Chapter House Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: April 2007

April brought some gorgeous weather, I did a fair bit of DIY, and I developed a great liking for power tools, but only after doing my back in. On the web, there were stunning images of the amazing Red Square Nebula and we found out that the Swedish Air Force lost a SAAB Gripen as a result of a trouser malfunction. Sadly, we also lost Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


I've been buying quite a few DVDs recently - when places like are selling them for under three quid a pop, it's hard to resist - but what really pisses me off is when I have to scroll through four pages of menu screens to select "United Kingdom" as my location, solely so that the disc can tell me off for stealing DVDs. Yup - even though I've bought a legal copy of the movie, the film business insists on treating me like a pirate. And I can't even skip their tirade, even when I'm watching the movie for the tenth or twentieth time.

If only the film business read magazines like The Economist. Here's a quote from a recent article on Digital Rights Management, or DRM:

"The movie industry, which nowadays depends as much on DVD sales as on box-office receipts, still seems to think that making life difficult for its customers is a recipe for success.

After likewise shooting itself in the foot for ages, the record industry is now falling over itself to abandon DRM (digital rights management) on CDs."

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: there are striking parallels between how the film industry treats its customers and the approach adopted by Thomas Edison when he invented his phonograph. Edison eventually went out of business; customers looked elsewhere. The alternatives weren't necessarily better (in fact it's generally agreed that they weren't as good from a technological standpoint), but crucially they were much less of a hassle to use.

Criminalising your customers tends to put people off doing business with you. Now, who'd have thought that would be the case?

There are signs that the music industry may finally have learnt Edison's lesson, but I don't see any sign of this happening with the movie business. Of course if their current behaviour and arrogance is anything to go by, the film industry will continue to blame falling revenues and eventual failure on their customers rather than admitting they brought it on themselves.


An earth tremor hit parts of Kent this morning. My mate Matty summed it up best: "In California, there'd be stories of freeways collapsing. Here, people emailed Sky News to say their plant pots had fallen over." Brilliant.


I have no idea what's happened but my broadband connection, which has remained steadfastly at 512 kilobits since I first got it - even though the router syncs at up to 2500 kbps - has suddenly rocketed up to 2 meg. Whatever BT have done, I hope it stays that way.


Defective automatic trousers hurl pilot from plane. I tell you, you couldn't make this stuff up.

ALL I WANT a null modem cable. The sort with a female 9-pin RS232 plug on each end. But can I find one anywhere? No. Can I buy a new one? Well, not so far, and that's after nearly a week of trying. I think I'm going to have to have a look in the loft and see if there's one in a box of old computer junk up there.

Er, provided I can remember which one of my boxes of old computer junk it's likely to be in...


The pop world was astir today with reports that legendary UK rock band Spinal Tap will be reforming for the Live Earth concert at Wembley. It's been a long, long time since I saw them play live (at the Royal Albert Hall), but it's nice to see they're going to do their bit for raising eco-awareness and according to Rob Reiner - sorry, to Marti DiBergi, they have a new short film out as well, which I guess will be showing at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York that starts today.

I'd like to think that this shows the Tapsters have yet to lose the plot completely, even if lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel reportedly thought he could combat global warming by taking his jacket off...


To Annabelle and Ed, who got engaged at the weekend!


I've been doing lots of DIY over the last couple of weeks, and it's all beginning to come together. Here are the shelves in the living room - CDs on the left, DVDs on the right. Oh, and the bruises have nearly faded away, thank goodness.

Phase two complete

However, my back still aches and I'm absolutely knackered this evening. I think this week will be devoted to less energetic pursuits, and will probably involve sitting in front of the computer a fair bit.


15 things Kurt Vonnegut said better than anyone else ever has or will.


The "Red Square" nebula has been getting a lot of press in the last couple of days, and I have to say it's a beautiful image. But the team's web page explains exactly what it is we're looking at, and that's even more interesting. It's a beautiful example of using graphics to great effect and explain what's happening. Comparing the images with that of Supernova 1987A on the same page, it looks like the star (with the attractive name MWC 922) could be about to turn into a supernova. Whatever happens, it's probably just as well that it's 5,000 light years away. You wouldn't want to be close to it if it does go off.


I've been busy over the last couple of weeks, painting walls, tidying up the living room and generally trying to wrangle my media collection into some form of order. It needed doing, as the video stuff was in danger of taking over the house. So far I've got one set of shelves up, and I'm pretty pleased with them, but I am covered in cuts, blisters and other injuries and my back has objected strongly to various indignities I've subjected it to recently. Even after taking a couple of days out, it's still painful. All the same, I have to get on with things, and I've got the materials together for the next set of shelves which I'll be returning to in a few minutes: I've already cut most of the boards. Expect an update when I'm done.

KURT VONNEGUT JR. 1922 - 2007

So it goes.

The writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died yesterday at the age of 84. He was one of my favourite authors - I first read Slaughterhouse Five when I was in my teens, and was far too young to get the depth and complexity of the novel. Reading his work again when I was older, I realised just how bloody good he was.

