Sunday, December 30, 2007

Apple TV Moves up a Notch?

Lost in the news that Apple Inc. finally reached $200/share last week was an important item concerning my favorite Apple product, the Apple TV. It looks as though there is going to be a big announcement in January covering movie download rentals. Here is the long lost content we have been craving. I hope the system will allow the conversion of a rental into a purchase should a particular movie warrant it. Bring it on!

Meanwhile media companies seem to be slowly but surely abandoning DRM. Apple has stated it wants to but has agreements in place with dinosaur record companies and film studios that force its hand. 2008 may be the year of the demise of DRM. But then again they said that about 2007!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Words in "quotes"

OK, so here I am laid up with a stinking cold two days before Christmas, determined to shake it off before the big event on the 25th. Right now I am missing Santa's Express on the West Somerset Railway. If you know me then you know I can't be feeling too good to miss a much anticipated steam train trip.

So I have been reading the newspaper on line and have noted some quirky styles involving quotation marks.

For example, the word terroir, which is a French word for the total environment of a grape vine, including soil, climate, drainage, etc., is placed in single 'quotes'. I would have thought, as a foreign word, it should be italicized. No matter, this is the twenty first century.

Then there is the word gutted. Is it actually a word, I ask myself? Again the writer placed the word in quotes but this time in "double quotes". This could imply that the word was said even though the reporter considers it too slangy to use him/herself.

Gutted seems to be a word much used by afficionados (should that be in single quotes?) of the "beautiful game", otherwise known as football or soccer. And here I fall into the modern trap and perhaps explain what is going on. If you feel "gutted" then presumably you haven't actually been gutted as that would suggest you no longer have an intestinal tract. In the same way the "beautiful game" is anything but beautiful except for perhaps one brilliant move every 90 minutes.

So, single quotes = foreign word; double quotes = saying something you don't really mean that says what you mean to mean.

Which leads on to a suggestion for a new year's resolution. No quotes!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Go to Jail, do not pass Go

The latest, apparently draconian rule to come from the UK Government is to send drivers using mobile (cell) phones to jail.

On the face of it this seems a little excessive but there are valid reasons for the law when one considers that being in total control of a moving vehicle is very important. Watching the actions of drivers who are using mobiles clearly suggests that they are not 100% focused on driving. But the law is to include other "fiddling" activities such as using an iPod.

The reasons I wonder if this is just a little draconian are two fold:

1. Do we have enough jail space if it is estimated that 500,000 people a day flout the already existing (2003) law against using mobile phones?

2. Is using a mobile phone all that different from smoking a cigarette? Perhaps smoking becomes a habitual action that doesn't distract. Should a driver even be allowed to adjust the volume of the radio? Should a driver's hand be allowed to stray away from the steering wheel to, say, change gear? Should conversation be allowed inside a vehicle or should drivers be cocooned in a separate "cab"? Just where should the line be drawn?

Threatening jail seems to be an over-reaction, unless, of course, it can be proved that using a mobile phone may have caused an accident.

And as an aside, since we own a left hand drive car, does this mean that we will be charged for the front passenger being photographed using a mobile?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Our "Green" Christmas Tree

Cynic that I am about the politics of global warming, I can't help boasting about finding a bargain. Just like people talk about "food miles" I can now demonstrate "tree miles". Our tree was cut down yesterday at Langford Christmas Tree Farm, about two miles as the crow flies or four miles by road from our home. But what really makes the difference from those trees shipped hundreds of miles, having been harvested three weeks ago, is the price. £4/foot - What a bargain!

Incidentally, the tree farm has a rather nice poem displayed on their wall that espouses the difference between a real tree and a plastic one!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Global Warming Test

All those 15,000 delegates to the recent Bali Conference should have taken the Global Warming Test before they boarded their flights from wherever in order to pontificate to the hapless media and politicians about humankind's carbon dioxide footprint.

This is sobering stuff that is based on real science. Al Gore is exposed as a charlatan and the value of the Nobel Peace Prize has been devalued yet again. Thanks to Bob Borger in Dallas for bringing this to my (and I hope your) attention.

Apple TV Leads the Pack

Those pundits looking for a weak link in the Apple media product line up have descended on the Apple TV, so it is heartening to read this report. As an Apple TV owner I have to say that the article is correct in noting the lack of available content, particularly outside the US. But the simple fact is that once you have used an Apple TV, the adjacent DVD player looks like "yesterday's technology".

Friday, December 14, 2007

The UK Carbon Footprint Project

Sponsored by Google, this project has one tremendous flaw as far as our home is concerned. In asking the question "What energy is used to heat your home" the multiple choice answers don't include solar (in our case ground source heat). Quite surprising given that this is one of the obvious solutions to the carbon footprint paradigm.

Pullman Dining

The 18:03 train from London to Penzance, also known as the "Golden Hind" to those who read the very small print in the timetable, offers on-train dining that is reminiscent of the "good old days". And it really is good once you understand the rules of engagement.

The main rule is to know which platform the train will leave from so that you can be first to grab a seat in the limited dining space. That's right, you apparently cannot reserve a seat in the dining car even though you can in any other part of the train. (Apparently is an important word here as it would appear some people can and do reserve dining car seats).

The First Great Western team who stand around the concourse can be really helpful, particularly if you are reasonable in your request. We happened to have a lot of luggage and this helped to get more than average assistance.

We found out five minutes ahead of the indicator board that the train would be leaving from Platform 8, so we joined two others who knew the MO.

The next piece of information that came our way was from the on board dining car manager, an interesting chap with a good sense of humor that is probably a very necessary qualification for the job. Although HST-125s all look the same, they are not. FGW are currently upgrading the 30 year old train sets and not all cars in any one set will have been upgraded - a strange fact but true. Our restaurant car (always Car F) was of the old style with a limited kitchen. As a result, there were fewer dining places available than if the kitchen was of the larger, upgraded design. Interestingly, there is a third kitchen design on some trains which the staff call the "wendy house" as it is so small.

The menu and wine list is extensive, certainly better than in the 1950s and better than on Amtrak. More important, the quality of the food is much better than you might expect and the dishes are cooked on board, not just reheated (though I would guess the dishes were already prepared and ready to cook). Service is excellent and you have to marvel that all the beans and carrots do actually end up on your plate when the train is negotiating a bumpy piece of track at high speed!

A starter and main, followed by coffee and a seasonal mince pie lasted the full two hour journey to Taunton, making the time pass quickly. And we had good company at our table of four, which undoubtedly helped.

All in all a good experience for us, but not for those who were turned away as there were more diners than seats.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Maya Maya

The wikipedia entry for Brazzaville's Maya Maya Airport is remarkably thin. But perhaps that's because no-one has much good to say about the place.

Unfortunately I find myself flying in and out of Brazzaville on a monthly basis. Avoiding the place is getting more and more difficult and the flights are always full. So the airport is continually at breaking point, stretched to the limits of bureaucratic incompetence.

It is hard to define exactly why Brazzaville's airport is so bad. It's dirty, it smells, it's incredibly inefficient and the entire place is run on the concept that if you want service then you have to pay for it. Think of that last statement as another way of saying "we have massive unemployment so we will make an entire industry by being totally inefficient and thus create jobs".

I don't have a problem with the idea that you pay for service, but here are a few pointers as to why the experience is always so bad:

- double doors are always half closed, restricting access to passengers toting luggage

- signs don't exist

- officials don't wear uniforms, so it's hard to tell who is official

- queues don't exist, survival of the fittest is the rule when waiting in what could loosely be defined as a line!

- Air France (the only European Airline) does nothing to help get through all this mess

- the airport security check is a joke; actually it is a way to fleece people leaving with local currency in their wallets

- the airline security is undertaken in a half light

- the transit bus (the airport has no jet ways) will load up and then sit for 15 minutes, baking its passengers like an oven

Now, don't get me wrong, I know how to get through all this mess as quick as the next frequent traveler. But I really feel for those who arrive in Brazzaville for the first time with no-one around to help. So I offer a piece of advice: use your elbows!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Off to a Good Start!

