Down With Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: September 2012

September saw my diet beginning to have noticeable effects; by the end of the month I was a stone lighter than I was at the beginning of last month.

On the 21st the video game Borderlands 2 was released, so I fully expected to be writing very little on the blog for the rest of the month. That turned out not to be the case...


September draws to a close, and I've just set the lights to come on in the living room half an hour earlier. It was the solstice a week ago and I'm back to driving in to work with the headlights on. But at least I can report that I've already done a sizeable chunk of my Christmas shopping by getting next year's photo calendars printed - they arrived this week and I'm really pleased with them. They're printed on glossy, heavy stock photo paper and look the business. Well done Snapfish!


As it's the weekend I caved in and had another go at Borderlands 2 and after levelling up I managed to beat the boss I was stuck on. And then got stuck trying to beat another boss shortly afterwards. So I've given up again.

Instead I spent this afternoon playing with the Korg M3 and coming up with some new combi patches. I find the synth's KARMA function really interesting as it enables me to come up with all sorts of interesting grooves. It took a while, but I've also figured out how to get it to do one thing by itself while I play something else along with it.


Doctor Who started a two month hiatus last night after we said farewell to Amy and Rory, who were sent back in time - out of the Doctor's reach - by the Weeping Angels. Well, it was fairly obvious that the Angels were going to see the Ponds off, it was just a matter of figuring out how they were going to do it and what excuse the script could come up with for the Doctor not being able to go back and get them. And it was a pretty weak excuse, wasn't it? And the giant weeping angel version of the Statue of Liberty? Do me a favour...

But that wasn't the biggest problem I had with this week's show. It was the way it's been set up as "The Doctor's heartbreaking farewell to Amy and Rory" and the hyperbole really got to me - to the point where I went into this week's show with a heart of stone. I'd just got fed up of the whole "they're leaving... FOR GOOD" schtick that the episode was being pushed with and the whole plot left me cold.

Well, apart from the bit with River's wrist. I thought that was rather good, and it dealt with the potential non-linearity of a time-traveller's existence very well. We know that something is going to get broken, and we already know that River has been grabbed by an angel, so when the Doctor arrives, the penny drops - a nice bit of writing by Mr Moffat there.


It took me nearly an hour to get home tonight. Someone had broken down in the roadworks on the M4 and thanks to Bristol's stunning lack of traffic infrastructure the entire northern side of town was gridlocked within minutes. There are times when I really wish I worked somewhere else.


It's been an eventful day in the heavens today as we have not one, but two close passes by Near Earth Objects (NEOs): 2012 SJ32 zipped past 0.00939629 AU or 873,438 miles away but 2012 SY49 passed us this morning as close as 0.00018724 AU or 17,405 miles, which is a very, very close pass for an asteroid. This time they didn't hit us, which is good news.

When bits of asteroids do end up on Earth they can end up in some pretty weird places. The stoy of the meteorite that ended up as a religious icon is an interesting case in point - as one of my colleagues observed, the story sounds like it's been lifted directly from an Indiana Jones movie.

I picked the headline above because things are also looking up health wise. I came back from the doctor's yesterday feeling better than I have in quite a while as I've been given a clean bill of health, which nice to know. I still got woken up by something outside at four o'clock this morning but I just turned over and went back to sleep.


At work I have a rather old Dell Optiplex machine that has been playing up for the last couple of months. The problems started when I finally got XP service pack 3 installed. The machine stutters and hangs and generally doesn't work properly. If I try to play audio from a USB flash drive, it will grind to a halt within 30 seconds of starting playback. But this afternoon while I was trying to sort out something entirely unrelated I came across a discussion of C-State power management problems on Dell Optiplex machines. The machine sitting under my desk is an Optiplex, so I decided to see if the BIOS setting that Jake referred to had been switched on. They had. And since I turned them off, my machine has run noticeably more smoothly. I'm not sure if it's fixed everything, but it's definitely looking promising.


As Forbes Magazine points out, this story reads like something out of Futurama but Elon Musk wants to build a tube transit system that would take passengers from LA to San Francisco in half an hour. His design will be solar powered and won't need rails, but as yet what it'll look like isn't clear. Musk, remember, is the guy who runs SpaceX and he wants to retire to Mars. He's not shy of thinking big so whatever he comes up with, it's going to be interesting.


Last night I couldn't get to sleep. I was still awake at 4am, tossing and turning and worrying about stuff. Every time my thoughts returned to the subject of work my heart started pounding in my chest and I'd have a sort of mini panic attack. It's been pretty evident over the last few weeks that I'm struggling with depression again (hence yesterday's doctor's appointment) but I really hadn't expected such a bad night as that to sneak up on me. I eventually realised that I was going to have to call in sick today, and as soon as I came to that realisation - at about half past four in the morning - the heart palpitations stopped and I finally fell asleep. Of course the alarm clock went off a couple of hours later, so I didn't really get a decent night's rest; today I've felt very slow and disconnected and generally out of sorts. I think it's time to go back on to the antidepressants.

