That's no way to blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: October 2011

Blog entries were a bit thin on the ground in October: I was too knackered or too under the weather to blog for most of the month.

Nevertheless, I did find one or two memorable items to draw to your attention...


Over the last couple of years the dining room - which is where I'm sitting as I type this - has got progressively darker as the shrubs by the patio door have grown taller and taller. Last week when I looked out, things looked like this:

The view before...

The conifer in the bed closest to the house is one I bought from a local garden centre about 12 years ago. It had a label on it that said it would only grow to 5 or 6 feet in height, but this year it's pretty much reached rooftop level. Beyond it, the back hedge had grown to about twice the size I like to keep it. Gardening was one of the first things to slip when I was struggling with depression and I really haven't done much out there for the last couple of years. Things out there were on the verge of getting completely out of hand. So I called Martyn and asked him to sort things out for me once again. He arrived yesterday morning with a team of helpers, and by lunchtime they'd done me proud:

...and after

It wasn't until the evening that I realised quite how much of a difference it had made: for the last few days I've been sitting in almost-darkness before the timers kicked the house lights on, but yesterday evening the room was still light when they switched on. Much better!


I went into Bristol this week to see Mr Alice Cooper at the Colston Hall. It's nearly 30 years since I first saw him play live and he still puts on a hell of a show. Yes, he still sings one song with a large snake wrapped around his neck and there's still plenty of blood, as well as a mock-beheading with a full-size guillotine and a gigantic Frankenstein's monster rampaging across the stage during "Feed My Frankenstein". It was great fun, but I was surprised that the thing that made me happiest was when Alice sang "Clones (we're all)" off Flush the Fashion, an album that came out in 1980. I have no idea why, but of all Alice's songs that is my favourite, surpassing "Elected", "School's Out", "No More Mr Nice Guy", "Poison", "Only Women Bleed", "Muscle of Love" or "Billion Dollar Babies" - all of which we got on Wednesday night. For "Clones" the band wore transparent masks with makeup on them - which was actually more disturbing than the fake blood and the 1930s horror movie stage set!

The band were excellent. Special mentions to legendary guitarist Steve Hunter for playing a very credible-sounding backwards guitar solo at one point and to Australian guitar phenom Orianthi for shredding things big style with a very nice PRS... Alice got a shedload of extra street-cred points during "School's Out" for segueing it into "Another Brick In The Wall Part 2" which had the whole building bellowing "We don't need no education" along with the band. Most impressive.


I stand by my reaction when Ergo tweeted about this video earlier today. It was, "WHUT?"

I have, of course, ordered the album and I'll let you know how things pan out...


The blog's been on a bit of hiatus for the last week or so, not because I was away or even because I hadn't come across anything interesting on the web; in the simplest terms I've just been too busy or too tired to fire up the blog engines. Last night I'd gone to bed by nine o'clock, I felt so tired. I still woke up at one in the morning, and again at three thirty, and lay there sleepless for the best part of an hour. I am very glad that this weekend I get an extra hour in bed because at the moment I need all the rest I can get.

However, I'd like to make it absolutely clear that my current physical state is not at all a result of spending Saturday night and Sunday evening drinking with GMH...


It's John Peel Day and I'm listening to I am Kurious Oranj by The Fall as I write this. I wish I was writing this blog entry in celebration of someone taking over his eclectic and all-encompassing approach to popular music on British radio, but it ain't happened as far as Radio 1's concerned, has it? These days I have to tune in to the BBC's digital stations get my fix of the good stuff with Stuart Maconie and Tom Ravenscroft (Peel Junior) on BBC 6Music. Between them they cost me a fortune as they encourage me to seek out albums by obscure Hungarian collectives and former members of Kraftwerk. And that reminds me - on Sunday afternoon I was watching the Minimum Maximum DVD that my brother Andy bought me for my birthday a few years ago. Every time I watch it, it gets better. Thanks Andy!


Thanks to John Scalzi for tweeting about some video footage of a cumulonimbus or thunder cloud doing something rather interesting. Clouds are indeed weird.


