Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Today on twitter

  • 12:01 So, twitter. Here we are. This may be a way of managing to update my blog once in a while... #
  • 13:44 Testing pictures twitpic.com/ny3m #
  • 13:48 Can you hear the sounds? snurl.com/we-are-ears-older I have young ears. #
  • 16:36 Dark at half 4. I won't see the sun outside of working hours till Match now. #


Alright, dudes? The return to blogging wasn't as consistent as hoped, and my first busy week has led to a nice big gap below… As an experiment, I'm going to try going all modern and integrating twitter in with this blog. I've signed up to twitter (swishfish, if you're interested), and later on today (and hopefully every day) a post will pop up here summarising my ramblings (tweets, as I believe they are rather cornily called) of the day. Twitter should work nicely as it will effectively be a little stream of "mini posts" like links that I accumulate over the weeks and never bother to post. I'm still planning on doing "proper" posts as often as I can, which may be mainly at weekends/When I can be arsed sitting down for an hour or so to write something. Of course, the twitter thing could turn out to be both rubbish and annoying, in which case it will be back to the same old same old here. I'll give it a try, anyway.

Some of the highlights of what's been keeping me busy include a trip to Perth last weekend with Niall and Simon to see the Mighty County in a cup final (pictures to come when I can find one or two good ones and upload them to Flickr…), and Niall's birthday bash on Saturday. The cup final was fun enough, but with cold weather and a defeat on penalties the day felt a little deflating. The match was good enough, though: County played well for two-thirds of it, but were eventually useless at the penalties; the highlight was the half-time under-13 penalty run-from-the-halfway-line-and-shoot-in-10-seconds competition, where Airdrie all seemed to be about a foot taller than the apparently under-5 County team: the Airdrie players just wandered up and lobbed the poor 3-foot goalie. Niall's party dominated this weeked. After a night out with some current and former colleagues on Friday, snowy Aberdeen saw a motley crew of misfits arrive on Saturday, with Martin, Karen, and Julie all staying at mine on Saturday. The shindig itself went very well, with a friendly atmosphere and a lovely time had by all. Alcohol levels varied from Stan sober to Cheesman pished and others beyond. Highlights of the night included the owl competition and, if I do say so myself, the stunning DJ set by one J. Green. Niall, who has a number of, lets say, "quirks", invited attendees to bring an owl-related gift for him, which would be entered into a competition to find the finest. My balsa-wood owl was nice enough, but not in the same league as my 2 favourites, which finished second and third: a tremendous owl cake (with almond feathers) and the Guyans' magnificent knitted owl. That was the first party that I've attended where the presents were going to be competitively judged against each other… As I said, a good time seemed to be had by all, and the Sunday brunch gathering that added Simon, Mark, and Claire to the aforementioned lodgers was jolly and tasty. I think Niall is actually not officially past his prime until tomorrow, so enjoy your last day of youth: it's all cynicism and hatred from here on in. Unless you happened to be like that already, in which case it's business as usual… Anyway, happy birthdat tomorrow, "Nev".

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Big spaces and big hills

This is part 3 of Wonderful Western Wanderings featuring 2 Boring Random Guys. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here, but not here. Photos here. Hear here.

As we left LA behind it began to become clear that the USA is pretty big. We were just driving up a little strip on the far left, but the distances between places was getting pretty large. So far we had restricted ourselves to LA, San Diego and west of them: equivalent to a whistle-stop trip round Scotland but nothing crazy. Driving up from LA to Fresno we basically passed through a bunch of farming towns on our way to a farming town. Even in the emptiest parts of the UK, it would be pretty difficult to drive 200 miles without passing a single place of note. Sorry Bakersfield: you are not a stopping-point on road trips by international visitors. The valley was wide, the road was quiet, and Simon got into a groove and flew up the highway.

So to Fresno. Ahh, lovely Fresno. We saw many different faces of California, and this was a new one. A palpable air of depression hung around this place: it looked like any other large American town, but it just felt down. From what we could gather, there is no major industry or employer left there, so everyone is struggling to make a living in this hot, flat place that seemed cut off from the rest of California. Although cut off is hardly the word when you consider that our motel was right next to what could have been the busiest set of railway tracks in America. Here's a sample of my less-than-restful night: horn! horn! (quiet for a short time) horn! horn! horn! (quiet) HORN!!!! Repeat for 7 hours or so. Anyway, we headed out for dinner. Fresno didn't seem to have an overabundance of eateries, but how could you not make a bee-line for somewhere called the "Chicken Pie Shop"? This meal summed up Fresno neatly: not actively bad, but not actively good either; a big pile of average for a reasonable price. We wandered down the street for a pleasant pint in the Sequoia Brewing Company. In the taxi trip back to the hotel, we found another thing that everywhere in the world has in common: right-wing taxi drivers. This guy decided to do a rant on "that black guy Obama", highlighting how he and the Democrats would take money off decent people and literally hand it out to druggies and foreigners. An interesting journey...

