Thursday, December 3, 2009

Alphabet 2.0

Today's time wasting project is the alphabet in favicons. I have tried to stick to well known brands, and web or tech based companies where possible. Now you can teach your kids the alphabet with pretty colours and technological relevance.

Hardest letters to find were D, L, N and X. You can try and guess them all if you want, or just look at the list below (in order):
Amazon, Blogger, Comcast, The Daily Show, Dell, Facebook, Google, Hulu, Infinity Ward, Joystiq, Kotaku, LA Times, Microsoft, Nintendo Australia, Opera, PayPal, NASDAQ, RealPlayer, Skype, Twitter, urban dictionary, Verisign, Wikipedia, Xanga, Yahoo, Zune.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Electron Deficient Entertainment - High Voltage Edition

I haven't done a lot of reading this month, so instead here's the games I've been playing over the last thirty days or so.

Borderlands - One of the main issues I always had with Diablo was that there was no actual gameplay. Borderlands addresses this by being a shooter but has every other attribute of classic dungeon crawlers. It would also have been nice if a game that touts its four player co-op as one of its main selling points had functional four player co-op. We got it working in the end, but the entire process was very custom modem connection strings circa 1996.
Batman: Arkham Asylum - I'm about a third of the way through the story I would say and so far it's not too bad. The combat system is a little odd and it takes a while to get used to just how sneaky Batman is walking around in brightly lit areas.
Modern Warfare 2 -  Shortest game I have played since Portal. Good fun and with the traditional level of polish one expects from Infinity Ward. I wish games came with some sort of indicator of the multiplayer/single player balance so that I could make a more informed choice about whether it's worth the outlay if I'm not really interested in the multiplayer.
Dragon Age: Origins - Barely started it despite having played it long enough to have finished the Modern Warfare 2 single player campaign in its entirety. It honestly feels like a throwback to the days that are maybe not quite as Halcyon as people might like to think. I hear it's very good though, so I shall return to it once I finish playing through all the games I have at the moment that are fun.
Eufloria - A very chilled out almost painfully indie game that reminds me a lot of fl0w while at the same time being a completely different game. Would be better if it didn't randomly crash midway through levels.
Brutal Legend - A wonderfully created world with endearing characters, a well-written story, a proper horn-throwing soundtrack, and Lemmy from motorhead. And isn't ruined by Jack Black, which deserves some sort of special award. It's a real pity about the game part of it.

Then I also have Trine, Assassin's Creed 2, and a few others that I can't remember right now. My eyes should be totally shot to hell by Christmas.

Friday, November 27, 2009

End Of An Era-Bashing Era

Although many things have changed since my formative teenage years the laughability of eighties fashion and popular culture has remained a touchstone. Even today people make fun of it in an offhand fashion, as if it was a nadir to which humanity will never fall again.

I recently saw the highlights from this year's American Music Awards and the ARIA Awards and I have some observations to make.

Archetypal one hit wonder and general eighties lovechild Adam Ant alongside Luke Steele from breakout Australian electropop act Empire of the Sun.

Goth legend Robert Smith of The Cure side by side with Billy Joe Armstrong of the good-punk-turned-annoying-emo Greenday

And of course Madonna's classic cone bra is one of the great mockable fashion items of music history, but Lady Gaga is willing to at least try and make it look tame.

It was nice to know that no matter how tragic hair got, or how bad the pop music was, that at least we would avoid the pitfalls of the eighties. Sadly it is time to find a new era to pillory. Perhaps the Restoration, or maybe the last days of Czarist Russia. I hear that druidic Britain was pretty funny, what with the sickles and dolmens.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Non-Life Update

I've made some changes of an entirely cosmetic nature to the site design, I think the only actual layout change is that the main column may be a few pixels wider. If you read my posts from within some sort of crazy feed reader, then everything still looks the same so you'll just have to imagine the glory of it.

Anyway, I figured now would be a good time to provide a general Bice in the tubes update for anybody who may be interested.

The Undignified Cactus: this blog.

Feats of Play: my newly created blog for all things gaming, put elsewhere to keep this blog readable for those not interested in games. I recommend reading this post first.

Write Run Rue: my work and code blog. In the best medieval three field practices it has been left fallow for the last few months to improve its fertility. Also I have been everywhere but at work.

If you want an easier way of finding this information than trying to find this post again, there are links at to everything. Once I find a feed aggregator that isn't a useless pile of something indelicate I'll put up a combined feed for those self-destructive individuals who want to read everything I write.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Look, It's a Complicated Issue

Consider Gough Whitlam, arguably Australia's most famous Prime Minister (in Australia at least). Here's some edited highlights of his achievements:
  • Created a national health care service
  • Abolished the death penalty
  • Established Legal Aid and no fault divorce laws
  • Gave Papua New Guinea independence
  • Established diplomatic and trade relations with China
  • Introduced the Racial Discrimination Act (which despite its name, prevents racial discrimination)
He was PM for about three years, and had a hostile senate (which is to say he needed the support of a party besides his own to get bills through). Everybody in Australia knows how Gough's political story ended (sigh, here you go) so it wasn't necessarily a recipe for political longevity, but it does show that being in power does allow a leader to institute change.

Every time I hear a Rudd or Turnbull or one of their lackeys claim that introducing climate change policy is complicated, sensitive and potentially Bad For The Economy and that a working party with a broad-ranging mandate should be set up by 2015 to deliver its findings in ten years at the most I think: what would Gough do? The answer never involves a working party or a steering committee.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Electron Deficient Entertainment - Meh Edition

Stardust - Neil Gaiman. Good read, strange how different it was from the movie, but much better. The book better than the movie? Hard to believe I know.
Child of Fire - Harry Connolly. The problem with most modern fantasy is that it's not Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I guess is not incredibly modern, but is modern enough to warrant comparison. A Madness of Angels is better, but still not up to the same standard.
A Madness of Angels - Kate Griffin. See above.
Altered Carbon - Richard Morgan. Not bad, but in a world where people switch bodies on a regular basis and can have psychosurgery to recover from traumatic events, why is it a struggle for highly trained supersoldier protagonist to quit smoking?
Mona Lisa Overdrive - William Gibson. Neuromancer was pretty good once you accept it was written in the 1980s. Mona Lisa Overdrive was also written in the eighties, but is not good.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Rings and Things

I spent the weekend up in the Blue Mountains attending Chris and Sam's wedding, where I performed the role of best man. This warped my view of the event because I was hanging about awkwardly worrying about what I was supposed to be doing rather than hanging about awkwardly getting drunk for free, which would be my standard approach to a wedding. Still, it was an enjoyable time and, as near as I can tell, the bride and groom seemed happy about the whole thing.

My time was focused around two main points: not losing the rings and giving my speech. Not losing the rings was an unmitigated success. I handed them over at the appointed time and they were put on the appropriate fingers. People clapped and got teared up shortly after, but I think it was about the announcement of the couple rather than the quality of ring guardianship.

Giving a best man speech is an interesting task, one which I would guess a lot of men have or will go through at some point. Done well it is amusing, informative and just a little emotional, done poorly it is some drunk guy falling off a chair after making the groom look like a dick. Because Chris is actually my friend I aimed for the former and so, despite the urgings of my friends, I went for the "being totally sober" option for the delivery. This seemed to work quite well, and aside from the fact it means you have to keep refusing free beer, I would heartily recommend it. Most people laughed, some people said "aaaawwwwww", everybody toasted, everybody applauded and afterwards nobody gave me the evil eye.

I am now officially not leaving Hobart again in the known future. Maybe something unknown will crop up.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jiggety Jig

My last few days in Boston, Radix was kind enough to let me stay at his place. This freed up some money to go and check out some museums, or try some famous Boston seafood. Perhaps take a day trip out to Salem, or check out the aquarium. Obviously we played video games and ate at diners instead. It was good fun, so I stand by the decision. And they were incredibly traditional American diners with kawfee, surly waitresses and everything.

