Monday, November 26

Leaving on a jet plane

This morning I fly to the USA for two weeks on business - first to San Francisco, then on to New York. It's been quite a while since I've been on the road for such a lenghty period. Two and three week jaunts use to be the norm when I was based in Asia, but have become something of an oddity while living in Europe. I'm looking forward to being back in Bay Area. It's been almost three years since I was there. San Francisco use to remind me of home (Sydney). I'll be curious to see if it still has the same impact.

I am flying Virgin Atlantic. This will be my first time in the air as a Gold Member with Virgin. I'll be able to try out its famous 'Clubhouse' lounge at Heathrow. The lounge was recently upgraded and features a Hairdresser, spa and private dining room. Virgin claims that the queues for immigration and security are also swifter. Here's hoping!

Sunday, November 25

A vote for homesickness

Every so often events provoke an unexpected twinge of homesickness. During our first year away from Australia I rarely missed Down Under. I thought I’d somehow managed to avoid the emotional pain of relocation. However our second year has been a different story. I've often found myself thinking of Australia, resulting in a subtle, but growing, reticence about life in London. Today, those feelings welled up again with overnight news on the Australian Federal Election.

After 11.5 years the conservative Coalition parties have lost their bid for a fifth term in Government. Prime Minister, John Howard, has conceded defeat and appears likely to lose his own seat in Parliament. I wish I’d been in Australia to experience this watershed moment for myself. Since relocating to Australia more than 17 years ago I’ve only ever know three Australian Prime Ministers; Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard. I've always admired the first two, but never cared much for the third.

While Howard always made me cringe, I voted for the Coalition during its first two terms. I supported many of it promised tax reforms including a value-add tax (GST) and changes to marginal tax rates that often penalised middle-class Australia. However, I soon grew tired of an increasingly manipulative Government willing to use bigotry and FUD to maintain office. The "Children Overboard' scandal is a case in point. The Government's flagrant manipulation of this story to support oppressive immigration policies was an international embarrassment and did nothing to promote Australia’s global reputation for tolerance.

Equally shameful was it’s manipulation of the Republican debate. Howard's cynical approach to the 1998 constitutional convention ensured its eventual defeat despite a majority of Australian's favouring change. A decade later, it’s impossible to explain to people in London why Australians would endorse a constitution enshrining England's Queen as their head of state.

Howard's defeat has filled UK headlines today; every newspaper has led with this story online, as has the BCC and CNN. Howard's concession speech was a remarkable moment in Australian politics as he demonstrated a rare spirit of true statesmanship. I was impressed. If only he'd been bold enough to act this way in earlier times.

I’m happy to leave the last word to a woman in Brisbane who wrote to the BCC simply saying, “After too many years I can finally hold my head up and be proud to call myself Australian again.” Now, how do we get that Constitution sorted once and for all?

Friday, November 23

Restless nights

Garry got his annual flu shot last week. It was offered under subsidy by his employer. I wish I’d done the same. I’ve been feeling rather off-colour since Monday, suffering various aches, pains and restless nights. This time it’s not gout. However, I doubt that a flu shot would have helped. A survey in 2005 found that only 13% of people tested actually had the flu despite suffering a flu-like illness. It seems that most people actually catch a cold. At last count there were at least 200 cold viruses, each constantly mutating, thus making colds the more common aliment.

It costs the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) at least £115 million every year to vaccine people against the flu. The NHS provides vaccinations free of charge to people aged 65 years and over, as well as certain at-risk groups under 65 years of age. Last year’s uptake by those over 65 reached 74% of the population. This year the NHS ordered more than 15 million vaccine doses.

Those doses may be needed. Currently infections are increasing faster than at the same time last year. It seems that last year’s mild winter helped reduce the nation’s annual flu count. Perhaps Garry really was the sensible one this year?

