Highlights of our itinerary

Here’s a map of the United Kingdom and Ireland, with markers for eleven places that we will be visiting in the UK:

1. London
2. Winchester
3. Highclere Castle
4. Cambridge
5. York
6. Edinburgh
7. Gretna Green
8. Lake District
9. Stratford-upon-Avon
10. Cotswolds
11. Stonehenge

Places we'll visit

Places we’ll visit

The location of places that are not actual cities are estimated. You can right-click on the map and print it.

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A Special Book

I have just finished “Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey”, and I would say that if you are going to visit Highclere Castle, it is a must read. It’s the story of the last four generations of Carnavons, especially the 6th. as told by the Eighth Counters of Carnavon, Fiona, who lives there today.P1050164a

Fortunately, she had access to an astounding amount of archival material, and people with memories, and she really brings the place and its people alive. Even if you only get part way through the book, it will make your visit that much more interesting.

It is the story of many challenges, social, financial, marital, wartime, and her telling of the ways people coped with circumstances makes a compelling narrative.

Even if you are just a Downton Abbey fan, this will be a great read for you.

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Our KPBS trip to England Scotland and Wales

Our San Diego public radio and TV station, KPBS, has organized an August trip to England, Scotland, and Wales and most specifically to Highclere Castle, which is where the interiors for the Downton Abbey TV series are filmed. It’s the second KPBS tour Teresa and I have been on and we’re looking forward to it.

Tonight was the first night we 48 participants got to meet each other and hear about tour details from a Collette (the tour operator) representative. To my disappointment it was not really a reception for us to meet each other, but a classroom-style meeting to receive some specific information, which we did, and get our questions answered, and get our travel documents.

Jennifer Majors and Trina Hester from KPBS were with us tonight. Trina is going to be on the tour, as well as Tom Karlo, GM of the station, and his wife Julie. They are fun people. They are going to arrange a tour of the BBC studios, an extra, not on the Collette tour. Sounds interesting.

Teresa has read, and I am reading, a book about the real residents of Highclere Castle, written by the current Countess of Carnavon, who is living there now. She tells the story of the last two generations of Carnavons and it’s pretty interesting. I don’t think she is holding anything back.

The next time you hear from me will probably be from London, and you’ll see some pictures.

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28 May – Thinking

I’ve just read one book, and I’m reading another on the subject of thinking. The first, “Think Like a Freak” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, was published just a few days ago, was a quick enjoyable read. The one I am part way through is “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, is also readable, but a little heavier going. They both deal with how we think, and among other subjects, how we should think if we want to make better decisions or be more effective.

The first book is the third in a series on “Freakonomics”. The first two books exposed fallacies in the way we look at issues and explain them. For example, there was a marked drop in crime in New York some years ago and many theories were put forth to explain it, some quite plausible.
However, the authors pointed out that approximately 20 years before, the abortion laws in New York had changed, so that many unwanted and un-cared for children were never born, and never grew up to be criminals. It took these authors to point out the relationship, and also many other surprising phenomena.

The purpose of the book (in addition to being highly entertaining) was to point out the ways we can improve our methods of coming to conclusions. The first point is to realize when you don’t know the answer. In one example, children are read a short story and then asked questions about the story. When the information was in the story they mostly got the answer right. When there was no information in the story about the question, the children guessed at an answer instead of saying “I don’t know.” With a little training, other children were able to make assessments of what they knew and didn’t know. For us, that’s a first step.

Another aspect of human behavior is that we respond to incentives, and sometimes those incentives are not so easy to determine. For example in soccer, why does a player taking a penalty kick aim to one side or the other of the goal? To have the highest probability of scoring, right? Well the statistics show that a ball kicked to the center has a higher probability of scoring because the goalie will normally jump to either the right or the left. So why not kick to the center? The answer may be that if the goalie happens to block the shot to the center of the goal, it will make the kicker look really stupid. There is an incentive to miss shooting for the corner rather than to look stupid getting a center shot blocked.

Therefore when designing incentive systems, one must really be on he lookout for unintended consequences, because humans are clever at gaming the system.

The second book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, gives considerable insight as to how the brain works. The brain appears to have a fast mode, executed by so-called “System 1″, and a slower, more analytical mode, “System 2″. Kahneman says there is a struggle between the intuitive snap judgments made by System 1, which are then processed by System 2, and either confirmed or rejected. The struggle between System 1 and System 2 is constant. He also makes the point that System 2 is “lazy” and will spring into action only when absolutely needed. He gives many examples of fascinating research projects, showing how people’s intuition can be led astray by various forms of prior information.

