Mysterious Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: May 2008

May was a month of playing video games, as I was introduced to the delights of the Nintendo Wii and then discovered the addictive nature of the Sony Playstation 3. Despite this, I managed to get out in the fresh air once or twice and even found time to switch ISPs - which is why the archive now has a new home here at IDNet.


Within an hour of posting yesterday's blog I managed to complete the remaining level B challenge on Gran Turismo 5 Prologue and unlock the A class races. I have still no idea how I managed to do it, as the highest I'd managed to place before then was fifth.

Completing the B class races unlocked a BMW concept car, which is fun to race if a little prone to spinning off on corners. I've now got 30 cars in my collection, so I am gradually working my way through the vehicles available. When the complete game comes out it will have a lot more cars available to buy, although the figure of 10,000 cars which crops up on the net at the moment appears to be someone's wish list rather than development data from the programming team. The more credible figure I've seen quoted is 900 cars, which still sounds over the top. There's no concrete data out there in terms of what cars will be in the full game, but one of the more believable reports reckons it'll include the 1995 Toyota GT-Four, which will make me happy and also very nostalgic. The full game will also feature Top Gear's test track which should be a real hoot.


I'm on holiday at the moment. Rebecca and the twins came down for the weekend and we had a great time, even if the weather followed its traditional patterns for a Bank Holiday. It chucked it down on Sunday and Monday and it was really windy, but Saturday was nice; we went out for a walk and - of course - took some pictures:

Windy in Wotton

Thanks to the twins for unlocking the next level on Gran Turismo 5 Prologue while they were here. I now have twice as many cars as I did at the beginning of the weekend, including the Ferrari 599 and the Audi R8. Being a geek, I've even set up an Excel spreadsheet to help select which car I should get next. But for the life of me I can't do better than seventh place when I try to get the Honda Integra from the back of the field to the front in a single lap. I have a feeling it's going to be quite a while before I'm competing in any A-class events.

SYDNEY POLLACK 1934 - 2008

This week we lost one of the great movie directors: Sydney Pollack has died of cancer at the age of 73. One of my favourite films is Absence of Malice, the film he made with Paul Newman and Sally Field back in 1981. I expect TV news coverage will be concentrating on Out of Africa when folks discuss his achievements; rightly so, as it gained Pollack an Oscar for Best Director and another one for Best Picture. All the same, I think Absence of Malice is a better film. Hell, it's almost perfect. The plot features a man (Newman) who gets stitched up by federal prosecutors who mislead a naive young reporter (Field) into running a false story. There are tragic results, and Newman's character resolves to make the feds face the consequences. It features a bravura performance by Wilford Brimley (yes, that Wilford Brimley) that I'd pick as the pivotal role in his acting career - there aren't many people who could act Newman off the screen, but he does exactly that. If you've never seen it, why not rent the DVD and give it a spin?


The Phoenix lander made it safely to Mars and returned its first pictures, as I'm sure you've already seen. However, you may not be aware that one of the other spacecraft at Mars managed to take a photo of the lander as it dangled beneath its parachute on its way to the surface - as if the technological achievement of entry, descent and landing wasn't enough.

Over the next few days, the lander will analyse soil samples it digs up from beneath the surface to answer three important questions:

  1. What is the history of water at the landing site - when did liquid water last exist there?
  2. Can the Martian arctic support life?
  3. How do Mars's polar regions affect the planet's climate?

It's going to be an interesting year for space exploration. And while you're looking at all those wonderful pictures of another world, consider this: for the cost of the Iraq war, Charlie Stross has calculated we could have sent as many as 500 scientists to Mars to set up a colony there.


I'm relieved to see that people are still finding the site since I moved it. Daily stats have fallen off a fair bit, of course, but hopefully they will pick up again over the next month or two. I know I'm a very minor league blogger - my readership is minuscule. That's OK, because I write this stuff to keep a fairly small circle of friends up to date with what I'm doing from day to day and sharpen my writing skills at the same time. If you don't know me and enjoy this stuff as well, that's great.

At the other end of the scale from me there are folks like Cory Doctorow, who is such a prolific blogger that he gets cartoons drawn about him as witnessed by this Cory-centric comic from XKCD this weekend. Nice.


I don't know how long I was expecting my old site to stay up, but I noticed at lunchtime today that it's already dropped off the Internet. I hope you've updated all your bookmarks. As you're reading this, I guess you managed OK. It's everyone else I'm worrying about, naturally.


