider it a reference to Disney's Rocketeer (which, of course, pulled material from the same source.) The fight was silly, delightful stuff - I hope we see more of the Golem in future. Last night's plot was dark and sinister, with a refreshing twist of cynicism. For example, all of Moriarty's atrocities had become "gas leaks" by the time they ended up on the news. Was this the work of Holmes's brother? The more we see of Mark Gatiss's Mycroft, the better the show gets and I was delighted to see he played a greater part in the proceedings this time round. When the two brothers started sparring, everyone else in the room might as well not have been there.

The only thing that didn't sit quite right was the character of Moriarty. I didn't think the choice of actor worked particularly well. Was he really old enough to have been murdering people with botulinum toxin twenty years ago? And as for the whole channelling Graham Norton thing, let's just hope that accent was an act of misdirection, shall we? The episode ended on an inevitable cliffhanger, and I'm sure the BBC will be scrambling to commission further episodes. They'd be crazy not to.


With Sherlock around, everything else on telly this week has looked pretty second-rate. However watchable and lovely James Nesbitt and Minnie Driver might be, I suspect the BBC's submarine SF blockbuster The Deep will sink without trace. The first episode was so utterly dreadful that I'll only be watching the second to find out if they made it that bad on purpose. The trailers weren't inspiring, but any optimism I'd had about the show evaporated within five minutes when it became apparent that cast members had varying ideas about how the name of the first submersible, Hermes should be pronounced. Her-mess? Herm-ease? Whatever. The plot was ridddled in cliché, and the characters were one-dimensional and poorly sketched. Got your bad series checklist ready? Here we go...

  • Special effects that were anything but special? Check. The sub seemed to double in size once it left the deck of its support vessel.
  • Incoherent and/or inexplicable selection of plot device used to provide exposition and character motivation? Check. It's depressingly predictable the way drama series now treat the humble USB memory stick as the ultimate cheap, plausible MacGuffin. Even this week's episode of Sherlock was guilty of using one.
  • Apparently gaping plot holes? Check. How did mystery man get his hands on a USB stick (see previous point) with a recording from the doomed sub, given that we'd already seen how all communications had failed and the sub's power had been turned off before Catherine spoke her (presumably) final dialogue?
  • The mouthy young assistant, who knows the crew's dark secrets and who gets mysteriously bumped off before the end of the first episode? Check.
  • The boffin who spouts a stream of jargon cribbed off the Discovery Channel? Check.
  • A mystery guy added to the crew at the last minute as the bad guy? Check - oh, and bonus cliché points for the fact that by the end of the episode, Raymond from the Admiralty appeared to have murdered one of the crew. The laws of narrative cliché now require that he will turn out to be the good guy on a desperate and secret mission...

Most of all though, I will be watching tomorrow and thinking of the extra episodes of Sherlock they could have made with the money they spent on this clunker. If I last five minutes, I'll be surprised.



Roll on October.

GRR (1)

I think the honeymoon is over.

Yesterday I changed the permissions on my Flickr account to restrict the use of API calls by external sites. I did so after discovering that my stuff was appearing on websites like lurvely and dipity. These are third parties who skim content off Flickr and post it on their own pages (and, no doubt, make money from the advertising they carry alongside them). Oh, we're providing a service for you, their FAQs say. Really? You seem to be receiving a service - my photos - from me, but I don't remember you sending me a share of the money you're making off them...

Recent changes to Flickr have not been for the better, and at least one of my Flickr contacts has deleted most of his photos there after the site redesign made it easier to copy photos at a size that makes pirating images quite feasible. I used to really get a lot out of Flickr, but all this really makes me feel like the honeymoon is over. Since the company was bought by Yahoo! things have really gone into a decline.

