All posts by Bob

The long overdue “so how did the new year’s resolutions go?” postmortem post.

What do you mean I haven’t posted a blog post in over a year? Lies. I’ve just blocked you. That’s why you can’t see them. Yes you.

 

Well yes, obviously it didn’t go that well given that my secret extra resolution was to blog a lot more. In my defense though it’s extremely hard to motivate oneself to write after completing a massive soul-destroying project (now available for anyone to read here, should you dare) which crushed both my self-confidence and will to get out of bed in the morning. It’s also doubly difficult to blog when you’re technically homeless and sleeping in your boss’s garden like some sort of medieval serf (cheers though Tom!).

 

Still, let’s go through the list and see how I did shall we?

 

Resolution 0: No flights

Accomplished? Yes, easily. But to be fair, it’s easy to keep this resolution when you have no money for a holiday and work doesn’t require it. I’m going to try to keep up with this one though, I think it’s environmentally prudent.

 

Resolution 1: Sleep outside at least once a month

Accomplished? Hmmm, sort of. I definitely failed on doing this on a once a month basis – defeated in January by cold weather and a lost hammock strap. However, the logs I recently compiled for my Mountain Training logbook led me to work out that I spent 117 nights camping out this year either in a tent or bivy bag. I’d say that accomplished the spirit of the resolution, if not the letter. This year I’ll aim for 12+ nights out again, though I’m not going to hold myself to a strict monthly schedule.

 

Resolution 2: Practice some bushcraft skills

Accomplished? Oh yes, definitely. Spending the summer teaching Bushcraft skills to kids, lighting campfires multiple times a week, regularly field cooking and plenty of knife and shelter work mean that I’ve definitely had a lot of practice. Once again I’m going to try to keep this up this year, albeit at a probably lower intensity.

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Resolution 3: Experiment a bit with media

Accomplished? Not at all. About the most I managed in 2017 was to finally get an instagram account. Living in the woods really wasn’t conducive to this, and to be perfectly honest I’d pretty much forgotten about this resolution a week after I made it. This year I’ll take another stab at it, potentially trying to get some quality video of a couple of adventures I have planned.

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So what about this year then? Here’re the resolutions for 2018 (yes, I know we’re halfway through February already):

Resolution 0: No flights

Resolution 1: Sleep outside at least once a month twelve nights

Resolution 2: Practice more bushcraft skills

Resolution 3: Experiment a bit with media

 

Resolution 4: Complete Lowland Leader Training

This has been a back burner goal of mine for a while now – racking up a few outdoor qualifications. Outdoor ed/guiding is my dream “fallback” career from academia and I want to make positive steps to make this a reality. Plus, it doesn’t hurt when it comes to field teaching. I have a few more quality lowland days to rack up early on in the season, and then I want to at least get my training sorted this summer. In an ideal world I’d also get my assessment done this year – but it might take me slightly longer to complete enough days.

Resolution 5: Blog more!

I really need to get back into the habit of writing again. To this end I want to start using this blog a bit more. Progress updates on the above resolutions and a few random rants I’ve got stored up to begin with. Then we’ll see what else I feel like.

 

I have a few more goals, some work related and some financial – which I don’t really feel like going into here. But that’s where things stand at the start of 2018, hopefully it’s going to be a great year.

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12 Nights in a Hammock

I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions. Most of the time I think they’re just setting yourself up to fail – they’re an all or nothing proposition usually, and they’re often forgotten the moment you have your first stumble. How many resolutions to go to the gym every Saturday survive that first weekend away in late January? How many times does someone declare “no more chocolate” right up until discount mini-eggs appear on the shelves? Not many, I would wager. It’s also very hard to just decide to change based on a whim, rather than by being forced to through circumstance.

This year however, I am going to set a few long-term goals. I’m hoping I’ll have a little more luck than most since they’re things I actually want to do anyway – not chores in service of fitness or self-improvement (though handily they won’t hurt in these areas either).

Resolution 0: No flights

I think I pretty much covered this in a previous post, so I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

Resolution 1: Sleep outside at least once a month

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Underquilts + hammocks = literally the cosiest camping experience possible.

I’ve spent the last year or so putting together and dialling in my hammock camping setup. It’s now at the point where I’m confident about sleeping out in it at any temperature ranging from a few degrees above freezing, through to whatever sweaty limit that I wouldn’t manage to sleep in regardless of whether or not I was in a bed. Despite all of this, I haven’t found loads of opportunities to try it out in earnest. I’ve had a couple of days walking in the Borders over the summer where I slept in the hammock, as well as a night on Islay in December – but I want to make the most of my weekends this year and get a good few nights outside sorted.

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A glorious night was spent in the trees behind this ruined church on Islay in late December. There’s a lot to be said for warm west coast winters, though I could have done without the near gale force gusts.

The way I’m going to do this is with a pretty arbitrary structure: one night out a month. This should be pretty achievable, even in busy months, and it tallies with my plans to get out in my own backyard a bit more. A monthly “microadventure” to push myself into being a bit more active and appreciating my own countryside. Other bonus benefits of this include getting a little bit more confident about stealth camping in some riskier spots (in preparation for some long-term bike related plans). And, because I’m not locked in to too specific a schedule I can skip the windier or colder nights and make it up later in the month.

