Monday, 31 August 2009

skype yabbering - a new social trend

we're all used to the sight of well dressed people walking across Garema Place apparently talking animatedly to themselves, when in fact they're deep in a conversation on their cell phone and using a discreet mic and earphone combination. (There are other sorts of people who talk to themselves in Garema Place, but they're usually not quite so well attired - Vinnies rather then DJ's if one's going to be snobbish)

Well I've now seen another version - the student hunched in a corner of the library having a really loud animated conversation with his laptop - of course what they're actually doing is using skype.

Question is, will peer pressure kill the trend, or will it, like the guy who's slightly too loud on his mobile, become a feature of wireless hotspots everywhere?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

personal cleanliness in the middle ages

Personal cleanliness in past ages is a fascinating topic and one too big for any blog post. There is a perpetual fascination about how badly people smelled, how they wiped their bums etc etc.

Just now the Musee du Moyen Age is running an exhibition on personal care from antiquity onwards which give some clues. And, having seen the exhibition, I'd recommend it if you're in Paris.

It won't tell you about people's toilet habits, but does tell you about their attention to detail and personal care.

Fascinating ...

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Web checkin and airports

When I went to Sydney yesterday I noticed that the check in counters in the domestic terminal (terminal 3) were distinctly free of airline people. Web checkins and the Qantas 'check yourself in ' machines seem to have totally killed the role of the checkin operative, apart from a few people on the bag drop counters and to deal with the odd luddite.

(And so it was in Europe this summer. The only reason (apart from not having a printer with us) we did real checkins with Ryanair and EasyJet was having bags with us. Elsewise we'd have used the checkin machines ...)

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

E-books and the espresso book machine

By all accounts e-books are on the rise with readers such as the kindle gaining traction (at least in North America) in part due to the move to digital student textbooks. Saves weight, saves printing the damn things.

Do we then see the espresso book machine simply be another delivery mechanism, or indeed even have people turning up with e-books they've purchased already stored on an sd-card and having a printed version run off for them. And that means that the bookstore becomes a copy-shop (rather than a coffee shop). The implication being that people buy and download books almost exclusively online as already happens with music (eg iTunes) and then choose whether to burn it of CD etc.

(In this scenario online purchases of real books represents sort of halfway house until such times that everything is available digitally)

After all one of the things that makes books expensive is the distribution and shipping costs. If we get to a situation where people print only what they need to have in a portable non -electronic format - much in the way people print pdf's of journal articles they need to refer to, what will the book trade look like in five or six years time?

Wither digital repositories?

A long time ago (2004 in fact) I was the digital asset management project manager for AIATSIS.

This was a really interesting project to procure and implement a digital asset management system, which bore a close resemblance to a digital repository to store for all time the digitised patrimony of the aboriginal cultures of Australia. Now, the Aboriginal cultures were oral culture and while poor in terms of physical cultural artefacts where immensely rich in terms of stories, songs, dance and the rest.

As the traditional societies broke down during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was great risk of loss of this material. Social dislocation, disruption, breakup of kinship groups etc etc.

However AIATSIS had built up a great store of anthropologists' field notes, recordings on cassette and quarter inch tape, film, often 8mm or 16mm, and video.

Much of these materials were in a poor state as they had not been conserved at all - in one case a box of tapes was discovered in a tin shed on someone's property after the original owner died. Being stored for forty years in a tin shed in the desert does not do anything for the longevity of quarter inch tape.

So the decision was made to digitise the materials, as recording technologies had moved from analog to digital. The result of this was a large amount of data that needed to be properly indexed and stored with appropriate metadata, and also made available to the societies whose data it originally was - digital cultural repatriation.

My part in this was to acquire a solution to do this. Previous to this I'd done a lot of work on backup solutions and had been on the UK Mirror Service steering group, so I wasn't new to the technology, although perhaps new to the concepts, but then everyone was in 2004.

Digital repositories are fairly simple. They consist of a database which contains the metadata for the digital objects. This metadata is in two parts, the technical metadata, usually things like where the object is stored, what format it is stored in, and so on, and the informational metadata which contains stuff like provenance and access rights, and the object itself which is stored in an object store, or more precisely a persistent object store, ie some form of filesystem that has inbuilt resilience such as SAM-FS or by replicating the filesystem multiple times and using things like md5 checksums to prove the copies are accurate copies and then periodically rerunning the chcksum on the files to see (a) if the answer you got was the same as previously and (b) if all copies continue to give you the same answer - this basically is a check against corruption and is is part of what SAM-FS/QFS will do for you.

