Witten's Christmas Letter for 2000

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
December, 2000


It seems to be an inviolable law of nature that at least 365 days must elapse between writing Christmas letters. We were late last year and now we're late again. Added to which we've been debating the future of our letters, now that our little birds have flown the nest-or will shortly be taking off. We've had many nice compliments on our epistles, and no one has been rude about them (but you wouldn't, would you?). Now and again Ian receives email out of the blue from strangers who discover the letters on the Web-recently we had fan mail complimenting us on our fifteen-year-old description of germknödel, an amazing Austrian dessert! So here we go again, with a firm resolve to curb the pen and make this letter shorter. The year, like others, seems to have brought the usual amalgam of family (eventful), music (eclectic), sailing (exciting), travel (exotic), teaching (effective, we hope), and research (erudite)-with some farmyard adventures thrown in. Are we getting in a rut?

We seem to have established a tradition of a quiet New Years' Eve ā deux on board Beulah. And we had discussed our millennium plans: maybe anchor in Islington Bay, climb to the top of Rangitoto, the volcanic island near Auckland, for a grandstand view of the city's firework spectacular at midnight and ascend again to greet the dawn, or perhaps sail to Hook's Bay at the deserted end of Waiheke Island and scramble up Stony Batter at dawn-or not. As luck would have it, we did neither. On Friday 31st we awoke in Putiki, a well-sheltered but otherwise undistinguished bay off Waiheke, to strong winds. After lunch, braving the elements, we rowed ashore for a ramble. In the late afternoon we had just decided to weigh anchor, take in a reef and head for Islington Bay when the heavens opened. By the time the rain stopped the wind was gusting to 40 knots. So we simply stayed put. With the help of a bottle of bubbly we resisted (but only just!) the temptation to go to bed at 10 PM with a cup of hot cocoa. We heard the boom and crump of fireworks at Auckland but saw no sign of them through thick cloud-neither did anyone in Auckland, it transpired later. Sleepy-eyed at dawn we caught the deep and distant resonance of a thousand-voice "haka," as a fleet of fully-manned Maori war canoes landed at a beach near Auckland (many miles from us) with full pomp and circumstance. We rolled over and went back to sleep. The millennium was a washout for most people here. Nikki, for example, spent the first hour or two of this century struggling through heavy rain from the beach back to the caravan where she and friends were staying. Anna was partying in Taupo (south of Hamilton): she began the millennium by hailing a cab with a group of friends, only to realize upon clambering in that it was a police car ...

Of course, the sailing summer was dominated by the America's Cup. For those of you who spent the year outside the solar system, this is where the Goliaths of the sailing world-the US, with four or five separate boats, Australia, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland-jousted furiously for the honour of smashing little David, aka New Zealand. Racing began on January 2, and we were out there in the huge flotilla of spectators. Dropping Pam at the marina to pick up a fresh crew, Ian was back on the racecourse the next day with a French student and his girlfriend, who disconsolately watched Japan beat France. We anchored off nearby Rakino Island for the night, but on poking our nose out of the sheltered bay the following day to enormously strong winds we turned tail, headed straight back in, and re-anchored. Ian was taken aback to learn from the radio that the challengers were out there jousting in the pre-start melee. To contemplate racing in such conditions these guys must be completely crazy! But in fact (and much to his relief) the race was called off. To cut a long story short, to their great astonishment and mortification, all the US teams were roundly defeated and Italy emerged as the challenger.

