Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The search is over

Good news on the house front. Today I was the winning bidder for this property. It's a lovely flat on a nice street in a nice neighbourhood. The move should be in mid-October.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Modern life is rubbish

I'm going to have a little rant today, but don't worry: I'm not any more bitter or angry at the world than normal today.

It's all about the video below (which I wouldn't bet on lasting on YouTube very long) from this week's X Factor. Now I'm a sucker for the programme: who wouldn't find borderline-mentally-ill people being mocked by Simon Cowell funny? But once in a while, it throws up someone that really makes you wonder what is going on:

This sort of idiot exemplifies a lot of what is wrong in Britain today: the ridiculous sense of entitlement, the terrible attitude, the classless swearing (there is nothing wrong with a bit of cursing in context and with style), the overwhelming ugliness (inside and out), and the ridiculous pursuit of fame. Since when was "fame" a goal in life? When I were a lad, people wanted to be achievable things like doctor, stuntman or astronaut, not abstract or vague things like "famous", "rich", or "bewildered". Kids, being famous is not cool: being a physics teacher is cool.

OK, being famous is cool, and physics teachers are tits. All the same, just remember a few things, youngsters:

- You can't sing. Really. No matter what your horrible mother with her Diana memorial plate collection thinks.
- You can't dance. Really. No matter what your aunt and her 12 cats think.
- Jordan, the glamour model, singer, and all-round arsehole, is not an idol. Michael Jordan probably is.
- Science is not sad. OK, it is, but it's useful. Body-popping is not. OK, it is, but not as useful as science.
- Neither Ant nor Dec are Prime Minister. Everyone knows that Cat Deeley is.
- Star Wars was not always rubbish.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Music videos 43

2 people have asked when I was going to get this finished now, which in the world of this blog is an extraordinary level of demand. I really must get this list of 100 great music videos from Stylus Magazine finished, seeing as it feels like I first began in 1997.

16 The Chemical Brothers: “Star Guitar"

What a great one to come back with. This is from the fertile mind of Michel Gondry, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame. On a side note, check out the trailer for his ace-looking upcoming film Be Kind Rewind. Anyway, this is all that a music video should be: it fits the music like a glove and enhances it without distracting too much. YouTube is probably not the best way to watch this video: catch it on a bigger screen in higher definition if you can. Describing it is almost spoiling it; suffice to say, the video is poetry in motion and is very, very special. The perfect synchronicity of music and motion mean that there is something new to see almost every time you watch it. You might have guessed that I like this one... Also worth watching are this excellent demonstration by Gondry of how he made the video, and his similarly-executed video for Kylie Minogue's Come Into My World.

15 Peter Gabriel: "Sledgehammer"
Boring. Cliche. Blah.

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Dog days of summer

I've always said that Aberdeen is really, really nice in the summer: warm, sunny, long days, green and blue everywhere. Unfortunately, this summer has not really happened. It's been grey, cool, and wet; September is almost here, so it is getting cooler and darker already. Looks like this last week was the last of the summer, so thankfully it was a good one. The second half of the week was glorious, continuing into a busy weekend for me. Friday was the wedding of a friend from school, Saturday featured Wii and beer, and Sunday consisted of a barbecue (theoretically a 2-year-old girl's birthday party) and some delicious lamb roasted by Mark.

So a pleasant week, including more flat-hunting, means that I have not posted much recently. Oh well. I'm seeing lots of flats, so hopefully I will get one soon. There was a reminder of why I will miss my current flat this week: I came home on Wednesday to find the street full of people, and realised that Scotland were playing their international friendly at Pittodrie, which is at the end of my street. Some people would find having a stadium on their road a pain, but I like it. Besides, It's Aberdeen, who are not renowned for their large or loud crowds of late...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Trapped in the closet 13

Best line: "crazier than a fish with titties". Class.

Crossed wires

Last night, whilst watching an episode of Seinfeld, I saw an example of the most confusing phrase in American English: "I could care less". What is going on here? In UK (i.e. proper) English we say "I couldn't care less", which surely gets across the point properly. "I could care less" infers that you do, in fact, care.

