28 December 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Shaking Where I'm Standing Since 2014 (Issue 10: 12/28)

A Fairy Tale Christmas
Christmas was very strange this year. It was a hot day in the early summer. There was no tree. No decorations. Nothing really except a small pile of presents in a trio of stockings my parents sent us (Niko got one too). We made some ham (which tastes eh), we sat around and relaxed, and we generally tried to avoid doing anything productive. It sort of worked out. I mean, you can only be soo lazy, after all. One thing we did do, though, was watch Shrek and Shrek 2. We'd been planning to do that for a few days and Christmas seemed to be a good time to start. They both were as memorable as ever, but Shrek the Third, on Friday, and Shrek Forever After on Saturday were slightly different experiences. I'd only seen the first of those twice before, and I don't think I've ever seen the second since it was in the theatres, despite having owned it for half a decade. We both agreed that Shrek 4 was the better of the pair and wrapped up the series pretty well in new and inventive ways. We also watched all the shorts that had been made for the Shrek franchise, and some were better than others, but they were all fun. I now feel better about watching a movie marathon here, but I don't really want to do another one quite yet. We watched a bunch of Leonardo di Caprio movies earlier this week and that kind of soured me to longer films for a while. We did see Big Hero 6 on Boxing Day, though, and that was quite good. I'll definitely be grabbing a copy of it when it comes to DVD.

Right, so Christmas. It went okay, but it wasn't spectacular. The gifts were great, though!

The Great Temblor of 2014
A few days before Christmas, in the late afternoon, the house shook under a walloping 4.0 earthquake (it got upgraded from 3.9). About two hours later, a second temblor came by and reminded us the earth wasn't finished yet. Neither of the quakes bugged me much: we're in a single story building that (mostly) survived the last three major earthquakes from 2010-11 so I feel it can hold its own at this point. Kara got a bit freaked out, though, even trying to sympathize with the people of Christchurch (generally not a good thing since the blame the earthquake for pretty much everything). Niko was the most freaked out, charging frantically into the bedroom and hiding under it during both shakes. Kara and I walked over to the door frame, where we are told it is safe. She doubts the sincerity of that thought, even though everyone always says it. Whatever. So earthquakes apparently do still happen here. Who'd a thunk it?

Boxing Day: a.k.a. Anti-Black Friday
There is something mysterious to the United States regarding Boxing Day. First, we don't have it. That's because we have no need to celebrate or even remember the Boxer Rebellion in China because, well, we weren't there or had anything to do with it. I don't think many Kiwis were there either, but New Zealand still celebrates it. That being said, it's mostly just a day off from work after Christmas. The much-hyped Boxing Day sales phenomenon has completely bypassed New Zealand for the simple reason that their tax period ends March 31st, which means businesses don't need to clear our their inventories after Christmas like in the US and UK. Thus, we were tragically disappointed that stores had hardly anything on sale worth buying, and most of the sales were sad. Really sad. Like, 20% or less. In other words, we have yet to figure out when the real sales season is here, if there is one. Kiwis! Pah!

Taylor and His Big Mistake
On Christmas, we did take one detourous journey down the Canterbury coast to a hamlet known as Taylor's Mistake, which is little more than a beach with some houses nearby. Those houses, though, are the last remnant of a once-thriving beach cottage (called "bachws" here; pronounced "backs") tradition that once lined the Port Hills south of Christchurch. Storms, floods, earthquakes, and landslides have overwhelmingly destroyed most of these beach homes, but roughly two dozen still survive at this little cove. The homes were built in the early years of the century right above the high tide line on the beach, so they are truly beachfront property. But the county doesn't allow any more to be built because of safety and insurance concerns, so those that are left are highly valued and most are well-maintained within reason. Part of the allure of the baches are that they are a bit shabby. A few dotted the overgrown hillsides, probably still used periodically but an utter pain, probably, to access. The community is entirely seasonal there so in the winter the hamlet would undoubtedly be empty.

The name of the community comes from a a ship captain, presumably surnamed Taylor, who anchored in the cove in the 1850s thinking that he had reached Sumner, which is two coves to the north. In later years, the cliffs above the cove were reinforced with machine guns and artillery to defend Christchurch during World War II. Those are gone now, but the sites remain popular hiking destinations much like Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego.

Washers, Dryers & Clothes Lines
For our stranger aspect of New Zealand, I present to you the confusing state of the laundry industry here. Washing machines are the most logical requirement in a laundry scheme. They are generally straightforward devices, though the ones here are almost always top-loading, despite common knowledge in the US that front-loaders are better for clothes and more energy efficient (Kiwis don't really worry about water conservation much; water is everywhere here). Dryers are another matter entirely. They are all small, all front loaders, and all look the same. They also don't have a lent trap like in the US but rather have one installed on the face of the dryer, accessible from the outside by pulling off the front of the door. No joke! But it hardly matters since most Kiwis only use dryers when it's blisteringly cold, absurdly windy, and heavily raining or snowing outside (all three must be present). Whenever only two or fewer of those conditions are met, clotheslines are used. The clothes fly in all directions in the wind, getting wet in the rain, snow, and hail, while freezing in the bitter cold of the night. Why this archaic tactic is used is because energy prices are ridiculously high here and the cost to run a dryer, even during off-peak hours, is too much except in times of extreme necessity. While aspects of New Zealand are certainly of the first world, the laundry habits are lacking severely.

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

21 December 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Breaking My Back Since 2014 (Issue 9: 12/21)

A Week Without Motion
Last Sunday, my back started hurting. It wasn't anything major, just a little ache. By Monday morning, it was hurting quite a bit. By Tuesday, it was unbearable. By Wednesday, I wanted to break my back permanently if only to end the pain.

Now mind you, this is in fact the second time my back has gone out in three months. First first time was sudden and painful, but resolved itself within about three days. This time was slow and steady, but by Wednesday I was walking with a shuffle and hunched over. I needed arm supports just to move around. We had planned to go to the Uni every day this week to do our usual research routine, but that just wasn't happening. Sitting hurt. Standing hurt more. Laying down hurt. We went home early on Wednesday and I stayed home all of Thursday, though Kara picked a few things up for me such as my French book (she had a meeting so was going anyway). I got quite a bit done over the week, but it hurt a lot more to do it. Thursday was the least successful day because there were a lot of distractions at home; it's one of the reasons why we go to school. Friday I insisted on going back, and I actually was doing okay in the morning, but things got bad again. We picked up some meds on the way back and Kara got some more on Saturday when I was still feeling like crap. We partially determined that sitting down in the morning doesn't work, so I need to move around and stand up to get the blood flowing. It worked better on Sunday and most of the day I was mobile, though that dull pain still permeated from dawn 'til dusk. Hopefully Monday will prove a return to normality, but I somehow doubt it. Plus, I need to sit at school; the desks are too short to stand beside.

Where are the Christmas Lights?
Feeling a bit better on Saturday night, I agreed to go Christmas light hunting with Kara. It was mostly a success, but Christmas lights aren't a big deal in New Zealand. Now, before everybody gets all "Kiwis hate Christmas" there are two very logical reasons why lights are not as popular here: first, electricity is extremely expensive until 9:00pm; and second, it stays light out until 9:00pm. Considering a reasonable bed time is 10:00 to 11:00pm, that only leaves a few hours for ideal Christmas light time before neighbours start getting ticked at you for turning their living room into broad daylight.

Still, it is a bit sad. Besides it being so light out so late, there just is very little here to give that "Christmas-y" vibe that I'm so accustomed to around this time of year. Granted, we haven't been going out much either, so we miss the mall stuff, but still. The lack of decorations is a bit jarring.

New Zealand: A Tropical Paradise
Decidedly not. BUT, it does have its fair share of tropic-like phenomena. For example, today was a beautiful relatively hot day. Kara kept complaining that it was too hot (she's from Arizona, remember), especially when standing directly out under the sun. We've also had a lot of humid and muggy days, which were fairly rare in Santa Cruz despite the abundant sunlight in the summer and the close proximity to the ocean. In the afternoon, the rains came in quick and without warning. Everything just clouded up and got breezy and then it just came on hard. But even that had a tropical feel to it; it was moist but not cold. Almost like a rain shower in a tropical rain forest. It cut down on the mugginess, but in a strange calming way. It was very nice, actually.

That has been New Zealand for us, though. Unpredictable weather from day to day, hour to hour. Some days have been beautiful and become awful, while others start terrible but turn nice. Each day is a new meteorological adventure.

