Saturday 30 April 2005

Political Compass

There's a fun little test you can do over at Political Compass that will plot you on a political landscape. It uses two dimensions: Left/Right and Authoritarian/Libertarian (I never knew it was the French National Assembly of 1789 that came up with the Left/Right categories).

I came out smack in the middle of the Left Libertarian quandrant right next to Gandhi, Ralph Nader and the Green Party. No surprise there. Fifteen years ago I would have been much further Right.

Address Fraud

There's some guy running around out there using our address to take out insurance on his mobile phone. I don't understand why someone would do this since we just get the policy mail and then notify the company that he doesn't live here. I hope it's not a scam since it could plunge our credit rating. Has this happened to anyone else?

Friday 29 April 2005

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

A massive study by the UN co-ordinated 1360 scientiest across 95 countries to take a global inventory of the state of our ecosystems and quantify the effect that human activities are having on them. After four years, they recently published their findings.

It makes grim reading. You can read summaries from either the BBC or the Guardian or read the original report.

It makes it very, very clear we're living beyond our means. But we knew that, right? In a very interesting turn of phrase, the report talks about the "services of nature". It's a clever but apt "nature as business" metaphor. Two-thirds of these services provided by nature are being degraded by human pressure. Nature is going out of business and it's stock is falling quickly.

Three important messages from the report are worth repeating:

1) Protection of nature's services is unlikely to be a priority as long as they are perceived to be free and limitless by those using them - effective policies will be those that require natural costs to be taken into account for all economic decisions.

2) Local communities are far more likely to act in ways that conserve natural resources if they have real influence in the decisions on how they are used - and if they end up with a fairer share of the benefits.

3) Natural assets will receive far better protection if their importance is recognized in the central decision-making of governments and businesses, rather than leaving policies associated with ecosystems to relatively weak environment departments.

Well of course that's all well and good. But we're left with the fundamental problem of how we will ever make "radical changes in the way nature is treated at every level of decision-making". To make radical changes, we all need to give up priveleges that we've taken for granted for a long time.

Sailing Gibraltar

I signed up for an RYA Day Skipper Practical course with Allabroad Sailing and flew down there on April 10th arriving just before noon.

I took a taxi to Marina Bay which was a total waste. You can easily walk there across the runway from the airport terminal. I was very early but I checked in at the office and left my bags. We weren't due to meet until 6pm so I had a good 6 hours to kill.

I wandered around Gibraltar. It's an odd littles place. By and large, it's British through and through but with a healthy smattering of Spanish. There's just one pedestrianised main street...and a big rock. And lots of buildings heaped up on one another clustered around that rock. Being a Sunday, almost everything was closed. I killed time eating and reading a novel I brought.

At six, I met the other students (David, Richard, Ben, Mark), settled into my cabin on the yacht and listened to safety briefing. In all there were two other boats going out so that evening, we all got together for dinner.


In the morning, we met our skipper, another Mark, had another safety briefing and received out safety and all weather gear. Then we went for an introductory sail in the harbour. Gibraltar is famous for it's dolphins and sure enough, a few dolphins eventually joined us playing in our bow wave. Marvellous!


Sailed down to Estepona. Not a whole lot of wind made for a fairly dull sail.


We prepared the boat and slipped our lines before sunrise. We had a beautiful sunrise as we crossed the straits of Gibraltar and headed to Africa. At first, we had to motor but eventually the wind picked up and we were able to sail the remaining distance to arrive at Smir.


We spent the morning practising harbour maneuvers in Smir. The wind had come alive with a vengeance and we were excited to get out and do some sailing.

The afternoon passage across the straits was an adventure. The winds were gusting up to a least 36 knots. According to the Beaufort scale, that's a Force 8 also known as a Gale. Out in the middles of the straits, the waves were two to three meters high. I had a great time sailing the yacht bucking over them. The mail sail was in at the third reef and we had only a tiny amout of the jib out. We probably should have put up the storm jib since we later found rips in the jib.

Ben was amazing. He cooked a huge roast dinner for the crew while the yacht was heaving about. To eat, we had to heave-to and drift in the middle of the gale. We need to wait anyway since I had to get in some night hours and this was our last opportunity.

We set off again at dusk and made port late in the evening.


Sailed back to Gibraltar


Killed the day wandering around flew back to London.


