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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: October 2005

October saw me hooked on the image sharing service Flickr and brought us robotic Volkswagens, crashing rockets, falling leaves, aliens, and Dave Lee Roth.

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PAY ATTENTION

Noam Chomsky is interviewed in the Guardian today. He's there because the readers of Prospect magazine have just voted him the world's top public intellectual - although having a popular vote for "best intellectual" is a bit of peculiar exercise, to say the least.

Chomsky has a typically interesting take on the Internet: "If the intelligence agencies knew what they were doing, they would stimulate conspiracy theories just to drive people out of political life, to keep them from asking more serious questions." His views on the war in Bosnia, and how the war was reported have upset a lot of people. I know some people in the US who describe him as the most unpopular man in America, and this interview is unlikely to win him new admirers.

HERE ISN'T THE NEWS

John Morton's new TV series Broken News is on BBC2 tonight, and it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. And it's got Claudia Christian in it.

A REAL NON-STORY

From a story about fake news to a real story about very little news. I'm still struggling to figure out the news coverage of the planet Mars at the weekend. Mars was the point on its orbit where it was at its closest to Earth - a mere 70 million kilometres or so - yet the resulting news stories were treating the event as though the planet had suddenly veered off course and was on its way to some strange rendezvous with the Death Star or something. This was all sparked by a couple of gushing news releases from NASA, who were talking up the event for reasons of their own; presumably nobody with a science background got to check the coverage before it went out. I'm sorry, but Mars goes past us once a year, and if it was a bit closer this time, it's no big deal. It must have been a very slow news day.

WHITE REGGAE TROLL

Every now and again I go through phases of buying CDs, and this month has seen a number of packages landing on the HFO doormat from Amazon and Play. The most recent arrival is the new album by Devendra Banhart, Cripple Crow. I first heard his music on (you've guessed it) Radio 3's excellent Mixing It programme a couple of weeks ago. Imagine a sort of cross between Marc Bolan and the alt.country band Calexico and you'll have a pretty good idea of what it sounds like. The production is so eccentric it's worth dedicating your attention to it on a separate listen, as it sounds like he recorded it in the presence of a number of people who weren't familiar with the material: as well as backing vocals, you can hear comments, exclamations and apologies throughout the recording. Reverb and echo come and go from moment to moment in a manner that teeters on the brink of being annoying, but ends up being curiously endearing.

The songs themselves have an off-the-cuff, improvised feel to them which I suspect was very carefully engineered, but the range of the subject matter reminded me strongly of the contractual obligation album of Van Morrison's that I talked about earlier this month. Perhaps as a result, the album's booklet is rather light on things like lyrics. My favourite track has to be Dragonflys, which comes in at just under a minute long - but there are lots to choose from, with a total of 23 tracks on the CD.

There's also a new angle on the long-established tradition of including a hidden track on the album; to hear that 23rd track you'll need to put the CD in a computer. When you do, your PC plays an MP3 file rather than the album itself. This had me rather confused until I looked at the directory of the disc and figured out what was going on. It's worth pointing out that rather than the dreadful 56Kb/s rubbish on that Living Loud album I blogged back on August 2nd last year, the file is encoded at 140 Kb/s. The cymbals still sound crap on a decent pair of headphones, though.

DARKEST BIRDS

The next album I've been playing this week is David Sylvian's latest project, snow borne sorrow by nine horses. (That's how it appears on the sleeve. There's a particular school of graphic designers who have a complete aversion to using any capital letters...)

It's very different from the Banhart album, recorded by Sylvian with his brother Steve Jansen and Burnt Friedman (a.k.a. Bernd Friedmann, one half of the German group Flanger - the other half being the one and only Senor Coconut, of course). Here they work together with an interesting set of guest artists including Stina Nordenstam on vocals and some mournful trumpet playing by Arve Henriksen. It sounds wonderful, and is rapidly becoming one of my favourite albums of the year.

COPIED WORDS?

The Guardian ran a story today about the trial scheduled for next February involving Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. His publishers are being sued by the historians Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent, authors of the book "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail."

It'll be interesting to see what happens in February, as one of the characters in the book is called Leigh Teabing and - as the Guardian points out - Teabing is an anagram of Baigent.

UPGRADE

I 've just upgraded the firmware on my Netgear router to version 3.01.25, and once again I managed to complete the operation successfully - apart from the fact that when I unplugged the ethernet cable I'd connected to the router, the aerial fell off my Linksys network card. That would explain the rubbish signal I was getting from the router downstairs, but it means I'll have to get a new card. I suspect I'll be buying a different brand this time.

In the meantime, I'm getting by with a USB network adaptor plugged into the last remaining port at the back of the PC. I think I should get a new USB2 hub, too...

DO YOUR BIT

A mate of mine is in the process of putting together a charity webcast he'll be making on Friday 18th November in aid of a couple of organisations - Children In Need and Stuck In A Doorway. Matt hopes to raise money for them by being on air for a whole 24 hours (yes, it's the same day as Children In Need), and he's asking for online donations as well as sponsorship prior to the event.

If you can help out, please do.

FLY ME TO THE...

I've had NASA's World Wind software installed on my computer for quite a while now, and I love playing with it. It's a huge download, but the results are very addictive. Now there's a new version out, with improved resolution for some of the datasets and for the first time ever, the program that already let you fly your computer over anywhere on this planet now includes the Moon as well. Sweet.