After a few days of living the electrohobo lifestyle, it was home time. I took off from Boston near dusk, flew into LA in the dark and took off for Melbourne in the dark. Somewhere around 1am the baby a few rows back finally shut the hell up. Thankfully the lack of leg room and background white noise persisted, otherwise I might have got some rest.

The sun finally caught up with us after about twelve hours. I wasn't asleep, nor had I been at any point, so I took a picture.
Then I ate some oatmeal applesauce cookies. This is the kind of thing that passes for fun on a long haul flight. Luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, my iPod actually managed to get through the entire set of flights without running out of batteries, so I had a soundtrack for my slow spiral into fatigued insensibility. Once in Australia, a helpful Jetstar lady got me on an earlier flight and before I knew it I was back in Hobart. Thus, in a haze of exhaustion, ended my trip.

So that's about all for my travel posts, unless I get some repressed memory thing going on later in the year. From now on it'll be back to regular life, which is less likely to involve Swedish pornography, the Mona Lisa, or Polish squatters. Probably.

Finally, my top five most played albums while travelling, for those who want to be just like me:
  1. Band of Horses - Cease to Begin
  2. The Black Keys - Thickfreakness
  3. Rage Against the Machine - The Battle of Los Angeles
  4. The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely
  5. Kings of Leon - Only By The Night

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

That's 180 California Minutes

For those who may find themselves in a similar predicament, here is a list of ways to kill time for three hours at LAX:

uh... yeah.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I Count Numbers, Not Nouns

One the great advances of trade was the invention of money. It allowed the exchange of goods for fixed units of value. The process is quite simple: the vendor nominates a price, and the customer hands over a number of (typically) notes and coins equal to the price.

All that is required from the customer's point of view is to look at the values printed on the currency and do some trivial arithmetic until he reaches the right amount. America uses the dollar currency, which can be subdivided into cents at one hundred per dollar. This being the case, America, I have a quick question: what is the value of this coin?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Electron Deficient Entertainment - American Edition

I'm all out of books, but I think they have some in Boston, just behind all the Red Sox merchandise.

Salamandastron - Brian Jacques. When I was sick I went walking and got exhausted near the Boston Public Library. I went in for a couple of hours and read a Redwall book. It was a weird day.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold - John LeCarre. I can see why LeCarre got so popular.
A Most Wanted Man - John LeCarre. I'm surprised LeCarre is still so popular.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson. It's a pity this story is so well known, as it is very good but the surprise ending is kind of ruined.
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury. I really enjoyed this, and the bonus essays were very good as well.
Alexandre Dumas - The Three Musketeers. A very long novel that has a lot less in common with all of the movie adaptations than I would have thought.
Sherlock Holmes : The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I haven't actually finished reading this yet, but you can't read forty consecutive Sherlock Holmes stories without switching to something else for a while

Friday, October 2, 2009

Next Stop, uh, Still Boston Apparently

This morning I got to explain to a French politics student what a twisted sprint was. It took quite some time, but after a while I think I managed to explain it. Her response?
"And you wanted to go?" Sometimes being a nerd is tough.

One of the reasons I came to Boston was to catch up with the people I know here, but due to unexpected Arkansas, people is now person. Specifically Radix (aka Chris), who used to live in Hobart but decided to move to Cambridge for no good reason. Except maybe that Cambridge is a lot cooler than Hobart if you're into, well, most things. We then met up with Glyph (aka, um, Glyph I guess) and sat around in a hipster cafe for a while. I failed to be very hipster, however, which I need to work on if I'm going to hang out with open source programmers.

Radix and Glyph had places to be, I didn't, so obviously I tagged along. Consequently I got to see a fair amount of what I think was Boston's suburban sprawl. It felt like suburbs, and there can be no doubt that it sprawled, but it may have technically been urban sprawl. Regardless, I have now seen bits of Boston that I don't think show up in guide books. Or maps of Boston.

After a series of events featuring three quarts of milk (no chocolate), an ambulance, deli sandwiches, a forgotten bag and a gas station we ended up at MIT. On purpose. I know it's kind of lame, but I found it cool to be sitting in a lecture room at MIT. I was a bit disappointed that I understood the calculus up on the board as I have always assumed MIT teaches secret special forces calculus. Nevertheless, I got to meet a few more of the twisted development guys and without stroking too many egos, those guys know detailed stuff about specific things. Fun times in all, and it's a nice change of pace to talk to people who can make jokes about Common Lisp.

Things that have been cool in Boston which require little further comment:
  • Harvard campus
  • Cheers
  • 500 Boylston, where Boston Legal is set
  • Boston Common
  • Fast food chains (Dunkin' Donuts, Wendy's, and so forth)
  • Random Ben Affleck film being shot (not as cool as Ben Affleck being randomly shot, but we have to make do)
  • Fenway Park, but for once I got to say Australia has an older bigger one.
I had planned to spend a couple of days in LA, but I have dilly-dallied too long and cannot move the flights. Hence I am in Boston until next Tuesday. I might head out to some other part of New England for a couple of days, or just hang around looking awkward attracting crazies.

I'm Like a Magnet to Them

I present to you the entire conversation of me with a random Bostonian.

Random Bostonian: Do you know what movie they're shooting?
Bice Dibley: No, sorry.
RB: You from Ireland?
BD: No, Australia.
RB: What part?
BD: Tasmania, right down south.
RB: Don't know it. Do you go back home often?
BD: I'm actually just here on holiday.
RB: Oh, right. Where are you staying?
BD: Just at a hostel off over that way.
RB: You can totally come and stay with me if you want.
BD: Uh, no, that's ok, I've already paid.
RB: Oh, alright. Well, I'm going to New York tomorrow on the bus if you want to come. The tickets are really cheap.
BD: I have plans for tomorrow, sorry.
RB: Well, here's my home address in Jamaica Plains, phone number and email address. (while writing them down on the back of a train ticket)
BD: Um, ok. I've got to go, friends to meet in Cambridge. Bye.
RB: See you later.

To answer your first three questions, female, no and about thirty-five. What is the correct, non-dangerous way to say "Leave me alone, you are clearly a crazy person"?

Tales of Boston to follow shortly.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Missed Opportunity

Sitting in Copley Square, taking advantage of the Boston Public Library's complimentary wireless. I seem to have essentially recovered and am enjoying some light convalescence in the sun (and unfortunately, the wind). I am currently eyeing off a nearby hot dog vendor's wares. I think he and I could reach some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement.

America has a couple of issues that are causing me ongoing frustration, and nothing fixes problems like complaining about it on the internet.

I experienced the first problem in Canada, and thought it was some quaint local custom, but alas, no. Nobody will tell you how much things cost. Doesn't matter is it's a meal, a game, a t-shirt, there's the price displayed prominently on the menu/sticker/whatever, and then they just whack some arbitrary amount of tax on top of it once you decide to buy it. So suddenly $29.99 becomes $31.87. It's not a big difference, but it's something easily remedied: include the applicable taxes in the advertised price. Magic.

I speak English. I speak quite good English, almost like I was born to it. So why is it when I order some food and say "no pickle, thanks" I have to repeat myself three times? Side note: it doesn't matter what food you're ordering, it comes with at least some pickle. Is it my indecipherable Australian accent, or staggered disbelief that I might not want a half kilo pickle sitting on my plate while I try to eat?

Damn, it seems it was a lunchtime hot dog stall. Now I must look elsewhere. One of the lesser known perils of blogging, I guess.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sell Me Pseduoephedrine, Dammit

Sick again, must be something about the French language. All the silent letters, maybe. Anyway, I mostly enjoyed Montreal. Those flying into the USA, who warned me with horror stories, may I suggest flying in via Canada? That way you clear US customs in Canada, which was a pretty straightforward affair.

Boston is good so far. I was previously of the opinion that American television and movies provided a distillation of America, a cultural liquor, if you will. My opinion is beginning to be swayed to the viewpoint that it is in fact a diluted, shandy-like representation of the real thing.

