A Fistful of Bloggers

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: April 2006

I started April by getting a Flickr Pro account, and what great fun I've had with it. I didn't even use 10% of my upload limit, so I will have to try harder next time.

Other than that, I got the car fixed, got my old Olympus digital camera fixed, put an extra gigabyte of memory in my PC, got out on the bike, and spent a very enjoyable Easter over in East Anglia.


There's been a lot in the media this week about a couple of new forms of transport. The Guardian was extolling the virtues of India's GWiz electric car, and Slashdot picked up on the BBC's report on the Clever Concept. We discovered that "Clever" is short for Compact Low Emission Vehicle for Urban Transport - no, wait: surely that would make it the Clevfut? It's nice to see an old trend making a return like this, though: when I was a kid, these sorts of vehicles were all the rage, but we called them bubble cars.


The Guardian reports on the increasing trend of amateur photographers being questioned by the police or hassled by security guards for being a "security risk" just because they're taking pictures. It's not unusual to read about photographers being nabbed in other countries, but it's a bit of a shock to realise it goes on here as well.

Reading about the Guardian journalist's experiences, the logic of it being okay to take a photo of something from one side of a London street but not on the other side escaped me. In fact, there doesn't seem to be any logic. So why is this going on? The City always used to have a population of folk who were paid to man the foyers of plush offices and deter unsavoury characters from getting in. Post 9/11, maybe they've diversified and are moving in to the more general field of giving grief to people in the street. They don't seem to be thinking through the justification of their actions, though. I doubt they'll need to - can you see anyone campaigning to stop them?

And we're supposed to be winning the war against terrorism? Yeah, right.


A new film about heavy metal music goes on release today, and the BBC must have received a press release about it: they have an article on one aspect of this particular musical style, which does little more than go on about how heavy metal compositions usually involve a musical interval of three whole tones known as a diminished fifth or augmented fourth, or tritone.

The tritone was - so the story goes - banned in the middle ages because the dissonance it creates brought on weird feelings and was therefore considered to be the work of the Devil. The BBC article lists quite an interesting spread of compositions that use it including Richard Wagner's Gotterdammerung, but the most obvious example is the opening notes of Purple Haze. Jimi Hendrix was unusual in that he let the dissonance remain - most other composers move swiftly to another more melodic note, which is known as resolving the melody. Another example the BBC gives is Danny Elfman's theme tune to The Simpsons, and you couldn't really describe it as heavy metal. On the other hand, the Simpsons theme puts an E in between the C and the F sharp, so it's not exactly what they're talking about anyway.

Crikey. I didn't expect to be blogging about musical theory when I got up this morning.


This rabbit is just about the scariest thing I've seen all week.


Because then I could go to events like this one. The idea of writers like Amy Tan and Dave Barry on stage and playing rock music alongside the creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, is so weird it makes the TMBG vs. McSweeney's event I went to a few years ago look positively mainstream.


One of my colleagues sent me a link to a study of how users read web pages. If you're putting content on to a screen, it makes interesting reading, even if the subjects of the study were all likely to be westerners (in other words, people who were used to reading something from top to bottom, left to right.) The verdict? People quickly scan web pages, moving their eyes across an "F" shaped region of the screen, rather than diligently reading every word.

Needless to say this isn't an earth-shattering revelation - the need to get your important points positioned appropriately and ensuring that they're clearly identifiable has always been one of the main goals of good design, at least among people who want their content to be understood rather than just admired for looking pretty. It's not exactly rocket science, for sure, but I'm amazed by the number of websites out there who seem to think they're too cool to use a common sense approach like this. Mentioning no names, of course...


IMDB have started putting random adverts in page transitions within their site. I'm sorry, but I count that as taking liberties with my custom, so it looks like I won't be visiting them very much for a while. It's a shame, but it might encourage me to go out and get a life instead...


I had a busy weekend, meeting up with the skiing guys on Friday to start arrangements for next year's trip, meeting up with Rebecca and the troops for a very enjoyable Sunday lunch, and on Saturday I went to see Calexico at the Bristol Academy, which had been picked by The Guardian as their best gig of the week - and they weren't wrong.

During the course of the weekend, I overheard snippets of several conversations. Don't get me wrong: I wasn't intentionally eavesdropping. Rather, I overheard them because of the cocktail party effect. You know the idea: hearing a familiar word or phrase in amongst the background noise suddenly triggers attention to a particular conversation, even when there are several going on at once. In each case over the weekend, the "familiar" word was something that I've blogged recently.

For instance, one couple were standing nearby at the Calexico gig and I suddenly heard the word Mondegreen being mentioned. It's not a common word, for one thing (it originated in the 50s when people misheard the lyric "laid him on the green" as "Lady Mondegreen") and it crops up in a very specific context. The guy was, of course, talking about one of the websites that specialises in misheard lyrics. Elsewhere, I heard someone talking about the Pimp My Snack site I blogged recently. Apparently it's been doing the rounds because it was mentioned by Jo Whiley on Radio One last week.

It brought home how many people there are out there who see the same sort of nuggets of useless information that I do - it's nice to hear I'm not alone, but it also made me realise just how easily our attention can be focused on a particular subject. Perhaps it's not surprising that these two examples were both websites: if anything, the internet makes it far easier to manipulate public attention on one item over another - so long as the public you want to manipulate have internet access, of course. But for some reason the idea that all this stuff has a wider significance outside my computer screen felt a bit weird, and hearing someone else talking about the same sort of stuff I do was rather unusual, to say the least.


Another example of how our attention is being focused on a particular subject comes this week with the newspapers. After giving away a DVD of Morgan Spurlock's documentary on the fast food industry, Supersize Me at the weekend, the Guardian is continuing its examination of how badly we feed ourselves these days. Today they've published a list of the ingredients that go into the strawberry milkshake you might be tempted to buy at your local fast food outlet. There are 59 yummy sounding things in it, including 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, and methyl salicylate. Fair makes your mouth water, doesn't it?


The papers today are full of stories about NASA's latest design for a spaceship powered by antimatter. Reading some of the articles I've seen, I get the impression that the journalists half expect the thing to be launched by the end of the decade - no doubt with Captain Kirk at the helm. I wonder what gave them that impression?

The problem with this sort of story is that it's accepted at face value, because most science reporters aren't actually that clued up about the physics involved. To the uninformed, the story gives the impression that US technological capability is far higher than it actually is. It's a story that should have begun with the phrase "wouldn't it be great if..." but somehow ended up as "we're about to..." and NASA is guilty of putting out news releases like this on a regular basis.

For instance, some of their releases on optical and radio interferometry observations of distant stars give the distinct impression that they've made their discoveries by hitching a ride on the Enterprise and going for a look themselves. I know NASA has budget worries at the moment and is desperate for some good PR, but for the past few years their press department has been so keen to get in the public's good books that they've lost touch with reality. Read the press release about antimatter propulsion, and it sounds like we'll be scooting off through the universe in no time at all. Sorry, but this just isn't true.

For example, just look at one of the statements in the release: there's a quote for the estimated production cost of ten milligrams of positrons that relies on production technology that rather inconveniently doesn't even exist yet. Antimatter is ludicrously difficult to produce, a fact that seems to have escaped NASA, just as it did the author Dan Brown. Luckily, CERN were able to put him right, but I'm sure someone at NASA knows this as well. It's not just the cost of production that I'm disputing here - the rate at which antimatter can be created is painfully slow, and CERN estimate that to create enough to fill a toy balloon would take more time than the universe has existed. Yet the NASA press release doesn't discuss this point at all. Quite the reverse, in fact: NASA presents the technology as if it was a proposed alternative power source for their Mars mission, which is tentatively scheduled to take place before 2020. Be honest, guys: it's not going to happen, is it?

And here's another, even more crucial point: the goal of any spacecraft designer is to maximise the specific impulse. This figure indicates the change to a spacecraft's momentum that can be achieved by a given mass of fuel. The bigger the specific impulse, the faster or further you can travel. Chemical rockets have a maximum specific impulse of about 450 seconds, which is just about good enough to get to Jupiter directly. Ion engines, such as the one used so successfully on ESA's SMART-1 probe to the Moon have a higher specific impulse, but only because they use tiny amounts of fuel over long periods of time. Of course, few missions go for the largest specific impulse they can, because it costs too much in either time or money. Instead, spacecraft weight and cost is reduced by swinging by a planet and using gravity to increase momentum in what is usually called a slingshot manoeuvre. Unfortunately, these circuitous routes take time, and when you've got humans on board your spacecraft you'll want to keep time in space to a minimum. Why? Because you need to reduce health hazards from radiation and bone mass loss from weightlessness. The quest, then, is to produce engines (or fuels) with higher specific impulses. Unfortunately at the moment the ones NASA seem to be considering lie firmly in the realms of science fiction.

Maybe that's the solution: all they need is a good source of dilithium crystals...


I'm back at work today after a few days on holiday. Even though I've been quite busy over the last few days, they seem to have flown by. My main priority was catching up on sleep, which I did to a certain extent - but it didn't feel like it when I got out of bed this morning. Last night I got home from seeing my parents, brother and sister in Norfolk and more or less fell in to bed. At least it's another short week this week. After all, it'll be Thursday tomorrow - nearly time for the weekend.


I finally got my Olympus digital camera back this week after sending it away for repair in January. While I'm less than impressed by the amount of time it took, I'm glad to have it back: it's the sort of camera you can chuck in a pocket and take anywhere, something that can't be said about the Canon EOS350D, particularly when it's got a telephoto lens on it and the BG3 battery grip. I suspect my Flickr stream will be back to carrying pictures from both cameras in the coming weeks.


San Franciscans have been commemorating the centenary of the 1906 earthquake. Everyone who lives in SF knows there will eventually be another big quake, but the city is trying to raise awareness of what its citizens should prepare for. So the news teams have been explaining build concepts like "soft first floor" - where you build an apartment block with a set of garages on the ground floor, an approach that is now deemed "inherently weak" when it comes to earthquakes. By that, they mean that the ground floor collapses and the rest of the building drops into it - not the best thing to happen to your home, really. Scientists are paying particular attention to the Hayward Fault, which runs right through the middle of the Bay Area and last slipped in 1868. Let's hope that when the next big one comes, the city rides through it without too many problems.


For me it's been a decidedly lower calorie Easter than those of years gone by. I have consumed a grand total of one Cadbury's Creme Egg in the last three weeks. So it was with a mixture of awe and jealousy that I read about the monster creme egg, just one of the many exotic creations brought to you by the folks over at Pimp My Snack. I particularly liked the creator's comment that "it may be worth noting that I previously managed to consume a large quantity (26) of these eggs" during its planning and construction. That shows real dedication to extending the boundaries of confectionery extravagance.


Windows XP definitely feels more responsive when you put an extra gigabyte of memory in your computer... I'm looking forwards to seeing which applications respond best to all that extra space.


I'm really looking forwards to a few days off work and to catching up on some sleep. I've been feeling really tired over the last few weeks and I'm still getting back to normal from the last cold I caught. It's been a long, cold winter and I hope I'll get the chance to get out in some warm sunshine during the Easter break.


It looks like ESA's Venus Express probe has arrived at its destination in good shape. That's good news, and not just because some of my work colleagues have been supporting the mission. Now that Venus Express is in orbit, we're likely to learn a lot more about our closest neighbour. In the next few years we should get answers to all sorts of questions, going well beyond finding out how Venus ended up with such a massive greenhouse effect and a surface temperature of nearly 500°C. For example, with its IR capability, it should be possible for the probe to help determine if the planet is still geologically active, and discover whether or not volcanoes still erupt on the surface.


On the other side of the pond it looks like NASA, fresh from the Deep Impact mission that slammed a spacecraft the size of a washing machine into a comet, have decided that it'd be really neat to slam a spacecraft into the Moon and see what happens.

In the nineties, NASA's mantra was "faster, better, cheaper." Today it seems like this has been replaced by "Subtlety be damned! Let's blow something up!"


Well, it's ESA's big day tomorrow, as the Venus express probe is due to enter orbit around the planet that used to be thought of as Earth's sister - until we found out that the atmosphere on the surface would simultaneously crush, fry and dissolve you, that is. In these days of immense space budgets, it's been a surprisingly cheap mission to put on. In fact, as HFO member Robin McKie reported yesterday in the Observer, it actually cost less than Kevin Costner's movie Waterworld. Fingers crossed that all goes well.


It's Sunday afternoon, and so far the weather outside has ranged from warm sunshine through light cloud, rain, hail, sleet and even a bit of snow, I suspect. I didn't go out to check. Certainly there was quite a hard frost this morning. I'd toyed with the idea of getting up early and taking some shots of the sunrise, but after a brief look through the window I decided I'd rather stay in bed.

That's not to say I haven't had a fairly active weekend; I went out on the bike yesterday and covered fifteen miles or so by cycling to Sharpness Docks and back. I got home with an aching back, but felt pleased that I'd managed to get a decent couple of hours on the bike. The weather was kind - it stayed dry - but it was cold enough to still feel like winter. Naturally enough I had my camera with me, and I've been posting the pictures on my Flickr photostream.

Today has been a day for staying in, doing the housework, and reading the paper. And with the occasional twinge from miscellaneous vertebrae I decided that I'd be a lot more comfortable doing my reading sitting at a dining table, so I guess it's about time I went out and got one. Looks like I'll be heading over to the Mall at some point soon.


It's been a week since I had the car looked at, and not a drop of oil has landed on the garage floor since I got it back. It looks like it's fixed.


Allotment owners in Northumberland are on the trail of a giant rabbit wreaking havoc in their vegetable patches. "This is no ordinary rabbit. We are dealing with a monster," said Jeff Smith, who has had an allotment in Felton for 25 years. Why is it that I can hear Peter Sallis saying those words as clearly as if he was standing next to me? Wallace and Gromit need to get on the case: Anti Pesto, your cabbages need you!


A rather grisly story from the US ski resort Mammoth this week, where two members of the ski patrol died after falling into a volcanic vent which had been buried underneath fresh snow. A third member of the team tried to rescue them and perished as well. Not the usual hazard that you hear about while skiing, that's for sure.


You've probably already seen the pictures of the Lockheed C5 Galaxy transport aircraft that crashed yesterday. From the looks of things, they had a problem with engine number 1 - in fact in the photographs I've seen the left-most engine doesn't appear to be there at all. However, it says a lot about the aircraft's design that nobody was seriously injured and most of the crew were able to walk away from the crash. The wings remained intact, and kept hold of their load of jet fuel. If it hadn't been a Galaxy but a civil airliner involved, the wings (and therefore the fuel tanks) would have been mounted on the bottom of the fuselage rather than the top and it's likely that this story would have had a very different ending.

Military aircraft adopt design features that make them a lot safer for the people on board - for instance, passenger seating is often installed facing backwards, so that in the event of the aircraft coming to a sudden stop, you're pushed into your seat rather than have your seat belt trying to slice you in two. Civil airlines haven't introduced this idea because their research showed that it would prove "unpopular" with passengers. The idea isn't new, and in fact they've been talking about rear-facing seats for forty years. For example, Gerry Anderson once mentioned that the rear-facing driver's seat in the SPV in his TV series Captain Scarlet was inspired by aviation industry proposals back in the 1960s.


So the UK now has a Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and the Government have decided that remaining silent under questioning is enough to justify imprisonment or fines. I dunno; we've got knife detectors at train stations, American schools refusing to let students travel to the UK because of the perceived terror risk, and the police are holding a conference about buying water cannons.

Prior to the awful events of September 11th or July 7th, would the public have accepted the introduction of any of these "precautions"?


The BBC is running a story at the moment on the increasing mortality rate amongst young drivers and quotes the AA's Andrew Howard as saying that "much research has suggested that the 'car culture' - those young people whose lives rotate around cars - leads to a poor safety record."

Curiously, the article makes no mention of the BBC's award-winning lad-culture car programme Top Gear, famous for its love of supercar road tests, stunts such as ice hockey matches played in cars, a penchant for destroying caravans, and the spectacle of famous people driving round a racetrack in a family saloon competing for the best lap time.

I wonder why?


I couldn't resist any longer: I bought myself a Pro account on Flickr this morning. Two years of photo storage and online fun for under thirty quid is an absolute bargain - and I've met some great new friends already. I have also created the HFO's very own Flickr Group this morning, so if you've ever skied with us and want to join in, get in touch via Flickr mail!


This morning I've also (I hope) sorted out a couple of things that should now be working properly. One is my car, which now has an engine that is cleaner than it was when I bought it, and hopefully is no longer leaking oil (I'll let you know if it is or not). The other is the RSS feed for this site, which appears to be working OK on my aggregator and validates OK at feedvalidator, so I've taken it out of the beta stage; thanks to Linsey and Matt for their help and feedback. The icon's at the top of the page and you're most welcome to subscribe.