The Blog from Planet Ten

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: October 2003

October brought robotic babies, talking fish, lots of trees, and another new banner...


One of the funniest items I ever read in the newsgroup was a message from a poor chap suffering from two conflicting earworms. The term is a literal translation of a German expression for those irritating tunes that get stuck in your head, that you find yourself compelled to keep humming over and over again. Here's the message:

>On Thu, 06 Feb 2003 18:17:44 +0000, wrote
>>On Thu, 06 Feb 2003 17:58:14 +0000, Mad From The Farting Crowd
>><> wrote:
>>>On Thu, 06 Feb 2003 14:05:08 +0000, wrote
>>>>We're patriotic spies, give us the money, HUURRRRGGGHHH.
>>>Thanks for the 'Relax' earworm, Mike.
>>earworm? eh, what? consider me as clueless, cos that's what I am
>It means I can't get it out of my head.


was running earworm Kylie LA LA LA
read Mike's post got flipped into Frankie HUURRRRGGGHHH earworm
now I open your post and flip back into Kylie LA LA LA mode
I feel like a ping pong ball

But now it seems, earworms are being researched on a serious academic level. I'm sorry, but if this lot don't win an IgNobel prize next year there's no justice in the world.


Well, not really - but we did go to Westonbirt Arboretum on Sunday. The place was heaving - there must have been thousands of people visiting. It's one of the foremost collections of trees in the country, and in the autumn it's well-known for being very scenic. As you can see from the picture, the trees (particularly the Acers, or Japanese Maples) turn some pretty spectacular colours at this time of year. You can click on the image here to see a larger version of the picture.

Some very red trees...


Well, that rumour didn't last long. According to Ain't It Cool News, Ridley Scott isn't working on an adaptation of Philip Pullman's books. On the other hand, it appears that a film version of Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is on the cards, with a screenplay written by his pal Nick Hornby.

I particularly liked Mr. Eggers's stated wish that the film of the book should be "weird."


It's the last day before the clocks go back for the winter, and there was a lovely sunrise this morning. The time around sunrise is known in the film industry as the magic hour because of the difference in light quality. Artists have pictured sunrise and sunset for ages - and the latest installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London is probably the most over-the-top representation yet. However, putting a fake sun at one end of the room and viewing it through layers of fog made out of sugar and water is not without its problems, according to Ananova.

This afternoon, the sunshine's gone and it looks decidedly wintry outside. And once again, I need to rake the leaves off the garden and sweep them off the drive. There always seem to be far more leaves about than you'd expect given the number of trees in the road.


There's been some interesting film news around this week - firstly Terry Jones indicated on Radio 5 that Ridley Scott was planning to make a film of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (now that's something I'd like to see), and secondly that Bristol's very own Aardman have started work on their next full-length feature film, which will star Wallace and Gromit. The plot is... well, it's no longer "The Great Vegetable Plot," to say the least. You can read about it at the BBC, and I'll say no more other than it sounds dafter than the first 3 adventures put together!


I've been reading Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos books over the last couple of months. They are Space Opera on the grand scale, mixed with musings on love, religion, artificial intelligence, the fate of humanity, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the poems of John Keats. In the spirit of my belief in the interconnectedness of all things, I was going to write an article that linked all this to the work of Tim Souster.

I have an album of Tim's called Swit Drmz which includes a recording of a PDP-11 computer he'd programmed to recite Keats's poem Endymion. Hearing a computer speak in a Scottish accent might not seem all that amazing in these days of shrink-wrapped software packages. After all, my PC at work can talk in a bewildering range of dialects and voices. Back in the 1970's, however, this was amazing stuff. Tim also worked on various incarnations of Douglas Adams's Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. So when I found a page about him at UEA, I was hoping to see what he was up to these days. Sadly, he died in 1994.


I read an interesting article about the "WOW" signal today - the most famous candidate for a radio signal from an extra-terrestrial civilisation ever recorded, so-called because the researcher marking the printout of the day's signals annotated it by writing "Wow!" against it. No further signal was ever received, and the jury still seems to be out on what caused it...

The WOW! signal, which happened back in 1977, and SETI - the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence - in general have been interests of mine for a very long time. I've already covered the Drake Equation this month and I'm sure we'll be returning to the subject of life on other planets before too long.


The forecast temperature for round here tonight is -4 to -5°C. I think I might leave the heating on.


Not too much to put in over the last few days, as my internet connection at work was down and I've been spending far too much time playing on the Gamecube at home. However, things should be getting back to normal by the end of the week. Judging by the fact that sleet was falling on the car as I drove home yesterday evening, I'll be staying in.


