Craig Box's journeys, stories and notes...

Archive for August, 2007

Standards NZ get it 100% right

Friday, August 31st, 2007

I would like to take a moment to divert from the travel nature of this blog and express my satisfaction that Standards NZ has voted "no with comments" to the fast-tracking of Microsoft's new "OOXML" document format as an ISO standard.  I also need to offfer my congratulations to the NZOSS, particularly new president Don Christie, Matthew Cruickshank and Chris Daish for their efforts in presenting a clear, technical and rational case as to why voting "yes" would have been a bad idea.

A "no" vote doesn't mean saying "get lost, Microsoft" or not standing up for innovation: they're saying "Here's all the areas your proposal falls down in: fix them and get back to us".  A very important comment is "There's already an open document standard, why not just use that?"

They're also not saying "never", Microsoft want to fast-track the adoption: why can't they wait in line, like everyone else?

I'm not an open-source shill: I'll rattle off the standard "MCP, writing this from Windows, worked as a Windows sysadmin for almost 5 years, sometimes C# programmer" etc - but the point here was Microsoft could have worked with others, implemented an open standard, and probably not lost any sales of Office 2007 in the process.

NZOSS is clearly going places under its new leadership, and it's unfortunate I'm not in NZ to be able to contribute!  (Also, it seems you really have to be in Wellington to make the differences that matter... oh well, at least it's not Auckland!)


Friday, August 31st, 2007

Ahhh, Manchester.  The home of Oasis, James, New Order, Joy Division, the Smiths, the Hacienda Club, and all sorts of other cool music stuff I saw nothing of.  There were a lot of record stores by the hostel but nothing that sounded like a Manchester Music Experience.

We booked beds at the YHA online and got there to find they were booked out, and someone, somewhere, had cocked up. A pity, because the YHA looked nice, and other hostels had no car parking options.  They very kindly let me park the car there and catch a free bus into town, but it was all a lot of effort for a tired cookie who had been pub crawling the night before.

This didn't stop Tom and Cathy, who went on their second pub crawl in two nights.

The only thing we really saw in Manchester, other than a lot of roads, was the Museum of Science and Industry.  The main drawcard was a Doctor Who exhibition, where, among other things, we saw a Dalek, the Cyber Controller, K9, a Slitheen, the Face of Boe, the Emperess Racnoss and a space where an Ood should be.

There was a lot to see here (check out a coat made entirely of thistle "fairies") but time was short, so we had a quick run through the engine hall and then headed off to Cardiff.


Friday, August 31st, 2007

Google told me the trip from Glasgow to York would take 4 hours 30. "Nonsense", said Craig, "the motorway flows at at least 90mph, whether we like it or not!" (Seriously, the limit is 70, and you get passed if you're only doing 80 in the left lane.)

However, Google knows more than I do. By the time we had a rest break (did you know that in the UK, they make Creme Eggs in chocolate bar format?) and a 90 minute torrential summer rainstorm, we were pretty much spot on the estimate. We also broke over the 1000 mile mark on our trip along the way.

We fairly quickly set about the purpose of our visit to York - 18 months ago Greig came here and bought me back two gifts - a Black Sheep bar mat, and a City of York Historic Pub Crawl guide. We took the map and started the evening.

Half pints were the measure of the day, as we figured that drinking pints at each location would mean that I would get through three measures of spirits before Captain Slow Drinking had finished his. This rule fluctuated throughout the evening. Cathy actually turned on a good performance with the speed, at some points even rivaling Tom! The two got rather competitive after a while.

At least three of the pubs we went to claimed to be the most haunted, or oldest, in York. (One claimed to be both.)

York has a large wall surrounding most of it - sections built and rebuilt by the Normans, the Romans and the Angles - and you're allowed to walk on it until dusk daily. Unfortunately as we got there we met the Keeper of the Wall, who was locking it up for the evening. However, we were allowed to walk along with him as he walked to the next stop in the other direction to lock up, and were given a nice little history lesson as we went. The Keeper is most bodacious.

More pubs, more drinking, some jazz, some karaoke (Cathy gave me 8/10 for voice but 4/10 for stage presence. I was trying to concentrate on all the stuff I'd learned in my vocal training!). The wait for the karaoke (and the assorted hanging, and Cathy mooning some bar chick after she finished work, so we could tick the "Mooned" box on the pub crawl list) meant we couldn't make it to the last pub on the list, but we went to an 80's nightclub instead.

Awesome Cathy really came into his own here. The pictures should tell the story. Tom and Cathy stayed out on the pull and I went back to the hostel, via the closest thing to a KFC tower burger since they got rid of the Hash Brown. All in all not bad for a Wednesday night!

All the attractions in York were very booked out the next day, so some very tired and hungover traveling companions and I made for Manchester.


Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

Driving down to Glagsgow was by way of Loch Lomond, immortalised in the only Scottish song (by someone other than the Proclaimers) we knew: something about taking a low road, and getting there quicker. Again, a very picturesque and scenic place. Scotland is very nice to look at.

