Friday 30 April 2004

Freelance Torturers?

Fantastic to know that like all good corporations, the US military believes in outsourcing activities that aren't core to it's mission. Quotes from an article in the Guardian:

"We know that CACI and Titan corporations have provided interrogators and that they have in fact conducted interrogations on behalf of the US and have interacted the military police guards at the prison," he said.

but the shocking thing is they seem to operate outside the law:

"It's insanity," said Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, who has examined the case, and is concerned about the private contractors' free-ranging role. "These are rank amateurs and there is no legally binding law on these guys as far as I could tell. Why did they let them in the prison?"

Salmon Farming Troubles

which dye? Canthaxanthin or Astaxanthin?Been reading about salmon farming and it's certainly made me reconsider how often I'll eat salmon. About 99% of the salmon sold here in the UK is farmed. However, the industry has very serious problems: crowding, poop pollution, toxins, disease, antibiotics, dye, escaped species and local wildlife killed to protect the farm. Worse still, its aquaculture model is being repeated for other species.

You can read about these issues on the Salmon Farm Monitor website or there are various news articles around such as:

Or for the real dirt, read the In To Deep report by the Compassion In World Farming Trust.  It certainly leads me to question whether it's safe to eat any farmed fish. I mean the colour of farmed salmon comes from a dye! It needs to be either wild or at least farmed to organic standards. Indeed, eating fish can be an ethical nightmare.

If you're on the West Coast, you might be interested in Salmon Nation.

Thursday 29 April 2004

Fame Through Ebay

A guy tries to sell ex-wife's wedding dress on ebay and is on his way to his 15 seconds of fame. Check the hit counter. Amazing how fame can strike when you don't expect it.

Wednesday 28 April 2004

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2 (Quinton Tarantino, 2003 & 2004)

volume 2volume 1Watched the Kill Bill Vol. 1 DVD and then had to go out and see Vol 2 at the cinema. A wronged women (The Bride) seeks her revenge and boy does she get it. Violent. Very violent like previous Tarantino films. Lots of blood and bodies in the first film. Great sword play. 

Tarantino pays hommage to numerous martial arts films right down to David Carradine playing a bamboo flute (remember Kung Fu anyone?). The cinematography is quirky with the use of black and white, slow motion and japanese animation. That makes it so much more interesting than a standard Hollywood action flick. The second film is less violent and has better character development. Still keeps you guessing about what's going to happen next. If you can stomach the violence, it's certainly entertaining.

You need to see the films back to back as it's really just a single film.

Black Beauty (Anna Sewell)

cover I recently finished reading this book aloud to R*. Before starting it, all I knew was that it was a classic children's book about a black horse. Well, that's true but I was impressed to find out that it's really a morality story. Many of the morale lessons are directed at animal welfare but there's plenty of dialogue lecturing about social morality and how to treat our fellow man. This is constantly illustrated through the stories of the owners of Black Beauty, especially that of Jerry Barker.

What makes it particularly interesting is that it was written in 1877 and provides some insight into what life must have been like back then. Poor horses! The language can be a bit arcane at times but it's quite approachable for an eight year old. It's a classic for very good reasons. Since the copyright has expired, you can get it online.

Tuesday 27 April 2004

Cone Dodging Trackday

Download Windows Media Video: 2 Mb version or 10 Mb version

I got a speeding ticket last week and figured it was time for a trackday. So while searching on UK Trackdays, I discovered Cone Dodgers and quickly signed up for their event which I attended yesterday. Slalom and Drifting!

The venue was a large tarmac square out in the middle of nowhere (near Andover) used by the Ministry Of Defence for helicopters. The concept is simple. A slalom track is layed down using short traffic cones and you drive your car as fast as you're able to around them. It's not competitive as the primary challenge is to drift your car sideways around as much of the course as possible linking your drifts. All the time is spent is first and second gear.

