Spain and all that.

This is my last post for this week. I’m aiming for 3 per week but will settle for two.

Anyone doing a blog for non-commercial reasons has to answer a few questions. These include, “why am I doing this?” “What size/kind of audience do I want – if any?” “How much time/energy is it consuming which could be spent in other (better?) ways?” “Are there other positive spin-offs which balance the negative?”

My answers, in brief’, to the first question are: firstly, to help discipline myself to undertake certain tasks which would otherwise be neglected; secondly, to derive feedback from readers or, more broadly, to communicate with family and friends while at the same time widening my circle of communication; thirdly, to help polish my writing and, by the very act of preparing the blog, to compel me to read more widely and think more intensely. And, most simply, because I enjoy the act of communication.

The answers to the other questions to a considerable extent depend on how well I am accomplishing what I set out to do and will become apparent only over time. If you are enjoying any aspect of this blog, you will help me considerably by SUBSCRIBING AND COMMENTING. This you can do on the blog itself, and it would save me the additional task of sending out periodic reminders to my busy circle.

Ferdinand and Isobella saying goodbye to Columbus

I wanted to use this post to finish my third chapter on our recent trip to Spain – only one more after that. But before we go to Spain a couple of “must reads” from the wider world. I promise you this is a small selection, and not necessarily the best. I consider the Internet a form of travel – of the armchair variety – but a wonderful way of keeping in contact with the wider world. The only costs are a tendency towards obesity, osteoporosis, bad eyes and worse posture  and misanthropy – surely a small price to pay for all that fun!

Stefan Zweig

Image via Wikipedia

Firstly, a wonderful essay on Stefan Zweig, somebody of whom most of us have heard but few of us (I suspect) have read. Here is short extract from the essay; if reading the original doesn’t make you want to read Zweig himself, nothing will: “The word that keeps coming back is fluent. Stefan Zweig was born fluent. Fluent in everything. Everything seemed to come easily to him. Born in 1881 into a very wealthy, open-minded Viennese Jewish family, he lived well and traveled widely; published at a very early age; finished his dissertation at an equally pre­cocious age; acquired unparalleled international fame as a biographer, novelist, playwright, es­sayist, and librettist; and had a roster of friends and acquaintances so exhaustive that it is diffi­cult to think of any European worthy of notice in the early decades of the past century whose biography would not at one point or another invoke the name of Stefan Zweig.

Here’s something from Culturelab, a blog on the New Scientist: “State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our “selves” through narrative. Based on a half-century’s research on “split-brain” patients, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga argues that the human brain’s left hemisphere is specialised for intelligent behaviour and hypothesis formation. It also possesses the unique capacity to interpret – that is, narrate – behaviours and emotional states initiated by either hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the left hemisphere is also the language hemisphere, with specialised cortical regions for producing, interpreting and understanding speech. It is also the hemisphere that produces narratives.“This represents advances in cognitive and social neuroscience – a hot and fascinating transdisciplinary field.

And now for one of the funniest videos I’ve seen for a long time, go to Dawkins reading his hate mail.

And here is a lovely essay on one small but fascinating corner of modern physics which I’ve entitled “Blacker than Black“. And, finally, Jargon in Science Writing:

If all of this seems unnecessarily simple, remember that the average reading age of even in a developed country like the UK is around the level of a schoolchild. Go beyond that, and you risk perpetuating an online inequality where only the most educated people can understand the majority of what’s being said. My working hypothesis (and I’d love to see some actual data on this) is that 90% of science blogs can be understood by no more than 10% of people.

Now for SPAIN again: The coast of Southern Spain is lined by a band of mountains, highly folded and softened by erosion, to create a very attractive topography. It is littered with whitewashed villages, much like Almachar where we stayed, but of varying degrees of sophistication and wealth. Others, especially those closer to the sea, are actually towns, sometimes with older sections much like our village, and modern developments and shopping areas. Different members of our party visited one of these, Velez-Malaga, a few times and picked up some excellent shoes for Greg and Laura and Spainish dresses for the kids – which transported Thandeka and Jessica into an ecstasy of delight

According to Google Earth, “The municipality forms part of the Costa del Sol region. Vélez-Málaga itself is a market city, 4 km inland from Torre del Mar but unlike the coastal resort not dominated by the tourist industry.” We visited one of the coastal towns (it may have been Torre del Mar) and swam in the surprisingly chilly but very calm Mediterranean – and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Beach at Torre del Mar?

(More pics to be found in Flickr.) We also visited Malaga itself, the major town of the region. Picasso was born there (nobody knew that apparently, or you didn’t read my last post attentively!) and of course it has a museum devoted to his early life. We visited the excellent roofed market and had a most enjoyable meal on the pavement, very attentively looked after by a bevy of waiters. But my ear infection took a lot of the gloss off the experience.