There are loads of weird contradictions in our languages. The Americans say "burglarize" instead of "burgle", and "Realtor" instead of "estate agent"; we say "Sellotape" instead of "Scotch tape" and "press up" instead of "push up".

British words not used in American English

American words not used in UK English

Things that I learned this week

The last words that Walt Disney wrote were "Kurt Russell".

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Rules for life


Since I'm being lazy this week (now there's a shock), I'm going to do a signature ("Justinesque" according to Simon) random post today.

First up is this amazing (and gruesome) story of a death straight out of the movies. Those with a nervous disposition may not want to read about the German man killed by his pet spider and then eaten by the remainder of his tropical menagerie. Best line: "giant webs draped him, spiders were all over him. They were coming out of his nose and his mouth".

Pointless re-branding of the year: Barclays Permiership to Barclays Premier league. Why, exactly?

Interesting stuff: a tool has revealed which organisations have edited Wikipedia pages. These include the CIA, the Vatican (editing out a link alleging Gerry Adams was linked to a murder), and the Democratic Party.

Mark Steel wrote an excellent little article in today's Independent (my newspaper of choice) telling off arrogant atheists. It's nicely said; whilst I agree with a lot of what Richard Dawkins says, I can't say that I agree with his style of delivery...

And finally, isn't the new Kanye West single good? I would never have expected him to collaborate with Daft Punk, and the resulting dance-tinged hip-hop is good stuff. The Akira-inspired video (featuring Daft Punk) is quite good too.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Near miss

I forgot to mention in the Venezuela post that I think my plane had a near-miss on the way back. We had just crossed the French coast, and I was looking out of the window down to Nantes when a white flash caught my eye. Coming from the north, flying on a path perpendicular to ours, was an Easyjet plane. It was very close and slightly higher than us: I know that it is difficult to estimate distances in the air, but it was easily inside a kilometre. It flew past, presumably missing our tail by a few hundred metres but close enough that I heard its engines. This all happened in a couple of seconds. When we landed, my colleague (who was sitting a couple of rows in front of me, also at a window seat) confirmed my observations. He flies a lot, and said that it was easily (pardon the pun) the closest that he has seen a plane in the air, and that he was worried for a brief second.

So there we are. I reckon that we were a second or two from disaster. The distances were surely well within the minimum allowed; I also thought that there were automated systems that would alter the paths of the planes if this happened. Our flight path did not seem to alter, and I don't think that a lot of people noticed (it was early in the morning, so many windows were closed). It seems incredible that, with planes being so small and the skies being so big, you can get anywhere near another plane; it also reminded me that, whilst plane travel is very safe, you are still a passenger in a 500mph bullet.

Changing opinions

I've changed my opinions on a few things recently: peppers taste really nice, and (unbeliveably for me) I like a few Coldplay songs. Has this video of James Blunt on Sesame Street altered my (low) opinion of the girl-voiced songster? Not yet, but him singing about triangles has softened my stance slightly.

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I'm back home after a whistle-stop tour of Venezuela during the week. It's nice to be back to more "reasonable" temperatures where I can walk 100 metres without sweating heavily. Unlike Niall, I had the sense to take shorts with me, but when you are walking around in a suit during work-time, the heat is stifling.

First was Caracas. I've touched on it already: a chaotic pile of roads, concrete, heat, and confusion. It was interesting to see, especially with a local guide (my company's Venezuelan representative), but I can't say that there seemed like a lot to attract the tourist. This was summed up by the reaction to my comment that the large park opposite the hotel looked nice: "yes, it's lovely. But don't go in, it's too dangerous". The city had a lovely location, and an awesome approach through the hills from the airport, but it felt to me that it is a place where you would stop for a night on your way to one of the Caribbean resorts that attract most of the tourists to the country. It's a big city though, at 5 million and still growing rapidly.

Politics was everywhere in Caracas, and the rest of Venezuela; political murals and slogans were seen wherever there was a wall with no commercial advertising. In the UK, and most other "first world" countries, we are used to politics of subtlety, of nuance, of slightly different policies. Here it was politics in the raw: you are for Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution, or you are against him. And if you are against him, life can be difficult. I'm not going to attempt to analyse the politics, as I would surely look silly, and some of the stuff that I have heard is very one-sided. It was, however, apparent that politics had entered every area of life and the country: the purpose of our visit was to meet with the national oil company, PDVSA (the second-largest in the world behind Saudi Aramco), which had become very politicised in recent years. I got the impression there that non-support for Chavez should not be open, and that if it was your career could be curtailed.

