Born to Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: December 2005

December brought the conclusion of the original SETI at home computing project, I considered including Cthulhu cuddly toys in my Christmas shopping list and did a lot of driving all over the country; the weather was variously foggy, freezing cold, or snowy but all the same, I had a very good Christmas. I hope you did too.

Say goodbye to 2005, folks: let's hope next year is a better one.


I've just finished my last working day of the year and I'm looking forwards to a nice break - from work and from blogging - over the Christmas holidays. Whatever you're doing, wherever you are, I hope you have a very peaceful and happy time.


One thing I'm really looking forwards to doing this Christmas is catching up on some sleep. If, like me, you have trouble sleeping, apparently the thing we should be doing is playing the didgeridoo. Playing one for twenty five minutes a day helps strengthen the airways in the nose and throat, which combats the condition known as sleep apnoea (something that I suspect I suffer from). I can see one drawback to all this: didgeridoos are bloody loud. When they're played properly you can hear the things for miles.


Hoorah! Midwinter has come and gone and days will start to get longer again now.


Some colleagues of mine have been having a discussion about some of the historical aspects of Christmas, such as the fact that Henry VIII banned all sports (except archery) from taking place on Christmas Day. Naturally, this ended up on the web, and Ricky found an interesting site explaining exactly what the Tudors did for our Christmas Celebrations. What was the best fact they unearthed? In my opinion, it's the fact that people have been cooking Brussels sprouts (and their children have no doubt been complaining about the taste) since 1587.


Every now and again I read about a technological achievement that is so amazing it boggles the mind. Today's is an announcement by Professor Andrea Ghez at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Her team of astronomers has been taking photos of the centre of our galaxy. They improved the quality of the pictures they took using a clever technique: they shone a laser into the sky in the direction they wanted to take pictures. By looking at how the laser light was distorted, they could figure out the effect the atmosphere was having on the pictures - and then use a computer to take the distortion out and correct the images. The result is that the pictures have a resolution of 82 milliarcseconds, which is very, very accurate. In fact, as the web page with the pictures explains, it's roughly the equivalent of being able to distinguish that there's a gap between the headlights of a car in New York while you're standing in Los Angeles. That's a pretty clear view.


I splashed out a couple of years ago on the domain which runs a frames version of this site. To set it up, I went to a local company (they're based in Gloucestershire) called Fasthosts. They must be doing well - because their Christmas party this year hit the headlines.

It was reputed to have cost over half a million quid to put on. Then again, how many Christmas parties have you been to where the MC was Jonathan Ross and the live music was provided by Boney M and The Darkness?


I am totally hooked on the photo website Flickr's "explore" feature, particularly the page of photos showing some of the most interesting pictures submitted over the last 7 days. Every time you click on the reload button, you get another set of amazing shots, and even if far too many pictures of cats are involved, it's hugely addictive: try it!


One of the latest photographs from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft appears to have located the final resting place of the Beagle 2 lander that went missing at Christmas last year. Well, I'm convinced, at least. If the pictures really do show Beagle 2, it's likely that the mission came very close to success; the image appears to show that the airbags have deployed in a triangular shape. They would have done this if the lander had performed correctly. It's thought that the mission failed because the landing was too hard, thanks to the high altitude landing site and atmospheric conditions that reduced the efficiency of the parachutes. A great shame, but at least it looks like the science team have now got some closure.


NEC have announced a flexible battery that is environmentally friendly and can be recharged in less than a minute. The BBC's article points out that the main application for such a power source is - unsurprisingly - RFID tags. These are small objects that can be stuck on to things which will emit an identification code when interrogated by a radio transmitter at a certain frequency. Attached to your suitcase, for example, they are touted as a way to make lost luggage a thing of the past. However...

There are a lot of websites out there - both in the UK and further afield that are extremely concerned about the impact RFID tags could have (in some cases, already are having) on our personal privacy. In this country, their use isn't licenced - in fact it's not even regulated.

