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Tag: "Travel"

Jordanian Dreams

I blame Blue Peter myself.

Somewhere back in the eons of time before the days of colour television and when John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves were still young, there was a dog called Petra.

The year I was eight Blue Peter did one of their famous historical stories all about her namesake, the rose red city of stone, Petra, and how the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt had rediscovered it in 1812.

I was mesmorised.

An Enid Blyton fan and obsessed with mysteries and hidden valleys and secret islands, I was immediately enthralled with a pink stone city carved out of the heart of a mountain, even better that you had to walk through a long gorge in the rock to find it. I had no idea where it was, but from that moment on I was determined to go and see it for myself.

Time passed. My children watched Blue Peter in their turn and every time that dog was mentioned I thought about that city, but somehow I never fulfilled my childhood ambition. Until this year, that is, when I finally decided life was too short and told my girls (by now in their early teens) we were going to Jordan for the Easter break. “Where?” they said “Petra, in Jordan” I said (having finally located it), “it’s pink stone city carved out of the inside a mountain, it’s one of the ‘new’ Seven Wonders of the World. It’s not the topless model. Or the dog.”

I have to confess they didn’t look exactly thrilled. But slowly over the months leading up to our departure, they researched it on the sly and when a shop assistant asked them the week before whether they were excited or not, their emphatic “Yes!” left me speechless. So far so good, then.

My original aim had been simply to see Petra, but when I started to look into Jordan itself I was amazed at the sheer weight of history, architecture, history, activities, geography and well, more history, that exists within this tiny desert kingdom. For such a young country, Jordan certainly has ancient and significant roots, which is not to take away from the modern Kingdom of Jordan and what they are trying to achieve on minimal resources, but just to acknowledge that history has certainly dealt them an extraordinary card – or pack of cards – in natural wonders and historical and religious significance.

Where else can you see the Dead Sea, Lawrence of Arabia’s desert, the castles of the Crusaders, the coral gardens of the Red Sea complete with angel fish the size of plates and the cutest green turtles, the earliest Christian mosaics, the mountain where Moses saw the promised land, the site where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head, the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized, the hot springs where Herod bathed and the Spice Road along which the Queen of Sheba travelled to visit Solomon…?

Cat mosaic in MadabarThen there’s one of the best-preserved Roman city in the world at Jerash and the World Heritage site of Umm Quais, and the fact it’s where farming, and therefore civilization, almost certainly started, as backed up by their extraordinary legacy of early mosaics. The variety of nature is stunning, from oasis to desert to pine forest, with the Dana nature reserve perhaps the most special as it incorporates terrain from 50m below sea level to 1500m above, although Wadi Mujib, a rocky canyon where you can go white water wading and which seems tailor-made for adventure, comes a close second, or maybe third, when you take into account Wadi Rum, the Bedouin’s desert.

Add to all that the Bedouins themselves look like they have just stepped out of one of very English primary school Christmas nativity plays, complete with camels and head dresses… plus beautiful and tough Arabian horses, world renowned spas, natural hot springs, and the handicraft and silver souks… and it was soon clear this was going to be a bit more than a ‘holiday’.

And, dear reader, it didn’t disappoint.

We travelled there in early spring and left England languishing under grey skies with temperatures barely making it into double figures and only the merest hint of green leaf on the trees. Five hours later and here we were enjoying balmy temperatures in the high 20s°C and some of the flowers were already going to seed – from late winter chill to mid summer in fact!

From the moment we arrived we were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the Jordanians – from the hotel staff who couldn’t do enough to make us comfortable to every Jordanian man woman and child we met on our travels, I can honestly say we always felt like honoured guests.

On the down side it did mean allowing at least an hour per shop, simply because tea and a seat would be offered and couldn’t be refused, pictures taken, phone numbers and life stories swapped, and then gifts pressed upon us that were impossible to refuse without giving offense.

Obviously this may have been to do with the fact we were travelling independently rather than with a guide or on a coach, that we three were a mother and her daughters driving in a car by ourselves (this was considered very odd) and yes, that we are all blonde and blue eyed, all of which may well have ramped up the feeling of being minor celebrities. But since every other visitor we met there (and since) reported the huge amounts of kindness and friendliness shown to them by the Jordanians, I actually think it’s just the Jordanian way to be absolutely lovely.

As the lady we met on the plane going over said: “Your first time? Oh, you’ll be back!” And yes we will.

General Information on Jordan

• Dress code is modest and clothing should reach from neck down to the knee, and at least to the elbows. Jeans are very acceptable, and I found scarves an invaluable addition whether to cover the neckline of t-shirts, pull up over the head, or use as a shawl. Having said that, very Westernised dress (shorts, short skirts, strappy t shirts and low necklines) won’t get you harassed in all but the most mild ways (think teenage boys leering or nudging each other, or grown ups staring) they are way too polite and well bought up for that – but it just feels rude and inappropriate somehow.

• Social etiquette – always use your right hand to greet or eat (the left is for bodily functions), if you are invited to sit to eat or take tea make sure you tuck your feet out of sight, and if you are invited into a Jordanian home (or tent) it is polite to take and give gifts, even if just a box of baklava.

