Humorous blog-type reference

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: October 2004

October saw us celebrating the twins' birthday once again. Has it really been a whole year since their last birthday? It doesn't feel like it. I had a nice weekend away with Rebecca, did lots of driving, had some atrocious weather (always a good topic for the blog) and burbled on about astronomy and suchlike.

Oh, and did I mention I've ordered broadband?



I was in Brighton yesterday. That makes a thousand miles on the clock since last Friday, and 400 of those miles were racked up since my last blog entry! There were lots of nutters on the roads, and the weather made things quite entertaining, too: it was rather windy. As a result of all this, I have realised that there is no way I'd want to drive that sort of distance on a weekly basis (let alone a daily one). Still, I'm back home for a couple of days, so I should be able to relax a bit.


I don't know if you've ever unexpectedly seen someone you know on the television. When it's happened to me, there's a strange moment where you struggle to place a face in an unfamiliar context. The part of the brain we use for interacting with friends and family sits there going "wait a minute..."

So imagine how the Burn family felt on Sunday, when they sat down in front of their TV to watch the second International Rules Football test between Ireland and Australia at Croke Park in Dublin. For there, causing havoc on the pitch, was their missing Jack Russell terrier, Brock. Even when the stewards captured him after a five-minute chase, he managed to escape again. However, after being recaptured by some children, he was eventually reunited with his family. What a lovely story!


The lead article in this week's New Scientist magazine concerns a small creature referred to as LB1 or Ebu. Scientists have announced an unsuspected branch of our family tree: the newly discovered remains of a species of small hominids only a metre tall who may have lived in Indonesia as recently as 13,000 years ago. The scientists concerned have given them the scientific name Homo Floresiensis, but also saddled them with the nickname hobbits, which of course has resulted in lots of media coverage (you know a story's big when Channel 4's Richard and Judy do a feature on it, complete with Richard Dawkins) and no doubt contributed to me deciding to include this as a blog entry. Ah, the joys of popular culture.

For all you Forteans though, what is really interesting is the comment that similar creatures could have lived elsewhere in Indonesia even later, almost in historical times (which I take to mean the last couple of thousand years.) In fact, the name Ebu is short for Ebu Go Go, the local name for a "small waddling creature with a big appetite" according to the New Scientist. This is interesting because legends like this describe very specific behaviour attributed to a type of creature. Might this possibly be rooted in fact? Was some form of social interaction going on between races recently enough that it's still remembered? And, generalising away wildly, where does that leave our legends of leprechauns, elves, yetis or sasquatch?


On October 26th, the Cassini probe to Saturn conducted a successful flyby of Saturn's moon Titan. They got close, too: within 1,200 kilometers of the surface. Rather than a fuzzy orange ball, the ultraviolet and infrared cameras have revealed the surface details. Amongst all the pictures (round about 500) released by NASA there's one of the Huygens Probe's proposed landing site. In January, we should get a much closer look. Fingers crossed!

JOHN PEEL 1939 - 2004

Tonight feels like - no, it is the end of an era in popular music.

It's difficult to put in to words how much John Peel has meant to British music over the last forty years. He had an all-encompassing love for music and one of the most distinctive voices (and styles) in broadcasting. He'll be very sadly missed.

The beeb recently moved his Radio 1 programme to a later slot, running from 11pm to 1am. According to Andy Kershaw, who was interviewed on Channel 4 news this evening, Peel felt this effectively marginalised him and he had not been happy about the move. In fact, Kershaw said that the last time he'd seen JP a couple of weeks ago, he'd told him that the new time slot "was killing him."

Yet tonight, John Peel's death was the BBC's top news item.

Bloody hypocrites.


Rebecca and I were in Southwold on Sunday. Our visit included a trip to the under the pier show, an amusement arcade that is the brainchild of Southwold resident Tim Hunkin. You might remember his Rudiments of Wisdom series that ran in the Observer for 15 years or so, or his series The Secret Life of Machines which he made for Channel 4. He's been my hero for ages, so I took the opportunity to get a copy of his latest book, Hunkin's Experiments, dispensed by one of the man's very own custom coin-operated machines.

Rebecca tries out Tim Hunkin's latest amusement arcade masterpiece: rent-a-dog!

