Saturday, May 31, 2008

1066 and Bouncy Castles

We decided to take a little trip with my parents over the three day weekend last week. Wanting to visit the south coast, and none of us being overly enticed by Brighton on a busy holiday weekend, we booked rooms in a B&B in St. Leonards-on-Sea, a village that is now essentially a neighborhood of Hastings. Hastings, at least to me, brings to mind (a) Hercules Poirot's bumbling friend who often inadvertently provides the key clue to the mystery, and (b) the site of the decisive battle in the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066. I don't remember dates very well at all, and almost everything I know about British history comes from Monty Python, but for some reason I know 1066. Not surprisingly, nothing in Hastings mentions Poirot's friend, but absolutely everything is plastered with 1066 this or Norman that.

The sea shore was exactly as I had imagined it: long pebbly beaches with broad promenades for strolling along in both directions. We luckily hit warm sunny weather, despite the fact that most of the rest of the UK, including London, was getting drenched. We spent a wonderful afternoon doing absolutely nothing, just enjoying the view and reading on the beach.

It was lucky for us that the beach was nice and our B&B was excellent (a beautiful little place called Hastings House), because Hastings is otherwise run down and crappy. A review we read online before we went recommended walking along the beach and averting your eyes from the hideousness of Hastings's New Town. We thought at the time that this was an exaggeration, but this was good advice as it turned out. However, even keeping our eyes to the sea didn't always work: there was a grubby casino and arcade out on one of the piers, there was a group of yahoos dressed as pirates getting blindingly drunk while sitting in the sun in rubber rafts (okay, that was kind of funny), and we accidentally interrupted a drug deal taking place on the lower level of the promenade (no joke).

The UK has a general problem with guys-who-shouldn't-be-shirtless-but-still-
walk-around-shirtless (or GWSBSBSWAS for short), and Hastings has way more than its fair share of these, not to mention hordes of people that look plucked from an episode of Little Britain. The local kids, some of whom were also shirtless, seemed completely taken with the new trend of parkour (imagine skateboarding without a skateboard, and combine that with a Jackie Chan chase scene) - either that or they were just trying to injure themselves by jumping off of walls out of boredom.

While some people were out enjoying the sun and the views, most Hastings visitors seem to favor the grimy bingo parlors, the small and crowded mini golf course, and garish arcades filled entirely with claw machines. To be fair, I do love bingo - in fact Maggie and I were even featured in an issue of The Bingo Bugle, which claimed (erroneously but amusingly) that we had gotten engaged at bingo night at St. Kevin's in San Francisco. My friends will also attest to my love of mini golf (not to mention my putting prowess) as well as my habit of losing vast amounts of change in claw machines in desperate quests to snag cheap stuffed animals. However, when surrounded by natural beauty and history, I don't really want to waste my time tapping a ball through a plastic dragon nostril.

One of the many classy bingo and claw machine palaces

The beach is about 20 yards to the left, but hundreds of people were packed into this cramped mini golf course.

Despite some of the tackiness of Hastings, there were also some nice bits, including two funiculars up to the two big hills in town. They were boringly called "lifts" - why use "lift" when you can use the word "funicular", which is clearly much better?

Putting the "fun" back in "funicular"

We took one funicular up to the ruined castle that is perched over the Old Town. Unfortunately there was an additional charge to get into the castle - we could see from a distance that there was almost nothing left, just a few crumbling walls, so we decided to pass and just enjoy the view while eating soft-serve cones. No one else seemed to be going into the castle either, although plenty of people were enjoying bouncy castles down in town.

Overlooking the English Channel

My mom was convinced that we could see France - all I saw was a layer of smog (which could have been France, I guess). The French coast is about 45 miles away from Hastings, so even on the hill, I doubt that we could have seen it, but I'm not about to do the necessary trigonometry to prove it.

