Oblique blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: November 2009

November saw me getting annoyed with my Dad's misguided scepticism over climate change. I also watched probably the worst episode of Dr Who since the BBC brought the series back. And to keep myself occupied in any spare time I had that wasn't spent playing either Colin McRae: Dirt or Brütal Legend, I wrote a 50,000 word novel in just over three weeks.

Go me!


I'm feeling rather smug. I finished this year's Nanowrimo novel last night at twenty to midnight, a whole six days ahead of schedule.

A five-thousand-word burst took me past the finish line in a frenzy of writing where I completely failed to notice the passage of time.

I love it when that happens.

When I "verified" the novel this morning, I even gained a good couple of hundred words to my word count. It looks like Microsoft Word's technique for counting views hyphenated terms as one word, but the Office of Letters and Light makes every word in there count. I made sure I donated to their fundraising drive, because the fun I've had this month has been worth every penny. Go me!


Thanks once again to Colin, who always finds the good stuff on the Internet before I do, but very considerately lets me know about it. Clients from hell is a collection of (anonymous) horror stories about the clients of designers from around the world. Some of those tales sounded awfully familiar.


And here's another one I heard about from Colin: Helicopter Boyz. I bet the Coolpix designers never imagined their camera/projector unit would be used like this. People will appropriate technology for their own uses, and as high-tech becomes more accessible and more affordable, I can imagine we'll see more and more of this sort of stuff. I'm looking forwards to it!


I know Rob's a BioShock fan so he'll love this. I owe extra-special thanks to the WGB's Mean Old Man for pointing me at a rather amazing photo shoot: Big Daddy at the Georgia Aquarium. Totally, un-frickin'-believably awesome.


I'm nearly there. I'm now less than 2500 words off my target of writing a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month. I'm taking a break to write the blog, after which I'll probably fire up the PS3 for a while and then return to the computer and try and knock the bugger off.


No wonder Rupert Murdoch wants his stuff taken off the Internet. He doesn't want people finding out that 193% of it is crap.


Quite a bit of fuss is being made about claims by scientists that dirt is good for kids.

Well, duh. The best quote I ever read on the subject came from a letter to the New Scientist magazine a few years ago:

"If a child has not eaten his or her own weight in dirt by the time they are two, they may not make it."


If I ever find out who bought my Dad a copy of Christopher Booker's tract on "the real truth" about global warming, I'm going to give them a stern talking to. While I was visiting my parents at the weekend, Dad spent a considerable amount of time and energy pointing out various "facts" from the book he got for his birthday, in which Booker "proves" that global warming is a myth. Dad being Dad, he was practically hooting with glee as he did so. I sat there and sighed. I'd heard it all before.

For instance, I hadn't the heart to tell Dad that Booker, one of the co-founders of Private Eye magazine (which strangely enough, Dad loathes), is notorious on the Internet for his claims that white asbestos presents no appreciable health hazard and that it is chemically identical to talcum powder. Quite understandably, these claims got him into trouble with the Health and Safety Executive.

I didn't describe to Dad the revulsion I felt over Booker's claim that "The scientific evidence to support [the] belief that inhaling other people's smoke causes cancer simply does not exist".

When Dad told me of Booker's claims that "the world's polar sea ice is in fact slightly above its average extent for early May since satellite records began in 1979, " I didn't say anything, even though I know that polar sea ice has been in decline for decades. I didn't tell Dad that current forecasts suggest that the North Pole may be completely free of ice by the end of the century (and I even kept quiet about the fact that the latest situation in Antarctica appears to be even worse). I just sat there and let him have his "fun".

I didn't bother pointing out that Booker's journalistic style has been described as "grossly misleading." I didn't even point out the irony that Dad had told me how the weekend's events in Cumbria were being reported (in the newspaper that Booker writes for, no less) as a "once in a thousand years" event.

I didn't contradict any of Dad's assertions because I know he just won't listen. If a statement he hears sounds like it reinforces his view, then it must be true; if it contradicts it, then it was invented by Al Gore so "he could become a millionaire." Those are my father's exact words, and guess who he was parroting? Like Booker, my father just wants confirmation of his existing world view, and if he had broadband access to the Internet, I can imagine him deluging me with printouts of crank blogs he's tracked down that "prove" his version of reality all the more.

