Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Missed Loop

Leye - Every other Wednesday

Photo by Ed Yourdon

There are few things that annoy me, fewer that really get me going.  One of those that tear at the nerves of my self control, like an obsessive compulsive walking down a row of cars whose drivers have never learnt how to parallel park, is the missed loop. Yes, the missed loop.

I was going to take a picture to show real-life evidence of this, but I thought it unwise to walk behind a person, get close, bend down low to the height of their waist and seemingly point my phone at their bum.

But why o why do people miss out that loop? You know the one. Rear, right, just after the middle loop or loops, and just before the right, side loop. I’m guessing it has to do with right-handedness. Maybe left handed people will miss out the rear, left loop just after the rear middle loop or loops and just before the left, side loop.

Ever since I started noticing the missed loop, I now see them everyday, multiple times a day. I guess I’ve subconsciously developed a heightened awareness for them. My brain is constantly seeking them out. Searching for guilty parties.

I have once missed out the loop myself. No one noticed, or they did but it didn’t bother them enough to tell me to loop up properly, but when later at home I undressed, and pulling out the aggrieved belt I noticed my sin, I swore never to be so insensitive ever again. Imagine all the OCD folk I could have damaged through the course of the day.

This then is my real, real, annoyance. Do people not notice they have left out a loop, or do they not bother once they do? And when they get home and they discover their error, do they not then take steps to ensure it never happens again? Steps like feeling each loop before guiding the leather through it and then feeling along the looped up belt and counting? Is this too much to do? Maybe the answer is that some people just don’t care.

Now, I do not hold the people accountable alone. I also blame the trouser makers. Surely, in the centuries of trouser making, the issue of the missed loop should have become known to them. And what have they done about it? Nothing. Nada. They don’t give a loop. But this cannot be allowed to continue. Let me offer a solution:

If the loop is oft missed, then leave it out. It is a redundant appendage. Do away with it. One less loop will not start a war. And think of all the money that will be saved. It might be one single loop in a single trouser, but multiply that by the millions and millions of trousers made and to be made and then we’re talking some serious ka-ching. Think of those poor kids in sweat shops, painstakingly sewing belt loops that will never be used. Save the money, bin the missed loop.

But, wait. That would make one less loop on one side of the rear of the trouser. No. No. No, no, no, no, no! No. You cannot have more loops on one side than the other. No. Symmetry is everything. People, learn to loop up right!

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Lunatic Express Redux

Annamaria on DEADLINE!

My publisher has moved up the pub date of The Blasphemers to early December and, just a week ago, gave me July 31 as the deadline for the final manuscript.  YIKES!  I wanted the book to come out this year but had not expected it to.  I am happy.  And BUSY, determined to get it done, done, done.

Hence: Two things--

Here is the origin of the word "deadline."  It was coined by Conferate Inspector General, Colonel D.T. Chandler, July 5, 1864, when he wrote the following description of that infamous hell called the Andersonville (GA) prison camp:

The Federal prisoners of war are confined within a stockade 15 feet high, of roughly hewn pine logs, about 8 inches in diameter, inserted 5 feet into the ground, enclosing, including the recent extension, an area of 540 by 260 yards. A railing around the inside of the stockade, and about 20 feet from it, constitutes the “deadline,” beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass . . . [as a large portion is] at present unfit for occupation . . . [this] gives somewhat less than 6 square feet to each prisoner . . .

I need to get back to my characters.  Since the end of the story involves them riding on the the Uganda Railway, I am reposting this brief history of what came to be known as the Lunatic Express! 

It was called the Uganda Railway, but all of it was in the Protectorate of British East Africa, now Kenya.  It goes 660 miles from the port city of Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean, to Kisumu on the Eastern shores of Lake Victoria, across the water from Uganda.

It is credited with cementing Britain’s colonial power in East Africa.

But also with being instrumental in stopping the “trail of tears”—the route where slaves were dragged from the interior to the coast and then shipped to work in the households of Asia Minor and on the sesame plantations of the Zanzibar.

