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Chronicles Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "araken" journal:

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December 19th, 2013
11:06 pm

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Book List
31. The Mirror of Her Dreams by Stephen Donaldson
32. A Man Rides Through by Stephen Donaldson
Reread of an immense two-volume Donaldson novel I first read in middle school. It's a portal story, in many ways a contrast with Donaldson's more popular Thomas Covenant books. Terisa Morgan, a shy, passive young woman with a rich, emotionally abusive father, finds her life changed forever when a handsome but bumbling Apt named Geraden stumbles out of the reflection of one of the many mirrors in her Manhattan apartment. His land of Mordant, he tells her, is in desperate need of a Champion to save it. He convinces her to come with him back through the mirror. Geraden's masters, the Imagers (who wield magic based on mirrors) berate him -- the Champion he was sent to find is an alien warrior armed with space armor and laser guns -- and instead he's brought back a "mere" woman. Yet meek Terisa tries to understand Mordant -- beset by hostile armies from without, dark magic from within, a king slowly slipping into dementia, and countless scheming factions. Whereas Thomas Covenant, faced with the Land, chooses to doubt it, Terisa instead doubts her own existence, and begins to wonder if her time in Manhattan was ever real.

Both Terisa and Geraden must learn to trust each other, and discover their own power, if they are to meet Mordant's Need. Terisa is on occasion irritating -- there's a love triangle in which one contestant is so obviously icky-bad that it's painful to watch her moon over him -- but she's not as passive as I remembered her. She's constantly thinking, asking questions, trying to understand, sometimes making terrible mistakes, but always trying to do the right thing. There's a rich supporting cast; the women, all quite different from each other in how they think and try to achieve their ends, are developed well, as are Geraden, Joyce, and Lebbick from the men.

As with all Donaldson novels, these books are about hurt, damaged people who must choose between protective powerlessness and self-loathing on the one hand, and taking responsibility for defending hope and beauty even in the face of near-certain failure on the other. The books are sometimes dark but the writing's always beautiful, and I'm glad I reread them.

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10:42 pm

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Book List
27. The Lost Fleet: Courageous by Jack Campbell
28. The Lost Fleet: Valiant by Jack Campbell
29. The Lost Fleet: Relentless by Jack Campbell
30. The Lost Fleet: Victorious by Jack Campbell

These were the second half of a six-book space opera series I began reading several years ago, then set aside until recently.(Book one is "Dauntless") They're loosely based on Xenophon's Anabasis, or March Upcountry. Anabasis is an ancient Greek autobiographical novel about an army whose top officers are all slain in a sneak attack, and whose men must then do a long overland retreat from Persia back to Greece.

Similarly, this series is about the efforts of a fleet of ships to return to their home space after their devastating defeat. In this they're led by Captain John Geary, who fought in the first battle of the war, ejected into an escape pod, only to be found a century later by ships from his star nation's fleet. In the intervening century, his heroic last stand has become the stuff of legend. Some factions within the fleet think he's a savior sent by the spirits of their ancestors. Some fear him (or want to suck up to him) as a potential dictator. And some think he's a coward and a fraud. So with enemies surrounding him, and lots of enemy fleets chasing him, Geary must find a way to get all his people home, for information stored on his flagship just might be the key to ending the war for good.

These books are formulaic but fun, with well-depicted, exciting space battles but often flat characters. They worked really well as audiobooks going to and from my girlfriend in TN, since I could work through an entire novel on a round trip. I stopped at the end of this series; there are two sequel series I might read eventually, but for now this is enough.

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July 20th, 2013
08:16 pm

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Book List
Two atypical reads this time, plus a science fiction novel:

24. Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. I've been slowly working my way through this one on audiobook off and on for a couple of years. It's a quite dry survey of economics, written at a layman's level and told from a distinctly conservative slant. I finally started making headway in it while stuck in Los Angeles traffic a few weeks ago and was able to finish it. Despite it's dryness, it's actually pretty good about conveying some fairly complex subject matter understandably, such as comparative advantage and how international trade works. Of course, coming from such a free market perspective, it cogently points out cases where government meddling in free markets is counterproductive, and ways in which government's incentives are sometimes misaligned with the economy as a whole. But because of his bias, Sowell neglects to bring up obvious examples where individuals within a corporation, or a corporation as a whole, might have incentives which are similarly misaligned, and which markets don't fully check. He does concede that monopolies and environmental externalities are valid reasons for government regulation, but tries to minimize them. While my own biases are towards freer markets whenever possible and practicable, I'd much rather have seen Sowell try to grapple with his opponents' strongest arguments.

25. Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson.
This is the third and final volume of Wilson's Spin trilogy. The first volume is among the best science fiction novels I've ever read--up there with the Hyperion Cantos and Beggars in Spain--combining the sense of wonder of hard SF and the in-depth characterization and social worldbuilding of soft SF. The second volume, Axis was fine on its own merits, but a huge let-down from Spin. Vortex is somewhere in the middle -- not on my all-time best list, but probably the best science fiction novel I've read this year. Like Spin, it's got two narratives greatly separated by time, but unlike Spin they mostly follow different characters and are in different sub-genres. One story, about a Houston social worker who encounters a mentally disabled young man who may have seen too much, has very little speculative elements in it, despite being set in the aftermath of the Spin. The second acts as a sequel to Axis, showing Turk Findley's odyssey through the strange societies far-future humanity has created, and revealing the ultimate nature of the Hypotheticals who have been meddling in human affairs. Start with Spin, but this series is definitely worth reading.

26. The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian. Arrian was a Greek aristocrat writing during the second century CE. As such, he's almost twice as far from Alexander the Great in time as we are from George Washington. Yet Arrian has an advantage that no modern historian has: he had read the histories written by eyewitnesses to Alexander's conquests, including that of Ptolemy, the general who later gained control of the Egyptian part of the Alexandrian empire, and which ruled Egypt until Cleopatra. Ptolemy's history, alas, did not survive to the modern day; it would have been in the Great Library of Alexandria, had it survived. (Don't get me started...)

Arrian's account alternates between dry and exciting. Arrian was a military man, as was Ptolemy, and so while there are some good anecdotes about Alexander as a person, most of this is a military history. Some of the battles are vivid--Alexander fought in the vanguard and that makes for great action scenes -- but others all sound the same, and it's easy to lose track of just which hill tribe he's fighting this week. In addition to the depictions of his military brilliance, it's clear just how good Alexander was at inspiring his troops and getting men to do what he wanted them to. Even in the most famous case of insubordination, when his men refused to go further into India, Alexander gets what he wants: he insists they go back by a different route than they came, which just happens to mean he gets to keep conquering people all the way home!

It wasn't exactly an easy read, but I'm glad I read it, and I regretted that he didn't keep going into the Successor Wars.

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June 16th, 2013
04:12 pm

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Book List
20. The Patriot Witch by CC Finlay.
The start of a trilogy of alternate histories in which witches and warlocks are participating on both sides of the Revolutionary War. This started strong, as we follow Procter Brown, a young minuteman who hides his untrained magical nature, through the battle of Lexington and Concord. At this point I assumed we'd be following the course of the Revolution, but Procter then spends the second act of the novel on something else, which made the middle drag, though the third act and ending was fairly strong.

21. Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith. Audiobooks are wonderful for big thick biographies, and so are long road trips. I listened to the first half of this one going back and forth to see Amy in Clarksville. While there's perhaps a little too much detail of Eisenhower's rise through the ranks, Smith gives a good account of Eisenhower's strengths and weaknesses as a general (he was a mediocre battlefield commander but excellent at managing generals and dealing with politicians) and of his presidential administration.

22. Saving Italy by Robert Edsel. This is a non-fiction book about art historians fighting Nazis. During World War II, the Allies had officers called "monuments men" whose charge was to safeguard the cultural treasures of Italy from both Nazis (who had a bad habit of stealing art "for its protection") and Allied bombing. They would identify no-bombing zones and inspect the damage in newly liberated territory. At times Edsel goes off on tangents (such as several chapters devoted to an SS general's conspiracy to surrender the German armies in Italy), but this shed light on a part of history I was unaware of. It made me appreciate the beauty I'd seen in Florence more, and regret the destruction of bridges and buildings I never knew existed.

