|When I saw this picture of Siku the polar bear cub in Scandinavian Wildlife Park|
I was instantly reminded of this picture of Munson at about the same age:
|That was the “I’ll have that one” picture.|
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
|So, after a couple of days of bizarre email exchanges with Amazon support and a twenty minute Skype call to Amazon US support (who couldn’t look at orders from the French site), and confirmation that I had in fact found a bug in their Return Centre pages, I was not holding out on any resolution before the new year. |
I discussed a couple of the issues I had with it with Jean and she said “oh you need to get the man-hands version”. I agreed – I don’t need any more technology which requires tiny fingers to manipulate the buttons.
Count me surprised when last night I got a call from Matthias at Amazon France to clear everything up. He very kindly emailed me some prepaid return mailing labels to work around the site bug and I got everything dispatched today. Thank you Matthias!
I’ll revisit the issue of getting a different device in 2012. My reasons for wanting one haven’t changed, but the standard Kindle doesn’t address my needs. Maybe the Touch model will suffice (my reservations about the poor search facilities notwithstanding), or maybe I need to wait another generation.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
|It’s been oh so cold this week. Icy rain driven by a wide-ranging tempest dropped us from our mild daytime weather into the subzero range on Thursday. I had closed most of our window shutters the night before to keep in the heat, which wasn’t helpful when we had rolling blackouts through the day. Time to light the fire and hover around it. |
Friday was quite a bit better but the rain and wind continued, with the runoff from the barn rooves helping to replenish the water level in our little lake. For the most part we’ve stayed inside, wrapped in blankets and books, filled with fresh cream of cauliflower soup. Yesterday I started reading Graham Robb’s Parisians where the second chapter deals with the “sequence of catastrophic events that began on 17 December 1774” also happening to be a Saturday afternoon. ( Meanwhile in London, Chris was celebrating the “sequence of hilarious consequences that began on 17 December 1974”. Happy birthday!)
I’d heard mention that were several more Xmas markets in the area today: Marciac, Mirande, Fleurance and Lavardans to name a few. I’ve not visited Marciac before so that was good enough reason to make that our choice. Just on 45 minutes’ drive from here, it’s the home of a world-famous annual jazz festival in mid-August. I would have looked in this year if I weren’t on my Offa’s Dyke ramble.
Approaching the town square from the north, I swore that if I’d been released from blindfolds here I would have said that we were in Mirande, the country-music town twenty minutes east of here. The place was pretty quiet, most of the stalls were in the open arcades around the perimeter with a good proportion of them just being stands from the adjacent store pushed out onto the street. Whether it was the hour (just after lunch) or the cold, people seemed to be staying away in droves. I think stall-holders outnumbered visitors. We bought some pastries and spoke to a couple of stall-holders encountered at earlier markets but stayed no longer than a single circuit of the square. Even then some of the food vendors were packing up their vans and cutting their losses.
In Mirande, Mother Noël told me that Munson was mignon, merveilleux and magnifique… and then “would it help if I spoke to you in English?” She turned out to be Rachael from Trois Lions vendors of British products, who had set up tables today in the square’s central bandstand. Rachael decided that the only thing that went with her colourful jacket was Munson.
After today I’m proposing that the two towns bury their musical rivalry and unite under an all-purpose Munson Festival.
|Since I wrote my first post on getting a Kindle, I’ve been finding the device less and less satisfactory. |
Apart from the cumbersome mechanical controls, there are other issues with the Kindle experience. I’ve been trying to put some of my other e-Books onto the device and while some work it’s really önly just”. I downloaded the Calibre program for converting other formats to one that Kindle understands but found that PDFs are still nearly unreadable. Re-editing page sizes in PDFs is hugely time-consuming, even when you’ve got a nice program like PDF Annotator which can slice away at page margins as a bulk action.
Just this morning I tried getting some new titles from the Kindle Store via the device. As I’ve been reading some of Mark Rowlands’ blog posts on his book The Philosopher and the Wolf, I thought I’d look for more of his works. As I slowly keyed in his name (by arrowing around the on-screen keyboard), the keyboard flashes a lot showing prospective search targets and in one instance actually seems to take the focus away from the keyboard.
By the time I’ve got to Rowla there are only three targets on the screen (rather diminished once it figured I wasn’t looking for a book by J.K. Rowling!):
By sheer coincidence I’ve just read Rowland Rivron’s memoir What the F*** Did I Do Last Night? … but I digress. I exit the keyboard to select “rowland” but see that with 28pp of titles I’ll be there all day.
