Friday, December 21, 2007

Some early results

As you will recall, I am now working for Fundació Barcelona Media, and the main focus of my work at the moment is on a pan-european project called SALERO, which "aims at making cross media-production for games, movies and broadcast faster, better and cheaper by combining computer graphics, language technology, semantic web technologies as well as content based search and retrieval".

Specifically I am working on facial animation, and recently I was invited to upload a short video to the project's youtube channel. The official blurb to go with the video goes a bit like:
The purpose of this video is to demonstrate the concept of being able to transfer pre-exising facial animation from a low-resolution mask to any high resolution face. The 'Maskle' is placed over the face, allowing the bone structure to be automatically created, and the animation skin weights to be transferred. Current work is focussing on movement of the maskle to enable its automatic fitting to a variety of face shapes.
and the video itself looks like:

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

10 essential bits of software

My new laptop arrived the other day and the first thing I did was to wipe the drive and reinstall Windows, partially to ensure there was no bloatware hanging around the system (although Dell are actually very good about this, there was very little pre-installed rubbish) and partially because I wanted an English language copy of Windows, and the installation of a language pack to the pre-installed Spanish version was proving to be a more-hassle-than-it's-worth jobbie.

After reinstalling I went through the usual rigmarole of downloading and installing all the "bits of software I can't live without" (or, at least, "can't use a copy of Windows without"), and I thought I might aswell write a short list of these, simply because I found many of these excellent programs through recommendations published on blogs, just like this one.

The most important criteria for any of these programs is that they have to be as small and as fast as possible - by that I mean they should use as little system resources as possible, and not worm themselves into every single corner of your Windows installation. I don't like waiting 10 minutes for my PC to start up, and the more things that are hidden away in the registry, the slower everything runs. They should also be pretty easy to install/remove and, of course, they should be free! So here's my top 10, pretty much in the order that I would download them:

1) Firefox - Bit of a no-brainer this one. If you're not using it, you're missing out on the wonderful world of Extensions. The fact that Firefox is open source means that anybody in the world can develop a plugin that 'extends' the functionality of the browser, in a way that neither Internet Explorer or Safari can manage to the same level. My must-have extensions are Adblock (with Filterset.G), the Google Notebook extension (more on this later) and the search tools for English-Spanish and vice versa.

2) Grisoft AVG Free - Forget paying for McAfee, Norton, Symantec or F-Secure. For some time Grisoft have offered their free, cut-down version of their anti-virus software, and it's great. You don't get all the bells and whistles, but you do get a virus checker that provides live scanning of every file that passes through your system, and lets you schedule exactly when you want it to update itself. Unless you are given a free copy of another product, there's no reason to use anything else.

3) SpyBot Search and Destroy - One of the original spyware killers which, through creaking a little on Vista, still does a good job. Download and run once in a while, just for piece of mind. It's a shame the other 'must-have' spyware killer, Adaware, has shot itself in the foot with its 2007 release as it has an 'updater' that permanently runs in the background, which is rather ironic when you think about it.

4) 7-zip - Windows does an okay job of integrating zip-file functionality, but doesn't deal with other compressed formats, notably *.rar. 7zip is to my mind the king of compression software. Small, discreet, well-written, and very very powerful.

5) Google Talk - Instant messaging, file transfer, VoIP telephone calls, and email notification. Essential for those with a gmail account, useless otherwise. You do use gmail though, right?

6) uTorrent - Contrary to popular belief, there are legal uses to file-sharing software. Just the other day I downloaded the freeware version of Rebirth RB338, which is only available as a torrent. Of course, the less-than-legal use of such technology (which of course I whole-heartedly condemn) is why there are hundreds of bit-torrent clients, of which uTorrent consistently gets the best reviews.

7) Picasa - While I'm a little bit alarmed by Google's increasing world dominance, there no denying that if you like fast, useful software, much of their stuff is up there with the best. Picasa is a pretty good photo management software, and has a fair stab at being photo editor, but its strongest feature is a seamless link to an excellent web album. If you already have a google account, it's the easiest way of publishing photos on the web.

8) Paint.NET - Windows' old Paint program is a throwback to the days of Windows 3.1 and I was astounded to see it still bundled with Vista. Yet on many occasions you don't want to open up Photoshop or the GIMP just to save a screen grab, or to do some simple image editing. Enter stage left Paint.NET, the MS-approved-unofficial-replacement to Paint. It is simple, quick, yet vastly more powerful that its predecessor.

9) Real Alternative - RealPlayer is a horrible bit of software. The default install spreads itself everywhere, tried to hijack your system so that it is the default player for everything, throwing popups every now and again, nagging you to update it every 5 minutes, and generally being a pain in the arse. Unfortunately, if you are outside the UK, to listen to BBC Radio online you have to use it - or so I thought! Fortunately there is an alternative - the Real Alternative only installs the codec (the file required to decode audio data encoded in a certain format) that RealPlayer uses, thus letting you listen to the BBC free and without hassle.

10) Foxit Reader - For similar reasons to number (9) above, I don't like Acrobat Reader. The latest version is ridiculously slow, is bundled with all sorts of useless nonsense, and has an annoying 'update' program which lurks around in the background. There are variety of alternative pdf readers, but this one was the first I found, and I can see absolutely no reason to change, as it is small, unobtrusive, and over twice as fast as Adobe Reader. And while we're talking about pdfs, don't forget there are some nifty tools that such as PDF995 and Bullzip that let you 'print' a pdf.

Lastly, honourable mention should go to something which is less software and more of a service. Google Notebook is essentially a mobile, searchable, bookmarks folder, which lets you save interesting pages or useful bits of text, and access them via the web from anywhere in the world. When combined with the relevant Firefox extension, I think it is the single most useful thing that has come out of internet development for several years. Of course, all this means that I am now sharing my emails, photos and personal favourites which one of the largest companies on earth...let's just hope they stick to their "Don't be evil" motto!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Windy Weather at Pooh Corner

For the last 24 hours much of the eastern coast of Spain has been battered by 70 mph gusts of wind, which has seen a fair bit of damage but no serious accidents. Last night I woke up at 3pm, cursing the neighbour that had forgotten to secure their window shutters, which were clattering away in a very annoying fashion. 10 noisy minutes later it dawned on me that that annoying neighbour was in fact, me; so I spent a chilly five minutes on our balconies tying things down. On my commute to work this morning I was expecting to see big waves, but as you can see from the photo, it was pretty flat, and the wind and had completely died, very disappointing.

In other news, Djanira and I drove down to the Costa Blanca this weekend for some climbing. It was a 'puente' weekend - bank holidays in Spain are taken on the exact date, not the nearest monday as in Britain, and the result is that if the holiday falls on a tuesday or thursday, most people 'make a bridge' ('hace puente') and take the intervening monday or friday off for a four day weekend. This is what we did this weekend, and it's a good job too becuase it's bloody miles down to the Costa Blanca. The climbing there is excellent and it of course the weather was superb - sunny and 20+ degrees every day, much warmer than up here in Catalunya (although, it IS still sunny here ;) Here are some piccies:

Both of us were quite pleased to get climbing again and, although not at peak fitness, there were still signs of life in the forearms. Dj was doing particularly well as she led several routes which has given her some more confidence in ropework and the leading system. She's yet to take a lead fall though! On Saturday we hope to able to get out again to one of the local crags, and we might even try and get a bit of floodlit climbing done at La fuixarda (Barcelona's crag/climbing wall). Might be a little chilly though!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why biometric ID is a bad idea

I'm not all that against the idea of an compulsory ID card. I mean, most of us carry around enough stuff with us anyway - driver licenses, bank cards, AA cards etc. that it makes no difference. And here in Spain (and elsewhere in much of Europe) everybody carries their photo ID (which you have to show when buying anything using a credit/debit card) and it's not a big deal.

However, I am very against the use of biometric data, such as fingerprints or iris data, for the purposes of identification. For one simple reason: once it is stolen, it cannot be reset.

