The Blog on the Corner

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: November 2005

November saw rain, low temperatures, fog, snow, and then more rain. No wonder the British are obsessed with the weather.

I became increasingly addicted to Flickr, too.


Firefox 1.5 has been released. Woohoo!


Former Bristol resident and graffiti artist Banksy (you know, the guy who smuggles his own artworks into museums) has got a new book out. It's probably best summed up by the blurb on the back, in which a Metropolitan police spokesman is quoted as saying: “There’s no way you’re going to get a quote from us to use on your book cover.” Nice.


I've spent the last few days listening to a couple of albums by the Scottish musical duo Boards of Canada, including their latest record, the Campfire Headphase. They definitely make my sort of stuff, reminding me of both Brian Eno's work and the random soundscapes you could get by playing around with a short-wave radio that I used to enjoy as a kid. As a result, their music has a profoundly nostalgic feel to it. It's also perfect for listening to on headphones.

Reading the Wikipedia entry on their lyrics, however, I have developed a lurking suspicion that there's far more going on than meets the ear. Or is that just a ploy to appear dark and mysterious?


Did you see the amusing clip on BBC2's Top Gear programme this week featuring the test of the new Mercedes radar-assisted automatic braking system? The one that went wrong and ended up with a very expensive German automobile smacking into another two very expensive German automobiles? How we laughed! What an amusing German accent those presenters can do!

It's a pity the whole event was a fake, isn't it?

Because fog is difficult to come by on demand, the test was filmed using smoke instead, and to keep conditions under control it had to be filmed inside a warehouse. A steel-framed warehouse. With all that metal reflecting the radar signals back and forth, the technicians realised that the system couldn't distinguish which signal was coming from the cars, and the demonstration wouldn't work. No problem! The motoring journalist at the wheel arranged to "simulate" the system working by putting his foot on the brake, but the car's suspension was so good he didn't feel the plank of wood placed on the floor as a braking cue when he drove over it, so he didn't stop in time. He's since been fired, and no doubt there are some folks at Mercedes feeling more than a little embarrassed.



It snowed a bit last night - in about an hour, the village got maybe an inch of snow. There was a bit more further north in Gloucestershire, and (all too predictably) this caused chaos. After a number of trips to Norway in recent winters, I've realised that it doesn't have to be this way. In Scandinavia, people cope very well, and the airports keep running in conditions that would bring Britain to a standstill if they were to occur over here.

This morning most of the snow had gone, but what was left had frozen and as the roads near me hadn't been gritted, it was a case of taking things slowly and surely. There was still some snow here when I got home this evening, too - but the forecast is for things to warm up this week, which means that people will promptly forget about doing anything to improve conditions next time and when the snow returns it'll take us all by surprise once again.


Over the weekend I was struck by how the "have your say" approach to modern living has grown in popularity. Indeed, I'm beginning to wonder if things aren't getting a little out of control.

I was reading Tim Adams's Comment column in the Observer on Sunday which mentioned, in passing, the Government's proposals to introduce parent committees to assess school performance. Why, asked Adams, "would anyone prefer a self-selecting group of parents to be setting up and running their local school than, say, a group of trained and experienced education professionals?" Later on I was watching BBC's News 24 service, who were running their own "have your say" spot - followed by a "send us your pictures" request for snaps of the UK's recent winter weather. The Government and the media have wholeheartedly embraced public involvement in things as varied as the National Health Service, the environment, teaching standards, and pensions reform as A Good Thing, and reading the papers or watching TV these days you get the distinct message that absolutely everyone's contribution should be encouraged and valued in all professions and activities.

Now, maybe I'm being naive, but surely, if you work in a profession - whether it be education or current affairs - you've probably studied for a qualification in it. Furthermore, over the years you will have accumulated a fair amount of specialist knowledge to help you do your job and make sense of what you deal with every day. As a result, you're likely (I hope) to know what you're doing. For me, your opinion is likely to carry rather more weight than that of some guy down the pub who heard one of his mates talking about something similar last Tuesday. Yet we seem to be moving towards a situation where the man in the street's views are given equal, if not greater prominence, presumably because it's felt that the audience will relate more to the average punter than they would to an expert. At this point you're probably waiting for me to mention Stuart Maconie as an example, so I won't disappoint you - but he's just the most visible example. Television programmes these days are full of people making judgements and comments, but whose only qualification for being involved seems to be that they are mildly famous. Should we be worried about that?

