31 January 2010

Lecture Tour part 2

I have spent the last week on the second half of my lecture tour of the US. On Monday I zig-zagged my way across the planet, flying first east to Copenhagen, then west to Newark and then back east again to St John’s on the east coast of Canada. The flight across was ok expect for my booze guzzling, farting and snoring neighbour.

Arrived in St John’s pretty late and headed to my hotel which turned out to be a historic, gothic style B&B. Next day an old friend, Duncan picked me up and we headed for a coffee and then he gave me a tour of the town. It was oddly like Bergen. Multi-coloured wooden houses, against a harsh landscape, caught between low lying mountains and the sea. I liked it. Apparently it was one of the first European settlements in North America.

St John's rather like Bergen

From Signal Hill, which has a majestic view of the town and from where the first transatlantic radio signal was sent (or received) we headed to the department where I met up with a couple of other folk from my past and they gave me a tour of their lab which involved tanks full of shrimps which they use to study bioturbation. It was great. Then I gave my talk, which went fine and we headed for the food and then beer. Ended up being out pretty late with Liam seeing some of St John’s finer drinking establishments.

When I got back to the gothic guest house the owners had left me a message saying “Do not wear your shoes inside, this is our house”, to which I thought, fuck you if you don’t want people in your house you probably shouldn’t be running a B&B. Not sure why this annoyed me quite as much as it did. I left St John’s early the next morning and never saw them again. The taxi to the airport was driven by a guy who claimed to be the ex-drummer for the Worzels and I must say that I have no reason to believe he was faking it, could anybody make that up?

From St John’s I went to Halifax where I met my host Grant, who then gave me a guided tour of the town and a potted history. Spent the afternoon meeting his students then gave the talk. We then headed to a very nice restaurant over looking the bay where I was grilled about the Company’s business model by one of his undergrads.

Another 4am start, but no ex-drummer taxi driver. At Halifax airport it was necessary to clear US costumes before getting on the plane. Things started going wrong at the security check. It was 5am and there were two lines. The line you took was determined by pressing a button and lighting a random arrow. Except the random bit obviously wasn’t working because there were 20 people in one queue and nobody in the other. Anyone who asked if they could switch queues was told firmly no! Then they decided to check all these potential trouble makers and terrorists properly and everyone had to empty their hand baggage, turn on their computer etc etc . It was extremely tedious.

Then at US immigration desk the brainless bitch behind the counter looked at my passport and said “when were you in Iraq?”. I calmly pointed out that I had never been there so she said “where is this then?”, pointing at a stamp with the word Syria across the top in large letters. I again calmly point out that it is Syria and she asks when I was there, it clearly says 2003 on the stamp and we could both see it, so I say 2003. I am then shunted off to a side room where I sit for half an hour until some guy appears with my checked luggage and rifles through it, before pronouncing that I can go. I just make the flight. I can never quite figure out where they find these people, but they do manage to pick a special breed that are both cretinously stupid and incredibly arrogant.

I changed in JFK, which is potentially one of the most confusing airports ever, maybe I am was just tired? Then I fly to Buffalo where my bag didn’t show up – big surprise. The baggage agent seemed much more interested in getting my advice on buying train tickets from Gilford to London, then taking the report, but eventually I got out and was met by my host who is a small Chinese chap. Chang is obviously very smart but speaks extremely poor English and drives even worse. It was snowing heavily and he twice tried to head the wrong way on a dual carriageway. It was scary but he is a nice guy and trying hard.

He toke me to lunch and force fed me Sushi, before we headed to the department and I met a few people and then gave my talk again. At the very pleasant evening meal that followed, two of my fellow diners, who work for a local oil company seem shocked that I would not get to Niagara Falls which is only 20 miles away. They insisted on taking me and I was happy to go. It had been one of those days anyway.

The area around in the Falls is surprisingly developed and also pretty run down. For some reason I was expecting majestic falls in the middle of nowhere. It was snowing pretty heavily as we drove up and down the empty back streets trying to find the falls. We parked up and walked, it was about -10c and blowing pretty hard, with wind chill probably about -20c. We only walked for about half a mile, but the exposed tops of my ears were burning and my legs were cramping up. We found the falls and it must be said, they are impressive, especially light up at night, with big chunks of ice and snow in the water of the river above and the plunge pool below. Ten minutes was enough to take some pics, before heading back to the car and to a bar until midnight. I was up again at 4 for the next flight but this time Chang has insisted on driving me, fortunately there are no more incidents.

Been there, done that! And it was freakin cold

Two flights brought me to Charlottesville in West Virgin where I was met by Steve, my jovial host. I was feeling pretty knackered but Steve does enough talking for both of us, almost non stop about everything from geology, to history, to his divorce. On the drive I realized that this is first time I have seen grass in over 6 weeks, it’s been a very white winter.

We crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains but I don’t see any lonesome pines. There is however frequent signs pointing to historic battle grounds. We arrived in Harrisonburg which is a very quaint town. This part of the US is very European, the streets and houses are chaotic and there is a real feeling of history. I got the obligatory tour of the department before giving my talk. This is the last one and there was an excellent audience and I even got an invite to be a guest speaker at a Google Conference next year. After the talk Steve talked we through some of his work and shows pictures of the local outcrops that we were going to see the next day. They are the worst outcrops I have ever seen in my life, shitty little road cuts and 1 m square patches of moss covered rock in between forests of vegetation. I was trying to see if there was any humour as he excitedly told me how great they are. I had just given a talk with pictures of the 150 km continuous exposures of the Book Cliffs, but there was no irony, just enthusiasm, so I made encouraging sounds.

