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The summer of 2016

The summer of 2016

It has been a good summer; so far, anyway.

Lush grass

There have been meetings in nice towns.

Up the hill

Sunsets.

Sunset

Many walks in the countryside.

Nearing harvest

Some Nordic food shopping.

Haul

More walks.

Flowing

Trees.

Tree

Convivial conversations.

Pub

More sunsets.

Sunset

Moon rises.

Moon in the gap

Cricket.

Expectant home supporters

Some writing.

Hotdesk

And unexpected music.

Uh?

I have been, and remain (using that word pointedly), disinclined to “blog” or write much of a non-work nature. The EU referendum has poisoned much, and my thoughts and vision lie increasingly elsewhere. Maybe some other time.

In the meantime, my work website (which remains under permanent construction) is where to go to check I’m still around.

Summer of 2015

Summer of 2015

My on-off personal project to sort out the colossal mess of online “stuff” is back in “on” mode. And with it, here’s some digital ephemera from the summer just gone. First up, the Flickr set of 260 pictures.

This was my third entire summer in the USA, this time stretching from early May to early August. Apart from being bookended by a few days in Chicago, pretty much all of this was spent in central, and rural, Iowa. As with previous summers, it was also an opportunity to celebrate my inner American in a place where that’s an okay thing to do.

And it was splendid. As is every long trip in, or around, the USA. Much good food was eaten, many walks undertaken – several hundred miles over the three months, but curiously no politicians were encountered.

Unlike four years ago, when I kept literally tripping over them here (“Oh, hi, erm, you must be Rick Santorum.” Cue long awkward silence.) I managed to not see any this time round. Partially this was due to timing; Rand Paul was in town shortly before I arrived, and Bernie Sanders, then Hillary Clinton, after I left. But partially this was also due to the weather; Mike Huckabee did an event (a “huddle”) in a pizza place about a mile from where I was, but as it was 95F AFTER SUNSET I was ugh no. A very hot walk to see a politician; nope. A very hot walk to have possibly a huddle with a sweaty politician with very dubious views; dear God nope.

So instead, I did the usual rural American things. This means the town 4th of July parade, complete with horses, a large man on a tractor, farmers on tractors, tractors leading tractors (the most rural American thing ever), BIG VEHICLES, old vehicles, bands on trailers, patriotism, progressive flags, more flags, chairs, kids on bikes, and so forth.

The hound remained unmoved.

And also the county fair, and I am drawn to rural American county fair, out of a potent mixture of curiosity, nostalgia and a feeling of belonging. There are school pupil displays and art shows which possibly make some urban liberals a little alarmed. A van sells deep fried confectionary; we tried the oreos, and they were nom. And then there was the pig auction, and the culture and people around it, which made me remember and yearn for the good parts of a life long ago lived past. It’s interesting, being – and quietly being proud of being – a liberal rural redneck at heart. And I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing tech stuff and in a different world, now.

Oh, and trains. I ache for the sight of American trains and have done since primary school (future anecdote). Here’s waiting for one:

Therefore much of the summer was a quiet and rural summer, and I got on with work, and let events and drama and the like unfold elsewhere as I gradually removed myself from social media and networks and fighty-online-circles and the like. And got on with the simple pleasures of yardwork (mowing the American lawn, picking berries off a magic raspberry bush that forever produced fruit, removing corpses of dead wildlife) which, combined with the walking, led to losing ten pounds in weight. So, yay.

Also, hunting fireflies…

Which leads to the videos embedded into this post. No oscar-winning stuff. Here’s the last few seconds of the July 4th fireworks in smalltown Iowa; I didn’t bother trying to film the rest because, well, I was (mostly) either eating or enjoying the fireworks:

What else? Oh, eating – I’ve probably mentioned that already – so much eating, such as at familiar places, discovering the awesomeness that is the pork tenderloin, eating at a country inn, and the peanut butter milkshake. Oh, and Pizza Ranch (the best ranch)(hell yeah), and Marshalltown for Mexican food – and this was the best Mexican meal I have ever had, cream soda and barfood, produce at the farmers market, local brunch, daily specials, chinese-on-pizza, more brunch, root beer floats made by master baker, a ridiculous sandwich, a near-impulse-purchase of a lot of chicken, more Chinese, and so many more good things.

