Friday, May 1, 2009

Snippets From America

The Definition of Irony

One of the fascinating things about having lived in America for the last 3 years is the radical shift from "there is always more stuff" to "oh crap, the environment". When I first moved here the car ads were all "look at my big manly manly car that gets .5 miles to the gallon", now the ads are all "look at my big manly car that gets 1.5 miles to the gallon because of magic ingredient X". Or the ads that are all about how company that makes this car has managed to con the local government into declaring the grounds surrounding the manufacturing plant a nature reserve. Its an improvement, but not much. The key point of course being that, as usual, its all about the show and not the actual, you know, doing.

So there I am, coming off a flight from San Francisco and I land at JFK. I am walking through the endless miles of corridors and I come across what can only be called the Exxon Mobil Edifice of Irony. Its an entire section of the airport devoted to pointing out how wonderful and new energy Exxon Mobil is, how every day they are saving Americans all this energy and therefore the environment... as if that wasn't irony enough, how did they choose to impart this message? Recycled paper banners? Eco friendly water paints? Oh no, they used 40 plasma screens playing the same graphic presentation over and over again. 40 X 72 inch plasma screens all pointing out the Exxon Mobil is dedicated to conserving energy...

The less said about the current American Power = Clean Coal ads the better...

Things you will only see in New York...
The weather has turned very nice here, sort of the warning shots before the insane heat of August. The other day I wombled up to Central Park. Lovely day, sun was shining, not to hot. Managed to find a lovely spot under some cherry blossom trees to read a book for a few hours. There was even some young lads without their shirts on to provide some eye candy. On my way out of the park I noticed this young lady sitting under a tree with a dog on a leash. As I was walking close, in a supreme state of relaxation, I was trying to figure out what breed of dog... it wasn't until I got within 20 feet that I realised it was a rabbit. She was taking her rabbit for a walk... mind you, the size of this thing, frankly it had to have been a descendant of the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Standing on the shoulders of giants.

For the last month or so I have been grappling with precisely what to say when I am asked by people how the project I am working on is going. I have struggled mightily with the English language to properly express what it is like - a veritable Captain Ahab facing the Great White Whale. Trust me - that is quite possibly the least pretentious sentence about to be carelessly flung in your direction. We all know that I can be a cantankerously wordy bastard at the best of times. Someone who is overly fond of using turgid, lengthy and frankly pointless sentences to meander around a point. When any sensible person would use a few carefully chosen sentences to cleave right to the heart of the matter at hand. (See what I mean?)

By way of perspective - at the outset I had thought of calling the project "The Sisyphus Initiative" - but frankly the name is on the wrong side of sissy and I have enough trouble being manly at the best of times. Besides - pushing rocks up hill is pretty much a routine part of life in modern society.

Then I thought of calling it the Don Quixote Project - you know, tilting at windmills and dreaming the impossible dream. Unfortunately our giants are rather less imaginary in nature.

So there I am cast adrift on a rhetorical sea of cheap literary metaphors with my life raft getting eaten away by the moment. When it struck me. A poem. A poem that perfectly summarises the mood, the mis en scene. Hey - stop rolling your eyes - I gave your fair warning at the beginning that this was going to get ugly on the language side.

So - given that the poem is out of copyright - I think - I lost track of the latest extension. Is copyright "authors death + infinity years" or just "authors death + when we can't make no more money off of a dead horse"?

Anyway, the poem:

The Charge of the Light Brigade
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made,
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Obviously I am not riding a horse into battle - though I would wager that my colleague Karen would be overjoyed to storm the boardroom a-horseback with her sabre flashing! I face little danger other than a deep paper-cut, wounded ego and cirrhosis of the liver. But by George are there days when I limp back home feeling like the end of that poem - well - the bit before glory part anyways!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Adventures in Time

No - its not a reference to the eternity that I am spending in New Hampshire. This is a story about clocks. Or rather, a clock. The Portsmouth IT office recently moved to a new location. In the room that we are using as a testing lab is a wall clock - frozen at 6.20.

Given that we are spending a lot of time in what is essentially a windowless room we figured we would whack in some new batteries to have some way of measuring just how long it was until we could all escape. Taking the clock down from the wall in order to ascertain just how many batteries it needed I was struck by something. On first inspection it looked like a perfectly ordinary clock. The sort of innocent, institutional, plastic clock that knows its place in the world and is happy to just tick away your hours of servitude. Naturally I was wrong - this clock turned out to be a relation of the devil himself. Sure, not a sibling hell bent on living up to his older brothers record - more of a second cousin thrice removed that chats nicely to the devil at a family gathering whilst Aunt Hilda gets into the Gin & Tonic.

The first sign was the fact that the back of the clock had a battery compartment (as expected) with a rather precise looking sticker inside the battery compartment. "Don't Place Battery Here". Not quite what you expect. Mind you, fair enough. I mean sure, it looks exactly like the place you pop the battery - right down to the handy etching of a battery - but okay, obviously the people who built it are the experts in the particular design features of this sort of $1.50 plastic wall clock.

