No wonder the house felt cold. Now, the heating's on and I've had a cup of tea and it doesn't feel quite as cold in here. The computer does a good job of warming the room up as well!
Roger Penrose has been looking at the cosmic microwave background recorded by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), and he's found a number of features in the CMB that appear as groups of up to five concentric circles. Circles like this shouldn't exist, according to the current models of what happened just after the big bang, because a process called inflation should have smoothed them out. But Penrose goes much further than pointing out a problem with inflation. The largest circles are so big, he argues, that the events that created them must have occurred so long ago that they would have happened before the big bang. It's an interesting idea, to say the least. You may wish to observe at this point that the concept of an unending, cyclical progression of universes also happens to be the theme of the Professor's latest book.
The thing is, however statistically significant the data analysis of the WMAP data might be, those circles look awfully like a processing artifact to me.
Needless to say I'm still working my way through Gran Turismo 5. There was another software update yesterday, which seems to have improved the speed with which you can switch between menu screens. I've now completed all the beginner and all the amateur races in first place, but the licence tests are still frustratingly out of reach. The advice of a couple of friends of mine was simple: I'm not going to do well in the game driving with the PS3's normal controller, so I finally caved in and ordered a wheel. That'll be next weekend gone for a burton, then.
I was also chuffed to discover that the game includes an amazingly detailed representation of the 12.9 mile Nordschleife circuit at the Nürburgring, complete with slogans chalked on the tarmac. The game might not let you take a Transit van round the course like Sabine Schmitz, but it's still amazingly good fun and even with a normal controller it feels incredibly realistic as the road surface bucks and weaves under your car.
Gaze upon my Nanowrimo badge and marvel, mortals. 50,000 words, and four days to spare.
The Quietus magazine has a great interview with one of my favourite musicians, and curator of the recent TEDx Aldeburgh event, Thomas Dolby. Worth reading for the photos of Nicola Tesla alone, but Mr D. is an extremely intelligent and interesting chap and the interview is fascinating. His comment about reading the interpretations of his lyrics posted on the pages of the Flat Earth Society (the bulletin board used by his fans) struck home:
"And they'll take an enigmatic line, like 'No it was nothing / some car backfiring', and there'll be a dozen different takes on what that meant to people. In the first instance, I love that I stimulated a response from them where if I'd actually filled in the answer, if they'd asked the question and I'd answered it, then it wouldn't stimulate a response the same way."
It took me decades to realise that sometimes, the secret of getting the most out of life is to shut up and find out what people can do without giving them the benefit of your knowledge, however fascinating you might think it is.
Oh, and you'll want to read the Alan Moore interview on the same site if you know what's good for you. Alan Moore rocks.
Here's another gem I picked up from Lauren Beukes on her prolific Twitter feed: a team at the Chinese University of Hong Kong have encoded 90Gb of data on a single gram of bacteria. Yup. You read that right the first time. They're using bacilli for memory storage.
Now, given that the average human spends their day carrying around something on the order of 2kg of bacteria, William Gibson's idea that Johnny Mnemonic could carry "hundreds of megabytes" of storage around in his head suddenly sounds like it might be pretty easy to achieve, doesn't it?
I realised this morning that I hadn't uploaded Wednesday's blog entries, the first time I've ever done that. The situation has now been remedied, and they follow immediately below. And why, you might ask, did I forget to do something as deeply ingrained a habit as keeping my blog up to date? Well, it's because of this.
Yes, on Wednesday I finally received a copy of the game that was the reason I bought a PS3 in the first place - and that was a couple of years ago. Gran Turismo 5 (GT5) is subtitled "The real driving simulator" and it's been in development for six years. A "taster" of the game, called Gran Turismo 5 Prologue (GT5P) was the first game I ever played on my PS3 and ever since I did I've been waiting eagerly for the full version to come along. I've already blogged several times about the delays and false starts involved in the game's development, the announcements of release dates followed closely by retractions, but on Wednesday I finally got my hands on GT5 itself.
