Once more unto the Blog!

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: December 2004

December was an eventful month for my online activities, as I finally got broadband.

It also saw me up and running with a shiny new machine and having to contend with the impenetrable mysteries of a new (to me) operating system.

PHEW (1)

I'm back home after a very enjoyable few days gadding around the country. I had a very restful and restoring Christmas, and I hope you did too. And if you're heading out tonight, have a happy and safe Hogmanay.

PHEW (2)

On December 23rd, NASA announced that a 400-meter wide lump of rock called 2004 MN4 was predicted to pass close by the Earth on 13 April 2029. According to NASA last Thursday, "the flyby distance is uncertain and an Earth impact cannot yet be ruled out."

I was expecting this to hit the headlines, because it was the first Near-Earth Object (NEO) to be rated a 2 on the Torino scale. Over Christmas, some reports were saying that it had been upgraded to a 4. Not good. Fortunately, the alarm is over, and subsequent observations (together with observations of the same rock that had been made a few years ago) have ruled out the possibility of 2004 MN4 hitting us in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, this is why the global community needs to develop its capability for spaceflight. This is also why launching rockets is most emphatically not a waste of money. We need the ability to fly out to rocks like 2004 MN4 and nudge them out of the way, preferably well in advance.

Interested in this sort of thing? You can find out more at NASA's Near Earth Object (NEO) Program website.


A study of 570 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee has decided that maybe the ancient Chinese knew a lot more about medicine than they're given credit for, as acupuncture works (duh!) After eight weeks, patients in the study who were given acupuncture had 40% less pain and 40% more mobility than those who weren't. Those are quite impressive figures, but from my own experience I'm not surprised. I've had acupuncture, and it worked for me - and I know other people who have also gained significant benefits from it. Let's hope that health services will pay more attention to such things now that some serious research has been done on the subject.


Working on a project? Hating it? Then consider this: one of the most bizarre articles I've come across recently was one mentioned in Slashdot this week. It was about the guys who wrote the code for Pacific Tech's Graphing Calculator application that comes with Apple macintosh computers. It's bizarre because the main programmer responsible, Ron Avitzur, effectively sneaked in to Apple to complete the work. Better still, after a few months of this he had people working for him. He wasn't being paid and his team had no official support, yet other people at Apple helped them test the software and everyone spent long hours getting the thing ready to ship. The end result is a tremendously popular program, judging by user comments. Read the full article here and you'll never complain about your project deadlines again. Oh, and the last line of the article is a hoot.


The BBC obviously thought it faced an interesting conundrum this week. There's a new internet worm called Santy.A that's been defacing thousands of websites by using a security glitch in old versions of the PHP bulletin board software. The worm spreads by using Google to search for target sites, and it's now been stopped because Google has blocked the searches generated by the worm.

Now the BBC have obviously interpreted this as "blocked searches *about* the worm," meaning that if you give full details of the story, your page gets blocked out of the world's largest search engine. So the BBC's news story rather pointedly omits anything that might actually allow you (or, more importantly, Google) to identify what a defaced site would look like so you can check your own bulletin board. Have a look at their story to see what I mean. It seems curiously thin on detail until you figure out what they were thinking. On the other hand, the folks at The Register, bless 'em, dive straight in and tell us what we want to know. And yes, their story comes up in Google.


If you wander around the net at the moment you've probably already stumbled across the trailer (albeit in very badly encoded Quicktime) for the film of Frank Miller's graphic novel Sin City. If you've read the book, your jaw will hit the floor when you see it. It's the closest I've ever seen film get to the stylistic approach of the comic book - and I'm not using that as a pejorative term. Comics are a medium which is based heavily on film. So when we come full circle, it's a bit like looking at a photocopy of a photocopy: the result is more... interesting. Gritty. Dark.

Am I touting pulp fiction film noir as stylistic excellence? We'll have to wait and see, but my mouth is watering. OK, enough of the viral marketing (Dimension films, you owe me for a review that enthusiastic) but it really does look as if Frank Miller has pulled off an amazing bit of work with Robert Rodriguez's help. And with a cast like that, you can't really go wrong...


