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

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May 21st, 2019
06:25 pm


More fun with Czech [#projectPrague blog post]

I have now, apparently, surpassed A1 level. Which is good, but it's taken 5 years of on-and-off studying. My 5th anniversary here was at the end of April. I am finding this hard to believe.

But I am still grappling with the language.

I have a very vague hope that It is possible that my Czech will have substantially improved before it's time to take my daughter to kindergarten, or pædiatrician, or anything. But not very likely, I fear. Czech is savagely difficult and my improvement is glacial.

4 genders, invisible diacritics, invisible letters that aren't written but you must pronounce (which I personally think is worse than English's silent letters), consonants that are sometimes vowels, vowels that are written differently and have different meanings but sound identical (again, IMHO worse than English's 5 symbols for 20 vowel sounds). 7 cases, and a complex system of prepositions to go with them. Only 3 pure tenses (but then English only has 2, plus in the region of 120 (!) modal auxiliaries and moods/modes) but a complex system of "long" and "short", "perfective" and "imperfective" forms and combinations thereof, depending on when it's happening, whether it's instant or over a period, whether it ends at the time being spoken about or continues through it, whether you do it regularly or not, etc.

Anyway. After 5y, I've now moved past ordering a beer and can just about get past using the human-staffed lines in the supermarket as opposed to self-service tills. I can buy a train ticket and order a meal, but if they ask me how it was, it goes pear-shaped very fast.

At 20 I picked up basic German in 3 days of hard work, by way of comparison.

"Just copy the patterns" is what my native friends keep urging me, but they (patterns not friends) are fractal in their complexity. (Well, friends too, I suppose.) Adults native speakers have no idea whatsoever how it all works, they just copy it instinctively.

This is perfectly normal. Native speakers never do. Example: what's the difference between "him" and "he"? Why?

When you make a 2nd order conditional, what tenses do the 2 verbs take, as opposed to a first order conditional? How about 3rd order?

I bet nobody here knows. I didn't before my TEFL course, and I was a professional editor.

Examples in case it helps:

1st order: "If it rains, I'll get wet."
2nd order: "It I won the lottery, I'd buy a Peraves Monotracer."
3rd order: "If I'd studied music as a kid, I'd have played in a band as a teenager."

One thing that is particularly confusing to me is that the patterns in Czech are reused a lot.

For example, masculine nouns end in a consonant.

(It is of course not as simple as that. Masculine animate nouns mostly end in "hard" consonants, masculine inanimate nouns end in "soft" consonants, and there are neutral consonants which can be either.)

Feminine nouns end in a vowel, often "a".

So, um, "muž" is a man, but "žena" is a woman.

But only in nominative case.

To mark a masculine animate noun as accusative, that is the object of a (subset of) verb(s), (maybe, it depends), which is mandatory by the way, you add an "a" onto the end.

So "David invites Martin" (meaning, for a drink), would be "David zve Martina".

[EDIT: yes, as a demo of the trickiness, I got it wrong. "Zvu" is 1st person: "I invite". 3rd person is "zve". *Sigh* Not intentional, and thanks for the corrections. Yes, plural.]

Poor Martin (male name) just got a sex change and is now Martina (female name).

"David invites Martina" would be "David zve Martinu". The feminine noun takes a different ending in accusative, natch.

So you have to be able to do basic grammatical analysis on the sentence to know that the name Martin has undergone declension (and of course which declension, as there are 7 for all 4 genders, a basic 28 forms, but they're usually different for plurals, and there are 2 plurals, one for 2-4 and one for 5+.)

Otherwise, if you don't know that, well, I would assume Martina was a woman, because it's a woman's name.

The patterns overlap. Some declensions take endings _off_ the words, of course, because otherwise it'd be too easy and no fun*. (*I presume this is why they did it**.) (**Yes I am kidding.)

1 car: auto (nominative neuter)
2 cars: auta (nominative plural, not feminine)
5 cars: aut (high plural, i.e. neuter genitive)

And some nouns do change gender when in plural.

Also, uniquely in my experience, verbs and adverbs take gender. Sometimes. Forget that and you give extreme offence when just asking someone a simple question.

I knew Hebrew did this but I didn't know the Indo-European family of languages did.

Recreationally learning Czech feels a bit like recreationally hammering nails into your head.

But I can't just stop, because I live here, I like it here, and I want to be able to speak to my partner in her own language, and maybe appreciate some Czech classics of literature in their original form.

Like Kafka. Oh hang on, he wrote in German. "Metamorphosis" is a mistranslation: it doesn't say Sansa became an insect at all.

