Yule blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: December 2010

December 2010 was a bit of a mess, really. At the start of the month I had loads of exciting events lined up to blog about, and ended up not going to any of them because of the snowpocalypse. I didn't get up to Lytham for Christmas, either.

However, I did have a very nice Christmas and I also got to see The War of the Worlds performed live on stage at Wembley Arena courtesy of my brother.


Tonight we bid farewell to 2010, and good riddance. There were one or two highlights as there are in any year selected at random, but on the whole it's been a pretty dismal three hundred and sixty five days. I'll be very glad to see the back of this year - in fact, it's been so bad it's not even worthy of a review. Let's move on, shall we?


The final blog entry for this year would like to offer, for your delight and delectation, a dozen essays on Doctor Who from the people at Tor publishing. I felt rather old when one of the writers talked about first encountering the programme "in the Peter Davison years" as I'd been a fan for well over a decade when the fifth doctor arrived. I can only dimly remember the Hartnell years, and I can remember occasional episodes when Patrick Troughton was at the helm, but I still remember having vivid nightmares thanks to the giant maggots that Jon Pertwee had to fight. And I remember being wary of gargoyles on churches for years after watching the Daemons, too.

Today the series of essays gets as far as Colin Baker, the sixth doctor. An affable chap who still supports the show, Baker presided over a programme that Michael Grade, controller of the BBC at the time, made abundantly clear was longer wanted. Lacking an appropriate budget, Dr Who rapidly descended into pantomime at the hands of its producer, Jonathan Nathan-Turner. It also featured the two most irritating companions that the Doctor has ever had. I pretty much stopped watching the show until Christopher Eccleston came along.


Lots and lots of congratulations to Louis and Emilie on the birth of their daughter Naomi, who was born on Christmas Day.


...to Rebecca, Ruth and Rob for a very enjoyable couple of days. I had a most excellent impromptu Christmas!


Meanwhile, heartfelt commiserations to the engineering team who have worked all through Christmas here in the village to replace a railway bridge...

Spare a thought...

The temperature at the weekend dropped to -11.6° C (11° F) overnight but they kept going. I've been taking photos from underneath that particular bridge for years, so I can't wait to see what the new one's like.


Most years I work up until Christmas Eve, but this year my last working day was Wednesday. It's been a long and difficult year, and I decided at the end of last month that I was going to take a proper break this year with a whole two weeks off work. Even so, Christmas has sneaked up on me and I've completely failed to sort out my Christmas cards this year. If you haven't heard from me through other means, I'd like to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. Let's hope that 2011 is a better year than 2010 turned out to be.

The weather has put paid to my festive travel plans, as the roads outside are still covered in snow and I will be spending most of the Christmas holiday at home. I haven't done that for years, and to be honest I'm rather looking forwards to it. I plan on playing video games, doing a bit of writing and drawing, and recording some music - all things that I used to do a lot before the advent of computers and the Internet, and they're the things that pretty much defined me when I was younger. It's not that I don't have spare time any more these days, it's just that the things that I do to fill it up have changed. There's far more technology involved, for one thing. When I was a small boy, I would have been mightily impressed to hear that I could spend Christmas in the 21st century watching satellite TV or reading articles on a vast computer system spread across the globe. Some of the things that are now possible, such as being able to make a video call to my brother in California or send messages to friends I haven't seen in person for decades are wonderful, fulfilling experiences. But that sort of experience makes up only a tiny fraction of what I use the computer for. I've played far too many games of spider solitaire on this PC, for one thing. Even if I force myself away from the keyboard and choose something to watch on the hundreds of TV channels that are available, I know I'll struggle to find a programme to watch that is creative or fulfilling. As a case in point, apart from the Hitchcock movie Suspicion playing on BBC2 at the moment, the choices available right now include repeats of The Sweeney and Poirot, and movies such as Jingle all the way, Casper, The Santa Clause 2, and Please Sir! Retro channel Dave is showing an old episode of Top Gear (they always are), The Yesterday channel is showing an eight-year-old episode of Last of the Summer Wine, and Quest are showing an episode of Mission Impossible that was made back in 1969, when I was 9. So I'm going to see what a few days of old-fashioned, make-your-own-entertainment style relaxing does for my sense of well-being. At the end of the holidays, I'll revisit this page and we'll see whether the experience has been worthwhile.

