Post

12 Nights on a Virgin Voyages Cruise

4 comments

Like many in the UK my impression of the demographic who “go on a cruise” is of people in their 70s or 80s who’re too old to travel themselves and instead go on what is basically a floating hotel to different places, then do organised excursions on land. When my girlfriend suggested we go on a Virgin Voyages cruise my initial thought was “but I’m way too young for a cruise, I know I’m getting older but I’m not that much older”. It turns out I was completely wrong and instead I had the best holiday ever! Some review style writing and a shed load of photos to follow.

What is Virgin Voyages?

Virgin Voyages are an adults only cruise company (part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group) which (as of the time of writing) has two brand new, state of the art cruise ships that can house around 2700 passengers. They sail around the Caribbean and Mediterranean and we travelled on the latter. What sets it apart from the stereotypical “oldies” cruise ships my imagination made me think of is that their offering seems aimed at a much younger audience.

On board you can find several gyms (and I don’t mean just a few running machines, there is everything you’d need to stay in shape if you’re an elite level athlete, want to do yoga with an amazing view, hit a heavy punch bag or if you just want to do arm curls in front of a mirror). There’s even a running track! With countless classes from early morning yoga to HIIT sessions to one on one personal trainers to massages (all booked via the app on your phone while on board) there’s plenty to stay active. Plus you can get your haircut or even have a tattoo if you so desire (I skipped this one).

With over 20 restaurants (more about them later – spoiler: the food was amazing) you’re never stuck for something to eat and they have a full blown theatre where we saw various acts from acrobats to stand up comedy to a man who could solve the rubik’s cube blindfolded in seconds (I can solve the rubik’s cube in a few minutes so to see someone with such mastery was something to behold – very impressive).

There were pools and jacuzzis as you’d expect along with a large selection of bars. But the most striking thing to me was the staff who were absolutely delightful. They told us they were encouraged by Virgin to be themselves and it was nice to see so many of the crew being just that – there were countless nationalities, many people with tattoos, awesome haircuts and they made the trip even more fun as we got to know a lot of them.

And the demographic of the people on the cruise? I’d say they were mostly 20s-30s, fit, active and I definitely felt more towards the upper limit in terms of age (although there were people older than me). However age didn’t matter, everyone was treated the same and there was something for everyone to do.

The Cabin

Prior to departure Virgin Voyages offers a bidding process where you can bid for room upgrades to some of their “Rock Star” suites. Think business class vs economy class. I figured “what the hell”, bid on a few and ended up getting what’s called a “Brilliant Suite”. It was appropriately named.

The room was massive. It had a walk in wet room, the sort of bathroom I’d expect in a luxury hotel, a super king sized bed, balcony (all balconies have a hammock – where I spent plenty of time swinging watching the sea go by), L-shaped sofa to relax on, a record player (oh yes), a large drinks cabinet with free alcohol (almost none of it we drank but I can say the tequila was lovely) and a really handy vanity area for looking even more gorgeous (which I left to my girlfriend because it was never going to work on me).

One of the coolest features was the rooms lights and curtains were controlled from a tablet. It contained “moods” that once clicked would set the mood. One was “get it on” which closed the curtains, turned the lights to a nice shade of pink and played exactly the sort of tune you’d expect to hear if you were going to “get it on”! First time that button was pressed it was hilarious! ūüėÄ I love the attention to detail.

Having such a luxurious and relaxing cabin meant we were more than happy to spend time chilling there. It was great after a day hiking up a hill on shore to come back and unwind, watching dolphins from the hammock. 12 nights there didn’t feel like long enough, it very quickly felt like home, something I never find even in top class hotels.

Now that said, having had a look at the standard rooms while on the ship I would also have been quite happy to spend time there too. With clever design features to maximise the space and the option of having “day mode” where the bed converts into sofas it wouldn’t have been much of a hardship. Although for me having a balcony would be essential, I loved relaxing watching the world go by from it.

The Valiant Lady (The Ship)

A cruise ship that can house 2700 guests comfortably is pretty big. Fortunately there were just under 1000 people on board when we travelled which meant we had free rein and never felt overcrowded anywhere we went. There were plenty of places to chill out and relax in the sun, or in the shade, or in the quiet, or where there were other people, in fact you could pretty much imagine any setting you wanted and go and find it on board. It was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the design of the ships various areas to provide different moods or atmospheres with a common design language throughout.

Staying in a rock star suite meant we had access to Richard’s Terrace, a section at the front of the ship where there was free champagne on offer in the late afternoon. It was cool, but we found our favourite spot was towards the back of the ship so didn’t spend a great amount of time there. Interestingly the average age of people on Richard’s Terrace was probably mid-60s! No conclusions drawn.

Having never been on a cruise ship before I had to keep reminding myself I was actually on a cruise ship. My brain thought I was in some luxury hotel / village and there was nothing to give away that I was floating on water. Well except when walking out on deck, obviously.

