Saturday, July 26, 2003

The joy of travel

Sitting in the hostel kitchen in Arles yesterday, I found myself chatting and drinking a little red wine with a young woman from northern California. She was an American on a six month trip travelling around Europe. This in itself is quite unusual (Americans tend to favour shorter trips). However, as the conversation unfolded, I discovered more. She came from far northern California. She had grown up on an organic farm. The discussion got to movies and television, and she said she her knowledge was limited because until two years ago, she had never had a televison. Prior to travelling through the south of France, she had spent three weeks picking lavender (and not being paid for it) a little north, and had organised that through an organisation called World-wide opportunities on organic farms (WWOOOF). She had left her job as the head of the flower department of a natural food store, to come on the trip.

Frankly, WWOOOF seems like the sort of organisation that I would like the 3rd infantry division to take out after it has finished in Iraq, but of course, I didn't say that. And in fact although she sounded like a northern Californian cliche, she wasn't at all. Another Californian walked in, this guy from south of the state. He was also on a six month trip about Europe. He had finished a college degree, and had signed up for six years in an intelligence portfolio in the US Navy. He had decided to see some of the world before his time in the navy, which sounded very reasonable to me. They were two nice people, and they got on like a house on fire, despite coming from seemingly different ideological positions. The conversation went on, and a fourth person joined in, a Slovenian guy who teaches international politics in a university in Slovenia. After things got going for a bit longer, he wanted to know if Australia would ever become a republic. I thus found myself trying to explain the reserve powers of the Australian Governor-General (and ultimately the meaning of the Statute of Westminster) to two Americans and a Slovenian in a hostel in Provence. Fun.

I am now in Marseilles. It's a big city, with the good and bad of that. One of my Samizdata editors (Hi Perry) described the city as "a shithole" when I said I was going there. However, he later conceded that it was perhaps an interesting shithole. And, to be truthful, interesting shitholes are the places I find most interesting to visit. My expectation is that I am going to love the place. (More on that later). Tonight I am going to have my one "treat myself to really good cooking" experience of the trip, and I will sit down somewhere and have a really good bouillabaisse.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Moving down the Rhone

I had a lovely couple of days in Avignon, at least partly due to having unexpectedly arrived in the middle of France's biggest Arts festival. (I'm still amazed I found somewhere to stay). I have now moved down the Rhone a little to Arles, which is most famous as the place where Vincent Van Gogh painted many of his most famous works (and also where he severed his ear). Unsurprisingly, it is a bit of a tourist trap, full of shops selling postcards of paintings mostly by van Gogh but also by other artists. However, most interesting are the Roman ruins, which are quite significant, given the importance of the town. In the first century BC Marseilles took the side of Pompey over Julius Ceasar, and Arles took the side of Ceasar. Ceasar then had Marseilles razed, and Arles became the principal port in that section of the Roman Empire. Arles was therefore the major port for a number of centuries. However, the mouth of the Rhone river silted up, Arles ceased to be a port, and the traffic went back to Marseilles, which is today the second city of France. If the mouth of the Rhone had not silted up, one presumes that Arles would today be a large city, but instead it is only a small (somewhat shabby looking) town containing a large Roman amphitheatre (today used for bullfighting), Roman theatre (still used as a theatre, but in less good repair), and the ruins of baths. Such is the effects of silting up on the importance of cities, in the past at least. I would now write a piece on how the invention of container shipping in the last 50 years has changed all this and this is possibly one of the most important issues with respect to the structure of cities in the last 2000 years, but I don't have time.
However genteel it looks on the surface, Europe is a weird, weird place.

European discount airlines are a fine thing, and thanks to their existence I can fly around Europe for a third of what it cost a decade ago. However, they have certain disadvantages, the most annoying of which is that you have to check in somewhat earlier than is necessary with traditional airlines. However, there are other disadvantages, such that they use airports underneath which are buried fully armed and fueled Nazi fighter aircraft.

Link via William Gibson.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Water infrastructure

I went to see the Pont du Gard (which is not on the five euro note) this morning. Whatever may be said about the Romans, they sure knew how to build aqueducts.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Moving on

I am now in Avignon, the former papal seat, which I like rather more than Montpellier, although internet access here is rather more expensive. (Also, there is the remains of a pont across the Rhone). However, the cathedral here is not quite either St Peters or the Hagia Familiar. I need to learn more about the church's time here. Posting will no doubt be easier and cheaper when I get to Marseilles in a couple of days.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Why does air travel involve standing in so many queues?

I am in Montpellier in the south of France. The place feels like a seaside town. It smells like a seaside town. I am not especially fond of seaside towns, so I need to get inland and see some vineyards and famous Roman aqueducts.
Does this mean I am a neoconservative?

This article by former CIA director James Woolsey on just how America got into this war against fundamentalise Islam, and why and how we have to fight it, is quite interesting. I think he is pretty much spot on on the causes and the nature of the enemy, and certainly America's willigness to suck up to unpleasant people in order to get control of the oil, and unwillingness to stand up and fight back when attacked has been massively counterproductive. Whether the solutions can ever be quite as neat as he hopes is something I am sceptical about. (Certainly though, the "pragmatic" strategy of the oil industry and state department must be considered discredited at this point, and certainly we are in this war for the long haul). On the other hand, he is right to be contemptuous of the " is culturally unsuited to democracy and freedom" argument, which is quite frankly an argument of tyrants, and countered by the many examples he gives of culturally quite different places actually becoming democracies. (He is right about the example of Taiwan being a very interesting and quite inspiring one). And I think the best point he makes in the whole argument is that we won the Cold War by winning the hearts and minds of the people of the communist world. People such as Andrei Sakharov and Vaclav Havel were, in the end, convinced that we were on their side, and ultimately we were. American foreign policy in the Middle East, by propping dubious regimes in return for their oil, has done the precise opposite. The exception is probably in Iran, which is perhaps where much of Latin America was in 1995. The home grown solution has been seen to not work, and the people are desperate for something else. The trouble is that the Arab world seems stuck around the position of Latin America in 1980, with a decade of ghastliness to come. I'd like to hope this can be avoided, but I really doubt it.

Monday, July 21, 2003

More on Argentinian wine

While there are a few Argentinian wines here to try, they still are not available in huge numbers, so I am simply trying all those I can find. My present bottle is A syrah, from Che Vineyards, once again in Mendoza. No, I don't think it is named after that Che. We have a little wine label crap written on the back, which explains nothing.

In my country of Argentina, we say "Che" to greet our friends. Che, ever had a taste of Argentina? When you drink this fruity, smooth, rich Syrah you get a sense of our lifestyle and energy. Understand what Che is all about and enjoy life

Okay, whatever. The sad thing is that although the Syrah cost about the same as each of the two malbecs it isn't nearly as good. It's a fairly ordinary red, and a little rough, rather lacking spiciness of a good Australian shiraz, or a French red from the Rhone. Which is a shame, because although I am not yet convinced that malbec is a noble grape variety, syrah definitely is.

Traditionall (ie prior to about 1800) the three most famous red wine making regions of France were Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast, Burgundy south of Paris, and the Rhone valley, stretching from just south of Lyon to the Mediterranean coast around Marseilles. Wines from the greatest Rhone appelations, Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, Chateauneuf du Pape, were regarded as being amongst the finest wines in Europe. However, in the 19th century the Rhone valley became less fashionable than the other two regions, possibly because of the region's further distance from Paris. The principal grape used in the red wines of this region is syrah. This same grape has been grown in Australia since at least 1830, but in Australia it is known as shiraz. (Australians used to also frequently call it hermitage, but we stopped after signing a wine treaty with the French, as Hermitage is actually a place in the northern Rhone valley, and we promised to stop using French geographical names on our wines). Oddly enough, it may be that the Australian name is historically more accurate, as it seems that the grape variety may have originated in Iran near the town of Shiraz, where, ironically, wine is now illegal. (When the war against fundamentalist Islam is won, I hope one day to be able to have a glass of shiraz in Shiraz. But I digress).

In any event, shiraz was planted in Australia from the 1830s, and became the most widely planted grape for Australian red wine. When Max Schubert in 1951 produced the first vintage of Penfolds Grange Hermitage, which was to become by far the most famous Australian wine, he made it almost entirely out of shiraz.

However, Rhone wines remained less fashionable than Bordeaux and Burgundy wines in France. In the early 1970s, Australian winemakers concluded that they way to make classier wines was to adopt the grape varieties of Bordeaux and Burgundy. For red wines, this meant that they planted a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, the dominant grape of the Medoc region on the left bank of the Gironde river, just downstream from Bordeaux. To find space to plant all this Cabernet Sauvignon, they ripped out a lot of shiraz vines, some of them very old.

Today's winemakers consider this an act of terrible vandalism. Old vines produce lower grape yields than newer ones, and the grapes that do grow have higher sugar levels and can be used to make more intense, fruitier wines. Really old vines can make wine of a quality that younger ones can't, and Australia had a lot of them. And although Cabernet Sauvignon grows extremely well in Australia and makes fine wine (particularly in the Coonawarra region, about half way between Adelaide and Melbourne), the loss of these old vines is a great shame. Because, although it was unfashionable at the time, syrah/shiraz is a truly noble grape and winemakers and consumers in Australia, France, and elsewhere have really come to realise this in the decades since, and its wines have been largely restored to their former reputation. The best wines from the Rhone, and the best shiraz from Australia, are amongst the finest wine that can be had.

However, not this particular Argentinian wine.

And as it happens, due to the miracle of the deregulated European aviation market and the consequent extremely cheap airfares I shall be in the southern Rhone valley later this week and over the weekend. In particular, I shall be visiting Chateauneuf du Pape. Should be good.
More redirection

I have a piece on ubersportingpundit on Bangladesh's test status and the ICC world test championship.

Sunday, July 20, 2003


I have a piece on Samizdata about the globalisation of movies and television, with particular reference to the Middle East.
The game ends as expected

Before the test match against Bangladesh, some people speculated that all sorts of records would result from its one sidedness. Would Australia score 1000 runs? Would the match be over in one day? Would Bangladesh be bowled out for the lowest score in test history? That kind of thing. My fellow ubersportingpundit Scott Wickstein said that he didn't expect these kinds of records to be broken, and I agreed. Good strong Australian performances and innings victories were likely in about three days.

And that is what happened. This morning Bangladesh continued their second innings after a good start last night and although they batted better than in the first innings, they were again outclassed. Hannan Sarkar was out early for 35, and the wickets then fell steadily, particularly after Habibul Bashar was bowled by MacGill for 54. Al Sahariar held one end up (eventually being the last man out for 36) and as well as being the best of the Bangladeshi bowlers, Mashrafe Mortaza made one over off MacGill entertaining, by scoring 15 runs from five balls (including two fours and a six) before being run out off the last ball. Still, Bangladesh were bowled out for 178, with Australia winning by an innings and 132 runs. A very heavy defeat, but to be fair Australia have inflicted defeats this heavy (or even heavier) on much higher rated sides in recent years.

Although there were no records set of the kind outlined in the first paragraph, Steve Waugh set a number of individual career records. Besides scoring a century against a ninth opponent, his 31st test century puts him equal second on the all time centurians record with 31 - equal with Sachin Tendulkar. Sunil Gavaskar holds the overall record with 33. It will be fun to see whether Waugh or Tendulkar will break Gavaskar's record first. If Waugh manages to play until Australia's tour of India next year, as he has said he would like to, he will play at least another 15 tests. (One more game against Bangladesh, two home games against Zimbabwe, four home games against India, three away games against Sri Lanka, two home games against Sri Lanka, and three away games against India. There are also still a couple of gaps in the program which may get filled in, although this is more likely to be with one day games than tests). Three centuries in that time seems pretty likely. The question is whether Tendulkar can break the record first. (In the long run, Tendulkar is undoubtedly going to hold the record, and may score 40 or even 50 test centuries. But Waugh may be able to hold it for a short while).

Plus of course Steve Waugh has now won more tests than any other captain, going ahead of Clive Lloyd of the West Indies. Given his various personal achievements in the match, his man of the match award was very well deserved.
I saw Hulk

Sadly, Hulk wasn't very good. I had hopes that it might be okay, given that it was made by a film-maker of class, ond one whose early movies at least (particularly The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman) were notable for the high quality of their acting and character development. The film consisted of two thirds people talking pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, and one third action sequences of a large green man breaking the laws of physics. In a way it was like The Matrix Reloaded, both in terms of the immense amount of complete and utter crap spoken by the characters and the fact that the visual sequences were actually pretty good when the movie movied away from the crap. In particular, the split screen effects designed to make the movie actually look like a comic book actually worked, and there is a long section of the middle of the film, featuring both the Hulk's arrival (by military machinery) and then departure (under his own power) from a secret base in the desert and subsequent pursuit by the military across much of America's most spectacular scenery, that is visually absolutely beautiful and is technically one of the most perfect action sequences I have ever seen. However, it's a shame about the rest of the film.

Blog Archive