Shut up!  Bloody Vikings...

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: March 2004

March brought another asteroid whizzing past, cool photos, discussions about the Ides (of course), and lots of wacky sleeve notes.

As a result, this month's blog was the largest so far.


While channel surfing at the weekend we happened to come across the live transmission of NASA test-flying the X-43A hypersonic aircraft. The flight was a resounding success, and the plane - just twelve feet long, strapped to the front of a Pegasus rocket - reached a staggering 5,000 miles an hour (Mach 7) during the ten-second run of its scramjet engine. After a six minute glide, the craft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, where (sadly) it'll stay.

A scramjet is a supersonic compression ramjet; air goes in the front, is mixed with fuel and ignited, and shoots out of the back faster than the speed of sound. If you want to travel quickly, it seems a scramjet is the engine you need. Mach 7 is by far the fastest speed any man-made vehicle has ever achieved without having a rocket strapped to it. They're talking about Mach 10 by the end of the year.

The point of all this is that the technology has been proven: NASA can now develop an aircraft that can get above most of the atmosphere and develop a pretty decent head of steam before firing rockets and travelling the rest of the way into orbit. Or perhaps, someone will use it to provide an aircraft you can climb into in Los Angeles and climb out of in Tokyo, ninety minutes later. Absolutely mind-boggling stuff.


In 1955, in the sleepy seaside town of Cromer in Norfolk, an ornithologist noticed something that hadn't been recorded in Britain before. A pair of collared doves had taken up residence and successfully reared a brood of young. Less than fifty years later, collared doves have become a familiar sight in our gardens. In fact, as this year's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch has confirmed, their invasion of the country has been prodigiously successful. Heck, they're one of the few species I see on the bird table in my back garden, despite the efforts of the local cat population.


Cashing in on the latest cinema sensation, or glorious ironical statement? It seems that film distributors in the United States are rushing to re-release Monty Python's Life of Brian in the wake of the success of Mel Gibson's film The Passion. Of course, we must remember that although both films are set during the same historical period, and both have stirred up a fair amount of controversy, there are significant differences between the films.

Only one of the films has Spike Milligan in it. Gibson's actors had to deliver their lines in Aramaic, whereas Graham Chapman was famously given a Latin lesson in the earlier work. Only one of the films has a catchy tune by Eric Idle at the end, and only one features the animations of Terry Gilliam. Furthermore, I only have one of these films on DVD. I'll leave it for you to decide which one it's likely to be...


I've always been a big fan of French comics. Apart from Moebius, folks like Philippe Druillet and Enki Bilal spring to mind as great artists in the field. Well, the French are now well and truly hooked on the Japanese version - Manga - and it's giving the French some cause for concern. Manga tend to be half the price of French publications, and there are literally thousands of titles available. Art facing competition? Well, you have to face the fact that les bandes dessinées are big business. It would be a shame if the industry suffered, though - the French have an interesting perspective on most things (is that politically correct enough for you?) and a very distinctive visual style.

Incidentally, I hear that Bilal is in the process of turning two of his works, Gods in Chaos and The Woman Trap, into a film. The plot? An astronaut returning from a mission is possessed by one of the ancient Egyptian gods, who are returning to Earth after a long absence. Sign me up - I'll be right there waiting when that one comes out. It looks gorgeous!


Today, my Tom Lehrer boxed set of CDs arrived, taking my collection over the 800 mark. And when I got home tonight, the odometer on my car was reading 67,999 miles. There's nothing particularly significant about this, but yet I still felt excited enough about it to mention it here. I wonder why? One of the first things my nieces and nephews do as they grow up is learn how to count things. It's obviously a deeply satisfying activity, because we do it all the time.

We call significant events in our lives milestones, and there's usually a number involved in there somewhere. 21? 42? 65? 100? I never cease to be intrigued by the fascination that we have for particular numbers, although they are somewhat arbitrary. Why just stick to base 10, for instance? A friend of mine at the weekend told me he feels a lot better about his birthdays now, as he counts them in hexadecimal!