•  Costs – Jordan is still a poor country, despite its growing middle classes, and it’s economy has been put under pressure by the various influxes of refugees over the past 60 years. There isn’t full employment and so if you can buy, hire, use local skills and goods, try to do so.  Begging is not encouraged and Jordanians would rather do something for a JD (Jordanian Dinar) rather than take a hand out, even if it is just carrying your bags. Generally it’s a very affordable country – allow £70 -£100 per person per day for mid to high range accommodation, some activities and travel and eating well.

• Temperature – Aqaba in the south is warm to hot pretty much all the year round, but the rest of Jordan is subject to some mighty temperature fluctuations – they even get snow in the north. The best times to visit are spring and autumn, when temperatures average 27°C, although even these can vary depending on where you are and the time of day (or night).

• Responsible tourism – the water supply in Jordan is under immense pressure from increased population and therefore extraction, as well as, ironically, increased tourism – all those spas, swimming pools and extra showers have to be supplied from somewhere. Do your bit wherever you can – don’t leave taps running, have showers not bathes, and if you don’t need your sheets/towels changing every day, say so. Every little helps.

• Jordan is a five-hour flight from the UK. See Royal Jordanian and BMi for direct flights. You buy a month’s visa at the airport in Jordan.

• The currency is Jordanian Dinars (known as JDs – pronounced JayDees). 1JD is just a smidge under £1, which makes it easy to budget. You will need to order them at least 24 hours in advance. ATMs are widely available throughout the country and electronic payment is the norm – accept for in Wadi Rum and outside the entrance of Jaresh!

• Transportation. There are no trains and the buses are irregular and tend to meander, so best go as part of a coach tour, take taxis, hire a chauffeur or self drive:

  1. The pros of a coach tour is that someone else has organized it, you don’t need to do the driving and you have company; the cons that you can’t go off the beaten track and you have to follow the itinerary.
  2. Taxis are generally fairly affordable and you usually get a guide thrown in for free – you can also hire a car and a chauffeur, which is a good option if you want to go exploring all over the place but don’t want to drive yourself.
  3. Self drive is only for those of a fearless nature with an excellent internal compass as the road signage is near non-existent and obviously it restricts what the driver can see, although ‘stopping to look’ is very acceptable in Jordan! The pros are the freedom and contact you get with everyday people.

© Claire Burdett 2010

Images of the trip can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyangelclaire/4789814093/

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Torro! Torro! in Sexy Sultry Seville

Bullfighting in SevilleHot, intense and bitter sweet, Seville is famous for passion, for spectacle and theatre, and for song. It’s the greatest city of the Spanish south, the home of such legendary characters as Carmen, Don Juan, Figaro and Columbus, and the city of the Andalucian gypsies and their flamenco culture.

It’s an elegant and wealthy city, whose buildings and culture reflect the centuries it spent under Roman, and then Moorish, rule, as well as the wealth generated by its adventurer-son, Columbus, and the conquistadors. However, it does have one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain (at nearly 20%) because Andalucia in general is predominantly agricultural and is quite a depressed area, economically. Consequently there’s been a rise in petty crime, especially car thefts, in past years, although compared with many cities it’s still relatively crime-free.  Be careful, but don’t let it put you off! This is a great city for a weekend break, especially if you immerse yourself in the local culture.

Seville has a sub-tropical climate, and as temperatures hit the 30s as early as May and increase steadily through to the upper 40s in the summer, perhaps the best time to visit is in April, especially as this is the month in which the two most important festivals occur – Semana Santa (Holy Week) followed two weeks later by La Feria de Seville (Seville Fair).

Historically, Seville is a fascinating meander through layers of colourful and glorious architecture, over laid by the trappings of wealth from Spain’s colonies in South America. In fact, in many ways it resembles a Latin American city, from its meandering streets where the houses nearly seem to meet above your head, to the heat and relentless sunshine, to the passionate and exuberate nature of the Sevillianos themselves. All good stuff, especially if you’re not the shy and retiring type!

Friday night is a great time to arrive and plunge straight into the true Sevilliano experience. Book your flight for straight after work – flights go from …

Once you have arrived, change into your best togs and head straight into town for your first taste (literally) of Sevilliano culture. Most Sevillianos don’t really get going until after 11pm on a Friday night. Firstly they’re all way too busy on the ‘Marcha’, promenading, seeing and being seen, checking out the shop windows and comparing prices and arguing about where the best deal is to be found. And then Friday-night dinner is often ir de tapeo, or ‘tapas crawl’, where the locals (and tourists in the know) meander their way around an area sampling a selection of scrumptious tapas, each one in a different bar. With a glass of sherry, of course. Remember Seville is the capital of the sherry-making area of Spain, so there is a vast choice available, none of which tastes remotely like the stuff from your Nan’s drinks cabinet at Christmas. This is divine stuff, nectar, and there’s a huge variety to choose from, from the very dry, almost salty, through to the richly sweet, although the locals generally stick to the chilled dry fino with their tapas, especially with shrimps.

Good grazing grounds include Alfalfa, which lies north of the cathedral and gets so packed on weekend evenings that cars can’t get through – try Bar Alfalfa on the corner, and try their provolone al horno (baked cheese). Calle Betis by the river over in Triana is another good tapas cruise option, as is around the Alameda, and in the Santa Maria de Blanca area of Santa Cruz…not that I’m saying that we sampled tapas extensively, but as Seville is the city that is reputed to have invented tapas, it would have been rude not to!

