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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: May 2007

This month included a visit to London and a few gigs, which made a nice change


Then one of the most contagious memes ever to hit the Internet - LOLcats - kicked in, and that was about it for civilisation, really.


I've just set myself up with a Livejournal account for blogging about my more academic interests.

For instance, I posted a comment there yesterday about Human-Computer Interaction, or HCI. It's good to see that people are still trying to improve the basics of computer interfaces; the existing "desktop" metaphor was a vast improvement on purely text-based interactions, but it does have its limitations. The question is, what is going to replace it? Some folks have worked on enhancing the physics of interactions within the desktop metaphor, or adding new ways to interact with it - there's video of one very clever example of HCI on YouTube - but for the most part the work has been constrained to what goes on inside the computer rather than looking at how you interact with it physically. We still use a mouse or (if we do graphics) possibly a pressure-sensitive pen and tablet, so we're still stuck with a limited way to affect objects in the computer's virtual space.

Well - until recently, that is. You might remember a while ago that I was enthusing about the multitouch computer interface demonstrated by Jeff Han at TED last year. Yesterday, Microsoft unveiled a new product called Surface which uses multitouch technology. It's not cheap, but the interface looks great: it's intuitive, because it's pretty much obvious from the start what the affordances (the things that it's possible to do with an item) are for each element on the screen. If you have a decent Internet connection, I recommend you have a look at the videos on Microsoft's product page. The only downside for me is that there appears to be a distinct lag between hand movement and the photos being dragged in Microsoft's demonstration video; the commercial product seems to react more slowly than Han's prototype. However, the system runs Microsoft's Windows Vista OS, which is all the explanation I need...


Today would have been Martin Schwarzschild's 95th birthday.. He did a lot of work in astrophysics on stellar evolution, and was president of the American Astronomical Society for several years. If you recognise the name, though, it's probably because his father was Karl Schwarzschild.

Karl was also an astrophysicist, and if you've read any book about space you should be familiar with the term Schwarzschild radius which is the radius of a sphere which you have to compress a given mass down to in order for the escape velocity on the surface to be the speed of light. At that point, no known force can prevent gravity from continuing to collapse the mass down into a singularity. Hey presto - you have just made a black hole.

Despite being somewhat eclipsed (bad pun, sorry) by Karl, Martin's work was also extremely important. One nice touch is that in 1959 he won the medal named after his father for his work on the interior structure of stars. So, happy birthday, Martin!


Georges Prosper Remi was born a hundred years ago today. He was a great influence on me when I was growing up, and I think it's fair to say that I was more than a little obsessed with his work. Born in Belgium, he became perhaps the most famous comics artist on the planet for a while - but you know him much better by his initials, reversed to R G, and pronounced Hergé.

Yes, today is the centenary of the man who created Tintin.


The judge overseeing a trail of three alleged "cyber terrorists" at Woolwich Crown Court yesterday had to get somebody to explain to him what a website was.

I know people have a go at judges for being out of date - there's a long tradition of judges asking questions revealing a profound ignorance of popular culture in this country; there can be no better example than the apocryphal tale of the judge who asked who the Beatles were, to be told "a popular beat combo, m'lud" by a perplexed barrister - but if you're running a trial which involves evidence of Internet use and such things, surely you'd want the guy in charge to understand what the people involved were actually talking about?


Figures released yesterday by an email archiving firm revealed that half of the stuff companies have stored with them is never retrieved. The Register makes a big deal about this proving how wasteful it is, without mentioning that in many cases, companies are legally required to archive email. Personally, I'm surprised the figure for stuff that's retrieved is as high as 50%.


Thanks to Tom, who let me know about a cartoon which perfectly sums up the LOLcats phenomenon. I like it. And the site's still up this afternoon, despite being Slashdotted as the result of the artist, Randall Munroe, giving a rather interesting talk at MIT...


Already covered at linkbunnies, but what the hell - here's the deal. You're posting messages on AICN about Die Hard IV and stuff, and notice a poster called Walter B who mentions that he's worked on all of the DH movies and he really thinks the new movie is going to be great. This gets a certain amount of criticism, as the new film is rumoured to be passed as a PG-13 certificate in the US, which has the talkbackers (contributors to AICN's chat room) upset, because they think the lower rating means it "won't be as kick-ass" as the first three were.

