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Farewell, Borders June 5, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary, Technology.
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I had been wanting to write about this ever since news broke a few days ago but for whatever reason held off — maybe hoping that it wasn’t true or that it was a mistaken report.

Oh well.  There’s no use denying it anymore.  The last remaining nine Borders bookstores across Australia will close down over the next six to eight weeks.  The fate of the Angus & Robertson chain, also owned by the in-administration REDgroup, remains uncertain at this point.  The only good news is that its online bookstores will remain open.

I still remember the first time Borders opened up in Australia years and years ago.  I loved them.  They had the broadest range of books and I could spent literally hours and hours browsing from one end of the store the other.  It was perfect for people with short attention spans like me, who just want to read the back cover, maybe read a few pages, and move on if it doesn’t interest me.

When I was living in Cambridge (which had all the big booksellers such as Waterstones, WHSmith, Heffers, etc), I pretty much camped out at Borders.  Nothing to do?  Let’s go to Borders and read all afternoon!  Books, comics, manga, magazines, whatever.  It was better than any library.

But that was the problem.  People loved to browse Borders but not buy from them because their books were so bloody expensive, particularly in Australia (I’ll get to that in a sec).  If they were on super duper special, then maybe, you’d consider buying a book or two, but everybody knew that Borders was a place where you went to do your research, not the place you’d ultimately purchase the books from.

These days, especially, it’s all online.  Not just e-books but also paper books from places such as The Book Depository and Amazon.  Yes, if all things were equal, Australian consumers would no doubt want to purchase locally — but when prices were, excluding GST, 35% higher, or in many cases, 50% higher, financial considerations always trumped loyalty.

No wonder Borders struggled so much.  The stores tended to be in areas where the rent was ridiculous.  They required loads of staff and the wide range meant stacks of inventory.  Without competitive prices, they really had no chance.

Interestingly, the online chatter that has come out of the closures have been similar to my sentiments.  Most bemoan the loss of a terrific place to ‘browse’ books, but not much more than that.  Some were even glad that these evil big book chains which bully the independent booksellers have gotten their comeuppance.

Does this represent a fundamental shift in the publishing industry?  If supposedly mighty bookchains such as Borders are collapsing, it makes me wonder what the future holds for other chains such as Angus & Robertson and Dymocks, and to a lesser extent, Kinokuniya.

Is it finally time for the parallel importing restrictions to be lifted?  For those who don’t know, Australia has in place restrictions intended to protect local publishers and writers.  If an Australian holder of publishing rights to a particular title decides to publish it within 30 days of the book becoming available elsewhere in the world, then Australian booksellers are prohibited from importing the title from overseas.

A Productivity Commission report in 2009 recommended that these restrictions be lifted, partly because the bulk of the benefits stemming from the restrictions flowed to offshore publishers and authors, rather than local ones.  The recommendation was never acted upon because of campaigns from domestic publishers and authors, who also have very valid arguments.  Opening the already fragile Australian book industry to the rest of the world has potentially frightening consequences for everyone.

No easy answers, unfortunately.  I just hope the remaining bookchains in Australia have enough support to keep battling on.

Farewell, Borders.

1600 Words March 29, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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Source: sustain450.com.au

Just a quickie.

Yesterday, at long last, I commenced working on my new novel.  I know, I know, I haven’t even finished my old novel (stuck at around 110,000 words), but this one needs to take priority as it is a course project I must complete in the next few months.

So after a lengthy, difficult struggle and excessive planning (I always love to plan), I sat down and began to write (type).  Several hours, multiple breaks and countless procrastination sessions later, I had 1600 words.

A far cry from the 6000-8000 words Iused to pump out locked away in a room during the bitter winter of Cambridge, but I’ll take it considering how long it’s been since I last wrote fiction.

The best thing of all is that I thoroughly enjoyed the writing process.  It’s only a rough first draft at the moment, but I loved the feeling of getting the words in my mind on the page, even if I can never get it exactly right.

This begs the question — if I enjoy it so much, why don’t I write more?  Come on, start writing!

Full UK Review, Part VI: Final Thoughts August 7, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Novel, On Writing, Study.
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cambridge_university

Finally, the final post on my time in the UK.

I came to the UK to obtain a masters in law at Cambridge and I did it.  I also did a whole load of other things along the way.

Cambridge is a terrific university, but in some ways it’s just a façade, in the way that most of the other top universities are too.  Because of its name, it attracts the best students around the world, who fight tooth and nail to secure a spot and are willing to pay whatever exorbitant fees that are imposed.  And because of the premium it charges for its name, and its reputation, it attracts and employs the top lecturers.  But apart from that, it’s not all that different from most other universities.  Sure, the work is challenging, but it’s not like ‘normal’ students would find it impossible to handle.  The teaching is generally excellent, but there’s still the odd stinker.