Also napping, because I am no longer young.

And watching Americans get genuinely excited – but without the nastiness, corruption, prejudice and violence of “supporting” the mens game in some other countries – as their team progressed and won at the association football thing. I could possibly get to like this particular form of the game. Maybe:

But most of all, those walks in rural Iowa. In the daytime, at dusk, under a big sky, past baseball, at sunset, and by mushroom circles, cornfields and buzzing fireflies.

Always, the fireflies.

That was a good summer.

Summer of 2011

Summer of 2011

Trip number 11 to the USA, where I’ve stayed for about 18 months in total over the years. And, the best summer ever … some pictures are on Flickr and a few are on this summary.

Best food. The Lavoch pizza from the Quarter Barrel, in Oxford, Ohio:

Lavoch

Miles travelled by road. 3,000+.

Best pie. Lemon pie from the West Side Grill, Grinnell, Iowa:

Lemon pie

Calories probably eaten. I did estimate this, and the figure is horrifically high. Not really surprising.

Most out-of-place thing seen. This well-used stack of publications, for sale in a garage sale (I didn’t buy, purchasing a small bookcase from the owner instead):

Garage sale WTF?

Most nom “fast” food. The butterburger at Culver’s (I can’t go back to inferior burgers, now):

Butterburger

States visited. Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, Wisconsin, in addition to passing through Illinois and New Jersey.

Most aesthetically pleasing food. The sushi at Grinnell College, Iowa:

Sushi

Geocaches found. 26.

Most fun. Either major league baseball, or going to the American Gothic house:

American Gothic

Best bargain. A box of 36 books of my choice for one dollar in the Grinnell public library sale.

Best ice cream. Candyshack, Grinnell, Iowa:

Ice cream sodas

Biggest Wow moment. An evening of walking past, and through, groups of fireflies in Indiana.

Most surreal moment. Discussing food with Rick Santorum, a Republican party presidential candidate with whom I disagree on everything.

Most American moment (1/2). Standing next to, and exploring, a previous Air Force One:

Got me a new set of wheels

Most American moment (2/2). Travelling down the Ohio river on a paddle steamer, passing the home of the Reds as they were playing:

Cincinnati Reds

Worst thing about this summer. The relentless, all-bar-two-days, heat.

Best thing about this summer

Coffee days

A few other posts:

Pastries of the night

Pastries of the night

There’s a bakery and shop here in Grinnell which, as bakeries do, bakes stuff in the night and the early hours. Breads, cookies, cakes, pastries and all manner of things. It’s small, but rather good, and we’ve bought stuff from there several times before.

Sunset

This bakery is a little different in that if you go round the back from 2am onwards, and the owner is in there baking, he’ll sell you stuff that’s hot, or warm, out of the oven. Students (old enough to drink) especially take advantage of this, as the bakery is on the way back to campus from several of the bars. So I gave it a try tonight.

Grinnell isn’t the busiest of places in the middle of the day. In fact there’s only one stretch of one road where you sometimes have to wait to cross, and that during the rush hour. Downtown, which is a thriving four block business area, is quiet in the daytime – and deserted at night:

Downtown, 2am

2am rolled around, and the shop front of the bakery was unlit. Went round the back and bingo; the baker was happily rolling dough. He remembered me from six weeks ago; he was the first Grinnell person I’d met and spoken to, which was cool. And he had various racks of pastries and cakes ready, some of them warm and therefore recently out of the oven.

Purchases were made, and pleasantries exchanged. And if Becky looks inside the kitchen breadbin before she leaves for work in four and a half hours, she’ll find her present of:

Fresh out the bakery

:)

Grinnell College

Grinnell College

My other half started at the local college working in the library a few weeks ago. This has given me a good opportunity, or excuse, to wander around the campus (especially the library), and also to come along to various events where partners of staff are invited. These invariably involve food, increasing my suspicion that American academics and librarians bond over cuisine, whereas British ones bond over gin.

