Sunday, September 21, 2008

First climbing of the season

So finally the temperatures have dropped (to a pleasant 25ish degrees) which permits Spanish climbers to emerge, tanned but very weak from a couple of months sunbathing, from their summer hibernation (on the beach!). If you have been following the blog you'll know that over the summer I've done zero climbing, but in the last few weeks I realised that the climbing season was about to begin and I've been training again to get some fitness back, in anticipation of the first day back on rock.

Today was the perfect day for it, slightly overcast and with a light wind, though it's still September and that means still hunting the shade - climbing in the sun will still be too hot for another month or so at least. We drove 40 mins south from Barcelona to the Garraf national park. Those of you with particularly good memories will recall that this was the place where Djanira and I first went climbing after moving to Spain, about 18 months ago. Time flies and all that. Unfortunately Djanira was working today, so this time my companion was my Belgian pal (and fellow mountain biker, see last post) PJ. We visited a new sector, a place called Sectors Bombers (no panic, bombers means 'firemen' in Catalan) on the crag of Pic de Martell. While most of the routes on this crag are amenable trad routes of about 4 or 5 pitches, Sector Bombers is a very steep cave with a handful of harder sport routes. It's not very tall but the routes are about 20m long once you factor in the steepness, the view is unsurpassable and the routes are of excellent quality.

After warming up I managed to redpoint* a route graded 7a+, which is equal to my best efforts in sport climbing. Considering this is practically the first day of the season, I'm chuffed. I had kind of set myself the goal of redpointing 7c this season, but wasn't sure if it was too ambitious or not. The fact that I redpointed 7a+ in one day gives me a bit more confidence, but we'll see, it will require quite a bit of dedicated training. Still, it was a very good start to the season, and a good way to boost the confidence. Now where's that fingerboard...?

*non climbers note: redpoint is the term given to when you practice the route first i.e. climb a section, rest on the rope, work out the best sequence to do the moves, rest, climb, rest, climb, rest etc. until you reach the top. Then you come back down to the bottom and have a looong rest, before trying to climb the route in one go, without resting at all on the way. It's a very different style of climbing to the traditional 'onsight' approach, but it can also be very satisfying, as you end up climbing routes that at first seemed completely impossible. For more understanding see this.
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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Last riding of the season

On Saturday morning, PJ and I headed up to Andorra for one final weekend of riding this year. In actual fact the lifts are open for the next few weekends but this was the last opportunity that we have, now things like weddings take priority! Also, in July we had bought a "5 days for the price of 4" lift pass deal, which still had two days needing using up, so a perfect excuse - or at least it would have been, had PJ not forgotten to bring his tickets...!

Anyway the trails were in perfect nick, there was a very light periodic drizzle which kept the dirt moist and really grippy. Above is a moody shot, taken by PJ, (bigger) of me dropping in on a section of the MaxiAvalanche trail, which is several kilometers long and takes in a 500m drop in altitude. It was all great fun but now it's time to pack the bikes away and get the skis/boards out - there was already snow higher up the valley! I'll leave you with a couple more shots, one of PJ motoring downhill and one of a tired Alun setting the world to right in the gondola!

Monday, September 08, 2008

5 steps to understanding why we need the LHC (or, Quantum Mechanics for Dummies)

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is about to be turned on this week, with the noble goal of recreating conditions as to how they were shortly after the Big Bang, in an attempt to find the Higgs boson. Brilliant!

The only problem is that if you are anything like me, you're probably wondering what the hell a Higgs boson is actually supposed to be. It sounds very exotic, but unfortunately the wikipedia page is full of unhelpful jargon, which I'm sure is technically all very correct, but fundamentally dull. As luck would have it I've just finished reading through a book called The Void, by Frank Close. It's a little heavier than your average popular science yarn, but it does a pretty good job of explaining a few mysteries. So, as much for my benefit as anybody elses, I thought I'd try to summarise my understanding. If any clever physicist type people happen to read this, and think it's all tosh and I've explained it rubbishly, then do please let me know.

To understand what the Higgs boson is supposed to be, and more importantly where it's supposed to come from, we need to have a little background in quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is famous for having lots of wierd bits to it. So I'm going to structure the argument around those.

Weird Bit #1: The Heisenberg uncertainty principal is probably the least weird bit of quantum mechanics. It basically says that you can either know a thing's exact location, or you can know its precise speed, but you can't know both at the same time. This kind of makes sense - as even the act of measuring something's location will change its location, because your measuring tool will move it slightly (even beams of light have energy which can 'move' things). The weirdest part is that, if you know something's location exactly, then it must be moving (if it wasn't, both relative location and energy (speed) would be zero, which violates the principle). Given that the act of measuring something's location inherently moves it somehow, the only way we can be 100% sure of something's location is to remove it i.e. create a vacuum. In a vacuum we know, with all certainty, that there is nothing there!

Weird Bit #2: Zero point energy is the name given to the consequence of Weird Bit 1. If we create a vacuum in a room, we know the exact location of things inside it (i.e. they don't exist!). The uncertainty principle means that therefore there must be some energy in the vacuum. This is Weird Bit #2 and I'm you'll agree that it is exceptionally weird. But I'm afraid that it is a fact, verified experimentally. We just have to accept that a vacuum is filled with a level of background energy - a very very very low level, but there all the same. The technical term for this is zero point energy - i.e. the lowest possible energy state that can exist.

