Wearing a Blogged Expression

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: May 2004

May brought a flurry of interest in the Ansari X-Prize - will a privately funded spacecraft win the ten million dollars up for grabs? Other things on the agenda this month included impenetrable banners, flying saucers, alien big cats, skiing, video games, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and video games with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in them.

Pretty much your average month for the blog, really. Enjoy.


If you've been reading my stuff for long, you've probably realised that I don't think much of modern television programmes. These days everything on TV seems to be made by media studies students. You know the sort - they know how to create flashy computer graphics and think that shaking the camera about can make almost any subject exciting, but they know bugger all about anything else. Most of them don't appear to think; some of them don't even appear to be able to spell. So I spend a lot of time on the computer instead.

It appears I'm not alone - in fact this week the industry finally appears to have woken up to the fact that the Internet is now stealing their viewers. I can just imagine their response. Programmes will get More Exciting!!! with even Shakier camera work!

Heh heh heh - my heart bleeds for the poor dears. And I only have dial-up. Imagine how much less TV I will watch if I finally get a broadband connection...


Formula 1 racing is a fast, dangerous sport - last weekend's amazing Monaco Grand Prix showed that to just about everyone's satisfaction - apart from Michael Schumacher, of course.

So it's understandable that it attracts advertisers and companies who want their products to acquire some of that sexy, attractive glamour. But what kind of idiot decides it would be cool to put diamonds worth £140,000 into the nose cones of some of the cars? Especially cars that, let's face it, could quite easily crash. And fall to bits. Well, that's what happened last weekend, and yes, they've lost one. I wonder how they're going to write that up in the marketing report...


Another bizarre story I heard this week involved one of the RAF's Lockheed C-130J transport aircraft over Turkmenistan being "buzzed" by what is alleged to have been a MiG fighter jet. Details are sketchy, but it appears to have gone past close enough to take the end off one of the propeller blades. That would have been more than a little interesting for the crew, I'll bet.

I'm reminded of the incident a few years ago where an American Lockheed P-3 Orion made a forced landing after a similar collision. Luckily this time the Hercules was able to land safely - but there was no news on whether the fighter was as lucky. And whose was it? One of the most intriguing stories of the week, but it got very little coverage.


Yahoo were running a less-than-complementary story about the Eurofighter this week - following a leaked report claiming that the aircraft shouldn't be allowed to fly in clouds. Didn't we hear this recently about the RAF's new Chinooks? What is it with new aircraft projects? Given last week's somewhat embarrassing disclosure that the vertical take-off version of the Joint Strike Fighter was er, three and a half thousand pounds (that's nearly a ton and a half) too heavy to er, take off vertically, maybe we should just stick with the Harrier...


Yup - you read it correctly. For the, ahem, uninitiated, Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a TV show about a young girl who lived in your average run-of-the-mill American town, where her secret job was to fight (and occasionally snog) vampires and prevent the very gates of Hell from opening. OK then, a gate of hell - there seem to be quite a few of them:

Rupert Giles:

"There's another one in Baltimore."

Whatever. Well, it seems that The Slayer's popularity is being used by religious organisations in the States. In fact, they're holding an entire conference on Sunnydale's finest. Now I already had a deep and profound belief that America as a country is beginning to lose touch with reality. Nearly four million Americans believe they've been abducted by aliens, for goodness' sake. So when I read about conferences - not conventions, conferences - being organised on TV shows, I get more than a little worried, however good the original show is...

RICHARD BIGGS 1960 - 2004

Two sets of sad news that I discovered today. First off, Babylon 5's favourite doctor, Stephen Franklin, is no more. The actor Richard Biggs died suddenly at the weekend. He was my age, just 44. His performance on B5 was thoughtful and gifted, and he more than held his own on the screen even when up against some pretty heavyweight actors. Condolences to his family.

BARNEY KESSEL 1923 - 2004

A moment's silence too, please, for one of the true jazz greats. The guitarist Barney Kessel died earlier this month at the age of 80.


If you're old enough to remember Tiswas, you may be interested to know that Bob Carolgees is putting the one and only Spit The Dog up for auction. Ananova thinks he'll be worth £1500 - I wouldn't mind betting he goes for considerably more...

Update (June 2004): I was right; the puppet fetched over £5000 at auction!


Another space probe rushes past on its way to pastures new, and takes a photo of Earth during a flyby to test out its onboard cameras. The result is a nice snapshot of our home planet, courtesy of the Japanese space program. Did you smile? Is that you waving?


