Blog the Planet

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: April 2009

April saw a ray of sunshine and welcome warmth after a very long winter. By the end of the month I was beginning to perk up a bit, and the blog rate picked up a little. There was plenty to blog about, too.


It's Robo-Clint!

It used to be that if you used a picture as a visual reference for your artwork, most of the time people wouldn't twig what was done. These days the Internet makes it far more likely that someone like me will come along, browse our way throught the pictures on Ffffound! and say, "hang on a minute..." The book is one of my favourites, though.


The new Star Trek movie comes out next month. I've been waiting for it eagerly since it was announced back in 2006. To prepare for the big day, I've been reading Bill Shatner's hugely entertaining autobiography Up Till Now, (the most hugely entertaining book I've read this year - you should go and get a copy from your local library or bookshop, and while you're there, tell them that I said it was hugely entertaining) and watching lots of episodes from the original series.

Whatever the new film is like, we already know it's going to be better than the last one, which... Well, perhaps it would just be kindest to say they could have tried harder.


Yes, it's a whole year since Rockstar Games unleashed Grand Theft Auto IV onto a gaming world (well, okay, Europe) that had been waiting to get its hands on it for so long that it had lost the capacity for rational thought.

It took in half a billion dollars of revenues in its first week, which made the rest of the world sit up and take notice. It's violent, cinematic, and complex - although I have to say that the physics engine they've used for driving cars feels weird after a few hours playing Ridge Racer 7, Gran Turismo 5 Prologue or Burnout Paradise; vehicles seem to float about like they're tied to hot air balloons. It's good fun, though.


If you use Facebook or Flickr, you might find this rather interesting. Polar Rose is a face-recognition application that searches your photographs for faces. Once you've taught it who a person is, it will tag them in other photos that you add, or that your facebook contacts add. It's not perfect - in my experience it gets particularly confused by bushes and loaves of bread - but it's worth having a play with. It's usable, and it's free. Nifty!


I saw two swallows as I was driving home tonight, the first I've seen this year. They usually arrive around the last half of April, although one year I didn't see any until the second week of May. The weather's not being that hospitable for them today, though. In a marked change from last week (which was warm and sunny) it's been stormy and quite cold today. Further to the South West it was pretty bad over the weekend, with several people killed in flash floods. Spring must be here.


I sometimes think that film studios struggle to fill the storage capacity of a Blu-Ray disk, as each disk can hold as much as 50Gb of data (which is more than ten DVD's worth). After you've put a documentary about the making of the movie to go with the high resolution video and the seven channel surround sound, there can be a fair bit of space left over. Dolby reckon we'll want another couble of surround channels in the z-axis (for vertical surround) but even if if that wasn't screaming "gimmick" at the top of its speakers, it won't add that much more data content per disk.

So goodness only knows what the studios will do when the next generation of disks comes around. It looks like each one will hold half a Terabyte of data - on something the same size as a CD. Wow.


Way back in 1992, the great German film director Wim Wenders made a very underrated film called Until the End of the World which he set in 1999. He got a lot of future technology right, particularly the use of in-car satellite navigation systems and 16:9 ratio television sets. That was the first time I'd seen a widescreen TV, and I instantly wanted one. These days they are commonplace, of course. But although TVs are now a lot flatter than they used to be, how television presents content hasn't really changed in the last decade. Until now, that is.

Philips have just announced a new range of TVs that are ultra-widescreen. Rather than 16:9, the aspect ratio (pdf) of the screen is 21:9 (or 2.33:1), which gives them almost the same proportions as the screen used for big-budget movies (which normally have an aspect ratio of 2.35:1). In other words, Philips have produced a television set that makes TV look like CinemaScope.

To show off the new range on the web, they have produced a video which has all the impact of a big budget movie. It's called Carousel, and it takes the timeslice effect invented by Tim Macmillan - which became such a cliché after it was done to death in the bullet time sequences in The Matrix - and transports it to a whole, new, jaw-dropping level. A lot of it must have been put together using CGI and post production, but don't worry about how it was done - just savour the experience.


When I was in Solihull I got my Wii Fit age down to 41, which I'm pleased about - although I really need to get it lower by losing some weight. But the New York Times today were running a story about the various injuries and illnesses people pick up by overdoing it on video games. I particularly liked the idea of a complaint called Nintendonitis.


If you haven't seen Man On Wire yet, you need to. I remember seeing Philippe Petit on the TV when I was a teenager as he walked a high wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in August 1974. The film about how he did it is as extraordinary as the feat itself.


I'm back at work today after being on holiday for a week and a bit. While I was off I've been sleeping like a brick, but last night was a different matter. I was waking up every couple of hours. I'm getting very stressed out about work at the moment, which doesn't help my sleeping patterns, productivity or concentration. Put it like this: it's bad enough to overcome the positive effects of the antidepressants I've been on for the last month and a half. Maybe it's time to try a different approach, but I'm blowed if I know what it should be.

