Tuesday, July 26, 2005

26 July 2005: Plymouth

"Characterless, tacky, depressing and disappointing" are just some of the criticisms leveled at the city.

So says a BBC news article reporting the disappointment of visitors to the historic, beautiful city of Plymouth. *cough*. Beautiful, really.

Apparently some foolish people have been trying to attract tourists on cruise liners to Plymouth, attempting to sell its natural harbour and naval history. And the tourists, perhaps understandably, have been less than impressed. "We still have an image of a quaint seafaring town with lots of history and character. What we get is none of that. Instead a moderately impressive natural harbour and not much else," says another visitor.

This is because Plymouth is a city where people live and work, a city bombed to pieces in World War II and rebuilt on a very low budget afterwards. Some of the most striking parts of the city are those that were not repaired (Charles Church, for instance), but unfortunately most of the city was. The naval heritage means not only does Plymouth boast a large nuclear naval base (oo, let's visit that, mommy) but that Union Street is famous for providing 'entertainment' for visiting sailors down the years in the form of both licensed premises and of course the world's oldest business. The dockyard is the mainstay of the town's industry and financial income, although the current 'tourist' push is attempting to add a second. Plymouth is dirty, smelly, over-stretched and has a chav scene rivaled only by Portsmouth.

But here's the thing. It's home for me. I remember the smell of fish in the early morning down at the Barbican, fresh catches from the little trawlers that used to populate what is now the Marina. I remember playing with the remote-control boats at the park up on the Hoe, how you could get five minutes for ten pence and how I never thought it was long enough. I remember lunch at Perilla's chippy (or the restaurant, if we were feeling posh or it was my birthday), Ivor Dewdney's large traditionals (which frankly have got smaller over the years, and it's not just me getting bigger), Christmas shopping followed by afternoon tea at La Croquambouche (sugar frosting on tall glasses of coca-cola, mmm!), nights out with friends that ended with a visit to Cap'n Jaspers or a stroll up to Devil's Point to watch the boats in the Sound and August's shooting stars.

It's all changing, of course. The Barbican is much improved since the development of the Marina and the Aquarium, and even Cap'n Jaspers has moved from the little caravan to a more permanent kiosk. The Drake Circus shopping centre, a shameless rip-off of West Quay except without one of its key bookends since Allders went bust, promises to offer you shopping in exactly the same stores as before, except now they're all in one place and under cover. Plymouth Argyle have three-quarters of a very good-looking all-seater stadium, and council leader Tudor Evans has promised news on 'Phase Two', the replacement for the Grandstand and Mayflower, before the start of the new season (better get your skates on Tudor, Aug 6th approaches fast). And all of it designed to take Plymouth away from its post-war look and into something more befitting the city of Francis Drake, Michael Foot and Trevor Francis.

But no matter what they do, the tourists will be disappointed. Partly because there's no beach (really, there is no beach, although you can go swimming at Tinside if you like), but mainly because Plymouth isn't - and can't be - the quaint fishing village and tall ships harbour that visitors want it to be. It's home to a quarter of a million people with strange Janner accents and that isn't going to change.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Footnote: thanks to Rob for the original link, what were 'ee doing looking at a Plymuff page, mate? You'm finkin' uv goin' down vere an' tryin' a foo pasties?

Monday, July 25, 2005

25 July 2005: Repeat

That time of year again.

I was about to post a quick note featuring the Tour De France, a short non-specific update (possibly rant) about my work and an endorsement for the new Hillsong album that I got last week. Then I looked at the equivalent post from a year ago and realised it would be almost identical, right down to the Tour winner.

Next year will be different. The research is already quite different to a year ago but it should be long-finished and well into the writing-up process by the fourth week in July 2006. The Tour will have a different winner (Basso and Ullrich have to start favourites, but I would still watch out for Valverde, Mancebo and Popovych, and who knows what Vinokourov is capable of if only they can get him to calm down for five minutes. He reminds me a little of Marco Pantani - attacking like crazy off the front one day, paying for it big time the next day - but also of a young Lance Armstrong, who pre-cancer had a habit of launching major attacks and occasionally winning stages, but never looking like a serious contender.) Hillsong will no doubt release another live album, but you need some continuity in this world. But it all got me to thinking, how different is the world today from how it was a year ago?

