Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday, 29 March 2015

El Caminito del rey

This weekend saw the opening of the newly-restored Caminito del Rey - the King's little pathway - in Malaga, Spain.

Originally built in the early 20th century as an access route for workers on a hydroelectric project, the narrow path along the sides of the gorge fell into disrepair and, after several fatalities, was closed to the public by the authorities. Naturally that was seen as a challenge by some...

I discovered this video some time ago; having no head at all for heights - I once froze up and had to be rescued from the walkway in the Palm House at Kew - I confine my occasional vertiginous thrill-seeking to YouTube, where I can vicariously enjoy this sort of thing from the comfort and safety of my own sofa.

While the new path, which has taken three years to complete, boasts a stable base with sufficient guard rails and netting to bring it within the capabilities of less adrenalin-fuelled visitors, I certainly won't be giving it a try, especially given the sections of glass flooring helpfully offering views of the river 100m below.

However, there are plenty of people who do like the idea; the official booking website crashed within hours of opening and there are more than 30,000 people on the waiting list, meaning it is booked solid for the next few months and on course to pay off some of the staggering €2.7 million cost of the refurbishment.

According to the rules, only 50 people per half hour are allowed to enter the trail - one hopes they don't all decide to stand on the same bit of the walkway at once. It's a bit like those signs giving the maximum lift capacity which have you surreptitiously counting the occupants and wondering exactly how much the manufacturers allowed per person - or is that just me?

Even though I can't imagine ever venturing onto the walkway in person - I'd be the one clinging to the cliff with all ten fingernails and frantically counting passers-by - I can certainly see the attraction of the imposing and dramatic scenery.

What a good thing Youtube gives armchair adventurers the chance to experience it while holding on tightly to a reassuring drink!

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Messing About In Boats

This year's coastal inadequacy season appears to have got off to a flying start with a 25-ft yacht crashing into rocks just off the Isle of Wight en route to Plymouth.
The boat had no safety equipment, Mr Trejbal was navigating with one page from an atlas and when he was rescued he thought he was 30 miles away - in Southampton.
Ah yes, the old page-torn-from-an-atlas navigation technique so beloved of Darwin Award hopefuls - though a little outdated now, perhaps, given the availability of car sat-nav systems.
It is not known where Mr Trejbal, who is a Czech national, set off from but it is thought he eventually wanted to travel to Turkey.
Such is the wonder of modern technology that it took me only a few seconds to establish that this would entail a journey of around 3,200 nautical miles - taking well over a month in a boat of that size - including a cut across the notoriously rough Bay of Biscay; a tall order indeed for such an ill-equipped expedition.

It's not the first incident of its kind and certainly won't be the last. What always puzzles me is that the possession of a road atlas or vehicle sat-nav suggests that, while on land, at least, these people fully appreciate the importance of having some tangible aid to navigation.

Truly the incompetence of mankind knows no bounds - especially at sea!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Putting the Danegeld on plastic

It's four years since I wrote this on the subject of taxpayer-funded Council credit cards, following hot on the heels of the MPs expenses scandal:
Councillors up and down the land have been hitching a ride on the gravy train – and the gravy in question is rich, meaty and laced with truffle-oil. Luxury hotels, lavish meals and gifts from high-end retailers abound, along with tables at award ceremonies and champagne receptions.
Now it seems there is yet another tranche of spending to investigate at the next level down. The Bristol Post has obtained a breakdown of the City Council's expenditure on payment cards for the past year and it makes very interesting reading indeed (there's a list at the end of the article).

These cards are issued to, among others, senior managers, head teachers and 'managers of residential care homes and social workers who need to supply goods to vulnerable people'. That being so, one would expect to find purchases of food, clothing and basic furniture to cover emergencies and there are, indeed, substantial payments to Ikea and Asda (£10,000 and £32,400 respectively).

Likewise, shoes, haircuts, cinema outings and inexpensive restaurant meals for youngsters in Council care are not unreasonable expenses - although £3,266 does seem rather a lot for cinema tickets and eyebrows might be raised at 'multiple trips to Rileys [sic] Snooker Club for pupils at the St Matthias Pupil Referral Unit'.

Some of the payments, however, are rather more baffling: a staggering £686 on 'iTunes downloads', for example, and '£44 in what appears to be a tattoo parlour', not to mention...
....a one-off £189.50 payment to Gay Times magazine. The council insisted this figure was incorrect, and it actually spent £33 on a subscription to Diva magazine, a lesbian magazine, for its library service.
I should have thought that, in this day and age, you could be a lesbian on the internet for nothing. Certainly the only people I've ever seen reading magazines and newspapers in my local library are elderly gentlemen in flat caps who are not, I assume, 'Diva' magazine's target audience.

Most contentious of all are bills for £100 at Ralph Lauren in Spain and £170 for a pair of Ugg boots. Mention of these items brought the Council to the comment section to explain:
 - We've tracked down some more detail: the Ralph Lauren purchase wasn't from Barcelona, it's from their UK website which is billed via Barcelona, and was to buy Christmas presents for children in a residential home. The Ugg boots were another online purchase; to replace a stolen pair which a child in a residential home had got for Christmas.
Now I know that children in care are probably having a rough time and, in modern parlance, may need to enhance their self-esteem, but Ralph Lauren? A quick visit to the website in question reveals that the cheapest child's accessory - a branded baseball cap - will set you back £20. Is it really sensible to endorse and indulge (at public expense) an appetite for designer labels among children who, a few years hence, will struggle if they have not mastered the sensible management of a limited budget?

I'm not, of course, advocating Dickensian levels of oppression and uniformity, but surely you don't have to desire the return of the workhouse to suggest that gifts should be of a less overpriced and superficial nature (though perhaps the impressive £37,800 - over £3,000 per month - spent on Amazon included books and educational toys; we can but hope!). Some of the comments on the article, however, suggest a very different point of view:
 - As I understand it a number of these items were bought for looked after children and the boots to replace some for a child whose boots were stolen. Nothing like making a scandal out of the needs of vulnerable people. The journalist should apologise and give the days salary to charity! 
 - I can't believe that people on here begrudge a Christmas present for someone in a childrens home and to replace some stolen Ugg boots for a child in a childrens home.
Try as I might, I can't quite square designer clothing and £170 Ugg boots with 'the needs of vulnerable people'. While it is reasonable that children in care should receive gifts where culturally appropriate, I would never buy Ralph Lauren branded goods for my own children and I have every sympathy with taxpayers objecting to such wanton extravagance being exercised on their behalf.

As for the stolen boots, there are not enough details to make a judgement, but was it really necessary to replace them (assuming that the originals were indeed the genuine article - '99% of all Uggs on ebay are fakes') with something expensive enough to be a liability in a communal setting? Unless council staff were directly to blame for the loss, there is surely no obligation on the taxpayer to do so.

All in all, it looks rather like someone here is playing Fairy Godmother at other people's expense and enjoying a nice warm glow of generosity while the public foots the bill.

An explanation of sorts is, perhaps, to be found in this, from the same author as the second comment quoted above:
There are families around Bristol that have caused trouble. Property has been damaged, anti social behaviour has caused problems and this has perpetuated over time. 
Now lets look at the costs. Council repairing property, council sending officers to sort out anti social behaviour, legal costs with bringing asbos, legal costs when pursuing broken asbos, court costs, prison costs and all of the officer costs to do the above, plus the police costs and the unquantifiable cost of the effect on neighbours and the local community. 
So now lets look at the programme. It's a high touch programme where council officers help these families change behaviour through the provision of support. The programme has been massively successful and all of the behaviour and costs that I listed above have been dramatically reduced. So the public sector has found a far cheaper way of dealing with problem families.
Revealing, I think you'll agree. It will be interesting to have a look at Bristol's crime figures in a few years' time to see how effective this strategy has proved - particularly if this exposure means the supply of Council-funded goodies dries up.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Six of the best

It was the usual Ankh-Morpork mob in times of crisis; half of them were here to complain, a quarter of them were here to watch the other half, and the remainder were here to rob, importune or sell hot-dogs to the rest. (Terry Pratchett, 'Guards! Guards!')
It's been quite a week for asteroids. According to a fellow enthusiast:
...on March 10, 2015, a 12–28 meter asteroid dubbed 2015 ET cosmically “just missed us”, zipping past Earth at 0.3 lunar distances – 115,200 kilometers, or 71, 580 miles.
Then the pocket-sized 2015 EO6 - possibly the subject of this video - whizzed by a similar distance away, followed by 2015EQ and 2015 EK (both between 15 and 33m in diameter) and the slightly smaller 2015 EF and, today, 2015 EO all passing a mere million or so kilometres above our heads.

The startling number of close fly-bys detected recently, even if they aren't of a size to send us the way of the dinosaurs, makes it much easier to appreciate that an asteroid strike isn't a matter of 'if', but of 'when'.

Eschatology aside, I rather suspect most of us aren't exactly prepared for this. True, official bodies have been undertaking mock exercises, which has to be a good thing, but, on an individual level, I don't see much hope for a sensible and reasoned reaction.

Part of the problem is the constant cries of 'Wolf!' from the media. We've become accustomed to a sort of semi-permanent wibble about everything from global warming to imminent food shortages in the Home Counties while life goes on seemingly unaffected; like children dropping crisp packets on their way home from yet another anti-littering PSHE lesson, the population has ceased to take any notice of what is being said.

Occasionally, however, a particularly alarmist message gets through and we are treated to the edifying sight of supermarkets besieged by shoving hordes squabbling over the last baked goods, fearful lest a threatened snowstorm should delay deliveries and plunge them into an appalling carbohydrate shortage. So used are we to instant gratification that even the mildest of deprivation seems to bring out the worst in some people.

Should a diminutive asteroid land on some part of our green and pleasant land tomorrow, I hope the affected population will find some measure of altruism and organised response. Failing that, I fervently hope those most likely to act selfishly or exploit the situation are squarely underneath when it hits (along with a few particularly deserving cases; I have a carefully-maintained mental list).

Meanwhile, every fly-by is an excuse for a drink and this week, in spirit at least, we will be broaching a bottle of Jimkin Bearhugger's finest to drink to all six, before raising a seventh glass in salute to the much-lamented Terry Pratchett.

Monday, 2 March 2015

"Live long and prosper!"

I wonder if Leonard Nimoy ever thought, when he adapted a traditional Orthodox Jewish prayer gesture for his new television role, that thousands of small fingers would be painstakingly coaxed into the same position every school breaktime for years afterwards.

I can't be the only one who, on learning of his recent death, responded with an automatic Vulcan salute, half-surprised that the muscle memory persists to this day.

Gene Roddenberry's vision may look dated now but, growing up in a place where a 'foreigner' was a Southerner from over the English border, a crew of humans of all nationalities united in space exploration was a novel and thought-provoking concept (though we all knew, of course, that Scotty had to be the real hero, whatever Kirk and Spock got up to); add in a character from a distant planet and we were all completely hooked.

The early 1970s were heady times for space-mad nerdlets; real-life moon rockets vied for attention with the fictional exploits of intergalactic travellers and the crew of the errant moon base in the optimistically named  'Space 1999' (a series which, to my delighted surprise, still had a devoted following in Austria in 1982, when British television had moved on to 'Boys From the Blackstuff' and invented Channel 4).

With such a background - not to mention the early influence of the lids protecting the Clangers' underground homes from meteorite impacts and space debris - it's hardly surprising that this blog has retained an interest in extra-terrestrial matters and asteroids in particular.

Today, therefore, we have double cause for celebration in 2015 DO215 and 2015 DS23, two 50-odd metre wide space rocks passing by today at around 1.2 million km. Rather bigger than the Chelyabinsk meteor, they are, as their designations show, relatively recent discoveries, a reminder that NASA's impressive detection equipment is doing well - and that there are plenty of as yet undetected bodies out there.

And tonight, we are not only raising our usual glass in the Tavern to mark the event but also drinking a toast to Leonard Nimoy and to the unforgettable original Mr Spock.