In the meantime, though, I suspect I may end up playing a little more Red Dead Redemption, which is turning out to be a very addictive video game indeed.


Many thanks to fellow wigber and all-round top bloke David Geelan (a.k.a Bravus) for pointing me in the direction of the National Examiner's breathless story about giant flying saucers approaching the Earth. I used to love reading rubbish stories like this when I was younger and I still have a fair-sized collection of books by everyone from George Adamski to Nick Pope and from Jacques Vallée to Carl Sagan. Some of these books are intelligently written and well-reasoned contemplations of the subject of unidentified flying objects and some, er, aren't. These days, my Fortean sensibilities find the way people create or distribute stories like this even more fascinating than the stories themselves. In particular, I'm intrigued by how frequently people invent additional details to lend their stories a layer of authenticity. Claims are almost always dressed up in the jargon of scientific research so "a few hours looking stuff up on the web" becomes "years of painstaking investigation." As each story is passed on from one fabulist to the next, it acquires more and more spurious detail. There's a great temptation to believe something if it's supplied with sufficient cruft and trivia attached, but that's not the way things work in science, and thank goodness for that.

In order to give the latest story a degree of credibility, it uses quotes from "an astrophysicist" called Craig Kasnov. Mr Kasnov doesn't appear to exist, but he happens to have a name very similar to that of Craig Kasnoff who was involved in the inception of the SETI@home project. As you'll see in the comments thread here, the real Mr Kasnoff (who is a journalist, and not an astrophysicist at all) has nothing to do with the "announcement" mentioned by the Examiner. The subsequent comments are an absolute hoot, particularly the chap who writes "I'm a psychic and a Master Astrologer so I know what I'm talking about." What was I saying about dressing up your claims in scientific jargon?

Back in 1997 when Marshall Applewhite made a very similar announcement to the Enquirer story - that a giant spacecraft was following the comet Hale Bopp into the solar system - behaviour like this stopped being funny. It stopped being funny because Applewhite, who believed he was directly related to Jesus, persuaded 38 members of the cult he'd founded to join with him in committing suicide. Did he genuinely believe he and his followers were going to wake up on board some gleaming white spaceship, or had he realised he was about to be exposed as a fraud? We'll never know. Instead, let's just take away a simple lesson from all of this: taking a sceptical approach when somebody starts spouting ludicrous claims like this isn't just a matter of common sense.

It may also help to save someone's life.


I set off for work this morning just before 7 am and by ten past I'd decided that discretion was the better part of valour, turned round, and come home again. The car was going all over the place on what felt like sheet ice and I couldn't see any evidence that any of the roads had been gritted. The rest of the UK is also struggling with the winter weather and it looks like things are going to continue in the same fashion for the rest of the week. I strongly suspect that I'm going to be spending my Christmas here on my own rather than in Lytham with my relatives. Mind you, it looks like the local kids are delighted with the weather...

Request granted

At least this time I'm cosy and warm in my own home rather than sleeping on the sofa at my brother's place, or on the floor at Heathrow or the Gare du Nord; things could be a lot worse.


I should have kept quiet about getting a good night's sleep last Wednesday, because since then I've had terrible trouble sleeping. As I type this, it's 5:40 am and I've given up on getting any further sleep tonight. This is the worst bout of insomnia I've had in quite a while - I've been awake since half past one. Instead, I've been eating bagels and drinking coffee while I check my work email.

One reason for the insomnia is that I'm still wired after driving home on Saturday night. It takes time to come down after having to maintain intense concentration for three and a half hours or so, and the journey left me buzzing for all of Sunday. When I first got my current car I blogged about how you could actually feel changes in the road surface through the steering, and on Saturday night I could tell every time the wheels hit the slightest patch of ice. I was being passed by Range Rovers barrelling down the M4 at eighty miles an hour, and I don't care how much more effective four wheel drive is in this weather: driving at that speed in the conditions we had overnight is sheer lunacy.