Cone Dodgers is the brainchild of a fellow named Declan and this was the first event he had ever put on. Slalom and Drifting is not a popular kind of event in the UK but it has lots of potential for catching on. It's very popular in the US. There were staff from Retro Car Magazine on hand taking pictures for an upcoming article (watch for it in the June or July issue).

There were twelve of us in all and about half of us had never done car drifting before. It was a young and friendly crowd. All devoted petrolheads. I was driving my Porsche 911. There was also an old M3, MR2, MX5, NSX and some older cars. The more dedicated drifters generally had junk cars purchased for as little as £150 which they just thoroughly trash without a care.

I figured the Porsche could easily take the beating and I've always wanted to learn more about how to handle the car when it loses traction. As an extra service, a tire fitter was on site and swapped off my Pirelli's for some junk rear tires that I could trash. With only tarmac to scar and cones to hit, I was ready for a bit of fun.

I started on a simple slalom run trying to get the car to oversteer. I have now learned that a Porsche 911 is very hard to oversteer at the low speeds we were doing. It understeers instead. It's very, very hard to break the traction of the rear tires and they were even more narrow than usually - 245's rather than 255's. I also learned that it's exhausting work driving a car this hard.

I let a maniac named Rob try and help me learn how to oversteer the car. I even let him try driving the car. Mistake! He did indeed manage to unsettle the car enough to break traction by jabbing the clutch. Nasty method but it worked and we burned quite a bit of tire sliding around. Unfortunately, after the run, I discovered we had shredded the rear left tire. I learned later from the tire service fellow that the tire probably wasn't hot enough when we tortured it which is why layers of it started coming off.

I consulted with a few of the guys and decided I didn't want to risk body damage with flying bits of tire so I called it quits. However I did ride passenger three times with a guy named Nigel in a souped up M3. That was a good laugh. I also got to take Declan's MX5 out for spin on the track. Very easy car to drift.

It was a great day. Lots of fun and a friendly crowd. We all went down to the pub afterwards before parting ways. I would highly recommend trying it out. Declan has three more events lined up and only charges £60. The tire service cost £30. That's much cheaper than a track day and it's safer. A track days teaches you about smooth handling and braking. Slalom and drifting really teaches you about how your car handles.

I'm now looking around for a spare set of wheels and trashy tires I could take to one of the next events.

Sunday 25 April 2004

One Year Off Work

Today's my anniversary of quitting work and taking time off. The time has gone quickly and I haven't got as much done as I thought I might. Occasionally I get asked whether I'm bored or tired of not working. Nope! Not yet! It's true I've never spent so much time just by myself. The main thing I miss about work is the banter and general socialising with colleagues. It took several months to stop feeling like I should have a nine to five job and for the longest time, it felt very strange to go somewhere in the middle of a weekday. But I'm cured of that now.

It's been absolutely great reclaiming my own time back rather than selling it. It gives you a chance to slow done and figure out what's important to you. You rediscover all the old things that you once enjoyed and seek out things you've always been curious about. Relationships become more important. It's fantastic having more time for the children and being more involved with their lives. After all, there's no second chance for that.

Using the Internet, you can discover an endless stream of ways to spend your time. With all the things I find interesting, I have a long list of potential projects to undertake. There's no danger of getting bored that way.

Work offers you a community and in many cases, it's the most dominant community you participate in but I've come to realise it's often a pretty shallow community at best. It's demanding, rigid and not very forgiving. Large work places can be so impersonal. Still it's a difficult community to leave because your identity gets wrapped up in the work that you do. And work often leaves you with such little time for much else. It's a terrible waste.

Leaving work means leaving your prime community. So the challenge of not working is finding worthwhile communities to participate in that value your involvement. It feels good to commit your time to them and seems more like the way life should be lived.

I appreciate I've been very fortunate to have this time off. I do plan to go back to work but I'll be careful about who I work for and how I balance work life with the way I really want to spend my time.

