Friday, October 15, 2004

Back to life, with Te Reo thoughts and a Billion 7500G wireless setup too!

It's been some time (OK, six months) since the last post, and pressure of work is as good an excuse as any to plead.

On the equipment front, the trusty but dusty D-Link DSL-500 has been tossed and a Billion 7500G wireless set-up substituted. With the addition of a work machine, we found ourselves with 3 Centrino laptops and lots of cables, so it was a natural choice. The selection process was aided by a marvellous Oz site which, together with the Whirlpool forums convinced me to steer well clear of Telecom's D-Link offering (the DSL-G604T+). The Billion worked out of the box, and I've added MAC address filtering plus port filtering to secure things. WEP and/or WPA to follow, but these are a bit trickier...

Another idealistic article recently in the NZ Listener from a writer who spends time in Quebec, about how golly gosh wunnerful it would be if we mandated a dual-language labelling regime here in Helengrad. I half-penned a letter to the editor, then realised, WFT, just do it here. Less constraints, more to the point, quicker. Here's the unbowdlerised version.

Barbara Burstyn's article on 'With language comes understanding', urges an enforced dual-language environment for New Zealand - English and Maori.

She bases her argument on the English/French admixture in Quebec. This will reap a rich harvest of unintended consequences if implemented.

Burstyn's comparison of English and French is instructive: both have common roots, and shared equally in the explosion of knowledge and the application thereof, that have provided us with our modern world. After all, the native speakers of each, are only 20 minutes now apart by EuroStar and half a day in a boat apart, for the rest of recorded history. One would be very surprised indeed if such close linguistic cousins were not able to co-exist in a mandated dual-language area.

But French and English are not at all like Maori and English. And Burstyn's choice of this particular pairing, obscures the issues.

To take the two most serious: the economic impact, glossed over in her article with the phrase 'importers and manufacturers of everything consumed..would be affected'. Let's think that one through. Every large supermarket carries around 20-30,000 SKU's. Every one of those would have to be dual-language labelled, and not just with a cosmetic transliteration: a heavy-duty, tested, completely up-to-date translation which would stand up to, for example, product liability legal challenges.

Supermarkets are a small fraction of the commercial environment.To use an analogy - suppose Melbourne (Australia, look on a map, around the same population size as the whole of NZ at say 4 million) had it's own native language. Let's call it Melburnian. What chance would it have, as a single city, of pursuading every supplier to supply Melburnian labels, workshop and training manuals, price lists, Web sites, credit card imprints, tram passes and street signs? Suppliers would simply decamp to Sydney, Brisbane or Perth and a thriving cross-state under-the-counter market in monolingual goods would rapidly ensue.

But by far the most damaging consequence of the enforced labelling regime would be for the Maori language itself. It's 'taonga' (treasure) status rests entirely on the fact that it is one of the very few pre-scientific and pre-literate languages to have survived alongside a global language. It has sufficient speakers and enough political wind pressure behind it to keep it alive in some form.

But to offer it up as a serious commercial partner to English in the manner suggested is daft. The Maori language is pure oratory, oral history, and essential if elemnetary survival knowledge. It is completely devoid of all Western scientific, engineering, mathematical and literature-based terms, concepts and context - elements which were themselves some 2,500 years in the making. It could not have been otherwise, and that is it's distinctiveness.

To attempt what Bursytn suggests would be to subject this survivor language to massive change. Just to translate, in legally acceptable terms, one line of the label before me on a bottle of milk: 'Calcium - 280mg per 200ml - 35% of the recommended daily intake' into Maori, is to require the importation of the Periodic Table, the metric system, and the mathematical concepts of fractions. And in their full sense, not just a 'William-to-Wiremu' makeover of word sounds without the concepts to underpin them. It is hard to imagine (something Burstyn seems to do a lot, in her article, BTW) that this would not fundamentally alter the Maori language by overwhelming it with neologisms and, in the truest sense of the word, 'foreign' concepts.

It is certainly possible to force such a change in the language, by mandating it and thus opening the valve to the flood of new terms, concepts, sounds, and their written equivalents. But it is certain that the Maori language which resulted from that process would bear very little resemblance to that existing now.

Somehow, I don't think that's what Burstyn imagined could happen.

But then, idealists rarely have to worry about the details. Wherein the devils reside.

Friday, April 30, 2004

Tribes Tripes Tropes

Richard Brookhiser has some pithy words about the difficult project of modernity. It would be nice to think that local advocates of 'da Tribe' should read them and pause. A little teaser:

"More and more, everyone in the world wants self-esteem; less and less, everyone gets it from the kinship group and village customs. For the missing extra jolt, they turn to totalist simplifying ideologies, or they begin the long slog into modernity."

It ain't easy being modern - all those choices! And it's very easy, as RB notes, to delegate the task to a 'simplifying ideology' - religion (think, Islam, where man is specifically regarded as unable to formulate new, let alone criticise existing, prescriptions), a State (think, Stalinist Russia or France), or a Tribe (you have a wide choice here, in NZ, some State subsidised). In all these cases, the burden of choice falls away.

Of course, it's a form of enslavement (something historically closer to many groups' actual practises than any would admit), a brake on innovation, and an economic dead end (read anything by Gareth Morgan). But it's a price that historically many or most have been willing to pay.

An aspect of the price is the group rituals which are needed to cement the 'us' against all 'others', which provide a certain surveillance to ensure that members do not develop seccessionist tendencies, which act to replace the ever-present danger of individual thought, and which provide a pleasing pattern or sequence to a day.

I have always had an aversion to these rituals without really knowing why - apart from the obvious anti-intellectual aspects. The ones that come closest to hooking me are the traditional church services we struck in England: but even there, the religion was a much watered-down version of high-church Anglican, and it was a visible triumph of faith over actuality for even the in-group participants. But certainly the pleasing rituals had a pull at the time.

As Jared Diamond notes in "Guns, Germs and Steel", one formative reason for religions is that they can regulate behaviours which cannot be left to chance - Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' amongst them. By simply stipulating a prohibition, group outcomes are enhanced. Diamond's example is the prohibition on pig meat common to both Judaism and Islam: it solved a pressing issue in the newly-deforested and rapidly degrading Middle East of the time, as pigs' needs for forage in general and water in particular, competed directly with humans'. No eating them. No point in owning them. Problem solved.

But a growing issue is the reversion to tribal and religious thinking which accompanies the current exaltation of tribes in funny little NZ: a sort of mental irredentism. While the more risible forms (taniwha - monsters - which have impeded the planning for a major highway - you can't make this stuff up) can be dismissed, the underlying tendency towards 'magical thinking' is no laughing matter. Any abandonment of the intellect, in the sense of scientific thought, repeatedly demonstrable causes and effects and so on - is bound to undercut the very reasons for and energy of our current state of civilisation, however that's defined.

And this trend is not much better for art: which thrives at the edge of, or in the whirlpools between, great currents of thought. Ask yourself: how much good art over the past 300 years was produced by tribes, as opposed to by lonely outcasts, 'canaries in the coal mines' (as Kurt Vonnegut characterised the role of an artist), existential despair, war, love lost, alcohol and other chemical propellants, and some proportion at least, by individuals with certifiable mental illness?

Oh, there's that word again. Yes, Art is produced by Individuals. Hold that thought.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Prepare for the worst?

Both Ralph Peters and David Warren - two old hands in the Middle Eastern game - seem rather pessimistic to say the least. Their basic intuition - no more than that, at present, is that we are seeing the first stages of an implosion of the entire Arab culture. The money quote from Peters:

"The Arab Middle East has become the world's first entirely parasitical culture; all it does is to imitate poorly, consume voraciously, spit hatred, export death and create nothing."

The whole area hasn't exactly been on my own travel destinations 'one-day' list, but if this goes all the way one of the consequences will be the sequestration of the whole mess. If, as other writers have argued (see, perhaps, Belmont Club) the terrorist is an entirely parasitical method of warfare, then a simple and quite reasonable response is to exercise far stronger border control and movement vetting. That's certainly absent in the EU now. See it while you can?

Amusing Arabian Ablogger (had to make the alliteration work somehow)

Here's a guy will make you reconsider every stereotype you may have had. (And if you don't have stereotypes, how do you survive life in a crowded world?)

