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Wednesday
Jul202016

The Grand Tetons, Wyoming

Tuesday
Jul192016

Capitalism gone wrong

Capitalism has a lot going for it, but it also has failures. Most notably, it fails when it comes to delivering goods or services in a ubiquitous manner, so it fails the poorest in society. I would consider this to be another major failure:

Really? Why does a drink exist which is a combination of one of the worst beers ever invented, mixed with tomato and clam juice? Does the diversity of the market feed the most degenerate of urges?

Tuesday
Jul192016

Trump land

So we finally meet the elusive Trump voters, which clearly must exist but whom no-one seems to have met. In Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, a Trump voter gave us her opinion on Belgium and the EU:

Trump voter: “It’s a disaster, with Belgium ruling over Europe, telling them what to do”

James: “Actually, Belgium is a really small country and doesn’t have that much influence. It is just that the elected officials of each country meet in Brussels”

Trump voter: “Well, look at the mass exodus of people from Europe – it is a disaster”

James: “Huh? What mass exodus of people from Europe?”

Trump voter: “Millions of people are trying to escape Europe and come to America, and no one is trying to leave America, so clearly we are the best country in the world”

James: “Which country in Europe has millions of people fleeing it?”

Trump voter: “Syria. Europe is so bad that millions of people are leaving Syria and coming to America, and we need Christian morals in the presidency to stop them”

James: …

Then in Wyoming, we lunched in the Yankee Doodle Café, where everything was red, white and blue. The décor was pro-gun (“guns are welcome here!”, “21 reasons why a gun is better than a woman”) and anti-Obama (“only two people in history have had their own symbol, Hilter and Obama!”), and was a glimpse into the confused mind of someone who would be in an asylum in a more sane time and place. We ate our burgers and freedom fries and left in a hurry.

Monday
Jul182016

All the sights of Idaho

When we drove across the border to Idaho we stopped at a small tourism information office.

Me: We are driving to Lava Hot Springs. Is there anything to see on the way?

Tourism promoter: No

Me: Well, how about if we make a side-trip, say, 30 minutes or so?

Tourism promoter: Well, if you are willing to go an hour out of your way, there is the Monsanto plant. They have a magma pour down the slag heap at the phosphorous extraction plant, five times an hour, and a ‘captive’ geyser, where they artificially pump water into the sky at hourly intervals.

Me: Anything else?

Tourism promoter: No

Actually, Lava Hot Springs was actually quite nice. We spent a lazy afternoon at our bed and breakfast, where James grilled some steaks for dinner and we sampled the local beers, then the next morning we went for a dip in the hot Springs. Hayden was a little concerned that they were too hot at first, but we told him to blow on them and then he happily played pirate in the pools. 

"Captive Geyser" (aka, fake Geyser)

Monsanto slag heap

Sunday
Jul172016

"Australian" lunch in Utah - Fosters beer fondue with pretzels. So bad - I should have gone the "Alice Springs quesadillas".

Saturday
Jul162016

Antelope Island

The Bison herds of Antelope Island, remnants of the once great American herds, transplanted to the island in 1893 in order to start up a hunting business.

Fielding Garr Ranch. An opportunity to commune with a curious weasel. I also found out that the wool from black sheep was worth a lot less than the wool from white sheep, but ranchers used to dot their flock with black sheep as placemarkers, since they were easier to count from a distance.

The Great Salt Lake. Salt-encrusted beaches, swarms of brine flies and perfectly still water.

Friday
Jul152016

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City strikes an unusual cord in me. There are so many incongruities - the landscape is semi-arid scrub land, deep in the continental interior, and yet there is a coastal feel, with seagulls circling in from the Great Salt Lake. The city itself is a rich modern American city, yet it seems to have been built in the old European monumental style, with massive and ornate stonework. To me it had echoes of Ashgabat, the surreal capital of Turkmenistan. Both are gleaming moments of polished marble rising out of the desert, buildings that will look stately in a few hundred years, once the age of the stone matches its style. Both are so clean they look unlived in, a feeling amplified during the heat of the day, when residents hide inside. And both are oases of green and blue within a desert, with spring flowers everywhere you look. Yes, Ashgabat is infinitely weirder, a city unlike any other, but Salt Lake City also has a unique feel, almost an American city from a parallel dimension. 

