From Blog to Eternity

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: August 2006

August brought us the shenanigans over Pluto's status as a planet, the announcement of a project to build the largest reflecting telescope in the history of astronomy, apparently conclusive proof of the existence of dark matter, and er, snakes on a plane.

I also drank some very nice beer.


I went for a walk yesterday to take a few pictures, but what started off as a pleasant stroll ended up as an epic four hour hike around deepest South Gloucestershire. I may well have got some nice pictures, but by yesterday evening I could barely walk. As a result I spent this morning hobbling around work like an eighty-year-old.

Then I spent this afternoon taking painkillers and watching safety training videos, so I haven't got any exciting links today, I'm afraid. It's been one of those days.


It's the August bank holiday weekend once again, and that means time for the Frocester Beer Festival. Big thanks to Rob M for sorting out tickets and transport. Once again the site was packed, and there were some very good beers on offer. This year I sampled the following:

  • Bath: Gem (4.1%)
  • Battledown: Brigand Premium (4.7%)
  • Cotswold Spring: Codrington Old Ale (4.8%)
  • Nailsworth: Mayor's Bitter (4.2%)
  • Oakham: White Dwarf Wheat Beer (4.3%)
  • Orkney: Skullsplitter (8.5%)
  • Springhead: Roaring Meg (5.5%)
  • Uley: Laurie Lee's (4.5%)
  • Uley: Old Spot (4.5%)
  • Uley: Pigs Ear (5.0%)

You've probably realised from this that I'm quite partial to local beers - Uley Brewery have a big presence at the festival and it seemed only fair to support their products to the best of my abilities. I went for a mix of old favourites like Gem and Skullsplitter and some new discoveries: the Battledown was quite a find and I was very impressed.


There are a lot of very upset astronomers out there. The definition of a planet that was agreed yesterday by the IAU doesn't appear to have been thought through enough. Astronomers at Johns Hopkins University have described the ruling as "muddled" and that's one of the more polite descriptions.

One problem stems from that bit about defining a planet as "something that has cleared its orbit of other bodies." As Dr Alan Stern (who is running NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and who therefore knows quite a bit about the subject) says, this would mean that Neptune isn't a planet either, because it hasn't cleared Pluto from the vicinity of its orbit. I will now be less than modest and point out that I said exactly the same thing yesterday. Using the same reasoning, Earth, Mars and Jupiter are still surrounded by other bits of rock and rubble in their orbits, so they shouldn't be classified as planets either. Nobody's suggesting that this is the case, so it seems there's a bit of work left to do on that definition. Expect to see a lot more about this.


The IAU have revised resolution 5A that I blogged earlier this month, and as a result the Solar System now only has eight planets. Mind you, the modifications appear to indicate that Neptune should no longer be a planet either, as it hasn't cleared its orbit of other bodies (Pluto's orbit crosses Neptune's). I have a feeling this one could run and run...


The Internet retailer Firebox has just started selling brand new copies of a famous 1970s toy, the Evel Knievel motorcycle stunt set. They're even using the original moulds! Now you too can jump your gyroscopically powered motorcycle through hoops of "simulated fire"!

Ahh, gyroscopic toys. Do you remember RevRods? They were plastic cars with a central flywheel that was spun up by means of a toothed belt, that you threaded through the car and then pulled as violently as possible. My brother and I used to frighten the dog with these things, and they could reach ludicrous speeds down the parquet flooring in the hall before slamming into the skirting boards. I still have bits of mine, but they weren't built to survive the speeds they were capable of achieving. I've only ever seen one on sale on eBay.

Needless to say, all this prompted a discussion in the office on the most popular toys from our respective childhoods. Being a child of the sixties, I'd always wanted the Johnny Seven, as political correctness had no part to play in boys' toys back then. I never got one, which is probably just as well. However, I did have Major Matt Mason, a toy astronaut who was able to fly around the living room thanks to the powerful technology in use back then known as nylon fishing line. Unfortunately Major Mason consisted of a wire skeleton surrounded by a rubber body, and rubber was not a good substance to use.

