19 December 2007

Anthony McCall, Serpentine Gallery

We were strolling through Hyde Park, hoping it wouldn't start to rain before we we reached Exhibition Road.

As we neared the centre of the park, the light drizzle started to increase in intensity and we looked for somewhere to take shelter. The Serpentine Gallery looked closed, but we we headed for its doors anyway, in the hope that we could find hide from the rain in its doorway.

Despite its appearance, the gallery was in fact open, so we stepped inside to see what was on display.

Anthony McCall, Serpentine Gallery

I had never before seen the work of Anthony McCall. The main focus of this show is a selection of works with titles like Long Film for Four Projectors 1974 and Line Describing a Cone 1973. These pieces are essentially darkened smoke-filled rooms, with projectors throwing ever-changing sheets of light through each gallery. The resulting three-dimensional works of art fill the room, inviting you to play with them and interact with them.

It's hard to describe how much fun this is. You walk through the rooms, disrupting the beams of light and changing the way the 'objects' appear to other viewers. One of the shapes evolves into a perfectly enclosed cone, so before it disappears, you excitedly insert your head into the cone's interior, to see it from the inside. Suddenly a chink appears in the tube of light as the head of a passing child intercepts the bottom of the beam.

Gradually, the shape changes and becomes two parallel sheets of light. You use limbs and digits to poke holes in the sheets, and watch your body cutting enormous shadows into any part of the object further from the light source than yourself.

Anthony McCall's work is showing at The Serpentine Gallery until 3rd of February. If you're passing anywhere near Hyde Park, I'd certainly recommend calling for a play.

So much fun.

17 December 2007

Is Television the New Meat?

Simon's Sosmix chicken
I've not eaten meat deliberately for around 14 years. (There was that chain of accidental events back in Finikounda, but that's another story...).When I first went veggie, I became used to the curiosity of those around me: "But why not?" "Is is because of the animals?" and the classic "I bet you miss bacon."

I've grown used to all the questions over the years, but people don't seem to interrogate veggies like they used to. Their curiosity is no longer there. Being a vegetarian has become normal in our society. I am officially mainstream.

However, confess to people I don't have a television, and that's a different matter. They are fascinated. Or horrified. "What? Not at all? But how do you know what's going on? What do you do in the evening?" They are taken aback. Declining to watch television is seen as a puritanical self-denial of the most extreme kind.

Television is the new meat.

And what will be the new television? Driving licenses, I reckon.

13 December 2007

Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2007

I love photography in many forms, but I've never really thought of myself as a fan of wildlife photos. Give me portraits, landscapes, sports, architecture. I've never had much time for the animals, I'm afraid.

But when Mel suggested a visit to the Natural History Museum's Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year show, I agreed it could be worth a visit.

Wow. As someone who doesn't consider himself a fan of wildlife photos, I lost count of the amount of amazing images which blew me away. Staggering colours, amazing situations and some inspiring creatures.

It's so hard to decide on a favourite, but this shot of a bear by Sergey Gorshkov is one I will remember for a while.

The show was beautifully presented in the Jarwood Gallery of the Natural History Museum. Lightboxes were displayed around the perimeter, with winning shots shown large in enclosures in the centre of the gallery.

Also in the centre of the room were interactive displays reminiscent of Flickr's map functionality. We were able to browse the photos geographically, and were invited to email the photos to ourselves. Disappointingly, my choices have not yet appeared in my Gmail, but I don't mind when the Awards' website allows you to browse the finalists and leave comments.

It was plain to how the entrants were dominated by digital equipment, in particular the Canon 1D and other Canon cameras. Of the few photos shot on film, Fuji Velvia was the film of choice.

The show is on until 27 April. Go see.

10 December 2007

Brick Lane and East is East

Of the films I've watched recently have been a couple which address similar themes - those to do with the life of British Asians.

I bought Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane around a year ago, in the process of being snagged by a crafty bookseller's 3 for 2 promotion. The book has since sat on my bookshelf, as yet unread in a queue of similarly ignored, but no doubt worthwhile, literature. When Brick Lane recently opened in the cinema, I swallowed my guilt about the unread book and took my seat to watch this wonderful film. What a joy.

Carefully put together, the story seemed to bring together several themes - love, family, race, religion and London being the most evident. A young woman from Bangladesh marries a man unknown to her and moves to London, where she becomes part of east London's significant Bangladeshi community. Many of Brick Lane's observations are complex and worrying, but there are nuggets of joy and comedy which add a lot of depth to this lovely story.

I will certainly be dusting off that book.

Then, sorting through some DVDs the other day, I found myself in possession of another, very different, film addressing the lives of British Asians.

East is East is a cheeky comedy. Set exactly thirty years prior to the bulk of Brick Lane's narrative, it tells the story of a Pakistani man and his English wife who married in 1946 and brought up seven children. The Khan family, of Salford, have been testing out the reality of multiculturalism long before it became the norm for our cities. Throughout the film, we see the young Khans walking the tightrope between the expectations of their father and the realities of the English society in which they are growing up. In most cases, we see their challenges through the medium of comedy, but East is East is not afraid to show some upsetting, sometimes even violent scenes, especially when dealing with the father's attempts to maintain a traditional authority over his wife and children.

It was plain to see how, though different in many ways, these films were very similar in others. They may not share the same approach - Brick Lane was a touching drama while East is East borders on the slapstick, especially in its last few scenes - but they both have something to say about our country and the compromises faced by many of our citizens. Both films show that life is never simple.

Brick Lane and East is East. Very different. A little similar. Both good.

03 December 2007

I Got Moo

I Got Moo

I've been a big fan of Flickr for a while. But I've not yet experimented with the commercial services and third party add-ons that tempt you from the page margins. Until now.

I did it. I ordered myself a pack of 100 MOO Minicards. It's hard to explain why they're so much fun - but they are. It seems they have a bit of a cult following, especially on Flickr.

So next time I see the Brighton Flickr lot, I won't feel left out when they start swapping MOO cards around the table.

30 November 2007

Whizzkid Kingpin


I've just seen news of the arrest, by New Zealand police, of a teenage hacker who is being questioned in connection with major online fraud.

In the article the police are reported to have alleged that the teenager is a "whizkid kingpin".

A whizzkid kingpin. Superb.

Firstly, can you ever imagine the British police describing someone in these terms?

But more interestingly, I would love to hear these words spoken in authoritative tones by a policemen with kiwi accent. How on earth would this phrase sound with those mutated kiwi vowels?

Whuzzkud kungpun.

I love it.

Attack of the Exclamaniacs!


Hello!

I just thought I'd quickly write something! I hope you like it!

I'm not sure if you have noticed, as I have, that some folks, particularly work colleagues, love to use the exclamation mark!

All the time!

Sometimes they're doing it to add some humour and levity to an email!

And other times, they're doing to show some annoyance and add gravity to a serious point!

The trouble is, it's not always obvious which is which! So you end up with a perception of a manic, shouty voice, devoid of any real emotion! I find myself reading with my eyebrows permanently raised in anticipation of a punchline or outburst that never comes! Reading this stuff is hard work!

Of course, sometimes, the writer has genuine desire to resort to an exclamation mark for a particular statement, but with every sentence ending with one, they are faced with a problem! This problem is easily solved, just by using multiple exclamation marks!!!!! The more amused/angry the writer feels, the greater the quantity of exclamation marks added to the single default specimen, so they start multiplying!!!!!!!!!!!! It's a kind of quantitative exclamation mark!!!!

This issue has serious ramifications! On several occasions, emails from colleagues have had to be answered with a phone call, as exclamation marks were so prevalent, it was hard to tell whether one was dealing with anger or excitement! Or worse, a combination of the two!

