Saturday, February 17

Aamer Rahman: Culture War Click for more info

It's been a whopping ten years since I last saw Aamer live on stage, and the various more casual interactions in the meantime have firmly made him more of a "human I happen to have met" than a minor celebrity that lives in a completely different world.

So I'm kind of lucky that a spare ticket turned up for a show he was performing that I had otherwise decided to skip as tonight's set was quite excellent, and I suspect I enjoyed it even more than The Truth Hurts a decade ago.

Not much has changed. Aamer is still precisely (and wonderfully) mocking the obvious topics of racism and privilege, but now he's doing it with the more powerful contexts of wars in the Middle East and more personally, becoming a father.

As before the insight isn't necessarily novel - you may have cracked the same jokes and made the same observations yourself in whichever generic brown social media group with a level of intelligence you happen to be in. But with the platform and the ease and confidence and charm in which Aamer delivers, the message is compounded to a sublime level.

There was lots of laughter, pride, hope and assurances tonight, in an hour that flew by way too quickly.

Food: Buna Click for more info

Faced with the ever static choice of eating Turkish vs Peri Chicken, a friend and I decided to roll the dice on something different and grab dinner at an Ethiopian place in Islington. Now although I've had Ethiopian food before it had been so long that it might have well been my first time... and Buna was a pretty decent way to revisit the cuisine.

Of course the first thing is the novelty. Based on Injera, our platter came on a metal tray lined with the flat bread with the various vegetable and meat dishes that came as a part of the special dish we ordered. Next is the communal eating as we both tucked into the food, getting in each other's way in the process.

Getting past that though the meal was a good one, with the food itself resembling that you would find in a home cooked South Asian meal. The special itself cost us £34 and was too much for the two of us (but probably not enough for three). Unless you have a specific distaste for Injera, Buna comes recommended not just for Ethiopian food but for a hearty meal out overall.

Saturday, February 3

Book: The Vital Abyss, James S. A. Corey Click for more info

I think I've concluded that the short stories from The Expanse (all handily contained in Memory's Legion) aren't that great. It's not that I mind filler - especially at these lengths - but it really does seem like most of this stuff is what would have been found on the cutting room floor.

Take The Vital Abyss for instance. It's written well but oh so boring, and in some ways very experimental. I just hope that I'm gathering some depth to the universe by osmosis that will allow me to enjoy the main lore more than I would have otherwise.

Friday, January 26

A Poem To Me

Well isn't this something:

In lines of code, Shakil once wove,
A tale of software, passion drove.
Retired now, a seasoned sage,
Board games beckon, a new stage.

Binary realms left behind,
Dice and tokens now entwined.
From algorithms to game strategy,
Shakil finds joy in a playful sea.

Cards shuffled, boards unfurled,
In retirement, a gaming world.
Pixelated screens replaced by laughter,
A new adventure, happily after.

Tokens moved with thoughtful glee,
A master strategist, Shakil be.
Retirement's haven, where games unfold,
In the language of dice, his stories are told.

I'd be flattered except this was generated by ChatGPT and so yeah. But a big thank you to my friend who generated it and the world whose creativity was ripped off in producing it.

Tuesday, January 23

Film: The Beekeeper Click for more info

In what can only be described as a BTEC John Wick, we once again see that most versatile of actors in Jason Statham do his thing and punch some bad guys while making the world that much of a better place.

There are no surprises here, and neither should there be - any messing about with the formula would have been doomed to fail. We like our fisticuffs clean please.

So yeah, I liked The Beekeeper and appreciated it for giving me what I wanted to see. Others may not like it as much, but that's their mistake (and so fault) for trying to bend reality to their will. Recommended for those who know they'll like it.

Thursday, January 18

Dubai 2024

I've always had a love-hate relationship with Dubai. This essentially boils down to not liking the country and what it stands for and represents, but loving the friends and family that I know and continue to meet there. This has been the case since my first trip, visiting primarily to attend a wedding of someone I hadn't even met in person yet. Pretty wild for 2005 I know.

Such was my indifference-cum-denial, that I wasn't even going to take this trip, especially mere weeks after returning from the Middle East. A severe bout of FOMO finally convinced me to book my flight around a week before arriving, and even the consolation of only staying for six days was quickly snatched from me as I realised it was still one of my longest stays here.

