I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Park and Walk

It just occurred to me that, as well as gloss over Old Aberdeen way too much, in the last post I failed to mention something else about Aberdeen that we discovered on the Sunday. Aberdeen city centre has a Park and Walk scheme.

I'll say that again. With emphasis. Aberdeen has a Park and Walk scheme.

I'd heard of Park and Ride schemes before, but this was new to me. New and confusing and stupid. Isn't "park and walk" the same as just "park"? Y'know, park your car, because you're within walking distance of your destination. Where's the scheme? Why have roadsigns? Aren't "park and walk" regions just, err, car parks?

I wonder if anyone will ever come up with a "park and drive" scheme: drive somewhere, stop for a bit, then drive on until reaching your destination...

Footnote: somewhat unbelievably, "park and walk" schemes seem to be commonplace. I'm going to stick my neck out here and offer it as evidence of broken Britain. Harumph.

Exit condition

William Wallace
Originally uploaded by Darren Foreman.
So, hmm. Aberdeen. Bit grey. But hey, maybe that's just because it was the early evening, the skies being grey, maybe first impressions aren't always accurate. After all we hadn't made it to the beach, hadn't made it to Old Aberdeen, in fact let's face it we'd done very little other than wander up the main shopping drag. Aberdeen, after all, is a city with a sightseeing bus tour from a chain company, which to my mind implied that it must be a decent tourist city.

So, our plan was to get that bus. At the very least it was a form of 24hr bus pass for the bits which were likely to interest us. Yes, our London attitudes may have been a little patronising towards the place -- we had already learnt, courtesy of a tourist city map given to us by reception staff at our hotel, that one of Aberdeen's claims to fame is that there are over 30 places called Aberdeen in the world (another is that it has the largest permanent funfair in Scotland; the council website has a list of amazing things about Aberdeen) -- but we were trying to rectify that.

First though, a Diet Coke. An easy purchase, but not a quick one, thanks to untold grief being had by the woman in front of us in Somerfield. She was about 150, being served by an under-18, and there was a little communication issue going on. The girl behind the till had mistakenly typed in 2 quid instead of 20 quid, and the resulting odd-looking receipt made the old woman desperately confused and convinced she had been short changed. To top it off her fags had had to be put through the till separately, so she had to hand some money back, and, oh, it was just so traumatic. Noticing this, a supervisor opened another till and we got through. I suspect the difficulties are still going on at the other till a week later.

Up to tourist information and, hmm, it's all still very grey, isn't it. Even with a blue sky, it seemed to kind of just accentuate how grey the buildings were. But we'd still not been elsewhere... and were destined not to venture far for an hour or so, because we missed the sightseeing bus by one minute. D'oh! So after getting our leaflets etc we went for a wander around some back streets and, fucking hell, we found some colour. Not immediately; first we found some more grey buildings, but less square, on a less straight road, basically some character and stuff. We found sculptures and things, and then we found a big park, in the middle of the city, leading towards the bridge on Union Street which would have been lovely if it was over a river, but in fact was over a busy road and a railway line.

At the end of the path in the park we went up the steps, which was a mitsake. Heading back the way we came might have taken an extra 10 minutes, but at least it wouldn't have had the strongest stink of piss this side of the old coach station in Manchester. By christ it was awful.

Right. The bus. It starts outside Marischal College, a building that looks like a church but as the name suggests is not. However, it also isn't a college (any more); there's a bit of scaffold around it, as it's being refurbished for use as the council offices. This is great, because as they told us, the current council offices -- built in the 60s with no respect for the surroundings -- are going to be demolished when it's completed. Those offices are fucking horrible, and hide Provost Skene's House as well. There's a photo on flickr.

After setting off the bus goes first past stuff we'd already seen, so rather than take much notice I instead spent a bit of time trying to work out what the bloke in front of us was all about. This was a man on an Aberdeen sightseeing bus, in Aberdeen (duh), wearing an Aberdeen FC shirt and 2 Aberdeen FC wristbands. So presumaby he knows the city already, which probably meant he wasn't missing much by putting his (red, possibly Aberdeen FC branded) headphones on so he didn't hear the commentary.

beach at Aberdeen
Aberdeen beach
Originally uploaded by Darren Foreman.
He didn't get off. We did, after going first through Old Aberdeen (which looked very very nice) and getting to the beach, just beyond Pittodrie, Aberdeen FC's ground. Just opposite was the most terrifying looking bar this side of Gibraltar, and I intend to never go in it even if for some reason AFCW play up there one day. It makes me shiver to remember it. And I can't find a photo of it anywhere, except as a tiny part of this one (about halfway up, on the right, in the car park).

