Blogging it up, big time

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: February 2005

February brought a welcome break for me, as I went skiing in the French Alps.

The Kyoto protocol came into force, so people's thoughts focused more than usual on global warming. Needless to say, most of the country was immediately covered in snow, which I'm sure delighted the denialists.


Yes, we woke up this morning to blue skies and blazing sunshine. It makes you realise that March - and Spring - is just around the corner. So the gang and I went to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Slimbridge today. We had a good time - fed some geese, watched the flamingoes, and climbed the tower at the visitor centre to be rewarded by a spectacular view of the Severn valley. If you're ever in the area it's well worth a visit.


No doubt the newspapers will be full of who won what tomorrow. Yes, it's Oscar night once more.

A lot of the focus for the build-up this year has been on whether Chris Rock is going to make people uncomfortable or not as presenter. Pah! Americans have no idea about getting celebrities to make idiots of themselves at high-profile events. I don't know about you, but the spectacle of a seething Johnny Vegas, introduced as being tanked-up on Guinness, berating the audience at the Tsunami Aid concert shown on the BBC last night was the saddest, most misjudged and - frankly - just plain offensive television I've had the misfortune to see for many years.

I might be accused of being an old fogey because I felt that Vegas crossed the line, but he came over as an aggressive, drunken, coarse little bastard. If you feel that what he did last night was entertainment I feel sorry for you. The sum total of his "act" was a fit of raging jealousy revealing a huge inferiority complex, and it wasn't just that his routine wasn't even remotely funny: if I'd been the woman in the audience that he attacked, I'd be thinking about filing assault charges and if he never works on television (or anywhere else) again, I won't be disappointed. By putting his act on last, the producers of the programme - which had otherwise been quite amusing, on the whole - made sure we switched off leaving a really nasty aftertaste.

So whatever Chris Rock does tonight, believe me: it will pale into insignificance by comparison.


Following on from yesterday's story about the artist Rita Duffy, here's another iceberg-as-art story (thanks to Lithos for this one). Australians, it seems, always manage to have more fun, even when it comes to performance art.


There's still been no snow to speak of down here. In fact it's been quite a nice afternoon. The weather forecasters have now admitted that they might have been "a little cautious" in their articles earlier in the week. But even watching the news last night there were stories of folks being stuck for eight hours in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors. For goodness' sake, it's only a little bit of snow! Can you imagine what would have happened to this country if we'd had the sort of weather that Geneva got in January?


The best response I've had so far to the Konstruktor site I mentioned yesterday:

"It looks like Sim City: Stalinist Edition."

Nice one.


Some folks in Denmark have introduced Open Source Beer. And I like their website's soundtrack, too - so put your headphones on.


We've got no snow at all, and instead it's been drizzling for most of the day. I think the excitement has passed the Bristol area by, and to be honest I'm quite pleased about that. The last time there was heavy snow round here it was taking people more than three hours to get home.

It would be nice to get out and make a snowman once in a while, though. I used to make pretty good ones, although they pale into insignificance compared to stuff like this. Can you imagine turning up at your local hill with a sledge to be confronted by any of these? Amazing!


Seeing all that snow and ice reminds me: you may have seen the Reuters story today about the artist from Northern Ireland who wants to tow a giant iceberg to the city that built the Titanic. Rita Duffy's idea for a huge piece of performance art sounds like an interesting idea, but I can't imagine it'll go down too well with anyone touched by the original disaster.


A considerate colleague got me hooked on the latest brainteaser off the web. I must admit I've really enjoyed it, probably because this puzzle is far more visually oriented than the others I've seen. For one stage you'll need to find someone who can read those "magic eye" puzzles; I always see them inverted, so any bits that should stick out appear as holes - but it's good fun and it's been driving folks in the office up the wall.


The government is going to tell us when there's something nasty going around on the Internet. That's strange, because in my opinion existing companies such as McAfee , Symantec , Trend Micro, Computer Associates, F-Secure and many, many others do an excellent job of doing this already. Perhaps what the government means is that there ought to be a way of stopping false alarms by running, say, a service that checks the latest hoaxes and scares going around and debunks them. Oh wait, somebody already does that, too.

So what's the value-add for the Government's version? If one was unkind, one might suggest that it was a cynical way to manipulate public opinion by appearing to be at the forefront of technological developments, whereas you and I know really that they're just wasting money cobbling together their own version of someone else's idea.

