Bah, five hours sleep. Bah overpriced breakfast (but nearest cheap, authentic diner is 5 miles away). Bah suburbia and freeways. Bah inescapable hum of air conditioning. Bah permatanned men named Chet and Dwight with immobile foreheads synergising over 7 am power breakfasts. Bah emails inviting me to meet Vladimir, director of sales, at booth 666 to discuss FelchCloud CDN, ‘our revolutionary cloud-based cloudycloudcloud, taking cloudycloudclouds to The Next Level(tm)’. Bah $4 bottles of water with a little tag printed “hydrate” without even a ‘please’. Bah shiny-toothed shiny-haired empty-souled TV news anchors talking about a lost dog in downtown Santa Nowhere. Bah ‘this life contains chemicals known by the state of california to cause sadness’. Bah “Democracy Boulevard”. Bah the George Bush Memorial Euthanasia Centre. Bah low-cholesterol omelettes made with egg whites. Bah 6 am joggers with bluetooth mobile phone earpieces. Bah.
Archive for the 'traveller’s tales' Category
As part of my usual Autumn tour of European capitals (this year, Berlin, Bucharest, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Madrid, Oslo) I’ve been lucky enough to speak at three community conferences, which are always my favourite.
The first was SmartWeb conference in Bucharest, Romania. This was started last year by Gabi Schiopu who was frustrated by the lack of front-end conferences in his country, but the cost of international travel and hotels is prohibitive, so decided to start his own. So he got an event organising partner (thank you, Evensys!) and invited speakers. It proved so successful that he ran it for a second year. As I’m paid to do international jetsetting by Opera, I asked that my speaker fee be converted into free tickets for deserving local university/ school students. We’re all pictured below with McCartney-esque cheesy grins and thumbs up. By an almost incredible co-incidence, we were all wearing matching Opera t-shirts.
I had great fun presenting and MCing the event, and Bucharest is a delightful city.
The second was Fronteers in Amsterdam. This year is the seventh conference; I’ve been to four (and spoken at three, if you don’t count this year’s lightning talk the night before). Fronteers is a conference I like to attend because it’s deeply technical, which makes it pretty scary as a speaker but very useful for the audience – there’s no “How I get inspiration from, like, nature and moleskines” or “Iterate often and dare to fail, you’re awesome” stocking-filler on this stage. (And, what a stage it is! A giant cinema screen in the beautiful Pathé Tuschinski cinema. They could probably easily fill a bigger venue, but part of the Fronteers charm is this venue.)
My friend Shwetank Dixit spoke on WebRTC – A Front-end perspective and, as he’d come all the way from India, the rest of the Opera Devrel crew descended on Amsterdam to give moral support and drink Dutch beer (the best is called “jenever” – no more than 4 pints, though). As usual, lots to learn and lovely to meet the great and the good of Europe’s web developers there.
Fronteers is organised by a group of volunteers, and its charitable status means that they don’t turn a profit at the end of the year – all money made is reinvested back into other events and initiatives for the Dutch web development community. Yay. Thanks, Fronteers crew, for putting on the conference and looking after me so well (even though I wasn’t actually speaking).
Only joking- Paris, duh. For its ninth year, I decided to ruin its reputation and give a talk on “Web Components- The Right Way” with Karl Groves of The Paciello Group. Here’s the video, and here are our slides:
What’s jolly nice about ParisWeb is that English talks are simultaneously translated into French, all talks are translated into sign language and transcribed live. The latter was useful to me as I find it easier to read French than to follow the spoken language (French people spell much better than they pronounce), especially technical French for hours. I was especially proud when the signing interpreter sought me out after my unscheduled lightning talk (video, starts at 18 mins) to thank me for giving her the opportunity to sign “rectal prolapse” and “ejaculate my own liquified spleen” which, inexplicably, she seldom gets to do.
Again, ParisWeb is run by a group of volunteers who do it for love of the web.
Vive les volunteers! Please do all you can to support these conferences and, if you’re invited to speak, accept – it’s part of contributing back.
