It had been my intention to take the blog on vacation with me to see what — in a very restrictive sense — ubiquitous computing might feel like. And to see whether a travelogue should ever form part of this miscellany. I bought a 3G dongle (not from a spam email…) and carried more digital and optical equipment than you can point a telescope at. The only things lacking were the skill to use it all and a guarantee of internet connection.

The immediate consequence of an absence of wireless reception beside the remote estuary where we perched for the duration of last week was that for the first little while there was not much to do but stand still. This was a good thing, but as the Knackered family has not stood still for well more than six months of rolling crisis, it was only natural that some of the tangled thoughts of grief found an opportunity to unwind and, for those few early days, occasionally overwhelm.

Cornwall April 2008 004

Road to Nancenoy

But the Cornish peninsula is nothing if not varied. And would a geographer pick an argument with me if I said it may be one of the most fractal landscapes on earth? — whether one is talking about the trees, the rugged coastline, the self-similarities of those flooded river-valley creeks, or the surf as the Gulf Stream makes landfall.

Cornwall April 2008 095

Kynance Cove

Within barely a few minutes’ drive the contrasts can be extraordinary. We’re quite happy with beaches out of season and in most weathers, and now — with the necessary neoprene — the option of body-boarding (and, someday soon, surfing) before supper presents itself.

Cornwall April 2008 092

Kynance Cove

In true amateur form, much of our expedition was inspired by reading Simon Barnes’ book, How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. And with a much diminished self-consciousness, this point-and-shoot ethos carried us through birdwatching itself, astronomy, body-boarding, rowing our own boat up the muddy creek (with paddles, thankfully), and much lower-maintenance-than-usual holiday gastronomy (pasties and fish pies from Gear Farm in St Martin).

Cornwall April 2008 131

Nancenoy

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Serpentine rock at Kynance (on the Lizard peninsula)

Helford-Aerial

Helford River

Stonechat

Stonechat

Photo credits: stonechat, Andrew Pescod; aerial view of Helford River, Google ;the rest, Knackered Hack

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surf science

16Jan08

As promised from yesterday, another great clip, which will be the best eight minutes you spend today.

If surfing brings out the extreme then surely Grant Washburn‘s double-negative referring to Jeff Clark, Maverick’s organizer and the first person to tackle the waves head-on, takes some topping:

It wasn’t obvious that he was..uh…not crazy.”

And here we are talking about an earth-moving experience. As Bill Martin, KTVU Chief Meteorologist says:-

When you talk about energy release the most amazing thing I have ever heard — and this is absolutely the case — when the waves get big out here and they crash onto the North American plate, they register on the UC Berkeley seismograph.”

Go here for full screen version from KQED. If you have kids, show it to them.  They’ll love it.

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Twitter showed its worth when @ryansholin announced (at least, it was news to me in landlocked Bath) that Maverick’s – the annual big wave surfing event in Santa Cruz, Northern California — was convening this past weekend. The organisers called it last minute on Friday. All the young dudes rushed in to catch the notoriously huge Pacific west-by-north-west swell on Saturday.

Ryan, who blogs on the changing face of journalism, works for used to work for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, but recently moved to GateHouse Media, a large publisher of highly local print and online publications. Maverick’s is in his back yard. He pointed us to the Maverick’s website, where I spent enough time looking at 2006 wipeouts (see below) to end up with a headache. It didn’t take long.

Just in case you think I’m suffering from apostrophe failure, “Maverick’s” is short for “Maverick’s Point” — Maverick being a white-haired German Shepherd dog whose human surfing companion was reputedly one of the first to try the giant waves near Half Moon Bay back in the ’60s. The dog tried to swim out to join his surfing buddy, but the conditions were too treacherous and he had to be tied to the car bumper instead for his own safety.

Surfing heaven, sailing hell

I could not have cared less about surfing a few months ago. I’d seen crazy folks surfing mid-winter in Cornwall, desperately seeking even the tiniest waves in full wet-suits, while I stood (marginally less frozen and windswept) safely on shore. British surfing culture, such as I imagined it, left me cold; old surf-bum cliché mashed up with the with teenage surf fashion — who needed it?

