Chris Harris's Blog Archive: October 2012

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For one of the year's longer months, this October seems to have gone by very quickly. Perhaps it's because my spare time has been taken up with synthesiser programming, uploading stuff to YouTube, reading books, listening to CDs and playing video games. Oh, and the week after I spent nearly five hours downloading updates to Borderlands 2, my broadband connection download speed trebled.

Don't you just hate it when that happens?

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30 October 12 (permalink)

BLIMEY

I had a doctor's appointment first thing this morning and I've spent the rest of the day working at home, pricing up some project work. After a while, I noticed something strange was going on with my broadband, so I ran a speed test...

Blimey

No wonder pages were loading quickly! To put things into perspective that's nearly four times as fast as the download speeds I've been getting since June and nearly three times faster than I was getting last week. In fact, it's the fastest speed I've ever recorded on my home connection.

So what's happened? BT have obviously done something, but what was it? The Parish Council website were reporting that Falfield exchange is supposed to be added to the 21st Century Network (21CN) tomorrow. It looks like it's happened a day early; it's nice to be able to report something improving for a change.

BRRR

Now that it's gone dark outside the temperature has dropped noticeably and I've just put the central heating on. This morning as I drove over to Wotton it was a lovely day - seeing the sun shining through the mist on the fields made me wish I'd got a camera with me, but as the day wore on the grey clouds moved in. As we head into November it looks like it's going to turn colder still; the forecast for here on Saturday shows a maximum temperature of just 1°C. I'd better go and dig my winter clothes out of the wardrobe, I suppose.

28 October 12 (permalink)

KEEP MUSIC DEAD

That was the slogan on stickers which adorned the Human League's synthesisers when, back in the 1980s, the UK's Musicians' Union campaigned against the use of synths by touring bands because they saw them as ways of putting "proper" musicians out of work. The article made fascinating reading for me because I remember it happening at the time. When the MU tried to stop acts that used synths from performing (including Barry Manilow!) it made the papers, and musicians that I liked and respected (like Thomas Dolby and Gary Numan) pointed out just how silly the MU were being, which made me respect them even more.

I was thinking about all this because I've spent several happy and rewarding hours this weekend programming my "big daddy" synth, the Korg M3, to act as my drummer, cellist, percussionist, string section, brass section and bass player, amongst other things. Can you imagine what someone from the MU back in the 80s would make of something like this?

The "combi" function on the M3 lets you specify a drum track and up to four musical accompanists to whatever you're playing. The Korg figures out what key you're playing in and plays along. Tempo is set for you, so it makes life very easy; most of the time I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to come up with when I start programming, but when I hear the results, a piece of music more or less drops into my head - I find myself thinking "ooh, I could use that to do this!"

I'm really proud of this one. The keyboard player Jan Hammer has been a huge influence on me for decades and I felt like this has a similar feel to his music. As a compositional tool, the M3 has enabled me to write stuff that would have been far beyond my capabilities otherwise. I'd never have thought about writing arrangements that were orchestral in scope, for example. We live in more enlightened times these days, and anyone who listens to music gets the benefit of that.

And watching myself on video just now I've realised what a difference the diet I'm on has made; the beer gut is noticeable by its absence!

OVERINDULGED

And in stark contrast to my increasingly streamlined figure, there is a collared dove sitting in the back garden that has stuffed itself with the birdseed I put out yesterday. Its crop is hugely distended and it looks like it's unable to get off the ground.

Update: It wasn't - a minute later it attempted to take off and bounced off the patio door. It seems to be okay, although it was looking very confused...

Couldn't eat another thing

22 October 12 (permalink)

WHEN DARKNESS FALLS

It was pitch dark when I left the house this morning. Tonight I drove home in the fog with the lights on. The clocks go back at the weekend and boy, it really feels like winter's not far away.

PUT THE MACHINE ON IT

One of the things that the film Blade Runner suggested we'd have by 2019 was the Voight-Kampff test - a test that uses the human quality of empathy to determine whether the subject was a robot or not. At the weekend I read about a new variant of the web-based CAPTCHA test (the easily compromised tests that were supposed to make sure that the person submitting comments to a web page is a real person rather than an advertising script) that uses empathy to do just that. PKD would not have been even remotely surprised by this, I am sure.

