14 April 2009

The Lake District

Over the Easter Bank Holiday Becky and I visited the Lake District in Northern England. Highlights:
  • Hiking - Lots of great trails leave directly from Ambleside. Nothing is too rigorous but there are nice views over the lakes and the crumbling stone walls and farmhouses create interesting scenery. On Easter weekend there are also plenty of newborn lambs. The quaint villages (Troutbeck, Grasmere) provide a good stop for tea or a pint.
  • Eating - Ambleside is overflowing with restaurants but our favorite was The Log House (bruschetta w/ beetroot chutney as a twist, lamb on root/mint mash and killer pavlova for desert). We also had a great local cheese and chutney sandwich for lunch at Lucy's Deli.
  • Sleeping - We stayed at the Old Vicarage B&B which has huge rooms, English breakfasts and the obligatory (but acceptable) level of funkiness for a B&B. The hot tub seemed incongruous but after a long hike it made perfect sense.
So essentially the highlights of the Lake District boil down to walking, eating and sleeping. It sounds rather mundane but it really was fantastic. Also, as a former Seattle-ite who misses REI, Ambleside appears to have the single highest concentration of outdoor sport shops anywhere in England. 

As for the downsides, it's hard to think of any. We were fully expecting a day of rain but that never materialized. The town was crowded but that didn't extend to the trails. All in all, a great trip.
View Ambleside Hikes in a larger map

23 February 2009

Brussels, Belgium

From Feb 20-22 Becky and I visited my cousin Susan who is studying in Brussels for the semester. The Eurostar made this an easy trip; we arrived in under two hours and avoided any airport hassles. 

On Saturday we explored Brugge. Unfortunately, the Groeninge Museum which we wanted to see was closed. Instead we visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood that features a huge gaudy silver reliquary which they claim contains a vial of Jesus' blood (ahem, vampires?) and the Onze Lieve Vrouwkerk that boasts a Madonna by Michaelangelo. Despite the celebrity sculpture, we were more intrigued by the excavated 13th and 14th century tombs with rough drawings and graffiti on the inside. We didn't stay for long though since the church was so cold we could see our breath. We walked the narrow cobbled streets and found the courtyard of the monastery (peaceful) and the museum devoted to "friet" (freaky). Brugge itself was reminiscent of Cambridge with old stone buildings perched along a small river (which is which?) although they have horse drawn carriage rides in addition to boat tours which doubles the number of shills hawking tourist transportation.

In Brussels the Grote Markt is the central plaza but we were surprised to find it almost empty in the morning. Since the city lacks that blockbuster attractions of some other European capitals, I suspect it doesn't draw the same size crowds and they're not clustering around a small set of highlights. We visited the huge collection on display at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium including David's Death of Marat, a smattering of modern masterpieces (Magritte, Picasso, Chagall), and a special exhibition featuring Reubens paintings of an intimidating scale. We also paid a visit to the Mannekin Pis, the Cathedral in Brussels, the EU Quarter, and the Science Museum. 

The food was a highlight throughout the trip. The first night Becky ordered what must qualify as a "bucketful" of mussels at Aux Armes de Bruxelles and the second night we ate at a good bistro-esque place called Les Brassins. I'm not usually one to rave about beers but the Trappist beer and kreik (cherry beer) were great. Other food stops included the original Pan Quotidian (sandwich of beef carpaccio) and a midday break for a Belgian Waffle (of course).

Overall, highlights were getting to catch up with Susan and the Reubens exhibition at the art museum. Lowlight was Becky bruising her heel while walking in Brugge.

26 July 2008

67 things I'll miss about Cambridge

This is quite a haphazard post but tonight is my last night as a resident of Cambridge, England so here's a list of things I like or will miss about living here. It's in no particular order other than starting with food and drink and switching into sights and experiences. 

