Thursday, December 31, 2009

I need a Scotch. I mean whisky.

The range of reactions we got when we told folks we were planning to drive from London (where we had our Very Bow Christmas) to Edinburgh (where we are settling in to celebrate Hogmanay) basically broke down into two camps:

1) "Oh, that will be nice! A drive through the English countryside! (North Americans)
2) "You're driving from London to Edinburgh!? (British)

That second response was then accompanied by some detailed reasons why this was foolishness, ranging from "there's not a lot to see" to "the roads off the M-6 aren't that great" to "the weather in Scotland changes suddenly and you will be dodging livestock on two-lane roads."

It turned out, both responses were right.

Rather than try to make the entire journey in one go, we stopped about five hours' drive north of London in the Lakes District. A few twisty, hilly roads away from the M-6 was a tiny hamlet called Ambleside that was cast out of industrial-strength quaintness. Yet it managed to avoid the usual accompaniment of cheesiness. We stayed in a nice, simple B&B, we ate at a "localvore" restaurant down the way called Lucy's on a Plate, we drank at a local watering hole that had nearly as many dogs in the place as people. Beautiful.

The next day, yesterday, we struck out for Scotland. There was plenty more wonderful scenery, even though--I swear--as soon as we crossed the border it started sleeting on us. We ate lunch in a small town called Moffat, then decided to take the "scenic trail" to Edinbrough. This entailed a winding road through the hills, one lane in each direction, at sunset. I have it on good authority that the Scots invented winding roads.

Marveling at the rolling, snow-covered, sheep-dotted hills, we set out on our way.

Five minutes in, it started raining. Fifteen minutes in, it started snowing. About 30 seconds after that, it was a full-blown blizzard, and the sun was down. Oh, no. The scenic route ended with our Volkswagen Golf parked behind several other cars backed up behind a massive snowdrift that had formed across the road... a four-wheel-drive truck was stuck in it.

So we turned around. And did I mention I was driving at this point? And that the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car, which drives on the wrong side of the road?

As it turned out, even the non-scenic route entailed about an hour on yet another two-lane, windy, country road with plenty of oncoming traffic and snowdrifts on either side. I finally was able to breathe normally after we somewhat magically found a parking spot in front of the place where we're staying here in Edinburgh.

And now? Now I would like to go find some good whisky. Sounds like I'll need it to keep me warm tonight. The weather changes suddenly here, you see.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What 10p will buy you

Last night we met one of our Abu Dhabi compatriots for drinks and noshes in Camden Town. It's a lot less quaint than it sounds, which is good--think a slightly edgier version of Lincoln Park, with a bunch of alternative/goth clothing stores, record shops, bars and storefront restaurants. Friend of the Blog Nick ran into Amy Winehouse in a pub there a few weeks ago.

Anyway, after a night of low-key revelry, we were headed back to the Tube stop when a woman approached and asked for change. Other Friend of the Blog Pete dug into his pocket and handed her some silver. She thanked him and walked away...

... then, after about 15 feet, turned around and gave him his change back. "I'm not that desperate," she said as she returned his 10 pence.

The moral of the story, of course, is that beggars really can be choosers.

Off to Buckingham Palace today... we'll say hello to the Queen for you.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's Christmas Eve, babe...

... and for the 33rd consecutive year, I'm not in the drunk tank! That's cause for celebration, right there. So, per Read Ink tradition, I present to you... a growling Irishman singing about living in New York.

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

England, land of cold, damp and festive

So here we are in Day Three of our sojourn to Great Britain. And it's been pretty great. So far we have done touristy stuff, like pay way too much to ride in a giant Ferris wheel on the Thames that commands great views of the city, everyday stuff like drink pints in tiny pubs with funny names and stuff we thought we had left behind in Chicago... specifically trudge through snow and get stuck in traffic.

But it's very festive and wonderful. There is an energy here that you find few other places in the world--New York is the first that comes to mind. And of course lots of pubs.

Can't wait to see more of it.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Tonight, we fly to London Towne.

Last night, we drove to Khalidya Mall. That part was awful. I swear, it's like every mall designer in the UAE didn't realize that literally 90 percent of the people who would go shopping would do so in a car. The parking lot was a nightmare, so was the parking garage, and we ended up in the parking lot of a blood bank (!?) down the street.

But whatever. Our friends gave up waiting for us, as they should have, but left our tickets to the UAE 3-D premiere of "Avatar" at the box office. And so we settled into our seats, funny-looking glasses in hand, about five minutes after the opening credits.

From there, though, the experience was immersive and impressive. I know I will be mocked for this (looking at you here, Mrs. Blog), but I would even say it was moving. Here's why: It submerged you in a rich, well-thought-out world that made you forget you were in the theater.