Many tapas bars shut around 9pm, but this is still very early in Seville, as things really don’t start kicking off until midnight, especially in summer when temperatures stay in the 30s all night. There’s a wide choice for your evening entertainment, from the big bar scene along the river (it’s cooler here), especially El Faro de Triana on the bridge  (Triana/Isabel II), which has the best view of the river, as well as all around Calle Betis in Triana (so stay put if that’s where you were grazing), particularly Café de la Prensa, Or, if you want the chance to hear and see some spontaneous Sevillian-style flamenco, head towards Carboneria on calle de Levies, just north east of the Cathedral, an atmospheric old building that is packed at all times and is renowned for its free nightly flamenco.

The club scene is pretty major in Seville, being a Spanish university town, so if you want to go dancing head for Alfalfa, where there’s a good selection of venues, or ask around the students (they’re everywhere) for what’s hot this season (it changes every year), or head over towards the Triana riverfront and follow you ears. Rio Latino on Betis is usually a good bet. For hard house, the serious choice is Weekend in Torneo, but be warned – there’s no alcoves for chatting, so only go if you’re a serious dance bunny!

Saturday through to Sunday offers you the chance of a little culture or shopping wrapped around some good lazy lunches. Now, if you want to go shopping, you’ll have to steel yourself to get up early as most shops, bar the really large ones in the centre, shut by lunchtime on a Saturday. The main shopping thoroughfare is Calle Sierpes (the street of snakes), especially the area just north of the Cathedral, between Plazas San Francisco, Encarnacion, Magdalena and Nueva (where the bus terminus is), the ancient Jewish quarter of the city. The best place if you’re short of time is probably El Corte Ingles on Plaza de la Magdalena, which claims to sell almost everything – clothes, electricals, everything. Their food hall is excellent, if expensive, and recommended if you want a slice of Seville to take home – try their olives from all over Andalucia, the fabulous local marmalade made with Seville oranges (see box), sherry from nearby vineyards, and the local cured hams.

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Going Japanese: Trends in Consumerism

Japanese shopping street

Japanese shopping street

What comes to mind when you think of Japan? Probably a diverse mix of images: traditional Geishas, cherry blossom and tea ceremonies alongside humanoid robots, Anime and Manga, ultra-trendy urbanites, high-speed trains and high-tech consumerism, obviously.

No? Just the Tsunami? Time to look more closely.

History is an interesting phenomena, especially when you use it to track and predict future trends, whether financial, economic or cultural. One of the long established patterns in global history is that of the culture and developments of one part of human culture leading the other. One of these is the pattern of west leading east for 900 years and then it changing over so east leads west. At the moment the balance has just shifted and east is beginning to lead west.

So whatever is the latest must-have in Japan now, you can expect to find it, or a Europeanised variant, in a shop near you soon. And this isn’t just about the products, it’s also true of retail experiences and technology trends. Consequently a quick glance at Japan today could well offer us a window into our own future, so let’s take a peek…

Addicted to mobile

The mobile phone has become ubiquitous across the western world and we are all familiar with the incessant arrival of new functions and features: picture messaging, 3G, mobile Internet and mobile gaming, to name a few. But are you aware that these new advances typically start in Japan, where the youth are very responsive to mobile advances, enabling the operators to test and embed them here first.

Taking pictures of cherry blossom on mobile phones in JapanFor example, picture messaging became a standard part of life for Japanese teenagers back in 2003, well in advance of it taking off in Europe, and they continue to be one step ahead of us in terms of mobile phone design and function. And sticking with texting for a moment, the range of icons are mind blowing and many have crossed into general text language usage.

For example, the symbol for the astrological sign, Aquarius, which is two wavy lines one above the other, has become the symbol for ‘sea’. It’s a whole new world, especially when you consider that while we were getting excited about the 3G network a couple of years ago, Japan was already moving towards 4G.

Basically, in Japan, the mobile phone hasn’t been just a phone with address book and camera attached for years – it’s pretty much everything in one handy packet, from your TV to using it as debit or credit card to go shopping with, right through to playing Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest.

Japanese mobiles make the iPhone look like something from the 20th century – in Japan you can use your phone as a train season ticket or plane ticket, pay on the internet with e-money or operate a vending machine. And in Japan, a vending machine is not just for crisps, chocolate and cans, but for products as diverse as eggs, umbrellas, fishing line and bait, toilet paper, kid’s toys, fresh noodles or flowers, fresh fried food, newspapers, flight insurance, alcohol of all types, porn, condoms and energy drinks, batteries, ice cream, and dry ice.

Egg vending machine in Japan

Egg vending machine

Japanese phones scan your fingerprints for automatic recognition, offer hard disc drives, pedometers, and read-aloud systems. In Japan you use your phone as standard to scan the barcode of any item in a retail store to find it on the Amazon site for less and order it instantly, use it to pay your bills, and even read mobile-phone books.

How are you reading today?

