British Oddities - Behold the Chip Butty

Let me preface this by saying that I've never eaten a chip butty and, unless completely plastered and desperate for carbs, I probably never will.

A butty is another word for sandwich over in these parts, usually reserved for combinations involving a bread and breakfast meat. Sarnie also means sandwich, though I'm not sure the difference between a sarnie and a butty. It's like how the Inuit people supposedly have hundreds of words for snow - the British have a lot of different ways to say 'stuff between bread'.

Did you know the word 'sandwich' came from someone named John Montagu who "revived the concept of bread as utensil" in the 1700s. He named his revival after himself - he happened to be the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. Incidentally, Hawaii used to be known as the Sandwich Islands, named after the Fourth Earl by Captain Cook. The word butty came a few decades later and has less certain origins, though it is believed to be a slang combination of the words 'bread and butter' (how's that?) and originated in Yorkshire.

Only today was the concept of the chip butty unveiled to me and I just totally don't get it. The concept seems as goofy to me as the idea of eating pasta with rice on top. Has anyone eaten one of these? Was it good? Please enlighten me.

The chip butty so inspires some people that there is a song that is sung at Sheffield football matches - Sheffield being in North England where the chip butty is quite beloved. Sung to the tune of John Denver's Annie's Song:
You fill up my senses
Like a gallon of Magnet
Like a packet of Woodbines
Like a good pinch of snuff
Like a night out in Sheffield
Like a greasy chip butty
Like Sheffield United
Come fill me again....
Na Na Na Naa Naa Naaaaa, ooo!

Image of the Chip Butty from Fotobank.

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Sing a Travelling Song

Some of you may have guessed that something like this was coming, especially since I posted an advertisement to fill my current job earlier today ... Big news indeed... Dan and I have decided to leave the UK to spend a year traveling around the world. We've been talking about it for awhile and during a lot of that talking, I was pretty convinced that it was just that, talking. But then we bought plane tickets, and have started selling off our belongings, and have given notice at our flat and ... well, it is really happening, and soon.

We fly out of London on May 1st and we've got a series of flights that takes us right around the globe and back into London mid-April 2011. Our intention is to spend a number of weeks - in some cases months - in our various locations and during our North American stint, we'll mostly be house-sitting/staying with lovely, generous friends.. We don't want fleeting, stressful experiences of wonderful places - we're going to spend some time, get to know the flavour of things. We're also going to be doing some freelance work while traveling, details TBA. So if you need anything brilliant done and want to talk, please get in touch.

In the meantime, here's a little map to show you (somewhat inaccurately) many of the places we'll be touching down - you should be able to click on the image to for more detail. If anyone has any suggestions of places you think we absolutely need to fit into our journey - particularly in South East Asia - please do let us know.

Good night beautiful people.

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Beautiful Sketches of Productivity

I can't completely articulate why I like this but I think it's related to the part of me that enjoys lists - especially the part where I get to see things crossed off at the end of the day.

IOGraphica is free to download. You turn it on in the morning, minimise the little window and forget about it. While you're working, it tracks your mouse movements, showing larger spotches when your mouse has stayed over one place for a prolonged period of time. If you are especially pedantic, you can pause the program when you leave your desk or during lunch breaks - but I tend to let it run. At the end of the day, you have a record of your mouse movements - a beautiful imprint of your productivity.

As Dan says, I'm sure I'll get tired of looking at these, but for now I think they're lovely. Click on any of the images below to enlarge them.

Day 1 - 3.5 Hours

Day 2 - 6.5 Hours

Day 3 - 7.7 Hours

Day 4 - 7.9 Hours

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UPDATE: Are Amazon Seller Ratings Trustworthy?

 If you haven't read the original post about my experience with posting a negative Amazon Seller Review, you might want to check it out.