3-D looks much better on the screen than on my head.

Yes. I know that's pretty hyperbolic. And I'm not prone to hyperbole at the movies. But the last sentence in the above paragraph is literally true.

It's not just the 3-dimensional aspect (although it's hard to imagine seeing the movie in any other way at this point). I have seen 3-D films before, the last being a kind of random nature film at the Shedd Aquarium that included a "fourth dimension" of real-world effects like water sprayed in your face and air riffling through your hair. That just seemed gimmicky.

This was, I swear, barely noticeable after the first 10 minutes. And that's a good thing. Because rather than make you think about the cinemagraphic trickery needed to pull something like that off, or cause you to duck as a randomly thrown object hurtles "toward" your face, it just established that you weren't watching a movie. You were in a movie. A silent observer pulled along into a brilliantly realized world.

And about that world. I am a sucker for space opera. I love sweeping planetscapes, multiple suns and bizarre landforms. Yet the planet that was the setting for the movie, a moon called "Pandora" that appeared to be orbiting a gas giant, for all its technicolor animals and neon nighttime vistas, seemed less like an attempt to impress with its weirdness and more like an imaginable place.

Those two factors--3-D that immerses you in the world and a world that is fun to be immersed in--are the movie's strongest points. They are magnificent. And even if you ignore the plot (which I'll get to in a sec), it's still magnificent. A National Geographic special on Pandora would have me on the edge of my seat, chowing down on Moose Crunch.

The characters are broadly drawn, and I won't get into them too much except to say that they are clearly defined as good and bad, and that the main character is truly an avatar. All the actors were fine, and I never got the sense that they were staring at a green screen as they worked... although many times they surely must have been.

And the plot. Well, I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying it's "Dances With Wolves" guest-starring 12-foot-tall blue aliens. But that's fine. It's a serviceable story with lots of archetypical conflicts that resonate, even if only at a superficial level. It hits the right notes, like a pop tune you find yourself subconsciously humming along to.

The most compelling element of the story is the romantic arc between two of the lead characters, which, I have to say, came off surprisingly well considering they were both rendered by some massive server bank deep in a Tokyo CGI farm.

Not that the aliens really come off as computer generated. Like the 3-D factor, the massive amounts of digital content don't seem like animation. They seem real--or as real as the aforementioned Smurfs of the Forest can. A lot of that has to do, if my understanding is correct, with the way that content was created. Rather than motion-captured bodies with the world filled in around them, the new technology, whatever it is, worked to capture all aspects of the actor's work, from body language to facial expressions. And it shows in every CGI sequence.

I guess that's what James Cameron was talking about whenever he talked about this movie as a "game changer." The first motion pictures weren't impressive story-wise, but holy crap! The pictures were moving! The first talking pictures... same thing. People! On screen! Talking! Whatever the hell Cameron did to put this movie together, it literally opens up a new world of filmmaking. In the right hands, this kind of technology moves the audience out of their seats and into the scene. If you just focus on that, "Avatar" is a towering, 600-foot home run.

So let's nutshell it, shall we? GO SEE AVATAR. The plot probably won't impress you. But the world you find yourself thrust into almost certainly will.

Also, I hated "Titanic." Have a great weekend....

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Have video editing software, will travel

To Hollywood. With a $32 million check.

That might not have been the plan of Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, but, thanks to a horde of marauding robots and the smoking ruins of Montevideo, that just happened to be the way it worked out. He had this vision, right--a vision of a missile-shooting robotic invasion--and so he sat down to realize it.

$300 later, this is what he came up with.

Boom! Whoosh! Aye carumba!

He said he posted the video on YouTube last month just before a weekend. By Monday, his e-mail inbox was choked with mail from bigshot types in Hollywood. And that is how he, his editing software and a bunch of unpaid extras ended up winning him a deal to produce a sci-fi action flick with the blessing of Sam Raimi.

You can't buy that kind of publicity.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I'm usually not one to get carried away with commercial airliners--my dorkiness is fueled by more exotic machines--but I have to say... the new Boeing 787 has a certain sleekness to it. Witness its maiden voyage:

Wheels down, rain falling, over. Niner.

The coolest thing about it, I think, is the upward cant of the wings. They're bending because, well, they can. Lightweight materials: making planes lighter, faster and niftier looking.

As an aside, because I just can't help myself, I think the chase planes are A-37s (maybe T-37s), which were featured in the latest Air&Space. OK, I'm done.

Hey, look--it's a post about writing!