Over the course of the week we visited both Granada and Cordoba.

The high road to Granada

The route to Granada took us through impressive but very twisty mountain roads. All 10 of us were in the Mercedes and at least half felt very queasy indeed. Dropping down into the Andalusian plains, brought with it considerable pollution and mediocre architecture, but the cities themselves were well worth a visit. We couldn’t get into the Alhambra in Granada but managed to see the Generalife gardens which were quite magnificent.

Moorish gardens of the time are justly famous and represent an enormous cultural contribution to mankind. I could not help imagining that places like this provided the backdrop to 11th century Persian poetry and letters.

Cordoba is, of course, an historical and architectural wonderland, somewhat overrun in places by tourists and their more unsightly trappings. Nevertheless, the Gardens of Alcazar, the Great Mosque/Cathedral of Cordoba and the tiny, but intricate, synagogue in the Jewish Quarter were all fascinating in their different ways. A comparison of the synagogue with the Moslem and Christian buildings graphically illustrates the differences in worldly power and orientation of the 3 religions.

I have put most of the pictures on Flickr – see righthand column – but here are the links for more detail on Granada and Cordoba

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Something for everybody

This is a bit of a smorgasbord, starting with a brief review of 2 books I’ve reread in the past month, which are amazingly similar in many respects. I wonder whether anyone else has remarked on the resemblances between Venture to the Interior by Laurens van der Post and The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. Venture was first published in 1952 whereas The Snow Leopard only appeared in 1979, so it is entirely possible that van der Post’s book was read by Matthiessen. A Google search failed to reveal any previous revelations – so you read it first here.

Snow Leopard

Photo credit: Photo by Dennis Conner. Courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust.

Both authors had founded, in association with others, literary magazines in their youth: Voorslag by v/d Post and The Paris Review by Peter Mattiessen. Both books are accounts of journeys into remote mountains, both interweave elements of the authors’ “other lives” into the account, both take the form of logs of the journeys interspersed with spiritual longings and transcendental experiences, both are heavily influenced by the Eastern religions (and by Jung in the case of v/d Post) and both recount fairly extreme hardships and dangers encountered in wild and forbidding places.

Most importantly, both v/d Post and Mattiessen are masters of profoundly poetic description and transport the reader out of the predictable world most of us inhabit, into the unfamiliar and exotic. Of the two, Mattiessen’s is the more demanding and the more profound and authentic. Laurens van der Post’s reputation took a severe pounding, some of it unjustified, by his biographer, JDF Jones, which has tinged one’s response with a residue of scepticism difficult to shake off entirely. But, both books regularly appear in lists of the best travel books and deserve to be read by lovers of the genre. For some pictures of the most elusive (and longtailed?) cat in the world, the snow leopard, see here.

I am a big fan of nuclear power (see I said it) and was intrigued by this piece on Micro Nukes.

While the industry was in deep freeze, they were pressing ahead with one of the most promising emerging technologies in energy: micro-size nuclear reactors, fully functional power plants a good deal closer to the size of the test reactor I’m standing near. It is a far cry from the standard nuclear plant—the size of a small town, cranking out enough electricity to power a major city—not to mention the even bigger plants going up in China and France.

…miniaturized nuclear plants are small enough to mass-produce, driving down costs, and they can be shipped just about anywhere by truck or boat, even to locations that are off the grid. Also, micro nukes can be designed to run a long time without maintenance or refueling. They could be sealed like a big battery and buried underground for as long as three decades, so terrorists could not get into them and nuclear waste could not get out. A spent micro nuke could simply be plucked out of the ground and shipped whole to a waste-processing or recycling facility anywhere in the world; the old one could be swapped out for a new one, cartridge-style.”

NuScale claims it will be able to produce power at about seven to nine cents per kilowatt-hour—roughly the same as big nuclear plants, only a few cents more than the cheapest modern natural gas–fired or coal-fired plants, and one-third the cost of a typical diesel generator. Michael Corradini, who heads the nuclear engineering program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, notes that while the economics of micro nukes make sense, the biggest advantage to the approach may be that there is so little to go wrong with it. “The NuScale design has a lot of inherent safety, and that makes it very appealing,” he says.

It’s worth reading the full article (see link above) bearing in mind the 24 000 American deaths annually from fossil fuel pollution: I wonder how that translates to SA?

For those interested in the origins, interrelationships and migrations of mankind Gene Expression has an interesting and diverse blog.

Next post is back to Spain. But in the meantime, I have plenty to do.

