Where No One Has Blogged Before

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: January 2005

January saw my internet usage go through the roof, closely followed by the number of hits I got on the website and the size of the month's blog entry.

I also began to beat my home network into some kind of shape, although there are still the occasional little wrinkles to be ironed out.


The voice in Ergo Phizmiz's piece of music on Friday's edition of Mixing It has been identified. It belongs to a woman called Florrie Fisher, and is part of a film called The Lonely Trip Back made in 1970 where she lectures a group of high school students about the dangers of drugs. She seems to have acquired a bit of a cult following: I discovered that there's even an American TV series called Strangers With Candy which is based on her character.

My thanks to the very helpful person who provided the information - none other than Ergo Phizmiz himself, who sent me an email. How cool is that?


And with good reason, it seems, as you're 20% more likely to have a heart attack or a stroke on a Monday. After the sort of day I've had, I can see why. I've had the sort of day that would persuade some people that there was a vast conspiracy afoot run by malign intelligences who just want to take over the world and subjugate the rest of mankind (as you do.) I was cheered up no end when a colleague pointed me in the direction of a website that documents the whole sorry situation. It's all true, I tell you: teaching correct pedestrian behaviour is just a ruse to enslave us all, and the squirrels are really out for world domination. What further proof do you require? The Green Cross Code man was really Darth Vader, after all!


These days, of course, pedestrians can take to the footpaths on wheels - if they have a Segway, that is. I've had a go on one, and they are remarkably easy to use: lean forwards to go, rock back to stop. Segway's latest product looks like even more fun: a four-wheel gizmo nicknamed the Centaur. But this isn't just a quad bike: as it's made by the Segway folks, it can rear up on its rear wheels in true HT style. Check out the slideshow to see it.

I'm not sure what use it would be, I just know I want one!


Well, it's the end of the month and as far as the folks at StatCounter can tell me, since the 9th I've had 449 unique visitors to the site. That's about eight times the figure I was expecting, so I'm quite chuffed. January was also my first month online with broadband, and I've done a lot more surfing as a result. Apart from the fact that I spend quite a lot of time in the evening sitting in front of the PC, I can tell I've been online more because this file is currently running at about 81Kb, which is by far the largest blog I've ever produced.


The folks over at CHUD have got the scoop on pictures of the cast from the film of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. All well and good, but I was disappointed to see that Zaphod Beeblebrox very definitely has the usual number of arms and heads. It doesn't matter how much frantic back-pedalling we see from the folks who made the movie in the weeks up until its release, because for me they've already lost it. Zaphod is supposed to have three arms, and two heads. And - strangely enough - people who meet him in this configuration notice the fact and comment on it. This is known all over the world: the Dutch know this; the Swedes are also aware of the facts. In fact everyone else knows it too - apart from Hollywood, and some parts of Canada, where Zaphod is believed to be a rock venue and nightclub.

For me, Sam Rockwell isn't going to be Zaphod unless they insert some extremely cool CGI before the film opens. I haven't even seen a trailer for the film yet and I'm already disappointed. That's not exactly promising, is it?


Strangest story on the BBC's website today: a photo essay about a craftsman in Ghana who custom builds coffins for people. You want to be buried in a giant beer bottle? Fine. Giant snail? You got it. Unfeasibly large shoe? Ready to go. A highly polished and very pink uterus? We can do that too. Proof once again that this planet is far stranger than most people suspect.


Yesterday's story about the doodles found after a session at Davos which suggested that Tony Blair was struggling to make sense of the world took an even more amusing turn today. It seems that the notes weren't the Prime Minister's at all: they were actually left behind by Bill Gates.

This will come as no surprise to those of us who read in the Register this week that Microsoft believe that the average car is capable of driving across the North Sea. Remember Microsoft's advertising campaign for Windows 95? It asked the question "Where do you want to go today?" Microsoft actually dropped the campaign because people took it too seriously. Now, perhaps, the pressure has got to them: they believe they actually can take you anywhere. It's been suggested that they're about to reveal a flying car, but we can get one of those already. Clearly Microsoft need to sort out this misunderstanding - Bill is busy hanging out with rock stars, actresses and wannabe world leaders at the moment but I'm sure he'll get right on the case when he gets back.


Important safety tip when you're driving through avalanche country: forget shovels and blankets, take plenty of beer with you. Richard Kral had thirty litres of lager with him when he got buried in the Tatra Mountains, so he drank it, peed on the snow to melt it, and escaped. Now there's a guy who deserves full membership of the HFO on the spot.


If you've arrived here from Linkbunnies, then welcome! Thanks to Justin mentioning this site today, my pagecount has gone through the roof, so that's definitely a beer I owe him.

The folks at Linkbunnies obviously have very similar tastes to mine, because we often blog the same things; most of the time I can honestly say that this happens completely by coincidence, which is getting somewhat spooky. Occasionally we do tell each other about things: Justin pointed me at one site today, which discussed an interesting concept known as the Monkeysphere. I recommend reading it, as it's an engaging idea from a social perspective. The basic premise is that our brains aren't really geared towards interacting with more than about 150 people. Because these days we have to deal with shedloads more than 150 people - driving to work, going shopping, going out for a drink - we no longer bother about the effects our actions have on everyone else. By assigning personal qualities to people, rather than dehumanising them, can we make the world a better place? By finding out about folks out there through such tools as - well, blogging springs to mind - can we improve the quality of life for everyone? Hmmm. All the same, I came away from the site feeling a nice warm glow, because I do wrap my broken glass before I put it in the trash...

