Saturday, August 9, 2014

Melbourne, Victoria

Some Australians say that Melbourne (pronounced Mel-ben, not Mel-born, see Forvo) is their most European city. A city of culture and sophistication. For me it was the most American of Australian cities... a mix of San Francisco and New York. Have a look:

Land divided into squares. I saw that in the American Midwest.
Concrete elevated highway and an island of skyscrapers. Could be almost any big American city.

A downtown mess of old and new, tightly packed. Too much colour for Manhattan, but maybe Boston?

Streets wide for cars, narrow for people, few trees. 
Trams going uphill, a new imposing skyscraper next to old buildings - San Fran?

But then Melbourne has many faces. Have a look at these:

Some Persian Gulf state?

Somewhere in Scandinavia? 
Over-engineered train station... Netherlands, definitely.
An office building. Germany?
Paris or Warsaw?

Blocks of flats, a common sight in Europe, but this is Melbourne.
I'm sure I saw places like this elsewhere, but this is Melbourne too.

Melbourne is tourist-friendly. There is a free tram, number 35, that goes in a loop around the centre of the city. 

Free tram.
Melbourne people are friendly: in 24 hours since arriving, 4 people helped us with directions - without asking, all we had to do was open a map and look a bit lost. :-)

Melbourne is very political. We were there only Friday and Saturday and we saw four protests: first on Friday night, a very loud march against Israeli actions in Gaza (people had "free Palestine" signs), then on Saturday, a gathering in Federation Square against the terror of ISIS in Iraq (Muslims, Christians and Kurds against terror), then on the steps of a government building ecologists protesting the lack of protection of forests, and finally a few bikers protesting the laws that limit their right to meet freely. Then there were stalls: Falun Gong making people aware of how the Chinese government is persecuting them - a terrible story really - a reminder that China is not a free democratic country. Another stall tried to make people less afraid of Islam. There were also flowers in memory of the victims of flight MH-17 (put there by Ukrainians).

Federation Square - Anti ISIS protest.
Poster on the church: Let's fully welcome refugees.

Finally, I used the opportunity to visit the Jewish Holocaust Museum. It is small, but well designed and maintained. Its strong point are volunteer guides.
Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre
A few glimpses of the world of Polish Jewry before WWII:
Jewish newspaper in Yiddish from Warsaw, 17 August 1939.
Jewish Sports Club in Białystok.
And the terror of German occupation from 1939 to 1945:

German soldiers rounding up Jews in Poland - Strażacka street.
Jewish mother and three children walking towards gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Sara, Kalman, Bronia, Miriam, and Nathan.
My motto: Ellie Wiesel's speech in Oslo in 1986.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ukraine, 18 July 2014 - Putin's "Green Men" Are Back

Putin did not choose to openly enter Ukraine. According to Ukrainian sources, Putin is sending the Russian army into Ukraine again without insignia and documents, but fully armed with tanks, anti-aircraft, and other weapons. He did it before in Crimea, now he is doing it in Donetsk and Lugansk.
Buk missile launcher being transported in Russia controlled area of Ukraine.

Yesterday, his men (I am using this term broadly here, I treat both the regular Russian army without insignia, the Russian special forces sent earlier, and the local Russians and pro-Russians as Putin's men) shot down Malaysian civilian MH17 plane killing 298 people. His propaganda does not deny it directly, but instead is insinuating that it could be Ukrainians, and that anyway it is Ukraine's fault because they don't want to give up Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Phone conversations between pro-Russian forces, recorded and released by Ukrainians clearly indicate that it was those pro-Russian soldiers who shot down the plane, mistaking it for an Ukrainian transport plane. I hope that Russians in Russia wake up, and realise what kind of government they have and what propaganda they are fed. Shame.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


What does a software developer do when he has to rename 100 files? Writes a little script. In this case in Sikuli - a tool that will eventually allow computers to take away even programmers' jobs. Click to enlarge:

If this was for work, images would be replaced with file paths - the DRY principle!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Ukraine, 2 July 2014 - A Case for War

