Category Archives: Europe

Walking around a winter wonderland

It snowed in Luxembourg this morning.

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It was a rather lovely, peaceful snowy scene in the park near my apartment this morning so I took a walk around it before going in search of furniture. I wandered over to the lift down to Pfaffenthal but that was closed for some reason. I don’t know why.

This is what you could see from the Ville Haute near the lift anyway so you got the view even if you couldn’t get into the viewing platform.

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The bridge is called the Charlotte or the Red Bridge. I think they like the colour idea because the new bridge in the city centre is called the Blue Bridge. It was built because the main bridge, called the Adolphe Bridge, is in need of serious repair so it had to be closed. Imagine, if you will, closing O’Connell Bridge and building a temporary replacement almost right next to it. That’s what the Luxembourgers appeared to do.

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The glassy thing on the left is the elevator.

Anyway, flickr is not cooperating with me right now so I might add other photographs later.

The quest for knowledge

First up, I am going to recommend a book which I am in the process of reading called The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan and it is the history of civilisation and trade geographically from the Middle East rather than from Western Europe. It is absolutely fascinating. I bought the paperback the other day because to be frank, it is one of the rare text dense books which is worth having a hard copy of rather than loading up to your kindle. By the way I need new bookshelves.

With that said, one of my guilty pleasures lately has been reading below the line on Guardian articles regarding the impact of the UK vote to leave the European Union – I will not call this Brexit – I did not much like the term Brangelina either. The Guardian was broadly in favour of rejecting the referendum to leave and it has a bunch of columnists who are ready to write reams on the impact. So far, they have not yet found any benefits although below the line, there are plenty to say “we got more sovereignty”.

Before the vote, I questioned an online interlocutor based in the UK how he was able to convince himself that voting to leave the EU would gain him in democracy since the Head of State was a hereditary monarch and their second chamber was also unelected and part hereditary. Plus, they have that awful first past the post system which is designed for “stability” but means that they get sea changes rather than stable incremental changes. It was a start, he advised me, pitifully.

I’ve tried to understand his argument, particularly in the context of him favouring the so called Norway Solution where you have to comply with a bunch of EU legal instruments, pay into the EU and allow all four pillars of the single market, specifically freedom of movement of labour being the contentious one in the UK at the moment.

You could write reams on the unintended consequences of the UK referendum result – for me one of the fascinating one is that it has pre-empted a change in views across Europe with EU membership currently gaining in favour in countries like Finland where the True Finns party is now desperately trying to shore up support for a referendum in the face of a population which has looked at the UK, looked at their borders and gone, you know what…things could be a whole pile worse.

Within the UK, though, the comments pages of newspapers are a fascinating reflection of the different facets of British society. Even if you choose not do discuss the geographical differences, there are clear differences in understanding the issues. Because I have friends who work in the academic research sector, I happen to have somewhat more of an interest in the impact on research budgets so I tend to read pieces on that. There have been a few lately because grant proposals are being prepared for Horizon 2020 – a huge European research funding program – and uncertainty about the UK’s position in Europe over the next five years – is causing grant applicants grief. Do we apply with UK based researchers even though they might be out before we draw down funding or start the project? The answer is increasingly “wait and see”.

This was forecast pre vote. Like a lot of forecasts, it was written off as fear mongering.

I do not especially want to talk in detail about the impact on science funding, or the impact on jobs or what will or will not happen with immigration and points systems. These are all details. What has struck me most about reading below the line is the absolute certainty of people who cannot accept that voting in favour to leave the European Union has huge costs associated with it. From the ones who point out that the UK pays more into the EU than it gets back but who still can’t work out that if their economy takes a hit, the money won’t be there to finance the science that historically got money from European budgets – and getting funding from UK research budgets has become increasingly difficult.

This kind of certainty worries me sometimes. It is indicative of people who are far too willing to reject other people’s experience in favour of what they know to be true. Very often it is indicative of a closed mind. One of the biggest problems the Remain campaign had was that explaining reality was generally rejected. Even now, as things are starting to rise to the surface in an none too positive way, there is still a strong desire to reject reality in favour of what people know to be true when in fact, what they know to be true is a) untrue and b) based on some misinterpretation and or misunderstanding.

