Summer birds

We moved house earlier this summer. We’re still in Cerdanyola, a town we love, and are living in exactly the district we prefer. The barri de Sant Ramon is effectively the casc antic – old quarter – of Cerdanyola and our views are now of cases de poble and a few factories, much as any Vallès town has to offer.

A new house means new views and new wildlife. While the exact species haven’t changed much – same old swallows, swifts, sparrows and magpies (and, thankfully, fewer damned catorras) – our view of the first two has improved impressively. While they don’t nest on our house, they do nest nearby. They swoop over our low terrace, buzzing us in a maverick way, and shitting on us from low heights.

We’ve just returned from two weeks’ holiday in Menorca – and three weeks ought to be the mandated minimum, if you ask me – to see our winged friends changed. Previously, they were still parents and a few adolescents, learning the ropes. One such youngster had taken to sleeping in the tree on our neighbours’ terrace. An independent mind, perhaps. Or maybe just not enough room at home.

Now, the adolescents seem to hold sway. They’re all fledged and practiced and they have doubled or tripled the number of birds – and droppings – we can see from our table. And in this newly augmented flock, we see the augur of autumn. I can’t remember the date they normally leave, but they arrived two days early this year.

I can’t make out the different species, beyond swift and swallow. Might there be some martins in there too? I guess so. All I know is that I have five days left to enjoy my summer vacation. I shall spend them sorting out the boxes that remain in the old flat, drinking a bit of wine, taking some sun and watching this ever-growing family of birds as it starts to prepare for its trip home to Africa. And cleaning up the mess as they perform their bombing runs on our laundry, drying in the sun.

A game of GeoGuessr narrated

 A trip to Canada in GeoGuessr

 

OK I’m on a bridge. It’s made of metal and looks to be a couple of hundred metres long.

Mountains to the south and east

Sign: Tourist Attraction – Hagwilget Canyon So it’s an English-speaking country. The snow on the mountains rules out South Africa, I think, and this is definitely not the UK or Ireland.

Head west along the highway.

Speed limit sign indicates 30 KM/H. So it’s not the USA.

Sign: Hazelton 2. Gas, Food, Lodging, Camping, Tourist attraction.

I’ve got a suspicion that this might be Tasmania. The vegetation would fit, I think. Maybe New Zealand but I don’t know for sure that they use metric distance measures there. They probably do. Hmm.

Continuing northwest along the highway, there’s a commercial building, white with a blue roof, and another road sign in the distance. Also, a pcik-up truck. They’re popular in Australia but I’m now realizing how little I know about New Zealand.

The building is a garage. The sign says Two Mile Services. So we’re two miles from something. And that despite the kilometres on the road sign. Hey, are they metric in Canada? I see more pick-up trucks in the parking lot and on the hill behind, a large and quite brashly designed house. Or a small modern church, not sure which.

The entrance to Two Mile Services says Auto Parts. I can’t make out any markings or bank logos on the door, so it’s no help.

I’ve just noticed a U-Haul trailer in the parking lot. Not sure how relevant that is. But maybe this is North America after all.

Another sign that says 2-Mile and then something illegible beneath. The sign’s illustrated with a picture of a man trying to drag a mule into action. There are some boats covered with tarpaulin in a yard nearby, so we’re close to a lake or the sea. Probably.

Sign: Silver Standard Rd (or Rt?) Ahead. Coupled with the mule, this sounds like mining country.

Ah, now here’s Silver Standard Rd and some sort of Adventist church, and the Triple Creek Ranch B&B. Ando now a sign that reads Suu Dee’s Local something or other. Not helpful, Suu Dee. Not cool.

A truck in a lot on the side of the road gives me a big clue. E.W.J. Kendall – Highway 63 – Hazelton B.C.

So we’re in Canada. British Columbia. Near Hazelton possibly on Highway 63, north of some pretty big and spiky mountains. Possibly near water.

Sign: Welcome to Historic Hazelton – Founded in 1866. Elevation 720ft 220M. I guess Canda must have gone metric some time in living memory.

Sign: Gitanmaax/Hazelton Reservoir. Please protect your water.

But where is Hazelton? And where’s Highway 63? I can find 93 but that’s no use.

Hazelton village is on a river. And it has a pleasant little riverboat on the bank which is used as a pizzeria. So not a lake. And not the sea.

Back to my starting point and heading East to get a better picture. I was being followed by a police car!

Sign: Hitchhiking – Is it worth the risk?

Aha! Found another highway route sign: Route 16 East- West. Back to the guessing map. For about 15 minutes. I follow Route 16 for hundreds of miles and suddenly: Hazelton! Look for the right road… look for the bridge… GUESS.