Such repositories can be very large as you are not limited by the filesystems as the object store can be spread across multiple filesystems and you search for things, rather than addressing the individual file objects directly.

What you don't do is back them up. Backup is at its most basic a process where you copy the contents of a filesystem to another filesystem to give you a copy of the filesystem as it was at a single point in time. And you do this with sufficient frequency that your copies are reasonably accurate, so on a slow changing filesystem you might make fewer less frequent copies than on a busy filesystem.

Of course there is the risk that the filesystem contents might be changing as you copy it, which is why databases are typically quieseced and dump and the dump is backed up not the live database.

However, if you have a 1 terabyte filesystem and you back it up once a week and you keep your backups for six months you have to store 26 terabytes - decide that you need to do nightly backups because the file system changes so much and you're gong to keep these for the first month, you suddenly find yourself storing 22+30 ie 55 terabytes. Doesn't scale. Starts becoming expensive in the case of storage media and so on.

Of course there are ways to mitigate this, so as to cope with the changes in a big filesystem. Of course if your big filesystem contains lots of rapidly changing small files such as a student filestore, you have a different bag of problems as the filestore is different everytime you look at it to see what's changed. So you end up with tricks like writing every file to two separate filesystems so you've got an automatic backup. And of course if you track changes you can then build a synthetic point in time copy.

Now the point is that conventional serial backup doesn't scale. And if you track the changes (in a database perhaps) you can regenerate a synthetic copy of any filesystem at a specific time (within reason).

And suddenly your filesystem starts looking like a repository.

Now there's a reason why I'm telling you this. After doing AIATSIS's digital repository they asked me to be their IT manager, and from there I moved to ANU to be an Operations manager looking after servers storage and backup, and making sure that the magic kept working. I've now had another left turn and am now doubling up as ANU's repository manager.

OK, and ?

Well I went today to hear Bob Hammer, the CEO of Commvault, the company that produces our backup solution, speak. I'd gone as an Operations mager to hear about the technology enhancements and so on that were on the horizon.

What Bob Hammer had to say was more interesting than that, and very interesting from the repository point of view. In summary it was that conventional linear backup was going to disappear, and really what all the information life cycle management, and clever stuff around replication and deduping and cheap disk store was going to give you an indexed store with persistent objects and you would search for objects against the metadata on the objects - essentially e-discovery and that content, ie the value of the information was what you were preserving, not the files.

The other interesting point was that such a model means that you can decouple storage from the repository and that the repository could live in a datacloud somewhere as what was important was fast search - as long as the results were fast it didn't matter so much about the retrieval time - the google experience. Also of course we can bridge different vendor's storage and we no longer care desperately about file systems and their efficiencies. The key was the metadata database.

He also said a great many more interesting things, but it was the idea of decoupling and going for a metadata approach that piqued my interest - here was the CEO of a backup company saying it was all going to change and this was his view of the changes.

There is also the implication that the filestore contains reslience and everythine is based on the metadata approach - a bit like the google file system.

Of course the implication is that if conventional backup goes away and persistent storage looks a lot like a digital archive, what happens to repositories let alone filesystems?

In a sense the persistent store allows you to query and build a collection with object reuse by querying the persistent store's metadata as regards access and search to identify suitable objects.

So the questions are:

1) at what point does a digital archive just become a set a logic that controls the formats objects are loaded (ingested) in and allows the recoring of informational metadata? (The same is of course true of retrieval)

2) If archives are collections of metadata that point at objects distributed across mutiple object stores is that a problem - provided of course the objects are properly peristent

3) Object reuse just becomes a special case of #1, the same object can be ingested into multiple collections, perhaps eg a podcast could both be ingested in a history collection and an archive of recording made in a particular year.

4)And we need to think about what happens if an institution suffers a catastrophic failure of an object store, if all we have is a set of collections reusing objects, what happens if we lose the objects. Do we need to think about dark clones of these object stores not unlike what Clockss provides for e-journals.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

e-recycling ...

If you're in the geek trade you inevitably acquire a lot of high tech junk, you know, the old laptop you havn't used for a couple of years, the other old dead laptop you bought to cannabilize to keep the first one going, the old desktop you thieved the memory and disk out of long ago, the inevitable old crt monitors, the old sun machine you brought home from work in a moment of weakness, various dead printers and on and on and on.

