Monday, December 31, 2007

Our original Great Wall plan was to go to the 3 hour distant Simatai section. In the end we opted for the closest and more touristy Badaling section, given that it's not high season. I wanted to find the #1 or #5 tourist bus which leaves from the very street our hotel is on, but I couldn't find it and we ended up on a tour bus. The price was more or less the same, and the kids went free. So no damage done.

The organisation and cleanliness of the first day gave way finally to the kind of chaotic mess that I was expecting. We were bumped from bus to bus, each one messier than the last before we finally got underway. The windows of the bus, like those of the hotel, werre cakes in dried, fine dust, and indication I suppose of how things can be here when the sky isn't as blue as it continues to be for us right now.

Most of the other tour passengers were Chinese, and our relative rareness as Westerners continues to surprise me. It took 1.5 hours or travel time to get to the Badaling section, and then out we got and started marching. We ignored the cable car option and walked to the main entrance. It was busy enough but not crazy, there were vendors aplenty but not as many as Tiananmen square, and everywhere were signs of present-day China. But the wall was magnificent.

The steepness of certain sections bordered on sheer drop but that didn't stop Sara. She hit the trail like a bargain hunter in a sale and we struggled to keep up with her. If she had her way we were going all the way to the Yellow Sea. She slept all the way there, and all the way back, but she gave the wall, and the overpriced hot chocolcate afterwards, her undivided attention.
(you can check out all our photos uploaded so far here)

It's already 2008 here in Beijing, and the jetlag has another day to run, I think, so I'm wishing you a Xinnian kuaile (Happy New Year) from a pre-dawn hotel room in Beijing.

Thanks for the comments on the previous entry. The Great Firewall of China lets me post to my blog, but not to read it (and so, not to reply directly to comments). Tomorrow we'll be staying nearby, going to the Temple of Heaven (that's right Mam - I'm going to to a church, and it's not even Sunday) and wandering slowly North to Qienmen to browse the older alleyways (hutong) of the city. We got a small taste of them yesterday when we needed a pharmacy, and I think it's going to be an interesting experience. We might even take in a show - more tomorrow.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Blue skies and jetlag

What can I say? The only reason we ventured out in -2 C instead of staying in our nice warm hotel room is that we have to try to kick the jetlag rather than just succumb. Beijing looks fantastic, even clean. I was expecting dust and smog but we have been lucky so far. The airport was a model of efficiency, and folks on the street are fun. The hawkers of various tat on the street are prepared to laugh it off when you tell them they're too expensive. And the requests for photos with the laowei kids is actually quite charming (though that might wear off).

We're going to ground for the next 18 hours or so, with a view to going to the great wall tomorrow at a reasonably early hour. Till then.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Next Stop Beijing


That's it - that's our world for the next 8 months. Two samsonsites, two rucksacks, and a little knapsack each for carry-on and day-tripping. Total weight is a little over 80 kilos. One bag won't be opened till Sydney as it contains Summer clothes. The rest are organized like data striped across a high-availability database architecture (what now?): There's a little bit of everything across all of them, so that if one, or even two of them go missing, we're still in business. Each of the four big ones is tagged with a metal Global Bag Tag - thanks Cheryl! - and the knapsacks contain books, diaries, Nintendos, playing cards and so on (many of which were gifts from friends and family).

The mood here now is unexpectedly normal. Packing for long stays is something we're used to, so we're in a familiar frame of mind, and everything feels like it should do.

We had an Irish Wake in my brother's house this evening, which we unfortuntely had to leave quite early. It was the best way to say goodbye to my family - all together and smiling. Nina and Sara's cousins tried to hide them under a bed when it was time to go, but to no avail.

This time tomorrow, we'll all be 4 hours out from Beijing. At last. Next post, Great Firewall of China permitting, will be from that city.

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Nothing Left to do but Wait

In a little over 24 hours, we'll be getting on board the first of many planes, this one to Heathrow, and then on t Beijing. Anything that we haven't done by now isn't going to get done. All that's left now is to say goodbye to family, and to wait for the Earth to make one more spin before we can get finally started.

I'm surprisingly calm (though the same cannot be said for everyone else in the family right now). As a family, we're in the eye of the storm - out of the toddler stage and not yet into the teenage years. This is what makes the timing of the trip so right. And today we're in the eye of another storm. The last few years of talking and months of preparation have been both good and bad, but never calm. The months to come will present their own challenges and rewards. But right now, time has slowed right down in the way that only seems to happen in waiting rooms and departure lounges.

I'm listening to RTE Radio 1, where they're talking about the year that has almost gone, but in my own mind it's already over. When we get on our second flight tomorrow, we'll be heading East, jetting through the time zones, shortening our evening and night by 8 hours, chasing 2008 rather than just waiting for it to come around.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sporking, and other Travel Fetishes

Behold the Spork.

Letizia just couldn't resist buying this in Maher's Outdoor shop in Cork recently (a great shop with one of the worst websites I've seen in years). I'm trying hard to understand the circumstances under which we're ever going to need one of these things. If a restaurant's hygiene is so poor that I don't want to use their cutlery, I'm even less likely to whip out my spork and actually eat their food. I'm also unconvinced that I'll be tucking into any accidental treats, Joey-from-friends-style:

In fact, I'll be amazed if our Sporks ever get any use at all (and given their similarity to the Italian word for dirty - sporco - I wonder how they get marketed there. Would you buy an eating utensil called Filth-ee (tm))?

That's not all we've picked up in Mahers. Oh no. There's a certain specialized camping fetishism that has taken hold at home. Ultra-thin towels that you can wring bone dry. No-water-needed soap, when you really need to get those hands clean. And let's not forget the thermal underwear (getting into mainstream fetishism here a bit).

PS: Ka - these parentheses were all for you ;-)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Australia: Even Their Farts Don't Smell

I love this. The search for reduced emissions can lead to some really interesting places - a kangaroo's backside being one of them. Kangaroo stomachs are not only much more efficient than those of cows (getting up to 15% more energy from the same input) but there is no methane byproduct as part of their digestion process. An enormous 15% of Australia's greenhouse emissions are produced by cattle and sheep (in New Zealand it's more like 50%!!) so this problem is serious.

The solution is obvious: eat kangaroos!(*) Apparently that idea isn't very palatable to most. Some undoubtedly don't like the idea because they find kangaroos cute (my daughters - no strangers to methane production themselves - fall into this category). Others won't touch the stuff because kangaroos are, effectively, giant rodents (the Chinese for a kangaroo translates literally as "pocket rat"). But a growing percentage of Australians consider the meat of this iconic animal to be not only tastier, but healthier, than beef.

But what if the idea caught on, and everyone started eating their national symbols. Would we see Roasted Eagle on American tables? Braised Bulldog on sale in English gourmet pubs? Frogs served in French restaurants (oh - hang on...)

But back to greenhouse gas emission - what are we going to do about Guinness drinkers...?

(*) Apparently not obvious enough for some scientists, who think the most logical approach is to put kangaroo stomachs into cows and sheep. I wonder if any of these guys were on the EJB committee (Nerd Humour - ignore at will)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Filling in the Gaps in Meaning

The brain is the great interpolator. If you give it part of the message, it will fill in the gaps based on memory and guesswork. Anyone who has ever heard a 6-year-old singing Red Hot Chili Peppers songs - i.e. anyone who has ever waited outside a toilet cubicle while my youngest daughter is performing, in both senses - will attest to the potential for humour. "Gladly, The Cross-Eyed Bear" is a famously mis-interpolated lyric, as filtered through the mind of a child hearing the devotional "Gladly the Cross I'd Bear".

The first time I went to live in Germany, I was renting a flat in the historical centre of Nuremberg. The owner was a teacher who was going to live in Africa for a while, to work on an education project there, and she left behind a great little library, mostly in German. I was trying to learn the language at the time, so I spent whatever moments of sobriety I had leafing through some of the more accessible books. Inside the cover of one, I read a quote, which thanks to my confusion between the German words Zweifeln and Zwiebeln, I took to read:

The greatest pity is this: That the stupid are so certain, and the wise are so full of onions.*

This is a philosophy that has informed my actions ever since (notwithstanding the subsequent discovery that the last work should in fact have been doubts.)