Weird Bit #3: Virtual electrons and positrons. We all know that -1 and +1, when added together, equal zero. A positive counters a negative. That's logical. Well, think of it from the other side and then it follows that 0 = (+1) + (-1) i.e. by reversing the addition process you can end up with something positive and something negative. In physics and chemistry, 'negative' is frequently represented by an electron, which is essentially a negative charge which has a very very small mass. Its positive equivalent is the positron (which isn't so famous, as it doesn't really have much of a role in standard chemistry. It's basically the mirror image of an electron, and has a positive charge). Weird bit #3 is that fluctuations in the zero point energy field can occasionally reach levels high enough where they reverse the equation above i.e. zero changes into an electron (-1) and a positron (+1). Technically, the electron and positron existed as 'virtual' particles, and the energy fluctuation became high enough to turn them into 'real' particles. Unfortunately for our newly born electron and positron, it is impossible for anything to exist in the same place at the same time, so they very (very) quickly disappear (i.e. +1 and -1 equal zero again). This seems exceptionally weird, but it has been proven - the current particle accelerator at CERN manages to achieve such high energy levels, by smashing things together at such speed, that it manages to push apart newly born protons and electrons before they disappear - literally generating something out of nothing.

Weird Bit #4: The Higgs field. Weird Bits 1-3 were important as background, but this is where it really starts. One of the biggest questions that faces science is: what are we made of? i.e. what is mass? Physicist Peter Higgs has proposed that mass is the result of everything's interaction with an all permeating field, which has become to be known as the Higgs field. You can think of it as the fabric of the universe - a human, a protein, a molecule, an atom, a proton, an electron, a quark and everything only exists as it is due to the way it interacts with this all-encompassing field. The problem with the Higgs field is that, right now, it is just a theory. There's lots of theoretical evidence for it, but unlike Weird Bits 1-3, as yet there is no practical proof. Which leads us finally to…

Weird Bit #5: The Higgs boson. If the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (Weird bit 1) applies to the Higgs field, then Weird bits 2 and 3 should also apply i.e. there should be a zero point energy level in the field, and some form of virtual particles popping in an out of existence (the situation is much more complex than this, but this is currently the limit of my understanding!). The name given to this hypothetical virtual particle is the Higgs boson. The only problem is, that the equations that result from Higgs' theories suggest that, to even stand a chance of creating a Higgs boson, we'd need a colossal amount of energy.

The LHC is designed to be able to create such an amount of energy. It will accelerate protons around a 27km wide ring until they are at almost the speed of light, and then let them collide head on. This collision will generate vast levels of energy - enough that if a virtual Higgs boson decides to pop into existence at the right time, it will sent flying by the collision, and detected by the surrounding detectors, before it has time to disappear. This would then prove Higgs' theory, and give us concrete evidence of the very fabric of the universe. I think.


N.B. Of course, I should point out that this is just one of the problems the LHC will look at. To find out about some of the others, check out the British LHC page.

Update: The Grauniad has a simple but good interactive guide.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

More Flashdance pics

Flashdance is the trad highpoint of my climbing career so far, and as it was during the BMC International Meet, I was lucky enough to have professional climbing photographer Alex Messenger snapping away at the time, so here are a few images that he took of the moment.

On the same day he also took a spectacular photo of Jo on Cystisis by Proxy. Such determination!

Incidently, these photos were taken in the very same quarries we went for a wander around on my stag do.

All photos copyright Alex Messenger, 2008.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Despite the release of many excellent titles in recent months, I haven't written about a video game for a while. However, Braid appears to be something rather special. Available for download to your Xbox 360 via the Xbox Live Arcade (a service that has several hundred games, of varying quality, available to download for a few quid each), it is has been exceptionally well received by the gaming press, and thankfully appears to be making its developers some money.

The basic engine of the game is a hark back to classic 2D platformers of the 80s, such as Super Mario World or similar, in which the controllable character (named 'Tim' here) runs backwards and forwards, climbs up and down ladders, and kills enemies by jumping on their heads. So far, so familiar. The crucial difference is that you, as the player, have the ability to reverse time - by holding down a button on your controller, you can rewind everything that has passed since you started each level. What makes it really interesting is that each area of the game introduces different time-bending properties e.g. objects glowing green are immune to your time-reversal powers, and occasionally you can deploy a ring that slows down time in a decreasingly powerful radius surrounding it. In one world time is stationary, but every step you take to the right advances it, and every step to the left reverses it. It turns the game into less of a standard platformer (after all, there is no concept of death or 'lives' - you just reverse time!) and more into a puzzle game, where you have to manipulate switches, platforms, keys, doors and other characters through time.

It is both visually beautiful and thoroughly engrossing to play through, but an extra twist is the story. Presented to you rather basically as a series of short sections of text that flit up on the screen, at first read through it appears that it is a load of sentimental tosh about rescuing a Princess (a la Mario). But upon reaching the end of the final level, you realise there is a darker theme that has been running through the game. A bit of thinking (and background reading) and it becomes clear that the whole thing is an allagory for the development of the nuclear bomb, and of scientists' desire to pursue research, even when it yields such destructive power. Tim, depicted as a rather bland hero, with a mop of unruly hair, shabby suit and red tie, is a scientist researching the bomb, pushing others away from him in his quest, fearful of the outcome, but unable to stop driving himself towards it.

"Now we are all sons of bitches" was the legendary remark made by Kenneth Thomas Bainbridge as he congratulated Oppenheimer and others after they succesfully tested the first nuclear bomb in the American desert. The story of Braid both pays homage and criticises those scientists, wrapping it up into a short yet addictive platform puzzler. Like a good book or film, this is something I'll be fetching down from the (metaphorical) shelf for several years to come.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Road Trip 2008

Well I'm back from my second whirlwind tour of Western Europe this year. This time, however, I was driving instead of flying; although fortunately I had Stephen Fry's reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to keep me company. Highly recommended, the audiobook-while-driving option. Makes the hours fly by.

So anyway there I was last week, in my van, driving through the south of France. The first destination was the Swiss Valais alps, where I met up with Lau, Claire Symes and Matt Freear. We camped in quite a big site just outside the town of Randa, which is near the big mountain/ski-resort of Zermatt, which is under the shadow of the Matterhorn. Unfortunately Matt was suffering from a very nastily infected blister on his heel, so the remaining three of us decided to bag a couple of non-technical peaks, rather than go rockclimbing and requiring to faff around with three on a rope. This suited me as, while I am pretty good shape in general, my climbing fitness has plummeted since the International Meet a few months ago. So the day after I arrived, Claire, Lau and myself walked up to stay at the Bordier hut, a relatively small mountain hut situated just below 3000m.

The walk in wasn't too bad but that night I really felt the altitude. Every time I drifted off to sleep my breathing would slow down and then I would wake up with a massive intake of breath. It surprised me really - I knew that most people begin to suffer the effects of altitude at about 2400m, but I wasn't expecting not being able to sleep. What made matters worse was that we had a 3am alarm call - there was a glacier right outside the hut that needed crossing on the way to (and, more importantly, from) the nearest peaks, and it's always better to cross glaciers before the sun gets on them and starts melting those crevasses! Anyway I managed an hour's sleep before we got up and started walking. I was tired but the glacier at dawn made it all worthwhile.

So we pushed on through to climb a few peaks and the next day we did something similar. The highest we reached was 3925m which is not to be sniffed at. Shame we couldn't reach 4000m but the mountains will be there a while longer yet. You can see more of my photos from Switzerland here:

Once back at the campsite in the valley the weather broke and Lau and I hightailed it north for Fontainebleau. As I said I'm not in top climbing shape but figured that, since I was only there for a day I might as well go all out. So I pretty much climbed myself into destruction, and was rewarded by a tick of the very famous problem Marie Rose, which was the first ever 6A-graded boulder problem in the forest. My payment was four trashed fingertips and set of muscles that ached for the next three days. Ah well.

Then after an exceptionally long day in the car, Lau and I arrived in North Wales for my stag do. It was held in the Scout's hut in Bethesda, which holds special significance for me as it was the place where I first laid eyes upon the beautiful girl who is shortly to become my wife. Just under 20 people showed up this weekend. Saturday day the weather was a bit dodgy so we all went for a poke around the Llanberis slate quarries:

It is a fascinating place, with loads of old buildings containing rusting machinery, and some that even still have miners' jackets hanging up on hooks, and old shoes rotting away on shelves. We found a tunnel from one quarry to the other, which was partially submerged in about a foot of water. Being boys we had to get through it so we managed to create a chain of people passing rocks towards the front, til we had a series of stepping stones to get across! Great fun.

Anyway so Saturday night was the usual shennagins of drinking games and noise, though I was fortunate and pleased to not have anything nasty done to me. Phew! Then there was the long drive back to Barcelona, made with stops in Swansea in London to see my parents and parents-in-law-to-be.

So, a great trip all in all. But, as always, it's nice to be back.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Kangoo camper conversion

This thursday I am off on a road trip: up to the Swiss Alps for a few days, then to Fontainebleau, then up to Wales for my stag do, then down to London, and then the long drive home. While I will have Lau with me for about a third of the journey, to keep me entertained I have still been downloading podcasts and audiobooks by the gigabyte!

I also have done a bit of carpentry in the back of my van and installed a foldable bed-platform. It is based on the design of Guillaume Dargaud - many many thanks for publishing it Guillaume! I have followed the basic design but changed a few things to suit me e.g. I haven't bothered with a twin hinge, and have added a few extra support struts. I am very pleased and looking forward to trying it out in anger next week!

I didn't fancy working out on the street and having to cut all the wood/screw things together by hand, so I was fortunate enough to be able to use a garage and tools belonging to GoCar Barcelona, Djanira's employers. Very kind - frankly I don't think I would have finished otherwise! The whole thing, including going to buy wood and stuff, too me about a day and a half, but that's because I've never done any form of carpentry before so was learning as I went along. I'm sure somebody more proficient could have got the whole thing knocked up in a few hours.

I took a video of the almost-finished product, here it is:

Friday, August 01, 2008

Andorra riding

Last weekend, Muir, Rhys and Paul flew into Barcelona from London, and together with my mate PJ we headed up to Andorra for some downhilling action. The weather was mostly excellent and we had a lot of fun on the trails. Yesterday afternoon I compiled the various videos of our exploits into one four minute short: (note for Mums and Aunties, it has a couple of rude words in it, I blame Rhys)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

La Molina 2008

Last Sunday PJ and I headed up to La Molina for some biking action. It was my second time there this year, but PJ's first ever experience of getting to the top on a gondola! You never forget your first time...!

My first trip on a gondola with my bike was in the French resort of Morzine, about 5 years ago. Suddenly, everything I knew (or thought I knew) about mountain biking flew out of the window as this wonderful world opened up ahead of me. It's not that I don't like riding uphill - there are some very satisfying moments to be head battling your way up an incline to the reach the top - it's just that I would much, much, prefer riding down! Since then I have been back to the alps several times, and last year made the short journey to the Pyrannees a few times. This year I'm committed to riding up here as much possible - there are three bike parks open in the area during the summer, and my motivation to ride is sky-high.

