The Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: July 2003

This was the month I really started to enjoy running a blog.


I don't know if you've seen today's news story about the guy who skydived across the English Channel this morning. An impressive feat, but when the BBC pointed out the similarity between his carbon fibre wings and everyone's favourite action figure from Toy Story, I completely lost any sense of admiration for the poor guy. It was all I could do to stop sniggering...


I've just taken the Geek Test. After a brief web search to establish which of the laws of Arthur C Clarke was the third one, I found that my final score was 55.6213%, which gave me a rating of Extreme Geek. After forwarding the link to my friends and colleagues, I've become increasingly alarmed by the fact that my score is more than double that of anyone else I know. Still, I have decided to acknowledge my geekness and not hide the fact any longer. What's the point? Most of my friends are already quite well aware of the fact, especially the ones that know about this website!

What's really worrying me, though, is that if I hadn't been completely honest I would probably have scored even higher...


Yup, the story's still going strong, from New Zealand this time!


Shedloads of stuff to get through today - so let's start off with a doozy:

Back in 1974, Larry Niven, one of my favourite SF writers, wrote a story called The Last Days of the Permanent Floating Riot Club. The basic premise was that, with the advent of fast transport (in his case, teleport booths), people would go to places where something interesting was happening. Lots of people would go. I mean, lots of people. As a result, huge uncontrollable crowds would form. He called this phenomenon a Flash Crowd, and used the term as the title of an even earlier story written in 1973.

The PFRC story took its name from a group of people who specialised in flash crowds, who come unstuck when their creations get out of control. Well, their time has come. Yahoo News ran a story today about a group of people in New York who organise what are effectively Flash Crowd events. They don't call themselves the PFRC, but if I were Larry, I'd be contacting my copyright lawyers...


Interestingly enough, a brief search on the web for the term "flash crowd" reveals that the web has its own equivalent, which has become known as the slashdot effect. If your site gets mentioned on Slashdot, look out: featured pages can get thousands of hits a second, your site collapses under the strain, and your ISP gets severely annoyed.

Let's just think about that for a second, shall we? Thousands of hits per second. And some websites deal with millions of hits a day. Now imagine what the world would be like if we really could teleport anywhere, instantly? As easily as clicking on a hyperlink in your web browser? Turn those thousand hits a second into a thousand bodies trying to get to the same address. Every second. I get the impression that the behaviour in Larry Niven's story would be mild by comparison. Let's hope teleportation is never invented, because given the way folks behave, the world would be nothing like the calm and mannered future portrayed in Star Trek:

Spock: That's interesting, Captain.

Kirk: What? I...




Kirk: You still there, Spock?

Spock: Affirmative, Captain. But as we are currently buried under approximately thirteen point six seven million rubberneckers, there's bugger all we can do to further the plot this week...

Oh, and Niven's term even crops up in the occasional academic paper. Now how's that for kudos as a writer?


The company I work for went over to a five day casual dress code when our encumbent CEO took over. As a result, my collection of ties has languished at the back of my wardrobe for most of the last couple of years. After reading the latest health report this week, I'm really glad about the fact. Ties, it seems, are bad for your health, and can cause glaucoma.

Of course, sitting in an office all day getting no exercise and drinking can after can of sugary drinks may trigger health problems as well, but the tie thing makes a much better headline, so what the heck...


After finding out that the power supply on my modem was hot enough to cook with, I've ditched it and gone back to the humble US Robotics Faxmodem from days of yore. My connection speed instantly improved by 4K. Still not great, but better than it was.


Good lord, it's not often I beat the BBC News website to the punch - but that seems to be what I managed with the Blake's 7 revival. However, somebody pointed out that the story is hardly new - seeing as the BBC ran pretty much the same article on its entertainment website back in 2000.

We can only live in hope that it's as successful this time as it was back then...


I read - with something approaching a sense of horror - that yet another rickety old TV show is being resurrected by a production company with a twisted sense of what constitutes "entertainment." Now, I can deal with retro versions of Doctor Who or Battlestar Galactica, and I positively welcome the renewed interest in the creative genius of Gerry Anderson. After all, it's about to bring us a CGI version of Captain Scarlet, as well as a live action Thunderbirds movie in 2004. But there are times when those wacky folks on the telly should be taken aside and forcibly, er, reasoned with. Especially the folks over at No, I don't care if it's got Paul "Avon" Darrow in it. No, I don't care if it was created by Terry Nation, the man who dreamed up the Daleks, amongst other things. It was crap then, and there's no way it could ever be anything else. Good lord, the only thing worse than this would be to remake V...


