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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: September 2004

September saw me trying to widen my literary boundaries a bit. However, any highbrow pretensions I might aspire to will be swiftly demolished when you discover that the other blog entries this month concentrated on curry, rock music, and Klingons.

I still managed to come up with a new banner, though.


I've just finished reading Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, which I enjoyed immensely. It's the story of Harriet, a twelve-year-old girl, her best friend Hely, and their relationship with Danny Ratliff, an older boy who, it appears, killed her brother. I particularly liked the way the book starts off with a sense of timelessness: it was quite a while before I'd gathered enough clues to place the events within a particular decade. The gradual introduction of subjects like cars, rock music, and drugs into the narrative parallels one of the main themes of the book, which is the encroachment of modern social and economic values into the traditions of the American Deep South. And, having travelled briefly through the region, the writing evoked vivid images of small-town life.

Once I finished the book, I went on the Internet to find out a little more about its author and the themes she explores. Publishers Bloomsbury are one of the growing number of companies who provide reading guides on their website, which is to be commended. As a result of browsing through some of the links they provided, I discovered Robert Birnbaum's site, Identity Theory, which I found fascinating. Even before blundering in on his site, there was no way I'd describe myself as widely-read, but after a few minutes I'd begun to despair of ever really appreciating modern literature. The range of articles is, frankly, intimidating; all the same, it's good fun. If I'm going to improve my literary knowledge, that's the place to start.


The latest images from Mars Global Surveyor released by Malin Space Science Systems are sharp enough to show the tracks of the Spirit rover. When you think that the orbiter is at least a hundred miles up, they're a pretty amazing achievement.


Other than the Scaled Composites flight, there's another big space event due tomorrow: the asteroid Toutatis conducts a near-Earth flyby. "Near" in this context means that it'll be 4 times as far away as the Moon, which just goes to show that astronomers are just as free with their adjectives as the geologists we were talking about a few days ago.

To give you extra value for money, I tried to find out about the character the asteroid was named after. I drew a blank with my copy of Brewer's which surprised me. Finding out much more about the original mythology on the web is a frustrating exercise - because the authors of hundreds of websites proclaiming the Apocalypse have latched on to tomorrow's events with varying degrees of comprehension that range from the entertaining to the disturbing. As the saying goes, "there aren't half some nutters out there." There's no chance of it hitting us, despite what some websites are claiming.

Eventually I was able to discover that Toutatis (or Teutates) means "God of the people" and that he was an important Celtic and Gallic god of war, fertility, growth and prosperity. Consulting my copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I also discovered that:

victims sacrificed to Teutates were killed by being plunged headfirst into a vat filled with an unspecified liquid, which may have been ale, a favourite drink of the Celts.



I remember where I was when I first read about the DVD format - in a branch of Barnes and Noble in Tampa, Florida. This was back in 1996 - so round about the time when a high-end machine was a 200MHz Pentium. The magazine article was raving about how the technology would change computing - and lo and behold, it's had quite an impact on home entertainment systems, too.

Now there's another new format on the horizon: Multiplexed Optical Digital Storage (MODS). Although the discs are still the size of a CD, they are theoretically capable of providing 250Gb of storage on a single disc.

Whoa - every episode of Star Trek the Next Generation on a single disc? I'd go for that!


Well, term has started at the university, and my commute time has nearly doubled. Bristol's council seem to have absolutely no idea when it comes to traffic management; their attitude seems to be to force people out of their cars by making car driving as unpleasant an experience as possible. Unfortunately, the idea that they need to offer a viable alternative seems to have escaped them. If you're thinking of getting a job in Bristol, my advice is simple: don't bother.


I was right about what I said on 16th June: enter Virgin Galactic! Richard Branson has indeed teamed up with Scaled Composites to offer human spaceflight to the general public. Now, for a mere £100,000 (and the price will, I'm sure, come down) you too can enjoy the experience of weightlessness and the environment of outer space from your seat in a cosy 5-person Virgin Spaceship.

Further plans discussed involve orbital flights and then, possibly, a hotel in orbit. I remember watching 2001 as a kid and feeling that I was seeing the future: now at last, some of that dream may be starting to come true. For now, though, let's keep fingers crossed for Rutan's Wednesday flight for the Ansari X-Prize.


Well, fairly lazy, anyway. I've spent a rather dull day doing things like filling in my tax return and getting the lawn cut. I walked to the village Post Office to post my return this afternoon, and walked back across the fields. Despite the fact that it'll be October by the end of the week, the grasshoppers and crickets were still calling loudly in the hedgerows. Mind you, once you got out of the wind it was still quite warm outside, so autumn hasn't really taken hold yet. I've yet to put the central heating back on, for example.