And that Tom Lehrer set? It's a cracker! Three CDs and an illustrated hardback booklet with interviews, lyrics, and photographs. Highly recommended.


Talking of CDs: I'm developing some customer care training at the moment, so I occasionally trawl the net for discussions or examples that other people have produced to see how some companies get it wrong, and others do it right. A web-based CD company called CD Baby got mentioned more than once in the "doing it right" category. They have a quirky, highly individual approach, and seem to be creating a good buzz with their customers. I've never ordered from them, so I can't tell you what their service is like, but if you have a look at the staff page on their website you should get an impression of just how different their approach is.


So, the new Doctor Who has finally been announced: according to the BBC, who should know about these things, it's Christopher Eccleston. It's an interesting choice, although I have to say that I thought he was woefully miscast in the last thing I saw him in, which was ITV's The Second Coming. It was utterly dreadful. Well, I guess we'll see what happens. The production team are saying that they want a "darker edge" to the show - but on the other hand, they are in negotiations with Terry Nation's estate to license the use of the Daleks. You don't get more traditional than that!


Did you ever get the sneaking suspicion that people might take the expression "rock music" a bit too literally? From research that the BBC were talking about today, it seems that in actual fact, banging rocks together may have been one of the first forms of music!


CNN were running another story about an asteroid near miss today. At least this time we actually knew it was coming, rather than the "crikey, where did that one come from" stories we've seen of late. And it wasn't even that big - about the size of an office building was one description I heard (so are we talking the two-man outfit up the road, or the Sears Tower in Chicago?) As it drifted by at a tad over 26,000 miles, it was incredibly close. Would we have noticed if it had hit?

Well, someone would have noticed. The US operate a set of satellites which look for high temperature events. They picked up the tanker explosion of America's eastern seaboard last month, for example. Meteors cause similar events to bombs going off in the upper atmosphere, which of course is what these satellites were intended to detect. They regularly detect explosions caused by disintegrating meteors, some the equivalent of more than a million tons of TNT. But the atmosphere does a good job of protecting us from the small stuff, so it's possible that nothing would even have reached the ground.


I seem to have tapped in to something with the whole liner notes thing. I've had responses from a few folks with some favourites of their own!

From Phil:

"Maggot Brain" by Funkadelic.
Can't remember any quotes though, but I do remember that they're based on the "Process Church of the Final Judgement".

Jen went through her collection and came up with these:

Clouded:Ten album
Yoni mixed in tight white underpants over too much time
David mixed w/ bad ear and short attention span in one day shots.

Moby:Everything is Wrong remix album
Notice the black heart...shunning all goodness, embracing the night like a cat with worms
he prowls and stalks. What could have transformed this once sunny creature into such a ruthless fiend?such things are best left unspoken

Frank Zappa:Son of cheep thrills
This cd has an enhanced track. To become 'ENHANCED' place in a cd rom drive.

Dr Octagon: Dr Octagynocologist
Dr Octagon says stay in school and don't do drugs.

And from Justin:

My dad was telling me about how one band noted that they sampled the sound of air from polluted LA and then sampled the sound of air from a clean forest for different parts of their music. I think it may have been the Grateful Dead.

Thanks for all the contributions, folks. Keep 'em coming!


Last October I ordered the Matmos CD from MVC ("normally ships in 1 to 2 weeks"). It arrived yesterday...

Matmos are sonic artists, utilising all sorts of interesting source material and combining it into rich, textured grooves that have a catchy beat. Well, something like that - ask a young person if you want a more accurate description! Anyway, they've toured with Bjork, and I like them. Being the sort of person I am, I read the sleeve notes to find out exactly how the album was constructed. They read, in part:

9. bass sound sampled from the amplified synapse of crayfish neural tissue on display at the Exploratorium.

10. named after an industrial site on the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. We were arrested there.

11. amplified hair, breathing, bowls of water, Polish Trains.

