Tuesday 28 December 2004

Asia-Quake Relief Appeal-UK

I am deeply sad reading and watching all the news about the earth quake and tsunami that hit Asia. I'm not sure that all the extended family we have in Sri Lanka have escaped but I believe they have. It's the last thing that country needed and the death toll is projected to climb to 25,000. Utterly horrendous.

The High Commission of Sri Lanka in London has appealed to expats for aid. They are directing people to this website for instructions on how to donate:


I've donated to Oxfam since they were particularly fast off the mark with aid to Sri Lanka. Detailed news can be found on Sri Lanka's Daily News or the Lanka Page. Reuters AlertNet has a section dedicated to the Sri Lankan tsunami.

The BBC has a good list of how to help.

Sunday 26 December 2004

Seaons Greetings!

Sometimes I'm not too sure what to make of Christmas. I'm a non-practising Catholic meaning once my parents couldn't make me go to church, I stopped going. Actually, I wouldn't even claim to be Christian. I'm fairly cynical about institutional religions of any kind. However, we still celebrate Christmas. It would seem mean not to. We try to make sure the kids understand we're celebrating the birth of Jesus and not the coming of Santa Claus. I might not be very convincing though. We also try to emphasize charity and downplay consumerism but that message also tends to get drowned in the frenzy of figuring out who gets what.

Santa Claus still visits our house. The kids each have a stocking at the end of their bed. In the morning, they open the presents they find in them and then have to wait until Mom and Dad are up before they can open the presents under the Christmas tree. R* was up at 3am and waited until 6am before she woke K*. R* then woke us up at 7am and brought us mugs of tea to induce us to come downstairs where we took turns opening presents in front of a blazing fire.

We hosted Christmas dinner for all our local relatives this year. Jenny and my cousin, Neil, orchestrated an orgy of eating and drinking which I valiantly tried to do justice to until it hurt to swallow any more. We then sat around the dinner table playing Cranium (excellent game). So for us, I'd say Christmas is more of a celebration of family and friends and trying to think of others.

Whatever it means to you, I hope you all enjoyed a Merry Christmas.

Monday 20 December 2004

The Good Gifts Catalogue

Stuck for a gift? Here's a catalogue of very very worthwhile (charitable) gifts. If you want to buy me something, pick from here....  :-)

Friday 17 December 2004

RYA Day Skipper Theory

Yesterday, I had my tenth evening of the RYA Day Skipper Theory course I'm taking at a local college. Half way through; only ten more lessons to go. It's a rather frustrating course. The instructor is a very old but experienced chap who knows his stuff but his teaching is rather unstructured; he doesn't explain things very well and he tends to ramble on. But the worse bit is how slow we cover the material. It reminds me how thoroughly boring high school was, endlessly hearing the same material over and over again.

The material isn't difficult. Boils down to vector math, compass work, lots of common sense and a whole boat load (pun intended) of terminology and conventions.

On the bright side, we've booked overselves onto a one week flotilla sailing holiday next Summer with another couple: James and Karen. Karen has quit her IT job and is currently qualifying to become a Yachtmaster with FlyingFishOnline. You can follow her progress on her blog. It's a really exciting move for her.

So I'm committed to finishing this course and following it with a RYA Day Skipper Practical course before next August. You need to have two qualified people to charter the yacht. That's a pretty easy requirement to meet since only one person needs to be a Day Skipper and the other person just needs to declare competence to a RYA Competent Crew level.

The Fly Who Loved Me (Flash Animation)

A very clever Flash animation in the spirit of the Christmas season worth checking out. Produced for UNICEF with the voice done by none other than Sir Roger Moore.

Wednesday 15 December 2004

Destroying Blunkett's Career

I don't see what all the furor is over these things David Blunkett was accused of. I really don't care if he fast tracked a visa or took a few trivial liberties in his office. If he's really a good politician, it's ridiculous to destroy a career over such minor stuff. What a waste when good politicians are hard to find.

Tuesday 14 December 2004

My First Flash Animation

Last weekend I did a course on using Macromedia Flash MX 2004. It's the tool commonly used to make animations delivered on web pages. For your viewing pleasure, here's my first flash animation. Yes, it's pretty crude but it was fun putting it together and it tries to pull together many Flash techniques covered in the course. It took about four hours to produce. Make sure you turn on your sound. The voice is a recording of R* I made a few years ago. Don't forget to click on the question mark button. It probably needs version 7 of the Flash Player.

I hope to get better and make greater use of Flash on my web pages.

Monday 13 December 2004

Troy (Wolfgang Petersen, 2004)

I'm not too sure about this one. I enjoyed the movie but I wouldn't rave about it. Great sets and some good action. Didn't find the narrative and the acting that engaging. After the movie, I read up on Helen of Troy and Achilles and found out just how spartan (pun intended) this version of the story was. All the mythology is striped out and events presented as pseudo real history. Numerous things are left out and the ending is much different than the stories.

A few things I would change:

  • The proper marriage pact of the Greek leaders to Menelaus should be explained.

  • Explain why immortal Achilles is vunerable in his heel.

  • Paris should die.

  • Helen falls for Paris only because of Aphrodite's spell; Helen should return to Menelaus at the end.

  • Tell the story of Polyxena

It's great that film making technology has got to the point where epics can now be produced. I hope some directors will take up the challenge of staying true to the myths.

The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)

Saw the latest and greatest film from Pixar last week. It's a no brainer; you gotta see it. It's hugely enjoyable and it's not just for kids. In fact I'd say it's a given that anything from Pixar is going to be worth watching.

Sunday 5 December 2004


A new word (for me)! Defenestrate means to throw somebody or something out of the window. Turns out to be one of the top 10 words of 2004. That is, Merriam-Webster claims it is the 10th most commonly looked up word (excluding swear words). Amazing given how obscure the word is. The most looked up word is "blog".

Thursday 2 December 2004

Castle Magic

Wow, a company that custom builds real castles! Have to remember it when I want to build my own home. Check out the castle for sale in Idaho.

Kevin Sites Blog

Kevin Sites is a freelance solo journalist in Iraq. He witnessed the recent execution of the wounded Iraqi by Marines and describes exactly what happened in "Open Letter to Devil Dogs of the 3.1". Amazing blog.

Tuesday 30 November 2004

Poor Man's Steady-Cam

Excellent instructions by Johnny Lee on how to build your own steadycam on the cheap. Nice idea. Gotta see whether I can find all the components.

Monday 29 November 2004

Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004)

Finally got around to seeing Super Size Me (a film of epic portions). It's a low budget video documentary about obesity in America and one of its sources - fast food corporations. In particular, Morgan Spurlock (writer, director, producer, actor, blogger), takes it upon himself to eat solely at McDonalds for one month and document it's effects.

It's an entertaining and fun watch. Rated 92% on Rotten Tomatoes so that's not just my opinion. Mildly horrifying as he elaborates on the scope of the problem but it's no big surprise. Very interesting that McDonalds dropped their Super Size options two months after this movie was released.

My kids would love to go to McDonalds but they know they can't get me to step foot inside of one. It's out of the question. Not a chance. And I would prefer no one else take them there either. McDonalds is as evil as a tobacco company. Have a read at McSpotlight and the McLibel trial. The best thing I can say about McDonalds is that they provide the world with clean toilets.

