Time and a Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: July 2009

July was a busy month - I started it with a trip to Norway, flying back via Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Twice!

I also went to the Latitude Festival again, which was great fun as always, but a little strange as this year I didn't have the twins with me. I also found yet more interesting stuff on the web, and it all ended up in here.


I got home from work this evening with the lovely prospect of being on holiday for a while. It's a nice feeling. Blog entries may be a bit intermittent over the next week or so, but I'll be maintaining some sort of record on the Eee and stuff will eventually get blogged. You'll no doubt be less than surprised by the fact that I have a complete backup of this website on a memory stick that I carry around with me. I'm that kind of guy.


Thanks to electricdragon of the WGB for posting a link to a YouTube video featuring the work of Georg Klein, who is a post-doc working in Oxford University's Engineering Department. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there willing to pay good money to play "Ewok Rampage." Make sure you keep watching for the bit with the pond...

...and then watch this video to see the same software, now running on an iPhone 3G. I'm hoping that Augmented Reality (AR) will become the killer app for the iPhone. All the elements are in place; it has a number of systems that can identify the phone's location and orientation; it has a video camera and video display built in that can be accessed by applications running on the phone, and in the case of the 3Gs, it has a pretty high-powered little processor to handle the computation side of things. Other AR applications under development include software that points you in the direction of the nearest London Underground station, so things are looking very promising.


You really need to take a few minutes to read about the bonkers automotive parts specialist Turbonique, Inc. Back in the sixties, if you felt your car wasn't going fast enough, they'd sell you the parts to pep it up a bit. If one of their superchargers didn't make your car go like a rocket, they'd sell you something that did - a rocket motor...

Just reading about someone sitting in a tiny rocket-powered go-kart that could do a standing quarter mile in under nine seconds gives me the willies. The N-Propyl Nitrate that the engines used for fuel had drawbacks of its own, too. I think I'll stick with the performance my car already has.


Here's another gem unearthed by Jason Kottke: a bunch of cats playing Schoenberg. Cory's description of how he achieved this collection of marvels is as entertaining as the pieces themselves; he automated a lot of the process using PERL scripts. I bet Glenn Gould never anticipated one of his recordings would be put to such a strange (and amusing) use...


Today I also discovered a collection of photographs showing 600 amazing costumes from the 2009 San Diego Comic Convention. Wow. Yes, there were lots of Batmen, Jokers, Darth Vaders, Stormtroopers and Indiana Joneses, but there were also some insanely inventive outfits as well. I'm particularly impressed by the couple at #108, who came as a pair of Judges from Mega City One, and the dude at 225 who came as a photorealistic Captain Jack Sparrow, even down to the teeth. A few of the people crop up more than once, but it's still an impressive collection.


A story on Slashdot today pointed me at a visual history of 3D graphics game engines. That brought back some memories, I can tell you.


In 2004, Babylon 5 extra and Dilbert creator Scott Adams started losing his voice. It wasn't a cold; it was a condition called adductor spasmodic dysphonia, and over the following months it got progressively worse. Wired magazine have been to see him to find out what happened next...


The art of Salvador Dali as imaginary video game material. Sorry, but I really hope that this one stays imaginary. Nintendo = safe family fun != Dali's imaginings.


Here's an interesting one... A study by researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island appears to indicate that people with higher dopamine levels are more likely to be adventurous in the choices they make, even when the current situation is fine. The report in New Scientist magazine put this in the context of predicting whether someone would pick a new, untried item on the restaurant menu or stick with something familiar that was known to be good. If your brain is suffused with higher dopamine levels, the report suggests, you're more likely to plump for the unknown.

The New Scientist report goes on to explain that these elevated levels result from the experimental subjects having a less efficient version of a gene (identified by the acronym COMT) that codes for an enzyme that breaks down dopamine in the brain - but the story reported in the New Scientist begs the question whether it was the presence of the less-efficient gene or actual measured dopamine levels in people's brains that were being correlated with adventurousness. If you think about it, elevated dopamine levels would be a fairly robust indicator of differing neurochemistry - so I guess that matching experimental results to this measurement would be fairly straightforward. The process of correlation is likely to be easier as well, because the subject is sitting right in front of you. If the results were based solely on genetic markers, on the other hand, the implications are much more interesting. Perhaps the most important difference is that if you're assessing someone based on their genetic code, you don't need to take realtime measurements of their neurochemistry - in fact, once you have your genetic sample, you don't need the subject to be present at all.

So I went clicking to get a copy of the published paper online and read it, just for you; the answer is that just the presence of a particular gene was enough to predict whether someone would be adventurous or not. The more I think about it, the more boggled I am by this: what other qualities might we have that can be predicted to a statistically relevant degree purely from our genetic makeup? And do we really want anyone making those predictions about our behaviour?


Seth Godin's latest blog on misuse of the humble apostrophe has obviously hit a nerve. Several
of the blogs I read today have mentioned it. The main reason for the interest is Seth's wonderfully pithy statement, which I agree with wholeheartedly:

"When I get a manuscript or see a sign that misuses its and it's and quotes, I immediately assume that the person who created it is stupid.

I understand that this is a mistake on my part. They're not necessarily totally stupid, they're just stupid about apostrophes."