Things have changed over the five years since my last visit. Deira has become seedy as hell, people now live miles away from the city centre (although the cheap metro is still great) and I even found the place rather cheap (which is probably because London is so expensive now).

But the biggest change might actually be in me. Between my visits to Oman and the UAE, I've started to understand why (more recent) folk have been migrating to the region and have become even more determined to remain. It's no longer about nil income taxes and halal McDonalds, but the quality of living, the weather and the relative peace. Under more scrutiny however, just like costs, it seems that this is saying more about the changing face of the UK than that of the Middle East, and what used to be beneficial in living in the west just doesn't seem much so any more.

This trip was mainly social, although I did also visit the Quranic Park and its Glass House for a wonderful lecture on foods mentioned in the Quran and Sunnah. As always the doss was top class, with plenty of hours spent shooting breeze and eating good food. And so as always I returned from Dubai on a high and what felt like way too early.

Book: Nemesis Games, James S. A. Corey Click for more info

Book five and I'm now over half way through the mainline series as a whole. Keeping with the varying theme this series does so well, we now revert back to star system politicking rather than any of the science fiction of this particular world (universe?).

The Expanse is firmly what I describe as "modern" sci-fi and it says a lot that I don't totally hate it for that. Nemesis Games was still a bit weak, a bit trashy, but it's the world that's keeping me here and not the plot or characters or melodrama.

And so on we go.

Tuesday, January 2

Film: Aquaman and the Lost Kingdon Click for more info

Maybe it was my mood on the day but I try not to overreact to the sheer badness of a film but it's a rare movie that actually makes me consider leaving part-way. Yes, Aquaman 2 was that bad. Bad in the way that made you think it was actually some kind of tax or funding scam and something had to be made to avoid harsher penalties.

The thing is that all the pieces were there - the acting was fine, the plot had potential and the effects, although janky at times, did the job. This Aquaman film just proved that without the magic nothing else matters in a movie.

Please avoid.

Thursday, December 28

Oman, Day Eight: Coming Home

An afternoon flight didn't really leave much room for today so we pretty much went straight to the airport after breakfast for myself and another of the party to catch our flight home.

This gave me a chance to think about the trip and how great it was - I wouldn't say Oman has much to offer tourists per se, but as a place to hang out it hits the spot as much as Turkey does and makes a great alternative to Dubai - keeping all the good things that the Middle East has to offer while keeping modest and being diverse at the same time.

It's quite the feat when I consider it in detail and under this analysis it's no surprise that it conducive to such chill and good times. We (or perhaps it was just I) joked about making it an annual event, so I guess my assessment might just be put to the test sooner than we think.

Wednesday, December 27

Oman, Day Seven: Winding Down

Our final day in Oman was set aside to chill and so we remained local - this actually turned out to be one of the more indulgent days as we barbecued at home (including making smores) before heading to the leisure centre to play Padel (because what other sport do people play in the Middle East?).


Annoyingly I had yet to buy any souvenirs and so some good time was spent hunting for fridge magnets to no avail (top tip - they're available at Carrefour if you're desperate).

Dinner was from various food trucks nearby, which was a great way to spend our final meal together - and of course we had to end that with yet more milkshakes.

Tuesday, December 26

Oman, Day Six: Climbing the Mountain

Today's activity was to hike a trail 2km up the mountain Jebel Shams. Although we drove to the start, the elevation of the hike itself was about 200m so this wasn't going to be a piece of cake.

All in all the 9km round trip took us around three hours which was well within our time budget, particularly as we were taking a more leisurely pace. It was a nice hike but, again, spoiled only by us having had such a wonderful time at Wadi Sham yesterday.

We didn't really hang around much after returning - we made a beeline back home to grab dinner and play what would probably be our final night of games.

Monday, December 25

Oman, Day Five: Swimming the Wadi

In what promised to be the most exciting excursion of the trip, today had been set for a visit to Wadi Shab. As only two of us were interested in the place, we invited some new friends I had met on the flight over to join us in our rental car down to the start of the valley.