There are more and more people writing about the death throes of the recording industry. Two of the most interesting articles are available here and here. It's interesting that Thomas Edison's hold on the motion picture industry withered and died when he began behaving in exactly the same way, nearly a century ago. The stupidity of some of the people involved is beyond belief - so, you're going to sue your customers, and expect them to keep coming back? Hmmm, let me think about this for a minute...

Mind you, in the US, the television companies seem just as keen to commit commercial suicide. There are moves afoot to add a broadcast flag to specific programmes to prevent people from recording them. Yet another industry seems to have lost sight of what the product it makes is actually for.

It's just a shame that we'll have to suffer as much as these companies will when they all go belly-up in about five years time. Maybe by then I'll have a broadband connection and won't be watching TV any more anyway.


One of my colleagues is going to Madrid next week, and he went on the web to find out more information about the hotel he's booked in to. He was somewhat perplexed by the choice of music that the hotel supply (at no extra cost) on their website - Eric Idle's Always Look on the Bright Side of Life wouldn't have been my first choice for conveying a reassuring and warm image of the hotel, I have to say...


Sometimes wandering about on the web can feel rather like you've just slithered through into a parallel world. A world which is almost, but not quite like our own. A world in which things are slightly distorted or warped. Where you discover stuff you had no idea about that's obviously been going on for simply ages. When I first discovered the Blogosphere, I felt a bit like that - and as the territory expands in cyberspace, just as in real life the truly interesting stuff is going on at the frontiers. On the periphery you discover demented endeavours like the Ninja Challenge at B3TA or the Traffic Light Wars. Some of it falls in the "parental advisory" category, some of it isn't even slightly funny, but every now and then there's a real gem.


The sun is blazing away outside today - it's difficult to believe we're halfway through October. I may be tempting fate discussing it, though, as the Met Office are talking about a cold plunge occurring on Monday or Tuesday next week. I just hope it brings some rain, as my garden is definitely suffering.


As you have probably guessed, I've spent a fair amount of time playing the GameCube this week. I seem to enjoy the driving games most, as I've been very impressed with Burnout by Acclaim (who are based up the road in Cheltenham. It's a racing game, but rather than a score, you run up an insurance bill. Just the sort of thing to unwind with after the drive home from work in the evening! I particularly like its "action replay" feature, and the quality of the images is jaw-droppingly good.

The other two games I've played a lot this week are also by Acclaim: I've already mentioned Dave Mirra's BMX game Freestyle 2, which is a bit buggy, but still so good that I bought my own copy (like me, you can currently get it for £9.99 excluding postage from MVC, who are having a sale.) The other is XGIII Extreme G Racing, which has more of a science fiction take on motorcycle racing, with tracks that loop and corkscrew that you travel down at hundreds of miles per hour. And other drivers shoot at you with guns and rockets. Just like the daily commute, really.


It's been a long old week this week - and quite stressful, judging by the amount of chocolate I've been getting through at work. It's hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle when there's a snack bar at work that stocks things like Picnic, Toffee Crisp, and Crunchie.

Snacks are an essential aid to getting through the business day, but they have to be done right. As far as I'm concerned, chocolate and biscuits were meant to be eaten with a cup of tea. Coffee is more a pastry or bread product kind of beverage, the sort of thing you drink with a couple of croissants or a danish pastry. I'm sorry, but you just do not eat a Cadbury's Crunchie bar with a cup of coffee. It's not the done thing. It's like dunking: some biscuits are eminently suitable to be dunked, others are not. For instance: Rich Tea biscuits (yes) and Garibaldi (are you mad?)

If you're not from Britain, the depth of this country's obsession with cups of tea may seem a little strange. I suggest you go and have a look at the Nice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down site, which may explain things a little more - or at least show you how seriously we take our tea breaks. And why not take their Biscuit Quiz while you're there?


I must admit that I write this stuff primarily for my own amusement, and it goes little further than that (although it does keep Rebecca and the twins amused from time to time). But out there in the wider blogosphere, Blogs are serious business. You may have seen this week that Google is having serious trouble filtering out blog noise from "proper" websites for returning search results. A lot of this has to do with the increasingly sophisticated automated software that bloggers are using to produce their pages (no such technology employed here, I have to say.) The Register found one example where most of the first top ten listings for a search returned empty pages thanks to Trackback entries.

On the other hand, The Guardian is running a Blog of the Year competition at the moment, with an august panel of judges that includes Bruce Sterling and Salam Pax. Blogs recognised as genuine artistic enterprise, or the Old Media cashing in? Difficult to say.

Perhaps the problems in searching through a web full of Blog entries will actually be a good thing. It amazes me how much credence people give to things that are written down out here in cyberspace. You know how dumb the average person is? Well, half of them are dumber than that, but they still have their own web page. You may or may not remember that a few years ago the compilers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica based their entry on the sport of Shuffleboard on a website claiming to be the official Shuffleboard home page. You will no doubt be able to guess that the authors of the page then pointed out to the Encyclopaedia that they'd made up the entire contents of the website. It was a spoof. Whether this means that journalists will have to resort to going off to the library and finding stuff out in books, rather than trawling the Internet, remains to be seen. Somehow I doubt it.


