The, err, Joy of Sheep

[Sheep and Lamb]Forgive me for the title of this post – all will become clear soon enough. (And no, it doesn’t involve velcro gloves or any such thing, but did you really expect a visit to New Zealand to involve absolutely no mention of these beasts? After all there are something like 40 million sheep (compare to 4 million humans) in the country.)

Now I know that, for most of us, sheep are nothing particularly special. They are just sheep – rather stupid animals good for two things: wool and the pot (nice with a bit of the old mint sauce). That is, unless you happen to be female and from Los Angeles. Two of our companions on the caving expedition were such characters, and upon sighting their first wool-laden quadrupeds promptly burst into a chorus of shrieks which resolved after a moment for near-unconscious translation into “Oh my Gawd! They’re so cute! Stopthevan!Stopthevan! I just gotta take a photo” You’d think that they’d never seen a sheep before, which I suppose they may well not have – I’ve no idea whether sheep farming is Big Business in California or not. So we sat there in the minibus for ten minutes while they chased sheep around the karsts. I kept hoping they’d scare one so badly that it would fall down a pot-hole, but it didn’t happen. Now that would’ve been real entertainment. Sigh.

Waitomo

[The cave mouth]Waitomo is one of New Zealand’s premier tourist attractions, most famous for the limestone caves which riddle the hills and the glow-worms inhabiting them. Most people who visit the area do so very briefly, only allowing enough time to do a cave trip of some description – some involve a fairly sedate walk or boat journey through a cave lit by the green lures of the glow-worms, others are more adventurous and involved clambering up underground waterfalls and abseiling down pot-holes.

[Intrepid Cavers!]We didn’t stay much longer ourselves, only long enough to do a couple of the walks the area has to offer in addition to the obligatory cave trip. I’m afraid to say that we bottled out of the more radical trips due to the strong possibility of having to squeeze through tiny claustrophobia-inducing nooks and crannies, but our more relaxing clamber and boat trip through a large-ish cave was worth it for the spectacular glow worms. No photos of those, unfortunately, as you’d need a tripod and at least 5 or 6 minutes of open shutter time to get anything at all on film, you’ll just have to take my word for it that they were pretty amazing.

[The Moon over Opakapa Pa]The walks were worth it too, particularly the Ruakuri walk through the bush to a natural tunnel, the result of cave collapses in the past. The walk takes you up and down fairly steep bush-clad slopes and in and out of old caves around a river valley. Apparently the walk is worth doing at night, as the area in infested with glow-worms which make for a magical atmosphere. Unfortunately this only highlighted the desirability of a car, as the walk is several Kilometres outside of the village and too far for us to come on foot at night.

Other good walks are the Opakapa Pa walk, which ends on a hilltop with great views which was the site of a Maori Pa (fortified settlement) a few hundred years back. Lastly, the 10km Waitomo Walkway is a good way to get out overland to Ruakuri if you don’t have a car or just fancy a pleasant tramp though the karst hills.

Also worth a mention is the Waitomo Museum which, although perhaps orientated more towards the school parties which come through every day, is worth visit for the thorough rundown on the local flora, fauna and geology.

Around Raglan

We might not have done any surfing at Raglan, but we did do some other stuff, including our first real trip into the New Zealand bush – a jaunt out to the Bridal Veil Falls. The falls plunge around fifty meters down a sheer cliff in an area of quite dense forest.

[Bridal Veil Waterfall, NZ]

The treeferns are really quite otherworldly when you get up close. From a distance the NZ forest sometimes resembles our woods at home, but this illusion is quickly dispelled when you get amoung the trees.

[Treefern lined riverbank]

Thanks to fellow brits Chris and Beth for the lift out to the falls. We’re really beginning to think that a car might become necessary to get the most out of the more remote areas.

We got to see a bit more of the Raglan area in the company of April and Alex, too, including a rather hair raising drive around the base of Mount Kairoi on an unsealed road. It was worth it for the views, though.

[Te Toto Gorge on the slopes of Mt. Kairoi]

Thanks again to everyone who took us out and about!

Raglan

We’ve just spent the weekend in a town named Raglan (after the officer who led the Charge of the Light Brigade). Apparently it is famous in Surfer circles as having one of the best left-handed breaks in the world, and sure enough the place was very surf orientated. There’s even a big, pro longboard surf competition next weekend, but unfortunately we won’t be around to watch.