But the thing is, I can't get angry about Dad's behaviour, because he's been like that for decades. No - what annoys me, what makes me angry and what leaves me seething as I write this is that while people like Dad and Christopher Booker are gleefully encouraging each other to deny the reality of climate change, they're not doing anything to prevent it.

Even worse, imagine that there's someone out there who, at some point in our future, has to choose between the path that will assure humanity's survival or the one that will lead it to extinction. Then imagine that they have to base their choice on the "truth" contained in Booker's tract.

I think Dad's grandchildren - and the people of Cumbria, come to that - deserve better.


The weekend's trip across to East Anglia happened at short notice. Mum and Dad are getting on a bit, and from the phone call I got from Dad on Wednesday night, it sounded like they were struggling to cope. I went over for a few days to help out doing shopping, cooking, and a few odd jobs like cleaning the oven - which turned out to be a less-than-trivial task involving two bottles of oven cleaner!

As a result, work on the novel pretty much ground to a halt until I got home last night. The good news is that even with the hiatus I'm still well ahead of schedule. In fact, I'm very definitely on the home stretch for National Novel Writing Month. I've hit the 45,000 word mark this evening, which should set me up to finish by Wednesday at the latest. One thing I've really learned this year is how necessary it is to just keep going. Even when you can't see a way forward with the plot, somewhere at the back of your mind a mysterious part of your brain is weaving its magic. The trick is to let it do its thing while you keep up the pressure by putting a few more words down on the page. Suddenly, you'll roar off with a three or four thousand word burst as your subconscious decides what should happen next and everything begins to fall into place. It's like magic, and it's such a good feeling when it happens. Sure, there will be loose ends, bits of plot that never panned out, but that's what the 2nd draft is for. For the moment, I'm just happy to have got my groove going.


It's probably a good idea to avoid reading the rest of this article if you're planning a trip to Naples any time soon...

"Isaia and colleagues found deposits from an intense period of eruptions around 4000 years ago. Before the eruptions the Earth's crust rose by several metres all across the caldera. Worryingly, crustal uplift is exactly what has happened recently. Since the late 1960s, the port of Pozzuoli near the caldera's centre has risen by around 3 metres. Hazard planners should prepare for eruptions in decades or less, Isaia concludes."


It's been kicking around for a couple of weeks, but if you haven't already seen it, may I recommend "The Golden age of Video" by Ricardo Autobahn?

It's a music video with a catchy tune, but the vocals are all samples from cult movies. For example, the chorus consists of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters saying "We came, we saw, we kicked its ass" rhymed with Marlon Brando's emotional cry from On the Waterfront saying "You don't understand, I coulda had class..." And yes, that's a clip from Todd Browning's Freaks at the beginning. Amusing for most people, but primo-grade joy for film geeks like me; I don't think there was a single clip that I didn't recognise. Magic.


I made the mistake of sitting down to watch a programme about "How long is a piece of string" on Horizon last night. It was an admirable idea, and I've got a lot of time both for Alan Davies and Professor Marcus du Sautoy, who had been roped in as presenters. The programme even made me laugh out loud when during a discussion of mathematics, the soundtrack started playing music by math-rock superstars Battles. But the programme as a whole was an embarrassing train-wreck.

About five minutes in to the show, Professor du Sautoy started talking about the history of measurement, and how it was the need to measure things that started off our investigations into the world of mathematics. It sounded genuinely interesting, and I leaned forwards to hear what he had to say. My surprise that he was actually being allowed to talk about a pretty complicated subject in an intelligent way was extremely short-lived, of course. His voice faded out to be replaced by Davies muttering "I knew this would happen." Instantly, any idea that I was watching a serious science programme evaporated. What the bloody hell was going on? Horizon used to be the flagship programme about science on TV and I loved it. Even now, when I hear Paul Vaughan's voice, it takes me back to my childhood when Horizon was the one programme I was always allowed to watch, no matter how late it was shown. The corporation's Royal Charter sets out the purpose of the BBC in six bullet points. One of these is "Promoting education and learning," and Horizon used to epitomise that approach. But now I'd just seen the show use a trick that was old when Leonard Rossiter used to start thinking of a hippopotamus if his mother-in-law was mentioned. Pathetic.

