It's the econoblog, stupid!

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: October 2008

October was quite an eventful month - it saw both twins settled in at university, the financial world and Radio 2 in meltdown, me going to yet another conference that went rather wrong, Colin Powell discovering a new career as a rap artist, and I rediscovered the joys of cookery and of watching music on the telly.


Well done to Ruth, who got an A* in her latest test at university. Both she and Rob are enjoying academic life, and I'm very proud of them.


Down here in the West Country we got a single rumble of thunder yesterday, and some of the cars going past me last night had snow on them, but that was about it. Meanwhile, the rest of the country got its first proper taste of winter. London had snow in October for the first time in 70 years. The temperature plummeted overnight here to -4°C (24°F) and I had the heating on for most of the evening.

Does this mean we're in for a winter like we used to get when I was a kid? One where it actually snows, and gets cold? Sadly, the Met Office seasonal forecast doesn't seem to think so, stating that "for the UK as a whole, winter-mean temperatures are more likely to be above... [the 1971 - 2000] average." While it keeps fuel costs down, I do miss proper, old-fashioned winter weather.


The Corkscrew, which is currently the oldest ride at the Alton Towers amusement park, is being cleared up before decomissioning and engineers have found some interesting items underneath it, including 237 mobile phones, 800 pieces of jewellery and an artificial leg. You'd think the owner would have noticed the loss, wouldn't you?

I've ridden the Corkscrew, and it was quite an experience. The first time I had a go, it threw my back out so that when I got off, I couldn't turn my head more than a couple of degrees from side to side. The only thing that fixed it was, of course, to go on the ride again. It worked a treat.


There are some days when you just finally realise how wonderful the Internet can be. It can bring you stuff like the Neunkircher Zoo's wonderfully wrong advertising campaign, which has the strap line "Come to the zoo before the zoo comes to you."

The site which pointed me to that gem is pretty good too. Behold the 7 types of pet costumes. They actually list eight types, but hey - who's counting? I think the Elvis retriever is my favourite.


Telly at the weekend included an hour-long recording of Jeff Beck playing live at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London. JB has been one of my favourite guitarists for decades, and it was great to see him tearing it up on the telly. He was on fire - probably the best I've ever seen him play.

He had an amazing band with him, too: Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Tal Wilkenfeld on bass, and Jason Rebello on keyboards. Oh, and some bloke called Eric cropped up to help out on one song. JB commented that "he knows his way round a Stratocaster" and that was putting it mildly. It was a very enjoyable show, and cutaways to the audience revealed a number of famous rockers enjoying it too - including Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. What with Alan Yentob's recent series on the guitar I'm beginning to wonder what's going on. This month I've watched some excellent television programmes; usually there aren't that many shows that appeal to me...


The Beeb may be trying to spin it as just a "prank" but Ofcom is to launch an enquiry over Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross's gross misconduct on Radio 2 at the weekend. Comments about Brand and Ross's behaviour on the BBC News website are getting interesting, with the matter of section 43 of the Telecommunications Act (1984) cropping up more than once. Have a look at paragraphs 1(a) and 1(b) of the relevant section. Would you say there's a case to answer?


We lost another member of SHADO this month. I was very sad to hear that Peter Gordeno died on October 18th. He played Peter Carlin, captain of the submarine Skydiver in Gerry Anderson's series UFO and as such he played an integral part in supporting my childhood addiction to watching science fiction on television. Hopefully he's up there now with Ed Bishop, George Sewell, Michael Billington, Vladek Sheybal and the gang.

As the Independent's obituary explains, Gordeno's life really did go from rags to riches; from starting out in a job working in a petrol station, he ended up with his own show in Las Vegas. I'll be watching an episode or two at the weekend and remembering how amazing I found the show when I was a kid.


Ah, where would we be without The Guardian's unique take on things? Where would we be without AC/DC, for that matter? Well done to the lads for getting to number one.


From the "news we already knew" department: Russell Brand has lost the plot. While I was driving home on Saturday night I was trying to find something interesting to listen to on the radio but Brand's inanities and passive-aggressive behaviour was just too painful to deal with. Given what he was getting up to, I'm glad I avoided hearing the sorry little bastard make a fool of himself at someone else's expense once again. Given his previous escapades, I doubt the Sachs family will get much of an apology, either. "It was funny" seems to be the closest he's got so far.

When people start having a go at him, I bet he trots out the old "you can't criticise me, I've got problems" routine, too. I agree with him a hundred percent. He has got problems. The trouble is, he's not taking responsibility for sorting them out. The sooner he goes off for a prolonged stay in a quiet room somewhere with no telephones, the happier we'll all be. That way I won't have to suffer any more offensive pranks or other examples of his misguided approach to "comedy".

