Another Fine Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: October 2007

October ended up being one of the busiest months for me in years. The twins celebrated their 18th birthdays, and we partied on, dudes. With work I ended up going to several conferences, exhibitions or symposiums, and spent hour after hour driving around the country. I also managed to find time to go to one or two gigs, and enjoyed them immensely.

All this was very interesting and rewarding, but as a result there isn't so much in the blog. Rest assured that what there is, it's of very high quality. Honestly.


I've been listening to They Might Be Giants' new album The Else quite a bit recently. The lyrics for the track Contrecoup include the words craniosophic and limerent, and those are rather unusual and interesting words, even for a TMBG album. There had to be a reason for them to be there, I decided. If Mr Flansburgh and Mr Linnell were involved, it was likely to be an entertaining one.

A bit of digging on the web revealed that the three words crop up in the song as the result of a bet made on the radio show The Next Big Thing between John Linnell and Erin McKean, a lexicographer who gave a superb speech on the future of the dictionary at TED this year. And what do the words actually mean? The first describes where the effect of an injury appears directly opposite the site of the blow; the second is used to refer to someone who is learned in skulls; the third is a state of romantic infatuation. McKean was hoping that these words could gain wider use, but she may well have unleashed a monster. Google already returns 301,000 hits for contrecoup, 898 for limerent, and 395 for craniosophic. This page will, of course, add to those results.

The mere fact of reporting something changes it, as readers of the New Scientist will know. The magazine's Last Word column spent many years happily writing about words that occur just once on the World Wide Web. Of course, by writing about them, the Last Word folks added them to their own website, thus destroying their uniqueness. Nevertheless, the pursuit of the Googlewhack continues. Just don't write about it, OK?


A dairy in Blackburn, Lancashire is bringing out an ice cream flavoured with mustard and bits of black pudding. Mmmm, I can't wait.


The clocks went back at the weekend, and I was out taking pictures on Sunday. The light was nowhere near as beautiful as it was last year - in fact it poured with rain for most of the morning - but I still got one or two photos that didn't totally suck.

It was nice to get to work with the sun shining this morning, too, although it won't be long before I get to the office while it's still dark and get home in the dark as well.


One advantage of the dark evenings is that when the skies are clear I can do a bit of astronomy. You can too: if it's clear tonight and you're living in the northern hemisphere, look north at the constellation Perseus, lying below the "W" of the constellation Cassiopeia. Perseus has gained an extra, fuzzy star which is a naked-eye comet. Tonight I could see it even with streetlights and the moon for competition.

Comet 17P/Holmes is a periodic comet, meaning that it comes back regularly - just under once every 7 years. But this time around it has caused much more interest than usual, as for reasons as yet unknown it brightened spectacularly a couple of weeks ago. Some estimates put the increase as being as much as a millionfold, and it's being suggested that it may have collided with another object. It'll certainly be worth keeping an eye on in the next few weeks, as it may get even brighter.


Back from the Virtual Worlds Forum which was held in London this week. I've spent today summarising all the materials I brought back, together with 21 pages of notes as well as the podcasts that are up on the site.

It was an interesting couple of days; the subject is obviously a hot one with the media, as there were a lot of reporters there. When you've got Lord Puttnam giving the keynote speech and calling for virtual worlds to consider the values they engender in children and then Lord Triesman talking about cracking down on virtual antisocial behaviour I guess it's not surprising.

It was nice to finally meet people whose blogs I've been reading for years, particularly Alice and Cory. I was struck by how friendly and enthusiastic everyone was at the conference. They're a very tech-savvy lot, naturally; almost every row of the audience featured at least one person blogging away on their laptop or macbook. I'd gone slightly more low tech but still managed to upload photos to Flickr from my phone and blog the event on Linkbunnies using my iPod and the conference's free wireless network.

There were 480 attendees from 23 countries, and the place was sold out (although there were noticably fewer people around on day two). I was relieved to see that it wasn't just a room full of companies trying to sell real estate in Second Life - in fact there were some fairly heavyweight discussions going on with talk ranging from venture capital choices to the legal definition of currency, from emergency preparedness training to the best way to build social responsibility. One of the most entertaining panels included the Guardian's Aleks Krotoski reminiscing about the Dreamcast and its little VMU add on and Cory Doctorow pondering whether Facebook would be just as successful if all it let you do was move pictures of your friends around...

