travel

Way Off The Lamarck

“If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”

Albert Einstein

I was lucky enough to get 6 hours in Paris the other day and went for a wander around Notre Dame. Before you get there though there is the Jardin Des Plantes and I thought I would take a walk around. Didn’t have enough money on me to go into the evolution museum even though I wanted to but this statue caught my eye I was a little taken aback. Take a look…

When I first saw the statue my first thought, a little unfairly, was that Lamarck was responsible for the theory of evolution in the same way that cheese was responsible for the great train robbery – not at all (actually that was my second thought, my first was “wait a f**king minute!”). However, on thinking it over maybe a fairer way to look at it might be like da Vinci and the helicopter in that although their ideas would not have worked, they were among the first attempts to solve certain problems.

I’m fairly sure if you asked a French person now who was responsible for the theory of evolution they would say Darwin. It is highly probable that the trumpeting of Lamarck in France represented part of the battle between the British and French empires, the two major powers of that era, in that they were trying also to be perceived to be intellectually and culturally dominant. A similar stooshie went on over who discovered Neptune with the British trying to claim it from the French.

Although this is intellectually dishonest behaviour, I suppose it would be preferable to the kind of thing that the Americans are putting out these days to show their cultural dominance.

The Jardins Des Plantes is a nice place though, and there are a few more pictures if you click on the READ MORE below.

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Yellow and Red Dust

In the Mediterranean there is a climatic condition whereby at certain times the clouds look like they are boiling red. As they come over the hills the air looks almost as if the oxygen in it had rusted.  This happens because the winds are blowing the desert sand over the Mediterranean from Africa. These clouds usually bring rain with them too and when the wind dies down the rain evaporates and the sky returns to normal leaving all the cars with a coating of red sand. When I saw it most clearly, with a mountainous backdrop, is the time in my life I most regretted not having a camera on me because as the clouds roll over the mountains it is a quite spectacular sight.

That said, the red dust isn’t pleasant and covers your clothes too. However, in South (and presumably North) Korea there is something called the yellow dust which is extremely nasty. I’ll get to explaining what the yellow dust is exactly in a roundabout (or should it be rounders?) sort of way.

Baseball is quite a popular sport in the USA but it is something I had never been able to like. I like to at least give things a try though and several times had tried to watch an entire match from start to finish on TV, always with the result of falling asleep.

Therefore, shortly after I arrived in Korea in March and noticed baseball was a rather popular sport there, I thought I would go along to a match and see if it was any better in the stadium . When April began it was getting warm enough that you could go out basically with just a t-shirt and jeans in the daytime so I was only wearing exactly that . I noticed also in April that people were wearing the face masks that you see so often in pictures from Japan but I didn’t bother to get one.

It must have been about 25 degrees that day, which is not hot but certainly not cold. I was just wearing a t-shirt but all the punters in the crowd were telling me to cover up. I thought they must be telling me this because they were being nice and were worried that I could get burned.  Not so.

You see, the yellow dust (or Hwang Sa as it is called in Korea) is something which  sweeps down from Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China into Korea. The sands from the deserts in those countries are blown down by seasonal winds in March, April and May, sometimes as far as Japan or further.

This is obviously something that has happened for thousands of years. It is worse now though because…

In the last decade or so, it has become a serious problem due to the increase of industrial pollutants contained in the dust and intensified desertification in China causing longer and more frequent occurrences, as well as in the last few decades when the Aral Sea of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan started drying up due to the diversion of the Amu River and Syr River following a Soviet agricultural program to irrigate Central Asian deserts, mainly for cotton plantations.

Furthermore,

For the past few years, the dust storms often carry oxides (aluminium, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and silicon) and toxic waste thus increasing the risks of respiratory and skin reactions.

So I think now that the Koreans were trying to tell me to cover up for another reason entirely and

I experienced the double whammy of watching a crap sport and getting a little bit sick for a few days on account of that.

For a few days after I didn’t feel so good but the main thing that annoyed me was that no one at my work bothered to tell me about it until after the event. I explained about my weekend and I that I wasn’t feeling so good and they told me “Oh, that would’ve been the yellow dust”. Kamsa Hamnida for that!

So if you are going there, you have been warned.

Who Buys Richard Clayderman Records?

One of the worlds great mysteries solved. This is an excerpt from the incomparable Douglas Adams book Last Chance to See. He was writing about visiting China in the 80s. I imagine it is somewhat different now…

The world-famous Peace Hotel Jazz Band was out for the evening but a deputy band was playing in their place. The promise is that this is one of the only places in the world where you will still hear the music of the 30s played as it was played, where it was played. maybe the world famous combo keeps the promise but their deputies did not. They banged their way through endless repetitions of Edelweiss, Greensleeves and Auld Lang Syne, interspersed with the occasional bash at New York, New York, Chicago and I Left My Heart in San Francisco.

