AACS cracked already?

And I quote:

A hacker known as Muslix64 posted on the Internet details of how he unlocked the encryption, known as the Advanced Access Content System, which prevents high-definition discs from illegal copying by restricting which devices can play them.

Muslix64 posted a video and decryption codes showing how to copy several films, including Warner Bros' "Full Metal Jacket" and Universal Studios' "Van Helsing," on a popular hacker Internet blog and a video-sharing site.

The hacker also promised to post more source code on January 2 that will allow users to copy a wider range of titles.


Media, tech firms probe possible high-def DVD hack - Yahoo! News

[Reuters via Cinematech]


BBC moves to file-sharing

World's most venerable broadcaster goes bittorrent. Well, sort of...It's going to use Azureas' new Zudeo software, which seems to be some sort of unholy cross between YouTube and Azureas itself - client software which distributes via P2P networks. This way, the Beeb can keep on top of DRM issues and distribute via the web in HD (presumably turning a blind eye to the rest of the world watching Doctor Who on its laptop).

BBC NEWS | Technology | BBC moves to file-sharing sites


Battlestar Galacticsimpsons

Yes, it's the whole BSG cast reimagined as Simpsons characters. A work of genius and then some.
pantsketch: Battlestar Galacticsimpsons


Worldwide spatial distribution

Teetering on the edge of a 40th birthday as I currently am, now seems like a very good time to see how well travelled I've managed to be in the past couple of decades.

I don't know whether to be depressed because I've been so poorly spatially distributed or happy because there's so much still to see...

Of course, such meanderings are a luxury really, and a good illustration of the functioning of time-space compression over the past few decades. Maybe though I should just restrict myself to visiting big countries in future to fill that map in faster...

Make your own map here.

Firefox ascendant in Europe

One via Boing Boing: Firefox ascendant in Europe

Isn't it just?


Water on Mars?

Having been slightly obsessed by Mars ever since I read Kim Stanley Robinson's sublime Mars trilogy, this counts as big news. If it's water that cuts those gullies, then life is a possibility too. Liquid CO2 is a very good candidate for causing the erosion however, especially given the pressures and temperatures on the Martian surface.

Time for another robot!

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Water flowed 'recently' on Mars


For the future of TV, press the red button now

Or not, as the case may be. A BBC News report on why four buzzword-friendly TV technologies - IPTV, HD, mobile and open internet TV - will not work just yet.

BBC NEWS | Technology | Future of TV: Still on standby?

And Michael Grade resigned today to join ITV. Conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day. Just what is the BBC trying to tell us in secret messages? Is Torchwood genuinely a bit rubbish, or the BBC's way of saying Up the license fee now, Tony-boy? Was Richard Hammond's 300mph crash an extended metaphor for the investment required to launch BBCs 3 & 4? Anything is possible, fact fans...

Fluff shuffles off the mortal coil

Not 'arf.

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | DJ 'Fluff' Freeman dies aged 79


Listen and buy

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Radio to offer MP3s as you listen

Not a bad idea this, if a tad on the expensive side compared to iTunes at the moment.

Music fans will soon be able to purchase songs as they listen to them on their digital radio or mobile phone.

The service, called Digital Music Downloading, allows listeners to buy any song they hear, with MP3 copies being sent to their phone and computer.

Now, if they can extend it to background music used on TV programmes...


(You must be out of your) Brilliant Minds

Special Report on Brilliant Minds Forecast the Next 50 Years - New Scientist

As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, New Scientist has a load of scientists predicting what will come in the *next* 50 years. Alien life, gravitational waves, unifying theories, extended life spans, a scientific understanding of conciousness...and still no bloody rocket pants!


Now, *that's* a hard sell

I might be going crazy here, but idly watching The Daily Show on CNN just now I swear I saw a minute-long commercial from the Azerbijani Tourist Board. That's what I call a challenge.

Anyway, back from South Africa. Full report here.


Rocket Pants

Those who know me know that I have a couple of soapboxes that I'm wont to climb on after a beer or two: one of them being how my generation has been let down by technology. We were promised holidays on the moon. We were promised food pills. Damn it, we were promised rocket pants. All have failed to materialise in our lifetimes so far leaving - well, me I guess - technologically disillusioned.

The men who want to fly. By Larry Smith - Slate Magazine is thus a brilliant read, largely because it contains the salient fact that: To date, only 11 men in history have free-flown a rocketbelt. More men have walked on the moon.

And with that knowledge, my pain diminishes somewhat. Still miffed about those moon holidays though...


Oooohhh - look what's just gone live

BBC - Torchwood - The Official Site

And I'm in South Africa when it starts, damn it.

The Scarefactory

The Scarefactory - Haunted Attraction Props and Accessories - Skelerectors, Monsters, Demons

A nondescript TV sits on top of a small dresser. When activated glazed plexiglass screen drops with a crash and out Ring Girl flies up, out and down out of the front of the TV.

And it's yours for only $2895.

Ever wondered where people go to get their animatronic props for haunted houses? Looks like they go here.


Steampunk laptop

If anybody ever starts making something like this, consider me first in the queue (though whether I could afford the porter you'd also need to carry it round is another matter entirely).

[Via Boing Boing]


Make Love Not Warcraft

Boing Boing: South Park: Make Love Not Warcraft

The one in which everyone becomes WoW zombies...

Cartman: You can just hang around outside all day tossing a ball around, or you can sit at your computer and do something that matters.

Just screened in the US, therefore downloadable somewhere.

[Via Boing Boing]


Red break-in

Looks like those doyens of the digital camera hype, Red, have suffered a break in at their premises. Here's what the OC Register says about it:

"A prototype for a digital cinema camera that creators say will revolutionize the cinematography industry was stolen late last month from the Lake Forest office where it was being tested, authorities said Tuesday.

Red Digital Camera Co., the brainchild of Oakley sunglass creator Jim Jannard, is in the process of perfecting RED ONE, a high-performance 4K digital camera that promises to deliver the quality of 35mm film with the ease of a camcorder at a bargain price.

'Losses could venture into the millions' if the technology is compromised, said Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Article - News - Company's cinema camera prototype stolen

Burglary or espionage? CinemaTech, where I got the story from, favours the former, while noting the publicity benefits of the latter. Reminds me of the time a facility I was visiting in London had been turned over the night before. Result, one stolen Mac. Lucikly, an entire case of Zeiss HD lenses were still lying there beside the hole where the G4 used to be. Cue one very relieved facility owner. There was a Quantel iQ there too, but at the time I guess the Mac had a better resale value. Arf!


Need a Wii...

Tech Digest has this running on its site: Ten YouTube videos that'll make you want a Nintendo Wii.

Didn't need ten. The first, five minute long trailer was enough...


Crawling cross the face of the sun

Via inky circus, the Space Shuttle and the ISS caught against the sun. O humanity is but a speck of dust etc.


Protest to (not) survive

A classic of the genre from Boing Boing - a zombie rights march in Austin, Texas, that suffered an attempted boarding from a counter-march of pirates.