Grinnell College is a bit unusual. In British terms, it’s an undergraduate university, with staff also undertaking research. It has a very small number of students – around 1,600 – who can major in over 20 arts subjects. As Grinnell is a “liberal arts” college, with the liberal aspect taking on a sort of socio-political hue. As am figuring out, “liberal” in the US doesn’t quite mean the same as “liberal” in Britain. The chemistry department displays a map of the USA showing where 889 graduates over the decades are from. Most of these are from relatively liberal cities such as San Francisco, Denver (a lot), Minneapolis and New York. Hardly any are from the entire south east quarter of the country, arguably the most un-liberal part, despite states such as Florida and Texas having large populations.

Or, as one dean put it, “Grinnell is a liberal college surrounded by a distinctly un-liberal state”.

Student lounge

It’s also apparently one of the most “hipster” colleges in America.

The campus sits near the centre of the town, which itself has a population of less than 10,000. So, the college has a large bearing on the town. It’s quite a modern campus, with most of the buildings, new or (by American standards) old being aesthetically pleasing. And also, for 1,600 students, rather large. The swimming pool, for example, would not be out of place as the primary pool of many cities.

And it’s a pretty campus. Lots of lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers. It’s very quiet; the nearby town is in almost permanent slumber mode, and highway 6 is the only road you sometimes need to wait to cross. Interstate 80 is several miles to the south, thankfully far enough away not to be heard. So it’s mainly the song of birds and the murmer of small clumps of slowly moving undergraduates (it’s still hot here) that can be heard in a mid-August wander. And occasionally a freight train rumbling through, as the tracks separate the main campus from the halls of residence.

Campus grounds

The college is also perhaps best described as “quietly rich”. The college has an endowment fund of 1.26 billion US dollars. Yes, that’s billion, not million. Which averages out at $787K, or 492K pounds sterling, per undergraduate. Huh – why so much for such a small college? There’s several reasons, one being that the college invested in an alumni start-up company … called Intel. Another that the endowment fund has been managed over the last century by some seriously smart financial people, such as Warren Buffet, the billionaire who recently argued that he doesn’t pay tax at a high enough rate. And another reason the college has a large endowment fund is that it is apparently frugal, or careful, in how it is spent. Overall, this means that there isn’t the “we’re in financial trouble with no visible solution” feeling, or informal staff topic of conversation, that permeates some other universities. Though frugal, money is spent here; the biology labs have, even to the non-biologist eye, some seriously expensive kit in them

As an interesting side-point on the subject of big finance, it turns out that the chairman of Standard and Poor, who recently downgraded America’s credit rating, was an English major at Grinnell.

Flags

What are the people like? Relaxed, pretty much. But not lazy. The students I’ve spoken to, and eavesdropped in on, are quiet, polite, friendly … and above all, smart. I’ve heard casual but seriously intelligent conversations about Camus and Sartre, molecular biology and quantum physics, and economic models that completely lost me. By students, rather scarily less than half my age. Many of the students are from overseas; the NYT has an interesting article on the applications the college receives from China in particular.

It’s also pleasant to observe some individualism. A few months ago, at a university in southern Ohio, the conformity was striking and to be honest a little creepy. One lunchtime I walked through the basement of the library, part of which is a busy cafe. Very nearly every student looked identical (fake tan, long straight blonde hair, high-cut black sports shorts), had an identical MacBook, on which they had open Wikipedia (the irony of being in a library, yes…). If there was a college in The Truman Show, that would have been it. Here in Grinnell [has short wander around the library to collect data] yes, the students look and dress differently to each other, own a mixture of tech, and their screens show a smorgasbord of content and online services.