23. Battle by Michelle West. This is the latest novel in Michelle West's House War series, but if you don't already read West, you should start at The Hidden City. (And if you like Robert Jordan, you should: their strengths and weaknesses are very similar.)

Jewel Markess is the Terafin now, the undisputed leader of one of the greatest noble houses in the Empire. But her magical gifts are manifesting too strongly, and while her intentions are pure, the Twin Kings wonder if they can let anyone with her degree of power live. But with one battle against the demon Kialli barely won and a much greater one inevitable in the years to come, can they afford to destroy the one woman who might save their Empire?

I enjoyed this novel, and it was good to see some long-hidden secrets revealed, but it's the first half of a split novel and it shows. Much could be cut and not seem to harm the whole. But I eagerly look forward to the next book, which will bring a close to this phase of the story.

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June 1st, 2013
11:01 am

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Geeky World Tour - Edinburgh
In Which I Fly, and the Wind Follows Me

I arrived at the Prague airport too early -- turns out that they don't open their checkin counters until an hour or so before the flight. At this point I discovered EasyJet's bizarre "one carry-on" policy, where, unlike every other airline, they count a purse or camera-bag as a full-fledged piece of luggage, so I couldn't take on both my backpack and camera bag. Luckily, my camera-bag fit in my backpack--barely.

On the good side, my flight was apparently EasyJet's first service from Prague to Edinburgh, so the Prague airport had set out a buffet of light refreshments in the gate area. We took off on time, and the views of the Scottish Highlands in the distance and Edinburgh below us as we landed were breathtaking. Mom's flight had arrived an hour or two before mine, so she was waiting for me at baggage claim.

This time, my luggage followed me fine.

We were in Edinburgh as a "redo" for a trip we'd taken in 2009. It was my first trip abroad, and I was trying to cram London, Greenwich, Windsor, Stratford-on-Avon, York, Edinburgh, and St Andrews into two weeks. I'd given Edinburgh only a weekend, and it wasn't nearly enough. It had been "the city that got away" for us ever since.

We took Edinburgh's surprisingly affordable airport bus (6 pounds to go from the airport to city center and back!) to get nearer to our hotel. At that point, we should have just taken a cab to the hotel, but we elected to walk, dragging our luggage behind us. Prague had been blustery, but the wind in Edinburgh was a near-constant pulsating gust.

It wouldn't have been that bad if we hadn't gotten lost -- Edinburgh maps are tricky because the Edinburgh street grid is three-dimensional; two of the major north-south streets are elevated so they don't actually connect to most of their cross streets.

We checked into our hotel then headed back up to the Royal Mile to find somewhere to eat. We were too hungry to be picky, so we stepped into an Italian restaurant not expecting much, but it turned out to have wonderful meatballs.

Nearby the restaurant was St Giles Cathedral; despite the name, it's most famous for its role in the founding of Presbyterianism. (The word "cathedral" refers to the "cathedra", or bishop's throne; Presbyterianism expressly rejects the concept of a bishop.) John Knox preached here, and a century later when Charles I ordered the Anglican Book of Common Prayer preached from this pulpit, a riot broke out that started the Scottish companion to the English Civil War. The church was lovely, and I wished Amy were with us; she's Presbyterian and it would have been interesting to see it through her eyes.

By this time it was mid-afternoon, and most places in Edinburgh close early during the winter months. Fortunately, I'd learned in my readings that the Scottish National Gallery stays open until 7 PM on Thursdays, and like its cousin in London is free. So we spent a pleasant several hours browsing through their collection. A few of the galleries were closed for renovation, but as a consolation the museum had arranged a special exhibition of Rodin's "The Kiss", which was impressive. The collection was mostly of English and Scottish artists, who both tend to be upstaged by their more famous Continental counterparts, but they were beautiful, especially the Scottish faery paintings, which have been a huge influence on fantasy cover art.

We had a late dinner at a pan-Asian place near the hotel, then turned in. It was great to be back and to spend time with Mom--now if only the wind would give us a break. The weather forecasts weren't promising.

