Blogged again

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: September 2005

September saw lots of discussion about the weather (hey, I'm British), time, comparisons between ESA and NASA's space programmes, sudoku puzzles, science fiction novels, England won the Ashes at cricket, and, er, giant pink bunny rabbits.

Did I mention that England won the Ashes, too?


The Met Office have revised their seasonal forecast, and they're now warning of a colder than average winter, although they also say they expect it to be drier than usual. I'd best get that pullover out from the chest of drawers, then.


I know: all you young people out there probably ask yourselves if the 1970s really were as apocalyptically taste-free as your elders keep telling you. Wonder no more: here's the proof (note that the site may spawn popups).


OK, enough of the doom and gloom. Reading this month's blog gives the distinct impression that I've been in a really bad mood for most of September, which I hope wasn't true. So it's time to lighten up; today's ray of sunshine comes to you from the rather groovy photo sharing service Flickr, where I have created an account. I've uploaded 17 pictures so far, which I hope you enjoy.


Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which is a cracking good read. It revolves around cryptography and code-breaking in the lives of three groups of people: two sets of protagonists in the Pacific (and then Europe) during the closing stages of World War Two, and a third set of characters establishing a data haven in Indonesia in the final days of the 20th century. The description of Bletchley Park rings true, which is a pleasant surprise as someone who used to work there, and the sequence in which one of the characters deploys a fiendish sounding flashlight called the Galvanick Lucipher is extremely funny. Recommended.


...the environment? After reading the latest reports about the rapidly diminishing Arctic ice sheets, the words "oh shit" are the first that spring to mind.


...the economy? Panorama at the weekend reckoned that the UK economy was in danger of stalling; the housing market has been very good at propping things up over the last twenty years or so but the signs are that things are cooling off quite a bit. To be honest, people stopping spending money they don't have in order to reduce the amount of money they owe to credit card companies sounds like a good idea to me, as most of the stuff people have been buying is imported anyway.


...privacy? The Italian government have introduced legislation controlling access to public communications networks that sounds like it's been taken straight out of a book by George Orwell. It would be funny if it wasn't really happening.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO... speech? The Labour Party certainly gave a good impression of wanting political debate stamped out yesterday, when Walter Wolfgang, an 82-year-old attendee, was physically dragged from his seat, forcibly ejected from the Labour Party Conference and then arrested after shouting either "Nonsense" or "That's a lie" (it depends which paper you read) when Jack Straw said that the West was in Iraq "for one reason only - to help the elected Iraqi government build a secure, democratic and stable nation."

As the SNP's Alex Salmond said, "There was a time when politicians could deal with a few hecklers." Nowadays it appears that they just have them roughed up and then arrested under the Terrorism Act. Needless to say, this has not gone down well, particularly as Mr Blair subsequently stated he had no intention of meeting Mr Wolfgang face to face.

All the recent erosion of free speech in the name of the War On Terrorism has got Emo Philips worried. And when one of the most innocuous, funny comedians ever to make a guest appearance on Miami Vice expresses concern about being allowed to tell jokes in public, we all need to start worrying.

A LONG TIME AGO... fact a very long time ago, I used to read a magazine called Omni. It combined articles about futurism, astronomy and popular science with writing from some of science fiction's greatest. Omni introduced me to the designs of Luigi Colani, the artwork of H.R.Giger, and the writing of Orson Scott Card, Joe Haldeman, and George R. R. Martin. I will be eternally grateful for all of these things.

The first edition, published in October 1978, included an interview with Freeman Dyson and he's been one of my heroes ever since. Omni was a thick, glossy publication which regularly interviewed people like Alvin Toffler, Richard Feynman or Arthur C. Clarke and I loved reading it. I still have every copy I ever bought.

I mention all this because the June 1979 edition of Omni featured a process flowchart taken from Sam Lundwall's book An Illustrated History of Science Fiction entitled "How to write a science fiction novel." It's one of the funniest übergeek items I've ever read and it must be very useful for writers who can't be bothered with the tedious process of making up a coherent story (and there are a number of movies I can think of which would have benefited from the results). Nowadays, of course, life is easier and today I discovered that with a click of a mouse button we can get the Internet to provide the plot instead. Somehow, though, it's just not the same.


