The 1950's b-movie references continue!

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: February 2004

February brought more snow, MIDI hamsters, Easter Island heads (which, I learned, are called Moai) and yet another asteroid "near miss."

Oh, and it was a leap year.


I was delving around in the wardrobe this afternoon and came across an old tie that I'd forgotten about - it's a Ralph Marlin tie with The Borg on it. The Borg have had a huge influence on a certain element of the computer fraternity, presumably because they had more computing power than any other part of the Star Trek universe. In fact, they probably had mor computing power than all of the rest of the Star Trek universe. So perhaps it's understandable that modders should want to make their computers look like a Borg Cube. I must admit that unearthly green neon glow looks rather cool...


And of course I had to update the blog today, just so I could put the date at the top of the entry. There was a sweet story on today's evening news about a chap who, despite being in his seventies, has only just turned 18 - because he was born on February 29th, 1932. His local pub were going to hold a big party for him, now that he can legally buy alcohol there!

Today's big event is, of course Oscar night - I'll be commenting on that once we know what the results are. Stay tuned...


Well, we've got two chances left. Rosetta missed its launch instant this morning because of strong high-altitude winds over the launch site. Yes, I said launch instant; the opportunity for taking off isn't long enough to be called a launch window. Because of the complexity of the path that will take it across the solar system, it has to be launched exactly on time. There's another chance tomorrow morning, and one on Saturday morning. I hope everything runs smoothly and we get a good launch.


From the blood and gore department: another Shockwave penguin batting game, this one from Holland. It's based on the original yeti-and-penguin setup, but this version involves crudely-added spiked bats, guts and landmines. Definitely a parental advisory, I think.

High scores are over a thousand. How will you do?


Yes, we've had snow here in the west. Not to the extent that Wales had this morning - over 100 schools are closed - but still enough to cause traffic chaos and transport mayhem, et cetera, et cetera. The travel news this evening on BBC Radio Bristol listed one accident after another: jackknifed lorries, buses careering about, and cars going off roads left, right and centre. And all this because we've had about three centimetres of snow. After working in Norway during the winter, days like this just make me feel ashamed to be British...


The frequency with which I come across stories about asteroid near misses is quite disturbing. News of another one reached me this week, and this one was the closest people have come to seriously worrying about it - to the point that had astronomers not been able to get a confirmation fix, they would have telephoned the president. What exactly Mr. Bush could have done about a lump of rock half a kilometre wide bearing down on us isn't clear.

Luckily, the asteroid missed us by millions of kilometres; it wasn't even the closest escape we've had in recent years. Having a presence out in space beyond low Earth orbit is the only way we stand any chance of doing something about threats like this, because sooner or later someone will find a rock with our name on it. Unfortunately most people won't be prepared to put enough funding into space programmes until that happens. By then, Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall notwithstanding, it's going to be too late.


And, talking of space, let's hope that tomorrow morning's Rosetta launch goes well. It's going to be a long mission out to put a lander on a comet, but the results should be spectacular.


Actually, I don't think Ludwig's got too much to worry about the latest composers to hit the Internet. As part of his dissertation for a masters degree, Levy Lorenzo Jr. of Cornell University came up with a rather novel input source for his MIDI equipment. His pet hamsters. The site's been Slashdotted, so you may have trouble reaching it, but believe me, it's worth it.

Perhaps the compositions will reach BBC's Mixing It programme, too - who knows? If the truth be told, I quite liked the music...


From personal experience, I can tell you that being in a company when it makes job cuts isn't fun, even if you manage to keep your job. But the latest research from Finland appears to indicate that it's a lot worse than that: being one of the folks left behind can kill you. Their study showed that the incidence of cardiovascular disease in employees who were kept on in a company after downsizing doubled. Just the thing to read on a Monday, eh?


OK, so here's something to cheer you up. The DVD of Pixar's Finding Nemo comes out on the 27th of February. Today, Ananova were covering the most ridiculous PR stunt I've seen this year - someone watched the whole movie underwater while dressed in an antique diving suit. Presumably the 5.1 sound mix suffered to a certain extent - I imagine that the subtitle facility came in quite useful. But check out the story, because the picture of a deep-sea diver sitting in front of the telly in an armchair (complete with tea and biscuits, I might add) at the bottom of a tank at the London Aquarium is British eccentricity at its very finest. Bravo!