The zombies' signs in the march included badly spelled slogans such as "Mairage = 1 Zombie + 1 Zombie", "More Binifits for Zombie Vets in Our Necronomoconomy", "Brains...The Other White Meat", "We're here, we're dead, get used to it!" and "Zombies Was People Too." The zombies, shouting "What do we want? Brains! When do we want them? Brains!" was unhindered by a group of pirates protesting the undead's demands for their rights.


in-flight (un)safety

A nice one from the Economist - an honest flight safety announcement. It'll never catch on:

"Please switch off all mobile phones, since they can interfere with the aircraft's navigation systems. At least, that's what you've always been told. The real reason to switch them off is because they interfere with mobile networks on the ground, but somehow that doesn't sound quite so good. On most flights a few mobile phones are left on by mistake, so if they were really dangerous we would not allow them on board at all, if you think about it. We will have to come clean about this next year, when we introduce in-flight calling across the Veritas fleet. At that point the prospect of taking a cut of the sky-high calling charges will miraculously cause our safety concerns about mobile phones to evaporate."


[via them lovely people at inky circus]


Enigma crack

Ever since reading Stephenson's magnificent Cryptonomicon, Bletchley - a god-forsaken part of Milton Keynes nowadays - and the work they did there on cracking the Enigma code has always exerted a pull. Now they've on the verge of recreating the Turing Bombe - the machine that Churchill ordered smashed at the end of the war.

BBC NEWS | UK | WWII Nazi code-break re-enacted

Feel a field trip coming on...

There goes Xmas

BBC NEWS | Technology | PlayStation 3 Euro launch delayed



Watchmen remix

Alan Moore's seminal Watchmen remixed as if it had been written by that master of the hyperbolean comic form, Stan Lee. Genius. BeaucoupKevin // BlogMachineGo: This Week's Project.

[via BoingBoing]


Uber Lego

The chaps and chapesses over at arstechnica have been looking at the new Lego and pronounced it good. Lego Mindstorms NXT review

And I quote: "The NXT brick can communicate with three other Bluetooth devices at any one time. This means that if you had four Mindstorms kits, you could create a mega-robot with four brains, twelve motors, and sixteen sensors—all of it coordinated through Bluetooth. The setup also works with cell phone and PDA Bluetooth systems, meaning that you can use your phone as a remote control or an output device."

Now that rocks. Beats my boyhood Capsela set into a cocked hat.

Story synchronicity

So, no sooner do you hear that: Airfix crashes and burns | The Register

But you also get to hear that Peter Jackson's to remake The Dam Busters.

As The Register adroitly puts it: "When Jackson first enquired about the film rights back in the 1990s, he was told that Mel Gibson had a plan to direct and possibly act in his own remake. Mercifully for cinemagoers, that never happened. The result would most certainly have been a U-571-style adaptation showing the Americans breaching the Möhne and Eder dams, in the process drowning an English army led by a sneering Alan Rickman on its way to massacre Scottish Highlanders."


Stars = profit?

Interesting New York Times piece analysing the relationship between big movie stars and whether their films are succesful or not.A Big Star May Not a Profitable Movie Make - New York Times

'Course, it starts with the schadenfreude-friendly news that Tom Cruise got dropped by Paramount pictures recently, but rather than simply putting the boot into the munchkin scientologist for the next 2000 words, it goes off and digs up some economics. Educational, but a pity really...;-)

Anyway, a quote:

"In one study, Mr. De Vany and W. David Walls, an economist at the University of Calgary, took those factors into account. Looking across a sample of more than 2,000 movies exhibited between 1985 and 1996, they found that only seven actors and actresses — Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jodie Foster, Jim Carrey, Barbra Streisand and Robin Williams — had a positive impact on the box office, mostly in the first few weeks of a film’s release.

In the same study, two directors, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone also pushed up a movie’s revenue. But Winona Ryder, Sharon Stone and Val Kilmer were associated with a smaller box-office revenue. No other star had any statistically significant impact at all. So what are stars for? By helping a movie open — attracting lots of people in to see a movie in the first few days before the buzz about whether it’s good or bad is widely known — stars can set a floor for revenues, said Mr. De Vany."

[via boing boing]


Muse time

It's been a bit of a YouTube sort of day. And in honour of this weekend's Reading Festival, here's Muse's unhinged Knights of Cydonia with an equally unhinged video. Cowboys, robots, phasers, women on unicorns...what more could anybody want?

Ulysses 31 title sequence

Sometimes, just sometimes, nostalgia is all that it's cracked up to be.


Ecopod: Residential Recycling Trash Masher

One from Treehugger.
Treehugger: Ecopod: Residential Recycling Trash Masher

Quoth the site: "Designed by BMW Designworks USA, "The appliance houses a compactor, and provides an efficient way to crush, store and redeem recyclable beverage containers, specifically plastic bottles and aluminium cans. Consumers throw their bottle or can in the appropriate slot, step on a foot pedal, and enjoy the satisfying sound of compaction. The compacted container falls into an internal bin, which can be removed for redemption or curbside disposal. Each pod has storage capacity for approximately 50 crushed containers, while an upper compartment has additional room for glass bottles, newspapers and other recyclable materials. Everything neatly stored away and ready to moved to the next step in the recycling chain."

They also point out that it might go under a different name, ecopods being slang for biodegradeable coffins in the environmental community

Rock on, dudes

Guitar Shred Show - Mr.Fastfinger

Quasi mystical gibberish, excellent flash animation, and the opportunity to play stunt guitar via the keyboard. Oh yes, time-wasting at work was never this much fun when I were a lad.


Dolphins 'a bit thick'

Few things in life are as joyous as scientific research that goes against the norm, and this does that in spades by saying the dolphins have only got extra large brains for warmth Ignorance is bliss for dolphins | The Register.

Further, it concludes that the reason they're so happy all the time is because they're manufacturing industrial quantities of seratonin and are permanently blissed out.

Natch, this has upset a few people, but the researcher, Paul Manger, is sticking to his guns. "He argues that if dolphins were really that bright, they would jump over tuna nets instead of getting caught in them," quoth El Reg.


Shaking the Long Tail

A long but good 'un from Game Tycoon: Debating the Long Tail

The Long Tail is the latest marketing wheeze, which states roughly that with the internet, the sheer volume of possible customers means that the money is in the obscure items. Too many people are chasing the big bang big bucks...the real money is in selling Peruvian Progressive Rock or somesuch.

It's all generating enough heat that you can safely assume that the real real money is in consulting to companies on exactly this sort of subject, but it's interesting nevertheless.

Aliens prefer Firefox

If you're smart enough to navigate yourself through the vastnesses of interstellar space, then you're obviously smart enought to chose a decent browser too.


Now that's what I call progress!

"There are now more overweight people across the world than hungry ones, according to experts."

Read the joyful news here.


Hype, hype, baby

Always interesting, Gartner has released its 2006 Most Hyped list, with Web 2.0 at the top of a lot of entries. More on El Reg here.

Also rather likte the company's entertainingly over the top hype cycle, which goes as follows:

1. Technology Trigger: The first phase of a Hype Cycle is the "technology trigger" or breakthrough, product launch or other event that generates significant press and interest.

2. Peak of Inflated Expectations: In the next phase, a frenzy of publicity typically generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. There may be some successful applications of a technology, but there are typically more failures.

3. Trough of Disillusionment: Technologies enter the "trough of disillusionment" because they fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable. Consequently, the press usually abandons the topic and the technology.

4. Slope of Enlightenment: Although the press may have stopped covering the technology, some businesses continue through the "slope of enlightenment" and experiment to understand the benefits and practical application of the technology.