He's taking a big risk in doing what he's doing (think, a Luther but in 1510, not 1517) so the least we can do is read it all. And laugh a lot. My two favourites so far: (oh, the linky thing):

(It's a scene from an OBL play)..."I'm so s..s..sorry" howls Bin Laden, "I n...n...never meant to become a terrorist. I always wanted to b..b..become an Imam, but my IQ was over 30."

(On the rather inadequately developed Saudi execution as a satisfactory public spectacle).... "It’s magnified on a massive screen. There are endless replays from different angles. Then in slow motion. Two commentators, retired executioners, discuss the finer points of the swing. Sombre music plays as the corpse and head are removed. The lights dim. That’s it until the next time"

With a sense of humour like this, you just gotta love the guy.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Oil for Fraud is big news now

The irrepressible Mark Steyn, whose articles are always amusingly written and capital-F Forthright, has a good piece in the Telegraph on the tangle of deceit that the Oil-for-Food humanitarian relief effort in Iraq quickly turned into. No quotes (although starving moppets do make another appearance) - just RTWT.

Friday, April 16, 2004

As irrelevant as New Zealand

This assessment from Michael Totten takes our little country as an example of the altered state of relationships between America and Europe. It's a view often heard from the other side of the ditch as well: that NZ is essentially a neutral, and a neutered one (in terms of defence spend) to boot. If we need defending, we'll have to contract it out.

Update: Wog thinks much the same. Sigh.

Not great for the old self-esteem, but this sort of clear-eyed, name-it-for-what-it-is analysis is what I go looking for in the blogosphere.

And another chiller: Heather MacDonald writes about the continuing failure to be able to 'connect the dots': the triumph of privacy rightists (from the right) and civil liberties protectors (from the left) in preventing the projects which would advance this capability. Talk about a Pyrrhic Victory......

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Oil for Fraud - UN to be implicated in massive scam

Looks like this is set to blow on April 22. The usual suspects - France (specifically, Chirac), UN officials, inspectors up and down the chain, and so on, are expected to be unequivocally linked. Sure explains France's efforts to keep Saddam rolling.

Are we surprised? Na. Chirac will go down in history as responsible for the nuclear reactor France provided to Iraq (the Osirak plant, known ever since the Israelis took it out in 1981, as the O'Chirac) plus the Oil-for-fraud palm-greasing (possibly quite literally...) that has, according to an investigator quoted in the article, the potential to be

"one of the world's most disgraceful scams" .

Read it all.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Iraq's first birthday

This little, heartfelt piece, from a so obviously different point of view, is a great antidote to the barrage of lazily misinformed news from the regular outlets. The joy at celebrating (April 9) the liberation just shines out.

Other insights I've found useful include an ongoing series over at Belmont Club, an opinion piece from the plain-speaking Ralph Peters, and the always reliable Cap'n.

Two aspects stand out from these pieces and other reading:

1. despite the spike in Coalition casualties, which are always reported accurately, the kill ratios are staying very high. Of the order of 50-100 to 1. That's good news.

2. The involvement of Syria and Iran in financing, infiltrating, fomenting and generally stirring, is now clear (vide Peters, who makes this explicit). June 30 is a drop-dead milestone for them: it means a freer Iraq and that cannot be tolerated.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Jobs in Hip-Hop

Apart from the obvious reaction to this little joyride (which of course is: "hey, that was our tax money you hosed up the wall - but then, what's new?"), let's stop and think about the recorded reason for this grant.

To the more gullible, a continuing justification for the trip - nobody has yet leapt to the defence of the reported 'chilling out' in Hawaii, Fiji, and Paris - is the quite reasonable notion of eventual jobs in hip-hop. One at a time, then.

Hip-hop is now regarded as being 25 (some would say 30) years old. That's a long time for any musical genre, and it shows. According to Nick Crowe (hat-tip to Dennis Dutton at Arts and Letters Daily),

"change is the only option left for a form once built on innovation, but now characterised by self-limiting dogma and paucity of ideas".

And that change, oh heavenly irony - is coming from.... po' white trash like Eminem. The article mentions "the state of emergency in hip-hop". Hmm: if this was a stock, I'd be selling.

So, it seems that the creative side of hip-hop is dying. And that this could have been discerned by a few minutes Googling by the grants advisers. But they're just bureaucrats (even if closely related to the applicant). What about those 'jobs'?

Any sort of artistic endeavour is generally driven by passion. Characters and storylines that rumble around the head until they have to be let out. Fingers that twitch around figures, riffs, patterns, sequences on any musical instrument you like. The need to adopt personae - masks - and parade around as not-oneself. The urge to make visible, in some medium, an inner vision. And early hip-hop was no exception.

Funnily enough, there tend not to be advertisements for 'jobs' in all this. Think how Marquez, JWM Turner, Tom Waits, or Peter Jackson got started. Not by answering ads. It was that pesky inner passion.

Sure, there are 'jobs' around art of any sort. Roadies, managers, ticket-clippers of all kinds, equipment, material and chemical propellant suppliers, groupies, lawyers, marketers, copywriters, security - the list is long. And they can occasionally be found (at least the more legal ones can) in the press, in specialist magazines, and on the tear-off tabs of hand-written sheets of paper on pinboards anywhere.

But, here's the catch. These jobs are generic and contractual. It's the film industry's MO: get the idea, script it out, assemble a company, make a team, make the film, disband the team. It's not a job as much as a series of projects. Anyone in or around these industry groupings knows that. And you tend to be invited in - head-hunted. And that's for the inner circle.

Further out - the security guys, roadies are just strong backs. Groupies, ditto, plus weak minds. Equipment suppliers, they're specialised retailers. Chemical suppliers, they're hoping to stay well under the radar, and that clients don't lab-test the marching powder for purity. Lawyers, marketers, as one artist, Robert Cray sang 'You can tell me a boat full of lawyers just sank' - enough said.

These 'jobs' are everywhere and nowhere. So: 'Jobs in Hip-Hop'. Generic, short-term, contractual, insecure positions, if you're not the artist(e). Bit like supermarket shelf-fillers, really.

If you are the artist(e) - why pick a genre so obviously flaring and dying? Why not create an entirely new one? Why not let those restless urges out on a world always eager for the next big thang?

Inside tip: don't wait till you see it advertised. It'll be waaay too late then.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

So, where's the next kilowatt gonna come from?

Project Aqua - a large scale hydro generation proposal - has had - lovely irony this - it's plug pulled. Now, against a backdrop of increasing power demand and static generation capacity, folks are now asking the obvious: what's going to keep my business and my home a-hummin'?

A quick survey of the options:
Large-scale hydro: bzzzt - Aqua was to have used the last major resource that could be easily tapped. It had a high head and good flow, hence high energy potential. What's left tends to have one or other, not both, characteristics. And Aqua was in easy country geologically speaking.

Small-scale hydro: Maybe. But the same Byzantine processes of resource consent are needed, irrespective of project scale. Higher fixed cost equals higher running cost. And there will be a lot more generation points needed.

Geothermal: Maybe. That's if underground heat generated by vulcanism doesn't turn out to be a taonga, or be a major part of some taniwha's sustenance. And there's resource consent too...

Coal: probably. Although the Gummint doesn't like this turn of events: Govt Resists Coal Generation Option. Still, the vast lignite fields in Southland have to be a starter. The spectre of Kyoto is rather diminished these days, now that Russia has refused to ratify it. Oh wait, we stupidly signed up already? Sigh.

Nuclear: useful as a straw man to draw the impassioned bile of greens, and worth suggesting for the sheer sake of the ensuing spectacle. But chain-yanking aside, not, I think, a serious starter.

Wind: definitely possible, established in the Manawatu, but has already drawn NIMBY's in Christchurch (the sole generator, at Gebbie's Pass has had a rocky history, and the owners are still trying to quieten the gearbox, ferchrissake), and in Wellington, where a proposed Cook Strait facing wind farm got the evil eye from locals. The problem with wind is of course storage: power has to be used there and then (it does, after all, move rather quickly down them wires). So unless it's used to (say) pump water up into a hydro lake while the wind is blowing, it is rather useless for baseload generation, and by the same token, cannot be relied upon for peaks. And at around 0.5mW per tower, you need an awful lot of whirligigs to make even a modest amount of power. And then only sometimes.

Gas: maybe. Although we did seem to tear through the last major gas field we found rather quickly, no? The form of generation is here the major determinant: doing the gas jet under boiler, to steam - to turbine - to generator - to transmission, in a large centralised station, is not the most efficient usage of the potential. Dispersed generation - say via Stirling cycle technology like WhisperTech, is a better bet. That's big in the UK right now, especially for remote, isolated or small-cluster users. Watch this space.
Similarly, fuel-cells are another technology to watch.

