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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: December 2006

December was pretty mild, but very foggy. We hardly saw the sun at all, so I stayed in and listened to music - lots of it.

The web did us proud with weirdness, though. We could bid for a set of giant eyeballs (which eventually fetched over £16,000), listen to Billy Idol giving us completely serious renditions of popular Christmas carols, and much excitement over Nintendo Wii users wrecking televisions, breaking windows, and threatening civilisation in general. Or did I dream that last bit?


It was the winter solstice here at 22 minutes past midnight last night, so now the days start getting longer again. However, a lot of folks seem to have got the date wrong this year and sixty people turned up at Stonehenge a day early! If you want to check on things like this, the best place to go is Chris Peat's Heavens Above site. Choose your location on the main page, then go to the Sun data page under the Astronomy heading. It'll tell you the times of sunrise and sunset for where you live, and exactly when the solstices and equinoxes occur.


Just how busy is Santa going to be this weekend? Very, judging by the estimate that Arnold Pompos and Sharon Butler put together a few years ago. He'll be travelling so fast that he'll be exceeding the speed of light through the atmosphere and therefore emitting Cerenkov radiation, for one thing. That means that while he's on the move, Santa glows with an eerie blue light. Cool!

I read a paper a few years ago (which, sadly, doesn't appear to be online) which suggested that he could achieve this by stealing energy from a rotating black hole, conveniently located in his workshop at the North Pole. Using one to provide a gravitational slingshot like this is known as the Penrose Process, after the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. So be good, kids. Let's face it, if you want your presents delivered by someone who is quite happy playing with black holes in his spare time, you really wouldn't want to upset him, would you?


The word of the day today has to be cheesepodding, the practice of filling your mp3 player with all those cheesy old guilty pleasures from days of old. The New Scientist has been talking about the various dysfunctional activities that have been identified since the introduction of the web. I may not be a Wikipediaholic, but I'm definitely a photolurker.


You may already have seen the story about the woman in Los Angeles International airport who put her one-month-old grandson through the baggage screening X-ray machine. Luckily the child was unharmed, but it gives an interesting perspective on the amount of tacit knowledge that we're expected to possess about everyday life, and especially about complicated things like international air travel. I remember the first time I had to go through an airport - there's a lot of stuff that everyone just assumes you will know, although it's never explained exactly how you're supposed to come by this knowledge. These days, I guess it would be through watching reality TV shows.

But seriously, how was the woman to know that babies don't go through the screener? She didn't speak English, and had little experience of long distance travel. Everyone else in the queue was being made to put the stuff they were carrying through the machine, so she naturally followed suit. What it does show is that the airport's procedures for preventing occurrences like this need to be tightened up: there should have been someone helping out at the front end of the machine to spot when assistance was required.


As if the Everglades weren't hazardous enough: nowadays, folks have to contend with pythons as well. With snakes out in the wild that can grow to over twenty feet long, Florida gators are finding that sometimes, they're no longer sitting at the top of the food chain. Scary stuff indeed.


As if the Billy Idol album wasn't bad enough, today I was listening to the new Twisted Sister Christmas album, A Twisted Christmas - wherein we discover that it's possible (although not really recommended) to sing the carol Oh Come All Ye Faithful to the music of their greatest hit, We're Not Gonna Take It. Mind you, I once met Dee Snider backstage at a Motorhead gig, and he's much, much taller than me, so I'll just take this opportunity to say that the record's fab.


I've also been listening to Eccentrix, an album of remixes of tracks by the Swiss band Yello. The first track is the "brake light mix" of the track that was their biggest hit, The Race. There are some extra samples buried in the music which, if you're British, are instantly recognisable. The first is motor racing commentator Murray Walker excitedly telling us that "this is what we've been waiting for all season" - but the second is horse racing legend Sir Peter O'Sullevan saying "as they come to the last fence in the National..." When you're listening to a tune about motor racing, this seems a bit silly, to say the least. Never mind, though, because the album's great.


Do you know, I think I've only heard Slade's Christmas single a couple of times so far this year? For some people, that's more than enough. Personally, I don't see what the problem is, but it looks like one of my Flickr contacts is already suffering from Christmas music overload. Nice one, Wally.


Have you received the viral video of the cop cars chasing a guy on a bicycle yet? Don't worry, you will - but bear in mind before you pass it on to everyone you know that it's a fake (although if you're even slightly familiar with CGI you'll already have figured that out - the dynamics of the bike get pretty obviously screwed up several times during the movie). The film is called Outlaw in Lycra and it was created to publicise the bicycle manufacturer Specialized. I've had one of their bikes for years, and I've had great fun with it, so I don't mind helping to spread the word. Just don't try telling me it's real...