5. Plateau of Productivity: A technology reaches the "plateau of productivity" as the benefits of it become widely demonstrated and accepted. The technology becomes increasingly stable and evolves in second and third generations. The final height of the plateau varies according to whether the technology is broadly applicable or benefits only a niche market.


Torchwood delay?

Interesting rumours regarding new Who spin-off Torchwood and a possible delay due to HD cameras failing to work properly in low lighting conditions.

More here.


Internet timeline

A brief BBC timeline of the web:
BBC NEWS | Technology | Fifteen years of the web

Not bad, but it doesn't convey that awesome excitement from 13 years ago or whenever when you realised your computer was actually connected to one in Japan, then Finland, then the US. Or your first experience of broadband. Or the first time you used Messenger and talked in realtime with someone on the other side of the planet. Or that time you realised that pretty much the sum total of humanity's written and codified existence was available from a keyboard in the room next door.


Ten gadgets to get you sacked

I seem to recall attitude serving me as well as any gadget in the bad old days before freelancing. Ten gadgets to get you sacked | Reg Hardware

Nice to see even El reg has to do silly season stories. Like the Cyberman helmet though...


D-Cinema actually here this time?

Cinema Tech quotes from a Christie press release that the company is Gearing Up to Crank Out 400 Digital Cinema Projectors Per Month. Which is a) a lot considering that a couple of years ago there weren't that many digitally equipped cinemas in the world, b) represents a 400% increase in production in a year, and c) means the company can now double its installed base of units in two and a half months.

Ladies and gentlemen, the blue touchpaper is lit.


Map of quietitude

Artist Simon Elvins has produced this, a map of the quiet spots of London. Darker colours = quieter areas and, no surprise really, tend to occur right in the middle of the capital's big parks. Not a technique that works quite as well, or indeed as interestingly, in rural areas...


Formative Experiences

Totally, but totally, gratuitous. I'll find something intellectual to blog about to make up for it later, or insert some knowing commentary on geek iconography and the scarcity of feminine role models. Ahem.

Wired News: The Cult of Leia's Metal Bikini

Did I mention the photo of Sabrina the Teenage Witch at a fancy dress party wearing the outfit? Thought not...


Doonesbury vs The Creationists

Excellent Donnesbury strip that poses the question every doctor should ask of a Creationist: do you want the old style antibiotics, or do you want the new ones that can deal with all those pesky 'evolved' virii.

Doonesbury@Slate - Daily Dose

Via the ever-marvellous Boing Boing.


Now *that's* what I call a tattoo

Must have smarted a bit having all that done though. Ouch.


Up, up and away

Much though the Space Shuttle is a ridiculous throwback to the 1970s, much though NASA is a tarnished, bloated, stumbling beast of an organisation, much though the US space program has been in hock to the military ever since it first started, much though they should throw the whole thing away and start again from scratch...Much though all that I still can't help getting caught up in the drama of a Shuttle launch.

STS-121 coverage
here. As Rush warbled, 'Lit up with anticipation, we arrive at the launching site...'

Roll on July 1st.


Toshiba massively subsidising HD DVD

According to this Reg Hardware story, industry snoops iSuppli took apart a Toshiba HD DVD player and put it back together again, estimating how much all the little bits and widgets costed along the way. The result? $674. The cost of the player? $499.

As El Reg says; "that's before the cost of assembly, packaging, peripherals, distribution, advertising, software development and so on. Oh, and that $499 is the retail price - Toshiba will be charging resellers even less for the player."

iSuppli says that this level of subsidy is 'unusual'. Hmmm...long as I get a PS3 this Xmas free with a packet of cornflakes, I don't think I really care.

Radio Times | Big Brother Blog

Okay, so if you're lucky you haven't been infected with the madness that is Big Brother 7, which stalks the TV channels waiting to scoop up all those dazed unfortunates for whom Wall to Wall Football (tm) doesn't really do anything.

However, help is at hand with the wonderfully written, remarkably waspish Radio Times | Big Brother Blog. Read this and you'll never need to actually watch the godawful bloody programme again, as its author, Grace Dent, has got the whole thing absoloutely nailed.

"It's like The Late Review live from Rampton Secure Unit," she writes at one point. Couldn't have put it better myself.


Wired News: Fan Films Reclaim the Whedonverse

Wired News: Fan Films Reclaim the Whedonverse

Neat. I mean Whedon's not doing anything with it at the moment, is he? Article contains links to such gems as Fluffy: The English Vampire Slayer and a parody of Firefly called Mosquito.

Also a Canadian production set in the Firefly universe called Into the Black which is teetering on the verge of having its first hour in the can. Can't stop the signal...


PS3 to cost £425 in the UK

Surrender to Sony now! (via El Reg). And there'll still be a bloody shortage.

BBC HD London trials hacked


Does exactly what it says on the tin.


London poverty map

Via the ever-wonderful Boing Boing comes this, an 1898 poverty map from the Charles Booth Online Archive.

'Tis interesting not only for the spatial distribution of poverty - you can see where cabbies got their prejudice of going south of the river - but also for the key. One of the colour codes simply says: Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal. Expect a reprint in the Evening Standard soon...


Shiny - it's a paper Serenity

It is too: Serenity in all her lovingly recreated paper detail. The man behind this is obviously a genius.

English instructions for those that don't want a social life for the next three months here


What Al did next

One from Wired. As they bill it, He invented the Internet (sort of). He became President (almost). Now Al Gore has found his true calling: using the power of technology to save the world.

But, while Wired 14.05: The Ressurection of Al Gore is an interesting read in itself, elsewhere in the same issue you can see the shape that US environmentalism is now taking. The Next Green Revolution is subtitled How technology is leading environmentalism out of the anti-business, anti-consumer wilderness.. This is probably fair enough, once tech gets to a certain level it makes sense to engage with it rather that slavishly adopt the policy of protest at all levels.

What worries me is the whiff of the dead hand of neo-conservatism about all this. There's also a table in the same issue which looks at the Pros and Cons of what it refers to as the 'old guard' environmentalists. Under cons for Friends of the Earth is listed: "Suspicious of nuclear power, carbon-trading markets, and free trade."

Free market environmentalism is an oxymoron and then some. Looks like the US might be going its own way again.


Destabilising the moral fabric of society

Well, we all have a go at it at some point.

Latest target in the US Senate seems to be videogames, which no doubt will drag the children of the US down into the moral mire of degeneracy from whence they shall not escape. So Wired has put together this handy little list or morally destablising pasttimes through the ages it refers to as The Culture War.

Thus we have movies demonised:

"This new form of entertainment has gone far to blast maidenhood ... Depraved adults with candies and pennies beguile children with the inevitable result. The Society has prosecuted many for leading girls astray through these picture shows, but GOD alone knows how many are leading dissolute lives begun at the 'moving pictures.'"
- The Annual Report of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 1909

And (my favourite), that evil canker eating at the heart of society, the waltz.

"The indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced ... at the English Court on Friday last ... It is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous inter­twining of the limbs, and close com­pressure of the bodies ... to see that it is far indeed removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was con­fined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is ... forced on the respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion."
- The Times of London, 1816


On public service gaming

A fairly long but thoughtful essay posted on the ever-wonderful Wonderland on the subject of public service gaming. Okay, so there's always a US angle to this where PBS is seen as a fairly minority concept rather than being the backbone of our national broadcast service as it is over here that has to be taken into account, and as the games industry is primarily US led, that leaches through. Good stuff though. A samplette:

Public Service Media probably suffers too much from being tagged as 'worthy' for it ever to have a public persona. Public service media should be like cod liver oil pills: life-enhancing and good for you, as long as you can't taste it. A public service game can range from a quality web-based bit of fun to a multi-million-pound commercial co-production for the expensive stuff (much like Rome, a BBC & HBO co-pro TV show), but must have a primary focus on quality and integrity, not just a fast buck.