It looks like the United States has finally cottoned on to the Sudoku craze. I've been doing the damn things for ages and end up completing two or three puzzles a day at the moment - both on the computer and on good old-fashioned paper. I should really cut down, but they are tremendously addictive.


The A-Team's Mr. T is to present a new reality television series that will be called I Pity The Fool. Presumably he will be teaching people to acquire important life skills such as the ability to make an armoured fighting vehicle out of an old Ford Transit, a few lengths of two-by-four, a couple of dustbins and some sticky-backed plastic. Can't wait.


Just go to the source - Wikipedia have come up with a list of all those wacky phenomena that bloggers have done to death over the last decade or so. Looking at the list I'm amazed there's room on the Internet for anything else.

Be warned, though: this is the mother lode of all mother lodes, and investigating a link or two can end up taking you an entire evening. However, I think the most disturbing aspect of all is the fact that Wikipedia has an entry dedicated specifically to the Numa Numa video.


We haven't had a "what type of (insert name of cultural subgroup) are you" feature here for a while, so here's one: find out what superhero you are. Jeez, there are some boring superheroes out there, that's all I can say. Putting my full name in revealed me to be none other than The Depressed Unplugged Refridgerator Man (sic).

As it turns out, in the real world Clark Kent would be The Flaming Immigrant Man and Bruce Wayne moonlights as The Tremendous College Drop Out. I think Bill Gates has dibs on that one, actually - although apparently he's really The Quick Red Dwarf.



The BBC ran a story today about the Royal Astronomical Society's objections to US proposals to abandon the leap second adjustments to UTC which, as I'm sure you'll remember, I mentioned here last week. As a scoop it's not going to make much of an impression, but it does make me wonder about how up-to-date the news we get actually is. And above all else it makes me realise I need to get out more...


NASA recently announced plans for its next generation of spacecraft that will be used to support their planned return to the Moon. Reading Aviation Week today, it looks like aerospace people have been less than impressed by an engineering solution that was described by NASA's head as "Apollo on steroids."

However, it looks like the European Space Agency is planning on joining forces with Russia to develop something that looks a lot more like the spacecraft I was expecting: the Clipper. It carries six people, it can take them not just to the International Space Station but also to the Moon, and from all appearances it's built like a tank. I like it. I like it a lot. So: is this the decade when we see the baton of leadership in space exploration handed by the United States to someone else?


Let's get this straight... On the one hand we're being told that one solution to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to sequester carbon under water, but on the other hand we've got folks in Cameroon who are desperately trying to free up carbon dioxide from under water because the gas has been escaping from lakes and asphyxiating people?


I hope there was somebody around with a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher last night when The Rock shook hands on stage with ace stuntman Jim Trella at the World Stunt Awards. You see, Jim was on fire at the time.


I thought for quite a while about buying an iPod Nano at the weekend, but as it turns out I'm really glad I didn't. I think I'll wait until Archos bring out a 40Gb product (which can't be far off) and buy one of those instead.


As you'll appreciate if you take even the most cursory look at this website, I take a little bit of time to make sure the graphics look OK. I used to do a lot of cartoon work when I was younger, and if I say it myself, I wasn't bad at it. These days, I don't do much other than hand-drawing the titles for each page on this site; there just aren't enough hours in the day any more. Nowadays, of course, anyone can come up with reasonable text and graphics given a computer and a printer. For a reasonable outlay you get the ability to make your own flyers, newsletters, certificates and the like. I went to the local school's quiz night on Friday evening and their noticeboards had many examples of what can be done. But almost without exception, somewhere on every page I would see that dreaded font, MS Comic Sans. This font has become such a cliche that there's now a movement afoot to ban it.

I thoroughly endorse this campaign. Why? Firstly, because it will help to prevent the sort of design catastrophes that we've all had inflicted on us in recent years; I'm sure you can think of a few. And secondly, because there are people on the network at work who not only send their emails entirely in Comic Sans, they set the font colour to purple as well. Yechhh.


Professor Sir John Lawton's comments on the latest hurricane season in the US this week has already sparked a fair bit of interest in the news media. I suspect that this is mainly because in his interview with The Independent he reportedly described climate sceptics as "loonies."