As soon as I got home from work, I fired up the PS3 and slotted in the disc. The PS3 immediately told me that the game needed updating and I needed to download version 1.01 (this is on the game's release day, remember?), I pressed the X button and off it went to hoover up 130 Mb of new data. That took the best part of half an hour; living out in the countryside, I don't have a fast broadband connection. Once version 1.01 had installed itself, the game asked me if I wanted to copy game resources on to the PS3's hard drive. This would, it told me, "improve game speed" and as I'd read reviews which talked about how slowly the game ran if you didn't do this, I told it to go ahead - at which point I was informed that it would need a whopping eight Gigabytes of space. That's the equivalent of more than 5800 floppy disks, folks. Still, I had room on the PS3's drive, so I pressed the X button again and off it went. I didn't even check the initial "time remaining" figure, but headed off to work on my Nanowrimo word count for a bit.
While I typed, I kept checking to see how the PS3 was doing. Three or four times during the installation process, the "time remaining" display locked up for five or ten minutes without changing. Most frustratingly, on one of these occasions it locked up with just three seconds of the install left to go! The time seemed to crawl by. When the Playstation finally decided it was ready to let me play the game, some two and a half hours after I slid the disc into its drive slot, I was greeted with a view of Planet Earth and the sound of the Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang playing a specially commissioned work. Footage of ore being mined and smelted had me thinking "wow, these are amazing graphics" before a couple of foundry workers walked in front of the camera and I realised it was all real footage. In the film, which is presented in best seventies split-screen tradition, the metal produced is shipped to a factory, where we are shown it being pressed, welded and painted. Silica is cooked into glass, which becomes the windscreen. Robots gather and do their stuff. Finally, the camera rushes out of the factory, down roads and racetracks, before the fully assembled car - A Nissan GT-R - rolls to a halt in front of the camera. The film is three and a half minutes long which was more than enough time to establish the wildly self-indulgent and faintly pompous tone that GT5 has adopted. When the movie concluded, the screen faded to black. Now I can play the game, I thought. Nope. Instead I was treated to the intro animatic to the game itself. Oooh, look: rain! Snow! Lots of lovingly-rendered cars on lots of convincingly authentic-looking tracks, lots of impressively dynamic crashes and impossible camera moves. One car actually ends up on its roof - something unheard of in former iterations of the game. In GT5P, no matter what you did to a car, the worst you could ever get it to do was to spin gently round. The carnage depicted in the opening sequence looked far more realistic: this is is more like it, I thought!
Finally, the welcome screen appeared. My first impression was that it's a cut-down version of the GT5P menu system.
Like GT5P, most of the screen is taken up with animations of cars in picturesque settings, or engines running. After all, the game's got to look good in a shop. Like GT5P, there is a row of icons across the bottom of the screen. But unlike GT5P, these icons don't provide access to all of the game's features. Instead, the designers have added a second hierarchy of menus. And each menu looks totally different. They're ugly - there seems to have been little or no attention paid to HCI issues at all - I'll come on to one example of this in a moment.
The first sub-menu is for something called GT Life, which turned out to me the main menu for GT5 itself. GT Life is where you choose your car, get it modified, or painted, where you can earn your driver's licence and take your cars out for a practice lap, and where you can enter races either as a driver (A-mode) or manager (B-mode). However, each of these options takes you to yet another menu, and once again each of these menus looks completely different to all the others. There is no design continuity through the game at all, and the GT Life screen in particular is destined to become a commonly used example of how not to do user menus. It's hideous.
The other icons you can see there on the welcome screen allow access to News items (which eventually download from the server) Arcade mode (for quick races using a selection of cars that you don't need to have won), a Course Maker (more of a course modifier, really) and GT TV (where you can download promotional videos) as well as smaller icons for the manual, game options, and a save button.
Starting out with just 20,000 credits in the bank you're very limited in what you can buy as your first set of wheels. I suspect I did what everyone else did, and bought the second-hand Mazda MX-5. That was good enough to let me compete in a couple of races without being left behind in the dust. The MX-5 isn't a premium car, so you don't get the lovingly-rendered cockpit view, but it does look like the real thing. Unfortunately I soon discovered that the AI of the drivers I was racing against was much less convincing. Restarting a race for the second time after one of them had shunted me clean off the track I noticed that each car did exactly the same thing that it had done the first time, allowing me to anticipate and dodge. Not exactly realistic, then.