In Alan Davies's tweets this morning he describes the programme as being about quantum physics. On the other hand, Marcus Du Sautoy's tweets reveal that they had obviously filmed a lot more material about measurement that got dropped - stuff about measuring the size of the Earth using a sunset, measuring a pier using trigonometry, and measuring the weather using fractals. It's a shame; I'd have liked to have seen all that, but the fact that the two main people presenting the show have completely different perceptions of what it was about, even after it was broadcast, is perhaps a sign that the show didn't actually know what it wanted to be in the first place.

The conceit of the programme was that Davies wanted an accurate measurement of a piece of string. It's a nice idea. Like the Professor, I'd assumed that this would lead on to a programme where Davies learned about the history of measurement. That's worth a programme in itself, surely? I therefore expected there to be lots of discussion about the histories of different units of measurement and how they came to be the exact quantities they are. After all, it was quite spooky to find out that Alan Davies has a forearm that is almost exactly one cubit in length. Measurement is interesting enough to warrant a whole show, surely?

For example, when French astronomers were trying to measure the meridian that ran through Paris to establish a standard measurement of length (the metre, which was going to be defined as one ten-millionth of the meridian's length), the government made a huge effort to have observatories built for them, only to find when they'd finished that there was a mistake in the calculations and the result was a fifth of a millimetre too short. The metre was eventually defined using a completely different method - effectively by holding up a brass rod and saying "it's this long." A rushed visit to the National Physical Laboratory (which is worth an entire Horizon programme to itself, I'm sure) hardly mentioned measurement at all, beyond showing us the standard metre bar which is now no longer brass but a much more expensive mix of platinum and iridium. Instead, the visit seemed more concerned with showing Davies larking about with a remotely guided laser.

Then the show meandered into a discussion of fractals, with Du Sautoy helping Davies draw a Koch snowflake on the beach in Cornwall. Fractals have been covered by Horizon in the past and to much better effect; again, the subject felt rushed and cursory. It was literally a case of "coastlines are crinkly, and they stay crinkly as you zoom in and ooh look, your string is the same." After that, the director obviously lost interest and the programme moved on to something else entirely. By now I'd given up any idea of learning something interesting from the show and was amusing myself by looking for things I could throw at the screen. I hope you appreciate my dedication in resisting the urge to change channels so I could write this review, for I kept watching to see how much worse things could get. Quite a bit worse, as it turned out.

After a brief sojourn on the beach, the show tried turning its hand to explaining quantum physics and the uncertainty principle. All in, oh, about than ten minutes. Science teacher Becky Parker tried her best to start things off simply, and even raised the issue of what Terry Pratchett called the "lies to children" approach used to teach physics in secondary school: although the classical model of atomic structure can't possibly work, it is used as an intermediary step to introduce basic concepts before moving on to teaching the quantum theory (and most people never get beyond the classical model, so it's no wonder people's perceptions of quantum theory are all over the place).

Unfortunately, before she could explain anything more about quantum theory than the two slots experiment (which, in all fairness, was demonstrated very nicely by a team from the Royal College of Science at Imperial College) she was dragged off to a fairground and made to drive around on the dodgems. Then we got to see her driving around with Alan Davies in a real car. Or we would have done, only the cameraman had forgotten to fit a polarising filter on the lens and you couldn't actually see inside the vehicle because of the reflections on the glass.

This was followed by MIT's Seth Lloyd ploughing through an explanation of Schrodinger's famous thought-experiment in the rather literal setting of a taxidermist's shop, where he'd been made to stand next to a stuffed cat. Lloyd is about as sharp as they come, but I'm sorry to say he was much too nervous and made a very poor TV presenter. After a couple of minutes, his laugh was really beginning to grate. I suspect that both he and Parker had been selected to reinforce media stereotypes of scientists as "wacky" or eccentric. Nevertheless, Lloyd gamely tried to introduce the main concepts of quantum vs classical information as applied to black holes.

In about three minutes flat.

Again, the concepts and paradoxes in the subject matter would have made for a really interesting programme in their own right, but instead Alan Davies suddenly found himself in a laboratory with a lab team sticking a camera shaped like a knitting needle up his nose. On Twitter, even Davies and du Sautoy were struggling to see the relevance of this. Apparently it was supposed to underline a recent finding that our sense of smell works because of a phenomenon in quantum physics called electron tunnelling and again it was a fascinating subject that was begging for a programme to itself rather than a two minute comedy routine. Quite how the director thought a view of Mr Davies's septum helped us understand quantum theory is anyone's guess.