(*) The mangled quote above belongs to Bertrand Russell and I value it to the same extent that I do Billy Connelly's:

Never trust anyone who, when left alone in a room with a tea-cosy, doesn't try it on.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Language and Music

One of the themes that I've picked out for this trip, for myself at least, has been music. Why? Because where ever you go on the face of the planet, where you find people, you also find music. Like language itself, it seems to be built in to the structure of our brains. And like language, it is both universal and provincial.

After my review of I Am A Strange Loop, David French pointed me towards a very interesting book called This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin. I'm only into the 4th chapter or so, but already a couple of things have cropped up that are worth mentioning. I had heard - a long time ago - that Asian systems of music were quite different to, say, European ones. In particular, I was told, octaves were divided into finer intervals than our semitone. According to Levitin (who is not only a musician, and music producer but also a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist - don't you hate him already?) this is not so. There might be more use of temporary intermediate notes - the equivalent of a blues string bend - but the tendency to break the octave into twelve intervals is found pretty much everywhere, including Asia.

What does change is the way that scales are organized. Where children in the West learn their Do-Re-Mi scale, each with eight notes, there are 5 specific pentatonic scales (5 notes each) in the Chinese system. Scales are purely internal inventions of the human mind - they don't exist in the real world. As such they are learned - or at least partially constructed on the biological foundations of the brain's ability to understand music - and so have a strong cultural component. This is why Chinese music sounds Chinese, or Irish music sounds Irish.

So just like language, music is something we are all born to understand, even if we learn to speak it differently, depending on where we're born. I think this means that no matter how much I might find I enjoy Chinese (or any other) music, I'll probably never understand it, and so appreciate it, as fluently as a native. Though perhaps the same can be said of any inexpert listener, even of their own music.

Sardinian Singing
Another interesting insight I got from this book relates to a particular kind of singing performed in Letizia's native Sardinia. I have already heard a lot of canto a tenore and I have a few CDs of one of the most famous performers of this style, called the Tenores di Bitti. I quite like this style - though it's best enjoyed, like Italian food, in small portions. Four male voices interact with three of the singers providing close harmonies while the fourth leads. But when the harmonies work just right, our brain - masterful at interpolating frequencies that it feels should be there - put in a fifth, female pitched voice called the quintina. Tradition has it that this is the voice of the Virgin Mary, joining them in song as a reward for their precise harmonies. Even a godless man like me can't help favouring this interpretation.

Reading Ahead: Check out Shelfari

I know that Letizia uses Book Crossing as a place to keep her bookshelf online. I've tried out a few mechanisms, including Google Books and now Shelfari. I prefer the look and feel of the latter, despite my somewhat unhealthy proclivity for all things Google.

I've just added a widget to the bottom of this blog with my bookshelf - or at least those books that have to do with the trip. What's there I've read, though I'll start to add wishlist items as well soon. If you have any recommendations, please do add a comment to this entry and I'll add them to the shelf.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Do you read this blog?

If you already know about RSS and feed readers, change channel now.

If you'd like to understand how this and other blogs can tell you when there's a new post to read, so you don't waste your time coming all the way over here and find there's no new content (or worse, forget to come back and miss the news that, say, Queensland crocs have eaten our passports or altitude sickness really does affect men more than women) then watch this short, informative and entertaining explanation of RSS.

If you like the idea, then click the RSS button on the right to subscribe to this blog.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Less than a month to go

Time for a summary of the situation.

I started blogging about this trip a year ago when my bosses in DSI gave me the thumbs up to take 8 months unpaid leave. But this project has been gestating for years in the form of what-if conversations between Letizia and I. This is the effect that talking about something over and over can have. With every word, you breathe life into the project. The actions come almost as a natural consequence once the project is real enough in your mind. This is the power of words.

The dynamics of how this project came about, and even the reasons for it, are interesting enough in their own right. Letizia is, objectively speaking, nuts. When she gets it into her head that something is worth doing, she wants to drop everything and just do that thing. Luckily for me, the things that occur to her as 'good ideas' are reasonable enough to make me a willing accomplice. Luckily for her, I am stable/boring enough to insist that instead of just dropping everything else that's going on (you know, kids' education, earning a wage - that kind of mundane stuff), we try to at least put things down gently, one by one, in the hope of finding everything in one piece when we're done. I fear the day she decides that we need to go tomorrow-dammit-there-isn't-a-moment-to-spare, to the savannas of southern Africa to help save the white rhino. More that that, I fear the moment when I say why-wait-till-tomorrow! Anyway, this is the way our circus has lurched from town to town over the last 12 years, and strangely enough, it kinda works.

When we tell folks about our plans, we notice an interesting division of reaction. About half of the reactions are about how 'brave' we are, the other half is all about what a good idea it is. Interestingly, it is mostly our Italian friends and family that consider us brave, while the Irish simply approve. I'm assuming that 'brave' is a codeword for 'stupid' (a la Yes, Minister), and on many's the occasion I find myself agreeing with them. The fact is that I have very little idea why I want to do this. I have very little idea why I asked my first employer in Dublin to wait for a month before I started so I could interrail around Europe. I have very little idea why I desperately wanted to get sent to Germany by that same employer. I have very little idea why I packed in that job in '95, before I had another job to go to, in order to move to France (where by good fortune and no thanks to planning I found another job straight away).

The only little idea that I have is this: I am by my nature lazy, unimaginative and too easily lulled into a false sense of fulfillment by predictable routine. I have known this since my early twenties, and occasionally acted on it by self-administered kicks in the ass such as those mentioned above. Travel is a kick in the ass. It can be stressful - it certainly acts for me as a great way of getting uncomfortable, challenged and exposed to aspects of myself, good and bad, that I wasn't previously aware of. Some people can do this without leaving home, and I wish I had their imagination. Others can push themselves much further in their travels and I wish I had their courage. But you have to work with what you've got, and that, I suppose, is what I'm doing.

Friday, November 30, 2007

AirPort Express on the Road

There are going to be places - hotels and houses - that won't have wifi. This wouldn't be a big deal if we were taking a laptop with us, but we're not. We're taking the Nokia n800 which uses either wifi to a network or bluetooth to a mobile with a data connection. Another reason for wifi being so important is that we also have a wifi phone (thanks to Pat in Cubic Telecom - keep an eye on these guys as they're extending their reach West across the Atlantic) . The costs of voip are so low in comparison to anything else, that it makes sense to offset the cost of internet connectivity by making it wirelessly available whereever we have it.

Enter Apple's AirPort Express. What's so good about it? Well, it's exactly the right piece in this jigsaw. I don't want a wireless router - where ever I'll be will at least have a dsl modem. Moreover, it's tiny. It has no cables - the electrical plug is part of the box itself:

You plug this little device into the wall, connect your dsl router with an ethernet cable, and watch the light turn green. Easy. It does a lot more than this - it's designed to work within an AirPort network which means all kinds of cool things - some of which I'll definitely use this for when we get back. For example, you can plug this into the wall near your stereo, and connect them to each other view the jack connection on the AirPort express. Next time you're using iTunes on any computer in the network, you can direct the signal out of whichever instance of AirPort express you want. You can similarly connect to any USB compatible printer. Moreover, you can harness a couple of separate AirPort Expresses together in one wireless network, extending the range of your network (this is something that I'll certainly be trying in our Cagliari apartment where the think concrete walls tend to block radio signals.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Chinese Visa in Ireland: Top Tips

After 4 days of robust but diplomatic exchanges with the Chinese Embassy in Dublin, I'd like to like to suggest the following approach for anyone who needs to get a visa to visit China.

