Monday, 31 December 2007

Privacy and where not to find it


Now this is depressing: the 2007 Privacy International survey on Leading surveillance societies in the EU and the World 2007

Okay, so the usual qualifiers have to be noted - who is undertaking the survey chief amongst them - and yes, there are worse human rights abuses than an invasion of citizen's privacy. But all the same, when much of the world is classed as being 'Endemic surveillance societies', it's not good.

Here's what it says about the UK
  • World leading surveillance schemes
  • Lack of accountability and data breach disclosure law
  • Commissioner has few powers
  • Interception of communications is authorised by politician, evidence not used in court, and oversight is by commissioner who reports only once a year upon reviewing a subset of applications
  • Hundreds of thousands of requests from government agencies to telecommunications providers for traffic data
  • Data retention scheme took a significant step forward with the quiet changes based on EU law
  • Plans are emerging regarding surveillance of communications networks for the protection of copyrighted content
  • Despite data breaches, 'joined-up government' initiatives continue
  • Identity scheme still planned to be the most invasive in the world, highly centralised and biometrics-driven; plan to issue all foreigners with cards in 2008 are continuing
  • E-borders plans include increased data collection on travellers



Friday, 28 December 2007

Heinlein: The Descent of a Sci-Fi Guru

Interesting little piece that reflects political currents in post-war SF. Oddly enough, it seems that Heinlein's mainstream, adult SF is considered largely discredited, while his juvenile books are standing the test of time a lot more successfully.

Heinlein: The Descent of a Sci-Fi Guru : Top Stories : Kitsap Sun

Thursday, 20 December 2007

It seems I have a price

Not a price for being bribed by PR companies to feature their guff in features and articles or anything like that (that's always been fixed at a good lunch and is a standard rate throughout the industry), but a price I'm not prepared to pay for going to a gig. And that price is:

Neil Young - Hammersmith Apollo - £75

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Move over Xmas - it's Festivus time


Enough of all this Christian-derived, pagan-subverted consumer armageddon. Let's have a winter festival introduced by a proper route to civilisation: ie via an American sitcom. Yes, it can only be the Seinfeld-inspired Festivus.

The holiday is celebrated each year on, but many people celebrate it at other times, often to avoid the Christmas rush. The holiday includes novel practices such as the "Airing of Grievances", in which each person tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed him/her over the past year. Also, after the Festivus meal, the "Feats of Strength" are performed, involving wrestling the head of the household to the floor, the holiday only ending if the head of the household is actually pinned.

More here. It just makes so much sense...

Festivus - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Man caught anthrax from drum kit

A most unwelcome development. Not only does drumming harm your mental development (and I should know), but it can positively kill you too.

BBC NEWS | Scotland | South of Scotland | Man caught anthrax from drum kit

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Damn, and indeed, blast

[via www.paulkidby.com]

Writes Terry Pratchett:

AN EMBUGGERANCE

Folks,

I would have liked to keep this one quiet for a little while, but because of upcoming conventions and of course the need to keep my publishers informed, it seems to me unfair to withhold the news. I have been diagnosed with a very rare form of early
onset Alzheimer's, which lay behind this year's phantom "stroke".

We are taking it fairly philosophically down here and possibly with a mild optimism. For now work is continuing on the completion of Nation and the basic notes are already being laid down for Unseen Academicals. All other things being equal, I
expect to meet most current and, as far as possible, future commitments but will discuss things with the various organisers. Frankly, I would prefer it if people kept things cheerful, because I think there's time for at least a few more books yet :o)

PS I would just like to draw attention to everyone reading the above that this should be interpreted as 'I am not dead'. I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else. For me, this maybe further off than you think - it's too soon to tell.
I know it's a very human thing to say "Is there anything I can do", but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Is that all there is? | Review | Guardian Unlimited Books


Is that all there is? | Review | Guardian Unlimited Books

Last year, Dawkins and The God Delusion. This year God gets to fight back, albeit in a half-hearted way that suggests there is a God-shaped hole gaping in the breast of every atheist. Looks like it could be annoyingly parochial in that it sticks to Western society and equates religious belief solely with Christianity, but an interesting thesis nevertheless. Here's a snippet from the review:

Let's stay with the thinkable. What's especially compelling about Taylor's, admittedly sometimes long-winded, book is his charge that cracks in Christianity provided places where secularism's weeds flourished. In this he's not just talking about the reformation, but, for example, the movement called deism, prominent in 17th- and 18th-century Britain, France and America, which rejected the theistic position (common in Judaism, Islam and much Christianity) that relied on revelation in sacred scriptures or the testimony of others. Instead, deism drew the existence and nature of God from reason and personal experience. Deism, of course, for some became a way-station from theism to atheism, but not for all.

From deism, Taylor shifts focus to what he calls the west's current age of authenticity. By this he means an individualistic era in which people are encouraged to find their own way or do their own thing. The idea that one had to use one's own reason and experience to find God instilled a sense of intellectual autonomy that led some to abandon God altogether. "As a result," writes Taylor, "the nova effect has been intensified. We are now living in a spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane."

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

QotSA - Reading Rivermead

Bit of a damp squib of a gig to be honest, mostly enlivened by running into my (eventually to be ex) brother-in-law and having a good catch up after far too long. Having wanted to see Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster for a couple of years now, they somehow contrived to be less than the sum of their parts. Their sound needs the space studio production gives them, otherwise it’s just stirring noise soup. Entertaining sepulchral howls notwithstanding, live it’s a bit all over the place.


Two tracks into the QotSA set and when Josh Homme starts climbing the rig and rubbing his guitar against the scaffold on Feel Good Hit of the Summer, you suspect it’s going to be mighty. Then they start playing lots of stuff from the last release, Era Vulgaris, which is a disappointingly weak album in the same way that England’s Euro 2008 qualification run was a tad mistimed, and all the momentum goes. Undeniably slick, it’s QotSA by numbers and almost – heresy! - verging on the bland till the end and some classic stoner rock wig-outs and incendiary encores.

Nowhere near as good as the last time (Laura's birthday, Brixton 2005). Still, reports from the CSS tour are good so far, so high hopes for that gig this time next week.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Here comes the rain


It had to happen in the end. After over a month of little or no rain, the heavens above Lake Titicaca opened and decided to dump it all on our heads in one evening. First lighting decided to strike a bit too closely for comfort while we were up an island mountain on a - failed - geocache expedition, then the floodgates opened, the winds picked up and the deluge started.

We were staying with local families at the time, which meant a tin roofed room in their house typically, and at 2 in the morning it was tempestuous to say the least. In pitch blackness with the rain hammering down like a thousand mad drummers above our heads, it felt like we were suspended in an iron box in the sky and the gods were trying to hurl us down to the ground. Maybe, I thought in a sleep-addled fug, I really should not have walked round that pagan temple widdershins three times and made a whole-hearted wish without appeasing someone or other first. This continent is fairly crowded with gods...

We woke to mild drizzle (which still sounds like the end of the world under a tin roof) and a Lake that was the subdued grey of the Atlantic. After so much of Peru had delivered big time on the scenic impressiveness front, Titicaca let the rest of the country down badly by being like Cleethorpes on a wet November weekend. Still, the homestay had been fun if a bit cheesy (you haven´t lived till you´ve been dressed in a poncho and whirled breathlessly round a dancefloor by a tiny, cackling Peruvian woman) and it was good to pump some tourist dollars into the bottom of the local economy rather than simply turning it over to the purveyors of Guinness and other beers; the happy look on the face of the three kids Rob and I were staying with when I gave them a Kit Kat after a simple dinner will linger long in my mind. We, as in the Exodus group, stayed with the poorest community on the island and even with our input and dollars they often only manage to make the three hour boat trip to the mainland twice a year. It´s one of those times when yes, tourism is probably destroying local cultures and traditions, but when those local cultures and traditions include grinding poverty, back-breaking work and low life expectancy, then sod it. If you´d seen those three kids huddled on the floor round the fire, you´d want more for their future too.

Happily though, I managed to climb three peaks over 4000m on the lake which means I don´t have to hang up my walking boots for ever and retire to my sofa and look at my Wii as a dangerous amount of exercise over coming months.

