Yesterday, NASA announced that their Kepler spacecraft had finally run out of fuel and its nine-year mission has come to an end. The telescope completely changed our knowledge of exoplanets: we've gone from wondering whether our Solar System might be very special in having planets to understanding that between 20 and 50% of the stars we see in the night sky have one or more planets orbiting them. During its original mission (together with an extended mission, which was referred to as K2), the spacecraft surveyed more than half a million stars - way more than the 160,000 originally planned. Its extended life has been a triumph of invention and engineering, but time and physics have finally caught up with the spacecraft and it can no longer remain stable enough to carry out observations.
The search for more exoplanets isn't over, though. NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a.k.a. TESS, was launched on April 18th.
When I got home on Monday night, the new 4K BluRay release of 2001: A Space Odyssey was on the doormat. I'd ordered it as soon as I heard about it back in June and I was anxious to see how it looked, so I fixed myself something to eat and then fired up the player.
It didn't disappoint. As I mentioned back in June, this version retains the colour palette of the original release and it's given the film the luminous quality that I remembered seeing as a kid when it first came out. You'll be pleased to hear that the cross-hatched brush marks that were visible on the front projection screen during most shots during the "The Dawn of Man" sequence in earlier releases are nowhere to be seen. The spaceflight sequences are glorious and the extra resolution reveals far more detail on the spacecraft and computer displays. When the Stargate sequence began, I really noticed the extra resolution, but I was blown away by the wider colour gamut and the higher dynamic range: it looks stunning. If you have a 4K system, this is the film that you'll want to use to really put things through their paces from now on.
The audio has been improved, too. The new DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix really helps the music, and it conveys a sense of profound unease with the background sound effects during the closing sequence where Bowman is in his hotel suite.
The extras on the disc are unchanged from the earlier releases, which was a bit of a surprise. But I'm not complaining. The 4K version of the film is a delight and it was well worth waiting for.
It's hallowe'en, I have the day off, and as October draws to a close I've already posted my last #Inktober sketch to Twitter. I've really enjoyed the challenge of posting a drawing in ink to social media every day for the last 31 days and while my drawing skills are still rusty, I can see an improvement in the results.
I think I'll be taking a break from creative challenges for a while, though. I have no plans to do NaNoWriMo this year. Writing a 50,000-word novel in a month is not a challenge to take on lightly, even when you have an idea of what it is you're going to write. I have no ideas percolating at the moment, so I'm going to pass.
I hadn't noticed how many extra devices with clocks in them I'd acquired this year until this morning, when I had to go around many of them and set them to Greenwich Mean Time. Yes, the clocks went back last night and I made the most of it by spending a most welcome extra hour in bed.
After a couple of weekends away, I'm spending this one at home and taking the opportunity to decompress. I've already done today's sketch for #Inktober and posted it on Twitter, and that's about as much as I can muster the energy for so far today. When my Kindle has finished charging, I will find myself an armchair and settle down to an afternoon spent reading and listening to music. And when my own batteries have recharged somewhat, I have a vat of chili con carne to make. I'm still cooking "proper" food rather than relying on ready meals bought from the local supermarket and while the preparation takes extra time, the results taste so much better. I feel much better for eating food that's not stuffed full of salt and other preservatives. And even after yesterday's visit to my local for a lunch that was accompanied by a couple of pints, I'm still losing weight.
Yesterday Rebecca, Rob, Ruby and their friend James called in to say hello as they were passing through the village. It was good to see them all and catch up on what they're all up to, and we had a very nice pub lunch at the Railway Tavern. We walked back to the house in drizzle that felt like it was about to turn into sleet; yesterday's cold snap turned out to be properly cold and up the road in Stroud, they had flurries of snow. The #UKsnow hashtag even made an appearance on Twitter and the Met Office tweeted that Saturday was one of the coldest October days they've recorded in a decade. There was plenty of lying snow in County Durham and the highlands of Scotland had their first yellow warning of snow and ice of the winter.