The staff were always on hand so were happy to go and get you food and drink lest you get off your lazy arse and get it yourself. Which brings me onto the next point…

The Food

Oh my. Where to begin. You know when you do your web based research about an eatery and of course all the photos of the food look amazing? Usually it’s because the photographer has used all kinds of tricks and things like hair spray to make the food look delicious and better than the reality. In this case, if anything the food was better than I expected, and I was expecting very very good food.

With over 20 restaurants to choose from, we were wondering if we’d be able to try everything in the 12 days of time on ship. Half a dozen of the restaurants need to be booked in advance – which you do on the app on your phone – but the rest are drop in. We started with “The Test Kitchen” as that looked the most interesting on paper with a selection of experimental style dishes and it did not disappoint. I’ve had tasting menus in Michelin star restaurants and while it wasn’t quite to that standard, it was pretty close. Thinking we’d already been to the best restaurant we went to “Extra Virgin” a couple of nights later (an Italian) and that was even better! Incredibly fresh seafood, delicious sauces and cooked to perfection. That high standard of cuisine was the common thread throughout our stay.

There was literally everything you could want whether you wanted to eat healthy salads, cakes, fried food, tasting menus, drink fancy coffees, etc. I can see why people put weight on when going on cruises if this is what it’s like – and the fact that all the food was included in the price made it even more of a bargain. I’ve been to a lot of restaurants over the years but few have rivalled the food I had on the ship. Here’s a selection of photos that show how it looked, but trust me, it tasted even better! (And no hairspray was used).

The Land Based Activities

Ok so a cruise is on water but eventually it docks and you can either stay on the boat or get off and go do something. While Virgin Voyages offered excursions you could book via the app, we prefer just wandering and hiking around so Google Maps combined with general web-based research gave us some great ideas for where we landed. Normally their mediterranean cruises start and end at Barcelona but we were on a one-off run from Portsmouth to Barcelona via La Coru√Īa, Lisbon, C√°diz, Gibraltar, M√°laga and Palma de Mallorca. In each place we found plenty to do and it was great spending a day wandering around, getting in the sights and then going back to the ship and relaxing. It was literally like staying in a luxury hotel that moved you from place to place while you slept. A lot easier than driving around and living out of a suitcase.

Can you tell I was coming around to liking cruises?

Anyway, as wonderful as the cruise ship was, it was nice to hit land and explore. And explore we did!

Overall Thoughts and Summary

Having previously never been the sort of person remotely interested in a cruise, I’ve 100% changed my mind. It’s a great way to see a bunch of different places without the stress of driving around, making connections, changing hotels and locations and things inevitably going wrong. When I drove around New Zealand that road trip was part of the fun, but if you want to both explore and unwind then a cruise like Virgin Voyages is an excellent way to go.

It’s basically two holidays in one. One is staying in a luxury all inclusive resort with amazing food and entertainment. The other is touring different cities on the coast. With none of the drawbacks! I’ll certainly cruise with them again, and it’s also made me want to check some of the other companies out to see what they’re like.

And when I am in my 70s to 80s, then I’ll know which ones cater to my age group. But for now, Virgin Voyages very much gets the John Conners Seal of Approval! Except the wifi, that was glacially slow. But I was on holiday so I didn’t care! ūüôā

Post

20 Years Ago Today

Leave a reply

I can hardly believe I’m writing this but 20 years ago today my mother died from cancer. I’ve been blogging so long I wrote about it when it happened and then 5 years later when I came to terms with her death and could put into words what it felt like and how it hit me. Not only did that article resonate with a lot of people, but I’ve come back and re-read it many many times over the years and it’s continued to give me comfort and perspective.

But 20 years. Twenty years.

When I was a kid my dad would often say “oh I haven’t seen him in 20 odd years!” and to me that seemed like an eternity. Now I’m at the ripe old age of 47 it doesn’t seem so long at all. In fact my mother died aged 61 – only 14 years away from where I am now. I still feel like my life has hardly begun and if I only had 14 years left I’d feel a little short changed to be honest. Looking back that’s the overriding sadness I have about my mother – I’d only just gotten to know her as a person rather than an authority figure and it wasn’t anywhere near enough.

I’m so young in this photo taken 9 months before she died. Just a kid really looking back as the middle aged man I am today. I had no idea the impact losing her would have on me over the coming years. Probably just as well.

My father never really got over the loss of my mother. Never dated again, certainly never re-married. She was the love of his life and he was a lost and broken man for many years, drinking too much, retreating into himself before he finally found a reason to carry on. And carry on he did alone. He’s still alive today but dementia has robbed him of a lot of his memories, although he’ll never forget his dear Jeannie. I spent a few hours with him a couple of weeks ago just talking about mum, showing him photos of the two of them when they were youngsters – it was lovely.

