Humanity, thy name is blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: June 2004

June brought the blog's first anniversary. I must admit to being quite surprised to find myself still doing this after a year. It's rather addictive...

In June there was more space related stuff with the long-awaited transit of Venus (which, astonishingly, most people actually got to see), the continuing adventures of SpaceShipOne, and loads of cool technology type fun.


I've spent most of the last five days or so laid out flat by a very nasty cold. Usually I can shake them off in a day or two but this one has made my life a misery for the best part of a week. So not too many blog updates this week, I'm afraid.

Still, I did get to see Jeff Beck at the Colston Hall in Bristol on Saturday night. If ever there was a rock star to provide the visual inspiration for Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel, it's Mr. Beck. Mullet and jeans tucked into his boots notwithstanding, he's an awesome guitar player. He has an amazing tone: he has such a distinctive sound I can usually tell it's him playing after hearing a single note. He's in my list of the top five great rock guitar gods on his own, but on this tour he also had the one and only Jan Hammer playing keyboards. It's only the second time I've seen Jan Hammer live - the first time was before the days of Miami Vice way back in 1982, when he guested on Al Di Meola's Electric Rendezvous tour. As you can imagine, seeing two of my heroes on the same stage meant I was a very happy bunny.

My favourite album of Jeff Beck's is still There and Back and it's probably more than a little bit due to the fact that it also has Jan Hammer playing on it. The album came out rather more years ago than I want to figure out - but on Saturday night they played both Star Cycle (which became the theme tune to Channel Four's The Tube) and The Pump - my two favourite tunes from the album. Oh, and of course Beck played Where Were You from Guitar Shop. Every time I hear that piece of music the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. A very enjoyable gig.


I can remember a friend of mine coming back from the Far East years ago, sporting what appeared to be a very expensive Rolex watch. he had us going for weeks - until he finally let slip that it was a cheap "knock-off" that he'd bought for $20 in a market somewhere or other. Fakes of expensive consumer items are one thing, but who'd have thought we'd need to worry about fake tea bags?


Even for a spacecraft the size of a small house, it's quite a journey. Launched in 1997, it started off with two close fly-by's of Venus to pick up speed, another fly-by of Earth to gain even more speed, then out for a rendezvous with Jupiter in 2000. That gave it even more momentum for a four year cruise to Saturn. It's the big moment tonight, when the Cassini probe fires its main engine to insert itself into orbit around Saturn.

If you're an insomniac and you've got a satellite system that can pick up Astra 2C, you can watch coverage of the event tonight from 02:45 - 06:00 BST:

Astra 2C at 19 degrees East
Transponder 57, horizontal, MPEG-2, MCPC
Frequency 10832 MHz, Symbol rate 22000 MS/sec. FEC=5/6.

Let's hope everything goes smoothly.


Did you watch This Is Spinal Tap on BBC1 last weekend? If you did, you'll no doubt have twigged that my challenge for today was to make every slug line a Tap quote. You will also remember that the band hit a few problems with their prop for the song Stonehenge. While I was surfing this week I had a look at the official website for the place, which is run by English Heritage. Maybe Mr. Tufnel and the boys should have surfed over before completing their designs. It's rather a groovy site, allowing you to explore the surrounding countryside and related prehistoric monuments. Best of all for panorama junkies like me, there are a number of 360° views for you to have a look at. Worth a visit - as is the place itself, I have to say.


I was amazed to hear today that Eric Clapton has sold his beloved Fender Stratocaster, Blackie. He's had the guitar since cobbling it together out of a number of Strats that he bought in 1970. He then used it for almost all his recording work over the next 20 years. In fact it's been so heavily used that he decided to "retire" it in 1991 - it was too worn out to take on the road any more.

I was even more amazed to read how much he got for it: $959,500 (that's £527,000 to you, sir.) This was considerably more than the auction house Christies were expecting, as you can see from their catalogue page. Also exceeding expectations was the Martin guitar, 000-42, that was used extensively on the 1992 'MTV Unplugged' TV show and the resulting million-selling CD. This acoustic guitar sold for $791,500 (£434,400). Still, it's all in a good cause: the proceeds go towards funding Clapton's Crossroads charity in Antigua.