Resolution 2: Practice some bushcraft skills

As long as I’m camping out once a month, I may as well take the opportunity to practice some bushcraft skills (especially since, for unspecified reasons which may become clear in a future post, I may need them in the near future). At the very least I want to try out a few new camping recipes, practice some more fire starting, and maybe try a little bit of foraging.

Resolution 3: Experiment a bit with media

This is a funny one. Not a lot of people know this, but for a couple of years back in the day I used to record a regular podcast. Don’t look for it, because it’s hopefully nowhere to be found any more. We made it back when I was 17-19 or so, so I imagine that it’s completely unlistenable now. However I’ve never really fallen out of love with the format, I love listening to them, and I hope one day to go back to regularly recording one.

For the moment I’d like to experiment a bit with video. Not really vlogging, because let’s be honest, my life isn’t that interesting, but also not instructional videos, because that market is more than saturated in the hammocking and bushcraft categories. Instead I want to do something in between, some sort of mini podcast-esque adventurey videos. I might not even put them online, but it’ll be fun to practice my presenting skills and video editing. We’ll see where that goes.

Anyway, those are my goals for 2017 (beyond the obvious ones, which mostly revolve around gainful employment). If all goes well I’ll update throughout the year (because I should probably use this blog for something other than angry rants) with photos and trip reports.

Climate, travelling, and the ethics of the round the world plane ticket.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between climate change and travelling. Part of this comes from finally handing in my PhD. I’ve been cooped up behind my desk for a good few months, and it’s been a long time (barring a couple of weekends and field trips) since I’ve really had the opportunity to go anywhere or do much exciting. The last decent trip I did was a pre-conference field trip around parts of Australia, a week long road trip from Sydney to Melbourne two long years ago. Even though it was a work trip (and thus spent almost entirely underground), we had a fantastic time doing some quick exploration of the Blue Mountains and Kosciuszko National Park. Kosciuszko in particular was an absolutely stunning locale, true wilderness in places with stunning vistas and wild horses and kangaroos roaming freely. I would love to go back there (spiders aside) and spend a few days or weeks roaming around.

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That said, another visit to Australia isn’t on the cards for me any time soon. The last visit was only possible thanks to my research grant paying for the flights to the conference (thanks EU!), and a convenient talk prize paying for the field trip (suck it BP!). International flights simply aren’t available on my personal travel budget at the end of a PhD when I’m job hunting. I’m also starting to question the morality of it, to be perfectly honest. The carbon footprint of that journey, according to one calculator online, is apparently the equivalent of 4.96 tonnes of CO2 for the flights alone. Given that the average carbon footprint of a human globally is 4 tonnes/year it seems a somewhat excessive thing to so cavalierly dump that much more CO2 into the atmosphere. I can justify it to myself when I’m doing it for a climate change related conference (barely), but how can I claim to love the natural world and contribute to so much damage to it at the same time? How can I justify doing that damage in the name of exploring it? It seems an act of almost arrogant selfishness to consider making trips like that for my own gratification, knowing that climate change can destroy the very environments I’m travelling to see.

I got into climate change research to make a difference. I did a PhD to try and add to our knowledge of the climate system, and I even think I succeeded in doing my part to add that little tiny sliver of knowledge that the next person can build upon. At, more or less, the end of that journey I’m kind of unsatisfied with it. As much as I enjoyed that trip to Australia, as good as that conference was, did I achieve anything there? Possibly one day the proxy technique I discovered will lead to greater understanding of the climate system. But it won’t stop climate change. It won’t curb CO2 emissions. And it won’t make a difference.

So what can I do that will? I’m currently looking for jobs with a slightly more direct impact, perhaps not as global an impact, but something more measured and immediate. I’m pursuing something in the environmental sector (and hey, if you’re hiring and interested hit me up!), something where I can work on sustainable transport, or energy, or educating the public. But that’s a slightly different conversation for a different time. At the moment I want to talk about travelling, adventuring and the outdoors.

You don’t have to look very far on the Internet, or for that matter in a library, to find a philosopher (wannabe or otherwise) proclaiming loudly about the benefits of travel. They talk about self-betterment, of stress-relief, of broadening one’s horizons, of seeing the wonders of the world, and a whole host of other statements (for a typical essay on the form, try here). These statements aren’t necessarily wrong, or at least I don’t necessarily disagree with them. I think though, that in an age where we’re finally starting to realise the impact those travels have on the world a round the world ticket becomes something much harder to justify. It’s almost a statement, not of a desire to broaden one’s horizons, but of a desire to selfishly exploit them. It’s a display of wealth and privilege not available to most. John and Jane Smith, fresh out of university, flying to Africa on an organised tour to climb Kilimanjaro aren’t raising awareness of anything – and I have my doubts about the journey being all that useful for self-discovery. Meanwhile, they’re wearing another path into the hillside, taking another few flights and driving another few hundred miles in 4x4s.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a new philosophy about travelling. After all, in a globalised and multicultural world we can experience other cultures in our own hometowns. You can watch a Mexican drama, eating Indian food, whilst sitting on Swedish furniture if you so desire. Other cultures are everywhere around us, and it’s a daily wonder. We haven’t yet found a way to bring the Grand Canyon into our own home, but Google are probably working on it.