Old entrance

I’ve also encountered staff here. One of the pleasant surprises is that there isn’t much of a demarcation between the layers of staff when it comes to college events. I’ve found myself on several occasions already sitting next to deans, professors and heads of department, which is pleasant. For me anyway (they probably end up wondering why the chubby tall guy with the English accent is obsessed with American politics). There’s an absence of “status” in conversations with senior staff which is both weird and refreshing, and were it not for the introductions or the name badges, most of the time it wouldn’t be apparent that this is the top tier of academic staff. America does have a class system, though with different meanings attached to concepts such as “middle class”, it seems less rigid or defined as it is here in the US, and maybe this permeates through to how people are in academia. Or, it could be that liberal arts colleges such as Grinnell attract staff who, like their students, are quietly friendly. Whichever or whatever, I’ve always been made welcome here and have lost count of the number of college people who have said “Welcome to Iowa”.

Oh, one other thing. This place sure knows how to do catering. I’ve eaten better, in terms of quality and variety of food, at various social events at Grinnell College than any UK university I’ve been in. One example of many is the sushi platter at a recent “new faculty and partners” event:

Sushi

That’s the first impressions of the college, but these may change as the students start and the campus becomes busier. The college library, which I’m typing this in now (nice Mac workstations) has some unexpectedly interesting things in it; will write about those next week.

Emma, Indiana

Emma, Indiana

Emma General Store

Emma is the name of the place. Not much there at all; it’s a few buildings surrounding a crossroads, itself surrounded by miles of corn fields. This is deep Amish country, so from a seat in the general store/restaurant people can watch the buggies go by. The strawberry sundae was awesome; wish had stayed for lunch – rural food and the menu changes every day.

I’ll be back. And I’ll take better quality footage then.

Hay-on-Wye: Beyond the long tail

Hay-on-Wye: Beyond the long tail

(Pictures from this trip are on Flickr, and there’s a Flickr group with pictures by other people)

I’m sitting in The Granary in Hay-on-Wye. It’s mid morning. Outside it’s a little damp but in here there’s a crackling log fire. Every table is taken. Everyone is either reading, writing, or murmuring quietly to whoever they are with. Hops hang from the uncovered joists of the ceiling.

At the next table an earnest man (pointy beard) is reading Sylvia Plaths “The Bell Jar”. On the other side – and by coincidence as I bought a copy yesterday – a 20-something lady with dreadlocks and a multicoloured sweater that looks hand-knitted is reading “The Catcher in the Rye”. The couple at the table beyond nod back; previously they’d commented on the “O The President” decal on Samantha, in a positive way. Someone I can’t place but know – think he is a BBC reporter – is eating scrambled eggs on toast at the corner table and throwing little bits to an appreciative spaniel.

Bookshop

I check Twitter. My pot of tea arrives and I respond to the waitress in Welsh, constantly surprised at remembering words unused in decades.

Hay-on-Wye has the extremely justified title of the “Town of Books”. It’s not a big place; you can walk across downtown (as American colleagues would say) in less than ten minutes. The streets are narrow, but the place isn’t choked with traffic; there’s nowhere to drive to within 20 miles of here, perhaps why.

Wall of books

The bookshops and the festival are why people visit Hay. This tiny town, straddling the border of England and Wales, claims to have “more books” (easily many million) “per square mile” (one?) then anywhere else. And it would be a brave town, even other book towns, which challenged this. I wonder; does this place have the largest concentration of non-digital knowledge in the world? Possibly.

The bookshops differ, from the small and specialist, to several buildings joined together with seemingly endless corridors of books. Shelving differs, from neat and orderly, to books taking up every conceivable space on walls and floor, in some places meaning you have to jump over piles of books to move onwards. In some places, the books are precariously placed. On day one, I pulled one off a high shelf. The shelf came down with it. And the shelves below. And the cabinet. It was raining books – unfortunately hardbacks. The irony of being killed by an avalanche of books (which some librarian colleagues would have found very funny) wasn’t lost on me.

Booth's

It’s apparently quiet at this time of year, but even so the bookshops were busy with browsers and purchasers. This isn’t a place where books come to die; it’s a place where books are given another opportunity of being refound and reowned. Hay-on-Wye is the global convergence point for used books; container loads from around the world go into the bookshops; purchasers (including me) wait patiently in line at the Post Office to send books back around the world.

Useful though amazon.com is, where it fails, Hay-on-Wye fills the gap. Obscure book? Book published in 1933 that Amazon says is “Unavailable”? That collection of Ladybird books that taught you, simply, about things and which you believed unswervingly in at age six? They’re probably sitting on a shelf in Hay-on-Wye. Somewhere. And here’s the thing – there’s no instant look-up online of where that book is on the shelf. You have to go hunt, and that is part of the fun. In some stores, the staff can help. In others they have a vague idea. In some you are on your own (literally, as some shops are unmanned with just an honesty box for payment).

The problem (is it a problem?) in my case is that, in the hunt for one book, I found and bought more than 30 others on the way. Which lead to several more trips to the post office for despatch, as a swathe of my American colleagues will discover next week.

And it’s not just the bookstores. There are books for sales in cabinets bolted onto walls, in gardens, on tables outside, under a marquee next to the converted cinema (converted, inevitably, into a bookstore), on cabinets in the grounds of the castle:

Cabinets of books

So that book you remembered about from your youth is here. If it isn’t, it isn’t likely to be anywhere else. J. R. Hartley wasted his time wandering around the local bookshops of his small town; he should have taken the bus across the Golden Valley to Hay-on-Wye and tracked it down here.

The Globe at Hay, a converted chapel, was a revelation and my base for several days. Entering takes you into the most relaxed cafe possible. Sofas, cushions to sit and lie down own, various tables. Free wifi and a formidable menu of excellent and well-priced food, tea and coffee. People tap away on laptops. More of them ask about the decal on Samantha.

Downstairs, the basement is used for classes, keep fit, and as a makeshift cinema where I rewatched “Mulholland Drive” one evening on a comfy sofa while drinking good tea in a proper cup. The Odeon this was not.

Comfy seating

The residents are noticeably affluent, in how they dress and shop. This is, to use the increasingly dodgy British classification, an upper middle class town. I suspect the newspaper demographic is about 80 percent Guardian, 15 percent Independent and 5 percent the rest. But whilst people who (tediously) revel in the “grittiness” of “working class” living will automatically assume that means snobbiness, it’s exactly the opposite. I don’t think I’ve visited a more relentlessly friendly, approachable and relaxed place in Britain.

It’s probably helped by the range of shops. As well as over 30 bookshops, there are many foodie shops, from delicatessans to cafes to restaurants to (several) grocers. Many of them selling high quality, organic, and varied, fruit and vegetables. And not at extortionate prices, so it’s not just for those affluent people. Hay-on-Wye isn’t near anywhere significant; Hereford is the local city, nearly an hour away by bus. It’s on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, a wild and empty place I distantly remember from childhood. The town is proof that, with effort and a positive attitude, a relatively ‘remote’ place can have a wide range of goods and services.

Indexing

It’s no surprise that the annual Hay Festival is a big success. Accommodation is booked up for (many) miles around; the B&B I stay in is booked for the festival week for the next two years. I went to an early festival and remember it being little more than a marquee in the town square. Now it’s a big thing, with speakers such as Bill Clinton proclaiming the festival as “The Woodstock of the mind”.

I wonder what other book towns are like? I visited one a decade ago in Mundal in Norway without realising it, but remember noticing lots of places selling second-hand books. I’m overdue for another visit to Norway and a stay in my favourite hotel there to date. And perhaps an exploration of other booktowns; there are 22 in Europe, ranging from Votikvere in Estonia to Valladolid in Spain. This could become a new hobby (glint in eye) if I can work out how to fund it.

But if you are serious about books and knowledge, you have to visit Hay-on-Wye at least once in your life. Go there. Buy a book for yourself. Buy one for someone else, and post it to them.

America time, British time, Obama time

America time, British time, Obama time

In Chicago, and the city seems different from when I was here last summer. Not surprising, as in a few days (though we aren’t sure when), one of its own may become president.

Or will lose.

Whatever happens, I get the feeling that Chicago will be very busy. Unfortunately, if he loses, for the wrong reasons. A hasty retreat onto a plane may not be possible as (a) flights are very busy out of the US next week and (b) from mine and another delegates experience, the taxi drivers of Chicago collectively don’t have a clue where this conference hotel is.

I suspect it’ll be difficult getting a taxi on tuesday to downtown anyway. Americans do things earlier than Brits. This is why Amtrak meal times have been driving me slowly mad. Breakfast at 6:30am, Lunch at 11:45pm, Dinner at the time when decent, civilised British people are conducting afternoon tea. Did you guys forget EVERYTHING we taught you before 1776.

It’s the same at academic and library conferences, like this one. Here, everyone went to bed by 11:30 at the latest. Effectively 10:30, as the clocks go back an hour here tonight. So I just went to the redneck bar and drank interesting beer on my own, while the other patrons (definitely NOT delegates at this conference) glared at my choice of political badge. And the clock changing thing makes it even more difficult to calculate when the Brazilian Grand Prix will start, US Central Time, tomorrow. As I have a lot of money on Lewis to win the championship (on the grounds that surely he can’t mess this up two years in a row), I’m keen to see it, even though this means missing the start of the conference.

The loop

Some of the delegates here are having a meeting at 8:30 tomorrow morning. And on Monday, conference breakfast is from 7:30 to 8:30, with the first speaker starting then. I’ve noticed this at lots of conferences. And it’s always easy to spot the US delegates (they’re the one waiting patiently for breakfast to open at 6:30) and British delegates (they’re the ones staggering in at 8:58 asking “Are you still serving?”). The graphic memory of a certain JISC event in 1996 at the University of Warwick, where three of us literally sprinted to get the last remaining croissant at that time is still vivid.

I think I’m the only Brit at this conference, so the breakfast zone is unlikely to be a barren wilderness of empty tables. Talk is already of what will happen on Tuesday and where we’ll go. Unfortunately getting a taxi looks like a rubbish option based on today’s experiences, and we are nowhere near any kind of bus or train route. Or are we? If the result is delayed (possible), or he loses fairly (possible), or the electronic voting machines are rigged so he loses (according to some here, possible), then things will get … interesting. It looks like the Virginia call (polls close at 7pm) will give the first indications.

One way or the other history will be made. We have some information on crowd prevention measures in Chicago which will come into play, but as yet no fixed plan for tuesday. Anyway; my fellow speaker has checked in (hurrah!) so once have emerged from breakfast and a hopefully Lewis-winning morning, I’ll be ready to conference.

GLLS2008 food

GLLS2008 food

Anthony’s Italian Chop House in the Doubletree Hotel. Head right when entering the hotel and keep going. Warning to GLLS2008 delegates – food here good but v high calorie. Currently twittering and eating cannelloni there:

Cannelloni

That’s complimentary olive oil soaked parmesan cheese on the right, which complements the cheese-stuffed cannelloni. Shopping mall across the street in case need to buy elasticated or larger trousers :-( Which is where I’m  going now. Foxes Bar (near to reception) is loud sports bar but looks good place for a beer or so. There later this pm or twitter me.

Whitefish, Montana

Whitefish, Montana

Standard mode of Montana transport

First full day here. Due to catching up on sleep, I missed breakfast in the hotel so sauntered along the sidewalk to check out the diners. Whitefish is a clash-culture town. Parts of it are obviously set up for the tourist season; the strip running south on I-93 is an endless reel of motels, fast food places, gas stations and malls. In the centre of town, about half the businesses are aimed at visitors who apparently pack the place in summer. So you see signs like this hyping up the western aspect:

Jewellery shop notice

But, there’s also quite a few genuine places for locals. Casinos, bars, hang-outs, diners; there’s enough to choose from. And there’s an easy rule of thumb here. Instead of a “genuinly local” star rating, just count the number of pick-up trucks with a dog in the back outside a particular place…

That seems to correlate to how “local” the place is, which is confirmed by looking at the prices. In a 4-pickup truck place, where I appeared to be the only person not wearing a check shirt, faded hat or moustache, I picked up breakfast for 8 dollars:

Diner breakfast

Underneath the poached eggs and layer of onions, I discovered a very thick slice of ham. Couldn’t finish it. Right, apart from the Buffalo steak I’m having one evening, it’s healthy food from now on in Montana, plus plenty of exercise. Of which, it’s time to do a little mountain exploration.