Well, I think I've more or less got my wireless network up and running, but I feel a rant coming on.

Absolutely no thanks at all go to manufacturer Linksys, who have a useless product support site, distinctly unhelpful support staff (if they can't solve your problem, they just hang up on you), and kit that I'd be profoundly embarrassed about selling if I were them. Frankly, they suck.

Don't believe me? Have a look at this thread on the Australian Whirlpool Broadband site: as we go to press this evening there are thirty four pages of people getting ruder and ruder about the router I went out and bought. At least after reading this I know not to try "upgrading" to a newer version of the router's firmware. I'd rather keep the limited functionality I have at the moment. Still not convinced? Think I'm overreacting? Try this UK forum. Or how about these users who have had even worse problems? I love the fact that Linksys were "trying to turn things around" when that article was written. When was that? Oh yeah - February 2002!

It's interesting that the only guy I've come across who is really evangelising Linksys's kit is Bob Cringely, and the first thing he advocates is dumping their firmware for custom written stuff made by a completely unrelated company: Sveasoft, based in Sweden. I also find it funny that one of the most popular results for the WAG54G on Google is for a web page where they pulled theirs apart.

Note to self: next time, research the product you're thinking of buying before you shell out money for it...

Now I'm not considering sending my WAG54G back just yet, but the fact that it doesn't do port forwarding, or that the DHCP implementation is pants, or that the diagnostics settings are limited to "yup, your link's up" aren't exactly filling me with confidence about its long-term performance. And as for their wireless network cards: as I mentioned earlier this month I eventually gave up trying to run anything made by Linksys under Windows ME, even with a freshly installed copy of the OS. USB or PCI slot adapters were both a complete frickin' waste of space. I won't be buying anything from Linksys again. Ever. The replacement card I bought was made by Belkin, it worked straight out of the box, and it's giving me a constant 54Mbps connection. Sweet.

If only reality were more like Intel's wonderful adverts for Centrino notebooks. Once again, the adverts feature those wacky guys from the Blue Man Group and are still some of the best things you'll see on commercial TV.


I've spent the last couple of days fighting a throat infection - the second I've had in a month. I woke up this morning from a dream about someone leaving a motorcycle running outside the house to realise that the noise I could still hear was the sound of my own breathing. Combine that with the fact that the temperature outside last night dropped below -5° Centigrade, and I ended up with a day in bed, feeling awful. Even though the heating's been on for a few hours this evening, I'm still sitting here shivering.


You may well have seen today's reports that a new user signs up for broadband in the UK every ten seconds, according to BT. One thing I've already noticed about having broadband is that I'm more likely to investigate links to video and other high-bandwidth content than I was before. As a result, I've come across a couple of fairly cool items this evening. The first is from Michael Gondry, the pop video director who successfully moved on to making feature films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He still keeps his hand in with pop videos, and his latest for French outfit Laquer's new single Behind is a timelapse film of a trip across America. Great fun.


The second is the perfect antithesis of computer technology as entertainment: a German engineer has built himself his own version of Nolan Bushnell's famous Pong video game. The difference is, that this one is entirely mechanical.


Yesterday I spent another evening aquiring more content to fill up my hard drive. In particular, I'm indebted to the rather spiffy Total Recorder from High Criteria. It's a neat little piece of software that acts as an audio driver for your soundcard, which in turn allows you to save any streaming audio from a web page as a file on your PC. What's more, you can save files in a variety of formats.

My brother recommended it to me last year, but without broadband there wasn't really much point getting it. Now it's a different matter, so I'm now a registered owner of their professional version. I gave it quite a run through last night, and I'm delighted with the results. If you listen to streaming audio on the net, then this is very definitely recommended.


Joy of joys, the writer William Gibson is blogging again. Surf on over to his pages to see what serious blogging should be like.