But hey, there's another possibility! In the article, one of the NIMBY's down on the Waitaki river had this to say:

"there is a real head of steam developed for protecting the Waitaki River from such developments."

Quick: back up a turbine and generator, and hook 'em up to the grid!

Monday, March 29, 2004

Guns baaad. Explosive belts Gooood.

NZ Pundit reports on the, shall we say over-egged, response to kid-size guns. Note the rapidity and ferocity of the condemnation. The key line in the Parents' Centre quote runs like this:

"[the advertisement] sent a clear message to kids that it was OK to kill".

So I expect an equally vigorous affirmation from PC (cor, the coincidence...) for an American parent's commentary about Hussam Abdu - you will perhaps recall Abdu's 15 seconds of fame recently on global TV.

"If a bunch of men pressured some girl out of having an abortion the clever cheese-and-cracker set would be speechless with moral outrage.

Well, this is the new peer pressure in the Middle East.

And, it seems to me, bullying a kid into self-vaporization and murder is worse than teasing a girl into an eating disorder."

Teaching kids to kill - themselves! Shockingly unsupportive of kidz rightz. Let's hear it, Parents' Centre! Let's hear it, Minister(s) for Child, Yoof and Fambly! (Who is it, this week?)

I personally won't be holding my breath...

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Lord Carey, retired, religious, and controversial

Lord Carey of Clifton has put in a religious-dialogue context, many of the issues surrounding our fragile co-existence with militant Islam. Huntington gets a mention. Ralph Peters' shadow lies over Carey's analysis of the various failures which have led Wahhabi-influenced Islamic cultures to their present pass.
And while the good Lord urges (what else?) more dialogue, the overall strategy on the ground is more in line with what the good Captain of USS Clueless has thoughtfully outlined for us.
My recent OE has hardened my own confidence in the merits - scientific, technical, creative-wise - of 'our' culture - culture is, after all, as any MBA can regurgitate, 'what we do around here' - nothing more. I'm a techno type, and I don't see too much of that in any other civilisational model - as the quip goes, 'there's no (fill in the blank here) way to fix a car (or a computer)'.
We're living in a 'climax community' - we're the old, great trees (think of the glorious old-growth rimu in Waitutu forest) and that takes maintenance. Like lopping off the odd strangler fig vine at its roots. You can't do that by talking at it.
But back to Carey's speech. He's evidently offended a few tender lilies here and there. Well, boo-hoo. He has a backbone, unlike invertebrate Spain and is unapologetic about that. We could use a few more Careys (and Warrens) out this way.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Nostalgia for Lost Jobs

As usual, Virginia Postrel has a great link:Would you really rather be a miner?
The argument, heard often in tandem with a vaguely anti-capitalist or anti-globalisation bleat, is that those awful (fill in the blanks) have stolen our Jobs.
Which were Ours, you see, by - well, by what right, exactly?

Inheritance? Nope, that's the British Royals.
Guaranteed by the Government? Nope, that's the French, and nobody's buying their stock at the moment. Government's money comes from?? S'right - us Evil Capitalists (EC).
Provided by Family, Tribe? Maybe - if there is an underlying EC somewheres in there - think Ngai Tahu. If not, then when the somebody-else's dime which must be propping the whole show up runs out, so do the jobs.
Threats of violence? Maybe. For a while, and if you're running a mafia or gangsta type op, then that 'while' can be generations. But standover specialists aren't exactly your basic patent-filer types: real innovation comes from free spirits, as a glance at Peters' yardsticks may show. No profits, no surplus to intimidate others into giving you a cut of, no parasites. And where do those profits come from? EC's, again.
Technology? Sure. But all those wagon-wheel and arrow makers of yore seem to have become aircraft engineers, farmers become biologists, miners become mobile phone account managers. Look in the papers - how many of those job titles existed even 20 years ago?

Having just finished Evan Eisenberg's Ecology of Eden, I'm inclined to think that these 'Lost Jobs' reveries are another instance of the 'expulsion from Eden' myth which he dissects so well. Like, there never really was an Eden, so there's no place to go back to. But the nostalgia stems less from this than from the inability to accept that our own reality (Eisenberg's label is the Tower - exemplified by the large cities - largely human-created but containing an essential wildness of their own) is part of nature/world/universe, too. And part of our human nature (when circumstances permit, see Peters again) is simply to create stuff that never existed before.

So the Our-Jobs-Have-Gone moaners seem to have quite a lot in common with the Let's-keep-feeding-people-into-the-industrial-shredders anti-war protesters.

Yes, they (Jobs, tyrants) are gone.
No, they aren't coming back any time soon.
And really, do you all want to go back into that factory, or down that hole? Or, into that shredder?

Monday, March 22, 2004

Al Quaeda to Europe: "Grease up. Bend over."

Hard to know where the Spanish capitulation will take Europe. Nowhere nice, that's for sure. Spanish, and by osmosis, European foreign policy can now be dictated by remote control. Lee Harris has likened the situation to inviting a Vampire inside the door.

The conversations will now go like this:

AQ: 'We've arranged to have a little reminder of 3/11 - you'll be able to tell by the large columns of smoke and the absence of a familar landmark - unless of course you agree to (fill in the blank)'

Spain or other hapless EU member: 'But of course. Jump - how high? We'll see to it right away.'

The sad joke is that the landmark will vanish in a puff of smoke and another few hundred lives, anyway. It's the classic stand-over trope from all those gangster movies - the enforcers, even though they have their percentage of turnover, always manage to break something on the way out, just to show who's boss.

Dr Seuss has a classic cartoon on the subject here.

But nobody should be laughing. As Yogi Berra said, it's deja vu all over again.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

The first concrete step towards Eurabia

Robert Spencer, writing in WorldNetDaily, notes without glee that
"al-Qaida has adjusted Spain's foreign policy with a bombing".

Hat-tip to LGF.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Comments about Spain

Mark Steyn usually has thoroughly amusing yet pointed observations. This one is no exception.

Lee Harris is another one of those wise guys: he runs a thought experiment here past TechCentralStation readers. A quote:

"If a foreign agent is permitted to interfere at will with the internal affairs of a nation, then that nation no longer possesses national sovereignty -- a fact that can be immediately grasped in those cases when the foreign agent is another nation state."

Ralph Kinney Bennet is pessimistic. The opening quote says it all.

"Shall I tell you what the real evil is? To cringe to the things that are called evils, to surrender to them our freedom, in defiance of which we ought to face any suffering. (Seneca)"

Wednesday, March 17, 2004


Tricky concept. I seem to need large doses of this in times of uncertainty, and there are a few people I keep returning to for their latest efforts.
Victor Davis Hanson, for a cold-eyed look at the world around us - latest I've found is here.
Robert D Kaplan (recent Atlantic Monthly article), whose view of humankind is a needed antidote to all those damned idealists: dark and irrational passions lie deep in human nature. Think religious fanatics, berserkers, the 'creedal passion periods' that Huntington points to in American culture, the taniwha worshippers of our own little NZ, the cargo cultists of the South Pacific, the list just goes on and on. To the extent that real power is thus exercised, and that power always, always matters, this side of us cannot be glossed over or rationalised away.
Evan Eisenberg, author of The Recording Angel, shows a marvellous touch with this now out of print trawl through the co-evolution of jazz and records. I'm currently reading his Ecology of Eden and rather like his juxtaposition of the Mountain-Eden and the Tower-Technological Man. So far, anyway.
William Rees-Mogg , who co-authored with James Dale Davidson The Sovereign Individual which not coincidentally (in my edition's preface) has a telling reference to the (not exactly quoted) 'vulnerable steel and glass symbol of commerce - the Twin Towers'.
Which may lead on (but not tonight, more Eisenberg to digest, after a good steak, a passable shiraz and a glorious sunset viewed from the Southern tip-head mole at Greymouth) to a rumination about canaries in coal mines.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Andalusia is a front line

Tacitus has a thoughtful piece on Spain which echoes Mark Steyn's piece in the Australian yesterday. Essentially, because Spain was the site of the 1492 explusion of Muslims from the Iberian peninsula (known to history as the 'Reconquista' - the Re-conquering), it has been, is, and will be always in the sights of Islamofascists. And that's quite irrespective of the government of the day, its policies, its attempts at appeasement or indeed any actions.