I suppose if I had come more prepared for a tacky carnival atmosphere I would have enjoyed Hastings a little more. And who knows, maybe I could have come home with a few new stuffed animals. Even so, I really enjoyed getting out of town on the Bank Holiday weekend, watching the beautiful scenery pass by on the train ride through Kent, and relaxing in the sun on the coast.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Write on Kew

My parents are in town for a visit right now, which means we get to play both tour guide and tourist at the same time. Not that we ever stop exploring London and surrounds, but when friends and relatives visit it gives us incentive to do things that we would otherwise never seem to find time to do. Despite the fact that there was an extensive and well-reviewed exhibit of Henry Moore statues at Kew Gardens up until quite recently, and we had talked numerous times about going out to visit both the gardens and the exhibit, we were completely lazy and never went (Kew is just 45 minutes away on the tube, so we have no good excuse). But now that my folks are visiting, we finally got off our keisters and went Kew.

The Palm House Pond

I had been out to Kew once before by myself last April half for work and half for play. I spent a few hours wandering around enjoying the scenery and strolling through some of the glasshouses, but I only saw a fraction of what there is to see at Kew. Unlike botanical gardens most other places in the world, where space is typically a premium and gardeners try to squeeze in 700 plants per meter, Kew is more park than garden with massive lawns and long walks between the various attractions.

The Pagoda, one of the oldest structures at Kew

As a botanical enthusiast, you might think that I would say that my favorite thing at Kew is something incredibly nerdy and arcane like the giant flowering Amorphophallus titanum with flowers taller than me, the endangered Marattia ascensionis from the isolated Atlantic outpost of Ascension Island, or some of the spectacular orchids. But, to be honest, my favorite aspect of Kew is the architecture and landscaping design. The glasshouses at Kew are truly magnificent works of art - I paid more attention to the buildings than to the plants themselves (okay, so I snuck a peek at the Marattia, so sue me). The Palm house and the Temperate House are so large that they have catwalks around the upper reaches of the building, so you can look down on the crowns of tree ferns and see into the upper canopies of the giant palms.

Inside the Palm House

My parents on top of the world in the Temperate House

The new Xstrata treetop walkway, which was set to open this month, was not open to the public yet when we were there (it is now, however - just our luck). We could only stare longingly at it from a distance, wishing we were up there being scared. Compared my experience in Malaysia on a canopy walkway made of aluminum ladders tied together, this would have been easy, but it still looked fun. We were a bit less enticed by the companion attraction, the underground "Rhizotron", which is presumably planning to expose visitors to the exciting and fascinating world of roots. I'll come back for the canopy walkway, but I might skip the root experience.

The true highlight of the day: the squashed penny machine.
I got to squash the Queen!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

28 Bananas Later

London is a very clean city. Sure, it has its fair amount of pollution and big city grubbiness, but the streets are remarkably clean for such a huge bustling place that has relatively few garbage cans (or rubbish bins, for that matter). London has a veritable army of street sweepers ranging from people with brooms and wheelie bins to big street sweeping machines. Despite all of this, there is one thing I consistently find discarded on the sidewalk: banana peels.

A common London sight

Parisians don’t clean up after their dogs, and Londoners drop banana peels like a swarm of unruly clowns. I’m not sure what this means, but probably something quite deep. I’ve mentioned the banana peel phenomenon to several people, and no one seems to have taken much notice. However, if we are to believe cartoons and Vaudeville-style slapstick, banana peels pose a serious threat to public safety, so someone has to stand up and take notice.

So I made a bet. Well it wasn’t really a bet since no money was involved and no one strongly disagreed with me to begin with, it was more of a challenge to myself. This was the bet: I wagered that I could find at least one banana peel on the street on my walk to work and back every day for an entire month. Apart from a break in banana hunting for our trip to Edinburgh, I was successful and only had to actively look for a banana peel on 2 or 3 days. Probably the best part of doing this was watching people notice me taking a photograph of a banana peel and thinking I was completely mental. They may not have missed the mark by a mile. Here is a delightful banana photo montage from my experiment:

28 Bananas Later

Now, we don’t live in Quito, we live in London, several thousand miles away from the nearest Banana plantation. So what’s the deal with all the banana peels? Because nearly all of the banana peels I saw were on the street first thing in the morning, before the street sweepers had a chance to remove them, my theory is this: bananas must crawl stealthily out of their underground lairs to hunt by moonlight and some of them get caught and eaten by predators. Either that or hordes of drunken people emerging from pubs late in the evening find that bananas are a cheap and easy food option that can be found in any local store, and they then drop the peels on the street because they’re too drunk to care. I prefer my first theory.