My parents when they were a couple of young pups!

It took me 5 years to learn to live without my mother and the article I wrote covers everything I felt at the time. But in the 15 years since while I have no longer found myself saying “oh mum would like that” before remembering she was gone. I haven’t felt the bouts of intense grief I used to feel, just now and then. Instead I have a sadness in me that is always there but I’m not aware of it most of the time. Sometimes she’ll pop up in a dream like she used to which is comforting. And sometimes I’ll play the one and only audio recording I have of her (where she was discussing with my father that she’d discovered she was allergic to a certain type of soap – I wish I had more) just to remember her laugh. Life does go on but the loss remains for the rest of your life. It becomes a piece of you, a scar that nobody can see.

It’s sad looking back over the past 20 years and realising how much my mother missed out on and how much my brother and I missed sharing our lives with her. I’ve certainly missed her counsel. But I’m always reminded that she felt the same about the loss of her mother who passed when I was less than a year old. She never got over it, would be sad sometimes and that was perfectly normal. It’s the circle of life. It sucks. But it’s the only one we’ve got. Some of us get to live into old age and some of us don’t. As I said 15 years ago, she wrote me a letter telling me to make the most of my life given how precious it is. I continue to do that to the best of my ability and I always will.

Post

Starting At The Bottom And Learning To Cook

2 comments

Back when I was a student I wanted to earn a bit of money so I could afford to do the fun things in life. Fun things like putting petrol in my car, drinking alcohol (not at the same time) and having a bit of spending money should I need a new pair of shoes. A friend of mine was a waiter at a local hotel and said there was a job going as a kitchen porter so I inquired and got it.

A kitchen porter is basically the lowest of the low in the kitchen hierarchy – the person who washes the dishes, pots and pans and is usually the butt of all the jokes. All of which was fine with me! I was earning money and that’s all that mattered. The status of the job didn’t enter my thought – work was work and money was cash money. It was hot work (those industrial dishwashers give off a lot of steam) but I enjoyed it and learned how to get every kind of cooking stain out of every kind of cooking implement you can imagine (something that has served me well since).

In time I became good friends with the rest of the kitchen staff and when at a later point I found myself working as a waiter there I found it surprising that while they were nice and respectful to me, they would always mercilessly tease, berate and swear at the rest of the waiting staff. Looking back I now realise I’d earned their respect. I’d worked hard, rolled up my sleeves, never complained, got the job done and earned my place alongside them. I’ve been trying to do that in the workplace ever since.

Your Job Isn’t You

I never judge people by the job they have. I know often the first question someone asks a person they just met is what they do – but it’s the last thing I ever ask anyone. I almost never talk work with friends and family as it’s not something that defines them or me as far as I’m concerned. It’s a means to an end. I also know that if my glamorous life as a software developer ends and I have to get a proper job, I’ll happily do anything to bring money in and never feel I’m “dropping down”. I’d be more than happy to roll up my sleeves again if I need to.

Being a Chef Is Hard

The other thing I learned was how tough being a chef actually is. You can watch someone like Gordon Ramsay do a TV show where he puts together an amazing meal and you think it’s easy. And for him at that point in his life it is. But believe me, to get to that point was a really hard slog. It’s a super tough profession and is so much more stressful than any job I’ve ever had by a long way.

It’s easy to focus on the obvious. An order comes in, you prepare all the ingredients, cook them and put them on a plate, then make that plate of food look beautiful and send it out. Easy right?

A selection of delicious treats from the tasting menu of L’Enclume in Cartmel

Not really. Everything has to be at the right temperature at the right time. So that bit is difficult enough as it requires perfect timing, organisation, consistent delivery and an eye for artistic detail. Except a chef isn’t just putting one meal together at one time, there could be a dozen orders of different dishes with different courses all going on at once from multiple tables. There’s no use having some of the dishes for some of the tables at the same time – each table needs to be served together. And the pressure these people are under to deliver is huge – it’s a very stressful environment to be in and my policy was to keep my head down, work as fast as I could and not screw anything up. If someone was angry, that’s fine, they’re under pressure. After the service was over and they could come down from the adrenaline high, then the next part started, the preparation.

Being a chef isn’t simply about putting meals together and sending them out. It’s about everything from picking a menu that results in the minimal amount of food wastage. To preparing before a service to make sure you’re not wasting time doing things that could be done beforehand. Trying to figure out what’s going to be ordered so you don’t over or under-prepare. And managing a team of people so that everything runs quickly, efficiently and smoothly during service under intense pressure. I certainly wouldn’t be any good at it, that much I figured out quickly.

Now when I eat out in a restaurant I know how difficult it is so I have a lot of sympathy if my food takes a while and am really impressed when delicious food is served quickly.