Construction began in 1896.  It cost Great Britain’s taxpayers 55 million pounds sterling: £20.1 Billion or $33 Billion in today’s money.

If the indigenous people tried to stop its progress through their territory, “punitive expeditions” were sent out to put them in their place.  Keep in mind that the King's African Rifles had firearms.  The tribal people fought with iron (not even steel) spears and swords.  Still, the Maasai won one of those battles.

32,000 Indians were shipped in from the Raj to build it.  6,724 of them stayed after the work was done and made a life there—many of their descendants remain today.  

It crosses 35 viaducts, 120 bridges and culverts.

Its engineers and construction crews braved man-eating lions and deadly scorpions.

2,498 perished during its construction.

Before the Brits built the railroad, the route from Mombasa to Kisumu was an oxcart trail.  To traverse from the coast took about three months with most of the party walking, carrying water and food.  Ordinarily around three hundred at a time, most of them tribal porters, made the trip.  People died.

A new way to travel that distance was called for.  But not everyone agreed.

Calling the railroad a “gigantic folly,” Liberals in Parliament were against the project, saying that Britain had no right to drive what African’s called the “Iron Snake” through Maasai territory.  The magazine Punch called it “the Lunatic Line.”  In 1971, Charles Miller wrote a book about it: The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism.  Many politicians and newspaper editors called it a waste of the taxpayer’s money.  Shaky wooden trestles over enormous chasms, hostile tribes, workers dying of until-then unknown diseases—much of what transpired seemed to support those against the idea.

But from the outset, the Uganda Railroad had its adherents.   Conservatives saw it as an important salvo in the “Scramble for Africa,” that Nineteenth Century madness of the European powers to take over whatever chunks of the African continent they could lay their hegemony on.  Winston Churchill admired it as “a brilliant conception."  He said, “The British art of ‘muddling through’ is seen here in one of its finest expositions.  Through everything—through forests, through the ravines, through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway.”

In the end it was seen as a huge achievement—both strategically and economically.  It became vital to the suppression of slavery.  Its existence eliminated the need for huge squads of human beings to carry goods.

The American President Teddy Roosevelt rode the railroad during his visit to British East Africa in 1909.  He wrote, "The railroad, the embodiment of the eager, masterful, materialistic civilization of today, was pushed through a region in which nature, both as regards wild man and beast, does not differ materially from what was in Europe during the late Pleistocene."  On his way into the interior from the coast, he often rode on a platform on the front of the locomotive, giving him a great vantage point for viewing the huge array of wildlife along the way.  According to Teddy, "...on this, except at mealtime, I spent most of the hours of daylight."  It's a view I sorely wish I could have seen.

Here is a link to give you a glimpse of the line as it passes through some of the most incredible scenery on earth, as shown in the opening credits of Sydney Pollack’s brilliant Out of Africa.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Back in Time--and Potty Humor--at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

-- Susan, every other Sunday

During last month's trip to Japan, I spent a day at the Edo-Tokyo Museum researching an upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery and learning oodles of fascinating facts about Japan's modern capital during the Edo period.

The massive Edo-Tokyo Museum

For those who don't know, Tokyo was formerly known as Edo--and Japanese historians use the term "Edo Period" to refer to the period between 1603 and 1868 (the start of the Meiji Period) when Edo was the capital of Japan and ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate.

The Edo-Tokyo museum is split in two: one side deals with the city's history during the Edo Period, the other with the more modern Meiji period. Regrettably, I spent all day on the Edo side this trip--though that means I'll get to explore the Meiji half of the museum another trip.

Visitors enter the museum through a series of escalators that take you to the building's sixth floor - where the exhibits start.
Up and up and up to enter ... and then you walk down through the exhibits.

You emerge on the upper level of a cavernous room near a full-sized replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge

Medieval Japanese bridges were built for traffic.