It soon became obvious that the AI doen't react to the behaviour of other drivers at all, in fact each car behaves as if it's the only one on the track - several times on the straights I watched a faster car come up behind me and rather than overtaking, just ploughing straight into me, sending me spinning off into the Armco. I've not seen drivers carrying out PIT manouevres on their opponents in Formula 1 but it was happening with mind-numbing regularity in the races I was in. On the other hand, the much-vaunted "damage" included in the GT series for (I believe) the first time ever has little or no effect. Certainly none of the races ended up as apocalyptic as the ones depicted in the opening animatic. All the same, I got so frustrated with being repeatedly run off the road after a while that I quit back to the GT life menu to look at the licence tests instead. GT5 Prologue didn't bother with licences, it just let you get on with things. The full game, though, has many sets of hoops for you to jump through before you're allowed to buy certain types of car and compete in certain classes of race. There are ten for each licence, and trying to win gold on some of them with a dualshock controller rather than a wheel is way beyond my abilities, at least for the moment. I couldn't even get close. Frustrated once again, I returned to the GT Life menu and once I'd spent a bit of money upgrading my car I eventually managed to compete on a more favourable footing.
After I'd got a few races and a few licence events under my belt, I'd got enough "experience" to unlock the Top Gear special event. When the computer animated version of The Stig appeared in the intro movie for this, I laughed out loud; the event itself, where twelve Volkswagen camper vans race around the figure of eight of the Top Gear Test Track, was uninspired and tedious.
Each time I completed an event and returned to the menus, I noticed the machine pausing. As the evening drew on I spent more and more time sitting staring at a blank screen until the network light on the PS3 flickered in to life and the menu reappeared. Then I'd have to sit patiently for another couple of minutes until the network light came on again and the pointer reappeared, allowing me to select something else to do on the game. Eventually I was so frustrated that I closed the game down and thought about what else I could do instead. Let me just say that again, because it says a lot about what I think of GT5: the game I've been waiting for for the last couple of years was so frustrating that after four hours or so I'd closed it down and was looking for something else to do.
So instead, I headed over to the Playstation Store to redeem the special offer vouchers I'd been emailed by Play.com as a thank you for buying the game. I was able to access the store without a hitch, and I'd soon downloaded the "stealth" versions of a Nissan GT-R racing car and a Mercedes SL55 AMG, both of which promised to be somewhat quicker than the humble Miyata I'd driven so far. Inspired once more, I fired the game up again and after a couple of enforced pauses I was able to race the downloaded cars. What a difference. They meant I could easily win my first championship and earn a car as a prize. And here's the HCI example I mentioned earlier: in GT5P when the race finishes, you're told you've won a car and the car appears on screen, allowing you to select it for use with one click. In the full game, you're only told you've won a car when you get back to the GT Life screen - that's one or two user interactions already. But you haven't got the car yet - you've got a ticket for a car, and a little "1" appears next to the "cars awarded" icon on the menu. So you click on the icon, and you're shown a picture of the ticket for the car, and asked if you'd like to use the ticket. When you click "yes" you get an animation of the car appearing similar to , but seemingly much darker than the animation in GT5P. You're then given the choice of using the car or leaving it in your garage. So from just one user interaction involved in winning a car and having it ready to drive, you have as many as five. Not good, guys, not good at all. By the time I'd discovered all this, most of the evening had passed and I had other stuff to do like keeping my Nanorimo count healthy, so I shut things down for the night.
By the time I was ready for another stab at the game on Thursday evening, Sony had added a news item to the welcome screen which reads, in part:
"Because GT5 performs online access not only when participating in online races and using community features, but also when starting the game and during the various screen displays in GT Mode, unfortunately this online congestion is also affecting standard gameplay."
"Currently we are simultaneously working on several different solutions to improve the network status and alleviate the network congestion as soon as possible. We are expecting to be able to provide a proper online service again soon. We sincerely apologise to our customers for the inconvenience."
In other words, the game was designed to make demands for server time even in single-player mode, and not just when the player's stats need updating but every time the user switches between menu screens. Yet the realisation that this would impose huge demands on their server infrastructure when the game was released appears to have entirely escaped them.
So what's my verdict? Outside the races, the user experience is disappointing at best and frequently frustrating. When you start racing, matters don't improve much and the driver AI in the races is, frankly, pathetic. But get in front of the pack, in a decent car, and you begin to remember why the Gran Turismo series has the reputation it does. Even though the game has been in development for six years, it feels like it's been rushed out of the door without any attempt at polishing it. It has flashes of brilliance that make me wonder how great things could have been, but to be honest, given how long I've waited to get my hands on the game it was never going to be able to live up to my expectations.
Update: having said all that, I discovered the game's representation of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit this evening (look for the "Cote d'Azur" circuit). Wow. My jaw was on the floor.
