Archive for April, 2008

Athens, part 8: Lycabettus

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

(This is part 8 in a series about my trip to Athens. See parts one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven.)

Contrary to popular belief among people I’ve talked to after returning home from Athens, the tallest point in the city is not the Acropolis. That honor belongs to Λυκαβηττός (Mt. Lycabettus). Lycabettus rises dramaticaly above the rest of the city, as seen here from the Acropolis shortly after moonrise on the evening I arrived:

On the morning of my last day in Athens, I decided to head to the top of Lycabettus for the view. As I left the hotel early, there were still clubbers heading home from the night before, even though daylight was beginning to break. My trip began with a subway ride, but the subway only takes you to the base of Lycabettus. After you alight from the train and get to street level, there are numerous stairs for you to climb. As I looked up one pedestrian street composed entirely of stairs, I certainly felt the resemblance of Athens to my home city of San Francisco.

When I reached the base of Lycabettus, I discovered that the funicular railway doesn’t start running early in the morning. Fortunately, there is a footpath up the side of the hill, so I started climbing. When I reached the top, there was a dramatic reward. This is the view looking south from Lycabettus. The Temple of Olympian Zeus is in the foreground, and the street that runs from the temple towards the upper right is Andrea Syngrou Avenue, one of the major surface streets in Athens. At the right edge of the photo, the imposing building is the New Acropolis museum.

The real treat, however, is the view of the Acropolis itself just after sunrise:

Testing the Victorinox guarantee

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

This post begins with a simple observation: airline baggage handlers are hard on luggage. For all that I joke about letting a friend stow away in a bag on a neat trip, I would never subject them to the handling I can only imagine checked luggage undergoing.

My main checked bag is a Victorinox rolling case that I acquired at REI almost three years ago before my first trip to Australia. Since then, I have traveled a lot. My back of the envelope calculation is that the bag has flown with me on around 250,000 miles of flights, and it has suffered at the hands of the airlines. Part of the reason that I chose Victorinox was the Carry with Confidence guarantee, which covers damage from airline mishandling (or is that regular airline handling?).

At this point, less than three years into the bag’s service with me, it has several major problems. First, the handle split. While I can work around this by holding the split handle closed, it does require somewhat more force than is necessary and is quite tiring over long distances. Also, as you can see in the photo below, the soft rubber grip has detached from the handle and flops around so that it no longer provides cushioning.

Second, the zipper that holds the expansion frame in place had a couple of zipper teeth fail, and it’s impossible to unzip. I think the problem here is that the expansion zipper is on a corner of the bag, and it got bashed in the bowels of an airport bag handling system.

Around the handle well, there’s a small plastic rim that protects the edge of the fabric. It’s shattered off on my bag, leaving the fabric loose, where it can easily be caught in the bag handling machines in the future.

Finally, there’s also a jam on the main zipper. The jam occurs on a corner, so I assume that some machine decided to bite off the corners of some of the zipper teeth. It is not possible to drag a slider through the jam, even though the zipper is designed to be self-healing.

On the same flight where the main zipper developed a jam, one of the sliders completely detached from one of the two zipper tracks:

Fortunately for me, REI sells quality equipment. The Victorinox guarantee covers aggressively bad airline handling and hungry airport luggage transport systems. (Interestingly, it applies to my Werks Traveler 2.0 bag, but not its 3.0 successor.) Immediately after checking in to the hotel, I pulled out my camera, took the pictures that appear in this post, and contacted Victorinox by e-mail. They responded with a return authorization number within an hour, and I sent the bag back to them for repair. They received the bag this morning; I’ll blog about any further updates.

What I’ve learned from this experience is that there’s a huge range among manufacturers on warranty service. Any manufacturer can offer a lifetime warranty, but the key is what they exclude and how easy it is to take advantage of their services. Victorinox was very easy to deal with by e-mail, and I had a return authorization before I returned to the USA. My main carry-on bag is a Travelpro that I purchased ten years ago. It has held up fairly well, and it also has a “lifetime warranty.” Unlike Victorinox, claiming service requires my original purchase receipt and, in case I might have retained my original receipt, the pieces of paper enclosed with the bag when it was new! When I replace it, probably later this year, I will be buying from a company that actually lets me use its guarantee.