And as well as paying through the nose for all of this, no doubt we'll also foot the bill for an expensive advertising campaign; one intended to encourage us to use something that won't do the job as efficiently or as quickly as the commercial products already out there.

But, hey - isn't that what governments do these days?


Building your own city is very addictive, even if I can't get it to run in Firefox...


When I got up this morning there was a slight dusting of snow on cars and roofs, but that was about it. During the day it's tried to snow once or twice but it's never really got going. Further east, things are a little different and the BBC's news website was reporting that in the next day or so central Britain is likely to get 5 cm (2 inches) of snow, which apparently will be "causing widespread hazards." Good grief, you'd think the next ice age was on its way. The Beeb even gave us the obligatory story of someone who gets their skis out when the going gets frosty - in this case it was gasman Allan Rushton in Manchester.

When I first went skiing in the 1980s, the little village of Ellmau in the Austrian Tyrol got 60 cm (two feet) of snow every night for a week, and nobody batted an eyelid. My brother tells me that between December 28 and January 10, the Sierras got five and a half metres (18 feet) of snow. When I was working on a project in Norway, Kjevik airport would keep running despite the most severe snowstorms. We are such wimps when it comes to bad weather.


I found an interesting article by Bill Thompson on the BBC's website today. He discusses the implications of copyright in our digital world and the future of such things as digital rights management. Well worth a read.


The greatest ever must-have item of technology? The Apple Powerbook 100, apparently.


After all the heavy news and comment of the last few days, I think it's time for a spot of light relief. For this, I think I should turn you over to a couple of true professionals. Mike Nichols and Eric Idle are close to opening Spamalot (yes, we're talking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail: The Musical) on Broadway. Judging by the interview I read today they're not taking the round of publicity interviews seriously at all. I really hope this turns out to be a roaring success - I'm sure it will be. The interview also reveals that Hank Azaria (who plays several characters in the production) has known his lines since he was twelve years old!


The new album by Steve Vai, which is called Real Illusions: Reflections and which can be described by the single word bombastic, I reckon. Being that good a guitar player is unnatural. It's indecent. What, me jealous?

I have also been listening to the album Sonic Undertow by Riptyde, which is the result of ten years of recording by Chris Hoard. I ordered the album from Amazon because it features the one and only Allan Holdsworth on most tracks, but was amazed to find that Chris is another Chapman Stick player. Imagine progressive rock fused with hip-hop and the occasional bit of Tuvan throat singing thrown in for good measure and you'll have er, probably as much idea of what it sounds like as you did before, but I like it.

Hmm, I've just found a site where, for a small fee, you can learn khoomei. Now there's something to practice in the office at lunchtime...


I was sad to hear today that the king of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson is no more. I've read most of his books, and enjoyed them all thoroughly - only yesterday I was extolling the virtues of the good Doctor's writings to my cousin Peter. I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the 1970s and my love of Ralph Steadman's artwork has a lot to do with the context in which I first encountered it: accompanying Dr. Thompson's literary pyrotechnics. There is so much in his writing that you can really sink your teeth into; a story by HST is the equivalent of the 32-ounce T-bone steak, red and bloody. Finishing one will often leave you exhausted rather than satiated, but with the certain feeling that the struggle was worth it.

The Denver Post has an obituary of Hunter Stockton Thompson in which they describe his style as "startlingly candid" and "legally errant." But it would be wrong to portray his work as a series of variations on drug-fuelled madness of the kind that pervades Fear and Loathing. There was a strong moral tone to his work, and (warning - HST didn't pull his punches) God help anyone who didn't meet his impeccable standards.

Perhaps not being American helped me to better appreciate what he was up to; having some distance from the culture he wrote about made it easier to see exactly what it was he railed against so frequently in his articles. His writing on politics is unsurpassed for its cynicism, but even as a sports writer he brought the full weight of his acerbic and sometimes vitriolic wit to bear on his subject matter. He will leave a gaping hole behind in professional journalism, one that I doubt we will ever be able to fill.


Moving on from Craig Thomas's Firefox and controlling computers by thought (that I blogged on Dec 7th 2004); it looks like the Six Million Dollar Man just got a little closer to coming true. The University of Pittsburgh have developed a robotic arm that can be controlled by thought. Nice.


One redesign I do like at the moment: film guru Harry Knowles has had the stylists in and things are looking good over at Ain't It Cool. The weird brown-and-orange colour scheme remains, but as I understand things, this was inspired by a dream of Harry's involving Daphne and Velma from Scooby Doo (and you really don't want to know any more than that), so I guess we have to make some allowances for the guy.


I drove home tonight in temperatures of 1 degree Celsius and at one point found myself in the middle of a sudden snowstorm. Yet looking outside right now there's a clear blue sky and no snow to be seen. I think I shall go and put the heating on: it's going to be cold tonight.


My home town: Lytham St. Annes

I got a good helping of Lancashire fresh air today, going for a walk on the front at Lytham this morning after breakfast. I was there visiting relatives and delivering long-overdue Christmas and birthday presents. The view shown above hasn't really changed since I was little, although the windmill is in much better shape now than it was in the 1970s. As you can see it was a lovely day, but it was rather bracing. The wind was blowing from the north and even the sunshine couldn't stop it feeling distinctly chilly.

As I sit here typing I'm glad I'm back home with the heating, on because outside it's just dropped below 2 degrees Centigrade. Here in the West Country there's no snow to be seen; further east things are a bit different. My parents had snow yesterday, and more's on the way by the sounds of things. There could be a rather wintry week ahead.


I don't know if it's the grey uninspiring weather, or the general fact that it's winter, or me not getting enough sleep or just having to be at work and missing skiing in the mountains, but today I found myself picking out stories that seem to epitomise the accelerating decline in western civilisation. For example, I submit for your consideration the following stories:


If there's a word that epitomises spin, something that proves 100% reliable as an indicator that whatever it's associated with is going to turn out to be an unmitigated disaster, it's that awful word reimagining. I never hear it without shuddering, because you know it's a sign that some marketing droid managed to get a couple of neurons to function long enough to come up with an idea (I beg your pardon, that should of course have read formulate a concept) that will be woefully misguided, unspeakably naff and - most importantly - demonstrate a profound lack of understanding of why we found the original so appealing. Movie studios can be relied on to announce something which epitomises this thinking fairly regularly, and Warner Bothers (yes, that's a typo but I thought it was funnier that way so I've left it alone) have truly excelled themselves with their latest "bright idea" - they've reimagined Bugs Bunny and he now appears as a satanic looking, sharp-clawed, black-and-yellow nightmare that IMDB linked to today using the less-than-flattering description horrifying.


Awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful.

That clear enough for you, WB?


As if that wasn't bad enough, soon you won't even be able to buy a tube of Smarties any more. Rowntrees are even killing off the randomly-coloured plastic lid.


Finally, an example that isn't funny at all. Can you imagine what you'd do for recreation if someone had decided video recorders were illegal? It nearly happened. Unless someone sees sense, the future is likely to see laws introduced that makes what's gone before seem positively sane.

Because however bad it's been so far, you really know you're in trouble when the lawyers start taking things away from you. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has just initiated a new campaign to highlight the number of gadgets and gizmos which manufacturers are being forced to stop making because new laws have been introduced making them illegal. Their Endangered Gizmos site features all sorts of useful and popular items like High Criteria's excellent Total Recorder software (version 5.1 came out this week, by the way) that the entertainment industry's lawyers are trying to legislate out of existence. Even stuff like TiVo or MythTV has been threatened.

I firmly believe in an artist's right to be rewarded for his or her efforts. Copyright, in general, is a good thing. But legislation to enforce digital rights management is a really, really bad idea. Worse than getting rid of tubes of Smarties. Even worse than Buzz Bunny.

Because if they're not stopped now, I'm afraid I'm going to wake up one morning to hear that the MPAA has decided that FTP software must be made illegal because it is used to transfer files from one computer to another. Oh, and email can do the same thing, so that'll be next to go.

Maybe they won't stop there: perhaps they'll decide we're not responsible enough to have hard disk drives in our PCs, and insist that we use centralised storage systems instead. Which, of course, they will "manage" for us to make sure we're not using them for anything naughty.

You think I'm joking?


