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.


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.

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.

24 January 2007

Still Waters Run Cold


Yesterday was the coldest day of the winter so far in England. Northerly winds brought cool arctic air down to Europe. The unusual offshore wind in Brighton creates a beautiful peace and tranquility on the water. Which, on the coldest day of the year, made the act of entering the water an excruciating experience.

'Big wave' days may present their own swimming challenge, but at least there is no escaping the cold water as it jumps up at you like an enormous playful puppy.

On cold, still days, one must consciously lower oneself into the icy water, step by step, especially at low tide, when Brighton's beach remains shallow for a long way.

22 January 2007

Pigeon-Proofing Our World

Is it my imagination or has every building in urban Britain developed some kind of odd infection? A sort of rash, characterised by thousands and thousands of spikes covering every visible horizontal surface above head height?


In the love/hate relationship between the British pigeon (friend or vermin?) and the British public (friend or vermin?), these 'anti-roost spikes' are seen as the primary tool with which to spare our shopping malls of excessive avian poop.

Everywhere you look, the lines of any town centre building are serrated by these awkward-looking additions to the urban horizon. They look intrinsically uncomfortable, reminding you at every glance that they were glued there as an apologetic afterthought to the building's design.

The effect is particularly sad when seen on buildings in the 'High-Tech' style. An architect designs and builds a structure with neat, crisp industrial lines, then builders cover it with spikes so it looks like a bizarre enormous birthday cake covered in candles. Many, many candles.


You have to consider whether you'd prefer to tolerate the extra pigeon crap than these peculiar spikes breeding on every near-horizontal surface on every building. How about taking the cost of installing these spikes and putting it towards the salary of a guy with a shovel...

Other than that labour-intensive option, what can we do? There must be a better way. It's a long while since I was studying architecture but I hope that somewhere some building design experts are hard at work coming up with less visually offensive means of reducing the perceived tendency of pigeons to perch upon our buildings and shit on our heads.

The local council in Kingston-upon-Thames considered the employ of a marksman with which to dispatch pigeons and reduce their menace to the public. The resultant response in the public comments section of the Surrey Comet website article has to be one of the most humorous reads on the internet.

Of course, the best way to reduce the amount of pigeons occupying our towns is to stop feeding them. The litter and discarded food which gathers in every corner of our urban environment is what encourages our feathered rivals to compete for our living space. And, of course, we need to literally stop feeding them, as some eccentrics see fit to do. (Not only pigeons, but seagulls benefit from the generosity of certain Brighton eccentrics)

So until we change our habits, we are forced either to tolerate the hungry birds or get used to the ubiquitous spikes - surely a great way to make buildings look stupid, destroy intimacy and ruin high-tech architecture.


18 January 2007

Brighton Goes Off

A big day in Brighton.

Big weather, big waves. Not really a morning for swimming!

Here's a video of how things are looking from the roof of the Neilson office in Brighton Marina:

The shakiness of the picture is a clue as to the difficulty I encountered while trying to stand upright on the roof of a three-storey building in 50 knot winds.

The weather is just one item on the long list of things that make Brighton such a great place to be. When it's sunny, we get beautiful warm weather with beach barbecues and lazy bike rides on the South Downs. And when the storms come, the ferocious winds and enormous seas batter the seafront and remind us about the power of the elements. It's amazing.

Amazing, but damn hard to ride a bike in a straight line...

To see how Brighton is looking right now, have a look at the webcam and weather summary in my sidebar.

12 January 2007


"Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."
Kurt Vonnegut, (1922 - )

Kurt Vonnegut is a wise man. I read one of his books a while ago, but I'd like to make the time for more of his words.

11 January 2007

Sand In My Shoes

Sand in my shoes

A while ago I was at my parents' house clearing out some stuff I'd left at their place. I found a pair of shoes I'd forgotten I owned. The last time I wore these shoes was in 2000, during one of several seasons I spent working as a mountain bike guide in the Mediterranean.

As I took them out of the cupboard and inspected them for wearability, a stream of fine sand poured out of one of the shoes and onto the floor. It was sand from Finikounda, the beautiful Greek village which was my home for two magnificent summers a few years ago. As I looked at the sand, memories came flooding back. The people I met, the thousand of miles I rode, the days and evenings spent on the sandy beach. Amazing summers I'll never forget.

