Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Real Seven Wonders

1. The Great Wall of China
This is one that nobody can argue with - not even the highly dodgy text vote denied the Great Wall a place in the New Seven Wonders - although the fact that it exists in the most populous country on Earth can't have hurt it. The largest and longest human-built structure ever, it stretches for 4000 miles along the arc of Inner Mongolia. I've not been there, but it's certainly on my list. Rather naievely I thought there was just one, but apparently there have been a few constructed over the years, the most famous and well-preserved being that from the Ming Dynasty, built after they were walloped by the Mongols in 1449. Sadly, the fact that you can see it from the moon is completely wrong - the smallest individual landmark recongisable is Australia - and even from space it's tough to spot, American astronaut William Pogue thought he spotted it from Skylab, but was later told he was peering intently at a canal in Beijing.

2. Kyoto Station
Next time you're struggling across Birmingham New Street, just think it could be far more difficult. Kyoto station is a vast monument to Japan's favourite pastime - travel - and is one of the country's largest buildings (although amazingly not the largest station, Nagoya's is even mightier). Thirty-five platforms for above-ground trains, plus all the subway going on underneath, it also has 15 floors of shops and offices on top, all enclosed in a gleaming cubical structure that boggles the mind. Opened in 1997 to commemorate Kyoto's 1200th anniversary, it sits uneasily with many locals in their genteel, historic city. But arriving on the Shinkansen and walking into the arrivals hall, it's incredible. You just keep looking up...and up...and up. In the photo above, each kink in the escalator at the top is a separate storey. If the Death Star had a train station, it would look like this.

3. The Nazca Lines
Or as UNESCO has them, the "Lines and Geoglyphs of Nasca and Pampas de Jumana". I'm amazed these drawings weren't on the shortlist of the New Seven wonders thing, they certainly should be. This monkey is 100m across, and is one of the most famous of the figures. The Nazcans removed the dark coloured stones and then trampled the undersoil to give the white outline - but why is a complete mystery. Loony 'experts' have tried to reason that they are the work of alien spacecraft and so forth, as they seem to have been made to be seen from the air, a viewpoint the Nazcans could not have had (which I've got to say is a good point). There are several hundred lines, and seventy recognisable figures, all spread over an area of 200 miles (including a whale - not often seen in a Peruvian desert), and the most widely-held view is that they were parts of a religious ceremony relating to water and crops. And monkeys.

4. Preston Bus Station
'Brutalist Architecture' gets a tough press. The 1960's spawned many a concrete monstrosity, but all that was forgiven in 1968 when the sleepy Lancastrian county town woke up to find this for a transport hub. Preston Bus Station, the longest in Europe (take that, Bratislava!), certainly the most confusing to the eye - it looks like it goes off into the horizon for a thousand miles. It has a capacity for 80 double-decker buses and 1100 cars, with the scalloped edging protecting people from the frequent elements as they wait. Appallingly, this wonder is scheduled for demolition, as it's old and hard to get to, and not 'functional'. Well, neither are the Nazca Lines, Preston City Council - would you demolish those too? Save Preston Bus Station!! (local fact - there's actually no number 40 service, the bus parked there will be an additional 35 service to Tanterton waiting for the correct bay to become free).

5. Fushimi-Inari Taisha
Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and as such in Japan there are shrines to him everywhere - but none more stunning than the Fushimi Inari shrine south of Kyoto. The vermilion-coloured torii gates are instantly recognisable symbols of Japan, and mark the entrance to a sacred spot - just one, usually. Fushimi has tens of thousands, stretched over a wooded hill en route to the shrine. They are squashed in, touching each other, like orange dominos - it would take you two hours to walk under them all. I went there one evening in 2005, when the light was just going, and wandered up the hill through this tunnel for about an hour, catching glimpses of trees, lanterns, and small statues of foxes (Inari's messengers), but only glimpses, it was like walking along a mine tunnel. I don't have a spiritual bone in me, but it was utterly breathtaking.

6. Bully's Prize Board
Just think about this one - it had a dart board, a question board, and the prize board - and in the time it took to revolve many rash decisions were made. Of course, they were all either prefaced with "Well Jim, we've had a lovely day..." (take the prizes), or "Well Jim, we came here with nothing..." (gamble!). But would you take a chance at 101 or more with six darts (non-dart player to throw first), and risk losing your Grundig hifi, spin dryer, and set of patio furniture? You've got all the time in the world to throw that first dart - but if it goes wrong, Jim shows you - and he hates to, but he has to - he shows you what you could have won. And when that beige Austin Maestro, or sparkling speedboat is wheeled out, and the studio audience groan, you've got nothing but your tankards and bully's, and your BFH to show for it. But that is the gamble of Bullseye...