I will put something more exhaustive up when I am feeling alive.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Au Revoir Europe, and Auf Wiedersehen

I shall miss your pay-as-you-go toilets and your McDonald's in three hundred year old buildings, your aggressive lack of air conditioning and your metric beer glasses, your foreign languages and your bicycles, your gypsy beggars and your stolen artifacts, your fairytale forests and your train stations, your horrendous local music and your Peter Paul Rubens. But most of all I will miss your Fanta. For a man accustomed to a colour so lurid it could serve as a safety warning to wayward travellers and a flavour that is to orange what the humble dormouse is to astrophysics, your Fanta came as a revelation, a window to something truly transcendent.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Quick Dip

Bath is a cool day trip, but in a way that exactly matches what you'd expect, especially if any female member of your family has overexposed you to Jane Austen adaptations. So in lieu of a post about Bath, here's a High Fidelity style list to mark the end of my last train journey of note for the trip. Top 5 songs to stare out a train window to:
  1. The Dandy Warhols - Sleep
  2. Alexi Murdoch - All My Days
  3. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here (live on Delicate Sound of Thunder)
  4. Machine Gun Fellatio - Unsent Letter
  5. Willy Mason - The Way I Am

The Very British Museum

I ended up spending four or five days longer in London than I had originally intended. This is not because I was having so much fun in London that I didn't want to leave, but rather because I could not stomach trying to sort out more travel and accommodation earlier this week. I went shopping, saw fireworks and parades at the Thames Festival, stared out the window at rain, and spent two days at the British Museum. The British Museum is free, technically making it infinitely better value than the Louvre or the Deutsches Museum, or what have you.

As near as I can tell, it serves two main purposes. Firstly, it is to display the history of civilisation and culture and seen through the eyes of British people who like to steal things off foreigners. One of the best examples of this is the Elgin Marbles which are carvings and statuary taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin. Technically it wasn't stolen because he did get written permission from the Turks to take the stuff away from the Greeks, which makes it alright. Look at the examples below, and see if you can spot what makes these particular pieces so unique and valuable among all of the remnants of ancient Greece.

That's right, almost every figure in the set is almost fully clothed, which is completely unprecedented for the period (I am heartily sick of seeing ancient Greek wangs).

The second purpose of the museum is to ensure that no matter how impressive the exhibit, be it colossal pharaoh sculptures or seven metre tall bronze clad gates, that they look small and a bit less impressive than the British Museum building itself. This has historically allowed the British to appreciate the history of the world without forgetting that in the end it's a bit foreign and a bit rubbish compared to Mother England. In fairness, the British Museum is an intimidatingly grand building.
From London
Next stop, Montreal.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Brazil 2 def Spain 1

You may be familiar with churros, a sausage shaped doughnut of Spanish extraction, normally rolled in cinnamon and sugar. I have also had it served with a bowl of melted chocolate for dipping purposes. This is a Good Thing.

While at the Thames Festival on Sunday I came across a stall selling Brazilian churros. "Hello," I thought "hijacking somebody else's great food, Brazil? We'll see about that." I lined up and eventually reached the front of the line.
"Hello, sir."
"One thanks."
"Sure, sugar or cinnamon and sugar?" Looks pretty Spanish to me.
"Cinnamon and sugar, thanks."
"Yes, please." Again, nothing new. Still looks to be a Spanish dish to me.
"Caramel?" What's this?
"Sure." The man then proceeded to inject the churros with caramel sauce until it overflowed, much like an eclair. When he handed it to me, I just wanted to fist bump someone about how awesome a caramel injected churros was, but sadly there were only two American ladies who decided it was too unhealthy and left the line.

Your move, Spain.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Walk the Line

This is the Singapore MRT North-South Line. It is a line, it has two ends, simple.

This is the Berlin U-Bahn U1 Line. Again, two ends, from one point to another.

Paris Metro this time. Number 2 Line (don't snigger). As I'm sure you've noticed, it is called a Line and is, more or less, a line.

Now we have the London Tube District Line.

This is not a line. This is a god damned mess. Get your act together London.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Friday Night Lite

Friday in London, where there are enough pubs and clubs to house the population of Canberra (this is not actually true but it sounds plausible, doesn't it?), so what did I do? The obvious. I went to Hamley's, where my brain fused.

Hamley's is a six (or seven, depending on how you count) floor toy store that's been around for a little over two hundred years. As I walked in I thought I might keep an eye out for present buying opportunities, but then an employee wandered by and handed me a remote control for a helicopter with flashing lights on both controller and helicopter. Two hours later I left the building with a large bag full of stuff and memories which are hazy at best. There was definitely a promotional four foot tall Lego Indiana Jones made out of Lego. Maybe there was a magician, maybe it was just a guy who had lost his wallet.

To feel a little less immature I went to the (arguably) oldest bookshop in London, Hatchard's, then the (arguably) most famous bookshop in London, Foyle's, for a total of about thirteen storeys of bookshop. Hatchard's was much more booky, with thick carpets, spiral staircases, and staff in each section who could well have been hired specifically because they look like old book store owners. Foyle's was a bit more modern, with a cafe on one floor, and a jazz club on another, and they gain extra points for having a genuine computer science section, rather than the traditional lone copy of Windows 95 for Dummies. In a remarkable display of self control I only bought three books.

Come the night time I did go out. Somewhat. A bunch of random people from the hostel went to the pub for drinks and pool. I drank Fosters because it was the cheapest beer available, and felt like a traitor. The night was cut reasonably short when one of the guys (an Australian, naturally) passed out, having started drinking at lunchtime, and his mates took him back to the hostel. This left me hanging out with a Polish squatter who DJ's underground, read illegal, techno parties, which sounds extra cool when said in a Polish accent. He left because he was being evicted, or whatever it is one does to squatters, the next morning and had to move his gear. A slightly abortive evening, all told.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Oslo at a Glance

Two days in Oslo, sort of. Horribly tired on the first day, slept a long way into the second one. There is a lot of bronze statuary in Oslo. I think they hope that if they put up enough statues there won't be enough room for the beggars any more. So far they are wrong. Saw a museum full of Munch, he was a man with some serious issues, saw an old fortress and some viking ships.

I think Oslo is better than what I saw of it, but maybe not. I did see a statue of Abraham Lincoln.

From Oslo
You can't really see the inscription, but it reads "Presented to Norway by the people of North Dakota, USA. July 4th 1914." On the other side is "Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

I have no idea.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fjell and Almost Fjord

It's currently 7am after an all night train ride to Oslo on which I got very little sleep. Expect little in the way of sense and you will be well served.

I have spent the last few days in Bergen, Norway. The train ride there from Oslo I recommend doing with as much daylight as possible as you will get to see all the scenery of Norway without the inconvenience of having to walk up and down on it. There's gorges, mountain lakes, rocky highlands, alpine forests, waterfalls, all your key mountainous terrain, plus a few tiny little Norwegian towns.

Bergen itself is no slouch on the picturesque front, being situated in and around what they call the seven mountains, or fjells (more on these later). It's also, being Norway, egregiously expensive. As such it's rather handy that I got to stay with my cousin Julia and her partner Ben who both play for the Bergen Philharmonic. Their apartment is centre left, just off to the side of that bridge, in case that becomes critical information at some point.
From Bergen

It was good to meet up with family, and also really nice to stay in a home for a few days. I realised about halfway to the train station on my way out of Bergen that I didn't take any photos of my gracious hosts, a fact my parents will likely berate me roundly for. As a consolation, here's an artist's rendition:
From left: me, Julia and Ben standing outside historic Bryggen. Bryggen is a bunch of old wooden houses that is heritage listed. Turns out this is about a hundred times more interesting than it sounds, and the buildings have the air of a group of old drunks leaning against each other for support as you can tell from my picture. It doesn't take long to see most of it, but I wandered around a couple of times because it stays interesting.

I booked a Norway in a Nutshell tour for Sunday which is trains and buses and boats around a couple of fjords. Very scenic, majestic, even. So where are the pictures? The evidence, as it were? Well, for various reasons I got to the first train as it was pulling out of the station, whereupon the conductor gave me one of those shrugs. You know, the sorry-I-could-resolve-this-in-your-favour-but-choose-not-to-because-I-just-don't-care-enough-to-stop-the-train kind of shrug. You see it on public transport officials the world over. So, soaking wet, I went back, dried off and instead went and looked at some Edvard Munch paintings while listening to Radiohead's The Bends. You can relive the experience by looking here, with this playing in the background. Not the best way to lift the spirits.