You most likely heard that the Kyoto protocol came in to effect yesterday. If you did, you probably also heard that the world's biggest polluter has decided to ignore it completely. Like Mister Bush, my Dad is one of those people who refuses to believe that climate change is happening, despite evidence of all sorts appearing, from visual evidence in the form of disappearing glaciers to more subtle and alarming indicators like the sharp rise in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

How dumb do you need to be to ignore a graph like the one shown here? Or this one? Experts are suggesting that if atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide reach a level of 400 parts per million, the climate could undergo catastrophic change; and we could reach that level within ten years. By the time people are frightened enough to do something about the problem, it's going to be too late. As for me, I'm frightened already. But I still drive to work every day, so I'm as much a part of the problem as George is. I don't have the excuse of ignorance, but I'm still not contributing to a solution and realistically I won't be able to until I can afford to give up working. I don't see any alternative to that, and it pisses me off.


So enjoy insane items of coolness like this while they're still possible.


In many ways we're like Smeagol in Lord of the Rings - trying to block out what we don't want to hear and sitting there making la la la noises with our fingers in our ears. So in typical fashion I ignore the problem and turn to comfort food. Hey, I'm trying to lighten the mood, okay?

I'm a sucker for chocolate, and orange-flavoured chocolate in particular. My all time favourite confectionery will always be the Terry's Chocolate Orange; I have a mild preference for the milk chocolate version, but the dark chocolate one does just as well. After all, how many varieties of chocolate do you know that have their own fan site? Sad to say, this year Kraft Foods will be moving their production away from York where it's been made since 1923, and we will no longer be able to boast of the quintessential Britishness of a small sliced ball of chocolate wrapped in foil so that it looks like a piece of fruit. As a result, I have been considering transferring my allegiance elsewhere.

So when I noticed the sandwich van today was selling special edition Seville Orange flavoured KitKats, I bought one. When I ate it, it wasn't at all what I was expecting. Instead of your average orange flavoured confection, I got what can best be described as a KitKat crossed with a Jaffa Cake. There was a thin layer of very orangey jelly on the top of the biscuit. The packet says "an explosion of flavour with every bite" and it's not far off the mark. Well worth keeping an eye out for, in my opinion, and I'm sure Nicey and Wifey at nicecupofteaandasitdown will be extolling its virtues at some point. Sad to say, that was pretty much the high spot of my working day today...


This whole folksonomy thing has got me thinking about how lots of different people can effectively create a taxonomy to classify stuff (specifically web links, but it can apply to other things as well). I found one site with a few interesting observations on the matter, but most of them seem to revolve around creating some form of framework for adding an entry that effectively polices the system - so it's no longer subject to the same laws of natural selection that we were discussing before. I like the idea of being able to retrospectively tuning tags as the taxonomy evolves, but of course that could also mean that things you used to be able to find by searching with your favourite tag or combination of tags will no longer crop up.

And that's becoming a big issue on the web - how does a rapidly changing medium such as the Internet ensure any form of permanence within massively hyperlinked entities such as the blogosphere? If you're reading this blog as an archive at some point in the future, it's a fairly safe bet to say that at least some of the items I've linked to will have disappeared. LookSmart's Furl might be one way in which you can address this by creating your own online store of things you've come across. In effect, you're creating your own personal file cache on the web that you can link to - and send other people the links too, of course. After reading their terms and conditions I decided that I'd be signing a little too much away in terms of personal privacy so the service wasn't for me, but it's interesting that the problem of transience on the web is beginning to create some innovative solutions.

Another perspective is to accept the underlying insubstantiality of the whole thing, and assume that what you mentioned may disappear from where you found it but still be on the net in some shape or form, somewhere else. So you need to provide enough information when you link to something to enable a future web surfer to locate the item from scratch. How do we do that? We provide metadata on it: basic keywords that are likely to identify the right thing when used in a specific combination. Voila: we're back to tagging again.

In effect, metadata is an investment in the future that ensures knowledge (or what passes for knowledge around here) isn't lost. Which is, as I'm sure you'll agree, a Good Thing - provided the climate will be in a state that lets us all enjoy it.


Apologies if you've not been able to get to the site over the last day or so. There was a major outage of something technical at my ISP, and I couldn't even see my own website, let alone do much with it. Things appear to be back to normal now, though: keep your fingers crossed.


You've probably already noticed that Amazon have the new trailer for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie on their front page. Martin Freeman, who plays Vila in Blake's Junction 7 that I blogged yesterday and was Tim in The Office looks like he'll do a fine job as Arthur. Glad to see that Zaphod does indeed appear to have three arms, at least for some of the time, but I can't see the head thing working at all. Oh well...