Meanwhile in Kathmandu...

Nepalese photo blog www.PHALANO.com is blogging pictures of the ongoing situation in Kathmandu, which I post myself a) in the interestes of spreading what they're doing and b) in the increasingly forlorn hope that I'll get out there any time soon.


Sony Ericsson hitches to bandwagon shock

Sony Ericsson! Sees market for! TV on phones soon! - Yahoo! News

But they're not quite as optimistic as everyone else who'll be tub0thumping at NAB this week, saying '07 or '08 are theyears when it will break through. Also, this interesting little snippetette:

The head of wireless equipment giant Ericsson said earlier this week that operators were also taking a look at MBMS as being more user-friendly and allowing more on-demand services. The group has done a trial of MBMS in Stockholm.

MediaGuardian: Sales surge for Brit TV

MediaGuardian.co.uk | Broadcast | Sales surge for Brit TV

The revenue generated by the export of British television programmes including Jamie's School Dinners and Midsomer Murders leapt by 21% in 2005 to £632m.

UK television export figures, which cover sales of programmes, formats and related DVD, video and merchandising, show a marked increase on the 2004 figure of £524m with particular growth last year in revenues from Germany, Spain and the US.


Developing - the future

Good one from The Escapist on the problems of modern day game developing written by Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association.

How, he asks, can the industry develop to maturity when the average developer's career span is around five years? Interesting point...


Darwin strikes back

Looks like the Royal Society is getting feisty on the creationism 'debate'. Go get 'em, boys.

Next live Webcast: Why creationism is wrong and evolution is right

Webcast commences: 1730GMT / 1830BST Tuesday 11th April

Intro:Many biologists are worried by a recent and unexpected return of an argument based on belief by the certainty, untestable and unsupported by evidence, that life did not evolve but appeared by supernatural means. Worldwide, more people believe in creationism than in evolution.

Why do no biologists agree? Steve Jones will talk about what evolution is, about new evidence that men and chimps are close relatives and about how we are, nevertheless, unique and why creationism does more harm to religion than it does to science.

Got the story off El Reg, whose Google ads service unfortunately automatically slathered the page with ads about how Intelligent Design is the one truth etc. Actually, last time I mentioned Darwin on this site I started getting email from Godbotherers telling me I should open my eyes and look at the evidence for ID (well, one email anyway) so they're quite fearsomely organised. And aren't those opposable thumbs handy for using a keyboard...



Following the isochronic tube map I blogged about in January (isochronic maps basically have temporal contour lines, so that points further away in travel time are depicted as being further away on the map) here's a neat dynamically-generated map of San Francisco via boingboing.

Cabspotting is a San Francisco Exploratorium (rapidly becoming Holiday Obsession Number Two) project. As they put it in in their description:

Cabspotting traces San Francisco's taxi cabs as they travel throughout the Bay Area. The patterns traced by each cab create a living and always-changing map of city life. This map hints at economic, social, and cultural trends that are otherwise invisible. The Exploratorium has invited artists and researchers to use this information to reveal these "Invisible Dynamics."


Life Stops May 2

Why? You ask, gentle reader. Because at 22.00 on that day the Programming Witches at Channel 4 have decreed that Series 2 of Lost will start.

All this and Doctor Who too.

Oh, and speaking to someone yesterday who's read the first few scripts of Who spin-off Torchwood, he said (and I quote) "This is the sci-fi TV show that British television deserves."


Microsoft buys Lionhead

BBC NEWS | Technology | Microsoft snaps up UK games guru

So, Molyneux's gone to the dark side then. The BBC piece mentions the fact that he recently had to lay off a fifth of his staff, about 50 people. Last time I was up there, there was a team of about 15 working on the first Black & White. Guess that shows just what Brobdingagian efforts modern games are becoming.


A Class Act

Arthur C Clarke photographed recently for something or other. What it is isn't important. What is important is how completely class that t-shirt he's wearing is. a ) Respect! and b) even though I'm not entitled to wear it, I think I want one


April Fool archive

While still trying to get over the April Fool that was Bath managing to beat Leicester Tigers (a heroic result and then some), I came across this gem on Inky Circus.

Seems that the venerable Slashdot decided to redesign for a day to appeal to more female readers. Thus it's usual tagline, 'News for nerds. Stuff that Matters', got changed to 'OMG!!!! Ponies!!!!'. Nicely done.

As the girls say: For a bunch of men whose closest contact with women comes via their Avatars, this was kind of funny. In a tragically obvious way.


Wired 14.04: Geekonomics

Interesting if a little short piece from Wired on the value of scarcity in online world economies. Wired 14.04: Geekonomics

Now, of course no-one's been able to trust a word any American has written on economic matters since Milton bloody Friedman was a teenager, and as usual it comes with a certain amount of neo-liberal baggage. But it makes a good point about scarcity having to be made explicit in the game world, and there are some interesting egs.

In the early days of Ultima Online, storage space was unlimited. Eventually, a guy decided to hoard 10,000 shirts, utterly borking the market for cloth.

Only thing that worries me a tad: the US already seems to have modeled its foreign policy on Desert Strike, it's not going to start running its economy on Everquest lines is it?


Wideload coming through

Game Tycoon's got details about a GDC session on the Wideload Production Model (known to the rest of us as Distributed Outsourcing). Wideload developed the recent Stubbs The Zombie using a very small core team and a whole load of third party suppliers.

Now, seeing as this is exactly what Sony et al are saying the new games creation model will be, Wideload's experiences are salient ones. To whit:

* Stubbs was based on a proprietary (and undocumented) engine, which made life much more difficult than it needed to be for contractors. Next time: go with a popular engine.
* Wideload didn'’t create a variety of reference assets before selecting contractors, which meant that contractors werenÂ’t sure what was expected of them. Unsurprisingly, some contractors proved unprepared to meet Wideload'’s standards.
* Wideload did not attempt to ascertain whether contractors were well-managed and well-funded enough to remain solvent throughout the life of the project. Duh!
* Contractors were expected to crunch when under pressure, the way full-time employees do. No such luck.
* Assets required substantially more post-production polish than normal.

And a bunch of other stuff. So, a) not the panacea for all known problems and b) that delay on the Ps3 is looking handier by the minute.


Rollerskating coppers defeated by turf | The Register

As El Reg says, think Daleks and stairs...

A top-notch UK crimebusting initiative - which saw London's Royal Parks Constabulary issued with in-line rollerskates - has ground to a halt after crims realised they could escape simply by scarpering across grass, the Telegraph reports.

My God, it's full of stars

Or it would be if there wasn't that dirty great one in the centre of the sky. No total eclipse up at these latitudes this time round, but we should get some fairly noticeable occlusion pretty much from sunrise on if the cloud cover burns off (well, according to Starry Night Backyard anyway).

eBay goes enigmatic

Whoa. Looks like someone is selling a genuine Enigma machine on eBay. Seriously impressive. And at €9,998 with over five days to go, seriously pricey too.

Still, unlike a house you could actually carry it around to show people, so it has its benefits...