Gives you a quite good impression of the CD, doesn't it? As sleeve notes go, they're quite memorable, and it started me thinking about other examples of the art. The first one I remember seeing was on the second LP I ever bought: Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. On the back, it bears the notice:

This stereo record cannot be played on old tin boxes no matter what they are fitted with. If you are in possession of such equipment, please hand it in to the nearest police station.

Of course, a web search was in order for the phrase - I was staggered that I got any returns at all on Google, but even more impressed by the fact that I got several pages full! The most interesting link turned out to be an essay by Joseph Auner of the State University of New York, entitled Making Old Machines Speak: Images of Technology in Recent Music that quotes the above notice. The essay made fascinating reading for me, but there again I'm a real geek over such things.

The absolute genius of the liner note was - no, cancel that, still is... Tom Lehrer. And I was overjoyed when a web search for "Sleeve notes" acknowledged the fact with a link to a boxed set of just about everything he's ever recorded called The Remains of Tom Lehrer which is available on Amazon. I ordered it instantly. If you've never heard of him, a good place to start is his rendition of the Periodic Table of the Elements sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "I am the very model of a modern Major General." And if you can't hum that tune, shame on you. To finish tonight, here's a quote from the Master in full flow:

"Tom Lehrer, longtime exponent of the derrier garde in American music, was an entirely mythical figure, a figment of his parents' warped imagination. He was raised by a yak, by whom he was always treated as one of the family, and ever since he was old enough to eat with the grown-ups he has been merely the front for a vast syndicate of ne'er-do-wells...

...At last (unconfirmed) report he was teaching musical theatre at a university in Santa Cruz, where he earns a precarious living peddling dope to the local school children and rolling an occasional drink. Here he spends his declining years with his shrunken head collection, his Nobel Prizes, and his memories. What memories they must be..."


Let's go back to the Pluto issue I mentioned yesterday. When I was at school, everybody knew that Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory, in Flagstaff, Arizona, back in 1930. Tombaugh was set looking for a ninth planet after Percival Lowell had recognised that something was messing up the orbits of the outer planets. In fact, I still have my copy of The Search for Planet X by Tony Simon that I bought from the school book club when I was in primary school!

The problem was, Pluto wasn't big enough to cause the perturbations in the orbit of Neptune that Lowell observed. Eventually folks realised that in fact, there weren't any perturbations - they were observational errors - but Planet X may yet exist out there.

Now that we know a lot more about the Kuiper Belt and all the KBOs it contains like Quaoar, a lot of astronomers think Pluto isn't big enough to be called a planet, either. Back in 1999, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) proposed that Pluto be reclassified as a KBO. All hell broke loose. The IAU backed down, but it appears that this week's announcement about Sedna has set the argument off again.

Charles Fort would have loved the scrap. Scientists arguing? He'd have wanted a ringside seat.


Remember back in November I was blogging about the extremely large solar flare the Sun had just produced? When it happened it was estimated to be an X20 flare; then by the middle of the month it had been upgraded to an X28. At the time I got pretty excited, because this was a hugely energetic flare - the largest ever recorded. Well, the scientists concerned later realised that the flare was so big it had overloaded their instruments, and they have now revised their estimate of how big it was.

It's now been classed as an X45.

The Sun has cycles of activity, with a maximum of sunspots, flares and other such disturbances occurring every eleven years on average. The last solar max was a couple of years ago now, so we should be seeing a progressively calmer sun. It doesn't appear to be happening, though. You have to wonder whether what's happening on the Sun is having a significant effect on our climate; I'd certainly expect it to. It's anybody's guess what the longer term trend is, but things are quite interesting enough at the moment.


It's Saint Patrick's Day, and where would the media be without at least one reference to Guinness? My favorite story today was about the fluid dynamics team at Stanford University in California, who had filmed a settling glass of Guinness in an attempt to establish whether the bubbles really do sink, or whether it's an optical illusion, as earlier researchers (yes, they aren't the first physics department to research bubbles in beer) had claimed.

The verdict? Because of friction on the sides of the glass, a circulating flow builds up. Yes, the bubbles at the side really do sink. So now you know. Cheers!