This is hardly next day reporting as I am referring to last Sunday's game between Birmingham City and Tottenham Hotspur. I managed to catch the highlights of the game on Match of the Day in my hotel room at Birmingham Airport, en route to Africa. Those who follow the Blues will know that this was Alex McLeish's first game as manager and there is no doubt that he started off extremely well, winning 3-2 away from home. The game had some great moments though City did have a bit of luck to come away with all three points. The winning goal was scored in injury time and it was a 30+ yard screamer into the top corner of the net. And the newspaper's photo of the ball entering the goal was a beauty!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Drilling for Gas!

We hit a major snag during the installation of our new gas hob - the gas supply pipe in place has too small a diameter so we have had to design an alternative route to the one under the floor. This entailed drilling through 700mm of solid rock wall with a one inch diameter bit. It took us several hours, an exhausting experience. But the final push through the plaster into the kitchen was one of those experiences that you don't forget!

No photograph, but. . . .

Today we saw a large brown raptor perched on an electricity pylon in the field opposite. Later it flew into our front yard carrying a dead wood pigeon, almost its own weight, and perched on the fence. I rushed to get the camera and telephoto lens but was too late. The bird(s) had flown.


I recently discovered this video player and delivery system, basically because of the promotional video for Raising Sand:

I'm impressed.

Brummie of the Year 2007 Update

The month is nearly over so the voting stops at midnight on December 1st - that's at the end of the day, I believe, not the beginning. Pete is lagging behind by not much so a few last votes might just pull him ahead and into the lead. If you haven't voted already (thank you if you have!) here is the link.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The New Firms?

Now that Alex McLeish has been installed as Birmingham City's new manager, the accolades are coming in from all directions. Even across town at Villa Park where Martin O'Neill is looking forward to re-establishing the rivalry he and Alex McLeish had in Glasgow when they managed "Old Firms" Celtic and Rangers respectively. Already O'Neill is getting results at Villa Park with the team putting together 4 wins in a row and climbing to sixth in the Premiership. Could this be the beginning of an emergence of Birmingham as a major football force in the world?

I sure hope so!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Welcome, Alex McLeish

It looks as though BCFC has a new manager lined up. Alex McLeish has resigned as manager of Scotland to take up the position vacated by Mr. Potatohead, Steve Bruce. Great news for all bluenoses!

With no-one rushing to fill the England manager's position, now Scotland has some soul searching to do. It seems that clubs do come before country these days.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Are you Sven-Goran Eriksson?

I've been asked that a few times, the most recent while walking into a Birmingham hotel on a Sunday evening after Manchester City had played Aston Villa. Eriksson is now Manchester City's manager but before that he managed the (hapless) England soccer team.

Yes, there is a resemblance, particularly as we have similar hair lines and both tend to look over the top of our reading glasses. But there it ends. He's a millionaire, I'm not, as I pointed out to a Scotsman at Luanda airport a few years ago who also thought I might be the England manager. But the Scot reconsidered after a moment and said "But why would you be here?" Good point.

I'm just delighted that I don't look anything like Steve McClaren!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

England 2 - Croatia 3

So, we tried out the new TV tonight. For the first time in a long time we could identify the players on screen! For the last time in a long time it won't matter. England is eliminated from Euro 2008. It would be real easy to point the finger. Biggest problem for me is that Steve (Mr. Umbrella) McClaren, the England manager, will be out of a job and Birmingham City might just hire him! A sad evening indeed. Overpaid, oversexed and overwrought. Who? The England team.

DVD Region 0

This neat gizmo is all you need to render a region coded DVD player capable of playing DVDs with any region code. It is difficult to find good quality DVD players that have been "chipped" to be Multi-Region, so you have to take a large dose of courage and use one of these devices to change the region code setting. The instructions are clear but do advise that "you must follow the instructions 100%" and you only have one chance.

Well, it worked! Now we have one machine that will play our two sets of DVDs, one from our days of living in the US, one from our days of living in Europe. Hooray!

So, Burning Wood Chips is OK

This just in.  A wood chip burning power plant in Wales is given the go ahead.  The proponents make an interesting claim about the environmental friendliness of this scheme.  To quote:  . . . the use of wood chip as a fuel for electricity was recognised as being carbon-free. . . the carbon dioxide released was equal to that absorbed during the growth of the tree. . .

This is truly planet shattering news.  We no longer need to worry about burning any form of carbon-rich fuel as the planet is, after all, a closed system!  Phew, what a relief.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In Defense of the Plastic Bag

Now that even the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern ireland has spoken about abandoning the use of plastic bags, I feel someone on this blighted orb needs to defend the damned things!

Alexander Parkes

Plastic is one of the great inventions of the modern era. Early versions of plastic were formulated in the 1860s but it wasn't until the chemists really got to grips with the various fractions of crude oil that the industry took off. Most plastic is, I believe, derived from Naptha, a semi-gaseous liquid that would probably be flared in refineries if there was no use for it.

Plastic's properties are well known. Plastic is also relatively inexpensive as a raw material. Think of an entire plastic lawn chair (you know the sort) that retails for just a few dollars/pounds. Many items of every day use we take for granted would be much much more expensive if produced in alternative materials.

Which brings us to the amoeba of plastic product life - the remarkable plastic bag. Extremely cheap to make, the bag may be given away with groceries, helping the customer to tote the groceries home without breakage or spillage at no extra cost. Compared to brown paper sacks, the storage space and shipping costs for plastic bags are considerably less. And paper sacks don't like getting wet! Once used for its initial purpose, the plastic bag comes into its own as a utility product par none. Stored under the sink, the bags easily become small bin liners, allowing kitchen trash to be easily and cleanly disposed of. They are also invaluable in this day and age of the disposable diapir and 14 day garbage collection cycles. Plastic bags work well in the freezer as well, avoiding or at least delaying freezer burn.

And eventually the bags will find their way into the trash, whether holding other items or just being disposed of as surplus to requirements. At the landfill the bags take up very little space, requiring significantly less room than alternatives.

But it is here that the great "no no" rises into the debate like so much methane bubbling out of a foetid swamp. For plastic bags don't degrade fast enough and inevitably some bags never get into the landfill but blow around an otherwise pristine countryside. Plastic does eventually degrade even if it may take a few hundred years. If you need proof of this, think about how brittle some plastic becomes after a few years of use.

As to the litter problem, is this the fault of the plastic bag or is it a function of a breakdown in society? Since plastic doesn't have a brain it doesn't have a conscience, so a plastic bag cannot be blamed for messing up the countryside. No, it's people who cause such problems! Banning people would soon alleviate the problem of litter!

But there are plastic bags that biodegrade. These plastic bags are not necessarily made from the cheapest materials and so may be more expensive to make. But they offer an alternative and alternatives in society are usually for the best. Bravo for choice!

Everything you ever wanted to know about plastic

Government loses Personal Data

So, all those in favor of a national ID card, what do you think of this?


Neck and Neck - BotY '07 Update

Yesterday Pete met his co-competitor and has this to say. To which I add: Vote for Pete but support John Tighe by visiting the Spotted Dog for a pint!

Monday, November 19, 2007

He's Gone!

So, Steve Bruce has gone back to Wigan. It's going to be interesting to see who will come in to manage the Blues at this stage of the season and with the takeover uncertainties unresolved. A good caretaker would make sense while the owners, whoever they are, scout around for someone who would be a distinct improvement on Mr. Bruce. Not that that should be too difficult!

Oh, and let's have a manager this time who doesn't have monograms on all his tracksuits!

As to Wigan. Let' see how they fare under Bruce - my bet is they will win a few then lose a lot.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Rock'n'Roll Memories - 8 - Rod Stewart

Back in the 1960s I had the fortunate opportunity to see and recognize Rod Stewart before he was famous - see here. Twenty years or so on I went to the Houston Summit to see how he had progressed!

As mentioned in the last memory post, the Summit seated about 12,000 with the stage set at one end. This concert was a sell out. Rod Stewart was undergoing a bit of a renaissance with recent albums representing his "middle years". That is not to say that he didn't do some of the early numbers, for they were very much a part of the repertoire.

Judging from the wikipedia entry, the concert must have been around 1983/4. I have to say that I find the wiki description of this part of his career as being more negative than it probably should be.

The performance was full of energy. The inevitable kicking of soccer balls into the audience came near the end of the concert (none came our way!) but no guests appeared as was seen on the video of the concert tour when Tina Turner did a duet of "Hot Legs"! Compared to Phil Collins the concert was a much more personal affair - less glitz, more emphasis on the songs. A very enjoyable evening.