Apparently Jeff Bezos does care. I just got off the phone with one of his assistants, she read my blog entry and here is roughly what she had to say:
  1. The person who originally took down my review shouldn't have done so. He is a newer employee and was unfamiliar with Amazon's Feedback Removal Policy. She apologised for this and took full responsibility that, as a company, this shouldn't happen. The rep in question will receive additional training to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. She was very clear that, except in the cases outlined in their policy, Amazon does not remove consumer feedback, whether positive or negative.
  2. When I called yesterday and was told my feedback violated their policy, the Seller Department did not actually look into the specifics of my file, despite being asked to do so by my customer service representative. They looked at the notes written by the person who had removed the feedback and assumed he'd done everything by the book. She was very clear that they should have looked into things in greater detail, she said that they intend to address the issue and will do their best to ensure that processes are reiterated so that this kind of situation is avoided in the future.
  3. They were already aware that there was a glitch in the system and that instead of receiving an accurate message saying "Amazon has removed your feedback" it currently implies that the customer has done it, which is what made me think that my account had been hacked. They have now escalated the issue and hope to have it resolved quickly.
Because I've never had a bad customer service experience with Amazon before, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this really was a calamity of errors and that Amazon is acting in good faith. If nothing else, the power of the Internet (and the fact that my original blog entry about it has had nearly 2,000 page views in less than 24 hours) makes me think there is some security in knowing that if they are misrepresenting their policy, people will speak up and call them out on it.

So despite absolutely and utterly flubbing my case, here's what Amazon did right in the end:
  • They paid attention to social media and took my complaint seriously. They took the time to read about my experience and they had someone personally respond to me who was actually in a position to speak with authority about the situation. 
  • They apologised and admitted they were in error and hadn't followed their own policies and procedures. Although they gave a few reasons for the errors, it didn't feel like they were making excuses. They also told me that they are taking steps to correct the problem with their process and that my unfortunate experience was being used as a learning opportunity.
  • They clearly stood behind the importance of consumer reviews, particularly of third party sellers. The person I spoke to understood the policy inside and out and spoke passionately about how important it is to Amazon. 
Maybe I'm naive, but I believed her. Hopefully Amazon doesn't prove me wrong.

Thanks to everyone who commented, shared the original post and Tweeted about this. It was heartening to get such a supportive response.

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Are Amazon Seller Ratings Trustworthy?

I Bought the Wrong Product
Last month I bought a case for my Kindle via a third party retailer on Amazon. When the case arrived it was too small - in their advertisement they referred to the large size Kindle 2 and apparently mine is a 9 inch Kindle DX.

I contacted the Seller about returning my product, which they told me I could do although I was still responsible for all the shipping costs. First they asked me to mail the item to their warehouse, then they asked me to ship it directly to a private address in Canterbury. I agreed to all their terms and in addition to posting it to the private address, I also sent the Seller a copy of my invoice and of our email correspondence, highlighting where the product had been shipped.

Beware the Negative Seller Review!
Three weeks passed and I still hadn't heard back from the Seller nor had I received a refund, but I did receive about three emails from Amazon asking me to log onto their site and review the seller. Frustrated, I logged on and left a negative feedback score (2/5) and a comment along the lines of, "When the case arrived it was too small. The refund process was convoluted and to date (weeks later) I still haven't received my refund."

Within hours I had an email from the Seller berating me for leaving negative feedback. Instead of being concerned about a misunderstanding or customer service gaffe, they complain that I was ruining their business, shouted at me in all-caps and then gave me instructions about how to remove my negative feedback from Amazon. Some of the highlights:
  • "I am so upset that you have left a NEGATIVE FEEDBACK on our Amazon listing. I am not sure you are aware that a negative can have our account suspended. This is our family business and our source of income."
  • "I am simply without words to see the FIRST NEGATIVE customer feedback in almost 500 trading days of business. This is no way to treat a good seller."
  • "Are you aware that the entire Amazon network and customers see these reviews and this can cause of seller rating to drop and cause a suspension. We are very stressed about this and need this issue resolved quickly before our image on Amazon is ruined. I am still cannot belive this is happening to us..why ??? I am so upset about this!"
  • "I would appreciate if you could remove this as we have been a very very good seller. I remember my wife asking me to sign a cheque weeks ago, so either it was lost or there is a communication issue. Could you be polite and remove this negative feedback .... please remove this before our sales are hurt even more."
Right - so instead of addressing my valid customer service concern and then politely asking me if I would consider removing my negative feedback once they dealt with it (which I would have done, by the way), the Seller tried to guilt me into removing a review that I considered to be valid and even-handed.