You don’t need to be a surfer to enjoy Raglan, however. It’s quiet and relaxing and there are some great places to stay. The surrounding scenery is spectacular and there are miles of beaches to walk along.

Ngarunui Beach from the clifftop

The view to the south is dominated by an extinct volcano, Mount Karioi.

[Mount Karioi]

Although, as you might be able to tell from the photos, the weather was a bit wild from time to time, this didn’t prevent some from taking advantage of the beaches. My attempts to photograph the surfers failed, as they were always too far out to show up, but there were other things going on besides surfing.

Kitesurfer On Ngarunui Beach

The beaches weren’t the only interesting things in Raglan. There were clearly a few Individuals living in the town judging by some of the houses.

[House shaped like a UFO

And if you just want to relax with a book and some peace and quiet in pleasant surroundings, check out the Raglan Backpackers and Waterfront Lodge. It’s a mellow hostel run by a couple named Jeremy and Lynda (along with Jed the dog and Meg the cat) with clean, comfortable rooms, great views from the sofa-filled lounge and a well equipped kitchen. Jeremy does reasonably priced surfing lessons, and will happily regale you with surfer tales and the like for free. There are canoes and bikes available as well, free for guests.

[The courtyard at the Raglan Backpackers

Auckland, and beyond

We’ve been in New Zealand a week now, and I’m just starting to think that I’ve finally got over the jet-lag. Woo-hoo!

Impressions of Auckland varied from day to day, depending on where we were and how tired we were feeling. At first, neither of us was particularly impressed, but we warmed to the place over time. I think our initial reservations were based in part on the fact that we arrived at the beginning of the Labour Day weekend – the city was uncharacteristically quiet, and we found ourselves wandering the streets wondering where everyone was. Things livened up a bit when the normal week resumed.

[Downtown Auckland]

The highlight was probably Auckland Museum, which is also a war memorial (and was in fact initially built as one). It’s a neo-classical building situated at the highest point of the Domain (the city park). It holds a lot of good Maori and Pacific Island exhibits, most of a floor devoted to the subject of New Zealand at war (in keeping, I suppose, with the building’s origin as a war memorial) and a fantastic set of rooms devoted to the geology and biology of the islands. All of it is interesting, well laid out and obviously designed with cross-generational appeal in mind – as evidenced by the stream of noisy school parties that kept us company during our wanderings through the halls.

[Rangitoto]

The suburb of Devonport on the north shore of Waitemata Harbour, opposite the central business district, is another spot worth visiting. A network of streets lined with old buildings surrounds the remains of a volcano called Mount Victoria which provides great views of the city. It’s from there that these photos were taken. There are lots of little shops selling books and souvenirs and knick-knacks as well as plenty of cafes to sit and eat in .

I’m sure we saw only a fraction of Auckland in the few bleary days we spent there (in addition to the above we checked out the K’ Road, Ponsonby and Parnell, each of which was cool in it’s own way), but we didn’t come to NZ on a citybreak. So we’re off into the hinterlands before our cash runs out and we have to head home or get a job. Still, we’ll be back so if anyone surfs across this page and has any Auckland suggestions, then please leave a comment!

Sony Vaio PCG-C1F

So, I got this Sony Vaio PCG-C1F, right. My mate Gavin loaned it to me. The particularly good thing about it is it’s size – small enough to carry round without any hassle.

[Sony Vaio PCG-C1F]

Thing is, I’ve put a nice new Slackware 9 install on it. Sounds good – but I’ve got to do all the configuration myself. If I didn’t know any better I’d assume that Gavin thought I needed a project to keep my mind busy. Still, I suppose it gives me something else to post about, too.

Linux can be a little bit of a pain to install on laptops sometimes – there’s a lot of scope for non-standard hardware and the like for which no-one has got around to hacking out device drivers for yet. Still, at first glance, installing a recent distro on the little Vaio seems like a fairly straigtforward task. Touch wood.

The basic install goes well. The machine boots, and the kernel recognises the cards that came with the machine – the ethernet card Just Works. The modem and wireless cards are recognised, and just need some configuration – I can easily whip up a chatscript for the modem, but I’m a bit less certain about what to do with the wireless card, having never used this technology before. Still, one thing at a time, and the first thing I want to do is to get XFree86 running satisfactorily.

