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top gear heads south

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The BBC TV show Top Gear has recently come in for some major criticism over a new “special”: a trip to the North Pole. The criticism has revolved around the environmental impact of driving three cars to the North Pole, especially if they leave their customary trail of parts behind them. If you haven’t seen the show, and don’t want to know what happened before you do, stop reading now: there are spoilers coming.

I’m prepared to overlook the environmental concerns, for the simple reason that the show is unlikely to inspire many more such jaunts: it was expensive, complex, and hardly easy on anyone involved, even those in the three cars. I came away with a general impression of “we did this, so you don’t have to, and we even got it on HD Video”.

After many scrapes, including one that required several parts and left a pool of diesel on the ice, the car with Clarkson and May got to the North Pole first, before Hammond’s dog sled (which he wasn’t driving). The truck needed a backup team of Icelanders to help them, who pulled off tricks such as re-inflating a tyre with a bottle of butane and a lighter. That’s alright, then isn’t it? It’s just TV, right? Not so fast.

I’m hardly a Geographic geek, but the shot of the truck arriving at the North Pole raised more questions. They showed the truck’s GPS screen hitting the mark: N78˚35’7” W104˚11’9”. The North Pole is at N90 latitude, of course, and all the Longitudes at once. What’s the difference? According to the Great Circle Mapper, the difference is 792 miles, or 1275 kilometers. You can see the positions on a map, here.

A-ha, I hear you saying: they must have gone to Magnetic North, then? Yes, I thought of that, but it still doesn’t add up: throughout the program, they always referred to the North Pole: no mention of the word “magnetic” that I can recall, though I could be wrong about that. There’s another problem: they didn’t actually go the North Magnetic Pole.

The latest coordinates I can find for the location of the North Magnetic Pole are those from 2005, which were estimated at 82.7°’N 114°4’W. This is quite a long way from the show’s “North Pole” location: 307 miles, to be exact, according to another Great Circle Map. To be fair, however, the North Magnetic Pole has been near the location they used in the show: in 1994, according to the this map and other historical figures I looked up.

How does that compare to how far they actually went? They started at Resolute, in Nunavut, which is at 74°41’40.27″N 94°50’23.64″W. I know they didn’t go in a straight line, but if they had, another Great Circle Map tells me how far the crow flew: 308 miles.

In other words: their trip to the North Pole took them almost exactly halfway to the North Magnetic Pole. Come on, Jeremy: care to talk your way out of this one? If you were following the 2007 Polar Race route, you didn’t say anything about that…  🙄

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Written by brian t

July 25, 2007 at 11:12 pm

departure

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Thursday: after checking out from The Curtis, I took a final five-mile walk around the northern Uptown area of Denver, via the State Capitol. Not much more than a time-wasting exercise, with my flight due to leave after 7PM. A boring bagel for lunch, then the bus, then sitting around the airport, waiting for a chance to sit on a plane for eight hours.

Denver International Airport may be in a weird location, miles from Denver itself, but it was actually quite pleasant. The main terminal has a white fabric tent for a roof, an open atrium construction and plenty of glass, with the soft lighting making everything clear. I had been warned about the single security checkpoint, but there were two checkpoints when I was there, in open areas at opposite ends of the terminal, and neither was too busy. After that, however, it was boring, with mostly restaurants, and I wasn’t hungry at all. Good thing I had the laptop, and podcasts to listen to.

My flight left 1/2 hour late, yet arrived 1/2 hour ahead of schedule, thanks to tailwinds of up to 250km/h (according to the in-flight display) and a top ground speed in excess of 1100 km/h. possibly the fastest I’ve ever flown. (Without the tailwind, that speed would have been supersonic.). No sleep, but I did get to see 2-1/2 movies in the limited flight time; The Devil Wears Prada, half of The Incredibles.

The main movie was The Departed. Wow: the Boston Irish mob was portrayed in lurid detail, complete with the kind of “Irish Rock” music I detest; the violence was sparse but frankly shocking, and even more abrupt than in previous Scorsese films I’ve seen. Had I blinked at a crucial point I would have missed the death of a main character, and perhaps I wish I had; one second he is flushed with success, chattering excitedly; the next second he is a leaking bag of bones on a concrete floor. To a non-religious viewer, The Departed was a gripping vision of a Hell I hope I never visit, one that puts the kibosh on any romantic notions you might have of the Irish. (I have few of those left; whenever I hear an Irish person take credit for anything good in America, such as the Kennedy clan, I need just two words to shut them up: Tammany Hall.)