7. Scarlett Johansson
I suppose techincally she would be a natural wonder of the world...

Satellite images of the Great Wall of China
YouTube clip from the top of Preston Bus Station
Bullseye on Wikipedia
Photographs of Fushimi Inari Taisha

DUaB's Seven Wonders of Scotland

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Ant Day

In time honoured fashion, today being about a week shy of my birthday and surprisingly humid, it was Ant Day. The single mass event when silky-winged females pile out of colonies and bumble around on the pavements always seems to happen at this time. So to celebrate, here's a post in their short-lived honour...

Trap-jaw ant

Ants are found in almost every habitat on Earth, and in some numbers - there are an estimated 1,000 trillion ants living on the planet at any given moment, representing 11,800 known species. The total weight of all ants on the planet roughly equal the weight of us humans. Articles like this one prove how spectacular they can be. The Trap-jaw Ant springs it's mouthparts shut at over 100kmh (60mph), the fastest recorded moving predatory body part in the animal kingdom (now there's an awards ceremony to avoid). In typical adaptive fashion, the ants don't just use this to impress lady ants, they use it to move around. The ants sometimes bite the ground, the force of which pings them upwards and launches them several centimetres. They are too light to be injured by the fall - the equivalent of us jumping hundreds of feet - and don't just do it move around, the 'popcorn' effect of many leaping ants confuses would-be predators.

The trap is sprung

Ants also dominate the other land-living invertebrates, making up one-third of the global insect biomass. In tropical rainforests they can compromise an amazing 15% of the total biomass of animals found there. They can be as tiny as the millimeter-long Oligomyrmex atomus or as big as the 1.5 inch-long Dinoponera. We've all seen nature documentaries of rampaging tides of jungle Army Ants wiping clean strips of forest floor, causing even large mammals to flee before them. But there are other, more inventive ways these creatures catch their dinner. Some of them construct elaborate 'torture chambers', using a specially-cultivated fungus. Allomerus decemarticulatus, only 2mm long, cut hairs from the stem of the plant they inhabit, and weave the fibres into a spongy snare which they glue into place using the sticky mould. The ants nibble small holes in this fake platform, and a worker sits patiently in each, jaws at the ready. Anything landing on the 'branch' with thin enough legs is immediately grabbed, and pulled into several holes at once, trapping it. Other ants then swarm out from under the platform and butcher the victim, which has been stretched out like on a medieval rack. First reported in Nature, there are amazing pictures of the behaviour here.

Gliding Ant

Ants evolved from the Vespoid group of wasps in the Cretaceous period about 120 to 170 million years ago. Only about 1 in 10 genera alive then is extinct now. To become such a successful group of animals, you need to be intelligent and able to adapt to your habitat. Ants commonly live in trees, scampering in orderly lines along branches. If they fall, or are knocked off (or flicked off by scientists), they face almost certain death alone on the forest floor prowled by many predators not found in the canopy. So one type of ant has evolved a large head (nicknamed the 'Darth Vader' ant) to combat this - and teeth to get back at the scientists (photo above). The ant falls for a few metres, then swivels in the air to orient it's abdomen towards the tree trunk. The air flowing over the large head slows down the tumbling ant, and swing it's trajectory inwards, causing it to sail back to the tree and land safely. This is the first documented example of gliding flight in a living wingless insect, and the first record of intentional backwards gliding in any animal. Link

Tandem running in action

While many types of animals can learn behaviors by imitating other animals, ants may be the only group of animals besides mammals in which interactive teaching behavior has been observed. When Temnothorax albipennis forager ants find a food source they scuttle back to the nest and grab a hivemate. They then lead the new ant to the food in a process called 'tandem running'. The ant in front darts off to the food, but the new ant slows up now and again to fix it's positon by spotting landmarks. The first ant has to keep stopping and waiting to be caught up - having it's legs tapped when the second ant has memorised where it is and is ready to continue. This takes far longer than if the sole ant ran backwards and forwards to the food - but now two ants know where it is, and often the followers become guides to other ants in turn, and soon the colony as a whole knows where the booty is. The teamwork these creatures show is amazing. Sometimes they decide the foodstuff is too juicy to adopt this clever but costly technique, and returning ants simply grab another and carry it on it's back to the goodies. The second ant won't know the route to the prize, but the ants will get there quickly and secure their food before other colonies arrive to claim it. This remarkable adaptability sets ant apart. If they ever learn to use guns and drive tanks, we're done for...