Teenagers in Japan are hooked on mobile-phone novels, with books being written specially for the small screen and sent in 1,600 character instalments. Sort of like Kindle, though not, Japanese cell phone novels phenomenon, known as keitai, has spawned its own mini genre and a clutch of keitai authors, of whom one, a 15-year-old from Tokyo who writes under the nom de plume Bunny, has sold over 110,000 paperback copies of her three-volume novel ‘Wolf Boy x Natural Girl’, which was originally typed 1,000 characters at a time on the tiny cellular screen of her mobile phone. ‘Wolf Boy x Natural Girl’ has so far grossed over $116,000.

Robots and Gadgets

Robotic Coca Cola vending machine in Tokyo

Robotic Coca Cola vending machine in Tokyo

Futuristic electronic gadgets are synonymous with Japan and they continue to set the pace for the rest of the world, with no shortage of new robotic ideas coming through, including robotic vending machines.

Already popular are the talking translators, which go one step further than electronic translators to speak out the text for you. And a new addition to the Japanese iPod community is the ‘Miuro’, an iPod docking station that twists and rolls to iPod tunes and can also be programmed to roll into your bedroom and blast out tunes as your wakeup call.

The HRP-3 Promet Mk-II from Kawada Industries is very similar to Honda’s Asimo, both in appearance and in its ability to carry out a wide range of domestic tasks although far less cute and more scary-looking. However, its $3million price tag means it is probably reserved for the seriously rich gadget addict.

A mere $7,000 will buy you a Nuvo, which is aimed at the same niche as the ifBot and is billed by its manufacturer as ‘the humanoid robot for everyone’, and given Japan’s determination to create a new robotic world, we’re pretty sure that one day they really will become mainstream.

And with web 2.0 transforming our lives, robotic gadgets are also coming online to make our internet experience easier and more enjoyable, such as PaPeRo. This colourful little parrot-inspired robot sits on your desk and dictates everything you say before transforming it into internet content, a totally cute and original way of creating a truly dynamic virtual blog.
And then there is Lovotics, which builds n tehe advances with the cute and cuddly ‘gadgets’ to make love robots:

And have you seen the internet umbrella, Pileus?

Enjoy the rain

Pileus - internet umbrella

Pileus - internet umbrella

Developed by two students, the Pileus is not your everyday umbrella. It has a large screen on the top surface, a built-in camera, a motion sensor, GPS, and a digital compass, and it provides two main functions: social photo-sharing and a 3D map navigation.

The photo function is connected to Flickr.com, and enables the user to take photo with a camera on the umbrella, and upload the pictures to Flickr via a wifi connection. You can also watch photo-streams downloaded from Flickr, and video-stream from YouTube… so while boredom may not be a problem, walking in front of a bus might be. However, even if you do walk in front of a bus, at least you won’t be lost because the inbuilt 3D map navigation is powered by Google Earth. Detecting a location data from GPS, your umbrella will show you a 3D bird’s eye view of your surroundings so you can walk through a city comparing the 3D views and real sights, while navigating using your digital compass.

Ring ring baby

And another truly odd gadget is the ‘Ubi-Wa’. Its name has two meanings in Japanese: “finger ring” or “speak by finger”, and this is precisely what it allows you to do because, yep, it’s a ring that is a phone. Cleverly, the ‘Ubi-Wa’ converts vibrations, which travel down your hand and arm bones into your ear canal, into speech you can understand. It may be a bizarre gadget now, but given the rise and rise of girl power in Japan, it can only be a short amount of time before it becomes one of the must-have accessories.

Girl-power, Japanese style

In fact, girl-power is having a big impact in Japan, in particular schoolgirls and teenagers, who are the true arbiters of cool, and the Arasa, who are the 30-something single girls with spending power.

There are even shopping malls, such as Yurakucho Marui and Marronnier Gate in Tokyo, targeted exclusively at Arasa, and there is a rapid rise in brands directly appealing to this affluent market because they are all about fashion and luxury, which equals a lot more spending.

One retail experience in particular is focused on women – cosmetic sampling salons. Whether online or on the high street, Japanese women now have the opportunity to try before they buy. There are online clubs where women can sign-up to receive regular free samples in return for feedback; exclusive membership-only salons where members can test a wide range of products in luxurious surroundings; and high street testing shops without onsite sales counters or sales assistants, which just goes to prove what a technology-savvy generation this is.

The whole retail experience is, in fact, increasingly virtual. Japanese women have been quick to embrace mobile phone shopping enthusiastically, purchasing products ranging from CDs and DVDs to clothing and shoes from specially-targeted mobile browsing internet stores.

Anime and Manga

And it’s not just girl power in Japan, Okatu are also having an impact on retail trends. These are geeks who are devoted to the grown-up Japanese animated films and comic strips (think Hiro in ‘Heroes’). Many of them are hitting the silver-surfer zone and bringing some serious spending power with them. While many of the younger ones, who still live at home with their parents and so also have a lot of disposable income, are also joining the craze, with the biggest phenomenon at the moment being moe, which is basically an obsession with a particular type or character. Retailers are pandering to the moe as the consumers are willing to spend big bucks on their obsession. While alongside the inevitable rise of memorabilia is the growth of ‘maid-cafés’, where the waitresses are dressed in Anime- or Manga-inspired uniforms. While you may think this is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, experts are predicting that as Anime and Manga increase in popularity globally, so too moe will eventually go global too.