The big science news over the last few days has been Sedna, a thousand mile wide rock living way out at the edge of the Solar System, over 900 times as far away from the Sun as the Earth. Calling it the "tenth planet" seems a little ambitious, especially as it's not even the first object of a decent size to be discovered out there. What about Quaoar, for instance? Or Ixion? Or Varuna?

Well, Sedna is very interesting, for a number of reasons. Firstly it has an unusual orbit. Quaoar and its companions are known as Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), because they lie in a belt of material on the edge of the solar system named after the astronomer Gerard Peter Kuiper, who suggested it should exist back in 1949. This belt orbits in the same plane as the planets and the asteroid belt. Even Pluto is regarded by many astronomers as a KBO, not a "real" planet. But Sedna has a very elliptical orbit and it doesn't lie in the plane of the Kuiper Belt. Of course, that also means it isn't very planet-like, but we'll skip that for the moment.

Secondly it's very red and very shiny. The red colour has got astronomers stumped. The shininess is also unexpected, as most of the bodies that we know of that come from that far out - bodies that for one reason or another drop in to the inner Solar System and end up as comets - are incredibly non-reflective and are usually jet black.

Of course, it's going to take an awfully long time to find out much more about Sedna, because it's rather a long way away. At the furthest point in its orbit it takes light from the Sun about five and a quarter days to reach it.

Let's take Voyager 1, which is currently hurtling out of the solar system at just over 17 kilometres a second, and see roughly how long it would take to reach it:

1 Astronomical Unit (AU)
So far Voyager has travelled 91.351 AU since launch
Maximum distance to Sedna
Distance left to go
Travelling at 17.184 km/s

= 149 000 000 km
= 13 611 299 000 km
= 130 000 000 000 km
= 116 388 701 000 km
= 6 773 085 486.5 sec
= 78 392.19 days
= 214.6 years (ish)

The Solar System, you may have gathered, is a very big place.

By the way: according to the Guinness Book of Records, the fastest space speed achieved so far was by the German Helios probes - which slouched along at 70 km a second!


There are parts of America where science education has apparently suffered over recent years. Let's not get into a debate about whether evolution should be mentioned in textbooks; I'm talking about the folks in the town of Aliso Viejo, Orange County, California. It appears that while researching an ordnance for the city, someone found that the production of styrofoam cups used a nasty sounding chemical called oxygen dihydride. This chemical, they read on the internet, was dangerous, had all sorts of alarming properties, and could cause death if inhaled. Bad news!

You're probably already laughing, as you've no doubt figured out that the chemical - it has the formula H2O - is more commonly known as water.


Yes, Julius Caesar met his fate in 44 BC on this day. It's not poetic license by Shakespeare that he was warned that something bad was going to happen - the incident with the soothsayer is recorded by Plutarch, who lived in the first century AD. However, the use of Aldis lamps was a later invention, courtesy of the Monty Python folks.

But what exactly are the ides of March? Looking it up in a dictionary tells us that the ides of a month (every month has ides, not just March) are eight days after the nones. Looking up nones in the dictionary tells us that they are "the ninth day before the ides by inclusive reckoning" which gives us very little new information and is no help whatsoever.

The nones fell on the 7th day of March, May, July or October. The nones of the other months fell on the 5th. So the ides fall on either the 13th or the 15th of the month. In the dictionary entry above, the fact that the Romans used inclusive numbering for things is important. Nones means "ninth", and that's the clue we were looking for. The days in the month were numbered by working backwards either from the nones, the ides, or from the kalends, which fell on the first of the month. That's where we get our word calendar. Rather than working from weekend to weekend like we do, there were working days - fasti - and religious days - nefasti. Every month it was the job of the pontifex to tell you which days were which, by announcing them on the kalends. The ides and kalends had a religious significance, too: the kalends were sacred to the god Mars, and the ides were sacred to Jupiter.

