Let's blog like we did last summer

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: January 2007

January was all about paying attention - or the lack of it. Gorillas playing basketball, test flights of spacecraft, spectacular comets, or mistakes in movies: you either saw them or you didn't.

Most of the time it was very mild, although there was a cold snap - but it really doesn't feel like winter apart from the whole getting dark early thing. Maybe next month will be different.


They Might Be Giants
(one syllable or two there?)
running haiku comp...

Their page is way cool
and it even has podcasts
head over there now!


Over the last couple of days I've been discussing law and the Internet with a former colleague of mine. This stemmed from a paper he'd found on the legal enforcement of accessibility guidelines - what are you actually required to do to ensure accessibility? It turns out that the situation isn't that clear. On my site, I try to maintain a decent level of accessibility and provide ALT text for images, etc. Unfortunately the way may headfirstonly.com web hosting works, I end up with one version of the site in frames, which is no good at all for something like Lynx. If you use the direct link to this page you don't get the frames, and most browsers should handle it OK.

As a result of all this I found a commentary by Dion Dennis on ubiquitous computing, virtual theft, RFID tags, and the role of law enforcement in the future of the Internet. If you haven't heard much about where people think the use of technology is heading, you'll find that the later sections of the article make for rather interesting (and, possibly, a little alarming) reading. Dennis is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Bridgewater State College, and he raises some very interesting points. I've already blogged about RFID tags before, but I must admit the conversation he reports with Bruce Sterling sounds a little more optimistic than most of the other discussions I've read.


I really am beginning to worry about Microsoft's future. Judging by some of the articles that I've read over the past few weeks, the main two words that will be associated with Windows Vista are going to be unmitigated disaster. As if to bring home this point, typing in "microsoft.com" into the address bar in IE6 completely hosed the browser today. Twice. It's a little alarming and not particularly reassuring that their software can't even access its own website without falling over.


Thanks once again to Gromit of the William Gibson Board for providing yet another item that causes the rest of the world to roll its eyes and mutter the immortal words: "only in America": flavoured ammunition.


It's the sort of thing that really belongs on an episode of the show: several islands off the coast of Ireland are arguing about who has the best claim to put on a Father Ted festival. Whoever is in the right, the idea that the show should be celebrated is one that I agree with wholeheartedly. But which island do I support? Ah, well, that would be an ecumenical matter...


If you're going to nick fancy items of electrical equipment, it might be a good idea to keep stuff fitted with GPS location transponders way down your list.


Remember how, back at the beginning of the month I mentioned that UFOs seem to be on the way back? Keep watching the skies, folks, because if Christian fundamentalists have started seeing stuff in the skies, we could be in trouble. Unless China shoots them down first, of course.


Yesterday I was talking about how little attention we pay to what we see; we pay even less attention when we're just listening. While I'm at work, I listen to the radio a fair bit, and for a while I used to listen to Planet Rock most of the time. But I've pretty much given up on them, because they mess around with broadcast output too much - it's dreadfully overcompressed. What that means is that when a piece of music gets to a quiet bit, the station's equipment automatically turns up the volume to compensate. Presumably this is because some marketing wonk decided that people might switch to a different station if things got quiet.

When the original music gets loud again, the volume gets turned back down. Progressive rock music tends to have quiet bits then loud bits then quiet bits again on a fairly regular basis, so it's not good material to try this with. Once you notice what's going on, it becomes incredibly intrusive, especially as whatever gadget they use to control the compression is set at much too sensitive a level so that the volume of the music is changing almost continuously. Imagine someone turning the volume control up and down, up and down while you're trying to listen to your favourite tunes, and you get the general idea. Most music isn't meant to be heard at a constant volume, and when it's mutilated so that it is, it sounds horrible. The problem isn't limited to radio stations, either. Despite the fact that it's made by one of my favourite bands (and they're a bunch of talented musicians I've seen play live more than thirty times) I've listened to Vapor Trails, Rush's most recent studio album, less than half a dozen times. I found it was just too loud and unrelenting, and it's actually too much like hard work to listen to it. Today, it was one of the albums singled out in an article in the Guardian about the steady decline in quality standards for CD mastering, and the story makes for depressing reading.

What is the music industry playing at? The whole point of CDs is that they allow for far greater dynamic range than vinyl; after I finally bought a CD player, I remember what a revelation it was to hear some albums again although I'd been listening to the vinyl versions for months (or years). The first time I heard Peter Gabriel IV on CD I was completely floored by the increased dynamic range. I lent the CD to a colleague at work and he nearly lost his speakers, coming in the next day raving about what an exceptional technical achievement the thing was.