I know just how he feels. But what I found particularly amusing was the fact that the first mention of the original blog post I saw was on Haddock.org, where the blog entry above it referred to "Self Harming Nokia's" (and I have to say that I would have written that particular headline with a hyphen in "self-harming").

Mind you, according to Time Magazine we've not only forgotten how to punctuate sentences, we can't even write them any more...


Any student of American culture will be familiar with the news anchorman Walter Cronkite, who died on Friday. He was considered to be one of the most trusted voices on television. With his passing, the golden age of television journalism draws to a close. In today's frantic world-in-sixty-seconds rolling news coverage, the idea that someone would take the time to think about what to say and then deliver a calm, measured commentary seems ludicrous, and it's our considerable loss.

Whenever a significant event happened in the 1960s and 1970s, Mr Cronkite would be there to report it - often before anyone else. You can hear his voice on much of the Apollo footage being rebroadcast at the moment as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations. In fact he became so synonymous with the space program that Ron Howard got him to re-record some of his original commentary for the movie Apollo 13. The New York Times has a full obituary.


How could I resist bringing to your attention the amazingly cool fact that scientists in Japan are developing a skiing robot?


The next time my mother tells me she thinks the Apollo moon landings were faked, I'm going to show her the photographs that the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter took recently. Not only can you see the base stages of each Lunar Excursion Module, but in the case of the Apollo 14 site you can even make out the tracks that the astronauts left behind, leading to the Lunar Surface Experiment Package (LSEP) that astronomers are still bouncing lasers off today. Take that, Bart Sibrel!


I'd decided that if I woke after five this morning, I'd get up and head for home; needless to say my internal clock did its thing and I woke up at about three minutes past five. A decision is a decision; rather than turning over and trying to get back to sleep, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and unzipped the tent flap. Outside, the view was stunning. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sun was just beginning to peek over the trees at the edge of the park. I couldn't turn my back on such a beautiful morning so I brushed my teeth, had a swig of water, and started packing.

I'd got everything squared away by twenty past, so I headed back to the car - and this was when my iPhone really came in useful. When I arrived, I'd used MotionX's GPS lite application to set a waypoint at the car, so when I got to the car park I was able to walk straight to its location. I was so impressed that when I got home I bought the full version of the app - which cost me just £1.79: bargain!

I was also impressed by the iPhone's ability to keep going. I hadn't charged it since Wednesday night, and I got the first "low battery" warning this morning when I enabled its GPS routines. I was kicking myself though - last summer I bought a Freeloader solar charger especially to use at Latitude, and I left the damn thing at home. When I got back, I plugged it in to the iPhone, and it was able to charge the battery to about 75% of a full charge. It's a useful thing to have handy, so I will make very sure I take it with me next time.

Setting out early paid off, as the roads really didn't get busy until I was nearly home. I made it back to the village in just over five hours, and needless to say the first thing I did when I'd unloaded the car was run a bath. That was almost as satisfying an experience as the rest of the festival. I'm also looking forwards to sleeping on a proper mattress tonight. The older I get, the more I enjoy my creature comforts.


I slept slightly better than I did on Friday night, and I was up dressed and heading for the show by 10:30 this morning. Again, there was a huge queue to get in, but fortunately Marcus Brigstocke and the gang were also running late so even after I made a detour to get a latte and a toffee muffin (I know, I'm developing a habit) I didn't miss the start of their show.

I had to duck out before the Early Edition crew finished winding things up, as I wanted to see the really big event: Thom Yorke of Radiohead had a solo spot on the main stage at midday. It was an interesting performance. Yorke tends to rely heavily on sorrowful, keening vocals that don't consist of words; it's a tribute to his abilities as a multi-instrumentalist that he avoided each song sounding the same. He used the opportunity to play some songs which, as he put it, had been "on the shelf" for a while. They all got a rapturous reception, of course; there were more people in the Obelisk Arena than at any other time over the course of the festival and he was the only artist I saw all weekend who was allowed to come back out and do an encore.

I'd been talking to a few folks during the weekend about who they were planning to see. One name kept on cropping up, so I had to go and see for myself: Gurrumul, who played the Uncut Arena this afternoon. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist from Australia with an amazing, haunting voice and I'm very glad I got to hear him sing. Again, when I got home I ordered his album.

After Gurrumul's set had finished, I walked over to the Obelisk Arena to see The Rumble Strips. I doubt I could give them a fair review given the act they were following, so I'll move on to The Gaslight Anthem, who I really enjoyed. After being down at the front for Maps yesterday, I'd obviously decided that this was the way to enjoy the festival, so I made my way to the front once again. It's amazing how it changes your perception of a concert - the crowd at the front really create the spirit of the performance - for good or bad - and when it works, it's a sight to behold.

With that in mind, I went back to the Uncut arena early to get in place for Bristol's finest: Tricky. I've not heard a lot of his stuff beyond the early albums, but hearing him perform live was a shock. His band delivers a wall of sound that most metal bands would kill for. Onstage, he's a charismatic figure, effortlessly cool. At first sight he looks like he's riding a tide of chaos, the music teetering on the brink of anarchy and disarray that gives it an edge that few of the other bands at the festival could match. But with being at the front, I was able to see just how much Tricky steers the performance, dialling it back when needed or pushing the band forwards when the pace shows the slightest sign of slacking. He was totally in control of what was going on and fully deserved the rapturous reception he got. As the band wound up the last number, he stood at the front of the stage with his head bowed, holding his hands together as if in prayer. Then he climbed the guard rail and launched himself into the audience.