Er. The Good Soldier Švejk, then.

As a no more than indifferent hobby linguist, I used to think I knew a bit and had some modest skill in that area, until I came here. I then discovered that some of the way-out stuff I'd heard of -- Mandarin, Vietnamese or Thai tones:



...  Cantonese's swallowed vowels, or Quechua's evidentiality ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidentiality ) -- that's big-picture stuff.

But the Slavic languages... sheesh. They're our near-neighbours, culturally and linguistically they're siblings. And then they throw gendered verbs at you?


I mean I regularly call my girlfriend a man.

Czech doesn't have a verb that means "to like". It has to love, but to say you like something, you say:

Mám rad pivo.

(I) gladly have beer, or (I) have beer gladly.

The verb encodes the identity of the person so they discard the pronoun, like Spanish.

But adverbs take a gender. I can't do conditionals yet, so I don't know how to say "would you like a cup of tea?", but if I said to Jana, "like a cup of tea?"

Más rad čaj?

That sentence encodes 2 pitfalls. "Máš" is the intimate form and I would be offensive if I said "Máte rad čaj?" because that also means "(you) like tea?" but it is the formal form for someone you don't know
very well.

But both also say "like a tea, Mr Clearly Male Man?"

To a woman I must say "máte rada čaj?" or "maš rada čaj?"

I'd never met anything like that before, from French to Japanese, and I regularly forget.

This is after easy beginner stuff like the tons of "accents" they put on consonants. I only knew how to handle accents on vowels: fiancée, naïve, etc. The French cedilla in Français and garçon honestly doesn't seem to make any consistent difference.

But Czech has š for sh, č for ch and so on, plus ť for ty, ď for dy, ň for ny -- but they usually don't bother to write those because you must always say ty if the t is followed by i, for example. (Except when you don't, such as foreign words.)

We western Europeans take so very much for granted, and even other white, broadly Christian Europeans have profoundly different languages to us. And if Sapir and Whorf are right, then that means a very different world-view.

Which has made me re-assess so many things. How the different languages like the many African and both North and South American work, and what it's like to see the world through them. What it's like to have to live and work and learn in Spanish or English, languages which lack even simple basic stuff like stating how true you  judge something to be.

Current Location: kancelař
Current Mood: frustratedfrustrated
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August 19th, 2018
02:59 pm


The Patchwork Man [#projectPrague]

Back in October last year, a friend of mine was visiting Prague on a work trip. We met for a few beers. Literally three I think.

Unfortunately, on my way to the Metro after walking back to his hotel with him, I tripped and fell going into the station. He was very helpful and paid for a taxi home. However, as it crossed some of Prague's ubiquitous cobbles, I moaned in pain. 

The taxi driver asked if maybe he should take me to hospital, rather than home. I reluctantly agreed. I asked which hospital.

"Karlovo Náměsti," he said.

"But I live there. I thought you were taking me to hospital!"

"I am." 

"But which hospital?"

"Karlovo Náměsti."

"That's where I live! Where is the hospital?"

"Karlovo Náměsti."  

There was a hospital in my square and I didn't even know.

With the help of a porter who spoke no English but a little German, I found the emergency department. They attempted to relocate it for an hour which was excruciating, damaged the joint extensively and ultimately failed. They had to do a nerve-block and then it slipped in easily.

They kept me in overnight. That was "interesting," but the some of the nurses spoke quite good English and they were very helpful. They even provided  a vegetarian lunch on no notice at all.

I had to wear an orthesis to secure it. A week later, I rolled over in bed (in the orthesis, note) and it dislocated again. I hobbled across the square to the hospital (walking with a dislocated arm is extremely painful), in my pyjamas.

Rinse and repeat. At least, since it  was 7AM, I hadn't eaten or drunk, so they could do a general anæsthetic and put it back in with less of a fight.

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June 19th, 2018
06:30 pm


I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien [sort of #ProjectPrague blog post]
[Patched together from 2 mailing list comments. Apologies for any remaining disjointness.]

The more about Brexit I read, the commentary, the discussions, especially from pro-Leavers, even the most cool-tempered, moderate, reasonable ones... it's the kind of indiscriminate nonsense and hostility that makes me glad that I no longer live anywhere on that septic island, and hope that I never have to return on a permanent basis.

I mean, sure, Moravians don't like Bohemians, while Bohemians regard Moravia as an empty tract of wasteland. Moravians sometimes also have a very slight distrust of Slovakians because apparently Slovakia sided with Bohemia about something, a thousand years ago. Something like that.

I don't have to care, because I don't belong to any of them. It's all equal to me.