Thursday 25 November 2004

Roadtrip Music Video

My talented buddy Sean put together this great little music video of our roadtrip to Germany. It's just a teaser for the travelogue. You'll need Quicktime to view it.

Tuesday 23 November 2004


Here's an interesting but rather scarey website: StrategyPage.

"StrategyPage strives to give you the best comprehensive bit-size summaries of military news and affairs on the Internet. You’ll find the inside data on how and why things happen here everyday."

Check out their Prediction Market and their databases, particularly Armed Forces of the World which ranks forces around the world. Do you really know who the big guns are?

BBC: EU approves rapid reaction force

It certainly makes sense to me that the EU should have it's own rapid reaction force. It should have a military independent of the United States which can react to situations faster than the UN. In fact, I don't see the point of NATO in a post-Soviet world. The EU should have a military structure of it's own as put forth in the draft EU constitution.

Friday 19 November 2004

Fallujah In Pictures

The pictures you won't get on television or probably any mainstream media. They're very disturbing and very graphic. Disfigured and fragmented human bodies from both sides. It's a stark difference from the sanitised war that's reported.

World Toilet Day

Well just in case you missed it, today is World Toilet Day according to the World Toilet Organisation. I kid you not. I don't think I'll describe how I celebrated!

On a related note, there's a fascinating read to be had at The Humanure Handbook (a guide to composting human manure). Well written, humourous and thorough as it tackles a rather taboo topic.

Monday 15 November 2004

Apologies Accepted

James Zetlen started this great little site called Sorry Everybody that allows American's to apologise for electing George Bush. Well, at least 49% are sorry. From the website:

Some of us — hopefully most of us — are trying to understand and appreciate the effect our recent election will have on you, the citizens of the rest of the world. As our so-called leaders redouble their efforts to screw you over, please remember that some of us — hopefully most of us — are truly, truly sorry. And we'll say we're sorry, even on the behalf of the ones who aren't.

The apologies are pictures mostly of people holding signs. Some are signs of support. Worth checking a few out if you want to participate in the grieving process or got nothing to do.

Meanwhile, the fight moves on. Visit Not A Mandate.

R* Turns Nine

birthday cakeWe celebrated R*'s birthday yesterday with a party for her and fourteen girls at a local bowling alley. It was a simple affair with them dividing into three groups and richocheting bowling balls for 45 minutes. Good thing there are guards which prevent the ball from going in the gutter! This was followed by 30 minutes in a party room for food and the birthday cake Jenny made.

R* was thrilled that her best friend gave her a Tamagotchi which is the big craze at her school at the moment. Every kid seems to have one in their pocket. I thought this horrible idea of virtual pets had died but, no, Bandai launched a new and vastly improved version last March. The original was launched in 1996 and sold 40 million units. Looks like virtual pets are here to stay; at least they're clean. They're popular enough to provoke an Anti-Tamagotchi category on Yahoo!

Thursday 11 November 2004

Two Guys, A Van and a Mobile Cinema

Cool idea. If you have a venue, call Ben or Chis on 07967 824 802 and there's a good chance they will drop by with their mobile cinema so you can see seven UK short films. It's a grass roots film festival on the road. Ends November 20th.

Nikon Coolpix 5400 Upgrade

Ran across a reference to an Oreilly book entitled Digital Photography: Expert Techniques. I'm always looking to improve my Photoshop skills so it caught my attention since Oreilly books are generally very good. Even better, you can download Chapter 3: Bringing Out the Best Picture. I learned a few things about using Photoshop to get levels, contrast and colour balance correct.

It also recommends always shooting in RAW mode to maximize the amount of detail and colour information you capture. If you also have a Nikon Coolpix 5400, you can upgrade to version 1.4 of the firmware to get this feature. Isn't it cool being able to upgrade a camera through an Internet download?

Monday 8 November 2004

Christmas Spending

Time to start thinking about Christmas. Ran across this article on average spends for Christmas gifts:

  • Wife: £114

  • Husband: £75

  • Mom: £47

  • Dad: £39

  • Grandparent: £21 

  • Grandchild £64

Back To The Cold

After two weeks enveloped in heat, we're back to soggy, cold, grey England. It seriously had me contemplating emmigration to Australia. According to a newspaper article I read on the flight back, it's the #1 emmigration choice with 50,000 Brits upping sticks and moving there each year.

Of course, we love Vancouver/Victoria but it's soggy, cold and grey there too. America is full of insular, paranoid Americans who vote for idiotic politicians so I don't want to go there. Of the English speaking world, that leaves Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. New Zealand is a bit too rural for me and South Africa is still on the dangerous side. So to live in a warm country, it's either move to Australia or learn another language.

Anyway, we're quickly slipping back into our regular daily routine and we'll soon forget the sun exists. We had a great trip to Egypt and I've got lots to tell but you'll have to wait for the travelogue. Coming soon!

Sunday 24 October 2004

Gone To Egypt

We're off today to Egypt for two weeks. First week we're on a tour of Cairo, Aswan and Luxor with The Adventure Company and the second week we fly to Sharm El Sheik to do some diving in the Red Sea. Tell you about it when I get back!

Saturday 23 October 2004

Friday 22 October 2004

Fun With Neodymium Magnets

Ok, I confess I'm a bit of a science geek and have a big warm spot for science education. It doesn't take much to convince me to buy anything that can be justified as teaching the kids about science.

I recently discovered the PowerMagenetStore. Magnets are, of coure, one of the coolest things to play with and this place sells N38 Neodymium rare earth magnets. I ordered 18 of them for £13.25 and they quickly arrived in the post.

They are incredibly strong. A 1/2" cube easily holds up Jenny's wok (not that she appreciated it). Let two 1/2" cubes stick to each other and it takes a major effort to seperate them. These magnets can crush fingers and pinch skin very badly. I've let the kids play with them a little but they have to be strictly supervised. These magnets can easily kill credit cards, monitors, watches and other devices.

Next step is to come up with some fun experiments and demonstrations of what these things can do. There are lots of ideas on Dan's Data, WonderMagnet or Bill Beaty's page.

Thursday 21 October 2004

R*s Birthday Wish List

It's coming up to R*'s 9th birthday and she's presented the following wish list to us:

laptop, game boy advanced, portable cd player, geometry set, calculator, money safe, action man, harry potter poster, wand, gallions, knuts, sikles, sewing book, dog (multy po), joey yu-gi-oh deck, £50, suitcase trunk, small gold in-out box, dip pen and ink, sweet maker, very strong magnets, 2 girl gerbils, £100 and a very happy family

Unfortunately, we will be on holiday on her birthday but she's having a big bowling party for all the girls in her class when we get back.

Roadtrip to Germany

This travelogue covers a roadtrip a friend and I did in September 2004. We drove from near London to the Nurburgring race circuit and then on to Munich for Oktoberfest. We drove home via Amsterdam.

A Whim

It all started on a whim. I sent an email to Sean, my buddy back in Canada:

Psst. Hey, ever been interested in a doing a road trip in Europe?

I've always wanted to take the Porsche and drive down to the Nurburing circuit in Germany and go for a lap. Could be a fun road trip. Maybe we could drop by Munich...

We've been friends since grade eight and grew up talking about things we'd like to do when we were "grown up" so it seemed about time to live some of those dreams. The amazing thing was than in two days we had a holiday planned out and a month later, Sean arrived and on the next day, we hit the road!

Before reading about the trip, you might want to watch the music video teaser that Sean put together.