"He's heavier than I expected."

He body surfed his way out of the tent, held aloft by the crowd as the last chords of the music died away. It was the perfect end to his performance, and as he disappeared towards the sound desk, I knew I'd just seen the best act at the festival. No contest.

How on earth do you follow something like that? Saint Etienne bravely took the stage ten minutes later, and treated us to some first rate pop, but I wandered back to the Obelisk arena to wait for Editors to take the stage. I like their music - I bought The Back Room when it came out - and they dutifully worked through their hits. However, vocalist Tom Smith's erratic behaviour soon started to provoke mutterings from the people standing near me; the general consensus was that he'd had several beers too many. There were several moments where I thought he was going to end up flat on his back, but he kept it together.

There was quite a wait for the headline act to come onstage. I was quite close to the front again, and the road crew seemed to be having difficulties; eventually they were ordered offstage and I'm not altogether sure that everything was totally ready - but the lights went down and on came Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I've been a fan for a while now - probably the first experience of the band I can remember is their appearance in Wim Wenders's film Wings of Desire. Last year, of course, I saw Grinderman play the main arena as support to Interpol, but this year Mr Cave and his fellow musicians were top of the list.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

If Tricky takes the potential for chaos on stage and steers it, focuses it like a formula one racing car driver, Nick Cave always seems to me to be more like a valiant railroad engineer, stoking the boiler of his locomotive and pushing it faster and faster, riding the ragged edge of performance that will either end in glory or a huge explosion of twisted, screaming metal. Grinderman were like that last year - this year, the Bad Seeds seemed to be flirting even more closely with catastrophe. Mic cables were snagged; the music stand was caught, catapulting his careful notes to the four corners of the stage; Warren Ellis threw whatever came to hand up in the air when he'd finished making noises with it; the man is just plain scary. The road crew scurried back and forth, retrieving Ellis's musical instruments and trying to keep everything on the rails. Cave was having problems with the monitors, too: "It's too fucking loud up here."

He should have been out the front with us. From the PA came a crazed, demented, wall of sound. The keyboards sounded like the engine's boiler had already burst. Ellis's collection of exotic instruments were subjected to further abuse. The drums thundered more loudly than Thursday night's storm. The vocals had to fight against all of this, Cave bellowing and charging like an elephant from hell.

It was glorious.


Today was a busy day. Even after braving another enormous queue to get in, I was in the main area by 11:15, so I headed over to the coffee stall for a latte and a toffee muffin. I spent a fair amount of time wandering around the site taking photographs, many of which will appear on Flickr over the next week or so.

The organisers of the Film and Television Tent work closely with BAFTA to develop their programme, and one of the high points this year was a Q&A session hosted by David Morrisey, who was talking with Stephen Frears. It was a fascinating talk which could only cover some of his amazing career, from directing Gumshoe in 1971 to his work on films such as My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen. I could have listened to the two of them talk for hours, and I was really disappointed when they wound things up.

I headed over to the Obelisk arena for The Airborne Toxic Event - imagine what Arcade Fire might look like if they were given a walk-on part in a Tarantino movie, and you'll have a fair idea of what they're like. I really enjoyed their set.

After that I wandered over to the Film and Television Tent, where I was hoping to see a lecture by Jeffrey Lewis about Watchmen, but unfortunately his car had broken down en route and the talk had been cancelled.

I walked back to the Sunrise Arena for the set from Maps. James Chapman recorded most of his early stuff at home in Northampton on a 16-track recorder. I was wondering how it would work live, but - just as with The Go! Team's performance last year, I needn't have worried. For tonight's performance he had August helping him out together with a collection of cool looking equipment including a very shiny MacBook laptop and what I guess would be a couple of Kaoss pads (which of course set me off wanting one again). The PA at the Sunrise Arena was given a proper workout by their stuff - the bass frequencies were incredible. James is a lovely chap - just watch his video diaries for proof - and he was the subject of some good-natured ribbing from his friends in the audience, who spent one song throwing packets of Quavers at him. "Quavers are so 2007," was his comment. "It's Monster Munch these days." Even when August's computer crashed during one song, he maintained a level of calm unflappability that I'd never have managed on stage. The new single sounded great, and I can't wait to get the new album. After Maps had finished their set I would have loved to have stayed and listened to Passion Pit, especially after hearing the Mummers do a version of Sleepyhead, but I needed to get back to the Uncut Arena.

I got there as Newton Faulkner sat down to play his first number (he explained that he'd resorted to sitting down for the first few numbers as he had so many gadgets to control with his feet that when he'd tried to play standing up, he'd nearly fallen over!) Faulkner comes over as a thoroghly decent and extremely affable chap, and he treats the performance as though he were explaining to some friends how he does everything. "UFO" stopped dead in the middle of the song while he explained that he had wanted a theremin on the record, but nobody they knew had one available. On hearing him make an approximation of the noise required, his producer promptly recorded him and put it on the album - yup, the theremin sound was Newton's voice and as the song resumed he demonstrated his theremin-noise-making prowess to us. Even when the wrong patch got selected for a bass guitar part, he treated it as an opportunity for experimentation and discussion: "Ooh, that actually sounds okay like that. Makes it more trance-y. What do you reckon?"

