Inside the Biosphere

A photo from this time last year, taken inside Montreal’s amazing Biosphere. Designed by Buckminster Fuller and built in 1967 for the World’s Fair, it’s a geodesic dome, strong, light, and enclosing a huge amount of space. It’s a beautiful building – full of benign faith in the future.

July Cycling BHAG Update

July is supposed to be midsummer, but here in England it’s not so sure; the weather is sketchy, blowy and cool, the sun fleeting. Sasha has fixed the troubles with his road bike – fitting hand built wheels with strong spokes in place of the good-looking but fragile stock ones – so we tend to cycle back from work together. Frequent stops at The Greenwich Union break up the ride home. It’s very cycle friendly as well as having great beer.

In the middle of the month, I’m in Montreal for a week. Here, summer is sure of itself, the sun high and hot in a boundless blue sky. Parts of the city feel overgrown; the houses pull back behind porches and balconies, or retreat beneath trailing ivy and flowers. The sunlight falls gently through leaves and at night you see fireworks, or kids still in shorts and dresses, or Hassidic jews, dressed devoutly in black and deep in conversation. It is hard to believe this place spends so long under ice.

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Added to the wishlist: On Roads

[Book] Having moved from the North to the Home counties when I was 11, then to York for University, then Norwich, and then London, I grew up on the M1, M6 and A1. Asylum’s lovely review of On Roads meant it headed straight to the wishlist:

“On Roads deals mainly with the motorway era, beginning with the first stretch of the M1, completed in 1959 and the subject of such excitement that it had four press openings… On the M1′s first weekend, “nearly all its overbridges were crowded with sightseers”, and the transport minister, Ernest Marples, sounded a note of Mr Cholmondeley-Warner when he advised that ‘on this magnificent road the speed which can easily be reached is so great that the senses may be numbed and judgement warped’… Moran is equally appealing on the psychology of driving, the ‘terra nulla of the roadside verge’, and motorway service stations with their ‘rich seam of English ordinariness and gone-to-seed glamour.’”

On Roads, by Joe Moran.

In Taipei: taxis, rain, daysleeper

I’ve been in Taipei, Taiwan all week for Computex 2010. A lot of time dashing around, existing on very little sleep. I was reminded of a lovely late R.E.M. song called Daysleeper. It’s partly because it actually references Taipei (one of the few pop songs to admit the existence of such an unglamorous place) but more because it gets the soft, distant-feedback-in-your-cortex feel of jetlag just right.

A trip to Taipei, Taiwan

Not a place many people visit, but I’d agree with Rough Guide when they call Taipei Asia’s most under-rated city. It’s where the IT press go every year for Computex; I’ve been there three years (2006, 2007, and this year). Here’s some photos not of motherboards or netbooks, but of the place where they’re born.

Painted dragon

Close-up detail of a painted door, temple, Taipei.

Two businessmen at Longshan

Businessmen praying before work. Incense burns, and people rub the smoke into their clothes for good luck. This was taken at Longshan temple, one of Taipei’s busiest.
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Input from everybody – Peleliu links

I ended up on Peleliu more by accident than design; I have family living on Palau, so my partner and I went to visit, and Peleliu seemed like an interesting day trip. I took the photos, wrote up the guide’s stories and did some Googling when I got back. One of the nice things about a blog post getting wider circulation, as mine on the Battle of Peleliu did thanks to Boing Boing, is that you get input from a huge variety of people.

Firstly, from the (very kind) comments here and over at BB, one book recommendation comes through very clearly – With The Old Breed by Eugene Sledge, so I’ve added that to my Amazon wishlist. First published in 1981, Sledge fought on Peleliu and in numerous other battles in the Pacific war. It’s very highly thought of, and it doesn’t flinch from depicting the brutality of the war. Paul Fussell, who himself wrote a brilliant book called ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’, praised it as ‘one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war,’ which is about as good a recommendation as you can get.

With The Old Breed is, together, with another WW2 memoir, Helmet For My Pillow, being used as the source material for an HBO series about the battles across the Pacific. Called ‘The Pacific,’ it’s being produced by the same team (Spielberg, Tom Hanks etc) as the brilliant Band of Brothers, and will be on TV at some point this year. This site has a few YouTube snippets.

