Ten days in New Zealand

My parents and I recently spent ten days in the North Island of New Zealand, a holiday we’ve been planning since Christmas. Mum and Dad have both been to New Zealand before, but it was my first time. We departed on the 10th of September and returned on the 20th.

I was given the task of researching places to visit, and did my best to put together a realistic itinerary. We chose September to avoid the peak tourist season and because the rainfall is lower than in either August or October. Bookings were made through a travel agent, with whose services we were less than fully satisfied; but I guess that’s what you get for using an agency that proclaims itself the cheapest rather than the best.

For the first few days the weather was beautiful, but later it turned bad, and so unfortunately we didn’t get to do everything on our list. The weather’s persistence surprised me, as I expected a New Zealand September would contain multiple seasons in each day; but no, it was either one thing or the other. One needn’t wonder why there’s a peak tourist season in New Zealand.

We arrived in Auckland around 5:30pm, and after collecting our luggage were greeted with the longest exit queue I’ve seen in any airport anywhere. (I don’t know why that should be.) The GPS navigation unit supplied with the hire car gave us all sorts of problems at first, though it got better as we learned to use it. I also had access to Google Maps through my phone, and will say more about navigation at the end of this post.

Our first full day in New Zealand was Sunday September 11, allocated on our itinerary as a free day in Auckland. We began with a visit to the Maritime Museum, which had a few quirky exhibits I quite liked, but overall was nothing special. (None of the museums we visited in New Zealand were prizeworthy, in my opinion, and I won’t dwell on them.)

Our next adventure — the Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari — was much more impressive, though I was unprepared when water from a bigger-than-average wave splashed over the hull and made us all soaking wet! The moment is captured at the end of this video. (Hold tight to your camera if you ever go.)

I expected we’d see a handful of dolphins at best, but once we found them, there were lots. The next video contains a few clips.

Despite the experience exceeding our own expectations, it apparently wasn’t up to the standards of the crew, who gave us all an open invitation to come back another day for free. Watch the video above and think about that.

A photo of the wake:

Our second day began with a visit to the Auckland Botanic Gardens, which I enjoyed. Very spatious (arguably too much so; there are voids) and full of magnolias, but then so is the whole island. After a good ramble we had lunch at the cafe, which I would also recommend (I had the chef’s pork belly). Here are my photos; note the “bird lady”, one of a series of sculptures.

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Our next stop was Hobbiton, which had been highly recommended by everyone we knew. Despite all the endorsements, my parents were still surprised at how good it was, especially for people with limited interest in Tolkien. Through our travel agent we had prebooked a 3:30 tour, the final for the day at this time of year.

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We then drove on to Rotorua, where we spent the whole of our third day. This began with a visit to Hells Gate where we’d prebooked a 10:00 “Hells Gate Combo”, consisting of a mud bath, sulphur spa, and tour of the geysers. I didn’t expect much from the tour, but the place turned out to be well signposted with much to learn about its history and chemistry, so I’m glad we included it. The mud bath is a fun and worthwhile experience, but pay no attention to claims that it will leave your skin glowing for days (it won’t). Some of the staff spoke with a strong Maori accent that my ear is not accustomed to, but travelling with a group has the advantage that what one person doesn’t catch another probably will.

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Our next stop was the “Buried Village“. This includes a trail through a preserved archeological site with remains from a village destroyed by the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, which also destroyed the nearby Pink and White Terraces — a geothermal formation formerly hailed as a natural wonder of the world. It wasn’t bad, but compared to other places we visited I found it relatively dispensible (the waterfalls were considerably more impressive than the archaeology). We had lunch there on our arrival, but I don’t recommend that unless you really like sandwiches.

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To finish our time in Rotorua we had a prebooked Day and Evening pass at Te Puia, a Maori cultural centre. However, all of our earlier activities had taken longer than expected, and following some rushed but necessary grocery shopping we were about fifteen minutes late and had to catch up with the 4:30 tour. I think the only thing we missed out on was the weaving school. Here are some pictures from the carving school, where we met the group.

Sacred Maori buildings cannot normally be photographed, but the buildings at Te Puia were constructed specifically for the purpose of being shared. Below is one picture each of two smaller buildings followed by three of the main meeting house.

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The tour also took us to a geothermal area on the site, boasting a geyser that shoots hot water high into the air somewhat less than once an hour. I photographed it under the fortuitously-positioned gibbous moon.

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We were later treated to a Maori ceremony and performance in the meeting house photographed earlier. I recorded some clips on video but have decided not to upload them as the recording does not really do it justice. We also shared a fantastic meal, in which I ate in quantities ordinarily associated with Christmas.