Thursday 22 April 2004

The Fat Duck

If you want to really have an outstanding dining experience, I can highly recommend going to The Fat Duck. A friend took me there for lunch based on my suggestion (nice friend!). It's a three Michelin star restaurant and the chef, Heston Blumenthal, is considered to be one of hottest new chefs around. He's self taught and earned his Michelin stars faster than anyone else in its history. Jenny and I went quite a few years ago and weren't impressed but I'm happy to say that experience has been completely reversed. It's absolutely top notch now. Don't go expecting to taste anything you've tried before. He truly does invent some memorable dishes.

Wednesday 21 April 2004

Dog Rescue Volunteer Walking

Today R* and I went and walked a dog. Well children aren't allowed to take the lead so I guess I did the walking. To be truthful, I was dragged by a most determined dog for an hour and a half through a muddy forest!

As a compromise to R*'s unyielding campaign to own a dog, I found a place where we could walk someone else's dog. It turns out that The Dog Rescue And Welfare Society at Stokenchurch need volunteers to walk their dogs on Sundays and Wednesdays. Indeed we showed up at 11am and were soon handed a black setter named Missy who was gagging for a good run and sniff of absolutely everything. She was a lovely dog but I'm sure my right arm is now a good inch longer than my left.

It certainly guaranteed that all of us got a good bit of exercise. I may even do it again. I'm sure R* will want to do this every Sunday!

Tuesday 20 April 2004

K's First Day At School

Today was K*'s first day at school. He's started in a reception class at a nearby Infant School. Thankfully he doesn't seem to have any anxieties over it. It's probably helped that we've been building and preparing him for this for quite some time and it's the same school that he used to see his sister go to. So the place was familiar. He says he likes his teacher and he's made new friends. He seems proud of his new school uniform too.

This is a big milestone for us as parents. Both kids in school! The kids are growing up! And now for twelve years of life centred around schooling.

Monday 19 April 2004

Food Miles

While on the topic of supporting local food producers, I'd just like to mention how I find it stunning just how far food travels nowadays. For a few exotic items, it's reasonable but I noticed a small pack of fresh asparagus the other day that had come all the way from Thailand. Think of how much jet fuel that takes! So given a choice at a supermarket, I prefer to buy from wherever is closer. Unless it's produced by Israel in which case I avoid it.

Soil Association Supermarket Survey

Very interesting survey conducted by the Soil Association to find out how much organic food sold by the UK supermarkets are actually sourced from UK organic farmers. This is critical since the top five supermarkets account for around 70% of all food purchased in the UK. Their buying power controls the market.

Bottom line from the survey was that you're best off supporting Waitrose, Sainsbury or Marks & Spencer but you should read the details.

Sunday 18 April 2004

R's First Real School Trip

R* came back today from her first real school trip. The whole Year Three class of about thirty kids spent three days in Essex. On the first day, they visited a hop farm and went on a dray ride. The even got to try a tiny bit of beer! Then an archeologist took them on a tour of the site of the Battle of Hastings including being shown where King Harold fell. The class then re-enacted the battle and R* got to be a Norman and kill a friend. They finished the visit touring Battle Abbey. In the evenings they slept in a dormintory - eight to a room.

The next day they visited Underwater World where R* says the walk-through tunnel is really cool and then on to Smugglers Adventure. Finally, they visited Hastings Castle. R* says she did a huge amount of walking - 10 times Legoland worth (great!). On the third day they visited Rudyard Kiplings house before driving home.

It sounds like she had lots of fun although I think the biggest thrill was spending her money in the gift shops. All children had a limit of £6. Still, I think trips like these are fantastic and it's such a great way to learn about history.