And finally today, thanks very much to the Troops, Rob and Ruth, who came back from their half-term holidays in Southwold with a very nice present for me. They managed to find a companion for the Easter Island head I have in the back garden. Fortunately for me, this one's hollow, so it was much easier to take home. Here they both are (the heads, not the troops...)

Chris's two Moai (Easter Island head sculptures. ) They're each about 45 Cm high.

Are they cool or what? Judging by its expression, the one on the left is a bit wary, but I'm sure they'll get on just fine... Thanks, folks!


I've always had a soft spot for the Segway Human Transporter, even back in the days when the hype over Project Ginger collapsed with much sniggering, finger pointing, and cries of "it's a scooter!"

To be fair, it's an amazing piece of kit. When I got my hands on one at the Farnborough Air Show, it took me roughly ten seconds to learn how to drive, and I found it to be stable, responsive, and huge fun. We saw Niles and Frasier with them on TV; Peter Gabriel and his band have been whizzing about on stage with them during their recent tour (and Tony Levin has the photos to prove it.) In fact, just about the only person who seems to be having trouble using the thing is the US President. More than one person has suggested that his little tumble wasn't exactly accidental...

Because the Segway is so stable, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to make a robotic version. Now someone has, although the rest of the project might not be quite so straightforward. You see, they aren't just developing a robotic Segway, they're developing a robotic Segway soccer team. And if the research paper for that doesn't make the short list for this year's IgNobels, there's no justice.


I had to laugh yesterday at the BBC, which is running a series of articles on how cynical people have become these days. The reason the BBC seems to be upset about the rising tide of cynicism is that according to a recent survey, the only people who were less likely to be believed by the public than journalists were politicians. Could this have anything to do with the continuing fallout from the Hutton report, or am I being cynical? Perhaps some of this cynicism might be explained by an example of how frequently spin is used, and ends up distorting simple facts. So, here's one that appeared on the same day, on the same website!

BBC News ran a couple of items - and the headlines were actually listed next to each other, at least for a while - that clearly couldn't both be true. One article claimed that Wales was the worst country in the world for asthma cases. The story next to it claimed - you've guessed it - that Scotland was the worst country in the world for asthma cases. Hmmm...

Truth, it seems, is far less important than putting sufficient spin on your stories to make people read them. All fine and dandy, until someone else comes up with the same angle for their story, too. One day, perhaps, the focus will return to facts, and we can all leave our cynicism behind us.

Yeah, right...


News today that astronomers have found a white dwarf star about 50 light years away with a core that is believed to be crystallised carbon, and is estimated to be about 1500 Km in diameter. In other words, 50 light years away we know there's a diamond roughly the size of Texas. The mind boggles. Mind you, you'd have to find a pretty large ring to mount it on.


There's been a lot of discussion in the past couple of decades about the science of mathematics, and what constitutes "proving" a mathematical theorem. In the old days, you just wrote your working out on paper, other mathematicians checked it, and if everyone agreed it was right then, hoorah: mathematics progressed a bit. Then computers came along. Suddenly it became possible to do millions of calculations involving slightly different equations to see if they all came out the same way - a brute force approach, in a way, but one that was incredibly successful. One of the problems that was figured out this way was the answer to the question "how close together can you stack things, wasting the minimum amount of space?" Well, this week further progress was announced on the problem - it depends on what shape the things are (duh), but apparently M&Ms have some particularly interesting properties for mathematicians.

Of course, it could all just be a big PR stunt to plug confectionery...


I was up in Solihull at the weekend. Natural romantics that we are, we spent most of Saturday afternoon watching the Six Nations rugby matches. But, yes, valentines cards and chocolates were involved. I had a great time. The Gamecube also featured heavily, of course, as all of us had to have the traditional games of Burnout. This time, within half an hour, Ruth had managed to unlock six new tracks, another car, and a new game mode. I was amazed - I've never even managed to unlock anything! I think I should just give up now.

