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Thursday, December 18, 2014

The "Irish" kayak-carrier

Yesterday, there was a highly amusing item in the local paper.

UP THE CREEK WITHOUT A CLUE, ran the headline.  "It defies belief," the item began--

"but this is what police came across on a busy Coromandel road.

"To make matters worse, the Irish tourist driving this car could not see the danger in tying his kayak crossways on his car roof."

Today, the story is different.


The man, it seems, was not Irish at all.  He comes from Auckland.  And, the crossways kayak was a nasty accident, caused when high winds blew off an important part of his roof-rack.  He pulled over within ten metres, he says, and a police officer stopped to help, until called away to the scene of a serious accident.

"Police have apologised to anyone of Irish descent who may have been offended," the report runs on.

Policing manager Freda Grace said: "In this case, while the man was a visitor to the region, he was not Irish and as a result Waikato police wish to offer an unreserved apology to any persons of Irish descent we may have offended."

I wonder if she managed to deliver her speech with a perfectly straight face.

The driver, Jonathan Waters, was not appeased.  "So apparently I am an Irish tourist who decided that tying my kayak onto the car sideways was the plan A of the day," he wrote on Facebook. "Good old Kiwi cops and their direct quotes of immense untruthfulness."

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Whew, what a pilgrimage Eleanor led me!

As many of you will remember, this time last year I posted a running transcription of the sea-letter she wrote as a 21-year-old new bride on the East Indiaman Friendship.  The letter was originally published in 1819 and 1820 as a serial in a little journal called the Asiatic Register, which was published by the Jerusalem Coffee House for the edification of the servants of the Honourable East India Company. The job was not easy, as the columns were replete with typos, enigmatic dashes, and references to people long dead, and places lost to history. To make it even more complicated, it was evident that Eleanor had self-edited the letter when the Jerusalem Coffee House people suggested the publication, so that needed sorting out. Throughout, it was like delving deeply for treasure.

Not only did the sea-letter have to be heavily edited, but it had to be interpreted, too.  What was the background to the events she referred to, and what were the islands and outposts like on the day she viewed them?  What were the stories that lay between the lines?

Over the past year, that is what I have been doing -- telling the stories that lie between the lines of Eleanor's vivacious, sensitive, and startlingly Jane Austen-like diary. The commentaries that resulted, slotted into the sea-letter, have exceeded the word length of the journal by quite a country mile, but it has all been worth it, for the window into a colorful past that the task has opened.

Two very well-regarded historians did me the honor of agreeing to read the finished version.  One was maritime historian Lincoln Paine, and the other women's historian, Jo Stanley.

“In 1799, the twenty-one-year-old Eleanor Reid accepted her new husband's invitation to accompany him on a voyage from Ireland to Australia and back to England—via St. Helena, Cape Town, Sydney, Malacca, and Calcutta. She was a keen observer of the natural and social worlds, and her riveting memoir brims with insights at once worldly and intimate. I can imagine no abler guide to the remote yet cosmopolitan world through which Reid sailed than Joan Druett, whose introductory narratives provide the historical context Eleanor's Odyssey so richly deserves.” 

—Lincoln Paine, award-winning author of The Sea and Civilization

“This book is two joys in one. Eleanor's tale is told so compellingly that it could be mistaken for a novel - although it isn't. Full of wise insights, it is an important addition to the study of sea history.”

 – Jo Stanley, leading expert on women and the sea, and author of Bold In Her Breeches

You can buy the book HERE (Amazon) and HERE (Apple) and HERE (Kobo) and HERE (Page Foundry) ... and HERE (Scribd) and HERE (Nook).  It is available both in print and as an eBook.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Top four travel scams

You've probably come across one or all of these before, but it is that time of the year, and a reminder may not go amiss.

1. Email requests for money
The man who supposedly sent the following email earlier this month – and the recipient – are distant cousins who have a friendly relationship but don’t speak often. The recipient’s first thought was maybe the email is legit. It wasn’t.
  • Subject line: “Awful trip”. Text of message:
“Sorry for any inconvenience, I’m in a terrible situation. Am stranded here in Manila, Philippine since last night. I was beaten and robbed on my way to the hotel I stayed and my luggage is still in custody of the hotel management pending when I make payment on outstanding bills I owe. Am waiting for my assistant to send me money to get back home but he hasn’t responded. pls let me know if you can help and I will refund the money back to you as soon as I get back home. My return flight will be leaving soon, please let me know if I can count on you.”