LOHAS: Going green

And just as here, so too in Japan, where ‘green’ is having an impact on retail habits and has even become fashionable. In fact, it’s so popular that the term LOHAS had entered common vernacular. Originally coined in the US, as an acronym for Lifestyles Of Health And Sustainability, today in Japan LOHAS identifies anything that has an environmental or health benefit.

The Japanese car manufacturers are well known for leading the way, not least with the global fame of the Toyota Prius hybrid car. But what is probably less well known is their work on green materials for body shells, with a prototype car shown at the Aichi World Exposition in 2008, which has a body made out of kenaf, a plant-based material, also known as or Hibiscus Cannabinus. Toyota has been researching the use of kenaf in automotive applications for almost a decade now and currently kenaf is being used for components in a total of 27 car models, mainly high-end cars. While it may be a long way from total mass production, it’s a neat twist on eco-friendly car development.

While in the EU the green trend is to reduce, reuse, recycle, it should come as no surprise that in Japan, which is widely considered the ultimate consumer society, the general approach is consumerism with a bit of ecological conscience. Add to that their high-density living in big urban areas, which has led to a wealth of creativity when it comes to utilising small spaces and being economical with energy and natural sources, and you get some impressive solutions. For example, a current Japanese trend is for ‘Green Curtains’: growing plants on nets strung across the outside of buildings to provide natural air conditioning.

This has a double benefit: it increases the amount of plant-life in the urban area and also reduces the air-conditioning bill – saving both Yen and energy. Continuing the eco theme, there are vending machines where you can put your empty cans back in and get paid to do so, while Sanyo have brought out a washing machine that works without water. And then there’s the tankless toilet…

Flushing for Japan

In fact, toilets of all kinds are a Japanese obsession, probably because of their national focus on clean versus unclean and the conviction that clean is beautiful (one word can mean both). And they come in all types and size, although mostly small, owing to the compact apartments that most Japanese urban dwellers call home. As a solution to this there’s a popular model that enables you to wash your hands in the water that will be used for the next flush (totally hygienic, it simply fills into a basin in the top of the tank; it’s just cold) and then there’s the washlet, which is a near obsession in Japan, with more people owing one than a computer…er…what’s a washlet?

The king of toilets, the washlet is a bidet (two jets, one for women only, the other for everyone) in a toilet and much, much more… it also warms the seat for you (based on historical usage i.e. it monitors when you mostly go to the toilet and warms the seat at these times…), lifts the seat when you approach (one or both seats, depending on whether you are facing towards it or away from it), offers you music or sound effects while you perform your business (don’t forget how thin the walls are in Japanese apartments), self cleans, shuts the lids down again after flushing, and even monitors your pee and sends the data to your doctor for analysis…they really have thought of everything!

Into the West

So what do you think will make the leap from east to west? I’m not sure if it gets hot enough anywhere in the UK for ‘Green Curtains’ to take off, and I’m not sold on the tankless toilet either and think the washlet is more likely to make me feel nervous than reassured and pampered, but I reckon the mobile phone advances are a given, the water-free washing machine is a winner and I was totally wowed by the internet brolly. And I’m sure there’s much more still to come…

Love the future, love Japan.

© Claire Burdett 2008, updated 2011. First published in What’s the Future (WTF) Magazine.

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Fashion Spyder

Occasionally something comes along that fills a niche so neatly that you can’t ever imagine how you did without out it.

Spyder ski wear is cutting edge and iconic

Spyder ski wear is cutting edge and iconic

For skiers and outdoors enthusiasts, that something is Spyder wear, first launched over 30 years ago and still breaking new ground every year with their revolutionary technological breakthroughs, cool designs and innovative features, with specially designed clothing for adventurers and skiers alike.

Take their limited edition jacket launched a couple of years ago, which combines innovative fabric MP3 controls with high technology ski wear. The full limited edition outfit includes the jacket, with an integrated iPod employing Eleksen’s smart textile technology. In an amazing fusion of future technology with existing design techniques, Sypder have built the jacket using  ElekTex, Eleksen’s patented conductive fabric touch pad technology, to transform the sleeve into an electronic control panel, allowing the wearer to play, pause and skip tracks simply by touching the control buttons on the arm. The suit is crafted in full stretch fabric with a Dermizax-MP waterproof membrane, exclusive X-static silver fibre insulation, Spylon water repellent coating, and Spyder Heat, their special technology that captures and retains the wearer’s body heat for extended thermal protection.

So what’s the technology behind the integrated iPod? Eleksen’s ElekTex fabric is essentially a sandwich of conductive textiles with two outer layers separated by a partially conductive inner layer. Eleksen’s core technology, ElekTex, is based around a unique sensing fabric, which opens the door to a whole new range of ‘soft’ products as both sensor and interconnectivity are fabric and eliminate the need for external hard components.

Very clever stuff.

