Tuesday, April 30, 2013

TED on Tuesday: Deep Sea Diving…in a Wheelchair

Image courtesy Sue Austin website...

Multimedia, performance and installation artist Sue Austin challenges our notions of what disability is. Sue is the founder and artistic director of Freewheeling, an initiative aiming to further the genre of Disability Arts.

Sue states: "My studio practice has, for sometime, centred around finding ways to understand and represent my embodied experience as a wheelchair user, opening up profound issues about methods of self-representation and the power of self-narration in challenging the nexus of power and control that created the ‘disabled’ as other."

When Sue got a powered wheelchair more than sixteen years ago, she felt a tremendous sense of freedom. However, others looked at her as though she had lost something precious―her ability to walk and move about freely. On the other hand, for Sue Austin, the power chair gave her precisely that ability. By adding modifications and additions to her chair, Sue is able to create art, and just as importantly, travel and explore the world in ways that almost defy the imagination.

This talk, filmed at TEDxWomen 2012 includes stunning footage of Sue as she dons an oxygen tank and breathing apparatus, and turns her powered wheelchair into an underwater vessel that propels her across vast ocean floors, and amongst schools of multi-coloured fish. In doing so, Sue Austin reshapes how we think about disability, and proves once again, that where there is a will, there is always a way.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

In Review: Gone To New York

~ I have only read one other book by Ian Frazier, and that was his paean to the American prairies called Great Plains - a book I thoroughly enjoyed and reviewed here…

When I saw a copy of his 2005 collection of essays about New York City, Gone to New York: Adventures in the City making the decision to buy it was easy.

Gone to New York collects together twenty-two essays that examine aspects of life in New York City that are by turns, poignant, funny, serious, and insightful. The essays come from a variety of magazine sources, including the Atlantic, and The New Yorker, for which Ian Frazier continues to write as he has since 1973. Each story in the book contains a year of publication, and these range from Antipodes (1975), to the 2005 essay, Out of Ohio.

Along the way we meet a succession of New Yorkers, each of which is unique in their own way. There’s George Willig, the man who scaled the World Trade Center in 1977 using handmade clamping devices; we learn about Clifford Holland, that man for whom the Holland Tunnel is named;  we meet Martin Tytell, who at 83 years of age in 1997 (when the essay Typewriter Man was written), may have been the last manual typewriter repair man in New York City. We visit crime scenes, take bus rides, walk Canal Street, and stop to remove plastic bags from trees.

Two of the most touching stories are To Mr. Winslow (1993), and Street Scene (1995). In the first essay, Frazier writes about Allyn Winslow, a forty-two-year-old drama teacher who was shot and killed one June morning, after refusing to hand his new bicycle over to four teenagers. In three brief pages, Frazier documents the creation of a memorial to Mr. Winslow, that appears over several days on the exact spot at which he died. He records items as they are added to the memorial by locals, who in most cases didn’t know Allyn Winslow personally, but who were still moved to remember his passing.

Then, over a period of five months, Frazier traces the gradual breakdown of the memorial as summer rains, vandalism, ongoing park maintenance, and winter storms slowly eliminate signs of the original location, so that eventually all trace of it disappears. And thus, with its final disappearance, one is left to wonder if anyone―apart from the writer―still remembers Mr Winslow.

Image courtesy of Bag Snaggers...
[Image Right: The actress and singer, Bette Midler using a Bag Snagger to remove plastic from a New York City tree. Background to this photo is recounted in the essay, Bags in Trees: A Retrospective.]

In Street Scene, Frazier watches as a woman administers mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an elderly woman who lies on a Brooklyn sidewalk. Assisting her is a young male who counts off “One, two, three, four, five,” as he in turn administers chest compressions in an attempt to keep the elderly lady alive. Eventually, an Emergency Medical Service truck arrives and the paramedics take over the life-saving work of the volunteer rescuers. Ian Frazier watches as the male and female part without a word, and go their separate ways. At least Frazier has enough presence of mind to approach the man to thank him for what he had done.

He then runs after the woman, who was by now well down the block: I tapped her shoulder and she turned and I said thank you. Her eyes were full of what had just happened. There were tears on her upper cheeks. She said something like, “Oh, of course, don’t mention it.” She was … an ordinary-looking person, but glowing beautifully.

Earlier this month in my piece Reflections From The Window Seat, I asked the question, “…when you travel, where do you prefer to sit: window, aisle or middle seat?.” I added that I am definitely a window seat traveller, and went on to elaborate further about why. In Frazier’s essay, Route 3, I was delighted to read this: I usually travel to and from the city by bus. Most bus commuters sensibly occupy themselves with newspapers, laptops, CD players, and so on. I always try to get a window seat and then look at the scenery. If this were a ride at an amusement park, I would pay to go on it.

Frazier then goes on to describe in detail the bus journey along Route 3 between his home and the city, and I got a lot of satisfaction knowing that I had found a kindred spirit when it came to the joys of window seat travel. Even if the journey was only between workplace and home.

It probably isn’t necessary to be a New Yorker, or to have visited the city, to get the most out of the twenty-two essays in Gone To New York, but it helps. Having said that, most people reading this have been to New York City, if only through the medium of Hollywood movies and countless television shows. It should not be too hard to imagine yourself walking along Canal Street with Ian Frazier, as he points out some of the streets quirkier characters, and grumbles about the plastic bag tangled in the branches of the tree you are passing under. Speaking of which, here is an American television news item which includes Ian Frazier and his friend Bill McClelland using a Bag Snagger to remove plastic from trees.