Negative Feedback .... Disappears
Shortly after this email exchange, I logged onto my Amazon account to find that my feedback had been removed.

There had been no email from Amazon and I knew I hadn't removed the feedback. Immediately, I began to worry that the Seller who sent me an inappropriate email had found a way of accessing my account. I looked into Amazon's Feedback Removal Policy and was confident that my review didn't meet any of their criteria for removal. I also wrongly assumed that they would not remove my feedback without at least notifying me. Also suspect was the message (screenshot above) saying that I had removed the feedback, when I hadn't.

After changing my password, I called Amazon and was put through to a very helpful customer service person. After some digging, it was determined that the Amazon department representing Sellers removed my feedback in response to a complaint from the Seller. They apologised for not having sent me an email that informed me of the removal of my feedback - apparently that should have happened.

After a bit more questioning they told me that the review was removed because I mentioned the product, which, I was told, violates their feedback policy. The only Amazon feedback removal policy that references product mentions says, a review will be removed if:
The entire feedback comment is a product review, such as "The Acme Super-Widget lacks the sharpness and speed of the Acme Ultra Widget." However, if the feedback comment is only partly a product review but ALSO contains feedback about the seller's service, such as "Seller's shipping service was very slow, and the Acme Super-Widget lacks the sharpness and speed of the Acme Ultra Widget," then the feedback would NOT be removed. 
When I pointed out to Amazon that, although I referenced the size of the product, the majority of my review was about the seller and their policy clearly allows for this, I was told that they would need to get back to me because the very nice man I was speaking to was unfamiliar with the actual wording of the feedback policy. Again, he needed to speak to the Seller department to get more information.

15 minutes later the same representative called me back to apologise and say that my review would be reinstated within two hours. After more digging, it seems that it was "accidentally" deleted by someone at Amazon and that there were no grounds for removing it. This conversation happened at noon today.

About six hours later my review was still not up so I called Amazon. Again, I was greeted by a very pleasant customer service person. I explained the entire situation to her (as she didn't seem to have any record of it) and put me on hold (again) as she spoke to the Seller department. When she came back, she told me that she would need to speak to my original customer service representative (I had his name) and that only he could deal with my problem. I am supposed to hear back from him sometime tomorrow about whether or not my feedback will actually be reinstated.

If my situation represents the typical way Amazon deals with negative feedback, then as a company, they are far more concerned with keeping their Sellers happy then their customers. My Seller didn't like my negative feedback, complained to Amazon and, in contravention of their own policy, they removed my review. They didn't contact me to tell me and, in fact, misrepresented the situation with a message on my account inferring that I had removed the feedback myself. If the seller hadn't sent me such a crazy email, I probably would never have logged into my account to re-read my feedback, which is buried deep within my profile, and as a result, I would never have known it was removed.

Moreover, if I hadn't made myself familiar with Amazon's Feedback Removal Policy, I would have accepted the word of the customer service representative and assumed that I'd done something wrong. They seem to be counting on the ignorance of customers. Finally, after all of the above, if I wasn't annoyed enough to check back, deep into my account, six hours later, I would not have called back and again, would not have noticed my feedback hadn't been reinstated.

It makes me wonder whether I can trust the Seller reviews on Amazon or whether they are fixed to benefit Sellers. The benefit for Amazon in having high Seller ratings is presumably that people tend to buy more from Sellers they trust, and Amazon sees a share of this profit. The downside, which Amazon should really consider, is that as a regular online consumer, I no longer trust these ratings nor do I trust that Amazon is handing reviews in a transparent way. Are Sellers with mostly positive reviews really trust worthy, or are they just the ones who take the time out to complain to Amazon? The result of this kind of practice is that genuinely good sellers may be penalised because consumers no longer have faith in positive reviews.

