Archive for the 'traveller’s tales' Category

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

When I was a young man in the late 80s, for reasons to convoluted to go into, I was a regular drinker at a local social club for Polish people who’d come over to the UK in the war. I got to know several colourful characters; one was Jan, an old man with highly idiosyncratic English and smile lines etched deep into his face, who carried in his wallet a photograph of his handsome younger self in Polish millitary uniform and who had stabbed several SS officers to death. Another was an elderly lady whose name was Marta who had her Auschwitz number tattooed on her arm.

Both of them are almost certainly dead now, but I was thinking of them as I’m in Krakow, Poland with a free day before a meet-up tonight, I decided to visit Aushwitz. (I went with Krakow Shuttle, who picked me up and dropped me at my hotel for 120PLN (about £25), including all admission fees, a very knowledgeable English-speaking guide and a simple packed lunch).

As a site, Auschwitz 1 is unremarkable – almost banal. It was built originally by the Poles as a military barracks, and that’s what it looks like: nothing sinister except for the famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the entrance, the electrified barbed wire and the gas chamber.

The banality of the exterior makes exhibits in the blocks even more shocking. The mountain of human hair (7000 tonnes were found, apparently) that the SS were selling to industry for 50 pfennigs a kilo for stuffing sofas and making socks made several of our party cry. The mountain of prosthetic limbs, shoes, cooking pots, toothbrushes and childrens’ toys are almost too hard to look at.

Even after that, nothing prepares you for the gas chamber – much larger than I’d expected – and the crematoria. To stand in a place where hundreds of thousands were murdered, to look up at daylight coming through the vents through which the Zyklon B was poured is …. well, I don’t know what it is. Such unimaginable horror took place in that room, and you can feel it.

Auschwitz 2, Birkenau, is a 5 minute drive away. It must be the bleakest place on Earth – flat, featureless, cold, muddy, windswept, just a train track through the middle where the cattle trucks rolled in, surrounded by barracks. We stood where the selections took place, and then walked the same route that countless disabled, elderly, sick people, children and pregnant women walked, directly from selection to destruction.

There’s a bleak monument in between the ruins of the two gas chambers and crematoria (the Germans blew them up to try to hide their crimes as the Red Army advanced). Surrounding the monument are plaques, with a central message translated into multiple languages: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and warning to humanity, where the nazis murdered about one and a half million men women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe”.

That’s the terrible thing – “a warning to humanity”. As we drove around Krakow, I saw at least three crossed-out stars of David sprayed on to walls. And, in my lifetime, we’ve seen the killing fields of Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the genocide in Rwanda and Darfur.

It’s a warning that continues to go unheeded.


Netherlands, Norway, UK, Poland

Phew. It’s been a full few weeks with lots of conference talks and travel.

First was Over the Air 2011, on a beautiful summer-like day in Bletchley Park. I spoke on how to make sites that work well across devices in a presentation called Web Anywhere: Mobile Optimisation With HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript.

Next week saw me jetting off to Amsterdam for Fronteers 2011. This has, I think, become the best conference in Europe; the level of talks is high (the audience has a disproportionate number of working group members, high-profile developers and all-round smart people, never mind the speakers!) and the fact that Fronteers is not allowed to make a profit means that they can keep it cheap. I confess to being a bit nervous for my talk — the topic they gave me of “HTML5 semantics” doesn’t exactly cause your average web developer to moisten his seat with enthusiasm, but it was a single-track conference so I didn’t find myself alone in a hall while eveyone went to hear Lea Verou on gradient sexiness instead.

As well as looking at some of the new semantics, I wonder whether we need more than the current spec allows, then wonder whether semantics matter anyway (tl,dr: yes, they do) and suggest that, if you’re just squirting obfuscated JavaScript down a line with no real semantics, and targetting one single rendering engine, you’re really just reinventing Flash but with the browser as the plugin. This follows some of my recent posts such as Future friendly, or Forward to Yesterday?, HTML5, hollow demos and forgetting the basics and the toe-tappin’ Web Standards Hoedown.

Anyhow, I must have done something right as 99,000 people have viewed the slides on slideshare in 3 weeks. (Slides: You too can be a bedwetting antfucker). Here’s the video:

Those nice people at Fronteers have transcribed the video, too.