Are people justified in being so mistrustful of the things? The best answer I could give to that question would be to show you a video I found on the net a couple of months ago which showed a disturbing vision of what life in an RFID tag-filled future would be like. It featured "surveillance video" of shoppers entering a shopping mall; medical histories, bank balances, criminal records and miscellaneous data would appear in virtual boxes alongside everyone carrying objects incorporating an RFID tag. Of course, today I've been trying to find a link to that video, but unfortunately so far I've failed to find it. I'll keep looking.

Update: I've managed to track it down. I'd seen it mentioned here at Régine Debatty's excellent site We Make Money Not Art. The film is a piece called The Catalogue by Chris Oakley. Scary stuff.


The latest website doing the rounds at work at the moment is my heritage's face recognition page
which will tell you who you resemble if you send it a photograph of yourself. My list was quite interesting, as the computer decided I resembled the following people:

  • Pope Pius XII (58%)
  • World chess champion Vladimir Kramnik (50%)
  • SF novelist Vernor Vinge (48%)
  • Mister Linux himself, Linus Torvalds (47%)
  • John Travolta (44%)
  • John Major (42%)(Eeeek!)
  • Chess grandmaster Anatoly Karpov (42%)
  • The film director Steven Soderburgh (41%)

I'd take the reliability of all this with a very large pinch of salt, though, as a colleague was told that she bore resemblances to both the singer Shakira (53%) and Dr. Richard Leakey (53%) as well as Bing Crosby and Charles Bronson.


I can see the rest of my evening disappearing in a frenzy of nostalgic surfing after I discovered a website entitled Lost bands of the new wave era. I remember listening to quite a few of those bands when I was younger, although it's probably better for the world that Charlie Higson has moved on to other things...


Next month looks like being an interesting one for space science. NASA's New Horizons probe is scheduled to launch some time after January 17th. Not only is this spacecraft designed to bring us close-up pictures of Pluto and its moon Charon, it will also head out into the Kuiper Belt, which really is getting on towards the fringes of outer space.

In passing, I must say I was surprised how little fuss is being made over the New Horizons spacecraft's design: it uses Radioisotope Thermal Generators, or RTGs, as a power source. RTGs use a thermoelectric generator to produce electricity from the heat caused by the decay of a radioactive isotope (usually plutonium). There are no moving parts, nothing to wear out, and are very reliable. They also work at great distances from the Sun, unlike the solar panels fitted to spacecraft like Galileo or Mars Express. Understandably, though, if something were to go wrong, people are not keen on the idea of rockets containing plutonium dropping out of the sky. Last time NASA launched anything fitted with RTGs, people kicked up a hell of a fuss. I'm not the only person who has noticed the lack of shouting going on this time.

Then there's the return of the Stardust mission, which (hopefully) will bring back samples of the comet Wild 2 for analysis back on Earth. I say hopefully, because the last sample return mission didn't exactly go as planned. The Japanese space agency JAXA don't seem to be having much luck, either - after a series of malfunctions (and uncertainty whether or not their probe even managed to take a sample) they have adopted a "better safe than sorry" return plan which means they won't get anything back for another three years. The probe is now due to return to Earth in 2010.


I've spent the afternoon working while listening to Thomas Köner's album NUUK. I've got a couple of his earlier albums, although I am still trying to track down a copy of Aubrite (without much luck, it has to be said.)

It's rather different - in fact I bet my Dad would claim it's not really music at all. For ambient music, it is heavily processed, relying on sources of what Köner calls grey noise - static from a blank VHS cassette, the decaying ringing of a gong, the sound of pedestrians walking through a subway. Although it might sound unattractive, I find the results to be spectacularly beautiful and on headphones it's astonishingly relaxing.

Your mileage may vary, however: I was introduced to his work by a colleague - who told me that when he was listening to a Köner album at home, someone from his family demanded to know why he was doing the hoovering...