If somebody gets hold of your bank card details, your PIN number, your passport number, your email, your drivers license etc. it's a pain, yes, but a quick phone call to relevant people and the old number/card/document is declared void, and you get a new one. If somebody steals your fingerprint, they have it for life. Furthermore, we leave our fingerprints on every single thing we touch. And yes, it really is that easy to make a copy, as the ever-reliable Ben Goldacre demonstrates.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Via Ferrata in Andorra

The rest of the piccies are here.

While Djanira was away in Madagascar over the summer, I popped back to London for a week or so, and one afternoon I ended up in Stanfords on Long Acre (as you do) where I happened upon a newish Cicerone guidebook entitled "The Mountains of Andorra". Within seconds of picking it up I was walking to the counter - it is a well-written summary of about 50 walks in the Andorran Pyrannees, and just what I was looking for. But the really interesting stuff was at the end of the book, a chapter describing the Via Ferrata of Andorra.

Via Ferrata is a style of climbing which, to paraphrase the guidebook description, "goes against the primary rule of the mountains (leave only footprints, take only photographs), but there is no denying it is a lot of fun". Essentially, a via ferrata ("iron way") is a metal cable which has been laid or strung up the side of mountain, for the purpose of the safety of people who wish to climb it. Basically, you clip a carabiner, attached to your climbing harness via a metre of rope to the cable, so if you happen to fall, the cable saves you from doing so to your death. The story goes that the original via ferrata were created to enable the Italian army to rapidly cross the Dolomites, and it is there that this style of mountaineering is still most famous (though, thanks to Helicopters, the army doesn't use them any more). Yet as the popularity of climbing and mountain sports in general increases, many other areas (such as Andorra) are spending the time and money creating Via Ferrata to increase tourism and boost the economy.

The construction of the Andorran ferrata has been quite a success. As a country, Andorra is blessed with a vast quantity of rock (it is right the middle of Pyrannees) but unfortunately much of it is quite shattered and not so suitable for pure rock-climbing. This is where the Via Ferrata comes in, as it lets you link the good bits of climbing by letting you quickly and safely scramble over the less attractive sections (you climb Ferrata with light walking boots). They are very generously equipped with metal rungs (more so than in the dolomites, so I've heard) so that if you can climb a ladder, you can reach the top. However, what this means is that they lead you into wildly overhanging and exposed territory (in climbing terms, places you'd need to be leading E-something to get to) and they are not for the faint of heart or those without a head for heights.

This weekend was a bank holiday weekend and so DJ and I spent four days in Andorra with some friends, did three via ferrata and a Very Long Walk. It was completely awesome, the last day in particular leading us up a mountain that is essentially one large cliff, finishing off with a tightrope suspension bridge. I say again, it was completely awesome, and we are hooked on this via ferrata stuff. It's going to have wait for a while now though as, despite this weekend's good weather, the first snows have reached Andorra already and everybody's fingers are crossed for a good ski-season. Still, there's no reason the ferrata can't be done in the snow!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Some time ago I blogged about how the Wii was looking like the way forward for the gaming industry. The Xbox 360 and PS3 may have the better graphics, but the Wii has its motion sensitive controller, possibly the most revolutionary item of gaming hardware since the joystick was invented. I was interested to re-read my words from back then, because I raved about how the Wii looked great, while the PS3 looked dead in the water, and that I wasn't that impressed with the Xbox360. Yet, as you will notice by scrolling down the page a little, the other day I got me an Xbox, not a Wii. Why? Well to answer that question, we have to talk about the Wii version of a game called Rockstar Presents Table Tennis.

The game was first released on the Xbox 360 over a year ago, and made a big impact due to it's outstanding graphics, addictive gameplay, and cheap price. In fact, the existence of the game contributed to my decision to buy an Xbox360 rather than a Wii or PS3, in that it is part of a large catalog of excellent games that I wanted to play, that were only available for the Xbox. The news that it had been ported recently to the Wii made me feel a little sick - surely the idea of actually being able to *play* virtual table tennis, crafting shots with a motion sensitive controller, would make this version superior to that on the Xbox? In which case, had a just bought the wrong console?

Well, from reading about the game, and from having played around a bit with other games on Wii, it would appear that my fears are unfounded. Yes you can use the motion sensitive controller to play table tennis, but in a completely unrealistic way. You don't hit the ball as you would do with a table tennis bat, you have to learn to make the correct gesture in order to hit the ball in the desired direction - it doesn't even separate the different swings for forehand and backhand - and to impart spin (crucial in table tennis) you have to resort to pushing buttons on the controller body. Basically, you still have to learn an artificial control scheme before you can actually play the game which, for me, rather nullifies the point of having motion sensitive controller.

The other big difference is the fact that there is no online play in the Wii version. Playing another human being is vastly more satisfying than playing an artifical intelligence, and online play gives you a greater opportunity to do that. Lastly, the graphics are crap, at least compared to the almost-lifelike quality of those of the Xbox verion. I know this shouldn't matter, but when you're comparing two versions of the same game, there's no doubt that it does.

I must admit that, in general, and having played it a bit at a mate's house and in FNAC, I'm quite disappointed with the Wii. Yes, it is a significant milestone in computer gaming. Yes, it has been a commercial success. Yes, it has drawn in grannies and mums and all sorts of people that never thought they would play a video game, ever. And you have to applaud Nintendo for achieving that. Yet all it has managed to do is pull the wool over people's eyes, glossing over the necessity to learn an artificial control system by making it seem more real - but real it is not, and learn it you must. For those of us less scared of traditional console joypads, the wiimote is actually a regressive step, offering less precision and less opportunity to practice and master a game's interface.

So although the Wii is a step in the right direction, I'm happy with the Xbox for the time being. Eventually, somebody will develop a commercially viable controller that is able to properly mimic the motion of a virtual table-tennis bat, and let you play near-as-dammit real table tennis against some random person in another part of the world. That would be worth paying money for.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Rugby Final

I watched the game in some Irish bar downtown. Possibly the dullest game of rugby I've ever watched. I spotted this on the Guardian's website, a comment by some anonymous person,

Well done England for getting to the final with a crap team. I hope it will be some solace to you to know that Wales scored 50 points more than you despite playing three games fewer.

Home come Johnny didn't do that thing with the drop goal in the dying minutes?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Xbox 360

Despite my last post, it would seem that recently I've gone all Microsoft crazy in that I've installed Vista, and got me an Xbox 360. Now I'm no great fan of Microsoft, but neither am I a Sony/Nintendo/Mac/Linux/Unix/ fanboy, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

So, the Xbox. I have been thinking of getting one for ages, tempted by stories of online gaming, cheap retro games and Media Centre compatibility. What finally tipped the cart was a miserable wet Saturday morning (after I'd just come back from a miserable week in Germany), a lack of Djanira in the flat, and only the sixth ever 10/10 given to a game by Edge Magazine, for Halo 3.

So, is all the hype worth it? Well, there's no denying that, by and large, it all seems to work very well. Xbox Live (the name given to the online gaming portal) couldn't be easier to set up, but the biggest novelty is not just being able to play games online (the PC sorted this years ago), but being able to speak to other players in real time. The Xbox comes with a (wireless) controller and a headset unit that plugs into it, which enables communication between players. It's quite something to be able to play Rockstar's Table Tennis against a human-being located who-knows-where in the world; but it's something else entirely being able to speak to them as you play, congratulate them on a good shot, complement each other after a good rally or, more usually in my case, excuse oneself for being completely rubbish. The headset, and its default inclusion into the Xbox Live experience, is what elevates online gaming on the console above that what is available for the PC. Sure, there are a million and one gaming-talk applications on the PC, while on the Xbox there is only one - but everybody is using it.

