Saturday 31 July 2004

PADI Advanced Open Water Diver

Happy PADI Advanced Open Water DiversWe're back from our trip to Portland, Weymouth and I successfully completed the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certificate. The qualification is meant to prepare you for diving up to 30m. Unfortunately, Jenny wasn't able to do the course.

A big revelation for me was that it isn't cold diving in the UK at all but the water was very murky as expected. I would like to dive in Cornwall some time in the future as I gather the visibility is much better. I've written up a travelogue of the diving trip if you want to read all about it.

Friday 30 July 2004

Diving In Dorset

We recently got back from Portland on the Dorset Coast. It's a small peninsula beside Weymouth famous for Portland Stone used to build grand buildings like St. Pauls Cathedral. It also forms the east most end of Chiswell Beach.

Our goal was to complete our PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certification. Unfortunately, Jenny had to drop out of the course because the doctor refused to give her medical approval. However, it still meant two days holiday without the kids. A friend of ours volunteered to look after them (on condition we take her two kids another time). Fair enough.

Now your reaction to diving in the UK might be "are you crazy?". Well, that was my prejudice as well but I decided it wasn't fair to condemn something I haven't tried so I decided to do the course in the UK and give UK diving a chance.

Heading South

We got down there Wednesday evening after a three hour crawl, checked into our B&B and went for a nice dinner at Perry's in Weymouth's Old Harbour. Food was excellent and the harbour is very pleasant to stroll around. The B&B oozes character. It's called the Queen Anne House. It's a Grade II listed house built in 1710 and we stayed in the tastefully decorated Oyster room. My only complaint is that the bed was only five feet long with a mattress so soft it felt like a water bed!

The next morning I had difficulty forcing down a full English breakfast. My nerves were wavering as I contemplated with some trepidation  diving to a massive deep gloomy wreck in cold murky water. We arrived early at The Scuba Centre and my nerves disappeared as I got busy fitting on equipment and listening to a briefing. On the instructors encouragement, I hired a Halcyon Wing. Since the course was during the week, all the kit hire was free.

With four fellow students and all the gear in tow, we headed over to the boat moored by the Aqua Hotel. The general format was always:

  1. Get kitted up either by the Aqua Hotel or on the boat.
  2. Take a short boat ride out to the dive site.
  3. Listen to the briefing.
  4. Do the dive.
  5. Take the boat back to the mooring by the Aqua Hotel.
  6. Get the cylinders refilled and relax for a while around the cafe
  7. Go back to 1

This format worked great but it does require lots of humping around heavy equipment and sitting around like a gumby in thick layers of neoprene. Glad the weather wasn't too hot!

Dive 1: Countess of Erne, max depth 10m, bottom time 36 minutes

cold or not?I was pretty tense as I made my giant stride entry. Ten months since my last dive was too long. I expected to feel a massive shock of cold water but it never came. Hey, the water wasn't cold! Okay, it was a bit cold when you stuck your face in the water but it wasn't any big deal. I was wearing a 5mm full wetsuit and over that I had a 5mm shortie with an integrated hood. It was downright toastie and I never felt any water flushing down my back. Superb! The water temperature was 17 degrees celsius and I felt comfortable.

We practiced some "Peak Buoyancy" control and frog kicks around the wreck of this paddle steamer sunk in 1935. Visibility was maybe 4m. I slowly relaxed and got the hang of diving again. I started to get familiar with all the new equipment I had including a new Suunto dive computer I was trying for the first time. The Halcyon Wing was excellent; keeps your swim profile much more streamlined.

After this dive, I relaxed considerably.

Dive 2:  Landing Craft, max depth 16m, bottom time 34 minutes


This time we took a RIB out to the diving site and I did my first ever backwards roll from a boat. This dive we learned about using lines for exploring wrecks. In this case, the wreck was a WWII Landing Craft and Bombardon Unit. Visibility was terrible; one to three metres at best. Still saw quite a few fish and a large crab.

Also tried deploying a surface marker buoy (SMB) for the first time. As expected, I lost my neutral buoyancy and shot to the surface while concentrating on reeling in the line. My new fangled computer made it clear I wasn't supposed to do that!

That was it for the first day. After cleaning up, Jenny and I went for a excellent meal at the Blue Fish Cafe in Portland. It's a new restaurant and I would highly recommend it if you're in the vicinity. We then went and sat on Chiswell Beach and watched the sunset while playing with the bazillion pebbles.