The ides were originally supposed to coincide with the full moon. Unfortunately the lunar month and the solar year don't synchronise, and after a while the Romans noticed that the ides had drifted out of synch. To make matters worse, by 50 BC the vernal equinox - the day on which the Sun is directly above the equator and the days and nights are of equal length - was falling in the middle of May. This was eight weeks out! An Alexandreian astronomer by the name of Sosigenes was asked to come up with a fix. And the person who asked him, after whom the resulting Julian Calendar was named?

Yup: Julius Caesar.


One thing that I've learned since getting a digital camera is how much fun photography can be: taking pictures from crazy angles, getting really close to a subject and using macro focus, and - my personal favourite - taking photographs of something's reflection rather than the thing itself. For example, here's a photo I took recently at Birmingham's Bullring Centre:

Bullring Centre in Birmingham

Windows are my favourite, but I found a really great set of photographs of Boston that have great fun with puddles. They'll take a while to load on a dial-up connection, but they're worth the wait.


Some incredible news this week that, as far as I'm aware, seems to have sunk without trace in popular media coverage: it seems that a team of scientists at CERN think that they have found a trace of the elusive Higgs Boson. Unfortunately the collider they used to produce the result was dismantled a few years ago to make way for its successor, which won't be operational for another 18 months or so. So confirmation of these results is unlikely to happen any time soon.

This particle is believed to be what gives things their mass - in the so-called Standard Model of physics, it's the mortar that holds everything else together. Physicists have been searching for it for years: it's pretty much the holy grail of subatomic physics. So much so, in fact, that it's been nicknamed the God Particle. It's a jaw-dropping result if they've done it, and deserves to be celebrated - but unfortunately other things have been occupying the news media over the last couple of days.


Never let it be said that physicists don't have a sense of humour. The field of quantum mechanics in particular is so damn strange that you need a well-developed sense of the bizarre and surreal to appreciate it in any great detail. While trying to track down a quote about the Higgs for someone at work I found a lovely selection of quotes by famous physicists. The page is well worth a browse.

And my favourite quote? Probably the one by my hero Richard Feynman:
"Physics is like sex. Of course it can give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."


As I drove home on Thursday evening, I noticed a single shoe sitting forlornly in the central reservation of the Bristol Ring Road. It looked like quite an expensive trainer, too. I've always wondered where these wayward shoes come from, and how they got there. When I lived in Florida, one set of phone lines near the local high school was adorned with pair after pair of running shoes, their laces tied together. Seeing complete pairs like this can be put down to students larking about, but single shoes? It's intriguing.

Now, it appears, a project is underway to investigate this phenomenon. Step forward (sorry) the Single Shoe Spotting Project. See a shoe? Got a digital camera? They want a picture!


I know I have a problem when it comes to films. I really should go and do other things instead. I know my interest in the movies is famous amongst my friends. But it's a bit disconcerting when one of my customers starts sending me URLs for movie websites. Particularly when they're really good resources that I've not come across before! So, for your cinematic delectation, with thanks to Caroline from Lloyds TSB, may I present Continuity Corner, the movie continuity site?

I was pleased to see that the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando led their charts in terms of all-time inattention to detail. But there's no mention of the disappearing 8-ball on the desk in The Truman Show as well as one or two other glitches that I've noticed over the years. I can feel a submission coming on...


Top tip: when demonstrating the potential danger posed by an industrial nail gun to your colleagues, it's not a good idea to point the thing at your head and pull the trigger. Especially if it's loaded at the time.


Another top tip: when you're a twitcher - a birdwatcher who travels far and wide to see any rare species that crops up - it's a good idea to make sure that there isn't a hungry sparrowhawk around intent on eating the rare migrant robin that you've come to see. The poor little thing had flown all the way from America, only to get snaffled by a local raptor.


You know those little cables that connect to cameras to let you take long exposures? Well, these days folks who take pictures of the stars have a trick that's much more clever. They combine exposures using computers. So you can take lots of relatively short exposures and combine the results of all those photons into a single picture. That's what the folks have just done with the Hubble Space Telescope, taking about 800 pictures and combining a million seconds worth of open shutter into one image. The result is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, perhaps one of the most amazing pictures ever taken. The light from some of the objects in the picture started out on its journey when the Universe was pretty much brand new.