An early easter story

I'd sack a PR company that released a story so perfectly designed to get up the Daily Mail's nose at easter four weeks early myself, but there you go.

Via boingboing we have the slightly headline grabbing Misbehaving players to be crucified in MMORPG. Now, release this in the run up to easter and you get 'Sicko game company crucifies kids' and all manner of sales-friendly headlines in large point in the ever-obliging tabloids. Do it now and you get people like me saying things like 'Hmmm...one really does wonder how this sort of thing bodes for the future development of MMORPGs and online communities, especially when it comes to issues of justice and punishment'. Worthy, but it don't shift units.

Anyway: Players who misbehave in the Roman online role-playing game Roma Victor will be punished by having their characters crucified and displayed in public spaces for other players to mock and throw things at. The first crucifixion is being doled out to "Cynewulf," played by a 27 year-old electrical engineer from Flint, Michigan, whose crime is "ganking" (ripping off) new players as they first appear in game. Cynewulf will be hung on the cross for seven days.

Wonder how often he'll log in...

Universal junks ICT

More HD shenanigans, with this taken from HDTV UK. Dull but worthy.

Sony was among the first studios to choose to drop the HDCP enabled Image Constraint Token (ICT) as a means of protecting early HD movies from piracy. It has now been joined by a number of others including Universal, a stalwart of the HD DVD camp.

The ICT is the system that will downscale the HD image back to standard definition (540 lines) if it fails to find an appropriate HDMI / DVI compatible, HD Ready TV. This had been seen as potentially disastrous in the US where many of the early adopters of HDTV got in the game before HDMI had actually made it on the TVs.

The decision by studios to ignore this optional security feature marks an interesting change in tack for the big studios which are usually so vigorously protective of their content and tend to assume that most consumers are simply pirates waiting to emerge. It looks like the risk of alienating too many consumers from this new technology has helped overcome their fears of illegal copying, but rest assured this break won’t last forever.


1080p a PS3 no-no?

Meanwhile, back at the console wars...Xbox exec on PS3: "1080p... will be basically impossible" - Joystiq. A quote:

Speaking with Kikizo Games, Xbox's Director of the Game Technology Group, Scott Henson, had his doubts about Sony's claim that PS3 games will feature 'full HD' (1080p resolution): "I think 1080p, just to address that directly, will be basically impossible. I think if you talk to any developer they will tell you that they will not have a performing game at 1080p."

Which is all very well, and as a journalist I salute the muddle all this sort of stuff causes because there's a 1000 words in there easy ;-) But either both sides in the war are forgetting something or they realise they have no control over it and might as well argue over the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: it's the games, stupid.

Killer games sell consoles. Simple as that.

Sky HD goes for May

According to this piece at HDTV UK, Sky's launching its HD service in May, a month later than most speculation had it.

Here's a quote: If you are an existing subscriber you’ll pay £299 for the HD box and £10 a month on top of your existing subscription. Viewers get installation and a Sky+ subscription if they haven’t already got one – free. There's no mention of viewers getting any upgrade benefits to swap current SD boxes for HD ones.

No current news on the size of the hard drive of the box, but big is probably a good guess.


Take *that* Thetan swine

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | South Park gets revenge on Chef

True genius: "South Park has exacted revenge on its former star Isaac Hayes by turning his character Chef into a paedophile and seemingly killing him off."


Underwear perverts ahoy!

Bit of backstory here. It seems that Marvel and DC have invoked the ire of right-thinking people the web over by trying to trademark the term 'superhero'. Creative little indie comicbook publisher A produces innovative graphic novel B and quickly gets slapped with writ C. Nasty business.

So, led by the crusading boingboing and building on a suggestion by industry legend Warren Ellis, a campaign has been started to refer to superheroes as 'underwear perverts' at every available opportunity.

Superdickery.com also aims to out underwear perverts as just plain nasty guys in overly tight pants. Hence the site has a whole selection of examples of Superman frankly being a bit of a bastard. Perhaps more entertaining yet though is the unintentional innuendo exposed in the Seduction of the Innocent section from whence the illustrative image comes. As for the lame super powers section...Behold KiteMan!

Go look, it really is excellent.

Digital switchoff league table

For anyone still languishing back in the analogue dark ages, Meeja Grauniad's got a report on where individual countries are on the digital switchoff

Finland's set to be first to go in 2007, a year ahead of its near neighbour Sweden in 2008. Which is interesting, because Sweden's still only got half a million subscribers out of a shade under 4 million TV households.

Anyway, the EC has set a 2010 switchover target and the dates expected by country at the moment are:

2008: Norway and Italy.

2009: US and Denmark

2010: France, Germany, Belgium and Spain

2011: Japan

2012: UK, Australia and Austria

Now, given that the UK pretty much leads the world in digital penetration, something tells me that some of those dates might just slip...


The Post-Scarcity Culture

A Boing Boing entry based on and linking too a Grauniad article from a few weeks ago. It makes some interesting points, esp. goods getting cheaper and space getting more expensive. Looks like David Harvey's concept of turnover time of capital might have to be re-evaluated to take account of some of the miniscule timescales in operation, not to mention the corralling of the consumers themselves into the whole process. As the feature says:

Unashamedly "disposable" cheap goods, you could argue, are turning us into traders rather than curators of our possessions. It is another victory for capitalism: we have internalised the unsentimental stock control of the modern retailer.

The Digital Revolution Stops Here

A quick report from Wired on ShoWest that suggests the US cinema industry is at best agnostic about digital cinema. Starts with the following fairly damning paragraph:

"Digital cinema developers descended here last week to convince theater owners that the future of their industry has finally arrived. But, after years of failed promises, newfangled confections like dark-chocolate Raisinets appeared to get a better hearing (two thumbs up.)"


New! Improved! Earth!

The RL version might be going to hell in a handbag, but at least we'll see it in realtime. This Wired story rhapsodises about new improved satellites, which a) will give the rest of us something even more addictive than Google Earth to play with and b) will really piss off the Black Helicopter owners by showing their rotor blades in glorious monochrome .


Trekkie dating

Via the superb Wonderland, Trekkie dating

A quote from a genuine Trekkie personal:

Your basic Spock-like personality here, seeking a woman with a personality somewhere in the Deanna Troi to Subcommander T'Pol range. Will consider B'Elana Torres to Kira Nerys types depending on extenuating circumstances. No tribbles, please.

Words fail me. Besides, I was always more into Babylon 5...

Sergio Leone news from Sony

Bad = Sony's delaying the PS3 to November due to problems with Blu-ray

Good = At the moment it's planning a global roll-out for the machine

Ugly = Any of that might slip

Psychological warfare

Total and utter genius.

I don't pretend to understand all the basketball references - it's not a game that anyone outside the US is meant to comprehend anyways - but in terms of setting someone up and then pulling the rug from under their feet, this is priceless.

Schneier on Security: Basketball Prank

Bath are playing Leicester in a week and a half. Anyone got Martin Corry's phone number?


Sony 1: HD-DVD 0

Remember that rather nasty sting in the tale about HD-DVD discs downrezzing the picture to old TVs with analogue inputs and no HDMI cable present? Well, according to the good people at Gizmodo here, Blu-ray's not going to do that.

The company's Don Eklund has gone on the record as saying that the company is more concerned about piracy of the digital HDTV signal rather than analogue signals coming through component cables.

