Saturday, April 30, 2011

The wombat zone

Saturday (yesterday here, probably today where you are) was the birthday of a colleague of Tina’s who lives in Melbourne. Lisa and her husband, Maury, picked us up at the hotel in the morning, and we went to the Healesville Sanctuary, part of the Victoria Zoos system, about an hour’s drive northeast of Melbourne, in the Yarra River area.

A zoo is a zoo, you may think, and why spend precious tourist hours visiting one, especially sans grandchildren. But many of Australia’s native species are not easily seen in American zoos, and so it was an interesting excursion. I had never seen a platypus other than on tv and no idea how small they are in real life, for example. Nor did I have a clear mental image of what a wombat looks like. And although I’ve been to Tasmania, this was the first time I’d seen a Tasmanian devil in the flesh.

After a few hours there, we drove back through wine country and stopped at an elegant winery bistro for tea (the time of day, not the beverage). It is fall here, harvest time (think Halloween), which explains why pumpkin is featured on so many menus and in so many interesting dishes, none of which bear any remote resemblance to pumpkin pie. And no, there are no outdoor decorations of pumpkins, gourds, and cornstalks to be seen anywhere. The American fruit has been adopted but not the kitsch that goes with it.

I was struck, on our drive, by the difference between public works in Australia and those in the U.S. This is a place where architects and artists are allowed—perhaps encouraged—to play. Everything from highway sound barriers to tunnel entrances to bridges of all types to train stations to customs houses is a work of public art, not just a utilitarian structure devoid of personality or attitude, as seems to be the only permissible style in the U.S. At home it’s considered wondrous that a government entity can ram a cable stay bridge through the approval process. Here, there is a sense of exuberance. Cable stay bridges are merely a starting point for beautiful and varied ways to move people from one side of a river to another. In fact, the tunnel we went through yesterday was built to get beneath a mountain stream that was thought important enough not to disturb with a bridge over it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Around the world in 52 days

If you are old enough to remember Cinerama, you may recall Around the World in Eighty Days, with David Niven as Phileas Fogg and Cantinflas as Passepartout in the 1956 film adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. The movie poster featured the two of them in a balloon.

This morning, eating breakfast in the executive lounge at the Hilton South Wharf in Melbourne, my wife and I looked out the window and saw five balloons rising over the harbor. The hostess explained that this is a daily occurrence, organized by commercial balloon excursion companies for people who want to pay ridiculous sums to then have to rise at three or four in the morning in order to get to the launch site in time for their adventure. I guess we’ll be passing on that experience, although we were up well before then today, having just arrive in Melbourne yesterday morning local time and not having adjusted completely to the time shift yet.

In any case, the blog will be given over to a travel journal for the next few weeks. If this bores you to tears, feel free to stop back mid-June, when it will return to the regular mishmash of more professional observations.

The occasion for this junket is a series of speaking engagements Tina arranged for herself in such a way that we end up circumnavigating the globe. This is something airlines like to encourage people to do, and so they offer deals. In particular, Star Alliance (owned by Lufthansa but participated in by many airlines) offers two plans, one about half the price of the other. If you can limit your itinerary to five stops (stops quite loosely defined, so that you can land in one city and take off from another, arranging your own transportation between them) and you can make the trip in less than 26,000 air miles, then you can take advantage of the lower-priced deal. Tina, in addition to being the sort of person who gets invited to speak all over the world, is also a savvy travel planner; she gets the credit for making this trip possible.

We also have a pretty good deal with Hilton that makes it possible for us to hole up for free in luxury hotels from time to time and eat free in the executive lounge. That cuts way down on daily expenditures as we go along, even as it embarrassingly intensifies the sense that we’ve become the kind of tourists we mocked in our youth.

Eat your heart out, United
The domestic airline whose mileage program we participate in is United, a Star Alliance member. Tina accumulates enough miles to qualify for a variety of privileges that I, as her spouse, get to enjoy as well. The occasional upgrade out of cattle class is one.

The first two legs of our trip were a short flight from Hartford to Washington followed by a cross-country flight to San Francisco, where Tina grew up and still has friends. We flew first class on both planes. This is not particularly special. While there are only two seats on either side of the aisle, rather than three, it is the space between seats that is wider, not the space between the armrests. In fact, in economy class, in most rows, you can raise the armrests between seats, providing a little extra hip room. In first class, the armrests are wide and filled with gadgetry, but they cannot be raised, so the seat is effectively narrower than an economy seat. There is slightly more legroom, but the tray tables extend only so far, making it a tight squeeze for someone my size, and the distance to the seat in front is not quite enough to comfortably open up a laptop. So much for plan A. Meanwhile, the entertainment, such as it is, is on an overhead monitor, not a seatback monitor, so you have no choice in what to watch. The only personal option is to not bother putting on your headphones; that’s the one I exercised, as the programs on offer were not suitable for anyone over the age of 13. There was a meal, but it was nothing memorable.