I've been watching Russian news almost every day for the last few weeks. In Australia, you can watch NTV сегодня on SBS. Most days, most of the news was dedicated to the situation in Eastern Ukraine. The picture is not pretty. Hundreds of civilians killed, cities cut off from the rest of the country, people living without running water and electricity, thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands fleeing Ukraine to Russia, Russian journalists beaten and killed. There is a recurring request to open a humanitarian corridor to let civilians escape besieged cities. The Ukrainian army seems to be using artillery and planes against civilians, in what looks like random fashion. Nobody is safe: a bomb falls on a church, a home, a village, a bus with civilians, journalists - Ukrainians are dropping bombs everywhere. There were even cases of shells falling on Russian territory and Ukrainian tanks or armoured vehicles entering Russia, admittedly by mistake.

Some background: NTV used to be an independent news organisation, but now is owned by Gazprom, which means its news is government propaganda. It does not mean that it is all false, nobody would fall for that. It is probably mostly true. But it is not objective. Propaganda is subtle: drilling some topics, while glossing over others, showing some pictures repeatedly, choosing words carefully, building a case for war, in this case.

What is President Putin doing about the Ukrainian crisis? According to NTV news, absolutely nothing: June 17th - Putin meets with the mayor of Moscow to discuss new real estate tax law, June 18th - Putin meets with young farming cooperative workers to discuss agriculture. Strange, isn't it? Only yesterday the news finally showed Putin talking strongly about situation in Ukraine.

If I was Russian and my only source of news was the official Russian TV, I would be asking president Putin to move the army into Eastern Ukraine now. I would be angry at him for allowing Ukrainian fascists to kill our fellow Russians for so long. Enough is enough.

In my opinion Putin is waiting for the right moment. He will say he was forced to react. It may come very soon. The ending of the 10 day cease fire seems like a good moment. Putin will enter Eastern Ukraine and restore peace.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

No Sex in the City by Randa Abdel-Fattah

No Sex in the City is a book of 383 pages written by Australian Randa Abdel-Fattah.

It is a light book, similar in style to Marian Keyes, but less shocking. My daughter got it from her high school library. I'm not sure why I read it. It was lying on the table and somehow I picked it up, started reading, and got sucked into it.

It's a book for girls and young women. Maybe I like to look into the mysterious mind of the opposite sex sometimes. Anyway, it is a good read. It has a few relationship twists, a future mother in law from hell, a mild sexual harassment case, and a father with a gambling secret. It is the first book in which I saw "put out" used in sexual context.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Glass House Mountains

A half-day trip to Glass House Mountains in the hinterland of Sunshine Coast, about 2 hours from Gold Coast by car. The 11 peaks are the remnants of volcanoes from 26 million years ago. Unlike the Gold Coast hinterland, the area around the peaks is almost flat.

Start of the Mt Ngungun track, 2.4 km return.
As you can see the spelling of the park name is not consistent. This sign has "Glasshouse Mountains", but the official park website has "Glass House Mountains".

Don't leave valuables in the car.
A good advice, but how about putting up a camera, and catching the thief, instead of putting the signs?

A cave halfway to the top.
Mt Tibrogargan 364m and Mt Beerburrum 280m behind it and to the right.
The twin peaks of Mt Coochin, 235m, and Mt Mellum far behind them.

Mt Beerwah 556m (pyramid shape) and Mt Coonowrin 377m
 (wizard's hat) in front of it and to the right.

From left to right: Mt Cooee (a hill really), Mt Tibrogargan 364m,
Mt Beerburrum 280m, Mt Tibberoowuccum 220m.
A small tree near the summit with a smooth pink bark.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Japan - April 2014

This April I went to Japan for the first time with my family. It was a very intensive trip. 9 nights, 3 hotels, 6 cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nara, Nagoya. We had Japanese Railways passes for 7 days.

We met many friendly Japanese who came up to us and gave us sightseeing tips: in Nagoya, in Nara, in Tokyo. We met volunteer guides in Ueno Park and in Tokyo Edo Museum. Thank you!

We flew with a budget airline for the first time - JetStar - and it was quite a pleasant experience compared to a full-service airline. People who wanted airline food, bought airline food, people who needed to check-in many bags paid per bag and per weight, people who wanted extra in-flight entertainment leased iPads loaded with movies and games. People who wanted a window seat - like me, paid for the privilege. I especially liked the food part - in full service airlines the serving of the food is a logistical nightmare for the crew and passengers - it takes long, corridors are blocked, you are woken up just when you have managed to fall asleep, it is very uncomfortable to eat with your elbows in your belly, the trays with rubbish block your exit for a long time after the meal. In a budget airline the whole thing is a breeze. The few passengers who ordered meals get served, and we are done.

The only unpleasant surprise was that the window seat that I picked online didn't have a good view - the wings of the plane were in the way - I thought the wings were in a different place when I was booking the seats on the website. Next time, I will look more carefully and maybe check to confirm the layout of the plane.

Nara - the biggest wooden temple in the world. 
Reminds me of a helmet with horns.

Nara - old ladies and little girls, beware of the deer! 
The deer in Nara used to be sacred - 400 years ago there was a death penalty for killing them.

Kyoto - looking pretty in kimonos.
Kyoto - the temple behind the big gate.
Buy and pray. The proceeds go to the temple.
"Trees" of unwanted horoscopes. 
The rain and wind are supposed to dispose of them. It works like this: you go to a buddhist temple, leave a small coin, shake a hexagonal box and pull a stick from it, the stick has a number, you find a horoscope with that number, if you like the horoscope you keep it, if you don't like it, you attach it to this white "tree" outside.

Huge blocks of flats near Tokyo.

Between Nagoya and Osaka - a grim block of flats. Brrr.
Obviously there is no law that regulates distances between buildings in Japan. Or if there is, it specifies them in millimetres.

What I did on the train.
I was learning to read Kanji characters. I could read all characters in "eating and drinking forbidden" by the end of the trip (4 characters: to eat: rice cooked over fire, under a roof; to drink: to eat + person with mouth wide open; prohibited: you will end up on a sacrificial altar if you enter King's forest; stop: a foot). Len Walsh's "Read Japanese Today" is great.

A big rubbish bin.
Modern art in front of the Toyoko-Inn in Shinagawa. You will find almost no normal rubbish bins in Tokyo. No rubbish either. When you buy an ice-cream, unwrap it right away at the store, there should be a rubbish bin there. Sometimes you can find them next to vending machines too. That's it. 

Legoland Discovery Center 
Legoland Discovery Center in Tokyo is located in the Decks Mall. It's a small place, but our 7 year old liked it. What I did not like was that they sold us a Lego set for a price about 50% higher than in a department store we visited the next day.

A piece of art - a manhole in Tokyo with a fire-turtle.

Tokyo Ueno Zoo - otter exhibit.

A view towards Mt Fuji from the Tokyo Government Building.
On a very clear day (read: no rain, few cars, windy) we would be able to see Mt Fuji easily.

Tokyo Edo Museum
The Kanji sign above the word STOP originated from a drawing of a foot. 

The document of surrender of Japan in WW II.
The funny thing is that the Canadian representative signed it in a wrong place: under, instead of above the line, and all following labels had to be corrected. 

Modern and green Tokyo city scape near Shinagawa station.

Gundam robot statue (I hope) in Tokyo. 

There are many types of high speed trains in Japan - the Shinkansen.

Shinkansen Series 0
First Shinkansen travelled the Tokyo Osaka route in 3 hours. Its maximum speed was 220 km/h. An interesting fact about Shinkansen seats: do you know why you are always seating towards the direction of travel? The same reason why you have so much space for your knees and the folding table: because when the 400m long train arrives at its destination, it does not turn around in a loop, but instead somebody turns every set of seats 180 degrees with one flick of a hand. A team of two prepares a carriage for another journey in about a minute. In addition to turning all seats, they dust all seats and the floor, replace head rest cloths (antimacassars), open window blinds, and put seats in up-right position.

Tokyo Osaka route
In 2014 Shinkansen travels Tokyo Osaka route usually in 2 hours 30 minutes with maximum speed of 270 km/h. It can go a bit faster: 285 km/h but it doesn't on this line. Using a JR pass you cannot take the fastest non-stop Nozomi services. The fastest you can take - Hikari - needs 3 hours for this trip. Beware of Kodoma trains - they stop at every station and your journey will very likely take twice as long.

A few thoughts about JR passes: they are very good value: a return trip between Tokyo and Osaka costs as much as a 7 day pass, but they are quite inconvenient to obtain and use: usually you fill a form and order them online, then vouchers are mailed to you (you can buy vouchers at some airports - Cairns for example), then you need to go to a JR office when you arrive in Japan, where you need to fill another form, wait in line - up to an hour when there are 4 people in front of you, present the voucher, and your passport, and get the pass. The pass does not fit in a wallet - it is a size of a booklet. You need to present it to a railway official every time you enter and leave a station - you cannot use automatic gates. The pass is not valid for Nozomi and Mizuho trains, which are the most common at peak times. You may need to wait for a Hikari train up to 1 hour. Still, JR pass is a bargain. Use or to check train times and prices.

JR recommends getting seat reservations for Shinkansen trips: the problem is that when you arrive at a station 15 minutes before departure there may not be enough time to get it, or you may be told that there are no more seats available. Don't despair, go to the platform, find the section where cars with unreserved seats stop and get in line. There is a very good chance that you will have a seat.

Current frequency in Japan
Funny fact: western Japan uses 60Hz current, eastern Japan uses 50Hz current. Both use 100V and North American style plugs.

Line up of JR Central Shinkansen - Railway Museum in Nagoya.

Evolution of EMUs.

Shinkansen, like many other Japanese products, was an evolution of earlier designs, which can be seen in this picture.

Funny thing - locks for umbrellas.
Nagoya port
All these Toyota pick-ups will probably be shipped to America. There are two Toyota museums in Nagoya and also there is a Toyota factory tour. Did not book the factory tour - not enough time.

Nagoya - a newly re-created part of the castle. Beautiful.

Mt Fuji captured from Shinkansen 
Look at the angle of the closest pole - is it leaning because the view was changing faster than my camera's rate of reading pixels? If so, then knowing the time needed to read one pixel, the resolution of this picture, the height of the pole, and the distance to it from my camera, I could calculate the speed of the train.

In Gold Coast we have quiet cars, in Osaka they have Women Only cars.
Hello snake. 
Different kinds of paint, same body part.
We visited Mazda Museum in Hiroshima and took the factory tour. No pictures allowed. The factory was not fully automated. It had very few robots in the section for visitors. It was very packed and loud. You wouldn't want to work there. Since the assembly is manual, mistakes happen. I saw a worker dropping a nut somewhere into a half-assembled car. He found it and screwed it in. Good for the owner of that Mazda. My Australian made Toyota has a part lost somewhere under the floor. I can hear it rolling every time I take a turn, but only when it is warm outside. Why?

Re-built Hiroshima Castle. 
The original was destroyed by the A-bomb in 1945.

Did you know about dummy A-bombs? I did not.
Before the A-bomb.
After the A-bomb.
A-dome history
A piece of trivia - the notorious Hiroshima A-dome building was designed by a Czech architect Jan Letzel.

An old tram in Hiroshima. 
Beware of people with bicycles in Hiroshima! Why is this guy chasing me?
A block of flats with a parking lot under and around it. 
In Europe these buildings are usually surrounded by green spaces. In Japan a green flat area is a luxury. On the other hand, the land seems to be either flat and completely built up or used for agriculture, or hilly/mountainous and left alone for the trees to grow in peace.

A Korean bronze shoe from the 6th century AD - Tokyo National Museum.
Buddha triad - 12th-13th century, Cambodia. 
It turns out many religions have triads or trinities.