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Sunday
Nov052017

The Alhambra

The Alhambra, a fortress-palace built by the Islamic rulers of Granada a thousand years ago, a relic of a world now gone



Sacremonte, the Roma neighbourhood of Grenada, with houses built into the hillside.


The tranquil gardens of the Alhambra. Just one hill over from the Sacremonte, the climate is completely different from the blistering semi-arid district. The water features, tall trees and shaded walls create a cool and shady microclimate, a luxury fit for kings.

Touring the old Jewish quarter of Grenada, with all history obliterated aftr the Christian conquest and explusion of Muslims and Jews from the city
Sunday
Sep242017

#VoteYesAustralia

10 years ago, Lydia and I got married. Thankfully, we had to right to marry for love, with a secular wedding based on equality and mutual respect. You know, not traditional marriage at all. We went to Canada to get married, where the law recognises love as the highest value:

"Our bride and groom have brought us amidst the beauty of these mountains to celebrate the peace and joy that they have found together. Let us gather our thoughts and good wishes as we witness and share in their formal joining in the legal state of matrimony. The state of matrimony has matured as our society has matured. From an ancient tradition, marriage has developed into an expression of joy between any two people sharing love, respect and understanding. Our couple have found true happiness in each other, and with joy they have entered a life-long companionship and will comfort and support each other with gentleness and strength. In marriage, we give ourselves freely and generously into the hands of the one we love, and in doing so, each of us receives the love and trust of the other as our most precious gift. Today our bride and groom proclaim their love to the world."

Disgracefully, Australians do not yet have this right. There has been a clear majority in favour of same-sex marriage for over 10 years. Unfortunately, the country as a whole has not voted with its convictions, with a parliament substantially more religious and conservative than the people. Yet even the right-wing Liberal party, dead against anything progressive or inclusive, has known better than to campaign openly against LGBT rights in Australia, preferring to obfuscate and delay.

The most recent tactic, used by the very disappointing Malcolm Turnbull, has been to insist that a referendum is needed to change the constitution to allow same-sex marriage. Except, this morphed into a plebiscite, since the religious right wanted to vote against even if the country voted for. The argument is legally rubbish - the Constitution of Australia does not need to be changed, as ruled on by the High Court of Australia, so this has now degraded into a non-compulsory, non-binding postal survey. Exactly like all the surveys that have consistently shown majority support for same-sex marriage for ten years, except this one is costing $120 million.
 

Oh, and the other important difference? The right-wing has created an situation where the vitriol held by a minority of Australians is now publically on display. By holding up the human rights of the LGBT community to a public survey, every hate-filled venomous group feels free to spew bile in public. Knowing from past examples that public votes on LGBT rights led to increased homophobic attacks and LGBT youth suicide, it is utterly contemptible for the Australian right-wing to run this useless and unnecessary postal survey.

That said, the survey is happening, so of course we are voting. My postal survey came in today, so we had a family discussion with Hayden.

"Hayden, in Belgium you can marry anyone that you love. So a mummy can marry a daddy, or a mummy can marry another mummy. But in Australia, the law doesn't let mummies marry mummies, or daddies marry daddies. Do you think we should change that law?"

"Why is Australia being mean? Yes, we should change that law".

Pretty straight-forward yes vote there. So, for the children, #VoteYes. It is not a difficult question, and that is before even going into all the heart-wrenching stories of gay couples suffering the consequences that being unmarried can entail during situations such as hospitalisation and death. Please, #VoteYesAustralia

Sunday
Aug272017

The Lord of the Rings, New Zealand style

I'm in Wellington today, a charming city which combines the look of San Francisco suburbs (with daily earthquakes, the city copies San Fran housing to great success), with the laid-back New Zealand style. I got to go up to Mount Victoria, where the houses having tiny "baby cable cars", with 400 single-person sized cable cars used to get up to the house. Looking through the list of things to do, I thought a Lord of the Rings tour would give a nice taste of the city.

The Lord of the Rings was a very influential book for me. The Hobbit the was the first book I read, at 5, and made me crave more books to read: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort." I read and reread the Lord of the Rings at least a dozen times as a teenager, and I still love Tolkien's method of world building by creating, but only lightly referencing, a deep history. If nothing else, it immunised me against religion when I first heard about Christianity ("You believe what? Like, gods and things from Lord of the Rings? You think that was real?"). I quite liked the movies too, in that they did away with the worst aspects of Tolkien's world (the tedious detail of the long-expected party, the complete absence of all women) and kept true enough to the grandeur of the books. 

