Deep fried blog, extra crispy

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: March 2005

March's blog was so big it broke the size record again. It brought us maths, famous American cartoonists, customised computers, round-the-world jet flights, big cats, dead swans, a national obsession with Doctor Who, tattoos, video games consoles, discussions about the weather, and campaigns to preserve Star Trek.

So, just your average, run-of-the-mill, ho-hum month on the World Wide Web then.


Oops: Christopher Ecclestone has already quit Doctor Who, and the BBC have only shown one episode so far. Sad, really, as he was the best Doctor we've had for quite a while. Yes, I watched the show on Saturday, and enjoyed it. I liked the background gags when the Doctor got to Rose's flat: the speed reading of The Lovely Bones: "what a sad ending!" and the obligatory dig at Hello! magazine: "It'll never last - he's mad and she's an alien..." as well as the traditional mix of comedy and fear: "I'm the Doctor. Run for your life!"

Some other bits were a bit less successful, I thought, particularly the bit with the wheelie bin and the "have you got a cat?" fight with the arm. Still, some of the casting actually made me laugh out loud - such as Mark Benton (the "brand new customers only" bloke from the Nationwide adverts) who was playing the chap who ran the Doctor Who website...


One of the guys in the office has just bought himself a new laptop. It sounds a bit of a monster, and the thing has at least four external fan vents. Most people don't realise just how much heat a PC generates - and this can cause problems. You should give the inside of your computer a clean every now and then to get rid of the dust inside it. If you don't, the amount of dust that builds up will seriously reduce your machine's ability to keep cool. I spent some time over Easter resurrecting a friend's PC that was so full of dust and grime that components had overheated and failed; there was about a centimetre of dust in the corners of the case, and a grimy deposit had built up on the motherboard and the expansion cards. It's a lot cleaner inside now and luckily, the only permanent damage appears to have been to the graphics card.

The faster a PC runs, the hotter it gets - so when you start overclocking chips to make them run faster than their designed speed, you have to deal with serious amounts of heat. There are a number of ways of dealing with this, such as water cooling and even cryogenics but if you want to be environmentally friendly you should be thinking up ways of putting that waste heat to good use. By frying an egg on the processor, for example.


Typical, isn't it? Whenever I take a few days off the weather deteriorates almost immediately. It's been drizzling since I got up, and it's dull and grey out there. So no gardening for me today. I'll just have to stay indoors and surf the net instead.


The Department of Health have released the latest set of accident statistics, usually good for a few column inches in the New Scientist and the BBC's website. There were 12,042 bed-related accidents involving UK citizens last year, although this year figures on the dangers of trousers and tea cosies are noticeably absent from press coverage. The Department of Trade and Industry's statistics are obviously intended for readers made of sterner stuff.


The advert for Nintendo's new portable game console has been playing incessantly on TV over the weekend. You'll no doubt recall the advert (if you've seen it) when I tell you it's the one featuring the vomiting airline pilot. Yes, it's gross. I'm sure the Advertising Standards Authority will be getting lots of calls about that one.

As I mentioned a while ago, I still have one of the original Atari 2600 video game console systems, which brought me hours of fun back in the 1970s. These days, videogaming has come a long way, but I still like to play the old classics. I'm not alone, either: Benjamin Heckendorn is obviously the kind of guy for whom buying the latest Nintendo DS isn't enough, so he makes customised consoles as a hobby. What could be better, after all, than a customised 2600 that also contains a PS2? Perhaps you're more into portable gaming, in which case how about a hand-held SNES? Wonderful stuff.


When I draw things, I usually use a Rotring Rapidograph pen and cartridge paper. Although I also have a graphics tablet, somehow drawing on a computer isn't the same.

But now there's a new breed of artist out there; artists who draw on a much larger scale, and their canvas is the memory of a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. Folks, I give you the rather bizarre GPS drawing project. Their rendering of Swindon's famous Magic Roundabout is particularly impressive.


I dunno, in the good old days, anyone with a fully-working solar death ray would at least try to take over the world or something. These days they just run a website and get slashdotted. Over 120,000 page hits a day seems more important than total world domination. What's the matter with youngsters today? Where are their priorities?


The BBC have got a new director general. Strangely enough, the reporting of the fact at Sky has tended to cast the poor bloke in a rather unfavourable light. I wonder if that might have anything to do with the fact that Sky are a rival television company here in the UK? No, I'm sure that's just me being cynical.


The BBC regularly run articles and programmes about people with the condition known as synaesthesia, where a person's perception is altered so that sensory input is interpreted by a different sense - tasting colours, seeing sounds and so on. I get the distinct impression that the content providers at the beeb consider it almost fashionable; I'm not just talking about one or two items here, as a search of the BBC's content on the web returned three pages of results.

There was another story to add to their collection on the BBC's news website today reporting a couple of new items of information discovered by American researchers.

I found the two documentaries the BBC have produced, Orange Sherbet Kisses and Derek Tastes of Earwax fairly interesting - but I thought it much more interesting that the BBC have made two documentaries about the same condition over the last decade or so, whilst neglecting other areas of neuroscience. There are a lot of other conditions which are just as baffling, and just as intriguing. For instance, the contents of Dr. Oliver Sacks's books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Awakenings, A Leg To Stand On, Seeing Voices and An Anthropologist on Mars could keep documentary makers busy for the next few years - indeed, some of the last book has made it to television and Awakenings was made into a film with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. I can recommend any and all of Sacks's books, as they're fascinating to read.