Talking of poverty, the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, is trying to wipe it out of Bolivia by a programme of nationalisation and redistribution of wealth that´s seen a state pension introduced, incentives for kids to stay in education, and all the large multinationals crying foul. So far he´s doing well though and Freddie, our guide round La Paz today, certainly thinks he´s doing a good job of it and, like a good socialist, I nodded along vigorously. Morales needs to do well though. If the poor everywhere are in chains, those on the outskirts of La Paz are bound and gagged too, while elsewhere in the city the paranoid rich dwell in sumptuous houses behind iron gates. The inequality of wealth here, as in too many other places in South America, can take your breath away.

And that´s quite literally. La Paz, at 3600m, is the highest administrative capital in the world and the Bolivian national football team keeps trying to host tournaments here so it can run rings round the opposition (unusually, the richer suburbs are at lower altitudes, mainly because it´s a couple of degrees warmer down there). Perhaps if England had played Croatia here we´d have had a chance, but we arrived to the news that England had lost that match and were out of Euro 2008, which was a nice synchronous closing of the loop of sporting disaster considering we left Quito 5 weeks ago after losing the RWC final. Anyway, La Paz is a cool city: very bustling, very Asian in some ways (Kathmandu seems to be the favourite comparison), and for some reason I haven´t done my usual freak at the sight of more than 10 people and a goat in one place and instead have really dialled into it and enjoyed the place. In fact, it´s a shame that I´m leaving tomorrow because I get the feeling I´d very much like to see more of the city and the country around it, llama foetuses in the Witches´Market and all.

But, a cab´s picking me up at 5am tomorrow morning and then American Airlines are taking me to Miami before I mount a Virgin for Heathrow. 10.25am on Saturday morning I´ll be back in England (though sadly with not enough energy or time to get down to Bath to watch us demolish Bristol that afternoon). After nearly six weeks, I´m ready to come back too. I´ve had a great time here, made some great friends, laughed like a loon on more occasions than I can recall and seen some unforgettable sights. But John Urry´s concept of Tourist Gaze turns into Tourist Glaze with me after a while, and I´m ready to get home, see all the people I miss, revel in the space, have a pint, stomp around the countryside, ride the mountain bike and relax in a good hot bath.

It might not be as romantic as disappearing over the horizon with a pack on your back and a paranoid guidebook in your hand, but truly one of the best things about travel is the bit where it´s over and you come home.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Cuzco, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu


According to most of the guidebooks, Cuzco, nestled 3310metres up in the Andes, is a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah but without the fun bits. If you don´t get mugged you´ll get stabbed, if you don´t get stabbed you´ll get mugged and at weekends you can take advantage of a special local two for one offer and get both stabbed and mugged, which would be unfortunate.

The reality is very different. It´s a charming city with some superb architecture in a stunning location which the Incas originally laid out in the shape of a puma. Sure, there´s some tourist hassle to contend with, but you just shake your head, say ´No gracias´and walk on. Its bad reputation probably comes from the fact that there are a lot of gringos fresh off the metaphorical banana boat and on their way to Machu Picchu strolling about with gaping bags and wads of dollars in their back pockets. The biggest danger we found was that the local Irish bar (the highest Irish bar in the World allegedly) actually had cans of Guinness in its fridge, which led to a very long and expensive night when we first got here, not to mention bodily injuries caused to two of our number in the infamous Yorkshire Terrier versus Wiltshire Warrior fight-dancing contest.

It´s a great city to nose around with some fabulous Inca ruins in and around it and some great post-Colombian religious art too, including a highly impressive local rendition of the Last Supper with Jesús et al tucking into a roast guinea pig in the main Cathedral, and some archangels painted as if they were modern street kids in Santo Dominigo. The last in particular were strangely haunting, which probably explains why I started hallucinating them halfway up the first murderous climb of the Inca Trail a couple of days later.

We looked round the city, we looked round the various ruins dotted around the Sacred Valley in which Cuzco nestles, and then we donned our walking boots, got a coach to Km 82, and passed through the control gate and onto the four day long Inca Trail.

Whether it was the heat, the humidity, the altitude, or whether I´m just a lot less fit than I like to think I am, the first day was hell, pure and simple. The 12km along the valley floor was okay, but after lunch we started the 700m climb to our campsite and only about 50 metres up I died the first of what seemed like a thousand deaths. I dropped off the back of the group and first my head went, then my body and it all started getting a bit strange. Demons of past failures flayed me and tried to push me back down the mountain at every step as they reared out of the rock, before I then started seeing all my friends standing at the hairpins and cheering me on while the Santo Domingo archangels swooped overhead. When that got too emotional to deal with and I was on the verge of weeping, all of a sudden I started imagining my fellow overlanders as characters out of Á Midsummer Night´s Dream´ for some reason with Rob as Oberon, Shannon as Titania, and Leader Tubbs as a very Puckish Puck. Weird…

It was three of the worst hours of my life to be honest: every step a painful, sweat-soaked exercise in agony and near despair. By the time I eventually got to the campsite I was white as a sheet and utterly exhausted, and all I could think of as we ate the excellent food provided by our team of porters (the average ratio of porters to trekkers on the trail is a little more than 1:1) was that next day we still had 500m to go to get to the top of the 4200m high Dead Woman´s Pass and it might have to be renamed the Dead Stout´s Pass at this rate.

Thankfully, a night of rest and altitude adjustment got me mentally back on track if nothing else and, with the aid of an iPod full of righteous tunes as motivation, the two hour drag to the top was just physically knackering and nothing more. I even managed to fill my lungs and let out a fairly impressive ´Come on you Bath´ before it spluttered to a wheezing end when I got to the top, which startled at least two porters and could apparently be heard echoing off the mountains a good half hour back along the trail.

None of the rest of the trail was as bad, though it´s still probably the toughest physical thing I´ve ever done. The rocks the Inca used to build the path are uneven and treacherous so you have to watch every step closely, meaning that everytime you looked up at the view it seemed your ankle was in danger of turning over. So, you get into a rhythm of watching your feet with only the occasional snatched glance at your surroundings, which kind of misses the point a bit if you ask me. Still, I managed to catch a glimpse of a condor soaring on the thermals and the occasional humming bird snaffling nectar from the plants of the cloud forest crowding the path, and the views of mountain tops and valley bottoms when the clouds and mist parted were of a Hollywood special effects budget standard.

Cloud cover took the sting out of the heat and we were lucky that when it rained it rained at night, so it was good walking weather. Nevertheless, when we were up at 03.30 on the final day to get to Machu Picchu I´d had more then enough of walking in the mountains to last what (at the moment anyway) feels like a lifetime and my legs felt like half-set jelly. Next time, I might just get the bus. From the station at Km 82 where we started you can actually walk along the valley to Aguas Calientes, the village at the bottom of Machu Picchu. It takes about 10 hours and was the way that the Incas kept the site supplied. The Inca Trail which we followed over three Andean passes was a religious pilgrimage and only fit for the noble classes, which will teach me to get ideas above my station…

And so to Machu Picchu (pronounced ´pickchu´ - it means Old Mountain. Don´t pronounce it with a single ´c´, as that apparently makes it mean Óld Penis´). Make me walk over endless mountains to an NCP car park for four days and I´ll be glad to see it when I get there to be honest, but arriving at the Sun Gate just after dawn and seeing Machu Picchu laid out like a living thing in the saddle between two mountains was a stunning sight and one that will long live with me.

We got to wander round for a good couple of hours before the tourist hordes arrived from Cuzco too, which made the aching calves and quads well worth it. The ruins, the mountains and the cauldron of cloud surrounding us that morning all combined to create a scene of awesome beauty, but I have to admit I didn´t get the spiritual kick out of the experience that others did. Maybe it´s because it´s not my land. Take me to Avebury or to the White Horse and I can almost feel the earth alive beneath my feet, but for all it´s grace and photogenic allure, Machu Picchu failed to speak to me. Perhaps – along with the aching legs – that´s why I decided not to spend another 45 minutes climbing the perilous steps up to the nearby Huanta Picchu site, but instead disgraced myself by going down to Aguas Calientes and taking pictures of trains :-)

I´m writing this back in Cuzco on a Sunday afternoon, sipping fresh limonada in a café overlooking the Plaza and the Cathedral, with the pueblos of the city stretching up the hillside behind. It´s odd to think that in under a week I´ll be thousands of miles away in another hemisphere back in England (when I promise to upload the photos finally) and looking out of my windows across the paddocks and the Oxfordshire countryside to the Ridgeway beyond. But before that happens and life snaps back to normal tomorrow we head up to Lake Titicaca where, amongst other things, apparently we have a football match organised against the locals at 4000m. We´re fighting over who goes in goal already…

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Interlude


Not a huge amount to report. We’ve spent the past couple of days journeying through the Andes to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas. We’ve got a day here sorting ourselves out before we head out on the four day trek up to Machu Pichu but, in the meantime, some random observations:

Alpacas look cute but taste of liver. Best avoided IMHO.