I had a super time at Handheld Conference in Cardiff. Craig Lockwood, the organiser, asked some months ago if I’d be a secret addition to the bill, and sing a couple of funny songs I’d written, and I agreed – last year they had 140 attendees, so i thought that making a twat of myself in front of 140 would be a nice way to end this conference season.
1200 people bought tickets – the event had moved to the Millennium Stadium, which is the biggest stage in Europe.
Reader, I shat myself (figuratively). The first song – Like A Rounded Corner – was fine, although you can hear my voice waver with nerves and I chickened out of any fancy guitar playing.
My second song followed Ling Valentine – the highly successful chinese entrepreneur behind Ling’s Cars, talking about her vile-looking (but hugely profitable) website.
She was pushed on stage inside a BBC dalek, from which she presented her talk, once Jon Hicks and Andy Clarke had removed its top. I had to go on after she’d done a chinese cover version of a Tom Jones song, and was wheeled off, still in her dalek. How could anyone follow that?
The conference had a Hendrix-style rendition of the welsh national anthem, an acrobat, a letter to the web industry written and read out by an 8 year old, and finished with a male voice choir. And the talks were good, too!
Craig announced that this was the last Handheld, which is a shame, but stopping when you’re on top form is a great way to be remembered well. I want to thank him and his partner Amy for putting on a great show and inviting me to be a part of it.
Mariya tweeted a link to an article on why young women in rural China become mistresses of older men, which reminded me of living next door to a paid mistress in Thailand, and she prompted me to blog about it. So here goes. Names are changed, by the way.
When I moved to Thailand in 1996 to help set up a school, I took a 3 month rent on a small room in a new hotel near my work. On my floor there was only one other resident, a very well-dressed, attractive woman in her mid-20s. We soon became friends, leaving our doors open and popping in and out of each other’s rooms to chat, gossip, eat, drink beer and smoke.
Lek didn’t seem to work, but attended college every day to learn how to cook, went out most nights and, frankly, seemed to have more disposable income than I had. This was surprising for two reasons; firstly, most Westerners employed in Bangkok with work permits earned three or four times what the locals earned. Secondly, while there were many Thai kids with rich parents, they tended to be fair-skinned, whereas Lek was dark-skinned and from the impoverished Southern provinces of Thailand where a long-running terrorism campaign to secede from Thailand and join muslim Malaysia had damaged the area.
I asked her about it, and she told me straight: she had an older, Western boyfriend called Mike who was posted to work in Thailand in some big engineering project. Mike was married, but his wife was back in England with their kids. Mike paid for the apartment, her college course and took care of her living expenses. In return, she was his mistress. She was to be available for sex, going out to parties or weekends away. The sole stipulation was that she was not to have sex with anyone else (a wise move; in the late 90s, HIV was rife in Thailand). She didn’t love Mike, although she liked him – she viewed it purely as a business relationship. Mike, however, did get jealous of me (until we lied and told him I’m gay); I found lots of Westerners who had mistresses or picked up prostitutes deluded themselves that they were emotionally involved rather than simply buying a service.
Before I’d met Lek, I had always assumed that prostitution was a sordid business of trafficked or abused women being forced into it by a pimp. It had never occurred to me that it could be voluntary. I asked Lek if she felt exploited. “Absolutely not”, she answered. She explained that she had a sister, a year younger, still living in the home village “in the jungle” (as she put it). Her sister had four children by a man who beat her when he was drunk, and who forced her to wear a veil. “I have a nice apartment, I’m getting an education. Mike is a good guy who treats me well, we go to parties where I meet lots of people, I’ve learned English and have friends from all over the world. This is freedom – don’t pity me.”
Who was I to argue?
It made me wonder, though, why we still get so squeamish about sex. If someone works with their bodies to entertain by dancing, or gymnastics, or sports, we don’t pity them. Neither do we condescend to other people who look after others’ physical needs for money – we don’t pity a person who cooks food or others, or cuts their hair, or massages their aches, or looks after their teeth. So why do we look down on people who voluntarily offer sexual services?
