Liu Xiaobo memorials in water: a Poem

I wrote this upon the death of Chinese freedom activist Liu Xiaobo and the commemorations in his memory by fellow activists which involve water. It’s a beautiful, apt statement they make. Poem is called: The wave which wouldn’t break.

 

The wave which wouldn’t break

that’s meant to wash the Power away

Which torched the activist’s body then dispersed his ashes over water

To stop him becoming an emblem,

has turned the oceans of the world against itself instead.

 

And now keeps watch for the rising tide of history

And the guy who’s gone from a cell bed to literally everywhere.

Today officials dream of a flood and go rushing to therapists through streets where water laps at their feet.

 

People power – a force of nature is coming, or not.

It is contained by a dam;

The People’s Republic of China dam

And has been for a long time.

Where will the great wave go to

Which would wash away the Power

And lift the world a little higher up?

 

The dam stands strong.

 

Let this wave not forever be

The only wave which didn’t break

in history.

Mega Corp (Uber) denies cashing in on terrorism. Mega Corp (Uber) is cashing in on terrorism, evidence suggests. Mega Corp hands back tainted revenue (yay)

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Everyone’s doing their bit to fight terrorism today!

Uber has made the news for refunding customers who were charged extra for taking a cab during last weekend’s terror attack at London Bridge and in its aftermarth.

But the company’s PR team told me at the time that its controversial – and lucrative – ‘surge pricing’ tool had been suspended during the incident. Which means there should be no money to refund.

(nb: Uber’s parlance for squeezing its customers – as opposed to its drivers as standard – is ‘Dynamic Pricing’).

Uber’s claim that there was no dynamic pricing in place fell to pieces in the face of the evidence mounted up on social media, which all suggested the truth was the precise opposite of what Uber told me in the above tweet.

Note Uber’s reasoning: ‘Demand is off the chart! They omit: ‘Due to a deadly terrorist attack!’

Vomit-inducing behaviour by this Mega Corp – but probably pretty predictable for any fan of dystopian science fiction set in a nightmare near future (or  today).

Uber’s problem here was two-fold: pumping up its revenue at a time like last Saturday night created the impression (however scandalous) that it sought to profit from terrorism. Also, all the evidence suggested that the opposite of what Uber told me was actually the truth.

I sent another tweet asking about the gap between Uber’s statement and the evidence of the receipts. For a long time there was nothing, then – like an Uber cab appearing at your door late – I received a tweet!

Turns out that the extra cash DID roll in from ‘dynamic pricing’ during the London Bridge terror attack.

Bad Uber.

However, the world’s most favoured but least popular taxi firm said it’s going to hand back all the extra £££ it made from reaping the London Bridge whirlwind, last weekend.

Good Uber.

Chess is stupid and I am stupid to carry on

This blog is about my affair with the game of chess – a game for Kings, holy fools and cheats with engines.

I’ve been playing chess pretty solidly for 18 months; at least an hour a day and sometimes a lot more. It’s been a serious commitment of time and effort, which is why it feels apt to write down a realisation that’s dawned; that my chess quest may well be over.

Why now? Well, I’m someone who writes to discover what he thinks; writing is not for me the final stage in a process, like inscribing a name upon a trophy for a winner. Here at the start, it’s hard to say precisely why my chess quest may be over. There are some factors which I can identify and there’s probably others which are invisible, which this keyboard I’m typing on may cause to reveal themselves.

One factor is this video I came across last week, on YouTube. This guy who’s moaning to the camera is the owner of one of the top chess brains in the UK – yet he doesn’t have two pennies to rub together. He’s the sort of guy about whom fellow players on chess servers (I use chess.com, username: Angkar) talk in awed tones of an ability which appears quasi-mystical to us patzers toiling away in the 1200-1500 range (or lower). Yet this incredible ability doesn’t add up to a row of beans for him. And this is bad news for a certain popular argument regularly made in the game’s favour – one which irritates me; that chess is good for life, that you learn helpful skills from chess, that playing chess is a kind of high culture which enriches the player. Personally, I’m not convinced at all. Playing chess hasn’t made me more brainy or effective – the reality is mostly the total opposite.