AUTOMATED MUSIC

Over the weekend I spent a couple of sessions programming the Korg M3 with new combination programs (combis). I continue to be surprised by the capabilities of the thing. In particular the M3 uses a very clever piece of software called KARMA. This lets you add a drum track and up to four separate accompaniments that will play along to whatever notes you play on the keyboard. It doesn't just play chords, either; there are hundreds of different arpeggios to choose from and some truly bizarre options that slur notes or play glissando flourishes, or go off on their own little arrangement (but in whatever key you happen to be playing in, which impresses the hell out of me.) You can also limit KARMA so it only responds to notes played on certain sections of the keyboard.

Then there's the M3's inbuilt effects. My old JX-3P has a chorus button, and that's it; the M3 has chorus, flanging, phasing, reverb, delay, amp modelling and any number of other strange signal processing algorithms up its sleeve, and you can apply them selectively to any of the timbres that you're using as you see fit. The results can sound awesome.

Put all this together and you can end up with an entire band - bass, drums, guitar and keyboards - playing along with you. After a year and a half of playing about with the M3 I've started getting it to do some fairly interesting things, and I came up with several settings over the weekend which I'm rather taken with.

Now all I have to do is come up with a song to hang on them...

19 October 12 (permalink)

HOOKED

This evening I've spent the last couple of hours playing Borderlands 2 (see below) and now that I've got past a couple of frustrating moments with one of the game's many boss levels, I'm having a whale of a time. In particular, the quality of the writing stands out. Forbes magazine are calling it the funniest game ever made, which is a pretty ambitious claim, but in my view it's entirely justified; when I completed a mission yesterday in the Highlands (a region of the game that will be well known to any aficionado of the game beyond level 15 or so) I thought I'd figured out exactly what was going to happen. More fool me - the denouement was so completely out of left field that I sat gaping at the screen for several seconds before quite literally howling with laughter. I'm not going to say any more - if you're playing the game you'll know the moment when it happens.

Since I bought my season pass I've acquired a few awesome new weapons (in my experience, most Borderlands players tend to spend their free time trying to acquire the perfect gun) which have made gameplay huge fun. So I suspect I will be spending a considerable amount of time this weekend exploring more of Pandora.

SHIFTING DATA

In the last couple of days I've burned through a considerable amount of my ISP's monthly data allowance: another update to the Borderlands 2 code which came in at 263 Mb followed by the DLC for Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate Booty that came out this week, which was over 1.2 Gb.

Ouch.

And downloading all that data took nearly five hours in total.

Even bigger ouch.

The problems of downloading this much data when your broadband connection maxes out around 1 Mb/s notwithstanding, it got me thinking about the way in which content providers are keen for us to access larger and larger streams of data is diametrically opposed to the business model of ISPs, who would rather we kept our predilictions for HD video and high quality audio to physical objects such as BluRay discs and Super Audio CDs (and that goes back to Andrew Tanenbaum's famous aphorism: "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.")

Distributing stuff over the internet is cheap for content providers but not for the ISPs who have to provide the infrastructure to shift all those bits from one place to another. The growth of high bandwidth content is not being matched by an expansion of the capability of the network, which should be obvious from rapidly disappearing 'all-you-can-eat' offerings for network packages. Last month I read Neal Stephenson's very enjoyable collection of non-fiction essays, Some Remarks, which includes a lengthy examination of the laying of FLAG, the Fibre Optic Link Around the Globe: an optical fibre data cable running from the UK to Japan. When it was laid in the 1990s its 10 Gb/s capacity was, by the standards of the time, large but not overwhelming (its Wikipedia entry equates this to 127,000 channels of voice data.) Condidering that when taking data overheads into account, the BBC reckon that you need a 3 Mb/s link for watching programmes in high quality with iPlayer it would take less than three and a half thousand video streams running to max out the entire link. These days undersea cable capacity is measured in Terabits per second (across the north Atlantic the capacity seems to be around 16.2 Tb/s) but the cables have to carry a lot more than just voice comms. It's not just cat gifs and video, either; the network also has to contend with the bandwidth hoovered up by mysterious stock market trading algorithms as well. I couldn't find a plot of online content vs available bandwidth but I'd be very surprised if bandwidth was growing anything like as fast as content is doing.