The video game industry has got a fair amount of money out of me over the years. I still have one of the original Atari games consoles in the loft. I also have a Sega Mega Drive, and used to enjoy playing such bizarre creations as James Pond, a goldfish superhero who used to fight monsters made out of liquorice allsorts in landscapes constructed almost entirely out of Penguin chocolate biscuits. No, I'm not making this up. These days, I love my Nintendo GameCube. It will keep me happy for years to come, I'm sure. But where do we go from here? Nintendo's president Satoru Iwata says that more processing power is no longer the answer. What is? Portability, voice activation and touch screens seem to be popular themes.

But all this fascination with the technological side of things obscures an important fact: the games I remember fondly were the ones that were fun to play, and those weren't necessarily the ones that pushed the technological envelope. Like the music industry, gaming seems to be losing sight of the fact that their products are about entertainment and fun. Iwata-San's answer lies in the creativity of the designers who have to think up new challenges for us to play, not the platforms on which those games will take place - and given their track record, Nintendo will be streets ahead of the competition in that area.


Yeah, right...One sometimes gets the impression that a certain faction of the military spend too much time watching films like Predator. That's the film, as I'm sure you remember, where Arnie was up against a seven-foot-tall alien hunter that had a suit which made it invisible. A great way of saving on your special effects shots to be sure, but folks have been trying to make an invisibility suit ever since.

To be blunt, I don't see how it could be possible. Anything that displays the view behind it must have to take into account the exact position of the observer. The fact that an observer has two eyes that are in different locations means that as soon as you move, parallax is going to give you away. And if more than one person is looking at you, you're screwed. But, it would appear that people are still plugging away regardless.


You may be old enough to remember Taxi, the show that brought Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito to the attention of those people who hadn't already seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. You may also remember Latka, the somewhat strange character created by Andy Kaufman in later episodes of the show.

Younger readers may have seen The Man In The Moon, a biopic of Kaufman starring Jim Carrey that documented his increasingly eccentric behaviour and eventual death from cancer twenty years ago. Kaufman's reputation as a prankster meant that when he announced he was dying, a lot of his friends didn't believe him.

Now, twenty years later, a website has sprung up claiming guess what, he was winding them up after all and has been in hiding for the last 20 years. Not the most tasteful prank I've seen on the net: Americans, eh? I like to think that, the Universe being the perverse place that it is, it would be totally just and fitting for this to be the real Andy Kaufman...

But only if nobody at all actually believes it's him.


Summer's definitely round the corner. I saw a swallow on the way home this evening - the first one I've seen this year. I've just had to cut the lawn again, too: it really is beginning to grow quite quickly. But I've rescued the lawn furniture from the loft in the garage, and installed it in the garden. Now I'm hoping the nice weather continues long enough for me to make some use of it.


You remember a couple of days ago I discussed the Mexican Air Force's adherence to tradition when it comes to UFO sightings? Well, it seems that tradition really has kicked in with this set of sightings. I was quite overcome with nostalgia when I read that a scientist has dismissed the sightings as gas from rotting vegetation.

It really is true that the more things change, the more things stay the same: those of you who are a little more mature may remember the furore that Dr. J. Allen Hynek caused amongst UFO witnesses back in the 1960s when he dismissed a set of sightings in America in almost exactly the same way - by saying they were nothing more than swamp gas. After the outcry died down, Dr. Hynek looked in to the subject in more detail. One result of his investigations was a system for classifying sightings of objects, from which Stephen Spielberg's 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind took its name; Hynek even has a cameo in the film.

I'll be keeping an eye on the Mexico story for a while yet. Stay tuned.


2004 is really shaping up to be the year in which privately funded spacecraft really er, take off. Not only have we got Burt Rutan and Spaceship One looking increasingly likely to take the X Prize in the next few months, but today there were news reports that the GoFast team have successfully launched an unmanned rocket to a height of 100 Km from the Nevada Desert. That's easily classified as space, the first time a privately-funded vehicle has achieved the feat.


Traffic is rather a mess out there at the moment, and I for one am rather pleased I don't have to go anywhere else this evening. The M5 is closed northbound at junction 10, and blocked southbound over the Avonmouth bridge following three separate accidents. So the area is pretty much one big snarl-up right now.

What's worse, I saw at least three drivers on the way home who were driving like they'd spent the whole afternoon in the pub. It's usually June before Fridays get silly; this year it looks like they're starting early.


"Space isn't remote at all. It's only an hour's drive away if your car could go straight up."