It is true that chess holds prestige in popular culture – despite being largely ignored by the mainstream media. (Yes, serious players do whinge about the diminished status of chess today, compared to how it was back in the USSR). But just look at the absurdly high price for chess lessons, which are often more expensive than learning to drive or learning an instrument. High prices usually denote a exclusive cache of some sort. People generally do respect the feat of playing chess well (well, I do), but I reckon a lot of this is essentially sentimental and rooted in a lot of cultural baggage. I’m not convinced its charms translate into real life. Someone said in Stephen Moss’s excellent book, ‘The Rookie’: ‘Chess is only like itself.’ Life is not like chess – although there’s enough similes, metaphors and aphorisms in popular use all over the place to dispute this!

I swallowed an image of chess as a sort of classy mental Olympics – at which drinking and smoking are allowed. But this is a mirage: in reality, chess isn’t a night at the opera, it’s an endless slog up a mountain which is totally shrouded by mist, so that you can’t see the summit. You scramble ahead a few steps and then trip over some obstacle you never even saw,  going tumbling down, arse over tit. Becoming a good chess player is a real accomplishment – I can say this because I’ve tried for 18 months. Maybe this is why there’s so much complaint about cheating on the big chess servers (at least on chess.com), at present. My favourite chess YouTuber, Grandmaster Simon Williams, has lost to lower rated cheaters so often recently, that he now has a cheat alarm which blares loudly when some moves are played that seem suspiciously out of character by an opponent. Do cheaters desperately want a taste of the prestige which comes from winning at chess – this odd prestige which the game is laden with? I’d say they definitely do. I have same appetite – though I’ve not stooped to the truly tragic act of running an engine to swindle a win. I’m entirely self-taught and no doubt a few hours of lessons would do wonders for my rating. The risk that I’m losing to players using engines (even at my level) is enough to sour my enjoyment.

Another factor (and a very significant one) is form: at time of writing I am struggling to beat a boiled cabbage at chess. The issue is that my vision is poor. I’d really make a poor visionary in Biblical times; my visions would be full of disaster and calamity. My chess vision is a barren wasteland, with a solitary bin burning in the distance and a dog eating its own vomit close by. My queen’s been killed too many times by my own hand and I’ve missed simple tricks that led to me being triple forked and so on and on. It’s just dis-spiriting.

More seriously and related to this is that chess has revealed something in me which has lain dormant for a while; my competitive urge. I revealed it by accident in the paragraph above, when I mentioned ‘my rating‘ – not ‘my knowledge’ or ‘my skill’. What I want most of all in chess to get my rating up as fast as possible (so it looks like my rating line graph has an erection – all stonkingly rampant and vertiginous. Achieving this means taking points off other players by beating them – the more crushingly the better. This is the urge to dominate and destroy and it’s ugly. When I talk about improving at chess, what I really mean is getting my rating a few points higher. Understanding concepts of positions, space and time? Nah. I hate losing a game so much that retaining my composure is a painful physical effort. Put me in front of a screen with a live game and there I’ll be at the end of it; knuckles white from gripping so tightly, mouth contorted with gnashers on display, face reddening, my brain overheating, dreams of destroying worlds screwing my head, ready to vent spleen at my nearest and dearest. Being this angry, you become a parody of yourself. When I win, I’m ludicrously elated – like a small giddy child on his birthday. It’s absurd; heightened emotions like this, about something which is essentially totally pointless and unimportant as a chess game.

Another reason for feeling my chess quest could be over is pretty obvious: I suck at chess! A 1200 or so rating on chess.com (my highest ever is just below 1300) ain’t nothing to write home about. Yet it’s all I have to show for 18 months of time and effort. According to Grandmaster Gergory Serper, a 1200 rating means you can win a game against someone who doesn’t play chess. That’s it. Wow. I can honestly say I know next to nothing about chess and this is after 18 months of playing more than a thousand games, watching hours and hours of videos, doing thousands of puzzles and spending money on chess books. Maybe I’m just not cut out for the game. Chess certainly is very tough and the scale of the challenge has led me to the big question: why? For what reason am I expending time and effort on chess? Why bother learning the principles of development in the opening, only for your opponent to bring out the queen on move 2 and then cause havoc on your king-side, gobbling up your pieces so that it’s time to resign around move 10? This is just too aggravating. Becoming objectively good at chess requires a monk-like dedication to the cause and objectively that’s not going to happen at my stage of life, when I don’t have oodles of free time on my hands to dedicate to the task.