When I was a kid, astronomy was a computer-free enterprise. Discoveries relied on making long exposure photographic plates at big telescopes and then poring over them for hours with microscopes or the wonderfully named blink comparator that helped Clyde Tombaugh discover Pluto. When I was 7 years old, telescopes didn't come any bigger than the Hale Telecope, the 200 inch (5.1m) reflector at the Palomar Observatory in California. It's a beautiful object and I was completely obsessed with the thing for years. I guess I still am, actually. These days, the Hale barely makes it into a list of the world's 20 largest optical telescopes, and the monsters at the top of the list have mirrors that are over twice the Hale's diameter.

However, the science of astronomy has changed even more radically than those numbers imply. New technology like adaptive optics mean that improvements aren't just about making things bigger; it's possible to get much clearer images from ground based telescopes nowadays. But it was when computers get involved that things really started to change. Computers can combine images of a star together and average out the results. Over time, it becomes possible to determine things in incredible detail, which is why even five years ago the astrophysics team at the Cavendish Laboratory were publishing papers discussing images which show features on the surface of the star Betelgeuse, a red giant star in the constellation Orion. Betelgeuse is about 650 light years away from us, so the resolution required is - well, it's ridiculously, jaw-droppingly fine. These days, though, astronomers are taking things to the next level again. Several teams are conducting optical searches for planets orbiting other stars.

The reason that most exoplanets to date have been detected by other methods is simple: looking for planets orbiting nearby stars is difficult because the star's light washes out pretty much all the light that gets reflected by the planet. Imagine trying to spot a gnat hovering next to a car's headlight a few miles away, when the car's headlight is on full beam and shining directly at you. It's not going to be easy. Computing power comes to the rescue, however, because it enables you analyse how the light from a star behaves when it travels through your telescope. By the time you've analysed light from 400 stars, you should have a pretty good idea of what your images of a star without planets will look like. So once you know how light behaves as it travels through your optics, all you have to do is to get the computer to reverse the behaviour when applied to a photo of the star you're interested in. If your computer program takes all the pixels away that you know were created by light coming from the star itself, any light that's left over must be from a planet. So then you go hunting through old images taken by the same telescope, and see what you can find.

And the result? You can pull out images of multiple planets from images from the Hubble Space Telescope that were taken over a decade ago...


The ADOBE MAX conference has just finished over in the States, and Peter Elst has posted some videos he recorded of the "sneak peek" presentations. The last video on the page is the killer - when we're shown a Photoshop plugin under development that looks at your blurry photographs, figures out how the blur was created, and then gets rid of it. Hey presto: your image isn't blurry any more. Compère Rainn Wilson can't believe what he's looking at. "No way you did that!"


How to turn a greyhound into an AT-AT. Does exactly what it says on the tin.

STEVE JOBS 1955 - 2011

The media have been trying to outdo each other in the hyperbole stakes today. I don't have anything to add to what's already been said, but Boing Boing redesigning their site to look like the old-style monochrome macintosh OS was note-perfect.


The older I get, the more convinced I become that the great majority of people wander around every day with their eyes shut. Folk really don't pay attention to their surroundings any more. Just head down to your local shopping mall to see what I mean; I wish I had a pound for every time I've nearly been mown down by someone pushing a small child in a pushchair and not looking where they're going, or nearly barged into someone who stepped out in front of me and then stopped dead. There have been times where it's been so tempting to step on the small child walking towards me, engrossed in its latest toy and clearly unaware of its environment in any shape or form, let alone the grown up with whom it was about to collide. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you about the people who act like this on the roads, too. These people must be utterly switched off from their environment. I can't begin to imagine how dull their lives must be.

Today it was nice to hear (via one of my Twitter friends) of someone who is bucking the trend: David King is an amateur weather forecaster who has, through 40 years of careful observation and meticulous notes, established patterns in the weather that can be recognised when they reoccur. As a result, his forecasts are considerably more reliable than many professional forecasting operations. But the story left me utterly mystified when the journalist describing Mr King made the statement "and he isn't a scientist," as if we needed reassuring that Mr King was safe and trustworthy and you know, just like the rest of us. Someone give Robert Butler a slap, please; considering he's writing for a website called "more intelligent life" he really ought to know better than this (or perhaps I'm just being trolled?)