On our fourth day the weather began to change. The blue sky turned cloudy, and there were periods of rain, but for the most part it was still nice to be outside. We left Rotorua for the Orakei Korako geothermal park, a bigger and more photogenic geothermal area than the others we’d visited, but less endowed with signposts. A ferry takes visitors across the river on demand, and returns promptly when summoned. Two hours was ample time for a visit, including a meal.

As well as photos, I recorded some short video clips, shown in the following compilation. I think the bubbling mud geysers with birdsong in the background would make a great relaxation video, and if I’d had the luxury I’d have recorded something longer. The Youtube page contains links to downloadable .avi versions of each clip, so you can listen to your favourite on repeat if you wish (best with headphones of course). To really get into the right spirit, please imagine you can smell the sulphur.

Miscellaneous Orakei Korako photos:

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Photos of an area called the Artist’s Palette:

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A cave, including one 3D photo to look at with your red-blue glasses:

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Other individual geysers as featured in my video clips:

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The next item on our itinerary was a tour of the glow worm caves at Waitomo, prebooked for 3:00. I had high expectations of this, which led me to being a little disappointed, but I would definitely recommend it as long as you keep your expectations in check.

There are several tour operators at Waitomo, which cater to visitors with different wishes. For example, some cater to lovers of adventure sports, some to busloads of tourists on budget, etc. We chose Spellbound, which provides relatively long tours for small groups in which the eye has plenty of time to adjust to the dark and nobody gets wet. The door to the ticket office (which shares a building with the Waitomo General Store) could definitely be more welcoming. There are two caves on the tour, separated by a minibus ride (which is rather cramped, to be honest, so wear comfortable clothes). Only one cave contains a large number of glow worms. The other is promoted online as a fossil cave, but in fact there is only one fossil moa and all the other bones are modern animals such as livestock. (Still, it’s a nice cave.)

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Between the two cave visits there is a refreshment stop, with hot drinks and biscuits. One thing I wasn’t expecting was eels, but if you visit New Zealand and make bets on which wildlife you’ll encounter, you should probably bet on eels. A larger eel tried to eat a smaller one, but I didn’t catch this on camera. Instead, I have the following.

As for the glow worms, they are spectacular. Sadly, however, they are far too dim to capture on camera, and expecting to do so will lead to disappointment. I had envisaged recording them on video as we drifted by on the boat, but they don’t even show up on the screen. That’s just the way nature is. The Spellbound people will email you some photos as a souvineer, but it’s not the same.

After leaving Waitomo we made our way to New Plymouth, eating at a petrol station in Te Kuiti on the way. My descriptions of the remaining days will be brief, as the weather turned ugly at that point and prevented us from doing several of the things on our itinerary. Photographic opportunities were also compromised.

Our fifth day began with a visit to the Puke Ariki museum in New Plymouth. This museum is very eclectic with many treasures, but unfortunately the presentation lets it down. The space just wasn’t designed with enough attention to the impact of light and shadow.

Next we set out toward Mount Egmont/Taranaki, in the hope that the weather would clear enough for us to do some walking in the Dawson Falls area of the Egmont National Park. Mount Taranaki looked spectacular when it chose to reveal itself, with its peak covered in snow, but when enveloped in cloud you wouldn’t know it was there. (No photos, as we saw it only from the car.) The weather was barely adequate when we arrived, and Dad and I decided to rug up and do the Wilkies Pools loop track while Mum stayed near the visitors’ centre. I was attracted to this area by the promise of “goblin forest”, so called for its gnarled, moss-covered trees. But I think you need better lighting for the full otherworldly effect, which other bloggers have captured better than we could.

Here are two pictures of Dad posing as a goblin, followed by one picture of me.

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Wilkies Pools themselves are seen from only one vantage point and do not (as I imagined) follow the track. As for the view downriver, I imagine it’s much better on a good day. There were patches of snow on the ground and many miniature waterfalls amidst the trees, which was a pleasing contrast from the kind of environments I’m used to in Australia. Overall the walk was enjoyable and the scenery attractive, but it lacked a climax.

The rest of the day was mostly spent driving, following the coast all the way to Palmerston North. Our plans for Day Six were to drive north and do the Waitonga Falls track in the Tongariro National Park, but a phone call to the visitor centre confirmed that it would not be worth the trip, given the weather. So instead, following a visit to the Te Manawa art/science/history museum (which isn’t much), we just did some local walks in the Palmerston North area.

