Blog 'til you drop!

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: January 2006

The beginning of 2006 saw me heading off for a few days of skiing in Chamonix, which convinced me not only that I ought to go on more skiing holidays, but also that getting out on the mountain bike to improve my fitness was turning out to be a very good idea.

January also saw the successful conclusion of one space mission and the start of another, lots of waffle about music and television, the occasional diatribe about one thing or another, and the continuation of my Flickr habit.


I've always been interested in the work of other photographers, but there are so many talented artists out there that I have never heard of that it's difficult to know where to look next. So, many thanks to Bob Smith over at No Traces for pointing me in the direction of the William Gedney archive today. It has to be one of the most extensive collections of photographs I've seen online - nearly 5,000 of them, and some of the pictures are amazing. Have a look, for example, at his series of pictures of composers like Leonard Bernstein and John Cage.

I've always preferred taking photographs of landscapes and inanimate objects rather than portraits or reportage, because taking someone's picture effectively, conveying something meaningful about their personality and emotions, is hard. Getting someone to act as if they're not having their picture taken when they're having their picture taken is almost always a huge challenge. As I browsed through the photographs - taken around the world from the late 1950s onwards - I realised that Mr Gedney made it all look easy.


The concern over climate change gets racked up a notch or two today with the latest stories on escalating greenhouse gas emissions. The news isn't good: there's now serious concern that the Greenland ice cap could disappear before too much longer. There's an awful lot of frozen fresh water covering Greenland, and dumping it into the Atlantic would cause significant changes to our climate.

You'd think this would focus minds, and get people working together to do something about it, wouldn't you? Oh no. Just read the have your say section related to the BBC article if you need any more persuasion that, as a race, mankind is doomed. Not only are there still some people out there who have convinced themselves that the whole thing is some form of hoax; the messageboard is full of stupid comments from folks with made-up names. Their goal isn't intelligent debate (which would take effort, after all) but to use plenty of pejorative terms such as "tree huggers" and generally take a rise out of people.

I think I know why, too. Last year, some of the more infantile readers over at B3ta were proudly describing how many of their dafter pseudonyms were published on news websites like Sky or the BBC. They weren't at all interested in rational debate: the name was the important thing. The actual message attached was usually the sort of rehashed cliche that'd embarrass a Sun reader. Unfortunately, since then the whole stupid comment thing appears to have caught on in a big way. I know that there have always been folks (known as trolls) who derive vicarious pleasure by posting annoying messages to bulletin board systems, but in the last six months trolling really seems to have become widespread. Frankly, the exchange of comments like this only serves to demonstrate how pointless the interaction between web publishers and readers can get. The really sad thing is that the Beeb don't even seem to have noticed.

As for doing something productive to combat climate change, I'm going to turn off my computer when I've finished this session and go and do something with a smaller carbon footprint.


Maybe this is another reason for the stupid comments craze. According to an article in The Times today (and it was Slashdotted, too - it's that kind of story) kids today don't have the reasoning skills that they would have had thirty years ago. Some of the findings are quite scary: because children don't go outside and play like they used to, they have trouble performing simple cognitive tasks.

However, the phrase used to describe the amount by which aspects of IQ have declined is rather odd:

The intelligence of 11-year-olds has fallen by three years’ worth in the past two decades.

What does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that the average 11 year old is now only as smart as an eight-year-old was thirty years ago? If that's the case, why not say so? Or is that too scary a concept to say in plain English?

Then again, did we really need this report to tell us that scientific and technical reasoning is on the decline? I don't think so. Just turn on your television and watch a news channel for half an hour or so.


And boy, did I need it: I'd crashed out by 9pm last night. The first week back after a holiday is always a struggle, but for some reason it felt like a really long five days.

I was out and about nice and early this morning, though. I went to the Post Office to send my camera off for repair (note to self: make sure nothing in your backpack is pressing against your camera case when you get on a ski lift, because if you don't, expensive things tend to go crunch). Then I wandered up the hill above Wotton and took some photos with the Canon. I was very pleased with the results - in fact I may print a couple of them at A4 to see if they're worth framing.


Mozart is still going strong at 250 and Salzburg is celebrating all weekend. In fact they've got rather carried away with the whole thing: you can even buy Mozart Yoghurt, for crying out loud!