After a few days in the bay area, during which I was treated to lunch by a client and had drinks and light meal with some editing colleagues, it was off to Melbourne by way of Auckland, on Air New Zealand. We had to check out of our San Francisco hotel at 3:00 in the afternoon, but we couldn’t check in for our flight until 6:15. A good part of the interval between was spent in slapstick comedy as we chased between terminal buildings trying to track down a lost passport that wasn’t lost at all, just in the wrong person’s possession. Let’s just say that one of us was (accidentally) holding both of our passports and neither of us realized that. By the time we found it, it was time to get in line to check our bags. Then we were finally able to navigate unencumbered. We headed through security and on to the lounge.

Traveling as Star Alliance gold members, we have access to airport lounges. We had the choice of United’s Red Carpet Club or the Eva Airways Evergreen Club lounge shared by several of the international carriers. Hmmm. Decisions, decisions. Well, we know what Red Carpet Club offers—cookies and crackers, mini-slices of plastic-encased processed cheese, underripe fruit, and soft drinks. Anything else that might be on offer, such as beer or mediocre wine, comes at a steep price. Let’s try the other one. Lovely trays of charcuterie, interesting New Zealand cheeses, sliced fresh fruit, New Zealand wines (quite nice), and more. All free. Not a hard choice.

We had paid for an upgrade to Economy Premium for the fifteen-hour flight to Auckland. Now on United, there is something called Economy Plus, which is the first several rows in the economy cabin. It gets you five inches additional knee room, thus preventing permanent injury, but is otherwise identical to regular cattle class. On Air New Zealand, though, it entails a substantial array of perks. On board, we learned that Economy Premium is its own seating area. Leg room is comparable to United’s first class seating. The tray tables push away several inches further than in United’s first class, making it possible for me to sit up and eat like a normal human. A large storage locker on the window side holds a large, heavy duvet to supplement the standard-issue airplane blanket. Service includes complimentary beer or red, white, or sparkling New Zealand wine and the sorts of amenities, such as hot washcloths before meals, that United provides in Business Class. The supper menu started with cured and seared tuna with salad ratatouille and lobster dressing over mesclun greens. For the entree we had a choice of New Zealand lamb lin with yellow bell pepper salsa, lyonnaise potatoes, and broccolini with lemon; pan-seared cod with lemon caper sauce, baby potatoes, spinach, and caramelized shallots; or wood-roasted chicken breast with soft herb mash, zucchini, mushrooms, and red onion. We both had the lamb. A basket of various interesting warm breads was passed with dinner. Dessert was a berry almond sponge cake with a dollop of cinnamon cream on the side. There was an after-dinner plate of New Zealand cheeses with grapes and apricots, but neither of us had room to consider even looking at it.

Breakfast began with a fruit plate, yogurt, croissants (warm) with New Zealand butter and fruit conserves. Cereal was available but we passed. There was a further choice of cheddar and chive scrambled egg served with chicken sausage, mushroom ragout, and cherry tomatoes; or Belgian waffles, strawberries, manuka honey apple syrup, and freshly whipped banana cream. Tina had the eggs. I had neither, as I was still full from dinner.

The menu for those traveling the other direction, Auckland to California, is entirely different for both meals, featuring more fresh New Zealand ingredients, but of the same quality. While I don’t know what the choices were in regular economy, I note that this is the Premium Economy menu I’m talking about, not the same menu as is offered in business class or in first class, and yet it is quite elegant, and the food lives up to the description.

The onboard entertainment system on many international carriers consists of individually controlled seatback monitors. The Air New Zealand system, in addition to whatever musical offerings, informational pages about destinations, and television episodes it had, offered a choice of seventy movies—many more than I’ve seen offered on any other airline. I generally don’t bother unwrapping the headphones. There were the expected kids’ movies, romantic comedies, and recent action flicks. There were extensive selections in Japanese and Chinese. And there were classics. On the transpacific flight I saw Elmer Gantry and almost all of The Misfits, neither of which I’d ever seen. So that was pretty cool. On the Auckland to Melbourne flight, I saw Buena Vista Social Club, another I had missed.

About an hour before breakfast, we were awakened by a PA announcement requesting the assistance of a doctor or registered nurse. Tina turned out to be the only doctor who volunteered, and her major contribution was to be present so that the aircraft’s medical kit could legally be opened. The medical problem was one that the nurses who volunteered were much more qualified to treat than Tina was. Nonetheless, the crew were quite grateful for her stepping forward. As a consequence, on our Auckland to Melbourne flight, we were upgraded from the regular economy seats we had booked (I can tolerate tight knee room for three hours) to business class.

In Auckland we did a little airport shopping and proceeded to the Air New Zealand lounge for our second breakfast of the morning. (Really, we ate little, but there was a nice buffet spread that included scrambled eggs, pancakes, a selection of breads and pastries, fresh fruit, and more.)

