Category Archives: life in general

Living in the real world

One of the things which annoys me about discourse in general is that if you are discussing things like work, unemployment, the downsides of work, at some point, it is likely that some person will say something along the lines of “they need to live in the real world”, or “you’re living in the real world now”.

Without wanting to go into it in too much detail, I got told I was living in the real world now in response to a comment that I was finding my city centre bus commute to be a hassle. It is a hassle for various reasons. It is unpredictable in length, depending on what bus model I wind up on, I have a greater or lesser likelihood of being extremely travel sick by the time I get to the city centre, and a journey distance of 6.7 kilometres can take anything between 25 minutes and an hour. If I’m getting really travel sick, it’s likely that the journey is also taking longer than usual. Some bus drivers are absolute killers on the clutch. I thought the buses were all automatic but some days I wonder.

Anyway, this apparently means I am now living in the real world. I find it annoying, and to be honest, dishonest. It’s been a feature of my life for the last 3 months. Prior to that, for 9 months I was “resting” meaning I was applying for jobs after finishing college, and prior to that, I was commuting over and back to UCD, leaving home at 6.55 to a) get across the city in a reasonable space of time and b) get a parking space at UCD. I have no doubt there are some people who would assume that because I was a student for a year, I wasn’t living in the real world. Prior to that I drove to work for more than a dozen years. That must have been a fantasy universe as well.

This real world nonsense is flung at people in a lot of debates. Teachers get told they should try living in the real world. I’ve taught teenagers. I don’t know one person in any job that I’ve worked in who has done the whole spiel about teachers having an easy life who has any even remote concept of what’s involved in teaching. It may not be the real world, fine. But as a dream world, it’s a lot bloody harder than most of the other jobs I’ve worked in. I think people use the real world as a signifier that they are, or have been envious of people for some reason. Sure, you’d like not to go into work for 9 months. Try dealing with the stress of managing finances in those circumstances. The real world varies. For some people it’s incredibly easy, compared to others. For some, it is incredibly hard. Often, over time, it changes.

Life doesn’t become more real either which way. It only is as it is and it’s up to you to recognise what you can change. I’ve played every game around the bus schedule to try and minimise the impact of it on my life. My life didn’t magically become more real in the last three months because I was getting the bus to work compared to the last 15 years where I mostly drove.

It is a pure intellectual insult to split people into those who live in the real world and those who do not.

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.

 

Boxed Lives

I have an ongoing struggle to organise stuff in my life. I own a lot of stuff. I own a lot of CDs, a lot of notebooks, a lot of books. And I’m limited in how I can organise things to keep them under control. In my wardrobe, there’s a box of yarn, and a box of tapestries. Yesterday, I emptied some boxes of stuff.

Over breakfast, I was thinking about this. All this stuff I have, arguably, some of it isn’t necessary. But some of it, I don’t quite want to let go and, if I am honest, deep down, I don’t like having it in boxes. For example, I have 10 years worth of personal journals. Now people have different views of diaries/journals/whatever term you’d like to apply. In past lives – of which I’ve had a few at this stage of my existence – they weren’t kept in boxes. They were kept on shelves. They were a living testament to me, the things I did, the things that made me happy; the things that made me sad. This is not a eulogy of my life, more a feeling that when I box up my memories, I box up me.

One of the dangers with putting things in boxes is that they slowly become irrelevant to your day to day living. One of the boxes I emptied yesterday was a box of tins.

Pretty tins. Some of them came with tea inside, some of them were picked up on travels. Two of them I know I bought in Belgium which means I definitely had them at least 16 years, and possibly closer to 18. I won’t say I wasn’t slightly sentimentally attached to them. But…they had been in a box for at least a year; I have no where to store them and, more importantly, I wasn’t using them. I had two boxes of tins. I now have less than one box of tins. I won’t be adding to the collection beyond the tins which are in circulation in my kitchen until I can actually use the tins.

Boxes are handy for storage. We go to IKEA, we buy boxes and temporarily put stuff away. Sometimes, temporarily…becomes long…

I want to limit the existence of boxes in my life. I don’t know how to fix it all immediately, but I’m not really in a hurry to box up all my books and CDs, my bottles of ink for some indiscriminate time in the future when it will all be grand. The things we keep in boxes slowly migrate from our lives and when that happens, we’ve already lost them.

Rainy Saturday

It’s been raining.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. My garden, such as it is, could do with it.

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And I have been painting. Some lucky family members are going to get postcards in the future – dependent on when I have stamps sorted out.