Newton Faulkner

It's impossible not to like him, and he had the audience eating out of his hand. Getting the crowd to sing along with "Gone in the morning" he decided that they weren't loud enough, so he began a long and contrived skit about what the crowd's motivation should be. He explained that the audience should imagine that they were pirates, just twenty five feet from battle with the barbarian hordes and almost certain death. "We're edging closer, and closer, and closer to the barbarian hordes... Fifteen feet away from the mother-kissing barbarian hordes... Closer... Now we're only ten feet away - five feet away - three - two - one..." The audience erupted into the chorus. "That's not bad," he said - "but for the next song, if that was level one on the audience participation scale, this song needs level five." He got the guys to make "the most manly" noise they could imagine, "as if you were sitting on a motorcycle covered in real ale" which got a satisfying roar from the audience. Then it was the girls' turn. My eardrums nearly ruptured. Even Newton was taken aback. "GREAT ZOMBIE JESUS that was loud!" Of all the acts that should have got an encore, Mr Faulkner was the one who really deserved one. I shall definitely go and see him play live again.

I stayed to listen for the first part of Spiritualized's set, but I have to admit that curiosity got the better of me and I headed off to see Grace Jones. When I'd first heard that she was headlining on the Saturday night, I must admit I thought it was an odd choice, but the show followed on logically from the kitsch of the Pet Shop Boys. "Subtle" is not a word you'd think of applying to her act, but it was spectacular. From flashing LED head-dresses to enormous conical hats, she used all of the immense stage to her advantage. I should have stayed to watch it all, but by this point I'd been on my feet almost continuously for twelve hours and my back was aching. I'm sorry to say that I headed back to my tent and I'd climbed into my sleeping back and turned out the lights by 11:30.


This year the folks from The Early Edition had moved from the Literature Tent to the Comedy Arena, and with good reason - as one of the first acts of the day, they drew a massive audience. Marcus Brigstocke was on fine form, as were his partners in crime Carrie Quinlan, Andre Vincent, and Mitch Benn. Mitch was given just twenty five minutes to write a song about a story in the papers selected by the audience, and the result - a song about pagan policemen investigating some scratched cars in Ipswich - was superb.

The Early Edition crew were followed by Rob Deering, who made a welcome return to the festival. He's one of the few stand-up comedian/musicians who doesn't just write funny songs, he integrates his observational humour into the music (hence the selection of songs that must be sung as if the singer has "got a piece of bread in my mouth.") And anyone who can play "Freebird" - all of it - by himself is okay in my book.

After leaving the Comedy Tent to head over to the Uncut Arena, I made my first real discovery of the festival: The Mummers. Vocalist Raissa has a wonderful voice that unavoidably draws tonal comparisons with Bjork, and that's not a bad thing. Her singing is expressive and emotional and joyful. The band were superb - and just as I thought I'd got a handle on their music they launched into a track called Wonderland, which featured one of the most amazing synthesiser solos I have ever heard. My jaw was on the floor. Every year there's one act who really get to me so I become a huge fan overnight, and this year it was them. I ordered their album as soon as I got home.

The Mummers

After a bowl of curry for lunch, it was back to the Uncut Arena, to see The Duckworth Lewis Method. I've been a fan of Neil Hannon's work for years, and the idea that he had got together with Thomas Walsh from Pugwash to create a concept album about cricket just pushed all the right buttons. And they're following me on Twitter, you know. They were the number one must-see act on my list of things to do at Latitude this year, and they didn't disappoint. We got pretty much the entire album, including a blazing, rocked-out version of "The Sweet Spot" that had me headbanging away like I was twenty again. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Then over to the Obelisk arena, where Chrissie Hynde was onstage by 18:30 with The Pretenders - clearly having a whale of a time and blazing through their greatest hits. The sun came out, and all was right in the world.

After that, I wandered back over to the woods and the Sunrise Arena to see Little Boots - although given the fact that she's really tiny and the arena was packed, all I actually managed to see was an occasional glimpse of very blonde hair. The audience loved it - her music is synth pop with a driving beat, so what's not to like? The entire audience appeared to be joined at the hip and was energetically bouncing up and down as a single entity. I felt very old, and stayed at the back to watch the youngsters enjoy themselves.

I got back to the main area just as Squeeze were winding their act up. It sounded good, but by the time I got to the Uncut Arena they'd already left the stage. I grabbed a bit to eat and then headed over to the Obelisk Arena to see The Pet Shop Boys. They were quite a spectacle - in a rather kitsch sort of way. Most of the costumes seemed to have been made out of cardboard boxes and sticky-backed plastic. Expensive cardboard and sticky-backed plastic, to be sure, but cardboard and sticky-backed plastic nonetheless. It's difficult to take a band seriously when the lead singer is surrounded on stage by a number of adults dressed up as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State. I also found myself listening suspiciously to the perfect sound that the band achieved and thinking somewhat uncharitably that the performers' physical presence didn't actually appear to be contributing much to the effect. Were they actually miming? I don't know. But as I watched Neil singing away, the thought crossed my mind more than once.

