Chris Harris's Blog Archive: February 2006

February started with a discussion on how to escape from monsters in horror movies, then things went downhill from there: severed limbs, skiing in Milton Keynes, solar systems with planets going the wrong way, and how to tie a necktie.

Don't you just love the Internet?


The real world incidents relating to the television series Lost seem to be getting as surreal as the programme. The Guardian reports today that, after a book by Flann O'Brien appeared on screen for a fraction of a second during one episode, the publishers sold 15,000 copies in three weeks. Before the episode went out, it had taken them six years to sell that many copies. As the Guardian explains, there's a running gag in the book to do with the amount of atoms exchanged between an Irish policeman and his bicycle. If the show's producers put the book in for a reason, I reckon that this probably means it's something to do with nanotechnology.

Of course, this tells us nothing new about the premise of Lost. No surprises there, then.


The BBC are running a series of features on public information films at the moment, but according to the BBC News website, they have lost one of the all time classics. If you're my age, you may remember watching it: it concerned the efforts of one Reginald Molehusband as he tried to park his car. The actor who played Mr. Molehusband - 77-year-old Ian Gardiner - has turned up and revealed that he got paid a paltry £10 for the role, but the Beeb claim they haven't got a copy of the film itself.

Which is odd, because at some time in the last six months, I distinctly remember watching it on the television, either on BBC Four or Channel Four. I wish I could remember in what context it was shown.


I have quite a few ties. In fact, although I've never counted them, I suspect my tally would run to over a hundred. This is mainly due to a phase I went through back in the 1990s when I collected the most garish examples I could find. Friends and relatives joined in, and bought me in-your-face ties as presents. I never ever rejected a tie for being too loud. It didn't matter whether they were by Ralph Marlin, Jerry Garcia, or just stuff from Tie Rack - I was a real sucker for bright, interesting neckwear.

I wasn't alone: in 1999, some mathematicians published a paper detailing new ways of tying a tie that I even tried out for myself - before returning to the Half Windsor knot I'd been using for the last decade (my father favours the Four in Hand, and that was the knot he taught me to tie, but I never liked its slightly lopsided look). Hmmm - it says a lot that there's a website out there devoted to teaching people how to tie their ties correctly, doesn't it?

These days, I work for a company where a collar and tie is no longer required. And strangely enough, I don't regret the fact for one minute, especially after reading today that a recent report by the British Medical Association brands them as both functionless and a health hazard. Most of the ties I see on sale are dull and boring, and the only person I can think of who still manages to track down truly migraine-inducing examples is the newscaster Jon Snow. I think the history of the tie may well be drawing to a close.


In the last few months I've blogged about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips quite a few times. These are the tiny chips that are used to store information without needing a battery - they are activated by, and respond to radio signals. There's an essay by George Monbiot in the Guardian today about the subcutaneous tagging of two workers in the US with RFID chips that allow them access to their employer's data storeroom. The logic of this is, of course, that employees could lose the chips if they were part of a passcard but not if they're part of a limb.

I don't know what's scarier - the fact that people are willing to have the things surgically implanted, or the idea that Monbiot believes we won't all end up being fitted with the things whether we want them or not.


In the UK, it's illegal to use a cellphone while driving unless it's got a hands-free option. In America, legislation varies from state to state - but for one driver in Kentucky, it's going to be difficult for her to claim she wasn't on the phone when she had her accident. When rescue workers found her severed arm, it was still holding her mobile phone.

If this grisly story stops one person from driving about with a phone pressed to their ear (and despite it being illegal, I usually see at least one person a day doing it over here) it'll be worth it. Of course, harking back to the story above, I have to wonder what the response would have been if the limb was fitted with an RFID chip...


The android version of Philip K Dick, which I blogged on these very pages last year, has gone AWOL while in transit to California. As the writer William Gibson observed in his blog (where I got this story) you just can't make this stuff up.