I'll be watching The Prisoner on BBC Four tonight. My brother David and I are big fans, and when we were younger (and much, much sadder) we made the pilgrimage to Portmeirion in Wales where most of the series was made. We've found the house in London, and we've even walked down the same corridor that Number Six storms down at the beginning of the show: it's in an underground car park near Hyde Park in London!

The series was the brainchild of its star, Patrick McGoohan. Ever since, people have been trying to figure out what it all meant. Number Six himself has seldom commented on the interpretations and theories that have been bandied around - apart from a fascinating interview he gave in the 1970s which you can read here. If you've spent the last thirty years wondering what the hell it was all about, it's probably your best shot at finding an answer.


How about that? A whole year of blogging! It doesn't seem like a year ago that I started this thing. It's been an eventful year, to say the least, and I'm glad you came along for the ride. To celebrate, here's a special one-day-only anniversary banner, hot off the presses. I don't know, the things I do for you folks...

Tonight I was in Bristol, where Joe Walsh was making a brief appearance at the Bristol Bierkeller. He's on a promotional tour for Crate amplifiers, coming onstage for an hour by himself to play guitar and keyboards, sing a few songs, comment on our weather: "I've never been in a hurricane that lasted five days before" and tell some stories: "the most terrifying experience of my life was going on tour with the Who. Keith Moon decided he liked me." Great fun, and he came across as a really nice bloke. And, given that he's a member of one of the hugest groups ever to walk the Earth (that's the Eagles, for younger viewers) he's a real showman with a wry outlook on life: "An eight year old kid came up to me at a gig. I asked him how he'd heard of me. Kid says 'My grandfather turned me on to you guys...' What a brat..."

For some reason, the roads seemed extraordinarily quiet on the way home. Was there something else going on tonight?


If you're thinking of pulling a sickie after tonight's events, you won't be alone. According to a report at Ananova (home of Orange promotions of all shapes and sizes), over nine million Britons are considering phoning in sick tomorrow. That'll keep the roads quiet a bit longer then.


For one reason or another I don't trust lorry drivers. I'm sure there are some nice ones out there, but I never see 'em on the roads. And just to make me feel even safer out there, I read today that half the lorries stopped in a series of spot checks here in the South West this week failed to meet safety regulations. And yet for some reason we still seem to send the entire country's contents everywhere by road. Crazy.


I drove home last night through torrential rain and heavy winds - strong enough to bring phone lines down over in Wiltshire, apparently. After three weeks with hardly any rain I'm sure it'll do the gardens good, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the main reason the weather's deteriorated is that the gates at Worthy Farm open today for this year's Glastonbury Festival. Here in the South West we can expect thunder and lightning together with torrential rain until Monday lunchtime, then. And the rest of Britain will put money on there being heavy rain after that until Wimbledon's over and done with for another year.

The bill for Glastonbury sounds quite interesting - Radio 3 were making quite a bit of the fact that the English National Opera would be performing. But I'm afraid I've got to the age where sitting in a field and either getting sunburnt or covered in mud for three days is no longer an attractive concept. Hmmm, come to think of it, I don't think it ever was.


I used to drive Volkswagens - in fact, I've had three of them. I got more than a little peeved by the fact that kids kept nicking the badges off them to emulate the Beastie Boys, who used to wear them as medallions. But now a whole new generation of people are wishing for the opportunity to give Brooklyn's finest a damn good kicking: according to The Register, some copies of their latest CD have been found to install software onto any PC that is used to play the CD. It's unclear what the software does - but if someone tried to install something on to your PC without asking you, and it screwed your computer up, would you be happy? I'd say boycott the CD now only I don't know anyone who'd want a Beastie Boys CD anyway.


Yes, I'm afraid after today they will be. The Sun at noon will reach its highest point for the year - from then on, it heads south and we can start looking forwards to putting the central heating on again and digging out those winter sweaters. Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows an analemma: the curve mapped out by the position of the noon-day Sun over an entire year. The figure of eight is due to the shape of the Earth's orbit. Rather a groovy picture, don't you think?