Returning to the search box, I have to rekey the search entirely, rather surprised that it hasn’t kept the last search text, and it tells me “No suggestions found for rowlands. Press [enter] to execute your query now.”
When I do that, after some huffing and puffing I get the same 28pp of “rowland” no-‘s’ that it showed me before. So I page down and at #11 on the second screen, I find “The Philosopher and the Wolf” just above “What the F****”. I click onto that and then onto Mark’s name, and then I find there are 8 Kindle titles listed, including the French and Italian translations of TPATW. Clock up another fail for Amazon search.
I decide that I’m going to return the device, so I go to Amazon France’s returns page (on my desktop computer now), and find that to return a Kindle for a refund, you have to speak to an agent on the phone first. You cannot proceed to print a return authorisation. I would have preferred to buy it from Amazon UK to simplify these issues but that isn’t permitted – in general you can’t buy Kindles for delivery in another country. The returns pages took me around in circles for a while before I could get to this stage.
So I plug in my details and moments later get an automated phone call with a breathlessly fast message and then it clicks off. A message on my computer screen tells me the call was interrupted, so I try again. This time I catch something about pressing 9, so I do that and then get a woman whispering on the other end. I ask (in French) for someone who speaks English as I can’t manage a long conversation on the telephone with someone whispering in another language. She tries to find someone and then after a long wait tells me that I will get a call from an agent “soon”. That was before I started writing this post.
**** FIVE HOURS LATER ****
While I was out for the day, I got an email from Amazon customer service to say they had tried to call me and to say that yes I could return the item and to go to their return centre and follow the instructions. So that simply takes me back to where I started and the impediment to getting a return authorisation is still there. So apart from Amazon Customer Service not knowing how their Kindles work, they don’t know how their return procedure works. This is the first time I’ve had a problem with their customer support in 15 years.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Some icy-cold rain has dropped us just south of zero on the thermometer, so it wasn’t surprising when Griff returned mid morning to snuggle next to the warmest thing outside of our fireplace.
|When I arose this morning and half sleepwalked into the kitchen to turn on the espresso machine, I didn’t expect to find Munson on the sofa, curled up next to Griff the kitten. They weren’t even just napping: Munson was intermittently grooming Griff, chattering his nearly clenched teeth up and down his spine and legs the same way he does to his own limbs, and licking the back of Griff’s head. Very convenient for Griff that would be, having a giant groomer there to handle all the bits you can’t reach. |
I wish I had better photos and video of this, but unless there is a strong ambient light, trying to photograph Munson’s white mask with Griff’s inky melt-into-the-darkness black at the same time in the pre-dawn hours is not easy. Me being in a state of pre-coffee consciousness doesn’t help.
Griff warns Munson off if he tries to sniff or lick his underside too intrusively, yet otherwise he’s completely comfortable being beside a creature outweighing him fifty times over. There was even one point when Munson’s head was lying over half of Griff’s body. I thought the kitten would get suffocated, but he seemed happy under there for a few minutes.
It’s only 7 months since Munson was enrolled in Kittens 101, but I’m prepared to give him advanced credit after this morning. Can’t wait to see where this goes next.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
|After holding out for some time, I finally relented and bought a Kindle e-reader from Amazon. I already have a library of a few thousand books – many of which have lived on three continents with me now – but while I am happy to rebox and carry them around for as many more moves as I have in me, not all of the titles are keepers. |
I now have enough collectibles and volumes of personal value to me that growing the library at the same rate as I have over my adult life is just not practical. Working out how to shelve and categorise everything practically and aesthetically is something that exercises the minds of many readers, as can be seen from the currently active #bookshelves topic on Twitter initiated by writer Alexander McCall Smith. That in itself reminds me of a debate I had with a Newtown bookseller about where his books should be shelved, I maintained that it should be under “M” for McCall Smith, just as one would file Cats under L = Lloyd Webber, or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter under V=Vargas Llosa. I doubt that it would actually create extra work for bookstore workers since I’m familiar with being asked where Tolstoy might be found on a shelf of alphabetised fiction when I worked at Elizabeth’s.
The books I have and will have create a lot of the atmosphere in my house. (Munson creates a different atmosphere, but that’s usually only when he’s been given too much cheese.) There’s always a place for both physical books and e-books. The issues around balancing both, particularly when active reading i.e. making annotations on and taking notes from different sources, was something that occupied me professionally as a software designer in my erstwhile career.
I remember the pleasure of a lunch with Victor Nell (author of Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure) and Cathy Marshall, annotations guru, whose own research papers I had completely covered in pen and highlighter ink, discussing the future of reading technologies. We were all lovers of traditional books but could see the advantages conferred by the inevitably ubiquitous tablets in a number of situations. That must have been 8-9 years ago and I’m still impatient that the technology has not caught up with designs and dreams of that time.
