The Blog Remains The Same

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: August 2009

August saw the announcement of a new slimline Playstation 3 - which didn't really come as much of a surprise. As far as my pastimes were concerned, it was a month of video games, chilling out with friends and relatives, and cooking.

And, sadly, we lost the legendary guitarist Les Paul and the brilliant film director John Hughes.


I got an iTunes voucher for my birthday, so I've been indulging my curiosity when it comes to applications for the iPhone. I've already got my money's worth out of the excellent Ragdoll Blaster and the insanely challenging Geared (both of which I highly recommend), but thanks to Pieter at the Today and Tomorrow blog I now have a new photography toy to play with as well. QuadCamera is an app for the iPhone which effectively turns it into a multi-lens camera like the Lomo Supersampler.

Another Bank Holiday

Cute effect, isn't it? It even enhances the colours and adds a slight vignetting effect, just like the real thing. As you can see from this shot of the back garden, it's typical weather for a bank holiday today: dull with intermittent drizzle. I still feel like I'm on the verge of getting a cold, and my energy levels are way down, so I'm staying in playing video games, surfing the net, and generally vegging out.


I've neglected the blog for the last few days, I know. I think I'm coming down with some sort of cold - typical, given that it's the bank holiday weekend here in the UK - and I've been feeling very lethargic. However, I promised to let you know what this week's curry was like, so here it is:

The end result

To be honest, the chillies weren't as overwhelmingly powerful as I was expecting. I didn't wear gloves when deseeding, and didn't have any problems. As for flavour, while the curry was hot, it wasn't blow-your-head-off hot. Rather, there was a very distinctive sensation similar to very hot sauces like Who Dares Burns. I'd use the word piquant to describe the experience, not so much because the taste was sharp, more because it was interesting and challenging.

I usually make a curry with a pot of yoghurt to make the taste richer and mellower, but as I wanted to see what the heat was like I didn't use any this time round. I dissolved a tablespoon of marmite in hot water to make a basic stock and added another tin of tomatoes (three in all) which gave a deep umami note underneath everything. I was very pleased with the results; it certainly stimulated my taste buds, and I have another six servings stored away in the freezer. I've also saved the seeds, so I shall have a go at growing my own chillies next spring.


I've been filling up the hard disk on my PS3 this week. To start with, I downloaded the demo of the new Batman game, Arkham Asylum. It's nothing short of excellent. The voice artists come from the animated television series, with Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hammill doing a first-rate job providing the voice of the Joker. The opening cinematics are superb, and as the game runs on the Unreal Engine (my favourite), gameplay looks fantastic. But as the Gamespot review says, the "detective vision" mode should be limited, because it's too tempting to run through the whole game with it switched on. With it, elements that you can interact with light up like a Christmas tree and you can see through walls to anticipate any bad guys who are waiting to ambush you. I've completed the demo several times over so far and I'll definitely get the full game at some point, but I'm struggling to justify dropping £40 on a video game. I don't think that's a a reasonable price to pay; it's too much.

Aside from game demos, I've also been investigating the PS3's capabilities as a media server. Yes, I know, I've only had the thing for a year... This weekend I've been transferring various bits of video across from my PC. The PS3 is a bit limited in terms of the file types it can display, but when it can comes across a file format it knows about, playback looks great on the big TV. I've also been playing with the slideshow facility for photos. When Rebecca came down with Ruth and Will a couple of weeks ago, we used my Mac Mini to display stuff on the big screen, but I think the PS3 has the edge in terms of functionality. There is a bewildering variety of ways to organise your pictures, including some which do far more to show off the PS3's graphics capabilities than they do to your photos. The more I play with it, the more impressed I become.


Rupert Murdoch's son James thinks the BBC is too powerful. Considering that News Corporation owns Sky, Fox News, The Sun, The Times, and dozens of other media assets around the globe, the hypocrisy - or perhaps it's stupidity - required to make a statement like that takes my breath away.


All together now: Hip, Hip, Hoorah!


Last night I called in at the supermarket on the way home to get my food supplies for the week. The freezer is curry-free at the moment, so I was gathering the ingredients I needed to make a new batch. Every branch of Tesco seems to have a different layout and I'm still not familiar with where everything is in the aircraft-hangar-sized example I visited last night, so I found myself wandering backwards and forwards quite a bit. Tesco don't make finding things easy, either; fresh produce is sorted into arbitrary categories like "superfoods" which turned out to be broccoli and the like (what's wrong with "fruit" and "vegetables" for god's sake?) When I eventually tracked down the fresh spices section, I was disappointed to discover that there were no scotch bonnet chillies - my usual choice for making curries - available.