I'm reminded of Tim Burtons 'Mars Attacks', where the negotiations between Earth and the Martians come to this point: Earth: 'what would you want us to do?' Martians: 'Die'.

As Mark Steyn notes in his piece, there's a sentiment-for-sentiment quote from Hezbollah to the same effect:
"We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you."

Monday, March 15, 2004

Today we are all Spaniards

Mark Steyn has a typically comprehensive article about the Spanish atrocity. Just read the whole thing (RTWT).

Carl Zimmer is blogging!

CZ is a journalist who has that enviable knack of making science interesting and topical, without mushing it down to a lowest-common-multiple in the process. It's a rare gift (grits teeth at this point). I first struck his writing in 'At the Water's Edge' - a marvellous trek through macro-evolution, which for me answered most of the 'but where are the intermediate forms?' questions. There were eight-fingered fishy things, a clear exposition on how genes could simply experiment with physical forms, the eternal question (much beloved by fellow apes who are still inclined to miraculous explanations of their origin rather than accept the bleeding obvious) of how eyes could have evolved, and so on.

He (CZ) is also responsible for 'Parasite Rex' - which is very useful for terrifying the squeamish, is not to be discussed at meal-times, and which contains perhaps the best explanation I've seen for (and a typically gorge-raising possibility for fixing) Crohn's disease.

As well as his own website, he also blogs over at The Loom.

Speaking as one with 65% fish genes, I thoroughly recommend these works. Look out too for his latest: 'Soul made Flesh'.

A thoughtful look at 21st century empire

There's such a lot of heat and so little light in the now rather enervated debates on world politics in the blogosphere. This piece is a welcome, energetic addition to that debate: Bobbitt

Friday, March 12, 2004

Back again at last, having figured links...

The blogging silence has been for two reasons:
1 - new job, settling in, sales to chase and implementations to do. Demanding - a lot of learning, new business relationships, new products and technologies. The initial 'deep-end' feeling has subsided somewhat now (I'm a fast study in techo stuff, being male - heh).
2 - the shock of coming back to little, young, empty, slow NZ took fully one month to work off. Not that, as I walk dogs down a practically deserted 10k of beach, I miss the terraced, 5 storey London that we worked in. But....

The ceramic we purchased in Barcelona has turned up, and in one piece! Thanks to the seller, who organised the coffin-maker to make a special box, and to FedEx. Ain't global transportation wunnerful?
It's still moving around as we figure how best to display it (and tie it down: NZ isn't known as the Shaky Isles for nothing).

Oh, linking. Here's a typically "I've thought it all out and here it is" fabulously detailed post - who else could? - on the new Iraq constitution: Steven Den Beste

Monday, January 26, 2004

Jan 17 - homewards bound

We farewell Anne and Doug - thanks guys for a marvellous time. The mood evaporates somewhat as we wend our way slowly through AA's queues, and totally as the TSA unpacks our bags - they've spotted the two air nailers I picked up at Home Depot, plus the bag of video cable fittings and other metal bits. Well, the nailers do look like guns, and the fittings might look like bullets. But it doesn't help us in terms of timing for the flight, because we suspect our names are then passed down to the personal check, and it's 'spread em' time. Very politely. 'I'm going to touch you briefly with the back of my hand'. Hey, I paid Florida sales tax too! Couldn't you linger? But what with all this, we make a 3.20pm flight at 3.23. 'Where were you?' We refrain from noting the obvious - that we were being felt up by TSA spooks. And so to LA. Great kinetic scuplture at Tom Bradley terminal. Terrible coffee - we've been spoiled. Then the long flight back. Then the lost baggage at Auckland. It's only a flagpole for a flag we bought on the Keys. But really!

Jan 15/16 - Florida Keys

After a leisurely start (breakfast, more Folgers coffee) we swing (well, crawl at times, remember those Florida drivers) down the Miami freeways, onto US1 and the Keys! The Keys are really a cross between a railway embankment (put down in the early 1900's by one Henry Flagler right down to Key West, then blown flat by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 with attendant loss of life), and natural coral islands. The Keys divide the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, and have an Atlantic-side reef to protect them (well, until the next big storm surge - the 1935 event had 15-18 feet tides and an average land height of maybe 6 feet...).
So there's an air of devil-may-care and laid-back-ness about the Keys: certainly there are a lot of folk who have bought a boat and gone charter-fishing there. Ernest Hemingway and all that imagery, too. We have a poke around, a sun-soaked lunch, more of a look (searching for sailing hires - not many on offer) and finally a sunset Key lime pie (local delicacy, like a deliciously bitter cheesecake, needs a lot of beer to wash it down) and of course the aforesaid sunset. Which slides right into an inconveniently placed Key further down. Bugger.
Then off to our accommodation, which has raccoons on the ground outside. Fat raccoons, from thoughtless guests who feed them. On Dunkin' Donuts, evidently. We refrain. The raccoons yowl away for a while, we sit out on the balcony, and a delicious scent from outside vegetation steals through the room - gardenias, perhaps. We make vague, alcohol-propelled plans to buy a boat (with a sail) and move down here.
The next day, we locate a sailing hire down at Mile Marker 82, and an Enviro-tour which goes bird and manatee watching. The Mile Marker system is very sweet - all addresses are prefixed with the Mile marker (MM) so you can see that 85430 will be between MM 85 and 86. Very logical and useful. A slight quirk, MM's on the Keys run from Key West (the end). Well, they have to start somewhere. So going down the Keys (accommodation is around MM95) is a quick study in subtraction. Or using a calculator.
There is a correlation between driving and type of vehicle that, although we laugh it off at first, gradually really does become apparent. Ford F150's house the legendary flaky drivers, it seems. US1 is all single-lane, so it's very easy to get stuck behind a raised drawbridge, someone who knows they have to turn right somewheres around here (to within oh say 10 miles) and goes 20mph to check every street sign, or the aforesaid F150. And it's literally the only way in or out of the whole 118 miles of Keys - a scary thought if evacuation really needed to happen. However, mostly the traffic rolls right along at the predominant speed limit of 45mph.
Our Enviro-tour isn't, as it turns out, in a woven flax corracle with a sail, with a SNAG captain (or captess) who sings to the fishes. It's in a 30ft Boston Whaler with a 225hp Merc out back, Captain Reed at the helm (favourite sound bite "hang on back there" as he slams the throttle right forward), making around 35mph on the water. Well, we do have some territory to cover. And the Merc is enviro, being a four-stroke. We see manatee grass but no manatees, skates and sharks and lots of fishes. And birds, who take over certain mangrove clumps and not others. Note to diary: birdshit en masse really stinks the place up. No wonder every public building through Europe is festooned with upward-pointing spikes (laid out in collated strips, like nailgun nails) to discourage roosting. We idle through narrow little backwaters amongst mangroves and islands in an ultimately unsuccessful but hugely enjoyable search for the elusive manatee.
Back at the lodge, we have arranged a one hour sail on a Hobie cat, so I take Doug and Anne out on a very laidback cruise. Mild onshore breeze, so we can reach out to sea, tack away up the beach, sail right back. There's no jib, just a mainsail - the way a catamaran can go in even a moderate breeze leads me to suspect they've had to chase one or two right out to the reef in the past. We just pootle about, staying out of the way of powercraft, and generally having a great time. So I have to buy a sailboat fleet and move to the Keys, now.
On the Enviro-tour, we have spotted a decayed-looking drinking hole (Papa Joe's) which promises a better sunset. So once back onshore, we head there and await the sunset with a beer. Or two. It sets behind land (again! but by now we don't care) and a backdrop of power lines which serves as a good metaphor for the Keys - power poles marching to a vanishing-point, water and pelicans everywhere, good bar music from a real live entertainer (taking time out from fishing charters, probably) and good company. A sunset movie, naturally. And a long afterglow with underlit jetstream cloud overhead. Why isn't every day like this?
We trail back up US1 and witness a truly dopey piece of driving by (what else?) an F150 inhabitant. He's trailing a 25ft boat, going at much less than the speed limit, accumulating a respectable tailback behind him. And when he gets to the passing zone - he (you can't make this stuff up) stays in the fast lane, forcing everyone to pass on the wrong side.... Just as well Hemingway wasn't in the tailback. Mr F150 would have had his two brain cells plastered all over the inside of the cab once Ernie drew alongside.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Jan 14 - on the Inland Waterway and Cuban coffee

An early start to make a boat trip down the inland canals system into the downtown Miami area. The trip is very good: a bit of commentary about the houses of the rich and famous, passing under many bridges, waiting for others to open up (which they do very satisfactorily to W's engineers mind, and a movie to record the fact), past lots of rather dire condo-type blocks, and also a lot of very classy ones.
But the main impressions remain of the sheer size (we travel down perhaps 1/3 of Miami's total length), the amount of construction, and the general affluence. We don't really try to get to downtown - shops are the same anywhere - but have a good Cuban meal and discover Cuban coffee. Black, quite sweet, very strong, quite addictive. Two cups are in order. And T-shirts.
Back on board, back up the same waterway, but on the other side of the boat it's all new. The inland waterways extend pretty much right up the coast, and we pass two major ports: Fort Lauderdale (cruise ships, ro-ro vessels and oil tankers) and Miami (in the distance, at least 10 container cranes, lots of activity to judge by the semis with containers backed up right over the bridge into the port area). A great day.