This morning I woke up to blue sky and blazing sunshine. It's edged the temperature up a little, but it's still in single figures - quite a difference from the balmy conditions this time exactly a year ago.
And just like that, the wind has swung around to the North and I had the first overnight frost of the season; it was -1°C here last night and there was ice on the conservatory roof this morning. The highest temperature in today's forecast is 4°C. It's time to switch the central heating back on. My circumstances are such that I don't have to worry about whether or not I can afford to turn on the heat, but I know that there are a lot of people in this country who are not so fortunate. And that's wrong.
What's worse: the people who run the country for us are not the sort of people likely to do anything about making heating more affordable. In fact, they don't seem to be capable of improving anyone's quality of life except their own, but they don't want you to know that. A staggering fifty three gagging orders are in place in the House of Commons alone. Each one will have been drawn up to stop news about someone's behaviour there being made public. It's a safe bet that the behaviour in question will not have been pleasant.
How do we change that?
In his latest Bad Astronomer column, Phil Plait discusses a video made and presented by visual effects artist Wren Weichman about the relative sizes of stars, including our very own sun. The video is an impressive piece of work that places scale renditions of various stars in the cityscapes of North America, and Phil provides lots of context and references to expand on the information that Wren gives us. It's well worth checking out. I was surprised by the fact that you could line up all of the planets in our solar system and fit them in the space between the Earth and the Moon; I'm trying to figure out whether this was because I'd overestimated the size of Jupiter and Saturn or because I'd underestimated how far 245,000 miles actually *is*.
And, of course, now I'm going to have this stuck in my head for the rest of the day.
I was going to link to a post by Blackpool Police's social media team that went viral this week. They were seeking a robbery suspect who bore a striking resemblance to Friends actor David Schwimmer. Sharing a frame of CCTV footage on their Facebook page showing the suspect with a box of beer cans in his hands had the expected effect: Facebook went bonkers and the thread of ensuing comments, which proved to be endlessly inventive and which demonstrated a worrying depth of knowledge of a show that aired its last episode more than fourteen years ago, were a delight to read. The police were very much in on the joke, announcing that they had already established that Mr Schwimmer was in the United States at the time of the robbery. Then Mr Schwimmer heard about what was going on and joined in the fun on Twitter.
But this afternoon Blackpool Police took down the original post, as they have now identified the suspect. As was pointed out repeatedly on Facebook, it is likely that, for the gentleman concerned, it's not going to be his day, his week, his month, or even his year...
I went to see my father yesterday. He's been transferred into a full time care facility and has a lovely room on the corner of the first floor of the building. One of his windows overlooks the North Sea, which looked very blue in the sunshine while we were there. The weather on Saturday was beautiful.
Dad doesn't fully understand what has happened to him or why he's there, but as he's being waited on hand and foot by the staff and has a captive audience for whatever florid tales of self-aggrandisement he can still remember, he's happy. He has noticeably declined since I last visit a few months ago. While he recognised me and my sister when we arrived, his initial conversation was little more than a mumble. His coherence came back as we sat and talked, but his short-term memory has completely gone. He couldn't remember the fall he'd had a couple of weeks ago, or the visits he has received from his neighbour, Roger. Left to initiate the subject of conversation he would simply talk about his television, which was right in front of his chair. He bought it last year and he's clearly immensely proud of it, but I realised that he was thinking of what he could talk about based on nothing more than what he could see at that moment. I recognise that my own blog entries here are just as obsessed with my own television, so I guess the apple never falls that far from the tree. I left the home feeling gloomy, even though it was nice to see Dad being looked after. Selfishly, this was probably because I was being confronted with the prospect of my own cognitive decline. This happens to me regularly as I approach the end of my fifties; it's not pleasant, believe me. It feels like I'm less sharp than I used to be. When I read back the blog after I've written it, there are far more typos and errors in it these days. The fact that Terry Pratchett first began to suspect there was something wrong with his faculties as a result of trouble typing is not lost on me.