I've been trying to unpack this over the weekend. Perhaps predictably, I think the rise of blogging has a lot to do with it. Blogging is about people expressing themselves, and there are an awful lot of people doing so. Conventional wisdom says that this is taking power away from corporations and putting it back in the hands of individuals, and you only have to look at the online content presented by the news media to realise just how concerned they are about the phenomenon. Most news sites now carry three or four sections labelled as blogs which contain small nuggets of information that don't necessarily follow any logical train of thought from start to finish. In that, then, they're fairly blog-like. In my personal opinion, however, all blogs (with one or two very notable exceptions) have limited value beyond the exchange of information within existing, small social groups.

Blogging's wider influence is for the most part a mass-media construction, likely to be transitory and ephemeral; at present it's only given credence because it's seen as the latest fashion, craze, or fad. Let's face it: the fact that you've read this page isn't likely to result in anything earth-shattering happening to your world view, is it?

If you look at the websites of most British papers, you'll see that they've adopted an "embrace and adapt" policy towards blogging. "We blog too!" they are saying. "We're the same as you. Isn't it great?" You couldn't wish for a clearer sign that blogging is an activity that is currently very fashionable - and if it's got to the "me too" stage, it's also a sign that its influence is waning and it's on the way out.

We only have ourselves to blame, I suppose. As people become jaded with traditional methods of advertising, blogging is seen as a prime channel to get to influencers, those people who build a particular market. I believe we should spend time considering whether any commercial site can actually justify the title of blog. Establishing if they actually *are* blogs never seems to crop up, and the influence of editorial policy on content is never discussed or made explicit. I think it's unlikely that the commercial interests of any site will not have an effect on content they carry. I've already discussed spam blogs or "splogs" this month, and some of the blogs I've seen recently are no more than thinly-disguised marketing puffs. Most are intended to raise the visibility of a special report, a television programme, or the existence of the rest of the website. A commercial blog is seldom there as a separate entity, as a thing in itself, although there are one or two interesting exceptions.

Now add in the fact that everybody with net access supposedly gets a say in these things. If you've ever read stuff on usenet, you'll know that this is not always a good thing. Perhaps the most polite way of saying this is that the signal to noise ratio isn't great: there are people out there who think it's more fun to bring things down in flames than do something constructive. One example of the damage people can do is the blocking of Flickr by the UAE's sole internet provider, which appears to be the result of the actions of just one student living in Brighton. Would you really want usenet trolls exerting an influence on the news you get, on your child's education, or the allocation of your council's annual budget, for instance?

So, we have a lot of people with questionable motives trying to influence decisions, policies and activities that were previously the domain of trained professionals. We also have a new medium for business to influence or manipulate public opinion in ways that aren't always overt or explicit.

Let me ask the question again: should we be worried about that?


Every now and again someone uses the combination of a decent computer typography package and a colour printer to make our lives a bit more surreal. The latest is one of my favourites. Anyone who installs an English Heritage sign pointing to disappointing ruins is okay by me. I've added the book to my list of things I'd like for Christmas.


If you're one of the 200,000 people still running the classic SETI@home software, you've probably already started to see it displaying a message that the system will stop running on December 15th. It's time to move on to the new BOINC platform, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, which provides more control over your computer's participation, and allows more flexibility in terms of the projects you can support.


It looks like Japan's Hayabusa probe (Muses-C) has landed successfully on the asteroid Itokawa, and the team are confident it's collected some samples ready to return to Earth. It's quite a relief for the team, as it's been rather touch and go for the last few weeks.


