OK, so I’m back from gallivanting and just beginning to get my brain back up to speed to after some well-needed mental free-wheeling. Well, actually, maybe free-wheeling isn’t the best phrase – rather, I needed to get my head out of my thesis and back into the real world.


And what better place to escape from the ivory tower than to Rajasthan, northern India, former jewel in the crown. Here, my theoretical assumptions were confronted and summarily dismissed by the harsh practical realities of people struggling to survive amongst a billion countrymen all sharing a common, upwardly mobile, dream. Western rationalism met Eastern mysticism. Swirling scarlet saris, spiced sauces, sweet (and sour) smells sharply contrasted pale personal computing, drab digital logic and the dreary desk-bound slog of ‘writing-up’. Confronting a hoard of fare-seeking rickshaw drivers is quite a different problem to attempting to find a single bug amongst several hundred lines of code (though a similar level of patience is useful). Needless to say this diligent young PhD scholar took a few days to get up to speed…


However, once the common ground had been found (“My name? James… Yes, that’s right like James Bond…”, “I’m from England… Yes, that’s right we beat those Canadians in the cricket last week…”) everything went swimmingly. Upon meeting some young street cricketers in Jaisalmer during the second week it was beginning to feel much more like home. The game was just like I remember my summertime street-cricket – same rules (“6 and out”), same characters (tempestuous batsmen, earnest bowlers and lackadaisical fielders) – just a little hotter and dustier than the suburbs of Bristol.


Our ‘safari’ into the Desert National Park aboard chapatti eating camels was an opportunity to get away from the mayhem – a silent night’s sleep under the stars was welcome. But even in this more remote and inhospitable environment the population size and pressure continues to grow. The government has improved water supplies recently but even now there seems to be pressure on the limited resources.


Further south, the lake-side towns of Udaipur and Dungapur were much more relaxed than the manic Jaipur and Jodhpur. Here we had time to swim, and I to find out just how unforgivingly hard marble can be when when one lands on it back first. The grand finale of our tour was the majestic and ethereal Taj Mahal. It diffuses light like a cloud. And, I am adamant, it looks bigger the further you are away from it. Then it was back to Delhi for fond farewells and enlightening twilight conversations on the nature of being, reincarnation, Karma, Reike… Thanks to all the guys for their hospitality and the fun in Delhi.


I decided not to take my camera with me – I wanted to free myself of as much technical paraphernalia as possible. So all the pics here are thanks to Erin – permalinks to the others she’s posted are listed below. Now, back to some work and preparations for my viva and impending departure for CSIS at MSU.

Picture Links:
Jaisalmer Sunset
Jaisalmer Fort
Shooting Stars
Flying James
Train Station
Palace View

Rajasthani Pictures

A missed bus gives me a couple of minutes to get online to point you in the direction of Erin’s blog (http://travelorphan.blogspot.com) for some pictures of our Rajasthani gallivating (i.e. the pictures posted on March 29 2007 – permanent URLs to follow in a later post).

Briefly: Busy Delhi (no belly yet), Gangaur festival in Jaipur, lakeside downtime in Pushkar, Fort and pool in Jodhpur, street-cricket in Jaisalmer, camelback desert safari near Khuri, and now on to Udaipur, Bundi, Agra and Delhi (via this unintended stop-over in Jodhpur). More soon…

Pale Blue Dot

I saw this YouTube video containing an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s writings over on Perceiving Wholes recently. It’s a little cheesy, but it contains a strong and important message – that we humans are our own custodians on this planet. Whilst the way Sagan goes about making this point is understandable from is background as an astronomer and astrobiologist and the context of the image he discusses, I think there’s a more salient way to think about our position within the universe.

Sagan talks about out insignificance [text of video here], about the miniscule size of this plant and our short time upon it. I think that misses the pale blue point. More importantly, we need to recognise that this world is finite. In both size and resources. Just as Silent Spring kick-started the environmental movement, another image taken from space a decade later and almost two before Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, ‘The Blue Marble‘ highlighted that the blue planet in our solar system is not the infinite horizon it may seem from the surface.

Sagan is probably right, we are alone for now in this part of the universe to solve our own problems. But we can’t prove that (which is quite a cool thought eh?). What we do know for sure, by looking at images from space for example, is that this planet is finite and that many of the resources we require to survive here are not infinite but are most definitely exhaustable.

