Tuesday, 24 June 2008
Another one from the Callanish stones collection by Gayle and Steve:
Scotproof bagged one containing a tree:
Here's my own lazy contribution (go outside front door, look north, take one picture, go back in house, resume Twittering):
And to finish as started, another one from Lochfada, this time of midnight in South Uist on the solstice:
Monday, 23 June 2008
While I'm probably too old, or not sufficiently drugged up, to dance naked around an ancient stone circle* on pagan days of the calendar, many others do.
And others take the more sensible (to me, anyway) option of plenty of blankets, warm clothing, and a nice flask of coffee. Gayle & Steve are two such people, residents of Lewis who did this at the Callanish stone circle on their island during the recent solstice.
Here's their set of pictures from the shortest night. I'm guessing from the pictures that this is Steve and this is Gayle?
(* As a side point, it's constantly vexing that the over-rated Stonehenge gets loads of media attention, while the far more astonishing Avebury gets non.)
Sunday, 22 June 2008
Friday, 20 June 2008
In the distance is the island of Pabbay.
Sunday, 15 June 2008
And all this is made worse in a conference with parallel sessions, as the audience starts to hear the attendees from other rooms collecting their lunch; "Will there be some left?" "Will all the tasty food be gone, leaving just the cold lumpy orange things with the unidentifiable fillings that the mousey vegetarian librarian from Kettering is afraid to bite into and wants someone else to try first?" "Is this speaker ever going to end? We've got copies of his slides in the delegate pack, what's the point of listening to this?"
As soon as you put up the PowerPoint slide entitled "Conclusion", audience members start looking round, planning the quickest route to the buffet tables in the lunch room, and discretly packing away their notes and handouts. Then, on "Any more questions?", the barely-restrained rush, similar to people trying to get on board a budget airline plane, begins.
But hey! There's an interesting news report from ONN on a more efficient approach to eating, especially for busy people. At a stroke, it does away with many of the problems associated with lunch breaks at conferences:
New Wearable Feedbags Let Americans Eat More, Move Less
Maybe there's the kernel of the idea in here for academic conferences? Break times, and especially lunches, usually rip large parts out of the schedule. But in these more efficient, multi-tasking times, can we afford to waste time queuing, eating and talking?
There are, of course, some advantages to retaining the traditional lunch break at conferences. It's an opportunity to speak to that attractive librarian delegate who you noticed at the morning coffee break wasn't wearing a wedding ring (and you've just spent the last hour not listening to the speakers but thinking of a good chat-up line instead). You can recharge your laptop elsewhere after discovering that four plug sockets in a conference room with 83 delegates attempting to Twitter doesn't really work. And you can move seat between sessions, to get away from the overpowering aftershave of the 61 year old head librarian who's probably got his eye on chatting up the same librarian delegate that you have.
But, on balance, the feedbag approach wins out for both delegates and organisers of academic events:
- * Less rooms needed to hire out, as there doesn't need to be a room dedicated to people collecting their lunch and mooching around, socialising. Everything now happens in the lecture auditorium.
- * Less cost. Outside caterers, and serving staff? Don't need. One puree machine that can be reused will quickly offset the costs of those extra, now un-needed staff.
- * Like your lunch and want to take some of it home with you to eat on the train ride back to your university? It's difficult to get a doggy bag at an academic event, but a feedbag solves this problem.
- * Trapped eating your lunch for an hour while trying to ignore the delegate who won't leave you alone, droning on about his graphics card resolution? Not a situation that can arise again.
Having a feedbag also means that, instead of being interrupted by having to queue for food, hold it, and using your hands to eat it, you can carry on Twittering or live-blogging, without a break, through the entire day. Speakers don't need to curtail their presentations, safe in the knowledge that over-runs don't matter. In fact, apart from a few five minute toilet breaks throughout the day and a quick "stretch" break so no delegates keel over with Deep Vein Thrombosis, your event can carry on straight from registration to conclusion. More speakers and lecture time for your pound - everyone's a winner!
I've seen the future of lunches at academic conferences. And it's a feedbag.
