May, 2006

Random Thoughts

…someone got off the train today carrying a copy of The Secret History by Donna Tartt and with a pre-recorded video in her bag. I thought that maybe I’d gone through some kind of time warp…
…I got in and turned on the radio to hear the Hungarian national anthem being roundly booed by the fans at Old Trafford. These fine specimens are the real fans that the FA is trying hard to get extra tickets in Germany for. The TV sound had a different feed and you couldn’t hear the booing…

Drama on 3 This Week

So, the question is, what’s being broadcast in the Drama on 3 slot next weekend on Radio 3? After this week’s play, the announcer trailed something that made me very happy indeed – an adaptation of Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I’m a big Kurkov fan. But all the listings, including the BBC’s site suggest it’s actually Breakfast With Mugabe directed by Antony Sher.
I’m a big Kurkov fan, so I’m looking forward to Death and the Penguin, but Breakfast With Mugabe sounds like it could be really good too. Which is it to be?

Al Gore at Hay

I’ve just been watching The Guardian’s webcast of Al Gore’s speech at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival (he’s got a book coming out later this year, so there is some reason for him to speak). He’s quite a speaker isn’t he? I think sometimes we forget that politicians, whatever we may think of them, have to be charismatic characters, Americans in particular since they’ve got to raise so much money. I’ve mentioned before a documentary called Journeys with George that followed George W Bush in the run-up to his first presidential election, and spoken of how much of a nice guy he came over as.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Gore is such an excellent presenter. He has a presentation about global warming, that he has taken out on the road for the last year or two, and much of this speech no doubt comes from this. Indeed this presentation is forming the basis of a documentary feature film, An Inconvenient Truth, that screened in Cannes last week. There’s no UK date for the film yet, but I look forward to it.
The speech was excellent, and Gore speaks without notes. I certainly believe that Gore truly has a great passion for his subject, and let’s face it, it’s something that any of us who care about the future should not only care about, but worry deeply about.
I hope, and suspect, that The Guardian will have a podcast of this speech available sometime soon. Technically it worked well enough, although the volume was low, and I had to max everything out and listen through headphones to hear it properly.

Death in Iraq

Tragically, on the day that John Simpson put up a sterling defence for journalists doing real work out in Iraq, and not just being holed up in the Green Zone in Bagdhad, two British journalists working for CBS television have been killed by a roadside bomb.
Simpson was responding to complaints from Rageh Omaar, quoted in The Independent. Sadly, the original article is now behind the Indie’s paywall.

Death on Everest

This being the end of May, it also marks the end of the so-called Everest season. It’s that brief window when the weather allows climbers to attempt to ascend the world’s highest mountain. But this year an awful lot of climbers have died on the mountain.
Every year, the number of parties attempting to summit seems to increase, and it’s not surprising, since, for under $20,000 there are plenty of tour operators who will effectively drag you up the mountain to a lesser or greater extent.
OK, so climbing Everest isn’t quite the achievement it once was, with Sherpas roping up just about the entire mountain in the early part of the season to ease the paying clients over the coming weeks. But you do hear stories that make the crowds on Everest in that brief opening weather window sound like the slopes of Snowdon or Ben Nevis on a sunny August day.
I’m not a climber – just an occassional walker – and I’ve certainly never been to the Himalayas or anywhere close to the “death zone” at 8,000m. I have read plenty about the issues, however, including books by Joe Simpson.
So it’s really scary to hear some of the reports you still get from Everest where a different kind of morality seems to exist. Read this piece on the recent death of a British climber, David Sharp, for example. 40 climbers went past the man as he died. Now I don’t suppose that there was a great deal that they could have done for him except perhaps trying to get him back down. But that would have jeapordised their own chances of summiting. (Another report of the story from the Telegraph).
What would I do if I was out for a nice walk in the hills without a mobile and found a man bleeding to death? I have no real first aid training, so I’d patch him up as best I could and then head back to civilisation as fast as possible to get help. Not really the same, although I probably hadn’t spent $20,000 to get to the top of the hill I was walking on that day, so my giving up the trip wouldn’t worry me.
Another story that has just come to light is about the man who was left for dead, but then found to be alive the next morning. A rescue mission was put in place and, at time of writing, a full recovery seems likely.
Over the last couple of years there have been a couple of expeditions to collect the belongings and indeed, the remains of George Mallory, the pioneering British moutaineer who died in 1924 attempting to scale Everest. The fact that they were able to find his body, still preserved on the mountain tells us something about another dirty secret of Everest. Many of those who die on the mountain are just left there, and will remain there year after year. They may, in time, be covered by rocks. But the snow melts and in any case, in some of the more extreme sections of the hill, it simply gets blown off. There are no vultures at those altitudes to give the body a Tibetan “sky funeral“. You have to walk past the bodies of those who’ve gone before you.
All in all, I find it to be a very sorry indictment of our society that this behaviour can still take place. Indeed it’s questionable morally that we should even be in the country “holidaying” while a civil war is essentially underway.

