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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

 

Saturday
Jun252016

Fun with magnets

Time to learn about magnetism, with the aid of some neodymium super-magnets, ferro-fluid, iron-filings and some magnetic putty.

 

Friday
Jun242016

Brexit is a result of the cowardliness of the Tories

The Leave-Remain compaign was never about sovereignity, it was always about xenophobia, pure and simple. For a tolerant country like the UK, founded on immigration and international empire, this xenophobia does not come naturally. Xenophobia was only a fringe movement on the right until the Tories decided to co-opt the language of racism in order to gain an electoral advantage over Labour. They thought they could repeat UKIP and BNP talking points against immigrants and the EU in order to pick up extra votes. It worked, but they legitimised a monster which has just proven willing to trash the UK economy in order to kick out Polish plumbers. If the Tories had had the moral courage to speak out against xenophobia early and strong, this would never had happened.

So what is gained by Brexit? Basically nothing. What the leave campaign didn't tell you is that the UK only voted against 2% of EU laws, so 98% of EU laws were put in place with the support of the UK government. All EU laws and regulations require the support of either elected governments or elected MEPs, so the UK still had a say over every decision made. Now it won't have a say, but it will have to abide by all of the laws and regulations anyway if it wants access to its largest trading partner. Bravo Leave campaign, you have just reduced the sovereignity of the UK. And if the UK decides not to be part of the EU trading block? Well the British pound instantly dropped 11% on this possibility, so get ready for a slow flight of capital out of the UK and into the US or Europe.

How about immigration? Again, it is disingenuous (i.e., a lie) to say that the UK lost control over its borders to the EU. The UK government was one of the leaders in the push to expand the EU to the east, and when Eastern Europe joined each EU member state was given the possibility to delay free migration. The UK was one of those countries that allowed immediate immigration - as a choice of the UK government. The simple fact is, the high level of immigration to the UK has nothing to do with the EU. It is driven by history, empire lost and the deliberate choice of the UK government to put economic growth over racial purity. So what will happen now? Well a bunch of Brits will lose their jobs in the EU, British retirees won't find it so easy to swan around in southern Spain, and French and German professionals will be discourged from working in London. That's it. The UK will still be a country of immigrants (sorry racists), and the only impact Brexit will have on slowing that process is if the economy collapses so badly that immigrants don't want to come any more.

What a disaster.

A noble woman, victim of xenophobia

Saturday
Jun112016

Father's Day

While Lydia was away we went to the medieval fair in Porte de Hal (isn't it nice to have a castle in the park across the road?). Hayden dressed up as Captain Hook and I was Mr Smee. Okay, it wasn't exactly the right historial period, but we get points for effort, right? We put on puppet shows for each other, tried the archery and then went jousting!  

 

 

 

Wednesday
Jun012016

Gabon

Tuesday
May312016

Weirdest perfume brand ever

Huh? Playmobil perfume? Who is this marketed at? Four year olds who have a refined taste for expensive perfumes? Completely clueless rich relatives? I just don't get how this exists.

Sunday
May222016

Family portrait