Friday, September 28, 2012

Travelogue: Stella Maris, Numantia, and Numantia Maris

Clustered to the west of the Caledon mainland lie three islands. The first, Caledon Stella Maris, is Lady Patty Poppy's sanctuary.

A small sky city hovers over the land:

Stella Maris 9 13 12 002

High on a tor is a statue of a knight:

Stella Maris 9 13 12 001

The flora are unusual…and a little bubbly:

Stella Maris 9 13 12 003

A house is integrated under the stone bridge:

Stella Maris 9 13 12 004

Next to Stella Maris is the "neighbor and ally" to Caledon, Numantia (along with Numantia Maris), owned by Mr. Wordsmith Jarvinen and Miss Stonehedg Magic. The area is dominated by a castle sited on the highest point of the islands:

Numantia 9 13 12 002

The climate is similar to that in the Mediterranean, and the architecture is inspired by the Celtic Iberian city of the same name that held out against the Romans for several decades before falling after a 13 month siege in 133 B.C.

The terraced landscape provides stunning views:

Numantia 9 13 12 003

Nearer the water, the villas are charming:

Numantia 9 13 12 004

Across the water, in Numantia Maris, lies the airship dock:

Numantia Maris 9 13 12 001

Numantia Maris 9 13 12 002

Does this mean the Numantia bar doesn't serve a drink made with vodka, orange and cranberry juices, and peach schnapps?

Numantia 9 13 12 001

Monday, September 24, 2012

Story Time

Crap Mariner is indefatigable when it comes to his dedication to his microfiction, which he curates at his site 100 Word Stories. He reads at least once a week in Clocktree Park, usually Wednesdays at 5 p.m. SLT. I had been meaning to try to sit in on a session, but the time doesn't quite work out for me. More recently, he started reading at the Chelsea Hotel Saturday mornings at 8 a.m. SLT (doubtless for that Continental flavour in the audience). Unfortunately for me, that happens to coincide with the inevitable weekend errand time. Fortunately for me, Saturday a few weeks ago was an exception, and I trundled to the Hotel's lobby for an hour of stories, read in Voice.

 Hundred word stories 9 15 12 003a

Crap had an appreciative audience, including me, even though I tucked into a chair around the corner.

Hundred word stories 9 15 12 002

In addition to the stories themselves, Crap had several anecdotes about recent events in his life. The only thing marring the experience was stray audio that seemed to be a television program about 9/11 (complete with commercials!) that was about the same volume as Crap, rendering about half his words inaudible. Ah well, that sort of thing happens, eh?

Hundred word stories 9 15 12 003

Hundred word stories 9 15 12 005
The chair is so comfortable I might just take a…

I'll try to get to some more readings, though I won't be able to make it for the next few weeks at least.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The new iPhone: Let the Craziness Begin

For those who care, John Gruber has an excellent review of the iPhone 5. In summing up how the phone looks and feels, Gruber concludes:
This iPhone 5 review unit is the single nicest object in my possession. I own things that cost and remain worth more (e.g. my car). But I own nothing this nice. It sounds hyperbolic to put it that way, but I offer this observation with no exaggeration.
 The obvious new feature is the larger screen size: bigger than the 3.5" screen that had been with the phone since the beginning, but far smaller than some of the behemoths that have been released recently in the Android world. There are pluses and minuses for each form factor, and this is clearly a personal decision. I've never found a 3.5" phone to be too small, though for some purposes, such as reading a small type size for an extended period, and can't quite understand the fascination with the enormous screens - can anyone really make a phone call on a 5" phone? - but to each her own. Apple's decision to increase the height of the device without increasing its width was certainly interesting. Gruber thinks the size works, albeit not without some difficulties:
The bigger display is a total win while using the iPhone 5 two-handed. But navigating the full screen while holding the iPhone in one hand is worse, for exactly the one reason why, even one year ago, I did not expect Apple ever to increase the size of the iPhone display: my thumb no longer easily reaches from corner to corner. 
 Nevertheless, he seems to be on his way to being sold on the new form factor:
But if Apple offered me an otherwise identical iPhone 5 with a 3.5-inch 3:2 display, which one would I choose? Last week, in the first few days of use, I’d have chosen the 3.5-inch one. Now, though, one week in, I’m not so sure. My trusty old iPhone 4S feels better to use for tapping those back buttons and the status bar, but, it really is starting to look squat to my eyes. Give me another week and I suspect I won’t look back.
 Anyway, it's a great comprehensive review that doesn't bore with technical specs that no one really cares about.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Big Apple, Part 2

More New York City observations.

Wall Street an environs were like a little war zone, with barricades set up by the New York stock exchange, presumably to deter protesting pests. Nearby was Federal Hall, complete with statue of George Washington on the steps, the site of the U.S. government from 1789 to 1790. (The building housed all three branches of government - I suppose "separation of powers" is not meant in the sense of physical space!) (The current structure was built in 1842 as a Customs House.)

Federal Hall

No visit to that end of Manhattan would be complete without a stop at Fountain Pen Hospital, just off of City Hall Park, where I could look in envy on models I can't afford (and bought a Lamy 2000 fountain pen), or to the remodeled Apple Store in SoHo. Apple's flagship location in New York is on Fifth Avenue, with the iconic glass cube covering the entrance to the store:

Apple Store

However, that location is simply impassable. The last time I was in New York, the building was under renovation, so I foolishly assumed that the incredible crowd was a result of the constricted space available. Nope. I looked through the cube into the store and saw that one couldn't move inside. Craziness. Instead, I opted for the very nice SoHo store.

Just down the street from the Apple store is the Harney & Sons tea room. I had a small pot of the Anniversary blend and was thoroughly buzzed on caffeine by the time I left.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is normally closed on Mondays, but the museum opens for Monday holidays, including Labor Day. It was predictably crowded, especially in popular exhibits such as the Egyptian rooms.

Met  Egyptian

(However, the Temple of Dendur was closed, blast it!) Oddly, the medieval section was refreshingly empty.

Met  Madonna and Child

The walk back to the hotel was an ambitious 30+ blocks. Oxygen!

So much good stuff to do and see - and I haven't even mentioned the food and drink* - that a few days scarcely does the city justice. But returning every so often, seeing new sites and revisiting old favorites, just may be a way to enjoy the city without becoming overwhelmed.

*I was in two restaurants that were so dimly-lit that I had trouble reading the menu. The first place catered to younger people, so I assumed that the near-darkness was a way of discouraging middle-aged diners, with our heavy corrective lenses that don't do well in low light. The second, however, was squarely aimed at, ahem, an older crowd. I have no idea why restauranteurs think this is a good idea.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Big Apple

My colleagues at work don't understand it, but I enjoy going to New York City for a few days every year or two. I wouldn't want to live there - no offense, New Yorkers, but I can't take the constant noise and ever-present crowds for long - but a few days allow me to visit or re-visit some of the wonderful things the city has to offer without being so long that I go screaming mad.

The subway system, for all its faults, is absolutely amazing. I did see my first rat on the platform - no, a real rat, not just the human kind, or those big plastic inflatable ones that union protesters use (saw two of them on the streets) - but the system moves a remarkable number of people very efficiently.

Subway car

The subway also demonstrates how polite New Yorkers often are. Everyone understands that, without a little cooperation about seats and getting into crowded trains, the system wouldn't really work. People move quickly, will cut you off without a second thought, and will trample you if you get in the way, but they're less self-important about it than in Washington.

One stop was the Brooklyn Museum of Art. I  had never been there before. The place was remarkably empty - the crowds at the Met show that it's not because New Yorkers don't like art, so maybe it's because tourists don't get to Brooklyn?

Brooklyn Museum of Art  front
The impressive facade is marred by the silly modern glass canopy over the entrance.

