Sunday, June 28, 2009

Happy birthday, dear blog....

So my blog is exactly one year old today! Hurrah!

Anyway, on to today's news. Since Michael Jackson died last Thursday, I can tell that the data mining software at Amazon has been completely overwhelmed.

For example, today I was searching for some music by a Danish composer to put behind the videos I took in Denmark. I settled on The Champagne Galop by Hans Christian Lumbye. I traveled to Amazon to hear a sample, and as usual, they suggested several related best sellers in music that I might like to purchase.

Unfortunately, "Bad", "Off the Wall", and "Michael Jackson 25th Anniversary of Thriller" albums are not even tangentially related to either Danish music in general of Hans Christian Lumbye in particular. I have a hunch the searches Amazon is getting right now is simply crushing its normal algorithms operations underfoot and sending out all Michael all the time to its customers.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

U-Haul's marketing genius

So I bought several boxes from Home Depot the other day. They sell basic 1.5 ft^3 boxes for 97 cents apiece. A good deal, to be sure.

But it turns out 1.5 cubit feet of books is not such a good thing. So I went back to U-Haul, who sells 1 ft^3 boxes (as their "book box" size) for $1.43 apiece. They have an interesting marketing scheme.

It goes like this: buy as many boxes as you want, and if you keep your receipt, you can bring back the extras. Personally, I believe this is pure genius. I have never, I repeat never, had leftover boxes during a move. Everyone has more stuff than they want/expect/can fit into the boxes they bought, so there's always usually some emergency "throwing out" or "garbage bag suitcases" involved near the end of a move. U-Haul is basically removing the element of risk from buying boxes, and so getting people to buy the amount of boxes they really need, and so which they won't be returning. Like I said, genius.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


So one year today I broke down and bought my first cell phone. I know this because I have a "pay-as-you-go" phone, and my minutes would have expired today had I not leapt to the rescue by adding additional minutes. In my plan, I am charged $1 for every day that I use the phone at all, plus an extra 10 cents per minute thereafter. Close study of my friends showed me that most of their calls nowadays are of the short and sweet variety--for long distance or international I might as well use Skype anyway, the quality is as good as a cell phone.

So I like to think of my plan as an $8 a month plan where I get 6 days of use and 20 minutes of talk time. Several months I used more, but several I used less. Of course, I'm a single guy, not an uber-parent attempting to coordinate with a clan. I'd place it's usefulness above most of the gadgets I own (sorry infrared thermometer) but still below that most important accessory of modern life, the microwave.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Digging into the past

So I've started getting ready for the big move, and as usual this involves a lot of archaeology, trying to determine what of the detritus from the past should be kept and what should be thrown away or donated. "Rosetta stone paperweight", goodbye!

Probably the most fun is when I stumble across some bit I wrote for high school or earlier. I don't know if this is true of most people, but my personality and beliefs were pretty much set by the time I'd reached high school, and available video, photographic, and written relics of my high school years tend to back that statement up. I like to think that this is because I was exposed to such a wide range of thinkers by that time, and not a sign that I became a curmudgeon at age 16.

In any case, by high school, I had already realized how important the access to knowledge was to what I believed and thought. It is always daunting to realize that if I was raised in a different environment, or didn't have access to public libraries in a country that values free speech so highly, that my very psychology would be different. Submitted as evidence that I have always believed this: an English assignment from high school where various phrases were to be examined. For each phrase, I was supposed to write whether or not I agreed or disagreed, standard stuff. The teacher wrote after my essay: "Neat idea--Everyone else who wrote on this, disagrees with you."

The phrase was: "There are no walls, there are no bolts, no locks that anyone can put on your mind."

My response was as follows: "I strongly disagree with that statement. We build ideas on 20,000 years of the past knowledge of the human race. If you are deprived of this knowledge, you have to "start over" with learning. No one can possibly do this. So that is the most effective lock that you can put on someone's mind."

What do you think?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A room of my own

At last, it appears that I will no longer be homeless in Claremont!

Claremont-McKenna has some faculty housing available, houses that they rent for 20% below market value. Once you start renting, you have to stay for at least a year, but you are allowed to stay for several years if needed. Today their agent wrote me and indicated that a nice little two bedroom had become available that will suit my needs just fine. Awesome!

My goal, given current prices, is to save up a new down payment for a home as quickly as possible. Half of my previous down payment was invested in stocks--so took a big hit this last year. Moreover, I was saving for a home in Durham, while homes in Claremont seem to run about 60% above value.

Ironically, rents in Claremont are somewhat more in line with Durham, which means that after the 20% discount, I might even be paying slightly less than I did for my apartment here.