Day One

We caught the 11:30 ferry run by Speed Ferries over to Boulogne-sur-Mer. They offer a superb service that's much cheaper than other channel crossing options. If you need to go to the continent, make sure you check them out. It only cost £80 to get both of us and the car to France and back and the crossing only takes 50 minutes. It ran on time without any hitches. Highly recommended.

We only stopped in Boulogne long enough for me to pick up some euro's from an ATM before jumping onto the A16/A10 heading past Calais, Dunkerque and Bruges to Brussels. But as we approached Bruges, I was just too tempted given it's reputation as beautiful day trip. We took a detour and cruised through the town packed to the hilt with tourists. It's a quaint medeival town riddled with canals. We had a drink and took a short walk around the town before driving on.

It took about another four hours of driving to get us to Auderath, Germany. I had heard Belgium is a tedious and boring place to drive and it's true. The only thing that made it interesting was driving fast and cranking the music right up.

We drove through the Parc Naturel des Hautes Fagnes which was torture on the suspension but you could tell as soon as we entered Germany. The road all of  a sudden was smooth. We drove along hilly rural backroads to Auderath. Very nice area. Very rural. As we got near Nurburg, we ran into a few drivers who considered the region a race track.

We had no problems with directions until the very end when we couldn't find the hotel. I called them on my mobile and as the proprietors were British, we had no troubles getting directions. We were soon ensconced in the hotel restaurant with a fine dinner and our first German beer.


Day Two

This was the big day! The most famous race circuit in the world would open for us to drive on it at 1pm. I felt a little edgy, but Sean was quite nervous. It didn't help much when I warned him it was standard practice in motorsports to wear cotton rather than acrylics in case of fire.

I had done quite a lot of preparation for this day so I was feeling quite good about it. I had memorized the entire circuit using a combination of playing an xbox racing game (Project Gothem 2) that had a simulation of the circuit and matching it up with a real map of the circuit that included race lines. I had also studied a photo lap sequence. I really must commend Ben Lovejoy on providing an extremely informative Nurburgring website. It was so useful, I sent him a donation.

We killed time in the Nurburgring Formula 1 circuit souvenir shop - had to get the T-shirt! Niether of us were very hungry, but we killed some more time nibbling on a light lunch before it was time to go.

Ready to goWe got to the parking lot at the entrace of the Nurburgring and it was buzzing. A couple of dozen cars were already there along with a couple of dozen superbikes. It was a quiet day compared to how busy it gets on a weekend. The cost is 14 euro's per lap so I bought two tickets and we battened down the car and put on helmets before edging up to the toll gate. All you do is put your ticket in, the barricade goes up and you're onto the circuit.

Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take pictures or video while you're driving on the track.

It was a lot of fun. I took it quite easy as I didn't want to misjudge the race line, run out of track and hit a fence or a concrete wall or go over the cliff edge. It happens! There's very little runoff around the Nurburgring and lots of armco. Plenty of other cars caught up and over took me and I didn't attempt to tail them. The Porsche kept its grip in the corners with only an occasional bit of understeer. The car was ready to do more than the driver. The tricky bit was deciding on what gear and when to shift while keeping aware of what was coming up behind me. Before building speed, the important thing is finding the right racing line and with 73 corners, it's a lot to figure out.

After the two laps, we were all smiles. The Nurburgring has been described as a rollercoaster and it's quite true. It's hilly with lots of blind corners and hill crests which is what makes it a dangerous circuit. But it's fun! I went back to the office and bought two more tickets. The 3rd and 4th laps were smoother and faster. I felt the racing line improving and fewer cars overtook us. It would have been awesome to spend the day there and remove all the tread from the rear tires but we had a good 500 miles to go that day and it was already 2:30.

For your viewing pleasure, here's a video of someone driving the Nurburgring in a Porsche RUF CTR (part1, part2).

145 mphI handed over the driving to Sean and he soon started feeling confident driving a right-hand drive Porsche in a left-hand country. By the time we hit the unlimited Autobahn approaching Stuttgart, he was enjoying it. I took over driving around Stuttgart and drove the last leg to Munich where we managed to video ourselves doing 145 mph.

For a motorway that doesn't have speed limits, the Autobahn isn't as smooth as I expected. It can be quite bumpy. These bumps don't matter at 100 mph but at 145 mph, it makes for a lively ride and keeps your mind incredibly focused. Also at that speed, you have to watch cars in the next lane very carefully for any hint that they intend to move into your lane. A Porsche has incredible brakes but slamming on the brakes at high speed isn't a safe maneuver. So, we never got a chance to get near the top speed of 170 mph.

By 10pm, we made it to our hotel in Wessling which just happened to have a cosy little bar. It was a nice way to end to a fabulous day of driving.


Day Three


No more driving for two days. We caught the local commuter train to Munich and made our way to the Oktoberfest arriving before noon.

It was pretty quiet which surprised us at first, but it was still morning. We wandered down the main fairway and hopped onto the Ferris Wheel to get a bird's eye view of place. Afterwards, we went on one of the big rollercoasters with five loops which left us with jelly for legs.

Time for beer! At this point, I had the naive idea would could have one beer in each of the fourteen tents. First tent, we sat opposite two middle-aged ladies who spoke no English and had our first litre of beer. Second tent, we had aother litre of beer at a table to ourselves. After that, we were quite pissed.

First BeerThird Beer

Mistake! Tried to sober up drinking water and coffee. By the time we were ready for another beer, there wasn't any tables availabe so we sat outside in a chilly wind chatting to some Brits. Then we wandered around to as many tents as we could. I picked two that would be our main tents to hang out at the next day.

Day Four

There's supposed to be over a 100 kinds of beers brewed in Germany so we figured we should try and sample some of them at the Hofbraeuhaus in central Munich. Got there only to find that even they only served one kind - at least during the Oktobefest.

We walked around the shopping district of the city centre getting cold. Shopping looks the same anywhere you go doesn't it? Warmed up by buying a sweater and having a latte. Found out later that the weather was unusually cold that week.

Time for a beer! We made our way back to the Oktoberfest grounds and were very lucky to squeeze onto a table occupied by a large group of Germans who, again, didn't speak any English. No problem. Beer is a universal language and it was a very jolly crowd.

Fourth BeerFifth Beer

I should take a moment to praise the traditional Bavarian Dirndl dress. It can look absolutely fabulous on the right girl. Very uplifting. Lots of people were wearing traditional costumes and we even met one named Heidi.

Dirndl Dress

After two litres of beer, we poured ourselves over to another tent full of wild foreigners. Overall, everyone is very well behaved. I don't think you could hold a beer festival like it in Britain. It would just get violent and completely out of hand. The Germans just drink, sing and are happy.

Oktoberfest shuts down around 11pm and by random chance, we later found ourselves at a bar called Coyote Nights. It was a small place but featured a lively show on the bar - anything from wet T-shirts to beautiful women dancing on a burning bar.

Coyote Nights

Day Five

No hang over! Not bad. The secret is to just keep drinking lots of water and resign yourself to a bazillion trips to the Gents. I just felt a little "delicate".

We were back on the road but the weather was crap. With high winds and heavy rain, it kept our speed down to British standards of slow driving. Of course, this is still faster than driving in North America. We even got caught in a few crawling traffic jams that made me feel like I was back at home. We spent the whole day just driving, chatting and listening to music with only a few breaks. At one point, I cranked up Autobahn by Kraftwerk; it had to be done!

