Archive for the “Delight” Category
Posted by geoff in Delight
I had hoped, almost selfishly, that Christopher Hitchens’ cancer might spare him for a little longer, so that we could enjoy more of his wonderful writing. Alas, no.
Hitch was just about a year older than me, and like me he moved to the USA in 1981. We were both socialists in our youth, and we each spoke out about our atheism in a country and culture which mistrusts and despises non-believers. But it would be silly to stretch the identification further. I loved his writing, particularly his book reviews, even as I was infuriated by his melodramatic politics. I admired his courage and determination to live life to the fullest. I’ll miss him.
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I’ve developed cataracts. Nothing very surprising there: there’s a family history of cataracts, and 42% of people here in the US between 52 and 64 are affected. So I’ve moved quickly through the various stages of understanding:
- Shit, what’s happening to my eyesight? Did my optometrist screw up my last prescription?
- Hmmm, I’m having difficulty reading highway signs. Perhaps I should get this checked.
- Cataracts? Eye surgery? Ick…
- Hmm, lens implants. How does that work? Let’s watch the video…. Wow, that’s cool!
- Just a minute… you can choose any power lens you want? So I could get 20/20 distance vision and use reading glasses? So I could go out… walk… drive… without glasses for the first time since I was 4 years old? Awesome!
And so that’s what I’m going to be doing during September and October, spread out to accommodate travel and other stuff.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about.
I was sitting in the optometrist’s office, going through the usual left eye/right eye tests, reading the charts (“Can you read off line 2 to me?” “There’s a line 2???“), and suddenly she handed me a black paddle with a pin-hole. “Look through this,” she said, “and tell me what you can read.” And after a moment’s adjustment, I was able to read off the whole chart. Then I moved the pin-hole slightly, and everything went blurry. From somewhere inside me, an 8-year old voice asked if she could wait for a moment, and by moving the pin-hole around I was able to trace out the blotchy shapes of the cataracts on my lens. And as I did so, I was back in 1958, in our house in London NW2, lying in front of the fire in the sitting room, reading the dark green, leatherette-bound, 18-volume encyclopedia of science that my mother had bought for me at a jumble sale, and reviewing the diagrams of the optics of the eye, filled with awe at the power of science.
We all assume that a trained professional can measure things like cataracts to sub-millimetric precision using fancy technology. But it was surprising – delightful! – to find that I could visualize the same phenomena using a $5 piece of plastic. That was a very cool experience.
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Last Sunday I achieved a 20 year ambition.
Many years ago my in-laws moved to Carmel Valley in California. Their house was about 15 miles from Carmel, east of Carmel Valley Village. Over the years I visited them many times, and got to know all of the different routes to their house. And to get there from Salinas, or to avoid traffic around Monterey, the key was Laureles Grade: a 5.6 mile road over a 1200 ft. ridge between the Monterey-Salinas Highway and the Carmel Valley Road.
It’s not a particularly fast road – the posted limit is 55, but it’s too twisty to work up much speed, and it’s easy to get stuck behind a slow vehicle. And the scenery is unremarkable, except for a brief vista of Salinas. But it’s a driver’s road. The experience of driving it fast, with concentration and precision, is immensely rewarding. And I know that it isn’t just me. The northern end of the grade is just a couple of miles from the Laguna Seca race track, and on race weekends, or around the time of the
Monterey Historics Motorsports Reunion, you’ll see many new and classic sports cars on the grade, from Porsches to Ford GT40s to a certain replica Jaguar D-type.
I loved driving the Grade, but there was always a problem. I lived in Massachusetts, so whenever I visited California I drove a rental car. I had some nice cars back east, including a pretty little Mazda Miata and an AWD turbo Subaru Legacy GT which could go through any turn as if it was on rails, but I never got to drive any of them over the Grade. And the rentals were all the kind of car that a corporate travel department would approve of…
A few months ago, just after Christmas, I finally got to drive the Grade in a car of my own: my Toyota Prius. Now the Prius has many admirable qualities, but handling is not one of them. As I blogged at the time, it wasn’t fun, and shortly afterwards I replaced the Prius with a Hyundai Genesis Coupe. 3.8L, RWD, 300+HP, loads of fun.
Last weekend we drove down to Carmel to attend a wonderful musical event: a reunion of Al Stewart and Peter White, the guitarist who accompanied Al on many of his biggest hits, complete with band. It was a great show, and we stayed overnight in Carmel. On Sunday morning we were trying to decide what to do, and how much time we could spare before I had to get home to work. We were thinking about Point Lobos, or bird-watching at Moss Landing, or maybe an early lunch in Santa Cruz… and then Kate made a simple suggestion: “Let’s drive over the Grade in the new car.”
