There ain't no cure for the summertime blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: July 2004

It must be the heat. July brought diatribes about note taking, sound card software, television caption writers, computer security consultants, and even a dig at the United States Air Force.

On the other hand, much quality ale was consumed, the subjects of coffee, chocolate, and biscuits and gravy cropped up, and I even found time to have a barbecue.


I dunno, there I am trying to lose weight and my colleagues send me links to sites discussing or selling food! The Chocolate Devils site is particularly interesting because their main product is a chocolate confection involving Tabasco sauce. Sounds yummy. They also sell more traditional products such as chocolate bunnies and chocolate frogs. Chocolate frogs? They don't say if the frogs are crunchy - and they're probably not "the finest baby frogs, dew picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in finest quality spring water, lightly killed, and then sealed in a succulent Swiss quintuple smooth treble cream milk chocolate envelope and lovingly frosted with glucose" either. Bet they're still good though.

The web page also attempts to serenade you with Carl Orff's epic opera Carmina Burana, which for me will always be associated with TV adverts for Old Spice aftershave. As far as I'm concerned, a famously smelly aftershave is not the best substance to conjure up when you're promoting a fantastic culinary experience. Incidentally, looking at the Old Spice site just now, they've tried to ditch their operatic roots and have gone all rock and roll, although the effect is somewhat compromised by their choice of guitarist, who appears to have got the old "increasingly wide centre parting" hair loss problem!

[BURP 2.0]

After my many visits to the States I have become addicted to biscuits and gravy. Biscuits in this context are dumpling-like objects shaped like scones, or cobblers, for those of you who know about such culinary things. Gravy as discussed here is not your brown stuff made with Bisto, oh no. It's a peculiar substance known only to Americans, concocted in arcane rituals involving sausages, mushrooms and condensed milk. Combined together, they make for a breakfast experience bordering on the mystical. I am convinced there is no finer food on the planet.

I thought I was obsessed with the stuff, but it seems my interest is trivial by comparison to "Cowboy" Jack Lamb and the folks over at the Biscuits and Gravy Quarterly. They travel America in search of the ultimate biscuits and gravy sensation. The site has recipes for you to try to recreate the experience over here. Lord knows I've tried, but somehow they just never taste the same.


I've just noticed that the size of the html file for this month has already broken my record for a month's blogging and is now well over 50Kb. As I try to keep the amount of HTML to a minimum, that's quite a lot of text. Not bad going!


Well, we can start the countdown. Scaled Composites has scheduled its first competition flight for the Ansari X-Prize on September 29th, 2004. They have to make a statement of intent at least 60 days in advance, and there is now an announcement of just that on their web page. However, they aren't the only ones going for the prize. Canada's Da Vinci project aren't far behind, and in an effort to steal some of Rutan's thunder they announced today that they will roll out their spacecraft on August 5th. Hmm, nice paint job...


There's a story in the New Scientist this week quoting Seth Shostak (the number one science celeb when it comes to searching for extraterrestrials), who says that advances in telescope technology and computing power should enable us to detect extra-terrestrial civilizations - if they're out there - within the next 20 years. There's kind of a rather large "if" in that statement, don'tcha think?


It looks like the word is out - according to reports today, Star Wars: Episode III will be called Revenge of the Sith. I like it - it's cool, it balances Return of the Jedi nicely and it's a hell of a lot better than earlier rumours which indicated episode III would be given the frankly awful title of The Creeping Fear. Whether the film will be as cool as its name remains to be seen - we'll find out next May.


I'm off out to see an impeccable musician tonight, as the gang and I are off to see Jools Holland at Westonbirt Arboretum. But I couldn't leave without noting the death of another amazing musician, Jerry Goldsmith. The first film I saw that really brought home to me how important a score can be in establishing atmosphere was The Satan Bug. It was one of Jerry Goldsmith's. He also wrote the music for two of my favourite films, In Like Flint, and Our Man Flint.

It's impossible to overrate his contribution to cinema over the last 40 years - he was the composer of dozens of memorable scores for films including Alien (which wouldn't have been half as successful or scary without his superlatively creepy score), Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Star Trek: the Motion Picture, Gremlins, Poltergeist, Total Recall, The Boys from Brazil, and of course The Omen (for which he won an Oscar). He wasn't averse to working for TV, either: he wrote the music for shows like Gunsmoke, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek: The Next Generation. His passing leaves a huge hole in the motion picture industry.