Heathrow airport was confusing and infuriating. I thought I knew it, but changes since my last visit mean that transferring there was inconsistent. Everything seemed normal on the way to Denver, but on the return the Flight Connections route, to Terminals 1, 2 & 3, took everyone through a single small area for security screening. There was a 20-minute queue to get in to the area, then another 20-minute wait to be screened. Some frantic passengers jumped the queue to try to make their flights; everyone else understood. I was fine, no problems with security or time, but I was still chafing at the delays and the rudeness of the staff. The much-maligned Transportation Security Administration in the USA were positively friendly by comparison.

Puzzlingly, the Friday flight to Dublin was completely full, with disappointed people on standby, and requests from the staff to give them large bags to put in the hold, which I acceded to for the first time on this trip. Why the crush? My pre-flight planning missed an important Irish occasion: St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The Dublin airport baggage conveyors were overflowing, Arrivals was Bedlam, and the bus back to Ballsbridge was slow in arriving, then packed to the rafters. Five girls from the Midlands of England were competing to see who was the most annoying, the winner being one from Derby, as she proclaimed to all and sundry.

That was the trip that was: I managed to go shopping, and stay up till 10PM, then crashed till noon on Saturday, and woke up with my brain, on the table next to me, asking “who are you?” Well, if it avoids jet lag, a lazy weekend price worth paying. It’s back to work on Monday, where I expect to bust a blood vessel or two before breakfast.

Written by brian t

March 18, 2007 at 3:00 am

Posted in america, movies, travel

up cherry creek

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On Wednesday I noticed that I was sunburned; this was only after another long walk that topped up Tuesday’s UV exposure to overflowing, and had the hotel receptionist laughing at me. I followed the Cherry Creek path most of the way, which runs alongside Speer Boulevard to the south east. The creek (but not the path) runs through the exclusive Denver Country Club, where I imagined Dynasty’s Blake Carrington with a 9-iron in mid-swing… how eighties is that?

Then the Cherry Creek Mall, mostly posh fashion emporia, and a food court where a Japanese-owned Greek fast food outlet sold me a Gyros. It sounded glamorous until I realized that it was just another name for a Souvlaki, a Shawarma, or a Doner Kebab; pressed meat, broiled on a rotisserie, shaved in to pita bread, with salad and dressings. I came 5,000 miles for this? Still, it was nice enough, and gave me a chance to read the Denver Post I had been schlepping around all morning.

The walk down Colorado Boulevard took my day’s shoe wear up to about seven miles, most of it in thin air and bright sunshine. I had sunscreen on, but not enough, it seems. On the way back to the hotel I stopped by the Pepsi Center, wondering whether there were any seats for the hockey game. The scene was familiar to me from rock concerts; many scalpers outside, with signs and shouts of “any tickets?”, while people walk past them to the box office, to buy tickets at face value. Expensive, but $66 got me a center balcony seat, and I headed back there after an hour at the hotel, writing the previous post.

The game was fun: the draft Coors was actually pretty good, not expensive by Irish standards, and the place was nearly full for one of the NHL season highlights; the Calgary Flames visiting the Colorado Avalanche. The ESPN summary of the game can be found here. My seat gave me a good view of the whole of the ice, except for the head in front of me during the first period. It got cold, as expected, which suited my red neck just fine.

The first surprise for me was the absence of any show of impartiality by the hosts; each Colorado team member was given the star treatment, with a video introduction, while Calgary came on unannounced. Between shots the announcer revved up the partisan crowd, helped by big-screen slogans and chants.

The game wasn’t hard to follow, though it took me a little while to figure out what a Power Play was: a penalized player in the “sin bin” for two minutes, giving the other team an advantage. Power Plays gave Calgary a 2-1 lead in the first period, but the Avs regrouped, scoring a goal in the second, and a third goal at the start of the third period, leaving the fans happy with a 3-2 home win. There was even a fight on the ice, cheered on by the 14,000-strong crowd.

Each 20-minute period took over 40-minutes to play, and was followed by an intermission meaning that each period started on the hour. Family-friendly, there were plenty of kids around, and not just in the audience; two junior teams took to the ice in the intermissions, first for standard play, then a shoot-off. Plenty of audience participation, with WW2 veterans taking a bow, remote-controlled balloons dropping coupons for food and newspapers, dance contests for the arena camera, and free t-shirts flying around, though I was too far up in the nosebleed section to partake in any of the bounty.

I was back in downtown Denver well before 11PM, looking for supper on 16th Street, yet nearly everything was closed, except for a McDonalds – no thanks – and a Taco Bell, which sold me a boring burrito. I know it was a weekday night, but the street was hardly deserted, after a big hockey game.