6.12 KM away. Damn. Still, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Hazelton, British Columbia and Canada during this short trip. Thanks, GeoGuessr!

April pollen in Barcelona: the perfect storm

In which, overcome by an apparently record year for pollen in Barcelona, I attempt to contact an expert in the field for some explanation.

I don’t know about you but to me, this spring seems like it has been very polleny. At the end of March, just as winter lifted, my head’s immune system freaked out in a way that I’ve never previously experienced. The symptoms are fairly ordinary: blocked nose, itchy eyes. But this year, they’ve been particularly acute. I’ve also noticed that the further away I am from the centre of Barcelona, the better I feel. In the end, I decided to test my location theory by travelling to California for a week, just to get away from the airborne tree microgametophytes apparently so prevalent in Barcelona this year. It worked: either San Francisco doesn’t have pollen, or it has a type of pollen that doesn’t get into my poor, wretched eyes. Upon my return to the Capital of the Western Mediterranean, my symptoms resumed.

Pollen in Catalonia

I’m fortunate enough to live in Cerdanyola del Vallès, a town I really like, just outside Barcelona proper. Indeed, I like it so much, I’ll still be living here after we move house next month. I work in the district of Sant Andreu. And I recreate in the fleshpots of Gràcia and Plaça Reial. I’ve noticed that my symptoms have been moderate in Cerdanyola, moderate to strong in Sant Andreu and strong to very strong in the city. And what has the city that’s so special? Why, plane trees, of course! And these apparently trigger the worst allergic reaction in me.

The department of aerobiology at UAB, also here in Cerdanyola, publishes a forecast for different pollen types in Barcelona and across Catalonia. I’ve contacted professor Belmonte, the head of the department to ask if pollen levels this year have been particularly high. I shall update when she responds. In the meantime, I recommend some inert eye drops and the nasal cortisone spray Rhinocort as good remedies against the symptoms. There’s no point going to the CAP for something so easily remedied with over-the-counter potions.

Why haven’t ringtones died a quiet death?

This isn’t just another post-work rant about colleagues and their noisy phones. It may have started out like that but the more I think about it, the more I think that I’m onto something. Anyway, it didn’t really start with colleagues. It started with my microwave.

My microwave, like most, has an audio alert function that lets me know when whatever I asked it to heat is done. Or rather, when the time I set it to work for is up. The particular alert pattern employed by Bosch in my microwave is that of a short, high-pitched beep that sounds once every two seconds for about a minute. In a small apartment, it can get quite annoying. The other day I thought to myself how nice it would be if I could disable this function. Then I reconsidered: why have that function at all? Can I not come back to the machine after a minute or two? What does it say about modern humanity that if I heat a cup of tea for 80 seconds, I need to be urgently notified when the heating process is complete?

Because the truth is that it’s not just microwaves. Washing machines play alien melodies to alert us that their noisy spin cycles have just ended. TVs have beeping sounds built-in to say machine “Hello!” when you switch them on. More and more home appliances are getting bells and whistles as built-in features.

Of course, it all started with the phone. Phones had a bell built-in that rang to let you know when someone was calling. This was because phones were generally fixed to a wall or a desk and their owner might well be in another room when they received a call. So it’s understandable that when the first portable phones were manufactured, their designers didn’t think twice about including a ringing function: it was seen as an integral part of the device. And so it has remained: the ringtone is still one of the most basic features phones have, showing up even on app-free ‘feature phones’ by default.

Then, in 1996, Motorola introduced the StarTAC, the first hugely successful cellphone to include a vibrating call alert. And it made perfect sense. Because whether on your desk or in your pocket, a vibrating alert is just as effective as a ringtone but far less irritating to other people. And that’s really the point: ringtones are so tacky and annoying.

So why didn’t the ringtone die out then? I think the answer is that they had wormed their way into a set of default features on phones, and no one gave them a second thought. As with most terrible decisions, no one actually decided to let ringtones live on: everyone just assumed they would. And so they did.

Nowadays all mobile devices, even iPads, have audio alerts for calls and messages and appointments – despite the fact that we’re constantly checking in on them anyway. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll miss an email on my tablet because my phone already vibrated to tell me about it. And if it’s a super important call I’m waiting for, I should just dedicate some time to waiting for that call.

In an age when we’re already giving our devices more than enough attention, we no longer need to equip them with the means to make an irritating noise whenever we receive a message or call. Most of the time, we can survive without immediate notification that an email has come in and besides, vibrating alerts are enough to warn us about important calls.