DON'T MOVE

When Whitley Streiber's book Communion came out in the 1980's, I can remember a strange sense of foreboding and familiarity prompted by its cover. It was a clever piece of artwork that tapped into some deep, primal memory, instantly recognisable and at the same time a little bit frightening. I found the picture fascinating, but that was as far as it went. That image caused other people to react in a more extreme fashion, however; it was one of the primary drivers of the alien abduction craze that swept across the United States over the next decade or so. I don't believe the book represents literal truth, but it's an entertaining read and the first hour of the resulting film - featuring one of the most off-the-wall performances Christopher Walken has ever given - gave me the heeby-jeebies.

People do have experiences that they are unable to explain, but there are a number of rather prosaic explanations for almost all of them. Strieber mentions one possible cause in his book, suggesting that Temporal Lobe Epilepsy can result in an ordeal of the type he describes. He even writes about being tested for the condition, and the ambiguity he feels when he discovers he does not have it - a cynic might suggest that this is a clever device to lend weight to the validity of his claims. But the book omits discussion of a far more common condition which can cause similar sensations: sleep paralysis.

The condition is surprisingly widespread. 4 people in 10 are likely to be affected at least once in their lives, and it happened to me once or twice when I was much younger. It occurs when you almost wake up - but the body's safety precaution of restricting movement (which is thought to have evolved to stop us falling out of trees at night, or acting out the dreams we experience in REM sleep) has yet to kick in. As a result, you lie in bed, apparently fully conscious, but you're unable to move or talk. You become aware of the feeling that there's a strange presence in the corner of the room, and at this point, your imagination kicks in and you start visualising all sorts of ridiculous stuff to make sense of your sensations - once, when it happened to me, I half-imagined that just on the edge of my vision, there was something (perhaps a giant spider) crawling up the curtains of the room. Of course, I couldn't turn to look, so I lay there, being submerged in a cold, creeping horror. And then I managed to move, breaking the illusion and restoring normality.

You've probably realised that it's not fun when it happens, and it's more than a little weird, so I can see how someone might interpret events by imagining that they'd been visited by aliens. Sleep paralysis has been called different things in different ages, as people's interpretations of what was happening presumably fitted in with whatever was the most frightening concept of life at the time. The most telling name for me is also one of the oldest, when folk talk about a visit from The Hag.

The condition has been mentioned in the media this week in the context of alien abductions, and Professor Chris French from Goldsmiths College in London talks about it in today's 60 second interview in the Metro free newspaper. This comes ahead of a debate being held at the Science Museum today as part of the Museum's Science of Aliens exhibition. It sounds like a fun event.

SPAM SPAM SPAM

Have you been getting emails offering you the chance to buy an imitation Rolex watch? Thinking of buying one? Well, be warned that it might cost you dear - read this news item.

WHO'D HAVE THOUGHT

...that the Royal Shakespeare Company has been recording performances of its productions for the last 40 years? A CD of some of the highlights is going to be released, and the Guardian lets us in on what we can expect. I don't have very many audio recordings of the spoken word apart from comedy recordings by Eddie Izzard and the like, but I'm fascinated by the idea of being able to listen to a youthful Alan Rickman in a 1986 production of As You Like It, or a very young David Warner doing Hamlet back in 1966. I might have to get a copy.

A NEW ORIGINAL

If you're as much of a movie geek as I am, the Machynlleth film festival's sign should raise a wry smile. Wales might not be Los Angeles, but they've definitely done a good job of replicating the style of the Hollywood sign just using chipboard and white paint.

WHAT IS THE POINT?

You've got to wonder what he was thinking when you read that the grand idea of Nicolai Fugslig, the director of Sony's latest TV advert, was to drop a quarter of a million coloured balls on to the streets of San Francisco. For real, rather than by using CGI. I also wonder who they got to pick 'em all up afterwards, and how long it took. And what's the advert like? Well, if he'd put the "Skittles" logo on the end it would have seemed equally appropriate.

Given my recent comments about flat screen TV picture quality, after finding out that the advert is for the company's latest range of LCD televisions I guess an advert like that is more effective than showing us the TVs.

IT'S SHOWTIME

I wasn't actually aware that Howard Stern was leaving broadcasting (thankfully, we don't get to see much of his work in the UK) but I was amused to hear that his replacement looks likely to be ex-Van Halen frontman Dave Lee Roth. I'm sure he'll be highly entertaining, as he's probably the best frontman I've ever seen perform live. Part kung-fu muppet, part cartoon firework, and part deranged game show host, he's always good for a laugh or two. The hair may be shorter these days (and right now, other than a photograph, his official website is utterly content free) but he's still got an enthusiastic following out there and he can usually be relied on to deliver the goods. I wonder if the show will be available over the net?

WE'RE ALL DOOMED

I think the fact that the boxed set of the first series of Little Britain is now at number 2 in the all-time top 100 list of best-selling DVDs at Play.com says rather more about this country than I care to think about. It's sold more than the Lord of The Rings films or the Harry Potter films, more than any Disney film, and more than the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Looking at the list says quite a lot about the UK's DVD buying habits, in fact - both Dirty Dancing and Shaun of the Dead are in the top 20, while Monty Python and the Holy Grail only made it to number 82. And yes, the Star Wars Trilogy boxed set is at number one.

WHAT'S LURKING IN YOUR BATHROOM?

The Independent has a not-particularly-reassuring story today about the cosmetics sitting in your bathroom. While the writer might be a teensy bit guilty of what could be called laying it on with a trowel, it does include one or two quite interesting snippets of information. Did you know that Listerine's Tooth and Gum Defence was 21.6% alcohol, for instance? Moral of this story: don't clean your teeth and drive.

WAIT A SECOND...