Decent to Tsapi Beach

I brought the shoes home, with some more clothes and books that I'd retrieved from my parents' cupboards. And I started wearing them again.

In their second life, these shoes from my past have become part of my present, as I wear them for my seafront ride to work each morning. They used to spend their days sitting on a toolbox in a dusty bike shed in rural Greece. Now they spend office hours drying on the heated towel rail by the shower in our office.

Brighton's harsh winter weather has removed any trace of Finikounda. Mediterranean sand has been replaced with the salt of the English Channel.

Like a song from your past that you listen to too much, these shoes have now lost their association with Greek summers. They are now the shoes of the British winter.

I have more than shoes from that particular year in Greece. Some of friends I made that summer are now among my closest, six years later.

I've still got sand in my shoes
And I can't shake the thought of you
I should get on, forget you
But why would I want to
I know we said goodbye
Anything else would've been confused but
I wanna see you again

(I know Dido really isn't considered to be cool these days, but that doesn't stop this song making me smile when I hear it...)

Finikounda 2000
Me at work one afternoon in 2000 - picture courtesy of Rick Meakin.

09 January 2007

Buttocks or bust?

Neil Cain, often known on the internet as Pimpmaster Jazz, seems to have been busy over the festive party season. Check out his inventive new game...
Buttocks or Bust?

Macworld - All you need to know...

Steve Jobs.
How does he do it?

Once a year, he gets up on a stage in San Francisco, in his jeans and baggy grey roll-neck, and absorbs the adulation of the masses as he tells us what he and his busy workers at Apple have been dreaming up.

All over the world, millions of Mac fans pore over websites, eagerly monitoring his every revelation like disciples hanging on the words of a religious guru.

Here, courtesy of MacRumors.com, are the abridged (yet genuine) highlights from Steve Jobs' Macworld keynote presentation:

9:08 am - crowds cheer
9:14 am - Steve on stage
9:14 am - heavy applause
9:21 am - growth, now sell more than amazon - applause
9:22 am - applause
9:42 am - widescreen ipod
9:42 am - crowd goes wild
9:42 am - mobile phone
9:43 am - crowd goes wild again
9:43 am - shows comedy picture
9:43 am - crowd laughs
9:49 am - shows software
9:49 am - applause
9:59 am - it is very fast, just like on a laptop
9:59 am - applause
10:02 am - best ipod they ever made
10:02 am - applause
10:08 am - just touch to add callers
10:08 am - crowd is impressed
10:21 am - full screen view or preview mail
10:21 am - crowd impressed
10:27 am - presses a button and calls starbucks
10:27 am - orders 4000 latte's[sic] to go - crowd laughs
10:37 am - crowd begging steve for iphone

That's as far as it had got when I starting writing, but no doubt if I had continued watching, it would have gone something like:

10:41 am - Steve unveils another clever gadget
10:41 am - crowd goes wild again
10:45 am - demonstration of 'on' button
10:45 am - crowd goes absolutely mental
am - Steve cracks a joke about Windows
10:52 am - sound of manic laughter fills San Francisco
10:59 am - price of shiny gadget will be $199
10:59 am - widespread pandemonium in crowd
11:01 am - woman climbs onto stage bearing sick child, begging for laying on of Steve's hands
11:07 am - child cured
11:08 am - crowd fall to knees in adoration
11:09 am - the clouds part and Steve is raised into heaven...

What a guy...

Update -
Just saw this on the BBC News website's Macworld report:

"Outside the building, BBC News Online happened upon Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, who was leaving the keynote on his Segway transportation device. "


08 January 2007

The Myth of Pub Welsh

A good friend of mine recently returned from a weekend in north west Wales. I asked him about his trip.

"It was fine" he said, "though of course the locals did the usual thing of switching to speaking Welsh whenever we walked in a pub".

It is amazing how many intelligent English people are of the belief that the Welsh only really bother to speak their own language in order to annoy eavesdropping Englishfolk. For a while, I too thought that there may be a shread of truth in this idea, until I was put straight by a native Welsh-speaking friend.

If two Welsh-speakers in a pub are chatting away, why on earth would they speak English? Just to give them the satisfaction of switching to Welsh when an Englishman walks in?

It's about as ludicrous as suggesting that those of us in Brighton, close to France, like to chat to each other routinely in French, only reverting to our native tongue in order to frustrate any Frenchman who dares walk into our local boozer.