I could probably have managed a nap yesterday afternoon but I forced myself to stay up. I figured that if I did have a snooze, I'd find it hard to sleep later on; more fool me. Now I'm sitting here waiting for the caffeine to kick in so I can make a start on today's work. Outside it's eight below. When I woke up it was -9.9°C so at least things are warming up. The trouble is, the forecast is for snow to start falling in a couple of hours and that's another extremely good reason for working at home today.


I headed down to Dave and Cathy's place in Orpington on Friday evening and once again my trip coincided with some pretty horrible driving conditions, although this time I made it to their house in just five and a half hours and without having to abandon the car. They had snow, but in nowhere near the quantities that they'd got at the end of November. On Saturday morning I looked out into their back garden and was rather surprised to see a bright green parakeet sitting in a tree. It looked ridiculously out of place in all the white.

On Saturday evening Dave and I went to Wembley Arena to see the live show of Jeff Wayne's classic album, The War of the Worlds. Getting there was quite an event in itself - heavy snowfall had reduced the transport system in London to a state of chaos. Southbound trains didn't seem to be getting any further than Orpington. North of the river, things were even worse. Brent Cross shopping centre had to close early on what is normally the busiest day of the year for retail sales. We'd decided to leave plenty of time for the journey but to our surprise once we got on a Jubilee Line train we were able to get to Wembley without too much difficulty. That meant we had time for a very nice meal at the California Kitchen in Wembley Hill, eating our chilli burgers and watching the traffic outside slipping and sliding across the roads. Suitably replenished, we made our way to Wembley Arena. There were plenty of empty seats once we got inside - the chances of anything coming from Mars might be a million to one, but getting to Wembley from places considerably nearer had obviously proved even more difficult. Nevertheless just after 8pm, the lights went down, and the show started.

When the first chords of "The Eve of the War" sounded out across the hall, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I was a teenager when the album was released and we'd just moved to London. I can still remember listening to Capital Radio in the evenings as they played track after track, and they continued to do so for months. The album was a huge deal back then - it was acclaimed as the pinnacle of the whole concept album genre, and it was one of those pieces of music that defined the 1970s for me. And last night when Justin Hayward walked out on stage to sing, I was cheering and whistling along with everyone else.

The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said...

The production was impressive - a wide screen at the back of the stage showed visuals for the entire performance and a computer graphics model of Sir Richard Burton projected at the side of the stage narrated the proceedings. I was particularly taken by the fact that the orchestra didn't have paper versions of the score on their music stands, oh no - they appeared to have iPads! Justin Hayward wasn't the only artist who participated in the original album to return: session guitar legend Chris Spedding and bassist extraordinaire Herbie Flowers were there too, as was Chris Thompson from Manfred Mann. And as the show continued, a Martian Fighting Machine made its appearance on the stage...


It lurched from side to side scanning the audience, it fired its heat ray, it spat smoke and flames, and it dominated the stage. But the cast were just as impressive - particularly Jason Donovan who played the artilleryman and Rhydian Roberts who played Parson Nathaniel. And the sound was impeccable, some of the best I've ever heard at Wembley which is, let's face it, a giant shed and not known for its great acoustics. When it was all over, Dave and I both had big grins on our faces as we made our way back out into the cold.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that we got back to Orpington with very little difficulty; I'd been half expecting to have to walk some of the way, but we were back home by just after midnight. The roads were pretty clear, too - so I decided I'd make the most of the opportunity to strike out for home. I must admit that as I drove past the fifteenth abandoned vehicle on the M25 I was beginning to wonder whether I'd made the right decision. The car jinked a couple of times as I joined the M4 where the big fat tyres lost traction momentarily, but I kept my speed right down and took things slowly and steadily as I made my way back west. I was amazed how much traffic there was coming the other way; even at 4 am there was always at least one vehicle in sight on the eastbound carriageway. The temperature kept dropping, and by the time I got to junction 16 the car was telling me it was -12°C outside. I drove through a few patches of dense fog, too - not a good combination. I was able to get home without incident, although the side roads in the village, which had not been gritted, were sheet ice (and as I write this on Sunday afternoon, they're still in the same condition).

I closed the garage door at 4:40 am and heaved a sigh of relief. I'm home...