It wasn’t that I didn’t have an affinity for the sea. I spent my twenties sailing a yacht most weekends and studying navigation on Tuesday evenings at night school in very non-coastal Parliament Hill, North London. I’m qualified as a Royal Yachting Association coastal skipper, hold the obligatory VHF radio operator’s licence, and can confirm that yachting in the home waters of the UK is indeed like standing in a cold shower tearing up £20 notes. Who needs that either, frankly?

Crucially, though, for a yachtsman, the place where land and sea meet when the wind is blowing onshore is a no-go area. The lea shore that is surfing heaven is the sailor’s total nightmare.

But last summer in Devon, my aversion to surfing changed. It was so wet on land in August that, having been rained on solidly in our camp site for several days, we thought we might just as well embrace our dampness and at least add the wind-protective qualities of neoprene. Courtesy of Loose-fit in Braunton (the world’s first carbon-neutral surf shop, they assure me), we invested in some state-of the-art suits and plunged into the foam at Saunton Sands, encouraged by the Loose-fit slogan: “Hang Loose in the Juice.” We were only on trashy bodyboards, purchased at the beach-side store, but it was surprisingly exhilarating. It transformed a holiday that would have otherwise been a washout.

Flush-through

As a non-scientist, what intrigues me about surfing and sailing, particularly when it comes to understanding and managing risk, is that they embrace and expand your knowledge of the non-linear. For instance, the Beaufort Scale for wind strength (which yachtsmen must learn to determine how much sail to carry, and what course to chart, and whether to go out at all) goes from 1 through to hurricane 12. But clearly a hurricane is not just twice as strong as Force 6; in fact, it’s at least three times the wind strength, and produces more than 4.5 times the wave size.

When I did a search of Art De Vany’s blog, as I’m wont to do when I want to understand something complex, it immediately threw up the insight that surfing is what de Vany describes as a “power law” activity. And that was what struck me when a large wave unexpectedly up-ended me (not for the last time), and I experienced the sensation that surfers call “flush-through” or “wash-thru”: when the ocean breaches the sea-defence that is your wet-suit’s collar and your nether regions get flooded with icy cold water, rendering you a human washing machine on a particularly vigorous rinse cycle.

Now, Ryan, at Invisible Inkling, talks a lot about the wave of change that is causing journalists and publishers to experience some of that metaphorical cullion-tightening wash-thru too. He urges journalists to re-skill, get blogging, Twittering and exploring social networks. Because newspaper circulations are falling, and revenue models that can guarantee the future of serious news-gathering are so far proving highly elusive.

Riding the wave

Putting these two things together reminded me of my own youthful Jeremiah pronouncements and specifically a now somewhat banal — but nonetheless prescient — observation I’d made in a meeting in 75 Wall Street way back in 1996, when I was London bureau chief for Knight-Ridder, and the idea of monopolising the Internets was just a twinkle in the young eyes of two 23-year-olds called Page and Brin.

I’d been summoned for meetings there with my fellow news managers to strategise the recovery of the Knight-Ridder international newswire that had spent several months passing through the uncertainty of an auction before being acquired from the Miami-based newspaper company (then still a thriving independent entity as one of the two largest publishers in the US) by venture capitalists.

I forget how many staff we lost precisely, but we were at least fully decimated. Fearful of acquisition by a competitor and enforced redundancy, so many had left seeking greater security, often with said competitors.

Private equity firm Welsh Carsen Anderson & Stowe, the firm that had bought us, had a bold strategy to overturn Reuters, Dow Jones-Telerate, and the emergent Bloomberg, and capitalize on a wave of financial market disintermediation by being the first company in the financial information industry to apply internet protocol. They acquired a bunch of information companies, ripped out their proprietary networks and technologies, and introduced standards.

WCAS already owned what it claimed was the world’s largest private intranet, contested only at that time by Hewlett Packard. After buying us, WCAS tried to buy that doyenne of early internet adopters, Compuserve, too. They had the blessing of — and not a small amount of investment from — the world’s largest banks and pension funds. At one point Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was our official spokesman. Continue reading ‘the maverick’s story’

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