When I got an email from Gabi Schiopu inviting me to speak at the first front-end conference in Romania, I didn’t hesitate for an instant. I’ve wanted to visit Romania for a long time.
Years ago, I read an article in Guardian about how Ceaușescu, Romania’s dictator, paid off foreign debt by exporting much of the country’s agricultural and industrial production, and therefore causing great hardship to Romanians. As the birthrate dropped, fewer people had children because it was so difficult to survive, so he banned abortions.
I remember being thrilled when the 1989 revolution happened. The Guardian-reading Amnesty member in me was appalled when he was executed along with his wife on Xmas day, but the other half of me thought “gotcha!”. Tellingly, at his show trial, he and his wife Elena were accused of “suppressing the soul of a nation” which he doubtless tried to do. But, ironically, he didn’t achieve it. The reason that Romania fascinates me is precisely because it shows that brainwashing, personality cults and a quarter of a century of brutality didn’t suppress everyone. At some point, the people will rise up and free themselves. I hope the same will happen in North Korea and Iran, too.
Every wannabe despot should watch the video of Caeausescu’s last speech, and note the incredulity in his face (about 50 seconds in) when he realises that the game’s up; the people aren’t taking any more. And wannabe despots should be very scared by it.
Bucharest was called the “Paris of the East”, and it certainly has its fair share of elaborate buildings, wide boulevards and imposing structures. The historic centre is delightful, full of bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, half of it was razed, and its inhabitants banished to soviet-style concrete blocks in the suburbs, for a preposterous People’s Palace ordered by Caeausescu, who was shot before it was completed.
The Palace has 1,100 rooms and is the second largest building in the world (after The Pentagon). Our hosts took us on a guided tour; it’s impressive because of the size and workmanship of the fittings and decoration but, like Ceausescu himself, is dull, flatulent, pompous and uninspired. It’s a fitting monument.
I was in Bucharest for SmartWeb Conference, and what a treat it was. Excellently organised by EvenSys, it was invented and curated by Gabi because he wanted to go to a front-end conference but couldn’t, so decided to organise one in Romania. There were people from far and wide in the country, as well as some from Hungary and further afield, and a real buzz. It felt like a nation’s Web community coming of age, and it was a great pleasure to witness and be a part of it.
Ten years ago (wow) I published some pictures of the Balloon Man of Kovalam that caused an amazing comment thread in which families and old friends were reunited and I learned a little of the life and death of Buck Wray, the Balloon Man.
I was digging though a couple of his books – he gave me a copy of Book #3. Here are the dedication and copyright pages.
31 December 1994
Ask .. Receive!
You did … so … you will!
Too easy, huh?
Go Bruce Go!
Best – loving + Lightning
You may: Xerox, photocopy, print, Re-publish, distribute “FREELY”
Notice: This book has absolutely positively NO copywrites. All materials, ideas, concepts expressions, words are stolen, from the source of ALL THAT IS. If any one claims to be the creator of originals of any of tese items listed above (with the exception of the THE WORD “lunagloriusmaxipiss”, which actually is a totally 100% New Word – However – inspired by another Source, the only Source, and I claim no exclusivity of this newly created word, since my “i” merely channeled this new big powerful word into the 3rd Dimension of Earth School for use Today), they are total fucking jerks and self-deluded liars. They did not. Could not. Can not, Did not. Copywrite laws are Bullshit, if what is created or written or created actually express Truth. If, it is Truth, it should be SHARED – FREELY. You many SHARE the contents of this book and all other books Freely with ALL THAT IS.
Enjoy, learn, have fun, SHARE Shit.
“Enjoy, learn, have fun, SHARE Shit.” Words to live by.
For some reason, I’ve talked about this to a few people lately, even though I’m no longer a veggie and was never a vegan (my farts are bad enough as it is).
Anyway, most Thais are buddhist, but love eating meat and seasoning otherwise veg dishes with nam plaa (fish sauce), which is the local equivalent of salt. Their perhaps-spurious rationale is that they didn’t actually kill the animal, and not eating it would be a waste. I regard this as playing somewhat fast-and-loose with the conventional theories of supply and demand, but I am not an economist.