The story of Ebenezer Scrooge has inspired many creative activities over the years - my personal favourite being the Bill Murray film Scrooged, which has a truly demented performance by Carol Kane and also features the most improbable set of buskers you could ever hope to see on the street (Miles Davis, David Sanborn, and Larry Carlton). But there's a story in this week's New Scientist magazine about the most creative Scrooge-related endeavour of all: a 1974 CIA report on the nefarious doings of the rather shady-sounding Group of the Martyr Ebenezer Scrooge.

This report was apparently presented to then-President Gerald R. Ford as a Christmas joke, as it concerned threats being made to the incumbent ruler of the North Pole, one S. Claus esq. However, someone in the CIA then appears to have had a sense of humour breakdown, as when the report was eventually released under the Freedom of Information Act, all references to dear old Santa had been censored. Presumably, the group was considered too dangerous for the public to be made aware of them. Unfortunately for the CIA, Mr Ford's library holds an uncensored version, and the rest of the world has now caught on. What the Dickens are they playing at, one might ask...


Another interesting snippet from the Dryden Flight Research Centre today: They've been conducting flight tests involving an F-18 fighter aircraft riding in the wing vortices of a larger aircraft (a DC-8). The savings in fuel are quite considerable: 29%. Flying in formation is highly energy efficient, as any goose or duck will tell you. As NASA says, however, you don't see too many little birds formating on very big ones...


The whole bioengineered glow-in-the-dark fish thing rumbles on apace: now The Australian News is reporting that a consignment of the luminous critters has been confiscated. A bizarre angle from the manufacturer's PR agency, or someone trying to crack down? Who knows...


After spending a couple of days this week away from home, I've come to the conclusion that I need to buy myself a new bed. In two nights at my parents' place I got the best nights sleep I've had all year. Even when I slept on my sister's couch at her place in Norwich I got a better night's sleep than I do at home. Last night, back home, I just couldn't get comfortable, and woke up almost every hour, tired, uncomfortable, and dreading the sound of the radio alarm switching on. I'm a firm believer in the healing and restorative powers of a good night's sleep. Unfortunately, the reason I'm a believer is because I seldom get one. So, I think a visit to the furniture shop is on the cards some time in the next week.


First day back at work today after a few days off to see my folks (it was my Mum's birthday) and it took me over an hour and a half to travel the 15 miles to the office. By the time I got to work I felt knackered. There's a bit of an emerging theme here, as traffic woes seem to be a recurring subject in this blog. They're certainly one of my biggest causes of stress, and today was definitely a candidate for the worst traffic snarl up of the year. So far, anyway - of course there's always the August Bank Holiday Weekend to look forwards to. If you're thinking of moving to the Bristol area my advice is: don't. Stay where you are. Bristol is full.


So much for high speed Internet access. The service I get on my BT line here, just 15 miles from Bristol, stinks. And it gets worse and worse with each passing day. I can forget about ADSL, it's never going to happen, as far as the street I live on is concerned. Most of the time nowadays my dial-up connection can't even sustain a v.90 link. As a company, BT are so crap at data access it's not even worth complaining. After all, contractually, they only have to support a 9600 baud connection. There are no other providers I can go to as an alternative, so there's no motivation to provide a better service. The village doesn't have cable. Makes a bit of a mockery of the UK government's much-vaunted vision of broadband Britain, doesn't it?


For some reason or other, I seem to have Scritti Politti's album Anomie and Bonhomie playing most of the time at the moment. The annoying thing is that Green Gartside and co. aren't exactly what you could call prolific: I mean - only three albums since 1985? I bought this one when it came out, I think I was in Tampa at the time, and spent most of my time at work for the next month or so listening to it at least once a day. It's a great album to listen to on headphones, the production is immaculate, and the sound is very distinctive. There aren't a lot of modern bands you could say that about these days.