The stop at the beach was just beyond "the Aberdeen Eye", which offended Ruth. It's a big wheel in a small seaside funfair, probably 1/8th the size of the London Eye. Ruth was not impressed with the whole Eye naming therefore. She'll be glad to know that googling for "Aberdeen Eye" in quotes gets no results other than for opticians, at least on the first page; though without quotes it led me to discover that its real name is the Grampian Eye Big Wheel.

She was impressed, perhaps worryingly so, with the 2p machines (which seem to be called "Penny Pushers", but I can't find a decent page about them anywhere, only gadget sellers with nostalgia-fest desktop versions for sale) though, and we spent the best part of 90 minutes in the arcade, heh. Then we wandered along the seafront, took a few photos, had an ice cream, and got back on the bus 2 hours after getting off it.

The Aberdeen bloke was still on the bus. In a different seat, but still on the bus. Perhaps he had got off at some point, but even if so it meant he'd got off later than us and got back on again, having done more than a full circuit. That seemed odd to us. Still had his headphones on too.

After the beach the bus winds through the harbour area, full of working boats off out to either fish or do stuff at the oil rigs. It's not pretty. But after that, it heads out past some old city walls, across the Dee, near an old prison, and then to a big park. There was a pony show on that day, coming to a close at the time we got there, and we'd pretty much decided not to bother getting off until we got all the way back round to Old Aberdeen.

At Marischal College we were kicked off. Everyone was, even Mr Aberdeen, because the bus was broken. Not some trivial thing like a broken exhaust or engine or something, no; the CD player was fucked so there was no commentary. Rather than have a person do it, they were just piping a recording through the speakers (and badly, as it was about a minute out of sync with where were were for most of the journey). Being broken they just took the bus out of service and told everyone on board to come back in an hour. The buses are only once an hour, and they finish at about 4.30pm, so an hour is a big chunk of the day lost!

Mr Aberdeen wandered off down some side street while we went back to the tourist board, but first a phone call. Despite what we'd seen on the tour, and were about to go and see, we were still pretty keen to get out of the city. I had booked 4 nights at the Holiday Inn Express and we'd only stayed one night so far, but we wanted out. Ruth phoned up and asked them if we could check out in the morning with no penalty, and thanks to my having booked a flexible rate we were told we could. So, tourist information board it was and within half an hour we had a room booked at a B&B in Ballater, some 40-odd miles inland, in the Cairngorms national park.

Diet Coke bought, we got back on the bus (as did Mr Aberdeen!) and got off in Old Aberdeen. The main thing here is King's College, nowadays part of Aberdeen University. It's lovely and we spent 45 minutes or so doing the tour our leaflet suggested, taking loads of photos and feeling invigorated -- the weather had been great all day, we'd loved the funfair and now found something really nice in this city, and best of all had an escape route sorted. Aberdeen is not somewhere to stay for 4 nights, but 2 nights was spot on.

Walked back to the city rather than wait for the bus and do the whole circuit again, went for a pint in a decent pub in the city then went back to the hotel. Booked ourselves a table in the Indian we'd been turned away from the previous night, had a fantastic curry, then went to a WORLD FAMOUS pub just down Union Street that neither of us had ever heard of before, and whose name now escapes me (lasting impression that it left). Played a lot of quiz machine, then back to the hotel. The Untouchables was on TV! Senior.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Dragons' Den ideas

I love Dragons' Den. Can't get enough of it (so long as "it" refers to the UK version, not the dodgy Nigerian version we stumbled across on Sky one night). And I want to go on it, so I've been compiling ideas in my head. Now I've decided to commit them to blog post, so I don't forget them.

