The mosquito problem is, my researchers tell me, approximately seventy billion times worse down south in the city of Baton Rouge. My badly bitten arms concur. It becomes swiftly evident on visiting such places that the main advantage to a climate like Britain’s is that most of the unpleasant critters don’t want to live there — one need not fear being devoured by mosquitoes, home invasion by cockroaches, being bled dry by leeches or any of the other myriad terrors that abound in warmer climes. For that I, and my arms, are extremely grateful.
We spent only a single night in Baton Rouge, returning to Monroe today, which is not really long enough to see everyone as we would wish. Steve, Debbie and Nic came over to the Traylors’ for dinner and we surprised Dave Marley with a late night visit to the Starbucks at which he works part time. As instructed by Jenna I sampled their coffeeless Vanilla Bean Frappuccino — yes, the flavour is nice; no, it’s not really a milkshake, being too creamy and not frozen enough. Jeff was also around since he’s working this week before going back up to Monroe on Friday. Jane has wandered off on some kind of Tex-Mex holiday so I couldn’t catch up with her.
Today I rounded off the big camera purchase with a UV lens filter (the lens is large at 72mm, limiting options somewhat), receiving exemplary service at Ritz Camera, and a compact but nondescript camera bag (i.e. one that doesn’t scream “steal this!”). On a related note the May Week gallery has been massively extended with a host of tardy photos. Now that those are done, expect to see some USA pictures appearing shortly. I am still learning to use the new camera, particularly as regards light levels, so decent pictures may be less frequent for the latter part of the trip.
Today I have lots of time to write and no one with whom to talk due to the publication of a certain novel which shall not be named. In fact many of you probably aren’t reading this until tomorrow because you have to hit page 759 before your bodily functions resume regular service. This house now holds enough copies of the book to keep a steady fire burning for the next week (though in this climate why would one wish to?) as all my cousins are avidly consuming chapter after chapter, along with my sister, having picked up the books at midnight. There are also a few spare copies lying around though I did not really understand the explanation. I think it probably had something to do with increased efficiency and literary osmosis. Suffice to say that with most of my family reduced to the status of willing thrall, I now realise just how antisocial an activity reading a book can be.
On the other hand it leaves me free to write to you fine people, so at least there’s a silver lining. There is little really to report since we arrived at Monroe. The last leg of the journey involved travelling through a pleasant national park in Virginia and then driving pretty much non-stop until we reached Louisiana, stopping only to eat and sleep. Here we have been relaxing with family in various different ways, from frenetic bouts of Gears of War on the Xbox 360 with Caleb to playing everything under the sun with Karleigh. There has, admittedly, been rather a lot of the latter. After a brief shyness upon our arrival, she now adores the attention particularly upon discovering a stash of old photos and videos of her on my laptop. A very bright three-year-old, she swiftly learned how the computer worked and has already spent hours eagerly watching herself and showing anyone else who will look, now becoming slightly bored by the repetition (and only slightly) so instead demanding that more photos be taken of her to expand the selection available. With my new camera now ordered (the Canon EOS 400D, which here goes by the odd “Digital Rebel” moniker, along with an EF 28-135mm IS lens), this request is unsurprisingly rather likely to be fulfilled.
We’ve spent the last couple of days checking out the USA’s capitol city, firstly the major government buildings, followed by a slightly Smithsonian flavour. There is a distinct uniform style to much of the city with a sleek and rectangular federal theme. It was strange to note that closest architectural comparison to places like the Library of Congress are the buildings of Soviet Russia. Or, indeed, Churchill College, Cambridge. Although the police presence was unsurprisingly evident, security around the White House was far laxer than we had anticipated (though they were visibly stalking the roof), allowing us a reasonable view. Perhaps the President was out.
American public transport exists in a usable fashion only in the major cities, and here the Metro was a conveniently accessible way to travel around. The lines are labelled only by their colours (which works since the system has far fewer than London) while the stations share an identical cavernous appearance. Although this makes them feel larger, the lighting in many of the stations is woefully poor and I cannot say I would feel safe travelling in them late at night. More impressive, though, are the multilevel stations where lines meet, forming a perpendicular cross.
The Smithsonian Institution funds and controls most of the educational and arts resources in the city including a stunning indoor botanical garden which is regulated by an automated system of bewildering precision. A little further out they also run a self-proclaimed National Zoo which, frankly, I found somewhat depressing. My views on zoos remain, while not ambivalent, decidedly mixed. Having seen animals in the wild on safari, the caged alternative is not only less appealing, but does in many cases seem cruel. It may be understood in terms of protecting near-extinct species (they have done sterling work regarding Panda fertility) but one finds it difficult to accept the Smithsonian researchers’ claim of attempting to “save” the Asian elephant. Similarly, even where it may be necessary, cramped enclosures with little to occupy the evidently bored animals hardly seems ideal. The zoo model is not inherently bad — I was particularly impressed by one in Singapore — but I struggle to think of a Western example I can wholeheartedly recommend. Nevertheless, it did provide ample sport for my camera (still the old one, for those paying attention), with some of the results visible below. Full size versions will hit the Gallery in due course. We expect to reach Louisiana in a day or two and then those of you who I know have been waiting will be able to see the young girl into which Karleigh has turned.
To describe this post as overdue would be like saying the Crusades occasionally got a little rough. I had so much to talk about during May Week and graduation (and precious little time, it being my last proper week in Cambridge with everyone) that I couldn’t really face attempting it in one go. Then there was the actual affair of graduation (surreal, lots of hat waving and Latin that was surprisingly easy to follow, more surreality on holding an incredibly sparse certificate that apparently justified my last three years of overall thoroughly enjoyable existence) followed by flathunting in London (repeating the same spiel to almost a dozen estate agents and taking lots of photos when viewing so that Kirsten could feel what the E3 crowd would call “virtually there”).
And now I am blogging to you over the conveniently free wifi from a Holiday Inn in Philadelphia (the city, not the cheese spread). So it’s been a slightly hectic ride that resulted in me not really wanting to start an explanatory post that I could never really finish. So instead we’ll start afresh in the USA (just call me Pilgrim Father) and I’ll refer back to previous events as when I get photos sorted out accordingly! Incidentally a new camera is definitely on the cards while I’m here given the magnificent exchange rate (just shy of 2:1) so you’ll be able to enjoy the sights in even higher quality.
We flew out here on Air India which was distinctly lacking in terms of in-flight entertainment, unless one counts a large screen at the front of the cabin showing a Hindi film with subtitles placed too low for anyone behind the first two rows to read. The staff were friendly enough, despite a rudely unprofessional manager wandering around the Heathrow check-in desk. The flight was made more bearable by flying only to New York rather than inland to Dallas, chopping off a good 2 hours. Beyond marching down Orwellian hallways of one-way mirrored glass lined under the stern gaze of continuous CCTV surveillance, immigration itself was surprisingly swift and hassle-free, mostly, one presumes, given their relief in seeing a British Passport amidst a sea of Indian ones. Fingerprinting to “keep the US open” and for my security still left me somewhat baffled. Whatever makes them feel safe, I suppose.
Posts over the next handful of days will depend on friendly hotels, but expect regular updates once we reach Louisiana and a proper house.
Stephen, with whom you may remember I was working defending kids in a Louisiana juvenile court during my gap year, has been making veiled references to “the interview” for several days. It turns out the discourse in question is regarding his involvement with and views on the Nicaraguan election of 1990. The full transcript, made available by Nic, is an interesting read with an insight into US foreign policy in “influencing” elections. It is really more of a personal account by a then political activist (and now full-time lawyer). La lucha es la victoria, he says during the interview, a phrase that became something of a motto for us while we worked often on seemingly hopeless cases: the fight is the victory.
Following Robert Rodriguez’s triumphant success in transferring Frank Miller’s gritty Sin City graphic novels to the big screen, a sequel was certainly expected if not inevitable. One suspects it will be worth watching if largely inferior to the original simply because he selected the three strongest stories to work with the first time around. More interesting is the emergence of 300, a film based on another of Miller’s comics about a desperate battle fought by a hopelessly outnumbered band of Spartans. With a recent glut of films in a similar setting I had not fully appreciated the goal here until I saw the lush visual style evident in the recent trailer. It often appears more like a painting in motion upon the canvas and looks to be a stunning depiction of a group of men relinquishing their lives for their homeland. An act of defiance not for the outcome but for the act itself.
In both stories, whether in Nicaragua or in Sparta, the moral seems the same. And those words, the gravitas of which I only half grasped at the time, seem truer as time passes which is why I thought I’d share them with you. La lucha es la victoria.
With the Big Three press conferences out of the way, E3 proper unfolds and is really about the games. I’ll aim for a less specialist (though not entirely game-free) entry today.
The University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt is an annual multi-day event which is unlike any you’ve seen before, inspiring creativity and some pretty impressive feats of engineering. Amongst the items on this year’s list are a working wood refridgerator and a one-way funhouse mirror. Also on the list, and a worthy trophy regardless of the hunt, is Austria’s most oft-stolen road sign.
At last four former Guantanamo detainees have won the right to sue the US government for violating their religious beliefs. Previous attempts to do so were blocked by the government on the grounds that the conduct — which included flushing a copy of the Koran, and forcing Muslims to shave their beards — did not occur on US soil.
More information about Mythic’s MMO Warhammer Online is now being released at E3. Some have accused it of mimicking another popular franchise, leading to the derogatory “World of Warhammer” moniker. In fact the 25-year-old Games Workshop license from which it draws has been more than a little copied by Blizzard themselves in the Warcraft series, and was itself adapted largely from the Tolkien Middle Earth universe. Maintaining the integrity of this fantasy world is key to their vision, resulting in unique classes for each race. For example rather than the usual pet classes, Goblin Squig Herders (which insane designer Paul Barnett described as as “pet classes, just not dull“) include abilities like being eaten by their own squig, which they then wear as armour or roll around in Metroid-style.
Racial identity is also key, and Paul’s familiarity with the source material (he previously worked for GW) resulted in descriptions like Dwarfs as the “northern working class” miners, and Dark Elves as “posh people what have taken a lot of drugs. Like Byron.” Despite the vibrancy of this imagery, the overall tone is darker than Blizzard’s WoW, with the pervasive continuing war being a central theme. The idea is that not only will you, say, raid and pillage the Dwarven citadel, but shave the very beards off your prisoners. Personally, having spent years of my youth battling Chyde’s Dwarf menace, I’m rather keen on seeing a beard-shaving minigame…
It was suggested to me that perhaps lately the site has been lacking in juice, or at least the personal side of things at any rate. As a visual aid, you’ll now find a new USA 2005 photo album with pics from the holiday. On the subject of the new gallery, you’ll find that to conserve bandwidth many of the photos have been shrunk down to a lower resolution. If you’re after hi-res versions of anything, check out my morgueFile profile or ask me. I tend to keep artistic photos at 2592×1944 and other snaps at 1600×1200. I’ll probably need to invest in an external harddisk to store them soon though so I’d welcome any recommendations.
With term a few days away, there has been little in the way of the aforementioned juice, unless you count lugging several dozen bottles of assorted fruit drinks around Newnham after Kirsten and Ming ordered their start-of-term Tesco delivery. You only truly appreciate just how bad an idea a third floor room is after ascending with boxes filled to the brim with groceries.
As for gossip a little further afield, you may have come across this fiery incident in Portsmouth, severe enough to cause a partial collapse in the building. The rescued student in question was in fact our very own Dicko, who has now found himself homeless for the last five days and, by the sounds of it, rather bored. He is, fortunately, still very much alive.
Americans are certainly the masters of excess — just visit the nearest steakhouse for proof of that — but something seems to hold them back from grasping enjoyment of the finer things in life that the rest of the world’s rich history allows. Jeff was dismayed to find not a single bottle of Pinot Noir in the local liquor store, though not particularly surprised in the country that considers Bud Light a beer. Perhaps I’m just bitter that a restaurant finally refused to serve me (the US drinking age being 21 with somewhat murky rules regarding drinking with one’s parents). I find American chocolate is similarly deficient* and was perplexed to see several Cadbury’s bars on sale. While I was previously willing to conceded that Dairy Milk may contain, while not nuanced flavour, at least some palatable value, this changed after I turned over the bar. Imagine my shock to discover that the reason this chocolate was so readily available is that it was manufactured by Hershey’s, with the permission of Cadbury. If the production could be licensed to such amateurs as Hershey’s, nothing I say can be more damning: you may draw your own conclusions.
There’s always one sight upon a return to Britain which really grounds you in the fact that you are home. This time, being as it was 7:30am, it was a couple of kids in uniform kicking a football (that’s what you call a soccer ball, for any new American readers) between them as they proscrastinated, dejectedly shuffling their way back to a new term at school. In a way I envied them. At least their school would be warm, unlike the freezing house to which our taxi was hurriedly bearing us. Four hours and a boiling shower later, it had returned to the sort of harsh climate which might plausibly support some unfortunate form of life. The Emperor Penguin, mayhaps.
I’ll be heading back to uni on Sunday so the ritual DVD cull has now begun, a digital Darwinist procedure in which only the fittest and most watchable discs will survive for selection. If you wish to influence this finely tuned system, check out The DVD List and let me know what you’d like me to bring.
* At least Wal-Mart have started stocking Lindt’s Lindor truffles. Perhaps there’s hope for the American tastebud yet.
When you don’t tell anyone a memory, it gradually fades over time, becoming vague and indistinct before perhaps disappearing altogether. When you tell other people, it’s littered with your perspective, the dozen tiny embellishments added by design or accident. But over time, eventually the story becomes the memory, however little similarity the two actually share. The story is all that remains so the story is, for all intents and purposes, true. Then it has become history.
Video is vastly inferior in its perspective but at least with the advent of digital recording it remains as sharp and vivid as the day it was made, kind of a way to store people until you see them again. The way you want to remember them. So I have some great videos of Karleigh, including a video of Karleigh watching a video of Karleigh. It was a very interactive experience as the bright girl loves to see herself on screen and quickly learned how to use my laptop to make the videos play, preceded each time by a squeaked “uh oh” when it stopped.
Jenna, Jeff and Karleigh left yesterday. We’ll be leaving early tomorrow and winging our way back to a rather colder England (it’s been an incredibly mild winter here, reaching 23°C yesterday). It’s been a really good trip, albeit somewhat less productive than I might have liked. There’s still some time before uni starts, but don’t be offended if I seem to be buried in books and ignoring you! Hopefully being home will mean less sporadic updates here and a few film reviews that I’ve wanted to write, especially Spielberg’s Munich since I was able to see it well in advance of the UK release and hope to convince you to experience it too.