Returning to the purchase at hand, I decided to buy a Kindle Touch now for several reasons:
So anyway the package from Amazon arrives and I spend some time setting it up, which is the point at which I discover that I don’t have a Kindle Touch, but a regular 2nd-generation Kindle (non-Touch). It turns out that this is the only one of the the four new Kindle options that may be purchased outside of North America. This is not something that is made obvious when you’re ordering from my local UK or France stores. Indeed if you search on Kindle Touch on Amazon UK as I did you don’t get told that it’s not available, but simply shown the almost identical-looking Kindle Non-Touch which happens to be the same price as the Touch is in the US i.e. more expensive than the US Non-Touch. Also when I ordered it I was switched to the Amazon France store by force, which has the same problem whereby asking for a Touch model gives you the Non-Touch. The €99 Non-Touch translates to $132USD, rather a lot more than $99USD for a Touch, or 80% more than Americans pay for a $79 Non-Touch.
Furthermore I had no problem specifying and ordering a case for a Kindle Touch from Amazon France, adding to the illusion that all was going well.
I’m discovering the non-touchiness of the device as I’m setting it up which is a bit more difficult than it could be –especially when it comes to entering the 26 character alphanumeric password for my wifi network. Make one mistake and you have to re-enter it from scratch using the on-screen keyboard which requires a LOT of arrowing around to select each letter and number.
At least when I’m logged into the device with my Amazon account, it recognises that my purchases are in English from the Amazon UK store. It doesn’t tie me to the Amazon France store based on my location or on where I purchased the device – unlike Apple’s iTunes store which welds software, hardware and language together as if they were inextricably linked. It downloaded the complete titles that I had purchased as trials earlier in the year to read on the Kindle software on my PC and phone. However it doesn’t download any of the sample chapters of books that Amazon had sent to those devices.
So I go back to my phone and bring up one of the book samples. On the last page of each book there are two links: one to buy the entire book immediately, and the other to look it up in the Kindle Store. Pressing either of these links gives the error “We’re Sorry. This operation is not currently supported”.
It’s kinda dumb that there’s no way for me to make a purchase just when Amazon has me firmly at the virtual cashier’s desk. I could click, pay for the title and have the rest of it downloaded in seconds so I could continue my reading on the next page. Nope. So I use the Provide Feedback option and express my disappointment. We’re not talking grief but it seems to me that Amazon has stood on the brink of success and lurched backwards.
I got a response from Amazon’s helpdesk asking me for which exact book samples the purchase process failed. I don’t think they understood that the iPhone Kindle program just doesn’t support that feature, but I manually went through the Amazon site, looked up all of the titles so I could give them the unambiguous stock details, and pasted that into my response. Their response was to send me back a list of all the links I’d just looked up and tell me to go to each and download them again. Not exactly a triumph of ecommerce from the land of 1-Click purchases. Nothing from the exchange proved that anyone supporting these had ever seen let alone used the software I was giving feedback on.
Other observations from my brief experience:
I suppose I should send the thing back except I have a bunch of Kindle titles that I don’t want to read on my phone – turning pages that are a paragraph long is OK when I’m at a bus stop, but for a book-sized endeavour, it’s just going to turn my fingertips into teflon. Furthermore, there’s no indication when the Touch devices will be available outside North America. I suppose I could pay someone to receive and repost the device from a US address but meh. At the end of the exercise I’ve paid so much in postage returning one device and getting the other transferred, with risk of import duties that I’m down about as much money again. Also, given the cross-store confusions I’m not confident given some of the bundling options within the US store that I would get access to the same UK titles as I can today.
After all that, the device that would honestly please me much more is an iPad-like tablet with a true A4-sized display that I could use for my sheetmusic. That would allow me to get rid of half a wall of musical scores.
There are iPad apps for music but the display is too tiny for practical use at a piano as you’re only getting 6-8 bars of visibility. My old Motion Computing M1300 Tablet PC from 2003 was approximately the right size for this and I used it at the piano for a while as above. It can’t be too many years before we have flexible, folding devices where I’ll actually have a double page layout, but I can dream.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Another big Xmas fair today, not as cosy as the one at Fourcès, but definitely streets ahead of Bordeaux’s. Munson stayed home today so that we’d have a bit more flexibility getting around town. Normally I’d drive into Toulouse early to make a day of it, but to avoid the lunch-time doldrums and to see the evening illuminations (sunset is 5.30ish) we hit the main square around 1pm.
