Switched on, blogged out

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: July 2005

July brought us Live 8 and the promise of better things, which unfortunately were soon forgotten with the events in London.

However, by the end of the month the silly season had definitely begun and there were some ridiculous headlines about, if you knew where to look. Oh, and we found out that the next version of Windows will be called Windows Vista.


Last night I was over the border in Wales - where I was attending a rock concert in the shadow of Chepstow Castle. It was great fun - and I enjoyed myself people watching as well as seeing the bands themselves. As the bands I follow get older, the audiences they attract have broadened out considerably, and it's fascinating seeing the sort of people who turn up. Some people obviously aren't going to let the fact that twenty years have gone by influence either their dress sense or their hairstyle. I'm probably just jealous, given the amount of hair I have these days. However, I found it reassuring that there is obviously a place for the receding hairline in rock.

The headliners were Thunder, who I last saw in concert nearly 15 years ago, and they really haven't changed that much - they still put on a very good show. They were ably supported by The Hamsters, a three piece from Essex who have to be the most hard-working band in Britain. Some friends of mine have been raving about them for years, but it was the first time I'd seen them live. It won't be the last - they were superb, just like my friends said. Mind you, even if Lemmy likes them, I'd love to know what Joe Petagno thinks of the "Hamsterhead" t-shirts that the band sell! The first act on the bill were the Eric Bell Band, and I have to say that apart from the fact that they played "Whiskey in the Jar" and a few other familiar tracks, you'd never have guessed Bell was someone who was in the original line up of Thin Lizzy (or even that he was briefly in Them - Van Morrison's old band). They were disorganised, poorly rehearsed, and badly shown up by the other bands playing. I'd have been been profoundly embarrassed if it had been me up there.

Never mind: the weather was kind and the forecast rain held off, it was a nice evening, and the castle is one of the most impressive-looking venues I've been to in quite a while.


So the new version of Windows is going to be called Windows Vista. Not exactly the most inspiring of names, is it? I think I preferred the development codename of Longhorn...


I was watching something on TV last week when a very familiar location cropped up: Vasquez Rocks, located in the desert just east of Los Angeles.

Perhaps the most famous use of the place was in the original series of Star Trek. In the episode "Arena" Kirk battles a lizard-like alien (the Gorn) in a very cinematic-looking desert with a set of distinctive, sloping rocks. If you've seen Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey, that's the episode they're watching at the beginning of the film - and they end up in the same location. I've also spotted Vasquez Rocks in films like Army of Darkness, Blazing Saddles, The Flintstones Movie, and pop videos by Michael Jackson and S Club 7, but the full list of shows filmed there is ridiculous. Have a look for yourself!


Is it tea time yet? I could murder some cheese on toast. Or perhaps some fish and chips - it is Friday, after all. As far as I'm concerned, I've got to have mushy peas with my haddock or cod: it's the traditional way. But these days, some people want their meal from the chippy to be a little bit on the adventurous side. Ah, that's made my mind up: it's curry time, I think.


I had the best night's sleep I've had for months last night. Whether or not this had anything to do with the fact that I took a couple of industrial-strength painkillers before I went to bed remains to be seen. It was rather nice to wake up to the alarm clock rather than lying in bed for an hour or two waiting for it to go off. I really, really sympathise with this woman.


My desk diary notes that today is the 21st anniversary of the first robot-related fatality in the workplace, when a worker at a car construction plant in the United States was caught and crushed under the safety bar of an industrial robot. For God's sake don't remind The Register about this or we'll never hear the end of it.


If you've got one of those ubiquitous music players with the white headphones, you might find that the latest column by Bob Cringeley makes for interesting reading. Especially the bit about Intel chips powering "digital home entertainment devices" - which Bob thinks will turn out to be a video iPod. Not your scene? Okay, how about the coolest-sounding part of it all: the retinal scan display that Bob reckons we'll need to take full advantage of the technology. If you're not technically savvy, that's a display where the picture is created directly on the retina at the back of your eye without all that tedious mucking about with cathode ray tubes, plasma screens, or liquid crystal displays. Cool.