There have been issues in the past with getting into faculty housing at CMC, but fortunately with the fall in housing prices many have been leaving the rentals in order to take advantage of the prices. My hope: after a year of saving I'll have an understanding of Claremont and its neighboring towns enough to purchase a home and finally install that sweet sweet home theatre system I've longed for lo these many years. It's good to dream.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Terminator: Salvation

Okay, so I'm catching up on my summer movie going, and first out of the gate is Terminator: Salvation. This is a sharp break from the previous Terminator films, and a lot of critics did not like that one bit.

I, on the other hand, loved it. Apocalyptic films are tricky. The last four to grace my radar: Wall-E, I am Legend, Resident Evil: Extiction, and of course Apocalypto. The set design and photography in T:S takes the Wall-E approach: all that is left in the world is the rusting crap left by a destroyed technical civilization. In mood and props it is closest to The Road Warrior, or the Fallout series of games.

So that's the first break with the first films. This is a fully immersive vision of the future. The second break: John Connor isn't really the main character. Sure, he gets a lot of screen time and dialog, but he is pretty much just reacting to events through the film, rather than driving them. Really, this is the story of Marcus Wright: a death row inmate in the early 2000's who donates his body to Cyberdyne at the insistence of a dying scientist. The choices Marcus makes are the central plot of the film.

The third break is that is really an episode rather than a complete story. In the first Terminator, the story came full circle, and in the second, Sarah and son thought they had stopped Judgement Day. Even the third had all the loose tied up by the end of the movie. T:S, on the other hand, is the story of something that happens within the larger story. These are the early years, where John Conner is moving towards leadership of the resistance but isn't there it. Skynet isn't fully up to speed yet either: the first T-800's are just starting to stalk menacingly off the assembly line. In many ways this is a more personal film simply because it can't yet have the final battle. Of course, in Fellowship of the Ring everyone knew that was the way it was set up, here it was more of a surprise.

So what I liked about T:S was: the inventiveness of the humans, the inventiveness of Skynet, the integration of special effects, and the attention to details of the Terminator universe. The humans don't give up faced with Terminator's, they do what people always do: fight or flight. I especially liked the Kyle Reese approach. What do you fight a Terminator with: anything you've got. Still Skynet was equally on top of things, using it's machines in clever ways and the overall attack plan had even Machivelli in it to garner my attention.

The special effects achieved that place where occasionally you forget it's an effect. Okay, not the giant people snatching robot, but after watching, the smaller things that I thought about and realized had to be special effects just registered as reality at the time, and that's a good thing. Finally, the attention to detail was immaculate. There were callbacks not just to the earlier three Terminator films, but Terminator 2 3D at Universal Studios and the first trailer to Terminator 2. I'm sure I missed many more references, but at least we got to find out how John Connor got that great scar he sported at the beginning of T2. This was a lovingly crafted film.

What I didn't like: the utter seriousness and lack of humor. If they had interjected any emotion other than anger or fear I would have felt more for the protagonist's plight.

This is a solid sci-fi film. Those looking for emotional catharsis should look elsewhere. Those looking for the best depiction yet of a future war between man and machine, this is your film.

Terminator Salvation: 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Last Day in Denmark

On our last day, we headed to Århus, a city a bit to the southeast of Aalborg. They have the world's first open-air museum there, Den Gimle By, a collection of buildings that range from Renaissance times up to the early 1900's. (In fact, they are currently planning an extension up to the 1970's.)

They also have a collection of posters advertising other such museums, including Colonial Williamsburg and Sovereign Hill.

Århus itself is a very old city at over a thousand years old. We headed downtown to see the Cathedral, but it was closed for Sunday services. They did have an excellent photo exhibition sponsored by a group trying to raise money to slow climate change in the courtyard, though, so that was fun.

So that was it: a week of the top sights in Denmark! I want to thank Jesper Møller for inviting me to Aalborg in the first place, and Robert Wolpert for humoring me in the Viking Ship Museum and accompanying me on the trip. Safe travels!

Friday, June 12, 2009

To be or not to be

The next day we headed north to Kronborg Slot, in Helsingør. This Renaissance castle was the inspiration for the Danish castle of "Elsinore" in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It was built in order to successfully levy taxes on shipping entering the Baltic Sea, but remains a gorgeous sentinel by the sea.

The tour of the royal apartments covers about half of the castle, including the enormous ballroom and collection of tapestries that tell the history of Denmark. There is also an underground tour where you can view the casements underneath the castle. The chapel was one of the few things to survive an early fire, which meant the intricately carved and painted pews survived as well.