John Conners, Recipe Follower

Like many people I decided to start cooking once the pandemic lockdown started – I mean there wasn’t much else to do and dining out was no longer an option. Early on everybody I knew started signing up to different providers of food boxes – the idea being they ship you all the ingredients and recipes and you do the rest.

I’m the sort of person who can follow recipes. If you give me a recipe to follow I reckon I can make just about anything, no matter how complex. I’ve long been a fan of baking, largely because you have to precisely follow recipes to make it work. However give me a bunch of random ingredients and say “cook something John” and I’m completely lost. Without a recipe I don’t even know where to start. I have great admiration for people who can do that, but I am not one of them. With that in mind I signed up for Mindful Chef.

It gave me a little taste (haha, see what I did there?) of my old days working as a kitchen porter seeing the chefs work their magic. I was inspired to buy a set of stainless steel pans, proper professional quality knives, wooden chopping board, the lot! But a set of pro golf clubs does not a professional golfer make.

It took me quite a few meals before I started to feel confident in what I was doing. The recipes are well thought out, documented to just the right level for me and having the exact amount of ingredients to hand meant I didn’t have to think, just had to follow the instructions. I was soon comfortable having several pans and the oven on at the same time knowing that everything will be finished at roughly the same time (again, those well thought through recipes helped).

Almost all of the meals I’ve made from Mindful Chef have been delicious and it’s introduced me to a lot of things I’d previously ignored – like quinoa and tofu. Many years ago I tried cooking with tofu and it was a disaster. Thankfully I now know the correct tofu to use and several different ways to cook it. Heck I’ve even managed to buy the ingredients to some of the meals and varied them a bit (only a little bit) – which for me is giant progress!

But I’m no chef. If the meal is delicious it’s because the person who created the recipe and flavour combinations did a great job. I’m merely re-assembling their creation, standing on the shoulders of giants. Plus I can never quite get it looking as pretty as the professionally shot recipe photos! But I do my best.

Anyway, I’d highly recommend something like Mindful Chef or Hello Fresh if you’re afraid of cooking. There’s no such thing as “I can’t cook”. It’s just laziness because anybody can follow a recipe if I can! Rather embarrassingly though I only recently discovered that quinoa (pronounced kee-nwa) and quinoa (pronounced kwin-oh-ah) are in fact the same thing. ūü§¶‚Äć‚ôāÔłŹ

Post

Losing My Best Friend

14 comments

After 10 wonderful years we had to put my beloved dog Billy to sleep and to say I’m devastated doesn’t come close to describing how I feel. I’ve been to more funerals of family and friends than I can count but the pain of loss I feel without him goes way beyond any grief I’ve ever felt before. It’s been over a month yet I shed tears every day.

Friends I’ve spoken to who’ve had and lost dogs understand and until I had Billy I never realised just how they worm their way into your heart and soul. Unlike humans, dogs are totally honest creatures – they hold nothing back in terms of who they are. They don’t try to be anything other than themselves and they love you with every fibre of their being. You do the same in return and it made me realise I could never love a human as much as I loved (and will always love) him. A friend told me:

“There’s something about their unconditional love for you that really tears you apart when they pass.”

Added to that he was the perfect companion. Well behaved, fun, endlessly happy to see me, playful, sociable, calm, lazy, a good traveller and without a doubt my happiest times were with him over the last decade. I got him just as I started working remotely and sat here typing out these words alone in my home office I realise his company kept me sane through countless meetings, late night coding sessions, pandemics, stressful software releases and everything else in between.

I trusted him completely and he trusted me completely. He knew what I was going to do before I did, we were completely in sync without having to say a word. He knew when I was stressed or down or if I needed a break and was sure to tell me! My entire life was built around him and I wouldn’t have had it any other way – the house I rent is far larger than I need but I’m here because the landlord allowed dogs (not common enough in the UK) and that was the only thing that mattered to me.

There are a thousand little routines we did together. For example when I’d go to bed at night I’d grab the fleecy throw that lived on my sofa and put it on my bed. Billy would then sleep the night there (right in the middle of course). So as soon as I got up and went to grab the throw, he knew exactly what was coming next, he knew it was time for bed. He’d either jump down (if he was on the sofa) or get up (if he was on his bed in my lounge) and start heading towards the bedroom. I’d put the throw on the bed then go and brush my teeth. Since he knew I’d do that he’d have stopped in the hall to stare at the bathroom, waiting for me to go in and then come out to bed. As he got older I’d lift him onto the bed rather than him jump up so he’d wait for me to do that. Then he’d sit and stare at me, waiting for me to get into my pyjamas and go under the covers so he could cuddle into me and instantly go to sleep, snoring away while hogging the bed. Heaven.

Now, every time I go to bed, I do so alone. I feel his presence, but I look around and he’s not there.