Athens, part 7: Hadrian’s Library

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

(This is part 7 in a series about my trip to Athens. See parts one, two, three, four, five, and six.)

As I was wandering around the old areas of Athens, I stumbled across the entrance to Hadrian’s Library. All that remains of the library itself is part of the wall that flanked the entry to the library, though the ornate Corinthian columns are well preserved.

On the library site, a succession of churches was built after the Roman Empire split. The earliest church was called the Tetraconch Church because it consisted of four semicircles around the altar. Only a few parts remain in the ruin, including this archway and set of three columns:

More strikingly, a part of the Tetraconch Church’s floor mosaic remains. (Note how the ropes at the right-hand side block foot traffic to protect the mosaic.)

Athens, part 6: the gorgeous Athens Metro

Monday, April 28th, 2008

(This is part 6 in a series about my trip to Athens. See parts one, two, three, four, and five.)

Towards the end of my trip in Athens, I started used the beautiful Athens metro to get around. As a word of warning, if you decide to use the metro to get around, be sure to allow time to see the displays and read the signs. Riding the Athens metro is like visiting a museum that happens to have subway tracks through it.

I was fortunate enough to be staying close enough to the historic areas of the Akropolis and the Plaka that I was on foot for the first few days. To see some of the attractions that were farther afield, I had to use the subway.

When you enter the subway, the first thing you notice is that it’s beautiful. Most of the time, the subway is just a way to get around. To be fair, some subway systems are more attractive than others; it is unsurprising that the distinctive art nouveau style of Paris Métropolitain comes to mind. The Athens metro has no advertisements, and even though it has been open for eight years, it is still amazingly clean.

Building the Athens metro was a difficult proposition because of the layers of history in the ground in Athens. Due to the need to protect the antiquities discovered when building the metro, the Greek Ministry of Culture was a key partner in the project. Preservation of artifacts discovered during construction meant that completion was slow as archaeologists did painstaking preservation work.

Many of the artifacts unearthed during construction are on display, and are of uniformly high quality. A guide sign in each station relates the position of the station to where the archeological activities occurred.

It is quite funny to realize that many Athens subway stations have better exhibitions of ancient Greek artifacts than many museums! Here is an excellent example of how the displays are just part of the museum. At the Ακρόπολη (Akropoli) station, there is a large pottery display just beyond the ticket barriers.

When you get down to the platform, the station just gleams. Without advertisements to clutter up the wall, the exhibition continues. On the platform of the Akropoli station, there is a replica of the Parthenon frieze that is currently on display in the British Museum.

In the lobby of the station, another replica, this time of part of the sculptures from the pediment of the Parthenon.

The main transfer point for metro riders is Σύνταγμα (Syntagma, meaning “constitution”), and the station has the largest exhibition. At the lobby level, a wall shows how layers of history accrete over time.

My favorite exhibit was at Ευαγγελισμός (Evangelismos), the station closest to Lycabettus Hill. As I was walking briskly towards the exit, I saw an ancient aqueduct on display. Nearby signs discuss how the aqueduct was built and maintained, and what was learned about the route of the aqueduct building the station.

Athens, part 5: the Ancient Agora

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

(This is part 5 in a series about my trip to Athens. See parts one, two, three, and four.)

One of my favorite museums in Athens is the Museum of the Ancient Agora within in the Stoa of Attalos. Within the agora today, the two anchors at the ends of the large open space are the Temple of Hephastios, set up on a hill, and the Stoa of Attalos, a modern 1950s reconstruction of an ancient building. In the language of ancient Greek architecture, a stoa is a covered walkway typically open to the public. Late examples, like the Stoa of Attalos, were usually two stories, with the first story at least partly open to the air. Here’s a view of the portico on the ground level:

Within the stoa, there is a small gem of a museum on the activities in the ancient agora. As the social hub of the Athenian democratic government, the agora would have housed the administration, legal tribunals, religious sites, and the major marketplace of ancient Athens. Artifacts in the museum show just how carefully the Athenian democracy had to manage the flow of its citizens, and the custom-built technology that helped manage the flow.