Guinea pigs don’t look cute without their fur on and roasted on a spit, but I still haven’t quite managed to bring myself to have a nibble.

Camping at 4000m in sub-zero temperatures is not fun in any accepted definition of the word. Especially after drinking five litres of water the previous day.

Peruvians have extended the game of pool to cricket-like lengths by shrinking the pockets and increasing the size of the balls. Or maybe it’s just the altitude playing tricks…

Coke’s native rival, Inca Cola, is essentially liquefied bubblegum. We’re thinking of introducing a Malibu & Inca Cola forfeit for anyone that does something really annoying on the truck.

Condors make red kites look like sparrows.

Truck + big rock = slight mishap.

Irish Bars are even more prevalent than internet cafes, but you have little to no chance of getting a Guinness in either of them.

Peru is large and varied enough that it looks like most other countries at some point or another. Today was Scottish Highlands segueing into the Alps with a hint of high altitude desert and a touch of Chinese terracing.

21 people do not always manage to travel harmoniously together. Best make that a case of Inca Cola thinking about it…

Coca leaves are great at mitigating the effects of altitude sickness, but only because you’re spending the entire time wondering what that ruddy awful taste in your mouth is.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The Immodium Express


It is one of those immutable laws of nature that the English, whenever they congregate in foreign climes, will inevitably talk about their bowels at some point in proceedings. For our mixed crew of English, Welsh, Irish, American, Dutch and German brethren and sistren though, this has become almost the sole topic of conversation because of an outbreak of extreme gastric nastiness that has poleaxed about 75% of us. No sooner has one come back from the loos whistling “Solid as a rock” in a smug fashion, than another´s eyes start gently revolving and a Stygian gurgling is heard from their belt region. Not pleasant at all.

It´s made the trip down from Lima a bit arduous in places to be honest, especially the night in the rough camp where people were disappearing over the horizon clutching a trowel and a wad of loo roll with alarming frequency. Oddly enough though, after several days of feeling like death (including a day shivering in a hotel bed in Lima with a daft temperature), it took getting in a light aeroplane and indulging in some light aerobatics over the Nazca Lines for me to feel better. Others went green, but set me in the sky wheeling and turning over a desert and, it seems, I feel remarkably chipper.

The lines look like scuff marks from the ground to be honest – which perhaps explains why they built the Pan-American highway right through the middle of one of the figures in the early 20th century. But they are fairly spectacular from the air and cover a hostile area of barren wilderness area verging on 500 square km. The current favourite theory is that they were generated as part of a water cult, though I still prefer Erich von Daniken´s entertainingly crackpot notion that they were runways for alien spaceships. von Daniken gets the last laugh too, with one of the main glyphs being dubbed ´The Astronaut´.

Everything – lines, bowels and all - was thrown into very sharp context by the devastation of the area surrounding Pisco after the summer´s earthquake, with toppled buildings, many people still living in tents and piles of rubble everywhere. In places Peru is a grindingly poor country, and to see people with nothing actually lose even more is more than sobering.

We´ve since worked our way up from the coast (on a fairly monotonous diet of mainly boiled rice and dried bread, since you ask) to Arequipa, Peru´s second city, set at 2400m under the massive perfect cone of the Misti volcano. It´s cosmopolitan, chilled, and a nice welcome to the high country.

It´s also home to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, which is a definite highlight of the trip so far. A monastery that encompasses an entire city block, it was closed to visitors for nigh on 400 years and boasts an entertainingly chequered history until Pope Pius IX decided to stop the partying and kick the nuns´ servants out in the latter part of the 19th century. It was just one of those days when the ambience of a place hit the perfect light for photographs and dovetailed with a mellow mood and we wandered round in a happy daze taking pictures of geometrical designs and goggling at some of the imagery in the religious paintings (okay, that last bit was mostly me).

Beyond the city limits, it´s canyon country out there, but we´ve not done much in the way of adrenalin fuelled nuttiness yet due to the aforementioned stomach lurgy. I don´t know about you, but after 48 hours of not eating anything and then two days on boiled rice (I fell off the wagon once and the consequences were, shall we say, explosive), the energy for white water rafting or volcano climbing just ain´t there. Still, someone mentioned the possibility of mountain biking down from about 5000m up the slopes of Misti tomorrow, so provided I can get a vegetable or two to take their normal course through my digestive tract over the next 12 hours, I might be well up for that. After all, it´s downhill and thus not really exercise.

Anyway, hope this finds all of you who read it safe and well. Let me know what´s going on in your lives and I´ll try to write more as we head towards Cuzco and the start of the four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu next week. Will try to get some more pics up soon too.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Deepest, darkest Peru


Heading up the Amazon from Iquitos in a speedboat is one hell of a thrill. Even though it´s firmly on the gringo trail nowadays, Iquitos still has the feel of a wild west frontier town about it and, well… it´s the Amazon. And boy is it mighty. Over 3500km from the sea still, in places it´s well over a kilometre wide and reaches 20m deep in some channels. That´s a lot of water. I booted up the GPS to see how fast we were going and saw that home was 9081km away to the north east. At 50kph in the speedboat we could have made it in 7 days.

Arriving at Muyuna Lodge 140km away on one of its tributaries, the Rio Yamayura, was also a thrill due to it being a decent slice of luxury for a group of increasingly raggedy arsed overlanders. Welcomed with cold towels and fresh juice, with a cooked meal and a cold beer round every corner, the rooms are open but enclosed with netting so you can lie in bed speculating about exactly what just met it´s grisly end in the jungle outside your room. And, while you´re at it, what the hell is that flapping sound too…

Half the time, most of the carnage was, in fact, being caused by the Lodge´s cat a close encounter with which has probably knocked more years of the lifespan of the region´s tourists than the surrounding 1000 square kilometers of wildlife combined. I managed to commute my girly scream at finding something large and furry on my feet into a ´Christ on a bike´ just in time but it was a close run thing.

Sadly, for me anyway, the jungle itself was not quite as much of a thrill. Trekking through it was like walking through dense English woodland with a steambath in attendance and some mad scientist’s Giganto Ray turned on the wildlife. There was not much wildlife about either, probably all having been scared off by Tiddles the homicidal jungle cat. Still, we saw some pygmy marmosets and numerous other monkies, others saw some three-toed sloths and caymen, but biodiversity of an interesting nature was a bit lacking to be honest.

So, I sat about half the trips out, preferring to chill and ruminate in a hammock with a cold beer or two while trying to avoid activities that made me sweat like blinking too often. All that said though, I have now seen pink dolphins (shiny), swum in the Amazon (freaky), fished for pirhana (bitey) and eaten the things too (fishy) so it´s been worthwhile. Even so, bring on the mountains…

(Coda – the pressure release from being back out of the jungle led to one of those Great Lost Nights out in Iquitos which is now a succession of somewhat blurred images including a bunch of us encouraging tuk-tuk racing, drinking a bar dry of rum, throwing shapes in the church of dance, rescuing one of our number from a stick situation, and all in all ending up a sweaty, sticky, sleep deprived mess. Needless to say, my body is now a temple… ruined and of archeological interest only.)

Monday, 29 October 2007

Off to the Amazon


It's 20.00 here in Lima and we're just whiling the time away before we leave for the airport at 02.00 to fly to Iquitos (02.00 - Exodus tu est assassins). From there it's then a three hour boat trip along the river to our jungle lodge for two nights and more creepy crawlies than you can shake an extremely shitty stick at.

