Jan 29, 2012

How many cookies can we fit into a coffee cup?

Saturday was largely unproductive as far as school goes. I made a Spanish-ish scramble with chopped green onion and manchego cheese, which was actually pretty good, served with some toasted bread that Saori had picked up.

Fortified by a late breakfast, we headed out on a St.Louis field trip. Saori had asked me to take her around the city as a means to get her acquainted with a city that I've been inhabiting for the better part of a year and a half. So we drove out to the place I think is really interesting in far north St.Louis, the chain of rocks park and bridge.

Constant reader, you may remember that I took a lot of photos and spent a lot of time documenting an old road which was build and consequently abandoned for at least several decades, and I took Saori to hike around there. It was very different denuded of leaves, much less 'magical' if you want to call it that.

Of great interest to Saori was the huge field at the top of the bluffs, which was the former site of an amusement park, since one of her initial interests for design thinking is homo ludens, or the playful human.

We also satisfied my curiosity by walking almost all the way across Chain of Rocks bridge, which is an ancient steel girder bridge which spans the Mississippi. It once served two lanes of cars, but its now a pedestrian crossing. It makes me wonder how many exclusively pedestrian bridges cross the Mississippi. It's actually quite beautiful with the rusted girders and the epic sweep of the river below. We actually crossed over the state line into Illinois mid-span. The full length of the bridge is almost exactly one mile.

We grabbed lunch at the Mexican place and headed in to studio to get some work done around 3 o'clock in the afternoon.

This morning, we also had a slow start, but we met up in studio a little after 11 to go have some brunch. Saori and I were joined by Dew, Chuck, Kenny, and Freda, and we walked over to the South 40. The South 40 refers to the undergraduate residential/amenity center of Wash. U. Little shops, a laundromat, a bicycle repair center, a convenience store, all with dorms above. There's a broad promenade connecting it to the main campus, and then you enter this roundabout plaza with a clock in the middle of it, and you think, when did I get to Disneyland? The promenade takes you down a series of terraces with the little village of dorms around you and at the base, there is the massive cafeteria.

This is a wonderful secret for graduate students. Saturday and Sunday, the cafeteria offers an "all you care to eat" brunch buffet for less than $9 (although you do have to use your campus card to pay for it). It runs from 11 until 2pm. All the stations. Pancakes, Belgan waffle maker station, custom omelets, donuts, yogurt, Kosher food (served by a Hisidic Jewish student), pizza, roasted turkey breast, cereals, fruits, coffee, fruit juice, and more. I was in heaven, totally overloading my plate even with the french toast sticks that I knew came straight from the freezer aisle. The first thing that Chuck did was to make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As I went by with my giant plate teetering full of carbohydrates, grease, and protein, I found myself chastising him and telling him how many rules of buffet dining he was violating. But then, I realized that not everyone immediately attempts to see how much syrup the plate can hold.

It's called the Bear's Den and it's full of undergraduate students, looked like most of them residents of the dorms, i.e. underclassmen. You can tell they also all wear either track pants, short shorts, sweats, or basketball shorts. The opulence and lavishness of the brunch speaks to the concern of the parents for their little darlin's off to school and away from mama's kitchen for the first time.

When I was a freshman, I sure didn't truck with that kind of foppish fluff. No luxury brunch or cushy meal plan for me, no sir. It was hardtack and dirt, twice a day. And most days, no hardtack.

It's kind of funny to be a graduate student (read: starving wolf) in the midst of the happy little Eloi of freshmen. While students around us were casually eating bagels and yogurt, the table of architects were trying to figure out how many cookies and other foods we could smuggle out and stretch our food budgets.

Still, seeing all those freshman, I am so incredibly happy to be a graduate student. Even undergraduate was so much hand-holding, I feel like I'm finally in the place which is stimulating, challenging, and self-directed enough to really gain traction. And no more hardtack for me, no sir.

Jan 28, 2012

Bridge to the weekend

I think I'm 90% over my cold or whatever it was. I thought I was out of the woods yesterday, but then I was hit with this nausea, headache, and 'malaise' (medical term for "feeling like crap") and I had to miss my Grasshopper class. This really sucks because the class is primarily technical, and I need to learn the techniques! However, Dew has offered to show me again what we learned.

I am feeling much better today- the throat is much better at any rate, much less froggy, and I'm optimistic that before the weekend is out, I'll be back to 100%

This past week in studio has been fairly low key- primarily reading and research into the history of Florence. I'm still debating about going there as a field trip. However, at the end of class yesterday, our instructor told that for monday, he wants to see two books on the subject. Small books, yes, but book designs nonetheless. 'Dummys' of the real final project due a week from monday. 13 copies, so everyone in studio gets one. (was Judas one of the 12 apostles or was he the 13th?) Anyway.

Last night, we were planning on going out to a bunch of gallery openings downtown and in Grand Central, but Saori needed to cut some stuff for studio, and Suki and ourselves needed feeding, and it was Saori's mom's birthday so she needed to skype her, so we didn't end up getting out until after 10.

Ended up going out to Bridge in downtown, which is a really nice bar- basically a wine bar but for beer (although they also sell wine). About 40 beers on tap, plus another 60 bottles. Saori picked up a really esoteric Japanese alcoholic ginger beer, and I got a draught of some 4Hands American Red, and a Unibru Grand Cru. I really liked the 4Hands- really bitter. And it's made in St.Louis, if I can find the brewery. The Grand Cru was like the Darth Vader of beer- a extra strong dark Belgan ale. 11% ABV, malty, but with the crispness of the high alcohol content. Too strong, too dark for me. 11% is stronger than Nyquil.

Of course, the nice thing about Bridge is that they serve beer in four sizes, 4 oz, 12oz, and two larger sizes. So you can really taste a lot of beer if you want. You can basically customize your own flights. Food was pretty good too- snacking bits. We left a little after midnight. We were lucky to get a table at 10 actually.

So much work to get done this weekend....

Jan 25, 2012

Alec's New Toy

I really really geeked out today over my new computer. There was the excitement of picking up two giant packages at FedEx. I breathlessly dragged them up the stairs to studio, trying to keep them out of the miserable rain we've been having. And when I started cutting open taped cardboard boxes, it was like I was 8 again, unwrapping a giant box of Legos.

I bought what I'd call a mid-range performance computer. Computer, as in tower and monitor, not a laptop. Pretty good specs- 3.4 GHz i7 processor, 1.5 terabyte hard drive, 12 gigs of memory. A gigantic, gigantic 24" LED monitor. Pulling it all out of the box at studio, people were commenting on how excited I was.

Setting it up, installing my favorite standard software- Picasa, Firefox, Avast. Trying to uninstall all the bloatware Dell pre-loaded on my computer. It's really exciting.  I can't wait to see how my 3d software and rendering engines run on this thing.

Jan 23, 2012

Beginning of the semester

Busy weekend. Friday night we stayed in since we had some freezing rain, but saturday morning I went to a big group brunch with some friends. About 20 people showed up at a friend's apartment, and we had a huge breakfast party of pancakes, buckets of scrambled eggs, leagues of bacon, armies of sausage, fresh bread, cinnamon rolls, Pierre brought Nutella and baguettes. Amazingly delicious actually. In typical French fashion he was also late. We picked up a few cartons of the "Culinara" fresh orange juice they sell at Schnucks grocery store. Culinara is actually the Schnucks store brand, but it is the most expensive juice in the store. The reason is that they fresh squeeze it in the store. They don't even pasteurize it. They just bottle it, slap a label on it and put it out. It's phenomenal. It's like drinking orange flavored sunshine. It makes Tropicana taste like Tang in comparison. One of the guests at the brunch took a sip and said that it life-changing orange juice. I wouldn't go that far, but it is pretty damn good.