I'll write up a more considered and academically oriented account on my LiveJournal page (which is where most of my stuff like that ends up) so expect to see that appear sometime next week. It won't be earlier than that because I'm off elsewhere in the meantime. October really has been a crazy month.


Suddenly, winter's arrived. Driving back from Wotton-Under-Edge earlier this morning I noticed how low the sun was in the sky; it's not got much higher now, and it's nearly eleven am. Overnight this week the thermometer dropped below zero for the first time, and there's been frost on the ground as I drove to work. But the weather earlier was lovely: there was hardly a cloud in the sky and outside it's calm and still. It may have clouded over now but I still love this time of year. When it starts getting foggy I'll be off out with my camera to take some more photographs.


I've been spending way too much time today flicking through the pages of Ffffound! (that's four Fs. I counted them.) It's a site where people can bookmark great images they've found on the web and share them with others. At the moment it's in a private beta stage but when it goes live I'll be signing up. There's a staggering number of inspiring, beautiful and downright wacky images on display (War Tubas, anyone?) and I've just been sitting here digging them all. One of the more mind-blowing sites it led me too is MoFrames, where change over time is depicted graphically. The results are strange and beautiful, and quite unexpected - in particular, make sure you have a look at their golf series.


This month has just been crazy - I'm still flitting about all over the place. On Tuesday I went to a symposium on knowledge and learning which was held at the Williams Formula 1 centre at Grove, in Oxfordshire. One advantage of going to events here is that when the day's activities have concluded you're able to walk round the Williams F1 collection. Pretty much every race car the Williams team have ever put on the track is on display.


Let me tell you, it's a pretty amazing sight. I was also fascinated by the collection of crash helmets worn by their drivers. Some of the earlier ones wouldn't have given you that much protection, by the looks of things; as design knowledge and materials technology improve the helmets themselves get larger and larger (but hopefully lighter and lighter as well.)




I've been out and about quite a bit recently, and the blog's rather taken a back seat. On the evening of the 9th I was in Wembley Arena to see the Canadian band Rush once more. I first saw them play live more than 28 years ago, and they are one of my favourite bands. Neil Pearts drum solos are always amazing, but on this tour he really has pulled out all the stops. It was jaw dropping. On the other hand, Geddy was using chicken rotisseries as a backline, complete with a guy in a chef's hat who came out to baste them during each half of the set. Sure, it was very funny, but his bass sound has really suffered. It overwhelmed everything else, which was a real disappointment given what an amazing player he is. His voice, on the other hand, was in fine form; the folks I was with reckoned he's singing better than he has done for years. Rush have some cool friends, too: some of them had been roped in to introduce some of the songs in the set. What with all the music, plus lasers, fireworks and a fire-breathing dragon it made for a great show. It was past 2am when I got home, which is not a good idea on a work day, but it was worth it.


Happy birthday, Rob and Ruth! The twins were 18 on Thursday. Rebecca took us to the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham to see the Cirque de Soleil's new stage show Delirium. It was quite something, and very much a production for the 21st century. It made some quite innovative use of front projection, draping the stage with a transparent screen which blurred the distinction between visuals and performers in a way that I really enjoyed. The performers are all ludicrously talented, which is the norm for one of the Cirque's shows, but the four-man acrobatic troupe were particularly impressive. There was more of a focus on music this time round, with people playing electric guitars, drums, trumpets and what have you. Musicians and singers kept cropping up on different parts of the stage or even suspended from the rafters in giant steel hoops. If you get a chance to see the show (which might be difficult if you live in Europe, as they're only performing the piece eight times over here) then I recommend that you take the opportunity.

It was also interesting to see how Birmingham's NIA compared with Wembley Arena. Despite all the work that's gone on at Wembley over the past five years or so, the Arena is still little more than a big shed. It has a triangular area out the front with a fountain in it (although some bright spark decided that this triangle should be called "Celebrity Square") and er, that's about it. The place reminds me of an industrial estate.

Birmingham's Brindley Place redevelopment, on the other hand, reminded me strongly of San Francisco's Ghirardelli Complex. It's that good. People even use it for Flickrmeets, and I kept thinking as we walked to the NIA that I need to go back there with my camera. As the twins are both now Flickr Pro users and have shiny new digital cameras, I'm hoping they'll take me into town sometime soon.