Talking of which... the first dose of Montezuma's revenge has struck, so rather than going out for a meal with everyone else, I'm sticking within a 60 second dash radius of my own khazi and hoping that I'll be all nice and purged before I get on the aeroplane. I'm not even indulging in a quick pisco sour, which is a cocktail I have very rapidly fallen head over heels in love with. Gorgeous stuff.

Lima takes a while to relax into, especially for a lad from Baulking (pop. 51, some of which are probably livestock). Nine million people live here, many in extreme poverty in the peublos that have washed up along the local hillsides, and there's also an atmosphere of slight paranoia amongst the gringos. Keep your thumb over your drink, don't carry anything valuable, walk purposefully at all times...that sort of thing. I blame the Footprint South American Handbook which, as well as being the weight of a small brick, tends to go straight for Defcon 3 alert status at the drop of the hat. This is a book that should be twinned with Crimewatch ('Oh, don't forget... having scared you witless for the last 60 minutes, there's not really anyone lurking outside your back door...honest'), or at least ship with the words 'PANIC' emblazoned non-comfortingly on the front cover. Mine is sliced and diced with the aid of a Swiss Army knife now, and at least is proving good and absorbent when camping...

A wander round the city then today, down into the rich Miraflores area and looking at museums and some mightily impressive colonial architecture. Though we all drive each other slightly insane at times, this trip is turning out to be frequently hilarious and I can't remember when I cried with laughter quite so consistently. It started with my roommate Rob (El Diablo) sitting next to an American girl on the tour coach to a chorus of 'Smooth Operator' and continued up to just now when I found that Bath beat Leicester today. Not Wildean levels of wit admittedly, but this is definitely a fun way to travel. Unfortunately, as with cricket and rugby tours, what happens on the truck stays on the truck and most of it is unrepeatable even for a journo with well developed immoral principles like myself. Well, until I get home and out of reach of El Diablo's dirty washing bag at least.

Anyway, enough wittering. Remind me to go through and give all this blog stuff a damn good edit when I get home. Some photos are up now, and I'll put more online after Iquitos.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Chan Chan


What a stunning place. Chan Chan is the largest adobe-built city in the world stretched out over about 26 square miles and nine separate palaces (when one ruler died, the nobles closed it off and all moved into another one) just north of Trujillo on the Peruvian coast. Rescued from the sand about 35 years ago, only one palace is open now, but at 300 x 400m it’s plenty big enough: 10 metre high mud walls stretch off into the distance, enclosing everything from administrative offices and religious spaces, to sacrificial chambers. Some areas have survived the centuries quite well, and motifs of fish and pelicans can be made out amidst a riot of geometrical art that would do many mosques proud.

We’d have looked at it in a bit more detail, but one of our number, Shannon, got mobbed by schoolkids (either because she’s a gringo and speaks a bit of Spanish or she can look a bit like Posh from certain angles) who then proceeded to follow us about for a bit grinning and practicing the word ‘Hello’ over and over again. Quite sweet really, though it made getting a decent photo a bit tricky.

Over the road (well, -ish) is the Huaca de la Luna, a religious site built by the Moche people. Here, warriors got sacrificed after an orgy of sex and drugs if they lost in battle to their god Ai Apaec, and seeing as how they were warring with people all up and down the coast, Ai Apaec did quite well on that front. For all their bravery though, the Moche were killed off by an El Nino event, and their gold was later looted by the Spanish. Ai Apaec’s powers obviously didn’t run to control of the ocean currents…

It’s been nice to do some proper cultural-like stuff after what’s seemed like a fairly solid mix of boozy behavior in the evenings and 12 hour days in the truck. Rewinding a couple of days, the truck full of nubile Australian virgins or whatever they were meant to be did in fact turn out to be full of Gap-year kids and a fairly harassed-looking tour leader. Scenic but dumb about sums it up, and at one point it looked like it was going to kick-off a bit after someone kicked sand into our mild-mannered accountant’s face after several sherberts, a dance-off of all things, and some heroic failures on the chatting up front, all of which we watched with great amusement from the sidelines (he looks mild-mannered, but is in fact single-handedly redefining the image of accountancy into that of a far more psycho like nature).

Calm was restored fairly quickly and our errant accountant returned to the fold, but it did illustrate the tribal nature of this sort of thing. With Shannon also looking uncannily like Davina McCall sometimes (she has got a great future in the two-for-one lookalike industry), it can occasionally feel like Big Brother gone mobile. Without outside events and objects to wander round, we all turn in on ourselves and the trip can seem to become as much about the friendships and conflicts that break out between a group of 20 people driving round in a truck than it is about the places we’re driving through. Last night we had the ritual first Argument About a Restaurant Bill, which officially marked the end of the honeymoon period, and paved the way perhaps for some interesting times ahead.

Luckily, a) we’re a bit more psychologically stable than the average BB contestant and b) distraction is on the way, big time. This sector used to be 3 weeks long once upon a time but has been cut down to 14 days, 12 if you include the wandering round Quito at the start. That’s what’s led to the long days on the road and whizzing through the landscape at 100kph for hours on end, which in Northern Peru seems to have consisted mainly of a barren and blasted landscape, coupled with whitewashed brick walls covered in political slogans. We had lunch under a pylon in the middle of feck all anywhere yesterday, proving that overlanding is nothing if not glamorous.

We have another of those horrible, long days tomorrow, but then we’re in Lima, and after a day or two there we’re flying into Iquitos and the Amazon. And if that doesn’t concentrate the mind and give you something else to think about as a wee beastie with too many legs crawls up your trouser leg and perilously close to your nethers, what does?

More after then. Oh, and I’ll try and buy a lead in Lima to get some pics up from the camera too.

[nb None of them smell. They’re all very nice…and can read, use computers and navigate their way to websites too worst luck ;-) ]

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Into Peru


They closed the Pan-American highway for a fiesta. This would not have been a problem but for the fact that we were trying to negotiate a town stuck in no- man´s land in the 7km zone between the Ecuadorian and Peruvian borders, so it was the equivalent of closing the M4 for a spot of morris dancing. Tankers were backed up, traffic was snarled, tempers were rising, we were parked over a trickle of a river that was more sewage than water, and there was a brass band happily marching up and down the street while the police smiled and said it was impossible to open the road for another 6 hours. And that was even after money had been applied to the situation.

Banos was so much more chilled. The canyoning was good fun, though there was a bit of concern when the rain started falling. “Six months ago it started raining and the water level rose one metre in one minute,” said our guide as we prepared to abseil down a 25 metre waterfall. “But since then we’ve learned and we’ve put escape ropes up now.”

Comforting…

Not surprisingly – and very handily all things considered - miracles are popular in the town. The local church boasts a series of fantastic murals inside, which depict local incidences of Madre de Dios appearing and saving the day. Also unsurprisingly, most revolve round the eruption of the giant Tungurahua volcano a mere 8km away and God appearing on a rainbow to save the day (after only lightly dusting the locals with volcanic death from above first – nice one God).

All in all we spent 14 hours on the truck yesterday, which was a bit on the brutal side (“Oh, me grapes,” as Leader Andy put it). Along the way though we did learn that insect repellent and sun cream applied at the same time makes your face and skin fizz in a manner which is personally alarming but rather amusing for the rest of the vehicle. Also one of our number, Charlotte, who had admitted an aversion to weeing in public finally cracked and thus lost her nickname of Corkie. I won the sweepstake at 4 hours…

Anyway, we dropped out of the mountains on glorious sweeping hairpins amidst the sort of scenery that would make the Lake District give up the ghost, twin itself with Swindon and have done with it. Then it was down through endless banana plantations to the coast and the border, the open sewer and the parade blocking the street.

Eventually some money was obviously applied to the right person and we turned off down a side street, which would have been fine if there hadn´t been a market in full swing at the time. However, Leader Andy and three suitably lubricated coppers marched in front of the truck pushing the stalls out of the way while Leader Tubbs engaged in some complicated n-dimensional folding of space that somehow managed to get our truck through the gaps. Not sure how, but it did, and we got a bigger crowd than the brass band in doing it.

