Ten ACTUAL disasters

53120210So, after a few days of speculation and misplaced optimism by some, it has been confirmed that Altfest has been cancelled. Yeah, Altfest, the festival they said was too good to be true, has turned out to be too good to be true. You’d expect that the cynicism would have made everyone involved check their figures more than twice, as well as those of the people advising them, but hey, what do I know. My greatest moment was booking the Bus Station Loonies to play the Ordnance in Woolwich.

Lots of hysteria and claims of disaster, so just to put everything in context, here’s ten of my favourite actual disasters of various kinds for your perusal, both actual and metaphorical, interesting for different reasons.

See you at Infest!

Kings Cross

KingsXfireThirty-one people died in this horrible disaster on the Tube in 1987, but if you’re into disasters, it’s a classic. Directly caused by stupidity and aggravated by a culture of lazy management and negligence, the Kings Cross fire was a major motivation for the tube improvements of the 1990s. Those of us old enough to remember the Tube of the 70s and 80s remember a dirty, neglected system staffed by lazy tossers, as evidenced by this video. The fire started underneath the escalators after a careless smoker dropped a match, which fell onto a highly flammable gunk of lubricant, rats’ hair, rubbish and lord knows what else that had built up beneath: under the escalators had reportedly never been cleaned down there since their installation in the 1930s. Tube bosses thought escalator fires were inevitable and called them “smoulderings”, and no-one was properly trained in fire precautions or evacuation procedures. No-one even went into the machinery room with a fire extinguisher before it flashed over. And that sort of thing, kiddies, is precisely why you should always be grateful for health and safety.

Robin Thicke Twitter Twat


So. Let’s imagine you’re a complete and utter wanker, and you’re mostly famous for singing a song about date rape and being a sleazy shitface. What could possibly go wrong with a Twitter Q and A?

140701212357-hashtag-askthicke-story-top Screen-Shot-2014-07-01-at-11.59.23-AM

Niki Lauda – triumph after disaster

The old Nürburgring was considered the most difficult track in the Formula One calendar. Five times longer than any other track, it was old and hard to marshal or bring up to safety standards, as it was narrow and bumpy in places and followed a course through mountains. Jackie Stewart had nicknamed it “the Green Hell”, and the other F1 drivers all had similar feelings. Racing in those days wasn’t just a dangerous business, it was a fatally dangerous business; and a track where cars frequently became airborne and where different sections had different  weather conditions was one of the riskiest of all. Two weeks prior to the 1976 Grand Prix, there had been a fatal crash, the 131st in less than 50 years. It had been decided that this was to be the last race on the Nürburgring in that form, but Niki Lauda was worried. The weather had made conditions treacherous, and he tried to organise a boycott of the race on safety grounds, but he was outvoted by other drivers. After qualifying, James Hunt was in pole and Lauda was second. After a few laps of the race, Lauda’s car spun off, hit a bank, and bounced back on the track again, burning. the next driver avoided it but two other hit the flaming car, and those three drivers rescued Niki. Rushed to a specialist burn unit, Lauda fought successfully for his life. He suffered extensive scarring from the burns to his head, losing most of his right ear as well as the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows and his eyelids. Yet he returned to racing just six weeks later, still bleeding, bandaged and without eyelids: by the end of the season, he lost the Championship by only one point to living rhyming slang James Hunt.

South Sea Bubble


An early effort at “public-private partnership”, it must have seemed almost plausible to invest in a company that had the monopoly on British trade with South America. On the other had, if it’s 1711, and your mortal enemy Spain actually controls most of South America, that might not be so clever. There was never really any chance it was going to make money, but the directors bought swanky offices and kept issuing stock and people bought it, as part of a wider investment fever. Naturally, it couldn’t last, and it all fell apart in 1720. In 1721, investigations into the deceit, corruption, and bribery behind the company led to the prosecution of both company and government officials – perhaps the very Chancellor of the Exchequer being imprisoned was some consolation to the people who had lost everything. Isaac Newton said of it all, “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men”.