Next morning, we got up early (again, 8, but that doesn't sound very early) to head for the hills. Leaving Fresno behind, the road wound its way up towards one of the true highlights of our trip. The hills were rolling, not steep, so it was a surprise when we were suddenly at the entrance to Yosemite National Park. We took a snap decision to head up to Glacier Point before heading to Yosemite Valley itself, and what a good decision. The road went uphill through fairly dense forest, which blocked out much of the view of the surrounding area. Little snatches of panorama showed that we were getting higher, and the hills around us steeper. After a couple of stops we burst out at the Glacier Point viewpoint, almost 7,500 feet above sea level. There's no real way to put this spot into words: I'm struggling to think of having seen a more beautiful vista in my life. Seeing the skyline of Hong Kong for the first time is one, Torridon in Scotland is another, as are some of the views that I have had from airplane windows. Either way, the view here is like a punch to the guts: you seem to be on top of the world, with a wild and empty mountain range spreading as far as the eye can see. Yosemite Valley is immediately in front of (and below) you, and really steals the show. Improbable rock formations create impossibly-steep valley walls, which drop seemingly vertically away to the valley floor 3,500 feet below. That's right: cliffs 3,500 feet high. This place forced me to re-appraise my home country sligtly. Yosemite is like every other mountainous place but on drugs, drugs which make you go psychotic, muscly, and insane. We were around a mile from Yosemite Village, which we could pretty much touch from our vantage point in the heavens, but the steepness of the cliffs meant that it was a drive back all the way that we came, around an hour, to get there. Simon enjoyed these roads, me not so much. I'm not a complete pussy (OK, I am) but barrier-free roads + gigantic drops + Simon seeing how fast he can drive + a fairly powerful car = white knuckles for Justin. Don't get me wrong, Simon's driving was never (OK, almost never) dangerous, but I was always glad to be back on the flatter stuff after a twisty bit during the holiday. I will say that America knows how to make mountain roads, though.

We made it to Yosemite Valley and Village in one piece, and what from above was a peaceful and spectacular vista turned into an almost threatening valley floor surrounded by monsters. The cliffs, which looked normal-sized from above, loomed above at such a steep angle that they would surely pounce down and crush us all. The valley floor was crowded with little human insects crawling all over Yosemite Village, which to be honest was a little busy and not the nicest corner of the park. A longer trip would have allowed us to explore a little away from the tourists, and I have the feeling that there are many magical spots out there. We couldn't stop long in the village, as we were on a tight schedule and I had just typed a wonderful address into the GPS: 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA.

Emerging from Yosemite, we headed in the direction of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. The country on the way was completely different from Yosemite: here in gold rush country everything was barren, with yellow and the dark green of scrubby bushes the defining colours. Again, so close to a major population centre it was a different world: big, empty, hot, and slow paced. We raced through it, with the GPS woman constantly telling us that we were struggling to reach my target in time.

I have no problem admitting that I'm a sad geek, so when your route takes you past the headquarters of your cult, you have to drop by. I'm fully indoctrinated into Apple, so the chance to see the mothership was too good to pass up. The time deadline was caused by the shop: this is the only Apple store which sells merchandise, such as cult handbooks, holy Jobs water, and Apple smocks. We made it in with a few minutes to spare, and I managed to not go mad and limit myself to a few Apple knick-knacks. We took a wander round the campus and unfortunately did not spot Jobs himself. Satisfied, it was off to our destination for the night: Santa Cruz.

Apart from the wonderful Fatboy Slim song, I knew very little about the place. We were staying with Simon's Couchsurfing friend Michelle and her welcoming housemates, who showed us round a pleasant small city. This was clearly liberal/hippy territory, with a lovely laid-back vibe and nice setting on the Pacific. After a meal at a vegetarian diner (very Santa Cruz, apparently) with an outrageously-large sundae for dessert, we had a couple of pints before collapsing to sleep after a pretty major days activity. The next morning we went out for breakfast: I played it safe with pain perdu, but Simon went for it with something that I had never heard of: the truly terrifying breakfast burrito. This was a startlingly-large tortilla packed full of breakfast ingredients such as scrambled eggs, bacon, and goodness only knows what else. In the short time we had left (in Santa Cruz, not in life; to spoil the end: we don't die) Michelle took us on a whistle-stop tour of the hippy university, and then down the coast which was the cradle of surfing in California. The air was pleasant, the surfers surfed, but we had to move on.

Next up was, for me, the peak of the trip: San Francisco. Next time it will be tales of towers, prison, and some rust-coloured bridge.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Some music stuff today.