With Dad in a care home, it means the house must be emptied so we can put it on the market. It was a very weird feeling to walk through the front door with no one there to greet us. My brother and sister have already made a start on clearance, removing all the valuable items for safe-keeping elsewhere and taking down the many photographs, paintings and ornaments that lined the walls, so the house already looks very different. Some things, like Dad's TV, have been moved to his room at the care home, so there are gaps in a domestic landscape that has been reassuringly constant for over two decades. I hadn't noticed how upset I was until I realised that every time I set down one of the copious cups of tea we made during the course of the afternoon, I couldn't remember where I'd put it. Annabelle said that when they'd started, she'd ended up in tears and warned me that what we were doing would carry a considerable emotional cost. I could see why. So many objects there are associated with memories, both good and bad, of growing up. I found myself asking, "Can I take this?" over ridiculously mundane objects like a 1960s stainless steel toast rack, or a set of melamine cereal bowls that I couldn't bear to see thrown away. Annabelle then reminded me that the San Francisco cable car bell that I'd brought back from my first visit there in 1984 was on the wall, out of sight, behind the front door; I would have never remembered it if she hadn't reminded me of its existence but once I saw it, and took it down and handled it, I had vivid memories of arriving back from America; at the time I still lived with Mum and Dad, and I think it was that trip - the first significant trip I'd ever made on my own - that made me realise that I had to get away and move into my own place as fast as I possibly could. The bell is a souvenir of a glorious summer of California sunshine and the beginnings of friendships that have endured for more than thirty years, but it's also a reminder of what I escaped from; it will bring all of those things to mind each time I see it here in my own house, and I will be thankful for that.
I have also returned home with my grandmother's ancient combination barometer and thermometer. She used to tap it to see if the pressure was rising or falling; the metallic sound of its coil spring reverberating to each impact is a sound that is one of my earliest ever sense memories and as I tap it now, I'm transported back to my grandparents' house in Ansdell where it was fixed to the wall in their hall.
The two of us sorted through drawers and cupboards deciding what could be recycled or sent to the charity shop, what should be kept, and what should be thrown away. Cassettes and VHS tapes were consigned to the bin, which really brought home to me how much things have moved on since Mum and Dad moved in to the house back in 1995. Nobody uses tape in video recorders any more, and when was the last time you bought a cassette player? Being confronted with things becoming obsolescent like this was upsetting, probably because I'm sure much of my own collection will go - or has already gone - the same way. DVDs of films or talks that he'd recorded off the TV also went in the bin. I couldn't face sorting through his collection of several hundred vinyl LPs, which were scattered in boxes around the house. Some were next to central heating radiators, which I'm sure will have done them no good. I retrieved a handful of CDs that I've bought my father over the years. I'm currently listening to Marco Salcito's performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations on classical guitar, which I'd bought him last year. I'd enthused to him about how extraordinary the performance was, praised the sheer technical brilliance of it, and told him how much he'd enjoy it; it was where I'd left it, on top of the piano, still in its shrink wrap, unplayed. My father has always been dismissive of anything that holds no value for him. The idea of showing polite curiosity in something he'd been given, or even expressing appreciation of it, would never have occurred to him. His complete lack of interest in anyone's feelings except his own is something I recognised decades ago, but things like this still hurt.
Many of the books in the house will be sold off. Some of them are seventy or eighty years old, but few are in good condition. Twenty years of accumulated dust on the edges of pages had left them rusty or fly-blown, but nevertheless I still came home with a couple of shopping bags of my favourites. I also came home with a collection of old photographs and photographic negatives that I will scan in so all of my siblings can have copies; my sister will then keep the originals. Some of the photos that Annabelle had discovered were ones I've never seen before. Sadly, many of the people in the older photographs will remain a mystery to us; there is no note of who they are on the back of the pictures.