Earlier Memories: The Yardbirds - Long John Baldry - The Who - Screaming Lord Sutch - Chuck Berry - The Seventies - Phil Collins

Apple TV Rocks

Today I took delivery of (actually I drove to Bristol to collect which isn't quite the same thing) our new 26" LCD HD TV and within 90 minutes had the new DVD Recorder and Apple TV connected. I am still, several hours later, syncing the Apple TV but let me say straight away that the Apple TV rocks! It is basically a grown up iPod for the living room.

The DVD Recorder will, I am sure be a blessing, but the idea of inserting DVDs and such is so passé when you can have 144 GB of music, movies, TV shows and podcasts ready to go at the push of a tiny remote.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Steve Bruce wants to go to Wigan!

And he's welcome!


I'm taking a break from Memory Lane to write on a subject that emerges whenever I listen to certain songs. Lyrics to the vast majority of songs are banal. Just occasionally along comes a singer-songwriter who is also a poet.

Bob Dylan is the arch-type singer-songwriter-poet, sitting way up there at the top. Others will disagree but no-one else comes close and the biggest test of all is the timelessness of Dylan's writings.

But here are some others that I personally think reside somewhere on the slopes of that pinnacle that is Dylan.

Mary Chapin Carpenter is second on my list for a number of reasons. Her poetry is significant and the way she sings her own songs has a strength that is undeniable. Recent albums have had a more political undertone with social commentary. The Calling has several, including a sad song of the evacuation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, titled "Houston". One song to convince you? Try "Alone but Not Lonely".

Lucinda Williams has an "unrefined" voice that goes well with her South Louisana roots. Again, no-one sings her songs better than she does (though Mary Chapin Carpenter did an excellent job with "Passionate Kisses"). Interesting that she has toured with Dylan. One song to convince you? Try "Lake Charles".

Lyle Lovett is best when he sings his own material though he also covers similar musical styles well (Step Inside This House proves that). Having seen him live in Houston I am even more of a believer! His up and down career with life (he was married to Julia Roberts for 2 years) comes through in many of his songs but in truth he is simply the latest in a long line of Texas story tellers (see below) writing about what he sees as well as experiences. One song to convince you? Try "Her First Mistake".

Townes Van Zandt is no longer alive, having died at the age of 52 in 1999. But he is probably one of folk music's greatest poets and his compositions will live on for years to come. In fact his death probably raised his profile. With three major hits covered by others, including "Pancho and Lefty" by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, he was never successful as a performer, mainly because of a reputation for being "erratic". One song to convince you? Try "If I Needed You".

It is interesting that all the above poets are considered to be country singers. However none of them fits the "Nashville" definition easily. In some ways it would be better to describe them as "contemporary adult folk singers" only because there doesn't seem to be any other pigeon hole. All do fit the role as singing story tellers, though, and that might be the best way to describe what it is they do.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rock'n'Roll Memories - 7 - Phil Collins

I am skipping a major event and moving on to the latter part of the 1980s when I got a renewed desire to see some stadium type acts. The one I am skipping will be the grand finale, worth waiting for, I hope!

The 1980s was a strange decade. It was all summed up by MTV and we had MTV on our cable box in Houston. The early days of the music video were good - the network seems to have gone downhill from that strong beginning. The most famous videos included tracks from The Cars, Dire Straits and Peter Gabriel to name three. Dire Straits had the ultimate MTV video, of course!

At this time - 1985 - Phil Collins was breaking out on his own from Genesis and had a strong album "No Jacket Required" which included several hit songs. The album was a hit and the inevitable stadium tour followed.

The Houston Summit, a basketball stadium and ice rink with poor acoustics but with the capacity for around 12,000, was the venue in those days for most stadium concerts. The one night stand was a sell out.

Collins - who I grew to like less and less as he "matured" - put on a grand show with two complete drum kits and a second drummer for when he got up to the front of the stage. The lighting was fantastic with a lot of synchronized lights to the beat that ineviatbly emanated from the two drum kits. I remember needing to go to the restrooms just as Sussudio started and rushing back out to see the splendid light show. The brass ensemble was excellent. But as good as the show seemed at the time, it was eclipsed by several other acts that followed in fairly rapid succession. Listening to Phil Collins today sends a shiver down my spine - he's such a whinger!

Earlier Memories: The Yardbirds - Long John Baldry - The Who - Screaming Lord Sutch - Chuck Berry - The Seventies

Rock'n'Roll Memories - 6 - The Seventies

I missed out on the Seventies when it came to Rock'n'Roll. Sure, I watched Top of the Pops and bought a few albums, but parenthood and going overseas put paid to the opportunities to continue to enjoy the raw scenes of early Rock'n'Roll. So it was that I never had the chance (or the money!) to travel to see Cream, Bowie, Led Zeppelin or ELO, just some of my favorites.

The seventies really stood for what most people think of today as the Sixties. While the Sixties probably did happen at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, it really didn't happen many other places. We wished it could but it didn't! So it wasn't until the 1970s that many young peoples' collective desires actually started to materialize. For example, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll didn't take off until the 1970s. Whether that was good or bad is another story.

So, what were the great albums I can remember from those days? Well, it's difficult to tell from this vantage point in 2007. Several I own were not even bought until ten or fifteen years later. I became more interested in American "white" music at the time, enjoying the sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival among others.

But I do remember seeing an "EC is God" graffiti on London's Kings Road in the early 70s. That could just be my one significant memory of the decade!

So, fast forward to the Eighties!

Earlier Memories: The Yardbirds - Long John Baldry - The Who - Screaming Lord Sutch - Chuck Berry

Rock'n'Roll Memories - 5 - Chuck Berry and the Moody Blues

We are still at Southampton and the year was probably early 1965. Came the announcement "Chuck Berry to perform at the Gaumont".

Chuck Berry, one of the gods of rythym and blues, famous guitarist with the "duck walk", is often credited with being a father of rock'n'roll. Of course there is some truth in this as rock'n'roll is really a welding together of several disparate music styles, and Chuck Berry had a lot to do with integrating white music (hillbilly) with black music (blues) and along the way helped to put rock'n'roll in the forefront of modern music. In the early 1960s Chuck Berry, fresh out of jail, was making a comeback on the strength of the British Invasion, his songs having been recorded by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (who actually had very little esle in common). Hence his UK Tour.

The Gaumont Cinema was a large building with several tiers of seats. I wonder if it's still there? Anyway, the bill included about five acts but most of us were only interested in Chuck Berry and found it hard to sit through the first three. Then on came the Moody Blues. Their first big hit was Go Now, which of course they played. This was the first Moody Blues, before John Lodge and Justin Haywood joined, so it is hard to compare that concert with most of the more famous material of the second Moody Blues line up. But it was certainly more blues-ey. A grand piano featured heavily in their music.

The crowd became less friendly to the Moody Blues as their set went on. Finally they announced the final act and were sent packing with the loudest of accolades. Except it wasn't for them.

Chuck Berry was great. All the simple 2 minute 35 second songs of his era spilled out effortlessly - Johnny B. Goode, Nadine, Sweet Little Sixteen, No Particular Place to Go (I have the album). And then the greatest Berry song of all (IMO) Memphis Tennessee. And of course he did the duck walk!

Earlier Memories: The Yardbirds - Long John Baldry - The Who - Screaming Lord Sutch

Rock'n'Roll Memories - 4 - Screaming Lord Sutch

In fact I never did go to a Screaming Lord Sutch concert, but I did meet the man and I also belonged, for a while to his "National Teenage Party", a political organization that appealed to the unfranchised and therefore got few votes!

Screaming Lord Sutch probably wasn't the greatest of musicians even though he certainly mixed in the right circles during the early 1960s. It was for this reason, perhaps, that he entered into politics, starting with the 1963 by-election at Stratford-upon-Avon. The country had just been embroiled in the "Profumo Affair" and John Profumo had had to resign as MP for that South Warwickshire constituency. A safe Tory seat at the worst of times (for the Tories), the seat was hotly contested by the main parties.