Sometimes, as an individual sat atop a mountain ridge surrounded by miles of forest it may feel as though we are so small that we would have an insignificant effect upon the landscape. But we are now over six and a half billion individuals and that is no small number. Upon the Geologic scale and relative to the size and age of the known universe our number and time here may well be insignificant. Upon the scale of our finite pale blue dot however, the global population is now of such a size that in all likelihood our actions are having a significant effect on our capacity to survive.

Just as we might remember our insignificance in the Grand Scheme of Things, we might also remember our significance in the smaller scheme of things too.

Addendum 31st Jan 2007: An editorial in this week’s Nature takes a similar view with regards looking at Earth from space (rather than turning our attention to the moon).

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Past from Above: George Gerster

I went to Georg Gerster’s exhibition ‘Past from Above’ at the British Museum over the weekend. As the title might suggest the exhibition is a collection of photographs of archaeological and historical landmarks shot from the air. Gerster suggests

“Height provides an overview. And an overview facilitates insight, while insight generates consideration.”

Some of the photos don’t really fit this perspective however, shot with such a zoom that an overview isn’t actually provided. For example the shot of the Minaret of the Great Mosque at Samarra, Iraq (see it here). What’s the scale of this building? What’s the context? This shot is from above but it doesn’t provide an overview. I get the feeling some the shots like this might have provided more insight if they’d been taken from a location on the ground.

However, this aside there are some images that really show off the context of the archaeological sites well. Whether it be the grand locations of derelict temples or the juxtaposition of sweeping, fluid sand dunes encroaching upon and over the geometric remains of a dead city. These are the shots that do provide some insight into what the past might have been like, how the landscape may have been different from today, and how it is still changing now.

Obviously some of these images are very reminiscent of Yann Arthus Bertrand and his “Earth from Above” project, and browsing Gerster’s website I think I actually prefer some of his shots of contemporary landscape patterns – both those imposed by humans and those of a more natural origin.

Overall, the exhibition was an interesting way to spend 45 minutes on a Sunday afternoon – but some of the shots didn’t quite fit the ethos of the exhibition.

Stoic Bravery and the Bull Economy

The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain? Not when I’m there it doesn’t, then it follows me about. In this case all the way up to Santa Maria de la Alameda in the Sierra de Guadarrama.

Santa Maria de la Alameda
Quite a gloomy picture. We were up there interviewing the president of a local cattle farming organisation for some work related to my PhD. Earlier in the week we had been talking about bullfighting, and Raul had pointed out the large stones found in each corner of town squares, one on either side of the road, with large holes cut through them. The purpose of these holes is to hold wooden poles across the road, closing the square for the corrida de toros. As we waited for el presidente to arrive we sheltered from the rain in the porch of the ayuntamiento. Looking at the bullring’s cornerstones and the balconies that would allow spectators to overlook the confrontation, the town square reminded me of a story retold in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. On that occasion it wasn’t a bullfight, it was a civil war a massacre.

Hemingway’s leading characters display stoic bravery becoming, in Lawrence Broer’s view, “manifestations of the Spanish matador”;

The bull was on him as he jumped back and as he tripped on a cushion he felt the horn go into him, into his side. He grabbed the horn with his two hands and rode backward, holding tight onto the place. The bull tossed him and he was clear. He lay still. It was all right. The bull was gone.

He got up coughing and feeling broken and gone. The dirty bastards!

“Give me the sword”, he shouted. “Give me the stuff.”

Fuentes came up with the muleta and the sword.

Hernandez put his arm around him.

“Go on to the infirmary, man”, he said. “Don’t be a damn fool.”

“Get away from me”, Manuel said. “Get to hell away from me.”

He twisted free. Hernandez shrugged his shoulders. Manuel ran toward the bull.

There was the bull standing, heavy, firmly planted.

All right, you bastard! Manuel drew his sword out of the muleta, sighted with the same movement, and flung himself onto the bull. He felt the sword go in all the way. Right up to the guard. Four fingers and his thumb into the bull. The blood was hot on his knuckles, and he was on top of the bull.

The bull lurched with him as he lay on, and seemed to sink; then he was standing clear. He looked at the bull going down slowly over on his side, then suddenly four feet in the air.

Then he gestured at the crowd, his hand warm from the bull blood.

[from Ernest Hemingway, The Undefeated]

Down on the plains of Madrid below Santa Maria, the rain has stopped and the attitude seems more ‘spirited optimism’ than ‘stoic bravery’. The Spanish economy is booming, with GDP steadily rising year on year.

