The Blog in Winter

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: December 2009

As 2009 drew to a close, I found myself playing lots of video games and transferring lots of files on to my shiny new computer. Bristol got its first real snow of the winter before Christmas, but I still managed my epic trek around the country during the holidays.


As I type this, I'm sitting in the sunshine in the living room at my parents' house in Norfolk. I got here yesterday after a gruelling drive from Lancashire. According to the papers this morning, twelve million people went shopping yesterday and most of them seemed to be using the M61, the M62 and the A1(M). As a result, it took nearly seven hours to get here - not the longest trip I've taken (my record for the journey is eight and a half hours) but deeply unpleasant nonetheless.

The sun may be shining here, but there's still snow - or more accurately, ice - on the ground. When I visited my Aunt in Preston yesterday the roads were like an ice rink, and by the looks of things Norfolk got considerably more snow on the run up to Christmas. Dad told me they've had gales, too - there were a lot of trees down in the woods between Swaffham and Holt and some of them were still poking out into the road.

Luckily for me, I'm not going anywhere in the car today. My sister and her family are on their way over, and my brother and his family have already arrived; the house is full of their stuff. I've just trussed and stuffed the turkey, and I'm about to start peeling the potatoes - so it's going to be a big Christmassy afternoon with lots of people around. I'm cooking for eight people, which is the most I've had to cater for for several years.

(Edit - dinner was a success - I managed to get everything ready at the same time, which is always a bonus, and it all disappeared gratifyingly quickly...)


Just take a look at Catherine Bujold's remarkable Space:1999 house. Furnished totally in keeping with the style and decor of Moonbase Alpha, it's a joy to behold. Feast your eyes on an amazing collection of sixties and seventies design goodness!


My toaster has been playing up recently - it doesn't deliver the crisp all-over finish that it used to, and I've started to think it might be time to replace it. If I do, this toaster would be top of the list. Unfortunately it's only a design exercise and not a commercial product. Not fair!


Next time I need to copy my Contacts and Calendar files from Outlook across to a new PC before I sync my iPod to it. iTunes happily erased the existing information and I only noticed when I tried to make a phone call this morning. It only took a couple of minutes tonight to remedy the situation but do I really have to run around like this fixing stuff that should just, well, work?


Last week I booked today as a day off. I'd planned to get some chores done and then go into town and finish my Christmas shopping. The weather had other ideas. When I walked to the post box to post some cards last night, it was dry, cold and clear, with a line of cloud low on the horizon, way off to the south. An hour and a half later, it looked like this outside:

Uh oh

The council only treats the main road through the village, so this morning all the side roads were very slippy. The snow didn't thaw as the day wore on, either, so I left the car in the garage. All the same, I did manage to do some of the things I'd planned.

Most importantly, I've cleaned, disinfected and refilled all the bird feeders in the garden. When there's snow on the ground, birds don't have access to a lot of their usual sources of food and putting stuff out on bird tables can make a huge difference. I'd barely shut the back door when a blackbird landed on the table to take advantage of the new menu. As I walked back from the post office just now there were large flocks of starlings gathering in the trees, and even a few seagulls casting about for stuff to scavenge.

With severe weather warnings in place for the South West over the next 24 hours, things aren't going to improve for a while. It's time to fill the bird bath with warm water again, I think.


I've got the new PC as close to a usable state as I can manage for the moment, I think. My iPhone has been synched to it, my email is up and running, and most of my legacy apps have been transferred over. I have to run some of them in a virtual machine running a copy of XP, but it's better than nothing. The only sticking point at the moment is my video capture dongle. The drivers for the DVC170 that have worked very well for the last three years or so in XP don't appear to work at all under Windows 7. Pinnacle aren't the greatest at supporting hardware more than a couple of years old. For example, I've only just discovered that there are - finally - drivers to get my DC10 plus running under Windows XP (and the fact that the DC10 wouldn't run under Windows XP was the reason I bought a DVC170 in the first place - I'm detecting a theme developing here). I suspect that the unit, together with the VCR it's connected to, will have to be transferred upstairs and plugged into the old PC which is now ensconced in the bedroom that doubles as my recording studio. So it goes.


I've been to the pictures twice this weekend. Last night I went to see The Men Who Stare at Goats which was undemanding, knockabout fun with a very good cast (and how could I not want to see a film with the tagline "no goats, no glory"? Then this afternoon I finally got to see Up in 3D, and I really enjoyed it. With every film they make, Pixar grow more accomplished. It's not just the computing side of things I'm talking about, either. They really know how to make films with heart, films that are as much an emotional journey as they are a study in visuals done right. Pete Docter has become one of the decade's most accomplished directors, and this is his best yet. It's a lovely, lovely film and I'm really glad I got to see it in 3D on the big screen.