Today is a rest, chill and (if you’re me) get over the hangover day due to Personages of Bad Influence at Punto Sol about two hours along the coast into Peru. There are a load of trucks from different companies travelling on roughly the same itinerary as ours with a week either side as all the tour companies try to overland to Rio to make it for carnival. So the Dragoman truck left this morning and there are three groups of us at the campsite tonight, all of whom have bought a 20 kilo pig for a pig roast. It’s not going to be like that too often, which is probably good for my liver, though Leader Tubbs reckons that at least one of the new arrivals is composed solely of 22-year old Australian girls. We’re kind of hoping they make it across the border smoothly…,-)

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Quito - Banos


Greetings from Banos, a small town of about 12,000 people nestled under two socking great volcanoes, one of which is still occasionally on the geologically feisty side. The lava goes past two sides of the town, there´s a gorge and a river on the third, and an entire escape bridge for the populous if it all goes nasty. That´s alright then…

The locals are going to have a hard time making it over though as the place is stuffed full of gringos. It reminds me a bit of Queenstown in New Zealand , and the streets are full of quad bikes and garish pictures of people throwing themselves off bridges on pieces of elastic or abseiling down gorges as the waters of the Andes thunder over their heads.

Which is exactly what we´re going to be doing tomorrow if the weather holds :-)

Quito was a bit of a blur of beer and rugby to be honest, though we did get out to see the Equator. A couple of them actually – the official, monolithic and monumental one being 150 metres out, which is a tad on the careless side. A far more informal but far more fun one is 100 metres up the road and loudly proclaims itself as being on the equator, though it´s not quite equipped to deal with troublesome tourists with handheld GPS units. I made it another 50m north, but I don´t think they can be arsed to build another one. How many red-painted lines with tourists gurning madly with one leg in either hemisphere does the world need after all?

The truck is basic but there´s a really good crowd of people onboard, with the rough ages ranging from 30 to 60+. About half of us are single, about most of us like a beer, and I have fortuitously been roomed in with Rob, who has been declared head barman, which could come in handy. I´ve yet to be assigned a job, but am developing a nasty suspicion that all the good ones have already been taken. Still, I´m hoping it can´t be as bad as Steve´s, who now rejoices in the nickname Slops. A Dutchwoman on board, meanwhile, has resulted in me once more rejoicing in the monicker Mr Naughty…(stout apparently being Dutch for ´naughty´, but only when there´s finger wagging involved).

I´m probably onboard for the shortest period of time, with most travelling round to Buenos Aries at least and a couple bailing out to head to the Antarctic in January (a thought, of course, which is driving me slightly insane with jealousy). Others have stitched this trip into a tapestry of round the world travelling which has gone on for a year or so and has months and months left to run still. Thus I´m being talked of as the weekend-tourist of the group, which tends to lead to a certain amount of banter shall we say. Ah well, I can always come back next year (though not with Exodus, their truck fleet needs upgrading and their new owners don´t want to fund it, so this is the last trip that´s being done).

Anyway, after a couple of days here we head down to the coast and wend our way southwards to Lima via Chan Chan and a few other places. That´s where the camping starts in earnest, so this is probably it from me until Lima or Iquitos. Stay warm, stay safe, and while I still don´t think I´m ready to talk about the rugby, damn but I wish I´d seen that Grand Prix.

Chicago interlude


Okay, I know I said I was off to South America, but I had a brief couple of days in Chicago on the way with my friends Mike n´Jax first. It´s a railroad city first and foremost, where trains the length of entire English towns snake through the landscape, and is also home of the first modern skyscraper in the world. Thus, after an entertainingly jetlagged night of beer, mexican food and discussions of third wave feminism and post-structuralism (incorporating a blast on Halo 3 on a TV the size of a small cinema screen) I got the train into the centre of town and went up the 103 floors of the Sears Tower to its skydeck. For most of the end of the last century this was the tallest building in the world, which certainly helps when you´re looking at clouds rolling in from the grain belt to the south and thinking uh-ho.

Chicago is not a city inclined to muck about with its weather warnings. None of that ´severe´ namby pamby stuff here...nope, in Chicago the warnings are éxtreme´, which concentrates the mind rather wonderfully. So, the first night we had tornado alerts and alarms blaring off in the distance, the next day hailstones the size of grapes were slamming into the pavements of the downtown areas. Luckily I managed to miss it all, and just wondered round oblivious to imminent metorological armaggedon and death from above, looking at some mightily impressive architecture while the overhead trains rattled past like the echo of a thousand Tom Waits songs.

Nice place. Will have to go back there and have a longer look around one day.

One story in the papers at the time was that O´Hare airport security had failed to find 60% of the fake bomb parts smuggled past them by inspectors, which is a) a bit crap and b) meant when I arrived in a sweaty breathless mess for my flight 5 minutes late, they weren´t inclined to let me on. Arse. Luckily, I also had a flight ticket for a plane five hours later (long story) so sat back, waited for that one and practised my Spanish on mystified airport staff.

All was going smoothly till we were 15 minutes late leaving for Miami due to a malfunctioning lavatory (that was fixed quickly, but the paperwork took ages) and with a genius eye on the law of sod, we also managed to land at exactly the other end of the aiport from my flight to Quito which left in half an hour. Yikes. Óh, it´s okay,´said the steward. ´It´s an old Airbus on that route and it´s always breaking down. You´ll make it.´

So, reassured and panicked at the same time (Like, how badly does it break down? Engines out of the sky sort of badly?)I commenced another mad dash to a departure gate, and arrived in my second sweaty mess of the day only to be told that yes, indeed, there was a small problem with the plane, and it was going to be leaving half an hour late. Hurrah. By this time I was rubbing dodarant on the outside of my clothes...

In this slightly smelly way I left North America in a plane full of middle aged Canadians heading for the Galapagos. I like to think the turbulence over Cuba was Castro cocking a snook at our decadent Imperialist presence passing over his head, but the engines stayed on all the same. Which was nice...

And that for the moment is that. Sorry for the sheer volume of wordage but these things get more terse as time passes, don´t worry, Give me a month and it´ll be ´Machu Pichu. V nice.´

Oh, and I won´t talk about the rugby if you don´t...

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

South America: T minus One day


Shameful confession time: I really don’t know much about South America and much that I do is a bit on the wayward side and been absorbed by some strange form of pub-quiz osmosis along the way. So, I try to imagine a whole continent in all it’s incredible length, rich breadth and stunning diversity, and end up with the equivalent of mid-western Yanks thinking that everyone in Britain eats crumpets at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, has innumerable servants all called Jeeves, knows the Queen personally and goes fox hunting at the weekend.

Here’s the catalogue of shame:

They all speak Spanish over there apart from the people who don’t who’ve gone for Portuguese instead, which seeing as how I don’t speak either isn’t really very helpful

It used to be full of tin-pot military dictatorships but is now full of oil-rich socialist republics intent on sticking it to Dubya

They eat guinea pigs and wear strange hats

The CIA like to have wars there

Cocaine comes from there

So does chocolate, which is apparently more addictive though makes your nostrils look a lot more untidy

The only country that plays rugby is Argentina (which is bugger all good when I’m in Ecuador on Saturday for the RWC final)

That’s where the Amazon is, which is like the New Forest only bigger

Che Guevara rode round it on a motorcycle (and Che means ‘mate’, so don’t call your kids that because Argentinians will point and laugh at them)

Er...

...that’s it

So, the usual Stout pre-holiday research process can widely consider to have imploded big time. Not quite as bad as trying to land in Nepal on the 10th Anniversary of the People’s Uprising a few years ago (cancelled on FO advice), but pretty lackadaisical all the same. Hey, I’ve been busy, you know...

Still, one other rather salient fact: that’s also where Machu Pichu is, which is what drew me there in the first place – walking the Inca Trail for four days over the 4215m Dead Woman’s Pass and dropping down onto the World Heritage Site to end all World Heritage Sites. Should be fun, but as we land in Quito in Ecuador, and then travel the 2000 miles or so to La Paz in Bolivia overland, there’s plenty more to see and do along the way too. The Moche Pyramids, Chan Chan, Lima, Iquitos (the only city in the world with no road connection), the Amazon, the Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco...the list kind of goes on and on. Damnit, I’m almost feeling educated about the place already.

