Sunday, August 28, 2005

Deliberately Getting Lost

Yesterday I got thoroughly lost in the maze at Hungersheath Farm near Market Drayton, one of the many temporary maize mazes grown this summer. It's only the second maze I've been to this year, which is a pretty poor show for someone who prides himself on being a bit of a fanatic. You can read my review of Hungersheath Farm on my maze website, though the site is in desperate need of reworking.

When I was about ten years old, I became lost in Jenners, the large department store in Edinburgh. It occupies several adjoining buildings, linked by many odd passages, rooms and changes in level. I enjoyed the experience so much that for several years afterwards I would try to repeat it, but never managed to forget where I was or how to reach an exit.

That experience may have been one factor in may later interest in mazes, but I can think of a couple of others more directly related, and both part of the sensation of being channelled with limited choices of direction.

One was running through the corridors of Caernarvon Castle, with alternating long, straight stretches and short, twisty sections around the huge towers. The other was a dream where I was in a high-sided wooden box with wheels, careering down rails like a fairground ride, but with junctions where I could influence the direction we took by leaning to one side or the other. Again, I had no idea where I was going.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

I can see the future from here

Here's a long but fascinating article on the possible future of the Internet and Operating Systems. It seems like a sensible approach to me, though the relentless progress of Google (see its recent and very recent developments) now feels like an uncontrollable oil tanker. Personally, I'd like to see the least likely candidate, Mozilla, rise to fame and fortune, but I suspect that's just me favouring the underdog.

On a slightly different but related topic, written in a much more upbeat style, here's another article, focused on Yahoo and video over the Internet, though I'm sure its principles apply equally to other major players.

And while we're on the subject of the future, here's an equally fascinating article on a pilotless plane that can change the shape of its wings so that it can become highly manoeuverable. It's a shame, but not surprising, that it's the military behind this development. There's also a film showing the wings change.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Visitor feedback, please

I mentioned a few days ago that I was working on some ease-in/out movement for my portfolio. Well, that stage is now complete. I'd be very grateful for some constructive criticism, to help me decide how to improve it. So please don't be polite for the sake of it. You'll be doing me a real favour by pointing out weaknesses. I have reservations about certain aspects, but I'll wait to see what reactions I get.

I've deliberately provided no instructions, because I want people to explore, but you may feel, for example, that at least some hint should be given (or possibly a lot).

A couple of notes: it's a Flash website, but I haven't yet put a 'loading' indicator on it, so you just get a blank black screen until it loads. When you explore, you'll be taken to different areas with 'Not Ready Yet' and a number. These are markers, where different pieces of work will be placed. I'm still trying to finalise the structure before inserting any pieces.

Finally, the location:

Your contributions gratefully received. Be honest, please - I'm definitely not fishing for compliments!

Monday, August 22, 2005

A big step back from the brink

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s official - £14 million has been awarded for the recontouring earthworks, diversion of the culvert and landscaping around the former Chatterley Whitfield colliery. You can find out more on the Friends of Chatterley Whitfield website and from English Partnerships’ press release, though the project's official website is still woefully inadequate.

The project Partnership has been working for the last six years to get to this stage, and even though I’m no longer working as Project Co-ordinator, I feel a wonderful sense of achievement in having contributed towards this. During this time, however, the buildings have slipped still further into a state of ruin, and the projected costs for restoring them continue to increase. Today's announcement won't directly help restore buildings on the site, but at least it should help other funding bodies to decide to support the scheme as well.

It was my conviction that the restoration of this site was worthwhile that kept me involved after I quit the job, and led me to become Chair of the community group dedicated to giving the colliery a new future. Recovery of this lost but stunning site will feature heavily in this blog in the months and years to come.

(Photograph taken from the Friends' website, courtesy of Tony Jones)

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Ripening regardless

A lost key for the entrance gate has prevented us from tending to the allotment while the Council organises a replacement. This is frustrating, as the apples are ready for harvesting, and other tasks await. Of course, since we have only recently taken over the allotment, the apples are hardly the fruit of our labour, but I would be sorry to lose them, particularly as I regard them as recompense, in the overall scheme of things, for the removal, by person or persons unknown, of my carefully-tended onions.

I'm not allowed to say anything yet, but there will be an important announcement tomorrow morning. Tune in to Radio Stoke news, from 7.30am...

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Benefits of Losing Sleep

I've been quiet on this blog for a few days, partly because little of note has been happening, but also because I've not been sleeping well, and haven't felt the urge to write.

Some of the restlessness has been because I've not been feeling well (nothing serious), but last night it was caused by watching a really stupid horror film on television. I know I shouldn't let such cliched trash bother me, but I'm too willing to suspend disbelief.

As I lay wide awake and annoyed, I finally worked out how to achieve something that I've been struggling with for several months. I'm by no means a natural programmer, but I like to dabble in Actionscript within Flash, and I've wanted to programme a smoothly-animated easing in and out movement, where objects start to move slowly, then speed up and finally slow down before coming to a halt, and preferably with a slight over-shoot at the end.

I have various books containing formulae for different types of movement, but none of the explanations helped me understand how to apply them to my own work. But last night it came to me. I didn't want to get up to fetch pen and paper in order to make notes, so I tried desperately to memorise it so I wouldn't forget it upon waking. Of course, I fell asleep while still going over it, but fortunately the burst of clarity hadn't deserted me today.

My task for the rest of the weekend therefore is to apply my new-found insight. I might even post the results to one of my websites. I'll let you know where in due course (assuming that it works).

Friday, August 12, 2005

Losing Your Way, Part 2

I've never been seriously lost, though on a few occasions I've had difficulty reaching my destination. The most worrying time was in the Lake District, on a walking holiday late one November. Sufficient years have passed so the story can now be told.

There were two of us, and we heeded the warnings about suddenly-changing weather conditions by carrying lots of protective clothing and supplies. So much so that we struggled badly when the sun was shining. As we climbed the Old Man of Coniston, however, it started to rain, and we finally felt smug with our preparation and efforts. The rain never became heavy but it was persistent, and by the time we reached the top we were soaked despite our wet weather gear. What was worse, however, was the fact that low cloud covered the top of the hill, mainly because there was no view as reward for the exertion.

We sat at the top, heating soup, boiling water for a cup of tea and watching the remarkably large number of people who had also climbed the hill in the tail end of the year.

I still don't know how it happened, but as we set off again in the mist, we must have headed in the wrong direction without realising. We just followed the trail worn in the grass in front of us. Visibility was poor, and although the light wasn't yet starting to fade, there weren't many hours of light left.

After a while, as our route twisted and turned and crossed a large area of rough ground, it became obvious that we had come the wrong way, but we had dropped a lot of height and it seemed sensible to carry on at this lower level than head back up. As we finally emerged from the cloud, the sight of a small lake in the middle distance confirmed our wrong choice of route, but from the few landmarks around us we eventually managed to work out where we were and the way we had come. The only problem was the long way back to the youth hostel. We weren't on a 'proper' path, and it involved a couple of hairy moments crossing wide streams, but forwards was the only realistic choice.

I think the worst aspect of the experience was knowing that no-one knew where we were or expected us to arrive at a particular time. There are many signs in Lake District youth hostels warning guests about the changeable weather and recommending that you let someone know your estimated time of arrival, but that was the one precaution we hadn't taken. Of course, this all happened long before mobile phones became commonly available, but we should still have sought out a payphone to contact the youth hostel where we were staying the following night.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Too many obvious puns

Not only did BBC4 show 'Lost in La Mancha' last week, but Channel 4 is now showing a "major new drama series" called 'Lost'. How nice of these national broadcasting organisations to support this blog. I could only reciprocate by watching, despite the nauseatingly pretentious trailers. Politeness dictated that I even turn over to E4, now that it's available to us Freeview viewers, to watch the third episode immediately after the first two. But that's as far as politeness goes.

Far more interesting was this encounter between a wasp and a cross orb-weaver spider in our garden yesterday evening. (Don't click on this link if you're arachnophobic.) I've never seen a spider wrap up its prey before, and for the sake of forcing a link to the current theme of the blog, you could safely say that the wasp lost. The image is too blurred to enlarge any more, which is a shame, since all trace of the wasp had disappeared by this morning, so I can't recapture the sight. I'll just have to wait till it happens again.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Losing Your Way, Part 1

Everyone is rightly talking about the marvellous things Google is doing with maps of the Earth and Moon (don't forget to zoom right in to the moon), and satellite navigation systems are becoming common in cars, but I used to enjoy not knowing where I was. The best example of this was a walking holiday with two friends around the lakes in central Finland in May 1985, shortly before my final exams at University.

All we could obtain was a poorly-photocopied extract of a small-scale map that was probably out of date. I hadn't realised until then that other places haven't had the benefit of Ordnance Survey, a distinct blessing for this country despite its military origins.