Saturday night, we ended up going over to a friend's house for a hot pot new year. Lots of people, lots of food, lots of beer. Chinese, Japanese, Americans, Macao, Taiwanese, and mixtures of everything between. Good times. Not even enough chairs for everyone. We didn't even need to bring anything, there was so much food. Also the most Asian glow I've seen in one place for a long time.

Sunday, I woke up feeling like crap. Not because of the beer or what I ate, but crap like-seriously-coming down-with-something-crap. We worked in studio all day and then I came back early and Saori stayed and worked while I went to bed. 

Today is not much better. Drainage, really sore throat, throat congestion, bit achy, eyes a bit more sensitive than usual, nasal drip, general irritability. At least I'm not running a fever or have headaches. Treating it with as much rest as I can get, lots and lots of tea, vitamin C, fresh Kiwi (the national fruit of China!), hot showers, and spicy food. 

I gave a presentation on Midieval Florence today for studio, seemed to go over well, although I didn't use the book the professor wanted me to use. The stupid librarians couldn't find it, and I wasn't sharp enough to force them to find it. Oh well.

Oh, and I realized this weekend that the class I thought I had mondays was actually on tuesday. So I skipped the class for no reason and now I'm a week behind. At least its the beginning of the semester.

Tonight, Saori, Tyler, Weng, Dew, and I went out to grab dinner at Boba Noodles on Delmar. Actually, really decently priced, fairly authentic Chinese food. Fast food. Noodle bowls and rice bowls, like you might find at a cheap Shanghai streetside cafe. And all the teas as well- boba but also more exotic varieties. I got a hot ginger milk tea which has the great bite of ginger to it. Great on a winter day.

Anyway, hoping that I'll wake up feeling wonderful tomorrow.

Jan 22, 2012

Design Thinking - Week 1

This semester I'm enrolled in a class called Design Thinking, which is supposed to frame the problem to be explored in the final semester as the final project of graduate school. It is like a thesis is in that it is the capstone project, a major final requirement, and largely self-directed, but there is not usually a written component.

Anyway, our first assignment is to write a 100 words on a topic/concept we're interested in pursuing, pick three words, and 'curate' a series of images which interest us which should relate to the concept.

My first idea for three words were

Repetition
Repetition
Repetition

but then I thought it was a bit to predictable. So then I considered:

Repetition
Repetition
Anomaly

Which has more interest, but I don't think they'd let me do that.

The three words need to be selected from a particular book. There are about 60 kids in the class. There is one copy of the book in the library. Design Thinking has been around for over five years. One might think that the school would perhaps want at least a second copy.

The book in question, A Metapolis Dictionary of Advanced Architecture, is highly suspect because it simultaneously claims to be a dictionary and uses made-up words in the title. There are more made up words inside, but we were asked to peruse this book and pick three words which seemed to fit our concepts. My words are:

atexural
metastitial
perichaos

Not really. But I think some of those words are in the book. I've actually written my 100 words around the idea of porosity.

So much for Florence

So, we had our first day of studio yesterday. We met for a lecture in the library as a class for the first time. Z, our studio instructor, gave us our first assignment, which is to read a book about the history of Florence, and then create presentations based on our assigned chapters. I've got the early middle ages, between 1000 and 1300 AD.

Aside- I've never understood the desire to change the system from AD, anno Domingo, [year of the lord] to CE [common era]. You're still counting years from the mythical birth of Christ regardless of what you choose to call it. If you really wanted to be a-religious about it, you'd select some other event as the 0 mark, the first recorded writings, for example.

Anyway, I chose to present monday, which means I've got a lot of work ahead. The good news is that theres a ton of material on the city ready for us. It's an incredibly well documented city and not much has changed. I have, for example, a file with all the buildings and streets of the city.

The kicker for this class is the trip to Florence. I'd really like to get to know the city better- I was there only two days when I was backpacking back in my undergraduate days, and I was really taken by the city. The timing is good- right before spring break so I could take the time to travel more around Europe. But it's expensive, and the school is not going to finance my trip. The fact is that I just bought a needed computer, and the lowest cost of the trip will still be around $1200. I'd still be seriously considering going except for the fact that my professor, Z, can't commit that he'll take us himself. I mean, he's the main reason I'm interested in this studio, and if he's not going to be there to show us around, that's a huge disincentive.

Also, not related but a general disincentive- I realized I missed a class last tuesday, the first class of my landscape class and there's a reading due tuesday from a book I don't have. So not a great start to that class either.

I'm still debating Florence. If I find a spanking deal I may consider it.

Went to a Chinese Lunar New Year party tonight with a bunch of classmates, many of them either Chinese or American Asian. Really good hot pot, beer, tons of people, a good mix of asians and Americans. Really fun. However, it occurred to me that Saori and I were the oldest people there, which is a new thing, but happens with greater regularity. I'm 27 and Saori's a year older, and we're hanging around with the early 20-somethings, people who, due to the economy, tended to push through from undergrad to graduate, so they're only around 22 years old. Made me feel kind of old.

Also making me feel kind of old is that every month that I look in the mirror, I see a little more of my dad looking back at me. I've got a much longer face, but Saori thinks my resemblance to both my parents is getting stronger. I've always favored my mom, especially the nose, the high forehead, and shape of my face, but there's something of my dad coming through more more distinctly which I can't put my finger on.

Fact is I'm less than three years from thirty, and when my parents were my age, I was already two or three years old, and they were both working.

Jan 20, 2012

The Grasshopper who told the Rhino what to do

I dropped Saori off for her early class this morning and went grocery shopping, cleaned the house a bit, and rearranged some rooms. My old roommate is gone, but I kept refering to that room as "James' room", but now that I moved my desk and all my printers in there, it feels more territorialized, and I now think of it as "the study."

Picked Saori up from school and made a run by the transit office to pick up our metro transit passes, followed by a quick run to Goodwill to drop off some old stuff. I've wondered why the quality of stuff I see at Goodwills around here is so low. First, there's not much of it, and secondly, its not nearly of the same quality or quantity of what was in the Phoenix stores. This Goodwill is on the fringe of the most affluent areas of St.Louis. Are people generally poorer here than in Phoenix or do people tend to hold on to their stuff more here?

Anyway, stopped for a quick bite of Pho for lunch, and then went back home. We took a long walk around the neighborhood to get some exercise and talk about St.Louis, and then I headed back to school for my night class. I'm enrolled in this class entitled: Optimization for Parametric Design, which is... exactly what it sounds like. There's a lot of classes with names like "Territorializing Context: The Subliminal and Interstitial," "Decoupled Spatialization in the Semiotic Landscape," "Biomimetic Aphasia," or "Pattern Recognition" where who really knows what the class is about.