Rob, on the other hand, was off gaming in the real world rather than the computer world. He spent Saturday at what the rest of us have rather harshly christened Nerd Club - playing Warhammer. This is a war game involving moving model soldiers and throwing dice. It's a bit like a Space Marines version of Dungeons and Dragons. It's a bit overwhelming. I still have my original TSR D&D manuals, but it's been a long time since I threw polyhedral dice in anger, and things have come on a long way since then. The sheer amount of stuff you have to know (or at least be able to look up in the appropriate book) is staggering, but Rob really enjoys it. Both he and Ruth are off on their holidays this week, but I promised them they'd get a blog entry. So here it is, folks!


Scary thought: it's exactly nine years ago today since I started work down here in Bristol. At the time I wasn't sure that I was doing the right thing or not, but looking back it's been one of the best things I ever did. And even more scary, I'll soon have lived in my current home for longer than I have ever lived anywhere.


After shaving my head last weekend (along with Rebecca's son Rob, we're raising money for the Solihull Breast Cancer support group Solihull Breast Friends and the cancer information website CancerBACUP and, if things go according to plan we should raise about £500) I'm pleased to say that my hair is growing back. This morning I actually looked like me when I looked in the mirror.

However, I still have a long way to go before my facial hair reaches the astonishing structures achieved by proponents of the handlebar moustache. Oh boy. And, no, I'm not going to explain how on Earth I discovered this site!


A lot of hoo-hah in the press this week about Intel's research into photonics on silicon-based chips. If they bring it off, it could mean ludicrous increases in the average speed of computers over the next few years.


You may or may not have seen the story this week about a chap in Australia who turned up at his local surf club's clubhouse recently with a shark. I can remember first reading about the wobbegong as a teenager in Alec Fraser-Brunner's book Danger In The Sea. It's also known as the carpet shark, because it's flat and has frilly edges. Not the most ferocious looking of creatures, it resembles a small rug rather than the ferocious killing machine portrayed in Jaws. In the book, Brunner notes that this shark only attacks when severely provoked.

Once it attaches itself, however, it's extremely difficult to persuade it to let go, to the point that the diver mentioned above had to drive to the clubhouse with the shark still attached to his leg. He was lucky, though. Brunner describes an incident in the 1950s where a wobbegong attached itself firmly to a diver's bum and had to be towed back to the boat. The book goes on to note, drily, that carpet sharks are (of course) bottom feeders.


Some people are lucky, and some aren't. Submitted for your approval: how about this story? A poor motorcyclist in Korea staggered into an emergency department after being brained by a briefcase containing $600,000 that had been dropped off a motorway bridge as a ransom payment. Just to rub it in, he didn't realise what had hit him until he saw the story on the evening news. The hostage was, we are told, released unharmed. Once again, I tell you - you just couldn't make this stuff up.


Some great pictures from Mars have cropped up in the last few days. The first picture is taken from Mars orbit, and shows the Opportunity lander nestling in its crater, its discarded parachute, and even the area of Martian desert disturbed by the lander's retro rockets firing. The amount of detail is astonishing.

The other Mars pictures have got the conspiracy buffs in a huge lather. Was the lander deliberately driven over evidence of extraterrestrial life, or did it drive over a discarded piece of airbag as it turned round? I suspect that once again, we'll never know...


I know quite a few people - including my father - who are quite convinced that nothing is happening to the climate, and nothing will persuade them otherwise. For me, if the Pentagon starts to sit up and take notice when people talk about climate change, I start worrying.

When I read the article in Fortune magazine about the Pentagon-commissioned report on the possible effects of climate change, I really started worrying. It does not make for reassuring reading. War, famine, global conflict and starvation seem to be what we've got to look forwards to. Not good. Does this mean the US will now attempt to meet the Kyoto protocol? I won't be holding my breath.


I see on the BBC's site today that Tower Records has gone to the wall. Once again, the story was heavily skewed, claiming that it was all due to the amount of music downloading going on these days. And, of course, nothing to do with the fact that people have stopped paying the grossly inflated prices charged in the high street and are going elsewhere for their music. Oh no. Nothing to do with that at all.