Gone to New York: Adventures in the City is a delightful read, and is well worth seeking out either online, or through your local bookstore.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

New York City, Six Months After Sandy

Image courtesy Wikipedia. Author: Hybirdd
~ The modern, relentless 24 hour news cycle, has a voracious appetite. Most news stories, unless on the scale of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, and Washington, DC, quickly disappear from the front pages of newspapers or as the lead story of nightly news bulletins.

At least 285 people were killed along the path of the storm in seven countries. In the United States, where media organizations and some U.S. government agencies nicknamed the hurricane "Superstorm Sandy," the storm affected 24 states, including the entire eastern seaboard. The most severe damage occurred in New Jersey and New York, when the storm surge hit New York City on October 29, flooding streets, tunnels and subway lines, and cutting power in and around the city. Damage in the US was estimated at over US$71 billion.

Six months after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Cuba, and worked its way up the east coast of the United States to New York City and beyond, devastating coastal communities in its path, little if anything is heard about the ongoing recovery efforts still underway in these coastal communities. In New York City for example, vast stretches of beach front along the Atlantic reaches of Staten Island and Coney Island in particular still look much like they did soon after the storm struck.

Clipping from amNY...
While I don’t have a complete list of locations and infrastructure that are still closed or under repair, six months after Sandy, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Immigration Museum remain off the tourist circuit. The Statue of Liberty is due to open by July 4, but no date has been set for the reopening of Ellis Island.

Of the numerous subway stations and tunnels that were flooded by the almost 14 foot storm surge, the new South Ferry station seems to have suffered the most, when 15 million gallons of salt water poured into it, causing around US$600 million in damage. In response, the old 108-year-old South Ferry station has been reopened while the new station is repaired―a process that may take as long as two or three years!

To my knowledge, the one remaining subway line to be affected by Hurricane Sandy is the A-train. This currently runs as far as the Howard Beach station, with free shuttle buses operating non-stop between this station, and Far Rockaway-Mott Avenue. I assume, rail service is also affected at the other end of the Rockaways, at Rockaway Park Beach. More information about this service can be found at the MTA.INFO site…

Elsewhere along the coast, work is continuing apace to get New York’s beaches ready for the 2013 summer season. Despite being one of the worst affected areas, Coney Island is already open for business―or most of it anyway. The main outlet for Nathan’s Famous, a Coney Island business famous for its hotdogs, and for the annual hotdog eating contest they run remains closed, although its other branch location on Boardwalk West is open. 

Photo: M.T.A. / Patrick Cashin / via Wikipedia
The nearby New York Aquarium at Coney Island was flooded, and will have a limited opening this spring, but there is no timetable for the re-opening of Nathan’s. Meanwhile, Rockaway beach and Jacob Riis Park should be open by May 25 (Memorial Weekend), but it looks like Fort Tilden will be closed for the summer.

And then there is one of my favourite New York City locations―the South Street Seaport area around Pier 17. After a long day walking the streets of lower Manhattan, I have spent many a warm summer evening relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds around the South Street Seaport.

The viewing ‘decks’ of the shopping mall on Pier 17 provide some of the nicest views of the Brooklyn Bridge―especially if you time your visit to coincide with the magic hour or two around sunset. Then the view and the wonderful photographic opportunities are unbeatable. Sadly, though, not only did the South Street Seaport Museum suffer extensive damage, but the Pier 17 area itself was badly affected by the storm.

Negotiations are currently underway with the Howard Hughes Corporation (which owns the Pier 17 area), to build a modern shopping mall, incorporating a rooftop garden and concert area, and other facilities. I can’t say I am excited by the new design for the building which features copious amounts of glass, and seems out of place at a ‘seaport’ location, but maintaining the seaport there is better than having yet another skyscraper dominating the skyline at the foot of Manhattan.

In the meantime, I understand the current shopping facilities at Pier 17 will continue to operate as best they can through summer 2013, until construction of the new building commences later this year. 

I am sure the above is just a small part of what remains to be done to repair and replace damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New York City area. But I hope it serves as a reminder that although the news cycle has moved on, thousands of people along the whole length of Sandy’s path are still dealing with the aftermath  of the storm every day, and will continue to do so for many years.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

James Buchanan's Wheatland, Lancaster, PA

~ During my stay in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I went to check out Wheatland, the home of America’s 15th President, James Buchanan. With my usual impeccable timing, I managed to walk the mile and half from my hotel to Wheatland on the one day of the week the home was closed. Thankfully, the ten acre site is unfenced and visitors are free to wander the grounds and examine the exterior of the house and gardens, and the various outbuildings at leisure.

Constructed in 1828 by William Jenkins, a local lawyer, Wheatland, or the James Buchanan House, is a brick, Federal style house which was once surrounded by 22 acres of sculpted gardens and landscaped grounds. Today Wheatland shares its ten acres with the Lancaster County Historical Society.

James Buchanan purchased Wheatland in 1848, and lived in the house for next two decades―except for several years during his ambassadorship in Great Britain and during his presidency. Speaking of which: in complete contrast to the constant travel that modern presidential hopefuls embark on, Buchanan did not tour the country as part of his 1856 campaign. Instead, he conducted it from Wheatland as a "front porch campaign". In this age of instant communications, it boggles the mind to try and imagine how anyone could run a successful campaign for President from his front porch!

After his death in 1868, Wheatland passed through a succession of owners before it was acquired by a group of people who set up a foundation for the purpose of preserving the house.

Wheatland was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. It was designated a contributing property to the Northeast Lancaster Township Historic District in 1980. The foundation and the adjacent historical society merged in 2009.

Wheatland was opened to the public on May 5, 1936 and was dedicated "as a new presidential shrine, taking its place with Mount Vernon, Monticello and The Hermitage," in October 1937.