Not much to report. We browsed around the central area, supped on tartiflette and glögg, raspberry-pistachio tart and chocolates-chauds. I still didn’t hear any carols sung in French although no shortage of Bing Crosby. The closest I came was a West Indian busker playing the guitar, a helium-filled Santa balloon attached to it, singing a weirdly accented Franglais version of “The Twelve Days of Noël”.
After I got home I discovered that one of my favourite pop performers, Keren Ann had played a concert in Toulouse this evening, an event which had not been listed in my weekly mail0ut of Toulouse events. :-(
Monday, December 12, 2011
Sunday, December 11, 2011
|Lying almost under our noses some twenty-odd minutes from home, Fourcès is a medieval village wrapped around a large green, and in turn encased by the river Auzoue and a short diversion canal. |
We were drawn there today by its Marché de Noël and a program of activities through the afternoon. As soon as we broke through the ring of houses into the green I had a good feeling about the prospects for this fair.
You enter the town via the 15th-century Gothic stone arched bridge seen above. The equally old Château Fourcès replaces a more ancient castle in the centre of the village, and is now a luxury hotel.
The small array of market stalls around the green were much more interesting than those we saw in Bordeaux last week, even subtracting the couple we'd already seen at the Château de Lisse.
Villagers in the tented pavilion in the centre of the green served plates of daube stew and bowls of pumpkin soup. I know daube is generally beef or lamb, but this one tasted like pork. There seemed to be shreds of what I jokingly called “pig face” which were dispatched to a malamute that happened to be sitting handily by our bench.
As we chewed our lunch I heard the familiar introduction to The Doors’ Light My Fire being played over the village audio system. I told Gustav that it was at least slightly appropriate since Jim Morrison was buried in Paris - 40 years ago this year as it happens. Then it morphed into a horrible muzak medley of Doors tunes and all I could think of was Morrison spinning madly somewhere under a stone in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
|Between our circuits of the green, we looked down a few of the short alleyways radiating out towards the moat created by the river and canal. It really is a picture postcard place, and to underline this I’ve included one postcard (above right) from the town’s website at http://www.fources.fr/vieux%20fources.htm. |
Around 3, the Munsoneers arrived, helping to amplify the noise and thrill level of the fair even before they found the merry-go-round and bon-bon stall.
|Postcript: I’m not sure whether the town is Fourcès or Fourcés. The town’s official site opts for the latter accent acute, and other sites opt for the accent grave. Numbers aren’t necessarily the best guide as many of the touristic sites ruthlessly plagiarize each other and then this gets dumped into Wikipedia.|
Friday, December 09, 2011
Tuesday, December 06, 2011
|Amongst my first memories of being in France in December 2002 are the Christmas markets in central Paris: clusters of wooden chalets brilliantly illuminated at night, permeated by the scents of spiced bread and roasting nuts. |
Last year I was so busy getting moved into the farm that I didn’t get to see any of this seasonal fun, a terrible oversight. So I want to make up for it this year by visiting a few Marchés des Noël in the region. Today we picked out the one in Bordeaux so we could also get a bit of Christmas shopping done. This is Munson’s first visit too, since the last one was carried out in a rental car while my vehicle was ingaragated.
The Bordeaux market consisted of about 150 huts along the allées de Tourney but were a bit of a bust as far as content and atmosphere went. True we weren’t there at night ( Bordeaux is too far away for a comfortable return drive at night ) but there was just too much unimpressive craftwork, cheap electronics and two-a-centime crepe makers. We found an “Australian” food vendor, liberally emblazoned with flags and kangaroos, but selling only French and American dishes. Around the market, Christmas carols played continuously – all in English! I kept waiting for a French song to be played, but not a one to be heard.
Meanwhile, a big antiques fair was going on in a tent city not far away in the Plaza des Quinconces. So much interesting stuff, but it was off-mission for our trip today. Quite a lot of the vendors there had a dog-in-residence, each of which would stroll out to sniff Munson as he walked past.
As we returned to the central Old Bordeaux quarter and were inspecting a window full of chocolate figures, I could hear a couple of guys murmuring in Australian-accented English that they wanted a picture of Munson. I spoke up : “We can understand what you’re saying, you know!”. They laughed and introduced themselves, and their girlfriends joined us a moment later. One wanted to know what the reaction to Munson was in France and I said “I hear a bit less he’s fucking huuuuge!!!! around here but otherwise it’s much the same as home.”
The middle of the day was awkward for shopping as so many stores close up for a two-hour lunch, so it seemed we missed a lot of potentially interesting opportunities. While Gustav was browsing in one store, a young woman approached to caress Munson. On learning we were from Australia: “Oh I’m from New Caledonia. We’re practically neighbours!”
Eating at an outdoor table, a slightly inebriated guy came to ask about Munson’s age, weight and feeding habits - all the usual – before lurching off down the street. A few minutes later another guy staggered over “Il est de trois ans! incroyable!”. Word was out on the street! This guy wanted to get a picture of Munson with his mobile phone camera, and tried to stand still while his hand wavered side to side. “This is going to be a 3D picture I think” I whispered to Gustav. Eventually it transpired that he couldn’t find the camera control on it so I located it and snapped a photo on his half. “Magique!” and trundled off.
Munson and Gustav were a bit exhausted after hours of walking the hard stone streets so we returned to the car in order to drive out to a suburban shopping centre where the local IKEA was based. My wretched TomTom decided there was another IKEA and took us to a completely wrong location and then we had a very long drive through quite bad traffic to the real place.
We had a quick look in a pet store, which is where I spotted the Eyenimal wearable video camera for pets. I’ve been looking out for something like this for a couple of years as I’d love a Munson’s eye view of his street encounters. I didn’t buy one today, but definitely thinking about it….
By the time we were finished around 6pm, the entire area was becoming completely gridlocked. I managed to squeeze us through a gap between turning cars so we could sit it out in a local Maccas for half an hour or so with coffee and free wifi.
Sunday, December 04, 2011
Some weeks ago a recipe for a pumpkin cheesecake floated past me in my newsreader. I haven’t attempted a cheesecake since my first attempt, a chocolate one I produced for my twenty-fifth birthday, and that’s so many months ago now I’m starting from scratch.
I scanned the ingredients list to see if there was anything I’d need to search out: Biscuit crumbs for the base and cream cheese for the filling. Packets of digestive biscuits are easy enough to find on the wee slice of the supermarket shelf designed for les Anglaises et les étrangers, but cream cheese in the land of seventy million cheeses?
There is a lot of intense debate on ex-pat, cooking and linguistic forums about the appropriate terminology and examplars of cream cheese. The French Neufchâtel was the inspiration for the Americans who produced cream cheeses of which Philadelphia is the Hoover, Kleenex or Xerox of this world. There are a few small 150g tubs of Philly cheese at the supermarket, but rather on the pricy side. I’m also a little suspicious that even with the common labelling it’s any more like the US product than American Neufchâtel is like its forebear. Looking over the shelves I deduced that St. Moret was a suitable local equivalent. A quick finger sample at home indicated it was a bit saltier than Philly, but the consistency was fine. In all, a decent substitute for my first attempt.
By the time I got to putting it all together yesterday, another recipe had supplanted the original. With a name like Heavenly Pumpkin cheesecake from the Australian Not Quite Nigella cooking blog, how could I resist? Plus Nigella herself frequents these parts on occasion when visiting her father.
The pumpkin part of the recipe was simply a half kilo of butternut pumpkin boiled till soft as though I was going to make a mash. I drained it and threw it in the blender with the St. Moret, eggs, sugar and lemon zest. I used my small meat tenderizing hammer to break up the biscuits for the base.
The recipe calls for a springform cake tin, and the one I used to have has disappeared to the great moving company in the sky, so I decided to buy a silicone pan. From having a surfeit of unused bakeware I now find I don’t have quite enough to support the volume of oven traffic that Gustav and I are generating between us. Using the silicone bakeware in place of a springform meant that I didn’t have to wrap the whole contraption in cling film and foil to make an impermeable barrier against the water bath it would sit in while in the oven.
Quite handily the inner pan’s grips overlapped my baking tray’s edges, so it was every so slightly suspended and then eventually supported by the boiling water I poured in around it. 90 minutes in the oven at 160C and all done!
|The bottom of the silicone tray is a bit saggy so I popped the whole thing in a round ceramic dish while it cooled down and then left it in the fridge overnight. |
When I withdrew it, the silicone folded back from the cake so easily, and then carefully supporting the base with outstretched hand I transferred it to a flat surface. In the adjacent photo I’ve left the silicone pan inside out.
|The taste? Célestial, mes chers! |
It’s very light and fluffy, slightly more lemon-y than pumpkin-y with the zest that was added, and no trace of saltiness from the St. Moret cheese.
I really like the way that the biscuit base has produced a marbled effect around the sides. As the recipe suggested my 23cm (9”) pan was probably a bit too large for the ingredient quantities to create a crust around the edge.
All in all, spectacular result from very little effort.
Now to check out the choc-almond biscuits that Gustav is preparing….