Blogged and confused

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: September 2006

September? Crashing spacecraft, more new planets, the Severn Bore, the battle of the next DVD format, a cool car from France, and environmental disasters.

September also saw the worrying over climate change step up a notch, especially over the activities of people who are trying to convince you that it's not happening, that it's not real, la la la they've got their fingers in their ears and they're not listening...


I've been working at home for the last few days, and with doing a lot of work on spreadsheets I changed the resolution of my monitor to fit everything in. Yesterday evening I was doing some graphics work using my new scanner, and I was so taken with how much better my photographs looked that I think I'll probably keep my system set up this way.


I managed to get the new scanner's software working, too, which was due in large part to a very helpful support engineer at Lasersoft called Cristoph who stuck with me - and I established in the end that the program didn't like the fact that I had a webcam as well as a scanner attached to my computer. After I unplugged the webcam, everything started working. This is one of the downsides of copy protection systems, I suspect: it makes a product very sniffy about the sorts of things it will allow you to have on your system. Still, Silverfast seems like a useful program, and the results I've got with it so far are promising.


It's amazing to think that we're living at a time when the discovery of another planet - and one orbiting a star other than our own sun, at that - has become almost commonplace. The latest discovery still gets a mention in the news, though, due in part to the wonderful imagery evoked by the scientists making the announcement, who described an atmosphere so hot that the equivalent of ice crystals would be made out of minerals that are rocks on Earth - giving the planet "rock snowflakes."

The idea behind how these planets are detected is simple, even if the practicalities (and the minuscule amounts of light actually being measured) make things more difficult. Scientists measure the brightness of stars that they suspect may have planets. They measure the brightness to a fantastically accurate degree so they can tell when a planet gets in the way, because the brightness dips very very slightly. Stars can vary in brightness for several different reasons (in fact there are whole categories of variable stars) but when they dip by the same amount every couple of days or so it's a fairly safe bet that it's because of a planet.

Got that? Good - you've done better than a journalist in one of the newspapers this morning, who tried to explain that the planets actually blinked, which was what made them stand out. I despair, I really do...


However bad your day has been today, spare a thought for the Indonesian gas company PT Lapindo Brantas. They have been conducting exploratory drilling for new supplies, but on May 29th they discovered mud welling out of the ground, a couple of hundred metres from the test well. The mud was mixed with boiling water and hydrogen sulphide gas (yes, the one you'll remember from your chemistry lessons that smells like rotten eggs and which is extremely poisonous), and flowed out at 50,000 cubic metres a day. Four months later it still hasn't stopped.

Fans of the Standard Routemaster Units system of measurement we introduced on March 1st this year (and I know you're out there) will be delighted to learn that this is the equivalent of two large baths full of mud per second.

The company is insured for costs up to around £15 million, but the catastrophe so far has caused damage more on the order of £70 million. From the Guardian's report it appears that the land is sinking, and is in danger of collapse: the floods extend for 400 hectares. The bad news gets worse, though: geologists are saying that the mud could continue flowing for the next century, which probably isn't what Lapindo's insurers, or the 11,000 people who have had to be evacuated wanted to hear.


I've just wasted a couple of hours trying to install some software that came with my new Canon scanner. The scanner's lovely, and Canon's own software works very well. But in an effort to drum up business, the German company Lasersoft ship a special edition of their customised scanning software Silverfast for you to try out. Some friends of mine told me that it's supposed to be very good indeed, far better than Canon's software. Yeah, right.

On the strength of what I've encountered so far, I wouldn't want to spend any money with them at all. So far:

  • Their install "updated" my ASPI drivers to the same version that they were already.
  • The software failed to detect the scanner that it came bundled with.
  • The software helpfully creates a diagnostic file but tells you it's created it in the software's install folder when in fact it's put it on the desktop. The file gives an email address and asks you to send it to the company to help with your support query.
  • Sending an email to their customer support address enclosing the aforementioned diagnostic file (which, remember, gave you the email address it should be sent to) results in an automated message telling you that you should submit support requests through their website, which doesn't allow you to attach the file.
  • If you persevere, and submit a support request anyway, you'll get an error message if you haven't filled in the field describing the twain drivers you're using, despite the fact that if you're not using twain the information is completely irrelevant. It's been designed as a compulsory field even though the information is optional. Still, it gives the option to choose "other" as the data value. That's really going to help.
  • Registering the software is supposed to allow you to download an updated version, but when you try to do so it tells you that the software you've just registered er, isn't registered.