Architecture and Décor
As already noted, Wheatland is built in the Federal style. Wikipedia has this to say about its construction:

As no documents on the actual construction are known to exist, the person or persons responsible for the design of Wheatland have remained anonymous. However, the architecture of Wheatland, as well as its location on the property, indicates someone who was skilled in classical architecture. Design elements, like various lunette windows, also show the influence of various architectural guidebooks that were prevalent in the early 19th century.

Former privy built well away from main house!
The Grounds
On the grounds, behind Wheatland, stand a privy, a smoke-house  and a carriage house. A stable used to stand on the property but was replaced by the carriage house in the late 1880s; an ice-house also no longer exists.

A bathroom, complete with bathtub, shower and a bidet, was installed in the west wing in 1884. Until this was done, the household and guests had to visit a large square privy built well away from the main house―for obvious reasons.

Making the best of a poor situation, I am happy I took the trouble to see Wheatland, but I am disappointed I did not have an opportunity to enter the house to get a sense of life in the mid-1800s. Again, Wikipedia offers this:

The interior of Wheatland is furnished as it would have been in the mid-19th Century, with most of the furniture being original to the house. As Wheatland has never been significantly altered or remodelled  other than the installation of modern lighting and heating, it provides an accurate view of the lifestyle in the Victorian era.

If you are visiting Lancaster, don’t do as I did―make sure you visit James Buchanan’s Wheatland while it is open! Having said that―unless I have missed it―the official website does not mention specific opening hours, just the start of the first and last guided tours. It is probably safe to assume that opening hours are 9 AM-5 PM, but don’t take my word for it, call 717-392-4633 to confirm this for yourself.

The Hours of Operation noted below are taken directly from the official site:
April through October
Tours are offered Monday through Saturday, on the hour, starting with the 10 AM tour.  The last tour begins at 4 PM.

Sundays, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Years Day.
And just to prove that my outing to Wheatland was not a complete waste of time, here is a brief video documenting my visit:

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

TED on Tuesday: Ken Robinson: Schools Kill Creativity

Sir Ken Robinson

In my family and extended family, I count at least nine members who are involved in various fields of education, either as teachers, instructors, or some other capacity. Across the same family there are members who sing, play musical instruments, paint, write poetry, and dance. One is a screenwriter, and another is currently undertaking a film making course.

I myself, am a singer-songwriter with a couple of albums to my name, and I guess I can add video maker to my credits if I include the numerous short videos I have put together documenting my various travels. It goes without saying then, that questions examining the nexus between education and creativity are of great interest to myself, and other members of the family.

Today’s TED on Tuesday features a talk by Sir Ken Robinson, who makes an entertaining and forceful case for creating a modern education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.
“I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson
Posing the question: Why don't we get the best out of people? Sir Ken Robinson argues that it's because we've been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Further, he argues that students with restless minds and bodies―far from being cultivated for their energy and curiosity―are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences. Or worse―diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder), and  medicated into submission.

Sir Ken led the British government's 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, a massive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements. His latest book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative was published in January 2009. He is also the author of the best selling The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

Take a look as Sir Ken Robinson delivers one of the most popular TED talks on education and creativity:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France

I visited the Musée de l’Orangerie, in Paris during my stay in the ‘City of Lights’, in December 2010. The Museum is an art gallery of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, located on the banks of the Seine in the old orangery of the Tuileries Palace, on the Place de la Concorde near the Concorde metro station.

I first encountered two of Monet’s magnificent Water Lily masterpieces when visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Although I had seen photographs of some of these paintings often enough, nothing prepared me for the sheer joy I experienced standing before these masterpieces of shadow, light and colour.

Claude Monet was born on 14 November 1840 on the fifth floor of 45, rue Laffitte, in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. Monet was a founder of French impressionist painting, and the most consistent and prolific practitioner of the movement's philosophy of expressing one's perceptions before nature. The term Impressionism, is derived from the title of his painting: Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant).

Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s through the end of his life in 1926, Monet worked on several "series" paintings, in which his subject matter was depicted in varying light and weather conditions. Using his own gardens (with their water lilies, pond, and bridge as inspiration), Monet’s Water Lilies date from this period.

In 1922, Claude Monet signed a contract donating the Nymphéas series of decorative panels to the French government. With input from Monet, the Nymphéas were arranged on the ground floor of the Orangerie in 1927. The eight paintings are displayed in two oval rooms, and are viewed under direct diffused light as was originally intended by Monet.

In what I can only assume is a very unconventional method of mounting the paintings, the eight massive canvases have been glued directly to the walls.

Monet died of lung cancer on 5 December 1926 at the age of 86, and is buried in the Giverny church cemetery. His home, garden and water lily pond were bequeathed by his son Michel, to the French Academy of Fine Arts in 1966. Through the Claude Monet Foundation, the house and gardens have been open for visits since 1980, and are a ‘must see’ for all devotees of Monet’s work.

According to the museum's website, the Orangerie was originally built in 1852 to shelter the orange trees of the garden of the Tuileries. Today, while it is most famous for being the permanent home for eight Water Lilies murals by Claude Monet, the Musée de l’Orangerie also contains works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri Rousseau among others.

Here is a brief look at some of those magnificent works of art:

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Peri’s Hotel & Apartments, Athens, Greece

Peri's Hotel & Apartments, Athens, Greece

~ I only spent one night (February, 2011), at Peri’s Hotel & Apartments, in Athens, Greece, but I was delighted with the location, the room, and the friendly service. After a short uneventful flight from the Aegean island of Ikaria, to Athens International Airport, I was picked up as arranged by Antonis. Peri’s provide a free pick up and drop off service between the airport and hotel, so make sure you request this service if you need it.