I still go on the same walks around where I live. I have memories of every tree he peed on, every place he’d run, that time he bumped into one of his mates and they chased each other around, him barking like a lunatic. And despite walking alone it brings me closer to him to relive those moments. I have videos of walking him and can wander along the same spots holding my phone in front of me and it’s like he’s there. It helps, but it’ll never be the same without him.

I know the best bet is to get another dog, and I’m sure I’ll have another one at some point since they are such magical creatures and I am most certainly a dog person. But while it’ll replace the lifestyle of having a dog and give me a new companion, it’ll never replace him. The person Billy was. Knowing I have to live the rest of my life without him is a tough prospect and while I have thousands of photos and videos of my time with him, I’d give anything just to have him resting his chin on my leg and snoozing away peacefully with me. Even just for a minute.

Or watch him running in the park, blissfully lost in the moment of running, something that dog was born to do and did right up until the end.

I like to think that somewhere on some other plane Billy is running around a park barking away. And then he’ll stop, look around and sprint straight towards me. We’ll walk off together, just him and me. Both of us totally content with our lot. I miss you boy. ūüíĒ

Post

You Play Football Long Enough, You End Up Being The Old Guy In The Team

2 comments

I’ve written in the past about my footballing (ok a long way in the past – my peak was probably around 15 years ago) and while I would never have made it as a professional or even a semi-professional, I was still able to play to a decent standard by being able to pass the ball. This sounds simple – have the ball at your feet at Point A and kick it to Point B.

But in fact there are a lot of moving parts. Everybody is moving, so you want the person you’re passing it to to be able to receive it knowing that when you kick it they’ll be in a different position by the time the ball gets there – so you pass it to where they’ll be. You also have opposing players who want to stop you passing. And the person you’re passing to also has people trying to stop them. And the opposition can read where your player is moving to so your player might fake where he’s going and you have to anticipate that. And the opposition know you want to pass it so anticipate that. Even though it takes a fraction of a second, when you play with and against clever players, you have to try and stay one step ahead. And that was about the only thing that I could successfully and reliably do and so play to a decent standard. Or maybe I was just lucky with my passing, often it was like my feet knew what to do and they just did it themselves.

Then a few years ago I was telling my brother about still playing football in my late 30s and he said “so are you the oldest guy in the team then?”. I was about to say “of course not” but then I thought about it and realised that indeed I was, and by quite a few years. How the hell did that happen?

Up until pre-coronavirus I was still playing indoor 6-a-side football once a week with one guy my age and a bunch of people in their 20s. While I could no longer do surging runs like I used to, I could still do alright, read the game and pass to the quicker and better players. Although it was damn hard physically to keep doing it. My left hip seemed to be the weak link after a niggling injury I’d had years before but I was keeping fit and flexible with Tony Horton’s P90X2 program (I really should write about that – and I wish it had been around 20 years ago) so I was able to keep going. But I knew my time was coming to a close. Nothing last for ever. Lockdown came and I figured that was my playing days done. I’d had a good run!

Then during one of the breaks between lockdown my girlfriend’s 16 year old son and his friends decided to start playing in a 6-a-side outdoor adult league. And started getting hammered each week by organised, competent footballers. He asked me if I could play and so I thought “what the hell”, laced up my boots and got back out on the pitch. And so it was that I ended up playing football in a team where I was 30 years older than my teammates.

To put it in context, for one of them to achieve the same feat their teammates won’t be born for another 14 years. I must say, I was proud that at the age of 46 I was able to play and not embarrass myself. Turns out I was by some years the oldest guy in the league and definitely not the least fit (top 10% I reckon). But it wasn’t about me at all.

I thought maybe I’d feel jealous that I no longer had the carefree raw energy and fitness of youth but instead I felt privileged to share a pitch with the next generation. Knowing the exciting futures they have ahead of them, that all the fun and adventures I had they still have to look forward to and more. Some of them will make very good footballers and play at a much higher level than I did if they want to. And game by game they’ve been learning to play as a team rather than running around like they do at school. It’s been great seeing first hand how they’ve improved. Even better is a couple of them are naturally gifted footballers so know which runs to make, know how to make a bit of space and think steps ahead of their much more experienced opponents. Which is easy for me as all I have to do is pass it to them and they can make it happen.

Football (sport in general) is a great leveller. If one of them tells me to mark someone or drop back I’ll do it. And vice versa. It’s a team game and there’s no room for some sort of adult / child interaction. We’re all equal out there and it’s really refreshing and energising. I’m sure for them too.

It won’t be long until they’re way beyond me and I won’t be in the same league as them. But to overlap the end of my playing days with the beginning of theirs is something I’ll cherish. While we may not be winning yet (one draw and one win so far), it’s really good fun. I’m hoping I’m around in 30 years time to see if any of them are still playing and take up my mantle of being the old guy in the team. I certainly hope so! ūüôā

Post

A Road Trip around North West Scotland

12 comments

I grew up in Scotland and spent my formative years driving to the mountains then hiking up and down them (with a bit of mountain biking thrown in). Even when I moved to Yorkshire at 24 and travelled around the world I always loved coming back to my home country and seeing just what a beautiful place it is. As life got in the way I’d still visit Scotland but hadn’t been up in the mountains for too many years. I decided it was time to break that cycle and have an old school road trip around some of my favourite parts. A trip down memory lane, literally. And Scotland did not disappoint!