Firstly, being a user of podcasts, I was delighted to find the NPR live concerts podcast, and in particular the Radiohead concert in Santa Barbara recorded in September this year. I've been listening to it on my journeys home from work this week and it's incredible: this is probably the best "live in concert" recording that I've ever heard. These guys have outstanding music craft (just listen to the percussion here), a hell of a back catalogue, and are still at the top of their game 10 years on from OK Computer. There are some points here that are so perfect it almost brings tears to your eyes: the final encore of Videotape, Lucky, and Idioteque is as good as it gets. It's hard to pick out highlights, but Nude, Talk Show Host, Weird Fishes, No Surprises, Paranoid Android, and Videotape (better than the album version) are all unbelievably good. I've come to the conclusion that In Rainbows is my favourite Radiohead album, but this mix of material from that album with old classics (whilst omitting some you might expect, such as Creep, Just, Street Spirit, and Fake Plastic Trees) really knocked me over. Brian Wilson may be my musical hero, but I've come to realise recently that Radiohead are pretty much the best thing since sliced bread. Most people I know "get" Radiohead, but I'd be genuinely interested to see if a non-Radiohead fan would be blown away by this concert. Surely the best band in the world at the momnent, they have had a big influence on pretty much any of the "mainstream" art-rock bands that are in the charts at the moment. Download this podcast. Do it now. And there is a load of other good concert stuff available for free in that podcast too, from Bjork to Mogwai.

One of the bands who have taken a lot from Radiohead are Coldplay. Pretty much the biggest band in the world at the moment, they have taken many of the aspects of Radiohead's sound and commercialised it, to great chart success. And (deep breath) I owe them an apology. I have been slagging them off for years. Wrongly. Sure, A few songs (like Don't Panic, Yellow, and Talk) had caught my attention and I liked them, but generally I had only bad words for them. I retract them: something has clicked. This is mostly due to the new album, Viva La Vida, which I bought on a whim based on a free song given away on the internet (see, free downloads do work!). The album is definitely different from their previous efforts: grand, orchestral, personal. Maybe Eno's production had something to do with it, maybe not. Either way, it's pretty much my album of the year. Anyone who knows me will be very surprised that I just said that...

This leads me on to Viva La Hova. This is a fun project along the lines of the Grey Album: some producers have mixed Coldplay music with Jay-Z vocals and made an illicit album. It's fun, it's a contrivance, and it works beautifully. Download for free from the website.

Finally, here is Kids by MGMT. I had avoided them for some reason (probably that they are thought of as tres cool), but this song is getting airplay and is teriffic. I bought the album and it's nice too.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Foggy photos

I was in town for a meeting on Tuesday afternoon and so I was home early by virtue of the fact that I could miss out the nightmare number 27 bus journey. Aberdeen was having one of it's moody, foggy autumn days, and I got home just as it was darkening, the most photogenic time. There's a little set here.
Glowing orbs

La La Land

This is part 2 of Justin and Simon's Amazing American Adventure!!! Part 1 can be found here, my photos of the trip here, and Simon's here.

After another night at Jenny's in Burbank, it was time for our big day out in LA and its environs. Waking up at the crack of dawn (8 o'clock in reality, but that doesn't sound very dramatic) we headed off to get fuel for the day in the form of an excellent breakfast of donuts (we were in America, so I won't say doughnuts) and chocolate milk. This would not be a day for health food...

Fortified, we headed off towards LA, beginning with the place that is synonymous with LA, California, and the USA: Hollywood. We headed up Mulholland Drive to catch a view of that sign. The area lived up to the clichés: hazy, hot, mansions of the rich, and a big sign saying "Hollywood". Joggers went past with little dogs in backpacks, and Jenny & Gavin had no idea what we were talking about when we spotted the Hollywood Bowl and associated it with Monty Python. LA was hidden in the smoggy haze, which added a kind of mystique to the area: we could hear the distant urban noise, but could just see shadows and hints.

Downtown Hollywood was, to be honest, a bit of a disappointment: basically a massive shopping mall enveloping the street with the stars on it and the Chinese Theater. Overcrowded with tourists, it spoke volumes of the modern world that, in front of the Chinese Theater, the hand-prints of George Clooney, Matt Damon, and the Harry Potter cast were crowded whilst Douglas Fairbanks, Frank Sinatra et al were neglected and quiet at the back. The Kodak Theater, transformed on Oscar night into a glamourous-looking lobby and mega-auditorium, was just a wing of the shopping mall. We got out of there sharpish, and abandoned the car, taking the underground to Downtown LA.

Popping up amongst the cluster of skyscrapers, one of the first sights was the plaza from the finale of the first season of Heroes. Whilst I wasn't enamoured with the show enough to carry on to the second series (in short: boring, drawn-out, un-twisty plot twists), this landmark seems to impress the Heroes-watchers that I know.

We then took a wander around downtown LA, which had, to my surprise, a really nice mix of older art deco buildings and modern glass skyscrapers. This is something that we saw throughout the West Coast: for some reason I had not anticipated so much deco architecture, but I suppose it is to be expected when you consider when the explosion of city building was in the US. Popping in past the library (books and an impressive atrium) we wandered through what I suppose was the financial district towards Grand Central Market and lunch.

Grand Central Market was an arresting place: a crowded food hall with a mix of fast-food (in the most positive sense, no McD or BK here) vendors and stalls selling a variety of food, drink, and condiments. We had lunch from a very busy taqueria: I can't remember what the others had, but I had what was described as "pork taco" for $2.50. This is not like the stingy little hard-shell thing that we get here, but a mahoosive pile of barbecued pork served with veg, lime, sauce and some little soft tortillas. I thought about ordering 2 before I saw the size, which would have been a big mistake. It was really good stuff, the only criticism being that a little kick of heat could have elevated it to exceptional food. The outside temperature was getting hot, so it was "large" Cokes all round: they don't piss around when you ask for large in the US, giving us what seemed like 2 litres of the stuff each; these were the largest cups that I have ever seen.

