Thursday, December 28, 2006

USA Trip: Vegas and Joshua Tree

Well, of all the stories I had heard about the States before I came here, there's one that is 100% right. The cars here are huge; and I do mean huge. In fact, pretty much everything is huge, the landscape, the food, the roads, the people, everything. It's quite overwhelming, to be honest.

Djanira, her mum Uby, and I flew over here on Christmas Eve and we fly back to Britain on the 7th Jan. We flew into to Vegas, which is just as dros ben llestri as you'd imagine it to be, eveything is done completely over the top. We stayed in the Sahara hotel and casino, which is one of the cheaper places to stay, but still on the strip and quite good fun. We spent Christmas day wandering the strip in the sunshine, and had a massive buffet lunch at Flamingo - all the casino's have these amazing all-you-can-eat buffets, which are pretty good value. I'm not much of a gambler so I didn't play much, a few goes on the slots and computers, and one go on a blackjack table. I lost about 20 bucks on the machines but stayed even on the table. Good fun though.

You may notice the photograph above is not in Vegas - in fact it's the Grand Canyon! As a christmas present to ourselves we flew by helicopter from Vegas to see the canyon, passing the Hoover dam on the way. It was all very impressive, and we landed on the canyon floor for a champagne brunch. Very nice indeed!

After returning to the city we picked up a hire car (which, naturally, is huge, and I do mean huge), and drove through the desert to Joshua Tree. J-Tree is a national park that represents the boundary between the Mojave and Colorado deserts, and is famous for the unique Joshua trees that grow there - U2 stayed there when writing their seminal album of the same name. It is also one of the most famous rock climbing areas in the whole world, so I was very excited to pull on my boots and do a bit of bouldering, when I get more time I'll dump the photos in my album.

After stopping there we drove an impressive road from Palm Springs over the San Jacinto
mountains, and are now in the house of DJ's uncle Francisco, in Vista, just to the north of San
Diego. Lovely weather today, and we're off to see 10ft swells breaking on the pacific shoreline - I don't think I'll go in the water today!

More to come soon...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Being bilingual, and living with somebody who is trilingual, I am a big proponent of the importance of learning foreign languages at school. The issue has raised its head again in the news recently, with the government promising a drive to get kids to do more foreign languages - though it baffles me why they are suggesting this now, when only a few years ago they changed the curriculum so that it isn't mandatory to do a foreign language GCSE.

There is an interesting article in the paper about it today, written (in very elegant English) by a Frenchwomen, which got me thinking a little more on why I think learning a foreign language is so important.

"The global culture we live in is a double-faced creature, part angel, part devil. It induces two sets of behaviour in world citizens: a greater openness and a new curiosity towards others, or the illusory and self-satisfied conviction that the world has come to them. The first group, embracing multilingualism, have learned that a better understanding of other cultures, based on mutual knowledge of each other's languages, can foster stronger business partnerships, richer cultural exchanges and lasting peace. The second, often found in the English-speaking world, are proud of their monolingualism, and have retreated into a fantasy world in which it seems everyone speaks their language."

The monolinguist's arguments are usually along the lines of "all the world speaks English, what's the point in learning another language?". In that respect, they have some sort of point, even it is a touch arrogant. Yet, to me, the main benefits of learning another language are not limited to the ability to converse in that language; rather, they are the enlightenment of realising that you aren't limited to a single method of expressing yourself linguistically*, and the appreciation of different cultures that can only be acquired by immersing yourself to the level where you have to use that culture's language.

At school I learned French to GCSE level, and went on two exchange visits to France, staying with French families. Being forced to speak French meant that I began to see the world a little bit through French eyes, and as a result I am a big fan of France, and the French people - not a view shared by many of my fellow Brits! But how many of them went on a French exchange? And if they didn't, would their prejudices against the French still exist if they had gone on an exchange?

The point I'm trying to make is that, even though I have forgotten much of my French now, I don't think for a second that learning the language was a waste of time. I learned far more than 'just another language'.

* For some time I've pondered the best way of describing this (the idea that there isn't always an equivalent translation) to an English monolingual, and the best example I've come up with is translation of the word 'Welsh':

Cymraeg = Welsh (the language e.g. "she speaks Welsh")
Cymreig = Welsh (something that is from Wales e.g. "a Welsh harp")
Cymry = Welsh (the people of Wales e.g. "the Welsh sing very well")

the English can talk about English things in English;
but (to paraphrase)
the Cymry talk about Cymreig things in Cymraeg

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Changes afoot...

If you link to this page via my main webdomain,, you may have already noticed that there has been a bit of a change. If not, go there now to have a look at the first iteration of my 'professional' website. The idea is that I'll be applying for jobs again soon (I stop work here in the Ear Institute at the end of April), and so I wanted a more professional presence on the know, a place to list my papers, download examples of my work, my CV etc. etc. and this is the first effort.

Being the bit of the geek that I am, I decided to make it a bit more impressive to fellow geeks (i.e. people that may be employing me in the future, and write it in a way that completely separates content from design. Hence I nipped off to learn about XSL, and the result is a page that always has the same design, despite the changing content, if you have a peek at the source code, you'll see it's all in XML, which is transformed by an XSL stylesheet to create the HTML, and I have used this to show-off my language madskillz, so that the same stylesheet transforms the content in three different languages. I'll probably write a bit more about it in Code Corner soon.

Some requests for help:

-My designing skills are atrocious, if anybody has any ideas how to make it look nice (without going over the top) then please do tell me.

- Siaradwyr Cymraeg: dwi heb ysgrifennu unrhywbeth ffurfiol ers talwm, felly dwi'n siwr bod 'na digonedd o gamgymeriadau yn fy iaith. Os oes gennych unrhyw cywiriadau neu syniadau, dwedwch plis!

- Los que hablan español: bueno, es obvio que todavía estoy aprendiendo español, por eso si tienes algunas correcciónes o sugerencias, por favor, dime!

if you don't know my email it is alun AT

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pinochet is dead

So, like Pol Pot, Idi Amin and several other criminals before him, General Augusto Pinochet cheats real justice and escapes to the land of the dead. He will not be missed by the majority, yet his death still comes as a blow to the thousands of Chileans, Spaniards, and people of all nationalities who wanted to see this man stand in the dock and face responsibility for his crimes.