On the way we stopped at a dubiously marked spot called "Muscat View" via what seemed to be an abandoned dirt track. Any misgivings were quickly dispelled once we caught the view.

Wadi Shab itself lived up to its promise. After a brief boat ride, the 45 minute hike wasn't particularly challenging and was a decent timepass on its own, but the real fun began once we hit the water at the end of the path.

Basically there is no other way to proceed without swimming, and so in we went. We swam and walked for around 30 mins before reaching a submerged cave entrance which we had to then pass through in order to make it to the final destination of the Wadi - a cavern with a waterfall, including a cliff jump into water I couldn't touch the bottom of. As adventure goes it was right up my alley - not too difficult but one that paid dividends.

On the way home we stopped off at the sinkhole to see what literally was a hole in the ground. It was okay and on another day not involving a wadi swim might have been impressive.

As it was late, we grabbed some cheap food and made our way home where we joined the rest of the party in watching Home Alone... since apparently it was Christmas Day. Given the excellent day I had I didn't even realise that.


Sunday, December 24

Oman, Day Four: Rest Day

Unlike yesterday, we made an early start to get back to Muscat in order to receive the final member of our party who had decided to make the journey even though there was only a few days left remaining on the trip.

Today was a dead day by design - between our stint in the desert and flights for our friend there was no real appetite to do anything too ambitious. And so we found ourselves lunching in malls, gorging on opulent milkshakes and playing board games till late.

Given the previous days (and the next planned) it was a good excuse to slow down a bit.

Saturday, December 23

Oman, Day Three: Camping in The Desert

After a start more relaxed than I would have liked, we made our way to the desert to enjoy an overnight stay on the sand and under the stars. Now given I had already done the desert safari (Dubai) and camping (Jordan) before this trip wasn't on the top of my list but since it was another chance to hang and play games it wasn't exactly something that was going to get a veto from me. Which was actually pretty lucky given how good this trip was.

The staples were all there: so dune bashing and various opportunities to play in the sand and take hero shots.

But it was the detail that mattered. Chilling with friends while watching the sun go down, eating barbecued camel meat while gup-shupping, playing a round of cards as we trash talked, and ending the night around a camp fire looking at the moon through a telescope.

As cringe as it sounds, it was never about the desert or sand activities, but more about spending time with friends in a different context - and ironically realising how much that context didn't actually matter, even though it may have emphasised the bonding.

Oh and of course it didn't hurt that our private cabins (versus tents) all had en suite washing facilities (versus a dry toilet and water out of a drum). At this age they're all luxuries I definitely appreciated.


Friday, December 22

Oman, Day Two: Muscat in a Pinch

This trip to Muscat was never meant to provide for tourism per se - and in many ways this is kind of my general approach to travel these days. Culture can be cringe but having a local take you around to the local spots trumps the tourist trail for me and given today was Jummah we used it as an excuse to stay local and tick off a few things we did want to see in the capital.

After a decent brunch (read: lunch for me), we headed to offer Jummah in the local Sunni mosque - the qualification is deliberate as I had already experienced first hand the Imadi Islam that prevails in Oman. The mosques here are lavish by the way.

We then headed to Shati Al Qurum, a quiet beach, for a walk and coffee - yet more chilling. The beach was clean, easy and just a nice place to hang out in.

As the sun was setting we headed to The Grand Mosque to offer Maghrib. It was lavish yet modest and in many ways representative of Omani culture, and definitely worth a visit.

After treating ourselves to Omani cuisine at a fancy restaurant we called it a day in anticipation of a weekend excursion that began the next day.

Thursday, December 21

Oman, Day One: Getting The Party Started

There's a few things that make travel special: if they're booked last minute, the level of planning or depth of itinerary, the manner in which the travellers arrive and the "unattached" quotient of the group. This list just happened to be fully ticked off for this trip to Oman, and as a result I was very excited to be on my flight to Muscat.

Even though I arrived at 6am (night flights increasingly becoming my preferred way to travel) I wasn't the first to arrive - apart from the host another traveller had pipped me to the post by two hours and so the chatter and banter had already since begun and continued in person as I stepped into my local friend's villa where we were going to spend the next week or so.

After a good rest and some orientation the three of us headed to Al Mouj (previously known as The Wave) for a walk around the marina and a burger dinner and dessert. It was an evening of chill and calm (and card games) while we waited for the rest of the party to arrive and just the ticked for our first day in Oman.

Tuesday, December 19

Film: Godzilla Minus One Click for more info

It took me a while to figure out why they picked what they did for the title of this movie. It's not as simple as it being a prequel or origin story. No, it's actually a throwback to the Japanese Kaiju films of the 50s and 60s and in many ways a gentle protest at the hollywoodification of the genre.

It's hard to list exactly what gives this such a classic feel. Godzilla himself is a pretty passive force in the movie, just doing his thing with not much of an agenda, and so the plot also simply goes from A to B.

This put the focus on the characters and it's the way they're all hammed up that makes me feel that this is a film from simpler times.

As someone who doesn't hate the more modern takes of Godzilla and friends, I appreciated the contrast I felt while watching Minus One as it made me realise the direction that Hollywood has chosen for our favourite monster. Recommended.

Sunday, December 3

Karachi 2023

Given the relief at having been able to visit Karachi post COVID, it's shocking that it has been a whopping 48 months since that last visit. The delay has been for a number of reasons, not least that we only visit in the winter so as to avoid the unrelenting sun, and the 2022/23 winter window was missed for a few windows. Needless to say that this trip was overdue and I was very much looking forward to it.

Not much had changed despite the gap, and yet it felt as different as any of the trips I've taken. Kids are now adults, cousins are now grandparents, aunties and uncles even more full of the love that only people that age can offer. Conversations were of a different quality as all involved become older, or perhaps just more patient and mature.

It also felt very busy socially - not a day went without an invitation to a very welcomed home cooked meal somewhere, and surprisingly we only went out a few times to eat, what with quite effective political boycotts ruling out the usual fast food treats. On that note I don't think I've ever drunk as much Pakola as I did this trip.

I was happy to return after the two weeks I was there - that particular limit seemingly hardwired into my brain. But I did definitely feel a loss on my return too and have never looked so forward to our return trip, hopefully in a more appropriate time frame this time.

Thursday, November 30

Book: Cibola Burn, James S. A. Corey Click for more info

If there's one thing I can say about The Expanse as a series so far, it's how varied the novels I've read have been. Here we have book five, with the focus moving to the newly discovered worlds, their inevitable colonisation by humans, and the conflict that arises by competing interests in that pursuit.

The same variety brings with it a sense of pace; the protomolecule seems like a lifetime away... and I'm left excited about where the series will go next.

That said, the books themselves aren't exactly exceptional. As poised as the set up - the plot, the pacing, the tension - is, it all fails with the b-grade characterisation and such basicity of everyone who has anything to say in the story. This is a shame and disappointing, but perhaps depth isn't the actual point here - each book plays as a moreish episode of a TV serial and I'm enjoying binging it so far.

Saturday, November 18

The Ig Nobel Awards Tour Show and BAHfest London 2023 Click for more info

The saddest part of today was realising that it had been FIVE YEARS since I last attended The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, and I never knew I missed it as much as I did until I sat down for both it and its double heading Ig Nobel Awards Tour.

Thankfully not much had changed, firstly with the Ig Nobels talking about weird and wonderful "real" science (including that to do with repeating words, anchovies having sex, the science of boredom, the behaviour of short referees and why we should all lick rocks).

BAHfest on the other hand was a masterclass in blag and sounding clever, which anyone who uses the internet should be able to relate to. Today we heard how to use live (as in flying) kestrels as a building material, how beauty of a population was directly correlated to naval power, how partying (hard) can be an effective treatment for infection control in a world of antibiotic resistance, how to choose (or perhaps predict?) who gets to use a lifeboat based on a genetic score, the reversing the Earth's spin as a solution to climate change and finally how hardened unwashed cereal could be used as a replacement for steel.

Five years is a long time and as such I didn't recognise any of the speakers, although Matt Parker was still in full swing as the MC. The whole thing was so easy, so quick and so hilarious I cannot imagine not attending in the future.