Recharged, we bravely endured the midday sun to take a wander around the rest of downtown: City Hall, courthouses, the cathedral, and the concert hall. City Hall is iconic, the main courthouse a wonderful example of how brutalism can turn almost beautiful, the cathedral an ostentatious show of wealth from the Catholic church (sacrificing character for bombast), and the Walt Disney Concert Hall a modern masterpiece. This is my kind of building: a shimmering castle of outlandish angles and textures; in the hot afternoon the building seemed to angrily glow at you in its attempts to bedazzle. It succeeded.

Gavin had endured enough of our high-paced tour, so left Jenny, Simon, and I to reclaim the car and hit a few more big-name streets. From Hollywood we went down Santa Monica Boulevard towards Beverley Hills. Here we stopped for cupcakes and commercialism. Cupcakes were covered by Sprinkes Cupcakes, who we were told were at the heart of the craze which is sweeping the US at the moment. Jenny was tickled when we said that, as we were telling her that cupcakes are not generally available in the UK, we would class them as iced fairy cakes. After being assured that people of any sexuality are able to eat them, we tucked in to a selection that included chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and peanut butter. Yum. On a sugar high, we took a deep breath and headed down Rodeo Drive. This was a ludicrous frenzy of brands, bling, and bad taste both fascinating and horrifying in nature. Nowhere else in the US was their version of a money-based class system more apparent: it was clear that, even if we had wanted to go in and purchase something, we would not have been very welcome in many of the shops. I was imagining a hip-hop soundtrack as we walked down the street: money, cash, hoes seemed somehow appropriate...

Escaping from the madness, we headed back onto Santa Monica Boulevard to the eponymous city. This was literally a breath of fresh air: a chilled out seaside resort so close to the oppressive heat and hustle of downtown LA. We took a wander through the streets and headed to the pier. On the way we passed an awesome-looking post-modern churro shop called xooro, which was unfortunately (for my sweet tooth but not my cholesterol) closed. This was yet another example of all the superb food options that they have across there: I am really jealous of all the choice and variety that they have, but glad for my waistline that I live quite far away. I'm annoying already, but just imagine my horrific personality mixed with a wheelchair-bound obese man constantly cramming his face with food. Think Jabba the Hut without Princess Leia on a chain: not very pleasant, is it? Anyway, we took a wander along the pier, a lovely old thing containing an amusement park, tacky souvenir shops, and real fishermen.

Braced by the sea breeze we negotiated LA evening traffic to meet our final food challenge: the Bear Pit BBQ. I love BBQ, and this didn't disappoint. Big hunks of soft, smokey meat were served up to everyone. I, of course, had pork ribs: they were at least twice as meaty and twice as smokey as any others that I had eaten before, and the day's eating caught up with me as I struggled to make it halfway through the portion. Simon genuinely impressed me by polishing off his "sampler" platter which was, in reality, a huge pile of what looked like 10kg of MEAT. Not meat, MEAT!!!! The venue was fun, with sawdust on the floor; the food was excellent; and the company great: most of Jenny's family came along and we had a fun meal before heading back to hers, making a ham-fisted attempt at playing Rock Band, and collapsing into bed.

The next morning, after a meal of takeaway cupcakes from the day before, we headed across town to the Warner Brothers studios to have a look around. To a fan of TV and film it was overwhelming to see the history that we were able to almost (and often actually) touch and stand in: the piano from Casablanca, the costumes from The Matrix, a miniature set from The Corpse Bride, County General Hospital from ER, exterior sets from many legendary films and TV series (including Seinfeld), and the actual Central Perk set from Friends. This was the real, dazzling Hollywood deal. Simon and I were in a competition to see who could be the first of us to spot a celebrity: apart from a Depp-a-like, the disappointing victor was John Stamos' parking spot at the ER production office. Rock and Roll!

So that was LA: a dizzying mix of cliche, famous places, and food. Does LA have a soul? Either we didn't have time to get to the heart of it, or it is genuinely "all surface, no feeling": San Francisco and even Portland had more apparent "life" to them. We had an excellent couple of days there, though, expertly guided by Jenny. Our whirlwind tour around Southern California was over. It was time to leave the deserts, mountains, glimmering cities and heat behind to head up north, towards deserts, mountains, glimmering cities and heat. But first, Yosemite beckoned. Tune in next time for a racist taxi driver, roads that nearly made me cry, and Apple HQ.

Labels: ,

Let's laugh at foreigners, part56

Czech music:

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Unnecessary censorship


And breathe

That was something, wasn't it? A good, classy concession speech from McCain, and a Great speech from Obama. Thishas electrified the World.