At some point, most Thai people will become extra-buddhist for buddhist lent, or joining the monkhood to make merit for a dead parent or some such (assuming they’re not in the small muslim or christian minorities). So every Thai person understands the idea of vegan food. This will always be respected; to give meat to a monk or someone who has requested “religious” food would be a grievous sin.
The magic words to unlock a world of vegan cuisine in Thailand are “Pom [if you’re male]/ Dee-chan [female] kin ahaarn jair”. “Jair” is the key; it rhymes with “air” but has a slightly shorter vowel.
Any meaty-looking stuff in your resulting meal will be tofu (the smegma of Beelzebub, in my opinion) or mushroom. Soy sauce will be used for seasoning instead of fish sauce. If you want to avoid MSG, say “mai sai churot”. “Spicy” is “pet”, not spicy is “mai pet”.
There you are. Job’s a good ‘un. Of course, watch out for refreshing beers, most of which are clarified with isinglass like everywhere else in the world (and which would be strictly off-limits to monks, anyway).
I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at Content Strategy Forum 2012 which was previously in Paris and London, and this year went to Cape Town. I used to be a content bloke; in fact, I now realise that at The Law Society I was a Content Strategist, there just wasn’t a name for it in 2008.
But that was four years ago, so for this conference I was firmly out of my [American accent] “comfort zone”. Fortunately, I had a preparatory natter with Rellington Annett-Baker to ensure my introductory HTML5 for content specialists talk was likely to hit their sweet spots and tickle their fancies. (It seemed to work.)
The conference was headlined by Kristina Halvorson, and Luke Wroblewski, both of whom seemed to disagree with each other. I’m not well-versed in Content Strategy schisms to have an opinion either way, although Luke’s assertion that we now have a write-read web rang true. Kristina is the godmother of Content Strategy, so her talk was a “state of the nation” speech from paper notes (she’d lost her laptop), largely about how she’d grown her agency to 28 people and then laid off all but five.
Other notable talks were by Razorfish’s Rachel Lovinger who talked about structuring content for re-use, using standards and responsive design in Content in the Age of Promiscuous Reuse.
Relly Annett-Baker’s “Guerillas in their midst” was a fun, British talk about guerilla content strategy. Relly is a black belt at on-stage swearing (I was on best behaviour; these are her friends).
Richard Ingram did an interesting talk about visualising data and recommended the really good Scraping for Journalists book which taught me loads in the first chapter.
John Alderman gave an entertaining talk on how to use Big Data. In it, he spoke about meet-ups where people discuss data they’ve collected about their own bodies. (Yup.) He’d probably be interested in Pete Fletcher’s sneezecount project documenting his sneezes since July 2007 (also see his 5 minute Ignite video On the Counting of Sneezes) and Manu Sporny open-sourcing his genetic data on GitHub.
Great thanks to the organisers: Kerry-Anne Gilowey, Rian van der Merwe, Nathan Blows and Irene Walker. Organisation was perfect; they even managed to get a Cheetah!
I’m no Content Strategist, so I might be entirely wrong, but it felt that this conference was somehow a pivotal event in the solidifying a community. It reminded me of the @media conference of 2005, in which loads of UK web developers first met each other and realised that there is actually a community of UK front-enders and we’re not just a collection of lonely weirdos who read A List Apart. Friendships began; businesses were formed, networks opened and a community came of age. I wonder if Content people in Africa will look back at CSForum 2012 like that.
I stuck around in Cape Town for a while, hobnobbing with the great and the good, doing five press interviews, giving some tech talks for developers and business people at Saatchi and Saatchi and the workplace of an old friend Allan Kent who’s Head of Digital at South Africa’s leading media group, Primedia.
An impromptu meet-up was arranged by a Sean O’Connell, a front-end dev, and hosted by Paul Cartmel at New Media Labs (thanks chaps). It was over-subscribed, and too many pizzas and beers were bought; we soldiered on, drinking too much beer and eating too much pizza. (Banana on pizza is wrong, by the way).