The bridge was once the primary entrance into Edo--and visitors walk across it to access the museum's other exhibits.

Not for those who fear heights.

On one side of the bridge, visitors look down on a full-sized replica of a seventeenth century Kabuki theater:

Nakamura-Za Kabuki Theater

On the other, a reconstructed building from Meiji-era Tokyo:

Sadly, I didn't get to this half of the museum this trip.

The opposite side of the bridge holds a treasure trove of engaging and interactive exhibits, including dioramas showing life in Edo Period Japan.

Detail of a diorama showing the Nihonbashi Bridge 

Many of the exhibits are interactive, allowing visitors to experience life in "old Edo."

This palanquin was used by samurai who could not or chose not to ride horses.
Nightsoil buckets - visitors can lift the yoke and experience the weight - though not the smell.

For a writer, the blend of original artifacts and reconstructed buildings was a gold mine--though anyone with an interest in history (or Japan) would find it equally fascinating.

Original Edo-era coins, on display.

I particularly liked the exhibits that reconstructed one of the connected row houses (munewari nagaya) where Edo's commoners lived during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Carpenter's one-room home in an Edo row house.

The houses consisted of multiple, connected one-room dwellings, each of which was home to a single family. The landlord who owned the building usually lived elsewhere (in a larger, multi-room home) so the people who shared the tenements were not necessarily (and often, not) related.

Nagaya did not have indoor plumbing, so the residents used a common well, garbage bin, and latrine placed at the rear of the block.

Replica of the communal well at a nagaya.

As a writer, I photograph everything--and I was particularly interested in documenting the nagaya display for my books, including the latrine, which was the first full-sized model of a Japanese city latrine that I'd seen.

Japanese potty - the stalls are squat toilets. The open space on the end contains a urinal.

Medieval Japanese urinal. That's a thing you know about now.

(Full disclosure: My friends and I have a running joke that I must be a six year-old boy at heart, because every book I write ends up with a latrine in it somewhere. Six or forty-six, I admit to an odd fascination with potties of every type and era.)

While I was photographing the latrine, an elderly Japanese man walked up next to me and started laughing. When I lowered my camera, he pointed and said (quite loudly) in English: "YOU LIKE TOILET!"

"I am an American novelist," I responded (in Japanese), "I am writing a book--"

"About Edo toilet!" He finished, in English, with a giant grin and two thumbs up.

"And ninjas!" I added.

He found this absolutely hilarious.

I can't say that I blame him.

Given that I was the only non-Japanese person I saw in the museum all day, my fascination with the toilet probably gave him all kinds of only partially-inaccurate opinions of Americans, women, and novelists.

I have no regrets. In fact, it put a perfect capper (or should I say, crapper) on the day.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Seismic Changes Around Here


I’m writing this from my cave on a rock in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Thankfully, I’m in the central Aegean, far away from the tourist heavy areas of Kos (a Greek island) and Bodrum (a Turkish coastal town) struck by a 6.7 magnitude earthquake less than twenty-four hours ago.  It is the second such event in the broader region this year.

Hundreds are reported injured, two have died, and media reports from Kos show extensive damage to older buildings and parts of the port area, with images from Turkey revealing people abandoning buildings and waiting in the streets.

Earthquakes are not new to the region.  They serve as continuing reminders of the “big ones” of the past, and of those yet to come.  Entire civilizations have disappeared around here through quakes and eruptions—fictionally represented by the Lost Island of Atlantis.  

With all that’s happened in the region over the past twenty-four hours, it struck me as out of place for me to be voicing (as I’d planned) concerns I’d heard from many on Mykonos over esthetic architectural digressions (and transgressions) they see as threatening the very soul of their island. 

Bluntly speaking, I think to do so at the moment would be a sign of horrible bad taste…almost as much so as the new construction so many have in mind to pan.  

The above three photos are not of Mykonian locales, but of Athens 2004 Olympic venues a decade later. Could they be the Ghosts of Times to Come?