Did you see the British Comedy Awards on TV this week? The high spot for me was Dan Castellaneta in full flow as Homer Simpson, presenting a bizarre guide to the difference between English and American: "You Limeys say 'would you like a lift in me lorry?' and we say 'You want an elevator in my truck?'"

The bad news was that Little Britain won just about everything. Worse still, it looks like Simpsons creator Matt Groening will be including Little Britain stars David Walliams and Matt Lucas in an upcoming episode. You can call me a grumpy old man if you like, but I just don't find Little Britain funny. Neither does the Guardian's Anna Pickard, by the looks of things.


And finally today, the anorak section: yes, I've bounced back to the SETI project and successfully installed BOINC on my machines. The install seems to have gone OK and I've even returned some results. Unfortunately I haven't found anything that provides me with a track of my statistics like SetiSpy did for the old system, but I'm sure one will crop up eventually.


Today's astronomy picture of the day is a replication of Ansel Adams's famous shot Autumn Moon. Astronomers are an interesting bunch - the date that Adams took the original picture was taken wasn't known, so they decided to figure it out.

Given the location of the moon in the picture and information on where Adams was (Glacier Point, in Yosemite National Park) when he took the picture, a team from Texas State University worked out that the original shot was taken at 7:03 pm on September 15th 1948. Now you may or may not already know that it takes 19 years - a metonic cycle - for the moon to appear again at exactly the same spot in the sky. September 15th this year was 3 cycles on, and at Glacier Point there were a lot of people waiting to take their version of the shot.


The Guardian have listed their films of the year. I haven't seen all the films they discuss, but from the ones I have seen I'd say it's a pretty fair list. There's one glaring omission though: there's no mention of Howl's Moving Castle.


I shouldn't finish tonight without noting the end of the original SETI@home project, which shuts down today. S@H was the original massively distributed computing project, that used the spare computing power of people's PCs to analyse radio signals in the hope of discovering signals from extraterrestrial life. I started contributing results back in 1999, and in the intervening time my machines have analysed just over 3000 units of data, using a fraction over 1.5 years' worth of processor time.

After today, if you want to help the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, you'll need to download a new screensaver, called BOINC. Who knows - you might be the person who identifies that first signal...


If you've arrived here from Linkbunnies, welcome! There's all sorts of stuff here that I haven't posted to the other site, so please feel free to have a look round.

What's my approach to posting stuff here? Well, if it gets a laugh, sounds interesting, is what I might consider vaguely important or just - oooh, shiny! They'll all crop up here from time to time. There's over two years of older entries in the archive, too.


Congratulations to [daily dose of imagery]'s Sam Javanrouh, who has won the first place Canadian Blog Award in the "best photoblog" category. And quite right too - his photos are consistently excellent. He's been a great inspiration for me to improve the pictures I take. If you find his stuff interesting, I can also recommend David Fokos's long exposure magic, Bob Smith's amazing No Traces, Paul Russell's rather quirky street photography, and Archie Florcruz's Whateverland, which features photos so good it hurts (and he also has what I think is the best-designed photo site on the planet).


Just what the Solar System needs: the New Scientist brings us news of a new planet called Buffy.


Elsewhere on their site, the New Scientist reports that Disney have come up with a web page that features a dancing button you have to click on to sign up for an email account. The idea is that the automated scripts that spammers use won't be able to "catch" the button, thus leaving the system free for us humans to use. But what about people who don't have the coordination to catch the button? People with limited mobility are often far more dependent on email to communicate with friends and family - what happens to them?


If you've been here before, you may have a number of questions:

Why is the banner at the top of the page different? The simple answer is that it changes every month, for no particular reason other than I felt like running the blog that way. At the moment I have enough images lined up to take me through to July 2009, which is probably a bit excessive, but what the hell.