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On the seventh day we had a late start (after retrieving a jumper I’d misplaced the day before), but once on the road we headed south toward Wellington, stopping at a couple of places on the way. Our first stop was Owlcatraz, which was a pretty good place for a break; we took one of the shorter tours available. A combination of traffic conditions and bad weather made the next stretch of our journey take twice as long as it should have, but eventually we made it to the Pataka art gallery in Porirua.  Leaving Mum and Dad to find a carpark, I went straight to the cafe only to find out there was a 30 minute wait on lunch! (The food, however, was pretty good. I intentionally over-ordered, to avoid queuing twice and to allow for sharing.) Happily for us, the gallery itself is very small and we actually managed to make up more time than we’d lost.

We spent the last three days of our holiday in Wellington (where our hotel was not the best, but never mind that). After settling, we got back in the car and drove to Zealandia, where an evening tour awaited us as our final pre-booked activity. I expected more of a discussion time at the end of the tour and felt it ended far too abruptly, but otherwise I can’t complain. A highlight was recording this video of a live kiwi, illuminated by red torches.

On our eighth day I spent most of my time in the Museum of New Zealand, leaving Mum and Dad on a laundromat quest that had begun to resemble the pursuit of wild geese. (They did eventually find one.) The museum — which also contains an art gallery — is large and cannot be faulted on content, but again, its weaknesses are all about presentation. Ineffective use of lighting is one such weakness, but its biggest failing is the nonlinear, almost mazelike layout that makes it practically impossible to keep track of where you’ve been. Its very frustrating to walk past an exhibition space for the third time and worry that you might have missed something. Museums should have a straightforward grid layout so that visitors can check off exhibits one by one.

On the ninth day we visited the Weta Cave (the workshop where the Lord of the Rings props and costumes were made) for a tour we’d booked at a visitor centre the day before. I was surprised at some of the other shows and movies they’d had a hand in. We hadn’t planned on this, but the weather had forced us to look for indoor activities — otherwise we would have visited the Putangirua Pinnacles instead (which you may recognise as a LotR location). In the afternoon we visited the Botanic Gardens — outdoor, yes, but close to civilisation and free of muddy tracks — where I took the following photos (the third being a view over Wellington).

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Tuesday 20 September was our tenth and final day in New Zealand, with the hire car due to be returned to the airport at 3:00 and our flights home a couple of hours later. The weather was better than it had been, so we took the ferry to Matiu Somes Island for one final adventure. In the daytime we didn’t expect a wildlife experience and we didn’t get one, but it was a nice place to go for a walk and admire the rugged coastline.

Souvineers I bought on our holiday include an ornamental glass tuatara, a set of coasters featuring representations of New Zealand birds blended with images of their habitats, and a mermaid doll. I also bought a few other things as gifts, and in the same spirit received a toy tuatara from Mum.

As for my impression of New Zealand culture, it is mostly familiar to Australians, our way of life and theirs having much in common. But various differences are worth noting. For example, floors in New Zealand buildings are numbered in the American fashion (with the first floor being at ground level), the phones use completely different tones to communicate their status, and things on menus are sometimes unfamiliar or strange (for example, every restaurant in Auckland seemed to offer a monstrosity called “slaw”).

I want to finish by discussing the topic of navigation. We had two main methods of navigation at our disposal: the GPS unit that came with the hire car, and my phone. We also had low-resolution printed maps, but these were limited.

On my phone I had a copy of the itinerary I’d prepared (in PDF format), with links to various routes in Google Maps. (Incidentally, the mobile version of Google Maps doesn’t support routes with intermediate destinations, which speaks to the importance of testing everything before you go.) The main disadvantage of navigating with a phone is reliance on reception, and there were large regions where I was unable to access Google Maps at all, even when I could send messages just fine and there was not a mountain to be found between me and the capital. I am unable to account for all these facts. Regarding expenses, I won’t bore you with details; suffice to say that costs were manageable and that I’m glad I have a prepaid account. Another minor disadvantage is that the GPS functionality does not update very dynamically.

As for the hire car’s navigation unit, it too had problems. It didn’t come with instructions and was not very intuitive, so at the beginning it didn’t even seem fit for purpose. Later we became more familiar with its quirks. Its route calculation algorithm was markedly inferior to Google’s, and despite being set to look for the fastest route it frequently advised us to detour onto minor roads. And of course, there was no way to query its database and preview routes before going on holiday, as I had done on Google. (It’s easy to propose ways to make this possible, and I hope to see the travel industry move in that direction.) On the plus side it was clearly the economical choice, was not dependent on the quirks of telecommunication services, and communicated its instructions automatically through the voice synthesiser.