Chess is a deep game and a deeply silly game. (Just look at Bobby Fischer, the King of Chess, whose lasting legacy for me is that he proved it is possible be a genius and an idiot at the same time). Up to now, I’ve played chess because I love it. But I’m falling out of love; it looks like chess and me has been an enjoyable if tortuous affair, but not a champion love. This isn’t a cause of regret.

The feature image for this blog post is from here.

It took me 23 years to complete Prince of Persia

Old bricks of York – a Green Man and a Roman Emperor too

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Four days off for Easter was an opportunity to go see that part of England said to exist outside the London Orbital, aka the M25, aka Europe’s Greatest Car Park.

We picked Yorkshire and drove to Leeds and York. This post is just a few pics taken in York of a tiny portion of the extremely historical piles of bricks there, which give the city its image and draw so many tourists there; like us.

The top photo is of a statue of Emperor Constantine, located outside York Minister. His pose recalls Commodus from the film, Gladiator; haughty, decadent-looking and even a bit camp. Maybe this is what fabulous wealth and opulent living does, even to a warrior of the ancient world. But you just know ‘haughtiness with a strong sense of entitlement,’ was in the ‘Essential’ category of the Person Spec, for the job of Emperor of Rome.

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St Mary’s Abbey in York © author

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‘Nothing else remains:’ St Mary’s Abbey at York © author

These crumbling walls used to be attached to the rest of St Mary’s Abbey, of which little remains. It was smashed up by religious hooligans during the Reformation; a rampage so big it makes similar efforts by the crazy punks of ISIS in the Middle East today, look half-arsed redecoration work by comparison. Ruins like St Mary’s are also a lesson for the Church; that when a King who’s used to getting his way wants to wed his latest big crush, the sensible thing is probably just to agree and let the salvation of his soul take care of itself.

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York Minster sure does have high windows © author

This image is of a stained glass window inside York Minster. Half the entire amount of stained glass in England is in this building, apparently. Smashing!

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A Green Man at York Minster © author

This photo is of a boss of the Green Man, also located inside York Minster. You can tell it’s him by the decoration of leaves. For some reason, this Green Man has two birds sticking their beaks up his nose. Maybe it’s punishment for being a pagan.

An (in)famous son of York is Guy Fawkes, which I found out from a blue plaque declaring this point in the window of a pub, named after him. The plaque also states he was hung, drawn and quartered for the Gunpowder Plot (this I did know). Well, that’s what you get for trying to blow up the entire Parliament with the King of England in it; people don’t like it. The sign for the eponymous pub pinches the design of the Guido Fawkes mask made famous by the film ‘V for Vendetta.’ I wonder if the film studio gets a fee, like it allegedly does from sales of that mask to anti-corporate protesters and the spotty teenagers of hacking group, Anonymous.

I’m reminded of a conversation overheard in a pub, back down in London; a wealthy-looking young European snorted incredulously at the concept of Bonfire Fire; of Guy Fawkes being celebrated. I could have high-fived his mate for pointing out to him it is Fawkes’ capture and his plot’s failure which is marked on November 5.

Who knows what Guy Fawkes night signifies today; maybe that we’re creatures of habit who enjoy loud explosions. That’s me, at least. It’s all history now and the city of York is a very fine living museum.

A most English scene

A rainy late afternoon in London; drizzle falls softly upon the concrete ground from an overcast sky and slowly drenches everything.

Here, in Greenwich, in front of the old (refurbished) Cutty Sark ship, a merry-go-round plays wurlitzer music and flashes its bright light display to an audience of nobody, except one soggy bloke with a camera phone (moi).

The tourists have abandoned this area to take refuge from England’s weather in nearby pubs, where the cheery landlord pours them pints of London ale at more than £5 a glass. Outside, naked in the elements, this antique attraction refuses to accept its time has passed and carries on with its show, for leisure lovers who never show up.

The merry-go-round’s name is ‘The Pride of London.’

In the background are the masts of the ship ‘Cutty Sark’, a memento of this nation’s great seafaring past; now stuck fast in the concrete and going nowhere. Little patriotic flags hang from the fairground amusement in front. Nobody finds it very amusing. Except me; Mr Arch.

