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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: November 2014

November was great fun. Lots of cultural stimulation, hanging out with friends, some interesting work, a new novel by William Gibson, and a new guitar. I'd like more months like this one, please.

ON THE PERIPHERY

What a wild few days. I got home at 2:30 am last night and I have a lot of work to do over the next week or so, so it may be a while before I get round to polishing this entry and uploading it (it ended up being the first Saturday of the following month - Ed.) I've been hanging out with my friends from the WGB once again, as the author William Gibson conducted a publicity tour of England to promote his new novel, The Peripheral.

Reading Chapter 4

Bill was on fine form, although his schedule this time was brutal - on Monday he started off with an appearance on Radio 4's Start The Week at 9am, wrapped things up and headed over to the Guardian for a live web chat with readers from 11:30 to 12:30, caught a taxi across to Forbidden Planet in Shaftesbury Avenue where he very kindly signed books for an hour (I got my copy of the novel signed), then headed out for various other interviews and finally ended up at The Tabernacle in Powis Street for a chat with John Mullan, the head of English at UCL, about Gibson's first novel Neuromancer, 30 years on.

Taking Questions

Bill was, as always, witty and on the money in his observations and asides. It was a relief to hear a discussion of Neuromancer that didn't begin with the question, "but you wrote this on a typewriter?" He mentioned the idea of narrative whitespace, that you don't always read exactly what a character is doing, because in some cases Bill just didn't know. "What is Case doing with his hands," Bill asked us, "when he's operating his Ono-Sendai deck - 'his hands moved swiftly'? Is he typing?"

After the talk, we decamped to Honest Burgers in Portobello Road where I had one of the best burgers I've had for a long time. Then it was back on the tube to Osterley and pick up the car for the drive home. The slog down the M4 to London in the morning rush hour had been slow and unpleasant, but getting home was much easier. I was actually pleasantly surprised to be back indoors by 1:30, as there was very little traffic at all.

The next day it was over to a very cold and wet Bath, where I met the rest of the gang. I'd hoped we'd be able to explore the place and take in the sights, but the weather was so miserable that we ended up sitting in The Saracen's Head for most of the afternoon. Bill was doing an evening signing at Christ Church, which was dedicated in 1798. I mentioned how spectacular the place looked; "I did a signing in a Presbyterian Chapel in New England on this tour," he told me, "But I've never signed in anywhere as old as this baby."

"Never signed in anywhere as old as this baby"

He read from the novel, and talked about his writing, covering his thoughts on predicting the future and the technology that actually occurs. He took questions from the audience, including one about whether the new book would become part of a trilogy, as all his previous novels have done. Bill didn't sound very keen on the idea, saying that he wanted to leave "sufficient white space" for the reader's imagination to play in. "Some things should just stay as they are," he said, "and not get turned into trilogies..." At this point I nudged Hagen, who was sitting next to me, and muttered "Wachowskis." "...Like the first Matrix movie." Bill concluded. He got a laugh with that. He graciously signed books for three-quarters of an hour, although some attendees rather took advantage of his affability. One idiot at the front of the queue kept pulling out one book after another until he'd presented Bill with a pile of around a dozen books, which shows no consideration at all for anyone else behind them in the queue (at Forbidden Planet, Danie was very good at organising things and making sure nobody took the piss like this.)

Mr and Mrs GreatDismal caught the train back to London and after the rest of the gang departed for the last train I made my way back to the car and headed home (the only night of the tour when I got to bed before 1 am).

On the Wednesday it was back to London. I left an hour earlier, and while the traffic was heavy the drive was nowhere near as bad as Monday. I met up with the rest of the gang at the British Museum (the Great Court is becoming a traditional meeting place) and we headed out in search of sustenance. We ended up at a fantastic combination bookshop and tea room in Great Russell Street called Tea and Tattle, which did a super deal of tea, sandwiches, lemonade, clotted cream scone and cake all for £15. My sencha tea was delicious. I will be going there again - just don't tell anyone else how good the place is, okay?

Sarnies

Woodrow was our guide for the day, and he led us to the Photographers' Gallery in Soho, which was holding exhibitions of prints of work by Edward Steichen (who I was familiar with) and Viviane Sassen (who I wasn't). The Steichen stuff was great, with lots of photographs of America's Great and Good from the 1930s, but I was completely blown away by Ms Sassen's work. I highly recommend checking out the show if you're in London. While we were in the Gallery, we crowded into their impossibly small restroom to take the traditional silly photographs:

Restroom Project 2

We were laughing our heads off - goodness knows what anyone outside must have thought. After a brief sojurn into Five Guys in Long Acre for some french fries, we walked over Hungerford Bridge to the BFI for the evening event. Nick Harkaway and Bill chatted on stage about "Fear and Wonder" - science fiction in film" - and showed a number of clips from classic SF films including Tron, District 9, Blade Runner and The Fifth Element.

Bill explained that he was in the process of writing Neuromancer when he went and saw Blade Runner:

"Its first theatrical release was when I was about a third of the way through the Neuromancer manuscript and (I) literally fled the theatre after about fifteen minutes because I was so dismayed that Ridley Scott had created this fantastically beautiful-looking film that purely in its visual information, I felt, wiped out the pictures that I had been projecting on the inside of my own forehead. I didn’t actually see Blade Runner, even in its complete but studio release, for a few years after Neuromancer was published. I really felt like I was going to have to abandon the book and start something else; it had a very powerful effect on me."

What saved Neuromancer from the shredder was, he said, the fact that Blade Runner was a crashing failure when it was initially released - but he considers it to be the most visually and broadly influential film of his lifetime. While he was waiting for Neuromancer to be released, he started to notice how Blade Runner had affected fashion design, architecture, even shop fittings. Then after Neuromancer was published, "I started to get a certain amount of fan mail from architects.” He praised Ridley Scott's work and attention to detail once again (he'd done so at the Guardian's Neuromancer event on Monday).

Once again, he singled out Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination" as a huge influence on his fictional and literary tastes.

Bill also talked about how he'd inadvertently brought about a fashion item when he wrote about the Buzz Rickson's jacket that Cayce Pollard wears in Pattern Recognition. He decided that her jacket was black, he said, and once the book came out the Japanese company started getting requests for them. "They hunted me down and said, 'Why is this? We don't make this in black, we make it only in US military colours.' I said, 'I'm terribly sorry'," said Bill. A pause. "We wish to make it in black." they said.

So they did.

Afterwards there was more signing, so I got two more books signed. And I'd brought my copy of Tigerman with me, just in case Nick turned out to be prepared to sign it. He was, as it happened - "I just thought I'd mooch about in case people wanted stuff signed" - and he is an extremely affable gent. It turned out to be his birthday, too. After bidding Bill and Deborah farewell, we all walked down to Waterloo where Woodrow knew a restaurant that he liked. It turned out to be a very good Italian place called Caprini's.

Another Restaurant

The proprietor heard us talking about movies and mentioned, very proudly, that the room in which we were sitting was the one in which Anne Hathaway had dinner in the movie One Day; they'd spent one day filming in the upstairs room and then another day filming them having coffee downstairs. The food and the coffee were excellent. Then it was time to say goodbye and head home. It's always a huge wrench to bid farewell to these people. They're some of the brightest, sparkiest people I know and the conversations are guaranteed to be fascinating. I wish I got to see them all more often.

MULLING IT OVER

William Gibson's latest novel The Peripheral was published in the UK on Thursday. No spoilers here; I'll just say that it's one of the most rewarding and deeply unsettling books I have read in a long time. It's dark - perhaps the darkest thing of his that I have ever read. The cyberpunk movement that exists these days tends to glorify and extol the virtues of the technological worlds of novels like Bill's first novel, Neuromancer, even though that book (and much of Bill's other novels) have profoundly dystopian settings. There's little possibility of romanticising the future in which the Peripheral is set though, or even of fetishising the technology which it offers. More, it's something that we should be strenuously - if not desperately - trying to avoid. And the most terrifying concept that Bill drops in the book is that other parties may have absolutely no compunction about bringing that dystopia, or something far worse, about.

I managed to get through the book completely spoiler free by avoiding all interviews with the man that have appeared in the last couple of months. And I benefited tremendously from doing so. Since finishing the novel I've seen quite a few reviews that have criticised the ending for being too bucolic. The thing about Bill is that he has fairly clear ideas about where his characters go after the work finishes. And while there are occasional happy endings for some characters once the book is over - Bill explained to me a while ago that the character Milgrim in the last trilogy of novels ends up happily married, for example - that's not always the case. Remember that little throwaway paragraph in Neuromancer where we find out what eventually happened to Johnny Mnemonic? If Bill does end up producing a trilogy of novels set in the world of The Peripheral (and given that title I really hope the next one is called The Server and the third one just Sysadmin) I suspect that the circumstances in which the cast of characters find themselves at the end of the book will turn out to be only temporary.

But the bottom line is that this is Gibson doing what he does best: taking a look at things from a perspective that renders the mechanics of the future exactly how they should be - setting the reader down somewhere both familiar and yet deeply strange, that is confusing enough to be stimulating but with sufficient commonality to provide points of reference for navigation, and that is full of spaces that invite the imagination to play at connecting the dots, recognising patterns, and filling in the details. And doing so is a glorious experience.

THE SYNDROME STRIKES AGAIN

The inevitable has happened and I've bought another guitar. It's the Ibanez 9-string that I blogged about last month.

Going to extremes

I've only had it for a couple of days, so I'm still getting used to it. That neck is very wide - when I picked up the Jackson again last night it felt tiny by comparison - and the difference throws off your aim when you're trying to hit a particular string. But it sounds amazing and the possibilities that it offers for doing something entirely different with my music are endless. I'm going to have a lot of fun with this.

SILENT RUNNING

I was sorry to hear that Phileae fell silent yesterday. A combination of system failures (neither its top thruster nor its harpoon system worked as they should) led to the lander bouncing off its intended landing site on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and finally coming to rest a couple of hours later at the bottom of a cliff, where deep shadow meant its solar panels could not sustain operations. Nevertheless, what the little lander achieved was spectacular. Before it shut down, it returned enough data to keep scientists busy for years. Well done to the European Space Agency for capturing the world's interest in the face (or some other part of anatomy) of stiff competition and demonstrating what can be achieved when countries pool their resources and work together.

BRING THE NOISE

I had a great evening at the Intersound Guitars annual show on Thursday night, catching up with Steve, Norm, Denver and co. and listening to live sets from John Verity and John Etheridge, who were both playing their signature guitars from Fret King. I managed to make it through the evening without buying another guitar, although I had one or two close calls (particularly at the Ernie Ball stand, where a MusicMan Stingray with a roasted maple neck caught my eye).

I stocked up on strings, though. And one of these is now very definitely on my Christmas list.

OFF OUT

I'm pleased to report that it's not raining outside at the moment. This is a Good Thing, as I'm taking a day off from creating PowerPoint slides today and I'll be heading out shortly to catch up with some of my former colleagues. I don't really have that much of a social life these days so it'll be fun.

HERE WE GO AGAIN

I just squelched across the back lawn to top up the bird table. Like much of the land around here the garden is waterlogged after days of heavy rain and with more rain on the way, there's nowhere left for all that water to soak away. So the Met Office have announced a yellow warning of flooding for the rest of the week in the South West and West of England. Worse, the long range forecast sounds like a repeat of last winter: it's going to be wet and windy.

ALL THAT CENTRAL HEATING SHRIVELS UP YER BRAIN

I've been bingeing on Aphex Twin's stuff recently. There's a brilliant interview with him on Dave Noyze's Blog where he talks about the new album, his recording techniques, living in Moscow, circuit bending, and pretty much everything else. Meanwhile, he's uploaded a bunch of tracks to Soundcloud where he tries out a bunch of patches and sounds. I love 'em!

LISTEN UP

The Leonid meteor shower - usually the most prolific of the year - takes place over the next week or so and the folks at Popular Science have an interesting project that lets you measure how many there are with some special software, an old FM radio, and a Yagi antenna.

SUBLIME

Last night I went to a concert at the Colston Hall to see the Philip Glass Ensemble play a retrospective selection of works. I had a seat in the front row and was sitting about ten feet from Philip Glass himself, so it was always going to be a memorable gig. But the selection of music was pretty much a run through my favourite works. The programme was:

CIVILwarS #2,
In the upper room; Dance 9
Selections from Music in Twelve Parts; Part I, Part II
The Grid (from Koyaanisqatsi)

- interval -

Floe, Façades and Rubric (from Glassworks)
Music in Similar Motion
The Photographer, Act III

- encore -

Spaceship (from Einstein on the Beach)

It was quite an experience. The Grid thundered along as though there were seventy people on stage rather than just seven (PG, Michael Riesman, and Mick Rossi on keyboards, Lisa Bielawa on keyboards and vocals, and Andrew Sterman, Jon Gibson and David Crowell on woodwinds). PG is lovely. His introductions were affable ("you'll know when we get to part II because it's faster") but served to underline the longevity of the ensemble: introducing Music in Similar Motion he simply said "I wrote this in 1969, and we play it every year."

Jon Gibson has been playing in the ensemble since it was formed, and his and Andrew Sterman's work performing Façades was sublime. I can't remember the last time I heard a piece of music played to exquisitely. I have mentioned before how much I love the opera Einstein on the Beach. Getting to see and hear a live performance of Spaceship was the icing on the cake. That was a very good night.

EVEN MORE BRRR

There was ice on the conservatory roof this morning; the first frost this autumn, as far as I'm aware. It's a bright and clear morning out there, but it's still not very warm. But it does feel like winter isn't that far away now. Which means...

GETTING FESTIVE

I've just put together next year's calendar - something I do every year - as my first step towards getting Christmas organised. And yes, I know there are still 45 days to go, but I like to have things sorted out well in advance. Once again I've used Snapfish, and thanks to an email voucher I received this morning, I got a hefty discount on my order.

This year I really noticed a difference in the creation process. Thanks to switching over to FTTC, my upload speed has gone from 380 kb/s to 18 Mb/s and that means that all my photos transferred to their site in a couple of minutes rather than the usual half an hour. I was stunned how fast the upload was.

BOGGLED

The Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) is a revolutionary telescope constructed on the Chajnantor plateau in northern Chile. 5000 meters above sea level, an array of 66 12- and 7-meter radio dishes works as a single unit. The array is 16 km from one side to the other which means it can provide fantastic resolution of the southern sky. The resolution is so good, in fact, that this week ALMA released an image of the accretion disk around a very young orange dwarf star that is 450 light years (2.645 quadrillion miles) away. ALMA's resolution is so good that you can clearly see rings in the disk where the gravitational attraction of planets - that are still forming - is hoovering dust and rock up. It's the most extraordinary astronomy picture that I've ever seen.

But just how detailed is that image? In humans, 20/20 vision is defined as the ability to distinguish contours separated by 1 arc minute (60 arc seconds) and under ideal conditions people with excellent vision can align two separate line segments to within 8 arc seconds. In comparison, ALMA has an angular resolution of 0.004 arc seconds. If your eyes had the same visual acuity, you'd be able to look at the Moon and distinguish objects the size of a truck.

BRING ON THE DEATH STAR

Japanese company Aerial Burton released video of their latest display technology this week. It uses a pulsed laser to turn air at specific points into plasma, which then glows white hot. Think of these brilliant glowing dots as pixels; the difference is that the display projects them in midair - no screen is necessary and the image is three dimensional. The system can be mounted in a car, and its creators suggest that it would be a useful display system in the event of disasters or civil emergencies.

Okay, it's not as sophisticated as the system that Princess Leia and her pals used in Return of the Jedi but it's a start. And I can't imagine it'll be that long before rock bands are using the technology on stage. When they do, just remind me to make sure I'm not standing in the line of fire; I wouldn't want any of my extremities turned to plasma.

MORE WEATHER ON THE WAY

It's cold, damp and windy outside today. The weather's been pretty miserable and we've obviously had quite a lot of rain, as a retaining wall for one of the properties on Charfield Hill collapsed a few days ago. I used to think that living on a hillside would be really cool, as you get fantastic views. However the downside is landslips, flash floods, and several other rather scary prospects. I think I'll stay where I am.

WON'T YOU GIVE ME A LISTEN?

I have yet to break the 2000 plays barrier on Soundcloud, so I'd really appreciate it if you took a few minutes to listen to some of my stuff and boost my numbers, so to speak. Some of it's pretty good, though I say it myself. As an example, here's some instrumental space rock that I recorded a couple of months ago...

Enjoy!

BRRR

Today the weather's switched to a more appropriate mode. An hour ago it was raining, and cold. The first snow of the season fell in Snowdonia overnight and here, the temperature outside is still in single figures even though it's late morning. I've set the central heating to come on this evening and even though the Sun has come out, I've switched the gas fire on for a while to take the chill off. The leaves on the magnolia in the front garden have finally started to turn brown; the remaining leaves have dropped off the virginia creeper and it really feels like winter has started to arrive. It's quite a shock after last Friday's record temperatures.

INTERESTING

Ridley Scott is producing a TV series based on Arthur C Clarke's novel 3001: The Final Odyssey. It's a strange book, describing a resuscitated Frank Poole (who was murdered by HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, if you recall) as he tries to fit in to a world a thousand years in his future. Meanwhile, HAL and Dave Bowman are still around, as is the monolith... If this is done right, it will be fascinating to see.

NOT FEELING IT

Four days in and I've already given up on Nanowrimo. I just couldn't get any traction this year. I didn't even manage a thousand words. Maybe it's because the ridiculously creative phase I've been in since February has ended; after writing over seventy songs maybe I need to recharge for a bit. Maybe it's because I feel very tired at the moment as the evenings really draw in. Some years I just can't find the spark, and this year appears to be one of them.

SPACE IS HARD, AGAIN

When I blogged about the Antares explosion a couple of days ago, I explained how hard it is getting to space. Unfortunately the Universe decided to provide additional emphasis yesterday and this time people died. Virgin Galactic's Space Ship Two disintegrated during a test flight with a new fuel compound and at least one pilot was killed. My thoughts are with the crew and their families and with the Virgin Galactic team.

But there was success this week, too: the fiftieth launch of an Atlas V rocket went smoothly and delivered a Global Positioning System satellite into orbit. The Atlas V first flew in August 2002 but it's based on a design for a ballistic missile that dates back to the 1950s. You might find it somewhat ironic, perhaps, that a spacecraft that was originally intended to explode ended up being the only recent launch that didn't blow up.

Rocketry is not a reliable means of transport. Even when you're only trying to achieve sub-orbital flight, as was the case with Space Ship Two, the risks are enormous. Getting to space is dangerous, and the reliability of launch systems is nowhere near good enough to treat a ride like we're just driving down the road to the shops. At the moment, it's estimated to be just a shade over 90 per cent. Would you pop to Tesco every week if the odds were that, every couple of years, you'd either never return home at all or end up spread all over the road in tiny, smoking pieces? I doubt it. Personally, I don't think we'll be ready for space tourism for another fifty years. And perhaps we never will be.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Sean Pertwee won Halloween yesterday with this selfie he took before heading out to a party in fancy dress. It fair brought a tear to my eye.

AUTUMN WATCH

I've been keeping an eye on the back garden over the last few days, as I'm waiting for a return visit from a guest who appeared on Wednesday...

Daytime visitor

Judging by how small it was, I reckon it's only a year or two old (some of the hedgehogs round here are twice its size) and while it's unusual to see them around in broad daylight it didn't appear to be in any distress. It was clearly enjoying the mealworms that I put out for the birds and spent a good half an hour wandering round the lawn snacking on them. I did have to shoo away one of the local cats, though, who was mystified by the proceedings.

The weather is still unseasonably warm this morning, although the temperature is three or four degrees down on yesterday. It rained last night but right now the living room is flooded with sunshine and I'm thinking about going out for a walk this afternoon.

TRY NOT TO LAUGH

Jimmy Fallon completely loses it on the Tonight Show as he interviews Bradley "Rocket" Cooper about his appearance in the stage play of The Elephant Man. When the giggles strike as hard as they do here, the only thing you can do is roll with it. And the rest of us can laugh too.

IT'S THE FUTURE

Yesterday I downloaded and ran some software on my PC, plugged a USB cable into my guitar amp, and updated the firmware on it to provide a new "super wide stereo" feature for recording with. And all this just took me a couple of minutes. I love my Blackstar ID:15 - every time I play with it I'm inspired.