Archive for February, 2012

Venice snapshots

Monday, 20 February, 2012

I’m reading Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd and enjoying it a lot. I visited Venice briefly back in 2001, and my wife and I are heading there again for a longer stay later this year. I wanted to get some of the city’s history under my belt before seeing it again, and I’m really glad I found this book. Here are some snippets I couldn’t help reproducing (from different chapters):

The concept of the maze or labyrinth is an ancient one. It is a component of earth magic that, according to some authorities, is designed to baffle evil spirits. The Chinese believed that demons could only ever travel in straight lines. It has also been said that the dead were deposited at the centre of mazes. That is why they retain their power over the human imagination. The labyrinth of classical myth is that place where the young and the innocent may be trapped or killed. But the true secret of the Venetian maze is that you can never observe or understand it in its totality. You have to be within its borders to realise its power. You cannot see it properly from the outside. You have to be closed within its alleyways and canals to recognise its identity.

The scheme of house numbers is difficult to understand; in each sestiere they begin at number one and then snake through every street until they finish. They reach into the thousands without the benefit of any reference to street or square. The names affixed to the streets seem in any case to be different to the names printed in the maps of the city. In fact the reality of Venice bears no relation to any of the published guides and maps. The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. So the network of Venice induces mystery. It can arouse infantile feelings of play and game, wonder and terror. It is easy to believe that you are being followed. Your footstep echo down the stone labyrinth. The sudden vista of an alley or a courtyard takes you by surprise; you may glimpse a shadow or a silhouette, or see someone standing in a doorway. Walking in Venice often seems as unreal as a dream or, rather, the reality is of a different order. There are times when the life of the past seems very close – almost as if it might be around the next corner. The closeness of the past is embodied in the closeness of the walls and ways all around you. Here you can sense the organic growth of the city, stone by stone. You can sense the historical process of the city unfolding before you. There is a phrase, in T. S. Eliot’s Gerontion, to the effect that history has many cunning passageways. These are the passages of Venice.

Anyone who has tried navigating the calle of Venice will understand what Ackroyd is saying there. I found this such a compelling passage that I just had to savour it, keep it, and share it.

And then today I ran across this:

There is no scene in Venice that has not already been painted. There is no church, or house, or canal, that has not become the subject of an artist’s brush or pencil. Even the fruit in the market looks as if it has been stolen from a still life. Everything has been “seen” before. The traveller seems to be walking through oils and watercolours, wandering across paper and canvas.

How wonderful is that? Every chapter is filled with marvellous writing and imagery like this. It’s really getting me in the mood for our trip.


Sunday, 19 February, 2012

So I was at the shops today and I felt like a muffin. Went to Muffin Break, and discovered they now have the kilojoule content of all their muffins posted. I discovered when I got home that apparently this is a new law in New South Wales – fast food retailers with 20 or more outlets must post kilojoule content of all their products in font no smaller than the prices.

Anyway, I was all prepared to grab a double chocolate muffin. But seeing those numbers on there made me stop. And think. And dither.

A single double chocolate muffin is 30% of the average adult daily recommended kilojoule intake. That’s insane!

I actually contemplated a Weight Watchers approved bran and something-or-other muffin instead. After a couple of minutes of uncertainty and soul-searching – a couple of minutes more than I intended to spend here – I eventually chose a lemon poppy-seed, which was only 24% of my kilojoules for the entire day.

Subway put up these kilojoule counts a few months ago, and since then I’ve steered well away from the meatball subs and the cheeses and sauces, and gone with the lean, mean choices. And now these signs are going to be appearing all over the place.

I think I’m going to be eating significantly less fast food in the future. And working out more. And you know, I’m glad this is going to make me eat healthier.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Thursday, 16 February, 2012

Star Trek IV, 1Like the movie before it, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a direct continuation of the previous instalment in the series. It opens with a recap of the previous two films, followed by an upbeat musical theme over the main titles. This music has distinctive glockenspiel notes in it, twinkling in the manner of stars in space – a nice effect.

The opening scenes show a mysterious black cylinder moving through space past the USS Saratoga, which reports it’s headed straight for Earth, in an eerie mirror of V-ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Then we cut to Starfleet headquarters on Earth, where the Klingon ambassador is calling for Kirk to be extradited and tried for destroying a Klingon vessel and crew (in the previous film). During this accusal we are treated yet again to the Genesis computer graphics created for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and repeated in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, since in 1986 they still looked impressive. Sarek argues in Kirk’s defence.

On Vulcan, Kirk and his crew are banging the captured Klingon bird-of-prey from the last movie into shape for the trip back to Earth to face the consequences of stealing the Enterprise in the previous movie. They lampshade the rather silly predicament that Starfleet hasn’t bothered to send a better ship to pick them up and take them back to Earth for court martial. Spock is still rebuilding his intellect after his brush with death and we see him studying with some computers asking him tricky questions, when one asks, “How do you feel?” Spock is stumped, and his mother appears and reveals she programmed the computers to ask him this, to remind him of his human heritage. Spock takes his leave without answering her and elects to return to Earth to face trial with his colleagues.

Back at Earth, the mysterious probe arrives and starts vapourising the oceans. Things rapidly deteriorate, to the point where the President of the Federation issues a distress call, stating that the probe has “almost totally ionised the atmosphere“! (While this is possible, everything on Earth would be dead already.) When our heroes arrive, they cleverly figure out that the probe is transmitting sound into the Earth’s oceans. Modifying the sound to what it would sound like underwater, Spock recognises it as whale song. They quickly realise that the probe must have come to investigate why the sounds of whales ceased coming from Earth a couple of hundred years ago – when they died out. To respond and stop the probe, they need whales. Thus is hatched a hare-brained scheme to travel back in time to before they became extinct and pick some up!

Star Trek IV, 2We are treated to some trippy mind-screw hallucinatory images as the Klingon ship slingshots around the sun and is flung back to… 1986! Uhura reports that she is “receiving whalesong!” One wonders how the whales are transmitting it into space – presumably through the same means they use to communicate with the mysterious probe’s civilisation. They land in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, with the ship cloaked – thus explaining why they had to retain the Klingon ship, since Federation vessels don’t have cloaking technology. Interestingly, in the previous movie, the cloaking device on this same ship produced a rippling effect against the background stars in space that allowed Sulu to see the ship anyway, but now it produces complete and utterly flawless invisibility. Presumably Scotty did some of his magical engineering tweaks on it to improve it.

In town, this being San Francisco, nobody comments on their weird 23rd century clothing, especially Spock’s nightrobe-like Vulcan garb. Kirk is shocked to learn the natives are “still using money”. He sells the antique pair of glasses McCoy gave him at the beginning of Star Trek II. When Spock protests that they were a gift from McCoy, Kirk says, “That’s the beauty of it, they will be again,” implying the glasses enter a stable time loop. The group splits up, Kirk and Spock to look for whales, Scotty and McCoy to find some materials to build a whale tank inside the ship, Sulu to arrange transport for the materials, and Uhura and Chekov to locate a nuclear reactor so they can scavenge some high energy photons to recharge the ship’s warp engines. Scotty also generates a time loop when he teaches a materials scientist how to make transparent aluminium in exchange for some plexiglass. When McCoy protests that he could be messing with history, Scotty rather flippantly dismisses him with, “How do we know he didn’t invent it?” This is dealt with better in the novelisation, in which Scotty recognises the man as the guy who actually did invent transparent aluminium, thus reducing the flippant disregard for creating a time paradox.

Kirk and Spock find some whales at a fictional Cetacean Institute in Sausolito, as well as their carer Gillian. Kirk woos Gillian and eventually tells her they are from the future and need the whales. She rejects him, but comes back to find him when her boss releases the whales into the open sea, where they will be hunted and killed by whalers. Meanwhile, Uhura and Chekov locate a reactor, on board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise(!), and beam in, getting into trouble when Chekov, a Russian, is caught inside an American naval vessel, at the height of the Cold War. He tries to escape but is injured and rushed to hospital, where the others stage a rescue mission. Then they fly out with Gillian on board to locate the whales’ tracking devices. They find them just before they are about to be harpooned by some evil Scandinavians, beam them aboard into the tank, and fly home to the future.

Star Trek IV, 3There they release the whales into San Francisco Bay to repopulate the species, the probe is happy and departs, and the Earth is saved! At the court martial, all charges are dropped due to extenuating circumstances, except the charge against Kirk of disobeying orders, for which he is demoted from Admiral to Captain, and therefore given command of a ship. The Klingon ambassador is outraged and Sarek is smug. Spock tells Sarek to tell his mother, “I feel fine.” The crew head to their new ship… which is revealed to be a brand new Enterprise. Awwww.

This is a very different Trek movie, which played more heavily with humour and light-hearted action than drama. And it worked, it really did. Some of the comedy moments with Kirk and Spock in the 20th century are truly hilarious, pushing but never quite falling into slapstick and ridiculousness. It’s an incredibly fun story, which is ultimately uplifting and hopeful – just what we needed in the dark and pessimistic times of the mid 1980s. Star Trek as it was truly meant to be. Wrath of Khan is a more edgy, dramatic, tense, and probably better movie, but this one is way more fun, and easily my second favourite of the entire series.

Tropes: Big Dumb Object, Ass in Ambassador, Lampshade Hanging, Artistic Licence – Physics, Crazy Enough to Work, Space Whale, Space Whale Aesop, Changed My Jumper, Stable Time Loop, Time Travel Romance, Mistaken for Spies, Time Travellers Are Spies, Adam and Eve Plot, Green Aesop, Unishment, Fish Out of Temporal Water, Everybody Lives.
Body count: None!

Caves of Chaos maps

Tuesday, 7 February, 2012

Caves of ChaosDid you ever play or run dungeon module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands? Check out these gorgeous reimagined maps of the Caves of Chaos, by Weem.

The D&D nerd and the cartography nerd within me are both squeeing with glee.

South America Diary: Day 13

Sunday, 5 February, 2012

Wednesday, 27 April, 2011. 21:55. Tika Wasi Valley Hotel, Ollantaytambo.

Sacred Valley of the Inca It’s been another full day. it started at 08:00 as we rose for breakfast. M. had slept well, but I don’t think I got any real sleep at all again. I laid in bed all night thinking “fall asleep” and being unable to do so. I had some sort of half-awake dreams about Ale leading us to all sorts of weird places. It was probably my brain trying to sort out the events of the last few days and doing it despite me not yet being asleep.

Breakfast was as yesterday, except they replaced the watermelon with kiwifruit. After this, at 09:30, we assembled with the group for the day’s activities.

Empanada bakery, Pisaq These began with a bus ride uphill from Cusco and over a pass into the next valley, where we stopped at the town of Pisaq. The scenery along the way was spectacular, and Ale stopped the bus a couple of times to let us stretch our legs and take photos of the Andean scenery. In Pisaq we stopped at a bakery, apparently run out the back of some guy’s home. He made traditional empanadas in a small wood-fired oven. There were four choices: traditional (spicy cheese, tomato, onion, and herbs), ham and cheese, cheese and basil, and sweet (banana, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg). I had a traditional and M. had a cheese and basil, which turned out to also have tomato in it. They were 2 soles each, and smallish and flat, not like empanadas I’ve seen elsewhere that are more stuffed and rounded. The flour was quinoa. They were okay, but nothing special.