Nevertheless, several people I've talked to over the last month have all said that they thought we were in for a hard winter, as all the trees have lots of berries on them. Since I gave up city life, I view the prospect of heavy snow rather differently - even though I'm only a few minutes from the motorway, a decent snowfall can make it very difficult to get out of the village, which is at the bottom of a hill. I've not been snowed in yet, but I've had one or two interesting moments trying to get in to work. Maybe I should go back to driving a 4x4 again.


All is hoopy in the world: the new series of H2G2, "the Tertiary Phase," was actually a lot better than I expected. Peter Jones has been replaced - in a lovely glitching manner - by William Franklyn (older readers may remember him as the voice of the Schweppes "Schh... you know who" television commercials) and he makes a fairly satisfying replacement. The main characters are pretty much the same as ever, which is a joy to hear, and there were several moments in the first episode that actually made me laugh out loud - Zaphod's description of his drinking, for one.

It's repeated on Radio 4 tonight at 11pm in case you missed it the first time round. Share and enjoy!


It isn't often that a major corporation is overcome by a sudden attack of common sense and changes its mind, but it appears to have happened to Sony this week. They have now decided that their new personal jukebox machine (in other words, their competitor to the iPod) will be able to play MP3 files after all. Up to now, they were trying to convince us that people would buy a machine that would only play their proprietary ATRAC file format. Yeah, right - it was Sony, after all, who brought us the Betamax video recorder, and look what happened there.


Yes, it's that time of year again. Console yourself with the fact that today's the day that the evenings draw in their fastest. It may get dark earlier tomorrow, but at least it'll be doing it more slowly.


Well, yes: I know being on a volcano that's erupting is likely to be life threatening. But there are volcanic eruptions, and then there are really big volcanic eruptions. The idea that volcanoes could have killed off most of the life on Earth at various points seems to be gaining in popularity again after being supplanted by the old "killer asteroid" idea. For instance: a new, extremely accurate radioisotope dating method developed by the University of California at Berkeley has put the end of the Permian period at 252.6 million years ago. I love the fact that "extremely accurate" in this context means "to within 250,000 years" don't you?

The end of the Permian was when many species became extinct. It was a far greater mass extinction than that at the end of the Cretaceous period which is now thought to have been caused by a meteor impact. In fact, it was the largest die-off we know about in the Earth's history; some estimates suggesting that 95% of the planet's marine species were lost. Reading about these things, you soon come to the disturbing conclusion they aren't a one-off, either: there were also big die-offs in the Ordovician and Devonian periods. What's interesting is that, in the same way that there were volcanoes going off at the end of the Cretaceous (the Deccan Traps in northern India), the new date for the Permian extinction coincides rather nicely with a large volcanic eruption in Siberia (the Siberian Traps). These have been a suspect in the extinction for quite a while; it would appear that the evidence supporting the volcanic eruption theory just got stronger.

Oh, and as I'm sure you're just dying to know, a "trap" means dark-coloured igneous rock, fine-grained and column-like, such as basalt. It comes from the Swedish trappa (stair) because of the step-like formations that result.

All of this makes me wonder what a large volcanic eruption could do to our climate today, given that the Dark Ages may well have been caused by a similar event. There's no use losing sleep over such a thing, because there is absolutely bugger all we could do about it. The sooner we get that Lunar Ark built, the better.


Right, that's the blog done. I'm off to listen to Radio 4, as tonight sees the first broadcast of the new series of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, henceforth known as H2G2. The series is based on the books of the towel of the stage play of the LP of the radio series, but I'm sure you knew that already. Sadly, some of the original cast (including Peter Jones, who will always be the voice of The Book as far as I'm concerned) and the show's creator are no longer with us.

However, despite the fact that Douglas Adams died a few years ago, he plays one of the characters in the new series. Will it remain true to the spirit of the original, or will it make me cringe? I'll let you know tomorrow.


Is your machine running slowly these days? Your PC may actually be helping to send out all that spam you're finding so annoying. According to a new study, more than 30,000 PCs are taken over every day so that they can be used to send out spam, denial of service (DoS) attacks and Internet worms.

Remember that I mentioned on August 23rd how an unprotected machine connected to the Internet is likely to last no more than 20 minutes before it's taken over? If you're not running up-to-date virus software and a decent firewall, you're almost certainly using an "own3d" computer, and the reason it's running so slowly is that it's busy doing things for someone else while you're connected to the Internet.