Sir Fred Hoyle

Congratulations to the Scaled Composites team who have just made another test flight of Spaceship One, the world's first privately owned spacecraft. This time, their powered flight took them to 212,000 feet. They're now within striking distance of winning the X-Prize, which goes to the first company to make two flights with a three man crew over a period of two weeks. Pundits are saying that the prize will be won within months.

Of course, the prize is just a stepping stone: the real giant leap will be when someone achieves orbit in a privately owned vehicle. This week, that day doesn't seem quite as far off as it used to do.

Why is it important? Well, I'll nail my colours to the mast and say that I don't believe mankind should stay on Earth forever. There's an awful lot of room out there - and making use of it could relieve some of the pressures we all experience down here. And if we can achieve a spacefaring civilisation, we will no longer have all our eggs in a single basket. I don't necessarily believe a killer asteroid or comet is going to arrive any time soon, but it would be nice if there were folks out there like Burt Rutan who could do something about it if there was.

These are small steps we're taking, but let's hope that they won't be small forever.


According to Popular Science magazine, there are other people out there who would be quite happy to use asteroids as weapons - or meteors, at least. Their article on future weapons got slashdotted this week, but it's worth reading if you can get at it.

Somebody misbehaving? The simple solution appears to be to drop a three-foot tungsten rod on them. Not scary? Well, this tungsten rod would be a foot in diameter, and dropped from orbit. So by the time it hit the ground it would be travelling rather quickly. The amount of kinetic energy it contains would vaporise pretty much anything that got in the way.

Some of the other systems described in the article are a little more complicated. For instance, how about the electromagnetic rail gun that can launch a guided missile at utterly ludicrous speeds toward a target 200 miles away? All well and good, but as they point out in the article you have to make the guidance mechanism on the missile capable of withstanding an acceleration of a mind-boggling 45,000 times the force of gravity. Most things I know of would be a pile of dust in the corner after going through that!


It will probably be on all the news stations tonight as their wrap-up piece, as it's got that kind of silly season feel to it: one English gardener has had to "remodel" his garden gnomes and add trousers and bikinis after the original versions were deemed too saucy for his front lawn! Apparently the added clothing was achieved with a mixture of filler and paint.

And people say I need to get out more...


You know, I'd pretty much assumed the whole flying saucer and UFO thing had gone away for good. In recent years even the furore about crop circles has died down - particularly when the number of people who were making them with a couple of bits of rope and a plank of wood became known. But Mexico has always been a hotbed for this sort of stuff. In the 90s, their TV stations regularly showed fake-looking footage of saucers hiding behind blocks of flats. The video was, on the whole, more stupid than enthralling. All the same, it's probably no coincidence that similar footage featured in the TV coverage in M. Night Shyamalan's movie Signs.

So it was nice to see the Mexican Air Force carrying on the tradition this week with a series of reported sightings of UFOs. Do I believe they really saw alien spacecraft? Nope. But I bet there are other governments operating triangular-shaped aircraft who might just have paid Mexico a visit. But enough of this. I'm beginning to sound like the character in another Mel Gibson movie - Conspiracy Theory. Which, by a strange coincidence, is on UK's Five TV channel this very evening. Spooky, or what?


Every now and again I come across something on the web which truly pushes the boundaries of what's out there, or that really makes me appreciate how much more the web can offer over traditional means of communication. An example of each for you today:

First of all, have a look at the interactive section of the Eden Project's website. It's a great use of interactivity, allowing you to explore the place and get a feel for what it must be like for real. I've seen print articles on the place before now, but how much more impressive it all looks when you can tour the place from the comfort of your own home. I'm a sucker for 360° panoramic images at the best of times, but these are really well done. I must trundle down the M5 at some point and see the place in the flesh.

Secondly, my brother sent me the URL for Music Plasma. He was convinced I'd helped to develop it, which was very flattering, but it had nothing to do with me, guvnor! What is it? Well, you type in the name of your favourite band or musical artist, and it builds, on the fly, a map showing their relationship to other artists it thinks you'd like as well. Imagine Rock Family Trees as done by Pete Frame in Sounds many years ago, but being produced for you instantaneously in full colour using Macromedia's Flash and displayed on your web browser. Complete with links to Amazon so you can go and buy music from any artist who catches your eye! Wow indeed! Of course, you might disagree with the "halo" option which portrays the perceived popularity of each artist - for some reason, it seems to think Johnny Cash is far more popular than anyone else, including the Beatles... I guess you can't have everything.


