Friday, August 31, 2007

Anarchy in the UK: Part 6: Grate Expectations

Thursday did not begin well. I had felt a cold coming on all week, but waking up Thursday, my sinuses were definitely a congestion zone*. Feeling a bit ropey, I got a bit of late start, leaving the house at about 10:30. I was on my own again, and again had a vague list of items—the Aquarium, the National Gallery, the Tate, etc. It wasn’t raining when I left, which was good, as my umbrella was in several pieces. I should have bought a new one but decided, as the Irish say, to risk it for a biscuit.

Walking to the Tube, I felt a bit better, leading me to wonder if the congestion was more the result of an allergy to S&A’s cat than anything viral. I emerged from the Tube on Whitehall and sought coffee in a caf next door to the Red Lion pub. (If it’s not one liquid it’s another, innit?) As I walked out and headed over into St. James Park, the skies opened, and it began raining. Great. I knew I should have bought a brolly.

There was a caf in the park, so I sought shelter and more coffee. For the next hour, the rain kept stopping and starting. By the time I got to Buckingham Palace (for reasons that elude me), it was bucketing down. By this time, I was cold, wet, and the thick throng of tourists was making me cranky, so I turned around and headed back toward Piccadilly to look for a place to buy an umbrella, and perhaps find a place to grab something to eat and dry off.

I ended up on Charing Cross Road and ducked into a pub called the Princess of Wales. The barmaid explained in an impenetrable Scottish brogue that most of the beer was off, so I had a hard cider and ordered lunch. I had fortunately brought a guidebook (Rough Guide) Steven loaned me, which was better than mine (Lonely Planet). I spent an hour reading it and drying off, and decided that I would do better avoiding the hardcore touristy things and seeking out instead more offbeat (and potentially less crowded) sights. As I was reading about all the various London neighborhoods, I couldn’t help but have Robyn Hitchcock’s “Trams of Old London” running through my head.
Trams of old London
Taking my baby into the past, and it’s
Trams of old London blow my mind

Ludgate, Fenchurch, Highgate Hill
Rolling slowly up there still
Waterloo and Clerkenwell
Out to Aldgate East as well.
On a clear night you can see
Where the rails used to be
Oh, it seems like ancient myth
They once ran to Hammersmith

Through Electric Avenue
Brixton down in southwest too, uh-huh
Teddington and Kennington
Twickenham and Paddington
In the blitz they never closed
Though they blew up half the roads
Oh it hurts me just to see 'em
Going dead in a museum
Fed and reasonably dry, I had a plan, headed over to the Tube and went up to Russell Square. By the time I got out of the Tube, the rain had stopped. So I made my way over to 48 Doughty Street and the Charles Dickens Museum.
This house is where Charles Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839—not a long stay, but it is the only surviving one of the several places Dickens had lived.
It houses the largest and most important collection of Dickensiana. I decided to spend the two quid for the audio tour. It was in this house that Dickens finished Pickwick Papers, his first major work and the one that launched his career as a writer. He also wrote Oliver Twist there, his first “real” novel, followed by Nicholas Nickleby. He had moved there shortly after his marriage to Catherine, and by 1839, their third child was born (jeepers, it was a busy period, wannit?) and the Dickenses began searching for larger quarters, moving to Regents Park in 1839.

Naturally, I was curious if they had anything on Edmund Wells:
Bookshop Customer: Can you help me with "David Coperfield"?
Bookshop Proprietor: Ah, yes, Dickens.
C: No....
P: (pause) I beg your pardon?
C: No, Edmund Wells.
P: I... *think* you'll find Charles Dickens wrote "David Copperfield", sir....
C: No, no, Dickens wrote "David Copperfield" with *two* Ps. This is "David Coperfield" with *one* P by Edmund Wells.
P: "David Coperfield" with one P?
C: Yes, I should have said.
P: Yes, well in that case we don't have it.
C: (peering over counter) Funny, you've got a lot of books here....
P: (slightly perturbed) Yes, we do, but we don't have "David Coperfield" with one P by Edmund Wells.
C: 'bout "Grate Expectations"?
P: Yes, well we have that....
C: That's "G-R-A-T-E Expectations," also by Edmund Wells.
P: (pause) Yes, well in that case we don't have it. We don't have anything by Edmund Wells, actually: he's not very popular.
C: Not "Knickerless Knickleby"? That's K-N-I-C-K-E-R-L-E-S-S.
P: (taciturn) No.
C: "Khristmas Karol" with a K?
P: (really quite perturbed) No....
C: Er, how about "A Sale of Two Titties"?
C: (moving towards door) Sorry to trouble you....
P: Not at all....
C: I wonder if you might have a copy of "Rarnaby Budge"?
P: No, as I say, we're right out of Edmund Wells!
C: No, not Edmund Wells - Charles Dikkens.
P: (pause - eagerly) Charles Dickens??
C: Yes.
P: (excitedly) You mean "Barnaby Rudge"!
C: No, "Rarnaby Budge" by Charles Dikkens. That's Dikkens with two Ks, the well-known Dutch author.
P: (slight pause) No, well we don't have "Rarnaby Budge" by Charles Dikkens with two Ks, the well-known Dutch author, and perhaps to save time I should add that we don't have "Karnaby Fudge" by Darles Chickens, or "Farmer of Sludge" by Marles Pickens, or even "Stickwick Stapers" by Farles Wickens with four M's and a silent Q!!!!! Why don't you try W. H. Smith's?
C: I did. They sent me here.
P: DID they.
Just about all of Dickens’ novels were published in serial form; that is, in installments. His original contract was to produce a certain number of pages, and he kept overwriting—I know the feeling! Since this was before typewriters, Dickens wrote everything by hand—his original manuscripts show some crossouts and changes, but he was remarkable at generating a good first draft. And if you’ve seen the length of his books, his printers must have felt good about their job security—this was the day before automated typesetting, when all type was set letter by letter. I get the sense that someone was right about to smash Dickens over the head with a typecase.

I spent about an hour and a half at the Dickens House and was feeling increasingly guilty about the fact that I have actually read precious little Dickens, a fact which I vowed to do something about once I got home (and so far I have kept my vow...). After a visit to the crypt, I was off.

It was threatening rain again, so as I walked down Southampton Row, I found a cheesy souvenir store and ducked inside to pick up some cheesy souvenirs—and an umbrella! This was fortunate, since as soon as I stepped outside, the skies opened. While searching for my next item, I got a bit lost in Holborn and ended up on Chancery Lane, in the neighbourhood where all the solicitors (i.e., lawyers) are. The architecture there is all rather beautiful, and I was happy to be lost there.

Finally, I came upon what I had been looking for: an odd little place called Sir John Soane’s Museum. Soane was an architect, born in 1753, and was, um...a bit of a nut. He was a noted architect and had caught the eye of King George III (also a bit of a nut). Soane traveled the world and acquired and thus filled his house with a phenomenal amount of stuff: Greek and Roman antiquities, clocks, sculptures, an impressive collection of Hogarth paintings—everywhere you turn in the house, there is a massive amount of stuff. Impressively, he had a crypt in the basement of his house. And I don’t mean that euphemistically; it was an actual crypt, and contained the sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I. I have always wanted to have a crypt in my basement, and it’s good to know I am not alone in this desire. The Soan Museum rivals the British Museum (well, not really) for the sheer breadth of the collection, even if it is all rather daft. Still, it's pretty cool. I have always been fascinated by insanity.

By the time I was done, it was about 5:00, and I was feeling rather done in, so popped into a nearby pub. Killing time to avoid the Tube at the height of rush hour, I then took a stroll through Soho. Some things you should know:
  • I did not see a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand walking through the streets of Soho in the rain;
  • I did not meet Lola in a club down in old Soho, where they drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola (c-o-l-a, cola);
  • and I did not wake up in a Soho doorway, a policeman did not know my name, nor did he say “You can go sleep at home tonight if you can get up and walk away.”
Cliffs Notes are available upon request.