I checked into another gothic guest house and we headed for a very pleasant dinner, where we discussed the next days field trip and the possibility of snow. By the end of the meal I was so super tired that I meant to bed at 9pm.

Next morning the World was very white and the guys called around to tell me that we can’t go to the field. Having seen the photos I am not to bothered and I spent the day reading, working on a manuscript and just relaxing. Sometimes when you are snowed in you just have to accept your fate and make the most of it.

Heading home tomorrow.

30 January 2010

Blowing bubbles in the face of death

I float in the darkness, the water around me is cold, but not too cold. I am wearing a wetsuit and the various bits of paraphernalia that go with diving, the black water is cut by the beam of my torch, which is leashed to my right wrist. Above me the hard limestone roof of the cave thumps against my head and the dawning, terrifying, realization that I am not in open water brings an immediate rush of panic. I spin around shinning the torch and frantically looking for an exit as my heartbeat accelerates and waves of fear wash over me. I am alone and very scared, possibly more scared than I have ever been in my adult life. The bold text of the brightly coloured PADI training manual springs into mind pronouncing that “overhead environments kill!” How the fuck did I end up in here?

I had just completed a job in Namibia and was en route to Brunei with a couple of days to spare. I opted to go and dive on Sipedan, a unique deep water island off the coast of Malaysia. The archetypical desert island, with sandy beaches and palm trees only 500 m across, fringed by a coral reef. Beyond the edge of the reef the waters drop away vertically to 1000 m. The island sits on top of a volcanic plug about an hour by motor boat from the mainland. A few wooden huts sit on the beach and thousand of turtles, swim in the waters and lay eggs in the sand. Sharks and rays come in from the deep, the place is an absolute paradise.

I was travelling alone and I quickly team up with a guy called Lars, who was also in need of a dive buddy. He is a very experienced diver, way more that me, and I enjoy being in the water with him. One evening he suggested that we take a night dive and I readily agreed. We checked out the kit and entered the water, I followed his lead and we swam through the shallows and dropped off the edge. The usual vertigo that one experienced dropping off a km high wall was replaced by an eerie feeling of being watched in the surrounding darkness. We swam for a while, following the wall. Lars stopping to take pictures from time to time while I casually followed, enjoying the coral and fish. The reef at night is a totally different place, with a whole different shift of workers in the aquatic city.

I killed my light for a brief while, to allow Lars to take his pictures. While I was floating in the total darkness I suddenly started to feel very cold. I turned on the lamp and realized that I had lost my buoyancy in the darkness. The drop in temperature was because I was sinking fast, already reaching 40 m. Bugger. No problem, I kicked up and started to ascend, breathing out to avoid ear damage as trained. Losing your buoyancy is bad form but not dangerous.

Then suddenly I hit the hard roof of the cave above me. At first I was surprised, which rapidly gave way to fear. This is bad, very bad. The coral core of the island is filled with caves and there are currents all around that carry you, sometimes very swiftly sideways. In losing my buoyancy and my bearings I have strayed in to one of these. This is very fuckin bad!

I try to suppress the growing fear. This could be where I die. That is not being melodramatic, that is a very real chance here, fuck fuck fuck! I am about to become a statistic, a warning to others, an anecdote. I feel very lonely and very scaried. Fuck!

I look at the tank gauge and it says 100bar, that gives me about 20 minutes at this depth. That's a very short time to have left to live but it is also a reasonable amount of time to try a sort the problem out. I need to keep cool, the only way I will get out of this is by keeping cool.

I shine the light I can see the roof of the cave but apart from that, darkness in all directions. A couple of kicks takes me to a wall, but I have totally lost my bearings, I have no idea which way is in or out, or how far in I have drifted. I am just keeping it together, panic and a total freak out is just suppressed as tales of scratch marks in cave ceilings from doomed cave divers flash through my mind. I don’t want to die here alone in the dark.

I opt to swim 20 kicks in one direction and if that doesn’t work I will spin around and do 40 in the other and continue adding 20 in each direction until I get out. It’s a plan which might just work and more importantly it’s the only plan I have. As I start to swim, counting, the roof of the cave starts to gently drop down and I am convinced that I must be going the wrong way, but I also force myself to stick to the plan.

After 15 kicks the roof is still above me and just as I get ready to turn, suddenly it disappears. I am still not sure if I am out in the open ocean or just entering a large cavern. It’s still totally dark outside the torch beam. Now I am worried that if I swim up and hit another roof I may not be able to find this passage again. Fuck! Cautiously, I ascend, controlling my bouncy and trying supress the panic derived urge to just swim for it, try to stay cool, go slow and keep my bearings.
Then I see a light, swimming towards me, I let out a huge sigh of bubbles, pure relief, a massive adrenaline hit. I swim more quickly towards Lars and he looks at me partly puzzled and partly annoyed. He makes an O with his thumb and forefinger to ask if everything is alright and I make the same sign back, saying it is. Well at least it is now.

