Monthly Archives: April 2003

Blue collar thrills

Spot the dragster, win a prizeThe Santa Pod Easter Thunderball Pro Fuel Shootout
There’s a village in the flatlands of South Northamptonshire called Podington. Nearby is what used to be a US Airbase. In 1966, some locals decided to introduce the frankly weird and unsuitable US sport of drag racing to the abandoned runway and, in honour of its American roots, they called the track Santa Pod Raceway – borrowing some glamour from all those hot, dry Californian salt pans and desert strips, I suppose.
The school holidays are almost over so I took Olly (4) to Santa Pod’s ‘Easter Thunderball Pro Fuel Shootout’ on bank holiday Monday. A meeting like this is a kind of working class Henley Regatta, a huge family picnic with candy floss, an aerobatic display, dodgems, a Wall of Death and chip vans – all set to the utterly impenetrable howling and grinding soundtrack of the cars themselves. Whole conversations are conducted in mime. Hot dog vendors lip read.

The noise is the main thing. The only thing, really. It’s more than a noise. It’s a big shock the first time you hear it. Less like the rumble of a big engine than a huge, percussive grunt or crash with no apparent source – the gates of hell come to mind. It’s so huge and so physical (stuck for adjectives: acute? Cataclysmic? Shocking? Visceral?) that it makes you want to cry (like the opera).

Most races last 5 or 6 seconds. There’s a persistent smell of exotic substances (methanol, nitrous oxide) and burning rubber, the track is continually sprayed with an acrid degreaser (“cover your children’s eyes, ladies and gentlemen. Just a mild irritant”), a single run will use 40 litres of fuel. Crashes and engine failures are routine (although hardly anyone gets hurt).

Drag racing is the pursuit of a simple, 1940s teen pastime to its logical (but entirely unreasonable) conclusion. It’s all about prosperity, abundant free time, permissive traffic laws and cheap gas. It has to be the least environmentally-friendly pursuit on earth and it’s a total anachronism (I feel a bit dirty talking about it). The kids who raced their Chevys and Fords between traffic lights in little post-war Californian towns can have had no idea that such a rich and strange culture would result (huge in Norway, apparently). I think I’m addicted.

(tip: get some ear defenders for your kids. They sell them at the raceway).

Click on the small nine-frame pic above to confirm that I really didn’t manage to catch a dragster in a single one of those nine photos!

Some links: Some of those mind-blowing sounds from the US (although they’re a pretty pale reflection of the cacophany at the raceway). Some great and evocative pics of drag racing in the UK in the 1960s. Lots of pictures and videos of more recent UK drag racing. The Santa Pod site plays a sound when you load it and I think it might be the first one I’ve ever approved of.

Emerging Man

Comedian and geek Samuel Johnson Danny O’Brien has put together a happening of such perfect, involuted cleverness that it takes the breath away. It’s basically a sleepover for people attending O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conference (and you have to provide your own tent) but, if you get your skates on, you could find yourself singing campfire songs in Danny’s garden with some of the top geeks of their generation.

It’s meant to marry the social experimentation of Burning Man and the geek credibility of Emerging Tech – events of such sizzling contemporaneity that you’ll probably actually burst into flames (appropriately) if you attend. I’d love to go myself except for the scheduled arrival of EmergingBaby in our house on May 1. (Oh, and it’s a Wiki).

What’s a Mook?

Charlie waits for Johnny at the bar, Mean Streets
The Guardian is promoting a new partnership with postal video rental outfit Movietrak. I tried it out and got Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets, a movie I haven’t watched in a decade, the next day. The DVD is beautifully packaged in a bag that doubles as a post-paid return envelope. The whole concept is very well thought out. Isn’t it remarkable that, in a home like ours, with broadband, dozens of movie channels on digital TV (including a ‘near video on demand’ service) and a perfectly good video shop half a mile away, services like Movietrak’s can still find a niche?