Perfectly reasonable people genuinely believe that they have been the victims of this supposed Welsh conspiracy. They speak with absolute conviction of the linguistic switch being made in their presence at bars in Aberystwyth, Pwllelli and Capel Curig. I can rarely make out the conversations around me in English pubs, let alone Welsh ones. Then again, why would I try to?

I found an interstesting analysis of this on the BBC website, accompanied by some lively debate.

06 January 2007

Filthy Pleasures


Mountain biking in southern England in January is generally a muddy experience.

A couple of hours in Bedgebury Forest, Kent, leads to a bike covered in thick black gritty mud.

Thankfully, the visitors' centre has a freely available hosepipe.

One of the simple pleasures of mountain biking is the therapeutic process of transforming a filthy bike into a clean one.

Even better than that is the process of transforming a clean bike into a filthy one.

04 January 2007

Welcome to Spamworld


We all know about spam. We're all fed up with the constant deluge of crap in our inboxes. But recently, I seem to have passed a significant threshold. Over half the email messages I now get, on my work email, my Gmail and, of course, my ageing and increasingly Viagra-sodden Hotmail account, are now unsolicited crap.

For every email I receive from a friend or colleague I receive another one or two from random hijacked email accounts trying to sell me online dating, prescription medication, bodily enhancements, fake Rolex watches, ink cartridges and all manner of adult entertainment sites. And that's before we even mention the lottery notifications or the Nigerian regulars.

Spam is now reality

According to my inbox, there is now more spam than reality. How did that happen? Spam is now more real than real email. The real communications of my life are disappearing from view under a sea of spam.

I foresee the birth of new world, Second Life-style in which our 'real' existence is usurped by growing hordes of timeshare salesmen and share tipsters. Every street corner is a pharmacy and old men never see a reason to leave the bedroom, much to the bemusement of their wives.

All the women (and most of the men) are unbelievably well-endowed, yet have notoriously inaccurate wristwatches which give them nasty rashes.

Everyone is incredibly rich; some through Dutch lottery winnings and some through minding the funds of various African dignitaries killed in a spate of tragic air crashes.

And the girl next door?

What do you think? She wants me. Who wouldn't? After all, I am a man whose inkjet printer will never, ever run out of ink.

02 January 2007

Reach for the Eurostars


It amazes me the way that I can wake up in Rebecca and Simon's spare room in Brussels, then stroll down the road, hop on a train and step off in central London in the time it takes to read the paper and have a snooze.

Eurostar is so much better than flying. No need for two hour check-ins, stingy baggage allowances or travelling from town to airport at either end of your journey.

Plus, of course, the whole carbon emissions thing makes Eurostar look a far rosier option than its airborne cousins.

The only way to travel.

Unless you're going somewhere like South America.

Or the pub, for that matter.

I've used Eurostar for three trips now - twice to Brussels and once to Paris. I might consider it for my next jolly to the Alps - though being realistic, I hope it works out as a comparable cost to the airlines, or my conscience will have to grapple with the financial reality of it all...

Specialized have gone global...

It looks like Specialized, one of the bike industry's leading players, has made an interesting decision about how it uses its distinctive branding.

Specialized are a big name in bikes and they're very proud of their brand. Most of their bikes have it splashed large on the downtube, as you'd expect from such a trusted marque.

But I was in for a surprise when I first saw one of their new 'Globe' hybrid models. The word 'Globe' has been treated almost as a brand in itself, and occupies prime position on the bike's shiny black downtube. The word 'Specialized cannot be seen, until you notice its decidedly understated presence on some components, and the 'S' logo on the forks and head tube. I didn't even realise this bike was a Specialized until the second time I saw it.


The 'Globe' range of bikes represents the kind of bikes Specialized are looking to sell to 'ordinary' customers - often customers who don't see themselves as experienced or expert cyclists.

Maybe they've realised that the very word 'Specialized', while commanding respect among those in the know, is a little off-putting to those looking for a regular bike to do a regular job.

"Would you like to buy this Specialized bicycle?"

"No thanks - I'm looking for an ordinary one..."

I suppose it's a little like the way that Neilson, the company I work for, has dropped its use of the strapline "The active holiday experts". Presenting yourself as "expert" or "specialised" is great until you realise that some customers are put off by that kind of language.

The interesting challenge for Specialized is that the guilty word in question is their own name.