You may have noticed the soaking wet bit. That's because in Bergen it rains 275 days a year, and that is according to their tourism office. Guess who didn't pack a rain coat?

Back to the seven mountains. I went up two of them (two of seven is a pretty bad hit rate, I know, but they're tall, and I'm lazy): Floyen which I walked up, and Ulriken, the highest, which I took a cable car up. Technically Floyen has a / through the o, but I can't be bothered figuring out how to do that. In both cases I saw an inordinate number of crazy Norwegians running up them. Apparently 7pm on a Monday is the ideal time to run up a 650m mountain in Norway. In this weather, too.
From Bergen

The only bad thing about the trip, apart from the missed train and subsequent wasted 950NOK (about $200) was that a good deal of the attractions in Bergen are only open, or regularly open, during summer, which ends at the beginning of September. As a result I missed a few things, including the Leprosy Museum, which might have been fun to see.

All in all, Bergen gets two rained upon thumbs up, with thanks again to Julia and Ben for putting me up, and putting up with me.

Electron Deficient Entertainment - On the Road Edition

The Thousandfold Thought - R Scott Bakker. Book three of The Prince of Nothing series. Not worth the effort of lugging it around for several weeks, not by a long shot.
The Portable Machiavelli - Has The Prince, an abridged Discourses and some letters and plays by Machiavelli. Very dense reading for train and plane travel, still good though. Has given the impression to several people that I am far better read than I in fact am.
Fever Pitch - Nick Hornby. Not sure how this made me feel about being a sports nut.
High Fidelity - Nick Hornby. Enjoyable, although to be fair I think I am the exact demographic for the book.
Around the World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne. Fun, short.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth - Jules Verne. Fun, short, cool to read just before going to Copenhagen, seeing the same buildings he wrote about in the 1800s.
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card. No, I hadn't read it before, please don't judge me. I rather enjoyed it, but I wouldn't really put it up there with Neuromancer or Snow Crash.

Have just started The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which will be my first LeCarre book. More news on travel later.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Joining the Dots

I have been surprised as I have travelled around Europe just how true so many stereotypes have turned out to be. Guess which country everyone relies on to get the train timetables right? The Germans. In Paris you can be sure someone will be at least a bit rude to you, American tourists will be rude to everyone, and the Danes, well, the Danes make Danishes.

That said, let me start by saying it simply isn't true that the entire female population of Sweden consists of tanned, blond, statuesque beauties. A few of them are brunettes. You might think then, if you were a superficial type, that Sweden is the place to go to hook up, but be aware you will be competing with a veritable cavalcade of Dolph Lundgren's younger brothers and cousins. Seriously, the streets of Gothenburg are like an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue that some middle eastern immigrants stumbled across and stayed to set up kebab shops.

The first thing I noticed about Gothenburg when I felt like dinner at 8:30pm (thanks for that habit by the way, Jono) was that everything was closed, even McDonalds. Quick side note: McDonalds in Sweden is full of Ikea, so it looks all trendy.
It took me twenty minutes to find a place that sold food, and my hotel is right in the middle of town. Gothenburg has a population of about half a million, and it felt very strange walking around basically a ghost town when It's barely sunset.

The second thing I noticed while flicking through television channels: music videos, Nickelodeon, hardcore pornography, BBC World Service, Swedish talk show. Spot the odd one out. Needless to say, I found the porn somewhat incongruous, so being the investigator I am I checked the channel's online programme guide to find out what was going on. No, it wasn't an adult channel, just a regular movie channel, but nestled between Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr and Stephen King's The Mist was Tropical Asses on Fire, director unknown (Canal+ Hits is the channel if you're interested). Fairly liberal approach to adult content, then.

The third thing I noticed was the previously mentioned ridiculous good looking-ness of the general population. This was third because I didn't actually see anybody until the morning after I arrived.

The fourth and final observation of note was the remarkable number of women (and men, calm down) wheeling around prams or with babies in possum pouches. I can't recall seeing more than one or two prams in the last month, but I would have seen easily a hundred over the last couple of days.

Of course, when you have a good-looking population, close all the shops at sunset and put porn on TV, I suppose high birth rates aren't that surprising.

Monday, August 31, 2009

In Which Bice is Immature, Despite Being Mistaken for a Dane

Not much to say about Copenhagen. It's nice enough, with weather that makes sense to me (17 at the end of summer feels about right), and it's strange how much more at ease I feel in a city on the edge of the sea instead of one plonked willy nilly inland. It is kind of cool to go and see the buildings that Jules Verne mentions in Journey to the Centre of the Earth which I started reading on the train here, even if the buildings themselves are not that great.

I don't know if it's my strapping viking looks or what, but I was stopped by tourists three times yesterday for directions. I had another pair ask me today, and when I was walking past parliament house I got harangued by a hippie in Danish asking me to vote for someone about some issue. Considering how many times in France and Germany I got approached by people who clearly knew I was a tourist this is something of a sharp contrast. To be fair, I have also done quite a few double takes over the course of the last two days when I thought I saw one or another of my siblings. Clearly Dibleys have got some sort of Danish thing going on, which would be the lamest secret ability ever, but there you have it.

Finally, I have been seeing these signs on shops all over the city, primarily women's clothing stores. I'm not entirely sure what it means, something to do with sales, but it makes me smirk every time.
Up to 70%? Is that a good amount of slutspurt? Maybe it's too much, I just don't know.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Don't Munchen The War

Bavaria is pretty. It's not a word I use often, but there's only so many rolling green hills dotted with immaculately kept white houses and absurdly picturesque cows (that's right, a picturesque cow) you can see before you have to admit prettiness. It's also not the green that ends at the edge of the heavily watered crops, turning instantly into a resigned brown, but rather a green that traipses merrily through the crops and grass, spreads up into the leaves of the trees, gets intersected by a railway and then continues on it's way as far a the eye can see. I found it very difficult to explain to my Austrian and Dutch hostel room mates why green vegetation was strange to me, let alone at the end of summer.

As if these hyper-bucolic surrounds weren't enough, Bavaria has places like the Nymphenburg Gardens and Neuschwanstein. Neuwschwanstein is the medieval inspired castle crazy King Ludwig II had built up in the mountains outside of Munich more or less as a tribute to Wagner. It's the inspiration for the Disney castle and was designed, not by an architect, but rather by Ludwig and a theatrical set designer. Unfortunately for me, the best view of the castle was more or less ruined by the fact they're renovating it and it was covered in scaffolding. I'm sure an images search for Neuschwanstein will show up some good pictures though.

Final note on Neuschwanstein: the view of the castle used by Disney in from Mary's bridge, which the guide warned us not to go on if we were afraid of heights. I'm not, so on I went. I would like to change my official answer to whether or not I'm afraid of heights. I'm a little nervous of 100m high 150 year old unmodified wooden bridges where the planks on the bridge have a good couple of inches vertical travel in them.
From Munich
See that shadow with the lack of any appreciable supports under it? That's the bridge.

The Nymphenburg Gardens, of which I've posted quite a few photos, is probably the best set of gardens I've been to. It's basically a set of walking gardens and wooded areas set around this enormous formal garden which runs straight through the middle.
From Munich

The gardens are out the back of the Nympenburg Palace, and although you have to pay to get into the palace museum, which is kind of dull , the gardens themselves are free and dotted with Muncheners reading, jogging, and generally relaxing. As per some requests to prove that I am genuinely overseas and not "holed up in Burnie masquerading as a foreign traveller," here's a shot of the palace obscured by my ugly mug, squinting delightfully into the sun. You'll just have to trust me that it's not photoshopped, I suppose.
From Munich

Munich itself can be summarised thus: there is a traditional Munchner meal called weisswurst, which consists of two white sausages, a pretzel and a half litre or litre of weissbeir (wheat beer). Not so unusual, shows the German love of sausage, baked goods and beer, right? Well, true, except that no place in the city will serve it after 12 noon. That's right, if you want weisswurst, you're committing to a pint for breakfast.