Why ants rule the world
Ants on Wikipedia
Ant photos

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What's the time?


6:35, in case you were wondering. Ever since the days of the clunky calculator watches in the mid-80's, which had buttons so tiny they were practically impossible, crazy timepieces have come of age. One of the best exponents are Tokyo Flash, who supply online the wackier end of the market from Japan. The Shinsoku - as with many others - comes with a booklet describing how to read the hours and minutes. Handy, especially if someone asks you what the time is and you just stand there with a furrowed brow saying things like "Er. It'". The red LED lights are hours, the green 15mins, and the yellow single minutes. Six red + 2 green + 5 yellow = 6:35. Morning or evening you can probably work out yourself. Shinsoku

The JLr7

10:37. No, I have no idea how, either. This beauty is from geometric designers Eri & Eiichi, and wouldn't look out of place on the green-blooded wrist of the boldly-going Mr Spock. The L-shaped digital bits light up to reveal the time - and I had to stare at the pictures like someone doing one of those colourblindness tests (which I always fail), before I could see that some of the L's are blue. The dark grey markings distinguish these sections, as the hour is represented by ten blue L segments at the top of the watch. Rather brilliantly, "Between 6pm & Midnight the watch animates automatically every 15 mins to give the effect that it is malfunctioning (this feature can be turned off)". Just be careful when setting the alarm. JLr7

Neatnik by Alba

2:58. This one's almost a doddle by comparison - a limited edition of only 1000 made by Alba. I mention it because it's 2cm across the face. Make a little square with your fingers 2cm in size. You could probably wear it on your finger. Neatnik


11:52am. A space theme to the Titan watch from S-Mode, the lights don't spin or move, they just sit there glowing like distant planets. The large outer ring are hours - and unusually for Japanese watches it's actually the same layout as on a standard clockface. The inner square is ten-minute intervals, the other small circle individual minutes, and the larger square AM or PM. You know, I think I'm getting the hang of this. Titan

Star Performer

Ah. Still with the space theme, Star Performer lights up one column for each number, so 07:34 would have the 0, the 7, the 3 and the 4 illuminated in turn. Amusingly, as this is made by a company called Pimp watches, the flashes and craziness are ramped to the extreme. According to their explanation, "The Pimp mode light up function lights up all the lights in a fireworks like manner and automatically turns on at 7:00 PM and turns off at 1:00 AM (It can not be switched off). Gives the watch a look like it is malfunctioning, very cool!" Translation - be prepared to answer the question "Why is your watch doing that?" every night of every day. Star Performer

LED from Binary watches

Pass. A binary LED watch - and who doesn't love telling the time in binary? As the website says, this is a geek's dream. I have absolutely no idea how to work it though. I'll leave it to them to explain how to tell the time. "It couldn't get any geekier than this, you've got to love it. How to read time : Hours addition : 3rd LED +4th LED (from Left) = 2 + 1 = 3. Minutes addition : 1st LED+ 3rd LED ( from Left) = 32 + 8 = 40 => 03:40". Righto. Things have come a long way since the Casio digital watch... LED

Tokyo Flash

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The New 7 Wonders

On my list, not theirs...

It's now a week since the glitzy spectacular at the home ground of Benfica announced the 'new' wonders of the world. In case you missed it, the lucky seven are:-

The Great Wall of China
The stone city of Petra
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro
Machu Picchu
Chichen Itza, Mexico
The Colosseum, Rome
The Taj Mahal

Reaction has been decidedly mixed - whilst the organisers claim an unmitigated success, with over 100 million votes cast, critics have weighed in from all directions. The Egyptians are still piqued about the original inclusion of the Giza pyramids, UNESCO are seething that this 'competition' has run against their lengthy world heritage listings, and of course representatives of the losers are wondering how the top 7 made it. In fact, the people responsible for looking after two of the winners - the Chichen Itza ruins in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru - have described their fears at escalating visitor traffic leading to increased erosion.

As I said in my previous post, the voting was decidedly sketchy in places. The voting was conducted for free online, or by SMS messaging, which was unlimited but with a charge. Block votes could be bought by any individual, organisation or government. The situation in Brazil was a good example of what happened - according to an investigation by Newsweek, Brazilian banks spent millions of dollars buying votes, and the Brazilian telecommunications sector waived the fee for telephone voters to get public support. At one point, every Rio resident with a phone got a text asking them to send a free vote for their local nominee. 10 million votes later, the statue of Christ the Redeemer was a New Wonder of the World.