In fact, a friend of mine is currently dealing with a solicitor! And this solicitor has become so aware of the perils of the liberally distributed exclamation mark that he has banned his staff from using them at all! So now, when they want to stress a particular point, or to assign importance to a particular sentence, they must do so through using an appropriate choice of words! Words, I tell you!

It's almost as if the exclamation mark has become the anti-biotic of the English language! It is used indiscriminately as a cure-all for whichever ailment of expression we face! Yet the more it is used, the less effective it becomes, until we find ourselves massively overdosing, ruining our health and feeling none of the intended benefit!

This isn't the worst of it, though. What technique do you notice when the growing hordes of exclamaniacs want to ask a question?!?!?!?!?!?!?

14 November 2007

Hello St. Pancras - Where can I park my bike?

St. Pancras
Today, the new £800m St. Pancras International rail terminal welcomed its first Eurostar service. I had a quick look at the nearly finished station on Saturday. It looks great. A simple hi-tech glass structure extends the original trainshed structure accompanied by Gilbert Scott's glorious gothic front end to the station.

Looking around the new St. Pancras, it seemed that something was missing; that something wasn't right. I couldn't place it, but it seems the clever people at Camden Cyclists had identified what was missing: cycle racks. This enormous new rail terminal had been designed with how many cycle racks? Thirty. Just thirty cycle racks for what is supposed to be the main rail terminus of a world class city and Olympic host.

In addition, it has been pointed out that the surrounding road system does little to provide a safe environment for cyclists traveling to, from or around St. Pancras. Added to this the fact that Eurostar's cycle policy is far from practical and Camden Cyclists had identified several significant reasons why this supposed revolution for British transport is severely lacking when it comes to its provision for cycling as a means of transport.

So, I'm glad to hear that the Camden Cyclists protest today was a great success. Calling attention to these three issues, they managed to provoke a sudden increase in the number of cycle racks, and the promise of a change in Eurostar's cycle policy. Of course, the matter of improving the safety of the surrounding road infrastructure is a harder thing to change - more's the pity that it wasn't properly taken into account during the seven year construction of this immense and otherwise impressive engineering project.

12 November 2007

howies and me


I've made no secret of my admiration for clothing company howies in recent times.

I've never been one to comment on fashion, but I've always liked howies' open-minded ideas, their gorgeous catalogues, their friendly blog and their entertaining website. They really seem to have fun talking to their customers and sharing ideas with them.

Well, now I like howies a bit more.

And here are two reasons why:

Firstly, a few months ago they put out the shout for new T-shirt ideas. I emailed them an idea that was buzzing around in my head and I was fairly chuffed to be told that my suggestion had made it to become the winning T-shirt design. It's now designed, printed and available on their site - Seize the Day Off

Secondly, and even more excitingly, howies are letting me come to play with them for a couple of weeks. Two weeks in the draughty south-west of Wales to see what's it's like on the other side of the impressive public image. Hopefully I can offer them some writing, some ideas and some enthusiasm. And hopefully they can offer me some insight into how they manage to do what they do. Bring it on.

Protest Through Remembrance?


Another November 11th has passed, and another Remembrance Sunday observed.

But things seemed a little different this year. For as long as I can remember, the number of people wearing poppies in early November has seemed to decline each year. Why? Well, memories of world wars become more distant and attitudes to conflict and nationhood have certainly changed as generations move on.

But this year, more poppies seemed on display, and on the lapels of a younger generation. I've been puzzled by this. What's changed all of a sudden?

Newspapers show their Remembrance Day front pages as always, but beneath the photos, they write less of the past and more of the present. They tell stories of the struggles that today's service personnel endure. They criticise our government for the wars they have taken us to, and the way they have equipped and treated their soldiers.

So were the poppies worn last week worn by a younger generation as much out of protest as out of remembrance? I think maybe they were.

08 October 2007

Unfolding the Folder - The Nonsense of Southern Railways' Cycle Policy

Folder Unfolded
This bike is pictured aboard the 18.19 train from Brighton to London Victoria. Trains travelling between the two cities at this time, and for six key hours every weekday, are subject to Southern Railways' cycle policy, which outlaws all bikes other than folders, like this Brompton.

Southern explain this policy as their way of trying to lessen inconvenience for non-cycling passengers, and presumably to accommodate more passengers on each train. This rule is enforced despite the fact that every fourth carriage on each train has dedicated space for two bikes, arranged with a layout which sacrifices none of the seating provided for passengers. For six hours every working day, these spaces are left empty. The only bikes permitted onboard are folding bikes, ranging from flexible, wobbly £200 efforts to more viable, reliable machines costing in excess of £500.

So, Southern tell us: Two wheels bad. Two wheels plus hinge good.

Time for a small experiment.

My employer has just acquired a Brompton for us to use as a company vehicle. A great idea and just the ticket for meetings in London or in Peterborough, home of our parent company. As a folding bike, it can be legally carried on all Southern trains, regardless of the time of day. But what if I took this bike on a train without folding it? What if I didn't fold the folder? Is a folder only seen as a folder when it's folded? Would it create some kind of inconvenience to my fellow passengers in its assembled stature? Would a guard (sorry - Revenue Protection Officer) ask me to collapse the bike into its folded form? Would I be thrown from the train as a two-wheeled trouble-maker?

Of course not. I wheeled the bike through the ticket barriers and parked it in one of the dedicated bike spaces where it remained for the rest of my journey. No-one was inconvenienced and no-one was denied any travelling comfort by the presence of my fully assembled bike.

Which begs the obvious question: If this bike was allowed onto the train in its full-sized, fully assembled state, why are regular, non-folding bikes forbidden? Bikes like the Brompton are great, but they are expensive, they handle strangely and they lack many benefits of regular full-sized bikes. To ban bikes from trains in the crude broad-brushed way favoured by Southern calls into question any attempt to acheive affordable 'integrated transport' as part of the relationship between the sibling cities of London and Brighton.

Some commuters previously mixing their modes of transport have given up and reverted to their cars. Others have tried the approach of locking up their bikes at railway stations, to the glee of bike thieves who are thriving in this new era.

When Southern first began to enforce their cycle policy, there were protests, petitions and news coverage. Maybe it's time to revisit this issue, before Southern begin to believe that this way of working is anything other than a terrible idea.

03 October 2007

howies Autumn Catalogue


I've just been looking at the autumn catalogue from howies, the undeniably cool clothing company. Well worth a look. I'm not sure if it's just come out, or if it's been available for a few weeks, but it's the first time I've seen this one.

Even if, like me, you don't really like clothes shopping and fashion is a big turn-off, the four-times-yearly howies catalogue is a wealth of beautiful photography, thoughtful writing and fun ideas. I can't afford to buy much of their clothing, but that doesn't stop me from appreciating their catalogues.

There's a paper version on its way, but I'm just flicking through the PDF. This season's theme seems to be howies' local river, the Teifi, and other associated wateryness - rivers, streams, oceans, pollution and stuff like that. Good stuff. Get one.

26 September 2007

La La La - I Can't Hear You! (Updated)

Okay, it's confession time: My name is Clive and I listen to my iPod while I ride my bike.

I'm sorry.

I've lost count of the number of friends whose faces have suddenly turned to looks of horror at the unexpected sight of me simultaneously wearing bike helmet and earphones.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a good guy. Before you start wagging your finger at a delinquent cyclist, I stop at red lights, I wear a helmet, I even have a bell. But I like a little music on my way to work. Is that really so wrong? Bikes and music are two sensory experiences I really appreciate, so enjoying both at once is a great way to start the day.

Yet this simple pleasure earns stern disapproval from concerned individuals - most of whom will express this concern from behind the wheels of their cars. "Oh you really shouldn't do that!" they say. "You won't hear the big lorries!"

What? Have you thought this through?

If I ride sensibly, and the traffic on the road drives likewise, the odds are that my progress will be unhindered by incident. And if I, or my fellow road users, make any stupid manoeuvres, I am at risk. Will someone please explain to me how this situation changes as soon as I pop a pair of headphones in my ears? Listening to music does not suddenly cause cyclists to swerve erratically from side to side as they ride. So why am I more at risk with a spot of music in my ears?

A while ago, a senior police officer was heard in the media to warn cyclists against the perils of riding a-la-MP3, following the tragic death of a cyclist who disappeared beneath the wheels of a lorry. Of course, it was her own fault - she was listening to her iPod at the time. The lorry (or its driver) must have been unavoidably drawn towards the device, for reasons I can't quite fathom. How awful.

If someone was stabbed to death while reading a book in the park, would police chiefs be lining up to warn of the connection between literature and knife crime? Would the assiallant likely have left their victim alone if they weren't engrossed in a Dan Brown on a park bench? Would the attacker get away with a reduced sentence in light of the circumstances? "The so-called victim is to blame m'lud, for he was reading a book when he died."

If you're really concerned about the safety of cyclists, don't nag me about my iPod. Put down your mobile, turn down the Phil Collins, slow down and give me some space. That will enhance my odds of survival far more effectively than forcing me to ride to work without my favourite tunes.

UPDATE 03/10/07

Okay, it seems this post provoked a reaction from some of my friends (I guess the friends I mentioned earlier). I have had a few emails, comments and Facebookings arguing the other side of the argument. Which is right and good, because, frankly, I was being a bit one-sided when I wrote the above.

So let me straighten it out a little: I do acknowledge that part of safe cycling in cities is about adapting to the behaviour of others. And I acknowledge also that without high sensory awareness, I cannot be aware of all this behaviour. I should make it clear that the vast majority of my commute, luckily for me, takes place on cyclepaths or very quiet roads with low traffic levels. There is one short portion of my daily ride which does offer more danger, and at which the iPod gets switched off and the headphones are removed from ears to dangle from my helmet straps. Anyone who knows Brighton knows how dangerous is the Palace Pier roundabout for cyclists.

So what was I on about in my original post? I suppose what I object to is not so much the fact that anyone should question the wisdom of riding with music; more the assumption that a cyclist is actually in some way to blame for any accident that befalls them while listening to their tunes. Switching off the music may, in some situations, put them in a better position to react to situations created by others, yes. But to suggest that other road users can use a cyclist's iPod as an excuse for their own dangerous driving (as virtually suggested by the aforementioned Australian policeman) is blatantly ridiculous.

So let's set the record straight:

Cyclists - Remember that your sensory awareness may be hampered by music, so listen wisely, if at all.
Motorists/Police/Journalists - Stop pointing fingers at cyclists' MP3 players or helmets. There is no substitute for good driving which avoids dangerous situations and the onus upon cyclists' defensive behaviour.

03 September 2007

London Underground


Looks like there's a tube strike going ahead- BBC News

I'm not amazingly well-versed on the politics, rights or wrongs of the current situation. In fact, I don't even live in London.

But it's a great excuse to listen once again to 'London Underground' by Adam Kay and Suman Biswas.

Probably one to be careful with at work...

01 September 2007

Knocked Up

Knocked UpAll comedies are not the same, are they? Lots of films make you laugh but they do so in different ways. Some use toilet humour and crude Farrelly brothers slapstick, while others employ more sophisticated observations and characterisations to provoke our chuckles. And others star Hugh Grant.

The good news about Knocked Up is that the humour comes from so many different angles you can quite happily go along with friends from either school of humour appreciation.

The basic 'Boy meets girl, girl gets pregnant' premise of the film, the mismatching of the two lead characters and the ensuing gags are largely as predictable as suggested by the proficiently edited trailer.

But a range of secondary characters with their own nuances, situations and jokes mean there is still something to laugh at long after the knob gags have worn thin.

While Ben and Allison pursue their elusive goal of happy togetherness, we observe the quirks and problems of the relationship between Allison's sister Debbie and her brother-in-law Pete. The ideal of a happy stable married relationship is actually exposed as being just as difficult and unstable as the struggle of the two main characters to form a healthy environment for the birth of their forthcoming baby.

Okay, this is hardly a comedy masterpiece and probably shouldn't be considered for any awards. But if you're trying hard to gauge the suitability of a comedy for a mixed group of friends, you could do far worse that going to see Knocked Up. And there's no sign of Hugh Grant.

02 August 2007

Happy Birthday Rebecca


Two or three years ago, I made a birthday card for my friend Rebecca. She's a bit of a fan of South Park, so I went to one those websites that lets you build a South Park character and constructed Rebecca in South Park style, then printed it off and used it as the basis for a birthday card. I think (I hope) she was quite chuffed.

Tomorrow is Rebecca's birthday once more, so keeping topical, I thought I might replicate the idea on the back of the current Simpsons hooplah. So off I go to the Simpsons movie website.

However, after having made the necessary adjustments to gender, body shape, hair, skin tone, face and clothing, I am disappointed to see that the finished result looks nothing like my friend Rebecca!

How Messrs Groening and co. can let me down like this I do not know. I expected better of their animation skills.

But for what it's worth, if you've never met my friend Rebecca, then rest assured, she looks absolutely nothing like this:





HAPPY BIRTHDAY BECS!
Sorry I can't make it to the party.

30 July 2007

What Not to Watch In Flight

I've just got back from my long-anticipated biking trip to Canada.

I had an amazing time. But I'm still sifting through memories, notes and photos before I can write anything about it that makes sense.

While I'm composing my excitable thoughts, I will just take a moment to pass on my views on a trivial yet hard-to-avoid part of many holiday experiences. One of the first, and last, ingredients in the holiday - The dire mix of films shown during flights.

On my way to and from Vancouver from Heathrow, I had the dubious pleasure of witnessing five films, varying in quality from average to unbelievably bad. Here are my tips:

Shooter - A classic example of the 'So bad it's good' phenomenon. Action thriller with Mark Wahlberg and Danny Glover. Glover is a crooked FBI chief and Wahlberg is a retired military sniper, wronged by the army and living in peaceful retirement. You can probably guess the rest. In fact, to revel in the predictability of the cheesy nonsense, draw up a game of 'Thriller Bingo". Place bets with a friend on the likelihood of phrases and situations that are bound to crop up. The smart money is placed on the prediction of phrases like "You're on your own now, son", "This goes all the way to the top" and "They say you're the best. Are you as good as they say?". And, without wanting to spoil any surprises, who thinks the dog is going to end up with a bullet in the head?

Frequency - Dennis Quaid is a sixties fireman in an intriguing time-travel-related drama. I couldn't believe that this film is seven years old, so easily did it slip past my awareness thusfar. It begins slowly, then gathers pace and becomes fairly sophisticated, before descending into one of the most ludicrous endings a film has ever had. Enough to really spoil an otherwise passable movie. Try and watch the ending without collapsing into fits of laughter.

Music and Lyrics - It's a Hugh Grant rom-com, so we all know how the story goes. Foppish Grant repeatedly makes fool of himself with eccentric feisty female - Drew Barrymore this time. Hugely predictable yet, to be fair, enjoyable.

Wild Hogs - Awful. Awful awful awful awful awful. There is a huge gulf between the ideas of 'So bad, it's good' and 'So bad that everyone involved should be ashamed'. The main offenders in this terrible film are Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy, John Travolta and Tim Allen. Four middle-aged men embark on a motorcycle road-trip in an attempt to reclaim their youth. If that sounds bad, I can assure you this is much much worse than you can imagine. Jokes revolve around comedy crashes, gay policemen, plastic bags of excrement and hen-pecked husbands. Lawrence has a history of terrible films - this is home turf for him. Allen and Travolta should be embarrassed by their involvement, but the real shame rests on the shoulders of William H. Macy. An actor who has been part of great films like Fargo and Boogie Nights should have run a mile from this stinker.

The Time Traveller - To be honest, I fell asleep before half an hour of this film had passed, but I hope it improved after I started snoring and dribbling into my in-flight meal. Guy Pierce was introduced as an eccentric professor with odd social habits and a penchant for time travel calculations. Listening to his English accent is nearly as odd as listening to Mark Addy's American accent. I quickly grew weary of this contrived set-up and abandoned myself to sleep. By the look of the Wikipedia plot summary, I made the correct choice.

30 June 2007

Birthday - Binary, Bikes and Beer

Friday 29th June 2007 was my 32nd birthday. (When bored the previous evening, it occurred to me that if you were into binary, this would actually be my 100000th. Luckily, I'm not into binary...)

A dreary rainy day at work was followed by a beautiful evening. The clouds parted, the sun broke through and the South Downs beckoned Si, Jim and me up towards Devil's Dyke, along to Truleigh Hill, down to Southwick and back to Brighton with roaring tailwind.

I've been playing with Google Maps a little - Here's the route we took

Ended up at the Robin Hood pub by Brighton's Norfolk Square. I've only recently discovered this place. A friendly kind of pub with decent beer, excellent post-ride pizza and some fantastic photography on the walls. Apparently, all the pub's profits go to charity. The three of us sat among Friday night revellers in our sweaty biking gear and were joined by Nic for a few happy pints.

A great birthday evening - a few miles on the hills followed by beers with some of my favourite people.

26 June 2007

Exif Strategy


If you're a bit of a geek, one of the wonders of digital photography isn't just held within the image itself, but in the hidden information which attaches itself to the file and makes its way onto your hard drive along with your photos.

The Exif data held within each file can tell you loads - The type of camera, the date, the shutter speed, aperture and ISO setting are only the beginning.

And this can be useful stuff. Users on sites like Flickr often show the Exif data alongside their photos. Which aperture setting got that amazing depth-of-field? What time of day gave that terrific light? Is that a new camera? EXIF data will tell you.

But is all this information enough? It's already a tempting option, on Flickr and elsewhere, to plot a photo's location on a map, adding further to the wealth of available data. But this must be done manually and can be a laborious process - too much so for many Flickr users.

And even with the addition of geographical data I'm still not sure this is quite enough to reconcile some photos with the unique moments they capture.

So I propose three new data fields to be populated by our cameras. I would ask major camera manufacturers to take heed and consider these suggestions:

1. Location - I can't remember where I was when I took that biking photo. Don't ask me to remember several days later - do it for me. Add the geographical co-ordinates to each of my photos as I take them by using a GPS within my camera.
Nic and Mark

2. Music - What a night! What a nightclub! What dancing! What on earth were we listening to?
I have no idea. But build an extra gizmo into my camera which listens to the tune being played as I press my shutter release, looks it up on the internet, and then embeds this information as EXIF data. Dexy's Midnight Runners? Oh dear...


3. Alcohol - Why is that photo so blurred? Why is the subject's head truncated? Why have I taken 34 photos of the same thing? Am I an adventurous artist or just a drunken buffoon? An in-built breathalyser just beneath the viewfinder will easily allow me to look back at an image with a greater understanding of why I appear to be lying in the floor. "1/60 shutter, f4.5 aperture, 400 ISO and 5 pints of lager: I'm evidently a creative genius!"

If You Love Your Language Set it Free...

In the face of the ever-increasing global dominance of English, the French are known for their determined loyalty to their language.

But despite what some would have you believe, they are able to have a laugh with it too.

These adverts for the french railways' travel website voyages-sncf.com should be read with your best french accent. Which international locations are being advertised with slogan "Luckily, we don't just do trains"?

Yste-en-Boule, not Constantinople

Nouillorc Nouillorc

18 June 2007

National Bike Week Comes to Brighton

National Bike Week began for me this morning at around 4.45am, in the English Channel.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we will shortly be arriving in Newhaven. Enjoy your stay in England."

On our way back from a two day road jolly in Normandy, Tom, Kieron, Saul and I clattered down to the car deck of the ferry to retrieve our bikes and cover the final 17km of our 200km journey - the short ride from Newhaven back to Brighton.

All weekend, we had been contentedly sharing immaculately surfaced roads with French motorists, appreciating their wide, careful overtaking, their patience at junctions and the sensation of being able to stop at traffic lights without the feeling that the car behind you is attempting to climb into your back pocket.

After two days of blissful French cycling and fitful night's waterborne sleep, we rolled off the ferry back onto rainy British roads, resigned to the fact that, back on home turf, we could no longer expect motorists to notice us or respect us as equal road users. We span home along the coast in the rain with cars and trucks passing us at speed.

I returned to Brighton, snatched an hour's sleep, and then packed my stuff for work, swapped my road bike bike for the usual commuter and set off on my 15 minute ride to work, the sun now shining. Within a minute of leaving the house I was flagged down by a cheerful lady in colourfully branded T-shirt.

She reminded me that, as the first day of National Bike Week, today was the day that Brighton & Hove Council were laying on free breakfasts for cyclists. I was ushered towards a nearby café. Not only was I given a flapjack, some fruit and a cup of tea, but a spare bike light and, bizarrely, some Body Shop foot lotion also made it into my courier bag, courtesy of the council. A lively jazz band was playing while free of charge bike maintenance checks were carried out.


I met Dean Spears, Brighton council's cycling mastermind, who told me about the new Journey On website and assured me that our local authority is doing all it can to encourage and enable cycling, as the best mode of transport for our crowded city. Facilities for cyclists in Brighton are relatively good, but they could surely be much much better, so I hope his mission is succesful.

Some of the best documenters of the inconsistencies of British cycle facilities is Brightonian Fred Pipes, whose superb Weird Cycle Lanes blog today points out a straightforward Guardian piece by Emily Thornberry MP, picking apart some of the oft-quoted objections to cycle commuting.

As a cyclist, particularly a commuter, it is easy, so easy, to focus on the negative. Inconsiderate driving, poor roads and the commonly-held perception that cycling is solely for eccentrics can make a British cyclist defensive, perhaps too much so. Events like Critical Mass do wonders for awareness of the power imbalance on British roads, but a lot of their energy lies in the implied confrontation between the needs of the cyclist and the needs of the motorist.

The great thing about this morning's breakfast event, with its music, good food and warm welcome was that it focussed on the positive and it made me smile. It made other cyclists smile, passers by smile and, I hope, motorists smile. Cycling shouldn't be about making a stand and being different. It should be about feeling able to choose a mode of transport which, for most people, offers so many benefits; not least of which is the valuable chance to arrive at work on a Monday morning with a smile on your face.

25 May 2007

Return to Liverpool - Part 3 - On The Road

The third day of my visit to Liverpool saw me boarding a train beneath the Mersey to Bebington, to meet Ian.

Ian Tierney was my boss for the two-and-a-half years I spent working at the Liverpool Cycle Centre. He was brought up working with bikes and he taught me most of what I know about cycling. He now runs Cycling Projects, a Manchester-based charity.

We see each other about twice a year, and whenever we meet up we try and find a few spare hours for a bike ride. This is normally off-road, as Ian acknowledges that's always been my riding of choice, so he climbs aboard his mountain bike and humours me for a couple of hours.

But Ian's heart lies in the tarmac. He has fun on off-road, but he's happiest when zipping along on big skinny wheels and drop bars. So imagine the excitement when I arrived on Merseyside accompanied by my new road bike - my first road bike. I arrived at Ian's house with my shiny new Specialized and found him grinning from ear to ear. Not because he was pleased to see me, but pleased to see me "on a proper bike, for once!"

So we set off through the twisting country lanes of Wirral, as Ian guided me and my new bike through a labyrinth of villages and meadows. Our first stop was my inaugural visit to 'Two Mills' café, known to every roadie in the northwest as the definitive place to enjoy a cup of tea and compare handlebars.

Then we made our way to Raby, a village so picturesque you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in rural France, not the suburbs of Liverpool. We enjoyed a couple of pints in the sunshine and reflected on a decade of friendship, ten years of riding together, and the ten years it had taken me to get myself a bike that Ian approved of. It was a great afternoon.


But next time, let's get back on the mountain bikes, eh Ian?

24 May 2007

Return to Liverpool - Part 2 - A Dingy, Smelly, Slippy Place


My visits to Liverpool are infrequent these days. After having lived there for five-and-a-half years, I like to visit once a year or so, to catch up with the great friends I left behind.

On this occasion, my visit co-incided with that of Rebecca and Simon, who'd crossed from Brussels for the weekend, also to revisit Liverpool friends and memories.

It became a foregone conclusion that a visit to The Raz would figure on the weekend's agenda. I only made a few visits during the years I lived in Liverpool, but they were memorable. The Raz is formally known as The Blue Angel (though it takes a leap of faith to consider any variant of the word 'formal' in the context of this place). The grottiest, cheesiest of venues with the nastiest cheapest beer and the worst, most ineffectual ventilation had always made The Raz an aquired taste, but this time, things seemed a little different...

The first clue was the smell. The smell in the street. As we climbed out of our taxi and eagerly made our way to the The Blue Angel's front door, our nostrils collectively caught a whiff of something quite revolting. We assumed it was a drain or a binbag and moved closer to the venue. And the smell grew stronger. And stronger. Until we were in the queue at the front door facing the grim realisation that the smell was coming from within The Blue Angel. As a real sign of the times, a bold notice, not there ten years ago, was displayed at the entrance:
"YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A DINGY, SMELLY, SLIPPY PLACE.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED."
We had indeed.

We entered the foul smelling venue and headed downstairs to the cave-like dancefloor. The smell of stale sweat and vomit grew ever more intense, with the only escape being offered by a visit to the toilet to enjoy the fresh air.

In a previous life, our fellow patrons were more of our own. Students, ex-student hangers-on and university sports teams, all in their early twenties, we would boogie away our cares in youthful abandon. Now, ten years later, we were probably the oldest people there.

Music was a mix of recent tunes and the old classics we used to dance to. Our favourites were seen by most Raz-goers as 'oldies' but we danced along together all the same, drinking merrily from plastic glasses - cheap lager for the boys, and an anonymous flourescent blue alcopop for the girls.

Two o'clock came round too soon, and we made our way back to Glyn and Jamie's flat to catch up on some sleep. We woke the following morning to the funny feeling that something had followed us home. Something smelly. A revolting grey substance identified by Rebecca as 'boogie poo' had smeared itself onto our clothes and was living all over our shoes and trousers. Windows were opened, shoes were placed on window ledges and last night's trousers were plunged into washbasins as we wondered when we'd next make our excitable return to the horrible, horrible Raz.

I took a few photos, but Simon and Rebecca have some great pictures.

18 May 2007

Return to Liverpool - Part 1 - Platform 4


If boarding an Olympic flight at Heathrow, the Greek accents, illegible safety signs and stewardesses' make-up tell you straight away that though you maybe sat on west London tarmac, culturally, your journey to Greece is to a large extent complete.

And so it was that I found myself on platform 4 at London's Euston station, surveying a long red Liverpool-bound Virgin train, looking for the best place to stow my bulky bike bag.

I asked one of the train's uncomfortably dressed 'hosts' for help and the answer came back in a soft scouse accent that immediately reminded me of my destination for the weekend.

"Go right to the end of the train, just behind the driver, and there's somewhere there" she pointed out in distinct Merseyside tones.

"Great. Thanks." I said as I began hauling my heavy cargo to the other end of the long platform."

The friendly scouse voice continued over my shoulder. "What's in the bag?".

I looked back.

"A bike"

"Have I seen you before with that bike? I'm sure I've seen you before."

"I'm not sure."

"No, I'm definate I've seen you on this train before with that bag."

There was no way she'd ever seen me before, but her friendly insistence and lack of London aloofness was unmistakable.

There I was in central London suddenly feeling like I'd arrived Liverpool. I boarded the train and the Ringo Starr intonations of Gerry, our 'catering manager for this jair-ney', confirmed that this train, with an apparently Liverpool-based crew, had already brought me to my former northwestern home, before the train had even left London.


11 May 2007

Flying to Work

Tailwind Commute

Brighton's getting a lot of weather at the moment. After a few balmy weeks, the wind and the rain is back with a vengeance.

Yesterday I rode home along the seafront with a howling wind in my face. As I struggled to make headway on my tired old singlespeed, I wished the wind would let up for me. Then I spotted a couple of guys on road bikes coming in the opposite direction along Madeira Drive. They were going three times faster than me, with the wind behind them and big smiles on their faces.

I told myself that the ride to work the next day would make it all worthwhile. And it was. With the wind behind me I flew along the seafront as fast as my little legs could go to keep up.

New howies Catalogue is Here!

New howies catalogue


The new howies catalogue landed on my doormat yesterday. It's always good when this colourful little book arrives, four times a year.

howies are a clothing company, but the catalogue is more than just a selection of pretty people in good clothes. Interspersed between the jeans, T-shirts and hoodies are a collection of essays, thoughts, letters and stunning photos. Lots of stuff to make you think and make you smile.

It's always worth a read. Their blog's good, too.

10 April 2007

Barenaked Ladies - Brighton, 5th April 2007

Barenaked Ladies


Watching the Barenaked Ladies at Brighton Dome on Thursday was possibly the most fun I've had in front of a live band.

I can't remember the exact set list; a combination of excitement, ignorance and a touch of alcohol puts that a little out of reach. But I recall rolling in from the bar as they were getting stuck into The Old Apartment to wild applause. They then took us through a healthy collection of great tunes. Pinch Me, The King of Bedside Manor, Intermittently and Some Fantastic stick in my memory, along with some songs new to me, like Sound of Your Voice, which will probably see me adding more BNL to my iTunes over coming days.

They spoke entertainingly of their brief time in Brighton. Ed and Steven made it clear that share Brightonians' mixed feeling of wonder and distaste when they survey our seaside delights - particularly our tacky pier with its eyebrow-raising rides - "Like the ones at Disneyworld but with all the fun stuff removed" observed Ed. A rap followed, describing the way that Ed endulged in Palace Pier's 'Super Booster' ride while Steven let his doubts get the better of him. (As it turns out, Steven's anxiety was well-founded)

I first heard the Barenaked Ladies on the radio some time around 1992. If I Had $100000 instantly grabbed by attention. Music that was warm, affectionate and fun without being sloppy or obvious. That appeal, and of course, the implausible name, stuck in my head and I duly went out and bought Gordon, the BNL's first proper album. I liked Gordon so much I bought the next album, Maybe You Should Drive. Then, for some reason, I forgot about them.

Several years later, a friend tried to re-awaken my interest in the Barenaked Ladies and sent me a mini-disc compilation of their best stuff to date. Living at the time in a rural greek village with a limited selection of music, I'd say it did the trick for those few months. And last Thursday night, when I heard songs like Some Fantastic for the first time in around four years, I was taken right back to an echoey marble-floored room in Greece, where the Barenaked Ladies were delivered to me through a tiny Sony minidisc player and a pair of miniature speakers.

These days, the Barenaked Ladies are very much into technology and the internet. Their website is awash with videos, downloads, fan links and general nonsense. Steven has a fairly entertaining blog. On Thursday they were even offering for sale USB sticks containing the music of the whole concert, just as soon as they'd played the final chord. I'm waiting for Thursday's gig to appear on their download site so I can relive the fun of the other night.

Oh and Meg, thanks for that minidisc.

IMG_6169.JPG

05 April 2007

Vehicle Watch - "25"

IMG_6114.JPG

There seem to be more and more of these stickers appearing in car windows. They are based on a simple premise: that most car theft is perpetrated by those under the age of 25. With this in mind, anyone over that age may place a distinctive '25' sticker in their window in the hope that the police will stop the car if if appears to have a young driver at the wheel, deducing it to be stolen.

It's hard to object to the simple logical approach of this scheme, and I hope it's playing its part in reducing car theft and associated dangerous driving.

But something doesn't feel right.

What are we being told? Car thieves are young people, right? So young people are car thieves? Are we taking too much refuge in the idea that we know best the kind of people likely cause trouble?

How long before we place other stickers on our clothes, houses and handbags? Why stop at age? Why not produce stickers that specify gender, skin colour or accent?

I'm not about to object to anything that makes our roads safer, but I do wonder if these stickers say a lot about our assumptions about young people.

Not to mention our assumption that under-25-year-olds are incapable of removing window stickers...

03 April 2007

Nike Cycling: Not Doing It Anymore

It looks like Nike's relationship with the sport of cycling may be coming to an end. BikeBiz have announced the end of Nike's tie-up with Trek, the largest bike company in the US, with whom they market their cycling clothing and shoes. Nike say that this does not necessarily mark the end of their involvement with the sport, but with all but handful of Nike Cycling employees laid off, it's not looking promising.

Over recent years, Nike has had a refreshing presence in a market more used to traditional European brands. Their sponsorship of Lance Armstrong has been a powerful force in cycling marketing. When, in 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer he was released from his professional contract with Cofidis. With a life-threatening illness and no medical insurance, Armstrong's sponsors at Nike, along with Oakley and Giro, agreed to cover all his medical expenses.

The man who looked like his life would soon be over not only survived, but went on to win the Tour de France an unprecedented seven consecutive times, capturing the world's imagination with his survival story. It seems that Nike's investment paid off. Many times over.

But now, following his retirement in 2005, Lance Armstrong's status as a sports personality is fading away. And with him goes Nike's unique hold on cycling.

Nike Cycling was Lance Armstrong. The whole brand was built on one man. Now his career is over, maybe Nike have realised that their presence within the world of cycling needs to be drastically scaled down. Or even ended.

Still, it was a partnership which worked well. Check out this advert - one of several Nike made with Armstrong. Truly inspirational and beautifully put together. It would take the most cynical cyclist not to feel any emotion during the following one minute and 33 seconds.


Click here to see a larger version

Thanks to Andy for reminding me of this great advert. You know I'm going to have to buy that road bike now, don't you?

26 March 2007

Spring Forward

Spring Forward

The clocks have gone forward an hour.
British Summer Time is upon us.

Simon was very excited about this, so he, Frazer and I rode on the first of 2007's 'extended' evenings.

The following morning, as I washed my bike outside my house, carefully removing two layers of South Downs filth and one of south Wales, a small boy and his mother made their way along the pavement where a pool of mud was forming around me.

The lady ushered her young son past me, avoiding the mess.

"He's been playing in the mud!" said the little boy.

"Yes" replied Mum.

"Can I play in the mud?"

Am I leading the next generation astray? I do hope so.

25 March 2007

A Plea to my Cycling Friends

IMG_5159.JPG
IMG_5998.JPG
IMG_3827.JPG
IMG_4390.JPG

I like riding bikes.
I like taking photos.
And above all, I love spending time with my friends.

When all three come together, and I find myself photographing friends on bikes, I'm rarely happier.

But, I need to issue a plea to all my bicycle-riding chums:

I'm glad that the reflective details on your bikes and clothing make you safer at night, but it buggers up any photograph I try and take with a flash.

So please, next time I'm riding with you in the evening or at night, and you see me reach for my camera, do the decent thing, get out your screwdrivers and scissors and remove all the reflectors, armbands, stickers and clothing from you and your bicycle. Or get out of shot so I can get a picture without blinding white sparks burning out of the picture.

It will keep my Trash folder much emptier and will increase the odds of seeing yourself scooting along on Flickr.

24 March 2007

Newspaper Snobbery

IMG_6043.JPG
My name is Clive and I am a newspaper snob. There you go - I've said it.

Anyone who knows me knows my thoughts on the tabloid press. I can't help but feel that the views espoused in titles like the Daily Mail and the Express have a harmful impact on public attitudes. That may sound incredibly condescending (I suppose it is), but the moral posturing and conservative panic of these rags leave a nasty taste in the mouth.

If you bump into me in the newsagent, I'm likely to have The Guardian or The Independent tucked under my arm. If you sneak a look at my RSS reader, you'll see a similar picture. I find the politics and attitudes of these two news sources broadly reflect my own (isn't that the main reason anyone chooses the news provider they do?).

But the front page Wednesday's Independent made me think. To celebrate the 50th birthday of the European Union, the entire front page had been given over to '50 Reasons to Love the EU'. The 'in-your-face' single issue front page has become a trademark of The Independent over recent years, and this was a bold example.

While there were some good points ("Once-poor countries, such as Ireland, Greece and Portugal, are prospering"; "Free medical help for tourists"), many of the 'reasons' were rather tenuous and the facts behind some of their claims a little vague ("Britons now feel a lot less insular"; "British restaurants now much more cosmopolitan").

Some were even contradictory: "Europe is helping to save the planet with regulatory cuts in CO2"; "Europe's single market has brought cheap flights to the masses". No secret had been made of the Independent's enthusiatically pro-european stance. The Indy do as much as admit this with their final point: "Lists like this drive the Eurosceptics mad".

Though I agreed with the majority of the points being made on the front page, I found the approach a bit too close to the opinionated pieces I find myself sneering at in other papers. I wasn't reading anything that challenged me - just my existing views simplified into a tabloid approach.

So I suppose what I like and dislike in a newspaper (or news website) is a combination of two questions: Do I sympathise which the political outlook? And do I appreciate the manner and subtlety with which those views are put across?

Looking at both questions, the likes of the Sun, Mail and Express go straight in the bin, failing instantly on both counts. Papers like the Telegraph and the Times, while seeing some issues from a slightly different perspective to me, are undeniably readable, while the Independent, as we've seen here, manages to take views I share and present them in an increasingly irritating style.

So where does that leave me? With the Guardian, I suppose.

17 March 2007

Stow Me The Money!

howies are a Wales-based clothing company making some very nice stuff aimed at bikers/skaters/paddlers/dreamers who have a few quid in their back pockets. Their approach is very much about having fun and doing the right thing. Their website and catalogues are thought-provoking, entertaining and well worth a read, even if you can't afford their pricey clothes.

They're planning to produce a wallet. If it's anything like their clothes it will be made by hand from sustainable, organic something-or-other, extremely high quality, with a correspondingly significant price tag.

Seems like they want to make this new product right, so they're canvassing public opinion, through their blog.

So here, through my blog, are my replies to their questions:

howies: Who are you?
me: I'm Clive

howies: How old are you?
me: I'm 31 and three quarters

howies: What sports are you into?
me: Mountain biking. I try other stuff now and then, but never very convincingly. In fact, my mountain biking can be pretty unconvincing...

howies: Why do you like howies clothing?
me: Because I just managed to pick up a couple of very nice items in the Brighton sample sale. Plus I like reading the catalogue and the blog. They make me smile.

howies: What kind of wallet do you have or what do you use as a wallet?
me: It's a worn-out, knackered, broken RNLI promotional wallet made from neoprene and a kind of metallic mesh fabric.
IMG_5957.JPG

howies: Why did you choose that one?
me: It was gift from my parents - big RNLI fans.

howies: What do you love about it?
me: It contains the means to buy beer for me and my friends.. And it's been moulded to the shape of my right buttock by its constant presence in my right back pocket.

howies: What would you change?
me: I would prefer it without the broken zip or the threadbare holes which dispense the contents into my pockets and/or the floor. It has to be tough if it's going to survive. Especially the zipped pocket for change. Zips always break.

howies: What do you keep in your wallet?
me: Not enough money. Too much other crap. Have a look here.

howies: Do you always take it with you?
me: Mostly, yes. I feel naked without it. Sometimes, I try to be clever and just go biking with a credit card wrapped in a tenner, but after the ride it's invariably a week or so before I reunite the card with the wallet, so I'm buggered at the supermarket checkout.

howies: What other stuff do you want to get off your chest?
me: It would be nice if there was no leather in the new wallet. Some of us don't like to buy the stuff, so would be good to see a 100% animal-free solution.

15 March 2007

Bring on the Spring

Spring
The arrival of spring, and then summer, has always meant a lot to me, but I've been thinking about it lots recently. Living by the sea it's somehow easier to appreciate the passing of the seasons. Harsh winters of crashing waves and icy cold have to give way, sooner or later, to warm sunshine and long summer evenings.

And so, here we are. At that exciting time of year when summer is easing its way back into our lives. The last five months, mild as this winter has been, have held a routine of chilly mornings, constantly charging bike lights and warm evenings huddled in smoky pubs. (I do notice that the winter doesn't fill me with the same gloom it used to - maybe I'm becoming fonder of the cosy pubs as I grow older...). Next we must re-learn our summer lifestyles; five months of winter is just long enough to forget the simple pleasures of evening beach barbecues and strolling around in shorts and t-shirts. Spring provides us with a chance to remind ourselves how we like to live when the sun shines.

Of course, the passing of the seasons has always been important to us as a society, especially in the days when the production of our food was dependent on it. That's why festivals and celebrations have always marked their passage. From the elaborate festivities of the major religions to the simpler observances of druids and the like, we have always cared about the seasons, however we choose to explain them.

Personally, I like join a group of friends around the time of each equinox (spring and autumn) for our own little tradition:
- our Low Tide Bike Ride.

So when does spring really start? Depends who you ask. The vernal equinox (when the Earth is literally mid-way between its summer and winter positions) is reckoned by astronomers to be the real start of spring. Other folks will wait until our clocks go forward before they recognise the arrival of the new season. Other, more old-fashioned, souls are apparently intent on listening for cuckoos...

But I feel able to announce my own list of signs that winter has passed and spring is ushering in the new summer:
  • The first time I am woken in the morning by the persuasive light from my window, rather than the nagging bleep of an alarm
  • The first time I realise, having woken, that going for a quick ride/run/swim might be a really nice thing to to, rather than an eccentric act of winter bravery
  • The first time I can leave work without having to switch on the bike lights
  • The first time I notice myself sat on Brighton beach in the early evening, with groups of beer-supping friends scattered around the stony beach and the occasional hint of cannabis smoke carried by the sea breeze
  • The first time I find myself getting cross with the amount of rubbish left on the beach each night
  • The first time I notice with admiration how quickly Brighton's litter pickers restore the beach each morning
  • The first weekend evening I ride home past enormous traffic jams clogging every road out of Brighton, as Londoners return from their sunny day by the sea

Solstice Cartwheel
Seeing as I have ticked off all seven of the above, I am utterly convinced that spring is now upon us. Next stop summer.

Now, where did I put that barbecue?

12 March 2007

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

I've just spent the last few weeks trying to re-establish a wireless connection in the flat in which I live. We recently changed broadband providers and the migration from our old set-up to our new one has been less than smooth. Much less.

IMG_5850.JPG

My competence with computers falls into the category of "enough knowledge to be dangerous". Like weekend fettlers who disassemble the carburettor of their Ford Sierra only to call in the AA on a Monday morning. Or DIY plumbers who proudly finish their new bathroom before receiving agitated reports of leakage from the downstairs neighbours.

If you ask me to fiddle with my network settings, I'll naîvely wade into my Mac's System Preferences and start fiddling with IP addresses, DNS servers, TCP/IP, PPPoE, MTUs and the like. I just wish I understood it all. Or do I? This is no fun. This is not what computers are for.

For a non-techie like me, it's like entering a bizarre world. It looks like OSX, but gone is the logical simplicity of files, folders, buttons and sliders which usually makes using a Mac so idiot-proof. (On a Windows machine, of course, I'd be patronised beyond belief. "Do you want a 'WizardTM' to help you set up 'My ComputerTM' with one of 'My Special Network PlacesTM'?")

It seems that Apple, smart as ever, already know that things should be easier, so I read with interest that they are working on a cunning plan. I don't fully understand the technical details, but the story on the MacRumors site suggests that plans are afoot to use RFID technology to help networking products exchange basic information with each other, enabling them to then automate the rest of the process. RFID is the whole business of little tags whose embedded information can be simply read by a nearby device. The kind of thing that's currently used to automate regular payments on toll bridges, or to identify stray pets and bicycles to police and thereby reunite them with their owners.

I don't understand the technical intricacies of this RFID idea any further. But that's the whole point - I don't want to!

Imagine if your computer, partner's computer, router, printer and everything else just introduced themselves, Bluetooth style, to each other so you didn't have to worry about IP addresses, manual, DHCP or otherwise. I want setting up my computer and that of my housemate to be as simple as downloading pictures from my camera, deleting some music, or adding to this blog.

Let Apple handle the questions of how that stuff actually works. That's their job - I have better things to do.

22 February 2007

Off-Road Utopia

IMG_5721a.jpg

Last weekend was one of our several-times-a-year mountain biking trips. The first significant trip of 2007.

The destination for this springtime adventure? South Wales. The purpose-built, manufactured trails of Brechfa and Glyncorrwg, near Port Talbot.

A superb weekend. Largely thanks to the chance to spend time playing with good friends. But a significant part of last weekend's smiles were due to the frankly wonderful trails we rode. Superb. Distracting, winding climbs followed by flattering playful singletrack. Si and Sam roar on ahead while I endeavour to keep up with Sally as we follow at our own pace. But everyone reaches the bottom with a smile on their face. A huge smile.

Wales and Scotland are now rich with these 'trail centres' - off-road networks in rural forests where mountain bikers have right of way and every curve, berm and obstacle has been developed with the goal of pleasing the British mountain biker. A well-stocked bike shop and better-stocked cafe are strategically positioned at each trailhead to capitalise on two of the key spending tendencies of the species Mountanica Bicyclus Britannicus.

It's a kind of off-road Utopia. But is everything as perfect as it seems?
  • We drove for several hours to reach our destination for the weekend. We could have ridden locally on the South Downs. We tell our friends smugly how we do our bit for the environment by taking to two wheels, then whenever we get the chance we drive (or fly) hundreds (or thousands) of miles to endulge our hobby.

  • These artificial trails may offer superb riding, but sometimes one wonders if they are perhaps a little too perfect. As every corner leads to another stretch of lovely singletrack, gone is the hit-and miss trial-and-error approach of 'natural' mountain biking in Britain's rural areas. Gone are the playful squabbles and guesswork involved in plotting an entertaining route along traditional bridleways and 'cheeky' singletrack. Jo Burt has written more about this in Singletrack magazine (I'll add a link to the exact article if I can find it).

  • When you separate mountain bikers from the rest of the outdoor enthusiasts of the British Isles by giving them their own playgrounds, you wonder if we're forgetting how to share the open spaces we love. It's great being able to hare around each corner with no concern for the possibility of the absent-minded dog-walker or red-socked rambler, but in the long term, are we doing ourselves any favours by ghettoising ourselves into designated ear-marked mountain biking zones? If the idea gathers momentum that mountain bikers belong primarily in these trail centres, do we start to forego our acceptance on the regular byways and bridleways of the land?
Don't misunderstand me; I had a brilliant weekend. But it does make me wonder about the future of British mountain biking if we focus all our passion of these centres.

But they are so much fun! And that is what it's all about.

Roll on Canada...

Meanwhile, here are my photos from the weekend.

05 February 2007

Better Than Any Screensaver



Every night as the sun goes down, the starlings of Brighton's West Pier do their amazing evening dance around the hulk of the burnt-out structure. They've been there for as long as anyone can remember. After the fire in 2003 they took a while to come back, but return they did. And now they guard the ruins of this once beautiful building.

They fly in tight formation every night, swooping and diving in their hundreds, possibly thousands. Their fluid mass bends and distorts seemingly at random, but with an amazing unity and power. Occasionally the flock gets separated, as the split second synchronisation breaks down for a few moments. Before long, the two clusters re-join and the temporary rebellion is absorbed back into the flock.

Each bird is an individual creature which controls its own flight. Yet the instinct to fly as a flock is overwhelming and this nightly spectacle is the captivating result. It's always different, yet always the same. you can watch it for ages. Better than any screensaver.

After watching the birds for what seemed like an eternity on Sunday evening, I turned around to see dozens of my own kind all standing in unison on Brighton beach, all gazing out to sea as one.

Then I climbed back on my bike and weaved my way home through the hundreds of cars queueing to get out of Brighton for their migration back to London after the sunny weekend.

Flying Away

IMG_5630_1a.jpg


8.22am on a Sunday morning. Each one of these vapour trails is a plane. And each plane holds a few hundred people leaving Gatwick and heading south-east for mainland Europe or beyond.

Thousands of people. Thousands of far-away adventures beginning in the sky above Brighton on a chilly February morning.

We know that we need to reduce air travel, for the sake of our planet. But is the answer really to tax the poor out of being able to travel, so foreign experiences become the preserve of the wealthy once again?

Let's get more into travelling by other means, so we can all keep having adventures.

31 January 2007

Critical Mass

Last Friday I found myself in London at Critical Mass, the monthly bike ride and display of urban cycling solidarity that has been around for well over a decade in cities across the world.

The simple philosophy is to celebrate, once a month, the freedom and fun of cycling without the fear that usually accompanies urban riding. In practice, this means a couple of hours where the cars of a city have to submit to the relaxed pace of a group of cyclists as the tables are turned on a habitually difficult relationship.

IMG_3235

Critical Mass has no leaders and no set route. It is not an organised protest in the purest sense, but a gathering of cyclists who all happen to be riding the same way, in no particular hurry. This essential anarchy is at once makes Critical Mass such a beautiful, yet such a problematic thing. Not everyone who takes part is there for the same reasons as each other, which makes it hard to know whether a given Critical Mass will feel like a relaxed evening with friends or a tense experience under the eyes of the police, ever present at most cities' Critical Mass rides.

Predictably, there are delays for motorised traffic. On a good day, these delays are brief and everyone gets to where they are going. Smiles and waves are traded between cyclists, pedestrians and sometimes even motorists.

On a bad day, when the flow and 'buzz' of Critical Mass isn't working as well as it should, there is aggression, frayed tempers and legal problems. It's a shame, as this should be a celebration of positivity, not a chance for cyclists to alienate other road users.

January 2007's London CM was not the best in terms of atmosphere and interaction between riders, police and public. After a couple of hours, I no longer felt the ride was positive, so I rode off towards Stoke Newington where I knew Kate had a pint waiting for me.

But for the first hour or so after the mass of bikes set off from its customary meeting point at the National Theatre, it was a joy to be back in London on two wheels - not easy now that Southern Trains are enforcing their restrictive policy towards carriage of bikes.

The highlight of the evening was, without a doubt, the most amazing sound system I have ever seen on a Critical Mass ride. On Critical Mass it is usual to see a couple of speakers and a small amplifier lashed to a shopping bike, providing music to help create the ride's all-important sense of fun.

Occasionally, an enthusiast pushes the boat out, with a professional sound set-up mounted on a trailer or load carrier.

But Friday's ride was accompanied by the amazing sound of three load-carrying bikes, connected wirelessly, sharing seven speakers and a 3m towable 'sound cannon', filling the streets with music.

These brief videos give only a suggestion of the amazing atmosphere created by this impressive use of technology.





Links:
Critical Mass on Wikipedia
Critical Mass on Flickr
Critical Mass in London
Critical Mass in Brighton
AV2Hire - The guys behind the superb mobile sound system.

30 January 2007

Howies vs. We-We

I'm fairly new to marketing. I've been to only a couple of seminars and read only a few of the myriad websites, blogs and magazine articles that rush before my eyes. There are a hell of a lot of words out there...

A lot of it makes a lot of sense. A lot of it is common sense dressed up in fancy words.

And some of it is bullshit posing as common sense, hoping that no-one sees through the disguise.

I went to a seminar about email marketing. There were many buzzwords. Lots of jargon. Each time the guy running the show came out with one of his killer points, most of his audience nodded appreciatively.

At one point he mentioned the We-We Test. Everyone nodded. "Never ever talk about yourself when emailing a customer!" proclaimed the marketing guru. "Customers hate it. You must always tell them about how their needs and their lives will be improved by your product. Go through your marketing copy and count the number of times you say 'we'. Then reduce it as much as you can." He didn't need to insist; everyone accepted this as an unquestionable truth.

One of the strongest brands I know is howies, the clothing company based in south Wales. They do a superb job of marketing their (not inexpensive) products by selling the idea of themselves, their experiences and their culture. Their website is full of their thoughts and opinions. It's great.

howies' emails talk you like a friend, and tell you how excited they are about their designs. Their blog (they call it a community) is a constant babble of their people's daily ideas, jokes, trials and wisdom.

howies' copy hardly ever talks to 'you'. It is too busy talking about 'us'. What 'we' are thinking, how far 'we' have ridden our bikes and what music 'we' have been listening to.

A randomly picked page from their site is made up of an alarming 87.5% We-We, according to this online test. By the apparent accepted wisdom of the 'We-We Test', Howies are abject failures.

But they are a roaring success, expanding all the time and recently announcing a partnership with Timberland. And howies continue to command a hefty premium for their clothes. Partly because they are very good clothes, but largely because of the perceived fun and honesty of their brand and the intimacy we feel when we read about their surfing, dog-walking, tree-planting, cake-baking, t-shirt-designing lives.

I want to be part of their gang, so I will happily read about what they've been up to and what they've been thinking. That is far more exciting than boring little me.

But I still can't afford their jeans.