In the end, Davies returned to du Sautoy and concluded that his original measurement had been good enough and wasn't it a good idea to go to the pub and have a pint now? I sighed with relief that the ordeal was over, and turned off the TV to mourn the demise of a once-great science programme. Horizon, you will be missed.


Okay, it's Wednesday, so if you were going to watch the latest episode of Dr Who you should have watched it by now. Here's what I thought.

The short version.

Not very good. RTD tries taking a leaf out of Steven Moffat's book (pick a common, everyday object and make it bone-chillingly scary), and fails entirely.

The not quite as short version.

Not very good at all. In fact, a bit shit.

Once again, RTD throws in just about every one of his tried and trusted devices and, no matter how contrived everything has to be to fit them all in, sees it out to the bitter end.

Once again, Murray Gold's music is bombastic, pompous and overblown. I was waiting for his trademark use of the heavenly choir and yes, it turned up as expected, turning any possible glimmer of poignancy into parody. In fact, the music on this episode was so loud and so overpowering that viewers have complained vociferously. Someone from the production team had to go on Points of View on Sunday evening and say that they didn't think the criticism was fair.

Once again, the choreography is crap. Any originality in design of the aliens is destroyed by the clumsy, clichéd way they move: "Move like a disco dancer pretending to be a robot!" "Run like the T-1000!"

The long version.

The characterisation: As we saw in the last special, RTD's method of showing that someone is an effective military commander is to have them sternly telling everyone off, all the time. Commander Adelaide (the very talented Lindsay Anderson, grimly following her directions with a growing look of desperation in her eyes) was such a martinet that I'm surprised the base hadn't mutinied weeks before the Doctor arrived.

Characterisation of the supporting crew is thin to non-existent. Of course, there are the entirely unnecessary references to unconventional gender roles (where would an RTD script be without them?) that are dropped into otherwise normal conversations with all the subtlety of a bowling ball in the bath.

Characterisation applied to the aliens? Naah, just get them to wobble about a bit and drool, that'll do. The aliens get one speech, which is effectively "Oooh, Earth looks nice, we'll have that." There's no attempt to explain what they are, how they got there, what their motivation is, or anything else. They are there just to scare the crap out of eight-year-old kids.

The narrative devices: More laziness. RTD's moved along from using news reports and close-ups of television screens. Now he's using close-ups of the BBC News website, and you'd have thought after fifty years it would have had a bit of a revamp, wouldn't you? The Doctor does a lot of talking to nobody in particular so we know what his motivation is. The Doctor makes a lot of references to earlier episodes involving Mars. Yes Russell, we get it.

The plot: Once you start pulling the plot apart, it makes no sense whatsoever. The Doctor turns up on Mars, seemingly out of thin air, but nobody wants to see how he got there. Let's face it - if you were fifty three million miles away from home, and somebody walked in from outside claiming to be called "The Doctor. Just 'The Doctor',"would you believe him, or throw him in the brig and make sure he wasn't left near anything sharp or pointy?

After an initial confrontation regarding the use of weapons (because the Doctor is so against violence and unnecessary death, particularly when it's happening to him), the Doctor and the Commander get on like a house on fire. When he explains what's happening to the Commander, she believes him unquestioningly. In fact everyone accepts his increasingly implausible word, with no scepticism or demands for proof.

Having established the set up, the Doctor then works himself into an existential crisis about "not interfering with the course of history", presumably remembering the dire consequences of what happens when somebody does (see "the difficulty with received canon" below.) The Doctor gives his standard "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry" speech just so the slow kids at the back know the intrepid crew are toast. But at the same time the Doctor actually precipitates the crisis by talking at considerable length about it. He actively manoeuvres the Commander into committing suicide by blabbing about her destiny and the fact that she has to die to bring it about. If he'd simply kept his mouth shut, the Commander would just have been grateful for being rescued and carried on with her life. She wouldn't have felt the need to commit suicide at all. She could have gone on to live a long and richly productive life, like the "little people" - the other members of the crew who survived - manage to do.

In fact, by the end of the episode, most of the events that were foreshadowed earlier on in the episode, or which the Doctor described have not actually happened.

The difficulty with received canon: The Doctor makes lots of speeches about how he's not allowed to change particular events, that "certain moments are set in time," so he can't interfere - and those of us with memories that stretch back a more than a couple of years ago should remember what happens when those events are changed: in Father's Day, Rose saved her father from being run over and killed. This unleashed flying time lizards from the eighth dimension who set about unravelling the very fabric of the universe. The only way to make things right again was to make sure Dad duly got run over when he was bloody well supposed to. Yet this time round, the Doctor saves a whole bunch of people, and guess what? No flying time lizards. So the dramatic premise of one or other of the two episodes has to vaporise in a puff of anti-logic.

No marks for originality, either: I counted borrowings from at least three John Carpenter movies. There were plenty of riffs on The Thing, of course, but also Prince of Darkness (where a nasty liquid takes over a bunch of scientists) and Ghosts of Mars (where workers on a Martian colony must battle their colleagues, who have been possessed by aliens).

And guess what? I hate comedy robots even more than the Doctor, particularly when my nephews could make a more convincing one out of Lego and a few bits of tinfoil. I really, really hope the Christmas specials are better than this, because I'd hate to see Tennant's stint as the Doctor end on such a disappointing note.


The blog's been on the back burner while I get down to business with National Novel Writing Month. I'm now over half way there - so I'm a couple of days ahead of schedule. I hope to stretch that lead forwards a bit more over this weekend.

Staying in and writing is certainly preferable to going out at the moment: the south west is being battered by what the BBC are calling "the worst storm of the year" and it's wild, windy and very wet out there right now. I'm looking out of the back window as I write this and the sky is a threatening shade of grey. I was hoping to get out and try the new neutral density filter I got last week with some long exposure photos down at Sharpness , but I think I'll leave that for another, less windy day.

Other temptations which are likely to induce me to stay in include copies of Bioshock and Colin McRae's Dirt, which I picked up from Play.com this week for the knockdown price of £25 all in. Couple that with a good supply of teacakes and bagels and a recently descaled espresso machine and I'm all set for a typical winter's weekend. Wherever you are, I hope your weekend is at least as enjoyable as mine.


A set of pictures that stir the imagination: let's go to Mars! The Boston Globe have a selection of amazing photographs from the Mars Global Surveyor's HiRISE camera. What would it feel like to be there, walking across those dunes, or climbing those crater walls? What must it be like to stand on the edge of that sea of dust? What would it look like at ground level?

And when you're done looking at Mars, make sure you take time to explore its tiny moon Phobos.


There have been one or two quite extraordinary things cropping up on YouTube this week. Just in case you haven't already seen them, I suggest having a look at the advertising banners carried by flies, the fork lift druck driver who brought down the house, and er, Christopher Walken.


The novel writing continues. The folks at NaNoWriMo enabled the progress widgets yesterday, so mine should now be appearing at the top of this page. I'm doing okay so far - at least, I'm making my word count target every day. I'll keep you posted as things progress, but I'm already over a fifth of the way to my 50,000 word target.


Happy Carl Sagan Day.


This time of year marks the ancient festival of Samhain, which was originally held to mark the end of summer. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. The use of bonfires in tomorrow night's celebrations here in the UK have little or nothing to do with the execution of Guy Fawkes - the gunpowder plot conspirators were all sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, rather than burnt at the stake.

Summer has drawn to a close, and winter is upon us. So far, I think my light bulbs are working. I'm sitting under one of them as I write this blog entry - it's not quite dark outside just yet, but there's not much daylight left. I seem to have more energy in the evenings, anyway - I've just rattled off today's quota of words for National Novel Writing Month, and the plot seems to be developing nicely.


It's November once again, and I'm signed up and ready to go for National Novel Writing Month. The blog has its customary widget and I'm getting my head down as I attempt to write a 50,000 word novel before the end of the month. Stay tuned to see how I get on!


Last night was halloween, and I was visited by ten groups of trick or treaters, which I think is a record. They were remarkably polite, too - with the result that I've still got a bowl half full of chocolates and sweets. It's not the best thing to have lying round the house when you're trying to lose weight. Perhaps I ought to take it in to work and let someone else dispose of the remains for me...