I had a guide to the filming sites of the Lord of the Rings, who knew perhaps too much about the filming (which room number her favourite stars stayed at in the local hotel, what time they went shopping, etc). We saw the location for the Buckland ferry scene ("hiding from the Black Rider"), the gardens of Isengard and the valley of Rivendell. The odd thing was that so much of the filming was done in very narrow shots with magestic scenary from the South Island stiched in behind, so it kind of seems odd that they worried about the location at all. We also visited the excellent Weta studies. Weta Studio is named after the weta, the giant "spider" of New Zealand (actually a type of cricket), which can be translated into English as "the God of all Ugly Things". Weta Studio certainly lives up to the name, with all manner of uglies made inside, from the orcs of Middleearth to prosthetics for slasher films. It is amazing the level of detail that goes into it, with real human hair weaved hair by hair into most of the prosthetics (except the Dwarven beards, which used yak fur to get that coarse curly look). The scene where orcs pulled down the trees of Isengard actually involved fake trees, with 700,000 silk leaves woven in. The attention to detail is incredible.

The filming of the Lord of the Rings has transformed Wellington. There was an embryonic film industry here before the LotR, with TV series such as Hercules and Xena, but Peter Jackson changed it into a world player. The LotR cost $600 million to produce (it made more than $8 billion, so the production company can't be upset), most of which was ploughed into the local economy. Vast numbers of local staff were employed over a decade to work on different aspects (stunts were initially done by the local karate club, until someone broke a collarbone), and Peter Jackson constantly reinvested money from the film and his profits into creating a film ecosystem that is one of the few places in the world where films can be made the entire way along the production process in a single site. Small production facillities such as Weta blossomed into major industry players, and Peter Jackson even bought his own polystyrene factory to ensure a good supply to the film industry. The old industrial site is now transformed, with an abandoned paint factory becoming a studio and digital effects companies springing up. Since the LotR, over 150 films have been made in Wellington, and there has been a 700% increase in tourism to Wellington, shaping the entire economy.

The location of the scene where the hobbits cowered from the Black Rider, while spiders crawled over them. They were originally going to include a rare weta, except it got killed by one of the centipedes, so they buried it and moved on.

Sunday
Aug132017

A summer in Oxford

So fast our summer sabbatical in Oxford is over. Weeks flew by filled with interesting meetings, lazy hours in our little garden, long walks along the canals, the occasional beer in an English pub, and visits by the best friends you could imagine. We celebrated some major milestones, 10 years married and Hayden's 6th birthday. We got to re-indulge in pleasures of our youth, with Oxford surprising us with its familiarity to Australian eyes, while encountering new pleasures of today. Even a trip to the hospital was an occasion to smile with a visit from a volunteer clown. A magical couple of months to be treasured.

  

 

  

Wednesday
Aug022017

Dunkirk and Brussels

I saw Dunkirk today. For a WWII movie, it was surprisingly low-violence, nothing like Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene of which so movingly illustrated the pointless slaughter of war. Yet in another way, the first few seconds of Dunkirk was more disturbing. We are used to WWII movies set on the bombed out ruins of shattered cities, but the Battle of Dunkirk was right at the start of the war. There is something just profoundly disturbing about seeing soliders flee machine guns in a charming European city, no different from the Belgian sea-side towns of today.

My first thought was revulsion, I hope to never see the military occupying my beloved home cities. My second thought, following rapidly, was anger - I do see military vehicles and machine-gun wielding soliders on a daily basis. For the last 18 months, Brussels has been living under military occupation. This cowardly and repressive action does nothing for our safety; it is designed to bolster fear and feed upon that fear for short-term political gain. 18 months in, this seems like the new reality, with the government too gutless to admit it was wrong to respond to a criminal situation with tanks instead of police and social workers. I love Belgium, but I hate, and will always hate, living in an occupied city, where my 6 year old son doesn't blink twice at casually seeing machine guns.

Saturday
Jul012017

Claymation with Aardman 

As part of the Oxford Festival of the Arts, I took Hayden to a claymation workshop run by one of the clay modellers who works at Aardman. He made the models for Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and many other Aardman productions, and today he taught us!

Friday
Jun302017

The international language

Travelling around central Asia, Hayden always had a keen eye out for a playground. Given the nod, he would run in, start climbing around, jump into games with the children. Whether it was playing leap-frog in a fancy mall in Kazakhstan or chasing each other around inside a yurt in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, all children speak an international language. The international language being, of course, Dinosaur. It typically only took a few minutes together before they were all roaring like dinosaurs and taking turns at eating or being eaten. There is probably an object lesson in there, like all kids share a common humanity, or perhaps all kids sharing a common desire to be a massive flesh-eating killing machine. Definitely one of those two.

 

Thursday
Jun292017

Alamedin gorge

We hiked up through the gorgeous Alamedin gorge in Kyrgyzstan. The mountains were simply breathtaking and the weather was perfect for a hike. Hayden happily skipped up along the mountain path, following our gentle guide who stopped to move any flowers that had fallen along the path (she loved flowers, and was sad to think of other people standing on them). Near the top it was a struggle, and the view we had been hanging out for (a waterfall) was fairly dissapointing compared to the nice views down below. Fortunately our guide just laughed and told us about a field of wildflowers and marmots just a little further on, which was simply enchanting. Our day was rounded out by skipping tea in a yurt while Hayden made new friends with the local kids. Really one of my most perfect moments.

Wednesday
Jun282017

Korgaldzhyn nature reserve

Tuesday
Jun272017

World Fair 2017