Meanwhile, by a strange coincidence, the latest trailer for the film of what was possibly Dick's greatest novel has hit the net. A Scanner Darkly looks amazing, and I'll be paying the price of admission just to see Robert Downey Jr. giving what looks like the performance of his life.

Update: OK, I've had a chance to really look at the trailer. I've noticed that in the scene where Keanu Reeves's character is identified on police systems as Robert Arctor, there's a lot of text scrolling down in a couple of windows. The text, I was amused to discover, is the shooting script for the film Blade Runner. As I'm sure you already know, that film was based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by (naturally) Philip K Dick. Sweet.


Frank Miller, author of Sin City and the artist who has wrought amazing things with some of the most well-known characters in the comics world, is writing another Dark Knight adventure - and this time, Batman is taking on the war on terror. Given Miller's darkly cynical take on things, and given the furore about the recent cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, and given the fact that this is Batman we're talking about, I have a feeling that it's going to upset a lot of people. Oh, and that it will be utterly brilliant, of course.


It took a long time for people to realise that the planets in the Solar System went round the Sun, not the Earth. In fact, until the late 16th Century most people were convinced that everything revolved around the Earth. The only trouble was, the tracks of the planets against the sky were very complicated if the Earth was the point around which everything turned. For example, at certain times of the year, Mars appears to change direction as it moves slowly across the sky.

Eventually, Copernicus figured it out, and published a paper proposing what we now know to be the truth: Earth was not the centre of the universe. This was quite a threatening concept back in those days, and Copernicus probably saved himself a lot of grief by conveniently dying a few years later. Other scientists who spoke up in support of the theory, like Galileo, were persecuted by the Church for what was seen as heresy.

Given that the Greeks were interested in astronomy, we can assume that it took at least 2000 years to work out how the planets move round our Sun. It turns out that things could have been a lot more complicated. Astronomers announced today that they've discovered a star surrounded by a disk of material which will form planets in a few million years' time. Nothing particularly unusual about that - similar discoveries have been made before. But in this case, the inner part of the disk is going round the star in the opposite direction to the outer part.

This solar system will end up with some planets going round the sun one way, and the rest going round it in the opposite direction. If you were an astronomer in the future, looking up at the sky from a planet in that system, imagine how confusing it would all be!


Courtesy of Slashdot, today I was reading about the top 10 best science fiction movies that were never made. Number three is my favourite, as it's a movie of Neal Stevenson's novel Snow Crash. Now there's a film I'd want to see, as the book's amazing as source material. The hero/protagonist of the story is called Hiro Protagonist, for a start. But as I read the subsequent discussion on Slashdot, I realised that one point keeps being missed: books are not films. A lot of the films being talked about are films of famous novels, and I can count the number of adaptations of famous books that I've liked on the fingers of one hand. I can only think of one case (Robert Zemeckis's adaptation of Carl Sagan's science fiction novel Contact) where I'd consider the film to be vastly superior to the original material.

There are a number of books considered to be unfilmable. For instance, I'd probably put James Joyce's Ulysses at the top of my list. Then again, I've just finished reading The Lovely Bones and I don't see how you could make a watchable movie out of the huge amount of inner dialogue featured in the book. Getting the film of the book right is never an easy task, and every work ever put on the screen will be scorned by fans who will sigh heavily at the mess someone or other made of the movie adaptation. Books and film are different media; they work in different ways, and when they're done right, they are enjoyable for different reasons. The thing to do, then, is to enjoy each film in its attempts to invoke the spirit of the original, and go along for the ride.

And mutter darkly when it's one of your favourites that gets trashed, of course.


Prompted by this week's introduction of "compulsory" chip and PIN for debit card transactions, Stuart Jeffries writes on the death (or otherwise) of handwriting in the Guardian today. I've loved writing with bottled ink since I was at school, and I still use a fountain pen, but I don't write as much with it as I used to.

The scary part of the Guardian article, though, is hidden at the end: "young children have fewer opportunities for developing pre-writing skills, such as balance, hand-eye coordination and muscle control, which can themselves be critical in developing good handwriting ability as the child grows." First we had increasing stupidity (see last month's blog); now it's declining physical coordination getting people worried. The next generation of children really have got some major problems ahead.