Late in February a seasoned, well-practiced, race-hardened, swashbuckling, supremely confident Italian team began its series against little ol' New Zealand, who had not yet sailed a single race. (The defeated challengers, in a display of solidarity, declined our requests for practice races.) The first race was crucial. No one had any idea whether NZ would be thrashed-though most predicted that, whichever way it went, the outcome would not be close. We had determined to watch this race from the America's Cup base in Auckland-Pam's brother Graham had got us sought-after tickets in the Air New Zealand spectator marquee-and the second race from the water. But the first was cancelled due to insufficient wind, so we-Ian and Graham, Sarah and Alex-were out there the next day for the first race. Sarah and Alex are university lecturers in English literature and philosophy, and between them they created a tongue-in-cheek eyewitness account of that eventful day which is so compelling that we have appended it to this letter. (This makes it easier to skip if you are already bored by nautical matters.) Suffice it to say that David triumphed in an outstanding win that day, and again and again and again in an unbroken record on following days, so that the America's Cup remains proudly in New Zealand, its new home.

We have to ration sailing stories and select just a few out of many adventures. Ian and Eibe, a graduate student, set out for Great Barrier Island, an ambitious plan because they had only four days. The first day we didn't get far, anchoring at Rakino in the same bay mentioned above. The next day we managed a 50-mile passage all the way to Great Barrier. On reaching The Pigeons, four stark pieces of rock sticking up from the ocean floor, we tacked up through the beautiful Broken Islands into Port Fitzroy, a secure, almost land-locked, haven. The third day Eibe spent climbing Mount Hobson while Ian sailed single-handed to Little Barrier Island and back. That evening we sailed to Bowling Alley Bay, east of the Broken Islands, to get a good start for the 55-mile run back. Which was exciting! We set off with the wind behind and a reef in the sail. As the day progressed both wind and waves increased alarmingly, to 35-38 knots and around 3 metres respectively. At one point the boat speed hit 10.3 knots as we surfed down the back of a huge wave-before this day we had never exceeded 7.5 knots. It was an adrenaline-filled trip.

Another exciting sail was with Peter McConnell from Northern Ireland, son of Ian's friend Greg from schooldays, who visited in May for several days on his world tour. We've never met anyone so keen on sailing!-he made it quite clear that although looking round NZ was ok, sailing was the main event. So off we went, despite a windy forecast, setting out in 25 knots of wind with two reefs for a pleasant cruise to Man O' War Bay on the far side of Waiheke Island. Peter found it hard to adjust to the cruising way of life: he is used to serious racing with no creature comforts and certainly no gourmet meals with wine. The next morning was nice enough to tempt us into a circumnavigation of Waiheke, but once we were committed to this plan the wind increased to 25 knots with big gusts, and we had to tack against it all day. The weather gradually worsened until we heard a gust of 38 knots reported at the nearby weather station, at which point we were severely overpowered in very rough seas. We lowered the mainsail and bore off under jib to seek shelter, but Beulah handled so well under jib alone that we decided to continue. Eventually the wind abated a little and we rehoisted the mainsail. We made 33 miles that day, all in the teeth of the near gale.

There were plenty of sailing trips with the family. Anna and Ian went out for two separate weekends, which according to Anna's entries in the log were idyllic and educational experiences-and we surely broke the world record for mussel eating. A long weekend with Nikki and her great friend Kirsty began with disaster when Nikki, laughing uncontrollably at Kirsty's feeble attempts to hoist the jib, forgot to steer, and we gybed accidentally. Ian lunged for the mainsheet to control the sail, and in the melee his glasses went overboard into the crystal waters of Tamaki Strait. Ironically, Nikki had given him a spectacle safety strap, which he had not yet put on. Despite inevitable recriminations from both sides, we had a lovely weekend. Kirsty downed ten pancakes for breakfast! We spotted a huge pod of dolphins playing in the distance and went off like Captain Ahab to chase them down. We spent a magical half-hour with dolphins all around Beulah, one of which did ten spinning jumps just in front of the boat, until they simultaneously shot off at top speed, leaping high out of the water, evidently terrified by some nameless monster of the deep.