The environs of Madrid feel positive, the attitude is ‘go-ahead’. Cranes are everywhere, more than in London probably. Apartments being thrown up rapidly. New roads and motorways being constructed apace. It’s been like that the last few years I’ve been visiting.

Further out, within range of the commuters (going into Madrid) and the day-trippers (coming out), economic change is modifying the landscape. The agricultural sector is in decline and as the younger generation seeks out employment in manufacturing, construction and service sectors. Talking to people in my study area it seems such employment is desired as it brings more stable working hours, more benefits, greater leisure time and a more ‘modern’ lifestyle. The environmental consequences of these shifts are still playing themselves out however. For example, such a lifestyle is likely to require more water, a precious resource in the Mediterranean. Environmentalists still campaign against large dam projects and the environmental impacts of tourism along the Costa del Sol and the Balearic Isles are well known. Maybe James ‘The Bringer of Rain’ Millington should spend more time in those places…

My particular interest is the impact of agricultural change on wildfire regimes; will the spirited optimism have to be tempered by some stoic bravery in the face of increasing wildfire risk? I’m nearing the end of my PhD research now so I hope to be able to comment on that with more authority in the near future.

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toros de guisando

This week I´ve been in Madrid doing the final fieldwork for my PhD. On our Quixotic travels to interview local stakeholders about the credibility of the output from my model (more on that another time), we came across el Toros de Guisando. These guys have been here for over 2,500 years (though moved from their original scattered locations by the Romans) and have been characters in many a contested story…



Among the things that passed between Don Quixote and the Knight of the Wood, the history tells us he of the Grove said to Don Quixote, “In fine, sir knight, I would have you know that my destiny, or, more properly speaking, my choice led me to fall in love with the peerless Casildea de Vandalia. I call her peerless because she has no peer, whether it be in bodily stature or in the supremacy of rank and beauty.

Another time I was ordered to lift those ancient stones, the mighty bulls of Guisando, an enterprise that might more fitly be entrusted to porters than to knights. Again, she bade me fling myself into the cavern of Cabra – an unparalleled and awful peril – and bring her a minute account of all that is concealed in those gloomy depths. I stopped the motion of the Giralda, I lifted the bulls of Guisando, I flung myself into the cavern and brought to light the secrets of its abyss; and my hopes are as dead as dead can be, and her scorn and her commands as lively as ever.

To be brief, last of all she has commanded me to go through all the provinces of Spain and compel all the knights-errant wandering therein to confess that she surpasses all women alive to-day in beauty, and that I am the most valiant and the most deeply enamoured knight on earth; in support of which claim I have already travelled over the greater part of Spain, and have there vanquished several knights who have dared to contradict me; but what I most plume and pride myself upon is having vanquished in single combat that so famous knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, and made him confess that my Casildea is more beautiful than his Dulcinea

Don Quixote was amazed when he heard the Knight of the Grove, and was a thousand times on the point of telling him he lied, and had the lie direct already on the tip of his tongue; but he restrained himself as well as he could, in order to force him to confess the lie with his own lips; so he said to him quietly, “As to what you say, sir knight, about having vanquished most of the knights of Spain, or even of the whole world, I say nothing; but that you have vanquished Don Quixote of La Mancha I consider doubtful; it may have been some other that resembled him, although there are few like him.”

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google maps photo page

I’ve finally got round to tidying up and completing the photos page of my website. Click on the map markers and photos taken at those locations will appear below the map. Use the links above the map to navigate. It may take a while to load first time (so be patient) and you will need JavaScript enabled in your browser.

It took a little while to get to grips with the Google Maps API, but by viewing and ‘borrowing’ code from other websites (London Satellite Photo Map was particularly helpful) I got there in the end! Go check it out! Comments? – leave them here by clicking below.

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rugby (not skytower)

Bristol 15-9 Sale

I finally made it to my first Bristol Rugby game of the season last night. It was pretty old-school affair against Sale – the rain persisted down all game making handling tricky, confining the ball to the forwards which worked to Bris’ benefit in the end. Plenty of catching and driving from lineouts. Not a try in sight – though Bris’ should have scored during a period of extended possession and territory soon after half-time. In the end it was a battle of the kickers, and our new Kiwi man (after a dodgy start) kicked us to victory!

So then it was off to the pub to dry off with a couple of pints of Badger and Fursty Ferret in the excellent Upton Inn… Quality.

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