The Blog Rides Out

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: June 2007

Not too many entries this month, as Demon's "enhancements" to my webspace meant that I couldn't actually get at it for a week.

I met one of my heroes this month, the designer Luigi Colani. He turned out to be a really nice chap, and he's still a real live wire at the age of 79.


I know I've come late to the party, but this week I set myself up with a presence in Second Life. Believe it or not, this was primarily motivated by work - SL is becoming a very popular venue for holding training events. Needless to say, my system at work won't run SL at all, so I had to install it and use it on my home system instead.

If you've not come across Second Life, it's an enormous virtual world where people meet online. It's most definitely not a game; think of it more as an alternative environment where you can meet friends, buy land, build a house or a car, and generally act out day to day existence - with the added advantage that you can fly, or teleport from place to place at the click of a mouse button.

SL is also not the World Wide Web - it's more an immersive version of the Internet, and it's not a million miles away from the cyberspaces envisioned decades ago by such writers as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. Even after a very brief wander around the environment, I found myself identifying Gibson and Stephenson references all over the place - there are even posters advertising Mr Lee's Greater Hong Kong, although rather than being a corporate nation enclave, this version is a games site. There are more formal corporate presences in SL, too - you can visit the Nike store, or your avatar can try on a new pair of Reeboks. The social networking side of things is huge: think of it as a walk-in version of MySpace. If you want to find out a bit more there's a fairly good Business Week overview of SL which discusses the main features and possible trends.

However, once the weekend got under way I put the practicalities of work to one side and headed over to Secondfest, a virtual music festival sponsored by The Guardian newspaper and Intel. They've got some fairly big names appearing over the weekend, and I'm particularly looking forwards to the Cinematic Orchestra's set this evening at 6pm BST. It's all free, there's no mud, and you can come and go as you please without getting stuck in the car park. Even the toilets are spotless.

I'm particularly pleased to note that by clicking on one of the signs in the virtual arena your avatar becomes an extremely talented dancer and starts grooving away with everyone else in the crowd until you click on another sign to stop. For someone with two left feet like me, this is an extremely attractive feature. Forget all the technological achievements behind everything - the fact that I can now moonwalk has got me I'm hooked.


So, HMV have announced that their profits have halved because people are changing the way they buy and listen to music. I sympathise, but this really shows that music companies need to seriously reconsider their business models; adapt, or die. I was pleased to hear that some companies have already got together to discuss what could be done. For customers, that could be a very good thing.

Because there is a way forwards for the music business, it's just they don't appear to have recognised it yet. The secret is in what Chris Anderson of Wired calls The Long Tail, where sales of products from the bottom end of the popularity curve are what generate a sizable chunk of a company's revenue. Anderson's original article on the long tail in Wired suggested that got 57% of its revenue from products that aren't available in book stores. This figure was subsequently revised downwards, but even so it's accepted that the long tail still makes up between a quarter and a third of Amazon's book business. That's a fairly serious amount of revenue. Do you think HMV would like a way to increase their business by that sort of figure? I do.

The problem is that the long tail approach is a complete reversal of the current music industry business model. At present, record companies concentrate on their "top acts" and make money by selling huge quantities of tracks by a small number of artists. If an artist drops outside that zone, they're usually dropped. This, of course, is ultimately bad for consumers as choice becomes more and more restricted and quality drops through the floor in favour of what's safe, or what's the fad of the moment. You've only got to listen to the dross being played on the radio to appreciate that - and once an album stops selling in large numbers it's "deleted" so that it becomes completely impossible to buy any more. The beauty of the long tail approach is that all those deleted albums would still be out there for us. Don't bother pressing albums, let the consumers do that. Just make them available as downloads. If the record companies adopted this approach, we'd be able to get our hands on all that obscure old material that we meant to buy when it came out but never got round to it. And as people are now used to buying stuff via downloads, it's not as if it requires a major cultural change to take place to make it a success. Going by Amazon's example, the music industry could increase revenues by 25% as a conservative estimate, just by adopting the long tail.

Open up all those deleted albums as music downloads, and watch your long tail sales flow in. And while you're at it, why not offer us the original sleeves to go with the CDs we burn? The advent of rapid, custom printing from companies such as (I've just ordered another 100 cards from them) means that, for a reasonable price, HMV and their fellows can sell me a properly printed sleeve for the album I've downloaded and burned.

Wouldn't it be great to get hold of all those records that were never released on CD? Let's just reiterate the advantage of this one more time, just in case it hasn't sunk in: we could get hold of all those LPs that we've been unable to buy in stores. I have quite a want list of albums I'm unable to buy, but at the moment, companies like HMV don't seem to want my money. If things continue as they are, that is going to have to change.


Boing Boing is always a good site for interesting diversions, and it's one of the few websites that I tend to visit every day. I particularly enjoyed one of the recent sites they highlighted, about Tim Knowles's latest art project, Spy Box. It recorded a parcel's journey through the British postal system by taking a digital photograph every ten seconds. It's all there, from queueing up at the Post Office to making the final delivery. I'm just amazed that the artist didn't get himself arrested. I bet this wouldn't have happened in America.


It looks like Genndy Tartakovsky might be making a Samurai Jack movie! Woot! Er, as they say on receipt of such news, apparently.


It's been a rather wet weekend down here, particularly last night when we got some very heavy rain. As a result, the roads were liberally covered with water this morning. There was an abandoned Transit sticking out of a hedge at Leyhill when I went in to work, and the local radio in Bristol was asking anyone with a tractor to spare if they wouldn't mind going down to Glastonbury and help pull cars out of the car park.

The festival coverage on the TV over the weekend was a much more comfortable way of seeing the main acts, and I was particularly impressed by Kasabian, The Killers and The Kooks. No, I can't explain why all three bands have names that begin with the letter K. Elsewhere, Bjork was as eccentric and marvellous as ever; Shirley Bassey looked incongruous but sounded amazing; Arcade Fire, in the words of an awestruck Zane Lowe, "threw everything at the wall to see what would stick," and Rufus Wainwright narrowly edged out CSS for the most interesting satorial statement of the event. Iggy Pop's performance looked like chaos on wheels and at least one review described it as total havoc. He ended up with several hundred people on the main stage to the obvious displeasure of the security staff, who looked like they were about to kneecap him. But the best report of the weekend's goings-on that I've read so far has to be the one from Charlie Brooker.

Mr B can be grumpy at the best of times, but the prospect of setting him down in a tent surrounded by a sea of hippies wading through an ocean of mud sounded like a sure-fire way of really getting him going and he doesn't disappoint, annoyance reaching a peak on Saturday when he gave up, headed for a local cottage and had a bath. After that things seem to have picked up, which just goes to show what an event Glastonbury can be: we should therefore remember this year's do as the One Where Even Charlie Enjoyed Himself.


I already mentioned this over at Linkbunnies, but it appears here too just in case you missed it. A big hand, please, for Greg Ercolano, who was watching the "slitscan" sequence made by Douglas Trumbull for Stanley Kubrick's classic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey and decided to write a computer program to unwrap the images back into their original format.

I'd recognised that one image used airport runway lights, and ever since I'd assumed that the other graphics used would have a similar origin, Instead, there are photos of mineral crystals taken in polarised light, and what appear to be pictures of coral. I hope he does more; the sequence lasts a few minutes, so there's probably a lot more material to be seen. Fascinating stuff.


So, you're not going to Glastonbury either? To be honest, looking at the weather outside my window down here in the West Country this evening, I'm really glad I'm going to be staying indoors. It's chucking it down at the moment, and news reports tonight say that the main pathways at Worthy Farm are already covered in several inches of mud. Lovely.


Blimey. One of the people filming a role in the next series of Torchwood is James Marsters.

Yup. The American actor with the most convincing English accent I have ever heard, best known as Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wonder if he's ever seen the show? From the fact that he's agreed to appear in it, I'd guess not. He might get an impression of what it entails by reading the Guardian's article:

"Along with ITV's Primeval, Torchwood is currently the only other sci-fi show we have, and it still doesn't qualify for a place in the top three."

True - but then, neither does Primeval which, apart from the fact that it had Hannah from S Club 7 in it, was unrelentingly dreadful. The basic conclusion of the Guardian article is that either Joss Whedon should write Torchwood, or that Torchwood's writers should start writing like Joss Whedon.

That got me thinking, because even if the article was written that way as journalistic hyperbole, there's more than a grain of truth to what is being said. Science fiction likes to think that it doesn't follow rules, but there's a lot of good science fiction out there which revolves around a single question: "what if?" The interesting writers explore logic and consequences, they extrapolate current trends, and they think about what might happen - or might have happened - given a few tweaks to our current universe. And then they can pull a fast one on you. Just read the following paragraph, written by Philip K Dick about his short story, Precious Artifact:

"First you have Y. Then you do a cybernetics flipflop and you have null-Y. Okay, now you reverse it again and you have null-null-Y. Okay, the question is: Does null-null-Y equal Y? Or is it a deepening of null-Y? In this story, what appears to be the case is Y but we find out the opposite is true (null-Y). But then that turns out not to be true, so are we back to Y? [...] Either I've invented a whole new logic or, ahem, I'm not playing with a full deck."

How many TV shows have writers these days who talk like that? What proportion of media graduates would even understand what he's going on about? Why aren't there more writers working in television (at the moment, the only names who spring to mind are Joe Straczynski and Joss Whedon) who have the intellectual firepower to come up with stories that challenge and expand our imaginations, rather than switching them off? Why does the phrase "adult themes" these days only mean that, like Torchwood, the programme you are about to watch contains sex and/or violence?

In other words, why aren't there more shows that treat us like intelligent grown-ups?


Indy's back!


Have you ever seen the film Primer? It's a gem of a movie, a science fiction flick about time travel that plays far better than it should, given the meagre budget that it was made for. It's one of those films, like Donnie Darko, which needs to be watched many times. Even then it requires concentration and thought. See? there are writers out there who can still hack it!

Thanks, then, to Daveybot from Palimpsest, who pointed me at a site with explanations of the timelines in the film. Note: the html version of the page crops the jpg at the bottom, so if your browser can read the Visio version, I'd look at that.

I'm still not sure I completely get what happens, but I'm not as confused as I was after the first time I watched it.


It's probably a sign of my age, but when ATMs stopped issuing five pound notes a few years ago, I felt a real tinge of sadness. Even today, I'd much rather have four fivers than a twenty pound note. In recent years, the humble fiver has become less and less common, and today I found out that this isn't because the Bank of England isn't making so many; it's because high street banks don't want to stock them. As a result, the ones that are in circulation are usually grubby and tattered. I was amazed to read in the article that the average amount withdrawn from an ATM these days is a hundred quid - I'd be very uncomfortable carrying that much money around with me - so I understand that using fivers in ATMs would mean they needed to be filled up all the time. But there are other ways to keep the fiver in circulation. I can see where all this is going - the banks manipulate the supply so that eventually the fiver is deemed so "unpopular" that it's taken out of circulation. That would be a shame, so I hope that moves to encourage the use of the five pound note are successful.

I can't believe I just wrote a blog entry complaining about the supply of five pound notes. Even for me, that's stretching it a bit. If you want an example of quintessential Britishness, I humbly offer the paragraph above as an example. I can't believe any other culture would be in the slightest bit interested in the production of banknotes. Ah well; it's their loss.


Because they've lost one in Chile. A lake in the south of the country has gone missing since it was last checked in March. Judging by the weather we've been having in this country, it's probably decided to come over here for the summer.


Oh to live in Calgary, Alberta. Because then I could go and see the exhibition that the Uppercase Gallery is putting on at the moment: The Shatner Show. Yes, it's an entire art gallery full of works inspired by the man who gave us James Tiberius Kirk, William Shatner. Fantastic, and cooler than the coolest thing you can think of. Seriously.


These days, every man and his dog puts a program on his CD so that if the disk is played in a computer, it points the listener in the direction of the band's website. In t'olden days, the convergence of computers and records was a bit less slick. The blog is interesting as well, for it discusses the early career of Chris Sievey, who eventually became Frank Sidebottom (still going strong - he cropped up in this year's Peter Kay comic relief video, if I remember correctly.)


I finally took the plunge this month and downloaded my first music track. I bought the Extra Portions EP that is the current offering from the one and only Mr John Shuttleworth, and obtained four tracks for the princely sum of £1.99. Jolly good they are too: my current favourite is "Two margarines on the go" which you can hear from John's audio page, although the current single, I can't go back to savoury now is also most excellent. Buy a copy and let's put him in the charts!


I saw some cracking pictures of the shuttle launch while my blog was offline. I particularly liked the Shuttle plume photo that was discussed in Snopes and made the NASA's astronomy picture of the day on the 12th.


And finally today, the doors opened on the Glastonbury Festival. The roads south of Bristol were gridlocked from first thing this morning, and we're expecting lots of rain over the next few days. Lovely. I see in the Guardian today that Hard Fi will be appearing - the paper's adoration of the band seems to be somewhat at odds with reality, as they were booed off the stage when they supported Green Day at Milton Keynes a while ago. It just goes to show: don't believe everything you read about them, kids.

But if you're off to Worthy Farm, the best of luck, enjoy yourself - and don't forget to take your wellingtons with you.


As you may have noticed, my blog hasn't been updated for a week. This wasn't by choice. My ISP announced at short notice on the 11th that they were "enhancing" their web servers on the 12th. One of the resulting improvements was that I was completely locked out of my webspace, and I've only just got back in. Judging by posts on by some of Demon's other users, I was lucky: some people found that their entire websites dropped off the Internet, and some are still off the air. Nice, eh?

Demon have been my ISP since March 1994, and when everything works, they're very good - but these days they seem to be completely unable to deal with faults. In the old days, support was provided by enthusiasts who really knew what they were doing. If you told them, "I think this is happening" they'd understand and check it. Most of the time, they'd agree it was the cause of the fault and fix it on the spot. These days, you have to work the support personnel through the tedious and time-consuming diagnostic script they've been told to stick to. I'm afraid that for technical support, running a call centre in Bangalore just isn't good enough.

Anyway. I'm back on the air, so hopefully I can now resume normal service.


As you'll already have realised if you've been looking at my Flickr pictures, I went back to London on Friday for a talk given at the Design Museum by Ross Lovegrove and Luigi Colani. I got to the Museum a couple of hours before the talk, so I bought a sandwich and went outside to sit on the Museum's terrace overlooking the Thames, where a couple of Colani's motorcycles were on display in a big glass tank and which were getting astonished reactions from passers by. After a while, I realised that the distinguished looking gentleman dressed in white sitting at one of the other tables by the tank was Professor Colani himself, so I went over to shake his hand and say hello. He's a lovely chap - and he seemed quite surprised that I'd travelled from as far away as Bristol to attend; when he began his talk, he made a point of thanking me for travelling so far!

Inside the Museum, things got under way, as girls dressed in a sort of 1960s version of 21st century fashion performed dance routines to Motown classics. They were pretty good, too, despite having to wear white wigs and plastic visors which looked very hot - and it had been a muggy old day.

The main event consisted of a dialogue between Professor Colani and Ross Lovegrove, who is one of the UK's leading designers. He got a big laugh when he stood up to talk, as he blocked the light from the projector so he was standing in front of us:

Colani on Lovegrove

Quite appropriate to begin with the word "Colani" in glowing green letters emblazoned on your chest! The talk touched on the design of chairs, washbasins, bicycles, aircraft, cars, trucks, and cameras, and I was really sorry when it finished - I could have listened to their conversation for hours.

Lovegrove on Colani

Professor Colani talked us through his design process. Ross sketched out a chair as an example; he'd hardly started when Colani shouted, "It's already wrong!" Colani explained why.

Keeping score

Colani explained that design has to focus on how an object is used. The purpose of a chair is to be sat on; Ross's sketch had a curved, rather than flat surface, which would make it uncomfortable. With tongue very firmly in cheek, the Professor then noted his and Ross's scores at the top of the flipchart.

It's nice to see that there are still some designers out there who really care and enthuse about what they do - and who create aesthetically pleasing objects that are a delight to use. They are both passionately concerned about the environment: Colani's truck designs achieve a 40 per cent reduction in fuel burn, so why isn't every transport company using them? I'd love a bicycle like the one Ross has designed, too. It's a stunningly beautiful piece of sculpture but I suspect it'd be a bugger to ride in a crosswind.

Full marks to the Design Museum (the other gentleman in the photos above is its director, Deyan Sudjic) for putting on an event like this - if I lived nearer to London I suspect I'd be making a habit of going along to these talks, as next week they have Bill Moggridge and Gillian Crampton-Smith talking about HCI: right up my street. I also hear that they're looking to move the Museum to somewhere a little larger, which is an excellent idea; on Friday night, the place was absolutely rammed, and while the exhibition space they have is well used, more floor space would enable them to put on a permanent exhibit as well.

During the talk, someone asked Professor Colani which sculptor had had the most influence on his own work. I was expecting his answer to be someone like Henry Moore, but he thought for a moment, and then chose Auguste Rodin. That, perhaps, is part of Colani's secret - his designs are based on the traditional, hand-crafted approach (he doesn't use computers), and like Rodin, he's a true artist when it comes to the creation of form. He's also very much his own person - iconoclast, maverick, and forthright: a couple of modern designs by others were discussed, and he was scathing about them. On the other hand, he told me how wonderful he thought Bristol cars were.

Coincidentally, I was looking at the work of one of Britian's modern sculptors earlier in the day. I went to the Hayward Gallery to see Antony Gormley's Blind Light exhibition. I've already blogged about the Event Horizon installation which spreads across much of the South Bank, but this time I got to interact with Blind Light itself. It's an unusual experience, to say the least - you enter a perspex box filled with a glowing, white fog that is so thick that you can't see your own knees. It's a disorienting experience, slightly unsettling, and profoundly different to the rest of Gormley's works. I was really impressed, although the impact of the piece is slightly diminished by the frequent fits of coughing coming from the other people inside the box!

I called in at my brother's place as I'd left my car there, then drove back to the village. It was nearly midnight when I got on the motorway, but I was surprised how busy the roads were even at that time on a Saturday morning. The M4 didn't really get quiet until I'd got past Swindon, and it was after 2am when I got home. I didn't mind at all - that was one of the best days off I've had in a long time.


One of my favourite films is the 1950s science fiction epic, Forbidden Planet. The action takes place on the fourth planet

"orbiting the great main sequence star, Altair."

A main sequence star is one like our sun, where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees through nuclear fusion. But Altair is an interesting star, because it turns out that it spins sixty times faster than our sun. In fact, it spins so fast that centrifugal force makes its equator bulge out further from its centre than the poles do. It was predicted that the equator would therefore cool off and appear darker than the poles, and now astronomers from the University of Michigan have actually been able to take a detailed photograph of the star which shows that this effect actually happens.

It's the first time that anyone's been able to image surface features on a star other than our sun, and although Altair doesn't look quite as photogenic as it did in Forbidden Planet, it's a stunning achievement.


My Flickr photostream has now been viewed more than 14,000 times, which I think is pretty amazing, even if an awful lot of those people just came looking for pictures of daleks. I took a few more photos over the weekend, but ended up sneezing so much that I had to give up and head for home. Whatever it is that I'm sensitive to, it's fairly obvious my hay fever season is under way.

Did you know that the pollen count is the number of grains of pollen that can be found in a cubic metre of air? I didn't - somehow, knowing it makes the sneezing a little more bearable. I think I'll be doing a lot of sneezing today, too: the pollen forecast is high for the next few days.


I've never seen the appeal of racking up a two or three thousand pound bar bill. Perhaps it's because I can think of better things to spend that sort of money on, or perhaps it's because I'd have to be pretty stupid to even try it on my income. So I was amazed to read a story on the BBC News website today that reveals how, for some people, a simple lack of money isn't going to stop them getting hooked on a champagne lifestyle. It sounds horrendous; I guess I'm just an old fogey at heart. Now, where did I put my mug of Horlicks?