It's been another cold, damp day outside, which hasn't helped matters. This evening I caved in and put the central heating on and I'm beginning to feel a bit better.


I've given up on Borderlands 2 for the time being.

As the missions get harder it's becoming quite clear that it's a multiplayer game, not something for single players. It's a shame, because the first game was great and I really like the design, the humour, and the general philosophy that Gearbox put into the franchise. But Roland is going to stay kidnapped by robots for the time being because there appears to be no way I can take down his captors by myself.


I had a doctor's appointment this morning and driving to Wotton was quite an adventure. Overnight we've had torrential rain and the roads were under water in places. There'd been an accident in Rangeworthy, traffic in Bristol was in a mess and after checking with the office (that BBC story originally used a photo of a Ford Ka in floods near Cribbs Causeway) and being told that the A38 was nose to tail I ended up working at home for the day. Still, for the first time in a couple of weeks I don't need to worry about making sure the bird bath is topped up. And that reminds me: despite me saying I'd lost a collared dove at the beginning of the month, when I looked out yesterday afternoon there were eight of the buggers gathered round the bird table...


I am now a stone lighter (14 lbs or nearly 6.5 kg) than I was when I got back from my holiday. The 5+2 diet that featured on BBC's Horizon programme last month is the first diet that has really worked for me. I've found it easy to stick to, and the results speak for themselves. Strange as it may seem, I've not found myself overcompensating for my fast days during the rest of the week. Far from it: I'm eating less on the days when I can eat regular helpings and I'm not snacking as much either. I don't have any crisps or biscuits in the house any more, which has removed one big source of temptation.

Most of all it's become very evident that since I stopped drinking cans of fizzy drinks the weight has come off more quickly. New research by Harvard University indicates that if you drink sugary drinks you're five times more likely to become obese, but in most cases the cans I bought were the "diet" versions of popular beverages, sweetened with artificial sweeteners rather than sugar. I'm amazed how much of an effect giving them up has had - and that's in just two weeks. Not surprisingly I've decided that I won't be buying any more any time soon.


Even before the dreadful weather of the last few days it's been distinctly chilly here. I'm sitting here wearing a fleece and I'm not far off shivering. Looking at the blog over the past few years sometimes I didn't start talking about putting the central heating on until the second half of October. Somehow I don't think I'll be holding out that late this year.


Friday saw the UK release of the video game Borderlands 2 and when I got home on Friday evening I immediately slotted my copy in to the PS3. Seven and a half hours later, I decided I really ought to stop and go to bed...

Yes, the sequel to 2009's innovative first person shooter pushes all the right buttons with me once again and I've spent a large portion of my spare time this weekend playing the game. I've picked Zer0 the assassin as my first character this time out, and so far I've reached level 14 - which should tell you how much time I've spent on the game so far (it's a lot.)

Reviews of the game have focused on improvements on the original and have been largely positive, but having played it heavily for a couple of days now I'm not so sure. Far more than the original, the game is geared towards playing with your friends - the slant towards multiplayer is a little too heavy for someone like me who likes to explore on his own. A couple of the bosses have wiped the floor with me the first time I encountered them, even though I was theoretically at a good enough level to take them on (if you're in over your head, enemies will have a charming little skull icon next to their status bars, which is a not-so-subtle hint that you need to come back after levelling up and getting some beefier weapons). Getting upgrades to your gear isn't so easy, either: Gearbox have added a second currency - Eridium - into the game, which is used to buy storage upgrades and ammunition expansion packs. And it's not so easy to come by unless you want to "farm" a couple of locations in the game by opening storage locker after storage locker to try and discover the stuff. Another thing that's really niggling me is that the shields in the first game which had the ability to restore your health have disappeared. Luckily there are still class mods which feature health regeneration, so all is not lost, but I'd rather use my class mods for something more useful like improving damage or aim.

I *do* like Gearbox's tribute to a Borderlands fan who passed away in 2011. Michael Mamaril is a non-player character who crops up in Sanctuary and if you talk to him, he'll greet you as a fellow vault hunter and give you a loot item - and a pretty good one at that.


Oh dear. Doctor Who on Saturday felt like a real throwback to the RTD days - lots of storytelling through news bulletins (filmed off a TV screen, naturally) with cameos by television personalities used to gloss over a story that really didn't stand up to any form of dramatic examination. I rapidly learned with RTD that when a script was weak, he'd paper over the cracks by bringing back a lovable character from the show's past and this week that's what we got. Well, sort of - as the actor who played the Brigadier, Nicholas Courtney died earlier this year, in this case we got his daughter instead. It was the weakest episode of the show since Matt Smith became the Doctor, and one of the poorest episodes since the show was rebooted.