Apple Computers and How to Heck Them
This week I was gifted with a loaner Apple iMac from the History Department. I had requested it five weeks earlier, but bureaucracy is slow. The good news was that it was a modern-style iMac. The bad news: it was admin-locked, lacks the RAM to run the current (or even a recent) operating system, and it doesn't have most of my required apps installed. That being said, the RAM is cheap and I have the installers for most of the apps I need. Now, I just needed to get around that bugger admin requirement...

Or I just overwrite it. Apples have nice backdoors, you could say, and I found one easily exploited that let me both override the two admin passwords and hard lock my own onto the computer. In other words, it's essentially my Mac now, which I figure it will be in all but name since I will have it for three years and by then it will be a decade old (it's a 2017 model). I don't think they'll want it by then. Anyway, the only problem I've run across since then is trying to get my Mac App Store account on the computer: currently it is locked to one of the random admins who set the computer up. That was probably a mistake on their part. I'll figure out a way, not that I use the App Store much anyway, it's kind of garbage.

Prioritising Trash
Which brings me to my last point of the day: garbage. In privileged cities in the United States, people have three rubbish bins: recycle, compost, and everything else. We set these out on our curb on the day given for it to be picked up and it is emptied. In Christchurch, the city has the same three basic bins with one caveat, only the compost bin is picked up each week, presumably because it smells the worst. The recycle and trash bins alternate fortnightly, but it's kind of hard to remember which can to put out each week, so neighbours look to see what other neighbours put out...and pray they are correct. Apparently entire blocks put out wrong cans on a regular basis, but nothing is done about this. There may be a website that says or something, but who has time for that. Thus, each week we all hope and pray that the first neighbour to put out their cans put out the correct cans. We haven't missed yet, but we've only been here for a few months.

As a side note, the Uni has the same internal system for trash, but paper is separated out from recycle into its own bin, which would be fine except it rarely looks the same as the other three bins. In fact, sometimes it's nowhere near the other bins, if there is one at all. Paper recycle also is done not with a lid to lift but a slot to insert, thus all paper must be slotted into the large recycle bin. Perhaps this is to keep cardboard out or something, but it is very odd. Kara's been recycling her paper in the wrong bin since we've been here and I've done it wrong a few times too!

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

14 December 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Smoting The Heathens Since 2014 (Issue 8: 12/14)

Takin' a Break for Five Battles of an Army...Wait...
This Tuesday we had the distinct privilege of seeing The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies before most of the rest of the world. In fact, the United States has not yet been able to see it, at least not publicly. That was a cool experience all in itself, but the it also marked the first time we went to a movie theatre here. And let me tell you, it was HUGE! I mean, it was one of the biggest non-IMAX movie theatres I've been to, and it was bigger than even some of the IMAX. The sound was excellent, the screen quality great, and it wasn't even the largest theatre they had. That being said, the Kiwis do a few things differently than in the US.

For starters, you know those pre-show advertising blocks that intermix adds with short previews and other stuff? Well, here those begin at the time listed for the film to begin. They also intermix the trailers in with those, though there are fewer trailers (and they don't have the big green "preview" screen before them). Thus, if you get to a move early, there is absolutely nothing playing before it. No music, no pre-show, nothing. If you get to it on time, you still have to sit through 20 minutes of ads and whatnot, many of which are not previews for other films. It was a bit jarring, to be honest.

The second strange thing is that the seats are assigned here. That's right, assigned. We went to an 11:20 show on Thursday morning and found ourselves in someone else's seats. Once we relocated, we were crammed next to a smelly guy even though there were open seats literally everywhere else in the theatre. Now I understand some of the reasons for assigned seating: the perk of picking seats online, the ability to more adequately cram a theatre full, as a way of insuring everyone gets the best seats possible. That all being said, it was really dumb. As soon as the film started, we scooted over a seat where we were fortunate to find nobody sitting. But our first seats were amazing and we were slightly annoyed that some other guy, who arrived later, took them from us.

At least the movie was enjoyable, though not really on par with any of the other Hobbit or Lord of the Rings films except The Desolation of Smaug.

Working For The (Kiwi) Man
This week we also were accepted to our first jobs. We have training next Tuesday. We will be sitting in on College of Arts classes (our college) and taking notes for students that have some disability impairing their ability to take notes. That means we will get paid $17 an hour to go to lectures, learn, and not have to interact or do homework. Pretty good deal, I think. The hardest part will be remembering to look like an studious student rather than a note-taker, because it's all done hush-hush.

As a part of the employment process, we also discovered the depths of paperwork required to get a job in New Zealand. And I really mean depths. Even though we have work visas, we still have to get tax IDs, which won't be issued until after Christmas. Hopefully this won't effect our employment prospects. We also have to include bank info (all paychecks are direct deposit; no checks), drivers license info (even though we don't drive), passport info, visa info, and all sorts of other things. We didn't even fill out sections because we weren't sure what we were supposed to write. It's all quite crazy. I'll write more on this next week after we figure out more specifically what we're doing.

Goodbye to the Western Diet
Well it has been two months now since we moved in and Kara began our new diet of low carbohydrates and high protein. And, despite my best efforts to the contrary, it is working spectacularly well for me. I have lost 20 pounds in the past two months and am still dropping. I doubt I'll get the abs of Chris Hemsworth, but I am the lightest I have been since 2011 and 2005, with better prospects for less weight in the near future. My diet has switched entirely to a lot more home-made goods using things like spelt flour and homegrown herbs. I am not joking, read Why We Get Fat? by Gary Taubes or his earlier and more technical book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. I'm not one to pitch things like this, so you know there's got to be a reason. It does take longer to make things each week such as cooking eggs for breakfast, baking bread and tortillas, and slow-cooking pinto beans and tomato basil soup, but it's worth it. Americans in general are on a diet funded by the Food & Drug Administration, a governmental branch largely funded and sponsored by Big Agriculture. Here's a suggestion to the government: end lobbying entirely and stop food subsidies. If you do, medicine will become more effective, food will become healthier, and people in general will become healthier. It's as simple as that. The food pyramid is an utter lie and, I really hate to say this because I feel ya, humans are omnivores. That means they eat plants and meat. And not all plants are healthy, including high-sugar fruits such as apples and bananas, but virtually all commonly-consumed meat is healthy. Buy the book. Read it. Learn from it. Lose those pounds you were never able to lose before and feel better while you're doing it.

Dinner à la Carte
Kara and I have not had a great time eating out here. Besides the high prices, the menus are generally short and the company is often decidedly lacking. So far we've gone out with a homestay and two separate groups of students. We also have gone to a few school events, such as this Thursday which saw us whittle away two hours doing little more than talking to people we already know. This isn't a terrible thing except we know relatively few people here, so talking to those few means there are tons of other people we aren't talking to. Humanities people generally lack initiative, myself included, but a forced mix-and-mingle at the event on Thursday would have been nice.

On Friday, though, we went out with a different group of Humanities students from various disciplines as a part of an agreed-upon campaign to revitalise the Humanities social environment. Or at least that's what we thought we were doing. Up until the very end of dinner, we were under the impression that our $50 meal was being paid for by the School of Humanities, mostly because that was the entire purpose of the dinner outing: to use up the funds that the school gave us when the Humanities social group first formed. Unfortunately, everything fell apart behind our back, sparking Kara into taking over the entire thing next year (the others don't know this yet. SHhhhh!). We had our hints, such as the fact that about 1/3 of the people there weren't students but spouses and partners of students. Also, when I asked the leader, or so we thought he was, he kind of laughed it off and changed the subject. Kara confronted him later and discovered that he had no idea that was the plan, despite he making that plan two months ago. See? A lack of communication here. Which brings me to...

Tall Poppy Syndrome
New Zealanders have a general aversion to standing out. They call it "tall poppy syndrome" and it is virtually universal here. It is one of the strangest problems ever. It makes the entire population of New Zealand seem like introverts. I'm an introvert. Kara's even more of one. Yet both of us find this concept ridiculous. People will literally look down on you if you try too hard or rise up above others. We realise now that this is the reason why the Humanities department lacks initiative to do events except those led by its British and American faculty (such as my advisor). It explains why Kiwis generally appear moderately jovial but overwhelmingly dull. It also explains why there seems to be a universal dislike for Peter Jackson, quite literally the world's most famous New Zealander right now. he's standing up high, which means nobody likes him. This is a real problem, though, because it is damaging the whole city of Christchurch. Everything is done slow and steady, including the reconstruction effort. Nobody seems to have original ideas and few try to express themselves in loud ways. And while in the United States I get really tired of people standing taller than they should be, here I wish a few more people would even be visible over the all-consuming crowd. Everybody seems to live their life in as normal a way as possible: it's like Pleasantville except with more swearing and modern conveniences. Kara and I are planning to stage a coup next year, overturning the Humanities School and the whole College of Arts, but we realistically fear that people may not be interested simply because they don't want to stand out.