It's not often that I find myself agreeing with the leader of the Conservative party, but today's story about the Government's plan to delete millions of emails before the UK's new freedom of information legislation comes into effect on January 1st worries me, no matter how reassuring the tone in which the Government conveys its response. I don't know about you, but for me the phrase hiding the evidence springs readily to mind.


Almost inevitably, I was up until quite late last night. Well, okay, more than "quite late": it was after 1 o'clock in the morning when I got to sleep. My brother Andy lives in California and has had ADSL for many years; today he was chiding me for not leaving my computer on and connected while I slept, or after I went to work! I'm afraid that still seems like a rather extravagant use of electricity, even if it would help me to zip through SETI@home work units at a fairly prodigious rate (my new machine takes between 2 and 3 hours to get through one unit). I can see that it's going to take some getting used to unlimited access.

As my first sortie through all that broadband media, I downloaded a number of trailers for upcoming films. The Dark Horizons site rather kindly provides a page of links to the latest ones, but I'm mystified why some companies won't let you save the result to your hard drive. Don't they want you to publicise their stuff, then?

Of the four trailers acquired last night:

The Tim Burton version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looks like it might be significantly better than the first version that starred Gene Wilder. As it's a Tim Burton film the star is, of course, Johnny Depp as Mr. Wonka. Barking.

I have to say that the trailer for the Magic Roundabout movie looks great just because it's got Jim Broadbent in it as Brian, but as it's also got Bill Nighy (Dylan), Joanna Lumley (Ermintrude), Kylie Minogue (Florence), Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf - oops, sorry, that should be Zebedee) and Tom Baker thrown in for good measure, then greatness has to be abandoned and we start wandering off in search of superlatives. Oh, and it also features some bloke called Robbie Williams as Dougal. Best bit? What Brian does after saying the line "Let's jump him!"

I discovered that they've made a film of Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano's comic "Hellblazer." Presumably to avoid people confusing it with Clive Barker's somewhat similar sounding Hellraiser, it's now called Constantine instead and stars Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz. Looks amazing.

On a slightly less enthusiastic note, Batman Begins has a very flash trailer, but I'm not totally convinced. It features lots of explosions, acrobatics and martial arts, but I've seen trailers done the same way for movies that turned out to be complete clunkers. There's no sign of the (admittedly stellar) supporting cast, apart from Liam Neeson - and unfortunately the result for me was a subconscious assumption that Bruce Wayne has now been trained as a Jedi. Will there be any substance? Time will tell. Nevertheless, I'm informed by someone who knows about such things that Liam Neeson looks very good in a suit.


It must be awful running an African country, because statisticians always pick on you when they're going on about the latest business sensation or people making ludicrous sums of money. In the 1970's, I can remember seeing various African kingdoms repeatedly teased for earning less than ABBA. Back in August, the BBC kept the tradition going by reporting that the gross domestic product (GDP) of the online gaming community is now greater than the GDP of Namibia.

Over the last few years, I've seen stories in the news about people paying significant amounts of money to improve their standing in computer games. People on eBay frequently trade characters or bits and pieces that only exist within online games. Now things have moved to the next stage, and it seems that some people would rather spend money investing in their virtual environment than their real life. I'm not sure I'd have spent £13,700 on a representation of an exotic island that exists solely within the game Entropia even if it may eventually be possible to make money out of the deal. Would you? What a weird concept.


It's worth paying regular visits to the McSweeney's Internet Tendency website, as there's usually something new and amusing to read. A recent addition to their lists category is an article describing the telltale signs that you may be living inside a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. However, if (unlike me) your movie geekdom is limited, you will probably find things more amusing if you first consult IMDB's list of films for which Mr Bruckheimer has been responsible before you read the McSweeney's article.

I also noticed this week that the inevitable has happened and McSweeneys have now acquired a contributor who really is called Timothy McSweeney. This one lives in Dublin (which, I suppose, reduces the odds of having such a name by quite a large amount.)

All the same, how cool is that?


Yes, I'm up and running. Goodness me, ADSL is fast after ten years of dial-up. Demon were very helpful, their support documentation is easy to understand and tells you what you want to know, everything works, and I am an extremely happy bunny. In fact, I think I'll have a beer to celebrate. Cheers!