I blogged last year about the way in which Flickr's interestingness pages were being gamed so badly that the majority of photos making it into Explore were rubbish. I don't like the new interface, either: from an HCI point of view it's a real dog's breakfast. You have to click twice to get to any of the links on the right hand side (the first click reveals thumbnails of the photographs in the group or pool that you're trying to get to; you have to click again to go to the relevant page). Photo tags no longer appear on separate lines but are thrown into a jumbled mess (and many won't appear at all if you've exceeded the number that can fit on the minuscule area of the screen set aside for them). Many tasks which used to be accessible from a link next to the photo now involve clicking and selecting from drop-down menus. Everything is more work than it used to be; the "benefit" being that there's more room on the page for the photo. As I mentioned just now, not everyone shares Flickr's belief that this is a good thing.

GRR (2)

As a result of this, I'm also going to be changing my response to requests for using my photos. I've joined the Getty Images group on Flickr, and all of my photos now carry a "request to license" link. Anyone who wants to use my photos can click there and Getty will sort something out. I'm not expecting to get many requests for my stuff, but you never know...

GRR (3)

As you may have noticed, I'm not in a particularly good mood this weekend. The principal reason for this is that I picked the wrong company to order a coffee machine from. The email confirmation I got from Coffee Italia on Monday lunchtime clearly stated that "your machine will be dispatched within 24 hours" by UPS. So I waited for my tracking number to arrive. And waited. And waited.

When half past three came round on Friday, I'd still heard nothing further from them. All the emails I'd sent went unanswered. Every time I phoned them, their switchboard went straight through to an answering machine. By now, alarm bells were ringing: what if I had a problem with the machine when it was delivered? It didn't seem likely that I would be able to get hold of anybody interested in fixing it. I really didn't want to end up in that sort of situation, particularly given the amount of money I was spending on the thing.

Luckily, the UK's Distance Selling Regulations require companies to provide a cooling off period of seven working days in which the customer can cancel. So at 4pm on Friday I sent them an email cancelling the order, and cc'd it to all the email addresses I could find on their website. But this time, I added delivery and read requests to the email messages. Their tracking email address came back with a bounce message telling me the recipient had exceeded its quota limit - in other words, the mailbox was full - but messages to the other three addesses were read within two minutes of me posting them. I ordered the machine with a VISA card - so if there are any problems I'll hand over to them, but the experience has left me feeling grumpy and out of sorts for most of the weekend, and not just because my caffeine levels have dropped. I'll make sure I do adequate research on the reputation of the next company I order a machine from.

But I have to wonder how a company like this thinks it can get away with this sort level of service in the era of the internet? Word will get round, eventually. Even if they change their name.


While my camcorder was filling up my PC's hard disk with data last night, I took a quick breather in the back garden. I was standing on the back doorstep, enjoying the quiet and mulling over how scathing an article I should write about the non-appearance of the northern lights (see the last entry for today) when I noticed that one of the shadows next to the garage was moving. As I turned to look, it stopped, so I pretended not to have noticed and turned away again. After a few moments, it moved again. I stepped down into the garden, and quietly approached whatever it was. It turned out to be an adult hedgehog, and it was a big one: it was about three times the size of the baby I found in the garden last week.

We eyed each other warily. It was older and much more cautious than the youngster had been - and it regarded me with evident distrust. I backed off to get my camera, but it was even more savvy than I expected: by the time I returned, it was nowhere to be seen. I'm afraid you don't get a photo in the blog tonight. I love these little moments, encounters with the wilder aspects of living in the countryside that can literally happen on your doorstep. Mum and dad get muntjac deer trotting across their lawn and adders basking in the sunshine on the paving in the back garden. A neighbour of mine found a grass snake in his flower bed; I've seen frogs, and bats, spiders and snails and a wide variety of birds. The sparrows in particular are doing well, raising what must be their third brood of fledgelings at the moment and making regular trips to the bird feeder in a squabbling, chirping flock. It's wonderful to see.