Pinochet assumed power in Chile in a military coup d'etat in 1973. The incumbent president, Salvador Allende, had led a socialist government which had followed policies unpopular with the Chilean right, such as the nationalisation of industry and health service, and the seizure and redistribution of land and wealth. The coup was short, bloody and violent, with troops and tanks surrounding the Chilean palace in Santiago while it was bombed from the air. Allende died in the attack, and Pinochet emerged from the shadows to head the new military dictarship. The following months were a humanitarian disaster, with thousands of 'subversives' picked up by the secret police. At least 3000 people were killed, and several tens of thousands tortured - 40,000 alone were detained in Chile's national stadium, which had been converted to a concentration camp.

Despite these horrors and others, Pinochet remained a hero for many in Chile for some time after his removal from power, as some on the right still saw him as the saviour who prevented the country's slide into communism. However, this support had gradually eroded since it was discovered that he stole millions from the country's exchequer, skimming off funds and transferring them to a private swiss bank account. This was no upstanding citizen doing his best for his country; Augusto Pinochet was a common thief.

Baroness Margaret Thatcher is said to be 'deeply saddened' by his death. While I appreciate her point of view that his assistance during Falklands War may have saved British lives, it reflects rather badly on her judgment that she should continue to support a man who's name will forever be mentioned alongside some of the most infamous in history, and who be remembered by most as a repugnant man who had not a single redeeming quality.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Game reviews: Oblivion and God of War

What with all current the hoo-haa regarding various new console releases, recently I had the urge to dust off my gaming madskillz and play a couple of titles that I have meaning to look at for a while. Mr Paul kindly gave me a copy of God of War about a year ago, but to be honest I dismissed it completely at the time, because it looked a little bit of a teenagers game. You see, I'm an adult, I like mature games with decent storylines and non-linear interaction and if they must be violent, then at least make it tasteful violence. :P Hence the reason that for the last few months I have been playing a rather different sort of game to God of War, called Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Oblivion is a role-playing game in which you play some punter who is rather randomly drawn into a whirlwind quest to save the world from ultimate doom. Okay - so the story's a bit of a hack, but the game is pretty much about as non-linear as you can get, without making it so random that the player doesn't know where they are or what to do. The game world is completely huuuge, and while it is possible to 'fast travel' by clicking on a map, you can quite feasibly walk the whole way should you choose to do so. And you might as well - this is first game I have played where, when descending a mountain trail at sunset, I have actually stopped to admire the view. It really is rather impressive.

The vastness of the world, and the non-linear method you can use to explore it, is both the game's strength and weakness. There's no doubt that having such a large and engrossing world is wonderful; there's one large city and several small towns dotted about the map, and loads of stuff to do and explore in each one. You can spend hours, days even, just poking around and sticking your nose in to the thousands of side-quests that exist. And the 'main' quest, where the central story of the game unfolds, is always there in the background for you to do as much or as little as you like - until you complete it of course.

Yet therein lies the problem. Classic epics like Final Fantasy VII worked well due the world developing alongside the main story, Oblivion's world feels static by comparison. It doesn't help that they used the same five actors to voice every character in the game, and the 'random' conversations between NPCs (non-player-characters) become laughably repetative. At the end of the day, Oblivion's failings in this regards highlight an interesting point - while non-linear gaming gives a greater sense of freedom, unless the gaming world develops over time, that same non-linearity hamstrings the game as much as fully-linear-walk-this-direction-only experience.

Which, neatly enough, returns us to God of War. After getting it, the game gathered dust in it's box for a while until my old flat mate, Chris Jennions, picked it up one bored evening, about a year ago. While half-watching him play the first few levels, my initial suspicions seemed to be confirmed - it appeared to be nothing more than button-mashing, disengage-brain, 3D scrolling beat-em-up. Yet, after a few weeks, I noticed that Chris was still playing it, and thoroughly enjoying it. When I discovered, some time later, that itwon a few 'Game-of-the-Year' awards and that even the very strict Edge magazine awarded it 8/10, I decided that one day I would get round to playing it. A fortnight ago, that day arrived. And don't you know it, it's rather good.

It is still, of course, a button-mashing, disengage-brain, 3D scrolling beat-em-up. What separates it from the dross that is 99% of the rest of the games in this genre is the fact that it obviously has very high production values. The camera, traditionally a sticking point in such games, is almost always in exactly the right spot, following you relentlessly through corridors and across deserts, and panning, zooming and rotating to show your environment when necessary. The graphics are great considering it's only the PS2, and everything from the greek-mythology story, to the control system that expands throughout the game, to the suitably grandiose soundtrack, is well conceived. It is undoubtedly an entirely on-rails linear experience, with little chance to deviate from the path in front of you, and as such it couldn't be more different to Oblivion. But if I was forced to play one of the two games again, I would probably choose God of War - maybe I'm still a teenager at heart!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Capoeira Canal Christmas Roda

My capoeira teacher, Monitor Risadinha (Jacob is his real name, Risadinha is his Capoeira apelido - once you get to certain standard you get 'baptized' and given a nickname. Monitor is his 'grade') is on a plane to Brazil as I write, for a three week holiday and to train with an academy out there, and last night we had our final lesson of the year with him. So we decided to make it a bit of an occasion, especially as it coincides with the two year anniversary of the school, Capoeira Canal, which is a good achievement for Jacob.

The class followed a slightly different format to normal. Usually, we warm up together, then the beginners and intermediates split for the majority of the class, and we get back together at the end for a little roda. The roda (Portuguese for 'wheel') is the circle of people and instruments, within which two people play Capoeira. It is the whole point of Capoeira, really. Anyway usually we just have a little roda at the end of the class, lasting 20-30 minutes, everybody has one quick game, and that's it. Yesterday, however, as it was a special occasion, we had decided in advance to start the roda early and have a 'proper' one. So after a quick warm up we got the instruments out and started playing.

