Now and the 80s

21 January, 2017

So, I realised what the current world situation feels like.

I remember growing up in the 1980s. As kids we were existentially worried about a lot of things.

  • We worried about AIDS – a frightening disease with no cure that could turn into an unstoppable epidemic.
  • We worried about the ozone hole – a major environmental issue that could lead to vastly increased rates of cancer and deleterious effects on plants and animals.
  • We worried about global nuclear war – a political danger that threatened to kill pretty much everyone in horrible ways.

It seemed like there was a pretty good chance that none of us would have the chance to grow up to be adults, because civilisation might well not last that long. It was this background of all-pervading existential angst that underlaid the 80s.

But now isn’t an exact parallel to the 80s. The difference back then was:

  • We had medical science that people trusted to do life-saving research and less ineffective folk remedies, anti-science, and unhealthy paranoia about “germs” leading to rampant overuse of antibacterials.
  • We had an international agreement to ban ozone-depleting chemicals, and every nation carried through with it within a few years, rather than ignoring it as “too hard”.
  • We had Russian and American leaders who were actually working together to try to defuse hostilities and reduce the threat of a major war.

Oh, and the other good thing about the 80s was that angst led to a decade of cool protest songs and other music. :-)

Europe 2016 diary: day 4

16 January, 2017

Tuesday, 1 November, 2016. 21:27

We slept poorly, waking up around 04:00, and then having trouble getting back to sleep. Eventually we got up around 07:00 and decided to have the hotel breakfast, since we didn’t want to get ready to go, take half an hour to walk to the town centre, and then discover no places open to get some breakfast from. Jason had told us last night that today was a public holiday (presumably for All Saints Day), and so we thought maybe a lot of cafes might be closed.

We filled up on the breakfast, with muesli, fruit, yoghurt, bread, scrambled eggs, and croissants. There’s a Swiss thing called Ovomaltine, which comes in a few different forms. One is a chocolate spread like Nutella with crunchy bits in it. M. tried that one some croissant and liked it.

After eating, we rugged up for the morning cold. I pulled out my beanie and gloves for the first time on the trip. We walked south along the main road to the centre of Fribourg, about half an hour away. Part of the way in we passed a circus, apparently named Knie, set up with a big top tent and various outbuildings and sideshow attractions. Jason later told it that the circus was advertising everywhere but was only in Fribourg for a couple of days before moving on.

Iron and gold
Balcony in central Fribourg

Towards the centre of town, the industrial area we were staying in gave way to older buildings with steeply sloping roofs, stone walls, fountains, and other more interesting architecture. We passed through the old wall of the city, which had a section well preserved, with a guard tower. Inside we walked past an amazing old school building, with a stone lion and an eagle on the two front corners, several churches, and a museum of arts, and then the Gutenberg Museum. This led us to the impressive monolithic square tower of the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas. Unfortunately the front facade was partly covered in scaffolding for some restoration work.

We were meeting Jason at 10:00, but we were ten minutes or so early, so we went inside the cathedral to get out of the cold. Priests were setting up and a few people were seated, with more arriving as we wandered around the interior. There was obviously a service going to begin at 10:00. The inside of the cathedral showed its age a bit, and was dark and gloomy, with heavy pillars supporting the upper structure. The most interesting decorations where actually outside, on the portico around the main doors, which was covered in stone sculptures of saints and a bizarre scene above the doors showing some sort of damnation events, with people being marched naked, boiled alive in a cauldron, and devoured by giant beasts.

Read more: Walking around the old town of Fribourg, spectacular river views, driving across the Swiss countryside, the shores of the Thunersee, fancy dinner in Interlaken

English spelling

14 January, 2017

I was thinking I should post more stuff here. So I’ll try to add some things that I’d consider for Twitter, but which are too long to tweet. First off the bat:

I was reading a thread in the IWC forums that turned to discussing English spelling, and how terrible the “i before e except after c” rule is, and how it makes people actually mis-spell words sometimes.

Now I’ve been a native English speaker all my life and I’m a pretty good speller, but there are still some words I have trouble spelling. And of course if you were to say a word I was unfamiliar with and asked me to spell it, I’d pretty much just be guessing.

On the other hand, I’ve been learning Italian for just a few years. One of the exercises I do is listen to a computer generated voice reading Italian sentences, and transcribe them by typing them out in Italian (there are also different exercises where I translate into English). And as long as I listen carefully enough, I can always get the Italian spelling correct, even if it’s a word I’ve never heard before.

Europe 2016 diary: day 3

29 December, 2016

Monday, 31 October, 2016. 17:56

We are in our room at the Ibis Hotel in Fribourg, after a drive from Lyon. We’re waiting until about 18:30 before we go out to meet Jason at his place to go out for dinner together.