Several characters cropped up this week presumably so the audience could go "awww, look, isn't that nice?" It was amusing to see Professor Brian Cox, yes, but all the celebs couldn't disguise the fact that this week over half an hour of the show was spent tediously setting up a payoff that didn't pay off at all. Ignoring the fact that people really don't just get up and walk away from a cardiac arrest, the plot didn't so much have giant holes in it as fail to exist at all.

Let's take this slowly, shall we?

Steven Berkoff wants to kill every human being on Earth, and has a superweapon consisting of millions and millions of small black cubes which can do just about anything including fly, shoot people, gas people, take people over and turn them into mindless zombies, or play the Birdy Song at them. Clearly, the cubes are more than capable of doing the job, and doing it with a minimum of fuss or bother.

So, first question: why does the bad guy wait over a year before having a go at putting his dastardly plan into effect? Sorry, but "getting to know the human race" doesn't count as a valid reason. He's trying to exterminate them, not be their new best mate. And are we really supposed to accept that Steven Berkoff spent all that time just standing there, waiting? Seems a bit improbable to me. And by "a bit improbable" I mean "makes no sense whatsoever."

Second question: why does Steven Berkoff need to kidnap people? Why does he have a collection of the people that he wants to exterminate safely tucked up in hospital gurneys on his giant invisible spaceship? Where, presumably, he has looked after them for a considerable amount of time, without them developing bed sores or anything like that. Answer: because getting them there provides a lazy-ass way for the writer to get the Doctor to his inevitable face-to-face confrontation with the bad guy in his evil lair. You'd think, too, that a superintelligent alien wouldn't leave an open portal into his spaceship running, with no security protocols in place, even when he didn't need it. Hello? Security risk? And seriously - the wall of a service elevator in a Cardiff hospital was the best teleport device you could come up with? Again, that's a typically RTD piece of naff budget-saving. And I guess all those poor sods on gurneys (other than Rory's dad) got blown up at the end, then?

Third question: how did the little girl being taken over by the cube advance the plot in any way, given that she didn't actually do anything other than look creepy until the Doctor met her, at which point he 'soniced' her into a coma and we never saw her again? Answer: it didn't. It was just poor writing by someone who doesn't understand that story elements have to have a reason for being there. The best example of this is Anton Chekhov's gun on the mantelpiece: if you show a gun in the first act, it should go off in the third. The spooky girl was a gun that didn't go off.

Fourth question: so why not just use the cubes to kill everybody? Answer: dunno.

And the fifth and final question: are you going to quote the gags or cool lines this week? Answer: no, because there weren't any. The dialogue was clunking and you could see the punchline - the "power of three" being Rory, Amy and the Doctor - coming a mile off. Dire.

Dear god, I hope next week's episode fares better.


So, apparently you don't need the energy output of most of the galaxy to travel at warp speed after all; NASA are beginning to carry out research on warp field technology.

Don't get too excited just yet, though. From the sounds of things even if they do manage to get the drive working on a real-life version of the Enterprise, there are some inconvenient side effects when you arrive that need to be worked out first. And don't expect to be able to raise shields any time soon, either...


Every year for the past five years or so I've given people calendars of my photos as Christmas presents. In the past I've ordered them from Qoop, but I discovered last month the company no longer exists. Since then I've been wondering who to use instead, but when I got an email from the folks at Snapfish with a 50% discount offer on their range of classic calendars this week, I stopped dithering and got busy. I've just designed and ordered next year's batch of calendars and I saved myself a hefty sum while I was doing so.


Last week a team from Southampton University brought new meaning to the term "bricked" in the context of computing. They've built a 64-node cluster supercomputer using Raspberry Pi computers and Lego that runs off a single 13-amp plug.

I can't find any figures on the system's performance, but a single Raspberry Pi seems to be capable of roughly 60,000 kflops when running full hardware floating point calculations. Taking a really rough and ready, back-of-the-envelope approach to things suggests that a 64-core cluster should max out somewhere around 3,800 mflops. In comparison, the world's most powerful supercomputer at the time of writing, IBM's 1,572,864-core Sequoia cluster manages 16.32 petaflops, which is roughly 4.3 million times faster.

Performance isn't the issue here, though: the Southampton University team put the whole thing together on a budget of £2,500 and it's intended to teach the principles of cluster computing rather than create a serious piece of computational hardware. Although it's unlikely to be giving IBM a run for their money any time soon, it's still a very nicely done piece of work.


How could you not go all misty-eyed over the story of the taxi which comes complete with a squirrel asleep in its bed? Trust me: the picture of the little fella spark out on the dashboard is the most ludicrously adorable thing you're likely to see on the web this year.