After this summer's hurricane season and the publication of research that indicates the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes has doubled in the last 35 years, it must be getting pretty hard to deny that there's something happening. What's causing it is another matter entirely, as we've already discussed this month.


I've just installed the latest version of MSN Messenger, which is now up to version 7.5. I've always found the earlier versions to be rather flaky if you wanted them to do anything beyond generic text chatting. Holding audio or video conversations can be a bit of a pain - in fact, I got better video performance back in the days when I had dial-up net access. Still, Messenger does have one or two features that I really like that the other chat clients don't, so it remains the main programme I use online.


Every now and again I realise just how futuristic the net would be to someone from, say, the 1970s. For instance, at the moment I'm listening to 96.5 KOIT, a radio station based in San Francisco. I must be in a "lite rock" kind of mood today, I guess. If you've ever been to the city, you'll appreciate the name. Until I read it, I hadn't made the connection between the appearance of Coit Tower and the work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who was responsible for the design of one of the most iconic buildings ever used on the cover of a rock album - Battersea Power Station.


Yesterday's Astronomy Picture of the Day was one of the most impressive I've seen for quite a while. It shows a dying star in the constellation Draco called the Cat's Eye Nebula. The shells around the central star in the picture are the remains of a series of cataclysmic explosions that have thrown off the star's outer layers. In fact, these layers may have made up around 80% of the star's original mass. Eventually the star is expected to turn into a white dwarf; our Sun will share the same fate, but not for another five billion years or so.


There I was yesterday, posting an innocuous link to a web page about Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). You wouldn't have thought you could have an international argument about something as simple and straightforward as the time, would you? Wrong. Today I found out there's a row brewing between the world's astronomers and the American government. It all comes down to the Global Positioning System (GPS) used by ramblers, car drivers, and yachting enthusiasts all over the world. GPS was developed for the American military, and it uses radio signals from a number of different satellites in orbit to provide a very accurate fix of where you are. The accuracy is so extreme that the maths of it all even has to take Einstein's theory of relativity into account. To do this, it needs phenomenally accurate clocks - and the clocks run on UTC. This isn't a problem in itself, but the Earth's rotation isn't steady: it's slowing down. The reason is no cause for alarm, though, so don't panic. By causing the tide to go in and out, the Moon exerts a braking effect every day. As a result, UTC is adjusted every now and again to bring it back in alignment with the positions of the Sun and stars overhead.

When scientists add a leap second to the end of December 31st (as they will this year), all the clocks on the GPS satellites have to be resynchronised. As you've probably realised, this is both complicated and expensive, so the US government would prefer not to bother about leap seconds and let UTC - solar time - drift out of alignment. As a result, they've made a proposal to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the folks who look after UTC, that the leap second arrangement should be abandoned after 2007.

This may be fine for the US government, but needless to say it's a big slap in the face for astronomers and the Royal Astronomical Society in particular is really pissed off. Quite right too. As the RAS say, if the GPS folks want to keep accurate time they should be using International Atomic Time (TAI) anyway, which hasn't been adjusted since it started in 1958 - as a result it's now 22 seconds ahead of UTC. Hopefully the ITU will throw the proposal out when they meet in November in Geneva.


I've mentioned NASA's World Wind software before, but not Google Earth. If you haven't discovered it yet, it's worth a look. It's amazing what you can spot with the damn thing, although some people have been looking for more than archaeological remains. Not surprisingly, this has got people a bit upset. Maybe they should switch to MSN's version then, which has a more novel approach to showing buildings of interest.


The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw eulogises Howl's Moving Castle.


If you're going spend billions on technology that will let you return to the Moon, perhaps you should invest it in something a little more ambitious? If only life was like that. The consensus at Slashdot seems to be that a space elevator is likely to remain pie in the sky for many years to come.


The autumnal equinox takes place at 22:23 UTC (23:23 BST) this evening. That means that summer is finally over and autumn has officially started.

Or does it? Actually, people use several different ranges when they talk about the seasons. For meteorologists, each season lasts three months running from the first of the month: autumn began on September 1st and runs until the 30th November. For traditionalists, autumn comes a whole month sooner: it runs from Lammas (August 1st) to All Hallows (November 1st). It's only the astronomical autumn that begins on the autumnal equinox.