And of course these days employers love you to take this stuff home because it costs them money to dispose of end of life stuff these days, between twenty and thirty bucks for crt and about the same for a laptop.

In one sense that's why Canberra is such a good place to pick up old machines - government agencies sends stuff to auction all the time in the desperate hope that some loon will buy it and the money they make might just pay the disposal costs of the useless junk.

Certainly, when I had to get rid of a pile of stuff from a failed project that's exactly what I did, seeded to junk to be disposed of with enough stuff that was saleable to get the disposal company to take the lot.

But I digress.

Basically I had a pile of junk in my garage that was going to cost me a couple of hundred bucks to dispose of, so when the ACT government organised a free high tech junk disposal day in partnership with Apple I jumped at the chance, and filled my car boot with various dead things. What I hadn't counted on was that another thousand or two people also had garages full of junk, so this morning I found myself in a line of cars queuing to get into the disposal centre.

The operation was as slick as could be. Four or five big shipping containers, and a crew of guys (and gals) that never stopped, helping take kit out of people's cars and trucks, stacking it, and a couple of people directing traffic, including a couple of guys out on the road managing the queues and helping through traffic get through.

Pretty impressive. Only trouble is, now you've cleared out the junk, you start finding other things that should've gone. Next time ...

Thursday, 13 August 2009

backing up google docs

Google docs, Zoho, Microsoft Live Skydrive, all excellent products and all provide online storage, and we trust that the provider's filesystems are sufficiently resilient to prevent data loss, though of course there's no way back from accidental deletion (Well Google Docs and Zoho have a trash feature so there's some hope if you realise you've accidentally deleted something), as Aberdeen University found when they went Microsoft and needed to advise students not to save critical work to their skydrive accounts.

And the other problem with all these solutions is that they're online, which can be a problem if you're not at the end of an always on internet connection for whatever reason be it on a plane or thrown out of a coffee shop for loitering and abusing their internet connection.

Well there's two tricks to make a local cache - one, an application to back up files locally is fine if you usually use Google docs but occasionally need a local copy be it because you're offline or just due to healthy paranoia, and the other is to use open office (especially if you prefer to use a local application) and the widget that allows you to push (or pull) files from either Zoho or Google Docs.

And in a more corporate or archival sense, if what you need is a means of providing a means of garnering a copy of files for local archival purposes this will give you one while being able to use the sharing and joint editing features of these environments.

If you're intending to use Google or Zoho as a backing store you need to be fairly disciplined about pushing files up, the paranoia backup application can be wrapped up in a script and run from a cron job, which is ideal if you're backing up to a machine under your desk that's always on ...

Economy SuperComputing

As is well known, I have a fascination with making cheap old machines usable.

Now I havn't moved on to building beowulf machines in the garage but I was interested in a post in the US Chronicle of Higher Education about how a college built itself a supercomputer out of machines bought on ebay.

This isn't the first time I've come across this - back in 2002 when I was at York, my former colleague Rob Fletcher built a beowulf machine in his office out of old classroom machines and has since moved on to a condor cluster built out of bits of an old blade based beowulf cluster.

Now there's a message here, Not only do my travels with an Asus netbook, and my various experiments with economy computing show that normal bread and butter computing is perfectly possible user older and or lower powered hardware, in part by choosing more efficient operating systems and in part by moving a lot of the standard tasks out onto the web, albeit with a concomitant requirement for pervasive internet access, but also that quite sophsticated academic computing can be done fairly cheaply - the hardware to crunch your data doesn't have to be that expensive.

And while Rob building a Beowulf cluster in his office makes a good after-dinner story, it means that universities in poorer countries can access reasonable computing power at a low cost, making it possible for an epidemiologist in Malawi, say, able to cruch his own data and crucially build local expertise in computing technologies, which is surely a good thing ...

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Digital disenfranchisement

Normally when we talk about digital disenfranchisement we're really talking about poverty, about people, who for economic reasons, cannot afford regular access to a computer or to the internet. We see this with Calfornia's move to digital textbooks with the dawning realisation that poorer families may not have a computer at home, or may not have one that the kids can use to gain full benefit from - 'Mommy why do I have to wait until Katie's done her homework?'.

Not every family is in a position to worry about facebook disrupting breakfast.

