Friday, 19 December 2003
Wednesday, 17 December 2003
I remember hearing many years ago that those of us who experience hair loss go through the same phases of grief as people suffering other major losses. Well, I think I've finally got to the Acceptance phase. A few weeks ago I got my (remaining) hair cut short. Very short. I mean really really short. We're talking clippers set at #3. It's been taking me a while to get used to it.
All the solutions for hair loss I've heard are just different forms of denial. Despite the spam, there's no cure for hair loss. Well, there may be one but it involves cutting off your testicles at the age of eighteen. I missed my chance with that one. Of course, if I had only KNEW about that one, things would have turned out MUCH different.
Coming into this Acceptance phase, I now find lots of advantages to really really short hair:
- It feels weird and beautiful women want to touch it (well, one does)
- I have almost no need to comb my hair
- I don't look like cr*p when I get up in the morning
- A bottle of shampoo will now last years and years
- My hair drys within minutes of getting out of the shower or pool
- No more helmet head or toque head problems
- It makes putting a diving mask on a breeze
- I can pretend to be a football yob and look menacing if need be
However, I realize now that hats need to become an important accessory. Not just for the suave look either. First, it's critical to stop reflections from blinding people and causing accidents. They're also necessary to prevent sunburn so I don't get mistaken for a stop sign (why is that queue of cars behind me?). And my head gets cold!
Monday, 15 December 2003
Saturday, 13 December 2003
Yea! The front is finally finished five years after we moved in to this house. Well, there's a caveat there in that it needs to be filled with plants yet so I guess it's not finished finished but the builders have finished their bit. It looks so much better than before. We still need an electrician in come in and install some lighting that Jenny purchased. I think Jenny will have quite a lot of fun with the planting design but that's a project for next Spring.
So the Big Read has just announced the final results of the popular vote for best loved fiction in the UK:
- The Lord Of The Rings
- Pride And Prejudice
- His Dark Materials
- The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
- Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire
I think the most interesting question is how heavily is this list biased by recent film and TV exposure? If the Lord Of The Rings movies hadn't come out and been so successful, would it have really done so well? Pride And Prejudice was recently aired as a TV series last summer. Likewise, Hitchhiker and Harry Potter have had big television/cinema coverage. I think the big winner here is His Dark Materials since it's something you can only read (or get the audio book). I definitely need to pick up a copy. I've read 1, 4 & 5 already.
Of course, the great result of this is whole exercise is it gets people interested in reading more. Sales of books that have appeared on the list of nominee's has jumped.
Friday, 12 December 2003
Nice article from MIT Enterprise Technology Review.
"Parents have more control than ever before over how popular culture influences their kids. The trick is to treat media as an ally rather an enemy."
I've often thought that media literacy should be right up there in the core curriculum taught throughout the school years; not just an option in Senior School. Instead the onus falls to parents to teach their children to be discerning about what they see and read. But how many are ready to do that? Can you teach them to deconstruct the messages they are being bombarded with? In an information age, isn't this a core skill? This article contains some good advice and a reading list.
Thursday, 11 December 2003
I was talking to R* about big numbers and we found this nice website illustrating the names of large numbers using pennies. It went down very well and is great for visualising what the numbers mean. Ever heard of a novemtrigintillion?
Wednesday, 10 December 2003
Tuesday, 9 December 2003
I'm happy to report that the frontyard is almost complete. In the UK, they don't call it a frontyard. It's the front garden. However, I can't see calling it a garden as there's no plants in it. Doesn't a garden need plants?
They're just finishing putting on the tiles of the new roof which overhangs the front door and garage. It makes the house look much better. All the fencing and hardscape is finished. They've just finished laying down the gravel on the driveway. Today they've layed down the horticultural fleece and delivered all the wood chip which now needs spreading. The planting box is complete and lined but hasn't been filled yet. Jenny is hunting around for lighting fixtures. The gates haven't gone in yet. Can you believe it costs £20 just to put a nice house number plate up on the wall?
Last night we went and saw Sheryl Crow play at Shepherds Bush Empire. It's the first time I've ever been to that venue. Really good place. It's quite old and small and a bit delapitated like many London venues. However it makes for a very cosy atmosphere and the bar wasn't very crowded. The view from the comfy balcony seats was excellent and the acoustics were good. Best yet, it took less than an hour to get there and parking was straightforward. I'll watch out for more shows there.
The concert was excellent. I have all four of her main albums (can I still use that word?) so I know the songs well. She opened with Steve McQeen and then proceeded to play every good song she's done which is enough to last the two hours she played. Can't think of anything she missed. Ron Wood (Rolling Stones) joined her for one song in the middle of the concert and one of the encore songs. I'm not sure of the name of the encore song. I think it's "I'm Losing You" - cover of a 70's hit.
As for Sheryl, she wore a black leather mini skirt, tall black boots and a simple black top. Sexy. Looks younger than she is (born in '62). However, she's no great performer. She's very stiff on stage and seemed to take a while to warm up. She'd start dancing a little but would soon stop. She doesn't communicate with the crowd well. Her comments seem to be well rehearsed and forced. It left me with the strong impression that she doesn't enjoy performing. It's unfortunate 'cause she has great material and could easily work the crowd up better. It's a big contrast with Ron Wood who is obviously very relaxed and playful on stage.
Her playing is simple and she has a country twang. She mostly played bass but she played a Telecaster and acoustic sometimes and finished on the piano. What she excels at is composition, collaboration and singing. Her voice is great. Didn't realise until I checked her bio that she got her break by being a backup singer for various big names including Michael Jackson.
The stage was very simple and the visuals basic and unoriginal in my opinion. No big deal as that keeps you focused on the performers. The four other members of her band are excellent. I forgot the name of the warm-up band already (Clarkville?). They were ok but I got a bit bored with their set.
I've heard that Sheryl Crow got pretty burnt out with the music industry and struggled with the last album. I was surprised to see a "Very Best Of" album come out as that usually means the record company is milking the song catalogue and the artist is on the wane. Too bad. I hope she manages to find some enthusiasm for the music again and comes back to London with some more great tunes.
