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November 9th, 2016
10:03 am


Did you think we were born in peaceful times?
Today, as you listen to this song
Another 394,000 children were born into this world
They break like waves of hunger and desire upon these eroded shores

Carrying the curses of history and a history yet unwritten

The oil burns in thick black columns. The buzz saws echo through the forest floor
They shout "Give us our fair share!" "Give us justice!"
Here comes the war!
Here comes the war.

On a grey morning to the south of here
Two young men in makeshift uniforms peer into the misty light
And figures dart behind the trees
As a snap of rifle rounds echoes out across the fields
Well they hardly know their sacred mother tongue... but they know their duty
To defend the flag hanging limp and bloody above the village church

While a thousand miles away, in a warehouse complex down by the river
Young money men play paintball games

Here comes the war!
Here comes the war.
Put out the lights on the Age of Reason.

So blow out the candle and tell us another of those great stories,
the ones about serial killers. Let dreams flow into savage times.

Do you hear the sirens screaming out across the city?
We've had three hot nights in succession - the riot season is here again

Dear Lord, lead us back into the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Here comes the war!
Here comes the war.
Did you think we were born in peaceful times?

Faster, faster, like a whirling dervish spinning round
Faster, faster, until the Centre cannot Hold
A whirling dervish spinning round
Faster, faster, the Centre cannot Hold
Spinning round spinning spinning
You screamed "Give us Liberty or give us Death!"
Now you've got both. What do you want next ?

Here comes the war!
Here comes the war.
Put out the lights on the Age of Reason.

(Sullivan/Heaton/Nelson) 1992

Current Location: An ancient battleground and a fresh one
Current Mood: fatalist
Current Music: New Model Army - Here Comes The War

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August 19th, 2016
02:38 pm


Travel planning for beginners
I'm not used to this "leaving time" thing, but I'm trying to learn it, to get used to it.

Tonight, I fly from Prague to London. On Sunday, I fly to the Isle of Man to visit my mum, then after 6 days, to Liverpool, for a train to Bradford for the Infest electronic music festival. From there, I'm taking the train to London to help a moving company shift the last of my stuff from (rather expensive) storage in Merton, near South Wimbledon, to Brno. Cutting the last of my ties to the UK.

All my flights are booked, but I've also pre-booked all of my train tickets. This is something I'm not used to doing. These cost me just shy of £100, meaning that pre-booking saved me nearly £50. That's pretty good.

I also bought a České Dráhy ticket from Brno to Prague in advance, too, using my new membership card. That saved me about £2 on a £7 ticket. (It was closer to £5 when I moved here; blame the falling pound.)

This morning, I panicked, unjustly, because I left home 9 minutes behind my planned schedule... so I called a taxi. It got me to the station more than 5 minutes before my train was due, but, ČD being what it is, my train was 15min late. There's an app for that, and I have it and I used it to check, but it didn't show the delay. I could have just taken the tram anyway, saved about £4.50, and I'd still have had time to buy a beer and relax. Ah well.

So I saved £2, but wasted £5 on an unnecessary cab. (It doesn't half confuse them when you try to order a taxi from a tram stop, too.) And then there's the 60p beer that I bought to help me de-stress a little.

Still, could be worse. My 155 mile train journey to the capital is costing a fiver, and the decent 3-course lunch I'm enjoying on board, with a couple of draft Budvars, will cost under £10. It's happy hour again. Oddly, it was happy hour on the 19:09 train back from Vienna on Tuesday night, too. Today, it's happy hour from 13:00 to 15:00 on this one. I don't understand, but I'm not complaining!

This evening, I daresay it will cost me more than my Czech train fare for close to the full width of the country just to cross London.

Meantime, I am looking out at the idyllic countryside going past. Little Tyrolean-style cottages in the low mountains, and tractors harvesting the fields in the flatter bits. Which means that, if they're harvesting grain, they'll be harvesting grapes, too... and by the time I return, it will be burčak season.

This month has been busy. I decided to play it safe, financially, with the big cost of the movers approaching, and didn't go to either of the big Czech and Slovak summer music festivals. Instead, in the first week of August, I went to the "Flock to Fedora" conference in Kraków in Poland, thanks to some sponsorship from my former employers Red Hat. That was interesting and I'll be writing about that next month.