I used to have one of the BBC documentaries on videotape, but then I lent it to someone and never got it back - I've been miffed about that for ages. So my question for today is: why doesn't BBC 4 repeat a more varied selection of old Horizon programmes? For a while I held out the hope that BBC4 would show some of the old classics, but although they do present older material on the channel it's either the megatsunami film from a couple of years ago, something about dinosaurs, or their supervolcano stuff. Maybe the reason why we don't see anything else is that if we saw more of their older programmes, we'd realise how bad Horizon's got these days...


Johnny Depp has written about his friend, the late lamented Hunter S Thompson, in the magazine that made Thompson famous: Rolling Stone. The excerpt really conveys the fact that HST was a true force of nature. Your average writer doesn't normally blow up boxes of nitroglycerin taped to the side of propane gas canisters by firing at them with a shotgun.

What a guy.


The press coverage of Robert Crumb continues apace: the latest even was a meeting between British cartoonist Steve Bell and Robert Crumb at the National Film Theatre in London. There's a full transcript of their conversation on the Guardian's website.


People have tattoos of the weirdest things. For instance, have a look at the tattoo that Thomas Scovell has permanently embellishing his left arm. It's an example of intentionally confusing C code (a programming language), and it was the first entry received for the 1st International Obfuscated C Code Contest (IOCCC) from 1984. The reason I bring this up is because the latest contest opened for entries at the weekend, and having had to deal with some examples of impenetrable code in my time, I thought it was interesting. Then I clicked on some of the links from the contest site, discovered Mr Scovell's tattoo, and went off at a tangent. That, after all, is one of the great joys of the World Wide Web.

So: tattoos. There are fairly well-known cases of westerners having oriental tattoos that translate into bizarre phrases or expressions, although I'm amazed to find that the woman with the most famous of these (which translated as "crazy diarrhea") had it done on purpose. It's pretty much the equivalent of the Japanese penchant for using english idioms in bizarre contexts, which has long been a source of amusement to many.

Then there are the "witty" tattoos; having a dotted line around your neck with the legend cut here is old news, but I did see a photo in an old bike magazine of a guy who'd lost a leg in an accident - and had that same tattoo added to the stump. No sign of him on the web, and that's probably a good thing. However, there's a viral email doing the rounds at the moment with a few others, such as the bald guy with a tattoo of a cartoon character clearing the back of his head with a lawnmower, and a tattoo artist trying to commit suicide by tattooing an insult on a biker's back... I'm sure you'll be receiving a copy before too long.

I particularly like tribal and celtic tattoos, and as a result I developed an interest in constructing knotwork. The rules are pretty simple, and are brilliantly explained in the book by George Bain, Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction. I suspect that there's a place in the market for a computer program that could create art like this, but I've never had the patience to start writing one.

Have I been inspired to get a tattoo? Well, although quite a few of my friends have a tattoo of one sort or another, I won't be getting one of my own any time soon; I'm too much of a wimp.


What would it have sounded like if, in amongst the many commentaries on the extended edition of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," there was one by writer and playwright Howard Zinn and MIT's Professor of linguistics, Noam Chomsky? Wonder no more, because Jeff Alexander and Tom Bissell have released a transcript to those nice people at McSweeney's. It's mildly amusing, but I think they've come very close to dropping into the trying too hard category. Especially as it's in four parts.


A report today said that a quarter of the world's population of "owned" computers is British. The number of stories on the web about spyware-infected PCs goes up every week, but the UK still tops the charts when it comes to compromised computer security. However, if you look at the story in more detail, an interesting fact emerges: the number of bot-infected computers actually declined from 30,000+ a day in July to an average of less than 5,000 a day by December (I'm quoting the Register article here.)

So actually, the "shock horror" headline approach is there primarily because it's far easier to grab people's attention by instilling fear, uncertainty and doubt (usually abbreviated to FUD), even when the tone of a story is positive. The report pretty much buries the fact that increased publicity about how easily machines can be taken over has resulted in the frequency of incidents dropping to a sixth of what it was during the summer. Obviously that information wasn't as exciting.

There was a recent documentary on BBC2 called The Power of Nightmares about the way governments and corporations get their messages across these days; the favoured approach is to generate as much FUD as possible. I guess we'll be seeing a lot in the run-up to the next election, and I'll try to mention some of the more blatant examples here.


In passing, the Register's story also gives us another happy little statistic: Brightmail, the anti-spam filtering system, stops more than 1.2 billion junk mail messages every week. Just what percentage of the mail sent out every day - and there's an awful lot of it - is rubbish that nobody wants? I dread to think, but I'd bet it's well above 90%. I have Brightmail at home, and it's been great at cutting down the amount of time I waste dealing with spam - but the amount of junk mail I get at work is quite significant. An awful lot of it comes from Yahoo addresses; for example, in the time it's taken me to write this paragraph, my work account has received 6 emails, all from Korea, and 5 of them originated from accounts with That should give you some idea of the volume of spam that's around these days. Legislation so far has been completely ineffective - so much for America's can-spam act. An awful lot of the crap I get is from, and this is why any UK or US-led initiative on controlling spam is doomed to failure: if spam's made illegal in a particular country, the scumbags will just send it to you from somewhere else.

So what can be done? A mate of mine had to set up a new mail account this week, and he chose a Yahoo address. It took him less than 30 seconds, and he had to provide minimal identification to get an account. Small wonder that Yahoo addresses top the list on Senderbase's table of email originators. The only workable solution is to require all emails to be traceable, and enforce a degree of responsibility on people who at the moment have none. Right now it's far too easy to fake an ID, and if an account gets busted, then spammers just register another one. If you make account holders identifiable, if you make email traceable, you stand a chance of stopping all this pollution.

