Thursday, June 26, 2008

From the "I didn't know I needed that" files ...

A truck just drove by offering its services for "wheely bin cleaning." I'm impressed that the little company is lucrative enough to have its own, rather nice truck. I'm also impressed that "wheely bin" is an official enough term to put on the side of a truck.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Frank Blackmore's Magic

The Brits must still love their obits. The serious papers, such as the Guardian, usually give a lot of room to lengthy essay-like obituaries. One that caught my eye this weekend honored Frank Blackmore, who apparently invented the mini-roundabout, an island-free version of the traffic junction that scares the heck out of most American drivers. The picture above is his famous magic roundabout in Swindon, which has five mini-roundabouts integrated into a normal roundabout.

Here's an excerpt from the obit:
He then worked on the idea of a roundabout with no central island in his own time, knowing it would not be taken seriously. But, after a long struggle, he finally got the first mini-roundabout introduced in Peterborough in 1969, stationing himself there with a loud-hailer to tell motorists what to do when they met it.

Blackmore was motivated by a desire to see an end to choked-up junctions, which he found frustrating and unnecessary. Eventually, he elaborated on his original idea by developing multiple roundabouts. Two of his projects are the so-called magic roundabout in Swindon (1972) and the multi-ring junction in Hemel Hempstead (1973), which, love them or loathe them, are cunningly effective ways of moving traffic. He was also keen to improve road safety, and the mini-roundabout has indeed proved much safer than traffic lights.
YouTube has a driver's eye view of going through the Swindon roundabout. If you want to see how traffic should operate in the Swindon roundabout study this amusing diagram (reproduced below but easier to see at the link).

Friday, June 20, 2008


Well, I made it. Three countries in three weeks, with a return home between each. (That's the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Portugal, for those of you keeping score at home.) Two work meetings, one vacation. One suitcase (with different contents, of course) and one backpack. Multiple pairs of shoes, including my walking shoes and flip flops, all of which have given me one blister or another. I've learned a lot, waited in a lot of queues, and gained approximately 1.8 million pounds.

I'm not the world's best traveller, so I'm rather impressed with my present state -- a bit tired and glad to be home, but already looking forward to the next trip (Barcelona, mmmm). Trip reports will come soon, but meanwhile, in the spirit of John's list, here's what *I* know:

One day is enough to get a taste of a city.

One week is not enough to explore half a country. (Well, if that country is Portugal. It's plenty if the country is, say, Monaco.)

I underprepared. You can't just print the articles and buy the guidebooks. You also have to read them.

Random children are enamoured with John in foreign countries, too.

I need to find a hobby that I can do while standing on a jetway surrounded by screaming children and impatient people. That would turn wasted time into found time.

I've carried the same poor paperback on all trips, and still haven't finished. Not only that, it's the book club book from two months ago.

Don't hold a conference in Europe during any kind of European sports event. Attendees will disappear at game time.

There are approximately 35 roundabouts between Luton airport and Cambridge. (Hat tip: John Kelly)

The weirdest foods I ate this month were beef tongue and tripe. Also on the list: squid and herring.

Language is a barrier less often than you might think.

And finally: I'm happy to be home in Cambridge.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A cuppa tea?

Job ad of the Day:

Afternoon Tea Maker and Cleaner (Part Time)
Department of Genetics
£12,461-£13,788 pa, pro rata

Ah, the university life.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What little I know

Though my lovely wife continues to roam Portugal with friends, I flew back Monday morning after our long weekend in the city of Porto. Normally we have some Internet access on a trip and we catch at least snippets of news, but I soon realized how out of touch I had been.

I didn't know the Celtics had beaten the Lakers in LA to edge near the NBA title.

I didn't know that Tiger Woods had pulled off several miracles to force a Monday playoff at the U.S. Open, which he won in dramatic fashion, of course.

I didn't know the sad Detroit Tigers had gone on a winning streak finally.

I didn't known Cambridge United and its coach Jimmy Quinn had "mutually decided" that Quinn should leave. United has been in chaos since their playoff loss. Half the team has left or been sold to other teams, even to rivals in our league. Quinn's departure is a shocker and comes amid rumors of severe financial troubles for the team. I gather this turmoil is common in England's lower football leagues where ambitions trump common sense and money.

And in a much sadder non-sports vein, I didn't know that Tim Russert had died from a heart attack Friday morning as we were already in Porto. I wasn't the biggest fan of the NBC newsman but he did grill politicians as they deserve and his death is a great loss to the DC journalism community.

What do I know then?

I know that a certain Portuguese taxi driver has a bad sense of direction. We should haven't seen the ocean on our trip from the airpot to the apartment! He somewhat made up for getting lost by helping us find the key for our rental apartment that had been left at the nearby cafe.

I know that Portugal likes its soccer. We saw at least two huge outdoor screens set up to show the Euro2008 competition. Sunday night we joined the crowd at one watching Portugal playing Switzerland--Portugal's colorful flags were flying everywhere and people watched the screen from their apartment windows. It was great fun even if the home team lost--they had already qualified for the quarterfinals so no one was too sad.

I know I like port. And I liked it even better at the prices in Porto, the home of port production. We tried many ports at Graham's port lodge and at a nearby port institute--at the latter, the four of us had 10 glasses of port and bought a bottle of port and one of wine for a ridiculously low price of $38. I think at least one glass of port we tasted would have cost more than $50 in any DC restaurant!

I'll save the rest of the trip report for KT when she gets back. It's time for a glass of port.--JT

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

(Business) Trip Report: Maastricht

The rest of my stay in Maastricht affirmed my affection for this city. I expected to be busy late into the evening Friday night, but was told that my journalist status rendered me Not Invited to the conference dinner. Just as well -- I was anxious to walk around.

So, I did just that. I have no idea what I was looking at because I still do not have a guidebook (and still know zero Dutch), but I walked by the, I'm guessing, Natural History Museum and some sort of medieval fortification wall. I meandered the adorable streets admiring the cozy restaurants. I scoped some for dinner for myself, but I guessed I'd probably sacrifice the restaurant's atmosphere so I could find an optimal people-watching perch, which meant looking in one of the city's multiple squares.

Just after turning off of one of said squares, I encountered some furniture moving, Dutch style. At first I wasn't sure what was going on as the huge red sofa was sitting in the middle of the street. The guys had their bikes parked on either side of it. I went up to them and said, "You guys are up to something." "No, just wishing for bigger bikes," they said. I giggled as one guy hoisted one end of the sofa onto other guy's handlebars, then I held one guy's bike steady as he lifted the other end onto his back rack. Slowly but surely, they made their way down the street.

After that, and still not quite ready for dinner, I sat on one of the aforementioned squares and enjoyed a Belgian beer whilst people watching. When I stood up to leave I realized I may not be very hungry, but Belgian beer is not such a good idea on an empty stomach. Just down the road I spotted a shop selling Belgian waffles -- the perfect follow-up to my Belgian beer, I thought. While waiting in line, though, I realized the guy in the back was actually making the ice cream they sell there, so I opted for a chocolate ice cream cone with completely gratuitous whipped cream on top.

Very satisfied with my purchase and very satisfied that I still had hours of the evening and night with nowhere in particular to be, I wondered what to do next. Cue the band!

No, really. There was a band.

Marching band in Maastricht, the Netherlands from dceditors on Vimeo.

So, I followed them for a bit. Eventually they headed over the river, so I let them go on their merry way while I returned to the main Markt square, where that morning I had seen them setting up a huge Friday market. Perhaps there would still be some vendors there? No such luck. But I did see lots of young folks in black tie apparel posing for their formal pictures by the Stadhuis and in front of a Mini Cooper. And in front of the Stadhuis, it was clear that Something Exciting! was going to happen.

But not just yet.

So, I thought I'd go back to my hotel, change, dump my backpack, grab a book, and come back into the Markt for dinner. But as I started down the street with my hotel, guess what I encountered?

Another marching band.

This was just too much. I have to wait and see what happens, I thought. So I followed this band back into the Markt area, and saw that another was coming in from the other direction. Suddenly, a reviewing panel appeared in those previously empty chairs in front of the Staduis. One of the bands marched in and around the huge fenced area, then out the other side. People applauded. And then the next band went in. Meanwhile, more and more marching bands came in from all directions.

And this continued for 2 hours.

Turns out the bands were from all the small villages around Maastricht, and this little event happens every year. Seemed a little strange on a Friday night, but it made for a quite pleasant evening. After an hour of watching the bands, I chose one of the restaurants surrounding the Markt so I could continue watching. I just happened to set myself down next to a chatty guy from The Hague. Eventually 12 other Dutch guys joined him -- they were all friends from different places and in town for a guys' weekend. I met a couple of the other guys, then wished them well so I could continue watching bands, sipping a glass of wine, and enjoying some pasta. A fine night in Maastricht, I'd say.

Saturday was far less random but fun nonetheless. Maastricht is like Cambridge and Bruges, in that on the weekends it swells during the day with lots of day visitors and people who come to town to shop, but they thin out in the evening. So when I got out of my meeting at 2:30 or so, I was surprised to see how crowded the town was. I figured I had time for maybe one tourist thing, a little shopping, and a nice sit. My One Thing was going into St. Servaasbasiliek, a gorgeous Catholic church that (according to the one article I have with me on Maastricht) houses the tomb of the first bishop of the Low Countries who died in 384. No, I didn't forget a 1 before that date.

My shopping involved buying a new black summer suit, as you can always count on me to show up somewhere dressed stupid, and this conference was no exception. All the ladies were wearing their summer dress apparel, and here I was in dark merino wool. I finished off my time in Maastricht with a sit next to the river. As the late afternoon became later, it was time to go collect my luggage and head to the train station. Next stop: Amsterdam.

Maastricht photo album here.