Quite right too. Manufacturer in Outbreak of Common Sense shocker. Can it last?


Web 3.0 ;-)


isolatr beta

British Rail flying saucer unearthed

One from El Reg (and the frontpage of thegrauniad...hadn't quite got round to buying it when I posted)

Seems that British Rail submitted a patent for a flying saucer back in 1973. Powered by thermonuclear fusion, the story is much enlivened by the description of Prof Colin Pillinger, he of Beagle 2 infamy, as a 'hilariously mutton-chopped space wurzel'.

Scroll down the pages at UFo Today for some entertaining, nay unhinged, speculation on the device being tested over Iran, New Zealand and anywhere else where stoned hippies used to congregate. Not to mention a bit where Tom Cruise's involvement in Spielberg's War of the Worlds is seen as a way of softening up the public for news of a forthcoming alien invasion.


As to the BRUFO: "However the patent expired in 1976 as British Rail decided that, technically, the saucer was too far in advance of its time." Bit like getting a train to run from Didcot to London on schedule then...

Now that's what I call cricket

BBC SPORT | Cricket | SA shatter record to beat Aussies

Australia score 434 in their 50 overs, shattering the old record set by Sri Lanka vs Kenya and go on to lose as SA post 438 with a four of the second to last ball. Unbelievable.

Records broken include: Highest Team Score, Highest Score Batting Second, Highest Match Aggregate and Most Expensive Bowling Analysis.

Over in Paris, meanwhile, England's rugby team also shatter records, easily now holding the Most Inept Display In White Shirts Since the 1970s...


You call this progress?

So, having lived with the ignominy of being Wesley Crusher for a year or two on the Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You? quiz, it now turns out that I'm Data.

Great, from an annoying teenage squit to a bloody android. Still, at least I slept with Tasha Yar I suppose...

Preserving Our Rights in the Mashosphere

A Wired piece all about mashups, intellectual property rights and Web 2.0 technologies. Preserving Our Rights in the Mashosphere

Here's a para or two:

The driving philosophy behind mashups and other Web 2.0 technologies is that data should be open, exposed, and sharable. This so-called "Right to Remix" doesn't mean that people should be required to give up their rights to their own intellectual property, but it does mean that people have to be willing to share in order for development to continue along its current arc of progression....

This willingness to share isn't likely to fade any time soon, either. It's in our nature. We post to blogs, show our faces in our Flickr accounts, maintain our Digg profiles and our MySpace pages because we want to share. And we like to look just as much as we like to show and tell. The Web 2.0 scene thrives because of our curiosity and our exhibitionism. Most of us would be downright excited to see our photo appear in a mashup.

Too right. Information wants to be free etc!


.eu domain fiestyness

Nice story from the Beeb. Seems that in the sale to trademark holders of the new .eu domain:

Volkswagen scooped the polo.eu domain name, despite fierce competition from Ralph Lauren and Polo-mint maker Nestle. NetNames said the trio applied within five minutes of each other, and Ralph Lauren, owner of polo.com, missed out by only three minutes and 24 seconds.

BBC NEWS | Technology | Volkswagen 'gets Polo web name'


Origami news

With a rash of Origami fakes over the web in the past couple of days, CEBIT's own daily newspaper, CEBITNEWS, is probably the most reliable source for pictures. Just check out the thumb-driven Qwerty interface on this new Samsung machine.

Sorry to come over all IT Crowd, but that's bloody sexy.


Google vs The World

One from El Reg about how Google wants to mirror the entire world's hard drives Google outspooks the spooks with Total Information Awareness plan.

Now, this isn't totally beyond the realms of possibility, seeing as how the World's Fluffiest Megacorp (tm) actually mirrors the entire internet every couple of days and searches through it on its own Brobdingagian computers (and you wondered why all those searches are so fast). However, net activists are already exceedingly twitchy over Gobble's current power, so this just adds fuel to the flames.

Absolute power corrupts, don'tcha know.


Lucas: Farewell Cashola

So, with the annual glitz-a-thon that is the Oscars thankfully over for another year, the minds of the great and the good turn to what's really preying on their subconscious this year: the future of the film industry. Yup, forget all that 35mm vs digital debate or 2k vs 4k vs 6k guff, what matters is bums on pews. Of the two non luvvie speeches on Oscars night, 100% of them can be summarised as 'People of America, get off your DVD-watching arses and get into the cinemas'.

George Lucas, the man that virtually single-handedly invented the event movie, now reckons that: "In the future, almost everything that gets shown in theaters will be indie movies," Lucas declared. "I predict that by 2025 the average movie will cost only $15 million."

So, he'll be trying even harder to cane in the money using Jar Jar Binks dolls then...

There is a link to the NY Times article that mentions this, but seeing as how the rest of it is celebrity twaddle about the film Hellotocracy, I'll spare you.


Day 13 & 14 – And relax…

We pack up the campsite and amble the few hours back to Ait Youl where we have lunch in the house where we set off what seems like a fairly long time ago. Dog is shut in when we leave – one of the muleteers is going to give it a home – and we walk over the hill to the road. We get there just as the local mosque is kicking out after afternoon prayers. The two groups of people stand there blinking at each other as we wait for our minibus to come and take us to Ouarzazate.

Ouarzazate has a restaurant called Restaurant Obelix, a place full of props from the film studios apparently which the guidebooks smear with the word ‘kitsch’. I vote for eating there in the evening, no one else bites, so we eat in the hotel instead in a room which has been decorated to try and recreate the atmosphere of a large Berber tent in the mountains…

A 3.45 start to get an early flight from Ouarzazate airport, but no-one minds too much as the five hours or so in a bed beforehand have been complete and utter bliss. A surface that doesn’t send your hips numb – fantastic! We have five hours to kill in Casablanca airport, which we do by playing cards, drinking coffee and simply enjoying sitting in chairs. Chairs! Fantastic! And the toilets…by all that’s holy, they flush! Fantastic!

Feelings of calm and serenity picked up from nigh on two weeks in the wilderness last all the way to Heathrow where they are derailed by a) the coach back to Reading, as they'd changed the whole system around and it was only a kindly coach driver letting me travel for free that prevented me from freezing my knackers off for an extra half an hour. Then b) I saw a piece in the Daily Mail which was basically themed Women, Stay At Home And Have Babies And Leave The Hard Stuff To Us Men which made me a tad angsty. Frankly, I wouldn’t wipe my arse on that paper in case I caught something toxic. Oh, and then c) England lost the rugby to Scotland. However, this was offset slightly by d) Bath beating Gloucester, e) being welcomed home by friends who plied me with drink and good cheer and f) the knowledge that I could get up tomorrow and didn’t have to walk anywhere unless I really really wanted to.

I then rearranged all the furniture in the living room and now have a perfect space which would ideally suit a nice Moroccan rug. Guess I'll have to go back at some point, though next time I think I'll save my feet and take the train via Fes...


Day 12 – I Ain’t Going To Camp No More No More

With over 2cm of ice in the washing bucket overnight, Mohamed and Abdou estimate that it probably got down to –5 last night. Christ on a bike, it was cold.

Another day when you’re just covering the ground rather than walking for the sake of it. We’re heading back to civilisation now. We come across our first sign of a road/track for about five days, and later on we climb a hill and look out over Ait Youl. With its two hundred houses or so it looks like a metropolis. I get bright lights/big city fever and dream of French burgundies and Tournedos Rossini.