It should also be said that Linkbunnies mentioned a number of other sites that are also worth visiting this week. For instance, I really liked the site Marcus mentioned called the Fafblog; just the right mix of social seriousness and distracted mania.


A colleague pointed me in the direction of the new search engine Doogle today. Even before attempting to use it (and it's worth a try) I'd pegged it as one of the funnier references to Father Ted that I've seen. This won't mean a thing unless you're familiar with the show, and its hapless supporting character Father Dougal "I'm hugely confused, Ted" McGuire played by Ardal O'Hanlon.

The Drink! Girls! Feck! links on the page are also references to the show - to Father Dougal's colleague Father Jack Hackett, one of the few Irish Catholic priests to end up as a screen saver. I find it profoundly disturbing to find out (after following the links from Doogle) that according to IMDB, the actor who plays Father Jack, Frank Kelly, once released a top 30 single. And to cap it all, he later received a letter from the Queen explaining how the record had given her "great pleasure". That is so weird I think I may have to go and lie down for a while. The mental image it conjures up is too much to bear.


Blogging these days can be an occupational hazard. This isn't the first case I've heard about, and I'm sure it won't be the last.


I enjoyed reading 1066 and all that when I was younger, and can even remember going to see it presented as a stage show, but in these more cynical times it is clearly in need of revision. Sam sent me the link to the Guardian newspaper's proposal for its replacement.


Ever thought that your desktop was too damn small? And yes, even you Solaris users with your multiple desktop pages, you know what it's like: too many damn things open at once. So wouldn't it be cool if you could stick your desktop on the inside of a spherical workspace? Well, someone's working on it. I have to say it looks sweet.


Don't forget to listen to Radio 3's show Mixing It tonight at 22:15 GMT. Especially the Ergo Phizmiz bit. OK, I'll shut up about it now. My work here is done.


Who is the woman (see yesterday's entry) in the sample Ergo Phizmiz used? We've no definitive answer yet, but as far as my highly skilled research team is concerned the front runner at the moment seems to be the American actress Shelley Winters...


One of the first lessons in web design that you learn is that if you want your site to attract visitors then adding pictures of cats is definitely a good bet. The trouble is that the number of cats on the Web is now rapidly becoming infinite. A search for the word "cats" on Google throws up 703,000 images and nearly 29 million web pages. There are cute cats, fluffy cats, live nude cats (it's a spoof site, relax), stupid cats, genius cats, unadulterated cats, B. Kliban's cats, and even vegan cats. To inflate matters still further, there's even a site devoted to recursive cats. That's an awful lot of meowmix.

I was pleased to see that the UK's Cats Protection League crops up on the first page of results. I used to have cats, from a couple of highly strung Siamese (one tabby point, one seal point) to a highly eccentric and lovable black kitten called Tribble who could climb any vertical surface in the house. Many of my cats came from the CPL. But as I looked through some of the many sites involving feline eccentricity I came to a startling conclusion. My cats never danced. Sneezed, yes. Projectile vomited on a regular basis, too. Fell in the bath? Been there. Some even had a distinct attitude problem, which seems to be common in cats. But there was no dancing. Nor was there painting. I shall complain.


This is driving me mad.


I work with a bunch of folks who are extremely talented computer graphics artists. It's a great shame I can't post links to some of the stuff they do, but take my word for it: they're good. All the same, I like to send them links to stuff every now and again to keep them on their toes. Today, I sent Justin a link to some computer graphics and animation done by Liam Kemp, using 3D Studio Max, which is the same software our folks use. I also found another site where you can watch the whole thing.

The facial expressions are, we agreed, the best we've ever seen in CGI. But Justin didn't like the hands; nobody ever gets the hands right. This is true, but I was more concerned by the fact that the girl seemed to be hovering over the ground in such a way that her feet more-or-less made contact with it, most of the time. It didn't really look like walking to me. Hark at me - my computer graphics expertise is dead and gone. Inverse kinematics? What are they then, chief?


My colleague Justin has his own website, Linkbunnies, and the folks there introduced me to one of the more disturbing neologisms to crop up recently. Lynndie England was the U.S. Soldier at the centre of the first abuse scandal to come out of Iraq. Now, someone who is pointed at in a derogatory or abusive manner is said to be Lynndied. Inevitably, there is now a website featuring pictures of people, famous or otherwise, being Lynndied. (Note that the link features some mature - or more properly immature - content so caution is advised for our younger readers.)


I can't remember when someone first sent me a Powerpoint file with the sound of someone imitating a two-stroke engine on it. This is partly because it was several years ago and partly because I've tried very hard to blot it out of my memory. Eventually the inevitable happened and someone created a computer animation to go along with it and the latest scourge of modern civilisation gained its final form. Then some evil bastard decided that it would be really amusing to provide it as a ringtone for peoples' mobile phones. Civilisation collapsed shortly afterwards.