  1. Don't ring. You'll only get upset, and life's too short (in my case, 4 days shorter). Let me tell you here and now: they don't answer the phone. There are official hours, during which you may phone them, but the result will indistinguishable from ringing at any other hour of the day or night that you might care to choose. The phone remains unanswered to the backdrop of a variety of different tones and recordings, but the song remains the same. Don't do it. Instead, use email and their website. Everything you need, including the entry form, fees and office hours are downloadable from there. And when you email them, they will reply quickly. Sometimes within the minute.
  2. Persist. You might have particular inquiries, and feel you need to make contact with the embassy staff. You will form the opinion, after a number of email exchanges that you are either dealing with many different people (who don't look at, much less talk to, each other) or else the one person who is answering your emails is bent double, wetting himself at the hoops he is making you jump though. Keep jumping. He'll get bored after a few days.
  3. Include the photos. If you forget the photos, you will have to deal not only with the aforementioned email-go-round, but you will have to deal with the (possibly public) opprobrium and scorn that only your spouse [italian content] can bestow. In fact it's entirely possible that my wife will also pour scorn on you too, if she finds out you've forgotten to include the photos. You have been warned.
  4. Go there in person. You can avoid all the pain of 2 and 3 above if you just go there yourself. They won't accept postal applications, but they will accept couriers. In fact, they love couriers. They love them so much that they can't bear to see them leave. And when they do leave, it's empty-handed, all the more to make them come back sooner. It's probably some kind of hospitality thing they have going there. Perhaps couriers hold a revered place in Chinese culture (Nicole from Fasttrack certain holds a revered place in my house right now!) In my own case, they positively insisted that the courier visit 5 times before they'd even entertain the notion of anything so course and inhospitable as handing over my family's passports. If you go yourself, you are unlikely to receive this same special treatment. If you really want to see what it's like, just bring along a motorbike helmet and a 2-way radio with you. And bring a camera.

I have the passports back in my possession now. They took the train from Dublin to Cork, where the poor befuddled things no doubt got treated to an Irish breakfast in the dining car by the pitying Fasttrack staff. They looked right as rain by the time they leaped down onto the platform and scuttled into my open arms. They're sleeping in their favourite drawer now, no doubt stirring now and then, only half awake, to examine the strange calligraphy recently pasted to page 5.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Australian Car: Rent or Buy

Back to the theme of the budget, specifically with regard to transport.

A few months back, I was looking into the choice between renting a car for 12 weeks in Australia, and actually buying and reselling a car over the same period. The Rough Guide suggests that 8-10 weeks is the threshold over which buying and reselling starts to make economic sense. According to AutoBarn, the cutoff point is more like 6 weeks. But there are certain inherent risks involved as well, that rental doesn't entail:

  • Breakdowns are at your own expense, and will delay you more;
  • You may not get the resale price that you expected, especially if you have a plane to catch;
  • There is a lot more paperwork and additional expense involved in becoming the owner of a car rather than the renter.

But renting in Oz is not cheap, and is in very stark contrast to the cost of car rental in New Zealand. I wonder why this is. The markets should be similar: Lots of tourists who want to cover long distances over extended periods of time. Whereas in NZ, there seems to be excellent competitive downward pressure on prices, in Australia, there's nowhere to run.

I asked Simon in Brisbane what he though, and he was able to give me some numbers, based on some visitors they had a while back. This is how it worked out for them (all prices in Australian dollars):

  • Bought a car for around $11000
  • Spent about $1500 on services through the 6 months
  • Up for sale on a consignment lot, where you leave your car on their lot which they sell and take a 10% cut.
  • Sold for around 8000.

Total cost: (11000 + 1500) - 8000 + 800 = 5300.

Insurance and registration will add a few hundred dollars to that, let's say 5500 in total.

The travellers in question were in Oz for 6 months, so this price was pretty good value (I think it was a station wagon). But 6 months is a long way off the cutoff that either the Rough Guide or AutoBarn are suggesting. Bringing it back to 3 months, the value is less tempting, especially considering that an equivalent rental for that time (calculated here) would work out at about $4300.

When you are travelling with kids it's vital that the car be comfortable and spacious. We discovered in Canada that the people carrier we rented was a big kick for the girls - they had a choice of seats, good views out of the windows and lots of 'secret compartments'. For that kind of vehicle, you have to add another $1700 for a rental, but a lot more to a purchase price.

The solution we've come to in the end is to not rent any car while we're in Sydney (that's 5 weeks), to rent a people carrier while we're on the road (3 weeks), and to rent a smaller car for the 4 weeks in Brisbane. Allowing an occasional weekend rental in Sydney, the budget works out at €2100 or AUS$3500. I'm happy to pay that for the comfort and peace of mind of rental.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Been There, Done That.

I've just spend an excellent evening with a good friend and her family (the pretext of which was to celebrate the 2nd birthday of her daughter). I love this house (and the people in it). My first memory of the house was when I woke up in it one morning some time back in my college years with very little recollection of having got there. This established something of a pattern for many occasions to come.

The conversation turned, as it inevitably does these days, to the upcoming trip. I'm trying my very best not to be a bore on the matter. After all, there are so many other things that I can be a bore on, and besides, the idea of this blog was that anyone who was interested could come and see how we were getting on. No need for me to personally inflict the details on captive audiences.

But in this house, travel is nothing new. Both my friend (hi Aoife!) and her two brothers have covered a lot of terrain between them, and this evening I got an insight as to why. 1950 was proclaimed by pope Pius XII to be a Holy Year. Aoife's father was 17 that year, and being an Irish Catholic - and wearing a pioneer pin at that - he decided to travel to Rome, along with a 16-year-old school friend, during the 3-month school summer holidays. On bicycle.

I've never been to 1950s Cork. I've never been to 1950s anywhere in fact. But I can just about picture this man's parents' reaction to his plans. They thought he was start raving mad. Nowadays there is a direct Cork-Rome flight that takes about 2.5 hours to cross the two bodies of water and one major mountain range that lie between. Back then, there wasn't even an airport in Cork. The route was pretty much like this, just less direct. About 2600 kilometers. These two boys got up on their High Nellys and took off with no money in their pockets!!!

A High Nelly, for those who don't come from these parts, is an Irish term for a particular style of bike. Here's an example I found:

No gears or alloy wheels here.

They camped on train tracks, got arrested by the Italian army on suspicion of arms importation, broke their pioneer pledges on two bottles of alter wine provided by a Italian parish priest in lieu of food and were presented with medals bearing Stalin's profile by an unknown, presumeably ex-partisan, peasant. There is, I'm sure of this, a book's worth of anecdotes on this trip alone.

I had barely caught my breath after learning all this, when I found out that the family penchant for travel was inherited from both sides of the family. In 1954, Aoife's mother and another female friend from Cork left Ireland to go hitch-hiking around Spain, travelling on the Mauritania II to get there, and eventually making their way as far as Morocco. Two Irish girls on their own in 1954 Morocco!!

Who do we think we are kidding with our little squirt around the globe?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Chinese Recycling and Travelling by Moral Submarine

It seems that in eco-vandal China, there might be more recycling going on in than in right-on Europe, even if folks there don't separate their rubbish. But as the article points out, there's plenty of fly-tipping going on too.

On matters environmental, Letizia has an interesting article over on her blog (italian and english versions) about the modern day equivalent of the medieval practice of selling indulgences: offsetting your own carbon emissions.

I must admit that I'm torn on this issue. I confessed (blimey - even more antiquated religious behaviour!) up front on this blog a long time ago, that our trip is indefensible from an ecological point of view. Folks who sail around the world with their kids (they exist!) are safely on the moral higher ground here. Given my lack of sailing expertise, I'm happier for us to travel physically well above sea-level even if we're in a moral submarine. (That was one of the more contorted metaphors you are likely to read this week. Altogether now - We All Live in a Moral Submarine...). But I do like the idea of a building the environmental impact of an activity into its price, and letting market pressures do the rest. Of course the marketplace only works well if there is transparency and trust in place - elements that are usually underwritten by national governments or international bodies. There's no sign yet of any standards being put in place, or met, by private sellers of carbon offsets. And that means more time in purgatory for me. Pass the chestnuts, will you?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Welcome to Australia. Wipe your feet.

