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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: April 2004

April brought exploding whales, alien big cats, candy bars from days of yore, James Bond autogyros, gadgets galore and the impenetrable mind of John Malkovich.

What with that and weather that veered from blazing sunshine to torrential downpours within a few days, you couldn't really ask more of a month.


I got a text last night from Rebecca, who asked "wot, no blog update?" And well she might: despite having some more cool URLs to put in the blog - don't worry, they're handled below - I'd left my USB memory stick with my links list plugged in to my home computer. I was in withdrawal at work all day. It's amazing how much it's become a part of my normal computing activities. I have a number of spreadsheets and files stored on it that I then synchronise between my home and work PCs. I store a list of my CDs and DVDs on it, and I map put the bare bones of each blog entry on it while I'm eating my lunch. Leave it at home, and it all goes terribly wrong! Maybe I should get myself a spare, just in case...


Play are currently selling a daft little gadget called the Powerball for £17.99, and last week I succumbed to curiosity and bought one. It's made out of clear plastic about the size of a tennis ball, and it contains a very clever mechanism which powers a seriously engineered gyroscope. Spin it up with a piece of string, and then move your hand round and round like so, and the thing starts to whirr as the RPM builds up. It's designed to increase hand and forearm strength, and the makers claim it's also good for relieving the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome and the like.

The really addictive thing about it is that it comes with a liquid crystal display to show you the maximum RPM you've achieved. On Friday, I set off with a pathetic 9889. On Saturday I'd got into 5 figures with 10242, nudged it up to 10390 by Monday, and yesterday got to 10717 RPM, by which point the precession of the gyroscope makes holding on to the thing quite entertaining. It's a fiendish piece of kit, and I will be trying to up my limit a bit later.


After the lovely weather at the weekend, it's turned chilly again and I've put the central heating back on. Discussions of the weather these days usually prompt talk of climate change, and I read three interesting things this week about the effects this is having. One discussed climate change that's been observed on Jupiter - which makes you wonder whether the thing driving everything might be more to do with the Sun than with Earth's atmosphere's rapidly rising CO2 levels. A second was about the possible weakening of the North Atlantic's Sub-polar Gyre, a circulating flow of water that the Gulf Stream forms part of. The third was this story about the San Rafael glacier in South America, which is in rapid retreat. And yet there are still people about - my father for one - who refuse to believe that there's any such thing as climate change. Oh well...


Arnie's cyber-enhanced vision in the Terminator movies may have got another step closer. By beaming a laser directly at the retina, American scientists have been able to produce an information overlay, showing red text and graphics superimposed over the normal field of view. Quite what the average person would do with a Robocop style vision system is anyone's guess, but it looks like we may eventually find out. Superimpose the names of people you're meeting? Provide in-vision technical manuals? Deluge you with adverts? Cheat at snooker? The possibilities are endless...


...which I doubt I'll be joining: Moblogs. Why sit at a computer to write your take on today's world when you can take a picture of it with your mobile phone instead, and email it to one of a number of sites that have sprung up to support the practice? No thought necessary, just point and click!

Er, on the whole because it's likely to be excruciatingly dull, I would have thought. Have you seen the picture quality the average mobile produces? I'll stick with my camera, thanks.


You may have seen the coverage of Shrek, the reclusive Merino sheep that had been living wild in New Zealand for the past seven years. He was an impressive looking sight with a huge fleece that hasn't seen a shearer in all that time. Until this week, when he finally went under the clippers. The story claims there's enough wool from the event to make 25 men's suits. That's an awful lot of wool...


I'm currently working my way through the latest doorstop-sized epic from British SF writer Peter Hamilton, which is called "Pandora's Star." He's very much on form with this one, delivering the huge levels of technology and dozens of characters that we've come to expect. And there's a discussion at one point about how one of the characters communicates, or fails to communicate with a race of aliens called the Silfen. So I was intrigued to find a link on the web to an article written by the one and only Professor Marvin Minsky from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about what he thinks communicating with aliens will actually be like. Sadly for the science fiction writers, it seems much of our language and concepts will share boringly common ground. The paper is fascinating for anyone who has ever watched an episode of Star Trek and wondered how a universal translator could possibly work.