By clever planning, I flew home from Amsterdam on Saturday in order to fly to Norway on Sunday (via Amsterdam). I was there to MC the Frontend conference where the organisers used large stand-up cartoons of me to entice the Oslo ladies in.

bruce with lifesize caricature

Frontend had one of the weirdest conference parties I’ve been to; we sat in an ex-church, drinking red wine and beer and listened to Oslo’s leading Norwegian-language Calypso band.

From the conference, I went by taxi an Opera event for journalists where I was tasked with stopping the journos becoming mutinous or falling into jetlag slumber during a 20 minute bus ride from their hotel to a restaurant. Rather than sing the Web Standards Hoedown without Ukelele or hippie, I was able to finally realise a long-held ambition of doing a completely fictional bus tour. On our way to downtown Oslo, I was therefore able to point out to my increasingly incredulous fellow-travellers the summer palace of King Gustav The Mad, the high school that was long believed to be the only Norwegian building visible from space and the very tree in which John Lennon wrote Norwegian Wood.

A full three days elapsed before I travelled down to Lahndahn to do a guest Q&A talk at a Kazing HTML5 training course (lots of questions about DART, privacy on the Web and Web vs Native) and then the next day, an overview of HTML5 at HTML5 Live where I pissed on a few bonfires by pointing out

  • HTML5 is nothing to do with mobiles
  • a website that is ugly and full of nonsensical jargon remains so even if sprinkled with HTML5 fairydust
  • a site that fulfills an organisational need rather than user need remains a vanity turd even if sprinkled with HTML5 fairydust

Narrowly avoiding a lynch party, I escaped up the M11 with Jake Archibald where we boarded a RyanAir flight to Krakow in Poland to speak at the inaugural Frontrow conference. Poland is super country, and Krakow seems a delightful city from my brief walks around its pretty centre.

I was also thrilled, on learning that it’s pronounced “Crack Off”, to find this mini-guide to the city in my room:

book called 'Crack Off in your pocket'

Full marks to Mariusz, Olga and the rest of the organising committee for a really great line-up mixing Polish and foreign speakers. Congratulations to my old chum Patrick Lauke on his first conference keynote The once and future web. I spoke about HTML5 Multimedia to a small group of people at 9 am on the second day (the day after the conference party, which went on til 6 am!).

After an eventful return flight which arrived 4 hours late (and meant at least that RyanAir couldn’t play their stupid arrival fanfare), I spoke at a conference of 148 venture capitalists and other investors organised by UBS – and I wasn’t even wearing cuff-links!

Just two more talks this year – one at Staffordshire Universtity and one at Heart and Sole in Portsmouth on 18 November, and I’ll be attending two events for my own training – Full Frontal and Seb Lee-Delisle’s Creative JavaScript training in Leeds.

Big down under

My global tour continues, and I’ve moved from Tokyo to Australia, where I’m touring Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane with organiser and all-round-great-bloke Roger Hudson and The Mighty Steve Faulkner, for the Web Industry Professionals Association. We’re talking HTML5 and WAI-ARIA. (So far, there are a few places left for Perth and Brisbane: book here.)

I’m very much enjoying Aus. It feels like England done right: good weather, laid-back attitude and fabulous hot-pants (not me, obviously). The only downside is the vast pantheon of comically venomous creatures that lurk round every corner. In Canberra I was even warned about evil swooping magpies.

The tour so far has been great; sell-out crowds and really, really clued-up (“cluey”) attendees and great people like Russ Weakley, Ruth Ellison who I’ve long admired but never met.

The flight from Canberra to Melbourne yesterday was somewhat fraught; we took off two hours late due to what was variously reported as “mechanical trouble”, “bad weather in Melbourne” and “a catering mishap that was particularly unpleasant”. (At least it wasn’t exploding engines.) On arrival the doors wouldn’t open and the fuselage rocked as the ground staff attempted to bash the doors open with the airbridge. We arrived at the venue with only minutes to spare.