Ten years ago I’d have told you that Mean Streets was my favourite movie. These days I wouldn’t. The film is much too ragged. But those ten years have obviously added something else to my perspective. The courage and energy needed to push through a first feature like this one, to marshal those resources (De Niro, Keitel, New York City…) and to keep the whole thing moving at such a pace are unarguable and breathtaking. If I get a chance to create something half as good, half as authentic, just once in my life, I’ll die happy.

The Anglosphere defined

This is what I pay my licence fee for. Dennis Sewell with Jonathan Freedland from The Guardian, Anne McElvoy from The Evening Standard, Stephen Pollard from stephenpollard.net and Michael Gove from The Times on the BBC’s Talking Politics (RealAudio). The first time I’ve heard blogging mentioned on a BBC political programme and a fascinating discussion of UK anti-Americanism, US neo-con thinking and, particularly, the shiny new concept of ‘the Anglosphere’ that seems to be animating the policy bloggers lately.

(I think you have until next Saturday 26 April to listen to the programme before the archive is overwritten – how stupid is that?)

Is this what they call an ‘experience brand’?

Brands can be complicated things. This one may be a business but it’s also a national sporting figurehead wired tightly into the Italian psyche, a rich man’s plaything that most of its fanatical fans could never afford to own and the most erotically charged engineering in history.

“In the agony, it seems, was the ecstasy. Ferrari’s appeal turned out to be something subtler than a simple thirst for victory. The suffering was the story. Once the Ferrari team turned into a steamroller, the passion lost its intensity.”

(this Guardian article was written before Schumacher won the San Marino Grand Prix and permitted Italians to breathe again).

Guardian.jpgA temporal web?

The semantic web is a powerful thing but it’s… well… semantic. Trying to imagine the net in the future, it becomes obvious that we’re going to need a temporal web too. Living, as we do, in the first moments of the web’s existence, we haven’t needed to think much about time. It’s as if everything that’s taken place so far all happened in a single, cataclysmic moment.

Once the web’s lifespan starts to stretch – across generations and centuries – we’re going to need an accessible historic record. Something that’s ‘online’ (as in ‘not offline in a tape library’) and preferably ‘inline’ (continuous with the current content). In this article for The Guardian I visualise this as a ‘giant rewind knob for the web’.

My example is the war in Iraq. Imagine the benefits to humanity in the future of being able to rewind to any point in the rolling popular history we call blogging and take a snapshot of the state of the war and opinion about it. More to the point, with so much information, conversation and collaboration moving onto the net, imagine a future without it.

In the article I also wonder if we, in the UK, shouldn’t be pressing the BBC to take on this task. Lots of people think the BBC’s proper role on the net should be to boost connection and participation (and there is some ambitious work going on already). Perhaps, as well as promoting communication, the Beeb ought also to be promoting recollection.

(Maybe the techies out there can tell me if this kind of work is already going on. I’m pretty sure Kahle’s Way Back Machine is going in the right direction but it’s a long way from being fine-grained enough and it certainly can’t present historic content ‘inline’)

3G debt and gross vanity

Crushing debt and an evaporating market: it must be bracing working in the 3G arm of a mobile operator these days. A couple of good features from yesterday’s FT (I think you can still see them for nothing for a few days). The first discusses the difficulty of raising money for 3G infrastructure investment post-crash (one Portugese licence holder has been waiting nine months to close a loan for 3G build-out). Worse, according to the second, customers don’t want the early, clunky, battery-hungry 3G handsets either. You evidently need balls of steel to push forward with investment in a 3G business these days.

Fascinating article about the horrendous Richard Scrushy, thoroughly disgraced (but still rich) CEO of Health South, a huge US health care provider. Scrushy was so vain that he had statues of himself put up at the schools he sponsored. Predictably, these statues are now meeting the same fate as Saddam’s. The FT calls the Health South scandal ‘grosser than Enron’. Here’s a useful special report from Scrushy’s local paper, The Birmingham News from Alabama.