There's a very funny quote today which I found in an article in the Guardian's website. A research team seems to have discovered that smoking cannabis improves vision. Their results were backed up by independent testimony from Observer columnist Sue Arnold, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa and is officially registered blind. As the site reports, she noticed several years ago that ahem - strong Jamaican skunk suddenly and temporarily enabled her to see things clearly. Unfortunately, the likelihood of this catching on as a treatment are limited, as she described some fairly noticeable and rather inconvenient side-effects: "Only trouble was, I couldn't stand up."


The BBC were reporting today on a new religious phenomenon that I first heard about last week: a church based on the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. Indeed, SpongeBob mania is sweeping the nation. Well, yesterday's Metro newspaper here in Bristol had a rather bizarre photograph of Will Smith sparring with someone in a SpongeBob costume, anyhow. When you're a PR company, I guess you have to work with what you're given.

If you're unfamiliar with the cartoon, it's one of Nickelodeon's more unexpected success stories. The main character is a sponge (duh), who lives in a pineapple under the sea. As you do. The Church of SpongeBob site tells you far more than you actually need to know.

Ruth and Rob love the show, and they are eagerly awaiting the movie which comes out later this year. You'd think that the folks who own the series would be eager to build on the phenomenon. Yet MTVN Networks don't appear to see either the funny side or the marketing potential of the church's site - and although their corporate lawyers have stopped short of shutting them down completely, they're making things difficult. But after all, this was the same network who fired John Kricfalusi: the greatest cartoon genius since Tex Avery and the man who brought us Ren and Stimpy. It doesn't look like they've moved on much, does it?


Remember I mentioned that a B52 was supposed to display at Farnborough yesterday? It appears the aircraft took off from the States, refuelled successfully en route, and made its way to Southern England - where it conducted a graceful flypast at Blackbushe Airfield, which is about five miles away from Farnborough. What was that about target identification? Did I hear somebody mention GPS? Still, it was only the UK's premier aviation trade show and one of the year's major air displays - so I'm sure there weren't that many people who took this as a demonstration of the USAF's current precision bombing capabilities. Hell, I bet hardly anyone noticed.


I dunno, you're about to take the picture of a lifetime and some idiots come along and get in the way! This photograph of the Sun taken during last month's transit of Venus rather spectacularly recorded the International Space Station as it zipped through the camera's field of view. Nice.

JOHN BARRON 1920 - 2004

I was very sad to hear this week that one of the most iconic figures of 1970s television passed away on July 3rd. John Barron was known to millions of us as Leonard Rossiter's domineering (and quite mad) boss C. J. in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The Guardian did an extensive obituary on him, but despite the fact that he was president of the actors' union Equity for many years and had a very prolific acting career on television and elsewhere, he will forever be defined by that phrase:

"I didn't get where I am today by..."


First priority every morning once I've got to the office and booted up the PC is to make myself a cup of coffee to wake myself up. I never properly start to function without at least one shot of caffeine in my system. One of the stories on the BBC's website today caught my attention for two reasons: firstly, it describes new research that shows caffeine reduces the effectiveness of your short-term memory. The second reason was more esoteric: is there really a scientist at Trinity College in Dublin called Stephen Womble?


It's summer, and the year is an even number. That means it's time for the Farnborough Air Show once again. I've been going regularly since I was in my teens, but I don't think I'll have time this year. To be honest, I haven't really got the inclination either. The show is not what it was, even on the trade days. For example, today's flying display is barely 2 hours long, even if it does include displays by a B1-B, a B-52, a F117 and the Eurofighter. This week's Aviation Week suggests that in future the show may be cut back even further, and moved, perhaps to September. Still, I'm sure there will be some interesting business announcements made while the show's on.


...that man first landed on the moon. On July 20th 1969, the Lunar Excursion Module Eagle touched down in the Sea of Tranquility (and yes, NASA spell that with one "L" - I checked), making its two-man crew of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin the first humans to travel to another body in our solar system and land on it. Let's not forget Michael Collins, who stayed in orbit around the Moon in the Command Module. I remember watching the whole thing on TV. The Apollo Program was an immense technical achievement, right on the edge of what was technically possible at the time. Who can forget the striking images that we saw of the Earth from space, of Man on the Moon?

