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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: September 2008

September saw me off on my travels again, this time to Germany. The month failed to result in the end of the world when they started using the Large Hadron Collider but it did bring us the bike pack for Burnout Paradise, brought Elbow the Mercury Music Prize, and took away Pink Floyd's Rick Wright as well as Ken Campbell, Geoffrey Perkins and Don LaFontaine.


Elon Musk's Space X team have done it - they've got their Falcon 1 rocket into orbit. It was the fourth time lucky for Falcon 1, but by the sounds of things the launch went perfectly. It's a terrific achievement, and it should begin a whole new era of space exploration in which the running is made by commercial companies rather than government agencies. The next few years should prove very interesting!


After surviving freshers' week, Ruth started her "proper" academic activities today. I hope they went well! Rebecca and Rob were here at the weekend and we all spent quite some time chatting to her using a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) connection. We even got her grandmother and uncle in on the act. It made a simple telephone call look humble - the sound quality was good, it didn't cost us anything, and we also had a live video feed running at the same time.


Jason Kottke's rather fine blog drew my attention to the story of Mike Mitchell, who recently received an interesting parcel through the post. I won't spoil things by saying anything else - just read his story.


Do you read those dialog boxes that pop up on your computer from time to time? If you do, it looks like you're one of a tiny minority. Contempt for the Windows dialog box appears to have grown to the point where most users simply click on them to get rid of them without paying any attention at all to what the display is trying to tell them. The report makes pretty sobering reading for anyone trying to keep a computer network secure.

Chris's top tip of the day? If your computer shows you a dialog box, make sure you know what you're agreeing to let your computer do before you click on it...


As I'm sure you'll have seen somewhere, NASA is 50 today. While they are still achieving great things, the organisation's current programs don't always run smoothly and with the upcoming retirement of the Shuttle the agency has definitely seen better days.

Let's hope they can turn things around in the future.


Ruth starts her first term at university today. By the time Rebecca had got home last night after delivering her (and a car full of all her stuff) to North Wales, Ruth had already managed to get online and posted photos of her new accommodation on her Facebook page!

All the best, Moothie - I'm sure you'll have a fantastic time.


I've been away again, this time on a business trip to Berlin for a conference. Various thefts and airline foul-ups notwithstanding, the trip was good fun and Berlin is an amazing city. Berlin's name apparently comes from a slavic word for "swamp." There are lots of rivers and lakes in the area, and this would go some way towards explaining the bizarre, gaily-coloured arrays of raised pipework that decorate road junctions and building sites. They are erected while construction is in progress to pump water away to the nearest convenient reservoir, and dismantled once the building work is complete. They give the city a gothic touch that makes it look like it came straight out of a Terry Gilliam film.

On Wednesday the group I was with got a special tour of the Reichstag, which has been spectacularly transformed by Sir Norman Foster's design. The way that the sophisticated modern technology collides with history is fascinating - particularly when you walk round a corner and come across graffiti daubed on the place by Russian soldiers back in 1945. My colleagues and I had some unexpected free time on the Friday, so we caught a cab into town to do a bit more exploring. One of the places on my list of things to see was the Holocaust Memorial which I'd seen on Flickr a few years ago, and I managed to find it.

2711 blocks, each one different

Actually, it's not difficult to find at all, as it's pretty much next door to the Brandenburg Gate. The memorial consists of 2711 blocks of black concrete, each of which is slightly different. The starkness of the memorial is unnerving, as is its size - it takes up an entire city block. It's a very different, sobering and memorable place to visit.

One name overshadowed my visit, though - colouring my perceptions of just about everything I saw. That name is, of course, the film director Wim Wenders. His film Der Himmel Über Berlin (known in the UK and US as Wings of Desire) has long been one of my all-time favourite films, and everywhere I looked I saw locations that were used in the film. Some, like the Siegessäule, are still instantly recognisable. Others, like the Potsdamer Platz, have changed beyond all recognition since the film was made in 1987. So to finish my visit report, here is a translation of Peter Handke's poem "Song of Childhood" from the beginning of the film. It still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end when I hear Bruno Ganz recite it.


When I got back from Berlin on Friday night, pretty much the first thing I did was to fire up my router and the PS3 to download the new Bikes Pack for Burnout Paradise. I spent quite a lot of this weekend playing it, too - but it seemed to give me a much easier ride than the car-related content that I'm used to. In fact, I've already finished off all 38 of the new "Burning rides" and "Midnight rides" and got my full Burnout Bike License which gives me four bikes to play about with.