There's nothing better than starting the day with a serious cup of joe. But the latest set of research in the news today seems to indicate that your heroic cup of java first thing in the morning isn't the best way of keeping awake. Instead, the researchers say, we should take our coffee little and often. In that way, we're less likely to succumb to phases of microsleep if we're really tired. Great news for junior doctors, yes. But where's the fun in that? For the moment I will probably stick to my grande caramel macchiato, thanks.


NASA engineers are having fun with the wake-up music for the Mars Rovers. I enjoy checking the mission statement every day to see what the latest tunes are that they've used. In the last couple of days - or sols as they are known on Mars (the reason for the different word is because a "day" is about 39 minutes longer over there) - they've commenced operations by playing Morning has Broken by Cat Stevens; the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, and Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin. Kinda mixed messages coming across there, guys...


I can't keep up with all this technology. I've just got into playing stuff on the Gamecube after all. But today I saw pictures of some of Nintendo's forthcoming offerings. The Register has a rather nifty picture of their next hand held game machine, the GS. Two high-resolution LCD screens (and they're touch sensitive at that), a clamshell type design, and nifty looking graphics. But what amazed me was that the thing has 802.11 wireless technology built in. Wot???! Yup - the same technology you use in wireless networks for PCs. How they propose to apply this isn't clear - but rumours were being discussed of it polling for other GS's nearby and if it finds one, waking it up out of standby mode, and challenging it to a contest. I'll be watching this one with a lot of interest.

Oh, and just in case you haven't heard, Nintendo's new console is going to be called the Nintendo Revolution. That's all I know about it so far, but I will be keeping my ear to the ground. If I hear anything, it'll be on here.


Meanwhile the Register also has pictures of the Sony PSP, the PlayStation Portable. It's a fairly humungous piece of kit - but it just doesn't excite me the same way the Nintendo one does. Of course, I've not seen what the graphics look like yet. Will it ensure Sony's continuing dominance of the games market? I couldn't say yet.

But boy, isn't this a great time for nifty gadgets?

Right - the lawn's cut, the bathroom's clean, I'm off to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds on the Gamecube. Catch you later!


The gang were here at the weekend and at one point we ended up watching an old Glen Plake video (remember him? He was the extreme skier with the gnarly mohican haircut...) filmed in Chamonix a few years ago. OK, it was filmed way more than a few years ago, but I don't really want to think about how long ago it was.

Looking back at the 80's fashions and the large amounts of snow in the video got me thinking about how the climate has changed since then. I'm sure Chamonix still gets wonderful snow, but some other resorts haven't been as lucky. Scotland in particular has suffered badly - although members of the HFO who learned to ski in Scottish resorts have always been more in their element skittering wildly over ice and rocks than they were up to their knees in thick fluffy powder. From the news reports last week it looks like two of the resorts up there - Glencoe and Glenshee - are in danger of going to the wall. It's a great shame, but when your livelihood depends on something as elusive as a decent winter's snowfall, things are very uncertain these days.


I'm not sure which I found more disturbing this week: the fact that someone was capable of entering an SMS message on their mobile phone at some prodigious rate (was it really 27 words in 67 seconds? Heck, I can't even type that fast...) or the fact that there's an organisation that holds mobile texting championships. Either way, James Trusler has been crowned the undisputed king.


Remember how I talked recently about our fascination with numbers? Well, the car hit its 70,000 mark on the way home tonight. Lets hope I get through the next 40,000 miles in it as easily as I did the first.

Oh, and my power-ball record now stands at 11,503 rpm. Still creeping up there, still creeping up...


Following the stories yesterday about Michael Moore's new film Fahrenheit 911 (subtitled "the temperature at which freedom burns" by the way) it appears that the film has already picked up a distributor in the UK. Optimum Releasing will be getting the film to an audience, over here at least. But in the United States it seems the row rumbles on.


On the other hand, this year is shaping up to be the year of the howlingly bad blockbuster. The reviews of the new Hugh Jackman vampire movie Van Helsing have not been kind. The clips I've seen have done nothing to convince me the film's anything other than an overblown stinker full of naff CGI and really bad accents.