The UK has had its first real cold snap of the winter over the last few days, with snow in the south west - although here in the village there was just a light dusting yesterday morning. Earlier in the week the temperature dropped down to -6°C overnight; my friend Roz from San Francisco has been staying for a few days, and she told me she hasn't really seen weather like this before. In one respect it would have been nice for her to see the place under a blanket of snow - it always looks spectacularly beautiful round here - but on the other hand I had to take her back to Heathrow yesterday, so having the nice sunny day we ended up with was much easier for driving. I hope those of you in the US had a happy Thanksgiving, by the way - not long until Christmas now!


Thanks to Linsey for showing me IKEA going all bullet time on us! It takes quite a while for the file to load, but it's worth it.


The Guardian has a nice web page showing how to make the ultimate paper plane. It's a fairly traditional design, though - given the variety of high-performance designs which some people have come up with for paper aircraft, I'd say that The Guardian need to work on their design a little before it's worthy of ultimate status. Full marks for effort, though!

JOHN TIMPSON 1928 - 2005

Those of us past a certain age who listen to BBC Radio 4 look back fondly to the 1980s and the golden era of the Today Programme, when it was presented by two of the sharpest minds in broadcasting. So I was saddened today to hear that the remaining half of that pair, John Timpson, has died.

Together with Brian Redhead, he helped make the news interesting, commentating with a dignity and maturity - and humour - that seems long gone these days. Even though it's been years since he filled the breakfast news slot, it's sad to think that we won't hear any more of his "ho ho" moments drifting across the airwaves.


I was delighted to hear the familiar strains of Brian Eno's Music for Airports coming out of the telly this afternoon, only to be rather taken aback to see it was accompanying an advert (for Orange, if you're interested). I'd spent the earlier part of the afternoon finishing Peter Hamilton's latest space opera Judas Unchained, and - good as it was - I was getting so annoyed by the frequent spelling mistakes, typos, and bizarre punctuation that I put a few Eno albums on in the background for something relaxing. I recently got a copy of The Shutov Assembly which is becoming a bit of a favourite.

It's been the sort of day for staying inside reading and listening to music, I'm afraid. The temperature overnight on Thursday dropped to -6°C; on Friday night things improved and it was only -5, but the village has been shrouded in fog all day and as I type this the temperature is already well below freezing and heading still further downwards. I think winter has finally arrived.


My mate Matty's charity webcast got off to a good start at midnight, and after a few initial microphone problems he was really getting in to it: when I checked this morning he was in fine form.

Unfortunately the news this afternoon isn't so good: the server he was using has given up the ghost and with no backup system available at short notice the rest of the show has had to be abandoned. All the same, full marks for a damn fine effort!


Who'd have thought the principle used to make LEDs brighter has been kicking around in nature for thirty million years? Rainforest butterflies, it seems, use the same technology as the latest LED displays: they rely on two-dimensional photonic crystals, which is a posh way of saying that - well, no, why don't I let Britney Spears explain it?


No blog yesterday as I was at the WOLCE show at the NEC in Birmingham. The latest buzz in the learning industry appears to be mobile learning - getting training material when you need it, delivered on a portable device. So I was pleased to see that T-Mobile have finally released the Sidekick on the UK market. A mate of mine in the States has had one for ages (although she's on her second or third, which doesn't say a lot for the equipment's reliability) and she carries it everywhere. I haven't decided whether or not to get one yet, but I have to say I'm very tempted.


This page is a real blog, and however inconsequential it might be, it's intended purely as a bit of fun to brighten up your day. Unfortunately there are a lot of blogs out there nowadays which have a less noble purpose: they're there to confuse Google into listing businesses at the top of search results. In fact, according to Technorati, over 5,000 spamming blogs a day are being created. It's no secret that I'm not exactly a fan of advertising at the best of times. In recent weeks I've read several articles about people's increasing resistance to sales and marketing. This goes beyond increasing cynicism over spin doctors and the like - and I'm sure it's down to the increasingly offensive line that the sales and marketing departments of businesses of all sizes are taking over how they promote their wares. When you've got the marketing profession pulling stunts like this, is it any wonder Bill Hicks wanted them wiped off the face of the Earth?

Then again, even if the marketers don't screw it up, a lot of folks at slashdot are worried that the carriers will. Make the most of it while things last, folks - the consensus seems to be that things will only get worse.


