21 December 2009

Ultimo, not Instant

We wanted to go to the beach on Friday, but it rained. We had appointments at the Apple Store on Saturday (my iPod gave up the ghost, and it looks like my iBook's about to make a trend of it). I ended up getting an iPod Touch to replace my iPod-- I'm thrilled with it so far, not only because I've been without my podcasts for over a week now. I've already loaded the VeganYumYum app! It's awesome!

And then we thought maybe we'd get to the beach on Sunday, but an ominous gray blanket of clouds changed those plans. We felt like getting out of the house, so we decided to risk a walking tour. The City of Sydney Pyrmont/Ultimo tour starts at Pyrmont Bridge, and on the way there, Craig and I caught some of those spectacular moments of weirdness that bubble over in Western cities.

Someone made an odd sort of holiday feast for the pigeons.

Allow me to draw your attention to the "Coconut Polo" and the " 'Chicken' Croissant." What the hell is a Polo? And no, that is not chicken, and no, you do not put chicken on a croissant! Further, a word of advice: never ever put in your mouth a thing that is called "Sprinkle Pork Floss." Just don't, okay? Trust me. I didn't, and my life is good.

Pyrmont and Ultimo used to be sort of industrial dockyards, where Sydney's woolstores and goodsyards would sort goods for export. So, the area was a major economic influence on the city until road and air freight became cheaper, obviating the shipyards. About 20 years ago, the area was derelict, but has since seen a major resurgence as tourism and real estate developers and media conglomerates have moved in.

Darling Island used to be an actual...island, but in the 1840's, they connected it to the mainland; ships were built and maintained there right up until the 1890's. In 2003, the area was under re-construction, and they found these enormous old iron boat propellors! They're probably from the 1860's-1880's.

Pyrmont Point Park used to have baths and a tidal pool, but they were demolished, and a park was put in. An art installation pays homage to the tides' former contribution to the park; these red ladders rise and fall with the tide. This park is amazing; it's sort of a two-level character. From this part, you get this really unique view of the Harbour Bridge, but from the upper level (called Giba Park), you get these amazing panoramic views of the city and the harbour.

In this neighbourhood, you can really see how Sydney is a city built on cliffs. It's a layered city, people making use of every level surface they can find.

This hotel reminded me of Atlanta.

Pyrmont was also a quarrying site; the yellow block sandstone from this area was used in several of Sydney's most glorious buildings, including Sydney University, the Art Gallery of NSW, and government buildings. Back when the quarries were in use, they created a lot of jobs, but also made Pyrmont a blasted-looking and treeless place. These days, it's a beautiful part of town, and the trees have even overtaken the sandstone cliffs.

How many lorikeets can you fit in your tree?

Though this walking tour included a lot of stuff that Craig and I already knew about (the ABC studios or Darling Harbour), it also showed us a lot of really small precious jewels that I'm not sure we ever would have known about otherwise. It included a bit of city, a bit of cool old historical stuff, and some water's edge.

But I have to say, as great as this walking tour is, I'm beginning to understand that the walking tour of my dreams is a bitter impossibility. Because though these tours often explain things you never wondered about in the first place, though these tours are often interesting in their strange details, all I want is a walking tour that will explain why there is a swordfish and fisherman sculpted into the side of this building on Broadway. I will probably never know; I must merely resign myself.

Oh! An update: Craig and I haven't had another go at screenprinting yet – and we won't until we get home from our Christmas adventures in Thailand and Cambodia – but when we do, we're thinking about printing this design for our mailbox. What do you think of it? You want one?

Lastly: Craig's really gotten into breadmaking lately; he's been baking all sorts of strange breads. Today, from our diminutive little oven, came his very first baguettes. Aren't they beautiful? Isn't he? The baguettes taste good, too-- anyone who visits gets fresh bread and fresh cinnamon rolls.

And, of course, your very own guided walking tours around one of the weirdest cities on the planet. Do you know about the bats?

18 December 2009

snail print.

I've been wanting to try out some DIY screenprinting for a long time, and this weekend, Craig and I finally got around to some serious experimentation.

A few months ago, Craig built a lightbox; four 18 watt, 4000K, 1350 lumen fluorescent tubes, aluminum foil, some power cable and glass.

I had a Speedball Screenprinting kit that was a present from SolDesign when I left the job and moved here. That's right-- this kit is over a year old...

A month or two ago, our wonderful friends Jeremy and Katie bought their first home. And we screwed up. We didn't get them a housewarming card for months. Seriously, we were really late. To make up for it, I thought we should design our own card; my idea was a snail carrying a house on its back. Craig drew the card, and we sent it off.

But then I thought it would make a good print, too. Craig recreated the drawing, and we overlapped 3 transparencies to get the lines really opaque.

I got the materials together-- the ink scraper, emulsion, sensitizer, ink and screen.

I mixed the emulsion with sensitizer and prepped the screen.

We experimented with the exposure times on our lightbox-- about 8 minutes looked pretty good.

This is what our exposed screen looked like-- the red dots are screen filler. As you can see, the screen isn't perfect; it's not as crisp as Craig's drawing.

We made a few prints, using just copy paper and some fairly ugly shiny blue ink (it came in the kit...)

Our first print was very patchy.

Things got better as we kept printing, but our fourth, and last, print still wasn't that good.

Any of you screenprinting masters out there have any advice for us? Is it possible that I waited too long to use the emulsion? We washed the screen out in our sink, which doesn't have very high pressure-- should I have washed the screen out with a higher-pressure hose? Should we give up on using the lightbox and just try using the sun instead?

I'm looking forward to printing more and getting better at it, so any tips would be greatly appreciated!

13 December 2009

The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Though Dr. Norman Doidge follows many of the tried-and-true techniques of interesting science writing, this book doesn't feel formulaic; it's joyful, hopeful, exuberantly optimistic, and yet somehow still cautious. Dr. Doidge follows several discipline-bending, pathfinding, genius-with-cherry-on-top neuroscientists, psychologists, teachers and researchers to find the beginnings of a field that says our brains are able to heal themselves or hurt themselves, bit by bit, all depending on what our senses and thoughts provide. Trauma and worry can be learned; our neurons can hardwire it, resulting in OCD and neuroses. Damage from stroke or brain injury can be unlearned, by stitching new functionality onto unused or underused neurons. Everything we do is a result of our neurons behaving in some way or another. Our brains are unbelievably flexible-- so flexible, they'll become rigid if we let them.

He introduces a few principles of neuroplasticity at the beginning of the book (ie neurons that fire together, wire together), and then he occasionally reminds the reader of how those principles illuminate a certain situation. But thankfully, he avoids the "Gladwell Error," which is hitting the reader over the head with one basic principle. (My impression of Gladwell? "This is what I call a blink moment, the kind of moment where a decision is made in the blink of an eye. It's such a quick decision, you don't even realise you've made one, because it only took as long as blink, so it's a blink decision made in a blink moment.")

This book is fabulously readable; often scientists need journalists or writers to translate the science into ordinary English. And lately, I've found journalists can be too reliant on their column-writing skills. By writing this himself, Doidge proves himself a decent writer on top of being a neuropsychologist; and he saves us hundreds of pages of groaning topic sentences and grinding dialogue.

It's exciting, to think your brain is always reacting to what you're giving it. But be warned: this book will make you wonder about everything you do; whether you're training your brain to do something you shouldn't, or what you should be doing to make your brain better. I started favouring less comfortable and cushy shoes; after all, I don't want the neurons that listen to my feet to forget how to deal with uneven, non-cushy terrain, making me less agile and more reliant on sneakers over the years. Boy Wonder started practicing his cursive handwriting. He's always been a print kind of man, but Dr. Doidge believes that long, flowing strokes of the pen encourage long, flowing, more eloquent thoughts, which we could all use a little more of, yes? But then you start worrying that thinking about what you're teaching your brain all the time could be a bad idea, and then you worry that your "I should improve my brain" neurons will fire with your "I worry now" neurons, and by firing together, those neurons will wire together, giving you yet another neurosis exclusively about brain improvement.

So you know... just... be warned.

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06 December 2009

I'll eat you up--

Congrats are in order!

Our good friend Benedict, senior producer of Final Draft, is just about to finish his PhD in History-- and he just got his dream job! He's going to be a historian for the New Zealand government.

The only bad news is that they're not going to let him work from Sydney (*scoff!*), which means that he and his partner – you might recall the beautiful Monika from the camping post – will be moving very far away. Very soon. Not one, not two, but three of the loveliest people I've met in Sydney will suddenly be gone. And I'll only get to know the third one for about 8 weeks.

It's a little heartbreaking. But it's good for Ben, and nothing is better than watching good people and good friends live their dreams. And we're having fun with them while we can-- last night, we went to see Where the Wild Things Are. It's a beautiful movie I can't really recommend enough; it was wonderful. I can find no flaws. And it really has a lot to say about public works during a depression.

Go watch it. Then you'll get how hilarious that is. It might be the funniest thing I've said in years. Which is sad in another way.

We also saw The Informant this weekend, with Paul and Edwina. Paul is a fellow contributer to Final Draft. The Informant is a movie about a real-life executive named Mark Whitacre at Archer Daniel Midland who co-operated with the FBI to record and uncover a worldwide price-fixing conspiracy. Kurt Eichenwald wrote a book about it first, and then This American Life did an awesome hour based on the same story, called The Fix Is In. Soderbergh directed The Informant, and I was disappointed. Soderbergh hasn't really been coming through lately – even Che 1&2 weren't good enough. TAL presented the story in a straightforward, dramatic way, but the movie presents it as a sort of zany comedy, and it kind of falls flat. It's such an interesting story, such a strange person at the centre, but they don't really make it funny enough to work, and a lot of the drama is gone. I like the radio hour better.

Aaron and Portia have a friend, Kat, who is an actor, and we went with them to see her new play Sydney Ghost Stories. It was at the Old Fitzroy Theatre in Darlinghurst. That's right, we went to Darlinghurst twice in one week– I think doing this walking tour helped us get over our resistance to King's Cross. And I'm glad it did, because the Old Fitz is awesome; it's an ordinary bar with good beer that runs a theatre in the basement. You can take your beer into the play, and stick around for more drinks after the show. It's a little bit genius. I don't often enjoy plays and theatre in general, but this place makes it enjoyable. And the play was good, too, so that didn't hurt.

Weeks ago, I asked my sister to send me my copy of Save Me the Waltz, by Zelda Fitzgerald. I wanted to compare it to Tender Is the Night, by F. Scott, for the radio show. It's an old copy, bought used when Save Me the Waltz was out-of-print and really hard to find.

When I started reading it, the pages started crumbling. I was too scared to keep reading it.

I decided to re-bind it, to make the book readable and durable again. I used a vintage Art Deco wall paper for the cover background, laid out the signatures and bound the book by hand.

I love saving an old book like this; now I can read it for years-- but I might not get the radio piece in by deadline.