Thanks to Jason, who pointed out that the eyeballs from the cover of Pink Floyd's Pulse DVD are up on eBay, in an auction organised by guitarist David Gilmour to raise money for the charity Crisis. Sadly, I don't think they'd go with the rest of my living room. I just checked, and the current bid is for £4,200, so they're rather out of my price range, anyway.


I've got another musician's blog to talk about today, and this one is by Shane McGowan of the Pogues. He talks about being photographed naked with Pete Docherty, and that's an image I really don't want to carry around with me for the rest of the day...

He also talks about Fairytale of New York going up the charts again, despite the fact that nobody's promoting it (beyond the fact that the Pogues are touring, that is). It's been on the music channels a lot this month, and I still reckon it's the best Christmas single ever recorded. Earlier this week I was talking about how times have changed, and you only have to listen to the song on the radio to realise just how much: these days the swear words are left in rather than being bleeped out, and maybe that's a sign that we're growing up a bit at last.


Unlike Billy Idol, so far this year I've been too busy to really get in to the festive spirit but last night I got the tree up and decorated, and I've put some lights up around the house as well. I still haven't quite finished my Christmas shopping even after a visit to the local mall on the way home, but I'm determined not to end up in the situation I was in many years ago when I finished it all off at two o'clock in the afternoon of Christmas Eve - in the branch of Smiths that was directly underneath the office where I worked.

When I was younger still, I used to get so excited about Christmas that I'd be wide awake by four o'clock on Christmas morning. How things change: these days, I see Christmas as an opportunity to catch up on sleep and unwind a little. I will be quite happy if we don't get snow, as it makes driving a lot less difficult (and as I've driven about 2000 miles in the last three weeks, that is a definite benefit.)


You're probably aware just how much "news" these days consists of journalists regurgitating press releases supplied to them by businesses with a product to push. It's got to the point that you'd have to be incredibly naive to believe that the news is solely about telling you about the important things that are going on in the world. For example, why else would the BBC's news website today carry articles about people developing games for the XBox, ten years of the web plug-in Flash, Microsoft's prediction that it's going to sell a million Zune MP3 players, or Nissan's announcement that they are developing a "green" car? It has a lot to do with keeping up the visibility of particular companies or products, about making sure that you don't forget about a particular brand, and that you see businesses in a positive light. For me at least, it has the opposite effect, and it won't be long before more than half the content of the news is taken up with plugging stuff. Whatever it is, it isn't what I'd classify as news.

Oh - and the BBC is one of the better sites: have a look at the main news pages of some of the American news giants and see how many articles are actually about promoting things you might buy rather than current events.

One step removed from the press releases are the industry analysts who the news providers ask to make pronouncements on the significance of the latest PR blurbs. Of course, some of these analysts may have worked for the companies who are plugging their latest offerings; unsurprisingly, these folk tend to say how great the "news" is. And others may have worked for competitors, so their take on an item tends to be on the negative side. Strangely enough, the links that these analysts have to the companies concerned are seldom mentioned - and as The Register reported yestrday, it looks like the New York Times has had enough of the shenanigins. They're trying to cut back on the use of analysts in their articles, but as The Reg point out, it doesn't look like they're having much success.


I recently bought a DAB radio for the office and as I result I now spend my lunchtimes giggling at repeats of Round the Horne, the Navy Lark, or I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue on BBC7, which has been one of my favourite radio programmes pretty much since they started broadcasting it in 1972. Today's episode was particularly good, recorded in 1995 with the late great Willie Rushton on Tim Brooke-Taylor's team. You can listen to it on the web for the next seven days; at one point it featured a round where the teams had to predict the contents of the Radio Times for 2010 (which I suppose was a long way off in the future back then.) One of their predictions was a show called "This Morning with Charles and Camilla." Remember, this was 1995. Hmmm...

The show finished off with a rousing round of Mornington Crescent, and thanks to the wonders of 21st Century something or other, you can now play a round yourself. Have fun, but I'm sure Humph would want you to remember that normal "in spoon" rules apply for virtual games.


Tea really is rather good for you. And it counts as part of your daily fluid intake, rather than taking away from it. Oh, and notice that according to the article, the recommended amount of liquid you're supposed to drink a day is just 1.5 to 2 litres. The US Institute of Medicine recommends 2.7 litres a day for women and 3.7 litres for men. Take care, though - I read an article recently (although I can't find the thing now) which suggested that drinking larger amounts of water can cause problems, as it flushes minerals that the body needs out of your system and can lead to osteoporosis and other problems. If I find the reference, I'll add it here.


American advertising gets Katamari style! I guess this won't mean anything to anyone who hasn't heard of the utterly bizarre Japanese videogame Katamari Damacy, (love that website) but it's good fun all the same.