Me doing what most Londoners seem incapable of doing

Bananas seem ever-present in the UK, more so than I ever noticed in the US. At my office and at Maggie's, we have both noticed that with the free fruit baskets that our companies provide, the bananas disappear almost instantly, but apples and oranges linger around for days. The president of my company recently took part in a charity race in which he dressed up as a banana and ran around Hyde park with hundreds of other bananas. The race, clearly named under the provisions of the British Mandatory Usage of Thinly-Veiled Innuendo Law created by an Act of Parliament in 1769, was called “Beat the Banana”. While I do have some pictures of him in his banana suit, I actually want to keep my job, so here are some other participants:

Yet another banana on the ground in London

Friday, May 2, 2008

Meme Me

I can't actually recall the first time I heard the word "meme", but since I studied evolutionary biology in school it came up frequently. Richard Dawkins coined the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to serve as a term for the cultural equivalent of a gene, i.e. a unit that can get transmitted from person to person, such as a word, a song, a tradition, etc. Because it has worked its way into common parlance, "meme" itself is a meme. To be honest, I don't think anyone ever got into heated debates at lab meetings about meme transmission, mostly it just came up as something to talk about over a beer that was just mildly less dorky than trying to come up with the Latin names of all of the plants that had gone into the plate of nachos on the table. I did say mildly less dorky.

The Onion must have had a spy in our midst when they wrote this article

In common usage, memes are generally ideas that catch on and seem to take on a life of their own for no clear reason whatsoever, like reality TV or people suddenly deciding that wearing Crocs is a good idea. The internet, which has given us all sorts of new ways of spreading information around the world both rapidly and in bulk, is fertile ground for memes. Where was the word "blog" just 10 years ago? I, for one, would have been happier if "weblog" had caught on, but you can't control a meme. Mostly we have gotten totally useless (but amusing) memes out of the internet that will die off in a relatively short period of time, like CAPS LOCK FRIDAY, YouTube videos of kung-fu monkeys, and the inexplicable Lolcats.

Our friend Alice from An American In London passed on a fun e-meme to us with a specific task to be completed:
  1. Pick up the nearest book.
  2. Open to page 123
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. Post the next three sentences.
  5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
I had encountered a version of this meme on Yelp some time ago, and it is clearly still alive and well. As luck would have it, my aunt and uncle just sent me a box of books as a birthday present. They pulled together a collection of quirky British-themed books, my favorite of which is End of Chapter, a Nigel Strangeways Mystery by Nicholas Blake. It came complete with tape-reinforced spine and the aroma of an old lady's closet. I love the classy cover so much that it has been sitting on top of the stack next to my computer for the past week.

Just the type of high-brow fiction I enjoy

According to the Times Literary Supplement, this is an example of "Mr. Blake at the top of his form". Not knowing what the bottom of his form looks like, it is hard to say if this is a compliment. The first paragraph would be a a perfect candidate for a Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest entry, and it continues in a nearly incomprehensible hard-boiled style throughout. All of the chapters are named after writing terms like "Delete", "Lower Case", "Revise", and the mysterious "Wrong Font". Here now is the magic passage from page 123, sentences 6–8, from the chapter "Insert", which I boldly insert in the wrong font:

Nigel could hardly wait to get to Millicent Miles at nineteen, when—so she had told Basil Ryle—she was seduced and gave birth to a stillborn baby. With what convulsions of euphemism would she handle that passage of her life? Or, more likely, it had been another outrageous fiction invented to enlist the sympathies of poor Ryle.

Wow. If that doesn't make you want to read End of Chapter, then nothing will. "Convulsions of euphemism" is pure poetry. I can't wait to see what gems page 124 holds.