A Further Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: December 2013

I don't think I've ever been as tired going into a Christmas break as I was this year. By the time Christmas Eve came round I was shattered and in dire need of a relaxing and restorative holiday. Fortunately for me, I got one.


I continue to bring you Michael Palin-related posts by mentioning yesterday's edition of Radio 4's The Today Programme, in which he acted as guest editor. The highlight was the shipping forecast, which was read by Alan Bennett, although I was disappointed to find out that it was not the real forecast but an old one from back in October. Like Mr Palin, Alan Bennett has one of those voices that I could quite happily listen to reading anything, but the shipping forecast is a particularly suitable choice. Oh, that this could be made a permanent arrangement.


It's a damp morning on New Year's Eve and the season of goodwill appears to be over. Yesterday Dad complained at length - and I mean at length - over the inability of the BBC to get the date of Twefth Night correct. He has spent most of our conversations this morning describing every other person in the news as "an idiot" and dismissing vast swathes of culture - some of which I'm quite fond of - as "rubbish". It's not something you can discuss or challenge, of course, because he's right and I'm wrong. And "of course" has become his favourite phrase, I've noticed; presumably because he thinks it's self-evident to everyone else that what he's saying is unquestionably correct. After all, it stands to reason that if he thinks that's the way things are, it must be true (Dad has yet to grasp the idea that opinions are just interpretations of reality rather than being cast-iron judgements on the true nature of things, and the idea that someone else's point of view is as valid as his own is rejected out of hand).

When he gets like this, Dad can make the pronouncements of the Tea Party look sane and rational (and as an aside, the funniest article I've read all Christmas has to be the Rolling Stone's piece on how the GOP has declared war on itself - good luck with that). When he's in this sort of mood, the atmosphere in the house is sour and unpleasant and now that he's on his own, the days where I'd just grit my teeth and bear it for Mum's sake are over. So that's it. I've had enough. I'll be heading over to see my sister this afternoon, and then I'll be heading back to the West Country. The weather seems to be heading for a comparatively quiet spot for the rest of the day where it's just mildly unpleasant rather than foul, so it makes sense to travel now rather than later in the week. I suspect the motorways may be quieter this evening, too; everybody will be inside, drinking heavily and watching Jools Holland.


I'm sitting at the table in the dining room at my Father's house in Norfolk while the trees outside thrash about in the wind. It's been raining since about ten o'clock this morning and from the look of the weather forecast it's not going to get much better outside until next year. Today is the sort of day that needs a fire going so you can sit in front of it and feel pleased that you don't have to be anywhere else. Except that doesn't seem to be on the cards, as I shall explain in a moment.

I got here yesterday evening after a very nice party in Leicestershire which I attended with Rebecca, the Twins, and their Grandmother. It was quite an event. When someone discovered I used to work at Bletchley Park I was introduced to Gwen Page, who also worked there - but she worked there in the 1940s as a codebreaker and has edited several books of reminiscences by WRENs and others about their days there. It was fascinating talking to her.

The others headed back west to Solihull at around 5 and I headed east, striking out to the A47 and on to Peterborough, Wisbech and Kings Lynn. Not too many HGVs on the roads, but there was a surprising amount of traffic. The drive wasn't too bad. The stars were out, and the weather was surprisingly calm. As I drove up the A148 from Kings Lynn I saw a muntjac deer at the side of the road, watching me go by. No barn owls in evidence, though.

Last night I ended up watching Michael Palin's documentary about the American painter Andrew Wyeth on BBC2. Just about the only thing I've read so far during the holidays has been Palin's diaries, and I couldn't miss the opportunity to see what he's up to these days. It was a fascinating programme and I was very impressed by Wyeth's work - he's not a painter I was familiar with. He painted using egg tempura, a technique invented as far back as the 14th century where pigment is mixed with fresh egg yolk before it is applied to the canvas. It dries rapidly and required him to work extremely quickly. You'd never have guessed it from his work, which is saturated with intricate detail. Wyeth was quite a joker, by all accounts, and I can see why Palin was moved to make a film about a man who, for instance, crept into his neighbours' houses and painted portraits of them as they slept. They retaliated by placing mannequins in their beds as decoys and hiding when they heard Wyeth's car approach. It all sounded very eccentric.

Dad is noticeably less on the ball than he was the last time I was here. When he's not reciting one of his habitual speeches (about politics, or the pointlessness of building wind farms when it's a calm day, or the performance of his car) he struggles to remember words, and when I arrived we had one conversation three times within twenty minutes. He then spent an hour complaining about the mess the house was in after my brother and his family had slogged up from Orpington to spend a day with him so he could see his grandchildren. He wasn't even remotely grateful that they'd made the effort to come and see him. With the exception of the bathroom, which has been a mess for at least three years, the house looked fine.