What Mr King is doing is most definitely science, and it's science in its simplest, most accessible, most beautiful form. Mr King looks at the world, pays attention to the world, and then starts to develop a theory. That theory might be something like "if the cuckoo stops calling during a spell of good weather, the weather will break in the next couple of days." Then Mr King waits until the next time he observes that event happening. Now he can make a prediction based on his theory: "the cuckoo has stopped calling, so the weather will break in the next couple of days." If your prediction is accurate, you get to keep your theory. Of course, if your predictions fail, then you abandon the theory and come up with an alternative. The longer your theory holds true, the better the chance is that it's an accurate representation of how things really work. Furthermore, the longer you make observations, the better your predictions get (and Mr King was, we are told, spot-on with his). Looking at the world and figuring out connections like this is how science first got started. It works, it has brought us immense benefits, and not surprisingly this approach is at the heart of what all branches of science do nowadays. This is the point that Professor Cox is making when he talks about how science is based on evidence and how that evidence can be used to make predictions. It's not quite that simple, of course. Correlation doesn't imply causation, which is the point that adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster make when they link the decline in the numbers of pirates to recent trends in global warming, but that's a story for another day...

This wonderful way of looking at things has given us a staggering list of things such as medicine, aircraft, computers, and the internet; sadly, it also enables you to read websites written by dumb journalists who literally don't understand what science is. They have watched so much "reality TV" they think that science is run like some sort of gameshow, where the theory with the most votes gets to win. I'll spare you the "civilisation is doomed" rant at this point because I'm sure you've heard it before, but I consider it unforgivable that a network like CNN can decide it can get by without any science reporters at all. TV should feature more people like Mr King rather than the dire TV dross from which there is seemingly no escape nowadays.

(But there's always BBC Four, of course.)


Some companies have decided to use Google Earth and Google Maps as free advertising by getting QR codes painted on their rooftops. Now that's cute.


The weather continues to be wonderful. I think it's time to grab the camera, go outside and enjoy it. See you later!


Okay, what follows is my final Doctor Who blather for the current series, which ended last night. After this, we can get back to sensible blogging, I promise. As season finales go, it was pretty effective. Many elements from earlier episodes cropped up: Matt Smith in a beard; marks on arms as a tally of how many times the Silence had been seen and forgotten; Amy's drawings and models; Rule One; the Tesselector; the reappearance of Simon Fisher-Becker's character Dorium Maldovar (minus his body, admittedly) and, of course, Winston Churchill.

Needless to say, the Doctor made it through to the end of the episode without ending up dead. And no, I don't count that as a spoiler - if you're going to run a series as successful as this one you aren't going to kill off the main character (we all know where that ends). It was more an issue of identifying which representation of himself the Doctor was going to sacrifice in his stead - and after Let's Kill Hitler the selection of the Tesselector was always going to be top of that list because its technology could fake not only the Doctor's appearance, but also the regeneration process.

As the episode started, I found myself thinking about a quote from Albert Einstein, a quote that's famous enough for me to have it on a t-shirt:

The only reason

I was pleased to see that the eyepatches - "eye-drives" - were exactly what I thought they were - a way of letting people remember who the Silence are. I loved the fact that "Area 52" was built inside a pyramid. Amy's office-on-a-train was an excellent touch. There were some nice lines, too; I liked Dorium enthusing about the "great wi-fi" available in the Cave of Skulls. I liked Amy turning out to be just as much of a badass as her husband when she stuck Madame Kovarian's eye-drive back on with the words "River Song didn't get it all from you, sweetie." Amy realising that she's now the Doctor's mother-in-law was classic.

At the end, I didn't find myself sitting back and going "wow" as I've done in the past, but I had a smile on my face all the same. "That'll do" was my immediate reaction. A text message from Rob came in almost immediately which said "I was happy with that. :-)" Our subsequent conversation focused on the way Rory's character has gone from being a pathetic milksop to someone who now generates memes that would put Chuck Norris to shame. We agreed that Arthur Darvill is one of the best things about the current series.