Sampoong department store collapse


In 1995, a department store in Seoul collapsed, killing 502 people and injuring nearly a thousand more. The building’s owners had added another floor to the design while under construction, and when their contractors refused to do it, they just found someone else who would. The owners then stuck a heavy air conditioning system on the roof. The building lasted six years before major cracks started to appear, but even when it was obvious even to an idiot that the building was going to collapse, the owners refused to close the store: the executives, however, did leave the building. Two days after the collapse, the rescue services said anyone still trapped would be dead, because of the hot weather. In reality, many were still alive, but died awaiting rescue. The last survivor, Park Seung-hyun, was pulled out after 16 days buried in the rubble – one of three survivors pulled out in the third week.

The Streisand Effect

Streisand Estate

The lovely house in this picture belongs to Barbara Streisand, and it’s in Malibu. I know this because in 2003, photographer Kenneth Adelman was taking around 12,000 aerial shots of the California coastline to document erosion, and posted the pictures on a website. Actually, no, of course I don’t know it for that reason. I have no interest in Californian coastline erosion; I’m barely interested in it when it happens here, so I would never have seen this lovely photo in the normal run of things. Neither would most people. Initially there were only six downloads of the picture, of which two were Streisand’s attorneys, who then launched a $50million lawsuit to get the photo taken down. Publicity around the case meant that over 420,000 people downloaded the photo in the next month alone, and the case failed. Still, it’s nice to have something named after you, isn’t it? A shame for Ryan Giggs and Jeremy Clarkson that they didn’t know about the effect when it came to their superinjunctions.


The 1977 Tenerife crash between two fully loaded 747 jumbo jets (one Pan Am and one KLM) remains the worst disaster in aviation history. 583 people died in an accident that perhaps best proves the truth of “disasters don’t just happen, they’re a chain of critical events.” Firstly, a small bomb went off at the main airport on Gran Canaria, and the jumbos were diverted to Tenerife North, a small airport not really equipped to deal with the number of large jet airliners that were sent there. The KLM pilot decided to have his plane refuelled while they were waiting, to avoid further delays due to working time regulations. When they were finally able to leave, the refuelling was not quite finished, causing delay to the Pan Am and other planes stuck behind it with no room to squeeze past. As they were finally able to depart, a thick fog developed. Due to lack of space on the taxiways, the large planes had to taxi up the runway. KLM went first, turning round at the top and getting  ready to depart; Captain van Zanten was raring to go. The Pan Am plane was taxiing behind, and missed the turning it was meant to take to depart – a turning they found hard to believe was the one they were meant to take anyway, since it was narrow and awkward. The KLM captain began his take off roll without proper clearance, and due to the fog, neither plane saw the other before it was too late. Not quite at rotate speed, the Dutch captain attempted to take off over the Pan Am. The extra weight caused by the refuelling made this impossible. The KLM 747 collided with the Pan Am, which was attempting to turn off, having seen the other jet approaching. The KLM was completely destroyed but miraculously, 61 people survived on the Pan Am jet, including the crew. While ultimately the blame lies with Captain van Zanten for taking off without proper clearance, the number of seemingly small variables involved that could have stopped the disaster from happening show that disasters are, indeed, the opposite of miracles, and when there’s a lot at stake, you really do have to sweat the small stuff.


Cleopatra posterOne of the most expensive films ever made, Cleopatra managed to be the highest grossing film of 1963 but still made a huge loss. Had The Sound of Music not been such a success a couple of years later, it’s likely that 20th Century Fox would have gone bankrupt. The original budget of $2million rose to over $40million (in old money – not adjusted!). The original director departed and when his replacement Joseph L. Mankiewicz took over, the film was already millions over budget with nothing to show for it. Sets were built in London and filming commenced, only to be abandoned and everything rebuilt and started again in Rome after the weather proved detrimental both to sets and star Elizabeth Taylor, who had been rushed to hospital and had to have a tracheotomy to save her life (the British sets were later reused for Carry on Cleo). Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton began onset and the scandal didn’t help – both were married. The initial cut of the film six hours long, and the studio pooh-poohed Manckiewicz’s request that it be split into two movies, wanting to capitalise on the scandal. Although the film did win four Academy awards for the production, it received mixed reviews from critics and even star Taylor described it as “vulgar”.