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Last Post of the Week

Quite a busy week!  Set up a new blog and my own RSS Feed. Plowed through tons of abstruse mindbending technical hurdles and actually delivered 6 posts and pictures. Note especially TWO installments on the family in Spain – the second one being on the village, Almachar, where we stayed – complete with piccies (see Flickr on right).

In retrospect quite an achievement starting from scratch, but now comes the hard part – making it a valuable resource both for myself and for our readers.

The bottom line is this: if the blog is not read or commented upon less than half its purpose will have been served. It really is meant to be a FORUM. I will start to look for guest bloggers as soon as I am established. But before that, the Comment section is where the dialogue (multilogue!?) begins. Please use it.

Since you all have busy lives, please subscribe to this blog – see bottom righthand corner. In this way you will be notified of new material and responses to your own comments. You can then go on-line at your convenience and check out what’s been happening.

Comments, especially at this early stage, can deal with the specifics of a particular post or it can contain general thoughts, including ways of enhancing the blog. Try to keep them reasonably brief but if you really want to vent, ask for a guest blog. While I can’t promise this is something I would like to promote.

With all that out-of-the-way, let me report back briefly on the mystery photograph. Two replies were received: one tongue in cheek and the other spot on (Jenny Altschuler). The picture was of the ventilation chimneys on the roof of a famous, Antoni Gaudi-designed mansion in Barcelona, Casa Mila or La Pedrera (The Quarry). It has a checkered history but has been restored and used partly for exhibitions by a Catalan Bank, Caixa Catalunya. The resemblance of the chimneys to Darth Vadar in Star Wars is striking and others, besides your perceptive blogger, have also commented on the resemblance to some of George Lucas‘s imagery in that series.

A very famous painter was born in Malaga: do you know who without recourse to Google?

with best wishes from

Transcogitator (aka Mike)

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My previous post (downstream) dealt, briefly, with the horrors of the trip from South Africa to Spain via the cattle truck route of modern, economy class air travel – even when treated kindly by the Air France staff. From Malaga, or port of arrival, to the Andalucian village of Almachar via Google Earth Direct is a mere 20 km or so, but by the 10 seater Mercedes bus and the intricate freeway network followed by a narrow, twisty mountain road – well it took about an hour.

Almachar, thankfully, is not a tourist village. The tourist office, modestly labelled, nominally opened an hour a day. But that was highly optimistic; I cannot once remember seeing it open on our numerous trips from our villa, Casa de Luz, to where the bus was parked. Finding our Casa in the first instance, even with a detailed description from our hosts, Judy and John, was not a simple matter, and not helped by the fact that none of our party spoke a functional Spanish and absence of English-speaking villagers.

Almachar – a cascade of white villas with red roofs spilling down a steep ravine, broad at the top and narrower at the bottom, in a tangled web of narrow streets, lanes, alleys and steps. No linear anglo-teutonic-nordic efficiency here, but connecting links, designed for pedestrians, donkeys, and the ubiquitous noisy scooter or 100 cc. motorbike driven almost entirely by the youth, finding their own way between the tangled residences. Cars, mostly smallish, do find their way less than halfway down the village to the cramped plaza outside the church and to the small commercial establishments interposed between the houses. The Mercedes 10 seater wisely stayed well clear of such entanglements; our entry had been sufficient to give notice to the entire Almachar community that tourists had arrived.

The people of Almachar were surprisingly similar in height and general appearance. Almost all were conservatively dressed; older people were prominent, slowly and deliberately wending their way up and down the steep, twisted lanes. The women varied between 1.58 – 1.70 m and the men between 1.70 and 1.8, and this possibly exaggerates the variation. Most had brown, unsmiling but not unfriendly faces, and generally seemed to come from the working and small trader class. Although an occasional villa was more decrepit or more modern and kempt than the average, conspicuous wealth or poverty seemed to be largely absent. Men walked mainly with men and women with women. The village retained a sense of organic community, and the church with its regular chimes was a significant part of the communal life.

But, despite its smallness and lack of modern sophistication, the village boasted an art gallery/cultural centre at which various classes were conducted. Many, by no means all, made a real attempt to beautify the exterior of their homes with flowers or with Moorish tiles. This aesthetic sensibility co-existed with ubiquitous dog excrement and the occasional perpetrator, generally a thin quiet mongrel, would be seen loitering in the vicinity of his crime. Unfortunately, the language barrier and domestic circumstances of our short visit, barred deeper integration into the life of the village.

But the soft light on the folded Andalucian mountains and the glow of sunset on the peaks, remain vivid memories. In seven days we had one good downpour, the remainder being balmy and ideal for relaxation and travel. A place to visit again, especially for time to relax and work.

See right-hand column for new Flikr pictures


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