At the present time, my review has still not been re-posted and although I've been told my concern will be dealt with quickly, my faith in Amazon has been shaken. Next time you buy from a third-party on Amazon, you might want to rethink whether you can really trust their feedback score and if you've left a negative review, you might want to check that Amazon hasn't secretly removed it.

Update - Tuesday 16th March, 10 a.m.
When I got up this morning, I logged into Amazon to see that my review had been reinstated, so that's good. I am still concerned about this process and whether it is the typical way that the Amazon Seller Department handles negative complains from customers. There seems to be a bit of conflict between the department that represents the interest of customers and the one that looks after Sellers. At this point Amazon hasn't really explained to me what happened to get this entire process so off track.

I originally posted my Amazon review on Friday night and now that it's been reinstated, because it is nearly five days old, it is no longer showing up on the front page of the Seller's shop, which is where it would have been for at least a few days if it had not been taken down. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but again, I wonder about whether this was intentional.

The other point of concern is that it seemed relatively easy for the Seller to have negative reviews removed (my review was removed within eight hours of me putting it up) but it's taken me much more time and effort (and a blog post) to have it reinstated. After all of this, I am still left with the question - are third party Seller ratings on Amazon trustworthy? Is this just a wild example of everything falling apart or is this something that happens a lot at Amazon? I have more answers than questions.

I welcome anyone from Amazon to weigh in and provide an explanation. Jeff Bezos ... are you out there? Do you care?

Update 2: I've heard from the office of Jeff Bezos, apparently he does care. Here's what they had to say

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Film Review - Shutter Island

Scorcese's newest film Shutter Island reminded me a lot of The Shining . In the opening scene two policemen are on a ferry headed towards an island that serves as an insane asylum for the most deranged psychopaths in the United States. The sky is heavy and gray and as the camera pans in towards the dark, ominous island a pounding, intense soundtrack makes it very clear that bad things happen there.

Actually, the entire film seems like a giant homage to The Shining. Without giving too much away, it's all about a descent into madness, which is evident both by the actions and delusions of the characters and also in the gothic imagery. Instead of a snowstorm, the characters in Shutter Island are trapped by a hurricane and the physical barrier of the ocean and the old fort, which houses the psychiatric patients. The frequent dreams about dead children and Teddy's (played by Leonardo Dicaprio) dead wife are beautiful and disturbing and are reminiscent of the little girls that haunt the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's film.

Strange things begin to happen almost immediately and the audience isn't really sure who is telling this story, whose perspective we are getting. As a result we aren't sure what, or who to believe and as the film crashes towards its climax, we are feeling just as paranoid and crazy as most of the characters. Who do we trust and how the hell are we going to get off this island?

While watching the film, I found myself frustrated with the plot - certain things didn't make sense and even as I've tried to unravel them, they still don't add up. But I think that is part of the point - in Shutter Island plot isn't always linear, characters are flawed and conflicted (and we are conflicted watching them) and lots of things don't make sense. There is nothing neat about this film, it is messy and fragmented and even at the end, when the truth is revealed, we still aren't totally convinced that it's true. Or maybe it's that we don't want to believe it. As things begin to unravel, the audience is drawn into making crazy assumptions and at the end, we are as culpable as the lunatics who are locked up. 

The trailers for Shutter Island may actually do it a disservice. They present the film like a straight forward thriller - something scary and fast paced. Although the film does have jumpy moments, it is much too subtle to really appeal to people who are just looking for an easy scare and I suspect the result will be that many people won't enjoy it. It builds slowly and there is no satisfying resolution at the end.

But even those who don't like the plot should enjoy the way it was shot. Not only does it look and feel like an old film noir, but there are some moments, mainly the dream sequences, that are among the most memorable I've ever seen. In one particular scene, a dreaming Teddy is visited by his dead wife who died in an apartment fire. Played by Michelle Williams, Dolores is glowing in a yellow dress and even though she consumes the screen with her presence, even Teddy knows she isn't real. Still, as he walks towards her, he notices that her back is missing and there is only a deep red ashy pit of embers in its place. Despite the horror of it, he embraces her as she simultaneously burns and turns to water before finally, he is left alone, clinging to ash. It's horrible and beautiful.