  1. The Scotch Easter Egg. Like a normal Easter Egg (ie, huge) but not chocolate. Instead, a scotch egg. Initial market research conducted at a friend's birthday party suggests I would be able to sell at least 3 of them, not including the ones I'd buy myself. Not sure yet how much I'd ask for, or for what equity stake.
  2. The Party. I'll host a party where the tickets are 20 quid, but only spend a tenner per person on catering and venue hire etc. I want a 400 quid for 50% stake. 100 people at a party is 2 grand income, 1 grand profit, 500 quid each, 25% profit on investment. That's my projection for month one, after which the business will cease trading.
  3. The Bank. They're quite profitable, so I want to start one. I'd like £30million investment for a 30% stake. With the money I intend to hire a few people who know how to run a bank, that can invest the rest in the things banks invest in to make money, while I draw a huge fatcat salary and bonus, much to the ire of that bloke who presented the worst episode of Dispatches I have ever seen ("oh no! private firms pay their bosses loads of money, while their customers lose out if they go bust! oh no!").
  4. My house. I want £60k for a 25% stake in my house. It's a good house, easily worth that much right now and in a nice area. It's already worth more than that. When I sell it they're as guaranteed a profit as it's possible to be. What I intend to do with the money is piss it away on fruit machines, lager, holidays, and plastic musical instruments for my xbox 360.
Not sure how I can fail really. All my ideas are better than the wondercock pants that show off yer meat and two veg prominently, as seen on a recent episode (9.17pm paragraph in the linked page).

Friday, August 29, 2008

Capital Radio and me

When I were a lad I used to listen to Capital Radio a lot. I have fairly vivid memories of Saturday mornings filled with it, on the occasions that my brother and I would stay at home rather than go down to stay with our maternal grandparents, as happened every weekend until 1988. At Christmas there was always the top 500 songs, played virtually back to back (maybe just between 9am and 5pm? was radio even 24hr back then?) over the course of several days, almost always culminating in Me and Mrs Jones, Layla, and Hey Jude. I remember listening to Pat and Mick's individual shows, not just their single(s), and to the commercial chart show which differed in some way to the one on Radio 1, though I can't remember how. I even remember some of the ads. Well, two of them: Harry Enfield in Stavros mode advertising a new newspaper, the Independent, with the strapline of "It flippin' is or are you what"; and new train route (now defunct!) Thameslink, singing "Thames-link! Thames-link! The train that takes you // straight through London // without changing stations // yeah!".

Well, now I work at Capital Radio. Actually I work for Global Radio (I think), who just bought the company I joined in March (GCap Media), and who own Capital Radio amongst a whole host of other stations across the country. Odd that we're named Global really, but meh. I'm not really a fan of Capital these days, but it is ace to work at a place I've known all my life. Still getting the hang of working for a company that isn't a pure internet company (this being my first such job!), but there are actually quite a few benefits to that. And best of all I get to keep working in central London, and bumping into (literally) DJs. In the last few months I have managed to stumble past David 'Kid' Jensen, Pat Sharp (uttering the word 'cunt', though not at me), Paul Gambaccini, and Henry Kelly in the corridors or at security. What a list! I'm sure I've also been in close proximity to various people who weren't broadcasting in some way in the 80s too, but I couldn't care less about them (actually I know full well that I've seen Alex Zane an awful lot).

Aaanyway, the real point of this post is just to puff my chest out a little bit. Capital launched their new website yesterday. It's not just a redesign -- it's a complete rewrite from the ground up by the team I belong to, a wholesale move from the outsourced version which existed before to an entirely in-house solution. I'm pretty proud of it for a number of reasons. Every part played is a big part given the small size of the development team here, but I'm (hopefully not unreasonably) particularly proud of my own contribution because of the technology we're using. As if this post wasn't boring enough already...

Capital's site, and the CMS which powers it, is built using Django, a framework written in Python. Nothing majorly special about that, but before March this year I had never coded with either, having never even heard of the former. Leaving Yahoo! after 8.5 years was a gamble for me, and likewise this place took a punt on me, believing my "I'll have no trouble picking it all up" spiel having been presented with a CV that said I could only code in Perl. I'm double pleased that I've repaid their faith, and proved (to myself, even) that I wasn't just boasting.