If your average net-savvy customer is faced with the choice of paying £8.99 for a CD from someone like, or £14.99 for the same product in the high street, which do you think they're going to go for? And - bearing in mind that the disc they're buying probably cost no more than 20p to make - how sorry do you feel for the retailers anyway?


Yes, I know driving to work doesn't help from an ecological standpoint. Unfortunately, where I live, I don't have a viable alternative. Britain has a poorer public transport infrastructure than any other country I've visited. So, sitting in the traffic jam for the M5 / M4 junction roadworks this morning, I found myself dreaming that old familiar daydream, the one where you push a button on the dashboard, fire up the engines, rise into the air, and soar effortlessly to your destination without further holdups or inconvenience.

It's the 21st Century, dammit!

This is the Future!

2001 was years ago!

Where are the flying cars that we were promised?

IBM ran a successful advertising campaign using this question, but they didn't supply us with any answers, did they? Well, one man is still working in pursuit of all our dreams. Whether he succeeds or not is more or less irrelevant. I doubt very much that I'll be able to buy a Blade Runner style spinner any time soon. But at least the dream is alive, thanks to Paul Moller.


What with one thing and another, things have been rather fraught recently. So it was nice to take a few days out and unwind a bit - hence the decided lack of blog entries over the last week. I was staying with Rebecca, Ruth and Rob, helping out as best I could and generally taking the chance to chill. So there's another bumper load of bits trawled off the internet to catch up with. Here we go!

Stress is often a problem with modern day life, and different people have different coping strategies. For example, Ruth is a great believer in popping bubble wrap as a recreational activity, and I agree - there's something strangely soothing about popping small pockets of air enclosed in polythene. For those of you not lucky enough to have ready access to the real thing, help is at hand - for now you can pop virtual bubble wrap from the comfort of your very own PC. That's got to be on anybody's list of the top five uses for the Internet.


Rebecca and the Twins have broadband. So when I visit, I'm in seventh heaven. For instance, Rob and I spent quite a bit of time downloading commercials for video games - and if you thought British adverts for games were weird, you should have a look at some of the ones here! I particularly like the Wario World advert: the fact that I don't understand a single word of the Japanese voiceover only adds to the appeal...


There are times when I suspect that the only way the International Space Station will ever get finished is if NASA subcontracts it out to one of the more reliable construction companies. On the other hand, you may not be prepared to wait, and decide to build your own. Hey, all it takes is a few sheets of cardboard and a decent colour printer, I mean, what could be so difficult about that?


I'm old enough to remember the fiasco of Comet Kahoutek in the 1970s, which was supposed to be really impressive but which turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Halley, for all the impressive pictures returned by the Giotto probe, was a fairly unassuming smudge to the naked eye in the 1980s. Of course, in the 1990s we had Comet Hale Bopp, which really was very impressive.

Well, right now, the word is that there could be another really impressive comet on the way. Today's astronomy picture of the day is of comet C/2002 T7 (LINEAR). Observers are estimating its current magnitude as 7, meaning that it can be seen with binoculars - and some reports suggest it's already got a tail as long as the full Moon appears wide. If it gets brighter, it could turn out to be really spectacular.


I saw this one last week, but didn't get round to putting it in - the story of the engineer who has named his son "Version 2.0" instead of "the second" or "II" that a certain class of Americans seems to like doing. But on the other hand, us Brits are just as mad when it comes to names - remember the guy from Weston-Super-Mare who changed his name to Sony Playstation?


Today's Flash extravaganza is an oldie but goldie. You'll need your sound on for this one. Shockwave as a medium for pop video, subverted into something profoundly, er, subversive. For your audio-visual pleasure, may I recommend Elbow's Independent Woman given a whole new twist? Or maybe not: the spectacle of kittens playing xylophones is something that, quite frankly, my subconscious is still having problems dealing with.


Yes, Brent Spiner is 55 today. A long time ago, Data used to be my nickname. I'm not altogether sure it was meant as a compliment, but to me it was one of the highest accolades I've ever been given.