Given how the dates are figured out, I have always taken the astronomical scheme to be the "official" one, as it's calculated as the moment the Sun passes the celestial equator. That the point when the amount of daylight we get is the same as the amount of night (and if you translate "equinox" from Latin to English you should end up with "equal night.") So that's why it gets a mention today; welcome to autumn.


Last week I was reading in the paper that this winter, extra demand on the country's power grid would be so high that blackouts were likely to happen. This was likely to be triggered by the colder than average temperatures that "were being forecast." So should I get my woolly hat out of the wardrobe? Strangely enough, according to the Met Office, the answer at the moment appears to be no. I checked their long range weather forecast (which is, admittedly, highly experimental and tentative) and today it says that it'll be warmer than average in Europe through to the end of January. So why are the media saying we're going to have a hard winter?

Quite where all the stories about a forthcoming fierce winter came from is anyone's guess. Still, I'm sure a mild winter will come as a relief to customers of British Gas, who have just seen their energy charges ramped up by 14%.


On the way in to work this morning I was listening to the less-than-happy news about the predicted rise in aviation over the next 30 years. All that extra air travel will produce so much more greenhouse gases that in order to compensate for its effects, businesses and households will need to cut their carbon dioxide emissions to zero.

Will that happen? Oh come on, what do you think? We can't even agree on a ten per cent reduction, let alone wiping emissions out altogether. Humanity will just carry on as always until someone realises the damage we've done has become irreversible.

Think that's bad? We could be in worse trouble than we thought. Okay, there seems little doubt that human activity is a significant cause of the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last couple of hundred years. As carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, most people (apart from the President of America) have accepted that it has contributed to rising average temperatures around the world. But scientists studying Mars say that the red planet also appears to be undergoing warming: patches of frozen carbon dioxide on the planet (Mars's equivalent of snow) have shrunk every year for the last three years. Presumably this is caused by the Sun, which - as we've already discussed this month - is currently much more active than it's expected to be at this point in the 11-year solar cycle. If the Sun is warming Mars, then it must be having an effect on the Earth as well. That effect will be in addition to the results of all that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and I suspect it could have decidedly unpleasant consequences for us.


So do your bit for the environment: walk to local events rather than taking the car. Don't leave your TV or stereo on standby. Don't leave the tap running when you clean your teeth. If you find you're throwing food away every week, buy less. Compost your kitchen waste, rather than chucking it in the bin. And sort your garbage so that as much as possible can be recycled.

Why not follow ITV's example? Their main programme last night - the 50 greatest adverts of all time - was almost completely made from recycled materials...


Something else to put you off air travel: the premiere of season 2 of "Lost" hits screens in the US tonight. Don't expect too many answers, though: that's not what a series like this is about. I enjoyed this Newsweek article about the show because it had no illusions about the purpose of such shows as Lost, The Fugitive or The X-Files: their sole aim is keep viewers watching, week after week.

In the short term that's easy to do, but a show's success depends upon how the writers maintain interest after the main questions have been set up. As the Newsweek article says, writers keep us hooked by giving us answers to minor, secondary plot points every now and again, but nothing important is ever resolved. How could it be otherwise? Resolution would mean the end of the series. The challenge for television stations then becomes one of seeing how long they can string us along before we realise that the show has jumped the shark (that is, begun its terminal decline) and switch off - thus depriving them of the ability to demand high rates for advertising during the programme. The review has one standout comment about season 2 which is very telling in this context, and absolutely true:

"In a perfect world, this would be the last season of Lost."

Meanwhile here in the UK, Channel 4 has only got as far as episode 8 of series 1, which is broadcast tonight. As for me, I will be watching in Dolby 5.1 from now on: my copy of the DVD boxed set has arrived.


Before anyone sends me the link to the preposterous "Solar system about to be dissolved by interstellar dust cloud" story that's doing the rounds at the moment, please be advised that it is untrue (duh!) and you don't need to bother.

If you don't know what I'm on about, never mind - I'm sure you'll get at least one copy of the email before too much longer...