Today, the BBC have a feature on the guy responsible for the original noise, a computer components salesman from Sweden called Daniel Malmedahl. Fair play to him - if I was him, I think I'd have gone into hiding, or at least tried very hard to remain anonymous.


I don't often plug shows in advance, but I have to make an exception this week: on Friday night, Radio 3's show Mixing It is repeating a live concert from last year featuring a collaboration by People Like Us and Wobbly, immediately followed by a stunning performance by Ergo Phizmiz.

I was trying to explain to some friends why it was important that they listened. If you've ever tried to convey your sense of enjoyment in a particular experience to someone completely unfamiliar with it, you've no doubt found it very difficult. I did too. Let's just say that it's sonic collage of the highest order, and if you're a child of the Sixties you may recognise some samples from long-gone schools programmes mixed in amongst everything else. For me the end result was an extraordinary mixture of surprise and nostalgia that had me crying tears of laughter, particularly during a section that features a rambling monologue, possibly from an American chat show, by an unidentified woman. The editing of the speech gives her a manic energy reminiscent of Max Headroom, the content is truly eclectic, and the end result has to be heard to be believed. I'm trying to find out who the woman is, and if I find out I'll post the answer here. Stay tuned, and don't forget to listen on Friday.

And if you can't make Friday, use the BBC's wonderful Listen Again service and listen there instead: the show will be available from Friday night until the 4th February. Meanwhile I will be eagerly waiting for the re-release of the CD by Mr Phizmiz and his Orchestra performing truly demented interpretations of music by The Aphex Twin. Imagine Windowlicker done by a dance band who sound like they usually play the Charleston; it doesn't get any better than that.


I have just spent the last quarter of an hour chortling at the delights of the Star Wars Photoshop Project. Even the quickest glimpse should be self-explanatory, but the Blackadder version on page 2 is pure genius. And there I was thinking I needed to get out more.


Quite an interesting news release out today from the folks at Arizona State, who have come up with a modification to the generally accepted scenario of how the Solar System was formed. According to the latest research, which sounds highly plausible, the birth of our home was a good deal more violent than previously thought. In fact, they suggest we owe our existence (and the widespread availability of the heavier elements) to a nearby star that went supernova roughly 4.5 billion years ago. If you'd been in the neighbourhood back then, chances are that the view would have looked a lot like that most famous of astronomy pictures, the Eagle Nebula.


Yes, it's Burns Night tonight. All over the world, people will gather together to celebrate the life of Scotland's famous poet, drink a certain amount of single malt, and eat large quantities of that most Scottish of delicacies, the haggis. The serving of this culinary delight is usually accompanied by the recital of one of the master's poems which celebrates its consumption. And with a steaming plate of tatties and neeps to go with it, I'm feeling hungry already.


If you use the net more than a teeny little bit, then you have probably already discovered one of the big search engines and stick to it when you're looking for something in particular. And as they have about 75% of the market right now, the chances are better than even that you use Google. Their march to world domination stepped up a pace today as they announced a new tool that will let you search the Closed Caption (CC) subtitles provided with a fair proportion of American TV shows. I suppose it'll only be a matter of time before that's extended to Ceefax or Teletext subtitles in the UK.

Forget Bill Gates's recent comments about where he sees Microsoft going in the future, I think this is one of the strongest signs yet that we are moving towards a single information processor, a one-stop home entertainment object: extrapolate Google's idea and you end up with a single unit that handles our internet access, our music, our films, our home movies, our photographs, our television and our data. And Google will be indexing it all for you. They already provide an engine that will let you index your hard disk; as our entertainment moves to an almost exclusively digital format, they are obviously keen to integrate with each and every stream of information we are exposed to.

How do you feel about the idea of letting one company have access to that much of your life?


I'm not a great fan of Monday mornings at the best of times, but it seems today is just about as bad as a Monday can get. However, as the Guardian pointed out, we can look on the bright side - Celebrity Big Brother is over.


So, here's something to brighten up your Monday travail: a tribute to the painter Salvador Dali in the form of online collaborative art. This artwork does a pretty good job of capturing some of the spirit of his artwork. Dali is probably the most well-known of the surrealist painters, following a manifesto that was written in 1924 by André Breton. Surrealism, as defined by Breton, was artistic endeavour

"by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern."

For the surrealist painters, it was thought unfettered by the conscious mind that produced some of the most interesting results. Visions and dreams would be a fertile source of inspiration, and judging by his paintings Dali had some pretty strange dreams. I'm fascinated by Dali's work, as it provides the most concrete glimpse I've ever found into the mind of another human being. It's a shame that most people are only familiar with his lobster telephone or the melting clocks of the Persistence of Memory; I got to visit the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg when I was in Florida and there's a huge range of his other work on display there. Dali crops up in odd places, too; the Madonna of Port Lligat is painted on the space suit of a character in a science fiction novel by Larry Niven! I see from the Dali Museum's site that they'll soon be moving to larger premises on the site of the old Bayfront Center Arena, which bit the big one at the weekend. They love demolishing stuff and building new arenas in the Tampa Bay area - it seems to be a local hobby. Mind you, the Buccaneers' Stadium is a very pleasant place to spend a sunny afternoon if you enjoy watching football.