I was rather hoping that my own bandwidth problems would ease a bit this year, as the local telephone exchange has been upgraded to 21CN. Needless to say it hasn't made the slightest bit of difference. If anything, it's made things worse (last year I could sometimes get a connection of more than 1.5 Mb/s.) It's rather pathetic, really. I live 15 miles from the site where they built Concorde, the world's first supersonic airliner, yet I can't get an internet connection fast enough to support streaming video.This isn't really the future I'd envisaged us having.
16 October 12 (permalink)

ARRR, ME HEARTIES

Wow, Gearbox are really on a roll with Borderlands 2. The game hasn't been out for a month yet and we've already seen the addition of a fifth playable character in the form of the Mechromancer. But today the first of four packs of downloadable content arrives, and from the trailer above it looks like it's going to be a hoot.

SHUTTLE XING

Here's a great set of photos of Endeavour from The Atlantic magazine. The space shuttle was making its way across Los Angeles on its way to its final resting place at the California Science Center.

FIFTY POUNDS A HEAD...

The actor John Clive has died. He was the actor to whom Michael Caine delivered one the film's most memorable lines in The Italian Job. He provided the voice of one of the Beatles in Yellow Submarine (and it's safe to say that as a result of that role I remember more of John Lennon's lines spoken by John Clive than I do of John Lennon's spoken by John Lennon.) He had a remarkably diverse CV having appeared in children's TV programmes like Here Come the Double Deckers and Robert's Robots, comedies including several of the Pink Panther Movies and yet he also worked with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange. He had a face that was instantly recognisable to anyone of my generation who watched TV. My condolences to his family and friends.

IN PRAISE OF UNCERTAINTY

"A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point."

Leon Festinger

The quote above was mentioned in an article I read today in eLearn Magazine that was published in 2011. The article is about learning styles. In simple terms, learning styles are a way of categorising the different ways people learn. The idea is that knowing the preferred learning style of your target audience, you can come up with an instructional design that fits more closely and is therefore more effective. Over the last three decades I've come across many different models or taxonomies of learning styles and I've accepted them as gospel. The thing is, the eLearn magazine article I read today completely demolishes the concept; basing your design on a person's particular learning style makes no difference to the outcome of the training they receive, and doesn't even affect the amount of attention that they pay to the content. It seems you might as well base your training design on a person's horoscope. The news that the concept of learning styles had failed when subjected to rigourous testing was a bit of a surprise, to say the least. Nobody I've worked with in the training industry had ever raised the possibility that learning styles don't affect training outcomes. Okay, it's not a subject that is likely to come up in casual conversation, but all the same I work with professionals who tend to know their stuff.

But then I remembered the maxim of "five, plus or minus two" - the alleged limit to short term memory that is based upon a misinterpretation of George Miller's 1955 paper on recall. I blogged about this back in October 2010. The research is often represented as limiting the number of things that we can pay attention to at any given time to just seven, but if you think about this in the context of an everyday task like driving, it becomes clear that the statement needs an awful lot of qualification. In reality, in some circumstances we're capable of dealing with upwards of 100 items in memory with relative ease. And as I mentioned back in 2010 the other statement about training that is often trotted out without any qualification is that only 7% of communication is verbal; the statement is often correctly attributed to Albert Mehrabian but he was actually talking about the emotional content of spoken communication, which is a different thing altogether.

There are factors that do affect training outcome, of course. For example, as the article in eLearn Magazine points out, it makes a difference if your students have already learned something using the training approach you're using. You can mess up a training course by presenting it badly. But it's surprising to me just how much of what we base our training designs on is inaccurate information, misunderstandings or garblings of valid scientific research. I find it even more surprising that some statements that have been scientifically disproven for decades are still in wide circulation and are frequently regarded as gospel. But, hey - why should training be any different from any other part of life?