In view of some of my other interests, it's perhaps worthy of note that Data is often the hero of people with Aspergers or Autism - most notably the American architect Temple Grandin, who mentions him several times in her autobiography, Thinking In Pictures. In fact, her chapter on relationships is called Dating Data.

The character is a useful metaphor for the outcast, the person who (try as he might) never really gets human behaviour. No surprises that he was such a hugely popular character. Of course, much of Data's appeal is simply down to Brent's characterisation of the role; but speaking as the owner of a certain CD called Old Yellow Eyes Is Back I have to say that maybe the good commander's singing skills should have been left out of the last Star Trek movie...

Trivia fans may be interested to know that he shares a birthday with Mike Batt (Remember - You're a Womble), Les Dawson, David Jason, Farrah Fawcett, Stan Getz, and Thomas M. Disch. Interesting combination of folks there, to be sure.


More shockwave madness - this time in the form of a hugely addictive and yet strangely irritating game in which you have to send a penguin skimming across the ice. This has prompted much amusement - and much vying to achieve a new high score. If you can't reach at least 300, forget about it!


Remember that episode of the Simpsons where Reverend Lovejoy's congregation are duped by Bart into singing In-a-gadda-da-vida by heavy metal band Iron Butterfly? Well, it seems that, at least as far as the BBC are concerned, a strange craze is overtaking many organists at services here in England as well as in over in Australia.

The idea appears to be, simply, to work non-ecumenical compositions in to the music played before and after services. As a result, there have been reports of the theme tune to Blackadder appearing inside more sombre pieces. An English guest organist at a church down under managed to work Swing Low Sweet Chariot in to one service - much to the disgust of the local vicar. Less well-judged stories include a rendition of Roll Out The Barrel at the funeral of a well-known alcoholic. Still, I have to say that I'd feel chuffed if I knew that at my funeral the organist was going to work in at least one number by Motörhead...


Life down here in the West of England is often percieved as progressing at a slower pace than other parts of the country. Somerset, for instance, is the last place on Earth you'd expect to get shaken by an earthquake. But they got one last week. Not a big one, I'll admit, but enough to stir things up a bit.

Earthquakes in the UK aren't unheard of - in fact I've experienced a couple: one in Lytham St. Annes in the 1970's and one in Bletchley in the 90's. There was a low rumble, and in Bletchley the ground shook in the same way that a building vibrates when a heavy lorry goes past. But that was all.

My brother Andy, on the other hand, lives in California, where the San Andreas Fault is close at hand. Quakes there can be far more destructive. Fortunately, they build structures over there to take this into account. If you live in America, the US Geological Survey provides a very clever quake monitoring service on the net, which I've mentioned before. However, it recently moved to a new address on the web, so you might want to update your links. Watching the swarms of tiny quakes and tremors that occur every week around the Bay Area brings home how active California is, seismically. It's strange to think that only 50 years ago, the whole theory of plate tectonics was pretty much viewed as heresy by geologists.


While I was looking for other stuff about quakes on the net, I came across Whitley Strieber's site. Mr. Strieber, you will no doubt remember, is the chap who wrote Communion. The discussions at Unknown Country might still be viewed as left field in some circles, but the story is actually quite interesting, discussing ways to predict earthquakes. Admit it, like me you probably expected it to be about using earthquakes as a bizarre superweapon. Remember, Mel Gibson took a swipe at the idea of NASA being able to trigger earthquakes in the film Conspiracy Theory. But Mr Strieber has moved on, along with almost all of the rest of America.

The whole treatment of paranoia, conspiracies or aliens as a motif for entertainment has pretty much died out since 2001. Back in the 90's it seemed that, every week, the world was on the verge of being invaded by any number of alien races; TV followed the spirit of the age with The X-Files, First Wave, Dark Skies, and any number of similar shows. Publishers deluged us with books on the subject, too. One survey reported that one in five Americans believed that they'd been abducted by aliens. Ahh, those were the days. What about the present? I don't think we've seen anything along those lines since Stephen Spielberg's series Taken.

These days, folks have other things to worry about. Who needs paranoia when they really are out to get you? It's sad, in a way; I think there should be a little mystery, a bit of spookiness in everyone's life. So if I come across anything really interesting, expect to see it mentioned here.