And their design innovations just keep on coming, as enthusiasts, such as the US Ski Team and the Canadian Alpine and Freestyle Teams, are well aware. Their Venom brand is designed for cross country, backcountry and freestyle skiers and safety is a prime consideration, so the jacket interior lining sports a white cross on a red background, a universal symbol for distress. Backpack waistband waist entry portals allow the pack straps to be secured under the jacket, not over, so the jacket can be removed more easily, while their updated technology allows an even higher warmth-to-weight ratio, with built in vents in many designs to prevent over heating. They achieve this by their use of patented insulation solutions that use a unique blend of ultra-fine multi-diameter fibres that are specially treated and water resistant, to help form a dynamic insulating structure.

Other innovative features in their suits include the built in shock protectors, which are made from specially engineered material with Intelligent Molecules, which flow with you as you move but lock together on impact to absorb shock. The Intelligent Molecules react instantly, and then when the impact is over they instantly return to their free flowing state, again and again and again.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in WTF magazine, 2008. Claire writes, blogs and tweets about technology at The Funky Agency.

NB To see how technology-to-wear has accelerated since this article was written just over a year ago, see http://gadgetwise.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/02/a-winter-jacket-that-charges-your-gadgets/#comment-40685

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And So To Bath

Weekend breaks - Bath

View of Bath from the rooftop pool at Thermae Spa, Bath. Credit: Thermae Bath Spa

There’s something timeless and yet thoroughly cosmopolitan about Bath.

Perhaps it’s the mix of Roman remains flanked by the Medieval Abbey and surrounded on all sides by stately Georgian architecture. Perhaps it is its situation, nestled in a basin of green hills.

Maybe its just down to the honey-coloured stone that is used everywhere.

Whatever it is, you certainly get the feeling when you arrive that this is a golden, summertime city, comparable in its way to many Italian cities, such as Rome or Venice. Visitors throughout the centuries have felt the same. As Cecil Roberts says right at the end of “And So To Bath”, which was published nearly 100 years ago:

“From the windows of my hotel, as I looked out on the quiet crescent of houses, a glowing sunset made Bath a city of gold. I began to wonder about the many famous figures who had walked these noble pavements, whose sedan-chairs have been set down in many a stately doorway…”

Jane Austin was one of those famous figures, living here for six years in total at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. She made Bath the setting of two of her books, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’, and the life she led while she was here is reflected in both stories, and much of what she would have been familiar with still exists today. However, Bath’s history is much more complex and lengthy than Jane Austin would have even started to imagine, and it starts right back with in Celtic time with the goddess of the hot springs, Sulis.

The History of Bath

Celtic Bath
Legend has it that Bath was founded by Bladud, the eldest son of the legendary King Lud. Bladud discovered the miraculous hot mineral springs when he saw that when pigs rolled in the mud they were cured of their scurvy. Although Bath was, in fact, founded nearly 1,000 years after Bladud, it was without doubt a major centre of power in Celtic time, with Celtic forts situated on the surrounding hills and a Druid’s sacred grove, dedicated to the goddess Sulis, in the valley below near the hot spring.

Sulis is a diety who is unique to Bath because the Celts saw her as the very embodiment of the essence of the thermal spring-water, which gushes out of the ground at a rate of a quarter of million gallons/million litres a day, at a constant temperature of 46°C/120°F. The Celts saw this miraculous phenomenon as being nothing less than the nourishing, life-giving waters of the Mother goddess herself. And so Sulis was born.

Roman Bath
Once the Romans arrived, they lost no time in honing in on the potential of the hot springs and a significant and revered town, Aqua Sulis, was established, and the springs were controlled and channelled in to a sophisticated system of baths and the great temple of Minerva was founded. Aqua Sulis was one of the most one of the major therapeutic centres of the Roman world and by the 3rd century its stunning temple and five luxurious baths attracted significant numbers of pilgrims. An elaborate hypocaust heating system serviced a series of hot sweat rooms, with swimming pools and cold rooms afterwards. At the centre, in its own hall and lined with 14 massive sheets of lead, was the Great Bath. Surrounded by the gods, whose statues would have emerged mysteriously from the swirling steam, it must have been one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Water always attracts wishes, and the springs of Aqua Sulis were no exception. Over the centuries, pilgrims inscribed dedications, vows and curses on thin pewter sheets that were then usually rolled up and placed in the water. Typically each curse stated a lost love or piece of stolen property, and there was usually an appeal that the guilty should meet some foul end!

Medieval Bath
In the Middle Ages the benefits of the hot springs were once again utilised after the ‘dark ages’ that followed the departure of the Romans and the invasion of the Saxons. Saxon Christians dismantled the sacrificial altar to use as paving stones for their new monastery. Before long the hot spring had returned to marsh and the site of Minerva’s great temple became a dumping place for town refuse and, in later times, a Saxon graveyard. However, the benefits of the hot springs were recognised by the monks of medieval England, and the monastery that flourished here later in the 14th and 15th centuries offered hospitality for people coming to take the waters of the spring for their health. Begun in 1499, Bath Abbey is the one of the last surviving great English medieval churches. The West Front is unique as it depicts the dream that inspired the Abbey’s founder, Bishop Oliver King, to pull down the ruined Norman cathedral and raise the present building on its foundations, and depicts angels ascending and descending to heaven.