The hotel was built in 2004, and offers just twelve well appointed rooms, each with their own balcony. My room had a large double bed, en suite, television, bar fridge, free WiFi, but no tea or coffee making facilities. There was plenty of storage space – in fact too much given that 80 per cent of the visitors staying here are probably only staying for one or two nights at most. Still it was nice to know they had gone to the effort.

Room service: Tea and Cake
Although no tea/coffee making facilities are available in the rooms (unless this has since changed), following my arrival at the hotel, Antonis brought a pot of tea to my room, along with a slice of cake. It was a lovely touch, and after settling in, I went for a walk to Artemis beach about 1 km from the hotel. 

There are numerous cafés and restaurants along the foreshore, and I treated myself to a late lunch/early dinner of calamari, chips, salad and Heineken beer, which, along with a tip came to just €20.

Peri’s Hotel is located about 15 minutes drive from Athens International Airport EL. VENIZELOS, and less than 30 minutes from the port of Rafina, from where you can catch ferries to the islands of Myconos, Santorini, Paros, Naxos, Tinos and Evia. Visitors wanting to head into central Athens will find a public bus stop close by.

Breakfast tray. Luverly!
Booking Your Stay
Booking your stay at Peri’s Hotel & Apartments requires that you call the hotel direct (see numbers below). Online reservations through the usual online sites, was not available when I stayed in the hotel, and still does not appear to be available.

My breakfast consisted of two slices of toast with slices of cheese and ham; jam, one boiled egg, a pot of tea, and 250ml of orange juice, all delivered cheerfully to my room. Luverly!

Other Details
~ A breakfast room and TV lounge are available if you don’t want to spend time in your room.
~ Continental breakfast is served between 8.00 am to 10.00 am.
~ A small bar is also located in the TV lounge
~ Transfer to and from the Airport is available (free shuttle between 7.00 am to 23.30 pm)
~ Reception office is staffed 24 hours.

Peri's Hotel & Apartments, Athens, Greece
If you are looking for somewhere to stay for a night or two between flights, Peri’s Hotel is an excellent choice. The hotel is located well away from main roads, with their frenetic traffic and highly strung Greek drivers, and provides the perfect respite before embarking on long homeward flights.

Phone: +30-22940-83763
Mobile: +30-694-412-7435
Email: peris11 @ otenet.gr 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Philabaum Glass Gallery & Studio, Tucson, Az

Stunning art for sale at Philabaum Glass
~ I visited the Philabaum Glass Gallery and Studio during my stay in Tucson, Arizona last September. Tom Philabaum has been producing stunning works of art in glass for more than thirty years. He built his first glassblowing studio in 1975 in downtown Tucson, and opened a gallery in 1982. The current gallery and studio was opened in 1985, and not only features Tom Philabaum’s work, but the work of many other talented glass artists.

Visitors to the gallery are able to enter the studio attached to the main gallery, and watch as the glassblowers work their magic on the molten glass. This is not the place to go into a detailed description of glassblowing, and any way, I know next to nothing about the processes involved. However, it was exciting to watch these skilled craftspeople at work, and to spend time examining the truly stunning works in glass available for sale in the gallery and shop.

Tom Philabaum was the recipient of the 1998 Arizona Governor’s Art Award for Artist of the Year. And in May 2000, the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona awarded him the prestigious $25,000 Arizona Arts Award in recognition of significant contribution to the growth and development of the arts in Arizona.

Glass artists at work at Philabaum Glass
Also in 2000, Tom began teaching nationally accredited classes at Philabaum Glass, giving birth to the Sonoran Art Foundation, co-founded by Tom and David Klein, which is now known as the Sonoran Glass School.

Tucson Glass Festival
In 2010, Tom Philabaum collaborated with the Sonoran Glass School to organize and host the first Tucson Glass Festival, presenting live demonstrations with visiting artists and exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout Tucson. The festival is currently underway in Tucson with the final events set for April 20.

I was delighted to be able to visit the gallery and studio during my stay in Tucson, and I recommend it highly if you are planning a stop in the city.

Here is a brief video compilation I have put together following my visit:

Instrumental I'm In Pieces courtesy of MJW RECORDS…
Available on Soundcloud

More Information
711 S. Sixth Avenue
Tucson, Arizona
Tel: 520-884-7404
Email: gallery [at] philabaumglass.com

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Amtraking America

Welcome to Amtrak

~ During my 2010 American trip, I travelled via Greyhound Bus from New York City to New Orleans (with stopovers in Philadelphia, PA and Raleigh, NC). I have written an extensive six part road trip report of that journey beginning here…

That trip went so well, that I was keen to repeat the experience―albeit along a different route―during my 2012 visit to America. To that end, following my three week stay in New York City, I caught the first of what I thought would be many Greyhound Buses, to Lancaster, PA.

During my stay in Lancaster, someone suggested I use Amtrak to get to my next destination―Harrisburg, PA., a short leg by any standards. Since Greyhound Buses shared facilities with Amtrak, it was easy enough to do―so I did. That was it. I was immediately smitten. Seduced by the comfort; the leg room; the ability to get up and walk the length of the train; the large windows; the smooth, traffic free flow of the carriages; and more. The run from Lancaster to Harrisburg was over in under an hour, but I was hooked. I decided that if the opportunity arose to travel by train again, I would seize it.