We continue the dive for another 10 minutes and I follow him very, very closely. Still not quite able to comprehend what has happened or that I actually got out of there. Back at the surface he asks where I went and I am too embarrassed to say that I broke so many of the fundamental rules of diving, “keep your buoyancy”, “stick with your buddy”, “avoid overhead environments”, that I tell him I lost my buoyancy in the dark and just sunk a bit, but it was no big deal. I can’t bring myself to admit that I made so many mistakes, at least not just yet.

Next day I ask one of the locals who works in the dive shop about the caves and says that they lose about 1 person a year, “very dangerous, stupid people who want to explore and get lost, very stupid”. That was almost me, well not the bit about wanting to explore, but the rest was correct. Now 10 years later I can laugh about it and when ever I read the bit in the PADI book about over-head environments I can agree with them, they are dangerous. Most of all, now I can say that I looked death in the face and it was very fuckin scary.

Are you a Nazi drug-addict terrorist?

The I94 is the form that visitors to the US have to fill in to get through the social assault course that is US immigration. This is has got to be the most poorly thought out form on the planet yet it is filled in by 14 thousand people everyday.

So to be specific, what is wrong with it?

1. The boxes are confusingly laid out, especially when you start it’s very easy to write in the wrong ones. You may scoff I have seen lots of people do it, especially when you are tired and jet lagged.
2. All this bullshit about the address where you are staying on the first night. Holiday Inn, Downtown, Noweheresville. And to make things worse you can’t normally fit in a full address anyway. The box is too small.
3. Then it asks you for your visa number . Doh – this is a visa waiver form, if I had a visa I’d be filling out the white not the green one. Yes it is that fundamentally flawed!
4. The box for email address is only 15 characters, that’s too short for virtually any email address I have ever seen and certainly any of the 4 I have, which means you need to write outside the box, then they get mad, so you make up an email address that is shorter.
5. You have to fill out your name, birthday and nationality three times, four if you count the costumes form which everyone else seems to manage to include in their immigration form (e.g, Canada)
6. Then you have to fill the freaking thing in, even if you are just in transit to another country.
7. And they get stroppy when you don’t have an address for the first night – I AM IN TRANSIT, passing through, I am not here tonight! Its not that fuckin complicated!
8. Then the ask you loads of inane questions like “are you a terrorist?” or “are you a druggy?” and the best “are you a nazi war criminal?” How many would be drug smuggling terrorist Nazis do you think got caught out by that? “Damn I almost made it and then those questions caught me out, again”.
9. WTF is "moral turpitude?"
10. Then and this is the one that really pisses me off, they staple that bit into your passport. That’s vandalism, that passport has to last me 10 years – stop punching holes into it!

America your form is shit – sort it out

Friday Joke (on Saturday) - The wisdom of drinking

"Sometimes when I reflect back on all the wine I drink I feel shame. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the vineyards and all of their hopes and dreams .. If I didn't drink this wine, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. Then I say to myself, "It is better that I drink this wine and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver."

WARNING: The consumption of alcohol may leave you wondering what the hell happened to your bra and panties.”


"I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day. "~Frank Sinatra

WARNING: The consumption of alcohol may cause you to think you can sing.


“When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading."~ Henny Youngman

WARNING: The consumption of alcohol may lead you to think people are laughing WITH you.


"24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence? I think not."~ Stephen Wright

WARNING: The consumption of alcohol may create the illusion that you are tougher, smarter, faster and better looking than most people.


"When we drink, we get drunk. When we get drunk, we fall asleep. When we fall asleep, we commit no sin. When we commit no sin, we go to heaven. So, let's all get drunk and go to heaven!"~ Brian O'Rourke

WARNING: The consumption of alcohol may cause pregnancy.


"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."~ Benjamin Franklin

WARNING: The consumption of alcohol is a major factor in dancing like a spaz


"Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza."~ Dave Barry

WARNING: The consumption of alcohol may cause you to tell your friends over and over again that you love them.


To some, it's a six-pack, to me it's a Support Group. Salvation in a can! ~ Dave Howell

WARNING: The consumption of alcohol may make you think you can logically converse with members of the opposite sex without spitting.

27 January 2010

Wednesday Movie - Talant with a camera

A while ago I worked on a TV series about geology. Making the series was a really interesting experience because not only did I learn a lot about how TV shows are made but I also got to know some really nice people that I probably would not have ordinarily meet. These are the cameramen, the producers and the researchers who are not normally associated with geology and you have a refreshingly different view of the World. Sometimes its good to step outside your comfort zone.

I have a huge respect, which verges on envy, for people who can create something that has a strong visual impact, either art or film. I can take photos, I can shoot video, I understand the mechanics of it all but I still lack that natural ability to produce something really stunning.

The weeks Wednesday movies were filmed by a guy called Will Pugh. Will is a cameraman and all around good guy. I just love the imagery in both of these.