Actually, I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all. Holding a public vote - accessible only by those with phones or the internet - is such a baseless way of conducting a survey that it encourages the wealthy and clever to come out on top. The Queen of Jordan repetedly went on television there urging her people to vote for the stone city of Petra. In the end, 14m votes were recorded from the country (which has a population of 7 million). I can never imagine her doing so, but if our Queen went on primetime asking us to vote for Stonehenge, it would have received far more votes. But she was too busy storming out of photo shoots (or not). This kind of thing always happens in public votes - we got an email round at work requesting our votes for one of the contestants on the BBC's Joseph talent show thing, because his cousin worked in our building (or something). Any dream will have to do for him, as he didn't win.

But assuming I did value the New7 exercise, I think I would probably have voted for the following:-

The Great Wall - impossible to argue with this choice
The Taj Mahal - the story alone would be enough, I think
Machu Picchu - I've not been there but it looks impressive
Easter Island Moais - baffling as to how they didn't get in the list
Stonehenge - older than the original seven wonders
Eiffel Tower - it defines one of the world's greatest cities
The Sydney Opera House - I used to walk past it on the way to work

There you go, I think the best anyone can ay about the New7 contest is that it was a harmless exercise. Ignoring the widespread buying of block votes, of course. As I predicted last time, on opening the travel guide in yesterday's weekend paper, there was an article about the stone city of Petra, one of 'the new seven wonders of the world'. All the New7 might get more visitors as a result, but I don't think any of the losers will get substantially fewer - and this might suit a lot of them, as tourists increase everywhere. Still, it got people talking and gave me something to write about, I guess. Next time it's my much anticipated 'real' seven wonders of the world - I'm still waiting for the votes to come in...(and if any representatives of Blackburn Rovers are reading, I'd be willing to include Ewood Park in my top 7 in exchange for free tickets).

Oh, and with blinding inevitability, the New7 organisers used the glittering finale to announce a fresh competition - to find the New Seven Wonders of the Natural World. It closes on the 8th of August 2008, so get those texting fingers ready!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Argyll Coast

Shell Beach just outside the Argyll fishing port of Tarbert. I've just come back from a long weekend of golfing and drinking, with a bit of wandering around thrown in. We had classic Scottish weather - everything from continuous heavy rain to dazzling sunshine. Tarbert is famous for it's seafood, and the apparently famous annual seafood festival happened one day before we arrived. This picture was taken on Sunday, when a stop for something to eat on a beach gave a great opportunity for photos.

Opportunities like this - an unfortunate crab that came to a swift end at the claws of an otter or seabird, or something. Artfully arranged, of course, as it was scattered over the rocks on the beach. In the background is the flat blueness of Loch Fyne, which at 40 miles long is one of the biggest in Scotland. At any one time you can see seals, otters, dolphins, eagles and basking sharks here - but for us, just a highly separated crab.

The town is seemingly surrounded by lochs, with West Loch Tarbert only a short hop over the hill. This is one of the three golf courses we played over the weekend, and the most picturesque by far. The land bridge between these two long sea lochs is only about a mile - probably one of the reasons Tarbert was started in that location. Vikings used to portage their longboats across this course on their way from sea to sea.

Further up the Argyll coast is Crinan, another stunning village. Loch Fyne is connected to Loch Crinan here with a quaint canal. Nine miles long, it connects the village of Ardrishaig on Loch Gilp with the Sound of Jura, giving boats a quick route between the Clyde and the Inner Hebrides. Otherwise, it's a long detour south around the Mull of Kintyre. There are few better spots for a Sunday lunch than the Crinan hotel, watching the fancy boats struggle through the lochs over a few pints and some local seafood.

Of course, it was Scotland, so the sunny weather only lasted so long...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Seven of the best

The Eiffel Tower needs your help! (or not)

The world will never be quite the same after this weekend. A lavish ceremony resembling the opening night of the Olympic Games will be held in Portugal to reveal the final results of (currently) 70 million public votes. The New Seven Wonders of the World will be presented to the grateful global populace (with a couple of significant objectors - but more on them later) with all the pomp of the Eurovision song contest. Brainchild of Swiss industrialist Bernard Weber and his 'New Open World Corporation' - who sound like the evil media empire Pierce Brosnan toppled in Tomorrow Never Dies - the New 7 (as they are abbreviated) will join the other rollcalls of whopping majesty on the 7th of July in Lisbon.