I know that this will make life difficult for a small number of people who have a legitimate need for anonymity, such as dissident groups or employees needing to blow the whistle on illicit activities. But if nothing is done, the amount of garbage out there will keep rising, and experts have already warned us that it won't be long before the Internet grinds to a halt as a result. And if that happens, it won't matter whether you have an identifiable account or not.


If you've been reading this blog for long (for instance, see the entry for April 20 last year), you'll know that for me, ABC stands for Alien Big Cat. This doesn't mean moggies from outer space, I'm just talking about finding a feline in a part of the world where you wouldn't normally expect to find it.

For example, Anthony Holder wasn't expecting to find a large animal resembling a black panther when he went into his back garden in Sydenham Park in south east London, but it appears that one attacked him anyway. Well, it makes a change from foxes knocking over the dustbins.


Yesterday was the vernal equinox, the day when the sun passes the celestial equator on its way north. In simple terms, that means yesterday was the first day of spring. Round here, nature has just started to notice, and signs of growth are beginning to appear outside: the magnolia bush in my front garden has started to blossom. If it's light outside, you should be able to see it now on my webcam.


No social stereotype this week, oh no. Take this less-than-serious quiz to find out what element you are. I'm Mercury, apparently; along with Cher and Elizabeth Taylor. Hmm, not the most flattering selection of fellow elements, but at least I - oooh, shiny!


At the weekend, Ain't It Cool were reporting on a presentation that George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and Robert Rodriguez gave at the Showest trade fair for Twentieth Century Fox. The theme? Lucas has developed a new way of presenting films in 3D. I didn't find that particularly surprising; after all, a new technology for presenting 3D films seems to come out every ten years or so, and we're about due for another one. But what I did find interesting is that this approach is being used to convert films that have already been made: the presentation apparently included eight minutes of Star Wars Episode IV that the reviewer was getting rather excited about. Hmmm - as Fox is involved, I'm sceptical; this really is a case where I'll believe it when I see it.


Despite the fact that coverage of the BBC's new series of Doctor Who reached saturation point a couple of weeks ago, the BBC are still desperately trying to broadcast as many promotional items (which used to be known puff-pieces, but are now known as pointless crap) as they can possibly manage about the show. Today's "amusing" snippet concerns Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan and it isn't even slightly entertaining or newsworthy. I'm getting to the stage where I'm considering not watching purely as a reaction to the relentless torrent of very poor PR about the show that we've been subjected to over the last few months.

I was listening to Loose Ends at the weekend, about a family who had stopped watching television altogether because they'd recognised that all programming is there to serve the commercial ends of one company or another. I suppose that's one advantage of the dumbing down of TV: the shameless plugging has got much easier to spot. But as the holder of a TV licence, what annoys me is that my money is being used to pay for people to produce this rubbish.


If more proof that advertising is crap was needed, here it is: a story on the Register's website this week described a terrifying ordeal experienced by the French driver of a Renault Laguna. The car refused to slow down after the Frenchman engaged cruise control and then discovered he couldn't use the brakes, the accelerator or the clutch. His runaway nightmare lasted for 40 Km. Certainly, the story doesn't portray the Laguna in anything remotely resembling a flattering light.

So I found it amusing that the Register's context-sensitive advertising sidebar on the page cheerily offered me Huge Savings on All New Renault's (sic) and Cheap New Renault Cars. It's nice to see that optimism's not dead - at least, not as far as Google's Ad-Sense is concerned.


A colleague let me know about a web page detailing the many and varied replicas of Stonehenge that have sprung up in America over the last century or so. It will be interesting to see how many of them will still be around in 4,000 years' time. And it's not just America that has been bitten by the henge-building bug. There's also one in New Zealand although building one there must have been particularly difficult, as the stars in the Southern Hemisphere are not the same (duh).


There was a lovely example of British eccentricity on the BBC's news site on Friday, in a report that the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies had enjoyed a visit from the police after they discovered the carcass of a swan at his house on Orkney. Swans, you see, are protected species, and every swan is also Crown property. It's illegal to kill a swan, and even the bodies remain the property of the Queen. On Orkney they occasionally fly into power lines and are killed; the remains are often eaten by the locals. This is quite understandable, as when you live on an island off the northern coast of Scotland I'm sure you'd develop a "waste not, want not" attitude to potential food that drops out of the sky in front of you.

However, when the police turned up, Sir Peter offered them some of the swan terrine he'd made from the remains - and, as he said, "I think they were rather horrified. That was a mistake, wasn't it?"


It's nice when a big magazine like Wired agrees with you, isn't it? They have some more background on the "leak" of Dr. Who's first episode which I blogged on 8th March, although if I understand the article and the hyperlinks that they've provided correctly, it appears that the people that Wired identify as the prime suspects for coming up with the idea didn't actually meet with the Beeb until the 12th of March, according to their blog - presumably the BBC's executives then used Dr. Who's TARDIS to travel back in time and get things moving.


Forget about starting up your own cult - this time Danny Wallace wants you to help him start his own country! Thanks to Rob for letting me in on that one.