Then Rob came up with Super Flight Deck, which involved landing a plastic F-4 Phantom on a cardboard aircraft carrier, which used the same fishing line technology. Not to be outdone, Christian came up with the most hideous bicycle I think I've ever seen: the eye-wateringly ugly Raleigh Vektar. And at this point we started meandering off into the world of TV shows such as Street Hawk (the adventures of Jessie Mach and the high speed motorcycle that only worked at four o'clock in the morning when all Los Angeles traffic mysteriously disappeared) and Automan (which didn't have a plot, really - it was just an excuse to use special effects from Tron).


We still don't know what it is, but at least we know now that it really exists. Scientists have confirmed the presence of dark matter by looking at how gravity has affected the collision between two galaxies.

In case you didn't know, all the material around you, the stuff that's made of atoms, together with the photons that carry light from the sun or your computer monitor - all that is what's known as "ordinary" matter. In recent years, physicists have realised that there isn't enough of it around to explain the gravitational forces acting on galaxies. In fact, their calculations seem to indicate that ordinary matter only accounts for about 5% of the total amount of stuff out there. Of the rest, 70% is dark energy, which was observationally confirmed a few years ago and which seems to work in the opposite direction to gravity - it forces things apart and is speeding up the expansion of the universe.

Scientists theorised that the remaining 25% is a mysterious substance called dark matter, which doesn't interact with normal matter at all - you can't poke it with a stick, you can't see it, and although we are probably surrounded by immense quantities of the stuff it is, to all intents and purposes, invisible. So how do we know it's there? By the gravitational effects they've now detected in a pair of colliding galaxies. The galaxies are behaving as if they were a lot more massive than they should be if they were just made up of the matter we can see.

As I said over at Linkbunnies, these are extremely interesting times if you're a physicist. The laws of physics are not what we thought they were forty years ago. It's funny to think that a hundred years ago people were beginning to think that we'd got most stuff figured out and that all that remained was to fill in the gaps. These days, most of the discoveries being made just seem to make those gaps bigger and bigger.


I've been reading the newsgroup for years. It's a moderated usenet group, used to distribute press releases and other announcements from NASA, ESA, JAXA and other space-related bodies. It's been quite interesting seeing how long it takes for something posted to the group to make the national media - and also how little the content of the post is changed once it reaches the papers or the web.

As an example, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory issued press release 2006-100 on August 16th, which was about the discovery of geysers of carbon dioxide on Mars's south polar cap. The finding was published in Nature on August 17th. The BBC website ran the story on the afternoon of the 20th, and the Guardian still haven't bothered reporting it at all.


The Royal Mail introduce a new charging structure today, and the fact that the same piece of paper can cost much less to post if it's folded up than it does if you post it flat is definitely confusing people. Couple that with the fact that earlier in the month up to a third of Post Offices didn't have the publicity material to support today's launch, and you've got a bit of a problem if you're not on top of things. Let's see how things turn out.


I am a huge fan of Steely Dan. I am also a big fan of the film director Wes Anderson. So, it seems, are Mr Fagen and Mr Becker - they've written to him. I await the results with considerable interest.


Remember I was saying things have been quiet round here? Not today. The West Country has been having some quite entertaining thunderstorms since about three o'clock this morning and there are some pretty impressive pictures up on Flickr and the BBC's local news site from the more dedicated photographers out there. I'm not sure whether that second bolt on the BBC picture is a reflection on the window or whether the lightning really did jump down the drainpipe.


Unless you've been living in a cave for the last year, you'll be aware that the Samuel L Jackson movie Snakes on a plane comes out today. Speculation has been rife over whether or not there will be a sequel - to the point that many people have already had a go at making one. Now "giraffes on a hot air balloon" doesn't thrill me, but "badgers on a hovercraft" would have me lining up with my ticket ready, you betcha.

Despite the fact that SOAP hasn't even been reviewed yet (there haven't been any press previews), the hysteria that's built up over the thing over the last six months or so has got to the point where the actual quality of the film is completely irrelevant. One thing's for certain, though: Mr Jackson obviously had a blast making it.