I did check out a few bookstores, then decided to head back to Hackney. While waiting at the bus stop, Steven, Amy, and the chillun showed up, so we headed home en masse. That night, we got Pakistani takeaway which was phenomenally good.

One more day...

*In London, in an attempt to control traffic, they impose a “congestion fee” if you drive into the so-called “Congestion Zone.” You pay this fee online the day you plan to travel. How does anyone know if you’ve paid it? Closed-circuit TV cameras photograph your licence tag, and optical character readers scan the tags and compare them to a database of who has paid. If you have not paid, you are invoiced. (Other traffic violations are also handled in this way.) I am led to understand that scofflaws will be caught. It is all rather Orwellian....

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Anarchy in the UK: Part 5: Pigs on the Wing

Steven had to go back to work on Wednesday; for the record, he works for Lehman Brothers—first in New York, then had transferred to the London office—where he has been since getting his MBA from the University of Rhode Island some 16 years ago. Amy was also at work and the kiddies were in nursery, so I had the day to myself. I drew up a vague list of things to do, but knew that I would likely not adhere to it. So I left the house about 9:30 a.m. and happily remembered how to get the bus to the Tube. My first stop: the Natural History Museum.

I took the Tube to South Kensington and alit to street level. Now, I have to admit (and both Amy and Steven, even after eight years, will back me up on this) London is a very difficult city in which to get one’s navigational bearings. At least in New York, you can emerge from the subway, find the Empire State Building, and pretty much figure out which way is south and/or west. In London, it’s difficult to do that, even with the maps that are posted on many streetcorners. So it took some aimless wandering around Kensington before I stumbled upon Natural History Museum.

It was 10:30 a.m., a scant half-hour after the museum opened, so my hope was that the crowds would be yet to throng. How wrong I was. There was a 15-minute queue to get in, but it was worth it. Initially, I was Jonesing for some coffee, so found a cafe and snarfed some down, then went once more unto the breach. The Natural History Museum is a beautiful building inside and out.
In the center of the main lobby is a dinosaur skeleton, but the crowds kept me from getting close enough to figure out what it was (plus, I have to say, dinosaurs kind of bore me).
Like most natural history museums, this one tends to favor mammals and dinosaurs while giving marine invertebrates short shrift. Still, there was a giant squid hanging from trhe ceiling, so how bad could it be?
There were some cool mammals and, of course, a Komodo dragon:
After spending about an hour or so there (and being horribly disappointed by the gift shop), I went back out and wanted to go to the Science Museum next door, but the queue was two blocks long. Uh, no. I had neglected to bring a map, but remembered that Hyde Park was due north, so I headed towards it. The weather was starting to turn evil, and very quickly turned into a November day, which was unfortunate as it was only August. Still, I wandered through Kensington Gardens to the Albert Memorial, which overlooks the Royal Albert Hall.

How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall?
I then wandered through Hyde Park toward Speaker’s Corner (“I go to Speaker’s Corner, I’m thunderstruck/They got free speech, tourists, police in trucks/Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong...”—Dire Straits). Speaker’s Corner is a “free speech zone” in the northeast corner of Hyde Park where people are allowed to speak publicly, so long as the speeches do not break the law or use bad language (in New York, all speeches would be required to use bad language). It being an increasingly hideous day weatherwise, Speaker’s Corner was fairly abandoned when I went through.

I emerged from Hyde Park at Marble Arch, and was trying to head southeast. It was about noon or noon-thirty, and I was eager to hunt down lunch and/or a pub, preferably both. I entered the subway at Marble Arch; “subways” in London do not refer to trains, but rather underground public walkways that provide the easiest ways of getting across roundabouts and circuses. Maps tell you what “exit” will get you to what corner. I was trying to get to Oxford Street and head east and thought I had the right exit, but I had an incredibly difficult time figuring out which way was east. I went a few blocks in one direction, it seemed wrong, then turned around and tried another direction, which then also seemed wrong. It was really quite frustrating!

So I changed plans and decided to follow Hyde Park south and ended up lost in Knightsbridge (“The pretty things of Knightsbridge/Lying for a Minister of Site/are a far cry from the nod and wink/Here at Traitor’s Gate...” —Elvis Costello). Knightsbridge was way too posh for me, and I was trying to find Soho which was more my speed, but, lacking a map, I only had the vaguest idea of where I was going.

I ended up in Green Park and stumbled by complete accident on Buckingham Palace. I noted it, snapped the obligatory picture, and moved on (quite frankly, the Royal Family bores me).
I saw a sign that pointed in the direction of Trafalgar Square and I knew once I got there I could find Piccadilly/Leicester Square/Soho, etc. There was a very very long walk from Buckingham Palace to anything resembling civilization (i.e., shops, restaurants, etc.). By this time, it was getting nippy, my umbrella was starting to fall apart, and my feet were starting to hurt.

I found Trafalgar Square and then ended up in Piccadilly Circus (“The Piccadilly palare was just silly slang/Between me and the boys in my gang...” —Morrissey). I kept my eyes open for someplace to eat, ended up in Leicester Square (Bright city woman walking down Leicester Square everyday —Jethro Tull), and found a small pub on a side street. There weren’t any tables open at first, so I stood at the bar and had a couple of pints, and finally a table opened up and I ordered a fish and chips (with mushy peas, which I quite like) and another pint. A lovely pub, and I was proud that I had finally memorized which coins were which, as squinting to make out the denominations was making me look too much like a tourist.

After lunch, I ambled back toward Trafalgar and decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery, which was interesting to trace British History back through portraits of famous personages, most of whom I had never heard of.

I spent an hour or so there, had to visit the crypt, then went back out to Trafalgar Square, where the crowds were increasing. I toyed with the idea of hitting the National Gallery, but it was about 4:00 by this point. There were a couple of things I yet wanted to see, so I headed out...and for about a half hour, no matter which road I took, I always seemed to end up back at Trafalgar Square. I have no idea how that kept happening!

I headed down Whitehall and, to keep my aching feet from getting too bad, decided to stop in at a pub every so often. For medicinal purposes, of course. I stopped at one across from the houses of Parliament called the Red Lion, had a pint and read the paper, then set out again. I walked past Big Ben just as it chimed 5:00. I will say that I find the Houses of Parliament to be a really cool building.
I knew I should probably be heading back to Hackney for dinner before too long, but there was one place I did want to go..., though I knew how to get there but didn’t know how far it was. I walked past the Houses of Parliament to the Thames Walk and walked along the river. Near Pimlico Gardens, I found a pub called the William IV and stopped in for a pint and a visit to the crypt, then set out again.

And then, about 5:45, found what I was looking for. After all, what self-respecting Pink Floyd fan could visit London without checking out the Battersea Power Station, located just south of the Thames.
I wasn’t really expecting to see a pig flying above it, but a few more pints and I just may....

Aside from being featured on a classic album cover, the Battersea station was actually the first in a series of large coal-fired electrical generating facilities set up in Britain as part of the power distribution system that was being introduced in the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, there were howls of protest about the proposed construction of the station, given the lack of aesthetic palatability of power stations. In a word, it promised to be an eyesore.

However, the London Power Company addressed this complaint by having the station designed by architect and industrial designer Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who by the by, is also famous for having designed the iconic red telephone box, Liverpool Cathedral, and another power station, Bankside, which is now the Tate Modern art gallery. Construction began in 1929 and was finished a decade later. The original power station had a single long hall with a chimney at either end, but between 1953 and 1955, an identical second station was built alongside the original, which resulted in the current four-chimney layout. And, actually, the Battersea Power Station has since become one of London’s most famous landmarks and is generally loved—especially by fanatical Pink Floyd fans.