So here’s a suggestion: let’s spend a bit less time on planning grand gap year adventures around South East Asia, and spend a little bit more time exploring our backyards instead. The carbon footprint of going for a bike ride a few miles up the road and then sleeping in the woods is a lot lower than an international flight. All of those truisms about travelling hardening you up or helping you to learn who you truly are (“The true quarry of any great adventurer. Is the undiscovered territory of their own soul” and all that) are just as true when you travel under your own steam. Maybe we can redefine ecotourism to mean something that is actually ecologically friendly. Is it eco-friendly to dump oxygen bottles at base camp? Is it eco-friendly to tramp large tour groups through sensitive environments? Let’s take fewer trips to raise awareness of problems (whilst contributing to them), and instead promote more low carbon journeys supporting local businesses, exploring local landscapes and keeping the wild actually wild. And hey, maybe while you’re camping in the woods pick up a few empty cans and bottles to dispose of huh?

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Disclaimer: It’s winter, I’m poor, and I’ve not been on holiday in a long time. Maybe this is all just sour grapes, and not high-minded environmentalism. Who can tell?

Quick HowTo: Modding an Alpkit Brukit to take any pan.

My current stove is an Alpkit Brukit. It’s a nifty little thing that excels at one purpose: boiling a pan full of water in its integrated pot. For the price, weight and convenience this camp stove excels. However, it is limited to its built in pot, as putting any other pot on the top will cut off the air supply to the burner.

So here’s a picture guide to a little 15 minute, £4 project that will let you use the Brukit with any old camping pan you own.

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Here’s our raw materials. One £4 tesco barbecue grill thingy. A pre-made grill, with wire that one can safely assume is non-galvanised and can withstand a bit of heat.

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Step 1: Separate the two halves of the grill. This takes mere moments to unclip two bits of metal with a pair of pliers (the only tool this project needs). The half on the left has been put aside – I plan to use it as a potential campfire grill at some point in the future.

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Step 2: Clip out a section of grill sufficiently long to match the internal circumference of the alpkit burner. The height can be varied, but aim for about 1.5cm to match the depth of the heat sink on the base of the kit pot – perhaps adding a little more to allow the flame to disperse across the base (you don’t want to burn your meals).

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Step 3: This isn’t strictly necessary, but I’ve also clipped out a square grill for the top – just to help balance a pot on the top a little better.

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Step 4: Assembly. Bend the strip of grill into place, and plop down the flat piece on the top. I left a little extra on the grill to to help hold the flat piece in place in case the surface isn’t totally flat.

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And voila! The finished article. Here shown with a frying pan sitting on the top.

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A quick performance test shows the water boiling in this pan approximately as quickly as when done with the built in pan. I imagine there’s slightly more heat loss, but this is Good Enough (TM).2016-06-03 16.26.31.jpg

So there you are. a £4 modification to let the Alpkit Brukit be used with any camping pan (or kettle, or coffee maker, or whatever). It has flaws, I don’t know how long it will last, and it definitely leaves the flame a bit more open to the wind – but not bad for £4 and 15 minutes.

BBC Sport: If I was in charge

When you work in an office environment (like I do) then you end up watching a lot of sport on your second monitor during the summer. This is doubly true during years where the Olympics or World Cup are held in appropriate time zones. My Masters degree coincided with the 2012 Olympics, and frankly I’m as surprised as you are that I have a Masters degree.

These days, though, it’s all about the cycling for me. Which, when it comes to the BBC, means coverage provided by a BBC sports journalist somewhere in an office with a microphone watching the feed from Eurosports (or occasionally ITV) because the BBC can’t afford the broadcast rights for the events. The exact same thing happens with the main events of most sports, with the exceptions of the rare occasions when the BBC decides it’s worth whatever cost for them to show it. That would be the Olympics, and football. Of course these rights are sold through the IOC, FIFA or the like – and therefore are at an astronomical price to the British tax payer. [As an aside, what is it with large sports organisations and corruption? Is it just an inevitable case of power corrupts?].

Not being privy to the internal budgets of the British Broadcasting Corporation I can’t speculate on how much of their budget is spent on these large events – but I guarantee you it’s a small fortune if the premier league is anything to go by. In fact the BBC is rapidly being priced out of large sporting events.

So, what would be different if I was in charge?

Forget the lot of them.

Any conversation about the BBC and its purpose inevitably boils down to this: Lord Reith’s declared purpose of “inform, educate, entertain” and the inevitable debate over what it means to be a public service, and whether that precludes pushing commercial interests. Personally, I have no problem with the BBC making a bit of money by producing commercially viable entertainments and selling them to overseas markets. America gets its Doctor Who and Top Gear, and we get a bigger budget to spend on other things. That’s fine. But when it comes to commercial sport the BBC is never going to manage to compete with a commercial enterprise which can sell adverts during big events. Every additional viewer of a large sporting event means that commercial providers like BT and Sky can bid even more for it – because they’ll make even more money back on ad revenues. The BBC can’t compete with that for the big events, so as far as I’m concerned they shouldn’t even try. The public get to see their large events anyway – because they’re going to watch them on the ad-supported channels anyway – and on the off chance that they don’t have access to those channels the BBC can continue its excellent radio and text coverage online.

Now that I’ve saved the BBC millions on their budget, what shall I spend it on?

Sport!