In all but a couple of cases I managed to finish the events on my first attempt. On the longer runs you can crash several times and still come in well within the time limit. That, to me, suggests that they've made the upgrade pack much too easy; on the longer rides I was beating the set time by several minutes. While it's nice not to have to struggle to complete things, it does mean that there's far less sense of achievement. Compare this with the Road Rules for the cars - I completed the last two of those on Sunday afternoon after over an hour of concerted effort driving up and down the two roads in question. I was extremely pleased with myself when the "new car" award finally came up. I really felt like I'd earned it, and after nearly 100 hours of gameplay I think I probably do.

When you're riding bikes in Paradise City, the physics engine seems a bit different, as well - it's much more forgiving than I expected, to the extent that it almost feels cartoon-like. However, the addition of a day/night cycle and weather effects makes the whole game much more engaging and as it's a free add-on to the existing game, I can only applaud Criterion for being one of the few game producers who have really Got It Right in a big way.


Me being me, I couldn't let today go by without pointing out that the Autumnal Equinox took place at 15:44 UTC this afternoon. The nights draw in faster this week than at any other time of the year. As from today, summer is over - the days become shorter than the nights and the supermarkets start stocking Christmas selection boxes.


What with the iPhone allegedly "snooping" on your applications and a set of dangerous chargers coming to light, it's not been a good week for the iPod manufacturer. On the other hand, the idea that Apple are repurposing the iPod Touch as a games console seems like a mind-bendingly useful piece of innovative thinking.

RICHARD WRIGHT 1943 - 2008

Rick Wright, the keyboard player and vocalist with Pink Floyd, has died. I was lucky enough to see Floyd live and they were one of the truly great rock bands. Wright was one of my favourite keyboard players, and he was instrumental in creating the Pink Floyd sound. Just think of the electric piano on "Sheep", from the album Animals, for example. My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.


Rebecca and the twins came down to visit for the weekend. Well, Rebecca and Ruth did; Rob went off camping in Wales with his uncle for most of it. He certainly picked the right weekend for it, too: the weather was lovely. It was warm and sunny and a complete change from the rest of the last month, so they had a great time. I had a great time too - Rebecca and Ruth did all the cooking for me, and the house still smells wonderful!

It was a special visit, because it was the last time I will see Ruth before she leaves home to start University. Rob leaves to start his degree in a few weeks as well, and I'm going to miss them both terribly. They've been a huge part of my life for the last five years or so and it's been an amazing privilege seeing them grow up into the bright, confident adults they are today. Of course, as this is the 21st century we will have all sorts of ways to keep in touch. Once their net access is established, there'll be email, Skype and MSN for starters. They also read this blog regularly (hello troops!) and I'm sure they'll continue to do so at every opportunity. Last night Ruth decided that she is going to start a blog, too. I'm delighted, and I'm really looking forwards to reading it. I hope Rob will start blogging as well. It can be a great way of keeping up with what your friends are doing.

What tips can I offer to Ruth and Rob? Well, I hand-code this place because I'm weird, and enjoy that sort of thing. I certainly wouldn't expect Ruth or Rob to have the time to do that; there will be much more important things to do! But these days, blogging is easy and you don't need to be able to write out stuff in HTML tags, oh no. For example, I use a LiveJournal account for work-related blogging (the link to my blog there is at the top of the page). When I want to refer folks back to research I've come across on the web, I can post a new entry there in a couple of minutes. A LiveJournal account is quick and easy to set up, it offers search facilities, readers can add comments if you want to let them, and your blog will get a lot of of other add-ons that I don't have here. When you consider that the basic service is free, it's not a bad choice at all. Before I set my account up I did a fair bit of digging on the web which narrowed my final choice down to Livejournal and Blogger. If I was starting out today I'd find it hard to choose between the two, but in true BBC fashion I should point out that there are lots of other blogging tools out there as well.

If you're starting up blogging, I'd recommend choosing one that will provide an RSS feed so people can see when you post something new. Again, I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to this, so I write the RSS feed for this place using Notepad, but most of the major blogging tools will publish a feed for you automatically.

The bottom line is simple: pick a tool, then dive in and give it a go. After all, if it doesn't work for you, you can always try another one!


Rebecca showed me a video on street luging on the BBC's site this weekend. The intrepid reporter had a go on a closed road down a hill near Beachy Head, and he looked terrified. It's time for this year's Gravity Sports, and the UK's events were happening around Eastbourne.

Watching all the fun and terror got me thinking about other crazy downhill rollers. You may remember when the blogosphere got excited last year over one guy who left the street lugers standing in the dust. I couldn't remember his name, but after a couple of minutes trawling through Youtube, we were watching Jean-Yves Blondeau hurtling down the Grimselpass in Switzerland at over sixty miles an hour in a 31-wheel suit that he designed over ten years ago. Further searches revealed that his new Buggy Rollin' suits (you will be able to buy one for about 1500 euros retail) feature in a sequence in a new film of Danny Wallace's book Yes Man starring Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel. You can see them briefly heading down the road in the suits in the film's trailer.

