Captain's Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: August 2007

Another busy month, hence the gaps in the blog.

This month I attended two readings by William Gibson - one in the virtual world, and one in real life. They were both excellent fun.


Acting's a funny old profession. Boing Boing pointed me at deputydog's site today, where he discusses 13 of the worst fake accents in film. It's a subject ripe for the picking, you've got to admit, and some of the examples he chooses are amazingly bad. When I consider how much the actors concerned got paid for their performances, it makes me wonder what exactly it was that they were being paid for.

An actor's job is to persuade you that he or she is somebody else. If they do their job well, you should forget that they are anyone other than the character in the story. I realised in writing this entry that a large chunk of Hollywood's output isn't really about that any more. When you go and see a movie with Catherine Zeta Jones or Keanu Reeves in it (they're both on the list, naturally) do you see Catherine or Keanu as themselves, or as the characters they are supposed to be playing? If it's the former, then what exactly is it that you're watching? If the character that the film star is portraying becomes irrelevant, is subsumed by the celebrity of the person in the role, then can you still call what they're doing acting?

Some actors - I'm thinking particularly of Jack Nicholson here - spend their time these days just playing caricatures of their media image. It's a shame, because Jack used to be a prime exponent of the Stanislavsky method: he knows his chops, and he's delivered some astonishing performances in his career. The thing is, success in the media (as with many other walks of life) depends far more on charisma than most people would care to admit. Jack is blessed with prodigious quantities of charisma, that much is certain; when you see him in a film these days, you can be sure that's pretty much what you're going to get. Over the decades, the Hollywood process has pared acting down and down until all that is required is a simple expression of charisma on screen. The problem is that this pretty much does away with the need to act. Stars just have to turn up and turn on the charm; as a result, a lot of the time these days we have no way of knowing if they're any good at anything other than being themselves.


Now even Bob Cringely's writing about the Singularity, where

"technological development races forward faster than we can catch it and you and I are either left eating bonbons or are put to death by computers no longer amused by serving us."


Actually, it's an intelligent article which makes the point that even thought technological progress might become infinitely fast in the not too distant future, it's not likely to result in us all being instantly enslaved or turned into Matrioshka brains in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, it also means we'll probably still have to pay our taxes...


Mira is a star in the constellation Cetus the whale. It's a variable star - its intensity changes over time, with a cycle of 332 days - so that some of the time it's visible with the naked eye, and other times it's not. This is why it got its name (from the latin for "wonderful") over 400 years ago. Now it turns out to be even more of a wonder than astronomers thought, because ultraviolet images taken by NASA's Galex spacecraft have revealed it's left a trail over 13 light years long behind as it flies through space.


Radio Three's audience figures are now the lowest they've been in ten years, according to the Independent. After the mess its controller Roger Wright made of the station in the spring it's hardly surprising. BBC representatives are still trying to put a positive spin on things, but quite frankly I don't care any more. I've given up listening to the station - the down side of which is that I'm buying a lot more CDs these days...


It was my birthday at the weekend, and I had a great time, going out for a curry on Friday evening, hosting a barbecue on Saturday and then going to the pictures to see the latest Harry Potter movie on Sunday. We spent the evenings sitting in the garden drinking beer and watching the International Space Station pass overhead. I even saw a few decent shooting stars, too. Thanks to everyone who helped make it a very pleasant way to spend a couple of days. Of course as a result I haven't really been doing much surfing, hence the dearth of blog entries. However, I have stumbled across one or two items worth mentioning, so here they are.


First off, this one's seriously dangerous: a DVD burner plus a maglite torch equals pyromaniac laser.


Girl overdoses on caffeine after drinking seven double espressos while working in her family's sandwich shop. Seven? I'd be bouncing off the walls after three. Special Agent Dale Cooper would be proud of her, that's for sure.


Talking of whom... It's a good year for DVD reissues, and by the sounds of it the Blade Runner set I mentioned earlier has some serious competition for all-round coolness. A Twin Peaks box set with both versions of the pilot, together with all of season one and season two and more extras than you can shake a stick at. But the really great part is that it's all produced with the personal involvement of David Lynch, and includes footage of a round table discussion with the man himself. Ooooh.


The results are in. This year's winner has been chosen. And it's a doozy. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest seeks out the worst first line of a work of fiction; the novel (imaginary or otherwise) has to be unpublished, and if it's going to stand any chance of winning it'll have to be really, really bad. The name comes from Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford, which begins with the immortal words: "It was a dark and stormy night." Bulwer-Lytton's original effort is high art compared with some of the entries on offer this year.

Given the world we live in, though, it should come as no surprise that some people actually like winning the contest. You know me; the main reaction I had after reading through the entries was that the novels they were taken from weren't available to read in their entirety. Of course, after I'd finished them all I'd probably be a gibbering wreck, but at least I'd have a better opinion of my own writing...


I've been pretty happy with my broadband connection so far this year. Despite BT's line checker telling me I'm so far from the exchange I should only expect a 512kb link, my router often syncs at 2.5Mb and has done since BT carried out their exchange upgrade. All well and good, except that for the first nine months or so after the exchange was upgraded I was actually only getting throughput around the 512kb mark. Something wasn't configured right somewhere, but multiple phone calls to my ISP had absolutely no effect. Demon's tech support is a pale shadow of its former self, and no help whatsoever. Eventually I gave up trying to get anything sorted out. Says a lot about customer service in the UK, doesn't it?

About six months later, whatever was wrong got fixed, and since then my connection has run at 2Mb without any problems. My contentment is fading, though, as today I was reading about the state of broadband provision in Paris. It looks like the French are going to put our systems to shame and when they say you can have fast broadband, they mean fast broadband.

I believe things are only going to get worse over here in the next few years. To be honest, nobody in their right mind is going to invest in creating a next generation telecoms infrastructure for anywhere in the UK except the high density cities where they can maximise the number of customers that can be reached. For the rest of us, we're stuck with the old copper cables from years gone by and we're likely to be still using them in twenty years time.

Even if data rates do increase, all that extra download speed brings its own set of problems. Most ISPs (mine included) are bringing in usage caps of between five and 20 Gb per month. As data rates to homes rise and the services available over the web grow to take advantage of them, these caps are looking more and more unrealistic. Sites like YouTube and services like iTunes need to send large amounts of data down the pipe, and ISPs are fighting a losing battle to control how fast it gets to us. Something's got to give, and at the moment it looks like it's going to be the customer. That's not a good way to run a service industry.


If ever you needed proof that you can't trust what you see in a photograph any more, have a look at the latest research from Carnegie Mellon University on scene completion. This is amazing stuff. The algorithm they use searches through image libraries to find a piece of any other photograph that would fit the part of your picture you don't like, and then seamlessly blends it in. The results are quite stunning, and at the resolution they're shown at on screen you'd never know the new bits of the picture hadn't always been there. Stalin would have loved it.


The BBC has dismissed press stories that claimed the science programme Tomorrow's World was about to return as "speculation."

Shame. We could do with a TV show about science and technology that treats its audience as grown ups rather than assuming they're a five year old with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Channel 4's "Equinox" programme bit the dust years ago, and the BBC's "Horizon" has become a pale shadow of its former self, obsessed with dramatisations and computer graphics rather than actual scientific content. When I was a kid, the Beeb would devote entire evenings to science with marathon programmes, usually produced by Nigel Calder, that addressed everything from plate tectonics (The Restless Earth) to the new physics (The Key to the Universe).

Those programmes, together with the friendly presentation of material by Raymond Baxter on Tomorrow's World, went a long way to shaping my interests as I grew up; my lifelong interest in science is a result of that. Children today don't seem to have any opportunity to watch serious, sensible programmes like I used to watch. Everything is too frantic; science is trivialised, it's frequently mocked or portrayed as uncool or nerdy, and thinking about the ramifications of the subject has long been abandoned in favour of a glib one-liner or irrelevant music video tacked on the end of the feature. When the most you can hope for is five minutes of content anyway, this doesn't leave a lot of time for actual information.

I've been reading a lot recently about the accelerating pace of technological change and how, as the rate of change becomes exponential and the graph of progress becomes steeper and steeper, it gets more and more difficult for writers to come up with a credible scenario for what lies ahead. It's hard to write a novel that predicts the future more than a few years in advance when the wildest ideas you can come up with are likely to be superseded within the same timescale. The logical conclusion to all this is what Vernor Vinge called the Singularity, where the curve becomes a vertical line and rate of technological change becomes infinite. William Gibson has called it the Geek Rapture, and the term gives a good sense of just how apocalyptic things could get if (or when) it happens. It's likely to mean the effective end of the human race as a species, because whatever comes out the other side, it won't be homo sapiens. I mention all this because I'm tempted to view the growing trivialisation of or lack of interest in science as an evolutionary strategy or limiting mechanism to stop technical progress from running away with us.

The real kicker is that I don't know which concept I find more scary: the idea that (according to Charles Stross) we're only a few dozen years away from finding out what the Singularity is like first hand, or the thought that it might never happen...


July wasn't a good month at all for the Motorheadbangers crowd: we lost Girlschool's guitarist Kelly Johnson. But when I got home tonight there was a note on the doormat telling me that a mate of mine I used to hang out with back in the 1980s had died. Paul Hadwen helped run the MHBs with Helen Taylor and the two of us used to do most of the graphics (with some occasional help from other MHBs like Simon Bisley.) Paul was found dead at home last week.

I hadn't heard from Paul in a long time, but trying to find out more information on the web resulted in me discovering his alter ego the Reverend H Goatboy and showed me that, in his own inimitable way, he'd had an impact on many people's lives. By the sound of things it was a very positive one, too.


On a happier note, I read today that the BBC are bringing back Tomorrow's World. I just hope it's going to be produced by people who actually know what science is, rather than the gee-whiz media mob who seem to do most of the science spots on TV these days.


The "new town" of Milton Keynes is celebrating its 40th birthday this year with, amongst other things, a 19-metre viewing tower that's been erected to give residents a better view of the place. It's a nice idea: when I lived there, it was very difficult to get a decent impression of what everywhere looked like, as no buildings were allowed to be built more than three storeys high. This meant that when you looked out of the window, the trees were the tallest things you ever saw. Now, planning restrictions have changed and this no longer appears to be the case, which is a great shame, I think.

I'm also wary of the marketing droids who came up with the idea of calling the birthday celebrations the big moo, to be honest. What were they thinking?


Last night I was wandering around Second Life again - I went along to a reading given by William Gibson where he read an excerpt from his new novel Spook Country, then answered questions from the audience.

WG in SL2

After a few glitches at the beginning (some of my fellow WGB members suddenly found themselves dumped off the system and couldn't get back in) the audio stream from Mr Gibson's Skype phone came up, his avatar sat down in the middle of the stage, and things got under way. I was surprised how well everything worked, to be honest - the event ran to the end of its alloted time without falling over, and there were quite a few people watching. Okay, his avatar didn't look that much like him, but that's part of the fun.

He was very good-natured about the whole thing, despite sitting in a room full of bizarre looking people, with late arrivals literally dropping out of the air in front of him. There was a dragon wandering about at one point, too, and his audio stream had to compete with the clattering of keyboards from people chatting to each other. There were also one or two unplanned excursions: for example, as Mr Gibson was reading rather than doing anything to the computer, his avatar slumped into "away" mode a couple of times because Second Life wasn't receiving any input.

But on the whole, I was impressed by the event; although it never really felt like I was sitting in the room and experiencing it first hand, there was enough sensory information available (including the background noise picked up by his Skype phone) to make it an interesting experience.

And what did Mr Gibson make of it all?

"It was...peculiar. *Deeply* peculiar."


And to think I used to get upset when my cats trashed the living room. I didn't know when I was well off. Thanks to Mr Sparky Donatello for this one.


With all the shouting about whether to go for Blu-Ray or HD-DVD, nobody seems to have picked up on the fact that the same format war happened in the audio world back in the 1990s. Today, The Guardian discusses the fate of the high-end audio formats SACD and DVD-A, neither of which have turned out to be a success. The Guardian's claim that DVD-A is dead is sadly borne out by the fact that are currently selling quite a selection of DVD-As for just £5.99 - most SACDs are two or three times as expensive and I reckon they're cutting their losses and running down their stocks. I've got a player that can handle both formats, but I have to admit that when a new album comes out I don't automatically think, "oh I must get the high definition version." In fact you could count the number of SACD and DVD-A discs I have on the fingers of one hand.

The point that the Guardian article makes at the end is the kicker, though. For most people, audio quality just isn't an issue. The compression used to make MP3 audio files as small as they are compared to the raw data on the original CD is "lossy" - in other words, a lot of the music on each track of the CD never makes it to your iPod. It hasn't stopped people buying players that will only work with a low-fi recording format in prodigious quantities. I remember reading a Neil Young interview many years ago when he said he felt that CDs didn't capture the soul of music compared to listening to vinyl on a decent record deck. Now here I am talking about CDs with the same sense of nostalgia and frustration. No wonder the music industry is as cynical as it is.


Arizona State University has started work with NASA to provide high resolution scans of the original Apollo photographs from the moon missions available online. The project is expected to take three years to complete, and there should eventually be quite a treasure trove of pictures to look through. The scans are going to be made at a resolution of 200 pixels per millimetre, good enough to show up the original film grain; coupled with film from the 70mm mapping camera they reckon that'll be good enough to show up stuff a meter wide in pictures taken from orbit. The good news is that you won't have to download enormous megapixel images, either - the website will use Flash in conjunction with the Zoomify image browser so you only download what you're actually looking at. Nice.


Steven Moffat has written most of the best episodes of Doctor Who since it restarted (Blink, The Girl in the Fireplace, The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances), and Russell T Davies says he wants to call it a day after the next series, so it's not really that much of a leap to assume that Mr Moffat will take over the reins when RTD leaves. What did come as a surprise to me was the rumour that at the same time we'll get a new doctor: James Nesbitt.

That'll make Rebecca very happy, that's for sure. Mind you, as the original source for the story was The Sun, it's had quite a few people snorting with disbelief or disgust. I guess we'll just have to see how this one pans out.