Once upon a time, the largest animal that inhabited Australia was the kangaroo. Now, that iconic creature is relegated to 13th place, behind a whole host of newly introduced species. Most of these newcomers have made themselves at home a little too well, put their feet up on the furniture, and emptied the fridge. Some of this has been inevitable. The first stowaway on the First Fleet was altogether smaller, but devastating for the locals: Smallpox wiped out an estimated 50% of the Eora population. There was nothing inevitable about the rabbits, cats, cows and even camels that now run feral in the Australian outback.

Not only Jared Diamond's Collapse but even Blll Bryson's Down Under make mention of how rabbits were deliberately indeed carefully added. Nobody really had any idea of the catastrophic effect of introducing species into an environment that had been geologically isolated for 65,000 years. Australia provided no natural predators for the large mammals that colonialists saw fit to offload.

These days, the Australian authorities are not taking any chances. There is the now-famous Australian baptism: pesticide spray that the cabin crew will bless you with as you arrive in Oz. There is also a whole range of things that you can't bring in to the country (above and beyond what you'd expect)and the penalties include anything from confiscation through AUS$220 on-the-spot fines, all the way up to 10 year in jail. You even have to make sure that your hiking boots aren't muddy. It's a different twist on the idea of putting out the welcoming mat. But of course I see the need.

But it took a little bit of googling and browsing to come across the list of prohibited imports. I wonder, if I hadn't been forewarned by colleagues who have been to Oz already, at what point would I have found out? When I was forced to bin expensive Chinese tea or souvenir erhu on arrival to Sydney?

[Added later: An inquiry to AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service) pointed me at an online database where travellers can check specifically what conditions apply to specific good. Looks like I can bring in tea after all :-) ]

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Er who?

This summer, I found myself in Barcelona moving through the pedestrian tunnels of the subway system. Not an average day for me. There was a busker there playing the Erhu. This Chinese instrument is often called the Chinese 2-string fiddle, and I can't think of a worse name for it because the sound it makes is nothing like the violin. It sounds like a mixture between a human voice and an oboe, and it makes the hair rise on the back of my neck in a way that, until that day, only the uileann pipes could do.

It seems to be a fantastically expressive instrument, with a huge dynamic range (ok - kinda like the violin) and the tone has a dual quality to it. I love it. And I'm hoping to hear it live when in China.

Take a look at the performance below. I really love the fact that the artists facial expression never changes from its rather stern reserve, but all the emotion comes streaming out through the instrument's tiny sound chamber.

Added later:

I've just read that this tune is the most famous of all erhu pieces and is called "Er Quan Ying Yue" (1950, Moon Reflected on Second Spring) by A Bing. It really bears listening to a number of times (despite some terrible crackles in the amplification at one point).

I'd love to know who the artist is, if anyone out there can read the blurry hanzi credits at the start. The text in red is definitely the song title, and I guess the two lines under that are the names of the two performers.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Useful Bookmarks for the RTW Trip

I'm not going to get Delicious to automatically blog with new bookmarks - I always feed disappointed when I open a blog entry in Google Reader and see that it's only a Delicious update. I'm just going to point out once that I have a Trip tag under Delicious where I'll be saving and sharing all links related to the preparations and journey. I've added a permanent link on the right of the blog main page.

Review of A Commonwealth of Thieves, by Thomas Keneally

A Commonwealth of Thieves, by Thomas Keneally

A reasonable introduction to the (colonial) history of Australia, that promises just a little more than it delivers.

I wish I had been educated in Australia. 220 years of history, mostly confined to New South Wales. That's something that even a dunce like me could get his head around. None of this Irish bronze-age nonsense.

Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's Ark and native son of Sydney, describes the founding of Australia in his particular way: though the eyes of the people who were there. He threads the strands of dozens of individuals' lives around the historical facts of the time, and writes with a flourish that is almost of the time he describes.

If I could, I would have given the book 3.5 stars, but it certainly didn't deserve 4. It begins well and carries the reader along, as all good books fiction or non-fiction should do. This was my first reading of Australian colonial history, so there was a lot of interesting new material here for me. However I'm not sure this would be the case for anybody who had even read the Australian Rough Guide's history section. The book finishes quite hurriedly with a long-ish epilogue in an attempt to tie up loose ends.

The central figure is that of Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet and first governor of New South Wales. Although the tale is not told through his eyes, the timeline covered by the book is framed by his involvement in the enterprise until the point where he returned to England, health failing, to settle down and take the waters in Bath. He comes across as an enigmatic man, and if Keneally intended to leave his examination of any of the characters at this superficial level, he succeeded. But here is the problem: A Commonwealth of Thieves is neither a comprehensive history, nor an intimate diary.

The cover blurb described rebellions that were never covered in the book itself. There are aparent forward references to Phillip's successors that in the end turn out to be unfulfilled. The menacing suggestions of the evil visited upon the Eora aboriginals when the relationship between them and the settlers finally broke down are left adrift.

I'm glad I read this book, but I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Any suggestions of alternatives would be welcome.

Rated 3/5 on Nov 12 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ryanair: Climate Change - It's All In Your Head

I have a certain respect for Michael O'Leary, CEO of Ryanair - Europe's largest airline (by passenger number). It's a very specialized kind of respect - the kind I have for older people who say what they think, wear what they want and don't give a damn about who they might offend. I like to think that some day I'll be that irresponsible.

My respect doesn't extend to the actual opinions that O'Leary regularly and flamboyantly expresses (nor to those of octogenarian anarchists for that matter). One of the reasons for the timing of our trip is that in 10 years, thanks to the price of oil going only one direction and and increasing popular and political attention being paid to climate change, it may not be economically feasible to make this kind of trip. O'Leary thinks that this kind of concern is just a "middle-class, mid-life crisis" preoccupation.

Correct on both counts: I am approaching mid-life, harbouring an unhealthy curiosity about the eventual nature of my crisis. And even a cursory glance at me confirms 'middle class' (a closer look would prompt a swift revision downwards). So far, from a single-sample, anecdotal point of view, O'Leary would appear to be spot on. So is he right?

Let's look more closely. Here's the detail on Michael's keen analysis of the situation:

"China and India are laughing at us while they build more coal-fired power stations. The European middle classes are having a mid-life crisis and the sooner we wake up and say so the better."

Leaving the mangled metaphors to one side for a moment, there is not even the slightest attempt on O'Leary's part to make intelligent comment on the matter. The thrust of the sentence seems to be 'China and India are catching up and overtaking Europe and the US on the CO2 front so the whole climate change thing is a delusion reinforced by our delicate suburban sensibilities'. Sorry? What's that now? You get the feeling that he might have said just about anything, depending on what he first hit his head off that morning.

In Europe and the US we tend to lend weight to the opinions of our business leaders. The reasoning is sound enough: if you can run a company successfully then you're smart and deserve our attention. The reality is that there are different types of businesses with different breadths of view, and there are varying grades of business people as well. But the typical business leader isn't looking as far ahead into the future as the Nobel winners who are trying to inform the public about climate change. And when business does look ahead, it usually squints.

I think the most insightful view on Michael O'Leary's real view of the future of cheap aviation was given in the last line of that Guardian article:

Mr O'Leary reiterated his determination to stand down in "two or three years" but said he was no nearer setting up his own long-haul airline.

Maybe Micheal is heading for an earlier than expected move to the land of high waistbands, optional hygiene and swearing at clergy.

Monday, November 5, 2007

House Swap Holidays: Success at Last!

One of the first ideas we had to keep the budget under control was to look for residents of Australia and New Zealand who might be interested to come and stay in our place in Cork while we stayed in theirs. The idea has been taking off for quite some time (I've blogged on it some time ago). Unfortunately, a Sydney swap didn't turn up for us, but there were a few near misses. Yesterday, however, we agreed (in principle) a swap with some nice people in Christchurch, New Zealand. This will be the first city we visit in NZ, arriving there from Brisbane. It's perfectly situated, half way down along the East coast of the South Island, to explore pretty much any part of that island. We'll probably use it as a base to explore from for at least 2 weeks, before moving on to Queenstown.