There is nothing simple about Shutter Island and it isn't a film that is easy to let go of once the credits roll. It's definitely a film that leaves its audience with more questions than answers, along with an indelible imprint of something strange and fleeting, like smoke.

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If Palin is the Prick Tease, Then Who Are the Pricks?

I really don't like Sarah Palin. I think she is dangerously arrogant for a person who has spent most of her life living in Alaska, a place that is geographically, environmentally and otherwise fundamentally disconnected from the rest of her country. In most of her appearances, I've found her snide and  condescending, especially for someone who needs to write the word "energy" on the palm of her hand before an interview to remember to talk about it.

Recently, a fairly left wing online journal called the Daily Kos published an article by Michael Stinson, of the website Symbolman. According to his Twitter bio, he is an "activist, writer, Hollywood award winning animator, film maker, political commentator, musician, sculptor." He also seems to have had something to do with Going Rouge, the colouring book parody of Palin's book Going Rogue.

The Stinson article on the Daily Kos is about Palin's recent appearance on the Jay Leno show. Stinson and his wife were in attendance and according to them, the audience was not receptive to Palin and in fact, there was a definite sense that people didn't take to her. Stinson says that a laugh track was put over top of the broadcast to give the appearance that the audience thought Palin was funny and engaging. 

No surprise there. By default I would have made the assumption that most feel-good talk shows do this kind of thing. Yes, it is a bit dishonest, but is anyone really surprised?

Here's where it gets messy. The Daily Kos post moves into a place that is, well, very ugly:
And while NBC Sold Palin, she sold her body, jiggling, teasing, pushing the cutesy-pie, what we used to call in the military, a "prick tease". She short circuits brains, deflects the fact that most of what she says is nonsense or hateful, as lizard layers of right wing men's brains hum a sexual fantasy tune, and women who have thrown all sense of propriety to the wind, watching her strip, want to be just like her. Rich. Stupid. The sweet "Bite Me" bitch attitude she's honed to an art form. No, she doesn't just "wink" - she uses her whole body to sell the package. Turn off the sound, just watch her body language. I find it whorish, repulsive, and I'm no prude.
Can I just say, ew?!! This kind of disgusting hyperbole has no place in politics - right or left. The fact that this comes from someone who is purported to be squarely on the left bothers me even more because this is not something I want to be associated with in any way. It isn't clever and the only insight it provides is to remind us that individuals on all sides of the political fence can be absolutely wrong-minded. This over-sexed focus on Palin's body language and appearance does nothing but discredit genuine, thoughtful criticism about why Palin is a political nightmare. Also, it makes Stinson look like a Neanderthal. 

The 'she's a whore' argument is so dumb, so old-fashioned and so unnecessary, right up there the Photoshopped images of Palin's head onto bodies with big boobs that are all over the Internet. It's the stuff of grade school bullies. It should be noted that this kind of critique is foisted almost exclusively against women, usually by men who can't think of anything more clever to say. 

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike Sarah Palin and all that she stands for, so why sink to these murky waters? It's embarrassing and it makes Stinson and the Daily Kos seem more like the bad guys from the film The Accused than contemporary, insightful political pundits. And people, that film came out in 1988!

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Nothing Lovely About Them Bones - Film Review

The Lovely Bones is a strange choice for Peter Jackson, the director best known for bringing the Lord of the Rings Trilogy to life in, what I consider to be, one of the truly brilliant book to film adaptations of my generation. I haven't read the Alice Sebold book, but the film is very much pre-occupied with the things young girls are meant to be frightened of - scary men who want to rape and murder us.