It was great. My capoeira has improved loads and now I feel confident enough to not embarrass myself, and I really enjoy playing the instruments and singing also. Towards the end of a roda the music speeds up, the capoeira speeds up, and the whole thing becomes really engrossing - especially when you're watching two really good capoeiristas play a game, it's spellbinding. It's also amazing how fast the time goes, I had barely had two games before I glanced up at the clock and realised an hour had gone and I was unlikely to get another, as time was running out. Ah well. Still a brilliant evening, which we discussed and washed down with a couple of pints afterwards. Very nice indeed.

So now I'm really enthused for Capoeira and, fortunately, classes are continuing, despite Jacob being away. For the next couple of weeks we have some intructors from our 'parent' school (i.e. Jacob's old school) the London School of Capoeira coming to take the next two Monday classes, so it will be interesting to see how their teaching methods differ to Jacob's. Cool beans.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Katherine Schirrmacher article

Katherine Schirrmacher, who recently recently has been signed up for the Moon climbing team, has written a short article for, "10 ways to revamp your climbing".

It is only a few hundred words long and yet I can't think of any other article that contains so much excellent information that is so concisely written and expressed.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Portland sport climbing

It's been a busy weekend so I'm treating you to two posts in one day, you lucky things! Saturday morning found me loitering outside Hammersmith at some god-forsaken hour, waiting to picked up by Paul Mac on the way to Portland. We picked up Paul Mealor on the way, and after boring them to tears telling them just how good Casino Royal is, we met Darcy for breakfast in the Blue Fish cafe at Fortuneswell (nice place, incidentally, good food, though a little overpriced for what you get) at around 10.30.

The slightly late start suited us nicely actually, as it meant the sun had time to get round onto the Blacknor crags on the west coast (see pic), where many of the routes are a decent 28-30m long, so you really feel like you're getting your money's worth on every route. The last time I did any proper climbing was in the Wye Valley with Alastair in September, so it was good to get back on the rock again. I climbed with Darcy and we did several routes around the 6a-6c range, all very pleasant - yet the problem with this cliff is that all the routes follow the same pattern: 5m of heaving on dusty jugs, 10-15m of delicate conglomerate balancing, followed by 5m of really good clean limestone at the top. As a result the routes feel rather similar to each other, even though they are very good if considered individually.

So we spent a night in the old lighthouse (now a bird-watchers haunt) and got up bright and early (well, ish), and set off for The Cuttings, where the route of the day for me was The Cutting Edge, which I was quite chuffed to onsight, especially given that I've been off climbing for the last few months. Then I went and burst my bubble with a fall off New Saladin, though I wasn't too miffed as it was a juggy pump-fest, a bit more fitness would have dispatched it. So another good day was had by all. Special commendation should go to Macca who is a having a bit of a purple-patch at the moment, it seems that a summer off has done him good and he's come back with a vengeance. Oh yeah and props go to Paul Mealor who red-pointed his first 7a during his recent visit to Thailand!

And I'm really pleased because I had a brilliant weekend which has relit my passion and enthusiasm for rock climbing. Roll on some decent training over the winter, I'm looking forward to Easter at Pembroke already...

Casino Royal review

For some time, I have had a suspicion that the Sunday Times' chief film reviewer, Cosmo Landesman, doesn't actually know what makes a good film. Perhaps, if I were to be more polite, I would say that my opinion of what makes a good film differs from his. Either way, the fact is that I now have final conclusive proof that I am right and he is wrong, because the latest James Bond film, Casino Royal, is the best film I've seen all year, and certainly one of the best Bond films ever made.

Short of Tomorrow Never Dies, the more recent Bond efforts have been, if not completely pathetic, then largely forgettable. This is probably due to the fact that they ran out of Ian Fleming's books to convert to films some time ago, and so the films have relied on action and gadgets to get by. For Casino Royal, this isn't the case, because it is a remake of the original film, and based on the book of the same name - the first ever James Bond book. As a result, the film is very very different to almost every Bond film, with our hero being a slightly naive raw recruit (albeit one with an ego the size of Vauxhall Cross) who has just been promoted to his new title of 007. We get to see how the plot of the film moulds Bond gradually; tellingly, the famous Bond theme tune only appears right at the very end of the film, perhaps indicating that only then has transformed into the character that we have seen over the years. The scenario is given a clever twist by the film being set in the modern day, with internet, wireless communication and computers featuring heavily.

Daniel Craig is excellent in the main role, although I think he was lucky with the situation - the whole point of the film is that this 007 is very different to the more experienced one we have seen so many times before, so he had some license to stamp his own mark on the character. The rest of the acting is adequate, although it occasionally hampered by the slightly clunking script, which rather overstates the plot in case any thickos are watching and don't get it. In a way, though, this is a compliment to the plot which drives the movie at a relentless pace and high level of tension. Constantly twisting and turning, and with several factions all playing against each other, it is the plot that really raises this Bond effort high above the bar.

I haven't even mentioned the action sequences - - but quite frankly I needn't bother. Even if they were rubbish (they're not - one of them Djanira thought was the best chase scene she'd ever seen, the others all having you on the edge of your seat) it wouldn't really matter. Go and see this film, I can guarantee that you will enjoy it. Unless, of course, your name is Cosmo Landesman.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Viva date

I have received word for the date of my PhD viva - 2pm on Tuesday 30th January 2007. I'm not sure whether I'm happy/scared/excited/nervous/relieved or what. Probably a mix of everything. My fingers are sweating now just thinking about it!

Monday, November 13, 2006

New Zealand vs. the rest of the world

Just too good. I managed to catch the second half of the France/NZ game at the weekend, and to be honest it was really rather depressing. France are currently the number 2 team in the world rankings, yet they were completely and utterly outclassed by a New Zealand side that just does everything right. For 20 minutes, I saw France sit on the NZ 22, trying everything, using every trick they could think of to break the All-Black line. They might as well have been throwing pebbles at a concrete wall. A sea of black shirts soaked it all up, without appearing to make any effort, before quite casually stealing the ball and running in another try from their own half. If they can maintain this form for another 11 months, for the rest of us can only aspire to second place in the World Cup.

The rest of the weekend's rugby was more pleasant viewing. A second string Wales eased passed the Pacific Islands without actually playing a very good team game. Yet the signs are promising - if Gareth Jenkins can organize a strong and consistent squad, there's at least a semi-final place for the taking in the World Cup. The Irish gave the 'boks a stuffing, and nobody's ever sad to see that happen. The Scottish had a glorified training day, and poor old England got rolled over at home by a team of amateurs who'd had four days preparation. Personally I'm all for the Argies making the 6-nations the 7-nations. Wales has strong ties with Argentina, and they are only strengthened when they humiliate the old-enemy so!

But, dear-oh-dear, I'm really not looking forward to the 25th of November.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Barcelona and Montserrat **updated photos**

Last weekend Djanira and I returned to Barcelona (rapidly becoming our favourite place to be) for a quick holiday, and to catch up with a few friends. Dan (as in, Dan-I-used-to-live-with-in-Chalk-Farm-Dan) is still living in the city and appears as settled as ever. It was really good to catch up with him; we had some tapas for dinner before going out to meet a few mates for drinks. I still can't believe how cheap Barcelona is compared to London. Everybody out there thinks it's an expensive place, but when three of you can eat as much yummy tapas as you like and drink several glasses of beer/cava in a fantastic small place which has a great vibe, for €50 total, you know you're in the right place. Better still, when we left we got a free shot of any liquor we could see behind the bar - when I saw they had some decent 12y.o. Islay single malt, I very nearly fell off my chair. Awesome.

So we ended up in a bar down in El Raval, which is reknowned somewhat as one of the dodgier areas of the city, but one which is now 'up-and-coming'. In terms of character, it reminded me a little bit of somewhere like Hackney - still dodgy, but with enough cheap cool places opening up to attract a less-rough crowd. Incidentally, you can imagine my shock and disgust at having to pay less than 9 euros for a round of four bottles of beer. That's about £1.50 a bottle, exchange-rate fans. Sigh. Anyway we stayed there til about 1am (just as it was warming up), but felt that we had to leave because we had an earlyish start later in the morning.

So after not-enough-sleep and quick breakfast, we caught a cab to the north-east of the city to meet my friends Raquel and Ferran. I met them both in North Wales last spring, at the BMC international climbing meet, and they were kind enough to invite me and DJ over and be our guides for Montserrat. They are both so, so sweet; really friendly and outgoing, and they were fantastic hosts. Unfortunately my injured shoulder (and lack of fitness) precluded us doing any hard climbing, so we just did some walking, and one easy route.

Montserrat is an awesome place. It's basically one big mountain, 45 minutes drive from Barca; it's about the size of the Snowdon massif, but littered with enormous rock faces and (literally) hundreds of 'needles' - rock pillars anywhere from 20 to 200m high. It is a rock climbing mecca and, quite frankly, it puts all of the fuss we in Britain give to our small crags to shame. On saturday we took a 'grand-tour', walking along the whole of the north face, which is Ferran's home-from-home - he even runs a website dedicated to it, which has gradually extended to encompass ther whole of Catalan climbing - check it out at, though both your Catalan and Spanish will need to be up to scratch. Saturday night we walked up (in the dark) to some hermit's cave in the middle of the mountain - just big enough to sleep four people and with a breathtaking view out over Barca and the med beyond. Sunday we climbed an easy route but to my shame I backed off the lead on my pitch. The climbing was barely harder than VS but 'protection', such as it was, consisted of rusty old bolt heads that needed to be threaded with a nut. Needless to say, I couldn't spot any small, grey/brown dots hidden among the (grey/brown) pebbly rock and, between you and me, I don't like running out 30m without knowing where the next belay is, especially on unfamiliar rock and with a bad shoulder. So I let Ferran take the lead, which he of course made short work of, and we arrived at the top of needle, with brilliant 360 degree views. Amazing.

The only problem with the whole weekend was the fact that our return flight on Monday was cancelled - that's the third time in a row that this has happened to me! I couldn't believe it! Anyway, we still had a brilliant time, and I shan't imagine that'll be took long until we're back!

DJ's and my photos are now on the web too, here:

Raquel's pics:
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


You will notice, if you look to the right, that the number one thing that Alun dislikes is injury. Why? Becuase it stops me doing the vast majority of things that I enjoy doing, which result in me being grumpy. All work and no play makes Alun a dull boy.

At the moment, Alun is a dull boy, because he is injured. Shortly after Capoeira last week, my back started hurting, and became increasingly painful as the week progressed. Fortunately it is now improving but I suspect it will niggle for a few more weeks. I went to see a physio the other day and she reckons it's all to do with posture, both while sitting at work and just in general. So we talked about how to improve all that, and then beat seven shades of shit out of my back. Ow.

Anyway I'm doubly worried because Djanira and I are going to Barcelona on Friday and meeting up with my friends Rakel and Ferran, who I met while on the BMC International Meet in Wales in April. They are taking us climbing in Montserrat, which should be brilliant, but I don't want to be in pain the whole time! Hopefully I'll be well enough to do some easy stuff.

The recent good news is that my cousin Meilyr wrote to say that his wife Catrin has given birth to Brychan. Llongyfarchiadau mawr!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

E11 film review

Earlier this year, Dave Macleod, the Glasgow based professional rock climber, finally got to the top of what is now the hardest traditionally protected rock climb in the world, Rhapsody, grading it a mighty E11. The route takes pretty much the most direct line up smooth overhanging face of Dumbarton rock, a large basalt outcrop near Glasgow, and is undoubtedly the biggest thing that has happened in the British rock climbing scene for several years.

It is only right therefore, that there should be some sort of film record this effort - yet I wasn't expecting an entire flick dedicated to it! 41 minutes focusing on one climber and one route may not sound too exciting, but what the chaps at have done is not just document the story of how the route was conquered, but painted a picture of the determination and hard work required to reach this level. Most poingantly, we get to know Dave's wife, Claire, almost as well as we get to know Dave himself, and we see the strain that she is under - the strain that must affect the partners of all professional athletes who are completely obsessed with their goals.

As such this is a film that even non-climbers will appreciate - they won't even get bored during the section of actual climbing footage, due to the gut wrenching falls the Dave takes over and over again. They really are horrendous, if you don't believe me, go and download the trailer here.

So how does the film compare with other classic climbing movies, such as Hard Grit or Stone Monkey? Well it is different to both. Hard Grit is a classic becuase it defines not just a style of climbing, but also an era. Stone Monkey is a classic because it paints a portrait of one of the most influental British climbers of all time. E11 doesn't aim to do either of these things, yet it is undoubtedly utterly compelling viewing; it is the first film that really gives you some sort of inkling of what it must be like to be at the cutting edge of the rock climbing world - and in fact any 'small' sport (i.e. one that doesn't provide big bucks to it's participants). As such it deserves a place on the shelf of anybody who has more than a passing interest in climbing, and I suspect my copy (which has been watched twice already) will see plenty more repeat viewings as the years go by.

More reviews here, here and here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

DIRT - the classic MTB flick

A couple of days ago I bought Mountain Biking UK for the first time in several years. No, I haven't gone mad, nor have a I turned into a whining teenager. The reason I bought it was because it came with a free DVD which, apart from some awfully filmed 'modern' riding, has the first (and possibly only) digital copy of 'Dirt' on it, one of the original and best mountain bike flicks ever made.

It's basically Rob Warner, Scott Dommett, Dave Hemmings and the late, great, Jason McRoy pissing about on their bikes in the sunshine. With the exception of a guest appearance by 'Jumpin' Jez Avery, there is very little 'impressive' riding in it (and even Avery's section is ridiculously tame by modern standards, despite the orginal GT STS and green body-armour!), but then that's not the point. The point is that it perfectly encapsulates the spirit of going out and riding with your mates on a warm summers day. It harks back to a more innocent time (well, for me at least) when you didn't go 'downhilling' or 'XC' or 'street-riding'. You just went for a ride.

I still have a well-watched copy of the original tape somewhere but, given that I don't own a VHS and aren't likely to ever own one again, I though it was worth getting it on DVD, for posterity's sake.

The first six minutes of it are available to watch online at, go to the downloads section and press play. Classic stuff.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Burgher

As proof of my recent transformation from 'dossy student' to 'dossy professional', this week I went on my first ever 'business trip'. A major part of the project that I am working on right now involves speech recognition, and we are lucky enough to be working with an expert in the field, Mike Lincoln, who is a researcher at the University of Edinburgh. I am doubly lucky in that he is a sound bloke who has a very similar outlook on life/work/getting-things-done as I do, and we get on well. So on wednesday I took the train from Kings Cross up to the 'Burgher, with the intention of working with him on establishing a framework which we can use to work remotely in the future to help get things working.

The train from Kings Cross to the Burgher is wicked. It took four hours and 15 minutes, and was very pleasant and relaxing. If I'd caught a plane from, say, Luton, it would have taken me an hour to get there (from Kings X), an hour and half waiting at the terminal, and hour's flight, and half an hour's transfer from the airport to the middle of Edinburgh. That's four hours in total, and rather than sitting in one place as with the train, you can never settle for long, as every hour you have to move about and walk/queue. So not only is the train more comfortable, it is just as fast, and it satisfies my inner eco-warrior by being better for the environment.

I feel quite at home in Scotland, for three reasons. One, the countryside is beautiful; two, it is usually raining; and three, we share a dislike for the English! As an example, on Wednesday Scotland were playing Ukraine in football, and I walked into the pub at a bad time - Ukraine had just sealed their win by scoring their second goal, a penalty, in injury time. The atmosphere was very morose. At that moment, the teletext service flashed up on the TV screen, showing the result of England game that had been played simultaneously. Croatia 2, England 0. An enormous cheer rattled the very foundations of the building, and I couldn't help joining in - I felt right at home!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

David Cameron - all style, no substance

For several years now (in fact, almost a decade), one of the biggest complaints that the Tories have had about Blair is that there was too much spin, too much media focus, too much style. It is one of the few issues that they and I have ever agreed upon. Yet now that David Cameron is on the scene, they appear to forgotten all such criticisms, at least officially. is possibly the most pathetic piece of 'politics' since Blair said "This isn't a time for cliches, but I feel the hand of destiny on my shoulder" or some such nonsense. It is a ridiculous site, trying to package 'Dave' to being a media-savvy, trendy, down-wid-da-kids hero.

Take, for example, his video blog that was recorded after his speech to conference. It is obviously set up. Everything that is said, from the 'summary' of his conference speech, the 'interview' with his web-tech geek, to his 'response' to the enormous amount of comments on the site, is so blatantly un-genuine it is laughable.

Fortunately, it appears I'm not the only one who's noticed the similarity between Cameron and Blair...of course, the irony in me linking to this video is that the chap who made this video is campaigning for UKIP!!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Children of Men review

About 30 minutes into Children of Men, there comes a moment when you realise that, unless you like cold-blooded murder in your films, this isn't going to be a particularly easy one to watch.

Filmed mostly with hand-held 'documentary-style' camerawork, this is a dark, raw, film set about 20 years in the future, at a time when the human race has become infertile, the youngest person on the planet is 18 years old. The majority of the world's countries have collapsed into anarchy, and Britain is the only place that has managed to hold itself together and keep a civilised society - although one which is effectively a police state, with closed borders and a paranoid immigration policy. Clive Owen plays the hero, a world-weary ex-activist who somehow finds himself in the position of having to protect the most important person in the world - a pregnant girl.

The problem with the film is that it doesn't know what it wants to be, or what it wants to say. Part semi-futuristic sci-fi, part-political commentrary, part-action thriller. Undoubtedly, it is as third type that it succeeds most. After a slow start the action and excitement is pretty non-stop, and anybody who's played the latter levels of Half-Life 2 will feel right at home in the last 40 minutes. In such all-out thrillers you tend to ignore any silly plot holes as your belief is already suspended, however that doesn't happen in this film as the director is constantly cutting back, as if he is trying to say that this is something that could really happen.

On that note it fails. While the futuristic world is intriguing it is not fleshed out enough to make it truly believable (mostly because of all the action sequences), and so when the action stops for a bit and you catch your breath, you're left a bit puzzled as to why this is all going on.

Djanira didn't like it at all, partially for the above reasons, but also becuase of the violence. Although actual moments of real goriness are few and far between, it is a violent and rather cold-blooded film, and I was surprised to see it only got a 15.

By contrast I quite enjoyed it, but left a little disappointed that more wasn't made out of the world and the scenario - it would have been a gamble to do so, as many of the action sequences would have to have been dropped, and perhaps that would have made the film a little too slow. But it might just have paid off.
Incidentaly, it is an adaptation of a P.D. James book, so it will be interested in reading the book to see if it succeeds where the film stumbles. In conclusion, I would say that it is definately an interesting film that is worth going to watch, but perhaps a missed opportunity.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Capoeira at the Octopus Street Party in Notting Hill

This weekend my Capoeira school, Capoeira Canal, did a demo performance at a street party in Notting Hill, organised by the Octopus Challenge - a charity raising money for cancer research and support. We did a couple of shows, once early on, and once a little later - the later one was definately the better one because the crowd was a lot bigger (maybe up to a couple of hundred), they had drunk a bit more champagne by then, and us capoeiristas had a little bit of Dutch courage after a brief visit to the pub also! We were a little bit nervous before the first performance, because only a handful of beginners (including me) had turned up, and I was worried that our basic moves wouldn't do any justice to neither the school nor the game of capoeira - fortunately, just before we took the stage a couple of more experienced players arrived, so inbetween politely applauding the beginners, there were plenty of oohs and aaahs from the crowd when the flips, handstands and big kicks came out.

Djanira managed to make the second performance, and has video footage of me - looking like a rank-amateur, of course, but fortunately I didn't fall over and make a complete prat of myself. Unfortunately it's too big to put on here, and she didn't get any photos of me, so you'll have to wait for another day to laugh at my inabilities. However, here's a couple of photos of some more impressive play going on.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

It's looking Wii-lly good

The other day I nipped into PC World to buy some paper, and grabbed a chance to a have a quick go on a couple of Xbox360 demo machines. The two games I played were MotoGP (a motorbike racing game) and Dead or Alive 3 (a beat-em-up). The first thing I noticed was the fact that, on MotoGP, the graphics were nigh-on video quality. I'll be honest, my jaw dropped - I simply couldn't believe how realistic and life-like the game looked. Dead or Alive 3 was more stylised (thus less life-like) but still looked breathtakingly beautiful.

Yet I eventually left the store rather unimpressed. Why? Because, once a certain standard has been reached, graphics just don't make much difference. Superbike 2000 had brilliant graphics, and when played with a joystick, was pretty much all you could ever want from a motorbike racing sim. Is Dead or Alive 3 really much better than Tekken 3, or Soul Caliber? I guess what I'm getting at is, is it worth paying hundreds of pounds for a new system, and £50 each for games to play on it, when the final experience you get isn't much different?

My current thinking is 'no'. Which is why, each time I hear a little more about Nintendo's console, the daftly-monikered 'Wii', I get more and more interested. It's now well-accepted that the graphical power will not be as high as the Xbox360 or the PS3, yet the new control system (which is based around the detection of motion of a wireless controller) opens up an entire new domain of gaming options. Fine, if it works well. Yet from reading reports on the internet (e.g., it looks like Nintendo, and the various developers who have working on the launch titles, might just pull it off.

In conjunction with the facts that the Wii is likely to cost around £150 at launch (under half the price of the PS3), the games will be around £30 (rather than £50), and many classic Nintendo games of previous consoles will be available for direct download for £5 or £10, Nintendo might actually have a chance of taking top-dog in the console market. Previously I have been a Sony die-hard when it comes to consoles, but unless Sony announce something really revolutionary with the PS3 (and drop the price!), my money might well be going Nintendo's way.

Monday, September 11, 2006

September the 11th

Today is the fifth anniversary on the attack on the twin towers of New York. Remembrance services are being held around the world. But are we remembering the right things? Today's newspaper had some interesting 'official death toll' statistics, based on worldwide activity since 11/9/01:

US citizens killed in terrorist attacks: just under 3000.
US citizens killed in 'the war on terror': just over 3000.

Worldwide deaths due to 'terrorist attacks': just under 5000.
Worldwide deaths due to 'the war on terror': >95,000.

So. While it is right to mourn those who died five years ago today, shouldn't we also be mourning the other 90,000 people who have died, mostly innocent civilians in Iraq and Afganistan?

And while Saddam Hussein deserves to be tried and punished for killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians; why isn't anybody being tried and punished for the deaths of nearly one hundred thousand people who have died thanks to military action that has occured since September 11th?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

This is the second Iain M. Banks I've read, and I approached it with great expections after enjoying Consider Phlebas so much. It tells the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a human employee of the Culture who is basically used to do their dirty work - sent in undercover to change the political or military situation in a given location. As capable as Zakalwe is though, there is a secret buried deep in his past...

The manner in which the way the book is written is quite different to normal. It has two strands than run in alternate chapters through the book. The first is what could be called the 'real-time' thread, which describes the story of the current events; whereas the second thread is, in essence, a series of short-stories that describe aspects of Zakalwe's past. Crucially, the stories in this second thread are presented in reverse order - the later the chapter the earlier the point it describes in Zakalwe's life. It works quite well, as the events in the 'real' story reach a climax, so the timeline of the reverse story reaches a crucial point alluded to through the entire book.

There's no doubt that the book is an enjoyable read, Banks' style is very readable and there is plenty of meat to the book. I do, however, have a bit of a problem with the ending. There is a twist, of sorts, though to be honest it is less of a twist and more of a complete surprise. A good twist should make your mouth drop and get you riffling back through the pages to find half-remembered references and hints. The ending of this book does no such thing, it's just a bit of a slap in the face, with no explanation. Maybe I'm being a little harsh, but if so it's because I think the quality of the rest of the book deserves a good twist.

Nonetheless it is still a good read. Excession is up next and apparently that is more similar to Consider Phlebas, so I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The berimbau

The most important instrument when playing Capoeira is the berimbau. It's basically a single string tensioned over a wooden stick, with an amplifying gourd at the bottom. There are only two notes (altered by pressing a stone against the string) but a variety of percussive sounds possible, and it is quite tricky to consistently play even a basic rhythm - let alone sing aswell! Djanira and her father Jorge have written an article about it, which you can find here.

I recently bought a new berimbau (from because the one I borrowed from Jorge accident. Very embarrassing. Suffice it to say that Jorge is now the owner of a brand new berimbau, which I am borrowing on a long term loan. The biggest problem is that it is bloody impossible to string the thing! It's so hard to bend the wood and I don't want to try and bend it too much because they do break :(

Monday, August 21, 2006

Review: The Shadow of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's novel, The Shadow of the Wind, is an international bestseller, and was recommended to me by several people. Furthermore, it also has the dubious honour of having been in Richard and Judy's book club, which of course makes it a must read!

Set in Barcelona shortly after the Second World War, it tells the story of Daniel, the teenage son of a bookseller, and his quest to unearth the history behind a mysterious book - also called the Shadow of the Wind - and its now-deceased author, Julian Carax.

It's hard not to like this book. It's an old fashioned mystery story, with goodies, baddies, a bit of violence, a bit of sex, lots of rain and plenty of dark alleys and creaky old houses. There's suspense by the bucketload and, despite it being quite a long book, I never once got bored.

Of course it is rather unrealistic - our hero Daniel frequently exhibits maturity beyond his tender years, before acting correctly for his age a few pages later. But such things have never stood in the way of a good yarn and, in my opinion, they never should do. Though I wonder whether the story appeals more to boys than girls? Djanira read the book before me, and enjoyed it; but Daniel tells his story in the first person, and thus the entire book is seen very much through a boy's eyes.

Anyway I thoroughly recommend it - although I must admit I'm rather pleased to have finished it. I have recently taken delivery of three more Iain M. Banks books, so now it's back to the Sci-Fi for a while...

Thursday, August 17, 2006


I'm not usually that good at starting new things, but after a few weeks of umming and ahhing a lot, I bit the bullet and started Capoeira classes. If you don't know anything about Capoeira, it's basically unique combination of fighting, dancing and music, that was developed by African slaves in Brazil as a method of self-defense that could be practised without their Portuguese masters punishing them for actually fighting - because while it involves lots of fighting-like moves (kicks, punches, headbutts, trips, you-name-it) there is actually little actual physical contact. It's all set to a unique Brazilian music, and you can find loads more info here.

It is phenomenally popular in Brazil but has now expanded worldwide along with the travels of Brazilian expats. London has several schools, and I decided to join Capoeira Canal, a small school which meets near me in West London - partially because it's so close but partially because it offered structured beginner classes, rather than the "beginners turn up to any class" attitude of other schools.

What can I say? I'm hooked! I love the combination of aggressive, purposeful movement, the strangely hypnotic music, and the fact that you don't really get hurt - although my leg muscles were aching for a few days after the first class! I particularly like the non-stop movement - many martial arts seem to emphasise rigid control and focus, whereas Capoeira encourages you to become absorbed in the constant movement and the rhythm of the music.

So far I've had two lessons and learned the ginga (pronounced in English: 'jinga'), which is the basic movement which underscores all of Capoeira, a few simple dodges (esquivas), and a couple of kicks. I've also learned two really important moves, the rolê and , which let you step and cartwheel across the ring (the roda) and to keep moving, which pretty much the central tenet of Capoeira.

It's great fun, I'm really enjoying it, so expect more updates as I learn new moves and how to play the berimbau, the main instrument. If you're lucky you may even get to laugh at a video of me falling over!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Climbing: Froggatt slabs

Yesterday the weather was ideal for climbing gritstone, in my opinion - cool enough to guarantee good friction, though not so cold that your fingers drop off. So Damo and I drove up early to meet Dave J at Froggatt, in the Peak District. Last time I climbed there I was just breaking into E1, and since then I've been looking forward to having a go at a couple of the mid-grade classics - no room for error though!

Great Slab E3 5b
What a brilliant, brilliant route, one of the great classics of British climbing. There is no gear anywhere on the slab so there's no point with ropes or harness. Years ago I never thought I'd even consider doing it, but I'm really glad that I changed my mind. It's far from the most technically difficult route that I've done, but it still ranks as one of the finest, most exhilarating moments of my climbing career so far.
I'm looking relaxed in the photo but that was before the crux!

Long John's Slab E3 5c
Another gearless Froggatt slab climb, harder climbing
than Great Slab but less psychologically draining, as the moves are more obvious. The crux is stepping off the ground, basically, though the landing wouldn't be particularly pleasant. Barely justifies E3, but I suppose it would be a mean sandbag at E2.

Brown's Eliminate E2 5b
Yet another Froggatt slab climb, but this time with two good cams at half height and an easy top-out. The grade is spot on, and the crux moves, stepping off the half-height ledge, are great.

I also did Brightside E2 5c, but I think I went off route which made it rather easier - in which case it's a very contrived line and barely worth bothering with. And I had a play on the start of Downhill Racer E4 6a, but backed off from the low crux, as I wasn't 100% sure of making it. It's still there for the future...and, crucially, so am I!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Biking: Red Bull District Ride 2006

The Red Bull District Ride has just finished it's second round out in Nuremburg, and you can watch the highlights to your heart's content here. It's almost enough to make me want to go out on a street ride again. Though not quite. Pretty amazing stuff but I can't help thinking that, while these guys get a lot of air, in terms of technicality MTBing is still lagging miles behind BMX. The difference is that the MTB scene lacks the hate-everything, individualistic attitude that plagues BMX culture - thus its more corporate image attracts the big name sponsors, which is why a BMX competition has yet to get the run of the centre of a large European city.

It annoys me in a way because there are riders out there really pushing the boundaries of technical MTB-riding, trying to fuse the best parts of MTB-street, BMX-street and dirt-jumping into one package. But people like Ryan Leech, Chris Akrigg and Eddie Tongue are either relegated to bit parts in the latest New World Disorder flick, or have stepped back from the pro-riding limelight, as they're not getting the money/sponsorship/recognition that they deserve.

So, while it's all very impressive seeing the Paul Basagiotas and Cam McCauls of this world pulling a backflip or tail-whip with a gothic cathedral in the background, it's tempered by the fact that they're riding a trail that was blazed by our 20" wheel cousins several decades ago. The money's only there now because of the packaging.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Review: Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks

A couple of years ago, I borrowed one of Scuffy's Iain M. Banks books, The Player of Games, but I didn't manage to get into it, though in fairness I didn't try very hard. Since then I read Banks' latest book, The Algebraist, and enjoyed it, so decided to give his earlier books another chance.

Fortunately Mr Paul had a spare copy of Consider Phlebas that he was happy to lend me. This is Banks' first book set in the universe of the Culture, a society where sentient machines have gradually taken over the hum-drum of everyday life, leaving the organic species within the Culture free to enjoy themselves and live a life of carefree happiness - at the expense of essentially being ruled by artificially intelligent beings. Undoubtedly, it is a fascinating premise and, being a bit of a closet sci-fi/fantasy geek, it is a wonder why I have not got round to reading this book, and it's successors, much sooner. Especially given that they were written over 10 years ago. Ah well, better late than never.

The background story of the book is based around war - with the Culture defending itself against the expansion of an evolutionarily advanced, organic species called the Idirans. The Idirans are a highly religious, warlike people, who are offended by the very concept that the Culture should exist. Banks balances both sides in the war perfectly, painstakingly developing the good and bad aspects of both societies, so that even at the end of the book the reader isn't sure which side they should been supporting. It is a clever ploy as it allows you to be swept up in the central story of the characters - wanting them to succeed in their quest, but never being sure if, in the grand scheme of the war, their success would actually be a good thing!

Overall I enjoyed it very much, the action moved on at a fair old lick but it still took a step back every now and again to let the characters and situation to be fleshed out. I shall definately get hold of another Culture book - does anybody have any recommendations for which is best to read next?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Climbing: Peak District July 2006

Yesterday I took a day trip to the Peak District to meet with Lau, Alastair, Nienke and Nick. Lau and I headed to High Tor, a crag we had first visited almost two years ago, ticking the classic E1 Debauchery. Back then we said we'd have to come back to the counterdiagonal E2 Delicatessen, which we did yesterday, what a brilliant route - the line is marked out on the photo, belays at the red dots. Then I started up Flaky Wall, an E4 I've had my eyes on for a while, but it started raining - rats! I was pretty confident too. So after a quick pub break it stopped raining and we headed to Cratcliffe to nip up a quick route or two - or so we thought!

Delicatessen E2 5c, 5b High Tor
I took the first pitch, the ever-reliable Lau the second. Magnificent climbing, not at all polished, with tricky 5c moves both right at the start and right at the end of my pitch; the final moves to reach the belay in particular are exposed, airy, fingery, delicate and just brilliant. The second pitch was a delightful delicate traverse, led confidently and in style by Ian; it's only marred by the fact that it joins the horribly polished HVS, Original Route, to finish off.

Boot Hill E3 5c Cratcliffe
There's no two wasy about it, this route beat me up. I didn't fall, but had to rest twice - although the second was only because I didn't see a good foothold, and gave up early as I knew I'd blown the onsight anyway. A brilliant route but possibly not one to do as your first grit route of the year, on a hot humid evening with very little friction. For my arrogance I deserved to get punished and so I'm not too miffed - actually I'm pretty pleased I got up it at all! With hindsight it is a brilliant route with some wonderful layaway moves off the rounded arete - although those weren't words leaving my mouth as I was halfway up the thing!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Opinion: 'MySpace sucks'

My good mate Richie 'Scuffboy' Astbury has some strong opinions about MySpace. He's right, you know...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 2

Last night I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. I was a fan of the first one and friends who had seen it said 'if you liked that, you'll like this'. By and large they were right, the slapstic moments come thick and fast and several times I was laughing out loud during the film.

However, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were pretty rubbish like in the previous effort, and while Depp still dazzles as Jack Sparrow it is only really the new character of Davy Jones that really grabs the attention.
The plot ideas aren't really original (anybody who's the played the Monkey Island computer games will feel right at home in some scenes), and at two and half hours the film is 30 minutes too long.

Still it is worth going to see and good way to spend an evening, I will definately be going to see the final part of the trilogy.

Edit: The following night I finally got round to seeing The Shawshank Redemption. Comparing this to POTC is like comparing To Kill a Mocking Bird to Winnie the Pooh.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Climbing: Cloggy, July 2006

Last weekend, me, Lau, Dave and Laura took far too much stuff with us to Cloggy, and wild camped by the lake. It was awesome. Some thoughts on the routes:

The Troach, E2 5b
Hugh Banner led it in the 60s, what an amazing effort. The start of the main pitch is a bold step out before a mantelshelf up to better holds and good gear. The move is actually pretty easy but feels very E2. The technical crux is higher up but there's a good nut to protect it. Kudos to Lau for leading the 3rd (5a) pitch with zero decent gear!

White Slab, E1/2 5b/c
Justifies it's reputation as one of the best routes in the country. I set Lau off up the first pitch cos I'd done it before, and thought he needed to wake up a little! This meant that I had the lasso pitch, but I failed miserably to get the rope anywhere near the spike, which is a) tiny and b) miiiles away. So I free climbed it, 5c and bold, brilliant moves though. We took our time over the 7 pitches (5 hours) but both of us really enjoyed it, what more can you ask for?

Climbing: Gower photos, and Dave Macleod

Click the link to see some photos that Dave J took on my birthday weekend in Gower. We worked on a line at a new crag at Fall Bay. Very bouldery English 6b-ish moves, which none of us managed cleanly. There is small gear but if you fell you'd swing right into the little shelf (see photo right) and probably break your ankles. Shame in a way cos if the landing was nicer you could probably boulder it out with some mats.

Sunday we went bouldering down at Caswell and I showed Lau Dave and Paul my favourite problems. Great fun.

And here's a link to Dave Macleod's blog, the guy is not only a machine, but he seems like a very decent sort of chap to boot.

Here we go!

So, I've finally done it, I've finally got round to entering the big-wide-world of blogging. I figure that the only chance that people are going to read this is if I post some code and google stumbles upon it, which I intend on doing pretty frequently, because I've learned so much from other people doing similar things. I'll also post links to articles, photos, stories, and anything I find interesting - though primarily because it'll remind me of these things in the future. If you do happen to stumble on this blog and have anything to say, then feel free to mail me. If you're particularly lucky, you might even get a coherent reply!