(Ln(x))3

The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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4:26pm on Monday, 27th July, 2015:

Reduction

Anecdote

I finally snapped and bought some noise-cancelling headphones so I can work when my father-in-law wants to watch Bargain Hunt and anyone else wants to watch whatever they've recorded from the SyFy channel. I specifically didn't want wireless, because there's some kind of interference I get on the audio from wireless headsets in my office. I'd have preferred over-ear rather than on-ear, but I couldn't find any that were reasonably-priced. I'd have also liked them to be powered from my PC through a USB interface or something, so I wouldn't have to keep buying AAA batteries, but it doesn't seem such headphones exist.

I went for Sony MDR-ZX110NA Overhead Noise Cancelling Headphones - Black, because they weren't expensive and the reviews were good.

Sigh.

There's a definite difference between when I have the noise cancellation switched on and when I don't, but in the end the main way of escaping the distraction is how loud the music I play through the headphones is, not whatever noise cancellation it's doing.



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10:33am on Sunday, 26th July, 2015:

Code

Weird

This 18-inch-wide headline appeared in today's Observer above a piece about teaching people to program:



Well if nothing else, it shows that newspaper sub-editors number among those who can't program.



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11:48am on Saturday, 25th July, 2015:

Dreamless

Comment

I had a go with Google's Deep Dream system recently:



Well that wasn't quite what I'd hoped for.



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3:58pm on Friday, 24th July, 2015:

Typeface Time

Comment

For the past several years, I've been gradually putting together another MMO book. It consists of over a thousand articles, ranging from a paragraph to a page in length. Once I had all the articles, I formatted them, connected them in threads, put them in order and have today finished laying them out.

Unfortunately, the document template I started using in 2007 isn't one that's used by the main publishers today. This means I'll have to redesign it all. On the one hand that's bad because it's work, but on the other it means I can make the book's look reflect its content better. When I started out, I went with a sans-serif font (Verdana, but it was just a place-holder); this was because I didn't want people to sit down and read the whole book in one sitting, but to take it a few bites at a time so they could digest it. As sans-serif fonts are harder to read for extended periods, that family of typefaces was just the ticket.

However, the book is actually way too long to read in one sitting anyway, and by overlapping the threads there's a "just one more page" feel to it that I'd like to encourage. Also, the content doesn't feel sans-serif now that I've assembled it. I'm therefore going to use this redesign opportunity to change the typeface.

The question is, what typeface shall I use instead?

The main inspiration for the book is Computer Lib/Dream Machines. I'm hoping to capture for MMOs the kind of lookit-how-wondrous-these-things-are feel that Computer Lib/Dream Machines engendered about computers in the 1970s. As MUD also hails from the 1970s, I want a serif font that hearks back to those days yet which is readable for page after page after page.

The one I've chose is Souvenir. It looks the part and has the right kind of feel for the personality of the book. It also takes up about the same amount of space as Verdana, so I won't have to do much editing up or down to make the pages fit. However, I am aware that some people hate Souvenir with the same passion as they do Comic Sans and Papyrus.

If you're one of those people, do you have any suggestions for a better 1970s-reminiscent serif font that's readable at 10 points?



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3:23pm on Thursday, 23rd July, 2015:

Want, Waste Not

Anecdote

I've had these for for maybe 20 years, having bought them at GenCon in the mid-1990s:



I've resisted using them, as I didn't want to waste them. As a result, I may as well have not bought them at all...



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11:44pm on Wednesday, 22nd July, 2015:

Pool

Comment

Almost since its founding 50 years ago, the University of Essex has lacked for two things: a railway station and a swimming pool. Every new vice-chancellor looks into getting one or both, but so far it's come to nothing.

Now, however, it seems we might be getting a 50m (164ft) swimming pool. That sounds great, as 50m is Olympic-sized.

Wellll, not this one. This one is 50m deep, not 50m long.

Oh, Essex...



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10:35am on Wednesday, 22nd July, 2015:

Been There

Comment

The map of European countries I've visited looks much more impressive since last week:




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1:53pm on Tuesday, 21st July, 2015:

Ambidextrous Research

Anecdote

I had an hour-long interview today with an MPhil student who is studying ambidexterity among researchers. I thought I might be useful to him as I am incredibly right-handed, so I agreed to be one of his subjects.

It turned out he was studying people who both teach at the university and do industrial consultancy. This is because "on the one hand" you're an academic and "on the other hand" you're an industry worker. He's in the Business School, and for him "ambidexterity" is a technical term for dividing your time between different employments with different demands.

That's going to be useful to know if anyone asks me to participate in such interviews in future...



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4:35pm on Monday, 20th July, 2015:

Cultural Differences

Comment

Now that all the undergraduates have gone home or graduated, the university is much quieter. We do have events here, though - so far this year I've seen basketball players, French schoolchildren, nurses, ... All these events are organised by Events Essex.

Normally, Events Essex operates out of the lecture theatre block, but this year there was some reason they couldn't do that. The School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering generously offered to help out by giving Events Essex some space on Square 2 just off the entrance to our part of the building.