However I happened across a more subtle form of digital disenfranchisement, and one caused by format creep. In other words people who tick the boxes, yes they have an email account, yes they have a computer, yes they have broadband. All good. And if you asked them they'd say they had IE6 and XP, and yes they had Microsoft Word. Sounds like they're pretty enfranchised. In fact it's my brother in law, who until he decided he'd made enough money was a lawyer and not only that, helped draft legislation, as in writing the words and sanity checking things to make sure they didn't contradict existing legislation. In other words not the sort of person you'd think of as disenfranchised.

Execpt he was. He only has Office 97. Can't read Word 2003 or Word 2007 files. Now there's an easy couple of fixes - Google Docs or Open Office. But of course he doesn't know about them, doesn't have a Google account, and everything has worked for him up to now. And this for a very simple reason.

He only uses the internet for ebay, online banking, booking flights and the odd email, and that's usually just plain text. Because for him the computer replaced the typewriter and the web is simply just useful, it's not central to his life.

And there's a lot of people like that out there, they go out, buy a computer, and use it until it breaks, then get another. They don't upgrade operating systems, or software, and quite frankly don't give a stuff about doc versus docx, open formats, long term archival formats etc. They've paid their money, why should they pay any more until they need to?

And given the longevity of XP and IE6 there's going to be a problem. XP and IE6 have been around long enough so that everyone knows about them, software works for them, and generally people are happy. And then along comes Windows 7. Windows 7 has every sign of not being the bloated disaster that Vista was, which means that it will get real traction in the market place, which means that either my brother in law will buy a new computer and find his trusty Office 97 won't install, or else he'll find the bank tells him to upgrade his browser to a later version. Either way he'll be less enfranchised than he was. And given Office Live Apps restricted browser support, as some Sydney Uni Students have found, he's pushed into either upgrading or exiting the microsoft space, and like I say he doesn't get the symbiotic google/zoho/open_office/firefox thing - "you mean I've got to use software written by a bunch of hippies?"

And for him the answer really is open source - tracks formats, upgrades sensibly and gives him gradual rather than sudden change. Except of course he doesn't see a reason to, after all 90% of the world are out there using XP ...

Saturday, 8 August 2009

wi-fi and coffee shops

In yesterday's Australian there was an article reprinted from the Wall Street Journal detailing how various coffee shops were putting restrictions on the use of their free wi-fi by laptop users (There's also a follow up WSJ blog post on this).

I had two reactions, one based on my travels with the ookygoo, that these restrictions basically make the business of travelling more difficult, and the second was, astonishment - why didn't these people work from home?

When I was unemployed in late 2003 after migrating to Australia, that's exactly what I did. Got myself the cheapest pay as you go mobile phone and cheapest internet plan I could find and went to work. Every morning at 0830 until I found myself a job.

I may be becoming more right wing in my old age, but really, why should you expect a coffee shop to subsidise your job hunting or grad school application?

Free wi-fi is not a right - and much as I admit to finding it damned useful I've always understood the deal - if a place gives you free wi-fi, you do them the courtesy of buying coffee and food. If you can't afford to do that go find somewhere else to work such as libraries. Relearn the trick of preparing materials offline so that when you do go online with that single cup of coffee, you can get that information uploaded/uploaded/sent etc ...

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Portable printers ...

Following on from my post about travels with the Ookygoo, I thought I'd research portable printers.

Basically, it's a don't go there message. There's two choices out there, the HP H470 and the Canon Pixma iP100. Both are undoubtedly fine printers but both come in at a little over 2kg, and A$300+.

Fine for a field or research trip where you know you'll need to do some printing but not for a general trip where all you want to do is print a few boarding passes and booking dockets. Just not cost effective. So my business proposition is to resurrect my pdf printing model as a paid for commercial service where you can take your documents along in pdf format on a thumb drive and print them, just the same way photographic shops let you print jpeg's from thumb drive or sd cards ...

asturian footnote ...

When we were in Luarca one this I noticed was that whenever I said 'Gracias' in my bad Castilian Spanish - sounding something like 'grathiaaths' they said 'grasiAAS' back to me with the emphasis very much on the last syllable.

I was talking about my vacation trip to some of my team, and mentioned this little peculiarity. One of my team, who is married to a Uruguayan, immediately said 'Oh they say it like that in Montevideo'.