There's been a long tradition of driving games on video games consoles. I can remember spending hours playing Night Driver on the Atari VCS when it came out, and it was little more than a wobbly road with posts down the edges. There were oncoming cars, fleeing rabbits and every now and then I'm sure there was a deer popping out from the side. As it must be at least 25 years since I last played it, I can't even remember of you scored points for hitting the animals or avoiding them. These days I play Burnout on the Gamecube, which is a much more complex affair, although sadly it doesn't have rabbits. But now it seems that video game consoles are moving in the opposite direction: I read today about a car tuning package that runs on a Gameboy Advance!


The fall-out from the fact that UPN have finally cancelled Enterprise continues. My own reaction was more along the lines of who cares? The franchise has suffered badly since the end of the Next Generation episodes, and Rick Berman's once-vaunted "darker, more serious" approach has resulted in what for me has been a steady decline. I guess the part of me that remembers Gene Roddenberry's vision of a better future is still disappointed to hear that things have come to an end. So one of the more interesting things I heard today was that J. Michael Straczynski wants to help Paramount reinvigorate the franchise. I hope he gets the chance, because he's the creative force responsible for just about the only hard science fiction TV series that I've rated as "must-see" in the last decade, Babylon 5.


Spring is definitely on the way. Why? because this afternoon I heard one of the more obvious signs: the first ice cream van of the year...


I'm feeling rather pleased with myself at the moment, as I've been able to get my webcam up and running. Of course, with it being winter it's dark outside for most of the time so there's not much to see unless I've left the porch light on.

I'm having much less success trying to get my site to play back QuickTime panoramas. I can write a web page and have it work perfectly when it's on my hard drive, but as soon as I upload it to my web server everything goes pear-shaped. Still, some people have managed to put panoramas on the web, and I particularly like these panoramas of the Moon and Mars put together from NASA photographs by Hans Nyberg.


If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that the troops are big fans of the cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants. There was an interview with the voice of Spongebob, Tom Kenny, on the BBC's site at the weekend. He's doing the rounds to plug the Spongebob movie, which opened here just in time for the half term school holiday. The interview gets in to some pretty deep subject matter: I find it distinctly odd that a cartoon character can generate such intense discussions of neo-conservatism in American politics and some distinctly un-childish issues. To paraphrase Jung, sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon.


A mate of mine brought some interesting news to my attention - if you're in to seventies TV sci-fi, that is. A short film was released last year which chronicles the return of the naffest group of spacefarers ever to appear on television, Blakes 7. I love the comment on the website that the new film "looks like it's got a bigger budget than the original." The thing is, this one appears to be set in Newport Pagnell services on the M1 and it's got Johnny Vegas as Blake and Gareth from The Office playing Servelan. Bizarre.


Arianespace flight 164 had a successful launch at the weekend, marking the second flight of the Ariane 5-ECA rocket. It's good news for the European space industry, as this launcher can shift nearly 10 metric tons into orbit. Now I thought ECA stood for something like "Enhanced Capacity Ariane" or something like that. Interestingly enough, the only explanation of what ECA means that I could find in ESA documents suggested that it stands for Export Credit Agency. I'm sure that can't be right...


On the Internet, you can even find out which Young Ones character you are. Apparently, I'm Mike.

You probably already know that the show was filmed here in Bristol: the Cock o'the North pub in Henleaze doubled as the Kebab and Calculator, and the house itself is somewhere in Bishopston. Bristol has a long tradition of being the location for British television shows - despite the fact that Only Fools and Horses is set in London a lot of it was filmed here, as were exteriors for Casualty and many, many others. I was amazed to see that IMDB's list of films with locations in Bristol included the Bob Dylan movie Hearts of Fire, but the concert scenes were filmed here.


The BAFTAs were on last night. I was pleased to see John Barry accepting a fellowship of the Academy. He's had such an influence on movie soundtracks I'm amazed he wasn't already a member. The results were fairly predictable, and it's a safe bet that The Aviator will be the film that gets showered with Oscars given its performance at the Golden Globes and yesterday. The Orange Film of the year award went to the Harry Potter film - but if you look at the limited set of nominees the public could choose from it wasn't that much of a fair fight, was it?