A couple of years ago, some friends of mine who live in Derbyshire saw (and photographed) a European Eagle Owl sitting in a tree in their back garden. I watched a beautiful programme last night on BBC2 which finally provided a reasonable explanation for how it got there: a pair have been breeding successfully in South Yorkshire for the past eight years, raising over 20 chicks that have moved on to other territories in the UK. Given that the things have a six-foot wingspan and eat rabbits, crows, jackdaws, lambs and the occasional cat, you won't be surprised to hear that not everyone is particularly pleased about it.


Long Way Round's Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman are planning another epic motorcycle trek - this time from the northern tip of Scotland to the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. To get in shape, Charlie has entered the 2006 Dakar Rally, too - the best of luck to both of them!


The launch of the rocket carrying James Doohan's ashes into space has been delayed until February. Now, if Scotty was in charge of this, he'd have been able to lash something workable together with some sticky-backed plastic, a paper clip, and a couple of tribbles...


That Brak album I was blathering on about earlier arrived today. It's even sillier than I expected, and me being me I found it most amusing. The most bizarre track has to be Brak's duet with Freddie Prinze Junior - someone who is, bless him, not known for his singing abilities.

I think it's fairly safe to say that you won't be hearing any songs by Brak on Matty's 24-hour charity webcast, which begins at midnight. Don't forget that you can tune in here.


It's one thing working with one of the creators of Tank Girl to create alternative personas for your musical output, but quite another to put the show on the road when the records sell by the gazillion. How do you get a band who don't exist up there on the stage to do their thing?

I was surprised to read that the Victorian music hall provided the inspiration for making the virtual band Gorillaz a reality in Lisbon last week - in effect, it was all done with smoke and mirrors. The MTV awards saw the band take to the stage with (real) rappers De La Soul, and the results were amazing. This being the Internet an' all, if you have no idea what I'm on about you can watch the whole thing in Quicktime. Just bear in mind that the most common word I've seen used to describe the band's appearance was "creepy."


Look at that!

This site reached another milestone today, as it has now had over 4000 unique visitors since the beginning of the year. Thanks for stopping by!


I've definitely been under the weather for the last five days or so, hence the lack of updates to the blog. I'm still feeling distinctly below par, but at least I'm up and about again. I don't think the cold weather has helped me much, either. I wouldn't have thought that just getting a chill was so bad for you, but the figures in the latest research seem quite conclusive.


ITV4 is rapidly becoming my favourite television channel, despite the fact that it's only on for nine hours or so every day. My response is due to the fact that the channel is fairly and squarely aimed at my sort of market, showing one science fiction series after another. Last week I watched the first episode of 1960s cult classic The Champions, and it's been quite a while since I heard the show's distinctive theme tune (another of Tony Hatch's classics). The series is the one with the three secret agents who are transformed into crime-fighting superbeings after a plane crash in Tibet - and in the opening episode Burt Kwouk was the bad guy on the receiving end of a mixture of dodgy kung fu and papier maché rocks.

At the weekend ITV4 also started showing the kung-fu epic The Water Margin, which has to be one of the most eccentrically dubbed items of television ever, thanks to the vocal talents of Miriam Margolyes, Peter Marinker, and the aforementioned Mr. Kwouk. I can still remember his opening lines:

"The ancient sages said: 'Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon?' So may one just man become an army..."

Until today, however, I didn't know that the actor who played Lin Chung, Atsuo Nakamura, now works for Japan's Green Party, and was an MP until last year.


It was good to see that ESA's Venus Express probe launched successfully this morning. Even better news is that the main engine burn was carried out successfully and the spacecraft is now on its way to Venus. It will arrive at the planet five months from now, and I'll be very interested to see what sort of things it discovers.


So the Kansas education board have voted to approve the teaching of Intelligent Design in school. The ruling effectively means that, in Kansas at least, religious beliefs will be taught in science classes. Feedback is not good - comments on Slashdot ran along the lines of "Kansas does not remotely have a chance of attracting businesses like ours given the educational climate required for our work."

I wonder what effects we'd see on the US's standing as a superpower in a couple of hundred years if this ruling is implemented widely. With its science education in danger of being compromised, will America be able to sustain technical superiority? We'll have to wait and see what happens next but I suspect that the arguments will drag on for years. Meanwhile, I will be steering well clear of Kansas.