When both were working, we got best results by using the in-car unit as the primary means of navigation while also occasionally checking the route on my phone, providing a second opinion that allowed us to confidently bypass wasteful detours.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my report, especially the photos and videos. We had a good time on the whole — despite the best efforts of the weather gods (may they be accursed) — and perhaps someday I’ll go back and see some of the things we missed.

The Rabbit Who Lived Up An Elephant’s Trunk

This is a sequel to a blog post I wrote in 2008 on Illustrating Children’s Picture Books.

Back then I described how I had attended a four-week adult education class of that description at the WEA Centre, at which I chose to illustrate a poem that I’d previously written for a child of approximately five years.

Here is the poem again, punctuated in the way that seems best when the entire poem is displayed on one page. (I use simpler punctuation for book versions.)

A rabbit who lived up an elephant’s trunk
Was feeling extremely displeased
With the effort it took just to clean out the gunk
Whenever the elephant sneezed.
So she looked all around for the optimal place
For which she had started to hope,
And was offered just one — which was not in good taste,
Being deep down a crocodile’s throat.
“Well, I couldn’t live there”, thought the rabbit, “because
There are too many teeth at the door!
I might as well stay in the trunk where I was
And put up with cleaning the floor.”
But later the elephant stopped by the moat
And the crocodile bit off a chunk.
So the rabbit is now in the crocodile’s throat
As well as the elephant’s trunk.

I never completed my illustrations (check the above link to see how far I got), but my mother has always wanted the book to be finished, and late in 2015 she said she was willing to pay for it to be done through the graphic design studio I work for.

Now, because we’re graphic design, not art, the project was somewhat outside our usual domain — but we do have a couple of employees who can draw. One (Travis) is not long out of school, has started formal art classes at TAFE, and aspires to become a cartoonist. It turned out he was keen to do the drawings for my book, especially as it was to be his first time ever drawing for a client. However, he didn’t feel confident about colouring, so that (and inking) fell to another employee and art hobbyist (Rosie).

Incidentally, I also enquired online as to whether any other artists were interested (through a friend who is involved with the free painting software Krita). But nothing came of that, so Travis and Rosie got the job.

You are now reading the official announcement that the book is finished, and that if you’d like a copy, you can get in touch. Copies are limited, so I can’t give them out to every random person who stumbles upon this page, but I’d be happy to send them to any online friends who are interested.

Meanwhile, here is a web quality PDF for everyone to enjoy, and below is a video of the printed product. The back page shows a selection of my own illustrations, as also seen in my earlier blog post. The pages are 150 gsm white satin, and the cover is 300 gsm.

(I regret that my voice sounds bored in places, but that’s simply because holding a camera and reciting a story at the same time takes concentration, and I don’t have enough brain cells left to be expressive.)

OK, that’s the announcement over. I’d now like to share a few thoughts about lessons learned in the making of this book, especially about working with amateur artists. Then I’ll end with an invitation for any art or other derivative works of your own.

I’m glad I was able to offer experience to a young artist learning his craft, but the road was a bumpy one at times, and made me appreciate what a good professional artist could do. With a bit of luck, you could give a story to an experienced artist and more or less leave them to it, trusting them to make sensible decisions about what to draw and to draw it well. Travis is nowhere near that level, and I had to critique his drafts in a lot more detail than I was comfortable with. To his credit, he was happy to draw as many drafts as it took. If persistence and openness to criticism are among the marks of a successful artist in the making, then those are certainly among his strengths.

The skills that someone needs to be a good storybook artist include not only drawing, but also an ability to read someone else’s story and gauge what would and would not be appropriate for an illustration. This ability might not be evident simply from an artist’s portfolio, and I think it comes in two parts: knowing what to put in, and knowing what to leave out. For example, the book doesn’t mention anything about a castle until page 7, where we learn that the crocodile lives in the moat. Yet Travis drew a castle on page 4, and in early drafts it was a lot more prominent. Was this a good decision? In my comments I ruled that the castle should not feature prominently before the moat was mentioned in the text, but that showing a small part of it on page 4 was OK. In this decision I reasoned that someone reading the book for the first time might suppose that the castle is playing on the theme of places to live, so there is some thematic justification for it.

One very obvious lesson we learned is that we should have finalised the character drawings before starting on the scenes. Any real artist would have done it that way, but it’s one of those things that, as a design studio, we didn’t think about until it was too late. On a related topic, if you look closely you’ll notice several inconsistencies in the character drawings, but one thing worth mentioning is the length of the elephant’s tusks. On page 2 (where the elephant sneezes) they are a modest length, but on page 1 and the cover (which was based on a tracing from page 1) they are nearly as long as the trunk. In fact this isn’t an oversight, but an attempt to make it absolutely clear that it is a trunk and not, shall we say, some other part of the elephant (I felt that was important). An experienced artist would have found a better solution, but knowing our limits, the inconsistent tusk length was a sacrifice we chose to make for the greater good.