How can you stop it? Well, if you're running Windows, there are free firewalls like ZoneAlarm and free anti-virus packages like AVG. I'd also recommend downloading and running Spybot Search and Destroy and Ad-Aware to get rid of anything nasty that may already be on your machine. These are trustworthy packages - which can't be said for some of the others out there: there are some packages on the net masquerading as "anti-spam" software that actually install the type of stuff you're trying to stop!


I've been extolling the virtues of Mozilla's Firefox browser for quite a while now, and the preview release of Version 1.0 is now available. The download is about 4.5Mb. Firefox seems to take about a third of the time IE takes to display some of my favourite sites, I prefer the user interface for things like managing favourites, and it looks nicer too. It's also supposed to be less prone to some of the more nefarious things that can install themselves on your browser, which (given my comments above) must be a good thing.


Rock and Roll: last week's autopsy on funk legend Rick James has revealed that he had traces of the prescription drugs Xanax, Valium, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Vicodin and Digoxin in his bloodstream, along with cocaine and methamphetamine. Curiously, the BBC lists eight drugs, but their headline talks about nine. CNN's coverage does the same thing. Oh well - when you're taking that much junk it probably doesn't matter after the second or third.


Rebecca and I went out for a very enjoyable curry on Friday night with some friends. We ended up at the Sher Khan in Sparkhill, part of Birmingham's legendary Balti Triangle. The food was very good, although the chili pakora I had as a starter was at the top end of my range for spiciness: whole chilis, deep fried in batter. The beer I had to go with it was very welcome! As a main course I had a balti mix masala (a combination of chicken, lamb and prawns) with a keema naan to go with it, and very nice it was too. Keema naan has to be one of my favourite side dishes: it's a thin bread with very spicy (and usually bright red) slices of lamb inside it. Naan bread it traditionally cooked by slapping it on the inside of a tandoori oven for a few minutes, which gives it a distinctive, and totally unforgettable taste. Yummy.


I love the wacky English names that Japanese companies choose for their products. I'm sure you've heard about the soft drink with the rather unfortunate name of Pocari Sweat, or the Hello Kitty range of fashion accessories. For the latest examples of the mangled English out there, you need look no further than the excellent site engrish.com. Who needs surrealism when there are real products out there bearing labels such as "Fujinami's straw will produce you young party happily and exceedingly" or my personal favourite, "this cute mild curry uses 100% Japanese apple and cheerful hamster"?

Today I came across a company called Let's Corp. Groovy. I've seen some quirky gadgets in my time, but the one that the folks at Let's have come up with borders on bonkers. Apparently, Ka-On means "flower sound" in Japanese, and their latest product apparently involves just that. It turns flowers in to loudspeakers. Wha?


As our thoughts turn to Christmas (not that many shopping days left, folks - at least if you work in advertising) spare a thought for the poor folks in Salt Lake City, where the local airport board have decided to rescind the permission they gave Santa to fly over the city below an altitude of 2,000 feet. There are mutterings about significant protests from local residents - hopefully not because they're worried about getting their presents delivered on time. It's nice to see such another outstanding example of people maintaining a firm grasp on reality.


Despite the fact it's a fictitious language originally invented in 1984 by Marc Okrand (not Mark Okrund, as the BBC called him) for a Star Trek movie, there has been much amusement in the media over the last couple of days concerning German broadcaster Deutsche Welle's decision to provide its web content translated into Klingon. Seems a perfectly reasonable idea to me, can't see what all the fuss is about.

Mind you, they've only gone half way - content is provided as phonetic transcriptions using the Roman (i.e. western) alphabet of 26 letters, rather than Klingon script itself: for some reason or other, Microsoft have yet to come up with a Klingon language pack for Internet Explorer.

In a lot of cases, the press stories about the DW site trotted out the old chestnut that more people today speak Klingon than Esperanto. But nobody appears to have any figures to back this up. While I can find estimates of the number of Esperanto speakers out there (between one and two million, although some estimates go as high as 8 million) it's much harder to quantify the number of Klingon speakers. Even the Klingon Language Institute (yes, there is one) doesn't seem to know. This one's looking suspiciously like an urban legend at the moment.


The lake shown in this photo used to be used quite a lot by water skiers. I wonder if they're still using it?


There was quite a bit of interest last week in Dr Bernard Foing of ESA's recommendation that we should set up a new Noah's Ark - on the moon. I suppose given the fact that a large enough strike by an asteroid could completely sterilise the Earth, it's a good idea, but I'm sure there are more pressing problems to address.