Some aspects of the episode were less successful, though. Throughout the series, we were told that the Doctor's death was a fixed moment in time. We were shown a skeletal hand on a lakebed clutching a sonic screwdriver. Canton Everett Delaware III told Amy, River and Rory "That most definitely is the Doctor." There really wasn't any wiggle room left in the representations of the Doctor's fate. Then we were expected to believe that things would be okay because the Doctor just "pretended" to die? And worse, the people who were doing the pretending for the Doctor were the same people who were prepared to torture the person they were convinced had really killed the Doctor? It made little sense, and it felt like a big cop-out. The "touching River to restart time" bit was rather hackneyed.

The revelation of "the ultimate question, hidden in plain sight" was the lowest point of the whole episode for me. The question, we're finally told, is "Doctor Who?" Really? Explicit references to the show's title used to be avoided at all costs, just as they were in Star Trek. I really liked that approach. While James Cromwell could get away with an overt title reference once with Patrick Stewart and Johnathan Frakes, here the show's title has been used to set up a premise that is, frankly ludicrous. "Silence will fall" when the question is asked, we're told. Why? Why should finding out the answer to such a mundane question have such far-reaching consequences? Nobody seemed to have a reasonable explanation. And worse, we've already heard the question being asked at least once this season (within a minute of the first episode starting back in April, if you remember). Silence didn't fall then, did it?

Despite this, the last few minutes were just what was needed to maintain interest. The series has been getting a bit too loud and flashy for me. The Doctor should be neither brash nor shouty, and I felt that his "This! Is! Sparta!" moment at Stonehenge last year ("I! Am! Talking!") was much too over-the-top. I agreed wholeheartedly with the Doctor yesterday when he said that he'd become "too big, too noisy." It will be interesting to see how he - and by extension, the whole series - changes as a result of needing to "step back into the shadows." I can hardly wait until next year to find out what that means.


As it's the weekend, here's someting cool for you: a gallery of aircraft pictures by Paul Bowen.

This guy is good. Bearing in mind that in all these photos both he and his subject are airborne, what really makes my jaw hit the floor is that the aircraft he's photographing are close enough for him to use a fill-in flash to provide better lighting.


Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day explains the results of the NEOWISE survey that were announced yesterday. The survey has revised the estimated number of middle-sized Near Earth Objects (NEOs) down from 35,000 to 19,500. "Middle-sized" means pieces of rock larger than 100 metres across; that's a rough criterion for the minimum size at which something is big enough to cause serious problems if it landed somewhere on Earth. The reduction in the number of potential threats is good news.

The bad news is that we have no idea where roughly 15,000 of them are, and close flybys are a regular occurrence. When we do identify a new NEO, we don't always get enough warning to do something useful if it turns out it presents a threat. For example on May 19th next year the asteroid 2010 KK37 will make a flyby of Earth that will take it inside the Moon's orbit - that's pretty close, by astronomical standards. As you can see from its name, it was only discovered last year. It's not a big rock - estimates put its size at somewhere around 20 and 45 metres across, but you wouldn't want to get in its way: it's travelling at over 11 kilometres a second (25,000 mph).

What would we have been able to do if 2010 KK37 had turned out to be on a collision course with us? What if it was ten times bigger, or a hundred times bigger? That's an interesting question, and the probable answer at the moment is "very little." That's something to bear in mind the next time you hear someone say we shouldn't be spending money on space exploration.


The economy might be going down the toilet and the environment might be screwed, but the government know what their priorities are: keep Middle England happy by ramping up landfill and raising the speed limit to 80. Just in case you weren't aware, a car that does 20mpg at 70mph will do 15mpg at 80. That's a 25% reduction in fuel efficiency. Encouraging this sort of profligacy at a time when we should be focusing on better stewardship of dwindling energy reserves isn't just stupid, it's the most craven attempt at buying popularity and damn the consequences I've ever seen.


And following on from that last post: Britain tops the list of the worst places to live in Europe.

Well, duh.