This Monday morning, life goes on, different headlines from a year ago, but the no new topics. It is London that walks in fear this year, Egypt is counting its dead and yet another suicide bomb in Baghdad has claimed lives this morning. Elsewhere in the world, Mike's cousin is about to be impeached for vote rigging, Helen Clark has called elections in New Zealand for September (she is the most disliked leader I've come across since Thatcher in some quarters, although those quarters are almost exclusively farmers to whom she's not been the kindest), the UN estimates Mugabe just made 700,000 people homeless in Zimbabwe (what a thoughtful leader), the Niger crisis shocks but nobody seems to be doing anything about it and India have released a man they held in prison without trial for fifty years. Wow, and we thought Guantanamo Bay was harsh. And that's all just today's news.

No doubt this time next year there will be a similar set of headlines, maybe not as dramatic, maybe more so. But we learn to get on with our lives, realising that we can't carry the burden of it all on our own individual shoulders, and that we don't have to. It's just worth occasionally reflecting, as I did this morning, on how some things never seem to change year-to-year, and some things change enormously but somehow just seem to stay the same. I guess Solomon was right all along: there truly is nothing new under the sun.

Happy thoughts for a Monday morning. Anyone want a little yellow pill?

Thursday, July 21, 2005

21 July 2005: More

Looks like more transport bombs in London.

Today was going well, too. Decent results from some experiments and half a paper written already. England holding the upper hand in the first morning of the Ashes and nice afternoon weather. And now this.

As of 1.45, nobody is quite sure what's happening. Gunshots? Undetonated explosives? A nail bomb? Someone running from the scene? There's a number 26 bus parked pretty much right outside Shoreditch Tabernacle on Hackney Road, roof intact but nobody near the scene, implying the police may still think there's an explosive on board. Two weeks on, three tubes and one bus. Hard not to think it's connected.

"No reports of casualities," say the services. We can only hope.

Added 3.15
Looks smaller and much more minor than first feared, although there are still large enough exclusion zones around the incident sites that you wonder if there's still something waiting to go off, and police do seem to be confirming that they've sealed off the hospital at UCL and are trying to hunt someone down in there.

But consider this. Between eight and fourteen people were killed by suicide bombers already in Iraq today. The Algerian ambassador was this morning kidnapped in Baghdad. John Simpson described his quarterly visits to Baghdad as getting progressively worse - in fact, a 'descent into a bombing quagmire'.

I don't know why, but I just felt it important that that information was presented too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

13 July 2005: Lance

Yesterday was a slow day. In between the news filtering in on the arrests made in Leeds and the continuing steady release of the names of the dead, there was little to grab the attention of a researcher doing the world's most boring results analysis.

The problem, simply put, is this: I've made a system that tells you that the author of paper A is (in the opinion of the system) also the author of papers B and C, but the author of paper D is different, despite having a similar name. No, I'm not going to tell you how I did it, but I am going to tell you that the most boring thing in the world is checking these results. You (or at least I) have to go through the average of 500 papers on our local Citeseer mirror, and check whether the ones the computer joined up should in fact be joined up ('precision', and it's pretty good at that), and also which ones it should have joined up and failed to do so ('recall', and it's less good at that, although still not bad). So I spent many many hours yesterday ploughing through page after page of paper details, trying to match this author to that author and discovering that one Dr Fred Harris of the University of Reno has a corpus of papers that seems almost immune to my little system and is single-handedly dragging one particular set of results into the ground.

Yes, that's right, it was that boring. So I went to OLN's website to get the Tour De France audio (as I have done for the last four years) only to find CBS (for some bizarre reason) have required them to take it down. So off to Eurosport, home of the monotone charms of David Duffield, and their audio stream, which is comfortably my second choice to the giants who are Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (sample bingo card here). Anyway, to my delight, Duffield is back in the studio in London this year and one David Harmon is sharing commentary duties with Sean "It certainly is" Kelly and Christi "I'm married to former top cyclist Phil" Anderson. Still not the depth of interest or the sheer fun that P&P bring, but the Eurosport newbies do at least talk about the racing, which is more than Duffield ever did. Yesterday it was not always easy to determine exactly what was going on, but it was clear Mr Lance was up to something, and the main rivals were struggling to survive.