Sunday, 7 December 2003
Call me cynical but I think there's probably quite a lot of motivation to delay this being a level playing field:
"So far, $1.7bn has been made available to Halliburton for the work....According to contract rules, Halliburton can make a margin of up to 7 per cent on the work."
Saturday, 6 December 2003
You know a question that's always been in the back of my mind is "Why is annual growth such an imperative at a company like Microsoft?" Every year, new sales targets get set higher and higher. Big speeches get made by the executives (I've seen many). Managers exhort their direct reports to make the numbers. People sacrifice their home/work balance to meet the new objectives for their performance reviews.
Why can't the growth targets be scaled back and investors just given dividends? Obviously Microsoft isn't a growth stock. If there was zero growth and a big dividend, the stock price would remain stable. Why can't the energy be placed on quality of product and service instead? Would that be the sign of a mature company?
How about someone asking Bill this at the Q&A session of the next big meeting?
"If the UK government gives the go-ahead to commercialise the growing of GM crops against the overwhelming wishes of the British public, I pledge to non-violently remove GM crops from the ground or support those who take action to remove GM crops"
Here's a report by Christian Aid that claims that billions of dollars of oil money that has already been transferred to the US-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has effectively disappeared into a financial black hole.
For all the talk of freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people before, during and after the war which toppled Saddam Hussein there is no way of knowing how the vast majority of this money has been spent.
No surprise. Call in some auditors! (but not Arthur "Shred'em" Andersons please).
Thursday, 4 December 2003
Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Last night I went to one of the regular practice sessions of Beatroot Bateria. They're a samba band like the ones you see during carnival time. The website has some MP3's if you want to hear them.
I only discovered their website a few days ago and immediately thought it sounded like a great thing to try. The band is open to beginners and you can just drop in. So I did.
I arrived, bought some ear plugs (essential!) and was eventually assigned a high surdo to play. Instruction was minimal. I was buddied with another high surdo player, shown the first rhythm I needed to know and we started. I had a bit of trouble here and there following changes but I eventually got the hang of it. There were about thirty of us in a small room so the volume is incredible.
During the break, I chatted with a few other people. They have about 10 songs they practice and play lots of live gigs. One couple had been there only three months and had already played a gig. You can change instruments if you want but most people stick to one.
I hope to take Jenny next week. She's always liked the idea of playing drums.
Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Monday, 1 December 2003
Sunday, 30 November 2003
Saw this DVD last night. I rented it after seeing how highly rated it was on IMDb. Sure enough, it deserves the rating. It's a fast-paced twisty detective film set in 1950's LA but it's also a good character study. Amazingly, the twists and turns in the movie are far simplified compared to the book which is supposed to be excellent.
Saturday, 29 November 2003
Had my assessment at the Guitar Institute last Thursday. It turned out to be more of a chat than an assessment. Very cool place. Very chaotic. They teach guitar, bass and drums. Lots of students jamming narrow corridors. Rehearsal rooms with bands playing. Good vibe all around. The school is tucked in a industrial/warehouse part of Acton but parking is still a nightmare.
Anyway Charlie, my assessor, recommended that I do the Arpeggiator course. I also think the Foundation Blues course sounds fun. Have to see how I can fit this stuff in.
Friday, 28 November 2003
After four weeks the builders are still at it doing our front yard. There's been some heavy rains so that's slowed the work down. It's driving Jenny crazy. It seems like every time she leaves the house for a few hours, the builders screw up. Lately they've built the fence wrong. Before that it was the circular paving slabs. Before that it was an uneven brick edging. It's a long list. It's great that she catches all the mistakes. Jenny could have an excellent career ahead of her as a building site manager.
Thursday, 27 November 2003
Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Excellent. Someone with influence and a conscience calls out this perversion of justice by the US.
The Law Lord said the US was guilty of a "monstrous failure of justice" and challenged UK ministers to condemn the decision to hold any prisoners there....He said detainees were "beyond the rule of law, beyond the protection of any courts and at the mercy of victors".
Tuesday, 25 November 2003
We watched Whale Rider during one of our regular Foreign Film Nights. Superb film. It certainly deserves all the awards its won. The review on IMDb sums up the plot well. What truly amazes me is that Keisha Castle-Hughes who plays the 12 year old Paikea was simply plucked from a classroom in New Zealand. She had no training but her acting was superb. Good script. Good pace. Good acting. Beautifully filmed. A great story. Worth watching.
Monday, 24 November 2003
If you play guitar or bass and haven't heard of Power Tab, then you have got to download this software and try it. I only discovered it last week. Of course you probably know there's lots of ASCII (text) guitar tablature out there (e.g. OLGA) but there's also tablature available in Power Tab format. Power Tab is a free Windows program that displays the tablature perfectly and even plays it for you. The tab files often have both guitar and bass scores together. After you download and install it, go to Power Tab Central and start finding the songs you want learn to play. I had a great evening finding over twenty songs and was really impressed with the quality of most of the transcriptions.
There's numerous features but one the best is that you can output a score as a MIDI file. This allowed me to add a drum track to it and then drop the guitar so I'm left with a bass and drum backing track. To get the drum track, I imported the midi file into Band In A Box and let Band In A Box create it. Yeah, call me lazy but it's cheap and easy. Then I export this back to a midi file. Next, I import both these midi files into Cubase SL and select the right parts for playback. Simple!
Power Tab is a great learning tool if you're a guitarist. Indeed you can customise it for any stringed instrument.
Friday, 21 November 2003
I'm always looking for the best place to buy CD's in the UK. Yes, I still like to buy CD's and not just download MP3's. Found this comparison engine recently that seems pretty good but it doesn't include CDWow which has great prices. I still often wait until I can go splurge at A&B Sound in Canada. Drop me a comment if you know anywhere cheaper.
Thursday, 20 November 2003
Wednesday, 19 November 2003
Yesterday, Jenny and I went down to the Science Museum to see the Lord Of The Rings exhibition. Really enjoyed it. To make the film realistic, they tried to create strong cultures for each of the races and creating culture involves creating detail. The exhibition essentially shows you the incredible lengths that they went to create this cultural detail in the costumes, weapons, architecture, language, mythology, etc. There were also interesting demonstrations of how they created the illusion of character height differences and assembled the massive battles scenes. All in all, a very cool exhibition. Took us two and half hours to meander through it.