Of Pam and Ian's several trips, particularly memorable was our expedition to the (world famous) Waiheke Island Jazz Festival at Easter. What could be more pleasant than sailing to an exotic South Seas island and spending a long weekend in its many vineyards, listening to an eclectic variety of live jazz. There were about twenty separate venues and we sampled most of them. We met up with friends Neil and Karen who have a holiday home on the island-in fact, we abandoned Beulah one stormy night and spent it with them. Another night, after a fabulous and unforgettable show (Les Haricots Rouges from France-see them if you can) we rowed back at midnight in bright moonlight, and awoke to find that the Easter Bunny had visited Beulah.

Although you may find it hard to believe, we didn't spend all our time sailing. Early in the year Pam and Ian spent a week driving around Northland. We visited Karekare beach, where The Piano was filmed-if you've seen the movie you'll surely remember a lone piano standing on a deserted, surf-tossed beach. Setting off along the sand to the south, we were astonished to catch a glimpse what could only be an enormous factory or power station shimmering in the distance through the heat haze. Appalled by the desecration of an otherwise pristine coast, we set out to investigate. After hiking for over an hour, the mystery was eventually revealed to be a packing case and other assorted pieces of driftwood, stacked up in a primitive sculpture, now only a few hundred metres away. We proceeded by car up the west coast to stay with Ian's cousin Lorraine in Dargaville, and then pushed on, often on gravel roads, staying as close to the sea as possible-up the west coast and down the east. Over the years our many visitors have toured New Zealand and returned with wondrous tales: on this trip we checked some of them out ourselves. We stayed at the Tree House, where we had our own little cabin that opened on to a reedy pond, home to many ducks. We saw the gigantic Kauri, largest trees in the world and a thousand years old. We had fish and chips in the world-renowned Mangonui chip shop, and stayed in the Old Oak Inn. Of many amazing sights the most stunning was Matai Bay, on a remote and deserted peninsula with no services except a campground: a beautiful, symmetrical, double bay, with white surf and golden sand, backed by lurid green bush and, once beyond the vicinity of the campground, apparently untrodden by human foot.

Approaching Auckland on our return, we called ahead to Pam's brother Graham, only to learn the shocking news that a few days earlier Pam's father Peter was taken suddenly ill and had in fact passed away that morning. He had been unwell for many months, but this news was completely unexpected and came as a terrible shock to all. We heard on a Friday, and by Sunday Pam and Graham were on a plane to England, where they were met by their brother Steve, who was over from France. They arrived in time for the funeral. Graham could only spend a short time because of business commitments, but Pam stayed on for three weeks providing greatly needed comfort and assistance for her mother. We will always remember Peter for his affable, easy-going nature and quiet, reassuring, companionship.

Pam continues to teach half time at Cambridge Primary School. She provides one-on-one tuition for a nine-year-old high-functioning autistic girl with a wicked sense of humour, helping out with maths, English, comprehension, and social skills. Pam enjoys this because she exercises actual teaching skills, whereas other children she has worked with have required more personal care. She also teaches music: she covers the standard music curriculum in class and teaches recorder groups of various levels from beginners up. She offered recorder lessons to staff and half of them enthusiastically took her up; the school chipped in with money from the staff development fund. The staff ensemble has proudly played at school assemblies, the teachers learning first-hand, and with some surprise, how terrifying public performance is-which heightens their appreciation of the children's achievements. Maybe next year they'll star in the Proms?

Pam has been learning the marimba at weekends: a large xylophone on legs and wheels that spans over three octaves, attacked by up to three players with two beaters each. She has introduced it to some of the senior students, and the children respond enthusiastically. Pam teaches them simple, repetitive, rhythmic and melodic patterns that make intricate and absorbing music when three parts are put together, and kids who can't read music suddenly find that they can play a musical instrument! It's a social instrument; you must hold up your bit when playing with others. It has been such a success that someone has donated funds to have one made for the school, so Pam is now looking for teacher volunteers to join her at a marimba-construction workshop.

The school put on a musical this year and Pam directed the orchestra, which comprised a dozen or so children playing recorders, drums, marimba, and various small percussion instruments. She adapted some of the songs, actually rewriting the music to enable the orchestra to accompany the pianist and singers. The show was an unqualified success and Pam was delighted with the way the children rose to the occasion.