Monday 25 April 2005

Two Years Off

Today marks two years since my last day of employment. It doesn't feel like two years. Time still rushes by even when one isn't caught up in a career.

I sometimes feel a little guilty that I haven't accomplished a whole lot in two years. Then I remind myself that the whole make-something-of-yourself, self-improvement, get-ahead, consume-more mindset is an ingrained product of middle class rat race culture. My subscription to that has pretty much run out. How should one measure self-worth? 

I haven't been inspired to take a dramatic leap into a new career. I was half hoping something inspirational would just happen. Nope! I plan to stick with computers as a way of eventually earning an income again. In fact, I finally wrote up my CV and applied for a short IT contract with the idea of dipping my toe into contracting work. No one called back. Oh well, with Jenny now back at school full-time, I'm in no hurry.

Election Thoughts T-10

The UK elections are ten days away but I haven't been following it too closely.

Whatever policies Labour comes up with, I won't vote for Tony Blair. I'm disgusted with how he pandered to George Bush and took the UK to war. It was a stupid move for Blair to stand again. If Gordon Brown was leading the party, I might have voted Labour.

An excellent programme recently aired on Channel 4 called "Elections Unspun, Why Politicians Can't Tell The Truth". It described the current post-democracy where the political elite have evolved into a new kind of marketing machine using sophisticated software to identify and target swing voters with bland sound-bite policies. Stagecraft and PR is highly refined, controlled and restricted. Debate is minimal with "me too" messages. There's almost no ideological difference. Big uncomfortable issues with difficult solutions are ignored. Everyone is clustered in the center with personalities and credibility being promoted and attacked rather than anything substantial. How can anyone get excited by it?

It's ironic that only parties guaranteed to lose can afford brave policies and a long term vision.

Wednesday 20 April 2005

Jenny Starts School

Jenny started school today. Here's a picture of her in her uniform.

Jenny's Unform

Guest Squirrel

A couple of days ago some kids passing our house found this friendly squirrel running all over the road. The kids caught him (or maybe the squirrel just wouldn't get off them) and they gave him to me since I was outside at the time. He really is very friendly. Climbs all over you. Doesn't bite. Not skittish and quite docile. Also pretty clumsy and not very well balanced. I figure he must be about three months old.

Guest SquirrelWe thought he might have suffered a fall so we kept him inside in a box and fed him for a couple of days but he hasn't changed. That's just his nature. He loves bread and cucumber (cucumber sandwiches?). Oats and seeds are welcome. Not too keen on carrots and green beans. Generally squirrels eat whatever they can get their paws on.

The law says you can't keep squirrels. There's also a law which says you can't release them into the wild. Catch-22! There's also a law about abandoning animals that can't survive by themselves.The advice from wildlife rescue societies was "if he's not hurt, let him go where you found him". Basically, he's cute vermin.

So I built him a little box which he easily took to and today put him out in our backyard on the picnic table so I can watch out for him. I've tried to make it hard for predators to get him in his box but I think the odds are against his survival. There's already another grey squirrel that owns our neighbourhood and there are a few cats about. He's also perfect owl bait. I'm going to feel dreadful if something gets him.

Tuesday 19 April 2005

No Man's Land (Danis Tanovic, 2001)

A simple and biting film about two soldiers, one Serb and one Bosnian, trapped together in a trench between each other's lines. The situation gets complicated and the UN and media are soon drawn into it. Some may view it as a farce and a comedy but any laughter is pretty subdued when you know the violence, cruelty and bureaucratic games ring true. Intense and well recommended.

Oil Leak

Jenny and I arrived at a pub this afternoon for a nice quiet lunch only to discover smoke billowing from the engine of my car. My first reaction was "engine fire!" but it eventually turned out to be on oil leak. The oil was burning when it dripped on the muffler. In fact with the engine running, oil would gush out and a 993 has a lot of oil!  I'm sorry to say it got all over the pub car park. Luckily the breakdown service didn't take long to come but they quickly gave up and called for a recovery truck.

A Sorry Sight

I spent the rest of the day at a garage while they tried to diagnose it. It's not the oil filter or any of the sensors. The current theory is that an engine seal has blown which is quite unusual. It's still at the garage and chances are it's gong to be a non-trivial repair. Groan!