Way back in the early days of my search for suitable paper, I picked up a set of watercolour postcards. I’ve played and failed with them over time. I wasn’t very good at painting, by which I mean, noticeably worse than I am now. But there were half a dozen postcards left and the only thing anyone gets in the post lately seems to be bills. Postcards were once a thing. Now it’s email and pinterest pins, and FaceBook posts.

What you see above is pretty much my painting painting kit (I have pencils as well, let’s not go there). The paintbox on the left, my mother bought for me. The one on the right I bought yesterday as a spill over. It came with 12 half pans of colour to, out of which I took 7 which I don’t use much, put in five commonly used colours as spares, and added a couple of new colours which I didn’t have a lot of success in mixing. The half pans are a mix of Cotman student half pans and two or three Winsor & Newton Artist Grade colour. I can’t get the Cotman half pans loose in Dublin (so far) and while I’m well aware that the W&N are technically “better”, I really can’t send too much money in their direction right now. But the blank spaces are for other colours I may feel the need to get in the future.

I like the little boxes because they are small and tidy – compared to my camera equipment, for example. I have looked at some of the enamel (otherwise known as “expensive” boxes) and while I strongly believe in getting the best tools you can go for, the truth is, I got into this whole thing not because I had visions of producing great art, but because the urban sketching movement appealed to me, the whole idea, I suppose not so much of location painting, because sometimes I just don’t have time and there’s a camera on my phone which I use to take snaps of things I may want to revisit with a sketchbook later, but recording the environment around me because it changes. Dublin has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Not doing the paintings on location, however, means that to some extent, a lot of my stuff can’t go on the urban sketcher feeds yet. However, for those days when I do hunker down and do some painting on location anywhere, I don’t want to be schlepping a whole art studio around. All that gear, excluding paper, fits into a pencil case.

Anyway.

The pictures aside, this is basically my art journal kit minus the paper. Two small paintboxes, a pencil, a fineliner, an eraser and a waterbrush. I have a set of actual brushes too, but one of the things that is handy about the waterbrush is that if I keep it filled, one thing I don’t need is a bottle of water. I had a vision of this all fitting into my handbag, which it did until I added the second paintbox (it doesn’t really matter that it doesn’t now because what also didn’t really fit was any thing like paper). I use Caran d’Ache water brushes, or that size in particular, because I like using them, they seem to survive longer than my Derwent ones and they behave better as well. I have one Pentel one as well. Like a lot of things in Ireland, the supply of some art materials can be difficult and the easiest water brushes to get now are Derwent ones; Easons had some yesterday and the Art and Hobby stores stock them as well. It was in an AnH store I got the Pentel one; it’s the only one I’ve ever seen here and therefore I’m somewhat sparing in my use of it. Kennedys have recently started stocking the Caran d’Ache ones so if you are in Dublin at least, that’s an option.

One of the things I have blogged about in some detail is the regrets I have about not keeping a travel art journal when I was travelling over the last 20 years. So when I sat down this evening, to the sound track of a fog horn (seriously), I sat down to paint places I have been. I’ve been to all three locations above. Two lighthouses, one in Ireland, and one in almost a direct line due south, in Spain. For people who know me, the lighthouses are probably not surprising. The other one is Sydney Opera House, and that’s round 4 of its sails in my life. They are getting better all the time. I do have the journal set aside to start revisiting places I have been and now I am starting to draw these places.

First impressions: Kusmi

Most people who know me are aware there’s a tea thing going on in my life, and if you know me at all well, you’ll know that the default choice if I have access to it is Marco Polo Noir from the Mariage Freres range. I can’t get it in Dublin.

Last week, one of my friends gave me some Kusmi tea, a sampler box if you like, of 24 teabags. Brown Thomas sell (or at least used to) sell some Kusmi tea and they are well known, apparently for detox teas.

I’m not going to review the tea right here, right now, as I only have one mug of tea beside me here (in a beautiful Dunoon china mug notable for the presence of at least one lighthouse painted on the exterior). I will say this though: the aroma on ripping off the crinkly transparent paper from the outside is utterly gorgeous. I am very happy with it.

the loss of CLerys

I read last night that Clerys had closed yesterday. I never saw that coming.

When I drilled down and thought about it more, I realised that, well, I hadn’t been in there in years. And if I wasn’t alone, well then, I should have seen it coming. Running a business in the centre of Dublin is a risky and high cost endeavour. Clerys was a big shop and it needed people to buy a lot of stuff in there to keep it going. RTE reckon about 400 people will have lost their jobs from this. In an economy which is theoretically growing again, that’s a lot when we measure changes in the jobless rate in the low thousands.