Well, Spaceship One has made it into space - although it sounds like the flight was rather more eventful than the folks over at Scaled Composites had planned. It's a laudable achievement all the same, even if today's flight won't earn them the Ansari X-Prize just yet. We'll have to see if the problems postpone the prize flights or not. I hope it's not too serious - I'd love to be in Mojave when it finally happens.

I found the press coverage of the event fascinating - apart from the fact that it got precious little coverage on British TV, the original description of the pilot releasing a pack of M&M's and watching them float free had changed to "candies" and from there to "candles" in the reports I read today. Probably best to stick with the press release from the horse's mouth on this one, I think.


I'm still rather bemused by the fact that Boris Johnson has become quite the media darling he appears to be. He certainly plays the "lovable old duffer" card to the hilt, appearing as the chairman on the BBC's Have I Got News For You. He's been bright enough to forge a career as a successful politician as well as editor of the Spectator magazine, so I strongly suspect his real personality is rather different. Whatever his secret, today is the unruly-coiffed one's 40th birthday, and there is much celebrating going on over at Boriswatch.


I've seen a few tornadoes in my time - and they were all in the UK. The smaller cousin of the tornado is the dust devil, which can crop up just about anywhere, including this Japanese school soccer game, as the video shows (you'll need Windows Media Player for this one, I'm afraid).

What's interesting is how the thing grows from a mildly interesting "oh look" kind of moment to out-and-out terrifying in the space of about ten seconds. Having been caught in a smaller version whilst cycling through Milton Keynes years ago, I can confirm that you really wouldn't want to be in the middle of one of these things. They can shift things, and I don't just mean chairs and tents. Where do you think all those falls of frogs come from?



Yesterday I mentioned that Google had changed their logo to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the events in James Joyce's book Ulysses. I had to find out more, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Google have their own gallery of previous special occasion banners.

I have the Google toolbar installed, and one of the few downsides of this is that I hadn't appreciated just how often Google install a holiday logo. For example, I completely missed the one they did this month for the transit of Venus, although I do remember the Dilbert "we need a new logo by Friday" cartoon. And, we are told, they're almost all the creations of Google's own Dennis Hwang. Nice one, Dennis. It's great to see a company with that much presence that still has a real sense of fun.


On Sunday I switched on the TV to check on the football, and France scored within a couple of minutes. Yesterday I turned on to see how Spain were doing, and Greece scored within thirty seconds. So tonight I am steadfastly not watching the England - Switzerland match. I haven't even got the radio on. Perhaps this time we'll get a result.


It was one hundred years ago today that Leopold Bloom began the walk around Dublin that forms the basis for James Joyce's epic novel Ulysses. As a result, there are all manner of celebrations going on in Dublin, and quite rightly so. On the net, even those wacky folks at Google are getting in on the act, with a modified banner graphic on their main page paying tribute to the man himself.

I first read Ulysses when I was living in the United States. It was one of the books I'd always meant to read but had never got round to. Living within easy reach of a couple of extremely well-stocked bookshops meant I no longer had any excuse, so I bought a copy one Friday night and spent most of the weekend reading it, utterly transfixed.

If you've never read it, it's quite an experience and not for the faint of heart. It's a rather bawdy work, full of symbols, neologisms, metaphors and just plain out-and-out literary showboating: the last chapter is just seven sentences, but they take up thirty five pages. It's also been the inspiration for all sorts of other creative works: I can't read the word "seedcake" without thinking of Kate Bush. So Happy Bloomsday to you!


The reputation of the bee, that paradigm of industrious labour, took a bit of a bashing today. It seems that bees have more in common with Homer Simpson than they do with Rosie the Riveter. According to the latest research, bees are inherently lazy and the only thing they like better than a good time is a quick snooze. Ah, the silly season is upon us once more.