Miffy, I was told, was on her last legs and he was planning on taking her to the vet in the morning because she could no longer walk and he was having to feed her by hand. Miffy immediately gave the lie to this particular snippet of information by getting up and walking to the front door so she could be let out into the garden. When she came back in, it was at full tilt, and she cleared both doorsteps in a single leap. If she could have winked at me as she hurtled past, I think she would have done so.

So far this morning I've cleaned out a bunch of food from the fridge; the bread that Dad suggested I have for breakfast (well, 'suggested' implies a certain level of politeness that wasn't actually there; 'told' would be closer to the truth) was mouldy. He bought a Christmas pudding for us to eat tonight, but when I checked I discovered that he'd bought sachets of white fish sauce to go with it. The last time he did this, the rest of us didn't find out until he served the pudding. It was an interesting taste experience, and I learned my lesson well. Now, I check before he makes the sauce. We'll be having cream instead, I think.

I've cleaned the oven, as the sheet of tinfoil that Dad leaves in the bottom of the grill pan was covered in carbonised food and baked on to the metal underneath. This has ended up being something I do every time I visit and I suspect that these days he leaves it because he knows someone else will eventually clean it for him. The bathroom still needs the attention of a plumber and I have no idea what he's done with the panel off the side of the bath, but Dad continues to insist that the dampness in one corner is "just condensation" and to be honest I've given up arguing with him. Once he's decided on something, it's pointless trying to convince him otherwise. I've cleared the fire he had last week out of the grate, and laid a new one; I've brought some logs in from the store outside the back door, but the tarpaulin that should be protecting them from the rain is in shreds and the wood is soaked. Rather than doing anything about it, Dad has left it like that, because "I don't need a fire" - despite the fact that when his central heating system packed up last week, he most emphatically did need one. So it goes. After lunch I'll put away the camp bed in the guest room, do a batch of laundry, and generally bring the house back to an even keel. Meanwhile, the wind continues to roar through the trees and somehow I don't think I'll be going for a walk on the shingle bank this afternoon.


It's noticeably colder today, although the sun is streaming through the windows and there is a beautiful blue sky out there. It's a calmer day outside, too. Quite a change from yesterday, when we were being buffeted by the wind as we made our way back to Solihull up the M40. Despite the blustery conditions, we counted 29 red kites soaring over the trees and fields at the side of the motorway. Everything coming the other way had its headlights on despite it being the middle of the afternoon and the sky in front went from cloudy, to grey, to threatening gloom. Just before we got to the M42 we drove through a hailstorm.

The weather looks as if it's set to continue in an unsettled fashion for the next few days. That won't help matters further south, where the ground is already saturated. Thousands of trees have come down in the strong winds. We saw a lot of flooding as we drove through Surrey and Sussex, and a lot of villages have been clobbered. Meanwhile, despite cutting flood defence spending by as much as 27% David Cameron was telling the press yesterday that he was making it "a bigger priority for the Government". He was touring storm-hit villages in Kent and being heckled by disgruntled residents. He's either losing touch with reality, or lying; neither is desirable behaviour for a Prime Minister, is it?


This morning while Ruth and her Grandma played Rummikub I have been sitting here trying to speed up my laptop, which now takes five minutes to boot up. I eventually resorted to downloading and running a useful little utility called CCleaner, which has removed a large number of obsolete entries from the machine's registry and identified a number of things that were left over from software that I uninstalled months ago. I also used the reset feature on Firefox to remove some of the crap that it's accumulated over the last eighteen months with over a dozen new releases being introduced. In doing so, I discovered Firefox's health report page, which is full of statistics that appeal strongly to my nerdish tendencies. I can see myself checking that regularly in the coming weeks. Finally, I downloaded the latest release of IrfanView, which is probably the best image viewing software for Windows that there is.

Tomorrow I head east, for a party in the village of Stockerston in Leicestershire and then on to Dad's place in Norfolk. I hope I'll get there before the next batch of stormy weather arrives.


I got some super Christmas presents this year, including a number of books that I am really looking forwards to reading. Rebecca got me David McCandless's gorgeous book Information is Beautiful, which is the sort of work I want to (and will) pore over with a magnifying glass. David and Cathy got me Simon Singh's latest book on the Mathematics of the Simpsons. The twins got me all sorts of goodies including sloe gin and habanero BBQ sauce and I have received a number of very nice bottles of booze. My "stocking filler" presents were much appreciated too, particularly the hot water bottle, which will come in very useful!