Also recommended was Ken Burns’ The War – I suspect this is fairly famous in the US, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. It’s easy to get on DVD though, so I’ll hopefully get a chance to watch it.

One commenter on Boing Boing wanted to know about the Japanese tank I photographed; another identified it as a Type 95 Ha-Go, and Wikipedia does indeed claim 15 were deployed on Peleliu.

Another added a link to a Flickr user with some shots of cleaning up unexploded WW2 ordinance in the Marshall Islands – this set in particular is well annotated.

A search on Metafilter revealed a post about American photographer James Fee. His father fought on Peleliu, and in 1998 James went back to the island to take photos. The exhibition he created combined his own images with shots is father had taken. You can see 18 of the images here and the book is available on Amazon. The picture of the Zero at the top of the post is his. It’s always interesting to see the approach other photographers take to the same subject matter. I’m definitely jealous of his Zero shot; it’s terrifically moody. I’m surprised by how different his images seem to mine; they’re hazier, more lyrical – he seems more wary of the colours, of the brightness of the sunlight that I was.

Finally, someone asked what I used on Peleliu – it was a Nikon D40 with the 18-55 kit lens, and for some of the shots, an 85mm f1.8 prime. It doesn’t auto-focus on the D40, but it really isn’t a problem when you’ve got such bright sunlight, and such still scenes to shoot. I’ve written about my love for this camera quite a bit; honestly, some of the best money I ever spent. I’m glad people appreciated the pictures.

Thousand Yard Stares: Ruins and Ghosts of the Battle of Peleliu, 1944, 2008

Peleliu is a small island that forms part of the nation of Palau in the Pacific. It’s about five hours flying time south of Japan and three hours east of the Philippines. It’s now, like the rest of Palau, beautiful, peaceful and home to more shades of blue in the sea and sky than you or your camera lens would ever have thought possible.

Blue wasn’t always the colour.

Between September and November 1944, it was the site of an incredibly fierce battle between US and Japanese armed forces. Peleliu island is about 14 square miles of terrain; during the three months of fighting, the casualty rate worked out at just under 1,000 men killed per square mile of island. Close to 1,800 American servicemen died; of the 11,000 Japanese soldiers defending the island, only 202 were captured alive.

The battle was fought over the fact Peleliu had an airfield, and was within range of the Philippines, from where the US planned to eventually launch strikes against the Japanese mainland. The plan to attack Peleliu was a contentious one – not all of the US high command thought Peleliu was strategically important, and after the battle, the US found the airfield was barely operational, and posed almost no threat to US forces elsewhere in the Pacific.

I’m from the UK, and visited Palau in October 2008. I took a day trip to Peleliu with a Japanese tour group. I took some photos, and made some notes. The photos are all hosted on Flickr. You can see the images as a slideshow on Flickr, check out the full set, or read the rest of this post to see what I saw.

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On visiting countries that have been the subject of airstrikes by allies of your home country

The first in a doubtless intermittent series of posts about travelling.

Late afternoon, and the sunlight is drawing triangles of light and shade on the courtyard with such precision it would make a maths teacher proud. From the corner of my eye I can see thick, unruly green leaves and white curls of jasmine falling from the upper balcony. Through them, the light casts scruffy nets of shadow, scribbling lazily over the stone tiles. Beyond the courtyard, beyond the walls of this 18th century house – now a dollar-charging boutique hotel for Westerners – the streets have the same quiet, studious feel as the air. Today is Friday, holy day here in Aleppo in the north of Syria.

My mobile phone bleeps with a text message. The screen is a bright white; caustic, electronic and entirely different from the sunlight in the courtyard. Set into it are chunky black letters:

SHIT DUDE are you still out there or have they flown you out or what?

I read the message from Friend P. to my fiancee, who is reading on the bed beside me. She snaps the TV on. Every channel ripples with static.

The AV button, press the AV button. Have you texted him back? What’s he talking about?