I do have one complaint though. The One Ring was on display but it didn't have any script on it! I think it was a fake. Obviously the real One Ring was allegedly destroyed but I suspect it's in a vault somewhere to prevent it falling into the wrong hands...
Truly, it is amazing what can be brought to life on the cinema screen nowadays. I'm looking forward to lots more epic films making their way to the screen. I saw a trailer the other day for a film called "Troy".
Tuesday, 18 November 2003
Interesting story of a media teacher discovering that Time Magazine has changed the contents and titles of a past issue in one of it's magazines. Specifically, an article by George Bush Snr and Brent Scowcroft entitled "Why We Didnt Remove Saddam." The article is very pertinent to the US situation in Iraq today. Next we learn Colin Powell has connections with the parent company of Time Magazine.
Time Magazine claims the article was pulled because it doesn't have online publishing rights to it. It does leave you wondering though. Is it 1984 twenty years late?
I hurt. I've started going to the gym. Yesterday was my second time. I went for a few months last year but got bored but I'm giving it another shot. Gotta do something to get more fit and I've got no excuse about lack of time now. But I'll say it again. The gym is boring. However, I do feel good after the workout
I'm starting with 10 minutes jogging, 10 minutes rowing and 10 minutes on the cross-trainer. That builds a good sweat. Then some stretching followed by going around various weighting training stations concentrating on legs (so skiiing won't kill me). Then some more stretching before a shower. I discovered where the sauna was last visit so I'll probably squeeze in some further stretching in the sauna too. Sauna's are great.
Monday, 17 November 2003
R* went on her third field trip today. She considers it her first *real* field trip. They were taken to the London National Art Gallery to look at the paintings featuring Greek Gods as part of their Classical Studies. I think it's great she gets to study Classics. At dinner, she started explaining all kinds of gruesome mythical stories. I guess that's what makes Classics appealing!
Last week, they visited a synagogue as part of their studies of Jewish cultures and before that, they went to a teacher's home to participate in a Jewish festival. Those visit were all part of the Religion Education class. The school isn't Christian based so I hope they given a balanced view of the other religions too.
Sunday, 16 November 2003
I recently finished reading this book. I don't usually read self-help books but it seemed to be well recommended. It brings together many ideas I've heard before and explains a good way to think your way through any fears you may have. Worth reading. I've written up a summary of the whole book.
Friday, 14 November 2003
I went and saw this this afternoon (yeah - seems weird to go to a movie in the afternoon!). It's quite a big let down. Sure, it's got lots of effects and style but substance is missing. Much of it is just a 3rd rate Hollywood lets-fight-the-bad-guys-with-big-guns type of movie with shlock dialogue glorifying human foibles. What a waste!
The first movie was excellent with ground-breaking cinematography and innovative adaption of the wire-flying martial art film techniques. I also thought it was pretty brave using such a hardcore sci-fi plot in a mainstream movie. The whole issue of reality could have been such a rich plot device.
No, it's just a stylish war movie with an incoherent cosmology and an uninteresting script.
Superb visualization for Windows Media Player or Winamp. You can download lots of different dancing stick figures or even make your own. The coolest part is you can make your own from a photograph. I ought to do one of the kids. I love the political ones. Check out the dancing President Bush.
Tuesday, 11 November 2003
Monday, 10 November 2003
We went and listened to a talk by Michael Moore at the London Palladium last night. It was excellent. The talk was much less structured than I expected. He essentially came on stage and rambled in a very entertaining way: sometimes very serious; sometimes very funny. He was certainly very disparaging of Tony Blair for supporting George Bush and in some ways, blames him more as the more intelligent of the two. Without Blair, Bush may never had been able to rally enough support for the war. His next movie is about Bush and his connections with the Saudi royal family. No doubt it will be out just in time for the presidential election.
The main takeaway from the talk was not to be afraid of kicking out Tony Blair due to lack of an alternative and to please PLEASE attend the anti-Bush rally on November 20th in London. America needs to see the lack of support Bush has.
Saturday, 8 November 2003
Just finished reading this book. It's full of many interesting points and arguments but at only eighty pages it isn't able to back up it's allegations very well. For that, you would have to follow-up with the numerous references to original sources. Nevertheless, it is damning of globalisation and the doctrine of neo-liberalism. It's well worth reading as an introduction.
I used to believe that globalisation was a good thing. How naive! I've slowly changed my mind after a lot of reading from various points of view. Unfortunately, it's a very complex topic and well beyond the interest of the vast majority. Globalisation might work if there were proper world institutions (legitimate, transparent and with effective authority) to oversee it but in it's current form, it's a disaster.
Wednesday, 5 November 2003
I've finally published our travelogue of our trip to Jordan. Sorry for the wait. I know a few of you have been looking forward to it. I should warn you that it contains over 500K of photo's. No doubt it's full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes too. Please forgive me for them.
I've started to put more photo's in this blog and particularly in the travelogues as I think it makes it quite a bit more interesting. However, this makes the page load much slower for those of you on dial-up. I'm assuming that most of you have either a cable modem or broadband. Let me know if this causes you troubles. You can still read the text while waiting for the photo's to render.
Monday, 3 November 2003
Sunday, 2 November 2003
Well, the United States is probably the worst threat to world peace but I would absolutely agree that Israel is a major threat. I don't see how that could be surprising and find this reaction amazing:
"Reacting to the poll, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which claims 400,000 members in the US alone, has begun ordering a petition to condemn the European Commission and demand the EU no longer be represented in the so-called Quartet group trying to mediate an end to violence between Israel and Palestine."
I'd say the EU is pro-Human Rights rather than pro-Arab. Maybe that's why they don't want the EU at the table. The article gets more interesting:
"Israeli Ministers and spokesman have also been at pains recently to insist that a definition of modern 'anti-semitism' should include criticism of the way the state of Israel chooses to protect itself, defining that criticism as an overt attack on Israel's survival."
That's outrageous. Israel wants to label all policy criticism as anti-semitism? There's a difference between racism and criticising blatant oppression.