The problem is, even if I hadn’t thought about Clerys specifically, I had thought about the problems which probably have befallen it. Basically, it’s on O’Connell Street and this is, in fact, a major problem for Clerys. No one goes to O’Connell Street to do much shopping. The other two big stores on the street profit from proximity to Henry Street and the General Post Office. Otherwise, O’Connell Street is a bit tumbleweedish. Mostly when I get a bus into town now, it’s to run quickly to Henry Street and then, when I come back, the trip to the bus stop home doesn’t take me past Clerys. And why would it? There’s nothing much else there.

I was at the Road to Rising event on Easter Sunday this year and for the duration of that, O’Connell Street was pedestrianised from Abbey Street North. The weather was stunning, and there was a lovely atmosphere. It really was wonderful. And unique. Most days, even when the weather is good, the atmosphere on O’Connell Street is one of people passing through. You’d hardly know it existed really.

But O’Connell Street is a beautiful wide street and if, dispassionately, we considered reconfiguring the city to pedestrianise it, and reconsidered the businesses which open there – very few of which are attractive businesses for footfall – and turned into into a genuine city centre plaza, we could do a lot to open up the heart of the city. It would be a huge job and the sad thing for Dublin is that they take huge jobs with a lot of reluctance. In some respects, I’m amazed Grafton and Henry Streets ever got pedestrianised. The idea that you’d shut down O’Connell Street to motorised traffic, including buses, is something that would cause heart attacks all across the way. A city with a bunch of lovely, well presented shops, and nice café (and not just the fast food chains and a few pharmacies) and terraces. Instead of making O’Connell Street a arterial thoroughfare, which is basically what it is now, we could make it into a central civic square that people go to for the same of going there, to meet friends, have coffee and do some shopping.

In that context, a store like Clerys might have a future, and the rest of the small shops around O’Connell Street might be more interesting shops. In many respects, it could probably draw more shopping around it because Henry Street is already a decent store.

But even if we started to do it today, it’s too late to save Clerys and it’s too early to draw someone like Brown Thomas or even Marks and Spencers to the Clerys building.

Most of O’Connell Street was built in the early 20th century because lots of it was levelled between the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. A lot of the buildings, with some notable exceptions, are actually beautiful building. There is also some thought going into development around Parnell Square, another vaguely grimy part of town.

It seems to me sometimes, we have no vision for Dublin as a city. Dublin people seem to get very defensive about the idea that the city isn’t already perfect, which it isn’t, as anyone who navigates the public transport system would attest, and so discussions are often inconclusive.

Owen Keegan, the city manager, is looking at traffic and moving people around. I wish we would start the dialogue in terms of what we want the city to look like, rather than how to move people around. The second might come easier then. I just can’t see it happening.

 

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.

Neolithic monuments in Ireland

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Newgrange is one of the highest profile historic sites which we have in the country and when most people talk about going to Newgrange, they mean they want to see this one.

When I go to Newgrange, I always go to Knowth as well. Yes, you can actually go into the passage in Newgrange, and yes, it’s extremely well done but it’s always very busy.

Knowth is generally much quieter and, on occasion, no matter how busy Newgrange might be, you might have the site at Knowth more or less to yourself. There’s a lot to be said for this.

Knowth is bigger than Newgrange, but it does not look anywhere near as perfect. It hasn’t been restored (or reconstructed) in the same way as Newgrange was, and some different decisions have been made about the site. A key one is the question of the quartz stone. At Newgrange, this was built up as a wall. At Knowth, the view was taken that it was probably a terrace around the entrances. I’ve mixed feelings. Certainly Newgrange looks more complete but….

That aside, the reason I would still favour Knowth over Newgrange is the art. Knowth has significantly more external art than Newgrange and it is stunning.

Yes, the entry stone for Newgrange is iconic:

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but then, there’s this:

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and this:

20150415_160718I find what’s around the base of Knowth simply to be on a scale which is borderline unimaginable at Newgrange.

I didn’t have time to go to Dowth yet and it’s not included amongst the options you can get to from Bru na Boinne. However, if you are interested in neolithic art in Ireland in that area, I would strongly recommend Knowth as a seriously underrated site. It is wonderful. You can actually look down the passageway although access down it is not permitted to the public and you can see some public access work done on the eastern end. You can also walk to the top of it and the view from it is quite impressive.

I find the whole idea of pre-history in Ireland fascinating. If you go to the National Museum on Kildare Street, you’ll find examples of 3 and 4 thousand year old jewellery which contains carvings not dissimilar to some of the carvings on these stones and it’s extraordinarily beautiful. I really do wonder about the societies that were able to access the gold, shape it, carve it. It seems to me those societies, however on a smaller scale than is currently on the case, must have been extremely sophisticated, particularly with respect to their ability to use tools to achieve tasks which would probably challenge us today.