We called it a day at six, and after a farewell hug from my sister I set off home. It was a slow drive back through multiple stretches of roadworks, but traffic was light and I spent most of the journey deep in thought. This morning I feel drained, but I'm more-or-less OK. Tomorrow I'm back in the office, so I will have things to distract me. I think that will be just what I need.
After a couple of weeks, I've finally started to enjoy working on the Inktober challenge. In the last few days I've settled on the idea of drawing some of my favourite robots. This has meant that the task of coming up with a drawing I'm happy to post on social media has become much easier, and I've started to have fun drawing again; it took long enough, though. I'm posting each sketch on my Twitter account; the link is at the top of the page. I've had some lovely feedback from some of my friends, which was nice. One of them had no idea I could draw!
The weather here has been all over the place so far this month. After temperatures dropped low enough to turn the virginia creeper on the side of the house a spectacular collection of shades of red, things warmed back up again. This really confused my magnolia; the leaves on most of it are still green, but one branch exposed to the westerly wind during the cold snap has turned brown. There's been little risk of frost this week. I drove up to Preston last weekend through the tail end of Storm Callum, and the car showed outside temperatures as high as 20°C on Saturday. Yesterday the warm air was still lingering on, but last night more normal autumn weather arrived and the temperature in the back garden dropped to 7°C. The highest it's been outside this afternoon is just 12°C and the house is noticeably cooling down. The thermometer in front of me says it's 19°C in here, but it feels colder than that.
I'm still dieting, and even though I've not reached the point where I can drop a clothes size yet, my trousers are beginning to feel baggier. Perhaps I'm feeling the cold more as a result of getting rid of some of the layers of fat that previously kept me warm? I've woken up in the middle of the night recently feeling cold, so on Sunday night I broke out the hot water bottle. That definitely helped me to get a better night's sleep, so I've stuck with it: my sleep monitor has actually given me a "good" rating for the first time this week, which I'm very pleased about.
Boiling a kettle works out cheaper than switching the central heating on. It's usually the last half of October when I set the timer on the heating back to automatic, but I try to resist doing so for as long as I can. I wonder if I can make it to November before I cave in this year?
I've put 450 miles on the clock this weekend, driving up to my aunt's home in Preston yesterday and driving back home this afternoon. It's not a pleasant drive when there's torrential rain and high winds to contend with as well as long stretches of roadworks, but now I'm safely back home.
I'm looking forwards to watching tonight's episode of Doctor Who.
What do I think of the new Doctor? I enjoyed the show a lot, although it was very easy to spot who wasn't going to make it to the end of the episode. The show has never shied away from racking up a body count in the stories it tells, and that looks like it isn't going to be changing any time soon. The production looked slick, with some genuinely striking special effects, and the incidental music - by Segun Akinola - was a vast improvement on anything that the show's had since it relaunched with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. It really helped to establish a creep tone at the required moments.
I liked just how Yorkshire the Doctor now is, and Jodie Whittaker's "half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman" line made me laugh. The "Sheffield Steel" sonic screwdriver was a lovely touch, too.
I'm not entirely sure about the writing yet. One character mentions that someone else has dyspraxia, but the condition (which is more commonly known as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder, or DCD these days) is not really explained - we're just shown that Ryan (played by Tosin Cole) has difficulty riding a bike. In a show that has always had a young audience, there didn't seem to be enough effort made to explain things; someone who lives with the condition will struggle with many other aspects of life and it felt way too simplistic a treatment of the condition. But it's the first episode produced by a new team, and I understand that it'll take a while for them to settle in to a tone they're comfortable with.
As it was the new Doctor's first episode with a new set of companions, a certain amount of expository info-dumping was expected, but I was surprised by how little there was of it. More surprising still was the fact that the rest of the cast just went along with everything - there was one line about how "We don't get aliens in Sheffield!" but beyond that, there was a complete lack of scepticism or looking for hidden cameras; maybe I'm just too old and cynical these days to expect people living in the age of fake news to take such an outrageous scenario at face value.