Walter B disagrees and mentions that, actually, he's Bruce Willis.

Nobody believes him.

In fact, one of the AICN staff says "it's not Bruce."

So Walter B sets up a webchat with one of the doubters...



It's Eurovision Song Contest time again. There's nothing as promising as Lordi's entry this year, but the BBC's feature of translated lyrics from this year's entries makes for amusing reading. Judging by the lyrics shown, my money's on the Ukraine to win. Of course, the fact that the entry is by a 33 year old comedian called Andriy Danylko who appears to have taken several pages out of Barry Humphries's book by creating a housewife "megastar" will probably work in their favour as well. This is Eurovision, after all.

Rather less entertainingly, they've taken Doctor Who off the air for a week so we can all "enjoy" the spectacle more. Er - no. I'll be doing something else instead, I think.


If you're thinking of buying a new telly, you might want to have a look at CNET's technical review which covers the amount of power modern sets consume. I was quite surprised to see just how environmentally unfriendly a plasma screen TV set can be. In their test, plasmas are running at 328 watts on average, compared with a CRT set's 146 watts. Mind you, the Sharp LCD television that consumes 76 watts of power when it's on standby is even more profligate (and it took 583 watts if you actually wanted to watch something on it!)

While you're reading the article, take note of the relative power consumption of the three main games consoles, too. It makes for very interesting reading. The Nintendo Wii needs a miserly 19 watts to run, but the Xbox360 takes 187 watts. And the bloated PS3 needs a whopping 197 watts to get going...

I'm still considering the pros and cons of each TV system, but at the moment I think my approach is going to end up being very simple: I'm not buying one just yet.


I was away for the day on Sunday, having my intellect challenged and indulging my aesthetic side. In other words, I headed off down the motorway for a day in London. Things didn't get off to a good start, as I ended up stationary in a traffic jam on the M4 for an hour and a half. I'm glad to see that nobody was killed in the accident, because it looked pretty nasty. Eventually the police reopened the road and I was on my way.

I was heading in to London for two reasons; the first was to go to an exhibition...

Hero worship, plain and simple

I've blogged about him before, but I'm afraid I'm going to keep on repeating myself. Luigi Colani has been a hero of mine since I saw his work featured in Omni magazine when I was a teenager. The Design Museum are currently staging a retrospective of his work, featuring a collection of his designs for everything from earphones to flying boats. The Ferrari Testa d'Oro was there, too, looking like it was going along at its fastest recorded speed of 351 kph even while it was standing still. Not bad for a car with a catalytic converter.

The simplest way of explaining why I love his designs so much is just to say that they look right. They have a fluid, organic quality to them which most modern designers seem to shun. Rather than industrial, Colani's designs look biological. His aircraft designs can look like dolphins; his cars can look like manta rays. Things that are meant to be handled fit into your hand - a case in point being his design for the Canon T90 camera, which rewrote the book on SLR design and introduced many design features which are now the industry standard. The exhibition has T90 serial number 0000001 on display, and despite the fact that it was designed nearly 20 years ago its looks haven't dated at all. When I first read the Omni article, I realised that this was what the future was going to - no, needed to look like.

Despite being nearly 80, Professor Colani is still going strong, and will be giving a talk at the museum next month. Guess who snagged the last available ticket?

After a couple of hours in the Design Museum I wandered along the South Bank to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, for a concert by the great Allan Holdsworth. When I got to my seat, drummer Chad Wackerman was standing at the front of house watching people coming in, giving you a clue that this was not your normal rock and roll event. The rest of the band consisted of long-time Holdsworth colleague Alan Pasqua on keyboards, with the amazing Jimmy Haslip from the Yellowjackets playing bass. When Jimmy picked up his six string fretless MTD bass, one guy in the audience quite rightly shouted out, "Sexy!" It's an awesome instrument. Mr Holdworth heard the comment but hadn't seen what had prompted it; mystified, he turned round and asked, "What are you looking at?" This got a laugh from the audience, and the mood for the rest of the gig was upbeat and happy. Allan can quite often look as though he's in pain while he's playing, because he's such a perfectionist. He seemed to be enjoying himself last night though, which was great to see - and the audience really responded, applauding solos and generally digging the music. As they're in the middle of a high speed European tour, Allan did comment that, although he was really pleased to be playing the UK again, they all wished they could get more sleep! This didn't stop them from playing an encore, thank goodness.