Both books are fascinating. The second book is more scholarly and at times, heavier going. Written three years earlier, it supports many of the concepts described in the newer book.

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24 May 2014 – Lumosity

Before I get to the topic for today I want to say that Teresa and I had a wonderful birthday couple of days. The Lodge at Torrey Pines was great, with beautiful views during the day, followed by a delicious birthday dinner.  That night we walked on the paths of the golf course where pedestrians are not allowed during the day.  The next day at San Diego Zoo Safari Park we had a fine time also. We got to the park a little late, so the only show we were able to watch was the Cheetah Run where they had 100 yard course set up and dragged a lure to entice the cheetah to run at 70 mph.

A number of years ago Teresa and I were invited to the research part of the park where a friend of ours was doing research on the breeding of cheetahs, which had been unsuccessful up to that point. We were allowed to go right to the enclosure and pet the cheetahs through the fence which was a treat for us, and apparently for the cheetahs as well. What was interesting was that we were suddenly told to move away from the fence, the reason being that some children had arrived at the breeding station, and since they were “prey-sized”, it altered the mood of the cheetahs significantly and it was no longer safe to pet the cats.

Seeing the cheetah chasing the lure reminded me that I had worked on a lure system for the cats for my friend, but we never built it. It would’ve been a triangular system with three automobile wheels, more complicated than what they are using now, which is simply an enticing looking bundle of rags on a rope dragged for 100 yards in a straight line.

Now we come to Lumosity. It’s a brain exercising system in which you play five games a day involving various mental skills. There is a wide variety of games that can come up each day, so the challenge is always different. The skills involve sequence discrimination, logic, mathematics, eye-hand coordination, words, perception speed, memory, and others. At first it was relatively easy to keep my score improving, but as the games progressed it became more difficult, and now I really have to concentrate to do well. It gets intense. It allows you to compare your score with other age groups and Lumosity is telling me that my score is at about the median of 35 to 39 year-olds. I’m not sure I believe that but it makes me feel good.

You may have noticed I didn’t say “brain training” system, and that is because I’m not sure whether it’s training general capabilities, or just learning how to play games. I actually think it’s both, and I figure there is nothing wrong with that.

I think my favorite game is a train track switching exercise in which you have to set switches to route approaching locomotives to go into barns of the same color as the locomotive. There is never quite enough time to set all the switches correctly as the engines come along, but you have to do your best.

Some games cause the brain to display its amazing capabilities. There is one game where you have to predict where a pool ball will hit the cushion, and to do that you have to remember where some bumpers are set before they disappear. You make your guess, the bumpers reappear, the ball shoots out and you find you either guessed right or wrong. Quite frequently I lose track of where the bumpers were but I take a guess anyway, and amazingly often my guess is correct even though I couldn’t really remember where the bumpers were. The brain knew.

In another game a silhouette of a bird and number are flashed on the screen for a very short time and you supposed to see and remember the number and the location of the bird, which may appear on the screen widely separated from the number. Sometimes I don’t even recall seeing the number and yet I guess right. Amazing.

Try it, you might like it. Lumosity.com.

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May 22, Happy Birthday to me

Today is my birthday (79) and I intend to resume my blog, something I’ve been meaning to do for some time. Usually it’s a trip that we are going on gets me writing again, but this time it’s not that at all. I have no explanation, nor do I think one is needed.

P1050060Teresa and I are having a birthday event for the next two days. It starts with a Birthday
Breakfast at home and a visit to Torrey Pines Park this afternoon, and a night at Torrey Pines Lodge. Tomorrow we spend the day at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, using passes given to us by our houseguest, which expire on the last day of May. One of the features of our excursion is that I’m not taking my laptop, something I’d never done in my life before, since owning one. I hope it’s going to be liberating. (I’m still taking my cell phone and my Samsung tablet, though.) I’m taking the tablet because I’m reading a book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”

Relaxing at The Lodge

Relaxing at The Lodge

by Daniel Kanehman. It’s a fascinating discussion of how the brain works in two modes, intuitively and analytically, and why in today’s world our intuition often fails us. I’m just getting into the book but I am sure part of the reason is that our brains evolved in simpler times, and is having trouble coping with the complexities and scale of today’s world. This is a very well-known book, but one reason I found it is that it is referenced in my previous book, “Think Like a Freak” by Levitt and Dubner, which is a follow-on to “Freakonomics” and “Super Freakonomics”.

The point of the third book is that to think like a Freak you have to first of all be willing to say “I don’t know,” instead of making your best guess. Then you have to be willing to look at the evidence, and if necessary, go get it. And finally, when you are thinking about how people behave, make sure to realize the “incentives” that people actually respond to, which are often counterintuitive.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012 – Mainz and Rudesheim

Rain again

[A few more days to go to complete the trip blog.  To read about it from the beginning, click here and go to the following days in turn by clicking on the upper or lower right.]

This morning most of our group went to Heidelberg, ostensibly to see the University, but I think many went to shop at a huge Christmas ornament store we had been told about. I think Cathy and Gordon were the only ones from KPBS that came with us to the Gutenberg Museum. Mainz was built by the Romans in the first century. We saw an unusual sight for this part of the world:

A tropical paradise on the Rhine River

A sand beach with thatched huts and folding chairs on the Rhine!  It was built as a project by university students and has been very successful commercially.

Our guide for Mainz and the Gutenberg New Zealand was Irmi. The castle of Mainz took 150 years to build, but one of the Queens didn’t like living there and moved to the building next door.  I guess the Royals can do pretty much what they want.

The King (left) and his seven electors

The Romans were here 2000 years ago. It seems like the Romans were everywhere we went, either 1000 or 2000 years ago. We saw a monument to the election process for Kings, with the elected King on the left, and seven electors. We saw another Monument to Richard Wagner, built by his publishers with whom Wagner had financial difficulties.

Originally Mainz was on both sides of the river, but when but when Germany was divided after World War II, the other side wound up in the American Zone and eventually became Wiesbaden.

The Matchstick House

There was a meeting of historians going on in town at this time with dignitaries so notable that the Cathedral was off-limits to tourists and so we could not enter it. The contrasts of architectural styles in Mainz is astounding. After World War II, concrete blocks were the fashion, but now both residents and visitors hate it. We saw a structure that looks like huge broken Venetian blinds but turned to be a design in slats of plastic.

The other side of the Matchbox House

It was called the Matchstick House, and the residents hate it. What is surprising is that the other side (the front) of the same building is composed of three beautiful examples of a more traditional style.

We saw a remarkable multi-splined sculpture from a Spanish artist who named it “Power of Life”. Teresa calls it “design” and not sculpture at all.

The Power of Life

We saw St. Martin’s Cathedral which was burned down the day it was completed. The tower itself has burned down seven times.  They have no business building anything called a Matchstick House.

A replica of Gutenberg’s printing press,.

We then visited the Gutenberg Museum which was really interesting. Before Johannes Gutenberg was ever interested in printing, he studied alloys with metallurgists and bell makers in Strasbourg, and then began the invention process for movable type. A local investor loaned him 800 guilders, which amounts to half $1 million today. But it was not enough, and he had to borrow 800 guilders more. Eventually he failed to repay the money on schedule, and in court he lost his establishment to his creditor and an apprentice. He was saved financially by being appointed courtier to a king who provided him with lodging and more than enough food, which he sold to make ends meet.

Here I am, printing.

There are several steps to making movable type. A punch of hard metal is carved with the image of the letter. It is then used to make a negative impression in a “matrix” of softer metal. The actual type is an alloy of tin, lead, and antimony which melts at only 300 Fahrenheit and yet is strong enough to withstand the printing process.

The finished product!

Each line of type is assembled in a composers stick which is then assembled into the galley which is the size of the page. If the page is to be multicolored each section of color is inked separately before it is assembled into the galley. Although our demonstrator used rolling inking pads, in the early days they used inking pads made of inflated dog skin because a dog skin has no pores to leak air.

Gutenberg’s columns of text are perfectly justified both left and right, which couldn’t be done if you simply had one version of the 25 different letters of type to work with. Gutenberg actually made 290 versions of the typefaces to handle the 25 characters. Gutenberg’s Bibles were printed only in black, but later, color was added. A rubricator added colored text, and an illuminator embellished the page with other colors and gold.

After the museum we decided to walk home exploring the town and do a little shopping. We were so surprised and disappointed to find that a souvenir Gutenberg plate was not available anywhere to add to our little collection at home. What a missed marketing opportunity for someone.

Finally the sun came out.  What a wonderful sensation that was!

St. Augustine Church

We found a wonderful little St. Augustine Church with not a single explanatory word in English. It was marvelous. I think the parishioners wanted no part of the tourist trade in their church.

Too soon it was time to find our way back to the boat.  We had no real idea where we were. We were able to find our way to the water because in Mainz the blue street signs run parallel to the river and the red signs are perpendicular. But when we got to the river there was no boat in sight. We were much farther along the river then we realized, so it was quite a walk.  We got back to the boat a couple of minutes late, but we were not the last to arrive.

The train to the Rudesheim wine cellar

The afternoon expedition was to Rudesheim and a wine tasting. We took a Disney-like train through town to the Ādolf Störzel wine cellar which was built in 1580. The town itself seemed rather modern but it had its older areas too. Our wine “explainer” was a comedian and an actor and put on a pretty good performance. We tasted three Rieslings.  They always start with the driest and end with a dessert wine. He said the first wine had had the taste of apple, pear, limes and cypress.

The Ādolf Störzel wine cellar

I’m a skeptic when it comes to the tastes people say a wine has, and I would like to see independent wine experts describe some wines and see if they come up with the same fruits and vegetables.  I would bet they won’t.

As we’ve heard before, 80% of the grapes grown here are Riesling grapes. We also learned that 15% are Müeller Tur Gau (phonetically) grapes and 5% are Pinot Noir. Their Pinot Noir has lower alcohol

The first wine

content and is paler than the typical Pinot Noir and is generally considered inferior. Wine that is left over from various operations including wine tasting, is turned into schnapps.

The second wine was sweeter with less acid and was bottled in 2011.

The second wine

2000 years ago Roman legionnaires arrived here and planted grapes to satisfy the requirement that soldiers must drink at least 1 liter per day for medical reasons. The grapes and wines the soldiers produced were not good at all. Then the French Cistercian monks arrived and introduced the Pinot Noir grape and wine which was a big improvement.  But the region came into its own when it was found that the topography, soil, and weather really suited the cultivation of the Riesling grape.

The third wine

The third wine was much sweeter with 60 g of sugar and was really a dessert wine. Cultivating grapes on the steep slopes here is much more expensive than on flat land. What can be done in three hours on level ground by one man operating a machine, takes eight pickers three days on the slopes. This wine had the name Spätelese which means late harvest. There’s a story about that. It seems that when the grapes were ready to pick they had to send for permission from the governing cleric. The long wait for permission angered the vintners. But what they found was that the 10 day wait made the wine much better than it would have been had they picked the grapes earlier.

Our wine “explainer”. Funny guy.

Our host also discussed ice wine, which is made from frozen grapes.  To make the wine it takes three consecutive nights at -7° C (19°F) , which typically happens only three times in a decade. The last time was in 1953-54 and 35 pickers went out at 4:30 AM to pick the grapes at -9° C. They produced 400 L (106 gallons) of ice wine from 1.8 acres of grapes which would normally have produced ten times that amount of wine. That’s why a half bottle of ice wine costs €60 ($77). In 1921, a bottle of ice wine sold for €27,000 ($34,5000).

During the wine tasting the rain came down in buckets, judging from the sound, but when the wine tasting was over the weather was clear and sunny. What timing! We then wandered through the storybook town of Rudesheim. I bought a geometric steel mobile with a motor to make it slowly spin.  I plan to hang it over our bar from a beam.  [UPDATE: I put it up when I arrived home and it's been spinning there ever since.]

Teresa and John on the sundeck

Back at the boat, Teresa and I bundled up, made hot chocolate, and headed to the sun deck for the little bit of sun that there was. It was a good place to be. When it was time, we headed for the lounge to listen to Dejean’s pitch for the evening in which he covered disembarkation procedures and tomorrow’s activities in Cologne.

Marcia’s birthday party

At dinner we celebrated Marcia’s birthday with a sparkling fountain cake, presents, and a song.

Then it was time for an evening visit to Rudescheim’s Music Cabinet Museum.

A Major music box

The first machine we saw was huge and simulates 19 instruments and was built between 1925 in 1929. It was wonderful to hear it play 12thSt. Rag, a song my mother used to play. We heard an 1877 Edison phonograph play “Que sera”. Another music box we saw originally sold for 15,500 marks, the cost of a countryside home today. Today its value is €300,000 ($383,400).

We saw a machine that includes six violins automatically played. The method was ingenious: The bow was a horizontal

An automatic violin machine

circle inside of which were placed the violins. Each violin was set up to play a single string and when that note was sounded it was simply moved against the rotating circular bow. Siegfried Randall who is now 77 was the collector and whose sons are now operating the business. There are 350 instruments in the collection 95% of which are working. It was an extraordinary collection and an interesting visit.

Then back to the boat for the evening

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