Blog Rides Again!

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: June 2005

June brought the second anniversary of this blog, together with the start of my hayfever season, massive thunderstorms and the traditional Glastonbury mudbath, together with another failed private space mission and far too much stuff about the latest series of Doctor Who.

On the other hand, I did manage to wean myself off my broadband connection to the point where I actually got out and did stuff outdoors for a change.

ED BISHOP 1932 - 2005

This month we lost another two of my childhood heroes: Ed Bishop and Michael Billington, who played Commander Straker and Paul Foster in the Gerry Anderson series UFO.

Ed Bishop was one of my favourite actors - born in Brooklyn and living over here, he could always be depended upon to play the role of the American in many British film and television productions, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, the James Bond movies You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever, as well as Saturn 3 and even the David Essex vehicle (if you'll forgive the pun) Silver Dream Racer. As well as playing the ultra-cool, white-haired and blue-eyed Ed Straker in Gerry Anderson's TV series UFO, he was also the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson's earlier production, Captain Scarlet.

In the commentary track on the UFO DVD set, he revealed that in one episode he accidentally broke Michael Billington's leg, and production of the series had to be suspended for six weeks.


Michael Billington nearly got the role of James Bond after Sean Connery left. He did end up with a part in The Spy Who Loved Me, and appeared in an extraordinary variety of television shows ranging from Hart to Hart and Fantasy Island right through to The Professionals and the BBC's 1972 production of War and Peace.

It's as Colonel Paul Foster in Gerry Anderson's series UFO that I will remember him. He played the outsider who is drawn in to the mysterious world of SHADO, and as a small child I wanted to be a part of that world, too.

The world will seem a smaller, less exciting place without both of these fine actors.


So, it's the G8 conference next week, and this weekend Bob Geldof and Midge Ure are hoping to raise awareness of global poverty so that the richer nations can do something about it. But is this really the most important issue that faces humanity at the moment? I don't believe it is. To be honest, I think that unless we do something about climate change it won't matter how rich or poor everybody is, we'll all be in big trouble. This year, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy are already worried about having enough water to go round, people are dying from the heat, and the Summer's hardly got under way.

So what has Tony Blair decided? Well, it seems he's made up his mind that it's not worth bothering Mr Bush at the conference about his refusal to sign the Kyoto Agreement. "There is no point in setting a task that is not achievable," he told the Associated Press. I hope it's not the case, but I have the dreadful feeling that that may turn out the be the worst decision a British Prime Minister has ever made.


I mentioned this earlier in the week over at Linkbunnies, but it bears repeating here - an American company has created an android of the science fiction author Philip K Dick. It's been constructed by Hanson Robotics, and there's a little bit more information about the thing here and another picture here.

Amongst other things, Dick wrote Second Variety, which was filmed as Screamers but was really the precursor to the Terminator movies, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was the basis of the film Blade Runner. It's rather ironic that the writer who gave us some of the most thought-provoking stories about robots and androids should one day reappear as an android himself. I wonder if PKD's android will be plugging the film of A Scanner Darkly when it comes out next year?


So, it appears the UK now has its first Jedi Member of Parliament. Have a look at Hansard's record of the first line of Jamie Reed, the Labour MP for Copeland's maiden speech.


Oh dear. The school holidays have started in the US and by a strange coincidence I've started seeing about 50% more rubbish in the inbox to my email account. Could these two facts be related? Is the global spam epidemic really down to bored American kids (or their teachers) trying to make a fast buck?


What I want to know is: is the world really ready for a 110,000 Volt taser cannon?


At last - after er, "discussions" lasting for 18 months, agreement has finally been reached on where to site the International Thermonuclear Experimantal Reactor (ITER) Nuclear Fusion project, and it's going to be built in France. Now maybe we can get on with developing a clean and almost limitless source of energy and start working towards a better future...


On the other hand, with virtually limitless energy and science gone wild, what headlines could we be waking up to in 50 years or so? The folks over at The Onion have a few ideas...


Rob's just started his second week working in the office on work experience, and he seems to be enjoying it. This seems to be the case with most students, but the scheme is not without its problems. Did you know that by next year, the government wants every student to have completed 10 days' work experience before they leave school? That's a lot of places to find for people.


Specifically, one in which you can easily dodge your opponent's bullets by jumping five meters in the air and landing behind his back. Welcome to the Desert of the Real.


I've been working through my album collection over the past few years and gradually getting CD copies of my favourite vinyl treasures. This week it was the turn of a couple of Ozzy Osbourne's albums, Blizzard of Ozz and Bark at the Moon. I got a good price for the "remastered" versions online at and sat down at the weekend to listen to them.