As part of my efforts to widen the twins' musical experience beyond Green Day and the like, I got Rob the ELO Live at Wembley DVD for his birthday, and we watched it this weekend. Although the copyright notice on the sleeve is dated 1989, a bit of digging on the net confirmed that the concert was actually a benefit show recorded at Wembley in 1978.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, looking back on it now, is the sequence at the beginning where we see the band's manager (and the show's executive producer) Don Arden being introduced to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Standing next to him is his daughter Sharon Arden, who ran the Jet Records office in Los Angeles at the time. These days, of course, she's better known as Sharon Osborne - Ozzy's other half.

LET IT SNOW

I've spent the weekend up in Solihull with the gang, but on Saturday Rebecca dropped me off at the NEC so I could pay a visit to the Ski and Snowboard show. As a result, I have a new pair of Salomon ski boots - these ones, in fact - which are the first pair of boots I've had that are custom fitted to my feet. Once again I bought my gear from the folks at White Mountain in Walsall and now I'm really looking forwards to this winter's ski trip and getting to try them out.

BRING IT ON

At the ski show I also bought a boxed set of eight Warren Miller DVDs. If you don't know who he is, remember that this is a skiing website. WM is the main man when it comes to ski films, and he's been one of my heroes for years. It's amazing to think the guy is now 80, but still skis 100 days every year. I hope I'm as lucky when I'm his age!

Unfortunately, whoever mastered the DVDs for the box set did something rather weird; the sound hasn't been synched to the PAL conversion. The NTSC and PAL television standards have different frame rates (30 frames a second for NTSC, 25 for PAL) and you're supposed to compensate for this when you make a PAL version of an NTSC video (or vice versa). Although they start off together, by the end of each film the visuals and their associated sounds have noticeably parted company. It's a great shame, but as the skiing footage is utterly amazing I'll be hanging on to the set anyway.

ANGULAR BANJOS SOUND GOOD TO ME

I've been listening to a lot of Steely Dan this week at work. It's ideal stuff to listen to when you want to get into a productive frame of mind, both stimulating enough to keep you awake and mellow enough to leave you feeling cool, possibly even chilled. They're a band who create dense, complex music with oblique and rather more intelligent lyrics than average. They have legions of dedicated fans, including me, and on their website there's a FAQ on the band and its history that reflects their rather interesting sense of humour. The site gives background on each album they've released, including who played on it. Unlike most supergroups, the band has a core of just two guys - Walter Becker and Donald Fagen - but they bring in amazing musicians to help them out. Their music is utterly distinctive, and Fagen has one of those stand-out voices that imbues every song he sings with quintessential cool.

Every muso can tell you that the lyrics to Rikki Don't Lose That Number is about the guitarist Rick Derringer's encounter with the band, but that's just one example of an immense body of cultural references that are contained in their music. There's an online Steely Dan dictionary to help you understand some of the denser allusions they make to modern life in all its aspects, although I thought that the reference to The '54 Strat in the song Things I Miss The Most was actually about a particular guitar that Walter Becker used to own, which disappeared in mysterious circumstances a few years ago.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY BEST?

Time Magazine have published a list of what they consider to be the 100 greatest English-language novels written since 1923, which was the year Time began publishing.

It contains some distinctly odd choices: the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, for instance. Science fiction is further represented with the well-deserved inclusion of Philip K Dick's Ubik, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and William Gibson's Neuromancer, but while Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is a very good read, I can't see why it made the list (his Cryptonomicon is a far denser, more complex and engaging read). And the milestone novels of the last century, Dune by Frank Herbert and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein didn't make the cut (OK, Heinlein's technical ability as a writer wasn't in the league of someone like Nabokov or Doris Lessing, for instance, but the book's impact was huge.)

Outside the science fiction genre, I found it even stranger that Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis made the 100 yet Evelyn Waugh's Scoop didn't. Why pick Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go over Remains of the Day? There's no sign of Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and the top 100 features nothing by John Fowles, John Irving, Norman Mailer, or P G Wodehouse, for example. No doubt you will have favourites that are also missing. I can only conclude that the purpose of compiling lists of anything based on the very subjective and often dubious judgement of artistic achievement is simply to prompt heated discussions with colleagues in the office, friends in the pub, or complete strangers on the Internet.

So the verdict is that "top 100" lists have become contrived, passé, and pointless. Which reminds me, Channel Five are showing "the top 100 scariest moments" tomorrow night. Presumably it's a list of such moments as represented in film, television and radio, rather than a comprehensive assessment of the scariest moments from the lives of people in general, which I would have thought would have limited value as entertainment.

IS THE HEATING ON?

With the advent of cooler weather, it's time to start thinking about putting the heating on. In Russia, they've unveiled a monument to the humble radiator at a power station in the city of Samara. It's rather cute, as it features a cat sitting on "the world's first radiator." But although the story says the sculpture was unveiled this week, the page links to a story the BBC ran in January this year which said it would be installed "in a couple of weeks."

So, which page has its facts right?

DIGITAL CON

Yesterday I was talking about the reorganisation of channel numbers, and how I thought it would improve things. I really, really should have known better.

Someone pointed out to me that a lot of the early boxes or integrated digital TVs were only built with 99 channels. As the channel numbers now go up to over 700, some of those people are now experiencing problems, to put it mildly. Last night I found out that when I switched to the BBC's News 24 channel, a new MHEG overlay for the channel (presumably telling me to "press Red" or something blindingly obvious like that) causes my Freeview box to reset itself - I can't watch the channel at all. To cap it all, when I tried watching "Starship Troopers" on my Freeview box I discovered it had given up displaying the sound or pictures from Channel Five altogether, and from reading some of the suggestions on the web today it seems the most likely reason is that the signal had been so over-compressed that there wasn't enough data left for the box to create a picture.

For a long time I've been grumbling that there are too many digital TV channels for the bandwidth available and that the picture quality is far worse than an analogue signal, but getting no picture at all is ridiculous!