The Truth about the War with Iraq

I found this article to be an pretty interesting read. It looks at the relationship of America with the rest of the world and the problem of global democracy and world governance. It's particularly worth reading the section on "What of the future" which I would summarise as:

  • Expect the world-wide love-hate relationship with America to become even more polarised

  • Expect new generations of terrorists to exact “revenge” on America

  • Expect America to continue to feel deeply hurt, increasingly isolated and angry and acting unilaterally around the world wherever it feels national interests dictate

  • In contrast, expect almost the entire rest of the world to invest intensively in the UN as the sole vehicle for solving complex international issues

  • Expect the EU to forge ahead with renewed energy to create structures to balance US power economically and militarily. But the EU will be severely restrained by ongoing internal conflicts.

Friday 16 April 2004

Jenny Teaches First Cooking Class

And she got paid for it! Whoo Hoo!!

Some time back, I mentioned that I roped Jenny into offering Oriental Cooking Classes. Well she never got enough students but that ad in the paper did pay off. She got a cold call a few months ago from someone representing a local women's group called "Circle Of Friends". She got invited to their meeting and after describing her cooking class idea, the committee members decided to try Jenny out. So tonight she demonstrated cooking a Malaysian dinner for six women who then enjoyed the meal.

It went pretty well although she felt there were a few disasters. Chicken fell apart. Rice was too wet. Meanwhile, the ladies complained that the chicken had bones and the prawns had shells (Brits!). That said, there were no leftovers.

So we're celebrating it as a success. Jenny had lots of fun doing it and the women are encouraging her to create leaflets so they can distribute them.

Chessington World Of Adventures

R* has got to the age where she claims that she wants to go on every and any theme park ride. As a treat we went to Chessington World Of Adventures last Wednesday. Bottom line: £52 for about 4 rides each and watch penguins and sea lions get fed. The big rides had huge queues and it wasn't until the end of the day that we figured out how the Fast Track system worked. Doh! But even the Fast Track queues were huge for the popular rides. It sucks to pay so much money and spend most of your time in a line. R* and I went on one of those huge ship swings that made me a bit woosy. Of course the kids loved the place but I think you have to go off season to any theme park to get any value from it.

Tuesday 13 April 2004

No Nonsense Health Guide

I've written-up my own "No Nonsense Health Guide" which is mostly about healthy eating. It's an ongoing project to distill in one place my conclusions from all the advice I read. Since everyone is interested in health to one degree or another, feel free to send me feedback on it.

Monday 12 April 2004

Visit To London Zoo

We stayed at a friend's house in London over the weekend for a little holiday and spent a day at London Zoo. It was the children's top choice and a zoo never fails to please. Personally, I'm still of two minds about zoos. I don't like seeing the animals in captivity - particularly the large animals like the gorillas and tigers. But I do think the zoos do a great service in educating the public and raising awareness about conservation. So, as long as the facilities for the inmates are top notch, I think they're ok.

The kids had a great time entertaining several pygmy marmosets that were intrigued by a couple of toys the children were carrying. And R* was happy to see where they filmed a scene from the first Harry Potter movie.

Saturday 10 April 2004

Nyonya In Notting Hill

Had dinner at the "Nyonya" in Nottinghill Gate (London). It's at the corner of Pembridge Road and Lambroke Road; hard to miss it. As the names suggests, it specialises in the Nyonya cuisine of Malaysia. The dishes we had were excellent. I can vouch for the Nasi Lemak, Lobak and Char Kway Teow. Each dish is about £7 which is good value in the UK but dreadful compared to what we've paid for them in Malaysia. But at least the flavours were spot on.

R* Discovers Snorkeling

R* completed her sixth one hour snorkeling lesson today at a local pool and received her PADI Discover Snorkeling certificate. She really enjoyed it and had no qualms with diving and breathing through the snorkel. However, I had to insist that she did not wear her fins in the bathtub in the evenings! Hopefully we'll find an interesting place for her to use this new skill in the not too distant future.