I did a talk on why standards are great and good for business (sorry about ugly slides; there wasn’t much time and I preferred gawping at penguins, Chapman’s Peak and brunching with beautiful people to wrangling presentation software!).
In amongst meet-ups and press interviews I did some sight-seeing, mostly under the kindly protection of Allan and saintly Wendy who drove me round to look at Cape Point, Simons Town, Kommetjie, Boulders and other gorgeous places. Their hospitality meant I saw so much I wouldn’t otherwise have done. Thanks so much to both of them.
On my last day, I skived emails after the last press interview and went to Robben Island where the apartheid-era political prisoners were kept. Having been to Auschwitz and Cambodia’s killing fields this year, I didn’t need another reminder of how vile people can be to each other. One redemptive thing about Robben Island, though, is that there are still ex-prisoners and ex-guards living on the island, giving tours around the prison.
On my last night, South Africa’s leading pointillist painter, Gavin Rain, picked me up in his posh car and we drove to Camps Bay where all the beautiful people go. Unfortunately, I was so affected by some twilight Death Pollen that I had to wear my shades all night (not uncommon in Camps Bay). But it did mean my attempts at mild flirtation with the gorgeous Kenyan waitress came to naught, as she doubtless thought Gavin and I were a gay couple splitting up and that I was crying in grief.
My guidebook – which should be renamed “The Alarmist Guide to Cape Town” – had cautioned me never to step out of my hotel or I’d have my kidneys removed. I never felt at all threatened in Cape Town’s CBD. In fact, just the opposite; it was vibrant, friendly and fun.
I don’t know what I expected of South Africa. I suppose I imagined lots of grumpy Afrikaanas trying to pretend they’d never been racist, and desperately poor black people. There certainly are many desperately poor black people; white South African households’ income is six times higher than black ones according to the latest census. And it seems to me that the elder statesmen like Mandela, Sisulu etc are gone, leaving a outrageously corrupt group governing the country.
But it felt to me (from my admittedly brief visit, cocooned in nice hotels in a prosperous city) that South Africa is on its way up, rather than down to Zimbabwe-like failed statehood. The workplaces I visited were highly multi-racial, as you’d expect given the demographics but as you might not expect given the recent history of the country.
Cape Town is probably the most beautifully situated city I’ve visited, with excellent cuisine (mmm, ostrich steaks and Bunnychow). All that, plus I got to talk to interesting people about cool stuff meant that I had a splendid time. Thanks so much to all those I met who made it so memorable.
“Cambodia’s great”, enthuses the twenty-something gap-year Italian woman in the air-conditioned internet cafe where they bake great croissants. “It’s just that there are too many tourists.”
That’s the trouble with being a tourist: all the other tourists. Whereas *I* am a sensitive seeker after knowledge, a traveller, everyone else is a mere tourist. A particularly twisted manifestation of “I am a traveller NOT a tourist”-itis is to be found by the resentment that many Western tourists feel towards Asian tourists in places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or Wat Pho in Thailand. There’s a particular type of Western tourist I call the “I’m not religious but I’m really spiritual” genus (that is, “I like joss sticks and New Age music but am too lazy for philosophy or reading”). They resent the bus loads of Taiwanese/ Vietnamese/ Korean/ Japanese tourists who come to the temples by the aircon busload and walk around talking excitedly and taking photos of each other in Asian poses. How dare they come by bus instead of tuk-tuk? How dare they obviously enjoy themselves instead of walking around reverently?
Here’s an example found at random:
We rode off when the tour groups started to come with busloads of loud Japanese and Chinese tourists, most of whom didn’t even bother to look at the temples, preferring to carry on their noisy conversations instead. Where we had spent almost four hours most of the tours were in and out in 15 minutes.
Disgraceful! Asian Buddhists walk around enjoying Asian Buddhist sites, and in a manner not exactly the same as how I do? They should be instantly banned, as only white people have feelings delicate and sensitive enough to enjoy Angkor.