Which is interesting given the migration from Asturias to Argentina and Uruguay in the nineteenth century - I'd always thought the lispless pronounciation (eg sinco not thinco for cinco) in Argentina and Chile an older form left over from the eighteenth century.

(My Spanish can't be that bad - I managed to confuse at least one waiter while ordering some beers and some raciones badly enough with my accent that he started speaking to me in warp factor 9 Spanish - obviously my Spanish was good enough to convince him that I was from somewhere in the diaspora. And waiters are a good choice - they get to hear a lot of accents and are usually pretty good at guessing who needs to be spoken to slowly and who needs to be spoken to in English ...)

Tuesday, 4 August 2009 is (probably) gone

For years now, seven, eight?, I've had a mail account on, originally because they were fairly unique in offering both free web based access and pop access (for those of you with short memories, it's only recently hotmail let you have pop access), which mean you could have an sccount you could send and receive test emails from, and various other bits of testing including testing mail clients.

It's been useful and so I've kept using it on and off. One thing that was very useful was the fact that the webclient they used was Squirrelmail which has the merits of being written in php, being fairly sparse, and guaranteed to work in almost any browser.

And its gone. Since Jun21 my gmail has been able to poll their server to collect email and attempts to login to the web interface have similarly failed. If you google for macmail, you'll see a scad of bulletin board messages from people reporting the same experience, and since it'd been over six weeks it looks pretty final.

So I'm guessing they're gone for good.

I have this fantasy of their dead servers sitting in a rack in a hosting company somwhere, abandoned and gathering dust as someone tries to work out what if anything to do about them ...

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Travelling with the Ookygoo

One of the undoubted successes of our trip overseas was the ookygoo, or rather more prosaically our Eee PC 701SD.

Previously, while I'd taken a computer on conference trips we'd never bothered to on our own trips but this time we did.

The Eee was invaluable for checking email, museum websites for opening times, airline company websites for flight changs and confirmations, and online banking to track expenditure and move money about.

All of this proved how much of life is lived online these days, and how dependent we are on the internet. Throw in a skype client for long distance calls and some basic photo manager software and we were sold. The inbuilt sd-card reader and hence the ability to back up the sd cards from the cameras was a lifesaver when we got back to Canberra and found one of the cards was corrupt, as was the intelligent auto mounting of dos format thumb drives.

Our travel kit consisted of

  • Eee PC 701SD - no moving parts
  • Generic travel mouse - mine was a conference giveaway from Echo360
  • $20 pair of headphones for Skype
  • $4 Australian 4-way power board
  • 2m ethernet cable
  • European 2 pin (France and Spain) plug adapter
  • UK 3 pin (England, Scotland and Singapore) plug adapter

Taking the $4 powerboard mean we could recharge cameras. cell phones and the Eee all at the same time. In retrospect we should have added a couple of thumb drives for backup to the travel kit and will do so next time.

I found the Eee keyboard fine for typing on, but J found it a bit cramped. If we'd been planning on doing any serious writing we might have bought one of these rollup full size keyboards as well.

Of course all of this technology requires connectivity. Everywhere we stayed in Europe, be it hotels, motels or rented apartments, with the exception of the York Novotel and the airport hotel in Paris, provided free wifi. (The Novotel had an Orange hotspot which meant buying 2h of time for EUR10 resuable at any Orange hotspot. I'd expected to do this in Paris CDG but the gods were against me, and incredibly the Millenium at Paris CDG didn't, although every other hotel at the airport did).

In Luarca, the hotel's wifi crashed but I found a cafe with free wifi in return for a cup of coffee. In fact we also found a couple of servos on the freeway across Asturias doing the same thing. Just sit in the coffee shop, sip and connect.

In Singapore we stayed at the Copthorne King's (also part of the Millenium group) and it must have been the only hotel in Singapore without wifi, although you could pay, and I did, for a wired connection at a fairly extortionate price to check and confirm flights.

Free airport wifi was a bit of a joke. All I could get in Sydney was paid for hotspot access, CDG and Biarritz were Orange, and I didn't try Edinburgh, Luton or Stansted. Singapore had free wifi but you had to line up and get a temporary account (Hello, I just want to check my email and I have to line up and fill in forms?),


Very few. One time the Eee didn't shut down properly and I ended up having to pull the battery to get it to power off fully. Other than that the major frustration was printing things. Now that everything in the travel world has become self service and web based airlines expect you to print your own boarding passes with barcodes. This is fine at home but not when you're travelling. Taking a really small portable bubblejet printer with you to do this seems overkill, not to mention the extra weight that implies, and possible security implications of printer ink cartridges in your hand luggage.