I spent some time on my day off on Monday watching Spider-Man 2 which, I'm ashamed to say, was the first time I'd seen it. I really enjoyed it, although I'm not sure I agree with a mate's verdict that it was the best film of 2004. All the same, there were some lovely touches, like Aunt May telling Peter she'd thrown out all his comics, and him hobbling off down the road after a fall going "My back! My back!" (it's funny because Tobey Maguire nearly lost the role thanks to a back injury he picked up filming Seabiscuit, and with a director like Sam Raimi around, you know the leading man will be subjected to harsh ridicule and quite possibly physical abuse - just ask Bruce Campbell). And it goes without saying that Alfred Molina is a star. But the plot - hero has personality crisis, girlfriend finds out his secret identity - seemed vaguely familiar. Are we going to see Richard Pryor and Robert Vaughn in the third movie or what?

I will get another big superhero fix on Friday, as The Incredibles comes out on DVD: I'm waiting eagerly for my copy to arrive. I've already posted a review of the film elsewhere on this site - it's a lovely riff on the superhero theme, combining some very knowing references to the genre with Pixar's usual manic energy for having a really good time.

With the painful exception of the Daredevil movie, it's clear that superheroes can make for really good entertainment. As I get older, I've found it interesting how the whole concept of the superhero seems to undergo a radical rethink every twenty years or so; each new generation experiences the delights of comic books for the first time, and a certain number of comics-savvy kids grow up to become film directors and producers. For example, the film of Frank Miller's amazing Sin City comes out in a couple of weeks, and the trailers look incredible. In the coming year, we're set to get another version of the Batman and Superman stories, and joy of joys, we're also likely to get a film of Alan Moore's Watchmen, a work that has been described as The Citizen Kane of Comics. Today, the folks at Ain't It Cool News are also reporting that Joss "Buffy" Whedon is to write and direct a film of Wonder Woman. It's going to be a fun ride.

Despite the increasingly serious treatment of the superhero genre by the mainstream media, it's nice to see there are still some people out there who can have fun with the concept. I really like this one, although I've dealt with several people who could well be this guy's alter ego.


The Dutch are developing their own autogyro. This one might not let you shoot down the bad guys with air-to-air missiles, but it looks like it might be a lot of fun to use for commuting - at least until the Civil Aviation Authority decides that having thousands of the things flying about is not necessarily a good idea.


Some days I sympathise with Neil's attitude in the Young Ones. As you may have noticed yesterday, I was experimenting with tags and to be honest I'm not at all impressed with the results. A tag for the blog entry a few days ago about the weather appeared on Technorati's weather tags page OK, but it was quoting the first text on the page rather than the entry itself, which isn't a lot of good in providing context. Then I discovered it was pointing back to a page on my site that doesn't have any tagged links at all. Something was definitely broken somewhere, and I'm not entirely convinced it's my coding that's done it, so rather than confuse or annoy people I've removed all the tags. Sorry.

I wasn't particularly keen on having explicit and visible tag links on the site anyway - it looked a bit too fussy for my taste. Looking at other sites that have implemented tags successfully I have a sneaky feeling that the system is geared far more towards RSS than HTML. Until I get round to creating my own RSS feed (not gonna happen soon) I guess I'll have to find another way to do things.


I know that spreading yeast extract on your toast is a bit of an acquired taste, but when I read a headline that says Marmite ads "terrified" children I start wondering about the future of the planet.


It looks like the gloves are finally coming off in the continuing, er, "debate" about Dan Brown's best-selling (if rather dull) novel The Da Vinci Code. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Archbishop of Genoa, is the first person to give the Vatican's opinion of the novel, and he isn't exactly complimentary. In fact he called the book "shameful and unfounded," and he will be giving a lecture intended to put forward the Church's side of the story.

The Cardinal - and you - could do a lot worse than tracking down the February 2005 issue of the Fortean Times (that's issue 193), as it discusses the main issues raised in the book in quite a bit of detail. It rapidly becomes clear that Brown's assertion that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate" is being rather economical with the truth, but that's not surprising; after all, the man's got a book to sell.

To be honest, I'm more surprised that Umberto Eco hasn't weighed in yet. If you're thinking of buying Brown's book, I'd suggest you buy Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum first, as it's everything that the Brown book tries (and fails) to be; the two works share the same subject matter.


Not sure I understand exactly what's going on here, but imagine Max Headroom meets the Matrix and you've got the basic visual feel. Gorgeous looking graphics.


When I was a kid, there was a meme going round (they weren't called memes in those days, but you get the general drift) that the population of China would soon become so large that they would be able to change the Earth's orbit if they all jumped up in the air at the same time. Presumably nobody spreading the tale had considered the conservation of momentum involved, but what the hell; it sounded cool. Before that, it was nuclear weapons that would do the trick, as anyone who's seen Val Guest's classic SF movie The Day The Earth Caught Fire knows very well: but it's still rubbish.

Now it seems, the meme has resurfaced in a new, internet-friendly, get-involved kind of way: World Jump Day. Dearie, dearie me.


Well, it looks like I've finally managed to upload today's stuff after problems with my ISP; I've been unable to access my web pages for most of the day. Nevertheless, it's a bumper issue of the blog today, as I've been off gadding round the country again. Here are the things I've come across in the last four days or so.


First of all, I have to say I don't know how the BBC could report comments by the UK's trade and industry secretary today with a straight face. Patricia Hewitt was calling for a greater public engagement with science. Regardless of whether the public's attitude toward science is warming or not, the BBC's response is clear. For them, science has to be turned into infotainment before it stands any chance of getting on our screens. I'm glad to see that it's not just me getting annoyed by this, too. Look at that MORI poll result: 7 out of 10 adults think that the media sensationalises science issues.

