Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The joys of social networking

Says a BBC news story:

"Companies should not dismiss staff who use social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo at work as merely time-wasters, a Demos study suggests.

Attempts to control employees' use of such software could damage firms in the long run by limiting the way staff communicate, the think tank said."

More ici: BBC NEWS | Business | Bosses 'should embrace Facebook'

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Stout & Large Do...Istanbul - Days Three & Four

I’m running these two days into each other as diary entries such as ‘had long, leisurely breakfast’ or ‘read book on terrace overlooking Bospherous’ do not for exciting reading make, even if the book is the new Neal Stephenson novel ‘Anathem’ and a perplexing, wrist-snappingly heavy delight...So, here’s how to experience time-space compression and have a great and fabulous day in Istanbul.

Morning – The Grand Bazaar. Less of the lawless frontier of the shopping experience that it perhaps likes to bill itself as (that honour has to go to the souq in Marrakesh) , and more of a well-behaved mall with a few more carpets than usual, nevertheless it’s a good place to nose around and get lost in. With something like 4000 shops and 30,000 people working in the place, it’s a network of alleyways and streets that has accreted since the 17th century and had a roof thrown over it to keep the elements out and the shoppers in. It’s divided into districts, so one area is full of goldsmiths and jewellers, another of carpets, another of musical instruments, another (by the looks of it) full of knock-off Prada handbags and so on and so forth. Shoppers and goods and tourists and locals all intermingle under its roof and the only thing it’s really missing – from our point of view – was a camel or two.

We didn’t buy much but got plenty of enjoyment out of the bargaining process. One guy said that he was offering us as a special price as it was his birthday, we said that we’d still only pay him x lira, but we’d sing Happy Birthday to him afterwards. All good fun.

Lunch – In a word, Gozleme. It’s pretty much the Turkish version of a pasty, thought without the industrial quantities of gristle, turnip and various other un-named substances floating around in a brown gravy gloop which has made Cornwall’s finest both revered and feared (by sober people) throughout the land. Wikipedia defines golzeme as ‘a savoury traditional Turkish hand made and hand rolled pastry. Fresh pastry is rolled out, filled and sealed, then cooked over a griddle. Traditionally, this is done on a saƧ’. What that doesn’t get across is how moorish the whole thing is (and yes, that was a joke – apologies), nor how thin, light and generally delicious it is too. Add in a glass or two of the wonderfully sweet apple tea, add in a bit of traditional Turkish folk music, top it off with some freshly made baklava at the end, and you have a meal fit for a sultan (or at least the residents of his harem).

Afternoon – Hamam. Apparently recovering from a slipped disc means that lying on a slab of marble while a fat Turkish bloke beats you up legitimately, folds you in half, half-drowns you and then pointedly asks for a tip afterwards isn’t good for you, so Kate went off to do no doubt decorous things while I went for a Turkish Bath.

It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had and it was a bit of a tourist trap too, but even a so-so hamam is a rather fine experience. You change in your own private cubicle, don a towel around yourself, and head to the hot room where you lie on a large, heated marble slab with a load of other people, think of a large steam room but without too there were about a dozen men flopped out on the marble looking up at the dome above them while hot water cascaded out of the taps and into basins all round the outside of the room. You just lie there for a bit, occasionally dousing yourself with warm water, until a masseur comes over, taps you on the foot, then starts soaping you up and squeezing the blood to the end of your limbs/gouging your muscles depending on what mood he’s in. Then he folds you in half like a moustachioed, half-naked and crazed chiropractic while the others around you lounging on the marble chortle at your discomfort, jumps on top of you, cracks your spine, slaps you a bit, holds your head down as he slooshes you with bucket after bucket of warm water, hands you some hot towels, whacks you on the arse and you’re out of there.

Amazingly enough, after all that you feel great...

Evening – Whirling Dervishes. As far as slightly unusual experiences go, attending a concert in the old entrance hall of a train station where the Orient Express used to arrive after its 1700 mile long odyssey across Europe is a bit on the unique side. Add in the fact that it’s a performance of the Whirling Dervishes of the Sufi Mevlevi order, and you’re beyond unique and into something memorable.

The Dervishes are everywhere in Istanbul, their whirling form – long white robe, high brown felt hat, arms outstretched with the right hand pointing up towards heaven and the left down towards humanity – is on fridge magnets, book covers, tea towels and – inevitably – woven into the odd carpet or two as well. All of which is a bit ironic given that Ataturk banned them and the Sufi orders outright when he came to power in the 1920s, with the dervishes primarily tolerated as a form of tourist-friendly folk entertainment for most of the years since.

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and the whirling ceremony – where the dervishes seek to attain a trancelike, meditative state that brings them closer to the divine – is suitably mystical too. After a 20 minute or so musical introduction (which largely serves as a lesson in teaching the several hundred perched on plastic chairs present to turn the flash off on their cameras) five dervishes come out and with infinite slowness shuffle and nod and bow into the start of their dance.