One additional candidate was Screaming Lord Sutch, standing for the National Teenage Party. As my parents were then living in Stratford and as I was home at the time of the election I took part in the hustings and met the man. His claim to fame was to be a sort of Alice Cooper precursor. His most obvious hallmark was a top hat and decidedly grubby tails, no doubt dirty from lying in the stage coffin before a set started!

Wikipedia says he garnered 208 votes and I remember that to be correct as it was also the wavelength of Radio Luxembourg!

Based on his leadership as an anti-establishment politician, I stood as an NTP candidate in a school mock election later that year. I did slightly better than my mentor on a percentage of total votes cast basis, probably only because I voted for myself!

Earlier Memories: The Yardbirds - Long John Baldry - The Who

Use of the word "Classic"

I had wondered why Apple chose to name the latest high storage capacity iPod the "Classic". With Microsoft's roll out of the second generation Zune I now know why. At least I think I do!

Apple is, in all probability, going to drop hard drives from the iPod line up as flash drives get more memory. But that's not the entire reason, as I had thought. Apple correctly surmized that the first Zune would remain the flagship in its second iteration. By calling their hard drive player "Classic" it would imply "old" technology and this could have a negative effect on would be buyers considering a Zune.

Personally I like my 80 GB iPod (it's not the latest model) and would have a hard time deciding what to load onto a smaller capacity model. But I am 62, way outside the demographics of the average mp3 player market. The iPod Nano is their future; or is it the iPod Touch? It probably isn't the Zune!

Rock'n'Roll Memories - 3 - The Who, The Beginning

Think 1965, probably around November of that year. A new group is in town and sitting at No. 2 in the charts. The Who.

Even as they rocketed to stardom, they had been engaged to do a major Students' Union gig at Southampton University. The location was the old refectory, actually not that old but about to be demolished in favor of a new building. This student cafeteria had low ceilings and walls of glass windows. This made it a veritable reverberation chamber, to be exploited by Pete Townshend, the king of feedback. Alas, Keith Moon was off that night and his stand-in, good as he might have been, was not Keith Moon! But Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend fronted the stage while John Entwhistle "quietly" prowled around with his bass.

Daltry and Townshend put on quite a show. Daltry with his microphone antics which were legendary, Townshend with his windmill chord playing.

The set was long and intense. Some of the crowd boo'ed the stand-in drummer which annoyed Townshend. But he didn't smash any instruments that night and I am not sure whether they had actually started down the road that became a hallmark of performances for several years. It was the shear volume of sound that I still remember. A singing in the ears that lasted for several days. No wonder Pete Townshend has tinnitus and now wears ear plugs when performing.

Of course the big hit was My Generation. You didn't have to be a Mod to appreciate it, though the song, along with much of the band's music, did become considered as "Mod" music. Strange, that, because there were other London bands that were far more "mod" in style and appearance, the Small Faces, for example.

This is the first of two entries on The Who. The next will come much later in the series - the first of their "final" tours!

Earlier Memories: The Yardbirds - Long John Baldry

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rock'n'Roll Memories - 2 - Long John Baldry

The full title of this post should read "Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men, headlining, also with Rod Stewart as five of five on the bill".

In 1964/5 the University of Southampton music scene was divided between R&B and R&R with Friday nights at the old students' Union being dedicated to "jazz" in the form of R&B. So it was that I found myself entranced by a young man with strange hair bent over a microphone crooning the blues with a distinctive husky voice. He was first on in a concert of five acts and his name was Rod Stewart. Yes, the Rod Stewart. He was interesting, he was good, even though he was first on to a crowd yet to form for the headline act. Many years later I saw Rod perform to a packed house at Houston's Summit (~12,000 fans) and could see and hear the same persona from all those years earlier.

Later on, to a packed house, came 6' 7" Long John Baldry and his blues band, the Hoochie Coochie Men. Baldry was one of the mainstays of British Blues and a great exponent of the genre. Ironically he was too good to ever be very successful, with only one real hit to his name at a time when the Stones and others were making one hit after another. Not unlike John Mayall in that respect.

Not long after this particular gig Rod Stewart joined up with LJB and the HHM. But on that night they were separated by three other acts I don't recall one bit. The cream, as they say, does rise to the top!

Earlier Memories: The Yardbirds

A Led Zeppelin Indulgence

Yes, I just downloaded the complete iTunes Led Zeppelin discography of 165 tracks in 13 albums. Wonderful. Particularly the "Mothership" album with re-mastered favorites.

(A message to the Beatles - you're too late for the digital party)

Rock'n'Roll Memories - 1 - The Yardbirds

If it were not for Wikipedia, this series could never be as my memory of various concerts over the years is far from perfect or accurate. While trawling Wikipedia recently I dicsovered that I had, in fact, heard Eric Clapton live, yet I had never understood the significance at the time.

The year was late 1964, my first year at Southampton University. Chamberlain Hall, where I lived for the first "freshman" year, had a big annual dance event and the Yardbirds were booked as the main act. Like so many bands at the time, their fame materialized while they were playing these pre-booked gigs, so we got to see a "famous" band more than once as they were in the process of writing their own histories.

The line up at the time was:

Keith Relf - lead vocals, harmonica
Eric Clapton - lead guitar
Chris Dreja - rhythm guitar
Paul Samwell-Smith - bass, backing vocals
Jim McCarty - drums, backing vocal

I seriously remember very little about their session. As one of the first "big" bands I witnessed, I was obviously impressed at the time but there is nothing special coming through the memory banks. Such was not the case a year or so later when The Who came to the Students Union.

Next up - 2 - Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men with Rod Stewart

I want an iPhone, but. . .

We are supposed to be living in a global economy. What rubbish! Here's why I think so.

I would like to use a UK iPhone except I don't have a bank account in the UK for the O2 direct debit. As a result I can't. Not only that, since I have an Apple iTunes account in the US, I cannot have (and don't want to have, thanks very much) a UK iTunes account. Yet it would appear that I need to have a UK iTunes account in order to activate the iPhone.

I am not sure why this is, but the fact that everything costs more in the UK may have something to do with it.

I e-mailed O2 about this four weeks ago. No reply, not even an automated response to be followed up later. So I do wonder about their customer service capabilities.

(There is a work around for all this but it is not so elegant. Why buy an elegant, easy to use device if the process is anything but elegant? Well, we'll see, those unique iPhone functions are very tempting!)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Raising Sand - The making of video

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss may have the album of the year in Raising Sand. Here is the video that explains the origins of this rather unique duo's album. 61 Megabytes to download but it's worth it!

They will be touring in 2008. We intend to be there, preferably in Birmingham's Town Hall (if that's where they choose to be in Brum).

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Virgin Cross Country, RIP

Today was the last day of the Virgin Cross Country Franchise. Ten years of improvements to a service long relegated to the oldest equipment and the least user-friendly timetables have resulted in Virgin losing the franchise to Arriva. All I can say is, Arriva had better prove their worth.

This is not to say that Virgin had their problems. The Voyager toilets are well known for the lingering odor that permeates the corridor outside. Some refer to the Voyager trains as "Vomiters" because of the noise and ride. The noise of the under-slung engines is certainly annoying but the ride is good by comparison with the Adelante trains being bought by First Great Western.

The difficulty of keeping on schedule was a given from the very start but Virgin has really improved its record over the years, enough to justify a continuation of the franchise, I would have thought.

Today was a weekend diversion working, so there were inevitable delays as the "express" played cat and mouse with slower local services. During the week these tend to be less significant, but the basic problem with any timetabled service is that once you lose your place in the queue it is hard to make up. Particularly when a train might start in Penzance and end in Dundee.

So, Virgin Cross Country, adieu. London won't miss you but the rest of the country probably will!

A week of travel in a nutshell


Cancelled flight at BHX (no equipment)

Chaos at Heathrow

Kinshasa via Nairobi

Congo Crossing, Kinshasa to Brazzaville

Airport shenanagens at Pointe Noire, both coming and going

Brazzaville departure "lounge" is a joke

Lost suitcase in Paris (second time this has happened on a PNR-BZV-CDG-BHX run this year)

Saturday delays on the last day of Virgin Cross Country

Home at last!!!!!!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Kinshasa, D R Congo

More on the Airlines

Well, if you read my last post you will know that I was not too pleased with Brussels Airlines a.k.a. "Son of Sabena". The follow up news is that I arrived in Kinshasa on time after two excellent flights on Kenya Airways, the "Pride of Africa".