I have a vision for what BBC sport could be. I can’t claim total credit, because I actually got the idea from the unlikeliest of possible places – the BBC itself. One of the best regular BBC shows is one that you’ve never heard of. It’s beautifully shot, well commentated, focuses on (largely) very British locations and promotes some more obscure events and regions. It’s called The Adventure Show, and the reason you’ve never seen it is that it’s barely promoted and is shown exclusively on BBC Two Scotland at dinner time for 10 nights out of the year. I highly recommend checking out the show yourself, but in a nutshell it consists of a presenter and a camera crew filming episodes around adventure sports. They go to small, interesting UK sporting competitions and film the stories behind them and show some of the highlights. Sometimes they even compete themselves. A good example of this is their Strathpuffer episode where they document a midwinter 24-hour mountain bike race in the north of Scotland (and if you watch very, very carefully you may spot my friend Cat competing in). The show is fantastic, and it doesn’t cost very much because all it requires is a presenter and a camera crew. Half the time the events probably don’t even charge the BBC to film them, because they’re glad of the publicity.

The BBC has national studios spread across the country. They have presenters, they have camera crews and they have the resources to broadcast on both television and online. What’s stopping them from relaunching a new BBC Sport channel showing amateur British sports across the country? And isn’t that what the BBC is for? We can inform and educate the public about sporting events they don’t know about, whilst entertaining them with fun stories and sporting competition. All the while performing a public service by giving exposure to events which might otherwise fly under the radar because there’s not a large enough existing audience for commercial viability. Football doesn’t need any help, but I’m sure British Archery would love to show their larger events to the public. I’m sure the national ice hockey or roller derby leagues would love to have their games on national television. Women’s sporting events can finally be shown in full, I’d like to see a bit more than just the barest highlights of the women’s six nations. There was supposed to be an olympic sporting legacy where people discovered new sports and got out there to try them – maybe a new BBC Sport channel can be the reminder and the gateway which lets them find local, exciting sports which might interest them.

Le Tour de France: If I was in charge

I love watching the Tour de France. For 3 weeks out of the year work in this office grinds to a halt between 2-4pm or so as the cyclists converge around monitors and occasionally coffee room iPads to watch the final 60 odd kms of each stage. We gleefully cheer on breakaways, bemoan our poor choices in our fantasy league (I was last again this year – knew I should’ve backed Froome rather than Quintana and Contador), and wince at mechanicals and punctures. And every year, we have the same conversations about two main topics: doping and touring – and I wonder about how we could make the Tour even more exciting to watch.

Doping

First, the inevitable spectre of doping. Every year at the Tour it raises it’s ugly head. Typically in the lead up we hear from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Tony Blair of cycling, chief-scumbag himself as he desperately tries to get the media spotlight on him once again. This is rapidly followed by someone, usually either a past-offender or the latest Astana team member testing positive for something stupid. Then, finally, through the race itself someone inevitably has a good day of cycling and the unfounded speculation begins.

It’s boring. I’m tired of hearing about it. Everyone (including me) assumes that they’re all on drugs, nobody is particularly surprised when anyone is busted. Nobody is surprised when someone is busted AGAIN, after receiving a trivial off-season ban (or, in the rare cases of a ban with teeth, they then start commentating!). Nobody views therapeutic use exemptions with anything other than weary scepticism.

So why don’t we just give up? If it’s really this hard to stop it, if it’s really so hard to prevent these guys from micro-dosing EPO in their hotel rooms, why don’t we just say go for it?

Imagine this: a 3-week anything goes race across France. A peloton travelling uphill at 60kph with track-marked riders snorting cocaine off their handlebars and guzzling blood bags like nosferatu. Pharmaceutically enhanced Übermensch competing against bionically enhanced cycle samurai fresh from the fevered dreams of William Gibson.

Imagine seeing riders exceeding the limits of human abilities on a daily basis. Superhuman feats of speed and endurance shattering records daily. I’d watch it!

Hell, it might even do leaps and bounds for medical science. Then again, there might be some ethical concerns after the first few self induced health crises…

Maybe this idea will need to go back to the drawing board. Let’s try something else.

Touring

At this point, why even call it the Tour de France*? The Tour de France bears about as much resemblance to bicycle touring as an olympic javelin event bears to spear hunting gazelles on the African savannah. So while the EPO-junkies as described above have their “Tour” sprinting up hills and outpacing the team cars (which they’d otherwise linger against, lovingly stroking the outstretched hand of their team manager for just a little too long) we can run a real Tour de France!

Here are my new rules:

  • No team cars
  • No motorhomes
  • No team doctors, chefs, masseuses, mechanics, coaches, etc.
  • No hotels
  • No drugs **
  • Riders must camp and carry everything on their bikes
  • Riders followed only by referee cars and camera crews
  • Stages aren’t rigidly defined – there’s a start and a finish overall, with maybe some checkpoints on the way
  • All supplies and repairs along the way have to be bought from existing businesses or carried from the start
  • We make the riders actually do a real three week bike tour across France

Now this maybe doesn’t sound as exciting as the current form that the tour takes. It will certainly be slower, there’s not going to be lots of attacking up climbs the morning after the whole field has slept on a gravelly French alpine camp site. There might even not be true Pelotons, as teams do their own route finding. But imagine the potential for stories!

Suddenly there’s fresh drama during the stages, fresh tactical decisions to make, and minor events like punctures take on new significance. Legends will be made about bodged self-repairs, camp site shenanigans, risky shortcuts up dirt tracks, tragic losses of maps to adverse weather, and comical misunderstandings by British riders in boulangeries. The age of social media brings immediacy to these stories, we’d get to follow the live outrage as Team Sky buys every energy gel in the Carrefour. Indeed, with live GPS tracking of riders we could see thrilling maps as teams take different routes and commentators discuss the merits of different mountain passes. Even the bikes get more interesting: do you go full carbon, pack light and bivvy uncomfortably? Or do you opt for something more reliable and pack heavier in the hopes that better rest helps you out in the later stages? Domestiques begin to be favoured not just for their riding abilities, but also for their camp cooking skills, sports massage and map reading abilities. Miles from a bike shop there are tense stand-offs as BMC negotiates with Tinkoff-Saxo to swap spokes for inner tubes.