One more night in a tent and that’s it. Tomorrow, I give my sleeping roll to the muleteers and swear off canvas for good.

Dog looking almost perky.


Day 11 – Life in the Freezer

The wind got up during the night and, coming down from the High Atlas as it was, it all got a bit parky to say the least. We hit our highest point of the trip, crossing a rocky saddle at 2180m in the snow (in the snow! – most days have been a combination of 25 degrees and factor 50).

We’re on the home leg of our loop back to Ait Youl now, and the walking has got a bit less interesting. After six hours or thereabouts, we all end up lying round the mess tent in our sleeping bags. Even four season ones fail to keep out the chill, and at night you find yourself turning over as first one side of you then the other goes numb as the ground leaches away your body heat.

Dog makes it through the day, humans look on slightly shakier ground.


Day 10 – Music Over My Head

So, having moaned about camping, now we get to one of the reasons why it’s worth putting up with on an occasional basis: Irhissi.

Irhissi is an old, ruined kasbah at the intersection of three valleys that was built a shade over two hundred years ago. All that’s left now are the four walls, which are gracefully crumbling back into the rock from whence they came, and a few nomads scattered about the valley.

It took about six hours to get there, including a long drag up a fairly steep pass, so we were all fairly tuckered out when we got there. The evening more than made up for it. A scavenge round the local area picked us up enough firewood to get a good blaze going in the centre of the kasbah, and then the muleteers picked up all the plastic buckets they could get their hands on and started singing and drumming. It was a fantastic performance: Berber songs in a call and response pattern with a bit of dancing thrown in by the firelight. I wandered out beyond the walls and sat on a rock looking at the stars coming out (the skies out there were stunning) and apart from the odd satellite whizzing overhead it was almost as if the past two hundred years had never happened.

Until, that is, Mohamed Ali decides to lead everyone in a chorus of ‘That’s The Way I Like It’.

Woke to find the dog curled up in the ashes of last night’s fire. We discuss names. Dog features strongly, as does Yallah (to go, literally ‘to go with Allah’). My suggestion of Mange is largely ignored.


Day 9 – The Hounds of Love

Another long day, though one with some spectacular scenery. We really are in the middle of bugger all anywhere today, so the little boy with the dingly dangly stall is a bit of a surprise. As is the dog that decides to start following us a few minutes later. To be honest it looks close to death, with its ribs sticking through its fur and its tail as far between its legs as it can get. This has not been a happy animal. We tell it to scram a couple of times but it takes no notice and no one wants to start throwing stones to start driving off such a wretched looking beast, so we let it tag along.

Crest a ridge and find my mobile phone has turned itself on in my bag and received a text message from a friend, Spencer, asking if the Bath Rugby Club defence are on holiday with me as they’re certainly not playing at the Rec. He then thoughtfully doesn’t tell me what the final score is, leaving me to wonder for the rest of the trip if we managed a heroic fightback or not. I turn the phone off sharpish.


Day 8 – Opting Out

Today’s eight hour walk is an optional one with a six am start. I decline and decide to spend the day chilling, doing some washing in a stream (clothes and body – luxury!), drinking mint tea and reading.

It’s not the walking that knackers you on these trips, it’s the camping. By now, if you ask me, mankind’s three greatest inventions in order of importance are the spring mattress, the flush toilet and the chair. Writing, space travel, the internet? Bugger all that, I’d gladly swap it all for a sofa.

I knew there was a reason why I’d never camped before (festivals, due to recreational pharmaceuticals and general imbibing, don’t really count). The ground’s hard and uncomfortable and, to be frank, crapping behind rocks doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. It’s very hard to concentrate on what you’re doing when you’re being looked at quizzically by a goat.


Day Seven – Berber Whiskey

The scenery is now typical for the area: mesas, buttes and broad scrub plains. Dotted throughout it are the odd irrigated oasis wherever there’s water, with fig trees prominent amongst the foliage. They’re strikingly white against the dusty orange of the area, looking like the White Tree of Gondor to the Tolkeinites amongst us.

Today is the first of three eight hour walking days, which means vast amounts of mint tea at lunch. Mint tea fuels the Berbers in the same way that normal tea powers the British. Mint leaves are mixed with Chinese Green Tea and unfeasibly large amounts of sugar are added and the whole syrupy result drunk with relish. It’s great stuff and rejoices in the nickname of Berber Whiskey, though you can feel your teeth dissolve rather than your liver as you drink it. Big Chris meanwhile has a bottle of the real stuff bought from a supermarket in Ouarzazete, and the odd nip helps the evenings pass pleasantly. In fact, several people bought bottles of wine at the same time, so we’ve had a small glass with a few meals, though not nearly enough to maintain health and fitness as far as I’m concerned.

The cairns are interesting. Some of the pagan Berber beliefs have survived alongside Islam, and here passing men are supposed to build a cairn to increase their fertility and women build one to find a man. Mohamed says it worked for him two years ago (he now has a young daughter) and he might build one next year. I idly wonder if I need to kick one over to lower the sperm count.

And while we’re on the subject of fertility, apparently the best Berber match you can make is with your cousin, as this represents the best balance between keeping the land within the family and casting the genetic net wide. I asked about inbreeding, Mohamed said it wasn’t an issue. Hmmmm. Either the Berbers have a very different genetic stock to the rest of us, or the women have their own way of sorting things out on the quiet if you ask me.


Day Six – Dingle Dangle, Strap it to Your Ankle

The Jebel Sahro really is off the edge of the tourist map. Only trekkers go there and only in the winter, as it’s uncomfortably hot any other time. The groups are also fairly sparsely spread out (we passed one French contingent going the other way after a week and a bit and that was it), with maybe one or two a week passing through the area at its peak.

Nevertheless, this represents a potential source of decent income for the isolated Berber settlements and nomads along the routes. Thus, halfway up a mountain pass and with nothing else visible for miles around, you’d find a Berber woman patiently squatting by the side of the trail with a black cloth spread out with ornaments, colourful scraps of cloth festooned with mirrors that Mohamed referred to as Dingly Danglies and inevitably ended up strapped to everybody’s rucksacs, jewellery, and sometimes even rugs. Sometimes they got it right, and a veritable shopping frenzy ensued, other times they got it wrong and we puffed past without buying anything and they simply rolled up their black cloth and went back to their goats to wait for the next group.

The usual rate for small items is 10 dirham, about enough to keep a family in sugar for three or four days, so it’s worth their while. I heroically resisted until near the end of the trip I buckled and bought a trilobite fossil. Having seen a similar one just go for a tenner on ebay, I wish I’d bought a few more…

Trekking seems a supremely daft thing to the local Berbers, and after a couple of nights of little sleep and back ache camping, I was starting to agree with them. Some apparently have even imbued the trekking groups with a sort of Flying Dutchman legend, reasoning that as it’s such an odd thing to do there must only really be one group that simply goes round and round in circles all the time. Wonder what they have to do to be released from that purgatory.


Day Five – Of Mules and Men

Another five hours or so of amiable ambling to the village of Tagmout, where we’re again sleeping on the floor in a village house. Rumours of a potential shower facility persist.

