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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: August 2008

August really did do very well for silly season stories. There was the one about cows and magnetic fields, penguins being knighted, giant robot buildings, the return of Joyce McKinney, and the ways in which security professionals confinue to keep us safe.

You can relive all this excitement and more in the stories below...


Today's snippet of previously neglected information: grazing cattle align themselves with the Earth's magnetic field. So do deer, apparently. We know this because of painstaking research carried out using, er, Google Earth. While this is pretty impressive, I do worry that eventually researchers will do all their investigations on the web rather than going out and poking stuff. I'm sure that would never happen...


One of the Internet's nicest bloggers is Wil Wheaton. How can you not like someone whose catchphrase is "don't be a dick?" Today Wil posted a link to an interview with Kevin Smith where the director of Dogma mentions a rough cut of a new film that he'd just seen, which he can't talk about. He enthusiastically doesn't talk about it in such a way that we know for sure it's J J Abrams's new Star Trek movie, and Smith doesn't talk about it in positively glowing terms. Click the link, it'll all make some kind of sense. The problem is, the film doesn't come out until next May, and I'm in a high state of excitement already. Goodness knows what state I'll be in next year, when it finally reaches the screen.


I've been listening to the original radio series of The Mighty Boosh this week. For some reason I just find the improvised madness of Richard Ayoade's contributions in particular hysterically funny. I defy you to listen to the tasks he sets Howard Moon (carrying Vince Noir in a holdall) as he rescues him from a death row cell in the episode Jungle without at least sniggering. The double act he establishes with Noel Fielding's cousin in the television series is even sillier. I've managed to get the twins hooked, too - Ruth and Rob just told me they've watched four episodes today already. Nice one, troops!


I read about an example of staggering incompetence today, one that was perpetrated by what I assume were trained professionals conducting airport security checks at Chicago's O'Hare airport. As the poster of the article comments, this incident was extraordinarily dangerous. It could have had catastrophic consequences because Total Air Temperature (TAT) probes are used by an aircraft's avionics system to figure out how fast the aircraft is going. That's quite an important thing to know, particularly when you're close to stalling speed (which is the minimum speed at which the wings will generate enough lift to keep you in the air). It's a particularly important piece of information to have when you're coming in to land, as otherwise you run the risk of dropping out of the sky. You really don't want some bozo swinging on your TAT probes because he thinks there might be a terrorist hiding on top of the aircraft.

More and more often, I hear stories like this where the wrong sort of people are getting involved in ensuring public safety and, through their actions, reinforce the very climate of repression and fear that terrorist acts attempt to bring about and that these people are - supposedly - fighting against. Some of our so-called guardians really shouldn't be put in charge of anything more complicated than a pencil sharpener. In fact, no - as I'm sure they would explain to us, a sharpened pencil might be used as a weapon. Let's just limit them to taking care of the wax crayons. I'm not asking much, really. Can we just get some people in charge who have a little common sense?

And all the while, those things that we really need to be secure are nothing of the sort (thanks to Mez for the link.)


Forget those R2D2 units that double up as home theatre systems, I want one of these babies.


Rebecca, Ruth and Rob were here for the weekend, and took me out for a very nice celebration meal on Friday night. Thanks folks! The weather wasn't that great, though, and we ended up abandoning the traditional birthday barbecue. So we stayed indoors, and watched the Olympics. It's a shame; the weather in the West Country this summer has been a great disappointment and as I type this blog entry, it's raining again.

Rob very kindly took me to see The Dark Knight on Sunday, which I enjoyed a lot - I'll be writing a review on my films page, which should be up later this week. Rebecca and Ruth stayed in; it's not really their sort of film. Instead, Ruth spent some time playing Burnout Paradise, winning lots of races and unlocking several cars for me. Woohoo!

By the end of last night I'd gained my Burnout license, with 57 of the 77 cars in the game unlocked. I do find it a bit of a drag that the cars don't come as fast any more, though. Once you move up from the class A license (where cars are unlocked every 5 races) to the Burnout license, it takes 9 wins to unlock the next vehicle. Current favourite? It's got to be the police car, which comes complete with sirens and flashing lights. Great fun, even if it handles like a garden shed.


I think reality and I have come to a parting of the ways: you couldn't make this stuff up if you tried. But as the latest installment of the Joyce McKinney saga comes less than a day after I read about Colonel-in-Chief Nils Olav receiving his knighthood, it's clear to me that our celestial scriptwriter has had more than one too many...

