Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas 2016

Designed by Geoduck
2016 has been a lousy year.

Numerous events throughout the year have shown just how far to the right, the ultra-right, many people have allowed themselves (hopefully unwittingly) to be dragged. They also show the dangers of organised religion.

Among the most tragic of these events are:

  • the bombing of Zaventem airport;
  • the bombing of the Brussels underground;
  • the terrorist attack in Nice;
  • the Brexit vote;
  • the election of Donald Trump;
  • the destruction of Aleppo;
  • the refugee camp at Mosul;
  • the terrorist attack in Berlin.

Let us hope that 2017 will be a better year and that people will come to their senses. The way things are going, however, I see the USA developing ever more into a power-crazed theocracy, where fundamentalist Christians have the sway.

Then it could well be goobye from me and goodbye from him.

The card accompanying this entry was designed by Geoduck and is inspired by a quote from Desmond Tutu: Hope is being able to see that there is light, despite all the darkness. A lone Christmas tree stands in the all-enveloping gloom, but a single little candle still offers a ray of hope.



Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Year Of The Buffoon

Let the Chinese keep their Year of the Horse, the Year of the Monkey, Year of the Rat, and all the other animal signs.

Let Al Stewart keep his Year of the Cat (and how many of you remember that?.

This year must surely be the Year of the Buffoon.

Just consider: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and, wait for it, buffoono supremo Donald Trump. What a set of human disasters they represent!

Then add to this sad list the names of the likes of Recip Eroğan, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and the ultra right-wing upstarts in Europe.

All you then need are some religious fanatics and you've got a recipe for disaster.

Oh, hang on, such religious fanatics are already present in the USA in the form of fundamentalist Christians (home teaching, anyone? Yes, the world is six thousand years old. I ask you!) and in Europe and the Middle East, Daesh, who claim to be fundamentalist Moslims, but act like no true Moslem would ever act, fill that rôle. (Personally, I think that fundamentalist Christianity, as practised in the USA, is a far more dangerous manifestation.)

Generally, the world seems to be going to pot, with ultra right and fundamentalist viewpoints gaining way too much ground, as people look for simple solutions to relatively minor problems that are blown up out of proportion, as a way of gaining support for extremist ideas and movements.

I had intended on writing rather more on this subject, but came across an excellent article that really says all I have to say, so rather than read my drivel, please take the time to carefully read Brian McNair's When Terror Goes Viral It's Up To Us To Prevent Chaos—it says it all.

(But just to finish, can you really imagine Trump as the president of the USA?)

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Castilla y León

Elise and I have not long returned from a trip to a part of the north of Spain with which we were not previously familiar, Castilla y León.

The initial idea was to go to León and from there to drive further to Bilbao. That's not the way it worked out, however, and instead we visited a number of other places in the same autonomous community as León itself.

The main purpose of the trip was to see the Pantheon of San Isidoro in León, and to visit some Romanesque churches. A strange goal for a couple of atheists, you might think, but we look upon these treasures perhaps in a different way to that in which Christians (and so-called Christians) do.

The trip was a great success: León is an excellent mixture of old and new and harbours plenty of interesting things to see.  From León, we travelled to Astorga, and from there to Zamora; we then drove via Toro to Segovia, which we had altready visited a few years ago, but this time went with the purpose of seeing the gardens of La Granja.

Sadly, photography is very restricted in most of the ancient attractions, so here are some links to sites where others present a visual appreciation:

Royal Pantheon of San Isidoro, León

Virtual reality visit to Zamora, including three excellent views of the Flemish tapestries

Flemish tapestries of Zamora (information in Spanish)

Romanesque churches of Zamora

Portal of the collegiate church of Santa María, Toro

I have placed some photos that Elise and I took during the trip on Flickr:

León (incl. Parador, cathedral, Gaudí building…)

Astorga (with one of only two Gaudí buildings outside Catalunya)

Zamora and Toro

La Granja (gardens and fountains)

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Bridiots

So the voters of the United Kingdom have chosen to leave the European Union.

Well, that's not entirely true.

