God Emperor of Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: March 2007

March entries include a discourse on what constitutes information, a rant about the reorganisation of BBC radio which left me without any of my favourite radio programmes, and various items of weirdness including a real life version of Woody Allen's creation Zelig. While all this was going on, I drank a lot of coffee and destroyed my exercise bike.


Yesterday evening I had a quick skim around Google Earth. I installed version 4 a while ago, but I hadn't used it for about a month. I got quite a surprise, and it was a very pleasant one. While coverage of the UK is still patchy, it's been through a pretty major upgrade. The imagery of my village has gone from being a vague blur to something that's detailed enough to make out the barbecue trolley in the garden at the back of my house. Coverage is pretty old, though - I can see my Mercedes in the car park at work and I sold the thing last July. Unfortunately, Google maps are still using the old, blurry data so you can't see the latest pictures on the web just yet.


The folks at Boing Boing are always good for an interesting story or two (and I even helped out on one item recently) but the one about the combined goldfish tank and deep fat fryer is just plain silly. The comments on the page do clarify matters a little, but let's not even think about trying this one at home, okay?


I've just got back from Argos, who have replaced my exercise bike with a brand new one. Let's hope this one lasts a bit longer...


The more that the Cassini space probe finds out about the ringed planet Saturn, the more mysterious it seems to get. For a start, it's proved very difficult to figure out how fast Saturn rotates, as the atmosphere seems to be moving at a different speed to the planet's magnetic field, and there's no solid surface it can bounce a signal off. But the latest discovery is truly unique: there's a giant hexagonal weather system at one of the poles. Weird.


The blossom may be out over here but over in the United States the weather's not been so good. David Byrne has been stuck for the past day in North Carolina as a result of Newark airport closing thanks to a snowstorm. He's bearing the circumstances with good grace, by the sounds of things, but it can't be much fun.

I've only been in similar circumstances once, where a flight to Tampa via Atlanta turned out to include an overnight stop in Cincinnati. I was looked after very nicely, and the airline were organised with almost military efficiency, but it's still something you'd rather do without. For what it's worth, you have my commiserations, Mr. B.


At the beginning of the month we were wincing at the story of the written-off Bugatti Veyron. Yesterday grown men were reduced to tears by pictures of a Ferrari Enzo which bit the dust, thanks to the comedian Eddie Griffin. Yeah, I'm sure his producer thinks he's a real bundle of laughs...


I love this one. In an effort to improve the usability of the new FlipStart "ultra mobile" PC, its designers have added a new key to the keyboard - it's marked CtrlAltDel. I'm sure that'll come in very useful.


Thanks to Kyle, who let me know about a competition that the CG Society has been running for computer graphics artists. Entrants had to make a trailer for an imagined film of Greg Bear's book EON. That got me interested, because the story of an asteroid that ends up in Earth orbit and turns out to contain rather more than just rock is one of my favourite SF novels. Well, the winners have been announced, and they're stunning. To be honest, I'm deeply disappointed that the winning trailer isn't actually for a real film. I want to see that movie!


The Guardian aren't impressed with Channel 4 - and after the documentary on climate change they broadcast recently, no wonder. Today the gloves have really come off.

"Abuse and humiliation - so much more ratings-friendly than innovation or education."


Mind you, my sympathies were with the article up until it described Max Headroom as "a dud." I *liked* Max Headroom. And the video show, produced by the record company Chrysalis, introduced me to quite a few musicians that I still listen to, over twenty years later.


Have you ever read a comic? Read this...

You have to wonder whether or not the writers of the Batman story realised what a spectacular double entendre they were creating - did they do it on purpose? It certainly deserves its number one slot, and several cries of "f'narr f'narr!" for good measure, I reckon.


It's the first day of spring, yes it is. So of course a heavy frost last night killed off all the blossom on my magnolia. Now it's all brown and wilting. Grr.


Next to Sleeper, my favourite Woody Allen movie has to be Zelig. It's the story of a man who changes his appearance, his behaviour, even his skin colour to fit in with the people that surround him. Now it looks like psychologists in Italy have found a real-life Leonard Zelig. The article describes how, when taken to a bar, the man (referred to only as AD) started mixing cocktails. Taken to a hospital, the man "became" a hospital porter. Fascinating stuff.


Good old Microsoft: they can still lead the field in some things. There's a story in the Register today about how good their Live Search search engine is - at pointing you at websites which will infect your PC with spyware.


