Tuesday 30 September 2003

Off Road In Wales

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

Going Off Road

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 Economist: Survey of the World Economy

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.

Cottages in Cornwall

Sorry for the delay. I've finally published a travelogue of our trip to Cornwall. Hope it doesn't ramble too much. I did try to keep it succinct.

Saturday 27 September 2003

HiFi Show

Spent a pleasant afternoon with a friend at a HiFi Show held at two hotels by Heathrow airport. Lots of systems being demonstrated. Lots of hi-end kit to drool over. For me the highlights were a fantastic demo of a 14,000 watt surround sound system using Bryston amps and the PMC MB2 XBD and a demo of the Wilson WATT/Puppy 7 speakers (only £22,000) paired with Theta amps. I'm resigned to the fact that there's no point upgrading any of my HiFi components until I find an optimal position for the speakers and treat the room acoustically. The acoustics right now are miserable: bright and lots of hard reflections. We sat through an interesting seminar on acoustic treatment in which the speaker recommended that sound absorption should be avoided in favour of sound dispersal. This is mainly because sound absorption varies by frequency so trying to absorb the sound changes the tonality.

Present from K*

I took the children to Kindermusik lessons this morning. K* was patiently sitting on me watching R*'s lessons when, without warning, he threw up all over himself and me. I automatically tried to catch it with my hands which works for babies but a four year old produces a lot more volume. While still in a state of surprise, he threw up a second time! Yuck!! *sigh*....I really thought we were past this stage.

Thursday 25 September 2003


cover Picked up this book in the Tate Gallery bookshop a few weeks ago and have been reading it: "Century: One Hundred Years of Human Progress, Regression, Suffering and Hope". It's a small, very thick picture book (1236 pages) of the last century. It's a fascinating browse. There's about ten pictures for every year and a write-up for each picture explaining it's context. This mini-edition is less than £10 which makes it a bargain or there's a larger edition for about £30. Some pictures are humourous while many are disturbing and chilling. It leaves you in a bit of awe of the immense changes and struggles of the last hundred years. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 24 September 2003

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Saw this last night. Not a great film nor a clever film but certainly entertaining if you've ever liked a pirate film. It does the genre justice. Lots of action. Good special effects. A romance and a happy ending. It's what Hollywood does best. It needs a big screen and wouldn't be so good on a TV.

Monday 22 September 2003

Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

cover 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.

Happy Birthday Honey!

We're celebrating Jenny's birthday today. We've been out for lunch and this evening we're having a little celebration at home. For her gift, I'm taking her for a two day adventure next week and as a hint, I gave her a model of a Mercedes ML 320 (she said she wanted a new car).

R*'s First Week

R* seems to be gradually settling into her new school without much problem. She has a new friend, Holly, who she describes as a tomboy - an attribute R* admires in girls. The worst insult at the moment is to call R* a "Barbie". She stays away from anything girlie. She also had her first real homework assign over the weekend which was to write ten informational sentences about Rene Descartes.

Diving Wraysbury 2 of 2

While waiting at the bottom of a lake idle thoughts tend to pass through your mind. Never in my life did I ever expect to spend about an hour kneeling on a platform 7 metres below the surface of a murky English lake early on a Sunday morning. But I did. The last two dives went fine; I finished all the exercises and I now have a temporary PADI Open Water Diver certificate in my wallet. Yippeee! Jenny and I are ready to go on our diving holiday next month.

Saturday 20 September 2003

Diving Wraysbury 1 of 2

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

Stupid White Men

cover "...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.

To be fair, there has been some critique that his research is flawed while others praise it. Still, I would recommend reading it.

Participate in Climate Prediction

Remember the SETI screensaver that allowed you to participate in the search for extra terrestrial life? Now you can do something for our planet instead. Download this application or service and help crunch a climate prediction model. You need a decent machine and you have to let it run a lot (6 weeks for a P4 1.6).

State Of The World

Just discovered that you can download the State Of The World 2002 PDF for free from the WorldWatch Institute. Good reading. You can also download earlier editions and numerous high quality articles and papers as well. Great resource. Also check out the Matters Of Scale pages for some great comparisons like this one on Factory Fish Farming.