There's a new comet in the neighbourhood. Comet Machholz is currently visible in the sky at about the 5 o'clock position when you look at the constellation Orion, and it's getting brighter every day. If you need more help finding it, Heavens Above should be able to help you.

It's at times like these when I really appreciate living in a small village. More people in the street have got outside lights than they used to, but on a clear night the view is still breathtaking. I can remember looking at Comet Hale-Bopp back in 1987 and being stunned by how bright it was. It looks like Machholz may well be one of the first bright comets of the decade, so keep your fingers crossed.


I was quite surprised to see that in a poll conducted by VH1 this month, "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl was voted the best Christmas record ever. Not only that, but it got nearly a quarter of all the votes cast.

Don't worry: the old favourites from Wizzard and Slade are in there, too - but I'm not going to make any comment about what good taste VH1's viewers have after discovering that Mariah Carey appears alarmingly high up in the top ten.


You don't need to spend long trawling the net to realise that it's full of red herrings. People seem to be particularly good at swallowing ludicrous statements, hook line and sinker. Take the Religious Right in America, for instance: without wishing to get too political about it, I'm beginning to suspect that some of them may be a little tapped. When grown men and women get themselves into a lather about a cartoon sponge and his buddies then I start to worry. I don't want to burst their bubble, but I suspect the folks behind CAP would be better employed doing more productive things out in the community. I'm not going to soft-soap it for them: they shouldn't be carping on about "too much posterior" in the Spongebob Squarepants movie when there's a lot worse happening in the world. A kids' film is a mere drop in the ocean.

Had enough? :-)


I thought it was very fitting that I get up and running on Broadband today, as it's the birthday of the father of the communications satellite. Yes, today is Arthur C. Clarke's birthday.


Some of the folks at Falfield Broadband are reporting that their connections are up and running. I'm not there yet, but I've now had the confirmation email from Demon, and I'm now expecting to go live on the 16th.

However, I've noticed this evening that as far as my router is concerned, it's already connected. It's reporting a full 512 Kbit downstream connection, so it looks like I don't need to worry about line lengths. Once I get the information from Demon about what settings to plug in to the router, I should be well away. Good news!


Want to buy a second-hand London Routemaster bus? Well somebody out there obviously does. According to the company selling them, they've sold about 150 in the last four months... Expect to pay between £6,000 and £10,000 for the bus, and £120 for a tank of diesel (you'll get about 10 miles to the gallon). I think I'll stick to my present car, thanks very much.


Yes, I've got a provisional date for getting broadband - eight days from now. I'll keep you posted.


If you have an email account, you have probably received at least one copy of a message recently that claimed:

"Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe."

Like many of the round robin emails that go around, much of the information it contained was wrong - for a start, it didn't originate at Cambridge at all, and whats a "rscheearch" when it's at home? Shouldn't that be "rscheeearchr?" Nevertheless, the subject was interesting enough to spur someone who does work at at Cambridge University into action! The resulting article is very interesting, because it not only identifies that the writer of the original email cheated, but also rebuts a number of the assertions that were made. If you have an interest in the way people communicate in writing, then I'd recommend reading it.


Now there's a headline... As far as I'm concerned, the idea of walking round a corner to be confronted by hundreds of people dressed as Santa running towards you is the stuff of nightmares.


It's the day after the proposed ADSL enabling date for my local telephone exchange, but nobody's contacted me. Trying my router this evening, there's no sync light, which I suppose is about what I expected. Oh well, I'll chase things up again tomorrow.


When I went to school in Stafford, I had an English teacher called Craig Thomas. He eventually got fed up with teaching and turned to writing instead; he didn't do badly, either. One novel he wrote, Firefox, was about an experimental Russian aircraft that included systems controlled by thought; you may have seen the movie, which was directed by and starred Clint Eastwood.

Today it seems that the ability to control technology by thought is a little bit closer. Test subjects have been able to successfully control a cursor on a computer screen via a cap that picks up electrical activity on the scalp. I hope this work gets all the funding and support possible, as the benefits for people with restricted mobility or coordination would be enormous.