Casting ones eyes around the rest of the clock I noticed two further items that should have given me pause for thought. The first was an 8 part instruction sticker as to how to reset the clock. The second was a two battery device that was attached to the bottom of the clock in what can only be described as a parasitical fashion - sort of like an electronic tick. (arf arf)

Reading through the instructions it became clear what this parasite was - an automatic, daylight savings time adjustment device. In order to reset the clock you had to do the following;

1. remove the batteries. For some reason the instructions were quite insistent on this point. Not sure why as I had rather assumed that removing the batteries was a key aspect of the exercise in the first place.

2. using the wheel turn the hands to the 12 O'Clock position.

3. select which particular US time zone you were in

4. reset the year

5. reset the date

6. reset the time - steps 3 through 5 taking place on the parasitical device that had a little digital screen and 4 buttons arranged in a singularly unhelpful, and desperately un-intuitive fashion.

7. insert the batteries - by now I was beginning to wonder when they would be required. Of course in all the confusion of reading instructions for what one had assumed to be a simple task I mixed the old and new batteries up. Bloody good job they were different brands.

8. re-hang the clock on the wall and spend the next 20 minutes watching it sweep through the seconds, minutes and hours at the pace of a slightly arthritic snail until it reached the time that you had hopefully intented to set it to.

This whole effort naturally lead me to ponder, and somewhat admire, the perverse genius capable of blending the features of an analogue and digital clock to such pointless effect. When you consider that people had to re-design the clock, come up with the parasite, re-tool production lines, come up with new marketing material (I imagine something along the lines of 'are you lazy to get off your arse and change the time twice a year? You deserve a clock like this one!'). Not to mention the fact that a clock that once upon a time required 1 battery now requires 3. "Wait!" I hear you cry, "3? You only mentioned 2!" Well, the observant amongst us will notice that I was using the digital parasite whilst the batteries were not in the clock - something I was able to do because it had its own separate watch battery. God only knows what happens in the event that it goes flat - probably the end of civilisation as we know it.

The point being a pretty significant chunk of time spent for what I had always imagined was a relatively simple task twice a year.

Not to mention I just spent 45 minutes writing this bloody entry.

And the best thing? All of this is for nought - last year Congress passed a bill that shifted the ruddy date anyways. So the damn thing won't work - and now you will have to get off your butt and spend 10 minutes wrestling with the stupid digital part to change the freaking time rather than just twisting the knob on the back.

As you can tell. Really not a lot going on up here and I have been in a hotel for way to long.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Waiting for Godot

So, I have been in Portsmouth, New Hampshire since the 7th of Jan. We are facing delays in the ongoing development of the project that I am working on. Which means I am about to rack up a full month in the one hotel up here. It is a little disturbing when you realise that everyone in the hotel knows your name and who you work for. It is passing creepy when you realise that the car valet knows your name.

I don't have a car.

Or a drivers license.

And speaking of cars, be very careful just whose car you get in. Be particularly careful whose car you get in when it is snowing. Make damn sure that you get a crash helmet when you get in a massive 4WD truck driven by a woman who hasn't slept well in a couple of weeks and has an intense desire to blow off steam. Why I hear you ask? Well, because when it snows she promptly turns the empty car park into her own private donut track! It was the whooping like the good old fashioned farm girl that she is that particularly made the moment.

Whilst I do have to say I did experience a rather enjoyable frisson of a joie de vivre at this - I can't for the life of me imagine quite why Habib and his friends enjoy it so much down in the Rocks on a Saturday night.

With any luck, well actually, with a Herculean dose of luck - I will be able to leave New Hampshire at some point this month for the cool wonders of gloomy London and the excitement that is the West End. Apparently there is a new production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" starring Penelope Keith.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Something Just Ain't Right

When you leave the large cities in America you come across a country side that is dotted with restaurants that you pretty much have to drive to. A lot of these can be chains such as TGI Friday and Arby's. Some of them are one off restaurants. Today I visited one for lunch that was a little "Not Right".

When you first walk into the place it seems fairly standard - most of these restaurants would probably seat say 100 - 200 people at a stretch. They generally have a bar as well as a separate dining area, with the dining area being made up of a combination of booths and free standing tables. And most of them do some kind of theme, be it sports memorabilia, cowboys, local colour etc. This particular place specialised in what can only be described as a "Animals wot we shot and mounted" theme. The hanging light fittings consisted of artfully arranged antlers. If there wasn't a dead animal head every 3 feet or so there was a fake, carved animal head. The whole effect was uncannily reminiscent of a 13th century Saxon hunting lodge - just with a lot more plastic table clothes.

Now I am quite fond of my place in the food chain and have no intrinsic objection to eating a good steak whilst surrounded by the cold, dead, staring eyes of beasts taken before their time from the animal kingdom. I even think that it is appropriate that the children eating a nice piece of venison are given a proper understanding of precisely what this means for Bambi on the wall over there.

However, I do draw the line at animatronic heads. Especially the animatronic head of ginormous black buffalo that every now and then speaks in a booming voice about how hungry he is and asks why he can't seem to feel his feet before mentioning the specials of the day. Not to mention the slightly creepy looking raccoon that pops out of a tree log and scans the room as if seeking sweet, sweet revenge before disappearing back into his log. And I don't even want to imagine what the talking deers head above the bar says.

Of course the most twisted thing is the fact that I will probably go back there again... although this time I am taking a rifle with me in case the raccoon tries to start anything.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Las Vegas Pt II - Stating the Obvious

One of the nicknames for Las Vegas is "Disneyland for Adults" - so one is correct in thinking that there are a number of seriously strange things that you can get up to in this town. Perhaps one of the stranger things is a visit to the Liberace Museum. Now I am not entirely sure that I have ever actually listened to a Liberace recording, however my mother was a big fan and come hell or high water she was going. So, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The museum itself is about three miles away from 'the strip' - ie where the casinos are. I believe it is in what you would call a strip mall, decorated in a creme pseudo-adobe style with a whopping big grand piano above the door. Now, I understand that times were very different back then and that if you were gay you definitely wanted to keep it under wraps. If you were in the public eye you definitely wanted to vigorously defend any accusations. And the less said about a gay, public performer who happened to be a Roman Catholic the better. You may recall that Liberace actually took some publishers to court for libel - using thinly veiled language they accused him of frolicking with his lengthy string of pool boys. Nonetheless, never let it be said that I will allow dark and depressing period of history get in the way of making a joke. You see, I simply cannot fathom just why it is that the defence team didn’t just hold up pictures of the costumes the man wore followed by a perfunctory "The defence rests..." I mean, seriously - check this one out...

I think I am making a fair statement in saying that you would be hard pressed to find a more flamboyantly gay costume in the midst of the Sydney Mardis Gras!

The museum itself was actually quite interesting - I will admit I had no idea as to just how big Liberace was in his heyday. Not to mention how far his penchant for glitz and glamour went - the multiple luxury cars covered in rhinestones were somewhat of a revelation! Definitely not something the chaps from Top Gear would drive around in. If you click on the picture - and I would recommend doing so to experience the full visual spectacle of this ensemble - you will note the mirrored grand piano in the background.

So, if you find yourself in 'Vegas and you tire of the constant hustle and bustle I recommend a trip out to the Liberace museum. It will certainly open your eyes to something that your parents may very well have enjoyed listening to whilst sipping from a bottle of Cold Duck Sparkling Vino...

Thursday, December 6, 2007

God Dang is it Cold

Our main IT office is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. On average I spend about a week a month up here. It is a nice little town that is right on the coast - as you can guess from the name - Portsmouth - it has always been a working port kinda town. A lot of ships captains lived up this way back when being a Merchant Captain meant you got to wear incredibly fancy coats and were forced to eat the occasional cabin boy when supplies ran low.

Of course, being New England it also snows up here. And we are not talking the paltry "you can sort of ski on it" snow that you get in the Australian ski fields. We are talking serious, "my god won't it just plain go the hell away" kinda snow. The average snowfall according to the Internet - which as we know never lies - is 16inches. Sure, that is not in line with the astounding 70+ inches in Colorado (or 6 feet). But c'mon - 18 inches on average is just shy of 2 feet of incredibly cold, picturesque white stuff!

Something I have learnt about places that get a lot of snow - local residents never appreciate it when you tell them with a shit-eating grin that you love it when it snows because as an Australian, if you can survive the various life threatening creatures doing their best to shred muscles, inject venom or beat the living bejesus out of you, the Aussie climate is bloody bewdy mate - snow is just such a novelty! I strongly recommend against following up by saying that as an apartment dweller in New York you don't have to shovel anything when the snow hits. I especially don't recommend saying that to a colleague that just spent 2 hours digging themselves out of their house with a Snow Blower. As an aside, a Snow Blower bears no resemblance to a leaf blower - oh no, it is a vastly different creature. Imagine a 4 foot tall lawnmower that has caterpillar tracks instead of wheels and a truly vicious combination of spinning blades in a wide mouth at the front of this infernal device. Actually - for those of us descended from farming stock, imagine a self-propelled-personal-harvesting-device and you are getting there. As far as I can tell, the basic mode of operation entails starting the device, staying as far away as you possibly can from the gnashing-bone-crunching-end and manhandling it down the driveway so it can eat large quantities of snow and blow it out a side chimney thingie - hence the "blower" name. Personally I would have called it the snow-eater/body-disposal-device. The point being that I am given to understand that this is a particularly cold and limb jarring process - the sort of process that has you envisaging excruciating dinners at the in-laws as a nice reprieve - and engenders a near homicidal rage towards any idiotic Aussie in the office proclaiming how he loves snow.

Oh, whilst I remember - god dang is it cold out there. I have caught myself giving serious thought to taking a little nip of vodka post breakfast in order to brave the cold between the hotel door and the nice heated car - which is an absolutely ginormous truck with the ever important heated car seats courtesy of the lovely Karen Collins who is kind enough to pick me up in the mornings! Btw - I challenge any of you to laugh at the idea of heated seats... I tells ya - in this environment they are an essential. I am sure that I have been millimetres away from hypothermia before they kick in!

So, all in all, I love the snow! But my lord am I keeping it to myself from now on!