We've subscribed to two house swap sites over the past 6 months or so. The one that came through for us was Home4Exchange, although Homelink came close a number of times. I can recommend both of these sites, though I prefer Homelink: not because it was the one that finally delivered (this was luck as much as anything else) but because the website is marginally more usable.

The sad fact of the matter is that both sites are pretty poor. There is no such thing as a stored search (I had to keep entering the same old details every single time), and no attempt at automated searches or matching based on the many and detailed requirements that I entered about my own house and travel needs. Worse again: Neither of these sites provided RSS. I know - most people still aren't sure what RSS is all about, but on a site like this, notification of new potential matches would be a huge help.

Dunno if anyone out there is thinking of getting into this space, but it seems to me to be ripe for a shakeup. The idea of house-swapping is very (pains me to say this) Web 2.0 - there is already a more, how shall we say, earthy version, called Couch Surfing.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Traveling with Kids

The first time I mentioned our travel plans to somebody, the immediate reaction was to say that my kids were very lucky. "I wish that my parents had done something like this when I was young." I suppose I would have liked that too. But kids aren't always so conveniently grateful. Even though they often tell you 'I'm bored', the fact is that they're not particularly adventurous. They like stability and predictability - in fact they need it. One of the chief dangers of becoming a parent is that of losing your own sense of spontaneity after years of catering to the kids' compulsive need for sameness.

"They are going to thank you so much" is another often-heard reaction. My usual response is "they may be 40 before they do, and at that point they may be thanking my gravestone". But that's OK. I'm not expecting them to be grateful, I'm not even expecting them to be happy about the trip. Not at first. I know for a fact that one of my girls will miss her friends very much, and moreover does not trust her parents to further her education sufficiently while we're away. She'd just as happily stay at home, thanks very much.

So what can you do? Well, my wife and I have been so busy planning this trip (and things have been getting pretty intensive of late) that we've forgotten that there are four travellers here - not just two. We've taken the kids as a major consideration with regards to destinations and activities, but we haven't really taken their personally offered opinions into account. A 6- and 8-year-old typically don't have very strong opinions on what they want to see and do, but a recent conversation with my eldest went like this:

Me: "What is it that you'd like to see in Beijing?"

Nina: "Well, you know the way that in Paris you see the Eiffel Tower? I'd like to see Beijing's Eiffel Tower".

Me: "OK - so in Beijing, that means going to see the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and of know what?"

Nina: "What?"

Me: "The Great Wall. You've heard of that, right? You need to do some research about what other things you'd like to see".

Nina: "Yeah. Oh and I'd like to see the giant Buddha*. In fact, I can look at my book about the religions of the world, and see what other things there are to see around the world."

A promising start. With Nina, if you engage her and encourage her to make something her own responsibility, then she runs with it.

Now Sara, on the other hand, is a bit harder:

"I'd like to go to Spain, 'cos my friend Rachel says that you can buy some really cool stuff there."

Hmmm. Bit more work to do there, I think.

* In Leshan, Sichuan.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

My other (better) half starts blogging

Letizia has started blogging her own view of our upcoming trip. It'll be interesting to see the his and hers differences on the preparations and when we're actually on the road ourselves. When this is all over, I'd love us to write a pair of books where the two perspectives on the same journey would be given. Experience tells me that they will seem like two completely separate trips.

She's blogging in both Italian and English (show off).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sydney: We're going to be Randwick residents

We've made our first big decision on where to stay, and our first big payment after the tickets themselves. We've put a deposit down on a one-bed apartment in Randwick, a southern suburb about 20 minutes bus ride from the city centre.

We're on the edge of the Centennial Parklands where I really want to learn how to rollerblade with the kids. They already can, of course, and Letizia will probably take to it very easily.

We're also 10 minute bus ride from Coogee Beach which, as I'm told by many Aussie friends, is much nicer and family-oriented than nearby Bondi.

It's great to have this detail sorted out now. We can start to plan what we're actually going to do, and what kind of lifestyle and living pattern we can expect in Sydney. We've also decided to extend the stay to almost 5 weeks, and we've agreed our first (of hopefully many) rendez-vous with friends along the way (Giangi and Carla will join us for the last week in Sydney, and our road trip to and from Melbourne).

We've also made another decision with regard to Australia. We've gone over budget a little on the tickets to allow us an extra flight: to Cairns. After we return to Sydney from Melbourne, we'll bid arrivaderci to our Sardinian friends and get on a flight to Cairns. From that point we'll allow ourselves a week or so to get down to Brisbane where we'll torment Simon and Leah for 4 weeks.

It's finally starting to feel real.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Telecoms on the Trip: MaxRoam vs Vodafone

Skype will be the preferred method of communication wherever possible, but we'll need a fallback of mobile phones. The solution we'll go with in the end is a new product that's just come on the market. By complete coincidence they are based right here in Cork, Ireland. The company is called Cubic Telecom and their product is MaxRoam.

I've done as detailed a comparison as possible between using MaxRoam and sticking with Vodafone (with Passport), which I'll share with you below. The idea with MaxRoam is that you buy a SIM (for around Euro 25) and use this instead of your normal SIM. Cubic Telecom offer very low prices - based I belive on them finding the cheapest routes from where you are standing to where you want to call. I assume this is mostly using VOIP, but I honestly don't know. An added benefit is that you can associate more than one number from more than one country to a single SIM. That means that I can (have, in fact) bought a SIM and attached an Irish and Italian number to it. So not only will it cost us less to roam, it'll cost our respective families in Cork and Cagliari less too.

Vodafone's passport program is a vast improvement on what they used to offer to travelers. If you go to a covered country (and use a Vodafone partner network), you pay a fixed charge for incoming calls regardless of how long you spend on the phone, and you pay that same charge on outgoing calls, plus a per-minute charge the same as you would get back home (i.e. if you weren't roaming). However Passport is only available on a monthly payment contract, doesn't cover SMSs and doesn't let you use the free minutes of your package.

I've tried to calculate how much we are likely to spend in Australia and China for starters, but those results can be extrapolated to the other destinations. I've put together three possible usage plans representing three possible patterns of use that we might put our mobile phones to while on the road. All the details can be read on this Google spreadsheet right here. They get progressively more intensive, and Usage Plan 2 is heavily geared towards SMS message sending.

First Australia - all prices in Euros:

Note that this assumes that I'm always on a Vodafone partner network.

China, where Passport is not available, is more telling:

In the case of China, Vodafone would appear to cost me more that twice MaxRoam's service. To see the details of the Usage Patterns, and the calculations on which I based these graphics, see the spreadsheet. Do let me know if you think I've done either option some injustice.

As a general disclaimer, I'd like to say that these calculations are as accurate as I need to make them in order to choose a telecoms solution. I am not offering them as a definitive guide to either service. See the respective sites for the full details.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Prodi - You must be joking!?

This is off-topic somewhat, but the government of my adopted second home is planning something which I find deeply disturbing, disheartening, but somehow typical. A law is being tabled to provide for the Registration of Blogs.

I'm no peddler of 'bloggers rights' - it simply appears to me that the current Italian government, having taken a blog-based hammering from Beppe Grillo (who in my opinion is nothing more than another example of a long Italian tradition of opportunistic polemicists) now thinks that discouraging bloggers will solve their problems. Italian politicians are (again in my opinion) amongst the most far-removed from the people they serve: they know little of ordinary life, floating along as they do on cushions of state-paid benefits ("feeding from the public trough", as I have heard such things described), enjoying some of the highest political salaries in Europe, offering (often cynically) some of the more absurd policies, demonstrating time and again a level of ignorance and indifference that shocks even the likes of myself who lives in the quirky peripheral European state of Bertieland.