Anyway, the class is very technical and practical- essentially a software class which teaches students how to use the Grasshopper plug-in for Rhinoceros, and practical applications thereof. Rhinoceros, a.k.a. Rhino, is a 3D modeling program like a very very advanced version of SketchUp, and far superior in every way. It is actually the computer modeling software of choice for most of my classmates, and its pretty powerful for making forms. Grasshopper is a plug-in which runs in Rhino, and by manipulating variables and creating an algorithm in Grasshopper, that sequence actually generates the form in Rhino.

For a very basic example, instead of drawing a rectangle in Rhino by clicking two corner points, I could, in Grasshopper, simply give length and width dimensions, and Grasshopper tells Rhino how to construct the rectangle.

Anyway. Should be practical. And even thought the final product is about the pointlessly formalistic swoopy object, its still a type of class I havn't taken, and to be honest, sharpening Rhino and Grasshopper skills is a good thing to have on the old resume. At the very least, its good to know what potential there is.

The last bit of fun news is that I finally broke down and got a new computer. My current laptop has a graphics card that is crapping out on me- I can't take out the card since its welded to the processor, and I can't rely on a machine that totally crashes several times a day from graphic glitches. I picked up a new Dell xps 8300, which has a 3.4GHz intel i7 core and an AMD graphics card. This means I have a very fast, very powerful computer. Also comes with a 24" monitor, so I am a very happy boy. Going to get it in the mail hopefully before the end of the month.

It's a tower, so it's not portable like a laptop, but then I'm working at studio all the time anyhow, and its also upgradeable, so I can swap out components instead of having to ditch a $1300 laptop because the graphics card is screwed up.

Jan 18, 2012

Wheel of Classes

Studio selection day begins around noon, when the booklets containing the course descriptions of *most* of the classes offered during the semester are published, but more importantly, it contains the descriptions of the studios offered that semester. Why the studio options come out immediately before students have to choose is beyond me, but the only explanation I can come up with is that the school is so unorganized that they really only know what the final studios are going to be when the damn thing goes to print that day.

Anyway, you have an hour or two to peruse the listings and descriptions of the studios before the presentations. Mercifully, this semester the studio presentations were limited to a two hour window. Each studio professor gets up before the student body and pitches the studio, aided with powerpoint.

Afterwards, you are given 30 minutes to rank all 11 studios in your order of preference, and then you turn it in to a box.

The studios, quickly, were:
  • A cancer recovery center, small scale, but on the topic of life and death and experience. Taught by a visiting professor from the firm Snohetta. 
  • A studio proposing infrastructure/architectural responses to Jefferson parish of New Orleans, especially in regards to flooding, water, infrastructure, urbanism, and wetlands.
  • Another SE Louisiana studio with a landscape focus on the area around the port. 
  • A montessouri school, with connections to an art program, and famous educational architect Herman Hertzberger.
  • An adaptive reuse of an monumental Masonic Temple in grand center of downtown St.louis
  • A redevelopment of the Uffizi square in Florence, Italy with a city museum.
  • A redevelopment of the Monte Carlo waterfront in Monaco, through the lens of Archigram and with the assistance of Denis Compton.
  • A digital fabrication studio taught by some famous architect about something related to swarms, scales, biomimicry, but basically making big, swoopy forms that are on the cutting edge of how difficult it is to actually fabricate.
  • A small medical office building in suburban st.Louis. Really. 
  • An evaluation of Los Angeles, an urban studio, as to what it could be.
  • A re-evauation of the parking garage typology.
My top three choices were the cancer center, the Florence center, and the St.Louis adaptive re-use. I got my second choice, the one about Florence.

This studio is taught by the same professor I had for Urban Books, and actually features a book as part of the design process. So it's going to be a lot of books this semester. I really like the professor, a Brazilian who is currently involved in research on Lina Bo Bardi. The only thing is that the studio seems very amorphous and undefined at this point, which I think was a bit of a disincentive. However, the studio will make a trip to Florence during spring break, so I need to decide if I want to money it up and go. I really want to. Florence was one of those cities where I passed through very quickly and regretted not spending more time there.

Saori got the montessori school, which was her second choice. She's in her 6-9pm structures class right now, a class I am very very happy to have been done with a few semesters ago. 

Kim Massie Tuesday

Tonight, we finally made the pilgrimage back to Beale on Broadway to listen to Kim Massie sing.

To understand the significance we must turn back time to April 10th, 2010, nearly two years ago. I wrote about it then. Saori and I were in St.Louis for the first time, being courted by the school in their big open house. Our student host who picked us up at the airport, Bloom, insisted that no matter what we decided about Wash U, we had to hear this one woman sing. So he crammed a bunch of us in two cars and drove us to an abandoned part of the downtown, close to the river and the the train tracks and the stadium, around 10 o'clock at night. Silvino was there too. It was an amazing night.

Tonight, Silvino returned with us and this time, I drove, and we were able to get a table in the back so we didn't have to stand. Beale on Broadway is a roadhouse, really. A few beers on tap, a good selection of bottles, and a tiny stage. But it plays live blues 7 nights a week, and Kim Massie on tuesdays.

My only problem is the clientele. In the heart of one of most black areas of the metropolis, the only black people are the ones on the stage and the bouncer. Why they have a bouncer is beyond me- the median age looked to be about 40, and most people dressed like the second richest quintile. I don't have a problem with the "House of Blues" (or Cotton Club) phenomena as much as I have a problem with their musical tastes. I loves me some good blues, but those boomers love them some bad generational rock, and the band seriously plays for requests.

Don't get me wrong, Kim Massie is still phenomenal, regardless if she's singing "Whole Lotta Love," but I just wish we could stay on point musically. It's kind of like going to hear Aretha Franklin live in concert and people keep requesting ABBA songs.

What I'm wondering, and I wondered this before, when I went to the Blues festival in Webster grove and the streets were filled with middle agers, what I wondered was:

Where are the people my age? Is blues music just not on the radar? Is it not cool because its something that was really big to the gen Xers? It's really good music, it's much more accessible than say, jazz, and St.Louis is one of the three big river cities known from its blues scene. Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue less than three miles from here. Ok, I can believe that some twenty-somethings go to the electropop/rap clubs, some go to Death Cab for Cutie concerts, and many stay home, but I'm surprised that for a generation supposed to be more open minded, we're still the youngest in the blues bar.

Jan 17, 2012

The Last Supper (Before School Starts)

Today is the first day of classes- technically. The only thing on my plate today is the Design Thinking class, which I have no idea of what will happen. My guess is a two hour lecture on what we're supposed to be doing, why we're taking that class, what is the value in DT as a methodology.  Anyway, that's not until two, so we had the luxury of a soft entry to the day complete with lounging, coffee, sausages, toast, and fried eggs.

Last night began with a ham. A giant spiral ham we picked up at Target. Sticking it in the fridge, I thought, wow, that's a giant ham. We should invite some people. So we called up Dew who had just gotten back into town, and then Kenny. Once they got here, Dew was complaining about not being able to find a roommate for this semester, and then simultaneously Hiep posted on facebook about looking for a room. So the room went into an uproar as everyone scrambled to contact Hiep, and I ended up driving out to pick him up as well.

The ham was fantastic and we served it with baked sweet potatoes (still a little underdone, I need to find a better recipe), and salad. We invited our downstairs neighbor, Toly, since we were making a lot of noise, and he came up and joined us for some Wii games for an hour or so.

 A good welcome back party for the group.