This can lead to a syndrome I’ve noticed in Nepal and Thailand I call “My Personal Yellow People Theme Park”, in which unimaginably wealthy young white people travel thousands of miles to get drunk at full moon parties with other unimaginably wealthy young white people, or go white water rafting, or trekking, or to gawp at long-necked hill tribe people, while their only interaction with the locals is to order food from them, be driven to the next theme park ride by them, or to fuck them (depending on the type of tourist they are).
Of course, I have no high horse to ride. I bargained people down by 30 cents, perhaps depriving them of some food to save me less money than the price of a watery draft beer on Pub Street.
And I had an attack of “I’m not religious but I’m really spiritual”-itis. It’s easy to do in temples as vast as Angkor where it’s possible to find quiet places – or whole temples that are empty – and to sit and reflect. The gigantic temples being overtaken by the jungle can’t help but put you in mind of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, and the fact that we were there as a family to scatter my grandmother’s ashes leads to inevitable introspection about mortality.
It’s been suggested that I’m a boorish idiot without a spiritual bone in my body. I’m not given to flights of fancy or purple prose, but from my vantage point on a ledge at the twelfth century Angkor Wat, I was thinking of how time destroys all and the only constant is change – just as Buddha said – and was moved to write this rap song. Hopefully it communicates something of the beauty and the mystery of Angkor Wat.
When I was a young man in the late 80s, for reasons to convoluted to go into, I was a regular drinker at a local social club for Polish people who’d come over to the UK in the war. I got to know several colourful characters; one was Jan, an old man with highly idiosyncratic English and smile lines etched deep into his face, who carried in his wallet a photograph of his handsome younger self in Polish millitary uniform and who had stabbed several SS officers to death. Another was an elderly lady whose name was Marta who had her Auschwitz number tattooed on her arm.
Both of them are almost certainly dead now, but I was thinking of them as I’m in Krakow, Poland with a free day before a meet-up tonight, I decided to visit Aushwitz. (I went with Krakow Shuttle, who picked me up and dropped me at my hotel for 120PLN (about £25), including all admission fees, a very knowledgeable English-speaking guide and a simple packed lunch).
As a site, Auschwitz 1 is unremarkable – almost banal. It was built originally by the Poles as a military barracks, and that’s what it looks like: nothing sinister except for the famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the entrance, the electrified barbed wire and the gas chamber.
The banality of the exterior makes exhibits in the blocks even more shocking. The mountain of human hair (7000 tonnes were found, apparently) that the SS were selling to industry for 50 pfennigs a kilo for stuffing sofas and making socks made several of our party cry. The mountain of prosthetic limbs, shoes, cooking pots, toothbrushes and childrens’ toys are almost too hard to look at.
Even after that, nothing prepares you for the gas chamber – much larger than I’d expected – and the crematoria. To stand in a place where hundreds of thousands were murdered, to look up at daylight coming through the vents through which the Zyklon B was poured is …. well, I don’t know what it is. Such unimaginable horror took place in that room, and you can feel it.
Auschwitz 2, Birkenau, is a 5 minute drive away. It must be the bleakest place on Earth – flat, featureless, cold, muddy, windswept, just a train track through the middle where the cattle trucks rolled in, surrounded by barracks. We stood where the selections took place, and then walked the same route that countless disabled, elderly, sick people, children and pregnant women walked, directly from selection to destruction.
There’s a bleak monument in between the ruins of the two gas chambers and crematoria (the Germans blew them up to try to hide their crimes as the Red Army advanced). Surrounding the monument are plaques, with a central message translated into multiple languages: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and warning to humanity, where the nazis murdered about one and a half million men women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe”.
That’s the terrible thing – “a warning to humanity”. As we drove around Krakow, I saw at least three crossed-out stars of David sprayed on to walls. And, in my lifetime, we’ve seen the killing fields of Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the genocide in Rwanda and Darfur.
It’s a warning that continues to go unheeded.