But there is one more twist to the story at Heathrow. Brussels were supposed to give us vouchers for meals, etc. at Heathrow but when we arrived there was no-one there at their desk. We were referred to British Airways with whom they code share. I knew this was not going to be easy but I was surprised just how ugly the BA staff could be when approached with a request for information and assistance. before I had even finished my explanation as to why we were talking to them, the woman interrupted me with the statement, "If the problem was weather related we won't give you any vounchers!" Now I had not mentioned the weather at all, but BA had cancelled numerous flights because of fog, so she presumably assumed this was the problem and would be the best way of ridding me.

Ironically, KLM later gave us vouchers that they obtained from BA, to the tune of £10 per passenger. The vouchers were in time for a very late lunch following no meals since a 5:30 a.m. check in time at Birmingham.

The moral of this encounter surely is that a little generosity in the form of a voucher to a customer would have gone a long way. KLM earned my respect and future business. BA did quite the opposite. BA, the "World's Favourite Airline"? Not mine.

Monday, November 05, 2007


I am penning this and uploading courtesy of free WiFi at the KLM Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 4. So why is the title of this post not K L M ?

Let me explain. The Belgian Airline, Sabena, failed a few years ago and arose, phoenix like, as SN Brussels, later Brussels Airways. They fly to Kinshasa, which is where I am headed, though normally I fly Air France to Brazzaville and then cross the Congo to Kinshasa. The Air France flight has been full for a couple of weeks.

This morning I showed up at Birmingham International for the 6:30 a.m. flight to Brussels. Only there was no "equipment", meaning the plane didn't arrive the evening before. "The flight has been cancelled and your reservation on the onward flight to Kinshasa has been deleted." So how am I going to get there?

"We have you booked on a Kenya Airways flight from Heathrow to Nairobi, leaving at 7 p.m. this evening. Then there is a good connection on (or back) to Kinshasa, getting you there about 13 hours late. We have a taxi to take you to Heathrow."

Which will be just in time for an important, nay, critical meeting.

We'll see what happens. Kenya Airways code-shares with KLM which is why I am in their lounge. All I can say is TGfKLM!

And what does the acronym stand for? Such A Bad Experience Never Again.

Son of Sabena lives on!

Friday, November 02, 2007

What makes you a Brummie?

As you may know from a previous post, son Pete has been nominated for and is currently second in the poll for the title of Brummie of the Year 2007. Now he claims he probably shouldn't have been nominated at all since he is not really a Brummie. So let's think about this a little.

April has done a limited amount of research into the Ashton family tree and it appears that Pete really is half a Brummie.

Pete's Great Great Grandfather was one George Ashton who married, wait for it, Elizabeth Chinn. That name might just ring a bell as it is the last name of another candidate for Brummie of the Year, Dr. Carl Chinn. Dr. Chinn is the consummate, arch-type Brummie, so, unless this is all a coincidence it is very possible that Pete is competing with a distant family member!

To be a Brummie it is reasonably important to have either been born there or spend a considerable amount of one's life there. To my knowledge, this is where the last five generations of Ashtons have lived in Birmingham:

Aston, Bordesley (Digbeth), Barr, Handsworth, Perry Barr, Great Barr, Kingstanding, Moseley, Edgbaston, Tyseley and Hockley. In addition, Pete has lived in Edgbaston, Selly Oak, Kingstanding, Bournville and Kings Heath over a period of nine years.

So, in my book, Pete is a Brummie! But then, so am I, because even though I no longer live in the city, I was born there.

Magnetic Map of the World

This news is hardly significant to the layman but for one who uses magnetic data (in particular the anomaly maps) this is an exciting announcement. The pdf map can be downloaded and studied at one's ease.

First Great Western improvements

First Great Western continues to make progress in upgrading its aging HST fleet. Last night the 18:03 to Penzance left London with an interesting mix of old and new style carriages.

This train and the one that leaves an hour later both offer dining car service, a feature that is all but lost on modern British train journeys.

The stations are also showing signs of improvements, but more policing around the entrance and car park at Taunton would be most welcome.

Which brings me to the fact that many of the limited stop trains from Paddington to Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance do not stop at Tiverton Parkway. This is strange because all (I think) of Virgin Cross Country's services do stop there, providing a much better service to Birmingham than to the capital. Tiverton has better parking and serves a largely rural community with a huge catchment area. Built in 1986 it is geared to modern travel needs and has good bus services as well as a cycle connection to the nearest communities.

So if Virgin can stop there for 2 to 3 minutes, why not FGW?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Please Vote!

For Pete Ashton, candidate for "Brummie of the Year".

Thursday, October 25, 2007

An Unlikely Duo

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss???

Yes! Go to iTunes and check out the tracks on Raising Sand.

Alternatively, the Daily Telegraph have a free download of Killing the Blues if you happen to be able to play WMV files. Because the Telegraph is Apple-unfrendly I am not inclined to pass on a link. Sorry about that! Oh, you really do want it? OK!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Travel ain't Glamorous!

To all the people I've ever met who think that modern air travel is glamorous:

Ooh! You're so lucky having the opportunity to sit in an economy seat all the way to Kinshasa

May I recommend this sad tale.


On our return from France we have discovered two garden statues have been nicked. Here is one of them, thoughtfully captured on Flickr some time ago:
Backyard Adonis
The other is shown here:
It carries quite a story even though it is only a piece of moulded concrete. When we moved into a townhouse in Houston ten years ago, we went looking for a garden statue but garden center after garden center could only offer religious statues and we wanted something a bit more interesting! Finally we found a small garden center in Montrose run by a very nice gay guy. The statuette subsequently followed us to our apartment, then into a container for shipment to England. Most recently it found a temporary home in our front yard. That is until some evil person took a shine to it while we were away.

So, if you should see either of these at a boot sale, please send us an e-mail with the details! I am quite sure the lady will be unique to this side of the pond.

Exploding Flowers!

One of the most attractive plants in the garden where we stayed in Languedoc is what I have called the "Bottle Brush Plant". This example is a beautiful shade of red:
Exploding Bottle Brush
I took this shot with the wonderful Micro-Nikkor 60mm f2.8 lens. The flower isn't, of course, actually exploding, but the way the petals emerge from the buds certainly gives that impression. Time-lapse photography would be impressive.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Observations on Roadside Picnics

Having just returned from France we were struck by the huge differences in their roadside amenities compared with the UK. This particularly applies to the Southeast of England where it is difficult to even find a place to pull off the road to read a map, never mind eat a picnic lunch.

OK, we're old-fashioned. We like to picnic when traveling. We like freshly prepared food, clean tables, comfortable blankets, our own picnic hamper. We also like to stretch our legs, to use clean toilets. In fact, we try to do what the road signs tell us: "Take a Break, Tiredness Kills". (BTW, Google came up this link from Salford City Council!)

Take a hypothetical, yet very common type of journey toward the Channel Tunnel. For most drivers, there will be only two motorway service stations between the far side of London, say Oxford on the M40, and Folkstone. One of these is on the M25, an orbital ring road that is often a parking lot, where cars and trucks can be stuck for hours after an accident. The other is at Maidstone, not far Folkstone.

Approaching lunchtime on October 4th we left the M25 and went in search of a picnic spot somewhere on the Sussex/Kent border. But they don't even have lay-bys in this area! Eventually we saw a sign to Chartwell, Winston Churchill's home, now owned by the National Trust. Free parking (for members and non-members), clean toilets and picnic tables overlooking fine scenery. Salvation!
In France the situation is very different. On the toll (péage) autoroutes the facilities are generally first class, but even on the non-toll autoroutes the facilities will include toilets and picnic tables some distance from the noise of the traffic. The first photo below is of an aire southwest of Paris, on the L'Aquitaine Autoroute.
French Autoroute "Aire"
The second is at the other end of the country, on the La Languedocienne between Narbonne and Bezier. In this case we shunned the picnic tables and spread out a blanket on the pine needles.
Getting Close!
Now, I am sure that the first lame excuse to be offered by the UK authorities is that land in the UK costs so much more than in France. Maybe so, but why have those signs exhorting us to take a break when tired if there is no place to go?