Jan 15, 2012

Justin Beaver

A friend texted me last night: "Hey do you guys want to go to the penguin parade at 2 tomorrow?"

I asked Saori, "hey Sachan, I know this is kind of a long shot, and you probably won't be interested, but there's a penguin parade at the zoo tomorrow. You wouldn't be interested in going, would you?"

Of course, she wasn't interested at all, so we only arrived an hour and a half early.

It was actually a really beautiful day out today, highs in the 40s, sunny. It was our first time to the zoo, which tells you a lot about my school program given that (1) It's free, (2) it's within a 3 mile radius of my house, and (3) I've lived here for a year and a half. We parked on the street, about 2/3 of a mile from the zoo since I was concerned about the parking situation (actually, in the winter it's fine. Almost nobody goes to the zoo when its so cold out).

Not too impressed when we first walked in. First, it was almost totally empty of people where we walked in, second, there were no animals in sight apart from the bear on top of the "build a bear workshop" boutique, and third, there was a major construction project to build what looks like a really cool sea lion exhibit. The only animals we saw outside were geese on the frozen lake, surrounded by shuttered stores and cafes.

We did find a group of people around the prarie dog enclosure, which was a hotbed of activity. I don't know if its just because its winter, but those were some fat little rodents, like oversized hamsters. They munched on veggies strewn about the large yard, chased each other around, sunbathed, and generally ignored both the birds which were so aggressive they were pecking food from the prarie dog's little hands, and also the smaller squirrels, who darted into an out of the enclosure with a sure ease, and wandered through the larger rodents stealing what they could with impunity. Something about that small, sunny community was highly mesmerizing.

The enclosed ape house reeked, but at least it was warm and humid inside. The enclosures are glass, so you can get up very close to the primates. The whole family of hominids were there- gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees, and humans on the other side of the glass. Only the bonobos were absent, since nobody really remembers them anyway. Very active apes, and they were as interested in us as we were in them.

The bird exhibit was also enclosed. I'm still not sure how I feel about enclosing birds in such small enclosures, indoors, permanently. They did have some beautiful birds.

When we made our way to the penguin exhibit, people were already lining up along the parade route. This was more than 40 minutes prior to the event. Lots of people, and more and more came as the time drew closer. We staked out a spot beside a woman who was like an obsessed, territorial little bird who pecked at people who as much as lingered for a moment in front of her staked claim. It got more crowded. Maybe 300-400 people squeezed up to form a wall along the sides of the walkway. I started wondering aloud when Justin Bieber was going to show up. Wardens patrolled the crowd pushing people back and reminding them via bullhorns not to touch the penguins, and to keep back. Saori and I fought to keep our space as well.

And then, an excited murmur from the crowd. An emperor penguin waddled into view, slowed down by an attendant warden trying to keep the group together. Then more penguins. Really only six or seven penguins, half emperor, the other half chinstrap? or another smaller species. They waddled around, mostly at random, guided by the wardens, while moms lunged forward with cameras and shoved their kids at the penguins. It was a mess of penguins, wardens, and people when they stopped right in front of us. I could have reached out and stuffed one into my jacket. Saori loved it and the kids were going nuts. It was pretty cool to see the penguins walking around in front of you.  If its really nasty weather next sunday, preferably with snow and ice, we'll be back.

We met up with some friends afterwards and walked around the zoo together. The indoor animal exhibits were interesting. Nothing much stirred in the outside enclosures. The river otters were happy though.

Saori and I went back to the Fox and Hound Tavern, an English style pub, and had a pint and some food while we warmed up.

Jan 14, 2012

salad days before the beef

We had a slow morning yesterday of coffee, biscuits and gravy, and eggs, and then spent most of the early afternoon sorting and unpacking. We got out of the house late in the day, and made a trip to Target and the grocery store for a few items.

It's strange to be cooking for two again- I tend to snack through the day, so Saori was not quite filled up with my dinner of a bowl of rice and a handful of dry salad.

We ended up going over a friend's house for some appetizers, drinks, and games. Trivial Persuit was my (bad) suggestion and was quickly abandoned when more people arrived. Played a few rounds of Scattergories, but then we decided to head out before getting involved in a late game of Cranium.

Still pretty cold, and the snow is still on the ground, but at least it's sunny out. I've got a lunch meeting today with the head of the Young Architect's Forum and one of our professors about setting up a discussion of IDP (the Intern Development Program), the standardized system for recording hours of professional practice- a requirement for anyone who wants to become a registered architect. It's a small step towards fulfilling my role as the VP of professional in the GAC.

Jan 12, 2012

Snow, Saori, Subscriptions

Woke today to find a blanket of snow over St.Louis. It snowed all day and its only now letting up, although the wind is still gusting something fierce. It really makes me appreciate the huge living room window to lay back on the couch and watch the wind whip up swirls of snow.

Something about the snow made me want to cook, so I baked some gingerbread cookies (ok, from a mix, but still). Not terrible.

Saori sent me an email letting me know she was coming in today and not tomorrow, so I spent most of the morning sweeping and mopping. I used a bleach solution for the kitchen and bathroom since I had some concerns about the growth of mold since we've been having so much flooding in those rooms.

I'm excited and nervous to see Saori again- yes, we saw each other over the summer, but I'm always a little afraid it will be strange to see her again, since we're not used to each other's company. It doesn't even seem real that I'm going to go pick her up in person.

On my flight over to the UK, I was looking for a magazine to read on the plane. Popular Science is nothing but glowing gadget reviews now, and Wired is also going that route, as well as struggling to capture the experience of the internet in a magazine format. Ends up being really frenetic. Even the architecture and design mags are half advertisements for contemporary plumbing fixtures, office furniture, tile, and carpeting. I'm not looking for something as involved as Foreign Affairs, but I want something that will last me more than half an hour to read. So I picked up a National Geographic. You know what? It's a really good magazine. I know I sound like a grandfather, but they've got well-written, in-depth articles, got good spread layouts and graphics, and the photography is superb. I just got a year long subscription. $15.

We'll see if I actually read them, but I think that it would be something nice to peruse before bed, or drinking tea in the morning. Worth a shot.

Jan 11, 2012

the mastermind

Yesterday started at 5AM, when my ancient nemesis, Jet Lagg, strode into my bedroom and violently threw me out of bed.

I got a lot done though- swung by the bank, paid bills, went grocery shopping to restock on everything, set up some financial stuff for the semester at my investment company, worked on a spreadsheet of finances for the rest of the year (do I want to graduate broke, with less debt? or take on more debt and save a bit for job hunting? Do you feel lucky, punk?), organized the apartment a bit, and watched some TV while I did a load of laundry and put it away.

I've been traveling for over 20 days, and I haven't slept in the same bed for more than four consecutive days. I've ping ponged at breakneck speed from St.Louis to Oklahoma City, to Orlando, to London, to Bath, and spent time in about five or six other cities, villages, and towns along the way. And yet, less than 24 hours after I arrive in St.Louis, I'm wandering around at home, trying to make up an excuse to get out of my apartment.

I ended up meeting a friend of mine for a drink at Three Kings, a pub-ish place in the Loop. Good draft beer selection. There, we ran into a group of people we knew who had just graduated and we joined them for a drink, and finally we were joined by my roommate, who was also part of that same group of recent grads.