If you grew up in the 1960's in Britain, you probably went to see at least one of the James Bond films with Sean Connery in them. The first one I saw was You Only Live Twice, which I saw at the cinema in St. Annes. The bit I remember most was (of course) the amazing sequence with Q's latest gadget, the autogyro Little Nellie. She's one of the few film stars I've ever seen in real life, as she was at the Farnborough Airshow a few years ago together with her designer, builder and pilot, Ken Wallis.

Ever since, I've always liked autogyros as a mode of transport. Economical, and very safe (Ken Wallis's neatest demonstration trick used to be a hands-off and feet-off flypast while he waved his arms in the air and stuck his legs out of the cockpit), they give good gas mileage and glide to a controlled stop if they run out of fuel. If I ever end up with my own flying machine, the odds are it'll be an autogyro. So today's story about the start of a solo attempt to fly one of Little Nellie's successors around the world earns my admiration and respect. Good luck to the Global Eagle team.


While we're in a nostalgic mood, how about this website that one of my colleagues told me about? It's an online sweet shop, but this page specialises in those dim and distant memories of sweets from out childhood that haven't stood the test of time. Remember Texan Bars? I do. And Spangles. And Pacers, and Space Dust. I'm pretty sure I remember Mint Cracknel too... I was amazed to find that you can still buy my all-time favourite, Coltsfoot Rock.


I think I need to lock my wallet away for a while. The London Guitar Show is coming around again. I can remember going to this show and the British Music Fair in the 80s and 90s and struggling heroically to avoid spending large sums of money on shiny new musical instruments. One year, I very nearly bought a Gittler Guitar (Andy Summers had one in the Synchronicity II video) until I tried it out and realised that the complete absence of a neck other than the frets made the thing almost impossible to play.

But it looked really cool...


Judging by the weather this weekend, at any rate. The gang were down here for the weekend, and we decided to make the most of the weather by going in to Bristol on Saturday. We had a good time wandering down by the harbourside, and ended up at @ Bristol. It was great fun; after a while we realised we'd been in there for three hours!

Not only are there a lot of entertaining interactive exhibits, there's also an exhibition about Aardman, and how they make films. Pride of place is given to Mrs. Tweedy's pie-making machine from the film Chicken Run, which was actually smaller than I imagined - but is still a good couple of metres long! There are also examples of Wallace and Gromit, of course. Worth a visit.


Many thanks to my colleague Mark Woodland, who let me know about a website run by a guy who is a bit of a fan of the film TRON. You know, the one where Jeff Bridges gets sucked into a computer and has to play video games to get out?

Now I like the film, and I'm a big fan of Jean Giraud - better known as Moebius - who designed a lot of the film's elements, including the costumes. But it doesn't mean I'd want to dress up as if I'd just escaped from the film. For one thing, I don't have a team of Korean animators handy to paint the glowing lines on me, second by second. For another, I'm over 40 and just not the right shape. Luckily for you, this is not a consideration for other folks out there. Look at this site, for example. But I have to point out that if it was me, I'd probably have left out the side view. Just a thought.


There have been a number of stories in recent years about experiments with mice that showed how a severely calorie-restricted diet (that is, not feeding them very much) could prolong lifespan by as much as 40%. Now, it seems, less drastic (but still significant) benefits are being seen in humans doing the same thing. Given the gut that I've got at the moment, it's about time I went on a diet; now I've got even more of an incentive...


Not the alphabet. I'm talking about Alien Big Cats here. That's Alien in the sense of "foreign" rather than "from another planet", by the way. There have been sightings of large predators in the British countryside for years - strangely enough, when the Dangerous Animals Act was introduced the number of sightings went up. It's likely a lot of owners released their animals into the wild rather than go through the rigmarole of registering them. Even so, most sightings reported in the press are presented with the minimum credibility possible assigned to the witness.

Well, according to a new study, it seems that there is "little doubt" that leopards, lynxes and pumas are living wild in some parts of the UK. The really fun part is that 21% of the 2,052 sightings reported to the British Big Cats Society (BBCS) between January 2003 and March 2004 were here in the South West...