There is some evidence to suggest that there is a correlation between those who left school early and those who voted in favour of exit. One of the things which interested me – and stunned me – about the UK as I was growing up was that it was more or less common and socially acceptable to leave school at what was then O-level stage, or 16 for the most part. People doing A-levels seemed to be sort of special butterflies.

The UK has recently updated its legislation to make sure that young people stay in full time education or some sort of training until 18 now.

Online discussions become heated because a lot of people – particularly and often on the wrong side of a debate – refuse to take a step backwards and ask “could I possibly have gotten this wrong” whereas people on the right side of the debate frequently do, and frequently own their lack of knowledge, and they also demonstrate that they are willing to add to their knowledge.

I suppose this is where I am getting down to the crux of the matter. Where do people learn to step back and question their own knowledge, and where do people engage in certainty so certain that demonstrating to them that they are wrong has no impact?

It seems to me that people who have a greater knowledge are more open to a) adding to that knowledge and b) updating that knowledge than people who have a lesser knowledge. You see this in any debate online although a few generate a lot more heat than others.

If I had one question for the world today, it would be: how do we get people interested in learning more and recognising the limits of their knowledge (and then pushing them back) rather than hiding in their comfort zone of certainty.

It’s not a question of making information and sources available there – this is already done although sorting valid sources from invalid sources is increasingly hard – but it’s something in education and something in media. What is fascinating is that…it works for some people. And it doesn’t work for some people.

How do we get people on a quest for knowledge that changes attitudes and dogma in this way? In my opinion, if the UK is to respond effectively to its decision to leave the European Union, it needs to do this for its population as a whole because it otherwise will not develop the agility to respond to its new place in the world order.

In the meantime, The Silk Roads was number 2 in the UK non-fiction chart last week. That desire for knowledge does already exist. Harnessing it now…that’s the next question.

Nice is news

Late last night before I went to bed I saw a worrying headline in my social media feeds to suggest some sort of tragedy had happened in Nice. I like Nice. I’ve been there on holidays a couple of times. Some gorgeous buildings. The city is colourful. Not a big fan of the somewhat stony beach mind, but the prom is lovely.

And today it is in mourning because someone decided to drive a truck through a crowd. There is no valid justification for doing any such thing deliberately, no matter what your political stance is, no matter what your purported religious faith is. It’s a stupid, ungodly, evil thing to do.

I cannot watch the news and I don’t want to see the papers. Far too often I’m waking up of a morning and the world is a little bit stranger than it used to be the night before when I went to bed.

Funding for science

One of the core concerns raised prior to the referendum in the UK on 23 June related to funding for scientific research. In a way, it was one of many aspects of exit which was either ignored by the greater part of the population, or simply did not exist for them. Since the referendum, anecdotally, researchers are finding that they are less likely to be included in new applications for EU grant funding for large scale research projects. Projects which may have budgets of over a million euro. We are not talking about fiddly little projects.

The response in the UK to this has been sadly rather illuminating. There are some people who just see the EU as an amorphous blob and assume that reports of funding opportunities at EU level dropping off is the fault of the EU (rather than the fault of the UK for voting a desire to be out). There are some people who saw this coming and are irate that they were ignored in the run up. What is said is that there are people who just don’t want to hear when they are wrong.

What the EU are doing, they declare, is illegal. This is evidence that they do not know what the EU are doing anyway, which, in this case, is nothing. People putting projects together are less likely to include British based researchers because Britain’s position in the EU over a time frame of 5 years is now extremely unclear. This is hardly the EU’s fault, nor is it the fault of the researchers putting projects together. They are dealing with reality here.

I find it extraordinary that people who want to be out of the European Union are complaining bitterly about things happening that are on their road to being out of the European Union.  What did they think was going to happen? That nothing much would change, that they would retain every facet of their lives currently only that the gold starred blue flag would go away and that they’d get all the benefits of being part of the European Union without actually having to contribute to it?

There is a view about in the UK that this will lead to the loss of a lot of researchers who will choose to move where things interest them rather than remain in the UK where there has been a lot of messing with local funding for academic research. Equally, there are views around that researchers are bleeding the country dry and not doing real work (not like those private sector employees). In all of this, I wonder where we lost the ability to recognise that sometimes, we don’t know (when you have people who do no scientific research at all screaming that senior scientists do not know what they are talking about when it comes to scientific funding, there’s a serious problem with the inability to recognise the limits of your own knowledge).

Even if the UK are to make a reasonable success of having to create links with all those countries they already had links with, I do not know how we fix society such that people listen and learn rather than listen and scream back.

As it happens, I spent a year at university in the UK. I am reasonably sure that people will adapt and cope. But you know, adapting and coping with a self inflicted injury is somehow harder than avoiding the injury in the first place. The UK is on a journey, now very much without a map I suspect.

Blavet

My mother spent years trying to get me to paint and I think she had oil paints in mind. When push came to shove, I went for water colours instead and now I have discovered that actually, art supplies are a much greater problem in my life than camera gear ever was.

Anyway. It’s pouring in Dublin today and I am feeling somewhat lethargic, so I am whiling away the time by occasionally doing some tidying and cleaning, and by reading a new drawing book (which is tempting me to buy even more drawing supplies) and doing some painting and drawing. I do not know how many sketchbooks I have on the go at the moment but I think 6 is not an over estimate.

I usually have no difficulty in identifying things I want to draw or paint when I am driving,. When confronted with a sketchbook and some of my art gear, it’s a different matter. The fear takes me.

For some reason, because I was traveling in my mind, I suppose, I decided to draw (let’s draw first anyway and see how I get on) and possibly paint one of those soul food places. Everyone has them. Mine include the point in Doolin (which was really gorgeous the last time I was down there), the Pointe du Raz at a pointy bit of Brittany and the boat graveyard on the Blavet river outside Lorient. I’d love to give you directions but I absolutely get lost every time I go looking for it. And I can’t remember the last time I was there but I have a nasty feeling it is at least five years.

Lorient is a fine big city so it comes as a surprise that you can be really near it – up the river from it more or less – and be completely immune to the feeling that you are anywhere much near civilisation. The Blavet is very wide at that point, so that probably explains why it became a place to come and scuttle boats. Most of the boats there are wooden and in varying states of decay. For me there is one iconic boat which, at high tide just has its prow sticking up out of the water. This part of the Blavet is also tidal.

Most of the time I’ve been there, I’ve been either on my own, or there has been at most 1 or 2 other persons there. I brought my mother once. There is reasonable amount of parking, and that is probably less to support the beauty spot that somehow, illogically, a dumping ground for boats who have outlived their usefulness (most of the boats if not all were working boats and the tuna fishing fleet was dumped there at the start of the 20th century). Really it should look like a scrapyard, and, somehow it doesn’t. I suspect the reason for that is that the overwhelming majority of the boats are not made from modern ship building materials like metal or fibre glass. There are a few, and yet they seem curiously out of place. The river side hosts an open air theatre and I suspect that is why there is sufficient parking there. It’s in a beautiful location.

I don’t know that we really have places like that, and where boats have been abandoned in harbours, they have often been cleaned up or taken away and broken up.

The boat I elected to draw was the sticky up prow which has a comparatively modern look about it in terms of having a reg number. But like all the others, it’s made of wood for the most part, with some metal that is gradually rusting away. Ironically, when I sketched it, I got the prow wrong (I call these learning experiences) but otherwise…I’m happy with it.

 

Somehow, the fact that it’s still raining in Dublin seems hardly relevant.

Other things I learned today – titanium white in the Sennelier half pan set is not fun to work with. I must see what WN has to offer on that front. I need something that doesn’t turn other colours into what looks like pottery clay.

Places in my time line

Most days, I listen to the radio on the way to work in the car, like most people. I don’t much like driving in Dublin but for all that, it’s ten thousand times better than getting the bus was. Out of ecological collective responsibility grounds I tried that for 4 months. It was not good.

But I have between 30 and 60 minutes in the car most mornings, depending on what time I leave home, and I listen to the radio because I can’t read, and I can’t do study, and I can’t do other things I might do with an hour free. For one thing, there are cyclists and for another there are Audi drivers. I maximise the use I get out of that time by listening to foreign language radio. I start off with NDR from Germany, and usually, around half way through the journey, or when the sports news comes on, I switch to France Info. Sometimes, on the way home I listen to RTBF. RTBF is the Belgian/French language equivalent of RTE and I listen to it because I used to live in Brussels. I don’t often care too much about the content of the news, but I value the fact that it forces me to keep a level of foreign language comprehension skills active. Switching between them is good for me too.

On Monday evening this week, I was listening to RTBF and for various reasons, in a rush, RTBF was what remained on the radio at twenty past seven on Tuesday morning. I never listen to it in the morning – my default is always NDR for the morning – so it was pure chance that I tuned in just as reports were starting to break about the explosions at the airport in Brussels. I can remember my blood running cold…I can remember the presenters frantically trying telling people not to go to the airport, that all access was closed, frantically trying to find out what had happened. They had no reporters on the ground at the airport and this was less than 30 minutes, I guess, after the first bomb had gone off. They had so little information at that point in time that they weren’t sure where in the airport the two bombs had gone off. Initially, there was a report that one might have gone off on the tarmac. I worked at an airport for more than 10 years of my life. How on earth, I wondered, in shock, could an explosion happen on the tarmac?

I drove to work not hearing the words “gas explosion” or “accident” but “people are being very careful not to identify the cause of these explosions”. I also learned that both explosions appeared to take place in the check in hall in the terminal building.

By the time I got to work, scant reports about Maalbeek were starting to come out and on that, it seemed clear that the odds of finding a benign – for want of a suitable term – cause of the incident at the airport – were growing much, much longer. Smoke pouring out of underground stations is not generally a good thing.

I’ve been over and back to Brussels a lot in the last 24 months. The last couple of times I had cause to stay overnight there, it’s been at the Thon Hotel in the EU quarter. It’s about 20 metres from Maalbeek. On Tuesday, its lobby became an A&E incident room for the casualties from the explosion below.  I lived 2 metro stops along the same line so pretty much everywhere I went by metro in Brussels when I was living there took me through Maalbeek. TBH, this felt awfully close to a person I used to be.

One of the running themes in the Vimes collection of Discworld books by Terry Pratchett talks about how, in staying alive in the face of an attractive bounty on his head for the Assassin’s Guild, he needs to be lucky every single day. The would be assassin only has to be lucky once. That’s the balance of luck between us, the public, and anyone who wants to cause chaos. And no matter how much work we do to minimise risk in the face of attacks like this, it’s still the case: terrorist only has to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all the time. No matter how much we balance the odds in our favour, they have to be lucky once.

I rail against calling them terrorists, as it happens. That gives them the status they are looking for. They are mass murdering criminals, and it is as criminals we should be treating them, not some special snowflakes.

Brussels is an extraordinary city. I loved it for the fact that pretty much anything I wanted to do, I could. I came home for family reasons in the end, but there are a lot of days – particularly sitting in the car watching yet another Audi A6 driver trying to whip off the front of my car – where I wish Dublin was more like Brussels. In the way of public transport, for example, in the way of shopping. It has a lot of the pluses of living somewhere like Paris without too many of the minuses, like scale. There are days I truly miss the smell of fresh bread from the bakery that was near my apartment.  I love that it has giant comicbook murals. I love some of its street art. I love the architecture of the buildings. And I love the shops.

I am immensely pissed off that anyone would bomb it. And I am heartbroken that the families of more than 30 people are coming to terms with a life less ordinary and that for 300 more people and their families, yesterday was a lot different to how all the tomorrows will be.

For all my friends in Belgium #brussels #bruxelles #brussel #lifeboat #friendship #birdsofaclef

A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

Main Railway Station, Helsinki

It’s three years since I was last in Finland – I’d say it was far too long but there was a 14 year gap prior to that.

Anyway, for various art related reasons I wanted a picture of an icebreaker and I knew there had been one near the hotel where I stayed the last time and given I was still dragging a large camera around then, I would have been surprised if I didn’t take a picture of it. So I rooted out the relevant hard drive to find the pictures from Helsinki, and while I was scrolling through them, I found this.

 

IMG_1080Basically, this is the railway station in Helsinki. It’s a rather austere looking building – a lot of discussions online suggest it’s a bit Soviet Union. The day I got the train to Tampere, there was, however, a train to Saint Petersburg on one of the quays. Finland does share a border with Russia. I’ve always remembered the other picture I took of the train station, or made anyway as the processing was rather unique IMG_1083

So I’d forgotten about this. Whether it is the passage of time, or the mood I find myself in now, I suddenly find I love the black and white picture now, and particularly, in full screen version as my desktop image. Helsinki is a lovely city. I really do want to go back.

For what it’s worth, I did take a picture of the icebreaker too. Here it is.

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Language learning supports

Last last night, I hit one of the many small milestones I give myself in the ongoing quest of learning/teaching myself Finnish. I hit 650 words covered in my Memrise vocabulary course. This is very slightly over 20 per cent of the quest.

If you spend any time around the world of language learning online, you tend to come across any number of methods that promise to make things easy to learn to be fluent in a language. There is Fluent in 3 Months, for example, and then there is Duolingo which everyone rams down your throat when it comes to educational software.

If you drill down to what you need to learn to be able to speak a language, it generally amounts to learning a lot of words, and learning the framework for putting it together. So a lot depends on your response to the idea that to at least have a fighting chance of learning a language you need to learn some grammar, and you need to learn some words, a number in the thousands. A lot of people, particularly English native speakers, have problems with both because they have never been motivated enough to handle this for any language other than their own, and very often, they have not gotten a decent grammatical framework in their own language owing to teaching policy changes over the last 30-40 years. In that context, easy solutions seem enticing; but they do not remove the need to learn some grammar and learn some vocabulary.

There are no discussions around “what is fluency anyway” which removes from you the need to learn these things.

So currently I am learning Finnish (again) in a country where, it must be said, teaching support is thin on the ground. My tools in this task are (a) four weeks of Finnish in Finland in 1998 (b) a bunch of text books acquired around then (c) Tunein.com (d) YLE’s website (e) Memrise (f) Facebook and (g) a notebook.

Tunein gives me access to radio to listen to. I listen (if I am awake) to the morning program on YLE Puhe because it covers international news so I have context that I can get an idea of what’s going on. What matters is that I learn to hear words that I’m learning else where.

YLE has the news in Easy Finnish for learners. One of the most useful things there is that as you pick up Finnish vocabulary, this gets easier and easier to read. Facebook has newsfeeds from a bunch of Finnish media organisations. I don’t have time to read them all but most days I get to look at things and try and figure what is happening in Finland. Yesterday was National Nature Day in Finland, a day on which Finns are encouraged to go out and enjoy the wonderful nature around them. I can categorically say that Finland is a stunning country and I fully endorse this exercise. Bring mosquito repellent.

But for those to work for you, for the radio and the newspapers to start making sense you need to start looking at vocabulary and basically, a lot depends on how you want to approach that; either via long printed lists, or handwriting your own lists, your own testing cards for example. I’ve always know that you don’t learn vocabulary by trying to learn it off, but by constantly testing yourself and aside from creating some system to do it yourself, Memrise is actually the handiest tool to do that. They dress what they are doing up in some science in terms of identifying when you get tested on stuff which I haven’t fully worked out yet but it doesn’t matter. The important thing from my point of view is that Memrise has a handful of Finnish tools, including one vocabulary list of 3000 words and another list of verbs as a vocab list. They have similar large lists for other languages.

Learning 3000 words of Finnish isn’t going to mean I speak or write Finnish although it does mean I understand more of it, so the other thing that I am now doing most days (now that I have 600 words or so to play with) is write some Finnish – simple and all as it is – daily.

So I have a daily schedule that now involves the following:

  • reviewing the vocab I already have
  • learning new vocab
  • learning new verbs
  • conjugating verbs per info in my grammar book
  • reading the news in Easy Finnish from YLE

The thing is, learning a language takes time and effort. I’ve targetted next year to see about taking advanced Finnish exams which means the ante has to be upped as I get better. I know from past experience that the more words I know, in general, the easier subsequent words become to learn as you start to develop a language instinct. I know from past experience that the more I read, the better I will write.

There is really only one thing missing from all this and that is the problem relating to speaking. I am not yet doing any of that. I know there are online options for language exchange but the last time I looked for one, my language interest wasn’t available. But I’m resourceful and I dare say that I will figure something out, either through finding an online message board in Finnish related to some other interest I have, or by hacking the Finnish community on twitter. There are always doors which can be opened.

 

EU membership and Hungary

This is interesting.  Per AP, Viktor Orban yesterday reaffirmed Hungary’s membership of NATO and the European Union.

Hungary’s prime minister said Friday that despite differences of opinion, the country must remain a member of the European Union and NATO.

I don’t have so much of an interest in NATO (I really don’t have time and Ireland isn’t a member) but I do take an interest in matters in the European Union and Viktor Orban was at the European Parliament last week or the week before taking some criticism over, amongst other things, the death penalty. In particular, he met significant criticism from Guy Verhofstadt.

 

 

Open days at the European Institutions

Around 9 May every year, the European Institutions run an Open House event. If you’re in Dublin, you’ll find some events (this year food related) on the nearest work day (which on this occasion was Friday 8 May). If you can go to Brussels, and have an interest in the European institutions, it’s worth a trip.

Via Facebook, I was sent the SCIC agenda for the day. SCIC is that part of the European Commission which is responsible for conference and meeting organisation, and, for my purposes, the interpreting service. There were a few discussions on the table which I wanted to hear, and there also was an opportunity to hear a few Commissioners speak. We hear a lot about how distant Europe is and, if you never seek it out, it can be.

What struck me most about the day is this is something we could do in Ireland in some respects as well, not just from a European perspective, but from a civic interest in our country perspective.

A couple of talks stood out for me. I was impressed with Maroš Šefčovič’s discussion on energy policy unity. Marianne Thyssen also spoke comprehensively about youth unemployment. Both Commissioners took questions from the floor and in particular, an organisation with a specific interest in youth unemployment in Belgium took the opportunity to engage directly with Ms Thyssen. This is the sort of access which is often really not possible and yet I think there is a lot to be said for it.

However, possibly one of the more important ones was the presentation on the European budget. The budget for the European Union as a whole, is 145 billion euro. This compares very well to most national budgets (it’s less, for example, than the budget for Belgium itself). One of the key points this presentation highlighted is that we do not really know enough about how Europe works. I’d tend to agree with this for various reasons and I’ve wondered how we fix this when people are unwilling to recognise the difference between Europe, the European Union, The European Commission, The European Parliament, and the different pieces which make up the jigsaw.

Apart from that, the question of machine translation and the possibility of automated interpreting were discussed. As someone with more than a passing interest in both, I found those two presentations interesting although I had expected something different from the interpreting. In simple terms, we are closer to automated translation than to automated interpreting, and this does not surprise me based on my knowledge of artificial intelligence in both fields. A lot more work is required for voice/language recognition to even get automated interpreting off the ground and although there have been signal advances in machine translation, arguably, it is still somewhat limited in quality terms. It is very heavily dependent on a body of translation done and corrected by humans. Much of that is linked to our approach to natural language processing.

The presentations were in a number of languages and SCIC had a couple of teams of interpreters on hand to handle the meetings and presentations. Without wanting to go into that detail too much, they provided language channels in French, German, English and Dutch, and accepted speaker input in Latvian and Slovakian in addition. The conference room in question, the Schuman Room in the Berlaymont which is that iconic EU building which has been in geography school books since the 1980s, is a gorgeous room to work in (you can trust me on this), and they opened up 9 interpreting booths for people to have a go. If you know anyone who has even the remotest interest in interpreting, it is a golden opportunity. I did it although strictly speaking, I already knew how it was going to go. Which is basically fun.

Apart from the conference stuff, in the Commission, every DG had a stand with information. If you wanted to collect informative leaflets, books, and other bits and bobs, it was terrific. I was limited by hand luggage considerations so didn’t go completely wild. I favoured Eurostat’s publications however.

This was all the European Commission. It’s worth knowing that a 10 minute walk away, the European Parliament was running events for the day and across the road, the Council of the European Union had opened up access as well. I just didn’t have time to do it all.

I think there’s a lot to be said for events like this; events which open up access for European citizens. I found it interesting and informative, and it offered experiences that I think would benefit most young Europeans.