Jan 13 - Miami

Early start, as we check out, very last tube trip out to Heathrow, where AF has actually delivered the luggage! We grab it and head for our plane. Timing is tight but Ok in the end. 9 hours in the air, Ernest Ranglin on the MuVo, good meals (we're flying BA this leg). The plane goes on a great-circle track from UK to Canada, then down the eastern seaboard of the US to Miami. M sees lots of snow in Canada as we overfly. They're having big storms, low temperatures.
Not in Miami, however, which is a comfortable 25 C, with low humidity. We get our bags (lots of queueing, but our NZ passports get us waved through once we get to officialdom). We mill around Terminal B for a while till we hook up with Doug (Host #1) and then circle around for a further while till Anne (Host #2) hoves into view. Then freeway travel with light traffic and minor examples of the fabled crazed Florida driving only, out to Lauderhill (north of Miami) and relaxation and lots of catching up.
The house is a large suburban one, with a swimming pool out back, lots of palm trees, a canal with ducks, snakes, toads but (we are slightly disappointed to learn) no 'gators - there's a grill out at the road end to keep them out. There was a iguana some time ago in the back, and photos to prove it. And fireants, until they got treated. So we plan tomorrow's excursions in relative safety, predator-wise. With great Folger's coffee.

Jan 12 - Air France - The horror, the horror

We visit the Zweigart factory for a look-through, have lunch with the directors, then off to Stuttgart airport (an exhilarating motorway trip in the trusty Audi - our host has bucked the Merc fixation) - where the AF horror starts. We had (at CDG pPaaris transfer desk) swapped our flights to earlier ones back to London, to allow us more time at CDG with that dreadful changeover. They (what else) fubar'ed both the original and the replacement flights at that point. Our efficient (German, of course) AF people at the desk sort this out, but it takes about 20 minutes and much dark muttering by three people. We hear the word 'kaput' more than once - never a good sign.
But Paris-bound we are, and duly arrive at CDG, and the inevitable bus.
Just imagine, you build an airport, taxiways, parking bays, runways, terminals, cargo and baggage areas. Each terminal has many gates, each with an airbridge. So far, so standard. But at Paris CDG, you do not let actual planes near the airbridges. In fact, you don't equip many of the gates with actual dockable airbridges, but terminate them in stairs to ground level. Instead, there are three rules of operation:
1 - keep those planes away from the gates by parking them a kilometre or so away
2 - transport everyone everywhere (plane-terminal, terminal to terminal) by bus, one planeload at a time. This guarantees bottlenecks, as there's only one bus allowed per plane, so it has to wait for the last passenger
3 - express incredulity and pained surprise when planes are missed and luggage goes astray
It seems fair to assume that this model of airport operation will not be emulated by other airports which want to have a future. And in our limited experience, it certainly isn't - most others exhibit reasonable standards of efficiency, cleaniness and punctuality. Including Mulhouse, but then it has Swiss and German exits which exert a benign organising influence. So there's the obvious answer to CDG: shift it to Strasbourg and let it imbibe the German attention to detail. With a fast rail link to Paris, it wouldn't even take longer.
We eventually make it to Heathrow and, quelle surprise, Air France has left all our luggage in Paris. They offer to forward it to our hotel. No thanks, we are going to Miami the next day. Monsieur, we can forward it there for you. Ah, but when? Not trusting AF to find its ass with both hands, we arrange to personally pick it up at Heathrow (different terminal from our Miami trip, of course, Sod's law) rather than trust it to AF's by now highly questionable stewardship. A last Picadilly then District tube (costs 3.80 instead of the rip-off Heathrow Express at 25.00) to Victoria and our hotel. What a day. But it's our last night in dear grimy tired London. Sniff.

Black Forest - Jan 11

Our marvellous host has a drive through the BF planned. We had always thought of it as an enclave or pocket, but it is absolutely huge: around 180k long and averaging 50k wide. We drive into the middle, to Bad Griesbach and (what else) a little local restaurant with local delicacies. But first, a small bush walk, to an abandoned dam which holds special memories for our host. Very rustic (dam was for a fishing lake) and quiet. And rainy. So we retreat to a lunch of wild venison (hirshragout) which is really gamy and marvellous. Then a schnapps - firewater, made from a cherry base. The first slug lifts the top gently from your head, the second (although you're technically meant to knock it all back in one swallow) gently stirs the brain cells with a long-handled silver spoon and the third... well you can't feel it.
The BF drive continues: there was a hurricane (150-200k winds) several years ago which simply flattened parts of the forest, and the processing industries (a lot of them, all over - the BF is a huge wood resource) are still working through the bulge in log supplies. Most of the region is well roaded: there are bush tracks for the logging, and the whole area is intensively managed or at least kept an eye on by rangers, compartment by compartment. The extent amazes us, even in the 200 k's or so we drive. Snow on the tops, pine forest (black trunks, dark interior, hence Black forest) on the steeper slopes. Then all of a sudden, on gentler slopes, a consistent pattern emerges: cultivated land, orchard trees amongst this, then a village in a hollow by a stream, more fileds, back into forest over the ridge tops. Many, many villages. Intensive cultivation, with no fences. Very neat and orderly, even to the extent of sealed narrow roads through the fields for the farm equipment, all open to the main roads.
It's all very Swiss/German postcard, and there is a whole lot of it. No wonder this area was coveted by the kings of yore. The weather as we drive through is not great - mist, rain, if it was colder there would be snow over the tops. But we like this: it gives a sense of how 'black' the forest must have seemed in older days, when bears, wolves and other carnivores roamed, the damp crept everywhere, the fire burnt lower and cabin fever set in. This is Brothers Grimm territory, no doubt about it. Again, this experience is not the usual touristic one: which is evidently limited to a selected few pretty villages, and a brief swing through some trees somewhere along the line. We really feel we've seen the real, hard-working, orderly Germany. And to cap it off, we take a short-cut through the cultivated fields on the way back to Sindelfingen (after stopping in at a fish ponds back in the forest, to buy some smoked trout for dinner), and it's like driving through the farmers' private territory. A 2.4m sealed strip, cultivated to within a metre or so each side, park-like trees dotted around. No fences, no stock (all is kept indoors except a few sheep). An absolute delight. And we have trout, more good wine, and cheeses for dinner. Ans see a totally delightful little film that is shown every New Years throughout northern Europe: Freddie Frinton's 'Dinner for One'. FF was English, but this is a rare treat, around 50 years old, very slapstick/music hall influenced. We'll try to get a copy somewhere along the way.
There's no doubt that the fabled German fussiness is there: nice smooth railbeds for the trains, orderly fields and forests, sealed roads down to farm lanes, beautiful machinery (the factory we see is spotlessly maintained and every cable and pipe has it's place), but what's missing from this stereotype is what we've seen: the humour, the earthiness, the sense of judgement in architecture, and the delight in nature (those monks and their ceiling paintings of which we have many photos). This won't be our last trip to this area.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Bebenhausen - Jan 10

Another Cistercian monastery, just up the road from Tubingen. Well preserved: there doesn't seem to have been the episodes of iconoclasm (image smashing) which destroyed so much of British churches and abbeys, and which occurred in France just prior to WW1. There is a great deal of painted stone left: something very common then but most old stone we have seen up till now has been cleaned back. Lots of botanical images, and the rising sun emblem (for Christ, we think) on celing bosses in the vaults everywhere. And more humour: a painted pulpit with a stone figure holding it up. A great afternoon, all round. Dinner with local and French wines in the evening.

