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Hi! I'm Nick Murdoch. Most people come here for the tiffin recipe. I can't blame them.

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  • June 2016

    Sat, 16 Jul 2016 18:54:43 GMT


    In June I saw the Lion King musical in London with Emily and her mum, created my own pottery pattern and painted it, and watched a thunderstorm over the City from Parliament Hill.

    Lion King

    We went to see the Lion King musical in London with Emily's mum. We had seats quite close to the front and my aisle seat paid off when a procession of "animals" came down the sides.

    The whole thing was very well put together, entertaining, and reasonably true to the film. The costumes and general animal puppetry were the highlight. I'd definitely recommend it!


    Pottery painting

    We took my parents to Art 4 Fun in West Hampstead, which is a pottery painting workshop. When we arrived we each picked an unglazed item of crockery from the vast selection lining opposite sides of the room. Mum, Emily, and I picked bowls of various shapes, and Dad picked a triangular serving plate.

    The staff told us the basics such as using the red pen whose ink would disappear during the firing and glazing process, and were eager to answer questions about how to achieve a certain effect. Emily used some latex mix for instance to draw out a frog, which pealed off after painting the rest of the bowl.

    Here's what we ended up with at the end of the session (clockwise from top right: Emily's, Dad's, Mum's, mine):



    It's difficult to imagine what the colours will end up looking like, since you're working off of numbered colour swatches, and all the paints are rather pastel-coloured before the glazing.

    A couple of weeks later we collected the final products, and now they look like this:



    After the painting we ate lunch at TooMai and then took a walk around Hampstead Heath, enjoying the view of Parliament Hill in the sun while a thunderstorm with a good amount of lightning crackled over the city.


    New laptop, since returned: a grumble

    I bought an Asus Zenbook UX303UB towards the end of the month, thinking it was a good price for a small lightweight, mostly silent laptop with a beefy enough graphics card to play Cities: Skylines, which I've been fawning over for months.

    It was a bit of a departure for me from using a mac for a laptop; I'm writing this entry on an 8-year old white plastic-covered macbook. But I figured Linux would be just fine on laptops after last attempting to use it on one over 8 years ago.

    As it happened, Debian installed pretty much fine. Gnome is even more frustrating than last time I used it (hi, Gnome 2) but it worked okay as a default environment to get everything up and running quickly. For the record, I had to install bumblebee after upgrading to sid for X to start, due to having onboard and discrete graphics in the laptop. I also had to disable fastboot in the bios due to a hardware and/or kernel issue to get sleep/resume to work.

    It played Cities: Skylines just fine, and everything looked nice on the matte screen (can these come back into fashion, please?). It was mostly silent except when taxing the graphics, and when gnome frequently spun up the hard disk to write crap to auth.log because apparently ambient light sensors are hard.

    The placement of the Fn key (with Ctrl on the far left rather than Fn, a swap compared to the Macbook and Thinkpads) was frustrating, and the Windows driver insisting on allowing light taps on the trackpad to click while Gnome insisted on only clicking with a physical press was annoying but presumably fixable with fiddling. (The trackpad scrolling was also much less responsive than on a Mac.)

    However, what caused me to give up and send it back was the keyboard, which had received good reviews elsewhere, but I found unusable as soon as I tried to do any good amount of writing on it (for example, last month's journal entry). It frequently missed keypresses on S and arrow keys as I apparently don't hit them dead centre. Perhaps it's the sort of problem that only people with a similar typing style to mine come across, but it was unusable for me.

    So, back it went under the site's two week return policy. I'm still waiting for a refund...

    While I'm complaining talking about Gnome, I generally like what they've done in terms of using the Mac's window model (Alt+Tab, Alt+` switch between applications, windows respectively), but the fact they haven't implemented all the /other/ Mac keybindings I am used to is boggling. Ctrl+click to right click, Ctrl+Trackpad-scroll to zoom the screen (Gnome /can/ do this), various gestures and F-keys to show and hide windows, and being able to hit Esc in the long-hold Alt+Tab menu are just the missing things I wrote down.

    So I'm not sure what to do about getting another laptop. I wouldn't even particularly care to replace my 2008 Macbook if it weren't for the fact that Firefox is dropping support for OS X 10.6 soon. Which is a poor reason to be forced to upgrade.


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  • May 2016

    Sat, 09 Jul 2016 14:30:56 GMT


    Bluebells were out in Elmstead Woods when I got back from Japan, and I did a few other things too.

    Glass blowing

    I met up with Mum in London, who was rabbit-sitting for my brother that weekend. We had lunch on Southbank, then walked to Southwark to see a glass blowing demonstration in a shop with furnace on-premises.



    It ended up being a much better demonstration to the one I saw on Murano, during an off-season visit to Venice.


    Mysterious breakfast things

    I had some old gulab jamun mix that was a present at some point but which Emily and I weren't very keen on making, so I decided to turn what was basically a dry flour mix into some chocolate muffins by adding some yeast and sugar to the mixture, letting it rise with some chocolate in each muffin case, and baking them.



    They were edible, but I wouldn't make them again!


    Dark Room

    We met up with Pete, Matt and Tim to see The Dark Room, an audience-participation text adventure game, written and presented by a comedian, at the Udderbelly on Southbank.

    It was pretty funny in places, though relied a little too much on audience participation, and the audience members the dungeon master picked weren't great choices.


    Green Chain Walk: Penge East to Nunhead

    I walked another section of the Green Chain Walk while Emily was out competing in a yacht race (Edit: she was actually in Taiwan that weekend), finally completing all the sections of the network that I cared to do.

    Seeing the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace park is always nice, and the Horniman museum gardens are always pleasant to walk around too. With one exception of a small wooded area, the rest of the "green" places on the walk were graveyards, and active ones at that, which isn't the sort of place I feel very eager to spend time in.


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  • Japan 2016: Days 13-23

    Sun, 03 Jul 2016 14:10:16 GMT


    In the last ten days in Japan I ended up on five different islands: Honshu, Shikoku, Miyajima, Kyushu, and Yakushima. While Yakushima won the natural beauty contest hands down, Shikoku and Miyajima were also beautiful. Unfortunately all we saw of Kyushu was the port of Kagoshima, due to the earthquakes a week earlier, though we did have a run-in with some wildlife there...

    Oboke

    We left the main Japanese island of Honshu and travelled by train to Shikoku island, a connection that was only built in 1988, with local (non-Shinkansen) trains only. As such, it's a considerably more rural place than Japan, with some great scenery out of the train window.



    We got off the train at Oboke, a small station in the Iya Valley with a model rope bridge and "love love bench" (a bench that sloped downwards towards the middle) on the platform. We caught a taxi to our hotel, having missed the last of about three buses for that day!

    Our hotel, Kazuraya was near the Kazura Bridge, a rope bridge and tourist attraction over a beautiful river gorge. It turned out they were renowned for their meals, and we did indeed eat very well there; private dining the first night.



    In the morning we visited the rope bridge, which, though reinforced with steel cables, still had considerable gaps between the slats underfoot. After this, we walked about ten kilometres along a mosty single-lane road that wound its way through the beautiful Iya Valley. We walked past dangerous-looking road-widening operations, a Mannekenn Pis, and hand-made falling rocks roadsigns until we reached a very scenic viewpoint.



    After breakfast and a wild swim for Emily in the crystal clear river opposite our hotel, we caught the train back off Shikoku and towards Hiroshima. For some reason the train was covered in cartoon characters.




    Hiroshima

    I can't quite remember what I expected before arriving in Hiroshima, other than having read that the city was entirely rebuilt, apart from the A-bomb Dome in the peace park. It was especially weird to find the small sign in an otherwise ordinary side street that marked the precise point the bomb exploded above. It was a sunny day and there wasn't a single cloud in the sky above.



    We ate two meals at Nagataya, which offered a vegetarian version of Hiroshima's local speciality, okonomiyaki, which is a pancake/noodle mix fried in front of you, and topped with various things, including a delicious sauce. You eat it from the frying area with chopsticks and an implement that is basically a straight-edged shovel.



    I think it's probably the tastiest thing I ate in Japan. (Though the cream-filled giant choux buns we often had for dessert are a close competitor.)


    Miyajima

    We caught the Japan Railways-run ferry across to Miyajima (which I guess makes it the Japanese equivalent of the Isle of Wight?) where we met a surprise Tim, who was to join us for the rest of the holiday.

    Miyajima is the island with the large red Torii gate in front of it in the water; the one on the front of most guide books. We arrived shortly before sunset and managed to walk through the gate just before the tide came in around it.



    The next day we walked up one of the hill routes to the top of the island, visited some shrines, and ate at a cafe that served curry rice and shave ice (it was tastier than the shave ice I tried in Hawaii).


    Eagle attack!

    We caught a hastily-booked flight from Osaka to Kagoshima, having previously expected to take a scenic train down through Kyushu, but they were not running following the earthquake a few days earlier.

    We arrived at the port town of Kagoshima and bought some rice triangles (the closest equivalent of sandwiches in Japan) to eat on the seafront while waiting for our ferry to Yakushima. We were sitting in a small pavilion when a large bird of prey swooped down at us, giving us a surprise. We thought nothing of it and continued eating, when it came at us again. This time Emily and Tim got a whack on the head, and after a moment of confusion, we realised that Emily's glasses were gone from her face!

    The Japanese Golden Eagle - as we think the bird was - was still circling and I could see in its claws that it wasn't holding the glasses any more. Fortunately it hadn't dropped them in the sea, and I found them on the prominade a couple of dozen metres away.

    So there you have it. Watch out for eagles. They'll steal the glasses from your very face.


    Yakushima

    We had a four day hike on Yakushima, the so-called "Island of the Gods", from Shiratani ravine to Yakusugi Cedar Land, staying in three huts along the way.



    The path was reasonably well maintained at the start, with wooden slats and bridges making things easier. The forest itself was absolutely stunning; Yakushima was used as a basis for the Studio Ghibli film "Princess Mononoke" for instance.



    That evening we stayed in Shiratani Hut, one of several basic free-to-use huts. This one was massive and fortunately one of the rooms that had a door away from the smelly common area was free - there was only one other hiker staying in the opposite room that evening. We didn't have foam mats (too logistically tricky for us to get out to Japan), so we were sleeping directly on the wooden bunks in our sleeping bags, but we slept pretty well anyway.

    After a couple of hours of walking the next day we joined another path that ran along the old logging train tracks, which made walking a lot easier.



    The track also had several bridges, which were fun to cross.



    The weather had worsened by this point and so I don't have any photos after leaving the railway track at its terminus. We visited Wilson's stump, the remains of a gigantic tree that was about the size of a small house and had a river running through it at the time. A bit further along was the ancient Jomon-sugi Cedar, the oldest and largest tree on the island.

    We were close to abandoning our plans to get to Shin-Takatsuka Hut, and picked some bunks in the earlier Takatsuka Hut. The guides we'd read said this was often the busier one, being closer to Jomon-Sugi, but was in better condition, being a new build from special materials in 2013. However in practice, the walls and windows were leaking, and Emily and Tim went ahead to check out the next hut (we were all soaked through anyway by that point, though I was flagging somewhat).

    In the hut I found myself talking to a man called Ishikawa, who turned out to be a Buddhist Monk. He was quite chatty and his English was reasonable -- the Japenese generally seemed eager to practice their English -- and he told me that he'd come to the island to pray to Jomon-Sugi. I also found out that he follows British football (from the Man U flags in the temples in Laos a couple of years ago it seems that most monks do!) and that he supports Arsenal. He had hoped to come with his wife, but her heart "wasn't up to it".

    Also joining us in the ten-person hut were some workmen who were attempting to fix a path nearby, and then later the doorway of the hut itself, which had become waterlogged and was not sliding shut properly. At this point Tim returned, with news that Shin-takatsu was near enough by and had space for us. Emily was keeping our places.

    It was a much bigger hut, and had several bunks -- more like mezzanines; you could fit four or five people on each -- and although there were more people there, the Japanese are exceptionally well-mannered everywhere, and indeed we weren't disturbed all night. These toilets also boasted the luxury of, like Shiritani, having pit toilets, which hadn't been on any of the informational leaflets, so we avoided having to use our carry-in-carry-out toilet bags that night. And that was definitely worth the extra walk.

    The weather was still foul the next day and I think we also summitted Mt Miyanoura-dake, or somewhere close to it, which at 1936m is the highest point on the island. Unfortunately the gale force winds and dense fog/cloud meant we had to plough through this part quickly, and there was no view from the top. There were several areas where you had to practically abseil down steep slippy slopes using provided rope. This was a bit of a shock after the first couple of days!

    We took the less trodden path after getting down from the summit, towards Ishizuka Hut rather than Yodogawa hut. This was quite tricky going and at one point I somehow ended up dunking just my head into a stream while trying to cross it. I think it had stopped raining by this point at least!

    Ishizuka hut was the highest in altitude of the huts and we felt it in the cold night, ending up huddling together for warmth. However, we were in luck because the next day the weather had brightened and we were able to get some views of the landscape as we walked.

    We ended up on quite a tight schedule getting to Yakusugi Cedar Land, which is a small tourist-friendly section of the forest, with pathways, information signs, and so on. We entered it in part of the "Level 3" circular walk and the path got progressively easier as we entered Level 2 and then Level 1 was solid wooden walkways. Bliss!

    We were just in time for the one bus of the day and were the only people riding it down into Anbo, where we found somewhere selling food, ate all the food, and then got the ferry back to Kagoshima. I checked in the hotel (and having seen myself in the mirror in the lift after checking in, realised why the reception staff had been looking at me curiously!) and had a nap until it was time to go out for dinner.


    Himeji

    We flew back to Osaka and got the train to Himeji on my last full day in Japan.



    Himeji Castle was one of the most impressive castles I saw in Japan, though I think (like most) it was a reconstruction. There was a rather good view of the town from the top.



    After that I caught the train on my own back to Tokyo. I grabbed some sushi at Tokyo station and got on the train to Narita Airport, where I was staying overnight.


    Pod hotel

    It was impossible to resist the novelty of booking a pod hotel while in Japan, and one in the airport was convenient to boot. When checking in, you are given a night pack that includes a gown, towel, slippers, and the ubiquitous toothbrush and tiny tube of toothpaste.

    Immediately inside the gender-segregated entrance was a changing room with lockers to put your things, and after that were loos, individual shower cubicles, and wash basins. On a door to the side were the actual sleeping compartments, a long corridor of what looked like torpedo tubes recessed into the wall.



    I got a top bunk!

    The entire floor of the pod was a mattress, and there was additionally a dimmable light control, a volume dial for a deep-breathing meditation-style noise generator (I actually found this quite soothing), and a USB charger, which would have been more useful if my phone's charger wasn't temporarily kaputt due to moisture from the island. At the entrance of the pod was merely a curtain that could be pulled down for privacy. I slept reasonably (might've been better if I could have relied on my phone for the alarm I needed) and enjoyed my shower in the morning.

    Then back home! I watched Mr Holmes and The Martian on the flight, which were both good.


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