If you have a digital TV, it receives programmes in a similar way to how your computer gets stuff from the Internet. It takes so many bits per second to get pictures and audio, and I'm sure you'll appreciate that the more bits you can receive per second (the higher the bit rate), the better the stuff you will end up watching. A DVD player reads data at something between 3 and 6 MBits per second - that's 3 to 6 million bits every second - so we can use that as a decent benchmark for quality. Yet the UK broadcast industry seems to consider about 2MBits a second to be acceptable.

One way that the broadcast companies can reduce the data they need to send even more makes the picture worse still: there's a DVB standard, which sets out how a channel should be broadcast, and it includes a specification for the standard resolution for pictures, which is set at 720 x 576 pixels. Yet on Freeview, ITV2 & 3, the ITV News Channel, E4, More4 and Quiz Call all broadcast at a resolution of 544 x 576. That means less bits, and lower quality.

There's only one reason for this: greed. Rather than limiting the amount of stations being broadcast and ensuring the transmitters can send out a nice selection of high-quality channels, the television companies have taken the opposite approach. Quantity, not quality, is what's on offer. It wasn't long ago that we were being told how much better the pictures on digital television are, but now the marketing approach just emphasises the extra channels. A depressingly large number of those channels don't even show real programmes: they feature continuous streams of home shopping. All those channels are there at the expense of the picture quality on the programmes you actually want to watch, and things will get worse as more channels are added such as ITV4, which appears on November the 1st.

The whole deal is turning out to be one big con, and exactly the same thing is happening to digital radio as well - which has completely put me off buying a DAB radio.

I find it amazing that the website for the industry's watchdog, Ofcom, doesn't even list quality issues as a FAQ, and there's little indication that people have even noticed how bad things have got. The European Broadcasting Union warned in a recent editorial that reducing the bitrate would alienate consumers who have got used to DVD-quality pictures, but it appears that nobody's listening. I was looking at televisions in the local shopping mall recently, and all the flat-screen TVs had appalling pictures, which leads me to conclude that either:

a) people assume it's their aerial or TV set-up that's causing the poor quality, or
b) most of the general public need to get their eyes tested.

If this is the future, high-definition television (HDTV) is going to be a spectacular flop. After all, why spend all that extra money buying a set with the capability to display a first-class picture if all the source material it receives is piss-poor? I'm rather afraid that the golden age of television is drawing to a close. Here in HFO HQ, the television has already been superseded as an entertainment medium, and the same is true in many other homes. I'd much rather sit in front of my monitor, which gives me a nice picture at a decent resolution.

WHAT A PICTURE

It looks like the UK newspapers have finally noticed the story about identification codes being built in to some brands of colour laser printers that was going around three months ago. Of course the newspapers missed out the bit about the printers being colour laser printers; figuring out the process of how my venerable old Xerox could have developed the ability to print out a pattern of yellow dots is beyond me, but apparently it's not beyond journalists.

It turns out that the renewed interest is because the Electronic Frontier Foundation published a paper a week ago explaining that they'd cracked the identification codes being used. On the other hand, every laser printer adds a unique selection of tiny dots, bands and blemishes to the stuff it prints, and there's no dark conspiracy behind this; it's just down to how printers work, how they're treated, the level of manufacturing quality, and plain and simple wear and tear. Given a particular printer, any decent forensics team should be able to identify documents printed with it, and this has always been the case.

Oh, and don't imagine you're better off with an inkjet printer, by the way: there are other techniques (such as spectrographic analysis of the inks used) that can still help to provide a match.

DID YOU KNOW...

I recently installed the Britannica 2006 encyclopaedia DVD on my home PC. I already had the 2002 edition, but was tempted by the latest upgrade offer. I'm glad I ordered it, as - apart from the way text displays in the main window, which looks a bit fuzzy - it's rather good, and a noticeable improvement on the earlier release. There's also a fair bit more local information this time round, which was a pleasant surprise. You might wonder why I spent real money on a reference work when so much is available for nothing online, but it seems that what's available out there isn't always as good as it could be.

CHANGING CHANNELS

I had a brief panic last night when I set the Freeview box to channel 40 to watch BBC News 24 only to discover that it wasn't there any more. Nor was the ITV news. It turned out that the channel numbers have changed significantly to make way for new services (channel 30's reserved for ITV4, which launches next month). For channel surfers like me, the changes look good: the annoying Teletext channel between BBC3 and BBC4 has been shunted up to the high numbers out of the way - unless you live in Wales, in which case you'll find Channel 4's moved there. All I have to do is get used to the new set of numbers.

*BUZZ* *CRACKLE*

My router may be solid as a rock running my internal network (it's currently been up continuously for 1700 hours and even the wireless LAN's been running for over 1000 hours without a glitch), but there's definitely something wrong with my exchange line. For a couple of hours every day, my internet connection drops out with link control protocol errors. I get a new connection a couple of minutes later, only to have it fall over again almost immediately. After a couple of hours the problem disappears completely and everything works fine again.

Looking at my line statistics for the last few months, you can see a sudden glitch in something or other at the end of September and early October, which was just after BT started the network uplift work for the local exchange. Something, it seems, got upset, and I've had problems ever since. I've had no joy from my ISP in getting anything looked at because BT are still working on the exchange, so they reckon there's no point; as I watched my connection disappear again last night I had a different opinion. I guess I'll have to wait and see what happens, so watch this space.

WHO?