I killed my digital camera while I was on holiday by crushing the LCD screen. So, while it's away for repair I will be getting to grips with my new pride and joy: a Canon EOS350D. I will be spending quite a bit of the weekend taking pictures, provided that the weather improves. Expect to see some of the results appearing over on my Flickr page in the next week or so.


The BBC had a story this morning about the Internet's increasing use in the more mundane aspects of American life. The report mentions the power of the net to create well-connected social groups over long distances. The Internet is finding an increasingly important role in bringing people together. In the next year the social networking side of things is likely to reach the UK - I read this week that MySpace is launching a UK version. I'll freely admit that I'm not the greatest social networker and in fact at the moment on MySpace I have one person on my buddy list - but I still think it's a good idea. Getting people to talk to each other, to maintain contact with others, is a necessity for building up a sense of community and togetherness. Who knows? It might even help to solve some of the more pressing cultural problems the World is facing at the moment. In this light, Google's decision to censor feeds to its Chinese users goes badly against the grain.


The most off-the-wall story I came across today was a report in the National Geographic that the moon is actually dragging all the continents westward at about 50 millimetres a year. It's one of those tidbits of information that is guaranteed to get you some very strange looks should you be unwise enough to drop it into a conversation, but (of course) utterly at home in a blog entry such as this. Go figure.


So Pixar and Disney are indeed joining forces. I was particularly pleased to see that Ed Catmull will be in charge of the combined animation departments. The next few years could be very interesting for the film industry.


I was staggered to read in the Guardian today that 14% of people who go on skiing holidays haven't taken out any insurance to cover their expenses in the event of them having an accident. The risk is too big to ignore like that - a fact brought home on my recent trip by the fact that one of my skiing buddies broke his shoulder on the second day we were there. If you're going skiing this winter, make sure you're insured.


It looks like Disney is about to take over the computer animation firm Pixar for a cool £3.9 billion. I just hope Pixar will be allowed to maintain its current creative freedom once it's been assimilated into the Mouse's empire: culturally, the two companies are worlds apart.

This was rather evident when Michael Eisner was boss of Disney. By the end of his tenure, it looked like Pixar were getting ready to drop all associations with the company, and Disney had no great ambitions to maintain their in-house abilities after much of their traditional animation activity was closed down. Today, it sounds like a lot has changed. How has the Pixar-Disney relationship improved since Eisner left? It'll be interesting to see what happens at Disney if Steve Jobs takes a seat on their board, that's for certain.


If ever there is a competition to design a news item designed to stir up outrage amongst right wing christian fundamentalists, I bet this one would be a finalist. The Georgia Institute of Technology are proposing that chimpanzees are reclassified in evolutionary terms so that rather than being out on their own, they become part of the same genus as man. This means that chimps would lose their Latin name Pan Troglodytes, and would become Homo Troglodytes instead (or something similar).

The proposal was prompted by advances in genetic research over the past few years. It's long been known that there's a close similarity in the DNA sequences of man and chimpanzee, but from the article it seems that the relationship is much closer than was previously thought. Regardless of what the scientific evidence might indicate, it'll all end in tears, mark my words.


Sometimes the DVD industry comes close to the music biz when it comes to making odd business decisions. If the latest reports are true, unless you've got large amounts of money to spend upgrading your entire system there seems little point buying a next generation player at all. Never mind waiting until the format war has been resolved - it seems that players will be deliberately crippled so that they give a degraded picture on old televisions. The motivation for this seems to be preventing the recording of the high-quality signal in an analog format - which presumably means that people would be able to circumvent copy protection schemes. So the business is more interested in digital rights management than it is in giving its customers the enjoyable experience they are asking for. Sound familiar?


It was back to work this morning after a very pleasant skiing holiday in Argentiere. It had just stopped snowing when we arrived on Wednesday, and we got four days of good conditions - even if it was a bit cold and windy on Sunday morning. We were admirably looked after by Jamie from Ski Scott James who laid on awesome food, ferried us around in the van, kept us stocked up with drink, and generally made sure we had a great time. If you're looking for a chalet holiday in Argentiere, I'd definitely recommend giving him a call.

I've put a few pictures up on Flickr, if you want to take a look.


It's nice to see Hugh Laurie's amazing performance as the misanthropic Doctor Gregory House recognised with the Best TV Actor at the Golden Globes last night. When he auditioned, he did so on video and in character - and as a result producer Bryan Singer reportedly had no idea he was actually British.