I've mentioned Don Norman in the blog before - I read several of his books while doing my masters degree, and there's an interview with him on the BBC's technology website today. Life would be a lot easier if there were more people like him involved when things get designed. Read the article - it's interesting.


I had to laugh when I got a text message yesterday that read "Turn that Gamecube off and get your tea sorted out!" Guilty as charged, yer honour.

In fact, I will probably end up playing on the thing tonight as soon as I've turned this computer off. Oh dear...


The four of us went to see Finding Nemo this afternoon. Despite the fact that it opened in the United States months ago, it's only just been released in the UK. I'm wary of saying "it's not as good as Monsters Inc." because I said Monsters Inc. wasn't as good as Toy Story, and then changed my mind after watching it again. Nemo is a little dark in places, but then so was Toy Story. It's a little schmaltzy, too, but it's not too saccharine.

While I recognised Barry Humphries's voice as Bruce the Shark, I didn't cotton on to the fact that Geoffrey Rush or Willem Dafoe was in the film until the end credits (which are worth watching in themselves - there are no outtakes, but there is a cameo appearance by a character from an earlier Pixar movie.) When I get time to write it, I'll put a full review up on my films page.

Oh, and the trailer I saw for Pixar's next film, The Incredibles, makes me want to see the movie right now. I have a feeling it could be the best animated movie ever made...

...but we were shocked by what they've done to the Pixar short film Knick Knack that's shown before the main film. If you've not seen it, it's the story of a snowman who lives in a snowglobe souvenir on a bookshelf. He falls in love with a young lady on an ashtray which is a souvenir from Sunny Florida. In the original short, the lady in question is extraordinarily, er, well endowed. In the version we saw today, she's completely flat-chested.

Pixar go PC? Shame on you! Shame on you!


Well, I've been muttering about getting a Gamecube for ages, and this weekend I finally succumbed. My game consultants, Rob and his friend Neil, have been bringing me up to speed on the intricacies of Nintendo's latest product. It's awesome, and I have a feeling I will be spending far too many hours in front or the TV with it this winter...


Spending the weekend with Rebecca, Ruth and Rob - it's the Twins' birthday today. Festivities were given that extra edge by the fact that Rob was given a robotic baby to look after for the weekend. It's intended to give teenagers a brief glimpse of the responsibilities of parenthood, as it needs prompt attention whenever it cries. Its minder has to find out whether it needs changing, feeding or burping, or whether it's just being plain fussy. And they have to remedy the situation in a couple of minutes, as their responses are monitored by the baby. I'm very impressed by the technology, but less impressed by it waking up regularly during the night! All credit to Rob and Ruth, though - they've done a good job of looking after it. It provoked much amusement when we took it with us for the meal on Friday night, as well as carrying it round the retail park on Saturday afternoon.

I dunno - it must be a guy thing, but all the blokes wanted to know how it worked. Nobody pulled it to bits, but there were one or two close calls when I was tempted...

Neil, Rob, Ruth and Ami with the Baby

Tobogganing at the Snowdome

Here are Rob's friend Neil, Rob, Ruth and Ruth's friend Ami with the Baby.

Yes Neil, you made the blog! :-)

The Tamworth Snowdome (see below).

Click the images to see larger versions.


On the Saturday night we all went to the Tamworth Snowdome. It's a big sports centre which includes a refrigerated room (shown above) containing a ramp covered in real snow. Rebecca and I watched the others go tobogganing for an hour, then we all had a go at "Adrenalin Tubing," which consists of careering down the track on the right hand side of the picture while sitting in an inner tube. Totally out of control, and travelling pretty quickly: great fun, and a real HFO must-do activity. We had a whale of a time, but now I'm covered in bruises!


It's that time of year again when the most important awards in science are announced. The leading lights in every field get the recognition they deserve, and there's a flash awards ceremony with tuxedos and heavy drinking and stuff.

Yes, the IgNobels have been awarded, and there are some extremely strange papers among the winners. The BBC's coverage has a good summary of this year's field - which is just as well, because I can't see the official site from work. Why? Well, the company's net nanny software has deemed the subject matter a little too risque. Good lord, you might ask. What sort of dodgy subject matter are we talking about here? Well, as it happens, it was a research paper about the behaviour of ducks, believe it or not. Ah, automated software, don't ya love it?


I know a number of people who make my love of gadgetry and technological innovation look positively prehistoric. If I'm Dilbert, these guys are TechnoBill.