In fact all the airline check in people we dealt with were fine when we explained the problem but it was still a hassle.

Weight was the other problem, and it's part of the digital lifestyle. I might have a lightweight netbook and small compact camera, but the chargers double the weight. Throw in a mobile phone charger (and I took my 5 year old basic Nokia with me - small, half the size of an iPhone, makes and receives calls anywhere there's a GSM service, and with Skype and a netbook what more do you need?) and you're lugging over a kilo in chargers and batteries.

Other than that it was fine. No problems with airport security and no performance problems to speak of. Like the $83 home machine I built out of bits and the old ppc imac running ubuntu one really does have to ask how much computing power does one really need for a satisfactory user experience?

Saturday, 1 August 2009

How we spent the last six weeks ...


We went travelling in Europe, and had a damn good time doing so. Basically we went to France and Spain for a holiday, Scotland and London to see family, and had a few days in Singapore on the way back to unwind.

Getting there

We flew Singapore Air. Due to the GFC they changed our flights. Our original plan had been to fly to Singapore on the evening, catch some sleep in the transit hotel at the airport, and then get the midday flight to Paris, stay in a hotel at the airport and then go to our rented apartment the next day. Didn't quite work like that.

Singapore Air cancelled the midday flight and put us on the evening flight in an A380 super jumbo. This meant we ended up having most of the day in Singapore and then arriving in Paris at around six in the morning the day we were supposed to check in to our apartment.

Making a virtue of the event, we bought Singapore transit system EZlink cards - basically rechargeable smart cards similar to London's OysterCards - and went into the city, window shopped, ate lunch in a food court on the top of the Raffles Plaza shopping centre where we were both amused by a stall offering 'Pig Organ Soup', ie Asian style noodle soups featuring pig innards in various guises, and then out to Pasir Ris to look at the mangrove forest park and paddle in the ocean before going back to the airport to check in, eat possibly one of the best beef rendangs ever and fly to Paris.


We stayed in an apartment on the Rue Maitre Albert, between Place Maubert and the Seine within a stone's throw of both the Sorbonne and Notre Dame. The apartment might have generously been described as cramped but for eight days it was fun. Great location in a sixteenth century building, free internet, cable tv and local phone calls, dishwasher and washing machine. What more could you want?

Add the great bakery on Place Maubert with baguettes made from organic stone ground flour, the Place Maubert market three times a week, metro, mini markets and a cash machine on the corner opposite a really good vietnamese restaurant and we were in heaven.

What did we do?

Relaxed, ate, shopped and visited museums. We'd bought a deal from la conceirgerie for a five day museum card and five days metro travel. We probably just about broke even on the museum card, and being able to side step the queues of the fat and waddling, was a plus worth paying for but I wouldn't bother with the metro cards again. For the use we made of them, a couple of carnets would have been more use and more flexible, not to mention cheaper.


The Louvre - first time for J, first time for me in 30 years. We'd tried to visit in 2001 and been stymied by a museum workers strike and in 2006 where we stuffed up and tried to visit on a Tuesday when it was closed. This time we got there ten minutes after it opened and had the place (almost) to ourselves. The tour groups didn't arive until after 10.00 and this gave us a chance to admire the Italian Renaissance painters in peace. I especially liked the secular portaits of the various hard men who goverened the city states, and the edgy harried look of some of the bankers, and was irresistibly reminded of some of Berlusconi's henchmen.

Also the Roman and Greek sculpture. What we should have spent more time on, and we meant to go back to do this and never did was the material from Syria, Palmyra and Parthia.

Quai Branly - since I once worked for AIATSIS doing digital preservation I really wanted to see this, and was disappointed. An incoherent collection based seemingly on the notion that less developed cultures liked producing figurative art with large penises.

Musee d'Orsay - personally I'm not one for art nouveau, but J as an ex fine art student loves the stuff, and even I have to reluctantly admit the collection was pretty stunning. Was partuclarly amused at the gaggle of elderly male Japanese tourists fascinatedly photographing Courbert's 'Origine du monde'.

Versailles - overblown, overcrowded, stuffy and smelly. Glad we've been but I wouldn't go again. If what you want is overblown architecture the Opera house is even more vulgar and over the top.