Now, before you start thinking that we’re too intrepid doing this, I should perhaps point out that we’re fairly nesh when it comes down to it and have rather a lot of support. In fact, we’re travelling through the mountains with almost enough people to put together two football teams. First, there are the two guides: tour leader Mohamed and Abdou, who speaks more French than English and giggles like a schoolboy or sings fluting love songs in Arabic as he hops down the rocks like a mountain goat. Then there are the seven muleteers (including the aptly named Mr Happy, Mohamed Ali and the improbably named Lovely Jubbly) and nine mules. The Mules carry all the tents and food (including the large kitchen and mess tents), overtake us after a couple of hours on the trail, and by the time we’re at the next camp site we find our tents set up for ourselves in a long line and the only thing we have to do is watch which one Big Chris heads for and scrabble to get as far away from him as possible.

Big Chris; now there’s a subject. Several passports and more scams going that a Marrakech market trader, he was approaching his pension and, as far as we could work out, trekking round the world courtesy of the DSS and several secret bank accounts in Miami. He also snored like a 747 taking off. Hence the scrabble.


Day Four – Walking, That’s What We Do

After a night sleeping on the floor in a village house, we get up, pack up and set off with 126km of walking through the Jebel Sahro mountains ahead of us. A barren, bleak and blasted area, it’s also really rather beautiful. I’m not given to quoting poetry often – pretentious, moi? - but Shelley expressed it in three lines better than I can in a thousand words:

I love all waste and solitary places
Where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless
As we wish our souls to be

Clever chap, though he obviously wasn’t paid by the word.

Anyway, we walk about five hours today. Even reading back in the diary I kept during the trip, the days kind of blur into each other. You wake up with the dawn about six or seven, break camp, eat breakfast (porridge with honey usually, which I normally managed to follow by a quick round of chocolate spread sandwiches), walk five hours, have lunch (vast salads with some carbs and protein on the side), flake out, do an optional walk, do chores, have dinner, play cards, go to bed about nine or, if you’re feeling really daring, about ten.

It’s a holiday, but only after a fashion…;-)


Day Three- Run to the Hills

A bit of a nothing day really, n early start followed by travelling over the High Atlas mountains via the Tizi n’Tichka Pass (closed for a couple of days a week later due to heavy snow) and to the village of Ait Youl and the start of the trek proper.

So, some asides from our guide Mohamed, a Berber and a resident of the High Atlas himself.

Morocco is changing rapidly. A Muslim country, while some of the population have their fundamentalist moments, it’s very much on the liberal wing of things. In some ways it’s caught between three identities: Arabic, Berber and French colonial, and its modern character represents a mashup of all three.

60% of university students are female, and even in the isolated villages girls are starting to be sent to schools. Out of 300 people in Mohamed’s village, three people have got their baccalaureate (though whether like the French exams, that starts with the four hour philosophy paper, I’m not sure). Mohamed himself has a degree in Maths and Physics and confidently expects that ratio to rise in the next generation. His job with Explore probably earns him around £200/week, which in High Atlas terms is a seriously good wage. Interestingly, the family and its land remains a really important unit, and while people may go off to Marrakech to earn their fortune, they always go back to the village. Depopulation of the rural communities, something so prevalent in the West, is not an issue.

Anyway, the roads are festooned with stalls selling tagine pots, fossils, amphorae and the like, and we drive past the Atlas Film Studios at Ouarzazate (Kingdom of Heaven. Asterix & Obelix, Star Wars, Gladiator and a shedload of others), have lunch, visit the old Ouarzazete Kasbah, and – little though we know it – make the most of actually sitting in a chair for the last time in ten days.


Day Two – Hot Souk!

Met up with the rest of the group at breakfast (12 people, one couple, 50:50 male/female ratio, age range from 29 to 60, no obvious nutters, and including one woman, Ginny, who lives in the next village along from Wantage – how’s that for a coincidence!) and set off on a walking tour of Marrakech.

The name means ‘pass quickly’ and dates from a fairly unsavoury past, though any bandit impulses have long since been subsumed by the city-wide hobby of fleecing tourists. Of course, that’s largely what we’re there for, and when you’re only losing a quid a time, you can rationalise it all happily that at least you’re contributing to the local (black) economy. The urchins who insisted they’d just performed incredible feats of acrobatic dexterity and it was your fault if your back was turned and you should still pay them 10 dirhams anyway were good. As was the woman who grabbed my arm in a WWF-approved wrestling hold and had painted a scorpion on it in henna and demanded 20 dirham (about £1.30) for the privilege all in the space of about 10 seconds.

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Andy,” I replied.

“Okay, I write it on your arm in Arabic,” she said and added a few squiggles to the scorpion. Never managed to allay myself fully of the suspicion that it said ‘Guys, we’ve got a live one here’.

The souk is amazing, though: a labyrinthine warren of dense, interlocking alleyways split into informal districts. Turn one corner and it’s all scrap metal and metalwork shops and workshops, with young men squatting in dingy arches and hammering together lamps and lanterns. Turn another and it’s all animal skins, another and it’s olives, another and it’s towering, tottering piles of richly coloured spices. Imagine Hampton Court Maze crossed with Greenwich Market, populate it with mules and people weaving in and out of the narrow passages on motorbikes, and you’re halfway there.

It’s in the evening though that the main square gets going. This really is the heart of Marrakech, a vast plaza full of snake charmers, musicians, acrobats, storytellers, hucksters, dried fruit sellers, beggars, buskers, jugglers and food stalls, with smoke from their cook fires curling up into the night air under the tungsten glare of the lights. It’s an overwhelming place. And given some of the isolated areas we were trekking to over the next couple of weeks, it sometimes felt like we were trying to cram all our human contact into the space of a couple of hours.


Day One – Marrakech or bust

Just to recap for those expecting pictures of the Himalayas, tales of sherpas and the faint whiff of rancid yak butter: the Foreign Office decided to advise against all travel to Nepal on Thursday night, citing some minor civil war or some such. 12,000 people had died in a decade, one of the royal family had machine gunned down the majority of the others (a concept ripe for importing IMHO) and the Tenth Anniversary of the uprising just happened to coincide with my flight touching down in Kathmandu.

Now, 12,000 people in ten years is something just over 3.28 people/day, and I quite fancied those odds. More people probably die opening umbrellas every day than that. The FO didn’t however and, more importantly, neither did Explore Worldwide, the organisers of the trek. So, they cancelled it on the Friday morning and offered me either a full refund or around 500 notes and the chance to go trekking in the Jebel Sahro mountains in Morocco instead.

Now, with Sara and I separating and her planning to move out over the next couple of weeks, going away somewhere seemed slightly imperative no matter how amicable things are. Thus I found myself flying South over Seville at ten in the evening and heading towards Africa, the city painted on the landscape like the Nazca Lines outlined in neon and fire. After landing at Marrakech and spending a couple of hours slowly winding towards the smiling, chatty, laughing immigration people (think Los Angeles, but more menacing) the airport disgorged me into what seemed like a full scale fight.

It wasn’t, of course, just some eager competition for my meagre taxi fare into the city. Choosing one driver because I thought he had the best moustache, we negotiated a fare and set off. For some reason, a very attractive Moroccan policewoman was installed in the front seat next to him, though whether she was cadging a lift and going off duty or just making sure he went the right way, I never found out.

Marrakech was flooded. A torrential thunderstorm had passed over a the city a few hours earlier, and the drains had been unable to cope. Three lane highways became a single lane snake of cars trying to find the shallow water, rooster tails arcing up towards the date palms by the side of the road in the moonlight. Luckily, given the camping nature of the trip, that was the only evidence of rain I saw for the whole fortnight.