Millennium Bug – an averted disaster

It was as early as the late 50s that someone first considered that there might be a computer issue when we ticked over into the year 2000, but it was only in the run up to the year itself, of course, that the problem began to be taken seriously, by which time the programming quirk that would cause the “Y2k bug” was embedded in electronic and computing devices all over the place. Computers stored dates as two digits, a hangover from the days when they were only able to store a few bits of data on punched cards. The consequences of all those computers thinking it was 1900 or 19100 instead of 2000 were unknown, but of course, this led to widespread speculation that disasters would occur if the problem wasn’t fixed, like planes falling out of the sky and your fridge not working. This would all have been terrible, and so the problem was largely fixed, keeping a lot of programmers, especially those of older languages underpinning many systems, in work in the late 90s. The total cost of sorting it all out was estimated at $300 billion. Some systems did fail – the U.S. Naval Observatory, which runs the master clock that keeps the country’s official time, gave the date on its website as 1 Jan., 19100. Bus ticket machines in two Australian states failed. The saddest consequence I can find was in Sheffield, where incorrect Down Syndrome test results were sent out to 154 women and two of them opted to have an abortion on the basis of those results.

Space disasters (and corporate negligence)

Aviation as an industry cleaned its act up in the 80s following some horrific disasters in the 70s. Previous to Tenerife, the worst aviation disaster was the Ermenonville Douglas DC-10 crash in 1974, which had been caused by lazy engineering of cargo doors and wilful corporate negligence in rectifying that problem, the investigation into which made the aviation a lot safer, enforcing accountability and listening to concerns raised by engineers and subcontractors. In some areas, however, the old standards still applied, and sadly space exploration was one of them. NASA still worked as it had back in the day, with little accountability and a drive to get the shuttles up in the air even if it was a risky business. Like Douglas, NASA ignored the concerns of one of its subcontractors, and there was no real safety culture at the agency when Challenger was launched for the 25th space shuttle flight in 1986. All of us who grew up in the 80s remember the disaster, caused by cold temperatures and lack of a proper fail-safe systems in certain critical areas. After the shuttles were grounded and the investigation looked at the causes, NASA promised to change and introduced the kinds of systems that were, by then, the norm in aviation and other industries where people’s lives were at stake. Unfortunately, when Columbia burned up on re-entry in 2003, it was discovered that many of these systems were not properly introduced or followed, and many of the same people who had been in charge in the days of Challenger were still in post and had the same old attitude. The Columbia crew’s seatbelts didn’t even work properly. Another shuttle, Atlantis, was being prepared for her next mission and could well have been used to rescue Columbia‘s crew had NASA decided not to risk re-entry of a vehicle known to be damaged and at risk. But instead they decided to risk re-entry, and largely kept the crew in the dark about the dangers.

Oh, and in 1989, nine passengers died on a Boeing 747 after the cargo door blew out, caused by bad design. It seems that one should be a bit cynical when people tell you that lessons have been learned.

The Best Websites from the Twentieth Century (that you can still visit!)


I jest, of course. That’s a picture of Babbage’s 19th century Difference Engine. Here’s a computer from the actual era in question instead, with a bonus phone…

3762662144_b5fcf8d387_zStylish, eh? In 1996 there were 100,000 websites… None of which would have been viewable with the technology in the picture above! There’s now literally gazillions of websites, and they’re all crap. Back in the day, websites were better.