In most cases I believe it's because the people producing the programmes just don't understand what it is they're making a programme about. Critical thinking seems to be a lost art; it appears that flashy graphics and thundering soundtracks are far more important in determining audience appeal. With one or two notable exceptions such as Adam Hart-Davis and Patrick Moore, most science programmes these days are made by people who haven't taken a science subject in years, and unfortunately the quality of science programmes is suffering badly. The pursuit of bigger audiences means that even when the Beeb do encounter hard science, they feel they need to dress it up with dross like their latest effort, Supervolcano. It's just embarrassing.


And, talking of volcanoes - the Americans may be keeping a wary eye on Mount Saint Helens at the moment, but in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula they've got two volcanoes erupting simultaneously. As the region has something in the order of 60 active volcanoes the Russians are being typically sanguine about the whole thing. "The village of Klyuchi located between the two volcanoes is suffering periodic ash falls but is otherwise safe," said a spokesman.


How utterly bizarre is this? On Friday I discovered a largely content-free website whose theme combines the hagiography of the church with the mystique of an ex-president.


I came across another what's your [insert subcultural descriptor here] name website on Thursday on the usenet group, of all places. Thanks to Jools, a.k.a. Fallopian Teapot, Yo for that one. So it's Doctor Kawfi cominatcha. Respect, y'all.


Every now and again I find a site that doesn't really do an awful lot, but just looks really cool. The latest of my discoveries presents the world's news, arranged in easily assimilated chunks, sized according to scale of coverage. It's a bit like musicplasma, only for current affairs. I like.


The Nintendo DS was released on Friday in the UK. I won't be rushing out to buy one, as I still enjoy playing stuff on my ancient Game Boy Color, but I know Rob's keen to get one. Ruth isn't as convinced, although she still has her Advance SP. For the more committed gameheads amongst you there's an interesting review of the new twin-screen gamey type thing over at the Guardian's website and more general comments on their Gamesblog.

The general verdict seems to be that the interface is really cool (personally, I'm not convinced) but that the feel is really cheap and plasticky. Well, OK the actual words used were "an ugly plastic monstrosity." When you consider what a work of art the GameCube was, that's not exactly a good sign.


Finally today, let's return to the subject of public opinion about science. I've been thinking about people's reactions to the cancellation of the show Enterprise. In the words of one of its stars, Jolene Blalock, Enterprise was a show that started off with 13 million viewers and somehow managed to drive 11 million of them away. It's now paying the price. Its remaining fans are finding it difficult to accept this, and have started a campaign to keep the show on the air.

You probably know this already, and you've no doubt seen the reactions: trying to raise millions of dollars to keep a TV show on the air has been widely derided. It's quite understandable, too: there are a lot of problems in the world which could be helped in no small way by people throwing that kind of money at them.


Trek is one of the few shows since television was invented that brings science to a general audience. With the exception of a few contrivances such as the transporter beam and faster-than-light travel, it presents science in a realistic and favourable light. The overwhelming message (in the early days at least) was that science could help us to make the future a better place. And I believe that's the main reason why the original Star Trek was so popular. The reason why the franchise has lasted so long is due to the amazing sense of optimism for the future that it used to nurture. Both the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation shared a vision that we would be able to put aside our differences, settle our disagreements, and put science to use in building a better world. That's a noble dream, and it inspired an awful lot of people to start working towards making it a reality.

Then Gene Roddenberry died, and things started to go horribly wrong. Boundless optimism became distinctly unfashionable in the 1990s and the later series like Deep Space Nine and Voyager reflected a darker, grittier approach that completely missed the point. We've seen what a mess the world has got itself into. I for one was not interested in watching a show that perpetuated that dismal situation for the next couple of hundred years. Trek became a brand, a franchise, and an unapologetic money-making machine that left a sour taste in the mouth if you were unfortunate enough to come in direct contact with it, as I found out when I went to the exhibition in London's Hyde Park a couple of years ago.

Even the science of the show went into a decline, too - the technobabble stopped being plausible and became simply babble, and for me that was unforgivable. I stopped watching, and so, it seems, did just about everyone else. I've seen Enterprise, and while some episodes have been entertaining the magic just isn't there any more. The episode that Channel 4 showed last Sunday was pretty much a rewrite of an old Next Generation episode, and I ended up changing over to watch something else instead. I can't say I feel any enthusiasm to support the campaign to save Enterprise, not in its current form.

But that's not the point.

The point is that the earlier incarnations of Trek were hugely aspirational. The show was a child of the 1960s, when man was heading to the moon and it seemed only a matter of time before we would be off exploring the Galaxy for real. That was the dream. That's what is missing in the shows at the moment. Even if Enterprise is dead and gone, getting a network to work towards making that dream come true is what's important. Because rekindling that spirit of optimism, of friendship, of reconciliation and reaching out, and of boldly going where no one has gone before is a laudable ambition and one that we should support with all our might.


If you're a weather forecaster, you just can't win. Even a good guy like Special Agent Dale Cooper didn't like weather forecasters.

After what happened to Michael Fish back in the 1980s (even if he was right), you know you'll be derided for not giving sufficient warning of severe weather, so nowadays the safe option is to go the other way. I grumbled about this tendency here in this very blog last month.

But it seems that when you overestimate the likelihood of bad weather, you don't just upset people; you can cost them money, too - and some of them aren't too happy about it.


A lot of people just won't watch a movie if it's in black and white.

You may have heard of the process of colorization (and yes, I'm using the American spelling on purpose); it's been a long time goal of the entertainment industry to get round the problem by magically turning all those boring old black and white movies into vibrantly exciting coloured new ones. Yeah, right; most of the colorized versions released so far look utterly dreadful, and are regarded as nothing short of sacriligious by hardened movie buffs.