Then I recoiled in horror. They sound awful.

I was pretty sure I'd never have been such an Ozzy fan when I was younger if I'd been listening to crap like I was hearing coming out of my speakers. What was going on? I refused to believe that my hearing or sense of musical taste had changed that much, so something was clearly afoot. After a brief investigation online, I found out the awful truth. Ozzy and his missus had fallen out with his original drummer and bassist so badly that he'd had the albums re-recorded with new drums and new bass. What a precious little berk!

They're not "remasters" at all: they're abominations.

They are utterly, profoundly dreadful. Real, in-your-face, this-isn't-the-album-I-remember 100% certified disasters. If I'd known all this last week, there's no way I'd have bought them. As it is, I'm contemplating sending them back and asking for a refund. If you're reading this, I hope I can save you the anguish I had to go through.

And I won't be buying another album from Mister Osbourne. Ever.


Well, it's a nice evening this evening, but we had tremendous storms on Friday with the usual rather predictable effect at Glastonbury. I'm sure you saw the pictures. One of my colleagues got some pictures from a camera phone at the site on Friday afternoon and we were wondering how long it would take for a cholera outbreak, things looked that bad. Luckily the weather improved and today has been wonderful.


I've been bringing myself up to date with films over the last week, and I've put reviews of two of the latest online. I saw Batman Begins and Sin City this week and while I enjoyed both films I'm surprised to be saying that it was the Batman movie that got a five star review.


There's just no doubt about it: the prize has to go to Yahoo for their story bearing the startling headline Giant Popsicle Melts, Floods New York Park.


Venus, Mercury and Saturn are getting together at the weekend for an intimate meeting. These three planets will be so close together in the western sky just after sunset that you will be able to cover them up with your thumb held at arm's length. I had a look last night, but I was too late to see anything. All the same, it was a very pleasant evening.

Uk.sci.astronomy's Pete Lawrence was luckier - he spent his evening on the beach down at Selsey taking pictures. As well as photographs of the impending conjunction, he photographed the Green Flash at sunset and even got pictures of some noctilucent clouds. Once again, nice one, Pete!


I use Mozilla's Firefox browser for my web surfing at home, as I much prefer it to IE. A lot of other people feel the same way, as it's now got 8% of the web browser market. You shouldn't have any problems surfing my site with Firefox, but it looks like other websites don't do as well in catering for Firefox users.

So you thought the idea of the HTML standard was so that it would work with any browser? Far from it. In fact, 3% of the UK websites in the survey mentioned in the article above wouldn't even let you in unless you're using Internet Exploder, despite the fact that it's Microsoft's browser that uses non-standard functions to do what it does.


It looks like the Cosmos 1 solar sailer has gone adrift, and may not have reached orbit. What a shame.


Well, it's that time of year again, and here in the South West, the motorways are already dotted with vehicles that look a little more exotic than usual. Yes, the Glastonbury Festival got under way at 10:00 this morning, and the hippies are on the move.


How things change. Cabinet secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull said this week that as long as civil service staff looked smart they needn't wear a tie any more. Good for him; in the company I work for, ties haven't been required for a couple of years, and my extensive collection now languishes in the wardrobe, unused. There's a nice article in the Guardian today by Geordie Grieg, editor of the Tatler, paying tribute to the tie - but in reading about the history of the thing I found myself wondering why we ever started to wear such a strange item of clothing in the first place.


There were lots of silly things going on at Stonehenge this morning. Yes, it's the Summer solstice.

Where I live, this took place at 07:46 this morning. Of course it means that the days will start to get shorter again now, but the weather at the moment is lovely.


If all goes well this evening, the Planetary Society's prototype solar sailer spacecraft will be launched on a missile fired by a Russian submarine. I don't think the Planetary Society were prepared for the amount of attention that the mission is getting - the official mission website has been very sluggish all day, and I'm sure it's not just due to thousands of people downloading the pdf files to make their very own model of the spacecraft.

A solar sail is the ultimate science fiction geek concept - a spacecraft that uses the pressure of light from the Sun for acceleration. Sunlight may not give you much of a push, but the energy is free and it keeps coming and keeps coming. As a result, the solar sail doesn't run out of fuel, so it can keep accelerating. The press releases suggest that every day, a solar sail could increase its speed by 100 km/h, which means that it could get to the orbit of Pluto in five years or so, much more quickly than a conventionally powered rocket.

And, of course, if it keeps going further it will continue to speed up, although the light intensity drops off as an inverse square of the distance from the Sun so the rate of acceleration will decrease. All the same, imagine the scientific data we could gather from a fleet of probes that could travel that far that quickly.


Sometimes, however, the pursuit of knowledge can founder on rockier shores, especially when encouraged to do so by people with far too much time on their hands. For instance, you could visit a rather amusing spoof of the Wikipedia website called the Uncyclopedia. Just don't expect to learn anything - except, perhaps, that some people have a very peculiar sense of humour.


...quite a weekend. The twins went to see Green Day at the Milton Keynes Bowl with some friends, and they couldn't really have picked a better day to go. Their overall verdict? "Best... gig...ever!" However, they did say that, despite glittering reviews in the Guardian, Hard-Fi got a very hostile reaction from the audience: their set lasted just 15 minutes as they were booed off stage. The twins thought that Taking Back Sunday were a bit of a disappointment, too. Ruth pointed out that if you're going to do the traditional rock antics involving wrapping the microphone lead round your neck, it's not very cool to hit yourself in the face with the mic. Quite. The singer was subjected to further ridicule for going on about how cotton irritated his skin - obviously the rock and roll lifestyle isn't what it used to be. Nevertheless, Ruth and Rob reckoned that both Jimmy Eat World and Green Day themselves were well worth going to see. Apparently the fireworks were very good, too.


In the meantime, Rebecca and I walked down to the Wok's Hall restaurant, and had a very nice Chinese meal. Much crispy seaweed and deep fried squid was consumed, and jolly good it was too. Going there is beginning to become a habit, and I don't have a problem with that at all. When we got back home, we switched on the BBC's documentary about Live Aid and fell asleep on the sofa. I don't think either of us would have been doing much rocking out at the Bowl.


And, of course, there was Saturday's final episode of Doctor Who. Bad Wolf turned out to be the Tardis, acting through Rose. It was a great episode, but I thought the conclusion was a bit rapid. In particular I felt rather cheated by the Deus Ex Machina ending, where the Daleks were wiped out with little more than a flutter of Ms. Piper's eyelashes. Sadly the episode also saw the end of Christopher Eccleston's role as the Doctor. Still, the regeneration was well done and Tennant's first line of "Hello! I kept - mph - new teeth. That's weird." was funny and promising.

The downside is that we now have to wait until Christmas for the next episode. Still, after today the evenings start drawing in so it won't be that long...


I don't normally post links to academic papers, but if you've ever watched a meteor shower and wondered how we get such spectacular events, this pdf file of a paper by Dr. Peter Jenniskens of the International Astronomical Union and Esko Lyytinen, an amateur astronomer from Finland, makes for fascinating reading. It seems that the break up of comets can cause really spectacular showers, and the authors have tracked events (some of them happening as long ago as the 19th century) responsible for meteor showers observed decades later. It's a particuarly interesting point, given that NASA is about to fly a probe into the comet Tempel 1 on the 4th of July.


It seems that the latest thinking on time travel is that, because you currently exist, you can't travel back in time to prevent your existence because you obviously haven't been able to. In other words, the universe will ensure that if you *do* manage to travel back in time, events will conspire to make the future (i.e. our present) turn out as it already has done, because you already will have travelled back from the future. Or something. Ask Doc Brown to explain it - I have a headache.


Goodness me, NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day site is ten years old today. It's one of my regular stops on my travels around the web, and if you're interested in the space program or astronomy there's usually something interesting worth catching. Today's picture is a spoof of a couple of famous paintings by the Dutch painter Vermeer.


Another science fiction theme becomes a reality - sort of. A robot ran a little bit out of control in a hospital in San Francisco. The Register has taken this as further proof that We're All Doomed.


No Harrier tonight, but a Tornado went over in the same direction at about the same height. It's obviously a busy week up there.


Well, it's good to see that the latest kidnap victim has been released safe and sound - even if it did lose a plunger in the process.

AND TODAY'S DR WHO REFERENCE IS... my parent's home town in Norfolk. The town of Holt has a new business, trading as Planet Skaro; they will be offering a range of BBC licensed products for sale. Mum and Dad's local paper had a very nice picture of a shiny red dalek on the cover. Here's the same Dalek in the Eastern Daily Press's article.


The Paris Air Show got under way today and the A380 is very definitely the star of the first day. Meanwhile, I got a bit of an air show of my own on the way home - a Harrier shot through the village at about 200 ft as I was coming down the hill. He wasn't hanging about, either.


Today's APOD isn't exactly an astronomy picture, but it's still very impressive. It's a picture of a tornado taken through a rainbow by Eric Nguyen of Oklahoma University. I think I'd have been heading in the opposite direction.