I guess NASA would rather forget about last weekend. Genesis, another of the projects conceived as part of their faster, better, cheaper initiative plummeted back to Earth on prime time television after a battery failed, resulting in a somewhat embarrassing lack of parachute deployment and an impact into the desert at a shade under 200 mph. It left quite a hole.

You really wouldn't want to get your helicopter in the way of that, however good a stunt flyer you were. Faster better cheaper? Crap. You get what you pay for.


Do you remember when digital television was announced? It was touted as providing people with wonderfully clear pictures and "CD quality" sound. Instead we got a picture inferior to the old analogue system as broadcasters compressed the signal and shoehorned dozens of home shopping channels into the bandwidth they freed up. Now it seems the con is starting again, only this time it's High Definition TV (HDTV) we've got to look forwards to.

Yeah, right.


I've been a convert to Mozilla's Firefox browser for a while, as it's fast and funky compared with the lumbering giant that is Internet Explorer. Now Germans have been advised by a national agency that they should be using Firefox or Opera in preference to IE, because they're less "hazard prone." Still using IE? Think again.


Slashdotters have been arguing today over the latest release of the map of Springfield, home of Bart, Lisa, Homer and the rest of the Simpsons. Strange that nobody mentioned the Virtual Springfield game that I was playing on my PC back in 1997 or so, which fulfils almost exactly the same purpose. Still, it's an amazing piece of work, obviously carried out by someone with way too much time on their hands. It strikes me as a similar sort of pastime to those indulged in by comics fans; the ones who are so immersed in a particular creation that they berate the writers and artists for "mistakes" of continuity and the like.

But, as at least one poster on Slashdot pointed out, mapping a work of somebody else's imagination is fine until they change their minds about something.


Well, it's technically the 10th right now, but I took Thursday off to chill out a little, get the gardening done, and drive a round trip of some 250 miles to see a band I first saw twenty five years ago this month: the Canadian rock band Rush. They were the first really big band I saw live, and the gig was the first really large concert I'd been to. I was 19 at the time, so I started late (my friends had all been to see Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen and so on while we were still at school) but I certainly went in at the top. I wrote up the experience at the time in a little comic notebook. I still have it, and I had a look at the thing the other day - when I get the chance I may scan it in and put it up somewhere on this site. It would make for an amusing technical exercise, if nothing else. They're still one of my favourite bands, and all three of them are supremely talented musicians.

The concert was good, although after seeing the band about 30 times, on every tour since 1979 (with the exception of the Vapor Trails tour) I wouldn't have classed it as one of their best. Alex fluffed several parts of La Villa Strangiato, but redeemed himself by taking the longest speech I've ever seen him take later on in the same track: "I had this dream, and I was on stage, and it was really hot, and I forgot how to play this song. I've only been playing it for like a hundred years... Then I woke up and realised, I wasn't dreaming. What am I gonna do? I know, I'll play something else entirely" Well, you get the idea.

My brother Dave came with me - he's been coming to Rush gigs since the 80's - and reckoned that the second half of the gig (there was an intermission and they played for about 3 hours all told) was better than the first. This could have had something to do with the fact that the set list for the second half had two songs from Grace Under Pressure, which is his favourite album. I tend to fluctuate between Power Windows and Hold Your Fire as my all-time favourites but I will always have a soft spot for 2112. This is now presented as a pirate song, by the way - complete with a skull and crossbones flying from the mixing desk and Geddy playing the bass with a fake parrot attached to his shoulder. It makes a change from the 90s when I'm sure he was singing "we are the priests of the temples of syrinx" as "we are the plumbers who have come to fix your sink." Having fun with the way loud volume levels distort what you hear has long been a Rush trait: for a while they used to sing the song Roll The Bones as "Row the Boats." Get busy!

When you're touring to celebrate 30 years of the band, I guess you're going to invoke a certain amount of retrospection, but in places the atmosphere was almost as if the band were saying goodbye. I hope this isn't the case, as I'm sure they've got a lot of music in them yet, but I wonder if I'll get to see them performing live again.

The trip back was a pain, though. Thanks to roadworks on the Hangar Lane Gyratory System (it's a roundabout on the A40, for those of you who have not experienced West London traffic) it was after 2am when I got home. Driving in to the village, an orange crescent moon was rising above the Cotswolds, which was a nice end to the day. Winding down consisted of reading the first few chapters of Neil Peart's book Ghost Rider which I bought at the gig. It's a profoundly moving work, and I became completely engrossed. When I looked at the clock I realised I'd stayed awake much later than I intended. I'm glad I booked a day off for Friday, because I'm definitely going to need it.