I thought the last set of news about the film being made of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was weird enough, but the announcement this week that John Malkovich would be playing a character in a scene specially written for him by Douglas Adams has left me speechless. Mr M's previous exploits in the genre of British comedy were, shall we say, "unusual". Am I the only one who actually saw Johnny English?

But, as one of my friends put it, "Never seek to understand the mind of Malkovich, Sir!" Guess we'll have to wait and see.


At first sight, the news item this week that a couple of people had been arrested for bootlegging films using video camcorders is good news. After all, stopping revenue being lost through theft tends to be good for any industry. But I was rather unsettled by the revelation that movie theatre projectionists in the United States now use night vision goggles to spy on the audience during films. Don't you find this more than a little bit disturbing?

I've been reading a book on Bill Hicks over the weekend, and I can imagine his response, if he was still alive. It would probably revolve around the fact that the general public have lost another chunk of their civil liberties to defend the profits of extraordinarily large corporations. Organisations who, at the same time, are losing money hand over fist making ill-advised movies for hundreds of millions of dollars that nobody goes to see. Like, for example, one of the films being bootlegged in the story above: Disney's latest effort, The Alamo. It was completely outclassed by Kill Bill 2 this week at the US box office. If you have a project that you invest $140 million in making, I think you'd want it to produce something more than the $16 million the Alamo has returned over the last two weeks. I'd be asking some very serious questions of the team who produced that little gem, if I was in Disney's top management.

Still, even that dismal performance could be rapidly outclassed: I'm waiting to see how Will Smith's wannabe blockbuster I, Robot does when it's released. From the trailers I've seen so far, it's going to be such a car-wreck of a movie it'll make The Alamo look like Titanic.

And there's a metaphor that should never have been mixed...


That was the week, that was... So I'm back home after spending an enjoyable week's holiday, I'm about a third of the way through a bottle of Chilean red, and I'm feeling pleasantly chilled. I'd like to say that I got through the week without surfing the net, but of course you know that's unlikely to be true. However, a brief web-free recap of the week is the way I'm going at the moment, so here it is.


We went and saw Macbeth at the RSC on Monday. It was quite an interesting production. It was a fairly literal portrayal, in that when Banquo's ghost appears at the banquet, the actor walked on stage; when the three witches show Macbeth the future, we were treated to some special effects (floating, disembodied heads in a doorway) that wouldn't have been out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster; and yet the "Is this a dagger I see before me?" speech was delivered sans dagger. The cast were competent, rather than amazing - Greg Hicks, who played Macbeth, was in the Ian McKellen production back in 1979 so he knows his stuff.

I last saw the play at the RSC even earlier than that - Trevor Nunn's production in 1974. Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson were the Macbeths, Frank (Captain Peacock) Thornton was Duncan, and the witches were played by Patricia Hayes, Jane Lapotaire, and Anne Dyson. Quite a stellar cast: in contrast, the current production seemed to specialise in actors who've been in The Bill. Still, I enjoyed it - and I really should make the effort to go to the theatre more often.

One nice touch in this production was that, at the end of the play, the curtain came down on Fleance surrounded by the three witches - if this was a movie, you'd have a safe bet that they'd started work on the sequel already.


A couple of trips over the week for various blood tests and chemo work, but the good news is that Rebecca's off the really aggressive stuff now. Before all this started, I had no idea that chemo kills your sense of taste, but I've learnt a lot in the last few months. I hope it won't be long before we can all enjoy a curry down at the Balti Society again.


As you have no doubt realised, I'm a bit of a gadget freak. So imagine my delight when I discovered that Maplins have opened a new branch in Solihull. As a result, I think we ended up in there at least three days running. I now have a dinky little webcam for the PC that cost all of £15, and a fairly funky little graphics tablet that I've been having great fun with, as well as a weather station to replace the one I bought in the States five years ago that recently died (it was telling me the outside temperature was 30°C when there was ice on the cars...) At the moment, folks, it's 9 degrees outside and a rather more comfortable 22 degrees inside, and 42 per cent humidity. Don't you feel better for knowing that? I do...