I think it says a lot about my life that the fact I got more than eight hours of uninterrupted sleep last night is worthy of a celebratory blog entry. It may not be a coincidence that last night I'd shut down my computer by half past seven and the television didn't even get switched on.

On the other hand, it's less than a week until the winter solstice and the urge to hibernate is quite strong. This morning it was still dark enough for cars to need headlights at half past eight; the weather forecast for the next few days isn't that great, either, with a blast of cold air expected to sweep down the country from the north.


Colonel Douglas Wheelock has been taking photos while he's been at work. As his office for the three months from September to November this year has been in low Earth orbit, his photos are rather more awe-inspiring than most.


I've often noticed that if I have to read a word over and over again, my brain first decides that it's spelt incorrectly and then moves on to denying that it's a real word at all. It's a relief to find out I'm not the only one this happens to. In fact, it was first described in a psychology context as long ago as 1915, by Dr Edward Tichener. I was intrigued to discover that the condition is common enough for it to have acquired a couple of names since then: verbal satiation or semantic satiation.

I find stuff like this fascinating; is that weird? And did I spell "weird" correctly? Does that look right to you?


Last week, Jodrell Bank tweeted that they'd received multiple reports of a bright fireball sighted over NW England. The Geminid meteor shower this year is already shaping up to be a good one, with Astronomy Picture of the Day regular Wally Pacholka providing a glorious photo from last year's show at the weekend.

However, as the folks as NASA explain, the Geminids are not your average meteor shower, because they appear to come from a small rocky asteroid rather than an icy comet. The usual processes for generating the dust trail - normally caused when the ice and frozen carbon dioxide that makes up most of a comet's mass boil away as it approaches the sun and warms up - don't work on solid rock.


On a (slightly) related theme, Charlie Stross has an interesting take on why everything, in his words, is going to hell in a handbasket: it's because - well, read Charlie's blog and find out for yourself.


ThinkGeek are selling a 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith action figure (with "zero points of articulation"). I want one.


No updates in a week, blimey. It's because I've been feeling distinctly below par. For the last couple of days it's actually been painful to move and I have spent most of the last 48 hours in bed, oscillating between shivering with cold or drenched in sweat. However, I feel a little better today, so I hope that means I'm through the worst of it.

You'd think the weather would kill off bugs like this, wouldn't you? The temperature dropped to -9.2°C one night last week. We've not had snow, although it looks like that could change by the weekend. I'm supposed to be going to London to see The War of The Worlds with my brother on Saturday and I really hope the snowpocalypse doesn't return.


As you may have seen on my Twitter feed, there was a typically eccentric interview with Lemmy in the Guardian a few days ago where he talked about food. Lemmy's never been one for healthy living and the only vegetables he eats are potatoes, green beans and mushy peas. Once again, I found myself marvelling at the fact that he's still going.

I like mushy peas too, but I'm not altogether sure they count as part of your recommended five daily helpings of vegetables - they're more like a strange artificial green gloop developed in some mad scientist's laboratory and they contain far more sugar, salt and sodium bicarbonate than your average serving of greens. The orange juice that I drink every day also contains far more sugars than freshly squeezed stuff does. In some respects, my lifestyle's no better than Lemmy's.


I haven't really felt the need to comment on the whole Wikileaks affair because to be honest Clay Shirky has said everything much better than I could, particularly this:

"When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want."

But after watching increasingly dismal news reports over the last few days and realising that governments are more interested in fighting a war on photography and a war on education than they are in fighting a war to maintain human rights or privacy, I've decided that I want to live in Iceland.


Some friends said it was -9°C where they live last night. It wasn't quite as bad where I was, but last night's temperature dropped to a distinctly frigid -7.5°C. When I discovered that fact this morning after stumbling out of bed, I was very tempted to climb back under the duvet and go back to sleep. We're only a couple of weeks of the winter solstice; it's dark when I leave for work and it's dark when I get home, and I'm really missing the daylight. Although it hasn't been snowing here in the West Country, everything's reduced to differing shades of white. The roofs and the trees are covered in accumulated hoar frost that looks quite spectacular. Driving home through the fog yesterday felt like being in some 1950s film noir. The visibility was pretty bad and there was no colour to be seen out there at all. When I got home tonight the temperature had already dropped to -4.5°C and the weather forecast for the next 30 days doesn't give much hope of things warming up.


