Monthly Archives: November 2006

Meme velocity

Acephalous sets up a scientific experiment:

Here’s what I need you to do:

  1. Write a post linking to this one in which you explain the experiment.  (All blogs count, be they TypePad, Blogger, MySpace, Facebook, &c.)
  2. Ask your readers to do the same.  Beg them.  Relate sob stories about poor graduate students in desperate circumstances.  Imply I’m one of them.  (Do whatever you have to.  If that fails, try whatever it takes.)
  3. Ping Technorati.

While you do that, a script I’ve written will track this meme (via Technorati) across the internet in 10 minute intervals.  It will record the number of links to this post, register their authority and create a database the very size of which will cause my poor processor to fall tumbling, in flames, down a steep cliff.  (So be it.  We all must makes sacrifices in the name of science.)

How to get rid of religion

The always-excellent Daniel Davies explains why England is largely godless while the US is permeated by religion:

In general, for every belief that I don’t want to take hold in society at large, I am in favour of it being taught in state schools. Consider the question of religion generally. America has a strict blanket prohibition on religion in the public education system, and it is one of the most devoutly Christian countries on earth. We have a compulsory act of worship every day and compulsory religious education up to 15, and we are largely Godless. This isn’t a coincidence.

Berlin to Baghdad?

David Derrick spots a surely unintended historical echo in a recent speech by president Bush: “The planned ‘Berlin to Baghdad’ railway was a famous piece of imperialistic intervention at the beginning of the 20th century. This railway from Berlin to ‘Byzantium’ and on to Baghdad and ultimately to Basra was a German-sponsored scheme. If you prefer to exchange consonants, it was to run from Potsdam to Persia.”

Nature's wonder

Giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park

My family seized a rare, uncommitted weekend and went for the first time to Yosemite National Park. All superlatives that have been lavished on this extraordinary wonder pale beside the reality, particularly in the crisp air of early winter, with none of the crowds that apparently descend on the park in the summer.

We were hugely fortunate on our arrival on Saturday to have beautiful weather. It extended through to mid-afternoon on Sunday, when the first snowfall of the year began to come down, and come down hard.

My highlight? First thing Sunday we went to Mariposa Grove and walked up in near-isolation to the two main groves of giant sequoias. The sight of El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite Valley was awe-inspiring, but the quiet walk in the company of the world’s largest living things was a truly magical moment.

Serendipitously, I’m reading two nature-obsessed books. I started Underwater to Get Out of the Rain before we went to Yosemite. In my youth I wanted to be an oceanographer, so Trevor Norton’s warm, funny and revealing memoir of his life as a marine biologist strikes a personal chord. (I turned away from the oceans after a few years of obsession when Jacques Cousteau didn’t respond to my fifth-grade letter requesting more information about his submersible Calypso. I turned starward instead, and went to Princeton partly because of its great astrophysics department. I abandoned thoughts of a life in astronomy early in my university career.)

In a bookshop in Yosemite, I picked up Simon Barnes’s How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher. I almost read it in one gulp last night as the snow fell thickly around our hotel. I can confess to being a truly bad birdwatcher, but now having read Barnes, I am determined to become better at being bad.

The worst ever?

Eric Alterman: “It’s becoming clearer every day that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is the worst catastrophe ever voluntarily undertaken by this nation, including Vietnam — which, after all, we lost, and got a lot of people killed in — but didn’t really screw up the rest of the world too much.”

In case you need to find Portus Dubris

Barrington Atlas

The world’s largest box arrived on my doorstep a few minutes ago. Inside was the monumental Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (it weighs in at nearly 10 pounds, hence incurring a shipping surcharge from Amazon).

I’ve long coveted the atlas, even though a classicist friend of mine was decidedly sniffy about it when it was published. My generous sister and brother-in-law thought it was the appropriate gift for my 50th birthday.

Scholars may have gripes, but for a classical amateur like me it is both beautiful and inspiring. My only problem is that I have so much real work to do (hence the neglect of Davos Newbies) that I don’t know when I’ll have time to look carefully through its pages.

The red window of death?

Murphy must not have wanted me to complain about Lufthansa. A minute after I posted the previous comment something went worryingly wrong with my computer. All of a sudden the screen was showing a series of red lines. Nothing would appear. Yanking out the battery and restarting produced the same.

I hope it’s just some minor video problem (is anything on a computer minor?), but this looks like the third complete disaster with my laptop this year. Thankfully most (but not all) important things are in my Gmail storage.

It's official: Lufthansa hates San Francisco

I don’t want to obsess about travel matters, but my Lufthansa flight really bothers me. We had a wonderful new plane on the leg from Dubai to Frankfurt. Business class seats just about as good as British Airways, which is saying a lot. I asked the stewardess whether we’d get a modern interior on our San Francisco leg. “Almost all the aircraft are like this now,” she cheerily replied.

Sadly, no. SFO-DXB business class return on Lufthansa costs $11,000. And it’s rubbish (although I do like kvetching about it from an Internet-connected plane).

Addendum (from over a spectacular-looking Greenland): The seats are still rubbish, but I have to say that the cabin crew are as nice and professional as any I’ve encountered. So when Lufthansa guarantees that all their long-haul aircraft have the newer Recaro seats (by next April, allegedly) I’ll be a happy traveller with them.

How to have fun in Dubai

Ferry on the creek, Dubai

Dubai, the tiny emirate on the Arabian Gulf, has transformed itself in the last dozen years into one of the most extraordinary sights on earth. Everything here is bigger, better, faster than just about anywhere else (Shanghai might disagree).
Just out my hotel window the Burj Dubai is under construction and recently reached its 84th floor. On completion it will be the world’s tallest building. At its foot, the world’s largest shopping mall is under construction. Both these projects, like another few dozen in the near vicinity, have construction workers on site 24/7. To some extent, this unbelievable boom seems like classic bubble madness. But I have to smile and shake my head in wonder at the extremity of the Emiratis audacity.

Still, bigger, better and more expensive is not my idea of a good time. I’ve heard people boast that Dubai is “Las Vegas on steriods”, but I’ve never had any interest in Las Vegas (and Dubai of course lacks a crucial Las Vegas element — gambling). So what should I do?

Tonight, with two of my colleagues, I hopped in a taxi to go to the spice souk. That sounded good. Only our taxi driver had no idea where he was going. So he dropped us off at the silk souk. Fine, we had a good time looking around that. We were determined, however, to find the spice souk. It turned out to be on the other side of “the creek“, the waterway that divides the old heart of Dubai City (the big modern developments are clustered in other areas).

So we hopped on one of the small wooden ferries that traverse the creek regularly. I think we were as much of a sight for the other passengers as they were for us.

When we got to the spice souk, we found some fun things. I don’t think I’d ever seen turmeric in non-ground form before. It’s quite lovely. Even more fun, we were willingly lured up a nondescript stairway in one of the souk’s alleys to look at bags and watches. Not authentic, needless to say. But extraordinarily good rip-offs at extraordinarily good prices. A good time was had by all.