Pantomime season, that is. Simon Callow writes about his panto experiences in today's Guardian. His director last year was long-time panto stalwart Christopher Biggins, bringing us to the best quote of the week so far: "Being barked at by a large man in a frock is a strangely galvanising experience."


I discovered today that the first really successful First Person Shooter (FPS) video game Doom was 13 years old at the weekend. I can remember staying behind at work after hours and playing it over the LAN with the guys from the IT department. In the computer support room with the lights out so that, when someone got fragged, you could watch their scowling little face light up red as their player exploded in a low-rez cloud of gore. Happy days...

These days, though, Doom's designer John Carmack has set his sights a little higher - suborbital flights. He's been investing quite heavily in the technology, and some of Armadillo's machines nearly walked off with this year's Ansari prize for autonomous robotic flight in the Lunar Lander Challenge.


Thanks to a discussion on the William Gibson message Boards (WGB) about the weblogs contributors like reading, I've just discovered that David Byrne has a web journal. I can't remember whether which Talking Heads album I bought first, but it was his collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts that really made me see his importance as a musical innovator, and the video for "Once in a lifetime" has to be one of the most memorable pieces ever created to publicise a song. The entries in his blog are thoughtful and cover a wide range of subjects from his musical collaborations to war, oil, Freud, and the Cottingley Fairies. Judging by the pictures he's also a talented photographer, and his entry for Thanksgiving mentions Holga cameras. What more could you want? I've already added the site to my favourites list.


The WGB folks also pointed out that Father Ted creator Graham Linehan's got a really good page o'stuff, too, which brings us to our final item this evening. You know how, when you were younger you swore that you'd never become a tool of The System, and thought that punk rock was so much cooler than, say, Val Doonican? As we get older, we change - and we become the people we used to loathe. Or perhaps Billy Idol's just being ironic?


I love Hong Kong movies. It's the crazy subtitles, you see. I first read about the phenomenon in a very old copy of the Guinness Book of Records, where they were complaining that a character told someone to "stop bitting your teeth." In the intervening years things have moved from mild inaccuracy to something that I think closely resembles a surreal form of art. How can you not love a character who comes out with expressions such as "You always use violence. I should've ordered glutinous rice chicken," or "I'll fire aimlessly if you don't come out!"?

There are many other examples of films where enthusiasm trumps accuracy in transcribing dramatic content; for example, there's a version of Star Wars III that contained, amongst other things, a bonkers subtitle of Anakin delivering the jaw-dropping line "The good elephant in airship dropped what things?" And yet people still wonder why I watch anime movies in the original language, even when they have English dubs...


Thanks to Nir for this one (and he even beat Linkbunnies to the punch, which isn't easy to do): the warning illustrations in the Japanese manual for the just-launched Nintendo Wii are causing much amusement. And rightly so.


At the weekend I finally figured out what was stopping Rebecca's laptop from playing Flash animations and stuff from Youtube and got it to work properly. So to celebrate my victory in persuading McAfee's antivirus software to let us do what we actually wanted to do, today's selection includes one or two video and animation goodies that I've discovered over the last month or so.


It's been doing the rounds for a while now, so you've probably already seen Lasse Gjertsen's video Amateur on Youtube - after all, it's been viewed nearly 1.5 million times since it was uploaded at the beginning of November. But if you haven't already seen it, go and watch it right now. Lasse freely admits that he can't play drums, and he can't play the piano either - but he's an extremely good video editor, and he edited together a tune out of hundreds of clips of him messing about in the studio. The result is stunning, and it's deservedly running high in the Guardian newspaper's viral video chart.


Weird Al Yankovic's video for the track White and Nerdy is another viral video must-see. But before you watch the video, you need to check out the Wikipedia page about it, otherwise you won't really get the benefit of just how incredibly nerdy the damn thing actually is. Folks, this is a true labour of love. Kudos not only to Weird Al himself, but also to Seth Green and Donny Osmond, who have also embraced the dork side and all its terrible power and appear with Mr Yankovic in the video.


The Angry Alien bunnies have been busy again. However, this time the subject matter for their thirty second parody is a cheesy 1980s Christmas movie starring Chevy Chase called National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and I have to be honest and say that this one left me cold. This is probably far more to do with Chevy Chase than it is to do with the bunnies. Oh well, roll on the next one.


Thanks to Tom, who sent me a link to an online version of Mark Kermode's excellent documentary on Ridley Scott's science epic fiction film Blade Runner. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a look.


Well, if you live in certain parts of the world, apparently. It appears that Microsoft are developing their answer to Google Earth by driving around in custom vans, photographing places from ground level.

Mind you, the preview looks a bit tentative at the moment, as it fell over very rapidly when I tried it out using IE6. God only knows what it would have done if I'd been using Firefox. And they probably won't ever get to where I live, which is still just a vague blur on Google Earth over a year after the program was introduced.