Up until now, every attempt at colorization I've seen has just looked laughable. But this semi-automated approach for colorizing stills and movies developed at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is the most realistic I have ever seen, and by a significant margin. The Crater Lake demonstration movie is particularly impressive. In fact, frankly, the examples knocked my socks off. Hollywood should be knocking on their door any second now, because the possibilities of what the technique could do for bringing old films to a wider audience are mind-blowing.


Talking of colour: a few years ago, cycling legend Lance Armstrong started up a cancer awareness campaign which sold bright yellow rubber bracelets to promote awareness of testicular cancer. The LiveStrong bracelets took off in a big way, and it wasn't long before other campaigns adopted their own bracelet colours. There is now a bewildering variety of different bracelets available, but I've managed to track down a guide to what the different colours mean. The only problem is that there are far more campaigns than there are colours, and duplications have already started happening.


Mount St. Helens is getting fractious again. One of the safer ways of catching up with what's going on is to use a webcam - although I'm not sure this one's working at the moment.


I've been spending far too much time in the evenings this week playing with the version 1.3 beta of NASA's World Wind software. It's a graphics package that lets you zoom from satellite altitude down to any place on the planet and then fly over it.

Be warned, though: the download starts off at 171 Mb and once you run the software, as you approach a particular spot it will then download higher-resolution images to supplement the view. There are overlays of place names, elevation data and much, much more available, but unless you're prepared to leave your modem on for a few days I guess it's going to be the broadband users who get to enjoy it. Nevertheless, it is great fun - once you've had a look at your home town, I can recommend using it to zoom over the Alps.


More than you could possibly want to know about maps of the tube.


These days, people seem to want scientific proof for just about anything. So it's no surprise to me that a team of researchers set out to prove that feeling good was, er, good for you. Laughter, it turns out, increases blood flow in the body by around 22%.

Stress, surprisingly enough, is bad, as it has the opposite effect, reducing blood flow by 35%. The reason I found the story interesting - and why it's being mentioned here - is to do with the way in which the researchers got their experimental subjects into each state: they showed them films. The conclusion is inescapable - and it's bad news for Steven Spielberg. Watching Saving Private Ryan is bad for you.


If people actually bothered to check signatures on bank cards, and had a good look at the anti-theft strip that carries your signature to see if it has been tampered with, a lot of fraud could be prevented. But this has obviously proved to be far too much trouble for shop assistants and the like, so we're moving away from your individual and unique signature towards a four-digit number that anyone can watch you key in. Am I the only person who thinks this is less secure than the old way of doing things?

Well, apparently I'm not; unfortunately some of the other people who believe this aren't as law-abiding as I am. It seems card fraud has risen by a whopping 20% since the system was introduced. UK banks lost over half a billion quid last year as a result, and guess who that cost will be passed on to?


The BBC has got quite upset after an episode of the new series of Doctor Who was leaked. Or so it seems at first glance. But let's look at the story in more detail. First of all, do we really believe a BBC journalist, writing a story about a BBC product, published on a BBC website, when he or she claims that "the BBC was unavailable for comment"?

Then, even if the story had managed to retain any credibility, do you think for one moment that the BBC, in widely publicising the leak so that several subsequent stories spread the news far and wide, was simply letting us know how they were spending our licence fees? Of course not. After all, the result is that a lot of people who wouldn't normally give a toss are now talking about the new series. It's an easily-denied but highly effective publicity stunt. It wasn't us, says Auntie Beeb - it was connected to those folks in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It gives the BBC a way to drum up lots of media coverage for the show in the three weeks before it finally gets to air, and they can even blame someone else for doing it!

So far, so predictable; but there's an unusual twist to all of this. You'll notice that in this story about the leak on the BBC's own website there's a link to a site that explains how BitTorrent (the system which enables all of this television downloading to take place) actually works. From the Wikipedia article you can choose one of the many links they've provided and, presumably, download the show yourself (I have to confess that I've never bothered with the technology; after all, I've only had broadband for a couple of months.) Smell anything fishy? Come on, the logical conclusion is that they want the show downloaded. The only way they could be less subtle about things would be by putting up a big sign marked "get it here" and running a torrent server themselves...

So the question is, why?

The reason for the UK's position as the world's number one downloader of TV shows is simple: our TV networks just don't look after their customers. One example of this is the ludicrous amount of time terrestrial television viewers have to wait before they get to see the latest American shows. If we're lucky, we get to see them the following year. We often have to wait 18 months. However, in some cases, UK networks may decide they just don't want to buy a show at all, in which case our options are forking out for exorbitantly-priced subscription services or hoping it eventually gets a release on DVD (which reminds me, I really should get round to ordering Children of Dune). Another example of how poorly we're treated is the plastering of banners, logos or graphics over a show. It amazes me that networks no longer even consider whether or not the audience gets a clear view of their favourite programme to be worth worrying about. (As an aside, this is a major selling point of DVDs as far as I'm concerned - because on DVD I'll miss having to listen to a continuity announcement made over the end credits, which will themselves be shunted to one side to make room for the trailer for whatever is on next.) As a final example, try comparing a decent analogue picture with its digital counterpart. Analogue is much better, because in order to provide us with all those home shopping channels, digital TV signals are massively compressed. So, given that the picture quality of a file downloaded over the Internet can actually be superior to your normal TV signal, isn't that a strong motivation for viewers to get their entertainment elsewhere? No wonder that viewers are deserting TV channels in droves.