How about that? I've just gone an entire week without using the Internet, and to be honest I feel great. I definitely need more exercise, but at least this week on a few occasions I managed to get some. Hopefully I'll continue to work on my fitness levels, but I will be surfing this week, so I should be updating things here from time to time.


So: Bad Wolf turned out to be the Daleks. Or did it?


If you were watching Doctor Who on Saturday night, you'll have noticed that Bad Wolf was explicitly mentioned for the first time - only for the subject to be dropped abruptly, in a distinctly odd fashion. The website I linked to just now was registered by the BBC on November 30th last year, so the whole deal has been carefully arranged. As a way of prefiguring something on the show, it's obviously been hugely successful. The closest parallel I can think of is the way the low-budget movie The Blair Witch Project was promoted on the web. It's fair to say that the film would not have been the success it was without a strong word-of-mouth promotion on the Internet. It's been a while since anyone tried it (the last example I can think of was the fake websites and answering machine messages used to promote Steven Spielberg's film AI) but the BBC's attempt looks like being very successful. After all, you're reading this, aren't you?

As things stand, we seem to be none the wiser, apart from the fact that next week's episode is called Bad Wolf, and it features the Daleks. Fantastic, as the man himself would say. But are they the Bad Wolf or not? If the Big Bad is the Daleks (with a heavy insistence on the plural), surely all the references would be to Bad Wolves?


A bit of good news this weekend - the folks at JPL have managed to get the Mars rover Opportunity out of the sand dune it's been stuck in for the last month and a bit. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's front page has a lovely picture of the tracks Opportunity is leaving as it heads off for a new destination, and they're a very welcome sight.


Given the size of the blog in recent months, I've decided I'm spending far too much time sitting in front of the computer in the evenings. My sister has been staying with me for the weekend and this afternoon we got out for a great walk around the village with her children.

Despite the light rain, the top of my head got quite sunburnt. I was surprised - but there again, it is only a couple of weeks until Midsummer's Day. I loved tramping through the fields listening to a bewildering variety of birdsong, and it made me realise that I should be getting more exercise than I have been doing. This month, therefore, I've resolved to get out and about a bit more. As a result you might not see as many blog entries, but hopefully I'll be a bit fitter.


The electro funksters from Switzerland have to get a mention today, because their track 3rd of June from the album Flag is one of my favourites: "This is the 3rd of June, 1988. A highly unimportant day..."


The most amazing thing I think I've seen in the news this week is the report that Eurocopter have managed to fly one of their Ecureil (Squirrel) helicopters up Mount Everest and land on the summit. I've even managed to find video of the event. You can't get a higher altitude landing than that.


You've no doubt heard that familiar sound before. It means that someone's mobile phone has just received an SMS text message. But did you know that their phone is actually spelling out the Morse Code for "SMS"? In an ironic twist, it turns out that in a recent face-off on the Jay Leno show on American television, people using Morse beat the pants off people sending SMS messages. Just think: you'd only need one key to send all your texts if you knew Morse.

If you're not versed in Morse Code, don't worry - there's an online resource that will convert your messages from English into Morse and back again.


Every year on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, our heroine would have to face an enemy who was much stronger than the usul mix of bad guys. They were so bad, in fact, that they would survive to fight again in more than one episode. Referred to as "The Big Bad" even by characters within the series, there would be an evil and deadly foe to be faced down and eventually dealt with in a satisfying manner - usually in the season finale. It's a great plot device, even if it's hardly original, and of course it's still being used. If you've been watching the new series of Doctor Who with more than a passing interest, you've probably noticed a number of references to Bad Wolf cropping up.

From the amount of times the phrase has been seen or heard, it's obviously foreshadowing events in an upcoming episode. One of my colleagues has a model Dalek on his desk, and I noticed today that it's now proudly carrying a placard bearing the phrase. So people have noticed, and are talking about it, but what does it all mean? There's a fair bit of analysis going on, and the best makes for some entertaining reading. The most popular theory seems to be that the Doctor is not exactly what he seems - and may not even be who he says he is. My own theory is that the Doctor is in serious danger - and that the rest of the Universe is trying to warn him, in a vaguely Douglas Adams-ish kind of way.

After all, Who's afraid of the big bad wolf can be read as a statement, as well as a question.