Washington, DC to Savannah, GA
When I left Harrisburg, it was by bus for Washington, DC. But when I left America’s national capital, for Savannah, Georgia, it was on the Amtrak Atlantic Coast Service that takes in New York - Washington, DC - Charleston - Savannah - Jacksonville - Orlando - Tampa/Miami. There was no turning back after that. Given a choice between spending nearly eleven hours on a train or a bus, there is only one choice, and that of course is the train.

Atlantic Coast Service route guide
In researching current prices for this entry, I was able to confirm what I already knew, that depending on how and when you choose to travel, it can be cheaper to take a train than it is to take a bus. For example, current prices (as of Sunday, 14 April 2013), for the Washington-Savannah run are US$101.00 for the morning and afternoon trains, and US$173.00 for the evening train. The same route by Greyhound Bus ranges from $85.00 (advance purchase) to $159.00 (refundable ticket). The Standard Fare is $142.00.

Using the example above, the bus is cheaper than the train service. However, even though I was initially looking for the cheapest tickets available, I did not hesitate to spend the extra $16.00 for the space and luxury of the train. Oh, and it helps that some of the Amtrak services include WiFi as well. And did I mention the restaurant car? And the observation carriage with its comfortable seating that allows you to sit back, stretch your legs, and enjoy panoramic views of the passing countryside? All in all, the experience is better; the ride much smoother; and the journey certainly seems to pass much quicker.

After the Richmond stop I walked up to the restaurant car for a coffee and Panini. It occurred to me that a coach paying passenger could spend most of their trip here in relative comfort. In fact, it was a whole lot easier to use my iPad there where I could rest the device on a table and type, than to balance it in my lap, or hold it for extended periods.

Also in the restaurant car one has an opportunity to take part in conversations with a number of other passengers, rather than sit alone or converse with the person in the seat next to you in your designated carriage―assuming they want to talk in the first place.

New Orleans, LA to Tucson, AZ
Alpine, Texas
From Savannah, I rode a Greyhound to New Orleans, and after a five night stay there, I boarded Amtrak’s Sunset Limited service for Tucson, Arizona.

For the record, current prices on the New Orleans-Tucson run are $143 (Amtrak), and $188 (web only) to $232 (refundable) for the Greyhound Bus. That’s a difference of $45 assuming you buy the cheapest tickets, or a difference of $89 (if you purchase a refundable Greyhound ticket) in favour of Amtrak. As the saying has it: It’s a no brainer.

I have taken to referring to Amtrak as one of America’s best kept secrets. Almost everyone I spoke to about my train travel was amazed at the prices I paid, and my glowing recommendations. Most assumed that travelling by train would be far more expensive than by bus, and had therefore never considered the Amtrak service.

If there is a downside to using the rail network, it is that compared to the Greyhound Bus network, passengers have many more choices available to them when travelling by bus. The American rail network is a pale shadow of what it used to be, which is a great pity. Never the less, what remains covers all the main urban centres and for my money, it just can’t be beaten. At the very least, take time to compare prices between the Greyhound Bus and Amtrak services. Like me you may become a convert to the joys of rail travel.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

TED on TUESDAY: A Guerilla Gardener In South Central L.A.

Ron Finley. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

~ Artist and designer Ron Finley could not help but notice what was going on in his backyard,  South Central Los Angeles. Describing the area as “the home of the drive-thru and the drive-by,” Finley decided that it was way past time to try and do something about just one aspect of the many issues facing the area―and that was (and is) the area’s poor health and high mortality rate, with one in two kids contracting a curable disease like Type 2 diabetes.

He started working with the organization L.A. GreenGrounds to install a vegetable garden on the 150 ft x 10 ft patch of ground in front of his house, that strip between the sidewalk and the street that the city owns but the resident has to keep up. What happened when he did this, becomes the heart of this inspiring talk, which has in turn inspired many other people in L.A. and elsewhere to take control of their health and urban environments.

"We’ve got to make this [gardening] sexy,” he proclaims. “Let’s all become renegades, gangsta gardeners. We have to flip the script on what a gangsta is. If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta. Let that be your weapon of choice!”

Amen to that!

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TED Online...

Twitter: @UrbanFoodForest

Monday, April 15, 2013

Strange But True: The Spite House, New York City

This odd building stands on the corner of 161st Street and Melrose Avenue, New York City. It is a bit over 4ft. in depth, 17ft. frontage, and one and a-half storeys high, with a basement and sub-basement built under the broad sidewalk, extending to the curb. The house itself is of wood, on a steel frame, and has a slate roof.

Its owner is an eccentric tailor, who lives and carries on his trade below the street. The interior consists of a small show-room, a store-room, and spiral iron stairway going down to the "lower regions." The upper storey seems to have been constructed merely as a finishing touch. It is reached by an iron ladder from the store-room. The entire construction, appointments, and fittings are very ingenious, and are all the ideas of the owner.

The story of the house is that the original lot was cut away in opening the avenue, save only the few feet now occupied by the building. A controversy arose between the tailor and the owner of the adjoining property regarding the disposal of the small strip, and the tailor becoming enraged because his neighbour would neither sell his property nor pay the price the knight of the shears demanded, built this odd structure out of spite. The photo. was taken just at the completion of the building, and before the street had been fully paved. It shows, however, the dimensions of the building, and also the construction under the street, etc. Photo. sent in by Mr. W. R. Yard, 156, Fifth Avenue, New York City."

Recently, I was indulging my curiosity on the Gutenberg site, and on a whim decided to take a look at a copy of The Strand Magazine, dating from February 1899. To my delight I saw a piece called 'The Spite House', which I have reproduced in full above. Of course, I immediately had to Google the address (161st Street and Melrose Avenue, New York City), and used Street View to see what buildings were standing at the intersection today, and not surprisingly this odd little building has long disappeared.

I love the serendipitous nature of the Internet, and how one link leads to another and then another. I also take delight in discovering amazing facts and bits of information about any number of things I may not have been specifically searching for, but gain great satisfaction from learning about anyway. One such example, out of many, involves my regular monitoring of the latest uploads to Gutenberg.Org. I have written before about this wonderful organization that has digitised more than 40,000 books, which are now in the public domain (that is, copyright free). The books are then made freely available via their website.

I’ll have more to say about Project Gutenberg at a future date, but until then, why not check the site out for yourself. You will be amazed at the range of books and authors available via the site.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Living Tradition: Greek Island Dance Festival

~ On Saturday, June 14, 2008, a Festival of Greek Dance was held in the village of Rahes, on the Aegean island of Ikaria, and this film, one of several I have put together, shows the final dance of the night. The tune is known as the Ikariotiko (or The Ikarian), and is the island’s traditional tune and dance.

The festival took place on the village basketball court, under lights that attracted hundreds of moths and other airborne insects which fell constantly onto the heads of the audience below. This probably explains why only half the lights were turned on during the performances. Unfortunately, this also made it extremely difficult to get good, well lit footage of the dances.

Audience chatter and the constant movement of children and adults across the 'stage' seems to be part and parcel of any event of this type, given the location, and the hot summer night. In the end, it all goes towards creating yet another unforgettable and unique Greek island experience.

The wonderful thing about this festival is the way the community totally involves itself in the event. Rather than assume the constant chatter and movement as being disrespectful to the musicians and dancers, it is instead a sign of the audiences involvement and connection with the music and dancing.

Quite frankly, I'm surprised the adults didn't get up and dance during the three hour show themselves. Greeks find it very difficult to sit and watch something like this, when their natural inclination is to get up and join in.
Throughout the night, local children stood at the edges of the performance space intently watching the feet of the dancers, while they tried to follow the steps of each dance. As everyone (dance troupes and visitors alike), got ready to join the final dance.

This was the signal for children of all ages to join the long lines―generally at the end of each line, as tradition dictates―to learn, and carry on the island traditions. It would of course be unthinkable to tell the children to keep out of the way while the adults did 'their thing'. The children are literally learning at the feet of the adult dancers.

The music is performed here on a Tsampouna, an instrument made out of goat skin, which has obvious links to the Scottish bagpipe and the gaida. I should also add, the Ikariotiko is played constantly at festivals, weddings, parties, in deed at celebrations and occasions of all types. And not just once per night, but many times. Each musician has his or her own variation of the tune, and some musicians are still remembered and spoken about today, long after their passing, because of the way they played the dance. I love how the musician actually spends a full minute and 20 seconds (1:20), playing an extended introduction to the main tune. This gives audience and performers alike plenty of time to make their way onto the basketball court and join lines in readiness for the dance to begin.

To my great regret, I did not get the name of the female playing the Tsampouna, nor did I take any footage of her during the dance, which finished off the evening's entertainment. However, as chance would have it, she happened to walk past my camera just before I turned it off at the end of the dance. I have captured a frame from the video and added it as a still image just before the final credits appear as a way to acknowledge her performance.

A comment added to one of my other videos suggests the musician is Eva Kratsa. Another source thought she lived on the island of Mykonos.

I hope you enjoy the music and the occasion.

More Videos
You can see many more of my travel videos on my YouTubepage…

Saturday, April 13, 2013

In Review: Palace Hotel, Paris

Palace Hotel, Rue Bouchardon
I stayed at the Palace Hotel during December 2010. Don’t be fooled by the name, though. As hotels go, this is basic at best, but for my money, the price couldn’t be beaten. I paid just €35/night – or €350 for a ten night stay in a budget hotel that was within easy walking distance of some of Paris’s most popular attractions. Oh, and don’t confuse this Palace Hotel with the much grander Golden Tulip Little Palace hotel nearby, where the same ten nights would have cost me €2,300 or more!

Given that it has been more than two years since my stay, I must stress that this review may be doing the hotel owners a great disservice, since any number of conditions may have changed during the intervening 28 months. However, I have read more recent reviews for the Palace Hotel, and judging from the comments left by other guests, it seems that little has in fact changed.

Room 5: At least the bed was comfortable
While writing this entry, I checked current room rates and to my amazement the prices are almost the same as they were in 2010. However, it is a well known truism that ‘You get what you pay for’, so I can’t stress enough that you get the absolute basics for this price: a wardrobe, small desk, bed, and bathroom. My room did not have the usual extras such as hair-dryer, television, refrigerator, air-conditioner, complimentary tea and coffee, free Continental breakfast, or much else in that regard.

The hotel does offer breakfast (baguettes, butter and jam, coffee, tea etc), but at an additional cost of €4.50 each day. WiFi was also available when I was there, but the signal was quite weak in my room, despite the fact that it was almost directly above the reception area.

Room 5: bathroom
I should also point out that some rooms do not have their own en-suite bathroom/shower, in which case guests must use shared facilities. These rooms are of course priced at lower rates than those with en-suites – currently €25-€30/night.

The hotel owners were friendly and despite their limited English (and my non-existent French), were always eager to help in any way they could to ensure my stay there was positive.

The neighbourhood around the hotel has many good local cafes and Boulangerie’s, as well as other low-cost shopping outlets. A brisk 30 minute walk will get you to the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, Les Halles, the Pompidou Centre, the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden. Even the famed Basilique du Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre can be reached on foot in less than 45 minutes.

Room 5: wardrobe and 'desk'
Would I stay at the Palace Hotel again? Most definitely. I think it would be hard to beat the current prices being asked at the hotel, and given its location, it still remains a great choice for visitors on a limited budget.

More Information
Palace Hotel,
9 Rue Bouchardon, 75010, Paris
Tel: 014 040 0945
Tel: 014 040 0946
Email: palace.hotel75010@gmail.com

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Craft & Vision: Photography eBooks

Craft & Vision use as their tag line: More Great Ways to Make Stronger Photographs, and the talented photographers who comprise the Craft & Vision team of writers surely live up to that motto. More than 50 beautifully produced eBooks are available as PDF downloads from the C&V website.

Incredibly, most of the eBooks cost as little as US$5.00 each, and all are packed with stunning images, and great content by writer/photographers who know intimately the topics they are writing about.

Right now, C&V are offering free downloads of Craft & Vision II (see link below), so I thought I should give you a ‘heads up’ about the freebie, and mention a couple of other great photography eBooks you might want to check out. However, as mentioned, there are many other books worth examining in detail, so head over to the Craft & Vision website and take a look through the complete collection.

Craft & Vision II: Another Free eBook
This gorgeous 45-page PDF eBook has nine articles that will help photographers of all levels make stronger photographs. Martin Bailey, Piet Van den Eynde, Nicole S. Young, Dave Delnea, Sean McCormack, and David duChemin have written articles exclusively for this eBook.

Articles cover such topics as making sharper images and learning to shoot in manual mode; developing smarter; balancing flash with ambient light; learning to see light; developing style and consistency; isolating your subjects; experimenting with B&W; and coping strategies for challenging light.

Speaking about this free eBook offer, Craft & Vision say: “Consider it a random act of kindness to the photography community we so passionately serve. Aside from the great articles contained in the eBook, you will also discover an exclusive promotional offer, we call it the C&V Starter Kit, where you can save USD $16 and get another four amazing products to help take your photography skills to the next level.”

The best things in life may be free, but generally we have to pay for the things we want. The Craft & Vision team have produced a whole range of great eBooks aimed directly at all photographers – whether amateur or professional. Here are a couple of my personal favourites…

Beyond Thirds: A Photographer's Introduction to Creative Composition
This inspiring eBook from Andrew S. Gibson, is about taking composition past the so-called rules. It’s a thoughtful, practical book about the way we build our photographs within the constraint of the frame.

Andrew moves past the traditional discussion of thirds by showing how a more holistic approach can turn a conventional rule into a powerful tool. The eBook explores important subjects like the creative use of balance and focal points, insights into how to shape a subject, and using aspect ratio to establish an ideal foundation for making photographs, and so much more!

The diagrams and creative exercises will provide you with the ideas and insights you need to compose more engaging photographs.

BELOW THE HORIZON: Understanding Light at the Edges of Day, was written by Dave Delnea, a photographer whose commercial work includes some of the finest resort properties in the world.

Delnea’s ability to see and capture the mood present in light at the edges of day have garnered him some exceptional clients and produced some amazing images.

His secret is no secret at all; simply to understand and capture the light that is uniquely present when the sun is below the horizon and other photographers have put their cameras away. Highly recommended.

Click here to visit the Craft And Vision website...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Touring New York Harbor

Image courtesy of Working Harbor Committee
~ It is good to see New York City’s Working Harbor Committee (WHC) emerging from winter hibernation.

I am on the organization’s mailing list, and their latest ‘On The Hip’ e-newsletter lists a number of forthcoming activities, including the very popular Hidden [New York] Harbor Tours.

I have joined three previous Hidden Harbor Tours (two in 2010, and another in 2012), and I consider them to be some of the best ‘hidden gems’ of any visit to New York. You can read my account about one of those tours here…

Image courtesy of Working Harbor Committee
Among events scheduled from now until the end of summer, are a series of narrated tours under the theme: Beyond Sandy: Keeping the Conversation Alive, as well as more Hidden Harbor Tours. 

Beyond Sandy, is described as a series of special Hidden Harbor Tours exploring the many issues and plans arising from Super Storm Sandy, that focus on the array of global warming and sea-level rise protection alternatives being discussed by government, private institutions and citizens. Special guest speakers will discuss and pose questions such as: Are Netherlands-style sea barriers the answer? How did various neighborhoods fare and why? Fight the ocean or retreat? And How did the working harbor fare and help?

Each tour will have two guest speakers from a number of sources: the maritime industry, government agencies, private industry, think tanks and universities, as well as other noted experts. The tours are two hours in length and visit Red Hook, Sunset Park, The Verrazano Bridge, Staten Island, Bayonne and Hoboken, the lower Manhattan shoreline and many points in between.

The tours leave from Pier 16 at the South Street Seaport District (itself heavily impacted by Sandy – under 6 feet of water) at 6:30 p.m. on the large three-deck motor vessel Zephyr

There will be three different tours:
Tour 1 - High Seas on the Inner Harbor: From Wall Street to Snug Harbor This tour is from the Verrazano Bridge to Hoboken, including Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. See where giant sea gates are proposed.Tuesday - 21 May, 2013Tuesday - 18 June, 2013

Tour 2 - Fire, Floods and Floating Containers: East River - Hell Gate to Governors Island This tour traverses the East River from Queens to Governors Island, including the East Side of Manhattan, Newtown Creek and Brooklyn Navy Yard. See the site of the giant electric sub-station explosion.Tuesday - 28 May, 2013Tuesday - 25 June, 2013

Tour 3 – Protecting Our Ports: From Red Hook to Newark Bay.This tour traverses Kill van Kull to Newark Bay, including container terminals, oil docks, tug yards, and rail yards. Learn how close we came to a goods delivery crisis.Tuesday - 4 June, 2013

North River Tour on June 11
Image courtesy of WHC. Inset: Bill Miller.
Hosted by Bill Miller, this tour will begin by passing around the southern tip of Manhattan and the large ferry terminals to Staten Island and Governors Island.

It will also travel north up along the west side of Manhattan passing the Battery and Castle Clinton, then most of Hudson River Park, including historic ships, ferry terminals, fireboat terminals, historic Pier 57, Chelsea Piers, excursion boats, the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum and finally the passenger ship terminals.

The tour will then cross over to the New Jersey side passing the historic Hoboken waterfront, scene of "On The Waterfront", another active shipyard, Morris Canal entrance and finally, as all tours do, it will visit the Statue of Liberty before returning to Pier 16.

The tour departs from Pier 16 at the South Street Seaport District at 6:30 p.m. on the large three-deck motor vessel Zephyr

Adults: $39.00 | Children (3-12 yrs): $25.00 | Seniors: $32.00
WHC, South Street Seaport and THIRTEEN Members: $32.00

Here is a short video I put together after my 2012 Hidden Harbor Tour:

I would dearly love to join one of the above Hidden Harbor Tours, but sadly, I won’t be visiting New York City this year. However, if I visit again in 2014 as I hope to do, a fourth tour will be definitely part of my trip.

Additional Hidden Harbor Tours including Port Newark/Port Elizabeth and Brooklyn are being planned for July, August and September. If you think these unique tours might appeal to you, I highly recommend you signup for ‘On The Hip’, the official e-newsletter of the Working Harbor Committee, and bookmark the organization’s blog for ongoing news and information.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

TED on Tuesday: The Dawn Of De-Extinction

Famous last words, perhaps? Click to view full size.

In a previous entry on this blog, I wrote about my visit to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Part of what I wrote concerned the destruction of the passenger pigeon. Once numbering in the billions, the last surviving member of that species died almost 100 years ago, in 1914. But what if there was a way to bring back the passenger pigeon? Or the woolly mammoth? Or any number of other extinct species?

Incredibly, utilising science, technology and advances in DNA research, scientists are now close to the point where it is possible to bring extinct species back to life. In this TED Talk, Stewart Brand (the Whole Earth Catalog, The WELL, the Global Business Network, the Long Now Foundation, etc), outlines ongoing research and long term plans to de-extinct some of the animals that have disappeared from the planet.

Granted, resurrecting the woolly mammoth using ancient DNA may sound like mad science. But Brand’s Revive and Restore project has an entirely rational goal: to learn what causes extinctions so we can protect currently endangered species, preserve genetic and biological diversity, repair depleted ecosystems, and essentially “undo harm that humans have caused in the past.”

Watch Stuart Brand’s TED Talk now...

Stewart Brand's newest book is Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. He is also the author of How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Reflections From The Window Seat

Flying over the Alps to Paris, France
~ So when you travel, where do you prefer to sit: window, aisle or middle seat?

I am definitely a window seat traveller. When I take international flights, I prefer the window seat, not because I can spend most of the flight looking at the scenery from the window – at 30,000 feet, there is not a lot of scenery to see passing over the Pacific Ocean between Australia and North America.

No, I choose window seats because I can wedge myself up against the internal fuselage of the aircraft and get a reasonable amount of sleep without being disturbed by the comings and goings of the other passengers sharing my seating section. The ability to look at the landscape once the plane is passing over areas of country is an added bonus

Gulf Coast from Greyhound Bus window
When travelling by bus or train, I again choose window seats. I am not one of those travellers who bury their head in a book or digital device, or who try to blot out my surroundings by listening to music through a pair of tiny ear buds.

I spend most of the trip looking out the window at the passing parade of small towns and villages, with their pedestrians and local traffic; examining the local architecture, both civic and private; and trying get an understanding (no matter how brief and fleeting) of the lives and loves of the local population.

How about you. Where do you prefer to sit, and why? Feel free to share your opinions and thoughts via the Comments section below.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

National September 11 Memorial

~ I paid a visit to the National September 11 Memorial in New York City during August 2012. I expected to be much more emotionally affected by the site, but I wasn't.

On my way to the Memorial site, I also dropped into St. Paul's Chapel, a building I have visited on numerous occasions during my trips to New York, and here I was once more emotionally engaged with the Chapel and the displays there – although these seem to be shrinking as the years pass.

I think the difference between the two sites is that St. Paul’s Chapel connects with you on a personal level, partly because of its accessibility and scale, while the National September 11 Memorial is massive and almost impersonal - despite the almost three thousand names displayed there. Of course, the Chapel still stands, while the towers of the World Trade Center now only exist in our memories, and in the multitude of audio-visual artifacts that remain.

Clearly, visitors with a direct connection to the site will be much more emotionally engaged than myself, and indeed while there, I saw visitors making rubbings of the names of people they knew who were victims of the attacks. Also, once the museum, with its many artifacts and exhibits is finally open, I am sure the whole experience will be much more affecting.

I expect to return to the completed Memorial on subsequent visits to New York City, and I will be interested to see how the experience compares to my August visit. If you are visiting New York, a visit to the National September 11 Memorial is certainly worth the long queues and security checkpoints. Like other major memorial sites (war memorials, Holocaust memorials, and such), the Memorial serves to remind us of the tragedy it commemorates, and to keep alive the memories of the thousands of men, women and children (some unborn), who were victims of the attacks.

Here is a short video I made following my visit:

The song is Sweet Forgiveness, by one of my favourite artists, Iris DeMent… www.irisdement.com
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