Presumably somebody at the BBC has been smart enough to figure this out, and they're using the Doctor Who incident to test the waters before introducing their own download service. It's a very different approach to just conducting a short-term trial, isn't it? We'll have to wait and see what happens as a result.


The link to this amazing story was posted on the William Gibson board under a single-word comment of "Wow." Quite.

It's a great shame, however, that the amount of attention that the Internet can bring is not always a good thing - as becomes obvious when you read the comments at the bottom of the page. I actually thought for quite a while about whether or not to even mention this one, but decided that the beauty of the original story deserved a wider audience. Just don't bother the guy, OK?


It's obviously a good month for daft headlines. And you absolutely *have* to look at the associated slide show. It's wonderful stuff.


Strangely enough, I turned the TV on after uploading yesterday's blog and there was Robert Crumb being interviewed on Channel 4.

TOMMY VANCE 1940 - 2005

We've lost another great enthusiast from the popular music scene: Tommy Vance died at the weekend at the age of 63 following a stroke. While I never met John Peel, I did once meet Tommy, and he was a thoroughly nice bloke. He was a major influence on my musical taste, and a lot of the artists I listen to today I first heard on his Friday Night Rock Show, which ran on Radio 1 for many years - but that was back in the days when it was still a radio station worth listening to, of course. For example, the music he used as his theme tune, Take It Off The Top by the Dixie Dregs, was how I first discovered the awesome guitar playing of Steve Morse.

It's funny; a lot of the tributes I've read over the weekend have remarked how much enthusiasm Tommy had for the music he played. People said exactly the same thing about John Peel. While this is unquestionably true, I think it says a lot about how radio stations that play popular music are run these days that this is seen as a distinguishing feature, something that's so unusual it becomes noteworthy in itself.

Part of this is down to the music industry in general. An awful lot of music these days is manufactured, bland rubbish, designed to shift units and appeal to specific demographics: it's no longer the result of a musician's personal vision, honed after years on the road. Instead we get some pre-packaged poplet who has had to face nothing more gruelling than a few hours at the hairdresser's. TV's death underlined the fact that there's nothing much on the radio any more to engage me like there used to be - and these days it would be unthinkable to actually get an artist in to explain what they were trying to achieve. I can still remember two radio shows from my teenage years: one was a Saturday afternoon thirty years ago when Alan Freeman played through the Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti which had just been released - while talking to Robert Plant (and Jimmy Page?) about it. The other was Tommy interviewing Roger Waters about Pink Floyd's album The Wall. How many shows on Radio 1 that you've listened to this year will you still remember in thirty years' time?

Rock on, Tommy.


The out-and-out winner this week has to be the article from in Australia: Cows Hold Grudges, Say Scientists. Gary Larson, where are you? Now more than ever, it's clear your planet needs you!


My brother Andy got me the DVD of the biopic Crumb for Christmas. It's the story of Robert Crumb, who we've mentioned in these pages before. The 1960's most subversive cartoonist has always cropped up in strange places, including the Fortean Times, for whom he once produced a cover (which featured impeccable sketches of some of the trees in his back yard, if I remember correctly.) He used to be one of the staple producers of pulp comic strips. These days you're just as likely to find him being discussed in high culture magazines or - as today shows - the fine arts section of broadsheet newspapers. I came across this fascinating (if mildly disturbing) article on RC, who now lives with his wife Aline in France, in today's copy of the Guardian.

In fact, after browsing a bit more, it appears that the Guardian are doing lots of coverage on Crumb this week as a build up to an exhibition of his work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. So far, their coverage ranges from an all-too-brief article by their cartoonist Steve Bell to an appreciation by the Australian art critic Robert Hughes. Hughes makes the spot-on observation that, where Crumb's positive, outward-looking and optimistic contemporaries have now mainly succumbed, the pessimistic, sceptical Crumb still endures. And quite right too.


It's nice to see that the BBC is keeping up with all those new-fangled trends like commercial television. Today they ran an article on that new Golf GTI advert (the one that appears to feature Gene Kelly break-dancing his way through "Singin' in the Rain".) The thing is, you could have read about it in an article which the Guardian ran back at the end of January. The folks over at Linkbunnies picked up on it back on the 7th February, which was when I cottoned on. I have to say that the Guardian version lets you download the advert, too, although when I last looked it had changed from QuickTime to Realplayer.


From the "how things have changed" dept.: Status Quo will be playing at the wedding reception of Les Battersby on ITV's been-going-since-the-dawn-of-time soap opera Coronation Street in the autumn, it was announced today. Mind you, Quo are pretty long-running themselves: I remember going and seeing them at the Hammersmith Odeon, and that was well over 20 years ago.


If it's not snowing where you are, I've found it's great fun using webcams to find out what the weather's like in other parts of the country - or even the world. Very cool.


Steve Fossett has touched down back at the airfield in Salina, Kansas, 67 hours after taking off. And in that time he's flown round the world, non-stop, single handed. What an amazing achievement.


The United States Air Force has decided that posting satellite information on the Internet is probably a bad idea and are imposing restrictions on its distribution. This is, apparently, because back in 1999 shortly after September 11th, somebody in Afghanistan logged on to the website providing the information and used the same login name as somebody else in China. Seeing such a rapid response to a perceived threat like this really makes you confident, doesn't it?

All the same, the threat of losing their prime source of data has upset a lot of amateur astronomers who enjoy being able to watch satellites pass overhead. Chris Peat runs a superb site that lets you find out things like when the International Space Station is next going to be visible or when you will be able to see an Iridium flare from where you are. He depends on the information that's provided by the USAF so he can offer the facilities available on his site.