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

07 December 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Bakin' Bread Old School Style Since 2014 (Issue 7: 12/07)

The Ill Effects of Gravity on Gardens
About a month ago, we planted our first garden on a plot of land beside the house that had been set aside for that purpose. We bought a good dozen different types of plants, all of which have begun to grow (from what we can tell) except for the bell peppers and tomatoes. We put in fresh fertiliser and soil and stomped out a path all around it to make accessing the garden easier. It all went quite nice and since then we have also recovered about 15 thriving strawberry plants from a nearby plot and set them aside in their own area. Kara finished planting our flower seeds this afternoon so the whole garden is set.

That being said, we did not anticipate that the slight downhill slope of the garden would cause as significant runoff as it has. Since all of our plants were from seed packs, many of them have, well, shifted a bit. As much as a metre in a few cases. The path on the downslope side of things is completely overgrown and the area near the top is practically devoid of seedlings. It was a rather unfortunate and unexpected problem. We did get some decent rain in the weeks after we planted, so that probably allowed the soil to move while also mixing up the fertiliser. In any case, our garden is doing great but not in quite the way we had hoped. Maybe someday we'll figure out exactly which plants are which. I rather doubt it, though. On a sidenote: does anyone know how to tell when potatoes are ready to be pulled? Or carrots? We haven't the faintest idea.

Baked Beans and Toasty Bread
We finally returned our first slow cooker a week ago after three failed batches of beans and a flop of a chicken casserole. Most places here don't actually accept returns, but K-Mart fortunately does. We bought a new, more expensive one at Farmers and have had  much better success with it. After two tasty batches of tomato basil soup and Kara's beef and broccoli, we decided to give beans another try. Fortunately, it was a wonderful success. We woke up this morning to find a nice hot pot full of refried beans, just waiting to be mashed. And mashed they were! Now we can finally make more affordable beans here.

I've also been trying out my sourdough starter that I nurtured from some kefir yoghurt and whole grain flower. There is a constant problem with making low gluten bread: it doesn't rise very high. That being said, the first batch came out a bit dry, and the second one, finished today, came out very moist. Generally, I prefer moist because it usually takes longer to dry out, but moist also means it doesn't really rise even when the yeast is doing its job. So my loaf today was a rather flat and dense thing. I'm still trying different techniques but next week may require some more drastic measures. I've doubled my starter, which popped (fermented) in less than a day which is amazing, and there is hardly any kefir left in it, but it still doesn't smell even remotely like San Francisco sourdough, so that's something I need to try and remedy. Any suggestions?

Cartography from the Other Side of the World
With the writing phase of my book done, I took the opportunity this week to take a break from writing/editing and work on my book's maps. Formatting on Photoshop and Illustrator took all week, so today was the first day I finally was able to see results, and I am quite impressed with them, to be honest. I managed to make the full map of the entire railroad system readable, which I wasn't really expecting to work, and the two out of five close-up maps also look great. I still need to put in scales and compasses, which I forgot to do initially, but I think I can whip out the last three maps before the middle of next week with editing back in the game. Oh, and do I have some editing ahead of me! I've been getting reviews back from local historians with all sorts of edits to make, but my second article—SECOND!—needs a complete rewrite due to so many problems I can't even begin to state them. That is something I have been putting off since September, so I need to take care of it this week and send the article to its reviewers ASAP.

Christmas—New Zealand Style
Christmas is a summer event here and it isn't as talked about as it is in the States. Stores have their advertisements and whatnot, but decorations aren't really a think both because it stays light until after 9pm and because electricity is so expensive here. Thus it is through local events that the Holiday spirit is really in evidence. Last week they had a Christmas in the Park festival, which I didn't go to, unfortunately. But today we got to visit the Dean's House at Riccarton Bush, which had a Holiday Market outside. Lots of arts and crafts and oh-so-good-smelling food. I wish I could have had some, but alas I could not. Still, it was the first Christmas-y feeling we've really had next to the Operation Friendship event from two weeks ago. It's still early, but neither of us are expecting much of a traditional Christmas here. It may be one of the sadder parts of our stay in New Zealand, but we do get reminded of the season constantly through our video streaming which include numerous Christmas advertisements.

The Terror of the Digital Age
I haven't complained much about digital media since I've been here, but here's a time to start. For years I have acquired my digital video content through less-than-proper means, but when we came to New Zealand, we agreed to stick to the law because of an acute awareness that we could be deported for any illicit hijinks. That being said, the world, or at least New Zealand, is still not ready for full-digital media. First, there is the issue of websites being "geo-locked", which means they can tell where you are and if you should be able to access their content. There are hundreds of sites that do this including Netflix, Hulu, Comedy Central, ABC, and even YouTube (on a case-by-case basis). Second, there is the fact that streaming requires a good internet connection from both ends and everywhere in between. We've been using DishAnywhere to stream shows from Arizona, but the connection constantly goes out without warning or simply doesn't work to begin with. To make matters worse, the Blockbuster Video option through DishAnywhere also doesn't work, probably because it, too, is geo-locked. Third, there are still restrictions between devices, which means some material won't play or stream to televisions because they are different formats (PAL v. NTSC, standard-definition v. high-def). We didn't think this would be a problem for us since everything we have is digital HD now, but our TV was in a different format than Kara's computer, and we had to reboot it for it to switch types. Very random and annoying. We almost gave up until I tried that.

Last, content providers don't really give a crap about anything. Period. So I bought a legitimate copy of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition a month ago to enjoy before the new film comes out. Only the film, though, was downloadable. All the bonus content, of which there is a lot, had to be streamed. Apple is apparently incapable, however, of remembering playback positions, so whenever the video caught up to its buffer, the thing reset. Immediately! That is on top of the video cutting out all the time because it refuses to download more than a few minutes of video at a time. So we've been putzing around for a month now trying to watch all the videos before the new film releases but we've lost so much time it's amazing because of problems like these. To make matters a tad bit worse, The Hobbit digital version decided that fans didn't need the director's commentary. If you want that, buy the physical version. Conclusion: the world is not yet ready to completely convert from physical to digital media. It has a ways to go before I'm happy, at least.

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

29 November 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Droppin' The Mike Since 2014 (Issue 6: 11/30)

From Writing to Revising
The process of writing is, in a sense, infinite, but that doesn't mean it can't have milestones. Today, at roughly 6:00 p.m. NZDT, I finished writing the first draft of Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Now, I still have A LOT of work ahead of me, including heavy revision of some articles; hundreds of photos to edit, crop, insert, and caption; and a fair amount of formatting and layout work. But being done with the writing is such a load off my mind it is amazingly reassuring. Here are some of the stats:

Current page count = 271
Current word count = 121,160
Total articles = 68
Current cited sources = 120 (including newspapers)
Total number of people I have to thank when this is done = Indeterminate

So stay tuned on my santacruztrains.blogspot.com blog for future updates about the project. I posted just this week an extremely popular custom Google Map of all of the railroad lines in Santa Cruz County. I recommend anyone even remotely interested to check it out at the link above. I also have been continuing my weekly articles, with Aptos and New Brighton the most recent on www.santacruztrains.com. Lastly, if you live in the San Lorenzo Valley or Scotts Valley, I've had articles published in the Press-Banner for the past few months, so be sure to watch for me. I usually have an article every 2-3 weeks, and I had the front page about a month ago. So check them all out and keep new information coming if you've got it! This book is turning out to be great. I can't wait to see it with all the photos and station boxes. I'm sure it will be popular.

Two Dinners for the Price of Two
Thanksgiving is not a thing in New Zealand, and because of that, Kara and I ended up going to two dinners this week with two different groups, both of which were somewhat Thanksgiving-y. The first was with Operation Friendship, which is a bunch of older folks feeding a bunch of college-aged folks from around the world. It was a potluck-style affair, but the guests weren't required to bring the food. We stayed quite late and were encouraged to talk to various different people. Kara was having a blast and I met a Kiwi guy who volunteers at a number of local historical associations, including a railroad one. They are working on making the New Zealand Railroad Museum in Christchurch, so I may get involved with that. We didn't get home until nearly midnight, which was something we haven't done in a very long time.