The results of the referendum are not legally binding. The decision for the UK to leave the EU can only be made in the UK parliament. The majority of MPs are in favour of staying with the EU, but whether they will have the guts to stand up and vote so in the eventual debate is, of course, a different matter.

As for the referendum itself, it demonstrates just how divided the UK itself is.

The UK is an old union of four countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

The English voted 53.4% to 46.6% to leave the EU. Hardly overwhelming.

Northern Ireland voted 55.8% against 44.2% to remain in the EU.

Scotland voted 62% to 38% to remain, a huge win.

Wales voted 52.5% to 47.5% to leave (an even smaller win than in England).

So two countries voted to leave and two countries voted to remain. The countries that voted to remain did so in a far more convincing manner than those that voted to leave.

Hardly a United Kingdom!

(Incidentally, I am of Welsh origin and am deeply ashamed that Wales voted to leave the EU.)

Assuming that the UK parliament ratifies the decision to leave, what might the consequences be?

Well, the break-up of the UK seems highly likely, with Scotland the first to go. If Northern Ireland has any sense, it will also leave the UK and allow Ireland once again to become a single island nation.

Wales, of course, followed England. Hardly surprising, given the high level of unemployment there (and the high number of English who live in Wales): the No campaigners put the blame for high unemployment on the EU and particularly its immigration policy. People like to believe easy solutions and look no further to find the real truth. I wonder how the people of Wales and the rest of the UK will feel when unemployment increases as a result of less sales to the EU and less investment from the EU.

The people cast their No votes based on a lack of information and misinformation. The result is a demonstration of why one should not allow ordinary people to decide such vital issues : they simply do not have the knowledge to make a decision based on facts, so instead they make an emotional decision based on fiction. They look at short-term issues that seem important, such as immigration, and ignore the long-term, truly important issues, such as investment, development, long-term employment… These are the things that will play huge roles in the lives of the now young people of the UK as they grow older. Basically, their future has been destroyed.

More worrying than the self-inflicted problems of the UK, however, are the possible knock-on effects in the rest of Europe. Extremist right-wing factions will be spurred on by the unfortunate result to further their own causes, perhaps to demand referenda in their own countries, with the possible break-up of the EU.

As nationalistic tendencies grow in these countries, so, too, will grow the likelihood of conflict. The EU (and its predecessors) have kept Europe at peace for seventy years; prior to that achievement, Europe suffered almost constant conflict in some part of its boundaries. In the first half of the previous century alone, two World Wars were ignited in Europe, during which millions of people were killed and otherwise suffered. Nationalism of the type displayed in the UK and in other countries of the EU is likely to lead to similar conflicts should the EU break up. Furthermore, Russia will feel less reticent to atttempt to take back its former territories and will therefore likely set its sights on the Baltic states, the Ukraine, and elsewhere, in the face of a weak and divided Europe. Clearly a recipe for a Third World War.

The EU has made mistakes, of course. Any organisation attempting to achieve what the EU has achieved is bound to make mistakes. But this does not mean that its members must bleat and moan: they must learn to work better together, to learn from what is wrong in order to create a better right. The achievements of the EU should be applauded: peace, a single currency, freedom of movement of people and goods, the world's largest trading bloc…

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Some sense

Belgium's a great place. I'me Welsh, so I'm also supposed to be British, but I spent 35 years of my life in Belgium (more than in any of the other three countires in which I have lived, Wales, England and Spain), so I feel as much Belgian as anything else. I left the country for health reasons and miss its tidiness, its completeness, its pastries…

Belgium has had it rough during the last few months, having been shown to be a spawning ground for terrorists and now, just this week, being itself the target of some major terrorist attacks.

Sadly, the growth of terrorism has been matched by a growth of right-wing tendencies, with foolish non-thinkers jumping onto the easy solutions of "keep out the refugees," "down with Islam," and other nonsensical nationalistic propaganda.

Thank goodness, then, for some good old common sense, as demonstrated by Anwar, a young schoolboy, when he was interviewd at his school gates on the day after the attacks in Brussels for VTM News:

video


Here's a translation:
Reporter: Indeed, the attacks do not represent true Islam, says Anwar.
Anwar: Muslims are not like those that you see; Muslims are people that love peace and not killing.
Reporter: That's an important message.
Anwar: Yes, a very important message. Thank you very much.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

What do you know about the EU?