Shortly afterwards however, claims started appearing that the whole thing was a hoax, filmed in a TV studio in Burbank. There was a reference to this in the movie Diamonds are Forever where James Bond stumbles into a studio complete with astronauts and a lunar rover; a few years later the conspiracy thriller Capricorn One told the story of a faked Mars mission. A misinformation campaign by the Russians? This was the era of the Cold War, propaganda and high-profile spying incidents, after all. Even now it seems that, no matter how thoroughly the claims are debunked, people can't accept that such an achievement was possible. In the same way that some folks refuse to believe people could ever have built the pyramids without help, others refuse to acknowledge that millions of dollars could have been successfully spent on a decade-long engineering project involving thousands of people that actually did what it was supposed to, on time. Well, OK— it is quite a stretch. Just you wait: in another twenty years, people will be trying to convince you that the Space Shuttle never flew.

The claims continue, and things have got so silly that there are even one or two amusing parodies kicking around. But recently there was an appalling TV show on the subject that was so bad it went beyond parody. In terms of who has the better grasp on reality, I'd pick the astronauts over the hoax proponents or Fox Television every time - and I fully sympathise with Buzz Aldrin. After being stalked by one conspiracy theorist who subjected him to a torrent of verbal abuse, Aldrin finally did what the rest of us would probably do in that situation: he turned round and belted him. Quite right too.


I noticed a couple of sites running this article on the latest developments in hypersonic flight over the weekend. Later this year, if all goes according to plan, a small unmanned aircraft the size of a coffee table will reach Mach 10, or about 7,500 mph. It's a big deal running air-breathing engines at that speed, because by the time you've mixed the air with your fuel, compressed it and ignited it, it stands a good chance of being rushed out of the back of the engine. One day, this sort of technology could be applied to airliners. Imagine travelling across the Atlantic at Mach 10 - that's five times faster than Concorde. You'd probably spend more time queueing up to check in than you would in the air!


Each site that carried the report on the X43A had exactly the same story; there's obviously a press release somewhere that just got cut and pasted by the journalists concerned. With access to the net it's not difficult to track down original press releases, and it's amazing how little work is performed by the news folks before they get presented to us. Sorry - I'm grumbling again. If you want examples of the outrageous things that get passed on in press releases, read the New Scientist's feedback column for a few weeks.


Some brands of pocket PCs - little computer gizmos about the size of a Filofax that have become very popular in recent years - run a cut-down version of Microsoft's Windows operating system. As with other versions of Windows, folks are keen to identify weaknesses and write nasty programs to exploit them. There was a story today about the first virus found that is targeted at pocket PC users. Shock horror! But are things what they seem? This particular virus, it turned out, was written to demonstrate the practicality of being able to write a virus for a pocket PC. It's more polite than most viruses I've heard of, in that it asks before transferring itself. It wasn't discovered by some poor soul who found it had wriggled its way on to his machine - it's a proof of concept demonstrator. So what's the real story?

Computer security companies can earn good money pointing out the latest flaws of systems and talking to the media. Today's coverage almost sounds like a bit of a job creation scheme; after all, there are millions of users out there who could be in the market for a new brand of anti-virus software if there was a need for it. Software with regular updates that users would, of course, have to subscribe to if they wanted to keep their machines protected.

If there was a threat, they might be more keen to subscribe, wouldn't they? So hey, let's publicise the threat and wait for the copycat bozos to start producing malicious versions, and hey presto: a brand new revenue stream!


Every now and again you see a news story that just conjures up rather more of a picture than the rational mind can deal with. Case in point: Tennessee police arrested a burglar at the weekend. The burglar was male, naked, and covered in the cheese sauce that most people use for dipping nachos in.

Just don't go there. I really don't want to know.


I have to say that the news today, that an author is publishing a novel in China in the form of 60 chapters, each 70 characters long, sent to your phone as SMS messages didn't strike me in any way as a marketing gimmick. Oh no. I'm sure it's perfectly capable of standing up on its own artistic merit.



Ah, Chris de Burgh. The incurable romantic, bringer of best-quality schmaltz to the needy for well over twenty years. Writer and singer of, well, that love song.

And recent purchaser of H. R Giger's most disturbing creation, the original chestburster alien from Ridley Scott's 1979 science fiction classic, Alien. Sixteen inches of your worst nightmare, a snip at £30,000. Apparently he's allowing John Hurt visiting rights to the thing because he considers Mr. Hurt to be its mother. You just couldn't make this stuff up.