Wednesday, November 15

Film: The Marvels Click for more info

The best thing about The Marvels is its runtime. I mean this not as an insult but as constructive feedback - it's clear from many how exhausted they are with the MCU and perhaps the superhero genre as a whole, so it's only good when such a film is kept to a minimum runtime. At the very least it'll keep you from holding a grudge.

In fact I think it's the conciseness of the film which forces it to keep a bit of focus. Yes it's all very novel and cute but these things compensate for what is a bit of a thin plot (as well as overpowered heroes). The stakes are low in this for sure.

The three Marvels have personality, the film is fun and everything is a bit of feel good. I particularly enjoyed the throwaway references to Pakistani and Islamic culture (even though Kamala isn't really your traditional Pakistani, not really).

Overall though I enjoyed the film and do somewhat recommend it.

Friday, October 20

Book: The Churn, James S. A. Corey Click for more info

It's becoming pretty clear that the novellas available in The Expanse universe are not essential reading. They almost seem incidental and experimental, serving to keep fans ticking along between mainline books, while giving some superfluous background detail to the solar system in which the saga is set.

That's not to say that's a bad thing; for me at least they make for nice breaks between the larger slogs. The Churn, for example, brings us back to Earth, telling us about conditions for those who chose not to leave their home planet.

It's okay, and like I said it made for a nice timepass. I don't feel like I have extra tools or context with which to enjoy the fuller story, but given the lengths of the novellas so far that not quite something to complain about yet.

Cinque Terre, Day Seven: Genoa

Our last day and stop was to Genoa - this time an early start to get there in good time for Jummah prayers (which was actually the reason we were flying back from here instead of Pisa).

Getting there for 11am or so, we had a good few hours for quick sightseeing, pesto snacks and our final meal in Italy of some (again) wonderful pasta.


Jummah was interesting enough, and a bit of a throwback to the minority congregations we had in London in the 80s - a sermon not in Italian or Arabic but in Bengali, to serve the bulk of the audience.

After prayers we were pretty much done. Grabbing a cheeky kebab for the ride to the airport (which I have to say was super cheap to get to), we arrived in good time to catch our flight home.

Our trip to Cinque Terre and the wider region proved to be as easy, accessible, relaxed and engaging as any of my previous trips to Italy, cementing the reasons why I really don't mind returning to this country. And yet it was different enough to make the trip feel novel - in terms of breadth, Italy appears to have it in spades.

Thursday, October 19

Cinque Terre, Day Six: Chiavari

We had another easy start into Chiavera, a pretty little town famous for its porticoes - which turned out to be handy given how the weather had finally turned. 

Despite this, the agenda had already been set before we had even arrived and invovled the now standard walking, lunching, and then back home by mid-afternoon for a movie, dinner and then more films.

Wednesday, October 18

Cinque Terre, Day Five: Camogli

An easy start took us into a neighbouring sea town called Camogli.

I have to say the place was pretty dead apart from a street market, and yet it wasn't a waste given how we were now in full relax and loiter mode.

In fact, once we had lunch and some excellent Camogliesi dessert from Revello, we headed home before the sun had set for an afternoon Predator movie screening - which we then followed up with another in the series after dinner.

Tuesday, October 17

Cinque Terre, Day Four: Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino

Our original plan was to spend the entire week in Cinque Terre, giving each village a full day with some spares for the hikes. Call it a hunch (or maybe experience) but we pivoted a week before travelling and committed to leaving Cinque Terre for Santa Margherita a short train ride north of Monterosso half way through our trip. This turned out to be a great decision, as we were pretty much done with Cinque Terre by this point

Santa Margherita is a cute seaside town, larger and so better served than any of the villages in Cinque Terre. It serves as a good base to explore some of the places to see in the area - obviously including the five villages. We were looking forward to having restaurants still open past 6pm.

 

Since we arrived early we decided to make use of the day and take the ferry to San Fruttuoso and Portofino. The first was an abbey located on a relatively remote and intimate bay. Planning a few hours there we actually spent the one exploring what little it had - perhaps with a good book it could have been somewhere to spend more time just chilling out, but as that wasn't the mood of the day we decided to head on to Portofino.

Like San Fruttuoso, Portofino was more about vibe and food than anything in particular to see or do, although it was far larger. After lunch we we did a few local hikes up to the church and lighthouse, and then walked the 6km or so back to our accommodation in Santa Margherita for a pizza dinner.