We mustn't forget that it is a developing country, though, and that Chavez has had a positive impact on the growth of his country into a power in the region. Despite the new-found wealth (fuelled by the high oil price), it was still obviously a long way behind the "developed West" in terms of infrastructure and facilities. The occasionally-shambolic atmosphere can be charming though, and (like Malaysia) it is interesting to see a country in the process of development: new buildings and building sites everywhere, the clash of old and new, rampant commercialism, and the optimistic nature of the people. The skyscraper in the picture to the left was symptomatic of the current state of the country: this is the tallest building in the country, and housed some government departments. In 2004, a fire broke out which the authorities were not able to control or even put out. They had to let it burn, and it took out most of the building, leaving behind a shell. If they had had the infrastructure to deal with the fire, it may have been put out, but instead they are having to outlay huge amounts of money to rebuild and repair the symbolic building.

And so to Puerto la Cruz. Joined onto the city of Barcelona, this city in the east (in the vicinity of Margarita and Trinidad) is both a Caribbean tourist resort and the location of the main PDVSA building. This was much more like what I was expecting from a Caribbean Latin-American country: low-rise buildings; shacks near the beach; battered old American cars; cool Spanish music with trumpets; sea, beach, beer, and heat. We spent a couple of pleasant days in Puerto la Cruz, had a couple of good meetings, saw some lovely sunsets, paddled in the Caribbean, and ate some nice seafood.

Venezuelan food was interesting. There was a distinct lack of spice, surprising for the Caribbean, which was made up for by almost everything having what to western tastes was an extreme amount of salt. I do like to season well and properly when I cook (something lots of people are afraid to do in this strange world of health scares and different diet advice every other day), but one or two of the dishes that I ate were, unfortunately, slightly spoiled by the salt. Otherwise, the food was pleasant: seafood and meat with fried and boiled plantain, yucca, and other local specialities. The influence of Spain was (unsurprisingly) everywhere, but many other food cultures were present as well. The American influence dominated, through McD, KFC, Domino's, and Papa John's; also present was sushi (which seems to be turning into the world's favourite food), which I had a couple of times and was very nice. The alcoholic drinks were your bog standard "local beer" that you will find anywhere in the world, but I did enjoy the fact that, rather incongruously for an equatorial country, the most popular beer was called Polar and featured a polar bear as its logo.

The final stop on our trip was Maracaibo, the large oil town on the shores of South America's largest lake, also called Maracaibo. This is where it really all started for Venezuela: in the 1920s coffee was their main export; overnight, after the discovery of massive oil fields beneath the lake, oil was suddenly bringing the country 10 times more money than coffee. I don't actually have very much to say about the place, as I was only there for 15 hours or so. What did strike me was the heat: it was hot, very hot. The hotel was nice as well...

So that was Venezuela. despite the positive and negative sides that I have mentioned, one thing stood out throughout: the people were friendly, welcoming, hospitable and polite. The country is clearly a racial melting-pot, and (in the middle and lower classes at least) there seemed to be a genuine respect and warmth between all people, whether they be a cleaner or an oil executive. The language barrier was much larger than I expected: fluent English was very rare, and even at a huge international company like PDVSA only a few people spoke good English. It's likely that I will return, and if so I will have to learn some more Spanish if I am going to manage to do anything properly.

My favourite moment of the trip came during a conversation with the husband of our Venezuelan representative over a beer, which showed that there are two sides to every historical story. Talking about Venezuelan history, he mentioned the "famous English pirate" Sir Walter Raleigh. That's not exactly what we hear in history here, is it?

Back to life in Scotland then, with only my Venezuelan coffee and chocolate as souvenirs. Those and a few mosquito bites on my legs: hopefully I haven't returned with malaria as a bonus gift...

There are more pictures on my flickr pages.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

In Transit

So, after the internet-avilabiility-hope of the Caracas Hilton came the next few days of Puerto La Cruz (in the east) and Maracaibo (in the west). I have bearly had a phone signal, let alone the internet. So no Venezuela blogging... Don't think life was too hard though, as my hotel in Puerto la Cruz was right on the Caribbean.