I'm really glad I went via Munich, it was a lot of fun. Now I'm in Copenhagen, which reminds me so far of Hobart. Tomorrow I'm going to go find out if Copenhagen has more things named after Hans Christian Andersen than Paris does named after Charles De Gaulle.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Guard L'Est

I left Paris last night by train, leaving from Paris Gare De L'Est (see, the title's a pun. Mull it over, it doesn't get funnier, but it does get less heinous with time). I would strongly recommend thinking four distinct times before starting any trouble at Gare De L'Est.

First, there are the platform wardens. These old men and women can ask to see your ticket. They probably will not stop you starting trouble, except maybe fare evasion. Second are the station guards. These guys are hired by SNCF, the rail provider, and wander around in pairs carrying batons and tasers. I imagine most people would reconsider causing trouble upon seeing these guys.

Apparently not. Also on patrol are small groups of gendarmes, a helmet and shield short of full riot gear. These guys carry batons and holstered pistols and look fairly intimidating. If nothing else, they do have firearms available. Surely, by now, you'd think there was enough security to keep a train station under control? The French would disagree, so they have a couple of dozen Légion étrangère on patrol. Who are the Légion étrangère? Good question. You might know them better as the French Foreign Legion, aka a bunch of total badasses. A regiment made up of guys like this:

So they just wander around with their assault rifles drawn, I'm going to assume with the safeties on, but who knows, it's the French Foreign Legion. Suffice to say, I made damn sure I put my litter in the provided receptacles, separating recyclables where possible.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's Pronounced Gor-Mett

The last three nights in Paris I am/will be staying in a different part of the city, the 10 district near La Place De La Republique. Jono has headed back to work, so it's just me, so don't be surprised by a switch from 'we' to 'I'. The 10th district is less a residential zone than the previous place and seems to be more "Le Paris", by which I mean they ham up the Frenchness of everything for tourists. The upshot of this seems to be everything costs a couple of euros more. 6 euros for an orange juice? Pass.

In a bizarre protest move, I have countered by eating not French food. Partially because the prices around here are just ridiculous and partially because there is actually a limit to the number of consecutive French cafe meals one can eat.

Experiment 1 - French Fast Food Chain (QuickBurger): Next to the first McDonald's I saw in Paris was a place called QuickBurger. I got one of the Grand Cheese meals. I don't think I could have handled the Super Trois Grand Cheese.
Result: Substantively worse than Australian McDonald's, the chips were basically uncooked and the burger was both greasy and dry.

Experiment 2 - Salad Roll in Plastic: Bought it from a boulangerie/patisserie that had "bakery" written on it as well, presumably for anglophiles so strangled by their ignorance that they were unable to deduce its nature from the piles of breads and pastries in the window.
Result: The filling was not bad, the tomato and mozzarella combination you apparently cannot escape in Paris, the bread was passable. On par with any other pre-wrapped salad roll you might eat anywhere in the world.

Experiment 3 - Dodgy Asian Take Away: Went walking until I found a place with the right combination of lurid neon signage, badly faded photos of the food in the window, and cuisine called 'Asian' rather than risking the wrath of naming a specific country. The guy behind the counter didn't speak English, and spoke what even I recognised as heavily-accented French. After a few false starts, it became clear that rice does not come standard with a meal from a dodgy Asian take away in France. I got the chicken with black mushrooms in red wine sauce and fried rice with peas and ham, which I'm pretty sure is not served anywhere east of the Mediterranean.
Result: Tasted bloody awful, and was bizarrely half stone cold half piping hot. Can of Fanta was the highlight of the meal. So far I haven't died of food poisoning so I'm going to claim a moral victory.

All in all, I would say that the French love of food results in a situation where they can't understand the concept of aiming for an alright outcome, and subsequently have a poor grip on the world of take away food where good enough is the watchword.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

La Jaconde

Probably the biggest draw card of the Louvre is the Mona Lisa, and it is one of only two exhibits with specials signs pointing to it from across the rest of the museum (the other being the Venus de Milo). Now, a lot of people won't be able to get to the Louvre in the immediate future or maybe ever, so I thought I would perform a public service and provide readers with a method for accurately recreating the moment of seeing the most famous painting in the world.
  1. Print out a picture approximately 2 feet by 3. Make it the Mona Lisa if you like, but it's not really necessary
  2. Put it in a frame fronted with highly reflective glass
  3. Put the painting in the frame behind a protective cabinet of highly reflective glass
  4. Shine several bright lights directly on the glass
  5. Put a barrier up three metres from the picture. If the image is still visible, push the barrier back a little further.
  6. Hire at least two hundred people to come and crowd around the barrier holding cameras above their heads and make either pretentious or stupid comments (Hint: you cannot appreciate the brushwork when all you can see is some dude's sweaty armpit so don't say you can)
  7. For added authenticity don't bother too much with air conditioning, it's overrated anyway.
I would have taken a photo of the debacle, but I didn't want to be mistaken for one of the people taking pictures of pictures.

La Grippe

It would be nice to think I haven't written anything in the last few days because I've been living the high life, but the more prosaic reason is because I have been laid low with what the French would call la grippe, even as the country is sweltering in a heat wave. I had been planning on heading south next, to Toulouse then Barcelona and across to Venice, but looking at weather reports and familial connections, north to Scandinavia looks more promising if more expensive.

Anyway, enough of the future, let us speak instead of the past. Last week we spent a few days in Berlin which was a strange place. People walk around with their dogs off leashes, drinking beer in public places while at the same time always obeying traffic signals. Jonno put forward the hypothesis that Germany treats its citizens like responsible adults and I think I have to agree. In Australia one can't help but think lifting the ban on drinking in public would be seen as encouraging public drunkenness and in fact public drunkenness would follow, whereas in Germany everyone simply acknowledges that a responsible adult doesn't get fall down drunk in public, so the government doesn't need to make any rules about it.

As I alluded to in my previous post, there are a lot of bikes in Berlin. As near as I can tell it doesn't seem to limited to a particular age or social group, everyone rides bikes to get to their destinations. As a result the sound of bicycle klingers (I'll leave the definition of klinger as an exercise for the reader) is far more common than car horns or even cars, really. When combined with the fact that Berlin's population is substantially smaller than its capacity (3.4 million vs about 5 million I think), the city seemed to have a permanent Sunday afternoon sleepiness which was incredibly relaxing.

We made our way out of Berlin to Paris on an EasyJet flight, and although we made it on time I can't help but think that a budget airline being staffed by Germans might provide the people least receptive to poor punctuality that the planet has ever bred.

Theoretically I have the advantage in Paris that I speak a little French, but speaking French badly in France is something of an extreme sport. Some people find it amusing or are happy that you're having a go, while others seem to be weighing up whether or not a jury would convict should you show up without a tongue on a slow boat to China. This has probably not been helped by my illness, which has made me somewhat less able to process what people are saying to me.

On Monday, we went to the Louvre which was more or less astounding, even if you ignored the exhibits completely. Prague has a kind of cosy organic feel to its streets, while Berlin has a grandeur and audacity of scale on its public buildings which is impressive. The Louvre, and the Tuileries Gardens through which one walks into the Louvre itself are of a scale designed to impress but also with an imposing and unarguably splendid majesty that gives you a very good insight into what exactly the French peasants were so angry about.

The museum part itself was very good, but also ridiculously large, so here's a breakdown: Romans like to carve their emperors in marble, Sumerians preferred basalt, there is no known way to stop a middle ages or renaissance painter from painting Jesus, Napoleon III was a man who understood opulence, refusing to even countenance anything that was not made of gold or burgundy velvet, and the Venus De Milo is smaller than you might think.

After the Louvre, this is what I've seen of Paris
Which makes the hotel room look a fair bit nicer than it is.