Saturday, 14 June 2008
But, for a change, there was for me one standout option in every multiple-choice round. So, with some optimism, the result it returned was:
"Fashion-loving"? No. Maybe "fashion observing", but I take great pride in spending less than £150 a year (sometimes less than £100) on clothes. Nearly every day I'm wearing a bundle of clothes from a sale in The Gap store in Santa Monica several years ago (that was a cost-effective suitcase to fill and bring back - and a years worth of clothes shopping in less than 20 minutes). Partly because clothes are well down the priority list, and partly because clothes shopping in the US is a far less stressful experience than in the UK.
Gadgets, bars, eats, over the curve - yes, that's more like it.
Putting in anti-answers to tease out the least-likely city (in the suspected limited database of answers) returns Rio de Janeiro, which is a bit disappointing. Rio is on the list of places I want to visit over the next few years, and I hope that even though am definitely not "the life and soul of the world's party" it'll be enjoyable.
(Thinks) it would be good to devise a variation on this a la "Which Scottish or Hebridean island are you?".
Friday, 13 June 2008
Thursday, 12 June 2008
Diesel at £1.46,2 and petrol at £1.29,8 as of today in Lochmaddy, North Uist.
That's exactly 10p a litre more expensive for diesel, and 6p a litre more expensive for petrol, than on May 4th i.e. 40 days ago.
For the benefit of US readers, there's 3.785411784 of our litres to one of your gallons. At todays exchange rate of $1.96395 to the UK pound, that makes diesel here, in your money and gallon measurement:
$10.87 per gallon
Wednesday, 11 June 2008
Tuesday, 10 June 2008
Much of the press coverage contains similar pictures e.g. Donald outside his mother's (now his cousins) house, his plane at Stornoway airport, his hair (which he seems to have borrowed from Boris for the day) blowing in the wind.
- * The Times has five pictures.
- * The Guardian has the best photo set of 10 pictures, plus an article, and an updated article.
- * The Telegraph has an article with some quotes by local people, and some stereotype reinforcement about Lewis.
- * Angus Nicolson is described as a "disgruntled local" by Anorak News.
- * The Herald article includes a video of the Trump plane landing at Stornoway airport.
- * The Scotsman article includes an explanation of why the house visit was so short.
- * Locally, one Outer Hebrides online newspaper doesn't take it too seriously.
- * The BBC news website article contains an old family picture.
- * The Wall Street Journal covered it.
Monday, 9 June 2008
The take-up of this particular piece of Nintendo magic is perhaps not surprising. A few unlikely people I know in North Uist – middle-aged and avowed non-video game players - have recently obtained a Wii and Wii Fit. What’s interesting is that both of them don’t see the Wii Fit, or the Wii for that matter, as a video game platform. One sees it as an antitode to “rubbish television”, another to help lose weight and tone up after having children.
But it was pleasing to see emails from Lewis people this morning who’ve got the Wii Fit and are starting out:
"It took time getting here. It's more difficult than we thought it would be; how on earth did the person in the video get the perfect football score? ... I've been playing it all weekend and cannot move my head that fast. Impossible?"
"Our's turned up last week, so we spent the weekend bowling and playing tennis.
I started the fitness programme, and was duly told I was obese. The wife is working on it this morning before coming in, but I am not allowed to see details of her BMI etc."
"I liked the pictures. It’s quite hard in places ... we haven’t gotten around to having other people over yet. When we are good at it, maybe then."
...and one from the Uists:
"Our cat sleeps on it at night, after my husband has played it. She must have no sense of smell."
As an afterthought, on Lewis there is the long-running controversy on whether the Sports Centre should open on a Sunday, or not. See    . I wonder if the lack of sporting - and other - facilities for half of the weekend has influenced any people in purchasing the Wii Fit, so they have an exercise option (especially when the weather is bad)?
Continuing from yesterday, perhaps also there should be a few of these set up in the Comhairle in Stornoway? During lunch breaks, and in bad weather when even a walk into Stornoway is unappealing, a quick go on the Wii Fit could provide a free and easy way for staff to unwind, as well as obtain a mood-raising burst of endorphins and an opportunity to socialise, bond and network away from desks.