Brooklyn Museum of Art  courtyard

The museum has a big Egyptian exhibit, with artifacts dating back to the earliest dynasties through Roman times. I like Medieval religious art...

Brooklyn Museum of Art  fresco

…and everyone likes Tiffany windows, right?

Brooklyn Museum of Art  Tiffany

The following day - Labor Day - Eastern Parkway was choked by the annual West Indian American Day Parade and Carnival. I learned on the news Monday night that it was a good year for the parade: only two people knifed to death, in contrast to violence in earlier years. (Mayor Bloomberg thought that was great. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations!)

Getting back to Manhattan from Brooklyn involved a little walking - across the Brooklyn Bridge:

Brooklyn Bridge 1

A great many people had the same idea, including some suicidal types - tourists, I'm guessing - who decided that the bicycle lanes were uncrowded, and thus a great spot to walk. One can see why: the views are fabulous:

Brooklyn Bridge 3
Note the nearly-complete Freedom Tower to the right of the picture

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Travelogue: Victorian Garden

Past the spires of Caledon Oxbridge lies the pastoral area known as Victorian Garden. Owned by Miss Panacea Luminos, this private estate has become home to…well, perhaps the pictures will help.

The path from Oxbridge leads to a stone wall and a narrow gap. In the distance stands a stone carriage house.

Victorian Garden 8 31 12 001

On top of the carriage house stands a guardian of the estate:

Victorian Garden 8 31 12 002

The house and grounds are designated private areas, so I did not go beyond the carriage house. An aerial photograph of the site revealed one secret, however: a stately manor and more dragons!

Victorian Garden 8 31 12 003

No word on whether the creatures are friendly. I beat a hasty retreat through the stone wall, back to Oxbridge.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: Theatre is Evil

Amanda Palmer may be a classic over-sharer - Twitter logorrhea, a sprawling blog, now a picture-heavy Tumblr site - and a compulsive worker, but she takes her time between albums. Real albums, that is. Between 2008's Who Killed Amanda Palmer and this year's Theatre is Evil, we were treated to a steady stream of output, but each seemed like a joke. We had Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele, Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, the Evelyn Evelyn concept album (with Jason Webley), Nighty Night (with Ben Folds, Neil Gaiman, and Damian Kulash), plus a number of one-off singles. Cover songs on the ukulele, songs about Australia, songs about conjoined twins, and an album recorded in one very long night. Where was the clever songwriter with the careful lyrics who penned three fine Dresden Dolls albums and the brilliant solo album?

Apparently songs come easily to Palmer, but good songs are harder to come by. Let's say I was a little nervous to insert the Theatre is Evil CD into the Difference Engine...


I backed the project on Kickstarter, and I must say that the packaging is terrific. The CD itself is contained what looks like a small bound book. The insides include song lyrics, pictures, and artwork, along with the usual acknowledgement of band members and others. Also included was a "postcard" that opens to reveal a thank you to Kickstarter backers and a pair of opera glasses that provides a 3-D image of the band, with many body parts on display.


After a very strange but mercifully short introduction in German of the band ("Meow Meow Introduces the Grand Theft Orchestra"), we roll into "Smile (PIctures or It Didn't Happen)", a slow-moving, synth-heavy song about… I don't know what. Palmer concludes by singing "I don't wanna go to California/I don't want to die." Fair enough.

Much better is "The Killing Type," a song with clever lyrics and a killer synth bass line in the chorus. "I'm not the killing type/but I would kill to make you feel." The song makes its follow-up, "Do It with a Rockstar", all the more disappointing. Banal lyrics, repeated often, combined with not much in the way of a melody, obscures some nice work on bass and keyboards.

"Want It Back" might be the highlight of the record, opening with a synthesizer introduction that wouldn't be out of place on an ELO record, moving on to a bouncy melody about unrequited love, and an infectious chorus.

"Grown Man Cry" also features some nice synthesizer work. The song sounds as though it could be a mid-80s piece by The Cure such as "Disintegration." The lyrics are about being in a relationship with someone who is emotionally immature, withdrawing from arguments and making a big deal out of small things.

The end of what would have been Side 1 in an earlier era is "Trout Heart Replica," the most Dresden Dolls-sounding piece musically, starting with piano and adding strings. Lyrically, the song seems to be about hurting the ones you love. A powerful song.

After a brief instrumental "Grand Theft Intermission," Side 2 starts with "Lost," and "Bottom Feeder," both of which have interesting musical moments but ultimately seem slight.

"The Bed Song" is solo piano song about how a relationship can go stale and yet the couple continues on together, emotionally distant. "Massachusetts Avenue" is an updated version of the Dolls' "The Jeep Song," about missing a former lover and how specific locations remind her of him. "Melody Dean" is a straight-ahead rock song about loving the one you're with (apparently even if she's a lady). "Berlin" is the big, sprawling finish, clocking in at 7:18, before the coda of "Olly Olly Oxen Free."

As if that wasn't enough music (71+ minutes), the MP3 download that accompanied the Kickstarter package includes three B sides ("Denial Thing," "The Living Room," which are fine songs in their own right, and Ukulele Anthem"), one cover song (Lana Del Rey's "Video Games," better than the original, with only piano and electronic bleeps (and not sung with Del Rey's slurred delivery)), and four older songs ("From St. Kilda to Fitzroy," "Provanity," "Assistant," and "Not Mine"), along with three videos, a PDF of the lyrics and art booklet that comes with the CD, and odds and ends. No one can reasonably complain about the value of the package!


After two listens to the album and one run-through of the extras, it seems to me that this is no Who Killed Amanda Palmer, but it's a worthy contribution to Palmer's growing portfolio of work. Never mind those throwaway bits from the past few years - this is the real thing.

For someone who comes across as anything but subtle, Palmer has made another album filled with subtleties. Unlike WKAP, which I loved on first listening to it, this one grew on me after a second listen. Musically, Palmer said she set out to make a record that reminded her of her favorite 1980s synthesizer-heavy records, and on that front she succeeded wonderfully. Almost any song on the record would not sound out of place on a college radio station in 1986. Lyrically, she continues to mine the same lode that she has in the past: emotionally distant lovers and failed relationships. And that's not a bad thing. While this is no WKAP, it's no Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, either, and that's a very good thing.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Coarse and not afraid to show it

For some time now, I've bemoaned the disappearance of the private situation, the co-mingling of private affairs in public places. People insist on carrying on telephone conversations on trains, in waiting areas, in line. The other day, in the grocery store, I was behind a woman who yapped on her phone the entire time, ignoring the checkout clerk until the very end, when she ended her call and pretended he was a real human being.

However, it's not just the fact that people conduct private business in public. Some of them conduct that business in a particularly crass way. Two cases in point:

First, as I was in a Metro station, refilling my fare card, I heard a man complaining loudly that he couldn't get a machine to take his dollar bills, and that he was waiting for the station manager to help him, but the manager was on the phone, "probably with his wife." I sympathized with the man's unhappiness at his delay, but, really, he was just making himself look like an ass.

Then, a few days later, walking through the Metro parking lot to reach my car, I passed a woman on her cell phone.  She was clearly unhappy with the person at the other end. I couldn't hear every word - only the ones she emphasized. From my perspective, her end of the conversation was a shouted, "S**t, you motherf****er,… f***ing [inaudible], motherf*****er!" By then I was, mercifully, out of earshot.

The Victorian era had its many problems, but one bright spot was its insistence on good manners in public. What goes on behind closed doors is your own business, but out in public it becomes everyone's business.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Airships in Alaska

NASA is helping out the private sector in using airships in Alaska. (What could possibly go wrong?) I've taken a cruise along Alaska's Inside Passage, which was terrific, but the idea of flying it in an airship is certainly intriguing. (Image from the article.)