Not bad for 120 minutes' worth of messing about, eh? Jesus, haven't these people heard of product testing? Or quality assurance? Needless to say I'm now hacked off, tired and frustrated. And I'm blogging this, telling you how crap the whole thing seems to be, too. Score minus one to the software company, I'm afraid.


On the flip side to all this, I have to say that motor manufacturer Citroën look like they've done something remarkable and come up with a genuinely interesting French car. The C-Métisse certainly looks amazing. It's a diesel hybrid, but it's also low, sleek, and really weird-looking. I'll be looking forwards to seeing one for real.


It's good to see that Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond is making progress after rolling a jet-powered dragster at 300 miles an hour. I had to laugh at the BBC's reporting, though. When Hammond regained consciousness, Jeremy Clarkson was with him. Hammond - in typical fashion - asked him:

"Was I driving like a twat?"

On the BBC News 24 television channel, this was toned down to:

" "Hammond asked him if he'd been driving badly."


For techno-heads like me, we will soon have a decision to make: HD-DVD or Blu-Ray? They're the two competing formats for the next generation of high definition DVDs, and it's by no means clear which one is going to come out on top. I got stiffed by a similar battle in the 1980s when I bought a Betamax VCR; it was a technologically superior system, gave better results with a smaller cassette size and many other things, but it lost out to VHS and I have boxes of tapes in the loft that I don't play any more. So I have decided that I won't be upgrading my player until I can see a winner. Instead, I've got a DVD player with an HDMI output that can show my DVDs on a high definition TV. But after looking at the HD TVs in the shops over the last few months I've realised that my current five year old Panasonic TV has a better picture than any of the flatscreen LCD jobs that seem to be the craze at the moment.

So my big question isn't about which format to choose, it's this: why has the quality of television plummeted in the last five years? Digital TV is transmitted by compressing it so much that it looks dreadful. New televisions can barely display the degraded pictures broadcast over satellite or freeview, let alone DVD quality or the so-called "HD" channels. Even when you've got a channel to watch, the chances of finding anything you want to see on it drop every month. ITV is unwatchable; most of the other stations cater for an audience with the attention span of a goldfish, and there seems to be an obsession with "adding value" by smothering any programme with scrolling text, logos, updates, or interactive services rather than doing a good job on the production itself.

When you start reading that text, you get another shock. Most of it seems to have been written by illiterate monkeys. Last night, the on-screen guide on one channel told me that I was watching a Steven Seagal film called "Under Seige" (sic). Another programme summary told me how I could expect to see an alien manage to "allude capture" (sic) by removing its space suit.

Despite all this, it looks like the TV licence will be going up again in the near future. Apparently the government thinks we're quite happy to stump up for a whopping £30 rise. Well I may be a grumpy old bastard, but if I'm going to have to shell out that much extra money every year I'd damn well better see some improvement. Perhaps they can use the extra money to recruit a few English and science graduates who can check output for us before it's broadcast.


I recently bought Guillermo Del Toro's first film Cronos on DVD. I first saw the film on late night TV quite a few years ago, and I was glad to discover that it was just as creepy and wonderful as I remember. Federico Lippi's character is steeped in pathos, and he gives the character far more dimensions than, say, Gary Oldman, Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt did in the other vampire movies that came out at roughly the same time.

Del Toro's Mimic and Blade II were a laugh; I loved The Devil's Backbone and as for Hellboy, well, it's one of the most fun times I've had at the cinema in the last ten years. You can read my review elsewhere on this site. So I've been keenly anticipating del Toro's next film, Pan's Labyrinth - to the point where I'm not watching any of the trailers and trying not to study the publicity photos. I want the lush visuals and gripping story that I know I'm going to get to be a complete surprise. But every now and again I read the occasional review to make sure it's going to be as good as I want it to be - and from the sounds of Quint's review over at Aint It Cool I don't have to worry. The word "masterpiece" is cropping up quite regularly in discussions about the film, and I can't wait to see it.


There was a letter in Metro this morning written by someone claiming that global warming doesn't exist and the current situation is just the result of us coming out of the Maunder sunspot minimum, which created the little ice age 300 years ago. Fine - a year ago, I might have passed over the suggestion as being the result of somebody being under-informed about how the climate works, someone who hasn't looked at records in changes in CO2 levels, and even someone who was unaware of the famous "hockey stick" graph which has been fought over for many years but which was recently vindicated by a US study (to explain what I mean by fight, I suggest you do a search on the web and you'll still find sites claiming it's been discredited; it just goes to show you can't believe everything you read on the web.) But things have changed over the last few years.