You may have already seen yesterday's story on AICN or any number of news reports in the media today about Russell T Davies's plans for a Doctor Who spin-off series called Torchwood. Obviously named by someone who likes anagrams, it will feature the further adventures of Captain Jack and has been described as "The X-Files" meets "This Life." And it's intended to be shown after the 9pm watershed, so swearing and sex will be involved. To be honest, I think that's a mistake, because it's abandoning a big component of Doctor Who's core audience: small children hiding behind the sofa. My niece is a huge fan of Captain Jack, but as she's still in primary school she certainly won't be watching the new series.

SPACED

In this country the only experience most of us will ever have of space travel is what we gain from watching shows like Doctor Who on television. The Royal Astronomical Society is getting a bit fed up about it. They're calling for the UK to play a greater role in space exploration, asking the government to stump up extra cash to help funding.

PANTS

Today's mildly amusing diversion: the saga of a pair of leather trousers and the attempts of their owner, Brian Sack, to sell them on eBay.

WHUP WHUP WHUP

The Register's obsession with all things black helicopterish culminated at the weekend with the results of their Google Earth competition to spot things on our planet's surface that don't necessarily like being spotted. All in all, it makes for some pretty entertaining reading - although I'm sure there's nothing there that the security services don't already know about. :-)

AUTUMN LEAVES

Since Friday I've really noticed the leaves beginning to fall - and the colours of the trees round here promise to be spectacular this autumn. I must make sure I go out with my camera and take a few pictures before they're all gone.

MY EARS!

Many thanks (although I'm not sure if thanks is the right word) to Tom, who pointed me in the direction of an interesting set of MP3s from early in Van Morrison's career - way back in 1967, in fact.

Just before he recorded Astral Weeks, Van was er, "encouraged" to fulfil his contractual obligations to another record label by recording a number of songs for them. Bang records had already pissed Morrison off by putting out an album of his music without consulting him, so he wasn't in the happiest frame of mind. But the lawyers were waiting, some songs were required, and those songs Van had to create. So, he did - thirty one of them, one after another, made up on the spot. Although I think it's safe to say that they're not considered the zenith of The Man's career, they produce an amazing, stream-of-consciousness experience when you listen to them in order. As Tom said to me, stick with it, as it takes a few tracks for Van to really get going. Subject matter includes the singer's scorn for the record company representative (Hold On George, Dum Dum George, Here Comes Dumb George, Goodbye George), the artist's need for sustenance (Want a Danish), and embarrassing medical conditions (Ring Worm). Savour these files, as something this loopy doesn't come our way very often. May I also recommend that, once you have downloaded them, you make sure you have a copy of the words handy for an enhanced singalong performance?

The transcendental magic of lyrics like this will stay with me for a long time:

Hey Mabel, a-where ya' gonna shake it, Mabel?
I'm goin' down to shake it down funky Broadway, baby.
Can I come along with you?
No you can't.

They don't write songs like that any more.

OH MY GOD

There are good ideas, bad ideas, and then there's the moment when a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords suggested that it might be rather entertaining to have every single morris dancer in Britain join in the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic games in London. All 14,000 of them. Lord Redesdale has presumably never heard of the potential for mayhem caused by, say, an impromptu performance of the stick and bucket dance. And it's no good claiming that a work of fiction invented by the writer Terry Pratchett isn't dangerous because people wouldn't be rash enough to actually attempt a performance of the dance in public; remember, this is England we're talking about.

Hey, but maybe it's not such a bad idea after all. Think about it: it'd mean that all those morris dancers would be conveniently gathered together in one place...

SMOKIN'!

The Greek mathematician Archimedes is supposed to have created a weapon against the invading Roman fleet attacking Syracuse in 212 BC. With it, he was able to set ships on fire just using the power of the sun. The engineering department at MIT didn't agree when they saw the claim being debunked on television, so they set out to prove Archimedes could have done it. The results were pretty spectacular. That's one to the ancient Greeks, zero to the Discovery Channel.

ACHOO!

And, er, that's about it for today. After spending the earlier part of the week in an office where people were coughing and sneezing at me all day, I've come down with a cold and really haven't been up to doing a lot. Hopefully I'll feel better fairly quickly but at the moment I feel like going back to bed.

WHAT THE...

There's a lot of discussion going on at Ain't It Cool about where the television series Lost is going - prompted by the discovery that there are a number of websites out there registered to the television company ABC that seem to have ramped up the weirdness still further with, amongst other things, an orientation film for scientists arriving at an island research facility. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that the plot revolved round a nanotechnology research team whose project has run amok and resurrected both the recently-deceased and long-dead bodies of almost everyone who has ever died on the island...

One page links to a different site registered by someone called Matthew Bardram that just shows a flash animation of a couple of polar bears, with a red dot that reads 2FENO6. Another site gives information about cloning, using the names of several of the companies mentioned in ABC's spoof site. And another big spaceship site appears to tie in to ABC's material too, but is registered to the people who publish a music magazine; the name of one of their writers, George Zahora crops up quite a bit, too.

All of which proves nothing except that there are people out there with far too much time on their hands. This makes the games that were played on the web prior to the release of Steven Spielberg's film AI look trivial in comparison.

FREE? WELL, THAT DEPENDS...

Channel 4 are getting a lot of flak after Sky decided that they were going to encrypt More4 on their digital satellite service. Was it Sky that made the decision to encrypt, or was it Channel 4? Both sides are blaming each other, but it's worth pointing out that E4, Channel 4's other digital channel, has been encrypted on Sky since it came out, so it was pretty clear to me what we could expect.

The BBC have also been running this story, although in their case I'm sure they'd rather people read about Channel 4's problems rather than their own, given the amount of abuse they've been getting from just about everybody since they proposed to put up the licence fee. Their story on the subject (it'll fund even more crappy home shopping channels - er, sorry, a new digital world of television; hang on, this is Freeview we're talking about, right?) has a rather different slant to everyone else's as you can see by comparing it with the articles here and here, here, here (it's always amusing to see The Register's take on things) and here.