There other excellent feature of Xbox Live is 'Xbox Live Arcade', a growing collection of old-school (though not necessarily old) arcade games that can be downloaded and saved to the console's hard-drive for a few quid each. Most of them have a free demo-level for you to try, and while many of them are rubbish, some are excellent. Geometry Wars is one of the most popular and has become a classic, proving that you don't need amazing graphics to have a great game, but I'm very excited about SpeedBall 2, a classic amiga game which I used to play with my cousin John when I was a kid, which is being revamped for Xbox Live Arcade. Lastly, Xbox Live lets you download free demos for all the latest full-price releases, nothing new for a PC gamer but a welcome bonus for your average consolista.

The final clincher for me is the console's integration with a PC running XP Media Centre or Vista. The Xbox connects with the Media Centre, allowing you to access the music and video stored on your PC through the console. This works well for me as my PC (and all my music) is not in the lounge, but my Xbox is: ergo I can listen to tunes in the lounge without having to go through the hassle of burning a CD and all that. There's no doubt that the interface is very slick and it all works well, though the lack of native DivX and Xvid video support on the Xbox is what prevents it from being the all-in-one solution. Still, it is very impressive.

So, to conclude; from what I've experienced and read of the PS3 and the Wii, the Xbox is quite comfortably ahead in terms of functionality, at least at the moment. Of course, the fact that it is an accomplished single-player gaming system is one thing, but what really sets it apart is its online and media centre capabilities. All I need now is get some of you lot to come and join me in Halo 3's cooperative mode...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Old Microsoft joke

I was searching the internet for some help with a little code problem I had, and stumbled across this page, which consists of some bloke asking a question (exactly the same one as I had) and a Microsoft employee giving an answer:

Upon reading it I was instantly reminded of old joke which, given the employee's response in the link above, is based upon reality...!

A helicopter was flying around above Seattle when an electrical malfunction disabled all of the aircraft's electronic navigation and communications qquipment. Due to the clouds and haze, the pilot could not determine the helicopter's position and course to fly to the airport. The pilot saw a tall building, flew toward it, circled, drew a handwritten sign, and held it in the helicopter's window. The pilot's sign said "WHERE AM I?" in large letters. People in the tall building quickly responded to the aircraft, drew a large sign and held it in a building window. Their sign read: "YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER." The pilot smiled, waved, looked at her map, determined the course to steer to SEATAC airport, and landed safely. After they were on the ground, the co-pilot asked the pilot how the "YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER" sign helped determine their position. The pilot responded "I knew that had to be the Microsoft building because, like their technical support, online help and product documentation, the response they gave me was technically correct, but completely useless."


Friday, October 05, 2007

Internet at last!

You may recall a solution that a friend of mine employed to gain access to his neighbours wireless networks, with the aid of a wok as an arial to boost the signal. Well, had i been following my friends example over the last few months, then I would no longer need to, because now finally our flat is connected to the outside world! We had organised for one company to come and connect us up, but after three months of waiting nothing had happened, so we said bugger it and went with another company - and yesterday (less than a fortnight after I had requested it) the engineers came and installed the service. I'll be changing the default 'security' settings on my wireless router though!

In other news, the last three days have seen a solid 2 foot of swell, which in the mornings is glassy clean, but more choppy by the evening after the wind has picked up. Unfortunately, lazy bones Alun hasn't been bothered to get up early enough to enjoy it clean, and has only watched it enviously on his ride to work, and gone in in the evening instead. But the clocks go back sooner rather than later so ther'll be no time for surfing after work, so I'll have to get my arse in gear in the mornings.

And one funny story to finish off. Yesterday afternoon it started to rain, and I couldn't help chuckling as the whole off office stopped working and walked to the window to look. In fairness, it was a quite impressive heavy shower, but the thought struck me that if people behaved similarly in Britain, nobody would get any work done!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Graduation, new job, and surfing!

A lot to catch up on this time because I've been away for a while, back in Blighty for a three reasons. The first was to do my last week's work in my old office in London (though I go to Germany for a conference next week), the second was to attend my mate Mark (as in, Mark-I-did-my-MSc-with-Mark)'s wedding, and third was for my graduation. The picture above is of me with my beautiful, wonderful girlfriend, in Russell Square just before the ceremony. I must be honest, the last two graduation ceremonies I've been to have been rather rubbish, and I didn't have much hope for this one either, but it was actually really well done - they were doing the year's honorary degrees in the same ceremony, so there was a bit more pomp than there is usually. After eating and drinking as much free wine and nibbles that we could get our hands on at the post-ceremony reception, we rounded the day off with a few beers in outside the Jeremy Bentham with my old workmates and supervisors, Tryphon and Cliffy.

In other news, I have started a new job! I am leaving my old job at UCL and have started in a company called Barcelona Media, a not-for-profit research entity setup as a spin-off from the main university in Barcelona, Universidad Pompeu Fabra. I have joined the computer graphics research group, and it's pretty much my perfect job - I would have applied for it had it been in Britain, so it's a total bonus having it here. Although I've only been there three days everything is going swimmingly, my first 'warm-up' project is to see if I can help a PhD student who is a bit stuck on his project which is to do with facial animation, so I am busy getting up to scratch on my 3D modelling and animation. All good.

Finally I ran the gauntlet of surfboard air-travel the other day, and fortunately my board arrived in Barcelona airport in exactly the same condition that it left (i.e. very good!). Also, for Djanira's birthday I bought her a bodyboard plus all the kit, something she's been talking about getting for ages. Yesterday was her actual birthday and, right on time, 2' of choppy swell arrived in the evening, so we trotted off down the beach. Needless to say Djanira caught several really good waves and thoroughly showed me up (although I did manage a couple of half-decent rides) and we both left the water after sunset, tired but with big smiles on our faces. Although the swell had dropped I sneaked in another session this evening while Djanira was off doing some temporary translation work, it was only a foot and barely rideable on my board, but good to get out and get some practice for the bigger days. I must admit it's thoroughly bloody marvellous being up and riding on a board again, I had almost forgotten how much fun it is. Roll on the winter and bigger waves!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Image resizing using seam carving

It's very rare that I see something in Image Processing that makes me go 'wow'. The fact is that a lot of the current state-of-the-art in the field is becoming increasingly limited in its scope, and many good research groups are either wallowing in their own success or pursuing ideas that are more and more mathematically complex yet lack any real purpose.

This video on youtube though is brilliant. From a technical point of view, the work is quite basic. But from a 'bugger me that's such a cool idea' point of view, it is superb. It just goes to show that the best ideas are not necessarily the most complex or technical ones.

And I can't help asking myself why I didn't think of that for my PhD?! I'd have made millions!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bollock-steep, bollock-rocky and bollock-hard

(not in this photo, though, obviously)
At about 3pm on saturday, Raoul and I sat down for a beer and some lunch, having had a morning's riding at the Grand Valira Bike Park in Andorra. I decided to rub things in a little bit for the boys back home, so texted Mr Paul my whereabouts and current situation. To immense joy and delight, his swift reply was thus: Currently pushing up Aston Hill (a mountain bike spot near London) with Muir and Rhys. Rhys says you're a ****. I agree. I laughed like a tit for a full minute.

The Grand Valira is the name given to the largest ski-lift network in the Pyrannees. For years it was split into two halves, as the two biggest resorts, Soldeu and Pas de la Casa, argued over which was the biggest and best. Fortunately, they have settled any differences they had and have now joined their lift systems. They have also invested in a bike park for the summer and created 11 downhill mountain bike trails and a myriad of cross-country trails, so they can draw tourists into the area in the 'off'-season, in an attempt to copy the success of other areas such as the Portes du Soleil in the French/Swiss alps. This of course means that bikers can take chairlifts and gondolas to the top of the mountain, and ride all the way down. It goes without saying that this is GOOD.

To be honest, though, I was left a little underwhelmed. To put it bluntly the trails just aren't as good as those in the Portes du Soleil. With a few notable exceptions, the construction feels a little lazy; many trails are just taped off sections of hill that have no flow and betray a lack of thought. I had a great day but left the tiniest bit disappointed - although I should also point out that I didn't get the time to ride all of the trails, so a repeat visit is certainly warranted.