Warner Brothers have announced a Buffy reboot, but leave Joss Whedon entirely out of the loop. Which just proves that Warners is staffed predominantly by idiots. As for Joss's reaction - well, it's a prime example of why Joss is still one of the coolest people on this planet. Much less cool was the journalist at The Guardian whose story about the affair was a masterpiece of inept journalism. For a start, he only repeats the first half of Joss's quote: "This is a sad, sad reflection on our times, when people must feed off the carcasses of beloved stories from their youths..." and claiming that Whedon was being all bitter and twisted about things, without finishing off the rest of the sentence, and its killer punchline: "...just because they can't think of an original idea of their own, like I did with my Avengers idea that I made up myself." Perhaps Andrew Pulver should read through the comments, paying particular attention to #2: "Oh my god - you've completely misquoted Joss Whedon."
...when the Luftwaffe bombed the crap out of the centre of Bristol. I like the combination photo of Park Street, up by the museum. Castle Park today is an open space, but in the 1930s it used to look very different.
Thanks to Lauren Beukes posting about this on Twitter, I now know more than I wanted to about some of the things the Japanese railways encounter at this time of year. Here's a problem that Network South East haven't had to deal with yet: millipedes on the line. Eww.
It feels more than cold enough for snow here tonight. The weather forecast for the next week is looking decidedly wintry. I think I might call in at the shops on the way home tomorrow and get myself a hot water bottle. Yes, I'm still living the rock and roll dream.
This photo was taken twenty years ago today. The country has yet to recover from the corrosive, "me first" attitude that her government engendered, and the selling off of just about every national institution they could package up and stick a price tag on was blatant, daylight robbery on a scale that had never seen before. Sadly, these days it feels commonplace.
As I said in the comments on Anton's blog, I feel old.
After a wait of many years, Carl Sagan's extraordinary television series Cosmos is now available on DVD and I've spent the afternoons of the last couple of weekends working my way through all thirteen episodes. I was just twenty years old when the series was first broadcast and I remember it having a profound effect on me. I was already familiar with Sagan, for his work on America's space program but also for the thoughtful (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) book on the evolution of human intelligence, The Dragons of Eden. I'd bought a copy of the book when I was still a teenager and it's still in my collection, along with all his other books. In my opinion, Cosmos was Sagan's finest achievement. When I pressed play and the first episode began playing to the familiar strains of the third movement from Vangelis's Heaven and Hell Part 1, there was a lump in my throat. I remembered every frame of that opening sequence. It doesn't feel like thirty years have passed since it was made.
Cosmos is subtitled "a personal voyage" and it reflects the huge range of interests that Sagan had, covering everything from the structure of the human brain to the likelihood that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials, from the Dutch renaissance to celestial calendars of the Anasazi indians. Locations range from Cambridge University to the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico by way of India, northern Italy, and the Greek islands. The show connected with audiences in a way few other programmes have done, before or since - it's reckoned that it's been seen by over half a billion people. It's stuffed full of memorable quotes too. There's a line whispered by Jodie Foster in Robert Zemeckis's film of Sagan's novel Contact where her astronomer character gazes out at the wonder of our Universe: "They should have sent a poet." Sagan was such a poet, and he possessed a singular ability to convey his own sense of wonder at the cosmos around us. Watch, too, the episode where he returns to the sixth grade class in Brooklyn where his enthusiasm for science was first kindled: he was an extraordinary teacher, warm, supportive, and passionately engaged in getting kids to think.
Carl Sagan died on December 20th 1996, and his passing left the world impoverished and diminished. When Sagan was alive, the idea that a leading political movement could become so unsure of its power base that it begins to consider critical thinking as a threat to its existence would have been unthinkable. He would be aghast, I think, at the way in which fundamentalist Christians and the American right have attacked scientific thought as something to be feared or ridiculed. Right now, we desperately need someone to take up where Sagan left off and bring back reason and common sense - not just to our television screens, but to the rest of our lives as well.
Jon Rafman's got a Tumblr collection of captures from Google Street View. They provide a stunning illustration of the richly diverse lives that humans live all over the planet. Scrolling through the images becomes hypnotic after a while.