Remember on Monday I mentioned Richard Branson's impending announcement on his new venture in space? I've been thinking about what I'd do in his situation, and I reckon that his announcement will have more than a little to do with the folks over at Scaled Composites. First of all, SpaceShip One's first test space flight is set to take place next week, on June 21st. If I was making an industry announcement, I'd do it after the completion of a successful flight. The media coverage will be intense.

Then there's the interesting comment on the Scaled web site's FAQ page that says "at program completion we will have good data for operational costs and may publish them." To me that looks like someone is putting together a costing model for a commercial service. Finally, couple all of this with the fact that Branson knows Burt Rutan of old: Rutan is the man who designed Global Express for Virgin's round the world solo flight record attempt. I could be wrong, but I reckon next week could be very, very interesting.


I've spent quite some time today listening to CDs by the Norwegian band Supersilent. Needless to say, I first heard them on Radio 3's excellent new music programme Mixing It. They're a quartet - but Helge Sten (aka Deathprod), Ståle Storløkken (keyboards), Arve Henriksen (trumpet), and Jarle Vespestad (drums) still don't rehearse or even discuss their music. In fact, as their record company says, they meet only to play concerts or to record. As a result their performances are pretty unpredictable, cutting edge stuff.

Their tracks and CDs (there are six in my collection) are numbered - so the fourth album is called Supersilent 4 and the second track on it is called 4.2. You get the idea. If you prefer music that you can hum along to, you're likely to find their stuff heavy going. Bits of 1.3 for instance can sound like the drummer is being attacked by the soundtrack to the movie Forbidden Planet. And don't expect three-minute pop standards: 1.1 weighs in at over 30 minutes and for the first two of those there's only sound in the left hand channel.

Their stuff has really grown on me. Highly recommended - but for serious jazzophiles only.


Er, well at least it was on Friday. I was going to mention a Flash movie that had been done by a French creative agency called Melon, which used cartoon versions of the Beatles to perform their song Come Together. Unfortunately when I checked this link this morning the thing had disappeared. Shame. Still, for the moment you can see another Beatles animation done by the same folks here for the song I Feel Fine. It's not quite as impressive, but still one of the best things I've seen for a while.


Anyone who has read any Terry Pratchett will be familiar with Gaspode, the amazing talking dog. His vocabulary goes far beyond a simple "woof." Now it seems that Gaspode is not the only dog who is actually a lot cleverer than people give him credit for. There was a story over the weekend about Rico the Shetland Sheepdog, who appears to understand over 200 words and can figure out the name of something new by eliminating objects he already knows about. Researchers suggested that this means he has the intellectual capabilities of a three-year-old child, which sounds a bit of a stretch if you ask me. At least based upon the three-year-olds I know!


No, not Sir Richard Branson's dash across the Channel today - I'm talking about the bearded balloonist's plans to open his own commercial spaceline. If it was anyone else I'd have laughed - but as it's the man who founded Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic here, I'll be watching for developments with a considerable amount of interest.


Want your kids to improve their literacy, hone their IT skills, and actually do more homework than they are required to? According to the BBC, all you need to do is get them writing their own blogs. The article describes the leap in abilities of the children involved - to a standard "two levels above" what is normally expected for their age group. How the standards are worked out isn't mentioned and there's no discussion over whether or not the use of blogs was the exclusive factor responsible for the improvement, either, but what the heck - it sounds like a good story...


Every now and then you come across a story which must be a copywriter's dream: the case of the crocodile living in the creeks and sewers of Hong Kong was one. The fact that it then evaded the attentions of one of Australia's foremost experts on crocodiles was another. Sadly, it seems the croc has finally been captured. It just goes to show that those urban legends about crocodiles at large underneath the World's major cities aren't always just a figment of the imagination...


Start me off and I will blather on and on about how cool instant messaging (IM) is on the net. Whether you use AIM or MSN, ICQ or any of the other IM packages that have sprung up, they're a great way to keep in touch with friends and relatives. At the moment I'm particularly hooked on the audio and video capabilities of MSN Messenger (yes, I actually prefer the Microsoft product) and have managed to hold a conversation with my brother in California using the thing. Okay, there was a delay of a couple of seconds from time to time, but here's the thing: that means I just made a videophone call to the US, but for the cost of a local call here in England.