DAN O'BANNON 1946 - 2009

I'm very sad to say that another of my heroes passed away today. Dan O'Bannon started his work in the movie industry on John Carpenter's Dark Star, where he not only wrote the original story and the screenplay and developed the special effects shots but also ended up playing the most endearing character on the ship, the neurotic and insecure Sergeant Pinback. He went on to write the story and screenplay for a moderately successful movie you may have heard of called Alien and then wrote the screenplays for (amongst other things) Blue Thunder, Lifeforce, and Total Recall.

He worked with Moebius on the graphic novel "The Long Tomorrow" and on Jodorowsky's version of Dune, and featured prominently in the Moebius documentary I blogged about recently; he directed The Return of the Living Dead; he worked on the computer animation visual effects for Star Wars. With a history like that you can see why it was that if his name was attached to a movie, I always became far more interested in it. I can't think of an adequate way to express my appreciation for his talents, except to say that the richness of popular film, specifically the science fiction genre, is hugely lessened by his passing. He had a huge impact on the business in general, and on my own tastes in film in particular. He was 63.


Thanks to the folk at Boing Boing for introducing me to Prisencolinensinainciusol. What the hell is that, I hear you ask. Well, it's a rather catchy number written by Adriano Celentano to show what spoken English sounds like to people who don't speak the language - and he did a very good job of it, too. If you're not really paying attention, your brain hears all the right phonemes, so the language sounds familiarly English - but on closer examination the lyrics make no sense at all.

It didn't take long for the discussions on the Boing Boing page to turn to the most famous example of near-incomprehensible lyrics: Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, famously described by the FBI as "unintelligible at any speed." Of course I'm going to be very predictable and link to the best version of Louie Louie ever.


Huge thanks to Lance and the guys from Nightmare Records for their rather spiffy Christmas Offer - a free download of their Merry Metal Christmas album. More than two dozen heavy metal tracks for the festive season, and there's not a duff one in there. In fact, some of them are really very, very good indeed.

Not surprisingly, they've been inundated with requests and my download dropped out a couple of times but I was hugely impressed by the lengths Lance has gone to this week to to make sure I got the album I wanted. And remember, I wasn't even a paying customer. It's the best example of customer service done right that I've experienced in many years and I'll definitely be ordering from them in the future.


If an Easter egg happens at Christmas, does that make it a Christmas Egg?

Once I'd downloaded the Nightmare Records album I listened to it using the rather nifty (and free) VLC media player. It took me a while to realise it, but the program's traffic cone icon on the title bar and the Windows toolbar has acquired a little Santa Claus hat for the festive season. Cute.


There's been some interesting stuff cropping up at the User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) conference this year, and Johnny Chung Lee (who has been helping things along) has blogged about some of the most interesting ones and put videos of them online. His favourite (and mine) is the system that allows you to play Guitar Hero without a guitar - providing pretty much the true air guitar interface! It's worth looking at the "Augmenting Interactive Tables" video on the same page, too; I can't wait until this sort of interface reaches the mainstream.


Are you in the market for a nippy little runabout? How about one of these? I'm sure they're very reasonably priced, although the gas mileage is likely to be rather less than you're used to...


My mate Lins will love this: today I found out about the work of retired dentist Young C. Park, who lives in Hawai'i. He builds model aircraft from scratch out of aluminium in exquisite, mind-bending, detail. You need to click on some of the thumbnails at the bottom of the page to see exactly how much detail. The amount of work required to produce models like that must be enormous. All the control surfaces work in the same way and with the same mechanical components as the real aircraft. So do the ammunition feeds, undercarriage, arrester hooks and what have you.


Thanks to all the people who have sent me links about Fede Alvarez's amazing film Ataque de Panico! over the last few days. I can't imagine there are that many people left out there who haven't heard about his science fiction tale of giant robots stomping through Montevideo. Despite the fact that it looks as if it cost several million dollars to make, Mr Alvarez produced the whole thing on a budget of $300. Hollywood have quite rightly beaten a very hasty path to his door; now Sam Raimi is brokering a $30 million deal for Mr Alvarez to make a big-budget movie. I can't wait to see what he comes up with.