I did some more driving when I got home last night - trying out a Logitech Force GT steering wheel on the PS3 with Gran Turismo 5. It was fun, but any dreams of suddenly becoming a much better driver rapidly disappeared. Although the wheel gives me much more precision over the steering I really struggled with using pedals for accelerating and braking. I can't switch from one to the other as fast as I can manage with the standard PS3 controller. The force feedback is also taking a bit of getting used to so I think it's going to take large amounts of practice before I'm ready to race properly. So bring on the arcade mode!

Rather than getting frustrated with the thing, I put it away and watching Inception on Blu-Ray instead. I'd ordered the special edition box set (the one that comes with its own carrying case) and it arrived yesterday. I don't often buy the top-line releases of films - I think the last one I splurged on was the Blade Runner tin box - but Inception is an exceptional film. As I mentioned when I blogged about the movie last summer I was keen to find out how it was made, and the special features don't disappoint - you get a very informative set of extras. They cover the extraordinary lengths that Christopher Nolan and his team went to in getting most of the movie's more spectacular events to happen "in camera" - events that actually happen while the actors are on the set rather than being added through digital trickery weeks or months afterwards. There's also a documentary about dreams presented by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a full complement of trailers and TV spots, a 5.1 surround mix of almost the entire soundtrack and a selection of concept art, but most importantly of all, there's this...

Am I dreaming?

Now that's seriously geeky. I approve.


I've discovered that I can only use the FTP server where all my blog files are stored if I'm using an ID Net IP address, which is a bit of a drag. It's meant that all the updates I've written this week will have to wait until I get home before they can be uploaded.


I was right about the rain - we got quite a bit last night and it's taken the snow off most of the trees, even if there's still a lot on the ground. It's also a lot warmer outside and there is water dripping off the gutters as the thaw begins. So I'm going to pack up the netbook in a little while and head down to the car with my stuff. Let's see if I can get home today!


And I'm home. I had to reverse the car out of the snow where I'd left it to get it back on to the main road. It was still too slippery to turn round, but once I was back on clear tarmac I was fine. The trip back really brought home how localised the bad weather had been. There was a foot of snow by the side of the road as I joined the M25 at junction 4, but by the time I'd got round to junction 10 where the A3 heads off to Guildford there was no snow to be seen. So now the car's back in the garage, the heating's on, and the house is warming up. It's good to be home.


I'm still at my brother's house. South east London and Kent have had one of the heaviest falls of snow Kent has seen for years. I can't remember ever seeing it this bad around here. The kids built an igloo in the back garden last night!

In need of some attention

The rail network has been unable to cope and the news stories have been featuring Orpington Station quite prominently, as several train loads of passengers were stuck there overnight. Given the ordeals that some people have been talking about on the news, it sounds like I got off pretty lightly. Even so, just getting outside is a challenge!

Not exactly snowed in, but...

I haven't made it to any of the events in London that I was hoping to go to this week, and I also missed the two events I was supposed to be attending in Bristol last night. I'll also miss tonight's office party, so this week's not really been one of my most successful ones.

December's here

On the plus side, though, I've enjoyed hanging out with Dave and his family, who have been looking after me very well. We've been sledging and I've been taking lots of photos, and last night Dave and his friends took me out for a spin in the Land Rover Discovery they bought a while ago. They've been having great fun with it - the off-road tyres and permanent four wheel drive let it cope with deep snow easily. Sadly my car does not fare so well in the snow and there's no way I'm risking taking it on the roads with the conditions around here like they are at present.

On the Sevenoaks Road


The weather is fascinating to me. I have been interested in all aspects of it since my parents bought me a copy of the Observer's book of Weather when I was a small child. Anyone growing up in the UK gets exposed to an extraordinarily varied climate and finding out what it's going to be like outside tomorrow is something of a national obsession. I listened to a documentary on Radio 4 about the weather forecast a couple of months ago, and it revealed that the primary reason people watch the news channels is to find out what the weather's going to be like.

So you would think, wouldn't you, that with the weather featuring so prominently on the news at the moment that the BBC would devote a little bit more time to the weather forecast? But no. For most of the last few days the forecast has been limited to just sixty seconds, and Philip Avery, Dan Corbett and his colleagues have barely got time to tell us what the weather's like now, let alone what it'll be like in three days' time. And that's when we get a weather forecast at all: several times over the last couple of days I tuned in to the BBC news channel and rather than the weather forecast, I found myself watching David Beckham stumbling his way through a press conference about the World Cup 2018 bid - a bid that the BBC's Panorama programme had already thoroughly scuppered last Monday.

When you consider that the weather is probably the element of the news that most directly affects people's lives, you'd think the BBC would let the Met Office have a bit more time each half hour to tell us about it. I find it particularly irksome that each forecast ends up with the presenter saying "there'll be more details in half an hour" when you know damn well that there won't be. The next forecast will be just as hurried, just as lacking in longer-term information, and just as unhelpful as the one you've just watched. Apparently BBC management don't like synoptic charts, as it "makes the weather too complicated" but I was pleased to see them in evidence several times today. The synoptic chart - showing isobars, warm and cold fronts and what have you - is the absolute heart of any serious weather forecast and avoiding using them is a prime example of the 'dumbing down' of television that gets grumpy old men like me muttering in their beards. Give me a couple of charts six hours apart and I can do a rough forecast on my own: it looks like a warm front is going to come across from the west tonight, raising temperatures slightly and bringing a band of rain to the south east. With any luck that'll improve conditions on the roads to the point that I can get home.

Keep your fingers crossed.


Yesterday, I'd planned on attending a talk at Foyles where Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker, was going to be talking about his new book, Listen To This. Simple, I thought. I'll drive over to my brother's place in Orpington, leave the car there, and catch the train into town. No problem, right?


The seven hour slog

The trip was pretty routine for most of the way, and I covered the first 140 miles or so in just over two hours. Even the first stretch of the M25 down to the M3 junction wasn't anything worse than you'd get on a normal weekday. But then the weather started to deteriorate, and the traffic got slower, and slower. The travel news on the radio started talking about long tailbacks heading up towards the Dartford crossing and heavy snow falling in Kent and south east London. So, with just ten miles of the journey left, I decided I'd come off the motorway and cut through Westerham and Biggin Hill instead. I got to Biggin Hill Airport and joined the back of a stationary queue of traffic. In the next hour and a half I crawled forwards about four hundred yards. Several snowploughs went past in the opposite direction so eventually I decided to turn round and follow them back down to Westerham to try a different route. I made it to Sevenoaks without a problem, then headed up the A224 to Knockholt where I'd planned on joining the A21. But the A21 was jammed solid, and I sat there for the next three hours watching the snow building up on the roads and my windscreen and gingerly picking my way along streets that had become covered in sheet ice. It was not pleasant - the 350Z is not designed for this sort of weather and anything more than light pressure on the accelerator resulted in the thing lurching sideways, which is not what you want to happen when you're in heavy traffic.

By the time the jam on the A21 cleared and I turned off on to the A223, I could see that the side roads were impassable. I had a stretch of about 400 yards where the traffic was flowing, then I joined the end of another queue. With half a mile to go I had had enough. I was tired, hot and stressed, so I pulled off the road and parked up as best I could, then walked the rest of the way to Dave and Cathy's house. By the time I got there, it was more than seven hours after I'd set off and I'd already missed Mr Ross's talk.

Finally made it

By that time I was just glad to be somewhere warm and dry. My brother had phoned me at half past four as he left his office in Croydon; with no buses running he caught a train into London and was planning on catching another one from London Bridge to Orpington. He'd joked about walking down the road to come and find me on the A21, but instead the rail network ground to a halt and he got no further than Lewisham on the train. There were no buses running. He had to walk the last ten miles home and got in even later than I did, at just before ten o'clock at night. The roads, he told me, were still gridlocked.

The weather forecast is suggesting there isn't going to be any significant change for the next couple of days, so it looks like I'm going to be staying here a bit longer than I thought. I'm glad I brought my netbook with me!