Technically, legally, I was born in Liverpool. The town containing the hospital and my parents' home, 15 miles away.

Then the town I was born in was rezoned into West Lancashire. Does that make me Liverpudlian or Lancastrian? I don't care, my family left both forever in the 1970s and I never wish to return for more than an overnight stop, ta. There's nothing there that I associate with, no particular pleasant memories, no childhood close friends.

The Lancastrian accent is a damned sight more appealing. However, I can't fake it well enough to fool Lancastrians, whereas I can fake Scouse well enough to pass -- at least if I'm drunk enough.

Normally, I speak RP.

But in London, I was a Northerner, blunt to the point of rudeness. I lived there for 22 years and it's far more "home" than Liverpool or Lydiate or Ormskirk or anywhere on the Isle of Man.

Back in the North West, I was a sellout who moved to Mordor. Now, to my Moravian friends, I'm a sellout who moved to Mordor.

When I visited Newcastle or somewhere, or to my mates from around there, I'm not a Northerner at all.

To be frank, to me, it's all tiresome shite.

I'm British by birth, but I don't miss it. Bitter, mild, porter, golden ale; salt'n'vinegar crisps; good chips. You can keep everything else. I'm English but I found Scotland a lot more appealing, except for the weather.

I'm Irish by adoption but can't afford to live there.

I'm Czech by residence but I'm never going to master this language. I'll never belong.

So what does that leave me? I don't really care. I'm free. I can go where I want. For now, I like it here. I hope to live in some other countries and sample some other cultures.

All this partisan stuff, of belonging somewhere and not liking anywhere else because it's Foreign, is alien and ugly and iniquitous to me. Even if it's a harmless bit of fun, it's the sort of thinking that leads to football mob violence, Brexit and war.

I will have no part of it.

I don't really "get" regional pride. I mean, yes, I am aware of the "Northern bluntness" thing and I don't mind that at all, but with a childhood shuttling between outer Liverpool, Nigeria, inner Liverpool, Southport, the Isle of Man and then London for unversity, my accent went all over the place and it taught me that it was useful to be able to adjust said accent a little bit from one region to another.

I don't feel I particularly belong anywhere. I feel very faint nostalgia for early childhood in Lydiate. Much more for Nigeria. I hated school, loved university, so that gave me a fondness for the south east, and when I was able, I headed back there.

Some 22 years later, life in credit-crunch London was getting shitty, for a 40something techie... so when the chance of a job in Brno came up, I leapt at it.

Friends have gone "oh that was so brave!" or "I could never do that!" or "I could never live in country where I don't speak the language!"

It was no big deal. It really genuinely wasn't. Emptying the house was hard work, and I owe a couple of friends who helped a lot. But surprisingly few of them. The paperwork for renting and then actually selling it was a pain. It involved a few flights and inconvenient train journeys. My last 3 or 4 days in London, I rented a car, something so dramatically atypical for me it's hard to describe. I dislike driving, I dislike cars, but I needed it.

So, you know, a few days' hard work here and there, and bam, I was in South Moravia wondering WTF I was doing. But then the new job started and about 3 days later I was too busy to worry. So I haven't done, since then.

It's all been great. A fun roller-coaster ride.

I have a friend who's very proud of the fact that all his life he's lived within 3 miles of where he was born, in a suburb of Nottingham. I've stayed there a few times. Nice enough place. I've been to a few SF cons in Nottingham; I quite like it.

But that sounds like some mediæval hermit choosing to live on a platform on top of a pillar to me. Even the thought, the idea, fills me with dread. I'm not a scouser or a Londoner or an Englishman. I happen to be British. Now I'm Irish too. I happen to live in Bohemia and it lives up to the adjective. I like it here. I fancy living in Paris for a few years at some point, and maybe Berlin, and possibly Asia for a while, and maybe Latin America at some point -- I want to polish up my meagre tatty Spanish.

I don't and won't belong to any of them.

I suppose I feel that feeling that one belongs to somewhere, and believing that the place one belongs to is better than other places, is iniquitous. It seems fun, a harmless joke, but to me, it feels similar to "harmless jokes" about nig-nogs or chinks or nips. It's not meant as such but it smacks to me of deeper feelings that I regard as harmful and dangerous, although I must stress here I am NOT imputing such feelings to anyone here!

I just find the whole area, the whole notion, a bit distasteful. Most people seem to think it's fine, it's nothing.

Some of my closest friends here are a Romanian woman, a Dutch guy, a couple of American guys. One was a French man of Caribbean extraction, but he moved away. One of the Americans is married to a Czech woman, but he did that after he'd been here a decade, it's almost incidental.

We all share this rootlessness. We don't dislike our homelands, but by the same token, none of us seek out the company of our countrymen over here. In fact we vaguely avoid it.

There's another sort of foreigner here. They are often people married to locals who they met soon after they arrived. They mostly have kids.They integrated a bit more into Czech society and they don't socialise with foreigners.

I think of 'em as rubber Czechs, har har. I don't quite get what they are doing or try to do either. I'm not Czech, I'll never be Czech and I don't intend to try to be a fake Czech. I don't expect to live here the rest of my life. I have lots of Czech friends, I sometimes go to Czech events and so on -- I try not to be a resident tourist. But I'm a foreigner, an immigrant worker, and I don't see any point in trying to hide that.

When I was a schoolkid in Southport, we did a day trip to a spinal-injuries hospital with a big childrens' unit. I don't remember where. I briefly tried wheelchair football. It was terrifying. The wheelchair-using kids seemed suicidal: as if they were thinking "I'm already broken, it can't get any worse -- banzai!"

I found it very interesting. I was too young to think "ooh, everyone should spend time in a wheelchair."

But I did, for a while, in 1994. Not from choice, of course. After I binned my ZZR1100.

It was immensely educational. I briefly belonged to another section of society, and I learned some things that were surprising to me. I saw how another part lived and some bits weren't good and they weren't to do with the actual physical disability at all.

Everyone should do it.

Well now I sort of feel that everyone should live abroad for a while too. Somewhere far away and a bit culturally different. Somewhere they don't speak the language and somewhere there are not many of their countrypeople around them.

I'm not saying it harms people not to do this. There's nothing wrong with my mate from Nottingham. But by the nonexistent gods, it's been good for me. I should have done it a decade earlier.

I reckon it'd be good for everyone.

Loving where you're from is fine. Thinking it's better than anywhere else is not fine. By and large, so long as you're not in a warzone or a famine, nowhere is better than anywhere else. And very definitely no people from anywhere are any better as a group, or any worse as a group. There are good and bad people everywhere and in about the same mix, I suspect.

Current Location: Prague
Current Mood: curiouscurious
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March 14th, 2018
06:00 pm


The late great Professor Stephen Hawking
People are exchanging reminiscences online. I'm afraid I only have one.

I had collossal respect for the man, his achievements, his astounding determination. Not only did he do a huge amount for physics, but also for perceptions of disabled people. He appeared in the Simpsons, the Big Bang Theory, a number of adverts, and via one of them, a Pink Floyd album. Pretty good showing, really.

For me, he put me in mind of Dr Dan Streetmentioner.

Dr Streetmentioner is of course the author of The Time-Traveller's Handbook of 1001Tense Formations, as documented by the equally late great Douglas Adams.
One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can't cope with. There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be descibed differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is futher complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later aditions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstraction, pausing only to note that the term "Future Perfect" has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be.
I have a vague feeling that one version of the guide said everything after page 75 was left blank.

By a staggering coincidence, that is exactly how far I got through A Brief History of Time... and from what I've read, I got further than most readers.

I think it was regarded as the least-actually-read bestseller in history until Piketty's Capital.

I guess I shouldn't feel so guilty, really.

Current Location: Prague

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February 4th, 2018
07:33 pm


My first conference talk in about 22 years
For those who still read LJ but don't follow my techie blog, I did a talk at the FOSDEM conference in Brussels yesterday.

I've just put the slides, notes and a selection of links on my other blog. It's here. Might be of vague interest.


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November 15th, 2017
01:29 pm


Musings on grammar, notably Czech grammar
Quick. Without thinking. What's the difference between "why is it not working?" and "why it is not working"?

One's a question. One is a statement. But why? What's the difference?

English is a bastard. I.e. a mongrel. It's a mixture.

But its primary parents are 2 Teutonic languages -- old Norse and old German -- and a Romance language: Middle French.

All are Western Indoeuropean.

They form questions in similar ways.

Statement: You play chess. Pronoun (object) / verb / noun (subject).

To turn this into a question, invert object and verb: Play you chess?

English still does this, but it's complex, because we introduced auxiliary verbs.

We don't say "play you chess?" any more.

Real example: colleagues of my Norwegian ex, on Hemingway's bar in Nedre Slottsgatan in Oslo, asked me how to say in Norwegian, "do you play chess?" They wanted a word-for-word transliteration.

Note, these are 2 English guys who've been there for some years at that point. Asking me, the newbie in town, trying to study Norwegian to speak to kjersti.

I had to say: you can't. Norwegian doesn't use auxiliary verbs like that. Translate "do / you / play / chess" literally into Norwegian, it becomes meaningless word soup.

You have to use the older, simpler, Teutonic pattern. Swap pronound and verb. "Play you chess?" "Spille du sjakk?"

We English natives get confused 'cos we are so used to using "to do" as an auxiliary. You can't just invert the question any more. We do something much more complicated. We split off the subject verb phrase:

[You] [play chess]

Now, set the verb phrase fragment aside. Make a question from just the pronoun by inserting a whole new verb:

"Do you?"

Now affix the verb phrase on the end:

"Do you" + "play chess". Now it's a question.

But you can use a helper verb outside of question form:

You play chess. ← statement
Do you play chess? ← question
You do play chess. ← emphatic.

Czech, for instance, doesn't do this.

Hraješ šachy. ← statement: you play chess. Note, no pronoun; the conjugation of the bare verb "hrát" means "you play".
Hraješ šachy? ← question. No change in word order. Tone of voice is all that indicates a question. (This is fucking hard.)
Ty hraješ šachy. ← emphatic. The pronoun is back. You play chess.

Because we're so used to the auxiliary-verb thing in English, it obscures and blurs the basic structure. Other languages make it much simpler.

Japanese and Chinese are way easier (at my super-elementary level, anyway.) In Japanese, take a sentence, put the particle "ka" on the end, and it's a question. In Chinese, put "ma" on the end.

Nǐ xià xiàngqí. You play chess. Statement.
Nǐ xià xiàngqí ma? Do you play chess? (In the rest of Europe, "play you chess?") Do you play chess?

My example at the top is the older, simpler form, but in direct questions, we don't use that, so we've forgotten how it works.

It is broken. ← statement
Is it broken? ← question, simple inversion, no auxiliary verb: "does it work?"

Why, it is broken! ← exclamation, emphatic indicating surprise. Still a statement because in statement word order.
Why is it broken? ← question, but not "does it work", instead "it does not work, what is the reason?"

Teaching English has taught me a ton about English and occasionally helps with learning others, currently notably Czech, which is an evil motherfscker of a language. Sorry, but it is. Nobody needs this much grammar. Except for Finns, but it gives them something to be miserable about and thus an excuse to drink. Kippis!

  • 4 genders: feminine (hra, game), neuter (sklo, glass), masculine animate (strom, tree), masculine inanimate (les, forest).

  • 2 plurals: one for 2-4, a different one above 5. 1 beer, jedno pivo. 2 beers, dve pivna. 5 beers, pět piv.

  • 7 cases. Indescribable in English. Know the difference between "he" and "him"? That's nominative versus accusative case. "He called John." "John called him." "He" is the object of the sentence, the thing doing the verb. "Him" is the subject of the sentence, the thing having something done to it by the verb.

Czech has 7. All are different for all 4 genders, naturally. The high plural is formed from the genitive case, that of ownership. "John's book" is a sort of bodged-together genitive case.

As someone said wonderfully on FB: "Czech goes... 'One dog. Two dogs. Three dogs. Four dogs. Five LOTS OF DOGS! Six LOTS OF DOGS!'"

Czech has nominative, accusative, dative, genitive (same as German so far), vocative (same as Latin so far), locative, instrumental. There might be ablative in there somewhere as well. I think. Or is that only Latin? I don't know.

Thing doing (subject), thing done to (object), thing given, thing possessed, thing being named, position of thing, thing something being done with. Ablative is Latin only -- I had to look it up -- for things in motion. Instead of that, Czech has 2 different future tenses -- for normal verbs and verbs of motion. Except for flying, because they hadn't invented flying yet when they made up the rules, so it doesn't take the future-tense-of-motion. But to make up for it, there are also special tenses for things done habitually ("I used to go to the gym", "John goes to the cinema every week".)

I am not doing very well in Czech.

My Czech friends tell me that I'm over-thinking it and just need to go with it, let it flow. This makes me want to punch them. Sometimes I want to retort that if learning another language as an adult was that bloody easy, they'd know when to use "a" or "the" or neither without thinking about it, but that's just mean and cruel and I try not to.

I thought about tagging this #projectBrno but I'm not in Brno any more. I moved to Prague a couple of months ago. I probably should start the more alliterative #projectPrague but it's a bit late.

Current Location: Prague
Current Mood: soresore
Current Music: 6music
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April 1st, 2017
03:48 pm


I'm meeeeellllltttttiiiiiinnnngggggg...
There is a mysterious chilli pepper shortage affecting Brno.

I don't know why, but for the last few months, I've not been able to buy fresh chillies anywhere. Tesco, Albert, Billa, Globus, Lidl, even My Food -- nowhere has anything but sweet peppers.

I've been forced to use dried ones, and a mixture of whatever hot chilli sauces I can get, which did result in a chile sin carne which nearly melted my poor long-suffering flatmate.

So last week I visited a splendid little shop called World of Chilli on Baker Street. (It's not actually called that, of course, but my Mac won't let me enter the correct diacritics and apparently I can't say it right anyway.) I've bought a few packets of dried chillies, and this morning, my scrambled eggs contained tex-mex seasoning, fried onions, and two halves of a dried Fatalii chilli.

This may have been a slight management error. My fingertips are tingling from when I shredded it, I absent-mindedly rubbed my nose which I think is now melting off me like a Dalí clock, and I am sweating and my eyes are watering. Mind you, virtually no trace of my slight hangover has survived this. I don't think there's enough blood left in my endorphin-stream.

This thing was a mere quarter of a million Scovilles. I have just planted half a dozen seeds of Trinidad Moruga Scorpion -- a bracing two million SHU.  I am now slightly afraid of the results if these things grow and fruit...

Current Location: Brnoooooooo!
Current Mood: screaming inside
Current Music: Dr Mabuse – Propaganda
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March 21st, 2017
02:00 pm


Two favourites from L Sprague de Camp for #WorldPoetryDay
The wonderful L Sprague de Camp was a great early figure not only of SF itself but also of its history and criticism. His 1978 collection The Best of L. Sprague de Camp contained two poems that I loved so much that I committed them to memory.
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Current Location: Brno
Current Music: 6music
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January 11th, 2017
12:12 am


On ice-skiing and feeling rather lost & disoriented (#projectBrno blog post)
This weekend just gone brought another of the now quite familiar “I am VERY far from home” moments. Back in February, a student in a suburb to the north of the city cancelled her lesson when I was already on the tram there. I decided to stay on and take a stroll by the lake, or rather, reservoir. It was a ghost-, erm, reservoir, mostly deserted, the pubs closed and shuttered. To my surprise, the water had partly frozen over – there was a metre-wide lead of open water between the shore and a large floating ice-mass. I didn’t realise it had been that cold; the ponds outside work only occasionally froze over last winter.

This winter has been considerably colder. Last weekend, it was floating around -9º to -6º, dipping down to -13º at night. I don’t think temperatures have got as high as zero yet this year, and it’s snowed several times. There was a white Christmas in Brno – when I was in the Isle of Man, naturally – and that’s the first in several years.

But last week there were several days of bitter cold – down to well under 10º below – and it snowed twice. Friends told me that they were going up to the dam to skate. This hadn’t occurred to me, but there is an official test and the ice thickness is over 15cm – 19cm in places – and it was officially declared safe to use. Apparently, this is fairly normal.

“I wish I could skate, but I can’t,” I protested.
“Then go ski on it. You’ve told us you do cross-country skiing.”
“But… you can’t ski on ice.”
“Liam.” I got one of those occasional Central European pitying looks, as given to particularly dense Brits. (At least, I fervently hope other Brits and travellers from distant lands get them.) “It has been snowing. The ice is covered in snow.”

This quite simply had not occurred to me. I mean, I’ve seen what happens when snow falls on ponds, lakes, rivers, the sea and whatnot. It melts straight in. One feels that one knows what lakes do. Everywhere has lakes, right. Even deserts have oases.

But not if the lake has completely frozen over and the ice is thick enough to walk on, no. The normal rules no longer apply.

So on Saturday, I went up for a look. My local number three tram goes straight there. It was bitterly cold – about -8º -- but a big crowd surged off the tram, from grannies to families. (Not just lean wiry winter athletes being the general impression I’m trying to convey here.) As I trudged through the snow down the approach road to the water, the view in the distance gave me a feeling of alienation. Instead of a small dark triangle of water, it was gleaming white, brighter than the louring grey sky.

And it was covered in people. Tiny dark figures. Moving. Sporting. It’s the only word. Disporting themselves on the ice. It was straight out of that Pieter Breughel painting. You know the one.

I walked around the shore a bit, marvelling. There were a thousand-odd people out on the ice. Skating – I didn’t know you could skate through snow, but it was becoming rapidly apparent that I didn’t know much at all about situations like this. Skiing. Parents towing kids on sledges.

I walked down the shore and out onto the ice, where I met a friend of mine, Gabriel.

(Disconcertingly, Czechs pronounce the male version of this name pretty much as “Gabrielle” but I just call him Gabe.)