Thursday 8 April 2004

Guardian: Not freedom: a free-for-all

Good article summarising what's now happening in Iraq. By failing to establish a social contract with the Iraqi people, the US has lost it's authority to lead and is now under attack from numerous groups. It's amazing how naive and ill prepared the US seems to have been for postwar Iraq. There's also a fascinating read on the Blair/Bush secret pact. What a mess.

Wednesday 7 April 2004

Interviewed By The BBC World Service

Well maybe "interviewed" is overstating it. Had a telephone call from a BBC researcher. The World Service is putting together a radio programme on the Information Society so they wanted to talk to people that have an Internet presence - bloggers in particular. So we had an interesting chat about the whys and hows of blogging and why I got into it. I could ramble for ages about it but the questioning was very to the point. No doubt an important trait of a good researcher.

There's no date set for when the programme will air. If I find out, I'll let you know.

Tuesday 6 April 2004

Jenny's Debut As A Chef

Jenny had a very successful day cooking lunch for sixteen elderly people. She's volunteered as a cook for the Age Concern charity and today was her initial debut. Her Irish Stew was highly praised although the boiled cabbage didn't get a lot of attention. I know she really enjoyed the challenge. You also have to produce the meal for about £1 per person and that includes dessert. Now that's really difficult!

Monday 5 April 2004

Canada Clubbing Baby Seals Again

It's enough to make you feel sick. Canada has ramped up the quota for the seal hunt to 350,000. The highest in half a century. The article doesn't make clear where the demand is coming from.

In The Mood For Love (Kar Wai Wong, 2000)

cover YATCM or "Yet Another Tragic Chinese Movie". Just what is it with Chinese movies? By far, the majority of the one's I see are tragic tales. Maybe it's just Chinese art films but still it must say something about the culture.

The plot is simple. Two neighbours discover that their respective spouses are having an affair and are drawn together. Stylistically, the film is a feast. It's set in 1960's Hong Kong. It dark, hot, humid and cramped. The film is very slow. Minor expressions and eye glances are all important. The chongsams are wonderful. The mood is tantelizing.

But nothing much happens. The tension is huge but restraint wins the day and love is unfulfilled. If you're patient, it's a good film but it does leave you feeling rather unsatisfied. And I guess that's the whole point.

Poker Night Revenge

cover Had our third poker night last week. By the end of the night, I was, *sob*, down 30%. That's £3.

I've even been reading a book called "Winning Low Limit Hold'em" by Lee Jones but it didn't help me a whole lot. The game was loose and I made plenty of mistakes getting impatient waiting for a good deal. I'm not giving up yet. It needs quite a bit of practice to get this right especially trying to assess the odds of getting the cards you needs verses the pot odds. There's a surprising amount of mental calculations that go into the game.

Hurley Rodeo

A couple of weekends ago, we went down to watch a bit of the Hurley Rodeo. This is a freestyle kayaking event where kayakers essentially surf the water rushing through a weir and do tricks. Looks a bit crazy but fun at the same time. The Hurley Weir is supposed to be one of the best in the UK.

hurley weir freestyle kayaking

Kayaking really appeals to me so I've signed up for a level 1 kayaking course at a local canoe club this May. No, I'm not looking to go freestyle but I like the idea of paddling along the local rivers or sea kayaking. Jenny is going to go on the course as well.

Friday 2 April 2004

BBC: Animal welfare takes on religion

Here's another instance of how society and law are slowly evolving based on the recognition of human and animal rights. But it's always interesting when it clashes with religion. I don't see how religious leaders can really claim that slitting an animals throat and letting it bleed to death is "humane" (despite reading about Shechita and Zibah). I agree with the stories final quote:

"The method at the time the rules were written was probably the most humane way of killing an animal, but of course that has changed."

But the big issue is that it opens a huge religious dilema. If you can re-interpret the religious text for one rule, doesn't that mean you can re-interpret all the rules of a religious text? The resistance is understandable since the text has the highest authority and if it comes from God, how can you question it? But a truly strong religion should be able to evolve without compromising the faith it is based on.