There are more of those than you would think, too. The Seven Ancient Wonders, of course, and the Seven Natural Wonders (Grand Canyon, Barrier Reef, Rio harbour, Mount Everest, the polar aurora, Parícutin volcano and the Victoria Falls). There's the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages (Stonehenge, Colosseum, Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa (?), Great Wall of China, Porcelain Tower at Nanjing, the Hagia Sophia, and the leaning tower of Pisa), the Seven Wonders of the Modern World (the Channel Tunnel, CN Tower, Empire State Building, Golden Gate Bridge, Itaipu Dam, Panama Canal, and the Dutch land reclamation works), and the Seven Underwater Wonders (Palau, the Great Barrier Reef, the Beleize Barrier Reef, undersea vents, the Galapagos Islands, Lake Baikal, the Northern Red Sea).

So why do we need another list? Well - we don't, according to the universally accepted guardians of the world's wonders, UNESCO. They released a stinging statement at their recent meeting in Christchurch (during which they elevated 21 more sites to World Heritage status - now making 851). It read ...There is no comparison between Mr Weber’s mediatised campaign and the scientific and educational work resulting from the inscription of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The list of the “7 New Wonders of the World” will be the result of a private undertaking, reflecting only the opinions of those with access to the internet and not the entire world. This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public. Ouch.

I can see their point, too. UNESCO send teams of earnest inspectors to places like the 'Ecosystem and Relict Cultural Landscape of Lopé-Okanda' (a recent listee, from Gabon), whilst Herr Weber gets a flashy website and SMS vote to garner millions upon millions of votes. It's the classic stuffy beaurocrats versus modern media types battle. You can register and vote for the New 7 for free (online), if you vote by phone or SMS it costs you an international call. Cleverly, while the free votes are capped at seven, you can send as many texts as you like, enabling those who have an interest to 'buy' extra votes. So who has an interest? Well, even if it's not recognised by UNESCO, having a 'New' wonder of the world in your country would be a huge boost for tourism, at the very least.

So what are the sites in the running? Twenty-one possible candidates were selected into a shortlist from 77 nominations. They are...

  • The Acropolis (Athens, Greece)

  • The Alhambra (Granada, Spain)

  • Angkor Wat (Angkor, Cambodia)

  • Chichen Itza (Yucatan, Mexico)

  • Christ the Redeemer (Rio de Janiero, Brazil)

  • Colosseum (Rome, Italy)

  • Easter Island Moais (Easter Island, Chile)

  • The Eiffel Tower (Paris, France)

  • The Great Wall (China)

  • The Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey)

  • Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto, Japan)

  • The Kremlin and St Basil's Square (Moscow, Russia)

  • Macchu Picchu (Cuzco, Peru)

  • Neuschwanstein Castle (Füssen, Germany)

  • The stone city of Petra (Jordan)

  • The Pyramids of Giza (Giza, Egypt)

  • The Statue of Liberty (New York City, USA)

  • Stonehenge (Amesbury, UK)

  • The Sydney Opera House (Sydney, Australia)

  • The Taj Mahal (Agra, India)

  • Timbuktu (Mali)

Some worthy candidates there, certainly. Like the Pyramids at Giza, for example, which are of course the only surviving member of the original Seven Wonders. Their entry on the shortlist caused a huge kerfuffle in Egypt - as the politicians there (and this has become depressingly political) quite understandably argued that they shouldn't suffer the indignity of having to win their place again, having already been sitting proudly in the original list (which incidentally was thought up by a single person, Philon of Byzantium, in 200BC). So the pyramids were hastily given 'honorary status', and removed from the voting. The historic stone city of Petra was lagging down the order until the King of Jordan apparently went on telly there and urged the citizens to text support for their entrant. I don't remember seeing Queeny do that for Stonehenge, eh?

That's an odd one too - Stonehenge was built before any of the original seven wonders, and here it is trying to replace them, despite being on the medieval list. I dunno, it doesn't make sense to me (and I love lists). You can just imagine the glossy tourist brochures proclaiming Come and SEE the New Wonder of the World!!! for the winners, as the losers sit there, with nothing to shout about. I've nothing against this kind of thing in principal - I had a great time years ago at Bodrum poking about the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (mostly pretending to be Indiana Jones). It's just the predictably modern spin that's been put on it, the SMS charges (only 50% of which go to a heritage restoration fund), and the fact that 'organisations and governments' can allegedly block-buy votes. What's the point? I agree with UNESCO.

Next week I'll bring you the results, who I would have voted for, and my real New Seven Wonders of the World...

New Seven Wonders Website
UNESCO 'not involved' in New Seven Wonders
Opera House 'fading' in race to be New Wonder [Sydney Morning Herald]
Taj Mahal - not so wonderful? [BBC]