Let's compare what's going on here with the connection between smoking and cancer: in both cases, there is a very large industry with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and avoiding alarmist reactions. Of course, we all know what happened with tobacco: these days, if someone tells me that there's no conclusive evidence for a link, I'd immediately suspect he was working for the tobacco industry. There's no doubt about such things any more, and the idea that someone would take a contrary position has become - literally - laughable.

Make no mistake: there are organisations out there who are very keen to persuade you that there's no link between their activities and global warming. And they'll result to some pretty dirty tricks along the way. For example, there have been a number of clumsy attempts to discredit Al Gore's film on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. While these efforts look amateurish and unprofessional, implying that they're a grass-roots rejection of Gore's message, it turns out that they are anything but. In fact there are TV adverts, youtube videos and websites out there all claiming that climate change doesn't exist that were actually created by high-power public relations agencies employed by - surprise surprise - the oil companies.

Of course, they would all have been made in the public interest, they'd say, and they're not connected in any way with the billions of pounds of profits they'll continue to make while a solution to climate change is kept off the agenda. I dunno about you, but that tends to make me see their side of things in a different light. Going back to our analogy, what would you think about a company that not only denied cigarettes caused cancer, but took out adverts on TV saying they did you no harm at all? If I was uncharitable, I'd probably resort to using the word "scumbags" but I'm feeling in an OK mood today so let's stick to "misguided" instead.

It looks like the Royal Society has had enough of this sort of thing, though. They've told Exxon Mobil to stop funding groups denying climate change and let the scientists get on with things. This could get very interesting.


One of my pictures on Flickr got to a cool milestone today - it's been viewed a thousand times. That's an amazing thing, even for a silly picture of a couple of cats reading the paper.


I will take a moment today to remember Raymond Baxter, who has died at the age of 84. I don't think I'd have the love of science, technology and aviation that I have today without seeing him presenting all those editions of Tomorrow's World and his annual reports from the Biggin Hill and Farnborough Air Shows. He knew his stuff, too; by the time he was 18 he was a Spitfire pilot in the RAF.

His was one of the most memorable voices from my childhood (not to say my later life, too) and his effortless, impeccable presentation style stands in contrast to the sort of folks we get on TV these days. He'll be greatly missed.


NASA's latest press release reveals that the permanent ice cover in the Arctic shrank by 14% over the last year. That's an area the size of Texas. The findings are based on observations by the QuikScat satellite, which measures the amount of ice that stays in place all year and the thinner ice that only forms during the winter. The fact that the reduction is in the permanent ice cover is extremely worrying - the clue is in that word "permanent." Coupled with the thawing of the tundra in Siberia, this is very alarming news indeed. Something big is happening, and even if the US government is finally moving away from its stance of denying there's any problem at all, it may already be too late to stop it - whatever "it" turns out to be.


At least the International Astronomical Union appear to have a sense of humour. Remember the object discovered at the edge of the Solar System recently that was nicknamed Xena by its discoverers? Yes, the one that resulted in the reclassification of Pluto and all the recent controversy about how many planets we've got. Well, it's now been given its official name: it'll be called Eris.

This is funny, because Eris was the goddess of discord. She stormed into the wedding banquet for Peleus and Thetis and threw a golden apple on the table, saying that it belonged to whoever was the fairest. The Gods decided that Paris should judge who the fairest actually was - and that, the legend goes, is how the Trojan War was started.

Best of all, though, Robert Anton Wilson will be delighted: Hail Eris!


Strangely enough, the BBC's news website is being rather coy about one of the main stories in the news this week, the appalling video made by BBC News staff about the war in the Middle East set to the tune of Tony Christie's "Amarillo." There's a link to a story off their entertainment page if you look hard enough, where a representative comments that the video was "ill-judged." He's not kidding. Given that the licence fee is up for renewal and there have already been several squabbles about it, it's not really in the BBC's best interests to be getting media coverage for this sort of thing, is it?


The first spacewalk for shuttle mission STS-115 got under way today. They're attaching a truss segment with another set of huge solar arrays to the International Space Station, and despite the fact that it's being manoeuvred about with the flimsy looking shuttle manipulator arm, this new assembly is heavier than the Hubble Space Telescope. When the new arrays are extended, it should make the ISS even brighter when it passes overhead, and I'm really looking forwards to seeing the results.