Saturday, 1 November 2003
I left a carved pumpkin outside our front door and tonight some kids stole it and kicked it down the street. It was the one I did; the kids' pumpkins are safe inside. A few years back, someone stole a very nice Christmas wreath off our front door that Jenny had spent a lot of time making.
We live in a pretty good neighbourhood but you often get groups of kids walking along the street. There's plenty of pranksters. It's quite sad that these things happen and makes you think twice about putting up decorations.
Friday, 31 October 2003
Thursday, 30 October 2003
Another excellent magazine I picked up recently. The original environmental magazine subtitled "Rethinking Basic Assumptions". Very impressive editorial board, high production values, good punchy articles. For example, the October issues has a two page spread explaining why you should think twice about buying cut flowers again:
- Cash Crop Impacts - moving people off their land and causing food shortages
- Pesticide Abuse - there is no regulations governing the use of pesticides on flowers
- Poisoned Labourers - protection from pesticides not provided
- Water Waste - flowers get water when farms and people don't
- Workers Rights Abused - child labour, slave wages, etc
- Flower Miles - creating vast quantities of carbon dioxide emissions
Many other articles (like why your shampoo could be deadly!). It's worth picking up a copy if you can find it.
Wednesday, 29 October 2003
An ex-colleague of mine is an amateur producer/director and today I helped him out with a shoot of a DVD he's producing for the magician Etienne Pradier at Chilston Park. My role in the filming team was soundman; just taking care of the microphone and sound levels. I enjoyed it quite a lot. It's nice to be part of a team solving problems and making something. Yeah, I miss that. The DVD was of Etienne teaching how to do some of the tricks he does. It was just fun watching him explain the tricks as he did them! He's very good.
Soundman eh? Yeah, I could see that as a fun career to freelance in for a while.
Monday, 27 October 2003
Sunday, 26 October 2003
Saturday, 25 October 2003
Jenny and I have been trying to plan out our holidays for next year. Now that we take holidays in high season, you have to plan this far ahead. The holiday would need to fall between April 3rd to 22nd or July 24th to Sept 1st. If any of you are interested in joining us, get in touch! We've always found it fun to go on holidays with others. Next year, I'm pretty keen to muck about with boats. Here are some ideas:
- Faraway offers Sail & Dive Expeditions in Thailand and Burma. The idea is to hire a catamaran with a skipper and dive equipment. It can also carry kayaks. It sounds awesome. We could share this with either another family or leave the kids and go with two other couples.
- Another idea I'm very partial to is a flotilla sailing holiday in the Aegean or Ionian. You don't need any experience and learn on the job so to speak. For example, check out Activity Holidays. Could do this for one week and then rent a villa for another week?
- We've been interested in renting a canal boat in France (probably Burgandy) for quite a while. It's too busy to do this in the summer but we could do it during the Easter break.
- Otherwise, we're always open to renting a large villa somewhere around the Mediterranean and not too far from the sea. You can get places that have their own olive groves, tennis courts, pools, billard tables, etc and they're really not that expensive. For example, look at Tuscany Now or Chez Nous.
Or get in touch if you've got other ideas for a good holiday.We'd prefer to stick to Europe.
Friday, 24 October 2003
The Boycott Bush campaign lists the top 30 donors to the Republican Party with global consumer brands. Microsoft is number three with a donation of $2.4 million. The call to boycott these brands is in response to the US rejection of the Kyoto agreement.
Microsoft used to be politically agnostic but the whole Department of Justifice affair certainly taught it that it couldn't be. It's now a politically savvy player and like most corporations, it's busy currying favour on Capitol Hill and donating money to both sides.
Thursday, 23 October 2003
After many years of thinking we would like to try diving, Jenny and I finally decided that this was the year (2003) we would just do it. We finished our PADI Open Water certification at a nearby lake in the summer with a local scuba shop, DiveStyle. They were great and I would definitely recommend them.
Wraysbury Lake wasn’t a very exciting place to learn. At least it wasn’t cold wearing 7mm wet suites but visibility was very low; maybe three metres at best. Nevertheless, learning to dive requires going through a bunch of exercises and it doesn’t really matter how interesting the underwater environment is. After all, we didn’t want to waste any days of a holiday doing training so we stuck to learning in the UK. The good thing about a lake is that with freshwater you don’t have to wear as much weight and the water doesn’t sting your eyes.
So after getting certified, we were keen for a “Jacque Cousteau” experience. Watching his documentaries as a child is probably what inspired me the most to do this. The Red Sea was the obvious destination being very highly regarded and not too far away. Deciding exactly what part of the Red Sea turned out to be quite difficult. We eventually settled on Aqaba after lots of research on the Internet. Jenny was also keen to add some sightseeing to our holiday and had a long held desire to see Petra.
So we signed up with Aquatours and left for Amman on Oct 3rd flying Royal Jordanian Airlines out of Heathrow.
We arrived at 1 am in the morning and were met by a representative of the tour operator (International Traders). After waiting a while for a visa we were taken to our hotel by our very own driver/guide. Yes, this wasn’t a group tour. For the next three days we had a driver/guide who took us around in a private car.
This was our first visit to the Middle East and one of the first things we discovered was that it wasn’t as hot as we expected; somewhere in the mid-twenties celsius. Nevertheless, our first stop after getting money from an ATM was to stock up on bottled water. A bottle of water was a constant companion.
I got to admit I felt pretty excited sitting in the car driving through Amman. We were on the road without children! Adventure travel again! Yippee! Hooray!!
This first day was just a short excursion north of Amman to visit the ruins of Jerash and Ajlun Castle. Jerash was a Roman city and the ruins are well preserved. You can get a very good idea of what the city might once have been like. You can even see ancient cart tracks worn in the stone paving.
Ajlun Castle was built in the sixth century and later fortified to defend against the Crusaders. Nice enough but not terribly interesting.
On the way back to Amman, the driver kindly took us to a craft and gift shop. You know the deal right? As a tourist, the guide is always keen to take you to craft and gift shops. They say “just look you don’t need to buy” but you know there’s kick back somewhere. We cordially played the game. At least you get a free cup of Turkish sludge - err, "coffee" - or tea.