Unfortunately, school has been unsettling because of messy politics involving staff changes. Incredibly, the system is that when one "special needs" child leaves, all the teacher aides have to apply for the remaining jobs. Because of general dissatisfaction with the way things are run by the new regime, there have been more than the usual number of departures. This summer (for Christmas is summer here!) Pam has to reapply for her job for the second time this year. Not surprisingly, this makes everyone feel very insecure and has begun to poison the camaraderie that has always been such an enjoyable part of Pam's work environment.

Pam spent much of the winter organizing the annual national recorder-playing weekend. This year the Hamilton group, of which she is president, volunteered to host it. For the venue she found a bird sanctuary near the Thames estuary, with cooking facilities and dormitory-style accommodation. There were formal and informal playing sessions, lectures from the tutors, and two concerts in which most attendees performed individually and in groups. People came from all over the North Island, and the eclectic mix of recorder-playing, swimming in the local natural hot pools, and bird watching proved to be a winning combination. The whole event went off very well, and Pam has been asked to organize it again another year.

In September, Pam and Ian spent nine days in Australia. We flew to Melbourne and drove, with friends Alistair and Thau Mee and their two young daughters, westwards along the Great Ocean Road for a weekend near the Twelve Apostles, a celebrated group of rocks flung out into the sea. We marvelled at massive waves crashing up canyons, and read stories of gruesome shipwrecks. Then back to Melbourne to stay with our friends. Ian gave seminars at two different universities there, and Pam checked out the shopping and the museum of Percy Grainger, Australia's most famous composer, which we described in our Christmas letter a couple of years ago after a visit by Ian and Nikki. Then a short flight to Hobart in Tasmania, where Ian gave a seminar, and a drive to Launceston for another. After that we were free! We loved Tasmania. Hobart, in particular, is a most attractive small city, with a mountain towering over it that you can drive up and look down from-not unlike Cape Town, in fact. Around Hobart are dozens of small bays with three or four sailboats moored in each-even more attractive than Auckland, where yachts tend to congregate in a few large marinas. The Tasmanian countryside is often likened to New Zealand, and in many ways it is-but when you get a gentle scenic vista, it's more often than not dotted attractively with gum trees rather than cleared and farmed. We were most impressed with the seafood; in fact we ate nothing else. Every small harbour had a few fishing boats. We marvelled at massive blowholes, walked to the celebrated "Wineglass Bay" on the Freycinet peninsula (we think Matai Bay, described above, is even nicer), strolled around Salamanca market in Hobart, ate and drank well, and generally had a great time.

Ian went on several other trips. The first, in March, took in New York; a conference at Princeton University in New Jersey; seminars at NEC Research and Drexel University in Philadelphia (where who should turn up but Robert Aish, a friend from Essex days thirty years ago); a "distinguished visiting lecture" at Texas A&M University; a visit to ex-colleague Lloyd Smith (the man who originally hired Ian at Waikato) at New Mexico Highlands University; Grand Falls, Colorado; and the annual Data Compression Conference at Snowbird, a ski resort outside Salt Lake City. Sometimes called the Snow Compression Conference, Ian believes he did have a little ski this year. Las Vegas, New Mexico (not to be confused with the Las Vegas you're thinking of, which is in Nevada) is fascinating. A leading centre in the West more than a century ago, the citizens voted not to have the railroad go through. So Santa Fe was chosen as the railhead and Las Vegas became a footnote in western history. Today it's a sleepy, dusty, unremarkable and almost unknown town, with a main street straight out of cowboy movies and a grassy town square where the lynching was done.