There was much backtracking, hemming and herring going on over the weekend as scientists berated the media for getting far too excited over last week's story about a signal detected by SETI researchers. Space.com's report was particularly scathing, saying that New Scientist magazine had "inadvertently wandered into a sticky vat of hyperbole." What a lovely image that conjures up.

But isn't hyperbole what the media's for? In a profound case of the pot calling the kettle black, this weekend Space.com were prominently running a story about sightings of silent, 600 foot-long black triangular aircraft over the Western United States. A sticky vat indeed.


The BBC were reporting today on the results of an opinion poll that, they said, had asked people to decide who was the UK's favourite boffin. The poll was intended as a bit of fun to promote the British Association's Festival of Science in Exeter. I have to say that if I was the BA I'd have been rather peeved at the Beeb, who have let the cat out of the bag rather early: the winner was supposed to be announced at the festival this coming Friday.

But, in fact, a bit more investigation reveals that the poll was actually asking people to vote for their top screen scientist which puts rather a different slant on things. Otherwise, I'd find it rather worrying that the runaway winner was Dr Bunsen Honeydew - who was forever blowing up, electrocuting or incinerating his lab assistant Beaker on the Muppet Show. He polled 33%, way ahead of Mr Spock from Star Trek, who came in second.


Now here's a headline you don't see every day: "Weird Al" Yankovic attacked by green moths. It sounds like it's got great potential, don't you think? Perhaps Al could start a record attempt here, and get attacked by a different species at each gig. Given the surge in John Lydon's popularity after his encounter with ostriches on "I'm a celebrity - get me out of here" I think it has the potential to be a popular programme.

Maybe we could arrange for other celebrities to perform while being chased by a variety of dangerous creatures. Think what a series this could make! We could start a new trend in reality TV!


Satire (as I'm sure you all know) is the use of ridicule, irony or sarcasm to expose folly or vice and to mock current conventions; this site may even contain traces of such a thing, depending on the orientation of your sense of humour, of course.

The quote above is from a long poem (English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, 1809) by Lord Byron. Reading the poem in full, you can see why Byron was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. He didn't suffer fools gladly - come to think of it he wasn't that complementary about some of his more intelligent contemporaries, either. But the mood of the day, and you can pick this up quite clearly from Byron's poem, was that the great talents of the past were gone and modern civilisation had entered a terminal decline. This is way back in 1809, remember. Things obviously didn't improve as time rolled on: by the end of the 19th century the great curmudgeon himself, Ambrose Bierce was claiming that satire itself was dead, despite his own considerable efforts to prove otherwise.

We may still believe that civilisation is declining, but these days satire is alive and well. After its resurgence in the 1960s with programmes like That Was The Week That Was and Monty Python's Flying Circus, satire is a common tool in the entertainment industry. You can earn a living from it. Heck, the Pythons even had a sketch with a criminal mastermind whose main weapon was satire (along with sarcasm, litotes and bathos. Doug was vicious...)

The only trouble is that a large proportion of the people on this planet seem to be incapable of recognising satire even when it's standing in front of them, jumping up and down, and poking them in the eye with a stick. A recent example can be found in the pages of Wired magazine, who report on how the satirical website The Onion is regularly quoted as a serious news source by folks who just don't get the joke. Lovely stuff.

(Note - here's a link to The Onion, but it's for over 18's only, please. Some of their content is fairly mature - or immature, depending on your point of view.)


From satire to SETI (The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) - the latest news from the SETI@home project has caused a bit of a stir, because after six years it seems they may finally have found a signal that can't easily be explained. Unlike the famous WOW signal, this one's been picked up three times so far. And it's right on the prime wavelength that an expected signal would use. When I heard that, I was definitely sitting up and paying attention.

Reading the details, though, it's unlikely we've finally heard from some little green men: the signal has some unusual characteristics which make it more likely to be a natural phenomenon, even if nobody can come up with a suggestion as to what the cause could possibly be. One to keep an eye on, all the same.


I've always been fascinated by the different perspective on the world that timelapse photography offers us. But I never really considered what it could show us beyond the Earth. Earlier this week the Astronomy Picture Of the Day (APOD) featured an animation of the Moon's appearance over an entire month. When you see just over 29 days compressed into a few seconds you notice how much the damn thing wobbles about - it's quite alarming!

The technical term for the wobble is libration - and it means that we can (at one time or another) see 59% of the Moon's surface rather than the 50% you might expect. Now there's a piece of information for a pub quiz if ever there was one!


But not as often as you'd think. In fact, according to the RSPB, there's just one splat every five miles. This is being discussed as evidence that the insect population is in serious decline.