The music, of course, was mind-blowing. They name-checked the late Tony Williams a couple of times, and they even played "Fred"! They also played tracks from Atavachron (Looking Glass) and Sand (Pud Wud), so I was more than happy. But most of all I don't think I'll be seeing too many gigs this year where the entire band consists of virtuoso musicians of the highest calibre. Walking out of the hall afterwards, you could tell that a sizable proportion of the audience were musicians. The drummers were freaking out over Chad Wackerman's abilities; the bassists were comparing Jimmy Haslip to Jaco Pastorius, the keyboard players were raving over Alan Pasqua's playing, and Allan Holdsworth had reduced most of the guitar players to incoherent babbling with occasional words like "fluid" "legato" and "effortless" being whispered in awestruck tones. Yup, that's my kind of gig. Now I have to get a copy of the new DVD they've released, because it'll be awesome.

It was just as well the concert started fairly early (they were on stage before 7:45) because it took me four hours to get home. Thank goodness it's a bank holiday here in the UK today - I'm pretty wiped out. So I think it's time to fire up the espresso machine and then listen to a CD or two. Have a good day, folks!


I've been doing quite a bit of thinking about the AACS affair over the last couple of days. I see that they are now threatening to "take measures" against the 700,000 or so websites that have published the hex code allowing HD-DVD encryption to be broken. Good luck with that; any company that presses ahead at this point, with the tone of press (and web) coverage like it is, had better be very thick-skinned. And flame-proof. The words "public relations disaster" can't be very far behind. I'll certainly be thinking very hard about buying any more products from AACS members if things get nasty.

"You might feel differently if that sort of thing happened to you," I can hear you saying. Actually, it already has, and this is why I've been mulling things over such a lot. If you do an image search for "Internet Collapses" on Google, a picture of mine that I posted on Flickr pops up as the number one result. Very nice for me, except that on Google, the link is to somebody else's website, not to my Flickr page. Some guy is using a copy of my material without my permission and in breach of copyright, without any indication that it's mine, and shows every indication of continuing to do so even after I sent him a comment saying "how about crediting me?"

I can hear you saying, "So what?"

That's the whole point. If you've got a huge team of corporate lawyers and are prepared to spend millions of pounds paying them to act on your behalf, I'm sure copyright law makes a lot of sense. After all, if you're in danger of losing a large amount of money as a result, it's worth taking action. For someone like me, it's less obvious where the benefits lie. Sometimes the legal system appears to wander off into its own private version of reality, which doesn't exactly inspire me with confidence in it. I don't make any money out of my pictures (I guess it's not surprising if other people are ripping them off, really) so am I in a position to do anything about it other than surface the issue by talking about it here? I doubt it.

Obviously I'm not the first person this has happened to. People break copyright all the time, often in a jaw-droppingly blatant fashion. One of the most outrageous examples really got me thinking today, because in stark contrast to their DRM issues, I feel a lot of sympathy for Disney over the Chinese bootleg theme park. And I've based that judgment on my perception of the creative effort that went into setting up the real Disneyland and of the motivation behind introducing DRM in the first place. One is intended to entertain and thrill customers, the other is there to tie customers in to a particular distribution or playback methodology.

And that's the root of the matter: I shouldn't have different reactions to the two cases. Copyright law has to apply to everything, and it can't be dependent on perceived moral values, emotional investment, or artistic credibility. In effect, what the Digg affair has highlighted is that people make value judgments on their actions with respect to copyright that operate along multiple dimensions, most of which the law doesn't recognise. Copyright is even perceived by a growing number of people as a bad thing, because these days we usually only hear about copyright when it's being applied to protect corporate interests. The hyperbole in the anti-piracy trailers on my DVDs is an attempt to reduce things down to a binary issue of good/bad, but for the wider world this clearly isn't working and the heavy-handed way in which the anti-piracy campaign is conducted just ends up pissing people off. It reinforces the very behaviour it's designed to counteract and also ends up being parodied, which can be most amusing provided you don't mind strong language.

The question is, which is going to change? The law, or those people who account for 1% of all the Internet traffic in the United States? Are they going to lock up 700,000 people? From a legal point of view, the costs of processing 700,000 legal cases are going to be distinctly non-trivial. How will the legal system administer and process all those extra cases? That's why I said yesterday that what happens with Web 2.0 is going to prove very interesting. All the same, it's worth reading this summary of things bloggers need to know, because unless the AACS change their attitude I think a lot of people might need to pay close attention to the details in the next few months.