The second trip was round the world: San Antonio, Texas; Pueblo, Mexico; Saskatoon, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal; London, Dublin, and Belfast; Cape Town; and back via Mauritius and Singapore (the last two added for effect only: they were just transit stops). As well as work (for Ian gave seminars, lectures, and/or invited talks at conferences in all the above places except Belfast), there were social pleasures-catching up with the Sheen family at Oakville near Toronto, delightful visits with old friends in Saskatoon and London, a visit to Pam's mum near London and a week with my parents in Northern Ireland (where I continued my tradition of racing in a 75-year-old classic racing keelboat). Here I overlapped with a brief visit from my brother Brian in England, so with sister Pippa all three of us "kids" were able to visit my father in the nursing home and spend time with my mum at home. The Mexican jaunt is worth a mention. With a population not far off New Zealand's, Pueblo is two hours from Mexico City, whose population is not far off Australia's! I stayed in the campus hotel of the Universidad de las Amérucas. The hotel is run entirely by students, and is delightful: no one speaks English and I speak no Spanish, but everyone is very friendly. Nearby is the volcano Popocatapetl-a very imposing presence that towers over the landscape. But it was covered in clouds and only showed itself for a few minutes one morning. The campus is near a small town called Cholula, which claims to be the oldest continuously-inhabited place in both Americas, and is graced by a huge pyramid built (one or two thousand years ago?) by early Mexicans. Right on top of it the Spanish invaders stuck a huge 16th Century Catholic church, as eloquent a symbol of conquest as I have ever seen. The local dish is chicken Poblano, served in a highly spiced chocolate sauce. Mexican food aficionados will know of chicken in chocolate "mole" sauce, which I usually find rather cloying; but this spicy variety was unsweetened and absolutely delicious. The South African stopover was prompted by the travel agent: he said that returning direct from the UK would leave plenty of miles on the ticket, was there anywhere I would like to go? Almost as a joke I asked if there were enough miles to return via Cape Town, where a slight acquaintance-a friend of a friend-works, and I knew that at that time the (latter) friend would be visiting. These are computer science friends, so I gave a seminar at the University of Cape Town, house-sat for an absent couple for the few days I was there, visited Table Mountain and did many other wonderful things.

The last trip, in December, was to Seoul, Shanghai, Xi'an, and Hong Kong. It was fabulous-even though it involved an unscheduled, accidental 24 hours in YinChuan, just outside Mongolia and almost in the Gobi desert. There's no space to write about it here; maybe next year.

Many things happened at home too. We had major alterations done to the house, with a new fireplace and new windows in the living room. When we first bought this place we looked at the horrible orange-yellow carpet fitted throughout the living and dining area, and said that it would be the first thing to go. Nearly nine years later, it went! And underneath we found the most beautiful native wooden floor, almost new and in pristine condition. It has really transformed our house. Outside we have a new deck, and fresh paint-many changes.

Anna was at university in Christchurch. She came home at Christmas (1999), and managed to transfer from the Christchurch to the Hamilton branch of the clothing store where she works. She also returned for a couple of weeks at the Easter break. By that time it was clear that although she was getting good grades and succeeding academically, things were not working out well for her at university, and she left shortly after returning to Christchurch. Not long afterwards, she decided to move to Sydney, where she arrived just before the Olympics. And that's where she is now. She couldn't get back home this Christmas as she has just started a new job, as a receptionist. But she's having a great time in Sydney; the beach 'n barbecue lifestyle really suits her. She lives in a flat with seven Kiwi guys (just as she did in London), and (unlike London) they barbecue on the beach every week. Anna seems to be exploring a lot of different things in life and finds it hard to settle down to one activity for long. Current hobbies, from what we can gather, include fire-stick twirling and snorkelling-hard to do together, we guess.