Another flu outbreak was also in the news this week. On Tuesday an outbreak of bird flu was reported in eastern England at a poultry farm. About 5,000 free-range turkeys, 1,000 ducks and 500 geese on the affected farm were culled. The papers have been full of stories about a potential turkey shortage for this year’s Christmas dinner. It seems that bird flu, much like its human counterpart, has become a seasonal event in the UK.

I have to end this blog post with an interesting piece of trivia. The name, influenza, can be traced back to a time when people believed that epidemics were caused by the stars' influence. Language can be a fascinating window into history.

Monday, November 19

It's cold out there

It's 1.30pm on Sunday afternoon in London. The temperature outside is 6°C, only one degree off the predicted high for today. The sky is grey and overcast. We're expecting rain and a low of 4°C overnight. Winter has arrived!

Today's paper is full of stories about 80cms of fresh snow that's fallen in Kitzbuhel, Austria. They say its the biggest November fall for more than 30 years. As a result the ski season opened at Kitzbuhel last weekend, six weeks ahead of schedule.

Sunday, November 18

Chief Operating Officer

I can finally share news I've been waiting months to announce. I've been promoted. I'm now the global Chief Operating Officier (COO) for my company. The news was announced worldwide earlier this week during a series of conference calls. It looks like we'll be spending at least another 12 months living in London. In less than four weeks we'll celebrate the second anniversary of our arrival in the UK. Time has flown by.

London lights up for Christmas

Christmas is coming! Tonight Garry and I ventured down Oxford after dark to view the Christmas lights along London's most popular shopping strip. I was rather disappointed by what we saw. I'm sure the lights were more spectacular in previous years.

In fact, I found myself far more fascinated by the giant video screens in Piccadilly Circus. I learnt recently that the earliest signs used incandescent light bulbs. They must have been a nightmare to maintain. The bulbs were eventually replaced by neon, which in turn was converted to the current LED screens in 2005. Traditional Christmas lights simply can't compete.

Garry and I had gone into town to see In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary on the Apollo manned missions to the Moon. The film is narrated by the astronaunts themselves interspersed with restored footage from NASA's archives. It seemed appropriate to see this film given that the 5oth anniversary of Sputnik's launch was held last month.

I was surprised to see how old the astronauts looked. I shouldn't have been surprised, Neil Armstrong turned 77 in August. Somehow I'd expected these modern heroes to remain ageless. It's hard to believe that we'll celebrate the 4oth anniversary of man's first steps on the moon barely 18 months from now.

Saturday, November 17


Marsaxlokk was an unexpected highlight of Malta. This tongue-twisting fishing village sits on the south-east corner of the main island on the edge of a sheltered bay. On our second day in Malta Garry and I caught a local bus to explore the village's popular Sunday market. After a bone-shaking journey we arrived in a picturesque bay filled with colourful fishing boats.

While we'd heard about these boats, nothing could prepare us for the sight of these delightful vessels dotting an azure-blue harbour. Each boat is painted blue and lined with bright stripes of yellow, red and white. The bow of each boat has an eye painted on each side. This tradition, inherited from the Phoenicians, is designed to wards off harm each time local fishermen venture from the harbour.

We stopped for lunch at Ron's Fish Cafe, enjoying fresh fish and an uninterrupted view of the colourful bay before venturing back to Sliema. Later that evening we wandered down to TGI Friday's for dinner. However, this was no ordinary TDI Friday's. The restaurant sits inside a 19th Century stone fort built on the Sliema coast.

Our final day in Malta, Garry's birthday, was largely spent on a bus tour, traversing much of the island's Eastern extremities. Garry and I sat on the top deck of an open-air double-decker bus watching some of Malta's most fascinating sights pass by. The Three Cities waterfront was a definite highlight, as was the desolate coastline surrounding the Blue Grotto. Time and time again we were reminded of how much history has shaped, and reshaped this tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea.