Monday, October 16

Cinque Terre, Day Three: Vernazza and Monterosso

Today promised to be more straightforward than yesterday, with the plan being to start our hiking at Corniglia and head north to Vernazza and then further to the fifth (and largest) village of Monterosso.

Although the hikes promised to be more developed (and charged for), they weren't as engaging as the previous ones on this trip. This might have just been second day blues or the weather - as a way to pass the time I can't think of anything we would rather have done.

After a somewhat excellent swordfish pasta lunch we headed on to Monterosso, which despite being the largest of the villages (much by virtue of being split into both old and new towns), we found we managed to cover as quickly as the others. Still as always food was available to keep us busy, including some wonderful Monterossina cake.

 

Still hungry, we made our way back to Vernazza to grab a second dinner from the place we had lunch... only to find that the place was dead by 6pm, confirming what we had already guessed: that Cinque Terre seems open for passing trade rather than staying guests.

Sunday, October 15

Cinque Terre, Day Two: Corniglia and Riomaggiore

The main highlight of this trip were to be the hikes. The five villages that make up Cinque Terre have at least two hikes, sometimes more, coming out of them, making a total of eight trails to explore. Although we had ambitions to check them all out, between closures and logistics our minimum aim was to at least walk between each village once. This morning we were walking the high route between Manarola and Corniglia to the North.

The hike itself was of medium difficulty and was a brisk walk with a little climbing. Compared to some of the previous hikes we've been on it was actually quite leisurely with views of the Mediterranean abound - although we didn't have the clear skies and sunshine we would have wanted, there was no rain and visibility was still decent.

 

Corniglia itself was a small village, and finally made us realise the scale of Cinque Terre and its five villages - these weren't going to take too long to cover and explore. That said, it was a nice place to visit and our first introduction this trip to the food we would come to enjoy over the next few days.

 

Our original plan was to take the train back south, past Manarola and to Riomaggiore, from where we would hike back home. Due to a mishap we actually disembarked at Manarola and so took the opportunity to rest a bit at home first. This was probably for the best, as the hike between Manarola and Riomaggiore did seem more interesting heading south.


We explored the town, which included the castle and marina, had a delightful fried fish dinner (where we were served by a brummie of all people) and then after catching sunset took the train home for some more chilling and boardgames.

Today pretty much set the tone for the trip - an early start with a lot of walking, while ending the day relatively early for some hanging out. I'm left wondering: is this how old people travel?


Saturday, October 14

Cinque Terre, Day One: Manarola

I can't claim that Cinque Terre was ever on my list of places to visit. In those terms this is nothing new; most of my travel has been initiated by someone else, and I'm happy to accept how lucky I am to have those around me to drag me to places. That said, Italy has long been my favourite place to visit in Europe, so I'm not entirely surprised to find myself back here.

Flying into Pisa early, we were able to take a noonish train to the first of the five villages we were to explore over the next few days. Manarola is the second village from the South, and as we would find out later, one of the larger places to stay - not that we could tell at the time as we managed to cover the breadth of it in a short time.

 

After a wander, dinner and orientation we headed back to our apartment to relax... and get a head start on the next day which promised to be quite active.

Saturday, October 7

Book: Abaddon's Gate, James S. A. Corey Click for more info

Book three and I'm starting to wonder James S. A. Corey actually exists[1]. Abaddon's Gate is so full of tropes, so Saturday night TV that if it had been written in 2023 I'd have seriously asked whether or not it had been output by generative AI.

Most jarring was the pivot from the previous book - I often wonder whether series of this type requires long term planning or not, and The Expanse shows what might happen if you're willing to bin the stuff that came before. It's not as clever and maybe a bit blunt.

I didn't hate this book, and in many ways I enjoy how much of a breeze it is to read. This book was not a memorable read, it was kind of like the YA of science fiction, but it made for a decent time pass and I'm not surprised that, just like a TV show, I find myself eager to carry on with it.

[1] Yes, I know that Corey is actually a pen name for not one, but a pair of authors behind The Expanse. That's not the point (or perhaps it is).