Thursday, March 23, 2006

Fall is definitely coming here. There are still warm sunny days, but some of the leaves are already changing and I can't ever leave the house without a jacket for when the wind picks up. Recently, the gray, misty weather has set in as promised, and we were treated to the dramatic sight of the clouds draping down over the bordering hills and slowly closing in to cover the city in spitting, delicate rain. Fortunately, the wind has been calm enough that my umbrella has only been blown inside-out twice so far. I can see why people don't use them much here.

Although rain seems to threaten frequently, we haven't yet developed the instincts to tell us if those dark, low-hanging clouds are actually going to pour on us (as we've experienced on a couple occasions) or just hang up there happily threatening all day without ever releasing a drop. The weather reports are consistently vague each day, with the whole operatic production in several movements we witness crossing the sky every day being summed up by one of the following adjectives: "occasional showers", "cloudy", "freshening in the afternoon" or simply "fine". The highs and lows they announce also rarely have bearing in reality. Watching our fellow citizens for clues doesn't help much. People here never seem to react to the changing conditions or even look up worriedly at the sky, despite its sometimes ominous appearance. We've witnessed many instances when half the passersby are wearing windbreakers and wool wraps, and the other half are in flip-flops and tank tops, all seeming perfectly comfortable!

Wellington is extremely hilly and the street maps never show the topography, so what looks like it will be right down the street can often be several hundred feet straight above you, or across a valley and back up again, for example. It makes getting around on foot a bit of an adventure. The really unique thing is all the pedestrian shortcuts that are built into the hills. They usually aren't on the maps either, but they are so common, that you can pretty much be sure if you are heading towards what looks like a dead end for cars, you will find a set of steps cutting between the houses in a narrow alleyway at the end of it, leading you up to the next terrace. Some of the shortcuts turn out to be fantastic little nature walks, with overhanging, mossy plants and steep switchbacks. One minute you're in the city and the next you're deep inside the forest. And then you pop out the other side on a little suburban street again. Many lucky homeowners have houses that can only be reached by these little hidden walkways -- you can't drive up to them at all. The wealthier folks have installed little automated trolley tracks that carry a few bags of groceries up the incline to their front doors for them.

Recently, we went for a long walk up into the "Town Belt" which is the extensive greenspace buffer surrounding the central city built-in by the original settlers and city planners. We started out at "Central Park" which, unlike its namesake is located in Brooklyn (yes, there is a Brooklyn, NZ) and it is very small. Wellington is known for its characteristic pine-covered hills surrounding the central city and harbor. It surprised me to learn that although these beautiful trees are mostly over a hundred years old, they are far from being native forest. The majority of trees are species imported from Monterey, California (chosen for their ability to adapt to the harsh seaside conditions) and planted during a massive beautification campaign at the end of the 19th century. Prior to that time, the Town Belt was mainly used for grazing sheep and cattle, and had degenerated into a band of brown, muddy, bare hills that largely detracted from the reputation of the city. In the valleys between the pines are dense, moist thickets filled with one of New Zealand's most unique plants: tree ferns. We mistook these fantastic plants for palm trees for weeks after arriving, and thought it strange that such a tropical plant could survive so far south.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The University

I've just finished my 3rd week of classes and I'm starting to get the hang of this again (it's been 5 years since I was a full-time student). The school's website states: "The Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) programme sets you on course to organise the knowledge content of the twenty-first century as a Librarian, Information Manager, Knowledge Manager, Website Content Manager, or Intranet Manager."

I picked VUW based on their committment to teaching new technology as it applies to the field of Library Science. Technology is central to the emerging role of Librarians, as I see it. Already we've touched on some fundemental concepts that provide the framework for the web and electronic cataloging systems such as XML and HTML. As it turns out the same technology that encodes and dispalys webpages has been used for over a decade with electronic cataloging systems. To put this concept into one word I'd say it's interoperability.

(A picture of the Library and Information Management building)

To avoid the redundancy of each and every library creating its own catalog entry for every item (some may be unique, but the vast majority of materials exist in duplicate versions all over) a system of standards was needed. At the most basic level, a system of standards is needed to display a webpage on my computer screen and your screen in the same way. The markup languages like SGML, XML, HTML provide these frameworks for interoperability between systems. Now friends, thos of you who know better than I about this subject: hush! I'm only a beginner. I'd never even heard of XML before today.

This is the view from the library (and much of the campus). Our current apartment is just off the street seen in the very middle of image on the far right side (the right most window pane runs right over the actual building, you might have to click on the image to enlarge).

Don't worry though, we're also learning good old fashion reference techniques like open, neutral and closed questioning. My next big assignment is to submit a video taped reference interview of 7 minutes. No, this does not mean find the answer questions like "what is the height of Mt Everest," or even "what is the gestation period of an elephant." It's more like guiding someone through the research neccessary to analyse conflicts in the Middle East during the second half of the 20th century. The first part, though, is getting at the question. Studies show that well over half the reference questions requiring in depth research are not formulated sufficiently to begin research. In other words, someone walks up and says, "I'm looking for your newspapers." Which one? "I'm not sure." Are you looking for an article? "Maybe, I heard of a prominent local businessman who is being criticised for management practices." Do you know the company he works for? "No." You get the picture. Oh, and we're being taught to smile, show friendly, open posture and body language and to use an encouraging tone of voice to engender communication between the patron and the librarian.

Here's a look at a lecture hall that we use frequently--it's an old science room, but I like all the natural wood (the seats are terrible though).

I only have 4 classes a week, 2 hours apiece, 2 on Tuesday and 2 on Wednesday. That's nothing, you might say. Except that as a general rule we should be spending 10-12 hours a week for each course. The routine is this: we spend two hours in class going over material, we're assigned about 50-75 pages a week in readings, per class, and there is generally an assignment submission due each week. I've got about 6 or 7 major submissions for the semester (half of these are papers). The good news is that we don't have final exams in the course. Our assessment is based only on the projects and papers. What this means is that during the last few weeks of the semester when most are studying for exams... we're finished. I've got a month break coming up in June (that's winter, by the way).

In Minnesota you've got tunnels and skyways to protect people from the cold. Here in Wellington we've got a near-continous series of awnings along many of the major streets. On campus... well, the main quad is almost completely covered from the rain. This street (below), which cuts through the center of campus, is not covered and you can see people crowding on buses getting all wet. When it's raining the public transit sees a huge increase in riders.

The course is designed for distance learning. All of our readings (aside from a few texts) are PDF files. Each class issued a CD ROM which acts like a web page. Each week's content is called a "module" and we read through an outline of the content written by the professor which relates to the assigned readings. It's a nice arrangement except that I had a hard time adjusting to so much reading on the screen. A lot of students print out each week's readings (at 15c a page) but I felt like that was wasteful (of money and trees).
So here I am at home, hard at work studying and reading my texts on a screen.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Foreign Cars

I'm back in the land of strange, small cars. Thank God! It's partly import laws, marketing stategies and partly the US perception that these tiny cars can't be safe of roadways filled with giant SUVs (which is true). Too bad, though, these are the coolest little automobiles I've ever seen. They resemble little sneakers.

Most of the micro cars have tiny, 1 litre engines, so they're not sporty. But given how small the engine is, they get great gas mileage. And since you can't drive over 60 m/p/h in New Zealand, it's not much of a problem.

Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen, all sell miniature cars here (very few, if any, are available in North America). Toyota's Yaris is a popular one.

These are some of the more common cars seen on the streets around Wellington. There are also plenty of mini-trucks or utility vehicles that are quite something as well. Take this yellow van for instance: an odd duck, but very likable, I'd say. More than anything, I'm just happy to see some different cars driving down the road. You might say I'd spent too much time in traffic in Minneapolis, staring at other cars--and that's true--but as common as cars are, why not enjoy looking at them?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Abel Tasman National Forest, South Island, March 6-9, 2006

The Abel Tasman is one of New Zealand’s most visited National Parks. A well-traveled hiking trail runs along the coast for about 20 miles, winding in and out of forests, crossing beaches and ridge lines. Another popular method of travel through the park is by sea kayak.

Much of the forest, or bush, in the park is dense and impenetrable. Exploration beyond the well-trodden trails is difficult; spiny plants and dangerously steep slopes bar the way. The hiking trail does stop at many beaches but some locations are only accessible by water. Another benefit of visiting the park by kayak is that it’s the only way to see the intricate shoreline with its wind-carved cliff faces and rocky outcrops that descend into clear blue water.

Traveling by boat allowed us to see fur seals up close. They were hunted to near-extinction on the mainland and now reside on a few protected islands. The seals behave much like dogs; lying about in the sun, playing in the water with one another and competing for the best rocks to occupy.

We witnessed a steady stream of backpackers and tourists during our few days in the park. Anchorage bay, one of the largest campsites, was full with around 75 campers on our first night. The site has flushable toilets, a cooking area (sinks and counter space), and one source of filtered, drinking water. These amenities make for a very comfortable camping experience—if that’s what you're after. Camping is restricted to campground and all occupants must be pre-registered ($10/night). Every tent is checked each night to be sure everyone has their ticket.

Unlike the Boundary Water Canoe and Wilderness area in northern Minnesota, the Abel Tasman is quite busy. Multiple kayak groups are traveling at any one time and these guided trips are supported by water taxis--motorized boats that deliver people and supplies to various locations up and down the coast. In addition, there are privately owned motor boats running, carrying on as motor boats do, buzzing about and occasionally injuring penguins or other marine life.

As beautiful as it is, I felt the wilderness was slipping away. Has been for awhile, I guess, with native species disappearing and disappeared. Bye Moa!.. I'm sad we never got to meet. I hope to see your little cousin Kiwi someday soon.

You can see the rest of our pictures as a slideshow or as photos.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Let me start out by saying...It is hard to imagine how else it could be possible to physically distance ourselves so far from our previous home and find ourselves in such a generally familiar environment. What I mean is, all of our concepts of how thngs ought to work and fit together -- how to navigate the city, what kind of food we can expect to find, what types of stores sell what types of things, what we can do to entertain ourselves -- are as similar to what we are used to as if we had just moved across the country, not over the Pacific Ocean to a new hemisphere. Many things are familiar to us from our time in Europe (such as the toilets that have both a flush and a half-flush option to conserve water; the little blue arrrows that point out curbs to drivers and the red-encircled kilometer speed limits; the large, safe public spaces and generally bustling foot traffic in the city). But many more things that I expected are familiar from the U.S., perhaps most noticeably people's attitudes (informal, frequently joking, irreverent, outgoing) and the widespread consumerism that enfolds us. I've found that if the actual brand or product I am used to buying isn't in the store (and quite a few American items are) then a Kiwi-made brand that fulfills exactly the same niche will be right where I look for it. My basic, daily desires can continue to operate along the old patterns. Of course, I find plenty of bonuses here and there (like my new love for fresh feijoa juice, flat white coffees and kumara). People here in Wellington obviously value high-quality things, in the realms of food, clothes, cars, art, design, living space, and they seem to willing to work to earn to spend to live well.

(Top photo shows me in our new apartment)