But even Van Helsing's press may soon be eclipsed by the new film from Alex Proyas - which is odd, because he brought us The Crow and Dark City, both of which I really enjoyed. Publicity for his version of the Isaac Asimov story I Robot is at the trailer stage, and folks, things don't look good. One wonders if anyone concerned actually bothered to read any of Asimov's work before making the film because there is absolutely no sign of it in the trailer. Elsewhere out there, though, the world of robotics is getting quite interesting, as a brief glance at some of the websites around will show you. But whatever you do, don't mention "Dr Cyborg" himself, Kevin Warwick, or you'll upset those nice folks over at The Register.


And this one just has to be a hoax - it's just too perfect a story to be true. It appears UK's ITV television channel is the source of rumours that Johnny Depp, who based his amazing performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean on a combination of cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew and a rather famous rock star, is angling to get said rock star a cameo in the sequel as Jack Sparrow Sr.

The prospect of seeing Keith Richards on screen as a dissolute pirate fills me with unbounded glee. I don't care if the story's a hoax. It just has to happen. Make it so!


There was a total eclipse of the moon last night, as you may have seen on the news. But did I really hear the BBC News 24 reporter say that it was the first total lunar eclipse for several years? Er - no; there was one last November. In fact, they're hardly rare - there's another one on October 28th this year, and it's possible to have three total lunar eclipses in a year, which last happened in 1982.

Here in the South West, the weather was appalling. I lay in the bath listening to the rain hammering on the windows, and missed the whole thing. But some people were luckier - including Pete Lawrence in Selsey, who took this spectacular photo from the beach!

You can find a timetable of more upcoming lunar eclipses at the "Mr. Eclipse" site, as well as a lot of clear explanations of how eclipses happen.


The BBC was reporting today that Disney appeared to be intending to "block the release" of Michael Moore's new film, Fahrenheit 911. This is the man who made the films Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine. The film is apparently somewhat critical of the Bush administration. Well, the film was originally going to be released by Miramax. And Disney own Miramax.

Cold feet? Corporate censorship? Those of you who have read Moore's books Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country are probably slapping your foreheads and going "duh!" at this point. Okay - but the rest of you might still be inclined to ask questions like "does free speech still exist in America?" "are corporate interests more important than open reporting?" or "are we going to get any answers here?" sometime soon.

The problem is that even if you do start asking, somehow I doubt we'll get satisfactory answers.


Tony Levin, Chapman Stick player extraordinaire and bass player with Peter Gabriel, has just posted some photos of his latest gig on his website. The venue? Halfway up a mountain in Ischgl, Austria. Some of you may recognise the name as being that of a fairly well-known ski resort. Indeed, the afternoon gig was in the open air at the bottom of one of the runs. According to Tony, 15,000 skiers turned up to watch. I'd have loved to have been there - skiing, glorious weather, and excellent live music, all at the same time. What more could you want?


Tony Levin also plays bass and Stick in the band King Crimson (in some of its many and varied incarnations, a musical treasure that has existed for over 30 years.) You may or may not be aware that Robert Fripp, the creative force behind the band, runs a blog over at the Discipline Global Mobile website. Last month, they had the builders in. As Mr Fripp says in his diary:

"Meanwhile, the sounds of Radio Two drift up from beneath the floor. Clearly, this is not the musical choice of Dave. I have no problems with drilling, hammering, the operation of a cement mixer. But Radio Two is a problem. This is noise, at whatever amplitude."

Having tried to listen to Jonathan Ross's show on Radio 2 on the way home last night, I think I know what he means.


My local BBC station's website has done a story on Alien Big Cats (ABCs) which, if you saw last month's blog, you will remember seem to be particularly prevalent in the South West. There are some interesting comments from readers at the bottom of the story; it's interesting the range of reactions it's prompted. For years, the standard response (and there's one at the bottom of their web page) was that ABCs were just normal dogs or moggies seen by people who didn't know what they were looking at.

Because of the name, ABCs are often thrown in with more esoteric subjects such as UFOs and alien abductions. Yet they seem to be distinctly real, and over the years, as the occasional lynx or other wildcat has been run over on Britain's roads and the remains presented as evidence, the sceptical attitude has softened a bit. You may also have seen recent stories about what appears to be a hybrid breed of Scottish Wildcat with black fur - the Kellas Cat - that is believed to be successfully colonising parts of Scotland.

It's worth bearing in mind just how many people keep exotic pets in this country, even after the Dangerous Animals Act was introduced. Sooner or later, some will eventually escape or be intentionally released into the wild. For example, some friends of mine recently photographed a fully-grown Eagle Owl sitting in a tree in their back garden in Ilkeston. So if you see what you think is a black leopard padding across next door's lawn, don't rush out to have a look - because it may very well be the real thing!