So, after a night in Soldeu, we headed back across the hills to La Molina, to the second of Catalunya's three bike parks, and completely different to the Grand Valira. There is only one gondola here open in the summer, but the place could not be a bigger contrast to its Andorran cousin. The lift takes you up 800m and dumps you right at the top of a 2,500m mountain, so all the trails are very, very long - twice the length of those in Andorra. The biggest difference though, is the quality of the trails. The blue run is, without a shadow of a doubt, THE best trail I have ever ridden. Perhaps it is slightly more 'enduro' than a proper balls-out DH trail, but it is simply awesome. It weaves it's way down the hill along seemingly endless narrow technical singletrack, never too steep but never too slow. About halfway down it dawned on me that this was the best experience I'd ever had on a mountain bike, and it just kept coming and getting better and better. After who-know-how-long it dumps you out at the bottom, where a kilometre of easy fireroad takes you back to the lift station, but not before you hit a north-shore section, with a variety of drops and wall-rides. The whole place has obviously been designed by somebody who really knows what they are on about, and I simply can't wait to go there again. In fact, on my way down I had ridden the first third of the red run and then switched to the blue. The red was bollock-steep, bollock-rocky and bollock-hard. I don't know whether to be happy or scared at the prospect of the black!

The only shame was that we only had one ride up on the gondola, and then only just. Thunderstorms were around and by the time we'd reached the bottom again the lift was shut. Bollocks. Still, we had a time for a piss-about on the shore and it means there is more to come back to.

The best news, of course, is that less than two hours after leaving I was unpacking the car outside my flat. You lot (and you know who you are), you really do need to get out here...
A video, taken by some friendly Catalan chap, and the rest of the pics.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Junior is complete!

And here he is! Today I finally got round to visiting a bike shop that was actually open, to get the necessary bits to finish assembling Junior. Looking good, eh? The build is mostly what I was running on my old Specialized: Marzocchi Z150 forks, old (but effective) Hope 4-pots and full XT gearing, with the exception of the cranks, which are old Deores and will be the first target for an upgrade, though probably not until next year now.

A quick spin down to the beach confirmed that all was working but the first real opportunity to put him through his paces will be this weekend. The plan is to have a day at Vallnord, which is about a 3hr drive away, come back home for a few beers and then head out a little later on Sunday to La Molina, which is a the closest ski resort to Barcelona (only takes 90 minutes to get there), and which conveniently also has a bike park - only one lift and three proper trails, but apparently they are all very good. And it's reachable for an afternoon's riding from here, so I can't complain!

In other news the sun is shining after some refreshing rain this morning, and there was even a lovely little clean wave being enjoyed by about 10-15 surfers this evening down at my nearest beach. Djanira is back in London and has had great time in Madagascar, and is arriving back here in Barcelona on Monday. I'd better start cleaning the flat soon!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Street riding around Porto Olimpico

Today I went out on the Charge, with the main goal of going to the bike shop to buy a new cassette and seatpost for Junior. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that today is a public holiday (the Spanish take their public holidays on the exact date, rather than the nearest Monday, which is what we usually do in Britain), and so everything everywhere is shut. Rats.

The best thing about the Charge though, is its flexibility. I have taped him up to make him look less attractive to thieves (see pic - although it still looks quite badass unfortunately), and so use him for commuting and getting to and from places all the time. But today I took the the long way home from the bike shop through the Olympic Port, and ended up putting the saddle down for a good two hour's worth of street riding. The Olympic port was redeveloped and renamed for the 1992 Olympic games, held here in Barcelona, and this was where the Olympic village was, with all the accommodation for the athletes. It has now been converted into a modern housing estate which, while very safe (and actually quite upmarket) is actually quite soulless, in the way that all thrown-up-overnight sort of places tend to be. Fortunately for some, such places also tend to be very good for interesting street furniture, and the Olympic port is no exception! There are "lines and lines and lines and lines" (to quote a character from the League of Gentlemen TV series); pretty much everywhere you look, every corner you turn, you stumble across another possibility. From easy gentle wall rides to big-ass gaps that will brook no error, there is just so much to do. After an hour I was knackered (the heat is particularly draining, it's 30° today), but I kept getting diverted on the ride home by more cool stuff. In the end I had to stop as my tiredness was forcing mistakes, which eventually and inevitably result in a face-pavement meeting if left unnoticed, so I stopped before having any nasty crashes and headed home.

I'm getting used to the Charge now. The rigid forks in particular took me some time to adapt to, but I'm actually quite happy with them now and it makes me a more careful rider. I'm also finally getting better at manuals and a couple of lines today involved some pretty long manuals (for me that is, not Aaron Chase) across various bits and bobs. I even managed a decent "Manualeeeeeeeeeeeeeroooooooo" under my breath at one point!

The only disappointment of the day was that I didn't get my parts for Junior. Not to worry, it is only Wednesday, so plenty of time for me to sort it out before Saturday when my mate Raoul and I are heading up to the Vallnord Bike Park in Andorra. Oh yeah! Here is a shot of Junior 'work-in-progress' build:

Thursday, August 09, 2007


Here he is. Some of you may recall my old green Kona Stinky Dee-Lux, an original 1998 model, complete with curved seattube and a whole 5.5" of travel. He was called Konrad (the Kona) and died three years ago in the alps. Well, here's his younger cousin, who I shall name Konrad Junior, or just just Junior, for short.

It's hard not to compare the two frames because superficially they are quite similar. Both are from Kona's 'freeride' lineage, both employ a 'faux' four-bar suspension linkage with the rearmost pivot directly above the axle on the seatstay (as opposed to a truly active fourbar linkage where the Specialized-patented 'Horst'-linkage is in front of the rear axle on the chainstay), and both appear (or appeared) reliably big and burly. But seven year's of evolution is obvious to the trained eye. The curved seat-tube, where Konrad orginal snapped, was dropped from the range several years ago. One of the chainstays is dropped lower than the other, to counter the strong forces that go through that point that snapped many a previous Stinky frame. The downtube and seattube become increasingly box-sectioned as they rise to the junction with the headtube, to improve strength and increase weld area (I'd be surprised if this frame failed in the same way as my old Specialized. Crucially, the main pivot point has been raised and a longer stroke shock used, so travel is a smooth 7" without the need for an extra long pivot arm to create large stresses. All in all it the product of the best part of a decade of product development, and looks very smooth for it.

I bought it second hand from some bloke I met through, the buy-sell section of which is very similar to that on or It was a very good deal and, as you can see, it is absolutely mint, and has obviously been barely ridden at all.

My sister Tracey is out visiting at the moment so this weekend we will head off up to the Costa Brava for some snorkelling and sunbathing. But next weekend I think a trip to the chairlifts of Andorra is called for...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bodge of the day

This is a picture of the solution employed by, er, a friend of mine, who was so pissed off with waiting for ADSL to get installed in his flat that he has resorted to using the suite of tools to gain access to other wireless networks in the area (only temporarily, mind you, and he has assured me that he is using them very sensibly, not downloading GB of movies). But to get a decent enough signal he resorted to some interesting bodges, as you can see here.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A day of ups and downs

Yesterday was a day of ups and downs, in more ways than one. In the physical sense, I went up the Tibidabo funicular (twice), and down a really quite good mountain bike trail (twice). Needless to say, the knowledge that I can pay €2 for a train to to take me to the top of the biggest hill in the area is A Very Good Thing. This, then, represents the metaphorical 'up' to today's post. My world this afternoon took a turn for the better.