The most significant break we made was a short stop in Rothenburg. Rothenburg is considered one of the most picturesque towns in Germany. I knew it was important because there's a minature version at Legoland! Yep, it's quaint and medieval and full of Christmas shops. If you want baubles to decorate your Christmas tree, it's the place. Germans know how to decorate a Christmas tree like no one else. It is their invention after all.

We arrived in Cologne around 10:00 pm and found a hotel and some dinner.

Day Six

We briefly admired the mighty Rhine as we left Cologne early heading to Amsterdam. The weather was good and we had a last taste of Autobahn speeds as we approached the border with the Netherlands. In the last few days, I had completely revised my opinion of Germany. It's actually a very nice country and worth touring.

It's pretty boring driving around the Netherlands. The most entertaining thing you can do is count windmills. We eventually made it to the Centrum district of Amsterdam before the boredom congealed.

At first we tried driving around looking for a nice hotel and then a place nearby to park. This didn't work as you simply can not find parking. In fact, I tried squeezing into a very tight parking spot at one point and tragically discovered that the car in front had a towing bar after it smashed through my front right indicator. Doh!

At that point, we switched strategies. You have to first find a parking spot and then look for a hotel nearby! We soon discovered a superb underground car park at the Stadhuis Muziektheatre Stopera. Most hotels were full, but we eventually found one and checked ourselves in by 4pm. We were within easy walking distance to the centre of Amsterdam.


If you notice in the picture, there are no safety rails stopping people from falling in the canals. You park right by the edge and you watch your step. And if you did fall into the canal, notice there's no way you're going to climb out! There's no steps or ledges or anything to help you except the moored boats. Now, in Canada or the US, there would be safety things all around it to protect you but not in Europe. I like that. It keeps natural selection working by killing all the idiots.

To describe Amsterdam as liberal is like saying there's sand in Saudi Arabia. It's liberal with a skyscraping capital 'L'. I'm not going to go into details of our Friday night but I'll just assure you that two fellows can find plenty of entertainment in Amsterdam. Here's a picture of Charlene, one of the lovely bartenders we met.


Day Seven

Despite having very little sleep, we made it to breakfast before 10 and checked out early. We were heading out of Amsterdam by 11:30 back to Boulogne-sur-Mer to catch a 5:30 ferry home. It took about 4 hours to navigate the web of motorways to get there. We arrived early enough to enjoy a very late and very French lunch before joining the ferry queue.

There And Back Again

So, it was a good road trip. The Nurburgring was great although it would need quite a bit more practice to do it justice. In some ways, the Autobahn was even better. It certainly allows you to get from place to place quickly, but I just wish it was smoother. The Oktoberfest lived up to my expectations although it would have been nice to sit with people who spoke English. The best part was just absconding from all family responsibilities and hanging around with a best mate whom I hadn't spent a lot of time with for many years.

If we had more time, I would have loved to have driven further. Prague is only four hours drive from Munich; North of Prague is Berlin. Munich is right at the foot of the Alps. We could have easily driven into Austria and Italy wasn't that far away. Hmmm. Driving in Italy? You would have to go in a Ferrari wouldn't you? Now wouldn't that be cool!

Wednesday 20 October 2004

The Nightmare Before Christmas (Tim Burton, 1993)

I remember when this first came out and I made a mental note that I gotta see it. It's taken over 10 years but I finally watched it the other day. Simply another fabulous story from the strange mind of Tim Burton and wonderfully executed using stop motion animation. I wasn't too sure whether it would scare the kids but I let them watch it and they enjoyed it too. Great characters. Oogie Boogie is my favourite.

It would be very interesting to try and make it into a broadway musical. I'm sure it could work.

Cinema 16 (various, 2003)

I love short films. They take a simple idea and explore it. They take risks. They push the envelope of the media. They're punchy and out to challenge you. As a format, they're also hard to make since every shot and every word counts. A good short film is a very beautiful thing.

Cinema 16 is a compilation DVD of 16 short and student films by British Directors. Sure, there are some films in the collection I didn't like but quite a few are award winners and are well deserving. The collection includes "Boy on a Bicycle" which was Ridley Scott's first film back in 1965. It's nothing exciting but it clearly demonstrates his early skill with a camera. There's lots of variety in the 203 minutes of film that have been chosen. Give Hollywood dross a break and try something different.

Hero (Yimou Zhang, 2002)

There are three reasons for sacrificing your life: love, friendship and an ideal. This is the premise behind "Hero" and each case gets illustrated. It's a beautiful film although in a rather cliche way. Lovely scenery. I particularly liked the way the story is told as three different flashbacks. Each flashback is a different version of what may have happened. It kept me really involved and guessing what was really going on and how it was going to end. However, as with so many Chinese films, it's a tragic ending. English subtitles. Recommended.

Saturday 16 October 2004

Climate Change Tipping Point

A tidbit worth knowing. In the BBC article Carbon Reaching Danger Levels, its claimed that when carbon dioxide reaches 500 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere, we get to irreversible climate change. It recently reached 379 ppm and its increasing by around 2 ppm each year. That gives us about 60 years to fix things or the sea level rises by 7 meters.

Chef Jenny

Jenny has been making progress with her career in the culinary world. Today she taught her first Malaysian Cookery workshop to five paying students. She covered Malaysian chicken curry, beef rendang, chicken satay, nasi lemak and accompaniments. It went very well and she really enjoyed teaching it.

She's also been baking every week and selling it through the local Women's Institute as a way of perfecting her recipes. She's managed to produce all kinds of cakes and goodies that people with food sensitivities can eat. It's got to the point where she's getting advanced orders for them.

I'm still trying to convince her to start blogging about food.

Friday 15 October 2004

Motorcycle Test

Over the last couple of weeks, I had my final three motorcycle lessons and today I went for my test in Reading. I was a bit nervous but not too jittery.

I passed!

Whew! Quite a relief since if I had failed, I would have had to wait until mid November for a retest. As it was, the day was rather chilly with some rain. The examiner, Mark, drove around behind me in a car for about 45 minutes giving me directions over a one way radio. I was particularly nervous doing the U turn in the middle of a narrow sloping street. All you have to do is misjudge your balance and put your foot down to get an instant fail.

At the end of test, I received a mild bollocking for10 minor faults I committed while my instructor, Lou, scowled as Mark described each mistake. Luckily, you can get up to 16 minor faults before you fail. All it takes is one major fault for an instant fail.

There was another student with us who did his test after me but unfortunately, he forgot to turn off his indicator. Instant fail.

So now I'm licensed to kill myself. I'm well aware that you're 38 times more likely to die in a motorcycle accident than a car accident. In London, motorcyclists account for 2% of traffic but 18% of road accident fatalities. Still, I'd like to get a motorcycle next year for casual fair weather riding. One day, I'd like to do a motorcycle trip in a country with not too many cars. Maybe Arizona or New Zealand or something like that.

Sunday 10 October 2004

Reasons Not To Vote For Bush

one term president

Here's some links for those who think Bush could still possibly deserve their vote. George Soros has a personal message worth reading. The Guardian has offered a good speech for John Kerry to make. Better yet, visit the One Thousand Reasons website which is "relentlessly documenting the failures of the Bush administration." Another fine site is One Term President which has a good list of other websites to visit. One of those is 525 Reasons to Dump Bush. If you're undecided, start reading soon.