Is Bob going off on one, or are solutions like this really out there already? We'll have to see.

JAMES DOOHAN 1920 - 2005

Another of my childhood idols has passed away.

James Doohan, the Canadian actor who will always be remembered as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott in the TV series Star Trek, has died at the age of 85. Montgomery was Doohan's real middle name; he chose the character's name in memory of his grandfather, and it was Doohan, not Roddenberry, who decided the character should be a Scot.

He'd had health problems for a while, and announced last year that he had both Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's disease and would be retiring from public life. It's sad to see another of the Trek cast pass away; DeForest Kelly died in 1999 and series creator Gene Roddenberry left us back in 1991.

Raise a glass of something green in his honour tonight.


The award for the strangest headline this week has to go to Mice Gang Up on Endangered Birds. Unfortunately the story isn't as funny - it appears that on Gough Island in the South Atlantic, the local mice have been ganging up on Tristan Albatross chicks 200 times their size and killing and eating them. Ewww!


Slate Magazine discusses the eventful career of L. Ron Hubbard. It might make interesting reading for anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by Tom Cruise's recent behaviour, but I couldn't possibly comment further.


The Globe Theatre will be putting on a production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida next month, but it will be a bit different to the usual fare. Every actor will say his or her lines in what the producers hope is an accurate representation of the dialect spoken in the playwright's time. The BBC's article includes a sample of the play in modern speech and as it will be spoken in the production; there's quite a difference.


Noooooooooo! This is one meme that must be stamped out at all costs!


It rained today. A little bit. There hasn't been much in the way of rainfall down here since the storms drenched Glastonbury last month, and the gardens here are suffering. In fact, the BBC forecaster this evening commented that it's been the driest six months since 1976, and I'm old enough to remember what an amazing summer that was.

Looking at the Met Office's rainfall radar just now it doesn't look like there's going to be any more rain today - and any water on the ground has long since evaporated.


My parents found a Death's Head Hawk Moth in their porch a couple of years ago, and I've occasionally seen some of the larger species myself (and I love the fact that there's a species of moth called The Drinker). One of my colleagues found a vapourer moth caterpillar in her garden recently. But when we lived in London a neighbour found one of these in a bush in the back garden. Luna moths are not native to the UK, so it must have escaped from somewhere - but it was an amazing sight all the same.

I bring this up because it was National Moth Day (and night) on Sunday, and the BBC were there. The story makes for quite sad reading - I had no idea moths were dying out in this country quite as rapidly as they are.


And Jeff Bridges takes some pretty good pictures, too.


For some reason this year I keep discovering new holly bushes in the garden. It's never happened before, but presumably the local birds have been eating the berries and it's been my garden's turn to accept the results. I found the fourth plant this year today while I was doing a bit of gardening. For the moment I've left it where it is, but when the weather's a bit cooler I shall move it so that it can keep the rest of my collection company. Each plant is a different species, as far as I can tell - the leaves are different colours, anyway. They're rather nice, and hopefully they will survive, grow into decent bushes, and provide me with the occasional sprig for Christmas decorations.


If someone in England tells you they don't do any gardening in the summer because it's so hot nothing grows, don't believe a word of it. I spent most of this afternoon trying to beat the garden into some form of order, and I have completely filled one of those large green wheelie bins with the results of my efforts. I can't believe how much the lawn had grown, considering it's hardly seen any water for the last couple of weeks. Still, things do look a little tidier out there. Tomorrow I may actually get to sit in the garden and enjoy it.


And to finish off the quote from The Herbs, can I just point out that it's only a couple of months or so to the next International Talk Like A Pirate Day on September 19th? Thankee...


Many thanks to Sam, who pointed me in the direction of John O'Farrell's very funny article in the Guardian on the mania surrounding the new Harry Potter novel which comes out tomorrow. I particularly liked this bit: "The publicity has been given a shot in the arm by the Pope, who, it turns out, condemned the Harry Potter books when he was a cardinal. "You never know where these things are going to lead," said the former Hitler Youth member."