Slaughterhouse Five is, in part, the story of his experience as a prisoner of war in 1945 when he survived the bombing of Dresden by the Allies. In the resulting firestorm, more than 35,000 people died. "So it goes," comments Vonnegut. The phrase crops up again and again throughout the book, concluding each example of inhumanity and bleak despair. Not surprisingly, the stupidity of violence in general and war in particular comes through again and again in his work.

Another theme he developed was the danger of scientific progress; perhaps the most well-known example of this comes from the novel Cat's Cradle, where the discovery of a new form of ice (Ice-9), which is stable at room temperature, leads to the destruction of all life on Earth. His later novel Galapagos starts at the point where the human race, as such, has ceased to exist. Evolution, however, continues, having concluded that as far as people are concerned large brains and intelligence are a bad idea. Vonnegut wrote with a wicked sense of humour; despite the bleakness and despair of the plot, you find yourself taking a perverse pleasure in it all.

Vonnegut was never afraid to send himself up, either - he appeared as himself in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School where he helps the hero write an essay on his work.

In typical Vonnegut fashion, he gets an "F".


I've been continuing my reading on Human Computer Interaction today, looking at the work of John Maeda, who is building an Interaction Laboratory for Sony. In a world where people often use Google for getting answers to their design questions, Google ask him. From his blog, I discovered the delights of such cool stuff as animal rubber bands together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab's Tiny Icon Factory, which lets you create and save icons that are just thirteen pixels square. It's amazing just how much content you can cram into such a small space. But be careful about setting out to browse the creations of other visitors to the site: there are more than 150,000 of them!

Unfortunately on the same site I also discovered that Seymour Papert was knocked down by a motorcycle in December while he was attending a conference in Vietnam and ended up in a coma. It's been touch and go, but he is now back in Maine and recovering. Get well soon, Seymour.


If you've ever read anything about the making of the films Dune or Alien you'll know that a lot of the creative talent who got involved had worked together before, and the name of the person responsible crops up again and again in interviews. That person is Alejandro Jodorowsky, who is interviewed in the Guardian today. He's also worked very closely with Jean Giraud - better known as Moebius - for many years, and their series of graphic novels The Incal is one of the classic examples of the genre. Moebius and Jodorowsky sued Luc Besson after the release of The Fifth Element, claiming that he'd been rather more than inspired by the pages, plot, and visual style of the Incal, and it's easy to see why. But Jodorowsky was - is - also a film director. For the last thirty years it's been almost impossible to get to see his most famous work, the surrealist western El Topo, yet it gets name checked by almost every one of my heroes when they're interviewed. So when I found out that there's a 6-DVD set of his films being released next month, I put my order in on the spot. Expect a review shortly after delivery.

WHAT YOU SEE... not necessarily what you get. I've done a fair bit of reading on Human Computer Interaction (HCI) in my time, and did a brief overview of the basics today at work for some colleagues. So I thought I ought to post a link this evening about the subject. What better than a paper on the use of HCI in science fiction movies? There are some absolute doozys in there - but there again, in the movies, all you're interested in is whether or not it looks cool. Having to use the thing is another matter entirely: just you try waving your arms about in front of your face like they do in Spielberg's film AI for more than ten minutes, and you'll see what I mean. It hurts.


So, the Internet was buzzing over the weekend over the first episode of the latest series of Doctor Who, which seems to have gone down extremely well. But if you want to preserve your viewing experience you may not want to read the rest of this article.

If you are prepared for spoilers, then here we go: While the Axons / Saxon reference that the Newsround team talked about (which is blogged in the previous entry) may well be relevant, it's been pointed out to me that if you rearrange the letters of "Mister Saxon" you end up with "Master No. Six". Stretching it a bit? Well, no. John Simm from Life On Mars was interviewed in the Independent recently and at the end of the interview revealed that he's been cast as The Master. So this season's big bad is indeed the renegade time lord. Not only that - we're likely to find out that Doctor and Master are related. Well, why else would the Doctor have referred to his brother in the most recent episode?


If you're a Buffy fan like me, you may be interested to know that Danny Strong (who played one third of the Nerds of Doom, Jonathan Levinson) has got some really big guns to film the screenplay he's written about the Florida recount in the 2000 US. Presidential elections. If you're a film nerd like me, you will no doubt be highly interested to hear that he's only gone and got Sydney Pollack. Wow. Talk about starting at the top!

Mr Pollack is responsible for, amongst other things, Absence of Malice, which is one of my favourite films ever. But he's also responsible for Out of Africa, The Electric Horseman, Bobby Deerfield, Three Days of the Condor, the Yakuza and er, Tootsie. Nice one, Danny.


The new series of Dr Who got off to a cracking start last night - and there was a bit more than meets the eye. I've just watched the repeat of The Christmas Bride episode which was on BBC3, which featured a line where a tank commander is told "Orders from Mr Saxon: open fire." Did you notice that there were lots of "Vote Saxon" posters up around town in last nights episode? I can feel a major plot device coming on...