A million seconds works out at about eleven and a half days - a long time to keep smiling for, especially when your camera is under threat. Because of the loss of the Columbia, it seems unlikely that the next Hubble servicing trip will take place. Instead, the gyroscopes on the telescope will fail, rendering it useless well before its service life expires. After that, HST's ultimate fate is likely to be that it's intentionally crashed into the Pacific. It's a dreadful shame, especially as its replacement won't be up in the air for years.


I'm back at work after a long weekend seeing various friends in different places round the country, and this evening I feel absolutely shattered. I had a really good few days, though, and I feel like I've had a proper break.

Much surfing the net took place while I was off, although this was primarily directed at watching trailers for the latest movies. I'm getting quite excited about both Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy and this summer's Disney version of Around the World in 80 Days which features Steve "I'm Alan Partridge" Coogan as Phileas Fogg and Jackie Chan as Passepartout. And it has cameos from Richard Branson and the current governor of California. So, pretty close to Jules Verne's original novel, then...

But more importantly for our endeavours here, Rebecca has located the mother-lode of penguin games. Scary to think that according to its creators, over 160 million games have been played. I can't get the hang of the Orca-slap version at all, although Rebecca gets a pretty decent high score.


I was trying to explain to the folks precisely why this month's banner is a reference to how the expression "Spam" came into being, and that mutated into a trawl through the net to find a recording of the Monty Python song. We found a rather entertaining site that has a number of useful references and a staggering array of very silly pictures. Hours of fun for all and sundry. I'm not too sure about the cocktail recipes though. Ahhh, Python, cartoons and strong drink - it's good to see student life is maintaining the standards I remember adhering to myself all those years ago...


For today's utterly amazing picture, go and have a look at this shot of the Aurora Borealis taken from a Boeing 747 flying across Canada. The colours are spectacular. I've never seen the aurora, despite numerous trips to Norway and the occasional visit to the more northern reaches of Scotland. Oh well, one day, perhaps.


My sister Annabelle sent me this great photo today that she took on Monday evening. The story made Tuesday's local papers, then got reported on the Fortean Times website, but there were no pictures, so I was delighted to see what all the fuss was about:

Sky ring - copyright 2004 Annabelle Harris

My sister got the sunlight hitting the trail absolutely perfectly to get this stunning picture. According to Annabelle, a fairly small plane made four fast circuits, leaving this vapour trail, then sped off. She couldn't say what the aircraft type was. I'd imagine it was a jet from one of the military airfields nearby having a laugh, but whoever they were, they deserve full marks for artistry and accuracy.

It was interesting to read in the newspaper reports that the trail was "20 to 30 metres across" as seen from Suffolk and Essex - because this photo was taken from the middle of Norwich! Witness reports can vary wildly, and I can understand now how unreliable reports can be of UFOs and the like. What do you reckon? If it was visible from that far away, I'd say the ring looks to be closer to a kilometer wide, maybe more.


Good grief, where does the time go? It'll be the spring equinox in three weeks, and then we can start looking forwards to the clocks going forwards and such delights as giving the lawn its first cut of the year. Even if the snow from last week has disappeared, it's still cold. As I drove in to work this morning the thermometer in the car said it was -5°C. The rabbits up by the railway line don't appear to mind, though: I've seen them up and about through most of the winter.


Well, third time's obviously the charm, as ESA's Rosetta probe is now on its way to comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It won't get there until November 2014, and it has a long and complicated journey ahead of it. Let's hope that all goes well.


Well, I said I'd be commenting on the Oscars this year. What a result for Peter Jackson - no film has ever been nominated for such a wide range of categories and then won everything it was nominated for. Certainly there was nothing to complain about in the results, but it would have been nice to see Lost in Translation get more recognition. And, once again, Pixar walked off with the best animated film Oscar for Finding Nemo. In the actor categories there was nothing to complain about, either, although it does bring home the fact that I need to get out and see more films. Which, ultimately, is what the Oscars is all about.