Finally today, how could I not include a link to the octopus video that's been getting a lot of attention for its extremely high cuteness factor? One of the researchers almost drowned from laughing when he saw what the octopus was doing. They're remarkably bright animals, by all accounts; an octopus called Otto who lives in an aquarium in Coburg in Germany learned that if he squirted water on the light which his keepers had inconsiderately left on over his tank at night, he could short circuit it and get some sleep. He also juggles, by all accounts. With the other inhabitants of his tank!


I'm still working my way through the process of transferring all my stuff from one PC to the other. Transferring my iTunes folders took most of yesterday evening, and I'm not entirely happy with the results as iTunes insists on arranging files in order of the artist concerned. That's fine in most cases, but bloody annoying if you've got a lot of compilation albums like I have. I suspect I'm just going to have to remove them from iTunes, reorganise my music folders, and then add them again. Which will take a couple of hours, I guess. I'm not a great fan of iTunes at the best of times, but at the moment I have a very low opinion of the software.

I would probably be even more annoyed with iTunes if it weren't for the fact that I found a very useful free application on the web called iTunes Library Mover. It's a small program that automates a lot of the more tedious aspects of the transfer process, and it's probably halved the amount of time I've had to spend moving my music across.

On the other hand, things could be worse; I'm not trying to install Windows 7 over Microsoft's previous excuse for an operating system. Science fiction writer and inveterate computer tinkerer Charlie Stross has been doing exactly that, and it has not been going well. On Boing Boing, they're talking about introducing epic tales such as his as a new literary genre. There's a book in there somewhere...


My new machine arrived yesterday, and I'm still in the process of moving things over from the old one. I don't know whether it's just because I've had more practice doing this sort of thing in the last few years, but so far (he said, rashly) the process has gone fairly well. I successfully transferred my Thunderbird and Firefox profiles across last night, so all my plugins and add-ons work like they used to. I've moved all my old documents across, and as you're able to read this entry, I must have successfully managed to edit and upload my website files. My printer and scanner are hooked up, and my photos have been copied across. Now all I have to do is figure out the best way of transferring everything in iTunes to the new system. I suspect that will take the rest of this evening.

I've encountered two fairly trivial problems so far: one DVD drive's SATA connection had come loose during transit so the BIOS was giving an error message on boot - that problem was rapidly identified and fixed as soon as I opened the machine. The other problem was that one of my USB sticks won't work when I plug it into the new system. The PC can obviously detect it, as the OS makes the standard "bonk" noise when it's plugged in or removed. It works fine on my old PC, too - but for some reason it's just not talking with my new machine. It's not a great problem, as I've been using a 250Gb external drive for transferring most things. It makes life so much easier; in the old days I used to have to transfer anything larger than the capacity of a floppy disk by using a Laplink cable connected to the parallel port, and that took hours.

The biggest difference for me, of course, is the OS. As of six o'clock last night, I joined the ranks of Windows 7 users. The only 64-bit appplication I've installed so far is BOINC, so I haven't really had a chance to see what the new machine can do; nevertheless, running SETI@home's benchmark reveals that each CPU is twice as fast as my old one - and there are four of them. I've already had the system go into the black screen of death once, and Microsoft's suggestion that it's due to malware is dubious to say the least. When it happened on my system the only thing I'd installed was a Java update.

As far as the operating system goes, perhaps the kindest thing I can say is that I'm getting used to the annoyances. To be fair, some of the interface tweaks are nice, but the number of dialog boxes that crop up asking me did I really want the computer to do what I just asked it to do (or in many cases, telling me plainly and simply that I wasn't allowed to do it) has been high and is causing a degree of frustration. The new concept of libraries is going to take some getting used to. At the moment it feels like Windows explorer in particular has not changed for the better. The old, well-organised folders list down the left hand side of the window has been replaced by an arbitrary-looking list of stuff that now includes files and shortcuts as well. Another source of annoyance was the fact that I had to go and find a dialogue box and then click a check box, just to enable the "run" command that sits on the Start button (and as I have Windows 7 Professional, I had to enable games the same way; don't get me started on the new version of spider solitaire, it's horrible).

I am sure I will discover ways to configure Windows to my liking. It always takes me a while to find the best tweaks and settings, and I've already started reading up on what's possible. Over the next few weeks, if I find anything that proves stunningly useful I'll bung it in the blog - so stay tuned!


As seen on Metafilter: sometimes, writing a short story can have unexpected (and rather nice) consequences many years down the line...


