Monday, January 31, 2005

I'm very proud of my new Cheetah running prosthesis.

But my prosthetic technician, Andrew Palmer -- who's an amputee and a keen runner -- has gone one better.

He's emblazoned his latest model with the Welsh flag.

I'm suffering from socket envy!


A ripple of activity in the newsroom after the announcement that the Pope has cancelled his private audiences at the Vatican because of flu.

Time to remind myself of those obit coverage plans again.

I don't have the slightest interest in cars.

I like the fact that they mean I don't have to debase myself by taking the bus -- but don't expect to find me drooling over a 255-horsepower, 3.5-litre V-6 engine or the fact that a car generates 430 pounds-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm.

I'm surprised, therefore, to find that I can't get enough of NPR's Car Talk, which was recommended to me by an American couple I met in Nepal.

The show has become the latest weekly must-listen on my iPod. It's a hugely entertaining hour of radio -- even for non-Petrolheads like me.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

This morning, Aileen and I went walking on the trails around Cookham in Berkshire. On the way back we stopped by a village we hadn't visited for a decade.

In 1994, a year after graduating from university, we were starting our climbs up the career ladder. I'd just returned from doing six months voluntary work in the Hebrides when I got word that Tom, my housemate through three years of college, had killed himself.

Tom, an astrophysicist, had begun suffering from incapacitating depression during our final year. He'd spend days lying fully clothed on his bed, unable to function. On occasions he'd disappear for days at a time. Often he'd stay with friends but sometimes he'd check himself into a psychiatric hospital.

We were all too young, and too wrapped up in our impending finals, to know quite what to do to help him.

As his life fractured, Tom's tutors agreed to defer his finals for a year. When the rest of us graduated and left Birmingham contact became sporadic but all the signs were that he was recovering. A year later, he finished his exams and got his degree.

But in August 1994 a friend rang and told me that Tom had taken a fatal overdose. I helped carry the coffin to his grave at Holy Trinity Church in the village of Lane End.

And so, a decade later, we returned to the church. Our memories of that day ten years earlier had faded with time and we weren't sure we'd remember where he was buried. But we managed to find Tom's plot. His grave is marked by a simple wooden cross.

Tom was just 22 when he died.

We considered ourselves adults then but in retrospect we were only kids. So much has happened, both good and bad, since then -- it seems like another lifetime. I couldn't help wondering what he'd think if he'd survived the overdose and was still around today.

He'd probably say it felt like another lifetime too -- but it's a lifetime he never got to see.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

A team of amputees is preparing to cycle from Lands End to John O'Groats in aid of the Limbless Association and the Douglas Bader Foundation.

Follow their progress here.

Friday, January 28, 2005

I'm surprised the blogosphere isn't chattering more about the forthcoming Michael Jackson trial.

The latest celebrity media circus....sorry, Trial of the due to start on Monday. The initial stage, jury selection, alone will take an estimated 6-8 weeks. Thousands of potential jurors are being screened in batches of 150. They'll be whittled down to the 12 good men and true who'll let the King of Pop off.

One of the main problems facing the media is going to be how they report the more sordid and graphic details of Jackson's alleged molesting that are expected to come out during the trial.

It's going to get crazy.
Human Rights Watch calls for a welfare centre for Tibetan refugees in Nepal to be reopened.

The Economist, meanwhile, (subscription required) reports on how the Maoist insurgency is having an "incalcuable" effect on Nepal's children as schools as forced to shut down.

"The implications of this for the country's future are so bleak that it seems it should be in everybody's interests to change it," the Economist notes gloomily.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

My Paralympics partner-in-crime Peter White is just back from California, where he interviewed amputee sprinter and fellow Cheetah-wearer Marlon Shirley.

You can hear Peter's half hour interview -- for his series "No Triumph, No Tragedy" about successful disabled people -- here.
As the US network glamour boys fly into Iraq for brief assignments over the election period, the Washington Post reports that American media outlets are having trouble finding journalists who are prepared to work in Iraq month in, month out.

"A number of people who have spent a good deal of time there have said they've done their time and are not eager to go back," says Tim McNulty of the Chicago Tribune.

The story's not dissimilar on this side of the Atlantic. Some highly experienced journalists are loath to spend long periods of time cooped up in a compound in the Green Zone, unable for security reasons to travel freely around the country to find out what's actually happening, while all the time waiting for an insurgent's mortar shell to blow them sky high.

The freelancers, however, often don't have the luxury of saying no.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Thanks to Nic for drawing my attention to this very clever public service announcement for the UN Mine Action Service.

The International Committee to Ban Landmines also has a glossy new promo.
Charles Haviland in Kathmandu explores gay culture in Nepal.
As I begin my new training regime, I'm inspired by the story of above-knee amputee athlete Sarah Reinersten.

Sarah describes running with the Cheetah leg as like "bouncing on a pogo stick."

Having run my first 2.5 miles on mine yesterday I can concur that's exactly what it feels like.
The latest health bulletin on Frank Gardner:

"Frank is now at home, recovering from major abdominal surgery two weeks ago. He's been feeling weak and tired since the operation, and will be convalescing for about another six weeks. After that, he's hoping to resume his programme of physiotherapy, and to return to work sometime in March."
My colleague Simon Wilson's spat with the Israeli government gets column inches in The Times and The Guardian.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Gave the running leg its first workout this evening.

I'm following a basic training programme with a view to completing my first 10k in a couple of months.

Considering I was trying it out for the first time, the Cheetah responded amazingly well -- and got plenty of admiring (or maybe just frightened) glances from fellow gym-goers.

The leg really did feel almost like the real thing -- flexible, responsive and remarkably comfortable. My hips and right knee started to ache a little after a couple of miles, but I think that's because the muscles need strengthening as much as anything.

It all bodes well.
Thanks to Alex for flagging up this article -- which I've copied into a Word document so you don't have to register -- which was published while I was away.

It says many Muslim tsunami survivors in Aceh don't want to have gangrenous limbs amputated because they believe a person must be physically complete at death to enter paradise.

Looks like I'll be spending the afterlife in purgatory, then.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Now that I'm back in the UK I'm sad to admit I'd be hard pressed to recommend Nepal as a holiday destination to anyone other than the most patient or time-rich tourist.

Don't get me wrong -- I had a fantastic time. The scenery is breathtaking and the fabled Nepalese friendliness and hospitality is delightful.

But the nine year conflict between Maoist insurgents and government forces has left the country teetering on the brink of collapse. As the Economist recently put it:

"The country in no way resembles its seductive image as a hashish-tinged Shangri-La of pagodas and Himalayan treks."

The Maoists, who now control significant sections of the country, roam freely through the villages, extorting "donations" from impoverished residents. In a number of the more remote villages I visited the insurgents had cut the telephone connections, severing all links with the outside world.

While I was in the country Amnesty International issued a report condemning the sharp increase in human rights abuses by both sides since the breakdown of the most recent ceasefire in August 2003.

General strikes and vehicle bans (known locally as a chakka jam, meaning "jam the wheels") regularly bring the entire country to a complete standstill -- although the appalling transport infrastructure keeps Nepal at a near-standstill even when the cars and lorries are allowed on the roads.

Needless to say, all this is putting off tourists in their droves. In the case of the lodge I stayed at in Chitwan National Park, 15 guests cancelled on the day I arrived because the threat of further vehicle stoppages meant they couldn't risk leaving Kathmandu and possibly missing their flights. The lodge, with the its large staff of cooks, cleaners, gardeners and guides was completely empty apart from us. It had all the ambience of a Wild West ghost town.

Nepal is a fascinating and beautiful country. But as my colleague Charles Haviland wrote recently, "in Nepal these days the predominant mood is gloom."
The long hours spent in Nepalese gridlocks meant I was able to crack through a fair few books while I was away. Here's the full reading list:

Love and Death in Kathmandu: A Strange Tale of Royal Murder, Amy Willesee and Mark Whittaker -- A fascinating if somewhat shallow account of the Nepalese Royal Family massacre in 2001. It makes up in readibility what it lacks in depth.

The Beckoning Silence, Joe Simpson -- Simpson tries unsuccessfully to kill himself on the side of a mountain...yet again. Simpson seems to have made a career out of writing the same book about half a dozen times. Give it up, Joe, it's getting tiresome. Take up golf instead.

The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen -- Lonely Planet Nepal describes this as "one of our favourite books." It's certainly not one of mine. Maybe it made sense when it was published in 1979 but a quarter of a century on it reads like the ramblings of an acid casualty who won't leave you alone in a Kathmandu bar. Hippy bullshit.

Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8000-metre Peak, Maurice Herzog -- Herzog's descriptions of festering wounds and the casual amputation of his frostbitten fingers and toes are truly gruesome. I'll stick to the foothills.

Back safe, sound and jetlagged in London. Much more to follow but as I'm just working my way through the holiday photos here's a selection:

Swayambhunath Temple, Kathmandu

Annapurna Range at Sunrise
Atop Poon Hill
Gurung Villager
The Trusty Leg
Trainee Mahout
Elephant Safari, Chitwan National Park

Saturday, January 22, 2005

We've negotiated Maoist strikes and road blocks and are, amazingly, at Kathmandu Airport ahead of time. Only a plane crash can keep us from Heathrow now.

Friday, January 21, 2005

It has taken 12 hours to travel the 100 miles to Kathmandu. Every member of Nepal's Transport Ministry should be publicly shot.
Things took a turn for the warmer when we left the mountains and headed to Chitwan nr the Indian border for a few days rhino spotting. All's well once more.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

24 hellish hours in the lodge that heating forgot, stranded by the Maoist vehicle ban. Stump wrecked by a day's route march in the rain. Happy holidays!

Monday, January 17, 2005

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

this is an audio post - click to play

Saturday, January 15, 2005

this is an audio post - click to play

Friday, January 14, 2005

this is an audio post - click to play

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

After more than six hours of perilous switchbacks and countless near-misses with overburdened Indian Tata trucks we've arrived at the trekking gateway of Pokhara, a thriving and laidback city on the shores of Phewa Lake.

It's a chance to slow down after the bustle of Kathmandu and take advantage of the town's fast internet connection to write something more substantial than an SMS message.

It's just a brief stopover though; First thing tomorrow we leave the city and hit the trail, heading for Birethanti.

During yesterday's tour of Kathmandu I was particularly taken by the phenomenon of Kumari Devi -- the Living Goddess.

The Goddess is chosen after a series of elaborate rituals designed to find a young girl displaying the necessary attributes of physical and spiritual perfection.

As a child, the Kumari is worshipped by King and commoner alike. She appears in public just 13 times a year and her feet are not permitted to touch the ground. However, the Kumari's days as an object of veneration come to an end when she begins her periods -- at which point she becomes an ordinary mortal again and the search for the next Living Goddess begins.

While I was visiting the Kumari's temple, the Kumari Ghar, a pilgrim shouted up at her window, imploring her to make an appearance. One of her handmaidens replied that she couldn't come out because she was in the middle of her lunch.

Being a Living Goddess is obviously hungry work.
In Nepalese culture it's considered very offensive to touch anything or to point with one's feet. It's unclear whether this also applies to one's stump.
Namaste from Kathmandu, one of the most captivating and chaotic places I've ever visited. I'm about to leave the city and head west to Annapurna.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

No sooner am I back from Norway than it's time to go on holiday again.

Tonight I head to Kathmandu and then on to the Annapurna mountain range and Chitwan National Park in Nepal.

Blogging may be patchy but I'm hoping to be able to update via SMS and audioblog while I'm away.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Boston Globe reports on the technology being used to get amputee veterans back on their feet.

A telling graphic highlights the fact that a higher percentage of soldiers have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan than in two World Wars and Korea.

As a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine explained, it's largely a result of the advances in body armour battlefield first aid. Vets who would previously have died from their injuries are now surviving thanks to prompt and effective medical treatment -- but all too often they lose a limb in the process.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Salon looks at Fox News's pisspoor coverage of the tsunami.

When it comes to a global story requiring experienced correspondents working in remote locations around the world, Fox's laughable newsgathering operation just can't cope.

The Cox News Service compares Fox's shaky coverage with CNN's assured performance.

The Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, meanwhile, is appealing for the donation of TV and radio transmitters and equipment to help restore broadcast operations in some of the tsunami-stricken countries.

A gaggle of God-botherers have been cluttering up the pavement outside the office this lunchtime. They're exercising their democratic right to protest against plans to broadcast the West End show "Jerry Springer: The Opera" on BBC Two at the peak childrens' viewing hour of ten o'clock on a Saturday night.

The programme has caused predictable outrage among sections of the Filth Fearing public and the post room is awash in green ink from the letters of complaint written as part of an orchestrated campaign.

You would have though Rupert Murdoch would have welcomed this potential Saturday night ratings boost for his Sky network, as shocked viewers turn off the BBC in their millions. But instead Murdoch's Sun newspaper is leading the furore, ranting about the show's "8000 curses".

But it seems the Sun's profanometer is in need of a new set of batteries, as JSTO creator Stewart Lee explains in today's Telegraph:

"A pressure group called Mediawatch is orchestrating a campaign against the show, which it maintains includes 8,000 swear words, 3,168 of them f---s and 297 of them c---s. There are actually seven c---s in the show - four of them adjectives, and three of them nouns. At the National Theatre, the sentence in which they all appear often received a standing ovation.

"There are, in fact, 117 f---s in the show, all of them sung beautifully by a hugely talented cast, leaving Mediawatch with a shortfall of 3,051 f---s. The Daily Telegraph has gone to the trouble of counting all the swear words in the show and pegs the figure at 451, some 7,549 less than Mediawatch's figure, but I think the organisation must have included category B and C obscenities such as "ass", "poop" and "nipple" to hit this score."
Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown on this day in 1979.

Aki Ra, a former child soldier who set up the Cambodian Landmine Museum in Siem Reap, recalls the days of Pol Pot's despotic rule (thanks for the link, Jane).
The International Committee to Ban Landmines has an update on how the tsunami is affected clearance efforts in Asia.

And one very belated landmine-related link -- just before Christmas I helped set up a BBC interview with actress and campaigner Angelina Jolie. The whole interview is online here.

Fellow Cheetah-user Marlon Shirley's appearance on the CBS Early Show is online here -- with a free-to-access video clip.

(For new readers, there are links to the TV, online and radio reports I filed after meeting Marlon at last Summer's Paralympics in Athens here, here and here.)

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Back in London, like the new father of twins, with a leg tucked under each arm.

It's too early to say what I make of the new prostheses. It always takes a while to get used to a limb. In the case of the leg I'm wearing at the moment it took a number of months before I was really comfortable with it. Now, though, it feels like as snug as an old slipper.

I'll start breaking in the new arrivals tomorrow.

The Guardian profiles Iraqi Kurdish film director Bahman Gobadi, whose new movie Turtles Can Fly is released in the UK tomorrow.

Gobadi's description of Iraqi Kurdistan is, sadly, all too accurate:

"a land full of mines and refugee tents and disabled children ... arms sellers, abandoned tanks, mortars."

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Guardian's Matt Wells hasn't been impressed by BBC News 24's tsunami coverage.

"The BBC has the resources to mount a world-beating continuous news organisation but is constrained by the structures of a Whitehall bureaucracy. That needs to change," he says.

BBC TV News boss Roger Mosey begs to differ. (Registration required for both articles.)

Santa's been a bit tardy in getting his presents delivered this year, because he's only just got around to leaving my Cheetah leg under the tree.

Spent the morning thrashing away on the treadmill at the hospital, trying the leg with six different alignments to try to find the optimum level of springiness, speed and performance. It was rather like fine-tuning a racing car -- except that in my case I'm the equivalent of an octogenarian Sunday driver who's suddenly been thrust behind the wheel of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. The engine's humming with power and acceleration but my driving skills aren't exactly up to Formula One standards.

I clicked the leg on and we videoed me running on the treadmill. When we played the tape back in slow motion it was much easier to see how the Cheetah was performing -- whether the weight distribution was correct, whether the toe was striking the ground in the right place and whether the foot was rolling over properly.

Here's a clip of the fitting -- it's 23" long and is just under 500Kb:

Taming The Cheetah (.wmv)

After several hours tinkering with the alignment, I was finally allowed to take the beast home to start preparing for my first London Marathon. My punishing training regime will start....tomorrow. Honest.

Before I left the hospital I got another Christmas present -- this time an unexpected one.

My prosthetic technician, Andrew Palmer, is an accomplished amputee long distance runner. He's a left leg amp and I'm a righty.

Andrew bought a new pair of top of the range running trainers for the San Diego Marathon a few months ago -- and the redundant left shoe was still in the box. Luckily for me, we just happen to have the same size feet and needless to say, I was more than happy to take the spare sneaker off his hands.

From now on, whenever Andrew gets a new "pair" of trainers so will I.

With the running leg taken care of, we'll do the fitting for the new walking leg tomorrow.

A note for American readers -- American amputee sprint champ and fellow Cheetah wearer Marlon Shirley will be featured on the CBS Early Show from 0700E tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

To Cardiff, for final fittings -- and hopefully collections -- of the new walking and running legs.

It's a long drive at the end of a long day, but if the new limbs are all I hope they'll be it'll be well worth it.

Photos tomorrow, inshallah.

Thanks to Mark for e-mailing me this story about a seven-year old girl who lost her leg below the knees in the tsunami.
The Australasian branch of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma has extensive resources for journalists covering the tsunami aftermath.
Reopening this posting...As Ralph points on the comments board, the clockwork computer isn't such a flight of fancy.
The US has banned all non-detectable landmines -- those that can't be located with metal detectors.

It's a welcome move -- but as I've said many times before the US should be setting an example by signing up to the Ottawa Treaty.

Monday, January 03, 2005

SEA-EAT reports that -- sadly but inevitably -- the tsunami is likely to create many new amputees as untreated wounds become infected.
"I saw in the faces of the gunmen absolute hatred."

On Christmas Eve Frank Gardner spoke at length to the Today programme.

It was his first broadcast interview since the shooting in Saudi Arabia six months ago which killed Simon Cumbers and left him fighting for his life.

Because I've been away from the office I haven't been able to pull it off the archive and blog it until now but, belatedly, here it is.

Frank talks about his recollections of the shooting and admits he became an unwitting target by spending too long in the area of Riyadh where he and Simon were attacked. He talks about his rehabilitation and his hopes for the future.

The interview is 9'33" long and is a 1.6Mb MP3 file.

Frank Gardner Today Interview
My first day back in the office since the tsunami struck and the full extent of the logistical effort we've mobilised to cover the catastrophe has become clear.

News teams have fanned out across thousands of miles of Asian coastline -- in Phuket, Medan, Banda Aceh, Galle, Tamil Nadu, the Maldives, the Andaman Islands and elsewhere.

Many are enduring conditions almost as bad as those affected by the quake -- the main difference being, of course, that for western journalists the squalor and discomfort is only temporary.

The Wall Street Journal looks at how the tsunami has further blurred the boundaries between professionally-gathered and amateur news footage.

The Independent, meanwhile, reports on how the two main wire services, AP and Reuters, went head-to-head covering the story.

An early Reuters report, filed at 04:50 on Boxing Day, seems almost pitifully optimistic in retrospect. It reads:
Ten killed after tsunami hits Sri Lanka
COLOMBO Dec 26 (Reuters) - At least 10 people were killed after a tsunami triggered by an earthquake off the Andaman islands in the Indian Ocean struck the southern and eastern tourist region of Sri Lanka on Sunday, police said.

The death toll in Sri Lanka currently stands at more than 30,000.

While staying with friends over the festive season I was very taken by their Freeplay radio.

The clockwork radio isn't new. It's been around for almost a decade and more than three million of them have been sold. Still, as someone who makes a living from making radio programmes, I was struck by the power of the idea.

With a wind-up or solar powered radio -- especially one with shortwave reception -- anyone can enter the world of ideas.

With just a few cranks of the handle, news, sport, vital health or weather information or language courses can be accessed by the most remote and inaccessible village.

In many parts of the world, radio is still a hugely influential medium. Unfortunately, like any form of media, it has been used to spread hate as well as knowledge -- such as in the case of the infamous Rwandan radio station Radio Milles Collines.

Freeplay is using self-powered radio technology to fantastic effect through the Freeplay Foundation.

Like all the best ideas, its mission is brilliantly simple -- to supply parts of the developing world, where electricity is often non-existent and batteries are unaffordable, with wind-up radios.

The Foundation's Lifeline radio looks like it has been made by Fisher Price -- but that's exactly the point. It's designed specifically for children living on their own and is made to withstand the harshest conditions and climates.

Media doesn't get more grassroots than this.

Wind-up laptops, anyone?

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Lest we get too carried away by Dan Gillmor's vision of grassroots journalism, a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reveals that almost two thirds of internet users don't know what a blog is.

Even so, the Pew study says blogs are becoming a key part of online culture, with readership rising by almost 60% during 2004.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Following yesterday's posting, "We The Media" author Dan Gillmor returns the compliment.

"One of my heroes in the blog world"?....Dan, I am not worthy.

Dan has just packed in his job with the San Jose Mercury News in order to launch a brave new initiative -- trying to implement the ideas for a new kind of journalism that he outlines in his book.

Good luck, Dan -- I'll be watching the project unfold with great interest.

I'm spending the first day of 2005 with the family in Wales. Back in London tomorrow.

Happy New Year!