Liam's write-only LJ Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "Liam Proven" journal:

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August 7th, 2014
11:48 pm

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A quarter of a year in Central Europe [#projectBrno blog post]
Well, in some ways, things are turning out more or less as expected. For instance, three months here have absolutely flown by; I just had to count up how long I'd been here as I couldn't believe it. Other aspects have not -- for instance, the loss of my job. So much for my nascent career as a tech writer -- the next position I've found for myself will be in customer liaison instead, a different new direction. (It was that or go back into Java middleware, but this time, supporting it. Possibly in French.)

I'm adjusting to life here reasonably well. I know where enough local shops are to fend for myself, I'm finding where there are bargains to be had as well as what's expensive. I know that there are many more I've yet to discover, though -- I hear there's a Marks & Spencer somewhere, for instance. Thanks to the generosity of a new friend who was departing the city for pastures new, I now have a fully-equipped kitchen, so being mostly out of work in July has caused me to do more cooking at home and a bit less eating out, with positive impact on the waistline. A land where a beer is about €1 -- under a quid -- has not been kind. I've been swimming more than I have since the Caribbean, but I'd need to do miles every day to work it all off.

Perhaps oddly for a landlocked country, or then again perhaps logically, Brno abounds in good swimming pools. My personal favourite so far is the Aquapark in the green and very hilly suburb of Kohotouvice, which boasts a rooftop pool, a jacuzzi, a big oddly-shaped fun pool with sprays and fountains and a water-roundabout, plus a lane-swimming pool, and a long spiralling waterslide that made your 46-year-old correspondent whoop like a child.

Twice.
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July 16th, 2014
04:44 pm

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"The Snowball Effect" by Katherine MacLean -- a wonderful SF short story from 1952
Taken from this site: http://bookre.org/reader?file=256411 -- and the punctuation fixed.

I claim no copyright in this; I am merely reproducing it. It remains the property of Ms MacLean.


The Snowball Effect
KATHERINE MacLEAN

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“ALL RIGHT,” I said, “what is sociology good for?”

Wilton Caswell, Ph.D., was head of my Sociology Department, and right then he was mad enough to chew nails. On the office wall behind him were three or four framed documents in Latin that were supposed to be signs of great learning, but I didn’t care at that moment if he papered the walls with his degrees. I had been appointed dean and president to see to it that the university made money. I had a job to do, and I meant to do it.

He bit off each word with great restraint: “Sociology is the study of social institutions, Mr. Halloway.”
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12:39 pm

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Modern Talking, or, information-free non-communication [blog post, by me]
Jerry "Tycho" Holkins, the writer behind Penny Arcade, really nailed something in the comic's editorial this week:
I was reading an interview with one of the producers on the new Transformers movie, and the thing that really got to me is that both the person asking the question and the person answering it thought they were communicating information.

This has gotten more common, or I’ve gotten better at noticing it. Most public communication now sounds like the Teletubbies to me. It’s nontent from hell to breakfast: shibboleths sandwiched between gesticulations which are bookended by secret handshakes. It’s probably best to let them in; maintaining a stable self is strongly contraindicated at this point. What’s the win condition, your own tombstone? Jesus Fucking Christ.
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July 9th, 2014
11:48 pm

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And so to Slovakia. [Blog post, by me] #projectBrno
(Or, the Slovakian for "beer" is "Hodor!")

Letisko M. R. Štefánik -- the airport -- is big, bright and shiny and modern. Rather appealing. Bratislava is only about the same size as Brno -- under half a million inhabitants -- but it's a capital city and the difference shows in the airport. I took some Euros out from a handy ATM, cursing myself for failing to remember to bring my tiny hoard of them with me. A trip that covers three countries and three currencies needs more fiduciary planning than I gave it.

I connected my phone to the free Wifi and asked Google Maps for a route into the main station. Walk, it said unhelpfully. It'll only take an hour.

Little did I know that, as part of its master plan for incrementally crippling its most popular web properties, Google has revamped its Maps service with a new, shiny, simplified but far inferior user interface, just as it has done with Gmail. This includes removing its ability to route-plan via public transport in Brno -- and, I am guessing, Bratislava too. This is intensely aggravating, as that was something I used very heavily to navigate Brno's cheap, fast, frequent but confusingly intricate tram system.
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June 30th, 2014
12:15 am

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Clearing out & clearing off [#projectBrno blog post, by me]
The second weekend of June was one of a lot of firsts. I flew back to London for the last planned trip of clearing out my house, which I'm going to sell. I don't have the money to properly refurbish it to maximise its rental value -- and so far, I am enjoying my long-planned much-procrastinated move abroad. I don't plan to return any time soon.