It’s time to reconsider the ringtone’s place in what we consider essential in a cellphone. Ringtones are a hangover from a time when technology wasn’t personal or portable but was bolted to the wall. Let them die a quiet death now and forever hold their peace.

Thoughts and musings

Consider this the blog equivalent of several tweets about not really connected subjects. Or a kind of old-style journal blog entry.

Firstly, two observations about culture: 1 – there is a certain generation of Catalan, Valencian and Balearic singing guitar men who are basically just one man. I know they’re technically different people and that their guitar styles vary and that the poetry they sing is of differing quality. But whenever any of them pops up on TV3 (their spiritual home is the short bit about yesterday’s concert that no one went to), I just see the same man. They come from a time when singing in Catalan was protest enough so they didn’t really need to worry about the rest of their politics. Now they strike me as being a deeply conservative and negative influence on the culture: their sub-Cohen witterings are so deeply uncool that we can hardly blame the youth for not wanting to create much protest music during the banking crisis. And 2 – I quite like that Basque comedy show on channel 7.

Yesterday, we watched the Blu-ray edition of Cavalcanti’s propaganda masterpiece, Went The Day Well?. Included on the disc was Yellow Caesar, a short by the same director about Mussolini. This second film was really amusing and effective. I’d love to see the BFI collect all the quality propaganda films it has in its archives and release them on Blu-ray. A few weeks back we watched Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Was this really a propaganda film which sought to justify torture? I didn’t really think so. In a sense, I feel that Bigelow was never going to have an easy ride with this film. Had she not mentioned the torture, she’d have quite rightly been accused of convenient forgetfulness. Her last film, The Hurt Locker, was atrociously bad and certainly felt like a work of propaganda. Zero Dark Thirty managed, I thought, to capture some of the fist pumping of America’s 2000s without actually joining in. Or maybe I’m the apologist?

Review: The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

I spotted The Map and the Territory in FNAC Barcelona a day before going on vacation. I suddenly remembered other Houellebecq novels I’ve enjoyed on holiday, such as Atomised and Platform and despite the French entertainment store’s relatively high prices for books printed in English, I immediately added it to my basket, along with a book by David Lodge and Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

FNAC’s entire pricing structure seems to be totally at odds with its original mission, that of a sort of cooperative capable of bringing literature to Paris’s working classes at affordable prices. Of course, the original project became a public limited company in 1980, which was probably the beginning of the end for any ethical beliefs its founders may have attempted to imbue the firm with. As soon as you get shareholders involved, it seems, your values mean very little.

I started to read the novel as soon as my vacation began, which is to say as soon as the Balearia ferry Martín i Soler left the dock at Barcelona’s ‘old port’. I ensured that I had a can of Voll Damm lager and a packet of Ducados cigarettes close at hand. I always find that smoking Ducados cigarettes helps me enjoy the act of reading a little more and despite the obvious health risks, I take particular pleasure in the ritual of smoking and reading, reading and smoking. Besides, I like the blue and white of the Ducados packet, and the green of the Voll Damm can especially when placed on a white ferry table, and especially when viewed from behind my imitation-tortoiseshell foldable Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses.

What makes Houellebecq’s book particularly engaging is its humour. This starts with a withering, albeit apparently love-rooted, mockery of the art world and the Paris scene in particular. But it is when the author introduces himself as a character in the book that things get really funny.

What I prefer, now, is the end of December; night falls at four o’clock. Then I can put on my pajamas, take some sleeping pills, and go to bed with a bottle of wine and a book. That’s how I’ve been living for years. The sun rises at nine; well, with the time it takes to wash and have some coffee, it’s almost midday, so there are four hours left for me to hold out, and most of the time I manage without too much pain. But in spring it’s unbearable. The sunsets are endless and magnificent, it’s like some kind of fucking opera, there are constantly new colors, new flashes of light. I once tried to stay here the whole spring and summer and I thought I would die. Every evening, I was on the brink of suicide, with this night that never fell.
  • says Houellebecq’s character after proposing dinner at 6:30 pm in a chain pub. He goes on to talk about how he spends the rest of his time in Thailand, enjoying the brothels.

There’s also a quote that I can’t currently find where the painter, Jed, discusses with his father the qualities of Houellebecq’s analysis. It’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever read.

Get this book, and read it. The Map and the Territory: 1/1

I’ve also posted this review on he Goodreads website, which I’m currently trying out.

Going off-grid – a necessity or a self-imposed exile?

Vacation time approaches.