Some people really need to get out more: today's wacky web site is one that allows you to input various characteristics of an incoming asteroid - its size, how fast it's going, what it's made of, and what it lands on - and will tell you, amongst other things, how loud the bang will be from where you're standing. Assuming, of course, that you're not close enough to have been vaporised by the impact. And yes, it'll tell you that too...


As you're no doubt aware by now (thanks to Rob and Ruth for getting me hooked) I'm a bit of a Gamecube junkie. The first game I bought for the thing was the amazing Metroid Prime which, I soon found out, I'm absolutely crap at. It's an amazing game, though, and the soundtrack can be genuinely unnerving at times. Think a first person shoot-'em-up with spooky atmospherics, really big guns, and a leading character who turns into a ball and rolls about squishing aliens.

Today I was absolutely amazed to find out that the director John Woo (remember Face/Off, or MI:2, or perhaps the really groovy Broken Arrow) is planning to make a film of the game! Let's hope it's better than Tomb Raider, then. Done properly, it could be amazing.


I was also amazed to hear today that the SciFi channel are planning a 4-hour miniseries based on one of my all-time favourite novels, Ringworld by Larry Niven. Mind you, I'm not getting my hopes up on this one just yet, as there were rumours going round as long ago as 2000 that a film was on the cards - at the time, Phil Tippett was supposed to be directing. In case you don't know who he is, he's the stop-motion successor to the great Ray Harryhausen. He animated the ED-209 robot in Robocop, and has worked on more blockbuster movies than you've had hot dinners. His Ringworld project appeared to sink without trace - although that assumes today's announcement is a new production. As the SciFi Channel were responsible for the rather cool adaptation of Dune that came out a while back, maybe this project will be more successful; let's wait and see what happens.

My favourite books don't make it on to the screen very often - although quite a few attempts have been made. For example, I'm also waiting and seeing what happens with the film version of Rendezvous With Rama that was announced a couple of years ago. That was supposed to have Morgan Freeman in it; I would have thought it should have been finished and released by now. Then there's been talk of a Watchmen movie for years. Last year I got excited when I heard rumours (unfortunately false) that there was a production under way of His Dark Materials. Every now and again somebody suggests Neuromancer is going to happen - but all I can think of is Johnny Mnemonic. I've even heard rumours over the last few months that Philip K. Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly is to be filmed with Tom Cruise in the title role. We'll see, we'll see...

Should some books just not be filmed? Not possible to do justice to the original works? Well, bear in mind that until recently, I'd have laughed at you if you'd suggested that The Lord of the Rings could ever be filmed convincingly, and look what happened there!


OK folks, put the date in your diaries now: Thursday, May 19, 2005.

At the moment, it seems this is the planned release date in America and Canada for Star Wars: Episode III. Which is currently rumoured to have the title The Creeping Fear. Well, I have to say it's a daft enough name to be plausible. Whether it'll be any good or not is another matter entirely. Given the disappointment I felt over the last film, I'm actually more looking forwards to the hype finally being over so we can concentrate on cooler films that actually have plots. And real dialogue. And acting and stuff.

Unless the threatened Episodes VII to XII ever get made, of course - in which case there may well no escape for years to come...


Yesterday's astronomy picture of the day was of the cyclone that appeared in the South Atlantic recently. I saw a couple of weather forecasts while it was happening, and it was a sufficiently unusual event to get a mention on British TV, thousands of miles away. Why the interest? Well, the South Atlantic doesn't get cyclones. Ever. It's only slightly more likely than a hurricane forming in the North Sea. Very odd!


If you've ever been to San Francisco you'll no doubt have heard of the Exploratorium. It's perhaps the coolest science museum on the face of the planet. It follows the principle that learning gets to be really interesting when you have to interact with stuff (duh). If you're in town, go and play. It'll be fun!

Well, I was wandering around their website (which is just as interactive) and found this wonderful little java applet to demonstrate sensitivity to initial conditions in the form of a Lorenz attractor. Click twice, and watch the tracks of your two clicks slowly diverge, until they are following wildly different paths in a butterfly shape. Be warned: it 's pretty much pointless, but highly addictive. And if you find this stuff interesting, may I recommend that you dig out a copy of James Gleick's work on the subject, Chaos. Well worth a read.