Dismaland by Banksy has nothing on this!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When an iPhone / iPad note gets deleted: What to do

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This is a post for writers like me who use Notes app in the Apple iPhone and iPad for creating content. I want to share my experience of what do when disaster strikes while you are using this app; when your podgy fingers delete the note by accident. This nightmare happened to me only today and I am so thankful I was able to prevent major disaster; of my precious Note being destroyed once and for all.

When this sort of thing happens, it’s reassuring to remember that losing a master-copy of a manuscript is a blunder which has befallen even the greats. I read J.G. Ballard (High Rise, Crash, Empire of the Sun and more) dropped an entire novel in a canal; a work by the Sage of Shepperton gone to a watery grave. And then there’s that scene in classic British T.V comedy Blackadder, when Baldrick throws upon the fire the one and only copy possessed by England’s most distinguished man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson, of his ground-breaking new dictionary.

As far I am aware, there is no way to recover an Apple Note when it has been deleted. Please correct me if I’m wrong. So the stakes are high. Also, if your Apple devices are synced, then what is deleted on one device shall be deleted on the others. This really has the potential to become a car crash which keeps getting worse; as your mistake on one device multiplies on all the others and your Note is wiped.

When this happens, there are only seconds to act to save your Note in jeopardy, as the syncing process is mercilessly quick. Rapid action is required to prevent your work from being permanently erased forever and ever, Amen. What happened in my case was that I deleted by mistake a Note while working on it in the iPhone. I spent a second staring open mouthed at the screen at what I’d just done. Then my survival instinct kicked in: ‘I must save this work not just for my own sake, but for the sake of millions of readers and for literary posterity!’ Yes, indeedy.

So, what you must do at once to save your work is: CUT THE INTERNET CONNECTION to your device. Like, straight away, without any delay. In my case this meant switching off the Wifi by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. I guess in the case of devices using cellular networks, it’s necessary to go to Settings > Mobile Data, to cut the connection. Whatever the route, just do so pronto.

What cutting the internet connection does is to prevent your horrible error from spreading to the Notes app on your other Apple devices. In my case it meant my mistake remained confined to just the iPhone and the contagion was unable to spread. My relief was truly unbound when I checked my other device and found my Note still present. I still felt relieved hours later.

Of course, this fix is only a fix if you possess more than one Apple device. I understand it may be possible to recover deleted notes using the iCloud, but not everyone (ie: moi) is savvy enough to have synced to the cloud, or even to know the cloud is a thing. I guess the best tip of all is: DO NOT USE THE NOTES APP FOR WORK YOU CARE ABOUT. That’s the lesson I’m choosing to take from this drama.

P.S: The Note I deleted by mistake was a 6,500 word thing which comprises my ongoing effort at writing some kinda story. I do have hopes for my half-formed baby: 1) that it will trigger a million pound bidding war between prestigious publishing houses for the rights, 2) make me so rich I can retire, 3) capture the essence of being human in an inhumane world which contains all the conditions for becoming even less human-friendly than ever before, (4, and most importantly) that I may say of it: ‘that’s a piece of me.’

What I’ve written here is only my experience and there are almost certainly other, better ways to deal with the crisis of deleting a precious Note.

Riding mikrolets in Timor Leste (East Timor)

 

Taking a trip by mikrolet in Timor Leste, aka East Timor, may be the best 20 pence I ever spent on public transport.

This small bus-van is everywhere in the capital city of Dili and the chances are you will hear one long before you see it. That’s because local pop music music is normally blaring from the speakers.

Meanwhile, the exterior bodywork of these vans is covered in stickers and garish paint jobs. My favourite design of all was a triptych on a rear window of Christiano Ronaldo between two images of Christ the Redeemer. (Guess who looked most God-like. That’s right: CR7).

This combo of loud design and pumping music mean there’s no chance of missing your mikrolet when it hoves in to view.