For those wondering about French food, the random cafes we have visited for dinner have provided meals which would compare easily in quality, if not presentation, with the good restaurants in Hobart. Of course, at 60 euros for a cafe dinner for two people, it'd want to be good.

Well, that was long and rambling. Lucky you.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Been to Prague? Czech

Due to the time constraints of writing a post within the constraints of sitting in a Berlin cafe at 10pm eating dessert this will cover less territory that it otherwise would. Suffice to say, jet lag sucks, drunk Irishmen interrupting your attempts at sleep on a plane suck more and Americans who can't spell rabbi suck even more than that.

Prague was great, if hotter than Singapore (yes, really, Singapore has air conditioning). The hostel we stayed at was really nice, central, and about a vest and an espresso too trendy for me. Still, I'd stay there again. I didn't take a lot of photos of old buildings for much the same reason one wouldn't feel the need to hoard grapes at a vineyard, but rest assured they were there. I did feel a bit sorry for the native Pragueites (Praguians, Praguettes?) because at least one in every four or five people there was a tourist. Cars containing clearly harried businessmen were forced to stop time and again in the middle of the road while gaggles of tourists trailed after their guides treating the city like a theme park.

I have to give a special mention to Isaac, the guide on the free New Europe tour Jonno and I went on. He was a backpacking American Jew who lived in Prague (the Jew bit mattered for the jokes made in the Jewish Quarter), and gave an informative and genuinely funny tour. It was not at all what I expected but quite welcome. I feel that his Kafka jokes may have gone over the head of more than one tour member, but then again it is Kafka. At one point he stole a broom from a passing streetsweeping vehicle. No, it didn't make more sense in context. I don't know what else to add except that if you're in Prague, go on the tour, it's free and totally worth it. The time, I mean. It's clearly worth the money.

I will not recommend, however, either slivovice or the seedy, seedy bar in which we tried it. Imagine you created a plum liquor and then, when nobody was looking, replaced it with nail polish remover. This is slivovice, except without the utility of being able to dissolve nail polish. To be fair, we probably should have been warned by the look on the face of the lady behind the bar and the fact she had to dig all the way to the back of the fridge to find a bottle. If people aren't drinking it in a place like that then rest assured they aren't drinking it anywhere.

The following day we took the train from Prague to Berlin, which for 50 euros was both cheap and quite relaxing. We got to go past some fairly idyllic Czech, and later German countryside, most notable for being genuinely green and containing random monastaries on rocky promintories. Going through towns and cities, on the other hand, gives you an unfair view of a place I think. After all, you only see the houses and industry that people are willing to put next to the railway lines which is obviosuly going to make a place look fairly poor and run down.

Berlin so far has been good, with a lot more bicycles than I would have expected if you'd asked. I will defer further information and comment until I'm finished in Berlin, which will be Sunday.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Airport Seats Are Uncomfortable

Sitting in the airport killing time until my flight, seemed like a good time to write something. Before I continue, might I draw your attention to the photos being displayed on the right hand side. Rather than fill my posts with every happy snap I take, I'm going to put them into albums that people can look at or not. Things that made me laugh or are interesting will still get put into posts, though, so I can provide incisive observations.

National Day was a bit of fun, especially watching the "our heritage" parts, which takes quite a long time when they had to cover Malay, English, Chinese and Indian cultures, each of which has a bit to say. Suffice to say there were all the traditional dances, dragons and fireworks one might reasonably expect. On National Day I also went to an aquarium, wherein I checked out some fish and a lots of rays and then went to the "Images of Singapore" museum, which is a timeline of the development of Singapore. From the exhibit I had the impression reinforced that Singapore is rather unusually multicultural. Unlike somewhere like Australia which is merely multiethnic, Singapore seems to be able to have three or four main languages and cultures coexisting side by side without any trouble.

Today I went around and had a look at the Asian Civilisations Museum, which was as advertised. I've noticed, perhaps due to the number of local languages, names aren't given a lot of spice. Got two roads with bridges? North Bridge Road and South Bridge Road. Done. Museum full of exhibits about Asian civilisations? Asian Civilisation Museum. Bam! On the upside it does make it fairly easy to be a tourist. If you're looking for the mosque in Chinatown, try Mosque Street. I spent quite a while in there, partially because it was really interesting, partially because it was blissfully cool, and partially because of helpful signage like this:

I then wandered around looking for the Red Line station, during which time I saw most of the old colonial buildings including St Andrew's Cathedral which is a truly blinding white, the Fullerton building, the Old Supreme Court and City Hall. All of these buildings are on the esplanade and around Raffles' Place where there are also bronze statues showing typical life from Singapore's past (coolies pulling rickshaws, Englishmen looking phlegmatic and so forth).

I don't know what this statue is supposed to represent, unless Singapore was at some stage ruled by a race of giant mutant chickens. Now that would have been something to see.

Anyway, that's pretty much Singapore done and dusted, overall quite good. Interestingly it only took me a couple of days to mentally get over the heat, but I reckon I'd need another few months of exposure before my body could put up with being one of the crazy locals who walks around in long sleeved shirts and jeans, with a jacket around the waist. What is that jacket for? Unexpected snow fall? I think not.

Next stop Prague. Well, London for two hours, then Prague. The place I'm staying has friendly warning not to use the local taxis, because they will rip you off, and money changers for the same reason. Sounds lovely, guess I'll go spend the last of my SGD now then.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Apropos Nothing

The view from my room. Click for embiggening.

State Sanctioned Ghettos. Superb.

Didn't make it into the city on yesterday as I got on the wrong bus and ended up somewhere random on Sentosa where a parrot bit my ear, and then my finger. It's alright though, because I got to pay for the experience. Got on the right bus today, and got to the delightfully named Harbourfront. It's on the harbour. Sort of near the front. It also is the home of a couple of malls which made my aim of buying a camera somewhat easier. Because I'm so cultured the very first photo I took was of a local fashion outlet which caught my eye on the way in:

Top hole.

Next stop was Chinatown. Not much to say about Singapore's train system: it works, is straightforward and only has the slight quirk that you get a portion of your fare back if you return your ticket to a ticketing machine. Chinatown, as near as I can tell is half trinket shops half food shops both of which spill out onto the street, which the following picture utterly fails to capture.

It does however show the sheltered footpaths that the whole area has, although whether this is a faithful recreation of the motherland or simply a nod to the daily rain I don't know. I would have asked somebody but the wizened old women selling dried best-not-ask and pickled god-only-knows didn't look like they were up for a discussion on colonial architecture. Fear not, those columns are perfectly straight, I just can't take a properly aligned photo. To keep with the architectural theme, I also checked out the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which was full of monks and incense and Buddha statues and looked suitably like a Buddhist temple.
Just to clarify the size of the thing:
I was going to take some photos of the inside, but there were people inside performing actual rituals with chants and everything, and I try not to desecrate holy sites while the worshipers are still there.

Lunch. I don't know what the alcohol tax is like in Singapore, but when they'll give you a barbecue pork rice the size of your head for five bucks, eight bucks for the local beer seems disproportionately expensive. Subsequently, I had a $1.50 sugar cane juice which was awesome, if unsurprisingly very sweet. I may have bought a jade elephant.

At this point I was thinking of heading back to the hotel, but managed to get turned around pretty badly (no mean feat considering Chinatown is about five streets) and ended up passing through a bizarrely Australian strip of restaurants. At the end of the strip was

The Toucan. Irish Pub. Singapore. Fantastic. I really should have gone in, in hindsight. Anyway, in a fairly weak end to my tale I found my way back to the train station by the old trick of following the signs and got back to the hotel about the same time the blisters caused by wearing thongs for the first time in living memory became unbearable.

Also, just saw the cricket scores. Oi! Oi! Oi!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

For One Only, Sir?

Sitting on the balcony listening to After the Goldrush. I'd have a beer but they're twelve bucks. I wish the people in the next room weren't smokers but there you have it. I've spent the first two days in Singapore pretty much relaxing in and around the pool; it's really easy to do and doesn't require figuring out the train system.

