Sunday, January 04, 2009

At least it's sunny

Back home after a lovely 35 hour journey between Sydney and Bath. I'm glad it's sunny, because it helps mitigate the fact that it was between -4 and 2 today. It's forecast to get chillier next week too. Dry is good though, because there's not much chance of ice.

The Air China flight home was easier than the outgoing journey. Two 10.5 hour legs plus a six hour stopover in Beijing airport. Two hours would have been better but beggars can't be choosers. I did get to have a good look around.

The main part of the terminal, which is the hub of a Y, is impressive to behold. It has an enormously high roof which looks great but must be a bugger to heat. It was -9 outside and I had to keep walking around to stay warm.

The number of gates that will fit on the Y isn't enough to cope with all the planes. I think there are other terminals but this seemed to be the main international one. The strange thing is that there is a huge area of tarmac for the planes to land on, which leads to long taxi times (15 minutes or so). But also if you're not lucky enough to get a gate attached to the terminal, you need a reasonably long bus journey to get to your plane. Maybe they just ran out of money to build more terminal.

There are no banks in the terminal, despite there being one marked on all the maps. It appears to have been replaced by a watch shop. There are a couple of currency exchange places, but they charge 50-60 yuan (£5-6) per commission. I wanted enough for a cuppa but I wasn't prepared to pay upwards of £10 for Chinese airport coffee. Although the exchange places assured me that none of the shops would take credit cards, I found a cafe right next to my gate that did and had a passable apple pie and coffee for 43 yuan. On the flight I drank Chinese tea, which was better than the alternative.

The signage is a bit lacking. After disembarking from the Sydney flight I again tried to figure out where I had to go to transfer to the next flight. This time I started at one of the 'foreigners' immigration gate before being told to go to the 'diplomatic' gate then finally the cunningly hidden 'international transfer' gate. Last time I went to the international transfer gate first but because it was a domestic transfer I ended up at the diplomatic gate...

On the efficiency front, I noted there were a lot of people employed at the airport who were doing absolutely nothing. Mostly they were working in airport shops but the immigration officials manning the Chinese gates weren't being kept busy either. A few more on the international transfer gate wouldn't have gone astray. I don't think inefficiency is necessarily a bad thing for the economy anyway. We can't all do essential jobs.

On the whole, given that the actual flying time between London and Sydney (21 hours) was roughly the same as going via Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, I'd fly Air China again.


Some holiday reading was done, although I occupied much of it with re-reading The First Book of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber.

100 things you didn't know you didn't know by John Barrow. I quite enjoyed this collection of the application of mathematics to real life situations. Did you know that it's slower to board planes from the back first than in a random order? The fastest way, which has been patented, is to board even (or odd) numbered rows starting from the back, window seats first. Then odd numbered rows, then non-window seats, again even followed by odd, back to front.

The most important thing is to get all those in window seats on first, because they can put their stuff in the overhead lockers without greatly obstructing those wanting to get past. Also they won't have to get up for those in aisle seats.

It'd be tricky to actually implement this but it could be largely done via boarding groups. I think some airlines already do this. Of course it means that passengers would have to pay heed to the boarding calls. The Chinese don't, they just all line up as soon as the first announcement is made so it becomes a random mess. But strangely quicker than boarding from the back first, so maybe they know how these things work.

There are lots of other interesting nuggets in that book.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This won the Booker Prize a few years ago, despite getting a bit of a pounding from critics. I found it engaging enough although the author was a bit wide of the mark when he said 'this story will make you believe in God'. If anything, it reinforced the opposite.

[Don't read if you don't want to find out what happens]

The story is about Pi Patel, a 16 year old Indian boy whose parents run a zoo in Pondicherry. They decided to emigrate to Canada and en route, their boat sinks. This leaves Pi in a lifeboat with a tiger, a hyena, a zebra and an orangutan. The tiger eats all of them except for Pi, who manages to assert his authoritaah and survive, eventually landing in Mexico.

While recovering in hospital, he is visited by two Japanese who work for the department of transport and want to know what happened to the ship. He tells them his story, which they don't believe. He then tells them another one, which more or less substitutes humans for the animals and is more plausible, but not quite as entertaining. Given that he can't prove either story, he leaves it up to the Japanese to choose which one to use in their report. They go for the animal one, which is meant to be the allegory. Or at least that's the way I read it.

While one should never let the facts get in the way of a good story, I think Mr Martel cheated and did the reader a disservice by not telling the second version in full. Real life can be told in an interesting manner. Reality TV shows do not fit into this category.

Eric by Terry Pratchett. One of the few Discworld books that I haven't read. Well I have now. It's only short (150 pages) but it's one of his funnier ones. Loosely based on the story of Faust, except the lead character is Eric, a 13 year-old boy who summons up a demon to grant him three wishes. He gets Rincewind the wizard instead and the wishes take an unusual twist.

The Demon King of Hell is good. He has remodeled Hell to be like a typical medium sized company with various stupid and annoying regulations. There's even a sign on the door that says "You don't have to be damned to work here, but it helps." And it has a coffee machine.

In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan. I've just started reading this and while I like and agree with the book's premise, it's told in a rambling, ranting fashion with the occasional nugget of good information in there. The author argues that 'nutritionism' - the ideology that has arisen from nutrition as a science - is misguided and that we should eat real food and not processed nutrient-enhanced crap. He says it's the latter that has led America into its dietary health epidemic, and the rest of the Western world is following it.

Nutrition is a typical reductionist science: let's take everything apart and see if we can work out what each bit does. e.g. does eating lots of saturated fat lead to higher bad cholesterol and thence to heart disease. The author cites modern reviews of the literature which come to the conclusion that for the most part, it doesn't. It's hard to believe because this points to a gigantic con on the part of the scientists, journalists and the government.

But nutrition is also a fairly modern science and you just have to look at its history to see that the goalposts are constantly being moved as to what you should eat. Fats are bad, protein's bad, carbohydrate is bad ... I cringe every time I see potatoes being maligned because they are "carbs". Potatoes are one of the most filling and, dare I say it, nutritious staples you can eat.

The message appears to be eat real food, mostly plant based. Obviously that includes beer and chocolate. It doesn't include margarine, which for a long time was one of the worst things (besides mercury) you could put into your body. And when this was discovered, they simply re-engineered it to make it 'healthy' again. What a swizz. Just eat butter.


Lucy Jones said...

I spent my life eating butter and look where it got me

Jeff Jones said...

Good point. But was it the butter that got you there?

Anonymous said...

No, it was the cooking roster forced upon you at a formative age.

The AP