Kudos to Slashdot once again though - that's where I picked up the artwork story. They provide a good source for finding things that make you go "wow!" like this, and I tend to wander over there every lunchtime while I'm eating my sandwiches.


Finally, here's an interesting snippet of almost entirely useless information that I discovered today: when naming variables in programming or metadata, if you don't use spaces it can make things hard to read, so the general convention is to use uppercase letters for the first letter of each constituent word and lower case for the rest. This is known, I discovered, as upper camel case. Even more interesting is the fact that making the first letter of the string lower case turns it into (you've guessed it) lower camel case.

So a variable called DontKnowWhatThisDoes would be upper camel case, but on the other hand a variable going by the name evenLessOfAnIdeaWhatThisDoes is in lower camel case. Try dropping that tidbit into a conversation at your next social gathering...


Rob bought me The Art of Discworld for Christmas, a book by Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby devoted to the gorgeous artwork from the many books that Mr. P has written. Within the book, Terry reveals that the writer Ken Follett donated a sum of money to charity for the privilege of having a character (the politically astute head of the Guild of Assassins, no less) in one of the Discworld books named after him. Terry also explains that the practice of putting real people in novels like this even has a name: it's called Tuckerisation, after the SF writer Wilson Tucker, who used to (and no doubt still does) include his friends in his stories.

Some of the writers of Star Trek are serious Tuckerisation addicts, and have often named characters or objects after real people. In some cases, this is pretty much in keeping with the world being imagined - so having shuttlecraft called Galileo, Hawking, Voltaire or El Baz is nothing out of the ordinary. What I'm talking about is the sort of thing that happened in the episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," when David Gerrold named a planet after his girlfriend. As you do. Or how about the character Geordi LaForge, who was named after a fan of the original series called George LaForge who died from muscular dystrophy in 1975? Is it just a coincidence that Miles O'Brien is a science correspondent for CNN? Hmmm...

The reason I'm wittering on about all this is because I discovered today that the Mayor of Hawaii is called Harry Kim. He's in the news at the moment because he's trying to rid the Big Island of a plague of small but extremely noisy frogs. After listening to the noise they're having to put up with he has my complete sympathy (and at this point I'd just like to note that I am a little disturbed by the fact that there's a website out there called All About Frogs). The point is that, spookily enough, this Mr Kim is involved in his own, very real battle against alien species. Well, I suppose it makes a change from trying to get back home from the Delta Quadrant.


One of the biggest barriers to getting into space is developing a rocket engine that will run for long enough. After all, a rocket engine isn't much more than a continuous explosion in a tin can with one end missing. So I found Wired's article about the latest test of the Merlin rocket engine quite exciting. It ran for the whole expected duration of the test and then kept going until it ran out of fuel. From my viewpoint here on the ground, that sounds pretty promising.


Well, today's the day, and the Airbus A380 has been rolled out in Toulouse amid much flag waving and trumpet blowing. News articles often show pictures of this "hotel in the sky" with spacious cabins and people wandering around, lounging next to waterfalls, or propping up the bar.

All well and good, but have the people who dreamed up this marketing fluff ever flown anywhere? In my experience, the drinks have just been served when we hit turbulence. It happens almost without fail, and if I was a bit older and grumpier I'd suggest that one causes the other! When things get bumpy, though, even very large aircraft can skip around in the sky a fair bit. If you hit some turbulence, the last thing any captain wants is lots of people lounging around in the cabin. To make things worse, there's sometimes very little warning that it's there. Much safer to get rid of those sofas and bars and put a few more rows of seats in - helpfully fitted with safety belts. After all, airlines want to make money. Most shoehorn in as many seats as they think they can get away with, and the A380 is designed to take an awful lot of seats. Forget about that figure of 555 passengers; I'm sure we'll see A380s handling well over 800 passengers before very long.


A couple of Star Wars novelties to start of the week, both courtesy of Slashdot. The first isn't directly associated with Star Wars, although it ought to be - at least as far as Slashdotters are concerned. It's this vehicle, which when I saw it reminded me of the things that escorted Jabba the Hutt's sail yacht in Episode VI. However, this little runabout was built for some folks to get around at Burning Man, rather than Tattooine. If you've not heard of Burning Man, by the way, you lead a very sheltered life. If you don't know what a badonkadonk is slang for either, then you've led a profoundly sheltered life, and should get out more. Or resort to Google.

Judging by the pictures, the wheelbase on this baby is outrageously short and I don't think I'd want to test the maker's claim that it can carry people on the roof too closely. Especially considering that its top speed is 40 mph. Having said that, as it only has a 6 Hp engine, I would imagine it travels considerably less quickly with a full load of passengers. All the same, I have to admit that it looks seriously cool and is obviously just the thing for the daily commute.

I was a little disturbed by the fact that you can go and buy one on Amazon.


On the other hand, the latest Star Wars merchandising tie in that was launched this week is just plain silly. I want one.


There's a very interesting story on the Guardian's website today about some computer software developed by a Spanish company who specialise in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and expert systems. The software is supposed to be able to identify whether or not a piece of music will be a hit.

HSS, the company concerned, promise a 100% success rate for bands using their software, which sounds somewhat unfeasible. All the same, the thing that interests me isn't whether or not such performance is achievable. What got me thinking quite hard is what it would mean for musicians if the package really works. As I see it, the big problem becomes making the advantage sustainable, and that problem gets bigger when everyone uses the same system.

A software package that becomes too successful at picking out the hits can itself skew musical taste: if it's overused, people may become bored with the offerings it picks out. Novelty has always been a major factor in breaking a new act, and there isn't that much going round at the moment. If the record-buying public is looking for something new, then surely the stand-out tracks which occasionally come along and catch the public's imagination will stand out because they don't have a high score - and are therefore different.


Do you find it worrying that a computer program is making decisions for you about what you'd like to listen to? Then maybe you should give more support to the artists featured here, just to get your own back. Hang on a minute, I think I have a few of those albums in my record collection!


And finally tonight, I'd like to mention that I hit the 500 work unit mark for SETI at Home at lunchtime today. It's taken me four and a half years, at a rate of just under one every four days. But if you've read some of my earlier blog entries this month you'll have realised that I completed a fifth of those units in the last eight days. It's nice having a fast machine.


Back in February 1996 I was rather bored one Sunday afternoon, so I decided that I'd make a midi file of the theme tune to the cartoon TV series of The X-Men. I posted it on the net, too. As I'd included my email address in the file, over the next six months or so I got emails from places round the world asking if I'd done any more (I hadn't) but I eventually changed email addresses and forgot all about it.

Until today that is, when I decided to see if I could find it on the net. I really didn't expect what I found: the folks over at Musicrobot were listing over a hundred websites with that little 8Kb file on it. One guy had even used it as the basis of a remix!

I must admit I'm a little taken aback by all of this; maybe I should dig out one of my old synthesizers and make a few more pieces of music? By coincidence, I was looking round the Roland UK site last week to find out what synths are capable of doing these days. Every now and again I get a craving for a new machine, and some of the MP3 files on the Roland site sound mouth-watering. The sounds make my old Juno 60 and JX3-P sound distinctly - well, synthetic. But what I love about midi is that you can just plug a keyboard in to the computer and use the sounds on the sound card. I've got a Creative Audigy 2 in this machine, and the sounds it's capable of producing aren't that bad at all. One day I'll get back in to the whole home recording thing and release some mp3s of the results on here. It'll be interesting to see if they travel as widely as that little midi file did.


Well, the Statcounter experiment is proving interesting - I've discovered I get far more hits on the site than is indicated by the counter on my index page. In the last week I've had 99 unique visitors to the site, which is ten times the number I was expecting. By cross-checking this with my usage file at Demon, I reckon I'm getting about five times the traffic I was seeing this time last year, which is quite gratifying.

As a result, I've made one or two changes to the site. In particular, I've changed and expanded the design of my graphics page and I hope to add more content to it in the following weeks.


I loved the 1993 Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero because of the way it made fun of Hollywood's obsession with exploding cars, bombs and bullets, and huge pyrotechnics. Its director, John McTiernan, got to play games with the public's expectations of what happens in an action film, and for most of the time he deliberately flaunted conventions, pushing things at both ends of the scale. Bad guy Al Leong is dispatched by our hero using a humble ice cream cornet; explosions blow minivans thirty feet into the air as background action during a drive on the freeway, and at one point after he has been precipitated into the "real world", Arnie's character takes aim at a fleeing car:

Jack Slater:
Here's another explosion for your movie, kid.

When he fires, a small bullet hole appears in the car's boot, but the car drives off out of sight otherwise unscathed. Arnie examines the gun in disbelief.

The average cinemagoer couldn't deal with the high levels of irony involved in showing such things in an action film and the movie bombed; I thought it was pretty funny. To be fair, I'm not expecting a Hollywood scriptwriter to come up with a working design for a faster-that-light spacecraft just because the plot of a science fiction film requires one; that would be silly. But not having detailed knowledge of a subject doesn't prevent people from getting things right.

I doubt that the makers of the excellent drama Fat Man and Little Boy (it was called Shadowmakers here in the UK) all had Ph.Ds, but they produced a fairly decent movie about the Manhattan Project. Even when a story is clearly fiction, it's possible to sound convincing to people with a bit of technical knowledge. The folks on Doctor Who and the earlier versions of Star Trek used to have a great time doing this, and when they hit their limits they often poked fun at their own efforts. In the process they gave us words like technobabble and catch phrases like the title of this article.

However, some of the less clued-up inhabitants of Hollywood have a rather fragile grip on reality at the best of times, and when they try to put science in their movies, the results are, frankly, embarrassing. Today I was pointed at a website devoted to showing up the more blatant examples of stupidity of this sort, and while the movie reviews are a little dogmatic, there's some interesting and amusing stuff in there. Be warned, you may encounter equations. Don't worry about them though - they're just the sort of thing that let you estimate quantities on the back of a napkin. Being able to figure out a rough value for something or other is an extremely useful skill. So why isn't it taught more widely in our schools? If we come to that, why do most people have such a problem dealing with maths? In his acknowledgements at the beginning of the first edition of A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking mentions how he was advised that for every equation he included in the book, sales would be halved. These days, if the news media want a figure for the probability of something happening they phone up a college professor rather than working it out for themselves. Perhaps this is why the National Lottery is so successful?

Sadly, it seems that the man (or woman) in the street's grasp of science is becoming tenuous or non-existent. It's only going to get worse, too: around a third of all college educated Americans have some very strange beliefs and these are being taught in an increasing number of their schools. The scientific method is under attack from many different organisations whose world view is threatened by informed discussion or sceptical enquiry. More alarmingly, in some quarters political expediency deems it more profitable to prevaricate than educate - after all, a third of your electorate can make quite a difference to how you do in the polls. Luckily, there are still some rational people out there, and they deserve your support.

Why? Because the nutters are starting to get on the TV, and the saddest part of it all is they claim to be following scientific method. Have you seen some of the documentaries out there recently? It's enough to make you weep. At least we've got genuine science guy Adam Hart-Davis on the BBC tonight to talk about the Huygens probe landing on Saturn's moon Titan, which seems to have been a success...


In cartoons, of course, things are very different. Characters and objects have to obey rigidly defined laws that are every bit as important and immutable as those in our world: they're just not the same.

If Tex Avery hadn't been the greatest genius animation has ever seen, I think he would have ended up being a scientist. Probably a physicist - no, a chemist. Or a special effects wizard. Someone involved in making very large explosions. Yes, we're back to cars blowing up again. Now that's what I call a job.


Although I get on OK with HTML (at least to the point where this website looks more or less what I want it to look like) I wouldn't class myself as an expert. For instance, until now I haven't paid much attention to things like Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS for short. However, after someone pointed me at the CSS Zen Garden site I've decided that in my spare time (hah!) I should learn more. The site uses CSS to modify a single page of HTML - so the HTML is the same on each page, but the final appearance is radically different, all thanks to the formatting performed by the CSS code used.

Then once I've figured out CSS, I should really start thinking about an RSS feed, of course. These days it seems like there just aren't enough hours in the day any more!


Well, my eagerly awaited copy of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence landed on the doormat this morning, and I've just finished watching it. It's an incredible achievement, both artistically and technically. I have several of Mamoru Oshii's films on DVD and I've enjoyed them all, but GITS2 blows all the others away. It was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes, and while the world was probably not quite ready for anime to receive serious artistic acclaim with a win (which is a great shame) it got some very complimentary reviews. Oshii-san is a very talented director and he just gets better with every film he makes. I particularly love Kenji Kawai's music - together with the great Randy Thom he's produced a soundtrack that's capable of making the hair on the back of my neck stand up, it's that good. The sequence with a giant music box is awe-inspiring.

But the DVD is terrible. I have never, ever been so disappointed by a DVD release. Dreamworks, where are you? Go and stand in the corner, and put this dunce's cap on. The cover looks like it's been designed by a twelve-year-old, what were you thinking?

Given how sumptuous the visuals are in the movie, you'd have thought someone would at least have taken the trouble to put some of the images from the film on the cover. Er, no. I'm surprised, too, that there's no English language soundtrack. I can live with that - I always watch anime in the original Japanese, as it seems to lose a lot dubbed into English (just watch the English versions of Akira or Princess Mononoke to see what I mean). But what's unforgivable is that whoever authored the disc left out the English subtitles and put closed captions for the hard of hearing on instead. These are displayed at about twice the size of normal subtitles and, of course, accompany every sound on the film. As a result, you're continuously presented with [Footsteps] and [Dog whining] and it rapidly [Angry grunt] becomes hugely distracting.

[Sighs heavily].

As the DVD proudly proclaims how good the film is, complete with a quote from Harry "Ain't it cool" Knowles himself on the cover, I'm amazed at the ridiculously shoddy job that was done on it. I'm not alone, either - the fan reaction has been vicious. Comments are extremely negative on IMDB's page about the film, worse on the discussion of the DVD on Harry's site, and the film site's message boards have practically melted from the outrage. If there's one lesson that film studios never seem to learn, it's this: don't piss off the fanboys. US distribution is handled by Dreamworks, and they have really shot themselves in the foot with this one. The sad thing is, all I can do is hope that someone with more sense is put in charge of the region 2 release. If they do I'll go out and buy it again - if I ever get the chance. How sad is that?


After a couple of weeks holiday, it's been very difficult getting up in the morning, particularly as it's so dark. Despite the fact that the shortest day was a few days before Christmas, it seems to be even darker in the mornings right now. That's because it stays dark longer in the mornings until the first week of January: it's all due to the equation of time. Until I researched today's blog, I hadn't realised that the effect of the Earth's tilt and the fact that the Earth goes round the Sun faster at its closest point in the orbit can alter the times of sunrise, noon and sunset by as much as 16 minutes from our "clock" time.


It's only when you grow up that you become aware of the scale of human suffering that often accompanies natural disasters. When you're smaller, awe at the sheer the power of nature tends to blanket the tragedy. When I was a kid, I was particularly fascinated by earthquakes. I can remember reading about the big quake in Anchorage, which happened in 1964. As I'd only have been 4 then, I assume I was slightly older when I heard about it, but you never know.