What to do: Step 1, do not send money. Step 2, use your common sense. If someone knows you well enough to ask for money, wouldn’t you know they were out of the country? Ask yourself other common sense questions like, Don’t most hotels require credit cards upon check-in? If any doubts remain, ask the sender a question only he or she could answer. Again, these emails are almost always a scam so do not send money.

2. Postcard notification of free flights
Postcards promising free flights have been appearing in mailboxes all over the U.S. This one was received in December:

“Southwest Autumn Celebration: Congratulations! We’ve selected you to receive two (2) round trip, coach class airline tickets. Call this number!”

The name of Southwest Airlines is plastered all over the postcard, but Southwest had nothing to do with this (we asked). Nor are these free tickets totally free; as the postcard notes in teeny-tiny letters, that winner may have to pay taxes and fee (which can really add up). FareCompare has called the numbers on several of these postcards and learned that the requirement for getting the so-called freebie often involves sitting through a long, high-pressure sales pitch for condos or travel clubs.

What to do: Depends. How many hours of your life are you willing to give up for a couple of airline tickets that will cost you something, may take you somewhere you don’t really want to go, at a time you don’t want to travel?

3. Bump and run money grab

These scams work because victims get distracted. Some recent anecdotes:

A tourist in Rome is “accidentally” bumped into by two women, one of whom holds a baby. As the three make their apologies, one of the women helpfully brushes the man off, straightens his coat, and vanishes. So does the man’s wallet. [Note: The ‘baby’ is often a realistic-looking doll]

Local man tries to sell you a cheap bracelet or bauble; while describing its charms at length, his buddy picks your pocket.

Nice guy offers to take your photo with your new camera or fancy phone; as you get ready to pose, he takes off with your gadget.

Fellow diner at an outdoor cafe bumps into your table and spills a drink; as he mops up the mess he spouts a steady stream of apologies, but by the time he leaves he may have all your money.

What to do: There are a few things.
  • Don’t let valuables sit around unattended (such as a phone on a restaurant table).
  • Never sling a purse over the back of a chair where you can’t see it.
  • Keep money, cards, passports  in a safe place on your person, in front where you can reach these items perhaps in money belt worn at the waist or around the neck. Note to men: Your back pants pocket is not a safe place.
  • Be aware of where valuables are at all times, but no showing off; displaying cash is not smart no matter where you travel.
4. Laptop thefts

This isn’t so much a scam as it is easy pickings for thieves. The scene of the crime is often airport security; travelers get distracted as they empty pockets or walk through scanners so they’re not paying attention to the laptop as it goes along the conveyer belt. When it comes out, a thief in the crowd can easily pick it up and walk away before its owner is even aware it’s gone.

What to do: Keep your eyes on anything valuable at security. Plus don’t blame it all on thieves! Airport and security lost & founds are filled with laptops and other expensive electronic gadgets that were left behind by preoccupied passengers. Don’t be one of them.

Friday, December 12, 2014

NYT Best Book Jackets


From the NYT via GalleyCat @

The Best Book Covers of 2014

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Maritime art in Wellington

Melville House to publish torture report

Today's Wellington newspaper is full of the news of the release of a small portion of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, along with a self-serving justification written by an ex-director of the CIA, Michael Hayden.  The CIA, it should be added, has been fighting for three years for suppression of the document.

Although just a fraction of the report has been released, condemnation appears to be universal (pending comments from Mugabe et al).  Says the editor of the Dominion-Post, "The United States' embrace of torture in the years after 9/11 has leaked out in patchy stories over several years.