Yes Man

Now a general rule of thumb I’ll always make when deciding if I’m going to read a book is this: if Davina McCall gives the book a ringing endorsement, then it’s probably not for me. (As an aside, I learn with shock that some publishers are actually embossing the Richard & Judy Bookclub logo on their books rather than the more traditional, and eminently removable, sticker. To those unfortunate enough to have such a title in their possession, I can only recommend placing a “3 for 2” sticker over the top).
But I made an exception for Yes Man, because I’d quite liked Danny Wallace’s previous book, Join Me. This time around Wallace decides to say Yes a bit more, with over the top consequences. We get a year in his life and there are some real ramifications of doing it. Obviously, we get the humourous take on things, and you’re always slightly suspicious that as the costs are stacking up, they’re going to mitigated somewhat by the book deal. I’m being unfair though. Of course you want him to travel around and do off the cuff things. I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the cod religious stuff (Did he really meet a reincarnation of Jesus on the back of a bus? Or was he actually just a teacher with a positive frame of mind).
However, I can happily recommend this book which has some laugh out loud moments that certainly made some of my fellow tube passengers think I was mad.


I went to see a recording for the new series of Genius this week. It was at the Cochrane Theatre and it was raining outside. Very soon, it was raining inside too. I’m reliably informed that producing such an effect on demand would have been very expensive. The Cochrane Theatre’s roof made it very cheap doing it for real.
Dave Gorman notes the recording here.
After the performance some people went up to the bar to say hi to Dave and his guest Chris Addison. One girl had her photo taken with Dave and Chris. She then mentioned that these would be going straight to positions one and two in her photos league table. What? Who else did she have photos of? Well Sir Trevor (“Trev”) had been bumped to number three. And Ant and Dec had been pushed down to four. She’d met them at some party she’d gatecrashed and they weren’t too happy with having a photo taken. I was unable to establish if Ant and Dec had been standing the right way around.

The Front Page

The British Library has a new exhibition at the moment called The Front Page. It’s a retrospective of around 100 front pages from British (well, I reckon English actually, since I didn’t see any papers from outside of London, with the possible exception of the Manchester Guardian) newspapers from the last 100 years.
It’s fascinating visit with all the outbreaks and endings of wars, deaths of famous people, major events and disasters that you’d expect.
Each is accompanied by a brief piece of explanatory text. It was marvellous to read about The Daily Sketch offering free Zeppelin insurance to readers in case they were bombed by one during WWI. The masthead proclaimed that they’d paid out 82 times so far. There were the moon landings and the sporting triumphs. It was good to see front pages that I remember being published and actually buying – Jonathan Aitkin and “He Lied and Lied and Lied” in The Guardian, or The Independent’s cover explaining “How the Universe Began” amongst others.
The exhibition is very much one of front covers, although they do make an exception for a Cassandra column which was dressed up as a “Wanted” poster for Hitler. That was a page 10.
Actually, I’d loved to have learnt more about some of the history of these papers. Newspaper stunts are obviously nothing new with the Daily Mail in particular keen to get its reporters in places like the south pole, or be first sending transatlantic images. And I know that while today’s DVD circulation battles seem crippling, they’re nothing new… well obviously DVDs are, but you know what I mean. In the past insurance was a big promotional gimick, as were sets of encyclopedias. Perhaps I need to read the exhibition’s accompanying book?
There are also a bank of Macs at the exhibition which put you in charge with making up a front page of your own. You’re taken through a day in the life, and have to decide what story to lead on, and how your front page should be built. It’s all done with the click of a mouse. Then, at the end, you get to go and get a printout of your very own front page.
Here’s mine:
guardian front page.jpg

VOIP Phone

I’ve played around quite a bit with VOIP but thus far, I’ve not really embraced it. A while back I mentioned that I’d seen Tesco selling cheapish phones accompanying their own VOIP service. Today I crossed over to the darkside and went into Tesco where I noticed a sign that suggested that the phones had been reduced to £14.97. Never one to turn down a bargain, I popped one in the basket (also managed to get a football shaped mug with some PG Tips and a “limited edition” World Cup Coke glass). But when the total was rung up, I noticed that it was priced up at £19.97. Once I’d paid, I had a close look at the receipt; Tesco, like other retailers has this annoying habit of announcing, with a fanfare, all the savings you’ve made at the end of your transaction, rather than as the items are scanned. So it was possible that the fiver would be at the bottom in terms of a “saving”.
It wasn’t, so I did that terribly un-British thing, and questioned it. Assistants went to check, since the display was in line of sight of the till. It seemed that the offer should have expired on May 14, but someone had neglected to remove the sticker. Fine, I’ll get my fiver back.
Off to customer service, where the problem was explained. But instead of just crediting me with the fiver, they gave me all my cash back. Cool. Free VOIP phone then.
Of course, even with a fiver’s worth of credit, I really wanted the phone for either Skype or GoogleTalk. James was able to point me in the direction of the drivers, and all seems to work fine. And I can feel somewhat better, safe in the knowledge that I’ve cost Tesco a few quid today instead of vice-versa.
Now I just need to try GTalk2VoIP.