I don't know how many people work in Events Essex, but I'd guess at maybe 10 or 15. Every time I go in and out, there are people near the entrance wearing their light blue Events Essex uniforms. These people are invariably smoking.

It's only when I'm exposed to the normal lifestyles of other people that I appreciate the fact that hardly any CSEE undergraduates smoke.



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12:11pm on Sunday, 19th July, 2015:

Swag

Anecdote

I stocked up on Läkerol at the airport in Stockholm:



These are chewy sweets they do in Sweden. I can get some over the Internet, but not the cactus ones (which are my favourite). I saw one shop that sold only the Salvi flavour (which is basically licorice) so I bought four of those. At the airport, I found a shop with a much wider assortment of flavours so I bought 2 cactus ones and three random others.

Next time, I'll wait until I get to the other side of airport security before I buy them. They're almost half the price there, and you can get them in packets big enough to hold two packs of playing cards.



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9:20am on Saturday, 18th July, 2015:

Costa versus Celebrity

Comment

This has been our third sea cruise (we went on a river cruise in 1989). The previous two were with Celebrity, but this one was with Costa. So, how do the two companies stack up?

Celebrity wins hands-down.

Costa nickel-and-dimes you. On our Celebrity cruises, if we wanted a soft drink or a tea or coffee, we could get one any time of day from assorted stations dotted about the ship or from wandering waiters. On Costa, you have to pay for every drink outside meal times — even water. Celebrity also has other stations around the ship where you can go to get snacks and free ice creams; Costa doesn't even have a place to get ice creams — and it's an Italian ship! Celebrity had free excursions round the kitchens and other normally out-of-bounds areas of the ship, whereas Costa makes you pay. Celebrity has free movies on its TV and Costa only has pay movies.

Worst of all, Costa charges €8 per person per day in "hotel services" that you don't find out about until you get your bill at the end. Well, if you read every page of the contract you'll see that they do implement a hotel service charge, but they don't say how much it is. This is outrageous: that's a fixed charge, it's unavoidable, and it should be included in the headline price for the cruise. I'm not happy about it at all.

Costa is also very bad at giving people information. Cruise ship journeys are planned in minute detail, so they know exactly what's happening to their passengers and when. Celebrity explains to its passengers well in advance what it is they need to do and when they need to do it; Costa leaves everything late and when you ask the guest relations people they deny that they know anything at all. We weren't even told where the restaurant was or given a ship map by Costa. Right now, for example, I'm waiting in a (closed) bar area because I had to get out of my cabin, er, stateroom by 8am but the bus taking me to the airport is at noon — for a 6pm flight! I could have gone and looked around the Vasa Museum if they'd organised the transfer better, but we didn't find out until 9pm last night when our bus was coming — far too late to contest the timing.

The food on Costa is good, although again I'd say Celebrity shades it in both quantity and quality. I may have formed this impression because I'm pickier than most people with my food, though, so when I see a choice of starter between seafood, seafood or mushrooms I get crosser than other people might. The waiters we got were good, though, just as friendly and helpful as on Celebrity. We had some good people on our table, too, which always helps.

The ship's layout isn't great, but that varies from ship to ship so it's not a general Costa thing. Calling a ship this dark "Luminosa" isn't going to make it brighter, though.

Tours: we only booked one in advance, a two-day extravaganza in St Petersburg. We didn't book for Helsiki, Tallinn or Stockholm. This is just as well, because almost all the English Language tours to Helsinki and Tallinn were cancelled and literally all of them were for Stockholm. I knew there were lots of nationalities aboard Costa cruises, so I expected that there would be dual-language tours; apparently there weren't, though. One person on our table at dinner had all her cruises cancelled, and found out at 9pm the previous day at the earliest and when she was collecting her tour group sticker minutes before departure at the latest. That's not good. Our St Petersburg guide said that there had been a decline in English-speaking visitors; if they keep getting their tours cancelled, I'm not surprised. If I were Italian I'd probably find nothing wrong with Costa's attitude; I'm English, though, so to me it looks like poor service you're being fleeced for.

Having more than one English language channel on the TV doesn't sound as if it should be hard, either. Celebrity has multiple channels in multiple languages; Costa has a bunch of Italian ones, but only one or two for other languages. We had BBC World News and that was that.

Oh, talking about tables at dinner (which I'm sure I was somewhere back there), on Celebrity we got to choose when to eat and whether to share a table or not. On Costa, we got no choice — it was just pure luck we got 7pm and not 9pm. We also had no choice over what cabin, er, stateroom to have: we chose the category but couldn't choose which one of those that were available to have. We only found out its number from a piece of 6-point text buiried in our boarding documents. Oh, and the Costa web site is so uninformative that even knowing the room number didnt help us, as there was no ship map (I had to look it up on another web site that carries maps of cruise ships).

Now it may sound from this that I don't exactly like Costa. That's not how it is, though: it's just not as professional as Celebrity. Although some of the other people on our table said they wouldn't travel Costa ever again, I certainly would. However, I'd look at other cruise operators doing a similar set of destinations first.



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9:58pm on Friday, 17th July, 2015:

Stockholm Vignette

Anecdote

Today we docked in the beautiful city of Stockholm:

I can't say the port is easy on the eye, though.

At breakfast, my daughter didn't want any coffee so the waiter brought her orange juice instead:

He brought three glasses of orange juice, then another one after she'd downed these. I think there must be a module on sarcasm at waiter school.

We went into Stockholm on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus. This cost us €30 each and was a complete waste of money — taxis would have been both faster and less expensive. Also, well, this:

We were Hop-On Hop-Off, but there was also Hop On-Hop Off and Hop On Hop Off. Those hyphens make all the difference: they're three different companies and they don't accept each other's tickets.

Wasn't Hoponhopoff a Russian count?

Anyway, because we went in on a bus that was so packed there were people standing, I didn't get many good photos. Those I did get weren't very scenic:

That's some kind of statue outside a station.

That's some kind of statue outside a shop.

That's some kind of neon sign out of 1955.

Visby has concrete sheepies, Helsinki has concrete tortoises, Talinn has concrete birdies, Stockholm has concrete lions:

Not quite Trafalgar Square, but it stops buses from parking on the curb.

Finally! Off the bus and into some old-looking part of Stockholm:

This is near the Royal Palace.

The usual restrictions apply:

No imagination.

We went into the Royal Palace, which is open to the public in the same way that Buckingham Palace isn't:

It would seem that Swedish monarchs spent all their money bettering the lives of the Swedish people, whereas the Russian monarchs spent all theirs on bettering the lives of the Russian monarchs. As a result, Russian palaces are spectacular and Swedish ones are rather staid.

One set of rooms is dedicated to royal orders. One such royal order is awarded to other royals and heads of state. For that particular order, each member gets their coat of arms put on display in the palace. This one belongs to Prince Charles:

The Queen has one too, but that was on the opposite side of the room so my photo didn't come out very well. This is a recurring theme in the Royal Palace, by the way: most of my photos there are fuzzy because the light was dreadful and flashes were disallowed. We weren't even allowed to take photos of the Crown Jewels (although for those I'd guess it's because they're so unimpressive that the Swedes don't want them laughed at all over the Internet).

I like this medal:

Yes, Sweden does indeed have an Order of the Elephant.

The usual restrictions apply:

No exploding monster trucks, no hatchets, no pointing, no Mr Whippy ice creams. Ah, that's better!

Our stateroom on the ship is decorated more sumptuously than this stateroom in the palace:

This room is a bit more luxurious, but all the soft furnishings have covers on them (they're red velvet underneath):


These paintings are by a queen (Margarita, I think), who was a gifted artist:

Yes, well, she may have been a gifted artist, but she wasn't gifted as an artist...

This guest room has a double double bed:

Apparently The Queen and Prince Philip have slept in it. That must have been embarrassing for passing tourists

Here's a model of what the palace used to look like before it burned down:

Now that's a palace! Why did they rebuild it as a boring square when they could have rebuilt it as it was?!

This is about as close as this palace gets to a golden room:

It might have been impressive if I hadn't seen Catherine's Palace in Russia a couple of days earlier.

One of the rooms was refitted in a modern style in the late 1990s, showcasing the best of Swedish design:

We call it "the IKEA room".

After three failed photos that would have made great additions to this blog entry, here's another:

Those worried-looking lions holding up logs appear in several rooms, and I took photos of 4 sets of them. This miserable effort is the best of the lot. Why it's important that I don't take photos of fireplaces using a flash I don't know, but I'm confident it must be because otherwise dreadful things would happen.

Here's the interior square of the Royal Palace:

It looks like an office building.

The chapel in the palace does actually look quite good, so not everything in the building is dark, functional grimness:

They had light in there and everything.

On the way out, we came across the Changing of the Guard ceremony:

I don't know whether these squaddies were incoming or outgoing. I do know they had a short drummer who was beating a drum two thirds her height. It's as well that Sweden isn't under any immediate threat of terrorism, because this would make a high-profile yet soft target.

Outside the palace, exploring the Old Town:

It's a pretty square. OK, so it looks as if it ought to be in Amsterdam rather than Stockholm, but at least it has some character.

This is just off the above square:

The sign reads: "National Gallery".

Here's the work of an optimist:

Given that they lost the bag almost 3 months ago, the likelihood of its being handed in now is probably close to zero.

I had, er, high hopes of being able to go up this church tower:

Unfortunately, I couldn't. The building was in use because someone had chosen today to have their funeral.

This olde worlde street, only a short walk from the Royal Palace, was completely empty:

I wonder how far you'd have to go from Buckingham Palace to find a street that length with no-one in it at lunchtime,

These statues have chained themselves to a railing outside a shop:

I think we should listen to their demands before one of them throws itself under a horse.

Ahh, good, it would have been a shame to visit Sweden and not see one of these mannequins:

If it's good enough for the Joker, it's good enough for me.

Unlike other countries, Sweden doesn't disfigure its monuments with green netting when they're being restored:

It disfigures them with white netting.

Stockholm looks much better when the sun is shining, but there are still some stunning views across the water to different islands:

That said, some views which ought to have been stunning are instead a mess. Just to the right of the above is this:

Someone, somewhere, once thought that glass and concrete monsters were a natural fit with stylish 200-year-old architecture.

If a hostel had this name in the UK, it would have to justify it or fall foul of the Trade Descriptions Act:

Of course, it's entirely possible that this is indeed the best (because it's the only) hostel in the Old Town.

After a 25-minute wait for a Hop-On Hop-Off bus that runs every 20 minutes (during which time two Hop On-Hop Off buses passed by), we went to Skansen. It was a toss-up between Skansen and the Vasa Museum; we decided to visit the former if the rain held off and the latter if the heavens opened. The heavens remained closed, so Skansen it was. Skansen has been recommended to me by Swedes several times; as for what it is, well it's an historical recreation of various parts of Sweden, ranging in period from the 1700s to the 1930s. It was opened in the 1890s, and most of the buildings are originals that have been moved there from where they used to stand. It's huge:

That's a model, obviously, otherwise it would be tiny.

There are some good views of the Stockholm skyline from Skansen:

That's an impressive building on the left (no idea what it is). That's also an impressive block of modern apartments in the middle (no idea why they were allowed to be built). To the right, there's an artificial hill of some kind (no idea what its purpose is whatosever). You can see the artificial hill better from this angle:

Maybe it's a ski slope?

The path outside the glass-blowing shop is covered in tiny pieces of broken glass:

I like to think that if the glass-blower makes a mistake, she flies into a rage and hurls the half-finished object out of the window. However, as she did make a mistake while we were watching and didn't throw the result out of the window, this could just be wild speculation on my part.

There are farm animals wandering around Skansen. Here's a cockerel:

The spurs on its legs are enormous! No wonder in olden times people used to set up cockfights, those things look vicious.

Here's an example of a house in Skansen:

Here's an example of two houses, one of which has a saddlery upstairs:

Here's yet another example, this time featuring an employee in period costume:

She's using her mobile phone.

The descriptions of the buildings are helpfully in English:

The typos are about as frequent as the ones in this blog when I'm typing on my laptop and don't check what I've put.

I was thrilled when I first spotted this statue as I thought it was of a man pulling the wings off butterflies:

It turned out to be Linnaeus categorising a couple of leaves.

This is the inside of the apothecary shop:

Sadly, no stuffed crocodiles or scorched hedgehogs this time round.

Some of the cottage gardens have this sign on their gate:

It's lucky that geese can't fly, then.

This has to be the worst advertisement for a candyfloss shop I've ever seen:

It didn't stop my daughter (age 21) wanting some candyfloss, though...

This is on the ceiling of an old church:

I like the way they interspersed the clouds with angels.

The occasional screams we heard came from this ride at the nearby amusement park:


Metal statues are expensive because of the materials, let alone the work involved making them:

It amazes me that even so, many of them are badly-executed.

I saw this tub of small wooden stakes and just wanted to buy it:

I don't know what I'd do with them, I don't know what they're for, but I do know I want them. Fortunately, my will of steel prevailed and I resisted the temptation to stuff as many into my bag as would fit. However, if I ever come across vampire mice, I know where to come.

Why so sad, Foxy?


On the way back, we passed the Abba Museum:

I heard on the radio recently that Benny out of Abba occasionally walks past and if anyone in the queue recognises him he'll stop for a chat.

These horses, known as Dala horses, are on sale all over Sweden:

I suspect that the Swedes believe these horses to be famous outside Sweden and that everyone who visits Sweden wants them, like with those stacking dolls and Russia. Sadly, this is not the case, and no amount of treating Dala horses as if they were desirable objects is going to make them so.

There's much more to Stockholm than we had time to see, and the weather was a bit too cold for wandering around the streets aimlessly. Next time I'm here, I'm not going to take any of the Hop-On-Hop-Off buses, though — those things are too expensive for what you get.



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8:02pm on Thursday, 16th July, 2015:

Tallinn Vignette

Anecdote

Today, the Costa Luminosa ("diamond of light" — it has to be the darkest ship I've ever been on) docked in Tallinn, Estonia. I was here only last year, so still remembered a lot of the layout of the Old Town. This time it was July rather than April, which meant it was ten degrees warmer (17C instead of 7C).

I had more time to look around on this occasion, which is good as I really like Tallinn. It's similar to Visby, which I also really like (both are former Hanseatic League cities) (Tallinn was called Ravel at the time), but there are important differences: Tallinn is a living city, so the centre isn't pedestrianised (unlike Visby) and it doesn't look as if someone put a dustcloth over it 300 years ago and only recently removed it (unlike Visby); it has a day's worth of sights to see in it (unlike Visby); our cruise ship stopped at it (unlike Visby).

Estonia is go-getting and full of potential. It's how Russia ought to be, but Estonia is well-governed and has low levels of corruption. Russia, on the other hand...

OK, so you want to see some pictures.

Some cities have a common practice going on that make them memorable. Salzburg, for example, has individual, tasteful metal signs outside all its shops and businesses in the centre, whereas Dubrovnik has lanterns. Tallinn has these woollen women dotted around:

The woollen woman is on the left. Here are some more:

I like the fourth-from-last best, she's so friendly.

This is the restaurant where I ATE BEAR last year:

My wife wouldn't go there as she only wanted a snack for lunch. This means I remain the only person in our family who has EATEN BEAR. RAWWWR!

This gargoyle is on the side of the Town Hall:

It looks a bit too mechanical to be a dragon, to be honest. It's not going to scare away any demons.

Here's the St Nicholas church, which has the usual too-high-for-one-photo tower:

Here it is from further away, where you can see the tower but not the rest of the church:

Annoyingly, the church authorities don't let people go up the tower. That's bad form: I shall be writing to St Nicholas to complain when I get back to the UK.

This is a tree from the 1600s, which is important to the people of Estonia as a person important to the people of Estonia is buried under it:

It's half the height it was in 2003, but wider in girth. It's full of bricks and cement to hold it together, which may explain the wider girth thing.

There are flowers growing from the city walls:

This is probably causing the walls damage, but they're several metres thick at this point so I don't suppose they're in immediate danger of collapse.

The Old Town in Tallinn is divided into a Lower Town and an Upper Town (called Toompea). There are two roads connecting them: Lühike Jalg and Pikk Jalg. Here's a shaky photo showing the English translation of the former:

So, they're called Short Leg and Long Leg. Who knew that Tallinn named streets after fielding positions in cricket?

This is the Russian cathedral, St Alexander Nevsky, which was constructed in the Upper Town when the Russians ruled Estonia:

There's a better view if you come at it from the right direction but we didn't come at it from the right direction. No problem, though, because I remembered there was a good view from the other side of the cathedral:

Drat. I think these places use green netting as some kind of incentive: "For every euro you donate, we'll remove one square of green netting".

No pictures from inside the cathedral because Estonia has a rule that if the inside of a building is worth photographing, you're not allowed to take photographs there.

This pink house is Toompea Castle:

It looks as if you ought to be able to go into it but you can't. Well, maybe you can but we couldn't see an open entrance. There's a parliament shop nearby it, so it might be something to do with the government. I think this idea of a parliamentary shop would transfer well to Russia, because then you'd have a convenient place to go if you wanted to buys some votes.

This little yellow house used to be a school:

I know this because I pay attention when I hear nearby tour guides speaking English.

There are some spectacular views from the Upper Town:

That one would be even better if someone hadn't parked a Costa cruise ship right behind that imposing church.

Talking of churches, there's one in the Upper Town (known as the domed church) that does let you up its tower (for a fee). The views from here are amazing! Here's the Russian cathedral from it:

You can almost not see the green netting.

You're not allowed to take photos inside the church, which is a shame as it was full of coats of arms you don't normally see in churches. I did manage to sneak one, though:

Unfortunately, it's not actually of anything particularly special.

Here's another nice view from the Upper Town's walls:

You can see the towers of the Lower Town's walls.

This isn't a woollen woman:

Some people just don't want to play the game.

This mean-looking avian brute hoped to stop me from taking photos:

I paid no attention: he'd never be able to get at me from behind those iron bars.

This is a nice sign, even if it is completely out of keeping with all the other signs we saw on our travels:

Oh, and congratulations: you now know the Estonian word for "souvenir". Or maybe "souvenirs".

Here's the Lower Town from a spot in the Upper Town:

Here's that spot in the Upper Town from the Lower Town:

Oh, while I remember, see that tower on the left? This star is on it:

As for why, I'm sure there must be a reason.

Here are a couple of towers. The nearer one is the Maiden Tower:

I don't know what the name of the further one transates into, but I don't care because in Estonian it's Kiek in de Kök.

This is a touristy photo of a regular Tallinn picturesque street:

If you like this kind of thing, I can thoroughly recommend your visiting Tallinn (assuming you haven't already).

Tallinn claims to have the oldest continually-running pharmacy in the world. Because my younger daughter is training to be a pharmacist, naturally we went inside:

From left to right: stallion hooves; dried deer penises; scorched hedgehog. I bet the doctors enjoyed writing those prescriptions...

For some reason, I am suddenly reminded that the captain of the Costa Luminosa is called Massimo Pennisi.

This stuffed crocodile hanging from the pharmacy ceiling was supposed to deter thieves in medieval times.

If I were a thief, that's the first thing I'd have wanted to steal.

This game was on the pharmacy floor:

Some people are just no good at game design.

Here's the town square:

It didn't have that market in it when I was here last year, otherwise I'd have striven to avoid it. As it was, my wife and daughter saw the stalls and as a result I'm €40 poorer.

This troll was guarding the café where we had lunch:

I think it was modelled on one of my younger daughter's friends from when she was at school.

This woman really does no want to be advertising hot chocolate:


There's a street with paving stones bearing brass-lettered records of events in Estonia's past — and future!

I hope that by 2418, the Republic of Estonia will have learned how to use apostrophes.

Another quaint (and this time wide) Tallinn street:

As usual, I have taken the precaution of editing out the swarming hordes of tourists and the lines of parked cars, to prevent diluting said quaintness.

Amazingly, I am not yet so unfit that I couldn't climb 256 steps up another church tower (the one from earlier that had the cruise ship behind it):

The hill at the back is Toompea, the Upper Town. The church in the middle of the skyline is the Dome Church, which is the one we climbed up the tower of earlier.

This is the old harbour gate, which would have looked so much better if its small museum hadn't put those blue flags out:

As the harbour is now a good 500 metres away, I guess a little silting-up may have occurred since Tallinn's heyday.

This is a random backstreet, just to show you that not all of the Old Town of Tallinn is photogenic:

It's not run down or a mess or anything, it's just not particularly pretty.

Tallinn is 90 minutes from Helsinki by hydrofoil across the Gulf of Finland, and many Finns like to come over at weekends because they believe the nightlife is better than at home. I can't imagine what might have given them that impression:

Here's a close-up of the central image there:

If the Starks had gone with that minor modification to their coat of arms, they could have doubled the number of soldiers fighting for them.

Here's another random street in the Lower Town:

I thought I'd show you this as I liked the faces half way up that building there:

Those are guaranteed to pull in the punters.

I love these houses behind houses behind houses behind houses, rising up to Toompea:

These are the scenes of which Fantasy book covers are made.

I saw these in a shop window:

"So I want a pig, a sitting-down pig, right, with — with wings! And it's, it's — it's praying! And a cow! Give me a cow doing the same thing! Yeah! They'll sell like hot cakes!"

This mannequin head has a beard like no man ever had a beard ever:

If you want realism, add eyelashes before you add beard.

This cardboard cut-out stands outside a fur shop:

If she put some more clothes on, she wouldn't need the furs.

Here's one last view of Tallinn, from the sea as we left the harbour:

Whoever decided that putting a chimney stack there was a good idea: it wasn't.

Finally, although my wife and daughter frittered away most of our euros on useless items such as jewellery and more jewellery, I myself managed to buy something of actual practical use:

It's a 6-sided die made of amber. I chose this particular one because when you hold it up to the light:

those dead bugs (or whatever that gunge it has in it is) look like a map of the British Isles.

Tallinn was a big hit not only with us, but with the other 5 British tourists aboard the Costa Luminosa. They much preferred it to Helsinki. I think it must be a new stop on Costa's itinerary as they gave us a questionnaire to fill in about it, saying how much we liked different attractions and how much we spent on what. It was such a badly-designed form, however, that I don't believe they're going to get a great deal of useful information out of it. Costa is good at a lot of things, but customer interaction is not one of them...



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9:15pm on Wednesday, 15th July, 2015:

Another Day in St Petersburg

Anecdote

After a thoroughly enjoyable first day in St Pete's, today we had a thoroughy enjoyable second day. It was certainly more enjoyable than the day of the woman on this billboard:


We started early in order that we could get to Catherine's Palace before the gates opened at 8:30am. "Early" in this case meant setting our alarm for 6pm; fortunately, the people on the passport desks pretty well waved us through (they had paperwork of their own to fill out by the look of it), so we did indeed arrive before the gates opened. This meant we had to wait until they did actually open. A 5-[iece brass band entertained us as we waited:

It was certainly entertaining watching the guy on the right, whose face was so red it was quite exciting seeing if he was going to have a coronary while blowing his trumpet.

This is the facade of Catherine's Palace:

It doesn't actually lean back, that's just my lousy photographic skills. The building looks like new, which basically it is — the Nazis gutted it in World War 2.

We had to wear special plastic bags on our feet so we wouldn't wear out the inlaid wooden floors:

Bear feet!

This is the interior of the palace. It's gold, gold, gold everywhere — an amazing sight!

It's like that for something like 50 rooms in a row.

It's selfie time:

Good, good, the mirrors still work.

This corner of one of the rooms has two cherubs on the left that are original, rather than restored:

I prefer the restored version, even if it is just gold paint rather than gold leaf.

This is the facade at the back of the palace:

There's always one person wandering around to spoil it.

There are some lakes at the back of the palace:

That's one of the smaller ones.

The usual restrictions apply:

No cars, frameless bicycles, bobsleighs, decapitations, cosmonauts, torture, skating, standing on cross faces, fishing, bars, dogs, snake-wrestling, tortoise impersonations, ice cream piracy, falling off slopes, urinating while lassoed, trees, ghetto blasters, hand disintegrations or murder.

We stopped at a souvenir shop on the way back, situated in what looked like an ordinary house on an ordinary street where ordinary coaches could park outside. I really liked the look of this chess set they had for sale:

Not enough to buy it, obviously.

I did spend some of the few roubles I had left (following my wife's purchases in yesterday's souvenir shop) on this unusually-wrapped bar of confectionary:

It's basically a slab of Kit-Kat.

This is the emergency exit sign on today's bus:

You hit a stick man so hard his arms fall off.

This building was over a railway line we crossed:

If they'd built a town round it, it would have made a good railway station. As it was, there werent even barriers on the level crossing.

Our next stop was at the Peterhof Palace, which is famous for its fountains:

Fountains seem to make it rain with depressing regularity.

The usual restrictions apply:

These are much more self-explanatory. No smoking, no fires, no dogs on sticks, no bottles more than 3 wine glasses high, no footprints, no fish dangling, no cycling, no Icarus, no genies.

The big feature of the Peterhof gardens are the fountains:

It had stopped raining at this point, so we could actually see the fountains.

Somewhere in this picture is a red squirrel:

We don't get many of them in the UK any more, but the grey ones don't seem to like sudden downpours and bitterly cold winters.

Although most of the top tourist spots are kept in great condition, the mask does occasionally slip:

It's as if things are either perfect or decrepit, with little in between.

Here's a nice view of some fountains at the end of a canal:

It looks even better close up, but I fought for the space to take that photo so you're damned well seeing it. This is what it looks like at the other end:

It's more impressive in real life than it is on a screen, although as it was starting to rain again a screen does have its advantages.

The sheep on the side of this vase looks unusually self-satisfied:


The ever-vigilant guards are on hand to make sure you don't step out of line:

No candy will escape uncrushed!

These are fun:

I wonder how many people get their pockets picked taking photos of these signs?

These are guest apparentments for visitors to Peterhof back in the days of the czar:

That man and his kid on the left just wouldn't move. Augh!

Here's yet another cathedral near where we had lunch:

Or maybe it's one we already visited. They tend to blur into one after a while.

We wound up our visit with a boat trip along the canals and rivers of Saint Petersburg. This sign told me all I needed to know about what to do in the event of a fire aboard:

Burn.

I don't know what the sign on the left means, but I'm always happy to give games a shout-out:

The other sign is the bridge clearance in metres. They're going to have to change all those when global warming makes the water level rise.

This is one of the many, many palaces that line the banks of the rivers. It was built for czar Paul I, who apparently didn't like the Winter Palace:

He lived there for 40 days then someone assassinated him (I suspect on the grounds of taste).

Here's the Winter Palace from the Neva:

This almost does it justice — it's a very beautiful building. It has statues along the roof I hadn't noticed before:

Ooh, and chimneys too!

This stretch of sand along the walls of the fortress is used by locals as a beach:

It looks as if 17 degrees is warm enough to bring out the crowds.

This is a university building:

I wish the buildings at Essex University looked like that, instead of some brutalist concrete monstrosity straight out of a Soviet construction programme.

Contradictory signage:


I can read this! C is S, T is T, O is O, that croquet peg is P:

The Russian for STOP is STOP.

We saw several weddings during our trip. I like this thing they do with large wedding rings on bunches of flowers:


I can read the name of this boat!

Lambda is L, that I-O is U, the upside-down bull head is D, M is M, H is N, A is A. LUDMILA!

Some of the grey, depressing flats have balconies. The inhabitants of the flats personalise them by adding windows and roofs and sometimes even greenhouses:

See how much cheerier that looks.

We had to leave Saint Petersburg at 6pm, meaning we had to be aboard our ship by 5:30pm. Our coach managed to force its way through the rush-hour traffic to arrive at 5:30pm on the dot. We ran to the customs and passport control building, only to find it evacuated because of a fire alarm. Someone didn't pay the right bribes to the right people.

Finally, because Tetris was invented in Russia, I wore these cufflinks:


The background music currently playing on the ship is Silent Night.



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9:18pm on Tuesday, 14th July, 2015:

Saint Petersburg

Anecdote

Today we were in Saint Petersburg. It was an early start, so we went to the restaurant as soon as it opened. This was our waiter:

If you have him as a waiter, expect your food to come 30 minutes after you ordered it.

This impressive wall faces our ship:

It's apartments. That whole block is just apartments.

Here's my name in Russian:

It took another 30 or 40 minutes to get through passport control upon leaving the ship. We set off on our tour an hour late. If only the Russian passport office had known there was a ship disgorging 3,000 passengers there, they could have put on more staff.

Here's a more up-market block of flats:

No wonder Russians have a reputation for humourlessness,

Our first photo opportunity! The coach pulls up next to the river, we get out and are greeted by this:

On the other side of the river, though, is this:

It's the Winter Palace, which is one of the buildings that comprises the Hermitage. There's a much better view of it from a massive square at the other side, but of course we didn't stop there...

As soon as I saw this, I knew we were near a tourist attraction:

There's always hideous green netting near tourist attractions.

This is the cathedral in the Peter and Paul fortress:

Entirely predictably, whenever they give you chance to take a photo of a church, it's impossible to fit it in the frame.

The usual restrictions apply:

No dogs, hats, old-fashioned phones, coke bottles or microphones.

This church is quite glitzy inside:

The camera angle is a bit high up because that way you don't see the hordes of people milling around. Peopleless, it would make a good jigsaw puzzle.

This is on the corner of one of the tombs:

I haven't seen more tombs of dead czars anywhere else in the world.

This is an interesting piece of stucco:

I think they based it on licquorice.

Here's the cathedral in the fort again:

Still too close to get it all in. These church architects do this deliberately.

Here's a missile:

Just to keep tourists on their toes.

I like this chap on the window, explaining how to escape in an emergency:

Then again, he could have been warning us that thieves operated nearby. From what our guide Svetlana was saying, they're practically round every corner.

There are two of these columns overlooking the river:

The locals seem to like them, but they look exceptionally ugly in my opinion.

This is the admiralty building:

We must have driven round this three or four times. It's pretty big.

The queue for the Hermitage:

The queue didn't get any better insde. There were queues for everything.

Here's my Hermitage ticket:

250 roubles is just over £3. This is good value for one of the world's greatest museums!

The usual restrictions apply:

No parachutes, no umbrellas, no clothes, no hands, no beer, no pocket calculators, oops we should have given the diagonal lines a different slant, no ghosts.

Inside, the Hermitage is like a stately home:

I was expecting to see artwork from the beginning, but they seemed to take a "the whole place is a work of art" approach.

This is Peter the Great's throne:

Well, one of them, anyway. He did have another one, but made the mistake of ordering it from England so he was dead by the time it was delivered.

Throughout the Hermitage, the floors have intricate marquetry floors:

Svetlana said they kept wearing out and being replaced but everything was original.

The Hermitage is big on chandeliers and ceilings. Here's an example:

The candle bill before electricity was installed must have been enormous.

This is as close as I got to one of the two Da Vinci paintings in the collection:

The image is blurred because I was being jostled by other tourists at the time.

This is as close as I got to the other Da Vinci:

I'll have to look it up next time I have Internet access. The queues were made worse by people videoing the painting, as if they were expecting it to move.

This is a copy of a gallery we saw in the Vatican:

I don't know why, but Russians seem to like copying things they admire. Saint Petersburg itself was inspired by Amsterdam, but it's more like Amsterdam crossed with Paris in my opinion,

Rafael!

Veronese!

Canaletto!

Goya!

El Greco!

Rembrandt!

There are 26 Rembrandts in the Hermitage. Svetlana walked us past 25 of them.

This is a famous statue I can't say has come across my radar before:

Yes, well when you've been on your feet for two hours it can be a bit tiring...

How was this table leg designed?

"Let's have a big foot ... and wings ... and maybe the head of a lion." "Add some breasts and you're on."

Girl's night out:

They're probably muses or graces or something, to make it non-pornagraphic.

The large cloakroom has enough space for 3,000 coats and bags. It's a corridor with lots of little rooms off it:

The small cloakrook only has enough room for 1,600 coats and bags.

Lunch was surprisingly good:

There was some kind of potato dish as a starter, then a potato soup, then two kinds of identically-tasting meat with potato, then a really nice baklava. There was also a wine that no-one could identify and a shot of vodka in case you had some paint you wanted to strip. Oh, and there were pancakes with a 100% salt caviar-substitute and mayonnaise.

This is the mascot at the entrance to the restaurant:

You know you're in a foreign land when something like that serves to attract customers.

The drains off the roof are enormous, something like twice the diameter of UK drains:

They empty onto the street, which is shaped to form a slight channel so everything runs onto the road. Gawd knows what it must be like going through stream after stream of water in a wheelchair.

A typical Russian scene:

A badly-parked Lada and two people sharing an umbrella, photographed through a rain-streaked window.

This is another famous cathedral:

Our guide had a knack of letting us take photographs of dark objects against light backgrounds, so you can't tell what they're of. This church lets people climb up to an external gallery at the base of the dome, but we didn't even have time to go inside.

I'm starting to pick up the Cyrillic alphabet:

Ps are Rs, backward Ns are Is, Bs are Vs, phis are Fs, backward Rs are YAs, blocky Ws are SHs.

Wrong city?

No, this is merely a copy of St Basil's in Moscow. I told you Russians liked to copy things they admire. This is actually the Church of the Spilled Blood, so called because it was built on the spot where Czar Alexander III (I think) was assassinated. He staggered onto a railing and then died in the street.

This memorial has the exact railing and the exact cobblestones from the street he died on. The people really must have liked him (apart from the ones who killed him, obviously).

This is the ceiling of the Church of the Spilled Blood:

It's all mosaics, restored after a run-in with German artillery during the siege of Leningrad. Here's another example:

It's God shooting three beams of light out of his beard at Mary. I'm glad I'm not religious, or I'd have to understand that.

What? We don't even have one of these in Colchester!

Get your priorities straight, Jamie!

This is a long line of tourist stalls along the river or canal or whatever it was next to the Church of the Spilled Blood:

Every single person on the bus except Svetlana the guide wanted to peruse them. Instead, she dragged us to a government-operated souvenir shop which took so long to get to that we weren't allowed off the bus to visit it. We were threatened with going there again tomorrow.

This statue really doesn't like the way the dust has accumulated on her chest:


Look at the price of petrol in Russia!

There are about 80 roubles to the pound. 50p a litre for fuel!

And so our tour of St Petersburg's roadworks came to an end:


I'd better stop there, it's 11:20pm and our alarm is set for 6am tomorrow morning for our second installment of Russian culture.



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