I am forever worrying that I'm about to run out of disk space, despite having two hard drives in my current PC. That's what video capture and editing does for your free space. However, I think hard drives are at last beginning to reach my comfort zone, in size if not in cost. I read today about a new external drive that will set you back a cool £1300 when it comes out in the summer, but it will give you a cool 1.6 Terabytes of storage down a firewire cable.

That's 1600 Gigabytes. Back when I first got on the net, everybody explained the relative size of a Terabyte by saying that the text of the entire US Library of Congress would only take up a couple of Terabytes. These days, companies regularly create a couple of Terabytes of data a day...


They Might Be Giants have a new album out today

Yes folks, the coolest band in the history of the planet, They Might Be Giants have a shiny, brand-new album out today. Make sure you go out and buy The Spine right this minute!


Well, yes, in a way.

Specifically, in a "not getting any money for doing it" kind of way. It's something I'm doing free of charge for one of my favourite bands. I saw their graphic just lying there on one of their many websites and it seemed such a shame to let it go to waste.

Speaking of advertising, though, I discovered a new version of Spybot Search and Destroy has hit the streets. If you're a Windows user, download version 1.3 and start using it ASAP.


I see from the guys on the Falfield Broadband website that our exchange's RFS date has been brought forwards, and is now the correct side of Christmas, hoorah! Special kudos is due to Andrew who managed to bring the big guns to bear in the form of our local MP, Steve Webb. Nice one, mate!


You may have been wondering, with all the media mayhem that was going at the beginning of the month about the joint ESA/NASA mission to Saturn, why the folks at Cassini/Huygens seemed to have gone very quiet. Well, there was no dark conspiracy going on: it's simply that for the last week, Saturn has been on the opposite side of the Sun to us, or in opposition.

With the Sun in the way, it gets a bit difficult to get data back, but that shouldn't be a problem now that Saturn's moved back into view. Expect to see lots more amazing images coming through over the coming months. It's going to be an exciting time.


Actually, it's been fairly dry today, but the wet weather has produced the most amazing crop of mushrooms in my back garden. The largest one today (click the link for a picture) is almost the size of a car's hub cap. Absolutely extraordinary. But no, I won't be frying it up with a couple of rashers of bacon and an egg; too many cats have visited that part of the garden, if you know what I mean.


I'd had a couple of beers last night by the time I found myself watching an ABBA video on one of the music channels, so when the band were portrayed as two-foot-high puppets in the clutches of a mad music impresario played by Rik Mayall, who was holding forth in an office run by people who looked suspiciously like the real band, but with Cher and Eddie the skeleton from Iron Maiden wandering about for good measure, I assumed I must have either fallen asleep or hallucinated the whole thing. But no - it's real, and is being touted as the band's last ever video. It's still rather bizarre, in a bizarrely bizarre kind of way.


One of the guys arrived in the office this morning and described how he'd been following a driver on the M5 who had come within a hair's breadth of causing at least three accidents by driving without any consideration for anyone else. I don't know if you saw Top Gear last night, but — God forbid, I actually found myself agreeing with Jeremy Clarkson. His point: we don't need more speed cameras. Speed cameras don't discourage behaviour like that. We need traffic cops out there seeing what's going on and doing something to stop it. Clarkson's parting shot on the subject was pretty damning, too: the only reason that Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper was caught was because he was stopped for a minor motoring offence. By a traffic cop.


Have you ever seen the word sic used (usually in brackets) after a quotation? It's a Latin word meaning "so" or "thus," but its meaning in documents can be readily translated as "don't correct my spelling; this is exactly how the bozo wrote it." This brings us to one of the more obscure channels I can pick up on my digital television receiver. ACTV was covering the Lewisham Literacy Festival this weekend. Thank goodness for digital cameras, because there's no way I'd have believed this one without seeing it:

The Lewisham Litracy (sic) Festival

Every now and again I see something like this that really makes me wonder: is there somebody out there who does this kind of thing on purpose to see if anyone notices?

Oh, and as a postscript, it appears that it was actually the Lewisham Literary Festival that they were supposed to be covering.