Nikki finished her degree this year. She graduated with a BSocSci in anthropology, philosophy being her supporting subject. To us her courses sound enthralling: Philosophy of Religion, Ancient Mythologies (mostly Hindu), Race and Ethnicity, and Culture, Power and Politics. A favourite was Anthropology and Modernity (not "Maternity," as Ian annoyingly referred to it), with an absorbing lecturer. Instead of studying primitive societies as most anthropology courses do, this course tackled modern urban cultures like London in the 19th Century, and industrial America. On the other hand, Magic, Ritual and Religion focused on native, mainly Polynesian, cultures and described rituals like kava ceremonies, initiation and rites of passage, and death. During the year Nikki wrote essays on topics ranging from flood myths around the world to an ethnographic study of people working in cinemas.

Talking about cinemas, Nikki is still working at the local one, selling tickets and candies, ripping tickets, ushing, and cleaning cinemas. She's an expert on crowd control, and can even evacuate a cinema in sign language! Her co-workers are great: they're all good friends and enjoy many social activities together-like going to the pub and dancing. There are several Mormons, one of whom has just left for a mission in Tokyo and was quite happy for our ever-curious anthropologist to quiz him about every aspect of Mormonism, from polygamy to converting the heathens. Nikki is also an expert on modern movies, actors, and Hollywood gossip in general. After seeing almost every film released this year, her favourites are American Beauty and Magnolia.

Although she hasn't been on exciting overseas trips like some people in the family, Nikki has been out of Hamilton once or twice. She drove two close friends and a girl visiting from Scotland up north for a weekend of relaxation. They went horse-riding on a scenic route up into the hills-fun but scary because she worried constantly about falling off. Though the weather was rainy and grey, they did manage so glimpse some great views through gaps in the cloud. After painfully dismounting, they headed for the nearest hot pools to soak sore limbs. The rest of the weekend was spent consuming bottles of wine, and shopping, before heading back to Hamilton, the university, and work.

Other highlights of Nikki's year include two balls: a Cinderella ball (a cancer fund-raiser) and her faculty ball. Not being able to afford a new dress, she squeezed into her four year old ball gown, a simple, long, champagne-coloured number. She dressed as a wood nymph for a friend's "fairies and goblins" party, and as a serpent for a Garden of Eden party. She also spent many delightful periods as paid house sitter with her close friend Kirsty, which involved long nights of watching videos and eating copious quantities of ice cream. At Nikki's firm request we all dressed up to go to the opera Die Fledermaus; and while Ian was away Pam and Nikki went to the ballet Cinderella.

There are many more things we'd like to tell you. Music: Pam continues to organize the Hamilton Recorder Society and Ad Hoc Baroque, her performance ensemble; Ian continues to play in the Waikato Symphony Orchestra and organize Matangi Clarinets, his clarinet group. All these groups gave interesting and rewarding concerts throughout the year. Pam had lessons from a recorder virtuoso now studying music in Holland, and continues her piano lessons, and borrowed a six-foot contrabass recorder. Unforgettable event: Pam stayed up all night for the total eclipse of the moon, in a completely clear sky, and watched in awe as the earth's shadow crept all the way across the full moon until it turned blood red, and then gradually returned to its normal hue. Work: Ian's research group on "Digital Libraries" (whatever they are!) began a joint project with UNESCO in Paris to distribute to developing countries software for producing digital library collections. Not pre-packaged information, but the ability to build collections, inspired by that old saw about human development: don't give them fish, donate fishing rods and teach them to fish. It's true that developing countries need vaccines more than computers, but they also desperately need information, and they need to organize information, and they have information (e.g. about traditional medicines) that we need (and should pay for). Culture: in a dignified and moving ceremony the digital library project received a magnificent hand-carved wood and greenstone "toki" or ceremonial axe from the Maori people for our work in preserving Maori writing and culture. And finally, how can we forget our little animal family?-Each of our four ewes had a lamb; while we were in Australia mother duck Gladys hatched 13 ducklings but despite Nikki's entreaties she took them walking on the road outside and by the time we returned none were left. Right now we have numerous fledglings in nests around the house (but outside!) and have to carefully monitor the cat's activities.

Love, peace, belated Christmas greetings, and happy New Year.

Pam, Ian, Anna (in absentia), and Nikki