Noted Fortean and former frontman of "The Teardrop Explodes" Julian Cope has embraced the world of heavy metal:

"In April this year, after my half-hour stint as a guest vocalist for the US doom metal band SunnO))), I left the stage at Brussels' Domino festival and removed my burka. Backstage, I remarked to the band's biographer, Seldon Hunt, how open-minded heavy metallers had become..."

As he points out, metal has moved on from the likes of Def Leppard; bands under discussion employ a bewildering array of instruments from Moog synthesisers to flutes and bagpipes. After Lordi won the Eurovision crown this year, the genre appears to have become cool again. Is the article written with tongue firmly in cheek, or is it serious? Much like the music that it analyses, it doesn't really matter - the effects are likely to be the same.


As I mentioned over at Linkbunnies today, the folks at Stargate SG-1 have gone completely over the top for their two hundredth episode. As if the series wasn't self-referential enough, the episode spoofs Farscape, although Claudia Black and Ben Browder do not play, er, themselves. The picture of the Thor puppet with a stuck-on moustache playing Rygel had me in stitches. The show also warps into parodies of Star Trek, The Wizard of Oz (Christopher Judge as the Tin Man looks so funny it's just plain disturbing) and something closely (and deliciously) resembling Team America: World Police. There's a spoiler-tastic discussion with all the pictures over at the SG1 Archive. Great stuff.


NASA announced this week that the spacecraft Voyager 1 is now more than 100 Astronomical Units (AU) from the sun. That's about 15 billion km or 9.3 billion miles, the furthest any man-made object has ever travelled. There are other spacecraft heading out into the dark, too. Pioneer 10's heading in the opposite direction and is currently about 91.3 AU away from the sun. Look at the speed New Horizons is travelling at - at 5 AUs a year, it looks like it will eventually overhaul Voyager 1. In fact, that will never happen, because by the time New Horizons reaches 100 AU in 32 years time, it will have been slowed down by the sun's gravity and will be doing about 13 kilometres a second against Voyager's 17 km/sec. That's still pretty quick!


So the IAU have announced their decision on what constitutes a planet, and it turns out to be pretty sensible: it has to be large enough that its own gravity squishes it into a spherical shape, and it must be in orbit around a star without being a star itself. Of course a lot of people are getting upset, because that definition means that the largest of the asteroids, Ceres, fits the planetary bill. Add the new objects discovered at the edge of the Kuiper Belt and lo and behold, we now have a twelve-planet solar system. It's likely to hold a lot more than twelve planets, too, given the number of things that could be lurking in the far reaches of our neighbourhood.


Yup, I know there hasn't been a lot in the blog this month. Partly I've been trying to get the garden in to decent shape (a never-ending process, to be sure) and partly I've been gadding about the country doing stuff for work. For instance on Tuesday and Wednesday I spent five and a half hours each day driving - and even with a nice new car to play with, that can get very tiring. I'm looking forwards to a quiet weekend doing very little and catching up on stuff that's going on out in the world wide weird. I also plan on taking some pictures - I've been neglecting my Flickr account of late, too...


I've been listening to Yoko Kanno's album Be Human this morning. It's a CD of tracks from the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, so I obviously haven't got the show out of my system yet. I love the Japanese approach to things like this, because there's no limit on what sort of musical style should be included. The music on the album ranges from progressive rock to big band, from cha-cha to Japanese rap, and with arrangements for computer game through to string quartet with fax machine (you couldn't make this stuff up).

The subject matter centres on the Tachikoma "think tank" robots from the series, who are probably the most endearing non-human characters I've come across in any sort of fiction in years. If you do a search on Youtube for "Tachikoma" you should find enough clips to satisfy your curiosity, but in simple terms if you imagine a cross between a jumping spider and a humvee that's armed to the teeth, talks like a Japanese schoolgirl and likes blowing things up, then you've got a pretty good idea of the characters.


Yep, it was my birthday this week. Props to Matty for organising a cinema event yesterday, which was good fun even if we didn't end up seeing "A Scanner Darkly" as planned.