IT'S THE APOCALYPSE AGAIN

Let's go back to Leon Festinger. He was a Professor at Stanford University who is best known for his work on cognitive dissonance. The eLearn article links to a great piece by Chris Mooney at Mother Jones which discusses Festinger's research in more detail, called the science of why we don't believe science. The article starts off with a description of Festinger's research into a group called the Seekers, who believed that the world would come to an end on December 21st. Sound familiar? The thing is, they weren't expecting civilisation to draw to a close in 2012 at all: this apocalypse was supposed to happen in 1954, which just goes to show how little human behvaviour has changed over the last half century or so. Festinger realised it would be interesting to chronicle what happened to their beliefs when the apocalypse failed to happen on time, so he infiltrated the group and recorded events. The research that was subsequently published was summarised in the book When Prophecy Fails. It makes interesting reading. The group rationalised their continued existence by concluding that their belief that the apocalypse was going to happen was so strong that it had prevented the apocalypse from taking place. Read that last sentence again, just to make sure that you've understood the sheer whacked-out glory of it all. Rather than accepting that their beliefs had been disproven by events, they managed to come up with a way to rationalise what had happened without having to acknowledge that their beliefs were wrong. This is the same sort of mental gymnastics that the Monty Python team skewered over and over again in The Life of Brian back in the 1970s.

Festinger developed his observations of this behaviour into the theory of cognitive dissonance, and it's a concept you should be familiar with these days; it seems to be the default state of existence for most of us, most of the time. I often wonder whether governments and employers are basing their policies solely on a desire to see just how far they can push Festinger's idea before the population snaps (and I suspect that the population of North Korea must spend their entire lives in this state). The solution, it seems to me, is to accept the fact that uncertainty must play a part in everyday life. Being certain in your beliefs and convictions is at best irrational and at worst, quite frankly, it can be downright dangerous. Being flexible, being prepared to alter your beliefs in the light of new information is essential. It's important to be prepared to change. I've known this on a subconscious level for a long time, but being confronted with a concrete example of needing to change like the learning styles example I mentioned just now really brought home often it can be necessary in day-to-day life. I find it worrying that many people aren't prepared to accept conflicting evidence whether it be on climate change, vaccination programmes, or healthcare. These days, people would rather believe in massive conspiracies that have been engineered solely for the purpose of undermining their belief system than consider the possibility that their beliefs might, you know, actually be wrong. Whether it's a symptom of a decline in teaching critical thinking skills, a rise in stupidity or just general bloody-mindedness is besides the point; you've only got to look at Leon Festinger's quote again and then consider (for example) the state of American politics to see how damaging this can be.

15 October 12 (permalink)

RAINY DAY MONDAY

I drove home tonight in torrential rain. With every gust of wind, showers of leaves were falling off the trees. It's been such a wet summer the autumn colours have been quite striking - there's a stand of trees in the business park that have looked amazing over the last week and I keep forgetting to take my camera along to take a photo. I suspect it will be too late tomorrow; when I got home a lot of the leaves from my virginia creeper were all over the drive.

As it's turned wet again I'm glad I got the garden sorted out yesterday. Every October I cut the buddleia right back so that it stays nice and bushy, and I spent quite a while pulling up ivy from the flowerbed and prising it off the fence. I was aching this morning though. It says a lot about passing the age of 50 that my first thought yesterday afternoon wasn't "I bet the garden will look nice when I've finished this" but "I hope I don't put my back out doing this." I had help, though - the tame robin has got to the point where he doesn't wait for me to go back in the house before he flies in to see what I've turned up. It always lifts my spirits when it appears.

MISSING THE POINT

Someone painted the Milton Keynes cows again over the weekend, turning them into skeletons ready for halloween. It's the latest witty and accomplished modification to a set of sculptures that in the past have been disguised as reindeer (painted brown and adorned with red noses and antlers), and dressed in pyjamas. But the Parks Trust, who look after the cows, has had a complete sense of humour breakdown over the latest event, threatening to have the cows removed completely. I think they're missing the point. Rather than spending 2000 to have them repainted, why don't they just leave them as they are?