Now I don't often post links to news about Muppets, but one of my favourite films from the 1980s was The Dark Crystal. Next year will see the release of the sequel, The Power of The Dark Crystal - and the first picture from the film has already been released. It's being directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, he of Dexter's Laboratory and Clone Wars fame, and Bryan Froud is on board, too - so the chances look good that it's going to be just as magical as the first film. Can't wait.


There's quite a bit of discussion going on at the Computer Graphics Society website at the moment about a very impressive computer graphics model of Frankenstein's Monster by a chap called Rick Baker. I got excited in a geeky kind of way when I saw the signature on the picture, because I realised it's the same Rick Baker who has done special effects make up for just about every science fiction film you've seen in the last thirty years, and who has won three Oscars for his work. If he's getting into CGI, watch out: it's going to be very interesting.


I'm still not 100% after getting the flu last week. Whenever I get back after a skiing holiday, my enthusiasm for things sometimes takes a dip: the mornings are still dark, the evenings aren't light for long enough to get anything done and the Easter break seems miles away - but for some reason this winter I also seem to have come down with just about every bug that's been going round, and I am fed up with coughs and sniffles. Let's hope Spring isn't too far away.


Just how much of what you see every day is subject to doctoring and retouching? Probably a lot more than you think. Advertisers realised a long, long time ago that, putting it bluntly, sex sells. These days, they don't have to rely on reality to do that selling, either; the process of making someone in a picture look as if she's attracted to you is one that marketing campaigns utilise to the full.

If you wander over to De Touch there are pages full of before and after examples that (if you're a bloke, at least) might make you realise just how easily you can be, er, manipulated.


Is it just me?

Every time I see a headline referring to cartoon violence I get a mental image of Wile. E. Coyote being hit on the head by an anvil. The beginning of every news report cruelly taunts me. I keep ending up misguidedly paying attention to another dreadful story in the hope that I'm about to see something straight out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Someone with tweeting birds flapping around their head, being interviewed about the after effects of having a refrigerator dropped on them, perhaps. I know it's a serious subject, so why give it a name that starts me sniggering every time I hear it discussed?


The Guardian's travel editor Liane Katz writes about what she claims is the next big winter sports sensation today: a ski with a skateboard deck mounted on the top of it. One advantage of being older is that you catch on when something like this isn't actually new at all. Yes, it's already been done. I used to see people falling off the things in Avoriaz back in the 1980s, so they're hardly innovative. The ones I remember actually had four skis mounted where the wheels would go on a skateboard, but they didn't catch on back then, either - partly because they were (frankly) crap, but also because suddenly these things called snowboards appeared that looked far cooler. Ski surfs died out even faster than monoskis (although I actually saw a guy on a monoski in Chamonix last month, so there are still one or two eccentrics out there) and today I can't even find a decent picture of any on the web. Quite right too.

But the thing that really set my teeth on edge about the article was that she used the word "dude" in a story that was written about skiing in Milton Keynes...


Well, it's been an interesting few days... While I was in Wotton doing some shopping on Saturday morning I felt like I'd got a bit of a sore throat. By the time I got home, I was running a bit of a temperature, and by lunchtime I'd gone back to bed with what I presume was the flu. I was oscillating between shivering uncontrollably and feeling like I was on fire - I haven't been knocked out that fast by something for a long time.

What was interesting was the fact that I realised at some point on Monday that I'd spent a good deal of Saturday and pretty much all of Sunday in a mental state that was not on this planet. I can't remember the last time I was delirious like that, so it's difficult to make comparisons, but I can vaguely remember spending a sizable amount of time on Sunday afternoon being worried that I'd forgotten the URL of the pillow my head was resting on. I also seem to remember stressing out for a couple of hours about the relative merits of different schemas of metadata tags, of all things. What can I say? Even when I'm ill, I'm a complete anorak. Then on Tuesday, I realised that the feeling of improvement I'd experienced on Monday wasn't the real thing at all. I'd been drinking that great British staple of cold and flu sufferers, Lemsip with a spoonful of honey. This had cut down the temperature to a certain degree and also dulled the aches and pains, but in fact I'd still been one sandwich short of a picnic for most of the day. I'm glad I'd spent it in bed.