BBC: UN probes sugar industry claims

Looks like the sugar industry got caught buying out and influencing an "impartial" investigation into the link between sugar and health. Just another example of how untrustworthy the food industry is.

Friday 8 October 2004

A Day At Harrods

I went down to the Egyptian Consulate in London on Thursday to get our visas. It was a bit of a pain in that you have to drop off your application forms and passports in the morning and then hang around to pick them up after 2:30 in the afternoon.

Where to kill time in Knightsbridge? Well, Harrods of course. I hadn't been there for almost ten years. The food hall is as wonderful as it always was. The cheese counter is second to none. I meandered around all five floors for four hours taking in some of the ridiculous opulence. Nice furniture. Great A/V department full of LCD and plasma TV's. Even a CD department with unused listening stations. Brilliant. But I'd never buy anything there as I wouldn't trust the prices to be good value. It's great for the absurd. You can have a children's electric lamborghini for £39,000 or 75 year old whiskey for £12,000. I eventually left starving as I couldn't bear to spend £12 for a sandwich!

Tuesday 5 October 2004

Wrong War, Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Sure glad to read Mr Kerry did well in the first televised presidential debate. The BBC has published the key points made. The best soundbite was the phrase "Wrong War, Wrong Place, Wrong Time" and I hope it sticks to Bush like a bad hangover. Did you notice that Rumsfeld recently got caught telling the truth? He admitted there was no link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

Be sure to drop by the BushIn30Seconds website to watch some absolutely great spoof ads for Bush. It's sponsored by MoveOn.org. Some of the more fun things I've found include a calendar from BabesAgainstBush and protest panties from Axis of Eve. Or you can join with BillionairesForBush.

It still surprises me how much support Bush has with RealClearPolitics showing them about equal in the the polls. I recently listened to a BBC radio programme discussing the rife gerrymandering going on in the US so even if Bush does sink in the polls, there's still a good chance he'll win. So much for the US as a shining example of democracy. Not!

This all points to the boring but crucial issue of how elections are run and the need to support groups like The Center for Voting and Democracy. Closer to home, I noticed this page about the electoral reform in Canada.

Monday 4 October 2004

Skin Two Cabaret

Skin Two is a fetish style magazine reknown for organising the annuall Rubber Ball in London, a celebration of fetish style. Ok, so you're probably immediately wondering "What on earth is Ian into now?" I think the diversity in what humans do is fascinating and makes life interesting. Certainly, I don't think there's anything out there that surprises me anymore. So Jenny and I went to the Skin Two Cabaret since it didn't have a dress code and definitely sounded unusual.

The cabaret was a bit disappointing. I was expecting more of a fashion show but it was mostly lewd comedy which was fun nonetheless. The audience was the fashion show and some were pretty stunning. The last act was a Messy Girl who's, ummm, climax was spraying the audience with her enema. Nope, hadn't seen that before!

Friday 1 October 2004

Pesticides in Your Food

The Pesticide Action Network is offering a fabulously scarey poster entitled Pesticides in Your Food that nicely summarises the current state of affairs in the UK. You can download the PDF for free or buy a print to hang in your kitchen. Honestly, I would buy a print if I could think of a public place I'd be allowed to display it. The download page has a comprehensive list of links to documents backing up their claims. Definitely worth browsing. The truth is that you can often detect pesticides in food samples but they don't usually exceed the Maximum Residue Levels (MRL) set by the government. The key issue is do you trust the MRL's?

Well, personally, I don't trust these MRL's. The food industry lobby is strong and the government panders to business interests. There are plenty of examples where pesticides are later found to be much more harmful than orginally recognised. I'm sure some of the pesticides residues are alright but you are consuming a cumulative cocktail of about 500 of them. Delicious! We're buying much more organic foods these days.

Thursday 30 September 2004

Corporate Watch: Nuclear Contamination in Reading

Here's a rather alarming article by Corporate Watch about Raymond Fox's ongoing failure to get any justice over plutonium contamination found in his backyard at 338 Wokingham Rd in Earley near Reading. A soil sample was found to contain five times higher radioactive contamination than pollution at a nuclear weapons factory in Aldermaston! The scarey thing is the "Wall Of Silence" that he has been subjected to as no one want to do anything about it.

If I lived in the neighbourhood, I'd be pretty upset and demanding a thorough investigation. What about the groundwater?

Generally the UK seems quite good at being evenhanded but I do get the impression that there are many area's where corporations and institutions can steamroller over individuals that  have little recourse. Unfortunately, Mr Fox seems to have found one of those areas.

Wednesday 29 September 2004

Buddhist Economics

Nice short essay on the value of work and the need for meaningful work. It's hosted on a site called World Transformation which looks pretty interesting.

Tuesday 28 September 2004



Yesterday, I taught the kids how to play conkers. There's a horse chestnut tree at R*'s school so the kids there collect them but they don't know how to play conkers so I figured I would teach her this most English of games. As a kid, I had my five seconds of fame playing in a conker competition with the shattering of my conker being broadcast on local TV news. My opponent went on to win the competition with a very seasoned seven year old indestructable conker.

On Sunday, we trooped down to Windsor Great Park and collected a bag of them. It's a little early in the season but wasn't hard to find some. At home, I attached the strings and we were ready to play.

I was soon reminded it can be rather painful to play conkers. It's easy to whack yourself. R* even went and put on her skateboarding pads. After I lost to R*, I set the kids up with a hanging conker to practise on but unfortunately, Kieran whacked himself in the nose and head! So, ok, maybe there's a good reason conkers isn't played much!

Still, I might keep some conkers in a dark corner of a cupboard. They could prove useful in several years.

Sunday 26 September 2004

Back From Bavaria

145 mphGot back safe and sound from our road trip to Germany yesterday. Had a great time and I'll try and get a travelogue written up and posted this week. Driving the Autobahn was a real highlight for me. Here's a picture of my speedometer showing us hitting 145 mph as we got near to Munich.

I have a new found respect for German cars; they all seem to be built for driving at speeds like these!

Friday 17 September 2004

Learning the Nurburgring

On Sunday, a friend and I are off on a roadtrip driving around Germany. A big highlight will be driving the famous Nurburgring race circuit. I've been spending quite a bit of time preparing to drive this massive circuit of 13 miles and 73 bends. Ben Lovejoy has put together a fabulous Nurburgring website which has been a tremendous help. There's also lots of help at the Ringers Group including maps with race lines of the circuit.

Best of all, the Xbox game Project Gotham 2 has a very realistic depiction of the circuit. I've spent the last month playing it just to get to the end where you unlock the Nurburgring circuit in the very last race. I've had a few evenings to drive around and around and around learning the layout. It matches up well with the other maps I have so I figure it's a better way to prepare than driving it cold - that together with Ben's Photo Lap.

Exciting stuff! I should be at the real circuit toll gate at 1pm on Monday.

Thursday 16 September 2004

Egypt Vaccinations

My left arm still hurts a bit after Jenny and I got our combined Hepatitis-A and Typhoid vaccination this morning. If you want to travel, you need to consider the health risks so in preparing for our holiday to Egypt next month, I spent some time reading the WHO's International Travel and Health website. Quite interesting - especially the world disease maps.