On Saturday night, we had Thanksgiving dinner with the Americans in Christchurch group and it was not quite as exciting. We hung out with two Brits who had lived in the US for years before moving to New Zealand. Their kids were there too and it was rather funny because both were raised in the US but trying really hard to adopt Kiwi accents. They were pretty good at it too, I must say. The event wasn't as well organised as that of the previous night but the food was good. They even had non-lumpy mashed potatoes, which is my favourite. We didn't linger, though, and came back to get some work done. What's Thanksgiving without doing chores, right?

Growing in the Antarctic
Plants grow surprisingly well in this land down under. Perhaps it's because it is always green here and rains at least once a week. Perhaps it's because the weather rarely drops below 0˚C. Perhaps it's because the soil is volcanic and generally rich. Who really knows, but virtually everything we're growing is doing well. Our little garden out back has a ton of weeds in it, but all our stuff is growing right beside them. We aren't even sure which is which entirely. Out front, the grass grows without every needing water and a row of purple flowers have never gone out of bloom despite us only tending to them recently. Next to our garden, a row of weeds have been cleared out revealing strawberry plants that are actively growing berries! Kara pulled about a dozen small red berries just this afternoon. And on our porch, my jalapeño bush has over a dozen fruits growing on it, some getting quite large, while everything else has also sprouted from its seed form into something noticeable. We fear leaving or going on vacation because of all these plants, but we are happy they are doing so well. Our mint bush is so big you can hardly tell it's in a pot!

The Campus of Loneliness
Nobody is on campus these days. Uni let out about two weeks ago but we were preoccupied with various things during that time, so this is the first week where we've realised just how empty the campus is. Few lecturers are around, the library has reduced hours, the common areas are mostly vacant, and even the dining areas are mostly closed with just the deli and posh restaurant open. It is quite nice for getting work done—few distractions and all—but it also gives off this feeling that nobody works here. Kind of a ghost town vibe. Very off at times, especially when the weather is being weird. Like, there was a thunderstorm on Thursday morning and I thought it was construction machinery until I realised that nobody was working right then. Then a big clash woke me up from my confusion. Earlier in the week, we had horizontal rain that danced around with wind and clear skies. Then two days this week were super warm and nice. They call it a nor-wester, which means its comes from Australia. The combination of the ghost town environment and the weird weather will probably make the march to February, when school resumes, quite long and sometimes isolating. We'll make it through, though.

Red Friday, Confused Saturday, Utterly Lost Sunday
Black Friday and "Gray Thursday" are big things in America, but in New Zealand there's isn't such a thing. Sort of. Shopping is more continuous but seems to begin at around the same time. One local store which has a red theme like Target decided to go all out and declare "Red Friday"! Apparently the "black" part of Black Friday is lost on them. But, if they want their business to stay in the red, they are well on their way to that. All their doorbuster sale items were right inside the store. No need to browse or go elsewhere, just grab and go. Convenient, but I think they missed the point: you are supposed to hide the prizes so that people will find other things not on sale along the way. Silly Kiwis. They'll figure it out someday.

Being 21 hours ahead is causing me my own problems, though. Like right now, it is still the Saturday night in California, but it's Sunday evening here. For Black Friday, all my times were wrong for trying to get stuff online. Target and Walmart were completely sold out of everything I wanted before I even had a chance to grab something on sale. Amazon just has its stupid hot deals all day everyday until about a week before Christmas. I can't be checking that all the time!!! I missed out on about five movies I had in my cart just because of bad timing (and a lack of other items to bump over my shipping). Christmas: sometimes you love it, sometimes it drives you nuts!

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

23 November 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Pretending To Care Since 2014 (Issue 5: 11/23)

French for Dummies
Kara found a great little book on learning to read French for me. It only arrived on Thursday, but I quickly began working through it. There are countless problems with the book, especially since it is geared toward a science student, but overall it has a nice feel. The book focuses on learning the important aspects of reading, such as understanding which word types are which. It also isn't overly heavy on vocabulary. Did you know that half of the French language is composed of English cognates? That means words that look like and mean the same as English words. Unfortunately, the other half is a maelstrom of words, some of which are partial cognates (multiple definitions, only one of which is the true English cognate) or false cognates (looks the same, is totally different). The book focuses on the gendered issue of French a bit more than seems necessary, though I have partially learned Spanish, French, Latin, and German, all of which are gendered languages. Perhaps people unfamiliar with this concept will have difficulties. Honestly, it rarely seems to matter in trying to get the gist of something anyway.

Vocabulary is the thing I have the most difficulty with and this book throws new vocab around like I'm a sponge. Hint: I'm not! It also doesn't have answers to the section conclusions, which usually consist of reading a few paragraphs in French and then answering questions. How do I know if I got the answers correct? Who knows!? I certainly don't, and in the last two chapters I had some questions that I couldn't find answers to. I find this a bad thing. The book also doesn't always translate things into normal English, choosing to give as literal a definition as possible, which often sounds strange. Au contraire, some of the sections are so not literal that I have no idea how they even came up with that translation. Consistency is apparently lost on these guys. Oh, and this book could have easily catered to a more balanced audience. I know Marie Curie and Pierre were great and everything, but let's pick some examples of sentences that don't involve math and science terms I don't understand even in English!

Public Speaking Tips
We went to the Postgraduate Showcase on Wednesday, which was a meeting of postgraduates from Canterbury, University of Otago, and Lincoln University (all in the general area). We were decidedly not amused. It was a 8-hour day of people giving 15-minute speeches and some of these people truly need help in delivering their information. The full gauntlet was here, from people that didn't even seem to understand their topic to people that knew it so well they forgot we don't. From people that are so afraid of public speaking that I think they wet themself to people so confident that they seem to have forgotten to stay on topic. Some speeches were decent, but none were great. At least none that we saw. And the Humanities were not at all represented. No English, History, Political Science, Law, Language, Music, Drama, etc., student bothered to show up. The two History students that I knew who were going dropped out at the last minute. While Humanities is definitely suffering at the Uni, this is a bit ridiculous. At Point Loma, this speech was required to earn your honour's stamp on your diploma; it should be required here too. Academia in general here is rather lax on a number of things and participation, even when required, rarely has a major impact if you don't do it.

Defining the Objective
On Thursday morning, I met with my PhD supervisor for the fourth and last time for this year. He is going on an extended two-month vacation/work trip to Europe and will be out of contact for most of that time. He has a habit of getting off track and I had a long agenda to cover, so naturally only about half of it got done. After asking him about various things, we got into the meat of the topic: my timeline. Apparently I hadn't given myself enough time to work on each chapter, so he suggested I spread it out more. That brought me perilously close to the end of the third year, though, so I'm going to have to try and keep my own schedule that is more abbreviated. Hopefully I can stick to it.
We weren't able to cover all topics that I wanted to touch on, but we made some good progress at least. I had to write him a follow-up email later just to cover the last few points. At least he liked my genealogies I wrote for my PhD. I'll post them up here at some point for all your viewing pleasure.

Cooking The Hard Way
After weeks of difficulty, Kara and I are finally managing to make some foods successfully. Last Sunday night, we made a scrambled egg casserole for the entire week and it worked magnificently. We dropped bacon from our diet and switched to two eggs per morning. We toss some nice mozzarella and Colby cheese on top to add to the flavour.

On Saturday, I successfully made my first batch of sourdough here, using the bread machine for the actual cooking cycle. It let it rise for 24 hours without adding any sugar, which means only the gluten in the wheat was there for the yeast to eat. In the end, it may have been too much. Low gluten bread doesn't rise as much, which means the bread is much heavier. But the lack of gluten makes it quite a bit healthier overall. The next thing I am trying to fix is the sour quality of it. Even after 24 hours, it isn't sour enough and doesn't taste very...San Francisco-y. So I tried adding a special type of yoghurt instead of water to my new starter to see if that works. Fingers crossed!

On top of those, last week I made my first home-made salsa. I used bottled jalapeños because my own aren't ready yet, and food processed them with onions, vinegar, and a few other bits. It really needs cilantro but we haven't found that here yet. It came out less flavourful than I was hoping, and our food processor is not very good, so we may buy a Magic Bullet blender and try again with that. The price of the Magic Bullet, though, is a fortune and they only seem to sell the large box version here, which we really don't need. Regardless, we have enough salsa to last at least two months, I think.