In the finest Berlusconi tradition, they are embarrassing the entire country by their actions. Public servants doing their usual disservice to their public. Sorry for the bitterness in my tone. I watched Le Iene last night (entertaining political exposé show on Mediaset) and it always leaves me feeling particularly angry with the Italian ruling class.

As they (apparently) say in Rome er più pulito c'ha la rogna (even the cleanest of them has scabies).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

More Nerdiness: Google Mashup Editor and Trip Map

I've been playing with Google Mashup Editor recently, with the transparently lame excuse of putting together a map of our trip that is driven from the trip's Google Calendar. Like any software engineer I'm allergic to doing anything more than once (in fact, to doing anything even once, if truth be told), and I didn't see why I should have to update a trip map and a calendar when there was everything a map could need already in the calendar.

GME is a bit of fun, but only the most basic of results can be achieved if you don't know (or want to know) how to write JavaScript code. I'm buggered if I know how it actually works in detail, but what it feels like is a specialized markup language that allows an easier alternative to the Map/Calendar JS API. Presumably it's all being converted into JS behind the scenes anyway.

The effort I put together reads the trip calendar, displays the entries in a list, and for any entry that has a 'Where' value, it tries to plot it. Given the amount of similar (but not quite the same) examples of GME code provided, it was quite straightforward. I've added a button to see where we are based on today's date, and I'll add another one later on to show where we will be on any given date.

At the moment the map's speech bubbles just show some placemarkers, but eventually they will be links to blog entries and images that are tagged with that location. It should make a good overall dashboard for anyone interested in following our movements. Here's where you can go to take a look (I've removed the itinerary map from the bottom of this blog and changed the Itinerary link on the right to point to the mashup).

PS: My wife Letizia is going to start blogging very soon (in Italian and English). I'll pass along the URL when it's up and running.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Review of I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter

I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter

Read this review to see why reading I Am A Strange Loop will change the way you read this review (to see why reading I Am A Strange Loop will change the way to read this review (to see...))

The CPU of my laptop is humming away as I type these words (well, the fan is humming, so I guess the CPU is busy too). It knows nothing of the download that I am making from the organic processor in my skull, but then again how could it? It's just a computer it only understands integer arithmetic, and cannot even begin to comprehend the stream of English that I am typing, undoing, retyping, as I try to find the best combination of words to allow you, the reader, to extract the same meaning from this text as I am trying to inject into it.

It has no idea, because it has no strange loop.

The computer is a universal machine - with the right instructions it can be made to represent any problem or perform any job. The power and depth of simple integers is enough to support a rich symbolic system where words, fonts, undos, files, hierarchies, images, conversations, rules, commerce, relationships, humans can all be modelled to some degree of useful granularity. As I type, I'm not thinking about the encoding of each character into binary representation, or the i/o system that supports the notion of directories and files under which those binary values will be stored. I don't think twice about the electromagnetic physics that lies behind that storage mechanism, or the the conversion of these stored integers into electrical or optical pulses to be sent along copper and fibre optic cables between my laptop and wherever the corporate abstraction called Google decides to keep it (I'm using Google Documents). In fact as I try to descend into these details, in order to write the last few lines, I find it difficult. It feels unnatural for humans to leave our world of the virtual, and think about its physical nature! We must be unnatural creatures.

Some people (most perhaps?) believe that we are in fact supernatural creatures. In a sense I can believe it. The prefix super- has the following dictionary definitions:

  1. something larger, stronger, or faster than others of its kind.
  2. over, above, on
  3. exceeding the usual limits
  4. a more inclusive group or category
  5. in addition to, over and above
  6. greater in size, quality, number, or degree, superior

We humans have a soul that is larger than those of other sentient species on planet earth, which sits on, and usually reigns over the natural infrastructure that supports it. We exceed, in good and bad, the limits that confine our fellow species, and include in our virtual realm of ideas everything that we can directly perceive around us, and sometimes distant particles and concepts that arrive to us only very indirectly. In addition to the duties of basic survival and reproduction, we strive to create, to work, to understand, even to love. When we suceed in this, - even when we fail and collapse into destruction, apathy, ignorance or hate - we do so on a level that is superior to any other organism on earth.

But our virtual super-nature sits on a natural physical substrate as surely as the abstraction of this file sits on one of Google's estimated 126,000 integer-arithmetic CPUs and 5000Tb of memory*. And while a degree in computer science allows me a glimpse and a glimmer of how a machine that only knows arithmetic can serve me in writing and publish an article like this, there are just too many abstractions between my self and the brain that underpins it, for me to comprehend how this self can have these thoughts in the first place. I am trapped at this level of abstraction.

Every now and then, however, someone comes along with the imagination to think about thinking, and the communication skills to rattle the bars of this abstraction cage, and offer a slightly longer glimpse at the architecture of the soul. Douglas Hofstadter is such a soul, and I Am A Strange Loop is a book which, even if it doesn't change your life, will at least offer you an insight into why, sometimes, books can change your life.

We now return you to the normal programming schedule.

* Just to be clear: I don't believe for a moment that my brain is architected like a Turing or Von Neumann machine. I don't think that some morning Google will give birth to Skynet. I don't believe that I'm 'just' a computer.

Rated 5/5 on Oct 15 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bought the ticket!!

We have to go now. Just spend most of the SSIA on the RTW ticket. Came in a few hundred shy of 10 thousand Euro for the 4 of us, and that includes the Australian visas which the travel agent has offered to organize.

It's an e-ticket, which is handy - one thing less to lose/get stolen. Letizia had a bit of a brainwave at the last minute. If the ticket allows, we'll take a flight from Sydney to Cairns and drive down from there to Brisbane, rather than driving from Sydney. There were a thousand miles or so left over on the ticket so this seems like a good way to use them and see a bit more of Oz.

Sinéad in ForeignAFares in Carrigaline did a great job. Really knows her stuff and has been very available to us.

Easiest 10 grand I ever spent!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Reading ahead

Arthur Frommer says that the biggest mistake that most travels make is to not do a little bit of background reading before visiting a country. Well, he would wouldn't he, being in the travel writing business for the last 50 years or so. But it's hard to argue with this opinion. The first time I traveled around mainland Europe I found myself going from one gothic cathedral to the next. Well, you do, don't you.

But if you haven't understood the social, political and religious circumstances that led to their construction, and therefore don't get why it is that there will hardly be a comparable age again, then by the time you visit your fifth cathedral you won't give a flying buttress about anything except where the nearest bar is.

I promised myself a while back that I wouldn't read another book that wasn't to do with the trip. I broke it almost immediately of course. But I have been doing so little bit of research.

I've read a number of books on historic and modern China now, and I've moved onto some more about Australia. If anyone out there can recommend any books on New Zealand, Fiji, Chile, Bolivia, Peru or Argentina, then I'd love to hear back. In particular if there's anything that touches the three main themes of family, music or ecology, all the better.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

My alternative laptop

There it is - my alternative laptop. The Nokia N800 Internet Tablet, with a foldable Freedom Universal bluetooth keyboard (folds to half it's length). I've added a pen to give an idea of scale (it's a one-meter long pen, though - naaah, just kidding).

I spent an entire weekend trying to follow instructions on how to install the driver for the keyboard, but they are now working nicely together.

The screen has a terrific resolution which makes a big difference in terms of usability. There are dedicated buttons to toggle in and out of fullscreen mode, and to zoom in and out as well. The habit of reaching for a mouse is unlearned quickly thanks to the combination of the fullsize keyboard (with important shortcuts) and the touch screen. There is also a choice of two styles of on-screen keyboard: my favourite is the larger of the two - it takes up nearly all the screen and allows you to thumb the keys easily, or even quasi-touch type.

The built-in browser is Opera, but it's possible to replace the rendering engine with a Mozilla one. I've done this, and now I can use Ajax-based websites very easily, including Google Documents - an important part of out planned travel software solution. And of course it works well for blogging too. The next blog entry I write here will be from the N800.

