Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Greetings from Edinburgh!

We took the train up here yesterday -- a 350-mile, 5 hour affair. The first hour or two I couldn't shake the observation that East Anglia (the, let's say, "state" we live in) looks like Illinois. Flat-as-a-pancake farmland. After that, the scenery got more dramatic:

We're here in August -- indeed, most people are here in August -- because it's festival time in Edinburgh -- nine festivals to be exact: Art, Fringe, Book, International, Jazz & Blues, Media, Military Tatoo, Mela, Film & Television. We arrived to gorgeous weather yesterday so set out on foot to get the layout of the city. We "accidentally" ended up at the book festival, where they have artists' readings and signings, writing workshops, and of course a tea garden and bar.

I was there for the bookstore, but so enjoyed the atmosphere that I may have to go back -- maybe even for an event.

But the bulk of the reason we're here is for the Fringe Festival. How to describe the Fringe? Well, let's start with this: John is disappointed we missed Chomp: The Zombie Musical, and that we're here too late to take in Much Ado About Nothing (as performed by a dance troupe from Mexico), Much Ado About Nothing (as performed by hand puppets), and Much Ado About Nothing (as retold by the constable Dogberry) all in the same day.

But we're making our list for potential shows we can see, and it includes a play about eco-scam artists out to make money off the Obama administration; A-Team: The Musical; Kursk, a drama about a Russian submarine crew; various and assorted comedians; and the Taiko Dojo Drumfest.

We haven't seen any shows yet - just taken in the street performances, of which there are many.
And, Edinburgh itself is a pretty place.

That's all for now -- we're off to the show!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Latest Skirmish in the Punt Wars

The Guardian notes the latest casualty--two boats sawn in half--in the war among punting companies here in Cambridge. Here's an excerpt.

Sam Matthews of The Punting Company was angry. "It's provocative," he said. "It's somebody hoping to start a war to get rid of us. It's the competition, but which competition? I have my suspicions, but the best thing is not to retaliate."

Matthews is the latest victim of what locals call the "punt wars", a series of disputes between rival operators in the £2.5m punt industry in Cambridge. The battles have reached new heights after two of Matthews's boats were found sawn through from top to bottom.

The nighttime attack is the most audacious in the spate of clashes that have disrupted the tranquillity of the Cam and prompted calls for a cap on the number of boats competing for custom from the four million people who visit the city each year. Observers say punting is now in danger of becoming a tawdry industry that will lower the city's reputation.

The panoply of weapons used in the punting wars is said to include stink bombs thrown from bridges to render a rival's boat inoperable, washing up liquid squirted to make it too slippery for the punter to stand, and bolt-cutters to snap mooring chains. But never, until now, an electric jig saw.

And here's an look an upcoming documentary on the punt wars:


Sunday, August 23, 2009

And yet, summer marches on

It's funny how nice weather can erase any memory of bad weather. Since the Met Office retracted the barbecue summer, it's actually been pretty nice. Above is an outdoor production of The Tempest we went to this week in the Trinity College Fellows Garden.

And here's a rest stop on our 20-mile ride today, for which it was sunny and 80 degrees F, around the villages north of Cambridge. That's a giant chestnut tree in front of St. Michael's Church in Longstanton. The church dates from the 13th century.

Last weekend, we took a 12-mile walk with our local Ramblers group along the River Ouse. We both wore shorts and short sleeves. We stopped under this tree for lunch.
Those walks almost always involve cutting through pasture. Our encounters with livestock vary.
The walks also always involve a pub stop. This is in the one-pub town of Holywell. You can see what kind of weather we had to contend with.
We also encounter a lot of churches.
All in all, when the weather's not crap, it's really gorgeous -- the most gorgeous summer we've had here, by far.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Where's Cakes and Ale?

To continue with the cycling theme of my Tour de France blog post...This Sunday, with KT off in the U.S., I woke at the crack of dawn, loaded my bike onto the car and sped out to the Suffolk countryside, driving through dense fog most of the way. Fortunately, it had cleared into a gorgeous day by the time I arrived at Glemham Hall (not that I saw it) for the start of the charity ride organized by Bike Events. One of the best things about this group is the announcer who is very English and very witty--at a recent ride we just did (blog to appear later) he sent us off quoting what I think was a Wordsworth poem. This morning, he was amused by a local group wearing shirts that said "Suffolk & Tired".

The day was sunny, with just a wisp of a breeze--perfect cycling weather. And the route was excellent, with hardly a big hill and a nice variety of scenery. We rolled through farms, small villages, a nature reserve, forest, and sandy heath on the way to a stop at a beach. I soon reached a decision point where I had to chose between the 35 mile route (map here) and the 60 mile route--all had been delightful to that point but I fearfully recalled my last planned 50 mile bike ride, where leg cramps hit at the 35 mile mark. This was a much easier but I still wimped out and went the short way. Oh well--turns out it was actually 40 miles in the end.

The rest of the ride was equally pleasant. The beach stop was Dunwich, a once vibrant port town noted in the Doomsday book and "lost" to the sea hundreds of years ago. At one point I sped by a sign that caused me to quickly brake--yes, it indeed said "Cakes & Ale". I looked down the side-road and saw nothing so I reluctantly rejoined the bike ride route. Turns out it's just a caravan site with an odd name. But the sign had gotten me thirsty, so I had to stop at the last refreshment break--a pub that thankfully had already opened. Fueled with a pint of ale--but no cake--I made it the next few miles to the finish line (just a bit after some who had done the whole 60 mile trip!). --JT

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, Lance Armstrong, and Me

My view of the Tour de France while in Barcelona

I'm so far behind on blogging it's slightly pathetic but I won't let that stop me from trying to catch up. The themes of this entry are fun work trips and sporting events. Let's roll.

Several weeks ago now, KT and I had a big London trip. The primary reason was the World Conference of Science Journalists, an event I had helped plan in a small way--I organized a session called "Advocacy Science Journalism" and participated as a panelist in 3 other sessions. Just a few months ago, the organizing committee was worried the meeting would lose money or even be derailed by swine flu, but following their habit of just making deadlines, tons of journalists registered at the last minute. The meeting was a huge success--we had nearly 1000 people attend, far more than previous world conferences. But before the meeting started, KT and I headed down to London on Sunday for a belated anniversary date: Bruce Springsteen and the Dave Matthews band doing an outdoor concert in Hyde Park. DMB was great as usual and the Boss rocked the park for 3 straight hours, opening with "London Calling", of course. Bruuuuuuce!

While we stayed at a hotel the night of the concert, the rest of the trip was in a swanky house just around the block from the Abbey Studios made famous by the Beatles. We shared the house with my colleagues Rich, his wife and their two boys--who for some reason liked to call me GorillaJohn. Rich lives in China and when the family traveled back after the meeting, Chinese health officials boarded the flight to check for swine flu symptoms--one of Rich's sons had a slight temperature so he was whisked away to a hospital with Rich for further testing. He wasn't infected but not a fun way to end a long trip.

The conference itself was exciting and depressing. Exciting because we saw people who inspired us and technologies that can help us. Depressing because everyone was wondering how to make money reporting news when so much is available for free--there was a lot of grim humor about how many of us would have jobs at the next world conference. Still, we got to party at the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum so one can't complain too much.

That same week on Friday, as Americans everywhere were starting their July 4th weekend early, we finally had a cricket rematch with our rival Nature. You may recall my poor showing in 2007. I didn't fare much better this time, but the team did. We batted first and scored a decent amount until the Yanks came out--I went out to bat and survived for a while, without scoring runs, until Rich was also called into action. He's a baseball player so I warned him to watch his backswing--I didn't want him to knock the wickets off himself. So, on the first pitch/bowl, he did exactly that! Off the field he trudged with a mix of anger and incredulity on his face. I had my own embarrassing moment soon after. In a silly attempt to replicate Babe Ruth's called home run, I pointed my cricket bat out to "center field" and then proceeded to whiff on the ball that slammed into the wickets--OUT! It wouldn't have been so bad if we didn't make a close match of the contest. Nature scored fast when they first batted, but we started getting outs and at the end it became a tense affair--one that would have been helped if Rich or I had scored any runs! In the end sadly, we lost. But we drowned our sorrows with an impromptu beer and grilled burgers at Chez Travis--so it was a nice "july 4th" after all.

The following week I headed off to Barcelona, my first trip to a continental Europe city without KT in a long time. And she's the one who speaks Spanish! Oh well, I love Barcelona--it's so easy to get around by subway or walking, there's a wild mix of old and aggressively modern architecture, there's churros and freshly made potato chips and great pastries, and beaches on the edge of the city. I stayed in an intriguing neighborhood that used to be Barcelona's industrial center--the factories and warehouse are now turned over to TV and movie studios and high-tech telecom and computer companies. So it looks like somewhat like a rundown factory area, but has an unexpected vibrancy and coolness--lots of bars and restaurants that visually compete with the hippest areas London and NewYork.

When I'm on my own at meetings I tend to eat early and just relax in the hotel room after a long day. But Barcelona eats late and well, so I joined the mood. Some websufing suggested a local pizzeria and a restaurant called 22alph@ (amazing "food porn" pictures on their website). I figured I would look at 22alp@ and head for pizza if it was too intimidating. It was. But I went in anyway--and I'm glad I did. Despite it being 8:30pm, the restaurant was empty and stayed that way--which didn't bode well. Nor did my 5 minutes of struggling to figure out a single dish on the menu despite consulting my Spanish language guidebook! The kind waitress eventually pointed out the menu was in Catalan not Spanish! Still, even when I looked at the Spanish menu in the back, most dishes were a mystery.
But I finally worked up the nerve to order and here's what I had (Yes mom, I ate it all): An amuse bouche of gazpacho and some local fish wrapped around an olive, then shredded whitebait fish on fried egg, entree of Iberica pork filet in wine sauce, and a decadent crema Catalana covered with a lemon-flavored foam for dessert. All that for $35! And it was amazing. I can't understand why the place was empty--highly recommended! (I did make it to pizzeria the following night and it was outstanding too).

To justify all the good food, I needed some exercise--so I went to watch the Tour de France. The famous race was coincidentally detouring into Spain and into Barcelona during my meeting and it was going close to the convention center right when there were no talks (honest!). So I dashed out to the road lined with thousands of people and after about 15 minutes of police cars racing past with sirens blaring, a lone cyclist sped by (left pictture), followed 30 seconds later but another small group, and then a bit later, the massive main group (the peleton). All in all, my glimpse of the racers last about 4 minutes--and I didn't spot Lance buried within the peleton. Indeed, watching the replay of the day's race on TV that night was more dramatic as the lead cyclist was caught at the very end and there was an exciting sprint finish. Still, I was able to be part of this year's race. Whew, I'm still tired.--JT

Friday, August 7, 2009

Comic Book Hero

I've been immortalized in comic strip form

Jorge Cham, the author of the comic PHD (Piled Higher and Deeper), stopped by the office months ago and was interviewed by myself and a colleague Sara, who eventually wrote a profile of how the engineering student had swapped an academic career for penning a comic strip about academic careers. I could tell Jorge was interviewing us as well and he's now doing a strip on the Science vs Nature rivalry, including this one (go to link for a large copy of image below) featuring yours truly.