Now, Blondeau's been using his suit since the 90s and is very accomplished at keeping it under control - he must be, because he's still alive. Unfortunately, when large numbers of people see Jim Carrey having a go, they'll want one too. There are bound to be folk prepared to shell out for a suit of their own so I expect to see lots of news stories about inexperienced, out of control people hurtling down mountains in the not too distant future...


Rob unlocked the Carson Thunder Custom when he got back on Sunday. It's a rather meaty machine. Then today I got the news we've been waiting for: the Burnout Paradise Bikes Pack arrives on Thursday. Oh boy.


As Howard Moon would say, "Oh my God! Allan Holdsworth!" The legendary jazz guitarist is touring the UK again this autumn, and I will be going to at least one gig. I'm already really excited.


Take a postcode application, link it in to the Flickr geotagging API, do a search for photos with cat related tags, and this is what you get. Genius.


It looks like the latest upgrade to my home PC is working properly. I installed a 512Mb video card this evening and I can still run all the apps that I used to be able to run, and it talks to the TV. For the first time in a long while, I have left the ATI camp and installed a card with an nVidia chipset. There's a significant improvement in quality, which is understandable as it's using technology that's four years in advance of what I had. I've already noticed that water effects in applications like Second Life look gorgeous.

More importantly, I discovered that the reason my computer had slowed to a crawl over the last few days was simple: I'd knocked the sound card when I installed and uninstalled ATI cards last week, and it wasn't quite seated in its PCI slot properly. Everything still ran, but it was taking the computer up to half an hour to respond to a mouse click. I'm glad I got that one sorted out!


Elbow have won the Mercury Music Prize, hoorah! It's good news for so many reasons - not least because they are an excellent band both live and on record. They were definitely one of the high points for me at this year's Latitude Festival. I was pleased to find out who the Seldom Seen Kid actually is - the singer Bryan Glancy, who died in 2006. I'm was pleased because Guy Garvey comes across as a sensible, down to earth sort of bloke who loves what he does.

But I was particularly chuffed that an album that was mastered as part of the Turn Me Up! initiative got the prize. This isn't some new-fangled recording technique by any means; in fact it's quite the reverse. The Seldom Seen Kid was mastered in the old-fashioned (i.e. proper) way to preserve the dynamic range of the original music, and the benefit of this approach is obvious from the beginning of the first track. "Starlings" goes from quiet understatement to blazing horns and back in an instant, and it really gets your attention. The whole album is a joy to listen to and its win is thoroughly deserved. Hopefully this will make music company execs stop insisting that their band's album should be louder than anyone else's (something that I've complained about in the past) and start them concentrating on the things that should be important instead. Things that Elbow have in spades: talent, ability, and really great songs.


For no other reason than I felt like it, here's the Wikipedia article on Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. It's still my favourite set of Warner Brothers cartoons, by a long way. After all, it brought us one of the most under-appreciated companies in American industry, the Acme Corporation.

There is something profound at the root of the Road Runner cartoons, and I feel tremendous sympathy for Wile. E's quest to catch that annoying, insufferably smug little bird. Even when we know that there isn't the faintest hope that we're going to succeed, there is a perverse part of all of us that makes us press on regardless in the hope that, just this once, things might actually go our way. And who knows? Every now and again, they do.


I'm not in the least bit surprised to be able to point out that the world didn't end when the LHC was powered up this morning. Now can we stop all the ludicrous hysteria and let CERN's physicists get on with their research rather than sending them death threats? The best quote of the day, though, has to come from the former keyboard player with D-ream, Dr Brian Cox: "Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat."


While I was off on my business travels this week I found myself in a hotel room with the laptop and not much else to do, so I finally got round to writing those reviews of The Dark Knight, Wall-E and Hellboy II I've been talking about doing. You can read them by clicking on the links above.


...and I'm chilling out listening to some Led Zeppelin and winding down from some motor racing frenzy. No, I'm not talking about Lewis Hamilton's performance at the Belgian Grand Prix: I've spent far too much time this weekend playing Burnout Paradise.

The addiction continues unabated, and in the last 24 hours I've unlocked a further 4 cars. In terms of progress through the game, I've now got the Krieger Uberschall 8 which I see means a mind-boggling 131 events completed in the game. I've also just beaten all the Showtime road rules, which got me the Carbon Kitano Hydros Custom, and at the moment I'm trying to work through the burning routes for the cars I've already got. Next on the list is the burning route for Touge sport, then the Hunter Citizen police car. I just need to shave a second off my time for the Citizen - I suspect that means there's a shortcut I should be taking, but I still have to figure out where it is. I'm really impressed by a game that has kept me engaged and actively playing for the best part of three months now - so hats off to Criterion for some truly excellent game design.