While I was there, I was invited to attend GUADEC, the developers' conference for the GNOME desktop environment, in Karlsruhe in Germany -- so last week, I took the longest train ride of my life (Brno → Vienna, Vienna → Salzburg, Salzburg → Stuttgart, Stuttgart → Karlsruhe; 10½ hours) to attend that, and then flew home from Stuttgart. It was a lot more pleasant by train, actually, but for some reason, it was half the price of the train ride there to fly back. That was another interesting event and there will be some pieces about that appearing next month, too.

Infest, on the other hand, probably not. What happens in Bradford stays in Bradford.

P.S. Elder Brits may remember a cheery little comic ditty about rail travel, along the lines (sorry) of:

Passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets while the train
Is standing in the station (I love you)...

Apparently, the melody is Dvořak's Humouresque #7, and it's the same tune Czech Railways use to herald passenger announcements. This reminds me of the more scatalogical old English tune.

Every. Single. Time.

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June 2nd, 2016
12:34 am


Chef de Bloke presents: Asparago con gnocchi, or something [blog post, by yours truly]
Today's recipe from Chef de Bloke*, your personal guide to Cordon Blur cookery.

It's asparagus season, so here's a great quick tasty dinner. You'll need:

  • some fresh asparagus

  • gnocchi

  • jar of pesto sauce

  • cheapo sachet of pitted olives, or failing that, a handful from the jar.

First, put the kettle on.

Now, chop your asparagus. Slap the bundle on the chopping board -- remember to remove the elastic bands -- and chop the whole bundle into about one-inch lengths. For those of you listening in black and white, that's about 2-3cm.

Now, steam it. Whack a some boiling water into a steamer pan, then put the asparagus in the layer with the holes in, or failing that, in a sieve. Put a lid on the pan.

Steam it for 5 minutes or so, until you can easily stick a fork into the pieces.

While you're doing this, boil your gnocchi. Strain the brine off the olives and toss it in the water you're boiling the gnocchi in -- gives 'em a bit more flavour.

Fish out the gnocchi, plonk 'em in a big bowl. Add the olives and pesto. Stir it about a bit. Add the asparagus. Stir it a bit more.

Plonk some in a bowl, grind a bit of black pepper on it, and eat.


Do not, in the interests of saving a pot and some washing up, attempt to steam the asparagus over the pan you're boiling the gnocchi in. It'll froth up like nobody's business, go all over the sieve, the lid, the cooker and bloody everywhere, and presto, you'll be cleaning the cooker again.

Don't ask me how I know, I just know, OK?

-- CdB

* This is, or at least was, an actual brand. A most amusing birthday gift from the estimable tamaranth demonstrated this, some 20 years ago.

P.S. here's how the pros do it, if you want to be all boring and fancy.

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March 8th, 2016
02:55 am


Fun with the Czech language -- #projectBrno blog post, by me
Tomorrow is my third Czech lesson. Yes, I have been procrastinating wildly, but I have at least started.

And my friend and housemate Otto, who has always been extremely supportive of me learning Čeština, has been helping me again with my homework tonight.

Lots of new words. Some I use often enough to stick. I can now make a few different simple conjugations of half a dozen verbs, ask very simple questions, parse a simple sentence with an unknown noun and invert it into a grammatical question while preserving gender. Really baby steps and not much to show for nearly two years here, but I'm making progress.

Alongside the myriad complexities -- I've never studied a language with such baroque grammar; I didn't know the Indo-European family even included languages with such complex grammar* -- there is also, even with my very meagre vocubulary, the problem of untranslatable words. I've just learned a new one and it's interesting.
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Current Location: Brno-Žabovřesky
Current Mood: baffled
Current Music: BBC Radio 6
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January 28th, 2016
07:21 pm


Winter in Central Europe [#projectBrno blog post]
Even as I grow more settled over here, cultural differences still crop up.

This far from the ocean, the seasons vary far more than in Britain. I'd never really grasped how peculiar the British climate is -- how much it is stabilised by the proximity of the sea on all sides. British summers aren't very hot and winters aren't very cold -- especially in certain areas, such as my homeland of the North-West, sheltered by the Pennines and the hills of the Trough of Bowland and beyond that the Lake District to the North, and to the south by the mountains of North Wales. Also true of my adopted homeland, the south-east, of course.