I also flew with a new airline to me -- WizzAir, a Hungarian budget operator. Pleasant, cheerful and friendly; recommended. Flying without luggage, or even a jacket, was also a novelty -- it does make life much easier (and a bit cheaper, too, on the budget ones).

I returned for the funeral of my friend Ken Brown. I knew Ken for over 20 years via the medium of CIX, although we didn't meet face-to-face for over a decade. Until then, he was just a giant brain online, an immaculately-spoken quick wit with encyclopædic knowledge of biology, computers and seemingly almost everything.

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Current Location: Hybešova, Brno
Current Mood: memorious
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June 11th, 2014
06:57 pm

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Guest post: Vegetarian Restaurants in Brno - it's quite veggie-friendly here after all! #projectBrno
My colleague Jiři Herrmann went to an impressive amount of effort to write me this wonderful list of vegetarian- and vegan-friendly places in the town, which I thought I'd share in lieu of a new post. (I've been busy. Well, quite busy. All right, I've been in the pub, but without a laptop.) It just goes to show that actually, this city (and the Czech Republic) really is quite good for we decadent Western non-meat-eaters...

So if any veg*n friends have been considering coming to visit me -- and are OK to use the spare bed in my room and my sleeping bag -- then come on over!


Vegetarian Restaurants in Brno

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May 29th, 2014
11:09 pm

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A bit more Brno [#projectBrno blog post, by me]
Swallows.

Swallows everywhere. That's going to be one of my abiding impressions. I arrived at just the right point in late spring or early summer that every time I look up, the sky is full of swallows – or possibly swifts, if you'll pardon my ornithological inexactitude. Here and in Prague, both. It's a delight – they're a rare sight in British cities, although I've seen them in the countryside, of course – but here they swarm right in the city centre. To the point that their scratchy, squeaky calls are almost (but not quite) becoming annoying.

The sounds of Brno in summer: swallows and tram bells. (I really wanted to get a Ransome¹ reference in there but it just wouldn't work.) Apparently trams are my #1 category on Foursquare this month. Not surprised – apart from a couple of nightbuses, they're exclusively how I get around Brno. I'm getting lazy; there seems no point walking 5min around a block when the tram takes 2min and there's one every 2min.
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¹ You know, Swallows and Bells-on-trams² or something like that.
² Note for foreign readers, of which I gather I'm getting a few: it's a terrible pun on the title of a classic British children's book, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.

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May 3rd, 2014
08:47 pm

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Some further impressions of Brno at the end of my 1st week (blog post) #projectBrno
Further impressions

So, after a few more days of wondering around...

This city is a very mixed bag. In parts, there are some beautiful buildings, many dilapidated but as many restored and clearly well-cared for. The suburb in which I'm currently staying with a generous couch-surfer, Otto, is atop one of the city's hills and is a gentrified area of tall rambling town-houses in tree-filled gardens, half way between tram lines 4 (uphill) and 3 (downhill). But today, he took me to see a house that he's renovating on the east side of the city – a place his great-grandfather built before WW1 and which after eight years of legal action, the family reclaimed from its post-Communist occupants, who had let it rot away to the point of falling down.

From the outside, it's extremely ramshackle, but if you look closely, one side of the second floor has new double glazing. Inside are two comfortable modern flats. The rest, though, is still a shell, with bare joists and walls in the course of being stripped back to the 1920s brick and re-plastered. He hopes to turn it into about five self-contained apartments one day, but it's a slow job – and then the garden needs clearing of the resultant rubble, the derelict lean-to shop erected against one end needs to be demolished – once he gets planning permission. It's an epic job.

Even the roof needs replacing; you can see sky through many of the tiles. To Otto's surprise, I noted that they have a maker's mark which includes the old German spelling of Brno - “Brunn”.

Much of the centre is now immaculate, with a pleasing mix of local shops and international ones. Visit the huge Vankova mall, though, and it's the usual bland homogeneous mix of shops in any mall. You could be in Westfield or the Mall of America. Disappointing.