The latest reorganisation at Radio 3 has left me distinctly unimpressed. All the shows that I used to enjoy listenling to have changed days (in Andy Kershaw's case), been moved to inaccessible new times (Late Junction) or have disappeared altogether (Jazz Legends, Brian Kay's Light Programme). Radio 3's controller, Roger Wright, was on Radio 4's feedback programme on Friday night trying to justify the changes, but it became perfectly clear he really didn't give a toss about any listeners becoming disenfranchised.

Never mind, I thought. At least I've got BBC7 to fall back on. I usually listen to it in the afternoon when I'm in the office. I could listen to recordings of classics like The Navy Lark, Round The Horne, Sherlock Holmes, and also discovered stuff I'd not previously heard like The Mausoleum Club - all marvellous material. But when I tuned in this afternoon, all I got was C-Beebies. All bloody afternoon. And it looks like I can expect C-Beebies every day from now on.

As a result, I hardly listen to the BBC stations any more. But I've discovered that my favourite radio show, presented by Mark Russell & Robert Sandall and known as "Mixing It" when it was on Radio 3 has begun a new life over at Resonance FM under the name of "Where's the skill in that?" and from the schedules, it's going to be broadcast at least for the next two weeks (an achievement in itself, because it was frequently shunted aside for "events" when it was on Radio 3). Even better, I can listen to it streamed live on the web. The next show's on tomorrow at 11pm and will feature tracks by Efterklang, White Flight, Volga, Ligeti, Gudrun Gut, R.D.Burman, Laub, Burning Star Core, Wilco & Spectac. I'll be listening.


Been there, done that.


Edward Tufte, visual communicator par excellence, is a harsh critic of Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation software and the way it constrains analytical thought. And with good reason, judging by his analysis of a Boeing presentation made to NASA on whether the space shuttle Colombia was at risk - a presentation made while Columbia was still in orbit, before it disintegrated on re-entry. The article doesn't say it explicitly, but I got the message: if a more effective means of presentation had been used, the Columbia crew would still be alive today.

Still, it appears PowerPoint's popularity is little affected, and it's being used to prepare military briefings for the US Army and, er, the Rebel Alliance.


Doh! I've killed my exercise bike. I think I need to take it back to the shop, because it started making expensive-sounding noises last night and it doesn't work any more. I've only had the thing three months.


Stephen Hawking came up with a good one during the 2007 Oppenheimer Lecture on physics at Berkeley University this week:

"Eternity is a very long time, especially towards the end."


I dunno - there just don't seem to be enough hours in the day at the moment. I try to burn some calories on the exercise bike at least five nights a week, but it eats into my spare time and I've been staying up much too late to try and compensate. As a result I'm knackered by the time Wednesday comes around. I really should try getting to sleep before midnight once in a while.

Still, I did over an hour on the thing last night and watched the latest episode of Life On Mars at the same time. Bits of my anatomy were more or less numb by the time I'd finished, though. Not good - I think I need a more comfortable saddle.


Can you believe it's ten years since the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer first hit our screens? Joss Whedon has done many other things since then, but Sunnydale's finest still has a big place in his life and the release of a comic this month - known as Buffy Season Eight - shows that there's plenty of life in The Slayer yet.


My VOCO alarm clock arrived today, all the way from Stroud. If you haven't heard about them, maybe I should explain: it's a battery operated alarm clock that greets you every morning with a burst of birdsong followed by an announcement from Mr Stephen Fry. Very nice it is too - the sound quality is surprisingly good and the clock itself is constructed from a material reminiscent of bakelite, which I thought was rather appropriate.

The clock's memory holds 65 wake-up messages, all delivered in Mr Fry's distinctive tones, together with twelve thank-you messages and a 90 second relaxation routine. Goodness knows what Bertie Wooster would have made of it.


Cuteness overload: the Random Kitten Generator, as discovered by the WGB's Trogdor.


So far this month I've written a fair bit about information. We've seen that there's a lot of data flying around the Internet, and that the trend is for the amounts to get bigger and bigger. But how far can we push the network? Some people have already given up on sending data over the Internet, because it's too slow for their purposes. Believe it or not, there are heavy data users out there who use bundles of data that are just too big to send from one place to another electronically. I'm talking here about data sets that are around a Terabyte (that's a thousand gigabytes) in size.

As the BBC reveal today, Google are working on supporting amounts of information up to 120 terabytes. At the moment they have to transfer this information by putting an array of hard drives in the post. But the thing I find most interesting about the story is this: for each data set they handle, the agreement is that Google get to keep a copy. That's a huge amount of data; can you imagine how many hard drives it would take up?


Nice one, Linlithgow. The West Lothian Enterprise (eh?) Committee are to erect a memorial to an engineer born in the town. The thing is, the engineer in question is Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, who by all accounts won't actually be born in Linlithgow for a considerable time to come - not until the year 2222.