Post

Visiting the Same Glacier 22 Years Apart – Seeing Climate Change in Action

8 comments

Way back in 1995 my friends and I took an old MG Montego on a road trip from Scotland to Chamonix in the French Alps which also happened to be my first holiday abroad. I wrote about it a few years ago – The Spirit of Adventure. My abiding memory of that trip was taking a hike up the mountains to see my first ever glacier. I was expecting it to look pristine and white, not covered in rocks and debris so initially asked my friend where the glacier was before he pointed out that everything in front of me was a glacier! You can understand my confusion, this is the photo I subsequently took:

Scott and Gary and the Mer de Glace

Wind forward to the Summer of 2017 where I had the pleasure of spending a few months living in France including a couple of trips to Chamonix. First time was with a friend for a few days and we went up to the highest point a cable car can – the Aiguille du Midi (which was too expensive for the John Conners of 1995 to afford) – and I was hoping once again to catch sight of this amazing glacier I’d seen over 20 years before. Turns out I should have looked at a map – the glacier was on the next set of mountains over. But it was pretty spectacular nonetheless!

Nice view at the top! I'm the one on the left

A few weeks later I returned and this time I had a better of idea of the glacier I’d originally seen – I reckoned it was the mighty¬†Mer de Glace. So I figured out how to hike there and one morning that’s exactly what I did. Rather than being a lazy tourist and taking the funicular railway to the top I walked – starting straight up a ski slope (those things are pretty steep and relentless to walk up). And after a couple of hours I found myself in truly spectacular scenery.

The Mountains above the Mer de Glace

It was shortly after I was in for a bit of a shock. Turns out the glacier has receded dramatically over the 22 years since I’d been. To the point where there are signs on the cliff as you go down showing you where it was in a given year.

I couldn’t help but feel sad – upset if I’m honest – to see such a dramatic difference in such a short space of time (22 years really isn’t long at all). The sheer volume of ice that’s melted just boggles the mind, but it wasn’t until I finally got around to scanning in the negatives of my photos from 1995 that I was really able to compare the before and after as it just happens that I’d taken pretty much the exact same photo 22 years apart (I’m nothing if not consistent).

The photos were taken at around the same time of year and it’s pretty clear that the rock and green line is significantly further from the glacier than it used to be. When you multiply that by how long the glacier is, that’s a hell of a lot of ice that’s no longer there. When you look at a photo like those above and see the difference it’s pretty unsettling. But when you walk there and see it with your own eyes and remember what it looked like before, it really does bring it home to you how our planet is warming. We live on a beautiful planet, but it’s fragile.

A couple of generations from now that glacier will be entirely gone. Enjoy it while you can.

Post

Two Weeks Driving The Circle National Parks

13 comments

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks driving from Colorado to Las Vegas and back in a circular route taking in some of America’s most impressive national parks (covering 2500 miles in the process). Not only was the scenery scarcely believable (it was like being in a different country every day), but the people were incredibly friendly and generous everywhere I went and the food – despite stereotypes to the contrary – was superb, and healthy too.

The general route follows (usually a couple of days exploring in each place) and I’d highly recommend you give it a go – we could have easily spent 2 weeks in each park!

  • Flew to Denver airport
  • Drove to the Rocky Mountain National Park
  • A long drive (via some scenic stops) to Canyonlands National Park
  • An amazingly scenic drive to Bryce Canyon (what a place!)
  • A few days in Vegas (which I wouldn’t recommend to be honest)
  • Next up, the meteor crater near Flagstaff (wanted to go since I was a kid)
  • The relatively short hop to the Grand Canyon (yes, it’s as stunning as everyone says)
  • Then onto the south of Lake Powell and the famous Horsehoe Bend
  • Heading east to Mesa Verde National Park
  • Through Rio Grande National Forest towards…
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park – completely unexpected sand dunes!
  • Finally back to Denver and off home!

My favourite US state is definitely Utah as it has some incredible roads, scenery and every day was jaw dropping! I had a drone that I flew for some aerial shots when I could (they’re banned in National Parks). Anyway, some random photos of the trip follow – enjoy!