The Register was reporting today that the rootkit used last year on some of Sony BMG's copy protected CDs, is still causing widespread problems for users, and is likely to have compromised many PCs in the American government and the armed forces. Sony really couldn't have got their timing much worse; as part of a parliamentary enquiry, the UK's National Consumer Council published a report today on the music industry's attempts to impose digital rights management on the music we buy. According to Jill Johnstone, the NCC's director of policy, "Consumers face security risks to their equipment, limitations on their use of products, poor information when purchasing products and unfair contract terms." She's not kidding.

The regional coding scheme used for DVDs also came in for criticism and the NCC's 10-page report singles out the problems faced by laptop users: "Laptops are meant to be portable travel companions, yet several operating systems and DVD players only allow for a restrictive number of DVD-region switches before the laptop becomes locked down to one region. This control does not protect copyright but it does segment markets."

All in all, the message is clear. Customer rights and legal entitlements are at best being ignored and, at worst, actively violated: "Given the accelerating deployment of DRM in a number of commercial sectors, there is a real danger that the previous settlement over access and use will be rewritten without any parliamentary or regulatory oversight." The report concludes by pointing out that matters have not been helped by current EU and UK legislation, which actually makes the act of circmventing DRM software (and as you've probably realised, this would include Sony's dreadful rootkit) illegal. But will the law be changed to return things to a more even footing? Given the immense financial interests of the music business in preventing this from happening, I very much doubt it.


I saw an amazing picture in the paper at the weekend. It showed the design for a visitor centre at the Grand Canyon that features a glass walkway. I don't think you'd get me anywhere near it, as there's no visible bracing on the structure and nothing underneath the floor of the walkway until you get to the bottom of the canyon, some 4,000 feet below. In fact, just looking at the picture prompted a mild feeling of vertigo. The centre opens in the summer.


It was nice to see the Stardust capsule recovered safely yesterday after a trip of nearly three billion miles. But why is it that not a single news report that I heard on the TV or radio managed to pronounce the name of the comet correctly? The Swiss astronomer who discovered the comet and who has been given plenty of recognition by NASA is Professor Paul Wild - and, being Swiss, his name (and therefore that of the comet) is pronounced "Vilt" rather than "Wild."

Maybe all those reporters confused him with the Australian radio astronomer Paul Wild, or maybe they just didn't read any of NASA's web pages on the Stardust project. The pronunciation is usually addressed in NASA's press releases in the first paragraph or so.

The hard work on the project isn't over yet: scientists reckon they have about 3,000 particles trapped in the collector that was returned to Earth. You can help the project, too: just pay a visit to the Stardust at home website to find out more.


If all goes according to plan, NASA should launch its New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto tomorrow. Last time I checked, the weather forecast was good, and the spacecraft should get away on schedule. Fingers crossed.


That's an old cry I used to hear at school: it's English slang for a fight. Which is quite appropriate, given the subject of today's bumper blog entry. A colleague of mine recently installed the latest version of Quicktime, bundled with iTunes, on to his computer. The installation scrambled the machine so effectively that he had to format the hard drive and reinstall the operating system. So after he had got his machine up and running, he tried again. And once again, installing Quicktime and iTunes crashed his system so badly that he had to reformat and reinstall. He's not the only person that this has happened to, either. The latest version of iTunes seems to be proving to be a distinctly unpopular product with users - although some folks are treating the affair with rather more humour.

Which brings me to the first of two subjects I'll be blathering on about today. There's been a long tradition on the Internet of making software utilities available for little or no cost to users. In the early days, applications were written by a single programmer and did exactly what they said on the tin. New versions would fix bugs and add facilities requested by users. There are still a few die-hards out there providing this sort of service - Irfan Skiljan's graphics viewer IrfanView is one example that springs to mind. But these days, the big companies have realised that providing free utilities geared to one of their products is a great way of tying people in to buying their stuff. Once you get used to the idiosyncrasies of a software product, you're less likely to want to go through the grief of migrating to something different. Stick a prominent logo on the opening screen and handing out free software also becomes an insidious form of advertising.