Back in the Nanny State!

We arrived home from France last night, tired but well and truly recharged. And 108 bottles of good French wine should keep us in fine fettle during the winter months ahead.

But what do we find upon our return? This article sums up what we were missing in France. Yes, the nanny state! We don't smoke but we do understand that others do and as such have the right to smoke without being classed as "registered addicts"!

I will probably never use the correct letters on the keyboard but this is, simply, f***ing stupid!

And having got that off my normally conservative chest, let me observe that the jerk who proposed this idea is a Government consultant who probably gets paid far too much for thinking, even more for writing and speaking, and who then has the gall to suggest a £200 fee from each smoker that will cover his expenses and fill the Treasury coffers. By the way, he has other ideas on how to impose his ideas on you, so do take a look at the first link to get an idea of what is also being proposed.

You know, the French really do do things differently!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

In case you were wondering. . . .

We are in France. Lots to come but rare Internet means this is it for the time being!

Saturday, September 29, 2007


The lackeys at RogueAmoeba have just released a brand new application, Radioshift, which is best described as a "TiVo for radio". Excellent concept, it is well executed at the version 1.0 level. Mac users need never worry about the BBC's vague promises for a Mac version of iPlayer. This delivers a useful alternative! Perhaps the only difference is that you need to know what you don't want to miss before it actually airs and you need to be connected to the internet at the time of the program so that Radioshift can record the program. As a PowerBook owner that will be a serious limitation. Maybe that Mac Mini makes sense after all!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Virgin vs Arriva

Considering the major advances that Virgin Cross Country has made on the very difficult to operate long journeys in their franchise, I am surprised that they lost the franchise back in July to Arriva. I don't know much about Arriva so perhaps the jury should stay out for the time being. But I will miss the red Voyagers, the staff and the refreshing Richard Branson style attitudes.
Plymouth-Glasgow at Tiverton Parkway
Can't help but wonder if those bureaucrats at the DfT were just plain envious of Branson.

BHX - an airport that works!

The subject of airports these days tends to raise the temperature of a conversation. Particularly if it is about Heathrow or the various security restrictions that travelers have to contend with these days (not all of them make sense as they qualify for the concept of "closing the stable door after the horse has bolted").

So, even though we now live 156 miles from Heathrow, it was with some pleasure that I also calculated the distance to Birmingham International (BHX) and found that it is 8 miles closer.

Regional airports in Europe offer reasonably good connections, particularly if you need to get to a Continental hub like Paris or Amsterdam. The key is the airport should have around 6 flights a day on the timetable. Any less and a missed connection means time lost waiting for the next scheduled flight.

Regional airports like Birmingham also benefit from not having planes landing and taking off every two minutes. Bad weather operations simply don't allow this frequency with the resulting delays (remember Heathrow last Christmas?) Only having one runway can be a problem though, particularly when a plane with undercarriage problems is diverted to that runway from somewhere else. This happened last year at Birmingham, probably because the aiport has superior safety equipment.

The horrendous lines at security I have become accustomed to at Heathrow don't exist at BHX. People are friendlier and more helpful as well, perhaps because they are less stressed.

But the real plus at BHX is not the airport itself as much as its location. Few airports I know have such a good integrated public transport system. The dedicated rail station is a short "Airtrain" shuttle from the terminal buildings and the station offers clean, efficient services that are more European in flavor than British! It also serves the NEC which may explain why it is so much better. A frequent service to Birmingham New Street means that you can connect to almost anywhere in the UK, from Penzance to Aberdeen, Holyhead to Norwich. And New Street is not as bad as some people make out!

For drivers, the access from the M42 is so simple it defies description. Just bear left a couple of times! On-site parking is provided by NCP and if you book on the internet the savings can be as much as 60%. The best bit about the car parks is that it usually takes me 15 minutes from airplane to car, including waiting for baggage. Compare that to 60 minutes at Heathrow!

Container Hotels

The hotel situation in Luanda, Angola is hopeless. Most hotels are fully (block) booked by companies and it can be impossible to obtain a room, even with some forward planning. On this last trip we were booked into a strange answer to the lodging crisis, a motel made up of converted shipping containers.
Luanda container motel
I stayed in a deluxe model with half a container welded on the side, in an "L" shape, to provide a decent shower room. Here is colleague Augie (short for Aghostino) the morning after and still smiling!
Container Motel, Luanda, Angola
The interior wasn't all that bad, though the mattress was very lumpy and, with no windows (only a false one) to open the room did seem a little claustrophobic.
Container bedroom
How much? $150 a night!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Birmingham Artsfest 2007

Pick of the crop as a slide show. A bit late but that can't be helped!

Friday, September 21, 2007


Lots of photos, little time to upload them so reports on Birmingham Artfest, Luanda "hotels" and some in the air shots are all on hold. Patience is requested!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Birmingham Artsfest 2007

I was lucky to spend much of Sunday afternoon in the company with son and Created-in-Birmingham blogger Pete for the last day of the 2007 Artsfest. What a remarkable festival this proved to be. First and foremost the events are largely outdoors and free. The weather cooperated and the crowds were out. We visited a number of events (one concurrent with Artsfest but not part of it).

Our cameras were used to the full. The finale, a carnival procession, allowed lots of experimentation and there were quite a few rejects!

I came away with a glowing feeling about my home town - Birmingham seems to be doing extremely well at integrating the many ethnic communities that make up its 21st Century population. The separate groups making up the carnival procession were each composed of numerous representatives of color, religion and the like, all appearing as a harmonious whole. I know there are elements in Birmingham society that are not welcome - Muslim extremist bomb makers and BNP neo-Nazis to name but two, and some of the drug war battles leave a lot to be desired in areas like Handsworth and Aston (both areas where my ancestors lived). But this display of downright fun being shared in a non-competitive way was very heart-warming.

So it was with some disappointment that I wearily made my way back to New Street Station for the short journey to the airport. I took one of the Pendolino trains and in the five minutes journey time struck up a conversation with a Rwandan artist who lives in London but desperately wants to move to Birmingham. “I really love this city” he exclaimed. I think I can understand why.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The ultimate fly killer

You can try to deter flies with herbs or you can employ spiders:
Spider and House Fly

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A plague of house flies

How do you deter house flies from entering your home? Well, a few ideas gleaned from various sources include:

1. Fresh herbs - in particular eua-de-cologne mint, penny royal, rosemary, rue, thyme and tansy. Place them in vases around the house.

2. Mint is a good fly repellant - sachets of crushed mint placed around the home may discourage flies.

3. A small cheesecloth bag containing bay leaves, cloves and eucalyptus can be hung by open windows and doors.

4. Eucalyptus oil impregnated in a damp cloth.

5. Plastic bags filled with water are supposed to be an effective deterrent.

6. Bright yellow objects keep flies away.

7. Water. For example, hose water around the outside of the house every day (a very French solution, perhaps?)

Or you can buy poison sprays and vapor sticks but these don't seem to work anyway!

So, herbs it is - we are going to have one helluva herb garden!

VTP 200

Like other brummies, I'm speechless!

tip of the hat

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Going Deaf for a Fortnight

This is just to spread the word for what would appear to be an incredibly adventurous but suicidal attempt on one's sanity! A special blog has been set up for participants to record their experiences in going to 14 gigs in as many nights, starting October 6.

tip of the hat

"Despite its destructive qualities, the bomb is environmentally friendly"

Say what?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Will wrote them, period!

This report is yet another London-centric piece of diatribe that suggests William Shakespeare couldn't have writ all those plays on his own. To which I say, in the vernacular of a Warwickshire Shithouse Frequenter, "Bullshit!"

(Too understand the reference to Warwickshire Shithouse you have to have seen "Shakespeare in Love").



In our garden.

Is Apple the new Microsoft?

No! Apple could never be that evil!

For another view in a parallel world, read this.

The New iPods

Well, in my recent post on the subject, I mentioned that 80 GB might not be enough. And now there is a 160 GB hard drive in the iPod Classic. Quite amazing to have so much storage in such a small package.

The new iPod Touch forms an interesting hybrid between an iPod sensu stricto and the iPhone. If Apple were to make a really simple to use cell phone, that would be a good combination.