I lived in MK for nine years and when I was there the only time the cows had any impact on my awareness was when they were creatively "enhanced" like this. Yes, decapitating them was vandalism, and stealing them was theft, but as far as I was concerned (and most of the people I knew in the city thought the same) turning them into reindeer or dressing them up was art, and it brightened up life in what was frequently a dull and uninspiring town. I moved away in 1995 for a life in the countryside, and I haven't regretted leaving for one moment, and that's not just because while I lived there we were burgled once and had two cars stolen (and one car suffered a failed attempt at stealing it before that).

As one commenter on the BBC story observes, the cows are only interesting to people who don't live in MK. Even then calling the cows a tourist attraction is, quite frankly, ludicrous. To see them, you have to deliberately go out of your way; they languish in one corner of a deserted field at the side of a dual carriageway section of the A422 (one of the city's grid roads) and next to the London to Birmingham railway line. They're well out of the way of any casual visitor's itinerary and far away from the city centre. And having made the effort to go and see them, I'm afraid you're likely to be disappointed. You've only got to look at the new paint job to realise that describing the weekend's repaint as "vandalism" is misguided - it's been done with more panache than the standard holstein markings the cows normally bear (when I lived there the cows often looked like they'd been daubed by the cheapest possible white van man painter, and that was their "official" livery - if someone tried to charge me 2000 for restoring four lumps of concrete to the way the cows looked in the 80s, I'd suspect I was being done.)

Why not turn this publicity to the city's advantage? Remember all the different Bristol gorillas? Or London's elephant parade? Why not arrange something similar for the cows? Turn them into a celebration of the city's creativity, rather than the prime example of petty, small-minded jobsworthing that the rest of the world is currently seeing as the way People Do Things in Milton Keynes. God knows the place could do with brightening up.

12 October 12 (permalink)

HAVING A KEANU MOMENT

"Whoa," as Mr Reeves has said from time to time. MIT's Technology Review have an article on high-energy cosmic rays, which may provide a way to establish whether or not we are all living in a computer simulation. However, the real mind-blower in the article comes when the possible symptoms of living in a simulation which has a limit to its resolution are discussed: one effect would be that we would observe a cap on the highest energy cosmic rays. The thing is, we do.

The article continues with an explanation along the lines of "Ah yes, but that's actually caused by something else entirely..." (In fact it's because the photons in the cosmic microwave background left over from the Big Bang are still so plentiful that they soak up energy as the cosmic rays travel through them). All the same, Silas Beane at the University of Bonn reckons that other symptoms might give us a clue if (and they're pretty big ifs) (a) we are living in a simulation, and (b) it's constructed in a way that similar to how we'd expect a computer simulation to work.

TGIF

Tonight the traffic on the ring road was snarled up going in the opposite direction and traffic on the westbound M4 had slowed to a crawl. Whether I'm living in a sim or not, it feels like it's been a long week, and I'm really glad I'm back home and it's Friday. Whatever you're doing this weekend, have a good one.
11 October 12 (permalink)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY...

The twins are 23 today. Happy birthday, troops!

TRAFFIC

The first leg of my journey home normally takes me five minutes. Tonight it took me half an hour and on Tuesday last week it took me nearly 40 minutes. Bristol's roads are so close to capacity that they cannot cope with any disruption to normal operation, and with UWE students back at university and a couple of sets of roadworks in the offing, things are far from normal. I really don't enjoy commuting.

10 October 12 (permalink)

IT'S THE LAW

I've been listening to the new Muse album The 2nd Law today. It's - well, it's quite difficult to categorise, and the best word I came up with to describe it is "eccentric". I was wondering which second law the album title would be referring to; would it be one of Asimov's laws of robotics, Newton's laws of motion, Kepler's laws of planetary motion, or something else? A swift perusal of the lyrics makes it abundantly clear that the boys are referring to the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of an isolated system always increases. This is another way of describing the effect that I was talking about a couple of days ago in connection with Dyson spheres, as the maximum entropy of a system is one in which the energy has been converted to heat. You can even regard the entire Universe as a closed system, and at some point in the ridiculously far future the only energy that the Universe will contain will be infrared radiation - this is what is meant by the heat death of the Universe.