Here, the sea is nearly a thousand miles away. Summer is properly hot and dry -- 35º C is normal for a few months, and rain is infrequent and tropically heavy. Winter, meanwhile, is real winter. Last winter was the longest and coldest of my life, but the locals all told me that there wasn't a winter at all last year. This year has been significantly colder. There was snow on New Year's Day, and there's been more at least once a week since. A week into January, I took my snowboard to the local park, Wilson Forest, for a bit of a practice. The last two Sundays, I went to a nearby resort, Olešnice. My meagre skills are slowly returning, after about six years off.
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Current Music: BBC Radio 6
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November 3rd, 2015
08:45 pm


Fighting off the Central European winter... with goulash #projectBrno
Goulash, or guláš as it's called around here, is a popular local dish. But the "real thing" is made with beef, so I can't eat it.

Now, I cook quite a bit -- I normally prepare at least 1 big dish a week from fresh ingredients then eat it for a few days -- but I tend to cheat & use pre-made sauces or concentrates as a base. I've yet to find a vegetarian goulash sauce, so I Googled 4 or 5 recipes and them improvised something from all of them put together. I avoided any fake meat or meat substitutes, but I did use a sachet of guláš spice mix. I think it was mainly paprika, to be honest.
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September 5th, 2015
12:24 pm


What aging feels like, according to the late great Sir Terry Pratchett
Little extract from The Last Continent, a much-underrated Discworld book:

The wizards are getting hit with ageing spells. The old ones get young, and the solitary young one (Ponder Stibbons) is suddenly very elderly:
'Could be, sir. Er... some of them have gone, sir!'

Ridcully looked unflustered.

'Temporal gland acting up in the high field,' he said. 'Probably decided that since it's thousands of years ago they're not here. Don't worry, they'll come back when it works it out...'

Ponder suddenly felt breathless. 'And... hwee... think this one's the Lecturer in Recent Runes... hwee... of course... hwee... all babies look the... hwee... same.'

There was another wail from under the Senior Wrangler's hat.

'Bit of a... hwee... kindergarten here, sir,' Ponder wheezed. His back creaked when he tried to stand upright.

'Oh, they'll probably come back if they don't get fed,' said Ridcully. 'It's you that'll be the problem, lad. I mean, sir.'

Ponder held his hands up in front of him. He could see the veins through the pale skin. He could nearly see the bones. Around him the piles of clothing rose again as the wizards clambered back to their proper age.

'How... old... hwee... I... ha... look?' he panted. 'Like someone who shouldn't... hwee... start reading a long book?'

'A long sentence,' said Ridcully cheerfully, holding him up. 'How old do you feel? In yourself?'

'I... hwee... ought to feel... hwee... about twenty-four, sir,' Ponder groaned. 'I actually... hwee... feel like a twenty-four-year-old who has been hit by eighty years travelling at... hwee... high speed.'

'Hold on to that thought. Your temporal gland knows how old you are.' Ponder tried to concentrate, but it was hard. Pan of him wanted to go to sleep. Part of him wanted to say, 'Hah, you call this a temporal disturbance? You should've seen the temporal disturbances we will have been used to be going to get in my day.' A pressing part of him was threatening that if he didn't find a toilet it would make its own arrangements.

'You've kept your hair,' said the Senior Wrangler, encouragingly.

Ponder heard himself say, 'Remember old “Cruddy” Trusset? Now there was a wizard who had... good... hair...' He tried to get a grip. 'He's still alive, isn't he?' he wheezed. 'He's the same age as me. Oh, no... now I'm remembering only yesterday as if it was... hwee... seventy years ago!'

'You can get over it,' said Ridcully. 'You've got to make it clear you're not accepting it, you see. The important thing is not to panic.'

'I am panicking,' squeaked Ponder. 'I'm just doing it very slowly! Why've I got this horrible feeling that I'm... hwee... falling forward all the... hwee... time?'

'Oh, that's just apprehensions of mortality,' said Ridcully. 'Everyone gets that.'

'And... hwee... now I think my memory's going...'

'What makes you think that?'

'Think what? Speak up, you... hwee... man...' Something exploded somewhere behind Ponder's eyeballs and lifted him off the ground. For a moment he felt he had jumped into icy water. The blood flowed back to his hands.

'Well done, lad,' said Ridcully. 'Your hair's going brown again, too.'

'Ow...' Ponder slumped to his knees. 'It was like wearing a lead suit! I never want to go through that again!'

'Suicide's your best bet, then,' said Ridcully.

'Is this going to happen again?'

'Probably. At least once, anyway.'