However, there were these:

(evil cackle)

I'd heard of Dorset Naga chillies (also known as naga jolokia or ghost chillies) before, but I'd never seen any on sale. It's redundant to say this, but they are extremely hot. Jalapeño chillies are mild by comparison, and even habanero chillies - which have quite a kick - pale into insignificance. It's difficult to put the taste of really hot food into words, but if you're in a quantitative mood, I can put it like this: Jalapeños max out at about 5,000 units, which is about the same as a bottle of Tabasco sauce. Habaneros have a heat index that gets up to around 400,000 scoville units. According to their website, Dorset Naga peppers consistently break the 900,000 barrier, so this is not a foodstuff to be trifled with. There were some fairly strong warnings on the packet I found: "handle wearing gloves," "wash hands thoroughly after preparation" and "skin irritant" don't exactly reassure the faint-hearted chef.

Of course, I had to buy some. When I got home, I went on the web to find out more information, and it was with a certain amount of awe that I came across a video on YouTube showing what happened when Neil from the Hippy Seed Company in New South Wales ate a whole dorset naga raw. Think of me while you're watching the video; I'll be off to make my curry when I've finished writing this, and I'll blog about the results tomorrow.


Nationwide, the government has spent half a billion pounds installing closed circuit television cameras. As a result, the UK now has more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other place on the planet. But how useful are they? Well, thanks to an internal Metropolitan Police report which made the news this week, we know exactly how effective the CCTV cameras in London have been at fighting crime: last year, for every 1000 cameras installed, just one crime was solved. It's good to see our taxes being put to such productive use.


I'm sure that it's nothing more than a coincidence that Peter Mandelson's "strong intervention" on the content of the Digital Britain report - hastily amended to include a variation on the "three strikes and you're out" approach which the music industry has tried repeatedly to get introduced around the globe - comes just a couple of weeks after he had dinner with record industry mogul David Geffen.

Lord Mandelson's career has often made entertaining reading. With a political career as long and varied as his, I'm sure he knows exactly whose interests he's serving. After all, the figures on illegal downloading are incontrovertible. And of course, anyone who uses peer to peer filesharing is breaking the law, aren't they?

It's good to see government putting our best interests first, isn't it?


Thanks to several people who pointed me at the coffee calendar today; it's a record of one man's daily beverage consumption, including expenditure (which runs to four figures!)


If you've been reading the blog for a while you'll know about Microsoft's Project Natal - a way of controlling video games using cameras to track the player's position so that a normal controller isn't needed. Now there's footage of someone playing a real game with the technology, and what's the game being played? Why, it's Burnout Paradise!

Notice, too, that the guy from Microsoft says he's lost 8 kg since he started working on the project.


It's a four-star weekend for the Severn Bore this weekend, but I haven't made it down to the river at all so far. By the time Friday evening came around I was knackered, and yesterday I really didn't feel like doing much more than pottering around the house, doing the laundry and drinking coffee. I've already missed this morning's bore, and tonight will be too late to stay out as tomorrow is a work day. Oh well, maybe next month...


My Twitter Weighs A Ton holds a database of public messages sent on Twitter, and users can analyse what they've tweeted in the last six months to see which words cropped up the most. Mine turned out to be 14 instances of "Latitude" followed by 13 each of "back" and "days." I guess that's not surprising, as I went to the Latitude Festival and was away on business a few times as well.

Compared with some of the other people I know on Twitter, I'm not a particularly prolific poster. I'm still a few messages away from my 500th tweet and I started using the site back in November 2007. Some of the people I follow started using Twitter much later and their tweet count is already in the thousands. I'm could sit back smugly and claim that my lack of posts is because I don't want to increase my pointless babble percentage above 40%, but we all know I'd be lying. My lack of tweeting is usually because I don't have anything interesting to say.


When I was a kid I had something wrong with my kidneys and as a result I spent a lot of time at home rather than going to school. To catch up, I had a private tutor called Mrs Flint, and I still remember sitting by the window at her house watching a tame robin that used to come and perch on the kitchen windowsill, where it would tap on the window until we gave it some food. My interest in birdwatching probably stems from those days.

But the thing I remember most vividly about staying at home was watching the trade test transmissions that were broadcast by the BBC as their new second channel - BBC2 - was being commissioned. These were short films, usually lasting no more than quarter of an hour, which focused on a bewildering variety of subjects. The majority of these films were shameless promotional items for multinational companies but as a small child I didn't realise this. To my eyes, they were a gateway to a big, exciting world and I watched them over and over again. If I was particularly lucky, I was allowed to go next door, as our neighbours had one of the first, new colour television sets. This was the height of luxury for a small boy like me.

I had particular favourites, too. There was a film made by Philips about their Evoluon exhibition in the Netherlands, there was one about the 1969 Round Britain Powerboat race and the triumph of a boat called Avenger Too, and one which I remember more vaguely about how an outboard motor changed the lives of a fisherman and his son somewhere in Indonesia.

This morning I decided to see if any of them were out there on the Internet. The first thing I found was a remarkable page containing an index of all BBC trade test transmissions ever broadcast. The three films I mentioned above are all there, and with the information to hand I headed over to YouTube. You won't be surprised to learn that I was able to find all the films I looked for.

Bulong and Bola, made by Shell:

In 405 Alive's words, "Bulong, a Sarawak farmer, takes his produce to market by river with his son, Bola. With an outboard motor they can make more journeys and more money, gradually improving their standard of living whilst the mobile clinic brings medical aid to all."