The station is no longer functioning—the first part of the facility was shut down in 1975, and the second part in 1983. In 1980 the station was declared a heritage site, and there have even been plans to turn it into a theme park, but that never quite happened. The property has changed ownership several times, and from what I have been able to glean, the fate of the station remains unclear—especially as the chimneys have been declared structurally unsound.
Anyway, I was actually not the only one interested in the station; as I was walking along the Thames snapping pictures of it, a couple some yards in front of me were doing the same. Perhaps we all could have joined in a chorus of “Pigs on the Wing.”

By this time, it was getting on 6:00, and I thought I remembered from an Underground map that there was a Tube station in Battersea Park, so I walked across the Chelsea Bridge to attempt to find it. No such luck, so I walked back over the river and ended up in Chelsea (“They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie/I don’t want to go to Chelsea...” —Elvis Costello). Somehow, I ended up in Sloane Square (“Hairdresser on fire/All around Sloane Square/And you’re far too busy to see me” —Morrissey). I popped in to one last pub for a pint/foot rest/visit to the crypt, the grabbed the Tube and headed back to Hackney. As I was waiting for the bus at Bow Road, my umbrella literally fell apart (an Indian kid standing next to me was amused, as was I). Naturally, right after I alighted the bus, the skies opened, and by the time I had walked the block to Amy and Steven’s house, I was quite moist.

But it had been a good day. To be continued...

Highway to Hill*

Steven and Amy's son Godwin is rather fixated on the song "Happy Birthday." He will fashion his Stickle Bricks into an ersatz cake and then sing "Happy Birthday" to everyone in the room in turn. In my case, last week, he was a tad early...
*That is, Patty and Mildred Hill, who wrote the song "Happy Birthday." Which begs the question: it took two people to write that?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Playground in a Petri Dish

Sorry, folks, I have not had time today to write Part 5 of "Anarchy in the UK." In the mean time (as it were), enjoy the brand new (and very cool) video from Andrew Bird--"Imitosis," actually my favorite track from Armchair Apocrypha.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Anarchy in the UK: Part 4: Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)

After walking under the Thames, we ended up in Trafalgar Square, pretty much the gathering place in London, watched over by Nelson’s Column, a monument built between 1840 and 1843 to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory over Napoleon at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. It's good that the site of the victory shared its name with a square in London. Quite fortuitous, that. Anyway, the 18-foot statue of Nelson is perched atop a 151-foot granite column. Unlike Eros in Piccadilly Circus, Nelson is not nude, for which I think we can all be grateful.
Trafalgar Square is also the home to the National Gallery and, around the corner, the National Portrait Gallery. Whenever there are rallies, celebrations, or other events in London, Trafalgar Square is usually where they take place. The architecture is all rather grand, although the marble statue of pregnant English artist Alison Lapper (who actually was born without arms and with truncated legs--a congenital disorder called phocomelia) sculpted by Marc Quin is a bit out of place, at least in my opinion.
We passed quickly through Trafalgar and walked down Whitehall, past the Horse Guards Palace. This is one of the places where the immobile Palace Guards stand and are taunted and photographed by tourists. The guards are not supposed to move or react, but I can only imagine what they are fantasizing about doing to the tourists, and how best to dispose of the bodies.
We also passed the Banqueting House, perhaps most noted for the fact that it was there in 1649 that King Charles I was beheaded (I’ve been to banquets like that).

We drifted past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. (By the way, “Big Ben” is the name of the bell housed within the clock tower, not the tower or the clock itself.) In fact, Big Ben is officially called the “Great Bell.” The 16-ton bell was cast on April 10, 1856, in Stockton-on-Tees by Warner's of Cripplegate. Why “Big Ben”? Two theories; one is that the commissioner of works, Sir Benjamin Hall, was responsible for ordering the bell. the other is that it may have been named after heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt.
One of Steven’s favorite “museums” is the Cabinet War Rooms. This is basically an underground warren (under what is now the HM Treasury) where Churchill and his ministers set up military headquarters during World War II. The rooms were constructed in 1938, and featured a steel-reinforced roof. The winding network of rooms are well-preserved and give an excellent idea of how claustrophobic it would have been down there. (However, the portion that is preserved and open to the public is only s small fraction of what was a much larger—three-acre—facility that housed a staff of up to 528 people. Facilities included a canteen, hospital, shooting range, and dormitories.) In fact, the signage informs us, it was not an ideal place to spend large amounts of time and the dark, dank, and insects drove many of the people to emerge at night and sleep above ground—even during the London Blitz. Churchill himself only spent three nights down there. Still, the war rooms remained operational throughout the war and the day after VJ Day, the lights were switched off and everyone left everything just as it had been. I expect the mannequins of military personnel were added some time later.

There is also a Churchill Museum, which was just about to close when we got to it.

By this time it was after 5:00, and we had to head back to Hackney to pick up the kiddies. We made it home just in time for dinner.

And thus ended Tuesday.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Anarchy in the UK: Part 3: In the Mean Time

Steven’s wife, Amy Miller (a friend of mine from my St. Martin’s Press days circa. 1990–1991—it was I who introduced her to Steven, an old college buddy), is a curator at London’s National Maritime Museum. Last month, she had been beavering away on a special exhibit of her own creation called “Sailor Chic,” a look at British naval couture and the adoption of it by civilian society (she has a Masters in the Decorative Arts and did a stint at the Embroiderers’ Guild in Hampton Court Palace, so she knows of what she speaks). Tuesday morning, she had to go in early as she was being interviewed by BBC Radio about the exhibit; Steven and I listened to the interview, then set off to visit the Maritime Museum and check it out.

The National Maritime Museum is located just south of the Thames in Greenwich and is part of the Royal Observatory (about which more shortly). Beginning with a painting of a young Prince Albert in a sailor suit, the exhibit traced the evolution of British military garb over the years, and how naval fashion insinuated itself in pop culture, from subtle sailor-garb-influenced pants and tops, to New Romantic Adam Ant’s sailor jacket as seen in the video for “Goody Two Shoes.” Also part of the exhibit was the extent to which the adoption of military fashion was a subversive act—underground filmmakers sporting naval jackets, etc. And let’s not forget (try as we might) the adoption of naval chic by certain elements of the gay community (yes, part of the video presentation included the Village People’s “In the Navy”—fitting, I suppose, but no less upsetting).

Anyway, it was an interesting exhibit, which I say not entirely because Amy is a friend of mine. I naturally bought her book; you can buy it here.
The rest of the museum is also interesting; they had the jacket that Nelson was shot in, complete with bullet hole (they don’t like when you point out that it looks like it’s only a moth hole). There is also a large painting of the death of Nelson, and I thought I had discovered an inconsistency. The jacket has the bullet hole on the left shoulder, but in the painting, Nelson’s attendants had a cloth over his right shoulder. I thought, “Aha! A conspiracy! Can anyone explain this discrepancy?” I had thoughts of writing a bestseller like The Da Vinci Code—Maybe The Nelson Coat, or something. When I confronted Amy, she pointed out that in the painting, the cloth was not to stanch the bleeding from the bullet wound, but to hide the fact that Nelson’s right arm had been shot off. Oh. Well, so much for fame and fortune. But, then again, The Da Vinci Code was based on flimsier evidence, so maybe I still had something, though I’m not exactly sure what.

After getting lost in the Maritime Museum, Steven and I walked up to the Royal Observatory...actually, what I had been really looking forward to.