Sticking out a hand is how to hail the driver to the road side and then the passenger clambers aboard through a sliding side door, (in my case, ducking so low that my chin nearly touched my knees). The seating is two wooden benches with passengers facing each other, which encourages familiarity and means foreigners are in no doubt that they’re the subject of conversation among the locals sharing this ride. Up to 10 people squeeze in to the small space and it is cramped. It’s knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder, with no seat belts. The convexly arched roof of a mikrolet means that lofty passengers must lean in, so many oversized foreigners will end up practically cheek to cheek with whoever’s sat opposite.

Chucking out time at the schools causes chaotic scenes, as mikrolets park up kerbside and are swamped by crowds of uniformed kids in colourful scarves, all packing out the vehicles and hanging from doors. The mikrolets then join the traffic and you can almost hear the things groaning under the weight of their excitable cargo.

Tall passengers (that’s me) may want to pay double (40p) to sit in the front next to the driver. This is an experience in itself. In the mikrolets I took, the dashboards were often a mess of sticky-out wires and hollow spaces in panelling where instruments presumably used to be. I found this pretty charming, though you might wonder whether some important functions are no longer available which are useful for, y’know, things like safe driving to preserve the health of all aboard. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that a mikrolet rarely gets much above 35mph. Fewer instruments than the vehicle strictly should have may not be such a big deal, so long as the driver has a good clear view of the road ahead, right? Don’t bet on that. In a couple of the mikrolets I rode in, the field of vision was nothing but a thin strip across the front windscreen; the rest of it being smothered by a decorative array of colourful stickers, hanging baubles and other bits and bobs. It seems like the mikrolet drivers of Timor Leste all mysteriously share a passion for a single style of interior design. Maybe it comes with a sixth sense for anticipating what’s happening on the larger portion of the road ahead, which is hidden from view behind a FC Barcelona scarf hanging right in front of the driver’s eyeballs. Certainly, nobody came a cropper during my several journeys by mikrolet.

Mikrolets certainly won’t be winning awards for safety any time soon. But this economical, highly personal and personalised little van is my most favourite public transport. Hitching a ride in one is essential to do when in East Timor and it’s a great way to get close up (literally) with the local culture.

The photo above is of a modestly decorated  mikrolet, which I took in Dili on the way to catch a lift with a travel buddy to the city of Laquica, which is a couple of hours away along the north coast of Timor Leste.

Check out a mikrolet ride I took in Dili. I loooove the music, but have no clue what the song is called.

 

Feeling weird in Alice Springs

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“They belt the women for the grog” the guy said. Nearby was a group of aboriginal women. I had pointed out one of them who looked roughed up. His explanation right away tempered my feelings about being in Alice Springs.

We were in that remote town en-route to Uluru, sacred rock in the dead centre of Australia’s Red Heart. In Alice Springs, aborigines and Aussies live side by side but separately so. It seemed a bi-cultural kinda place to me, not multicultural in the sense I understand the word, of integration. The local tourist economy heavily leans upon wares made by the most authentic Australians of all; every second shop is an art gallery. Not even the creative neighbourhoods of London have so much art on sale. Today, Alice Springs might even owe its continuing viability to the big red rock being so popular. Everyone was rubbing along agreeably during our stay, but I wonder how enmeshed with one another other the Aboriginal and Aussie cultures are. Both are so distinctive.

I also wonder about the white guy’s explanation for the distressed-looking woman’s state. What it really means. He was making an assumption. His matter-of-factness was startling. Was he unwittingly revealing he’s okay with domestic violence? Or that he has prejudiced views about Aboriginal standards of behaviour? Is thumping your other half in fact how to get a drink in Alice Springs? I felt a funny atmosphere in that town in late 2015.

Aborigines hang about in groups or alone in public spaces, sitting on the grass, by the entrances of arcades. Meanwhile, tourists poke about inside shops or hang out at restaurants and bars. I never saw an aborigine and a foreigner in one at the same time. Maybe that’s because lagers and beers don’t agree with the Aboriginal palate – so an Aussie guide told me. They prefer a moonshine of some sort (which unfortunately I didn’t get to sample. Apparently it’s tough on western taste buds). I also didn’t see a single Aborigine queuing at the cinema for the latest Star Wars film, in the long line which snaked all the way out of the theatre on to the street. Things like this felt awkward to me. Wherefore art thou, integration.