It takes four acts, which represent the dervish growing through love, deserting the ego, finding the truth and finally arriving at the divine and the perfect. In each they start whirling in circles, arms stretching out as the speed increases; fast circles around their own axis, much slower ones around each other, the weighted hem of their robes forming standing waves that flow around them as they spin and spin on their journey to God. There’s a grace to the dance that, together with the music, transcends the environment you’re in and, as some of them whirl faster and faster and the music gets more and more insistent, you find yourself treading some of the same path as their flashing, pirouetting feet whatever your own personal beliefs. At the end the music stops apart from the mournful notes coming from a single stringed instrument, and all there is in the entire world is the sound of that and the slap of the dervishes’ feet on the tiles as they slowly spin down from their excited state and become all too human once more, as do the rest of us.

And that’s it, that’s your day in Istanbul – starting with a bit of light shopping and finishing in the company of an 800 year old mystical sect, with no doubt a bit of a Feeding of the Stray Cats and drinking of Turkish beer (not bad) or wine (not good) to top it all off at the end. Now all I’ve got to do after the end of six years of OU study is try and find a hobby. Hmmm...Then and again they do do these short three month courses on things like Introducing Astronomy or Play Writing or the Geological History of the British Isles which could be fun. I mean, I can give up the OU any time, it’s not like crack. I’ve just got a mild cold at the moment, that’s all...

Stout & Large Do...Istanbul - Day Two

By now, rested and relaxed [2] we were feeling a bit cultural and in the mood to stop pointing and laughing at the drain mirkin and head off exploring. The only problem was that so was everyone else...

Basically, what happens in Istanbul is that first thing in the morning or overnight is when the Mediterranean cruise ships arrive. These are true leviathans of the sea, and disgorge thousands of blinking tourists in one almighty disembarkation into the Istanbul tourist system where they’re route marched round everything worth seeing by a small army of harassed looking tour guides. This pretty much means that on any given morning there is a tour party of several hundred glum Germans, surly Swedes, belligerent Brits or simply Alzheimer’d Americans in front of you and the place you want to visit, with another wave coming up rapidly behind.

The solution? Letting them have the run of the place in the morning and lounging around in bed until they’d all been bussed back to their floating monstrosities seemed to work well for us. Not too much of a hardship when you’ve got a reclining view across the rooftops of the end of Europe, the glittering sea, and then Asia rearing up in front of you. Plus, when you see the thirtieth party of miserable looking people trailing after a sign saying ‘Carnival Cruises – the *fun* ships’ you tend to go into irony overload, not to mention swearing pacts that you’d smother each other if the other one ever piped up with ‘You know what? A cruise seems like a jolly fine idea’...

Anyway, to the stuff. The Aga Sofia is one of the most impressive religious buildings in the world. Built by the Emperor Justinian as a Christian church and then later converted to a mosque, even the guidebooks mention that its outside can seem squat and unattractive (they’re not wrong either – whereas the 11th century on cathedrals of Europe seem to be reaching up to the heavens, the Aga Sofia sits there toad-like, like an extra building left over from the end of Akira. You almost expect it to grow tentacles and start rampaging round the city any moment). The interior though is spectacular, a huge domed vaulting space which, TARDIS-like, seems to reach to the sky in ways that the exterior doesn’t. There’s lots of restoration work going on at the moment which means that its dominated by one of the most impressive scaffolding constructions I’ve ever seen, but it’s still an awesome place.

The Blue Mosque opposite it is the reverse – an amazing exterior with a slightly unimpressive interior. Or so the guidebooks allege, we never actually got round to seeing it. We were baulked several times by vast queues of ratty cruise ship passengers and, the few other times we got back in the vicinity, it was closed for prayers and we both make very unconvincing muslims. Still, it looked good from the outside. And on one of the evenings we were between the two of them when the Call to Prayer rang out and it sounded like the buildings were singing to each other as the sun set and dusk crept over the city.

Much less prepossessing but really rather jaw-dropping was the Basilica Cistern. Yes, yes, I know it doesn’t sound like much- Romans dig underground reservoir, a couple of millennia later daft tourists fork out to walk round it – but it’s incredibly atmospheric. You pass over wooden walkways suspended and threaded between spotlit soaring columns over a couple of feet of crystal clear water looking down at the fish cavorting beneath you (I never knew fish could cavort - these Istanbul ones certainly can) while a sort of sepulchral Enya-like soundscape trickles out of the speakers. Find yourself a spot away from the cruiseship cruisers, lean back against the cold, hard stone, and you’re suddenly someplace else entirely.