Current Location: Onchan Head
Current Mood: missing Sir Pterry
Current Music: seagulls

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September 1st, 2015
10:38 pm


Guča trumpet festival (#projectBrno interlude)
(This is by nature of both a brief interlude from the account of the Bosnian trip, which I'll get back to Real Soon Now, I promise, and indeed of the #projectBrno posts in general.)

One of innumerable small cultural differences I've noticed in the Slavic world is musical. All the same kind of stuff is popular here, from Tchaikovsky to Taylor Swift. I've heard metal, deep house, country & western, Richard Cheese -- you name it. (Not much goth and bleep, alas -- I think that's more a thing of the German sprachbund.)

But there's another, less familiar kind that enjoys wide popularity: Balkan dance music. I'd never really heard it before. The only thing I'd heard before that it resembles is Klezmer. Think of a fast, bouncing rhythm, minimal drums - bass, a snare, a cymbal. Maybe some accordion or fiddle, but lots of brass. And I do mean lots. Trumpet, tuba, anything staccato -- so not much trombone, which I presume is just too slow. It's leagues away from the sort of Bavarian oompah-band stuff you might think of as continental brass band music. This is frenetic, jazzy, with high twiddly trumpet or cornet playing in the lead.

It's more versatile than you might think, too. I hear covers of western pop, I hear occasional Mariachi-band-type stuff, I hear snatches of classical and traditional ballroom-dance; anything goes.

There were DJs playing an entire evening of this stuff in Kraków last New Year's Eve. Sorry, "Sylvester" - that's what NYE is called here. (That was confusing.) I've also been -- albeit a tad reluctantly -- to a club night of it in Brno.

It really was not my thing. Some of the recognisable covers were fun, but mostly, it was noisy, frantic, samey and repetitive and overall just annoying. Whole evenings of it got old very quickly.

But the local kids love it. Actually, not just the kids. It induces foot-tapping from seven to seventy. It gets nightclub and festival crowds dancing just as effectively as commercial pop hits do, here as everywhere else. But you'll also hear Balkan tunes drifting from cars and bars and homes and picnics on the many hot sunny summer days.

Here in Central Europe, it's exotic, foreign and a bit kitsch. Not so down in the actual Balkans.
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Current Location: Addiscombe
Current Mood: Frazzled
Current Music: Tinnitus
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August 1st, 2015
06:51 pm


A holiday in Cambodia, no, the other one, Bosnia (part 1) [travel blog post]
I've been living in Central Europe for nearly a year and a half now. It was time I explored a little more of it than my immediately-neighbouring cities. So, with mild trepidation, I laid down just under 10,000 Czech crowns for a week and a half's trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the spring.

It was with a local firm, Kudrna. (That's a lot more pronounceable to Czechs.) They apparently do mainly outdoors, activity-type holidays, not something I've done a lot of myself. They are also mainly used to coping with Czech customers -- little of their website, literature or materials is in English. I and my three friends -- one American, one Pole and one Lithuanian -- are apparently the largest group of foreigners they've ever had on one trip.

The price worked out at about £250 -- pretty good for an all-in ten-day trip including travel and hotels. For some of the locals along for the ride, though, this was a big expense, and the company knew it. There was a lot of packed food and little notes in the guides saying things akin to "yes, it's OK to bring your own food into the hotel restaurant, you don't have to buy anything."

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June 15th, 2015
01:56 pm


A brief word on Czech beer (mini-post in #projectBrno)
Czech lager has been a revelation for me.

I've never been much of a lager drinker. I used to prefer chewy brown beer with twigs in.

But the real local thing is stunningly different from the exported stuff. Actual Pilsner (it's a brand here, not a style), well-kept, is rich and delicious with a creamy amber head and a dark golden-brown colour.

Local microbrewed lagers are revelations of flavour.

Even the mass-produced cheap low-quality draught crap -- Starobrno, now owned by Heineken and derided by all except the determined price-sensitive piss-heads -- is better than any name-brand British lager I have ever sampled. It's the worst beer in the country (except for the super-weak, ~4%, 50p-a-bottle supermarket value stuff) and it's still a quality premium lager.

Actual Czech Staropramen is also good and highly drinkable. Budvar is about the only one whose exported form even resembles the domestic stuff -- it's not highly-regarded here, but it's probably the best name-brand lager in the UK.

The overlap is so small it's shocking. The Czechs gave the world its favourite beer style, but the rest of the world gets a weak tasteless version lacking all character and interest.

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