Soon the UK will hold a referendum to allow its voters to decide whether to stay in the EU.

Bonkers. The average bod has no idea what the EU does, what it has achieved, what its powers are, what its powers most certainly are not, and so on. Most people are swayed only by what they are told by ignorant spouters of nonsense on the television, or by what they read in the gutter press that is so prevalent in the UK, where such intelligent publications as the Sun tell half-truths at best and downright lies at worst.

The Establishment of the UK of course wants the voters to choose to leave the EU: this will provide them with the continued power they seek. What it will not do, is help the ordinary people of the country. But what does the Establishment care for them?

How much do you, dear UK voter, actually know about the EU and how it functions? Very little, I bet.

Well, here's a chance for you to find out a bit more before you go to vote.

The EU has just published a report on its activities in 2015. Do you want to know what the EU achieved in 2015? What progress it made in delivering on its priorities? The measures it took to boost jobs, growth and investment? The part it played in the climate deal achieved in Paris? How it handled the refugee crisis? And how EU citizens benefited from the Union? You can find the answers to all these questions and more in The EU in 2015.

The publication is available in various formats (HTML, PDF, EPUB) for free (a printed version can be purchased) at http://publications.europa.eu/en/web/general-report (It can also be obtained in numerous other languages through the dropdown menu at the top right-hand corner of the page.)

And if you'd like to learn more about the EU, or to find resources for use in presentations, a good place to start is http://europa.eu/publications/index_en.htm (again, information is available in other languages through the dropdoan menu at the top right-hand corner of the page).

Thursday, 3 March 2016

USA

To quote another obnoxious American, "You cannot be serious!"

Still, at least we now know the real meaning of USA:

Unbelievably
Stupid
Americans

To allow a creep like Donald Trump to run in the primaries for the election of the new President of the USA is crazy enough; that such a buffoon, such a mountebank, such an obnoxious, megalomaniacal, clearly prejudiced individual can then actually gain sufficient support to win numerous primaries and to look as if he stands a good chance of becoming the Republican Presidential candidate is just grotesque (as if the Republicans were not already grotesque enough!); it is frightening, not only for the USA (the country and those Unbelievably Stupid Americans), but also for the rest of the world.

Eat your heart out, Dr. Strangelove, for here comes someone far more sinister.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Closing the circle


In an earlier post, Three Boys, I described how my friend, Terry Cleverley, had died just a couple of years after having left school. A reply to that post led me to search for and eventually find Terry's gravesite.

Terry Cleverley didn't start his first year at Woolverstone Hall with the rest of the boys. He joined us in the second term, coming, if I am not mistaken, from Singapore, where his father was stationed. Like myself, Terry was then in Orwell House and we soon became friends. In our second year we moved to Corner's House, where we remained for the rest of our time at Woolverstone.

The reply to my earlier post indicated that Terry had died in January 1969. This is incorrect. In fact, Terry died in the early hours of 6 June 1969 as the result of a traffic accident in Benidorm. However, the information that he had been buried in Alicante seemed promising, so yesterday, Elise and I decided to visit the Municpal Cemetery in Alicante to see if we could find Terry's grave.

The Cementerio Municipal, also called Nuestra Señora de Remedio, is located on the outskirts of Alicante, between the town itself and the A70/E15 motorway. Its main entrance is on the small and unpretentious Plaza Cementerio, otherwise occupied almost entirely by florists and stonemasons, with just one small bar for those in need of refreshment.

To the right of the entrance hall of the cemtery is an office, so we went in there to see if we could glean any further information regarding Terry.

The young lady who received us was very helpful and kind. I told her what I knew, which was basically just Terry's name and year of death. With just that information, she searched the digitalised records of the cemetery and was soon able to tell me that Terry had indeed been buried in the cemetery. After some further explanation, we were given directions to the location of Terry's grave.