The standard XF86Config file installed alongside with Slackware is actually enough to start X despite the fact that it thinks the screen is 1024×768 whereas it is actually 1024×480. A bit of manpage reading and a quick surf later, and I have a nice little example of an XF86Config file as hacked together by Jochen Topf for his Sony Vaio. (This page has a lot of other stuff on it, too. I plan to read it a bit more thoroughly, and it might be useful to you if you’ve arrived at this page because you’re researching getting linux running on a Vaio.) This doesn’t quite work – he uses the svga driver which I don’t seem to have, and one or two other little minor errors crop up – but a quick glance in /usr/X11R6/lib/modules/drivers turns up a rather promising little file called neomagic_drv.o. The Vaio uses the NeoMagic MagicMedia 256AV, so this looks good.

And sure enough, between this, Topf’s mode line for 1024×480 and a bit of a ripoff from the stock config file, I’ve pulled together an XF86Config file that allows me to startx quite happily and launch the XFce Desktop Environment, which for some reason Gavin and I selected as the default window manager when we were doing the original install without knowing much about at the time.

Despite prioritising getting the X server running, I find that I’m spending very little time using it anyway. Oh well. Next thing I did was to get my digital camera working, a Nikon Coolpix 3100, which proved very simple. This simple: plug in the USB cable, and type


# mkdir /mnt/flash
# mount -t vfat /dev/sda1 /mnt/flash

And off we go. Straight out of the box, as they say.

Next up: the modem and wireless cards. Not to mention a bit of trimming in /etc/rc.d/ to cut down on a raft of unnecessary services.

Walthamstow Marsh

This is very much a lazy Sunday afternoon sort of post. Since we’re leaving town next week, we’re trying to visit a few of our favourite haunts at the same time as pack and clean up and organise all those things that need to be organised before a move.

[Bullrushes on Walthamstow Marsh]

One of those places is Walthamstow and Hackney Marshes, an area criss-crossed by paths, canals and the River Lee. Not to mention the sewage works, railway lines and pylons – this is London, after all – but the intrusion of the city proper into the marshes doesn’t detract from their value as a place to come and get away from busy roads and litter filled streets.

[An old boat at the Marina]

The river and the canals are always filled with geese, ducks and swans swimming between the narrowboats and clustering around the occasional canal-side cafe or pub in the hope of scraps. The paths across the marsh and alongside the waterways are well maintained and good for cycling or walking, wide enough for all to enjoy without feeling you have to keep a constant look out for other people.

[Geese and Narrowboats on the canal]

There’s a marina filled with boats of all descriptions, many of which are scrupulously cared for narrowboats that people appear to live in. There are places to stop with picnic benches. Recently a small group of cows were introduced onto part of Walthamstow Marsh, so there’s plenty to look at and you almost feel as though you’re not in the city any more.

[Some of the newly introduced cows on Wlathmstow Marsh]

London Flash Mob 2

Updated Friday, 22 August

(For the confused, a brief intro to the concept of flash mobs can be found at flashmobs.co.uk, as well as a discussion of the words ‘flash’ and ‘mob’.)

Despite feeling a bit of a prat, I quite enjoyed this experience. I say this because it all seems a bit silly really – obeying a set of anonymous instructions, several hundred people all proceed to a public place and behave in an odd manner. Still, it was fun. Unfortunately my camera was running a bit low on power, but I got a couple of piccies, reproduced below.

The mob proceeded pretty much as the instructions described (see below), although there was some confusion as to when to shout ‘ahoy!’ and when finger-clicking was called for. Trying to remember to click your fingers every time someone used the letter Y was a bit tiresome, to be honest.

There were actually two flash mobs – one that ended up at Hungerford Bridge (which I attended) and one that ended up at the courtyard at Somerset House among the fountains with their umbrellas raised. There is a description of that mob here. There is also another post on the Hungerford Bridge flash mob here.

London Mob 2 – the Rules!

[Mob Rules]

Just before 18.30

[Gathering on the bridge]

Waving and shouting Ahoy!

[Looking out over the river]

There seemed to be quite a few people there, and everyone was laughing and not taking it all too seriously. There also seemed to be a fair number of people with cameras of a size suggestive of journalism, so I expect a certain amount of coverage, although interest will probably wane fairly quickly. There was even a chopper circling within moments of everyone’s arrival.

[Chopper]


Saving Capitalism from the capitalists – the future of Trade Unions?

Last night I attened the Vice-Chancellor’s Annual Lecture at City University (invited by virtue of having been, once-upon-a-time, the President of the Students’ Union there). The speaker was another ex-Sabbatical Officer, albeit one from an older generation than me, Brendan Barber – the recently elected General Secretary of the TUC.