Egypt doesn't require any vaccinations but we decided the prudent ones to have covered in our family are Polio, Tetanus/Diptheria and Hepatitis A. Luckily malaria is almost non-existent in Egypt. It's the disease responsible for the highest death rate among travellers. Meanwhile, Hepatitis A is the most common disease travellers catch.

I hate injections. Even though I know they don't hurt much, I can't help getting queasy, light-headed and can even breakout into a cold sweat. Silly, I know, but it's like a real phobia. In a couple of weeks, I'll take the children for their injections and somehow I have to pretend I don't mind getting a Tetanus shot. I can just imagine hearing, "Dad, why are you lying on the floor?"

Das Experiment (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2001)

German movie based on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment  (read more about the experiment here) but this movie takes the experiment much further. Twenty ordinary people are divided into twelve prisoners and eight guards and asked to play these roles for two weeks. The story is centered on one of the prisoners, Tarek Fahd.

The drama is intense as behaviours escalate to the flims climax. Plausible and topical given the prison abuses in Iraq. Worth watching (thanks Jennifer for the recommendation).

Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003)

Park your mind and prepare to feel good. It's a sickly sweet romantic comedy cuddle movie. Don't start analysing how crassly commercial and shallow it is or you'll stop smiling. Fine acting and well made, it's ok for a Friday night rental. Better still, use it for foreplay.

Nowhere In Africa (Caroline Link, 2001)

This German film won Best Foreign Language film in 2002. It's about a well off German Jewish family that leaves everything behind in Nazi Germany and survive as poor farm hands in Kenya. It's based on the autobiography of Stefanie Zweig and is told through the eyes of her as a little girl. Great story, well acted and beautiful cinematography. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 15 September 2004

Smart Music

Here's another little thing I found ages ago that I meant to blog about. I haven't tried Smart Music Studio out but it's description sure is intriguing:

SmartMusic Studio is an interactive, computer-based practice program for woodwind, brass, string and vocal musicians. SmartMusic Studio Intelligent Accompaniment®accompanies you while you practice so it can improve your musical performance in less time by making practicing more fun.

The interesting thing is that it actually changes tempo to follow you; you don't just play along with a recording. It looks slick but since I don't play a monophonic instrument, it's not of any use to me. Would be great for orchestral instruments.

Top 10 Urinals

You can also view the top 100 urinals. No, I don't know what the judging criteria is. The site does claim that it's the "best place to piss away your time on the Internet".

Sunday 12 September 2004

Thames Valley Farmer's Market

Went to the Thames Valley Farmer's Market today. We're trying to buy more things directly from local producers rather than from the supermarkets.  Makes sense to support the local economy and it's great being able to chat with people who actually know how their produce is grown or their animals raised. They can also tell you a lot about how to prepare it too. Overall, it means you can be much more confident about what you're eating and it's fresh - no air miles involved!

It's feels like the right thing to do in a "I recycle too" kind of way.

Two of the vendors we bought from today have websites. There's Cross Lanes Fruit Farm which grows over sixty varieties of apples, pears and plums. They're excellent. Note they're having an Open Day on October 10th which I hope to get to. There's also Brookleas Fish Farm which farms trout. It's a nightmare sourcing trustyworthy seafood - by the way is fresh water fish lakefood or riverfood? - but I had a good chat with how they raise their trout and it sounded safe. What's even better is that I learned you can go there and catch the trout yourself! Will have to take R* and give that a try.

Friday 10 September 2004

BBC: Gun firms pay out over US snipers

Two gun firms have settled with families of the victims of the Washington DC snipers. It's significant because this is the first time a gun manufacturer in the United States has agreed to pay damages for negligent distribution of weapons. This isn't an admission of liability but still it's a promising step towards bringing some sensibility to gun happy America.

Sunday 5 September 2004

Cordon Vert

Jenny is away for five days on a residential cookery workshop at The Cordon Vert School in Manchester - learning how to kill vegetables and skin them. Alright, she's doing the Foundation Workshop which aims to "give students a thorough knowledge of a vegetarian diet". She's very excited about having this break and attending her first professional cookery workshop.

No, we're not planning on becoming vegetarians but we'd be happy to eat more vegetables if the dishes were more interesting. I think vegetarianism is highly admirable and as this BBC article explains, we should all eat less meat.

Meanwhile I'm home alone with the kids learning to survive as a single dad. I have to admit, I don't enjoy cooking much and I quite dislike feeding kids. Worse still, I hate watching kids eat as they torture their meals and find novel ways of eating its contents.

Friday 3 September 2004

Motorcycle Lesson #5

Had my fifth motorcycle lesson today and it was my second time riding a 500cc bike. It's a big step up from the 125cc bikes. Lots of power on tap at all speeds. Scary. Small movements of your wrist can jolt you about quite a bit and you've got to be ready for it. I've learned to slip the clutch more at low speeds to keep control. There's no fairing or windshield so at 60 mph, you really feel the wind holding you up. Of course, going fast in a straight line is fine but we're now starting to take windy roads at speed and I'm gingerly learning how to lean into the corners.

Honda Hornet CB600FFor a break, we stopped by a motorcycle shop and Chris (my instructor) asked what bike I would like. I replied "something that won't kill me" while eyeing a superbike. He recommended a Honda Hornet. This is a "Naked" bike (more traditional) and turns out to be one of the best selling bikes in Europe. Looks pretty good to me.


It doesn't happen often but once in a while I run into a brand new word. I've never heard of this one before today but someone actually used it in a posting:


What a great word! It rolls off the tongue nice and rhythmically. Can't wait to drop that into a conversation: "I've been discombobulated!" or "what a discombobulation!"

Thursday 2 September 2004

K Starts Year One

K* started school today. Year One. He wasn't worred or fussed by it. His best friend is in the same class so that helps a lot. He's not the kind of boy that worries or fusses anyway; he just gets on with it. He even got awarded a sticker by the teacher for stopping an exercise when he was supposed to stop and then waiting quietly. He thrives on rules and just complies with them - such an easy kid.

These milestones can pass uncelebrated when they happen so easily. We now make a effort to drink a toast at dinner to recognise any and all achievements anyone makes. The kids love these kind of rituals. In fact R* suggested we should become Jewish because she really likes the rituals they have.

Wednesday 1 September 2004

The Soggiest Summer

It's official. This August was the wettest August since 1961 when modern rainfall measures were started - 163mm or 180% more than normal. For June, July and August, it's the second wettest summer since 1961. I'm feeling victimised as it's the first August we actually decided to stay in the country!

Jenny and the kids were so fed up a couple of weeks ago of staying inside that they demanded to go the beach rain or shine. I complied and we went down to West Wittering (near Chichester) where they spent a short time digging in the sand in the pouring rain before we all sat in the car for a picnic - a quintessential British experience. Luckily the sun did come out long enough for us to have a nice walk along East Head Beach.

Sunday 29 August 2004

"Yee-Ha" is not a foreign policy

Sums up Bush quite well doesn't it? It's a one of the great placards at the protest rally against Bush in New York - so heart-warming to hear of such a massive protest. I can't wait to see the Republican's kicked out of power. It can't happen soon enough.

Friday 27 August 2004

Olympics 2004

We've been watching quite a bit of the Olympics. In fact, I gave the kids pretty much free rein to turn on the TV and watch as much as the Olympics as they want! They've been watching mornings, afternoons and evenings. I figure it's about the only chance they get to see such a huge array of sports performed by world class atheletes. And as a bonus they get to learn the names and flags of various countries.

