ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms


Food and Photos22 Mar 2009

Mmmm, fresh homemade bread.

News and Photos31 Dec 2008

In lieu of something substantial, here’s a quick semi-illustrated smattering of my last twelve months’ activities.

What I look like these days
(Christmas 2008)

Favorite Blog Entries of 2008

Most Phallic Photograph
(Atlas rocket at the Museum of Science and Technology)

Best trip taken in 2008: China.

Favorite books read this year

  • Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
    I first became aware of Alberto Manguel when he gave his fantastic Massey Lectures in 2007. This book is a book about books, and a joy for any book-worm like me.

  • Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
    I’ve been on a bit of a Hemingway kick of late. I think this is my favorite. John McCain’s favorite novel is “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, which is also pretty good.

  • Ian M. Banks, The Aglebriast
    I like Science Fiction best when it makes my eyes go wide.

  • Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
    I didn’t get this book at first, but about half way through something clicked and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a strange history a fictitious town called Macondo, where the whole of human history seems to play out.

  • Neal Stephenson, Anathem (even if the end was a bit lame)
    This is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed but hesitate to recommend. It seemed to have been crafted precisely for me, and I know my tastes skew a little eccentric. It’s 900 pages long, has monasteries full of mathematicians, and the entire thing is one big game of hide and seek with the history of western philosophy.

Nerdiest Photo of 2008

Video Game Created: The Trials of Soscarides
(Windows and Mac; have you played it yet?)

Most Dramatic Ottawa Sunset

That’s all for 2008. Happy New Year!

News and Photos13 Dec 2008

On my flight to China in June I happened to see two pretty mountains from the window of the plane. I snapped some pictures, and figured I’d probably never know what I was looking at. After all, I was only moderately sure that we were over Russia at the time…

Well, tonight, after about an hour of playing with Google Earth, I managed to track them down. Both are volcanoes on the Kamchatka peninsula, which is the pointy bit of Russia that divides the Bering Sea from the Sea of Okhostka (if you ever played “Risk”, Kamchatka was where you massed your armies before invading Alaska). Here are my original photos:

Mount Kronotsky

Krasheninnikov Volcano

And here’s the NASA image that proved I was looking at the right thing:

North is at bottom right. You can see the tall peak, the triangular lake, the double crater, and the nearby ocean, which is basically what I had to go on. Here’s the link to see it on google maps, and here are the wikipedia entries. I’m quite pleased with myself for managing to turn this information up.

Judging by the photos I looked at while conducting my search, Kamchatka is a very beautiful bit of country.

Food and Photos and Travel05 Jul 2008

It’s not exactly a secret that “Chinese food” as often experienced in North America (egg rolls, chicken balls, fried rice, fortune cookies, etc.) is not something a typical Chinese person would be familiar with. Finding out exactly where and how this particular deep-fried cuisine originated would probably make for a fun project, but it isn’t my project today. I’m going to talk about the food I ate while I was in China. Thanks to Shengrong’s cooking and the occasional trip to a more authentic Chinese restaurant (they exist), I didn’t find the food to be totally outlandish, but there were a few strange bumps in the culinary road.

In Beijing, we stayed on the campus of the China University of Geosciences, and ate a few of our meals at one of the University restaurants, “”. One of my favorite things there were battered chicken wings heavily spiced with cumin. Shengrong ordered those on our first day since they’re more like the kind of food I’m used to. That was really the only meal in which I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to manage the food without any trouble, as I was really tired and jetlegged at the time. After that I ate everything happily, and when I got back to Canada I found my own cooking kind of boring for the first few days. Unsurprisingly, I got a lot better at handling chopsticks.

At the entrance of “Local Food” – it was pretty large and usually full of diners.

In a nice room of the restaurant where we ate lunch a few times, overlooking the university quad.

Naturally, we had to try Beijing Duck during our stay in Beijing. We ate it in “Quan ju de”, the most famous Beijing Duck restaurant, just off Tian’anmen Square. The duck is cooked with a crispy outside and then cut into small slices. You mix a few slices with leek, cucumber and a special sauce and roll them in thin pastries, using your chopsticks. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I really liked the end result.