My less-than-charitable attitude might well have been compounded by the fact that I'd spent most of the day standing up, a pastime to which my back had started to object in quite a forceful manner. Eventually I couldn't take any more (the back pain, not the miming or non-miming) and I headed back to the tent where I spent the next three hours trying to get comfortable enough to fall asleep and failing miserably.


I left Mum and Dad's place at lunchtime for the drive down to Suffolk - more specifically, to Henham Park, near Southwold. Today was the first day of this year's Latitude Festival...


Getting on to the site was easy enough - I was able to drive straight into the park without seeing anything in the way of traffic. But once I'd parked the car and gathered my gear together I was confronted with a queue nearly a mile long of all the other people who were waiting to enter the campsite. There seemed to be a number of reasons for this: firstly, everyone had to exchange their tickets for wristbands as they entered the site, rather than setting up their tents first. SSecondly, I got the impression that a lot more people had come for the whole event this year rather than just arriving on the Friday evening. Whatever the cause, I spent over two hours waiting to get into the festival site.

Once I'd picked a spot to set up camp I left the tent and wandered down to the arena to be confronted with another queue to get inside. There can't have been more than a dozen people trying to do bag checks on the thousands of people they were keeping waiting. Organisationally, they don't seem to have learned anything from last year, and judgiing by the number of people wandering round inside with cans or bottles of booze, their search system was heavily compromised if not downright broken. Some people were clearly getting quite frustrated by the delay, and this continued to be a theme throughout the weekend.

Once I'd finally got inside, things were much better. The site layout was pretty much unchanged from last year, and almost every stall or food outlet that was there in 2008 was present and correct. I bought a very nice bowl of haggis, tatties and neeps and sat down at a table to browse the programme and plan my weekend.

Ben Goldacre was giving a talk about his experiences as debunker of the dodgy research used by unscrupulous companies to sell questionable products. It sounded quite scary, and I am full of admiration for the guy. If your company says in its advert, "and now for the science," you'd better make damn sure it is science or Ben Goldacre will humiliate and ridicule you. And I will enjoy watching him do it.

Last year I really enjoyed Simon Armitage's appearance in the Literature Tent when he read from his book about his teenage goal to be the singer in a band. He had even got as far as recording some tunes with his mates, and he'd released them on iTunes under the name of The Scaremongers. Fast forward a year, and here they are in the woods, playing their first big festival. And you know what? They're pretty damn good.

After Simon and his mates brought their set to a close, I wandered back over the bridge to the Literature Tent to see Grace Maxwell and Edwyn Collins. I'd heard in advance that this session was going to take place on the Thursday night, and I didn't want to miss it. I can remember seeing Orange Juice many years ago and despite my rock sensibilities being whacked out of kilter by their less-than-reverential treatment of Van Halen's "Jump" I really enjoyed the music. I can remember reading the first news reports of Mr Collins's brain haemorrhage with a feeling of total disbelief. He's not far off my age, and things like that didn't happen to us, did they? His subsequent struggle to recuperate has been a profound inspiration, and seeing him and Grace on stage and taking questions from the audience brought a lump to my throat.

After that, the usual suspects appeared on stage, kept more-or-less under control by Robin Ince. Aside from Martin White and Pappy's Fun Club (who this year mercifully managed to remain fully dressed) we were joined by another fantastic singer songwriter, Robyn Hitchcock (Brenda's Iron Sledge is still a strong favourite of mine). The next hour and a half disappeared all too quickly. By the time Robin Ince wound up proceedings for the evening it was one o'clock in the morning so I headed back to the tent. It was still pouring with rain with the occasional flash of lightning off in the distance. Mitch Benn tweeted that it was like trying to fall asleep under a speed camera, and I knew how he felt. But I'd learned my lesson from previous years and had brought earplugs with me. Once I'd got them fitted I went out like a light and slept through until about eight o'clock the next morning. Best night's sleep I've had for months!


I know I keep going on about my iPhone 3Gs, but I'm still very pleased with it, although I switch off Wifi and 3G services when I want to go more than a day without charging the battery. One drawback I hadn't anticipated is that there is absolutely no coverage (and by that I don't mean there's no 3G coverage, I mean there's no service of any kind) at my parents' home in East Anglia. I was there this weekend, as Mum and Dad were celebrating their Golden Wedding anniversary.

When it's all up and running, though, the new iPhone is *fast*. Apart from the Lightsaber application and the Zippo lighter I mentioned earlier, I'm now starting to find stuff for the phone that is actually useful. The first really must-have application I've discovered is MotionX's free GPS Lite software, which I used a fair bit over the weekend. Of the apps I downloaded last week, Tweetdeck is getting the most use. It's a great little Twitter client. I also have the Nine Inch Nails Access application that caused a bit of a fuss recently - it's a great application for connecting musicians with their fans and I expect other tech-savvy bands to come up with their own versions before too long.

Speaking of Twitter, I was delighted to see O2's announcement today that from next month, direct messages and @replies on Twitter can be texted direct to my phone, free of charge. That's rather spiffy, isn't it?


Australian motorcyclist Robbie Madison has an interesting way of crossing Tower Bridge in London. Rather him than me.