Artifact #1: the Kleroterion, which was used for sorting and allocating people. In the photo below, there is a fragment of stone with horizontal slots cut into it. When it was in use, the kleroterion pictured would have stood much higher; some evidence exists for versions of this device that were several feet tall. In the foreground of the photo is a collection of identity tokens.

Athenian democracy used randomness to guard against corruption of the jury system. When a jury needed to be assembled, citizens volunteering would hand their tokens to a presiding official. Based on the citizen’s tribe, the token would be placed into one of the columns. When the matrix was full, the randomness came into play.

Along the left side of the kleroterion ran a tube filled with a mixture of black and white balls. One ball was inserted for each row of slots on the kleroterion. When the official extracted a white ball, the people whose tokens appeared in a row were called to jury service. On the other hand, a black ball meant that the people identified by the tokens in a row would be dismissed. By matching the number of white balls to the desired jury pool size, officials could create a pool with the right number of jurors.

Using the kleroterion took advantage of the elegant simplicity of randomness of the ball mixture to draft jury pools. As I stood in front of the display case, I remember watching Flintstones reruns as a child in the days before my family had cable. While working out in my mind how the kleroterion worked, the thought struck me that although the cartoon had depicted many ingenious devices, none of them were as real as this machine from the ancient world.

Artifact #2: Ostrakons. Athenian democracy had a very special type vote that occurred once a year. In the ancient Greek version of Survivor, the citizens could “vote somebody off the island.” Every year, the assembly gathered. Each citizen was allowed to scratch the name of the person they perceived as the greatest threat to the city-state in to a pot shard, or, in the language of ancient Greece, an ostrakon. Provided that 6,000 votes were cast, the person who received the most votes was ostracised, and sent into exile for a decade.

In school, I learned that the secret ballot was invented in Australia in the 1850s to avoid retaliation against voters. I am not sure how secret the ostrakons were, but presumably, the reason for going with a “write-in” vote as opposed to a show of hands was to avoid as much manipulation of the process as possible. (I believe that later manipulation of the process of ostracism resulted in it being dropped in later centuries.)

For fun, feel free to leave a non-anonymous comment with your country and your vote for Public Enemy No. 1.

Across from the Stoa of Attalos on a hill overlooking the agora stands the Temple of Hephaistos, dedicated to the god of metal-working. This photo shows a view looking westward along the southern collonade, away from the agora.

Under the eastern portico, there is a frieze, but no signs explained what it showed.

Athens, part 4: Kerameikos

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

(This is part 4 in the Athens series. See parts one, two, and three.)

One of the hidden gems in my trip to Athens was the Kerameikos, which is at the edge of ancient Athens. The old city wall runs through the site. This photo here shows a footpath just outside the inner city wall.

The city wall was an important demarcation point. According to ancient Athenian custom, the dead were buried outside the city. In addition to the major markers for the rich and famous, the ancient burial grounds have many smaller cylindrical tomb markers for the less well-off.

Within the historical site of the Keremeikos, the major structure is the Pompeion, an old temple. It’s best seen from the street above (the modern street level is a few meters above the level of the ancient ruins).

The Pompeion is set at an angle to the modern city streets, which surprised me. In many cases, modern streets evolved from ancient layouts. Once I made it down into the archeological site, I realized the reason for the precise layout of the Pompeion. Early in the day, the shadows showed me that the Pompeion was perfectly aligned with the rising sun:

Wandering around the historical site, you will move in and out of the ancient boundary of Athens. One of the major features in the site is a path that goes from the main gate at the Kerameikos to Plato’s Academy, which was located outside the city walls. I followed the foot path to the edge of the site, and wondered how many students had taken the path from ancient Athens to the academy over the centuries.

Athens, part 3: in the shadow of the Acropolis

Friday, April 25th, 2008

(This is the third post about my trip to Athens. Read part 1 and part 2.)