We can even keep some of the modern innovations in the tour, this adds even more tactics to the route finding. Do you go out of the way for those sprint and KOM points? Or do you keep your team together to protect your GC contender? A lot more tactics will start being displayed in the racing.

This would inject fresh drama into a sport which otherwise can often see a peloton riding almost as if the race was neutralised until the last 30km climbs to a mountaintop finish. I’d be glued to the screen for three weeks.

*I’m being facetious and pedantic here, I know perfectly well the history of the Tour – but bear with me.
**Or at least our best efforts. Let’s be honest, nobody believes this’ll be achievable.

A later addendum:

Oh yes, and both of those races should have equivalent women’s races. It’s a travesty the lack of attention women’s cycling gets – it’s just as good. A full women’s Tour de France is long overdue.

Why I Hate Record Store Day

So today is Record Store Day, the day when a whole lot of exclusive limited edition hard to find records are released to the world*. Theoretically this is to promote independent record stores, opening them up to a new audience who might not otherwise wander in, keeping these shops afloat and relevant in this modern age of Amazon and all the rest. I have all sorts of issues with this, but I’ll start instead with an account of my experience of Record Store Day this year.

So I got up, on a Saturday, to leave the house and get a bus to Sunderland at 7:45am. Anyone who knows me will know how out of character this is for me. Leaving aside the insane idea of me getting up before noon on a Saturday, I went to SUNDERLAND. I hate going to Sunderland. The only way people have been able to get me there in the last year or so has been with the promise of a vigorous session of laser tag – but that’s a digression. Anyway, so there I was at 9am queuing outside Hot Rats Record Store with a group of around 30 other customers. We waited, in silence for the most part, for a half hour or so as we were ushered into the store one by one to see if our desired records were there and then leave.

I’ll briefly interrupt to mention what I was actually after at RSD15. I really only wanted two records, although there were a few I would be vaguely interested in if on a flip through they jumped out at me.

The main two though were these:

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A Warpaint/Daughter Split EP where they’d remixed each other’s songs. The Daughter remix of Feeling Alright is really awesome, and Warpaint are pretty much my favourite band these days. I have all of their vinyl releases (bar one which seems to be a US Rough Trade exclusive), and I love sitting back and listening to them. Needless to say this was a must have. However I didn’t have a lot of hope for getting this – as it’s a limited run of only 500.

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The other was a Courtney Barnett single (inexplicably pressed as a 12”) with a John Cale cover on the B-Side. I’m absolutely infatuated with Courtney Barnett’s music at the moment, having recently picked up her new album. So again, I really wanted this.

Once I was ushered in the door and up to the counter I was asked “What are you after?”. Turns out they had no copies of Courtney Barnett’s single, and their sole copy of the Warpaint/Daughter EP had already been sold (they’d ordered three, but of course they didn’t get that many). Oh well, out the door I went and the next walking wallet was ushered in. There was no incentive to spend any more time than that in the shop to be perfectly honest.

Similar story over at Pop Recs, albeit with even fewer releases and neither of the ones I was after. Awesome. So I said sod it and went home. A wasted trip all around.

None of the stores had anything else on really, and I actually hate digging through endless crates of rubbish – so there was no point in me hanging around. Fortunately, shortly after I got home the postie arrived with an Amazon parcel for me. What could it be? (Find out at the end!)

So here’s my beef. I don’t buy records as collectables†. I don’t buy them as investments or wall art or because they’re rare and that makes me feel special. I buy them because I really enjoy the format as a way to listen. You sit down, you pay attention, you admire the cover art, photo inserts and/or lyrics and you experience the music in a way that just isn’t the same as playing it in the background as you work, walk or exercise. I generally do that too – it’s why I also like having music in a digital format – but I treasure the experience of sitting down and actually listening to an album. I wanted both of those releases because they were music from two artists i love that I wanted to listen to. So I was genuinely pretty gutted that I couldn’t buy them. Music is for listening to, not collecting, and a limited release only deprives fans of the chance to listen to it.

And here’s my other issue. Most record stores? I’m sorry, but they suck.

In this they have a lot of common with games stores. There are two types. Type 1 (and the rarest) is the good kind – an owner who wants people to come in, who makes it a friendly place and goes the extra mile to have the store actually provide a service which can’t be matched by the internet. This is what it takes to keep a store business going – you can’t just have a pile of stuff, the internet will always have more. Type 2 is the store which doesn’t really want customers, it’s a place hostile to non-regulars probably run by someone who opened it to indulge their own hobby (gotta love that wholesale discount). Record store day doesn’t help either of those types of people. The Type 2s are the same as always, and the Type 1s are too stressed out to offer any of the actual benefits of being a Type 1 store. I hear mythical tales of stores with live bands and special events on RSD – I’ve never seen one. I know Pop Recs does that at other times – and good on them, but it doesn’t make Record Store Day any better.

Sometimes business models just die, sometimes the new thing is better. Nobody mourns the loss of the horse and cart industry. If Amazon can rush ship me Courtney Barnett’s Double EP the day after I order it then why would I take a 45 minute bus ride to rummage through some crates on the off chance a shop has it? I don’t feel particularly guilty about the one vinyl which I actually got to play today.