We stayed at Cairncross House, a student hall of the University of Glasgow. We had individual rooms (good in terms of Cathy's snoring) but they were about a million miles from the reception, with about 50 turns and three flights of stairs (two up, one down) required to get to them! It was considered we could map it for the reader's amusement, but where's the fun in that.

It was impossible to pass up somewhere called "The Goat" to have dinner. I had "Partick Pie", little sausage-meat savouries, offered with peas or beans. I picked beans, and was somewhat surprised when they turned out to be baked!

We felt like dessert but nothing on the menu looked good, so we picked up some Ben and Jerry's ice-cream. I believe Ben and Jerry's, which I first had in Dublin at Google, is the best food America has ever produced. Unfortunately it takes a wee while to thaw and we were a little impatient.

The next morning our museum was the Kelvingrove: an excellent blend of art and science, featuring Sir Roger the Elephant, a Salvador Dali painting of Jesus, a picture of which I took for my flatmate Jesus, who likes Salvador Dali, and a real (stuffed) wild haggis animal! (The wild haggis has shorter legs on one side so they can walk around the hills, you know.)

I don't know if I told you I got stung by a wasp in Cambridge: well, I got stung by a wasp in Cambridge. This is important to know now because of two things, (1) you should know I have some wasp sting relief spray; and (2) Tom sat on one at the pub at lunchtime. Very unfortunate but rather comical. Much spray was applied, and his leg was up in the air for most of the rest of the day.


Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

At Sam's wedding we had the pleasure of meeting Ann, a colleague of Zoe's, and her children Rosa and Callum. Ann very kindly invited us up to her Scottish holiday home and after a day at Stirling, we arrived to a beautiful lamb dinner with her family and some local friends.

The house is right on the edge of Loch Etive and it's hard to explain just how beautiful and tranquil it is. We hadn't been too far off the beaten path until this point, and it was really great to get into the countryside, even if it means we will have to tick the "Yes, my shoes have been on a farm" box when passing biosecurity checks at the next airport.

Unfortunately, Ann had to head back to Cambridge the next morning, so we spent a couple of days relaxing and exploring the region: we went for a walk around the loch, where I very unceremoniously got poo shoes, had lunch in the village, went fishing and dog-walking with Callum.

History in the area was provided by the Bonawe Iron Furnace, where local charcoal and shipped iron ore was turned into bars called "pigs", or cast into cannonballs, from 1753 to 1876.

Exercise was a walk up the "ant trail" on Glen Nant, the forest where the charcoal was grown, starring some absolutely stunning scenery.

I'd like to thank Ann again for her hospitality and welcoming us into her home.

We bid farewell to Argyll and turned the car back in the direction of Glasgow.


Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

Everything I know about Scottish history to this point I learnt from Braveheart, or from our mate Robin at Crichton Castle. Stirling Bridge was where William Wallace beat the English, although the movie forgot to mention a bridge. Stirling itself is right on the edge of the highlands, and it's said "he who controls Stirling, controls Scotland."

Highlights of the castle included the tapestries (This is a castle, isn't it? You have to have tapestries!) of a unicorn hunt, which are being painstakingly recreated from 15th century originals, in a multi-decade project.

We also got to sit in the chairs where the King and Queen would sit in the Great Hall, before the closing of the castle cut our day short.

Some backtracking was required as Calendar was out of goat-food, and then our trip continued towards the West Highlands.


Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

Edinburgh Castle is a well-polished tourist machine, even on a rainy day. We missed the one o'clock gun because we were enjoying excellent Italian sandwiches and friendly banter from Caffe Espresso on Bank Street. If you go to Edinburgh, eat there. Or just go to Scotland to eat there.

The castle contains the "Honours of Scotland", symbols of their thrown: a sword, a sceptre and a stone, which wouldn't really be a comfortable place to sit when being crowned. No wonder they use a throne these days. These are not allowed to be photographed. Why? We also got to hang out in the room where James VI of Scotland, later to become James I of England (and ancestor of our current Queen), was born.

We walked through the courtyard where the Edinburgh Tattoo is held, but tickets for it sell out between seven and ten years in advance.

Two acts of street theatre caught our attention between the castle and the car: The Human Knot, an entertaining hurt-himself-for-our-pleasure act that reminded me a little too much of Sam Wills, and the Daredevil Chicken Club, a reasonably theatrical juggling/acrobatic act. Both had the requisite amount of audience participation and enjoyment provided, although the latter did it dressed in chicken suits, and with more bad puns.

Dinner had the option of haggis, neeps and tatties (turnips and potato) in a whiskey sauce as a starter, so had to try that. It was absolutely fantastic!

We then went to see some free stand-up: Caimh McDonnell (that's pronounced 'queeve', and is the Gaelic for Kevin) and his show "I.D." gave us a very funny look through his wallet. He was a great blend of fantastic humour with the social message of "information is useless without context", as a protest against British national ID cards. He was a capable funny Irishman without requiring Dylan Moran-esque drunkenness. Unfortunately, Pam Ford's All Legs and Ladders, was just an Australian woman who had fallen into the "only make meta-jokes about being a brash woman in comedy, and thus just Not Be Funny" trap.

We stayed with Cathy's friends Mike and Shaw (thanks guys), and the boys repaid them by catching and removing an errant rodent from the flat.

Edinburgh was Tom's favourite place on the trip; he thought it felt like Melbourne. I like Melbourne, but I like New Zealand better, so I preferred Dublin.

Scottish Border Abbeys and Castles

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

We could see a nice old building out our hostel window, so we wandered down to have a look. The building turned out to be the old Melrose Abbey, and the gentlemen at the shop convinced us we wanted to buy a Historic Scotland explorer pass. With this, you can visit all the attractions you like in a (3/5/7) day period. We bought a 3 day pass and decided we'd stop at everything we could.

Melrose Abbey was originally founded by the Cistercian monks in 1136. Richard II burnt the crap out of it, and then felt so bad about doing so he paid to rebuild it.

Just down the road was the Dryburgh Abbey, another Cistercian site - this one with less of the original ruins, but more of the rebuilt architecture intact. On the way to Dryburgh is the famous statue of William Wallace.

Crichton Castle was a wee way off the road, and a wee climb up a hill to get to. This was, in a wee way, reflected in the gentleman working there: a very friendly and unfailingly polite gent named Robin who seemed like he didn't have company all that often. It's unfortunate, because there's a lot of history in Crichton - Mary, Queen of Scots visited there, you know? (Don't worry, every castle can claim that.)

Robin very kindly gave us extensive hand-written directions to Craigmillar Castle (which Tom has kept as a souvenir). Craigmillar is in very good condition, but not all that old, and more of a stately home than an actual military castle. More well preserved latrines, also. It also has a prison just for midgets, and a pizza oven for their use.

The point of going to Edinburgh on that particular night was to see James play at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange. A very friendly bus driver was prepared to wait for me to go buy a 40p chocolate bar so I had exact change, the pick-up of the tickets went without hassle, and Tom and I settled in with some drinks.

Didn't take the camera (no "pics or it didn't happen" call from Drew, please), but I can report that the band was in fine fettle (as they say in Scotland). About two songs in they played "Sit Down", which inspired me to begin in a reasonably trouble-free run to the front, where I stayed on the railing for the rest of the show. A number of new songs were played, and some older ones I didn't know so well, but a good mix, great times, lots of cups of water from security. Dancers picked to go up on stage during Gold Mother - I wasn't interesting enough, it seems, but I did get to rub Tim's head after he sang She's A Star from the front railing, held up by security.

Our bus broke on the way home (what was it with us and public transport breaking?) but a friendly couple who'd been to the gig kindly allowed us to share their taxi.

We went out seeking free Fringe festival jazz, but some weird-ass experimental theatre group ran for longer than they should have. A friend of the group members came out of the performance early saying "I'm embarassed to know them, it's painful".

From England to Scotland

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

Something I don't think I've ever done before: three countries in one day. A reasonably good split also: about 8 hours in Ireland, 10 in England and then 6 in Scotland.

If you order a taxi driver for 6.20am, so you can catch an 8am flight with plenty of time to check in, you really don't want him driving like an idiot and puncturing a tyre.  Our Ryanair flight didn't arrive on time, thankfully, so we didn't have a deafening trumpet telling us that we had.  After the first time, I'd prefer that the flights WERE delayed!

First stop of the day was at Ullswater. We might have hired a sailboat if there was one available; there wasn't, so we played some Connect 4 and went for a walk around the lake. Lots of overhead activity also, in the form of both modern and old-fashioned planes!

We stopped at an information centre, that told us the best places to check out Hadrian's Wall. This was a fortification across the entire width of England, designed to keep the nasty Celts out. We stopped at the Housesteads fort, which came with a guided tour in the form of a little show, featuring a Roman administrator and a Celtic lady entirely in character. Very well acted and worth seeing. The most well preserved building in the fort was, for some reason, the latrine.

The information centre also suggested somewhere to stay that sounded a bit more fun than Carlisle. We drove up to the village of Melrose, proclaiming a new king of Scotland on the way by way of rock-climbing. The YHA was a fantastic old building, with really helpful staff that managed to do what we hadn't done all week in Dublin - book us a bed in Edinburgh.

Dinner was at the local pub, and involved some great games of pool with a fantastic local character. This is what traveling is meant to be about.

Transport economy

Friday, August 24th, 2007

We now depart from my regular updates to, because I'm a fortnight behind on them. Uploading pictures is the killer.

How's everyone back home? Comment on the blog or drop me an e-mail and let me know how you're doing.

Interesting facts about yesterday's travel:

The bus also had free wireless internet. You don't even get cellphone signal on the tube. Pity about the two hours it took, and the fact the (cellular 3G provided) internet only worked for about 10 mins.

Being behind on old stories really makes it hard to justify telling new stories.