He and his friends had cleared an area and made a berm and were energetically building up some speed on their skates then throwing themselves into the berm, for no readily apparent reason. Gabe does parkour. Traceurs seem to throw themselves at the scenery for the sheer fun of it. We chatted. I tried to convey how strange and disorienting this was for me. Entire substantial lakes don’t just turn solid in my experience, in much the same way that houses don’t walk around and mountains don’t take to the wing and migrate. I mean, yes, African childhood and all that, but this business of the ground being solid water and brighter than the sky. I’m not sure I got this across.

I walked on, marvelling. I was walking – very carefully and a little gingerly – on a lake! Standing over tens of meters of dark icy water without the aid of either a boat or divine intervention. Me and a fair proportion of the city. Sections of snow had been cleared, circuits for speed skating, mini rinks for ice hockey, a particular national passion round here.

Here I was, in my fiftieth year, walking on a frozen lake for the first time. I have of course long been aware that lakes do this in extreme latitudes – Siberia, northern Canada and Alaska and so on. I was completely unaware that for three winters I’ve been living in a place where this is normal, expected behaviour.

When the lake ice is thick enough, it becomes a major amenity again. There were hordes of locals. I saw parents pushing prams. Tiny tots on skates or skis. Oldsters walking with sticks. Lots of ice hockey. There was even a maniac cycling across the lake. (I am told there’s a warning in place that it’s not thick enough to drive on. Well, that’s reassuring.)

I walked for an hour, until it dusk was progressing a little far for comfort and the temperature started to feel like it might slip into the wrong kind of double digits.

My determination now reinforced, I stomped up to the tram stop and headed for the place where my stuff from London is stored. I made a concerted, hour-and-a-half effort to find my cross-country ski boots. I’ve had the skis here for two years, but they’re useless without the special boots whose toes clip onto the skis. I’ve looked for the boots repeatedly, both when the boxes were in London and now here, with no joy.

I found them in a box labelled “BOOTS”, which it must be said was not conspicuous compared to the hundred-odd other boxes, most of which are labelled “BOOKS”. But I had them.

I emerged triumphant if dust-covered, and adjourned to the pub for a friend’s leaving do. (Goodbye, Zuszka!) And then another pub. But, remarkably, I was the first to leave the survivors’ party, so determined was I to ski.

On Sunday I was a tad hungover, but a breakfast of warmed-up leftover curry, half a litre of coffee and a litre of tea soon fixed that. Leaving the hour-long process of getting togged up for outdoors sporting activity when it’s about -6º and you haven’t done it for about 3 years.

Ungainly, all right, even more ungainly than usual in my ski boots, I stomped down to the tram stop, as ever feeling rather conspicuous carrying a pair of nearly-two-metre-long skis and poles. But on the tram was another person with a pair of, well, slightly newer but otherwise very similar skis.

We debarked at the stop for the docks and I hesitantly stomped down to the waterside. There’s no intentional access provided – you have to climb over a barrier, which I didn’t fancy, so I walked around the lake again, noting the many people carrying skis. Most of them septuagenarian, by the looks of them, which did make me feel a tad less athletic.

I found a sloping section of shore, picked my way down very carefully – there are logs and over flotsam under the snow – and walked out onto the ice. Not that you can see any ice, of course. The snow just slopes down to the lake and then flattens out. You can’t tell where the land ends and the ice begins. I clipped into the skis and nervously set out.

It’s not unlike skiing on land, but it’s not the same. The skis move laterally much more easily, and your poles won’t bite in. There was 4-5cm or more of snow, after a new fall overnight, but while it’s enough to anchor the poles, they won’t take much pressure. But I was underway, nervously, very carefully, but gathering speed. It works much the same, but you can be pleasantly secure that you’re not going to unexpectedly find yourself on a downhill bit – which unfailingly means I fall immediately and heavily on my arse.

As I got a bit more confident and the movements came back to me – and as I saw more and more other skiers, making me feel less awkward – I left the main bulk of the crowd, very loosely clustered around the pubs and bars at the end of the lake near the dam, and headed upstream, where the lake gradually narrows. I kept it going for about an hour, occasionally stopping for a sip of water – I was working hard – and to remove a layer of insulation, until a concealed, formerly-floating log knocked me down, a couple of kilometres along the lake. I went for a sit down to catch my breath, which fairly soon reminded me that it was still well below freezing point.