The problems can begin when programmers start to hobble the functionality of the free version so that it doesn't quite do what it was you wanted it to do. This encourages users to spend twenty or thirty dollars to get a version that actually does everything it's capable of doing. Please don't misunderstand me: some producers of products like this are totally up front about the limited functionality that they offer; it works as a "try before you buy" deal so you know exactly what you're getting. When I'm looking at a product that's been created by a single programmer working alone, I'll happily spend the money and register the software. After all, I'm supporting that programmer in the development of the product and helping to finance the next update. Examples of small outfits that survive this way are nTrack and High Criteria, who produce Total Recorder. They're both excellent programs and I have registered copies of both packages. I get regular emails and updated versions and if I had a problem using the software (not that I ever have) I'm sure I'd get decent support, too.

But when it's some enormous multinational conglomerate playing the crippled software game, I'm less impressed. They can afford to distribute the utilities for free: they have bigger fish to fry, and unfortunately is shows in the way they support the downloadable stuff. I registered my copy of Quicktime back at version 4, and got nowhere near the same level of service I got from the smaller players. My registration lapsed, and I wasn't sufficiently motivated to renew it. I haven't really missed it either - I just no longer consider a full version of Quicktime to be an essential part of my system any more. There are always alternatives.

The next step is to bundle more software with the product users actually want and encourage people to use other products that the company supplies. Bundling software in downloads is the second subject for today's blog. Why? Because bundling is all well and good, except that users have to wade through a lot of crap to get at the actual functions they downloaded the stuff for in the first place. Because it's all well and good, except for the fact that the more complicated the bundle becomes, the more likely it is that part of the software won't work properly - and might screw up your computer completely, as my colleague discovered. I don't want a program that lets me change my cursor or a download manager that lets me resume failed FTP attempts if I can't use my PC after I've installed it.

Downloading bundled software can have a darker side, too. There are companies on the net that provide innocuous-looking utilities for you to download which, when you install them, put software on your computer that you would never install voluntarily. Programs might include a hidden utility for sending spam using your email account, or for helping someone to commit a denial of service attack on computers elsewhere on the net, or it may load an application to send somebody details of the credit card you use for your internet shopping. This is known as spyware. While they weren't up to anything illegal, Sony recently shot themselves in the foot by distributing CDs which used a copy protection system that actually made it easier for the bad guys to hide spyware programs on computers.

Now, some of Apple's users think they've fallen foul of the software bundle approach and are giving the company bad press about a part of the latest iTunes bundle - a program called MiniStore, which it's claimed behaves in a similar manner to spyware. Whether it does or not, is irrelevant to the point under discussion, though. I bet there are very few people out there who would voluntarily have downloaded MiniStore, but the bundling approach gives users no choice in the matter. As Sony recently discovered (and I suspect Apple are about to go through the same grief) the market's trust in a particular brand takes a severe knock when it people believe that the company is monkeying around with their customers' property or privacy. It's a phenomenon that has only really become visible in the computer age; after all, you wouldn't expect the gas in your car to change the way the vehicle steered, and you wouldn't expect the food you buy to change how long your oven takes to warm up. Yet we accept that software products will occasionally stop our PCs working properly without a second thought.

We only have ourselves to blame, and the answer is easy: keep it simple. We should be seeking out the straightforward, single application packages and using them. We shouldn't download bundled software unless we know exactly what we're getting, and unless we specifically need all the components on offer. Let the software producers create bundles if they wish, but require them to be explicit about exactly what we're getting on our CDs and in our downloads. Give users the opportunity to choose which parts of the software get installed. And as for the big guys: give us software that's the real deal, not some half-crippled compromise, and we'll come back to you time and again for more.

Oh, and Apple do provide a Quicktime 7 install that is free of iTunes altogether, by the way. But you have to do a fair bit of digging around on their website to find it.


The BBC is reporting that researchers in Taiwan have created three genetically modified pigs that glow in the dark. And they have pictures to prove it, too - images that are rather creepy. Do we really need jellyfish genes in our bacon sandwiches?


Last night's TV is reviewed by Nancy Banks-Smith in today's Guardian, and her review of the final episode of the first season of Lost, Jeremy Paxman being a very curmudgeonly sort on Who do you think you are and the BBC2's new science fiction comedy Hyperspace is considerably more entertaining and informative than the programmes themselves:

"I blame the airline. Any company that knowingly transports an armed paraplegic, an Iraqi soldier, a heavily pregnant girl, a drug addict (why do you think Charlie is called Charlie?), a handcuffed felon, a roughneck whom even Australia considers undesirable, a billionaire so fat he requires two seats and a rather nice dog, has really got it in for the dog."