Actually, I really like Turkish coffee but you have to be careful not to drink the bottom layer which really is sludge. If you forget, like I did, it feels like a dollop of mud in your mouth.
The first question at a shop is always “Where are you from?” As we learned in Turkey many years ago, this question and your answer is of utmost importance. Based on where you’re from, they figure out what you can afford and what their price will be. It’s value-based marketing in a pure form. I generally keep my mouth shut and Jenny tells them she’s from Malaysia. Sometimes I play the “guess where I’m from game”. That’s how I found out that I can pass for an Egyptian! However, I suspect Jordanians don't hold Egyptians in high regard.
That evening back in Amman we had dinner at a fancy Arab place called Reem al-Bawadi. The Rough Guide To Jordan describes it as a “delightfully over-the-top kitsch-laden affair devoted to showy power-dining (Colonel Gaddafi has been known to drop by), complete with tent, fake castle, fountains, palm trees and neon lights.” Yep, that’s a pretty accurate description. It was enjoyable none-the-less.
We checked out of the hotel and drove south to the Baptism Site of Jesus. This wasn’t originally part of the tour but I managed to get our driver to squeeze it in at the last minute.
The biblical site of Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan was only discovered in 1994 after Jordan demilitarized the area, Excavation work is still ongoing. They’ve uncovered eleven Byzantine churches, ancient baptism pools and other evidence which strongly confirms its identity. The Pope has recognized the site and even held a mass there in 2000.
I was surprised to find that we were the only visitors when we arrived. The site is still very new and not developed. There’s plenty of security with fences, guards and checkpoints to remind you that the Jordan River demarks the border with Israel. In the distance you can see Jericho over on the West Bank through the haze. Wow Jericho! It’s thought that it might be the oldest city in the world founded between 6000 BC and 8000 BC.
Unfortunately, the springs in the area are dry most of the year except for the middle of winter. We visited the dried up spring where John the Baptist allegedly practiced and the spot where Jesus was baptised in the Jordan (picture). At the very least, the area has a fantastically strong sense of place.
There was a lot to do on this day, so we soon had to move on.
We drove to the Dead Sea Spa Resort Hotel and changed into our swim things. As you probably know, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the earth at 400m below sea level and is famous for its incredible salinity. Whereas the ocean is 3% salt, the Dead Sea is about 30% salt.
It was fantastic floating about in it. You can float vertically with no effort and the water comes only midway up your chest. We also smeared each other with the mud which is supposed to be a very good skin treatment. Personally, I suspect there’s a heck of a lot of agricultural pollutants in it but I buried that thought. The only thing to be very careful of is not to splash water in your eyes since it stings terribly. Any cuts on your body will also sting.
After washing all the mud off, we enjoyed a short swim in the hotel swimming pool before being whisked away again.
Next stop was Mt. Nebo. This is the mountain from where Moses saw the Promised Land and where he subsequently died. There’s a church here with nice mosaics but the location is mainly interesting for the views. The land doesn’t look very promising now. Dry and parched.
After a buffet lunch, we were taken to a craft shop. Here we go again! Jenny got serious about carpets and some intense selling ensured. Jenny got more and more flustered with their pressure tactics. I find you just have to stay firm, polite and keep a good sense of humour. Our best offer and their best price didn’t meet up so we managed to get away without buying anything.
Next stop was St George's Church in Madaba. It’s famous for a large 6th century mosaic floor which depicts a map of the Middle East. It’s the first known map of the region.
We then drove for about two hours south along the Desert Highway to Petra. The route is largely parallel to the Hejaz Railway which is the route Lawrence of Arabia followed during the Arab Revolt. As we had been driving south, the landscape was getting more and more barren. We were now into real desert.
Arriving at Petra, we checked into the Crown Plaza Hotel and followed our driver to the Sandstone Restaurant for dinner listening to a live performance by local Arab musicians. Honestly, I consider myself pretty open to world music but it does sound like a cat being tortured sometimes (maybe that noise was coming from the kitchen?) It’s not really what one would call dinner music! I do like the sound of the Oud though.
The joys of travel also come with the discomforts of travel. I can highly recommend Imodium Plus. It saved the day.
A new guide met us early in the morning to take us on our tour of Petra. We wanted to see it before the crowds arrived and at 8 am we were mostly by ourselves. While the short horse ride to the entrance of a narrow gorge known as The Siq was unnecessary, the walk through The Siq itself was breathtaking. Beautiful and hauntingly quiet. The pictures can't convey all the colours in the rock.
Petra is fascinating and there’s no point of me writing an essay about it here. You can find other descriptions on the internet. It certainly lived up to our expectations.
It would be worth spending a couple of days exploring the area but by noon, we needed to get back to the hotel. By then, large tourist groups were arriving and I was exhausted and not feeling very well. A sympathetic waiter at the hotel prescribed sage tea which seemed to help.
Next, we barreled down the highway for two hours to Aqaba racing across the desert dodging convoys of heavy trucks. It turns out that Aqaba is the main port for shipping goods in and out of Iraq and the route is very busy.
As we got out of the car in Aqaba, the heat hit us. It was much hotter; probably around 30 degrees. The Golden Tulip Hotel was nothing glamorous but we were given a large corner room that we would call home for the next week. Over that week, we found the staff friendly and quick to respond to anything we needed (we locked ourselves out of our room three times). I should have suggested that they get rid of the black velvet painting in the lobby!
We got up early in nervous anticipation of our first day of diving.
The Dive Aqaba dive shop is just across the road from the Golden Tulip. We were greeted enthusiastically and quickly got our scuba rentals sorted out. We each chose 5 mm full one piece Marbella wet suits. One of the reasons we chose Dive Aqaba is that they’re a relatively new outfit and all the equipment is still quite new.
At 9:50, we boarded a small bus and in five minutes we were at the harbour getting on a small boat that then ferried us to a larger dive boat.
All the dive sites are south of Aqaba. It took about an hour to arrive at a site called the “Japanese Gardens” which we were assured was a nice easy dive for beginners. Of course, we were a bit nervous but we kitted up and jumped off the boat following Ash, our guide and Dive Master. We bobbed around the surface working hard to relax and slow our breathing down. At least the water was warm at 25 degrees.