They're excellent designers all of them, but none of them have that architecture job yet. However, they're still upbeat, they sound ready to throw themselves into the job search after this winter break, and there's a sense of good humor mixed with fatalism. We joked a lot about the "the heist" we were going to commit, "just enough to pay back the student loans, and take a small vacation afterwards."

It's useful and a little scary to see how short the distance of one year will run. I need to really start looking forward and envisioning where I want to be a year from now, and from there, start thinking about how I can get there. After all, I was designated
'The Mastermind'

Jan 10, 2012

Return to Catfordshire-upon-Squirreldel

Our flight was scheduled to depart at 10:15AM, so we had a driver pick us up three hours in advance, to give us plenty of time. It was a good call. Halfway to Heathrow, the traffic came to a dead stop for about half an hour while an accident was cleared. We got to the check in counter five minutes before they would have closed check-in. Cleared security surprisingly quickly- they didn't even make me take off my shoes. Inside the shopping center terminal waiting area was packed with people. No open seats at all. And of course, because it's Heathrow, our flight was delayed an hour.

Heathrow is one of my least favorite airports in the world. The absolute worst, of course, is Dulles in DC, for a variety of reasons I won't go into here. Heathrow is a mess. Way too far from London. The terminals are miles apart from each other, first of all. Secondly, there's not enough seating inside, and you're forced to wander around overpriced luxury goods the entire time. They don't announce your gate until its time to board, which means if youre unlucky enough to be flying on a discount airline where where you line up is how you board, there's a mass stampede to the gate. And about every other flight I've flown out of there has been delayed.

Tay and I enjoyed a bite of breakfast and a coffee at one of the restaurants, as much to sit down as eat, before our number came up.

Our seats weren't bad, actually, although the plane was older. Flying over, we had individual screens with a variety of movies. Maybe a dozen films, starting every twenty minutes or so. I won't mention that OVER 15 YEARS AGO Singapore Airlines offered individual screens with about a hundred movies that could be played, paused, fast forwarded and rewound. The flight back to Chicago had a series of ceiling mounted cathode ray-tube monitors, which showed Arthur and another movie which I completely forgot. It's a long flight. 8 and a half hours, and you really feel each one of them since you're flying with the daylight the entire trip.

Because of the delays getting out of the UK, American put me on an hour later flight out of Chicago. They gave Tay a neon orange expedite pass. It was pretty well organized. We were told on the plane to see the agents in orange vests, and once we got off, we told the agent who we were and they handed us our passes with the new tickets inside. Tay's Expedite pass was like the ExpressPass for the airport. It was amazing. We totally bypassed the immigration line and got to get in the fast lane, which we breezed through. The pass got tay in the fast lane for security screening as well, so between the time we got off the plane and the time we cleared security in a different terminal was less than 20 minutes. Most of that time was waiting for and riding the tram between terminals. It was amazing.

It was kind of sad seeing Tay off at his gate. It was in Chicago that our paths once again diverged. We'd really been traveling together, and pretty much sleeping in the same bed, for almost three weeks. It was really good to be able to spend so much time traveling with my brother.

Got into St.Louis after dark, and my friend Kenny picked me up. His driving skills had really improved since I left my car with him. Of course, the day I'd left him my car was his first day to have a driver's licence, but that's besides the point. I dropped him off at school where he was working, and drove home. When I switched on the radio and some good Mississippi blues came on, I finally felt "I'm home." Back at the house, Suki was thrilled and pissed off to see me. Desperate for attention overload. I cooked and ate some ramen since that was what I had. My roommate had returned from Alaska with some Reindeer sausage and smoked salmon, but I'm saving it for later. My journey was at an end, and a new one begins.

Jan 8, 2012

Littlehampton and Arundel

It seems my time in the UK is once again at an end. We've got a taxi coming at 7:15 AM for us, bright and early for our morning flight to Chicago and points onward.

Yesterday, before dad took off for another buisness trip, we spend the day in Guildford on the high street- dad had a haircut and we ate lunch at a pretty good Thai place off the main street called Sir and Madame. Actually, the best chicken penang I've ever had. I think there's something about the quality and freshness of the ingredients that just makes everything better. Dad took off in the afternoon, and we ordered pizza in and watched Flushed Away.


Today we drove down to the seaside town of Littlehampton, got incredibly lost, and finally made our way to the East Beach Cafe. The cafe caught my eye for a few reasons- it's right on the beach, with views out across the English channel, and because the architecture is very distinctive. It has a very contemporary design, by which I mean that is is a monocoque, or single shell, strucuture- the skin of the building is its own structure- there are no columns or other structural members, and the entire thing is created out of metal plates welded together. The form is low and oblong, and the back of the cafe is contoured in a series of stepping forms. The overall effect is a giant abstract oyster shell, opened to the sea.

The food was very good. We ordered steamed mussels, which were fresh and absolutely fantastic, and fish and chips. Everything was very fresh, and the breading on the fish, which seemed to have some ground corn meal as well, was light and crispy.

I took some pictures down by the shoreline, and then we drove on Arundel since the day was getting late. Arundel is a picturesque town with a quaint square and high street of pubs, inns, boutiques, sweets, wine shops, and antiques. The city is dominated by a massive castle complex which forms a picturesque backdrop, as well as a huge cathedral nearby. We walked around the town, visited the cathedral since the castle was closed, and got a pint of ale at a local pub.

I've really enjoyed the local cask ales, especially the bitters. They're not carbonated, which is different, and served "cellar cool" which is cool, but not cold. The taste is very nice, very mild. The other fun thing is the 'pub dogs,' which are dogs which actually live at the pubs, usually the pub owner's pet who lives upstairs. Seems to be mostly black labs, and they're a little inquisitive and always friendly. They don't beg and generally leave patrons alone who ignore them.

The UK is always an interesting visit for me since its such a sharp contrast to the US, illustrating what is possible and what is compromised. I walk around the high streets with their high levels of people and energy, the vibrancy, and I wish they had them in the US. We did, up until about 50 years ago, when the department stores, strip malls, and shopping centers put them out of business.

Americans got to save money on less expensive suburban strip malls, but at the cost of the urban experience. We exchanged a vibrant, historically rooted pedestrian-friendly street with a multitude of dining and shopping experiences for an ocean of asphalt and a giant, faceless box so we could save a buck.

Interestingly, since that time, there has been a slow, fumbling attempt to recapture it. Shopping malls with their atria, then outdoor malls, then 'districts' of outdoor malls with a stronger pedestrian experience and some attempts at dining and entertainment, even a few "lifestyle centers" which attempt to bring in some living and office spaces. The jury is still out, but all the demographic data points to a massive generational shift back to the cities. People in my generation want to live in exciting, vibrant, urban centers. The retiring boomers, empty nesters, also want to live someplace exciting and fun.


I'll get off my soap box. Time to put the soap back inside and pack it up for the long trip back home.

Jan 7, 2012

My name is Alec and I'm addicted to the AA

Actually, what happened was,

The night before in London, I wanted to go to the AA bookstore (this is the bookstore at the Architecture Association school of architecture) so I dragged Tay there and got to the door, and realized that I didn't have nearly the time I wanted to spend there (I usually budget hour at least, and this is a bookstore much smaller than the living room of my apartment, by the way). And Tay's boot search was not fruitful at that late hour, so we decided that we needed to return to London the next day.