Of course, the downside is that watching Clint steal someone's wheelchair wouldn't make quite such a good movie.


The Fortean Times is a publication to which I've subscribed for over a decade. The folks at FT make a point of bringing us the more out-of-the-ordinary news headlines in an attempt to brighten up the day, and this month's issue includes such gems as LADIESWEAR DROPPED IN NAME OF SPORT, as well as URINE TEST NO LONGER FIRST CHOICE FOR SCHOOLS and my favourite, CHELSEA AND SCARBOROUGH ON COLLISION COURSE.

All well and good, but other magazines are getting in on the act and missing the point. For example, the best of the year headline picked by National Geographic magazine from their own pages sounds a little too contrived to me. Where's the fun in spotting daft headlines if there are people out there making them up on purpose?


Hmph: doesn't even rhyme. Is that my teasmaid?

This morning I was still asleep when the alarm clock went off. This is almost unheard of, as I rarely sleep well. I've no idea why; I just seem to have forgotten how to get a decent night's sleep. I was gratified to read in the BBC's official Grumpy Old Men handbook that waking up at 3 a.m. is an important part of the lifestyle, and having done so regularly I can vouch for its capacity to induce grumpiness in the most well-balanced and easy-going of personalities.

Lack of sleep can cause more than an attack of grouchiness, it seems. Researchers here in Bristol have published the findings of a study that seems to indicate a link between the amount of sleep you get (or don't get) and obesity. In effect, the report can be reduced down to "the less sleep you have, the heavier you become." Last month an American team at Columbia University reported similar findings.

If that is indeed the case, I should weigh about twenty five stone. I really ought to get more sleep.


Nice to see that bakers Warburtons commissioned research into the most cringeworthy line ever delivered on film. Why would a baker be interested in films? Well, at a guess I'd say that they were promoting bread products with added cheese. According to the 2000 people who were asked, the answer was

"I'm the king of the world!"

which is uttered by Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic.

Well, it's naff, but it's hardly cheesy. Julia Roberts gets closer to real cheesiness with the line

"I'm just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her"

from the romcom Notting Hill (which came in sixth), but where are the barking lines of yesteryear in this poll? What about

"An intelligent carrot? The mind boggles!"

from Howard Hawks's The Thing from Another World? Or Leslie Nielsen's outstanding performance of cheesiness in Forbidden Planet? He outclassed most of the field with his delivery of the simple line

"Doc? Oh, Doc!"

which I have seen reduce entire cinema audiences to fits of giggling. Earl Holliman proved he was no slouch in that film, either. But the pollsters missed an important point. Of all film genres, none is more quintessentially cheesy than the spy movie. Why else would Mike Myers choose the spy caper for his most successful (and cheesiest) comedy creation, Austin Powers? So let's go back to Mr. Powers's mentor himself, the pure embodiment of cheesy secret agents: Derek Flint. James Coburn is sadly missed - he leaves any modern attempts at cheesedom gasping in the dust. How about these lines from Our Man Flint?

"Say, why does that eagle attack me?"

"He's been trained to recognize and attack Americans."

"An anti-American eagle? It's diabolical!"

Oh, by the way, I couldn't find out more details on the poll from the Warburtons site, because not only do they not have any news about it, their news page doesn't appear to have any news at all. You'd think their marketing department would have been more on the ball, wouldn't you?


This guy seems to be cropping up in the weirdest of places these days...


Oh yes - I'm at home. I've been travelling around quite a bit recently. I had a great time while I was on holiday in Norfolk, and really enjoyed hanging out with my brother Andy and his family. I also got to see my other brother and my sister too, which was great. Then last weekend I was in Solihull again. On the Saturday night, Rebecca and the twins held a "thank you" party for their family and friends. The theme was along the lines of "that was the year, that was" and everybody seemed to have a really good time; I know I did! Live music was supplied by Akoostic Rooster, who played a most entertaining set. Steve plays banjo, and there were many banjo jokes throughout the evening, such as:

Q.: What's the difference between a banjo and a cattle grid?