I fly home from La Paz near the end of November, while the trip itself, run by Exodus carries on circumnavigating the continent. http://www.exodus.co.uk/activities/overlandjourneyssouthamerica.html for details if anyone’s interested. Guess there’s always next year for the rest. Company always welcome ;-)

Anyway, must dash. Time for a crumpet. And judging by the dismembered remains of a rabbit I found outside my front door this morning, the foxes are getting feisty already. More (hopefully) from the mountains overlooking the Pacific coastline.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Rush @ The NEC

Oh they were good. Perhaps not quite up at the stupefying heights they reached on the R30 tour a couple of years ago, but still as good a live act as anything you'll see touring the arenas of the world. If Muse had a slightly eccentric uncle that read books on quantum physics, Rush would be him.

If there was a highlight amidst the dancing lighting rigs, dizzying time signatures and fiendish Impossible Drumming, it was the three song triptych that started with Subdivisions and went into Natural Science and then Witch Hunt: both band and audience hitting their straps and transcending their surroundings in a welter of sculpted noise. Ruddy terrific. 'Art as expression/Not as market campaigns/Will still capture our imagination' as Geddy sung it. Quite right too.

Oh, and then there was this: South Park performing as 'Lil Rush to introduce Tom Sawyer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTYXMSrS82w

Close to as good as it gets.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

A footie fan writes

And I quote:

"Everything about rugby union seems better than football - the drama, pace and one-twos, the passion, skill and muscle, the deadly grace and savage beauty of it all. Even when the countries sing their respective national anthems they do so with more verve."

Quite right too...

Rugby uncovers the awful truth of my wasted life | Columnists | Guardian Unlimited Sport

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Windscale: 50 Years On


Hard to believe that the Windscale disaster was 50 years ago. I mean, that's before Al Gore invented the internet, right?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Windscale: A nuclear disaster

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

McDonald's Videogame

A subversive work of genius. To win you have to devastate continents, add ground up animals to the animal feed, mistreat workers, mislead the public in the pursuit of rapacious profits and so on.

I smell lawyers. Play it while you can...

McDonald's Videogame

Monday, 1 October 2007

Men are from Mars...

Women are from Venus. This Book is From Cobblers

Some nice myth busting here: Do men and women speak the same language? | The Guardian | Guardian Unlimited

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Retroactive update alert...




Having tired of the bright lights and big city that is Wantage, I've
decided to really move to the boonies this time.

New place is a rented dairy conversion in Baulking, a tiny hamlet about a
mile from Uffington where the famous White Horse is, not to mention the
nearest shop and pub. Surrounded by fields (some of which are even not
under water at the moment) it's also full of wildlife. Saw my first
live badger in years on the way back there last night - and thanks to
a quick high-speed tweak of the steering wheel I might even see him again
too.

Nearest Starbucks is 11.35 miles away. Is this a record?

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

FaceBook ruins blogging

It does too. Need to find a way to replicate all that activity over here in Blogger...

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

'al-Qaeda' puts on big shoes, red nose, takes custard pie

A disgruntled ex bomb disposal squad member writes:

We used to be constantly disappointed, on the bomb teams, at the consistently rubbish efforts of the ordinary bomber. Many people seem to think that any kind of fire or loud noise will become deadly if you add nails. Your correspondent was once called out to a scene where a teenage cretin, finding that batteries would go pop if heated in a fire, taped nails around D-cells and put them on a camping cooker. Terrifyingly, some of the nails flew as much as two or three feet when this infernal device reaped its deadly harvest.

More at: El Reg

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Farming for Gold in China

Quote from the piece:

It was an hour before midnight, three hours into the night shift with nine more to go. At his workstation in a small, fluorescent-lighted office space in Nanjing, China, Li Qiwen sat shirtless and chain-smoking, gazing purposefully at the online computer game in front of him. The screen showed a lightly wooded mountain terrain, studded with castle ruins and grazing deer, in which warrior monks milled about. Li, or rather his staff-wielding wizard character, had been slaying the enemy monks since 8 p.m., mouse-clicking on one corpse after another, each time gathering a few dozen virtual coins — and maybe a magic weapon or two — into an increasingly laden backpack.

Twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three nights off per month, this is what Li does — for a living. On this summer night in 2006, the game on his screen was, as always, World of Warcraft, an online fantasy title in which players, in the guise of self-created avatars — night-elf wizards, warrior orcs and other Tolkienesque characters — battle their way through the mythical realm of Azeroth, earning points for every monster slain and rising, over many months, from the game’s lowest level of death-dealing power (1) to the highest (70). More than eight million people around the world play World of Warcraft — approximately one in every thousand on the planet — and whenever Li is logged on, thousands of other players are, too. They share the game’s vast, virtual world with him, converging in its towns to trade their loot or turning up from time to time in Li’s own wooded corner of it, looking for enemies to kill and coins to gather. Every World of Warcraft player needs those coins, and mostly for one reason: to pay for the virtual gear to fight the monsters to earn the points to reach the next level. And there are only two ways players can get as much of this virtual money as the game requires: they can spend hours collecting it or they can pay someone real money to do it for them.

At the end of each shift, Li reports the night’s haul to his supervisor, and at the end of the week, he, like his nine co-workers, will be paid in full. For every 100 gold coins he gathers, Li makes 10 yuan, or about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20.

Video Games - China - Money - Online Games - New York Times

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Twenty-First Century Urban Man

Interesting clutch of articles at Forbes.com on patterns of urbanisation in the next century.
Twenty-First Century Cities - Forbes.com

Friday, 8 June 2007

Derren Brown Messed with my Melon

So, there we were in the New Theatre in Oxford and, having caught a frisbee Derren had whanged out into the audience (no remarks please from my cricketing brethren) I found myself on stage with five other blokes playing 20 Questions. We all saw each other write down an object – I chose a cricket bat – and then Derren guessed what it was with phenomenal speed.

Except he didn’t with me. First I got shuffled from number 4 to number 6 then he came to me and said “I’m not sure I can do this with you. What do you do?”

“I’m a journalist,” I replied.

(Someone in the audience booed – thanks for that)

“No, I can’t use you, hope you don’t mind.”

And off I toddled to sit down again enjoying a brief 30 seconds of notoriety which at least got me a space at the urinals during the interval.

That wasn’t the end of it though. First, we pieced together that I might have been a distraction for something going on on the other side of the stage at the same time (a man in a gorilla suit stealing a banana if you must know), and then there was the finale.

Here, Derren unveiled a banner of his predictions for the show that had been kept in a sealed box in full view suspended from the ceiling. “Then we did 20 questions,” he said as the banner was unfurled, “and I got it wrong as there was a football but I’d written down ‘cricket’. Hang on, I sent that journalist back...”

At which point I shouted out that yes, I had written down cricket bat and Lo!, a little bit more unfurling, and there the exact words were on the banner.

No idea how he did that or indeed any of the other stuff in a fairly spectacular two hours. As Stephen Fry says, the man is indeed a witch. A bloody entertaining one though. Go see if you get the chance.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Steam Punk Star Trek



Some genuinely funny moments as the crew run out of coal for their ship...

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Killer Wi-Fi panics London's chattering classes | The Register

"Recent revelations that Wi-Fi may provoke spontaneous abortions in cattle, raise storms and tempests, curdle milk and fry children's brains have had the desired effect among London's chattering classes, with panicked parents mobilising to contain the wireless menace."

You can normally rely on El Reg to have a suitably sarcastic take on things, and it doesn't disappoint.

Killer Wi-Fi panics London's chattering classes | The Register:

Sunday, 27 May 2007

You're nicked, my son

From the BBC: "The government is considering giving police officers across the UK 'stop and question' powers under new anti-terror laws, says the Home Office."

Oh great, it's back to the Sus Laws again. And didn't they do well for all concerned (check out the brief Wiki entry)? To paraphrase Not The Nine O' Clock News, Reason for arrest, constable? "The suspect was seen to be wearing a hijab in a predominantly middle-class area."

The words 'thin' 'end' and 'wedge' come to mind. One to resist methinks...

More here.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Maddie in perspective

It's not often that I quote The Sun, but this is worth it:

...in the 22 days since the four-year-old [Madeline McCann] went missing, an estimated 1,100 other children under 16 have vanished from homes in Britain.