Argh.  So, I shall hold my tongue and, instead, offer my prayers and condolences to those souls affected by the earthquake, and wish them—make that all of us—no more damaging tremors.

As for what’s happening on this island, I offer an ancient Mykonian proverb:

“All that is necessary for evil architecture to prevail is for those most affected by it to do nothing.”


Friday, July 21, 2017

The Victoria Falls and The Dark Island

On day three of the 500 we did a tricky little drive - the green bit at the top of the line here.
This part of the route runs along the coast, with spectacular beaches, huge cliffs and stunning rock formations.  On day four, we were planning to reach the Caves Of Smoo - which I always say as The Caves Of Smoooooooo in a Sir Ian McKellern kind of way.

Here is the photo blog of the day.
recalling another much darker day....

The Gairloch

Carrot cake!

The Victoria Falls

The top of the falls

They only drop a few feet but they made a lot of noise.

Gairloch has a community garden along the wall of the harbour

And a few hundred yards away, the air is affected by the gulf stream. There are a few botanical gardens in these few square miles.  But they were mobbed by tourist coaches.

I knew we were going to have Gruinard Island in our sight at one point.  It lies in Gruinard Bay between  Gairloch and Ullapool, a wee island 1.2 miles  long by 0.6 miles wide. 

I didn't realise that it was so close to the shore - only about half a mile away at its closest point. The name might be familiar to you as it has been mentioned more than a few times in books and films. The Enemy by Desmond Bagley for one, and the Alistair McLean one set in Rassay is another. Why?

Because the island was dangerous for all mammals after experiments with the anthrax bacterium in 1942. It was supposed to be decontaminated in the 1990s but some folk remain unconvinced. And my pathology lecturer told me it is actually quite difficult to catch anthrax. As a spore, it is heavy so you really have to sniff it to get into your lungs.  Hence why heroin  that has been cut  on contaminated hides is so dangerous to immune compromised substance abusers- we have seen a lot of that in Scotland in the last few years.

In 1881 the population of Gruinard was 6! And it was an island full of trees. Now there are no trees and no people.

 Operation Vegetarian (????!!!) was a biological warfare test carried out on the island in 1942. Those who carried it out were from Porten Down - which is in the South of England. They were testing the use of Anthrax as a weapon.

They used a nasty strain of Anthrax, "Vollum 14578" and this was placed in a bomb and some sheep were tethered next to the bomb. They then exploded it,  and filmed what happened.  The sheep died within days of their exposure.  These films were declassified in 1997.

The plan was to drop Anthrax bombs on Germany to make their large cities uninhabitable and this plan was supported by the difficulty they had in trying to decontaminate Gruinard.  The spores were so durable and hardy, they couldn't get rid of the stuff.

Gruinard Island was quarantined indefinitely.

In 1981 a story began to circulate, "Operation Dark Harvest", a movement to decontaminate the island,  had reported that a "team of microbiologists from two universities" had  got onto the island, collected samples and were sending them to  various people of interest ( and to Porten Down). they demanded  that the public be educated about the island  and that the government  stopped their indifference.

 None of the samples contained anthrax  and although the soil was similar to that found on the island, it couldn't be proved as to where the samples had been taken.

But it was in the news and it didn't go away. By 1986 a determined effort to decontaminate the island started by spraying 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in sea water all over the place.

 Then they put some sheep on it. And they survived.

                                                        The Island, the photo taken from the road.

                                               A close up. Nothing much going on there.

Ullapool bay. Height of summer!

Ullapool high street. 

I liked this boat's laid back approach in contrast to

The ferry terminal that resembles an airport.

The weather was flexing it's muscles.

And the world started to look like Tolkien had designed it. ( a bad hobbit to get into )

And the award winning sands at Alitanabradhan
(that's Gaelic for sand gets everywhere )

Nice innit? It was very cold.

Caro Ramsay 21 07 2017