Finally, we made a batch of tomato basil soup today from scratch-ish. We used tomato paste as the base and just started mixing cream, water, basil, pepper, and salt until it tasted good. It wasn't perfect and it may need garlic and onions to really bring out the flavour, but it was quite tasty with my new sourdough bread.

Boxing Day vs. Black Friday: Fight!
Christmas is coming and in New Zealand, there is no Thanksgiving/Black Friday to flag the start of the race. Instead, it just starts. Slow at first (Christmas stuff has been in stores since mid-October) and eventually taking over (Santa started at the mall today). Sales are not as spectacular and there is not much to say about door busters, but Christmas music is playing at the mall and you can feel the spirit growing in the air. One thing that is strange, though, is that everyone keeps talking about their Christmas barbecues rather than their Christmas roasts. That is something we're still getting used to.

Instead of Black Friday, there is Boxing Day, a national holiday the day after Christmas where all the stores try to clear their remaining inventory by the end of the year. It is apparently just as big or bigger than Black Friday, and we've never experienced it because in Wales, we went home for Christmas. This year we'll be here and we are waiting to see if we want to try it out. It may be a good chance to get some needed things, but do we want to go into that chaos? We'll see. As it is, I have already been buying stuff online for Black Friday week even though I won't see most of it in three years. Do I have the money for this? Probably not. Do I need it? Probably not. Can I refuse such discount prices? Absolutely not!

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

15 November 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Ignoring Road Signs Since 2014 (Issue 4: 11/16)

Working Hard & Hardly Working
This past week marked our first full work week. Like 9-5, five days a week. It was pretty intense. My schedule most days was:
9:00 – 9:30 — Email, Facebook, troll the internet
9:30 – 10:30 — French Reading
10:30 – 1:00 — Book Reading
1:00 – 1:30 — Lunch
1:30 – 4:00 — Academic Journal Reading
4:00 – 5:00 —Train research
Yeah, so a lot of reading was involved and it will continue to be involved until I start writing, which will probably begin around the end of December. French is going okay but I am waiting for a how-to manual on learning to read French. Right now, Google Translate is being my good friend in helping me get past the harder passages, which is most of them.

On Monday, I spent most of the day also working on my timetable for my PhD to discuss with my advisor next week when we have our last meeting of the year. Then he's abandoning me for two months while he goes galavanting around Europe. Psh. Meanwhile, Kara and I just hope to go anywhere this winter.

Next week: more work!

Gifts from the New World
We received in the mail on Saturday a special treat from my parents. It was a packed-to-the-brim US Postal Service box with NZ Inspected stamps all over it. Yeah, they aren't our best friends right now for multiple reasons. When we opened the bowing and warped box, we found the goods in shambles and the included letter (that Kara knew about) buried in the middle. New Zealand Customs had found it necessary to confiscate all but one of the seed packets that my parents had so lovingly included, with a proviso that we could either pay $55 NZD to have them shipped back, or customs could destroy them free of charge. Sheesh, what an offer. They let us keep a packet of parsley seeds...because they actually sell those here. Freaking customs. We were really looking forward to growing our own Romaine lettuce here since they don't grow or sell it in New Zealand. There were some other fun foods in there too. Word of warning: don't try to import seeds to New Zealand. They won't like it.

The package also came with a bunch of other treats that did make it through including Kraft Mac & Cheese packets, pumpkin bread ingredients, Christmas stockings and gifts, and assorted gardening accessories. My sister also sent me allergy meds and a ceramic sheep that had been occupying the back-right seat of my parent's SUV since time immemorial (c. 2000). Oh, and best of all, they sent me a packet of sourdough bread thereby completely destroying my gluten-free diet for the week. I made that bread ASAP and have been eating it a lot! It came out really good in our previously-unused bread machine. Note to anyone visiting us, bring Krustez Sourdough Bread machine mix and I'll love you even more (yes, that is possible. I will love you even even more if you also bring Pasta Roni White Cheddar Shells). Thank you Mom and Dad for a great gift box!!!

Kara is scolding me for that last comment, but I'm not removing it. We're still waiting for a big batch of vitamins and whatnot that we bought nearly a month ago now, but we assume customs is thoroughly inspecting it for...something. Kara's afraid we're on their watch list now.

Dining in Vietnam, Kiwi-style
On Wednesday night, we went to see a lecture by a Cambridge professor and were invited to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant afterwards. Neither of us had ever gone to a Vietnamese restaurant before and I generally am really picky anyway, so finding anything on the menu worth eating was a huge challenge. To make things more difficult, the faculty host was pushing for us to buy a 10-course meal at $30 per person. Neither Kara nor I wanted anything in that meal except the rice, so we tried to back out, with the group eventually choosing a slightly cheaper 8-course meal and the two of us ordering separately. Did I ever mention I hate eating out in big groups when I have to pay? The whole concept of group meals just goes against my style in general, but my pickiness makes it impossible. Add to that the high cost of meals here and I just wasn't playing that game. Our combined meal ended up costing $6 less than an individual meal would have, so I'd say we won that contest. We also may have lost future networking opportunities with that specific faculty member, but you win some, you lose some.

The meal itself was fun. It was a group of history faculty and students (plus Kara). There were only eight of us total, so the group was manageable. I history/law master's student was beside me while Kara sat on the other side. The guest professor began the meal on the opposite side of the table, so Kara and I talked with the host faculty member who had some very interesting insights in general. We switched about half-way through and Kara ended up monopolising the guest, asking him all manner of questions. I decided to network with my colleagues and peers instead, which may work out in the long run. We'll see. Near the end of the meal, it began hailing REALLY hard outside, a surprise considering it wasn't supposed to rain until the following day. That's New Zealand for you.

Hiking in Scotland in New Zealand
I've mentioned before how New Zealand resembles the highlands of Scotland at times. Well that is especially true in regard to the Port Hills just south of Christchurch. A long time ago, a pair of volcanoes erupted creating two beautiful bays—Lyttleton and Akaroa—surrounded by relatively high crater walls. The northern crater is flanked on the north by what have since been called the Port Hills. Sheep and cattle roam these hills that are green year-round. A dirt service road between the city and the summit road acts as a popular trail for hikers and bicyclists, despite the fact that sheep wander through it incessantly.

We took our first hike through there today and made it nearly to the top of the grade (the road) before my left knee decided it wanted a rest. I hobbled back from there. The walk was very beautiful and except for the occasional views of the city or the beach town of Sumner, you wouldn't even realise you're in New Zealand.

Confusing Words for Everyday Foods
New Zealanders don't like to call things what Americans (or even Brits) would call them. Instead, they make up fanciful names for them that are either absurdly simplistic or just plain confusing. Things such as:

  • "Tomato Sauce". This is not Ketchup, but it is pretty much Ketchup. It's kind of like a light Ketchup with a bit more tomato and a little less spice. Australia has something similar. Oh! You wanted actual tomato sauce? Like a puree type thing? Good luck, mate. We ain't got that rubbish here. We only 'ave the good stuff.
  • "Courgette". Want a zucchini? Good luck with that, but they've got amazing courgettes here. You'll never know the difference (because there isn't one).
  • "Salads". A descriptive term defining a meal food or a general description of items that could go in a salad? Your guess is as good as mine. They call everything from lettuce to broccoli to salad dressing "salads". A BLT does not have bacon, lettuce, and tomato, it has bacon, salad, and tomato. Who woulda thunk it?
  • "Noble". A type of reduced fat cheese. Apparently the more noble among us are the ones that eat it. It does mention that it's cheddar somewhere on the labelling, but it's not obvious.
  • "Trim". See Skim. Refers to the fat content in milk. However, Trim ≠ Non-fat. Just as with U.S. skim milk, there is actually a little milk fat still in "Trim" milk.
  • "Chips", "Biscuits and Crackers", "Lollies" — See "French Fries", "Cookies", "Candies (all varieties)". 

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

08 November 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Snoozing Through Alarms Since 2014 (Issue 3: 11/8)

The Last Train to Midnight
These past weeks have been quite busy for numerous reasons, yet I have not slacked once on my duty to complete my book, Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I still plan to get the darn thing out by the end of February, but that task is not easy. In that time, I will also be writing the first chapter of my PhD thesis and my supervisor is on my back constantly to get working on it. I've read some material, but it's really hard to find time in all the various tasks I've set up for myself. The major writing portion of my train book will be done by the end of November, but then I have three months of editing, formatting, rewriting, and advertising, all while working on my PhD and traveling. Traveling, to be honest, is probably going to be short trips to locales in the South Island. We just can't afford financially or time-wise to go further in this first summer here.