Although it pains me to say it, only Linkin Park spring to mind as an example. I walked in to Fopp records last weekend, and Meteora was playing. Although my reaction was "oh, I'd never guess who this is," it actually hit home how readily identifiable they are.

In these days of manufactured pop and constructed bands, this is actually quite refreshing. Although quite why Linkin Park's targeted audience seems to be ten year old kids escapes me... At the moment the music industry seems to be intent on blaming everyone else for their own failings in providing access to decent music. They're not interested in me as a potential market anyway - after all, I'm in my 40's. When I was a kid (no, this isn't going to be a 4 Yorkshiremen rant) the bands we went to see had toured, and gigged, and toured, and built up stagecraft and songwriting abilities the hard way. I refuse to believe you can achieve the same ends by shutting a bunch of pretty teenagers in a mansion for a few weeks with a bunch of marketing consultants. There are more than a few musicians out there who are far more talented than the new big bands, but they don't have the right looks, don't play the right anonymous lite-pop music (sorry, product) or are just plain too old to warrant a multimillion recording industry contract. It's our loss, as well as theirs. There are still some outlets for less well-known musicians to get their music across, like Radio 3's "Mixing It" programme that I mentioned last month, but they're precious few and far between. Music's greatest appeal for me is its diversity. But where are the next generation of eccentric musicians who will provide it, the Captain Beefhearts, the John Otways and the Thomas Dolbys of the 21st Century?

I believe that the record companies have got things completely backwards - what they should be doing is encouraging access to music, at least for musicians without an existing contract. If you're a band, providing access to your music is what gigging is all about. Why shouldn't the Internet be used as an extension of that process? Disk space is dirt cheap - by providing servers and download access to an immense variety of musicians and bands, the record companies could also see what the public actually downloads - what people really like to listen to.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, why should the copyright for any musician's work rest with their record company? Perhaps this is why filesharing is so popular; it's because people feel it's not the musicians who are being ripped off, it's the music companies. Who, after all, are so clueless they deserve all they get. This is reinforced by the promotional videos and shows like MTV's Cribs which perpetuate the image that, by and large, musicians live a lavish and pampered lifestyle. The message these shows convey is - they're not being hurt by you downloading their latest album. Plainly, this is not true in the majority of cases. A lot of bands struggle to make ends meet. Why is there such a disparity between the two ends of the spectrum? And don't tell me it's because band "X" is crap and band "Y" aren't - it's blatantly obvious that any amount of crapness can be remedied if your marketing budget's big enough.

Will a harsh dose of reality bring the major labels down to Earth, or will things stumble on as they are? I dunno...


No references to new stuff I've found on the web today, I'm afraid - work's been very busy and by the time I get home the last thing I want to do is surf. Thank goodness it's the weekend, is all I can say.

And anyway, I have a new toy to play with: I finally got myself a colour printer. After reading this month's survey in Which? magazine, I went for the Canon i950. I haven't printed an awful lot out as yet, but I'm very impressed with it. The technology in inkjet or bubble jet printers seems to have progressed in leaps and bounds since my poor old Epson Stylus gave up the ghost about five years ago. For one thing, the Canon prints right to the edge of the paper, and I found myself trying to peer under the cover to see how it does it. For another, the resolution has drastically improved. On glossy paper it's difficult to resolve the image, which is of course exactly as it should be...


I spent a very enjoyable Friday evening drinking with friends in Bristol city centre. I stayed with friends overnight, and drove home this morning. As I said earlier, the motorways round here get very busy this time of year. As it's the first weekend of the school holidays, the M5 coming south was in a right state - I'm glad I was heading north. When I left the motorway at the local junction, the tailback stretched on out of sight up the road, so there must have been at least an 8 mile jam. If you were in it, you have my sympathies...


I think the heatwave here has finally broken, as the temperature outside has fallen by a whole degree Centigrade since I sat down at the computer twenty minutes ago. There's a smell of moisture on the breeze, although there's no sign of thunderstorms as far as I can see out of the window. As the lawn is beginning to look a bit fried round the edges (as am I), it would be nice to get some rain tonight.