GOING BOLDLY

Having just criticised the BBC, it's worth pointing out that their website carries an article and an associated set of pictures featuring China's launch today of a 2-man spacecraft into Earth orbit. Looking through the Guardian's site I could find no mention of the event at all. In fact the most recent article on China's space programme that I managed to find on the Guardian's site just now was this one, which is almost exactly a year old.

BLU-RAY OR HD-DVD?

I won't be rushing out to buy a next-generation DVD player when they finally come out. I'd already decided this after reading about the two competing technologies that will be out there, Sony's Blu-Ray and Toshiba's HD-DVD. I still have a Betamax VCR in the loft somewhere, which has made me wary of being an early adopter any more; this time, I've decided, I'm going to wait and see who the winner is first.

This time round, the stakes are higher - there's likely to be a lot of money in the post-DVD market and the battle is fierce. But things are even more complicated, it seems: China are developing their own next-generation DVD format, called EVD. What's more, by avoiding licensing issues they can shave a significant sum of money of the unit price of their players. At the moment it looks like the field could be blown wide open, so it's very definitely a case of save your money and wait to see what happens, at least until 2008.

MILESTONES

The twins are 16 today - happy birthday, troops!

My SETI@home account has reached another certificate level today, as I have just completed my 2500th work unit. That's taken me quite a way up the standings in the team I belong to, run by those nice folks at the Banzai Institute.

My car is about to reach an important milestone as well - it's got just short of 90,000 miles on the clock this evening. It's amazing how fast all of this goes by.

FREE DVD!

Remember how the record companies used to bleat on about the fact that they had to charge us £16 or £17 for albums because of all the costs involved? Those days seem to have passed: I wonder why?

You may have bought a paper in the last month or two that came with a DVD of a feature film or television series. Here in the UK they've been giving the things away as if the industry was going out of business. Reading today's article on the BBC's website about the costs involved in doing this, I found it amazing that some shops still expect to be able to charge £20 for something that took about 23 pence to produce. A new shop has opened in the shopping mall near where I work, and last week it was selling brand new, boxed DVDs of well-known films for as little as £2.99. More to the point, if it's possible to do this with DVDs, people have figured that it must also be possible to do so with CDs. I think we'll see CD prices fall still further in the future.

THE PIE MACHINE IS NO MORE

You're probably already aware that Aardman lost most of their archive in a fire near Bristol's Temple Meads railway station yesterday. I was sad to hear how much has been lost, particularly such wonderful things like the pie machine from Chicken Run, which I photographed when it was on show here in Bristol last year - with Rob standing next to it to give you a sense of scale.

Rob investigates the pie machine from Chicken Run

In fact it sounds like most of the stuff from last year's @Bristol exhibition has gone up in smoke. Luckily they're still showing new material. On the local news last night it was noted that the warehouse is in an area where there have been a number of arson attacks in recent months, and an investigation has already begun on how the fire started. But it was good to see Nick Park putting things in perspective - as he said, "in the light of other tragedies it's not a big deal."

THE FORCE ISN'T WITH THEM

Apparently, according to a recent survey, one computer user in ten thinks that spyware is a gadget from Star Wars. No wonder I get so much spam in my inbox every day. It's interesting, though, how the products being advertised change. Of the rubbish that arrives that I can read (the majority of it appears to be in Korean, and is displayed in my reader as gibberish) I still get some ads for fake drugs, although since a series of well-publicised incidents in the USA in the last few months, the sparkle really seems to have vanished from that market.

These days I'm usually being offered the chance to buy fake watches, and the occasional 419 scam, but the signs are that the law is beginning to catch up with people like this more and more often and as far as I'm concerned, it can't happen soon enough.

PULLING THE WOOL OVER YOUR EYES?

The BBC have published an article on climate change by Harold Evans which comes down quite hard on sceptics such as the novelist Michael Crichton. In particular, he compares their reactions to that of industry when scientists had the temerity to suggest that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could damage the ozone layer, and we all know what a mess we got ourselves in over that. Despite phenomena we've seen this summer like the rapidly dwindling Arctic ice cap or the rather overactive hurricane season, a lot of people seem to think that there's nothing to worry about. I hope they're right; but if they're wrong, I hope they live long enough to admit their mistake.

OOPS

It doesn't help matters that the Cryosat climate monitoring satellite, which was supposed to enter orbit yesterday, has ended up in the Arctic Ocean. The second stage of the Russian launch vehicle failed to shut down when it was supposed to. Hopefully the project will be rebuilt, as it was designed to study the effects of climate on the polar ice caps. The worrying thing is that there will be at least a three-year delay in getting a replacement to orbit, delaying the discovery of potentially crucial evidence.

FEEL NO FRET

Okay, here's one for the musos out there who can't decide on whether they want a fretted or fretless guitar. Now there's a solution: buy one that's both with retractable frets! Weird.

WHOOSH

The Japanese Aerospace Agency JAXA has successfully tested an 11-metre scale model of a new supersonic airliner design. You can download a video of the test from their website.

It would be nice to see a supersonic airliner back in service. Going to Heathrow hasn't been the same since Concorde was retired, and while the Japanese design isn't as pretty, it at least stands a reasonable chance of getting off the drawing board.

IT ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT STOP

For the first time ever, an autonomous robotic vehicle has completed the DARPA Grand Challenge. This is an event run by the United States' Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in which robotic vehicles have to negotiate 175 miles of desert from Barstow in California to Primm in Nevada without any assistance from their creators. When the race was run for the first time last year, nothing managed to complete the course. This year, however, four vehicles successfully reached the finish line, and the one I mentioned back on May 20th - a robotic VW called Stanley - was the fastest. All in all, an amazing achievement. Well done to all the teams who took part.

