31 December 2010

Expressions of London

At the last count there were people from 160 countries in London, the city state the world can call home.  Collectively they speak 300 languages and a quarter of the population was born outside the UK.  Here are some of the expressions of London, all caught on camera by photographer Steve Punter.  Please visit his Flickr photostream where you will find literally thousands of stunning photographs. You can also visit his website. From here, we will let the pictures do the talking.

The Secret Life of the Banjo

Over at Neatorama there is a very interesting article about the history of the Banjo.  This humble instrument has had a rather interesting history, to say the very least.  The article tracks the banjo's roots from West Africa to, well it had to be included, its inclusion in the movie Deliverance

It also gives us here at Kuriositas a fine excuse to find and show the above picture of a banjo playing young chap - courtesy of Flickr user Steve Punter.  He has some wonderful portraits on his photostream, including some very striking ones of Sir Ian McKellen (or Serena as we call him in the UK!).  Click on the picture to get to the Neatorama article.

30 December 2010

Kuriositas - The Top Ten of 2010

Kuriositas will be one year old in March 2011. In response to recent emails we have decided to present the top ten Kuriositas posts in a single feature, with some statistics to go with them.  To explain, people have been asking what constitutes a hit in terms of hits.  In other words what is the recipe for lots of people rushing to your website?

It's an answer with a question mark (thanks Duran Duran) to be frank.  Some articles I expected to do well did just that (hurrah and shots of Sailor Jerry all round!).  Others (on which I spent many hours) sank without a trace. Then there were some which I expected to get a handful of hits which went on to inexplicable nettie hugeness.  So, here is the Kuriositas Top Ten story of 2010.  The posts are in descending order of the number of hits they received up to the time of this going live.  If you would like to see the original posts, click on the titles below.

10 - I Am Borg: The World's First Officially Recognized Cyborg

This was the story of artist and musician Neil Harbisson.  Born in 1982 to a British father and a Spanish mother he was diagnosed in his childhood with achromatopsia.  This is a syndrome that has links to five separate diseases but for Harbisson it meant that he could only see the world in black and white.

In his second year at the college he attended a cybernetics lecture given by Adam Montandon, who was a student at Plymouth University.  After introducing himself to Montandon and explaining his condition the pair started to work on what became known as the eyeborg project.

The popularity of this post came completely out of the blue. All in all it received..

54,428 Pageviews

This was a surprise hit, but on reflection perhaps not that surprising. I like to rummage around Vimeo (everyone has to have a hobby) and one day I came across this gem which had received next to now views. It tells a familiar story which resonated with a lot of Kuriositas' readers.  Created by teenage animator Alex Heller this remarkable piece of animation really captured the imagination of many.  A day or so after Kuriositas highlighted it, the animation hit the blogosphere with a vengeance, garnering Ms Heller a lot of new fans from around the world.

55,138 Pageviews

8 - Hakone - Japan's Amazing Open Air Museum

Close to both Tokyo and Mount Fuji the small town of Hakone holds something of a revelation.  However, unless you are from Japan, you may well not have heard of it.  The town plays host to a large open air museum where the works of many famous artists are held - outdoors.  It is an attempt (and a successful one) to balance art and nature in harmony.  The artworks, combined with the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains give the visitor an unforgettable experience.

74,174 Pageviews

So far no particular trend.  However, the Hakone museum post is one of several museums I wrote about this year.  Although this is the only one featured in the Top Ten, the others posts did well too...

They Ajanta caves lay undisturbed for hundreds of years.  Then, in April 1819, during the time of the British Raj, an officer with the unassuming name of John Smith came rediscovered a doorway to one of the temples.  He had been hunting tiger – something of which many would disapprove today but his next step was disrespectful in the extreme.  He vandalised one of the walls with his name and the date, something which is still visible today.

Now, this does begin a trend.  You will notice that there are no less than five places featured in the top ten (six if you count Hakone Museum).  Although I had no real intention to start a travel blog, these are the posts that have done very well.  However, it should be pointed out that these places mostly have something quite bizarre going on, geologically or architecturally.  Still, Ajanta has still not quite made it over the 100K mark, coming in at...