Monday 18 April 2005

Berkshire College of Agriculture Open Weekend

Each year we drop by the British Agricultural College Open Weekend. It's always a good day out with the kids. It's the typical country affair with animals, various demonstrations, stalls, tractor and horse rides and that kind of low key country stuff. Jenny sold her baked goods at the WI stall so she was up there both Saturday and Sunday. The kids even had a chance to try brick laying.  My favourite attraction is the pen where you can see ewes giving birth to lambs. Then you can be sure it really is Spring. The alpacas were very cute.

Pregnant EwesAlpacas

Jenny and I sometimes chew over owning our very hobby farm but we both soon sober up knowing how much work that would be! Maybe just some chickens and an orchard would be nice. And a dog and a bunch of cats. Maybe a pig and a goat. A couple of ducks on a pond...

Sunday 17 April 2005

The Subtle Knife (Philip Pullman, 1997)

Finished reading the second book of His Dark Materials while off sailing. It suffers from the typical problem of being the middle book of a triology. It elaborates and progresses the main plot but doesn't stand well on it's own. However, it serves its purpose as I can't wait to read the third book. First I need to check a few things in the Genesis chapter of the Bible.

Saturday 9 April 2005

Away In Gibraltar

I'm away next week sailing out of Gibraltar doing my RYA Day Skipper Practical with Allabroad Sailing. I'll be on a 46' yacht with four other students. Check out the one week itinerary. I'm a little worried about the weather but the forecasts seem to be either sunny or partly cloudy. Temperatures should be 20C during the day dropping to 10C at night. I expect it could get very windy; one forecast I found predicted a force 7 in the Alboran on Monday. Gulp. Glad I don't get sea sick...

Friday 8 April 2005

Northern Lights (Philip Pullman, 1996)

Northern Lights is the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy. After this trilogy came third in The Big Read last year I knew I would have to read it at some point so I finally finished this first book over this last holiday. Only took me two days because I became thoroughly engrossed in the storyline.

I'm not yet convinced it deserves to come in third place (beating Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy no less) but I'll reserve judging too much until I've finished the other two books. On it's own, it's a well written fantasy set in a parallel universe. The other books takes the parallel universes theme further; I'm looking forward to how it develops.

As an aside, I remember seeing the northen lights on just a few occasions while living in Victoria, Canada. It's one of the most beautiful phenomena I've ever seen and it's something I'd really like to show Jenny and the kids one day. When and where is the best place to see it?

Fossils In Dorset

On short noticed, Jenny planned a holiday for us down in Dorset for four nights over the Easter break (2005). The primary attraction was to take the kids and explore the Jurrasic Coast.

Day 1

It was an easy 2 1/2 hours drive to get down to Dorchester. The hard part was the packing beforehand. Nevertheless, we soon found ourselve pouring into Flintcombe cottage at Greenwood Grange Farm Cottages. It was a lovely big clean cottage that easily accommodated us. Again, this was another successful choice from the Premier Cottages catalogue.

It was only about three o'clock so we went and checked out the games room, gym, swimming pool and tennis courts before heading out for a walk in the nearby woods. We walked by the remains of an old Roman road, let the kids climb some tree's and threw handfuls of dead leaves at each other. The path also led us past the cottage where Thomas Hardy was born and raised.

Dinner at a local pub was a bit of a disappointment. The pub was nice but the food rated a 5 out of 10.

Day 2

We got out of the house by 9 in order to make it to Charmouth to catch a 10 o'clock guided fossil walk. It started with a talk about what we could find and our guide showed us lots of examples of fossils that had been found. Our chief prey was ammonites. The large group of us marched up to the west end of the beach where there was little danger of a cliff collapsing on us and spent the next two hours combing the beach.

We were all succesful in finding ammonites and belamintes.

We ate our picnic out of the back of the car trying to shelter out of the cold wind before driving back towards Dorchester. In Dorchester, we stopped at Maiden Castle. R* had been learning all about it and proved to be a fine guide. Maiden Castle was the biggest iron age earthworks in it's time and reined supreme until the Roman finally overran it.

Back at the cottage, we enjoyed the Romanesque swimming pool before having our dinner in that night.

Day 3

Woke up to a windy, rainy day. Jenny and her brother John went to visit the market while I stayed back with the kids. I tucked myself into a book and the kids got very, very bored.