Nice. The Guardian has rather gone overboard on Lost this week, despite the fact that we're really none the wiser after the end of a whole year's worth of programmes than we were at the beginning. There was much discussion of What It All Meant, although reasonable conclusions were a bit thin on the ground. In fact, the scariest thing about reading the Guardian articles was the realisation that nobody on the web appears to be able to spell the word "purgatory" correctly. I bet they didn't know that the Church of England rejected the concept in 1562, either (neither did I, until I looked it up in my trusty copy of Brewer's.)

Meanwhile, I think Nancy was even less impressed by Hyperspace than I was. Oh well. Maybe it'll get better next week.


Interesting news for me today, as I found out that Sam Raimi is to make a film of Terry Pratchett's novel the Wee Free Men which should be, er, interesting to say the least. Basic plot? 9-year-old Tiffany Aching's brother is stolen by the faerie folk. Not being your average 9-year-old, she enlists the help of the Nac Mac Feegle, a race of very small, very blue and very belligerent folk (known as, ahem, Pictsies) to get him back. If the thing's done properly (and that's a big if) there will be much shouting of "see you Jimmy" and "put a heid on this" but who will be playing the parts? Where will Bruce Campbell make his compulsory (and keenly anticipated) cameo? The mind boggles.


The Stardust cometary probe returns its samples to Earth this week. Observers in Nevada should get a spectacular view as the capsule streaks back into the atmosphere, fifty miles overhead. Hopefully the recovery will be a little easier than it was for the Genesis probe which, you may remember, failed to deploy its parachutes after one of the gravity operated switches on board was installed upside down. It's a testament to the skill and patience of the Genesis science team involved that they still recovered 98% of their sample material after their experiment smashed into the desert at several hundred miles an hour.


And some time after January 17th, NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt will lift off. It'll be sitting on top of an Atlas V booster rocket, which (if it launches in the first part of the launch window) will throw it across the solar system in record time. It'll be going so fast it'll pass the Moon in nine hours and get to Pluto in 2015. If it launches after the 29th, though, it might take 4 years longer to get there. Whatever the date, there will be a lot of interested people waiting for the pictures to come back.


The Register has found another fun image on Google Earth: this time, someone using the application spotted an Avro Lancaster flying over Huntingdon. This is not quite as weird as it seems, as the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight is based a bit further north at RAF Coningsby, but it's still an impressive catch.


I watched the BBC's new police drama series Life On Mars this evening. Basic plot? Policeman investigating a case in 2006 gets run over, wakes up in 1973 where he's still a policeman, and investigating stuff that seems to be connected. It's got a good cast, snappy directing, and a half-decent idea - even if it is a bit off the wall. Imagine someone teleported from the present day into an episode of The Sweeney and you've got the general gist. Fashion that time forgot, clips from the Open University, Robert Dougall reading the news, it's all there. Heck, it looks like the hero's guv'nor even drives the most revered of 1970s cop show clichés, the brown Ford Granada (or was it a Cortina?)

It'll be interesting to see if it can sustain a series, but I'll certainly be watching next week. For one thing, 1973 was the year I really started to get interested in music. It's worth tuning in just for the music soundtrack to the show, which featured David Bowie (duh), the Who and others. The teaser for next week even had Led Zeppelin's immigrant song thumping away in the background. Excellent.


I haven't been doing much this weekend, thanks to Ensemble Studios' amazing Age of Empires III which I've been playing since my copy arrived on Friday. The biggest change for me is the physics engine: now when units attack buildings, bits fall off in a highly realistic manner. People are bowled over by cannonballs, and ships reel under the impact of broadsides. It looks amazing, but my machine - which is pretty powerful, even though it's over a year old - is obviously running flat out to keep up.

The game's other innovation over previous versions is the "home city" concept. Broadly speaking, it's the same sort of approach as unlocking cars or game features that's been used in consoles for years: the more you play, the more features you get. This makes gameplay highly addictive, which is probably rather bad news...


Have you ever been to a concert that felt like it would never end? If you have, then you might want to steer clear of St. Buchardi's in Halberstadt, Germany. The Church is hosting a performance of one of John Cage's works and the concert, which started four and a half years ago, will be running for quite some time to come.