We have a clear winner even though we're not halfway through: Man fined for punching punch bag.


There's been a lot of talk over the last week about Google's announcement that they are developing an operating system (OS) to be called Google Chrome. Many companies who make the mini-laptop computers collectively known as netbooks have understandably welcomed the announcement and they'll be supplying machines with the new OS installed by the end of next year. Certainly, the idea of an OS that boots up and gets you online in a few seconds sounds incredibly attractive, so what's the catch?

If you delve a bit deeper and read the text of Google's announcement, the first thing you'll notice is that it says that the Chrome OS will be built around a lightweight (i.e. cut-down) version of Linux, so claims in the media that it's been "built from the ground up" sound a bit overblown to me. There are already many different versions of Linux available such as Debian, Fedora, Knoppix (an old favourite of mine), Mandriva, Red Hat, or Slackware, to name just a few. The majority of these are open source, which means that you can download them off the internet - for free - and modify them to meet your own needs, so long as you don't then sell them on as a commercial product. That's nothing new, either. Linux has been around for years, and you can already buy netbook computers such as the Asus EeePC that run Linux straight out of the box.

The bit of the OS that Google does appear to be developing from the ground up is what's known as the desktop environment - the things you see on the screen, the bit of the OS that you interact with when you want to do stuff on your computer. Human Computer Interfaces and interaction design has been a professional interest of mine for many years, so I'm fascinated to see what Google will come up with. Their announcement mentions that the user interface will be "minimal" and that most of the user's experience will take place on the web. Given that Google is all about dealing with data, it's fairly safe to assume that their desktop environment will be devoted primarily to running a web browser so the user can access Google's existing portfolio of products: Gmail for sending your mail, Desktop for organising your stuff, Picasa for arranging your photos, YouTube for your videos and Orkut for social networking, and so on. If you want to write a document or run a spreadsheet, it'll likely take place inside the OS's web browser - in fact I wouldn't be surprised if the OS turns out to be little more than a glorified version of the Chrome browser that Google launched in September last year.

There are a number of companies these days who do a lot of business working with large amounts of data. Google is one of them; others include Dell, Amazon and Microsoft, and all of them want us to change the way we use computers. In particular, they want us to stop using our computer's hard drive to store our stuff, and use *their* hard drives instead. Those hard drives will be distributed across gigantic server farms across the globe. That way, they say, our data can be available wherever we go. That way, they say, we don't have to worry about backing anything up or keeping it safe, because they'll do that for us. This way of working is called cloud computing, where our data just joins a magical cloud of online bits and bytes which is always there. When we need our stuff, we just call it back out of the cloud and use it. It sounds lovely, and the tech papers are full of stories about how it's going to change computing forever. Dell even tried to trademark the term recently, but their application was turned down.

Personally, I believe that cloud computing is a step too far, and that it's just the latest in a long line of industry ideas being hyped as "the next big thing" with little or no critical assessment of the claims being made. Richard Stallman, who founded the Free Software Foundation and who created GNU, has already described cloud computing as a trap; the approach certainly raises a lot of difficult questions. Why would you hand over all your precious data to some company you've never dealt with before? Will they be able to stop anyone else getting access to your stuff? How can you be sure that you'll be able to access all your data ten years from now? What happens if you can't? What compensation would you be entitled to? How reliable or trustworthy is any given cloud company going to be, and what life expectancy is that company going to have? What would happen to your data should that company go out of business? Do you want to gamble that all your precious information will be available when you need it?

Finally, given my experiences in Norfolk over the weekend, here's one more question: what happens if you want to work somewhere that doesn't have access to the web? The big companies would love to convince you that those places don't exist, but in reality there are an awful lot of them. I don't see cloud computing coming up with satisfactory answers to any of these big questions any time soon, so as far as I'm concerned my data is going to stay right where it is. If that means giving Google's new OS a miss, so be it.


It's the South Cotswold Beer Festival this weekend. Rebecca, Ruth and Rob came down last night and we spent the evening there. It tried to rain once or twice, but it stayed dry for most of the night and we had a great time. Ruth and I started at "A" and began working through the selection of beers, one letter at a time; one way or another I ended up with a very good selection this year. The beers I sampled this year were:

Some of those are old favourites, others were new. In my opinion, the best of the lot was Maiden Voyage, which was a discovery for me despite the fact that I drive past the brewery every night on the way home! It was a light, dry beer that you could easily spend a good session with - if you see it around, I highly recommend giving it a try.

The bands were very good this year, too - Rockmungus were already on stage when we arrived, working through a set of rock standards. They were a good-natured bunch, keeping up a good line in banter with people making their way past the stage to the ticket booth. Later on in the evening The Atomic Rays took over, playing a quite eclectic set of covers that included Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman, much to Rob's delight. The Rays had a projection system running at the back of the stage, showing clips from 1950s science fiction movies like Forbidden Planet and When Worlds Collide, so I immediately liked them. All in all, it was one of the best nights I've spent there in the 14 years that the festival has been running.


Thanks once again to fellow WGB denizen Louis for a couple of interesting items today. The first is the transcripts of interviews that the FBI conducted with Saddam Hussein after his capture in 2004, which are now available to read online. It's interesting to see how and where his interpretation of events differed from that reported by the western media and military. There's a saying generally credited to Sir Winston Churchill that "history is written by the victors," (although it doesn't appear in any of the books of quotations in my collection) and it's clear that our history of the Gulf War would have been markedly different if Saddam had been writing it. There are several cases where what I remembered as being a crushing defeat miraculously becomes a strategic withdrawal. It's fascinating stuff.


I've never seen a single episode of the 1970s TV show Mobile Suit Gundam but it obviously had quite an effect on Japanese kids. I can't imagine anyone in the west waking up one morning and deciding that they needed to recreate one of the show's enormous fighting machines in one-to-one scale. The closest equivalent I can think of would be if someone who watched Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds back in the sixties decided one day to build a full-scale replica of Thunderbird 2. Apparently in Japan things are rather different. Louis has just been to Tokyo and it was the photos he posted on the WGB and on Flickr that made me realise the damn thing actually exists; there really is a fifty-nine-foot giant robot towering over Tokyo at the moment.

Several pictures of the thing have cropped up online in the last couple of weeks, but to be honest I'd just assumed that the robot had been added on afterwards with computer graphics. I really couldn't believe anyone would actually make anything quite as outrageous. It just goes to show how wrong I can be. The Green Tokyo Gundam Project (page is in Japanese) will be on display at Shiokaze Park in Odaiba until the 31st August. I can't think of anything cooler to go and see if you're visiting Japan before then.

Meanwhile over in Kobe, they're planning to build a life-size model of the giant robot Tetsujin 28, which may be more familiar to some readers as Gigantor. Seeing projects like this fills me with a weird sort of joy, one that is driven by the realisation that the boundary between the real world and fictional characters can be broken if people are motivated enough. This sort of thing gives me hope that makind has a future, because if someone can come up with such crazy ideas as these and bring them to fruition, then surely mankind as a whole should be capable of achieving just about anything.

Of course, now it's only a matter of time before someone builds a life-size model of Godzilla stomping on Tokyo. I'd pay good money to go and see that.

JOHN KEEL 1930 - 2009

I was saddened today by the news that one of the world's leading Forteans, John Keel, has died at the age of 79. He was the author of several classic books dealing with the paranormal, the best-known of which is probably The Mothman Prophecies, which was made into a rather odd film starring Richard Gere. In the film, Alan Bates plays a character called Professor Leek who helps Gere investigate sightings of a strange winged creature in the skies above West Virginia - the character's name is a tribute to the author and Keel was happy with how the film turned out.

In the course of his professional career as a journalist, Keel wrote about a wide range of paranormal or Fortean subjects, contributing many articles to Fate Magazine. He conducted an intensive study of flying saucers; his conclusions that the nature of the phenomenon was psychic rather than extraterrestrial upset a lot of people looking for evidence of visitors from outer space. Keel had abandoned the extraterrestrial hypothesis as early as 1967, seeing too many similarities between UFOs and myths of the faeries, psychic visions, and demonology. Each generation interprets things anew, but whatever might be behind it all doesn't seem to change. It's a great shame we won't have John Keel around to cast a discerning eye over its next manifestation.


The weather hasn't been that great this afternoon, so I stayed in. Needless to say, the Playstation got fired up at one point and I set about completing Burnout Paradise. This afternoon I managed to earn a 43x multiplier on a stunt run, so that's another achievement down - there's just one left to do before I have 100% on my licence. Unfortunately it's insanely hard - I have to win a "marked man" event in the Krieger WTR - a car that pretty much disintegrates whenever it hits anything. Ah well; the challenge will keep me coming back for another attempt. And another, and another...


After writing the blog I decided to have just one more go for the day. Guess what?

A hundred per cent


As you may have already noticed from my photos on Flickr, I've bought an iPhone 3Gs. I'm very pleased with it. I've got it set up for reading my email, checking RSS feeds, and reading and sending messages on Twitter, which is far more than I could manage on my last phone. At 3 megapixels, the built-in camera is as good as the first digital camera I bought back in 2003, and the "tap to focus" idea is both innovative and incredibly useful. Battery life is OK so long as you don't have 3g services enabled but it lasts no more than 24 hours if you have everything turned on and play with the thing a lot, which is what I did for the first couple of days I had it!

Of course, the huge attraction of the iPhone is the number of applications you can get for it. I've already got an eBook reader, a Twitter client, add-ins for LastFM, Facebook and LinkedIn, a WiFi hotspot finder, an instant messaging application, a cigarette lighter for waving in the air at concerts, and a lightsaber. I even have a mini-game of one of my Playstation favourites - Assassin's Creed. And best of all, every single one of these applications was free.


I mentioned last month that there was a lot going on, but the last few days have been crazy. I got back last night from Norway, where I've been working for a couple of days. When I get a chance, I'll be posting some photos that I took during the trip on my Flickr photostream.

It was an eventful trip, to say the least. It started when my alarm clock went off at 4am - which is much too early in the morning for me. I didn't bother making myself a coffee before setting off, which wasn't a good idea: being awake in the middle of the night without the assistance of caffeine doesn't do much for my sense of humour. Having to go through the rigmarole of security checks in Bristol didn't help matters either. I had to take off my belt before being unceremoniously patted down; a little old lady in front of me was made to take off her shoes and go through the detector again before being searched. Nobody at Bristol Airport appeared to be the slightest bit interested in making the customer experience a pleasant one. Since 9/11 I have come to view air travel as one of the most demeaning, unpleasant experiences that anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to and I have absolutely no sympathy for any airline or airport that goes out of business as a result of their passengers resorting to other forms of transport. They are bringing it on themselves.

It must have been one of those days on Thursday. On the way out from Bristol I had to make a fast connection in Amsterdam and although I caught the plane and arrived at Kristiansand OK, my luggage didn't. After I'd had to run from one side of Schipol Airport to the other on a hot day, I was in quite a state. There was absolutely no way I was going to spend my entire stay in the same clothes and I'm pretty sure my colleagues wouldn't have wanted me to, either. I'd been hoping that at least it would be a little cooler in Norway, but it's been almost as hot as the UK over the past week. By the end of the working day I was feeling pretty frazzled so, after I had checked in at the hotel, it was off to the shopping mall just up the road to grab hold of some fresh clothes and some essential toiletries. I ended up spending a scary amount of money, because Norway is not a cheap place to live.

Back at the hotel I had ten minutes to have a shower and get changed before we went out again. Our host took my colleagues and me for a bit of sightseeing before heading into town for the evening. The southern coast of Norway is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited and it looked wonderful in the evening sunshine. When we arrived in town, the place was heaving; I've visited the area quite a few times over the last ten years and I have never seen it so busy. We were told there were two reasons for this: firstly, the Quart Festival was in full swing. It's a front-line music festival that takes place over four or five days with acts like Korn and Placebo headlining. Slash and Ozzy Osbourne had played the night before and Marilyn Manson was performing too, so the emphasis was very much on rock and metal. I bet the Black-eyed Peas must have wondered how they had ended up on the same bill. The second reason for the crowds was that it was also the start of the Norwegian holiday season, which is a good enough reason to hold a festival by itself. The festivities seemed to revolve around shopping, so the town centre was very busy with lots going on in the streets. After a walk round the town to take it all in, we ate at a very good restaurant by the harbour. The food (a very spicy fish soup as a starter followed by beef tournedos) was excellent and it did my diet no good at all. When we left it was still light outside and it was rather disconcerting to find out it was after 11pm at night.

The following morning once we'd finished work, I headed back to the airport to be reunited with my luggage. I got to keep hold of it for all of ten minutes before I had to check it back in for the return journey! We got from Kjevik to Schipol without problems and as I'd been lucky enough to get window seats for every flight on this trip I enjoyed being able to watch the world go by beneath us. Needless to say I took a lot of photos. Although the first leg of the journey was pretty uneventful and the weather stayed fine, within five minutes of landing in the Netherlands it was raining heavily. After a three-hour stopover in Amsterdam, the rain had cleared and it was time to catch the flight back to Bristol. Things went well for the first half hour or so. The weather was clear and sunny and I got a good view of the countryside as we climbed out and turned towards the North Sea. Even when snacks and drinks were served, the flight was pretty smooth (in my experience, if a flight is going to get bumpy, it will always do so shortly after you've been given a drink). At one point when I looked out of the window we were over Clacton-on-sea. However, the next time I looked out of the window, we were flying much lower, and we were back over the North Sea again. As we should have been flying just to the north of London at that moment, I began to suspect that something odd was going on. There were some big clouds off in the distance and at first I thought we were trying to avoid a developing thunderstorm, but a couple of minutes later the captain came on the intercom and explained that the window heat system on the flight deck had short-circuited and that as a result he had decided to return to Amsterdam.

When we landed, the Captain stood at the front of the cabin to talk to everyone (and I've never seen that happen before). He explained that the de-icing system for the copilot's windscreen had short-circuited and damaged the window so it wasn't safe to fly the aircraft. By this point he had already arranged for another aircraft to be provided, so once our bags had been offloaded and it was safe for us to disembark we all tromped off the plane to get on the transit bus. I was the last passenger off the aircraft, so I had a quick chat with the Captain. He was very friendly and keen to explain what had happened, so I ended up on the flight deck. This is what the co-pilot's window looked like:


I'm not surprised he turned round! Once outside, I joined everyone else on the bus. We waited on the tarmac for five minutes or so without going anywhere, but I didn't really think anything of it. Eventually the bus driver got the all clear to take us to the next aircraft, so he set off... and fifteen feet later he drew to a halt again. The replacement aircraft was the one we'd parked next to!

At the second attempt, we got home without a problem. We were only three hours behind schedule and given what had happened I think everyone at KLM and Schipol did an exceptionally good job. The contrast with Bristol's approach to their customers couldn't have been greater. Best of all, my luggage arrived at the same time I did. I was home by eight o'clock and was so tired that when I logged on to my computer I realised I couldn't keep my eyes in focus. I was too tired to cook any tea so I had a cold beer, left all my luggage unpacked and headed upstairs to bed. The next thing I remember was waking up at 7am this morning!


It's the village fete today. To commemorate the occasion, we got a flypast this morning from the Red Arrows.

The Red Arrows visit Charfield

I thought that shot was worth getting up early for, but I don't think I'll be awake as early tomorrow.