Some ducks waiting to be Beijing’d.

Shengrong ordering duck.

Other highlights from Beijing included a surprisingly good (and cheap) meal of chicken and black bean procured very late at night from a small student-frequented spot on campus, and dumplings at the great wall.

We had several nice meals in Wuhan, both at restaurants and as cooked by Shengrong’s mom. Shengrong and I cooked a few dishes on our last night there, using some spices we brought from home. I’m not sure how well they went over, but everyone in the family had the good grace to eat them and smile…

The Chinese answer to the question of “what shall we eat?” is often different from ours. For example: when we’d stop for ice cream, Shengrong would select a mung bean flavored popsicle. I wish I’d taken a picture – they were such a delightful shade of green. I tried one and was nonplussed. The American tourists whom Shengrong helped order snacks at the Beijing museum weren’t too keen on the mung bean flavor either. Can’t say I blame them.
Another cultural quirk that I wasn’t really expecting is that nobody in China drinks anything cold. And heaven forbid you should want a cool glass of water… the best you’re likely to do is a cup of hot tea minus the tea. Even the bottled water would be on a shelf and not in a cooler. As someone drinks a lot of water in a typical day, this took some getting used to.

The table at a place where we ate in Wuhan. There are a few differences between the Chinese restaurant experience and the one we have here. For starters, larger restaurants are usually better quality: the concept of a tiny restaurant with a limited menu and delicious food doesn’t really exist there. People tend to dine out in large groups (the bigger the crowd, the more dishes you can order, after all) and often eat in private rooms. Chinese place-settings are different from what a Westerner would expect: one receives chopsticks (naturally), a spoon, a small plate on which to put bones and other things you aren’t going to eat, and a small bowl, in which you put your rice and a few morsels from various dishes.

Three dishes from that meal: soft-shelled turtle, squid, pork.

Brother turtle, up close.

I put some thought into what the strangest thing I ate in China was. High on the list was having oatmeal for breakfast. That, in and of itself, is not unusual, but I’d never eaten oatmeal with chopsticks before, which lent the proceedings a kind of surreal air. I liked breakfast in China generally, and enjoyed the dumplings and the sticky rice with mushrooms and tofu and egg, which is a typical Wuhan breakfast dish.

But no, the strangest thing I ate in China was probably this:

It’s the ovaries of some kind of special frog, stuffed inside a papaya. Apparently considered a delicacy. I’m not sure how the chef who invented that got his inspiration… How was it? Kind of watery and not strongly flavored.

This isn’t really of anything we ate, but I put it in out of interest since it’s broadly food-related:

It’s a little hard to make out because I was far away, but those guys are dynamiting fish in Wuhan’s east lake. I’d never seen that before. The fish were flying out of the water like popcorn.

And lastly, Chinese Dairy Queen. The prices were ridiculously expensive. 26 yuan will get you a frosty, or 26 servings of rice at any other restaurant. Your choice.

News and Photos01 Jul 2008

More China in a bit, but today is Canada Day! We saw the RCMP musical ride at Parliament Hill.

This is about as Canadian as possible.

The camera actually got a better view than we did. I snapped most of these photos holding the camera at arm’s length over my head and hoping for the best. The crowds were huge.

This one was at the end of the performance when the crowds had thinned a little.

A couple of mounties actually lost their hats during the “charge” maneuver. Presumably that is frowned upon…

After the demonstration, a few of the calmer horses came to visit with the spectators. One expects an RCMP horse to be steady as anything, but we actually saw a few spook from the crowds and from the marching band that passed while they were waiting to begin their show.

Ever the optimist, I took some fireworks photos, even though such things are difficult to do well. We were right down by the river and you can see the reflections in the water.

Happy Canada Day.

Photos and Travel21 Jun 2008

As promised, more on China.

We flew 5 hours to Vancouver and then 11 hours to Beijing, with 4 hours at the Vancouver airport. The international lounge at YVR is the nicest airport terminal I’ve ever been to. It’s like a high-end shopping mall with airplanes parked outside: lots of shops, natural light, even a giant fish tank. One of the terminals at Heathrow has a similar “mall” feel, but isn’t nearly as nice. We heard PA announcements in four languages: English, French, Chinese, Japanese. Most of the flights that weren’t going to the USA were going to Asia, so that makes sense. I was surprised to learn you can get direct polar-route flights from Vancouver to Europe.