As you can see here, Rebecca had a go on the arcade's latest attraction, which allows you to rent a dog for a few minutes and take it for a walk on a treadmill round a virtual Southwold. All was fine, until the dog saw a cat (look at the lower screen) in the churchyard. The chase had all of us in fits of laughter, and so did the rental agreement!


The final episode of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Tertiary Phase was broadcast tonight. It wavered a bit towards the end, but on the whole it's been refreshingly funny, probably due to the large contribution that Douglas Adams (or at least the hard disk drive from his Apple macintosh) made to the show. He even played the character Agrajag in last week's episode: the producers used a recording DNA made for the talking books versions of the novels. Having pretty much all of the surviving cast has been a great asset, too - for me, Simon Jones will always be Arthur, Susan Sheridan will always be Trillian, Geoffrey McGivern will always be Ford, Stephen Moore will always be Marvin and Mark Wing-Davey will always be Zaphod. I'm sure the actors in the film will be good, but they won't be, well, real in the way that the radio cast are. I understand that further radio series are in the works; let's hope they live up to the standard of this one.


Hitch Hiker's buffs will be aware that the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything featured in earlier episodes is, of course, 42. So it was with a certain spooky sense of coincidence that I discovered, on looking at the local broadband site that it's just 42 days until the big switch on. My local exchange will be ADSL enabled on December 8th.

I was looking at the site because I'd just ordered some wireless networking kit from eBuyer for HFO headquarters. Not only will this let me share files and printers between computers, it will also (eventually) give me faster internet access. By the time December comes around I should have all the kit I need to run broadband, and a freshly-provisioned ADSL line to connect to all that high-speed goodness with. Hoorah!


Crikey: in the last two and a half days I've driven roughly six hundred miles. While the troops were off on their half-term school trip, Rebecca and I visited my Mum and Dad in Norfolk and her Uncle and Aunt in Suffolk. We also took the opportunity to have dinner on Saturday night at the Satis House, a Malaysian restaurant (and hotel) in Yoxford. The meal was absolutely lovely, and I hope we'll get the opportunity to go back there soon. My next-door neighbour tells me I have to have the Malaccan Beef next time, as he says it's the hottest food he's ever tasted.

We headed back to Solihull on Sunday afternoon, and I got back home on Sunday evening. I've been fighting off a cold for the last week or so, so I hope I haven't given it to anyone we met - it finally got the better of me last night, and I've spent most of today in bed either shivering or feeling far too hot.


Mike Read's Oscar Wilde musical has closed after a single day. I have a feeling it should get an award in recognition of the savagery of the reviews it generated. For example, the Times's review read, in part: "Whatever else Wilde was, he wasn't a sentimental prat." Other papers didn't pull their punches, either. The Daily Telegraph said it was "hard to feel anything other than incredulous contempt" while the Guardian noted, "You begin to wonder whether the sound system is being affected by the hefty rumbling of Oscar Wilde turning in his grave." Ouch indeed.


It's been rather stormy over the last couple of days: the magnolia in my front garden has been thrashing about quite violently in the strong winds. Yesterday was so miserable that hardly any birds visited my bird table all day.

We've certainly had a very different year this year than last as far as the weather goes. An article on this evening's local news reported on the effects this has had on Westonbirt Arboretum, which is one of the local tourist attractions (they're expecting over 100,000 visitors this year.) After the gales of the last couple of days I was quite surprised that they'd got any leaves left, but with the wetter weather, it seems the trees are holding on to their leaves longer. The place still looks spectacular, particularly the Acer walk with its spectacular reds and oranges. You may remember I blogged about it this time last year.

Oh, and the report commented on the large numbers of berries and fruit on the trees at Westonbirt this year. A sign, said one of the newsreaders, of a hard winter to come. Now where have I heard that before?


Ahh, I remember the first gig I ever went to at what used to be called the Hammersmith Odeon. It was a band that at the time everyone described as "punk" although to be honest they had little to do with other bands I saw under the same banner like the Anti-Nowhere League or the Damned. It was a band called Devo, whose driving force were the Mothersbaugh brothers - the same Mothersbaugh brothers who went on to do the music for the Rugrats cartoon series.

Anyway, one of my favourite tracks of theirs was a little ditty about a guy whose girl succumbs to a rather unlikely demise - she is hit by a falling satellite. How unlikely, we used to scoff. But this week it very nearly came true in China, where a re-entering satellite landed on a house.