Back then, everybody measured earthquakes using the Richter Scale. Even now, if you want to explain to someone just how big an earthquake was, you'd most likely tell them using this measurement. But geologists have moved on; I knew about the Mercalli scale, and the Modified Mercalli scale, which became widely used in the 1980s - rather than a 9 point scale it used a 12 point scale, and reported size using roman numerals. But I'd never heard of the Moment Magnitude scale, which is now accepted as the standard for reporting earthquake intensity. The amount of energy released was estimated at 2 x 10e18 Joules, which I reckon to be the equivalent of about 478 megatons of TNT. It left the Earth ringing like a bell, and the echoes can be detected even now, two weeks later.


...the folks at B3TA, who pointed me at this splendidly daft example of the misheard lyric. I will never listen to U2's latest single without singing the lyrics given here. Wonderful.


A few extra lines of code in this site over the last couple of days. There's nothing dark and mysterious about this; I'm using a free facility provided by the folks at StatCounter for small websites like mine to analyse how my pages are accessed, what browser resolutions I should be designing for, and whether or not people are finding this stuff interesting enough to stop and read it! I haven't really seen enough results to decide whether I'm doing anything wrong yet, but I'll let you know what I find out.


...to Rod Stewart who is 60 today. He's wearing quite well, by the looks of things.

Happy birthday as well to the Sinclair C5, which was launched 20 years ago today. For those of you unfamiliar with the beast, imagine a plastic bathtub with a tricycle undercarriage, powered by a washing machine motor. It had racy aerodynamic styling, which always mystified me as it was quite easy to get out and walk at a faster pace than you could manage while driving it. Even the backup power source - frantic pedalling - didn't seem to affect its somewhat leisurely progress. The C5 was variously described as "ahead of its time" "slow" or "wonky" and for these reasons and more, it never really caught on. When I worked in the City I regularly used to see a guy braving London traffic in one. He was either extremely brave, or suicidal. The last one I saw was gathering dust in a side corridor at the University of Lancaster. The C5 has long been overshadowed by other even more eccentric forms of transport such as the Segway Human Transporter but Sir Clive is still coming up with interesting forms of transport.


One of the things I've got used to doing during the holidays over the past few years is taking some time to make sure that various relatives' computers are running properly. These days it's mainly a case of making sure that they're protected against viruses, hackers and spyware, and showing folks how to get at the stuff that's been loaded on their machines. Judging by the story I read on the BBC news website today, it looks like I'm not the only one!


After the sad news of the death of Will Eisner and Frank Kelly Freas this week it was a pleasure to be reminded that there are still some very talented graphic artists alive out there. Two of the greatest cropped up on TV this weekend: on Friday night I watched the French/German channel ARTE's documentary on Hayao Miyazaki and Jean Giraud, and although it was in a foreign language it was the most enjoyable piece of television I watched all week. Jean Giraud, or more accurately his alter ego Moebius, is a legend - apart from being France's premier artist of les bandes dessinées, he also provides designs for films; his CV includes Alien, The Abyss, Tron, the Fifth Element, and an undoubted (if uncredited) influence on the look of Blade Runner. Hayao Miyazaki brought us My Neighbour Totoro, Porco Rosso (one of the most completely off the wall pieces of animation I've ever seen), Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and his latest film Howl's Moving Castle. The documentary showed a number of clips from this film, and it's an incredible piece of work. I understand that the responsibility for providing the English language version was originally going to be John Lasseter's, but he wasn't available as he's busy working on Pixar's next film, CARS. Instead, they've got Pixar's Pete (Monsters Inc.) Docter on the case.

Miyazaki's studio in Japan, Studio Ghibli, has its own museum, which featured on Friday's programme (note that the website is, naturally, in Japanese.) Imagine LA's Bradbury Building (as featured in Blade Runner) but designed on acid, and full of children playing with gigantic plush toys, and you've got a vague idea of what it's like. If you can speak French you might want to watch some excerpts from the documentary with the two artists in conversation. If you can't speak French, you can read the English translation instead (I can't believe someone's provided this - isn't the web amazing?)

The programme was being shown because there's an exhibition of their work on in Paris at the moment. The exhibition is on at the Musée de la Monnaie - Hôtel de la Monnaie (11, Quai Conti - 75006 Paris) and it runs until March 13th. Having an exhibition of their work is a big deal, for me at least (and I would really like to go across to Paris and see it) but I would never have heard about it if I'd relied on the British media to find out about such things. I find it depressing that there's no coverage of anything like this in the UK. TV channels over here still believe that comic books are for children, and don't merit serious discussion, which is a shame given some of the material that's out there, particularly by authors such as Art Spiegelman.


If you found yourself at a loose end over the last couple of weeks, perhaps you were tempted to try that old pastime of building a house of cards. One website I found today takes this simple pursuit to spectacular lengths, as you can see from their gallery of pictures. Hmm, I wonder how many packs of cards they needed to make those?


I have just discovered the latest content on the Ensemble Studios website, which is a teaser for Age of Empires III. That's all my spare time disappeared for the next year, then.


I've been a big Dilbert fan for many years. Scott Adams is one of my heroes - after all, anyone who draws cartoons, used to work for a big telecommunications company (and escaped) and is a big fan of Babylon 5 is my kind of person. He recently commissioned some folks to design Dilbert's Ultimate House (that's DUH to you and me) and you can take a virtual tour online. It's well worth a browse, and I must admit to feeling a little bit jealous of Dilbert's home cinema setup.