Regency Bath
In 1702 Queen Anne came to take the waters, and a whole new era in Bath’s history was launched as fashionable society followed her lead and within a century the population had risen from 2,000 to 30,000 and Bath became the eighth largest city in England by 1801. The Bath revival in the Regency period had three main figures at the helm:

• Richard Beau Nash – Bath’s Master of Ceremonies, (organiser and leader of the social scene), as well as self-confessed dandy and gambler. He was responsible for much of the levelling of polite society, which meant it was much more acceptable for women to go out on public, and for people to mix across social classes, something that is clearly shown in the novels of Jane Austen. In this way, Nash became a significant architect of social change.

• John Wood Senior – architect of much of Bath’s Georgian splendour, including Queen’s Square. He was later succeeded by his son, John the Younger, who added the gorgeous Royal Crescent as the feather in their joint architectural cap.

• Ralph Allen – post master and Mayor of Bath who decreed that all new buildings in Bath should be made of the distinguished honey-coloured Bath stone, mined from a nearby quarry, which coincidentally belonged to him. However he was also a benevolent man, giving money and the stone for the building of the Mineral Water Hospital in 1738.

Where to go

The Royal Crescent
This is John Wood the Younger’s masterpiece and is a piece of architecture unmatched anywhere else in Europe. Number One, Royal Crescent was begun in 1767 and was built for a certain Mr Thomas Brock. It is a fabulous Georgian town house and today it is furnished exactly as it would have been in the 18th century, which gives you an authentic feel for how life was in Regency Bath. The rest of the Crescent is now apartments, apart from the two central houses that form the Royal Crescent Hotel.

At the time when the Crescent was built it would have faced open farmland, complete with sheep and cattle. This was taken advantage of in the design, which incorporated a ‘haha’, a low wall in a ditch that kept the animals on the other side but was invisible when viewed from the Crescent, thus giving the coveted 18th century impression of an endless vista of open parkland. The haha can still be seen, and the lawns in front of the crescent are the most fabulous setting for a picnic – get your provisions from Chandos in George Street, their smoked marsh lamb is incredible!

The Assembly Rooms
Commissioned by Beau Nash, in Regency times the Assembly Rooms consisted of The Ball Room, Octagon, Tea Room, and Card Room, and were a place where guests ‘assembled’ for balls, to drink tea, play cards, listen to music, or just to talk and flirt. The balls were extremely popular throughout the Season, and less than 1,000 guests was considered a poorly attended event.

The Museum of Costume
In the basement of the Assembly Rooms is situated the Museum of Costume, which is celebration of all things fashion for both men and women dating from the Elizabethan period through the Regency fashions to the present day. They have really good exhibitions, including the humorous ‘Corsets Uncovered’, where you can try on a corset like the one your great, great grandmother might have worn – if you are tiny enough to get into it that is!

The Pump Room
The Pump Room is a beautifully proportioned salon and the place where the hot spa water was, and still is, drawn for drinking, or as the Georgians put it “where you took the waters”. People seeking a cure would drink up to eight pints of spa water a day as well as bathing in it first thing in the morning. In Jane Austin’s time the Pump Room was the central point of the upper classes social scene, where people met and mingled, men talked politics and economics and women talked marriage and fashion, and all sampled the waters. It is best summed up in the following passage taken from Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’:

“They set off in good time for the pump-room, where the ordinary course of events and conversation took place; Mr. Allen, after drinking his glass of water, joined some gentlemen to talk over the politics of the day and compare the accounts of their newspapers; and the ladies walked about together, noticing every new face, and almost every new bonnet in the room.”

Sally Lunn’s House
In 1680, Sally Lunn, a refugee baker from France, arrived in Bath, bringing with her the recipe for a type of sweet bread, like the French brioche today, and the rest, as they say, is history. The famous buns are still served on the premises, made to the original recipe, and the kitchen that she used can be seen in the museum. Sally Lunn’s is one of Bath’s few remaining medieval houses.

Pulteney Bridge
Crossing the River Avon, Pulteney Bridge was built in the 18th century to link Bath with the ancient estate of Bathwick, which was owned by the Pulteney family at the time, hence the name. The bridge is unique in Britain as being the only one which still has shops built upon it, much like the original London bridge (of the nursery rhyme) and similar to existing bridges in Florence and Venice.

American Museum in Britain
Situated in elegant Claverton Manor just outside Bath, the American Museum is the only museum of Americana outside the United States. The Manor is set in 120 acres of gardens, which include Mayflower Garden and a replica of George Washington’s American garden at Mount Vernon. The museum uses period rooms imported from Stateside to show how Americans lived from the time of the early New England settlers to the eve of the Civil War. Their summer exhibition, ‘Dollar Princesses – American Heiress to Peeress in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain’ is well worth a look.  In the 1870s, London was recognised as the social capital of the world and ambitious bourgeois American mothers looked to British high society to satisfy social aspirations and claim a title for their daughters. Perhaps the most well known ‘Dollar Princesses’, a term adopted by the ladies themselves, was society belle Jennie Jerome. She famously became Lady Randolph Churchill and the beloved mother of Winston. The exhibition features period costumes, including a sumptuous white, fur-edged evening coat worn by Winnaretta Singer (Duchess of Manchester). Equally as sumptuous and somehow more touching is the museum’s extensive collection of American quilts, while if you have a yen for travel and love maps, the Museum’s collection of maps, some dating from the 12th century, is wonderful; the hand-painted illustrations are particularly amazing. Downstairs in the basement you will find the American Heritage Exhibition, complete with Wild West and Native Indians, which the kids (both large and small) will adore.