I'm sorry, but the modern world just isn't conducive to the fairytales and stories we used to enjoy as kids. For instance, the wicked witch would never have to deal with environmental health officers demolishing her gingerbread house because it was attracting vermin. But you try living in such an establishment and that's what happens. I bet it got rather soggy in the rain, too...


I had a really good weekend, as Rebecca and the troops were staying. We ended up watching Quentin Tarantino's films Kill Bill 1 and 2 (thanks Rob) and very entertaining they were too. I'm still not sure why it was important that we did not discover the name of Uma Thurman's character until the second film, but I'm sure it made sense at the time.

The films are movie-geek heaven, with references to dozens of other films and television shows including Chinese kung-fu cinema, spaghetti westerns, and 1960's American TV. The soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission, even if the 5, 6, 7, 8's are now more famous for the Carling advert than their appearance in part one. Nice.


On Monday I managed to get the lawn cut, put the rest of the garden furniture away and pruned the buddleia back. It really felt like there was a touch of winter in the air, and with the amount of rain we've had in the last couple of days I'm glad I got as much of the garden sorted out as I did. The garden doesn't look too bad, but I still need to do some weeding and the leaves are beginning to fall - for some reason they all seem to accumulate by my dustbin.

I've mentioned before (on the 26th September in fact) that a number of folks I know reckon we're in for a hard winter. Today's long-range forecast by Metcheck says pretty much the same thing. It might be accurate, or it might not, but if it is then my weeding may have to wait: they're forecasting the season's first cold snap next week. The company successfully predicted the dire weather we had over the summer, so if they get this forecast right, be prepared for a lot of snow in the coming months. Looking on the bright side though, if they're right I probably won't have to cut the lawn again until the spring.

I know most people talk about spring cleaning, but for me the time to clean up is in the autumn. After all, that's when we start using the garden less, when we move back inside and realise what a state the place got itself into during the summer. It appears that I'm not the only one who does this, as at the weekend Rebecca and I helped Ruth to tidy her bedroom. This was an epic task, not to be attempted lightly, and at one point we nearly lost Rebecca behind the headboard of the bed, but we survived. Ruth endured the trauma bravely, even if she did have to rescue the occasional treasure out of the bin while we weren't looking. Many socks were liberated from the far corners of the room. More were rescued from under the bed, and experts hope that some may even be reunited with the other half of their pair. Best of all, some sections of the floor are now basking in the first daylight they've seen for many months. Yes, we got the curtains open.

Maybe that's a significant point, though. Is this behaviour is a remnant of the urge to hibernate? I know there are times in December and January when I could quite happily close the curtains, pull up the covers and stay in bed all week...


Quite a long gap, blog-wise. One reason for this was that at the weekend I was up in Solihull again. We were in rather a party mood, as it's Rob and Ruth's birthday today. They had birthday cake on Saturday night, including a rather fetching (and extremely chocolatey) teddy bear cake. This met a rather grisly demise at the hands of my knife-wielding hosts, as you can see here. Happy birthday, troops!

Becky, Rob, Neil, Ruth and Rebecca watch the carnage

I thought I'd have a quick look to see who shares their birthday today. The original jazz messenger Mr Art Blakey was one, the novelist Elmore Leonard (from whom Quentin Tarantino gets more than a little inspiration) was another. If you follow soccer at all, ex QPR and Man City player Rodney Marsh has his birthday today, together with several actresses: Michelle Trachtenberg (who played Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), another Dawn: Dawn French, and the actress who has cornered the market in quirky character studies, Joan Cusack. So happy birthday to them too!


I'm sure the news that Sheffield University have been given a large amount of money to develop ceramic knives that will be far sharper than their stainless steel equivalents is great if you're a research engineer or if you work in Sheffield's once-thriving cutlery industry. But it's extremely bad news for anyone who travels regularly by air, as these knives will (presumably) be extremely difficult to detect with airport x-ray machines. Hmmm...


The BBC's story about the discovery of a new species of giant ape in Africa that appeared on Sunday morning was very interesting, but it was old news. The web page claims that the full story will be published in this week's copy of the New Scientist, but it was actually in last week's issue.