The BBC have made it official: Russell T Davies is to step down as executive producer at Doctor Who and Steven Moffat will take over the reins. As Steven Moffat wrote most of my favourite episodes from the new series including The Empty Child and the innovative and unsettling Blink, I think it's a good sign that the show will be giving small children nightmares for some time to come.


I'm still having great fun with the Playstation. I've come over all academic discussing some of the interaction design issues raised by gameplay over on my Livejournal account. You may find it interesting, or you may not.


If all has gone according to plan, you should be reading this on my new site at IDNet. I've set up redirects on the most commonly used pages back at Demon, but unfortunately I wasn't able to set up a global redirect - they don't want me using an htaccess file for anything like that, unfortunately.

Right now I'm beginning to settle in and relax a little bit. So far (touch wood) I haven't found anything that's broken, and I now have a whole gigabyte of webspace to play with. Now all I have to do is decide what I'm going to do with it!


I've had more problems with my ISP over the weekend, and they finally pushed me over my threshold of indignation. I've had enough of dealing with an offshored support system, with staff who stick rigidly to a script and with a company that hasn't made any sizable investment in infrastructure for at least five years. So I'm moving away from Demon and joining IDNet instead.

I think it says a lot that IDNet apologised for the fact that the package I've signed up for only came with 1Gb of web space. Demon's service, which costs quite a bit more, comes with just 20Mb.

So what does it mean for you, o faithful reader? Well, if you're accessing this site using the headfirst.demon web address, it won't be accessible after the 19th May. You will need to update your bookmarks to point at but (if all goes according to plan) email and web access to my .com domain should still work as it always has done. I'll see you there.


It looks like I haven't missed all the good weather after all. The weekend has been warm and this morning was lovely. The birdsong as I walked to the shop to get a paper was deafening, as the local wildlife is out and about getting food for the next generation. I walked within a couple of feet of a blackbird feeding a fledgeling, and the house martins were landing on the playing field to pick up nesting material. So I guess Summer has arrived, brought by the swifts who have been flying around the village this week. They are one of the things I use to mark the passing of the seasons, and their appearance always herald warmer weather. The next thing I'm expecting will be the local Supermarine Spitfire to come out of its winter hibernation at Filton and pay a visit to the village. I'll let you know when I see it.


To one of the finest writers on the planet: William Gibson, who has just been awarded an honorary doctorate from Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina (his home town).


After blogging yesterday about how great Call of Duty 4 is, I ended up spending most of the day playing Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. You may be able to judge exactly how much I've been playing it by the fact that after less than 24 hours, I had a 2002 Daihatsu Copen Active Top, a 1995 Suzuki Cappuccino (don't ask), a 2004 Honda Integra Type R, a 2007 Subaru Impreza WRX STI (with 18 inch BBS Wheel Option), and a 2007 Premium Package Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X GSR to choose from depending on the event in which I'm competing. The Evo looks particularly good in black, I think.


I've hardly been at home over the last week or so. I've just spent a couple of days at a conference in Aylesbury (so I missed all the nice weather), and before that I was up in Solihull with Rebecca, Rob and Ruth, playing on their Nintendo Wii and discovering just how unfit I am. The Wii Sports package pointed out that from the way I was playing tennis and hitting home runs, I should be drawing a pension; harumph! All the same, I was impressed by what a fun console it is - the games are generally completely bonkers. I was particularly taken with a demented little gem called Rayman Raving Rabbids which had me in hysterics, particularly when we were trying to help cartoon rabbits play Smoke on the Water or run away from a giant rolling rock while dressed up as Indiana Jones. If - no, when I get a Wii, it'll be the first game on my list.

But I have other fish to fry right now. After getting a demo from Rob last weekend I succumbed to the collective mania that has surrounded Grand Theft Auto 4 and bought a copy. However, rather than following the Microsoft route I've bought a Playstation 3 to play it on. That way I've also ended up with the game I considered to be a must-have for the platform, Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. Even better, the bundle deal I tracked down also included Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I thought GT5P would be the most engaging of the games I'd picked up, as my response from seeing game footage on the TV was quite simply "I must have that!" I wasn't disappointed, either. It is a first-class game, and the visuals are awesome. I have already spent hours racing my first car and getting to grips with several different circuits. But it's not the game that I've played the most. No, the game that had got my pulse racing, that has got me going back again and again to beat the bad guys, overcome the challenges and get through each mission with sweating hands and adrenalin racing is...

Call of Duty 4. Yeah, I was surprised too. It's superb. It looks amazing. It's engaging, it draws you in, and the increments in difficulty are pitched just right so that you get hooked, and stay hooked without getting frustrated. I can highly recommend it.