Passing out of the entrance hallway and into the cemetery itself, one is immediately struck by two things: the cleanliness of the place and its enormity. It really is a massive, massive cemetery, but it is also extremely well maintained. Initially, one passes through an area of huge, almost monumental tombs, far too ostentatious for my liking, but still impressive (some small examples can be seen behind Elise in the photo).
This is followed by somewhat smaller tombs of a more "normal" size. Spain being a Catholic-dominated country, crucifixes and other religious symbols are well in evidence. Very few of the gravesites are reserved for a single person and many have whole generations of families, the names of each member carefully inscribed in the stonework, which is almost always marble or granite.


The only date indicated in Terry's records was 9 June, 1969: this was the date of burial. As explained above, Terry was killed in the early hours of 6 June, 1969. He was first buried in his own grave, with a gravestone. The lease for the grave was not renewed, however, so after ten years, Terry's bones were removed to the communal gravesite, known as the Osario or osuary.

After walking some way, we finally came to the Osario, marked by an imposing crucifix.

The back of the Osario
It has to be said that this part of the cemetery is perhaps the least well cared for. Passing around to the front of the Osario, we could see the irrigation piping sitting on top of very dry soil (it looks as if the irrigation does not work) which is sparsely covered with dried-up vegetation. A few small memorial tablets have been placed here and there, with some photos stuck to the large stone crucifix that is largely hidden behind a poorly positioned yucca.



Having seen where Terry now lies, we decided to place some flowers there to at least add a little cheer to the site. We walked back to the Plaza de Cementerio, purchased a colourful bunch and left it lying on the dry soil of the Osario before continuing our walk through the cemetery.





 ====***====

Here are some impressions of the cemetery, which is quite a remarkable place and well worth a visit. It is remarkably quiet and has various sections containing different styles of memorials. The highest point is occupied by a chapel, below which is a shaded green area, provided by a copse of mediterranean pines. What was at the time of the Spanish Civil War a mass grave, now forms a memorial to those Republicans executed by the Nationalists.


Chapel on the hilltop

Copse of mediterranean pines. In the background, "chapel" memorials.

Burial niches.

Ever more burial niches.

Memorial field (ex mass grave) to executed Republicans.

Orange trees


Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Trump trumped

I do not follow the shenanigans of politicians very much, nor am I particularly interested in politics. I was, however, delighted to learn that arch-idiot Donald Trump lost the recent Iowa Caucuses to rival Republican Ted Cruz.

Not that any sensible individual would want Cruz as president of the USA, mind you: he's an ultra conservative, fundamentalist Christian (just as dangerous as fundamentalist any-other-religion-you-care-to-name), who is anti-abortion, anti-greenhouse effect (it doesn't exist), and probably anti anything else other than freedom to own guns and shoot the hell out of others (more on this below).

The Democrats seem to have a more sensible couple of front-runners, in the shape of Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Clinton has at least some experience, even if she's not someone I'd care to trust. Sanders is the most appealing and offers some interesting comments on the social conditions in the USA, which, let's face it, are deplorable. If Americans could get over their peculiar fixation that Socialism is the same as Communism, Sanders might even have a chance at the presidency. He's a bit old, of course, but at least he sees things with an openness and clarity that no other candidate possesses.

Do you understand the US gun lobby? I don't. Their arguments are based on the second amendment to the constitution, written more than 200 years ago and reflecting the conditions of the time. It made sense then to allow people who could not be protected by the authorities to have some meand of protection. These means then included arms such as muskets and flint-lock pistols, with an accuracy of a few metres and a limitied firing capacity. The amendment takes no account of rapid-fire, super powerful modern automatic weapons of frightening destructive capability, nor of the type of society in which we live today.

Grow up, Americans, and forget your guns.

Monday, 25 January 2016

iTunes Genius

Well, there’s a strange thing.

I use iTunes to store and organise my eclectic music collection. I thought I had everything nicely set up, with all the album art showing, and songs that did not belong to an album stored together in their own appropriate collection.

Then I thought I’d give iTunes Genius a try.

According to Apple’s own iTunes 12 for Mac Glossary, Genius offers the following features:

Genius: A feature that enables you to find new music—in your library and in the iTunes Store—related to music already in your library.