Dragon fruit is unbelievable. Not because it tastes great (it tastes pretty good) but more because it looks like a confectioner's fanciful approximation of a fruit. The outer skin is lurid magenta and the pulp is bright white shot through with black seeds. Kind of like so:

It's featured in every meal to date. No doubt I shall tire of it in time, but until then go go dragon fruit.

Next up, monkeys. There's a little sticker on my balcony door here which says something to the effect of "don't feed the wildlife, or they'll come at you like a spider monkey." I assumed it was a generic thing on all the doors, I'm on the fourth floor, after all. Just to prove me wrong I was chilling on the bed reading when I look over and a god damned monkey walks through the door. There was a brief standoff as it realised there was no food to be had and I entertained visions of having my eyes gouged out by tiny, vicious hands. Then another monkey showed up on the balcony and the first hared off after it. Suffice to say I subsequently closed the door. I have also spent an entertaining minute or so watching what I am going to call a squirrel (it sure as hell looked like one but it could have been some other arboreal rodent) running along the rail outside the restaurant. It's kind of weird that watching a squirrel fret it's way along is enjoyable whereas if I saw it's genetic second cousin, the common rat, I would have felt vaguely ill.

I wish I'd gone to the effort of convincing someone else to come on holiday with me, it's only been three days and I'm already sick of hearing "For one only, sir?" accompanied by either a sympathetic smile or an appraising "I'm not surprised" look. Also, being confused in a group is a whole lot more fun than being confused on your own. Looking forward to meeting up with Jonathan in Prague next week.

Anyway, tomorrow it's off to the city proper for some shopping (a camera at the very least, hence the lack of photos) then off to Chinatown and maybe check out some of the cultural building things. Hopefully it doesn't rain too much, almost lost my iPod to the rain earlier today. Also, turns out I'm here for the national day parade which I'm going to assume is like any other national holiday anywhere around the world but with extra humidity. I guess Sunday will reveal all.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Singapore Scattershot

  • It's hot, and it's the night time. I don't mean pleasantly warm, I mean hot.
  • The book I forgot was The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton. Somebody should go to Britain and explain that pleasure is not a synonym of sorrow.
  • On the flight they served dinner at 4:30. That is not dinner time, now I'm hungry again.
  • I don't know anything about the ships that dock in Singapore but I think from the size of the dockyard one can assume they are legion.
  • In the tropics, foliage does not mess about even a little bit.
  • Why are icy pole sticks still made of wood, surely there is a cheaper plastic alternative by now?
  • Some little bug just bit me. Bastard.
  • It's still hot.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Electron deficient entertainment - Futons are uncomfortable edition

Last list of reading before heading off overseas. I am missing at least one book from this list but I can't figure out what it is and I'm about 3000km from my bookshelf, so I guess it will remain unknown.

The Carpet Makers - Andreas Eschbach. As good an opening 100 pages as any book I've read. The rest of it's okay, and given it's only about 250 pages, definitely worth a read.

The Sundering and Conventions of War - Walter Jon Williams. Books two and three in the series of which The Praxis is book one. While it openly admits to being space opera, I found it a bit too... operatic for my taste. Also, The Sundering contains a 200 page murder mystery story midway through it which seems completely unnecessary.

The Darkness That Comes Before and The Warrior-Prophet - R Scott Bakker. Books one and two of The Prince of Nothing trilogy. Dark fantasy that achieves it's darkness by making all the male characters sexually repressed or perverted or, more commonly, both and all the women whores. The story that goes on between gratuitous uses of the word "cock" is a fairly interesting crusades rehash.

I have some slightly more varied reading lined up for flights and airport waits, we'll see how they compete with Advance Wars for the DS.

Day -2

I figured I might as well get an inaugural travel post written to let people know I really did get on a plane. For those at work running the book on whether or not I was really going to go, I officially flew out of Hobart at 6:05 on July 30. I am now in Perth and will be until August 3, when I head off to Singapore on the official Day 1 of my international jaunt.

On Thursday I killed some time waiting to check into the hotel by visiting the museum. They have a stuffed bison there that was purchased in 1890. There was other stuff that was cultural and/or educational, but I just couldn't get past the 120 year old stuffed bison. Then I bought a charger for my DS in an EB store staffed entirely by women, which was weird.

Today I pretty much just meandered down to the Swan River, had a mediocre Caesar salad and spent a while trying to figure out what was weird about the view over the river.

I finally realised it was the fact that there's nothing behind the buildings. I'm used to seeing everything set against mountains, or at least a few cloud banks, but I guess in Perth they let the sky perform solo, and it seems up to the task.

The only other real thing of note is that the hotel bar in the hotel where we're staying. It's Friday night and genuine local West Australians under the age of 30 are drinking there voluntarily. I was sure that the role of a hotel bar was to divert haggard guests and flamenco covers of Eye of the Tiger from ruining the fun in real bars.

Hopefully I will have more interesting things to report once I am jet lagged and trying to get information out of people speaking foreign.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Do People Actually Think?

I heard a piece on the BBC World Service last night about how getting students to sit exams puts them under stress and only tests their ability to memorise things. I may return to questioning whether testing a student's knowledge should be frowned upon at a later date. Anyway, the alternative offered was exclusively using continuous assessment performed alongside the teaching (computer tutorials, essays, etc).

To paraphrase, the following observation and conclusion was made based on a study in Britain. Students who are assessed solely using continuous assessment get markedly better results than children who are assessed solely using examinations. Therefore continuous assessment should be adopted in educational facilities in Britain.

Anybody who can't see a glaring flaw in the logic leading to this conclusion probably shouldn't be running nationally funded education studies.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Electron deficient entertainment - bookshop guy's recommendation edition

Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden - Jack Vance. This took me forever to read for some reason. Not too bad, but I much preferred the Dying Earth stories.

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded - John Scalzi. The highlights of 10 years of Scalzi's blog, Whatever. A pretty light read, and quite enjoyable. Probably not so interesting if you already follow his blog, or haven't read any of his books.

Only Forwards - Michael Marshall Smith. Weird sort of sci-fi horror fantasy hybrid. Very good, but probably the weirdest book I've read for quite some time.

The Praxis - Walter Jon Williams. First book in a space opera trilogy I can't remember the name of right now. Pretty standard fare.

This Is Not a Game - Walter Jon Williams. Thriller about ARGs. I reckon the BBC could do a pretty good job of turning it into a 3 part miniseries. In both this and The Praxis, there are plot twists that aren't quite as unexpected or tricky as the author might like to think.

When did I become a sci-fi reader? I guess when I started running low on decent fantasy authors to read.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Not That I Believe in Fate, But...

It must be nice to know from birth what you're going to do with your life, if it's something good. Consider a young child, maybe seven years old.
"Mum, has anybody traveled on foot to the South Pole before?"
"Yes, dear."
"What about the North Pole?"
"Yes, dear."
At this point, young Stirling Mortlock would have known he was destined to become the captain of the Wallabies. Nobody goes to see their local GP, Stirling Mortlock. Stirling Mortlock doesn't ask you to fill out form 183b and go to the queue on the left. No, Stirling Mortlock either leads Arctic expeditions or scores tries for his country. Don't believe me? Say the name out loud. You will almost certainly follow it with "wins the World Cup for Australia," before you know what's happening.

Similarly, war correspondent (and I'm guessing American intelligence asset) Ace Billingsley Jr was never going to sell secondhand Volkswagens to nice looking immigrant couples. The fact that nobody needs daredevil zeppelin pilots any more left him destined to have a camera in one hand and a dusty map of Afghanistan in the other.

These people must look with pity on those of us with names that imply nothing, the Fred Jones's and Kate Smith's of the world. People that must make decisions based on their circumstances, on random twists of fate, on their abilities. So please, those of you with names that can be great (Dibley leads inexorably to Duane, and nobody wants that), you Mortlocks and Billingsleys, give your children the gift of a fateful name. But be careful, it can go the other way, Slobodan Milosevic practically rhymes with war criminal.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

7 Reasons Why Australian Democracy Kicks The Hell Out of American Democracy

I actually had no intention of following up my previous post with one about politics, but such are the vagaries of my mind that it has in fact happened.