You can already buy a dedicated VoIP (that's "Voice over Internet Protocol" to the rest of us) phone for a couple of hundred quid. Again, you just pay a subscription to connect to the net. You don't pay the long-distance phone charges. It uses the same technique as IM: it connects to the net, you call a person with another VoIP phone wherever you want, and you send packets of data back and forth over the net. Those packets contain your conversation, so they're just another bunch of Internet data.

I was wondering when any of the telcos would twig that this was going on, and unfortunately one of them has. I use the word unfortunately because when has a major corporation ever engaged an upcoming technology like this for the good of its early adopters?

It seems that BT are to rebuild their entire phone network infrastructure - they want a network that transmits *everything* using IP (presumably IPv6, because they'll need a lot of IP addresses.) The cost will be a mind-blowing three billion quid. BT think we won't notice any difference in quality, although it's not clear how BT, who will be using the same technology as existing internet VOIP, will achieve a quality that's described by BT's spokesman as being "a gulf apart from the new budget voice over the Internet services being launched almost daily by a wide range of providers." What this means is that BT are rebuilding their main network architecture to handle all transmissions using IP. The old Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) will be no more.

Arthur C Clarke predicted in one of his novels - it may have been 3001 - that the Internet will eventually make such a mockery of charge structures for long distance phone calls that all the telcos make every call a local call. Will this happen? If not, I wonder how call charges will be worked out? The amount of packets transmitted, perhaps? That's certainly the charging model that most of the folks in the resulting discussion over at Slashdot seemed to think would happen, and sooner rather than later, I suspect.

In the end folks, the message is this - make the most of your flat-rate broadband charges while you've got 'em, because it's a safe bet the folks at BT are going to want to get back their £3,000,000,000 somehow. Guess who'll be paying?


Every now and again I see something and think "that is such an amazingly cool idea." The latest one I've come across is the idea of using your pointing device to drag your files to a location on someone else's PC by using your pointing device on their computer. It's such a mind-bogglingly simple concept I'm amazed it's only just cropped up, but it's the proliferation of wireless networks that has enabled the idea to take flight.

Put simply, your pointing device - in this case a pen like you get with graphics tablets - is assigned its own unique ID number. Your local Wi-Fi network runs a pen server service that records when you use the copy command or click and drag on your own device. The server stores the data, then when you use the pen on someone else's system, the server copies the data to that device. Done.

Making computers intuitive to use - what an amazing notion!


So - did you see the transit? We had a great show courtesy of my colleague DP (he's on the right) who brought his telescope in and projected the image on the wall. Turned out rather well, didn't it?

The 2004 transit of Venus as seen in our Bristol office

As you can see from the picture, Venus is clearly visible as a small dot at about 6 o'clock on the Sun's disc. The scope also picked up a couple of sunspots - although they were too small to be seen here. The next transit of Venus is in 8 years time and won't be visible from the UK. After that, it's a 122 year wait, so I was glad I caught this one.


You know what a prime number is, right? It's a number that can only be divided by itself and 1.

5 is a prime, as are 11, and 23. Mathematicians have great fun with primes, trying to find patterns in which numbers are prime and which aren't. They also enjoy looking for really big primes. The latest that they've discovered is really big: it has over 7 million digits! It's also a special type of prime called a Mersenne Prime. What that means is that you take a really big power of 2, and then subtract 1.This one's the 41st in the Mersenne series, 224,036,583-1. Just checking the maths involved took 11 days of computing!


You may well have been watching the D-Day commemorations over the weekend. It was very touching seeing veterans standing once again on the Normandy beaches. Today there was a lovely story about how the French President, Jacques Chirac, gave one veteran (Keith Coleman, a former RAF gunner from New Zealand) a lift back to his hotel after he caught the wrong bus. The lift was somewhat special, as it was in the Presidential Gulfstream jet aircraft!