26 January 2010

New York Nostalgia

Stage 2 of the lecture tour of the US. Flew across with SAS and ended up with the worst kind of “seat-mate” – middle aged Norwegian male who guzzled has much alcohol as he could get, constantly invaded my space, then fell asleep snoring and farting. And I mean farting badly, it was horrible! Still managed to get some work done in between trying to burrow deeper and deeper into my hoodie…

Anyway made it to New York, which is just transit and I am sitting in the lounge. It was very strange looking out at the docks in Newerk and the skyline in the distance because it all feels strangely nostalgic, which is fine but I have never been here before. Even the people and their slurred accent, the dress styles and the general atmosphere all seem oddly familiar in a pleasant way. Somehow it makes me think of Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi and even Rocky and for some bizarre reason that is good.

I guess you can crudely sub-divide the US in to 4 quarters.
1. There’s everything west of the Rockies, - the West; where there is the remnants of the pioneer spirit, lots of wide open space and where outdoor and adventure sport junkies mingle with red necks in picks up. I love the high desert and the western US.
2. There is the SE – including Texas, Mississippi etc. The land of the large, where very big people drive even bigger trucks, were Sarah Palin is not a joke and George Bush was a good guy. Hmm not so sure about that bit.

Then there are the two bits I haven’t really sampled

3. The mid-west, flat cornfields filled with bible bashing creationists – at least that’s my impression and it’s not really drawing me in
4. And finally the NE, including New York. This seems like somewhere that has a strong culture and a strong history. Somewhere I definitely need to visit properly and not just from an airport lounge

24 January 2010

BBC iplayer

As an ex-pat living in a non English speaking country the internet is an excellent opportunity to keep track of news and entertainment from back in the old country...

I read the papers everyday and listen to Radio 4 fairly regularly. Despite broadcasting news and music to the World the powers that be at the Beeb are less keen to share their TV shows across the ether, something to do with the license fee which I don’t really understand. Yes British people pay for the stuff via the licence fee but once it is paid for it doesn’t make any difference if its watched by 5 million people in Britain or 20 million people worldwide. I totally fail to see what is gained by stopping people from outside of the UK watching this stuff, its all rather like the “Dog in the manger”.

Anyway the other evening I was home alone and bored so I set about trying to figure out how I could watch “the secret life of chaos” on the iplayer. This is what I discovered.

Basic stuff
Internet explorer will allow you to use a proxy server. This can be used to fool the BBC into thinking that your computer is in the UK. To do this go
Tools -> Internet options.
Then click on the “connections” Tab
Then click “LAN settings”
Then there is a check box that you can tick which says “use Proxy server for your LAN”. Check this.
Then you need to enter the address of the proxy server

The challenge is getting a reliable and free proxy server. A Google search reveals lots of sites offering such services, but most are shitte.
The one I used was this one

You must pick an IP address that is “anonymous” and then copy the ipaddress in to the address box. Note the number after the colon (:) is the port e.g. 132 In this case is the address and 132 is the port. Some other sites don’t give a port, in that case try entering 80 as the port, it seems to work.

Then click ok and try to load a website, if it seems slow or doesn’t load go back into the settings and try another proxy address until you find one that works.

Once you do you are ready to go and use the iplayer.
You can turn offthe “use proxy server” at anytime and go back to your normal state. Probably best to do this when you are not trying to watch the BBC.

Free proxy servers don’t seem to last very long. There is always the option to pay for a proxy which is £5 per month here or £9.99 here

I guess if you wanted to use it a lot that would be a good idea and less annoying than having to find a free one everytime. I don’t watch that much TV, so I have never tested this.

Advanced stuff…
If you use Firefox instead of Explorer as your web browser there is an excellent add on called foxyproxy which allows you to set a load of proxy servers and also control when they are activated.
Download firefox here
Then download foxyproxy here

They then have a tutorial on how to install the patterns for the bbc iplayer here . A pattern is a type of web address so that when it encounters that format it knows to use that proxy. It sounds complicated but its pretty straight forward.

There is a good youtube tutorial here.

Good luck and if you need any more help you can always ask this guy

23 January 2010

Is climate change the real issue?

This one might upset a few people but I only ask you to read it all and think about it. I am not what I really think about this and I am interested to hear your views

The much hyped climate conference in Copenhagen failed to find a solution to global warming. Call me cynical but the only thing that surprises me about that is that people were surprised. There are way too many different agendas at the table, too much poor science mixed with politics and too little understanding of Earth history.

I am not a climate scientist although I am reasonably familiar with the debate, at least on a superficial level, I am a geologist and I think that being comfortable with the inordinate scale of geological time and the magnitude of past changes gives a very differnt perspective on the issues. "Never arrange to met a geologist at the pub, they refer to 10,000 years ago as recent."

As a geologist I am used to looking at millions of years worth of sediments. A 10 m sea-level rise is what bounds the parasequences in the Book Cliffs in Utah. Don’t worry about what a parasequences is, just understand that, in a single cliff section that records less than 1/1000th of Earth history, there is evidence for at least 38, ten meter sea-level rises. Low lying coastal plains that were very similar to modern day Holland or Bangladesh were drowned, repeatedly. Each flooding of the low lying areas and landward migration of the coast line was not a disaster it was part of the geological heart beat of the planet. Over a geological time scale a 10 m sea-level rise is nothing. In the 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age global sea-level has risen 120 m. We worry about warming yet we know that global temperatures and sea-levels have been much higher than they are today and for much of the Earth’s history there has been very little ice at the poles.