It also, inevitably, took a turn for the worse. Well, in fact, two turns for the worse, and these represent the metaphorical 'down' that completes the allegory. You see, upon driving (the 20 minutes(!)) to and from the foot of Tibidabo funicular, my worst fears were confirmed. Pleb the Passat, my erstwhile companion of the last few years, is ill. In fairness, he doesn't appear to be dead, and still pootles around town perfectly happily. Only when we reach the motorway though, does something appear amiss, vis., he doesn't change to top gear. Refuses. No matter how fast we're going or how high the revs are, his automatic gearbox will not shift into its fourth and highest gear. This means, when driving along the motorway, I am stuck with having the engine screaming at me - I dare not take it above 60mph in case it blows up. It is very sad, because the problem is terminal. Automatic gearboxes like Pleb's keep going until the stop, at which point the cost of fixing/replacing one becomes several times more than the value of the car. So, while Pleb is still alive, he's very much on this last legs.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for my bicycle frame, which is well and truly DEAD. For some time (in fact, since I got it second hand) it has creaked quite a lot, but it did me proud for a week in the alps a couple of years ago - in fact had it only lasted that week it would have been worth the £80 I paid for it! Recently, though, I've noticed the creaking getting worse, and after two 10 minute runs (down exceedingly rocky trails - with a few north shore drops put in for good measure) I had noticed a significant increase in creak-noise. Only a quick glance was necessary to confirm my worst fears - there is a now monstrous long crack at the point where the headtube joins the main part of the monocoque frame (see pic above). Proper 'terminal'; so this afternoon I shall strip the frame of everything of worth and chuck in in the skip. I remember first seeing the frame when Oli pulled up out side Mat's parents' house in Clent about, ooooh, I'd say 7 years ago. I was impressed with it then and have been impressed with it ever since. Given that neither I nor Oli are reknowned for our 'delicate' riding styles, such an ending was to be expected, but it doesn't make me any happier.

So, to summarise, my day of ups and downs ends with me with me sitting here, facing an iminent bill of several thousand euros to replace today's physical losses, but offset by the gain in knowledge that there is some awesome mountain biking around the corner. Given that the biking was always there (I just hadn't discovered it yet) I think I am probably worse off out of the deal. Still, 'push on through', as Fatus* would say. Barcelona is still awesome place to live, money can be earned and material things replaced. Eventually. Anybody know any good car/bike shops in Barcelona?

* (Muir)

PS Check out some photos of a new DWS venue at Rhossili!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A comprehensive dissection of MMR scare stories

MMR has back in the news again recently, what with Andrew Wakefield being investigated by the GMC. Wakefield's original paper, asserting a link between MMR and autism, has been pretty convincingly rejected by the scientific community - largely on the basis that his research was being funded by parents of autistic children who had received the MMR jab, and who were trying to build a legal case to claim compensation. This fact places Wakefield's 'research' firmly in the same the same boat as those 'scientific studies' that conclude that smoking isn't bad for you - coincidentally those are the studies funded by the tobacco companies. There were other quite glaring research errors too, there was a good New Scientist article a few years ago on the whole situatiuon.

So it was with some trepidation and disgust that I read the Observers front page a few weeks ago, stating that there was fresh evidence in favour of a link between MMR and autism. Putting aside the fact that this would only be the second study that suggests such a link, disagreeing with the tens of comprehensive, peer-reviewed and statistically significant studies alleging otherwise; AND the fact that the first supportive study (Wakefield's) is thoroughly discredited, even a numpty like me could see that there were several holes in the Observer's story.

Fortunately, Ben Goldacre, seemingly the only mainstream science journalist who is capable of rational thought, has investigated the new study behind the Observer's front page. Rather unsurpringly, it falls apart under analysis. Ben shows that:

a) the report that the Observer based its story on is neither published nor peer-reviewed

b) the study isn't actually even finished yet, the Observer got it's data from an interim report

c) The Observer cherry picked the most shocking statistic, ignoring the context of the report.

d) The Observer misquotes the lead scientist, Professor Simon Baron Cohen, who has since labelled the Observer's story "inaccurate and scaremongering".

e) The Observer flatly lies about the opinions of a 'leading academic' on the study, Fiona Scott. It says she was 'concerned about the results'. In fact, Scott is considering legal action against the observer for repeatedly lying about her opinion. Her actual opinion is that "I absolutely do not think that the rise in autism is related to MMR." And: "My own daughter is getting vaccinated with the MMR jab on July 17."

f) The other 'leading academic concerned about a link', Carol Stott, is not an academic. She doesn't even work in scientific research. She works in the private clinic of yes, you guessed it, Andrew Wakefield!

Will the Observer publish a front page apology and retraction of their story, which has now been quite comprehensively discredited? Probably not. The sad thing is that last March, a young 13 year-old lad who didn't receive the MMR jab became the first person to die from Measles in Britain for 14 years. Sadly, until the press grow up and start behaving responsibly, that statistic will surely rise.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Back in Barcelona, but no internet

Apologies for long delay in updating, I know you avid readers have been waiting on tenterhooks for next intallment! (tumbleweed) Well, here it is! (more tumbleweed) Anyway, I am back in Barcelona after being in London for a week, for work. My Dad and I drove all the way down from Britain with a car load of stuff, so now DJ and I have almost a complete flat full of our stuff, and (as you see above) our bikes, which is cool as it means we get to explore the city a bit more. The photo above is taken in Plaça Real, in the old town, just off Las Ramblas. I have bought my heavy suspension bike out, lured by stories that it is possible to take your bike up on the Funicular to the top of Tibidabo, the biggest of all the hills that border the city. Hopefully next week I'll go with my mate Raoul to explore and find some trails. Cool.

Djanira an I have become regulars at the local internet cafe, as we still don't have neither a phone line nor internet in our flat. Everything here goes very slooowly, but hopefully by the end of the month we will have a fat 4Mb pipe, and our flat will be complete. It's looking pretty cool now, if you go and see my Dad's photos that he took during his visit, you'll be able to see some pics of the flat. The best thing about it is that we're so close to the beach. Yesterday we spent the day down there, and were joined in the afternoon by Dan and his girlfriend Kate. We stayed until sunset, sunbathing, eating spanish omelette, drinking cold tinnies, dipping in the sea and playing frisbee, before heading back to the flat for grub around 9. Time for a quick shower then it was out on the town! Last night we discovered that one of the main 'late night' spots is about a 15 minute walk from the flat, and we ended up playing table football in some bar around there at 4am. Bit tired today, I'll be honest.

Djanira is buggering off to Madagascar for six weeks on Tuesday, as base-camp manager for one of BSES' expeditions. I shan't pretend I'm very happy about it, but it will be a great experience for her and brilliant for her CV. Once she's back she'll be able to start looking for a job! So I'll be living on my own for a while, time to complete Final Fantasy XII on the PS2, get back on my skimboard (the little summer med ripples are just about rideable) and start remembering how to ride a bike - I have found some cool 'street furniture' around the olympic port, and there's a natty little skate park right on the beach, with a spined double mini-ramp (i.e. two quarter pipes with a spine in the middle), which seems to have a really relaxed vibe between skaters, BMXers and rollerbladers (agressive grrrrrrrr). I haven't ridden a park for years though, so I need to get some lines sorted before I turn up during 'rush-hour' on a 26" bike, hopefully a couple of quiet morning sessions will increase my confidence.

Also, speaking of work, it looks like I'll be starting a new job soon, working 15 hours a week to complement the 18 hours or so that I do at the moment for UCL. More news of that in the next installment, when everything's a little bit more confirmed. Keep your eyes peeled!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Charge Stove: first impression review

Edit: I posted a follow up to this review a few weeks later.

Since my lovely Trek 1000 got nicked by some TEA LEAF SCUM in Mile End a few months ago, I have been on the hunt for a new bike to use to commute to work. I do still already have two bikes, but a heavy full-suspension bike is a bit overkill for the Barcelona seafront, and let's face it, a BMX really isn't the most practical of tools for commuting. All of which gave me a handy excuse to try out a bike I've had my eyes on for a while, the Charge Stove.

Charge are a newish British bike company and the Stove is their bottom-of-the-range 'Pub' bike. It's a rather bizarre label, and it means that da kidz over at the comic's forums get very confused. To paraphrase a typical young know-it-all's opinion "the Stove is not a jump bike or a street bike. It's a pub bike. Can't you tell that by looking at it?"

Well, I'd class a 'pub' bike as one that's as-near-to-free-as-possible, and impossible-to-be-nicked (rather like a Barcelona Bicing - they really are great). And while the Stove fits neither of the above criteria, I'll just run us through a list of what I'd expect to see in your average jump/street riding bike, and we can see how many boxes the Charge ticks:

- Heavy chromoly frame with gussets in all the right places. Check.
- Heavy chromoly forks with oversized dropouts. Check.
- Heavy chromoly 3-piece cranks. Check.
- Heavy wide rims supporting heavy fat tyres, built on heavy 10mm axle hubs. Check.
- Single speed, with heavy BMX chain linking heavy chainring and heavy freewheel. Check.

Now I don't know about you, but I see a theme developing here, wouldn't you agree? Okay okay, so the geometry's all wrong for an out and out jump bike - the top tube is rather high and seat tube a little too straight; but it's certainly not going to fall apart on you in a hurry. And, in fairness, the little squirts at the comic forums do have some sort of a point - because it isn't designed to be and out-and-out jump/street bike. That frame geometry enables you to raise the saddle to a respectable commuting height, which makes it the perfect commuting-while-being-able-to-stop-by-the-skate-park-on-the-way-home bike, or the Cwbatsbtsp. Doesn't roll off the tongue in the same way as 'pub bike' bike, I'll give them that. The only shame is the confusion such branding causes for da kidz. Ah well.

So how does it ride? Well a full analysis of its ability to commute to work along the Barcelona sea front, periodically stopping to play on interesting street furniture, will follow forth-with. For now my experience is limited to riding from Kings Cross to Cricklewood (oh yeah, I'm in London til next Wednesday, by the way, for work), and going out for a little play this evening. However, I can confirm that it's really rather good fun. It commutes perfectly adequately, yet with the saddle slammed down it hops very easily and rides really smooth, basically like a 26" BMX. Good fun, and I'm very pleased I bought it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cathy and Mark visit

This weekend saw the visit of Cathy and her boyfriend Mark, his first time in Barcelona. A good time was had by all. On Saturday we did quite a long walk along the beach and then all the way into the old town to see the sights, before heading out to Gracia in the evening for beer and lots of very good tapas. Sunday was spent having a lie-in, then while Cathy and Mark went to look at the Sagrada Familia, Djanira and I moved the first load of stuff to our new flat. Finally we went climbing at a nice limestone crag called Gelida, where it started to rain (?!) for about 20 minutes, but cleared up nicely in time for sunset. Lovely!

On Tuesday we'll have moved permanently to the new flat so it's bye-bye to the terrace, but hello to the nicer area, so we're looking forward to that. I am back in London on Wednesday for a week, fortunately for DJ her friend Rachel is coming to stay for that week (must be the way I smell, or something!) so she'll have some company. The the week after that I'm driving down to Barcelona with a carload of stuff with my Dad! What a legend!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Sport climbing on La Mola

Last night I met up with Ferran again and we went sport climbing at a crag called La Soleia. It is situated on a hill called La Mola, just near Sabadell, a city about 20 miles from Barcelona, and is in a really beautiful location. The climbing is excellent but slightly strange, because all the routes start up a band of rather poor chossy conglomerate for a few metres, before reaching the main band of grey conglomerate. The latter is some of the finest rock I have climbed on, a really rough texture and loads of pockets; I like pockets, they are generally very positive and you can wrap your fingers around them and crank.

The strangest thing is that, in one sector at least, the lower band of rock is so devoid of holds that it makes all the routes much harder for the first few metres, as the decent rock above tends to be better furnished with holds (if a bits steeper). So the resourceful Catalans have sorted the problem out by chipping lines of holds in the lower band - the size and spread set strictly in keeping with the difficulty of the upper section of course. On a couple of lines they have actually bolted on a series of plastic climbing-wall-holds. Can you imagine such a thing happening in Britain?! The end result seems to work though, because rather than all the lines having to climb something 7c-ish on 5m of rubbish rock before finishing up 25m of something 7a-ish up decent rock, the routes become a lot more balanced and more people get to enjoy the good climbing above.

Anyway after warming up Ferran and I set to work on a 6c and couple of 6c+s. One of them apparently gets 7a in some guides and I was quite pleased to onsight it, but I was so tired afterwards then I failed miserably on the last one which is supposed to be easier. I was so weak at the top that I couldn't hold on to clip, and had to make a chain of three quickdraws to elongate the belay!

Djanira is coming back today, which I'm very pleased about, and then Cathy + new boyfriend arrive (very late) this evening. Should be good!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

El Paret dels Diables

On Saturday I was invited by my mate Ferran - creator of the finally updated (molt bé, Ferran!) - for my second ever Montserrat climbing experience. The first was over a year ago, when a group of us from London visited the south face of the mountain to do some sport climbing. The south face is a very pleasant place - accessible, sunny, with generally quite short routes that are well equipped with new bolts. The north face is a different beast; its dark, sheer walls are only breached by a handful of routes, almost all of which resort to aid climbing at some point (non-climbers: see note at bottom). We were off to El Paret dels Diables (The Devil's Wall) with the goal of doing one of the very few all-free routes i.e. no aid climbing. 330m, 10 pitches, max grade 6c+. Gulp!

Fortunately, it wasn't quite as scary as it sounds. The route, called Sanchez-Martinez after the first ascensionists, has been recently rebolted (replacing the original hand-placed nail-bolts) and so we could afford to enjoy the exposure and climbing free from the worries of having to place protection, although we had a rack of nuts with us which were used on occasion. The route starts up a 6a+ wall before diving into a chimney, which was ascended in true mountaineer, back-and-foot style. After three pitches we were spat out on a handsome ledge which was the start of the route proper. A pleasant V+ pitch led us up to the start of the difficulties, a 6c+ hanging crack which was led in fine style by Ferran. I thought the pitch was completely nails, and was absolutely knackered as I came round the corner to the belay. After a minute or so's recuperation I glanced up in trepidation at the next pitch (my lead!) knowing that it was 6c and therefore almost as difficult. Then my mouth dropped as I saw the most perfect hanging slab you ever seen, capped by a huge arcing roof. The crack where we were stood led straight up for a few metres for gradually curving round to the right until it reached horizontal. It reminded me instantly of photos I've seen of the Great Roof on the nose of El Capitan in Yosemite (except half a kilometre lower off the ground, and several grades easier to climb!). The climbing was perfect, delicate slab padding up along the crack, not tiring at all, just absolutely, mind-blowingly, brilliant. Undoubtedly the finest pitch of rock-climbing I have ever done in my life.

After that it was all over, with only a handful more pitches around the V/6a mark to reach the top, where hands were shaken in the traditional style and off we trooped to find the descent path. A brilliant day's climbing was topped off by driving round to the south face to meet up with Raquel who, like Ferran, I had met at the BMC international meet last April. It was great to see them both again and good to climb with Ferran. Moltes gràcies!

Finally it was off on the 45 minute drive back to Barcelona for a quick shower and then out to party with Dan + friends. Today I'm shattered!

Note: Aid climbing is the opposite of free climbing in that you are required to pull/step on bits of metal that you place into/onto the rock - it was once common everywhere but now is generally practiced only in areas where free climbing is too hard/dangerous.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ma and Pa Evans visit, and new flat!

This weekend saw the visit of my Mum and Dad to stay with us in Barcelona, along with our friends John and Julia who live across the road from my folks. A good time was had by all poking around the city, and we fitted in a day trip to Montserrat as well. Shame we didn't win the pub quiz. Ah well.

The last thing they managed to squeeze in before leaving was a visit to our new flat in Poble Nou. We signed the contract yesterday and so are very pleased. Location wise it is (almost) perfect - I say almost because it could be right next to the beach, instead of four blocks away, but it is right in the middle of an area that we really like. We still haven't quite figured out how we are going to configure the rooms - if I had bought the place I would knock through a couple of the partition walls and make it a really big two bedroom flat, rather than have four rather small bedrooms (actually, three bedrooms and a glorified cupboard!). And the new place doesn't have a terrace like our current flat does, but then it is in a much much nicer area and is €400 euros a month cheaper, not to be sniffed at.

Anyway my parents and John and Julia have left now; and in fact I'm on my own for a week because Djanira jetted off for a week to Madagascar! Nice for some, eh? This summer she is going to be base-camp manager for an expedition organised by her old company, BSES, and so is flying out there now to do a recce. Sounds suspiciously like a 'holiday' to me!

Fortunately I have lots of stuff ar y gweill, plenty of work to be doing, parties and pub quizzes to go to, and this weekend I'm off to climb one of Montserrat's big walls with Ferran. Speaking of which, I shall leave you with a pic of my Mum and Dad there two days ago:

Friday, May 25, 2007

Climbat Barcelona indoor climbing wall

Last night we wanted to go climbing but work and chores delayed us til past 8pm, which is probably a little too late to head to the crags in May, so we decided to check out what indoor walls Barcelona has to offer.

The two major ones are La Fuixarda, an old road tunnel up on Montjuic that has been converted into a (very overhanging!) wall, and which is free and lit up at night; and Climbat, a 'more conventional' indoor bouldering wall not far from the city centre. We went to check out the latter (not realising it was bouldering only - fortunately the rope was hidden in a bag so I didn't look like a proper twit).

The first impression one gets is that it's small. When you're used to the super-walls of London, a single-storey bouldering room, about a quarter of the size of Mile End, seems quite claustrophobic. And expensive - €12 for a session! That's around 8 quid, exchange-rate fans. So, pricier yet smaller than Mile End; not a great start.

Spend a bit of time there though, and you begin to warm to the place. The staff are friendly and went out of their way to explain the way the problems/grading worked. Like Mile End and every other sensible wall, all problems were sensibly graded on a colour scale, but better still the colouring is consistent for all panels i.e. green problem uses only green holds, and all green problems are roughly the same grade. Very simple and no confusion. There is a very strict no-loose-chalk rule (only balls allowed) which I was worried about because I only had my super -8-euro-Decathlon-mega-chalk-refill in my bag, but it turns out that I didn't feel the need for chalk at all - not once in a 2.5 hour session. Why? Air conditioning!! It is absolute revelation to climb on plastic in cool, dry conditions, the friction was superb.

The whole place reminded me of a slighty larger, air-conditioned version of the bouldering room at Dynamic Rock in Swansea, which is no bad thing. Yet, at €12 a session, and with the long summer evenings approaching, I can't myself spending too much time there in the coming months.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Walking in Montserrat

Computer troubles today (now fixed, thanks to a borrowed Windows Repair CD from Dan) meant that Djanira and I went for a walk this afternoon. It was drizzling this morning in Barcelona, but by the time we'd got out of the house and driven the 50ish minutes to a car park half way up Montserrat, the sun was out. We went for a great little walk which lasted about 3 hours, the photo above is of the Monestary, and several of the more famous pinnacles above it. Apparently there's an Elephant and a Mummy there somewhere. The pinnacle furthest left is the one Djanira and I climbed with Ferran back in November. Anyway, today was really good, and we're looking forward to the next visit.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

First day's climbing

Last night, my old mate Dan had a bbq on his terrace, which was very nice and we made lots of new friends. However, upon arriving home at 3am we thought that our plan of doing something outdoorsy the next day might be scuppered. Not so! One the reasons that we chose to move to Barcelona was because it is close to lots of fun things that you can go and do of an afternoon or even an evening, and so around mid-afternoon we decided to head out to do a bit of climbing.

We had parked the car down in Poble Nou so it was a bit of a walk before we could get motoring. Unfortunately, as I sat down in the drivers seat and turned the ignition, disaster! An interior light had been left on and drained the baterry. Bugger. Fortunately a quick trip to the petrol station round the corner for some jump leads, and after waving down somebody who was pleasant enough to give us a jump start, we were back on the way.

The crag we went to was Penya Ginesta, which is just to the south-west of town, near Castelldefels. It is a very pleasant place to be with a beautiful view across the Med:

We arrived at about 5pm so only did a few routes. Djanira did well to get up a 6a, and I dogged a 7a which will should go clean when I am fitter - the last time I climbed routes was in Pembroke at Easter, so I'm not in best shape. Here's the classic 'from below' shot of DJ on the first route we did:

Later on, we finished off the day with a beer and some tapas on Castelldefels beach, which you can see in the photo above. Very nice too.

Oh yeah, and to all those doubters, Plebby made it to Spain no worries, and is serving us well as usual (despite us mistreating him by leaving his lights on).

Hasta la proxima....

Friday, May 18, 2007

View from our balcony #2

At the weekend Torre Agbar, one of Barcelona's latest additions to its already impressive architecture, lights up at night. We currently live about half a mile to the north-west ('up', on the map):

Thursday, May 17, 2007


We have arrived! Finally we are in Barcelona, and thanks to our holiday we have already a nice suntan so we don't stick out too much. Fortunately all the prospects are that the tans will stay with us for while - the weather, as you might expect, is sunny and in the low twenties. Very nice too.

We have moved into a flat on a temporary basis, for one month, in an area to the north-east of the city centre called Glories. Compass directions are always a little confusing in Barcelona, because every map of the city is drawn with the sea at the bottom, so you expect that way to be south. Except it's not, it's actually southeast. Muy confusing. Anyway, the flat is great for us at the moment, nice and big and with a huge roof terrace - so far all our meals have been al fresco (or, should I say, a fuera). Also we are only half an hour's walk from the area where we want to live, Poble Nou, so it's easy for us to get down there to see long-term-let flats. The photo is the view from our balcony, not spectacular but it's better than brick wall.

You might have noticed that the blog colour scheme has changed. New town, new country etc. I thought I'd make a new start with the blog too. Remember to check back to see what's going on out here! We've already had an invite to our first party - Dan's having a 'classic 80s film night', (complete with projector setup on his terrace) at his flat in Gracia on Saturday. Should be good!

Anyway I'm off to sign up for this facebook thingy. I've been putting it off for ages because I object to the facts that a) you have to sign up, and we sign up to enough things on the internet as it is, and b) people reveal so much about themselves, I find it quite embarrassing. However, I realise that all this is slightly hypocritical, as it is coming from the man who's currently writing a blog using a service you have to register with. And DJ signed up a few days ago and already appears to have half of my friends in her 'friends' list. So, why not? Hasta pronto!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Trip to Barca: The final leg

After a fortnight's holiday, we are about to make our final section of the journey to Barcelona. And the best news is, we're going by boat!
Our holiday was always going to be of the 'winging it' variety, which is why we've ended up down in Levanto, just to the south-east of Genoa. Completely coincidentally, it is one of mainland Italy's most consistent surf spots, and the waves today (3'-4', though pretty choppy) are testament to that fact. Shame I neither have board nor wetsuit. Sigh.
We've been here about a week and been relaxing on the beach, not really doing much. It's a great place, not too touristy and plenty of 'real' people about, but still a beach town with all the trimmings. It reminds me a little bit of a bigger version of Mumbles. We did a long old walk along the coast to visit all of the Cinque Terre, five very famous picturesque villages clinging to the coastline to the east of here, and which are the most famous tourist attraction in the area. The walk was great and villages pretty enough, even if they are a little touristy (but what can you expect?).
Anyway so today is a our final day and we leave our campsite (very nice, best we've stayed in all holiday), make the short drive to Genoa to catch the 9.30pm ferry, arriving in Barcelona at 4.30pm the next day. Looking forward to it actually. Still, until then we have one more day here at Levanto, I might see if I can hire me a board somewhere...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

On the road part 2: Italia

There are three things that I have noticed thus far about Italy:

1) There are no fat people. I reckon the combination of a healthy diet (lots of fresh veg and olive oil) and good weather is a good one, as the only excess fat you see around is a bit of late/middle-aged spread. Much better than all the fatties in the States.

2) It is obviously against the local Trade Description Act to sell sunglasses that have lenses smaller than small dinnerplates. A further law stipulates that for any gathering of three or more people, at least one of them must be wearing such a pair of glasses, and smoking.

3) All the stories about Italian drivers are true. They are all crazy, as our hellish two hours getting lost in Genoa will testify.

The best thing about Italy, of course, is the sunshine. We are in a small town called Chiavari, on the mediterranian coast, to the east of Genoa. Our small campsite is right next to the sea (breakfast was taken on the beach this morning) and a 15 minute walk away from the town centre, which is a nice size and would probably be quite lively in tourist season. Currently though it is a little bit dead, but hey, such is the price of travelling in May.

The difference in the weather on the southern side of the alps is striking. We drove up from Geneva to a cloudy and damp Chamonix, where I completely failed to find the famous Bar Nacional (does it still exist even?!), and practically as soon as we came out of the southern side of the Mont Blanc tunnel, we were in the sun. After a three hour drive we were by the sea and changing into shorts. What a treat.

Our plan now is to go a little bit further east to the Cinco Terre, five very famous towns perching on clifftops, each about a mile away from each other. After a couple of days there we'll see, maybe drive back along the Med, or maybe head to Tuscany for a while, before catching a ferry to Barcelona?? Nice idea but we need to look into it. Ciao for now!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Road to Barcelona: London - Fontainebleau - Geneva

After weeks, months, if not years of talking about it, Djanira and I are finally moving to Barcelona! We have trusty old Pleb (the VW Passat) back to ferry us there, so we thought instead of driving there direct, we'd take our time and wander down leisurely.

First stop was Fontainebleau to do some bouldering, a familiar place as we've been there several times in the past. The difference this time was that we decided to stay in a different campsite; usually we stay in La Musadiere near Milly la Foret, but we'd heard that a different site may be nicer, so we'd thought we'd check it out. The new place is called Camping Les Pres, and it's to the south of the forest. Our official verdict is that the advantages of being able to have an open fire do not outweigh the disadvantage of location - it's an extra 20 mins drive to most of the bouldering, and we do really like Milly la Foret. Also, in this day and age there's no excuse for having sqaut toilets - yuck!

Anyway, we spent a couple of very pleasant days milling around the forest. My climbing highlight was a return to Franchard Isatis and the famous problem Le Statique, which I had battled with greatly three years ago (and failed), but this time ticked on my second try. Chuffed. Unfortunately I had no such luck with another classic problem, this time at 91.1, called Le Flipper. Hopefully I'll do it next time.

We left Font and drove down to the old Volcanoes near Clermont Ferrand, with the intention of climbing the Dent du Rancune (google it, it's quite impressive) but we left the area after only one night. The fine weather finally broke and the towns up there are a dive, they remind me a bit of Matlock Bath, all geared up for tacky summer tourists. Not recommended.

So we bailed after a wet night and drove East to Geneva, where we are staying with some of Djanira's Brazilian family who emigrated here many years ago. We had a roof over our head and comfy bed for the first night in a while, and have just eaten a huge raclet, yum! Our current plans are to stay one more night here and then head for the Med. The weather is closing in for prolonged rain in mainland France so there's no point staying inland. Maybe we'll take the Mont Blanc tunnel through Italy, hit the Med, then drive along the coast to Barca. We'll see. Hasta luego!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review: The Villain, by Jim Perrin

"You do know that he was an absolute bastard, don't you?"

The words of Very Famous British Climber, Joe Brown, referring to another of the same ilk, Don Whillans. These two names, forever linked, are two of the very few that the general-non-mountaineering populace of Britain have ever heard of. Along with Hilary, Bonington and only a few others, the names of Whillans and Brown cast a very long shadow over British mountaineering. In The Villain, Jim Perrin takes it upon himself to separate myth from fact and produce the definitive biography to one of climbing's greatest characters; Don Whillans.

I've never really been a fan of Jim Perrin's monthly columns in various climbing magazines. Yes, the guy has a way with words, yes he is a bit of a legend in British (and especially Welsh) climbing, but a lot of his writing is rather overly prosaic for my tastes. Over at UKC, tobyfk wittily commented recently that he had come up with a random Perrin article generator, sample output:

Large sensual hands lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, onto the ridge of Moel Llyfnant, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Sed quam tortor, resonates with ancient dignissim sagittis descending from Esgeiriau Gwynion vestibulum vitae magical landscape. Looking across to Foel Hafod Fynydd suspendisse sit amet extraordinary richness of textures .....

which is about right. I mean, the last piece I read of his was in the Guardian, where he'd written a small column about going out at night to watch badgers shagging. Each to their own, I suppose.

The point of all this is that it left me a little bit worried when I got my hands on The Villain. Wouldn't Perrin's propensity to eulogise over-dramatise such an important story? Given the reputation of the subject, this is a book that really has to be done right, if at all. Yet on the flip-side, who else is better qualified to undertake such a burden, given that there are few other people who can a) say that they are/were on first name terms with most if not all the characters in the book, and b) have several years of professional writing experience (no matter how prosaic it tends to be)?

That Don Whillans was one of Britain's greatest rock-climbers and mountaineers is beyond doubt. He blazed a trail of new routes over the entire country that are almost unanimously direct, inspiring, brutal, and hard. After several failed expeditions he finally bagged a major first ascent in the greater ranges, after he and Haston summited Annapurna via its south face, an achievement that ushered in a new era of Himalayan climbing, both capping Whillans' career and simultaneously sowing the seeds for its demise. For unfortunately Whillans was known as much for his brash persona, arrogance, fighting, drinking and womanising as he was for his climbing; traits that were increasingly difficult for his peers to gloss over as the years went by.

Fortunately, Perrin seems to be aware that this book is not the place to waffle on about badgers and the beauty of Welsh hills. He keeps his most prosaic style firmly locked up, at least until the final chapter, by which time we are happy to forgive a short burst of it. His chronological account of Whillans' life sticks to the facts, allowing the stories generated by Don and his peers to maintain the reader's interest. I was interested, and rather pleased to see that Perrin avoids painting too bad a picture of Whillans. Fundamentally, he seems to be saying, Don wasn't the monster that myth and legend would have him to be, and several passages of the book pay tribute to more positive aspects of his character. However, he never gets too carried away with the notion; every now and again a brief anecdote (usually revolving around drinking, fighting, womanising, or all three) reminds us of how unpleasant a character he could be.

The one passage that entertained me the most was the story of Whillans and Haston (again) this time within a couple of hundred feet of summiting Everest, by a new route direct up the south west face. They had managed it 9/10ths of the way up, and saw an obvious traverse line out to the (much easier) south east ridge (and thus the summit). To take this traverse would have been understandable, but a bit of a cop-out - the main challenge was to make an entirely new route, independent of others, and to take the traverse would have diluted the purity of the climb. To a mountaineer like Don, this was not good enough; the lure of summiting Everest without taking the new, independent line was just not present, so they carried on up their independent line. Too late they realised that it was much harder than they anticipated, and with worsening weather they decided to retreat, having neither succeeding to climb the entire new line, nor even reach the summit via the easier route. Their eventual return down to a lower camp, after 21 days at high altitude that ended in failure, was described by another climber, John Clears, and is quoted in the book:

"I watched Dougal [Haston] come down the fixed ropes and stagger towards us down the Cwm. He was zonked. He looked like a Belsen victim and dragged his feet through the snow. Pemba rushed out to meet him with a big kettle of hot fruit juice. Dougal flopped in the snow to drink it, and then, supported on Pemba's shoulder, he staggered into camp - shot.
Ten minutes later Don swung off the bottom of the ropes. He strode down the path towards the camp humming a tune and dribbling a snowball at his feet. Pemba ran out with the kettle and Don dismissed the friendly little sherpa with a friendly slap on his shoulder: 'Thanks, Pemba, but I'll have what's left of the real stuff'. He reached inside his down suit, pulled out what was left of a half-bottle of Glenfiddich, and knocked it back in one gulp. Then he chucked the bottle over his shoulder and strode on down to the accompaniment of a loud belch"
I thoroughly recommend reading the book.