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.