Tubingen - Jan 10

Our hosts in Sindelfingen take us to the university town of Tubingen - 180 km/h on the autobahn (for only 5 k's, unfortunately) and a swing through what turns out to be an outpost of the Black Forest. Tubingen is a university town, enlivened by 30,000 students, and has a strong medical/genetic background: cell nuclei were first isolated in the schloss' kitchen, and the fuchsia was named after one Fuchs, whose house we photograph.
And those houses! They are everything the postcards say - stone bases, timber post-and-beam construction with brick or rubble infill, above. Ancient timbers, carefully replaced (this form of construction is quite easy to repair, as it's all exposed), and just oozing antiquity. Many humourous touches - carvings of little people holding up bits of the buildings on corners and under beams, and a lot of painting to resemble other, grander decorations on otherwise flat surfaces. Old timber. Bulgy stone walls. Delightful colours and lots of hills. We have a great old walk around - mine host acting as guide, and getting around the (inevitable) mediaeval streets without getting lost. We lunch at a Schwabian specialty restaurant (one of many): dumplings and various local dishes. Very filling and delicious.

Mulhouse - Jan 8

We arrive sans M's luggage, courtesy of those fubar Air France peasants. Not ever, ever flying Air France will become a resolution....
The trip next day to DMC goes well, access to their rarely-opened museum granted, and photos permitted. Then we take to the trains: Mulhouse-Strasbourg-Stuttgart. The first leg is SCNF (French) and is quite good - wending through the Rhine valley, with schloss (castles) on each major hill (the rich Rhine valley land has been traded back and forth between various overlords for some time, now). We change to DB (German) at Strasbourg, and immediately things improve even more: German timeliness and nice level trackbeds make for a very comfortable ride. Of which we see nothing, as it's now dark.
We brave the German language and the Stuttgart S-bahn (city rail, again courtesy of DB) and find our way to Bobelingen, then a cab to Sindelfingen and our hotel.
Sindelfingen is home to a large Mercedes plant, where the employees can buy a Merc for 20% under list, then sell it after a year for that same amount. So, unsurprisingly, the town is full of new Mercs. It's a rich area in farming terms as well: cultivated fields right up to the Mercedes plant and (we see in the Monday when we fly out) the airport too.

Paris - Jan 7 - stuck at CDG

Early start to catch an 0915 plane to Paris, then on to Mulhouse, all on Air France. Ha! We had reckoned without Heathrow's queues (for take-off) and Charles De Gaulle (CDG) airport's inter-terminal transfers. We make Terminal F (coming in) at the exact time the Mulhouse flight departs, and the transfer to Terminal B takes fully 35 minutes. There is quite a lot of activity at the transfer desks as passengers re-book missed connections - must happen a lot. It's the first airport I've seen with specialised busses, able to hold a whole planeload by the looks of them, with bodies able to be raised up to the airbridge level. Obviously a desperate measure to ferry round transfers, although the busses don't seem to be moving at all. But our inter-terminal shuttle has to crawl along behind baggage trolley tractors, wait for cross traffic, and dodge freight and airline food vehicles. Doesn't say much for the general level of organisation: mostly these streams are kept well segregated. Ho hum. We have a late afternoon flight to Mulhouse booked instead of the one we missed, and we re-schedule Monday's (coming) flights out of Stuugart, to allow a whole lot more time, and to allow a later flight to London. For we mustn't miss that Miami flight early Tuesday.... Two cafe-au-laits in quick succession restore the optimal blood/caffeine ratio. No wireless internet acccess in the terminal. Mais naturellement. But of course. CDG's stylised layout map, we notice, resembles a porcupine's outline. We think we now know why.

London - Jan 6 - last day

Work and then a hop across to Kypera up in Clerkenwell. I catch a Picadilly tube and get off at Holborn, thinking, it's a short step down the hill to Smithfield and Kypera. It's a long hop.... but I pick up a nice NZ Marlborough white on the way, for a very kind person whose NT card we have had all this time. Thanks sincerely.
Goodbyes all round, then a quick caffeine-up at a little Italian place in Cowcross St, and onto the Tube at Farringdon for the last time. This is the oldest part of the entire tube system, and looks it. I'll miss it heaps.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

London - Jan 6 - Sir John Soanes

More work, but the Soanes Museum is open by candlelight on the first Tuesday every month. So off we go to Lincoln's Inn Fields. Sir J was an eminent architect in the late 1700's to early 1800's and his home is a museum of architectural fragments: castings, pieces, books, plans. Generally, the collection is unexplained, so you have to know a little about the times and styles to make much sense of it all. It's very crammed in, lit by an amazing variety of internal and external skylights, and just an absorbing session.
The realisation that we're leaving day after tomorrow is sinking in, and so we wander down on a last walk through central London. Down Kingsway, where the impressive blue-lit facade of the BBC looms, through to Somerset House. This is an old (1650 - 1700) pile, which hosts ice-skating over the December/January period. We stop, have a mulled wine and watch for a while. Most out tonight are the clutch-the-railings-and-hope brigade, it seems. Then we amble back up Father Thames to Westminster Tube station, and so home to dear old Victoria. One more day. Sniff.

London - Jan 5

Work, work, work. Macdonald's salad. Cheap, boring.

London - Jan 4 - Science Museum

Yet another huge place, up in the group of 3 museums (Natural History, V&A, Science) in South Kensington. So we cherry-pick: machinery and marine, plus the genetics/brain development part of the Wellcome Wing.
The machinery is quite astounding: some of the earliest steam engines (beam pumps from the Cornish mines, made by Boulton, Watt and Trevithick, around 1770) are there. Extremely crude in making: hand-filed cylinders (machine tools had simply not been invented), few screws, lots of wedges to hold things together, lots of wood. Yet the progress within just a few decades was also impressive: as those machine tools started to be used widely. So much is there: Stephenson's 'Rocket' locomotive (1829, looking very fragile, small, bendy frames), Brunel's block-making machines (the first production line machinery in wide use outside textiles), early lathes, planers, steam hammers. Not that I would have liked to run any of it: dangerous looking boilers everywhere, nasty flat-belt drives.
Driven by what else? There's a full-size, working (on steam) stationary engine - the real old workhorse type that ran factories in the UK and sawmills (in NZ bush). Huge flywheel: fully 20 feet diameter, making 700hp. And so quiet! A bit of clacking from the valve gear but otherwise pure rotation without noise. This particular engine ran 1700 looms in a woollen mill well into the 1970's, and now runs for a couple of hours on Sundays (at least). I'd heard of such engines: an old bushman mentioned one with a 24ft flywheel at the 'Razorback' mill on the coast south-west of Tuatapere, but I didn't really understand just how big they were. Drive was straight from the outside of that flywheel, so it didn't need to run fast - around 40-60rpm, to make good belt speed. And very little wear at that sedate speed, hence the longevity. Quite a peak, seeing this beauty.
The genetics/brain exhibit was very current and informative. Good written material, but no book back at the store afterwards - a disappointment.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

London - Jan 3 - Evensong at St Paul's

Back across the Millenium Bridge. This was the suspension one that had to be hurriedly closed days after its opening in 2000 for 'adjustments' after it quickly exhibited resonance effects under the feet of several hundred people crossing it. Like there were no resonance issues generally with suspension bridges - think Tacoma Narrows for starters (it twisted itself to pieces in about 10 minutes during a moderate gale in the 1940's). Classic Brit engineering SNAFU. It's a nice bridge now though, after its de-bouncing treatment, and leads straight to St Paul's from TM.
We arrive at St Paul's at 5 pm - evensong is just starting, Hmm. This could become a habit. The tourists mill around all through the service, coming and going through the prayers, taking flash pictures (ushers try to stop this, but aren't everywhere). The service is very good: very inclusive (unlike the RC cathedral in Barcelona) with prayers offered (as in Salisbury) for victims and survivors of the Iran quake. A stirring organ voluntary at the end, with applause from the less aware tourists. St Paul's is under cleaning and reconstruction inside and out, so the glorious dome is visible in fragments only from inside. But it's a lovely tall, light-filled church, unlike (M feels) Westminster Abbey which was much more gloomy. And more obviously and obtrusively full of dead people to boot. Boot Hill, in fact. St Paul's is an absolute London landmark: it's dome shows up in the skyline everywhere (think, the river views in 'Love Actually'). Christopher Wren, the architect, has an epitaph which translates roughly as 'For my memorial, look around you' and it's still true 350 years later.