I live in a small valley at the southern end of the Cotswolds. Valley life has benefits and drawbacks: you're protected from the worst of the weather, but radio and TV reception can suffer. In the summer, it can be a real sun trap, but in the winter it's no fun when it snows and the sun rises late and sets early. The deeper the valley, the worse this problem gets. Further north from here, there are a couple of secluded valleys that stay shaded in the winter for most of the day. It's generally accepted that not getting enough sunlight can affect some people, so you can imagine what it's like for the inhabitants of the Italian village of Viganella, hidden deep in a valley in the Alps. The last direct sunlight they get is on the 11th November, and they have to wait until February 2nd before the sun rises above the mountains again. The Mayor has had enough of this, but the solution he's suggested has been raising eyebrows: he wants to build a giant mirror to the north of the village to reflect sunlight down onto the town square.

Why is it that when I read this story I imagined the thing being taken over by a James Bond style supervillain? It'll end in tears, mark my words.


It's taken me nearly an hour to get home tonight, and the weather is foul. It's pouring with rain and the roads were flooding quite a bit. Sounds about time for a hosepipe ban...


Rick McCallum has been talking to Empire magazine about Star Wars, the movie industry, and (if only in passing) the planned new Star Wars television series which is supposed to be set after the events of Episode III. In my opinion, the most interesting comment he makes is that most modern films only stand a chance of breaking even by achieving decent sales of the DVD. Not by box office returns, but by folks like you and me sitting watching our TVs at home. No wonder the movie industry doesn't like filesharing.


Apart from being an 80s pop group, what was the Cabaret Voltaire? You can find out today as The Guardian discusses Dadaism. This is 20th century art we're discussing, though, so be prepared for a certain amount of over-the-top analysis, particularly in comparing the act of dropping bits of paper on to a canvas to Einstein's thought experiments on relativity. Yeah, right.


I've just sent Matt a couple of voiceovers for his Children in Need webcast next week. That's right: by clicking on the Just A Thought banner above on November 18th, not only will you be supporting a good cause, you'll also have the opportunity to hear my dulcet tones speeding towards you over t'interwebs. Cheers to Matty for asking me to help out.


No blog for a few days as I've been over visiting my parents in Norfolk. I had a good time. Dad and I made the most of the good weather on Saturday morning and went birdwatching at Cley, where I saw a bittern - which is the first time I've seen one in about twenty years. They're extremely reclusive birds and notoriously difficult to see, so I was extremely chuffed to watch it as it flapped past the hide we were sitting in. My copy of Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom describes bitterns as crepuscular - a wonderful word that means they're active at twilight. As Dad and I saw one at lunchtime we were particularly lucky.

Given the dreadful weather on Saturday night it was rather nice to sit in my parents' living room in front of a real log fire. There's something very special about a proper fire which you just don't get with flame effect gas fires like mine, and we had a very nice evening.

I drove home late on Sunday night, and leaving later certainly paid off - I had a very easy trip back on extremely quiet roads. I did get diverted through Birmingham as a result of the M42 being closed at junction 3A - the highways agency are installing more traffic management signage and stuff, apparently. I got back to the village well after midnight, so I was glad I'd booked today off.


I've been having line problems on my ADSL service since the end of September. Things got so bad after I updated the blog on Thursday night that I ended up spending about two hours on the phone to my ISP trying to get something sorted out. I've had real problems getting online at all in the evenings over the last week or so: my router would lose sync, then reset and reacquire the line only to drop it again within about 90 seconds. This would continue for a couple of hours or so before settling down again - hardly a usable service. I was quite sure that the problem wasn't me or my router, and after a lot of very tedious discussion I managed to persuade the Demon support people that I was probably right.

As a result, the guy from BT was here by 8:30 this morning and my master socket now sports a spiffy new filtered faceplate. This has significantly improved the line stats as far as my router is concerned. At the moment the downstream noise margin is 21dB, compared with an average of 14dB over the last month. I hope this has solved the sync problem I've had, but the test will come in the evenings when the thing usually falls over.