What's on the CD player this evening? Firstly, Steve Reich's "The Four Sections / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ." I really needed something to chill out to, as it's been that kind of day. I first heard the "Music for Mallet..." piece while I was driving in the car a few months ago, and it's one of the most hypnotic pieces of music I've ever heard (so hearing it in the car probably wasn't a good idea!)

That was followed by "The Essential Fripp and Eno." I seem to be going through a phase of listening to music that was used in the production of the radio series "The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" at the moment. This includes a number of pieces by Gyorgi Ligeti, "A Rainbow in Curved Air" and "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band" by Terry Riley, and lots of Fripp and Eno, like "Evening Star" and "Wind On Water." However, I have to say that up until now I've avoided the Stockhausen used in Fit the Fourth, and can see no reason for this to change...


Here in the South West of England, we're in the middle of a heatwave. This, of course, is a cue for massive traffic jams on the M5, the appearance of plastic garden furniture and patio sets released from their long hibernation in the shed, and the smell of barbecuing sausages drifting through the neighbourhood. The weekend sounds of lawnmowers mingle with the screams of small children who have just discovered that the water in the paddling pool is, despite all indications to the contrary, still ice cold.

If only the UK knew about things like air conditioning, though. A mate of mine from my days in Bromley was visiting yesterday, and we went in to Bristol for the afternoon. Some of the shops were so hot it was a wonder the staff were still standing. It was a relief to get back in the car. Still, it was an excuse to take a few pictures round the @Bristol site. I thought this one came out quite well...

Chris and Phil @ Bristol


Another story today involving the use of technology and information exchange, and another story about big business getting worried. The Register are running a story about something called the TV Brick - a device that plugs in to your TV and computer. In simple terms, it appears to allow your PC to act as a web server and streams your television to you - wherever you are in the world. For some reason, the television companies aren't happy about someone on holiday in Australia being able to catch up on their favourite Japanese TV shows over the net. Presumably because the technology also allows fans of the latest American TV series to watch them in the UK before they're shown on the pay-for-view channels over here, let alone without having to wait the 12 months or more before the free-to-air TV channels show them. If this sort of thing catches on, I suspect that one of two things will happen: either TV series will get released simultaneously throughout the world, or the TV companies will buy out the technology and change it into a subscription service, like TiVo. Personally speaking, I decided this year that the TV I watch these days is barely worth the licence fee, let alone a subscription. TV audiences are dwindling, and trying to limit access to what little good stuff is on these days will (in my opinion) only accelerate the medium's decline. Television is dead - it just hasn't realised it yet.


One of the things that really irritates me about computers these days is the fact that despite all the improvements in processor and system bus speed, it still takes my machine ages to boot up. So I was very pleased to read in Wired about a new type of memory which - hopefully - will allow computers to boot almost instantly. Well, I can dream, can't I?

Jeff Rickel 1963 - 2003

When I was doing my MSc, one of the most enjoyable and fascinating parts of the course concerned the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in education. The technology isn't ready to create a convincing version of Haley Joel Osment yet, but some very bright and talented people have been doing great work finding new ways in which computers can help people to learn. For instance, virtual environments populated with artificial entities called agents can help students find out about how teams should deal with emergencies onboard ships. These agents act as the other members of the team, and can respond to the student's actions, or voice. One of the brightest stars in the field was Jeff Rickel, so it was a great shock to learn today of his death at the age of 40. USC's news page has details, and from there you can link to some information on his work.


The whole digital imaging trend is gathering more and more momentum, isn't it? I've been thinking about how my digital camera has changed the way I treat not only photography, but also how I exchange information with people. Combined with the Internet, it's a very powerful way of conveying detailed descriptions of things, or exchanging experiences. For instance, if you right click here you can then choose "save target as" and end up with a 211Kb file which is a Quicktime panorama of my visit to the beer festival last Friday.

These days, you don't even need Internet access to exchange pictures. Mobile phones with built-in cameras have been available over here for a while, and appear to be gaining in popularity with each passing day. Given the ability to obtain easy, quick digital imaging, people are coming up with novel ways of using them, and not all uses are viewed as a Good Thing. For instance, in Japan, stores are becoming worried about digital shoplifting. Over here, swimming pools and sports centres have banned the use of camera phones, for more obvious reasons.