Although the top of the Acropolis was the first stop, it is a much larger site than just the well-known temples on the top. At the base of the Acropolis next to the footpath up to the entry gate is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Although it originally had a wooden roof, all that remains is the restored stone seating and front wall, shown here with the Parthenon in the background:

The seating area is quite steeply sloped. Towards the top, the seating is high enough that it has a view of Athens. With the position that Athens occupies today as a cradle of western culture, it is hard to imagine that it was a fairly small town throughout much of “modern” European history (to pick a date, from 1650 until today). Many of the buildings in Athens were built in the post-war period, which leads to interesting contrasts between the older structures and the more modern buildings shown in the background here:

A brief walk from the Odeon is the oldest theater in Athens. The Dionysis Theater is dedicated to the god of plays and wine, and hosted drama competitions. As the “original” prototype of a theater in Greece, the structure is possibly the oldest theater everywhere, and the template for every theater I’ve ever been to. Originally, seating was probably wooden benches, but stone benches were put in during the Roman period:

Front-row seats had backs, though, to be quite honest, they are not very comfortable.

The stage itself is a simple affair. Seats are built in a semi-circle around a half-circle stage:

Not far from the Acropolis is the massive Temple of Olympian Zeus. Building the temple was a multi-generational project that took over 600 years. Athenian democrats apparently considered it a flight of hubris to build on such a scale. Hadrian, the Roman emperor, suffered no such illusions, and finally completed the temple. After the fall of the Roman empire, such a high-quality cache of stone was rare, and the temple was plundered for other building works. Several substantial columns remain, as seen here in this view looking towards the Acropolis. (Note the huge crane in the background, which I’ll return to.)

Looking from the west, all that remains is the approximately dozen columns. The collapsed column in the foreground fell in a storm in 1852.

In the background of the first picture, there is a massive crane at the Acropolis. Due to the danger of such a large construction machine, several footpaths on the slope of the Acropolis are closed. The crane is transferring objects from the small Acropolis museum at the top to the new Acropolis museum being built at the foot of the fortress that I described in part 2. Here’s a closer look at the crane, from the wall at the south edge:

Athens, part 2: the Acropolis

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

(This is the second post about my trip to Athens. Part 1 is here.)

My first stop in Athens was the Acropolis. Before my trip, I’d dreamed of visiting the Parthenon for well over a decade. My family doctor grew up in Athens, and her descriptions of growing up in the shadows of history planted the initial seed. Photos and paintings in my art history class in college sealed the deal.

When I finally made it this February, I was in awe of being present at the “original” building. Echoes of the Parthenon are everywhere in Western society. Nearly every bank built prior to the 1950s owes at least some of its architectural structure to the Athenian ideals, as do many government buildings and museums. Standing in front of the Parthenon, you realize that somebody had to invent the style, even if it is quite old. Furthermore, the the Athenian society that built the Parthenon gave us much more than architecture. I greatly appreciate the right to vote for my leaders, even if the choices may not always be that attractive.

The Acropolis dominates the Athenian skyline, which is convenient in such a walkable city. It is hard to get lost when you have such a handy reference point.

Many travelers think of jet lag as mainly a curse. In a magnificent city like Athens, I consider jet lag to be partly a benefit. Waking up before dawn gives you a chance to explore a quiet city and photograph during the magical light of sunrise. (I did find that when I would leave my hotel at 5:30 am, there were often crowds of clubbers heading home. Athenian streets were much quieter around 6 am.) Arising early also helps beat the crowds. I arrived at the Acropolis when it opened, and until around 9:15 in the morning, there were less than a dozen tourists exploring the site.

The entry to the Acropolis is through a massive gate, seen here early in the day in a waxing sun:

Naturally, most people who visit the Acropolis do so to see the Parthenon. I have many pictures of the Parthenon, but I think this is my favorite, showing the gleaming marble against the blue sky:

It is not obvious from the picture of the south face just how busy the site is. Even early in the morning, the top of the Acropolis was a busy work site. My contemplative walk was punctuated by the sound of hammers, chisels, cranes, and diamond-tipped saws cutting marble blocks for the immense restoration efforts. At the entrance, the Temple of Athena Nike is being completely restored stone by stone and is now only really appreciated as a sign.