I can remember being nine, ten, fourteen, sixteen and every time some new young girl disappeared, no matter where in the world, my grandmother would look at me and say, "This could be you." And I always knew that in theory it could be. Whether it is because the media bombards us with the grisly details of these tragedies or because the world really is less safe these days, girls, even women, cannot really ever feel truly secure.

Peter Jackson doesn't approach this story by genuinely trying to examine the very real fears of young girls, nor does he really achieve a full sense of the horror or grief this kind of tragedy can inflict on a family or community. Instead he spends far too much time following the dead girl Suzie through the endless landscapes of the 'in-between place' (not heaven but not earth), depicted in painful CGI faux-realism. The film takes place in the '70s and in one especially painful moment, Suzie and her dead friend Holly (another victim of her killer) are clad in platform shoes dancing on a record player to disco. I think they may even be wearing tie-dye. Although in parts heaven is pretty, it is also boring and the young actress who plays Holly gives a performance not even worthy of a bad high school play.

The element that rings the most false about the film is that although Jackson is trying to hit one melancholic high note after another and is figuratively jumping through fire to try and tug at our heart strings, it all feels a bit empty. Like the narrator Suzie, who is telling us this story from far away, I felt removed from the emotion of the story. The thing I felt most consistently throughout was discomfort at Jackson's awkward attempt to try to understand and represent the fears of the teenage girl (he fails at both). At best, the film is a third rate Hallmark Hall of Fame made for tv movie crossed with an episode of law and order - at worst it is the sticky, voyeuristic approach of someone who is trying to make teenage girls into some strange ideal - beautiful, thin angels dancing about in gauzy fields of colour. The gaze is uncomfortable and at times feels inappropriate. I'm quite certain that this was not Jackson's intention.

The only slightly redeeming feature of The Lovely Bones was the performance by Saoirse Ronan as the dead girl Suzie Salmon - probably best known for playing the trouble-making Briony in the film adaptation of Atonement a few years back. She doesn't have a lot to work with in The Lovely Bones, but but she does mostly manage to play it straight, despite being forced to deliver line after line of insipid surgary goop. Rachel Weisz, who plays Suzie's bereaved mother, is adequate as are the other supporting children (with the exception of the horrific Holly) but where it really falls apart is with Mark Wahlberg, who plays Suzie's father. Sporting a shag haircut, which is constantly in his face, there are dramatic moments where crazy-eyed Mark doesn't seem to realise he isn't in a Saturday Night Live sketch. I half expected a laugh track to cut in where I should have been feeling sorrow for a father whose favourite daughter was murdered.

Similarly, the usually lovely Susan Sarandon plays an over-the-top character whose only purpose is to distract us from how rubbish we think the film is with her big hair and kookiness. Finally, Stanley Tucci as Suzie's killer is so oily and grim that it is hard to wonder that any of the characters in this film aren't immediately assured that he is the monster in the neighbouhood. All he does for two and a half hours is skulk in dark corners, spy on young girls and build doll houses. He is creepier and more obvious than Golum.

The Lovely Bones was odd, painful and it missed every single mark. The paranoia and pathos so entangled with being a teenage girl in North America is a strange choice for a middle age, male, Kiwi film director, though it could be argued that as Jackson is neither a hobbit nor an inhabitant of middle-earth, yet he created a great series of films out of The Lord of the Rings. It would be interesting to know what pulled him towards this material that so obviously eluded him.

There is a scene in Sophia Coppola's great film The Virgin Suicides (based on a book, which, it should be noted, was written by a middle-age white guy), which really sums up where this film went very wrong for Jackson. Young Cecilia Lisbon is in the hospital after trying to kill herself and the doctor says, "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets."

"Obviously Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl."

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Happy Friday - Trampoline Dog

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Gratitude - Ignite London and More Pictory Goodness

I've had a pretty good few days.

Yesterday we held the second ever Ignite London event (thanks to committee members Dan, Richard, Craig and Andy). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Ignite concept, it is a very community-spirited event featuring a series of talks that follow a rigid format: each speaker has 20 slides, which are auto-timed to advance every 15 seconds. As a result, every talk is exactly 5 minutes long.