Americans used to have their "watercoolers" to congregate around, network and share "soft" information and gossip; Hebridean folk who work in offices could have the Wii Fit?
Here's someone showing how the snowboarding activity should be done. Now, this is cool; I can't get anywhere near this time; going fast and I overshoot some of the flags in the middle third and can't recover:
I'm guessing more agile people with a higher centre of gravity (read: less plumper) can recover and change direction quicker. Bah.
The bulky kit contained a large, white, heavy board for standing on, a games disc, and various instructional and safety warnings. Within the board, hundreds of sensors detect movement and pressure; stand on it, tilt even very slightly in one direction, and the board picks up this. To get an idea of how this works, and a few of the games in it, see either of these trailer:
I'm under no illusions that the Wii Fit is going to turn me super-fit, despite the name. It doesn't claim that, and am not expecting it. From reviews, a lot of the activities and exercises involve improving your balance and posture; my sense of balance has never been great, so that'll hopefully help.
Tests and checks
When you start off, various checks and tests have to be done. This involves entering your birth date and height. Standing on the board then lets the Wii Fit check your weight, from which it calculates your BMI; for example:
Oh dear (thankfully, that's not me).
You then do a few tests, such as moving to hit an on-screen target, from which your balance and coordination are checked. From all this data, the Wii Fit calculates your "Wii Fit Age" - what it reckons your actual body age is:
Whenever you want, you can go through these various tests and weight checking again, gradually building up a profile of (hopefully) weight loss and fitness gain over time. You can also work towards a target, say losing 8 pounds in 2 months.
The board itself is fairly sturdy, so even relatively heavy people can use it:
Note that the Wii Fit has no problem in informing you that you are obese, and need to lose a lot of weight, exercise and eat well in order to improve. It also gives you various health and exercise tips, tho' these can be switched off. Or ignored.
Here's a run-down of the games and exercises that either come as default, or that I've managed to unlock (by building up "fitness cash" - basically, time spent playing the games) so far. A fair few Berneray residents have had a go on it over the last few weeks, which has been useful for researcg, and alternately fun, stressful and in a few cases painful to them.
Yes, it's a selection of Yoga exercises. In a video game. Ah, how we've moved on from ET on the Atari 2600.
First, choose from a rather camp male trainer or a vocally bland female trainer. Their voice and actions guide you through many of the routines.
Each exercise has a demonstration and tutorial mode. You see the trainer (slowly) demonstrate the position on the screen. You then have a go, while following their-onscreen instructions and prompts. Like this:
First is deep breathing. Breathe in, then out, and repeat. Seriously. Easy, and - for yoga novices - lulls you into a false sense of "this'll be easy".
Warrior - that wasn't too bad. Unlike the tree (see above), which was nigh on impossible for someone with dodgy balance, as it involves standing on one leg while making a tree shape.
Sun Salutation just looked plain rude, and the position was quickly renamed "Wii dogging". This involves bending backwards, then forwards and touching your toes, repeating the process three times. During all this, one has to keep an eye on a red "balance" dot on the screen, keeping it in a yellow area - not easy to do when you are bent over, offering your arse to everyone else in the same room. At this point, I decided that the curtains have to be closed during future Wii sessions as it just looks too dodgy to anyone passing by.
It's here that the scoring system seems slightly askew. On my first go, when I didn't manage to touch my toes, I received 94 points and the somewhat inaccurate status of "Yoga Master".
Standing knee. This involves standing on one leg, while holding your knee. A bit of up and down, then switch to the other leg. Despite being a one-legged activity, it's probably one of the easier yoga exercises for an overweight 39 year old male to manage.
The Half-moon. Feet together, hands joined above your head, arc your body and hold for what seems like an eternity. Mine did not like being arc-ed, and suddenly this is where the Wii Fit becomes hard work.
There are plenty of other yoga exercises, such as the Palm tree, Chair and the Triangle. Some of these I won't go back to, as they were basically too hard - though maybe I should retry them for exactly that reason.
A lot of the yoga sessions involve periods of "inhaling" or "exhaling". This seems a bit weird - "playing" a video game where I just ... breath. And do little else. But some of the others are seriously hard work and stretch bits of me that haven't been stretched in a while. Strangely, I'm not then grinning as much as the people on the Wii Fit adverts.