It was a struggle though: the BBC, whom we rely on to do coverage of these sort of events the right way, completely lost it last night. Poor, ill-informed coverage presented by a man (the normally-esteemed David Dimbleby) who didn't seem to know what he was on about. CNN was a safe haven and a LOT slicker.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Decision Time

America, the World's eyes are on you. Never before can I think of an election, anywhere in the world, which has interested so many people in so many countries. Sure, you have the "revolutions" in countries such as the Ukraine, and you had Mandela changing the course of African politics, but when was the last election that could have an impact on any country in the world?

I wouldn't want to impose an outsider's view on our American cousins by telling them who to vote for (vote Obama!), but let's just say that the World is holding its breath on this one. Sure, there will be a bunch of people rooting for McCain, but it is abundantly clear that most of the world is ready for, and wants, Obama. The man seems to be phenomenally (the word phenomenon is carefully chosen) popular worldwide. This election is seen by many as a stark choice for Americans about how they wish to be viewed on the world stage: reactionary, aggressive, "old school", or prepared to take a more balanced, dialogue-based approach. I know it's not that black and white (boom boom) but that's how many seem to view it: is
America going to retreat into its shell or emerge blinking into the light?

It's all very well us outside the
US opining on this, but they have to make a choice of who runs the country, not who the French are going to like most… On that front it seems like a consensus has emerged that Bush hasn't worked for America, so the choice seems to be more of the same (with a twist) or a newer approach. The sneering Republicans seem keen to paint this approach as socialist, communist, or left-wing; in Europe Obama comes across as pretty centrist, maybe even right-of-centre. What would Dennis Kucinich think about Obama being painted as being at the left of the Democratic party?

Policy-wise, it seems from afar that both campaigns have been a little "fuzzy" on the details of some of their policies, and it's acknowledged that McCain is stronger in a few areas than Obama. But who is most likely to have a "government of all the talents" (to nick a phrase from Gordon Brown)? Surely not the cranky old man with the crazy lady sidekick?

Fundamentally, regardless of policy, attacks, lie and counter lie, what comes across to me is the different ways that the campaigns have been run. Barack Obama has run a wonderful campaign that seems to feed upon the energy of the American people, with the overall message that change, hope, whatever you put your mind to, can be achieved if people pull in the same direction. His campaign feels like a movement, yes you can say cult, something more important than a political campaign. I suspect that we are seeing our generation's JFK: someone who can transcend politics, energising people around the world in a positive way. In complete contrast, the McCain campaign has seemed to be mean-spirited, nasty, and designed to do whatever it takes to get him into the White House, with everything else unimportant. They look down on terms like elitist, liberal, socialist, throwing around terms like "community organizer" as if they are swear-words. One campaign is inclusive, the other exclusive (in many ways): I know who I'd vote for.

America, I'm holding my breath. Many, many people will be depressed tomorrow morning if we wake up and hear that the cranky old man and crazy shooting lady are taking over the world.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


Those who say F1 is boring need only have watched today's race to be proved very, very wrong. Lewis Hamilton won the title in what must go down as one of the greatest sporting events in recent memory. The last 10 minutes were pure drama, and literally, for me, nail-biting: Hamilton had it, rain, Hamilton had it, Hamilton lost it, and then on the LAST corner, Hamilton had it. Extraordinary. It, of course, should never have gone that far after a series of farcical decisions that seemed to show the title was being to Massa, but in the end the right man won. Massa was pretty classy in the way he took it, though.

P.S. Here's a picture that I took of Hamilton at the British GP in 2006. At this point he was still in GP2 and still had hair...
GP2 Podium

Wild Wild West

So, to the big trip of this year: the US West Coast. I've decided that I want to do this the long way, so I might break this up into a number of posts. If you get to the bottom of this one and I haven't made it home to Aberdeen, look forward to more exciting installments! All my photos can be found in this set, by the way.

Simon needed to visit the region to bag 2 mullets, and I invited myself along for the ride. In reality, I invited myself along, hijacked the planning, and turned it towards my own selfish desires on places and things to see... Simon didn't seem to mind, as there was only a handful of things that he wanted to do, see, or get enthusiastic about. Thankfully, very early on, we found common ground in our enjoyment of food: even those who don't care for America will acknowledge that they know how to do food. Our trip then turned into a marathon of (many) meals with a series of landmarks and way-points in between; I loved it and Simon, despite his outward lack of excitement, seemed to like many of the things that we saw and did.

The route took us almost from border to border on the West Coast: we got as far south as San Diego, and ended up in Seattle. Two weeks was, we swiftly discovered, a ridiculously short amount of time to try and cover that amount of ground: we could linger only rarely, most sights were seen far more fleetingly than we would have liked, and some places had to be missed out altogether. Every person who we spoke to asked if we had done this or that: while we had hit many of the big-ticket items, some of the little things that make a road-trip in America what it is had to fall by the wayside. Some of these were a great shame: no Big Sur, Pacific Coast Highway, Death Valley, Santa Barbara, Mexican border, Berkeley; no visits to places like Aberdeen, Inverness, Fife, and Loch Lomond, which were all sighted on the way. Realistically, we needed 4 or 6 weeks to cover this ground properly, and the fact that we packed it into 2 made it a minor miracle that one of us did not try to kill the other during a ridiculously-packed schedule. Simon had some big driving days, and a more relaxed schedule would have allowed time to stop and take in the big country. I, as the passenger, at least had the luxury of looking around without having to worry about the lunatic drivers and lawless highway around me. On this point, Simon played a blinder: in the entire time, apart from one moment just north of San Francisco, we did not even come close to a crash, road rage, or any other driving related incident.