To be fair, this isn't necessarily the BBC's fault. Press releases are often embargoed - that's to say, the media are told that they can't report the contents of the release until a certain date or time. If you look on the web, you can find examples of this sort of thing quite easily (the moderated usenet group often carries items with an embargo date on them). If you compare the original press releases with the resulting news coverage, you soon realise that journalism these days often requires little more than the ability to cut and paste.

For me, the idea of treating press releases as news is wrong. It opens up a big question on what the news media actually is these days, or more to the point, what it should be. If information about something is released in advance then as far as I'm concerned it's not news at all by the time it's announced - it's publicity. Many items of news these days seem to synchronise with the release of a Hollywood blockbuster on the same subject. Academic research is often funded by companies and corporations with a vested interest in making the results known to a wider audience. I've commented before in this blog that the prevalence of advertising in all aspects of our lives is growing more insidious. And yes, I'm fully aware that the article below is, in effect, advertising. It proves my point: there is no escape!

Will people eventually say to the people in marketing, "Enough"? And will they do so in time? Only Bill Hicks knows, and he's not in a position to talk.


One of the best films I've seen in the last year has to be Bubba Ho-Tep starring the one and only Bruce Campbell as Elvis and directed by Don (Phantasm) Coscarelli. It's just gone on a cinematic release here in the UK, and is doing rather nicely. So I was delighted to see in this interview with the director that a sequel is rather likely to happen. Oh, baby: with a title of Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires I can hardly wait!


Well, Burt Rutan and the folks over at Scaled Composites have done it: they've won the Ansari X-Prize by sending a vehicle into space twice within a period of two weeks. In fact, they had a week to spare. It's a spectacular achievement; while it might be a fairly small step, it's laid the groundwork for a space programme that will finally get us into orbit (and beyond) on a regular basis.


This is only my second blog entry this month and we're already going over the same ground: I've already discussed the need to keep your computer protected from various nasty things that you can pick up by going online. Today we find that American computer users more likely to remember when Janet Jackson suffered her "wardrobe malfunction" than they are to remember when they last updated their anti-virus software. Am I the only one who is not in the least bit surprised by this?

Few users are taking the threat seriously, despite the fact that the probability that you will experience security problems with your computer is now rated as high as 70%. People, it seems, think they're more likely to get struck by lightning. No wonder I get so much spam...


As you may or may not be aware, campaigning for the United States presidential elections is well under way. Even here in England, we've been inundated with media coverage and quite frankly, it's getting distinctly boring. Debates? Yada, yada, yada. What we need is more coverage like this flash animation (dial-up users please note that it's a 3.7Mb file) from the folks at JibJab.

When Michael Moore tells us that the results last time out might have been somewhat at variance with reality, not everyone listens. Perhaps we need JibJab to tell it like (we believe) it really is.


So the near-Earth asteroid Toutatis has whizzed by safely, and is now off continuing its travels around the Solar System. After all that effort involved in finding out the derivation of the name "Toutatis" on Tuesday, I was feeling quite pleased with myself. Then I watched the BBC's programme about the encounter and found out that the truth was considerably more prosaic. The French astronomer who discovered it, Christian Pollas, named it after the exclamation used by Asterix the Gaul and his friends in the famous comic book!


I spoke to someone this week who works in the IT industry. In the last week he's encountered three instances of a really nasty parasite program that hides itself in what appear to be harmless programs that you can download of the web. It's worth bearing in mind that the funky new MP3 player or screen saver that looks really attractive may contain an additional program that tries to use your modem to make international phone calls. Really nice, eh?

The problem here is that there is no effective international agency for policing behaviour like this. In the same way that spam continues to proliferate largely unchecked, we can only expect to see more programs out there that are blatantly intended to extort money by whatever means possible. So follow these simple rules to avoid any unpleasant consequences: make sure your computer is secured with a firewall and anti-virus software, don't open email if you don't know who it's from, if you're using Windows turn off the preview pane in Outlook, and don't download or run any program unless you're absolutely sure you know what it's going to do to your system.


Perhaps there is one glimmer of light on the horizon: from this month, the main folks that I get spam from - MSN, Hotmail and Yahoo - have changed how they deal with bulk mail. The changes are supposed to make it more difficult for spammers to send out bulk email, but I have to say I haven't noticed any difference so far...