On-screen instructor: "Hold the position. Breathe slowly. Now, slowly, exhale."
Me: "Arrrrghhhhhhhhhhhh when does this end when does this end?"
These seem to be more the kind of thing you find in exercise books and specialist classes. There's a lot of tutorial and encouragement talk about working on certain areas of muscle, and (especially) "deep musles", whatever they are.
Rowing squat I found strangely easy, albeit on the beginner mode of 15 repetitions. On the first go, being pretty much perfect, I scored the maximum points and was awarded the somewhat misleading title of "Master Bodybuilder". Hmmm.
Single leg twists were harder, but then again so are (to me) most of the exercises where you stand on one leg, such as the sideways leg lift and the single leg extension. Losing a few pounds will no doubt help to increase my score, and reduce the number of times the Wii trainer informs me that my "leg is a little shaky".
The parallel stretch is like a push-up position, but with your forearms on the board and your hands gripping the side for dear life. You are supposed to hold the position for 30 seconds; the Wii Fit cannily detected me collapsing onto the board before the end of this, awarding me just 4 points out of 100. Similarly, press-ups can be done using your hands on the board, with a one-handed variation called the side stand.
Torso and leg twists are pretty much what you think they are and aren't too bad, as is the lunge. The jacknife on the other hand is odd, as most of the time no part of you is on the board. Therefore, it's pretty easy - if you are that way inclined - to cheat, and perhaps this exercise should have been modified so it's done by sitting on the board.
Those are the ones unlocked so far in the muscle section; more gruelling torture to come, no doubt.
These are all recognisable exercises from the "real world" of exercise and are generally quite fun. I wasn't out of breathe getting decent scores on these, though to get to the top of the leaderboard does now require a fair bit of exertion.
Step basics. Step aerobics. Follow the onscreen instructions for stepping on and off the board (in different directions), or follow the actions of the other Miis.
Rhythm boxing reminds me a bit of Space Channel Five on the Dreamcast. Build up increasingly complex "follow my lead" patterns of stepping on and off the board while punching with directed arms and holding the Wii controller and nunchuck. At the end of a level, punch as much as you can for bonus points. This one's quite hard work.
Hula hoop is one for the hips. You move like you have a hula hoop. Every now and then, a hoop is thrown to you, hence the sudden leaning to the left or right to catch it. Have several hoops going at the same time and the points counter moves up rapidly. There's also Super Hula Hoop, a more complex (and tiring) version.
Jogging, and two player jogging. Did we ever think we'd see this in a video game? This you do off the board, and it's basically jogging on the spot. Put a Wii controller in your pocket, or hold it in your hand. Select a course of appropriate length. Then jog; follow the on-screen pace-setter, or the dog. Don't get distracted by the scenery, or other people jogging past you; the two player version is split-screen.
I found the jogging one far more enjoyable, and practical, than in real life for a number of environmental reasons I'll mention later.
Heading. Dodge left and right to head a football coming towards you, but move away from the flying football boots and the strange toys that also head your way. This one is more about timing it right between when you move and when the ball makes contact between your head. Major points are scored by putting together an unbroken sequence of headers. I'm getting to crack this game; the trick of it (and where most people fall down) is not to overcompensate when coming back from a side header to head a middle header. On YouTube, someone has posted the video of the perfect session:
Ski slalom. Lean left and right to swerve and weave through the gates, and lean forward to pick up speed. There's a substantial time penalty for missing a gate, so if this happens you're best off starting the game again. Huge fun.
Table tilt. Elements of Super Monkey Ball with this one. Tilt the surface to make marbles fall through a hole, against the clock. As the levels increase, so do the number of marbles and the complexity of the surfaces. If the marbles fall off the edge of the surface, lose a bit of time as they are replaced.
Tightrope tension. Nope, don't like this one, as it is almost all balance. Lean left and right to do the same as you walk across a tightrope. Jump (in the game) over things coming towards you on the rope.