This is on YouTube in two ten-minute chunks (part one and part two). Watching it again it's a shameless promotional item. The world, we are shown, is a far better place thanks to outboard motors. As I watched, I remembered the "dramatic setback" that Bulong and his son suffer, where they have to paddle for an hour upstream before being rescued. It's probably the weakest of the three films, looking at it now - there's lots of stock music, and the narrative is expanded by a rather stilted commentary that would have been old fashioned in the 1950s, let alone the sixties.

Evoluon, a Carillon film for Philips:

As 405 Alive describe it, this film was "a trip around the state of the art technological exhibition at Eindhoven in Holland. Vocals and electronic sound effects take preference over any commentary which isn’t really needed as the pictures speak for themselves."

Evoluon is available on YouTube in two parts (part one and part two). Watching it again, I'm taken by how witty the camera work is - and how unnecessary any dialogue would have been. It's amazing to think the film is 40 years old now, and the exhibition has long since closed. The striking building remains, and is now a conference centre.

Ride the White Horses, A Ford Film Unit Production:

405 Alive are unusually terse in their description: "The 1969 powerboat race around the coast of Britain."

I was particularly pleased to find "Ride The White Horses" on the web (part one, part two and part three). Watching the film brought back some happy memories, and it was just exciting as I remember it. The aerial photography is particularly outstanding. I'd remembered the music being pretty good, too - and it turns out to be by Jeff Wayne (best known these days for the War of the Worlds album). What I hadn't regisetered at the time was that Avenger Too was captained by ace rally driver Timo Makinen.

405 Alive's list also reminded me of a couple of other films that I used to enjoy watching: "We've come a long way" was about oil tankers, and as far as I can remember it featured some fairly impressive (and hand-drawn) animations showing the engineering principles by which oil tankers are constructed; the other was "Algerian Pipeline," whose subject matter is self explanatory. Both films were made for British Petroleum, but sadly I couldn't find either of them on the Internet. Maybe they'll surface again, one day.


Thanks to Colin Peters of the WGB for introducing me to the delights of the Video Game Name Generator. As a result I spent way too much time last night imagining the delights of the games it invented for me. I'd pay good money to play something called "Inappropriate Landmine Frenzy".

Other games I thought sounded appealing included "Maximum Janitor Conspiracy", "Battlefield Chipmunk Troopers", "Cthulhu's Mummy Derby","Orbital Ostrich Invaders" and "Heavy Metal Florist Warrior". I'm pretty sure I saw an advert for that last one recently. Isn't Jack Black in it?

I've been playing video games since I was a teenager. When I got my Atari console back in the 1970s, there was no plot - you just played for as long as you wanted, and then stopped. As games became more complex and gained narrative structure, I tended to retain my original approach to gameplay. I wasn't particularly interested in beating insanely difficult bosses at the end of levels, so I'd just dip in and play for a few minutes and stop when I couldn't get any further. I've noticed that, since I got the Playstation, this has changed; I've become far more involved in the games I play.

My gaming experience has become more satisfying, because I've actually managed to complete some of the games I own. In recent months I've worked through to the credits at the end of Ratchet and Clank and Burnout Paradise. I still struggle from time to time (and getting my Elite license in Burnout took me the best part of a year), but these days I'm prepared to stick with a game until I overcome the obstacles - sometimes to an obsessive degree.

My most recent efforts have been applied to Escape from Butcher Bay. It's a first person shooter game with Vin Diesel reprising the character of Richard B Riddick from Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick. When you buy Assault on Dark Athena you get the first half of the story for free, which is quite a bargain. And I'm duty bound to support anything that has Vin Diesel in it, as he's seriously into gaming himself. There's considerably more gore than there is in the other games I play, but the storyline is keeping me hooked. I'll keep you posted on my progress.


Thanks to Ed for pointing me at the search engine for things that man was not meant to know. I guess you'll need to be familiar with the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft to appreciate that one.


Hugo-award-winning science fiction author John Scalzi is always good for a laugh, and his latest piece on the design shortcomings of the Star Wars Universe is extremely funny. But the ensuing comment storm is even better - it's hilarious. I can't wait to see what reaction he gets when he makes good on his promise to cast his critical eye on Star Trek's universe.


The teatime BBC news did a couple of minutes last night on the fact that the trailer for James Cameron's new science fiction movie, AVATAR, has been released. Let me repeat that: the BBC considered the fact that Internet users can watch a movie trailer as one of the most important things to happen yesterday. I guess it may have something to do with the fact that the film cost a reputed $300 million to make. All the same, I'm afraid the trailer left me distinctly underwhelmed.

To start with - and I'm not the only one who has pointed this out - the film's logo is written using a font called Papyrus, which is only slightly less loathed than Comic Sans for its ubiquity. It's one of those fonts that, whether it deserves it or not, has become a signifier for a complete lack of imagination or creativity. There are several websites devoted to chronicling the more heinous examples of its deployment or (even better) stamping it out entirely. People really, really, REALLY don't like Papyrus.