In fact, it won't finish until the year 2639. The reason? The piece is entitled As Slow as Possible and the organisers are taking the composer at his word. In fact, the organ that's being used to perform the music hasn't been completed yet - pipes are being added as they're needed to play the notes. The whole thing makes Professor Parnell's Pitch Drop experiment seem positively rushed.


I was listening to a couple of Yes albums from the 1980s this afternoon, including one of my all-time favourites: 90125, which (because I'm more than a little obsessive when it comes to progressive rock) I have on vinyl and on CD as both the original release and the enhanced remaster that came out a few years ago. I even have Trevor Rabin's CD 90124, which consists of demos and rough versions of songs that ended up on Yes's version.

My collection is not complete, however. I am still hoping that the 1986 concert film directed by Steven Soderburgh called 9012Live will eventually appear on DVD. It may be cheesy now, but I can still remember being blown away by the little sequence at the beginning where a hip 1950's teenager makes a "square" motion with her hands and draws a dotted outline in thin air (exactly like Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace does, several years later, when she chastises John Travolta's Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.) However, in Soderburgh's film, the square shape that's been drawn in the air drops away and the camera zooms through the resulting hole to reveal the band. It's one of the most striking images I've ever seen in a music video. It must be, if I can still picture it in my mind's eye some twenty years later. But at the moment, can you buy a DVD of it anywhere? Of course not. Bloody typical.


...and McSweeney's has some good New Year's resolutions for us all.


Microsoft still want to take over the world. Bill Gates has been talking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, explaining that he wants Windows at the core of all your entertainment equipment. I'll leave you to decide whether or not that's a good idea. All the same, as I read more about what he was saying, one thing becomes clear: if one industry is going to do well out of all the latest entertainment technology, it's going to be the data storage industry. Photos, music, video, TV programmes - we're going to want it all in the same place, and that's going to be a domestic data server. We're already seeing household wireless storage solutions like Netgear's Storage Central on sale, but I'd be wanting something much, much bigger, probably multi-terabyte. And despite Bill's assertions that the future belongs to Windows, I'd still rather have a Myth TV homebrew PVR setup. Maybe later this year...


Just my luck: I buy the boxed set of every episode ever made of Matt Groening's Futurama, and now this. If it's true, I will be tremendously happy - as far as I'm concerned it's a much superior show to The Simpsons and I love the look they got by combining Groening's style with computer graphics.


One of the Guardian's writers has been tracking down the 40 or so people who have played in Mark E. Smith's band, The Fall. The one thing that most people are likely to know about the band is that they were John Peel's favourite. As the article explains, the box of his most-played records has a compartment devoted specifically to what he referred to as The Mighty Fall. Smith is, by all accounts, not the easiest musician to work for and the band members have some interesting stories to tell. There were nervous breakdowns, and hospitalisations. A former drummer threw himself under a train. One current member is so stressed that, at the age of 22, his hair is falling out. Rock and roll, eh?


I got Rebecca some Who Dares Burns: 2nd Assault hot sauce for Christmas. She tells me that when she did some cooking with it, the simple act of opening the bottle wafted caustic fumes into the kitchen and both the twins started coughing. Not surprising, as it's rated at more than 200,000 scoville units! I've stuck to the original version, which isn't quite as aggressive. Even so, if you spread a drop (no more than a drop) on your cheese on toast you can certainly tell it's there. Yummy.


The Who's guitarist Pete Townshend blames his increasing deafness on the prolonged use of headphones at loud volume in the studio, rather than the awe-inspiring sound pressure levels he used to generate on stage. This reminds me of the (possibly apocryphal) story I heard years ago about a studio engineer who returned a set of very expensive headphones to the manufacturer after working on a rock band's album. He'd sent them back on the grounds that they were distorting, but when the company duly tested the headphones, they found them to be working perfectly. Naturally, they enquired what sort of work the engineer had been doing with them. To cut a long story short, it turned out that he had turned up the volume so high that he'd wrecked his hearing: it was his ears that were distorting, not the cans...


Talking of the music business, The Register has been having a go (a rather aggressive one, too) at the music industry. This has been prompted by reports of the record business failing to halt a significant decline and talk of a 5% slump in CD sales. Not surprisingly, this is being blamed on piracy and illegal downloading rather than say, inflated prices, poor product, or limited availability of many artists' back catalogues. Yes, I know we've covered this before in the blog so, instead of me blathering on, just do a search on Google by typing in "music industry" stupidity and see what crops up. I reckon you'll get nearly 95,000 hits, and that's before today's stories get indexed.