I was trying to explain to a friend from California how the UK papers react when Parliament closes for the summer; as the number of politcal stories dwindles, they resort to covering the less sensible events that occur. I thought that the description of this as the Silly Season dated from about the 1920s, but it was already widely used in the 19th century. I think it's a shame we didn't adopt the alternative term that the entry in Brewer's Dictionary mentions, the Big Gooseberry Season.

To show how prevalent the activity is, consider the archetypal Silly Season story, which always has the headline "Man Bites Dog." It's become a cliché in its own right: a quick search on Google reveals two and a half million hits for the phrase. That's an awful lot of gaps in the news filled up, isn't it?

VERY WELL DONE Rob and Ruth, who have both delivered impressive strings of exam results, one at BBB and one at BBC. It means that they will both be off to their first choice universities next month. Congratulations, both of you - I am very, very proud of you!


Just up the road from Ruth and Rob, Birmingham City Council recently produced nearly three quarters of a million copies of a leaflet extolling the virtues of recycling. The cover of the leaflet shows a photograph of the Birmingham skyline. Rather unfortunately, someone noticed that the city in the photograph is actually Birmingham, Alabama rather than Birmingham, West Midlands.


Meanwhile, I've just had my guest blog about VEGA's virtual academy concept demonstrator published on the Wonderland Blog on the Sun Microsystems site. Project Wonderland is an open source software tool for letting people build virtual worlds, and we've been using it at work for quite a few months now. The virtual academy is what I was demonstrating at ITEC in Stockholm back in June, so I'm glad I can now point people at stuff on the web that explains something about what it is that I do.


I was out of the office yesterday. Driving home past Reading on the M4 at about 6:30 yesterday evening I was amazed to see a red kite manoeuvring in the wind and the rain, just a stone's throw from the side of the road. It was a lovely, unmistakable sight - probably the high point of the day.


When it comes to constructing buildings that raise a smile when you see them, Bangkok wins! The giant robot and huge elephant are both the work of Dr Sumet Jumsai, who is a faculty member of the Department of Architecture at Cambridge University here in the UK.

Why shouldn't architecture have a sense of humour? Buildings don't have to be the austere, po-faced constructions that a lot of people - not just Prince Charles - think they should be. It's possible to build something that isn't a biscuit-tin version of a bygone design without creating a monstrous carbuncle. I really like recent additions to London's skyline and whenever I visit Birmingham the sight of the Selfridges Department Store brings a smile to my face.

Oh, and the Contemporist website I linked to just there is rapidly becoming one of my daily stops on the web. I think it's fascinating.


Good lord. I remember McKinney making the headlines back in the 70s. It's interesting seeing which of the UK papers made the connection, and which didn't - the Independent failed to notice completely, even after the other papers recapped the whole "skiing down Everest naked with a carnation up my nose" affair.


Frank Miller has apparently given permission for Robert Rodriguez to make a version of his graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. One suspects that it may not turn out exactly as others have envisaged it. Shame, really.


The New Zealand police aren't allowed to publish pictures of suspected offenders if they aren't adults, so in one case they have resorted to posting pictures of Robbie Coltrane instead. One of the local tearaways, suspected of committing multiple burglaries, is said to resemble a 16-year-old version of the Cracker star.

The writer William Gibson describes a futuristic police ID system called Separated at Birth in his novel Virtual Light, which was published in 1993. The system matches a suspect's appearance with that of a celebrity in order to improve the odds of recognition by police officers and members of the public. The hero is described by this system as looking like Tommy Lee Jones, which conveniently also gives us a clear mental image of him as well. Now it looks like it's happening for real; I hope Mr Gibson patented the idea!


I'm getting increasingly annoyed by the hysteria over the Large Hadron Collider, which will soon come online. In particular, I find it both depressing and irritating that people are talking about the process of smashing together subatomic particles in the LHC as if this was something unusual or Earth-threatening. I'm peeved because particles that are much more energetic than those the LHC will produce smash in to the Earth on a regular basis. That's right - the objects the LHC uses are flying around out there already, and they're going faster and further than the ones in the LHC. In fact, it's quite possible that you've already been hit by one of them during your lifetime. These objects are known as ultra-high energy cosmic rays, and they have been detected on many occasions - after all, the study of cosmic rays is one of the central activities in astrophysics.

Before we continue, let's clear up a couple of things.

Firstly, "cosmic rays" is a misnomer, as they're not really rays at all. They are either subatomic particles (mostly protons) or - less than 10% of the time - the nuclei of lighter atoms such as helium, which consists of two protons and two neutrons stuck together.