The main reason I bought the PS3 wasn't the games, though. It was the facility to play Blu-Ray discs. Seeing a movie on a 1080p television for the first time is a revelation, made even more striking after years of watching DVDs and regarding them as being as good as it is going to get. I've only got the one film - 2001: A Space Odyssey - but the difference between this release and the DVD is so staggering I keep going back and watching it again to see what else had disappeared in the original DVD transfer.

The level of detail is remarkable. You can make out individual panels and girders on the space station and watch the people in the control rooms as the Pan American clipper docks; you can read the captions on control panels and the instructions for the zero gravity toilet; there are little bits of litter under Leonard Rossiter's chair when he meets William Sylvester. Unfortunately there's a bad side to all this, as you can even make out where the studio technicians had failed to clean the massive front projection backdrops used for filming the opening section of the film!


It was ANZAC day last month. At least two of my relatives were in the ANZACs, so it's a special day for me. Last weekend, I got to talking with my Mum about what she knew. Her father, William Barcroft, took part in what is probably the most well-known of the ANZAC operations, the landings at Gallipoli. This was the first large-scale military exercise to involve Australian forces, but unfortunately it didn't go well. William was wounded at Gallipoli, but returned to duty, being wounded twice more during the course of the war. I found out that a James Henry Barcroft was a private in the 56th Battalion of the Australian Infantry, killed in action on December 2nd 1916. We think he may have been William's brother.

Over the last week or so I have been doing a bit of digging on the internet to see if I could discover anything more about the family's history. I managed to find a couple of things. Firstly, the National Records Office have searchable passenger lists of all ships arriving and departing the UK from 1900 or so onwards. On the 6th June 1909 a steamer of the Aberdeen Line called the SS Moravian left London docks bound for Brisbane. On board was one William Barcoft. After training as a vet in Manchester, he travelled out to Australia to run a small cattle station somewhere in Queensland. When the first world war started he signed up immediately. He must have made an impression. Townsville is about 100 miles south of Cairns, in Queensland. The second discovery I made was a document in the Townsville public records office compiled by one of the local librarians. It's a list of local street names in Townsville and it explains the significance of each name. If you look on page 13, it says:

"Barcroft Street, Aitkenvale. Named after Lt. William Barcroft who was wounded at Merris, France, on 20 June 1918 and was invalided back to Australia."

That was the third time he was wounded; he had been shot in the face. He had only just returned to duty after marrying my grandmother. After recuperating for several months in England, the couple returned to Australia where my Uncle Bill and Aunty Mary were born. However, after an illness in the family they sold the farm that they had worked so hard for and returned to England. When they arrived, they discovered that only the first payment on the property had been made. After losing most of the value of the farm, life would not have been easy for them.

Looking at Aitkenvale on Google Maps, Barcroft Street appears to be a residential street leading down to a river; it looks a nice place to live. I hadn't the faintest idea that he'd been honoured like this, so it was a lovely surprise to discover it, tucked away on the Internet.


I've been a fan of McSweeney's (the website and the magazine) for quite a few years, but this week they've put a piece on their website which has to be the funniest thing they've ever done as far as I'm concerned. John Moe has written an imaginary letter to Prince. To say any more than that would spoil things, so I'll leave it to you to find out exactly what the letter is about - but if you have a copy of "Purple Rain" available to listen to, the humourous qualities of your experience will be enhanced considerably.


To me, the Prince stuff is funny. On the other hand, I just don't get shows like Little Britain or The Office. If I'm made to watch it, I'll sit there cringing; I'll probably get very annoyed, too. But never, not once, would I describe my feelings while watching shows like that as having anything to do with mirth, merriment or amusement in any shape or form. I might not have hit fifty yet, but some days I feel like the old guy who rails against the decline of modern values and the collapse of western civilisation.

Yes, I fully acknowledge your right to enjoy alternative comedy. You may be a great fan of those shows, and you may think they're the greatest thing to ever happen to television.

Fair enough. That's fine.

But I think you should know that there's something wrong with you.

The absolute nadir of the New Comedy for me is Johnny Vegas. To be honest, the guy's behaviour makes me think he'd be better off seeking psychiatric help than standing on stage in front of a couple of thousand people. His behaviour at the Tsunami Aid benefit a few years ago shocked me - and I don't shock easily. He physically assaulted a member of the audience. People were actually applauding but Rebecca and the twins and I looked on in horror. Frankly, I'm surprised he still had a career after that, but he's still out there. I hoped the Tsunami affair was a one-off, but it seems he's been at it again. Forgive me if I've missed something here, but why is this guy allowed to act this way? Are you seriously going to tell me, "because it's funny"?