We walked in circles at times since the paths in front of us bore no relation to the tracks on the map, and the two people we met in the whole time we were there spoke no English, so no help was available. The days were so warm and sunny and the nights so clear and cold that the lakes were frozen at night but the edges melted in the day. There were no midges to bite us and the tranquility was overwhelming. It was exactly the relaxation I needed at the time, and I'm sure it helped my performance in the exam room shortly after.

It was also the only time I have ever lost my baggage while travelling, but it happened on the return journey so it didn't mater, and my rucksack even made it home before I did thanks to British Airways flying it up to Newcastle while I took the train from London.

Friday, August 05, 2005

From Killing Don Quixote...

In view of the current topic for this blog, it was apposite and remarkably prescient of BBC4 to screen 'Lost in La Mancha' last night. This is a documentary about the doomed attempt by Terry Gilliam to fulfil a long-held dream by making a film called 'Who Killed Don Quixote'. The documentary apparently chronicles a bizarre series of misfortunes, and received good reviews when it was released (in 2002, according to IMDB, though I could have sworn it was more recent than that).

I've wanted to see it ever since then, but it was up against the first part of 'The Cult of the Suicide Bomber' on Channel 4. This, too, dealt with loss, but of a different kind: lost lives, and I mean lost in so many ways. This first part dealt with the suicide bomber as a weapon of war. Next week, in the concluding part, it will look at these bombers as a weapon of terror.

In this blog I try to see the optimistic side of loss, but there is no recovery or second chance here, and it's hard not to despair about the future. I keep reminding myself that the media have so much space to fill that they have to go on about something, but I wish they'd latch on to something else. I won't be watching next week. Instead, I'll be down on that allotment, preparing for the end of civilisation (well, interruptions to the delivery of supplies to Sainsbury's - ok then, worse interruptions than normal).

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Before the fall

Yesterday's post was rather pretentious, but fear not. I was deservedly and appropriately humbled immediately afterwards: we got lost on the motorway. It was my fault, but that's what comes of printing out directions from a route-planner website, failing to look at junction numbers, falling off the route then not knowing how to get back on. As a result, the first topic for The Valley of Lost Things is: losing your way.

In the positive spirit of the site's insipration (see yesterday's post), I bought myself a road atlas. The very nice lady in the shop in the service station pointed out that I didn't need to buy one because there was a map on the wall nearby, but as soon as I saw the claim "1.5 miles to the inch", I knew that I had to have it.

It's by Philip's, and is grandly called 'Navigator Britiain'. It runs to an amazing 380 pages including town maps, index and county boundaries at the back, and costs a whopping £19.99, but I'm delighted with it. My previous road atlas, now tatty and out of date, with the well-used pages fallen out and tucked inside the front cover, and, most crucially of all, left at home for yesterday's journey, was 2.5 miles to the inch, and I'd thought that was an unusually large scale.

One of the first things I saw in it that's happened since my previous atlas was the National Forest - a splendid idea, and one of the few new things we do in this country where the full benefits won't be seen until we're all gone. This reminded me of the Clock of the Long Now, but that's such a big topic and some way from the current theme for the blog, that I'll reserve it for another post. (But have a look at the Long Now Foundation in the meantime if you're interested in the clock, and at Brian Eno's essay on thinking about the longer term.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Dance to the Music of Time

A few words of explanation before I start this blog moving. 'A Dance to the Music of Time' is my all-time favourite work of literature, and 'Hearing Secret Harmonies', the twelfth and final volume of the sequence, is my favourite part. It pulls together the many strands of the story in a much-anticipated but understated way. It deals with resolution, but not in an artifically neat tying-up of loose ends.

In it, Powell's narrator, Nick Jenkins, discusses 'Orlando Furioso' by Ariosto. From the brief section quoted, this is a long, densely-written poem in an old style of language, even in translation. Fortunately Nick summarises and explains the poem, one part in particular, where a character visits a valley on the moon, and is shown all things lost on Earth:

"...lost kingdoms: lost riches: lost reputations: lost vows: lost hours: lost love. Only lost foolishness was missing from this vast stratospheric Lost Property Office, where by far the largest accretion was lost sense."

His achievement is to recover the lost ideals of his friend Orlando.

To me, this is an optomistic image, of second chances rewarding expended effort. I shall follow Nick's example, and use this image as a structure for this blog.