As for the rest of the trailer? Well, there was a nice shot of spaceships in orbit to start things off and another one of a shuttlecraft flying down through clouds, but then the CGI people started popping up. Given that five years have passed since Peter Jackson amazed us with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, I was expecting a level of detail and nuancing that would surpass anything I've ever seen before. Instead, I found myself thinking, "Oh, Jim Cameron has remade ANTZ!" In other words, the facial expressions looked about as convincing as ones from a cartoon that came out eleven years ago. Every single scene showing something happening on the planet left me deeply disappointed. Maybe it will look better in 3D, but watching the trailer on my TV was not the "game-changing" experience that Jon Favreau (the director of Iron Man) seems to think the movie will be.

I'm sorry to say it, because I have a lot of time for Jim Cameron and his work, but I'm afraid that for me, the trailer is far more "Meh" than "Wow!" It looks like other people think the same, and I've read several posts online describing the trailer as little more than a glorified video game cut scene. I guess we'll find out whether it's the hype or the abuse that's accurate in December.


After the reports of Sony's new slimline PS3 appeared this week, Microsoft's xBox 360 was also being talked about by bloggers a fair bit - but not in a good way. The Seattle PI blog broke the news that a survey by Game Informer has revealed the failure rate for Microsoft's console to be 54.2 per cent (the PS3's failure rate came in at just over 10%).

That means that for every two Microsoft consoles you pick, one of them is likely to fail. And if you are one of the unlucky ones whose console failed and you got it fixed, you still have a four in ten chance that it'll fail again. Ouch.


The rumours were true, after all.

Yesterday, Sony announced a new, slimline PlayStation 3. The new machine has reduced power consumption and a larger, 120Gb disk drive. The original Spiderman font on the front has been dropped in favour of a new PLAYSTATION - excuse me, that should be "PlayStation" logo which, stylistically, matches that of the PSP. But the new model doesn't appear to have an access panel for the hard drive, meaning that upgrading it to give yourself more storage space might be problematic. Linux geeks will be disappointed to hear that the Install another OS feature has been taken away. To soften the blow Sony have dropped the price of the console. It's now just half the price it was when it came out.

So what do I think? Well, slimming down the console is beginning to be a habit with Sony, as they did the same thing with the PS2. The original PS3 is a weird-looking oddly-shaped beast, and the new version is far kinder on the eye. Even though the new one is far smaller, it's actually deeper than the old one, front to back. And you know what? I'm happy to stick with the one I've got - particularly as it has a 500Gb drive inside with all my stuff on it!

Update (21/8/09): CNET have got their hands on a new PS3, and you can still replace the hard drive - they've just moved the access cover to the front of the unit.


The public health care debate in America continues and the Democrats are being put at a distinct disadvantage, because it's difficult to win an argument with a crazy person. Or as Bill Maher puts it, "the Democrats have moved to the right, and the Republicans have moved to a mental hospital."

Johann Hari suggests one possible reason why Obama's goal of free healthcare for all - in a country where 18,000 people die every year because they can't afford to pay for their treatment - might upset a certain sort of person: "The Republicans want to defend the existing system, not least because they are given massive sums of money by the private medical firms who benefit from the deadly status quo. But they can't do so honestly: some 70 per cent of Americans say it is "immoral" to retain a medical system that doesn't cover all citizens. So they have to invent lies to make any life-saving extension of healthcare sound depraved."

The UK recently went through the painful process of finding out that for some politicians, furthering their own interests is more important than looking after the needs of their constituents. It looks like America's in for much the same experience.


Interesting to see in the New York Times today that DNA evidence can now be made to order. If I was a forensic scientist, I'd be scratching my head wondering how much credence people are going to place on genetic matches when this becomes widely known... (Thanks, Mr. G!)


Alive In Joberg was a short film made in 2005 by Neil Blomkamp. It's a first exploration of the world of District 9, and although nobody is saying how much it cost to make, they were clearly working on a very limited budget. It just goes to show: you don't need to spend in excess of $300 million to make a very impressive piece of science fiction.


Last week the guitarist (and multi-track tape recording pioneer) Les Paul died and musicians such as Jimmy Page, Joe Satriani, Billy Gibbons, Joan Jett, Slash and The Edge have been lining up to pay tribute. And rightly so: modern studio recording wouldn't be what it is today without Les Paul's innovations, including overdubbing and multi-track recording. The Gibson Les Paul solidbody guitar is an iconic piece of technology, one used by dozens and dozens of guitar heroes as well as thousands of aspiring rock stars. He had a huge impact on popular culture; I loved Jeph Jacques's tribute to Les Paul in Questionable Content on Friday.

Les was also a musician, and he stayed one, right to the end. He was still gigging a couple of months ago, and by gigging I don't mean just showing up; he was still a powerful force in music. Even though the man has gone, his sound and his influence will live on.