 

Post

Saying Goodbye To Facebook

9 comments

When I first started using Facebook many years ago it took¬†a little getting used. At the time it was completely different to any software I’d encountered before.¬†I was used to discussion forums where you either created a topic in a section or replied to one – that was it. Now there was this concept of having your own wall where you could post in addition to posting on friends walls. I spent a little while pondering like this: “so friend X has¬†posted on my wall, do I now reply by posting on their wall or commenting on their post on mine?”. Soon¬†enough it seemed normal and I started to use Facebook the way I initially used this blog back in the day – short, punch updates on random things.¬†While on here I’d gone more long form, so posting much less frequently but only when I had something substantial to say.

Fast¬†forward several years after many many photos of my dog posted and I decided the time was right to deactivate Facebook and leave it behind. Here’s why.

Facebook trying to shame me to stay

The Early Days

I was initially very impressed with early Facebook. Unlike forum software it was designed around real world social interactions. You might meet a friend for a beer (i.e. their wall) and get chatting. Then another mutual friend drops by for a beer and a chat too (they see the conversation on your friends wall and join in). You’d see all the posts from all your friends in reverse chronological order and could keep in touch with and stay up to date with more friends than you possibly could in real life. It saved time and seemed to actually enrich friendships with those you might have lost touch with or not see as much as you used to. Augmenting real world relationships and bringing everyone closer.

I was re-connecting with people I’d lost touch with over the years and was learning more about other friends than I ever had in the real world. I felt like a part of a lot of peoples lives and it felt great. I was enthusiastic about it! I posted random links to YouTube videos, photos of my dog, created a photo series of things I found in the street (aka “Somewhere a small child is crying” with a photo of a pacifier on the kerb) and worked some of my favourite song lyrics into posts that almost nobody ever noticed.

Then Things Started To Change

Having been blogging for years before Facebook I was well used¬†to my random musings being publicly visible and so potentially read by friends, family, anybody really. As such I’d learned to self-censor what I wrote and be mindful of who might be reading. Nowadays Twitter¬†and Facebook are huge and especially with the former you can find yourself at the receiving end of abuse from a virtual baying mob of people for a single,¬†out of context or inappropriate tweet.

For further information on Twitter mobs read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson¬†and be prepared to never want to use social media again!

Unfortunately for a lot of people signing up to Facebook, they were lambs to the slaughter. People have lost jobs, friends, been sued, arrested, harassed, had real world fights and a host of other such fates from ranting on Facebook. And that’s without even posting publicly.

So while Facebook modelled real world interaction and made it more efficient, it also magnified all the negative aspects of real world interactions. If you meet up with a friend and you have a disagreement (which often happens after alcohol is consumed) at least you’d go your separate ways, sleep it off and get over it. With Facebook there was no escape and no looking someone in the eye and realising it was a misunderstanding. You could have that same argument but now you’ve got dozens of witnesses, all happy to join in, baying for blood (see my book recommendation above) and blow things out of proportion. People would start falling out and commit the ultimate social faux pas – an unfriending. This¬†seemed to be treated¬†as a personal¬†slight against the unfriendee that would often spill out into the real world. It was as though all the negative emotions from people would be focussed and nothing of the whole rounded individual would¬†be seen.

I found myself at one point having to clear out a bunch of “friends” who weren’t people I knew in the real world and kept it strictly to those I did. It was a lot safer and less hassle (ask me some time over a beer and I’ll tell you a tale¬†or two!).

Billy turning his back on me

People would often go¬†the other way and instead of ranting learned to self-censor and focus on only posting the most glowingly¬†positive aspects of their life. As though they were living the perfect happy life where everything was great and perfect! You’d meet them in the real world and of course life doesn’t work like that, so what you were seeing on Facebook was life through a lens – essentially part of their life, but only a small part. The authenticity of interactions seemed to have changed from the earlier days and I began to wonder if it was the people or the software itself. If you only interacted with angry or happy posts, was Facebook only showing you the same – like an echo chamber? Something started to feel off.

So Are We The Product?

It’s been much¬†quoted in the tech press that Facebook users aren’t the customers, they’re the product.¬†People enter a great deal of personal information into Facebook as well as demonstrate what they like and care about by their behaviour on the platform. This is gold dust to advertisers and to make as much money as possible Facebook want us to interact with ads and so charge advertisers a high price for that specific targeting.

While that’s factually¬†correct, I don’t believe the engineers and product managers behind the scenes really feel that way or have that as their objectives. They’re trying to connect the world and have billions of users – so are doing a pretty good job. Trouble is, for me at least their attempt to do that really started to put me off.

What attracted me to Facebook was being able to see a reverse chronological feed of all my friends posts. Simple. Periodically I can catch up just like I’d do if in the real world I meet up for lunch with friends and we¬†all update each other on our lives since we last met. Problem is, that’s impossible to do on Facebook now unless you manually go to the profile of every single friend.