There were several very heavy showers late on Saturday and early on Sunday. I can always tell when it's raining heavily because I lose the signal on my digital satellite receiver. The analogue feed works just fine, as does our soon-to-be-defunct terrestrial signal. Whoever says digital television is a major step forward obviously doesn't watch it that often. In my experience, the digital signal is noticeably poorer in quality, subject to dropouts and glitches when the weather's bad, and (worst of all) I actually had to pay for this "improved" service.


I managed to give the lawn its first cut of the year at the weekend and even managed to do some weeding before the heavens opened. Oh well - the garden's looking much tidier than it was. As a result of my efforts, the local blackbird population has been gleefully trawling the lawn for food. It's amazing the amount they can get together in a minute or so. Judging by the amount of the things running through my flower beds at the moment, it's going to be a bumper year for spiders, yet the blackbirds seem to go more for worms and other decidedly crawly things (I don't really do insects) that they've dug out of the lawn.

I'll just have to make sure the birds don't fall prey to any of the local cats. One of the cats from the back was sizing up a collared dove on my bird table on Saturday, which gave me a chance to deploy the Airzooka for the first time in cat deterrent mode. I was about a foot too high with the first shot, which only generated a look of complete disdain on the culprit. Shot number two, however, was bang on target. Exit one very surprised looking cat.


To be honest, the stories that were kicking around this year for April Fools' Day were lame and disappointing compared with the glories of the past. Gone are the days of the spaghetti harvest, the left-handed beefburger, or any dubious science story in the New Scientist. The trouble is that since the Internet came along there's so much daftness out there on any given day of the year that you'd be hard pressed to distinguish yourself with anything original today. On the Internet, you can't limit jokes or hoaxes to a single exposure. The genie, as it were, gets out of the bottle and he's damn well going to stay out.

For instance, last month I mentioned the town in California that had tried to ban a dangerous sounding substance without realising it was actually water. The campaign to ban dihydrogen monoxide might be funny on the right day, but the rest of the year? Humiliation and suffering for those who discover its lurking secret and are too thick to get the joke. Of course, the more worldly-wise amongst us know to check our references at Snopes before bestowing our credulity on anything we read on the net...

Still, there have been one or two good pranks from time to time. You can read about some of the best of them here, and a set of more work-oriented ones here.

SPLUDGE! (Ewwww!)

However bad your life may be at the moment, spare a thought for the poor folks in at the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan. They were transporting the 17-metre-long body of a sperm whale on the back of a lorry through the streets of Tainan when decomposition and a build up of gases got the better of them.

The whale exploded - and if you don't want to leave the results to your imagination you can see the full story here as well as in the latest issue of the Fortean Times. As a Fortean, I'm well aware that exploding whales are nothing new. Video footage of an American news reporter being deluged with entrails after a misguided attempt to dispose of the body of another beached whale using explosives went horribly wrong has been kicking around on the net for years!


Back in the dim and distant past before I was born, the Labour Government of the day held the Festival of Britain (although most of it seemed to take place on London's South Bank). As a kid I remember reading about the Skylon, a symbol of the future, of thrusting achievement and technological advance, yada, yada, yada. It was a slender sculpture of aluminium, and its spire became as famous a part of the London skyline as the London Eye or Norman Foster's Erotic Gherkin are today.

Of course, when the Tories got into power, they cut it down and sold it off as ashtrays (I'm not kidding!) So it was with a pang of nostalgia that I read this week about plans to build a new Skylon, close to where the original once stood. I really hope that they do - it would recreate a little bit of the 20th Century that was, for a short while at least, really cool.


The decline of British Sport was a common theme ten years ago. Was the Rugby World Cup a flash in the pan? Well, judging by the team's performance last weekend, it may seem that way. But in other sporting pastimes, the days of British dominance are long gone. Even in the field of Pooh Sticks, we can't hold on to former glories. We were trounced by a Czech team this week. When will the decline stop?