Anyway, jump to the following morning-
We caught a ride into the Guildford station with dad again and then attempted to buy tickets to London, which proved more difficult than we had originally anticipated. It's a long story, but basically the British will encourage you to jump queues but won't accept an unsigned credit card, even if you sign it in front of them.

I really love train travel. You go to the train station, which is in the center of town, and the moment you walk in the door, you see trains and the board with all the departure times and destinations. Theres no Orwellian melodramatic security theater, and its a short walk to the platform. The only line you ever stand in is for tickets if you want to talk to a real person, and you never wait more than ten minutes for anything. You see the train arrive, you board it, and because there's huge windows everywhere, you see the train departing and the landscape changing. You really experience the transition from A to B, which for me is really important in understanding A, understanding B, and the relationship between A and B.

Flying, you leave A and go to faceless airport somewhere outside of A, you spend your time in various windowless chambers until you find yourself in another faceless airport. Is it the same airport? Usually the only way to tell is to recall if there was a protracted period of heightened unpleasantness beforehand. Your only introduction to B is the drive in from the airport.

Coming into Waterloo station is one of my favorite feelings in London. All the tracks end there, and everyone gets off and you join the crowds getting off all the other trains coming in from different parts of the country. It's a huge station of steel, iron, stone, and tons of glass, and a combination of widely varying styles as its expanded over the many years of its use.

We caught the underground back up to Oxford street- first stop was the AA bookstore. It's a very small bookstore, but its packed with books, and the books are amazing. Perhaps a dozen titles, and that's being generous, you could find in the corner big box bookstore. My school's giant architecture library would carry perhaps a quarter to half of the titles. Perhaps 75% could be purchased online from various sources, and typically for astronomical markup. However, a lot of titles, especially international ones, are very hard to come by and some titles are exclusively sold through this one bookstore.

It's an exciting place for me as well because its in the AA, which has produced and had studios taught by some of the most notable names in contemporary architecture. It's in a series of residential apartments, actually, and you have to be buzzed in from the outside, so it's kind of fun just to go there.

The books are expensive too which means, that even though I saw two titles I really really wanted badly, I couldn't afford them. (I can, however, find them online, but alas, more expensive.) So I spend a lot of time at the sale shelf and the $3 clearance box. We ended up spending a little over an hour in the store. Tay was very patient, and perused some of the philosophy and other books while I shopped.

Next stop was boot shopping for Tay. We walked back to Oxford street and walked the entire thing again, stopping in at nearly every shoe store along the way and any other stores that caught our eyes. Tay picked up a pair of jeans at H&M. I'd spent my wad at the bookstore, so I didn't buy anything. At the end of Oxford street, we worked our way back through SoHo and Chinatown, stopping for lunch at a pretty good Japanese place. Split an Ebi tempura roll, and I got a grilled eel rice bowl, one of my favorites. Not too expensive either.

We cut back north to the first Aldo and Tay found the boots he'd been looking for. We spent maybe half an hour while he tried to figure out how much he wanted them, how he'd potentially wear them, etc. In the end, he got them, and for good boots, it was a fair price.

I wanted to see Hyde park and Harrod's so we walked, again, the full length up Oxford street. In the past two days, we'd traversed Oxford street no less than four times. We got to Marble Arch and Speaker's corner in Hyde park, and walked in after sunset. It's startling and interesting to suddenly go from super high density center of London to the vast open fields of Hyde park. It was a pretty place. I wish I'd gone during the daylight hours.

We emerged at the far end of the park onto Knightsbridge, and picked our way over Harrod's. Tay had never heard of it, but I was intrigued. It reminded me of a labrynthine, endless cruise ship store. Endless luxury brands, insane prices, strange and gaudy decoration, marble and gold, various themed bars, cafes, restaurants, ice cream parlors, tea rooms tucked inside. A solid block of a department store. We roamed through it, eventually finding our way to...the Harry Potter store?

It was smaller than any of the stores in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, but they sold some very different products. They had some action figures on sale (although I can't imagine 'Confused Ron' would ever be a hot seller.) The marauder's map is kind of cool, but not at $40, and its the kind of thing I'd hide anytime I have company. The wands were different too. They did have a Dobby latex mask though which was very disturbing on Tay.

Anyway, Harrod's got old quick. Number one, it was really crowded, and number two, we never seemed to change scales of space. We went from room to room to room and they were all the same size, so it began to feel very claustrophobic. We finally found our way out and agreed we'd have rather just sat down and bought a pint someplace instead.

Tube back to Waterloo, and dad suggested a train for us to catch, and we ran to catch it and caught it for the ride back.

Jan 6, 2012

L O N D O N

 Yesterday, dad got us up early and we drove into Guildford with him. He dropped us off at the train station and went on in to work. Transportation in the UK is wildly expensive. Petrull, which is the British pronunciation of "gasoline" is about $8 a gallon. Rail is not much cheaper. A round trip ticket to London and a day's underground pass runs about $30. The center of London is perhaps an hour to 45 minutes drive from where we are out here.

The upside is, London is amazing to just be in, and they have some of the best museums in the world, which cost absolutely nothing. Which is what we took them up on.

First stop was the Victoria & Albert museum, also known as the V&A. Although they have collections which span time and the world, the exhibits seem to be organised mostly through the lens of design and style. What did people design, and why seem to be primary questions driving the exhibits and the collections. They had an amazing middle east collection, and some fantastic work from the middle ages. Interestingly, they also have collections of particular materials, such as glass, although my favourite was the architecture hall, which featured scale models of architecture from around the world, and cases of drawers with original drawings and sketches from famous architects- contemporary and historic, Palladio to Foster. 

After the V&A we followed Tay to a place his phone recommended, a really tiny hole in the wall kebab place. It was so small, the lamp on the spit brushed both sides of the restaurant, and people had to duck underneath the kitchen counter to get by it. We ordered just kebabs (they were out of french fries) and attempted to find someplace to sit.

I voted for a few seats we found at the back, regardless of sharing a table with strangers, but it was warm, very cosy, and I could really feel myself becoming more like a local, jammed into the back of this tiny place. Tay, however, does not share similar sentiments regarding personal space, especially while eating, so we ended up sitting outside, despite the fact it was about 40 degrees and the wind was so vicious it blew away our pita bread. Our kebab meat froze instantly.

We really needed to warm up a bit after our polar lunch, so we stopped into a nearby cafe/bakery and I got a cappuccino and a delicious walnut creme coffee cake. It's nice to be in London where cool cafes and windows full of wonderful looking baked goodies are on display every ten meters.

After our coffees, we walked over to the Natural History museum. I had intended to only go for a quick spin, but it ended up turning into two hours as we were both sucked into the depth and breadth of the exhibits. It's a huge, elaborate, and labyrinthine building, branching off like the tree of life into smaller and smaller sections. We saw perhaps a quarter of the museum. As we left, Tay described it as "the Louvre of natural history museums." That ate a lot of our time, so we took the underground back up to Oxford street.

If London is the shopping center of the UK, Oxford street is the shopping center of London. The street is about a mile long, lined on both sides with a combination of boutiques, larger stores, overpriced pubs, tiny tourist crap stores, and giant department stores behind neoclassical facades. I'd say 90% of the street is apparel. Shops from around the world. Aldo from Spain, Muji and Uniqlo from Japan, American Apparel and Quicksilver from America, on and on. It's a fun place to be, especially with the British going nuts for the after New Years sales. 

It was dark when we got there, but all the buildings were lit up with their Christmas displays, and the giant department stores had beautiful light displays cascading down the facades. Tay was looking for a new pair of boots so we stopped in at an Aldo, and I popped over to Muji. We ended up walking the full length of the street before catching a the tube back Waterloo. Caught an hour long train that conveniently dropped us right at the Milford station. We were so wiped that we didn't even mind the long ride.

Jan 4, 2012

Bath and Beyond

After we met up with dad at the hotel, Tay and I went on our own walking tour. Tay is Mr. History, and I'm Mr. Architecture, so we're pretty compatible in old cities. Bath Abbey is nothing that exceptional. It's  a lovely building, built most recently in 1675, and it has beautiful fan vaulting, but it didn't stun or stagger me. 

So we walked on to the Georgian circus, which is a ring of buildings around a giant roundabout. The idea was that no matter which door you walked out of, you'd see the facade of buildings straight ahead. The whole time we were in Bath, Tay kept asking me what the difference between Georgian and Palladian, and I kept giving him really wimpy answers like "Well, Georgian is a lot more fussy than Palladian" or "Georgian is British and more recent, while Palladian is Italian and older."

After our walking tour, we met back up with dad and had lunch at the Pump Room, which is a very large old building which used to house the pumps in the Georgian baths, which are right next door and right above the ancient Roman baths. We ate a nice meal there, and lots of hot tea. We decided to forego the tour of the ancient Roman baths because, well, none of us were that interested and there didn't seem to be much of the Roman baths left above the water line. 

However, the pump room did offer glasses of water from the Bath springs. Tay had to have a glass before we left, so we shared a cup. It was warm, minerally, and unpleasant, especially with the sulfur in the water giving it a less than pleasant smell and taste. 

Our time at Bath was at an end. I was amazed that we'd spent so long in Bath yet none of us had wrinkled fingers.

We drove on to Lacock, a tiny village about 30 minutes outside of Bath. The village is ancient, and the houses there have slate and thatched roofs, waddle and daub construction. Quiet, cobblestone streets. It has been used in several films, most recently for several scenes in the Harry Potter series. All of the scenes in Godrick's Hollow were filmed here, so we saw the church graveyard where Harry and Hermione found his parents grave, as well as the Potter residence, which showed up in the first Harry Movie as flashback. Tay wanted me to take a photo of him in front of it, and was kind of embarrassed and little surprised when a little girl skipped up to him and asked if he could stand aside and let her go home. The nearby Abbey was also used extensively for scenes in Hogwarts and the courtyard. 

We drove on, taking a detour through Salisbury. Dad actually asked me if I wanted to see Stonehenge, but I was not that interested or curious. I know its a lot of history embedded in the stones 3000 years old, and its a marvel that it was able to be built, but it just doesn't resonate with me. We went on to the city instead, parked in the city center and walked to the cathedral instead. It was well after dark at this point, and the cathedral was beautifully lit at night. The spire is actually the tallest in the UK. 

We stopped for a pint in the Haunch of Venison, supposedly the oldest pub in Salisbury. It surely looked it, and actually has the oldest pewter bar in the UK. Tiny, tiny place. There were only four people sitting downstairs, and we still had to go upstairs to find seating. There, we found a mummified hand on display in a niche in the wall, supposedly the hand of a gambler who was found cheating at cards and suffered the loss of that hand. He's one of the pair of ghosts supposed to haunt the place. Supposedly as well, Eisenhower and Churchill had a pint here during WWII, planning out the D-Day invasion. Actually, I'd be amazed if they were in any public place, let alone discussing one of the most closely guarded secrets of WWII. Still a cool bar for a pint.

We drove on and had dinner at a really nice place called the Cyder Inn, really far off the beaten path, and actually a working inn as well. 

The final stop for the night was at an old favorite- the Refectory, for some STP- sticky toffee pudding, which is pretty much the pinnacle of deserts. 

Bathing in Bath


Anyway, keeping in mind my goal of visiting the bath spa, I was facing some serious constraints- the spa opened at 9 and we needed to be checked out of the hotel by 11, the cost for 2 hours was about $40, and most seriously, neither Tay nor I brought bathing suits with us. I talked to the girl working the front desk at the hotel and she told me about a sports store down the street from the baths which were having serious blowout sales. (After the new year is serious sale season in the UK).

Tay and I worked out a plan for the following morning, which had to be followed in order for us to maximize our time at the spa.

7:45:00 alarm goes off
8:18:00 we go down to the hotel breakfast with hotel towels stashed in my backpack
8:35:00 left the hotel breakfast and set off for the sports shop
8:45:00 arrived at the sports shop and quickly searched through the store to find the cheapest bathing suits. Not Speedos, but close- swimming shorts which were shorter than boxer briefs. They were cheap- less than $9.
9:05:00 arrived at the spa.
10:35:00 left the pool
10:43:00 left the spa
10:52:00 arrived at the hotel, packed, dropped our wet hotel towels.
11:00:00 dropped keys and checked out.

The spa was really nice. When we check in, they gave us a chipped wristband, which we held to a plate to operate the turnstile letting us in. They actually give you an additional 30 minutes on top of your two hours in which to shower, change, etc. The locker rooms, which are the first room you must enter, were also very nice and unlike any other locker room I've been to. Unisex, the changing booths form a ring around the space you enter, and are bounded by two doors- one opening to the entrance, one towards the outer ring of lockers. You close both doors, change, and then open the doors again. You put your clothes in a locker and close the door, and then hold your chipped bracelet to a reader pad, which locks the locker and remembers your number for you. Towel in hand, we went first the large indoor pool.

The building seems to be supported by four large columns, which are expressed as giant funnel shaped mushrooms, which actually go into the pool. Several floors above, they are the in the centers of the the four circular glass steam rooms. The pool water was warm, not as hot as the springs come out naturally, but very nicely relaxing. There were seating areas with jets, fountains for a stream of water hitting your shoulders, and underwater jets which gently propel you around the pool.
The day after a bank holiday, on a workday morning, it was really quiet. We were actually the only ones in the pool for a long time. We got bored and wandered our way up to the rooftop pool. This is also a thermal bath, also totally empty. Five floors above the street, the roof pool had a great view of the surrounding old city and especially the Abbey tower. The rain was still drizzling town and in the cold air, the steam rising from the pool was whipped around by the wind. It was really great sensation actually, the cold rain and air and the warmth from the water. We spent a lot of time up there.

We did spend a little bit in the steam room too, which is a large chamber containing a huge warm shower in the center and four cylindrical glass pods containing four differently scented steam. The steam room walls were punctured with a grid of small, circular windows, perpetually fogged. After fifteen minutes in a steam pod, one could also walk directly out on the lower roof terrace for a bracing blast of cold air and rain.

After another soak in the rooftop pool, we changed and made our way to the exit. When you came back to the lockers, you held your bracelet to the panel and your locker popped open. The exit turnstile was pretty cool. The turnstile itself was unremarkable- the reader was cool. You held your chipped bracelet to a reader panel. The panel then slid open to reveal a small illuminated tray where you placed your band, and then the panel slid back over it and you were indicated to pass through. Maybe I'm just easily impressed.

Bathtime puns

Two days ago, we took an overnight trip to Bath. We got packed and on the road by midmorning, heading out across the green countryside, stopping only for a quick bite of traditional British fare: KFC  chicken wraps from the drive-thru.

The city name jokes got started before we'd even entered the city, only got worse as we approached Lacock, and didn't subside until we reached Salisbury.

Bath is a small, picturesque city. Most of the architecture is very Georgian, which reminded me strongly of Edinburgh, especially the New Town. The Avon river runs through it, so named because when the Romans came through wanting to document everything, they asked local Britons what the river was called, and the Brits responded avon meaning 'river.' The same story with the Neva river in Moscow.

Bath has held its place through the history of the UK by both the virtue of the baths in Roman times, its position as a border town between the Britons and the Saxons, and later in Georgian times as a resort town and high fashion center for the aristocracy.

We stated at the Hilton perched above the river, located in the historic city center, which centers around the baths. After we got checked in, we went for a walk down to Sally Lunn Buns, which was the self-proclaimed oldest house in Bath, as well as the residence of Sally Lunn, who invented the buns for which the town is well known. The house is very old, part of a line of adjoining houses along a narrow pedestrian street, but as we discovered on wikipedia, the myth totally falls apart. Sally Lunn was not her name, it was a very very rough Anglicization of a French name, as are the origins of the eponymous buns, and there is no evidence that she ever lived or baked in the house bearing her British name. (Lunn buns, by the way, are very similar to the rolls served in the southern united states- fluffy, large, and delicious) The food was good though. I had a Welsh rarebit on a Lunn bun, which is basically cheese,  by bacon, mushrooms, melted on top of the bun.

We then took the hop on hop off bus tour of Bath, which drove us around. We sat on top as long as we could before the cold and rain drove us below. The rain and the early sunset ended our day after we got off the bus, so we adjourned to a pub for a pint before retiring back to the hotel. Urbanist that I am, I wandered around in the light drizzle and dark, following my whim along streets and alleys. I found my way over to the Thermae spa, which is a modern spa/thermal bath which uses the water from the hot springs.

 In researching Bath, I decided that I really wanted to spend some time at these baths. First, I really wanted to follow the footsteps of the livestock, Britons, Romans, Saxons, and Georgians, who came to Bath to relax and soak in the mineral-rich hot springs. Secondly, I was curious about the architecture, built by renowned architects Grimshaw, in a modern design which picked up elements from the city. Bath is largely built of local limestone, especially Georgian bath, and Grimshaw used this material extensively for the baths. The mushroom shaped columns, which fan out at the top similar to Wrights columns at the Johnson building, strike me as interpretations of the columns terminating in fan vaulting in nearby Bath Abbey. Third, I could really really use some relaxation.

I was called back to the hotel and we took a taxi to a very swanky modern Indian restaurant, the Mint Room. The food was very good with the right mixture of spicy dishes and more mild dishes, and we amazingly ordered the right amount of food. I was really missing the burn on my cheeks and top of my head.

We took a cab back to the hotel and walked around a bit, trying to find a pub that served STP, but all the kitchens were closed at the relatively late hour. The clientelle was a lot younger as well, closer to Tay's age. We ended up playing cards in the hotel bar until about 11, when we call it a night.

I've actually been kind of surprised at how much dad likes to play now- we'd played a hand or two in Switzerland before, and he was lukewarm about it, but this trip, he's been really into it once he grasped the essentials of the game, and he's been wanting to play every night. He's getting better, but Tay and I are still beating him pretty consistently. I have a lot of experience, and Tay has a lot of experience, plus he's a pretty shrewd strategan.

Jan 1, 2012

Skip to the bit about pubs!

Last few days have been a blur. Tay and I wake up after ten, and usually closer to 11 am. We eat a huge, elaborate breakfast around noon and people generally take an hour or two to get organised and ready to do something. We'll drive out and take in a pint at a village pub, and another at a different pub nearby. After dark, we head home, and eat a huge, elaborate dinner at eight, followed by a few hours of cards before breaking up after midnight.

Last night, New Years Eve, dad took us to Inn on the Hill, a nice country pub. Please note that many country pubs double as restaurants, and many of them are quite nice. This was one of them. For dinner, I ordered butternut squash gnocchi, followed by roasted duck. For dessert, I ordered a quite delicious apple-pear crumble served with maple whipped cream.

The demographics of this area are really revealed by the pubs. Let's start with who I see there: lots of middle age to late middle age, sprinkled through with a few families. Perhaps not too surprising. However, these folks don't look like the agrarian sort. A peek into the typical parking lot yields a surprising number of BMWs, Land Rovers and Audis. London is an hour's drive time away.

The pubs themselves tell me volumes now that I think about it. The typical pub out here was usually built out of an existing barn or house. They're ancient structures, some of the original architecture built 600 years ago. We're in the middle of pastureland. If we were in the US, the pub should be like the country bar in rural Kentucky, complete with neon bud light signs in the window, broken juke box, and the scratched and filthy tables stolen from the long-closed restaurant down the way.

However, I've never been to ANY 'English' or 'Irish' pub in the US which was half as nice as the country pubs out here. The chimneys are cracked, the building leans, and the old tile roof sags, but there's a sleek and quiet modernization that gets lost as you're dazzled by the quaintness. You're looking at the old harnesses on the ancient beams and you totally miss the discreet, modern lighting fixtures recessed into the plaster ceiling. All the wiring for the inconspicous speakers and electrified old fixtures is recessed. The door and walk off mat is too nice. Everything is a little too clean and polished, and the wait staff are a little too polite. The menus are professionally done, on quality paper, in leather folios. The light levels are appropriate. The bathrooms are very nice.

I get a sneaking suspicion that these country pubs are essentially as themed and carefully contrived as the "Rielley O'Finnegan's Irish Pub" in the Oklahoma City mall. Another give-away- the building's history is often displayed- either writ large on the wall by the bar or on the backs of the menus. Locals, regulars, farmers. I'm guessing they're not going to give a toasted teabag, especially once they've read it the first time.

I really took for granted that I was the only tourist here, enjoying the pubs for their ancient histories, and quaint, country pubby feeling. My hypothesis- These pubs don't exist for the local farmers (which makes me wonder- who works these fields? Do they live farther away and commute from where property values are lower?) These pubs are here for the upper class commuters, who use Surrey as a bedroom community for Guildford or London. Guildford, which I read somewhere is one of the most expensive places to live in England outside of London, is in the heart of the area, and the heart of London itself only 45 minutes away by the many express trains.

Of course, I could be wrong about the exclusivity of the area. It does seem like there's a lot of these upscale pubs. However, it could be that the area is very mixed economically, and that the poorer people go to less visible pubs. Or, more likely, echoing the historic patterns, perhaps most of the middle and lower classes who live out here reside in the larger villages and towns, and go to less fancy neighbourhood pubs, while people with the country houses (which are, incidentaly, extremely expensive) drive to the more remote country pubs. 

So, ultimately, its good for me to remember that very likely, these pubs are the playground of the wealthy Brits seeking a bit of the lordly country life, or to pretend to be shepherds or something.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, after dinner at the nice pub-
We played cards until midnight, and then watched the London fireworks on the big screen TV. A year ago, we were actually there, on the banks of the Thames river among the millions, so the home theatre experience is somewhat lacking.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende...