Quito, the Galapagos and stuff

Well, I’m in Quito. Annoyingly, I can’t log into my webmail for some reason – some horrible bug in IE7 perhaps.

I spent the morning looking at pre-Hispanic stuff at the museum, which I enjoyed, and then took a token look at the glories of colonial Quito before deciding I needed to sit down for a bit.

I was thinking about how it’s slightly odd that the Galapaos have become a premier eco-tourism destination when it is in fact quite biologically impoverished. There are a total of 60 bird species you can see in the Galapagos, including some unremarkable passing American migrants like tattlers. Admittedly, 28 of those are unique to the islands, but by comparison, the record for a 24 hour birding session in mainland Ecuador is something like 470 species. Obviously the Galapagos has an iconic place in natural history because of the Darwin connection, and because it is literally the textbook example of natural selection, but actually there’s very little there – particularly by tropical standards.

Similarly, everyone gets taught about the Dawin finches and their different shaped beaks being adapted for different foods as though it was somehowa unique case. But of course it’s exactly what happened to finches all over the world. There must be about twenty species of finch in Europe, from the goldfinch with a little delicate beak for eating thistle seeds to the hawfinch with a huge beak that can crack cherry seeds. Not to mention the crossbill, with a beak that crosses over to allow it to get the seeds from pine cones. Again, the Galapagos makes a good teaching example not because it’s a particularly spectacular or unusual example, but because it’s such a simple and narrow one. The thirteen species of Galapagos finch are quite cool, especially the ones like the Woodpecker Finch which are least like classic finches in behaviour. But how much cooler and more remarkable are the 131 species of hummingbird in Ecuador. I mean really, how can there be 131 niches for nectar-eating birds in one country?

Though the Galapagos marine iguanas are pretty unique. And the daisies that have evolved into large trees.

In the Galapagos

I´ve got a couple of hours in Puerto Ayora (on Santa Cruz, in the Galapagos), so I thought I´d post a quick note.

I can recommend the Galapagos. For a start, the landscape is more varied and more beautiful than I expected; somehow in my head it was all rocks, but from island to island the colour of the rocks and soil changes, the vegetation varies – I mean it´s mainly pretty arid, and so it´s lots of cactus and thornbushes, but one island will be an expanse of rippled black lava with a few small cacti, and another will be densely covered with bushes. This afternoon we´re going to the highlands for the first time, where it´s actually quite green.

We´ve seen most of the Galapagos specialties now – the two iguanas, the flightless cormorants, the finches (5 of the 13 species so far). Wild giant tortoises this afternoon. I´ve snorkelled with sea-lions and penguins and turtles, I was particularly thrilled wih the penguins.

Actually though, apart from the special Galapagos stuff, it´s been nice just being at sea. I hadn´t really thought about it before I came, but it´s great just being able to watch shearwaters and storm-petrels from the boat. And we´ve had dolphins riding the bow-wave of the boat. But almost my most exciting marine sighting was watching manta rays jump clear of the water and tumble back with a big splash.

The famous tameness of the animals is quite interesting; I expected it of the endemic species that have evolved in an environment without predators, but species like Great Blue Heron, which are wary of people in the rest of the Americas, have been letting us get within about 10 feet. We watched one grab a newly hatched turtle from below the sand.

So it´s all good.

And on to Galapagos

Posted in advance:

Don’t worry, there aren’t going to be a whole string of these posts telling you what I might be hypothetically doing. But having spent the night in Quito, I’m now on my way to the Galapagos. Or perhaps when this post appears I’ll already be there: I don’t have the itinerary to hand. And of course if something has really gone pear-shaped, I could still be stuck in Madrid airport.

Assuming that’s not the case, I’ll be on a boat for the next week. Hopefully seeing fabulous things like marine iguanas, surfing sea-lions, albatrosses and the world’s only equatorial penguins. And hopefully not puking over the side of the boat.

I think that’s probably enough advance postings. When I get back to Quito I’ll find an internet café and let you know how I’m getting on.

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FSotW: USSR Posters

Flickr set of the week is USSR Posters, an absolutely staggering collection of 1,469 “Russian and/or Soviet propaganda & advert posters [1917-1991]” put on Flickr by bpx. I’ve only had a chance to dip into them, but here’s a few to give you a taste:


The same person has an even larger selection of WWII posters which might well be FSotW another time. It certainly deserves its own post.

Over the Ocean

If all goes according to plan, both with WordPress and my travel plans, this post should appear while I’m somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on my way to Ecuador. We’re flying London – Madrid – Quito, so it’s a long day, but well worth it, obviously.

I’ve decided not to take my telescope this time, so you won’t be made to see my out-of-focus digiscoped photos of Ecuadorian birds. I found it a surprisingly painful decision, because I know how telescopes can come into their own, and I really enjoyed playing with digiscoping when I was in Spain. But the telescope and particularly the tripod are heavy and bulky, so I think it was a good decision. I should get a lighter tripod, actually.

I have of course packed binoculars. I actually have occasional anxiety dreams about being on my way to the airport and realising I haven’t packed my binoculars, even if I’m just going to Provence or somewhere, so the idea of not having them in Ecuador doesn’t bear thinking about.

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Religion as a symptom

I was thinking about why the atheism thing seems important to me at the moment.

I don’t think I’ve ever articulated it to myself explicitly before, but I think it amounts to a sense that if, in a hundred years time, the world is less religious — fewer believers and less fervent belief — that’s a sign that it’s moving in a good direction. And alternatively, if humankind is more religious, that’s a sign that something has gone wrong.

I’m not suggesting that it’s the only possible measure of ‘progress’, or even the best one — much better to use direct measures like life-expectancy, school leaving age, literacy rates, human rights violations or whatever. But still, I think of it as a kind of weather-vane; increased religiosity seems like a symptom of some kind of underlying problem.

I have no evidence to back it up, and not much of an argument beyond a sense that a culture is healthiest when it values reason and independent thought over inherited ideas. But that’s how I feel.

Of course, if the religiosity is just a symptom of some different underlying problem, then religious belief is the wrong target. But still, the sense that, for the first time in my life, religion might be becoming more influential rather than less makes me deeply uneasy.

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One Day In History and At Home In Renaissance Italy

I think this is quite a fun idea — One Day In History.

Make history with us on 17 October by taking part in the biggest blog in history.

‘One Day in History’ is a one off opportunity for you to join in a mass blog for the national record. We want as many people as possible to record a ‘blog’ diary which will be stored by the British Library as a historical record of our national life.

Write your diary here reflecting on how history itself impacted on your day – whether it just commuting through an historic environment, discussing family history or watching repeats on TV.

Anyone who reads Pepys online will know that the interest lies as much in the minutiae – what he ate, the plays he went to, and just recently (or at least at this time of year 343 years ago), his doctor’s attempts to cure his constipation. So the material collected today genuinely might be of interest to future historians. There was a somewhat similar thing done over a longer period in the UK during the 40s and 50s called the Mass Observation Project, where people were encouraged to keep diaries, and the results have been made into a couple of books that I know my father enjoyed.

I’m afraid that any historians of the future wanting to know what people had for breakfast in the carefree days before the Great Squid Wars will have to manage without my input, though. But if any HotF is reading this: I had marmite on toast. ‘Marmite’ is a brand name for yeast extract sold as food. ‘Toast’ is what we call a slice of bread which has been grilled or ‘toasted’ in a special-purpose machine called a ‘toaster’. ‘Bread’ is a foodstuff made by powdering the seeds of a species of grass, mixing the powder with yeast and water, and…

In all seriousness, there would have to have been a truly mammoth cataclysm for some future historian not to know what bread is. Perhaps if the squid win the war and we all end up living underwater. Who knows what other things might seem interesting, though. It’s tempting to pick on stuff which seems shiny and new and typical of our age, like the internet, but actually it would take almost as profound a cataclysm to destroy the internet as to eradicate bread. Of course even if there’s still a network of connected computers, I daresay the user experience will be radically different. One of these days someone is going to get a working 3D display, for a start. Internet Explorer 36 will no doubt still be lagging behind the competing browsers in terms of implementing the latest technology. Sorry, that’s a very lame joke. In fact, it would be amazing if Microsoft was still a dominant company in 30 years, let alone a few centuries. By that time, Microsoft and Bill Gates will only survive as a faint memory as synonymous with money, like Standard Oil and Rockefeller and Carnegie.

The idea that the stuff of everyday life is sometimes more interesting than the Big Historical Events makes a neat connection with the exhibition I went to see at the V&A today, called At Home In Renaissance Italy. I vaguely had it in my mind before I went that it was going to be about everyday life for ordinary people. It wasn’t, of course; it was about everyday life for the mega-rich. ‘Home’ sounds so cosy, but in this case it refers to huge palazzos (palazzi?) full of all the most fabulous and luxurious stuff that money could buy. For example: the exhibition was divided up according to the different rooms of the Renaissance house, and the scrittoio (study) was illustrated using stuff from the study of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Apparently Lorenzo distanced himself from the family business, but his grandfather really was the Gates or Rockefeller of his day. Although Gates, bless him, doesn’t strike me as much of an aesthete, so I doubt if his own mansion is full of the kind of beautiful objects on display here.

The reason they focussed on Lorenzo for that part of the exhibition is that the V&A owns the ceramic panels from the ceiling of his study, although they’d borrowed stuff from other collections to complement it, including a lavish copy of Pliny’s Natural History which must be the most elaborately decorated secular text I’ve ever seen. Not surprisingly, a large proportion of the stuff in the show comes from the V&A collection, but the act of curating it into a well-organised exhibition easily justifies an entrance fee to see stuff that would be on show in the permanant display anyway. And there are lots of things which they’ve borrowed from elsewhere as well.

I felt that the exhibition made a bit of a statement when you walked in and were confronted by a pair of grand Veronese portraits, displayed together for the first time since they were moved from the room where they originally hung, and in front of them is a case with a sword like the one carried by the husband and a gold marten head like that carried by the wife (above). Which seemed a bit like saying ‘we’re so grand we can use a Veronese just to illustrate a sword’. And on the other side of the room was a Botticelli which served to illustrate the layout of a Renaissance house. This is presumably the curatorial equivalent of name-dropping. As well as some other fine paintings, including a couple of Lippis and a Crivelli, there was loads of interesting stuff — fireplaces, furniture, ceramics, glassware, board games, instruments, clothes, inkwells, spectacle frames, wafering irons — and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Cutting up books

I’m going to the Galapagos and Ecuador on Friday. Or at least, on Friday I’ll only get as far as Quito, but the next day we go on to the Galapagos, and after that, back to mainland Ecuador for a bit. My copy of the ‘field guide’ to the birds of Ecuador was so heavy that I’ve resorted to drastic measures. Especially drastic since those who’ve ever borrowed a book from me could tell you that I’m completely anal about their condition — I like to read them in such a way that afterwards they still look new.

But I cut out the colour plates:

And did an amateurish but hopefully good enough version of re-binding with PVA glue, cardboard and sticky-backed plastic:

I’ll take both ‘books’ with me, but leave the bigger one in the hotel. I should probably point out that the fact the book is really heavy is no fault of the authors, who seem to have done a brilliant job. There are just too many species; ‘nearly 1600’ in Ecuador, apparently, which puts it in competition with Bolivia and Brazil for country with the most bird species in the world.

And cutting out the plates isn’t an original idea to me, either; it’s standard practice for birders travelling to South America. The region is such a wonderland of biodiversity that even birders aren’t OCD enough about it to risk spinal damage.

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FSotW: Fibre “Quick on the Draw” Drawings

Flickr set of the week is actually two sets; Fibre “Quick on the Draw” Drawings and Fibre “Quick on the Draw”. ‘Quick on the Draw’ was “Fibre’s stall at the 2006 V&A Village Fete. Each artist had one minute to draw a picture of Queen Victoria without taking their pen of the paper.” As usual, you can click on any picture to get to the relevant Flickr page.

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comment spam

The first comment waiting in my spam filter just now reads “May I borrow some articles from your site? Who should I contact?” And just for a moment I thought it might be a genuine comment which had been mistakenly identified as junk, even though it was apparently posted by someone called ‘daivaufeijau’.

Then I noticed that the next comment (from deawisy, saying “I just want to say THANKS to all people in this community”) linked back to the same webpage. And so did the comments from vujei and ajauxiseag. In total there were 241 comments all linking back to the same address, ranging from “Can you make pages for foreign people? For example Spanish” to “The greatest homage we can pay to truth is to use it.” These fake comments would really be more plausible if there were only one or two of them.

Thank fuck for Akismet, which somewhere in the middle of all that lot caught its 5000th spam comment since I installed it about last November.

Colonial troops in WWII

I found this article in the Independent interesting. There’s a film coming out in France called Indigènes about “the 300,000 Arab and north African soldiers who helped to liberate France in 1944.” Apparently about half the French army in 1944 was African or Arab. The director and producer, both French of North African descent, “hope the film will remind the majority population of France that the country owes a deliberately obscured debt of blood to colonial soldiers with brown and black skins. They also hope the film will persuade young French people of African origin that they belong in France.”

In one respect, the film has already succeeded where years of complaints have failed. Last week, just before it reached the cinema, the French government was shamed into paying belated full pensions to 80,000 surviving ex-colonial soldiers who, since 1959, have been paid a fraction of what French veterans receive.

All of which is quite interesting, but I was mainly struck that the article managed to get all the way through exuding a sense of superiority to those racist French without commenting on the British parallel. There were really quite a lot of colonial troops fighting for the British in the war, most notably the Indian Army, which in WWII was the largest all-volunteer army ever assembled. Unsurprisingly, the Indian Army was important in the Burma campaign, but they also fought in North Africa, the Middle East and Italy. I think I read once that a third of troops at the battle of El-Alamein were Indian. There aren’t too many Indian faces in all those old war films, though, and I really don’t think most British people know anything about their role. And given that the Ghurkas who are current members of the British army still don’t get the same pensions as their British counterparts, it seems a fair bet that Indian veterans of El-Alamein and Monte Cassino don’t either.

This particular blindspot in the British view of history isn’t simply a race thing, of course. Only a minority of the ‘British’ Eighth Army at El-Alamein was actually British; apart from the Indians, there were troops from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia; and even a few Free French and Poles. But I only know that because I just looked it up in Wikipedia, and I imagine that most people in this country would have assumed, like me, that the British Army was, basically, British.

Quite apart from the fact that le fairplay demands these things be better known, the French example makes me think – there must be a good film in this somewhere. Or novel. Or even poem, at a pinch.

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