In general, I was very disappointed with nearly all the food I had in the USA. Quality was always overruled by quantity; sandwiches have plenty of meat with little flavour of its own; chicken didn’t taste like anything, not even chicken. If I lived there I would be doing a lot more cooking of my own, I suspect, once I figured out where to get the ingredients. I don’t know if I would gain weight, from becoming acclimatised to the blandness, or lose weight in reaction to chronic culinary disappointment. As for the coffee; Starbucks was the best, which is really not saying much at all, at the prices they charge.

Written by brian t

March 17, 2007 at 11:23 pm

Posted in america, life, sport, travel

things to do in denver when you’re red

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The last few days of my trip Denver followed my standard new city vacation profile, in general: use the public transport system, such as it is, and my feet for the rest.

Tuesday it was South Denver; after taking the Light Rail as far as it went, to the Lincoln station, I checked out the immediate area. Between huge housing developments there are huge empty fields; I stood in the middle of one, took in the view of the Rockies, resisted the temptation to pick up a handful of dry red soil and take a sniff, then returned to the station to catch a bus. (I was late, but so was the bus.)

The driver, a little Mexican guy in sunglasses, had a radio on: like every other time I heard the radio in Colorado, it was playing almost all British pop music, hardly anything American at all. The bus took us through Sky Ridge, where I found myself whistling Little Boxes, then stopped when I noticed just how huge these little boxes were. Some were as big as the 3-floor 15-apartment building I’m writing this from. I got off at the Highlands Ranch center – out of curiosity at the name – in time for lunch, so I had to try a Fatburger. Definitely the best fast food I had on my trip, and surprisingly healthy, with the amount of salad they had on top. Not much else around there except yet another Barnes & Noble, so I hit the road.

This was a mistake: it was getting hot, I had no sunscreen on, and I had underestimated the distance to the Lyttleton / Mineral station on the not-to-scale map. Two miles later the road took a sharp left, and I could see it carried on for at least two miles further, with nothing at the end. I know my limitations, so I waited for the bus in the shade of a road sign. Some strange looks from passing cars and Harleys, but no-one said a word to me. It eventually arrived, the same bus with the same driver as earlier, who failed to give me a strange look. Oh well; we got to the station about four miles down the road, where I caught the Light Rail back to downtown Denver.

After hitting Walgreens for some supplies, it was a night off, with free internet access and a hot bath, listening to the latest podcast of NPR’s Wait… Wait… Don’t Tell Me. I’d asked the hotel for a bathtub, and got one, but ended up wishing I hadn’t; it was short, and there was no headroom before the wall behind it, so I couldn’t lay back all the way. There was also a large shiny knob, controlling the plug, that gave me the kind of view of myself that I hope I never have again. Then I took my glasses off, so all I could see in the reflection was a blur of colour; a closer look at my face showed me the colour I would be for the next few days.

Written by brian t

March 17, 2007 at 9:12 pm

Posted in america, travel

pack animal

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Earlier this evening I set out to pack for my US trip; five minutes later I was finished. The case isn’t closed, since I want to air some shirts out overnight, but compared to my Bangalore safari last year I’m traveling light. I thought I might have to check one bag in the hold, thanks to security restrictions at Heathrow, but it’s all going to fit in my small case, and will be carried on board. If I buy anything in Denver I may need to check the bag on the way back, but a baggage screwup then will be far less of a pain to deal with – since I’ll be home.

One book for the plane there: an old copy of Carl Sagan’s Contact I picked up at a book sale, which I’ve been meaning to re-read for years. If the British Airways on board entertainment guide is accurate, there will be just one movie I care to see on the way to Denver (Casino Royale), but four on the way back, including Oscar winner The Departed and mockumentary For Your Consideration – so the book only has to get me there. Off the plane, I have e-books on my phone for slack times, and plenty of work on the Tablet PC, which I can even bring out on the plane if needed.

No camera: I may buy one in Denver if I find the one I’m after, or a tiny compact at a good price. Toothpaste and deo in the clear plastic bag in my jacket pocket, ready for inspection, Tablet PC in its ZeroShock slipcase (which I’ve never been asked to open).

No malaria tablets or mosquito killers; no Cat-5 Ethernet cables – either I go wireless or I borrow one. I’ll need to buy a US adapter for my laptop power cable – or buy a new cable. Then there’s Denver, the Mile-High city with the Rockies on the horizon. Plenty to see and do, assuming the Homeland Security Theater Company lets me put my feet down. I may even get to see an ice hockey game, when Calgary pay a visit on Wednesday week.