CELEBS IN ADVERTISING, PART TWO

After yesterday's mention of the celebrity advert for the ROKR iPhone, I saw another TV spot today featuring well-known people plugging Intel's Centrino mobile computing chip. It features John Cleese, Tony Hawk, Seal and Lucy Liu sitting in people's laps and there's a link to it here. The sight of Seal sitting on a middle-aged woman's lap and singing "Crazy" while playing acoustic guitar is weird, in a rather amusing kind of way. Of course, the Japanese have used celebrities in their advertising for years, and the results range from the utterly surreal through painfully cheesy to downright disturbing.

SAY CHEESE

I am completely hooked on Flickr.

BOOTSY!

I've just seen the new television advert for Motorola's ROKR phone - the one that was developed in collaboration with Apple. The advert, which you can watch at Motorola's site (although it just broke Firefox) features Madonna, Bootsy Collins, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Iggy Pop, Little Richard and many others. With that crowded phone booth, it owes more than a little to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, I thought. But I'm not convinced enough to want to go out and buy a new mobile.

HOLY MOLEY

Every now and again I read something about the universe that completely boggles the mind. The latest example is a little throwaway sentence in the middle of a NASA press release about a new discovery concerned with short gamma ray bursts:

"In at least one burst, scientists saw tantalizing, first-time evidence of a black hole eating a neutron star. The neutron star was first stretched into a crescent, then swallowed by the black hole."

In a normal star, the energy created by the process of nuclear fusion that makes it shine also keeps it from collapsing under its own weight. When those processes stop at the end of a star's life, gravity takes over and the star shrinks to something only a few miles in diameter. For smaller stars, the gravity isn't enough to create a black hole, but it is still so powerful that what's left becomes incredibly dense. You've probably heard the example that a teaspoon full of the resulting material would weigh millions of tons: at that density, the electrons and protons in the star's atoms are squashed together and you're left with a ball of neutrons - a neutron star.

There aren't many things in the universe that can do anything to a neutron star. The escape velocity at the surface is something around 0.4 of the speed of light, and any normal object that runs into it will just end up as a thin layer of more neutrons on the surface. The idea of something powerful enough to stretch out a neutron star as if it was made of plasticine makes me very glad there aren't any black holes near us.

CRIKEY

I saw the trailer for Curse of the Were-Rabbit yesterday. It looks good - indeed, AICN's Harry Knowles calls it perfect film-making - and the move from animated short to full-length feature film doesn't appear to have done the characterisations any harm at all. However, the gleeful insanity of the thing is probably best summed up by the fact that Aardman have removed all instances of the word "rabbit" from the film's advertising in the Dorset town of Portland, because the locals are superstitious about using the word.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE

The more things change, the more they stay the same: have a look at the latest in robotic fish at the London Aquarium and then compare them to Gerry Anderson's Terror Fish from Stingray which was made back in 1963 or so.

ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT

Thanks to HFO skier Ed Blacker for this gem - you couldn't wish for a better headline than Squirrels On Crack really, could you? As one of my colleagues pointed out, they're probably out-of-work film stars.

The original article is as mad as the headline. It includes two outstanding quotes: "Crack squirrels are a recognised phenomena in the US," and "An RSPCA spokesman said he was unaware of the squirrels taking crack in Brixton." Magic.

OOO ARRR

Ahh, the relaxing life of England's West Country. The cider, the rolling hills of Dartmoor, the distinctly implausible accents, the surfing, the cider, the balmy weather, the cider, the crocodiles...

TITTER

Following on from the mention yesterday of all things browncoat, I see that Dateline Holloywood have finally spoofed the, er, enthusiasm of Mr Whedon's fanbase. If only life was like this.

WOW

I have just got back from seeing Howl's Moving Castle and it is every bit as good as people have said it is. In fact, it's even better. I'm much too amazed to write coherently about it at the moment; expect a review to appear at the weekend.

A BIT OF SERENITY

Joss Whedon has been talking to the Guardian about life, the universe, and cowboys in outer space while he's over here promoting his new film, Serenity. His view of what Hollywood should be doing is at odds with the status quo at the moment, but I think he's right:

"We'd like to shake up the Hollywood paradigm of first weekend, big name, get-'em-in-quick, shock-and-awe marketing and go back to the era of making a smaller movie where you believe in the story."

The summer blockbuster-that-wasn't, Stealth, is mentioned as one example of the mega-budget failure that Whedon's approach rejects. You could have made three movies like Serenity for the same amount of money that was wasted on that unmanned-aircraft-runs-amok stinker, although it's safe to say you would have needed considerably more brain cells.

Unlike most Hollywood products, Whedon's material bears the distinctive mark of someone who has brain cells in abundance. As the Guardian article says, he's a very gifted writer and creates some of the snappiest dialogue you'll hear. His TV shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, are among my favourites. For some strange reason my taste in this area actually matches a fair number of other viewers, and he's had quite a bit of success in producing entertaining, watchable (and above all, popular) telly. He has also contributed to scripts for a number of Hollywood blockbusters - for example, the line "Wind the frog!" in Pixar's Toy Story is one of his.

But recently it seems that there's a downside to this success. Supporters of Firefly, the TV series on which Whedon's new film Serenity is based, are known as browncoats. The behaviour of a small proportion of this fanbase makes the fans of other TV shows look about as animated as a small rock that doesn't have a television, and through ill-judged or just plain rude behaviour they've either scared or pissed off quite a few people, particularly Ain't It Cool's Moriarty and the big guy himself, Harry Knowles. Quite ironic, given the title of the film.