An article in the latest issue of what might be my favorite magazine ever, Air and Space Smithsonian, got me thinking about a shelved short story idea. It has been a long time since I've worked on any short fiction... I couldn't tell you why. It just seems like every concept or setting or twist that works its way into my brain seems connected to a much larger narrative. Not sure what to blame that on. I'll go with "globalization" for now.

Anyway. The issue with this story is that I have a beginning I love and an end I love and a middle that doesn't really ratchet up the tension the way I would like. Part of the issue is that it's just two guys on a space station, waiting for someone from the ground to talk to them and turn them away from a horrible mission. There is atmosphere (not pure oxygen, of course. Ha.) but nothing sweat-inducing.

So I find myself reintroduced, in a way, to the mechanics of making a relatively small story arc generate conflict and high stakes. It will be a fun exercise.

Or maybe I'll just turn it into a novel.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The flooding of Tanker Mai

I woke up this morning--refreshed after a day of shopping in Dubai yesterday--and noticed that there was still rain speckling the windows of our apartment. "Ah," I thought. "This will be the first time in, like, six months that I will walk to work in the rain."

But when I got outside, I realized it was a lot more than just rain. It had been raining ALL NIGHT, and the neighborhood... well, it was partially underwater.

Same water, different neighborhood.

That's right. There is roughly a foot of water in some places in Tanker Mai. On my way to work, taking a bit more circuitous route than usual, I could see where the water line had reached overnight into several shops and building lobbies. Serious stuff, considering we live in a desert. I just looked it up, because that's what I do, and the average annual rainfall for the entire country is 6.5 cm.

Abu Dhabi could have as much as 4 cm by the end of the week. And then it's off for the sunny skies of London....

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Briefly unidentified flying objects

This week in Norway, folks got an interesting show in the early morning sky. A spinning disc appeared to rise over the horizon, trailed by a tail of bluish light. It floated there for a few minutes, then disappeared into an expanding circle of blackness. No sound was heard.

The science-fiction aficionado in me would have loved it if the aliens had landed shortly thereafter. The space aficionado in me said, "hey, that looks like a tumbling rocket."

So let's sort out what actually happened. Here is a time-lapse photo of the event:

You are getting sleeeeepy....

A huge alien pinwheel with a tractor beam, right? It's an impressive display. Video, though, showed that the most striking elements of the photo were, for the most part, artifacts of taking a long exposure:

Spin, spin, spin, poof.

It sure looks like something venting gases, dunnit? A rocket, maybe? But the Russians--the only people with North Sea-based launch capability--shrugged and said, "it wasn't us." Hmmm.

Meanwhile, here is a computer simulation of a rocket stage with a semi-functional booster engine and a propellant leak or misfiring guidance rocket. Look familiar?

Physics at its most dizzying.

In the end, it turns out that the Russians were just shrugging for public benefit. They had, indeed, launched a rocket from a submarine in the North Sea and it had, in fact, not worked precisely as it was designed to.

So there were no aliens. But at least it was a pretty light show for a cold December morning.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Of Killers, shisha and 70-degree weather in December

Last night was the second concert I have attended in Abu Dhabi, stops in the lairs of various cover bands notwithstanding: The Killers, stopping by at the end of a world tour.

I wouldn't describe myself as a massive fan of the band, but let me tell you why it was a great show.

The thing about going to a concert in Abu Dhabi is that most of the crowd--say four-fifths--are there just because it's a concert in Abu Dhabi. They probably know the band's hit singles, but don't celebrate the band's entire catalog.

As a result, pretty much any band is walking uphill when it comes to getting the crowd involved. Last night was no exception. The Killers came out with a lot of energy, flashing lights and oddball background videos, but the crowd seemed content to basically sway and clap. I did my part by waving my hands in the air in a manner that suggested I had no great personal stake in the situation's outcome.

But. The Killers are from Las Vegas, the home of showmanship, and frontman Brandon Flowers is a showman. Over the course of the evening--they played for at least an hour and a half--he cajoled more and more energy out of the crowd with sing-alongs and general onstage bounciness.

Somewhere between "quiet crowd" and "rocking crowd."

By the time the encore came around, everyone's hands were in the air. And they cared. The three-song extra set concluded with "When You Were Young," a fine song by itself, which was amplified by some serious pyrotechnics. Contrast that to Kings of Leon, who I like better as a band, but who, despite playing to a much bigger audience, basically just came out, strummed an hour of music and walked offstage.

So last night's show was beautiful. And then we walked through the extremely manicured and extremely enormous grounds of the Emirates Palace Hotel to its beach bar for shisha and post-concert cocktails...

... and were joined a half-hour later by the band, who sat at the next cabana over.

I have been struggling through this entire post not to make a pun on the band's name, and I'm not going to blow it now. Let's just say it was a ki... great night.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It's beginning to look nothing like Christmas

I woke up this morning not to a light dusting of snow and prancing reindeer (half of which are common in Chicago this time of year) but to... a sandstorm and no prancing of any kind.

Apparently there are very few sandstorms in the winter. I already sat through a three-day storm in the summer that was less a storm and more a giant cloud of grit. Today's sand event involves more windswept particles, complete with little eddies drifting across the road. Almost like snow, but not quite.

I did, however, spend a good two hours mailing packages this morning, proving that no matter where on Earth you are, the holiday traditions remain the same.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Getting culture at the mall

On National Day, I gently complained that the UAE wasn't doing enough to make its culture accessible--at least in the form of tourist trinketry--to visitors and non-native residents.

Yesterday, I got my first bit of exposure to actual Bedouin tradition. Of course, it was in the mall.

A group of Emirati drummers had formed a drum line and were parading around the mall's central fountain. They were chanting rhythmically in Arabic. They were bobbing to the music. They were prepared to twirl canes and swords and axes, at least based on the objects stacked nearby.

It looked like this, but with fewer fake guns:

And that's really all I want. A little flash. A little dance. A little culture. I don't even care if it's at the mall--at least we could sip Barista coffee as we watched.

Friday, December 4, 2009

More DIY

I know I have probably bragged about this stuff too much. And I already have a (literally) big head.

But I can't help but feel pretty good about fixing the rattle in our car's door. I did this by taking the door paneling off--something I never would have considered doing, say, a year ago. But what can I say. I watched a Filipino speaker-installation guy do it, so what was stopping me? Besides, of course, a fear that I would unplug something important or not be able to put the door back together or simply, you know, burst into flames or something.

Happily, neither of those scenarios emerged. I saw that the power-window motor had a loose bolt in the doorframe. I tightened it. I replaced all the door paneling. I high-fived myself.

And that is the story of how I did something useful on my day off. All by myself.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Made in the UAE--or not

Happy National Day, world. Today is the 38th anniversary of the formation of the United Arab Emirates, and an occasion for great celebration and car-decorating.

The eyes of the sheikhs will guide the driver.

It's kind of remarkable. Consider what it would be like to take part in the Philadelphia festivities in 1816. There are plenty of people out there waving flags who lived on this island when it was just Abu Dhabi, not really a nation, not really a state, just a place with no roads and lots of oil.

The country has come a long way in a short amount of time. A lot of things have been done right--a focus on education, a liberalization of views toward women, building infrastructure, health care, social programs of all stripes. Some things have gone badly--I'm looking at you, Abu Dhabi street planners.

But one interesting facet of life here has become evident in my recent travels. Here in the UAE, we consume. People elsewhere, they manufacture. That, I suppose, is why the announcement of a massive airplane parts plant in Al Ain a few weeks ago was such a big deal.

This dichotomy has been made sharply evident lately. In Oman, there was a lot of stuff for sale that was Omani. Made in Oman. Used by Omanis. And so on. While doing some shopping for Christmas presents (have you been good this year, Friends of the Blog?) in Abu Dhabi, everything was made elsewhere. Even the shibriya, or traditional Arabic daggers, carried by the Bedouin for centuries, are made in Syria. Yes, even the antique ones.

But Damascus is good at steel, you say. OK, fair point. How does that explain all the Lebanese hookahs, then? The incense burners made in India?

So, on this Dec. 2, big ups to Sheikh Zayed for cobbling together a country from nothing. Tall glass buildings do not the soul of a nation make, however. Preserve the traditions. Sell them to tourists if you have to. But don't import Arabia when you ARE Arabia.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The desert, it is large

No pics from Oman. Yet. Be patient, grasshopper.

Meanwhile, a word about the Empty Quarter.

Most of it, as far as I can tell, is in Saudi Arabia. It is a vast place. Vast and, you might have guessed, quite empty. So empty, in fact, that a huge meteor blew up a chunk of it a while back in an explosion big enough to have obliterated a medium-sized city... but no one noticed until the crater was discovered decades later. True story.

Just before Thanksgiving, we stayed at a hotel about 10 kilometers into the UAE's bit of the Empty Quarter. The place was called Qasr al Sarab, which means Mirage Palace (roughly) and it really is in the middle of nowhere. So much so that if you set off walking in most directions, you would die of thirst before you even saw another living thing that wasn't a scruffy looking bush.

Here's a view from the hotel:

That pool of water? It's manmade.*

So. In short, it was a trip. Majestic dunes, absolute desolation. Of course, it's a lot easier to be awed by such things when you're sitting poolside with a mojito.

*No, I didn't take the picture. But I was with the people who did.