Do you use a password for any of your online accounts? Does your system ask you for a password before you can use it? If so, you might want to read this article... The basic point made is simple: using a single word as your password is a weak way of doing things. Use a phrase instead - because that way you can generate an easily remembered password that's nice and long, and length is what matters in passwords these days, apparently.


Rebecca's off taking the troops off to places east, and I'm on my own for the day. It's half term, so the weather has deteriorated; it's pouring with rain outside and my good intentions of going out for a walk or a bike ride, or washing the car have more or less evaporated. Needless to say, the siren call of my broadband connection rang loud and clear, and here I am. So at the moment I'm using Listen Again to listen to last Friday's edition of Mixing It, and really enjoying a piece of music by B. J . Nilson, which is extremely good for chilling out to. I seem to listen to a lot of Scandinavian music these days. The album's on the Touch Music label and is called Fade to White, and I might have to get a copy, I think - provided I can find somewhere that sells it.

Update: now it's trying to snow outside. I think I'll be staying in.


I called in at the supermarket on the way home tonight, and spent about half an hour doing the shopping and stocking up with groceries. That's one thing with going away on holiday: the fridge looked kind of empty for a couple of days after I got back. But when I left the car park tonight it took me over an hour to travel the thirteen miles back home. Bristol was in chaos, and bordering on gridlock. Why? Well, I think a lot of it has to do with a set of roadworks that I discovered on the way back. There was no mention of them on the traffic news, and traffic had snarled to a complete standstill. With one less way to get out of the city, the other routes got increased traffic, couldn't handle it, and everything ground to a halt. This happens on a fairly regular basis round here.

Bristol has real problems with traffic, but the council have set themselves somewhat contradictory goals of encouraging major business development to the north of the city and expecting to achieve an absolute reduction in private car traffic by 20% over the next 10 to 15 years (according to page 6 of their current local transport plan.) Hmm. I wonder how they're going to achieve that?

The same local transport plan recognised in 2000 that "the road system in Bristol is overloaded in peak hours" (the comment's on page 13) and with traffic growth over the last five years things have got significantly worse. So, what have the council done to improve things? Well, apart from the new shopping mall at Cribbs Causeway (at Christmas it was taking people several hours to get out of the car park) they've approved the expansion of business parks in several areas of North Bristol, including Aztec West and the Bristol Business Park; they've also given the go-ahead to a huge new development on the University of the West of England site at Frenchay, purchased 30 hectares of land for a science park in Emerson's Green, and cancelled the much-vaunted light rail project. I'm still waiting for a local railway station to be opened, too: my closest station is nearly as far away as my office, but it's in the opposite direction.

The council's documents use all the latest catchphrases like sustainable development in the vain hope that we'll believe they've got a plan, but those of us stuck in the results of their incompetence know better - the word clueless springs to mind very readily. No doubt the end result will be that they bring in congestion charging out of sheer desperation. If they do, I will be looking to move to a job somewhere else. Somewhere where I don't feel shattered just from the effort of getting to and from work.


If you delve into blogging more than a little bit these days, you've probably realised that the same links crop up on many different blogs. In fact it seems like there is only a tiny number of people who are actually discovering new content at source, so to speak: the rest of us rely on our favourite sites to point the cool stuff out for us. If you've come here from Linkbunnies, you may already have realised that many things I like appeal to them too. One of my main sources for the latest and greatest is the discussion board at the novelist William Gibson's website. After all, Mr. Gibson is the man who coined the phrase cool hunter to describe the concept that some bits of information appeal to our digital psyches more than others. So it stands to reason that a discussion board such as Mr. Gibson's is pretty much ground zero for finding the interesting digital goodness that the Internet can throw at us.

If you read William Gibson's site for long, you'll come across the term apophenia - which was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad to describe the spontaneous feeling of connectedness that we sometimes perceive in a collection of unrelated things. For me, it seems obvious that blogging is likely to encourage an apophenic viewpoint of the world. Blogging is all about connectedness; I read an interesting article on a site, I spot an interesting idea or picture or some other unit of cultural information, and I mention it here. You read it, mention it to some friends, and the knowledge of that item spreads.

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, gave these little units of cultural information a name: he called them memes. Social scientists went on to suggest that memes were subject to evolutionary pressures, like any living organisms - because successful memes would spread and multiply (they're the ones you tell your friends about) and the unsuccessful ones would die out and be forgotten. Although Dawkins was originally talking about culture in a very broad context, the idea of the meme has really taken hold amongst Internet users in the last few years. The Internet in general, and blogging in particular provides a way for memes to spread extremely rapidly - and I've been surprised by how often recently I've been told something in a conversation that I'd blogged a day or two beforehand.

In the last six months or so, the speed at which memes proliferate seems to have increased hugely; one reason for this might be the introduction of . If you have a look at the HTML for the link in the last sentence, you'll see that it contains a bit more code than usual: rel="tag" points to an item of data about the data in this web page (a tag), identifying it as being about the subject tagging. What's the significance of this? Well, data about data is known as metadata, and it's a subject dear to my heart as a computer-based training designer. It's intended to let people identify content about specific subjects very quickly; so it speeds up searching for things in large amounts of data. In the past, metadata has been created according to specially designed forms of organisation - called schemas. Specific implementations of metadata have been going for years - perhaps the most well-known is the Dublin Core Initiative, although the use of the SCORM has all but eclipsed it in some parts of the business - and these have always relied on the adoption of agreed lists of words and descriptions which provide a taxonomy of information that everyone follows. What I find fascinating about tagging is that any idea of a formal schema has been thrown out of the window. Any contributor to or can tag his or her data with any words they think fit, in a system that has become known as the folksonomy (what a wonderful neologism). So now, even the metadata surrounding web pages is subject to the same evolutionary pressures we've applied to the memes themselves. What will be the result?

There's an interesting article at The Community Engine site about the way in which tagging works in spreading memes - or rather, how you can use these sites to monitor the progress of a particular meme. Why would you want to track the progress of a meme? Consider this: the marketing industry are very interested in memes, because they can use sites like or technorati to track the progress of their own, hand-crafted items of cultural fluff. The internet, after all, involves spreading ideas and concepts far and wide. Marketing firms have even come up with new strategies to exploit the tendency of people to send stuff to each other using email.

So I continue to be amazed by the fact that, when I want to save the trailer for a new film by one of my favourite directors, I find that I can't. I can't take the trailer to a friend's house and play it to them: tough for them if they don't have broadband. I can't email the trailer to someone else I know who might like to see it, no matter how cool it looks. And what really peeves me is that, even by whingeing about it in this fashion, in a way I'm also participating in a viral marketing campaign to promote the film. Welcome to the twenty-first century!


The run down to the Pleney lift in Morzine, Fance

Yes, I've been away for a short break skiing in the French Alps. As you can see from the photo, the slopes were quiet, there was plenty of snow and the weather was spectacular. I was staying in an old haunt of the HFO, the town of Morzine, which is about an hour and a quarter from Geneva. It's part of the huge Portes Du Soleil ski area, so I was able to ski over to Avoriaz and then on into Switzerland, as well as heading off in the opposite direction towards Les Gets. It was great fun, and I'll be updating the HFO's guide to skiing in France over the next week or so with some fresh information and up-to-date photographs. Stay tuned!


You may have seen the story going around today about the US Army's publication PS: Preventive Maintenance Monthly. It's a magazine that has a circulation of about 100,000 and it teaches Army personnel how to look after their equipment. The trouble is, that it did so using a comic book with a plot and characters that bear a striking resemblance to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter. In fact, you'd have to have lived in a cave for the last ten years not to have a pretty clear idea where the ideas came from.

I loved the response PS's editor made to the BBC when they pointed out the similarity: "We are very careful when we do these things not to copy images because that would be illegal." Right... but making drawings of images looks like it slipped right on through... In the interests of balance, I tried to have a look at PS's website, but for some strange reason it's not accessible right now. Presumably someone who has a slightly better grasp of copyright law than their editor does is now in charge. :-)


It looks like the story about Richard Kral urinating his way out of an avalanche that I blogged about last month is probably a hoax. I'm really disappointed by this. It was such a lovely story that I really hoped it was true. Which, I suppose, goes to show why many urban legends continue to circulate on the net for years after they've been conclusively proved to be false.


If ever you're attacked by a bear with a flamethrower, this is the guy you need. I've seen Project Grizzly on the TV, thinking it was a joke until the producers of the show got someone to drive a truck at him and throw him off a cliff - so I suspect he's not kidding about any of those other test specifications. For the rest of us, the best solution when encountering a grizzly is simple: be somewhere else.


Lunchtime web surfing
brightens winter afternoon:
Cool sci-fi haiku!