While I'm pointing you at stuff on Tumblr, let me just say that this sucker got bookmarked as soon as I landed on the page: If we don't, remember me. The animated GIF is a peculiar thing, and up until I saw this site most of the examples I'd come across were on b3ta.com (and quite a few of those are things that cannot be unseen, if you get my drift) or the sort of stuff that gets appended to those emails full of exclamation marks that always seem to end up in your inbox on a Friday afternoon - you know the ones: dancing hippos, stroppy penguins, or headbanging cats.
But now, the bar has been raised. Well, not so much raised as set on fire, blown up, and then punted over the moon. The idea of taking a few frames from a movie - and more specifically, frames where so little happens that at first you think you're looking at a still picture - works phenomenally well. Subtle animated GIFs - who'd have thought?
There are pages of the things, and they are all amazing. More, please!
I've just hit 31,113 words on Nanowrimo, so I'm a little bit ahead of schedule. Every year I've done Nanowrimo the second week has always been the hardest. By then, you've most likely worked through the initial batch of ideas that might not have been brilliant but at least good enough to commit to the keyboard, and there hasn't been enough of a story starting back at you from the screen to tell you what happens next. So week two is the week when you have to grit your teeth and plough grimly on, hoping that eventually something will catch and you'll be up and running for week four. Well, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say the spark of my imagination has caught fire, but at least it hasn't gone out yet.
I have a new Brian Eno album to listen to.
One of the scariest articles I've read on the web this year purports to be a letter from someone who has spent the last few years earning his living by doing work that should have been done by the university students to whom it had been assigned. He doesn't just help undergraduates to cheat, either: he's been paid by Masters and Ph.D. students to write their theses and dissertations for them. I was surprised by some aspects of the ensuing metafilter discussion, not because of the rather uninspired and obvious trolling going on, but because of the proportion of commenters who don't see anything wrong with the practice - but while you read it, hold this thought: one of his customers could end up working with you.
Or they might even end up as President of the United States.
For a while it looked like somebody had been taking their hobby of model rocketry a little further than most, but the rumours of unauthorised ICBM launches turned out to be premature; the folk at Gawker.com identified the culprit as a US Airways Boeing 757-200 flying from Honolulu to Phoenix. It's a nice bit of detective work, but curse those rational explanations!
It's Friday at last. I've been away on a course this week and I haven't really had time for blogging and suchlike. It's been a struggle to keep to my daily target on Nanowrimo, too, but I finally got back on track today.
I still managed to find some fun stuff on the web, though. I was particularly taken with a TV advert for Kronenbourg 1664 which features some familiar faces performing a new version of one of my favourite songs. I was rather impressed by the video from a recent micro air vehicle meet in Japan which features some very entertaining model aircraft including an angel and what appears to be a distant cousin of Jimbo. But the best headline of the week has to be this one from the "local news" section of the BBC website. It all happens down here in the west country.
I had one of those really special days yesterday:
I got up for a 4:30am breakfast and was on the road by 5. I had such an early start because I needed to get right the way across the country to Aldeburgh in Suffolk by 10am. I made it with time to spare - it's amazing how quiet the roads are at that time on a Saturday morning! As the sun came up I was driving along the A14 in Northamptonshire, watching the first birds of the day flying across the road in front of me. I was amazed to see a couple of red kites in amongst the rooks and crows - the first time I've ever seen any in the area. I arrived at Snape Maltings at around 9:15. It's the first time I've been there for many years, and I was amazed how much of the place I remembered. The view across the reed beds still reminds me of Doctor Who - The Power of Kroll was filmed there back in the 1970s.
So, why had I driven the best part of 250 miles on a sunny and clear November morning? I was there to attend TEDx Aldeburgh, an independently organised event being conducted under the TED banner. The day had been organised and curated by Thomas Dolby, who has been one of my favourite musicians since I bought a copy of The Golden Age of Wireless back in the 1980s (it was, as I recall, the second CD I ever bought!). A TED event consists of speakers being given 18 minutes to talk about what they do and share their experiences with the other attendees and guests. The results are frequently astounding, as you'll see if you watch a few of the hundreds of videos available on the TED site. Thomas had organised today's events around the theme of music and sound, and the speakers he'd invited - all donating their time for nothing - were all funny, creative, foucused and inspiring people. Thomas described the idea of TED as one that broke down the barriers between audience and speakers; there was, as he put it, "no velvet rope" that separated one from the other. And why should there be? The room was full of a typical TED audience: highly intelligent and gifted people, all movers and shakers, early adopters of technology items, as well as quite a few music nerds like me.