According to Wikipedia, one meaning of the word diegesis is "the fictional world in which the situations and events narrated occur." When you're telling a story, this fictional world will often come into conflict with the real one; as Lee Maguire points out in a lovely little blog entry I found today, you'll never see the people on EastEnders watching EastEnders. The article introduced me to a phenomenon that pushes my geek button about as hard as it possibly could: diegetic winks. The example he gives from the rather splendid new Sherlock series on the BBC is *lovely* and I won't spoil the surprise by revealing it here. Go read his blog. (via Haddock blogs).


I've seen some crazy macro shots before, but this one is a doozy. All the more so because it was taken with a modified Canon PowerShot compact digital camera. Compact cameras are well suited to macro photography. I tend to use my PowerShot in preference to the EOS50D when I need to shoot something in extreme close-up. Maybe I should look at customising my camera, too...


Ah, the American right. Angry, dumb as a stick, and (thankfully) no longer in power... Every week the Snopes RSS feed and what's new page has news of another "urban legend" concocted by some fundamentalist nutjob or other, making increasingly ludicrous claims about President Obama or his policies. Just take a moment to look at that page on Snopes, and consider the amount of bile and hatred that must have gone in to spreading those stories in the first place. It's not a trivial matter. In the past few years, I've seen more and more examples of this repulsive, abhorrent side of American culture. The Americans I know are warm, friendly people, but they share their country with some truly frightening individuals.

If only America could harness the small-minded, vituperative zeal that goes in to concocting this endless stream of bullshit into something constructive, they'd have cured cancer, eradicated hunger, and colonised the entire solar system by the end of this decade. Imagine these folks as snotty-faced kids in the school playground - back in the day, they would have been the sort of brats who would stick their fingers in their ears and sing "la la la, I'm not listening" when you tried to have a rational conversation with them. The scary thing is, on the Internet some of them can now metaphorically stick their fingers in your ears, preventing you from hearing about stories by blocking them on Digg. Sure, why not? Something happens in the world that you don't agree with, you just go right ahead and ignore it. Pretend it doesn't exist. Make up your own version of events. The rest of the world is really looking forwards to seeing where that gets you...


The amount of gibberish in the news this week about the four recent CMEs has been unbelievable. The Telegraph was wittering on about a solar tsunami as if some gigantic wave was going to wash us all away in a blaze of glowing green light. The truth was much more prosaic, and as the Harvard-Smithsonian's website pointed out, even if a CME is pointed at Earth when it goes off, there are a lot of variables involved in determining whether or not an aurora becomes visible from the ground. The sun is a long, long way away - 93 million miles or so - and a lot can happen before those energetic particles reach the earth. Factors such as the relative orientation of the Earth's magnetic field have a huge effect on an aurora's intensity. In southern England at least, the spectacular light show that the news media had decided was going to take place failed to materialise, although there were some good sightings in Germany. Lancaster University's Aurorawatch site gave a bit of a blip on Wednesday afternoon, but has been quiet since then. When I looked for signs last night, the stars were out but there wasn't a hint of any auroral display and the seeing is very good here - I live in the countryside, remember.

The solar flares that generated this event were all class C. Solar flares are classified as B, C, M or X in order of increasing energy on a logarithmic scale (so each step in the scale is ten times as big as the one that precedes it). As the spaceweather website points out in that last link, "C-class flares are small with few noticeable consequences here on Earth." In other words, the media worked themselves up into a frenzy of hyperbole over nothing. The Sun regularly produces solar flares and I've blogged about them several times in the past. This week's eruption was tiny by comparison to some of the other flares observed over the last century or so - the Sun occasionally produces X-class flares and they are definitely something to take notice of. Wait until we get a CME incoming from an X-class flare. Then the papers will really have something to write about.


Too much to do tonight. Lots of work stuff to do, done at home because (a) that's where I can record voiceovers without having to deal with background noise, (b) I have a good document scanner, and (c) that's where I've got the technology to capture video from MiniDV cassettes. It's going to be a long evening...

(Update): I sent the last batch of work off via email just after 11pm. That's quite enough larking around on the computer for one day.