Update: I've unlocked the Touge and the Citizen burning routes. There was a short cut, and I was staring right at it as I waited for the lights to change at the start!


We had a BBQ on Saturday - Rebecca, Rob and Ruth came down for the weekend and I got all the summer gear out of the garage. I'd picked the day carefully after consulting the BBC's Countryfile weather forecast (it's the most comprehensive weather forecast on television; it's a great shame it's only given once a week) and we had a great day sitting in the sunshine and eating lots of burgers and sausages: many thanks to Rob for handling most of the cooking. In the evening after most of the guests had gone home, Ruth and I stayed outside watching satellites going over and I even saw a shooting star. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and it was very nice just to sit and chill out for a while.

Things returned to normal on Sunday: it rained again. By the time Rebecca and the troops got home to Solihull I'd put all the garden stuff back in the garage and sadly it looks like I won't get another opportunity to use it this year. In fact it looks like Saturday is going to turn out to be the only good day of weather we get for quite a while. I've had lots of rain this week and over in Wales they've had quite a bit of flooding. Looking out of the window at the moment, it's raining heavily once again and it's likely to continue through the rest of the day. According to the BBC, the damp weather also means it's been a bumper year for fleas and with spending the weekend in the garden I was bitten several times by an insect of some sort. I hope none of my guests suffered as well.

An interesting point made by the Guardian on Monday is that this summer's weather has shown marked similarities to the weather we had back in 1962. If you're old enough to remember that long ago, think about the winter weather we got. In many parts of the UK, it was the coldest winter since 1740; much of the country lay under snow for the best part of three months. Some forecasters are saying we'll get a much colder winter this year than we've had recently. We'll have to wait and see, but at least it would kill off some of those pesky insects!

DON LAFONTAINE 1940 - 2008

One of cinema's greatest voices has fallen silent.

Don LaFontaine died on Monday. He was the undisputed king of the voiceover, recording nearly 350,000 commercials and five thousand movie trailers. If you've ever heard a movie trailer that begins with the words, "In a world..." then you've heard Don's voice. I've blogged about him before (on April 1 2005 and August 26 2005) and each time I read about him, he struck me as a nice guy who would go to great lengths for his fans - as far as I'm concerned he was one of the true movie greats and my condolences go to his family and friends.


Ruth is learning Welsh before she heads off to university later this month. I think it's a great idea, and she's doing really well. I'm a bit jealous, because it's a language I've always wanted to learn. It's one of the few languages I know which seems like it can manage an entire conversation without the traditional things other languages need, like vowels.

This week I've been looking for web pages which list useful phrases translated into the Welsh, and one of the first ones I found was a doozy. If you're a Monty Python fan, you'll recognise the expression above from the Inflammatory Hungarian Phrasebook sketch. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that translations of the phrase in dozens of languages can be found online. You too can find out how to say this staggeringly useful phrase in Welsh, but also in other languages including Estonian, Mandarin, and er, Klingon. I don't know if Ruth will find this useful or not, but it's been fun finding it out!


Oh, Belgium.

Sorry, but that was the only word I could think of today when I heard the news that Geoffrey Perkins died at the weekend.

Geoffrey Perkins was the producer of some of the finest television and radio comedy shows ever made; ranging from Father Ted to the original radio show of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and he is also credited with creating the game Mornington Crescent for I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. That barely scratches the surface of his career, but even the briefest search online should go some way to explaining what a terrible loss this is to comedy.

KEN CAMPBELL 1941 - 2008

As if that wasn't enough bad news, I also heard today that the Ken Campbell has also died.

Ken was the man behind the stage production of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but he was also a brilliant comedian, writer, playwright and TV presenter. He was also a great friend of the Fortean Times, and wrote an eight-hour set of five plays called Illuminatus! in honour of Robert Anton Wilson's series of books. He produced and directed Neil Oram's 22-hour epic play called The Warp - which for many years had an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest play in the world. Its original production at the ICA featured Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy, amongst others. Sadly, to most of the public he's probably best known as the guy with the big eyebrows who refuses to believe how much value for money Citroen cars offered to their customers in a set of TV adverts in 2001.

To lose both of these guys in a single weekend is miserable, depressing news.


I did have a good weekend, though. Rebecca, Ruth, Rob and I went to see Wall-E on Friday at the Electric Picture House in Wotton, which has a digital projector; perfect for a computer-generated film! We really enjoyed it and it's yet another film I need to add to my "reviews to write" list. I was trying to pay careful attention and spot all the little Pixar in-jokes that are hidden in the film; I spotted a few on the list, but not all of them!