So, with links opening in a new tab so you can have a mooch round and then come back to the list at your leisure, here’s the ten coolest websites I could find from the 20th Century that were still in mint condition. Although the Internet Archive has preserved snapshots of many websites, these sites are all where and as they originally were.

The best 20th century movie site still out there isn’t Space Jam from 1996 (although that’s very good), it’s Jurassic Park: The Lost World, from 1997, which includes the InGen intranet. I haven’t actually seen any of the Jurassic Park movies, but that’s clearly because I never saw the websites. I have seen Mallrats though, and the website from 1997 is still up.

In the days before the internet, people were well into pinball. These days, of course, pinball is extinct, because it’s too big to put in your pocket and/or handbag and it won’t tell you what the weather is like or show you photographs of what a dude you met at a party once has had for breakfast. But for one glorious year the internet and pinball coexisted and perhaps one day historians will look back on the website of the 1994 Pinball Expo in Chicago as a turning point in human history…

Until Microsoft started bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, the thing we used to surf the Internet was called Netscape Navigator, and this website is a handy guide to using it dating from 1994. Alas, few of the links on the What’s Cool! and What’s New! pages (exclamation marks were compulsory in 1994!) still work.

In 1997, a spaceship cult in California committed mass suicide with the approach of comet Hale-Bopp. The Heaven’s Gate website is still up and running, apparently funded by trustees of the group. The cult made some of their money from web design – though sadly their design site is long gone, the internet archive has preserved it.

News websites were one of the first useful things on the internet, and the big news providers like CNN and the BBC have had web presences from very early on. If you’re interested in elections, you can still check out the 1996 Dole/Kemp website, kept up by the 4President Corporation (which is well worth a look in itself) and over this side of the pond, the BBC still has their 1997 coverage available. There’s also CNN’s coverage of the OJ Simpson trial in 1996, and the BBC’s special section on the death of Princess Diana.

So how did we search for things back in the day? I was always a fan of AltaVista (mayitrestinpeace), and remember being somewhat resistant to Google when it first started, simply because I don’t like change. Those places which are still running have of course got shiny new websites now, but there are some ancient search engines still out there, like fossils. There’s IFINDIT, best viewed in 800×600 apparently, and last updated in 1998, but when you click to proceed you find out it’s under construction… It was run by Easynett, whose website is also a gem of 1990s design, last updated in 2002. Pity they never finished the search site.

Do you like sporks? I like sporks. But not as much as this guy likes sporks. Last updated in 1996 – I wonder if the tshirts are still available? Although I’m thinking, given the lack of updates, maybe he went off sporks.

I’m sure there are plenty of other fossils out there on the internet, but I don’t think anything can beat the sporks. If you can, prove me wrong in the comments!

Living Without (So Much) Money

Whether you’re thinking about completely rejecting money or looking to become more self-sufficient so you have to work less for The Man, it’s easier (and trendier) now than it has been for a long time…

Find Some Land

If you’re not lucky enough to already own your own land, there’s more available than you might think. You can grow stuff anywhere there’s muck, after all. As well as the traditional allotments, which often have a long waiting list, there are many community projects, both council-led and independent. You could also find yourself a plot on Landshare, or do it guerilla-style.

Grow Your Own

Whether you’ve got land or not, you can stretch your food budget by using any space you do have, wherever you are. Herbs and salad leaves will grow well in small pots on windowsills and doorsteps, and balconies and small urban gardens can produce impressive quantities of vegetables and fruit in large pots and the ground.

Nurture Your Inner Womble

Services like Freecycle have made it easier than ever to find things to make good use of, but you can also actively scavenge for things that other people have thrown away, in skips and fly tipping spots.

Raid Those Bins

Most people are aware these days of the vast amounts of food thrown away by supermarkets, and dumpster diving is an almost respectable occupation. In my experience this is especially useful for finding bread and treats to supplement all that home-grown veg.