There are two odd things about this. First of all, this wasn’t just for the tourists. This was the music we heard everywhere in China, particularly the first three titles. On the radio, in shops, in taxis, in trains, on the great ferries that steam continually up and down the Yangtse. It was usually played by Richard Clayderman. For anyone who has ever wondered who in the world buys Richard Clayderman records – it’s the Chinese, and there are a billion of them.

The other odd thing was that the music was clearly completely foreign to them. Well, obviously it was foreign music so that’s not altogether surprising but it was as if they were playing from a phrasebook. Every extemporary flourish the trumpeter added, every extra fill on the drums were all crashingly and horribly wrong. I suppose the Indians must have felt this hearing George Harrison playing the sitar in the 60s, but then, after a brief indulgence, so did everybody else.

 

New Video Channel

I have moved the little videos I made over to Vimeo because youtube were being very annoying. The Channel is here. Some of the political things that were on the other channel are already there but there will be more going on it including stupid things that aren’t political.I have put a modest example below called Across the Rio Tweed which is a deep analysis of what happens when you cross over from England to Scotland on the train on the East Coast Line…

A Trip to the Casino

The first time I went to a Casino was at Niagara Falls. My brother and I were supposed to be in Canada for a holiday in September but our flights were cancelled because of 9/11 so we ended up going in January. It’s a bit nippy in Canada in January and our day going down to Niagara was hit with a blizzard. To get out of the cold a bit my brother wanted to go to the casino whereas I didn’t. He won the argument and I became doubly angry when I realized that I had lost my bank card somewhere in the snow outside the casino. He went off to play some games and I was determined to sit at the bar and keep my money to buy some vinyl or something useful instead of wasting it in the casino. Then you get to the bar and realize that in a casino it’s usually about £8 for a drink.

A fairly horrible trip you might think but it’s not the casino story that I want to relate here. The one I want to talk about was much worse.

I went with my girlfriend to Malta for a little break. Even when going through customs they were giving us vouchers for a free drink and 10 Euros free betting at the casino. We thought we would save it for the Saturday evening.

I wasn’t particularly eager to go but she wanted to see it out of curiosity more than anything else so we decided to go on the 2nd night after dinner.

We both like Chinese food but unfortunately picked the wrong Chinese restaurant and after a slow and pretty shoddy meal with a professionally unhelpful owner/waitress we started the walk down to the beachside casino with the route we found taking us through some darkish little hidden walkways full of local neds (chavs).

After arriving we queued for about 10 minutes and did some ID checks before discovering that this was in fact not the casino that our tickets were for. We hadn’t really checked as we didn’t know there were two and from our hotel we could see the enormous red letters of “Casino” on the one we had just walked to.

So we did an about turn and marched back up the road to near where the awful restaurant was and we found the other casino near there.

In this one the queue was enormous and they were having technical problems processing people as well. The machine to make people temporary entry cards broke so we were moved from the long queue we had been waiting in to another one.

All the while we were waiting the casino regulars were going in and out without being subjected to the more than demeaning ID and background checks that everyone else had to do. These involved having your photo taken, explaining what your occupation was, giving your home address and providing them with ID.

All around us men in suits were milling about. Some were bouncers and some were customers but it must have been about a 2:1 female to male ratio. Most of them were also middle-aged women but all of them, young and old, were plastered in make-up and obviously out in the best clothes.

The difficulties in sorting out registrations meant that the queue was still building and when we produced vouchers and they had to check if they were valid for a Saturday night we could feel the resentment building in the queue behind us as we were stopping the more habitual and/or keen gamblers from getting in and blowing all their money.

Eventually we got through and just inside the door we were given a free glass of sparkling wine with a bit of fruit in it. From there we had to go to the cash desk to get our 10 Euros free money (to get which you had to add another 10). When we reached the window the people behind us in this line got angry as the same debate as before raged about whether the vouchers were valid. I heard a muttered “they shouldn’t let people like this in” from what looked like an old dear behind us – looked like being the operative here, the casino setting turns these people into harpies.

When it was finally decided that our vouchers were in fact valid we were shunted to the next queue and had to begin the waiting process again. Meanwhile in the window we had originally been at there was a man getting 1000s of Euros.

All done, we took a wander round the tables and after the truly advanced rudeness we had experienced we were even less in the mood than before. We walked over to the bar and got our drinks then decided just to go over to the machines and blow our 20 and get the f**k out as quickly as possible.

