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Journey to Madagascar 2009 

September 30, 2009

Cornwall: Land of Clay, Scallops, and Shipwrecks

Cornwall coast at sunset


On Wednesday we set off from Paddington Station by train to Cornwall, specifically St. Austell Station which is a mile or two from Charleston Harbor. Our destination that day was the Pier House Hotel. It’s right on the harbor and it had been recommended to us by the head of the Eden Foundation, an arm of the Eden Project nearby and our actual destination for a visit on Thursday. The trip took 4 1/2 hours and involved one change. Otherwise it was a model of smooth rail service – starting on time and ending on time. The British may complain about their rail service, but compared to the US they live in railroad paradise.

Cornwall these days is an economically depressed area. Its industries, which centered on tin and clay mining, have largely closed and moved elsewhere in the world where the seams are richer and the labor cheaper. Cornwall produced china clay which was shipped out of Charleston Harbor to be used to make shiny white paper. Clay is still used for that purpose, though other formulations have been introduced, just not clay from Cornwall.

Teen-aged would-be surfers jumping into the cold Cornish water from a great spot for diving right next to the “No Jumping or Diving” sign. Problem: no surf, but on good days Cornwall is a center for surfing in the UK.


Cornwall in history, of course, is the land of shipwrecks, master mariners, fishermen, and romantic fiction filled with heroes like Poldark. Jean had hoped to meet Poldark but he seemed to be away for the day. It also is the land of Manderlay, the fictional home of Maxim de Winter, Rebecca de Winter, and the troubled (!) Mrs. Danvers. They figure in the great tale, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, that Alfred Hitchcock turned into a dark mystery film of the same name. I have a particular fondness for this film and for so many of Hitchcock’s. What a master he was! To go to the land of Rebecca was a treat even if the people we met were far less sinister than those in the movie. It also was great to see that Cornwall really is in “living” color. The film wasn’t – nor was the mood of its story – so you couldn’t be sure.

Over the years Cornwall has also been a major holiday destination for the British. Jutting southwest into the Atlantic and ending appropriately at Land’s End, its coastline is long and lovely. Its weather typically is warmer than the rest of Britain, so Cornwall is also the home of hundreds – of gardens, many of which can be visited. It would be a great area to spend several weeks going slowly from garden to garden, and country hotel to country hotel.

Pier House Hotel at Charleston Harbor, Cornwall


The Pier House Hotel is a very friendly place – with comfortable accommodations and really good food as well. Located by the seaside, it is not surprising that it excels in seafood. Dinner was a relaxing treat, starting with local scallops and continuing to an excellent Dover sole, which is in plentiful supply and therefore not priced over the top as it would be in New York. The smoked fish of various sorts also was excellent. I have a weakness for smoked fish.

The manager, who doubled as bartender, launched into a peans of praise for the delights of San Francisco when he noted where we were from. San Francisco seems to have that effect on people, much more than Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, did when we lived there. Curious. After all, Bethlehem has a bridge too, and the Bethlehem Steel Corporation did build the Golden Gate. It’s fun to hear about all the ways that people love the city we have come to love as well.

Crab pots


Breakfast the next day was a modest affair that included smoked fish, eggs of all varieties, grilled tomatoes, sausages, bacon, and fried bread. I didn’t eat everything – or even make an attempt – since I could hear the voice of my cardiologist in the back of my head. Cardiologists and guilt come close together in the workings of the mind. The fried bread is a particular affront to healthy living; though, truth be told, the sausages were not exactly of the low-fat turkey variety. Breakfast is a wonderful meal. I have felt for many years that I would have no trouble being a vegetarian so long as I could make a few exemptions for breakfast treats like sausage and bacon. Then there is the matter of lunch and dinner, where lamb chops, veal scaloppini, and similar vegetable products would have to be exemptions. Then there are the great hams of the world. Oops, I forgot good hamburgers. Fish are veggie too I think. You get the idea.

All of this is context and prelude for our visit to the Eden Project which will be the subject of Thursday’s posting. We will arrive well fed.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:00 pm

Darwin Meets America: Darwin Loses

The poster pictured above advertises the new film about Charles Darwin that was recently released in Britain. It stars Paul Betany and deals with the struggles Darwin faced in reconciling his religious faith and his scientific studies. It’s playing at the Curzon Mayfair. The Curzon cinemas in London are somewhat of a cross between the Kabuki and the Clay theatres in San Francisco in terms of style and typical offerings.

We haven’t been to the movie yet but were delighted to find that it was playing. We had hoped to go yesterday, but jet lag overwhelmed the operating system and called for a short time out to reboot, so we didn’t do much except take an afternoon walk in the park. The flat where we are staying is in Bayswater, just across the street from Kensington Park. You could start walking from our corner of the park and not run out of green park until you emerged at the Houses of Parliament. It is a long walk to be sure and one we have done in segments many times over the years. The various parks each with its own personality along with their flower beds and plantings are one of the joys of London,.

Yesterday we noted a plaque honoring a parks superintendent a century or two ago whose name was Forsyth and who, according the the plaque, gave his name to the forsythia, a bush that is rather undistinguished most of the year, twiggy in fact, but bursts forth in a glorious blaze of yellow flowers each spring. It follows the early spring flowers and signals that summer is on the way. Appropriately, a bank of forsythias is planted behind the memorial plaque.

Anyway, I titled this entry “Darwin Meets America: Darwin Loses” because of the response the new film, Creation, has received from our side of the Atlantic. In fact, it’s America that is losing. According to news reports, no US film distributor has agreed to distribute the Darwin film. Presumably it will be available on DVD in time, but that’s not the same as seeing it advertised on posters and marquees on the street baldly in public. Presumably the distributors’ hesitation comes from the fact that Darwin and his ideas are “controversial.” I should say “still controversial” since he published Origin of the Species 150 years ago.

The US is distinguished among major (and many minor) countries for having only a very low fraction of its population accept the theory of evolution – roughly 39%. In contrast, approximately 90% of the people in Denmark and Sweden accept the validity of Darwin’s ideas. [Of course, I must point out that the Scandinavians have other strange beliefs, like the importance of government sponsored health care that guarantees all of their citizens high quality care without the fear or threat of financial bankruptcy should they become seriously ill. Strange ideas indeed. But I digress....]

There are many reasons why America has such trouble dealing with evolution. I won’t explore them now. But what is so frustrating is that in our country, one that is justifiably renowned for its scientific and technological leadership – and one that bases so much of its economic strength on technological creativity, a majority of the people believe the equivalent of “the world is flat” and “the sun revolves around the earth.”

The reality is that the world is round and not flat, and the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. No degree of passionate belief or determined rejection can change these realities even though they are not necessarily intuitive nor were they immediately accepted in their time. The same is true for Darwin. While admittedly not intuitive based on the timescale of our human experience, Darwin’s model of evolutionary change has the same intellectual force and validity as the earth being a sphere and up being up and not down.

It does no service to our nation or its future to deny rather than learn from the truths that arise from scientific investigation. Children should not be taught that the world is flat. It handicaps their minds for the future. Suppressing a movie about Darwin because his model of evolution disturbs people’s view of their special role in the universe is like suppressing a movie about Galileo because he defied the established church by stating that according to his observations (a key word and concept) the earth revolves around the sun. Of course, he did make that assertion; he was persecuted for it; but he was right.

The same is true for Darwin. We should study his ideas not suppress them. Let’s hope Creation shows up at the Kabuki.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 5:00 am

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

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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