Now I’m having a weekend (shifted forward by a day as I fly to Perth on Sunday morning) in Melbourne with my old and dear friend Pippa. We’ve already seen a park full of flying foxes and are off to see Kangawallabats at the zoo tomorrow. Tonight I’m cooking us pork stirfry noodles and gyoza and there is a case of beer to drink.

The oil’s sizzling. Gotta go.

Notes on the usability of Japanese toilets

There are times when even as a seasoned traveller you can feel pretty vulnerable. For example, breakfast: I’m happy to tuck into raw mackeral as an evening meal, but there’s something about it for breakfast that is so unexpected that it takes you aback.

I’ve had similar double-takes with Japanese toilets. I went to Satoshi and Akane’s house for a lovely meal and, as you do after lots of soup and beer, felt the natural urge to micturate. Although they have a lavish toilet control panel (all of them do) I couldn’t work out how to flush.

control panel with many Japanese buttons

After asking my gracious hosts, I learned that it was activated by a sensor: just wave your hand near it and it’s flush. This is in contrast with the toilet in my hotel room, whose control panel had English language controls, and squirted water up my bum and around my bum at user-selectable strength (below), but didn’t seem to have a flush button.

control panel with stop, shower,bidet, preparation and strength controls

I eventually located a traditional manual flush on the opposite side of the toilet bowl, and satisfactorily dismissed my ablutions.

Most Japanese toilets have heated seats, which is pleaant but odd when alone in a hotel room as you can’t help but wonder who has snuck in to poo while you were cleaning your teeth. Many flush for an inordinately long time automatically the instant you sit down; I’m told so that this means that people outside the door can’t to hear the sound of ladies urinating, as it’s masked by the flushing sound. I suppose that if you’re bashful about exposing the fact that ladies pee (they do, you know!) this would be a useful solution in a traditional thin-walled Japanese house in which sound would travel easily.

This theory might be borne out by the testimony of a lady attendee of the Web Directions East conference who told me that each ladies’ loo in the conference venue (consequent apologies for lack of photo) has a button marked “flushing sound” that played a loud recording of the sound of flushing, presumably to preserve ladies’ modesty but also conserve water.

(@johnmcc sent a photo of a loo with a “flushing sound” button.)

Talking of water conservation, the apotheosis of lavatorial environmental responsibility was witnessed in my colleague Daniel’s apartment. On flushing the toilet (a laudably easily accomplished action, I might add), the tap on a small sink mounted above the cistern started automatically. I washed my hands and wondered how to turn the tap off. Then the brilliance of the design hit me: instead of re-filling a closed cistern, the washbasin drained the soapy water into the reservoir below, thereby flushing the toilet with the grey water that the previous visitor had washed his/ her hands in while simultaneously saving space in the compact Tokyo dwelling.

toilet with wash-basin mounted on cistern

Genius. If I could work out a way to import them and sell them in the UK I’d make a million.

First impressions of Tokyo

As I wearily stepped off a plane in which I’d been sandwiched between the two fattest Germans since Goering for ten chuckle-filled hours, my first sight outside the airport was the smiling visage of Web Directions organizer and all-round nice guy John Allsopp, who assisted me on the 70kms journey to my posh Ginza hotel.

Like two years ago when I travelled to Jakarta for the first time, I was weirded out by how familiar it felt: the elevated roads, skyscrapers and purposeful crowds reminded me of the four years in spent in Bangkok.

Just like two years ago, it was extra-strange when I realized that I had no language. I’m fluent in Thai, so it’s immensely frustrating not to be able to speak to people here.

Of course, after the superficial feeling of familiarity, the differences became apparent. The streets aren’t full of pot holes. The food is very different. There are ten bajilion vending machines where n Thailand there would be noodle vendors. The toilet in my hotel has more controls than the bridge of the starship enterprise. It’s not all different though: the women are, like Thai and Indonesian women, jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

The Japan-resident HTML5 Doctor, Oli, picked me up and we rode a pleasantly non-crowded train to Satoshi’s house, where I’m drinking a very welcome cold Kirin beer before dinner and writing this on John’s iPad.

I’ve wanted to visit Tokyo for twenty years and now I’m finally here. Yay!


A couple of HTML5 articles

We haven’t met for a while here, but I haven’t just been sitting around eating chocolates and watching the Jeremy Kyle Show.