Back in the spring, the UK's Met Office issued a long range forecast that suggested we were in for a barbecue summer. Sadly this turned out not to be the case and their recent revised forecast was for conditions we're more used to - long spells of unsettled weather. Despite this, I braved the elements at the weekend and wheeled the barbecue out of storage. Rebecca, Ruth and her boyfriend Will came down, the weather stayed dry (more or less) and we spent a nice afternoon setting fire to pieces of meat and drinking beer. Sadly Ruth's brother Rob couldn't join us as he was at work in York, but we burned a few sausages in his honour!


One of the best parts of a summer barbecue is sitting down and relaxing afterwards and gazing up at the stars. Unfortunately it was too cloudy to watch for satellites on Saturday night. As soon as any stars became visible, the clouds rolled in again. Skywatching seems to be a dying art, these days.

I only mention this because it's the silly season again, the time when the UK's parliament is in recess and the football season hasn't really got under way. Despite this, papers and news programmes have the same amount of space to fill so a lot of journalists are reduced to writing stories about the dafter things that are going on at the moment. True to form, the press are making a fair bit of the latest Ministry of Defence files to be released by the National Archive. Why? Because they concern reports of flying saucers and lights in the sky.

From the tone of the current stories about once-secret UFO files you might be given the impression that twenty years ago the UK government took the idea of little green men seriously. But I don't remember it being that way. Lord Hill-Norton and Lord Clancarty were the only members of the Lords (or indeed the Commons) prepared to admit to an interest in the subject and they were ridiculed more than once for doing so. Despite this, Lord Hill-Norton wrote the introduction to at least one of Timothy Good's UFO books and Lord Clancarty wrote several books of his own about flying saucers and where they might have come from. From the files that have been released it's clear that Hill-Norton was quite concerned about an incident that took place just outside RAF Bentwaters in 1980. As he said in an interview at the time, either aliens were landing as they pleased in the wilds of Suffolk, or United States Air Force personnel with responsibility for tactical nuclear weapons had started seeing little green men. Neither scenario inspires confidence...

Aside from the Rendlesham Forest incident, British interest in UFOs had been declining since the late 1970s. As space missions to the planets revealed just how inhospitable they were, people stopped reporting encounters with visitors from Mars or Venus and stories of "local" visitors were replaced by tales of little grey beings from Zeta Reticuli. Following the publication of Whitley Strieber's best-selling novel Communion, these stories became so ludicrously over-the-top that any illusion of plausibility evaporated. At one point the number of people claiming that they had been abducted by aliens at least once was so large - nearly four million Americans, according to one study - that there should have been as many flying saucers in the skies as there were passenger aircraft; the field simply became too silly to be believed in.

At the same time, revelations about American military aircraft such as the F-117 and B-2 provided concrete explanations for unusually-shaped objects in the skies. The world no longer needed flying saucers to exist and the press lost interest in them. By the 90s, the only way a UFO story would appear in the media was if it was placed there as a movie or TV tie-in. In an attempt to plug shows like the X-Files or B-movies like Roland Emmerich's alien invasion yarn Independence Day, public relations companies encouraged people to share their stories of alien encounters and promote the idea of extra-terrestrial visitors. The more outrageous the claim, the more likely the papers were to pick up on it and the happier the PR folk were. The result was inevitable: anyone making a sighting was either ridiculed or (even worse) treated as a PR copywriter; UFOs became synonymous with cynical marketing promotions and rather than being marginalised, any encounter with something out of the ordinary was now seen as an advertising stunt. The 1996 burst of interest reported in the Guardian's story was just an anomalous blip in a slow decline. When Graham Birdsall, editor of the UK's UFO Magazine, passed away in 2003 any serious discussion of the phenomenon dropped out of the mainstream altogether. I was amazed to discover this evening that the Flying Saucer Review is still being published; I used to be a subscriber and I hadn't heard about it for years!

These days, interested parties such as Forteans tend to view UFOs as a cultural rather than physical phenomenon. If anything, this makes the subject even more fascinating and outlandish than it would be if real little green men were involved. When flying saucers or mysterious lights in the sky appear in the media today, they are usually there as an adjunct to discussion of belief systems of people on the fringes of society. Whether it's survivalists obsessed with black helicopters or conspiracy theorists looking for evidence of secret bases in the Nevada Desert, the folk who still believe are not what you'd describe as mainstream. The most high profile example of this is Gary McKinnon, who spent years searching through other people's computer systems for evidence of alien visitors and who is likely to end up in an American prison for doing so.

These days UFOs are largely viewed as a belief system and there's little chance that will change any time soon. So why have extra-terrestrials reappeared in the papers this week? That's easy. Next month sees the release of another aliens-on-Earth b-movie. You can put it down to some canny PR activity rather than any resurgence of interest in the subject as a concrete phenomenon.

And that's a shame, as far as I'm concerned; everyone should have a little bit of mystery in their lives.


Or, in the words of The Washington Post, "In America, Crazy Is a Preexisting Condition."


Channel Five pulls "Groundhog Day" stunt - people don't get the joke.

