21 February 2008

The Tower of London

One of London's most popular attractions, and yet another World Heritage Site, is the Tower of London. Heather and I spent an entire day here and saw quite a variety of relics and artifacts. The Tower of London is commonly thought of as a prison and execution site, but it's original and primary purpose was as a stronghold and royal castle. The construction was begun by William the Conqueror, who was also the first to have his coronation at Westminster Abbey. The Tower continued to serve as the home of the monarchy for centuries.

When you visit the Tower of London today you will see many yeomen warders, more commonly referred to as beefeaters. They are the guardians of the Tower and even live on the Tower grounds. The are largely responsible for conducting guided tours for visitors and looking after the Tower. Our tour guide is pictured here.

The centerpiece of the Tower of London is the White Tower. This was the primary residence of William the Conqueror and the subsequent monarchs. You will notice in the picture below that one of the towers is round, while the others are square. This round tower originally housed the royal observatory. Which brings us to the ravens.

There are at least six ravens at the Tower of London at all times because according to legend, if the ravens should ever leave, the Tower, the monarchy and the kingdom would fall. So when John Flamsteed, the royal astronomer under Charles II, complained about them, the king moved the observatory to Greenwich rather than disturb the ravens. By the way, the yeomen warders don't take any chances today: the ravens' wings are clipped.

Another interesting site at the Tower of London is the Crown Jewels. There are crowns, sceptres, orbs, swords, rings and a massive punch bowl and ladle that I'm sure my mom wouldn't mind adding to her collection. Sorry, no pictures. Cameras not allowed when viewing the Jewels, but you can try this. And all of this is behind mere glass. And of course armed guards and state-of-the-art security systems.

There was a lot to see and do at the Tower of London and I learned a lot in our day there. But lest you forget that were are only tourists, we got a typical tourist photo: a pic in an unoccupied guard stall.

17 February 2008

Sony Tropfest 2008

Sony Tropfest 2008 was tonight, but the threat of rain kept Heather and I away. Fortunately, they ran a live stream on the internet, so I still got to watch to event for this year, and it did not disappoint.

I wrote about this last year, but if you don't remember what it is all about, look here. Basically, there are three rules: one, the film must be seven minutes or less; two, it must debut at Tropfest; and three, it must contain the Tropfest Signature Item (TSI). This year's TSI was Eight.

Overall, I thought this year's movies were a notch above last year's. My two personal favourites were 'Scab' and 'Marry Me', which won first prize, as well as best actress for the ten year old girl in the lead role. As soon as videos are available, I'll point you to them.

Speaking of videos, NineMSN finally has last year's sixteen finalist up. This is 'An Imaginary Life', last year's first prize winner. The TSI was Sneeze--see if you can spot it.

My favourite last year was 'Between the Flags', based on the Cronulla Race Riots of December 2005. It was hard to imagine a humourous take on that, but the filmmakers pulled off a winner with this one.

The rest of the sixteen finalists from 2007 can be found here. I recommend 'The Von', 'Mere Oblivion' and 'Road Rage'. Remember to look for the sneeze.

I shared this one last year, too, but no mention of Tropfest is complete without the 2006 winner, 'CARMICHAEL and shane'.

15 February 2008

British Museum

Heather was looking forward to the Victoria & Albert Museum, but we were both rather disappointed. She had planned on the textiles exhibit, but it wasn't what she expected, and I was just along for the ride. But when we spent less than an hour there, we suddenly had extra time on our hands. On a whim, we went to the British Museum.

One thing I was looking forward to was the Sutton Hoo exhibit, and have ever since I was teaching twelfth grade English and the Sutton Hoo mask was on the cover of the textbook. These pieces were found in an Anglo-Saxon ship burial and are in quite good condition given their age--about 1400 years. I just think it looks cool.

Another familiar sight was the chess pieces--we saw the Lewis Chessmen in Sydney two years ago. Our favourite is the berserker who's chewing on his shield. Only a few made the trip to Sydney, but the British Museum has a bunch of them. A replica Lewis chess set is available for purchase for about $200, but if that's too much, the Harry Potter set is also based on the Lewis Chessmen for half the price, if you don't mind red and white pieces.

Of course one of Heather's favourite exhibits was the cat. This particular piece was in a private collection for years and it's owner did a little touch up work, which I think was quite daring for such a rare and valuable piece that is about 2600 years old. His work included a paint job and a bit of minor surgery to insert a metal pin in it.