When I was a kid flying out to Vancouver to see my grandparents I thought the 5 hour flight was pretty long. On this trip, it was just the warm-up hop. The 11 hour flight to Beijing was surprisingly easy to endure. We tried to sleep a bit, though it was always daylight outside the plane. It was basically “2pm” for half a day… The Boeing 767 had a fancy cabin interior with lighting that gradually changed color. I guess it was simulating sunset and then dawn, perhaps to help with the jetleg. I actually found the 12 hour time adjustment not all that difficult and was sleeping at the proper times within a day of arrival, so maybe it helped?

Our route was fairly northerly and besides the mountains from the last post, I also got some pictures of ice floes.

Beijing’s new capital airport is absolutely gigantic. Built partly to deal with the influx of foreigners for the olympics (and, like a few other olympic landmarks we saw, still under construction at this late date), it’s one of the largest airports in the world. The entire main terminal is a dome with no interior support, making for a lot of open space.

We spent a week in Beijing before heading down to meet Shengrong’s parents in Wuhan. Beijing felt like a very cosmopolitan and modern city. And yes, they have McDonalds. Oddly, the most prevalent western fast food restaurant was KFC.

We saw all of the usual tourist sites, from the forbidden city to the great wall, and did a bit of shopping. I was constantly amazed at the department stores in China. I don’t think we have anything quite like them here: they make Sears look pretty puny. I wish I’d taken some pictures inside one, but I guess I was just too awestruck by my attainment of consumer nirvana. These stores were all over the place in the shopping districts of Beijing and Wuhan, and are have interiors that are bright and clean and ultra-modern looking. A typical floor-plan might be something like this: First floor: expensive things like perfume, jewelry and handbags. Second and third floors: women’s clothing. Fourth floor: men’s clothing. Fifth floor: “sports” clothing for both genders. Sixth floor: electronics. Seventh floor: food court. Each floor is gigantic, and is subdivided according to brand, and each brand’s area had its own staff manning the shelves.

One thing I learned quickly was that in a Chinese store, you don’t pick up the merchandise and carry it to the cash. Rather, you point it out to one of the ubiquitous staff members, who write you a ticket that you take to the cash register. Once you bring back the receipt, you can collect your goods. I encountered loads of small differences like this on the trip: the great thing about overseas travel is that you get to have all sorts of your assumptions about the world smashed.

The Canadian dollar is pretty strong and prices in China are good (and I had Shengrong to haggle for me so we didn’t have to pay the “foreigner price” too often) so we bought a few things. I got a couple paris of shoes, a new shoulder bag, and other odds and ends. But enough about shopping.

The Olympics are coming to town, and it’s a really big deal. Olympic signs and advertisements are everywhere. This count-down clock is on the front of the National Museum at Tiananmen Square (sadly, closed for renovations at present). Yes, I’m wearing a shirt that says “Australia” on it. Just trying to mess with the locals.

These Olympic characters were a common sight.

The national “bird’s nest” stadium appears to still be under construction. Must be a good time to be a builder in Beijing…

We went several times to Tiananmen square. I said in the other post that it is huge, and it really is. It’s the largest city square I’ve ever seen, by far. Think of the biggest city square you know and double it a few times and you’ve probably got the right idea.

Looking across the square at the national museum and its infestation of cranes.

Monument in the middle of the square.

Tiananmen at night.

The gate of Heavenly Peace, at the end of the square before the Forbidden City. Can you find me? There’s a convenient arrow pointed at my head.

I really enjoyed Beijing. I was expecting to feel a lot of culture shock, but I didn’t feel much. Perhaps spending time with a Chinese girl for a couple of years helped in that regard. Also, because Shengrong spoke the language and knew her way around, I didn’t really feel the sense of being cut off from people that sometimes goes along with foreign travel. One thing I didn’t really get a sense of was how many people spoke English. There are lots of English signs in Beijing, English announcements on the busses, etc, but while it is clear that some people know a few words, it was hard to get a sense of the extent of it. The only part of China I really navigated on my own were the airports when heading back to Canada, and that was pretty easy.