Wells Cathedral
The cathedral was begun in 1180 and is one of the most impressive of all the English cathedrals, not least because it is one of the few to have survived with all its associated 13th-15th century buildings, including the Chapter House, the Vicar’s Hall and Close, and the Cloisters. Wells is the site of natural springs, and remains show it was also settled and used by the Romans. In Medieval times the springs were harnessed to drive mills, flush drains, and provide a piped supply of drinking water for the needs of the cathedral from the late 12th century onwards. The water still flows under the cloister, where the remains of the medieval ‘dipping place’ (drinking basin) are preserved.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in Citylife magazine 2008

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The Train Line

The fastest train so far, The Maglev, is powered by magnets

The fastest train so far, The Maglev, is powered by magnets

The history of trains is beloved of every young trainspotter and uber-geek, and it does make fantastic reading.

From the revolutionary Rocket through to the high speed journeys of the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman, Japan’s sleek electric Bullet and France’s pride and joy, the TVRs, and on to the mindblowingly-fast Maglev, it is true to say that train travel has come along way, baby.

Of them all, the world’s fastest train, the Maglev, is perhaps the longest- and most eagerly- awaited. Because despite it being a frankly futuristic concept of a train running on magnetic tracks, there has been an astonishing seven decades between the first (German) patent in 1934 and the first commercial service launched in Shanghai, China, in 2004. Other commercially operated lines now exist in Japan, most famously the Linimo, a magnetic levitation train line in Aichi, near the city of Nagoya.

Unbelievably quiet apart from the ‘whoosh’ of air as it passes, the sleek Maglev train ‘flies’ – yes, it really is officially described as flying – at an incredible 300 kilometres per hour in two minutes flat, tops 400 kph in three minutes, and has been known to go over 500kph during test runs. That’s just over two hours from Paris to Rome, making it only 10 minutes slower than taking the plane!

Ahhh, the plane, yes, that’s what it reminds you of, because despite having no wings (or engine or wheels either, but more of that later), the Maglev is much more like a plane than it is a train, and so is as revolutionary as the Stephenson’s Rocket was back in 1829. Transrapid, the German firm that developed the system, describes the Maglev as “the first fundamental innovation in the field of railway technology since the invention of the railway.”

So how does it do it? Maglev is short for magnetic levitation, and magnets are the magic ingredients. In practice this means that the trains float a centimetre above the guideway that replace the old train tracks using the basic principles of magnets. Known as electromagnetic suspension (EMS), it’s just like the science you did at school or when you played around with those ladybird or frog magnets when you were a kid – basically the opposite poles attract and the like poles repel each other. Electromagnets are similar to other magnets in that they attract metal objects, but the magnetic pull is temporary, and the magnetic field that this creates is how the Maglev train rail system works. Even its components are simple, comprising of:

• A large electrical power source (no conventional engine)

• Metal coils lining the guideway (no overhead cables)

• Large guidance magnets attached to the underside of the train (no wheels)

No conventional engine, huh? So how does it move? Back to your frog magnetic ‘running’ (ie being pushed) away from it’s twin across your school desk. Basically the train runs the same way – the magnetic field created by the electrified coils in the guideway walls and the track combine to propel the train as it floats on a cushion of air. And that completely eliminates friction, which when combined with the trains’ aerodynamic design allows these trains to reach unprecedented ground transportation speeds.

The best-known high-speed maglev currently operating commercially is the IOS (initial operating segment) demonstration line of the German-built Transrapid train in Shanghai, China, that transports people 30 km (18.6 miles) to the airport in just 7 minutes 20 seconds, achieving a top velocity of 431 km/h (268 mph), averaging 250 km/h (150 mph).

However, all of the operational implementations of maglev technology have had little, or no, overlap with wheeled train technology and so are not compatible with conventional rail tracks. Consequently, Maglevs must be designed as new and complete transportation systems, which have proved one of the main stumbling blocks to their development to date.

So why with all this exciting futuristic train travel in other parts of the world, why hasn’t a new age of the train dawned right here in Britain? Let’s not go in to another “Britain is rubbish” fest here, because it simply isn’t true, despite the inescapable dire state of our nation’s railway. It’s simply that we pushed out the frontiers of the train so fast and so early that is an engineering, logistical and financial nightmare to add electric cabling, such as is needed for the TVRs, to most of our existing railways because of the tunnels and bridges and other factors.

Just think of Victorian technological breakthroughs, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s extension to the Great Western Railway along the south Devon coast to Plymouth, which still uses a system of five tunnels through cliffs and a four-mile sea wall, and you’ll understand the engineering problems inherent in converting our train system. Basically the whole thing needs scrapping and rebuilding, instead of patching and adapting, and the cost of that would be prohibitive. So probably not something that is likely to happen in our lifetime.

However, in the here and now, countries like China, the United States or Australia, where there is a vast expanse of open country largely unconnected by train, could easily opt for a Maglev system. And let’s not forget that the Maglev is pollution-free, so if the megapowers take advantage of its technology, at least it will benefit the rest of us at the same time, even if we can’t just step on and enjoy the flight.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

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