On Saturday night the twins got their party shoes on and had a ceilidh with music by the most excellent band Jigabit. There was a lot of dancing, and I learned how to strip the willow, amongst other things. Lots of friends and relatives were in attendance, too. Rob and Ruth's Uncle Matthew brought along some rather lethal cider which went down a treat with the salmon terrine and birthday cake. I think everyone enjoyed themselves. I had a really fun time, even if I was knackered the next morning. Just think, we can do it all again in three years when they turn 21!


That's better. I fell off the Internet on Sunday morning, and I've been without a home connection to the web until a few hours ago. It took four phone calls to Demon to get anything done; with each call I had to answer all the questions on their diagnostic flow chart starting from number one. Eventually I got them to report the fault to BT who sorted it out within a day. Why do so many companies get customer support so wrong these days?


One thing about not having a net connection for a few days is that I've had a chance to thoroughly evaluate my latest toy. So, the new iPod...

21st Century Toy

I'm impressed. Setting the thing up is easy; well, it's easy provided that you have iTunes installed and have downloaded the .pdf of the full manual from Apple's website. You get very little documentation in the box. Getting it connected to my wireless network was relatively straightforward, apart from the fact that you have to switch between alphabetical and numeric keyboards to input a hexadecimal key for your network (which it rather confusingly prompts you for by asking "password?")

Listening to music is what the iPod was developed for, and there's nothing to complain about with the new software. The cover flow library browser is gorgeous, and you'll find yourself flipping through pictures of your albums just because you can. The iconic, white in-ear headphones are usable, but I have already swapped mine with a pair of in-ear Sennheisers that I used with my last portable player. That gave me a noticeable improvement in sound quality.

Web browsing is there if you want it, but to be honest I have a computer for doing that, and I've only used Safari out of curiosity to see if stuff really was legible - it is, just. But where the thing really scores is in providing access to YouTube. It could have been built specifically to provide this function and people would still have bought it, I believe. The video quality is excellent, and you can watch it quite easily in broad daylight. And once you're connected to a WiFi network seeing what's available out there is hugely addictive. Power consumption is OK - but using the WiFi eats battery life and video also provides quite a drain. I've run mine flat every day so far, but on the other hand I'm using it a lot.

In general, using the thing is very easy and intuitive, with a couple of mildly annoying exceptions:

Firstly, every screen lets you step back to the screen before, apart from those that you access directly from the main menu - to display that, you have to push the single button on the front of the device. It seems such a strange omission that I spent ages trying to figure out where they'd hidden the control that would let me return to the menu. Subconsciously, I couldn't believe they'd not provided the control to let me do it.

Secondly, while you're able to flick lists up and down with a very intuitive finger gesture, several list pages have shortcut buttons at the bottom of the page. As a restult, if you try to flick the list as far as you can with the gesture, you end up accidentally tapping one of these buttons and you suddenly find you're looking at a completely different page. I appreciate that they've tried to get as much on the tiny screen as possible, but if I'm struggling with my fingers, I imagine someone with pudgier digits is going to find it very frustrating.

All in all, I'm very, very pleased with the thing. It'll be interesting to see if I'm still using it as much in a couple of months but for the moment my new toy is providing a lot of fun!


The space age began fifty years ago today. On October 4th 1957, the Soviet Union put the first artificial satellite into orbit, and everything changed. Sputnik was small, and not very sophisticated - it didn't do very much beyond transmitting regular beeping sounds via radio, but it was the first time the human race had managed to get something into space that stayed there rather than falling back to Earth.


For some people today, the space age is more about George Lucas than it is about Sergei Korolev, but I guess building your own rocket is still a step in the right direction, even if it is a scale model of an X-Wing.


I've moved into a new age, too - I got my first iPod today. It's still doing whatever it does with iTunes at the moment, so I can't really comment about its usability or anything yet. Stay tuned.


Pot of chillies burning on a stove sparks a major terrorist alert in London.


There's a very funny YouTube clip doing the rounds at the moment that had me in fits of giggles as soon as Eric Clapton starts "playing" an excruciating guitar solo. When I was a kid, I'm sure I sounded exactly the same, and I'll bet I had the serious facial expressions to go with the noises, too. (Rest assured - it's not really Slowhand playing. Honestly.)