Yesterday I was delighted to receive an email from Rodrigo y Gabriela's management asking if they could use one of my photos on their website. I said yes, of course, and emailed them a copy of the original shot. I'll let you know when the photo's up on their gallery.


At lunchtime I disassembled the coffee machine again. It was mainly so I could take a couple of pictures for the blog entry below but also so I could have one more try at getting it to work. No joy, I'm afraid. I'm still waiting for its replacement to arrive, and instant coffee just isn't the same, is it? Just to rub things in, Boing Boing had an interesting feature on the anthropology of coffee yesterday.


If you've ever read Charlie Stross's book Accelerando, an article in The Atlantic Monthly today might send shivers down your spine. Stross's book looks at what life might be like as humanity moves towards a post-human existence as the result of a technological singularity. Economics 2.0 is the boogyman of the story: it's how the "vile offspring" - the post-human intelligences which inhabit the inner solar system in Stross's book - interact and operate. For everyone not running economics 2.0, the ability to compete vanishes and they're left bankrupt. The whys and wherefores of the post-singularity are beyond comprehension for mere mortals and they're left hiding, out in the darkness, where the cost of hunting them down and assimilating them is too high to be viable.

So it's a bit disconcerting to read that something along the lines of economics 2.0 might already be going on.


There have been big developments on the coffee front. I suspect that my subconscious has been trying to finagle me into upgrading my espresso machine for a while now, and it's finally succeeded.

How? Read on...

Let's start with a brief bit of background.

First of all, you need to know that there's a certain personality type who really gets in to analysing the quality of his coffee. You'll notice my use of "his" rather than "his or her" there; I'm generalising, but women are far more sensible about such things than men are and they quite rightly fail to get worked up about such things as crema and the consistency of the froth in a decent latté. On the other hand, men are quite happy to get sucked in to long conversations about microfoam, or the optimum temperature for frothing milk or discussions about the relative merits of lever and vacuum coffee machines. I fit that personality type very well. If my coffee is repeatedly failing to come up to scratch I want to know why. I'm obsessed with getting a decent crema. Recently I've started to have a couple of large lattés a day at the weekends, one in the morning and one before tea, and each one is carefully assessed for quality. Despite my Gaggia's pump labouring noisily away, Sunday morning's attempt was even more watery than usual, and it finally pushed me over the line. This would not do; enough was enough.

The first step was to subject the machine to a thorough examination to see why it had stopped making decent shots. That meant I was going to have to bite the bullet and dismantle the thing. At three and a half years old, it doesn't really owe me anything, I told myself, and the exercise was likely to prove informative even if it didn't turn out to be successful. It's all well and good running descaler through the machine at regular intervals, but had this actually kept things clean inside? A few minutes' search on the web revealed a well-written and useful guide to customising the Gaggia; it included a full set of instructions for disassembling the unit. I took a deep breath, and set to with screwdriver and allen keys. It wasn't easy; the thing clearly isn't designed for end-user access, but after about twenty minutes I had the thing in bits on the worktop. Needless to say I'd been pretty fastidious about labelling connectors with marker pen so I could reattach them afterwards. I even took a reference photo...

Under the hood

Then it was time to set to with the allen keys and disassemble the boiler. The boiler is made in two sections: the larger of the two fits on the top, and is made of aluminium. The heating element is built into one wall of this section; I might have got the wrong end of the stick but I think that these are known as thermoblock elements. By contrast, the bottom of the boiler is chrome-plated brass:

Sludge removed...

When I finally got the thing apart, it was immediately obvious why it had been acting up: the bowl in the bottom section was full of gunk. It wasn't just limescale, either: there were lots of lumps of a black substance that I suspect was aluminium oxide off the inside of the boiler. The inside of the aluminium section was heavily scaled up, but underneath the limescale I could tell it was pitted and corroded. It looked disgusting and it clearly wasn't in very good shape, but I set about cleaning things up as best I could. The brass base cleaned up quite nicely once I'd got rid of the limescale, and I removed, cleaned and replaced the rubber gasket around the base. I left the aluminium part to soak in lemon juice for a few minutes, then rinsed it out and began trying to chip the largest accumulations of limescale off with the end of a plastic toothbrush. When I'd finished, it didn't look great - how could it, when it had been eaten away over the last three years? But it looked better than it had when I'd opened it up.