After a picnic on the grounds, we then headed southwest towards Roskilde and the Viking Ship Museum. Five ships that the Vikings sunk in a sound to protect the harbor have been retrieved here, in surprisingly complete condition.
They have rebuilt the ships as well, and experimental archeologists have sailed them as far as Ireland and back to learn more about how well they operated in northern Europe. But the most fun was the room were they keep the Viking outfits and weapons. Being a Viking is fun!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Under Copenhagen

Okay, so Copenhagen has had extremely bad luck with their royal castle. During the time of absolute monarchy, they built a lovely new castle: Christianborg Slot. It burned down. Undaunted, they built another. It burned down.

You've got to admire the pluck of a people who would choose to build it back a third time, but that's exactly what the Danes decided to do. And in doing so, they found a hidden treasure. While excavating for the third incarnation of Christianborg Slot, they found the ruins of the original fortress built by Bishop Absalon when he founded Copenhagen in the 12th century, as well as the later Copenhagen Castle built after the Hanseatic League decided to tear down most of Absalon's place.

You can go down on a wonderful tour below the current Christianborg Slot to see these ruins, in a very nicely put together museum that not only gives archeological insights into the ruins, but provides a timeline history of all the palaces built on the location.

Next we went above ground to see the current palace, at least the rooms set aside for royal receptions and the like. Since Christianborg Slot houses the Parliment, the judiciary, and the royals, it is enormous, and the tour is lots of fun. They do hand out baggies for your feet so the marble extra shiny, too.

For lunch we went to a place recommended to me by a friend and in the guide books, Ida Davidsen. The food is unbelievably good here. A favorite of Denmark is the open-faced sandwich, but the ones served here seemed to exist on a different plane from everything we'd tasted so far. We each had two--one seafood and one meat, and the combination of flavor was exhilarating to say the least. The chef walked us through the choices up at their counter, but I have a hunch anything we would have picked would have been heavenly. The best place we ate in Denmark, hands down.

Next was the (free!) Statens Museum for Kunst. Containing not only Danish works of art but paintings and sculpture from around the world, this is a museum full of works that I wish I had hours to study. Again, highly recommended!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Moving at a palacial pace

The next morning we started with a little more walking. First past the Little Mermaid by the water again, and then down to a victory monument.

But the big thing was Amalienborg Slot, the current royal residence. Fortunately, it consists of four palaces, so while one is home to Queen Margarethe II, another serves as a museum to the royal family that covers from the 1860's up to current times.

Next on the list was Frederick's Church, popularly known as Marmorkirken: the Marble Church. It's not hard to see why. The dome is visible from around the old town, and inside it is indeed something special. That effort to complete it (it took about 150 years owing to funding difficulties) paid off.

Finally we rode the tour bus some more and ended up at the eclectic Nationalmuseet. Sure they covered the Vikings, but they also had an extensive collection of ancient pottery, statues and mosiacs, and a great history of Denmark as a country told through artifacts of the time, right up to modern times.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


At last it was time to hit the big city, Copenhagen!

Copenhagen is a walkable city, in many ways similar to Paris. Both offer excellent and easy to use mass transport, both have world class museums and a fascinating history that draws you in at every corner.

So naturally, faced with the daunting task of unraveling Copenhagen in three days, I took the easy way out by getting tickets for the hop-on hop-off tour bus. This was actually a good idea, and a better one was buying the add-on ticket to make it a two-day, all four lines ticket. Of course, the line that I had initially bought, the "Mermaid" line, did hit most of the highlights, the other lines also have some cool stuff on them, especially when it is pouring down and you don't feel much like walking anyway.

But I get ahead of myself! The first day the sun was shining and it was a great day to see the statue that is inextricably linked to Copenhagen: The Little Mermaid. Isolated from shore by a few feet of water (cuts down on the "stealing her head" type of events, apparently,) she patiently sits and gazes outward from the harbor while (again like Paris) nearby vendors try to sell small copper replicas.

After finishing the Mermaid line of the bus, Robert and I were oriented, and headed off on a winding route through the Old Town towards treasure. Our first stop was the Rundataarn, or Round Tower, a lovely way to view the city. The distinguishing feature of the tower is that there is a wide (about 15 feet) ramp all the way to the top, so the inside is one continuous space.

Next up was Vor Frue Kirke, the cathedral of Copenhagen. An airy and spacious interior that caught the sunlight and spread it out over wonderful statues of the apostles made this an uplifting place. Turns out they were the work of Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, and I was to get to know his work very well over the next few days.

Finally we made the main event of the day: Rosenborg Slot. This started as a getaway for the king outside the city. Now of course it is smack in the middle of Copenhagen, but ended up being the royal residence for a number of centuries. In the mid 1800's the king decided to turn it over to become a museum, and so the interior covers the history of the monarchy up until that point. In the chambers below the castle lie something even more interesting: the Crown Jewels of Denmark. In fact, they have several sets and a wealth of treasure down there for viewing. Definitely the highlight of the day!