Wednesday 17 September 2003

The Little Food Book

cover I picked up this book at the book shop in the Eden Project and read it while on holiday. It's an excellent little book subtitled "an explosive account of the food we eat today". (Warning: reading about the food you eat can make you feel sick!) It's consists of 46 very short chapters covering a wide range of topics written from a UK perspective. As you can imagine, it's disconcerting stuff and it's inspired us to join the Soil Association (which has a great website) and review where we buy our food and what we eat. Highly recommended.

Jenny's Parents Arrive

Jenny's parents arrived safe and sound last night after a 14 hour flight from KL. Jenny's mom has lost no time in sorting out our kitchen cupboards (too much food!) while her dad is revising Jenny's design for a new front yard. They're not the kind of inlaws that sit around the house...

Tuesday 16 September 2003

Four Ice Creams Please

Over our holidays in Cornwall, K* had a bit of a breakthrough. He can now eat ice cream! As you might know as a baby K* had allergies to nuts, dairy and wheat resulting in very bad excema. The wheat allergy disappeared some years ago and his skin has been relatively good since then. Over the last few months, he's been eating cheese (pizza!) and chocolate and other things made with milk without ill effects. So over the holidays he even had ice cream and now loves hot chocolate too. We limit how much dairy he has but it's great that he can enjoy these things and it makes it easier when we're travelling and eating out. The only thing we're left with is a paranoia about nuts.

One Nation under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping

You can download this book for free from the Microsoft Reader site. Sounds interesting but I haven't read any of it yet. It promises "a revealing examination of shopping, consumerism, and mall design in America." Certainly overconsumerism is a major problem on the planet. I read somewhere it takes 24 acres to support 1 American. You can also download a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut at the same place.

BBC: GM trade treaty takes effect

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety took effect last week and supports countries baring imports of GMO's. Here's the list of countries agreeing to it. Glad to see so many signed up to it especially Canada and the UK (not ratified though). Of course the US doesn't support it and they're the most likely exporter.

Monday 15 September 2003

BBC: Mixed feelings over Cancun collapse

No surprise that the WTO talks in Cancun failed. The EU gives farmers $86.8 billion a year. The US Farm Bill 2002 will spend $180 billion over the next 10 years. So agricultural trade is incredibly distorted and Cancun failed because there's no political will in the rich countries to do the right thing and change their domestic policies to give developing countries a level playing field. We're not talking a major domestic fallout either. The largest 2% of Europe's farms receive 24% of all direct payments while the smallest 60% receive only 10%. We're paying big farms to (inefficiently) over produce and depress the market for developing nations. Developing nations can't even process their own raw produce and export an added value produce because of the import tariffs they would be subject to. So much for free trade. It's a double standard.

IT 4 Communities

"IT 4 Communities is an initiative to encourage companies, employees and individuals with professional IT skills to volunteer these skills for the benefit of local charities and community groups."  Nice site. First one I've ran across that has more interesting projects than just helping people learn Microsoft Office.

First Day Of School

Today was R*'s first day at a new school starting Year Three. She was a bit nervous but held up really well. She's a very adaptable kid and, fingers-crossed, she'll settle in soon enough. Unfortunately, school starts at eight o'clock and it takes me twenty minutes to drive her there. Early mornings ugghh!!

Sunday 14 September 2003

BBC: Nike settles 'free speech' court case

Nike settles out of court for $1.5 million over false advertising about worker conditions in Asia. It's unfortunate it didn't go to court and set a precedent. Both Nike and Adidas has been criticised by Oxfam. Read the FAQ on nikewages.org and think twice before buying that swoosh.

Guardian: Farmer who got a hearing by paying the ultimate price

Sad story of the Korean farmer that committed suicide at the WTO talks in Cancun. I've been following the talks and have been completely disgusted by how the EU-US lavish agricultural subsidies and subsequent dumping practices have been destroying the lives of farmers in the developing world. This article quotes an article written by the Korean farmer.

Saturday 13 September 2003

I'm Back, Again!

Just a quick entry to let you know we're back from Cornwall. It was a good trip and we now know why so many British folk go down to Cornwall every year for their holiday. I wouldn't mind going again. I'll try and get a travelogue written up over the next week. Meanwhile, the next month looks like it's going to be pretty busy. R* starts a new school. My inlaws are visiting. I've got to finish my PADI certification. Jenny has a birthday. We've got two more trips planned.