So I set off back. Now, I had a bit more speed, but a lot less strength left. This was my first go since the last heavy snowfall in London, and I don’t recall when that was. My normal venue was Wimbledon Common. Zooming – OK, OK, moving at slightly more than a brisk walking pace – across the ice of a central European lake, forested hills on all sides, clear clean ice-cold air in my lungs. All very invigorating, but not actually invigorating enough to overcome my growing fatigue. I had gone a bit too far for a first go, and now I had another two plus kilometres to go to get back. It was an effort, but I made it, albeit tired enough that when I got to the end, I didn’t recognise where I was – it’s an unfamiliar view, after all; I’ve only crossed the lake by boat once – and had to stop and consult Google Maps. I then realised that I was back. I tried to ski across the last few dozen metres to the shore, but so many people had walked around this part, the snow was a thin crust of churned slush, liberally mixed with Czech industrial-grade anti-slip compounds from their boots. I unclipped, walked back – now very much more confident than before – and went to the pub for a restorative hot chocolate and a mulled wine.

So a day after walking on my first frozen lake, I felt rather that I’d conquered it. My skills on XC skis are very poor, but it’s probably the most confident I feel on snow. Sadly, this week’s weather has been extreme by the standards of recent winters, so I probably won’t get many more opportunities to do this. If there’s more snow, which is still fairly likely, it’ll be back to snowboarding in the local park. But a remarkable experience all the same.

As the temperature’s gone up to a relatively balmy -5º or so, between other errands, today I dropped by the business park where my old office is located, hoping to feed the ducks. Except that the duck-ponds have frozen solid, and the ducks have decamped to the river Svratka nearby, so I stood on the bridge and threw the bread down at them. They soon noticed and gathered -- but so, unexpectedly, did some seagulls. I rather miss seagulls here, 1000km from the sea. But these weren't Britain's typical burly herring gulls or black-backed gulls, but some far smaller and more slender, mostly white birds with pale grey wings and flecks of grey in their plumage. Perhaps some kind of tern, I don’t know.

It was chilly work standing there tearing up M&S naan bread and throwing it down, and it was so cold, I was worried it might freeze as solid as a rock on the way and concuss passing waterfowl.

But then, I always like to leave no tern unstoned.

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December 22nd, 2016
08:12 pm


"A motorcycle is a bicycle with pandemonium attachment"
With thanks to the Ixion mailing list for this gem...

MOTORCYCLES. By George Fitch (1916)

A motorcycle is a bicycle with pandemonium attachment, and is designed for the
especial use of mechanical geniuses, daredevils and lunatics.

The motorcycle is equipped with a motor small enough to be put in a large pocket and loud enough to fill a large Coliseum comfortably.

This motor is connected with the rear wheel of a bicycle, and when it is in the mood will revolve the wheel with tremendous force, thus causing the bicycle to proceed from hither to yon over buggies, pedestrians, fences and small outbuildings.

A motorcycle is really a miniature auto-mobile with full sized noise, smell and dirt output. It is not started by cranking, however, but by pedalling the whole machine along the road until the motor emerges from its coma and gets on the job. An automobilist can be detected by his vast overhanging shoulders and calloused hands. A motorcyclist however may have arms like pipe stems, but his legs are seven sizes too large for him.

A motorcycle is not as comfortable as a camel or a lumber wagon, but it is very swift and there is nothing that feels more like flying than to ride a large baritone motorcycle over the country roads at fifty miles an hour, leaping lightly from bump to bump — except to leave the machine when it has struck a rock and to soar swiftly through the unstable atmosphere until some jagged section of the United States interfere with further progress.

Motorcycles are very useful and have almost annihilated distance and cheap clothes. They should be ridden in costume, except by very wealthy and careless men. A pair of leather pants with asbestos lining and a two bushel hip flask for tools, a padded vest, heavy gloves, a pair of goggles and nose and shin guards make a tasty and useful rig for the cyclist. Dressed in this fashion, the enthusiast can enjoy himself to the full as he caroms from tree to tree and gorges himself with dust, oil and excitement.

Motorcycles are not as fatal to pedestrians as automobiles because they can only run over him with two wheels. But they should be treated with respect at all times and should not be interfered with when in a hurry.

Marvellous records are being made by intrepid mahouts who have driven large double barrelled motorcycles ninety miles on an aIl-board track, and most of the way up the golden stairs in one hour by the clock.

Motorcycles are much cheaper than automobiles and there seems to be no practical remedy for this as the industry is unfortunately not in the hands of a trust. A good machine can be purchased for $150. However if the devotee does not possess $150 he can get almost as good results by drinking a little lubricating oil, inhaling a vacuum cleaner and setting off two bushels of firecrackers between his legs.

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