97,187 Pageviews
Although this wonderful short movie perplexed people as much as it gave them pleasure it turned out to be an unexpected hit for the site.  Again it was found as a result of my incessant rummaging through Vimeo.  It also goes to show that you do not have to spend weeks and weeks preparing posts to get a very healthy amount of hits.

118,776 Pageviews

Matamata in New Zealand was the place chosen to film the Hobbiton scenes of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy of movies.  After the film was finished the farm upon which the Hobbit village was created asked if some of the hobbit homes could remain to serve as an additional tourist attraction to the area.

I wrote this post when I discovered that the sheep had effectively taken over the site.  As a fairly outraged LoTR fan(atic) I simply had to point this out to the world!  You understand, surely?  Some people did - the post received

130,054 Pageviews

4 - Fly Geyser - Not Quite Out of This World

The geyser can be found in Hualapai Valley near Gerlach, Nevada. It is a little seen phenomenon as the land upon which it sits is private. It can be seen from State Road 34 but unless you have permission the view from a distance is all you should attempt.

This is a recent post and is still doing the business (as it were) so I fully expect the hits to go higher.  However, I think people liked this post because the geyser is on private land and very hard to get to - plus not many photographers have taken pictures of it.  I had to get special permission from a number of Flickr members to reproduce their pictures. It is something worth doing if you cannot find Creative Commons pictures.  A polite email requesting permission can obviously result in a negative reply but often photographers are happy for some of their images to be used (and you will have to be very specific) if you link to their website (the power of backlinks!).

130,553 Pageviews

3 - The Mysterious Moeraki Boulders

If you go down to Koekohe beach in New Zealand you can be sure of a big surprise. In front of you, scattered like enormous marbles from some long abandoned game between giants, are hundreds of giant spherical rocks. Or are they the egg shells of sea-born dragons? The Moeraki boulders present us with a mystery – what are they and how on earth did they get there?

This was a surprise hit.  The Moeraki boulders are featured on many sites on the internet and so my expectations were not high in terms of hits.  However, just after I first started Kuriositas, a friend suggested that I should have called the site Sh*t That I Like as I was blithely posting non-commercial articles because the subject matter gave me pleasure rather than in the expectation of a zillion hits.  It is something I still keep in mind.  If I like something, then perhaps there are others who will too.

Of course, the spectacular images help too.  I am not precious about my writing - I am never going to be the next Dickens or Shakespeare (alas, alack and so on) but I do realise that our culture (locally and globally) is becoming more visual by the hour.  The photographs I use are very carefully selected for maximum visual impact. Sometimes it pays off.

237,822 Pageviews

2 - The Lady and the Reaper

An old lady is nearing the end of her days and she longs to be with the husband she has lost.  So, when death pays her a visit on night in the form of a rather comical Grim Reaper then she touches his extended hand without fear.  Only, she has not considered that a meddlling doctor on our side of the great divide will decide that she must be resuscitated .

Again, this post surprised me.  Again, it was just an animation I knew and adored.  Share what you like and your enthusiasm for it and the returns can astonish (not to mention bewilder). Well, there is a new word.  When something does better than you expect, you are necessarily bestonished.

240,071 Pageviews

1 - Lofoten -Arctic Circle Anomaly

The archipelago of Lofoten in Norway is north of the Arctic Circle.  Yet throughout the year it has temperatures which belie its position.  This is because of the largest positive temperature anomaly in the world relative to latitude.  It makes Lofoten an unexpected delight – its early settlers must have thought they had stumbled across an arctic paradise.

I almost did not write about Lofoten.  I wasn't sure whether people would want to read about a place which is so far off the beaten track.  However, I then remembered that hits are not why I write - I write on the subject of things that  have drawn my attention - and this place most certainly did that. As it happened I am glad I followed my instincts.  The post I almost didn't write got the most hits for a single article since the blog started.