Bristol's finest, Aardman Animations, are well into production of the first Wallace and Gromit movie. The Aardman website's well worth a visit if your browser can handle flash stuff, as it shows off the talents of their web designers and animators to great effect. But if you have broadband, you may also want to visit iFilm's site as they have a short video report available on progress with the film. The Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter characters look wonderful, and I'm really looking forwards to the film coming out later this year.


And from one movie to another: I must admit that one aspect of the new film of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was really worrying me; I didn't see how anyone could possibly be used to provide the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android other than the original actor, Stephen Moore. I now know who's going to give Marvin his voice in the film, and while I'm disappointed that it's not the real Marvin, they've done a lot better than I expected: they've got Alan Rickman, no less. From this bit of news it also appears that one of Stephen Moore's other roles in the original series has been given to someone else (the bastards!) and The Whale will be played by Bill Bailey. Oh, and if you look at one more website today, make sure it's Bill's. It's... different.


I went and saw The Incredibles this afternoon - yes, I know it's been out for ages but things have been rather busy. It's as good as I hoped it would be, and it looks gorgeous. It's a great shame other studios don't have the consistency that Pixar do when it comes to making good movies - in fact, some would suggest that they're embarrassing the rest of the business - but once again they've produced a very enjoyable couple of hours of entertainment. One to see more than once, too - there's a lot shoehorned in to the film that will only really become apparent when it comes out on DVD. Roll on March, when the region 2 release hits the shops.

I was less enthralled by the fact that I had to sit through twenty minutes of very poor adverts before I got to see the film. Not having been to the movies recently, I was shocked by how much of the advertising was geared towards telling us how great Rupert Murdoch's many business ventures are. I was particularly taken aback by one of the naffest adverts I've ever seen: "Kids are very harsh critics. That's why their TV is so good." Excuse me? Have you watched kids' TV recently? Obviously not; most of it is geared towards selling toys using excruciatingly bad animation, and Sky TV is one of the worst perpetrators...


Johnny Depp has long been a fan of British comedy, with appearances in both The Fast Show and the Vicar of Dibley. But according to Ananova today, he's now desperate to appear in the latest BBC comedy "sensation" Little Britain. I must admit that I'm not a fan of the show; in fact, I think it's vicious and nasty, and there are precious few laughs in it. But I'm in a very small minority in thinking so, it appears. I just hope Mr. D sees sense and sticks to doing what he's good at - which, I have to say, seems to be pretty much everything else. Seen the trailer for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yet?


Oh, and as a brief postscript, I've just completed my 400th work unit for Seti at Home. The latest PC I've got means I've been rattling through them at a fair old rate - certainly a lot quicker than the 70 hours it used to take my original Pentium PC!

WILL EISNER 1917 - 2005

The Spirit is no more.

Two of my major influences as an artist passed away this week. First of all, the great Will Eisner is no more. Apart from giving us The Spirit, Eisner more or less wrote the book when it comes to comics. Most of the standards and conventions of modern comics can be traced back to him. His work was immersed in popular culture, and played a role in shaping it. For me, even his signature is evocative of the golden age of comics; and that golden age wouldn't have happened without him.


We've also lost Frank Kelly Freas. He was one of the truly great science fiction illustrators.

His paintings graced the covers of Analog Magazine, Weird Tales, and hundreds of SF novels. Look at his stuff, and I'm sure you'll recognise at least one picture. Again, his images have become part of popular culture: his most famous painting even graced the cover of a Queen album. Mr Eisner and Mr Freas, you have my thanks. I'll miss you both.


There were a couple of articles about blogging floating about in the ether today. I thought they were quite interesting to read together, as the first one on the BBC's website was extolling the virtues of blogging as a political tool, as a method of gaining engagement with your peers and with the media as a whole. The writer was positively gushing over how blogging was changing the world. The second, on the Register's site, was saying the opposite. Blogs, it points out, are seldom read by anyone beyond a small circle of aficionados and 62% of internet users don't even know what a blog is, let alone read one regularly. So much for making "blog" the word of the year, then.

I'm not trying to be disingenuous when I say I don't expect this blog gets many readers. I don't have any particular ambition for these pages, so it doesn't worry me. But in a wider context, are blogs useful? Most of them probably aren't, but every now and again someone like Salam Pax will come along and prove the exception to the rule; I believe some blogs do deserve to be more widely read. However, to get that readership, bloggers will have to choose a different communications medium - one that's likely to be far more traditional. Blogging can only achieve limited exposure before it has to move on, so print's not dead quite yet.


I hope that, with all that's been going on in the world recently, you've had a chance to celebrate the arrival of 2005. Some people have had a better Christmas than others; wherever you are, my wish for you is for this year to be an improvement on the last.


I got Rob the Guinness Book of Records for Christmas; I've loved reading it since I was a kid. I always liked seeing the latest developments in the technological world, and this year's edition has a double page spread on the World's tallest buildings. Yesterday, the World's tallest skyscraper, Taipei 101, was officially opened. It's 508 metres tall - over half a kilometre - and it beats the previous record holder, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, by over 50 metres. I don't have much of a problem with heights, although I've got some friends who do, but I don't know if I'd want to work in an office that far off the ground. Not without a parachute, anyway.