There are many significant things about the Royal Observatory, not the least of which is that it is the locale of the Prime Meridian (0 degrees longitude) and, of course, of Greenwich Mean Time.
The Royal Observatory was begun in 1674, initially as a way to solve the so-called “Longitude Problem.” That is, as readers of Dava Sobel’s excellent book Longitude know, the biggest problem facing sailors in the 17th century was how to figure out exactly where they were when out in the open sea. Sure, finding one’s latitude north or south of the equator was easy enough, but without a corresponding east/west coordinate, that left a lot of ocean that a ship could potentially be in. If England was going to be a naval powerhouse (or, perhaps more importantly, an overseas trader) the problem had to be resolved. Thus, King Charles II arranged to found an Observatory to solve the problem, and astronomer John Flamsteed was appointed as the first Astronomer Royal. Indeed, the Flamsteed House—designed by our old friend Christopher Wren (though on a decidedly smaller scale than St. Paul’s) is the original portion of the Observatory.

Interesting thing about Flamsteed. He was such a perfectionist; he had compiled an extensive star catalog but was loath to publish it until he noodled with it some more. Unfortunately, his friend Edmund Halley got his hands on them and published Flamsteed’s work, albeit anonymously. Flamsteed, needless to say, was furious (and was as hot as Halley’s Comet, perhaps you could say) and bought up every copy he could get his hands on and burned the lot of them.

Anyway, despite all the efforts of the Royal Observatory, the problem of longitude was actually solved by a humble clockmaker named John Harrison, who after several tries managed to build a reliable clock that could be carried on ships. This way, by knowing what time it was back in Greenwich and knowing how the stars should look at a given time, and knowing your latitude at sea, you can work out your longitude.

Anyway, there’s a lot more to the story than that, and this is a simple travelblog....
Because I am n geeky where n is a large, positive integer, I was thrilled to stand astride the prime meridian—although I did have to keep resetting my watch. There have actually been several prime meridians over the years, and the Observatory grounds are littered with the remains of meridians past.
Greenwich is also the world’s timekeeper. Originally, the “official Greenwich” time was indicated by placing a large ball on the roof of the observatory and its daily drop at 1:00 p.m. G.M.T. was used by navigators on the River Thames to calibrate their marine chronometers. As the need to distribute the time more widely became necessary, an Observatory assistant, John Belville, set his pocket watch—which he called Arnold (don’t ask)—to GMT and then set out into the City to distribute the time more or less door to door. Happily, the advent of the telegraph soon led to a way to transmit the correct time via electrical impulses.
The Observatory has a vast collection of exhibits related to time and timekeeping. I could go on, but I simply don’t have the time.

John Flamsteed was the first Astronomer Royal, and was succeeded by his “friend” Edmund Halley. Here’s a good trivia question: who is the current Astronomer Royal? Lord Rees of Ludlow, who has occupied the position since 1995.

There is, as it turns out, a difference between the “Royal Observatory, Greenwich” and the “Royal Greenwich Observatory.” In the 1920s and 30s, thanks to the construction of new electrical power stations and the growing light and air pollution in London, it was becoming more and more difficult for astronomers to see much from the Observatory, so gradually the “RGO” was moved to Herstmonceaux Castle out in Sussex. It has moved about since and even I have not been able to keep track of it. Perhaps if I knew its longitude...

After spending some time wandering about the Flamsteed House, it was lunch time, so Steven and I walked down to the River to the Trafalgar Pub—another excellent pub. After lunch, we walked along the Thames to a tunnel through which you can walk underneath the Thames from Greenwich to Millwall Park. At the north end of the tunnel, there is a very strange hexagonal, wood-paneled elevator that takes you up to street level. Very weird.

We were then off to Whitehall and the Cabinet War Rooms. To be continued...

Anarchy in the UK: Part 2: Wren and Stimpy

After wandering through Dr. Johnson’s House, we walked back out, past James Boswell’s House. Boswell is famous for little more than writing the biography of Johnson, although I get him confused with Bosley from Charlie's Angels. Corrected, I then mused on the relationship between Boswell and Johnson, given that their houses were so close together and they seemed rather inseparable. (Actually, it’s more likely that Boswell was more of a literary hanger-on.) Anyway, we walked back to Ludgate Hill and over to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Christopher Wren-designed edifice that rivals only St. Peter’s in Rome. Actually, St. Paul’s is the fifth cathedral (the first having dated to C.E. 604) to have stood in that spot; its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

We immediately headed down to the basement crypt, as that’s where the lavatories were (leading me to coin the euphemism for the week: “gotta go to the crypt”). The crypt also features the delightfully named Crypt Cafe, and, more seriously, monuments to more than 300 British military heroes, including Wellington (who was able to develop Beef Wellington before the French could perfect the Napoleon—see Love and Death) and Horatio Nelson. And, needless to say, Christopher Wren’s memorial is down there, as well it should be.

We then headed up many many stairs to the Whispering Gallery, a circular walkway around the base of one of the cathedral domes. It is so-called because it is said that if you whisper to the wall, the sound will carry clear across to the opposite side. I was dubious, and with luck some of my comments did not carry. Up more steps is the Stone Gallery, a parapet around the outside of the dome that affords a wonderful view of London. Up a further 520 spiral steps (not for the weak of lung) is the Golden Gallery—which provides an even better view. There is one spot on the staircase that has a very low overhang; there is a sign that reads “Mind your head.” I was amused by the sign, stopped to take a picture of it, then smashed my head anyway. Doh!
One more trip to the crypt, and we were on our way. We walked back down Ludgate Hill, which turns into Fleet Street (no sign of the Demon Barber, although from my experience, the “demon barber” has decidedly relocated to the States, the Wilton Mall to be exact...). We turned a corner and walked past the Old Bailey, aka the Central Criminal Court. We stopped in The Viaduct Pub across the street for a pint (Steven chose it from the "Why a duck?" routine in the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts--don't ask). I had learned my lesson about “light” beer but I was also in for a new lesson: you don’t tip bartenders in London. Not that I minded, I just don’t like to be thought of as a cheap bastard.

Anyway, we then grabbed a city bus to Piccadilly Circus (with thoughts of the Jethro Tull song, “Mother Goose”: “And a foreign student said to me/Was it really true/There are elephants and lions, too/In Piccadilly Circus”). There are many “circuses” in London—the name simply comes from the Latin word circus, or “circle,” and refers to any circular open space at a street junction. As for “Piccadilly,” the name dates back to 1626 and comes from Pickadilly Hall, a house belonging to Robert Baker, a tailor famous for selling piccadills, a type of collar.

Anyway, Piccadilly Circus today is festooned with neon billboards and signage and is rather like Times Square, though still not yet Disney-fied. One notable point of interest is the Shaftesbury Monument Memorial Fountain, built in 1892-1893 to commemorate Victorian politician and philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury. The fountain is topped by Alfred Gilbert's statue, variously called “The Angel of Christian Charity” or, more popularly (though erroneously), "Eros" (after the Greek God of Love). Actually, the statue was supposed to represent Eros' twin Anteros (everyone gets twins confused...). The statue was the first in the world to be cast in aluminum (or, in Britain, “aluminium”) and is nude, which caused a bit of a stir at the time of its erection, but the public quickly warmed to it, apparently.
Piccadilly is also home to several bookstores—including Foyle’s, which is a London institution (and rightly so). (When Steven and I lived in New York City contemporaneously, we used to like to visit bookstores and we got to do this again.) We then walked over to Leicester Square, famous...well, I’m not sure why it’s famous, but it is where all the movie cinemas are and where London premieres tend to take place. It's really not all that exciting, except as a place to people-watch, although it is pretty much the gateway to Soho, named, not for being “South of Houston” as in New York, but for the hunting call (“Soho!”) used during 17th-century fox hunts. I also found Wardour Street, which, according to a song by The Jam, had an A bomb in it.

By this time, it was getting on 5:00 and Steven had to pick up his car (which was in for inspection) before the car place closed at half five, so we cut short our perambulations for the day. I decided not to take photographs of the VW dealership.

And thus ends Monday. To be continued...