How do I make the graphics on the site? Rotring pens in various shapes and sizes, then scanned into the PC using my trusty Canon 5200F for colouring and drop-shadowing.

Why no comments or email contact? Because of the amount of crap I was having to deal with, including one happy little soul who decided he'd use a now-defunct email address of mine as the reply to when he sent out spam.


I might be a bit grumpy today, as I'm sitting at home feeling sorry for myself - Monday's sore throat was the beginnings of a cold that's pretty much wiped me out. After this update I think it'll be time for another Lemsip. Then I'll be going back to bed for a while.


Well, that's one Christmas present delivery run completed. I was over at my parents' house at the weekend, and got to do a bit more birdwatching. This time I saw a flock of snow buntings and a guillemot, which was a bit different. The down side of all this is that I got home last night at midnight. It was quite hard work, too - the M5 was shrouded in fog from Worcester southwards. Still, apart from a sore throat that's been bothering me this afternoon, I don't feel too bad.


Now there's a scary thought worthy of a Hollywood direct-to-video z-movie: fireproof killer whales. The trouble is that in reality, orcas are now the most contaminated animals on the planet.

Blubber samples not only contain flame retardant chemicals, but also PCBs and pesticides. Isn't it about time we did something about this?


While I was at Mum and dad's place, I saw an advert for things that will be on TV at Christmas. It included television coverage of the Royal Variety Performance which happened last month. In amongst all the fairly traditional stuff I was delighted to see that the Blue Man Group were involved. If you look at the performance website, near the bottom of the page there's a photo that reveals that they were presented to the Queen; I'd love to know what she (and Prince Philip) thought of them.


Coca Cola are about to launch a "lightly carbonated, mid-calorie" coffee-flavoured beverage called Blāk. Whether the world is ready for a coffee-flavoured fizzy drink remains to be seen, but given my fondness for the stuff, I'd certainly try at least one can. However, what I really want to know is how the name's pronounced. Given the way it's written with a macron, it should be pronounced "blaark," but I'd lay money on the fact that it's not the pronunciation Coca-Cola will be using. Ah, those wacky marketing folks.


It was good news for the European Space Programme this week as the UK announced that it would be making a contribution to the budget, including a £68 million contribution to the ExoMars mission which will send a sophisticated robot explorer to the Red Planet. I was disappointed to read that ESA will no longer be helping Russia to develop the Klipr reusable manned launch vehicle, though. You may remember I was enthusing about Russia's answer to the Space Shuttle back in September.


Letters to Mr. Christopher Walken. Elsewhere on the same site you can find Brandon Bird's painting of Bea Arthur wrestling with a velociraptor. It's nice to know that, on days when you think life's got just about as strange as it can get, the Internet can crank things up to a whole new level.


I bet when Howard Philips Lovecraft wrote his tales of shambling terrors from beyond the void he never considered the possibilities of selling plush toy versions of his nightmarish visions. I want a pair of Cthulhu slippers, and I want them now...

...although I think I'd probably settle for the Monty Python Beast of Arghhh! cuddly toy at a pinch.


Genius film director David Lynch wants to change the world through transcendental meditation. And the best of luck to him.


Yes, the news of the discovery of a new mammal in the wilds of Borneo has been out for a couple of days. But did you see the BBC News 24 interview with a biologist on the subject? It went something like this:

Newscaster: "And it is a striking looking animal, isn't it? With that long neck, it looks like the Loch Ness Monster!"

Biologist: "That's its tail, John."



I am really looking forwards to a little time off at Christmas. I got home tonight about twelve hours after I left for work, and I spent at lot of that time sitting in traffic jams. Why is it that Bristol's council can be fêted as achieving all sorts of regeneration targets and still utterly fail to comprehend the mess their transport infrastructure is in?

Why is it, too, that some days bring very little in the way of interesting stuff, yet the very next day you can be deluged in stories that make you sit up and take notice? Today has been a prime example, so let's get started.