But sitting in the back of the car as we journeyed across the country over the last two days I have been working my way through someone else's book. I've been reading Rob's copy of Michael Palin's diaries (1969 to 1979) and becoming engrossed in reports of the evolution of Monty Python and descriptions of frequent returns to the Palin childhood home of Southwold on the Suffolk coast, a favourite haunt of mine since the 1970s. In amongst the accounts of the three-week run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the filming of Holy Grail there are descriptions of everyday life, which carried on to a backdrop of IRA bombings, the fuel crisis, the three day week and rolling power cuts. Palin's description of life in Britain at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s makes it sound like another world, even though I was there when it happened. As a schoolboy I would have focused on a very different selection of events from the thirty-something graduate who was making a fine career for himself as a comedian, writer and actor. I wasn't old enough to drive, so fuel rationing would have pretty much passed me by. Before 1975 I'd never been to London; I lived in Stafford, where even a trip down to Birmingham was something extraordinary.

The Michael Palin in the diaries comes across much as he does on his TV programmes - easy-going, affable, and very sharp-witted. The mentions of incidental characters who crop up are particularly fascinating. A passing footnote early on identifies Douglas Adams, who meets up with the team at Exeter in 1974 after being invited to assist in the writing by Graham Chapman. Chapman had asked Adams to work with him in developing the musical Son of Dracula and they obviously found the results productive. From then on, DNA then crops up regularly as a sort of honorary Python. The names of people who are mentioned get more and more noteworthy as time goes by; Palin's record of his life gradually changes from delight at meeting Irene Handl at the BBC to going to a party in New York where he was introduced to Andy Warhol and got to watch Leonard Bernstein being cajoled into playing the piano.

After reading just how Monty Python's Flying Circus came into being, I think when I get home I will dig out my box set of the TV series and watch a few episodes.


After an extremely pleasant evening yesterday in West Sussex I'm back in Solihull, sitting at the kitchen table with a pint of Wickwar BOB and clattering away on the laptop keyboard while three generations of Rebecca's family watch the repeat of Downton in the front room. It's not really my thing; I understand why Downton has become the phenomenon that it is, and the production values in evidence are of a high standard, but I struggle to engage with costume dramas and have done ever since the days of "Upstairs Downstairs". And for some reason whenever I hear anyone discussing the latest happenings in Downton, my first thought is always of the haulage company whose lorries I pass on the motorway in the mornings (they have a distribution centre up the road in Gloucester). I find myself wondering why logistics holds such intense fascination for people before remembering that the TV show is about something else entirely. So I am taking refuge in the kitchen. From the sounds of things, the current episode is taking place at a grand ball and the cast have been dancing to the same Strauss waltz for the last twenty minutes or so. Stanley Kubrick used the same music to show a spacecraft fly up to earth orbit and dock with a space station in less time than that. And I just discovered that it's forty eight years ago this week since Stanley began principal photography on the movie at Stage H in Shepperton Studios. At which point I'll just mention that one of the directors of Shepperton in the 70s was Michael Palin...

It's been a very relaxing few days, although I ate and drank far too much on Tuesday and Wednesday. Christmas Eve included the consumption of my own weight in cheese washed down by some very nice port. With cutting down the amount I normally eat and drink, my stomach has shrunk and I can't consume the quantities I used to. It all caught up with me on Wednesday night, when I was spectacularly ill for a couple of hours. I've been taking things much more sensibly since then. The food has been excellent and I'm being looked after very well.


The only television I've watched so far this holiday has been the news (mainly storm coverage) and Mark Gatiss's faithful adaptation of Montague Rhodes James's The Tractate Middoth on BBC2 on Christmas Day. That was beautifully shot and most enjoyable, but after reading the Wikipedia entry I'm left wondering how someone as avuncular as Leslie Nielson could have conveyed the insidious terror that slowly grips the story's intrepid librarian; the star of Forbidden Planet and The Naked Gun performed the role on American television in the 1950s. Sacha Dhawan did a fine job in the role of Garrett in the new version; he was also very good as Doctor Who director Waris Hussein in last month's An Adventure in Space and Time, which was directed by Gatiss.

The documentary about M R James that followed was also interesting, if somewhat shallow. How did the Dean of King's College Cambridge understand the nature of fear so comprehensively? What motivated him to write such chilling stories when, by all accounts, he had an adult life that was steeped in privilege and a childhood that bordered on the idyllic? I realise that it's difficult to carry out psychoanalysis on someone who has been dead for the best part of a century, but the principal suggestion that he was probably gay and terrified of spiders didn't really explain anything and was disappointingly glib.