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May 27th, 2013
11:04 am

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Geeky World Tour - Dresden
In Which I See A City No Longer In Ruins

I always like to take a daytrip at some point in a vacation. Amy and I had looked at the country castles surrounding Prague, but found that short March opening times and inconvenient train schedules made them not-worth-it, especially since it would be too cold (for me) to hike through their surrounding countryside.

At that point in the planning, I realized that Prague is very close to the German border, and that Dresden is only a two hour train ride away. Dresden is the capital of the German state of Saxony, which was formerly an electorate of the Holy Roman Empire. Like Munich, which I saw last year, it has palaces and cathedrals and the accoutrements of a national capital, though it no longer is.

There's only one problem: Dresden was largely destroyed in an Allied bombing campaign near the end of World War II. It was a major industrial center, and given that the Luftwaffe destroyed the Cathedral of Coventry in the Battle of Britain, and was deliberately trying to destroy St Paul's in London (and came very close to succeeding), the RAF wasn't feeling inclined to mercy. Most, but not all, of what you see in Dresden is restored or rebuilt since the war.

The train ride from Prague was gorgeous. The day was overcast, but the northwestern corner of the Czech Republic we were traveling through was still lovely. The track followed the course of the Elbe, and we passed picturesque villages with each curve. I kept one hand on my Kindle to read a David Weber novel, and the other on my DSLR to take pictures. (Most of which, alas, didn't come out well. Silly smudged window.)

Unlike Prague, which still shows signs of its communist past in the ugly apartment buildings in its suburbs, Dresden feels like a vibrant, modern city, but definitely a German one. Everything new is made of clean, cold straight lines, and even the old buildings are all angles. The train station is situated near an outdoor mall, and we walked through it on the way to the historic center, stopping only to pick up some euros from a Deutsche Bank, which proved more challenging than we expected.

Our first stop was to the rebuilt Catholic Cathedral, which is on the Elbe riverfront across from the town hall. We entered quietly, as a midday service was in progress, and the choir sang its praises sweetly up to the vaulted ceilings and beyond. The place felt different than most cathedrals I've been in: brighter and simpler, but breathtaking. From there we had a quick lunch (I had wienerschnitzel) and went to Dresden Castle (the Residenzschloss), the main reason for our coming to Dresden.

We had a timed ticket for the Old Green Vault, the treasure rooms of Augustus the Strong. This is a carefully choreographed succession of rooms that Augustus used to take visiting ambassadors and nobles through to show off his wealth and power. Each room has a theme--for example, amber, or gemstones, or bronzework. The pace of opulence is finely choreographed, with two obvious climaxes. While I've seen more wealth in one place before -- Windsor Castle, say, or the Vatican -- this was among the most impressive. Presentation is everything.

From there we viewed more treasures in the New Green Vault (a more traditional museum gallery, with a Hope-sized diamond, only green.), a grand Arms and Armory museum, and, in a surprise, an Ottoman museum full of gifts that Turkish embassies had given the Saxon Wettin dynasty over the years, or which had been captured in battle. The palace complex was huge, and took us most of the day. When we emerged, it was late afternoon/early evening.

Knowing we had a train ticket back to Prague around 7 PM, we rushed to the Frauenkirche, the grand old (actually only rebuilt in the past two decades) Lutheran church a few blocks away. This domed church was one of the few curves we saw all day; it looks quite large from the outside, but feels intimate inside since the chapel is small but spirals up and up through multiple levels. There was some gorgeous art on the walls, though, alas, I can't remember if they were paintings or frescoes.

Ironically, it took us forever to find a German restaurant for dinner (though we found three Italian places and a tapas bar), so when we did, we ordered sausage dishes that looked like they'd be quick, rushed through a tasty dinner, and then rushed back to the train station, as it began to drizzle. We made it back with a few minutes to spare. I regretted not having time to see the art museum full of Old Masters (Amy did not regret this. :-) ), but it had been closed that month and we wouldn't have had time anyway.

We went to bed relatively early, and at that point our trip together was over, though mine was only a little over half done. Around 4 AM or so the next morning, her wake-up call came, and I gave her a drowsy kiss good-bye, and she was off to the airport for her ridiculously early flight to Amsterdam and from there back to the US.

It had been wonderful to have her with me, and we both were glad we finally got to take a trip together, even if it was too short.