My holiday was a strange affair, too. It was great to catch up with lots of people I haven't seen for a while, and it was good to go and see my sister and my parents - but Mum is pretty much bedridden and Dad has a lot on his plate trying to cope; there are various things that need doing on the house and they're not getting done. I cleared up a bit, moved furniture and disassembled a bed that needed fixing but I didn't really do much more than that. Then Mum had a fall in the bathroom on Tuesday night and Dad and I couldn't lift her - so we had to call in the paramedics at 3am. She was shaken up, of course; she had recovered noticeably by Friday but it was still a shock to see how limited her mobility is these days. I got home at the weekend (in fact I ended up getting to bed at 4am) and spent yesterday tidying up my own place - it needed it, too. There's still the garden to sort out, but that will have to wait for a while. I've spent four hours driving today and I'm worn out - I feel like I haven't had a break at all...


Paramount Pictures are to be applauded for pulling off what has to be one of the most inspiring events in movie geek history by turning a screening of a remastered version of Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan into the world premiere of the latest Trek movie, and doing it right under the nose of the ultimate movie geek, Harry Knowles. They did it in his local cinema.

And they did it in real style.

Needless to say people were rather pleased. Quint at AICN enjoyed the show, and reckons we don't have anything to worry about in terms of the new movie. Harry himself was there, and loved it. I was sorry to hear he didn't get to meet Leonard Nimoy, though; that would have been the icing on the cake.


I don't know what frightens me more: the fact that something like this happened to a member of the public who appeared to have done nothing more than get in the way, or the fact that the only reason we know about it was because someone was - arguably - breaking the law by filming the police.


Much merriment this morning over the lovely fact that Wincanton Council have named a couple of streets after creations of Terry Pratchett. Sir Terry was there to see the unveiling of Treacle Mine Road and Peach Pie Street on a new estate in the town.

"Personally, I'd pay good money to live somewhere called Treacle Mine Road," said Sir Terry, and I totally agree with him. Wincanton hit the headlines a while ago, as it's been officially twinned with Ankh Morpork, the Discworld's capital, since 2002.


Boing Boing were showing off some rather spiffy Star Wars toys today. The TIE Fighter kite looks great, and I'm very tempted to get one...


Today's addition to regular places to visit on the web: The Ministry of Type. It's a treasure trove of typographical goodness run by Aegir Hallmundur, and I'm really enjoying reading through it all. I don't know exactly why I find typography such a satisfying subject to read about; possibly it's because I used to draw all the lettering for the comics I produced (and the headings on this website) by hand, possibly it's a reaction to all the woeful deployment of type out there in print and on the web (yes, Comic Sans, I'm looking at you), or it might even be because I'm fascinated by how type and design can be used to enhance the message you're trying to put across. Whatever the reason, Aegir has collected together some beautiful examples of type and the site is well worth a visit.

And leading on from that, he mentioned another website called The Art of the Title Sequence which I had to go and look at straight away. Typography and cinema - that's enough to keep me happily diverted for hours...


Civilisation is doomed - in England, anyway. The price of tea is going through the roof because demand is outstripping the supply. What are we going to do?


One of the obscure pieces of trivia I acquired today was an explanation of where we got the phrase "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck." I expected it to be from the 1930s era, but as I read in an interesting article on Artificial Intelligence (AI) by Chris Malcolm of Edinburgh University, the saying is over two hundred and fifty years old. It relates to an artificial duck made by Jacques de Vaucanson, who by all accounts was an engineering genius. Newspapers of the time were moved to make comments along the lines of "if we can make stuff like this now, imagine what we'll be capable of in fifty years!"

As Chris Malcolm points out, similar exclamations accompanied early experiments in AI, and our android overlords have yet to arrive. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. There's a more academic version of his paper, which also makes interesting reading if you're at all interested in AI.


There have been one or two half decent hoaxes going around today (it's April Fool's Day in the UK). I rather liked the trainers with Satellite Navigation built into them that Firebox were offering this morning. Having a pair of shoes that could pick up GPS signals sounded fairly plausible, I thought. The BBC went all meta on us and ran a story about some things that sounded like they should have been April Fools Day hoaxes but were actually true. NASA's attempt, on the other hand, was feeble: it wasn't even slightly believable, although they used a great photograph.


I think the antidepressants are starting to work. For the last few days I've been sleeping really well, and I'm feeling a bit better.

Just as well, really, as the BBC were running a real scare story today about just how bad it can be for you if you don't get enough sleep. The claim is pretty outrageous, and I think it needs a lot more research - on much larger groups of subjects - before the sweeping statements made in the article can be taken seriously. But until then I'm sure stories like this will work wonders for the sales of sleeping pills, herbal remedies and what have you as people panic about not getting a good night's sleep.


Those pesky Americans, now they've got our Boosh. Yes, American TV have finally plucked up the courage to show possibly the weirdest show in the history of British television, The Mighty Boosh. Although as one of the comments in the Boing Boing thread pointed out, they're doing it in typical American fashion: they've chopped the episodes up into little pieces interspersed with adverts, and they're showing the episodes in the wrong order. Tsk.


Boing Boing were also talking today about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), and had got some interesting looking exercises that are supposed to help. I don't suffer from the condition so I can't really comment, but I know plenty of people who have had CTS. I'll be pointing them at this link.