Don’t Waste Your Waste

If you’re growing your own food, you’ll need jars and containers for growing and preserving, and you’ll be needing compost and fertilizer. Most things we throw we away can be recycled into necessities or upcycled. After a while you’ll probably be generating next to no waste except the wrappers of all that chocolate you found in the supermarket bin.

Make Friends

There are so many people living the Good Life these days, you should make sure you find like minded people. Not only could you get actually useful advice rather than just a trivial list article, you could trade surpluses and skills.

Fight the Power

If you’ve got several grand (at least) you could look into getting a wind turbine or solar panels. For everyone else, you can try energy saving tips. It’s time for the great draft excluder revival!

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

We’re conditioned from such an early age to think that money is essential, but it isn’t. Plenty of families live mostly without money and are happy, well-fed and free. True happiness is not measured in material possessions, but in the quality of our relationships and how satisfied we are with how we spend our time.

Some Things I Realised When Rewatching Star Trek:TNG


I come from a “Star Trek family”, and Star Trek: The Next Generation is a beloved old friend – I have fond memories of the series first being shown and thinking it was brilliant. I got bored with Voyager and DS9, and the movies don’t do much for me, but I still consider myself a Trekkie (and I’ve got the tattoo to prove it). Not that long after I got a TiVo box, I realised that the TNG reruns on Syfy were about to tick over and go from the beginning again so I set it up to record. I hadn’t watched the series in order or with any commitment for over a decade, so I thought a rewatch was in order.

It’s taken a loooooong time, but I’m well into the final season now and I’m feeling sad that it will soon come to an end. Some of the episodes I’d only seen a couple of times, others I’d seen so often I could sing along, so to speak, but the whole exercise has been immensely rewarding. I’ve had several realisations, which I’d be delighted to share with you here, illustrated with apposite Next Gen gifs. Resistance is futile.

(Once I finish this rewatch, I shall try and assemble a list of my favourite episodes.)

TNG is older now than the Original Series was when TNG started


Shit, I’m old.

The first and second seasons are somewhat terrible


Up until this rewatch, I’d been semi-consciously avoiding the reruns of the early seasons, because I’ve seen them a gazillion times and I remembered them as not as good as the later ones. Watching them now, some for the first time in 10 years, was rather excruciating. Gene Roddenberry strictly enforced his principle of there being no conflict in the crew, and if his heavy handed allegories seemed creaky in the late 80s, now they just felt embarrassing. I saw quickly why Denise Crosby left. I’m not sure if TV has yet mastered (mistressed?) the art of portraying strong beautiful women, but I’m sure a Yar written now would be a much more interesting prospect. There’s a racist and sexist nadir in “Code of Honor”, and several episodes deserve a dishonourable mention, like “Angel One” and anything featuring a deus ex Wesley Crusher. And how shit was Worf’s makeup in the early days? I’ll go easier on the second season, as they had a writer’s strike to contend with. But it still frequently sucked.

Ai ya, they are SMUG!


Occasionally my esteemed other half accompanies me on this nostalgic trip to the future, and when watching one of the earlier episodes, he pointed how smug everyone was. That was it. I couldn’t unsee it. Even now, when the smug excesses of the first season are long behind me, it’s still there. A patina of self-righteousness coats everything, and I’ve just had to learn to live with it: after all, we’d all probably be a bit smug if we lived in a space-faring Utopia, right?

When it’s good, it’s the best telly ever


Some of the best episodes of TNG are the more philosophical ones, light on conflict and technobabble, and big on concepts. Only Star Trek could make an episode based on the philosophy of language (“Darmok”) and only TNG could make it watchable. Other good episodes are based on exploring how crew members resolve personal issues in a world with no conflict – basically, they just behave in the way we imagine healthy, well-adjusted adults do, and it’s great, emotionally involving telly. The villains usually feel like credible threats, if we ignore the Ferengi, and the humour usually works. All in all, the universe the Enterprise-D was exploring was consistent, realistic and interesting. I’ve criticized the first seasons but they anchor the rest of the series deeply in how Gene Roddenberry wanted it to be, with his successors free to develop, expand and modernise, resulting in a nigh on perfect balance. This led me to also realise…

Why I didn’t like Deep Space Nine or Voyager (as much)


It bothered me a bit when I lost interest in Star Trek, but now I’ve realised it’s because they just aren’t Star Trekkish enough for me, and the only reason I watched DS9 as long as I did was because I’m totally gay for Jadzia Dax.

