New Zealand Adventure Day 2: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo

Original travel date was 26 December.  Boxing Day in New Zealand.

I will admit I was intimidated when I first got behind the wheel of our 6.2-meter camper.  It accelerated sluggishly and cut corners short when turning.  Christchurch traffic is moderate but the combination of a bulky, unfamiliar vehicle and left-handed driving were difficult to manage.

Luckily our early start meant we arrived at the grocery store—our first destination—before the lot filled.  I would never have found a spot and squeezed into it if I couldn’t have my pick of spots and occupy more than one.  Thankfully the grocer’s neighboring lot was empty since most stores remained closed for boxing day.

Clair and I loaded up with a couple days worth of supplies: fresh green lip mussels for a pasta dinner, ingredients for a gourmet sandwich, and obviously ample beer and wine.  We were immediately charmed by the local kiwis who three times saw our perplexed faces and offered to help.

Once outside of Christchurch driving became much easier.  The single lane roads contain a steady trickle of cars.  But the roads are not busy.  The grass plains of Christchurch flowed into the purple mountains on the horizon.  And by the time we arrived at Lake Tekapo the terrain felt like a scrubby, northern California lakeside camp.

Our Luxury Kea Campervan

Scenic Vista Between Christchurch and Lake Tekapo

Tekapo showed some of the strange quality of many of the area’s rivers and lakes: a foggy, chalky cyan blue color.  We surmised that limestone must be carried from the mountains down the streams to produce this strange colored water.  But after asking locals we received no good answer as to the color’s true origin.

Clair swinging in the park at Lake Tekapo

A view from the Lake Takapo shore

One of the luminous flowers covering the New Zealand hills

The cyan, cloudy waters of Lake Tekapo

That night, while other campers warmed hot dogs, potatoes, and corn on the cob, Clair and I sautéed our mussels over white wine.  Our trip finally felt on track.


New Zealand Adventure, The Beginning: Christchurch

This article was written during our holiday. But only today, over two months later, have I gotten around to posting it. It describes our first day in Christchurch after a long flight, rescheduled itinerary, and lost luggage.

Ours was an auspicious beginning to an expensive trip. Clair and I purchased roundtrip tickets on Qantas through Melbourne. The flight to Christchurch left us only a couple hours to change planes. But the route back included an 18-hour layover. We decided to turn this into a special treat with our friend Stuart by exploring Melbourne with a local. It never occurred to either of us that we’d need an Australia visa for this.

It never occurred to Qantas, either.

As we prepared to depart for Christchurch the JetStar staff (who were operating the Qantas flight) informed us that we could not fly to New Zealand. Lacking an Australia visa we would not be legal to leave New Zealand on 3 January. Without a legal right of return New Zealand would not allow our entry.

Obtaining an Australian visa is trivial but we could not do it before the flight for Christchurch departed. Genuine apologies from Qantas staff, assistance with a visa, and a reschedule to a later flight helped some. But we arrived in Christchurch after the camper rental lot closed. So we were forced to scramble for warm bed for two nights until the lot re-opened.

Our disappointment was profound. We had only 10 days in our camper van and losing two from a flight delay was quite upsetting. And while we got lucky with a clean, modern hotel in the charming Christchurch, the day we spent there (Christmas) was quiet. Perhaps the stillness was appropriate for Christmas, but it was not for a holiday.  Also, Quantas lost our luggage.  They provided us clothes to sleep in and a travel kit so I could shave and we could brush our teeth.

Loaned Clothing

The day we spent in Christchurch was interesting.  Christchurch, basking in the warm sun and draped by cool blue skies, was a ghost town.  I assume more life on a non-holiday.  But it is clear the 2011 earthquake devastated the city.  We heard later that 5,000 builds were destroyed by the earthquake.  And today it seems a third remain standing but condemned.

Christchurch Cathedral

Clair and I strolled the city, taking pictures and enjoying the December sun.  The city surrounds a large garden park where a few residents and tourists relaxed.  Cool streams cut through the city and park and brown trout were visible under the glazed surface.  Christchurch provided the relaxation we needed to counter-balance the previous day’s stress.

Dance Floor, Coin-operated Stereo, and a Disco BallChristchurch Park

The next day we woke early to be first to our camper and start the trip. And from there our moods swelled. The camper exceeded our expectations. It is luxurious, spacious, and well-equipped. In the days that followed we made use of the attached grill, gas cooktop, microwave oven, LCD TV, and built-in toilet. Although a suspect install of the sewage canister resulted in a toilet leak that suggested Clair and I should ration its usage.


Interview and Photo of Col. Edward F. Fleming

A couple months ago my great uncle Eddie passed away. He was one of six brothers, among which was my material grandfather. I probably had fewer than 10 occasions to talk with Eddie. But he had a special humor to him that everyone loved. People really gravitated to him. And I loved to be near him at family gatherings as he was sure to make me laugh.

Like all six of his brothers, he served in World War II. They each contributed in different ways and many were involved in heroic and hair-raising action. Every few years I try my hand at Google to see if I can find stories about them. And after Eddie’s death I found one about him, which came with a photograph.