We got up at a bit past 07:00 this morning, and had a leisurely morning since we didn’t really want to do much other than get breakfast, check out of the hotel, and pick up our hire car at midday. M. wanted to try the Slake Coffee House for breakfast, which opened at 08:00. I did some stretches to ease muscles tired from yesterday’s walking, then got dressed in time for us to head out.

Unfortunately, a handwritten sign on the door of Slake said they weren’t opening until 09:00! Since that was a bit of a wait, we walked the short distance over to Grand Café des Négociants to have the continental breakfast there again. This time it was clearly open, with several people already inside having coffee and croissants and so on. The woman who’d served us yesterday wasn’t there, but the supervisor lady was and recognised us. We ordered the same combinations as yesterday, except M. chose a pain au chocolat instead of a croissant. This time the jams included a peach one, but no raspberry. And the waiter brought two glasses of orange juice before stopping and realising M. had asked for the lemon.

Monkey at Slake
Slake Coffeehouse

After breakfast, we returned to our room briefly to pick up our iPads, and then went over to Slake to get a coffee for M. It was open by the time we got there, with a few people inside. We sat at a table near the front of the cafe, and I wrote some of yesterday’s diary while M. read a book on her iPad. The decorations were a bit funky, with the lampshade above us being a wire cage with perches inside it and fake birds sitting on them. There was also a seat for two people made from an old claw bathtub with one side removed. All the furniture was unique and mismatched.

Read more: Getting a hire car, driving across France, lunch in a small town, Switzerland, burgers for dinner

Europe 2016 diary: day 2

24 December, 2016

Sunday, 30 October, 2016. 14:56

We’re sitting in a cafe called Cafe Florio, in Vieux Lyon, the old part of town, having a drink break after a busy morning of sightseeing. M. is having a cafe creme, while I’m having a refreshing weissbier.

We slept reasonably well, waking up almost on the dot of 06:00, which after the clock change meant a good eight hours of sleep. M. slept through, but I woke up a few times. As we got up and prepared to go out, I checked for nearby cafes where we could get breakfast. Most of them either weren’t open on Sunday, or only opened at 10 or 11 o’clock, but there was one not far away which opened at 7, called Grand Café des Négociants.

Rugged up in our coats, we headed our just before 07:00. The weather was cold and grey, and it had rained overnight, but it wasn’t raining as we walked. But when we arrived at the cafe at 07:00, they were still cleaning inside and hadn’t taken the chairs down off the tables. So we had to wait a while until they were ready to open, so we wandered a block or two in various directions to look in the windows of some fancy shops while we waited. Eventually, they looked like they were open and we tried the door, which let us into an interior decorated in the last century, with chandeliers and velvet and silver everywhere. There was a large bar, with a huge ice bucket with bottles of champagne, and some enormous glass vases with flower displays that went up to the ceiling. The place had indeed been in business since 1846.

French cafe brekky
Breakfast at Café des Négociants

We sat at a couple of small round tables, both of us in the bench sofa by the window, and ordered the continental petit dejeuner, which consisted of a croissant and two large slices of bread each, plus a hot drink, a fruit juice, and jams and butter for the bread. We both ordered the chocolat chaud for the hot drink, and I got orange juice while M. chose lemon, which came with a decanter of water and sugar to sweeten to taste. The continental breakfast was really the only choice – they also had a breakfast with cooked eggs and other things, but they didn’t start serving that until 09:00.

Read more: Exploring Vieux Lyon, the Cathedral Saint-Jean, Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, and yummy food

Europe 2016 diary: day 1

24 December, 2016

Saturday, 29 October, 2016. 13:26 Sydney time

We’re sitting on board our first flight, from Sydney to Dubai. It’s a daylight flight all the way, and we took off at 06:00, so we’re mostly awake despite trying to get a bit of sleep at the beginning.

We had to get up at 03:00 this morning to have a quick breakfast and then catch a taxi to the airport. It had rained overnight, but it had stopped so we didn’t have to wait on the kerb for the taxi in the rain, although it started sprinkling as the taxi arrived, and got quite heavy while we were driving. It eased off a bit by the time we got to the airport, so we didn’t get too wet getting out.

There was a short queue of passengers at the Emirates check in, so it didn’t take long to check our bags and get boarding passes. The woman at the counter asked if we preferred a row next to a window or in the middle of the aisles, and said the plane was fairly empty, so we could have a whole row of seats to ourselves and stretch out. I asked if there were any exit row seats available and she said no, but there was a bulkhead row, so we got that. Then it was filling in our departure cards and going through immigration and security into the departure area.

Nothing was open when we went through. No duty free shops, no food places, nothing except a lone McDonalds, where a few people were getting coffee. Our plane was the first scheduled departure of the morning, right on 06:00 when the airport curfew lifted, then the next departure was 06:30, and then no more until 08:15. So given our flight is only about a quarter full, there was virtually no business for anyone opening this early. As we waited, a couple of places opened around 04:30, a small duty free shop and a newsagent.

We boarded not long after 05:00, and the plane left the gate early. As we walked on, we checked our seat numbers, which were 43A and B. So naturally we started walking down towards the back of the plane, thinking the seats were several rows back. But when we looked at the seat numbers we were passing, they were already up in the 50s, so we had to backtrack, against the flow of other passengers. When we reached our seats, they were the the very first row, right by the entrance door! I guess rows 1 to 42 are upstairs, this being an Airbus A380. From where we’re sitting we have a view into the cockpit whenever a crew member opens the door to go in or out.

They served a breakfast soon after take off, and I got the potato and tomato frittata so M. could mix and match, swapping parts of her vegetarian meal with mine. (The other option was scrambled eggs with sausage.) Then we dozed a bit, since we’d only had a few hours sleep before getting up to go to the airport. But after a while we started waking up. M. watched movies while I tried to do the latest crossword in my weekly challenge with the guys at work, before I gave up and started writing this diary.

Over Australia
Flying over Australia

Read more: Arriving in Lyon and finding some dinner

Explaining Fred Basset

10 December, 2016

My work gets daily newspaper deliveries, and at afternoon tea break some of us like to flip to the puzzles page to try to solve today’s Target (a nine-letter word polygon puzzle). On the facing page is the comics section, which contains a typical selection of daily newspaper comics: Calvin and Hobbes, Hagar the Horrible, Garfield, Snake, Phantom, and… the venerable Fred Basset. Some of these comics are occasionally funny (well, except Phantom, which is a serialised drama) – except Fred Basset. It’s just an endless stream of what look like attempts to make a gag, but which consistently fail to deliver any sort of punchline.

So we started discussing making a blog to explain why each Fred Basset strip is actually hilariously funny, even if you, the average naive reader, don’t realise it. We’ve been discussing this for a while, and given the most recent strip, I finally decided to give it a go. So here goes:

Fred Basset 2016-12-09

This is a typical Fred Basset strip. Seemingly nothing funny, or even slightly amusing on the surface. It in fact looks like a tired retread of a “joke” that Garfield has been perpetrating for decades: animal is lazy. Ha ha.

But no, to reach this conclusion and go no further is to miss the tragic underpinning of true comedy embodied by this simple set of three panels. The titular Fred is old. He’s been doing this routine of getting up out of his comfortable bed every day for … more years than a simple dog can count. His mortality weighs heavily on his weary bones, and in his heart he knows his days are numbered.

Today, he is lucky enough to get up out of this bed once again. But Fred knows there is a good chance that this is the last day he will ever get up. The first panel is the slowly dawning realisation that he is still on this mortal coil – a realisation made thus slow by his fading mental capacities. It takes a full beat panel in the middle for him to come to terms with the fact that his eternal rest will require at least one more day of struggle against the inanities of his life, in a middle class London home with a similarly ageing couple of humans who never do anything to make his life more interesting or amusing.

In the final panel we get the double whammy of the punchline. “But not quite running!” As if Fred, with his arthritic legs and reduced lung capacity, could run anywhere any more. The fading memory of running brings to mind young days as a puppy spent frolicking in sunny fields of a never-ending summer – yet we all know that summer ends, and with it comes autumn, and twilight. Winter is coming, Fred, and you know it.

As his front paw touches that cold, hard, unfeeling linoleum floor, he feels the chill enter his body and penetrate to his osteoporotic bones. Running! Ha!

Yes, Fred, not quite… not quite. And therein lies the true humour. Dark, enfolding its ever-reaching, cold, black tendrils around the amusement centres of your soul. A creeping mist that reminds you of your own impending doom, but then laughs it off as the mere follies of a dog with human thoughts. And so we laugh, for there is little else we can do, and go about our business.

Another one of those days

8 September, 2016

Yet another miserable day in the saga of the dishwasher.

So we decided to get the integrated dishwasher replaced with one with a nice stainless steel door. I called up the retailer and requested this, choosing an equivalent model with a steel front panel, for the same price. They said there was a fee (about $300) for exchanging the dishwasher. I figured it was my bad assumption that the front panel would be a standard size and didn’t check to be sure, so I felt obliged to cop this fee, and agreed. They said they’d arrange delivery of a different model dishwasher in exchange for the one currently in our home.

Then yesterday I received an emailed receipt, saying they’d charged my credit card $550. So today I phoned them to query why this charge was some $250 greater than what I’d been quoted. The operator I spoke to said it was an installation fee, since I’d requested installation in my original order the new dishwasher would need to be installed, plus some other fee imposed by the manufacturer for an exchange.

I said that I wasn’t told about these fees when I accepted the quoted fee of $300 for the exchange, and I wasn’t going to pay them. There was some resistance and eventually I had to ask to speak to a supervisor or manager. I explained that I had been quoted an exchange fee of $300, and neither of these additional installation or exchange fees were mentioned to me when I accepted.

The manager I was speaking to actually said to me, “You should have known there’d be an installation fee, and now you’re just trying to get out of paying it.” I kid you not.

He was absolutely adamant that I had to pay the extra $250, despite me repeatedly pointing out that I was never told about this extra $250, and was quoted a total price of $300 for the exchange, and that that was the quote I accepted. His attitude was, “Well of course there was always going to be another installation fee – you’re getting it installed right?” I said I’d paid for installation of a dishwasher with the original order, and I expected at the end of the process to have an installed dishwasher – why on earth would I come to the conclusion that I’d have to pay another installation fee? Especially when it was never mentioned when I accepted the $300 fee to exchange dishwashers.

He wouldn’t budge, until I threatened to contact the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission over them not honouring a verbal agreement on a quoted price, and attempting to charge me for fees that were never mentioned to me. This eventually got him to agree to “look into it” and promise to call me back. When he did, about an hour later, he said that the extra fees had been refunded. (And I’ve received emailed confirmation.) But not a word of apology for accusing me of deliberately attempting to defraud them.

You can bet that once the replacement dishwasher is safely delivered and installed, I’ll be sending the retailer a letter of complaint.

One of those days

5 September, 2016

It’s been one of those days.

I took the day off work to wait for delivery of a new dishwasher, after our previous one broke. This is the second time I’ve had to take a day off to wait for the delivery, because the first time they came the dishwasher they brought was too big to fit into the kitchen cabinet space, so I had to change my order to a different model (and pay an extra $270). And then I had to wait a whole month for the new model to come into stock so they could deliver it.

Anyway, today was the day. The delivery arrived, and the dishwasher fit into the cabinet space. It’s one of those ones where there’s a front panel which matches the cabinetry, so it looks just like a cupboard. They guys took the panel off the old dishwasher and tried to put it on the new one… of course it didn’t fit. The new washer has a taller door, so attaching the old panel leaves a weird strip about 3cm high at the top, which would look obvious and bizarre.

They told me to get a new panel made to match at a kitchen cabinetry supplier, and they’d come and screw it on free (since I’d paid for full installation).

I called around five different kitchen cabinetry suppliers. Most said they only do full kitchen renovations, and wouldn’t make a single door panel. One guy said sure, he could do it -he’d come over, measure up the door, make a new one in a matching finish, and come back to install it. I said I didn’t want it installed, I could do that myself. (Figuring I have guys who will install it free for me.) He said no then, he won’t take the job, because if he can’t install it, it’s not worth his time to make it. Basically, he wants to charge me an arm and a leg for the installation work, and won’t just make the door panel for me.

So I don’t know where I can just get a new door panel made.

Wife came home and I was discussing options with her. We can either order a third new dishwasher with a nice silver door panel, and get the delivery guys to deliver and install that and take away the one we have installed now. Requiring yet another day off work to wait for them. Or we could just screw the current matching door panel onto the current dishwasher, and live with the weird 3cm strip at the top.

While holding the door panel up on the front of the dishwasher to show her what it would look like, I lost my grip and the door panel, a good 5 kilos or so of it, slipped sideways and jammed my ring finger between it and the adjoining cabinet, crushing it. I don’t think the finger is broken, but there’s a lot of blood around the nail and it’s going to be bruised very badly. Hurt like heck, I can tell you.

I got some ice and stuck it in a plastic bag to ice the bruised finger. While I sat with my left hand immobile on my desk, I did some web surfing.

Lifted up my left hand to check the finger, and the bag of ice tipped up… pouring ice water all over my keyboard.

Maybe I’ll just go to bed and wait for tomorrow.

New York diary: Day 8 & 9

22 August, 2016

Saturday, 18 June, 2016. 18:58

I am on the plane, taxiing to take off from JFK to LAX, on the way home.

I set an alarm for 08:30 this morning, and woke up a bit before it went off. After the usual breakfast of cereal in the hotel dining room, I spent some time packing until about 09:45, when I headed out to the Discovery Exhibition Centre near Times Square, where they hold various rotating exhibitions. At the moment they have Body Worlds, and a Vikings exhibit, plus the one I wanted to see: Star Wars and the Power of Costume.

Droids!
Droids, at Star Wars and the Power of Costume.

On the way there, I noticed market stalls being set up on Sixth Avenue, with the avenue blocked to traffic for at least a couple of blocks, although the intervening cross streets still carried traffic. It must be a Saturday morning thing, because there was no trace of a market when we arrived last Saturday evening.

Read more: Star Wars, a hearty lunch, a British pub at JFK Airport, and flying home