Dive 3: Pulpit Rock, max depth 24.4m, bottom time 26 minutes


Next morning we started with a deep dive. This was my first drift dive. I deployed the SMB on the surface and went down ok but messed up ascending the SMB line later on. The drift was along the bottom of a short wall. Not a great deal to see. Some fish here and there including a big stingray at one point. It's all very drab but sometimes the rocky topography was interesting. Enjoyed just drifting along and watching the scenery pass by.

Dive 4: Bally Bay, max depth 15.5m, bottom time 26 minutes

This was another drift dive but in a stronger current. It was a bit scary to watch the boat leave us drifting in the open sea. I deployed the SMB and we descended to the bottom. Got much better at using the SMB this dive and at the end, made a perfect ascent up the SMB line. Hoorah! Visibility was about 5m but the group still managed to lose each other. I made sure I could always see my buddy.

There wasnt' a great deal to see. The instructor and my dive master buddy collected scallops along the drift which we later had with lunch. I found drift diving very relaxing since there's nothing to do but float along. I had lots of air left by the end of the dive. The current got faster near the end of the dive and I was quite amazed later to discover just how much ground we covered.

On the surface, there was a bad chop and it was hard to get to the boat. At one point I was left bobbing around by myself being hit by waves while the boat had to circle around to make another attempt to recover me. Yep, diving does have its moments.

Happy to be back onboard!

Dive 5: The Dredger, max depth 10m, bottom time 31 minutes

The final dive was a shallow wreck dive to practice underwater navigation with a compass. Visibility was very poor but that was intentional since we had to rely on using the compass. I messed up navigating a square but did alright with the triangle. The Dredger is a very broken up wreck so not a lot to see.

What I've Learned

I've learned quite a bit this trip.

I was never cold during any of these dives. In a similiar exposure suit, I would happily dive in 15 degree water. So diving in the UK can be comfortable but I wasn't impressed with any of the dive sites. UK diving is mainly about wreck diving and that doesn't have a lot of appeal to me. I'd rather see more sea life. I hear the visibility around Cornwall is much better so I'm very open to making a future dive trip there. Need to remember to take a collecting bag so I can pick scallops along the way!

Good buoyancy control takes practice and you need to dive frequently to maintain the skill. Before going on a dive trip to another country, it would be worthwhile doing a local dive to refresh all these dive skills.

The Halcyon Wing was excellent and seems to be a much better choice than using a regular jacket-style BCD (buoyancy compensation device). It's a bit trickier to figure where all your gear needs to go but it's worth going this this route in order to be better balanced and streamlined.

As for other gear, the SMB takes practice but is well worth carrying. The Suunto Vyper dive computer was an excellent investment. I stopped carrying a snorkel because it got in the way but I should find another way to carry it since it could be vital in choppy water.

Happy Advanced Open Water DiversThe PADI Advanced Open Water Diver is an easy course. I certainly don't feel advanced. I know some more techniques but I'm still very much a beginner with only 19 dives under my belt. Practice counts for a lot in diving. I'm now qualified to dive to 30m but I'm inclined to stick to 20m or less.

I would happily recommend anyone to dive with Dive Dorset or go out with Jay Hogg, our instructor (kneeling in the picture).

Tuesday 27 July 2004


Ughh. Turned 41 today. It's not too depressing but I'd rather ignore it all the same.

Friends are having our kids for two days and Jenny and I are heading down to Weymouth to do some diving and earn our PADI Advanced Open Water certification. Feeling a bit nervous as I'm expecting the water to be quite cold and murky and we're diving to wrecks. However, the dive shop claims the sea is a balmy 18 degrees....

Sunday 25 July 2004

Farnborough Airshow 2004

We spent the day at the Farnborough Airshow also known as the Farnborough International Exhibition and Flying Display. It's run by the Society of British Aerospace Companies primarily as a trade show for them to show off their wares. From Monday to Friday it's trade only and then it opens up to the public on the weekend. There's a few civillian aircraft but it's really about military aircraft and capability. It's a place where government reps come pushing shopping trolleys.

missle launcher anyone?get a fighter and a few accessories?

It felt pretty sickening looking at some of it and reading the marketing material. The really scarey stuff was the remote controlled surveillance, targetting and attack aircraft. Are you in the market for a "Lethal Node" that can "Achieve the Needed Effects"?