This of course, excludes navigational non-correctness. The true hero of the trip was our beloved "woman" the GPS unit lent to us by Jenny's friend Dave. Without her, the trip would have been more-or-less impossible, or at best a fractious series of diversions and me apologising to Simon for taking us the rong way yet again. Case-in-point was just after we arrived in the country: the guy at the car hire depot at LAX told us it was a simple right-right-straight route to the highway. In reality we ended up driving through the edge of Compton at night. For a hip-hop fan, it was fun to see the names Inglewood and Compton on signs; for the driver it was probably not an ideal entry into American, left-side, and automatic driving.

We did manage to find the highway after about 3 attempts to get onto the on-ramp, and made our way around LA to Burbank, where Jenny and bed awaited us. Don't get the wrong idea about that: Jenny, Simon, Bed, and I are 4 circles that didn't overlap on the Venn diagram of our trip.

A jet-lag inspired sleep later, and we were ready to get on with the trip proper. Jenny and Gavin fueled us up brilliantly with pancakes and bacon, and it was time to hit the road. First stop: Magic Mountain. This produced the biggest split decision of the trip. I love rollercoasters, Simon had never done one but the indications were that he wouldn't necessarily adore them. This assumption proved correct, and Simon endured a series of violent, outlandish, and occasionally insane rides that made me say "wow" and him say "...". To his credit, he did them all, and approached enjoyment on 1 or 2 of them (I'll gloss over the fact that the enjoyable ones were the kid's rides). The schoolboy error that I made was heading straight for what turned out to be the most extreme coaster that I have ever done, X2. Check out the video:

When we got off it was clear that I had just put Simon through one of the least enjoyable experiences of his life. Oops. After a half-day there, we hit the road towards Palm Springs and what was potentially the best meal of the whole trip: for me it was Wagyu beef-burgers, outstanding milkshake, and cold beer, all served up in a beautiful and pristine 50's style diner.

Sunrise the next day, and my bag finally joined me in America. Without resorting to national stereotypes, let's just say that it is not an unusual occurrence for a bag to take slightly longer to make its way to your plane in Paris than in any other European country. My bag arrived the day after me on both the outward and return legs of the trip. Thanks, Air France!

Anyway, we headed out into the desert (I was disappointed, as I thought that Simon said we had to go to a remote area in the middle of a dessert) from Palm Springs, and what a landscape we saw. Considering we were no more than a couple of hours from LA, the emptiness, wilderness, heat, and general intensity of it all is just incredible. Roads are straight lines that disappear into the heat haze, hills are hazy things that seem to be always on the horizon, and the major towns in the area are villages: desolate, ramshackle, slightly depressing villages at that. I loved the desert. The first mullet was here, on a smelly and not-exactly-beautiful lake called the Salton Sea. I'll gloss over this so I don't reopen Simon's wounds, so I'll just say that the mullet was unable to be ticked off, and we had to move on in failure. From one of the low points of the trip we moved straight on to one of the high points: Salvation Mountain. Over a nice lunch of quesadillas in the town of Niland, I had a browse of the guidebook which pointed us to the nearby attraction. None of the people that we met in the US had ever heard of it, which shows you just how big the country is: anything like this would be well-renowned in a more reasonably-sized country.

Salvation Mountain is an incredible piece of folk art in the middle of nowhere. A man who can presumably be described as eccentric has built a mountain (that's being kind, to be honest. It's more like a hill) out of straw and paint, as a monument to God and love. Really. I don't have much time for religion, but even the most cynical can not fail to be impressed by this place. It fully succeeds in its mission of preaching love over hate, with a bright and joyous atmosphere. And for someone who loves stark, saturated and bright colours, this place was a photographer's delight. The mountain just appears out of nowhere in the middle of hot, empty desert, with the only sounds the far-off train horns that became the emblematic sound of the country for me. This guy has some real dedication to live the life out there, building up his monument with no apparent material possessions of any worth. Impressive.

We needed to head to San Diego, and rather than taking the boring, flat way along the border we decided to head through the high desert and over the hills. The Anza Borrego Desert State Park is quite simply stunning: hot, hilly and flat, empty, and beautiful. This is real Cowboys and Indians territory: sprawling desert with jagged gullies and steep mountains surrounding. The drive 2500 feet up into those surrounding mountains was memorable: white knuckle for me, with Simon seeming to love the windy roads with steep drops. Passing through high ranches and seeing what seemed to be no civilisation for a long time, we headed down towards San Diego through some really nice little towns. I later found out, to my disgust, that one place, Julian, where we had stopped for petrol (but no refreshment) is renowned for its apple pies. Bollocks.