Anarchy in the UK: Part 1: Automobiles, Trains, and Planes

Ever since I was a wee one, and caught a bout of Anglophilia at an early age, I have wanted to visit England. For many years, a variety of circumstances have thwarted my attempts at journeying across the pond—first a lack of cross-pond-journeying funds, and then a crippling fear of flying. Both issues having been resolved (more or less), I was finally able to head overseas last week, not only to visit London for the first time ever, but also to see a couple of my oldest and dearest friends, expatriate Americans who moved to London in 1999.

And I finally realized what I had been missing all these years—London is a great city! I loved it! Sure, the weather is really depressing, which could explain why there is an average of three pubs for every person, but that aside, I felt more at home there than in any American city I had ever visited...or even lived in.

The voyage itself was a combination of planes, trains, and automobiles. I left Saratoga at 10:30 a.m. on Friday to drive to the Albany-Rensselaer train station, to catch a noon train to Penn Station. (Lead us not into Penn Station...) This would give me four hours to make a 6:30 p.m. flight out of Newark. Too much time, I originally thought, but the only other option would give me two hours’ lead time—but knowing Amtrak as I do, I opted for the biggest time gap I could.
And, as it turned out, it was the right decision. For some reason (the weather was perfect), all the trains were late out of Albany, and the noon train didn’t leave until about 12:45, and then crept down the track. A girl on a tricycle on an adjacent road was moving faster than the train. I should have asked her for a ride.

Fortunately, I got in about 3:30 and caught a New Jersey Transit train to Newark Airport. The most time-consuming part was finding the British Airways realm, which was unlabeled, and two different airport workers told me two different things. Finally, I found it in a sub-basement, with a very lengthy and sluggish moving line for check in. I had time, so I accepted the reality and waited my turn.

Security was about what it had been on the Atlanta trip, although three people examined my passport—and it was only later waiting at the gate that I discovered the legend that said “Passport not valid until signed” which I had neglected to heed. No one caught that; gotta love that security.

The flight was a tad late taking off, as there were massive thunderstorms moving through Newark. But, being a veteran of Amtrak, 45 minutes late is nothing.

Anyway, the flight to Heathrow was actually quite pleasant, despite the fact that I was wedged into a middle seat (the flight was completely full). British Airways is a rather nice airline—friendly, polite flight crews, captains who keep everyone apprised of what is going on, the food was quite good, and there was no extra charge for beer, which is always a plus in my book.

I landed about 7:30 Saturday morning, London time, after having slept only fitfully on the plane. For some reason, our arrival took the airport staff completely by surprise (heck, it’s not like a planeload of people dropped in unannounced; I had known about the flight since I bought tickets back in June) and they had no gate available, so we parked elsewhere and took a bus to the terminal.

Passport Control took about 45 minutes to get through, as many many people were arriving. Which I guess worked out, because by the time I was done with that the baggage had all been unloaded and my suitcase was awaiting me.

I found an American Express kiosk and exchanged my low-value Bush Bucks for British pounds--$100 became £44. Ugh.

Anyway, as I was humming the line from a Monty Python song, “I’m so worried about the baggage retrieval system they have at Heathrow,” my friend Steven met me outside the gate and was nice enough to buy me some coffee at a Starbucks (god, they’re everywhere). We then took the scenic route—there being no other route, really—from Heathrow to his house in the London borough of Hackney (causing me to recall the Robyn Hitchcock lyric, from “Point it at Gran,” “When Princess Anne’s 82 and living in a one-room flat in Hackney...”). There, his wife Amy was waiting with their two children—three-year-old Godwin and one-year-old Sibella. Godwin and I bonded almost immediately.

That afternoon, we went down to Borough Market south of the River Thames to do some shopping. Basically, Borough Market is an immense (and immensely crowded) farmer’s market, with stalls of fresh vegetables, meats (they even offer butchery workshops—the Jack the Ripper jokes were fairly obvious, I suppose), and, to my delight, an immense variety of beers and ales. We stopped for lunch and I got some authentic (and very good) British fish and chips.

The next day (Sunday), I was happily over my jet lag, and we bundled up the kiddies and headed out to the British Museum which, it being Sunday, was very crowded, but not unbearably so, except around the mummies and the Rosetta Stone. Amy, herself being a museum curator with a photographic memory, was better to have along than a proper tour guide, and she explained many many things, especially the story of the discovery and deciphering of the Rosetta Stone.

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 in the Nile Delta in a village called Rashid (called “Rosetta” by Europeans). It was found by members of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt—say what you will about Napoleon, but he was dedicated to science and history and made it a point to investigate scientifically those regions he planned to conquer. Sporting of him, really. As we all know, the Rosetta Stone bears three sets of inscriptions—one in Greek, one in demotic Egyptian (the “official” written language of ancient Egypt), and one in hieroglyphics. Greek, everyone knew, but the other two...not so much. At the time, Egyptology was a nascent study, and no one knew how to decipher either its demotic language or hieroglyphics (even today, no one is sure how to pronounce “falcon” or “three wavy lines”). Scholars spent years trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone, but it was Jean Francois Champollion who finally did it, identifying certain proper names (like “Ptolemy”) and going from there.

So what does the Rosetta Stone actually say? Basically, it is a copy of a decree commemorating the first anniversary of Ptolemy V’s coronation. Yes, disappointingly, the Rosetta Stone is little more than an ancient press release.

There are many many other cool things in the British Museum; the Mesopotamian relics are interesting, and the Greek and Roman antiquities are especially cool. Amy made mention of one drinking bowl that bore a sort of “surgeon general’s warning” concerning alcoholic overindulgence—inside the cup was an illustration of someone vomiting. I don’t know how effective it was. Phallus worship was big in Greece and Rome and they had one rather elaborate phallus wind chime—and the caption card literally said (I am not making this up) “This chime would be placed in the yard and could be heard tinkling in the wind.” A remarkable antiquity indeed.

There are also the Portland vases, important because it was one of these that inspired John Keats to write “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” However, my repeating of the old joke “What’s a Greek Urn? A buck and a quarter an hour” almost led my hosts to smash a Portland vase over my head.

We grabbed lunch at the British Museum cafe and told Godwin that he could get Mummy Meat. He seemed enthused by this...

Alas, Amy said the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was very cool, but was closed when we were there (I wonder if you can rent it out for parties?).

The day was drawing to a close, and that night we had Indian take away—excellent!
Steven was kind enough to take Monday and Tuesday off to escort me around. We got a somewhat late-ish start on Monday and took the Underground to the original City of London. The London Underground uses fare cards known as Oyster Cards, so-called because they fold out in a vinyl wallet like a bivalve—gotta love it. (It is also because, with it, the world—or, at the very least, the city—is your oyster.) It was here that I was introduced to the whole “Mind the Gap” business—which is basically a neverending announcement to be careful of the gap between the Tube train and the platform. Incidentally, I am impressed with the Tube; it is logically run, seems fairly reliable (some lines have their problems, I’m told), and is pretty easy to figure out. People tend to be polite and courteous, even at rush hour, and moving about is done in quite an orderly fashion. The stations and trains are very clean and the seats are actually upholstered; vandalism does not appear to be a problem. (These seats would last five seconds in NYC.) Sure, nothing is air conditioned (few things in Britain are, for the simple reason that 99% of the year there is no need for it), but you can open the windows and get a nice breeze.

Anyway, Steven and I had lunch at a very old pub near St. Paul’s called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which I loved, although I did learn one very important lesson: “Light” beer in Britain means “non-alcoholic.” I won’t make that mistake again!

Here is Steven in front of the pub:
The pub was around the corner from Samuel Johnson’s house, which we wandered over to and toured. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was a poet, essayist, biographer, lexicographer, and a literary critic. He was also well known for his aphorisms, but one of his lasting claims to fame is that he compiled the very first English dictionary, and they had several copies (reproductions, natch) on display. I was reminded, of course, of the episode of Black Adder the Third, featuring Dr. Johnson and this classic exchange:
Dr. Johnson: Here it is, sir: the very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.
Edmund: Every single one, sir?