And who had Mr Dolby invited? Well, there was David Toop, who asked the question: has there been a qualitative change in listening practice? What role does silence play in the way we listen to things? Do we listen enough to things other than music? Tod Machover talked about the way in which we make music, and showed us the work he's been doing with the cellists Yo Yo Ma and Peter Gregson (and Peter Gregson performed a short piece on cello for us). Tod concluded his talk by previewing his new opera Death and the Powers which features robotic performers. Then Martyn Ware came on to talk about the work he's been doing with 3-D soundscapes and the company he founded with Vince Clarke called Illustrious - and who worked in a plug for Heaven 17's latest tour at the same time! I can't wait to see the 2 projects he's working on that are going to be installed in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern next year, as they sound fascinating. Then on came Ash Nehru of United Visual Artists to talk about the work his company does, showing videos of some great installations that they set up at the V&A and Leicester Square and how they came up with the light show for Massive Attack's stage show. They also did one of my favourite promotional videos, too - Tonto by Battles.
After a spot of lunch in the Maltings restaurant, proceedings resumed with Thomas Dolby interviewing William Orbit:
William was in LA on Thursday and New York on the Friday and had lost most of his voice somewhere on the way, so TD helped out by conducting the session as an interview. It was fascinating hearing the two of them talking about what they do. If you click through the link associated with the picture above, you can read about some of the points that WO made. I was really sorry when they had to wrap things up, as I could have listened to the two of them for the rest of the day.
The next speaker was also really interesting, though: the question Sarah Nicolls asked was "what is it about the piano I can change?" She explained that the musical approach involving playing inside the piano dated back as least as far as 1916 and Percy Grainger. She described her own musical adventures in the field and then played a composition on her inside-out piano which she'd brought along for the day. It was an intriguing piece - at one point sounding fluid and melodic like whale song, at another harsh and metallic, like Stockhausen. After Sarah, TD introduced the composer Nick Ryan, who talked about how his synaesthesia informs the work that he does. Once again, it was fascinating. The "video game without video" that he's developing for the iPod called Papa Sangre sounds intriguing and I'll be getting a copy when it comes out.
The next person TD introduced was a hoot. Thomas had asked him how he ought to be described and Tim Exile had replied: "buffoon." He was anything but. I'd heard of Tim's software called The Finger before but that hadn't prepared me for the experience of being in the same room as the man himself. This video gives you an idea of what he did to blow us away, live, in real time, without any backup or safety net. Awesome stuff that makes me want a copy of Reaktor more than ever. He finished off by creating a piece of music from sounds and phrases coming from a microphone being passed round the audience, and it completely blew me away.
The final artist of the day was the rather wonderful Imogen Heap, who talked about the concert she did at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday night which I watched on the Internet, along with nearly half a million other people. She talked about her creative process, about the way in which crowdsourcing now plays a major part in everything from selecting which mix to use to helping design the album cover, and she played a haunting version of Hide and Seek on the Maltings Steinway grand piano. And then it was all over. I didn't want to leave. I sat there for a few minutes, mulling over one of those days that, after it's happened, you realise you're going to remember for the rest of your life. TD was standing at the front of the hall and I managed to say thankyou to him before wandering out into the night, finding my car and driving home.
By the time I'd got home and had something to eat it was 1:30 in the morning and I'd been awake for 21 hours, but I didn't feel tired at all. It was a really great day.
I've just added another few hundred words to my Nanowrimo effort for this year and things seem to be progressing nicely. I've built up a comfortable margin for the weekend, which is just as well as I'll be busy doing other things tomorrow. More details when I get back!
There were some stunning pictures coming back from NASA's EPOXI spacecraft yesterday as it whizzed past the comet 103P/Hartley. I'm glad to hear the spacecraft survived the encounter and managed to send back data. The comet itself is an odd-looking thing: two lumpy balls of ice connected by a much smoother waist. Given the thing's relatively minor size (it's about a mile from one end to the other) there probably isn't that much gravity holding it all together, but I'd love to know how it ended up loooking like it does.
No, this is not a reference to Simon Cowell's one-man crusade to destroy popular music; I'm talking about the peculiar quality of the mysterious and the shadowy. A word to define a story's ability to raise an eyebrow or the hair on the back of your neck, depending on whether you believe in the truly extraordinary or not.