The next problem we encountered was getting on a machine. The very few empty ones were being jealously guarded with excuses along the lines of “I’ve been playing that for an hour and I still am” coming from women sitting on the next machines. They obviously needed two opportunities to piss their money away. The most uncourteous specimen was one that, when I asked “Can I play this [poker] machine?” just said “No you can’t” with no explanation given and then turned back to her friend whilst blocking anyone’s entry to the machine.

After about 5 minutes we located a couple of empty machines. They make them as complicated as possible so that you don’t really know if you are winning or not. We were laughing at the absurdity of the place now, and at the scowling faces all around us in a place that is supposed to be for entertainment. It might have seemed like we were the only two actually happy smiling people in the place, but it was really a kind of delirious exasperation rather than actual happiness.

I started playing a slot machine and trying to lose as much as possible as quickly as possible. From my 20 I got down to 11 and then I actually won and so was up to 28 and I shouted to my partner “oh for f***sake, I won”. This obviously strange reaction made the woman next to me give me a look which combined puzzlement, incredulity and hatred. The soundtrack to these events was a little sound effect from one of the machines that just kept saying “money money money” in an irritating high-pitched whine. It has been proved several times that subliminal suggestion doesn’t work (even if that episode of Colombo says it does) so the effect of this was annoyance and not a desperate need to gamble more.

My partner was having the same sort of “luck” on the machine and eventually after we had played for 10 minutes trying to lose it again we settled for leaving this entirely disagreeable place with about 15 left. This meant we had to repeat the unpleasant experience at the cash desk because you can’t take out the little credit card things they give you (you don’t use coins).

So that was it…our glamorous night out in the casino. We hadn’t expected anything of the sort but the impression that was left was of two sorts of people. The first were the desperate over 50 women, who were probably very nice outside of that setting, gambling a pittance and probably hoping to get something for their grandchildren. It was a very depressing sight to see the general disconsolation of these people.

The second group were the kind of people who didn’t think anything of blowing 10,000 in one go to impress their hangers-on or would be dates.  I didn’t even want to look at these people for fear they would think that I was impressed. What I actually felt towards them was a welling-up of a kind of anger that I hadn’t felt for too long. I have been to some places where the kind of money they were flashing for show would make an enormous difference to many lives and could save plenty of people from dying. It didn’t seem like there would be much point explaining that to them though, even if they had understood it they wouldn’t have cared.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t go to these places if they want to. It’s not my business to tell people what to do, I’d just like to give people a notion of what these places are like that doesn’t come from a James Bond film.

The postscript to the evening was that I insisted to a tired girlfriend that we go for a nightcap in a jazz bar that was on the way back to the hotel. The reason for this was that I did not want the casino and the “money, money, money” noise to be the last memories of what had, until the evening, been a great day.

We got into the bar and we got talking to the owner and I explained what a god-awful experience we had just had. He promptly informed me that he had been in the casino business for 20 years and that was how he got the money for his bar. We left there too.

The Scene of the Crime(s)

I got  a surprise yesterday looking on BBC site and it reminded me of a couple of incidents.

There was this picture of the Daejon World Cup Stadium in South Korea and a story about match-fixing involving the team that plays there.

I used to live right next to that stadium. Do you see the Green bridge at the bottom of the picture? I lived on the near side of that, about 20 metres out of the picture.

Occasionally I would go and watch Daejeon play. They weren’t very good but there you go. However, I used to frequent a bar where some of the Daejeon Ultras used to hang out. In very bad Korean and quite bad English we used to have a chat. They were some of the nicest people I met in my time in Korea, always friendly and willing to chat. I wish more people had been like that there.

One of the stories that this BBC story reminded me of was meeting one of the players. Most teams in the Korean league are not very good and each team always seem to have a Brazilian and a couple of Croatians that weren’t good enough to play in Europe.

One day, with the 어머니 and 아버지 of all hangovers I was in the supermarket/hypermarket thing, trying to buy some decent speakers and I ran into the Brazilian who was buying a computer. He saw me, and non-koreans being something of a rarity in that city, foreigners tend to speak to each other or at least acknowledge each other. He nodded and I said hello, then he asked me where I was from and I said Scotland and he asked

“Celtic or Rangers?”.

 “Celtic, obviously”.

“Ahh, good team, good team”

“I’ve been to see Daejeon play a couple of times as well”.

“Really? What did you think?”

As I previously said I was a royally hungover and my next statement, if factually accurate, represented a complete loss of tact…

“They’re not very good are they?”

Immediately after the words came out I realised that I hadn’t been entirely dimplomatic. He mumbled

“I suppose not, I would like to play in Europe.”

And then with both of us too embarassed to continue the conversation I made my excuses and left and I went for a walk along the river to clear my head a bit.