If you know someone like this, you'll know that in order to justify the possession of more esoteric gadgetry, they invent bizarre justifications. "I have an altimeter on my watch so that I know when I'm above 3000 meters altitude and can watch out for signs of altitude sickness," that sort of thing. Now they're even inventing hobbies based on the idea. Submitted for your approval: confluence hunting. You take your state-of-the-art GPS unit, and your digital camera, you find the exact spot where a line of longitude and a line of latitude cross, and you take a picture of yourself there. Wacky is not the word.

Still, people like this are always being told they should get out more, so I suppose it's a good thing. (What do you mean, how would I know?)


If you've ever heard Eddie Izzard going on about the Daleks, you may feel it's entirely appropriate that Tom Baker (the best Dr. Who ever) reckon's he'll be the next Dr. Who. Even if the bookies' favourite is still Richard E. Grant, apparently.


For reasons that are unlikely to become clear at the moment, today in the office we were discussing topology in general and Moebius Loops in particular... Then the conversation wandered round to Klein Bottles, and in the quest to find a website that sold Klein Bottle Bobble Hats (don't ask), I came across this place that'll do you a one-sided beer mug for $80. Cleaning it must be a bit of a bugger, though...


Just got in from seeing Matrix Reloaded in Bristol. So what, I hear you say: The film's been out since May.

Ah yes, I reply - but I was watching it at @Bristol's IMAX theatre. Completely OTT as an experience, but the trouble is that with a screen that size, the technical limitations of film as a visual medium start to become apparent. Fast pans create all sorts of distortions in the picture that aren't that obvious on a smaller screen. Bits of the Burly Brawl between Agent Smith and Neo were eye-watering, and I've heard people say they thought it was because the special effects weren't up to the task.

In fact, it's more likely to be the way film cameras are made. If you move stuff too fast on screen, it'll distort. Very few directors bother framing their shots to compensate. Even fewer appear to have the technical knowledge to appreciate what's going on.

That's the reason why Stanley Kubrick's work really stands out - he worked very hard to avoid shots that would distort. If you look at his films, even when there's fast action, his subjects don't move on screen much, and it's also why the spacecraft scenes in 2001 were so balletic - because he know stars would turn into streaks if he panned the camera any faster.

Still, the Wachowski brothers did a fine job, and I actually enjoyed the film more second time round. Roll on next month, when the final film comes out!


I went to the Barbican Centre yesterday evening to see one of my favourite bands, They Might Be Giants, in the literary extravaganza that is known as TMBG vs. McSweeney's. McSweeney's is, in the words of the evening's moderator John K. Hodgman Jr., "A quarterly literary magazine that's published three times a year."

This was the first time the show has been presented outside the USA, and the Barbican was packed. We got readings by a number of writers: Arthur Bradford, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby, and music from both Johns, and the Band of Dans. It was very different, hugely entertaining and (of course) and highly amusing. Zadie Smith read a story to introduce the TMBG track Bangs and admitted that, before being told that this was an American expression describing a hairstyle, she'd started writing a story about a girl who let off controlled explosions...

After an interval, the band rocked out for about an hour; we got renditions of all sorts of stuff, including Clap Your Hands, John Lee Supertaster and In The Middle (complete with Robin "Goldie" Goldwasser on vocals) from No!, Dead and of course Birdhouse In Your Soul from Flood, right back to The Guitar and Fingertips from Apollo 18, during which guitarist Dan Miller was blazingly good. They also treated us to a truly righteous version of Why Does The Sun Shine, which made my day. Oh, and John Linnell was playing a Rolf Harris Stylophone, of all things!

I got home at 2:30am this morning. Great gig.


Once again, we only discover that we've had a close call as a lump of space rock disappears off into the distance... This one was a hair's breadth, as astronomical distances go: 88,000 Km isn't very far. One would hope that eventually we'll be detecting these things before they go past, not hours afterwards.


It's quite gratifying to see that at least one of the parameters in Frank Drake's famous equation seems to be continually revised upwards. It now appears that at least a quarter of stars like our Sun are likely to have their own planetary system. That's potentially a lot of planets... The older I get, the more convinced I am that there must be other inhabited planets out there. Of course, the Universe is a big place; we're unlikely to be in the position of being able to pop over to our nearest neighbours for a chat or to borrow a cup of sugar...


Yes, this month's blog banner is a reference to W D Richter's seminal feature film from 1984, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. Have a look at my films page for more information. But today I decided to put the good Doctor's catch phrase to the ultimate test: the Lost In Translation website. The idea is simple: use the web's automatic translation services to translate something from English into Japanese, back into English, then again into Chinese and back, Spanish and back - well, you get the idea. The results can have a haunting, poetic quality to them - and Buckaroo's saying comes back as:

"From this place, from that, bottle of e, that this place extends, he comes produces"

...and you can't say fairer than that.