The price reduction on the iPhone has sent shock waves through the user community as well as the stock market analysts. The latter will probably think this through and realize that unit sales can only increase to cover the cut in profit per unit. People who buy new technology should always be prepared for sticker shock. And Apple's retrospective offers to owners seem to be very reasonable.

Questions and Answers (Napoli)

The Napoli and the Beach
The container ship Napoli is still stuck off the World Heritage Jurassic Coast. At least half of it is. The front piece was finally severed and towed off several weeks ago. The rear end may be gone in a couple of weeks time. But much will remain as these questions and answers will show:

Q. Why was the Napoli beached on a World Heritage coastline?

A. The ship was reported to be breaking up. The crew had already abandoned ship and the listing ship was being towed 140 miles toward Portland harbor. This was not the only safe place along the English South Coast capable of receiving it, there were several much closer, including Falmouth. Those on board decided the ship was breaking up and requested permission to beach the ship short of its destination. So it was run aground off Littlecombe Bay.

Q. Why Littlecombe Bay?

A. Officially, because there is a sandbank offshore that would not damage the ship any further. But it has become apparent that the other reason was that no-one lives near Littlecombe (apart from a few cliff cabins) such that any future furore concerning spills, etc. would be minimal.

Q. Was the Napoli in danger of breaking up?

A. At the time the experts thought so. But since then we have come to learn much about these experts and their best advice. The fact that it took three controlled explosions and a lot of serious tugging to separate the ship into its two parts suggests that the ship had a lot more integrity than first thought. OK, hindsight is 20-20 vision. All the same, the damage done since the beaching would suggest that the better solution was always to keep going to Portland.

Q. How sacred are World Heritage Sights?

A. Not very.

Q. What load was the Napoli carrying that was so important?

A. This may come as a surprise - nickel ingots. It is not mentioned on the wikipedia site and has not, to my knowledge ever been reported by the press. Pure nickel is a very expensive metal with a value of around $50,000 per metric ton. It would be near impossible to recover the nickel if the ship had sunk, so beaching was an economical choice.

Q. What about long term effects?

A. The public are being told that once the ship is finally gone from the area there will be no long term effects remaining on this very sensitive coastline. Yet every time there is a storm, hypodermic syringes wash up on the beaches downwind of the wreck, no doubt from a container containing medical supplies. The beaches may have been cleaned up but the possibility of containers having been washed over board and remaining on the ocean floor has not been discussed.

Q. What has been the media's role in this fiasco?

A. The media have collaborated with the Government in covering up many of the issues. They refer to the deliberate beaching of the Napoli as an "accident". Investigative reporting seems to be something no-one wants to undertake any more. No mention of the nickel cargo, hardly a mention of ongoing pollution.

Q. You say "fiasco". Give one example that sums up what has happened.

A. That's easy! During the three attempts at blowing the ship apart the salvage company had an oil containment boom on board, in case it might be needed. It was not deployed. Fuel oil sludge (present in the bilges of every oil-burning ship afloat) leaked out and was carried ashore onto Littlecombe Bay. Need more be said?

Indian Summer

Back in England for the best few days of summer! Yes, it finally arrived, much to everyone's amazement (I believe the Met Office had declared September another disappointing month weatherwise, but that is par for the course).

Three days in a row down on the beach will probably have to suffice for a few weeks. A good time to relax and recharge.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Digital Dinosaurs?

News this week on two companies, both confusingly with "Universal" in their corporate names, having strong disagreements with Apple iTunes. This article sums up the situation extremely well.

And in case you were wondering about the effect of both Universals pulling out of iTunes, Apple's stock rose.

The best quote from the article linked above comes from Universal Music's CEO, Doug Morris, when asked for his opinion about iPods and mp3 players in general. He said:

“These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it, so it’s time to get paid for it.”

Time for a new iPod?

September 5th is a special Apple Event Day and the pundits who (don't) know think it's time for a new iPod or two. The screen capture above is from my 80GB iPod with Video model and as you can see it is nearly full! But will they introduce iPods with more capacity? Only time will tell.

Incidentally, if you are thinking of buying an iPod, it might be best to wait a few days!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Society Rules

I am here in Calgary for a spell and walk to and from work each day across the grid that is downtown .

View Larger Map

Each intersection is controlled by traffic lights, as you might expect. What is interesting is the lights control pedestrian traffic even more than they do vehicles. And Calgarians obey the rules like no other citizens on the planet. Consider this. The red "Don't Walk" light turns from flashing to continuous. No pedestrian runs out onto the street in the face of this red light. Even if there is absolutely no traffic within five city blocks of the intersection.

No. We patiently wait to cross, or, if it make sense, we cross at right angles and then continue to wait to cross the same street, still governed by the red light. As soon as the light changes to "Walk", we walk, but not a split second earlier. Rules are rules.

Or are they? There are signs that anarchy at the intersection is on the rise. Pedestrians, at their peril, are starting to ignore the lights. This is most disconcerting to the drivers, who have always assumed that no-one is going to step out in front of them. Drivers will probably start to retaliate by running the lights as they change from orange to red.

Is this the beginning of the end? Will Calgarians now start to jay walk? Is Albertan civilization about to crumble?

Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Surfing Calgary FM

Staying in a business oriented hotel over a weekend usually means sleepless nights - those Weekend Specials are perfect for wedding parties, reunions, etc. Tonight is no exception. But I am prepared. My iPod radio allows for some interesting musical exploration, earbuds installed, midnight coffee poured, so here we go:

Calgary's 96.9 FM "JACK" where "we play what we want".

Hard rock with some interesting mixes - David Bowie's "China Girl", Alannah Myle's "Still Got This Thing for You", Kim Mitchel "Patio Lanterns" (interesting!), Bachman-Turner Overdrive "You ain't seen nothing yet". Get the picture?

They have streaming if you want to check it out!

(Incidentally, the iPod FM tuner accessory is very, very good - if you happen to be in a good reception area)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The iPhone hack

Big news in North America, today covered by the BBC, is that a 17 year old has unlocked an Apple-AT&T iPhone. Good for him, seems like he could have a useful career if one of the large corporations could get it into their heads that he has real value on the inside!

But the story has gotten a little overblown. To quote the Beeb: "opening the way to Apple's iconic mobile telephone being used by non-US networks".

Consider this. The hack needs the use of a soldering iron, guitar pick and software manipulation. It takes about 2 hours and, in the case of the teen genius, a lot of caffeine. One slip with the soldering iron and it could easily go wrong, making a $500 to $600 investment worth nothing. Would you start out on this caper just to prove to yourself that you don't have to be tied in to AT&T? I thought not.

Personally I have yet to decide whether or not I even need an iPhone. The Motorola phone I do own is a piece of crapola. Colleagues have Blackberries with so many buttons my not so perfect eyesight could not possibly cope. The idea of having Safari on a cell phone does, however, intrigue me. But then there is the expected cost of owning one.

But this I do know - if I get one I certainly ain't gonna invalidate the warranty!

Flickr Crossword Clue

Today's Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword has, for 1 across:

There's nothing loud in torch giving sudden illuminated burst (5,2,5)

That's easy, I thought, and it refers to one of my Flickr contacts!

A summer evening

Friday - end of the week - sun shine - the park beckons. Camera at the ready:


D200 with 20mm f2.8 on the front. A lens that could be a lot more versatile once again now that Nikon is going toward 36x24mm sensors with their top of the line D3 model.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Another Greenland Flyover!

All the images can be seen here with the option to view as a slide show. Here is a sampler that is unusual for me in that I decided to frame the scene with the window surround - as panoramic as you can get in the passenger cabin!

East Greenland Panorama

So, you think you're busy? Try this

You'll feel exhausted just reading this blog entry!

I really like the blog's trade mark "create something new every day". Now there's a challenge.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

New Nikon Cameras and Lenses

I was wondering why a professional photographer friend was flying to Tokyo this week! Turns out he knew something was in the air! Two new cameras, the D3 replacing the D2 and the D300 replacing the D200. As an owner of a D200, the D300 does not appear to be much of an advance, so I will let that one ride. What is exciting, however, is that the D3 has a near 35mm sensor format, meaning a new life for all those wonderfully redundant chunks of Nikon glass, like my 20mm f2.8 ultrawide.