Writing has also taught me that I can be quite repetitive with my word use, so I am constantly trying to find ways to work around using specific words. Oddly, the words I feared overusing the most rarely come up, usually no more than once or twice an article, while other words such as "remain", "survive", and "while" appear quite frequently. I'm not looking forward to finding all those errors. I also plan to print this entire thing in mid-January for a thorough editing and read-through, which I'm not looking forward to paying for.

A Final Bout of Classes Before the Long Slog
This week was GradFest, put on by the Academic Skills Center. With this being the second straight week of classes on postgraduate programs, it was quite a bit less helpful with numerous redundancies throughout. The students varied each day, though a few from our previous week's program showed up intermittently. John from Sweden joined us for the first two days, while Chong from China was there the first three. We also met a few other Americans, though none of them seemed overly excited to hang out with Americans, which is depressing.

The main thing that everyone seems to keep saying, though, is start writing early and often, even if you don't have the information needed to actually write properly. This fact really bugs me. As an historian, I feel that I shouldn't write until I have a firm grasp on the concept and a solid collection of data from which to pull my ideas. But everyone who spoke with authority at GradFest and the previous week event, as well as my supervisor, say I need to start writing within the next few months. I mean, I collected my data for Santa Cruz Trains over three years before I started to write, and now I'm chugging out pages a day. The entire book will have been written over the course of three months writing only 1-2 hours per day. Why can't I do the same for my PhD? I'm not sure but it's starting to get to me. Perhaps its just the expectation of results, or the desire for our supervisors to be given plenty of time to read through drafts, but this aspect of the PhD program is really not my cup of tea.

Guy Fawkes and His Attempt to Blow Up New Zealand
So apparently in 1605, Guy Fawkes not only attempted to blow up the English Parliament, but also the nonexistent New Zealand government. That's the only reason I can assume the Kiwis love the night so much. Firework sales begin on November 2nd and run until November 5th, and then they are outlawed for the next 360 days. But in that time, it is perfectly legal to fire off fireworks anytime you wish, you just can't buy any more of them. Thus, Guy Fawkes day is not just an opportunity to light up the sky with rockets, but a chance to stock up on supplies for the next year including such events as New Years Eve, Easter, Valentine's Day, Boxing Day, your grandmother's birthday, the day you graduate from high school, or a random Tuesday that just seems like it needs some flare.

We bought a big box of fireworks half off on November 4th (short sales season!) and tried desperately to light them off in freezing temperatures with wind. It mostly worked. The sparklers kept fizzing out and one of the bottle rockets was a dud, but the rest worked just fine. We forgot to leave any for later, so instead we just get to enjoy everyone else's fireworks which are still fired off each evening until everybody runs out or gets bored with it. Yay for silly New Zealand laws!

Making It Count: Gardening For Dummies
Our shopping spree of over a week ago got us a large collection of seeds from which we intend to plant a garden. Our decent-sized garden box was full of weeds, so Kara cleaned it out over the week and then we divided and add soil to it. We have eleven different vegetables we planted, as well as two fruits. It's too soon so far to see results, but no weeds have come back, which is a good sign considering there are dandelions consuming the nearby and downwind lawn.

My jalapeño bush, though, is doing great. It has over a dozen flowers and proto-peppers growing on it, and a few decently-sized ones. I hope no birds suddenly get a hankering for Mexican spicy plants. We planted some regular bell peppers and chili peppers, too, to make salsa. Woot!

Giving Up Is Hard to Do!
After a somewhat successful attempt and a second failed attempt to make refried beans, I'm tossing in the towel. I don't know if its our crock pot or the beans, but something just doesn't work here. We made them successfully from beans at Pak 'n' Save but they ran out of stock immediately afterwards and haven't brought them back since. The beans from the Cosco and Bin Inn both did not make great refried beans, unfortunately. I think they may just be too old. The mostly successful beans of last weekend were still hard in parts, not keeping that creamy texture I so enjoy in my refried beans. I also did the maths and realized that the cost of making the beans versus the cost of a can was negligible, thus making the decision to abandon the attempts more justified. I still want to make salsa and we have had pretty good success making tortillas, so we'll keep up with that.

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

01 November 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Educating The Old Fashioned Way Since 2014 (Issue 2: 11/1)

Classes for the Weary
This past week, a three-day series of lectures was run by the Postgraduate Center called Surviving Your Thesis for primarily new PhD students. It was quite interesting over all. There were people who came to talk about careers, writing theses, researching techniques, ethics, the Kiwi culture, and just about everything else. And anything they missed will be covered next week by a similar series called the GradFest, which runs lectures Mon-Thur next week.

That all being said, much of what the speakers discussed regarded the sciences with only one other student there who was a College of Arts student. That was a bit disappointing and next week should be better in that regard since they have some Art-centric sessions. It was a bit surprising how little people seemed to know about ethics concerns with their science projects, even though almost everyone admitted that it will be an issue at some point. Another win for Arts: no test subjects, only reading and writing. Woot!

Learning French Is Not All Crème Brûlée
As a part of my thesis, I have to learn how to read French. I took a year of modern French back in 2008-9 but haven't touched the language since then. And, to be quite honest, that immersive environment from five years ago did little to prepare me for this. I have no class, now, no direction, no motivation except I need to learn the language. NEED! Yeah, with the ALL CAPS, I know. My thesis topic is about England and France in the late Middle Ages, and the bureaucracies of both countries were French at the time. My supervisor, thus, handed me a book entitled Les Temps de la guerre de Cent Ans by Boris Bove and told me I should just start reading it regularly. Like every day. And I've done that ever since. Each morning I grab the book and open my browser to Google Translate, and I start reading. Whenever I don't know what a word means (or, more likely, have forgotten), I look it up. Sometimes I have to type in entire sentences just to figure out what is being said. It's long and tedious, but it is slowly working. I began doing this at the beginning of October and haven't missed a day since except for two days while we were on vacation, and I read twice as much the following two days to make up for that. I don't read much, usually no more than two full text pages per day, but I'm catching on.

For those that think that this material can just be taught in a class, though, let me clarify some things for you. In cultural-emersion courses such as those that are taught at virtually all secondary and tertiary places of education, they focus on the present tense first, then the future tense because it's easy, and then the various forms of the past. They also teach simple everyday words, only adding abstract words later. None of this will prepare you for a history program, I guarantee you. If you want to read history books in modern French, you probably need to do four years of French and then some.  The material I am reading right now is literally the end of the teaching spectrum for French courses, and it's my initiation. And it's hard. I've wanted to give up at least twice each week. Some sections of the book are also not nearly as interesting as others. That affects your reading ability as well.

The bottom line: learning to read history in another language is perhaps the true test of reading a language. It's not for the faint of heart.

This Is Halloween, This Is Halloween
New Zealand is not a Halloween-friendly country. People just don't seem to like it very much. Sure, some of the kids like the concept, but people just aren't game. There's no decorations around and few trick-or-treaters. Downtown is a bit more rowdy than usual, but that's not too surprising, especially since Halloween was on a Friday this year. We bought some candy ("lollies") for the kids but only ended up with one group, so we went over to Sam's and dropped off some for his two kids. They appreciated it greatly, though they already had had quite enough candy, to be honest. His daughter was bouncing off the walls!

We did manage to carve two pumpkins, butternut pumpkins since the traditional huge yellow type weren't available here. Kara bought some seeds to grow her own, though, so we have a chance. Next year may be different, but I doubt Halloween will be any more pronounced.

Do It Yourself Mexican Food
Mexican food is quite expensive in New Zealand, mostly because everything comes in from the US from Old El Paso brand. Refried beans are around $4.50/can, sauces taste like crap, salsas are very thick and need to be blended (and are also expansive). Only tortillas really maintain the same value, and that is just barely. There also is little variety. Thus we've been attempting, at least, to make some of our own Mexican food. Whole-grain flour tortillas are easy enough to make, though trying to make them roundish is really difficult. Salsa isn't too hard, though you have to use pre-sliced jalapeño peppers (until our home-grown peppers are edible). The refried beans seem to be the problem. We perfected a slow-cooker recipe a while back and tried it twice when we were at our first home stay. But since we got here, we haven't been able to replicate the results. The first batch hardly cooked despite sitting in the slow cooker for over 12 hours. We decided the beans were just too old. Today, though, we made our second batch and a similar thing happened. We ended up cooking the beans on the oven for nearly an hour until they finally were smooth enough to eat, though not nearly as smooth as our other batches. On reflection, we think our brand new slow cooker just doesn't get hot enough to properly cook the beans. We had hoped it was something else, but this has happened twice now and the results have been the same (different beans, too).

