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Journey to Madagascar 2009 

September 29, 2009

Apple, Science and Art

We started the morning with a stop at Mecca for Apple Computer fans in London. The issue was a particular connector I needed to make it easier to live the computer life during this trip. Naturally, they had it. Go Apple! Apple in London looks the same as Apple in San Francisco or New York, and they have customer service down flat.

Mecca on Regent Street

Then we went on to the Royal Academy with its exhibition of Anish Kapoor’s sculpture, if you can call it sculpture – installations might be the better term. It’s a stunning show including pieces I would love to live with and others I won’t rush to see again. Fans of Chicago will recall Kapoor as the creator of the enormous, reflective “jelly bean” installation in Millennium Park on the lake. It’s a terrific creation that draws people from all over to peer at their own distorted reflections from its curved surfaces. It brings out the kid in nearly everyone. “What would it look like if I stick my thumb in my ear and waggle my hand? No one’s looking. I’ll do it!”

Anish Kapoor’s “Tall Tree and the Eye” installed in the courtyard of the Royal Academy.

London’s remarkable museums and galleries are one of the most compelling reasons to visit the city. Art and culture lie at the intellectual heart of a city, and London’s heart is beating well.

The morning papers include long articles on Don Fisher’s death. They also note the Fishers’ recent gift of their extraordinary collection of modern art to SFMOMA, which will make SFMOMA a Mecca itself for art lovers from around the world. The Fishers deserve the gratitude of all San Franciscans for their generous contribution to the cultural riches of the city.

In the afternoon we visited the Science Museum in South Kensington. It’s right next door to our destination tomorrow, the Natural History Museum, and to Imperial College of Science and Technology as well, where I have had quite a few friends on the faculty over the years. Imperial is Britain’s top institution in its field.

Ready to tour the Science Museum in South Kensington.

The fact that today was Monday may help explain why there were not all that many people at the Science Museum. That said, there may be other factors as well. To me, many of the exhibits appeared to be rather tired – even boring. We stayed more out of duty than interest. Of course, I was seeing this museum through far keener eyes than on my last visit about a decade ago. I think they would benefit from a good earthquake of the California Academy style.

It appears that the Brits have heard about Madagascar!

The London Science Museum has made me even more eager to see the new Exploratorium rise on the SF waterfront. I know the Exploratorium folks will set the pace for what it means to be a Mecca for science enthusiasts.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 10:52 am

SFO to London

After packing was done, bags hefted down the stairs, and final checks made of the iron, thermostat, windows and faucets (you know the drill I’m sure), we reported to SFO to surrender to Continental Airlines in the expectation and hope that we would emerge in London in about 12 hours, assuming a successful connection through Newark.

Actually, everything worked fine. The cross country flight was on time. Our one hour connection in Newark came off without a hitch.  We had strong tailwinds across the Atlantic so arrived at London Heathrow early. Even our bags made it. Everything went so smoothly that less than two hours after arrival we were turning the key in the door to the flat we had booked for the week. As an old Scot might say, “Ay, we’ll pay for this.” Sometimes things really work the right way. This was one of them. Continental gave good service all the way.

I still marvel at how easy it is to travel long distances these days, assuming you have no concerns about carbonaceous footprints. Looking down at the Rockies I couldn’t help thinking about the pioneers who struggled their way west with wagons loaded and no prospect of ever going back. Now, we cross the country – and the oceans – in a relative blink and then fuss if we don’t get exactly the seat we want or our plane is late by 30 minutes after going 3500 miles.

Faced with serious jet lag, the Farringtons are not nappers. Rather, we get in motion and walk, walk, and walk – to stay awake and reset the internal clock. So we enjoyed a pub lunch, then went off to St. Paul’s for Sunday afternoon sung evensong, then checked out the bookstores, walked some more, and finally ended the day with a nibble at a local restaurant.

Crowds outside St. Paul’s. No plummy English heard here on a crystalline blue, sunny Sunday afternoon.

Stopping at St. Paul’s is a wonderful mental acclimation to England, the traditional version. The canon this afternoon had a seriously plummy accent (he would not have admitted to having an accent of course) that did much to establish which culture he believes is, or should be, in charge. His was not a young crowd on the whole.

The culture on the street is another matter. London today is one of the most diverse cities I know of. It is a Mecca for travelers from around the world, many of whom stay and make their lives here under the liberal immigration rules of the EU. The result is an amazingly vibrant culture, much (most) of which is a long way from the plummy “Received Pronunciation” of the canon.

This matter of how established societies adapt to or resist an influx of people with different conceptions of what is normal, ethical, faithful, or even fun has been with us a long time, presumably since the people from the cave on the next hill dropped by to get acquainted. It also is a recurring theme of the time we live in and inevitably will resurface on this trip.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 10:41 am

September 23, 2009

Before leaving town…The Challenge of Packing


For Jean and me this trip has three phases, which complicates packing. First we go to London for a week, where we will visit the Eden Project in Cornwall (sort of a mega Osher Rainforest), as well as the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. We have to check out the competition to see if these institutions have some great ideas that we might borrow for California Academy of Sciences.  Then we go to Madagascar via Paris. And then we top off the trip with a few days in Paris.

By stopping in London first, we’ll also make some progress getting over jet lag, since the time difference between San Francisco and Madagascar is 10 hours, 8 of which are between SFO and London. That’s a healthy jet lag to overcome, so we are taking it in stages.

But, before we even leave for good old SFO we have to PACK. And PACKING is one of life’s great challenges. It also can jeopardize marital bliss.

The picture above shows my suitcase in the process of being assembled, constructed, crammed, and all the other words used during packing. Actually, I won’t share with you ALL of the words I have used in the process of stowing away what I will need for a week in London (normal stuff), three weeks in warm and humid Madagascar (very different stuff), and then a few days in Paris at the end (chic, where are you?). To be truthful, I neatened things up for the picture. Sharing reality with you was too much to contemplate. Jean sneaked in the chocolate chip cookies in case the airline’s stock is down and they are cutting back to no nibbles but pretzels. It’s a long flight.

London and Paris are easy. For Jean, of course, it’s chic all the way. For me, khakis will have to do, perhaps taken upscale by the creative touch of a blue blazer. It’s an original look shared with generations of the Brooks Brothers crowd. Men have a way of all looking the same.

The main challenge is what to take for Madagascar. Our companions, the Almedas, are experienced travelers in that part of the world, and we have been following their advice closely. We have acquired full wardrobes of nylon and polyester clothing (light, rugged, and fast drying), new hiking boots, walking sticks, comfy socks, and so forth. In the process we have become frequent shoppers at REI on Brannan Street in San Francisco. The staff there are wonderfully helpful. They all seem to have just returned from a hike or a climb and eager to tell about it. They look FIT. Not one had the courage to ask whether we wanted the senior citizen’s discount. This was wise on their part. (Of course, there may not be a discount.) Regardless, REI rocks for the set we have just joined. Can a sleeping bag be far behind? Cool.

Then there is the small matter of health. We have pulled out all the stops. Vaccinations for this plague and that. Big pink pills for warding off malaria. Cipro antibiotic just in case the “system” goes on the fritz because of some unfriendly creatures in the water. Speaking of water, we now have a new, high-tech UV water purifier that is guaranteed to zap any unfriendly organisms when activated in a bottle of water. It runs on 4 AA cells. Then, just in case the zapper misses something, we also have Pepto-Bismol and lots of other stuff too. I associate Pepto-Bismol with being sick when I was growing up. I somehow had myself convinced that it was the reason I was sick, but I guess that’s looking at things backwards. My mother had great faith in the restorative powers of that pink fluid. I had mixed feelings.

So, preparing to leave has been an involved process that has gone on over a month or two, as this item and that were added to growing piles that eventually would have to be PACKED.

I should point out that for the sake of harmony in the household Jean and I have two separate packing operations in two separate locations. Cellphone calls back and forth from one to the other are allowed, but I have resisted visiting her area in person. I value my life and that sense of harmony the Japanese call “wa”. Naturally, I am always available to offer helpful advice. As yet she hasn’t asked for advice, but I’m sure the moment will come and then I’ll be ready!

The goal: one suitcase each, one small duffel each, and one camera/computer backpack that will be packed on my back. That’s that and that’s it and no more, except for two Kindles since megabytes of books weigh a lot less than paper.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 11:26 am
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The Chief Penguin


Greg Farrington

Greg Farrington, Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, is visiting the island of Madagascar. He is joined by his wife, and Academy researchers, who are surveying and assessing this biodiversity hotspot.

Visit the Farringtons' personal blog, Madagascar Adventure, for in-depth details of this Academy expedition.

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