I'm on holiday. In fact, I'm on holiday for the next two weeks. All the presents are wrapped, and all the Christmas supplies have been gathered. The house is looking unusually tidy; when I brought the last batch of shopping in through the back door yesterday afternoon, the weather was so bad that I had to mop the kitchen floor afterwards. That led to a stint of festive cleaning. The bins are emptied. The laundry and the ironing are done. This morning, as it begins to rain once again, I'm preparing to head off for a few days. I am about to load the car up with laptop, cameras, presents, and ridiculous quantities of beer, wine and fizz. Whatever you're getting up to this Christmas, stay safe, warm and dry and enjoy yourself.


I started today by reading some good news, even if it was long overdue and much too late to be any benefit to the person concerned: Alan Turing has finally been granted a posthumous royal pardon. I worked at Bletchley Park when it was a BT training school back in the 90s and even then it was clear just how important he had been to the war effort. The way he was treated was scandalous.


If you're on Facebook, you've probably seen a link to a piece of video this week that begins with someone saying, "Hit it, Joe!" It's a clip from the TV show California's Gold, presented by Huell Howser, that has gone viral in a big way. Here's the full version of that video from 2009, with an introduction by Mr Howser himself...

Isn't that great? When I saw this, I had to investigate, of course. After a few minutes I found out that "Joe" is Joe Rinaudo, president of Rinaudo's Reproductions in Montrose, California (north of LA, just past Glendale) and the instrument he's playing is a modified 1926 Fotoplayer (Style 20) built by the American Photo Player Company of Berkeley, CA. I'll let Joe give you a guided tour of his wonderful machine in his own inimitable style:

The instrument is built around a piano, with the keyboard also driving a number of different organ pipes. It can be played manually, but it also has the ability to play back piano rolls that are prepared in advance. That frees up the performer to make use of the bewildering array of additional instruments in the cabinet to the right of the keyboard: gongs, chimes, drums, car horns, cymbals, whistles, sirens and more. This bizarre selection is provided because photo player machines like this were designed to provide musical accompaniment for silent movies. It occurs to me that this "one guy does everything" approach to music is the 1926 equivalent of my Korg M3...

The amazing thing for me is that with no microprocessors and no electronics other than motors to drive the air pumps, everything on the Fotoplayer was achieved mechanically! If you skip to the YouTube page for the video, you'll find links to lots of other performances by Joe on the Fotoplayer, like this one...

I was sorry to discover that Huell Howser died in January this year. His show ran from 1994 until 2012 and was obviously well-loved; when you get referenced not once, but several times on The Simpsons you know you're on to something. Thanks for brightening up my day, Mr H.


It's the winter solstice at 17:11 this afternoon. That's when the Sun reaches the lowest point in the sky for the year and it marks the first day of winter if you're using the astronomical calendar; for meteorologists, winter started on the first of this month, while for the Chinese it started in November and for Scandinavians it started way back on October 14th.

The word solstice comes from the Latin noun Sol (the Sun) and the verb sistere (to stand still) - in other words, it's the day when the maximum daily declination of the Sun stops decreasing; from tomorrow, the highest point that the Sun reaches during the day will be a little higher than the point it reached today. The location of that "highest point in the sky" for the Sun doesn't just move up and down through the year - it describes a beautiful figure-of-eight shape that is called an analemma. Today, the Sun is right at the bottom of that figure-of-eight. From tomorrow, the amount of daylight we get each day starts to get longer again.

The winter solstice is not the point when the Earth is furthest away from the Sun in its orbit. That point is the Earth's aphelion, and you may be surprised to learn that this occurs during the northern hemisphere's summer next year on July 4th.

The internet being what it is, there are all sorts of pages whose authors obviously haven't a clue what these terms mean and - for example - claim that there's a solstice in November. I discovered quite a few of them this morning as I put today's blog together. And no, I'm not going to link to them; stupidity on the net gets enough coverage as it is.


I'm really looking forwards to the Christmas break. I'm stressed, tired, and depressed and I'm currently staring down the wrong end of the mother of all sleep deficits. I wake up several times a night ruminating about one thing or another. My dreams have been full of anxieties and panics; I start each working day miserable and finish it angry. I hope I can regain a sense of perspective over the next couple of weeks, because right now I'm not doing too well. The subconscious can be a real bastard at these times, it seems: it's always ready to twist the knife, as it were. Twice this week I've dreamt about my former partner and last night I literally woke up in a cold sweat. On one level or another I'm still screwed up by events that happened nearly twenty years ago, and it amazes me just how much damage they did. I'm beginning to think that the damage is permanent. It's crazy, because I have so much to be grateful for in my life. Aside from work, which could be better, things are good right now. If I could get a few good nights' sleep under my belt, I'm sure I'd realise that. I'm really glad I'm staying with close friends this Christmas, because I know they'll pull me out of the funk I'm currently in. And judging by the amount of drink I'll be taking with me, it's going to be epic.