There are good data that suggest that teh Earth's climate is warming and that anthropogenic CO2 may even be the cause. I totally accept that global warming is happening, but climate change and even the rates we see today are not extraordinary, even if the cause is different this time. The point is that the Earth is in not danger, the earth is just doing what it does and what it has always done for the last 4.6 billion years, it is the human race and our way of life that is threatened! That is is the problem and in trying to address this problem I think that we are asking the wrong questions.

Around 1800 Thomas Malthus published an essay entitled “on the principals of population”. His thesis was that any population is controlled by limiting factors such as, but not limited to, the availability of food, disease and war. He proposed that without these controls the population would expand exponentially while resources would only expand linearly. This lack of resource would in turn control the population. His concepts were central to Darwin’s later work on natural selection and form the basis for our modern science of ecology. Malthus had some other more wacky ideas and his theory on population was challenged by many, including Marx who claimed that the ability of man kind to manipulate the environment meant that the population could grow unhindered. I think Malthus was right although he underestimated the mans ability to prolong the inevitable.

Mankind has spread like a plague across the planet occupying first the good bits and then, progressively the more marginal areas. There are now so many of us that when the environments changes for what ever reason, there is no room for migration. The clever ape has used his large brain to reduce the impact of the natural processes that moderate population without accepting the responsibility that goes with that, consequently the population has doubled 4 times in the last 250 years.

To put it more simply, there are two choices, you can have 10 children and expect two of them to survive or you can have 2 and use our knowledge of science and medicine to ensure that they both survive. You can’t have both.

If we do not control the growth of the population the Earth system will. In most populations the moderation happens gradually but we are smart enough to by-pass those minor moderations, but all we are doing is storing up trouble. We understand this yet because of our politics and ridiculous, bronze aged superstitions we are powerless to do anything about it. While the catholic church instructs its followers to breed like rats the followers of other religions believe that they have a divine right to the earth and to die trying to enforce that right its ok because they will go to a mystical better places. No wonder we are doomed!

Maybe we can control CO2 and we may even be able to slow global warming. That what we a temporary solution but it is not addressing the real problem which is the spread of the human "ecoplague". Cyclic climate changes are inevitable and even if we learn to control the climate, something else will control the explosion of the naked ape.

We have to accept the responsibility that comes with knowledge or we pay the consequences.

22 January 2010

Friday Joke - Mechanics with a sense of humour…

After every flight, Qantas pilots fill out a form, called a "gripe sheet," which tells mechanics about problems with the aircraft. The mechanics correct the problems, document their repairs on the form, and then pilots review the gripe sheets before the next flight.

Never let it be said that ground crews lack a sense of humor. Here are some actual maintenance complaints submitted by Qantas' pilots (marked with a P) and the solutions recorded (marked with an S) by maintenance engineers.

By the way, Qantas is the only major airline that has never, ever, had an accident.

P: Left inside main tire almost needs replacement.
S: Almost replaced left inside main tire.

P: Test flight OK, except auto-land very rough.
S: Auto-land not installed on this aircraft.

P: Something loose in cockpit.
S: Something tightened in cockpit.

P: Dead bugs on windshield.
S: Live bugs on back-order.

P: Autopilot in altitude-hold mode produces a 200 feet per minute descent.
S: Cannot reproduce problem on ground.

P: Evidence of leak on right main landing gear.
S: Evidence removed.

P: DME volume unbelievably loud.
S: DME volume set to more believable level.

P: Friction locks cause throttle levers to stick.
S: That's what friction locks are for.

P: IFF inoperative in OFF mode.
S: IFF always inoperative in OFF mode.

P: Suspected crack in windshield.
S: Suspect you're right..

P: Number 3 engine missing.
S: Engine found on right wing after brief search.

P: Aircraft handles funny.
S: Aircraft warned to straighten up, fly right, and be serious.

P: Target radar hums.
S: Reprogrammed target radar with lyrics

P: Mouse in cockpit.
S: Cat installed.

And the best one for last..................

P: Noise coming from under instrument panel. Sounds like a midget pounding on something with a hammer.
S: Took hammer away from midget.

20 January 2010

Wednesday Movie - Dodgy Landings

Some years ago a couple of friends of mine where doing fieldwork in southern Chile. They chartered a small plane to fly them around so they could errect a series of seismic monitoring stations. One of field sites was in a fjord. The pilot flew them in and they set about building the concrete plinth for the station and mounting the gear. By the time they had finished the cloud had come in and the pilot told them there was no way he could take off in the narrow fjord, so they headed to the bar to pass the time.

Two days later they were still marooned by the weather and starting to worry. They had built in some slack but that was now all used up and they still had a lot of work to do. The pilot, who spoke no English was not especially forth coming with the weather report, despite there best efforts to try and persuade him to find out.

After another failed attempt to communicate with him, he disappeared for ten minutes and then returned saying “Vamanos ahora” , We will go now. They were skeptical but keen to go and fortified by three days of drinking and boredom they jumped into the plane, and threw in their bags as the pilot fired up the engine and turned the plane around to point down the cloud filled valley.