I've been watching the latest series of Life On Mars and really enjoying it. But a few niggles are beginning to surface. They may be things that have been put in on purpose, and will have a payoff later in the series, or they may be goofs, I don't know. For instance, here are two questions I was left with after episode three:

In several episodes recently we've seen an elderly gentleman wearing a tweed jacket and sporting a grey beard. He was there again this week - he was standing at the bar in the pub. He never has a speaking role, so is he just an extra who got several days' work, or will he turn out to be someone significant to the plot?

In this week's episode, Sam and the gang rock up to the Bank job in Gene's brown Ford Cortina with a dramatic squeal of tyres. But as they do so they drive past the cream coloured Austin Allegro that we saw Sam driving earlier in the episode. So what was it doing there?

Oh - and you've seen the stories that Philip Glenister has signed up for a TV series set in the Eighties called Ashes To Ashes, haven't you? Unfortunately Sam Tyler won't be a part of it.


I've been mulling over yesterday's blog item on information a bit more. As you've probably guessed from the amount I wrote yesterday, information - and how we organise and manage it - is a particular interest of mine. For some reason, I seem to be very good at the cognitive processes that enable me to deal with large amounts of data, and that comes in really useful when you do things like technical authoring or developing training programmes. Strangely enough, that's what I do for a living. But what if you're not so good at coping with gluts of data?

One way in which people can assimilate and organise large quantities of information without going into cognitive overload is by manipulating it in a graphical form. I've been looking at ways of doing so as part of my job, and perhaps the most interesting one I've come across so far is IBM's Many Eyes visualisation tool. It looks like it's got huge potential, even though it's only at the alpha stage so far. Go and have a play with their data sets, or upload one of your own - it's fun!


The Guardian reports today from a conference about how to deal with killer asteroids. And not a sign of Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall - the problem is all too real. It's reassuring to hear that people are getting together to discuss the problem, but I hope that the conference will conclude with definite and concrete action to be taken.


No, I'm not talking about the Irish priest. The Technology, Entertainment and Design conference starts today, and I wish I was there. Speakers include Murray Gell-Man, Bill Clinton, Thomas Dolby, J J Abrams, Will (the Sims) Wright, James Randi, Paul Simon, Isobel Allende, Zaha Hadid, Richard Branson and Dr Carolyn Porco (a long time hero of mine and planetary geologist for the Voyager, Galileo and Cassini missions, amongst other things). Oh - and They Might Be Giants are there too.

All those interesting people. After the amazing multi-touch system he demonstrated last time, I'm particularly interested in finding out what Jeff Han will be doing this year. I sooo want to be there.


Richard Wray, The Guardian's communications editor, writes about the mind-bending amount of digital information being produced these days. If you transcribed every conversation ever held, and wrote down every word ever uttered by a human being since the dawn of time, it would still be considerably less data than was produced in the last twelve months of this digital glut.

The problem I have with the story (aside from the totally unnecessary use of the adjective "so-called" when talking about an exabyte) is how pointless this comparison actually is. Quantity of data is bound to be a much larger figure than, say, the amount of original content. There are a lot of copies of emails floating around out there. For example, how many times have you received that email about maths papers in the last month? People also send each other existing documents for business purposes. And how much of that figure was the randomised nonsense used to fill out the body of spam emails?

The 6 exabyte figure (that's six billion gigabytes) also takes into account the immense amount of video that's been buzzing around the Internet over the past year - made up of lots of bytes, to be sure, but how much of it is any use to you? After watching a ten-minute home video of someone's cats on YouTube, I have a feeling you'd probably describe its information content as pretty low. In the computing world, however, the information content of the video is all about describing the colour and brightness of each pixel in the video stream. This is the data that the computer needs to display the video to you, and it gets updated 25 or thirty times a second. Then add some more data to handle the sound - if it's in stereo, make that two sets of data, one for the left hand speaker, and one for the right - and add still more data that enables the Internet to steer the rest of the content to your computer rather than somewhere halfway round the world. As a result you end up with megabytes of material, or the equivalent of thousands of pages of text. For the average human, information content is very subjective, and attempting to put figures on something like this is pretty much pointless, but I think you'll agree that a few megs of written information is going to tell you more than that ten minute video of cats. Text is usually put together explicitly to convey meaning, while video is usually produced for entertainment.

Part of the problem here is what people mean when they talk about information. For you and me, the word is most often used to describe knowledge - so when you get a new item of information, you learn something new about the world, or a particular part of it.