This year, I’ve made the decision not to take the various items of personal computing technology that I normally use multiple times every day. No iPad, no MacBook Air, no movie library, ebooks, digital magazines, Ara subscription, Seinfeld episodes…* and my phone will be switched off except when I call my parents on my birthday. Real books? Yes. MP3 player? Yes. But that’s it. The aim is to achieve about 3 weeks of non-connectivity, what some people call going off-grid. Why? Because I spend so much time every day looking at and interacting with a screen of some sort that I really feel like it’ll benefit me to go all early 90s on my brain for a while.

Part of me feels a definite need for disconnection: sometimes I’m not sure I can take another day of reading asinine comments on Cif about how if the Spanish had worked a little harder, they wouldn’t be in crisis currently. I lack the self-discipline to disconnect on ordinary days and I do feel that I should take advantage of the time away to just not worry about that stuff so much.

But is that true or am I just imposing a sort of analog fast on myself for no reason other than I think it makes me feel clever? And would that be such a bad thing anyway? And wouldn’t I probably do my body and brain more good by simply giving up wine for three weeks (which isn’t going to happen… not on vaycay anyhow)?

Mention disconnecting for a few days at work and generally you get a knowing “Oh that sounds so amazing we really do spend all our time in front of computers, right?” sort of response. But one of my colleagues, tech blogger Elena, simply shrugged and asked me why? Why bother?

I read an essay (or rather, book review) a few months back that talked about the way our brains are physically changing thanks to the internet. That’s not as grave a thing as it sounds: our brains physically change thanks to all sorts of stimuli and systems we subject them to. But given that we, you and I, represent probably the last generations for a long time who’ll have spent at least some time growing up without ubiquitous computers, I think it’s interesting that I can even consider see-sawing back into my early internet-free headspace. I guess my little sisters wouldn’t understand the point. Elena doesn’t, so clearly her brain is younger and more advanced than mine. But I do feel there’s something to be said for at least experimenting in changing one’s habits from time to time. I think I’m the kind of person who can only do so radically.

I’m no luddite. I adore technology and my career is based on understanding, using and thinking about it all the time. So I don’t agree with Jonathan Franzen when he says that Twitter is stupid. I like Jonathan Franzen’s writing… and I do think that great writers have an important secondary role as geist critics. But I also love Twitter and blogs and the internet. That said, perhaps I actually am just a secret traditionalist trapped in the body of an information technologist? Perhaps when I warn colleagues not to get too nostalgic, I’m less worried about them confusing our readers and more worried that I’ll slip up and start writing about how great the old days were. Maybe I secretly yearn for a world without the internet? Maybe I really just think that I’m being way cleverer than you?

Is going off-grid then a sort of cultish fast that I’m just telling myself I should go through? Will it really benefit me to revert to pen and paper for the notes I’ll have to write, and just hard copies for the research I plan to start while in Menorca? Is self-imposed exile necessarily such a bad thing? You see, I already have too many questions to try and answer, and the internet won’t help with that.

I’m going to give it a try. If anything, maybe going off-grid for three weeks will help me focus and remember how to write in a way that doesn’t produce a jumbled mess like this blog post.

The apartment we’ve rented has a TV, anyway.


*Burglars: I will be depositing all said computer equipment in a safe place. So don’t even think about it.

Primavera Sound 2012 lineup

Primavera Sound 2012

The program’s probably pretty much complete now so as usual, here’s a list of the acts performing at this year’s Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. The festival takes place from May 30th to June 3rd. The first and last days will be free events at Arc de Triomf. Get tickets here.

This year’s lineup is a bit of a mixed bag. If, like me, you’re sick of FUCKING WILCO, and you’re a bit sick of most British indie from the last 3 decades, you could be forgiven with thinking there’s little on offer. (I say ‘most’ because I obviously still love Spiritualized and Björk, who’s practically British). But take another look and you’ll find much to amuse you.

Take AarabMuzik, for example, who makes quite good music by sampling quite bad music. And how about Dominant Legs who have a sort of Tom Tom Club thing going on. Or the ‘chillwave’ (whatever that means) of Neon Indian. Or Redinho’s electro fun times. There’s plenty to be enjoying. I’ll see you where we can see the sea.

Primavera Sound 2012 lineup (my picks highlighted)

A$AP Rocky (US) A.A. Bondy (US) Aeroplane (BE) Afrocubism (CU) Anímic (ES) AraabMUZIK (US) Archers Of Loaf (US) Atlas Sound (US) Atleta (ES) Baxter Dury (UK) Beach Beach (ES) Beach House (US) Beirut (US)

Continue reading