The were still wondering what the hell was going on as the little plane accelerated down the gravel strip and rose into the cloud. Then the heard the pilot, talking to himself under his breath…
Uno, dos , tres, quarto, dareche (right)” and the plane lunged right. They could see nothing in the cloud but the threat of the huge granite cliffs was ever present and threatening
“Uno, dos arybe (up)” as they climbed steeply and got small glimpses of hard grey rock alarming close. It was soon painfully apparent that the pilot believed there constant questioning and frustration was instruction for him “to do something”. So he had talked to the local pilots and got “directions” out of the fjord, which comprised of a series of instructions, fly 4 seconds and then hard right; 10 seconds and left etc etc. Which he had then committed to memory.

Our heroes were justifiably terrified but by the time they understood what was happening it was too late to stop it and, being smart they realized that there best chance of survival was to let the pilot execute his memorized sequence. Turning back was not an option.

After what seemed like a lifetime the little plane climbed out of the fjord, through the cloud and into the clear sky. Seismic stations were erected and our heroes got to add another stupid story to their repertoire.

This weeks Wednesday movies deal with dodgy take off and landing – who ever said flying was safe never fly with these guys…

The World’s craziest airport

I actually had the privilege of flying with this guy when we were filming a few years ago – we did not do any Arches but he was a real character

This one is a bit long but it is worth watching to the end because just when you think its over it gets more interesting

Inspiration for telling this story and the movies from Ian

19 January 2010

Friends on Powder Day...

There is a common saying "there is no such thing as friends on powder day".

The logic behind this is that the fresh untracked snow doesn't occur very often and when it does it doesn't last very long. In this case its everyman for himself, no waiting for slow people, just get out and get as much as you can...

Whilst I understand this, I think its bullshit. Days in the mountains are all about being with friends and enjoying the best of it together.

So I was very happy to be in Hemsedal this weekend with some great friends, tracking out some great fresh snow. The long period of high pressure that brought the very cold dry days has finally shifted and fresh snow was falling when we drove up Friday night.

Saturday was still cold but with enough fresh snow to cover the icy bits. It snowed through Saturday and into Sunday while we hit the off piste, starting in the bowls and then into the forests. Two awesome days including three runs in the Gumiskogen off the back of the resort which requires a taxi back to the ski centre (30 nok each and they wait at the bottom).

Rather than "no friends" I prefer to spend my powder days with "the right friends".

15 January 2010

Friday Joke - Bergen Kommune bans cars

This week the joke is the cretinously stupid, sanctimonious, self righteous bastards that “run” Bergen Kommune (town council). Whilst being a huge joke, these idiots are unfortunately real.

Their latest strike in "the war against the car" is to sight poor air quality in town, due to the cold weather, as a reason to ban cars with odd numbers on their license plate from entering the city on even days and vice verse.

There are a number of points here which should be made:
1. The air quality is not bad at all. I am sitting in an office looking across town and I see no brown haze, the sky is blue. I have seen plenty of places were air quality genuinly is bad e.g. the Salt Lake valley when you can’t see the city from the mountains. The air in Bergen at the moment is ok, this is a cheap pathetic excuse to impose their long term will upon the people.

2. While the rest of Europe struggles to get people back to work, for the good of their sanity and the good of the ailing economies - these spoilt, over privileged tossers are actually stopping people going to work

There is a total lack of joined up thinking here – while its easy to ban 50% of the cars from the town they ignore the fact that it's actually a through route. Also what about people like myself who arrive back at the airport on the wrong day. Do I leave my car there, take a taxi to town then another taxi back to collect the car. How is that helping things? There are an infinite number of situations in which this is just stupid and unworkable

These people probably live in the large, expensive house over the town and have the luxury of being able to walk down to the city centre. When you have that privileged life style its easy to be self righteous and look down on the people who live out of town and have to commute to work. Maybe we don’t want to spend half an hour waiting at a bus stop in -15°C for the privilege of standing for a further 25 minutes crammed in like a pig on its way to slaughter, while all around you, your fellow victims coughing and sneeze in an attempt to give you swine flu.

I am totally in favour of communal living and social responsibility, but I draw the line when it is opportunistically imposed as part of a broader ideological agenda and clearly not based on what is practical and useful for the community.

13 January 2010

Wednesday Movie

Two unrelated vids this week

Firstly this is one of the coolest things I have seen in years.
He has lots of other really great stuff on his channel

And secondly in the frozen north (of England) Mam Tor seems to be the place to be

11 January 2010

The scariest animal in the desert

Nige and I have been working in Namibia for a couple of months. The Huab Basin in the north of the country lies just inland from the Skeleton Coast, it is the most remote places I have ever been. Fieldwork involves driving on dirt roads and river beds for a day just to get to the area, then camping out for two or three weeks at time without seeing another soul. Everything is carried in to the field area in the back of the pick-up including, food, water and spare fuel. Out here you are on your own and this is in the days before satallite phones or any of that stuff.

The landscape is harsh and unforgiving, red sandstone outcrops capped by thick mountains of dark grey weathered basalt. We make our camp sites where we can, we have a few prefered spots, where rock carvings and the occasional arrow head tells us that we are not the first to seek the shelter of the shallow caves and gullies.