What's next on the agenda? Well, I have twenty litres of Wickwar BOB in the kitchen in preparation for the weekend's festivities. Well, there's a bit less than twenty litres now after performing a quality check on the stuff last night, but the good news is that it was well up to standard. Now all I have to do is sort the house out, do the ironing, mow the lawn, assemble the garden furniture, prepare the food and get the barbie out of the garage and then I can start to relax...


When I was a child, the 200 inch Hale reflecting telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California was the zenith of the science of astronomy. It's an amazing piece of engineering and I still cherish an ambition to visit the place one day. But time has moved on, and now the European Southern Observatory has announced plans to build what they're calling the Extremely Large Telescope, or ELT. They're not kidding: they want to build a 42 metre (1654 inch) telescope at a site that hasn't been decided yet, but which may well be in the southern hemisphere. The mind boggles at the sheer size of the thing: the fact that it may be possible to use it for searching for signs of vegetation on planets orbiting other stars is just jaw-dropping.


Oh boy. It's gone 9:30 at night and it's 27°C in my room at the moment. I could probably deal with that in most circumstances but the humidity is well over 50%, which is making the place feel like a sauna. I suspect I'm not going to get much sleep tonight, despite going out for a blast on the mountain bike a bit earlier.


The latest fad in America appears to be combining your name with the name of your partner, a practice known as meshing. According to the article, it's slightly less naff than the double-barreled approach of combining both surnames with a hyphen, but as the BBC suggests, some couples might need to consider their actions very carefully. Particularly Wayne and Colleen.


I spent three hours last night backing up nearly nine gigabytes of the photographs I've taken this year onto a couple of DVDs. So forgive me for feeling a little smug after reading that I'm in a distinct minority when it comes to protecting my snaps. Most users put their photos on to their computer where they remain until they're erased, destroyed by a virus, lost when the hard drive packs up, or just plain forgotten about. At least according to Symantec. However, the fact that Symantec just happen to sell backup systems and anti-virus software might have a little bit to do with this story, don't you think?

It's not the first time I've heard people expressing concern over how ephemeral photographs are becoming, but it's important to get things into perspective: by the end of this month I will have taken 3000 photos on the Canon since I bought it at the end of January. That's just on my latest camera; I'm still using my Olympus C-300 as well and I've taken over 150 pictures with it this year - not bad considering it was out of commission for a couple of months! With my old OM1 I was putting less than two rolls of film (or approximately 80 pictures) through it every year. So even if I'm only printing one or two per cent of my digital pictures, that's still not far off my old output rate. Hopefully the ones that end up as a hard copy are far better quality pictures, too.

Oh, and of course I'm also one of the 17% of computer users with online backups, thanks to the nice folks at Flickr. Have you got an account yet?


I love the web. Every now and then I find a site stuffed full of information that is clearly the result of hours of dedicated care and attention. Today I've got three examples for you, which bring you more than you could possibly need to know about Britain's motorway network and the history of its construction, together with a site dedicated to Britain's A-roads (which is particularly useful if you haven't passed your driving test yet.)

All this was thanks to a new feature on the BBC news website that lets you type in your postcode and get a section on news that's relevant to you. Today it led me to a story about the new information signs that have been installed on the M5, complete with a set of external links, and here we are.


In the last few weeks I've become addicted to an amazing science fiction TV series that features a labyrinthine plot, fascinating characters, a dash of high-concept philosophy, multiple references to 20th century literature, and a superb soundtrack. But I'm watching it on DVD because as far as I'm aware it's never been shown on any of the major UK television channels. It's called Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Even though there's an English dubbed soundtrack, I'm watching the Japanese version with subtitles because I love the voice acting: the principal actors from the movies returned to do the TV show. I'm half way through the first series and I'm still finding it absolutely engrossing. What's the best part? It's difficult to say, but I love the theme tune and the Tachikoma robots are hilarious.

So why haven't the TV networks picked up on it? There's one simple answer: they can't deal with the fact that it's a cartoon.