Anyway so we both had a great time; while it was sunny on Sunday, there were massive thunderstorms over Catalunya the night before, so some of the trails were a little slippy. Other sections were perfect as the heavy rain had washed away all the dust and dried to that lovely grippy consistency. The photo above is taken on what is probably the longest trail at La Molina, a fantastic trip down the far end of the resort. La Molina Bike Park is now officially sponsored by Kona (one of the largest bike manufacturers) and so has money to improve, and it shows. This year it is considerably better than last year, and they just keep building more and more things. Here's a video of PJ on the north-shore* corkscrew:

Next weekend we are hosting a raiding party from Britain - Muir, Paul and Rhys are coming over to see what the fuss is about. I'm pleased as it's always good to have friends over, and I'm sure we'll have a great time. We'll spend most of our time in Andorra - the parks there are bigger and better than La Molina, but about an hour further away. We're there for five days though, so plenty of time, and we might drop by La Molina on the way back to Barcelona. Can't wait!

* wooden structures such as these are referred to as 'north shore' because the first people who had the idea to build such structures were the mountain bikers of the forests on the north shore of Vancouver, Canada.
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Thursday, July 10, 2008


It's funny how motivation to do things comes and goes in waves. Not so long ago I was crazy about climbing, going training in my lunch breaks, feverishly devouring guidebooks and planning trips. Now the motivation has waned and I'm distinctly not bothered. Maybe it's the heat, as I mentioned in my last post, summer has hit with a bang and temperatures have barely dropped below 25 degrees (even at night) for the last month. It drains you of energy, and I when I went sport climbing in Montserrat a fortnight ago, I realised that I really could not be arsed. I'm not down about it though, the same thing happened this time last year, and I pretty much stopped climbing for several months. Then I got back into it and led my first E5. If you've reached a level of fitness once before in your life, getting back to it (or getting back near it) is much easier than 'breaking new ground'. You just need the motivation to train. I'm going to the Swiss Alps soon, which will be nice, as it will be mountaineering and long rock routes, which will make a pleasant difference to hard sport climbing.

So anyway all this means that I've had time to lots of other fun things. Jack Johnson came to Barcelona a couple of weeks ago and we went to see him - along with about 10,000 others. Perhaps aware that his latest album's a bit rubbish, he played a varied set with all the best tracks from his previous albums. We really enjoyed ourselves. Here's a poor quality video but it gives you an idea of the scale of the venue.

Then of course it was Euro 2008 finals, which we watched down the beach. Adam sets the scene:

But the best thing about summer, of course, is that the chairlifts are open again. you may remember reading last year about my exploits with a bike in the pyrannees. This year I intend to get up there a lot more, and last weekend I took my first trip up to La Molina. The trails were as good as I remembered, and I'll be back there this Sunday too. Then in late July, Muir, Rhys and Mr Paul are coming out for a (very) long weekend of riding. Should be bloody good fun!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

It is reknowned as being a very British thing to talk about the weather all the time, but this year the habit has really taken off in Catalunya. Over the last two months, we were subjected to daily press updates on the state of the reservoirs in the main river systems that supply Barcelona with its water. Conversations would inevitably mention how *good* the weather was, feverishly recounting the latest levels (67.2% and rising - up from 22%). By the second month, however, the smiles had become a little bit fixed: "Yes, all the rain is very good, but surely we can start the summer now?"

Fortunately, normal service has been resumed, and summer has hit with a bang. High pressure, sunshine, and temperatures in the low 30s across the whole Iberian peninsula have caused the beaches to become as overflowing as the reservoirs. To escape the heat and crowds, Djanira and I travelled up to the Pyrannees for a weekend in the hills.

Catalunya is looking absolutely spectacular at the moment, the excess of water means that everything is green and the rivers and lakes are overflowing. Above and below are pictures of the Estany ("lake") Sant Maurici, and the two peaks in the background below are called Els Encantats. The lake and peaks are two of the most famous sights in the Pyrannees. DJ and I took a leisurely stroll around the lake on the first day; the combination of hot weather, crystal clear water and lack of people motivated me to strip of for a quick skinny-dip (very quick, the water at 1700m was freezing!); fortunately for everybody, Djanira wasn't quick enough with the camera!

The second day we went for a 20km walk with a whole 1000m of ascent/descent. It was hard work but we were rewarded but more spectacular views - and a cold beer at the campsite bar at the end of the day! We didn't manage to bag any peaks, content as we were just to hike around the valleys. Next time though we'll see if we can bag a summit or two!

The weekend was rounded off by an extra couple of days off (for me, poor DJ had to work). Tuesday was a bank holiday so I, along with most of Spain, took Monday off too. We headed up the coast to a small town called Sant Pol de Mar, where the water is fantastically clear, you can go snorkelling around some handy rocky reefs, and there is a fantastic paella restaurant right on the clean, sandy beach. It's good that summer has arrived at last!
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Thursday, June 19, 2008

European travels

So I'm back in Barcelona after a week and a half on the road; Frankfurt, London, Swansea, Luxembourg, Brussels, 2500 miles of travelling and five different beds. I'll be honest, I don't really like flying around so much and I'm looking forward to the AVE connection up to the French TGV rail lines, which will make European travel a lot more pleasant. It will be a while yet though, so I'm not holding my breath.