The Guardian is running another doomsday asteroid story today, although the story is pretty much exactly the same as the one we got last year. It concerns the same asteroid (2004 MN4, since renamed 99942 Apophis) that sparked all the panic during Christmas 2004. Then, the possibility of an impact on April 13th 2029 was ruled out after more accurate measurements of its orbit were made.

The panic this time is over the change to the asteroid's course as a result of that encounter, which might result in it hitting us the next time it swings round on April 13th 2036 (yes, it's the same day of the year: that's why it's considered a risk. Its orbit is linked to the Earth's orbit, and it will swing close past us again on April 13th 2037 as well.) The Guardian got quite excited by all this - but looking at NASA's risk assessment page, the asteroid is currently rated at just 1 on the Torino scale.


So, the New Oxford American Dictionary has announced that its word of the year is podcasting.

Apparently sudoku didn't even make the list. I'm surprised, because in terms of their relative popularity I'm sure the number puzzle was way out in front, despite Ricky Gervais's attempts to prove otherwise.


Now that the XBOX 360 has hit the shops (and vanished without trace, by all accounts) people are beginning to discuss what will happen when the next consoles come out. In particular, the Register is carrying an interesting analysis of the different strategies being adopted by the three major players. The next phase of the consoles war will be as much about the competition between DVD formats as about whether you'll pick Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft.

Nothing in the article has persuaded me that I shouldn't change my allegiance from Nintendo, but your opinion might be different.


The North Somerset edition of the Bristol Evening Post sold out on Monday - and it looks like just two people were responsible for buying almost every one of the 1400 copies printed. Now, if you want to keep a particular news story quiet, it's probably not the best way of going about things, as it's now been reported by just about all the national news agencies.


It appears that humans aren't the only creatures who find yawning contagious. It seems that chimpanzees and stumptail macaques do too. Now there's a piece of research in contention for next year's IgNobel Prizes if ever there was one.


Now this sounds like a lot of fun: Sir Sean Connery is coming out of retirement to play a vet in the Scottish Highlands in a new animated film that also stars Richard Briers, Alan Cumming, Miriam Margolyes, Gail Porter, and Ruby Wax. With a cast like that you can't really go wrong.


It looks like the weather's on the turn again. It's only a couple of degrees above freezing outside right now and I've put the central heating on early. As far as I'm aware, we're not expecting snow down here. Scotland may get some, and if it does it will look very pretty, just like it did back in 2001. No doubt if it snows down here, there will be more chaos. Driving is always interesting over here in snow. Mind you, in France, sometimes the biggest problem is simply finding your car.

It amazes me why UK drivers have so much trouble when you take a look at what the rest of the world has to manage with - our weather problems pale into insignificance compared to what they have to deal with on Canada's Trans-Labrador Highway.


Looking at the Met Office's forecast it seems that things will be getting warmer and wetter by the end of the week, and the four week forecast (you can read the current one here) is talking about the end of the month having "very unsettled conditions." Couple that with a wind from the west or the south west, and I guess it will be warm and very wet for Christmas. Oh well...


I crawled in to work this morning - the result of Bristol now having yet another stretch of roadworks to contend with, these on the M4. The place really cannot cope with any disruption to the usual flow of traffic. Still, it could be worse: one of my colleagues tells me that at the moment he drives through 15 miles of roadworks every morning on the way to the office...


Polly Toynbee has given the new Narnia film a real savaging over at The Guardian: "[Aslan] is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come."


I know the classic SETI@home screensaver initiative ends on December 15th, but I was rather hoping to hit 3000 units before it disappears. The way things are going at the moment, it looks like I'll miss the target: thanks to an error caused by a notice that flags up when a result's returned, the software keeps shutting down. It's fairly safe to say that quite a few people aren't happy about it.


It looks like Demon's homepages server has fallen over again, too... Ah - no, it's back again.