I also hoped it would inspire some interest in a particular sport. R* enjoyed watching the Judo and showing off her knowledge of the sport. She was quite intrigued by gymnastics and expressed an interest in trying it. K* liked the boxing. No, I don't think I want him to try that yet!

Naturally, the kids love to choose sides in any contest which leads to debates about who to support. Personally, I support Canada, Malaysia, Britain or the poorest country competing. The BBC only really shows the British atheletes and don't tell you much about the atheletes of other countries and their stories. It's a shame really.

I think it's great to see China doing so well. Of course, they're building up to hosting the Olympics in 2008 and proving themselves to the world. Obviously Beijing takes sport seriously. But where is India? Such a vast country is so poorly represented. And why is the South African team almost all white? And why are there so few women from Middle Eastern countries? The Olympics isn't free from politics or economics. It makes it all the more remarkable whenever someone from a poorer country wins a medal as they've had that much more to overcome.

While it's nice to sit and watch this on the TV, you should also know there's a dark side to the Olympics.

Tuesday 24 August 2004

Monbiot: Goodbye, Kind World

George Monbiots article Goodbye, Kind World concludes:

"We live in the happiest, healthiest and most peaceful era in human history. And it will not last long."

Interesting read and I'm inclined to agree. He has another excellent article entitled The Age Of Consent which looks at how we might develop a better system of world governance.

Sunday 22 August 2004

Darwin Centre Live

At the request of the kids, I took them last Thursday to the Natural History Museum in London. Jenny stayed at home to catch up on things. Since it was their day, I left it to them to figure out the building map and lead us around the museum.

We stumbled upon the Darwin Centre which is housed in a new building and connected to the rest of the museum. There was a scientist explaining how fish swim quickly including a close examination of shark skin. He had specimens with him projected onto three video screens and live link to a room below where another scientist could display specimens they had. Quizzing him was a show host and of course, the audience could ask questions. It was very well done. This is part of the Darwin Centre Live programme and is well worth attending. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go on a tour of the world class specimen collection.

I also learned you can go visit Charles Darwin's house - Down House - and it's not far away.

Thursday 19 August 2004

The Quiet American (Phillip Noyce, 2002)

It's described in the IMDB review as a "moderately interesting drama" and that's a pretty good summary. Would be interesting to compare this to the 1958 version but I haven't seen it. Michael Caine certainly carries the film. If you like his movies, you'll probably enjoy this film. It inspired me to quickly read up on Vietnamese history (since 1885) and it's just stunning what the country has been through over the last 100 years.

Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)

It's rare that a sequel is better than the first movie but it's certainly true with Spider-Man 2. It's a great summer movie that finally has a bit more substance than just special effects by delving deeper into the dilema of being a super hero. Great entertainment.

Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Fantastic and deliciously self-referential film. A screenplay that you could talk about for hours in a film studies class. I need to watch it a second time. I've never cared much for Nicolas Cage but his performance is superb in this film. Highly recommended.

Peter Pan (P.J. Hogan, 2003)

I thoroughly enjoyed this retelling of the classic fairy tale. Bright and fun for both adults and the kids. Its cast particularly well. Recommended.

Sunday 15 August 2004

Knowl Hill Steam Fair

Knowl Hill Steam FairTook the kids to the Knowl Hill Steam Rally and Country Fair. It's the largest local country fair featuring a huge number of steam driven machinery as well as lots of fun fair rides. We've been attending this for many years and it's always a good day out.

Besides other rides, both kids got to try out bungie assisted trampolening and shooting air rifles. Neither Jenny nor I are keen on guns. They don't get them except for ones that look like toys and shoot water. However, it does make me wonder whether at some point they should learn marksmanship.

Friday 13 August 2004

Stagecoach Workshop

The kids have been spending every morning this week at a Stagecoach holiday workshop. The format of each day was one hour dance, one hour singing and one hour theatre. Today, as a finale, they performed a short play - Little Red Hen.

We weren't sure how they would take to it since both of them shy away from dressing up and performing but it went down well. You can tell because they got up early in the morning and got ready all by themselves without any yelling from either of us. It also didn't take any pushing from us for them to practice their parts. Phew! There was a possibility that one of them might have refused any participation at all. I think it helped that they were doing it together.

There's some hope we can lower their resistance to the performing arts after all. I certainly think there are valuable skills for them to learn by taking part in it.

Thursday 12 August 2004

Motorcycle Lesson #2

I'm now back onto my motorcycle lessons. Had my first two lessons this week after passing my CBT last month. Each lessons consists of a quick warm up on a private circuit and then onto the public roads wired up with a radio so you can hear directions from the instructor.

The first lesson was a private lesson. It was raining and I felt a bit tense but didn't feel I did too badly until at the end of the lesson the instructor told me I was too erratic and unpredictable and an accident waiting to happen. Gulp. I used the brake too much and didn't position myself early enough to avoid potential hazards.

During the lesson I got a massive headache from a badly fitting helmet so afterwards I did some quick research on the Internet and then went helmet shopping. I eventually bought an Arai SV at Hein Gericke in Slough. Arai seems to have a very good reputation and this is their entry level helmet. It certainly is much more comfortable.

The next day was my second lesson but this time in a group with two other riders and a different instructor. He thought the ride went well except I was too tense and missed some of my shoulder checks. However, the road was wet and I slipped the bike twice. Once by going over a metal drain cover on a bend and second by turning and braking at the same time (dumb, I know) when trying to make an earlier than expected turn. Really, I do intend to only be a fair weather rider but the British "summer" weather isn't co-operating!

Sunday 8 August 2004

RYA Competent Crew

Lone StarHere's a quick write up of Sailing The Solent about my RYA Competent Crew course. I'm very relieved that I didn't get sun burnt and we had great weather over the five days of the course. The picture is of our 42ft yacht moored in Yarmouth. There's a few more pictures in the article.

Over all, I had a great time and I'm convinced sailing is fun enough that I hope to eventually earn my Day Skipper qualification.

Saturday 7 August 2004

Sailing The Solent

I've just completed the five day RYA Competent Crew sailing course with Five Star Sailing based in Warsash, Southampton. We mostly sailed in the Solent which is the channel between the UK mainland and the Isle of Wight but we ranged as far as Poole and Chichester. The course is the first step in the RYA Sail Cruising scheme. It's a practical introduction to sailing with the goal of making you a useful crew member.

My real goal in taking this course was to decide whether I'd like to attempt taking the family on a sailing holiday some time in the future. I'm now convinced it would be a lot of fun though I haven't figured out exactly how I'm going to attempt it. Anyway, this is how the course went.

Sunday, August 1st.

Check-in at the sailing school was 7 pm but I got down there early in order to do some last minute shopping at the nearby shops. It's a bit tricky trying to figure out what to pack on a trip like this but the critical items were:

  • sun protection - hat with wind clip and high factor sun cream
  • sailing gloves to protect your hands while pulling ropes
  • polo shirts, shorts and a wind proof jacket

Sun glasses would have been good but I don't have any and I couldn't find any clip-on's at the last minute. Something to get for the proper sailing "look". :-)

So I got down to the school early and after a little waiting, I was greeted and invited to load my stuff on the boat. I was very pleasantly suprised when I got to the the yacht. It was a lovely Beneteau Oceanis Clipper 411. I also met my two fellow students, Gerhardt and Bruno, both Germans somewhere in their thirties who were also loading up. Normally the course is run with five students so it was fantastic that there were only three of us. The other fellow's were doing the Day Skipper course at the same time I was doing the Competent Crew course.

We soon met Paul, our skipper, and started getting briefed and settled. We had to draw match sticks to decide who got the worse cabin and yours truly lost. I was stuck with a tiny cabin with bunk beds that seemed like large bookshelves. Honestly, I was a bit dubious about how I was going to sleep.

We then headed to the pub for dinner but drinking was out of the question since the plan was to set sail that night for Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Sailing itineraries revolve around tides and this was our first taste of it. Either we left that night or we wouldn't be able to get out until late the next morning. It's also part of the Competent Crew syllabus for me to get a taste of night sailing.

It was a gorgeous crossing with a full moon hanging low in a starry sky and a warm breeze sending us on our way. Brilliant. I manned the helm for the whole crossing. It was also rather hairy watching out for all the signalling buoys and directions of other vessels. It basically proved the point that night sailing is an advanced skill not to be taken on lightly.

We moored at Cowes and congratulated ourselves on our first sail. It was 1 am by then so I wriggled into my cabin and slid onto my bookshelf. It felt like sleeping in a coffin.

Monday, August 2nd.

After such a late night, we were in no rush the following morning but it didn't take long to get out into the Solent and start learning. We were blessed with a sunny afternoon and a good breeze. Basically, Gehardt and Bruno took turns being the skipper which was primarily about navigation while I was the crew. I literally learned the ropes that day. I also learned that sailing isn't necessarily relaxing and can be a lot of work!

One of the key things we learned that day and practiced every day afterwards were "man overboard drills". This was primarily part of the Day Skipper syllabus.

  • Assign someone to constantly point at the man overboard (we used a fender)
  • Hove To (tack across and trap the genoa)
  • Start the engine
  • Pull in the mainsheet
  • Drive around to the person in the water and drop a life ring
  • Keep driving and get downwind of the person
  • Furl the genoa
  • Drive slowly back to the person in the water
  • Pick them up on the leeward side

Picking up the fender is simple but a real person could be very difficult. They would probably need to be winched aboard with the spinnaker sheet. Falling overboard in a rough cold sea is serious enough that you should send out a May Day on the VHF if it happens.

YarmouthWe moored in Yarmouth against a harbour wall right where people wait to board the ferry. It's a tiny place but it had a pub and great shower facilities. Great facilities is a real consideration with sailing since you really don't want to use the onboard shower.

Tuesday, August 3rd.

It rained that night and we had a soggy grey start in the morning.

The yacht was fully provisioned with food and we had a menu that we were supposed to stick to. Everyone shared in the cooking and cleaning and that includes preparing hot drinks and lunch while under full sail. I had my first turn at frying bacon and making tea at precarious angles that day. It's all part and parcel of learning to sail.

After a short break in Lymington Harbour, we sailed down to Poole. The wind picked up and it turned sunny for some exciting sailing. I had the yacht heeling hard over doing 8 knots and careening through some waves. Superb! I love that feeling of a bucking yacht blown over by the wind. It's hard work manning the helm and keeping the sails full.

Paul and GerhardtPoole harbour was busy so we moored along a raft of power boats. To get to the shore you step from boat to boat going across their bows. It makes for a great social lifestyle as you soon meet the neighbours. The quay itself was lively with a huge gathering of motorcyclists. Since harbours are generally near the center of towns, you're immediately in the heart of any hustle and bustle. Paul and I settled in a pub for a drink.

Wednesday, August 4th.

Woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I was suffocating in a coffin. Got some more air into the room and went back to bed. I'm not claustraphobic but it takes a little getting used to.

Old HarryBecause of the tides, we had a very early start. We slipped our mooring lines by 6:45am and motored onto a calm sea on a beautiful sunny morning. Unfortunately, we had very little wind the entire day. We used the engines to get us back to the Solent where we had a spell of  cloudy and cooler weather before getting sunny again outside of Yarmouth.

It was rather boring being a motor boat that day. I found helming the yacht gets quite mesmerising as your gaze is fixed on the horizon and you're gently rocked by the waves. Gerhardt managed to catch a mackerel by trawling a fishing line. At lunch, my fellow students went for a swim - too cold for me!

At least the lack of wind gave my hands a break that day. They were both aching and tired from the previous two days of sailing.

That afternoon I got to helm the yacht during a man over board exercise and didn't do too badly. We then headed into Portsmouth to moor. This part of the Solent in incredibly busy with ferries, ocean liners, cargo ships, hovercraft, speedboats and other vessels of all shapes and sizes. It's definitely a good place to learn about rights of way.

  • sailboats have precedent over motorboats unless you're talking about a ship with restricted movement
  • generally, you should stay out of the main shipping channels
  • given two motorboats, the vessel on starboard has the right of way 
  • a vessel on a collision course always maintains a constant bearing from you
  • to avoid a collision, always bear to starboard
  • a vessel being overtaken has right of way
  • given two sailboats, the boat on a starboard tack has right of way (sails on left)
  • a sailboat downwind of another sailboat has right of way

PortsmouthWe also had time this day to cover other parts of the Competent Crew syllabus such as:

  • the eight knots you must know
  • poling the genoa
  • gyb prevention ropes
  • using flares, rockets and smoke
  • how a helicopter rescue works

The marina at Portmouth was fantastic with a large floating lightship converted to a pub with superb shower facilities.

Thursday, August 5th.

Another nice day and some good wind too! After practising mooring manuevers, we sailed up to Chichester harbour for a relaxed lunch before sailing down to Cowes. By now I was feeling pretty comfortable with sailing. We learned about how to do the man over board drill without a motor:

  • Assign someone to constantly point at the man overboard
  • Hove To (tack across and trap the genoa)
  • Pull in the mainsheet
  • Sail around to the person in the water and drop a life ring
  • Get into a beam reach away from the person and get a good distance away
  • Tack around into the opposite beam reach towards the person
  • Release the mainsheet and lose the power in the main sail
  • Release the genoa sheet; consider furling it
  • By hand, pull and release the mainsheets to quickly power up and down the main sail as needed
  • Turn up wind as you get close to the person in the water
  • Pick them up on the leeward side

    That evening we took Paul out for dinner at a nice Italian place. He was a happy with our abilities and we had covered all the course material. Cowes was getting fully decked out for the Cowes Regatta starting on Saturday. This is the largest and oldest regatta in the world. That evening there was a live band playing classic rock and a large beer tent so we took turns buying rounds and got quite tanked.


    Friday, August 6h

    Another nice day with a good wind. It's only a short distance from Cowes back to Warsash so the day was just spent playing around in the Solent tacking and gybing as we wanted. Gerhardt caught another mackeral so we had sashimi for lunch. It was a nice end to the course. We finally moored, cleaned up the yacht and were presented with our certificates.

  • R* In The Newspaper

    There's a big picture of R* in last weeks local weekly newspaper. We were approached by a photographer at the WOMAD festival to take a picture of her holding up a colourful kite. R*'s very pleased with it. We've also explained to her about modelling and she seems keen on the idea now that she knows you can earn money that way. She's even willing to wear a dress!

    Sunday 1 August 2004

    Gone Sailing

    I'm leaving today to go on a five day sailing course with Five Star Sailing so there won't be any posts for a week. Tell you about it when I get back.

    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.