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Saturday, 29 May 2010

Bruges, Belgium (Part Two)

View of a Bruges canal
For the last 20 years I have been going to Belgium for a four day break with a group of friends. This year we have just returned from Bruges, a fabulous place with a large medieval town at it's centre. It's famous for lace-making, chocolate-making and, like all of (making and drinking).
There are some bars that carry hundreds of beers and they always serve each one in it's own special glass.

The Markt, Bruges on Market day (top) and Bruges Zot
The local brew produced at the Halve Maan (Half Moon) brewery is a 6% fruity, spiced blonde beer of character called Bruges Zot. You can see it being made during hourly tours of the brewery although they only brew about two weeks of every month.
Trappist monks have been brewing for hundreds of years as a part of their need to be self-sufficient. In times of cholera they could survive on beer because of its nutritious qualities when water was too dangerous to drink.
Nowaday a genuine 'Trappist' beer is made in one of the seven trappist abbeys. 'Abbey' beer is made in the trappist style.
Two great beer-cafes in Bruges are De Garre and Herberg Vlissinghe, which claims to be the oldest continually run pub in the world. Cheers!
A beer bar since 1515!

Monday, 24 May 2010

Bruges, Belgium (Part One)

I'm off to Bruges in Belgium for few days with some friends. This trip is boys only and we will be sampling some of the above and some of what you see below!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

'Don’t Take A Fence' by Paul Curtis.

Don’t Take A Fence

My uncle John the fence died

When I heard I felt quite sorry

It was poetic justice though

As he fell off the back of a lorry
Copyright © Paul Curtis. All Rights Reserved

This lovely little poem needs some explaining for non-English readers. In Wales 'John the fence' would be a man who erected fences; in England and elsewhere it would be a man who received stolen goods.
And in British English (I'm not sure about elsewhere - please let me know), something that 'fell off the back of lorry' means it was stolen so I can sell it to you cheaply!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Quiz Question (6): First Sentence of Books

Can you identify these four famous first sentences? I will put the answers in the comments in a few days. The photo above is no help at all!

Q1 "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
Q2 James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.”
Q3 "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
Q4 "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun."
The answers are now given in the comments.
Check it out and see if you were right!

Friday, 14 May 2010

The Darwin Awards

You may have never heard about the Darwin Awards. They are not about Charles Darwin but there is a genetics connection.
They are given posthumously to people who have removed themselves from the gene-pool of humanity by stupidly killing themselves before they have had a chance to reproduce, thus improving the total quality of human genes.
Morbid, you may feel, but try not laughing at this story of the man who wanted to fish in a frozen lake.
He went to the lake with his his fishing tackle, his dog and a stick of dynamite. He lit the fuse and tossed the dynamite out onto the ice.
The dog was a retriever.
He faithfully brought the dynamite back and lay it at his master's feet. Goodbye suspect genes!

How about the guy who tied several bungee cords together and, after making sure their length was shorter by several feet than the drop from an overhead gantry tied one end around his ankle and jumped.
We will never know if he realised, before he smashed into the pavement below a few seconds later, that he had measured the unstreched length.

There were two Frenchmen having a spitting contest from a second floor balcony. One of them decided to take a run at the balcony to get some projectile power into his phlegm. The problem was that he couldn't stop himself when he reached the balcony and shot over the top. Really most of these stories hardly need to be finished do they?
For more about the annual Darwin Awards click here .

Monday, 10 May 2010

My Heroes (26): Richard Buckminster Fuller

Richard Buckminster Fuller, 1895 -1983
Leonardo da Vinci is rightly considered to have posessed one of the finest polymath minds ever known. Still today his shadow is cast over later men and women of genius who may not get the recognition they deserve..
Most people have heard of Buckminster Fuller bur the majority are not quite sure why his name is known. I hope to redress that situation here, if only to a dozen or so readers!
He was not only renowned architect, inventor, engineer, mathematician, poet and cosmologist but had other idealistic qualities.
At the age of 32 he was bankrupt, depressed and contemplating suicide after the tragic death of his four year-old daughter Alexandria. Thankfully he had a vision of some kind and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to helping humanity. He was one of the first people to postulate the notion that, with political will, world poverty could be eliminated within one generation.
Later generations of scientists have confirmed that his theories stands up. Sadly, the 'political will' has been absent. He was never a mainstream figure and is seen by some as a visionary and by others as a dreamer. His inventions were meant to help achieve his goals of improving human housing and everyday objects.
His is mostly remembered for his invention of the Geodesic Dome which is built out of a series of triangles and requires no internal support. The domes could be packed flat and easily transported and assembled.
Knowing that you all have short attention-spans, I don't like to post articles that are too long so here are some brief facts about 'Bucky':

  He held more than 2,000 patents.

  He wrote 28 books.

  He recieved 47 honourary degrees.

  He coined the term 'Spaceship Earth'.

  He was a teacher, poet, philosopher, archtect, mathematician, engineer, inventor and product  designer.

  He dedicated his life to the betterment of mankind.

  The molecule Buckminsterfullerene, not surprisingly, was named after him.

C60 or Buckminsterfullerene is a molecule of 60 carbons atoms.
If you compare the structure of the molecule with the photo of a Geodesic dome you can see why it was so named.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Painting of the Month (5) May 2010: St Francis by Giotto di Bondone

By Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267 - 1337)
Giotto has a special place in the pantheon of the history of painting. Although he displayed no real knowledge of perspective like, say, Ucello (born 1397), or a knowledge of human anatomy such as that displayed by Michaelangelo (born 1475) he is generally credited with being the first to breakaway from the dominant style of Byzantine art which displayed very little realism and appeared very flat with hardly any shading.
So, although his work appears to be very 'ancient' to our eyes, it should be viewed in the context of his being sometimes known as 'the first painter'. This was a move in the direction of realism.
Incidentally you might note the lack of blue pigment in this painting.
All the ultramarine used in Europe was imported from the mines at Badakshan, in what is now Afghanistan. Extracted from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, it was an extremely lightfast, bright deep blue. The extraction process was complicated and labour-intensive, which added to its cost (more than gold at the time). The pigment was imported via Venice, so it was used by a lot of Italian artists, who had relatively easy access to it.
Giotto probably didn't even have the option of using it.
In later rennaisance religious art you can see that the robes of the virgin were depicted in 'heavenly' blue, which would have been read as a sign of both opulence and reverence.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

Even if poetry is not your 'thing' please take some time out to read this poem and my analysis of the shocking meaning at the end.

Lucrezia de’ Medici, thought to be the Duchess in this poem.
My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
Robert Browning 1812 - 1889
The single word Ferrara at the beginning would have set the scene for 19th century readers of this poem. It is set in the sixteenth century Italian city-state of Ferrara. The speaker is probably Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara who is showing a courtier around his privately commissioned works of art. A painting of His last Duchess is hidden behind a curtain ("...none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you...")
He describes her as if one of his many possessions and tells how she rated the friendship and attention of others above the gift of his "nine hundred years old name".
When I first read this poem my blood ran cold and I was genuinely shocked when I realised what the Duke was implying:
"......I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
There she stands as if alive".
He's had her killed! Oh my God! He talks about her as if she were faulty goods that had he had to be rid of. Please read the poem again with this knowledge and notice how cleverly Browning has shown the casual nonchalance of the Duke.
At the end he is preparing to go downstairs to size up his next potential wife while talking about some of his other posessions. Chilling, the work of a master poet.