RQ-4A Global Hawk

J-UCAS X-45The progression of the aircraft technology is amazing. You don't need or want humans in the aircraft anymore; they're the weakest link. The unmanned surveillance aircraft can patrol at a huge height for 36 hours. You then send in remote controlled targetting helicopters (sorry, no picture) to confirm and pick the targets which are destroyed by small fast remote controlled attack aircraft. Allows you to fight a war without the messy business of losing men on your side. Politically, it's a winner.

Ignoring my conscience about being around this trade show, I admit I did enjoy the air displays. For five hours, there was something roaring into the sky and struting it's stuff. There's a list on the official website but it included a B52H Stratofortress, Chinook, Apache, B-1B Lancer, Airbus A340-600 (longest plane in the world), Hunter F6a, Gnat, Spitfire V, P-51D Mustang, C103 tranporter, Tornado, F16, F117A Nighthawk, Eurofighter (Typhoon) and many others. The Eurofighter put on a particularly good display but my favourite is still the good ol' Harrier jet. It's just very cool to watch a jet come screaming in, put on the brakes, stop in mid air and then proceed to float about. Of course, the show finished with a display by the Red Arrows in their Hawk T1A's which is always good.

HarrierRed Arrows

I'm sure the kids found the airshow memorable. They bought some postcards and will send a couple off. K* says his next project is to build a Nighthawk out of Lego.

Saturday 24 July 2004

WOMAD Festival 2004

view from ferris wheelWe spent Friday afternoon wandering around the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival in Reading. Kids went on some rides and we meandered around tons of stalls selling all kinds of interesting things. R* loved it as a newbie shopaholic ("Can we buy this?").  The festival is very child friendly and even has children's activity tents.

It's a more alternative festival geared to "free spirits" compared to other music fests. Lobbying groups were out in force so we chatted with some of them and I signed a few petitions. The Simultaneous Policy looked interesting as did Tourism Concern.

We then settled in front of the main stage and watched The Dhol Foundation. They were excellent and got the audience well involved. Think bhangra and Bollywood music and you'll have the right idea of what they sounded like. Afterwards, we grabbed a quick bite and went home. It's a bit of a shame we didn't catch more shows but I've learned it's better to leave while everyone is in a good mood.

The Dhol Foundation

We went the previous year and I look forward to going again next year.

The Most Fertile Man In Ireland (Dudi Appleton, 1999)

A young Catholic man in Belfast discovers he has an incredible ability to get women pregnant. His services come into great demand attracting the attention of the IRA and causing great difficulty in his romantic interest. Excellent plot. It's bound to keep you smiling and entertained for 96 minutes. Good caste, well acted, nice pace, stylised cinematography and a fun script if you can get past the strong Irish accents. Recommended.

Wednesday 21 July 2004

This Land from JibJab

Visit JibJab to watch a great little animated satire of Bush vs Kerry called "This Land". Loads more stuff at Atom Films.

Shrek 2 (Adamson, Asbury, Vernon, 2004)

Superb sequel. Not quite as magical as the original but great entertainment. There's less character development and dialogue and more action. The pace is fast and doesn't give you enough time to soak in all the in jokes and fantastic imagery. Will definitely have to watch the DVD as well. I've noticed that Shrek 3 and Shrek 4 are also planned.

Gangs Of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)

I've been trying to figure out what's wrong with this movie. I mean, it's ok as movies go and the historical context behind it is very interesting but the movie is just done wrong. It's too theatrical. Too Hollywood. Too stylised. The acting is a bit pushed. It feels like a made-for-TV movie. The production values just weren't right for the story. It needed to be darker, grittier and more real. Blah.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003)

Enjoyabled movie but it's missing something. The cinematography was excellent. The acting was fine. I just didn't find the story that engaging. Only good for those that like a swashbuckling sea-going yarn.

Monday 19 July 2004

Guilfest 2004

We went to the Guilford Music Festival last Saturday. Kids got to see Rolf Harris (aka Mr Animal Hospital) and hang around the Kids Area which was littered with circus things to play with. It's a pretty big festival and somewhat overwhelming for the kids. R* was keen to shop for trinklets at all the stalls.

Around 7pm we settled ourselves in front of the main stage. Generally concerts don't work well for Jenny and the kids as they're too short but we found a good spot where the kids could climb on a fence. We saw Rickie Lee Jones who did an excellent cover of a slow tempo Show Biz Kids (Steely Dan is one of my favourite bands ever). I really like her when she sings jazz (eg Pop Pop, 1991) but not usually keen on her rock/pop stuff. After her came Katie Melua who I had never heard of but she has a great voice and talented backup band. Definitely have to pick up her debut CD "Call Off The Search".

Finally, Simple Minds came on stage and we watched for a while but it was getting late. We stayed to hear one of their big hits (Don't You Forget About Me) and then left. Nice 80's flashback.

Friday 16 July 2004

Jerry Springer - The Opera

My cousin was in town visiting so besides strolling around Blenheim Palace and Camden Market, we also went to see Jerry Springer - The Opera at the Cambridge Theatre in London.

It was excellent but certainly not everyone's cup of tea. First, it is really opera. There is a large talented cast and the singing could be thunderous sometimes. Much of the singing is prolonged profanity and extremely rude (listen to it on the website). It's great that I can claim this as my first real opera experience. Second, it really is in the format of a trashy Jerry Springer show. David Soul makes a perfect Jerry Springer.  And third, if you're at all serious about Christianity, you're going to find it very offensive when they take the micky out of Judo-Christian mythology. I won't give any more of the show away.

It's a strange combination but it works very well. Comtemporary opera rocks. Despite the religious content, this is no moralistic play with insights into human nature ("No right. No wrong. Just lots of energy"). It's got the obligatory Springerisms ("Take care of each other"). It's clever but trashy entertainment and you're bound to hear more about this show when it makes it to Broadway next year. Highly recommended.

Monday 12 July 2004

Motorcycle Training

I've passed my Compulsory Basic Training and my Theory Test. Just got my Practical Test to do!

I've always wanted to ride a motorcycle ever since first riding as a teenager. While 18 and backpacking in Nepal, my friends and I managed to rent motorcycles in Katmandu and ride around the countryside. That was the first time I'd ever ridden and it was great fun. Now I'm finally getting around to getting a license.

Last Monday I did the Compulsory Basic Training. It's a full day being taught the basics of motorcycle handling. There were four of us on the day and the instructor started by showing us a video of a motorcyclist hitting a car and being taken to hospital. Gulp. All through the day, a very healthy amount of paranoia was instilled upon us. Certainly enough to make me reconsider being there! On to the practical side of things, we went through some simple motorcycle handling on a private track in the morning and then in the afternoon we were wired up with radio's and taken on a ride around the local streets.

You feel very vunerable on a motorcycle and it's pretty exhausting because you are trying to be so hyperaware of everything around you. I was amazed at how many metal drain covers there are on the road. Never noticed them before but they're hazardous to motorcycles when wet.

Today, I passed my Theory Test. There's two parts to the test: 35 multiple choice questions and 14 hazard perception videos. The multiple choice questions were easy and I aced them but I'm embarrased to admit I squeaked by the hazard perception part scoring only 47 out of 74. With these video's shown on a computer you're supposed to click when you see a "developing hazard" and based on when you click you're awarded between 0 and 5 points. I think the problem is I sometimes clicked too early when I knew something was about to happen and then clicked again very late. Still, I think it's a very good idea that they've added this part to the theory test.

So now I have several lessons to go and then on to the Practical Test.

Sunday 11 July 2004

Little House On The Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1953)

Finally finished reading this book by Laura Ingalls Wilder aloud to the kids. In terms of a children's story, I found it to be a bit of a slog. Not very entertaining compared to something from Roald Dahl but that's just me.

However, it's a great snippet of history and provides a charming account of frontier life. The narrative is simple and clear. Most important, it held the children's attention and gave them a glimpse at how different life was back then. That itself opens up all kind of conversations. We had a good talk about the conquest of America and treatment of native people.

Very good websites dedicated to this story can be found here and here.

Friday 9 July 2004

Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

This isn't a film for everyone. It's a slow film about two strangers gradually falling in love but never consumating a relationship. Both are vistors to Tokyo alienated by a strange culture. Although it's a Hollywood film, it's got all the feel and production values of a small independent film. Realism reins. Life moves slowly.

Yes, it's pretty much a showcase for Bill Murray. The acting and script is good. The film has a certain charm to it but don't expect great entertainment.

Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003)

My expectations were pretty low of this film as it seemed to have passed quietly through the cinemas. However, I love Tim Burton films and had to see what he had done with this one. His films are always rich saturated productions that are quirky and surreal but tell a good story.

I wasn't disappointed after all. It was thoroughly Burtonesque and I'd recommend watching it. Check IMDB for the plot.

BBC: UN rules against Israeli barrier

Excellent. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the Israel wall is illegal. The wall is an abomination. However, it's non-binding and even if the UN has a debate, you can be sure the US will veto any resolutions. There's something wrong with the system. At least it makes it clear who's suppressing who.

Sunday 4 July 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11

Tonight I went and saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. If there's one movie to watch this year, this has gotta be the one.

I don't think you can watch the film without various emotions swelling in you. I felt amazed, horrified, angry, sad and ashamed. He paints a devasting portrayal of Bush, the American system and the tragedy of the Iraq war. But I was ready to agree with him before the film started.

Thinking about how the film was constructed, I do feel he dwells too much on emotive footage rather than constructing and backing up his arguement.  Maybe too many facts would clutter the basic message and detract from evoking emotions from the audience. It's certainly effective as a technique to raise questions and doubts in the mind of the viewer of the status quo.

Is the film manipulative? I don't think it's any more manipulative than regular TV. Media is manipulative. Every media effects the message that it conveys and one needs to read the media as well as the message. Moore does exploit the emotive power of film to make his point.

For another point of view, you can read the right wing anti-Moore site MooreWatch. Here's also a touching interview with Lila Lipscomb.

I'm particularly grateful that Michael Moore's films have proven that there is a commercially viable market for documentaries. Most TV documentaries are so bland and stick to safe boring topics. I would gladly pay the cost of a cinema ticket to see a truly revealing documentary. Let's hope for more.

Saturday 3 July 2004

Fishing With Maggots

On a whim, I went with R* today to a fishing tackle shop and asked how I could take my daughter fishing. For £12, the shop set me up with everything I needed including a small tub filled to the brim with wriggling maggots. Absolutely revoluting. We took them home and freaked out Jenny. R* had no problems putting her hands into the boiling seething mass of them. I guess revulsion is a something that's learned.

Then I took K* and R* to a nearby river where we could fish for free. In the UK, children under twelve don't need a fishing license. They could fish but I couldn't. I left it to R* to pierce the maggots onto the hook. I really didn't want to touch them! She was completely unphased and became quite adept at hooking them. The idea is to sprinkle a few maggots into the river to attract the fish and then drop your hooked maggot in the same spot.

It worked a treat. Fishing off a bridge, we caught twelve fish in about an hour and a half. They ranged in size from about four to six inches. After catching each fish, we just unhooked it and threw it back.

So the whim turned out well. Excellent activity to do with the kids as long as you don't mind maggots.

When we had finished, I got R* to empty the maggots into the river and later stick the tub in the fridge for Jenny to find...

Friday 2 July 2004

Ten Years In The UK

Exactly ten years ago today, we stepped off a plane only planning to stay in the UK for two years. We often evaluate whether we're living in the right place and, funny enough, it still seems right to stay.

There's many reasons why we stay. Each one isn't enough in it's own right but they add up to a lot of inertia that keeps us here. I'm not going to try and explain them all. When asked, the easiest explanation is that we just love the variety of things there are to do in the UK. It's a very small country crammed with 60 million people. There's just lots of stuff that goes on and there's lots of opportunities to try things.

I also think it's a great place to educate children and it's a big bonus that it's a short flight to anywhere in Europe. R* is studying Egypt in the Autumn term so we've booked a trip to visit Egypt during the half term holidays. It's easy to do that living in the UK.

Our intention is still to return to Canada at some point. But as ever, we're just not sure when. 

Thursday 1 July 2004

Happy Canada Day

Didn't do anything to celebrate besides wear a Canada T-shirt and eat fried beaver tails-on-a-stick. Will someone explain to me why there is now a National Flag of Canada Day on Feb 15th? Kind of strange to celebrate a flag if you ask me. Do you get the day off in Canada?

The site does give a nice description of flag etiquette that includes items such as "don't use it as a seat cover".

Meanwhile, it's interesting to ponder why the United Kingdom doesn't have a national holiday celebrating the nation. St George's Day is only an English holiday so that's no good. Most other countries I can think of celebrate their nationhood in someway. Many of course celebrate the day they became independent of the UK. It would be a bit of stretch to celebrate the liberation of England from the Roman Empire. Again, that would only be an English celebration.

A natural choice for a holiday is to celebrate the day a country was founded. The union of the kingdom became effective 1 January 1801 but it wouldn't really work to celebrate it on New Years Day. Anyway, it's a moot point since it really isn't in the British character to wave flags and celebrate being British. Pity.