The only page for which I rejected Travis’s original concept entirely was the last, for which he drew the rabbit alive inside the crocodile, sitting on the detached elephant’s trunk and holding a fishing line. The poem leaves it up to the child’s imagination whether the rabbit survives or not, so I felt the pictures should do the same.

I could go on discussing Travis’s drawings and the stages they went through, because I know he’s OK with that, but a few examples suffice to make some general points. I am less inclined to publically critique Rosie’s efforts, because she’s a hobbyist rather than an aspiring professional, so I don’t feel it’s appropriate to put her work in the spotlight so much. That said, there is a story to be told about every page, as each picture is a collaboration, containing elements contributed by Travis, Rosie and myself. So please feel free to ask about any details that catch your eye. The illustrations are clearly better than I could have done, as you can see by comparing them to my own pictures on the back cover.

To finish this blog post, here is my invitation for artists. (I’m thinking particularly of those who try to draw something new every day, at all levels of proficiency.) If the muse takes you and you’re inclined to share, I’d love to see how you would have illustrated the poem, either the whole poem at once or a selected page from the book. For example, perhaps you have an idea for getting the rabbit and the elephant into the frame, or perhaps you think you can do a better job on drawing a scene from inside the crocodile’s mouth on page 5. Let me know whether you’d like me to nitpick your efforts.

And if you’re not an artist but would like to join in the fun, other derivative works are equally welcome, from an essay of literary analysis emphasising the political theme of housing shortages, to a recipe for a rabbit sausage roll with gooey green lining inside the pastry.

(Here’s the PDF again.)

End of blogging break

I’ve been taking a break from blogging since the beginning of the year. I won’t discuss the reasons here, and I make no promises as to how prolific I will be in the months ahead, but for now, I’m back.

One thing, though: I’ve been blogging lists of interesting links for more than seven years, but now I feel it’s time to give that a rest, as it does eat up a lot of time. I’ll continue sharing my favourite links on Twitter, but that’s a more spontaneous, less curated thing.

During my blogging break I rewatched several seasons of Stargate, which I have on DVD but hadn’t seen for some time. Here’s a list of episodes from the first three seasons of SG1 which, this time around, were my favourites: Hathor, Singularity, Tin Man, Bane, Holiday, 1969, Legacy, Learning Curve. Watching these DVDs was a therapy that helped me deal emotionally with a recent loss.

I thought I’d begin the year in blogging by looking back at what happened over the Christmas period. Here’s a photo I took in Ardrossan, taking a walk while others were listening to carols.

Ardrossan December 2015

Here is a tortoise that I gave to my nephew as a gift. On the right, Elliot trying hard to crawl, a feat he finally achieved a few days after I returned to Adelaide in January.

Here’s my sister giving my niece a ride on a boogie board. This was, again, at Ardrossan.

In classic childlike fashion, Elke decided she wanted to switch roles, so here she is giving her mother a ride.

Finally, two pictures of Elke and Josh, and finally Elke and her mother together on the board.

As I mentioned last time, my mother and I both received free copies of Mark Rosenfelder’s China Construction Kit, because I helped with the front cover design using a photograph taken by Mum. The copies arrived in a mysterious cardboard box several days before Christmas, which we left under the tree and opened with all the other parcels.

I still haven’t read the whole book, but one thing that caught my eye early on was the discussion of the classic 8th Century poem Lu Chai (~ Deer Park) by Wang Wei on pages 232-3. Several English translations are provided, and I felt moved to write a version of my own, distilling what I intuitively felt was the essence of the versions given into a form that best pleased my own muse. Here’s what I came up with (note that I wrote this before researching the poem online, and I refer to it as a version but not a translation).

An empty mountain. No human presence seen.
Yet voices are carried on the air.
The light of dusk again through forest branches
Strikes green moss that breaks its shaded depths.

I wrote about this on Google Plus, including links for further reading.

I won’t go into details about what we all gave each other for Christmas, but I do think it worth mentioning that my parents have promised me a trip to the North Island of New Zealand later this year. If you have any recommendations of places to visit you are welcome to share them.

My parents hosted a cocktail night on New Years Eve. I had a berryoska (with mulberry instead of blackberry), an FBI (which I’d compare to a more complex Baileys), and a Bonnie Prince Charlie (surprisingly bitter, but my favourite of the three).

Links: 2015 — 12

Assorted links from the last two months, and almost certainly the final for 2015.