It turned out that we were a bit underweighted on the first dive so the descent took a bit of work. The visibility was fantastic; maybe 25 or 30 meters. There was no descent line so it was rather tricky figuring out how fast we descended but we eventually got down to 7 meters. A lot of our attention was focused on getting the mechanics right such as breathing, buoyancy control and finning. I had this overwhelming feeling of swimming in a huge aquarium; plenty of coral, small fish, Cornet fish and a giant Moray eel. Fantastic!
The first dive lasted only 35 minutes although it seemed longer. We were both elated that we had pulled it off successfully. An hour later we did a second dive with a different guide, Amer (pronouced Amir), but in a different part of the same site called “Seven Sisters and The Tank”. Again, much of our attention was spent working on the mechanics. I was still underweighted. There were bigger coral formations and a huge variety of fish: Puffer, Angel, Olive Dotty Back, Anthias, Clown, Parrot and plenty more that I never learned the name of. “The Tank” turned out to be a submerged M40 anti-aircraft tracked vehicle. I guess that qualifies as our first wreck dive?
My air tank got too empty and I eventually lost neutral bouyancy and surfaced with only 15 bar left. Not good. We were using 12 litre aluminium tanks that were usually filled to 200 bar although they were sometimes short by 10 or 20 bar. As a beginner, you use up air more quickly but you’re supposed to exit with about 50 bar in reserve as a safety margin.
Back at the dive shop, I bought a book on fish identification so I could say more than “did you see that big fish with the stripes?”
That night, we celebrated our first day of diving with a grilled fish dinner at a restaurant called Ali Baba. I don't think Jenny sees fish; she sees seafood.
The next four days followed a similiar routine as our first day with a morning dive and an afternoon dive.
Unfortunately, we aborted the morning dive at Black Rock because Jenny couldn’t equalise the pressure in her ears. She was really disappointed and frustrated.
In the afternoon, Jenny was feeling nauseous and still couldn’t clear her ears so I buddied up with another diver, Patrick from Switzerland. We dived a deeper part of the Japanese Gardens following a slope down to 18 meters. I was diving with more weight on my belt and my buoyancy control was getting better. It was a great dive. I found I could spend more attention on where I was rather than working on the mechanics of diving.
Again, I exited with only 15 bar of air left after 37 minutes. Still not good.
That night Ash held a BBQ on the rooftop of his apartment building. Ash is a real character. He's also the Managing Director of Dive Aqaba. Although Jordanian, he sounds and jokes just like a British lad and obviously likes a good party. He did a great job of making sure everyone was enjoying themselves. We got to know the other people on the dive boat and heard lots of diving stories.
The morning dive was at King Abdullah Reef but it wasn’t as good as the previous day. Smaller coral structures on a gentle slope. Jenny was fine again.
In the afternoon, we dived the Japanese Gardens again this time exploring a pinnacle that was surrounded by fish. Absolutely beautiful! Also saw a Scorpion fish and a Lion fish too. Jenny lost a fin at one point but recovered ok.
That night we enjoyed the view of Aqaba from the bar at the Royal Jordanian Yacht Club before wandering around town. Aqaba has a great promenade where lots of people hang out in the evening. It’s pretty lively and the shops stay open late. It’s a nice town; not too big and not too small. We explored a great little food market buying some fruit and then had dinner at a local diner.
We then met up with rest of dive group at an ice cream parlour. Nice thing about diving is that it’s a very social activity. You meet lots of people.
For the morning dive we were briefed that we were going dive the Power Station. Everyone seemed more serious. It was a deep wall dive down to 30 meters and we were told we might see sharks. Gulp!
Jenny was terrified beyond consolation while putting on her wet suite but was determined not to be left behind. We were assured that if we were uncomfortable, we could stay at about 20 meters. If you dive deeper than 30 meters, you need to worry about decompression stops so I was inclined to go no deeper than 25 meters. To be fair, they would accommodate us if we didn’t want to dive the wall, but there was also a great sense of thrill to try it.
It was awesome! It’s like flying over the top of a cliff but below you and in front of you is just an inky dark blue. I read later it drops down to 200 meters. And while you hover above this void, you just wonder what might be out there. Best not to dwell on that thought! I find its best not to let the imagination wander when diving. We followed the wall descending to 26 meters. The surface looked a long way away. No sharks appeared. That was fine by me.
We ascended and explored the top of the cliff. I was the first person to notice a sea turtle swimming by. Wow! I managed to get Jenny’s attention and pointed the turtle out before swimming over to one of our companion divers nearby who had a video camera so she could film it.
Our afternoon dive was at Ferris Bay and was much more relaxed. Max depth was 21 meters. With fear firmly conquered, we felt brave enough to sign-up for the night dive that evening.
Back onshore, we had a light dinner of lamb shewarmas for dinner. Cost less than a fiver for both of us!
That evening, we got on the bus as usual but this time we drove down the coast to the dive site at Wreck Reef. This was going to be a shore-based dive which was a great relief since a night descent in deep water would have been freaky.
A party of more advanced divers went out to the wreck of a Lebanese cargo ship while our group was just going to do a slow tour of the reef. After a briefing on how to use the flashlights and the dive plan, we lumbered down to the shore with all our dive equipment on.
Shore-based diving is awkward to say the least! The hardest bit is getting your fins on while waist deep in the water.
The dive was interesting but not spectacular. The flashlights really bring out the reds in the fish. We did see a Spanish Dancer (kind of a large sea slug) and a Giant Lobster named Fred. The coolest thing was when we turned all the lights off. For one, there was a full moon and you could see the reef quite well by moonlight. Looking up, you could see the moon reflecting through the waves on the surface. Best of all, we had great fun shaking up the phosphorescence in the water. It’s like shooting sparks from your hand.
This was a great day. I could see how diving could get addictive!
It was Saturday and our last day of diving. There were much fewer people on the boat. I had bought an underwater disposable camera and was hoping to take some pictures. Our first dive at Oliver’s Canyon and The Tank provided a good opportunity. Here's a portrait of Jenny and her swimming around the tank.