But, being only 4:00 in the afternoon, there was still plenty of day to go! First, we wandered over to Nyhavn, which two centuries ago would have been the place you didn't tell you Mom you'd been to. Today, it's pretty touristy, but that's because sipping a Carlsburg by the water and watching the people go by is so much fun.

For dinner we headed to the Hard Rock Cafe and I expanded my collection of T-shirts by one. There was two reasons for this: first, its harder to find a good burger in Denmark than you might think. Second, it was next to our final stop for the evening: Tivoli Gardens.

Tivoli goes back about a century and a half. Designed to keep the Copenhagen residents from rioting, today it has well tended grounds befitting its name, some very cool rides, and entertainment throughout the day. We listened to both the orchestra for a while and the Big Band music. There was also a Pantomime show, carnival games, and a vast array of restaurants for fine dining and snack shops for not so fine. The day ended with "Illuminations", a laser light show down by the fountain, and then we took the S-train back for the night. Whew!

Okay, so there's more pictures than I can fit into my entries at this point. For those wanting to see more, check out

Friday, June 5, 2009

"I will not waste chalk."

The next day found us searching for a church, and led to the most blatant error I've ever seen in an Eyewitness Travel Guide. Robert and I had located the village where the guide said the Fanefjord Church was located. However, after stopping in at a local bank to ask directions, a loan officer kindly informed me that in fact it was on an island on the other side of the water, and that the ferry could take me there.

Okay, so I've never had the Eyewitness Guide place a tourist site on the wrong island before. Undaunted we headed over there (taking the bridges) and it was worth the hunt.

You see, this church had two sets of frescos covering the interior. One from the 13th century, and another set from the 1500's. Both were then later whitewashed over, and only rediscovered in the 1930's. They are quite detailed and beautiful.

The second stop of the day was Møns Klint, graceful chalk cliffs that rise hundreds of feet above the sea. The wooden stairs up and down to the rocky beach let you know exactly how tall they are, as well. They have great trails around the area, and it is one of the those very rare natural phenomena that are just breathtaking up close.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Monday, Monday

So after visiting Legoland, we stayed the night in Odense. I hadn't realized when booking the hotel, but Odense is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen.

So you know the next morning I was all like: "Let's go see where Hans Christian Andersen was born!". Ah the adventurous life of the vacationer!

Except of course, it was Monday. And in a cruel twist of fate, Hans Christian Andersen's birthplace (and museum!) was closed Monday's until June. Okay, maybe not as cruel a twist of fate as happened to many of the characters in his stories, but it was sad nonetheless.

Still, downtown Odense also has the Saint Canute's Cathedral which is totally cool. Besides the gorgous interior and incredibly old and detailed alterpiece, it has the skeletal remains of Saint Canute and his brother Benedict are out in the open for visitors. I have to admit, this was a first for me.

After leaving Odense, we headed for the grounds of Egeskov Slot. The castle itself serves as a museum, but their are also a variety of other museums around the grounds. A car museum, motorcycle, even one dedicated to the private company Falck that runs much of the rescue operations in Denmark.

In addition, there is a walk among the tree tops, and several hedge mazes. Winding fun!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I had a lot of great toys growing up. My Steve Austin action figure went on many an adventure. And my Big Wheel had a lot of miles on it.

But the best toy of all were my Legos. With them I could build pretty much anything, although with the space themed ones that were my favorite space ships and star bases ruled the day. Over time pieces got misplaced or lost, and so the ships started to look more and more like they were products of a deranged junkyard--a mishmash of different ships, but with that distinct lego look.

So when I got a chance to go to the first Legoland in Billund, Denmark (they celebrated their 40th anniversary last year), you can believe I took it!

The best part was the model garden. Some, like Neuschwanstein Castle and the Golden Pavilion, I have already visited. Others, like Nyhavn and Amalienborg Slot, I planned to visit this trip. In all cases, the models are spectacular, and worth the price of admission alone.

The rides are geared towards a younger crowd, except for one. At the far end of the park is a build-your-own-roller-coaster ride. You construct a ride by piecing together multiple elements, like flip upside down or side to side. The ride is downloaded onto a smart card. When you get to the front, you give the smart card to the operator. The ride itself is a carriage attached to an arm that moves around at high speed. Very fun!

They don't sell the ships I remember when I was young anymore, mostly the space legos are used in conjunction with the Star Wars license today. Still, I was able to buy a vintage set of lego people--including my favorite little lego guy with his planet logo and space helmet. He'll be flying again soon.