Restoration work is proceeding on the Parthenon itself. Columns are being carefully and painstakingly reconstructed. Missing parts of the columns are being carved to fit with the existing remnants. Most of the work is taking place on the north face. This photo shows the scaffholding supporting the restoration. The lighter colored marble in the columns is the marble that has been carved to complete the column blocks. The tight fit of the restoration pieces is clearly shown by the pieces in the foreground.

My previous experience with photographs did not prepare me for finding a building I liked better than the Parthenon on the Acropolis. I was captivated by the Erechtheion, a temple dedicated to Athena, Poseidon, and Erechthus and the other deities of Athens. Pictures I’ve seen focus on the “porch” structure held up by the Caryatids, but rarely put it in context with the rest of the Erechtheion.

In conjunction with the restoration work on the structures of the Parthenon itself, the New Acropolis Museum is taking shape at base of the Acropolis, replacing a much older museum on the summit. At ten times the size of the old museum, I expect that the New Acropolis Museum will provide a far better environment for exhibiting artifacts and telling the story of the Acropolis. Although it is scheduled to open in 2008, the new museum is open for a few hours every day. Strikingly, it is built on a historical site that is actively being excavated. Glass floors allow museum visitors to look down and see an active archaeological site. In this somewhat self-referential photo, I’m looking down through the floor into the work site.

Tourists are not allowed inside any of the temples, which is not particularly surprising. I had expected they would be restricted to prevent them from being loved to death. Ongoing restoration and construction work is also an ever-present danger. Restoration workers were constantly going in and out, and several large cranes were operating throughout most of my half-day visit.

As I wandered around the site, I tried to imagine what it must be like to be working on the Acropolis. It is one of the foremost historical sites of Western civilization, and a towering monument to Greek culture. For an American, the closest comparison I can think of would be the restoration of the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s.

Appreciating the “social muzzle velocity” of Kensington on foot

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

I was recently on a business trip in Europe on which I was unfortunately stuck using London as one of my main air travel focal points. On the trip, I used three of London’s five main airports (Heathrow, Stansted, and London City); I have now used four of the five airports. The exception is Luton, and my British colleagues tell me that I am not missing anything.

With a weekend day to spare, I decided to use the London Walks guide to occupy my day. Every walking tour I have taken with London Walks has shown me small hidden spots in London, sometimes right under my nose. My Kensington experiences have been negative, confined to the overcrowded and high street dominated by chain stores. As a former British colleague of mine explained once, \"When we talk about having more money than sense, Kensington is one of the first places that springs to mind.\" To attempt to crack the shell of the bland corporate veneer, I decided on the Old Kensington walk.

David, our guide for the walk, is surprisingly, the son of a Wisconsin farmer. When I mentioned that I had attended Grinnell College, he asked if I was still a student. Oh, David, flattery will get you everywhere! (I graduated almost eleven years ago. While I’d like to believe I still look 20, my chosen discipline of engineering really demands that I accept reality.)

The highlights of the walk:

David explained that the people who maintained streetlights or cleaned chimneys (my memory fails me) were also responsible for waking up household residents by using a long pole to knock on their windows. This activity is the origin of the phrase “knocked up,” which apparently in British English has merely the unpleasant connotation of a wake-up call and has nothing to do with the American English connotation.

As we stood on Thackeray Street, David asked us to consider the types of shops (hairdressers and high-end clothiers), and told us to consider the “sheer social muzzle velocity” of the neighborhood, which is distinctly plutocratic. An unimproved 17th or 18th century home sold in the neighborhood recently for ₤1.5 million. Social muzzle velocity is a most excellent phrase that I shall endeavor to use more frequently.

In Kensington Church Walk, we stopped in front of Annie Russell’s hair salon. “How gifted is Annie Russell?” asked David rhetorically, before answering that “she is talented enough to be Elizabeth Taylor’s hairdresser for twelve years.”