The lesson: budget wisely for your food and don't expect everything to be makable at home. Sometimes, the store is the best solution even if it seems to cost more. This is a sad truth, but one I think I'll have to accept. Or we need to buy a new slow cooker.

Niko Report
Niko has settled in to his new environs with the speed of a hungry cheetah. The very first day he started exploring every nook and cranny. He began almost immediately sleeping under the covers during the day, which he's never done before. When we got our new couch and lazy chairs, he moved into one of them, sleeping there most days now. But that doesn't mean he's not active. He loves the increased sunlight he gets here and also loves the hardwood. Most nights, he runs back and forth around the house, galloping like a freaking horse. Seriously, you'd think the place is haunted. And as soon as we go to bed, he hops on and sleeps...well, until he feels like waking us up at around 7:00 am most days. A bit earlier than our alarm, but better than 4:00 like the first few days we were here. In any case, he is doing well and he appreciates all the people who have asked about him.

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

25 October 2014

The Khagan Weekly: Harassing the Peasants Since 2014 (Issue 1: 10/26)

Format Changed—AGAIN!
The format of Khan Adventures has changed again, this time to a weekly digest entitled The Khagan Weekly. It will release weekly on Sunday (or Monday) and summarize the week in more interesting ways.

Americans In Christchurch, Myth or Reality?
Despite living in Christchurch for two months now, we have met only a few Americans. A Uni professor in the history department is from New York while we met a random Ohioan working at a Mexican restaurant at the mall. Americans have been scarce. Do they even exist here?

Of course they do, we're here after all. But we discovered that the term "American" is more vague that we'd previously though. A Canadian at a game day a month ago identified herself as American first, Canadian second. Similarly, a Guatemalan we met at a postgraduate event was clearly embracing the term American to refer to her small Central American country. Clearly, the term is more fluid here. Thus, we found ourselves not entirely surprised at an "Americans in Christchurch" gathering on Saturday night to find that most of the "Americans" were only barely that. One couple were, in fact, British, but had lived in Michigan for twelve years. Another was from Arkansas and Oregon, but moved here nine years ago and is not attached to a Kiwi. Her daughter even has the accent. There were some true Americans on-site, though, but even they were raising their children in the Kiwi manner, accents and all.

Do Americans exist in Christchurch? Not for long. New Zealand takes your soul, and gives it an accent and ambiguous sense of nationality. Personally, I blame the Brits.

Carbs–The Devil's Food
For the past two weeks, carbohydrates have been decreasing from our diets, being replaced by meats. The book Good Calories, Bad Calories is the root of this craziness. The book states in not-uncited terms how terrible pretty much any carbohydrate is for you, and how nothing else, not saturated or unsaturated fats, cholesterol, or preservatives, even come close to the evilness that is grains. While I have partially embraced the diet, Kara has gone full blown gluten- and grain-free, or at least as close to it as she dares. Will this diet last? Who knows, but it certainly is an interesting change for me, who has been reduced to eating fish for dinner and quesadillas (heavy on the cheese) for lunch every day. The fact that Mac & Cheese tastes like crap here helps a little.

Food Costs Soaring!
Food costs in New Zealand are easily double that of the United States, especially when you're trying to stick to a meat-rich died. A regular shopping trip to the discount food store regularly surpasses the $100 mark weekly, and the monthly total is around $500 for a couple with a cat. Prices are already double and factoring in an exchange rate of 75¢ NZ to $1 US does little to improve the situation.

A fair warning to those planning to visit in New Zealand, all food, from grocery stores to restaurants, is expensive, and petrol is also twice the cost. Plan accordingly. And the exchange rate is getting worse.

The Semester's Over, And Other Facts That Don't Concern Me
The undergraduate students at the University of Canterbury finished their school year a week ago and are now busily getting drunk while pretending to study for their final exams which will begin on November 3rd and continue for two weeks. However, postgraduate students of all levels generally don't much care unless they are getting taught degrees. Kara and I came here in September, mid-way through the spring semester, and plan to graduate at the end of the 2017 academic year (i.e., December 2017). At least that's our goal. But we have to work year-round, with no official breaks. So congratulations to the 2014 students, I'm going to keep learning French.

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

18 October 2014

The Sign at the End of the Road

We have a house! Oh, wait, that's out of order. Let me start again...

12 October: We have a house! Okay, we've had a house but we couldn't move in until today. That being said, we really didn't move in today, we just unloaded the junk in the car (and there was quite a bit in there) and started packing back at Sam's place. We also went to K-Mart (yeah, they have those here) and spent a fortune on household goods. We also picked up a mattress from nearby and then spent some more money on stuff for the house. That evening, we played a game with Sam and watched Hannibal before bed. Not an overly exciting day, but at least we have a house now.

13 October: So we got everything moved out in two runs today, with the second after we said our goodbyes to Sam. We'll still see him for gaming events and whatnot, but we had to leave still. We got our refrigerator in the morning and moved in all our Kmart goods then went back out to shop like crazy. That evening we brought our last load of stuff over, mostly clothes and whatnot, and then picked up a few snacks for home. The refrigerator was in desperate need of cleaning and the doors had to be reversed, so we did that before grocery shopping the next day. I honestly can't even remember everything from this day because it was just so busy.

14 October: Tuesday was the most exciting day of the week because we finally liberated Niko from his cattery! But first, we spent another fortune at the Pak 'n' Save buying groceries for the now-functional fridge. And there were a lot of groceries to get since Kara's switched to an all-protein diet and I've half-switched to one. Things are not cheap here. After all that got worked out, we got Niko and brought him back. Let's just say he's acclamated well. In fact, he doesn't even seem to remember his traumatic trip in the plane. He cried a bit in the carrier but did fine once we got to the new place and he's done fine ever since. Which leads me to...

15 October: Wow! I forgot how annoying Niko can be at night. He didn't let us sleep. He was purring like a lawn mower all night long, which was apparently shorter than we planned for since he got us up at around 4:00 a.m. The house has some decent damage from the 2011 earthquake and as such many of the doors don't shut properly (or at all in one case), so he naturally discovered that he can get back in if we boot him out. We're going to be talking to our landlords about that one soon. Groggy, we crawled out of bed and went to Uni where we listened to a lecture on something-or-another—it was out of my field and I just don't remember it much. I think it had something to do with Ireland during the 1800s. We'll go with that. I read some. I wrote some. Kara made up most of the house. That's Wednesday.

16 October: Another night with little sleep. Niko is a bit of a pain. We also are trying to get him to eat a raw-meat diet, which is healthier for cats, but we have to kick his addiction to cereal-based kitty chow first, which he clearly doesn't want to do. We have this big old meat log in the fridge for him, but he only will eat a little bit of it at a time. Ugh. Kara had a training session in the morning so I did my French and started working on my book article while she was gone. She came back in time to help with some new furniture we bought for the living room—a sofa and two recliners, win! That mostly wraps up Thursday.

17 October: Friday was my turn to wake up early, though Niko still beat me to it. I met with my advisor, Chris, today to discuss my proposal. Did I say that I got accepted to present a paper at the biennial ANZAMEMS conference? Yeah, I did. It's pretty awesome. On the not so awesome side, Chris says I need to have two chapters done by the time I present and before I can student teach a class, which is a real pain in the neck since I still have my book I am writing until the end of February. The due date for my first chapter? February 1st. Ugh. I seriously am failing this whole PhD thing. I have had this little book by Geraeme Small that I've been reading for almost a month, and I'm not even halfway through it yet, but somehow I need to have my first chapter done in three months. .:.sigh.:. And on top of that, I'm dead broke and federal loans to New Zealand have been stopped over some stupid political issue about nuclear-capable submarines in NZ water.

Anyway, after a brief gap, I went to hear Kathleen Neal speak about medieval lettres and the Kara and I both went to a Q&A session with her about careers in the humanities. Both were very informative and, I believe, are the last research seminars of the year since the academic year ended today. Back at the house, we finally started settling in, though French and book writing are still taking precedence over everything else.