Digital audio is supposed to provide crystal clear reproduction, but only if the bit rate is high enough. I've noticed that when I listen to quite a few of the stations on DAB, the sound has a peculiar "frying bacon" quality to it when there isn't enough information being broadcast. You can hear a similar thing on lower bit rate mp3 files, a standard that uses very lossy compression to minimise file size. Just listen to the original recording of something with a lot of high frequencies in it - like cymbals, for example, and then listen to the mp3 version. Horrible, isn't it? Lossy compression means just that: a lot of the information in the sound is lost, which reduces the audio quality still more. I'm amazed that nobody ever seems to complain, presumably because fewer and fewer people out there actually listen to music with really good sound reproduction any more. There again, look at the sort of artists who are successful these days. Perhaps that's why the recording industry have decided that they don't need to bother about quality any more. If it is, then we've only ourselves to blame.


Ryan Gilbey blogs on the Guardian website today:

"In the Venn diagram of life, 'film buff' overlaps significantly with 'socially awkward pedant.' That's just the way these things go."

Hell yes. And if you know me, or if you've been reading my blog for very long, you'll already be perfectly aware of that fact. But, as Ryan points out, there are people a lot sadder than me out there: you've only got to read the observations about Neo's ammunition in the IMDB's goofs page about The Matrix to realise that. As I read the article, I realised that in a lot of cases I'd seen mistakes in films and chosen to ignore them. Sometimes it's because the story was sufficiently engrossing for me to suspend criticism and carry on watching (and believe me, that wouldn't have been the case twenty years ago), but most often it's because I really just couldn't be bothered to notice at the time. I wasn't particularly bothered that the Mitsubishi Evo in Jackie Chan's Who Am I? can spin round on its side but yet when it's righted, it drives off with barely a scratch. I completely failed to notice the guy in a puffa jacket and jeans who appears in Ridley Scott's film Gladiator until I read about it on the net. I will admit, however, that I did go and look once I knew about it: he's about 21 minutes in, if you're interested, and he carefully steps backwards when he realises he's in shot.

The reason that most of us don't bother about stuff like this is simple: for the most part it has absolutely no impact on our daily lives whatsoever, it never has, and it never will. As a result, human brains aren't wired for noticing it, and the older you get the more you realise how much can slip past because you're not paying attention. You may already have heard about the inventive (and fun) visual cognition experiments performed by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris a few years ago. No? Dear me, do try to keep up. Subjects were asked to watch some people throwing basketballs around and count the number of times the balls were passed. All well and good; but then the subjects were asked if they had noticed anything else about the footage they'd just watched. Very few people reported anything out of the ordinary. Did you? If you didn't, go back and watch the video again.

Hopefully, at this point you'll be starting to wonder whether or not you saw (and ignored) anything else unusual today. That's good, it's a good sign, and you should work at it. Just remember that not noticing is so easy to do, it's scary. Don't worry about it too hard, though: perhaps your subconscious will simply decide that whatever-it-is is somebody else's problem. The point that I'm trying to make (and that Douglas Adams made when he invented the SEP field) is that for many people, a large spaceship could land in the outfield during a cricket match at Lords and nobody would notice it.

To sum up: most people you encounter tomorrow will not be paying attention. It's worth keeping that in mind.


I sat down in front of the TV on Sunday night for Channel 4's Equinox science programme on tornadoes in the UK. I needn't have bothered, because the programme was unwatchable. It appeared to have been made for five year old boys with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, because about every fifteen seconds or so it featured footage of bricks being thrown through windows. Presumably this was intended to show that tornadoes blow stuff about, and that they can cause damage - which I'd kind of figured out already.

I was interested in finding out the history of tornadoes in Britain - when was the first one recorded, how frequent they are, that sort of thing. I also wanted to know what sort of landscape encourages tornadoes (other than trailer parks, of course) and what parts of the country are likely to be particularly susceptible in the future. What are the latest predictions for tornado frequency? What sort of weather conditions should we be cautious about? Are there any differences between tornadoes this far north and those that occur in "tornado alley" in the United States? Is there an upper limit to how destructive the winds can get? Some computer graphics showing the latest thinking on how winds behave inside a tornado as it develops would have been nice, too. But no. Instead, we got the typical "bloke in pub" interviews:

"all of a sudden, I heard this roaring noise, it got windy, and fings started flying about."

Well, duh.

I know the BBC's science programme Horizon has been a shadow of its former self for several years, although I notice it's still their "flagship" science show - which is either a case of trading too heavily on former glories, or an example of delusional thinking on behalf of the PR team who put the web page together. All the same, it was a bit of a shock to see just how bad Equinox has become. You'd almost think they were doing it on purpose. What is so difficult about making sensible programmes on scientific subjects these days? Rather more fundamentally: what is so difficult about thinking these days? There used to be some really good science programmes when I was a kid. This one was so bad that I'd given up watching altogether after less than ten minutes.