Utah is most famous for being the centre of Mormanism. It is a funny religion - in a lot of ways it is a direct upgrade of Christianity, with a stronger emphasis on actually living the wholesome life (by their definition), rather than just berating others for not doing so. Unfortunately it suffers from the rare affliction of being comically modern, with the obviously fraudulent origin being on the written record rather than conveniently lost in the mists of time. The magic underwear and polygamy make it (rightfully) the butt of many jokes, but really the absurdity is no greater than those inherent to Christianity or Islam - given another thousand years for the edges to rub off (kind of like the monumental architecture of Salt Lake City itself). The sacred heart of Mormanism, Salt Lake City is now only a minority Latter Day Saints, although its imprint is obvious everywhere. Unlike at Christian churches, where the architecture is there to be enjoyed in splendid isolation, the Morman temple is surrounded by friendly Mormans (is there any other type? Too wholesome by half) willing to jump at the chance to explain Mormanism to the stranger - the defining missionary zeal lives at home as well as abroad.  

 

 

Wednesday
Jul132016

A weekend in Hamburg

I am always pleasantly surprised at German cities. They are just how I love a city to be - cosmopolitan, compact, beautiful, efficient. I always thought that if I could speak German I'd relocate to Berlin in a heartbeat - but now I would have to strongly consider Hamburg.

We had a great long-weekend in Hamburg. We started out with a visit to the Eppendorf factory (the whole visit was courtesy of Eppendorf, the famous pipette manufacturer). Our family were treated as VIPs, down to giving small gifts to Hayden and a guided tour of every aspect of the company. I was intruiged to learn about Eppendorf's early history as a post-WWII manufacturer of medical devices, such as turning military sonar principles into a prototype ultrasound. In those days everything had to be done on minimal resources and maximal ingenuity.

Now the company is all German precision and efficiency. I was really surprised to see that the PCR machines were so lovingly put together by hand, more an engineering enterprise than a factory floor. The scale is still small enough that it doesn't make sense to automate, and the desire for quality drives the personal attention each gets. At the other end of the scale, the plastics factory was almost complete automation, constantly injection molding millions of tips and tubes. But even there the almost obsessive attention to quality was obvious - with most of the set-up dedicated to quality control. Everywhere we went there was a real pride in the company and in the quality of their work.

After seeing Eppendorf, we went to the dock district for a "Dialogue in the Dark". This was a fascinating experience were we were taken for a walk around a pretend city-scape - all in the dark, led by a blind guide. It is one of those cases where the tables are turned and you need help every step of the way by someone who lives in the dark constantly. It was also an interesting experience for Hayden - at times he got scared, but he pushed through it and I think the novelty of the experience was good for him.

The rest of the weekend was basically Hayden time. The Hamburg Zoo is excellent, very interactive. We feed the elephants, alpaccas and baboons:

Do we really want to encourage elephants to lean out over the moat?

But Hayden's favourite was probably the Guinea Pigs:

Followed up by a return visit to the Minatuur Wonderland. This huge minature train set has both amazing scale, and amazing detail, and is well worth a visit (or two).

And then several days of enjoying the parks and enormous playgrounds of such a beautiful city.

 

Friday
Jul012016

We are now Belgian!

Today our citizenship papers came through, and Lydia, Hayden and myself are officially Belgian!


Thursday
Jun302016

The secret life of Hayden

Hayden doesn't really talk that much about school, and when we ask it is usually "I don't know how to say that in English". We get glimpses from what he brings home - a loaf of bread that he baked - and a few vague descriptions "Today we went to a forest. Xeno waggeled his bottom at a tree", but not enough to get a good feel. But today we have a secret glimpse into Hayden's school life, thanks to the teacher's photos...

That day St Nikolas visited.

More shockingly, the day a chicken visited (it laid an egg, and the teacher promptly taught the children how to cook an omlet)

Guinea pig day

A trip to the sea park

With friends

Making spookie oranges for Halloween

Display of the carnival costumes

Trip to the park

Easter eggs