Though maybe this django and python lark is just really, really easy ;-)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The grey before the red

Sheriff Court
Originally uploaded by Darren Foreman.
Forgot to note last time another thing about arriving in Aberdeen -- the proliferation of oil industry adverts at the airport. All the revolving things by the baggage reclaim were for various petrochemical exploration and extraction companies, giving the place a very very industrial feel. And that was apt, I suppose, given the amount of grey in the city. I mentioned it before, and this 'ere photo shows it off though actually looks pretty good with the blue sky behind it, and in truth a lot of the buildings were in isolation nice to look at. The main problem is that they weren't isolated.

Our hotel was on Chapel Street. A very functional Holiday Inn Express, they at least recognised my Priority Club membership (I think) and gave us a voucher for 5 quid off at a local chinese restaurant. But it was way too early, and too bright outside, to think about going for food just yet so we went for a wander to see what was nearby.

Union Street is Aberdeen's main city centre road, and fucking hell is it ever depressingly dull. Long enough such that most businesses seemed to have two branches separated by about 1/3rd of a mile, it's just a very uniformly grey set of shop fronts which, I assume, look as they do because granite doesn't take paint very well. But that can't be the reason, even certain businesses seemed to have changed their frontage to suit the city -- specifically William Hill, whose branches were distinctly monochrome rather than the blue I expected.

Lush in Scotland stinks just as bad as it does anywhere else.

At the top of Union Street is the building from this photo (not sure what it is, actually; possibly the law courts?) and then Castlegate. This is a big pedestrianised square with a pub on one corner, a few eateries and shops, and a big castle at the end. Well, not that big a castle, I guess. Just beyond it, we thought, was the beach, so we ventured onwards and came across a terrifying-looking pair of tower blocks. After a wrong turn at the roundabout which took us almost into the harbour area, we did go along the main road towards the beach a bit further but in the end gave up.

Back at the square we had a drink in the pub on the corner, called the Blackfriar. Choosing the back room after a somewhat frosty reception from the group of gents standing at the front room's bar, we just had the one (Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted for me) before trudging back down Union Street and to the hotel. Quick change and out for chinese, with the 5 quid discount, but not before being parternally and patronisingly turned away from the heaving Indian restaurant just round the corner. We had the audacity to ask if they had a table available without reservation. Oh dear.

The food in Yu, the Chinese place, was really very nice. We both ordered our dishes in a type of sauce we'd never heard of -- Ruth had duck, I had chicken -- and it turned out that basically she'd ordered Lemon Duck and I'd ordered Lemon Chicken. I took advantage of the 5 quid discount to actually just order an extra dish that cost about a fiver, fat fuck that I am. Can't even remember what it was! Back at the hotel we were neither of us particularly taken by our first evening in Aberdeen. I had a real sense that the (lack of) colour was having a psychological effect that made me dislike the place more than was perhaps fair; a sightseeing bus tour the next day was going to test that theory.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

London to Aberdeen

[No photos on this post, I'm not uploading anything to flickr over free-but-slow airport wifi]

Jeez. Not blogging for months on end doesn't half get me out of the habit of decent titles for the posts I do bother to make. How utterly pedestrian, but unfortunately inspiration has deserted me. Had I come up with anything better before finishing the text below then I'd have come back and removed the sentences prior to this one, but in fact I've come back to write this! Ahem. Anyway, as I write I'm sat in the BA lounge at ABZ, otherwise known as Aberdeen airport. I've already spent longer than 2 hours getting here in plenty of time for the somehow-they've-made-it-90 minute flight back to Heathrow, from where I arrived on Saturday afternoon, where this post really starts.

Actually it starts on Friday evening, when a cheeky bottle after work started me off down the slope towards a hangover on Saturday morning, which I had promised myself I'd avoid. Flying with a hangover sucks, and to be fair to myself I didn't do too badly... but nonetheless I was, as Wooj says, in deficit in the am. Not bad enough to make the cab to T5 be awful, though the traffic round Hampton Court made sure of that anyway. Our driver was a strange mixture of cockney and landed gentry, occasionally lapsing into a definite twang one way or the other on specific words or phrases. I mean, the Jairmans have figured out how best to deal with a trifling road accident, why the bally hell can't we English? It's simply ridiculous. Anyway, gawd bless yer and 'ave a lovely flight.