Also on Kensington Church Walk, there is a famous low wall, shown in the photos below. The late Princess of Wales lived in the neighborhood, and both William and Harry amused themselves walking on the wall. (During the course of the tour and taking the photographs below, I think a half-dozen children came to walk on the wall.) One resident of the building behind the wall dislikes this practice, and has instigated the planting of unpleasant plants along the wall to discourage children from walking on it. David is opposed to this idea, and partway through the tour, he saw a neighborhood resident and said, “I’ve got the metaphor: barbed wire wall!”

St. Mary Abbots church is a short walk from the tube station. To enter the church from the high street, you walk through a small cloister:

Two of the windows on the St. Mary Abbots chapel are labeled with the “ancient lights” sign seen in the photo below. England has an old law that says owners with unobstructed light can protect the level of light received through a window light by putting up a sign like the one below. New developments cannot block light through the windows. The legal doctrine of the right to illumination has not been adopted in the United States as a general principle, but some narrow exceptions do exist, mainly for solar energy. For example, the California Solar Shade Control Act protects investments in rooftop solar panels by ensuring that they retain unobstructed access to the sun. In England, the legal doctrine goes back to the days when sunlight was precious. Windows which have had continuous access to light for 20 years can advertise the fact with a sign reading “ancient lights,” which then protects the sunlight on the window against future obstructions.

Our tour ended near Kensington Palace. In the days when it was a working palace, the building in the photo below was used as barracks for the royal guards unit. It has now been converted into flats. On a previous tour, one of David’s customers had visited one of the exclusive flats. They are small, with no closets (17th century soldiers didn’t need much storage space). At the time of the report, the flats rented for ₤10,000 per week, which is about $87,000 per month at current exchange rates. For the price, you do get some cachet. As part of the palace grounds, the landlord is the Crown. The building itself is pretty nondescript:

Higher class accomodations in Kensington have period details, like this old-style bell pull to announce yourself at the door, rather than the modern doorbell buttons we are now generally accustomed to:

As the tour group broke up, David jokingly described London Walks as “a social security program for unemployed actors.” It shows. Most of the London Walks guides have impeccable timing, flawless delivery, sly humor, and have big voices that easily carry out to the edges of large groups. Combine this with all the knowledge about the hidden back streets, and London Walks is living proof of Dr. Johnson’s famous maxim that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

Visiting Athens, part 1: delays, snow and language

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

In February of this year, I was in Athens for an IEEE ad hoc meeting. I have wanted to visit Athens for well more than a decade, and it was worth the wait. In a way, I’m glad that I made the trip after I bought a good camera and had some time to get used to it because I got much better results than if I were learning the camera on the trip.

Naturally, getting to Athens was not without a hitch, since I was transferring at one of the world’s worst airports, London Heathrow. (It could, however, be worse.) When I checked in, I received boarding passes for all three segments of my trip. After arriving in London, I checked the monitors, and found out that the London-Athens flight had been cancelled. Upon checking with customer service at the airline, I was told that the flight had been cancelled because of a snowstorm that had shut down the Athens airport.

My arrival in Athens was delayed by a day. By the time I arrived, the snow was melting quite rapidly, though I did get a few pictures of this unusual occurrence.

First stop, the Acropolis. Really, is there an alternative? At the foot of the Acropolis, approaching from the south, there was snow by the curb of the street, with the sun shining brightly on the Parthenon above:

Getting closer, you could peek through the gates of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, where some of the stones were still covered with a thin layer of snow:

When walking around, I felt an unexpectedly dumbstruck trying to read signs. Unlike, say, China or Japan, where I don’t expect to read anything except the Romanization on the street signs, I do know the Greek alphabet well enough to try reading the larger Greek signs most of the time. (I know the Greek alphabet from studying physics, not the language.) On-the-fly transliteration helped only to the extent that the word was close to a form that had been adopted into English directly, or words that were adopted in English through an intermediate language like Latin. It is hard to describe the feeling I got when I started to look for the “Εξοδος” on an exit sign rather than the “exit,” or when I realized the derivation of “agoraphobia” while looking at the open space of the Ancient Agora:

There is also a much smaller agora built by the Romans, also built around a central courtyard:

As I sort through pictures from the trip, I’ll be posting the best ones.