His speech was entitled “The Future of Trade Unions”. He began by giving a roundup of the current state of the Trade Union movement here in the UK, outlining some of the recent trends membership numbers and profile, spread across various sectors, stuff like that. He briefly touched upon the movement’s relationship with the current Government and disparaged that element of recent media commentary which labeled some of the recently elected Union officials as the “Awkward Squad”.

His discussion on the future direction of the Trade Union movement touched on several areas, including skill development and provision and the continuing importance of collective bargaining, but what I found most interesting was his brief discussion of the potential role of unions as shareholders – “saving capitalism from the capitalists”, if I remember his phrase correctly.

Using the currently relevant issues of pension security and fat-cat pay as hooks, he set out an argument for the increasing participation of Trade Unions in Business at the shareholder level. After all, Union members are essentially investors in many large companies in their roles as pension scheme contributors, and Barber argued that Unions could do well following the example of those groups who sought to influence the policy of large corporations by buying shares in order to get voting rights at company AGMs and the like.

He cited the recent stories of fat-cat pay deals being voted down as examples of the potential power of well-organised shareholders over boards and executives, and suggested that by getting into business at this level, Unions could not only oversee the interests of their members in these uncertain times but also possibly impose some sort of moral or ethical framework over the corporations.

Whatever your reaction to ideas like this (to be honest, I’m not really sure how new it all is), it’s certainly interesting. It brought to mind the old concept of the “shareholder democracy” which never really took off as intended. Perhaps what Mr. Barber is thinking of is a new form of (stake|share)holder democracy, but one where the Unions, and possibly other groups, act as our proxies?

All interesting stuff, I only wish I had been a little less tired and that I’d remembered to take a pen and paper to make notes with. (What? Real time wireless moblogging? You wanna buy me the kit, I’ll do it 😉 Please read this last statement as a slight disclaimer – I am reporting only my impressions and memories, and it’s altogether possible that I’m misrepresenting Mr. Barber’s arguments, although I’d hope not. It’d be interesting to hear any views on this stuff, so if anyone actually reads this post, please consider leaving a comment!

(NB: After I wrote this summary, I discovered this article at the Times online, covering the speech.)

Mary Stewart on Myrrdin Emrys

[Cover Of The Last Enchantment]

I first read Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973) and The Last Enchantment (1979)) about fifteen years ago. I’m glad to say that I enjoyed them just as much the second time around as I remember from the first.

Stewart’s reworking of the Arthur and Merlin legends is masterful. The atmosphere she evokes for her 5th Century Britain is both rich and convincing – you really feel that it could have been like this. By focusing on Merlin (Arthur himself is conceived at the end of the first book, becomes High King at the end of the second, and is off-stage for much of the third), Stewart ends up with a much more satisfying work. In my view, Merlin is a far more interesting figure by far than Arthur, and his sophistication and learning make him a good narrator. The books are cast as memoirs, written down late in life after Merlin has faded and the majority of his power left him.

This power is carefully done – subtle and capricious. For the most part, Merlin derives his day-to-day power from his reputation as a prophet and his learning in medicine and engineering. Even when at the height of his powers, he achieves most of his aims through craft and wit rather than by any spectacular feats of magic. The most striking events are the public moments of prophecy, when he is taken hold of by the god that he serves and speaks of things to come to audiences of fearful warriors and kings. Merlin himself believes that all his magic comes from the god he serves, but he never seems quite sure just who that god is – Dark Ages Britain are awash with the remnants of the old gods of place, the gods the Romans brought, and the new God of the Christians who is slowly replacing the older ways.

Stewart provides notes in each book, which briefly describe some of the ways she wove her tellings from the body of myth, legend and the fragments of history we have from the time. She has, of course, made some use of poetic licence with such aspects as place names, but has got the balance right – after all, historical accuracy in a book set in the Dark Ages is a bit much to ask, and so we have to settle for feeling, atmosphere and intelligibility.

You don’t need to know the Arthur/Merlin stories to read these, and if you are expecting a “typical” retelling complete with full plate armour, tournaments, Frenchified names and chivalry then you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to read of what Arthur and Merlin might actually have been like, and follow them through a world that feels like it might be somewhere close to how it was, then these books are great. They are also great if you’re about to set off for any of the wilder parts of the British Isles – the West Country, Wales, Scotland, Cumbria or Northumberland for instance. These places still retain some of the wildness that the whole of our country must have once had and even, perhaps, some trace of the gods and spirits of the hills and the air.