We had a capacity crowd at a really lovely venue in Kilburn, London called The Luminaire but more important than the numbers, everyone was really positive, engaged and genuinely excited to be there. The speakers were great - some funny, some serious and I genuinely learned something from each one of them. We were really lucky to have a few 'celebrity' speakers in the mix, including Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing and Russell Davies of the Interesting Conference and Newspaper Club.

The other very cool thing is that our event was held as part of Global Ignite Week. Thousands of Ignite talks are happening around the world - from New York and Sydney to Anchorage, Bangalore and Morocco. It's wonderful to be a part of something with such a global reach.

We're in the process of uploading the talks from last night but in the meantime, you can check out the new O'Reilly website devoted to broadcasting and in some cases live streaming the events. We've also created a Tweet doc to aggregate all the Twitter action (well over 200 tweets) from last night, which you download here (PDF). My favourite Tweet:
@mahemoff: Ignite is TED, only cool ;) Thanks #igniteLDN2 organisers for a night of superb presentations.

In more great news, another one of my photographs has been featured on the wonderful Pictory. This particular story is about Neighbourhood Treasures and my photo is of The Water Rats Theatre bar near Kings Cross in London (number 18 on the list). It's especially cool because this particular photo story was curated by Good. For those of you unfamiliar with them:
GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward. Since 2006 we've been making a magazine, videos, and events for people who give a damn.
And the cherry on top is that the Neighbourhoods feature on Pictory has also just been covered on Boing Boing. Ah, the magic of the web - it all really is connected!

So, despite the fact that I am physically exhausted I am also brimming with gratitude directed at pretty much everyone I've come in contact with over the past few days - whether in the 'real' world or online. The encouragement and support is lovely and truly appreciated. x

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This is Vanessa

Don't let the sweet look she wears in the photo fool you. She is tough and ridiculously, inappropriately funny and probably the most bad ass person I know. She is also the luckiest unlucky person you will ever meet and, if I was ever stuck anywhere sketchy and needed someone to fight my way out with, she would be one of the top people on my list.

I met Vanessa when she was a few days old. I was about three and shortly before her birth, my family moved in next door. I'm not sure if I actually remember her parents holding her up to the window when they brought her home from the hospital, or whether I've imagined I remember it because it is one of my grandmother's favourite stories about Vanessa (our parents are still neighbours).

There are certain things I know are my own memories:
  • Trying to swing like mini-tarzans off her parent's deck, using the branches of a poor weeping willow tree (much to her parent's displeasure) when, inevitably, Vanessa would fall flat on her back and knock the wind out of herself ... 
  • One morning, waiting for the school bus, when Vanessa decided to use a plank of wood perched across a small icy puddle as a tight rope, only to fall in right as the bus arrived ... 
  • Smuggling water balloons on the school bus (we were about twelve years old) and throwing them at high school students (we were caught and hell reigned down) ... 
  • Making 'soup' out of left overs from her mother's garden ... 
Mostly I can remember long, lazy days of being young and naive, of riding our bikes up and down the alley way, protecting the lilacs from being picked and making stink weed perfume (we actually tried to sell it). I remember going out early in the morning and playing until my grandmother's voice would call me home across the dimming, lilac-scented evening. It wasn't all perfect - we also fought like crazy people but we were always, always friends.

Over the last half a year, Vanessa has been living and traveling through various parts of South America. She's worked in Costa Rica and wandered through everywhere from Nicaragua to Peru. Early on in her journey, a scorpion crawled up the leg of her trousers and stung her ass (unfortunately her Spanish wasn't great at the time so she had trouble communicating her uncomfortable predicament, or the reason she was hopping around without pants on) and a bit later, a spider decided to make it's home in her ear and had to be extracted by a doctor. Sometimes her unlucky trials actually turn out to be lucky - a few days ago she was driving through the deserts of Peru and her van broke down. As a result, she was diverted from being smack in the middle of the earthquake that recently rocked Chile.