I feel sympathy with the Aborigines. Putting myself in their shoes, I would be extremely narked at having my holy ancestral lands gathered up and enclosed by new arrivals, who also turned loose herds of marauding camels in to the natural habitat. All things considered, I believe Aboriginal society deserves credit for being so reasonable about what happened way back then (although not so long ago, really). I’m unaware of any armed insurgency to boot settlers off the land. Magnanimity like this is admirable. Aborigines are the guardians of the land, keepers of a sacred pact with the ancestors which they take seriously today. In this context, maybe western entertainments simply mean nothing. Respect is due, if so. Star Wars movies and pop culture also mean nothing to me. Except I have no important responsibilities with which to adorn my indifference; I’m just a contrary guy who enjoys doing the opposite of whatever the done thing is.

It’s a regret that I didn’t take the chance to chat with any Aborigines. Truth is, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. (I sure speak zero Aboriginal). I never felt such a gap between myself and indigenes, as I did in Alice Springs. Whatever’s happening below the surface there is a mystery to me. But a successful accommodation seems to have been struck between all the locals, so that they do okay milking the stream of tourists passing through. Mutual interests triumphant!

The photo of the straight road I took during the world’s longest day trip to Uluru from Alice Springs. The ride is hundreds of kilometres and they say the expedition really is the most lengthy on earth. We arrived home after midnight, so technically not a day trip. I let it go.

Most travel advice you read is wrong

imageOkay, if I have one piece of advice for anybody on a long trip in a strange, faraway place, it’s this. Take with a pinch of salt (in fact take with the whole cellar of salt) anything you hear about the place from foreigners who have been there.

This is a position with consequences for the credibility of big websites such as TripAdvisor, Wikitravel, Agoda et al. And travel blogs too. Being this sceptical is a big commitment! But my experience makes me believe it’s right. I heard so many times during my trip in SE Asia information which turned out to be totally inaccurate. That I shouldn’t go Timor Leste (East Timor) because it’s an unstable  basket case of a place with a violent rebel insurgency. That Manilla in the Philippines is a wild place where literally anything dodgy goes. That I should stay away from general election events in Myanmar for my own safety.

All this and more turned out to be very bad advice indeed and I enjoyed my time enormously in these places without once feeling like I was in danger. In East Timor a cop and his wife let me sleep for free at their house and I stayed up all night with him drinking palm whiskey under the stars. Wonderful hospitality it was; (I wonder, would I be so welcoming?) In Manilla I unwittingly booked in to a hostel located in a ‘lively’ district where bars carry signs telling you to hand in your guns at the counter. But I experienced only friendliness and openheartedness from the locals. In Myanmar, the dangerous general election events at night were nothing of the sort. It was one of the most thrilling things I did on my trip; putting me in touch with something vital in Burmese society that’s not in any guide book.

So, my advice is to not take advice. …Hang on, that doesn’t work. Okay, don’t take advice on faith, except for this bit of advice. We all love giving good advice while on the road, we like to feel we have rare insight and to show off a bit how well travelled we are (or is that just me). But ultimately, what we say about a place is influenced by what we feel about it and what we feel about it is shaped on a deep personal level, which means it’s entirely subjective and so probably of little use for anybody except ourselves.

Also, some advice us westerners in developing countries dish out to each other is pretty insulting to the locals, in my opinion. Take for example hostel / hotel review sites. How many times have I read a bad or snotty review of a place?  I could not count. Some reviewers even publicly accused staff of theft, con-artistry and other smears. No doubt a few stories were true, but I have the strong impression most bad experiences are misunderstandings and nothing more. Other lousy reviews seem like simple cases of reviewers having distorted expectations of a place and failing to recognise it. I rarely found a bad review matched my own experience.

If I took the advice I was given about East Timor and Myanmar and Manilla, then I would not have had such rich experiences as I did in those places, which today are some of my fondest memories. Being on the road, you think you are free and independent, but really there are influences working upon you all the time, such as the chatter in hostels and on websites. My advice is to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.  I reckon the best advice of all is just to go.

The photo of the rocky road in this post, I took in Da Nang, Vietnam. I was motorbiking round the mountain which looks out on to the sparkling emerald waters of Da Nang Bay, in the background. Rubble from the mountain was scattered all along the track. In the end I turned back and went home: the passage became too steep and being crushed by a falling boulder is no way to go.