For our last dive, we went to Gorgon One and the Three Pinnacles. Gorgon One is a fan like coral structure but the pinnacles blew me away. The largest pinnacle was surrounded by schools of fish. A large school of motionless Jack fish hovered nearby while a ribbon of Fusileers weaved around. The pinnacle itself was engulfed in a cloud of orange Anthias and I managed to hover among them completely surrounded.
This last dive involved a lot of finning but we still managed to stay down for 52 minutes at a maximum depth of 15 meters with well controled bouyancy. After five days, I can say we both felt much more comfortable and confident about diving. The dive boat returned to Aqaba just as the sunset for a perfect ending to the day.
That evening, we did some souvenir shopping and then went once again to Ash’s place for dinner and a party.
You’re not supposed to dive within 24 hours of a flight so for our last day we had arranged to go on a tour of Wadi Rum.
We joined six other Brits in two 4x4 trucks and drove for about an hour before we left the tarmac and headed out into the desert. Great scenery and not nearly as hot as I was expecting.
We eventually arrived at “Captain’s Desert Camp”. Yes, this wasn’t too authentic and felt very touristy but we were expecting that. We were the only people there. We had a late lunch in Bedouin tents to live Arab music. I even got to play around with an Oud.
The highlight came at five o’clock we all got on camels and were led by local Bedouins out into the desert. We eventually got to a rocky promontory where we got off and climbed up the rocks to watch the sun slowly set over the desert.
Night fell quickly and it was dark by the time we had ridden back to the camp. A huge bonfire had been lit and the camp was illuminated by dozens of candles in paper bags. Very pretty. We sat around a table outside watching the stars come out. There’s not much light pollution so the Milky Way put on a stupendous show as it got darker and darker.
I’m not a smoker but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try out a hubbly bubbly (hookah) with Apple flavoured tobacco. Nice! The smoke is cool and fruity.
Jenny and I walked a little outside of the camp and watched the moonrise over the desert. Beautiful.
The rest of the Brits were staying the night but we had to get back to Aqaba and start packing for the flight the next day. I would have liked to enjoy the evening for many more hours but sadly, we had to go.
The flights from Aqaba to Amman and back to London went exceptionally smooth. Representatives from International Traders helped us all the way.
I really enjoyed this trip to Jordan. The people of Jordan are friendly and personable and there’s plenty of interesting sites to see and things to do. Most important, we accomplished our goal of diving in the Red Sea and got to do a bit of adventure travel. It was so nice not dragging children about!
We’re now left with one burning question. Where to dive next?
Wednesday, 22 October 2003
So you think you know all the issues facing the planet? I just finished reading this provocative little book which has 66 mini-essays on the myriad of ways we're screwing the planet and the developing nations. Obviously it sacrifices depth for breadth but it's easy to read and a great book for raising your awareness. I cringed at a few of the broad statements but there are references and further readings to back it up.
Yes, it does leave you feeling rather dismayed. Ignorance is bliss isn't it? Read it for yourself and figure out whether you can do anything. Buy it here for £5.59.
Tuesday, 21 October 2003
Monday, 20 October 2003
Friday, 17 October 2003
I've just finished reading Change Activist: Make Big Things Happen Fast by Carmel McConnell. I first ran across it in the Microsoft library and thought it looked interesting so I bought it for my holiday reading.
It's quite hard to describe the book. It's essentially a pep talk to get you to be your own change activist working within the corporate environment and aligning your passion, principles and purpose. It's written in a very conversational, email style of partial sentences which is a bit disconcerting. I didn't find the book particularly well structured but the narrative is easy to digest and humorous.
Two key quotes from the book:
"The change activist is a hybrid, capable of business success, able to understand and steer their career by action on personal values. Lives Activist Rule 1: to thine own self be true. Insists on working with a sense of social contribution as a way of finding their true path."
"The change activist integrates hitting the strengthened bottom line into the job descriptions, team goal and finally into company objectives. Really. That way we can all help world trade solve humanities problems. Without risking lower profit."
The most interesting ideas I got from the book were:
- That maybe there should be some optimism that corporations could evolve to offer more; the so-called triple bottom line of profits, environment and social contributions. Ethical branding could be more than just a marketing ploy. Maybe. I'd certainly like to work for a company like that.
- The section on trust was very interesting. Trust as a form of social capital. Trust being critical for change and quick actions. It would be interesting to look at social structures and processes in terms of trust. How is trust created? Maybe the pub is the key institution for trust creation! Something to mull over.
A good read if you want a pep talk on a way to approach your career. You might want to check out the other books by Your Momentum.
Thursday, 16 October 2003
Glad to see hard evidence that some GM crops are harmful. Full text of the Farm Scale Evaluations report here. Still, it only evaluates one small aspect of GM crops. Hopefully this makes it ever more clear that GM crops are a nightmare to assess in terms of their impact.
Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation is giving $25 million for research into GM food can provide extra vitamins and micro-nutrients to people in developing countries. Now there's a dilema. It's certainly great to see GM used to benefit the end consumer rather than the producer particularly for such a worthy cause. However, it still means introducing new GM crops which are very difficult to assess in terms of their total impact on the environment. It's worth researching though.
Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Monday, 13 October 2003
Friday, 3 October 2003
I'm afraid this blog will be going quiet again. Jenny and I are leaving today for a sightseeing and diving holiday in Jordan with Aquatours. I'm quite excited about it even if we will be between Israel and Iraq. We're going without the children and will be staying in Amman, Petra and Aqaba doing various excursions. I'm really looking forward to diving the Red Sea. We'll be back on Oct 13th and as usual a travelogue will appear soon afterwards.
Thursday, 2 October 2003
R* had to memorize the following poem:
A man of words and not of deeds.
Is like a garden full of weeds;
And when the weeds begin to grow,
It's like a garden full of snow;
And when the snow begins to fall,
It's like a bird upon the wall;
And when the bird away does fly,
It's like an eagle in the sky;
And when the sky begins to roar,
It's like a lion at the door;
And when the door begins to crack,
It's like a stick across your back;
And when your back begins to smart,
It's like a penknife in your heart;
And when your heart begins to bleed,
You're dead, you're dead, and dead indeed.