So we did.
And it was magical.
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For me, driving is a question of balance. Over the last 30 years, I’ve owned many cars (that’s the subject of another post), and I’ve tried to balance the practical and the playful, the economic and the expressive. At one point I tried to cover the bases by having two cars: a sensible one (for commuting, shopping, passenger-hauling) and a toy (for scooting around with the top down and the wind in my hair). Alas, such an approach doesn’t work well in New England except in summer. In my final Boston-area car, I tried to have it both ways, with the Subaru Legacy GT: a practical four-door sedan with excellent power and handling. That was a good car; I hope that my son Chris is still enjoying it.
When I moved to Seattle, I was living in the city, and I didn’t need a car. A ZipCar membership (or was it Flexcar then?) meant that I could use whatever kind of car I wanted when I really needed one, from a Mini to an SUV. That was neat. But in 2009 I came to California, where a car is essential. The question of balance returned with a vengeance. After looking at a number of cars, I decided to buy a Toyota Prius, as a way of combining geek technology and prudence about “peak oil”.
The Prius served me well. It’s a good, efficient, economical car. But it has to be said: it isn’t fun to drive. Acceleration, handling, stability (especially on poor pavement in the rain): it always felt “just enough”, with no reserves. A week ago, we were in Monterey for a short break, and I drove up Carmel Valley Road and then across the Laureles Grade to Laguna Seca. That’s always been one of my favourite drives, but when I lived in Massachusetts I could only experience it in rental cars. (Unfulfilled dream: I always wanted to take the Miata across the Grade.) Alas, the Prius couldn’t really do justice to the swooping, twisting road. It wasn’t fun.
And so yesterday I drove up to Burlingame and bought a new car: a Hyundai Genesis Coupe. I test-drove the 3.8 V6 and the 2.0 I4 Turbo; both were really nice, but the equipment level on the (Grand Touring) 3.8 was outstanding, so that’s what I bought. It’s the first rear-wheel drive car I’ve owned since the Miata, and it really feels like an outstanding value.
Is it fun? Yesterday all I did was to drive it home and read the manuals. (A big manual for the car, a slightly smaller one for the navigation system, and quick reference guides for both of them!) Today was grey and wet, with low clouds and drizzle: not the ideal conditions for cruising in a sports coupe. But what the hell… let’s see what it can do. So we drove down to Santa Cruz, including the challenging twists of Highway 17. (We didn’t see much of the scenery, because we were in the clouds most of the time.) Then up Route 1 along the coast to Half Moon Bay, stopping briefly at Pigeon Point to see if there were any whales inshore. (There weren’t.) Lunch at Cameron’s (the pub with the two English buses outside), then home on I-280. Traffic on 17 was moderate, and everybody was cautious because of the mist and the every-present Highway Patrol. By contrast, route 1 was wide open, and I was able to cruise at a steady 65. And yes: the Genesis Coupe is fun. Plenty of power, precise steering, excellent suspension, and a decent 6-speed automatic transmission (with paddle shifters and a limited slip differential). And comfortable: I really like the driving position. (I’m not sure how Hannah will feel about the vestigial back seat, though…)
The geek factor is also high. When I paired my iPhone, the car sucked in the address book, and I was able to voice-dial entries by name from the address book. I was also able to browse the iTunes tracks on my iPhone using the car stereo UI. The navigation system is very nice; it gets traffic info through Sirius XM, and the UI is excellent. (Recalc is almost instantaneous – in fact a less hasty response might be easier to absorb.)
Why the Genesis Coupe? Well, what other choices are there for a RWD coupe under $30K? The Camaro is really ugly, the Mustang is technically OK but I don’t really like the 40-year old retro styling. (Can we declare “retro-everything” over? Please?) The Dodge Challenger? Sorry, I can’t bring myself to suspend disbelief and buy a Chrysler. That’s it. (Sad but true.) And Motor Trend’s four-way shoot-out is pretty compelling: their verdict on the Genesis Coupe:
The only one that looks and feels like a sports car. Surprise, we liked it best.
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On Saturday morning we drove the 382 miles down to Pomona, CA, to take Hannah back to school. When we arrived at our hotel in Pomona, we found the parking lot full of beautifully restored and customized classic cars, sparkling in the sun. I grabbed my camera….
While Hannah and I were busy taking pictures, Kate discovered that there was going to be a huge auto swap-meet on Sunday, starting at 5am, just up the road at the Fairplex. 5am? Really. OK. And so the next morning I tiptoed out of the hotel and drove up to the huge, sprawling county fairgrounds. I arrived about 5:30, and it was quite misty, but the crowds were already building. There were thousands of booths being set up to sell and swap every kind of car-related equipment, paraphernalia, and memorabilia. You want a flawlessly chrome-planted rear bumper for a 1948 Chevy? No problem.
The swap-meet area was divided into two by a wide access road. On one side were all of the booths, concessions, and vendors. On the other side were the cars, neatly organized into different areas for street rods and restored cars of different eras. VWs had their own dedicated area. Ditto Porsches. And for hour after hour the cars streamed in….
I wandered around, photographing, admiring, dreaming. The pictures aren’t particularly great – the light was really bad – but the pride of the men (all men?) in their restoration work was palpable, and you can see it in the results. I stayed until around 8:30, before rejoining the others for the rest of the day. And then yesterday afternoon we drove back. Each way, we did 380 miles in less than 7 hours, including stops. (And it was not nearly as tiring as I expected – I think this may become a regular run.)
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I’m going to be travelling for the next three weeks, and so yesterday was filled with packing, shopping, and taking care of a bunch of stuff. With that completed, today was declared a field trip. Usually that involves heading to the ocean, but for a change we drove inland, to the Joseph D. Grant Park in the mountains behind San Jose. Our optimistic objective was to get all the way to the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, but we were flexible.
Google Maps suggested that the best way to get to the park was to go down 101 to Tully Road, and then go east on Quimby Road. Quimby is an amazing drive. I had to concentrate on my driving, but as we climbed out of San Jose I could hear Kate saying “Wow!” as the panorama of Silicon Valley unfolded. (Later exclamations were mostly in reference to the width of the road and the tightness of the hairpin bends.)
We set off on a trail that looped down the valley and back, about two miles. Almost immediately, we saw some kind of creature on the meadows above us. The unaided eye couldn’t identify it, but maximum zoom on my Nikon P90 pulled it in: a wild turkey:
More pictures from the trail:
After completing the trail, we decided to follow CA-130 towards the Lick Observatory. I was under the illusion that because it was a numbered state highway, it was going to be wider and faster than Quimby Road, but after a few miles I realized my mistake. There was another complication: traffic. There were very few cars, but many cyclists and motor-cyclists. Going downhill was no problem – in fact the cyclists went faster than I did – but uphill was a different story. Eventually we turned a corner and got our first sight of the observatory, several thousand feet above us. There was a trail-head car park on the left, and we decided to stop and have lunch.
Here are the photos that I took of the Lick Observatory, at 1x and 24x zoom:
After lunch, we decided to abandon the Lick and head home. The Prius likes this kind of downhill run: I don’t think the main engine came on the whole way down….
I only really watch three channels on TV these days: Fox Soccer Channel, SpeedTV (for Formula 1 racing), and Turner Classic Movies. OK, I guess I spend a little time with PBS, National Geographic, and The Discovery Channel,but I’m getting really frustrated with the quality of documentaries these days. (That’s for another post, though.) And I watch streaming video from Netflix on my Roku. But that’s about it.
Turner Classics is my favourite, though. I’m having a blast discovering the great films from the 30s, 40s and 50s, and I’ve been developing a serious crush on several stars of the female persuasion. This evening we watched “Ball of Fire” with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, and Barbara Stanwyck was simply red hot. She was clearly having an absolute ball in her role as a sexy vaudeville singer dropped into a house full of dusty academics.
Anyway, I think I’ll drop a short entry into the blog whenever I run across a film that really makes me curl my toes with delight. Odds are it will include one of my heart-throbs, like Myrna Loy and Joan Blondell. And of course there’s Jean Simmon‘s brilliant “drunk in Havana” sequence in “Guys and Dolls”, even though it would have been better opposite Gene Kelly.
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As Andrew Sullivan said , if this had happened to me, my head would explode. But what a way to go! Here’s the background:
MasterCard has been the proud sponsor of The BRIT Awards for 12 years and to celebrate 30 years of the BRITs and thank music fans across the country for their passion and support, MasterCard devised the ultimate Priceless experience – a once in a life time opportunity for a member of the British public to win a BRIT Award winner playing live in their very own living room.
Lorraine Sands, a Project Manager from Twickenham won the prize. “When I opened the front door and saw Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe standing on my doorstep I thought I must be hallucinating! Iâ€™ve been a massive Pet Shop Boys fan for over twenty years and to have them play a gig right in my front room, for just me and my closest friends, was too good to be true!”
Check out the performance here. Four songs, and a really impressive production in somewhat challenging circumstances. It’s wonderful – I would have been in heaven…
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So I have seen the Eighth Wonder of the World. And the title was aptly bestowed – it was magnificent, a wonderful experience. You can check out the photographs I took here.
I’m not going to give a detailed account, but there were a couple of interesting moments:
- While we were driving out of Xi’an to get to the Museum, there was a M5.0 earthquake not far away. I didn’t notice it, though.
- Having seen so many pictures of grey figures, I hadn’t realized that when the army was created the soldiers were all painted in bright colours. The museum had some photographs of fragments which had retained their (mineral) pigments, and gave a vivid impression of what the warriors might have looked like. I was, of course, reminded of early Christian church buildings: today we admire the pure beauty of the marble and stone, even though they would have originally been a riot of colour
- I resisted the temptation to buy a replica of one of the figures, and instead bought a coffee-table book about the warriors. After I had done so, a wizened old man behind an adjoining counter offered to sign it for me. He was one of the farmers who discovered the figures back in 1974; he now lives in an apartment near to the museum.
- When the army was created in 210 BCE, all of the figures had weapons. Most of them were stolen soon after the death of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (presumably weapons were more valuable than statues), and wooden pieces like spear shafts rotted away long ago, but many weapons have been discovered. I was surprised to see that some the generals’ swords had been “chrome plated”, and that other pieces were stamped with the manufacturer’s name and batch number.
- I hadn’t realized that every figures was designed individually. These were not stamped out in cookie-cutter style. The detailed work – the patterns on the soles of the shoes, or the way that the fabric of a tunic folded and hung, or the facial expression – was simply amazing.
- And finally, the museum structures themselves are wonderfully laid out. Yes, the big (“Pit 1″) building was bitterly cold, but the environmental controls seem perfectly suited to the preservation of these extraordinary pieces. Of course we saw it all at the best time: mid-winter, with no crowds. In the summer the place must be a zoo.
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As I was planning for my new job, with its regular travel to China, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to rely upon my AT&T iPhone. Yes, it would be OK (but expensive) for calls to and from the US, but I couldn’t really use it for local calls and text messaging within China, and I certainly couldn’t afford to turn on data roaming. So while I was at SFO awaiting my flight to Hong Kong, I bought myself an unlocked GSM phone, intending to put a pay-as-you-go SIM into it when I reached China.
The phone I bought was a Palm Centro. Cute as a button, nice keyboard, and Palm OS, which is a bit primitive but still oodles better than Windows Mobile. I arrived in Shenzhen, plugged a China Mobile SIM into it, bought a prepaid card from a street vendor, topped up the balance to just over 100 RMB, and I was ready to go. And during the first week, I used it a lot: checking email, text messaging There was just one problem. The phone didn’t handle Chinese characters. Any Chinese character – in email, SMS, SIM management, caller ID, etc. – simply displayed as a “?”.
Now you might think that this wasn’t very important. After all, I don’t speak or read Chinese. But there are lots of cases where the ability to receive (or even send) Chinese email and text messages is really useful. For example: this afternoon, Jim and I were in downtown Shenzhen, shopping for electronics. (More of that anon.) By 6:30, we were wrapping up and thinking about dinner. Jim texted a colleague of his, and asked him to recommend a really good restaurant. Back came the reply, with the restaurant name in Chinese. As we navigated the maze of streets towards the restaurant, Jim was able to get directions by showing the SMS message on his phone to several people who then pointed us in the right direction. We’ve used the same trick with taxi drivers.
All of this explains why we found ourselves shopping this afternoon. Jim was looking for some networking gear, and I was hoping to find a reasonable unlocked phone that “spoke” Chinese. Jim had trodden this path before, and after a wild taxi ride we found ourselves in a street full of vast electronics bazaars: department store sized buildings full of stalls and shops where people were selling everything from resistors and ribbon cables to graphics cards to cellphones to cameras to laptops… and everything in between. It was a geek’s heaven. Jim found what he wanted, and I was browsing and on the point of giving up when I spotted a G1 Android. Was it unlocked? Of course: the stall-holder invited me to remove the SIM from my despised Centro and put it in the G1, whereupon Jim called me and sent me a text message. I went down to the ATM on the ground floor, got some cash, and returned to close the deal.
Flushed with success, Jim and I went out to dinner at a restaurant which is one of the best we’ve ever eaten at; I would give you the name, except that I can’t read their business card! (But it’s a chain, and they have a cool web site, and the phone number of the one we went to is 26492008. Does that help?)
Back at the hotel, I checked out my new toy. There was only one flaw: the charger was actually for a different phone, with the wrong kind of mini-USB connector. Fortunately the regular USB cable was correct, and I found that I could use my iPhone’s charger with the G1. Everything else is just fine, and the Android itself works like a dream. 3G data access is lightning fast, and Google Maps works fine here in Shenzhen.
Who knows? Perhaps I’ll wind up getting a prepaid SIM in the USA, just to show off the new toy. Although from what I hear, none of the carriers offering prepaid service in the USA support decent data plans
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