The Free Press * Bruno's Brasserie * 22 Chesterton * The Veggie Van on Market Street * Jacket Potatoes from the Tram Stop * Cheese Toasties from The Pig * The Rice Boat * Friendly service at The Maharaja * The Cheese Shop in All Saints Passage * Indigo * Cambridge Real Ale Festival * The Flying Pig Pub * The Eagle * The Mill *St. Radegund Pub * Tea at the Orchard * Origin8 * Yippee Noodle * Hall at John's * Backstreet Bistro * Troeckle Ulmann & Freunde * Lunch at Lawyers * Kebabs from Effes * Decent Mexican at Manna Mexico * The Little Tea Shop (may it Rest in Peace) * Michaelhouse Cafe * Chelsea bun ice cream at Fitzbillies * Savino's Cafe * Salisbury Arms * Bangkok City * Saffron Brasserie * Cats on Portugal Place * Kettles Yard Gallery * Senate House Passage * Chimney Pots along Trinity Lane * Fellows Garden at Clare * Fitzwilliam Museum * Whale skeleton outside the Zoology Museum * Bridge of Sighs in St John's * Sculpture in Jesus College * Cambridge Botanical Garden * Kings College Chapel * Thatched cottages in Grantchester * Shops in Newnham * Old chestnut trees along the path in Jesus Green * Used Bookshops off Peas Hill * Orchard Street * The arcade and massive gate in New Court (St John's College) * The Heavy Metal bicyclist * Ducks wandering out of Emmanuel College * John's and Trinity Fireworks during May Week * Rose Crescent decorated with Christmas lights * Tourists filming rising bollards * Punting on the Cam * Watching punt traffic jams on the Cam * Crazy hippies going to Strawberry Fair * Roses in May * The busker in the trash can * Graduation processions to the Senate House * Baby Ducklings in the water off Jesus Green * Bumps * Picnics on The Backs * Cows mingling with people outside the Mill * Kissing gates on the way to Grantchester * Daffodils in Peterhouse in March * The Music man with singing dogs * The big issue salesman outside Sainsbury's * The Ivy turning on the back of New Court (John's) in Autumn

And what top list would be complete without a small section of opposites? So here are five things I definitely won't miss!

Tourist throngs * The pathetic Irish Flutist and misplaced Pan Pipe Street Musician * The Crapft Fair across from St. John's * Lion Yard * The country's most jam-packed Sainsbury's

Farewell Cambridge! (But we'll be visiting soon...)

26 June 2008

Perils of Principles for Politicians

One of the more dramatic political stories this month was the news that David Davis, a Member of Parliament, resigned in protest over plans to extend detention of terrorist suspects up to 42 days. Whether or not you agree with the disputed legislation or the form of disagreement there's something refreshing about a politician who is willing to step down as a statement of principle. I am aware of a few other British government officials who had taken similar steps; Robin Cook resigned as leader of the House of Commons in March 2003 and a few months later Clare Short resigned from Tony Blair's cabinet over the Iraq war. Although not exactly a model politician, you could possible include George Galloway in the list of MPs willing to take a stand since his openly anti-war rhetoric led to expulsion from his own party

I was curious to contrast the resignations from Parliament with resignations from the US House and Senate. A quick Google search tells a very different story between American and British politicians. It is unfair to judge a country's politicians by the resignation of a few, but it's hard to deny there is a pretty clear pattern here. Members of the US Congress have a tendency to fall afoul of societal norms and principles and lose their position as a result, while British politicians are keen to uphold a principle at the expense of their position.

04 June 2008

Peeking out from under the news bubble

Before travelling to a new country, I like to set a Google alert on the name of the country to get a sense of its big news stories. I've written before about how shockingly little information appears on the web about some countries, but I've finally found some evidence about why this happens. Alisa Miller, head of Public Radio International, gave a great talk at TED 2007 on the subject of news coverage. The image below sums up the essence of her presentation by showing the number of seconds of American network and cable news coverage devoted to each country. Beyond the graphics she also highlighted some depressing stats like the fact that coverage of Russia, China, and India (over 1/3 of the world's population) produced just one percent of the news coverage. More embarassingly, the death of Anna Nicole Smith recieved more coverage than any foreign country except Iraq. 
While it would be easy to blame this on a "dumbed down" audience, Miller rightly highlights that national celebrity stories are a lot cheaper to cover especially as foreign bureaus are eliminated and entire continents (Africa and South America) are left with no network presence. I had assumed that online coverage might be more robust but Miller noted that the 14,000+ stories on Google News homepage only covered 24 unique stories. 

I'm optimisitic that online tools will eventually find a way to present better coverage about what's going on in the world. A company like Silobreaker has made some good efforts to elevate a broader set of news and add more context through visualisations. I supect that meta-analysis of a service like FriendFeed could yield a personalised, but not narrow, news service. I can't object to people wanting lots of news about Anna Nicole Smith but if the existing news services can't produce a more diverse picture then I hope some new companies will.

01 June 2008

And the Dakotas fend off kitsch country music from the South…

I was a tad disappointed to discover that I missed the annual rehashing of European alliances through gratuitous key changes and gaudy costumes, better known to some as Eurovision. I was totally uninitiated to this spectacle until I moved to the UK, but I have come to enjoy the absurdity of the event as long as it's consumed along with a generous sprinkling of kind words from Terry Wogan. Despite missing the live show I was happy to discover some quality kitsch entries from this year featuring robot dancing for a live chicken (thanks Bosnia & Herzegovina!), feathered men singing falsetto (thanks Azerbaijan!), and dancing pirates (thanks Latvia!).

One entertaining aspect is the fierce alliances (and enmities) that appear between countries during the voting. Turkey and Armenia are usually loathe to honor each other while Scandinavian and Balkan countries are almost always reciprocal in their vote sharing and Cyprus and Greece have awarded each other the highest number of points in every year of the competition. This has made me wonder what an AmericaVision Song Contest would look like. Would there be bastions of country music voting in the south and would the Dakotas always vote for each other? Would California or New York be punished like Britain for producing a majority of real bands? And if Ukraine can muster a tin-foil wrapped drag queen what boundaries would be pushed by Americans? Who knows if the US will ever pull this off but I would definitely like to see it - especially if Terry Wogan is commenting.

28 May 2008

Painting with Gunpowder

This weekend I went to the Cai Guo-Quiang exhibition at the Guggenheim. I had never heard of this artist before but really liked some of his pieces. The entire atrium is filled with an installation that looks like a time lapse photo of a bomb sending a car flying through the air (but is actually real cars suspended from the ceiling). Another installation involved life sized tigers and rocks which visitors walked through as if they had entered the drawing on a Chinese scroll. 

The most notable aspect of Cai Guo-Quiang is his "paintings" where he uses explosives to create images. He works by laying fuse cord against heavy paper and interspersing fireproof layers with gunpowder (video below). I was underwhelmed by his early paintings which, to be honest, sometimes just looked like industrial accidents but his later works were elegant and detailed. One exceptional painting was a bird landing on a pine tree where the needles and feathers were outlined by the fringes of explosive marks. 

Regardless of personal preferences for the explosive pieces it was obvious that Cai was creative and innovative. It was also encouraging to see that he had the opportunity to improve and refine this technique to create some impressive works that were not just production novelties. 

This made me think about entrepreneurs and startups who are innovative and game changing but never get the opportunity to see their creation succeed. It seems almost a rule that the company that develops something totally new will not succeed or profit from their inventions. Everyone knows YouTube, but who remembers ShareYourWorld.com? Or who still uses Friendster in the face of Facebook? Perhaps I'm naive in the world of art and maybe there are artists that develop innovative techniques only to see them co-opted more successfully be others. However, it seems like the art world is willing to place value on brilliant ideas but the business world has a brutal memory that only recalls the financial successes.