So rushing home at 7pm to catch the ITV2 highlights (with Phil and Paul, of course), it quickly became clear that Team Discovery are feeling pretty good about themselves and Lance himself is quite determined to stamp his authority on the race early on. The footage of Lance telling his team-mate Popovych to step up the pace, followed by the immediate fragmentation of the lead group, was quite astounding, as was the way Lance himself kept attacking and attacking in an attempt to rid himself of his final three companions. In the end, Valverde (a Tour rookie, no less) was the only one with him at the end, and he managed to out-sprint Lance. Dramatic it certainly was.

So that was only the first day in the really high mountains, there's another today and then a couple in the Pyranees over the weekend, and if Lance can keep it together he'll win a seventh straight. But the future seems to be emerging, and who wouldn't bet against one of Valverde, Rasmussen, Mancebo and Popovych taking Lance's crown next year. Or maybe, just maybe, this year. Either way, today's climbs of the Madeleine and the Galibier should keep me interested as my trawls through the grey wastes of experiment results continue.

Now can somebody get me a coffee?

Obscure observation #73: Eating a spearmint-flavoured extra-strong mint followed by a nice cup of PG Tips makes the tea taste like malted Shreddies.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

7 July 2005: London

10.56 and it doesn't look good.

Far from being the power surge at Aldgate that they originally reported, it looks like it's a co-ordinated attack. And what a day for it too, with all the security being focused on Edinburgh.

To start with the BBC and Sky News were saying a minor explosion had been caused by a power surge on the tube network between Aldgate and Liverpool Street, and the Metropolitan Line was going to be shut for a bit. Then they said there was a second explosion at Edgeware Road, way round the other side of the West End; while they said that they showed pictures from Kings Cross with ambulances and fire engines outside. Looked like the power surge had spread down the lines somehow, although nobody could figure out how.

Then Sky News showed a still of a double-decker bus lying in pieces near Russell Square, and we knew there was much more to it than that.

Latest reports talk of at least three bus explosions, at least three tube explosions, and Sky News beginning to report fatalities. I just messaged Rob and Gareth to compare notes, and all thoughts seem to converge on one key question:

Is this our Madrid?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

5 July 2005: Live

Plodding, lacklustre, sleepy, "not exactly foot-tapping", say the critics. (Yeah, well, neither's Wagner, what are you doing to do about it?)
I'll not take any money from it, says Dave.
Roger didn't come in at the right time in Money even though he wrote the song, says Martyn.
He certainly can't sing any more, says me.

Still, it was a good thing just to see. For a line-up that had been together since 1968, it's pretty amazing that they're all still going. The Who, bless 'em, only have half their original line-up left, as do The Beatles, and for some reason Macca doesn't seem to invite Ringo to drum too much these days. The Stones are still doing pretty well, but they weren't there, were they?

I suppose the most amazing thing was that it was something I never thought I'd see. I mean, I never expected the Floyd sans Roger to every do anything together again. And while it may be exciting to dream of a reunion tour and a new album, it somehow seems even less likely now than ever. That was it. The End Of Pink Floyd. Enjoy the moment. (And the archive stream from AOL.)

The performance itself was less relevant, but it was still good, bass-playing and Roger-singing-verse-two-of-Wish-You-Were-Here apart. Floyd obsessives naturally begin to ask particular questions about the performance -- who was in charge, Roger or Dave? Was Roger's guitar actually plugged in on Wish You Were Here, given that his part was also being played by Tim Renwick in the background? Who sang the harmonies on 'Breathe' (rumour is Jon Carin was playing keyboards off-stage and singing too) and why didn't Rick get a mic? (Martyn suggests it was Roger who said 'no, Rick, no mic for you' and Rick responded with 'ok Rog, just stop hitting me please'). And the writing of 'Make Poverty History' on The Wall was a very good touch, symbolic on numerous levels, and made sure it didn't become a Floyd thing to the detriment of the overall aim of Live8 - simply by being there, playing under a 'No more excuses' banner, was enough to tell anyone who knows even the slightest thing about Floyd that it's time for G8 to step up and stop what is effectively slavery in the 21st century.

The question is, will those with the power to change things take any notice? Or have they already concluded that the world is run by corporations, not governments, and they no longer have the clout to do anything about it? Or, even more twisted and scary, the corporations actually control the governments?

George W. Bush already said this week that a growing economy is more important than a habitable planet. Those aren't the words of a human.