One gets hordes of journalists, front pages and satellite uplink trucks. The others languish forgotten in a mass paragraph on the inside pages. Makes you think, don't it?

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Human joysticks



I'll let Boing Boing describe this:

MSNBC.com has done a deal with cinemas in the US to replace the dumb pre-movie ads with a giant, participatory game. The game is Newsbreaker, a simple break-out style game that rewards you for clearing lines by dropping real-time RSS news headlines, but the gameplay is the cool part: a motion sensor in the theater allows the entire audience to control the paddle by swaying in unison from side to side. Check out the video of the gameplay at a Spiderman 3 opening weekend screening in LA (given what a steaming CGI turd Spidey 3 is, this was probably the best part of the movie, apart from being harassed by night-scoped teenagers looking for camcorder pirates). These people are having insane fun.

Which is all well and good, but it's going to be a bit odd before a Truffaut retrospective at the NFT.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

I Span Eddie Irvine’s Jaguar

There are not many phonecalls you get out of the blue that ask whether you’d like to go to Sweden and drive an F1 car. In fact, they’ve been a distinct rarity in my life so far, so when I finally did get one from my chum Sadie at Bubble & Squeak I said yes first and checked the diary...well, I’m not sure if I ever did actually. In which case if we were meant to do something last Tuesday, sorry about that.

The event was a corporate jolly run for some existing and potential customers by Digital Vision and my brief was to fly out, join in, and write it all up for their website afterwards. Which, after a few warm up stints in a Formula Opel Lotus, is how I came to find myself strapped in Eddie Irvine’s old Jaguar from the 2000 season barrelling down the main straight of the Scandinavian Raceway in Anderstorp at Bloody Stupid mph and into the braking zone. Into the perilously short and getting shorter by the nanosecond braking zone, that is.

Somewhere between the stamping down on the brake pedal, the changing down from fifth to fourth to third and a speed which was a bit less Bloody Stupid and turning the steering wheel, it all got a bit messy and the next thing I knew I had pirouetted the car 180 degrees and was going backwards. Brake in, clutch in, stall, swear, wait for a push, drive past the pit wall and 20 people glaring at me and shaking their heads, blush inside helmet. The glares were fair enough. After hearing the screech of tyres from the other side of the circuit, most of them had briefly thought they might be trying to find something else to do in Anderstorp on a Tuesday afternoon – which would have been a challenge even for the combined brainpower of Soho’s finest as the bars looked shut.


So, I didn’t push it in the corners again. Just pootled through them (if you can, in fact, pootle in a car weighing 520kg and boasting something in the region of 600 horsepower) and saved the adrenaline buzz for the straight. Then it was out of the corner in third, fourth, fifth, quick realisation of the fact that you’re in fifth gear and like a discerning gentleman in a Newbury nightclub, the thing is still desperate to accelerate over the horizon, then stamp on the brakes, stamp harder on the brakes, and *gingerly* tip-toe round the corner. Every time you changed gear it was like one of those 600 horses had come round the front of the car and decided to sit on you in the cockpit. Five laps of that and you felt trampled

One guy had a GPS in his pocket as he went round and it logged him at 173kph on the straight, which is only 107mph. Maybe some went faster, maybe some went slower (the centre has had several cases of people just pootling round at 30mph and being ecstatic enough with that thankyouverymuch). What that figure doesn’t convey though is the speed you get up to it and the speed you get back down from it again and the sheer noise and bluster, ferocity and g-forces that occur while you’re doing it. Plus the fact that, well...you’ve just driven an F1 car. An F1 car! Holy shit...

Apart from the fact that my Seat Ibiza 1.4 feels a tad underpowered now, two things occur to me. One, any time anyone ever tries to impress me with their car’s performance for the rest of my life, the appropriate response will be ‘Meh’ at best. Two, I always thought F1 drivers are mad. Now I *know* they are.

http://www.rajamakiracing.com/ if you ever want a go yourself...

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Sci Fi weddings


As the site says: Young ladies planning their wedding sometimes want to recreate a fairytale fantasy for the big event. Their fiances sometimes counter by arguing that any decent childhood fantasy would involve light sabers.

More here.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Here cometh the future

A long but interesting speech by SF author Charles Stross on the future and what it holds. His main thrust is that of life-logging, technology converging to provide humans with vast amounts of external storage, information access and key tools. Remember MIT's Wearable Computer Project where a bloke walked round with several tens of kilos of badly hacked Pentium wrapped round his body? Well, nothing like that.

Total history — a term I'd like to coin, by analogy to total war — is something we haven't experienced yet. I'm really not sure what its implications are, but then, I'm one of the odd primitive shadows just visible at one edge of the archive: I expect to live long enough to be lifelogging, but my first forty or fifty years are going to be very poorly documented, mere gigabytes of text and audio to document decades of experience. What I can be fairly sure of is that our descendants' relationship with their history is going to be very different from our own, because they will be able to see it with a level of depth and clarity that nobody has ever experienced before.

Meet your descendants. They don't know what it's like to be involuntarily lost, don't understand what we mean by the word "privacy", and will have access (sooner or later) to a historical representation of our species that defies understanding. They live in a world where history has a sharply-drawn start line, and everything they individually do or say will sooner or later be visible to everyone who comes after them, forever. They are incredibly alien to us.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Putting the Great into Britain

The Guardian's Tim Dowling looks at Blair's speech saying this is a blessed country and comes up with a load of reasons why 'tis so.

American-born writer Tim Dowling on what makes Britain great | The Guardian | Guardian Unlimited
Some hit the nail right on the head, to whit:

Your amusing national hypochondria
Despite its comparative cosiness, Britain has an unshakable view of itself as a nation that is forever falling to pieces. If you watch the television you see a crumbling health service, falling educational standards, rampant gun crime, infrastructural chaos, economic meltdown and a fractured civilisation well beyond repair. Look out the window, and you see someone throwing a stick for a dog. This might not seem like such a great advertisement for a country, unless you have lived some place where it's the other way round.


Lovely to have the opportunity to write 'to whit' again...

Silbury Hill opened up (again)


Looks like a team is planning on reopening one of the tunnels dug into Silbury Hill over the centuries to see if they can get any better idea of it's purpose. And afterwards, they'll stabilise things properly by dumping loads of chalk into the archaeological rabbit warren that succesive digs have created.
BBC NEWS | England | Wiltshire | Tunnel to re-open at mystery hill
Hope they succeed. Driving over the crest of a hill between two obvious burial mounds on the A4 and seeing a mini-'pyramid' plonked in the middle of the countryside must rate as one of the more surreal experiences to be had in this country.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Zero G for Zero £

Well, not quite. In fact, quite a long way from no £, but the following graph in Wired shows the cost per minute of a weightless experience.



Yup, Zero G is by far and away the cheapest, clocking in at under $500 per minute. It uses modified 727s to fly a series of 15 parabolic arcs, giving you your weightless experience in 30 second chunks, and flies out of Las Vegas or Kennedy Space Centre at a cost of $3500 a seat.

Virgin Galactic meanwhile will charge you $200,000 for flying the same sort of parabola, albeit at 100km + altitudes. And you get stuck with Branson and a whole host of celebrities from the world of fashion, music and film. Pah. At least Zero G has Stephen Hawking floating around on its webpage.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

An immutable law

The Website at the End of the Universe reveals that Next proves that every even-numbered film base don a Philip K Dick story sucks.

Consider the evidence. Here is a list of PKD movies and their Rotten Tomatoes scores:

1. Blade Runner (1982) Based on "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"- 92%
2. Screamers (1995) Based on "Second Variety" - 29%
3. Total Recall (1990) Based on "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" - 79%
4. Impostor (2001) Based on "Impostor." - 15%
5. Minority Report (2002) Based on "The Minority Report." - 92%
6. Paycheck (2003) Based on "Paycheck."- 27%
7. A Scanner Darkly (2006) Based on "A Scanner Darkly" - 66%
8. Next (2007) Based on "The Golden Man" - 26%

Happily therefore, next time a Hollywood studio is trawling through the Dick back catalogue looking at options, they'll strike a slice of fried gold.

This is the universe...big isn't it?

It's corporate, but it's good.