Will Riker…


…is a pompous oil slick, but I still would.


The Best British Pathé Videos on the YouTubes

You may have seen my earlier post in which I picked Ten Fairly Interesting or Somewhat Amusing Pictures from History chosen from the Getty archive. I enjoyed researching that, so I was very pleased to discover that British Pathé have also made their entire archive of 85000 newsreels available on YouTube. Here’s my favourites so far.

Girl Wife At Woolwich (1937)

My adopted hometown of Woolwich is still a strange place: but even by our standards, even by 1930s standards, even by internet standards, Mr. and Mrs. Cohen are fucking weird. I say that even though I know there’s a chance my mother will read this list. THEY ARE THAT WEIRD. The least strange thing about this reel is that they are having kippers and custard for dinner.


Ageless Iraq – 1950s

“Today, the streets of the city are alive with the bustle of a young people, who are taking back from the West the means to a brighter future.”
“Ageless Iraq, a new country but one that hasn’t forgotten the glories of its history. A country that is now emerging from the shadows of its past to a future bright with promise.”


Bomber Crashes into Empire State Building (July 1945)

Interesting for the accident and the archive footage of New York as well as the 9/11 arguments unfolding in the comments.


Titanic Footage & Survivors Interviews (1960s?)

Some of the footage isn’t actually OF the Titanic, but the interviews with survivors are fascinating. Especially interesting for the interviewees’ adamant statements that the band were not playing as the ship sank. This contemporary newsreel is also worth a look.


Death of Marilyn Monroe (1962)

A gorgeous collection of Marilyn clips with a voice-over tribute. Her image is now so ubiquitous and adorned with spurious quotes, it’s nice to be reminded how beautiful she really was.


Tragic Disaster (1934)

The sinking of the Morro Castle is one of the most tragic and interesting maritime disasters. The captain died of a heart attack at sea, leaving the first officer in charge, who did not handle the disaster well. Although officially the cause is undetermined, the chief radio officer George Rogers later tried to kill a colleague with an incendiary device and later was convicted of the murder of an elderly couple who had befriended him. The colleague spent many years trying to prove that Rogers started the fire.


Princess Opens Flats (1961)

Back to Woolwich for this one! The flats are still standing, and still rather nice, but the ill fated Auto Stacker at the end of the reel is the truly interesting thing, because it sucked. It never worked – the car you see Princess Margaret “park” was actually manhandled in, and the whole thing was demolished less than a year later, having never been opened. It cost the council £100,000 to build and £60,000 to demolish. That’s around £2million and £1.1million in today’s money, which actually seems quite cheap for what it was – perhaps that’s why it sucked.

Miss Great Britain (1957)

1957 is one of many reels featuring the Miss Great Britain contest to be found in the archive. By 1969, the tone hasn’t changed much, although I appreciated the sentiments of the commentator at the end – the winner had said she wasn’t expecting to win as she was “too chubby”. “Please, Wendy,” he beseeches her, “don’t diet.”


Ten Stone Baby (Teased With Chocolate) – (1935)

So apparently he’s in perfect health. Wonder how his life turned out? Poor little shit.

And finally…

Traffic and Buses of London (1970)

No sound on this one, so choose your own soundtrack to a nostalgic trip around London’s streets. Enjoy the scenery and the fond memories of what London looked like when a lot of it was still grimy and pigeons were allowed in Trafalgar Square. Can anyone tell me what the interesting bus at 16:30 is? I know you’d have to be a bus geek to watch that far into the reel.