I spoke at Over The Air, and met Sir Tim Berners-Lee who asked me to sign a copy of Introducing HTML5 that I gave him (swoon!).

I’ve written HTML5: The Facts And The Myths with Remy for Smashing Magazine, which has attracted lots of comments.

I’ve also done an interview with Remy (the editors have edited me to call him “Sharp” throughout, as though we were both pupils at Eton or something) in which we say crazy things like “you don’t have to use canvas, and you don’t have to immediately switch to HTML5”. It’s called HTML5: The 900-Page Gorilla with a Wide Ensemble.

A nice review of our book was published by Peter Steen Høgenhaug, noting that we “relate every part of HTML5 to accessibility”, which is great as that’s exactly what we set out to do.

I spent last week in Stockholm, giving 4 presentations, checking out the marvellous Vasa Museum and autographing a copy of our book with a picture of a unicorn and a double rainbow (Unicorns, butterflies, ribbons, rainbows & fluffy kittens feature on page 35 of the book).

And there are still quite a few talks to give before the end of 2010!

Turkey, and old friends

My family and I had 10 days in Hisarönü, near Fethiye where I used to live in the early 90s. The resort itself was as I remembered it: a depressing mass of restaurants offering “full English breakfasts with real pork sausage!” but the hotel had a swimming pool, the mountains gave some cooling breeze, and it was easy to get to Fethiye, Ölüdeniz or the melancholy beauty of the deserted Greek village, Kayaköy.

I tracked down my old friend Asiye, who taught me lots of Turkish in 1993, and who I hadn’t seen since the year 2000 when we bumped into each other, utterly by chance, in the street in Bangkok. (Her Fethiye clothing shop, Şaman, has the strapline “there are no coincidences”.)

I think we can safely say that in 17 years neither Asiye nor I have changed one jot. Then:

Asiye and me, on the beach at night, Fethiye, Turkey 1994


Asiye, Şaman shop, Paspatur, Fethiye

And I’m delighted that there was no reason for my earlier holiday trepidation.

Holiday trepidation

It’s with some trepidation that I look forward to my holiday soon.

There’s the usual worry of booking a package tour—will the hotel be as nice as it seemed on the Web? will the transfer taxi be there? (Actually, I only imagine these are the “usual” worries; we’ve never done a package before).

But I have an extra worry. The last time I visited this town was in 1993 -1995 when I lived there, working as a musician and tarot card reader, and I left because I was run out of town.

The story goes like this.

Opposite the bar that I was working in was a small area where three female students would spread out a cloth on the floor which they covered with hippie jewellry that they’d made in the hope of selling it to tourists. During the quiet parts of the day I’d hang with them, and we’d smoke cigarettes and improve our command of each others’ languages. As occasionally happened when I was young and slim, one of the girls and I became especially friendly.

Towards the end of the season, I was playing my guitar in the bar, and an well-dressed gentleman in his early 40s came and stood by my stool as I took off my guitar for my smoke-beer-pee break. This often happened; people came up to request favourite songs for the the next set. He waited while I carefully put the plectrum under the corner of the scratchplate and put the guitar securely on its stand. And then he punched me in the face.

As I regained verticality, I asked him why he’d done that. “For sleeping with my wife”, he replied. I assured him that he was mistaken, and pointed out my girlfriend who was looking horrified and backing towards the door rather than racing forward to cradle me in her arms. “Yes, he replied. That’s my wife.”

Ignorance is no defence and although true, objecting that that she had neglected to inform me of her nuptial status was unlikely to mollify him. But he didn’t come back with a follow-up punch but instead walked out of the bar, leaving two of his friends behind who very politely informed me that the usual penalty for wronging someone’s honour in such a way is to stab them in the buttocks. The reason is that there are no major blood vessels there, so the victim is very unlikely to die. However, it’s the largest muscle in the body so would take months to heal and lying down, sitting or walking would be agony. It was emphasised that if I were to remain in town more than one night, this might very well happen to me.

I left the next morning for Istanbul.

Seventeen years later, I suspect that none of the protagonists still live there. And I suspect that the years have suitably transformed me from the slim, bronzed beach bum that I was then into an unrecognizable and expanded figure.