You remember last month I wondered idly if the Philip K Dick android would be plugging the film of A Scanner Darkly due for release next year? Well, I was right on the money: the android has already hit the publicity trail, and made a distinctly creepy appearance (sans hair) at the 2005 Comic Con in San Diego. PKD would be proud as hell!


The Guardian have an interview with the man who Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Bert Jansch all cite as a major influence. Even if you're not into guitars, it's an interesting article. Davy Graham is not your average rock and roll superhero, by any means: how many music interviews can you think of where the journalist becomes concerned that the interviewee "remembers to put in his teeth so I can understand what he's saying"?


I've just updated the firmware on my router, and I'm back up and running after ten minutes - I was expecting to spend most of the evening getting everything back to how it was before, so props to Netgear for making both an excellent piece of kit and first rate software to support it.


Now look, this is getting scary. Even if Roddy McDowall is no longer with us, injecting monkeys with human brain cells has "bad idea" written all over it.


If you were watching The Sky At Night this week you may have noticed that one of the photomontages of the comet Tempel 1 which they used was credited to Brian May. He studied astrophysics at Imperial College back in the 70s and still keeps cropping up from time to time in the Imperial Matters alumnus magazine (which I get, because I went there too). I had a look at Brian's site - he wasn't very happy about the Deep Impact mission at all. As you'll discover from his website, he also plays guitar for a rather well-known rock band, but I guess you've figured that out already.


Live Aid happened on July 13th 1985.

I can remember listening to it in the car as I drove into Bromley on a very sunny Saturday afternoon, then getting home and watching the rest of the concert on the TV. I still have Betamax tapes of the day kicking around somewhere. It was one of those days where you really did feel that, perhaps, the world could change for the better.


The Guardian is carrying an article by Colonel Tim Collins on the speech made by Marie Fatayi-Williams, whose son went missing in Thursday's bombings. With atrocities like the London attacks happening on a daily basis in Iraq (and today's attack on children was particularly abhorrent), something has to be done. The question is: what?


I was watching the Tour de France coverage yesterday mainly because Courchevel is one of my favourite ski resorts, but what a ride it was. Lance Armstrong pretty much destroyed everyone else, and there was no way he was beaten - he let Alejandro Valverde win. But today is a big day in the mountains, so once again it should make for stirring stuff.


When Einstein visited Oxford University in 1931, the blackboard he wrote on to give one lecture was preserved. As the blackboard is rapidly disappearing from educational circles, the website devoted to its use recently asked various other people to write something on a blackboard with the same dimensions as Einstein's. The list of people they asked is pretty eclectic - where else could you get Sir Bobby Robson rubbing shoulders with Brian Eno, Tony Benn, and Raymond Blanc?


Yesterday's APOD was an amazing shot of sunrise at Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. It looks like something out of Danté's inferno - a truly awesome picture.


And talking of sunshine: yes, it's still hot out there. The external temperature sensor on my house is in direct sunlight, but all the same it's reading 57.2°C at the moment, which is a new record. The UK is actually starting to issue heatwave warnings, and it looks like it'll be the weekend before things start to cool down a bit.


Meanwhile, I'm still plugging away inside, and I've just noticed that my SETI at home client has returned another signal deemed as "interesting" - that's the third this year. Who knows? With all that's going on in the world at the moment perhaps what we need is evidence of another civilisation to change our perspective a bit. We all have to live on the same planet, and we would all do well to look at ways of making each other's lives a little easier. Live8 was a start, but what can we do from day to day?


Well, Benjamin Disraeli famously said that there were three types of lies: "Lies, damned lies, and statistics," (and the saying was so pithy that the author Mark Twain enthusiastically quoted him) but the lengths to which some people - okay, the economist Steven Levitt - are taking statistics are getting rather, er, extended. The only trouble with looking for links and patterns in random data is that it's all to easy to fall victim to apophenia, but this idea seems to have escaped most of the modern media, and anyway it's always good for a story or two on a slow day.


Forget about "Man bites dog." Today we got "Snake bites priest; snake dies."


