Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Land Down Under: The Blue Mountains

Looking at the Blue Mountains
Panorama of Blue Mountains and 3 Sisters
The Blue Mountains are about 2 hours west of Sydney. You can get there by rail or car. The Blue "Mountains" aren't really mountains at all, but instead a high plateau in a temperate rain forest with large canyons. The weather is cooler than in Sydney and it can change quickly. On the day I visited, it rained, there was fog and there was bright sun. The Blue Mountains derive their name from the ever-present blue haze that is caused by light striking the droplets of eucalyptus oil that evaporates from the leaves.

Three Sisters
A popular attraction in the Blue Mountains is the rock formation known as the Three Sisters. Aboriginal legend (there is some controversy regarding this legend, see link) has it that three young sisters had fallen in love with three brothers from a neighboring tribe. However, tribal law forbade them to marry. Unhappy with the law, the brothers captured the sisters resulting in a tribal war. To protect the sisters from harm, a witch doctor turned the sisters into stone. The doctor intended to reverse his spell when the war was over; however, he was killed in battle. As only he could return the sisters to human form, the sisters had to remain as stone. Yet, another example of love gone awry.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Land Down Under: Sydney

Sidney Harbor overlooking the Opera House
Sydney is a beautiful City. With its scenic and historic waterfront and stunning beaches, it's no wonder many people think Sydney is one of the world's most beautiful cities. I have to agree. However, high prices and the lack of reasonable Internet access is a challenge. 

View from Hotel: Sydney Harbor
Sydney has the worst public Internet access I've ever encountered. In five days of wandering about the city, I found one cafe with free Wifi and a Starbucks that had one hour of Wifi for $3.00, which turned out to be the best deal around. Even the public library, which was suppose to have free Internet, turned out to have limited accessibility. 

The Internet has become such a central part of our life that this lack of easy, affordable access is an impediment to everything. I couldn't look up train/bus/tour schedules, access my e-mail or even find the location of Wifi hotspots. (At this posting, I am in Melbourne.) Even something as simple as performing early airline check-in is impossible to do without the Internet. Recommendation:  get a Pocket Wifi. It's convenient, relatively inexpensive and hassle free. 

At Manly Beach
Unidentified Birds at Hyde Park
Nevertheless, Sydney is fascinating. I am struck by the varied plant and bird species that I have encountered in Australia and the strong sun. (It can be quite uncomfortable at times.) The trip by ferry to Manly Beach was a high point, but my quick visit to Bondi Beach was a bust. If you're under 25, have a great body, and into the "Scene," then head to Bondi. If not, there are plenty of other beaches to explore.   

Finally, traveling by air in Australia is a joy.  It's fast and not cumbersome: there is no liquids ban, no requirement to remove shoes while going through security, and no pat downs! It's the way air travel in the USA use to be. The TSA could learn something from Australian security procedures. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fernando Express

Schlager is cheesy sentimental music that is often played in beer gardens and pubs throughout Germany. Here is an example of Schlager from Fernando Express. I wonder why I selected this band.

November Picks and Pans

Music Pick

"Bitter Pill," by Mt. Desolation:  I love the lyrics!  I hope to see more from this band.

Movie Picks

I Capture the Castle:  A bittersweet movie that takes place between the World Wars. We can't control who we love and who loves us. Recommended for the romantic at heart. 

Jar City:  Based on the novel by Arnaldur Indrioason, this movie involves the murder of an old man as set against the stark beauty of Iceland. If you haven't read this well-paced and intriguing book, the movie maybe difficult to follow. 

Movie Pan

Happy-Go-Lucky:  Another over rated film by Mike Leigh. The lead character, Poppy Cross, played by the talented Sally Hawkins is so annoying that you want to kill her five minutes into the film. Mike Leigh just can't control his actors. However, I did like the hilarious scenes involving the Flamenco teacher.

Book Pick

"Just Kids," by Patti Smith:  On Tuesday, Ms. Smith won the National Book Award for nonfiction. The book chronicles her friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.  I loved this book!!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Don't Touch My Junk!

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) stated a few days ago that it was annoyed with the traveling public for making such a fuss about its new security regulations that include a full body scan or "enhanced pat-down" for those travelers who "opt out" of the X-ray scan.

