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!