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*Only to certain Record Stores. In extremely limited numbers. Available only to people who can queue outside a store at 9am.

†As of writing there are 4 copies of the Warpaint/Daughter EP on Discogs and 14 on eBay. 9 copies of Kim’s Caravan on Discogs and 19(!!) on ebay. All mint and still in shrinkwrap of course.

Much, much later update:

I managed to find both records online at their normal prices through Rough Trade and RecordStore.co.uk – turns out they had a bunch of surplus which they didn’t send to the stores. Typical.

River Safety – No Simple Solutions

River safety has been a hot topic in Durham recently, with three students killed and now another rescued from the river in the middle of the night. Understandably, conversations have turned to how to prevent this happening again in the future, and a petition to “install CCTV cameras along the river banks, add some lighting for the safety of the public and/build a railing to ensure that this doesn’t happen anymore. “ These events are tragic, and have been deeply upsetting to the residents of Durham. There’s no wonder that people are demanding that something, anything, be done by the University, the Police or the County Council.

But there’s a need to be sensible about how we go about it. This isn’t just about the river, it’s about people as well. In general the idea of additional lighting and CCTV cameras in the area isn’t a bad one, at the very least the worry and uncertainty of not knowing what has happened will be reduced. I applaud the people who signed that petition for wanting to take steps to prevent deaths in the river. But these suggestions are just treating the symptoms of a much worse underlying problem. Ignoring for the moment the costs and practicalities of some of these measures (and not even bothering to address the ridiculousness of staffed or locked gates being installed to stop access at night that others have raised), we are still facing an underlying issue which people do not want to acknowledge.

The fact is, that people do not just fall in the river for no reason. Nor is it a malevolent force which has to be guarded against. The paths are, for the most part, not dangerous or crumbling. The world is inherently dangerous – we face dangers every day. However for the most part we avoid these dangers by awareness and care. This is not the case when people are impaired by alcohol.

It is abundantly clear at this point that alcohol is playing a major role in these incidents. The Police have pointed this out, and the University response to the situation is very aware of this. This is not intended as victim blaming. These incidents remain tragic accidents, but we have to acknowledge that alcohol significantly enhances the probability of being involved in an accident. People who are drunk make poorer decisions, are less able both physically and mentally to respond to dangerous situations, and are generally more vulnerable to conditions such as hypothermia. These particular accidents all ended with the river, but the individuals concerned were in danger long before that. All of the barriers and cameras in the world can’t change this. If it wasn’t the river then we would still be having problems with hypothermia, car accidents, violence and muggings involving individuals in this condition.

There are no simple solutions to this problem either of course – if there was we’d have solved the problem long ago. There are sensible, practical steps we can take though. These can be implemented at every level: the university could stress safety in its induction process, colleges could encourage students to stay there, the DSU could step up and actually be an active force in student’s lives (holding events where alcohol isn’t the main focus), Team Durham and sports groups could encourage socials which are not centred solely around drinking – and so on. Some of these solutions may end up being counter-intuitive – keeping college bars open later so that students pace themselves is an example of this. It isn’t going to be easy, drinking is heavily ingrained into student life, and it is far from easy to change a culture. The solutions aren’t simple, and you can’t solve this by throwing money or personnel at the problem. Fence off the entire river, and all you’ll find is people climbing over the fence or taking a shortcut through traffic instead. The University, the Police and the Council can do things to help, but they’re complicated, hard and might not always work. Don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise.

Most importantly, at the very end of the day, it does also need to come down to personal responsibility. Look out for yourselves and look out for your friends. The University, the Police and the Council aren’t there to protect you from yourself.

Bob Mooches Around the Free Fringe

I love the Edinburgh Fringe. Sometimes.

Last weekend I made the arduous journey northwards through the signal-less wastes of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders to visit one of my favourite cities. I adore Edinburgh; it’s the nearest major city to the town I grew up in, so I have a lot of fond childhood and teenage memories of visiting the place. Oddly though, we never used to go to the Fringe. I really don’t enjoy crowds, the last bus home was too early, and I wasn’t really into stand-up comedy before starting uni. These days though I seem to end up in Edinburgh about once a month visiting one of my best friends (Jono – more on that mess later), and I’ve started a bit of an annual tradition of popping up for a weekend and going to free fringe shows with my good friend Robbie.

This year I decided to go up on the Friday night and stay until lunchtime on Sunday – a good couple of evening’s worth of shows and crashing on Robbie’s inflatable mattress, ideal. Then on Thursday morning a Facebook invite pops up for a Pizza Party at Jocelyn’s place on the Sunday evening. Never one to pass up the perfect foodstuff I decided to change tickets, extend my stay, and crash on Jono’s futon on the Sunday night.

Rookie error. I won’t go into the details, but Royal Mail’s “special delivery” which is “guaranteed by 1pm” is none of those things and nearly resulted in me being trapped in Edinburgh. Fortunately East Coast’s customer service is top notch and they sorted spare tickets out for me. An argument for nationalisation if ever I heard one. But let’s move on.

Day 1: Friday – Glitter and Puppets and Drag Queens, Oh My!