After 20 years, NASA looks like it's getting serious about going back to the moon. Well, they've released a nice set of pictures, anyway. The schedule culminates in putting four people back on the Moon by "as early as" summer 2018 - in other words, the programme is allowing about twice the amount of time that it took the Apollo programme to get there.

Future plans include a moon base which, if it gets built, is very good news. Having a permanent base on the Moon is a far more significant step for space exploration than a one-shot mission to Mars could be. It opens up the Moon for serious, long-term exploration, but more importantly the Moon's gravity well is only a sixth as deep as the Earth's. That means that once you have the ability to assemble spacecraft on the Moon, they can carry a much greater payload than if you launch them directly from Earth, which means being able to do a lot more science. The Moon itself would also make a superb science platform: having a telescope the size of Hubble or larger on the Moon would be tremendously valuable - and it would be a darn sight easier to maintain with a moon base next door.

The problem is, not everybody thinks that NASA is capable of such grand adventures any more, which is a great shame. Perhaps we'll have to wait for China to set up a base instead.


The Emmys were handed out last night, and with the exception of Hugh Laurie, it looks like most of the favourites got awards. Lost did well, getting best director and best drama, although when you've got a boundary-breaking series like Lost, there's so much more you can do with direction, so it was a bit of an unfair competition. It was nice to see Bill Shatner picking up the best supporting actor award again, too: the man's a superstar.


Artists have been inflating a giant pink bunny rabbit which, it is hoped, will er, "grace" a mountainside in Italy's Piedmont region for the next 20 years. Someone is very definitely having a laugh.


Yes, the UK has done it again, and we've come top of the chart. Unfortunately, the chart we're talking about here is the list of countries with the greatest numbers of compromised computers. Folks in the UK still aren't practising safe computing, with the result that 32% of all bot-related virus activity originated here. I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating - make sure that your computer isn't one of them. Make sure you're got up-to-date anti virus software installed and get a decent firewall. If you have a Windows-based system, make sure you install the latest updates together with protection software such as Spybot Search and Destroy and AdAware or you may find your PC isn't yours any more.


Shiver me timbers: as I warned all ye landlubbers last week, today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, me hearties, so batten down yer hatches and splice the mainbrace, and the last one to join in buys the grog fer the rest of us, so they do...


The BBC have details of the controller for Nintendo's next game console, the Revolution. You're only going to need one hand to play it, and motion sensors in the controller will "allow it to be used as a virtual sword, baseball bat or racket." If they've got that functionality to exploit, I think the games for the Revolution could be very interesting indeed.


Back on the 8th of this month I was talking about how many solar flares the Sun has produced recently, despite the fact that it's supposed to reach the minimum part of its 11-year cycle next year. Today I found an interesting article on NASA's website that discusses what's been going on in more detail, although their general conclusion seems to be "we don't know." Cold winters have long been associated with solar inactivity; given the Sun's behaviour at the moment I don't expect we'll see much snow this winter here in the UK.


October 1st will see the start of The Big Draw, a series of events across the UK designed to promote the joy of, well, drawing. This is the sixth year the event has run - its patrons include the wonderful Quentin Blake as well as less well-known drawers such as Sir Roger Penrose and Andrew Marr. The Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol is holding a free "Little Draw" activity day on Saturday October 8th, which looks like fun. Why not see if there's an event happening near you?


Avast me hearties! Don't 'ee be forgettin' that Monday the 19th be International Talk Like A Pirate Day once again, so it be...

ROBERT WISE 1914 - 2005

A true movie legend has left us. Robert Wise, who directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as well as The Andromeda Strain and The Sound of Music and who co-directed West Side Story, has died at the age of 91.

I have quite a few of the films he worked on in my DVD collection, including Citizen Kane, which he edited, and The Day The Earth Stood Still, which he directed - it's still one of the most thoughtful science fiction films ever made and a big favourite of mine.

As Ain't It Cool's Moriarty says, this guy was one of the key players in movie history. I don't think Hollywood could produce his equal these days.


While I was searching for something else entirely, I came across this add-on for Quake II that converts the screen image into Single Image Random Dot Stereograms (known as SIRDS - they're similar to the gorgeous Magic Eye pictures where you try to see the dolphin floating above the page), only in real time. So you get a true 3D image of gameplay - provided you've learnt how to see the dolphin in the damn things first, of course.