Business class was interesting. Maybe you’ve seen ads for business class seats that recline into full-length individual beds. That was the arrangement. Each pod included a comfortable seat (wider, finally, than any of the other seats so far), an ottoman that doubled as a guest seat (it had a seatbelt) and a large table (normally stowed) that is adequate for two people to eat facing each other, which is how we had our third breakfast yesterday. Service began with a choice of water, juice, sparkling wine, or a banana-honey smoothie. This was followed by a sliced fruit plate, assorted cereals, bircher muesli, and yogurt. The passed bread basket included croissants, muffins, Vogel’s (a New Zealand brand of dense, whole grain bread), or fruit toast, served with New Zealand butter and fruit conserves. This was followed by a choice of smoked chicken pesto and parmesan omelette with slow-roasted tomato and chicken sausage; or corned beef and root vegetable cakes with grilled field mushroom (actually, it was half a portobello), leaf spinach, blistered vine tomato, and tarragon mustard mayonnaise. The breakfast entrees were credited to, respectively, chef Geoff Scott of Vinnies Restaurant, Auckland, and Rex Morgan, Boulcott Street Bistro, Wellington.( A third chef pictured in the menu did not have a dish listed on this version.) The corned beef was a minor and subtle ingredient in an almost latke-like cake of shredded vegetables—not what either of was expecting, but much lighter and more subtle.

As a further gesture, when we were about to land, the plane’s concierge stopped by to speak with Tina and handed her a bottle of one of New Zealand’s better Cabernet Sauvignons.

United Airlines is the U.S. flag carrier. We’ve flown their D.C. to Paris route, once, by mistake. In comparison with any other Star Alliance carrier we’ve been on, they are an embarrassment to their flag. The food is barely edible, even by American standards. Service is generally polite but never warm, regardless of class. On the Paris flight, there were perhaps two members of the cabin crew who spoke French. Every other flag carrier we’ve traveled on has been superior on all counts and in all travel classes.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Noted in passing: become becomes obsolete

Language changes. The rate at which a given language changes is something linguists can measure and write papers about and draw conclusions about, and I’m not a linguist. So I’ll leave all that to the experts.

But we all recognize that certain phrases and words and usages rise or fall in popularity within our lifetimes. So linguistic change is not always glacial.

For some reason, the word become popped into my head Saturday night. Not the intransitive verb become, as in “a caterpillar becomes a butterfly,” but the transitive verb become, as in “that outfit becomes you” or the gerund (I think I have that right) “that outfit is very becoming.”

This was a common locution in my childhood. My mother would say it to my sister, as she would say to me “that behavior is unbecoming a young gentleman.”

Sunday morning, my wife and I had brunch with her daughter and son-in-law. My wife remarked to my stepdaughter, “Is that jacket new? It looks cute on you.” Driving home, I asked her if her mother, like mine, would instead have said “that jacket is very becoming.” We agreed that neither of us had heard anyone use the word in recent memory—certainly no one of our generation or those after.

So I did a cursory corpus search, using Google’s new Ngram viewer. It seems the use of the word unbecoming, at least in printed works, peaked around 1710 at 20 times its current frequency, and related phrases that I tried have similarly declined. The decline has been about fifty percent since the 1950s. There has been a slight uptick in the last few years of “unbecoming a young lady,” apparently in Christian behavior manuals. Otherwise, this sense of the word become seems to be quite moribund, although dictionaries treat it as current and unremarkable.

So let me ask you: if you are under forty, is this a word you hear or use in speech? Other than in nineteenth-century and earlier literature or in the title Morning Becomes Electra, are you familiar with it in writing? Did you even know the word before reading this post?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Intended to be a true statement

About this sendup of a book signing, by the Onion (do read it; it’s a hoot), guest blogger Dave Marx of PassPorter Travel Press had this to say on a publishers’ discussion list:
…there’s a lot of truth to it.

Too many authors and small pubs don’t understand that an author event’s greatest value is in the pre-event publicity. Far more will see that and be exposed to author and title than will ever haul their butts down to the store. Author events are an excuse for the book store and author to send press releases, appear on local radio/tv, etc. Showing up at the store, pen in hand, is the payback, not the payoff.
Dave will be be speaking on Marketing 101 in the Digital Age at the 2011 IBPA Publishing University, May 22–23 in New York

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

the eyes have it

Disambiguation page

The following three words all sound alike:
First person singular pronoun

Organ of vision

Yes, as in “Aye, Cap’n” or “the ayes have it”

The following two words sound alike:
Yes, as in, “Are you with me, yea or nay?” or “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

A cheer, similar to hooray, with which it rhymes.
And the following word does not sound like any of the above:
An informal or slang way to say yes, as in “yeah, right” or “yeah, I’ll pick it up on the way home.”
This message brought to you by someone increasingly annoyed that anyone who writes or edits for a living can possibly be confused about this.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

If you don't subscribe to Nathan Bransford's blog, you missed this

Nathan Bransford’s blog is a must-read. Yesterday’s post offers this nugget:
Comment! of! the! Week! I’m going to Twitter for this one, as EvilWylie responded to my question about how authors of the future will make money: