Blog: The Next Generation

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: August 2003

Ah, the summer holidays.

In August the blog continued, with a new banner. Little did I know then how many subsequent banners I would end up creating...


I've just spent a couple of days down in south London, meeting my new niece Kate. My brother Dave and his wife Cathy live in Orpington with Kate and her big brother Tom. I hadn't seen them for 7 months or so; last time, Tom was just beginning to talk. Now, he's having conversations and already has a keen interest in cars, particularly the Audi TT. Not bad for two and a half years old.

I also took the opportunity to catch up with some old friends from my days in West Wickham. I hadn't seen Graham and Helen for at least ten years, but we all seemed to just pick up where we left off, which was great. I consider Graham to be one of my primary mentors in the field of progressive rock, and he introduced me to a lot of the bands and musicians that I still listen to today. It was nice to see that he still listens to them, too. As he and Helen now have a house full of teenage children, he's also well up-to-date on more contemporary music as well.

So, I've had a really nice time, and it was a pleasant change to do something completely out of my usual routine. Although I did end up in a second-hand bookshop on Saturday morning; there are some traditions to be upheld wherever I visit!


...or not, as the case may be. I'm in to the second week of my holiday now, feel pleasantly chilled, and am down to two cups of coffee a day at the most. With doing some drawing in the last couple of days I've noticed that my hands aren't shaking anything like as much as they normally do, and that I can draw something that's beginning to come close to a straight line. Nice to see, but when work starts again on Monday I wonder how long it'll last?


I've spent hours and hours and hours playing computer games produced by Ensemble Studios. You may have heard of their games: Age of Empires, Age of Kings, Age of Mythology...Well, the expansion pack for Age of Mythology comes out this autumn, and I'll be there with everyone else waiting for my copy. The new pack is called The Titans, and from the review I read today over at Gamespot, it looks pretty mouth-watering.


Dr. Banzai and the good folks at the Banzai Institute (especially Michael and Denise Okuda) have formed a team for the SETI@home distributed computing project. Naturally enough, I'm helping out, and you can too! If you're already running SETI@home, you can join the Institute's team by going to their statistics page at the SETI@home site and clicking where it says "join". If you aren't running the software yet, you'll need to download it first from the project's website at the University of Berkeley.


A bit of a case of the morning after the night before, today. Yesterday was the annual expedition to the Frocester Beer Festival, and we stayed there for most of the day. The beers I tried this time? Well, the ones I can remember drinking are listed here, although there may have been one or two others as well... There wasn't a duff one in there, either.

  • Bath Ales: Gem
  • Coach House: Postlethwaite's
  • Goose Eye: No-Eyed Deer
  • Hop Back: Thunderstorm
  • Moorhouse's: Pendle Witches' Brew
  • RCH: PG Steam
  • St Peter's: Best Bitter
  • Uley: Bitter
  • Woodforde's: Wherry Best Bitter

Film trivia point (well, I had to work one in somewhere): the Coach House bitter is named after Pete Postlethwaite, who comes from the brewery's home town of Warrington.

Then it was off to the curry house, by which point I'd decided the only way to ward off a serious hangover was to drink large amounts of water, and it seems to have done the trick. However, I think I may be suffering more from the fact that yesterday was the third day in a row I've had curry. At the moment I feel like I may well give up eating for most of the forthcoming week. Couldn't eat another thing. Not even a wafer-thin mint...


Well, I'm back here in the West after a very nice few days away. Even the drive back today wasn't too bad, as most traffic on the motorway appeared to be heading northbound. Yesterday evening Rebecca, Ruth, Rob and I had a meal at The Balti Society in Sheldon, which was extraordinarily good - if you're ever in Birmingham and you want a decent curry, that's the place to go.

I've even been down to the supermarket and stocked up with supplies, so if the travel chaos forecast by the newspapers does break out over the weekend, I don't have to drive anywhere. I might have to get the bike out at some point and work off all the large meals I've eaten this week, though. If I don't, I'm going to end up like Monty Python's Mr Creosote...


It was my sister's birthday today, and I was back at Mum and Dad's place in Norfolk. Annabelle, Che and Lela arrived in the morning and spent the whole day here. We had a great time, spent most of the day in the garden, and even ate outside - the weather's been perfect again. There were dragonflies flitting about in the garden, too. I hadn't seen any this year, and was beginning to wonder whether there were any about. On a larger scale, there are also lots of Jaguars, F-15s and goodness knows what else blatting around the sky up here. Sometimes it gets so noisy you can't hold a conversation outside!


The last couple of days have been a huge nostalgia trip for me - it's the first time I've been back to Southwold for about a decade. I got here yesterday, calling in at Wangford on the way in to see some friends, who have had a cottage there since the 1970's. When I was younger, I used to go there on holiday, and I was surprised to see I'm still in a few photos they've got on the walls in the kitchen! Ahh, those were happy days...

Then I drove down into Southwold itself. The place has changed significantly since I started coming here in the late 70's or early 80's. In fact it's quite the bustling seaside resort. My first impression when I got out of the car, though, was that the Adnams Brewery is a lot busier. As a child I used to live in Stone, in Staffordshire, which was home to Joules's Brewery (for whom the unit of energy - the Joule - is named, incidentally) and the smell in Southwold took me right back. I was meeting up with Rebecca, Ruth and Rob, and they took me for a tour of the place.

Southwold's pier at night

Some places have changed out of all recognition, particularly Southwold Pier, which is pretty much brand new; it was completed in February 2002. It's very impressive - this photo doesn't really do it justice. The many plaques on the pier railings make for some interesting reading, too. The town seems a lot livelier, and I'm sure the pier has had a lot to do with this. Certainly the amusement arcade was packed, which came as quite a shock - when I was younger I'd spend many an hour on the pinball tables in there with my friends, and we'd be the only people in the place...

Sadly, my favourite second-hand bookshop has gone - it's now a restaurant. It looks like most of the changes in Southwold have been for the better, especially if you're looking for something to eat, although there seem to be more art galleries around than there used to be. Still, some places have stayed the same, such as the Southwold Sailors' Reading Room. Southwold has quite a nautical history, from the Battle of Sole Bay onwards, and the reading room has some interesting memorabilia of earlier seafaring days.

We went out for a meal on the pier in the evening, which I really enjoyed. The food was extremely good. Particular thanks should go to Rebecca's Uncle Dougie for his generous hospitality. After the meal, we stood on the pier and watched the fireworks going off at the Aldeburgh carnival. They were impressive enough from Southwold - in Aldeburgh itself they must have been spectacular!

One of Southwold's more well-known characters is a chap by the name of Tim Hunkin, who is equal parts educator, illustrator, and mad inventor. You may remember the Rudiments of Wisdom column he drew for the British newspaper The Observer for many years. The pier features a water clock he constructed, which is similar in its eccentricity to the one he built for Neals Yard in London's Covent Garden. It's a great hit with kids - as it features two people in a bath who spit water at the spectators, and two gentlemen who wee when their trousers fall down on the hour and half-hour! He also produced the Under The Pier Show, which is a deranged collection of coin-operated machines, all designed and built by the man himself. Examples: the Microbreak (have a complete relaxing holiday in three minutes) or the Bathyscape (an underwater adventure exposing some of the North Sea's best-kept secrets) or the Quick-Fit (the completely effortless aerobics workout). Utterly demented; if you can't visit it in person, do have a look on Tim's website.

Today the four of us walked down to the Harbour Inn, which used to do the best fish and chips in town - I don't know what they're like these days, but they'd have to be pretty good to beat the cod and chips from the pier. Then we walked back up to the coast and along into town, I took a set of pictures for a panorama of Gun Hill, and before we knew it it was time to set off for home. I've had a really special couple of days, and I hope it won't be too long before I come back here.


Me and my big mouth. Back on July 25th I suggested that the only thing worse than the return of Blake's 7 would be the return of that mouse-eating-lizards-take-over-the-world series, V. I'm really sorry, folks: in an interview this week on Ain't It Cool News, Robert Englund says he's getting ready to to do just that. Argh!


Much amusement in the office yesterday when the ice cream van pulled in playing Ennio Morricone's theme tune to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Its strains had been drifting faintly across the business park for a good half hour before the van arrived, and it's very disconcerting listening to something on the very threshold of hearing - especially when nobody else can hear it. It turns out the equipment on vans these days has improved from the days of Popeye the Sailor Man. Our driver has 35 different tunes to choose from, including today's rendition, which was Lily The Pink by the Scaffold.

Respect, also, to Rob Pope in the office, who uncovered this gem explaining the origins of the "99." For those of you who don't know what a "99" is, it's an ice-cream cornet with a Cadbury's Flake stuck in the top. For those of you who don't know who the Scaffold were: ask your parents...


Stayed up quite late last night in the hope of seeing some Perseids, but it was very quiet - I didn't even see one. With a full moon (and various intruder lights going on and off in the neighbourhood) I guess this is only to be expected, but it was a bit of a disappointment.

Not so disappointing was a glorious view of the moon with Mars close alongside it. Mars is at its closest approach to the Earth for quite some time this month, and as a result the amateur astronomy crowd have been getting some amazing images. Some of the best I've seen are on Eric Ng's astrophotography page. Considering Eric takes these pictures with a webcam connected to a telescope on the top of a tower block in Hong Kong, the quality is nothing short of amazing!


Coolest new technology deployment I've seen recently? It has to be the Centibots - a team of robots, all running Linux, that can be despatched into dangerous areas to perform search and rescue operations. Different types have different functions, a bit like the different Thunderbirds vehicles. The first one sent in maps the environment - it's followed by others which use the map to search for things. There's a fascinating article on them at the San Francisco Chronicle, describing how they managed to find a cuddly penguin toy at the Moscone Center in SF. Which, on consideration, is fairly surreal. I like it!

Hope you got the Linux reference, by the way. Penguins are big in Linux. Two real penguins are actually sponsored in Linus Torvald's name down the road at the Bristol Zoo!


I've been listening to Nena's latest album 20 Jahre a lot recently - and the duet she's done with Kim Wilde gets a lot of airplay on the European Music TV channels, even if it's been pretty much ignored in the UK, which isn't fair; in fact it's cruel, and heartless, and in a perfect world they'd have been number one all summer.

Reading the credits in the booklet (and I'd be no good at this file sharing mularkey because CD inserts are a rich source of trivia for folks such as me) I noticed that the English lyrics were written by Lisa Dalbello. I've been a fan for a long time, as she's not only a gifted songwriter, she's also an amazing singer. Queensryche recorded songs by her, you can hear her sing on Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson's Victor album, and one of her songs featured on the soundtrack to Nine and a half weeks. Yes, she has been known to record songs featuring Chapman Stick player Fergus Marsh. And no, that didn't influence my opinion at all! Highly recommended.

IF IT'S TUESDAY, THIS MUST BE... first blog entry in a while. It's been a glorious few days; it was my birthday yesterday, and on Sunday I had a barbecue. Trust me to pick the hottest day of the year to do so - I think any weight I put on from the burgers and sausages was offset by the amount I lost in perspiration. Luckily I had some help this year. Rebecca and Liane did all my washing up for me - thanks folks, it's much appreciated - and my mate Pete did a sterling job running the barbecue. It made a change to have food that wasn't blackened round the edges, I don't know how he does it. As a result, I was still standing by the end of the evening, and actually managed to sit down for a while and enjoy myself. When the others had gone home, Rebecca and Ruth and I just chilled out, to use an archaic expression that I've grown particularly fond of. Yup, it was a really good weekend.

We did have a couple of gatecrashers, though: these guys crawled under the fence from the gardens at the back and spent most of the evening playing round the hostas I planted this week. We spent about half an hour watching their antics. I do miss having a cat, but I've decided it's nicer when they're someone else's. It's much, much easier on the furniture.

Gatecrashers! Chris's visitors were a couple of black and white kittens

Yesterday I met up with Rebecca and Ruth again for a very nice meal out. I got home last night with a car full of chocolate and port - my two favourite food groups. Yummy. And thanks to Rob, I have another DVD to add to my collection of Mel Gibson films. Thanks once again, folks!


Rather disconcerting to find out from the internet movie database that, being born on August 11th, I share my birthday with Anna Massey, Enid Blyton, Alex (Roots) Haley, Ron Grainer (who composed the Doctor Who Theme Tune) and, er, Terry "Hulk" Hogan.


If it's clear tonight, cast your eyes in the general direction of the constellation Perseus (look roughly north east at midnight and you'll be pointing more or less in the right direction). It's the peak of the Perseid meteor shower tonight, and you should see a bright meteor every minute or so. The Perseids don't get as intense as November's Leonid shower, but they can still put on a good show. You can find out more information about the shower on the NASA website. I hope you see some!


What was I saying about coincidences? After writing about Hunter S. Thompson last week I now discover that Harry Knowles's film site, Ain't It Cool News, is running an amazing interview with the man himself. Never one to shy away from controversy, what the good Doctor is saying about the American President is likely to make any Republican's toes curl.

Heh heh heh... Go for it, sir.


The BBC did pick up on the Larry Niven connection to the whole "flash mobs" thing and they did it before I did. Their first story on flash crowds is here. Thanks to Mark at the amazingly cool BBCi team for the URL, and I promise I will now shut up about the subject altogether.


For now, my last word on the flash crowd thing: watch the cabin scene in the Marx Brothers' film A Night At The Opera. Now that's doing things properly!


It looks like the "flash mob" craze I wrote about last month has now reached the UK- after an event at a carpet store in London that, like the rest of the craze, has been given an inordinate amount of press coverage. As a craze goes, it's one of the more pointless ones, and I get the distinct impression it's now the media who are running it, not the people who started it off. It appears one crowd has already been cancelled after it looked like there were going to be more reporters and film crews there than participants.

Hey - maybe that could be the next craze? Publicise a virtual event, and then go off to the pub, leaving nobody to show up except for the news crews? I like it...


I have been a fan of The Good Dr. Raoul Duke, a.k.a. Hunter S. Thompson, for many years. He has a writing style - Gonzo journalism - that few of us mere mortals have the force of will to carry off. I still think that the movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that came out a few years ago is the best thing Terry Gilliam has ever done. Gilliam made a great movie from a book that was, frankly, impossible to film. If you've seen the film, you'll know that it stars Johnny Depp as Thompson, and Benicio Del Toro as his associate and attorney, Dr. Gonzo, a.k.a. Oscar Zeta Acosta. Well, it seems that Benicio is now going to capture their further adventures on film, as his website has announced that he's developing a film of The Rum Diary. Johnny Depp's up for it too, and I'm salivating already... Oh - and you can find out a little more here about the good Dr. Gonzo (who disappeared in 1971).


One news story yesterday really brought home the fact: researchers wanted to get an email from one person on the Internet to another, but without the sender knowing the email address. And senders and targets were spread out over the entire planet. On average, it took just 5 links. Just five. Does that mean that the concept of "six degrees of separation" underestimated things by a whopping 16.6%?


Moral of story - a lawnmower is not a thing to be waved around like a mop or a vacuum cleaner. I really should know better. Unfortunately it's about time I realised that I'm not the guy I used to be when it comes to lifting things. My back has been telling me this since Tuesday morning, and I think it's safe to say I've got the message. Ow. As I mentioned last month, I'd been suffering from backache even before my latest gardening exploits, so I'm looking forwards even more to my new bed being delivered.

The lawn looks good, though. Especially after watering in some lawn food.


Egad, it's hot. The British have a curiously narrow tolerance for the climate. If we get more than a centimeter of snow, chaos reigns on the roads and people leave early from work for fear of getting snowed in - sometimes justifiably, as a minor snowfall in Welwyn Garden City last winter meant that my colleagues there were taking up to 45 minutes just to get out of the business park.

On the other hand, if the temperature rises above 30°C (which is about 85°F in old money, so it's hardly extreme weather), our rail network bends and buckles, people start drowning in lakes and rivers, and the majority of us sit sweltering in buildings (some of them brand new) that have never been introduced to the concept of air conditioning. Right now, it's 8:30 in the evening, and the thermometer on my desk is reading 29°C. It's almost like being back in Tampa. But without the air conditioning.

Personally, I think I'm a cold weather kind of guy. I liked working in Norway when the snow was blowing past the windows horizontally. And, of course, there's my fascination with skiing, which you can read about elsewhere on this site...


Our brains appear to be designed to support particular language structures (you need to read more by Noam Chomsky if you're interested in this.) The grammar on which most language is built, it is suggested, is deep-wired into the human brain. There was an interesting story on the BBC website today about research into a possible side effect of all this. It appears that those same structures and tendencies could be why everyone has pretty much the same idea about what makes something musical. Different cultures all seem to have evolved musical scales based around the same concepts of musical intervals. One idea that I found particularly striking was that the musical interval of a major third sounds pleasing because it crops up in language so much. All this prompts the question: if artificial intelligences are ever developed, will they have to abide by those same deep-seated structures? If AIs arise that don't follow the same rules, what would an AI composer's music sound like? And would we be able to "get" it? Hmmm...


But it's still 23 years until 2026. If you don't catch the quote, then you've never read Ray Bradbury's short story There Will Come Soft Rains and it goes without saying that you've missed out. Go and get yourself a copy of The Martian Chronicles and have a read. No, I'm not telling you the plot. It's more fun that way.

Many years ago - probably a couple of decades by now - the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop did a half-hour radio show of the story. I used to have a very muffled recording of it kicking around on cassette tape. It was one of those classic pieces of radio; I really wish you could buy the thing on CD but sadly I guess it'll never happen. Bradbury is one of the most poetic writers I have ever read, and when August 4 comes round every year I raise a toast to the man and his genius.

You can read his reflection on the story which he wrote for The Smithsonian Institute.


You might want to think twice about going swimming off the West Country coastline this summer. There have been fairly reliable sounding reports that at least one Great White Shark has been spotted off the coast of Devon. And people ask me why I like going to ski resorts for my holidays rather than soaking up the sun at the beach...


Because of the number of ridiculous coincidences that crop up in my life, I developed a theory, mostly in jest, that the world is actually a lot smaller than we think it is, and that as a result, the people we encounter have immensely interconnected lives, but nobody notices.

So, sometimes, the most ludicrous combinations of people crop up together and nobody bats an eyelid. Do you know anyone who found the fact that two of Australia's most famous citizens, Russell Crowe and Rolf Harris, are planning to appear in concert together even remotely surprising?

At least I got the lawn cut this evening...


Good lord, was that a Triumph quote? I'm getting much too obscure if I'm quoting Canadian 80's rock bands, particularly if they're not Rush... Any road up - this weekend's been absolutely glorious. On Saturday it was the company barbecue at the Spyglass Restaurant in Bristol. Rebecca and I enjoyed ourselves, the food was good, and the weather was perfect.

Next week is the balloon fiesta down here in Bristol. As it was such a glorious weekend, folks were already trying their balloons out over the city, so it was nice to sit by the river and see sights like this. One of the improvements I decided on for the blog this month was not to put any large images in the blog itself. Instead, click on the image thumbnails if you want to see a larger version of the picture.

Balloons over the city

After the meal (and after a quick pint in the Landogger Trow in King Street) we wandered over to the harbour to see some of the festivities for Bristol's Festival of the Sea. The place was heaving, to use a nautical term! The ship here is The Matthew, a replica of John Cabot's ship, looking very pretty in the evening sunshine. You can find out more about it at the Matthew's Official Website.

The Matthew moored in Bristol, August 2003

Sunday included one of those most traditional of British summer pursuits, the visit to the garden centre. My chilli plants are now repotted in much bigger accommodation, and I've put in stakes to support the things. Now all I have to do is get the lawn cut.

Nahh, maybe tomorrow...


So, we're in to August, and that means it's time for a new logo. Just for this month, to keep you on your toes, you understand...


I've always been fascinated by computer graphics, and the current holy grail among CGI artists is the production of a totally convincing human being. nVidia, who make graphics cards, have a new product out that allows real time rendering of convincing skin and suchlike, at least judging by the demonstration graphics on their website. And there are other artists out there working on people who look even more convincing. Progress is rapid - you've only got to look at the films Final Fantasy and Final Flight of the Osiris to see the improvements a couple of years can bring. Perhaps the time is approaching where digital actors will start to be integrated with real people in film. Certainly, it appears that digital stuntmen are already at work on one film in production. What's the point? Well, for one thing, in a couple of years you won't be able to believe anything you see on television...

Taking the theme of life as we (don't) know it a little further, my average time for processing a SETI@home work unit finally dropped below the 20 hour mark this week. For the first year or so, I was running a Pentium 90 that took over 70 hours to process a unit. My current machine is a little faster, kicking out a unit every ten or eleven hours, but of course it's not always switched on and I only have dialup Internet access. And no, I'm not about to trust my PC to make its own phone calls. Maybe it's about time I upgraded again. More power! More power!


According to the BBC, at least. Their news site suggests that David Kay, special adviser to the CIA, came out with the following gem during discussions about the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: "(people) should not be surprised by surprises."