I've learned a lot from keeping track of Vanessa's Facebook page and from the infrequent emails and messages we've exchanged. She is so good natured, so willing to accept that she can't control everything around her and as a result, she lives with an inspiring amount of joy. I hope she won't mind me sharing a recent email she sent me. The next time I travel, I'm going to print this off and carry it around in my pocket. Every time things don't work out exactly as I want and I feel a tantrum coming on, I'm going to read it and try to be a little bit more like the lovely Vanessa:

Subject: Dear Shipping God


Well I am now in Ecuador after a nice little plane tour of Colombia. Shane [her brother] and I booked the cheapest tickets we could find to get us to Cali Colombia - which is just a short 10 hour bus ride from the Ecuadorian border.

We flew into Cartagena at about 11:30 at night - went to a great hostel for the night. We wandered around the city in the morning before our 12 noon flight to Bogota. If I ever get a chance I would love to spend more time in Cartagena it was great. In Bogota we only had a three hour lay over so we didnt want to leave the airport. But, we found a great place for a drink - Bogota Beer Company - it´s a micro brew place in Colombia and two of the beers reminded me and my bro of Bushwakker beer - a red and black and Cheryl´s Blond ale. What a nice surprise.

We flew into Cali around 5pm and went to a great party hostel. Cali has a super intense nightlife - especially if you like to salsa.

The next day we began to make our way to Ecuador. We travelled about 26 hours in a bus but it wasnt that bad. If the bus stopped everyone had to be super careful because if they decide the coffee/bathroom break is over... the bus leaves with or without you! The bus rides were routinely stopped by police and the military where we would have to get off the bus men on one side women on the other and they would ID us and search our bags. It was slightly strange at first but we got used to it.

We got into Guayaquil at around midnight on Sunday. We had to rush to get here because our van that we shipped from Panama was scheduled to be here Monday. That´s when things got messy....

Ben and Jess the other two that are travelling in the van took a different route through Colombia. Right as they were boarding their bus in Bogota their bag with their passports got stolen. They are now stuck in Bogota waiting to get temporary passports. Shane and I are here trying to figure out what we can do for the van. The van´s title is with Ben - and his name is on it - so he needs to be the one to pick it up from the port. The van can only be on the port up to 6 days after it gets there .. or else we arent really sure I'm assuming large storage fees... all I know is that when we shipped the van the company said - whatever you do dont let your van sit more than 6 days on the port in Guayaquil....we all laughed at the time because we all knew that we would be here right on time....ha ha ha - what a mess.

But on the bright side my Spanish is improving like crazy - I have had to talk our way out of a lot of problems at the borders and now this - the more Spanish you know the less bribes you have to pay.
Shane and I are working on the 'Case of the Astro Van' here but we are still having a great time. This place has super cheap food and in the centre of the city they have an iguana park. It´s free and you walk in and there are huge iguanas just walking around climbing trees... there arent any cages they are free to walk all over the place. There was also a tortoise and a lot of turtles. One guy tried to eat a banana in the park and these large iguanas ran over and started crawling on him - I would have freaked out - he had scratches but that was it.

Hope all is well and I will keep you updated on when we ´free the astro¨¨

Lots of Love,
I can't wait to see her again. Stay safe lady!

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Old Street - Otherwise Known as my Birthday Weekend

Last weekend some of the boys from the Cardiff office came to London and, joined by Jackie, Dave and his lovely lady Jen, we went out on the town in celebration of my 32nd birthday. It was genuinely epic.

We started at our place with burgers and beer, followed by foosball at Bar Kick, bowling at Bloomsbury Bowl, karaoke at the most bizarre place in the world - Nico Nico in Marleybone. Then to Camden and The Word's End and Underworld.


No idea who these guys were, but they were pretty impressive.


 Somehow, despite being a bit worse for wear, on Sunday we still managed to head to Islington Farm to feed the pigs, cows and sheep, Sunday lunch at The Charles Lamb pub, cupcakes at Selfridges and finally Chinese New Year celebrations in central London.


You can see all the pictures from our adventure here.

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