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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: December 2008

2008 drew to a close with some dangerous mice, bowling robots, giant snowmen and some amazing pictures.

So, pretty much a normal month on the Internet, really.


If you're a 1980s movie nerd like me, this is utterly fantastic news: TR2N is really going to have TRON in it: Bruce Boxleitner has signed up for the sequel (bounces around room with glee).


Earthrise, the photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, is now forty years old and it's NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day today. Even ten years ago, it was often referred to simply as that photograph. It's an iconic image that has gained more significance with time. When it was taken, I was an eight year old kid who fully expected that people would be living and working on the Moon by now. Sadly, that future hasn't come to pass - well, not yet, anyway. It would be nice to recapture the sense of optimism and global community that was fired by the sight of a single photograph.


A Hampshire school got in the papers this week because they have a squirrel living in the grounds which is a rather unusual colour. Pete the purple squirrel may have "been chewing on a purple ink cartridge and then groomed that colouring into his fur," Chris Packham reckons. I know some sheep who would make him feel right at home...


Seen on Metafilter: in Alaska, they really know how to build snowmen. Unfeasibly large snowmen, that is - and grumpy neighbours and health and safety laws be damned. Depending on which report you read, "Snowzilla" is either 16 or 25 feet high.

That's quite a lot of shovelling, but I'd love to have a go at making something like that. It's a pity we just don't get that kind of snowfall around here any more.


Thanks to Louis for letting me know about this one: A round trip with Endeavour. Thirty one of the most awe-inspiring photographs I have ever seen of NASA's Space Shuttle and its processing facility. Did you know that the solid rocket booster parachutes are washed in a 30,000 gallon washing machine? No, neither did I.


No doubt this headline will end up in the Fortean Times. It sounds like something out of a Warner Brothers cartoon, but unfortunately it was a real event. It just goes to show: mice are dangerous, scheming little bastards.


I was very sorry to hear that Majel Barrett-Roddenberry died of leukemia this week.

If you're a Star Trek fan, you'll know that she was married to Gene Roddenberry, who created the show.

You'll also know that she played an integral part in every Star Trek series, film and video game: she was "Number One" in the original pilot episode; she played Nurse Christine Chapel in the original series; she was Deanna Troi's mother in The Next Generation. You've only got to cast around the web for a short while to appreciate just how much she was appreciated by the Trek community, and her passing will be a huge loss.

I said earlier this month how much of an effect hearing Oliver Postgate's voice had on me as a child. As a young adult, it was Majel's voice that fulflled the same role. She provided the voice of the Enterprise's computer right from the outset, but it was only when The Next Generation hit the air in the 1980s that the Enterprise's computer really became a focal point in the show. As I'd been using PCs for years at that point, seeing a supercomputer that you could hold conversations with was a wonderful concept. Majel played the role with a calm, friendly voice that fitted perfectly with the show's unbounded optimism. If you're a nerd like me, I'm sure you assigned at least one system event on your PC to play a sample of her voice from the show.

I can't imagine watching anything related to Trek without her speaking for the Enterprise. Luckily, she completed work on J J Abrams's new film a couple of weeks ago.


This is good for a couple of hours of careful study: Television Tropes and Idioms (Rob, you'll love this one). Take a reference site on writing and turn the cultural references dial up to 11. I particularly enjoyed the page called "It runs on nonsensoleum."


A robot built out of LEGO is able to bowl a perfect game in Wii Sports. I'm crap enough at most of the Wii Sports games as it is, but to be beaten at bowling by a bunch of Lego bricks is humiliating.


When I drive home in the evenings there are usually a couple of horses in a field at the side of the road near Winterbourne. They were there this evening, and they appeared to be having a whale of a time; one of them was chasing the other one while carrying a traffic cone in its mouth. Bizarre.


I can sense another IgNobel prize in the offing here: newspaper The Scotsman is reporting that, "after US researchers showed that fish enjoy music," marine biologists at the Loch Lomond Aquarium (warning - website contains badly Photoshopped graphics) are planning to investigate whether sharks enjoy Christmas songs.

Fascinating stuff, but I can't find any citation online for the original research so I think I'm going to take this one with an extremely large pinch of salt.


Doctors are considering using a patient's ability to send SMS messages as a diagnostic aid. The practice has a risen as a result of doctors' experiences treating attendees at music festivals, and it appears to be a simple, successful indicator that a patient has recovered sufficiently to be released. If you're at a Green Day concert, anyway.


Wearing a hat will not stop you losing a third of your body heat. This commonly-held belief has been debunked in an article in this week's British Medical Journal. Also falling by the wayside: late night snacks make you fat and sugar makes children hyperactive. There's just no fun anymore...


I was surprised to learn today that Jon Ronson's book about a cadre of American "warrior monk" supersoldiers trying to develop psychic powers is being made into a film starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges and Robert Patrick. Surprised, because I'm not sure how you'd make a coherent movie about a bunch of guys who thought that, given sufficient powers of concentration, they could walk through walls and kill hamsters just by looking at them.

I suspect that the plot of the film will diverge ever so slightly from that of the book.


My appreciation of classical music becomes deeper with each passing day. Disney are really rolling out the big guns when it comes to viral marketing for the Muppet brand relaunch, even if they've taken more than four years to get round to it...


If you've been reading this blog for long you'll know that I change the graphic at the top of the page every month. I like the idea of coming up with another title every four or five weeks, and I'll use pretty much anything - no matter how contrived. Now Ruth has joined in the fun with some great banners on her blog and this reminded me that my current stock of headers runs out in July. So I unclogged the Rotring pens and spent some time each evening this week running off another batch of cheesy cultural references. I now have enough to see me through until the tail end of 2011!