You couldn't possibly get stronger evidence than this for the reality of climate change: an ice cream van is driving round the estate as I sit here at the computer.


There have been reports of his death at least since 1994, but yesterday the writer Robert Anton Wilson really did shuffle off this mortal coil. In one of the last posts on his blog, he told everyone to keep flinging the lasagna, and wrote "Please pardon my levity, I don't see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd."

Like Yvonne de Carlo, who also died this week, RAW was one of those people who made my world a more interesting place. I read the Illuminatus! books when I was in my teens, and that was probably when I started to realise how creative writing can be as a pursuit. Read some of his interviews on the second link I gave just now, and you'll realise that he was a guy who wasn't scared of very big ideas. I'm going to miss his extraordinary take on things.


It's getting nippy outside tonight. I say this with some authority, because I've just walked up the road to try and see a comet. Unfortunately I didn't get home in time to see it, as it had already set: it's getting quite close to the sun at the moment. Still, if you live in the northern hemisphere, Comet McNaught should be visible in the western sky very shortly after sunset (or just before sunrise) for the next day or two. It looks like being one of the brightest comets for decades, but you'll need to live in the southern hemisphere to really see it in all its glory , which will happen once it's rounded the sun and starts heading back into deep space.

When will it return? Well, according to Heavens Above, it's on what's known as a hyperbolic orbit, which means that it won't be coming back. So if you want to see it, make sure you do so this time round!


America's National Optical Astronomy Observatory has just released some interesting evidence concerning the way in which the magnetic fields of binary star systems interact with each other. Even on a star much smaller and cooler than the sun, astronomers have seen immense solar flares and sunspots, all driven by the magnetic field of the companion white dwarf star. It would make for quite a sight, as the illustration that accompanies their press release shows.


On a more mundane level, I've been laid up with a truly revolting cough and cold for the last few days. You really don't want to know about it in detail - let's just say that phlegm was heavily involved. What a wonderful word that is: a sure-fire Scrabble winner, my dictionary tells me that it comes from the Greek phlegmatos, meaning inflammation, and the root word is the Greek phlego, the verb meaning to burn.

Phlegm was one of the four bodily humours, a surfeit of which made you phlegmatic; a person of this type is one who doesn't get excited over things. Not a bad description, if you're feeling awful. The other three humours were blood (resulting in a sanguine nature), yellow bile (which brought out people's choleric side), and black bile (giving a melancholic disposition).



Most impressive thing I've seen in the last couple of days is the flight video of Blue Origin's Goddard spacecraft prototype, which has been reported all over the place, with the stories focusing mainly on the fact that the company's chief is Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com. Watch the video on the Blue Origin site, because it's not your average film of a toy rocket. There's no sign of the smoke and flames you usually expect to see during a rocket flight. Instead, the thing flies with a roaring hissing noise. That gives a strong clue to the propellants being used, which it's suggested are a 90-10 mix of hydrogen peroxide and kerosene giving an exhaust that will be mainly steam. The fact that some of the video clips on Blue Origin's site show the camera lens getting covered in water droplets seems to bear this out.

However, the fuel hasn't been discussed widely - perhaps because peroxide fuels are notoriously dangerous, and have been responsible for at least one major accident in recent years.


Where I work in Bristol, we always know when it's 9am on a Wednesday morning, because the major incident siren at Frenchay Hospital goes off. It's been tested once a week since I started working down here - well, it's been tested since it was installed back in the 1940s, actually - but today it didn't go off. It's finally been decommissioned, replaced by more up to date technology like pagers and mobile phones. It's funny, but I'll really miss it.


In the Guardian today, Garrison Keillor writes about working with Robert Altman on the film of A Prairie Home Companion, which finally gets a UK release on Friday. Keillor has long been one of my favourite writers and broadcasters. My brother loved the advert he did for Honda: "Of course you have a sense of adventure. You just happen to live in Orpington." My brother, you see, does just that. Here in the UK, Garrison Keillor's radio show (which is pretty much what the film is about, even though it takes place decades ago) is broadcast on BBC7 on Saturday nights, and it's well worth a listen.

The director Robert Altman, who died last year, featured heavily in the arts review programmes that were on over Christmas. He annoyed a lot of people in Hollywood, but he made some great films.


Crikey - after a few years where I thought they'd died off, could 2007 be shaping up as the year of the return of the UFO? We're certainly off to a promising start. As a Fortean, I've become just as fascinated with people's beliefs in phenomena like this as I have in the things themselves. You've only got to spend a little time searching the web to find some fairly divergent interpretations of reality being put forwards, and points being made rather forcefully on the various different hypotheses that people have come up with to explain them.