No sooner have I dropped off my bag at Robbie’s than the phone rings with Jono encouraging us to go pre-drinking at Katie’s. This is the point where I realise that my plans for a couple of quiet pints have already been dashed against the rocks of Jono’s agenda for the evening. Two pints later and sure enough the four of us are on our way over to a 20 act free show extravaganza at Dive at the Forest Café (“a volunteer run, not-for-profit arts and events space masquerading as a groovy veggie café in the heart of Edinburgh”). The following few hours are something of a glittery blur, but based on the Facebook timings I think these are the acts we saw:

ON THE TANNOY – MISS ANNABEL SINGS!

TWONKEY’S PRIVATE RESTAURANT – “**** a surrealist’s wet dream”

BORIS AND SERGEY’S ASTONISHING FREAKATORIUM – highly acclaimed freaky puppet clown artistry

ADRIENNE TRUSCOTT – winner malcolm hardee award 2013

LEAH KALAITZI – shhh! deaf stand up with bsl interpreter.

EAST END CABARET – winner best cabaret adelaide fringe 2012

OPHELIA BITZ – “voice of an angel…mouth of a filthy gutter-slut.” time out london

LAURIE BLACK – filthy songstress

MCGINN – Songs For Glitter Fetishists

MARKEE DE SAW – musical saw-ceress

BLUDSLUGS – chick raaawwwwwwk!!

CHERRYFOX – burlesque fascinatrix and ‘sing-and-fling’ show grrrl

FIGS IN WIGS – Abstract, hilarious, surreal performance with dancing

LAKE MONTGOMERY – award-winning singer/songwriter from Paris, Texas

COLIN MAGUIRE – spoken word in spandex and a shopping trolley

LACH – antifolk guru and star of BBC radio 4

Of these my top picks are probably The Bludslugs, Boris and Sergey’s Atonishing Freakatorium, and Lake Montgomery. Bludslugs are the Dive house band who rocked pretty hard in (inexplicably) outfits made from carrier bags. Their Soundcloud is here, but they’re a lot better live. B&S’s AF are an improv puppet show – which is a lot better than it sounds. Here’s a sample, although what we saw was substantially more x-rated, and had voices, and puppet sex. Lake Montgomery does really good acoustic music stuff – she has a great voice and is well worth checking out. The rest of the acts were all pretty decent too, and we managed to satisfy Jono’s drag queen quota for the weekend. The compère for the evening was also really good, and performed some cracking Cabaret numbers. Forest Café is a really cool little intimate venue, well worth checking out, and I get the sense that Dive is pretty popular monthly event outside the festival as well. I can see me and Jono ending up there at some point in the not too distant future.

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Day 2: Saturday – Serial Killers, Dildos and a massively racist Japanese Man

Festival top tip: Embo Café/Deli on Leith Walk makes a gorgeous breakfast wrap thing. Also, since it’s on Leith Walk it’s a tourist free zone.

Our plan for Saturday was to just set up in a free venue for the entire afternoon and check out whatever free acts we fancied. Jekyll and Hyde has long been one of my favourite pubs in Edinburgh, and hosts a whole load of Laughing Horse Free Fringe Events. We managed to get a good group of a dozen or so people up for this (including 6 Durhamers!), so we hogged a big table as people dipped in and out of events.

All the Fun of the Fairburn

Rachel Fairburn’s stand up was our first show of the day, and as usual we had absolutely no idea what to expect going in. What followed was an hour of pretty solid stand up about (amongst other things) the family curse, family funeral parlour and her slight obsession with serial killers. Best part? Free serial killer colouring book at the end. The audience was a little disappointing for this show, but I think that’s par for the course at a free event at lunchtime.

Freddie Farrell & Friends

This was one of those free stand up shows which are actually adverts for comedian’s real shows. Short sub-10-minute sets from 6 different comics trying to get you to come along to their own shows. Varying quality, but mostly quite good – these kinds of shows are never a bad idea if you’re looking for things to go to later on. Alex and Mark went along to one of their shows later (101 one liners) and claim it was pretty good.

Nymphonerdiac

This was a show I was excited about from the moment I saw the description. Which I’ll include in its entirety below:

Nymphonerdiac: one’s a nymph, the other’s a nerd and here’s where the twain shall meet. When sex-crazed pole dancing Carmen Ali, and Neanderthal expert Ella Murray first met, Ali offered Murray a threesome, which surprised Murray because she barely gets invited to twosomes. First impressions of each other aside, this year they bring you a stand-up show where their worlds collide like never before, like two atoms in the Hadron Collider, or when cum hits you in the eye. Come along … unless you’re under 18.”

This was right up me and Jono’s alley – because frankly “one’s a nymph, the other’s a nerd” pretty much sums up our friendship. The show itself didn’t disappoint at all. Ella Murray had a some really funny material about jawbones and her (slightly concerning) stalking of another fringe performer. Carmen Ali’s stuff had us simultaneously laughing and cringing in horror at jokes about taking shots out of a mooncup and having anal so rough that you could feel your heartbeat down there the next day. Really funny stuff. The only thing I’d have like to see more of was the two of them playing off each other, as it was the show was more like two separate 30 minute stand up sets. Well worth a watch though.

Ben Norris

Moving on from Jekyll and Hyde we decided to wander over to the Cowgate to change things up a little. We lost a few people as they hared off to get food or see other shows, leaving a core of 6 of us to head along to the rest of the evening. We ran across a little outside bar tent which was conveniently quiet to have a break and a couple of beers whilst remarking upon the DJ duo’s remarkable resemblance to George Michael and Channing Tatum.