Anyway, despite all the work I had time for a bit of fun. My work mate Marco and I were in Germany on the evening of their first Euro 2008 game, which they won. It's always fun to be in the same country as a winning team in any sport, and Marco really got into the spirit!

Then we were in London where after a different sort of work meeting (different in that it was held in a pub in Soho - that's what I'm talking about!) I played the 'London Guide' to Marco and Sònia, showing them round the main sights.

Then I managed to get up to Gower to see the 'rents, and get some climbing done with Lau. Here I am in the beautiful Gower countryside after a great day's climbing. I look miserable in the pic but I'm smiling, honest!

And then at the start of this week I headed to Luxembourg to present a European research grant proposal. Cross fingers we'll get it. Afterwards there were no flights available out of Luxembourg so we had to catch a train to Brussels, stay a night, then fly out from there. I had never been to Brussels before so was glad for the time to wander around a little bit. It's actually a very nice city. In Britain I think most people think of Brussels as an 'institution' (that represents the EU and all it stands for) rather than a city. This is shame, because whether you are an Europhile or not, Brussels is actually a very pleasant city to wander around; lots of old buildings and history, and plenty going on. My rubbish camera-phone and even rubbisher photography can't do it justice, of course, but there was a very nice sunset view over the Grand Place a couple of evenings ago:

So, anyway. Now I'm back in Barcelona and I'm very happy to say that the summer has finally arrived. With a big high-pressure settled over the Iberian peninsula, temperatures in the high 20s and clear blue skies are predicted for the next week and indeed for the reasonably forecastable future. What with all the recent rain the Catalun countryside is looking absolutely stunning. This weekend Djanira has a weekend off (whoo-hoo!) and so we are headed off up to Pyrannees, to the Parc nacional Aiguestortes i Estany Sant Maurici. Its supposed to be one of the most beautiful areas of the Pyrannees, and only a 3-4 hour drive from Barcelona, so we're looking forward to checking it out, and maybe get a little suntan while we're there!

PS Firefox 3 is out. Go get it.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Dave and Laura visit

And so the rain continues in Catalunya. 6 weeks ago, we'd barely had a drop of rain for several months, the water reserves were down to 20% capacity, and Barcelona was importing drinking water in by boat from France. Now, however, the reservoirs are riding high at over 60% capacity and we're all beginning to get a little bit tired of the rain. Our friends Dave and Laura visited us this weekend, and a sunny afternoon down the beach rapidly became a hunt for shelter as a thunderstorm blew in and the heavens opened. The only place we could find to provide shelter was a table-tennis table, which just about kept us out of the worst of it!

Dave and Laura have been in Catalunya for a fortnight, walking and climbing. They had originally planned to hang around the pyrannees, but the sight of classic rock climbs still in full winter condition (in June!) sent them scurrying southwards to the gorges around Vilanova de Meia. There they found good weather and several good days climbing, but also found evidence of the abundance of water, the picture below is of the overflow chute of one of the reservoirs!

Anyway they finished off their trip with a weekend here in Barcelona, which was great. Yesterday the sun was out and so off they went in one of Djanira's GoCars. I took a little video of them at the start of their tour:

Anyway now they're off back to Blighty and so will I be shortly: I am going to Germany for a work meeting, and then to London for another. And then I am going to Luxembourg the week after. International man of mystery and all that, but I'm not sure all this flying is good for green credentials. Good job I ride my bike to work!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Alun's timeline

And so the Web 2.0 juggernaught roles ever onwards. The latest thing that I discovered that made me think (in a Yank accent) "that's pretty neat" are Timelines. They are basically webpages that contain zoomable and movable graphical interfaces that represent a timeline. As the owner of the timeline you can add and remove boxes and pictures at any point along the line. offer a free service where you can create your own, and look at ones that other people have created. I registered to see what all the fuss was about, and in about 5 seconds I had created my own timeline using the RSS feed from my blog. What was even cooler was that I could then add the blog feeds from my mate Richie Astbury and my cousin Mei. So at a quick glance now you can see exactly what three of the most important and talented men in the world have been up over the last year - a pretty special opportunity, I'm sure you'll agree, and one to put at the top of the bookmarks list ;) As you zoom in an out it expands/contracts the prominence of the posts, and links directly to the photos and text in each post. Check it out.

edit: it would seem the popularity of my new timeline has caused to crash! So the link above doesn't show anything at the moment, it doesn't remember my login and the registration process has broken. Let's wait to see if it comes back up...

edit2: it appears to be working again now

Monday, May 26, 2008

Barcelona surfing pictures

Following on from my last post, on my way home from work I took some pics of the waves, which were still pumping. Sorry for the low res, it was only my camera phone. (Clicky make biggy, so you can actually see some surfers...)

There is also a quick video, but I'm afraid the resolution is even worse. Gives you some idea though!

Barcelona surfing

This year so far has been pretty rubbish for waves in Barcelona. I had one excellent session back in February, and a couple of hairy blown-out sessions in March, but since then the sea has been flat flat flat. Very disappointing, especially considering last Autumn, when there was a rideable wave more often than not, and I was getting in three times a week.

So you can imagine how excited I was on the ride to work this morning, when my eyes alighted on perfect 3-4 ft groundswell and a very very light offshore wind. Result! Lunchtime couldn't come round quickly enough and, come 1.30, I was sprinting off back home on my bike, jumping into my wetsuit and paddling out by 1.50. Check out the photo above, grabbed from the coastal monitoring station webcam here in Barcelona. The second beach up from the bottom is where it's at - you can even see a nice wave peeling from the groyne.

I haven't really talked much about my local wave on this blog, so I might as well give you a quick description. Obviously, Mediterranean waves are not worth travelling from afar to surf, but they do exist, along with a healthy local surf scene. My local break is Bogatell beach, a five minute walk from my flat in Barcelona city, and on days like today...well, quite frankly it's a little bit gnarly. Context is everything of course, I'm sure Kelly Slater's description would be something along the lines of "a disappointingly short, yet reasonably fast wave which closes out too often*". Needless to say, Kelly Slater I am not, and so I think of it more as vertical drop from hell straight onto a churning sandbar in inch deep water. Basically the waves come from deep water and dump straight onto a shallow sandbar (or series of sandbars) which lie about 30-40 metres offshore. Slow, fat waves hit the sandbar and suddenly jack up to three times their height, sucking up vast quantities of water before chomping their jaws shut.

From a surfing persective it makes it all rather unnerving (for me) once it reaches 3 feet or so. Basically you have to paddle like crazy man to try and pick some speed from the slow approach of the wave, then time your pop** to split second perfection. Too early and the wave won't take you, too late and the jaw will open wide with you right at its very top, and your board pointing vertically downwards. Ouch. Get it right however, and you'll be up and riding in the split second before the jaws open - enough time to angle the board down the wave, pump a bit for speed if necessary, and then when the jaws open, slash down the face at a million miles an hour, heart beating at 10000bpm, and occasionally releasing an involuntary shriek of terror/joy. Within a couple of seconds though it's all over, the wave passes the sandbar into deeper water and either closes out or backs off again. If you're lucky you get something inbetween the two which is my cue to try and pull off a couple of turns. Most times I fail after one off-balance attempt - I'd like to say I'm a good surfer but the reality is that I am still a little bit shit (and probably always will be!).

Anyway today was typical good conditions at Bogatell, in an hour I had four good rides and about three ohmygodimgoingtodie wipeouts. The last one of which saw me stuck on the sandbar while a set of four of five big waves broke straight over my head, one after another. Enough is enough, I thought, after being tumbled for the umpteenth time. Homeward bound. And back to work to finish off my paper for SIGGRAPH. I will be back though!

* non-surfer's note 1: when a wave 'closes-out' it means that the whole length of the wave breaks at the same time. This is not so good for surfing, as it turns the whole wave into white water mush, and leaves no nice clean faces for turning on.
** non-surfer's note 2: the 'pop' is the bit where you push from a lying/paddling position and up into a standing position.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

BMC International Meet

Two years ago I attended the BMC international Meet at Plas-y-Brenin, and at the end of the week vowed that, wherever I was in the world, I would be back for the next one. Basically, you just get to go climbing for a whole week in North Wales with a variety of foreign visitors, with the goal of showing them what traditional (i.e. no fixed bolts) climbing is all about. Needless to say this is bloody good fun, as you make loads of friends and get to go climbing all week. It's great. The 'Summer' meets occur every two years, with Winter meets, which are equivalent but held in Scotland and focus on winter mountaineering, happening in the intervening years. Last week was the date for the Summer meet 2008, and as per the promise I made to myself, there I was again.

North Wales is a pretty unique climbing venue. While it lacks any truly big walls, it makes up for it in the sheer variation of climbing available. Within a 45 minute-drive radius from Llanberis you can climb on several different rock types, ranging from various volcanic rhyolites and tuffs, to dolerite, quartzite, limestone, gabbro, slate and (if you're a bit crazy) mudstone and shale. Each different rock type requires a different style of climbing, from steep overhanging limestone that is well-endowed with pockets and holds, to featureless slate slabs that require pulling and balancing on razor thin edges. Very few other places in the world have such a variation in such a small area.

The meets traditionally always luck out with the weather, and this one was no exception. Snowdonia was basking in 25 degree sunshine for almost the whole week, which essentially guaranteed the success of the event. There were 44 guests from 24 countries, and an equal number of British climbers to show them around. I climbed with a Belgian, a Pole, a Portuguese guy and Ferran (who I met at the last meet, and who I climb with a lot over hear in Catalunya). They were all great people and good fun to climb with. I was also particularly chuffed to onsight my first E5, Flashdance (see snap above), but a bit miffed to fall off the last move of the classic E4, Resurrection; though I'm glad I gave it a go, and managed to get to the top after giving my tired forearms a bit of a rest.

All in all it was a superb week and I am already looking forward to the next one in two years time...!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A year in Barcelona!

Last Saturday evening we attended our third barbeque in as many weeks, which leads me to conclude that the bbq season here in Catalunya is well and truly open! Here's a picture of Daniel 'Ferran Adrià' Evans-Jones on his terrace, "lightly crisping" a couple of sausages :)

The opening of the bbq season has double significance as it marks the first year 'anniversary' of when we moved here - our first Saturday evening as Barcelona residents was spent on the very same terrace you see in the photo above, having a barbie and half-watching old 80s movies on a big wall-projector. Djanira and I were discussing that very evening with Kate (Dan's missus) last night - it's odd looking back and remember who we met, who we became good friends with, which people have stayed in Barcelona, which have left etc. I even mentioned it on this blog, in a post written a couple of days after we arrived. I'm glad I've been writing it, even if it's just for my benefit in reminiscing.

Anyway, the reason I'm writing about it now is that I won't actually be in Barcelona to celebrate the exact date that marks the end of our first year here, as I will be in Wales. Two years ago, I attended the BMC International Meet in North Wales, and had such a good time that I vowed I would go to the next one. Well, that time has now come and I'm taking a week off work to go climbing in the motherland and make new friends. I can't wait!

Friday, April 25, 2008

More biometric bollocks from the British government

So now Britain is introducing a pilot scheme at British airports, where a facial recognition system attempts to automatically confirm that you have the same face as the one that is stored as biometric data in your new passport.

Aside from the the obvious big reason why biometric ID is a bad idea, there is another problem with this new scheme. You see, the last time I checked with somebody who knows a bit about facial recognition technology and has done some work in the field (viz. me) I found out that the current state of the art in the field is, to put it bluntly, shit.

But what about this pearler - "The technology will err on the side of caution and is likely to generate a small number of "false negatives". I'll bet it bloody will - but I'll also bet that their definition of a 'small number' is different to mine!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ian Lau visit

Lau came over to visit us this weekend for some climbing and some r&r after a busy few months involving lots of work and breaking his leg. Ouch. Still he is recovering well, and we had a couple of good days of sport climbing. Unfortunately we the weather was a bit ropey and we couldn't do the 12 pitch E1 we wanted to get on at Montserrat, but we spent an interesting day at Pas de la Mala Dona, a rather unconventional crag, in that the 'ground' is actually the top of a large concrete 'tunnel' built to protect the train track below! To make it even more bizarre, it is a sea cliff, and so this 'ground' area extends 5m from the base of the cliff, before dropping abruptly into the sea! The climbing is actually very good, mostly in the 6s, apart from the 'sector cueva' which has a handful of 7s and 8s.

I'm getting into the whole taking-a-video-on-the-mobile-thing now, so here's one I took of the place. If you look carefully, you might just see a certain Ian Lau allowing himself to be on camera. Shock!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cavall Bernat Montserrat

Last weekend Jo Bertalot came to visit and we went out on Saturday to climb one of Catalunya’s famous peaks, the Cavall Bernat of Montserrat. It’s the obvious, err, finger, in the photo above. There are several routes to its summit, including an amenable 3 pitch grade 5 on the south face, but we plumped for the longest of the lot: a 300m, 8 pitch expedition up the north face. It is basically shaped like a giant scoop, with the first pitches being little more than scrambling, but then they get gradually steeper and harder as you reach the top! It was a great day out, though we did get royally whipped on the penultimate pitch, which was very stiff indeed for 6c+. Post-route discussion with Ferran suggests that there are some hidden holds further to the left – now he tells us!!

Here’s a video of your two heroes on top of the world, and with a funny steel statue to prove it:

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Guest post: Dr Jonny K

Hello all you chaps out there. Dr Searle and I (Dr Kelly) are here enjoying Dr Evans´s hospitality. We have had a jolly fun time riding our bikes down the local dusty trails. A delicious beer on the beach topped off our bikey adventure.
Well this is Dr Jonny signing off, toodle pip and tinkety tonk! XXX

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I love Barcelona so much, I've been Barcelonafied!

My mate Adam has restarted his blog about living in the capital of Catalunya, Barcelonafied. By all accounts it was going strong a year or so ago, but then the pressures of work and whatnot took their toll, and he left it slide. But now he's back - and with sidekicks! Raoul and I have been invited to contribute our er, scything wit and err, floorles righting stile to educate the public about how wonderful Barcelona is.

More specifically, I have an eye to write less about the city itself, and more about what's to do outside it. It should be good as Adam and Raoul's posts will probably focus more on the city and Catalan culture, so if you're interested then add it too your bookmarks or RSS feeds.

As you might have seen by now, my first post was about skiing, but these last two weeks have really reminded me how much of a cool place Barcelona is if you like outdoor sports. Apart from our skiing trip, I am back out on the rock again and climbing every Friday evening after work with Ferran. Here are a couple of pics from Gelida (a sports crag near me) and Montserrat:

I've also been out on Junior again recently. In my lunch break I can get up to the top to Tibidabo (the main hill overlooking the city), down the other side, back up again and all the way back down into the city and back to work. It's a good work out, and I've discovered a couple of excellent new trails. Unfortunately they're on the 'other side' of the mountain i.e. the side that faces away from the city, and the side that doesn't have funicular running up it! So it's saddle up and pedalling time. Ah well, good for my fitness. In a couple of weeks time Jonny K and Graham are coming out here to do some riding, and I'll need to keep up with them!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Spring sunset

I don' t usually 'do' neither photos of sunsets, nor stitched panaromas, but the view from our balcony tonight was one to break the rules...

a bigger version is here.

And we were singing...

...hymns and arias

Land of my Fathers

ar hyd y nos

Monday, March 10, 2008

Politics times two, this time local:

Despite saying I don't usually like talking politics on the blog, I thought I'd give you an update on the general election which occurred yesterday. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español - Spanish Socialist Worker Party) was re-elected yesterday with an increased majority over Mariano Rajoy's PP (Partido Popular - People's Party, conservative), but not enough to form a majority government. He will probably form an informal coalition government with Catalan nationalist party Convergencia i Unío. The latter were the only minority party to come out unscathed, all the rest lost seats to the two main parties.

The election campaign was one of the most bitter and divisive in recent history, with Rajoy having consistently claimed Zapatero's last election victory in 2004 to be 'invalid' (the PSOE won a surprise victory, due to public backlash against the PP trying to pin the blame for the 2004 Madrid bombings on Basque separatists, when it was actually the work of Muslim extremists). The two television debates pitting the two main candidates against each other were seethingly tense affairs, with the more relaxed Zapatero winning one but the other resulting in a score-draw as Rajoy challenged hard on the economy and immigration. Tensions were further increased after the Basque terrorist organisation, ETA, murdered an ex-councillor of the PSOE just days before the election.

Yet Zapatero has prevailed with a fairly convincing victory. Undoubtedly the result is a good one for Catalunya, Zapatero is quite Catalan-friendly and the main Catalan nationalist party (which actually leans more to the right) will probably be part of his conglomerate government. It's also a good result for Spain as a whole, Rajoy is quite hard-line and several of his policies struck me as very regressive and poorly thought through, especially those on immigration (which would affect me, of course!), the devolution of power and his approach on how to deal with the problem of ETA.

Another very good bit of news was the turn-out statistic, a more-than-respectable 75%, equalling that of four years ago. Britain can only dream of such a high election turn-out, though I wonder whether it has anything to do with the fact that full democratic elections are still relatively new in Spain - only 30 years ago Franco was still ruling the country with an iron fist and a policy to shoot anybody who disagreed with him (not an exaggeration, unfortunately).

The only real shame of the result was that it has confirmed the bipartite nature of Spanish politics, though there are advantages and disadvantages to that. The big challenge now will be to see if Zapatero can steer Spain through the economic difficulty that lies ahead - despite low unemployment Spain is at the end of a boom, and without careful management and fair bit of luck the economy risks being bought back down to earth with a bump. Interesting times ahead...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Boris' buses

I rarely talk about politics on this blog, but Boris Johnson's claims of political bias in Transport for London has got me interested. It's quite an easy one to imagine, that a strongly unionised employer would support the left wing candidate for the election of over the right-wing candidate.

The row is over Boris's plans to bring back conductors and routemaster buses back to London's streets, replacing the bendy buses. It's a romantic idea, and quite a popular one I should imagine, becuase nobody really likes those bendy buses.

Boris is claiming that it would only cost 8 million pounds to hire the extra conductors, based on the fact that there are 337 bendy buses, thus 337 * 24,500 (salary of a conductor) = just over 8 million. Fine.

TFL has released it's figures about this. There are actually 390 bendy buses, and 350 on the road at any one time. Each bus works a twenty hour day, and is staffed by a rotation of three drivers. So actually you'd have to hire 350 * 3 = 1050 extra conductors.

But hang on, the capacity of bendy bus is 150 people. The capacity of a routemaster is 69 i.e. half. So you would actually have to have twice as many buses to maintain capacity, thus hire twice as many conductors. 2 * 1050 = 2100.

But hang on a little longer, becuase if you're doubling the buses, you'd need to double the drivers as well. So that's an extra 1050 drivers, each earning 35,000 a year.

So the total increased staffing cost for replacing the bendy buses with routemasters is:

2100 * 24,000 + 1050 * 35,000 = 87,150,000

More than ten times Boris' headline figure, and that's excluding the cost of hiring and training the extra staff, and replacing the actual buses themselves!!

I don't like Red Ken that much, there is undoubtedly some truth in the cronyism stories and so on. And it's very easy to like Boris, he's such an affable chap. The fact that TFL's figure disagree with his has got him crying of bias. But figures are figures, and Boris' just don't add up. If he can't do the simple maths for buses, he's in no way capable of running one of the world's greatest cities.

Monday, March 03, 2008

February update

Busy busy busy. That's what we are at the moment. Djanira is starting her new job today, as general manager of the Barcelona branch of GoCar, a tourism company just starting in Europe. Very exciting. My work is sort-of-busy, in that I am working on a European proposal and coordinating the work of several different universities and companies across Europe, which is time consuming without being busy, per se. I've also been back in blighty recently for Duples' stag do, and then of course there is our wedding to organise too!

Fortunately spring arrived right on time this weekend (a ga i ddymuno Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus i bawb!) in Barcelona with beautiful blue skies and 20 degree temperatures. On saturday DJ and I went for a walk around Collserola, which is the national park just outside Barcelona, quite literally on the other side of Tibidabo (the hill that forms the backbone of the city). It is very strange to think that, as you stroll through peaceful forest, one of the largest cities in Europe is just over the hill, beyong Tibidado cathedral.

The fine weather continued for Sunday and so we headed out climbing. We'd been planning to go to la font de l'ametllò for some time, as it has a nice broad spread of grades. Unfortunately the rest of Catalunya seems to know this, and as we turned up at midday on Sunday it was as if we had arrived at Stanage on a nice spring day (only plus the bolts and the sunburn!). Towards the end of the day the crowd thinned out though, and we still had a very pleasant afternoon.

Earlier this month I was back in the homeland for Duples' stag do, which involved an 'adventure' thingy on some converted farm in north Wales. We had an afternoon go-carting and quad biking before going and watching Wales put one over Italy in the rugby, then onwards for a curry and a lot of beer. Shurely days don't get much better?!

me, dr kelly looking daft and Duples:

and last but not least I should report briefly on wedding plans, we have chosen our venue now, a beautiful old Masía (sort of country house thingie) about 20 mins drive from Barcelona. Here's a shot of the dining room for now, I'll see if I can find where DJ stored all the others she took of the outside:

Okay that's it for now, you never know I might even post again before the end of March...