In short, I may actually enjoy this trip. I didn’t want to go, but since I am going, I’m determined to make the best of it. The flights and half the accommodation are on expenses, but the rest is on me. Unlike the Accidental Tourist I won’t be wearing a charcoal grey suit; the only funeral I could possibly attend would be my own, and someone else can supply the suit for that eventuality.

Written by brian t

March 5, 2007 at 11:37 pm

Posted in america, movies, travel

gooseberried

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One of my rare nights out, last night, ended in the usual way: in a noisy Dublin bar, with the colleagues I arrived with to my right, engaged in an inpenetrable shop-talk session. Another closed group of people to my left, whom I had been introduced to earlier, fully absorbed in a mutual self-congratulation session. Not one of the party displayed even the slightest general social skils. How hard is it to notice that someone in your party is sat there by himself, staring at the wall, wondering whether he should bother to inform people that he is going home?

A typical response to that might be something like “stop feeling sorry for yourself, get involved in the conversation”. Well, I tried that, and the other person reacted as if I’d just shot her, before asking me to repeat myself twice further, over the noise. I was hardly feeling sorry for myself; bloody furious is a more accurate description. Once again, I found myself in a position where coming in from the cold would require me to explain basic social graces to people, and I frankly can’t be bothered any more. Am I really getting so old?

Here’s a short explanation of what I’m talking about: when you’re in a party of people, it’s common courtesy to think about every member of the party. The amount of work involved depends on your role; e.g. for the hostess of a party it’s practically a job, but it will be much less so to a member of an informal group. A key point is to recognise that you are in a party of people; it might not be the party you arrived with, or would choose to be with, but consider it a test of your social skills to make the de facto party in to a real party, and to keep it that way for as long as the party is together.

If your party has wallflowers, or gooseberries, your party has failed. (A “gooseberry” by my definition is someone in a party who didn’t arrive with a partner, and feels left out of proceedings as a result of that.) It doesn’t matter who they are, or what their personality is like (shy, obnoxious, deaf); my view every member of a party has some measure of responsibility (however tiny) towards making whole the party a success. I’ve made it sound terribly serious and burdensome, but I’ve been in parties where that kind of thing seems to happen naturally, without any sense that it’s forced, or anything but a pleasure to all concerned. The “recovering nerd” in me relishes these little social skills, but it’s hard for me to apply them when I’m the gooseberry in question.

Meanwhile, back at work, my aim of going a year without any plane trips may soon be thwarted; I’ve been asked to attend a training course in the USA, near Denver, Colorado. It’s not fully approved, and nothing is booked yet, but it’s only ten days away. That would be four flights, with one change each way, but there are further complications; it’s “train the trainer”, so going there will almost certainly lead to a return trip to Bangalore, to give a less-advanced version of training on the product in question. Four more flights.

While in the USA, the timing is such that I could easily make it to SXSW Interactive, the annual culture and technology festival in Austin, Texas, with near-perfect timing. I’m not keen on travelling, and definitely not keen on seeing the US Homeland Security Theater on its home stage, but SXSW might let me make that sow’s ear in to a purse of some distinction. That’s two more flights: I did look at the possibility of taking the Greyhound, but that’s a 48-hour round trip.

Written by brian t

February 24, 2007 at 2:57 pm

Posted in life, travel, work

plane thinking

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At the beginning of 2006 I speculated that I would be doing less travelling. That suited me, simply out of general consideration for the environment. I didn’t need news headlines , or the European Union, to tell me that air travel is not good for it. So, I imagined, 2006 would be a quieter year for me, with fewer flights.

The reality turned out to be very different:

  • April = 4 flights: Dublin <-> London, Dublin <-> Lisbon
  • May = 1 flight: Dublin -> Copenhagen
  • June = 5 flights: Copenhagen -> Dublin, Dublin <-> Amsterdam <-> Lyon
  • July = 2 flights: Dublin <-> London
  • November = 2 flights: Dublin <-> London
  • December = 4 flights: Dublin <-> Dubai <-> Bangalore

That makes eighteen (18) flights in one year; eight of those for work-related reasons, the other ten for no good reason. By way of comparison, I calculate that I took nine (9) flights, half this year’s tally, in my first 25 years. Must do better this year – the environment needs me to cut back on the flying!

Besides, the romance has gone: RyanAir is working hard to make flying as exciting as taking a bus, and even though I didn’t fly with them last year, Aer Lingus are not that far behind, out of competitive pressures. I think I’ll take the ferry next time I visit the UK.

Written by brian t

January 5, 2007 at 8:23 pm