Blog du Jour

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: October 2015

In October the blog got its biggest ever facelift as I switched to Cascading Style Sheets to control the website's look and feel.

I also went to a very memorable concert, solved a mystery that had been bugging me for a long time, and pondered the existence of life on other worlds.

WHAT'S IT LIKE OUT THERE?

As I work through all my old web pages to update the code, I'm amused (but not particularly surprised) by how frequently I refer to the weather. I know that the British preoccupation with the weather has become a cliché, but that is only because it's absolutely true; we are fascinated by it. The UK's weather is usually fairly mild but highly changeable, so that if you don't particularly like what it's doing outside in the morning all you have to do is wait until after lunch and things may have changed for the better.

When I was ten years old I was given a copy of the Observer's Book of Weather by Reginald M Lester, an author who wrote books on a strange selection of subjects including life after death and a guide to buying your own house. The Observer's book taught me about synoptic charts, the different classes of clouds, the Beaufort wind scale, and much more besides. I've been fascinated by meteorology ever since. I own more than one Max/Min thermometer. I have so many weather sites bookmarked on my browser that I ended up creating a separate folder for them.

I always like to keep an eye on what it's like outside, even when I know I'm going to spend the whole day indoors - when I worked in Tampa the first floor of the factory was a cubicle farm, and deep inside the building I had no access to an external window. It was odd just how disconnected from things I felt as a result of this. Working at home is nice, because I can leave the door to the conservatory open and, if it's mild enough, I'll have the windows open too. As I type this it's raining, and the patter of raindrops on the conservatory roof is rather relaxing.

I've got the windows open today as well - which is rather unusual for the last week in October. And once again it was warmer outside this morning than it was in the house (20°C in the back garden and 19°C in the kitchen). The wind's coming from the south-east, so I'm getting the benefit of a warm, continental air mass. As a result, I still haven't switched the central heating system over to automatic, and this week I've only kicked it on once, for an hour at night when I noticed all the windows were steaming up.

It's likely, then, that the blog will continue to report on the vagaries of the local climate. Meanwhile, I still have another nine year's of old blog entries to work through - and I know I'll find some descriptions of memorable weather among them.

RETROSPECTIVE

I'm still grinding through converting old web pages to the site's new CSS format. So far I've made it back as far as August 2013, which means that I still have another ten years' worth of entries to get through; it's pretty slow going.

One thing that's struck me as I read through those old blog entries is how absolutely miserable I was. It's obvious that the job I had back then was making me ill; I was clearly suffering very badly from depression, but in denial as to the cause. Instead I did things like not drinking caffeine for a month to try and improve the quality of sleep I was getting. Needless to say it didn't work, and I make frequent references to how tired I felt in subsequent months. These days I sleep very well (when I remember to take painkillers so I don't wake myself up when I turn over in bed, that is) and in the mornings I feel like I've had proper, restorative sleep. My dreams these days are enjoyable ones, rather than being examinations of anxiety in various shapes and forms. I might not be as well-off as I used to be but I feel much, much happier.

HOLDING OFF THE CHILL

We're in to the last week of October and I still haven't set the heating to come on regularly. This morning I was amazed to discover that it was actually warmer outside the house (at a balmy 19°C) than it was inside it (it was 18°C in the kitchen).

I have switched over to the winter duvet, though. For the last few nights I've been sleeping better than I've done for years, sleeping soundly and deeply, with refreshingly weird dreams about all manner of daft stuff. Even after months of getting a decent night's sleep (see above) there's something profoundly satisfying about waking up from a vivid, entertaining dream and I've had some doozies this week. Today it's a Saturday and I'm feeling rested, relaxed and in a good mood. I think I'll be heading back in to the studio to do some more recording later.

GETTING THINGS COVERED

After the creative frenzy of Fifty/Ninety comes Rocktober. This is where FAWMers record their versions of other peoples' songs. It's not something I've done much of since I was in my 20s, as these days I prefer to write and record my own material. But recording a cover version is a great way to learn about songwriting and production; I still put into practice the lessons I learned with my friends as we recorded covers of Ultravox songs back in the 80s on a four-track cassette portastudio.

This year I decided that just for fun I would have a go at a few of my favourite tracks by other artists. They're for my own amusement as much as anything else, but I was keen to make them an opportunity to learn more about the creative process and also to push myself in terms of what I thought I was capable of playing. So far I've uploaded three covers to my Rocktober profile page. Two of them are songs written by Devin Townsend; my obsession with the man's music continues. The other one is a cover of some of the instrumental music written for the television series Miami Vice by the extraordinary synthesizer wizard Jan Hammer.

Most recently I covered the Devin Townsend Project song Hyperdrive! and I had some serious assistance in the form of my friend Mel, who did an outstanding job on the vocals. Check it out!

YES, IT'S THE FUTURE

"It's your kids, Marty - something's got to be done about your kids!"

Over the last few years people have posted screen captures of the control panel from Doc Brown's DeLorean time machine in Robert Zemeckis's movie Back To The Future showing that day's date and claiming that we were really living in the future and asking why there aren't flying cars or hoverboards on sale at the shops. Up until now, those screen captures have been fakes, but today really *is* the day that the Doc, Marty and Jennifer travel to in the second film of the trilogy.

And the Internet is currently all over the fact.

The thing is, most of the references to it out there are teeth-grindingly awful. Dull, uninspired, or just plain naff. Marty's kids, it seems, have a rudimentary knowledge of manipulating photographs with Photoshop and way, way too much time on their hands. I think I preferred the hoaxes.

But there is one guy out there who has treated today with the respect it deserves. As he would say himself, "why not do things with a little style?" Ladies and gentlemen, it's Doc Brown himself, Christopher Lloyd.

ACCLIMATISING (1)

It's now two years since I had a conservatory built at the back of the house, and I think the local birds have finally got used to it. So far this morning I've seen sparrows, starlings, blue tits, coal tits, dunnocks and more visiting the bird tables. It's lovely to see, because last year I hardly saw a single bird out there.

One reason why there's a lot of activity right now might be the weather. It gets dark in the evenings by 6:30 now and while it's a relatively warm 17°C outside this morning, recent days have been noticeably cooler and I've kicked the heating on for an hour or two on several occasions this week in order to stop shivering. Outside, the leaves are beginning to fall.

Some of our summer migrants are still here, though; The WWT's Slimbridge Sightings Twitter account had a report of a swallow flying over a flock of newly-arrived white-fronted geese yesterday, a real case of summer meeting winter. And on Friday they reported that a pair of swallows at Slimbridge had just fledged their third brood of the summer, which is incredibly late!

I know I write something like this on the blog every autumn, but I really do love this time of year. The mornings are misty, the evenings are drawing in, and there's often a smell of wood smoke in the air outside. The night sky is visible in all its glory, thanks to the fact that I live out in the country. And all the local birds (and animals) are building up the fat reserves that will see them through the winter. There's a strong temptation to do the same thing...

ACCLIMATISING (2)

Apart from the 149 pages of blog archives that go back as far as 2003, I've now converted every page on the Headfirstonly site to CSS. It looks better on my phone, my laptop and my tablet, and it looks better on my two desktop machines as well.

I revised the skiing information pages quite a bit, and I've even arranged the content across more pages so that it's organised more effectively for learning; sometimes, being a professional training designer comes in really useful!

I will begin converting the old blog pages to CSS this week, working through them in reverse chronological order. I won't be checking all the links, though. It's inevitable that a fair proportion of them will no longer exist (hey, remember Geocities?) and as replacing the original link with something else would change the context of the original post, I have decided that I'll just leave things as they are.

But...

As I mentioned a few days ago, I'm going to change all the permalink URLs to meet the HTML5 standard, which will kill links from outside my site to specific entries on a page, as they used the old Name= identifier and each string began with a number. I don't think this is a huge problem, as I don't get that many incoming links that burrow down to that level, but it is a significant change. I'm going to just bite the bullet and crack on with it.

I'm still getting used to the latest release of NetBeans. It can be very slow to start, even when it's installed on a solid state drive, as this version is. Doing a bit of digging on the web indicates that this is because it's doing a lot of checking and indexing of the local copy of my website, which isn't stored on an SSD. But I like the short cuts and the built-in helpers. If I want to use an ampersand code, NetBeans displays a drop-down menu of all the ones it knows about as soon as I type the ampersand character. Having a built-in spellchecker has helped a fair amount as well (I found one or two typos on the site that must have been a good fifteen years old!) The navigator pane is invaluable for checking that I've closed the right number of div statements in each section. If I was still using my old production method for web pages, I would probably still be slogging through old content.

Onwards and upwards!

WHEN SCIENCE GETS INTERESTING

It's been an interesting and rather memorable week so far.

On Tuesday, The Atlantic's website carried a story with the title The Most Mysterious Star In Our Galaxy and, not to put too fine a point on it, social media went a little bit crazy. So crazy, in fact, that I'm writing this blog entry chiefly as a way of setting out what we do know from what is being inferred.

Before we get into that part of things in more detail, let's focus on the science. The article in The Atlantic was triggered by a paper with the catchy title of Planet Hunters X. KIC 8462852 – Where’s the flux? written by a team of scientists and amateur astronomers led by Dr. Tabetha Boyajian of Georgia State University. The paper was issued on the 14th September and New Scientist covered it four days later with a very straightforward report about the paper's principal finding, which was that:

"the scenario most consistent with the data in hand is the passage of a family of exocomet fragments, all of which are associated with a single previous breakup event."

The paper is an analysis of data from the Kepler Space Telescope. Kepler was launched in March 2009 and was designed to stare at a fixed section of the sky for very long periods of time to measure the intensity of light that stars emit and see there were any regular "blips" that might be caused by a planet in orbit around the star passing in front of it and blocking some of the light that gets to us.

Kepler monitored over 150,000 stars at one go in its field of view, which was an area of the sky in the constellations Draco, Lyra and Cygnus, just above the plane of our galaxy. The mission has been spectacularly successful. Not only did it exceed the planned mission duration of three and a half years to keep working for 6 years, 7 months and 8 days, Kepler has confirmed the existence of more than a thousand planets in orbit around other stars.

Kepler generated an enormous amount of data while it operated, and with the light curves of more than 150,000 stars to monitor there was so much analysis to be done that in 2010 a citizen science project was set up as part of the Zooniverse initiative for volunteers to join in and become Planet Hunters. Many of those volunteers contributed to the paper published last month.

What people have been doing is looking at graphs showing the light received from each star in Kepler's field of view and seeing if it dipped by the same amount at regular intervals. Those intervals might be measured in days, weeks, or months. And this is why most exoplanets that have been discovered so far are so spectacularly close to their parent stars: it is much easier to identify regular dips of the same amount if they happen a lot, compared to ones that only happen every year or so. Kepler looked at the star in question for a full four years.

The paper reports that for KIC 8462852, the planet hunters saw lots and lots of blips. A crazy number of blips, in fact. And some of these blips were huge: one drop in the star's luminosity was 15% and another was a staggering 22%. These dips were approximately 750 days apart - in other words, they were regular. Given that a planet the size of Jupiter in orbit around KIC 8462852 would only produce a dip of roughly 1%, clearly something very unusual was going on and the discussions by the Planet Hunters team used expressions like "bizarre," "interesting," and "giant transit." Sadly, the Kepler Telescope failed before the next 750 day transit was due to occur.

That's the data, then; what about the star itself?

The paper tells us that KIC 8462852 is a main-sequence F3 V/IV star. That means that the star is between 1.0 to 1.4 times as big as our Sun (the authors of the paper estimate that it's 1.43 times as big). It burns hotter, with a brighter yellow than our Sun, which is a G2 V star. The star has a small, M-class dwarf companion orbiting it at a distance of 130 billion kilometres. That could be important, as I'll explain in a moment.

KIC 8462852 is estimated to be 454 parsecs away, which is 1481 light years (8.705 quadrillion miles, or 1.401 x 1016 km). Light reaching KIC 8462852 right now from our solar system left here in 534 AD, when Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire conquered the Vandals. It was quite a while ago.

What do the scientists think? The paper's conclusion, quoted above, was that a huge cloud of comets was encircling the star. The big transits happening every 750 days are thought to be caused by a band of dust and comets that are in an elliptical orbit. The other blips are caused by exocomets passing in front of the star. This is why that companion star is important, as it provides a way for KIC 8462852's Oort Cloud to be disturbed sufficiently to precipitate a rain of comets. Another possible mechanism is that the companion star triggered a collision between planetary bodies in the inner system, and we're seeing the aftermath of a truly cataclysmic cosmic accident. The problem with this explanation is that a collision would generate lots of dust that would show up in the infrared, and this hasn't been observed.

But KIC 8462852 is older than our Sun, so wouldn't things have calmed down there by now? Massive disks of debris orbiting mature stars aren't common. The authors of the paper couldn't find any similar results in the Kepler data that weren't caused by an eclipsing binary (a companion star passing in front of the star and blocking its light) or giant sunspots on the star itself. Another interesting fact is that those big transits have lots of subsidiary peaks in them, so whetever is going on is extremely complicated.

As a result, another rather more surprising explanation for the observations has been suggested: the KIC 8462852 system holds intelligent life of some form, and its inhabitants, who are much more technologically advanced than we are, have become what is known as a Kardashev Type II civilization. That means that they are capable of harnessing a significant percentage - eventually all of it - of the energy output of their sun. How do you do this? Well, you take all your planets apart and then use the bits to build a shell around the star that's known as a Dyson Swarm, named after the genius who first came up with the concept, Dr Freeman J Dyson. The Starship Enterprise encountered a solid Dyson Sphere in Star Trek, but Dyson quickly realised that you couldn't build a solid sphere around a star because mechanical stresses would tear it apart. I blogged about Penn State University's hunt for real-life Dyson Swarms back in October 2012.

Needless to say, the Internet has gone absolutely nuts over this. Forget all the other explanations: it's the aliens angle that's getting everyone excited. It's way, way too early to say one way or the other what is actually going on around KIC 8462852 but that doesn't stop the Internet, oh no. Personally I thought it highly unlikely to be aliens when I read the Atlantic's article, and since writing this blog entry I'm even less convinced. I think we're seeing a star surrounded by a huge and unusually dense cloud of comets that have been shepherded into place by a small companion star. And, let's not forget, that's what the original paper said in the first place.

But I'm not certain. More science is needed. Lots more science. I'm sure that KIC 8462852 will be receiving an unprecedented level of attention in the next few years and I can't wait to read the findings.

Fascinating.

NEXT ROCK OUT FROM THE SUN

I went to see Sir Ridley Scott's latest movie The Martian, which stars Matt Damon and is based on the book by Andy Weir. It's great, go see it. I wrote a review, of course.

BEST. GIG. EVER.

Last night I was lucky enough to see Devin Townsend for the second time this year. Since I discovered the man and his music I've become more than a little bit obsessed. My collection of his albums is well into double figures. As a musician, I appreciate what he does and I really get it. He's been an inspiration to me on many levels, and after deciding to try the open C tuning that he uses on many songs, my guitar playing received a much-needed kick in the pants and I really feel like I've taken things to the next level as a result. So, yeah, I love this guy.

Despite living here for more than 20 years I'd never been to a gig at The Trinity Centre before. It's a converted church with a layout that's roughly the size of the old Marquee Club in Wardour Street in London, but with a raised stage at the thin end of the room. It's a small, intimate venue with a decent, high stage so things looked very promising. I bumped into some friends there too, so things were off to a good start.

The evening started with a fun set from VerseChorusVerse, also known as Tony Wright, who really got things moving nicely. Tony hails from Ballymoney in County Antrim and he had a good selection of well written original songs, delivered with acoustic guitar and sung with a very impressive voice. He describes himself as "five-foot-f***-all" so hearing him deliver a rousing cover of Merle Travis's hit Sixteen Tons was a hoot. He enjoyed himself as much as we did, I think.

Then it was time for Devin to take the stage: just the man, an acoustic guitar or two, a rack of his trademark Axe FX processors and a couple of gigantic plush Poozers on stage - this was a very different approach to the last gig of his that I went to. Not only was it an entirely acoustic set, a lot of it was extemporised; Devin explained that he had a bunch of stuff he'd thought about doing, but the basic approach he was going to take was to just make shit up as he went along. So he did. And the crowd was with him every step of the way. "Ahh, you're in a singy mood," he remarked at one point early on. And we were. But we also knew when to shut up and savour the moment. "This is so different from London," he said after the last ringing chords of one song had died away and the subsequent applause had dropped to a level where he could make himself heard. "Half way through that song yesterday I just got someone shouting 'DETOX! It really doesn't work on acoustic guitar. Listen:" and then proceeded to play the song...

He did play several numbers that people had shouted out, including a great take of "Bad Devil" that we all sang along to. We all sang along to "Ih-Ah" and "Hyperdrive," too. He got us to sing the choral backing to "Juular" (and I learned that the song was supposed to be called "Jugular" but he didn't have his spellchecker turned on, which amused me a lot). When several people called for him to play "Addicted!" he told us that it didn't work on acoustic, and then played it anyway, singing it in a grand operatic falsetto that was absolutely hilarious.

He is one of popular music's great showmen, and he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. At the same time, he's grounded and humble and he made a point - repeatedly - of telling us how much he appreciated us being there.

Best of all, though, was after he finished the encore he stayed on stage. I got to shake the man's hand and tell him what an inspiration he's been for me.

So, yeah. Best. Gig. Ever. I still haven't come down.

THIS MAY TAKE A WHILE

Work on the site's upgrade continues.

The thing is, as I convert each page from tables to CSS I keep reading the content and thinking, "Oh, that's out of date" or "That's wrong" or, more likely, "Jeez, this is bordering on incoherent" and in each case the reaction is the same: "I should rewrite that." So that's what I've been doing. There's going to be a lot more words here when I'm done, but they should make more sense.

But here's the bad news. I'm switching from the old HTML standard of using #name to identify locations on a particular page to the newer id="name" standard. The thing is, according to the latest standard, the strings I use for each id name must not begin with a number. Guess what all mine begin with? I started working out a rough estimate of how many links there would be in the 149 months I've been writing this blog, but the first number I came up with was so large I frightened myself, so I stopped.

It means it'll take me a lot longer to complete the revamp. Please bear with me while I obsess over the upgrade.

And It has become a bit of an obsession. I've worked on the site pretty much every day for the last week and on several occasions I sort of forgot to eat or get up and stretch my legs. Not good for me, I know, but it feels very, very good to know that I can still sustain attention at super-high levels for protracted periods of time.

INKING UP

Over the past year or two I've noticed that when I produced new banner graphics for the site, the lines I was drawing were no longer black but grey. In the past few months that grey was getting lighter and lighter.

This week I finally figured out the cause: I was using a thirty-year-old bottle of Indian ink and it had gone off - the particles of soot in suspension that give the ink its rich texture had all settled to the bottom of the bottle and congealed into a solid lump of carbon.

Worse, the same thing had happened in my Rotring pens. One of them, the first one I bought way back in the 1970s was too far gone to resurrect. But I've cleaned the others up and I bought a new bottle of ink. It's like I've discovered how to draw all over again and the lines I get now are a lush, rich, inky black. I think I'll be doing a lot more graphics work over the next month or so, just to savour the difference.

SURPRISE!
Yeah, I guess this is a bit of a surprise: the website is undergoing its first major facelift since November 2010. I finally decided to bite the bullet and move away from the old site's table-based layout (which was already outdated and deprecated when I started, but I just didn't have the time to learn more up-to-date techniques). Over the last week or so I've been working on this not-so-secret project to bring the HFO kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

So I've begun to roll out a version of the site using CSS and the Skeleton framework. I picked it because I like the bare-bones approach (ha!) and I didn't want to have to deal with a lot of code that I'd never, ever use. Or understand, even. I get Skeleton. It's aimed at my level. So here we are.

I've kept much of the styling, basic design and colour scheme of the old site. And I hope you'll be pleased to know I'm keeping the old page graphics. In fact I've put together a few new ones for pages that didn't have them in the past. I'll also be trying to bring in as much consistency as I can, for example in the ways that I quote films or news articles. I intend to standardise page layouts so that page titles and banners follow the same pattern just about everywhere. I've already started pruning dead links from the non-blog pages, updating information and descriptions on pages that haven't been touched in ten, sometimes even fifteen years. And boy, that's been quite an eye-opener already!

I tried out a couple of different tools for authoring, but in the end I've plumped for the Netbeans IDE because

  • it's free,
  • the automated helpers do actually help you, a lot, and
  • in typical Chris fashion it's way, way more than I could possibly need.

Most importantly, though, the site should now scale across different devices and resolutions, something that it never did before. And I hope it looks a bit cleaner, sleeker, and generally more spiffy than it did in the past.

Not every page has been updated yet. The site has well over 200 pages of content and I'll probably take months dropping them into the new framework I've created. But I hope to have most of the frequently-visited pages done by the end of the month. Please forgive any errors or wobbles in the site while this all happens. And if something really gets broken, please let me know about it!

AUTUMN

Even though it's a beautiful day outside this morning, I can tell that the balmy days of summer are over. The creeper on the side of the house has turned a most spectacular shade of scarlet. The evenings are drawing in quickly and the temperatures are dropping accordingly; last night the bathroom mirror misted over when I ran a bath. I wonder if I'll make the target I set every year of getting to the end of October before I fire up the central heating once again? Back in 2012 I'd done so by the middle of September, but in fairness I'd spent the preceding months in San Francisco and Vancouver, so I'd become accustomed to a warmer climate. Right now the sun is shining in through the windows, the house is warm, and I have a big mug of coffee. I think I'm good for the time being.

DONE AND DUSTED

Fifty/Ninety closed for submissions on Friday and by the time the dust settled I'd got 65 songs on my profile pages. That's ten more than last year, so I've been feeling pleased with myself this weekend. But quantity's not the most important factor for me and I think the quality's up on last year's efforts, too. The final song I uploaded is definitely one of my better efforts.

It all came about because I noticed I hadn't written a song beginning with the letter "J" this summer. Sometimes a simple fact like that is enough to get my muse musing, and once I'd come up with yet another three word title - "Just The Thing" I was off and running. I wrote this one on the Korg M3 and with an electric piano riff set to a drum pattern in EZDrummer2, it's turned out to be a bit of an homage to Steely Dan. I was rather pleased with the guitar and even the vocals didn't sound too bad after I ended up singing them an octave lower than my initial attempts. The whole thing took about four hours to put together from start to finish.

It's been a fun, music-filled summer. Fifty/Ninety is a bigger commitment than FAWM so it tends to attract fewer participants, but this year 38 people, including me, managed to cross the finish line. There are over 2000 users registered on the site, and I've got to know some of them quite well over the last few months. They're a good bunch of people. Some are lyricists, so their focus is on writing the words for others to sing, but there are a fair few of us who produce finished pieces of music each time around.

This summer I ended up doing a lot more collaborations. I took part in three Exquisite Corpses and they turned out to be amazing things - the longest of them is twenty four minutes long. I also found a kindred spirit in Paul, a fellow FAWMer who records under the moniker Pipewrench67. We did a couple of pieces together that I'm really proud of, and the second one - a piece of ambient music that is positively symphonic - is twenty minutes long:

I enjoyed playing Fripp to Paul's Eno and I hope we'll be working on some more collaborations over the coming months. As you might have gathered from listening to that piece, I've been using my eBow a lot this summer - more so than I thought I would. It just seems to be a good fit with my playing style and I love the sounds I'm getting out of it. I reckon a good 10% of my output on 50/90 has me using it at some point. And I tend to use it with the nine string Ibanez, as the sounds it's capable of producing are extraordinary.

It's been a good summer. It's been both productive and highly therapeutic and I feel like I've made real progress as a musician this year. And the year's not over yet!

THAT'LL BE WHY, THEN

A year or so ago I ordered a copy of Planet X's album "Quantum" from Amazon. It was a pretty good price. Too good, as it turned out. Amazon sent me an email every couple of months that said "We're having trouble sourcing your order, do you want to cancel it?" I didn't want to. I wanted the album. Stupid question, really.

Eventually I looked on Amazon again for the album, and noticed that despite their emails telling me otherwise, it was described as "in stock" - but at a higher price. Maybe that's what the "trouble" Amazon was referring to, I thought; I'm cynical like that. To find out, I cancelled my existing order and ordered at the new price.

The CD arrived within a week. My opinion of Amazon is now lower than it's ever been, and that's saying something.

And listening to the CD just now I found myself thinking, "Wow, that's a great sounding Allan Holdsworth pastiche. I wonder who it is?"

I looked at the sleeve notes. It was Allan Holdsworth. His appearance on the album was the reason I'd originally ordered the CD in the first place. It was so long ago since I placed the order that I'd completely forgotten.