Handily enough a Ben Norris show started right next to us, so we headed in to see that. This was a fairly good, regular stand up show – I’d describe his stuff as perhaps a kinder, gentler Louis CK. Generally pretty good, although you could tell he was getting a bit annoyed at the crowd. I don’t think the 40-60 year old council retirees in the front 4 rows were the target audience for jokes about toddlers and pooping.

“Japanese TerminatoL”

Do not go to this show.

I don’t really want to dwell on it too much, because it was just awful. A solid hour of racism and nothing else. The highlight of this show was the drunken Glaswegian girls heckling – who in any other show I’d have despised. Seriously, the best way you could describe this act was “cringe”.

That promptly killed the evening, so we headed back to Robbie’s to crash out. Claire has earned a lifetime ban from picking Fringe shows.

Day 3: Sunday – Chilling out, Festival Fatigue and Pizza Parties

Sunday was planned to be my chillout day, and it was exactly that. I dropped my bag at Jono’s, we had a little wander around an art exhibition and then Jono, Robbie and I spent the afternoon relaxing on a couch in Outhouse. Cracking playlist in there, and some not bad beer.

After that, off we went to Jocelyn’s for pizza and Cards Against Humanity. Solid evening of good fun.

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I think me and Jono then had a drunken heart to heart about art and what it means to us, but again my memories seem to have gone somewhat blurry.

So that was my weekend adventure at the fringe! I caught up with some friends who I’ve really missed (hadn’t seen Robbie in ages), I saw some funny people and had some fine beers. Can’t ask for more than that.

If you’re on the fence about doing a Fringe trip then I can’t recommend it enough. Just find a place you like, hang out there and go to some random stuff. Even if it’s awful you’ll get something out of it. Fringe Fatigue hits hard though, so I’ll be having a good week of being antisocial this week.

Geologists in “acquaintances who drink beer” shocker!

The Independent on Tuesday of this week published an article by Chris Green reporting on the contents of emails between two unnamed individuals working for Cuadrilla and the British Geological Survey (BGS) which were obtained by Greenpeace through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The quotes selected from the cache of e-mails reveal (in dramatic fashion) the revelation that the two individuals in question appear to know each other casually – catching up over a beer and potentially going to a Leonard Cohen concert together. Damning stuff. The article is padded out further with some quotations from an attempt to organise an event (which didn’t actually happen) where the BGS and Durham University were contemplating organising an event to educate journalists about fracking.

Academic institutions are no strangers to this style of reporting, where troves of emails obtained either through FOIA requests or other means are pored over to attempt to cherry pick hints of impropriety. Climate researchers in particular are practically used to it. The “Climategate scandal” was founded on this very issue, where selective quoting and mischaracterisation of what those quotes meant was used to manufacture doubt into the scientific research being undertaken at the University of East Anglia. Subsequent investigations have vindicated the researchers completely. Other climate researchers such as Michael Mann have been hounded with FOIA requests by denier groups in an attempt to seek out more controversial nuggets of text. It’s a surprise then to see these very same tactics being used by an environmentalist group such as Greenpeace.

The case for impropriety here is extremely thin, so much so that I’m actually surprised that Greenpeace weren’t able to dig up anything which looked more damning. Who amongst us thinks that carefully about what we type? Can we really be sure that our own e-mails are any better? I’m sure if you look in the inbox of any habitual email user you can eventually find something which looks damning enough when taken out of context. How many of us have sent emails to old friends or colleagues arranging to have a catch up pint some time?

Not too long ago I received an email from a colleague with an attached Creation “Science” document. The e-mail read: “I guess we had it all wrong”. How does that look out of context? I know that my colleague had their tongue planted firmly in cheek, but is that how it would be reported? Similarly, when I won a BP sponsored presentation prize I proudly joked to my collaborators – “I guess I don’t believe in climate change now!”. Individuals seeking to imply relationships between myself, petroleum researchers and employees of the British Antarctic survey would need to look no further than a series of regular e-mails with the subject “Total Choon!” linking to various music videos.

We all have ill-advised statements sitting in our outboxes, whether they’re jokes or poor word choices. This latest “scandal” isn’t even that, it’s an attempt to cast aspersions on a pair of individuals based solely on their social associations.

Geologists are a sociable bunch, we have a well-known love of beer, and we tend to know our fellow graduates well. Three or more years of shared field trips in cramped, remote hostels with terrible weather tend to form lasting bonds. Friends from my undergraduate degree work across the world, some in academia, many of them in industry. A geologist in the BGS and a geologist in Cuadrilla knowing each other and potentially being friends should hardly be a surprise in this context. The association between the two does not imply any form of impropriety or shady goings on. Indeed many of us maintain friendships with colleagues working in other fields for the purpose of potential future collaborations as well as social engagements. I am working on a PhD in climate research, the fact that a few weeks ago a friend who works for a large multinational oil company slept on my couch doesn’t influence either of our work/research. That said, he did e-mail me this today:

“Hi Bob, how are things

Fancy catching up over a beer sometime – would be interested to hear more on your research into climate. You’ve got a wonderful field location, would be great to find oil out there.

p.s. hope Greenpeace doesn’t read this!

[Anonymised oily friend]

#sarcastic email”

 

Disclosure: I work as a PhD Researcher at Durham University. However I am not associated with any petroleum or fracking researchers (except for Friday evening beers!). I do enjoy some classic Leonard Cohen tunes.