Genius Mix: An ongoing playlist in a particular genre—like a commercial-free radio station playing your favorite [SIC] songs—that iTunes creates from music in your library. iTunes can create up to 12 Genius Mixes.

Genius playlist: A playlist iTunes creates of songs that go great with a song you specify.

So I turned on Genius (iTunes menu item Store>Turn On Genius) and, after having confirmed my desire to turn it on, Genius started analysing my music library of some 7,000 tracks. This took several minutes, but then I was able to, for example, select a track and create a Genius playlist, or simply select one of the several Genius mixes that had been automagically created and were now available through the Genius Mixes item in the Library section of the Playlists column.

To be honest, the few playlists I looked at by simply selecting a single track didn’t look much to write home about, so instead I clicked on the Genius Mixes item and was presented with an impressive-looking screen of 12 large icons, each made up of four pieces of cover art. And each icon represented a collection of tracks that purported to belong to a similar theme, as defined by Genius:



Now I have no idea how Genius figures out what goes where, but if you look carefully at that partial screen shot, it’s clear that something’s wrong somewhere!

The Country Mix and Classical Mix playlists (for that is what they are) look fine, but already with the '50s Oldies Mix there’s a problem, for the Elvis album shown there contains songs, not from the 50s, but from the 60s. A minor problem, you might think, So why then are there three Americana Mix playlists? And why do the second and third of these playlists include artists who don’t belong under the nomer “Americana,” namely The Who, Status Quo, Dire Straits, and The Shadows?

The ‘60s Mix is fine (it shows just a single piece of cover art in the screen shot because I was actually plying that playlist when I took the screenshot), but Aretha Franklin surely belongs more properly in the Classic R&B Mix than in the Pop Mix.

To be honest, I suspect that the problem has to do with the sort of meta information that I have provided for the individual tracks. I ripped almost everything from my own collection of CDs and, although I was always careful to get artist names, track names and album names correct, I did not always fill in fields such as Date or Genre. Presumably, Genius uses this information at least to partly satisfy its classifying algorithm; I expect, too, it accesses information from the iTunes store, based on album name and artist name and that if an exact match is not found, problems can arise.

Genius seems to have plenty of potential, but like everything else that tries to automate, the old adage of GIGO rules the roost: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I don’t provide accurate source information, so the result is not entirely satisfactory.

(Incidentally, the '60s Mix is very good!)

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Roscón de Reyes

In Belgium and the Netherlands we have Speculaaskoek, in the UK there’s Christmas cake (or, even worse, Christmas pudding), Germans like stollen for some inexplicable reason, and the Italians prefer panettone. Here in Spain, however, the preferred festive pastry is Roscón de Reyes, or Three Kings Cake.

As with many symbols of this period of the year, the Roscón de Reyes probably dates back to the good old days of paganism, before the Christians came along and changed everything to suit their own ideas. A couple of centuries BC already, the feast of Saturnalia was celebrated with candles, gift-giving, the welcoming of the birth of new light after the dark of winter (sound familiar…?) and all sorts of other festive indulgences. Part of these indulgences was a tart, prepared with dried fruits, in which was hidden a bean as the symbol of prosperity.

The idea of the tart survived through the centuries in various parts of the Roman Empire, During the reign of French king Louis XV, a baker decided to hide not just a bean in the tart, but also a golden coin. Since that time, the significance of the bean dwindled, but whoever discovered the coin (later substituted by a small figure) was crowned King of the Feast.

Nowadays, the person who finds the figure is still crowned King of the Feast, but the one who finds the bean must pay for the Roscón!

Roscóns can be bought in all bakers and supermarkets in Spain in the period leading up to and including Christmas (and Christmas here stretches to Epiphany). They come in all sorts of sizes, some cut in half like a sandwich and filled with cream, or some other sweet substance. But that’s the easy way. I thought it would be nice to make my own roscón…

There are many recipes for Roscón available on the Web, but here’s one I found in the book, Pan Casero by Ibán Yarza (a wonderful book, full of very good information as well as excellent step-by-step illustrated recipes for more than 30 sorts of bread). It is quite laborious, but the result is worth it.

Ingredients

   Starter dough
      Flour 90g
      Milk 50g
      Fresh yeast 2g (or 0.7g of dried yeast)

   Dough
      Starter dough 142g (as above)
       Strong flour 340g
       Milk 120g
       Eggs 2 large
       Sugar 80g
       Yeast 15g (or 5g dried yeast)
       Salt 5g (I didn’t use any)
       Butter 60g

   Flavourings
       Rum 20g
       Orange blossom water 14g
       Skin of half an orange and half a lemon (not the white part, as this becomes bitter)
       Half a cinnamon stick

   Decoration
       Crystallised fruits, almonds, sugar, etc.
       Beaten egg


The day before you wish to make the roscón, the starter dough and the milk infusion must be prepared. Dissolve 2g of fresh yeast (or .7g of dried yeast) in 50g of warm (not hot!), mix in 90g of flour and knead for a few minutes to achieve a nice even dough. Make a ball of this dough and place it in a covered container (sufficiently large to allow for expansion). Place this container in the fridge and leave it there for some 24 hours. As for the milk infusion, allow the orange and lemon peel and cinnamon stick to boil with the milk together for five minutes; remove from the heat and allow to stand for several hours (or the whole night through). During this process, some of the milk will evaporate. Just before you start kneading the dough (next paragraph) remove the cinnamon and the peels and top up the milk with the rum and the orange blossom water to reach about 120g (add a little more milk, if necessary).

On the second day, remove the starter dough from the fridge: it should be well risen and spongy (when I tried this with dried yeast, the effect was amazing: spongy and beautiful. With fresh yeast, however, the effect was less spectacular, so I allowed the mixture to stand in its container next to a radiator for several more hours and that did the trick). Mix together all of the ingredients for the dough, apart from the butter. It is best not to add all of the milk infusion at one time, otherwise the dough might become too wet. In fact, the dough should stick a little to the surface and to your hands. Allow the mixture to rest for some 10 minutes before kneading and notice how it then sticks less. Knead for 5 minutes, then add the butter, small pieces at a time (the butter should be soft, but not melting). Ensure that the butter is fully incorporated into the dough by squeezing the dough with the butter through your fingers: the idea is not to melt the butter, but to incorporate it through friction.

Allow the mixture to rest for a few minutes and then knead it for a further 8 to 10 minutes, until it becomes shiny and smooth (the sponginess of the dough will depend largely on how well this kneading is carried out). Allow the dough to rest in a large bowl until it doubles in volume (up to several hours, depending on the ambient conditions).

When the dough has risen sufficiently, empty it out onto the work surface and knock it back, using both hands to remove all of the gas. Make a ball of the dough, cover it and allow to rest for 15 minutes before shaping it. Trying to shape it without allowing it to relax will cause it to fall apart.

Rub a small amount of flour into your hands in order to shape the dough. Use one or two fingers to poke a hole into the centre of the ball of dough and through it, all the way to the work surface. Widen this hole progressively, until both hands can be used. Then start stretching the dough gently and equally; you can even lift it up, allowing gravity to stretch it further. Finally, place the roscón on a sheet of baking paper and form it into a circle. If the dough seems tense, allow it to rest for some 5 minutes, after which you can carry out any adjustments or corrections you might find necessary. Now is also the time to hide the bean and the figurine in the roscón: do so by pushing them here and there into the base, squeezing the holes tightly to make sure they are sealed (wrap the items in aluminium foil). Brush the surface of the roscón with a beaten egg and then allow to rise for an hour-and-a-half (90 minutes), during which time it should just about double in volume.

Now brush the roscón again with the beaten egg and decorate it with crystallised fruits, sugar, almonds, or whatever else takes your fancy (hint: if you can’t find very coarse sugar, add a teaspoon of water to two table-spoons of sugar, and stir well to obtain a good alternative). Bake in the middle of the oven at 19°C for about 25 minutes, keeping an eye on it that it does not become too brown.

I made my first roscón as a test a few weeks ago and it turned out quite well. I then used dried yeast.


Yesterday I made a second roscón, this time with fresh yeast.



If I can do it, so can you.


Happy New Year!