For computer graphics folks who are faced with the task of making a model of something, the big challenge is to get accurate information of the thing in three dimensions: how tall it is, how wide, and how long. In films, this information is often captured from a sculpted model called a maquette, using laser equipment that costs thousands of dollars.

Sometimes, companies try to save money by skimping on the process, which is a bad idea. Get your CGI right, and the results look stunning; get it wrong, and it looks awful. Scientists at Chuo University in Japan are developing a system that allows 3D information to be captured using a webcam and a bunch of infrared LEDs. They hope that they will eventually have a system that will work with a phone camera and a flash. That'll save some serious heartache for CGI artists, I'm sure. Hopefully it'll also result in fewer bad movies.


Folks, meet the Internet's latest addiction.

You may or may not be aware of the LOLCats phenomenon. It's a meme that's been going around for ages (we covered a distinctly NSFW example in Linkbunnies a year ago) but for some reason - possibly that Boing Boing have picked up on it - the field has suddenly gone bonkers. The meme involves cute pictures of cats with bizarre captions written in a rapidly evolving and clearly defined language (viz. "I can has cheezburger?") which is actually very interesting from an academic point of view. LOLcats examples already show distinct grammatical conventions which makes it possible to say whether or not any given example conforms. Today, one of my colleagues pointed out that using an apostrophe in "I'm" very clearly didn't fit the template, and she'd only been exposed to the meme for half an hour. Amazing. One can only hope that Noam Chomsky decides to investigate.

Unusually for academia perhaps, the subject is really very funny indeed. For a superb introduction, Stephen Granade's article is probably the best place to start, not just because it examines the language conventions in play but also because it shows what happens when the meme meets Star Trek. I love the fact that Spock's dialogue is exactly as it always has been...

Of course, there's a Flickr group as well (I've been a member for quite a while) and a couple of thousand pictures tagged with LOLCats for you to enjoy. LOLcats is proving to be quite successful at rapidly assimilating other memes, too - I've already seen a couple of pictures referencing yesterday's story about the AACS. My favourite, though, is the example that pays homage to laid-back (well, okay, dead) painter Bob Ross. Wonderful.


The last 24 hours or so have been fascinating if you're interested in seeing what the Web 2.0 approach does to conventional business interests. It all started after the Digg website started taking down stories after they were served with a cease and desist order by the Advance Access Content System consortium. AACS is a group of companies who make high definition DVDs: its members include Sony, Disney, Microsoft, Warner Brothers and Intel. Digg users had published the hexadecimal code that forms the basis of the latest DVD encryption scheme, rendering the system's Digital Rights Management (DRM) software ineffective. The folks who sell HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs don't want this to happen, obviously.

Digg users were not happy. They weren't happy at all. They started publishing the hexadecimal code in as many places as they possibly could, and it's even cropping up in the metadata tags for stories reporting the incident on Slashdot. Eventually Digg's founder responded with a "we hear you" post on the Digg website; and (I love this bit) he referred to the code in the page's headline. Digg's attitude is now "at least we died trying" - which I really admire, but I sincerely hope things won't come to that. It may all be irrelevant anyway, because AACS were already talking about switching to a new key two weeks ago. I love the rather desperate spin they used in the announcement, too: "Consumers can continue to enjoy content that is protected by the AACS technology by refreshing the encryption keys associated with their HD DVD and Blu-ray software players."

I know AACS have a point. Content that's protected by copyright should not be exploited by others for profit. Selling dodgy copies of DVDs at the local car boot sale is theft, and I'm perfectly aware of that fact. But what about what's known in legal circles as "reasonable use"? Although AACS are obviously very pissed off, in my opinion their response has been heavy-handed. When you think about it, it's completely pointless in terms of preventing the spread of the code to the people who would put it to use, anyway. The genie is very definitely out of the bottle. You can tell they let their emotions get the better of their judgment from the rather evocative launguage used on their site, too. Particularly where they describe the publishing of the code as "attacks on AACS technology." Oh, please, boys: grow up. It's not like someone went after one of your players with a bazooka, is it?