LES PAUL 1915 - 2009

Can't really put anything into words right now.

Nobody else in the music industry has the stature of the man. He was a genuine legend.


Wow. (via, naturally).


Indeed it was, even down to the cake.

And for those of you who have no idea why that link (or, indeed, this one) is so cool, see here.


America's GOP - or the Republicans as the rest of the world calls them - haven't taken losing the last presidential election well. More to the point, they don't appear to know what to do about it in any sort of mature or intelligent fashion.

If you want to see the loonier side of right-wing politics, all you have to do is visit the "what's new" page of the urban legend debunking site Snopes, because every day they have to deal with at least one new rumour which smears Barack Obama or his administration. This speaks volumes about the state of American politics. Where the Democrats have a cool president and their followers can zing the opposition in creative and funny ways (William Shatner's rendition of Sarah Palin's resignation speech being just one memorable example), the Republicans consistently hand their critics prime material for mockery, making idiots of themselves on a regular basis, or just being so slow on the uptake that it's a wonder they have any credibility left.

Faced with this sort of PR disaster, all the Republicans can manage are the sort of pranks that would embarrass a five-year-old in the school playground. Profoundly suspicious of all academics and the people they class as the "urban elite" - in other words, anyone bright enough to ask awkward questions about their assertions - the far right haven't the faintest idea how to carry out intelligent debate. "Who cares about the truth when there's an opportunity for name-calling, or spewing untruths to anyone who'll listen?" they mutter resentfully. "We're not bright enough to be funny, and intelligent, reasoned debate is boring, so let's make shit up instead! It got us into a war, it's bound to get us the Presidency back!"

Think I'm exaggerating?

Before Obama's team of net-savvy strategists came on the scene, this sort of behaviour paid off handsomely for America's right-wingers; it probably lost John Kerry the presidency. The Republican strategy has always relied heavily on ad hominem attacks, and for the GOP, no blow is too low. Since Obama was elected, those attacks have become tinged with a nasty streak of racism. I'm delighted to see that these days, there are far more people out there who are prepared to point at the idiots and call foul. Obama's team is pretty good at making the facts available, too.

But I'm blogging about all this today because it's looking like the rest of the world has finally had enough of these idiots. The first sign of this was a spate of tweets on Twitter defending the NHS with the hashtag #welovetheNHS. Thanks to the two kidney operations and weeks of hospital care I received as a child - all provided free of charge - I owe my life to the NHS. Thousands upon thousands of other people do as well. Today's tweets reflect genuine outrage over the US right's latest pathetic attempt at mud-slinging. As criticism of Obama's intended reforms to the US health care system, an editorial in the Investor's Business Daily compared his proposals to the UK's National Health Service. If Stephen Hawking lived in the UK, said the paper, he'd never have received the health care he needs to stay alive, as he would have been "discarded as worthless." Considering that Stephen Hawking lives in the UK and got his treatment through the NHS, people are understandably getting very upset. Those people include the Prime Minister and, of course, Professor Hawking himself. Whoever the lazy hack was who came up with such a doozy of a story, you would have thought he or she would at least make the effort to find out where Professor Hawking actually lives. I can only assume the writer thought the professor was an American because his computer speaks with an American accent. If the sort of tactics on display here weren't so widespread in the American right, the sheer ineptitude would be laughable.

But it isn't laughable. And the behaviours and mindset it reveals are no more than scurrilous, offensive, sleazy, thuggish nastiness.

This, folks, is what admirers of the "Grand Old Party" get up to these days. Is it any wonder that the American people decided they didn't want people like this running the country any more?


...I was celebrating my birthday down in Devon after experiencing a total solar eclipse. It's amazing to think it was a decade ago, it really doesn't seem like it.


Here's an interesting thing... I stopped using my computer last night at about 7 pm and spent the evening watching a really, awesomely bad movie instead - and last night I slept like a log. I'm not the first person to notice a link between internet usage prior to bedtime and disrupted sleep patterns, so I think the verdict is in. I'm therefore going to reduce the amount of time I spend at the computer when I'm at home and as a result, you'll probably find that I won't be online as much in the evenings. Er, other than the two hours I've spent writing everything this evening, that is.


The YouTube clip Graham Linehan linked to, which set me off on my bad movie odyssey, has been taken down because it violated YouTube's terms of use. Which is likely to mean that the company holding copyright on the film asked them to remove it. Now it may be stating the bleedin' obvious, but as this is the Internet I'll do it anyway:

Dear film company - I bought the DVD of your movie after watching a trailer for it on YouTube. The trailer has been removed. What's the likelihood that, if you'd left it to be watched by other people, some of them would now also have bought that DVD?

Are you feeling stupid yet?


Barry Collins of PC Pro magazine has an interesting blog entry about the price of video games - in particular, the disruptive influence of the iPhone and Apple's App Store, which has hundreds of games available for less than the price of a sandwich. I have almost as many apps for the iPhone as I do for the Playstation, and I've only owned one for a month. I've had the PS3 for well over a year. I hope the trend of more affordable games continues, although industry trends for console games are heading in the opposite direction. That's only going to make the iPhone's apps even more attractive, as far as I'm concerned.