It cleared up in the middle of the afternoon but there wasn't much of the day left. We drove down to Lulworth cove where we had heard there was a Jurassic forest. Unfortunately, to reach it you had to cross a firing range and it was open that day. The kids were thrilled just to muck about on the beach.

John bought a kite and he and the kids attempted to fly it with not a lot of luck.

Day 4

Again it was a rather dreary day but that didn't stop us heading over to Lyme Regis to have a bout of poking around rock pools. There was actually a guided walk we had originally intended on joining but decide it didn't offer much value for the money.

We had another car picnic with us and attempted to drive around to find somewhere a bit scenic to have it. Wound up on the sea front of Seaton huddled around a bench shivering in the wind eating our sandwiches. Ok, so April isn't a great time of year to attempt having picnics!

Back at the cottage, we enjoyed a last dip in the pool.

Day 5

Cleared out of the cottage by 10 o'clock and drove off to find something to visit before heading home.

We first stopped at Monkey World since that was the children's first choice. However, all the adults agreed they had no desire to spend £30 to see monkeys and vetoed going in. We went to the Tank Museum instead since it was very close by. I really think the Tank Museum was well done.

Then it was onto the A31 and a quick drive home.

Monday 4 April 2005

Away In Dorset

We're away in Dorset for five days exploring the Jurrasic Coast. Hoping to find some fossils with the kids.

Sunday 3 April 2005

Heyford Academy Track Day

A few weeks ago, I went to a track day put on by put on by Motorsport Events Limited. Rather than use the big race circuits, these guys primarily use airfields. This particular one was at RAF Upper Heyford near Bicester. It was called the Heyford Academy Day since it was structured as a series of exercises that concentrated on car control and balance rather than just buzzing around a circuit.

Morning LineupSupercharged Cooper S

There was a good cross-section of cars. Lots of Caterhams and Elises but also Porsches, TVR's, Impreza's, BMW M3's and others. I have a neighbour down the road who also drives a 993 so he came along with me to the event. At the event, I ran into a fellow I had first met at a drifting day - Nigel in a fabulous old M3. Nice to have company but petrolheads are a friendly bunch anyway.


These particular events are especially good for Caterhams. They're fabulous at tight cornering. The Mojo (above) looked like a nice little kit and moved really well. You can read about it at MyMojo including a write-up of this event. The kit is from Sylva.

 My favourite exercise was simply a high speed left and right-hand corner where the goal was to see just how fast you could take it. I span out a couple of times trying to find that sweet spot where there car is drifting but you're still in control. A progressive slalom exercise was also really good for getting to know how the car reacts. The bottom line is that you really need to do a lot of this kind of practising to develop any consistent skill.

Unfortunately, the day was very hard on the tyres. I had to later buy a new set for the rear. My clutch was also on its last legs at the event; it would slip quite a bit on hard accelleration. The good news is I now have a brand new clutch and a set of Michelin Pilot Sports (no more Pirelli's). Ready for another track day!

Ski Pyrenees

Spent four days skiing in the Pyrenees.


Pyrenees Pyrenees Pyrenees Pyrenees Pyrenees Pyrenees


A place holder for now. Gotta write this one up.

Saturday 2 April 2005

Robots (Chris Wedge, 2005)

It's a clever animation with lots of style. I'll give it that. Visually delightful and it's got many funny bits. A laugh for the kids. But the story is the bland "follow your dream and be true to yourself" variety. The dialogue is nothing better than a Saturday morning cartoon. It's also very, very American. I also saw "Shark Tale" a few weeks ago and it was similiar. Lots of style and in-jokes but lacking substance.

This got me wondering. Wouldn't it be fantastic to see this kind of clever computer animation done by an all-Indian or all-Chinese production company? I want to see their mythology and culture brought to life in the same way. Has it been done? Why not? It's great seeing how different the Japanese approach animated movies (e.g. Spirited Away). I'd like to see how other cultures would too.

A New Pope

While I'm not religious, I still have a lot of respect for the office of the Pope. The Pope still has a huge and unique role to assert moral authourity in the West. No other institution can stake that claim. It's more than just leading Catholics. It's promoting humanity. I don't agree with all papal social policies but I do hope the new Pope engages the political community and provides a loud voice for global justice.