Below is the story that I found on Facebook.  I’m preserving it here with the photo for myself, my friends, my family, and posterity.

Interview with: (Col Edward F. Fleming).
Capt Edward Fleming, 84th FS, 78th FG and several other P-47s were chasing enemy fighters at low altitude over Charters, France. Suddenly flack blew a hole in his right wing. The rudder was damaged and under a lot of pressure, he lost the ability to Bank and turn the aircraft quickly.
Fleming looked up and found himself headed right at Chartres Cathedral!
“I missed the steeple by no more than a foot and a half!” he said.
He was headed in the wrong direction and used all of his strength to turn the P-47 around to fly over the channel back to Duxford with two 84th FS P-47s escorting him back.
Later, looking at the damage, his assistant crew chief said, “I can’t figure out how you got back at all!”
Fleming remembered, “The hole was so big you could stand up under the wing, fit into the hole and look out over the top!”
He was convinced he was going to crash into the Chartres Cathedral and kept thinking…“If I demolish a church will they ever let me into heaven?”
This is the photo that came with the story with Eddie on the left.
Capt. Edward F. Fleming

15 Actors You Didn’t Know Were In Band of Brothers

In the wonderful vacation I just finished I enjoyed watching Band of Brothers during two typhoon days.  It was Clair’s first time seeing it and perhaps my fifth.  In this most recent viewing I was amazed how much of the cast has gone on to great success after that show.  I made mental notes during that viewing and snapped screenshots yesterday.  I’ve been having fun sharing these with people so might as well put them here for posterity. Below are 15 great actors you may not have known were in Band of Brothers.

Jamie Bamber

Jamie BamberShortly after Band of Brothers, Bamber played Lee Adama in Battlestar Gallactica.

Michael Cudlitz

Michael CudlitzCudlitz starred in TNT’s Southland and currently appears in The Walking Dead.

Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy FallonJimmy Fallon was a comedian on Saturday Night Live at the time Band of Brothers was filmed. Now he is instantly recognizable as the host of a late night talk show.

Michael Fassbender

Michael FassbenderFassbender (to the right of Damian Lewis) has had incredible success as a movie star. He appeared in 300, Prometheus, Inglorious Basterds, the X-men series, and 12 Years a Slave.

Stephen Graham

Stephen GrahamStephen Graham is perhaps not as well known as the other actors are now. But I recognized him in Snatch and more recently as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire.

Colin Hanks

Colin HanksColin Hanks possibly got the role for being the son of Band of Brothers producer Tom Hanks. But he’s gone on to success in his own right as was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work in Fargo.

Tom Hardy

Tom HardyTom Hardy’s career is on fire of late. I loved him in Bronson years ago. But he had roles in two Christopher Nolan films that earned over $200 million in the US market alone: Inception and Dark Knight Rises. He’s about ready to bring Mad Max Rockatansky back to the screen.

Damian Lewis

Damian LewisDamian Lewis is probably more recognizable to most for the other role in which he played an American soldier: Homeland.

Ron Livingston

Ron LivingstonMany saw Livingston in Office Space and Swingers. He pops up every now and again in pleasant supporting roles.

James McAvoy

James McAvoyJames McAvoy was briefly in Band of Brothers. He’s starring in the X-men series (with other Band of Brothers alum Michael Fassbender).

Neal McDonough

Neal McDonoughNeal McDonough followed Band of Brothers with roles in Minority Report and Captain America. As a friend on Facebook pointed out, he’s also “that guy in the Cadillac commercials.”

Simon Pegg

Simon PeggMost people met Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead, a hilarious zombie film he co-wrote. But now he’s banking big checks with recurring roles in the Star Trek and Mission Impossible series.

David Schwimmer

David SchwimmerDavid Schwimmer was the most recognizable actor in the series at the time it aired. Since Band of Brothers aired around the end of the Friends run one could say his career peaked with Band of Brothers. But, then again, no one ever called him “that guy from Band of Brothers.”

Andrew Scott

Andrew ScottAndrew Scott is perhaps not terribly well-known today. But he is starring as Jim Moriarty in Sherlock, one of the best shows currently airing.

Donnie Wahlberg

Donnie WahlbergAt the time Donnie was probably thought of as “Mark Wahlberg’s big brother.” But he’s since appeared in the Saw series and is currently in Blue Bloods.


Pain In the Neck

Its been just over six weeks since the most frightening experience of my life.  This incident coincidentally followed my 40th birthday by one week.  It was a scary reminder of my own frailty as I pass into the second half of my life.  I am needing reasons to write more and this is an incident I want to remember with clarity.  So here it is.

In early June I traveled to Shanghai to enjoy my birthday weekend and the week that followed with Clair.  She was on assignment there for two months and I was eager to field test my Mandarin.  All went well the first weekend (7-8 June) but the second weekend was a horror story.