It's been an exceptional week for schadenfreude on the internet. An idiot posted something offensive on Twitter. It turns out not to have been a good idea. Over on planet Fox, one idiot who has been making offensive comments has been placed on "indefinite hiatus" even though another is still in her job. As it's Fox, I just can't bring myself to link to the stories concerned; just Google Phil Robertson or Megyn Kelly and you'll soon figure it out.

But the story that has just kept on giving is that of the actor Shia LaBoeuf. Boy, did the web get his number this week.


Wally Pfister has been Christopher Nolan's cinematographer of choice for years and he has an eye for extraordinary images. His work as DP on Inception in particular is stunning. Now he's taken on directorial duties for the first time, and the trailer for his movie about artificial intelligence, Transcendence, popped up today. It may give away a fair chunk of the plot, but my goodness me it looks amazing.


I've just been recording some audio for a project at work, pretending to be aircraft groundcrew responding to an intercom check. This involved making a lovely, high fidelity recording of my voice and then brutally EQ-ing it and throwing it through a downsampler, then adding a loop of random circuit noise over the top of it to muddy the mix even further.

Which was all fine, apart from the fact that when I stood up after I'd finished, I smacked my head on the bed (the studio doubles as a guest bedroom). There was no blood, but it didn't half hurt. One day, I shall have a dedicated room for all my music gear. One day...


After smacking myself on the head I managed to stab myself in the thumb with a knife when I did the washing up. I can take a hint. I'm off to bed to read a book.


The tree has been reassembled and appears to have survived another year in the loft without disintegrating. The lights still work, too!

It's that time again

I think I'll keep the decorations fairly low-key this year. I know I'm being a bit of a humbug but it's such a faff putting up strings of lights and tinsel and stuff. And since I cleared up the living room I prefer it not being as cluttered. (Yes, the picture above does show the room in a relatively uncluttered state. What do you mean, "really?")

Incidentally, I noticed when I visited Flickr to grab the image above just now that Yahoo are putting the site through another redesign. The landing page is still a mess of tiled pictures, but the pages for individual photos are much better than the last "improvement". I still wish they'd bring the old site back; at least that one had been designed by somebody who understood what Flickr is actually for.


I seem to be going through a phase of replacing household items at the moment. Last week it was my iron that gave up the ghost, this week it's my land line phone that's expired. If I'm allowed to anthropomorphize a bit, I reckon it's sulking because I bought an iPhone. Even with fresh batteries, the handsets don't hold charge, they lose track of the base station, or just sit there, beeping forlornly. As is always the way, the guarantee has only just expired, too. Philips, I'm not impressed.


Yesterday I finally got round to firing up the PVR and watching the BBC documentary Comet of the Century. Christ, what a mess it turned out to be. I know I'm speaking with hindsight, as the programme was made well before ISON disintegrated at perihelion, but the tedious hyperbole about how amazing Comet ISON was going to look in our night skies would have been embarrassing even if the comet had survived. There was lots of wobbly camerawork and violent panning to make the spectacle of a couple of scientists looking at computer monitors edgy and dramatic. Ugh.

There were so many vapid, unjustified assertions and factual errors in the first ten minutes that I eventually stopped playback and hit delete. I remember when episodes of Horizon were written by people with a scientific background. Those days are long gone, obviously.


Yeah, I know - I'm not in the best of moods this morning. As usual I slept badly and I'm a mass of aches and pains this morning: my shoulders, elbows, and lower back are all complaining. This may have had something to do with lugging a suitcase full of Christmas decorations down the stairs yesterday, or it might just be advancing decrepitude. I feel slightly better since I had my breakfast mug of coffee, but I'm still feeling rather below par. I've got six more working days until the Christmas break, and I'm really, really looking forwards to some time off. Actually, I'd be happy with a couple of decent nights' sleep.


I woke up at 3:30 this morning but instead of turning over and trying to get back to sleep, I got up and opened the curtains and spent a while watching the skies for Geminids. In less than twenty minutes I saw five really bright ones - they had to be, as they were competing with moonlight and a thin layer of altostratus. Okay, this was nowhere near the predicted peak rate of 100 to 120 meteors per hour, but they were still an impressive sight. The Geminids are an unusual meteor shower because unlike most regular showers which come from icy comets, the Geminids are associated with a rocky asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. Phaethon is about 5 kilometres in diameter and its orbit takes it to less than 21 million kilometres from the sun. That's about half the distance of Mercury's orbit, and the intense heating cracks and stresses the rock so much that bits of it shatter. The asteroid's gravity isn't strong enough for these to fall back down to its surface, so Phaethon leaves a dust tail. Those bits and pieces that flake off continue along Phaethon's orbit and some of them end up falling into the Earth's atmosphere, where they end up as meteors as some did last night. After they travelled millions, perhaps billions of kilometres around the sun before putting on the show, it was the least I could do to get up and watch.


The recommended maximum intake of alcohol for an adult male in a week is 21 units. A unit here is defined as 10 millilitres of alcohol, so 21 units is the equivalent of a couple of bottles of wine, or ten pints of bitter. Graham Johnson of the Royal Derby Hospital and Indra Neil Guha and Patrick Davies of Nottingham University Hospital have read through all of Ian Fleming's novels and charted James Bond's drinking. As they put it in the latest edition of the British Medical Journal, "We examined Bond’s alcohol consumption to determine whether he might have been unable to stir his drinks because of the persistent shaking of alcohol induced tremor, making it more socially acceptable to ask for his drinks 'shaken, not stirred'.”

Bond's alcohol habit is spectacular. The doctors found that he goes on a 50-unit bender in a single day in 'From Russia With Love' but his consumption "peaks at 132 units (of alcohol) a week in 'You Only Live Twice' (1964)." Bond, the doctors conclude, is "at serious risk of injury or death because of his drinking." Then again, as Gordon Stanger revealed in the New Scientist, when someone or other has tried to shoot you at least 4,662 times and kill you by other means at least 130 times during your career you're probably going to need a stiff drink or two by the end of the working day...

I love the article's final ethical statement, too:

Ethical approval: The impact of this study on fictional British spies was thought to be minimal and therefore ethical approval was not sought for this study. No consent has been sought from the Commander Bond chronicled in the original Ian Fleming novels. The barrier to this chiefly being his fictional nature meaning he is unable to give valid consent.


As you may have noticed in the links at the top of my current blog page, I now have a Tumblr. The plan is that I'll be using it to post illustrations and drawings that I've done over the years. There's not much on it at the moment, but that will change over time. This week, I acquired a Pilot 'Penmanship' extra-fine fountain pen from those very nice people at Cult Pens. It's an insanely good nib for a pen that costs less than a tenner, and this weekend I intend to sit in the conservatory and do some drawing with it to try it out.

COLIN WILSON 1931 - 2013

Few writers have had such an effect on me as Colin Wilson, who died on the 5th December at the age of 82. His debut work The Outsider (published in 1956) is a reflection on the role of the outsider or outcast in society, and it's as much an existentialist thesis as it is a work of literature. The first time I read it, I was struck by his incredible writing style. There are no glosses in Wilson's work. Rather, he explores a subject in encyclopedic depth and every chapter is riddled with footnotes and dozens of endnotes documenting his references. In the 1960s Wilson turned his considerable attention to the paranormal and the occult with the same attention to detail and a prodigious appetite for research. The result was a string of books on the subject that I still go back to every few years as a mind-expanding treat. Needless to say, these densely-packed works were treasure troves for me when I was in my teens and my twenties. I shared my enthusiasm for these books with anyone I could; I've had to buy The Occult: A History several times after lending it to people who never gave it back.

Wilson's output was considerably more wide-ranging than ghosts, UFOs and life after death, however. He was as competent writing about Jorge Luis Borges and J R R Tolkein as he was Aleister Crowley or Gurdjieff; he interviewed the film director Ken Russell; he wrote several books on criminology.

Sadly, Colin Wilson is likely to be best remembered for his novel The Space Vampires, written after he wrote a somewhat scathing review of H P Lovecraft's work and was challenged to do better by August Derleth, Lovecraft's publisher. The book was eventually picked up by Hollywood and you probably know the result if you're above a certain age; it was Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, a distinctively odd film in which its principal star, Mathilda May is completely naked almost every time she appears on screen but which also boasts extraordinary performances from Frank Finlay (who chews the scenery like there's no tomorrow) and Patrick Stewart (who rates Hooper as his favourite director to work with). There are also appearances from Nicholas "Hazell" Ball and Mick Jagger's brother Chris. The film has quite a reputation amongst the "so bad it's good" film community and yet Wilson was responsible for many finer things. For all of those things, Mr Wilson has my considerable gratitude.


Gran Turismo 6 is out, and I got my copy on Friday, which was release day. There are noticeable improvements on GT5 but like its predecessor I had to download an enormous update - all 1.2 Gigabytes of it - before I could actually play the game on Friday evening.

A lot of the features of GT5 have fallen by the wayside: there are no B-licence races where you direct a computer driver through a race career. There's no GT-TV, no second-hand car market, and no museum. I know GT5 expanded in the months after it was released, so perhaps they'll return. But the rendering of shadows still has odd, distracting glitches and some of the car models could do with more attention to detail. The computer driver AI is still woefully poor. GT5's ridiculous "klonk" collision sound is still very much in evidence. And despite the otaku-level obsession with authenticity that the Polyphony team exhibited in miking up cars on a dynamometer to record the engine sound (as you can see in the game's opeing video), driving around in a Nissan 350Z or a 1300cc Mini in the game sounds nothing like driving around in the actual cars in real life.

But the menus are clean and quick to load, the race scenery is spectacular and the physics of actually driving the cars feels slightly tighter and more realistic than it did on GT5. And the section where you race an Apollo Lunar Rover across the surface of the Moon is hilarious fun to play. No doubt I'll be firing the game up again later on today.


I spent yesterday in Bristol with my cousin Janet. We used to do a Christmas shopping trip together every year but this was the first time in over a decade that we've managed to arrange one. I had a good time, and I think I have pretty much finished my present buying this year. I've got some nice bottles of booze for Christmas and after a visit to the Bristol branch of Foyles I have a good stack of books to read over the holiday. Every time I buy something in Foyles, the person behind the till says the same thing: "Oooh, good choice!" You don't get that on Amazon, do you?

We were walking into Cabot Circus at half past nine and I got home at half past three. I could really tell I'd beeen on my feet for most of the day but after having a coffee when I got in, I had a lousy night's sleep last night. This morning I was awake by six and it's only just gone nine o'clock in the morning. On the agenda today is the ironing I didn't manage to do during the week (I had to replace my steam iron as when I switched it on, I plunged the house into darkness - twice) and then I will get the Christmas decorations out of the loft, I think.


I've had my iPhone 3GS since July 2009 and while it's still on its original battery, it was getting a bit long in the tooth: it doesn't run iOS7 and it needs recharging every couple of days. So yesterday I caved in and got myself a new phone. Despite being very tempted to go down the Android route, I have stayed with both my current service provider and with Apple. It took me a couple of hours to sort out the new phone with all the logins and IDs from the old phone - apparently restoring the backup to the new handset doesn't actually include useful items like the passwords and IDs for the various email systems I use - but the new operating system is less irritating than I expected, the retina display is lovely, and the hardware is fast. I like it.


The cobalt-60 stolen in Mexico yesterday has been recovered less than two miles from where the robbery took place. Unfortunately for the thieves, they took the radiation source out of its shielded container before they abandoned it, which means that they are very likely to have picked up a large, possibly fatal dose of radiation. Mardonio Jiminez of the country's National Nuclear Security Commission was blunt: "They will eventually have to go to a hospital, and we'll be waiting for them." At least it looks like the clean-up operation will be a simple one.


It's been quite a nice day here today, but elsewhere it was more than a bit breezy. In Scotland, the peak gust measured in Inverness-shire was 142 mph, and in West Lothian a lorry driver died when his vehicle was blown over. Glasgow's Central Station had to be closed when debris blown about by the wind smashed the glass roof, and the whole of Scotland's rail network had closed down by 9am. Another man died in Nottinghamshire when he was hit by a falling tree. Along the North Wales coastline, there's been severe flooding and the weather has generally been causing mayhem. Tonight, the east coast is preparing for a big storm surge and the Thames Barrier at Woolwich is completely closed. I've just watched the manager of the Harbour Inn at Southwold being interviewed as he prepares for the worst; I've been visiting there for fish and chips (and the occasional pint) since the 1970s and the high water level from the floods of 1953 is still marked on the wall, just below the windowsills on the pub's first floor. The latest news from Wells on the North Norfolk coast appears to be that the surge is even bigger than was expected, and the main street in Blakeney (just a few miles from my father's house) is currently under water. I hope everyone in East Anglia and elsewhere stays safe and keeps away from the water.

But the underlying theme of this winter's storm has been a distinctly odd one: Trampolines. Lots of trampolines. I for one welcome our new bouncy overlords.


The BBC are reporting that medical equipment containing "radioactive material" has been stolen out of a Volkswagen truck in Mexico City. The material in question is cobalt-60, which emits high-energy gamma rays when it decays, hence its use for sterilising medical equipment and radiotherapy. This isn't the first time that something with a cobalt-60 source in it has gone astray; in other cases it's been sold off as scrap, made into pet food bowls or studded belts, or just plain mislaid, and it's nasty stuff - some of the previous incidents involved deaths.

The most notorious case of radioactive medical equipment being stolen occurred in Brazil in 1987. It led to two hundred and fifty people becoming seriously contaminated, and four of them died. Let's hope that the equipment in Mexico is recovered intact, and recovered quickly.


Comet ISON may have fizzled out as it approached the sun, but other comets are available. Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is of Comet Lovejoy, which is visible from the northern hemisphere before dawn, and it's a beauty.


Here is today's Doctor Who/Nintendo crossover item. You're welcome.


I had a rather nice surprise yesterday when I discovered that I don't actually have to book the car in for an MOT next week after all, as it was my previous car which had an MOT that expired in December. And just now I discovered two pairs of freshly laundered socks in the living room which I put down on Sunday morning after tidying up the laundry, and promptly forgot about completely. I've been having more than my share of senior moments in recent weeks, although I'm not yet at the stage of finding myself in a room wondering what it was I'd gone in there for. My typing has become atrocious. I just can't get used to the 'Natural' keyboard I've been using for the last six months and when I read back things I've typed, I can't believe how many mistakes there are. I am, it seems, losing the plot. I've more or less given up reading nonfiction books in the evenings, as I just can't sustain the concentration required to take anything in. After five o'clock in the afternoon, any form of coherent thought is a challenge.

I'm always the same at this time of the year; I'm tired and run down and more than ready for the Christmas break. Three weeks today it'll be Christmas Eve and I'll be on holiday, and I can hardly wait to unwind and - I hope - catch up on some quality sleep.


Good grief, it's December. Christmas is less than four weeks away, it's getting dark by four in the afternoon, and the temperature outside is dropping below freezing overnight on a regular basis. On Monday night the sensor in the back garden registered -4.0° C. When I walked into the living room this morning I was greeted by a collection of blinking clocks, so the power must have gone off overnight. It doesn't feel like the heating's been on, but that might just be because outside is dark and grey - a big change from yesterday's bright sunshine and blue skies. The leaves have almost all dropped off the magnolia now, and yesterday afternoon I filled up the wheely bin just from raking the front lawn. After that I made a big batch of winter stew for the freezer, and very nice it was too. I used lots of fresh vegetables; I need my vitamins. Friday's cold is now more irritating than debilitating, and I've got my voice back but I'm still sitting here sneezing at regular intervals.

This week I'll be heading into the loft to retrieve the Christmas decorations. Some years I don't get round to decorating the tree until a couple of days before Christmas Eve, but this year I feel like getting into the festive spirit in plenty of time. Some houses near me have had lights up for the best part of a week. But this year is going to be very different from recent years. I won't be spending Christmas at my Aunty Mary's, as sadly she died in October. I'm really going to miss travelling up to Freckleton Street in Lytham for Christmas Day as it's been part of my Christmas routine for the best part of two decades. But I won't be spending Christmas on my own. I'll be spending it with Rebecca and the twins. It's going to be great!


The older I get, the more I notice how public opinion is manipulated by the media and by the more devious and conniving of our politicians. In particular I've seen one technique used over and over again since the coalition government came into power, and that's something called the Overton Window. It's a technique that's closely related to a more well-known technique of psychological manipulation called framing in which the way that an issue is explained is used to manipulate your response to it. What do I mean by this? Look no further than this text-book approach from Peter Jay's excellent TV series, Yes Prime Minister:

Poor Bernard doesn't have a chance, does he? The Overton Window technique takes Sir Humphrey's approach a step further. The Overton Window is, if you like, a window on to the entire spectrum of social behaviour that is possible. Not all behaviour is tolerated, of course. Helping little old ladies across the street is acceptable; throwing them under a bus isn't. So the Overton Window defines the range of behaviors that are currently deemed socially acceptable. Sometimes, of course, what politicians want to happen lies outside that window. In these cases, the politicians decide that the window has to be moved.

One way of doing this is to make ludicrously offensive statements of intent that go against all concepts of public decency. There is, naturally, a public outcry against what they've suggested. So the politicians recant. That's not what they meant at all, they tell us. They revise their attitude towards more conventional behaviour - but purely by making the initial suggestion, they have shifted the Overton Window in the direction that they wanted it to move. It's particularly amusing to see American right-wing politicians and journalists complaining that liberals manipulate the public with this technique, as it's been a staple form of attack for the GOP since the Reagan years. I'm sure you can all think of at least one British politician who made dickish statements this week which most rational people would reject outright. Come to think of it, we have a surfeit of dickish politicians these days, so you can probably think of at least two. This is the technique they were using. And let's face it: if you think this an acceptable tool to use in public debate, you're a bit of a bastard.

The next time you encounter a news story where a politician is talking about a desired outcome, pay special attention to the way it was worded and you'll be able to spot where he or she is employing a framing effect to bias your thinking. They know that you're more likely to be swayed by an argument that emphasises negative results or effects rather than positive ones. And watch out, too, for the ridiculously offensive statements that are first made and than hastily changed because there was a "misunderstanding" of what was originally said. There will have been absolutely no misunderstanding at all, of course; more to the point, the politician concerned will have achieved his or her intended objective. It's the standard approach to debate these days, and it's profoundly depressing. Why else would the rest of the EU view the UK government as nasty?