As there are only a few episodes left for this series, we may find out what it all means fairly soon - or we may not. After all, J Michael Straczynski worked stuff into the plot of early episodes of Babylon 5 that didn't pay off until years later (I'm thinking of the Sinclair and Londo story arcs in particular, but aficionados will realise there are many others.) Although it might be frustrating if the issue isn't resolved soon, I would actually be very impressed. If this sort of long-term plotting is being laid down in Doctor Who, it bodes well for a continuing high-quality production. And Russell T Davies seems to have enough of a handle on things to make it possible. We'll have to see.


Tiffany Murray writes up the Hay-on-Wye festival in the Guardian today, and things start off by discussing all things Douglas Adams. Hay sounds an amazing place to be right now. Where else could you see Debbie Harry sharing a chocolate cake with P. D. James, get Bob Geldof and Sting to pop in for a quick chat about Live 8, and hear Temple Grandin (the Grauniad gets her name wrong) explaining what she's been up to recently? (You can find out in this week's issue of the New Scientist, incidentally.)

I also see in the Guardian that the Turner Prize shortlist has been announced. Good lord, it's almost a traditionalist selection this year. The BBC have pictures of work by the finalists, and there's no elephant dung to be seen - in fact this year the most contentious entry appears to be a chap who installs digital clocks in unexpected places. What's come over them?

More importantly, I notice that this year the prize is sponsored by Gordon's Gin, which makes me think it's about time I went and got a G&T. Have a good evening.


And yes, I do mean that song from Walt Disney's film of the Jungle Book. The day's scariest story has to be the results of a study by Swiss scientists, revealing that people dosed with a chemical called oxytocin put more trust in the people they dealt with than people who didn't receive the drug. The article suggested that politicians could spray their audiences with oxytocin to get a favourable reaction. "Could"? I'd put money on it.


Is it just me, or has Amazon really gone downhill recently? These days, when I order something from them, it takes months to arrive. Each of the last few orders I've placed with them has included at least one thing that never arrived.

For instance, last year I ordered the album Thursday Afternoon by Brian Eno from them, and after a wait of several months they sent me that "sorry, the item you ordered is not available" email. Yet this week I noticed that they've put the very same album in my "Hello Chris, we have recommendations for you" page when I log in. Is that mad or what? Even when they report something as being in stock, the estimated delivery date seems to be several weeks away. Luckily, have started to sell books, and their service has always been first rate (stuff usually turns up in a couple of days - apart from an album by Thomas Koner that I ordered last August which I'm still waiting for.)

Sorry Amazon, but you're going to have to get your act together if you want to win back my business.


For one reason or another, this month my normal easy-going nature (hah!) seems to have been replaced by something approaching the Terminator in its capacity for humour, mirth and relaxation. I've been suffering with some form of bug for most of the last week which has left me aching all over. I've not been sleeping well and as a result I'm listless, tired and irritable. Yes, it looks like I'm definitely in full-on grumpy old man mode this month. Not only have I thrown a strop over a number of things in the news this week, I've also taken to tinkering about with old bits and pieces in an attempt to get them working again - a sure sign of grumpiness.

For example, I spent ten minutes last weekend replacing the AA battery in my copy of the Pink Floyd album Pulse. It hadn't worked for several years, but I can now report that it's flashing away merrily once again. On the plus side of things, I was pleased to discover during my search for instructions in replacing the battery that a DVD of the Pulse concert is due out later this year. That'll be one for the collection; I still rate Pink Floyd as the best band I have ever seen live.

I cheered myself up this evening by watching another great concert DVD: the Complex tour by the Blue Man Group. Very funny seeing three blue guys taking a decidedly postmodern approach to The Rock Concert, and slipping in the occasional dig at Ozzy Osbourne in the process.


As you've no doubt already seen, the ASA has rejected 1,671 complaints about KFC's latest advert - the one where call centre staff burst into song while eating. That's the most complaints they've ever received for a single ad, but unfortunately the fact that it's the most irritating crap we've seen on TV for years isn't sufficient to get it taken off the air.

I came across another piece of happy news today: Ofcom says it's going to "reconsider" allowing product placement on British TV. Dear God, No! Given what a mess Alex Proyas's film iRobot was (it featured some of the most shameless product placement I've ever seen) this does not bode well.


You'll probably come across the name of Comet Catalina in the news in the next few days, as the New Scientist are running a story today about there being a slight chance of it hitting Earth in 2085.

Although the New Scientist must have got their information from the Near Earth Object (NEO) program, the news there hasn't even made the NEO website's front page. In fact the NASA report there rates it as zero on the Torino scale, so it's not being classified as much of a threat at all. Looks like the New Scientist got rather carried away this time. Just as well, really: as the comet is estimated to be nearly a kilometre across, it would make quite a mess.