The only vegetation is sharp and spiky. The animals are similar. The harsh desert conditions through-up all sorts of weird variations of the things we are more used to. Elephants with extra long legs for running over the dunes; zebras which are brown and black, and foxes with huge ears that triangulate the position of buried rodents and insects. Anything seems possible in this place and at some stage in our 3 months out here, we have seen most of them.

Several people have asked us if we had ever seen a "Honey Badger" yet. In fact we have been asked this question so many times that the creature is starting to take on mythical properties. "Oh man! Its so fierce it will kill a buffalo" was a claim from one local who we agreed was probably full of shit. "Its the craziest animal in the desert" from another, and "don't worry about the elephants", which had chased us out of the dried river bed "it's the honey badger that will get you". What were these people on about?

Then one evening as we drove back across the plain at dusk we saw a smallish creature casually lolloping along in the wheel ruts. We slowed down to see what it was, eyes straining in the half light. Nige says "it looks a bit like a badger" and which point it turns around and attacks the car! Huge white fangs barred, snarling and gnashing as a 30 cm fur ball tries to savage a 2.5 tonne Toyota truck. There is no fear in the beast, no comprehension of scale or consequence, just shear aggression.

Its terrifying and despite the fact that we are perfectly safe in the pick-ups cab, we both jump and cower in our seats. Then satisfied that it has made it's point, the beast waddles off. Confident that it has won the moral battle and got the respect that it felt it deserved it disappeares into the night.

Now it's our turn to say "beware the honey badger, it is a fearsome beast..."

10 January 2010

First Ice of the Year - Starefossen

Its very cold in Bergen, as it is in most of Europe. Temperature at the evil lair has been down at -15 and the house is not really designed for that, The fat cat is less than impressed.

This does have some upsides though. The perfect blue skies and the covering of snow make everything look very pretty and the ice falls around town are in condition. There is a waterfall that sits above Bergen called Starefossen which I have had my eye on for 7 years, but I have never seen it in properly frozen. Well it is now!

So with a headache from too many saturday night beers I headed up there today with Sandy and, much to our suprise there was a queue. Two other parties, who had obviously not been out until 2am drinking were ahead of us. Given that it is only a 2 minute walk from the road, I guess its not that surprising really.

I have never seen the fall up close but it looked like two tidy pitches. I lead the first which was about 30 m of 70-80 degree ice and very pleasent. We then sat on a ledge looking over the town which was bathed in a blanket of snow beautifully lit by the winter sun. We spent about half an hour waiting for the party of three is front of us to move, which they did, slowly. Then Sandy dispatched the top pitch which was a ramp followed by a 10 m vertical section and then the top.

An excellent way to spend an afternoon in town...

Room 101

There used to be a program on British TV called Room 101 in which guests were invited to nominate the things they hated for inclusion in a fictional room, from where they would never return. It was basically just an excuse for a rant. Since I love ranting here are my offerings

Roller hand luggage – Based on the tartan shopping trolleys old ladies use for their cans of soup, these bags make a simple statement about their owners – given that the luggage lockers on the plane are not big enough for everyone to have this sort of luggage, owning one of these says “I am going to take more than my fair share of space because I am more important than you”, ie “I am a selfish twat!” It gets worse when you see entire families with them; small girls towing a pink, barbi embossed offering which contains… what? Basically if it needs wheels it’s not hand baggage!

Hot air hand driers – Go to the toilet, then wash our hands and get that sinking feeling when you realize there are no towels. Wave hand in jet of luke warm air for two minutes then get bored, shaking still wet hands and wipe on trousers. An utter waste of space.

Football supporters – not all football supports but that especially breed that watch the game but never get off their bar stool/sofa to actually play it. They are tribally wed to some second rate club and spend hours on the "club discussion website" arguing about goal keepers from the mid 1980's. Your nylon version of your nasty club strip hangs badly on your beer belly and your state of mind for the next week, ecstatic or heart broken, depends on the performance of 11 people over whom you have no control or influence. Get a life…

“Baby on board” stickers on cars - what the hell does that mean? Do you think I was going to drive recklessly and crash in to you, but seeing that stupid sticker has made me think twice, so I will crash into the car next to you? Of course not, it’s a statement that says “whoaho look at me, not only am I cool enough to find a woman who actually wants to sleep with me, but I managed to get it up and my sperm works. I fathered a child, I am a god!” No you are a sad pathetic wanker.

Spam, cold calling and junk mail – email spam is almost inevitable since it is so cheap to send out and only takes 1 in 12 million receivers to think “oh that pill really will make me dick bigger” for it to be profitable. However a bigger issue is junk mail, apparently 5% of Los Angeles landfill is unsolicited mail – surely that should just be illegal. And then cold calling, while we all love to scream at the poor unfortunate call centre drone, or even better, chat to them for ten minutes and then tell them to fuck off, what they are really aiming at is lonely old people who are gullible. Again it should just be illegal. Its not hard to find a company selling windows or life insurance or sofas, if you decide that you actually want one.

08 January 2010

Friday Joke - the snow plough

Damn its cold here! Got back from Canada to find my car buried under 50 cm of hard icy snow and the temperature was -9c. Now it's set to get colder! It's not supposed to do this in Bergen, what has happened to the Gulf Stream? Meanwhile the UK is entering an ice age, at least if you believe the BBC. If this is climate change then bring it on - Ice climbing this weekend I think....