A few months back I was raving about how good Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book was. Now it's won this year's Hugo Award for best novel. Well done, Neil!


It looks like the BBC have finally noticed Acrossair's tube station locator AR app for the iPhone that I blogged about two weeks ago. The other AR apps they talk about are interesting, though. It's looking more and more as if there are enough related technologies out there now to enable a revolution to take place in how we navigate the world. Of course, having to own an iPhone is a large barrier for most people, but the once mass-market versions of the technology are manufactured, the price will drop. And I suspect that the demand for such applications will be big enough for economies of scale to kick in pretty quickly. People just have to see the technology working, get what will become possible with it, and start wanting it.


NASA have launched a new website devoted to Near Earth Objects, which is a little more geared towards popular culture (I hesitate to use the words "dumbed down" but the conclusion is inevitable) than the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's existing NEO program site. However good their intentions, I can't help but wonder if NASA is doing itself any favours by having two sets of people at JPL running websites about the same subject...


Sameer Agarwal, Noah Snavely, Ian Simon, Steven M. Seitz and Richard Szeliski from the University of Washington have done some very interesting work in constructing VR data sets of cities using photographs tagged on Flickr. In the virtual world, Rome can be built in a day.


I can't begin to explain how many of my buttons are pushed by the news that the folk who developed Age of Empires are teaming up with Ashley Wood to develop a game for the iPhone. All I know is that I will slavishly buy it as soon as it's available.


Yesterday was the first day in over a week that I spent a considerable amount of time connected to the Internet. Last night was the first time in over a week where I slept badly. The conclusions need further investigation, but they're obvious all the same. So this week I'm going to see if unplugging myself means a good night's sleep. I'm blogging at the moment, obviously, but I'm going to see if signing off early in the evening helps me sleep. I'll keep you posted on the results...


I'm back home after a very enjoyable stay catching up with everyone in Norfolk. I got back at just after 1am this morning, so I'm currently working my way through lots of washing and housework. I ran a blog while I was away (the joys of having a netbook I can take anywhere) so entries for the past week will follow immediately...


There's a scene in Annie Hall where everything is going right for Woody Allen's character. He suddenly turns to the camera, and sighs, "If only life were like this." I always felt like that when I watched the films of John Hughes, who died this week of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Hughes either wrote or directed a batch of films in the 1980s that pretty much everyone of my generation knows off by heart: The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. If you "got" John Hughes's films, you didn't just like them, you loved them. They are eminently quotable; phrases from them have made their way into popular culture. Everyone secretly wants to be Ferris Bueller at one point or another, and even now, twenty years after it was released, I still see people wearing "Save Ferris" badges.

Hughes also made the two best films in John Candy's career: Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck. The characters in his films might not always have been likeable - I can't imagine taking Steve Martin's place in PT&A, being put through the gruelling experience of a road trip with John Candy's character and remaining sane, for example - but Hughes had the ability to make you care for the characters in his movies in spite of their shortcomings. Surely it's impossible not to feel a pang of sympathy for Mr Rooney as the bus pulls away to the strains of Yello's Oh Yeah at the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off?

Hughes was sometimes described as the director who understood what teenage life was like, although this was mainly because he didn't view it through rose-tinted spectacles in the way that, say, Spielberg did in American Graffiti. Hughes understood that school could be nasty and brutal, with cliques and factions warring over gains and slights to personal status. This is particularly evident in The Breakfast Club. Filmed by a lesser director, the teenagers in the movie would take 90 minutes to learn a valuable life lesson and as the closing credits rolled we would be assured that they would all remain steadfast friends for ever afterwards. That's not how it works, says Hughes. In Hughes's version of events we know that the following day, the jock will no longer talk to the nerd, the misfit will be ostracised once again and life will go on as it did before. Life is tough, and triumphs are short-lived, but when they do happen - and this is absolutely the point of Hughes's films - they are all the more glorious for it. He will be sorely missed.


They've been having a problem in France with the fumes from rotting seaweed. Nitrates from the use of agriculture created a crust over the dead vegetation, trapping the fumes from decomposition inside. At St Michel en Greve, a horse rider unwittingly broke this crust and released a cloud of hydrogen sulphide. The rider lost consciousness and his horse died; the beach has been closed. Elsewhere in Brittany a council worker fell into a coma after being overcome while they were working on clearing the beach. These days, being on holiday can be a dangerous experience indeed.


When I first started going online, one thing I learned very quickly was that a fairly large proportion of the public don't know the difference between a feature film and a factual documentary. Now it seems that not only do many people not possess the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, but in some cases - after watching a film which got historical events wrong - it was Hollywood's mangled version of events that they remembered rather than the truth. The latest issue of the journal Psychological Science has the details of a study by researchers at Washington University, which are quite disturbing. Andrew Butler showed just how powerful the effect of watching a reconstruction can be - improving recall by as much as fifty per cent in cases where the film showed an accurate portrayal of events. However, it was where the events shown in the film differed that caused problems, because children preferred to remember the version they'd seen in the film rather than the version that they'd been told was accurate.