I don't know what happened yesterday evening, but Demon's homepages (where all this stuff resides) disappeared off the face of the Internet for several hours. There was no explanation on their home page, and their status line had no reports of any problems. Still, everything seems to be back to normal today.


I managed to get out on the bike as planned today. Nice to get some exercise, especially as I'll be going skiing fairly soon. It was lovely and sunny, although it was very muddy out - so it was one of those rides where everything I was wearing had to go in the washing machine when I got back.

I should consider getting a mudguard for the front tyre, I think: at the moment I always come back with a brown stripe up my front. This is less than attractive if you're contemplating stopping off at the pub for a refreshing drink on the way home, so I came straight back and had a cup of tea instead. And a couple of chocolate hob-nobs.

I took a camera with me, and some of the results have gone to feed my Flickr habit. Enjoy.


First off today is a recommendation to visit the graphics blog of Stephane Kardos. His sketches are so inspiring, they make me feel the need to get back into the habit of making drawings of my own.


At long last, I got round to fitting road tyres on the mountain bike and replacing the inner tube that burst last month. It's interesting what a difference smoother tyres make to the ride - if it's nice tomorrow I may take off with a camera and go cycling and snapping.


Read the Guardian's Simon Hoggart on Chris Martin of Coldplay and his inability to sing about the problems of social issues affecting the poor. I kid you not - and it's funny, too.


Do we really need another talent contest from Simon Cowell? Especially one that will inflict singing celebrities on us?


The Hubble Space Telescope has produced the highest resolution images ever taken of the Crab Nebula. The results are absolutely stunning - I've set the main image as my desktop background at work, and so have some of my colleagues! It's the scale of the thing that amazes me - the nebula is about six light years across (that's 35,270,998,900,000 miles or so) and is made of the remains of a star that blew up in 1054 AD, nearly a thousand years ago.

Update: A colleague tells me the picture was featured in The Sun newspaper today, and I've just noticed it's today's APOD, too.


With the advent of digital cameras, "taking lots of pictures and hoping for the best" has become a practical photographic method that we can afford to use. After all, there's no film to waste any more: the images that didn't come out can just be deleted. Amateur astronomers use a similar technique, combining the images they've taken using image stacker software of one form or another to get very impressive results.

Now, astronomers at Cambridge University have adopted the same low-cost technique to get clearer images from their equipment - a technique they describe as Lucky Imaging, although I must admit I've not heard it called that before. As their telescope (the 2.5 metre Nordic Telescope in the Canary Islands) is a bit larger than the ones used by most amateurs, their results are very impressive indeed. In fact, they reckon they've equalled the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope!


Given the plummeting attention spans of television audiences these days (I'm convinced the main reason "Lost" was such a roaring success in its early days was the fact that the show featured flashbacks of an airliner disintegrating roughly every eight minutes) it's only logical that the successor to the up and coming high-definition extravaganza that is HDTV will be ADHDTV, "a television format designed to meet the needs of an increasingly inattentive and hyperactive audience."

The Onion (a satire website, just in case you hadn't already twigged) hits the nail squarely on the head, particularly with the format's mooted adoption of "jarring and unpredictable camera cuts to shiny props and detailed background sets." Mark my words: by the time the singing hamsters in top hats appear on your television set, civilisation will have collapsed.


Even though it's warmer than it has been for a few days, there was a chilling story in The Guardian and the New Scientist today reporting that the circulation of the North Atlantic Gyre current has dropped by 30% since it was measured 12 years ago. A shutdown of the Gulf Stream has long been suggested as a possible result of global warming, caused by a decrease in the salinity of the Atlantic thanks to all the polar ice melting.

The results? Less heat reaches Europe, so it gets colder. The heat stays in the locality of the Caribbean, where it can fuel bigger and more frequent hurricanes. Not good.


The first proper trailer for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie is out, and it looks very good indeed. Roll on next July!