Musee du Moyen age - nice little collection and worth it for the original Roman bath house - better than any I've seen in Turkey and Greece and gives a wonderful sensation of what a bath house might have been like inside.

Things we might have done but didn't - Musee d'archaeologie nationale at St Germain en Laye - we'd planned to go and look at the Merovingian stuff but never quite got organised, and the Musee Pablo Picasso. Next time perhaps.

Then we were done - off to Monpazier a journey that ws not without its dramas but hey, that's the fun of travelling


One of the bastide towns originally founded by the English in the 1200's when they were in Gascony to provide a fortified settlement to secure the land against incursions of the French. Not unlike some of the villages in Scotland and England, and other settlements through the ages, with a fortified settlement built round a market square.

Monpazier is just one of many in the area, Molieres is quieter and a less tidied up example and just up the road from Monpazier.

Getting there

We drove. Picked up a hire car from Europcar in Orly where a singularly stupid girl buggered up and then lost our booking. When she eventually managed to recover things I was so exasperated with the whole process that when she offered us a Renault BeBop - basically a rather upmarket van with seats, sort of a fancy funky Kangoo, with only 72km on the clock I said yes despite having previously booked a rather more sensible Clio.

Anyway, bags in the back and then we were off, only to discover when we stopped for lunch that the locks didn't work - neither with the bipper or the key. Called Europcar to complain, and after waiting for someone from the service department to call me back, agreed that we would drive it to Chinon where we were staying that night and take it to the Europcar concession where they would swap it.

Duly drove to Chinon and asked the hotel to find us the number of Europcar in Chinon. The guy behind the desk was the proprietor and was really helpful. He couldn't find Europcar in the phone book, but called the local tourism office who told him the number. Called them, only to find that they didn't do Europcar anymore and had given up the franchise at the start of the year. The nearest one was in Saumur. The guy called the Saumur people, confirmed that they were open and when they opened for business the next day.

After that I called Europcar again, explained that we were taking the car to Saumur as there was no franchise in Chinon anymore. This met with incredulity and then the suggestion that we backtrack to Tours that evening as it was a bigger branch. At this point I nearly lost it, but told them firmly that they had caused the problem and I was not spending my evening driving back down a tollway to find a Europcar branch.

Later, I got a call from someone more senior in Europcar agreeing we could go to Saumur and of course they would replace the car.

Chinon was a lovely beautiful tawny limestone town sprawled down the hill from the castle. Dinner in the square and all was right again with the world.

The next day we drove to Saumur, and apart from driving round an industrial estate three time till we found the franchise everything was fine. The people knew about it, they had a Clio waiting, a couple of signatures and we were away.

We stopped off at Fontevraud to see the tombs of the Plantagent kings. I'd remembered the abbey from 15 years ago as charming and slightly tatty, but they'd had the restorers in and had somehow lost the atmospherics with the church and tombs seeming a bit sterile. History is better with a bit of grime.

And then we were off zipping across the countryside past stalls selling melons to Bergerac where we stopped off at Carrefour to top up with supplies for dinner and resisted the 'produits anglaises' stocked for tourists - basically marmite and worcester sauce.

Then on to Monpazier.

Beaumont, the town before Monpazier was working up to being en fete for their annual festival, with the entire town centre covered with strings of different coloured plastic bags tied into rosettes - we nicknamed Febrile, the Beaumont fete, 'la fete des sacs plastiques'.

And what did we do in Monpazier?

Relaxed. Read books, took photographs. Ate well and enjoyed ourselves. Monpazier itself was working itself up to Bastille day and its own festival and offered pleasures such as listening to the choir practicing in the evening and the weekly market.

Truly relaxing. Stayed in a house in the middle of the town. So relaxing one could imagine staying in Monpazier for a very long time and not doing very much.


However we were only in Monpazier for a week and then off, via an overnight stop in Hendaye to Luarca in Asturias. To this day I don't know why we chose Luarca, but we did. And didn't regret it.

Luarca is basically where the freeway to A Corunna gives up and is a pleasant dishevelled town at the bottom of steep cliffs based round a bay with a fishing port. Getting there involved a drive along the freeway through the Basque country (confusing bilingual signs that sometimes missed out one language) and Cantabria where we managed to miss a freeway exit and ended up having an informal tour of the promenade in Santander - and damned nice it looked, if we could have found somewhere to park we'd have had a coffee - before finding our way back to the freeway.