Autumn is definitely here. Last night it was cold enough to wake me up, so it's time to put a blanket back on the bed. I'll be setting the lights in the living room to come on a bit earlier in the next couple of days, too - it's the autumn equinox next weekend and the evenings are really beginning to draw in. No decorating this weekend - the weather forecast wasn't good enough to warrant making a start on the garage yesterday and I'm glad I didn't try because it's wet outside this morning. The rain has topped up the bird bath in the back garden. Yesterday evening I looked out and it was nearly empty, thanks to the six starlings that were splashing about in it.

I've spent most of the weekend indoors. Yesterday morning I listened to comedian Steve Punt's series Punt PI on Radio 4, as he was investigating something very close to home: the story of the Woman in Black who every year for 20 years would visit the memorial of the 1928 Charfield Railway Disaster. It was a surprise to hear him talking to Martin, the landlord of The Railway Tavern (which, as regular readers of this blog are likely to know already, is my local.) Mr Punt did a fine job of investigating the mystery and it was nice to hear a local story like this making it onto national radio!

The rest of my time has been taken up messing with technology of one form or another. I'm still copying files onto the PVR's new hard drive, although I'm on the final batch this morning. The netbook has been working well with its SSD, to the extent that I'm still running it on the first charge I gave it after swapping the drive over - an impressive improvement in performance.


We got another comparatively light and fluffy Doctor Who episode last night. There were only 3 deaths this week, 4 if you count the robot drone at the beginning. Back in the 80s the body count in an episode would be well into double figures before the opening credits had rolled. This is a good thing, I'm sure, but even with a few fatalities thrown into the mix the show seems to have lost its ability to convey a sense of menace.

The main thing that undermined the dramatic aspirations of the show this week was the dialogue. It's beginning to suffer from the same problem as Murray Gold's bombastic and overwhelming music: there's far too much hyperbole...

The Kahler. I love the Kahler! They're one of the most ingenious races in the galaxy. Seriously, they could build a spaceship out of Tupperware and moss.

...and a fondness for too many daft throwaway lines:

I see "Keep Out" signs as suggestions, more than actual orders. Like "Dry Clean Only".

This week, the throwaways were coming thick and fast...

Mexico's 200 miles due south.

Well, that's what happens when people GET TOAST CRUMBS ON THE CONSOLE!

Frankly, things are getting sillier and sillier:

I speak horse. His name's Susan, and he wants you to respect his life choices.

The trouble is that the gags undermined the threat presented by the episode's bad guy, the Gunslinger. I'm not saying you can't have comedy and drama happening at the same time. It's possible to combine darkness with humour in science fiction, of course. Just watch Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys for an example. Some episodes of Babylon 5, particularly those featuring Peter Jurasik's character Londo Mollari ("Yes, I'm the Emperor. Here, you see? This is the seal of the Centauri Republic. Only the Emperor can wear it. So either I am the Emperor, or I am in a great deal of trouble. Or both.") or Claudia Christian's Susan Ivanova ("No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There's always a boom tomorrow. What? Look, somebody's got to have some damn perspective around here! Boom. Sooner or later. BOOM!") featured great gags even when their character's prospects looked extremely bleak. But I get the impression that this season the writers on Who are trying a little too hard to emulate one particular writer: Douglas Adams.

The thing is, you can't do this just by throwing in the occasional surrealist gag. DNA was frighteningly intelligent and he used that intelligence to say something pithy about the human condition while he was making us laugh. However good the current writers are, they aren't Douglas Adams. They really aren't. DNA would have come up with a threat that was a little bit more creative than something half Terminator, half Borg wearing a cowboy hat. Next week's trailer looks a little darker, though; let's see if Chris Chibnall can come up with the goods.


Good grief, is it only Wednesday today? Considering I had Monday off the week really seems to be dragging by. On the other hand, I am feeling much better; I think the diet is really beginning to have an effect and last night I slept like a log, not waking up until after 5am. I left early for work and on the way I called in at the petrol station to fill up the car, which cost me £78. The tank was nearly on reserve, but even so that's a ludicrous amount of money to spend on gas.

Which reminds me...

With doing lots of work outside in the sunshine over the weekend I stopped regularly for a cold drink to keep myself hydrated. On Saturday I was grabbing cans of ginger beer or a glass of carbonated flavoured water from the fridge, but they didn't quench my thirst and I noticed they left a quite unpleasant aftertaste. So on Sunday I had glasses of fruit squash diluted with plenty of filtered water from the fridge, cooled down further with a handful of ice cubes. I was amazed how much better it tasted. I didn't feel as thirsty after drinking them, and a large glass of squash contains far fewer calories than a can of ginger beer. A mate of mine recently stopped drinking Diet Coke and dropped several pounds as a result, so I'd already given up the caffeinated drinks, but my experience this weekend made me realise that actually, I don't like the taste that much any more.

So, to my amazement, I have decided to stop buying cans or bottles of pop altogether (although rest assured I will still have the occasional can of beer to hand). When I've finished what I have left in the house I won't be buying any more. This is turning out to be a very weird diet indeed.


Something big hit Jupiter on Monday. The resulting fireball wasn't that much smaller than the Earth.


The blog's been somewhat quiet over the last three days as I've been working on the house. The outside has been looking a bit sorry for itself this year. The front of the house faces directly south and over the years the sunlight has destroyed the paintwork - when I got up the ladder to have a look on Saturday I discovered it was down to bare wood in places. Having said that, I have a sneaking suspicion that the last time I painted the doors and window frames was at least nine years ago, just before I started writing this blog! My weekend was taken up with activities like sanding and filling and rubbing down and brushing away cobwebs and spiders and goodness knows what else; I got one coat of paint on most of the frames on Sunday, and yesterday I took the day off to put on another coat. Thank goodness for masking tape: despite the showers, I'd managed to get everything done by six and there aren't too many new drops of paint down the side of the house.

Doing physical work really brought home the fact that I'm getting older and slower. Last time I did this, I managed to get the house and the garage done in a couple of days. This time just the house on its own took me three days The garage will have to wait for another day.

The house looked much better when I left for work this morning, though. I felt better too, even if I needed to take painkillers after I'd finished each evening. I'm not sure whether it's because of the physical exercise involved, or just the fact that as everything aches right now it's distracting me from the pain in my feet...


Sneakers is one of my favourite movies. The 1992 film about computer hackers had a stupendous cast, a deft touch and a fistful of witty, memorable lines (Dan Ackroyd in particular has never been better). The heroes even use my favourite synthesiser, the Roland JX-3P to resolve a vital plot point! I've lost count of the number of times I've played the DVD and whenever the film crops up on TV I find myself sitting down to watch, waiting for James Earl Jones to show up.

From reading cast member Stephen Tobolowsky's reminiscences of filming in Slate this week (he played the hapless security leak, Dr Werner Brandes), it sounds like it was every bit as much fun to work on as it was to watch. Director Phil Alden Robinson also directed Field of Dreams and having either one of those films on your CV is going to raise your reputation above pretty much anyone else in Hollywood as far as I'm concerned. Tobolowsky says that when Sneakers wrapped, Robinson told them that the only thing that could make the whole experience of working on Sneakers better would be if the lab lost the film, because then they'd be able to do it all over again. Jobs don't come much better than that, do they?


Doctor Who on Saturday was a bit of a romp, I thought. Although it tried very hard to be dark and threatening the overall atmosphere was light and fluffy with the emphasis on playing things for laughs. The expression of glee on Matt Smith's face as the Doctor realised he was dealing with dinosaurs on a spaceship was a delight, and no wonder. We got a pair of grumpy ankylosaurs, a triceratops, and more raptors than you could shake a stick at.

It was nice to see Rupert Graves (Lestrade from Steven Moffat's other series Sherlock) making a guest appearance as big game hunter Riddell, and it felt a bit like a Harry Potter reunion with Mr Weasley (Mark Williams) and Argus Filch (David Bradley) along for the ride. Riann Steele's Queen Nefertiti completed the Doctor's gang ("Never had a gang before...") as they tried to find out what was going on, stop the bad guy, and avoid being blown up.

Any weaknesses in the story were handled by flooring the pace pedal. I can't remember when the Doctor last hurtled through a story in such a manic fashion. About the only thing that threatened to disrupt the proceedings was Mitchell and Webb's comedy turn as security robots. While the robots themselves were an impressive, looming presence, they might just as well have had neon signs stuck on them flashing "amusing cameo." Their comments on proceedings as the episode played out didn't really work. Doctor Who seldom manages to pull off metafiction convincingly and this wasn't an exception.

And as for the dialogue, well...

You don't have any vegetable matter in your trousers, do you Brian?

Only my balls!

I'm sorry?

Golf balls! Grassy residue!

(He rummages in his trouser pocket and produces a couple of golf balls).

Erm, yes.

You clearly need a man of action and excitement. One with a very large weapon!

Um, okay, we -

Right, take us to your leader!


Too good to resist.

Yes, thank you, we get the idea.

But the most interesting bit? Given that we know the Ponds will be leaving the show in a few weeks, the exchange between Amy and the Doctor: "You'll be there 'til the end of me!" Okay, the conversation ending with the Doctor giving Amy a significant look when she laughs "Or vice versa!" wasn't exactly subtle. The thing is, the Doctor's comment makes sense if it's the Doctor who's on the way out, not Amy. The Doctor says "The end of ME" not "The end of YOU" as if he knows he's heading towards another regeneration. As far as I'm aware Matt Smith is still working on the show and he filmed the Christmas special - a story that takes place after Amy and Rory's departure - in Bristol last month. So is Moffat messing with us again? Is he going to pull a fast one and have the Ponds live happily ever after but have someone else bite the dust? And is the Doctor already dropping hints about it?

And - to finally get to the point - that's one of the things that occasionally kicks me out of my immersion in the show. The Doctor occasionally behaves as though he has foreknowledge not only of significant events in Earth's future (which, as he's a time traveller, is understandable) but also of what will happen to his future self. The show is remarkably reluctant to deal with causality violation, and when it eventually backs itself into a corner it does something ludicrous to fix things like deploying flying time monsters (Father's Day, remember?) Dropping things like the exchange above into the mix strikes me as (a) smug (b) cheating and (c) messing with the entire pretext of the show.

That doesn't dodge the issue here, though. We've been told that the Ponds' departure is going to be heartbreaking but we don't know why. The Doctor knows Something Bad Is Going To Happen but isn't letting on what it is. The thing is, these days I just expect everything on the show to be blatant misdirection, because that's how Moffat rolls. I guess we'll find out in a few weeks.


I mentioned last month that I'd ordered a couple of hard disk drive upgrades for my PVR and my netbook and yesterday they arrived, so last night I spent a couple of hours installing them. The Humax recognised the new drive without any fuss at all and after I'd set up partitions for audio and video in the sizes I wanted, it took a few minutes to format the drive. All my other settings remained in the box's flash memory so I didn't have to reconfigure anything else and could make a start copying my files across from the old drive. The old drive was 320 Gb and nearly full, so I suspect I will be restoring files for most of the weekend.

Getting the netbook up and running with a solid state drive wasn't quite so straightforward. eBuyer had bundled each HDD with a free disk copying program made by a company called Acronis. I began to suspect that I was going to have problems when I ran the software on the netbook and a user registration screen appeared. I don't mind registering free software if it's got functions I can use, but the registering wasn't the issue here. My netbook has a 1024 by 600 display and the registration window appeared in a fixed size that was so big that the last data field and the licence agreement tick box dropped off the bottom of the screen. Because of the way the program code was written, not only could I not move the window up the screen, I couldn't even scroll down to the bottom of the form. Let me repeat that: the window was fixed size, without scroll bars, so I couldn't get at the fields to complete them. Nice to see that the software's been well tested on a range of different devices, I thought. After I'd changed the netbook's display to scrolling mode I managed to fill in all the fields, only to find that I then had to go to a website and fill in the same information again. Once I'd done that, I had to paste in the sixteen digit authentication code printed on the CD packet and wait for their autoresponder to email me a link to another web page, which eventually gave me an even larger code for me to paste into the installer to finish the install. By now I was seriously pissed off but after all that effort I was determined to get a result, so I gritted my teeth and ran the software. When the menu popped up I selected the "clone disk" option. Guess what? Yep - up popped a window telling me that the function I wanted to use was only available in the "full version" of the package, and I should click on the link to a web page where I could buy it. At this point I started swearing, and swearing loudly.

Sorry Acronis, but your software has been uninstalled, and your install CDs have been thrown in the bin. From now on I won't touch your stuff with a barge pole. I haven't come across anything so poorly designed and amateurishly implemented for a long time and there are other companies out there who are going to eat your lunch. In particular, I'd be very worried about a company called EaseUS if I were you, as they provide freeware disk cloning and partition management packages that are not only DRM-free, they don't even require registration. If I were you I'd be even more worried by the fact that EaseUS's programs are nicely designed and work flawlessly, even on my netbook's tiny display. Their program interfaces rescale themselves when I resize the program window (and yes, their software actually lets me do that; yours doesn't, does it?) EaseUS's EPM partition management software is a joy to use and works so quickly that the first time I used it I couldn't actually believe it had done what I asked it to do, but it had. It will be a standard install on all my machines from now on and I'll be recommending it to all my geeky friends.

With a workable disk management package I'd cloned the HDD to the SSD in a couple of hours and once that was done it took me just five minutes to open up the netbook and swap the drives over. Resizing the partitions to fill up all that extra space took a few seconds, and then I was good to go.

So, the big question: has it made a difference?

Oh yes. The Eee boots up noticeably faster, to the point that the blue Windows XP page doesn't actually get through its fading in animation before the "Welcome" screen flashes up. That's only on screen for a moment before it's replaced by the Windows desktop. Applications, particularly Firefox, load *much* faster.

It's not just the speed, though. The only noise the netbook makes now is from its fans, and they aren't kicking in as much as they used to because the SSD doesn't get as hot (it draws less power). I haven't used it long enough to get a handle on how much this will affect battery life but I'm expecting to see a noticeable improvement. It might have been a bit of a struggle getting here but I'm very pleased with the end result.


Amazon launched new versions of the Kindle yesterday and announced that their whizzy colour tablet, the Kindle Fire, will be available in the UK at last. Amazon UK's front page has pretty pictures of the new devices today, and the dedicated pages for the new gadgets gush about how fabulous they are. Sorry, but I'm not convinced.

In particular, I raised a very cynical eyebrow at their "buy once, enjoy everywhere" slogan. It's heavy on the catchy marketing, but not so hot on the truth. Why?

Cast your mind back to 2009. Amazon summarily deleted copies of George Orwell's novels from customers' devices over a publishing rights issue. Despite the fact that these customers had paid money for the works, they suddenly found that Amazon had effectively gone into their property and taken them back. Because the goods were electronic, Amazon pretty much got away with doing so. Imagine if a business tried to do this with a physical printed work: there would have been pandemonium. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out, deleting something that puts you in a bad light is an act worthy of Big Brother himself. Amazon's view is that you don't own the eBooks you buy from them, they're just allowing you to read them until it ceases to be convenient for them to do so; furthermore in some cases you can only download eBooks to your Kindle a limited number of times. I have a simple response to a business practice like this: I spend my money elsewhere. It's not just that there is absolutely no way I'd spend money on a technology that enables such dystopian behaviour, or that it has such an obvious and risky point of failure built in to it, it's also that it is so blatantly wide open to abuse or coercion. The fact that Amazon want to impose that level of control on what I read is profoundly Orwellian and more than a little bit frightening. In fact, I find it terrifying. I'll stick with paper, thanks very much.

Of course, in some cases I'm completely screwed because I can't stick with paper: A number of publications I like to read such as ArcFinity Magazine are only available in Kindle format. The good news is that there's a free Kindle application for PCs that lets you read Kindle content on your PC, tablet, or smartphone. The bad news is that Amazon can take your account away whenever they feel like it, making all your purchases disappear. Any time I see something on Amazon that's available on Kindle, I find myself thinking about the issues I've mentioned above, and in almost every case I've ended up deciding not to spend any money. Yet despite this, Amazon goes from strength to strength. I guess that like governments, we get the businesses we deserve.


When I visited Yosemite in the 90s I stayed in Curry Village, the origin of the current hantavirus outbreak that's resulted in at least three deaths over the last couple of months. We went for a couple of days and ended up staying for a week, as Yosemite is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. Back when I stayed there, the tent cabins were spartan affairs; they were little more than tents with wooden frames, and trying to get to sleep in one, knowing that a flimsy sheet of cotton fabric was the only thing separating you from the bears prowling around outside does not make for a restful night, believe me.

When my brother Dave mentioned this week that Curry Village was the site of the outbreak my first reaction was disbelief, as I couldn't imagine any significant population of rodents wanting to share such primitive accommodation. Yosemite has nicer places to curl up when it gets dark. But these days the village's signature cabins are fitted with heaters and built with double walls, and that appears to be the problem: the deer mice which have been spreading the virus obviously find the good life very attractive, living in the insulation gap. Which presumably they have been filling up with faeces ever since they moved in.



Epic Star Trek goodness at Google today for the show's 46th birthday. Well done!


I'm guity of sniggering every time I read a web article that discusses how Twitter is going to "monetise its userbase" and turn into the next Internet cash cow. Because, you know, there have been so many Internet cash cows before it. What's Facebook stock worth today? Less than half what it was when the IPO launched. The company's execs are dumping stock like it's going out of fashion, even if Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to hang on to his for a year.

Social sites are just that: they're there to facilitate social interchange. They help groups of like-minded people get together and communicate. About a third of my friends on Facebook play the same musical instrument I do, the Chapman Stick. I've found some great new artists to listen to as a result (and I've bought their CDs, too.) Personal communication is a great way of promoting your work when it's done properly and a lot of semi-pro (and some mainstream) artists I follow do a grand job on the web with a deft, personal approach. But when it comes to multinational companies trying the same thing, things don't go so well; advertising does not sit easily with social networking. When a faceless corporation tries marketing in such environments it needs to be far more than 'hip' or 'edgy'; the slightest misdeed or faux pas is going to be brutally exposed and god help the company with a less than pristine record. Twitter's "promoted tweets" feature is right there on the edge of what people will tolerate and I've seen lots of examples where such promotions have backfired badly. As companies like McDonalds, Qantas, Rogers Telecom and even the Maldives Tourist Board will testify, not all exposure is good exposure. Mystifyingly, Twitter still seems to think that promoted tweets work.

Even self-promotion can rapidly cross the line, and Twitter in particular is less than forgiving when helpful information becomes repetitive bluster. There are few communities that push back more strongly against change than Internet communities. When the day comes and Twitter focuses on revenue opportunities rather than users, the users will simply move somewhere else. Just look at how well Murdoch's acquisition of MySpace turned out, for example. News International bought it for $580 million in 2005 and sold it for just $35 million last year.

But sometimes Twitter's users sour the user experience for everyone else in other, more subversive ways. Last week the Guardian was questioning the internet behaviour of one Grant Shapps, former government housing minister and now Conservative party co-chairman. Aside from publishing material under made-up names and breaching Google's code of practice, it appears that Mr Shapps has built up a large Twitter following by randomly following people and then unfollowing them a few days later. I guess the strategy is that you hope people notice the follow and follow you back then hope that they don't return the favour when you dump them. I get this a fair bit on my Twitter stream, and I'm sorry, but that's not the game I want to play. It smacks of wanting the rewards without putting in the spadework; I find the approach deceitful and manipulative, and it's a symptom of generally "not getting" what the Twitter community is about. The way I see it, as a user I have responsibilities concomitant with membership (a big one is, as @wilw puts it, "don't be a dick") and ignoring them is - well, sadly that's exactly what I'd expect from a bigwig in the Conservatives, so as you were, everybody.

These days I no longer automatically follow someone back when they add me. If for some ungodly reason I do pick up a new follower on Twitter, the first thing I'll do is look at their tweets. A string of random, semi-coherent messages all ending in a pointer to the same URL is going to get me reaching for the "report spam" button pretty smartish. Monomaniacal self-promotion is just going to be ignored (unless it's really entertaining monomaniacal self-promotion, of course). Getting me to click on the "follow" button involves being cool, witty, surprising, and generally fab. It's heartening to know that there are people like that out there, and if you want to find a couple of hundred examples just click on the "followers" link on my Twitter profile. Some of them are even following me. But following someone just so you can con them into following you, when you have absolutely no intent of reading their tweets?

Don't be a dick.


You might remember back in July I blogged about how the science fiction author Roger Zelazny and comics legend Jack Kirby teamed up with the CIA to rescue a bunch of diplomats from Tehran back in the 1970s. I mentioned back then that I'd really like to see the film - meaning I'd like to see a movie adaptation of Lord of Light, the book of Zelazny's that was allegedly being adapted for the big screen. Today I found out that a movie has already been made, but it's about the rescue caper rather than the science fiction classic. Directed by Ben Affleck, Argo is getting very favourable reviews. One to watch, methinks.


With five episodes of Pond Life to ramp the anticipation up over the last week, the excitement's been building. Rob sent me a text this morning that just read "Doctor Who! That is all" and I couldn't agree more. This evening the waiting came to an end and the new series of Doctor Who kicked off with a story featuring "every type of Dalek that's ever been made", Asylum of the Daleks. So - let's get to it. There will be spoilers.

First off - Moffat pulled a trademark fast one on us and introduced Oswin, the Doctor's next companion played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, four months early. Oswin is a computer genius, can hack into just about anything, was the junior entertainments officer on a space liner, likes Bizet and oh yes, she's crap at making soufflés.

Soufflés! Against the Daleks! Where do you get the milk?

This conversation is irrelevant!

Amy and Rory were pretty much backgrounded this week, but Rory still got the best gag, running into it nicely from the soufflé theme that had just been introduced:

Eggs! Eggs! Eggs!

What, these?

(He picks up a sphere from Dalek armour off the floor and waves it in front of the lead Dalek)

Lead Dalek:
Eggs. Ter. Min. Ate!

By the end of the episode, the Doctor had managed to repair their relationship troubles that we saw in the most recent trailer and the final episode of Pond Life. So he got to save the day for pretty much everyone, except for Oswin who, it turns out, had been turned into a Dalek and then apparently got blown up at the end of the episode along with all the other mad Daleks.

Wait, what? The Doctor's next companion is a Dalek?

It's a brilliant bit of writing, and it was a twist that I really didn't see coming. But where do we go from here? If we just saw Oswin's last meeting with the Doctor as the Doctor's first, then I'll be very disappointed. We've played that trope out with River Song, remember? And I'd react similarly if this Oswin turns out to be a distant relative of the Oswin in the Christmas special (remember Freema Agyeman's first appearance in Doctor Who, when she played Martha Jones's cousin?)

I suspect Moffat has got something much more interesting up his sleeve. It's the 21st century, after all: are we going to see the Doctor's first virtual companion? Or will the Doctor somehow manage to turn her back into a human being? Steven Moffat has promised that this time round we'll be getting a bunch of stand-alone "blockbuster" episodes rather than a thematic arc over the entire series, but on the other hand, as we all know, he also feeds us outrageous lies. Right now it's looking very much like we've just started out on another series spanning story to me.


It's not raining. I spent a couple of hours in the back garden this afternoon tidying things up and I managed to get the lawn cut for the first time in a fortnight. Judging by the pile of feathers underneath the bird table the sparrowhawk has been visiting again, and I noticed that the collared dove count at the bird table this evening is down to five. Oh dear.

The weather forecast for today gave a "less than five per cent" chance of precipitation. What's going on? Is this summer, finally arriving? Oh no, it isn't. I've just checked the forecast for tomorrow and it's back to the old routine again.