One of the first areas a visitor will see is that around Hlavni Nadrazi – the main railway station. Apart from one or two renovated buildings, this is a drab, battered, ugly grey plaza, where many tramlines converge on the wide road in front of the (actually quite impressive under the grey paint) old main station. Of course, in proper 1970s fashion, the contemporary main entrance is a squat, bland formica affair off to one side.

Behind the station, only accessible via an underpass lined with market stalls selling colourful cheap tat, is a big modern shopping centre with the huge sign TESCO shining above the rooftops. It was oddly reassuring to see a familiar name and the shop has a fairly wide range of foodstuffs (and nothing but food), some under the “Value” and “Finest” brands, and a tiny handful of British imports with Czech/Slovakian ingredients lists stuck on. Lots of meat, very little cheese; fairly poor selection of vegetables. But I will be able to eat, at least. They even took my Clubcard. It's not a cheap place, though.

Upstairs is an entirely separate store offering clothing and cosmetics, shampoo etc. - and a separate, smaller selection of foodstuffs. Weird. The floor above that has yet another separate shop which, if I decode any of the sign aright, does electronics and stuff.

This mixture of old and new is pervasive. Some of the trams are old and somehow manage to look Soviet Bloc; some are gleaming new. Even the old ones have been retrofitted with talking signs that announce and display the next station, with legends in Czech, English and German – in that order. The machine voice sounds to me much like the one on the Stockholm T-bana.

Actually, there are a lot of resemblances between the more old-fashioned bits of Norwegian and Swedish life that I've seen and Slavic. It's hard to pin it down, but from the bread and the stuff they do with it, to the cheese, to the bathroom fittings, to the habit of removing shoes as one enters a home, many things have a distant but distinct Scandinavian feel to them. Perhaps if I had got familiar with Slavic countries earlier, Scandinavia would feel faintly Slavic to me. I think it's more that Scandinavia is closely allied with Western Europe, whereas Central Europe hasn't.

On that note, there are also a lot of little German influences – shops, products, companies. It's not so much a cultural thing, more the presence of a big, rich, powerful neighbour, I think. It's quite handy to me, though – I can decode German labelling more easily than Czech or Slovak, for instance. I think I'm spotting quite a lot of loanwords. Some are hard to identify until you learn the spelling conventions: I bet you won't guess what “čaje” is, but if I were to tell you that it's pronounced “chai” you might know. NOC BUS was uninformative until I remembered it's said “nots”. Think “nocturnal”. Any guesses for “cukr”? “Cibole”?

I am getting the feeling of a city working hard to pull itself up by its bootstraps from decades of extreme poverty and neglect. Bits seem prosperous now, but there are also a lot of drunk old men lounging around the main station all day, dogs on strings and all. There's a visible underclass of people wandering around the centre, dirty, in old clothes, with bad teeth and faces and voices wrecked by smoking and drinking and probably worse. There are some large Western companies with bases here – IBM, AT&T, Alstom, Siemens – but the money isn't trickling down to everyone, I suspect.

Oh, and people still smoke in bars now. It's been long enough that that seems really strange to me.

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April 30th, 2014
10:49 am

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So, Brno, some first impressions. (Blog post, by me) #projectBrno
Frzt mprzns v th Czch Rzpblic (an unfair parody; needs more hacheks, anyway)

The plane comes in over wide, flat, odd-shaped fields, many filled with oilseed rape just like those I have left behind. And on landing, the pilot gets a round of applause. OK, it had been a bit bumpy, but that surprised me.

Tiny regional airport with big gleaming new curvilinear terminal building bolted on the side, conspicuously younger and flashier than the rest... and at about 5PM, mostly closed. No Bureau d'Echange, all but one of the car-hire places shut and so on. I didn't expect that. The way-out sign from baggage-collection was partly labelled in Russian, too; I didn't have time to try to decode it. Distant childhood memories still make this feel ever so slightly ominous.

Outside, there is just one bus, with people crowding on, lots of kids with backpacks, a scattering of older people, some suited, some looking like Russian mafiosi. I suppose that's far less unlikely here. The sign on the front – a modern digital one, on a fairly new bus – says something impenetrable with accents on consonants, and underneath, “main station and centre”. Well, it sounds as good as anything. I get on it. It's rammed. The fifty-something driver nods at my hesitant “English?” and sells me a ticket for 25 crowns, grunting back.