Another thing I was expecting to be more of a shock was the food. After the first couple of days I got quite used to it. Nothing ever really upset my stomach, and I got a lot better with chopsticks after using them every meal for two weeks. The only negative effect was that now that I’m home, the food I normally cook for myself seems a bit pedestrian. I’ll talk more about food later on. We ate a few “interesting” things…

Photos and Travel16 Jun 2008

I’ve just come back from China. It was a fantastic two-week trip to Beijing and Wuhan. I’ll relate more about it in subsequent communications; for now, here are some of our photos.

As photographed from the plane on the flight over: a very large mountain in Alaska? Russia? I’m not entirely sure where we were at that point.

Meteor impact crater?

Beijing, at the gate of the Forbidden City.

Detail from the Nine Dragon Screen in the Forbidden City.

Inside the Forbidden City. There is reconstruction work going on, as you can see.

Mao’s tomb, in Tian’anmen square. Tian’anmen is absolutely huge – I don’t think it’s possible to take a photo that does it justice. Of course, as I quickly learned, everything in China is huge…

Even the ducks! Okay, not really. This is outside a restaurant just off Tian’anmen where we ate Beijing Duck. Which I must say I really liked.

As if the Forbidden City wasn’t enough, the Emperor also had a posh summer palace with extensive gardens.

Tower of Buddhist Incense, inside the royal gardens.

There were a surprising number of English signs, especially in Beijing. Most were much better translated than this one. Waiter, there’s Shanghai in my soup…

They always talk about “climbing” the great wall. I understand why now: they built the gigantic thing on top of mountains wherever they could.

The view from the Great Wall, looking the other way. China is hosting the Olympics this year, maybe you heard…?

East Lake in Wuhan.

A very large number of turtles at a Buddhist Temple in Wuhan.

Wuhan traffic goes from bad to worse, with the Yangtze river bridge in the background.

Lastly, Wuhan’s famous Yellow Crane Tower – one of the top four towers in all of China.

News and Photos03 May 2008

Every year since the Second World War the Dutch have sent Tulips to Ottawa and Ottawa has had a tulip festival. Allegedly this festival is going on right now, but the “main tulip site” that we visited today didn’t actually have many tulips.

In lieu of pictures of endless tulip fields, I present: typical Ottawa tourist sights.

Our first stop was Parliament hill, which is presently adorned by a long line of red tulips.

When we arrived, it was also adorned by a lot of red Chinese flags, since there was some kind of pro-olympics demonstration going on.

On the way over to the main tulip festival site I snapped a couple photos of the peace tower.

When we arrived at Tulip Festival central, all we found were a bunch of tents full of vendors and and very few actual tulips. We weren’t terribly impressed by this and didn’t actually take any photos. We retreated to the Byward Market and had ice cream instead.

The Americans were also having a Tulip Festival at their embassy but the tulips were surrounded by an electrified fence so no one could go to see them.

Photos03 Feb 2008

Ottawa has a month-long winter festival in February called “Winterlude”. This weekend featured an ice-sculpture contest. We took pictures.

Even the sign was made of ice.

Some of the sculptures were very intricate.

Shen and a giant snowflake.

This one was impressive not least because of the tenuous wrist holding the big heavy sword.

Shen on the hanger deck.

Sadly, his arm was a casualty of global warming.

This one was our favorite.

John Cabot arrived and promptly froze.

News and Photos21 Dec 2007

This Sunday past, Ottawa received a massive dumping of snow, 37 centimeters in all, two cm less than the previous record for accumulation in all of the month of December, and it was only the latest of several storms to so far this year.

There are huge snowbanks along all the streets and getting to work on the bus has been less predictable this week.

During the storm I snapped a couple photos out our living room window, and then took a few more today for comparison. Both sets were taken in the early afternoon. See if you can tell which of these I took during the blizzard.

It was snowing as hard as I’ve seen in a long time. There were times when we couldn’t even see the big brown government complex across the way.

Another update: I’m heading to Nova Scotia on Sunday.

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