Given the heavyweight subject matter that is associated with the second law, I was rather hoping that we'd get another "long view" epic like Exogenesis on The Resistance, but Muse's take on the 2nd law focuses on aspects of closed systems that are somewhat closer to home: ecology, last summer's riots, and rising fuel prices all sprang to mind as I listened. And then there's the very silly song they wrote for the olympics... With this album Matt Bellamy has taken his vocals to the next level - it's his singing that sticks in the mind after the album has finished, with several tracks featuring five-part harmonies, and his voice has never sounded better. Chris gets to sing, too - and he does a fine job.

The songs are frequently grandiose (Muse do a great line in bombast with tongue placed very firmly in cheek) and the backing vocals are occasionally just plain ludicrous (the "so I told you" bit of Survival still has me thinking that they're taking the piss), but it's all done with panache and there are some interesting studio tricks to tickle the eardrums (I particularly liked the guitar processing in Madness). It wouldn't be a Muse album without regular touches of over-the-top orchestration (there are string sections and choirs, of course) and what we get is lush, if a little simplistic; the first track sounds like it narrowly failed the cut for a Bond movie. There are too many songs with handclaps and finger snaps. There are shameless borrowings from a wide range of music, from 70s disco, mariachi bands and John Barry to Pendulum, Queen and U2. But you know what? I don't care. I like it.

A lot.

MY OWN PERSONAL DEATHTRAP

If you haven't played the video game Borderlands, or its successor Borderlands 2, then you have my apologies. This blog post won't make any sense whatsoever.

Yesterday, after uploading the blog I had another look to see if the Borderlands 2 DLC had dropped, and it had! One 263 Mb download later, I fired up the game and picked the new Mechromancer character class to see what it brought to the game. The answer is simple: Gaige has the ability to summon Deathtrap, a floating Claptrap armed with something that doesn't look a million miles away from being a light sabre. It's a great close quarters weapon (which is useful, as the character herself is fairly underpowered and tends to get creamed rapidly in a melee (I found myself relying on the "second wind" function to get to objectives more than once) but Deathtrap's not much use at long range. I've now played three of the five character classes and just as with the first game, the siren appears to be the strongest all-round character to play. Well done to Gearbox for producing kick-ass female characters!

Gearbox's president Randy Pitchford tweeted today that there will be four big packs of downloadable content for Borderlands 2 and the mechromancer isn't one of them. Gearbox are going to offer what he's referred to as a season pass as a way for addicts like me to get all four drops at a discount price. I'll no doubt chip in for mine, but I rather hope that they rebalance the game when they release them to even out the weighting between single player and multi-player co-op. As it is, getting past the bosses is a real pain when you're playing on your own.

9 October 12 (permalink)

NOT QUITE PERFECT BUT GOOD ENOUGH

Ah. While SpaceX's Falcon rocket delivered its payload to orbit successfully on Sunday, the flight wasn't without incident: one of the engines came apart on the way up. Nevertheless the Dragon spacecraft is still set to rendezvous with the ISS in the early hours of Wednesday morning. I hope things go more smoothly tomorrow.

NEARLY DLC TIME

Looks like the downloadable content (DLC) for Borderlands 2 is coming out early. No sign of it yet here in the UK, but it's supposed to be available by the end of the day. Looking forwards to it!

8 October 12 (permalink)

LOOKING FOR THE GROWNUPS

I read an interesting article in The Atlantic magazine this weekend about a team of astronomers who have just started a two-year project for hunting Dyson spheres. Yep, you read that correctly: Penn State University think that the highest of high-concept SF ideas might exist for real out there. "I can tell you, it's strange to write a serious research proposal and have half of your bibliography be science fiction," comments Jason Wright, who is the team leader.

The concept of Dyson spheres has cropped up on the blog before, of course. It's simple to state, rather more difficult to implement: you turn a significant proportion of the matter in your solar system into a shell of solar panels to collect all the energy your star puts out and use it to run things.

Freeman Dyson's idea dates from the 1960s, a time when thinking big was taken to heroic extremes; it got Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon and back, after all. But if you think that sort of idea takes epic-scale engineering about as far as it goes, you're mistaken. In the same decade, the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev was doing some heavy thinking about the energy needs of developing civilisations and the Kardashev Scale was the result:

  • A type I civilisation has grown to the point where it is using all of the energy available on its home planet;
  • A type II civilisation is one that is using all the energy available in its solar system;
  • A type III civilisation is one that is using all the energy available in its home galaxy.

Dyson spheres are a way for a civilisation to collect all the energy from its local star, so it's only type II technology. As if that wasn't intimidating enough, Wright observes in the Atlantic article that at one point astronomers thought they had discovered evidence that type III civilisations actually existed (the objects turned out to be quasars).

Science fiction authors picked up on Dyson's original paper with great enthusiasm (hence Jason Wright's comment), and there are many examples of SF authors plonking their heroes down in the inner surface of a solid sphere complete with a breathable atmosphere and a mind-bogglingly huge environment to explore; even Star Trek's Scotty ended up on one. But Dyson quickly realised that mechanical stresses mean that a single, solid object such as that shown in Star Trek: The Next Generation would tear itself apart. A real Dyson sphere (if one exists) would consist of a huge swarm of solar collectors following very similar orbits around their sun.

If you've ever sat with a laptop on your knee for any length of time, you'll know that a byproduct of doing work is heat. The less efficient the system doing the work, the more heat is generated. Heat tends to be the end state of all energy usage; a Dyson sphere would emit huge quantities of infrared radiation, and that is what Jason and his team will be looking for over the next two years. I wonder if anything will turn up. If it does, it's safe to say that things will never be the same again.

OFF AGAIN

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is off on its travels again, making another flight to the International Space Station. It took off on top of its Falcon booster rocket from Cape Canaveral last night and the flight to orbit was described as "flawless" and "picture perfect". Dragon is expected to arrive alongside the ISS on Wednesday, where the station's Canadarm manipulator will grab it in the early hours of the morning. Excellent news - let's hope the rest of the mission goes as smoothly.

PURE HOLLYWOOD

There was a lovely moment at Peter Gabriel's concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles at the weekend. It happened just before his performance of In Your Eyes, taking the audience right back to 1989. Bass wizard Tony Levin was on stage and as always he had his camera ready.

Peter and the band are currently touring the US and celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of his album So and it looks like they're doing it perfectly.

ANOTHER WEEK

Mondays seem to be coming round faster and faster at the moment. Having a quiet weekend was nice but it seemed to be over pretty much as soon as it had begun. Other than reading The Hydrogen Sonata from cover to cover it wasn't very productive. Neither was the week before. You'll have noticed that I didn't get any blogging done; I'd been busier than usual at work and the result of that was that I didn't get much done in the evenings at all other than recording a new piece of music on the Monday evening. I'm really pleased with this one, particularly the "guitar" sound on it which was actually me playing keyboards. The track is a tribute to Herbie Hancock which I've called Bop-It:

I want to try and record at least one piece of music every week between now and Christmas. I don't know if that's achievable, particularly given that I also intend writing a 50,000 word novel during the month of November, but I'm going to have a bloody good go at it. I've found that being creative in one form or another helps keep the black dog at bay, and I really notice the difference when I haven't been able to make something for a while. I'm missing the frenetic burst of activity that I had in February when I recorded 20 tracks over 4 weeks; while that's meant I already have plenty of material to choose from for this year's Christmas CD, I'd like to include some newer pieces on but that means I have to come up with them first. I'll do my best.

7 October 12 (permalink)

QUIET WEEKEND

I've had a quiet weekend, which is a roundabout way of saying I haven't really got up to much beyond having a lie-in, doing the laundry and doing an awful lot of reading. I spent a considerable chunk of the last couple of days sitting in my favourite armchair with a good book while Radio 3 played quietly in the background. Iain M Banks's latest Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata arrived on Friday and I finished it this afternoon. I enjoyed it hugely - it's just my sort of science fiction grand space opera, full of derring-do and space battles with artificial intelligences enacting devious and convoluted schemes which may or may not benefit the humanoid characters who are the novel's main protagonists. Like William Gibson and Terry Pratchett, Banks is one of those authors whose work can draw me in; he's a writer I have to keep reading until either the story ends or my eyes lose the ability to focus on the text and I realise it's 3am and I really ought to be asleep.