The same can be said for the students.  There are always a couple of brain freaks, but most people were surprisingly normal and had lives.  No one studied all day or even most of the day, even if they act like they did.  We only had 8 hours a week for 8 weeks a term for 3 terms, with 5 week breaks in between.  It’s not the unattainable, other-worldly academic or intellectual dimension they would like you to think it is.

So for those who think that if they can get into a top university they’ll instantly become ‘smarter’ or learn things other people won’t, it’s not like that at all.  You pay your fees, sit through lectures, study, sit for exams, graduate.  That’s it.  Sure, the overall quality is higher and it can probably get you a better job and give you smarter friends, but it doesn’t make you any different.  Likewise, those who miss out on getting a place – it’s not the end of the world.  Wherever you go, it’s up to you how much you want to learn and how hard you want to work.  That’s life.

So how did I do?  I did reasonably well – not at the very top but in the top 3rd of the class.  Could I have done better?  I’m not sure.  I certainly worked as hard as I could have in the period leading up to the exams, but I kind of ran out of time a little as I spent so many weeks travelling before it (and I also wasted another week catching up on a topic I didn’t study for in the exam).  Oh, and all the other stuff I mentioned in the previous 5 posts didn’t free up more time either!  That said, I gave it my all and I wasn’t competing against stuffed chickens, so perhaps it was the best I could have done.

I suppose ultimately, my heart wasn’t fully into it like it should have been.  I guess that speaks volumes about what I want to do with my life going forward.  Given the current state of the economy, I’ll have no choice but to return to my old job.  However, I’m not going back to it with a glum outlook.  In some sadistic way I’m almost looking forward to it again.  Because this time, I’ll be prepared, and I’ll actually have other things to occupy my mind apart from work.  And if the economy picks up, I won’t mind looking for something in writing.  I don’t know how long it will take to make the transition but at least the option is there.  Writing makes me happy but I still need to pay the bills.

As for the novel, I’m going to keep at it.  I’ll have at least another month or so before returning to full time work, so if I catch fire again finishing the first draft is not outside the realms of possibility.  Then I can take my time rewriting and perfecting it, however long that takes.  In any case, I’m going to finish it.  And when I do, I’ll look back be thankful that it was these 9 months in the UK that gave me the opportunity to start it all.

Full UK Review, Part I: Overview/Travel July 11, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Travel.
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UK

[Note: I started this post on my final night in Cambridge and ended up with only a brief summary, but didn’t get to flesh it out until I was on the plane – here it is in full, split into parts]

Overview

The last 9 months of my life has been like a dream. My wife and I put our jobs on hold to come to the UK so I could pursue my masters in law at the University of Cambridge. At the time, I was at a crossroads in my life. I had worked for 3 years as a lawyer, but I wasn’t particularly happy, and I was constantly more stressed than necessary. There was also this dream of completing my first novel (my shitty horror novella more than 10 years ago doesn’t count), but I wasn’t sure how it fit into the grand scheme of things. All I knew was that I needed a break.

And so, the days came and went with frightening speed. We lived a simple but blissful life- travelled all around Europe, watched a lot of movies and TV shows we didn’t have time to watch before, read the odd book (other than textbooks), and I poured hours into my first serious effort at completing my fantasy novel. I even started this blog and it soon became a mini-obsession. Oh, and I studied occasionally too.

Yesterday, as my wife and I made that final bike ride down to my College to hand back the keys, donate our bikes and finally ‘sign out’ of Cambridge, these wonderful times came flooding back to me. Sure, the UK can be bloody awful sometimes. A lot of the time, actually. Prices can be criminal, especially dining out. Efficiency is definitely not a strength here (you get shocked how ‘behind’ this supposedly ‘advanced’ country is), and it can get ridiculously cold in the winter; and don’t even get me started on the schizophrenic weather and the Tube in London. But as I signed my name on college paper, it hit me that I was going to miss this place.

And fittingly, as we walked out of my college for the very last time, rain started bucketing down. It marked the end of 9 of the best months of my life (though I also rate my 6 months in Japan as right up there!).

Okay. Now I got the corny stuff out of the way, it’s time to review what the heck I did with my time in the UK. Here goes: visited 15 countries and 38 cities/towns/villages/islands, watched 79 movies and 17 seasons of 11 TV series, read 9 novels and 1 non-fiction book + 1 audio book, wrote 100,000+ words on novel and 170 blog posts…oh, and obtained ONE masters level law degree.

Travel

Visited 15 countries and 38 cities, towns, villages and islands around Europe.  For the full list of places and a round-up of the best and worst, see my Ultimate European Adventure Round-Up.

Ultimate European Adventure Round-Up! July 10, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

One of the main reasons I decided to come to the UK to study (rather than say the US) was so I could get to visit and travel around Europe (something I had not done before but had been a life-long dream).

I have done a couple of round-up posts before after long trips (see ‘My European Adventure Round-Up’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Adventure Round-Up’), but since I have left Europe now, I thought it would be good to consolidate all the places I’ve visited over the last 9 months and deliver my final judgment.

Here are the places I visited:

(a) England – London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, Salisbury, Avebury
(b) Italy – Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa
(c) Vatican City (technically a country and a city)
(d) Greece – Athens, Santorini, Delphi, Arachova, Hydra, Poros, Aegina, Milos, Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio
(e) Ireland – Dublin
(f) France – Paris
(g) Belgium – Brussels, Bruges
(h) Netherlands – Amsterdam
(i) Spain – Barcelona
(j) Germany – Munich, Berlin, Fussen (Neuschwanstein), Freiburg (Black Forest)
(k) Switzerland – Basel, Lucerne
(l) Sweden – Stockholm
(m) Denmark – Copenhagen
(n) Austria – Vienna
(o) Czech Republic – Prague

[Note: I didn’t count Frankfurt in Germany as I only stopped there for transit (twice) but did exit the airport]

108

In Bruges

Favourite places:

In terms of countries I would vote: (1) Greece; (2) Italy; (3) Germany.

Greece is simply incredible with its plethora of well-preserved archaeological sites and mythology, but is also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited with its marvelous islands and beaches. Italy is similar in some respects, and gets extra marks for the number of attractions it has on offer (and its proximity to the Vatican). Germany, on the other hand, is very underrated, with wonderful, historically rich cities such as Munich and Berlin as well as terrific attractions such as the Black Forest, Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp.

Individual places are too hard to vote on as each location has its own flavour and strengths. Further, some places are big while others are small, and the differing lengths of time I stayed in each place may play a decisive role. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges sometimes.

However, if someone held a gun to my head I would probably pick: (1) Santorini; (2) Rome; (3) Athens; (4) Paris; (5) Amsterdam; (6) Venice; (7) Munich; (8) Stockholm – though the order might not always be the same.

Santorini

Santorini was my favourite

Least favourite places

No prizes for guessing that Prague was my least favourite city (see my rant here) but at least I can say that I may have just had some bad luck with my experiences and that I didn’t spend enough time there. Now London, on the other hand, has no excuses.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with London because I visited the place at least a dozen times during my 9 month stay. There are lots of things to do and see there, and the British Museum is a must-visit, but the exorbitant prices, poor service (they just don’t care) and the absolute filth and over-crowdedness just about everywhere (and especially in the Tube) would drive me insane if I lived there!

Prague Castle From Afar

Prague Castle from afar


Most/Least Expensive

Just about all of Europe is expensive compared to where I come from. It got to a point where if I tried to convert the currency I would probably just start sobbing uncontrollably.

But in any case, the ones that stood out for me were obviously London, Switzerland (as a whole), and in particular the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Cheapest was definitely Prague, but I think Italy was not too unreasonable. In Greece it depended on where you went (the islands, for example, were relatively more expensive compared to Athens).
Best/Worst Food

Another tough one because I probably didn’t get to sample the best/worst food each place had to offer. Hence I’ll just try to recall the best foods I can remember.

Number 1 has to be the calzones we had in Barcelona. Damn they were bloody good (Can Conesa at Jaume I). Number 2, the hotdogs (from portable street vendors) and ice cream we had in Copenhagen (see more at this post). Number 3, the some of the pizzas we had in Italy.

Copenhagen Marble Church

Copenhagen's Marble Church

As for the worst, this is probably a little unfair because I ate there quite a bit, but London has some extraordinarily bad food (though to be fair, as well as good food), but you just don’t expect something so bad for the prices that you pay.

Most Romantic

Easy top 3: (1) Venice; (2) Santorini; (3) Paris. Three very different places with different charms, but all great for a romantic weekend or getaway.

Venice

Most Romantic: Venice

Top 15 Attractions

This is probably the toughest of them all. My list started with 5, then 10, then 15, then got to 20 (and could have gone to 25) before I cut it back to 15.

In the end, I decided just to go with gut instinct on this one. Note that while Santorini is, as a whole, one of the best places I visited, it’s not really an ‘attraction’ per se. Also important to note is that I love archaeological sites, museums and memorials, so keep that in mind when you read on.