If you've been back at work today after the Christmas break, you have my sympathies. It was quite a struggle to get out of bed this morning. The BBC had a news item offering some advice to beat the post-Christmas blues, and as far as the report was concerned, working hard to achieve a goal - and not a work-related one - is the best way to happiness.


The latest review from Nancy Banks-Smith (my favourite TV critic) in the Guardian reveals that she enjoyed BBC2's Balderdash and Piffle last night. The programme revolved around a concept that required Victoria Cohen to convince three members of the OED's staff that they must change entries in the dictionary to reflect the information turned up by the programme's dogged viewers. Given that a lot of the "evidence" presented was along the lines of "I had an uncle once who told me..." and that the OED needs written - if not printed - evidence of usage, it's hardly surprising that in most cases Ms Cohen's requests were turned down. The approach was shamelessly ripped off from BBC2's "Dragon's Den" and felt really inappropriate.

Handled in a more straightforward manner, B&P would probably have made an interesting half-hour programme. It's a sign of the times that, instead of anything original, we got a format copied wholesale from a more successful programme. It wasn't even done well - it was misplaced and clumsy. Let's not abandon hope for decent programmes, though - in a similar way, Stephen Fry's programme QI uses the gameshow format to great effect. It's worth comparing and contrasting the two shows: for instance, a sign that there's limited confidence in Balderdash and Piffle's sustainability might be that the first programme was devoted to words beginning with the letter P. By contrast, QI is working through the alphabet one series at a time and the 4th season will be devoted to the letter D. That's the sort of approach that says, in effect, "we're going to be around for at least twenty six series." QI is judiciously edited and provides half an hour of joy. B&P suffers from being padded out to nearly an hour - and there really wasn't enough material to keep one's attention, even if Adam Hart-Davis was nearly sick while investigating the expression "pear-shaped" by looping the loop in a Tiger Moth.

At least it was better than Channel 4's programme, "Who killed the sitcom?" This was the latest in a long line of productions with a tried and tested (and tired) approach: you make entertainment on the cheap by showing very short clips from dozens of other, more entertaining programmes. This is justified using the pretext that you're presenting a list of candidates for something or other that is neither particularly interesting nor important. Top tip: when the camera operator on a documentary abandons a tripod and resorts to waving the camera about wildly and zooming in and out, it's a sure sign that the crew think the material they're filming isn't interesting enough to stand up on its own merit. Judging by last night's efforts, they were right - I gave up and went to bed.


It's 2006, and I hope you had a peaceful and restorative time in the last week or so. Here in the UK, today is a public holiday, so I'm at home doing the household chores before I go back to work tomorrow. I've already taken the tree down and put the decorations away; by doing it while I'm still on holiday it won't feel quite as depressing as it would be putting them away on twelfth night, which is when my parents used to take the decorations down.

I spent Christmas in Lytham, which was great fun. I spent five and a half hours driving over to my parents' place on Boxing Day - that took two hours off the time I managed a couple of years ago, as I decided to avoid going anywhere near Manchester on the way. Norfolk was pretty quiet, although I met up with most of my family there - and I got snowed in for a few days, too: the weather was decidedly wintry. I was in Solihull for the New Year and got back here yesterday. Thanks to everyone concerned for a lovely break - I had a good holiday.

One thing I really missed over the last week was broadband. It's only been a year since I moved away from a dialup connection, but using a modem at Mum and Dad's place felt amazingly slow. Microsoft seem to assume every user of Windows has access to the Internet that makes downloading ten or eleven megabytes of updates a practical proposition; for many people, this clearly isn't so. And to be honest, my folks aren't really the sort of people who need fast Internet access for anything else. Perhaps if Microsoft spent a bit more time refining their products before they released them, Mum and Dad wouldn't need to spend time and money tying up their phone line.


You may remember that last year - on December 20th, in fact - I mentioned a new flexible battery that NEC have developed. I ended up talking about a video I'd seen that explored the future application of RFID tags, but that I couldn't find a link to it. Well, I've managed to track it down: I'd seen it mentioned here at Régine Debatty's excellent site We Make Money Not Art. The film is a piece called The Catalogue by Chris Oakley. If you have a connection fast enough, it's worth watching - but I'm not sure it's a future I'm all that comfortable with.