Secondly, a hadron is a subatomic particle like a proton or neutron, so when we talk about cosmic rays we are talking about the same objects that the LHC uses. Oh, and that reminds me - the LHC isn't a machine that smashes large hadrons together, its a large machine that smashes ordinary hadrons together. Hadrons (whether we are talking about baryons or mesons) are made out of quarks, and are very, very small. Clear on that? Good. Let's continue.

"Ultra-high" is generally taken to mean cosmic rays with energies above 1020 eV. One physicist explained this amount of energy as like giving an elementary particle such as a proton the same amount of kinetic energy as a baseball travelling at 60 miles per hour. A particle that happened to zip through a detector in Utah in 1991 had an energy of 3 x 1020eV, and it is likely that particles with even higher-energy than that regularly arrive on Earth. These particles come from the farthest reaches of outer space; it's generally accepted that they were accelerated out of Active Galactic Nuclei or quasars and they have spent millions of years flashing across the universe at close to the speed of light before they got here.

Down here on Earth, the particles in the LHC have an energy of just 1017eV, which is a thousand times smaller than those cosmic rays. They're positively humdrum by comparison. If the LHC was going to create anything exotic that would burst into flames/destroy Tokyo/swallow the entire planet/annihilate the Universe, there are so many high-energy particles running around out there that it would already have happened. I'm sorry, but while losing sleep over the issue is pointless, setting up campaigns against the LHC just makes you look like an idiot.


Remember that bit at the end of Total Recall where Arnie reconstitutes a breathable atmosphere on Mars in about three minutes flat? Well...

The NASA flap at the weekend was because the Phoenix lander had discovered perchlorate compounds using its wet chemistry lab. Perchlorates are salts formed by the action of perchloric acid (HClO4), and they act as oxidising agents. In fact, they are very good oxidising agents and react quite energetically; for this reason, they are often used in the manufacture of rocket fuel. And that's the problem: the Phoenix lander has spent quite some time in the vicinity of rocket fuel, as that's how it got to Mars in the first place. As a result, NASA aren't 100% sure yet that the perchlorate they've detected on Mars really comes from Mars. To complicate things still further, the latest results from TEGA, their "shake and bake" oven which has been analysing ice samples taken from underneath the lander, don't appear to show any perchlorates present. We'll have to wait and see, but if there is perchlorate on Mars it could provide a useful (and relatively simple) source of oxygen for future human explorers. And, possibly, a supply of fuel for getting back. Just don't tell Paul Verhoeven.


I noticed yeterday that my SETI screensaver is now running the latest version of the software, called Astropulse. Boy oh boy, that must be one hefty number-crunching application. The program reckons it's going to take one of my processor cores 82 hours to complete one work unit.


After blogging about my difficulties completing the Hydros Custom burning route yesterday I fired up Burnout Paradise again and had another go. I made it on the second attempt, and in the following hour or so I went on to unlock another couple of cars as well.

So I'm now up to thirty vehicles within the game, the latest being the Hunter Hotspur, which is a barge of an estate car that drives like a tugboat but is built like a tank and has a crazy paint job. I love this game.


Judging by the things mentioned in the Independent's story on Friday, it looks like the pilot Steve Fossett who disappeared last September may well have faked his own death. He left his watch (which was fitted with an emergency beacon) on his bedside table. He didn't take a first aid kit with him; he only had a single bottle of water. The Independent believes he had a motive, too: "His finances had also taken a hit after a string of unlucky investments, and the prospect of a messy divorce had left him facing public humiliation and financial ruin." A huge search was mounted when he vanished, and the wreckage of six missing aircraft was located as a result - but Fossett's plane wasn't one of them. It certainly sounds plausible - so I'll be keeping an eye on this story. I don't think we've heard the last of it yet.


Aviation Week really set the cat among the pigeons after suggesting that NASA's Phoenix Lander team had been called in to brief the US President at the weekend about some of the results they've got back from Mars.

Sadly by this morning, everyone seemed to have decided the story wasn't true. On the other hand, if you're old enough to remember the ALH84001 meteorite statement that Bill Clinton made back in 1996 (which ended up, in a profoundly different context, with Clinton wearing a different tie in Robert Zemeckis's film Contact) then you'll understand why folk would choose to be considerably more cautious this time round.


I've been spending hours working my way through the Burnout Paradise challenges on the PS3. I now have 27 of the cars available but I am beginning to find some of the burning routes quite a challenge - I've been trying to get the Hydros Custom to no avail. I can get within a second of the finish line but I just don't seem to be able to shave any more time off. Time for another go, I think.

Note (21/6/09):
The Operation Burnout pages are now classed as a malware risk, so I've removed the link.