Jonathan Ross ought to know better, but I suppose when you're earning six million quid a year you tend to lose interest in other people's opinions of what you do. Still, thanks to the unique way the BBC is funded, I'm sure we'll all be paying for them both to get up to yet more high jinks in the not-too-distant future. That's showbusiness, folks.


There's an interesting conference taking place on Saturday in San Jose in California. The organisers describe the Singularity Summit as an event which "gathers the smartest people around to explore the biggest ideas of our time." That's a fairly lofty reach, but as they've got Ray Kurzweil, Justin Rattner and Esther Dyson speaking they will certainly have a thought-provoking day.


I subscribe to a video podcast feed from the TED conference and I don't know what's been going on but iTunes is currently downloading the thirteenth file this evening from them. It's worth having a look at what's available to download, as they have some fine speakers on their list.


Alan Yentob's series on The Story of the Guitar concluded last night with an entertaining trawl through some of the electric guitar's greatest players. Yentob talked to Pete Townshend, David Gilmour, Johnny Marr and Matt Bellamy from Muse. Iggy Pop and Steve Vai made appearances too. The interview with Bellamy was particularly interesting for me, as I discovered I have a record in my collection by his dad. It turns out that George Bellamy was the guitarist for The Tornados who had a massive hit in the 1960s with an instrumental called Telstar - which was the first UK produced record to reach number 1 in the United States of America, no less.

Oh, and Spinal Tap fans take note: you'll discover that the volume control on the BBC's iPlayer for all the clips from the series really does go up to eleven.

The best part of the show, though, saw Yentob visiting an air guitar competition. The competition's judge tried to bring him up to speed on what was involved. The judge turned out to be an intelligent and witty chap by the name of Zac Munroe, who pointed out that an air guitar is a real instrument; it just happens to be made of air and is therefore invisible. Yentob was clearly having difficulty understanding this: "So you have to look like you're playing an air guitar?" "No," Zac replied. "You've got to be playing an air guitar." Great stuff.


I've rambled on many times in the past few months about Burnout Paradise and the way that Criterion Games provide additional content for you to download. It's this policy which keeps me coming back to the game again and again - well, that and the fact that it's a really good game. I heard yesterday that Polyphony Digital, the makers of Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, had just released a new pack that revised their game up to Spec III. That got my attention, because it was footage of the original version of the game that made me go out and buy the PS3 in the first place.

I hadn't played GT5P for a while so last night I fired it up, and sure enough there's some interesting new content, including three new cars. The Citroen GT is understandably the one grabbing all the headlines, but with a description that talks of an electric drive train powered by a fuel cell and an exhaust that produces nothing but water vapour, it's more fantasy than a practical nuts and bolts vehicle. That's a great shame - it would be fun to see one on the road in real life.


Oops. Looks like the long-awaited release of the Little Big Planet game for the PS3 is going to be awaited a little longer...


I always wondered where the Physical Graffiti album cover was shot. Now I know: 96 St Mark's Place in Manhattan, and it still looks pretty much the same.


There was a review in the Guardian this week of Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers's generative music application for the iPhone and iPod Touch, a little gem called Bloom. The Guardian's reviewer called it hypnotic and ludicrously addictive, and after buying the software I totally agree with him - but why not see for yourself? If you fancy producing your own generative music, you can buy Bloom at the iTunes store for £2.50 or so, but you can also download a demo application for your Mac or PC that will let you tweak a lot more parameters.

Oh, and I highly recommend clicking on the generative music link above - it's a transcript of a fascinating talk that Eno gave on the subject over ten years ago.


The BBC's John Simpson reported yesterday on the celebrations in London to commemorate the centenary of the first powered flight to be made in the UK. The flight was made by Samuel Franklin Cody, the legendary aeronaut and kite maker and I was amazed to hear that Cody was Simpson's great grandfather.

Incidentally, I can remember seeing someone flying a massive Cody War Kite at the Blackheath Kite Festival back in the early 1980s. It was so large it had to be tethered to a Land Rover to stop the operator flying away. So far I haven't been able to find any pictures of it online, so I will see if I have any shots of my own kicking around.


Imagine being in a theatre where a group of six men and two women are on stage, and they're all Christopher Walken. Wow.


If you haven't already seen the Star Trek pictures that hit the web this week, there must be something wrong with your Internet connection. The crew of the Starship Enterprise are looking rather dapper in uniforms that appear to have the Starfleet emblem woven into the pattern of the fabric - a touch that really had my nerd senses tingling.

I have to say that Karl Urban looks particularly convincing as McCoy and alost unrecognisable from his role as Eomer in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's with a considerable amount of glee that I can say we finally get to see a shot of Simon Pegg as Scotty. On the other hand, "Nero" looks a bit too much like the crappy bad guy from Star Trek Nemesis, but you can't have everything, I guess.


Brad Pitt is making a science fiction version of Homer's Odyssey with the director of Mad Max, George Miller. Well, if the Coen Brothers can make a version that's set in depression-era America, then why not?


The town hall in the Spanish town of Villava is the location of a rather unusual argument at the moment. Basque councillors have taken to displaying the Basque flag on their desks during debates, and the practice has upset other councillors. I'm sure you'd have thought of making exactly the same response that the local Socialist party did, which is to display the flag of Iron Maiden's mascot, Eddie the Head on their desks.

I mean, what else would you do?


My neighbour Matthew has a black cat called Ozzy who has had a rather hard time of it in recent months. He keeps on getting in to rough scrapes (Ozzy, not Matthew) and whatever the latest episode was, he's come out of it with a broken tail. There's nothing the vet can do but amputate it, so it's coming off - leaving Ozzy as a wannabe Manx cat. Awwww.


"Whatever, C-Po, drop us a fat hook."


We delivered Rob to his university on Saturday, so now both twins have left home and started term. What a day to start for Rob, though: it was Ruth's and his birthday! It sounds like they both had a good day celebrating with their fellow students.

I'm delighted to see that they're both blogging about their university experiences. Ruth's blog has a bit of a lead on Rob's blog at the moment as she's already several weeks into the autumn term, but I'm looking forwards to reading all about their adventures on their respective courses.


According to a Russian security company, it's now theoretically feasible to crack even WPA2 encryption if you're only using static keys. You just have to construct a network of 20 workstations fitted with nVidia graphics cards and use the GPUs to crunch the numbers in a brute-force decode that "only takes days or weeks."

Well, yeah. I would have said that "just" getting a network of 20 computers to do *anything* is probably more of a challenge than cracking wireless encryption anyway, especially as WPA has been vulnerable for several years.


Probably the best film news I've read for a decade broke today: Ridley Scott is returning to the science fiction genre, and he's doing it in the best possible way. He's making a film of Joe Haldeman's epic SF novel, The Forever War. I am really, really excited about this. I've been reading Haldeman's work for over thirty years and he wrote quite a few of the books in my collection that I keep coming back to and re-reading. The novel in question was inspired by Haldeman's experiences in Vietnam, and it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards when it was published. The plot should allow Ridley's awesome creativity to produce something special on an epic scale. Mr Haldeman sounds quite pleased as well.


The display in Times Square that shows America's national debt has run out of digits. When it was built in 1989 I guess nobody thought that ten trillion dollars was an amount any sane person would contemplate borrowing, but this week saw the US national debt hit that magic figure. The sign will be replaced with one that has an extra couple of zeroes on the end, just in case...


Well, that was an interesting few days. The Virtual Worlds Forum event in London didn't exactly go as planned, as there was a shooting at the conference venue the day before things were supposed to start. The police understandably closed the place down for a forensic investigation, so a much smaller-scale meet happened instead. It's a great shame as I know Sasha and her team would have put in huge amounts of work to make sure everything ran smoothly. The good news is that they will be rescheduling the event for some time in the New Year so I'll report back then.


I was contacted recently by Anu Garg, who runs Wordsmith - it's a website that, amongst other things, introduces you to a different unfamiliar or under-used word every day. I was contacted because one of my photos was a close tie-in to a word that was going to be used, and as it's such a lovely idea for a website I said yes. Yesterday the site featured the word skeuomorph, and my photo appeared with it.


One of my photos will be appearing in an exhibition in Bristol next month. The exhibition's called Eye For Colour and the photographic display will be on show at the Theory Cafe in the Explore centre at @Bristol from November 1st - 30th. I'm delighted to be part of the show!


My obsession with Burnout Paradise continues. It appears that I'm not alone, either: there are more people playing the game now than there were when it was released back in January, which is a very unusual state of affairs for a video game. Last night I unlocked the Carson Hot Rod Coupe, which is a most peculiar beast. It has a tendency to rear up on the rear wheels if you put your foot down at slow speeds. This makes competing in races and the like quite a bit more interesting, particularly if you're hoping to go round a corner at the time. In fact, I rapidly came to the conclusion that it's pretty much useless for anything other than driving around and looking cool.

Ah well; I only have thirty-something more events until I get my Elite license. I realise, of course, that if you've never played the game you won't have a clue about what any of this means, but all you need to know is that I'm feeling pretty smug about it. :-)


If you're a Flickr user, you may have spotted that there's a new version of your home page in the works. I've been using it for the last few days and I really like it. It lets me see uploads from twice as many of my contacts, *and* shows me uploads from the groups I'm in. You should be able to activate the new design from a hyperlink at the bottom of your current home page.


If you've ever had a conversation with someone about a favourite songwriter's output, you've probably come across the phenomenon that, when life is miserable and imploding in doom and gloom, their creative energies are usually at their zenith. When life is good, they - mentioning no names here - often produce second-rate, uninspiring material. Cynicism and anger seem to drive artists to greater heights, and after this week's news there is quite rightly an awful lot of cynicism and anger about. The phenomenon isn't limited to musicians, either: it also applies to the humble cartoon. The BBC have a video of Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor today explaining how their strip Alex has coped with the stock market crash, and recent strips of theirs have been particularly biting. However, it's Tatsuya Ishida's Sinfest webcomic which has the best comment on the financial crisis I think I will ever see. Today's strip is utterly brilliant.


Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, The Empire Strikes Back.


I was lucky enough to catch legendary jazz guitarist Allan Holdsworth in concert on Thursday night at the Huntingdon Hall in Worcester. He's touring in a trio format this time round, with Chad Wackerman on drums and Ernest Tibbs on bass. They're all consummate musicians, and I really enjoyed the show. I was particularly chuffed to hear old favourites like Letters of Marque given an airing. Sadly, the bass player in the video I've linked to, Dave Carpenter, died in June. He played on Allan Holdsworth's album The Sixteen Men of Tain - which is, as I'm sure you already know, a reference to the custodians of the secret process for making Glenmorangie single malt. Carpenter's death is a great loss to the bass playing world.


I took the day off yesterday. I haven't done that for a long time, and I really enjoyed myself. As you'll already have seen if you follow my Flickr stream, I went into Bristol to do some shopping and visit the new Cabot Circus shopping precinct. As one of my friends commented, "Opening a new shopping mall when the economy is dropping into recession? Good luck with that." Nevertheless, the place seemed quite busy. There is still a lot of work to do on the main building; much of it is still covered by scaffolding and hoardings and there are lots of folk wandering around in hard hats and tabards. Many of the shops have still to open, but it's an impressive piece of architecture and the roof is particularly striking. I was much less impressed by the rather cramped multi-storey car park, which charged me £3 to park for just over an hour. Compare that with The Mall at Cribbs Causeway, where parking is free all day.

As I was in town, it was a good opportunity to pop in to the London Camera Exchange shop in the Horsefair. As a result, I picked up a second hand Tamron 28-300mm F3.5-6.3 XR Di lens for my Canon. I spent yesterday afternoon walking through the fields at the back of the village trying it out and only stopped when the batteries ran out on the camera!


I've been cooking. Lunch today was home made French onion soup:

French Onion Soup

And very nice it was, too. Head over to the Flickr page (click on the picture) if you want the recipe.


There are reports in the UK that savers aren't reacting to the financial crisis by switching their savings to other banks but are staying put instead. Maybe that's because they've figured out that the banks are all in this together and it's not really going to make much difference where their money is at the moment. We seem to be heading for the biggest slump since the second world war ended. URLs for pages about the current situation use words like "meltdown" and "turmoil". The approval rating for America's President is looking worse by the hour. Indiana's democrat congressman Pete Visclosky summed up the mood as follows: "We are now in the golden age of thieves. And where I come from we put thieves in jail, we don't bail them out."

Charlie Stross, as ever, has an interesting take on things.


This one's interesting: Apple are not happy about the proposed charging structure revision for online music sales because it will eat into their profits, and the BBC think they're talking about taking their ball and going home. Could this be the end of the iTunes store?


Andrew Lee was a 33 year old man from Doncaster who had a bet with a friend over who could make the hottest chilli sauce. Unfortunately, it looks like the chilli he made was so hot it killed him.


Enough of the doom and gloom for today. Writer, blogger and Internet Jesus Warren Ellis has been cooking. Cooking in the Ellis household has a style all of its own, as will become clear as you consider his directions for making beer and onion marmalade:

"Stick a lid on it. You’re done. You should come back and stir it every five minutes or so, but basically that’s it. That’s going to take twenty or twenty-five minutes to cook down to a dark, glossy pile of Cthulhu droppings. Seriously, it’s a bit grotesque-looking. And, yes, sometimes it moves when it thinks you’re not looking. But it goes great with sausages, so what the hell."

If you've never tried onion marmalade, be assured that it is very, very tasty and yes - it does really go great with sausages. He's not winding you up. Oh, and don't forget to read his Freakangels strip every Friday. It's just about the most nutritious webcomic you could ever hope to consume.