Counting down:

15. Dachau Concentration Camp (in Dachau, near Munich) – a highly depressing place to visit but also one of the most important and informative. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable but it’s one of those places you’d be glad to have experienced.

Dachau

Depressing but worthwhile: Dachau

14. Rosenborg Castle (in Copenhagen) – one of those unexpected gems with a neat little castle, beautiful gardens and a well-managed sea of flowers. A great place to have a picnic or just to chill out for a couple of hours.

13. La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona) – this freakish, still-under-construction piece of art created by Gaudi is either loved or hated. But either way, it’s hard to keep your eyes off it.

12. Roman Baths Museum (Bath, UK) – the site of the ancient Roman Baths, where much of it is still wonderfully preserved. I went there twice and I can tell you that it has been newly renovated and has improved on its already exceptional audio guide.

11. Nea Kameni (Santorini, Greece) – Fira and Oia are beautiful, and the Red and Black beaches are spectacular, but if I had to pick an ‘attraction’ from Santorini, the volcanic island of Nea Kameni is it! Take a 90 minute walk up to the top and back – even in the heat it is well worth the experience of seeing the destructive power of the volcano up close.

Santorini Volcano 2

Nea Kameni in Santorini

10. Tivoli (Copenhagen) – the famous theme park has a splendid carnival atmosphere. The entrance fee does not cover the rides, but you don’t need to go on a single one to enjoy the place, especially when it gets dark and the coloured lights illuminate the fairground. Magical!

9. The British Museum (London) – if nothing, London has tremendous free attractions, and they don’t get much better than the enormous British Museum. If you race through it you can probably see it all in half a day, but to truly appreciate how much priceless stuff the Brits stole from just about every other culture in the world, you’ll need at least a full day, if not 2 or 3.

8. Anne Frank House (Amsterdam) – Amsterdam may be best known for its weed and girls, but the highlight for me was the Anne Frank House, in which you can get to see where the legendary Anne Frank and her family once hid from the Nazis. Yes it can be depressing at times, but it is also quite uplifting too to read Anne’s touching words and see just what a magnificent and insightful writer she was. One can only imagine how many great writers must have perished in the Holocaust.

7. Vasa Museum (Stockholm) – the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage and was not salvaged until 333 years later. Today it forms the centerpiece of the exquisite Vasa Museum, one of the most unusual museums I’ve ever been too. I loved how you could get a different view of the Vasa at each level of the museum, from the bottom all the way to the top.

6. Neuschwanstein Castle(Fussen, Germany) – no wonder this is the number 1 attraction in Germany and has been for so long. It’s the type of place you can go a couple of times during different seasons, because I hear it’s a different feel with and without the snow (I went with a bit of snow during early Spring). The walk up to the castle itself is just magical, and the inside is worth a look too.

Neuschwanstein 009

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

5. The Acropolis (Athens) – I would have never thought that I’d rank a single monument so high, but the Acropolis has captivated my imagination ever since I was a child, and seeing it up close in person at last fulfilled a life-long dream. Even with the scaffolding along the sides and back it still takes the breath away. Now with the Acropolis Museum opened it will be even better.

4. The Louvre (Paris) – the best art museum, one of those humongous places that can take days to full appreciate. With limited time, I only got to see the main masterpieces (the most high-profile ones, at least – and there were many), so I look forward to going back there someday and seeing the rest.

3. Vatican City (Vatican City) – (I’m calling it an ‘attraction’ because it is small enough) regardless of your religion, Vatican City is one of those places that you just need to see, even if it’s just for the amazing artworks painted on almost every empty space on the inside. St Peter’s Square and St Peter’s Basilica are also some of the amazing places within the world’s smallest country that left my jaw ajar many times.

2. Palatine Hill (Rome) – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum is one of the most fantastic I’ve ever seen. Just use a bit of imagination and thousands of years of history will unfold before your eyes! Make sure you head up to the top around the outside wall to get a full view of the site.

1. Archaeological Site of Delphi (Delphi, Greece) – the centre of the world, up in the mountains, where the oracle once sat – the enormous, well-preserved archaeological site of Delphi is a remarkable place that is well worth the journey from Athens (if that is where you’re staying). There’s a lot to see and absorb and enjoy, so take your time and really use your mind to envisage what it was like 3,500 years ago in Ancient Greece.

Delphi 1

Delphi Archaeological Site is No. 1

Well, that’s it. I’ll probably disagree with a lot of what I just wrote the next time I look at it, but right now, these are my thoughts.

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