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A Violation

I recently had a disturbing conversation with a friend named Lucy*.  Lucy and I have a strange and tenuous connection.  We chat online and have only done so a few times.  We don’t know each other’s last names.  We are veritable strangers.  So it was odd when one morning when I woke up and saw a message from her asking for my help.  She told me a guy did something bad to her.  And that she might need the help of the police.  She wanted someone to talk to and, as you will learn below, she had some reasons for choosing me.

What happened to her is terrible and private and humiliating.  I suppose one of the reasons she came to me is because we are so disconnected–such strangers to each other–that she could tell me something she could not share with her close circle in her home town.  Below is this story. {Read More}


Another Pivot

career-change-blogIts been weeks since I last wrote. So much has transpired that this proper update is due. I will start by saying my sabbatical is finished. My commitments to learn Chinese, develop a big data community, volunteer for Open Data Hong Kong, write, and ponder my next move met with mixed success. As evidenced by the lack of activity on this blog, my writing commitment to writing flagged towards the end. But the other projects generally went well.

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Duplicity or Simplicity

ChessI just finished A Thousand Pieces of Gold by Adeline Yen Mah.  It tells the story of the first few emperors of China and the Chinese proverbs those stories spawned.  The book was fantastic, both informative and engaging.  But its tales of history were framed with the author’s twisted and sad reflections on her family life.  Despite loving the book, those family stories made me dislike the author.

Mah gives an account of the duplicitous actions of her step mother, her oldest sister, and her older brother.  She explains that everyone schemed against her.  And in presenting her own sad tale in the backdrop of Chinese history, she asserts that life is a series of machinations and betrayal.  I emphatically disagree.  In fact, I think the people that imagine enemies and ulterior motives are the very ones that create a toxic atmosphere.

The real question I am today asking myself is if our future is better by acknowledging the games people play and becoming better at them.  Or are these games self-defeating?  Would our lives and ambitions be more fulfilled if we spoke directly and honestly and assumed others were doing the same?  Certainly our lives would be simpler if this were true.

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Locusts and Humans

LocustDid you know that before they swarm, and ravenously destroy crops, locusts are grasshoppers?  It is true. Before taking flight en masse to travel to, descend on, and mercilessly consume fields, they are harmless, lonesome grasshoppers munching on tiny and unnoticed bits of vegetation. But as those docile grasshoppers multiply, their density increases. When it gets high enough their personal space overlaps and they occasionally bump into each other.

Well scientists have now shown that it is exactly that contact–jostling in confined areas and bumping into others–that turns a pleasant, calm grasshopper into an asshole of biblical proportions. In this way I think humans and locusts are much alike.

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One Lesson That Changes Your Life


When I was young I had a lisp.  As a child a lisp is not a serious problem.  But as I entered puberty it became a liability.  I remember my mom sending me to speech therapists with no success.  Then one day I met a therapist that worked at my high school.  In 30 seconds she showed me something that instantly corrected my lisp.  With that new knowledge I went home and practiced my new speech.  I never again lisped.

What she did that no other therapist had tried was use a model to demonstrate to me correct speech. She removed from her bookshelf a molded plastic design of the mouth and tongue. The model was human-sized and bisected vertically. When held from one side it looked like a head. When held from the other side the viewer could peer into the mouth and see positions of the teeth, tongue, and lower jaw. She showed me where a tongue was supposed to be placed when making a proper ‘s’. I could replicate that. I could finally speak normally. I was 15 years old.

I think of how simple the solution was and how strange that it was untried by therapists before. Each person’s cognitive style is different. Previous therapists had given me drills and worked on my psyche and described things in ways that I obviously did not understand. And one person came in with a different approach. A spacial model that resonated with my unique kinesthetic style. And it worked.

This story occurred to me on my way home from Chinese class on Tuesday. We had our first listening quiz and I scored 20%. I know I have one of the best vocabularies among my classmates. And I know my pronunciation is among the best in the class. People see that and they assume I am being falsely modest when I say I do not understand people when they speak Chinese. But Tuesday’s 20% grade shows that my problem is not an inflated sense of modesty.

One of my previous Chinese teachers told me of his own cognitive challenges. He has studied English for 20 years and by any judgment would be called fluent. Yet he shared with me that he only understands about 20% of television news programming. Something about the pace of speech combined with use of unfamiliar political or geographical terms disrupts his understanding. Like me, he hears one word he does not understand and focuses on it. As we focus on that mysterious word, searching in our memory for its definition, we miss entire sentences and lose track of the content. We have a cognitive style that struggles with real time information sprinkled with undefined components.

I see that great linguists listen with soft ears. They are able to hear sentences, casually dismiss the portions they do not understand, and infer the speaker’s meaning. I guess my hard hears–my sharp listening–is a detriment in language study. It is greatly impeding my studies.

So on this past Tuesday afternoon, taking the train home from my morning classes, I remembered my youthful struggles with speech and how a single person instantly corrected my impediment and changed my life forever. Is there an analog for a listening impediment? Is there a person that could explain better to me this idea of soft listening? That could help my reason incorporate unfamiliarity while extracting meaning? I hope so. I have a life to find this person and receive that single lesson.