Anyway a topical tale about Bergen folk who aren't used to such harsh weather...

Lars and his lovely blonde wife Ingrid live in Bergen.
One winter morning while listening to the radio, they hear the announcer say, "We are going to have 10 to 15 cm of snow today. You must park your car on the left side of the street, so the snowplow can get through."
Ingrid goes out and moves her car.
A week later while they are eating breakfast, the radio announcer says, "We are expecting 10 cm of snow today. You must park your car on the right side of the street, so the snowplow can get through."
Ingrid goes out and moves her car again.
The next week they are having breakfast again, when the radio announcer says "We are expecting 20 to 25 cm of snow today.
Ingrid says, "Honey, he didn’t say where to put the car, what should I do?"
Lars says, "Why don't you just leave the car in the garage this time?"

07 January 2010

Shantaram - Gregory Roberts

I read Shantaram by Gregory Roberts over Christmas, its long, 950+ pages but it was so compelling that I got through it in 6 days.

It tells the true story of an Australian bank robber and ex junky who escapes from jail and ends up in Bombay. The story follows him from his arrival in the city, through his time in a rural village and back to the city where he ends up living in one of the slums, and starting a medical clinic. From there he gets arrested for no obvious reason and with no trail or chance of escape he is locked up, brutally beaten and almost dies. He is liberated from the jail by a mafia boss and goes to work for the local crime syndicate, ultimately ending up fighting with the Mujahidin against the Russians in Afghanistan before returning to Bombay.

The story is excellently crafted and written. He brings the people of Bombay to life and his love for them, from the poorest slum dweller, through the ex-pats and rich locals right up to the crime lord is clear. What only becomes apparent towards the end is how he is manipulated by a bigger power. His story is that of the bishop on the chess set. He is not the simple pawn, he is more useful, with a power to slide between the various lines, but at the same time he is certainly not the master of his destiny and he is used and scarified along the way.

It is a stunning book, I can not recommend it strongly enough, excellently written, and an amazing story of daring do, unrequented love and life in one of the poorest parts of the World. He is a truly great story teller and if even a half of it are true, a pretty amazing person.

06 January 2010

Wednesday Movie - banned car adverts

Toyota advert that didn't quite make the cut from down-under
Volkswagen one that is more appropriate by the day....
Ford Ka bird protection
Honda theft protection
Dodge - penis replacement
A smart car ad which shows the advantage of limited seating
and a Hyundi for all those cheating spouses

05 January 2010

Stoked for Revie...

Flew from the UK to Calgary. Almost didn’t make it out of Paul’s because the mile long track was a sheet of ice, literally. Fortunately we had a taxi driver who had done an apprenticeship on the tanker lorries so we made the airport just on time. A day on a plane and then arrived in Calgary at 5 pm. Then drove 5.5 hours across the Rockies to Revelstoke. Don’t try this at home! Jet leg
no sleep and a five an a half hour drive on icy roads don’t really go together.

I was in Revelstoke 4 years ago with Tor, staying at his uncle’s place. That was before the resort was open and the town was a sleepy backwater, straight out of a cowboy movie, surrounded by big mountains. We spent a week using snow mobiles to access the mountains and even managed a days heli-skiing. But there was also a lot of talk about the new resort and how it was going to change everything and the place was going to be the next “Whistler”.

First impression was that the town hadn’t changed at all! Which was good. It looked pretty much the same and had the same feel. We spent 8 days staying at the Nelson lodge and riding the hill. It was awesome! There are only three lifts but that is massively misleading as this is a huge mountain with tones of terrain. We spent the first couple of days finding our way around. There are glades where the trees are spaced widely enough to catch the deep powder and still ride fast. There are also a couple of big bowls which are accessed through chutes of the summit ridge and ridden out through tree runs at the bottom. This is potentially the best boarding I have ever done and when on the third day it started to snow, things just got better. A big dump on day 6 gave me one of the best days riding I have ever had. My legs were destroyed I could hardly walk.

Canada is possibly the friendliest country I have ever been to. As soon as you get on a lift people start chatting away to you, down town people treat you like old friends and even in the traffic queue which formed while we waited for the avalanche clearance, people got out there cars and stood around socializing. We met a lorry driver and an Olympic rower, just standing next to our car. It was from one of the very friendly people on the lift that we heard about the cross country skiing by lantern on New Years day. Katharine, ever the keen bean when it comes to skiing, bullied me into borrowing some skis from Tor's uncle and we headed out to the 5 km trip. It was dark and the route was lit by the occasional oil lamp. It was all very atmospheric and even more so at the half way point were we came across a beautifully lit up cabin which was dishing out hot chocolate and mold wine. I am fine on x country skis going up, going down is generally a disaster and this time was much the same as usual, but I made it back to the car after being overtaken by some old people on snow shoes. A very atmospheric evening and nice to do something with the locals.

The boarding at Revie definitely lived up to its expectations, the runs nearly are “too long” and there nearly is “too much powder” as one of the reports bemoaned. Its an amazing place to stay, with deep fresh powder, friendly people, and awesome terrain. The spirit of the old town is intact and the locals seem happy with what has happened to their hill. Go visit before the secret gets too widely known and the place really does become the next Whistler.