So to San Diego. Here Simon had a friend, Miriam, whose birthday it was. This was therefore not a "touristy" visit, but one which was a highlight from the perspective of seeing the Americans in their natural habitat of a dive bar. A few drinks at her house turned into a late night out at a bar where things proceeded to get messy, with everyone drunk but some more than others. One married woman made a pass at everybody (myself and Simon included), getting more desperate and upset after each subsequent rejection. Many drinks were had, including the worst that I've ever sampled: vodka, whisky, and coke. Don't ask why I was drinking it...

All this meant that the next morning was entirely a write-off. A late lunch and quick visit to La Jolla (pronounced la hoya: I made the American laugh by referring to it as la jolla) beach was followed by an early evening dander up the highway to LA. On the way, we stopped for food at one of the famous In-n-Out burger joints that all the Californians seem very proud of. A quick review: good burger, disappointing fries, mindblowing milkshake. The brevity of the menu and the lack of freezer (everything is made fresh) were very impressive.

And so back to LA and Jenny's house at Burbank. I seem to have written much more than I expected, so this seems to be as good a point as any to pause for breath. Coming up: LA, Hollywood, and our close encounter with actor John Stamos.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Best photo ever?


Seen on buses in recent weeks. I like graffiti that tries just a little harder.

Music videos: the end

Whilst I'm sweeping out the cobwebs around here, I really should finish this off: the snappily-titled "countdown of the 100 best music videos as defined by Stylus Magazine with my comments". As an indication of how long I've let this drag on for, Stylus is no longer in existence... Just to get this done with, here are the final 14 with (generally) far less comment than before.

14 Beastie Boys - Sabotage
Great song, fun video. I know, it's Spike Jonze and the Beastie Boys in their pomp, but despite some high-octane editing it is, basically, just an 80s cop-show parody.

13 Bob Dylan - Subterranean Homesick Blues
It seems basic, but bear in mind that this is one of the early videos. Simple, effective and hugely infliuential. How many times have you seen a riff on this? I'll bet many.

12 Pulp - Bad Cover Version
It's stuff like this that makes Pulp a true great. The idea of the single is clever, and the lyrics smart: this is the actual single that was released. I'll say it again: a major British band released this as a single. The video is funny stuff. Thanks, Pulp. And check out the B-side to the single on iTunes, where Nick Cave does Disco 2000.
(Embedding disabled, click here to watch. It's worth it)

11 Fiona Apple - Criminal

What the hell? Piss off.
(Embedding disabled, click here to watch. Not worth it)

10 Dr Dre - Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang
I'm not sure why this is a classic video. I really like Dre and Snoop, and it's surely a classic piece of gangsta rap, but is it in the best 10 videos ever? I don't think so. Laid back and fun, yes; all-time great, no.

9 Daft Punk - Around the World
One of those videos which is a great fusion of sound and vision. Michel Gondry is on great form here, and everybody has seen this video or a direct descendant of it. Remember when Daft Punk were good?

8 Jay-Z - 99 Problems
I was a latecomer to the whole Jay-Z thing, but I'm making up for that with current enthusiasm. 99 problems is thought of as one of the great hip-hop songs for good reasons: it straddles genres (Rick Rubin produced it), it has a great hook, and the lyrics are incendiary. Make sure that you really listen to it: you can't easily dismiss him as a violent misogynist, with the song actually being a pretty eloquent dissertation on the life and history of Jay-Z, as well as making some important points about race relations in the US. The video is perfectly suited to the song, capturing the mood of the song and adding colour (even though it is B&W) to it. Good stuff.

7 Bjork - All is Full of Love
Stunnong, stunning stuff. Chris Cunningham is one of the kings of music videos, and Bjork is one of the queens of music. The song, from Homogenic (which is easily, in my opinion, one of the best 10 albums ever made) is beautiful, the beats sublime, and the video enhances it all wonderfully. Lovely sci-fi visuals and creepy, Bjork-esque lesbian robots. What more could you want? A worthy entry to the top 10.

6 The Replacements - Bastard of Young
This is nice. Apparently an anti-MTV statement, this is basically the anti-video. Clever, and the contrast between musical content and visual lack of excitement is good stuff.

5 Radiohead - Just
It would have been a farce if this hadn't been very, very, high up. Thankfully it is, and what a gem: a great song, with a truly intriguing video. You could call it the Citizen Kane of music videos: the Rosebud moment comes with the inevitable conversation over what it is that the guy says. I've certainly had it, and have huddled round a TV with a group of people trying to lip-read it. In the end, like Kane, it's the getting there that's the fun bit, so does it really matter? I highly doubt that the band and director actually had something specific in mind: it's surely just a great MacGuffin?

4 A-Ha - Take on Me
There's not much that I need to say about this: an 80s video that is justifiably this high in an all-time chart is obviously quite something. There is no shame in admitting love for this great song and great video.

And while I'm at it, check out the awesome Take on Me literal video. I know it's been all over the internets, but if you've not seen it you will be blown away. Satirists the world over must be kicking themselves for missing this idea.