The thing is, it's not as if the satellites are going to disappear: you're still going to be able to see them as they fly over. The ISS is a pretty conspicuous object, and most of the larger satellites stand out against the stars: the fact that they're moving is a bit of a giveaway. And even if it is effectively rocket science, it's (apparently) not overwhelmingly difficult to figure out a two line element for a satellite from observations.

So what's the point of withdrawing access? It's not particularly clear, and the article on the closure contains comments by astronomers who suspect that in reality there isn't one. asked Harvard University's Jonathan McDowell for his thoughts - and if you've been reading about astronomy or astronautics on the net for long, you should know about Jonathan's Space Report which he produces. "This measure, like so many security measures taken post-9/11, is completely ineffective in improving security," McDowell said. "It merely gives the impression that you're trying to do something." Haven't I hear that before, somewhere? Dr. T. S. Kelso, Colonel USAF (retired) who produces the Celestrak website, added: "The Air Force guys don't have a clue what's already being done. They have this vision that the only way someone's going to be able to do this is if they spend millions of dollars. They're just not really up to speed." Kelso's website even advertises a text book on the maths involved, so the information on how to do this is already out there.

Presumably the problem isn't that terrorists pose a threat to the satellites themselves; most are several hundred miles up and travelling at well over 10,000 miles an hour. It's more likely to be about knowing when a surveillance satellite is going overhead and hiding from it. So a better solution is - as far as I'm concerned - blindingly obvious. When the bad guys have to hide, they aren't able to function normally. So what should be happening is that the real data remains free and widely available, but becomes supplemented with additional data sets for other fictitious satellites. The more data you put in, the more time the bad guys have to hide. For the rest of us - well, we might spend five minutes waiting for a satellite pass that doesn't happen. I can live with that.


Writing an opera based on the Jerry Springer Show is going to seem tame next to composer Howard Shore's latest project; according to Yahoo, he's writing an opera based on the cult horror film "The Fly." It'll be based on the David Cronenberg version, rather than the original version directed by Kurt Neumann (which starred David Hedison of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea fame) as Cronenberg is going to be working on the project as well.

Hmmm: looking at the entry for the original on IMDB I was surprised to find out that James Clavell, of Shogun fame, worked on the original screenplay. Now how's that for a piece of trivia?

225,964,951 -1

The Guardian newspaper had a rather eye-catching splash of colour on its front page this morning. On closer inspection, it turned out to be the first few thousand digits of the largest Mersenne prime number so far discovered, unearthed by a German eye specialist on his home computer using the distributed computing software GIMPS (which stands for the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search.)

A prime number is divisible only by itself and one. So 13 is prime, 12 isn't. A Mersenne prime is a special type of prime number built from a smaller prime number by using the formula M=2^n -1 where n is the smaller prime number. In the case of this example, the "small" prime number (the value of n) was 25,964,951 and it took 50 days of computing on a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4 to work out the result.

This is the 42nd Mersenne prime number to be discovered. You may be wondering why the Guardian didn't print *all* of the number; well, it's because there are 7,816,230 digits in it. Putting that on the front page doesn't really add a lot of news value unless you're a very serious maths geek.


After all the panic last week about the impending cold-snap-that-never-turned-up I haven't been paying as much attention to the weather forecast, but all the same I was rather surprised to open the curtains this morning to find it was snowing quite hard and beginning to stick. For one moment I thought I was going to have to spend the day at home (shame) but I made it in to work without any problems and by lunchtime the Sun had started to come out. I drove home through one brief flurry, but looking outside there's blue sky; no doubt we'll be getting a frost tonight.

Once again, you need to be further East to get anything significant - in Kent, they've called in the Army to help with blizzard conditions.


There was an interesting story today about MI5's interest in Arthur Ransome, the author of much-loved children's' books like Swallows and Amazons and (my favourite) Coot Club. I didn't know that he'd been involved in bolshevism, or that his wife was Russian.


I was reading more about Hunter S Thompson's wish that his mortal remains should be shot out of a cannon. It seems that HST has charged his long-time associate Ralph Steadman with the design and construction of said cannon, which is to be adorned with the two-thumbed fist and dagger that became the good Doctor's trademark. I was also reading Ralph's piece on HST in the Independent, which I'd recommend to anyone because in my opinion it does the best job of any of the many articles that have appeared over the last week in summing up the man's unique approach to life.


Steve Fossett has started off on his record-breaking solo non-stop flight round the world in the Virgin Global Flyer. I'm sure the team breathed a sigh of relief after getting the most dangerous phase of flight out of the way - when it took off, the aircraft's weight was 82 per cent fuel.


I haven't got kids of my own, but Rebecca has two. Being in close contact with the next generation does tend to change your outlook on life, and you find yourself looking at current events, social trends and general everyday life in a new light. Every new media fad seems to presage the imminent collapse of civilisation. For example, I was utterly horrified by Johnny Vegas's behaviour on TV at the weekend, particularly because we were all watching the show together.

It seems I'm not alone, as one parent with two kids was bemoaning modern behaviour in the Guardian this morning: "It's pathetic when people just swear for the sake of it," says former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock.


Panics about how unprotected machines connected to the Internet are being conscripted for nefarious purposes are getting more common. I was surprised to see a report today that one machine running Windows XP service pack 1 lasted a whole 18 minutes before it succumbed. Surprised, because I would have expected it to get taken over much more quickly.

So make sure your machine is protected. Your machine should be set up with antivirus software, Ad-aware SE, Spybot Search and Destroy, and a decent firewall if you intend connecting to the net these days.