A Swenglish attempt on Mount Caburn

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My friend, the Swedish writer Louise Halvardsson, has recently been working on her Swenglish project. This involves Louise spending a week with 30 different people, 15 in England and 15 in Sweden. As well as being a fascinating idea for an art project/alternative travel memoir, Lou is also hoping to decide whether to settle in England or Sweden at the end of it.

The project requires Lou to shadow her hosts for the full week, meaning that her free-time depends on what they want to do. This means that I’ve not seen much of Lou since I returned from my holidays, except on her weeks off. Since last week was a free week we met up and tried another of the Cheeky Walks, this one an expedition to climb Mount Caburn.

The weather wasn’t as good as my previous walk, but it was dry and the scenery was fantastic. Mount Caburn is an iron-age fort near Lewes and has some lovely views. Lou’s account of the walk is online in English and Swedish.

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The directions on this walk weren’t quite as straightforward as the last one, and we managed to get lost around Glynde. Trying to get back to Mount Caburn we found ourselves on an obscure path that hit a dead end:

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Signs of civilisation:

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The notices about gorillas made us wonder if we were more lost than we thought:

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Strange details in Lewes:

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Prometheus and Catastrophic Project Management Failure

(This post contains spoilers for Prometheus.)

When I say I expect science-fiction to be realistic, it's probably worth defining what I mean. I'm willing to overlook the existence of AI robots and starships in a film set 70 years in the future. I'm willing to overlook inappropriate design decisions in the space ships and user-interfaces. But I expect the characters to behave like people. Characters should be consistent and make sense to a reasonable cinema-goer.

Which is what annoyed me about Prometheus. You're sending a space-ship two years and unthinkable distances from Earth to contact an alien civilisation. I expect the team chosen to show the basic competency one would expect from people at the top of their field. The film's plot was entirely dependent on the incompetence of the characters.

So, with that in mind, let's look at some of the disasterous errors made by the Prometheus crew. Seriously – I wouldn't cross the road with these people, let alone contact alien races. Look on this as a helpful project review.

Lack of clearly defined goals Setting aside the differing agendas, nobody had a clearly defined aim. While its valid for metaphysical concerns to inspire your project, you need to define a goal so that everyone can share it and evaluate decisions against it. It's also hard to tell whether your mission has succeeded unless you know what you're trying to do.

No contingency planning Most projects have undecidables, even without encountering alien races. You should probably have some idea what you might do when certain things go wrong (biological contamination being an obvious one). Rather than sleep the two years before arriving on the planet, I'd have had some of the crew watching science fiction movies and working out what they would have done in those scenarios, and then producing appropriate processes.

Process not present or ignored Which is the next thing: clearly defined processes are a life-saver in stressful situations. Checking in code or handing over between teams can be difficult under pressure, so strict processes are used to maintain good standards. And one would expect clear processes about handling potential xeno-biological contamination – not to simply allow the crew to wonder off for sexy-time.

No chain of command or teambuilding The team had no clear idea who was in charge. And having such an important team meeting one another for the first time in another solar system is insane. Everyone needs to be comfortable working together before going to meet alien races.

No data collection or analysis The crew woke up shortly before landing on the planet. This is a place that has been waiting millenia – there is no harm orbitting a few times collecting data. Or maybe sending the mapping probes into the caves before a full team follows. Take your time to gather information and think about the next step rather than blundering forward because you're stressed or excited.  

Undefined roles Several of the team didn't know what they were doing there – why was the geologist in the first team when he didn't need to be (he also seemed somewhat enthusiastic about rocks – you think he'd have been more excited about the structure of the caves). And those who did have a role were ignored. A security expert is employed for a reason – if he says you're taking guns then no-one else should overrule him except a clear superior. Domain experts should have authority over their domain.

Quite frankly, the crew of the Prometheus were a shabbily organised embarrassment to the human race. It is a good thing that real life companies run more efficiently than this. 

Are You Experienced? – my favourite book about India

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It is probably best to arrive in India when feeling calm and rested, after a good night's sleep. Unfortunately, after a 14 hour flight, I'm not generally at my best.

The first time I landed in India, a couple of years ago, it was a shock. Delhi can feel very hostile to new arrivals. Soon after arriving at Paharganj, the backpacker's quarter, I had to find some rupees to buy bottled water. Dazed, I was swarmed by touts. They could tell I had just arrived and were eager to divert me. I ignored one persistent tout, who worked through a repetoire of openings to get a reaction. He finally came out with "Why don't you go back to your own country".

This year I arrived in India feeling more confident but the start of a long trip always makes me nervous. To relax myself as I queued for immigrations, I started to re-read Are You Experienced. This is my favourite book about travelling in India. I originally read it before my first trip and it was more interesting and thought-provoking than the numerous worthy texts by white BBC journalists.

In re-reading I recognised many of the misconceptions I had on my first trip. The book is scathing about travellers, questioning the reasons why people travel to India, skewering traveller stereotypes and laying out the stages tourists go through when trying to understand a country as complicated as India.

The novel follows Dave, a gap-year student. Dave decides, on a whim, to visit India with his best friend's girlfriend, the insufferable Liz. Dave finds India difficult to deal with and has various encounters and misadventures. Without being didactic, Dave's encounters illustrate some interesting points about travelling in India.

The book discusses the temptation to develop 'theories of India', with the travellers competing with each other over their interpretations. At one point, Dave decides that he most enjoys travelling between locations, where he is not hassled by touts but instead ends up sharing food with other people on the train. "I had assumed that travelling was the crap bit you had to tolerate in order to get to the places that you wanted to see,  but it occurred to me that maybe the places were the shit bits that you had to tolerate to do the travelling".

Among the jokes and clever observations are some excellent points. When a train breaks down, Dave seeks the company of the only white person he can see, who turns out to be a Reuters journalist. The conversation goes badly as Dave is mocked for having no idea about the current political situation in India, or what Congress or the BJP are. When Dave defends himself by saying that he doesn't have to revise for his holidays, he comes off second best.  The journalist's resulting rant is fantastic, attacking the idea of treating India as a character-building exercise, a more exotic alternative to mountaineering or running a marathon.

The book also contains an epic dysentry scene which acts as the Campbellian crossing of the threshold. There is also this particular quote towards the end:

"I'd never been jealous of the older travellers before, because most of them were such transparent social failures. The people in their 30s who were still trudging around India had so obviously cocked-up their entire lives that there wasn't much to be jealous of."

I didn't read much of the novel before we were through immigration, finishing it in the hotel that night. Bangalore was peaceful compared to Delhi. We checked into the hotel without problems then helped a German tourist to find the station. I am an older and more experienced person than I was on my first visit.