As for memory, I plan to spend some money on MicroSDs. My camera takes Memorystick Pro Duo and the N800 takes SD. So the most convenient way of transferring from one to the other (for the purpose of viewing, blogging, or uploading to Google Pictures) is to transfer MicroSD cards from one to the other by means of MicroSD-to-SD and MicroSD-to-ProDuo converters. I guess it beats hauling a hard disk around with me. I'll have to keep an eye out for a convenient microSD container to hold a large number of them together. They seem particularly fragile and easy to lose.

It's not a laptop, and there's no point in pretending otherwise. It'll seem slow and hard to read compared to the normal laptop experience. But it comes in at less that 500 euros including the keyboard, can (and will!) be carried in a jacket pocket, and also runs skype. An excellent travel communication and journaling kit, all in all.

Speaking of communication, I've just bought a SIM from a new Irish service called MaxRoam which will keep the phone bill way down both for ourselves and anyone who wants to contact us. I'll blog on this later this week.

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Monday, September 3, 2007

What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty...Go straight to Katie White's entry on this Freakonomics blog entry.

But what the hell. We can deal with it. Right?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Technology Platform for the trip

I really don't want to bring a laptop with us. A Sony Vaio is about as much weight as I'd be prepared to carry around with me, but besides being outside the budget, it's also not covered by the travel insurance (max item value 500 Euros). But I do want some computing power (well, connectivity power really) for a number of reasons.

  1. To update this blog
  2. To stay in touch with folks back home without paying a king's ransom (*)
  3. To chronicle (offline) thoughts and experiences during the trip
The solution has finally begun to form in my mind: a combination of Nokia's newest Internet Tablet (N800) and a foldable keyboard (there's no way we're going to use anything buy a 'real' keyboard to type in the thousands of words that 8 months travel will inspire). Thanks to Conor for his back channel advice on the N770 versus the N800.

I've already picked up the very smart Freedom Universal Keyboard, which is a lovely piece of kit and fits a proper keyboard into a space about 1.3 time the size of my wallet. Payday is Friday - I feel the arrival of the N800 may follow shortly afterwards.

(*) As far as normal comms are concerned, when there isn't a wifi network within a Llama's spit, I'm studying movements on Roam4Free.

I'm very tempted to follow up the next month with this, but I think I may exceed my wife's Ryanair-like geek baggage allowance.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hey Mister Hu , What did I do?

Dunno - I think I got myself on the wrong side of the Great Firewall of China. According to Google Analytics I don't have any Chinese readership (although to be fair, I don't have much of a readership any which way you look at it). And my friend in Chengdu couldn't access this blog. My blog on learning Chinese does however, so it's not some kind of blanket Blogspot firewalling. Maybe my excerpts from a chapter of Collapse did the trick. Hey - if you're reading this from the PRC - let me know!

[Addendum: Paranoid. Severely Paranoid. I checked Google Analytics (properly this time) and I do have a Chinese readership after all. Chengdu and Shanghai both appeared on my map.]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Chengdu, Part Two

Waking up from the Summer months, where not a whole lot of thought or energy has been put into planning...

Just before Skype's recent outage, I noticed one of my contacts had "In Chengdu, China" as his Skype message. I fired him off a note, assuming he was on holidays, looking for any advice or tips he had. I wasn't expecting the reply I got, when Skype came back to life.

I met Erik Wiersma in 2006 when both he and I were presenting at SpringOne in Antwerp. As it happens we were presenting on similar topics so we got together beforehand to make sure we weren't overlapping too much. Eric was working for a company called jTeam in Amsterdam - and as far as I knew he was still there. Not so. Eric has now moved to Chengdu, the main city of the Sichuan province (though only a second-tier city in terms of population with a mere 11 million souls!!) and has set up his own software development outsourcing company. The company uses many of the techniques that have been used here in Europe and on the North American continent so successfully over the past few years: Agile methodology and lightweight frameworks, including the Spring Framework. He chose Chengdu because, amongst other things, the pay scales are 1/3 of those on the Chinese East Coast (but also because of an abundance of programmers - Chengdu was where the Ministry of Defense was situated in the 1960's and there are lots of IT universities as a result). I found the pay-scale difference quite amazing. I wonder whether it has always been this high, or if it is a result of East Coast wage inflation.

In any case, Erik has very generously offered to help us arrange stuff on the Chinese side, and to show us around Chengdu as well. He has also confirmed that the hostel we want to stay in is good and central. This kind of help is really invaluable and it wouldn't have happened without systems like Skype or the kind of virtual networking that is part and parcel of my profession.

Erik couldn't load this blog yesterday and suggested that it might be firewalled. If anyone is reading this from the PRC, I'd be obliged if you could comment and let me know. I'll check out Analytics as well.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A taste of things to come

We all have our ways of dealing with the more tiring aspects of travel. This is how Nina and Sara deal with it. Sara (foreground), when she is older, will be the owner of a great many hat boxes, and will need a veritable army of lackeys to help her move around. Nina on the other hand will be able to go anywhere, for as long as it takes, as long as she has enough books to get her through the experience.

This picture was taken last night on the last part of a surprisingly long trip from Cork to Cagliari to spend the Summer months absorbing the other half of their cultural inheritance.
In six short months they'll be heading off on their biggest adventure yet, there'll be no shortage of books to bring along (in sharp contrast to the number of hatboxes and lackeys) so Nina already has the edge.
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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Blimey. We can go anywhere.

I finally got round to doing a bit more research on our visa requirements for the trip. I was getting ready to get wrapped up in documents and red tape, with different hoops to jump through for each border. But I was amazed. The only countries that we need a visa for are the first two on our journey: China and Australia. And while the Chinese visa will require us to travel to Dublin, we can apply for an electronic one, online, for Oz. Nice one! I think if we had tried this 20 years ago, the Irish passport holders amongst us would not have found this so easy.

New Zealand, Fiji, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina (actually - I'm still waiting to hear back from them) fling their doors open for the Irish and the Italians. Yaaaaay!

(Update: the Argentine Embassy has confirmed that for 90 days or less there's no visa requirement for any of us.)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

New Zealand: Slight change of plan

As has happened for other destinations, when we look a bit closer and get down to booking flights, we swap things around. This weekend we booked the Australia-to-New Zealand leg of the tickets, and instead of flying into the North Island as originally planned, we are flying into Christchurch on the South Island. We've heard that the South Island is where it's all at, and that's where we'll get most of the traveling done before the winter sets in. Flights to and from Fiji afterwards will be from Auckland, so we really need to finish up there, rather than start there.

The question now is whether we base ourselves in Christchurch for the month, or try to find somewhere in Queenstown. Decisions ,decisions.

When we move to the North Island, we'll probably be basing ourselves in Wellington.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Review of Chinesepod

A fun and effective method of learning Chinese (oh - and Spanish!)

Review of Chinesepod

Rated as 5/5 on May 18 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

I came across this website early on in my (now 18 month old) efforts to learn Chinese. These guys are perfecting the practice of teaching language online, and having established themselves as the leaders in the business, they've started to use the same technology and techniques to teach Spanish (through the parent company Praxis Language).

I used the free service for the first 6 months - which allows access to their daily lesson podcasts. The next subscriber (US$60 per year) level adds PDFs and online dialog transcripts. I used this for another 8 months or so before finally moving to the premium subscription (US$150 for six months). At this level, you get to use all the great features and toys that come with the site - build up your own vocabulary and test yourself on it, listen to expansions of the dialog that build organically on the grammar and vocabulary that, do tests at the end of each lesson. You can set up your own schedule of lessons, and create an RSS feed of those lessons that iTunes or Google Reader can consume. And other new features are on the way all the time.

There is one further level which I will be trying out over the Summer, which involves daily 10 minute conversations (phone or Skype) with dedicated teachers based in the Chinesepod Shanghai 'factory'.

The teaching techniques used by Chinesepod are well thought out and allow students to concentrate on the topics and techniques that are right for them. The default philosophy of the group is grammar-light, but for grammar nerds like me, their is a grammar section on the way.

This is how online teaching should be done - an excellent combination of pedagogy and web engineering, that I can recommend wholeheartedly to anyone wishing to study Chinese or Spanish on their own terms. Two weeks of free premium membership are given to all new users - no strings attached - so it couldn't be easier to find out for yourself whether or not I'm telling the truth.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

New Zealand: Wellington and Queenstown?

If there something that the whole world appears to agree on, it's that New Zealand is a wonderful place. Much advice that we've been given has been to trade time from Australia to spend it in New Zealand. We're not going to do that - 12 weeks in both places is about right. But now that our China and Australia itineraries are pretty clear, it's time we planned where we're going to stay in NZ.

As with Oz, we'll spend 4 weeks on the road, and 4 weeks each in two fixed locations. At the moment, we're thinking about Wellington in the North Island and Queenstown in the South. We'll need to make some solid plans soon, as we're hoping to house-swap in both of those places, and we'll need to start making some contacts directly using our chosen exchange.

As for what we want to see when we're on the road? Well, from the hot sulphur of Rotorua in the North to the Franz Josef Glacier right down South...

...and most things in between.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Review of Sony Cybershot DSC-W50 DIGITAL CAMERA

Small, easy to use, plenty of features digital camera - perfect for travelers.

Rated as 4/5 on May 02 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

I've had to make some technology decisions for the upcoming trip. One of the important decisions is what digital camera to bring. I was looking for something small and robust with a decent battery life and a good sized memory. This camera from Sony ticks all those boxes.

I'm not a photographer so I'm looking for mostly point-and-click functionality to take clear pictures, keep memories, and show the folks back home what we're up to. While it is that easy to use, the camera also offers a lot of other features and levels of control for those who know their ISOs from their elbows.

I also want to leave the digital camcorder at home (ease of movement and peace of mind being the issues there) and the DSC W50 has the capacity to take small movies too.

It's one of the cheapest models that uses Lithium ion batteries, so you can go a fair amount of time between recharges. I bought it with a 2G Memory Stick DUO Pro so I always run out of charge before space, despite recording a lot of movies.

Occasionally I need to re-insert the memory stick, which I could do without. But overall I can really recommend this camera to tourists and tourers alike.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Sidebar: The Sugared Almond Syndrome

When we were getting hitched in Sardinia, we followed the custom of presenting our guests with bonbonniere as a memento of the day. They were basically little silk bags of sugared almonds tied up with a nice ribbon and tiny dried flowers. Why? I have no idea. It was the done thing, and we (to our eternal regret) did the done thing till it was done to death. These tokens were received with smiles and thanks by the Italian side, and with ohs, ahs and the occasional huh? by the Irish/English contingent. One of our English friends was to be plagued for days afterwards over the phone by her mother, because she made the mistake of recounting the Tale of the Sugared Almonds.

"But why sugared almonds, Sheila!" came the plaintiff telephonic cry from somewhere in middle England. The poor woman was desperate to know. Clearly she felt that there was some great meaning behind the gesture, some wisdom of the ages, some lost secret of antiquity, some eye-watering truth-and-beauty, wrapped up in silk and sugar, it's significance lost to the common locals despite - or perhaps because of - it's very popularity.

All perfect bollocks, of course.

They're sweeties. "Thanks for coming, thanks for the pressie, now go home and practice my new spouse's foreign-sounding name and see if you can master it by our 10th anniversary". That's what it means.

But our friend's mother saw something else in it, and felt that as it was of another culture, it should be imbued with an import that it really didn't deserve. I've seen it exhibited time and time again in various forms, the Sugared Almond Syndrome. It's harmless enough but it does remind me of the way US tourists coming here to Ireland would use the work quaint to describe all kinds of crap. Oh look - he's taking out his teeth and lifting his lower lip around his nose! How quaint. (That wasn't quaint of course - it was evidence of poverty and a dilapidated mental health system that hasn't improved much since - though as least the quality of US tourist has).

So - a shit-covered toilet is a shit-covered toilet. I can find them here without looking too hard, so I won't be wallowing in excrement elsewhere in some vain attempt to get closer to the culture. And a sugar-covered almond is a sugar-covered almond, and assuming I don't find it in one of the aforementioned toilets, well, I think I might just eat it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

China: Plane or Train

According to the Rough Guide, the price of a Soft Sleeper on the train (example pictured below) is about the same as a flight. I'm really tempted to fly in order to see more in the 3 weeks we'll be there, perhaps taking the train just once or twice. I have to confess that the main problems with the train is the toilets. From what I've learned, it's a case of 'first up, best dressed' - the soft sleepers don't have their own toilets, and if you want to be more sure of a clean start to the day, you need to get there first. Otherwise, all bets are off.

It wouldn't be a big deal for me if I were traveling on my own, but with wife and kids, the levels to which I'm prepared to descend are limited.

There's also the consideration of time saved. Instead of a 12 hour overnight trip to Xian from Beijing, for example, we're talking about a 2 hour flight. Perhaps a mix would be best - sticking with the train where I'm fairly sure the quality and cleanliness is likely to be high.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Home Swapping

One of the ways of minimizing the cost of a trip like this (I'm summarize them all in a post later in the year) was the idea of home swaps. Up until recently it's been very much a theoretical proposition, though one that is built in to our budget! Having looked at a number of different sites, we had been slowly coming round to the idea that it would remain theoretical. It seemed that there was no really good match out there for us, and in any case the awkwardness of our requirements would have excluded us from normal home swappers.

But we took a few pictures of the house, and signed up to homelink. I had heard them on the radio a few months back, and I liked the sound of them. It's an international group (they claim to be the biggest) but very importantly each country has its own local grouping and management. This is what makes the difference. I was able to pick up the phone and talk to Marie in Dublin and get all my questions answered before I decided to commit. Due to a minor problem with their web site (don't use Firefox) I couldn't pay online, but Marie went ahead and uploaded my profile (trusting me to ring back the next morning with my credit card details).

I hadn't even made it into the office today when a phone call came in from our first potential match in Australia. It didn't quite suit, but the important thing about homelink is that if you have the time, you can enter into correspondence with any other member and tell them in detail what you're looking for. Because we have still got 8 months to before we're off, I'm feeling a little more confident that we'll find something to fill the three gaps in our programme: Sydney, NZ North Island (tbd) and NZ South Island (also tbd).

More on this as I learn about it.

Kids Passports Part II

Just a quick update to say that getting the kids' passports, including German-born Nina's, was a piece of cake. The only glitch was an error that the Passport Office made in setting Sara's date of birth, but they fixed it free of charge and free of fuss.

The result is a pair of all-grown-up passports for a 6 and 8 year old, complete with their own rather absurd, but cute, signatures.

Full marks for the Passport Office.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Review of Jared Diamond’s Book "Collapse"

This book makes gripping and important reading. It is balanced and builds a cohesive model of the parameters that can predict our own success or failure as a society.

Review of product: Jared Diamond’s "Collapse".

Rated as 4/5 on Apr 03 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

One of the really refreshing things about this book and this author is that he is playing to nobody’s tune but his own. He acknowledges from the outset that what he has to say will please neither those who assume that modern technological society is inherently wicked, nor those who feel it is blameless for our current state of affairs, ecologically speaking.

The book charts the success or failure of various human societies in the past and the modern age, compares them, and asks the question “What makes the difference between sociatal life and death?”. The author extrapolates 6 variables from past societies that, he argues, can be used to predict our own fortunes.

Most of the content is, it has to be said, disturbing. But Diamond insists that the jury is still out in our own case. He offers, as an appendix, a common sense list of things that every single one of us can do to play our part in addressing current problems that could lead, if unchecked, to the demise of our society as we know it.

I’m really glad that I read this book, and it’s one of the few books that I will undoubtedly re-read.

[Note that this blog entry was published through an exciting new (still in beta) service called Louder Voice - well worth checking out.]

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