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09:01 am

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Geeky World Tour - Prague
In Which Winter Comes to Prague, and Spring Follows

(I stopped writing these less than halfway through the trip, because, as it turns out, grad school projects and travel blogging don't mix. I'm going to try to get more done while the trip's still only a few months distant. As always, apologies for those who may be bored by these, but they're mostly for future-me's benefit.)

In the time that I've been dating Amy, I've discovered that we have very different reactions to snow. Though I'm the son of two New Yorkers, I grew up in Memphis, and to me, snow is a strange, exotic thing: fascinating to look at, but risky to be out in, and best appreciated from a cozy living room. Amy grew up in Wisconsin near one of the Great Lakes and views it as a dear old friend. Which is to say, that Amy was more excited to go see Prague Castle in the snow than I was. My primary goal for the day was not to slip and fall on my ass. :-)

Prague is a beautiful city, but Prague in the snow is lovelier still. Some of the best pictures of the trip came from that overcast morning. We took a light rail tram right up to the castle entrance, and walked to the castle gates, cameras out. Prague Castle isn't just one building, but an entire complex of palaces and churches.

We started with perhaps the most impressive: St. Vitus's Cathedral. It's a giant Gothic cathedral, which looks even bigger than it is because of the close quarters it's situated in. The stained glass windows, some of which are modern, were just stunning. From there we explored some of the palaces, which told the history of the Czech kings. I'd done my homework but still learned lots of details.

I must confess I geeked out when I saw the actual window that the Defenestration of Prague was, well, defenestrated out of. (Hussites--believers in a Czech form of Protestantism that predates Luther--threw several Catholic noblemen out of a window in Prague Castle. Czech Catholics said their survival was a miracle. Hussites claimed the Catholics' fall was broken by a manure pile. This sparked the 30 Years War, which until World War I, was the worst conflict in European history.)

One of the highlights for Amy was a row of soldier's quarters snuggled against the outer walls; each one was decorated according to a period of the castle's history. On the top floor of the quarters was a nice arms and armor collection, with a random torture chamber in a side room near the gift shop. (No one expects the Czech Inquisition?)

Sometime after lunch at a little sandwich shop on the grounds, the sun came out, and the snow had almost melted. Amy and I walked back around the complex, taking pictures of the cathedral weeping meltwater in the sunlight. From there, we went to the royal art gallery, which had a small collection of Old Masters (nothing really memorable -- the Hapsburgs moved most of the good stuff to Vienna and I saw it last year.) I thought we were done--but then Amy asked to go back to take a look at the toy museum we'd passed earlier at lunch.

At this point I discovered that my attention span at a toy museum is about 15-30 minutes, and that Amy's is infinite. Fairness requires me to admit that at art galleries it's the other way around. :-)

We left the castle near closing time, and a sort of eerie peace had settled on the place, which had been so crowded with tour groups that morning. Rather than take the tram back down, we walked down centuries-old steps to descend down the hill to the Malostranska subway station at the base. Dinner that night was at a Czech bistro near our hotel, so we could get one last taste of those amazing dumplings the Czechs seem to serve with everything.

We still had one more day of the trip together, but this was our last day touring Prague. We'd gotten nearly everything done we set out to do.

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May 12th, 2013
09:56 pm

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Book List, Much Belated
1. 1635: Papal Stakes by Eric Flint and Charles Gannon
2. Armageddon's Children by Terry Brooks
3. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
4. Mr Midshipman Hornblower by CS Forester
5. Lieutenant Hornblower by CS Forester
6. Hornblower and the Hotspur by CS Forester
7. Legacy of Kings by CS Friedman
8. Shadow of Freedom by David Weber
9. Service of the Sword by David Weber
10. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
11. The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown by Hugh Agnew
12. Guidebooks for Prague
13. Guidebooks for Edinburgh
14-15. Readings for CS 6675: Advanced Internet Appplications
16-17. Readings for CS 6422: Database Implementations
18. History of Ancient Egypt. Audio course by Bob Brier
19. The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller.