London - Jan 3 - Tate Modern

Bounced back after a good night's sleep: takes more than an overgrown calamari to do me in. And it hasn't soured Barcelona at all. Washing in the morning. Wander back from Monument tube stop along the Thames (overshot, but who cares when the way back is from Hooke's Monument after the Fire of London, along the river) to Millenium bridge and Tate Modern.
TM is in a former power station and the entrance is truly stunning: the former turbine hall (complete with overhead gantry crane) has been left empty, but a huge lit-up sun abstract is at the eastern end, and the ceiling is mirrored. There's a small mezzanine for viewing. People lie on the floor (in the 'sun'), make shapes, watch themselves in the roof, watch other people, take pictures pointing at the sun (which guarantees a Big Yellow Thing type photo unless you can control the camera exposure, which we can, thanks Nikon). It's a living work of art, just wonderful in conception, and constantly changing as the crowds come and go. A nice little tail-piece - a couple make as if they're pedalling a tandem, lying on their sides, watching themselves in the roof. A better introduction to abstract and kinetic art could not be had.
TM starts off very well - early 20th Century beginnings including one where I say to M - 'looks like that guy had seen a lot of Monet' - and it's a Monet!. Dali, Picasso (not much or interesting), some Tanguy, Ernst, Man Ray. Great kinetic art too - this sort of stuff just has to work. Then it gets a little silly (Man Ray again, someone who does heating vents, a flat-sided car). The crowds (TM is free, so lots of people of all sorts, knowledge and ages come) give some guide. Works that show (as I always look for) clear evidence of technical skill and familiarity with the materials attract people at least long enough to read the labels. A very popular work is a traditional musuem cabinet with opening exhibit drawers and display shelves, full of artefacts removed from two digs in the Thames outside the two Tates: South Bank (where we are) and Millbank (Tate British). There's everything from human bones to plastic Coke caps and AA cards. The installation runs to the head digger's overalls, boots and coat. People just love this stuff. There's drawer opening and closing, circling around and coming back, and the merest nod to 'Modernism' in that the artefacts are not arranged in a conventional way (no chronology or explanation - more by shape and size than anything). But it's capital A Accessible.
Which is more than can be said about some of the rest. The reaction of people en masse can't be mistaken for knowledgeable criticism, but it is noticeable that the circulation through is very fast, and the benches (except for that in front of a Pollock, for some reason) are not occupied by art lovers but, if at all, by parents and other fractious walkers who have just taken a few steps too far into the wrong part of town.
There are three main schools of art in this part of TM:
Hurl and Hope (Pollock),
Tray and Roller (Rothko) and
Squat and Push (we didn't stop to read the labels about which artist but they certainly had a good feed beforehand).
My Barcelona productions, framed, would have won prizes in two of the three categories I have devised. It is entirely understandable that artists of all sorts need to differentiate themselves, go against the perceived 'order of things' and generally challenge the senses. But when the effect (a Tray and Roller school piece) is a 2x3m solid red canvas, and the work has to stand on it's own against a lot of others, there is no context anymore, and the technical skill is certainly not evident. Most people can think of a partly stripped wall in a spare room that looks like some of these pieces. So they think to themselves, stuff this, there's bound to be something I can relate to further on, and just keep going.
Most of the works are too recent (this century) for real judgement to occur, but I feel history will quietly discard some of these pieces. Or the cleaners will make a dreadful mistake. Or, in the case of the heating vent 'artist', some hapless local heat/ventilation/air con (HVAC) engineering firm, summoned to attend to a malfunctioning plant unit in the vicinty, will take the thing away entirely. 'There's yer problem, guv'nor - thermostat's gawn'. Tee hee.
TM is of course well worth seeing for the sun, the art and the silliness. How else to figure it all out? It's only when things go way too far that a sense of where the middle lies, and what constitutes skill worth supporting, can evolve.

Barcelona - revenge of the calamari Jan 2

I (W) have a tummy bug: half the night speaking to the Great White Trumpet, manage to block the hotel's washbasin. Don't even ask how. And we fly back to London today. Fortunately, the worst is over by hotel checkout time: hot and cold flushes but I'm travellable. Barely. It was classic food poisoning, and I fear the octupus-wrangler from two nights ago may be to blame. We have run out of our 4-day Metro pass so just get a cab: the Placa Jaume L is just up the hill and as a seat of local government always has lots of cabs. Sleep away the time until the flight with music courtesy of the trusty MuVo, and have an entirely forgettable flight on an Airbus A320 back to Heathrow. I'd been looking forward to flying the Airbus, but it really is a disappointment compared to the Boeings I'm used to. Even allowing for my fragile state, the plane flies rough: engine vibration all the time during flight - and the air conditioning is a sad joke. Even Heathrow's taxiways feel extra bumpy. Just like me.

Barcelona - Gaudi day Jan 1

One of the nice things about Gaudi, architect and genius, is that he worked chiefly in Barcelona itself, so his opus is easy to get around. And it's New Year's day, with very little open. We head up to Park Guell, a 20 hectare site which Gaudi developed over 15 years or so. It's a World Heritage site, richly deserved. There's a bit of everything: fairytale gate-houses with mushroom roofs, twisted/sloping columns on walkways, an entire lookout space supported by stone pillars, dog head gargoyles, and viaducts including the 'enamorata' with included love-seats. And the salamander (tiled, huge, kids love it). And that's the best thing about this park, it is loved and used by everyone. Spanish dog walkers. Families, Tourists. Kids of all ages. And from the upper reaches the Sagrada is visible. What a marvellous memorial.
On the way back (the park is around 1.7 km from the Lesseps Metro stop) we have a cafe con leche y pastri (the Catalan language is quite easy to grasp if you've done Latin), then see the Casa Vicens - of which it's said it was the last straight line construction that Gaudi ever built. Very Moorish, rather sadly hemmed in now. Walked out (we got around most of the park). Head off to the main Cathedral which has a rather forbidding feel: they want tourists' money but deter them from being included in services. We visit the cloisters and the nativity scene which has real geese: the cathedral is built over Roman walls and the geese are descended from Roman stock. Lots of very richly gilded and painted saints shrines - dating back to the 14th century. A collection box by each. A service is starting but we don't feel welcome enough to stay. A tapas meal much later, with calamari (tempting fate, read on) back in Placa Reial, and the day is complete. Turns out that the streetlights in this placa (place) are designed by Gaudi - his first-ever commission. We had noted and photographed them first day out. Completes the circle, really.

Barcelona - New Year

Of course after the meal, we walk back to Barri Gotic up Las Ramblas, already getting noisily happy, find the Placa Reial (just down from the hotel) and buy ourselves a place at a strategic table with a truly excrable red vino and a barely passable beer. New Year happens quite quietly, considering: a bit of yahooing by younger people in a fountain, lots of slurry shouts and blurry phone-camera pictures happening, all very cheerful and good natured. To bed, very happy. The happy shouting goes on a bit but that's the same the world over. It do echo in these here old stone faced 2m wide alleys, but.

Barcelona - La pedrera and Sagrada climb

After Casa Battlo, we briefly look in on 'La Pedrera' (The Quarry) - same street, one tube stop away. The nickname suits it: apart from the patent curves and amazing ironwork on terrace balconies, it is quite unappealing from the street. The roof does have more Gaudi elements, but there was a queue... And a charge....
So off to the Sagrada - where we stand in a queue (no other way) to (it turns out) climb the eastern towers. The other queue was for the elevators (who knew?) but is cut off much earlier than the climbers one. So eventually climb we did. Round and round, up and up, with very little lighting or internal handrails (on the first part). The Spanish are very pragmatic about such things, no OSH police, clearly, and the next day we see steps in Park Guell fully 25 feet high, 1 m wide, no handrails whatsoever. Still, with all those saints (each with their own private collection box), they probably figure they are protected enough anyway.
The steps can only be climbed as fast as everyone in front moves, which suits, and it is dark once we get near the top - the floodlights come on while we are still going up. We can see the good progress made on construction - the nave is nearing completion, and we understand there's an NZ architect involved. Lots of scaffolding is up way past the existing height of walls, and that's an indication that much more wall is expected soon. On the back we can see reinforced concrete shell walls, faced with stone and decoration. Not as traditional but faster. One of the deadlines is 2026, the anniversary of Gaudi's death. He knew the cathedral was not 'his' (he had inherited an already built crypt) and perhaps purposefully left few detailed plans but a lot of impressions and sketches. In that way, the work was intended to evolve, and so it has.
We cross over between the two main towers and go down the other side. One photo - of the 'offerings' of fruit at the top of the second (down) tower stair. These upper stairs are between the outer and inner walls, so it is quite safe feeling going down. We really should have a T-shirt ('We climbed the Sagrada') but content ourselves with a tube ride down to the beach and a very Spanish dinner. I have bacalao (cod) which arrives in a black-ink octopus sauce, rather unexpected but very palatable. Of which more later.... I imagine there's a special chef out back with a specialty in annoying octopi till they squirt the aforesaid ink - a dangerous job, but somebody has to do it. OSH would have a fit. So would PETA.