I had a really good, restorative night's sleep last night for the first time in what seems like years. What's really bizarre is that before I went to bed I did two things which are supposed to stop you having a good rest: I drank a mug of coffee and ate a croissant full of cheese. Despite this, I slept right through until the alarm clock went off this morning. Weird.


I'm not sure if I had any memorable dreams last night, but maybe one day I'll be able to fire up a machine and check. Website Pink Tentacle are reporting that Japanese scientists have managed to decode signals from the visual cortex of a human brain and produce recognisable images. The scientists claim that the technology may soon make it possible to record our dreams while we sleep.

I'd take the "soon" part with a pinch of salt. As the technique appears to involve getting the subject to sit in an fMRI scanner, I don't think you need to worry about wearing a tinfoil hat just yet, either. All the same, this has been a staple concept for science fiction writers for decades, and I can think of at least two films - Brainstorm and Until the End of the World - where the technology played a central role in the plot. The implications of having access to this level of technology were downplayed in Wim Wenders's movie; the focus was more on how addictive it would be if you were able to watch someone else's dreams. In Doug Trumbull's film, there's much more investigation of what sort of areas to which the technique would be applied, sadly concluding it would primarily be used for military apps and porn. However, Christopher Walken's character applies it to more noble causes: to rekindle a love affair and find out what happens to someone when they die.

The Pink Tentacle article prompted a lively (if occasionally pointless) discussion on Boing Boing but I was surprised it took 38 comments for William Gibson's name to crop up. He's been writing about this sort of stuff since the 80s - it plays a fairly important role in the story of Johnny Mnemonic, for instance.


Sad news: Oliver Postgate has died at the age of 83 after a long illness, it was announced today. Hearing his voice will always take me back to watching television as a child. Mr Postgate was responsible for more than his fair share of the best children's television programmes ever made, and he narrated them all - from Noggin the Nog and the Clangers to Pogles Wood, Ivor the Engine, and of course Bagpuss. His voice was instantly recognisable, and played a large part in ensuring the charm of his creations. You may not be aware of the fact that he auditioned for the voice of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the 2005 movie; it's a shame he didn't end up with the role.

When his autobiography Seeing Things came out in 2001 I bought a copy and liked it so much that I went on to buy several more as presents for friends and family. I highly recommend it - not only did he have a fascinating life, but the book came with a CD-ROM of additional material (and the manuscript of the book in Adobe Acrobat format) - it's a very innovative approach even now, but at the time it was unheard of!


Malcolm Gladwell writes about teaching (and American Football) in the New Yorker. It's a fascinating article:

"What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?"


Thanks to Oli for drawing my attention to this portable video rig. Gizmodo's URL for the article, "most-annoying-guy-around" says it all, really. It's not surprising that science and technology get such a bad press these days when you have idiots like this wandering around.


Sadly, science really does get a very bad press indeed these days. Consider what Professor Marcus du Sautoy has to put up with, for example: in an interview with New Scientist magazine last month he described how he'd been questioned by the BBC's John Humphreys. At one point, Humphreys had come up with the jaw-dropping question, "so what's the point of science?" I used to have respect for Humphreys as a journalist, but not any more.

Things have been even worse in the US under President Bush's tenure. The "good ole boy" from Texas has spent the last eight years chipping away at his country's scientific establishments, seemingly unaware of the damage he's doing to his country's future. He's not an isolated example, either - after all, one of his party colleagues once dismissed planetariums as "foolishness" - thank goodness he didn't get elected President. The insidious, "nothing important" attitude to science that they have fostered has spread far and wide, and things today are very bad indeed. Yesterday CNN announced it was closing its science reporting unit, and their chief science reporter Miles O'Brien would be leaving the company. This news isn't just sad, it's alarming.

I wonder, what sort of standards of living do you think that Humphreys or Bush will expect to receive as they move into old age and retirement? Will they expect to continue living in a nice house that's warm in the winter and cool in the summer? Do you think they'll want to be able to get a nice snack out of the refrigerator whenever they want? Will they want to be able to drop a couple of ice cubes in the drink they've fixed to go with it? I wonder if they'll worry whether their drinking water is free from cholera or typhoid - what do you think? Do you think they'll expect to be able to get a hip replaced if it becomes too painful for them to walk? Will they expect to be cared for by medical professionals? Will they expect visits from their family members, all of them healthy and free from debilitating diseases like polio or smallpox? I wonder if they'll ever consider who makes all of the above happen; maybe they're expecting that this is all mysteriously conjured up by their local village witchdoctor with a wave of his magic wand, or something. Who knows?

As for me, I'd prefer to live in a country where the important stuff is taken care of by scientists and engineers, and I want to live in a country where those scientists and engineers are respected and rewarded, not snickered at by some dumb high school jock who just happened to get born into a rich family.


Thanks to Tom, who steered me in the direction of B3ta's latest image challenge. They've asked their readers to recreate their favourite album cover using objects within easy reach. As far as I'm concerned, the rendition of Beck's Odelay is so good you really don't need to wade through the rest, but there are some rather funny attempts in there.


Damn, I wish I lived in Japan. Tony Levin has been playing gigs in Tokyo with Terry Bozzio, Pat Mastelotto, and the one and only Allan Holdsworth. A stick player, with two drummers and a guitarist, all playing an improvised set: that's quite an event.


Guy Bagley has an interesting job. He's the chief... well, architect sounds like the right word - at Legoland, near Windsor. He's the man responsible for overseeing a team of a dozen people who construct just about anything out of little plastic bricks.