Friday, November 16

Valletta - the jewel of Malta

In December 1522 Ottoman Turks under the command of Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the island of Rhodes. The defeated Christian forces of the Knights Hospitaller retreated to Sicily. In 1530, Charles V of Spain gave the islands of Malta to the Knights in perpetual lease. Malta was soon transformed into a naval base, preying of Islamic shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The resurgence of the Knights, now known as the Knight of Malta, understandably attracted the attention of the Ottomans. In May 1565, they besieged the island and five bloody months of fighting ensued. By the time the Turks retreated Malta has lost a third of its inhabitants and a similar number of Knights were dead.

In the years that followed, led by Grand Master Jean de la Valette, the Knights built a new, heavily fortified city in Malta’s inner harbour. The city was named Valletta after the Grand Master himself. The Knights reined until Malta was captured by Napoleon enroute to Egypt in 1798. Two years later the British blockaded the islands, forced the French to surrender and claimed the island for its Empire.

Today, Malta is an independent republic and one of the EU most recent member states. It joined the Union on May 1, 2004. On January next year it joins the Eurozone, becoming the 14th nations to use this currency.

Without a doubt Malta has enjoyed a colourful history, much of which is still clearly evident today. Last weekend Garry and I enjoyed three days exploring some of the island’s most historic sights. Our first day, Saturday, saw us wake to brilliant sunshine and a stunning view across the rooftops of Sliema towards the fortified city of Valletta. We decided to make this magnificent sight our destination for the day.

Before making our way to Valletta, we took a leisurely stroll along the ocean promenade of Sliema, watching white-capped waves break along the rocky foreshore. It was here we discovered Snoopy’s, an unassuming, dimly lit restaurant that served some of the most divine food we’ve tasted in years. Garry tucked into an enormous steak for lunch, while I enjoyed mouth-watering Tandoori chicken.

After lunch we made our way to the Sliema ferry wharf hoping to catch a boat to Valletta. After some delay, and confusion, it became clear that the ferry wasn’t running. We flagged a taxi and made our way by land. Our first stop in Valletta was St John’s Co-Cathedral, the Malta’s Knight’s main church.

The squat, rather plain building was competed in 1577. However, looks can be deceiving. Once inside the building, visitors are quickly drawn into one of the most ornate buildings I’ve ever encountered. The church’s once plain wall have been carved with the most elaborate Baroque motifs, the floor inlaid with colourful marble artwork and the barrel vault decorated by grand paintings.

No a single wall, nock or arch has been left untouched. Each side chapel is equally emblazoned creating the most extraordinary visual feast. Off to one side sits the Oratory. This private room houses the building’s main attraction, an enormous painting, by the artist Caravaggio, of the beheading of St John the Baptist. An amazingly captivating, simple image.

We then spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering the straight, narrow streets of Valletta. We were constantly confronted by one astounding view after another. Two views stand out. First, the vista from the northern fortifications across the eastern flank of the city taking in the grand dome of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Second, the view across the Grand Harbour to the nearby Three Cities of of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua. Valletta, without doubt, sits in a beautiful location.

Tuesday, November 13

The Big Five Zero

Garry and I are waiting to board our flight home from Malta. We've spent three relaxing days on the main island for Garry's birthday. This is also the 50th country I've visited.

Malta is a facinating place. Over the centuries it's wonderfully sheltered natural harbours have been heavily fortified by successive generations of the Knights of St John. It's capital, Valleta, is a long, narrow penisular jutting out into the Grand Harbour. Its coastal rocks have long since been modified by grand, towering walls of light brown stone - close to six kilometres in total.

In fact, almost every building in Malta is constructed from the same brown limestone, quarried from the opposite side of the island. We've spent days wandering delightful narrow laneways lined with brown stone buildings. The typical Maltese house also include a small enclosed balcony on the first floor, jutting out over the sidewalk. The effect is incredibly quaint, giving character to an otherwise featureless street.

This wasn't the only quaint experience in Malta. Marsaxlokk, a nearby fishing village, seemed straight out of an old travel brochure. More about that tomorrow.

Friday, November 9

Oh the humilation...

It's official. I have gout. I hobbled down the road for a consultation with the doctor this morning after enduring 1.5 days of throbbing, aching pain in the big toe of my left foot. I thought I might have sprained it in New York last week as it had started to ache on my final day in town. However the pain cleared up over the weekend and I thought nothing more of it. On Tuesday evening it started to ache again and with hours was racked with pain I'd never experienced before.

It seems that this probably isn't my first bout of gout. I had a painful couple of days with same toe while we were in the Amazon. At the time I simply assumed I'd sprained it given the volume of walking we were doing. However, the same toe has gone on to experience twinges at regular intervals ever since.

Tomorrow I'll be getting some blood tests done. In the mean time the doctor has given me some potent anti-inflamatory drugs. They work! Tonight I can walk again. Thank goodness. We are off to Malta for Garry's birthday tomorrow. I was starting to think I'd get no further than our hotel room without a pair of crutches. Oh the humiliation.

Wednesday, November 7

Solving life's little mysteries

Every so often I discover the answer to some of life’s more vexing questions. For example, how do you obtain a permit to busk at London’s Underground stations? Since 2001 buskers have been legally allowed perform at 22 central London stations by booking one of 33 designated sites. At last count more than 356 buskers provided commuters with 3,000 hours of entertainment each week. How do they get their lucky break?

My question was answered by a story in today's paper. Budding musicians and street entertainers must submit an application, then pass a police background check. Screened applicants are welcome to attend auditions held on a disused platform at Charing Cross station. A panel of judges reviews each performer, granting two-hour slots to those passing muster. Each slot is highly coveted as the panel convenes only twice a year. The next audition will happen in March next year. I can't see myself giving up my day job just yet.

36 tonnes of carbon

Accounting firm KPMG says that the Green Technology is now the third largest sector for venture capital investment. I believe it. Sustainability is big news in London. Not a day goes by without a news story or advertisement focused on the reduction of carbon emissions. There’s even a website available where you can calculate your carbon footprint, make an offset payment and receive a certificate confirming your now carbon neutral status.

On whim I had a go at calculating my carbon footprint. My footprint is estimated to be 35.68 tonnes of CO2 per year. At least 70% of this total (25.60 tonnes) is created by the many business and personal flights I make each year. Unsurprisingly, my contribution to global warming is about three times the average for a UK resident. However, were I not to fly for a year, my footprint would fall below the national average.

I was curious to set how much it would cost to offset my carbon footprint. Two options were offered by this site. £257.70 offsets 36 tonnes of carbon by planting native broad leaved trees in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. Alternatively, £295.50 funds verified carbon reduction projects around the world. I was surprised to see how relatively inexpensive it was to offset my personal footprint, given its estimated size. If global warming truly is an impending disaster of epic proportions then I’d happily have a small carbon tax levied on my polluting activities.

Monday, November 5

Halloween in New York

Since 1973 New York City has played host to the nation's largest night parade on October 31. Anyone in costume can join the parade. More than 50,000 do every year, watched by more than two million people. I'd never heard of the event until this week when several of us went down to Greenwich Village to witness the festivities for ourselves.

Streets in the village were blocked off allowing costumed revellers to take over the area. As more and more people gathered the streets became increasingly festive. Tribes of skeletons wandered by, followed by pregnant nuns, zombies and Grim Reapers in numbers that can't be healthy. Homer Simpson also wandered by at one point, along with Spiderman, Batman and Superman. Mozart and dozens of Southern Belles were out on the town - at least half were drag queens.

Earlier in the day debate had raged over the meaning of Halloween. Some quick internet research revealed that its origins trace back to the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain. This festival celebrated the end of the harvest season. The Gaels believed that on October 31 the worlds of the living and the dead briefly overlapped enabling the dead to live again. This cross-over was believed to cause disease, pestilence and crop failure. Halloween took hold in the USA after two million Irish migrated while escaping the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849). I doubt these migrants would recognise their festival today.

Meanwhile, back here in London, festivities are in full swing for Guy Fawkes. Our weekend evenings have been filled with the sound of exploding gunpowder as backyard pyrotechnics take to the sky. It seems that everyone loves a good party no matter where you go.

Sunday, November 4

Gold, gold, gold

Virgin Atlantic upgraded my frequent flyer status to Gold this week. Qantas has also renewed my Platinum status for another year. I am now a top level air points member with two airlines; Qantas and Virgin Atlantic. Garry is also a Platinum member with Qantas. As you'd expect, we're gathering a growing mass of air miles. I expect to pass 600,000 miles with Qantas before Christmas. I also have enough points with Virgin Atlantic now to fly Garry and I free to the Caribbean.

I've clocked up an astonishing 55 flights so far this year, flying more than 150,000kms across five continents. I have four additional flights already booked before the end of the year and anticipate a futher three will be added to this tally before I'm done. By the time we're back from Dubai I will have been out of the UK for more than 100 days in 2007 .

In the dark of night

Yesterday's sunset over New York

Daylight Saving Time has finished for another year. Our clocks have gone back an hour. The difference is quite a shock. At 3:00pm this afternoon I found myself turning on the lights at Swiss Cottage in an attempt to alleviate the gloom. By 5:00pm it was dark outside. Winter is clearly on its way.

I saw some interesting statistics on the duration of daylight at different times of the year yesterday. USA Today published a chart which showed Daylight in Minneapolis lasting 10 hours and 8 minutes on November 2, compared with 15 hours and 33 minutes on July 1. The difference is even more extreme in London. Summer's daylight hours extend up to 17 hours, falling to less then 8 hours in winter (shown below).

I read this week that much of the UK and other Northern Europe nations suffer Vitamin D deficiency thanks to winter darkness. Our skin requires UVB rays to make Vitamin D. Most fair-skinned people require at least 15 minutes of sunlight at midday to maintain good health. However, at higher latitudes UVB rays struggle to penetrate the atomsphere in sufficient quantities for much of the year. Food supplements are the only alternative vitamin source. Vitamin D deficiency is one health risk I never anticipated when relocating to London.

Saturday, November 3

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal is one of New York’s hidden wonders. Set in the heart of Manhattan, this train station is home to an incredible 44 underground platforms, providing access to 67 separate tracks. The tracks themselves are split into two underground levels, with 41 tracks on the upper level and another 26 on the lower level. Trains departing from here travel along tunnels that run below Park Avenue to Harlem before surfacing.

Earlier this month I caught a train from Grand Central enroute to Greenwich in Connecticut for a day of business meetings. This was the first time I’d ever caught a train from this iconic building. I was astonished to discover just how many platforms and trains were in service, all situated under my feet, right in the heart of one of the world’s largest cities. Every day 660 commuter trains terminate here, disgorging more than 125,000 people into Manhattan.

The current terminal building and underground platforms were built between 1903 and 1913. The main concourse is one of New York’s iconic locations. The space fills almost an entire city block, lit by rows of towering arched windows, with a ceiling that soars an impressive 150 feet overhead. Access to the main floor is via a grand, sweeping marble staircase.

In the centre of the concourse sits a small information booth, crowned by a four-face brass clock. This clock is considered one of New York’s classic meeting places. When I stand here it’s easy to imagine Audrey Hepburn meeting a trench coat wearing Cary Grant. Grand Central has been described as a cathedral for trains. I can see why.

Friday, November 2

Next generation expands, current generation ages

Exciting news for the family this week. I became an Uncle for the fourth time on Tuesday. My brother Matt and his wife Shelly had a baby boy, Keenan. All is well.

On the opposite side of the planet, Hamish - my middle brother, turned 40 today. Two of us have now crossed over to the dark side.