That little blue figure in the box above is creeping ever closer to 4000 - that's four thousand unique visitors to this site since the beginning of the year. Thanks for being one of them. One thing that running code from Statcounter on my site helps me to do is to track the sort of things people were looking for when they arrived here. It's convinced me that few people out there get decent results from their search engine, so today I've added a new page to the site that's intended to help folk get better results.


You know Tony Blair's in trouble when The Guardian's Steve Bell starts drawing him wearing John Major's underpants. Today's cartoon made me laugh out loud.


Here in the UK it's bonfire night this weekend, and the fireworks are already going off outside. Have a good time if you're partying, but please stay safe.


I had one of those weird, pleasing experiences of illusory connectedness last night. The sensation is, I know thanks to the author William Gibson, termed apophenia, and is a favourite addiction of mine. I suspect it's something to do with the way my brain works. The latest example started off after listening to an edition of Radio 3's Mixing It programme a couple of weeks ago. The last track played was off the Dangerdoom album, produced by Dangermouse, the guy who brought us The Grey Album. The track The Mask (feat. Ghostface) ends with an appallingly bad rap by a character called Brak. It was extraordinary enough to stick in the memory.

In fact it was such an extraordinarily bad performance that Radio 3's continuity announcer, who has been exposed to much strangeness by the Mixing It crew over the last few years, was actually moved to exclaim "good gracious me!" It must be understood that for Radio 3, this is the sort of language reserved for truly extraordinary events, such as a large yellow spaceship suddenly materialising above Broadcasting House and starting to dismantle the building.

Fast forward to last night, which found me watching the DVD of Warren Miller's skiing movie from 2000, Ride. During a sequence featuring much silliness on snowmobiles accompanied by a song with lyrics that included "I like pineapple upside down cake. Why is it upside down?" I realised that I was listening to the same dreadful rapper. Watching the music credits at the end of the film, I read that this was a song called I Like Hubcaps and that it was indeed recorded by Brak, but I was amazed to find that the musicians on the track were The Chieftains - Ireland's finest, and not the sort of people I'd expect to be getting up to such silliness. The Chieftains, after all, are the grand masters of Irish folk music, having worked with artists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Mike Oldfield, Sting, and The Rolling Stones.

By now I was getting curious, so a little digging on the Internet was in order. As I Googled away furiously, a couple of common factors began to appear. One was the TV channel The Cartoon Network, and the other was a guy by the name of Andy Merrill. How on earth did cartoons fit in to all this? It turned out to be easy: Andy wrote for, and did quite a few of the voices on, a Cartoon Network show called Space Ghost Coast to Coast. One of his characters was an alien called Brak. (Oh, and as an additional item of value-added trivia, you may wish to know that the voice of Brak in the original 1960s Space Ghost TV series which the show spoofed was Keye Luke, he of the white eyeballs from David Carradine's Kung Fu series.) With this to go on, a bit more digging revealed that the Chieftains were special guests on the first episode. Lo and behold, the transcript of the show even included the lyrics to the song I'd heard on Warren Miller's film.

Even more Googling revealed that Brak brought an album out a few years ago and, yes, it even featured I Like Hubcaps so I ordered it on the spot. I also discovered that Mr Merrill is responsible for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a new cartoon series that is proving remarkably popular - I'd heard about it, but sadly as I don't get either Cartoon Network or Boomerang I have never seen an episode, so I can't advise on whether or not it's worth watching (and anyway, I'm an old guy, remember?) This explained why there's a track on the Dangerdoom album called ATHF, and everything else began to fall into place. Dangermouse seems to be making a career of producing crossover rap and cartoon albums. Is this a trend in music we should be wary of?


Journalists occasionally let their reliance on cliches override good sense when it comes to reporting things, and the reporting of the Blunkett affair is just too good an opportunity for screw-ups for me not to be keeping tabs on. The best one I found yesterday was where the BBC suggested that his colleagues:

"believed Mr Blunkett had lost his bearings and become dangerously accident prone and unable to see the problems caused by his own actions."


(I should explain for the benefit of readers not from this part of the world that Mr Blunkett is one of very few MPs to be registered blind.)


There's subwoofers and there's subwoofers, but spending $13,000 on a gadget with a frequency response of 1 - 30Hz is a little over the top, even for me. Yes, that's not a typo: it can put out sounds with a frequency of 1Hz. That's one cycle per second. The folks at Slashdot were getting quite excited by all this today.

The technology of the Thigpen Rotary Woofer model 17 looks interesting, though. The heart of the thing is a variable-pitch fan. It rotates at a constant speed, but variations in blade angle (pitch) produce the noise (or move air about, depending on your hearing threshold.) The downside is that you have to install the unit in an adjacent room (an attic or basement is suggested) which then starts to er, vibrate the walls to produce the desired effect. Yow.


Every now and again I read articles by people who argue that Earth doesn't need a space program and that we should spend the money fixing things on the ground instead. All well and good, and they're entitled to their opinion - except for the fact that one day, possibly within the next forty years, we might need to stop space coming and seeing us.

Manned and robotic activities in space are competing for budgets with many other things, these days. America's budget is being pulled in several different directions at the moment and space is already suffering as a result. Developing new propulsion systems that can push asteroids out of the way is an important safety line. The news that development projects like Prometheus are being scaled back is not good, because they're the technology we will need if (more likely, when) we need to dodge something coming our way.


If you've ever watched an episode of Lost, you should enjoy this Flash animation of the cast singing along to the Weird Al Yankovic version of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. This is what the Internet is really about, folks.


Back on the 1st April I had a bit of a dig at what I call nephew art - the result of a widely-held belief that absolutely anyone can throw some scribbles together, pick a font at random for the typography and assume it'll function as an attractive and stylish bit of graphic design. Strangely enough, this is not the case. I see examples of this all the time, and not just online; I bet you do too. Today I came across the Bad Design Kills website, which is run by folks who are actively fighting this trend, and they have some witty publicity material available for download to support their campaign.

What's less amusing is one of the stories that they cite in their mission statement, and the reason for the site's name: in 1996, 17 people died and 150 were injured in a fire at Dusseldorf airport. According to a spokesman for the local fire brigade, the death toll resulted in part from the fact that people couldn't understand the building's signs. I think we shouls particularly bear this in mind tomorrow, as we celebrate World Usability Day.


Oh, and I will definitely be catching Broken News again next week, as it came over as a demented cross between The Day Today and The Fast Show. The news presenters have great names, such as Amanda Panda, Katie Tate and Richard Pritchard. If you're wondering what you missed, you can see clips of the show on the BBC's website.


In an effort to get fit for the skiing holiday, I've been going out on the bike in the evenings with some of the local chaps for a quick spin through the country lanes. Yes, in the dark: some of the lights you can get for bicycles these days put car headlights to shame. Unfortunately, last night the tube on my rear tyre blew up catastrophically, so while the rest of the guys finished their ride and went to get a car to pick me up (thanks Andrew!) I started walking home.

It gets pretty dark out there, and walking through the woods near Damery on Halloween creeped me out a lot more than I expected. There were things crashing about in the woods, for a start. Couple that with pitch darkness and the sound of mud from my tyres splattering behind me so it sounded like I was being followed, and by the time the car arrived the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end. We might try to convince ourselves that we're sophisticated and evolved beings, but I can tell you it doesn't take much for the primal fears to start bubbling to the surface, pointing and gibbering.


There's a story on the BBC's website about a new housing system that's described as "a lightweight, modular and mobile minimal dwelling for one or two people." Here in Britain, we've had these for decades, but we have a different name for them. We call them sheds.


When I was a kid, the type of audio cassette that you kept your music on said as much about you as the type of music that you listened to; some tapes were inherently cooler than others.

I found a Japanese web site this week called Cassette Jam that brought back vivid memories of sitting next to the radio with my trusty Decca cassette recorder waiting for something cool to be played. The site has a very simple concept, and you don't need to read Japanese to enjoy it: the web page consists of photographs of hundreds of different brands of C90 cassettes. Do you remember those bright green BASF cassettes on the 10th row? I do...