So now it's Wednesday tea time, and I've put clean sheets on the bed and generally done some of the housework that I should have finished at the weekend. I have a runny nose and a very chesty cough, but apart from a throbbing headache that gets worse every time I sneeze, cough or move my eyes, I'm feeling relatively normal. Oh, and I'm down to 14 stone, a weight I haven't seen for at least five years - probably down to the fact that over the weekend I consumed a grand total of two bananas, several litres of orange juice, and half a dozen chocolate hob nobs. Interesting diet.


Ben Goldacre's article on cyberstalking in the Guardian has caused quite a stir this week, at least among people I know. He explains how easy it is to monitor the whereabouts of someone 24 hours a day, given just five minutes' access to their mobile phone. The technology to do this has been available for years; what seems to be upsetting people is the fact that it's now available as a commercial service. The company involved claim they'd never realised that the product was open to abuse - given the potentially scary situations it could help to enable, I think this means they're either stupid, or desperately being disingenuous.


I must admit to feeling rather like Victor Meldrew when I read the latest puff piece about Barclays Bank today. It was a chirpy little article about how the bank is so cuddly that, why, they even trust their customers not to run off with their pens (value: 3p each).

Are you wondering why Barclays should be planting stories like this right now? I think I know. Compare and contrast that story, please, with the one that cropped up at the weekend (and in the same newspaper, no less) about how they treated one of their student customers who had the temerity to try to make a withdrawal with his new debit card last December.

Barclays had him arrested, handcuffed, and bundled off to the nearest police station, where he was detained for the next 7 hours. Oh, and they had his bedsit and his landlady's house searched too, just for good measure.

So, are Barclays the "nicest people in the world"? As Mr Meldrew would say, "I don't believe it!"


You know you're living in the 21st century when you read about a professional sportsman figuring out he can earn more money playing video games. According to David Kinnaird, it's easier to get sponsorship (and, I presume, make a living) playing Quake than it is playing tennis. I suspect that the risk of injury is a bit lower, too.


There's interior design and then there's, well, putting on a baroque extravaganza in your living room. I don't think I could spend six years doing up one room in the house; could you?


There's a bit of a row brewing over the latest measurements of the large object discovered a couple of years ago on the edge of the Solar System, given the official name of 2003 UB313 but more popularly known as Xena.

The problem is that it's now known to be larger than the "official" ninth planet, Pluto. So it would seem to make sense to call Xena a planet as well, wouldn't it? Well, apparently not. The Kuiper Belt is likely to have other surprises up its sleeve and as one scientist put it, if you start off assigning planetary status to the stuff we know about now, you're likely to end up with a system containing 15 or 20 planets in a few years' time. For the moment, the IAU says the Pluto will remain a planet - but it'll be interesting to see what they decide about its bigger cousin.


HMS Daring was launched successfully this afternoon. It was quite amusing to see in earlier stories (now edited and corrected, sadly) that the BBC was reporting the Royal Navy's latest destroyer as having a "fully electric compulsion system."

Today's turn up for the books? Discovering that the expression under weigh is actually wrong, and it should always be "under way."


The most expensive pizza and beer I've ever had was on a visit to Norway - for three of us the bill came to nearly seventy quid. So it comes as no surprise to me to read today that Oslo has overtaken Tokyo as the most expensive city on Earth. I was more surprised to read that London is only in seventh place.


What would have happened if the victims in various Hollywood movies had simply legged it? We might have ended up with rather more boring stories, for sure, but how many movie horrors would actually have managed to catch up? Surprisingly, the answer seems to be just about everything except zombies, lazy kangaroos, or killer bees.