358,640 Pageviews

Other Stats and Stuff

The page tabs at the top of the site were something that I took a while to implement (sheer laziness, I guess).  I should have done it earlier.  The animation tab on its own has had 67,310 Pageviews. OK, that's the top hitting page tab but it made the time and effort worthwhile.  I just wish I could get someone else to update them!

Top Referring Sites

So, this is where the hits come from.  I am not going to include percentages or numbers here but these are the top ten sites for Kuriositas (with the biggest referer first).
  1. Stumbleupon: some I submit myself.  Very nice SU users do the rest (and those posts submitted by others have been the big hitters. I sometimes have to stop myself from doing it and wait for others to discover them.  I am very impatient and this is something I have to work on!).
  2. Reddit - very much as above.  Those posts submitted by Redditors I do not know do significantly better than those I submit myself.
  3. LinkWithin (the links to other articles on the site at the bottom of each post).  Nice feature - and worthwhile setting up, self evidently. Also shows thatpeople are willing to explore a site's content if it is put on a plate for them.
  4. Meneame: As far as I can see this is a Spanish version of Reddit/Digg. I have no idea who submits links from Kuriositas to Meneame but my love for them is eternal.
  5. Terra: Another Spanish site.  This is a huge magazine type site and Kuriositas posts have been included occasionally on their best of the web section.
  6. Google: Never underestimate the search engines.  I take a lot of time tagging my posts correctly.  Nice bots!
  7. Facebook: Most of the big bloggers I talk to (whose daily hits are about what I get in a year!) are saying that the social media site is the way forward.  This is the first year for many that FB has appeared in their top ten and it is a definite upward trend.  So, start up a FB page!
  8. Wykop: A Polish site very much like Digg or Reddit. Dzien dobry, dziekuje!
  9. Notcot: An excellent links based arts site - has featured Kuriositas about a dozen times this year.
  10. Neatorama: One of the consistently best magazine style uber blogs of the internet

This is something of a surprise to me as I had no idea that my audience was so largely US based!  Although the other countries' hits number in the tens of thousands when looked at as a percentage it really puts things in to perspective!
  1. US - 72% (gasp)
  2. Canada - 8%
  3. Spain - 7%
  4. United Kingdom - 7%
  5. Australia - 2%
  6. Germany - 2%
  7. Poland - 1%
  8. Mexico - 1%
  9. Netherlands - 0.3%
  10. Ireland - 0.3%

So a great big thank you to all the readers of Kuriositas but particularly to our friends in the US.

You are probably bored now.  I must say I can feel a creeping ennui here myself. So, end of post!

Other Image Credits
Neil Harbisson

The Light of Life

I would be a liar if I said that I completely understood what is going on in this wonderful, mesmerising animation, so suffice it to say that it struck me as something appropriate for this time of year.

As 2010 comes to its inevitable point of termination the thoughts of many turn to what might happen in 2011.  A new year is often a time when people decide to start things again, stop things again and generally contemplate what they can do to alter their existence during the next 365 days.

This lovely short directed by Daihei Shibata is contemplative and relaxing. Plus it has the added bonus of having a Debussy soundtrack - in this case Clair de Lune which you will no doubt recognise.  It is just a super piece of animation - make of it what you will and take from it what you will.

I'm a Monster

Although this is a taster for a longer production, this short animation by Headless Productions stands up very well on its own. It is the story of a suburban family - much like any other family with one exception.  Dad is a monster - a real monster.

As a taster this really promises a lot - and I for one would like to see a lot more very soon!  In terms of the look and mood of the film and the characters I was reminded a little of some of the Disney features of the fifties and sixties, such as The Aristocats.  Yet the dialogue is very punchy and contemporary and both come together in a remarkably good fit.

So, ladies and gentlemen of Headless Productions - can we have some more please?

29 December 2010

The Laconia Incident - Now Dramatised as The Sinking of the Laconia by Alan Bleasdale

The Atlantic Ocean can be an unforgiving place at the best of times.  During the Second World War, combatants on both sides were at peril both from the ocean and the enemy.  On 12 September 1942, the British ship RMS Laconia, which was armed, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat 156.

Yet that was not the end of the story.  What unfolded was a remarkable tale of heroism and events both remarkable and ultimately truly unfortunate for many of those involved.  The U-boat surfaced, its commander hoping to capture the senior crew of the ship.  The horrified crew instead saw over 2000 people in the water. 

The Germans had not known that they had just destroyed a PoW ship. The survivors of the sinking were six hundred miles from the coast of Africa.  There were over sixty British civilians and over 400 British and Polish troops.  Their cargo had been a strange one – 1800 Italian prisoners of war.  The first irony of the situation then, was that the German U-boat had imperilled many of its own allies.

The survivors faced a certain and protracted watery death.

Then, the U-Boat commander Werner Hartenstein (left), made an extraordinary decision that went beyond all protocol.

He ordered the U-boat to surface he ordered his submariners to save as many of the marooned survivors as possible.

This act of humanity would save the lives of many hundreds of people.  Yet the tragedy of the Laconia was not over yet.
Over the course of forty eight hours the crew of the U-156 saved over 400 people. Yet the sheer numbers created a new problem.  200 could be crammed aboard and atop of the submarine – yet the remainder had to be towed behind in a series of lifeboats strung together.  Hartenstein gave orders – he asked for a communiqué to be sent to the Allies requesting a rescue ship.

His message was plain and simple.  Broadcast on the 25 meter band in clear English it said “If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack providing I am not being attacked by ship or air forces. I picked up 193 men. 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West. ― German submarine.”  He continued to rescue more survivors after the message was sent, including 5 women.

The French Vichy government dispatched two warships from Senegal. The U-boat was then joined by two others German submarines (U-506 and U-507) and an Italian one, the Cappellini.  With the four submarines, their gun decks draped in Red Cross flags headed towards the rendezvous point.  The survivors on the top decks of the submarines were bewildered but no doubt happy to be alive.

This story on its own would be remarkable enough.  Yet fate had a cruel twist in store.  

The U-Boat and its strange cargo were spotted by an American B-24 bomber on the morning of 16 September. It radioed its base Commander, Captain Robert C Richardson who then had to make the hardest decision of his life.

The U-boats, to anyone not fully aware of the situation, would have been seen to be behaving in a highly suspicious manner.  First and foremost the rules of war did not allow a combat ship to fly Red Cross flags so the fact that the U-boats were doing this was extremely irregular.  Secondly, their British allies were also fearful of the U-boats, despite the fact they had diverted two of their freighters to the area.  The fear was that the U-boats, carrying so many Italians, would choose to destroy the freighters.

Richardson feared that the secret airfield and fuelling depot on Ascension would also be discovered – and destroyed – by the Germans.  The airfield and its supplies were vital to the Allied war effort in North Africa and Russia.

Richardson ordered Lieutenant James D. Harden, the pilot of the B-24 bomber which had spotted the convoy of submarines back to the area.  It bombed and depth charged the vicinity, one landing among the lifeboats behind U-156, others straddled the submarine.  Hartenstein had no other choice. He cast the survivors adrift and dived to the depths, escaping destruction.

Hundreds of the survivors perished in the attack and its aftermath.  However, the French vessels arrived several hours later and approximately 1,500 of the passengers survived.  The consequences to many were severe – Admiral Donitz of the German Navy forbad any further rescues of crews whose ships had been destroyed.  Although U-boats occasionally disobeyed him, generally they followed his order.

To this day the controversy of the incident persists – how much required assistance and protection should military forces give to non-combatants caught up in sea battles? Several of the combatants and other survivovrs involved give their account of the Laconia Incident below.

The Sinking of the Laconia has been recently made in to a BBC film and will be shown in two parts on Thursday 6 and Friday 7 January 2011. 

Written by Alan Bleasdale it stars Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) who plays Captain Sharp of the Laconia.

Ken Duken plays Commander Werner Hartenstein. Andrew Buchan, Franka Potente and Lindsay Duncan also star in this much awaited adaptation of the story.