It should be remembered, though, that in America, Firefly was broadcast by a network who didn't even bother to show the episodes in order, let alone guaranteeing the show a regular time slot. The same network then cancelled the show because it didn't get the ratings they expected. Do I need to tell you the network was Fox? Probably not. It's hardly surprising that a proportion of the show's fans are cynical or disillusioned.

It might be interesting to draw comparisons with another show that suffered a similar fate: in the 1960s, Star Trek was taken off after three seasons and then resurrected with a film ten years later, largely as a result of the huge following the shows had developed over the passing decade; perhaps it took that long for Paramount to notice what a potential cash cow they had. Firefly was cancelled almost immediately; perhaps because channel executives lost confidence, perhaps because of mismanagement; who knows? But the big difference between these two histories is that these days, consumerism is king. When hordes of people like me bought the boxed set of Firefly on DVD, the network suddenly realised how popular the show was and, therefore, how much money they could still make from it. The film has therefore arrived just a year after cancellation - and getting a movie into theatres in that sort of timescale says an awful lot about Joss Whedon's abilities to get stuff out of the door. I know it sounds geeky to say it, but let's face it: the man is a superhero.

I'M NOT GRUMPY

Well, not today, anyway - I don't need to be. The Guardian's Kieren McCarthy has out-grumped me and just about everybody else, and quite right too.

ZOOM ZOOM

As if the Red Bull Racing series wasn't scary enough (and I'm not just talking about their TV and cinema adverts featuring a bloke with an unfeasibly deep voice), it looks like we will soon be able to watch an even more extreme form of air racing. Yesterday, Dr Peter Diamandis announced the formation of the Rocket Racing League. The BBC's website discusses his plans for rocket powered aircraft racing round a course at speeds exceeding 320 miles per hour and an altitude of 5,000 ft and their salient point is to draw comparisons with Pod Racing a la Star Wars.

Yeah, right.

SPLAT

I had an early start this morning, but at least it meant a (slightly) early finish this afternoon. I've driven about 250 miles today, and I have to say that despite the fact it's October, it was the worst day for getting bugs splattered across the windscreen that I've had this year. It seemed like something or other met a rather messy demise on my windscreen every mile, sometimes with a very audible "ponk" sound. Hopefully a lot of them were wasps; I don't like wasps.

Bugs, windshields: I still wonder how Mark Knopfler could draw sufficient inspiration from small crawly things going splat to enable him to think "I know, I'll write a song about it," but creativity is a mysterious thing.

REAL MODESTY

Most people, when they win an award, come out with a modest-sounding statement along the lines of "it was nothing really," and everyone knows that this is the sort of thing you say when you mean "about time too." My favourite news story of the day has to be the rather more frank (and typically Australian) comment from Nobel Prize winner Robin Warren, which was more along the lines of "it was so bloody obvious." Lovely.

AND NOW, DIRECT FROM THE BAR...

Rebecca and I were in Stoke on Trent on Saturday night to see the Rat Pack - Live From Las Vegas stage show at the Regent Theatre. Rebecca bought the tickets for my birthday, as she knows I'm a big fan of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior. I have a number of their CDs, and I'll take the original version of Ocean's Eleven any day.

The show itself was great fun. Three guys and three girls recreated the shows of 1960s Las Vegas, from the time when Ocean's Eleven was being filmed and the Rat Pack were in front of the cameras during the day and partying at the Sands Hotel all night - sleep was obviously optional. The atmosphere was completed with a fifteen piece band, who were very, very good. If you get the opportunity to catch them while they're still on tour, I recommend it. Although everyone in the cast was first rate, the guy playing Dean Martin (who I think was the actor Nigel Casey) was particularly memorable: he managed several pratfalls without spilling a drop of his drink. There was even a DVD of the show on sale - although it's a lot cheaper to buy it from Amazon.

Before the show started, we grabbed a curry in a restaurant opposite the theatre called Lazeez, which was pretty good, if a bit on the expensive side compared with prices in the Balti Triangle. I ended up with the largest keema naan bread ever (couldn't finish it) and a very nicely presented mushroom and chicken tikka masala that came with a rather funky-looking pyramid of rice. Rebecca's mushroom madras came with the most potent-looking chilli naan bread I have ever seen; it looked lethal.

YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING

You may have heard earlier in the year that astronomers have discovered a tenth planet in the outer reaches of the Solar System. However, you may not have heard what name its discoverers are proposing to assign to 2003 UB313: Xena.

But it gets better: it was announced today that the planet (and if it's 20% bigger than Pluto, it really sounds like it is a planet, not just a large lump of ice and rock) has a moon. As far as its discoverers are concerned, it's going to be called Gabrielle. And if you haven't twigged yet why this is causing more than a little amusement here at the HFO, all I can do is point you in the direction of a very, very silly television series called Xena: Warrior Princess which, of course, featured the one and only Bruce Campbell.

Michael E. Brown, who is professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, discovered the planet's moon. Xena-is-a-planet supporters couldn't do better than the wonderful quote from Brown in Caltech's press release: "Having a moon is just inherently cool - and it is something that most self-respecting planets have, so it is good to see that this one does too." Update: The BBC are now carrying the story too.

SOFTWARE GOODNESS

I installed the the latest version of Mozilla's Thunderbird email software at the weekend, and I'm very, very impressed. I now have one piece of software that lets me read my email and news messages in a proper format and that can also aggregate my RSS feeds into one nicely-assimilated chunk. Oh, and unlike some other software, it appears to be able to do this without being broken by any line that has "begin" as its first word and hopefully without being riddled with bugs. Oh - and did I mention that it's free? I am a very happy bunny.