It’s also one of the few spots in Istanbul that is free of cats, which is a shame as they’re missing out on lots of fishy treats. The little buggers are absolutely everywhere, and it’s hard to eat a meal of any sort without a couple of the blighters suddenly appearing underneath your table and doing that insufferable cute cat thing that momentarily blinds you to the fact that they’re little furry bundles of death from above to the world’s small mammal and bird populations. In fact, pretty much the only place we didn’t eat without unwarranted feline attention was the restaurant that night, and that was only because it was in the glass topped roof of a rather posh hotel. In one direction we could see the Blue Mosque towering over the Sultanahmet part of the city, in the other the giant cruise ships lit up like exceedingly bling Xmas trees steaming off back towards the Med. If we’d stayed there long enough no doubt we’d have seen a couple more coming back the other way. Man, them seas is crowded...

[2] Well, I was, having slept through the Call to Prayer at four am played at a volume that would have had Lemmy walking off stage in a huff. Kate was a bit less lucky...

Stout & Large Do...Istanbul - Day One

On October 3 I handed in my last ever Open University essay after six years slog – a 4000 word epic on the causes of spatial segregation in the modern urban environment and what can be done about it. I finished it close enough to the deadline that we had to jump in the car and drive to Milton Keynes to physically hand it over. The receptionist smiled when I asked her how many she’d had in so far that day, and pointed to a tottering pile of brown envelopes. “See all them?” she said. “That’s the third pile so far today...”

The question then was, where to go to celebrate? An original plan of flying to Seattle and heading up to mooch around Vancouver and Vancouver Island for a bit had had to be shelved due to Kate having a slipped disc in her back back in August (which she memorably characterises as being now composed of a series of cream filled meringue nests – great for dessert, not quite so brilliant for structural integrity and horse-riding). So short haul, long the end Istanbul was the answer. Enough Islamic heritage to be exotic, sill in Europe (just) so it wasn’t a madly long flight, and it had also cropped up on pretty much every OU course I’d done: from world religion to cities and technology, from globalisation and notions of Islamic identity to modern problems of – ulp – spatial segregation and concepts of order and disorder...

So, what was it that stuck in our minds most about our first night in Istanbul. Was it the fabulous architecture and the Aga Sofia and Blue Mosque? Was it gazing out of our hotel window and seeing the lights of the ships move lazily along the Bosphorous? Was it the Call to Prayer ululating gently on the breeze [1]? Nope, it was the drain mirkin. We got back to our hotel after a beer or several and noticed that covering a small drain in the bathroom was a nylon square of fake grass with a few equally plastic daisies sticking out of it. It could only really ever be christened a a drain mirkin and here’s a photo to prove it.

[1] This is a lie. It’s less of a gentle ululate and more of a full throated roar – the sort that would drown out your average Motorhead concert. Our hotel was only 100 metres or so away from the Blue Mosque and the Imams there obviously liked their volume.

Friday, 3 October 2008

If the bomb drops...


This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with
nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of
casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you
further information as soon as possible. Meanwhile, stay tuned to this
wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes.
Remember there is nothing to be gained by trying to get away. By leaving your
homes you could be exposing yourselves to greater danger.
If you leave, you may find yourself without food, without water, without accommodation and
without protection. Radioactive fall-out, which followed a nuclear explosion, is many
times more dangerous if you are directly exposed to it in the open. Roofs and
walls offer substantial protection. The safest place is indoors.
Make sure gas and other fuel supplies are turned off and that all fires are
extinguished. If mains water is available, this can be used for fire-fighting.
You should also refill all your containers for drinking water after the fires
have been put out, because the mains water supply may not be available for very
Water must not be used for flushing lavatories: until you are told that
lavatories may be used again, other toilet arrangements must be made. Use your
water only for essential drinking and cooking purposes. Water means life. Don't
waste it.
Make your food stocks last: ration your supply, because it may have to last for
14 days or more. If you have fresh food in the house, use this first to avoid
wasting it: food in tins will keep.
If you live in an area where a fall-out warning has been given, stay in your
fall-out room until you are told it is safe to come out. When the immediate
danger has passed the sirens will sound a steady note. The "all clear" message
will also be given on this wavelength. If you leave the fall-out room to go to
the lavatory or replenish food or water supplies, do not remain outside the room
for a minute longer than is necessary.
Do not, in any circumstances, go outside the house. Radioactive fall-out can kill. You cannot
see it or fell it, but it is there. If you go outside, you will bring danger to your family and you
may die. Stay in your fall-out room until you are told it is safe to come out or you
hear the "all clear" on the sirens.
Here are the main points again:
Stay in your own homes, and if you live in an area where a fall-out warning has
been given stay in your fall-out room, until you are told it is safe to come
out. The message that the immediate danger has passed will be given by the
sirens and repeated on this wavelength. Make sure that the gas and all fuel
supplies are turned off and that all fires are extinguished.
Water must be rationed, and used only for essential drinking and cooking
purposes. It must not be used for flushing lavatories. Ration your food supply:
it may have to last for 14 days or more.
We shall repeat this broadcast in two hours' time. Stay tuned to this
wavelength, but switch your radios off now to save your batteries until we come
on the air again. That is the end of this broadcast.