I occasionally manage to get a book, CD or DVD ahead of its official release date. Some online retailers are more conservative than others in estimating the time it takes the Post Office to deliver stuff, so it's not surprising. But at least I've never been slapped with an injunction as a result. A handful of people, it seems, have already got the next Harry Potter book, and are being threatened with legal action to keep them quiet about the plot (or bribed with autographs from J. K. Rowling; it depends which story you read.) The rest of us will find out soon enough anyway: the book comes out at the weekend.


Yes, I've already put an "in case of emergency (ICE)" number in my mobile. I'm getting several messages about this a day at the moment, so you can all stop now, thanks. This has to be one of the most successful and rampant memes I've come across in years!


It's nice to work in an office with air conditioning. Ours was fitted last year and in this weather it makes a tremendous difference. Unfortunately my house is a different matter. It's currently 30°C (86° F) in here, and that's with all the windows open and a fan going.


The Co-op have announced that they will no longer be selling foods that contain Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). I'm one of those people who has a bad reaction to the stuff - I've had worse hangovers from a chinese meal washed down with a cup of green tea than I've got from drinking half a dozen pints of lager. I talked about "hot dog headache", or Chinese Restaurant Syndrome back in September 2003 so it's nice to see the Co-op taking steps to help.

However, the likelihood of continuing confusion with a 1980s German heavy metal group still exists, and should be encouraged wherever possible.


Egad, it's hot. We spent the day by the seaside, starting in Weston-Super-Mare and then moving on to Sand Bay. The two couldn't be more different - Weston was heaving, with lots of very loud music, bikes and fast cars on the seafront, and a well-maintained pier full of amusement arcades and ice cream shops. Sand Bay was quiet, with just a few people walking around taking in a spectacular view of the Severn Estuary (although it was a bit hazy). Guess which one I preferred?

Mind you, the thing I enjoyed even more was sitting in the car with the air conditioning on.


At least I did first thing this morning. It was the South Cotswold Beer Festival's 10th anniversary do last night, and I enjoyed myself immensely. What did I try this year?

  • Cotswold Spring Brewery - Codrington Royal (4.5%)
  • Inveralmond - Lia Fail (4.7%)
  • Kelham Island - Pale Rider (5.2%)
  • Oakleaf - I Can't Believe It's Not Bitter (4.9%)
  • Teignworthy - Beachcomber (4.5%) (by far the best of the bunch)
  • Westbury Ales - Amber Daze (4.1%)

All in all, it was a very pleasant evening. Today it was the village fete, so I spent most of the afternoon on the playing field, and it's been sunny and very warm. I'm glad I was wearing a hat: with my sort of hairstyle, strong sun is not a good idea!


Of all the responses to yesterday's events in London, the one that stays with me is the statement Ken Livingstone made. His words underlined the strength and dignity of London's response and caught the spirit of the nation far more than any of the speeches made by the other political leaders yesterday. Good for him.


Now let's get this straight, kids. You had a whole bunch of fireworks and some video gear, so you decided to play Quake III for real? The psychiatrist is on his way.


Yes, I know I appear to have been in a bad mood for most of the last month. I've had really bad hayfever this year, and while taking Piriton has helped, it's made me a bit of a grumpy bugger as well. But the pollen count appears to be dropping off, at least as far as the stuff that makes me sneeze is concerned, so I hope to be back to my normal, slightly-less-grumpy self as soon as the effects of the pills wear off.


Do you think the BBC might have been embarrassed by the reaction to its coverage of the Live8 event at the weekend? From the tone of at least one article on their website it looks like some of the criticism might have stung a bit.


So London has won the competition to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

Grumpy old man that I am, what I'm wondering about is how much money that UK taxpayers will have to stump up to get everything ready. The Economist talks about the economic implications of winning the bid, and they're not particularly good. After all, Barcelona reportedly ended up somewhere between $1.4 and $2 billion in debt after the 1992 games, and Montreal won't finish paying off the debt it built up putting on the 1976 games until 2006. A new Olympic lottery is being planned to help fund the games, but seven years from now I bet the projected cost of £2.375 billion will have turned out to be a lot more. Has David Beckham really got something to celebrate?