Dr. Johnson: (confidently) Every single word, sir!

Edmund: (to Prince) Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.

Dr. Johnson: What?

Edmund: 'Contrafribularites', sir? It is a common word down our way...

Dr. Johnson: Damn! (writes in the book)

Edmund: Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I'm anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.

Dr. Johnson: What? What? WHAT?

Prince George: What are you on about, Blackadder? This is all beginning to sound a bit like dago talk to me.

Edmund: I'm sorry, sir. I merely wished to congratulate the Doctor on not having left out a single word. (J sneers) Shall I fetch the tea, Your Highness?

Prince George: Yes, yes! And get that damned fire up here, will you?

Edmund: Certainly, sir. I shall return interfrastically. (exits) (J writes some more)
And of course, as it turned out, he dictionary omitted the word "sausage."

We're just getting started. To be continued....

Thursday, August 16, 2007

I Saw Lon Chaney Walking with the Queen

Also on heavy rotation on the iPod...

Blogito Ergo Somewhere Else

I am off on holiday for a week, jetting over to London to visit some friends, so I shan't be blogging. I'm sure I will be posting a travelog and pix upon my return.

In the meantime, I leave you with...

Midasize It

Good luck getting this to mount on a wall:
LG Electronics presented its 71-inch high-end PDP TV ‘Luxury gold’ whose appearance including TV case, home theater system and set-top box is adorned with 24k gold.
OK...but why? Are they trying to cater to the rather small James Bond villain market?

Digital Imaging

This is interesting. Says National Geographic:
Sharks Have Genes for Fingers and Toes

The basic process for developing fingers and toes in land animals may have existed for more than 500 million years in shark genes, according to a new study.

Researchers identified genetic activity in spotted catsharks embryos that signal the creation of digits.

The discovery pushes back the date of the evolutionary "fin to limb" advance by some 135 million years.

When a gene—essentially a set of instructions—is translated into a trait, such as red hair or an arm, it is said to be expressed.

Scientists have long believed that the gene for digit development was first expressed some 365 million years ago in the earliest tetrapodsthe first vertebrates to walk on land. (Related: "Ancient Fish Fossil May Rewrite Story of Animal Evolution" [October 18, 2006].)

But the new study suggests the finger-and-toe gene was first expressed much earlier, in fish—though not to such an extent that it yielded actual digits.
I wonder if, as Stephen Jay Gould would say, you could rewind the tape of evolution and start over, would sharks today have been able to type? And what would that mean for humanity if they could? I guess sexual predators wouldn't be the only ones you'd have to watch out for in chatrooms....

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


That is, Driving While an Idiot.

I drove down to Corning, NY, last weekend and on the way down, I saw something that reached new heights of driver idiocy. Now, readers of this blog (both of you) know that I have little patience for all those Very Important People who yak on their cellphone while driving (because, of course, civilization as we know it will fall apart if that call isn't answered immediately--assuming civilization hasn't fallen apart already), and that the new trend in text messaging while driving is the sign of a complete lack of any kind of mental functioning whatsoever. But this took the cake:

I was on I-88, a hilly, winding interstate, and it was raining. One guy was veering all over the place, and nearly ended up in a ravine, or, at one point, plunging off a cliff. His speed varied from 60 to 80 (I had cruise control on and could gauge his speed(s)). I thought, "must be drunk or on a cellphone." As I passed him, just to get the hell away from him, I looked over and he was writing on his PDA with a stylus...while driving. Wow. What exactly is wrong with people?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Burning Ambition

Via Master Dan Webb, Son of Dr. Joe, a video showing how to install the laser from a DVD burner into a flashlight to create an ersatz phaser, capable of visiting death and destruction on unsuspecting matches and balloons. (It does seem like something Dr. Clayton Forrester would come up with.)

Laser Flashlight Hack! - Click here for more amazing videos

But don't tell the electronics industry. If Sony, Toshiba, or Philips made matches or balloons, this laser would only work with compatible matches and balloons.

Hmm...maybe that's a good way to get people to quit smoking: have Sony (for example) buy Philip Morris. Then certain lighters and matches would only work with certain cigarettes. People would quite out of frustration! It Let's get the Surgeon General on the phone...

Capital Idea!

I like the basic principle of this:
Venice charges rude tourists extra

Tourists who do not want to be ripped off in Venice were advised yesterday to drop their brutish behaviour and try to learn a bit of the local lingo.

A "significant proportion" of the city's bars and restaurants are now operating two or even three price lists: one for tourists, another for locals, and a third for "sympathetic" tourists who make more effort than the usual grunted demands.
Living in a tourist-hell town, I would eagerly support any business that wants to charge boorish and rude tourists extra. Language isn't so much an issue here, but tourists who behave like self-important a******es who think the world owes them a living could certainly pony up a few extra bucks for psychological pain and suffering.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Reel Around the Fountains

For your entertainment, the latest video from NYC's Fountains of Wayne, whose new album Traffic and Weather is excellent.

Never Let 'Em See You Sweat

The "Fact or Fiction" column at Scientific gets in a sweat over antiperspirants:
could the aluminum-based compounds that reduce sweat actually cause Alzheimer's disease and breast cancer?
Probably not, is the conclusion, but I think they would be more likely to cause Mennengitis.

Dem Bones

A member of the venerable Leakey clan found some new fossils that suggest that human evolution was not as clean linear as many have thought (not that anyone serious ever thought that it was). Biologist PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has the details and what they mean:
[O]ne fact seems to be dominating the news about them, and is being consistently misinterpreted: the H[omo] erectus specimen is older than the H. habilis specimen, yet the most common models of human evolution have H. habilis giving rise to H. erectus which in turn was the progenitor of H. sapiens. Even the Nature news summary makes a big issue of this difference[:]

"Anthropologists have tended to see the evolution of Homo species as a linear progression, beginning with H. habilis and passing through H. erectus before ending up with modern humans."
These discoveries do not put any seriously held theories in doubt. They do nicely demonstrate that a linear progression is not to be seriously held.

Just as your mother's life most likely substantially overlapped with your own, the persistence of a parental species so that it overlaps in time with its daughter species is not a challenge to evolution at all. That's the case here; the authors certainly do not regard this work as casting any doubt on the evolution of humans at all.

TrES Bien

Astronomers have found another new planet--and it's a big one:
TrES-4 was found by the Trans-atlantic Exoplanet Survey (TrES, pronounced "trace" as in Spanish) — a project using small, automated cameras to electronically monitor thousands of stars in selected patches of sky. Most unexpectedly, TrES-4 turns out to have a diameter 70% larger than Jupiter, even though it has only 84% of Jupiter's mass. That gives it an average density of 0.2 grams per cubic centimeter: a fifth the density of water, and about that of balsa wood.
We probably won't be visiting it any time soon--it's about 1,400 light years away.

For those keeping score, that comes to 249 extrasolar planets found thus far.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Remember the Future

Want to know how far away we are from the various events depicted in science-fiction?
Well, this site features a bunch of countdown timers to future events, such as the discovery of an alien xenomorph by USCSS Nostromo (Alien), the Arrakis showdown (Dune), and the trouble with tribbles* (Star Trek).

*Somehow someone managed to convert star dates into proper dates. Even I'm not that dorky!

The White Stuff

While attempting to add a blogroll (see right), I took this opportunity to re-template this blog. Seems a bit more readable now, dunnit?

One drawback is that I have yet to tweak the HTML code in the template to enable expandable post summaries, so the full Montreal post takes up a honkin' lot of room below. My apologies...

Payback's a Bitch

Hey, animal lovers: what could be more fitting than a Michael Vick dog chew toy? Portions of the profits will be donated to various animal shelters. I wonder how many of these will be tossed on the field at Falcons' games this season.
Oh, background here, if you're not up on the latest atrocities from the world of sports.

Udder Nonsense

Mr. Milgrom-Elcott never missed a drop. Each month, he joined mothers with newborns and Wall Street titans in search of a box of unpasteurized, unhomogenized, raw milk. He is also part of a movement of perhaps hundreds of thousands across the country who will risk illness or even death to drink their milk the way Americans did for centuries: straight from the cow.

Twenty years ago, the Food and Drug Administration banned interstate sales of unpasteurized milk. This spring the agency warned consumers again that they were risking their health drinking raw milk.
Clandestine milk clubs, like the one Mr. Milgrom-Elcott joined, are one way of circumventing the law, and there are others.
"Clandestine milk clubs." That's what I thought it said. OK.
Food scientists can hardly believe that so many consumers have turned their back on one of the most successful public health endeavors of the 20th century. In 1938, for example, milk caused 25 percent of all outbreaks of food- and water-related sickness.

With the advent of universal pasteurization, that number fell to 1 percent by 1993, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group in Washington.
I prefer to skip the milk entirely and spread a thick schmear of salmonella right on a bagel. Sure, it's risky, but the flavor is out of this world, especially if the bagels are green and moldy. Heaven! Later on, I shall have to post my recipe for deep fried E. coli with a marinara/Listeria sauce.

Monkey Business

This is not a headline one sees every day (thankfully):
Man smuggles monkey into NYC airport
And the story even lives up to its headline:
A man smuggled a monkey onto an airplane Tuesday, stashing the furry fist-size primate under his hat until passengers spotted it perched on his ponytail, an airline official said.
During the flight, people around the man noticed that the marmoset, which normally lives in forests and eats fruit and insects, had emerged from underneath his hat, Russell said.

"Other passengers asked the man if he knew he had a monkey on him," she said.

The monkey spent the remainder of the flight in the man's seat and behaved well, said Russell.
My guess it is behaved better than the humans. But I digress...
Airport police were waiting for the man and his monkey when the plane landed about 3 p.m., and the man was taken away for questioning. It was unclear whether he would face any criminal charges.

All's Well That Orwell

A slight variation on my oft-overused pun...

Anyway, this is how I like my irony:
According to the latest studies, Britain has a staggering 4.2million CCTV [closed circuit TV] cameras - one for every 14 people in the country - and 20 per cent of cameras globally. It has been calculated that each person is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.

Use of spy cameras in modern-day Britain is now a chilling mirror image of Orwell's fictional world, created in the post-war Forties in a fourth-floor flat overlooking Canonbury Square in Islington, North London.

On the wall outside his former residence - flat number 27B - where Orwell lived until his death in 1950, an historical plaque commemorates the anti-authoritarian author. And within 200 yards of the flat, there are 32 CCTV cameras, scanning every move.
I guess I shall have to comb my hair and shave when I go to London next week.

Textual Harassment

Good grief:
In late June, five teenage girls were killed in a late-night car accident in upstate New York. They had all just graduated from high school, their lives ahead of them. After the accident, police discovered that the girl driving had been sending text messages in the moments leading up to the crash. Would a ban have saved their lives?

Washington state has already enacted legislation banning texting while driving, and so has New Jersey. Making calls and sending text messages from phones while driving both carry fines ($250 and $100, respectively) in the Garden State. Other states have proposals in the works.
Have people become so incredibly stupid that we actually need a law for this? Oy. Idiocracy, here we come. And if it's anything like the ban on talking on a cellphone while driving (illegal, in theory, in New York state), it will be routinely ignored. You know, watching Lost, I can't help but wonder what the drawback to living on an island in the middle of nowhere would be.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Objet de Mystère

Oh, and in Montreal I saw a bunch of what I assume are relics of an ancient civilization. Archaeologists are puzzled as to what these structures were used for. Religious observation? Fraternity stunts? Turning into a superhero? Bathroom? No one knows...

I’m a Dreamer, Montreal

As part of my strategy of getting the heck out of Saratoga as much as possible in August, I drove up to Montreal this past weekend, a city I’ve wanted to visit for a long time (and it’s only a three-hour drive, sans the hour-plus wait to get through Customs).

What a great city! J’adore Montréal! What a beautiful, clean, safe, friendly, fun place. I can’t imagine I would want to go there in the winter (although there is an entire underground city—la ville souterraine—so you never actually need to emerge and can spend the winter living a mole-like existence, if need be), however, in August (Août), it is sunny and hot--I was surprised that it was in the 80s and 90s, but really quite nice. (The locals dislike the heat.)

Montreal is predominantly French-speaking, but almost everyone I encountered was bilingual. Still, a few bon jours, mercis, s’il vous plaîts, and parlez-vous anglaises go a long way. Most signage is also bilingual, although signs in the Metro (the excellent subway system) is all-French, but it’s pretty easy to figure out what it means. (Four years of high school French failed me; sure, I can read Jean-Paul Sartre but can’t order a meal in a restaurant.)

Blow-by-blow account (and pictures) after the jump.

I originally went up ostensibly for the annual Divers/Cite festival, but was actually ensorcelled by just about everything else in Montreal. And seeing an advert in the Metro for the Insectarium, and realizing that it was not my house, I knew there was one place I had to go.

I drove up Friday afternoon, a pleasant enough drive—a least once I got north of Lake George and summer traffic abated. Traffic was backed up at Customs for about an hour (nothing compared to the almost three-hour wait to get back into the U.S.); I’m glad I remembered to bring my passport, as I needed it.

I got to the hotel about 2:30 and immediately set out to explore, getting the lay of the land, where everything was, and figuring out the best way to get around (foot, actually, although the Metro came in handy when it was raining or my feet were killing me). I had dinner at a Belgian restaurant downtown called L’Actuel, which specialized in mussels, which were quite good, although the “crispy vegetables” they were served with primarily comprised celery, which was odd. Still, Belgian beer was on tap, and everything was served with “Belgian fries” which are basically french fries. (“French” fries are actually a Belgian invention and the word “french” refers to the method of serving them—that is, cut into thin strips, or what we call “julienne.” This of course renders that whole “freedom fries” nonsense a few years ago even stupider than it was on its face.)

At about 7:30 I wandered down to The Village (no, not where The Prisoner was filmed; that’s in a couple weeks...) for an outdoor “Sunset Party.” After about an hour, the skies opened, unleashing the most torrential rain I have ever seen. I had neglected to bring an umbrella, so I dashed for the nearest Metro station and availed myself of la ville souterraine and a pub I found therein until it abated. There was a TV on that was broadcasting local news and, attempting to translate the captions, I mistook the word for “pool” (piscine) with that for “fish” (poisson), rendering a story about a backyard accident far more surreal than it actually was...

Saturday morning, I was up early, and had a series of events planned, including a trip to the Musee des Beaux Arts and the Montreal Planetarium. I set out and a couple blocks from the hotel I stayed at was the Cathedrale-Basilique Marie-Reine-du-Monde (Mary Queen of the World Cathedral), an homage to St. Peter’s in Rome (though decidedly more modest). It was built from 1875 to 1894, construction delayed by the Bishop’s desire to build the cathedral in Anglophone (and Protestant) west Montreal, rather than Francophone east Montreal. Apparently, he had a grudge to bear. Still, it’s a pretty cool building.
Since nothing opened until 10:00, and I had two hours to kill, on a lark I decided to hike to the top of Mont Royal, the large hill that gave the city its name (Mont Réal). It was a 3,5-km hike to the top, and not especially arduous. It's a very popular jogging and biking trail, and I was surprised at how crowded it was, even at that early hour. There is an observation platform at the top, which affords an excellent view of the city:
I hiked back down and got to the Musee des Beaux Arts just after 10. There was a special exhibition called “streamlining,” or a comprehensive collection of examples of industrial design from the 1930s onward. While I can understand the basic point of the exhibit and it was actually interesting, it occurred to me that I was standing in a museum of fine arts looking at staplers, adding machines, and vacuum cleaners. This struck me as very amusing and I couldn’t help but start giggling uncontrollably. Plus in one room were some artifacts that I think I had growing up. I’m sorry, but things that I have actually owned should not be in a fine arts museum!