I have no problem with the idea of spreading democracy to countries toiling under a series of despots. I'm not convinced, however, that the American model for democracy is one that should be foisted on unsuspecting countries. I'm not even going to go into the actual governance that occurs after the populace exercises their democratic duty (yeah, that's right duty). Without further ado, here's one reason Australians can lord it over Americans for every day of the week:

1. We Have Preferential Voting
The US uses a plurality voting system, in which the person with the most votes wins, which all but guarantees a strict two party system. I don't want to write a thesis on it, but if there's three options with two most likely and one outsider, voting for the outsider is basically a wasted vote. Wikipedia or informed people can explain further if you need convincing.

2. We Have No Electoral College System
The electoral college system for presidential voting contains a couple of levels of more or less transparent complexity, but at its heart is the idea that each state gets a number of electoral college votes. Whichever candidate gets the majority in that state then gets all of the electoral college votes. This is an entirely unnecessary level of abstraction which doesn't reflect 1:1 the preferences of the voter. When voting directly for a head of state, there's no good reason not to simply give everybody one vote and add them all up. This isn't comparable to Australia because...

3. We Don't Vote For The Prime Minister
Well, the PM's electorate does, but everyone else votes only for their local member. By extension they are voting for the party, and therefore for the current head of the party to be PM. The important thing about this though is that the party can change leaders, and hence PM, whenever they want. While this might sound strange to presidential voters, it means that Australian voters should be considering more the ideals and policies of the party rather than the personality of the PM. And yes, I know the PM is not the Australian head of state.

4. We Have Enforced Compulsory Voting
This is the big one. When everybody has to vote at the risk of a monetary penalty, they vote. This means that explicit targeting of minority groups or groups with traditionally high voter turnout is less effective and therefore policy discussion is wider ranging and more applicable to the majority. Also it means that the general awareness of political debate is a little bit higher. I don't normally say things this definite, but if you're against compulsory voting in national elections, you're a moron.

5. We Vote On The Weekend
Combine voluntary voting with the fact that voting is on a work day and you can almost guarantee low voter turn out. Hold it on a weekend when almost everybody has a spare fifteen minutes to go and vote. Oh, and have enough polling booths that people don't have to stand in line for hours to vote. On election days in Australia, I have three polling booths within five minutes walk. It's easier and quicker to vote than to go and buy milk.

6. Our Government Takes Power When Elected
Allowing for the week or so required to do full counts for every electorate and so forth, once election results are known, the new PM is sworn in. In the last election, this took about two weeks. In the US, the outgoing president gets to hang around in office twiddling his (or her) thumbs for approximately two months. The president elect sort of hangs around awkwardly off to one side, half meeting foreign heads of government and everyone shuffles their feet waiting for January 20. Go go 20th Amendment.

7. Antony Green
If your elections aren't being covered by Antony Green, then you're getting ripped off.

Edit: Both systems kick the hell out of the Iranian system.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Next up: politics

I have a world view. It's not great on internal consistency but is applied quite consistently, contains a bizarre mix of heavy socialism and ruthless capitalism, is heavily influenced by Christianity but strictly nontheist, rails at the weakness of humans and is staunchly pro-bacon. It doesn't have a name, because it's just mine, so doesn't need branding. I think it's better than any other world view I've encountered. This might sound arrogant, but its not really. If you don't think your world view is the best, why aren't you switching to the best one?

Lots of people's world views are dictated primarily by their religion, which is fine. I'm also willing to admit that from statistical evidence Christianity is a more compelling world view that my own, although with denominations stretching into the thousands it possibly does not provide moral guidance with as much objective clarity as is occasionally advertised. I do not begrudge anyone their right to whatever world view they want, and for the most part they do the same.

I don't mind if religious people think I secretly know God exists but for some perverse reason deny Him. They can hide a patronising pity that I am blind to the presence of the creator (should that be a capital C? I don't know). I'd prefer they didn't evangelise at me too much, I've heard the arguments, I don't agree with them and I don't think repetition is going to make a difference. If they want to disagree with my morals, that's fine, we can argue about it or let it be, either works for me. But if one more religious person tells me I am incapable of having a moral system or behaving morally because I don't believe in God, I am going to... well, probably just get angry again. Seriously though, please stop it. And no, defining a moral system or framework as something which must be set out by a transcendent lawgiver in order to allow for objective descriptions of good and evil does not make you right, it makes you a clumsy sophist.

I will try to avoid serious subjects in the future, but this has been really annoying me for the last few weeks, due to ongoing BBC World Service coverage of the atheist bus and associated religious debate.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Taxonomy of Stuff

I'm sorting through and packing all my stuff for a move at the moment. In fact, it's only half a move which saves the almighty hassle of unpacking, or at least delays it to a time sufficiently far in the future that I don't care. I came to the conclusion that there's going to be a literal truckload of stuff to move of which maybe a medium sized box full is stuff I actually care about. The rest is nice but replaceable or worse, from a motivation perspective, stuff I didn't want to spend money on in the first place.

My Stuff

My stuff is, well, it's stuff that I have that I have some sort of sentimental attachment to: photos, knick-knacks, etc. Mostly it's priceless but also practically worthless. It's also a bastard to pack because it's all sorts of weird shapes, fragile and has no set place in the house to pick a box for it. This is the medium box full of stuff that I care about.

Stuff I Like
This is all the stuff that I want, but don't need, and wouldn't be bothered if it was replaced by an equal or better version. Television, consoles, computers, DVDs, games, most books (some books are My Stuff) and so on. Easy to pack, and if I was moving overseas I'd be happy to leave most of it behind and replace it at the destination. If I was honest with myself I'd probably buy a new TV before I bought a new fridge if I only had enough money for one of them.

Living Stuff
Boils down to stuff to put other stuff in or on. Couches, fridge, washing machine, desks, crockery, bookshelves. These are things I hate spending money on (except maybe the recliner and bed, but even then I wish they were an order of magnitude cheaper) because they're not of any direct use, cost a bunch of money, and are bulky and frustrating to move. If you buy a new TV when you move, it's going to be better than your last one if you spend the same amount of money. Do the same with a couch and you'll get something as good at best.

Incorporeal Stuff
Electricity, mailing address, internet, I guess telephone if I used it. Genuine annoyance, and judging from the amount of mail I get for the previous three lots of tenants at this place, something a lot of people don't bother with at all. It would be great if this process could be streamlined by someone for a reasonable fee. I wonder if there is such a company? Probably not, given the identity checks all the different services make you go through.

Maybe now I'll get on with actually packing.

Or maybe I'll just go to bed.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Sunday Sundae

1 x Popcorn
1 x Hot Chocolate
1 x Die Hard 4.0
Season to taste.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Chaser guys managed to get themselves in some pretty serious publicity trouble this week by making a joke about children with cancer. The ABC have pulled the segment off the online show and from repeat broadcasts but, you know, YouTube. In a complete overreaction to the whole thing, the Prime Minister made a comment on it, and now the Chaser is off air for the next two weeks for an editorial review (info here).

I honestly didn't think it was that bad. It wasn't that funny, primarily because it wasn't very well executed, but it wasn't that bad. Prime time on ABC is not the same as late night television but there is a very similar section in an episode of Family Guy, and an entire episode of South Park about a kid with terminal cancer who dies because his hockey team loses a game. Now, I don't have kids, and I imagine that would maybe colour your opinion on it, but to take a show off air for it is massive overkill.

On to the next point. A lot of the outrage has been caused by the line near the end "Why go to any trouble when they're only going to die anyway?" What foundations like Make-A-Wish do is very nice, but you know what? The Chaser kind of has a point, despite the fact I don't think they were trying to make one. Tragic as it is, the children Make-A-Wish help are going to die despite the best efforts of top notch medical care. Would you really want to look seventy five under-nourished, orphaned Rwandan children in the eye and say "I'm sorry, but I can't give you the clean water so you don't die of dysentery because we're sending little Henry here to Disneyland. Henry's a big fan of Dora the Explorer." Just something to think about.