Ski jump is precision and timing. You have two goes to get an accumulated distance. "Bend ze knees", maintain poise, and keep central. At the exact moment, suddenly unbend ze knees, and maintain poise as you (hopefully) fly through the air. Repeat. Collect total.
Balance bubble. Stand on top of a bubble in the river. Lean left and right to roll the bubble in those directions; forward to do the same. Avoid touching the banks, which pop the bubble. An infuriating game, especially when you're nearly at the end of the increasingly narrow river and the bubble bursts.
Penguin slide. A simple left-right 2D game. As the small glacier tilts to and fro, flip the penguin up when it gets to the edge so it can catch fish that are in the air. Time the flipping right to catch the coloured, high-scoring fish.
Snowboard slalom. One of my most loved games was 1080 on the GameCube. Snowboard down ever more ridiculous slopes, past and through various obstacles, while listening to realistic snow sounds. The only leftdown was doing it all through a listless handheld controller. Now we have the (much simplified) snowboard slalom. Turn the board on its side and use it like a snowboard. Lean to either side to move; lean forward and back to change your speed.
Zazen. Eh? The last game to unlock in the balance section is a Zen-like contemplation activity. Sit cross-legged and perfectly still. Watch the candle slowly burn down; don't be distracted by the noises and things moving about on-screen. Out of various Bernerians who've tried it, only our neighbour Andy has completed this.
- It isn't ust about exercise, not by a long way. A lot of the training, and the activities, are about focus and concentration. You need rather a lot of the latter to get good scores, and these cognitive aspect aren't really picked up on in the initial literature about the Wii Fit.
- There's a heck of a lot of variety in the activities, routines, and exercises. Some of the these are a bit basic; others are quite complex. Some involve just the board, a few e.g. the jogging just the standard Wii controllers alone, and some involve the board, controller and nunchuck at the same time. The variety means that everyone - apart from the most boring or picky person - will find a few at least that they'll like.
- Yoga is hard for unfit people. I don't have prior experience of yoga, but it looks realistic to me. In that it's hard. Which is good, as it'll remove the incorrect view that the dwindling demographic of non-gamers have, namely that because it's a game (or looks like a game), then it's for kids and therefore it's easy. Wrong, on both assumptions.
- Wii Fit won't get you fit on its own, unless you play it for several hours a day over a long period of time. But, there's no miracle speed cure to getting fit anyway. However, the wide range of exercises means that tackling several of these a day could have a positive impact over time. At the least, it'll get someone into a varied exercise routine; not a bad thing. And it's ideal for people (like myself) who find long periods of doing the same exercise frankly downright boring.
- Definitely trial it, in schools and colleges with groups of kids who are phobic of exercise for whatever reason. Also, perhaps, in adult work places. Remembering that some companies in Japan used to start the day with a workforce warm-up session, there's something in UK companies having the Wii fit around to help their staff take breaks, increase focus and concentration and get a bit of exercise. The Wii is already used in many nursing and residential homes, and the (gentler) games and training in Wii Fit could have a place there too. Though maybe not the hula hoop (possibly unwise for people with dodgy hips), or the long-distance jogging.
- It's possible to cheat in some activities, but surprisingly hard on others. In the Yoga section, the lunge could be carried out (and detected as being of good quality) with minimal movement. However, it's in the jogging that it's easiest to cheat, as the step isn't used. Instead, the players move two handhold controllers up and down to imitate jogging (there's a two player mode), and it's done "on trust" that you are, also, actually jogging. But, cheating is a bit pointless, and in social Wii Fit sessions, it comes over as being either bit smart-arse or just a spoiler.
- It has replay value. There's a huge number of games, tests, challenges and other things to try; it would be surprising if anyone couldn't find at least a few things they'd want to do. There's also some hidden features and games (I've just found the "Ultimate Balance Test"). Note for Nintendo: being able to export your Mii fitness data to other Wiis so you can compete online against other people around the world would be a further step forward in this direction.
The research potential is massive. Every serious games and education technology research centre should have, and experiment with, a Wii. It doesn't take long before the physical, educational and cognitive questions start popping into the mind.
As has been seen, put the board on its side and it's a snowboard. Please - an updated version of 1080 snowboarding (the Gamecube version of which can be downloaded to the Wii).