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March 23rd, 2013
10:43 pm

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In Which I See Synagogues

We'd originally planned to see Prague Castle on Monday, since it was open and many things in Prague were closed, but after looking at the weather that morning we decided to swap our plans and do the Old Town and Jewish Quarter before the rain arrived that afternoon, since they relied more on being outdoors than the Castle.

A quick Metro ride and we were in the central square of Old Town. We took some quick pictures of the lovely St Nicholas Church (no relation to the even lovelier St Nicholas Church in the Little Quarter) and of the Church of Our Lady Upon Tyn, which was sadly closed that day. From there we switched religions, and went into Josefov, the old Jewish Quarter.

It's the best preserved of Europe's old ghettoes -- the Nazis preserved it so they could build a museum there gloating about how they killed European Jewry, so we have naturally retaliated by making museums devoted to Jewish history and Judaism as a living faith. I was grateful to find that, while the Holocaust was a major emphasis, it did not overwhelm the rest.

We started in the Maisel Synagogue, in a building which dates back over 400 years but which took its final form in the 20th century. It housed an exhibit on the Jewish history from earliest times to the early modern period. I'd read a lot on Czech history in preparation for the trip, and it was interesting to then see Jewish history interwoven in that.

The next one, the Pinkas, was heartbreaking. It was a lovely old synagogue, but now it's used only as a memorial. Inscribed on every square inch of its walls were the names of the Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust. A recording of a cantor chanting psalms of mourning played. On the top floor hung an exhibit of children's art done by impromptu art classes at the Terezin concentration camp, which the adult inmates had held to keep their young ones' minds off their situation. Some were of their domitories in the camp, but most were of other places -- a newly freed Prague, or even Palestine. And almost without exception, every child who drew a picture in that exhibit died.

We were very quiet as we left.

There was the old Jewish town hall, which wasn't all that memorable, and the Klaus synagogue, which held a good exhibit on Jewish ritual and customs -- what the Jewish calendar is, what a yad is, what's the Torah and the Talmud. All things I learned in Sunday School, but good for the world (and Amy) to know. So much of the tragedies in Jewish history came because the people we lived among didn't understand us.

From there we walked around, but not in, the old Jewish Cemetery of Prague, a small plot of land packed almost to bursting with the headstones of centuries. The day was grey and constantly in danger of rain, and the weather fit the scene. Unlike the Holocaust memorial, however, this wasn't sad, but solemn: the symbol of the life of a community that still endured.

Next to last was the oddly-named "Old-New Synagogue" (so-named because in the Middle Ages it was built to replace the original synagogue in Prague, but which has since become the oldest shul in the city.) Physically it was less impressive, but you could feel the age of the place sitting on it like a dignified mantle, and I was grateful to find out that unlike the others, which were purely museums, this synagogue was still in use as a house of worship. I missed it at the time, but later realized that on the bimah (raised platform) sat the chair of Rabbi Loew, a famous rabbinic scholar who according to legend had created the Golem.

The last was the Spanish Synagogue, and it was the most beautiful Jewish house of worship I've ever been in. I'd assumed it was Sephardic (for those descended from Spain) but instead it was Ashkenazic -- and had at least at one point been Reform, my own denomination. (Since we're relatively new -- 19th century--we don't usually have historical sites.) It's called the Spanish Synagogue because it looks Sephardic: the architecture is Moorish, with a dome, curved archways, and intricate geometric designs everywhere, but with Hebrew motifs rather than Arabic. I came very close to ignoring the "No Photo" signs, but in the end decided against it.

At that point we took a break and had a tasty Italian lunch, with peach juice on the side because it and apricot juice are some of the best drinks ever and you can't get them most places in the US. Since we'd done my to-see list all morning, we agreed that Amy should lead in the afternoon, and she took us to the Old Town's main square, hoping to tour St. Nicholas's church that we'd seen earlier. Alas, it was closed for a concert, so we browsed around a street fair that was going on so she could buy souvenirs for her nieces, mom, and sister-in-law.

The clouds, which had been threatening all day, finally opened, and after a quick dash back to see the Astronomical Clock, we headed back to the hotel for a rest. That night, we went out to browse through the Palac Knih, a large Czech bookstore, and ate dinner at a Lebanese restaurant. (I had the lamb's knee, Amy had the chicken schwarma).