3 Joy Division - Atmosphere
You could probably (justifiably) accuse this of being a mawkish tribute to Ian Curtis, but something about the striking song and eerie visuals pull it above that. It's never number 3, though.

2 Johnny Cash - Hurt
Again, there's not much to say about this one that hasn't already been said: a great cover version, heartfelt delivery, a video shot just weeks before his wife's death and months before his, and poignant visuals that show a man approaching death with what looks like fear. This video raises the hairs on the back of your neck, and is enough to bring tears to nearly anyone's eyes. I would probably bump this one up a place. Simply stunning.

1 UNKLE - Rabbit in Your Headlights
Surely here simply because of its last minute, which is pretty jaw-dropping. I don't think that the number one spot is justified here, but it is still an incredible video. The combination of DJ Shadow, Thom Yorke, and those visuals make it an interesting video. And then it happens... Whoah.
(Embedding disabled, but you really have to click here and watch)

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Travels: outside the continental United States

So, what have I been up to in the last few months? Good question. Some work travels, some leisure travels, a busy time at work, and laziness. I'll skip right over the last 2 as, quite frankly, nobody is interested. Travel-wise, Simon and I spent a frenetic 2 weeks in the USA last month (much more on that later in the weekend); here I'll round up the other (you might say less interesting, which is generally fair) trips in what is essentially an advert for my Flickr stream.

London is not an uncommon destination for me on my work travels, and I'm not sure that I can add anything to what has already been said, so I won't. There was also a trip to Saudi Arabia, with no photos and no interest. This leaves Stavanger, Istanbul, The Netherlands, The Lake District, and Edinburgh.

Stavanger. I've been there a few times now and whilst it's lovely, I feel that I have ssen pretty much all there is to see in the compact town centre: a pair of pretty harbours, some nice old wood-frame buildings, expensive restaurants, expensive shops, expensive bars, and rain/sleet/snow. Thanks to work travel, I can always afford food and (if I'm feeling like justifying a £7 pint to accounts) drink. I feel sorry for the suckers who end up in Norway on their own dime (or should that be daim?): the country and people are excllent, but boy is stuff expensive. I know that they have a very high standard of living there, but for most people going to Norway is what it must be like to visit the UK from a third-world country. They need their high-class Scandinavian living to make up for the opressive weather, which often makes Aberdeen look like a tropical paradise in comparison. During my June trip, however, the weather was stunning: so warm that I was on the verge of sunburn (no big thing for the pastiest white boy in the world, but in Stavanger?), so the photos of that trip allowed me to get in some of my favourite blue sky meets buildings shots.I was across again for one night a couple of weeks ago, and you'll be pleased to know service was back to normal.

Lake District. Boy, that was a lot of text to say very little about Stavanger wasn't it? I'll attempt a little bit more brevity for the rest of the post. June saw a short family break in the Lake District, which is certainly the nicest part of England in my book. It could almost be a part of Scotland in terms of landscape; being very compact it's much easier to get around and over all the mountains compared to Scotland's wide open places, which has the flipside of being an ideal place for tourists to visit. Lots and lots of tourists. This little holiday can be summed up in 2 words: hills and food. The uphill exercise had no chance of canceling out the food, of which the Lakes have some of the best examples of meat, pies, dairy and Bakery that I've ever had. That trip came to an unpleasant end with my toilet back in Aberdeen flooding the flat below, which is a whole different story that doesn't need told. Here are some pretty pictures of the Lake District, though.

Istanbul. In July I had a pretty brief trip to Istanbul to subvert a meeting of the (pretty important) the excellent Italian (in Istanbul!) meal paid for by StatilHydro, I only had time to look out of a taxi window and take a brief wander through the area around my hotel. Thankfully this included the Bosphorus, Besiktas Stadium, and some of the old town area. Some photos (taken on my back-up pocket camera, hence the relatively low quality) are here. My very brief visit indicated that Istanbul seems to be worth another look: an intriguing mix of East and West, new and old, Roman and Ottoman, fun and frustrating. And I brought back some excellent Turkish Delight.

The Netherlands. Not Holland: I can't risk setting Simon off. Anyway, a couple of days for work in The Haugue revealed it to be a thoroughly charming little city with a nice mix of traditional and modern. It would certainly be an excellent and relaxed alternative to a weekend in Amsterdam if you're not in the mood for weed, porn, and prostitutes.

Edinburgh. Finally, this post is almost over! Last week I nipped down to Edinburgh for the day (as per usual, for work). I've not been there for quite a few years (other than in the railway station or airport) so forgot how nice it is. You can see why tourists flock there. It made me feel sad, though, because of the wonderfully-preserved old streets and buildings (especially around the west end of Princes Street and the Haymarket area). I've been reading the excellent Lost Aberdeen recently, which makes the blood boil regarding the immense number of old, beautiful, and interesting buildings that my city has demolished in the name of progress. Edinburgh is a glimpse of what Aberdeen should be: a mix of winding medieval streets, closes, pends, aracdes and beautiful neo-classical architecture spearheaded by one of the great architects (Archibald Simpson).


Is over.