"But yesterday's report by a powerful Senate committee into the CIA's use of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' spells out the programme in new and damning detail.
"It is sickening to read - prisoners force-fed food through their rectums, kept awake for up to a week, placed in coffin-sized boxes for hundreds of hours, threatened with the deaths of their children, and all but drowned by "waterboarding" over and over again.
"One prisoner died of hypothermia in custody, after being left in a stress position on cold concrete for hours.
"Of the 119 detainees covered in the report, at least 26, by the CIA's own admission, were "wrongfully held". They included an "intellectually challenged" man whose detention was used as leverage against a relation.
"Torture, the committee concludes, "was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees". Its report dismantles the CIA suggestion that torture led to the raid on Osama bin Laden, as recently portrayed in the film Zero Dark Thirty, as well as a catalogue of other similar claims.
"The committee is merciless with the CIA; it says leaders of the spy agency repeatedly misled politicians about the programme, carrying out far more brutal procedures than promised and inflating their success.
"All of this is appalling, and all of it matters. Torture is a moral abomination - a red line laid down by societies that have learned its ugly lessons before. It is the stuff of totalitarian dystopias, the profound physical breaking of a person, better for extracting mock confessions than useful leads. Even if torture did "work", which it does not appear to, it would still be morally outrageous.
"It is true that the torture programme emerged out of the rawness and anger that followed the September 11 attacks of 2001. Many felt those enormous crimes against innocents demanded an extraordinary response.
"But turning that anger into a programme of brutal physical torment was never justified. It was its own kind of terror. It also ignored the fact that people in other times, much more war-torn and desperate than our own, have managed to refrain from it.
"Alarmingly, what has been publicly released is only a fraction of the full Senate report - and even the winnowed version is black with redactions. What's more, President Barack Obama's White House refused to supply the committee with more than 9000 documents it requested. The real truth about torture is likely to have been much worse than what we know.But it must go further than that. It must outlaw the practices it still cannot bring itself to call torture. It must guard against using them again, even after another attack. And it must more thoroughly call to account those who allowed torture to become a tool of the government in the land of the free.There is only one small source of relief here: that the report was written at all. It shows the US is capable of examining itself critically."

Says the editor of the London Times, "The CIA depicted here is the rogue agency of Hollywood fiction, writing its own rules, hoodwinking its paymaster and betraying the values for which American purports to stand ....

"Five days after 9/11, the vice-president Dick Cheney told the press that to bring al Quaeda's leaders to justice the US would have to work through 'the dark side, if you will.'"

And that, it seems, is exactly what happened.  Interestingly, George W. Bush, the president, specifically asked to be kept ignorant of the true situation, "for fear," according to a Washington report, "he would blurt out details."

Most of those details are still veiled -- but, according to GalleyCat on, that situation is about to end.  How Melville House got hold of the complete document is an unknown, but lo, they have it, and they are going to publish it.

A release date for both the paperback and eBook editions has been scheduled for December 30th.
Here’s more from the press release: “Five years in the making, the report was officially declassified in April, but its release was delayed until yesterday, when a heavily redacted version of the report was made public. Called by theNew York Times ‘a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach,’ the report proved to be a harsh and broad indictment of the C.I.A.’s response to the September 11 terror attacks. In addition to detailing the scope and severity of interrogation techniques employed by the C.I.A, the report also found that the agency had repeatedly misled both the public and the White House.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bill Gates' Best Books of 2014


Bill Gates has unveiled a list of his favorite books that he read in 2014.
Some of the titles were not published this year because “sometimes I fall behind and don’t get to a book until well after it’s been published.” Gates’ five picks include Business Adventures by John BrooksCapital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas PikettyHow Asia Works byJoe StudwellThe Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, and Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization by Vaclav Smil.
Here’s an excerpt from Gates’ blog post: “I didn’t really plan it this way. But as I look at the list of the best books I read this year, I see how a number of them touch on economics and business. That’s fitting, in a year when Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century put a big spotlight on inequality. In addition, with the Asian economies so much in the news, I wanted to read How Asia Works, which promised to explain why some of the continent’s countries grew so fast while others languished. And I got to brush up on an old favorite, the best business book I’ve ever read.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

Third in the Fontania series

Harry Potter's 12 days to Christmas

JK Rowling will publish 12 new Harry Potter-based stories in the run-up to Christmas, I am told.

The official website announces that from Friday, every day to Christmas Eve, Rowling will publish a short story, each one based on a Harry Potter character.

New information about Harry Potter's arch enemy, Draco Malfoy, would be revealed in one of the stories.  Other goodies are potion recipes and the chance to win prizes by solving "rhyming riddles."