Whatever happened to the good old days when futuristic technology was supposed to help the good guys fight crime? Where's Q when you need him?


I was sorry to hear about the death of Barry White last week. With one thing and another, I hadn't heard about it until I paid my regular visit to the Dead People Server (if you haven't established I'm a bit strange by now you haven't being paying attention). He was one of those people you just assumed was going to be around forever, he had become such a cultural icon in popular music. When the Fun Lovin' Criminals sang "Barry White Saved My Life" it made him even more cool, as if such a thing were possible.


Apart, that is, from a nice new banner for the page. Five minutes' worth of effort with the Rotring pens, then another five on the scanner and the PC. What do you think?

One of the reasons I like living where I do is that it's nice and quiet. Even the occasional exciting event is usually rural in nature. Example: driving down in to the village tonight, a movement at the side of the road caught my eye. It was a blackbird, which was frantically trying to subdue what it obviously thought was the world's biggest earthworm. However, what it was actually trying to convert into supper was a rather annoyed slow worm that must have been about 30cm long. Slow worms are a species of reptile that live in the UK. They're not snakes, but a variety of legless lizard, and they look like a humongous worm. I've never seen a blackbird so frantic; presumably the stimulus it was receiving was so large that the behaviour it exhibited in response had to be equally over the top. I've not seen reptiles round here before, but a neighbour heard a similar story a couple of days ago. Signs of a long hot summer to come, or just a coincidence?

Unfortunately I can't tell you who won, as I couldn't stop the car without holding everyone else up...


Were you aware that this expression goes back at least as far as the English diarist Samuel Pepys?

If you like blogs, you might want to take a look at Pepys's Diary, which presents the work (now over 400 years old) as a blog. It's fascinating stuff, and it's a site I try to look at at least once a week.


Yesterday's village fete went very well. As tradition dictates at this sort of events, there were stalls, races, and a tombola. We also had a hot air balloon tethered to the ground at one end of the cricket pitch, and live music was provided by a local band called the Rhythm Method, who did a pretty good job. We even got a brief flypast from a Supermarine Spitfire that is based down the road at Filton. It sounds a bit rougher than the classic Spit, because it has a Gryphon engine rather than a Merlin, but on a summer day it's a lovely sight to see. And - tradition be damned - it didn't rain!

Today's barbecue and films went down well too - although I suspect I may be alone in rating Buckaroo Banzai as a particularly fine example of film making. I also suspect I may have eaten too much.


Surprisingly enough, this morning I didn't wake up in a heap wondering where I was - no hangover. That's one of the advantages of drinking decent beer rather than the stuff you usually buy in pubs which tends to be riddled with preservatives and god-knows-what-else. And I made sure I drank plenty of water last night when I got home.

So, plans for the rest of the weekend? It's the village fete this afternoon; the weather looks like it'll stay dry, although it's rather on the dull side. Then tomorrow, some friends are coming round to watch a film from 1984 called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. That's where today's title comes from, and you can find out more about it on my films page. While we were discussing the film yesterday, someone asked me what a buckaroo was. Being sad enough, I went and looked it up in my copy of Funk & Wagnall's; it's a distortion of the Spanish word vaquero and means cowboy. So there you are.


Today is the start of the South Cotswold Beer Festival, which I've attended every year since I moved down here. It's held in the town of Chipping Sodbury, a few miles down the road. Beers on show at festivals tend to have amusing names, presumably in an attempt to encourage anyone who is unfamiliar with them to have a taste. I guess it works, judging by the beers I tried:

  • Bullmastiff: Son Of A Bitch
  • Dwan (County Tipperary): Rich Ruby Ale
  • Hall & Woodhouse: Badger Best
  • Keltek: Keltek Magik
  • Oakleaf: I Can't Believe It's Not Bitter
  • Uley: Laurie Lee's Bitter

They were all good, although at 6% alcohol by volume the Bullmastiff stuff is a little chewy. And no, I wasn't drinking them all by the pint.


I think we're only beginning to see the beginnings of the genetic modification (GM) debate. The BBC News site has a peculiar story about a company that has produced GM tropical fish for your aquarium. The fish glow in the dark. The story can be found at

Next up, a couple of days working away from home, so no updates 'til the end of the week...