Barcelona - Gaudi, Casa Battlo

We chose Barcelona because we have long known about Antoni Gaudi, and I picked up a Gaudi handbook a couple of years ago, at, in all places, Metropolis bookshop in Acland Street, St Kilda, Melbourne. Casa Battlo is a conversion of an existing building and has all the trademark Gaudi features: three dimensional woodwork, curves everywhere, tiles facade, chimney and roof decoration. We stump up the steep admission asking price and wander through, blissed out.

Barcelona Wednesday Dec 31 - Textiles and Sculpture

We (Jane/Trev and Maddy/Wayne) split up for the morning: we (M/W) head for the Textile Museum for some work research. It's in a marvellously Spanish building: large gate/door to the street (Carrer de Montcada - the one we overshot last evening), enclosed inner courtyard, tiles roofs everywhere. The textiles collection was less numerous than we had expected, but interesting nevertheless. A quick cafe con leche each, and we head down C. de Montcada.
But not for long - a sculpture in a shop window nearby attracts us in, and we gingerly ask the price. It's ours (assuming it survives transit) within half an hour. A Catalan ceramic artist, with echoes of Gaudi, South American faces, and some of Maddy's later pottery.

Barcelona - Sagrada Familia

We head for the Sagrada as the first stage of a Gaudi trail, late afternoon. It's a Metro excursion, and the station exit is right under the west facade of the Sagrada.
This is the crucified Christ facade - which Gaudi did not want built first, as it would frighten the supporters of the Church. He started the eastern (birth, life) facade first.
The western facade is indeed brutal: strong lines, chunky statuary, setting sun illumination. Very striking. The Sagrada occupies a whole city block and is a construction village: the work was started in 1882, Gaudi died after a tram accident in 1926 with little more than the eastern facade towers elementary structure in place, and it is hoped to have substantial completion by the centenary of his death in 2026.
The eastern side has almost closed up by the time we get there, so we have a leisurely cafe con leche and wait for the tower floodlights to be turned on. Promptly at 1800, they are, and photos ensue. The towers are around 100m tall, with distinctive flower crosses atop, and words around and down them. There are still people moving down the towers, which gives us tomorrow's plan (we have not paid to go in, suspecting something like this to be the case).
So we head back for a quick freshen-up and then a ramble down on the other side of our area. Which almost turns pear-shaped, as we overshoot the street and end up in little alleys where the locals eye us distinctly as prey. We smartly turn and exit stage right. We find the Santa Maria de la Mer church - ancient, shrines to many more saints than we know about, clear evidence of a simple but devoted approach to religion here, as a woman goes up the image of one of the saints, touches both knees, and kisses his feet. Back through more narrow streets, but friendlier, to Hotel Levante.

Barcelona - Museums

Tuesday, we have a breakfast at Placa Reial (through a narrow street (Carrer de la Lleona) from the hotel) and head down Las Ramblas (the main drag) to the sea. Barcelona is very much a working port, and the bottom of Las Ramblas houses the Harbour Board, the Navy, and a statue with a figure pointing west. We like to think it's Columbus but suspect he's Portguese. The inner harbour is very clean - we see fish swimming - and deserted (we are up early). We take a precarious cable-car from the harbour, then a chair-lift to Montjuic - a hill with a fortress which dates back to Roman times, although the guns are definitely 20th century German.
Montjuic starts the cat thing: Barcelona is full of wild cats. Further round Montjuic, at Museum of the History of catalonia, there are whole tiled roofs which are inhabited by pigeons and patrolled by clearly well-fed cats. Picasso hung out at a bar called Quatre Gats (four cats) which is there to this day, so the cats are of long standing.
The Museum is mainly notable for its location - on the slopes of this steep little mount, with an avenue of fountains all the way down the hill to a Placa (plaza) with impressive but ornamental towers. The fountains are off for the season at present.

Barcelona - arrival

Although Heathrow has been unkind, we don't really mind - Barcelona is largely closed (museums etc) Mondays anyway. We arrive and find only 1 of 2 bags there. Claim time. Spanish practice. It quickly transpires that a whole luggage trolley has missed the cut, and will arrive next plane. Or thereabouts.
On to Barcelona and our hotel. We buy 4-day Metro/bus tickets (very cheap) and hop a bus to the Plaza Catalunya - a short trip, then brave the Metro system (colour coded and lines are numbered too) to our stop. Everything works fine. We find the hotel without drama - it's in the Barri Gotic - think, 3 m wide streets, 4-6 storey buildings, but clean, lots of foot traffic, feels very safe but definitely exotic. Trev and Jane arrive later on, again without drama. We very much like what we've seen so far.

Barcelona - Heathrow Horror

Monday 29 December was carefully planned - 1030 flight from Terminal 1, so a District then Picadilly tube at 0730 to make Heathrow at 0830. Fine. Except that Heathrow was experiencing a fire alarm and would not let anyone in. 'Soon', which as any child knows means 'we haven't got a clue but hang in there'. Three 'soons' from an African attendant who clearly didn't know any more than we (about 100 by now) knew. So after the fire alarm clearance, the inevitable crush to get in and to the correct check-in area, and waiting in queues, of course we miss the 1030 plane to Barcelona. As must, we reckon, probably 80% of the seats sold. Didn't stop it flying though - possibly it is cheaper to fly anyway and not upset the repositioning and subsequent schedling domino effects, than to actually have paying pax. Only God and BA know.
So we go to (what else?) another queue to re-ticket, and are handed a card after about 1/4 hour waiting and shuffling, with a number to call to re-schedule by phone. But a nice little vignette occurs first.
A short, blond, American, loud female stalks up the queue, partner in tow, hapless BA employee by the buttonhole. Right opposite us, she stops and demands (the loud bit) why she has to queue, and where exactly the ticket office is. So many queues, you see. The BA bloke, polite to a fault but not without a certain smugness, points out the bleeding obvious: that he can show her the ticketing office all right, but then she and silent partner will have to return to the end of the queue anyway. And the queue will have grown. But of course she must see the ticket office. So she does. But with one little concession: she is ferried to the far end of the now much longer queue in a motorised trolley. By the same BA employee, smile more than fractionally wider.
We ring the number and, mirabile dictu, reschedule our flight for 1500 over the phone. So we check in - another queue, naturally, and then Murphy strikes again. Twice. We are (you couldn't make this stuff up) too early to have baggage checked. So we get seats confirmed and troop off to a cafe upstairs. Coffe and snack #1 goes down to applause all round. We get coffee and snack #2 and Murphy intervenes. Another fire alarm. Everyone out. We take ourselves, luggage and snack, but leaving coffee to its fate, outside where (what else) it rains. We have umbrella. And snack, to the obvious envy of some fellow travellers. Well, they didn't get on a tube at 0730 without breakfast, did they. We get back in. Coffee has been cleared away. We invest in coffee #3, and fast-check the luggage as soon as possible. The rest of the afternoon proceeds without incident, although the plane is 50 minutes late because some dimwit passenger checks luggage on but no-shows, necessitating a full unpack and re-pack of the hold. We'd cheerfully contract one of the many sub-machine-gun equipped police in the terminal to deal with the offending chap(ette) except, of course, being no-shows, they aren't there. We take off at 1600 - 5 1/2 hours late compared to schedule. And I have the final encounter with the short loud blonde thing: I use the loo on the plane, and she raps on the loo door to hurry me up! There are only three others, all empty. Where are the armed sky marshalls when you need them?