Last week, John Tyner surreptitiously recorded his run-in with the TSA and posted it online. Mr. Tyner chose not to subject himself to the radiation from the X-ray machine and was then taken aside for the enhanced pat-down.The TSA agent explained to him how the "groin check" would be executed.  It was then, according to the TSA, that Mr. Tyner "accosted" the poor TSA agent by saying the immortal words, "If you touch my junk, I'm gonna have you arrested." People looking on, cheered Mr. Tyner as he was led away by the TSA agent.

Later, the TSA supervisor told Mr. Tyner that if he was uncomfortable with the security requirements, he didn't "have to fly today."  Mr. Tyner asked how "sexual assault" can be made a condition of flying.  After a bit of back and forth, the TSA agent stated: "By buying your ticket you gave up a lot of rights." The TSA then announced that it would pursue charges against Mr. Tyner and seek a $11,000 fine for his leaving the airport without allowing his "junk" to be inspected.  Such a blatant attempt by the TSA to intimidate the public hardly inspires confidence in an agency responsible for safeguarding our safety and freedoms

Do we really want to give up "a lot of rights" when we travel? Especially when the TSA makes it clear it will use its authority to punish those who inconvenience or embarrass it. It appears that the TSA wants to make the pat-down procedure so unpleasant that fliers will choose the the X-ray scanners instead. (The government insists the level of radiation is harmless; however, the pilot and flight attendant unions are seeking an exemption from the scanning process because of the cumulative affects of the X-rays and unnecessary groping.)  

If you are concerned about this issue, contact your elected representatives and voice your concerns like I did.

Dear Senators Snow and Collins: 
This is my first letter to one of my elected representative.  As a frequent airline traveler, I have become increasingly concerned by the security measures imposed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I have submitted to random pat-downs by TSA agents, learned to remove my shoes before entering an airport security zone (a requirement imposed after one airline passenger unsuccessfully attempted to ignite his shoes), and coped with the liquids ban (another requirement imposed after one passenger unsuccessfully tried to construct a bomb).
Now, I’m being asked to submit to an intrusive and possibly harmful X-ray machine or have an enhanced (groping) pat-down. Moreover, it appears that the TSA wants to limit my choices even further by making it unpleasant for people who “opt out” of the scanning machine process and request the enhanced pat-down.
I have read a number of articles concerning the new TSA procedures, and I am completely convinced they are ineffective and unwarranted. I am not looking forward to my next airline trip this Sunday. I am also concerned with the price tag associated with the new scanning devices. This seems to be another case of “security theater,” countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actual security.
I am appalled by the TSA and our elected representatives who have limited our right to privacy and the protections afforded us against unreasonable search and seizure, all in the name of security.
I recognize the need to combat terrorism; but, when is enough, a enough?  Other countries, most notably Israel, have excellent security procedures in place without the need to compromise privacy or dignity. There must be another way to safeguard our safety without compromising our freedoms. I think it’s time to reexamine the new TSA procedures. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's Worth Seeing "Starting Over" Again

After hearing about the death of Jill Clayburgh last week, I decided to see Starting Over again. What a difference 30 years or so makes! I think I last saw the movie in 1980. I couldn't remember it very well (though I do distinctly remember Burt Reynolds taking the Polaroids of Jill Clayburgh in the shower and Candice Bergen singing). 

I liked the movie back then, but I watched it last night with totally different eyes. It's amazing how I can now identify with the Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh characters: flawed but sympathetic people navigating the seas of romance.

Back then I thought Reynold's antics were charming, now I see them as a way to cope with the anguish of being abandoned.  I'm sure I thought Clayburgh's character was strange and annoying, now I see her as vulnerable and true.

This is a very good movie with numerous scenes that are funny and touching. In an industry flooded with banal romantic-comedies, this movie still holds up. Jill Clayburgh is wonderful. She effectively creates a tender, quirky and realistic character; one who is slightly damaged and whom the audience can root for. Candice Bergen steals the show as a tone deaf character who sings, but has no idea how wretched she is. And then there is Burt Reynolds. In my opinion, this is his best performance. It's an understated performance that hits the mark in every scene. This is a slow paced film: no action, no dazzling special effects, and no 20-something gorgeous looking actors. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Useful Dog Tricks performed by Jesse

This is the kind of dog I want:  a household member who can help around the house!  I wonder if he can rake up leaves?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hidden Music Secret in Portland

One of the least known cultural activities in Portland is the Noonday Concert Series, presented at 12:15 p.m. every Thursday at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church near Monument Square. The concerts are free and generally last about 45 minutes. They run from the beginning of October to the end of April. It's a great way to spend a lunch hour.

The Portland Concert Series is in its 15th year, and the weekly program can be anything from classic piano sonatas to modern jazz or Broadway pops. If you're expecting amateur performances, think again. The musicians are all seasoned professionals and the quality of their work truly first rate!

When I worked in Sacramento California, I use to attend a similar concert series held at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, across the street from the California State Capitol Building. Although the Sacramento concerts took place in a less intimate venue, they did run year round and included free popcorn! The Sacramento concerts also offered dance and opera performances. In any case, give the Noonday Concerts a try. You'll be surprised to learn that some things in life are still free. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Images of Fall

Mt. Vernon Maine
Fore River Sanctuary, Portland Maine
Maine in the Fall is really beautiful. It can be cold, windy, and wet; but, when the sun is out, it is truly amazing.

Here are some pictures taken on recent hikes in and around Southern Maine. I hope they convey our Autumn days.

I sometimes miss the warm weather of California and the excitement of Berlin, but Maine does have its own unique charm, notwithstanding those bleak and depressing Winter days that will be with us soon.     

BTW:  Check out this funny music video concerning our new Governor-Elect Paul LePage
My Neighborhood, West End, Portland Maine

You can also check out my new Facebook page.  

Fore River Sanctuary, Portland Maine

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A New Day in the USA

The election is over! No big surprises. The Republicans take control of the House and the Democrats now have a slim majority in the Senate.

As I was listening to the news this morning, I almost choked on my toast when I heard a sound bite from Rep. John Boehner. After months of hearing the Republicans chant their anti-Obama rhetoric, their message now seems to have changed. Rep. Boehner, set to become the new Speaker of the House, said last night: "While our new majority will serve as your voice in the people's House, we must remember it's the President who sets the agenda for our government." Did I hear that correctly? The Republicans are now deferring to the President after months of demonizing him and blaming him for everything that's wrong with the country.  What's up with this?

For the last two years, with an eye on the midterm elections and the election in 2012, Rep. Boehner and his "just say no" party have refused to put forward a clear legislative program themselves, and have blocked President Obama's attempts at compromise and legislation. They have complained bitterly about the Democratically controlled Congress and have promised swift action if a Republican majority was elected. 

Yet, now that Rep. Boehner is in a leadership position, he doesn't seem to want it. The Republicans will control the House but with control comes responsibility and accountability. So the Republican message has changed. Their new spin:  it's the President who sets the agenda, not the House, i.e. if something goes wrong, blame him. 

As to the Republican agenda, it continues to be "cutting spending," "reducing government," and "safeguarding America's traditional values." Politically, Rep. Boehner's deference to the President and the vague Republican agenda makes sense. Voters are angry and not interested in specifics. They want the economy fixed quickly and unemployment reduced.

However, there is no magic pill to take that will solve the nation's economic woes before the next election. Thus, under these circumstances, the worst place to be, from an electoral standpoint, is in power. So the Republicans will claim that solving the nation's problems rest with the President since he sets the agenda. Smart move by the Republicans. 

  • Maine has elected its first Franco-American Governor, Paul LePage. Mr. LePage, a Tea Party candidate, favors the teaching of creationism in the schools, abolition of Social Security, and a return to "traditional values" (homophobia, gender inequality, etc.). What can I say, I'm at a loss for words. Pardon my french, but je n'aime pas Paul LePage. Il est un homme stupide et fou. Il est hors de contact avec la réalité.
  • Iowa voters ousted their State Supreme Court Justices who voted in favor of same-sex marriage. Originally, federal and state court judges were appointed for life. The reasoning for lifetime appointments was to insulate the third branch of government from political partisanship. Our Constitutional framers wanted judges to make decisions based on the Constitution, not on the political whims of the electorate. However, over time, states changed their laws and began to elect their judges. The federal system still has judges appointed for life. I applaud those courageous Iowa judges who faithfully interpreted the Constitution and voted for marriage equality. They risked their jobs, but I think history will look favorably on their decision.