You may have detected that I seem to be siding with Digg on this. That's right. And it's all down to DRM. Right now, I can hear you folks at the back asking, "what exactly is DRM?" When I was younger, I'd buy a record on vinyl and make a copy on cassette tape to listen to in the car. The music industry attitude is very clearly that this isn't on - but where, in the old days they just ran a campaign with the slogan "home taping is killing music" that people completely ignored, and the record companies continued to make huge profits. These days the record companies still feel that I should buy two copies of the same album on different formats (yeah, right) but now that music is sold in digital form, some bright spark decided that it might actually be possible to control how I listen to the music I buy and force me into buying more than one format. So the manufacturers mess with the content to make copying more difficult and in the process deliver an inferior product that I can't play properly on some of my systems (you might remember me getting annoyed about the stupid DRM software on the Living Loud CD I bought a couple of years ago).

DRM is also about protecting margins. In the 1990s the film industry wanted to compartmentalise the global market for DVDs so they could control distribution and stop people buying disks that were available at lower prices in other countries. It didn't work, thankfully; I wouldn't have bought anywhere near as many DVDs as I have if I'd only been limited to buying UK releases - one in every eight discs I buy comes from other regions. It's not exactly difficult to get hold of a multi-region player these days, either, so why buy one that's limited to a particular country? Some manufacturers, bless them, have realised that it's a pointless practice: I bought a King Crimson DVD today which is region zero - it'll play no matter what part of the world your crippled system is from. But the rest of the business carries on with region coding, regardless.

All DRM is eventually compromised by one means or another. It's unrealistic to expect anything else to happen given the number of programmers out there with high-end systems, degrees in maths, and too much time on their hands. All DRM does is annoy the majority of customers who would never dream of copying a disc, and in recent incidents, it's also put people's systems at risk. Quite a few people who bought Sony CDs infected with the infamous DRM rootkit were unable to "continue to enjoy" computers that had worked perfectly before they encountered Sony's "protection". The idea that it is in any way acceptable for a company to behave in this way beggars belief. So yeah, I'm siding with Digg.

Last month I wrote about how the film industry has criminalised its customers in recent years. I'd probably have more sympathy for the AACS if it wasn't for all those anti-piracy adverts I have to sit through when I watch a DVD. But after watching yet another film last night that effectively called me a criminal, I really hope that AACS will now sue Digg. Why? Because it's exactly the sort of behaviour that Edison adopted, and it's one of the reasons that he went out of business. Suing your customers tends to drive them elsewhere. It's quite clear that some companies still haven't learned Edison's lesson. More to the point, if the AACS does act against Digg it's almost certain to provoke a significant response from the Digg userbase. If you think that's likely to be a trivial mattter, let me just point out that Digg accounts for 1% of all the Internet traffic in the United States.

In that blog entry last month, I also commented that the music industry appears to be moving away from DRM, driven in large part by the debacle that Sony's rootkit antics caused. But the interesting part of today's story is the role that Web 2.0 played in not only publicising what was going on, but also providing a means for people to feed back their responses to the organisations involved. It's apparent from both the Digg and Sony cases that there is an organised, vocal community out there who aren't interested in business arguments about protecting investment and guaranteeing revenue; they want to be able to play their CDs or DVDs without hindrance. I doubt that the AACS consortium have any idea just how pissed off some people are about DRM. I also doubt that the Web 2.0 folks will stop at getting Digg to lay off the censorship. I suspect that the AACS folks are only just beginning to appreciate exactly how effective the Web 2.0 approach is likely to be when an organisation - rightly or wrongly - gets cast as the villain. That's why I think we should pay close attention to what happens here, because the next few weeks are going to have a profound effect on how the Internet engages with the rest of the world. Web 2.0 is going to have to do some very rapid growing up, and the results could surprise us all.


Yesterday, the RAF withdrew its last remaining Jaguars from operational service. They used to be a familiar sight in the skies over East Anglia when I was a teenager; we would go on holiday to Norfolk and the guys from RAF Coltishall would often zip overhead at low level as we played on the beach.

Times move on, however: RAF Coltishall closed last year, leaving the RAF with just one Jaguar squadron - No. 6 Squadron - based at Coningsby in Lincolnshire. It'll be a shame not to see them flying around Norfolk skies any more.


This one's for the twins: some brilliant YouTube beatbox goodness.