I strap-hang wearing 15kg of backpack. It's flat. Railway lines cross or follow the road. A few minutes of open farmland give way to flat dusty suburbs. It's 20° C, way hotter than London, and I'm sweating in a leather jacket and flat cap, but most of the windows stay unopened, as if no-one else notices.

There are car dealerships, mostly selling familiar brands – Volvo, BMW, more Volvo. From the 'plane, I spotted a Tesco and an IKEA, and these were as reassuring as a small packet of cornflakes. I can decode a few of the signs, and I presume that the chatter I can hear is partly in Czech. It's softer, more lilting, less harsh than Polish, and sounds less Russian. Lots of sibilants and fricatives, lots of “sh” and “zh” and “zz” but less “ch” and “tch”. It doesn't sound like it's going to be easy to parse.

Gradually we near the city centre. There are lots of slightly – or very – run-down buildings, some closed shops and things. I notice, with slight amusement, a boarded-up and derelict Erotic Shop. If even sex is going out of business, that really is bad. But around the corner is a far bigger, thriving one taking half a block – a veritable sex department store. And among the dilapidated buildings are shiny new ones. Some old, traditional blocks have shiny new modernist extensions bolted on in a sort of architectural pastiche of Robocop; it's not pretty. But there are roadworks, building projects and so on. Actually, taken as a whole, there are far more new buildings than old and the place seems vigorous, thriving, growing – and rapidly losing any distinctive vernacular elements or character it had. Typical, I suppose.

Suddenly everyone's piling off the bus, so I follow. There's a big station in the distance across the road, so I guess this is the right place. It's half past 5 now and my colleague said he'd be in the office until 6. I don't want to take the chance of missing him, so I get in a taxi. I ask the drive, “English?” He grunts and nods. “Purkynova?” And we're off for a 20 minute ride half way into the suburbs, featuring rows of office blocks – some identifiable as university buildings – and what I think are street-corner whores, male and female. He doesn't know the company name but he knows the road and says “what number?” I spot it first, he grunts, pulls over and drops me outside the next building. A hundred and ninety crowns. About six quid.

After meeting a few of my new colleagues, one takes me to the couch-surfing host's house where I'll be staying at first, atop one of the city's hills. Pretty houses, tiny front gardens, neat streets with cracking pavement. This is a bit of an old-money district. My host misinterpreted my post-midnight email saying I'd arrive tomorrow (with dates and flight times) as meaning Wednesday and is out at a work do; we go and collect him, he lets me in, shows me around and disappears off out again.

I was too tired to go exploring a strange city without the aid of Google Maps, and too disoriented to really be hungry, so I relaxed, established an internet connection, told a few nearest and dearest I was here and crashed out. And here I am, on the verandah on a sunny morning, with improvised tea made in a coffee-pot (with mleko and cukr), listening to birdsong and bee-hum. And distant traffic and intermittently the furious yapping of the elderly lady next door's small dogs.

More tomorrow.

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March 21st, 2014
08:01 pm

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The Great Cull (of non-computery stuff) begins...
Yesterday was a good day on the joint-pain front. Today, I'm not quite so bendy, but with a double dose of painkillers, I can lift boxes & carry stuff up & down the stairs.

So, I've started boxing up The Great Unread Pile. I've cleared the bedroom one. Clear patches of floor & bedside table have reappeared for the first time in about a decade.

Now, I'm moving on to the living room, and started the winnowing by picking out & throwing away old manuals, guidebooks & maps that are now utterly useless. Egon Ronay's guide to restaurants inside the M25 from 1987, anyone? DR-DOS 5 or MS-DOS 6.2 user guides? Or the Windows 95 one, complete with certificate of authenticity!

I also took a second carrier bag full of old, unwanted birthday & Xmas presents to the charity shop in Mitcham this afternoon.

I thought this would be liberating, like shifting some of the old computers has been. (Of course, the money I've been making has helped there.)

But it's not. It's horrible. It's a bit like going to my last-ever ROUGOL meeting on Monday. It's making me feel really miserable. This is really happening, Real Soon Now.

Also, if I box up the entire TBR pile, what the hell am I going to read over the next few weeks?

Current Location: Collywood
Current Mood: trepidation
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