I finished my first run through of Borderlands yesterday. I was quite surprised to get past the final level boss, to be honest, and I'm not entirely sure why I didn't run out of all the ammo I'd amassed, but I'm not complaining. So far this evening I've resisted the temptation to start again with one of the three other character classes, because I know if I do, I'll end up spending all the free time I've got between now and Christmas doing little else. I've never been hooked by a game as badly as this since I first bought an Atari VCS console way back in the late 1970s and spent hour after hour playing Night Driver and Space Invaders. For the moment, however, I've sated my videogame cravings which should mean my blogging and twitter output will aquire a bit more variety.


I need a replacement battery for my home computer, which has been bitching when it boots up that the CMOS battery is low. I wasted 45 minutes on the way home by calling in at PC World in the mistaken belief that they'd be able to sell me one. I won't make that mistake again; despite rebranding themselves as "The Tech Guys," the behemoth-sized superstore at Cribbs Causeway hardly sells any components these days beyond printer cartridges and bigger hard drives. God help you if you were going to use them to source components for a new system.

My home computer is getting a bit long in the tooth, there's no escaping the fact. The processor's a 3GHz Pentium 4, and looking at my old blog entries I bought the system way back at the beginning of December 2004, so I've definitely had my money's worth out of it. But the time has come to upgrade, so last week I ordered a new PC from Dell and it's already shipped. Squeee!


Frank Frazetta's son has been charged with trying to nick 90 of his dad's paintings, worth £12 million. In the 1970s together with Boris Vallejo he pretty much cornered the market for illustrations of sword and sorcery epics. Anyone with more than a couple of Molly Hatchet albums to their name will recognise the style instantly; he's long been a hero of mine.


Meanwhile, in twelve ten-minute films over on YouTube, Dr Shane Legg talks about the state of work on the development of Artificial Intelligence. He makes a lot of extremely good points, simply and clearly.

While I watched his lecture I began to realise exactly why it is that, nine years after 2001 we still haven't achieved a self-aware computer like the HAL9000. For a start, Dr Legg observes that different people working on AI have different ideas about what they are trying to achieve, even when they're working on the same project. Then he proposes a definition that will help decide whether or not the machine intelligence you're building in your lab actually is, er, intelligent. I'm about twenty minutes in to the whole two hours of the talk, and I intend to watch the rest this weekend. It promises to be fascinating stuff.


Ahh, those wacky Americans. Thanks to Jack Womack, I learned today about Operation Fishbowl, America's practical testing of ICBMs carried out over the Pacific near Hawai'i in the 1960s. As the article says, things could have gone better. One launch "had to be detonated when the rocket veered out of control -- remember, veered out of control with an armed nuclear warhead on board." A successful test called Starfish Prime let off an atomic bomb two hundered and fifty miles above Honolulu.

It makes me realise that when the producers of Mad Men depict the other-worldly values and attitudes of the 1960s portrayed on the show, they aren't always exaggerating for dramatic effect. Sometimes I wonder how I managed to make it to my 3rd birthday...


My love of 2K Games's latest creation Borderlands continues unabated. It's ridiculously good fun.

Apart from the fact that it looks wonderful, it's the way the mission/reward system is implemented that I really like. The software is very good at judging exactly how good the player has to be at each level, and pitches each mission so that it's enough of a challenge to make completing it feel like a real achievement, but not so insurmountable that you end up throwing the controller away out of sheer frustration (Arkham Asylum, I'm looking at you). There are usually several different ways of taking down a level boss, but here's the clever bit - if you use the less-risky strategies, you're going to get less experience points from completing them. That's absolutely great - it motivates you to try the difficult approach first, but if you do get stuck, you can bail out and come back with the heavy weaponry (the "Nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure" approach). There's always a way around each seeming impasse, and when you're running a sandbox game that's pretty much an essential attribute.

Another thing I like is the bewildering variety of everything on screen. For example, the weapons are procedurally generated and the pool of different combinations available is (according to which articles you read) a "mere" few hundred thousand to nineteen million. As a result, each time you turn up at the vending machine you might see a completely different set of weapons available for purchase - and playing with each one is likely to have a significant effect on how you play the game. You keep wanting to go back and fight more bad guys to see what they were shooting you with - if you zap them, they drop the weapon they were using and you can pick it up, either swapping it for something you're already carrying or taking it back to a weapons vending machine and redeeming it for cold, hard cash.

Then consider the fact that there are four different characters you can play through the game as. Each one has totally different attributes, requiring you to play through the game with different strategies and develop completely different skill trees. As I played through the missions last night (and I reckon I'm about two thirds of the way through at present) I could see this game having the potential to deliver challenging single-player gameplay for weeks. And that's before you get to the split-screen one-on-one duelling, the four person co-op mode, or the online arena elements of the game. Considering I picked up the game for under £20 at, that's seriously good value for money.

