Blogging Away Merrily

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: May 2009

May brought with it some fine weather, so I was out and about taking pictures quite a bit. I still found time to blog about the new Star Trek movie afair bit, and joined in the grumbling over broadband speeds - whilst maintaining an air of scepticism over who was going to fund any improvements.

The blog may give the impression that I spent the rest of my free time this month playing video games, and that's a pretty fair representation of what I actually got up to.


Today is the 90th anniversary of the solar eclipse during which Arthur Eddington's observations from the island of Principe confirmed Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. He did this by plotting the positions of stars near the sun as they became visible during the total eclipse. If Einstein's theory was correct, Eddington realised, the stars should not appear in their normal positions because the light from them would be bent by our star's massive gravitational field. Eddington's observations showed that the apparent positions of the stars changed as the theory predicted. I was disappointed that the BBC haven't marked the occasion by showing their dramatisation of the event, Einstein and Eddington which starred Andy Serkis as Einstein and David Tennant as Eddington. Somebody at the beeb missed an opportunity for a good tie-in there, I think.


BBC Wales come up with the day's least exciting headline, and it's a doozy.


You've seen Ferris Bueller's Day Off, right? Remember the house where Cameron lived that was built on stilts at the side of a canyon? It's for sale. And look very closely at that first picture: is that a car parked inside? A red one?


Neal's Yard Remedies (a shop in London that sells various items of homeopathic stuff) gets short shrift from Guardian readers in this week's questions and answers column. In fact, it's ended up just being a questions column; the proprietors have bottled it.


Lots in the media today about the latest broadband coverage survey which makes for depressing reading if you don't live next door to your telephone exchange. Most people in the UK get less than 2Mbps and that includes me - at the moment I'm barely scraping in above 1Mbps. Whether the latest campaign will get anything done is questionable, as it will take a hefty chunk of investment to run fibre-optic cables out of every exchange to every green cabinet at the end of the street. I can't see that happening any time soon, but at least it may temper the more outrageous claims that companies make about the speeds their services offer. As always, Penny Arcade should have the final word.


They're going to take my favourite childhood show and "reimagine" it: a big screen version of UFO is on the way.

Memories in the film industry seem to be ludicrously short, don't they? Presumably the project will continue - like Thunderbirds did - without Gerry Anderson's involvement. It seems standard procedure for the film industry to mangle stuff like this. I also found out today that someone out there thinks that remaking Buffy (apparently without Joss Whedon's involvement) is going to work. Fellas, here's a hint: just because Buffy knock-off Twilight was a success and Let the right one in is garnering significant critical acclaim right now, it doesn't mean that another movie with vampire references will be a hit, even if it has got the Buffy brand stamped all over it.

While I'm on the subject, here's another one for your unnecessary remakes list: someone at Disney has decided that an updated version of Flight of the Navigator is a good idea. Oh boy. Even the name given to the practice has been changed: in the past we used to talk about a film remake. That is obviously too old and tired a word for the current marketing generation, so now we have to have a reboot.

So far this year we've seen two blockbuster movies which attempted to breathe life into a franchise that audiences used to know and love. Whilst one has been a huge success, the other is currently crashing and burning. I'm sure you'll understand when I say that I'm not holding out much hope for next year's releases...

If you're thinking of rebooting a franchise, you might want to read the essay by Greg Hatcher over at GoodComics about "back to basics" vs "reimagining" from the perspective of a sixty-year old comics property you may have heard of called Green Lantern. It's a well-thought-out piece that explains what drives the need for a reboot in the first place, and then examines how successful they tend to be. The basic point that Hatcher makes is that it's an enterprise that's not for the faint of heart. Successful reboots - and Star Trek very obviously falls into this category - are the ones that don't obsess over justifying the changes they make to the status quo, they just say "to hell with it, we're heading out over here instead." The lesson to be learned from Green Lantern's experiences is that coming up with something new is what's important, not worrying about appeasing the existing readership's understanding of what the story should be about.

Now, I like continuity. Continuity is good. Continuity is important in storytelling as it provides a background against which we judge the development of character. Without it, dramatic devices such as foreshadowing or tragedy won't work. Continuity allows the writer to use creative licence to make a particular point. You've got to have some continuity in a reboot, or you may as well write yourself a new plot and invent a completely new bunch of characters. But Hatcher is right: with a sufficiently good game plan, you can throw out huge chunks of continuity and still come up with something that works. You can't throw everything away, of course; you need to retain the spirit of the original. That's what the Star Trek movie does, as far as I'm concerned - although I know people who would disagree.

By now it should be clear that making a reboot is not a task for the faint of heart. What worries me is that it's also a task that requires first-rate talent. The undoubted success of Star Trek's "new direction" will spawn a huge number of less well-thought-out reboots written by people who will be far less gifted than the crew J. J. Abrams put together. So, if you're a studio contemplating doing something like this, here's a heartfelt plea from someone who may well be a fan of your intended subject matter: rather than picking and choosing the bones of an existing franchise to suit whatever fad your marketing department are fixated on at the moment, why not be bold? Are you really so devoid of original thought that you can't come up with something we haven't seen before? Blaze the trail; create a new franchise instead. Come up with your own ideas. Produce something original.

Then, decades down the line, someone will take your creation, throw out all your carefully constructed canon and take it somewhere "new and exciting." You'd better start hoping they've got the talent to pull it off.


A very happy Towel Day.


I've been spending far too much time recently playing Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction. It's been great fun, but I was rather surprised this afternoon when I completed the game. Usually I get bored with a game long before I finish it, but R&C had enough wacky weapons (the Groovitron, for example, compels your enemies to begin disco dancing, thus rendering them defenceless against your attacks) and basic all-out fun to keep me hooked.

Even before I'd got that game out of the way I'd started on the next. The postman delivered my copy of The Orange Box on Saturday and I wasted no time in making an exploratory foray into the weirdness of Portal. The next thing I knew, I was on level 10 and the day was drifting by far too quickly, so I shut the Playstation down and headed out for a breath of fresh air instead.


I've spent most of the day outside today. I went to Westonbirt Arboretum this morning with some friends and took lots of pictures...

Colourful glade

There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and it was perfect weather for taking photos: you can expect to see some more pictures appearing on my Flickr feed in the next few days. As we'd arrived at 10:30 it was still pretty quiet at Westonbirt; it's a very popular place this time of the year, and it was getting fairly busy by the time we left at lunchtime. But to begin with at least, there were robins and chaffinches calling from the undergrowth and even a few rabbits hopping about between the trees.

After lunch I went outside and did some gardening. I'm gradually getting it back under control after the winter, but it still needs a lot of work.The trouble is that I'm now suffering from my first attack of hayfever this year. I guess it's with being outside, but my eyes have puffed up and I'm sneezing and sniffling. I think tomorrow I'll be staying in, particularly as the weather forecast for tomorrow is thunderstorms for the south west.


Okay, my review of Star Trek is up. See what you think.


Wolfram Alpha has gone live two days early - presumably so they can get a handle on demand as word spreads that it's up and running. First impressions? It's going to take time to see how useful it'll be, but it's already got me hooked.


Jason Kottke has linked to so much amazing stuff this week it just wouldn't be fair to copy all the links here, so just go to his site and enjoy. But come back here afterwards, okay?


Star Trek is science fiction. But right now, there's a crew out there doing amazing things for real: the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis are repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, and today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is an awe-inspiring photograph of the two spacecraft against a backdrop of the sun.


I saw the new Star Trek film on Monday, and I'm going to see it again this evening. It's very good - but that's all I'll say for the moment. I'll be writing a proper film review at the weekend, so make sure you stay tuned.


Thanks - if that's the right word - to Garr Reynolds for bringing this to my attention: ladies and gentlemen, behold the Donut Hamburger. The idea of putting wasabi on a burger is a bit stomach churning, IMO.


Astronaut Dan Pettit has made one of those milestone contributions to humanity's exploration of space. Forget velcro, or expensive pens that write upside down. It's going to be the zero-g coffee cup that people will still be using centuries from now. I love the illustration in the article - which shows the maths involved for the capillary action which makes the thing work.


I seem to have rediscovered video games in the last couple of weeks. I've been spending far too much time levelling up my civs in Age of Empires III's Asian Dynasties expansion pack, but then I made the mistake of popping into my local branch of Game and browsing the pre-owned section. I picked up a copy of Assassin's Creed for eight quid and I've been playing it obsessively ever since. Well, that and Sonic the Hedgehog.

SEGA have gone all retro and issued a collection of over 40 classic Mega Drive games on a single disk for the Playstation 3. The games don't appear to have any "improvements" or enhancements beyond a graphics smoothing option that you can turn off. It's a weird thing to be playing one of the first 16-bit games from 1989 or so on a machine that would have been classed as a supercomputer back then. I must admit that when I booted up Sonic for the first time in goodness knows how many years and the "SEGA" fanfare played as the logo appeared on screen, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end, just as it did when I first played it twenty years ago. The only disappointment was that the "Ultimate" collection isn't that ultimate - in particular it doesn't include James Pond II: RoboCod, which was my favourite - and it was my ex's favourite, too. It brings back memories of Bassett's liquorice allsorts and Penguin biscuits, even now.

In recent weeks, I've picked up brand new copies of a number of flagship games for the PS3 at stupid prices, including Mirror's Edge for £13, Little Big Planet for £10. Clearly it pays to wait for a while before getting a game rather than rushing out and buying it on the day of release. And with the collection I'm building up at the moment, I have plenty to keep me occupied until the other games I have my eye on come down in price, too...


I've been an avid science fiction reader since I was a teenager. I have a special fondness for the work of Larry Niven, with his tales of astronauts roaming the asteroid belt in search of that mythical beast, the magnetic monopole. Any magnet you can buy in a shop has a north pole and a south pole, and no matter how small you chop it up, each piece acts as a smaller magnet, still with a north at one end and a south at the other. However, as its name suggests, with a magnetic monopole you'd only have a south or a north. Until now, they have remained resolutely hypothetical particles; nobody has ever found one even though the physicist Paul Dirac realised as long ago as 1931 that there was nothing in quantum physics that said they couldn't exist.

So I got tremendously excited when I picked up this week's copy of New Scientist. "The Mysterious Monopole," says the headline. "Predicted by theory. Hunted for decades. FOUND AT LAST" it shrieks, in big red letters. It's eye-catching stuff, for sure. Had somebody managed to detect a fabled elementary particle that, according to Dirac, had a mass in the order of 1016 times as much as a proton? This was really, really big news! Wow!

Except it wasn't. The monopoles discussed in the article itself are not exactly magnetic monopoles. In fact, they're not even slightly the mythical particle - rather, the story talks about a side effect of restructuring magnetic fields in a lattice of holmium titanate molecules called magnetic frustration.

Frustration is the right word to use. That's the second time in recent months that the magazine has resorted to a crass overstatement of research findings on the cover that bears no relation to the story inside. People are beginning to get pissed off with it, and I'm one of them. I stopped my subscription to Scientific American when it went down the tubes in this way a few years ago. That magazine is struggling to maintain its readership after a 21% decline in news stand sales over the last six months of 2008. Now it looks like New Scientist is on the slippery slope, too.


There's a lovely story at Boing Boing today about an elderly man in Goslau, Germany who called the police to complain about his noisy neighbours. The source of the irritating music he could hear playing at all hours of the day and night turned out to be something else entirely...


Randall Munroe at the webcomic XKCD has long had an obsession with all things related to the series Firefly. At the moment he's tying it all together with a story about the comic's protagonist challenging Nathan Fillion to some electric skateboard racing, and provided that you know who Nathan Fillion and Summer Glau are and have watched at least one episode of the show and have a sense of humour that's as weird as mine is, you'll find it a hoot. As for the rest of you, feel free to raise your eyebrows quizzically.


Brent Spiner (yes, the chap who played a bloke with yellow eyes and gold skin on Star Trek: The Next Generation) has taken Twitter to a whole other place. Seriously different.

Very entertaining, too. But if he starts discussing where the bodies are buried, I will start to worry.


You know who Alan Moore is, right? Then read this and carry on here, here, here, here and here. The folks at metafilter pointed me to the interview, and it's a really interesting read - it's the transcript of a two-hour discussion that touches on cultural aspects of the 20th century ranging from Brecht to Elvis movies, from Mark Twain to punk rock, the military industrial complex's outdated love of the superhero as a wish-fulfilment figure of invulnerability and superior power, and the need for western culture to grow up. It's fascinating stuff, and you absolutely have to read the little diversionary article about the ending of the TV show St Elsewhere because if you've ever grown to love the characters in any television series - particularly popular ones such as Friends, Cheers or Frasier - it will blow your mind.

Everything I read about Moore these days convinces me that he should be declared a national treasure. I met him once, a long time ago, and he was an utterly charming chap.


So needless to say it's raining outside and I'm at home doing the laundry. Ah well.


Just not that much. The Sugarstacks website gained a certain amount of notoriety after pointing out that a large (21oz) chocolate milkshake from McDonalds contains the equivalent of - go ahead and count 'em - 28 sugar cubes.


Changing sensibilities

On the left: a photo of my TV showing the shiny, high definition Blu-Ray release of Pixar's short film Knick Knack. On the right, as it looked ten years ago on my VHS copy of "Tiny Toy Stories."

Hmmm. Was surgery involved?


If you want to be a successful criminal mastermind, paying attention when you watch movies is going to be an important part of your career. You'll need to learn from the experiences of the many supervillains who have gone (and failed) before you. Fortunately the Internet makes it much easier to get started these days, as the web has a readily available list of top tips available for all budding evil geniuses, compiled by One Who Knows.


William Gibson blogged about this video of a street musician in Santa Monica singing Ben E King's wonderful song Stand By Me a couple of days ago. It's so beautiful it damn near makes you cry.

When you've finished watching and listening, head on over to the website of the initiative that produced the recording: Playing for Change is a multimedia movement created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music. And that's a fine ambition to have.


And from one wonderful video to another: a short film by Dutch artist Evelien Lohbeck called Noteboek. I love how it takes your expectations of reality and gives them a bit of a makeover.

And if life was like this, I'd be eating far too much toast.


That's just great: now I want a pair of spring-loaded horsey legs to trot around in. And there was a two-month waiting list even *before* this hit the rounds at Boing Boing.


Programmers at Georgia Tech have developed a number of software routines so that when you play old-school video games on your spiffy widescreen LCD TV, they look like they would if they were displayed on the old CRT television from your bedroom when you were a teenager.

They've added ghosting, fringing, raster scan lines, radio frequency noise and blurriness. Hey, didn't I buy that spiffy new TV to get rid of all that stuff? Well, not exactly. If you look at the screenshots of various ancient Atari games it quickly becomes evident that back in the 1970s, the programmers of the originals depended on the fringing and blurring of the graphics to create smoother and more aesthetically satisfying images on the screen. Those guys were seriously hard core.


If you haven't heard about this yet, you soon will. I've already ordered my copy: Shatnerquake!