Wednesday, 1 October 2003
Tuesday, 30 September 2003
We just got back from two days of off road adventure in Wales with All Terrain Services.
We left early Monday morning and zipped down the M4 to Pontardawe near Swansea and met David who was our instructor over the next two days. After a short briefing of the schedule and a bit of theory of how a 4x4 works, we soon hit the road in an Isuzu Trooper.
The day saw us crawling all over the top of a Welsh mountain which is their training ground. It even had a disused coal mine and an old motocross track which we made use of. It also had a lot of sheep. It's not really that difficult and you learn some things like:
- starting with the clutch and brake without needing the accelerator
- pushing in the clutch is death if you're not very, very careful
- never letting the 4x4 slide backwards
- using the braking power of the engine rather than the brake
- watching out for sharp rocks that can slice the tire walls
- traversing the bumps and ruts diagonally to avoid bottoming out
- if you get in a rut, just let the front wheels follow it
- not wrapping your thumbs around the steering wheel or you might lose them
- avoiding power and using higher gears for traversing mud
- recovering from a failed hill climb using a reverse start
We stayed that night in an Inn which I can't tell you the name of. Welsh names are too hard to remember and you certainly won't remember their spelling! The room was disappointing: cheap and cheerful but at least it was clean. The bartender and owner of the place was very friendly and jovial though. Food was good so that helped our mood tremendously.
The next morning, after a full English/Welsh breakfast, David picked us up and we headed out for a cross-country drive. We followed an old Roman road from near Merthyr Tydfil to Brecon in Brecon Beacons National Park. It certainly got us out into the middle of nowhere although it didn't get us away from the sheep. Sheep are everywhere in Wales! Jenny had a challenging time with a steep descent and ascent she had to get us through but she made it on the second attempt. We stopped for tea on a mountain pass with a fantastic view. I got us down the rocky track on other side and we made it to a nice pub for lunch.
In the afternoon we traversed two more rough tracks across Welsh mountains. It's a slow and bumpy process but we never got in any trouble. Because there was no other vehicle with us, David couldn't take us anywhere too risky because there would be no help at hand. Mobile phones don't work where we were either. There was lots of great scenery along the way and we were always kept company by herds of sheep. The weather wasn't great with a bit of rain and low cloud mist at times but it cleared by the end of the day for some great final views.
So getting out in a 4x4 was pretty fun and Jenny seemed to enjoy it. You can certainly get to places that you would otherwise be unlikely to see. We learned a lot from David about off road clubs, competitions and places you can go. It all sounds like quite a fun scene. I particularly like the idea of going off road in France.
Sunday, 28 September 2003
Jenny and I will be away for the next couple of days. I'm taking her on an Explorer Off Road Experience with All Terrain Services in Wales. Basically, it's one day learning how to drive a 4x4 followed by one day where you take a 4x4 out to a remote part of Wales. Honestly, she has expressed an interest in this!
While researching this on the Internet, I was quite enraptured to discover the world of 4x4 holidays. For example, check out the self-drive expeditions of Safari Drive.
The September 20th issue of The Economist had an interesting survey of the world economy. In a nutshell, it's a mess and at huge risk and no one is doing anything about it. The key points were:
- It relies completely on the single-engine economy of America
- America's recent policies have left it with a huge and growing deficit it can't afford
- Protectionist trends in America are growing especially against China
- China and the rest of Asia keep their currencies valued too low
- Japan and Germany still require structural adjustments before they can step in and play a stronger role in keeping the world economy stable
So the big danger is a US dollar crash and the US taking protectionist measures tipping off a world recession. It can be averted by more prudent US domestic policies (unlikely with elections around the corner). China needs to lead the way to raise the value of Asian currencies and appropriate policies need to be adopted in Germany and Japan to stimulate their economies.
Looks like it's time to pay attention to what currencies your investments are held in.
Saturday, 27 September 2003
Thursday, 25 September 2003
Wednesday, 24 September 2003
Monday, 22 September 2003
We got together yesterday with a few friends for a foreign film night and watched a DVD I recently picked up in the US: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. It's been winning numerous awards including an Academy Award and it's been a massive success in Japan. It's at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and 98 on Metacritic.
Anway, it lived up to it's reputation and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. It's well worth watching. Superb animation and characters. Great story. Even if you've never enjoyed anime, you should give it a try. Highly recommended.
Saturday, 20 September 2003
Today I did the first two dives out of the four needed for my PADI Open Water certification at Wraysbury Lake. It went well enough. It turned out to be a hot day which was great except when you have all your kit on and begin sweating like a pig (do pigs really sweat that much?). Then of course jumping into a 19 degree lake sure suddenly cools you down! It was bracing at first but a 7mm wet suit soon made it feel pretty comfortable except for the occasional rush of cold water down the back.
Felt a bit panicky in the beginning of the first dive but it didn't take too long to start relaxing and breathe slower. That of course is the best thing you can do. Breathe slow. The lake had about 5m of visibility at the very beginning but that quickly went down to about 2m and less as we stirred up the sediment. Lots of people use the facilty so the place was very busy. Did manage to see my first fish while scuba diving! Well, hey, it's an achievement! Also saw a bus, kayak and computer they had sunk in the lake. Did all the diving exercise without any problems although I definitely need to work on buoyancy control!
Thursday, 18 September 2003
"...and other sorry excuses for the state of the nation". I recently finished reading this book. Overall, I enjoyed it a lot. It's a very biting satire of things American that you can smirk along with and empathize with Michael Moore's anger. I found the first two chapters the most interesting ("A Very American Coup" and "Dear George"). He describes how George Bush and his cronies stole the US election, their corporate connections and questions their actions in office. The remaining chapters are all interesting too and highlight all kinds of anomalies such as how a seventeen year old American isn't old enough to sign a contract but is old enough to be executed. This is why the US isn't signed up to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. The only other country that hasn't signed is Somalia. Even China (by far the most execution happy country - 4000 odd in 2001) doesn't execute anyone under eighteen.