  • This article on autism in women is mostly interesting and good, but has an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate a point by failing to compare like with like.
  • I learned a thing or two from this Upgoer-style explanation of relativity.
  • This essay on weather in literature is worth a read, but the section on present-day works is weak and disappointing.
  • Interview with Thony Christie, covering various topics in the history of science. The meat is from 00:07:00 to 01:07:50.
  • Timeline of the Universe. Be aware there are allegations of significant errors, some of which are mentioned in the comments.
  • Convincing proof laid out in an SMBC cartoon.
  • Transcript of a talk on online advertising and related issues of crucial importance in today’s world. Definitely worth reading. I don’t endorse every opinion (especially near the end), but it’s all part of an important conversation.

I have several things to say on the topic of books.

  • Books I bought recently include Perv by Jesse Bering (2013) and Setting Aside All Authority by Christopher Graney (2015), the latter on the strength of this review.
  • Mark Rosenfelder’s book on China is out. I helped with the cover illustration, which uses a photograph taken by my mother. We’re each getting a free copy.
  • I’m (sort of) writing a book of my own. It’s the children’s poem I wrote years ago and started illustrating, but this time with someone else doing the illustrations. It’s not a commercial publication. There’s a lot more I could say — and feel free to ask — but otherwise I’ll reveal all early next year.

A November ritual is choosing a wall calendar for the following year. Readers may recall that I have a collection to which I add one calendar a year, and that each year I choose a theme I’ve never had before. For 2016 I’ve chosen “Australian Waterfalls” and I am very happy with that decision.

I wrote a couple of random thoughts on Google Plus (here and here), in case you want to add anything.

Links: 2015 — 11

Before I share my favourite links from the last month, I have a little personal news to share. I spent the period from the 24th to the 27th of September catching up with family, including relatives from other parts of the country. Each day had its own special event — a school concert and school play that some of my relatives were part of, a seven-year-old’s birthday party, and my nephew’s baptism.

Here is an ultra-cute video of my niece (in the pink) with a friend on the trampoline. It was recorded at my sister’s place at lunch on the 27th.

Now on with those links:

I’d like to add a few comments to the item on selective mutism. It’s not something I’ve experienced directly, but learning about other people’s experiences — through documentaries and so forth — always takes my thoughts and emotions in interesting directions. It evokes memories of experiences that, while not the same as selective mutism, serve as analogies that I can draw on to understand it better. And it makes me fantasise about what I’d say to the people whose stories I hear if I could meet them in their past.

I’ll share one memory as an example. I was raised in a religious household, and during my teenage years I was Christian myself, but I never joined in the ritual of saying grace before a meal. I remember one day when my parents expressed their wish that I would, to which I said something like “I think I could if– if– if– …” and faltered. My parents reacted poorly to that, telling me I shouldn’t bargain with them, but the words I couldn’t get out that day were: “I think I could if you promise not to overreact, not to make a big deal out of it, not to make me feel like the centre of unwanted attention.”

When I think of selective mutism, I think of that memory and others like it, and multiply them by a thousand in my mind. The analogy is far from perfect, but it’s something — a seed of connection around which further empathy and understanding can be built.

I also think of the song Across the Waters by Jimmy Gregory (from the 1996 album West Along the Road). The song is really about lovers who are separated geographically, and celebrates the fact that, however much they miss each other, their love is strong enough to withstand being apart. But I feel the following excerpt could just as easily be about selective mutism, and in that context is extremely poignant:

There’s a strength in the silence between us
Still waters run deep.
There’s an ocean of words that I’d say to you
But sure all of them will keep.

In those words I hear an acknowledgement of the turmultous emotions and intense desire to communicate that lies beneath the silence of selective mutism, along with an assurance that there is no pressure: that it is OK if today is not a day when words can be spoken. Do you agree? What do they evoke for you?

If I was trying to build rapport with someone suffering from selective mutism — trying to create an environment where they could feel comfortable and understood — then between the song lyrics, the memories, and the willingness to learn, I like to think I’d have something to offer. Though the opportunity to show it would come less easily in life than in my fantasies. Comments will be gratefully received, especially from readers who have been there.

Links: 2015 — 9

First of all, I strongly urge all readers to do the following.

  1. In one browser tab, open this page (featuring a twenty-minute super-slowed version of the original Doctor Who theme music that I linked to some time ago).
  2. In another brower tab, open this page (featuring a five-minute silent video of images generated by Google’s neural network; for more information see the links I shared last month).
  3. Start the first video playing, quickly switch to the second tab, start that video playing, and set it to full screen mode.
  4. Stare at the screen and allow yourself to become fully immersed.

Seriously, you must try this. It’s an amazing combination, a massage for your brain. The only disappointment is that the neural network demonstration is only five minutes long, and you’ll find yourself wishing it lasted the same twenty minutes as the soundtrack.

Now onto other links. There was, of course, the recent encounter between New Horizons and Pluto. Here is a comparison between our new view of Pluto and the view from Hubble that was, until recently, the best we had.

Compared to Triton, Pluto is less jewel-like from a distance, but makes up for it in topography. Close-up images (like this or this — two perspectives on the same region) reveal mountain ranges comparable in size with those on Earth but formed by some entirely different process, and flat plains that resemble a beach at low tide. (I don’t remember anyone predicting we’d find a beach resort on Pluto, although here’s a prediction worth mentioning.) According to the science, there are nitrogen glaciers. And the best is still to come.

Miscellaneous links:

  • How a new type of cloud is named. Includes video.
  • This case study on mirror touch synaesthesia is a good read (but deserved a better headline writer).
  • The card games website pagat.com recently celebrated it’s 20th anniversary. (Incidentally, the Invented Games page now includes a link to my Ganjifa game.)
  • A demonstration of the dangers of hackable cars.
  • Long article on helping people at the end of a long prison sentence (I didn’t actually read all of this, because it requires more emotional investment that I’ve had time for, but from the portion I read it looks worth the effort).
  • Maryn McKenna’s TED talk on antibiotic resistance is information every adult in society needs to know. Its only fault is that a lot more is omitted.
  • I invented a whimsical and silly personality test. Feel free to share your results below.

In personal news, I gained some clothes and lost a tree. Also, here’s a photo from a family outing at the Maritime Museum recently.

Bear in a Boat

Bear in a Boat outside maritime museum

Links: 2015 — 8 (with a request or two)

I have, regrettably, been too busy to blog lately. But I’m here now.

There are two personal items I’d like to discuss, so I’ll begin with the first, follow it with selected links from around the Web, and finish with the second item. Both involve some kind of appeal for assistance, although one more so than the other.

The first concerns a card game I invented, and that we playtested at my birthday party last month.

[Update: This first request has been answered. I have shortened the text below to reflect this.]

My birthday was June 12, but for reasons pertaining to Dad’s recent retirement, it was one week later that a small celebratory gathering took place. There were five people present: a friend, an uncle, my parents, and myself (unfortunately, the uncle had to leave early). I left most of the organising and decision-making to my parents, but playtesting a card game was my one explicit request.

The game was one that I invented and blogged about in 2011, but at the time it was a work in progress and the rules yet to be fully refined. But recently I took it off the backburner, made a few small adjustments, and updated my original blog post accordingly.

The twist is that this is not a game you can play with the familiar deck of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs. Rather it is designed for Ganjifa — traditional playing cards from India that are typically circular rather than rectangular with at least 96 cards per deck. Regrettably they are used for only a handful of games and even those are dying out. I don’t care too much about the traditional games, but it’s a pity that the cards themselves lack a living tradition of new games being invented. The world could do with more Ganjifa games, and the game I’ve invented is my contribution to that end.

Here’s where my appeal to the Internet comes in — because the one thing I have not managed to do is decide on a name for the game. Since it is played with Indian cards, I feel that giving it an Indian name would be an appropriate tribute to the culture that created them, and have been appealing for help from people who know Indian languages and are interested in helping to name a new card game.

If you can help, or know someone who probably can, I would greatly appreciate it. I’ve suggested the name केंद्र कड़ी (crudely: Kendra Kari) for reasons outlined in my Google Plus post, but I really require informed human feedback and not just the results of automated translation tools.

[Update: I’ve now received a response to this query and have updated the game.]

Now that you’ve read this far, here are some links:

Now to the second personal item.

A while ago, just for fun, I decided to see if I could guess an approximate formula for time dilation in general relativity. I didn’t expect to be right, but using a combination of high school physics, Ockham’s Razor, and a few elementary facts, I gave it my best shot.

So I was genuinely delighted to discover later that my result checks out against real-world examples!

This page on Quora has a couple of obvious faults (the biggie is that the altitude of the ISS varies between 330 and 435 kilometres according to Wikipedia, so calculating a result to so many significant figures makes no sense), but the relevant formula corresponds closely to mine. Moreover, plugging their result into my formula puts the ISS in the right range — at about 375 kilometres. Another example I found is that time goes faster by 10 nanoseconds per year for every floor you go up in a building; again, my formula checks out, putting the difference between floors at a very reasonable three metres.

I am no genius (trust me on this), but in all the popular science I’ve read, I have never seen anyone mention that an approximate but workable formula for time dilation in general relativity is astonishingly easy to guess. Feeling that I’d stumbled on an angle that popular writers have missed but would be useful to others, I decided to write up my results as an article of my own. Please remember this is an un-factchecked draft, and I am no more an expert than the target reader, but you learn by doing. It’s written in the style of a popular science article, and is 1000 words long.

If any real popular physics writer reads this — I would love to hear your feedback. Also, you are welcome to take inspiration for your own blog posts, and I hope you will be so kind as to send me a link if you do. A tweet to @GoldHoarder will do nicely.

(Incidentally, I used a free PDF converter, so the links don’t work, but since they’re fully spelt out they won’t slow you down very much. Since it’s a draft, I find this acceptable.)

[Update: I linked to my relativity article in a comment here.]

Links: 2015 — 7

Some links, and then some personal news, including photos from my niece’s 2nd birthday.

  • This short video on cumulus cloud formation might well include details that are new to you.
  • Interesting article on training the brain to overcome a learned disease. (I pointed out an error in the comments, but it seems the author had stopped monitoring comments a few days before.)
  • Another interesting article on the use of vagus nerve stimulation to moderate the immune system, among other things.
  • One of the best articles I’ve seen about Emmy Noether. It doesn’t try to answer every question, but gives a sense of why the questions are significant.
  • This fifteen minute online David Attenborough documentary on plankton is not only educational, but relaxing as well.
  • Stars collided in 1670.
  • Which direction water swirls doesn’t normally depend on which hemisphere you’re in … but what if you eliminate all other variables?
  • From now on, if your balloon animals don’t look like these, you’re doing it wrong.
  • I found a tool that takes a Google Maps route and generates an elevation chart. (If you just want to know the elevation for a single location, try this.)
  • I’ve never used Python, but I’m making a note of this in case I want to some day.

On 28 May, my parents and I took my niece to Cleland Wildlife Park for her second birthday (she was born on 26 May 2013). I’ll share more anecdotes about that day if you ask, but for now, here are some photos of Elke with koalas and wallabies. More family interaction followed the next day, including some errand-running. Of particular importance to me was that I finally got my mobile phone fixed, after errant software had been draining the batteries since late last year. When the phone was new, the battery lost on average less than 5% capacity for every 8 hours of normal (i.e. mostly idle) use, and now that it is fixed I can confirm that it loses only marginally more than that. Given that it’s more than a year old and the battery has never been replaced, this must count as excellent. While it was broken, I was lucky to get two days out of it.

Links: 2015 — 6

Some links; I hope you enjoy them.

I recently bought a couple of drinks from a local bottle shop, because I enjoy experimenting with cocktails from time to time, subject to the constraints of fridge space and affordability. The drinks I chose were Frangelico and a small bottle of Baileys. Meanwhile I’ve used up the last of my Opal Nera.

From the Internet I see that the cocktail consisting of Opal Nera and Baileys (layered 50/50) is traditionally known as “Black Nipple”, but the name that came to my mind was “Elephant Hide”. The Opal Nera spontaneously spouts up into the layer of Baileys above it, creating a dynamic swirling pattern with the Baileys resembling grey elephant skin and the Opal Nera its dark wrinkles. I think the ideal ratio is 3 parts Opal Nera to 4 parts Baileys. It tastes fine (Baileys with an extra oomph) but the appeal is primarily visual.

Easter photos

Over the Easter break I caught up with family and met my nephew Elliot for the first time.

Here he is on Friday with his mother:

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With me (not looking very happy on the right, but that’s transient):

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And with Mum and Dad respectively:

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Big sister Elke (last photographed here and here) going for a ride in the wheelbarrow, and later on her car:

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Playing on the swing:

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And on the dolomite pile — there’s more to this than the photographs capture; on Mum’s suggestion I carved steps using gardening utensils, then helped Elke to climb up and slide down:

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I took some photos of the lunar eclipse on Saturday night, but they’re not worth sharing.

On Sunday we all got together for a barbeque by the sea. The weather was unfortunate but the company made up for it, with over a dozen of my relatives present. Here’s Elke eating a chocolate Easter egg:

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And more pictures of Elliot being hugged by my Auntie Helen:

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While we were there we tried an activity in which blown and hard-boiled eggs were rolled in paint, after which we added more decorations to the three blown eggs to create a mobile for Elliot.

Our final get-together was on Tuesday, when several of us met for morning tea at a coffee shop in Ardrossan, and I made Elke a plasticine dog that lasted long enough for her to play with it and point out the ears and nose — an excellent memory on which to end a holiday. From there, Darryl and Helen drove me back to Adelaide.