18 October: Garage saling. They have it here unlike in Britain where it is called "Car Boot Sales". In any case, we found a bunch of books and random other things, which was good. Kara also got us a washer and dryer which have both been installed. We'll do a load of laundry tomorrow to test them out. Other than that, it was a fairly slow day with mostly French and research taking up my time. Woot.

  • Intersections in New Zealand are quite odd. Roundabouts are common, though not the norm. Traffic signals are also quite common in the city, though not elsewhere. Stop signs are rather infrequent and mostly at major non-sigalled intersections. The big sign here is "Give Way" which is a rather clunky way of writing "Yield". In residential areas, virtually all signs say "Give Way" rather than "Stop", which is great because it means rolling stops are perfectly acceptable here. A line on the road usually shows drivers where to give that way, but you really just drive to it slowly and then roll through when nobody's around.
  • However, left turns are not allowed at a red signal. Drivers must wait for a green before they can turn right, which is a bit of a pain sometimes when no traffic is coming. The American in me wants to go, but that's not allowed.
  • Right Turns, which are the equivalent of left turns in the United States, are very odd here. They are usually not protected at all, so you just drive out and wait for an opening, which can sometimes be hard to see when the car right in front of you is also trying to turn right in the opposite direction. When the turn is protected, it usually only is for a few seconds before turning red. Then, it will just disappear entirely, which means you are free to try and turn right again. That's right, the signal protects you, stops you, then allows you to try. Very weird and slightly confusing.
  • Lastly, speeding tickets are sent to the registration addresses and people rarely are pulled over for a speeding violation. Tickets are a set $150 for every violation, though I'm sure penalties start applying after multiples. There is no traffic school to opt out of the insurance violation, either, and the points go on your record immediately. Oh, and how do they discover if you're speeding? Cameras, of course, often hidden in unmarked cars sitting on streets. Didn't I mention that at least half the police cars in New Zealand are unmarked? Yeah, it's that creepy.

11 October 2014

There And Back Again: A TranzAlpine Tale

October 7: Tuesday was a lazy day for me. I spent much of the day writing my article on the Summit Tunnel and reading French. Kara had a bunch of meetings, but other than that, we mostly planned for our end-of-week trip to Fox Glacier. We bought a bunch of food at Countdown in the afternoon to stock our suitcase for the trip, but otherwise the day was quite slow.

October 8: Wednesday had a very early start as we had to be at the train station before 8:00. From there, we headed to the West Coast city of Greymouth on the TranzAlpine Railway, something that my railfans would definitely enjoy. Just for the record, the train was once a part of a much larger network of 3' 6" narrow-gauged tracks that once criss-crossed New Zealand supporting its various industries. Politics over the past fifty years have shut down virtually all of these, leaving just the TranzAlpine, an East Coast excursion train, and a North Island track in tact for passenger use. All other remaining tracks are freight-only.

Anyway, so we headed west from Christchurch Station, passing through the Canterbury Plain and all of its cattle and sheep farms. There are relatively few crops grown in New Zealand these days, but cattle are a huge industry, replacing sheep since the 1980s. Above the plain, we passed through a series of beautiful gorges with fifteen small tunnels hopping between gulches. Below, a beautiful river ran beneath the cliffsides. Lots of photos along this stretch, to be sure. We finally went through a slightly longer tunnel and entered a much more mellow area within the Southern Alps where the wind blows strongly, rains scour the pastures, and few people can be found. At the top of this valley, we briefly stopped at the settlement of Arthur's Pass. From there, we then descended into the heart of the mountain, a tunnel stretching over 5 miles and requiring five diesel engines to ensure that the train does not run away. It took nearly 30 minutes to make it through this tunnel. On the other side, we entered the West Coast region, which is a temperate rain forest. The variety of trees increased exponentially from the other side of the mountains, while the temperature rose slightly as well. After another hour, we made it into Greymouth and quickly shuttled off to the intercity bus that was waiting for us.

The last three hours of the trip were less than ideal. Rain was lightly falling the entire trip to Fox Glacier village obscuring the views and the bus driver was an absolute speed demon. We made it to our first stop in what had to be record time and got a 25 minute break there. We then had a long haul to our final destination, which was also the last stop for the bus. We got in just before 6:00, finishing 10 hours of transportation. Too late to do anything, Kara and I took our room at the Glacier Inn and ate dinner from supplies we took with us, since restaurants are a fortune normally and especially when there are few options around. We went to bed early for the journey of the next morning.

October 9: Fox Glacier village is, naturally, named after a glacier, specifically one named Fox Glacier located just above the town around a bend. We joined a guided hike on Thursday morning and bussed to a parking lot just outside the glacier confines. From there, we hiked to an overlook above the glacier. The glacier had receded a lot since it was first discovered around 1850. In the 1890s, its end still peaked out around the bend and could be seen from the plains below the mountains. It receded continuously until the 1980s, when it began to grow again, albeit slowly. The group in charge of the tours once had a path that walked up to the top of the glacier via stairs, but now that stairs hangs overhead, hidden in trees, abandoned since the early 2000s when the glacier backed too far into the mountains. A landslide finally took out the access route to reach the stairs earlier this year. With the glacier retreating so quickly now, the tours are getting longer and going further up into the valley. But slides are also becoming more frequent and unpredictable, so government survey crew are constantly out there, ensuring the paths are safe for guided groups (non-guided groups are discouraged from hiking most of the trails).

After we returned from the glacier and had lunch, we hiked A LONG WAY (around 10 miles) to (and back from) Lake Matheson, a natural glacial lake that has long since become the home of eels and reeds. The lake is famous for its beautiful reflective surface, but a light rain storm in the morning mixed with wind in the  afternoon made the lake murky and decidedly not reflective. The lake, though, was surrounded by a nearly-tropical rain forest that was beautiful, though lacking in a sounds since only a few species of birds live in the forests here. Our walk back to the village was quicker than our walk there surprisingly, but we were disappointed that the reflection was so poor. We spent the evening watching a few TV shows and eating from our cache, anticipating the long day on Friday.

October 10: Friday was a beautiful day—a rare thing on the West Coast. Even the locals and bus driver noticed it. Unfortunately, we had another long bus ride back. We planned better, taking copious amounts of Dramamine. We also took a lot of photos on the way back since we passed various mirror lakes (that actually mirrored) and the ocean on our drive back to Greymouth. At our lunch stop, we had about 45 minutes to wander around a town that I can't for the life of me remember its name. The last leg of the bus ride was quick afterwards. In Greymouth, we got another hour of free time since the train arrived late to the station. We wandered the streets of the small city and checked out a few stores. We'll probably visit the place again when we tour the South Island later this year or early next year.

The train ride back was much the same as the ride there, except in reverse. The better weather meant that we got some more photos on the west end of the route, and the views of the river valleys were beautiful, as before. We got in late and picked up some battered fish from a local market. They were very good. I had to read some French when I got back because I'd forgotten the book on the trip. Oops! Otherwise, that was pretty much Friday.

October 11: Saturday was a breathing day where I mostly wrote my article on Wright & Sunset Park for my book. Seriously, this bugger took all day. We got fish again because Kara has gone crazy insane thanks to Good Calories, Bad Calories, a book I highly recommend it you never want to eat carbohydrates again. In the evening, we also finally got to see the first Marvel's Agents of SHIELD episode, something I'd been eagerly waiting for for about three weeks now.

More Musings:
  • It rains constantly on the West Coast, like buckets of rain. In an average year, it rains 200 days and the rain is measured in metres rather than centimetres. Specifically, 9 metres of rain compared to roughly 1.5 metres on the East Coast.
  • Cows have overtaken sheep in New Zealand over the past thirty years. The sheep industry apparently just doesn't do as well as the cattle, so farmers have been slowly phasing one out for the other. There are still sheep everywhere, though, just not as many as there once were. Cows now outnumber sheep in increasing ratios. I don't mind, though, because New Zealand cheese is tasty!
  • Speaking of which, there are four primary types of cheese here: Colby, Edom, Mild, and Tasty. The latter two are a type of Cheddar while the first is well-known in the US and Edom is similar to cheddar but slightly softer. Other types of cheeses are also available here, but these four are the staple cheeses. None of them are offered in low-fat varieties, and I can't imagine why anyone would want to have them that way—they just wouldn't be the same.