There was a lot of very on-message dialogue. One or two of those lines could have landed better, I thought. It's difficult to write material that covers specific value judgments without coming across as either contrived or preachy; the "only an idiot" line I've used for the strapline to this post fell about mid-way between the two, for example. The show is clearly intent on wearing its heart on its sleeve, and I'm going to be very interested in seeing how the show is received, particularly when the story of Rosa Parks is featured in a couple of weeks' time.
And I'm really excited to find out what they've done with the Tardis.
I continue to abandon processed foods in my diet. After preparing long grain rice the old-fashioned way this evening and rediscovering what it tastes like, I will never buy another sachet of microwaveable rice ever again.
The new season of Doctor Who starts this evening and I will be watching the show for the first time in four years. I gave up on the show during the first season of Peter Capaldi's tenure and each time I went back to it to see if things had got any better, I very quickly realised that they hadn't. With a new cast and a new showrunner, I'm really hoping that the show will find its feet again. I might even find myself writing about it in the blog once more.
When I said I was going to chill out this weekend I didn't think I would be speaking literally, but the outside temperature last night dropped to 0°C for the first time this autumn. The house wasn't cold when I got up, but it was cool enough that I have blipped the heat on for an hour.
I am still struggling to get a good night's sleep. Last night's score of 84 was entirely down to the amount of time I spent in bed; I'm still getting a red "bad" flag on depth. Nevertheless, I have been working at trying to relax.
To chill out yesterday evening, I poured myself a glass of wine and sat down to watch Disney's Fantasia. I'd picked up a copy recently as Disney are still running a "Two Blu-rays for £15" offer on some of their classic films. Over the last year or so I've been collecting films that I can remember going to see as a kid when we lived in Stafford. Many of the films that started my obsession with cinema were made by the Disney Studios: Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Jungle Book, and Mary Poppins have all been lovingly restored and are a joy to watch, but there's no sign of an old favourite of mine: One of our Dinosaurs is Missing is yet to get a release on Blu-ray, by the looks of things.
I ended up examining my reaction to the film, which was more complex than I expected it to be. and ended up writing a review for my Films Page, which I haven't done in a long time. You can read what I wrote about it here.
The weather today is miserable; it's been raining since I got up this morning. Aside from doing today's Inktober sketch (see below) I've not done anything productive or creative and the rest of the day is going to go the same way because, quite frankly, I need a break. I realised last weekend that because I was dedicating what spare time I had during the summer to producing new tracks for Fifty/Ninety, I hadn't just sat down and chilled out once since June and frankly, I'm not sure that I managed to do so even then. So I am going to give myself some time off this weekend. I'll just sit and read a book. I will also take the opportunity to appreciate the upgrades to my home audio system I made this year; I haven't done them justice yet. I'm currently listening to one of Robert Fripp's soundscape albums and after that I have several films to watch that have been sitting on the coffee table, unwatched, for the last month or two.
It feels like I've forgotten how to relax and unwind, somehow; last month's They Might Be Giants gig was the first time I'd gone out on my own for something I wanted to do rather than something that I needed to do - like get the car serviced, for example - in well over a month. While I don't suffer from the debilitating levels of anxiety that I used to have when I was younger, the prospect of leaving the house can still fill me with dread if I'm at a low ebb or feeling run down. Recently, those have been my default states. When I woke up this morning I felt exhausted. Last night I had a particularly bad night's sleep. The tracker on my watch revealed that I hardly got any properly deep sleep (and the app that I use to see the results helpfully flagged the fact up with a red "Bad" flag, which didn't make me feel any better.)
Even as I type this I know that I won't manage to slug out all weekend. The weather is supposed to be better tomorrow and I need to spend some of my free time in the garden, trying to beat it into shape before the winter arrives. The buddleia and the magnolia both need cutting back and I really need to mow the lawn.
I continue to take part in Inktober and I'm posting an ink drawing every day on Twitter using the #Inktober and #Inktober2018 hashtags. I'm not finding it easy. That is interesting, because thirty years ago I'd be producing stacks of drawings every day with little or no effort. Now, it's hard work just producing one drawing every day that I'm satisfied with. I suspect that part of the problem is that my eyesight is nowhere near as good as it was thirty years ago. I have also noticed a decline in my hand-to-eye coordination. And maybe these days I'm just more realistic about how good I am as an artist. But I'm going to keep scratching away for the rest of the month and who knows? Maybe the old confidence will surface again...
It's now a month since I discovered that I was suffering from sleep apnea and decided that I had to do something serious about improving my health. As I reported in the blog last month, I've junked my old, very inaccurate bathroom scales and replaced them with a high-tech set that is much more accurate and lets me keep a record of my progress online. I bought a fitness tracker to measure how many steps I take each day. Most importantly I removed processed foods, biscuits, cakes, and a lot of other sugary delights from my diet. It's not been easy, particularly when people bring cakes in to the office, but I'm going to stick at it.
Has it made a difference? Oh yes. As of this morning I've lost 15 pounds since I started my diet. My weight has dropped from well over sixteen-and-a-half stone to fifteen stone eight pounds (that's 218 lbs for my American readers, 99 kilos for everywhere else...)
My watch tracks the quality of my sleep, and on average, my "sleep score" is gradually creeping upwards; it started off in the low 70s and it's now averaging out in the mid 80s, although last night I only managed a quite frankly dismal score of 46. I do feel better, though. I'm more alert, I'm not as tired all the time, and I have more focus. I've been surprised by what a difference that a simple change to what I eat has made in a month.
I wonder if I can lose another stone this month? I'm going to give it a go.
I tend not to post obituaries on the blog because a few years ago I realised that I was writing them with increasing frequency as figures from my childhood started to die off. As I was struggling with severe depression at the time, it seemed like a sensible course of action.
But I couldn't let the passing of Carlos Ezquerra today at the age of 70 pass unremarked. Ezquerra was the first comics artist whose style I learnt to recognise. He had a hand that was utterly distinctive and a visual style that was fluid and dynamic: perfect qualities when you're looking for someone to draw the characters and the world of Judge Dredd for 2000AD. Working with writer Pat Mills he created the look and style of a character who has become a comics icon. Ezquerra understood immediately that the character was to be neither sympathetic nor admirable; he lived in Spain while it was a dictatorship and based the Judges on the fascists of General Franco's regime.
Few comics artists create one character as memorable or visually striking as Judge Dredd, but during his tenure at 2000AD Ezquerra did it again and again. Johnny Alpha followed; resident of the mutant ghetto of Milton Keynes, feared by criminals across the galaxy as the bounty hunter Strontium Dog. The strip was populated with a seemingly unending stream of mutant characters, many presented as elaborate visual jokes, all springing from Ezquerra's fertile imagination. Ezquerra's light touch even leavened the comic's tales of its pompous alien editor, The Mighty Tharg. He had a fine talent for caricature - the stories of life in King's Reach Tower featured likenesses of most of the artists and editorial staff that were instantly recognisable. Then he took on the task of drawing the Stainless Steel Rat himself, "Slippery" Jim Di Griz, hero of Harry Harrison's anarchic spoofs (described as "The Monty Python of the Spaceways" by one critic.) I had always imagined the Rat as a futuristic James Coburn, and that's exactly what - or rather who - Ezquerra delivered.
He has been an inspiration to me for forty years and his passing hit me hard today. The comics world has lost one of its true greats. As my first quick sketch for Inktober this year, I decided to draw his most famous creation with some of his stylistic touches. Thanks for everything, Senor E.