23 July 2006
Several people have recommended Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country to me recently and it seemed especially appropriate since I'm travelling to Australia in a couple of weeks. I spent a frustrating afternoon at Border's in Oxford looking for it, but couldn't find it among Bryson's other titles and the store computer had no record of it. The guy helping me said, "We've got something called Down Under, could that be it?"
"Nah," I replied, "the title definitely has 'sunburned country' somewhere in it. Thanks, though."
Of course, I realised on the bus home that In a Sunburned Country is of course published as Down Under in the UK. So a few days later than otherwise might have been the case, I acquired a copy and read it, mostly in the course of one very pleasurable rainy Saturday.
The only one of Bryson's other books I've read is A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is excellent, but, I think, slightly out of his forte. Down Under, on the other hand, is right in his wheelhouse. The New York Times Book Review puts it nicely: "The thing that Bryson most loves about Australia — its 'effortlessly dry, direct way of viewing the world' — is, in fact, his own. They're a perfect fit."
The book details Bryson's travels all over Australia on two separate trips, and as such features some excellent insight into the people and places there. From the perspective of someone about to visit (i.e. my own) this in and of itself makes the book a must-read "alternative guidebook". While certainly not written in the style of a travel guide, I repeatedly found myself thinking, "Wow, that would be an awesome place to visit." Of cousre, Australia's vastness (something Bryson harps on incessantly) means that my visit will only fractionally overlap with his, but I still gleaned a handful of things to look for that I might otherwise have never known.
What makes the book so wonderful, however, is Bryson's writing style on both the small and large scales. The book had me laughing out loud on nearly every page, and sincerely touched from time to time by his more serious reflections. Reading Bryson is like taking the trip yourself in the company of a convivial, wisecracking sidekick. His style blends both American and British humour and references (he's a Yank who's spent most of his adult life living in Britain) which obviously appeals to me a lot; his description of Cricket on the radio literally had me in stitches.
Even more impressive than the page-to-page adventures, however, is the subtle story arc through the whole book. A few themes are woven beautifully throughout: Australia's uncomfortable history with the Aboriginal people, the peculiarly hearwarming Australian character, the scope of how huge and unknown the continent is, and its isolation. I was simply amazed at his skill as a writer to simultaneously chronologically transcribe his own journey and wrap it in a story about the country as a whole. Somehow the two threads never conflicted with each other or seemed to be forced into riding along with the other: they seemed — at beginning, middle and end — to be in harmony.
Reading Down Under has made me eager to both visit Australia and to read more of Bryson's travel writings (his Notes from a Small Island was recently selected in the UK as the book that best sums up British identity - typical of English irony that he's American). For everyone else, I highly recommend this book which has both a wealth of information and also manages to be a fantastic piece of literature.
21 July 2006
One month after I moved to the UK I went to a bar with some friends to watch Liverpool play AC Milan in the Euro Cup final. The match looked to be boring with Milan taking a 3-0 lead at halftime. My mate Rob (a diehard Liverpool FC fan) said, "I hope they really go for it in the second half. Better to lose 6-0 daringly than to play safe and lose 3-1." The second half was a wild one with Liverpool scoring 3 unanswered goals to force penalty kicks (an ending unequalled in sport for pure tension) which Liverpool won. Thus the first professional football match I'd ever watched turned out to be one of the most exciting in recent history.
Since then I've wanted to find a team of my own to barrack for, but for a variety of reasons I didn't watch any more football until this year's World Cup: the football season stops for the summer, the Ashes was on, and by the time the season started I had no particular interest in any team. Now, however, I've decided to watch the 2006-2007 Premiership season properly, for three reasons:
- The World Cup is ubiquitous in England, so I was forced to watch not just the games I had planned to (England, USA etc) but nearly all of them. I really enjoyed it and am now pretty psyched for the Club season to start in the Fall.
- I follow the Sox pretty well from over here, but don't have any real fan experience in the sense that I can watch all the games on TV and actually go to a few in person. I think it would be cool to experience a totally different sporting world and gain a (lifelong?) allegiance to another team.
- The Sports Guy wrote a great column on how he chose his new Premiership team, inspiring me to copy him.
There are 20 Premiership teams, and this is how they fell out in my consideration:
I would instantly lose all respect from my friends if I picked Arsenal, Man United or Chelsea. These three teams outspend all the others by a wide margin and have combined to 13 of the 14 titles since the Premiership was founded out of the remnants of the old First League. This left me with seventeen possible clubs that I could support without being derided as an out-and-out band wagoneer.