I'm a Culture junkie - probably because it's the sort of civilisation of which I rather wish I was a part. Who wouldn't? It's technologically rich, affluent and well-ordered (on the whole) with aging and disease largely forgotten and interstellar travel an everyday occurrence. But as a lover of weird and difficult-to-play musical instruments, one of the inventions in the book had me drooling. I want the insane stringed device that Banks has one of the characters play. Yes, I want an Antagonistic Undecagonstring. And the requisite four arms to play it with, of course.

AN OBSERVATION

At the time of writing this blog, there were just nine entries when I googled "antagonistic undecagonstring." Nine! I suspect that may have changed by the time you read this...

ANOTHER ONE

I dunno, you wait nearly a decade for a great comet and now it looks like two might be coming along at once. When I read the article in that last link earlier this week I sat up and started paying attention because Alan Hale knows a fair bit about comets; he was the co-discoverer of the last significant comet to be visible from northern latitudes, Comet Hale-Bopp, which was visible from the UK back in early 1997.

NEW FAVOURITE THING

Frijj Caramel Latte milkshake. Oh dear. Nothing that tastes this good is going to end well.

1 October 12 (permalink)

STILL LOOKING UP

The field of astronomy is abuzz this week following the discovery of Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON). Folks are already talking about it being as bright as the full moon by late next year, which sounds promising - but I'm old enough to remember the rumpus over a comet back in the 1970s that was the subject of almost identical predictions. What a disappointment the "comet of the century" Comet Kohoutek turned out to be. On the other hand, Kohoutek was only discovered nine months before it reached its closest point to the sun (astronomers call this point its perihelion). Comet ISON is still 13 months away from perihelion; even accounting for improvements in telescopes and imaging since 1973 I suspect that some of the increased lead time will be because Comet ISON is bigger (and already brighter) than Kohoutek was when it was discovered. I guess we'll find out next year.

One factor that could scupper things is the Comet's trajectory - it's a sungrazer, predicted to come within about a million miles of the sun's surface. Comets are extremely fragile things and when they pass close to a planet (let alone a star) they can get torn apart, which is what happened to Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 on its penultimate visit to the solar system. Assuming Comet ISON survives its encounter with the sun, it will make its closest approach to Earth on Boxing Day next year. Let's hope it's worth waiting for.

DO YOU DREAM IN COLOUR

It's amazing how a couple of decent nights' sleep can get me back on an even keel. Over the weekend I got a decent amount of rest and I feel suitably restored. When the alarm went off this morning I was in the middle of a vivid dream that seemed to be borrowing its plot from some 1960s crime caper; I was following a gang of crooks around a generic European city (lots of piazzas and fountains, old stone buildings and cobbled streets) while driving a yellow Ferrari Berlinetta and no, I have absolutely no idea why my subconscious picked that particular car for me to drive. I was rather disappointed to wake up, as I was really enjoying the drive and I was quite looking forwards to figuring out what on Earth I was doing.

As I stumbled out of bed it struck me how vivid the colours had been in my dream, particularly the vibrant yellow of the car's bodywork and the soft beige of the interior leather (as I said, it was a very vivid dream. It left me wondering whether the dream may have been triggered by a TED talk I watched yesterday. Neil Harbisson talked about about how he was born completely colour blind (he sees the world in greyscale) but now he uses a device attached to his head to listen to colour. In the talk he describes choosing the colours of the clothes he wears so that when combined together they sound like particular musical keys (his wardrobe is striking, to say the least) and as I got dressed for work I found myself wondering what key I was dressed in... It's an interesting talk and well worth watching.

And for those of you who aren't old enough to twig that the title of this post is a song reference, here's the great Bill Nelson to sing it for you.

MAKING MONDAY BEARABLE

I must admit that the druddgery of slogging in to work in the dark this morning was lightened by the photograph of a hedgehog dressed as Dracula I saw on Twitter after I'd fired up the computer. Cute.
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