It's been lean times for the mysterious and shadowy in recent years thanks to the advent of the Internet and reality television. Truly Fortean events are few and far between. But every now and again, we get something just as weird cropping up in an unlikely place, and this week's example was brought to my attention by Charlie Stross, who used his blog to ask the question: Did somebody just try to buy the British Government? Lord James of Blackheath announced in parliament that he'd been approached by a mysterious and shadowy organisation he referred to as "The X Foundation" who claim they have recently deposited £5 billion in British banks, and wish to make it available to the British government to support investment in recreation. Oh, and Lord James then added that "the foundation will be prepared to put up money for funding hospitals, schools, the building of Crossrail immediately with £17 billion transfer by Christmas, if requested." This is, it has to be said, a little out of the ordinary, even for the House of Lords. The Boing Boing and Metafilter blogs mentioned the story mid morning and then the author (and high-profile tweeter) Neil Gaiman linked to Charlie's page - at which point all hell broke loose. According to Charlie, the website got a whopping 1.44 million hits in 24 hours and even the newspapers have started to pay attention.
The treasury seemed to be of the opinion that the gold reserves necessary to back up a scheme of this sort would amount to more than the entire amount of gold mined during the entire history of the planet, but the offer was taken seriously enough to occupy the time of several high-level people from the Treasury for several weeks. Stross suggests that the organisation - which is not identified - might be the Vatican. Which other organisations might have £22 billion in spare cash lying around? The affair reads a bit like the screenplay for a James Bond movie...
Here's something I tweeted about a couple of days ago, but didn't get round to blogging (and yes it's yet another link I found at kottke.org): someone's built a teeny-tiny catapult just so they can launch the minuscule custard pies they've made at bees. Watch the video in the link. Just watch it.
Yes, you read that right. Catapult. Tiny. Custard pies. Bees.
This month seems to be heading into strange territory indeed...
And finally, one of Rupert Murdoch's many "news" outlets has been caught out telling untruths (no, really?) and was forced to issue an apology. One which just goes to show that you should never, ever come to the attention of trekkies whilst writing about the show unless you are prepared to do the requisite amount of research first.
The best bit?
"Addendum - We're also sorry for any errors in this apology."
I've finished the first pass through the blog archive, so it should now be possible to read through the whole thing sequentially. I'm amazed by how buggy the HTML was in the early days - clearly I wasn't paying attention when I was putting the thing together! I still have a lot of work to do on adding permalink entries for each day. That will get done eventually, but for the moment I have to make my word count for Nanowrimo and make sure today's square goes green!
Over the last couple of days I've been tweaking a lot of the files in the blog archive. I've not finished yet, because I've been blogging for quite a while, but one thing I've done (and I've been meaning to do so for a long time) is add navigation to skip forward and back a month at the top of each page. When I've finished, you'll be able to start at the beginning of the archive and run right through to the current month's blog without having to consult the archive page itself. My goal is to add permalink entries for each day I've ever blogged, but that's likely to happen at a much slower rate. I've only got back as far as August 2007 so far.
Nanowrimo got off to a good start yesterday and I got more than 2000 words written. Tonight, fuelled by extra caffeine, I will attempt to reach even further ahead.
Because, as Garr Reynolds says, plastering them everywhere will result in serious damage to your credibility. That's assuming you ever had any credibility in the first place, of course. I've got Garr's book, Presentation Zen. It's one of those great texts that you read, thinking "if only everyone did this..." so he knows what he's talking about.
Google would like you to think so. Meet the WebP.
The 100 best signs seen at Jon Stewart's rally to restore sanity. I particularly liked number 35: "If your beliefs fit on a sign, think harder."
Star Wars - now with added Jar Jar Binks! Trust me - it's actually funny. Something that could never be said of his appearances in the last three movies, anyway.
It's November. That means that for the fifth year running I've committed to writing a 50,000 word novel before the end of the month. I'm undertaking this challenge thanks to the folks at Nanowrimo.org because no matter where you live on this planet, November is National Novel Writing Month. The graph at the top of the page will show my progress through the month, so you can see how I'm doing and I can work on meeting my daily quota of wordage. Wish me luck!
If you've linked up with me on Facebook you'll probably have noticed that I don't use the system to play games or take "what kind of..." type personality tests. There is a good reason for this: it's because I don't trust Facebook's developer or applications infrastructure as far as I could throw it. And with good reason, apparently.