In Butler's study, even warning students that the film was inaccurate didn't stop people getting confused. The only thing that prevented people remembering the mangled version as the truth was to give them a specific warning about the precise nature of the inaccuracy, and that's something that is never going to happen under normal circumstances. I found the story profoundly disturbing, particularly as the movie industry is not noted for its social responsibility to education...


I've been sleeping better this week than I have done for years; I really feel like I'm holiday. For the last couple of nights I've been sleeping for nearly twelve hours straight. When Mum and Dad first moved here, I always used to sleep well on my visits, but these days I struggle to get a decent night's sleep anywhere. It's been a pleasant surprise to sleep right through the night and wake up to discover it's ten o'clock in the morning! Of course, lots of nice food and drink helped (the diet's been abandoned for the week.) The current plan is that I'll stay until the weekend, as my brother and I are going to have a birthday party on Saturday.


Congrats to WGB regular David Geelan, a.k.a. @ProfBravus - one of the books he co-authored has won the Australian Educational Publishing Award for 'Secondary Teaching and Learning.' Yay!


The house is much quieter this morning, as my brother David and and my sister Annabelle and their families all went home last night. That's ten people less in the house, and it makes quite a difference. They weren't all staying inside, though - the front lawn has been providing accommodation for a lot of people since the weekend. Now there's just one tent left in the garden. It's a beauty - it sleeps eight people and it's so big it wouldn't fit in my garden back home. It must be rather nice camping out in something that size when the weather's good. There's plenty of space to move around in and you can even stand up inside - quite a contrast to the little dome tent I've used for camping for the last ten years. I'm beginning to think I should get something a little larger, but this monster would be much too big for me on my own!

Unfortunately the weather isn't as good today, and it's been raining off and on for the last couple of hours. The rain makes quite a noise as it hammers on the roof of the conservatory. I can hear it from where I'm sitting at the dining room table with the PC plugged in for a recharge. It sounds like its little Atom processor is chugging along at full speed, too - I can hear the fans running.

I've also managed to improve my score on FlightControl - just now I managed to land 45 planes before a couple of them crashed. That's quite an improvement on my earlier score, so I don't know if I'll be able to top it. It won't stop me trying, though. Now I need to plug in the phone and charge it again...


Even though there's no Internet connection here, we've been using computers a lot over the last few days. My nephews have been playing Star Wars games on my brother David's laptop; Andy has his Dell netbook with him so he can download the footage his daughter has filmed with their Flip Video Camera, and I've been blogging away on the Eee. The Eee is doing OK for battery power, too - it's still saying I have more than two hours of battery life remaining, and I haven't charged it since I got here.

In contrast, I've already had to charge my phone once. When mobile phones can't detect a signal, they increase their own transmission power on the basis that if they can't hear the nearest antenna, it can't hear them. The higher transmission power uses up power much more quickly and I guess up here my phone must have been transmitting as hard as it could. That's not the only reason for reduced battery life, though. I've also been playing games on the phone a fair bit, particularly the air traffic control game FlightControl, which is well worth the 59p it costs to download it from iTunes.

FlightControl is a well thought out and beautifully presented little game. The idea is simple: you are presented with a map view of an airport (you get three to choose from) and a set of tiny little aircraft appear. You have to touch the screen and draw a flight path with your finger which will guide the planes to a safe landing. Not only do you have to make sure that each aircraft arrives on the appropriate runway, which is colour coded, but you also have to make sure that they don't collide with other aircraft trying to land. To make things harder, different types of aircraft arrive, and they travel at different speeds. Helicopters are slow, and take ages to fly across to the helipad; jumbo jets move much faster, and can crash in to your carefully established holding patterns before you realise they've appeared. It's easy to pick up, and highly addictive. My high score at the moment is still 19 aircraft - but I'm determined to better that score before I get home.


I'm sitting in the living room at my parents' house in Norfolk, after travelling over here yesterday. Mum and Dad's place is full - all my nieces and nephews are here with their parents - my brothers Andy and David and my sister Annabelle have all been staying here this weekend and the garden is an impressive sight: there are some enormous tents pitched in the front garden!

Additional accommodation

It's not very often that we get the chance to all get together like this, as Andy and his family live in California. In fact it's a little over two years since I last saw them. So we have lots of catching up to do, and everyone has been talking a lot and taking lots of photos and video.

It's a lovely part of the world here in Norfolk, but I have no Internet connection and my mobile phone only gets a signal when I walk to the other side of the field at the back of their house. As a result I feel a bit isolated. Using network enabled devices becomes a habit, and it always takes me a couple of days to adjust to the fact that I can't use Twitter, or check eMail, or look something up on the Internet while I'm staying here. However, the Eee comes in useful for storing photos and showing holiday snaps to Mum and Dad, and while I'm using it I don't feel quite as cut off. All the same, I'll be glad to get home and plug back in again.