Instead Facebook wants to figure out what you want to see, then tailor your news feed to show you it. So a bunch of clever engineers at Facebook have the feed data from billions of users and¬†slice and dice that data to figure out for each person what sort of items they’re interested in and curate the feed to give you your own personal news feed with everything you want to see! Except of course it doesn’t work and you miss most of the interesting things. The reality of this type of software, and in fact current artificial intelligence¬†technology, is that we’re a very long way away from it being genuinely useful in this context. The only way as things currently stand to see a curated subset of posts is for a human who knows you to choose them for you. It really is as simple as that. When a machine passes the Turing test, then I’ll revisit this statement.

But clever people like trying to solve problems like this and while there are billions of users it doesn’t matter if they alienate a few million, it’s just raindrops in the sea for the greater good. Ultimately¬†from an engineering point of view I think they’re doing the right thing. To get so much real interaction data between humans in one place and be able to analyse it is the sort of fascinating problem I would love to be a part of. Well, second after background switching of course. So I completely understand why they’re trying to build software that can predict what you’re interested in based on your behaviour. And I’m sure this type of work will ultimately lead to smarter software, although hopefully not like those Terminator films. But as a user, it’s the opposite of what I want. It’s¬†the equivalent of¬†sending androids¬†to meet up in a bar and controlling them through a virtual reality headset instead of actually going to that bar and meeting your friends. It’s a layer of abstraction I don’t want.

Adios Amigos

So when I take¬†the fact that there’s no way to see what I want (I know you can choose ‘Most Recent’ rather than ‘Top Stories’, but it’s still a curated subset of posts) and add that the negative traits of¬†social interaction are magnified, I realised I was no longer enjoying using Facebook. When I’d meet up with friends in the real world the communication was infinitely more meaningful than it had been through Facebook’s pages. It just wasn’t adding any value to my life.

There is no substitute for real world interaction. And that’s why after much thought I deactivated my Facebook account and haven’t looked back! I look forward to meeting up with friends and finding out what they’ve been up to. I really won’t know and not knowing makes it that much more interesting. I don’t even find myself wanting to log back in and see what’s happening. And to be honest I don’t think anybody’s even noticed I’ve left! ūüėÄ

When I read that Mark Zuckerberg has a team of people who manage his own Facebook page that proved I was right. He’s a far far smarter guy than I am and even he realises his time is better spent in places other than Facebook. So I doubt I’ll be back.

Post

Earin Wireless Earphones – Well Worth The Wait

1 comment

My iPhone and EarinsWhen I was a¬†child, decades before the Internet, mobile phones and even years before CDs I used to imagine what the future would be like. I grew up listening to music as my father never stopped playing records and it’s still¬†something I love to this day. I distinctly remember thinking how awesome it would be to have a device that contained all the music there’s ever been so that I could just tell it I wanted to listen to Queen and it would play their entire collection. I imagined it being a small cubic device that fitted in the palm of my hand. At the time it seemed¬†an impossible dream and yet in my pocket is exactly such a device – an iPhone with 4G and Spotify. And¬†now that seems normal.

However my 10 year old self, used to wearing bulky headphones, also imagined that¬†headphones of the future would just sit in my ear without cables, transmitting music directly into my brain without getting in my way (I considered implants but thought that a bit invasive). And until today that idea remained exactly that – a dream unfulfilled. Back in June 2014 I spotted a Kickstarter project that promised to deliver exactly what I wanted. Wireless earphones that sat in each ear, no cables, minimal size, great sound quality and an earphone case¬†that also recharged them. The project¬†was called Earin. I hadn’t even finished watching the video before reaching for my wallet to pay.

And now, after much delay, I have my hands on a set and this is what they look like:

I expected after such a long delay to be disappointed, particularly reading about¬†failed Kickstarter projects not delivering, however to say the least my expectations have been exceeded. The design and fit and finish is very high quality, like something from Apple. ¬†You plug the capsule into your computer via a USB cable to fully charge it, then it recharges the earbuds whenever you store them inside.¬†They come with a couple of sizes of ear cushions but the standard foam ones fit me perfectly and once in I don’t feel them at all.

The most impressive thing, however, is the sound quality. When I first started playing music I thought they were great and are made even better when running the Earin app and turning the bass boost option on. The sound is as good as the Bose earphones I normally use and the noise isolation from the foam earpieces is excellent.

I’ve worked out in them, laid on the sofa with them, walked around the kitchen with them, wandered about town with them and it’s basically like having music plugged directly into my brain (my 10 year old self would be impressed). No getting the cable caught on my clothes or a door handle and yanking my ear off. They just work and it feels¬†that now, finally, I’m living in the future. The original promotional video talked about doing one thing – playing music – very well and that’s exactly what they’ve done with Earin.

So far the only thing I’ve noticed is that maybe once an hour the sound in the right ear drops for about half a second and comes back. It’s a tiny glitch that, given the huge upside of great sound and no wires, is well worth living with. If you have a chance to get a pair (supplies are currently limited) then I’d highly recommend them. For a version 1 product they are astonishingly good. More information here.