Disappointingly for my English sensibilities, but in accordance with my desires as a traveller, T5 does actually appear to work as well as BA's recent spiel claims. Yes, we chose a particularly slow queue for the fast bag drop but that was entirely the fault of the passengers ahead of us, not the staff. Once our bags were in we zoomed through security and found our slow, winding way to the Galleries First lounge. You can tantalisingly see it the second you're past the x-rays but to reach it you have to go left, downstairs, along, upstairs, upstairs again. Worth it though, that's a fucking proper lounge right there. Of all the lounges I've been lucky enough to visit in this 2-years-and-counting frequent-flyer odyssey I'm tempted to rate it above the previous winner, Qantas's first class lounge in Sydney (experienced back in May). Ruth is slightly less convinced of this but still agreed that it was superb.

Superb, and empty, in fact. There was hardly anyone else around having seconds from the hot food buffet, enjoying way too much custard on their cakes, or necking free champagne and kettle chips. Oof. Copious consumption before the gold card runs out! Got on the flight feeling appropriately bloated and was instantly, after the seatbelt sign went out, thrusted a sandwich and Breakaway chocolate bar. Mmm!

Domestic flights have no business class, which is good because it meant that I had managed to get us in row 1. It's not a great row, possibly worse than row 2 (there are no seats in front under which you can sort-of stretch your legs), but there's still something childishly goose-bumpy, for me at least, about having seats in row 1 on a plane. And there is still the very genuine benefit of being able to get off first (or complain, and receive compensatory BA miles, if for technical reasons they have to kick passengers off from the back and you get off last. Hello, Jersey trip last year!).

Aberdeen, I subsequently learned, has the distinction of being The World's Most Improved Airport. I choose to ignore that presumably you need to be fucking shite in the first place in order to have sufficient room for improvement that you win that award, because it would be rude of me to point it out. But there are some odd things about this airport nonetheless. Upon arrival there seemed to be no distinction between landside and airside, though with hindsight that appears to be mostly because we arrived on a domestic flight. So that's understandable. Less understandable is the Customs Red Channel comprising a sign that says "Customs Red Channel", being very much landside, and in actuality being a pillar next to the car hire desks with a phone on it. Very curious.

The cab ride to Aberdeen city centre was uneventful but informative, as our driver expressed surprise that anyone bothered to visit (t)his city as a tourist and then proceeded to tell us what high-fat foods we should make a point of buying while here. Rowies were the main recommendation, supposedly available any time of day or night at the 24hr bakery opposite our hotel which was, in some Scottish comedian's opinion, the best street in the whole of Britain. His justification was the presence of a strip joint, the aforementioned bakery, and a strip club. And he was right, all such things were there, but the bakery wasn't open at all during our stay. I remain a man that has never eaten a rowie.

Right. I do intend to write up the rest of our trip over the next few days but right now, and especially in the absence of any photos to break up the flow, I can't be bothered to write any more; suffice it to say for now that Aberdeen is grey. Very, very, very grey.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Regime change

What responses there have been about my last post (public and private) have concentrated on the Wii aspect. That's predominantly my fault, given how I phrased everything, and it means we all missed the point: Wii Fit is first and foremost a measurement tool. It's not a game in the sense that practice or learning techniques in themselves could get me better scores; the nature of the gameplay is such that they will only get better if you do actually get fitter (which, yes, the games themselves are supposed to do). As for the two activities I do the most, I don't aim to jog a particular distance or get a particular score in the boxing, and being the only player in my household there is no competitive aspect to the charts.

The balance board is good at measuring. As scales they are accurate, and as daft as the "Wii Fit age" thing is, any activity you repeat at roughly the same time every day which uses a consistent measure is useful as a way of determining progress. So for the sake of argument let's remove Wii Fit's training games from the equation -- pretend the graph is a set of results from normal bathroom scales, and say that 4 weeks ago I started a fitness regime which primarily involves a 3km jog five times a week. How long should it take for me to lose some inches/weight, and/or feel noticeably different?