But again, not all is hopeless and I don't have to spend thousands on a new camera body! The best news may be that Nikon has introduced a new wide angle DX zoom, the f2.8 14-24mm. This translates to a 35mm equivalent of 21-36mm and fills a much needed gap in the range. What I don't know is just how expensive this lens will be! But maybe I could trade in the 20mm prime to a new D3 owner!!!

iLife '08 - a warning!

Having bought a new DV camcorder I decided to look into upgrading my iMovie HD program (c. 2005) to the latest version, recently released.

Thank goodness I read the first few reviews: iMovie '08 cannot be used on G4 PowerBooks, only the Intel models. That may be the beginning of the end of the PPC Macs.

So I won't be upgrading.

Canon ZR830 digital video camcorder

Yes, I just bought one of these. Here is the first movie, courtesy of iMovieHD:

A few comments. YouTube selected the still frame, not me. I am not happy with my technique, far from it. A tripod will be an essential piece of equipment even with image stabilisation (with which I am not entirely impressed) while I need to stop zooming and panning! iMovie is a useful and easy to use piece of software and the transitions are quite attractive. I probably won't use the ripple effect too often but it seemed appropriate this time.

The YouTube compression and conversion makes a reasonably sharp movie look like crap. But that's a feature of most YouTube uploads!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


East Greenland - Moraines

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Tarr Steps

We spent a delightful day yesterday exploring Tarr Steps, an Exmooor "attraction" that somehow defines the area yet has little of the moorland character about it.

Tarr Steps

Tarr Steps is a classic clapper bridge, possibly the best example in Britain, crossing a wide span of the River Barle, a headwater of the River Exe. The river's source is Exmoor, an upland area of Carboniferous and Devonian rocks caught within the compressive forces of the Hercynian Orogeny.

Riverbank leaves

The bridge itself is quite spectacular but the surrounding area compliments it perfectly. The river winds within a deep tree covered valley among hills with pastures for sheep and cattle. The fast running stream is crossed mostly with fords rather than bridges and we found ourselves having to make one such crossing two miles from any bridge! Thankful for deciding to wear our Tevas, we simply rolled up our shorts and waded across.

Tarr Steps Farm

When we returned to Tarr Steps we could not help but order cream tea at the local hotel and enjoyed an al fresco late lunch in their garden overlooking the Steps. Somehow the hotel (actually called Tarr Farm) manages to cater to everyone's needs, from winter-time shooting parties to summer-time day trippers. Weather considerations apart, this day was as good as any we have experienced anywhere. In fact there were times when we thought we could easily have been in Texas, hiking along the banks of the Guadalupe River, or visiting Hamilton Pool. Except, as April noted, there were no mosquitos, snakes or alligators to worry about!

Postscript: Today Google Maps introduced embedded maps. Here is a satellite image of where we walked, though the actual route isn't shown. Tarr Steps is at Lower Right:

View Larger Map

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Podcast Recommendation - Thinking Allowed

Just started by the BBC, this podcast is from Laurie Taylor's 30 minute program.

Tip of the hat to Pete

Ground Source Heat Pump - Under the Floor

The Heat Pump uses a process that is basically the opposite of a regrigerator compressor to heat up a reservoir of water that is then pumped around the house to heat the rooms. The photo below shows the grey plastic coils laid in a special egg-crate sub-floor which is covered by a screed. There is also a thick layer of insulation below the red plastic sheets to direct the heat upwards. Once the screed is in place almost any form of standard flooring (tiles, carpet, etc.) can be laid on top.

Most underfloor heating designs are restricted to the ground floor. Ours is also built in to the upper floors as well.

This is part of an ongoing series, the earlier parts of which can be seen here and here.

Birmingham has a Master Plan!

This makes for interesting reading, not the least for the analysis of where Birmingham is with respect to other cities but also where it should strive to be in the future. One thought, as a "suburb of London" may not be well received by many Brummies but it actually makes a lot of sense now that the UK (London) is increasingly becoming a financial services powerhouse at the expense of everything else.

As usual, this report makes the case for improving transportation, particularly New Street Station, but also comments that a total integration of transport services would make the city a much better destination. That criticism seems to apply to just about every city in the World. An expansion of Metro into street car type services linking the various areas of an expanded city center would be a good start!

Found in Created in Birmingham

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ban Drinking Alcohol in the Street?

The terrible events that seem to occur all too regularly in town and city across the UK, with honest citizens thoughtlessly killed by teenage gangs high on cheap alcohol and drugs, have spawned the usual defensive reactions from police and government.

"Raise the cost of alcohol", "Ban street drinking" are the latest cries from Cheshire while the Home Office in London says it will introduce new powers "next week". Too late for Mr. Newlove and his grieving family.

As usual, these "remedies" are supposed to be the answer to the problem, but surely the availability of cheap alcohol to minors, not to mention illegal drugs, is the real problem to be tackled.

The end result will be a general toughening of the laws as they relate to honest citizens while the thugs continue unabated with their wanton destruction of society. I suppose that standing outside a London pub in the summer evenings after a hard day's work will be banned, as will the café tables hopefully set out to garner custom from stay at home holiday makers who would like a glass of wine while watching the world go by.

Or are these images mere fantasy these days?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Not all Oil Platforms are platforms!

News today of a fire on a North Sea "Oil Platform". Only the platform isn't a platform, it's an oil rig. There is a difference. The Ocean Guardian is a drilling rig used for exploration, possibly for development drilling, but not for production. It floats, therefore cannot be considered a platform s.s. (there are floating production platforms but this isn't one of them).

I don't know why the media always gets this wrong. But I start to wonder about media accuracy when they never get things right that I know about, casting grave doubts on everything I know little about that is reported as fact.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

iWork '08

Apple's half-hearted competitor to MS Office has finally come of age. You can download a 30 day trial here. I did and then I ordered the key to permanently own the product after about 20 minutes of usage. Why?

1. There is an Excel lookalike, called Numbers, which is actually better than Excel and that is saying something. Excel has always been the strongest link in the Office suite.

2. Pages, the word processor cum page layout software, has an improved look and feel to it. Enough reason alone to upgrade.

3. Keynote is enhanced. I don't use Keynote much but when I do it's because I can't see a PowerPoint slide or image (the infamous red cross that MS seems incapable of addressing). I simply import the file in Keynote and export it again to Powerpoint. It nearly always works. Again, as a Mac user in a Windows world this is a feature worth owning iWork for.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

"Your View" on the Countryside

I have been following various "Your View" internet columns concerning the ongoing problems facing the countryside, the latest hit of which is, of course, the re-emergence of Foot and Mouth Disease.

I am gob-smacked by the attitudes of some people who clearly have no idea what the countryside is all about!

"Let the farmers go bust, we need to stop bailing them out every time they have a problem" seems to be a recurring theme. So let's analyze that.

Imagine all the farmland in this fair country was to cease to be cared for. Hmm. Fields? None. Hedges? Not really. Country roads? Impossible to drive down. Wildlife? Yes, plenty of wild life but not in balance any more. Food? Not much, if any. Tourism? Foget about it!

Somewhere along the way the concept that farmers are all whingers, whiners, spongers and generally useless leaches on society has gotten hold with city folk and they really believe it!!!!!!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Transporting Viruses

This report includes the news that, rather than burn infected cattle in Surrey where they contracted "Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD)" and where the media could photograph the pyres, the government is transporting the carcasses to Somerset. Steps "will be taken" to insure the virus does not escape from the trucks.

How exactly do you do this?

A virus is small. So small that it can be compared to a flea in the same way as a human can be compared to Mount Everest!

I cannot believe that transporting virus laden carcasses over a hundred miles will not allow some viruses to escape.

For the sake of British farming, please prove me wrong.

Four Years Old this Month!

This blog reaches the grand age of FOUR this month. There was an earlier blog when Blogger was a fledgling company but it was wiped out during one of their "periods of uncertainty" before Google purchased the concept.

So, although I have been blogging for longer than four years, this is what I can actually demonstrate.

It's still not as interactive as I would like and I know I don't link enough to others which is how the blog could easily be more interactive. In truth, though, I am not of the main blogging generation and I don't have a single issue interest with which to focus my readership. This is, after all, a Jack of all Trades kind of blog. I'll probably keep it that way. And there are three other Focalplane blogs (accessible from the Hub) which are single issue in style.