We got the Olympics - the French got ITER. I know which one I'd rather support.

There's an interesting article on nuclear fusion and how the ITER project finally got moving over at The Register at the moment. It discusses the politics involved in getting multiple nations committed to making sustainable nuclear fusion work, and while it looks like progress is finally being made on getting things going, the description of the long and tortuous route that governments have taken to get here makes for depressing reading. About the only advocate ITER has at a government level anywhere in the world seems to be Tony Blair, proving that he can occasionally get things right.

As The Register says in the article: "fusion scientists have managed to get all this cash without enlisting Sir Bob Geldof or getting Pink Floyd to reform. Imagine if they had: we'd probably all have fusion-powered cars by now."


As you've probably already seen on Slashdot, the Virgo Consortium have launched a website showing images and movies from the Universe Simulation that they've just completed. It investigates how large-scale structure in the Universe evolves, given the presence of Cold Dark Matter.

The general consensus seems to be that the pictures match up well to what we can actually see out there, which means that all the stuff we see around us - protons, neutrons, electrons and the other bits of matter that we can prod, poke and measure - makes up less than 5% of what the Universe is made of. That's a pretty amazing thought, isn't it?

WOW (1)

Have a look at the International Fleet Review that recently took place in The Solent, as viewed from space by the Envisat satellite.

WOW (2)

Elsewhere in orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope captured some remarkable pictures of the Deep Impact probe's effects on the comet Tempel 1.


However bad the BBC's coverage of Live8 was, it sounds like MTV's was far worse - at least as far as CNN is concerned. CNN singled out AOL's coverage as being the best way to watch the event. I'm sure the fact that AOL is, like CNN, a part of the Time Warner empire had absolutely nothing to do with the glowing review they got.


What a weekend. I'll remember Live8 partly for the spectacle of seeing all of Pink Floyd on the same stage once more - even if David Gilmour did describe the event in one TV interview as "like sleeping with the ex-wife."

But I'll also remember Live8 as the point in which I lost my faith in the BBC. Their coverage was dreadfully poor - and not just because the anchorman for the whole thing was Jonathan Ross, who appeared to be sitting in a pod liberated from the London Eye. His snide and sour comments were profoundly misjudged; I guess he was trying to be funny, but he wasn't succeeding.

The beeb's coverage concentrated far too much on Hello! style celebrity interviews before and after people went on stage or on picking out stars in the audience. Did we really need to see the Beckhams every twenty minutes? The programme was confused, patchy, and frequently missed out important things that were happening on and around the stage.

What I found deeply worrying was how the event was censored. Chris Martin summed things up best as Coldplay finished their set and the screens by the stage cut to a short film about the purpose of the day's events: "If the BBC don't show this film," he said, "they're not doing their job." Two seconds later the director cut to Jonathan Ross, so I think we can safely assume that they're not doing their job, Chris.

Self-censorship by the media is nothing new, but ever since the Hutton Inquiry, the BBC is terrified of making waves. This has had a noticeably negative effect on the Corporation. It seemed as if nobody at the had BBC realised that the message on Saturday was intended to stop people dying, for God's sake!

Imagine how things will be now that the BBC will no longer carry live news. Yes, I'm aware that this might be to stop us seeing bodies on the streets or remove swearing from interviews, but who decides what is cut? Where do you draw the line? Whose responsibility is it to decide? On Saturday they weren't using a delay, but you can bet that the next big event like this won't be going out live. And after Live8, I don't trust the BBC enough to believe that what I'm seeing is giving me a comprehensive enough picture of what is really going on.


NASA's Deep Impact probe looks like it's been a resounding success. And that's one big impact event for a lump of metal the size of a washing machine.


Once again, Bush has ruled out serious action on climate change, but I really get the sense that he's wriggling on the hook over the issue. How much worse does the situation have to get before he changes his mind?


NASA has been announcing the discovery of extrasolar planetary systems for a long time, but yesterday's APOD of a disk of cold material surrounding the star Fomalhaut is an amazing technical achievement - the star is, after all, 25 light years away. And I bet Larry Niven has a copy of that picture on his computer.


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