Monday already. I had Friday's entry all ready to upload, but didn't actually get round to copying it to my server, so here it is, together with today's entry. Two for the price of one. Who says we don't give value for money here at

Oh - and even though it's going up for 11pm here in South West England, can I just point out that the temperature in the room right now is 28° Celsius? It's not particularly comfortable without air conditioning...


The once-lost Arabian city of Ubar, centre of the Frankincense trade some five thousand years ago, was located a few years ago by using satellite imagery. Satellites are very good at picking up things that would be imperceptible on the ground. But there was a story at the weekend that pushed the bounds of credibility a considerable distance. Yes, someone's claiming that the lost city of Atlantis has been found off the Spanish coast. Hmmm - Anyone remember the spy satellite photos that purported to show Noah's Ark a while back?


Saturday's Astronomy Picture of the Day (or APOD for short) featured mammatus clouds. Think of another word that begins with the same four letters and yes, you've got a fairly clear idea of why these peculiar formations acquired their peculiar name. This is an amazing shot, though - it looks more like a sky that's escaped from one of Stephen Spielberg's movies than something real. Enjoy.


But the law obviously hadn't heard of the Clash. There's a great story doing the rounds today about a Bristolian guitarist who answered a knock at his front door to be confronted by a police officer bearing a printout of SMS message he'd sent (an interesting fact in itself) containing words associated with terrorism. The officer "looked somewhat embarrassed" when told that the message was the text of lyrics to a Clash song - Tommy Gun - that was intended to be sent to the band's bassist...


Ornithologists have long known that birds have regional accents - birdsong from the same species, recorded in different parts of the country, sounds different. But this week's press release from Middlesex University uses rather more entertaining language than most academic research papers.

Ducks from London, it appears, speak more roughly than their Cornish cousins. Dr Victoria De Rijke described the difference as being like a Cockney's harsh laugh compared to a fit of Cornish giggling.


Apart from being the transport of choice for almost every hard-gigging pub rock band in the UK, a transit is also an astronomical event where a planet passes in front of the Sun or other bright body. Next Tuesday will (hopefully) let us see a transit of Venus visible from about 75% of the planet. Transits of Venus are quite rare - this is the first for 122 years, but the planet is already getting quite close to the Sun. At the time of writing, you can already see on the SOHO view available here that Venus is creeping in from the left. (As this is a live image, and you're reading this after the event, remember that you won't see the same image I'm talking about.)


What is it about public information leaflets that makes them so immediately recognisable and such a rich subject for satire and spoofs? The latest one doing the rounds by email is one from Satirical webzine The Onion, this one to do with Tornado Safety. Very good, and conveys the usual tone absolutely faithfully - up until about the second sentence...


Well, more soggy June if the truth be told. It got rather chilly during yesterday's Bank Holiday Monday, and yes, it's raining again outside right now. Still, it was nice to see some old friends yesterday: hearty congratulations to Nigel and Susan, who will be getting married in August!


It's that time of year again - the nation gets taken over by a strange obsession, and otherwise rational folk are seized with a fervent desire to watch grown men and women making fools of themselves. No, not press coverage of the Euro 2004 soccer tournament, silly. And no, I'm not even talking about the local elections on June 10th.

No, Channel 4 are running this year's Big Brother contest. A dozen dysfunctional wannabe celebs locked in a house? Sorry, not my scene - but at least this year I have an alternative for you, courtesy of the TV channel UKTV Style: watching paint dry (you'll need Real Player). And you can even vote for what type of paint you want to watch! Don't you just love the Internet?


I used to work at the BT training school in Bletchley Park, which of course was used during World War 2 as the centre of intelligence operations - when it was known as Station X. It was where codebreaking came into its own as a military tool, using embryonic computers to help decrypt messages enciphered using the German Enigma machine. It was nice to see today that Tony Sale's efforts in constructing a replica of Colossus are being publicised ahead of the 60th anniversary of D-Day this week. It's an amazing achievement, as all he had to go on were a few circuit diagrams and three or four photographs.

Bletchley Park is now run as a museum - and worth visiting if you're in the Milton Keynes area.