I particularly enjoy Egyptian art, especially sculpture. This is Ramesses II, and he is over six and a half feet across at the shoulders, so he's a big dude. I think Egyptian art is so clean and elegant. Other pieces included hawks, sphinxes, griffons and a giant scarab beetle.

One of the British Museum's prizes is the famous Rosetta Stone: a true piece of history. I was surprised at its size--I was expecting your average tablet, but it's almost four feet tall. You can get an idea of scale in the picture below, and the last picture is a close-up of the hieroglyphics engraved on it. Truly a remarkable exhibit.

As Heather and I were discussing the museum, she asked what I thought about it. I have mixed feelings. The exhibits were amazing, and we only saw a portion of them. But I also said that it is a monument to British imperialism. There are works from Egypt, Greece, Rome, South America, China. . . And much of it was simply taken. Shouldn't most of this be returned to its home country? So I don't know what to think.

But as we left the museum, we observed an interesting piece of irony. Right across the street from the Monument to British Imperialism is the Symbol of American Imperialism.

A Starbucks cafe.

13 February 2008

A long-awaited apology

Beginning in 1869, many of the children of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were taken from their families to be raised in internment camps, orphanages or foster homes. This action against the stolen generation was taken under the authorisation of Australian law, and it continued for the next one hundred years. There were various reasons for the policy, but the common thread was a belief that the Anglo population was superior to the indigenous people. Additionally, authorities often failed to take proper records of parentage, permanently severing contact between parent and child.

Since 1998, Australia has observed Sorry Day, in which the Australian people acknowledge the wrongdoing of the past. But while there has been a push among the people for reconciliation, the Howard government continuously refused to issue an official apology.

In today's opening of Parliament, new prime minister Kevin Rudd rectified that when he made an apology to the indigenous people of Australia on behalf of Parliament. It was a brief speech, but it was sincere and made no excuses for the actions taken, and it was well received, both in the indigenous community and the wider Australian community, as thousands of people gathered in the major cities to watch the apology. He not only apologised for the past, but looked toward the future, focusing on equal opportunity for all Australians. He targeted specific goals, such as narrowing the gap in life expectancy, which is currently twenty years shorter for indigenous Australians. In doing this, Rudd not only apologised for the past, but opened the door for a better future.

The three and a half minute apology can be seen here. After it's conclusion, he immediately continued the speech, discussing the damage done and the need for official recognition. A YouTube search yields additional videos of this elaboration.

Unfortunately, Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson followed up these words with a speech of his own. While he acknowledged the wrongdoing, he repeatedly stressed the 'good intentions' of the offenders. Not surprisingly, his speech has been soundly criticised and reveals a complete lack of empathy for the people and understanding of the spirit of the apology. People present at Parliament literally turned their backs on him, while viewers in the cities clapped over him to drown out his words.

Nelson notwithstanding, today was an exciting day of hope in Australia. We live in a world where many, like Nelson, make excuses for wrongs. It was refreshing to see someone, particularly a representative of government, apologise without reservation. Maybe there is hope for the world yet.

09 February 2008

Westminster Abbey

I think the one thing that I was most looking forward to in London was Westminster Abbey, and it did not disappoint. Poet's Corner has long been a draw for me; I have wanted to visit since I was studying literature in college. As a church that is nearly a thousand years old, religion is prominently featured. And as the site of every coronation since 1066, the Abbey is also a very important site for royal history.

Westminster Abbey as seen today was a long time in the making. The first structure went up in 1055, with additions in 1350, 1500, and finally the towers in 1745. The difference in the stonework is visible in the picture below. Differences in the treatments of arches, columns and stone facings are also noticeable inside. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed in the Abbey.

As an American, it is unusual to see one site that has both religious and political significance. However, we would probably not have Westminster Abbey today if it were not for its political importance. When Henry VIII created the Anglican church, he purged the country of its Catholic heritage, often destroying the churches. But because Westminster was the site of coronations, and in fact the burial site of many ancient royals, he allowed it to remain, although he did destroy many Catholic sculptures and paintings.

A list of royals buried at Westminster Abbey includes Edward the Confessor, Richard II, Charles II and William and Mary. Perhaps the most notable burials are those of Elizabeth I and Mary I. These half sisters, both daughters of Henry VIII, were on opposing sides of the religious conflict at the time. Mary returned Catholicism to the country, which was later reversed by Elizabeth when she took the throne. Despite their differences in life, the half sisters were buried together in death at the Abbey.

Poet's Corner is the burial site of many of England's great writers, starting with Geoffrey Chaucer, and including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Many others are honored with a memorial, including John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Jane Austin and the great William Shakespeare. Everywhere you look, from the walls to the stained glass to the floor is like flipping through the table of contents of a Brit lit anthology text.

But the Abbey has one more surprise as you exit: the 2oth century Christian martyrs, found looking over the western doors. This addition was unveiled in 1998. From left to right you will find: St. Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Janani Luwum, St Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Jr., Óscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi and Wang Zhiming. The Abbey's documentation of history continues to today.

07 February 2008

Lucky Sevens: The Ramayana

Lucky Sevens has always been related to Australia, but in light of our recent trip, February's entry relates to India.

The Ramayana is an epic story that is very important in Indian culture and it's influence is also prominent in Southeast Asia. The story is popular entertainment for children, yet contains a deeper significance: it doubles as an allegory of ancient Hindu philosophy. All over India, pictures, statues and monuments can be seen of the various Hindu gods, most of which are featured in the Ramayana.

Your Lucky Sevens question: Who are the main hero and villain of the Ramayana?

04 February 2008

I shot a 79 at Pebble Beach

While in Texas, I played a couple rounds of golf with my dad and father-in-law. Nothing unusual about that. What made these rounds special was the courses--we played Torrey Pines, followed a week later with Pebble Beach.

OK, we had a little help with that. Enter Texas Indoor Golf, which is appropriately named, since it is an indoor golf facility. We spent most of our round at Torrey Pines trying to figure out how much of this was like real golf and how much was like a video game, but all three of us improved for our round at Pebble, highlighted with my 79. Not too shabby, given that I usually struggle to break 100. (The secret? Ten foot gimmes.)

Is it as good as playing on a real course? Well, no, but it's a great way to get a round in even when it's cold outside. And while I think the regular price of $40 is a bit high, their $15 special on NFL Sundays is a great deal. So next time your in Grapevine, Texas and it's cold/rainy out, drop on by, and tell them Chris sent you. They won't have a clue who you are talking about.

02 February 2008

How to get a free upgrade to business class

  1. Achieve Premier Status. It is only necessary for one traveler to do this, ideally on flights largely paid for by your employer.
  2. Book a flight that has been canceled on the previous day. It is possible to do this six months in advance.
  3. When you arrive at the airport, you will be informed that the flight is overbooked because of the passengers who missed the previous flight. Due to your Premier Status, you will then receive the free business class upgrade to free up seats in cattle class.


  1. Good food. Go for the salmon!
  2. Personal video station. So, what would you like to watch now?
  3. Legroom and a real reclining chair. Turns out, it is possible to sleep on a plane.


  1. Too many perks to enjoy, even on a thirteen hour flight. You are going to have to choose.
  2. Have to wait for the 'poor' people in the back to board. Why can't 'they' hurry up?
  3. You are now spoilt forever. When you are a 'poor' person again on the rest of your flights, you know what you are missing.

Where to begin?

Last Sunday, Heather and I returned from our trip around the world. Since then, I have been thinking about where to begin. I haven't come up with a plan yet, so I'll just ramble about it until everything is covered. Good? Good.

Our trip began with two weeks back in Dallas for Christmas and New Years. We stayed at Heather's parents, and my parents and my sister's family came down, too, including the three munchkins. I've got a funny picture of the three of them, but it's not too flattering, so I'll withhold it (unless their mother would give her approval*). We also spent some time with some of Heather's extended family. Highlights include her cousin throwing a dart into the ceiling during a game of 301. We also got to see lots of friends from back home. We met for breakfast one day with six other married couples, and only one other beside us didn't have kids. Did it make me start to think about it? Not a chance. Our time in Dallas also included a Mavs game (they won) and a Stars game (they lost). It's hard to believe that it has been three years since I have been to the AAC. And of course, there was the traditional game of racquetball, although attendance was a little low this year.

We stayed very busy, but it was very good to see everyone again, especially for me, since it has been a year and a half. But the difference between life there and here stood out for me, even moreso than my last trip back. The lack of cultural diversity also stood out. And I heard virtually nothing about world news the whole time we were there. But perhaps the most noticeable difference was the brand consciousness, particularly when driving down the highway and every business is a chain. I missed the locally owned restaurants and stores that we frequent here. It was also weird to have to take a car everywhere, too, but I quickly got used to it. Then again, I wasn't paying the gas bill.

*See comments: approval granted. Here you go:Mollie is in mid-chew, Cole is avoiding having something shoved in his mouth while also avoiding the camera (his specialty), and Macy has some wide red eyes that just won't reduce.