Cricket. Yes, I can see this. Using the standard Wii controller as the bat, and the board to detect your footwork, it would be possible to determine how someone plays a delivery. 4, 6, reverse sweep, nice shot through the covers, and so on. The bowling could be simulated with just the Wii controller (firmly strapped on!), so the potential is there for a two player split-screen cricket game. Though when a video game manages to accurately let you re-enact the talent of the world's greatest sportsman, then I'll be seriously impressed.
Many other sports could be partially replicated on the Wii. Motorbike racing could be fun. Even football, to a degree, could be simulated as the board would detect the changes in the pressure and position from the non-kicking foot, and the software could then work out how the ball was kicked.
Wii Fit (on-screen) verses "non-screen" exercise
I've no doubt the "luddite" brigade will pipe up with objections to the Wii Fit. Especially here in the UK, where trying to find fault in any new innovation or technology is a national pursuit of many. In their predictable way, it'll be along the lines of "What's wrong with real sports and jogging? Get outside, away from the screen. It's free, and you get fresh air. It did me no harm as a kid."
Dull. Narrow-minded. Unadventurous. Above all: boring.
See, for example, the somewhat dimwitted comments 3 minutes 15 seconds in by the heavily overweight studio anchor feed in this CNBC report. Ironically, the dinosaur behind the news desk looks most in need of the Wii Fit if he's going to still be alive 10 years from now. He appears to be the most inappropriate person to lecture on health and fitness...
He and they are spectacularly missing the point that the Wii Fit isn't a replacement for outdoor/non-screen exercise, but is another option or sometime alternative. And there's plenty of situations where the Wii Fit provides this useful alternative:
- * When it's raining. Hello, stupid luddites, have you not seen our climate? I've seen people jogging past my window in a horizontal Hebridean rain shower. They didn't look happy. And probably looked worse after the impending dose of cold or pnemonia.
- * When it's dark. Essentially, November to March where we live.
- * When these blighters are out. I observed a Yoga session on the beach a few years ago that suddenly changed from calm and relaxed to a frantic waving of arms. New frenetic calorie-burning yoga routines, I wondered? No - a swarm of midges, as the now very-well bitten group ran back to the shelter of the hostel.
- * When you want to take a 10 minute break from work. Have done this many a time now - pop on the board, and have a quick game or two. Then, back to work.
- * During commercial breaks, or half-time in watching a footie match. Flick over the channel to the Wii Fit, ping up a game, and have one or two goes. Return in time for the resumption of the film or match.
- * When you want to control who sees you doing exercise of any kind, either on your own or with a group of chosen friends. Which you can't do in a gym, or outdoors.
- * Speaking of which, there's the famous British tradition of buying expensive exercise equipment, using it a few times, then putting it in the garage forever more. The Wii is cheaper, and is likely to have a greater "replay" value.
- * ...and there's the other great British tradition of writing "Join gym and get fit" as a new years resolution, handing over a large bundle of cash for a years membership subscription on January 2nd, and not seeing the inside of the gym again for the rest of the year.
The Wii Fit is 70 quid. That's not much of a risk, especially as it can be used by up to eight people at a time. Eight times annual gym membership is, what?
Of course, if you have free, very convenient and 24/7 access to a full gym, ski slope, football pitch, yoga exercise class, step aerobics class and other sporting and leisure facilities, then the uniqueness offered by the Wii Fit is reduced. Do you have free and easy access to all of those things close to hand?
But most of all, what the luddites don't realise is that THE WII FIT IS A SOCIAL ACTIVITY. Possibly because luddites have few or no friends, or their social events consist of moaning to, and with, other luddites about how bad modern technology is, how life was so much better in the "good old days", yadda yadda yadda. Meanwhile, other people know how to have a good time. And after a few bottles of beer or wine the Wii Fit adds to the evening. It's one of those things that's difficult to explain, but if you don't try it you'll never know. And that'll be your loss. Here's some more YouTube videos of people having a go on the Wii Fit:    .
But, for those people too lazy to give the Wii Fit a go, such as the dinosaur news anchorman at CNBC, there's always...