I am currently in the lounge at Caraces awaiting my flight home vis Paris. I will be back in blighty tomorrow, and will post some thoughts on the big V then. Summary: quite nice without being outstanding.

Until tomorrow. All hail Chavez!

Monday, August 06, 2007

The big V

Against all expectations, the trip out here was almost flawless. Apart from a short delay in departing Paris, the connections were smooth, the flight fine, and the on-board meals some of the best that I have had. Weird: a French airline performing well.

I'm not going to try to emulate the (always excellent) trsvel writing of Niall, because I can't, so let's just say that Venezuela is hot and hilly. A scenic (although not as dramatic as the Faroes) flightpath took me over the Caribbean and on to one of the few pieces of really flat land near it. The trip to Caracas was a scenic 30-minute drive into the mountains, with the road rising from sea-level to 950 metres in the process. The hills around the road were draped with setllements that spilled over the edges like tablecloths; steep valleys were crossed by stilty bridges. Pretty much what you would expect from South America. The capital itself is a chaotic concrete jungle, with the South American-style mix of slum housing immediately adjacent to upmarket hotels. The road system seems manic and random, and the amount of time taken to get anywhere does not seem to relate to distance and time at all.

Over a beer, I tried a local delicacy that us Scots can really identify with: tequenos. These are basically cheese deep fried in a doughy pastry. Delicious, and a testament to the international nature of heart-killing beer food.

Today (which looks like it is going to be very hot and sticky) we travel away from Caraces to (I think) the second city, Puerto la Cruz. Apparently the internal flights here can be "interesting". I don't think it is going to be BA-standard...

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Saturday, August 04, 2007


Tomorrow morning I head off to Venezuela for a few days, so my incredibly frequent posting here will suffer yet again.

The first hurdle in my trip will be getting there: I am travelling via Paris, with around an hour between flights. This means that the infamously-rubbish Charles de Gaulle airport will have a chance to trip me up at the first hurdle. I reckon that there's a chance I will spend an extra day in France on the way; if not, there is also a high chance that my bag will arrive after me...

When I get there it should be fine, as we have a local employee. I was slightly worried by the fact that, before I left work yesterday, my colleague said "see you there, and remember: if I'm not there, WHATEVER YOU DO, don't get into a taxi" Hmmm.

Bible studies

I don't tend to post about religion very often, because it just winds people up unnecessarily, and whilst I like to stir there's no point in delibarately upsetting people...

Anyway, these 3 items get through.

God Map
This is an excellent, and interesting, map of the percentage of the population that believes in God in Europe. It looks like the further east, less "developed", or more conservative your country is, the belief in God is likely to be stronger. The Baltic states have an interesting trend: the further north you go through Lithuania, Latvia, and then Estonia, the more the belief tails off. I wonder why that is? And Ireland clearly bucks the trend with a very stong belief in God. It also looks like fundamentalist Christian rantings about western Europe going to liberal rack and ruin are, well, true...

Biologiests Helping Bookstores
This is a fun blog set up by a biologist who mounts guerrilla missions to move the intelligent design books from the science to religion sections of book shops. Without getting into a full-on debate on the origin of mankind, intelligent design does strike me as a pretty transparent attempt to get religion into science lessons which, as a scientest, I find alarming. There is a place for religion in schools, but not in the science class. The standard argument that the theory of evolution is "only a theory" and needs to be counter-balanced is rubbish; there is as much evidence for evolution as most other scientific "facts": it is like saying that gravity is a theory. Whilst the intelligent design "theory" (read: creationism) remains a philosophical argument, it should stay out of the classroom. Don't get me wrong, I am all in favour of the debate taking place, and have had some really interesting conversations on the topic, but let's not kid ourselves that it is a scientific debate. The BHB blog is a fun way of making a very serious point.

Bible Spilers


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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Back out of the closet

Great news. R Kelly is going to treat us to chapters 13-22 of his epic hip-hopera "Trapped In The Closet". The story and preview video (along with links to the first 12 chapters for the fools that missed it) can be found here. It looks like there is going to be a helicopter chase in it...