When it comes to physics, however, information has another meaning entirely. In an extension of the metaphor above, rather than recording the properties of each pixel on each frame of video, physicists view information as being about the state of every particle in the entire universe from moment to moment. Information becomes a quantity that can be measured objectively, to the point where we can come up with an estimated figure for the information content of the entire universe at approximately 2.4 x 1091 bits. That's an awfully large pile of CD-ROMS.

Looking at information in this way led physicists to develop the holographic principle, a theory about how information can be encoded in reality which resulted in lots of discussions about whether we're all just living on one surface of a higher dimensional universe. Don't ask me what it means or I'll get a headache.

If you haven't got a headache yet, then consider this: what happens when you shred a document or erase a floppy disk? That information is destroyed, isn't it? Gone for good?

Not exactly, according to current ideas in physics.

In fact it's now thought that information is conserved in the universe in the same way as energy. The conservation of energy is described by one of those central laws of physics, the three laws of thermodynamics, so if information is conserved in the same way, that's a pretty big deal. But it gets even more interesting when you think about how information could possibly be conserved even in pretty extreme cases, such as when it falls into a black hole. After all, when an object crosses the event horizon of a black hole, it becomes separated from the rest of the universe. Light - and by extension, information - can't get back out to let uis know what's going on. So it must be lost, mustn't it?

The current theory says that at some point, any information that drops into a black hole must get back out, and this has caused problems, because nobody can figure out a process for letting it do so. Even Stephen Hawking famously changed his mind on the subject a few years ago. A recent paper suggested a solution to the paradox by proposing that in such a case, the information isn't actually lost, it's just hiding. Other people think that instead of being destroyed forever, information can just turn up somewhere else - such as a separate, baby universe.

The whole deal is one of those mind-boggling areas where common sense doesn't appear to apply. The solution to these questions I like best says that, actually, there isn't very much information out there after all. Given some of the web pages I've looked at today, that sounds a lot more believable to me.


Apparently, my first coffee of the morning doesn't actually wake me up - it just gets rid of my withdrawal symptoms. That's the solution right there - don't stop drinking coffee. Simple!


Your car insurance premiums just went up - and so did mine, after a little incident involving somebody wrapping a Bugatti Veyron round a tree somewhere in Surrey.


The Angry Alien folks have done it again - every single 007 cliché you can think of in thirty seconds flat. Absolutely wonderful.


...to put some Pink Floyd on tomorrow evening and have a look at the total eclipse of the moon, which takes place between 22:44 and 23:58 UTC. Unfortunately the weather forecast for round here means that I'm unlikely to get to see it, but you never know, I might get lucky.


I posted this link over on the William Gibson Board, but I enjoyed it so much I'm going to plug it here as well. I've been listening to an album called "Freak Guitar" by Mattias Eklundh a lot recently, and I discovered a clip on Youtube of him making an in-store appearance and demonstrating his l33t guitar skillz. You can probably hear the influence of Zappa, Vai and Satriani in there, but he also does a mean Django Reinhardt impersonation. He's a funny guy, too - not least because the song he plays on the album in the gypsy jazz style is "Detroit Rock City" by Kiss. Heh.

I just ordered another CD of his from Amazon, so I'll let you know what that's like when it arrives.


Tim Weber, the BBC News website's business editor, writes today about trying to install Windows Vista on his Dell PC, and he's not happy about the experience:

"I had read somewhere that a Vista installation would take 20 minutes. Not if you upgrade from XP. After three-and-a-half hours of churning, at long last the Vista logo filled my screen. It was the beginning of a day of anguish."

Okay, I think by now we've all got the message that upgrading is a bad idea and you shouldn't touch Vista with a ten-foot pole, so I'll shut up about it.


Nice to see that the down-to-earth engineering spirit is still thriving in New Zealand, where Ken Jones built a cut price microwave link with a ten-dollar wok from a local shop. Brilliant. Even more brilliant was the fact that when he first installed it, he left the handle on. I think that's called making a point.


It's the first of the month - so let's have another Windows Vista cockup story. Latest reports say it looks like the new version of Windows refuses to work with quite a few configuration disks supplied by broadband providers. Doh!


There was a fatal accident on the M5 this morning; as I drove in to work, the police had already closed the northbound carriageway at the junction where I join it. As a result, traffic in Bristol was in chaos for the entire day. It took me twenty five minutes to get from the office to the local supermarket on my way home, and the distance is less than a mile. Then, when I got home I found the bench in my back garden knocked over and broken. It's definitely been one of those days.

Update: my neighbours saw two guys take a shortcut through my back garden late the previous night. They also appear to have been responsible for a small crime wave in the village, so I got off lightly, I suppose.