Just imagine sitting at your computer one day, playing Quake, looking at the screen and thinking "this would be tons better if it was a single image random dot stereogram." No, I don't think there can be that many people who would think that, either.


There's an interview with Hayao Miyazaki in the Guardian today. Pixar's John Lasseter calls him the world's greatest living animator, which is quite an accolade coming from the man who brought us Toy Story. He's promoting his new film, Howl's Moving Castle, which I haven't seen yet but which looks just as lush and full of marvels as his previous films. The interview is very interesting, because it takes the view that traditional, cel-based animation is dying out - usurped by computer-based imagery.

Personally, I believe there will always be a place for cel animation, even if it maintains a somewhat tenuous existance. Computer-based stuff can be too clever, too clean and clinical for some purposes. Imagine Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away done completely as 3D CGI: it just wouldn't have been right.


Do you want to tell the folks at Quark (whose website is proudly displaying their new logo) about the Scottish Arts Council, or shall I?


Am I the only one who thinks the slant on this story on the BBC's website is just a little bit too over the top? Jeez, you'd think that Doctor Who was the only successful show the Beeb have had this year. What about, er, um...

I'll get back to you on that one.


For some reason, I have long laboured under the impression that the author Julian Barnes, who has just made the Booker Prize shortlist with his novel Arthur and George was in fact the science fiction author Julian May. Or the other way round; I'm not sure which. One wrote A history of the world in ten and a half chapters and the other wrote the Galactic Milieu trilogy. One is male, the other is female. Today, the scales finally dropped from my eyes and I realised my error. In fact, this was the most satisfying thing that's happened all day so far, which probably tells you more about my working day than it ought to, but what the hell.


For the first time in rather too many years, England won the Ashes yesterday. It hasn't really sunk in, either for me or for at least one member of the team, by the looks of things. It was the end of an era yesterday, too, as it was the final day on which Richie Benaud will be commentating for British broadcasters.

I was listening to The World Tonight on Radio 4 yesterday and the corporation was being soundly lambasted for letting go of their cricket coverage in favour of yet more football. And rightly so; a national treasure - cricket on the telly - has been spirited away from under our noses, and of course we'll have to pay to get it back. From next year, you'll need a subscription to Sky television to watch the cricket here in the UK, and that's not right.


When the creators of Wallace and Gromit gave their characters a liking for Wensleydale Cheese, they had a dramatic effect on the fortunes of the people who produce it. From being close to going out of business, the creamery now employs 200 people. Today I read that another creamery owner, Charles Martell is worried that the use of his cheese Stinking Bishop in the new W&G film could overwhelm his company.

It's amazing how something as trivial as a film can have an immense effect on something involved only peripherally to it. The merchandising of promotional items from lunch boxes to action figures has been commonplace since Star Wars first came out, when George Lucas found as much success with the tie-ins as he did with the film itself. When a character wears a particular brand of footwear, or drives a particular car, or eats a particular brand of snack food in a movie, audiences frequently want the same thing. Companies haven't been slow to realise this, and product placement is an integral (and sometimes obtrusive) part of many productions these days. Despite appearing as if they'll accept money for anything, moviemakers are careful how they approach placement deals, and the rights to those benefits are examined explicitly before shooting even starts.

The effects of the feature film industry are not always positive, either while a film is being made or after it has been released. If the film tanks, do you really want your carefully placed product associated with it? Conversely (if you'll forgive the pun), the more successful a film is, the more effect it can have and occasionally, things get completely out of hand for all concerned. The duration of the effects of a film shouldn't be underestimated, either: some movie locations become the focus for visiting fans for many years afterwards. For example, in an extra for the DVD of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you can watch Terry Jones and Michael Palin discover that the film they made 30 years ago is still the main reason why most visitors come to Doune Castle in Scotland. The Castle has embraced the fact, and will sell you a copy of the script of the film or even rent you a pair of coconut shells to enhance your experience.

Whether Mr Martell will suffer or benefit from his product's involvement remains to be seen - but as Aardman got his permission beforehand he can't say he didn't know what he was letting himself in for. And the word on the film is that it's very, very good.