Last night I was out taking pictures again, and you can see the results over at my Flickr account. I've lived in the area for over eleven years now but yesterday was the first time I have ever been down the road to watch the Severn bore. The bore is a tidal surge that travels up the River Severn at certain times of the month. Twice a year, when the moon is in the right place, the wave can be quite large - over a metre high. It's powerful, too: there were tree trunks, tyres, barrels and all sorts of other debris rushing past behind the wavefront.

My friends Dana and Ron had found a very helpful page on the web (.pdf file) that recommended where to go to get the best view, so I put my camera and tripod in the car and headed out. It was great - if a little scary - and I ended up with a few fairly decent pictures. It makes a change from watching TV, too.


When I used to shoot pictures with 35mm film, I'd probably only get through two or three rolls of film a year. This week I took my 3,000th picture using a digital SLR camera, and I only bought the thing in January! I have a Canon EOS 350D/Digital Rebel XT, and my brother has one as well. In the days of film, you could expect a successful camera model to continue for years with only minor changes (think of the Olympus OM-1, for example) but these days things are very different and Canon have already announced that the Rebel XT has been replaced by the EOS 400/Digital Rebel XTi. I don't think I'll be rushing out to replace my current camera, as I'm still very happy with it, but there are some very nice feature improvements on the 400 including dust-mapping and a self-cleaning sensor system to get rid of those nasty dark spots that can crop up from time to time. It also has a bigger LCD, if that's what floats your boat.

However, there are a lot of rumours flying around at the moment about the next camera that's expected to be announced, the EOS3D. It sounds like a real monster: a 27 point auto-focus system, new DIGIC III software with better resolution, less noise and a wider range of ISO numbers available, and a 13.3 megapixel sensor. It may be that I need to start saving up for that, rather than the 5D I currently have on my all-time wish list. Mind you, by the time I have the money saved for the 5D, I'm sure something else will have replaced it.


Like a big pizza pie, that's amoré. Odd isn't it, that a tune that's forty years old continues to find popularity with each new generation; last year, Q magazine included Dean Martin's rendition of it on one of their compilation CDs, and it crops up quite regularly on TV and radio. As the moon was spectacularly bright on the way home last night, I thought it was rather appropriate to link to this little gem, which was forwarded to me by Sam. Cheers!


The director and general all-round genius David Lynch has been given a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival. About bloody time too, I say. I can't wait to see Inland Empire.


Six words to sum up the current coverage on Tony Blair: don't you think he looks tired?


It looks like the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii actually photographed Smart-1's impact on the moon. As you'll see from the picture, the event was small and may have lasted for less than a second. Compare this with the rather overenthusiastic animations the BBC were showing on the news this evening, which showed the probe's impact creating a dust cloud as big as the moon itself.


Over the last few weeks I've been enjoying myself writing articles for Topic Universe, a website run by some friends of mine that lets people recommend things to each other. It's a brilliant expression of the phrase "if you liked that, you might like this." When you think about it, that's almost a direct verbal expression of the hyperlink concept in web pages. And it works very well: I've already discovered a couple of films and tv shows that I read about on the site and converted a few people to the delights of the TV shows Black Books and Spaced.


Every now and again I see a product that just makes me giggle. The sort of thing that is completely pointless, that you'd never expect would stand the slightest chance of being produced in a million years - and yet somebody's manufacturing and selling them. The latest product in this line is a packet of Horrified B-Movie Victims, complete with terrified expressions and waving arms, and I want some now.

The photographic potential of such a product is enormous; perhaps they could be running away from the poseable Carl Gustav Jung action figure (which comes complete with a removable pipe "that makes him look sophisticated and scholarly") that's available from the same company...


If you're awake at twenty to seven (British Summer Time) tomorrow morning, look up at the moon and spare a thought for the space probe Smart-1, which will be a minute or so away from smacking into the lunar landscape at a substantial speed (unless it happened about three hours earlier - they're still not entirely sure it won't crash on the previous orbit).

The probe is at the end of its science mission, it's used up all the xenon propellant available to its ion engine, has little or no hydrazine left for its attitude thrusters, and with no way of escaping the lunar gravity it's being put down in a controlled manner - hopefully stirring up some debris that will allow a little bit more science to be performed on the composition of the ground where it hits. Travelling at a 2 km a second it's relatively slow compared to a meteor, so it's not going to create a huge fireball or anything visible with the naked eye. All the same, it should still raise a fair bit of dust and it'll be interesting to see the results of tomorrow's observations. Stay tuned!