The British weather has lived up to its reputation over the last few days, with gales and heavy rain over much of the country. At times like these the conversation often turns to climate change, so here's a useful snippet of information to drop into a quiet pause the next time you find yourself bemoaning the fact that we never get a white Christmas any more: a study reported this week that, after looking at ice core records for the last 1,150 years and measuring the amounts of particular isotopes that are caused by cosmic ray impacts, scientists have concluded that in that time the Sun has never been as active as it has been during the past 60 years.


I can remember discovering an article in Microsoft's support knowledge base years ago that had the charming heading Error: Earth rotates in wrong direction. This week I found that some folks have been quietly recording other gems from the folks in Redmond, and they've got a website featuring the best (and daftest) entries. One thing that becomes obvious fairly rapidly when you read the articles is that the support technicians must have encountered some users with minimal knowledge of, well, anything, let alone computers. Either that, or every knowledge base article is written by the company's lawyers.


I heard this week about a new musical heading for Broadway, which is described as being "lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail" by the creative team responsible.

Spamalot will be directed by Mike Nichols (who won an Oscar for directing The Graduate, and who also directed Day of the Dolphin, Catch-22, Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge and Regarding Henry) and is being produced by Sir Robin himself, Eric Idle - but he won't be taking the role on stage. That task goes to David Hyde-Pierce from Frasier (oh, and check out the picture caption on CNN's article; there's one copywriter who is a definite fan.) Arthur will be played by the one and only Tim Curry, and Sir Lancelot will be played by Hank Azaria - who is most famous for providing an inordinately large number of the voices in The Simpsons. Amazing casting, and the production could well turn out to be the sort of show that makes you wonder whether or not you ought to go to New York just to see it.


I said "it!"

Agh! I said "it" again!

And again!

(continue until fade...)


Back in the early 80s when I used to work in London, I occasionally caught glimpses of strange-looking birds from the train window. Eventually I got a good look - and discovered that there was a small colony of parakeets living in the trees near Eden Park station. On a ski trip to Innsbruck a few years later, I saw parrots living quite happily in the trees down by the river despite sub-zero temperatures. Even so, today's story on the BBC's website about the variety of exotic birds living wild in the UK took me by surprise. Keep your eyes peeled: you never know what you might see on your bird table!


The business news today included a story about fresh moves to unbundle the local loop. This is the last piece of cable between your house and the local telephone exchange. Despite the fact that the UK has had a privatised telephone system for nearly thirty years, this last stretch is still owned and operated by BT, and they still charge you for the privilege of renting however many yards of copper (or if you're really unlucky, aluminium) cable.

So far, no other company has shown the slightest interest in putting in their own infrastructure in anything other than the most luctrative areas; given the cost involved, this is hardly surprising. As a result, there's no real competition among telcos other than for call charging. In fact, if you don't make that many calls, your line rental is still likely to be the largest component of your bill. So my reaction to today's announcements? Well, unless someone's planning to introduce a wide-scale wireless network and offer broadband with Voice Over IP to a significant amount of the UK, I'd take 'em with a very hefty pinch of salt.


Sunday's edition of The Sky At Night on BBC1 was somewhat unusual: for the first time in some 47 years, it wasn't presented by Sir Patrick Moore. He'd come down with a nasty bout of food poisoning and had to be rushed to hospital. He's now on the road to recovery, and should be back at the helm after next month's episode. All the best from the HFO, Sir Patrick.


I was helping out a neighbour at the weekend who was having computer trouble. His machine kept trying to access a domain with a Russian suffix, which is seldom a good sign. Folks, if you ever download stuff off the Internet, and you don't have a good idea of who wrote it and what it does, it's probably not a good idea to run it, okay? Even if it does come bundled with what appears to be an attractive screensaver or a cool game. And especially don't let your kids do so. Get 'em one of those cheap disks of arcade games from PC World instead: much safer.

But my PC took four attempts to boot before I could get my software on to a memory stick and sort things out. That was all thanks to Creative's intensely flaky DEVLDR16 software that comes with the Soundblaster Live! card. I will never willingly buy another Soundblaster card as long as I live.

Still, it could have been worse. There's a discussion on Slashdot at the moment about the most dire computer mishaps readers have ever experienced. I particularly sympathised with the guy who, when he moved house, kept his server running on its Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) in the back of his car while he drove 80 miles to his new home. He managed to set it up successfully. Unfortunately a drunk driver then brought down the power lines and the house suffered a 5 hour power cut. This time the UPS didn't make it!


Remember Triumph of the Nerds? Bob Cringely's weekly article on Friday was about a new video compression technology under development which appears to offer equal quality to MPEG-4 but only uses about two thirds of the bandwidth. Not only could that mean even more extras on your DVDs, for dialup users like me IPeG compression might offer a way to achieve decent video streams from the Internet. How it works sounds fascinating - it's based on research into how vision is processed by the brain and which parts of a moving image are registered most strongly by the visual cortex. These bits of the image can then be assigned priority. The idea is that by knowing this, the compression software can then concentrate on devoting most effort to the bits of the image that matter most to our brains, and not bother about the stuff we'd most likely ignore anyway. Whether this can be applied effectively to a video stream is another matter, but it had me intrigued.

On the other hand, I'd rather get broadband and not have to worry.


It looks like Cassini is going to be delivering some spectacular science following its successful arrival at Saturn. This image of the fine structure in the rings (the picture shows an area about 220 Km from one side to the other) show fractal complexity that must have the mathematicians going bananas.


Finally tonight, I'd just like to point out that I will probably be spending more time watching TV and less time blogging over the next couple of weeks. Yes, it's that time of year again and the 2004 Tour de France is under way. Today was one of the early stages and things are already proving to be quite exciting - with a considerable amount of mayhem thrown in for good measure. I'll be watching the highlights later on Eurosport.


It's the South Cotswold Beer Festival again this weekend. The Charfield posse went last night, and a good time was definitely had by all. Once again, no hangover this morning - the secret is obviously to drink proper beer rather than all that chemical rubbish... What did I try this year?

  • Blindmans - Mine Beer Bitter
  • Dark Star - Hophead
  • Elgoods - Mad Dog
  • Goffs - Excaliber
  • Inveralmond - Ossian's Ale
  • Sarah Hughes - Pale Amber
  • Triple FFF - Pressed Rat and Warthog

And very nice they were too.


The team responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) have done some sterling work over the years. If you're a science geek like me, you probably have at least one image taken by Hubble sitting on your hard drive. Following the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, however, it was felt that manned maintenance missions to keep HST running weren't worth the risk. Ever since, we've seen story after story in the media about one after another high-profile scientific discovery that was achieved with the help of HST. Today's story is one of the more mind-boggling: after a survey of other stars using the telescope, scientists have announced the discovery of over 100 more extrasolar planets (that's a planet going round a distant star, not one going round our Sun.) That roughly doubles the amount of extrasolar planets we know about, and makes it look like planets are commonplace in our galaxy. That could mean that, possibly, life is also commonplace out there. An amazing thought.

Oh, and the publicity for Hubble seems to be working - as NASA have now shown signs of backtracking, and are considering a robotic repair mission instead.


Maybe the silly season is coming early, but there was an extraordinary story in the New Scientist this week about a research team who claim they have detected a minute change in something called Alpha - the fine structure constant. From its name, you'd expect it to maintain the same value - it is a constant, after all - but this appears not to be the case. The reason that the story is so mind boggling has to do with what the fine structure constant is, because if it changes so does the speed of light. The article included another staggering fact I hadn't come across before: several million years ago in Oklo, in Gabon in Africa, some uranium deposits deep underground reached critical mass and underwent a fission reaction. I wouldn't have believed that there were naturally occurring nuclear reactors here on Earth, but apparently there are (or at least there have been.)


OK, the silly season is definitely here. There's a story on the BBC's news web site today about Lion Kimbro, who recently attempted to record the best part of every waking thought for a period of several months. This raises an important question: why? Why would anyone want to do this? To what end? For Kimbro, it was about trying to become "smarter."

Hmmm - define "smarter." If your purpose is purely internal, to fulfil your own personal criteria of smartness, then wouldn't a process that (as Kimbro admits) takes over or displaces the rest of your day-to-day life "to the point of immobilisation" degrade rather than improve mental function?

Is it to convey an accurate impression of one's cognitive states, knowledge, learning, or intelligence? To organise your ontological state or belief systems? To act as a memory prosthesis? From a computational point of view, I would have thought that the additional processing load you incur in classification and allocating storage far outweighs the increase in data retrieval that results. Whatever the reason, there's a rather rambling description of how he did it which is RATHER TOO FULL OF CAPITALS for my liking available for download on his website. Of course, as it's the silly season, the BBC completely garbles and trivialises the original approach - Kimbro quite explicitly imposes a "triviality limit" on which thoughts should be recorded:

"You will be capturing EVERY SINGLE THOUGHT. Well, every thought that is more interesting than "I need to go to the bathroom", or "I need to take the trash out".

Perhaps a better description is Kimbro's own: going walkabout inside your own head. It's a nice idea, but for one reason or another, the following snippet of dialogue popped into my head at the same time as I read about it:

Ford Prefect:

I mean, forget Marvin. I'm the one you know, the intelligent one. When I go to bed at night, I don't need to read a book. I just glance through my brain for half an hour.

Zaphod Beeblebrox:

Run! We've got to find shelter!

What annoyed me was the general approach of the BBC's article was that this was a radical and original thing to do. They report without questioning what they're being told. From Kimbro's book you get the impression that it's all ground-breaking stuff, and that nobody has done much research in the field - he pointedly comments that he found little information on the web about note taking, for instance.

He can't have looked very hard. Looking at ways of organising thoughts and knowledge is nothing new, and a lot of work has been done in the field of representational systems for sharing that knowledge. In fact, there are shedloads of resources about how to elicit and record knowledge on the net, from formal knowledge organisation/management like the Media Access site (which includes a link to a very interesting thesis by Tim Lethbridge which is worth a read if you're in to this sort of stuff).

In a cursory five minute search I found plenty of resources on note taking, as well as an explanation of five different systems of taking notes (I'm definitely a mapper). There are even resources available on how to contextualise notes so that they are more easily assimilated or linked to existing knowledge - this one one of the areas that I found particularly fascinating when I did my Masters a couple of years ago. How do you navigate through your own knowledge? There are techniques available such as semantic clustering that can help content navigation - within e-learning you want to your screen and content design to help users locate what it is that they're trying to find quickly. One site that blew me away when I first found it in 2000 was the Cybergeography Atlas of Cyberspaces which looks at ways to depict these networks on computer displays. Kimbro has also looked at Tony Buzan's mind mapping techniques, although he gets annoyed by being bogged down in the methodology rather than appreciating the basic concept. Even the concept of knowing what you don't know (or what you do) is a frequently addressed problem in fields like organisational learning or knowledge management.

The use of semantic tagging to assist with data retrieval is something that Tim Berners Lee (who is now widely recognised as the father of the World Wide Web) has been working on for years. Kimbro's book discusses the classification system he developed for recording his thoughts, but it strikes me that he might have saved himself some effort by having a look at metadata initiatives such as Dublin Core first. One of the reasons why I look at what Kimbro did with a certain amount of scepticism is that it seems very similar to the approach undertaken in the distance learning industry with something called the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) that you can read all about at the ADLnet site. SCORM is all about classifying any information presented for learning by breaking it into chunks and tagging each chunk with enough identifiers that you can use it again.

The big problem with doing this is that content is linked contextually to the rest of the document or application in which it's presented, and stripping out that context frequently (I'm tempted to say always) degrades the effectiveness of its use as training material. I have yet to be convinced that SCORM will support anything other than the rapid location of cool pictures for lecturers to put in their next PowerPoint presentations. In the same way, using Kimbro's techniques you may end up with a huge number of very pretty binders full of an extremely verbose diary, but can you search for content in a new context that provides any cognitive benefit in a reasonable amount of time?

What is interesting about Kimbro's approach is that in his own way he's trying to explore the mechanics of thought. The issues he discusses are all pretty central to research in Artificial Intelligence (AI), particularly that of knowledge representation.

And while some progress has been made in AI we are no nearer to producing a convincing intelligent computer like HAL than we were when A Space Odyssey came out in 1968. If you want to read a couple of books on the subject, I'd suggest Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter and The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose. If you read one, though, you have to read the other. They're two sides of the argument, like yin and yang, light and dark, fruit and nut, Penn and Teller. Perhaps Kimbro's work may find a useful application in this field. I hope so.

Does the end justify the effort? Can you improve your intelligence by undertaking such a Herculean task? Kimbro says you will gain a really clear idea of the thoughts going through your head, but in the end, will the quality of those thoughts have improved? As you may have gathered from the length of this blog entry, the longest I've ever made, I'm not convinced.


The NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft successfully fired its main engine last night for 95 minutes and has successfully entered orbit round Saturn. Just in case the engine failed, they had another one standing by. That's what I call a redundant system!