A.: People slow down to drive over a cattle grid.


Q.: What's the best way to play a banjo?

A.: With a penknife.

However, I was rather concerned that after watching the band set up their gear, Ruth no longer wants an electric guitar. Oh no — she wants a drum kit. What damage could be done to her IQ by being both blonde and a drummer?

Despite being on holiday the week before last, I feel like I'm in need of another break. What with one thing and another, it's been a crazy few weeks: last Saturday it was well past 2 am when we got to bed and we were back at the party venue for 9:30 the following morning to help tidy up. This weekend I've got the place to myself and I managed to crash out a little earlier, but today I feel knackered. I managed to rake the leaves off the lawn at the front of the house, but that's about it so far. I still don't feel like I've got over the throat infection I caught last month, and when I spoke to Rebecca's son Rob on the phone yesterday I hardly recognised him - it sounds like he's got the same thing. There are some nasty bugs out there right now, and my sister rang tonight to say that Dad has just been admitted to hospital with suspected bronchitis, which he's developed since catching the same thing. Rather worrying, but hopefully he'll be out again tomorrow. Lots of orange juice and vitamin C, that's what we need. After all, I have to be back on form next weekend as the Christmas party season is starting!


As Sunday evening draws to a close, I think I've got my new machine set up more or less how I want it. One thing that I never thought I'd be complaining about is the need to dial up regularly to feed this thing's insatiable appetite for SETI@home work units: I'm on my fourth today, and by the time I've got this page ready to upload I'll be ready to grab the fifth.

Installing an 801.11g wireless card in the Dell was refreshingly simple (it took less than two minutes) in stark contrast to the tribulations I had with the Gateway machine. Looking inside it, the Dell is built like a tank, and there are fans and ducts everywhere. You won't be surprised to hear that I still haven't got the Gateway to see the network, so I'm afraid I may have to buy another network card and see if that one will work properly. At the moment, Linksys have failed me twice so I think it's time to go for a different manufacturer. Nevertheless, using the Dell, I can talk to my router without difficulty so all I need for this baby is an ADSL line.

Woo hoo!


It's the start of another month, so the blog's banner has changed again. I sat down with my drawing pad this afternoon to get my graphics organised and discovered that not only do I have files ready to go that'll take me through to August next year, but also that I have enough on paper to keep me going until April 2007. I'm sure you're as reassured by that as I am.


Yes, this month's blog comes to you courtesy of those nice people over at Dell. Although I managed to resurrect my Gateway PC it's become much too unreliable to use as my main machine, so it's been relegated to the back room and will be used for video capture and the like. Meanwhile, Dell were offering systems that were too good to turn down — and the system I ordered at lunchtime on Tuesday was delivered on Friday morning, which is amazing service. This system is flying through work units on SETI at home, too: the first one took less than two and a half hours.

I must admit that Windows XP is taking a bit of getting used to, but I have already learned one lesson: if the wizard says your internet connection is set up, believe it. Don't go entering your static IP address or your primary and secondary DNS server addresses, because you'll just screw things up. Still, as you're reading this I managed to get things working in the end.


So where were we? Well, I found the results of Channel 4's movie top 100 countdown last weekend quite interesting. They presented a list of the most popular movies ever, calculated by counting the number of people who actually went and saw them rather than box office takings or critical acclaim. There are some surprising entries in there, and quite a few of the films in the top 20 are ones I've never seen.


I have to give another mention to the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, because they recently included a picture of what I think is the most fascinating object in the sky: the star Eta Carinae. Although you have to be in the southern hemisphere to see it, any astronomer can identify it on sight. As you'll see from the picture, this is a star with a severe attack of indigestion. About 150 years ago it belched out a huge shell of material that makes our Sun's solar flares pale into insignificance. The general opinion is that the star will become a supernova in the not-too-distant future, so it's being watched pretty closely. Until then, it's a fascinating looking thing, isn't it?