But if I’m back early, after begging for a standby ticket at the airport, you’ll know why.


I think I’m a little bit in love with Poland.

In the late eighties, I lived opposite a portakabin that was a Polish Club. Somehow I became a member and got to know the old Poles who would go drinking there at weekends. There was an old lady who had a tattoo on her arm from Auschwitz. Jan, the wizened old man who collected the glasses had a photo of himself in his wallet, taken in his Polish Air Force clothing, standing in front of a bi-plane. Over a few Okocim beers, he could be persuaded to tell the story of how, as a resistance partisan, he killed several Nazi soldiers. As we got more drunk, attempting to go across the 14 optics of vodka behind the bar, all the Poles would break out into patriotic songs and tell me how they were looking forward to seeing the homeland again once communism fell.

So, when I was invited to come to speak at the first SparkUp! conference, I jumped at the chance. With a freshly-minted presentation on Web Development 2.0, I arrived in Poznan on Monday afternoon with Remy, Ribot, Andy Budd, Yaili and Matt Biddulph.

Our hosts, Piotr and Krzysztof took us around the postcard-pretty old town of Poznan before a typical Polish dinner (pork-coma ensued) and a few beers.

The day of the conference was organisational perfection in a great modern venue (and this was the first time they’d done a conference!) and then it was party time: lots of Cheeky Bison (Żubrówka and apple juice) and murderous other shots.

Yesterday, I really meant to return to the old town with my camera. But a hangover the size of Gdansk forced me to spend hours in the beautiful 4 saunas, jacuzzi and swimming pool in my hotel.

So, thanks for having me, Poland. The vodka is amazing, the women are beautiful (please address your comments “dear sexist bastard”) and the locals friendly and clueful. I hope to see you again soon.


Thailand: the reds and the yellows

The lucky Mrs Lawson is currently in Thailand visiting her parents, while I stay at home and try to prevent the kids seeing news reports of twenty dead in Bangkok.

The current crop of trouble-makers are the Red Shirts – supporters of ousted and exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Shinawatra is a deeply unpleasant scumbag businessman turned politico. After his election, a programme of extra-judicial killings of suspected drug-dealers was ordered, with many photos appearing in the press of bodies shot at close range through the back of the head while miraculously resisting arrest while they had their hands and feet tied.

A raid on a mosque in muslim Southern Thailand left 50 prisoners dead after they had been stacked like logs on the back of lorries in the heat for hours. Thaksin said that it was the mens’ fault for weakening themselves through the Ramadan fast.

So there’s nothing to love about Mr Thaksin, except… except… he was elected by a landslide, was the first Thai Prime Minister to serve a full term. He introduced a range of policies that reduced rural poverty by half in four years, the country’s first universal healthcare program, and his re-election in 2005 had the highest voter turnout in Thai history. He was ousted by a military coup while overseas allegedly because of corruption (which he almost certainly was; corruption is epidemic in Thai politics). That’s the trouble with democracy, you see; sometimes, the people vote for idiots or villains.

The group opposing the Red Shirts, the PAD (Yellow Shirts), are the group that shut down Bangkok airport in 2008, causing incalculable damage to the Thai economy during the peak season. They are widely believed to be supported by the Queen and represent the elite of the country—the traditional old guard of aristocracy. Wikipedia sums it up perfectly:

“The Asian Human Rights Commission has noted of the PAD and their agenda that, ‘although they may not describe themselves as fascist, have fascist qualities.’ Citing the claimed failure of popular democracy in Thailand, the PAD has suggested constitutional amendments that would make Parliament a largely royally-appointed body. It has openly called for the military and Thailand’s traditional elite to take a greater role in politics”.

What the whole sorry situation shows is that while Bangkok is a primate city full of millionaires, Porsche cars, skyscrapers and aircon shopping malls, the rural poor in Thailand (most of the people) are as marginalised as ever. The traditional elite pretended a romantic idolisation of the farmers while either ignoring or despising them (much like Russian communists’ relationship with their peasantry), so the poor had to look to a nasty, authoritarian telecoms billionaire to hurl them some cash to buy their votes.

Meanwhile, we hope that my wife makes it safely back home before some idiots shut down the airport again.