The next consideration was distance from Oxford. I'd like to try to attend at least a couple of matches, so I eliminated the following for their too-lengthy drive times form Oxford: Blackburrn, Bolton, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Sheffield, Wigan. This left me with the 5 remaining London clubs, Aston Villa (in Birmingham), Reading and Portsmouth.
Of the remaining contenders it was tough to pick through them. I'm not well informed enough to make decisions based on what one might call "good" football reasons. I eliminated Tottenham because my flatmate Becki's boyfriend is a lifelong fan and I didn't want to have uncomfortable conversations where I have been watching the team for a few weeks and he's been watching them for ages. The only game I've been to was Charlton, and they're not that great and play in a dodgy part of East London, so I didn't feel any strong attraction to them — better to go into a team with no experience than a mediocre one.
Of the remaining teams I think the most important factor was presence of an American player. This gives me an immediate favourite to support in particular and provides an additional personal connection. This criterion eliminated Aston Villa, Portsmouth, and West Ham. I almost made an exception for West Ham, since they probably have the best squad of the remaining teams, but it isn't as if they're really top tier, or anything.
I next considered the remaining teams' sponsors (which may sound trivial but if I buy a jersey I'm going to have this emblazoned on my chest). Watford kit has "loans.co.uk" smeared all over them, which nearly killed them outright. Combine that with the fact that they were the final team to be promoted this year (every year three teams are "relegated" from the Premiership down to the Champion's League and three teams are promoted up in the opposite direction) so stand a very good chance of being abysmal. The final pair, Reading and Fulham are about a draw from the sponsorship perspective: Kyocera and pipex, respectively. The former is kind of a sucky cellophone company, but they also make solar panels, which is cool. The latter is a broadband provider in the UK. I guess none of these teams are going to have something cool, like beer.
My final decision came down to intangibles, of which each team had a few things going for it. Reading was just promoted, but has a reasonably strong team. This means that while they have no chance of winning the title, they have a nearly as important goal in avoiding relegation, which would be a cool subplot. On the other hand, Reading's website is absolutely awful. All pro sports sites suffer from lots of flashing, ugly ads, difficult navigation and just general lack of taste, but Readings is uber-grim. They also make you register to access almost any of the content, which is really annoying. Fulham has better American players (exciting youngster Carlos Bocanegra and consummate pro Brian "Bloodsport" McBride) as well as a newly refurbished stadium. They have a better website (hey, I'm a nerd, these things matter to me) and to cap it all off, a player named Michael Timlin. And in keeping with my previous sporting lifestyle, they have a vicious rivalry with an overpowering opponent, nearby Chelsea. Plus, Fulham are a weird mix of expectations. When they were promoted in 2000 they were expected to be real contenders, but have subsequently been mediocre. There's the possibility of relegation and the possibility of a run at a spot in the UEFA (European) cup.
So, get ready for uninteresting posts about Fulham Football Club!
11 July 2006
I've got another couple of hours in Philly (I'm currently on a brief break between meetings) before flying back to the UK. So far the trip has been very cool. My friend Brendan (who recently finished his DPhil at Oxford and is now post-doc'ing here) has graciously hosted me in the mansion-like home he's house-sitting. The place is a four floor townhouse in one of Philly's trendiest areas (Rittenhouse Square) and features (among many other things) a huge entry hall with a sweeping grand staircase, a 19th century period banquet hall, an immaculately appointed kitchen big enough to run a medium sized restaurant out of and a two-room master bedroom with walk in closets bigger than my bedroom in Oxford. The owners moved out about 6 months ago and have been looking for a buyer ever since. In the meantime Brendan is house-sitting (there's a fairly autonomous apartment set up on the third floor) for them. All the furniture is gone, so the place is kind of spooky and echo-y, but still it's pretty sweet. I would've taken photos, but alas my camera was destroyed in the carboat adventure.
As far as the actual purpose of my trip, it has gone really well. I've managed to meet some collaborators and make progress on where my portion of the project is headed. My talk was well-received (it's pretty straightforward when you've given it a dozen times) and I've made some additional contacts who have pretty exciting projects starting at Penn and CHoP. A good vacation overall and I'm ready to head back to Oxford.
07 July 2006
I wasn't around for the frenzied month of building and subsequent disappointment that was Carboat 2005. Luckily my Summer holiday travels this year brought me through Boston the weekend before July 4th. LB and I spent most of the days leading up to the 4th at Cruftlabs (and cruising to Kresge Mart to get the most awesome boat seats ever). Benoc has a good number of photos from the construction phase as well as a writeup of the weekend. A selection of my photos (possibly the only ones from our crue of the boat in the water?) is up in the new album.
After last year's no-launch fiasco, Scott implemented Plan Failure-is-not-an-option. Not only did he get the Carboat registered as an official MA vessel (MS 5481 AN) but he and Steve planned to launch on the evening of July 3rd to avoid crowds at the ramp and the State Police. In keeping with Carboat tradition, preparations went down to the wire and the convoy with Carboat departed Cruftlabs shortly after midnight on July 4th. We arrived at Nonantum to find the ramp deserted and proceeded to launch the Carboat. Initial tests (while tethered) indicated functional steering and propulsion, so Steve and Scott tried to fix a few slow leaks and prepare for the slow journey downriver.
It was at this point that we encountered the first of what would be innumerable people gawking at the contraption. A dude on a solo river cruise at 2AM pulled up to the ramp. We were at first nervous that we were blocking the ramp which he wanted to use, but in reality he just wanted to slowly circle around and take 500 photographs of the Carboat. Scott was feeling a little stress from many sleepless days of working, so I tried my best (along with Benoc and LB) to field what would become the standard questions (Is it a real car? How does it float? Does that thing have a hemi?)
The next morning I radioed Scott on the MIT repeater and we discovered they had docked at the Harvard Sailing pavillion. LB and I rode down to meet them and saw the Carboat in action, looking pretty sweet in the water which concealed its uglier areas. The MIT sailing pavillion was under strict orders not to allow strange vessels to dock, so they had gently booted the Carboat earlier that morning. Luckily nobody was at the Harvard sailing dock so we worked unmolested on fixing the steering. It was at this point that I learned from Steve about the first of what would be many propulsion failures: the gears from the bike chains to the paddlewheel had been badly stripped.
Steve and I pedaled gently (to avoid destroying what little remained of the gears) while Scott drove and LB manned the rest of the boat. Our destination was Josh's WhatBoat mooring to tie up so we could head back to Cruftlabs to perform emergency repairs on the propulsion system. We were quite a hit with the folks who were already hanging out on the riverside to get a good spot for the night's festivities. This was also the first time we attracted the attention of a Cambridge Fire Department golf cart (with two firemen) who seemed to spend their whole morning buzzing around following us to watch what happened.
Once moored we inflated the deflatable raft we had so that we could ferry supplies and people into the dock. Laurie and I took the first trip, along with a load of gear. While we knew the raft had a slow air leak, we did not know until I hopped into it that it also had a slow water leak. Laurie and I raced to shore while the raft slowly deflated and slowly filled with water. Upon arriving I discovered my camera was sopping wet, which is why there are no photographs from that point forward. After a couple of thunderstorms passed through we had tarped up the boat, brought in all passengers and the parts which needed repair.
After a lunch break and repair session at Cruftlabs we were ready to return to the boat (during lunch Josh received a call from the MA Environmental Police saying, "Sir, there's a car parked at your boat mooring."). The repairs of the paddlewheel were not as easy as expected. We tied up to the dock near the mooring and attracted all kinds of attention, including numerous offers for a tow if needed. Scott, Steve and Josh were determined to get the paddlewheel functioning, though, and created a miniforge on the sidewalk, with Josh blowtorching and Scott hammering the hot steel. The field operation eventually included a pair of drills, several hammers and an invaluable file.
After approximately 3 different failed attempts the paddlewheel was again functional, but without any mechanical advantage and directly chained, which meant the pedallers had to pedal backwards at an extremely slow cadence with immense force. Still, it meant that we proceeded all the way upriver to the Harvard bridge under our own power, which was pretty awesome. Nine of us were on the boat for the fireworks, which were fantastic. A wearying but wonderful 4th of July.
I've been enjoying a few days away from work here in Boston this week, starting with a brief visit to the Cape to hang out with the fam for a day. Pictured at left is Team Barrett running a play from scrimmage during a little touch football game before dinner. Following that I spent quite a while working on the carboat (pictures and details to follow). So far it's been a relaxing few days, but I always get a little anxious when I haven't done any work in a while and emails are piling up.