Why I won't be using an aluminium boiler again...

I rinsed the drift of limescale and crud down the sink, and took stock. What I thought would be a fairly simple task had already taken me over an hour and a half, but so far, so good. Now all I had to do was stick everything back together and I could enjoy a proper coffee again. What could be simpler? By following the instructions, I managed to reassemble the machine without leaving any components on the worktop. It was a real faff; the wires connecting the electronics kept getting in the way as I tried to replace the lid, but eventually I'd got everything closed up and screwed back together. Finally, I reached the moment of truth. I plugged the thing in and switched on power at the wall. As I said: so far, so good.

Then I pressed the power switch on the machine...

At that point the RCD on the mains box tripped. Not only did the coffee machine remain inert, but most of the electrics in the house went offline in sympathy. Oops. Had I missed a connection? I dutifully disassembled the damn thing again (which took another 15 minutes) and had a good look at everything inside. It all appeared to be as it should be. Okay, I thought, let's try again. I closed it up once again, plugged it back in to the wall, and switched it on. Once again, the RCD tripped. I took this as a fairly strong hint that I should call it a day. To be honest, given the state the inside of the boiler was in, it's probably a good thing that I can't make coffee with it any more. All the aluminium that's disappeared out of the boiler must have gone somewhere, and I realised quite quickly that the obvious answer was that I must have been drinking it. Eww. By now I was very glad the thing had stopped working.

The next step was to head online and start looking for a replacement. I wasn't that fussed about getting a bean-to-cup model as it just seemed to be another component to fail - I could buy a separate grinder instead. I wasn't really bothered about getting a machine that can cope with pods as well as ground coffee (I haven't used pods once in the 3 1/2 years I've been running the Gaggia). Instead, I focused on a couple of things that were very important for me: I needed a machine good at steaming milk (which wrote off most of De Longhi's more sophisticated machines, judging by the reviews on Amazon) and the boiler needed to be made of something other than aluminium. I did a lot of looking. A lot of the discussion forums recommended machines that were way out of my price range. I like coffee, sure, but could I justify spending four figures on a coffee machine? Definitely not. In the end I decided to spend a bit more than last time and went for a Rancilio Silvia espresso machine. It gets good reviews online, and it has a strong user community providing helpful hints and tips. I'm awaiting the delivery of my new machine with considerable interest. I will, of course, let you know how I get on.


I was quite tempted to go back to bed for a snooze after breakfast, I felt so lethargic this morning. My coffee machine was acting up again, and the latte I had for breakfast obviously wasn't strong enough. However, the internet is back; I spent an hour or so this morning looking at replacement espresso makers, but none of the machines I looked at had particularly good reviews and there was always something or other that put me off. I suspect I'll have to spend significantly more on my next machine to get the quality I want, and I'm afraid I just couldn't summon up enough enthusiasm to look for one today.

I've also done something to my left arm, which aches like mad this morning. As I approach my fiftieth birthday (hence this month's blog title) I feel a bit of a wreck. I need a holiday, I think. And stronger coffee.


Matteo Pericoli's new book is full of drawings showing what people in New York's creative community like Philip Glass and David Byrne see out of their windows. The combination of beautiful drawings and an intimate glimpse into other people's lives is irresistable, and I want a copy!


When he retires, Paypal's founder Elon Musk wants to live on Mars. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he manages it. However, I'm less convinced by the article's claim that the 39 year-old executive was the inspiration for Tony Stark, seeing as how the character of Iron Man's alter ego first appeared in a Marvel comic some forty seven years ago...