I hammer the buttons and ping a message back. She and I stare at the TV screen, then the mobile screen. Five bars; the signal is strong. When there are revolutions, don’t the phones go down? Or maybe that was only in the old days. Cellular networks are light on infrastructure. Hip tech magazines roll out the story of African countries where mobiles outnumber landlines, because infrastructure is passée. Dealing with the real world, digging trenches for poles and wire – it’s all too much work. You need to cyber it up a notch. Especially when fashion-conscious westerners are throwing away so many good handsets. I once sat in a taxi back in London, driven by a cheerful, chatty Ghanian who told me he went back to Africa as ‘often as he liked’, because he could easily finance the plane ticket by buying cheap second hand phones here, and selling them back in Accra, because there, the UK’s second best was premium.

And so I sit, waiting for a text, with the television saying nothing, concentrating on its own thoughts. The city still sounds like it is doing the same as well. I am not good at staying calm. I am a natural worrier, prone to googling every slight ache and pain, easily convinced I have some exotic syndrome or ailment. The reaction of friend P. when I told him about my trip to Syria comes to mind:

Friend P: I’m just saying I wouldn’t go anywhere for my holidays that’s been the target of an airstrike by a US ally in the last year or so.

Of course, Syria has history with Israel (the Golan Heights and more), and it’s not really history because it’s far from over – just months before we met, the Israelis had bombed a site in the north of Syria, leading to speculation they had seen the Syrians building a nuclear reactor with help from that noted international japester, Kim Jong-Il.

I thought back to our morning in Aleppo: a trip to the citadel, 12th century stronghold agains the Crusaders. To the 7th century Umayyad mosque before that, and the guardian’s two young sons, smiling as they say next to me, shouting the names of their favourite Premiership footballers. The muezzin’s call had seemed sonorous and devout. Not angry. So what had changed? George W. Bush having one last squeeze of the trigger before the world could finally forget him? I remember reading an AP wire story in my RSS reader about a US warship chugging into position off the Syrian and Lebanese coast. And then there was that Israeli airstrike. And, and, and….

The phone beeps.

Friend P: No reason. Was plotting an OMG war wind-up but changed my mind halfway. Hope it is win out there.

It ended with a series of smiley faces and my fiancee muttered something about my stupid friends. We went back to our books and enjoying the warmth of afternoon, me feeling thoroughly foolish and guilty.

From this I learned… to be slightly less credulous, hopefully. And that the disruptive power of mobile phones is nothing compared to the embedded fears you carry in your head. As smart as you might feel back home reading up on the history and current events of the place you’re going to, there is much to be said for arriving in a new place without already knowing what you think. A couple of evenings on Wikipedia make an expert out of anyone, and a fool out of many, me included.
Fspeed Sunlight

Travel Writing

One thing I’m surprised I’ve not done more of this year is travel writing; this year I’ve been fortunate enough to go to places that, while within easy reach, are still somehow slightly out of reach, out of frame at the same time – Monaco, Syria, rural Ibiza, and in about two hours, Palau1 and my third trip to Japan.

Thinking – and writing is often just thinking with a keyboard – about this is something I should do, because next year, I’m taking a sabbatical. Having worked for Dennis/Custom PC for 5 years (!), I’m eligible for 8 weeks extra holiday, which I can combine with 2 weeks of my usual leave for… 10 weeks, more than 2 months, away. Not sure where I will go yet, but I’d like to do some travelling in that time. I’ve never ‘done’ South America, have never been to to India to find myself and I’m not about to start now. But I do think about travel as a part of life; the difference between there and then and here and now; about how it can/should work as applied curiosity.

1 Palau?!? Yeah, Palau. The CIA knows all about Palau. It’s a real country. In the middle of the pacific, about here.

My Favourite Piece of Travel Writing

My favourite piece of travel writing is short and to the point, but it questions everything about ‘here’ and calls to mind perfectly the change of ‘there’ that is its lure.

It is a description of people in an airport, and how easily they strike up conversation with each other. They are:

‘Strangers rendered open-hearted from jet lag’
(Pico Iyer, The Global Soul)

We travel to be operated on; by the sun, by the sights, by there, the place we want to get to, and most of all, by the miles of distance between there and here, by the separation itself.