The Japanese space agency's Hayabusa probe has arrived safely at the asteroid Itakawa. You may find this sort of space mission rather dull, but for me it's really exciting - not only because it shows that there are other organisations out there besides NASA and ESA who are capable of mounting a successful space mission, but also because it foreshadows what the future may bring.

As natural resources on Earth run out, it's eventually going to be financially viable (if not essential) to mine asteroids; we've just seen that it's possible to fly to an asteroid and "park" next to it. Imagine what sort of life an asteroid prospector would have, pottering around the solar system in search of that one, big strike. It's been a science fiction theme for decades, and my favourite vision of this particular future was provided by Larry Niven in the first section of his novel Protector. Now, at last, reality is beginning to catch up.


Every time I think I've seen it all in the movie industry, I hear about something that completely weirds me out. Today's example has to be the rumour that Elijah Wood will star in a biopic of Mister Rock and Roll himself, Iggy Pop. It's bizarre casting to say the least (after all, if we're being honest about this, the only person who could possibly play Iggy is James Newell Osterburg himself) but I'd love to see the results.


This just flew past the window. It may not have a Merlin engine, but it's still a lovely sight, and the Griffon Growl that its engine makes is sure to get your attention on a Friday afternoon in a sleepy little West Country village.


Sam Javanrouh from TopLeftPixel has been visiting England. If you haven't visited his photoblog yet, I think you should.


The Sun has its own weather - and we see the results as sunspots. These come and go in a cycle that takes roughly eleven years to repeat, and although I was under the impression we were nearly at a solar minimum right now, the Sun is still very active. Yesterday astronomers observed the fourth largest solar flare to have happened in the last 15 years, which was rated as an X-17. That meant disruption to high frequency radio communications, satellites, and even electrical power grids. It can also result in spectacular displays of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, so keep your eyes peeled tonight.


I've spent a few days playing host to an old friend from the United States, who was visiting on her way back from a European trip. I've known Roz for nearly 25 years, and it was good to see her again. These days we seem to get the chance to hang out together about once every five years or so, so there was a fair bit of catching up to do. She also met up with Rebecca and the twins on Sunday - we had a very nice meal at the Fleet Inn in Twyning.

Roz tells me that Britain seems to have changed for the better since she was last here - particularly the food and the quality of service in (most of) the shops we visited, which was nice to hear. We spent quite a lot of time shopping in Bristol, stopping off to take a ride in GWR's big balloon: the city looks very impressive from 500 feet. Yesterday I had to take her back to the airport. This being Britain, we were held up by a 2 mile traffic jam on the M4 because a swan had mistaken the road for a stretch of water. It was sitting at the side of the motorway watching what was going on and wearing a fluorescent police jacket - presumably donated by the motorcyclist standing next to it in order to restrain it!


Rob pointed me in the direction of a news report about Obi-Wan Kenobi's robe - as worn by Sir Alec Guinness in the original Star Wars movie - which has turned up after thirty years of being a prop in the wardrobe department of British costume company Bermans. In the intervening years it was apparently loaned out to film productions like The Name of The Rose and The Mummy, but even more bizarrely it was even lent to people going to fancy dress parties.


The BBC and ITV announced today that they are to launch a free satellite service to compete with BSkyB, although so far, Channel 4 seem less than keen to come on board. No doubt it'll turn out to be just one more way of deluging us with shopping channels and repeats of dodgy 1970s sitcoms; its terrestrial equivalent is getting worse and worse. Given the choice between a channel called "quiz call" (which appeared recently on Freeview) and repeats of stuff from the 1980s I'd actually pick the repeats: how sad can you get?


So, Antony and the Johnsons won the Mercury Music Prize last night. I have to admit I was sitting there watching Antony Hegarty giving his acceptance speech wondering a) why someone hadn't adjusted the microphone stand to cope with his rather bulky six-foot-four frame and b) who the hell he was. I'd never heard of him. Of all the nominees this year, I was rooting for K T Tunstall, mainly because I have been completely unable to get her latest single out of my brain for most of the past week. I will probably buy her album as soon as I get round to it.