Nikon's Universcale presents the known universe in measured dimensions from 10 to the -14 metres and upwards - so that's all the way from subatomic particles to the width of the entire known universe.

Which is pretty cool.

Nikon | Universcale

Not too sure about the ambient music by numbers soundtrack, but the rest of it is stunning.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Sao Paolo goes no logo


One off of Boing Boing here.

Back in December, 2006, the mayor of the 11-million-person Brazilian city of Sao Paolo banned all outdoor billboard advertising, citing advertisers' unwillingness to comply with the city's rules on what sort of billboards can be placed where. Now the rule is in effect, and Flickr user Tony de Marco has documented the eerie sight of a city stripped bare of commercial visuals.

We can but dream...

The Flikr set is ici

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Another Chinese knock-off


An interesting one from BoingBoing: Chinese developers are trying to attract the new breed of Chinese yuppy capitalist into urban developments by modelling them on romanticised versions of old European city centres.

In Nanjing, there are Balinese retreats and Italian villas. In the southeastern city of Hangzhou, there are Venice and Zurich. In downtown Beijing, everything is about Manhattan, with Soho, Central Park and Park Avenue.

Boing Boing: Chinese housing developments like old European cities

Le Corbusier must be spinning about 1000rpm in his grave...

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Monday, 2 April 2007

Happiness is...

Not sure, but eight tries against Bristol will normally do it...:-)

YouTube - Bath v Bristol 31st March 2007

Undermining reality

A bit genius this: a website called Vote for the Worst is threatening to totally derail American Idol. We say: yay!

Long quote a coming, and the full thing's here:
Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog - TV & radio: American Idol falls victim to bloggers

If, like me, you have watched askance and then aghast as first Pop Idol in the UK and then American Idol in the US turned our charts into a hellish, pap-driven kindergarten, then here's some good news. The whole sorry, cynical edifice may soon come crumbling down around Simon Cowell's ears (along with, I might add, the very lucrative premium phone services that support it).

Once again, TV has become the victim of the internet, this time in the form of some very smart American bloggers who run the site called Vote for the Worst. Like all great and truly subversive ideas, Vote for the Worst is deliciously simple. Using the show's own strength - the public phone vote that has proved so reliable in propelling bland, semi-talented teens into the charts - against it, ju-jitsu style, Vote for the Worst urges you to do exactly that. Those acts who offend even Cowell's limited aesthetic sensibilities are being driven past the judges and toward victory by a carefully marshalled online campaign, the stated aim of which is to improve the viewer experience: lousy singers, after all, make for better, funnier TV. I say stated aim, because the real purpose of the site is permanently to remove Cowell and company from the American airwaves.


Oh but I sense a summer of fun coming...

Saturday, 31 March 2007

Peanut butter disproves evolution

A classic of its kind.

1. Evolution says that life sprang from energy + matter.

2. A jar of peanut butter = matter

3. These jars are subjected to light and heat, ie energy

4. The billion jars opened every year contain no new life. In fact, "The entire food industry of the world depends on the fact that evolution doesn't happen."

5. Therefore, evolution is wrong.

There's even a YouTube clip explaining it. Go see:
Mike the Mad Biologist

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Steampunk Star Wars


Eric Poulton is reimagining the Star Wars universe in a steampunk stylee.

As he says, "I know, whenever anyone reimagines anything, they either make it a) adult and edgy (99%) or b) steampunk (1%), so I'm not getting any originality points." But, the artwork is definitely worth a look.

Eric's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea: steampunk star wars

[Via The Website at the End of the Universe]

Monday, 26 February 2007

Dredd hits 30


Well, not quite. AFAIR he didn't make it to the pages of 2000AD until Issue 2 by which time I already had the poster of Dan Dare's world of the future on my wall.

Even, so 2000AD 30 years old? Crikey etc. BBC NEWS | Magazine | 30 years of the future

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Crochet Evil


Damn...never thought I'd feel the need to learn to crochet...

shigella: EXTERMINATE!

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Careers for Girls


Via BoingBoing, a 1966 boardgame called The Exciting Career Game for Girls that set out to tell young American women what they could potentially do with their lives. Gosh what can you be, young ladies of America? Well, your choices are limited to how well you do in the various schools. To whit:

Teacher (College), Actress (Drama School), Nurse (Nursing School), Model (Charm School), Ballet Dancer (Ballet School), or Airline Hostess (Airline School).

And jolly well done all of you.

Here's the link: bradley's almanac

In the interests of gender equality, I hear you ask if there was a boy's version. Well, yes there was. And while the girls were doing all the important stuff, we had to put up with being either Statesmen, Scientists, Athletes, Doctors, Engineers, or Astronauts.

40 years suddenly seems like a long time ago...

Thursday, 8 February 2007

A bit rubbish

From the BBC News website:

The deepest snow recorded so far is Sennybridge in the Brecon Beacons where 7cm (3in) is lying and overnight temperatures plummeted to -4C (25F).


7cm of snow, temps 'plummeting' to -4C and a country grinding to a halt? Ye Gods, you'd think that we'd normally be baskimg in Floridian conditions the way everything's fallen apart so swiftly.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Caught by the fuzz


Went to see a preview of Hot Fuzz last night and the good news is it's as excellent a slice of fried gold as it should be. Pegg, Frost and Wright have pulled off the mightily tricky achievement of making a film that works equally well as a comedy and an action movie. And it is a very funny comedy, with enough of a splattering of comedy gore and references to cornettos to keep the Shaun of the Dead fanbase happy.

Frost as usual gets the best/most outrageous lines, Timothy Dalton chews the scenery in memorable fashion as the town nasty, and the supporting cast are all note perfect (a befuddled Bill bailey in particular). Am still snorting about various scenes in it the day after, which is usually the sign of a good comedy.

On the Kermode Scale of laughing out loud: well over a dozen. Easiest the funniest British comedy since their last film.

As PC Danny Butterman would say, "Richard Curtis? What a **n*!"

Friday, 2 February 2007

Buffy - season 8

Seems that The Whedon has been spilling the beans on his forthcoming comic book series of Buffy adventures here.

Already being billed as the eighth and never filmed series of the show, it seems that the Buffster's now in charge of entire legions of crack Slayer corps who've been branded as a terrorist organisation by the US government.

Whedon can get away with a lot more in comic-form. "This is bigger variations. It's a symphony based on the little tune we played," goes the quote.

Should be good...

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Is it just me?

Or does the Sun's new celebration of all things multicultural in the wake of the Celebrity BB scandal come across as just a teensy, teensy bit hypocritical?

Coming next: the Daily Mail on why immigration is a good thing and Margaret Thatcher was actually a raving neo-con lunatic.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Nights on Cydonia


Or perhaps triple strength West Country cider-nia to be more accurate...

The Halexandria Foundation maintains an interesting website full of what is often referred to as Forteana. This (Cydonia) is probably my favourite, found following a fairly random clickstream and suggesting that the area around Avebury exactly corresponds to similar geographical features found in the Cydonia region of Mars. Y'know, the bit with the 'face'.

Good, harmless fun, that concludes:

The reality appears to be that if we merely look around our planet for artifacts and other anomalies -- those which simply can not be explained by a limited view understanding of what the ancient human civilizations were capable of -- then we are faced inexorably with the fact that other non-human intelligences were involved in their creation.


Well, indeed. Unfortunate though that the Halexandria Foundation intro page kicks off with the following:

“May you live in interesting times.” Depending upon the source, this ancient Chinese phrase is considered either a curse -- attended by difficulties, stress and the lack of ease, comfort, and routine -- or a blessing -- filled with stimulation, adventure, and excitement.


Wonder if there's anything in the fact that 'may you live in interesting times'has recently been revealed to be a thoroughly modern phrase coined in a Golden Age SF short story? Hmmm...perhaps they could be linked...

Thursday, 25 January 2007

PS3 launch date

Date: March 23

Cost: £425

Model: 60GB, wi-fi enabled

Desirability: Extreme

Chance of actually getting one round then: slim

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Hand Solo

No, not a euphemism, but a rather neat retelling of the climactic destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars using nowt but hands. Okay, so the blackout costumes could be a bit better (or they could have spent some time in post), but them's minor quibbles. This = neat.