The game obviously pushes the console pretty hard to get all that goodness on screen, though. All that awesomeness has got to come from somewhere, and my PS3 has been struggling to deliver. The audio in particular seems to have problems, and there's a known bug regarding the PS3's optical out for audio - which is what I use. Last night I was playing and the sound cut out entirely; when I quit the game at a convenient save point, the PS3 actually forced a reboot rather than returning to the XMB menu. All the same, once it came back up, everything was fine. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to pick up my ride from Scooter and head out into the Rust Commons again...


I like playing videogames. I've got a PS3 and a GameCube connected up to the TV in the living room and I might spend an hour or so in the evening playing driving games or the occasional shoot-'em-up. But I'm not the sort of person to play a game obsessively to the exclusion of all else. Even at the height of my obsession with Age of Empires I'd only play one game a day - probably taking two or three hours to do so.

So I'm struggling to understand why I spent a solid twelve hours yesterday and another six today playing a single game on the Playstation: Borderlands is a first person shooter from 2K Games (the people who brought us BioShock). It takes you on a science fiction adventure set on the planet Pandora, a world that owes more than a little to Mad Max. While the game owes a lot to other games such as Fallout 3, it uses the Unreal game engine with cel-shaded graphics that gives it a look that's refreshingly out of the ordinary. The style used means that the screen looks as if it was hand-drawn by one of my favourite comic book artists, Enki Bilal. I was surprised to discover that when drawn characters talked to me, they seemed much more lifelike than the characters in Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. There are references galore to popular media, whether it be scrawled on the walls or spoken out loud - for example, one trophy I won this afternoon was called "1.21 Gigawatts." The soundtrack uses specially commissioned music rather than licensed tracks, and is all the better for it. When the heat is on, you're treated to a burst of Tuvan throat singing, which sounds bizarre but which works splendidly.

It has to be said that the game is not without its faults. Even when you've cleared an area of the map, enemies will respawn there automatically every time you go past; the locator beacons on the HUD that you use to find game objectives are frequently off target; some of the missions are teeth-grindingly tedious and there's an annoying robot that is no doubt supposed to be cute. But after about an hour or so I managed to tune these faults out and had a whale of a time blasting away at pretty much anything that moves. I'm about half-way through the game, and provided I don't suddenly run up against a mission that I can't complete, I think I'll carry on until the finish - although I probably won't pull another twelve-hour session like that in doing so...


Thanks to Woodrow for telling me about the august visitor that Professor Michael Stoll of Augsburg University had last June: Syd Mead was there to deliver a lecture. During a car journey to the University, the two chatted together and the transcript of their conversation is now online.


Suddenly bursting in to a fit of the giggles in the office today got me quite a few strange looks. They were caused by the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street being applied to oh-so-serious German metal band Rammstein.


I spent another couple of hours last night playing Colin McRae: DiRT on the Playstation. I'm really enjoying it, possibly because so far (and I'm 40% of the way through the career progression) it has never confronted me with a challenge I can't manage. Compare and contrast this with Brütal Legend, which I was playing happily until Tuesday night, when I got stuck on the Tour of Destruction challenge. I can get no further, which I find extremely irritating.


When I opened the curtains this morning, the world outside had turned white: last night brought the first hard frost of the season. I had a meeting in Oxfordshire today and even at 9 o'clock in the morning, the temperature near Didcot was still below freezing. There are quite a few Red Kites in the area but today I only saw one, and it was sitting in the top of a tree, huddled up against the cold and looking distinctly unimpressed with the weather. Tonight it's clouded over and started to rain, but it's still bitterly cold.

Anyone who spent the last month in the UK will be less than surprised to hear that November was officially the wettest month on record with an average rainfall of 217.4mm (8.6in).


94% of all email is spam. That means that just six emails out of every hundred that clutter up your inbox are from people you actually want to hear from. Six. In a hundred.

You may have seen today that spam kings Lance Atkinson and Jody Smith have been fined fifteen million dollars for the part they played in turning email from a quick and easy means of almost instant communication into the almost-useless, frequently offensive, pornographic and frantic mess that it has become. Things have become so bad that some people, such as tech commentator Bob Cringely, have pretty much given up on email altogether.

Smith is likely to end up in prison; Atkinson is still scott free and according to the BBC he has yet to pay the two million dollars he was fined in 2005. That's really going to stop him, then.