Parking in Luarca was anarchic, the town had a faded grandeur, and was very much unreconstructed Spain, most definitely the Principado de Asturias. That said the tourist office were incredibly helpful about recommending good walks, including one on the coast at Playa Barryo which brought us unexpectedly out on a beach full of jolly naked Spaniards sunbaking and chucking frisbees around.

The other walks were in the Picos, somewhere I've been meaning to go for years. To be honest we only sampled the Picos by doing some of the tourist walks into the Picos. Now that we've seen them we want to go back and walk more seriously.

Food was unreconstructed as well - Fabada de Asturias - Asturian bean stew with sausage, black pudding and pork, tuna to die for, and bacalao made with fresh melt in the mouth cod. Interestingly a lot of the locals were drinking local cloudy Asturian cider which was sold by the bottle and meant to be shared over an afternoon, or beer - very little wine.

Asturias and Luarca reminded me of the west of Cornwall in England, unreconstructed and ever so slightly feral.

Sometime we'll go back and explore the west of Asturias and perhaps Galicia properly. Should've bought an Asturian flag t-shirt to add to the collection.

(Incidentally a few days later in England we opened the Guardian to find an article praising Luarca as a place to go).

Then it was back to Biarritz to hand the car back and get a Ryanair flight to London. Ryanair must be the world's least loved airline, with their hidden charges, odd rules and quite frankly dirty aircraft, but somehow they've persuaded people they're cheap, but I have a suspicion that if we totted up what it cost us we'd have been cheaper flying with someone else or taking the train. Our other two short haul flights on the trip were with EasyJet and they were just so much better and much more transparent on costs.


We flew to London to drive to York to go to dinner at Melton's as it was almost our wedding anniversary and had been J's birthday a couple of days previously, and when we lived in York we always went to Melton's for J's birthday. Completely mad but a fun thing to do even if it meant lugging posh clothes around for this single event.

On the way there we stayed in Stamford at a country style hotel that was definitely a bit Charles and Jeremy but nice all the same. As we got there it began to rain and for a moment I felt nostalgic for the wet damp greeness of summer in England. (The next day on our way to York the weather decided to emulate Ragnorok and banished any such thoughts)

York was wierd. Lived there for seventeen years, knew it really well and came back to a place that had changed subtly.But then that's life. Had a drink with Arthur, went to Melton's, and then the next day we were off to Scotland to see my dad, 92 and still going strong.

Then it was back to London for more family things, J's family this time, and a side trip to the V&A which I found frankly disappointing, even though the ironwork collection was fascinating.

Singapore (take2)

And then we were off to Singapore for a few days as a stop over on our way home to beat the worst of the jet lag.

I've always found Singapore fascinating, partly because it looms fairly large in our family history with both my dad and his brother having worked there during colonial times. Slightly odd, but you go to a place you've only ever heard about and there you see the street names people have talked about and road signs to places that you remembered people telling stories about.

So we stayed at the Copthorne King's, walked about, rode the MRT, ate in hawker's markets as well as some excellent if expensive restaurants on Clarke Quay (one night we tried eating on Boat Quay and the people tried to rip us off - we complained to the Singapore Tourist Board about that. I'd avoid Boat Quay unless you're feeling assertive) and one day went out to Bukit Timah - the only bit of near wilderness in Singapore - for a hot buggering sweaty sticky walk to the top - take a spare t-shirt if you don't want to smell like a rancid baboon on the bus back, and another day we went to the Asian Civilisations Museumat the Empress Building. (The ACM is in two buildings a couple of blocks apart, with the Empress Building in the government district at the end of Cavenagh Bridge and just round the corner from Raffles' statue.)

And it's fascinating. Explains the history of south east asia really well with material from Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Borneo, Malaysia, Vietnam, the role of the monsoons, the trade routes, and the spread of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, and why you got coastal trading settlements but tribal peoples in the interior because the terrain was so inhospitable. (And incidentally why you would expect Roman pottery in Bali, traded on down the trade routes from Pondicherry)

And other little things, like how they had used western rescue archaeology techniques to uncover the remains of Chinese trading settlements and that Singapore had had a history before it was known as Singapore. All in all a salutary reminder that there is more to the last 2,000 years than Rome, Byzantium, the Medieval period, the Reformation and the age of Exploration. Other places have had an equally complex history, and one that should perhaps be better known.

And that was that. Back to Sydney, back to Canberra.