After that, I wandered across the street to the second building--the museum exists in two parts, the original neo-classical building that opened in 1912:
and a new annex built in 1991 after the museum’s collection outgrew the original building-- where all the European art was housed. Some cool stuff, notably some great 19th-century still lifes (le nature morte) that feature crustaceans.

I finished up there about noon and was really hungry, so I wandered down Rue Crescent, where all the restaurants and pubs were. Several blocks were closed off as apparently there was some major NASCAR event happening on Saturday and there was some kind of festival for it taking place. While eating lunch, I got to watch a “pit stop” contest whereby people raced to be the first to change a tire on a race car. Odd. But here was something that would surely make the Fox News crowd’s heads collectively explode: a NASCAR event conducted in French. Hah!

After lunch, I ambled down to the Planetarium, which is an excellent one. I’m always leery of planetaria, as they are often far too kiddie-oriented and everything is written for an average age of 8. However, I was pleased to discover that this was a planetarium for adults, with a few concessions to younger folks. All the placards were bilingual, so for fun I tried to see if I could understand the French version without “cheating” and looking at the English (didn’t do too badly). There was a show called “Le nouveau système solaire”--the English-language version (“The New Solar System”) showing at 2:30.

I had about an hour to kill, so I walked to nearby Vieux-Montreal, or “Old Montreal,” the spot where the city was originally founded in 1642. Needless to say, the architecture is all correspondingly old and quite beautiful and impressive, representative of a time before architects and designers started building structures with a contempt for humanity (e.g. New York's Penn Station). (I admit, I’m a neo-classical snob...) I thought this bank was quite impressive:
Heck, I’d bank there. Would that my Bank of America branch were as aesthetically pleasing. Also in Vieux-Montreal is the Basilique Notre-Dame, an immense cathedral built in 1824. Interestingly, it was designed by James O’Donnell, an Irish-American Protestant architect—yes, designing a Catholic cathedral (hey, a job’s a job, right?). Apparently, he was so moved by the experience that after the basilica was completed he converted to Catholicism. I don’t have any affinity whatsoever for Roman Catholicism but I do admit they certainly know how to build a church.
There was a wedding taking place, so I didn’t get to go inside (well, I could have, but it would have been rude). I wandered around Vieux-Montreal a bit, then ambled back to the Planetarium. The show on "The New Solar System” was quite excellent, comprising as it did an update on major astronomical events, discoveries, and clarifications of the past several years, focusing on the whole Pluto controversy. (I thought they gave the Cassini mission to Saturn short shrift, but who am I to complain?). They also gave a short presentation on that evening’s sky, for stargazers. Most notably, the International Space Station would be passing overhead between 21h30 (9:30—all times in Montreal are given using a 24-hour clock--confusing at first, but you learn to automatically subtract 12) and 23h (11:00) and would be the brightest object in the sky. (At that time, I was at an outdoor event and there was too much light pollution from the city to see much of anything in the sky, but I did see some bright object overhead in approximately the right place, so it may have been it.)

After the planetarium show, it was about 4:00, and I was exhausted and my feet hurt, so I went back to the hotel and took a nap before heading out on the town. Quick question: what motivates people in hotels to constantly slam doors?!

Sunday morning, I had until noon to check out and discovering--quel horreur!--that the maid had neglected to replace my in-room coffee, I lurched across the street to Gare Centrale (Central Station) for coffee. Sufficiently caffeinated, I hopped on the Metro (it was 7 km, a bit too far of a walk given the time I had) to visit the Jardin Botanique (Botanical Garden) and the one thing I had been looking forward to all weekend: the Insectarium, which did not disappoint. The Diversity Room had pinned and mounted examples of insects from around the world, some freakishly huge. They also had live examples, such as giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches, large beetles, scarabs, stick insects of various lengths, and several scorpions and tarantulas (apparently, it is also an Arachnidarium as well as an Insectarium). On the upper level, a whole room was devoted to social insects, ants and bees, predominantly, although I did notice that one renegade had managed to escape the live ant exhibit. There is also a scale on which you can determine your weight in ants--mine happened to be 4,000,000, which I think I will put on my driver’s license when it comes up for renewal. I could have spent hours at the Insectarium, but I had scant time before checkout, and I did want to hit the road fairly early to beat traffic (didn’t happen).
Before heading back, I did wander through the Jardin Botanique and really did enjoy it (got lost a few times). It's divided into a number of different regions, such as the Chinese Garden, the Japanese Garden (yes, with Asian men and women standing in flower pots, for you Police Squad fans), an alpine garden, an ornamental vegetable garden, an “experimental garden” (where I expected to find Peter Graves and giant grasshoppers), and many many other things. Begun in 1931, the Jardin Botanique has well in excess of 20,000 varieties of plants. There are a variety of events that take place (like tea ceremonies in the Japanese Garden) but I only spent a mere 45 minutes there and saw only the smallest fraction of what there was to see. Should I return to Montreal (and I would love to) I shall have to make it a point to spend more time in the Jardin Botanique.
Headed out about noon and got stuck in the line for Customs for almost three hours. There were helicopters, officers with German shepherds walking between the rows of cars, my trunk was searched, they grilled me on where I was, what I did, what I do for a living--man, it felt like East Berlin. I was at least happy that my papers were in order.

Still, I absolutely loved Montreal and would definitely like to go back and spend more time there.

Friday, August 03, 2007

It Slices! It Dices!

The media buzz surrounding the new Apple iPhone and all the wonderful, fantabulous things it can do reminded me of a link Dr. Joe sent me some years ago. I relink to it here--yes, it's in Danish, but you don't need to understand the narration to find it very funny, and not half reminiscent of the PR for the iPhone.

Oh, and Saratoga Springs' own John McPherson presents his wry take on the iPhone in his very funny "Close to Home" comic strip. (If this link brings up a newer strip, scroll back to August 2.)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Persona Non Grata

Interesting--all the Ingmar Bergman movies I had added to my Netflix queue now say "Short Wait" in the Availability column. Doh! Fortunately, I own Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. (I had a vision the other night that Death appeared and challenged me to a game of pinochle. I've got to stop watching movies after eating a 16-piece of buffalo wings.)

Tellingly perhaps, all the Antonioni movies in my queue are available "Now." Some directors just don't have the same cachet as others...

IM the Eggman

Goo goo goo joob.

Anyway, head on over to The Industry Measure blog one of these days for a shameless plug for the latest issue of How magazine, which features a round-up of visions of "the future of design"-- for which they asked me to contribute. There is also comment on a printing technology that is just plain nuts, as well as a study out of Australia that implies that you should keep a canary around your laser printer.

By the way, I also contribute fortnightly to Reed Business' Expert Business Source blog, where Heidi Tolliver-Nigro and I take turns rabbiting on about marketing--she about print, me about things other than print. My latest post is here, for the morbidly curious.

As if that weren't enough, when goaded sufficiently by Clifton Park's own Joel Friedman, I also contribute (but not as often as he would like) to the Xinet Users Group (XUG, which would make a great name for an evil alien) blog (but then so would "Blog"). I take on the recent Adobe/printing industry silliness here.

That should be enough reading material for now. I am off to Montreal for the weekend and shall not be blogging in any way, shape, or form.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Baby Got Bactine

Every time I do yardwork--or any kind of work around the house, really--I am reminded of Lady Macbeth's line: "Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" From now on, I am wearing chain mail whenever I use the weed whacker.

On the plus side, my day lilies bloomed, so I guess everything I touch I don't destroy...