Before we went to bed, we looked out our hotel window. The rain had turned to snow, and the hotel courtyard was covered in delicate flakes.

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March 18th, 2013
10:01 pm

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Geeky World Tour - Prague
In Which I Stand Atop a Windswept Rampart And Survey My Kingdom

After a tasty continental breakfast, we went to the front desk and asked if perchance they had our luggage. They did. And there was much rejoicing, and changing into clean clothes.

That settled, our first task was to figure out the subway system. Unlike most European cities which have ATM-style ticket machines, the ones in Prague are coin operated and don't sell the 1 day or three day passes. The brusque fellow at the counter didn't speak English, and while Amy had learned a little Czech, he either couldn't understand her accent, or chose not to acknowledge it. So we lost a little time schlepping to a more major Metro station, where we were able to communicate better. Once in the system, we found that it worked well, with frequent, clean trains. One odd quirk: the escalators run about twice as fast as they do in the rest of the world. Sometimes that's nice, and sometimes, as when I put my foot down on a crack between steps getting on, rather terrifying.

Our first stop for the day was to the Little Quarter (Mala Strana, in Czech) on the left bank of the Vltava to see the Wallenstein Palace, the traditional home of the Czech Senate. We knew it would most likely be closed, but wanted to see the architecture. It was...ok.

Next up, we walked up a very steep set of stairs up from the Little Quarter to the Castle Quarter. Our goal was not to see Prague Castle itself -- that would be for another day -- but to catch the Sternberg Palace, an art museum nestled in the castle's shadow which I wanted to see. Compared to the mobs around the Castle, the Palace was nearly empty; it had some lovely medieval and Baroque art, including a Rembrandt, several Rubens, and lots of Brueghels and prints by Durer, but lacked a big show-stopping work that brought crowds in. While it was a sunny day, it was cold, in the 30s Fahrenheit, with a gusty arctic wind.

The views of Prague from atop the Castle Quarter were worth it. The light of the midday sun shone down on the spires and domes of the city spread out below on both sides of the river, and I got some wonderful pictures (which I'm sure will be finding their way to Facebook soon.) Eventually when our cameras had drunk their fill and our legs grew tired, we trudged back down the steps to Mala Strana, and ate a hearty lunch at a Czech restaurant. Amy had had a craving for beef goulash, which was served in a bread bowl, and I had a beef roast in a rich vegetable gravy with the tasty bread dumplings that the Czechs seem to put as a side with everything.

From there, we went to the Baroque Church of St Nicholas, which was on Amy's must-see list, and I'm glad it was. Since we'd had a late lunch and lingered over it, the sun, just beginning to set, was pouring in through the church windows and bathing the gold and marble statuary with a soft glow. It was magnificent, and we stayed there for a good while taking lots of pictures.

There was one thing left to do: get back to the east bank of the river where our hotel was. As we'd arranged it, the quickest way to do that also crossed off one of our must-sees: we walked across the Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge is several centuries old, with stone statues of previous kings of Bohemia, saints, and popes lining its stone walkway. It's beautiful, and supposedly terribly romantic, but two things messed with the ambience. First, it's perpetually packed with other tourists and the vendors who hawk their wares to them, and second, as the afternoon had gone on, it had grown even colder and windier, especially over the river. I'm glad I did it and I'm glad I saw it, but definitely not a particularly romantic part of the trip.

After taking an hour break back at the hotel room to drop off stuff and take brief naps, we headed out to find dinner. The Italian place we'd been eying was full (Czech restaurants don't seem to let you wait, perhaps since they encourage customers to linger over coffee and dessert), so we ended up in a small cafe a block from the hotel. Still in an Italian mood I ordered lasagna bolognese, and was surprised by what I got: instead of ground beef, the lasagna noodles were full of stewed meat, almost like a pot roast in taste and texture. It worked surprisingly well.

After dinner we wandered into a Czech grocery store to pick up a few snacks -- I always enjoy seeing the mundane aspects of life in other places too -- and then called it a night. It had been an exhausting day, and not everything had gone according to plan, but we were in Prague together with everything sorted out, and the day had been strangely wonderful.

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