Amsterdam, Alstublieft

Amsterdam was Grace’s idea. I’d never given the place much thought, even though there are cheap(-ish) direct flights with EasyJet. But anyway, with a shared pizza and bottle of wine, we took to the laptop and booked flights and hotel.

Sunday

Airport security is a nonsense. You knew that, right? It does almost nothing to protect the passengers, and little to deter terrorists. Maybe the authorities think that it reassures the travelling public, but since the constraints are so arbitrary and stupid, I doubt if that works. I had to take my belt off: a strip of canvas. My transparent bag of gels and liquids was two centimetres too large, which is a security risk because… um?

And beware — EasyJet are really strict on the “one item of hand baggage” rule. Grace had to stuff her handbag into her cabin suitcase.

Hotel de ParisStill, the flight was uneventful and punctual. I had researched the transit options on arrival. The usual method is the train to Centraal Station, but I’d discovered a bus route (Conexxion bus number 197) which took us direct to Leidesplein, and a short walk to the hotel. In fact, the bus goes right past our hotel, but as we discovered, won’t stop at it. We got out at the stop after, a slightly longer walk.

If you’ve arrived here after searching for “Hotel de Paris, Amsterdam”, I do recommend it. The staff were friendly and helpful; and the room clean, well-equipped and cosy. Compact though, especially the bathroom, but fine for two people. Our room was on the street side, meaning there was tram noise until 12:30, plus a few inebriates straggling home after, but if you want silence, don’t choose a hotel in a city centre.

After a brief turnaround, we walked the short distance to Leidesplein. We knew that the streetsCanal running SE from there are packed full of restaurants. And the competition is so high that many have people outside to hassle passers-by. Grace didn’t care for that much. We picked a pizzeria and packed in a pizza each.

After dinner, we explored at random and came to Rembrandtplein, another lively area. We took a foray into the famous or infamous Red Light District. I followed Grace into a female-oriented sex shop. Tasteful. She said it reminded her of the big Apple store on Leidesplein. iVibrators all around. Nearby, prostitutes were posing in their red-lit windows.

Then we got happily lost, but eventually found our way back to Leidesplein, and liked the look of the bar at De Balie, a political-activist cinema (Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina had been there a month previously at the showing of the movie “A Punk Prayer”). De Balie has beers on tap from Brouwerij t’IJ, all of them 8% and upwards in strength.

Monday

RembrandtIt was raining when we got up, but the plan was to “do” the museums, so we would be indoors. We were going to buy the “I Amsterdam” card, which gives free entry to many museums (although not the Rijksmuseum), free transport and a canal cruise. From the maps, we knew that there was a tourist office to buy the card on Leidesplein, but we were amsterdammned if we could find it. You’d think that making the place conspicuous would be the first requirement for a tourist office. Anyway, we walked on to the museums and found the we could buy the card in the museum shop.

However, the was a huge queue (in the rain) at the Rijksmuseum. We decided to try the Van Gogh museum first (free on the card, and with priority entrance). We were able to join the shorter queue, but still had to stand for ten minutes or so in the rain.

It was interesting, but I decided in the end that I generally liked the non-Vincent paintings in the collection more than his. There were works by artists known by Van Gogh, or who had influenced him: Monet, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec. I even liked Gauguin’s better. Upstairs was a collection by Félix Vallotton, famous in the 1890s for his political and social woodcuts in stark black-and-white. I liked these, and his paintings, more than Vincent’s too.

When we left (after lunch in the museum cafe) we found to our suprise that the queue at the Rijksmuseum had almost gone, and we were soon inside the huge railway-station-like hall. Probably the most popular exhibits in the galleries are the Rembrandt paintings, and the large “Night Watch” must be the top one. I don’t think that we saw absolutely everything, but museum fatigue was setting in.

However, there is one Amsterdam museum that everyone talks about: the Anne Frank house. We jumped on a tram andDe Splijff set off for it. When we got there, some time after four, the line of people waiting was hundreds of metres long. I think closing time is five, so we had little hope of getting in. Grace checked with the ticket office, where the helpful chap suggested booking a specific time slot on line for the following day.

Disappointed, we wandered off, arrived at Dam square and to cheer us up, did some window-shopping among the upmarket make-up and fashion franchises in De Bijenkorf. In the cafe, I used their free wifi to check on the Anne Frank bookings and found that, contrary to what had been suggested to us, the earliest available bookings were on Saturday, five days away. Since we were going home on Thursday, we had to accept that it was a failure. Tip for visitors: book your slot before leaving home.

It’s a short walk into the Red Light District, where Grace dragged me into the Greenhouse Effect coffeeshop. We bought a ready-made spliff (no rolling skillz between us) of a “mild” variety. I felt very little effect. Grace became a little sick, and we had to go out for air.

We walked back towards our home zone. Off Leidesplein again, we chose a restaurant at random, a place called Tong Ah, which was mediocre in the end. I ordered Kung Po chicken, only to be told that they had run out of it. In retrospect, that was not a good sign, regardless of whether it was kung, po or chicken which they did not have. I asked for duck instead. When it arrived, it wasn’t bad, but had been chopped up on the bone, so most pieces contained bone fragments. I don’t know if that is the traditional Chinese way, but I didn’t care much for it.

After leaving, we had the remains of the spliff for dessert, and I took the giggling Grace home via Café Soundgarden, in the same street as our hotel. I think Soundgarden must be Amsterdam’s equivalent to The Menagerie in Belfast: scruffy, even seedy, but a meeting place for musicians and like-minded freaks. We liked it.

Tuesday

Albert CuypmarktWe thought we might go to club Paradiso in the evening, a gig by Tinariwen, and set off to reconnoitre. On the way through Max Euweplein, where the casino, Hard Rock Cafe and Aran Pub are, we noticed B&B cafe and had a nice breakfast. Then we took the canalside path and emerged right beside Paradiso, which is a converted church. There seemed to be nowhere to buy tickets or anything, but at least we knew where it was.

Buddhist templeAccording to the guidebooks, the Albert Cuypmarkt is excitingly diverse and multi-ethnic. Well, not all that exciting, but it is a large, trashy street market, which is OK. After walking the length of it, we got a tram to the old town centre and explored their Chinatown, including a visit to the Buddhist Temple, or at least the public hall at the front. We like multi-ethnic.

Next it was to a very different recommended destination, the De Gooyer windmill. You can’t actually get into the windmill, but the attached building, a former public baths, is now the home of the biggest small brewery in Amsterdam, Brouwerij t’IJ. We’d already tried their beers (recommended) and tried a couple more.

de Gooyer WindmillUnfortunately, the brewery pub doesn’t serve proper food (you can buy a plate of cheese for four euros) and we had been hoping for lunch. But after beers, we bought a couple of supermarket sandwiches instead, and walked the short distance to the zoo, entry being free with our “I Amsterdam” cards. The unique feature of the zoo is that some of the enclosures are open to visitors, a highlight being the big, red, furry ring-tailed lemurs. You can get right up close. And in an indoor enclosure, you can walk among fruit bats, birds, small monkeys and tiny mouse lemurs.

Fortunately the gorillas are kept behind armoured glass, because the dominant male of the group is a huge, terrifying creature. And one of his family demonstrated another behaviour I wouldn’t want to be near: eating his own fresh shit. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind.

We took a tram back and took a rest before going out. Again, having read the guidebooks and websites, we had a destination in mind. A very short distance from the hotel is the Blue Pepper restaurant, which is widely considered in the sources as one of the best Indonesian restaurants in the city. And one of the most expensive, but “what the hell” we thought. There is only room for about twenty diners, but it wasn’t busy and we got a table. Excellent food and Amster-damn the expense.

We hadn’t kept a tight enough timetable to go to hear Tinariwen (early gig) but we wondered if Paradiso would be open as a club afterwards. No. We had no plan B, so we had to improvise. Or wander indiscriminately, which is quite similar. We took a tram to the Red Light District and made another tour. It was later at night than the previous time so more of the girls were showing their wares. We had a couple of drinks and made a visit to a coffeeshop to sample more of their product.

It was then that we realised that it was almost twelve-thirty and the trams would be going off duty. And, in fact, we just managed to miss the last one from outside the Royal Palace. There is a night bus service, which our free travel included, but we didn’t see any and set off on foot (Grace in heels). It took a long time to get home, but not a single night bus came along. In the hotel, we finished off the spliff. (Next morning, I was horrified to read in the hotel’s visitor booklet that it is strictly non-smoking. Bad, bad people.)

Wednesday

Canal cruiseThe previous day had been Pancake Tuesday, and the Dutch pannekoeken are famous, but we hadn’t got our act together to eat any. Partly, I claim, this was because we were very confused by the presence of a building on Leidesplein with a large, illuminated “Pancake Corner” sign, and yet it was actually a sports bar with beer, television screens and no pancakes in sight.

de BalieHowever, one of our finds that night had been the actual Pancake Corner cafe round the corner, and that was where we went for breakfast. We both had bacon pancakes. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

Fully refreshed and fortified, we walked down the Singelgracht canal, crossed at the Rijksmuseum and came back up to the Blue Boat Company, one of the options for our free canal cruise. It’s pleasant enough and mildly informative, and at least it saves walking (which we’d been doing a lot of). We did get to see the IJ, which felt almost like the open sea. We passed close to the replica sailing ship, the Amsterdam, which I hadn’t seen mentioned in any of the guidebooks. It might be worth a visit.

The plan for the afternoon was shopping. The “9 Streets” is an area West of the centre with a grid of streets and canals, and more boutiques and clothes shops than you could shake a stick at. We did them all and Grace very nearly bought a party dress. (She looked beautiful in it.)

Somehow we managed to make the walk home longer and more random than necessary, but after a break in our room, we went out for dinner. Our destination this time was very close, the “Eat At Jo’s” cafe which is part of the Melkweg club. The food is simple and filling with a kind of hippy vibe, and quite economical. Next to the cafe their gallery had a photo exhibition “Freaks Come Out At Night” [http://www.milanboonstra.com/freaks.html]. Yes. Yes they do.

It was a pleasant evening, although one beer outside in the square was enough for my icy metabolism. We resorted to the bar in De Balie, for farewell-to-Amsterdam drinks.

Thursday

We had to be out of the room at the crack of dawn (ten) to catch the bus to the airport from Leidesplein, but we made it with time to spare. The flight home was a little early too, bringing us back to the Northern Ireland rain. Welcome home!

Live Long and Prosper

NimoyMr Spock, Leonard Nimoy, has been diagnosed with lung disease, at the age of 82. He says that he gave up smoking 30 years ago, in his fifties, say. Presumably, like many people, he’d started in his youth, so he probably had at least a 30-year smoking career.

But the statistics say that immediately you give up, your risk of smoking-related diseases starts to decline. By 82, Nimoy probably wasn’t much more likely to get chronic pulmonary obstructive disease than a lifelong non-smoker.

On the other hand, Nimoy has spent his entire life in Los Angeles, and that can’t be healthy. Here’s how I know.

I did part of my pilot training at Long Beach airport, in the greater LA conurbation. One morning, I got up and looked out the window, and the famous “Holywood” sign on the hillside was unusually clear and sharp.

I got in my plane, a Socata Tampico, and set off on a training flight eastward, over Anaheim and Corona, toward the rough, desert-like lands east of the mountains. And suddenly, visibility declined, as if I’d flown into a slight mist. A smear of greasy, yellow stuff began to collect on the front windshield and roll off upwards with the airflow.

I climbed up a few hundred feet into clear air. It was obvious what had happened. Weather conditions had temporarily blown the LA smog away from the city, and through the valley in the mountains where the Santa Ana river flows (and the Riverside freeway). The yellow gunge was what was going into the lungs of the city’s inhabitants every day.

Evil

candleOn this International Holocaust Memorial Day, I was musing to myself about what turns normal people into the perpetrators of genocide, not just in Nazi Germany, but in Bosnia, Rwanda, and many other places. It seems to me that one fundamental flaw in the human personality is obedience to authority.

In 1963, the psychologist Stanley Milgram published the findings from his now-famous experiments, which were designed to push subjects to the limits of obedience. A disturbingly-high fraction of the subjects carried on, even when they believed that they were inflicting serious pain, perhaps lethally, on the “victim”.

It’s all to easy to believe that our own behaviour would have been different. We would have been one of the rebels, surely. Maybe so. For myself, I know that I am inherently contemptuous of authority but my life has been safe and uneventful. If my courage was put to the test, would I belong to the Righteous, or would I be a tacit accomplice?

Milgram was actually inspired to probe compliance the year that Adolf Eichmann was tried for his war crimes, and the atrocities of the Holocaust came to mind again. But I don’t think that the sin of obedience explains everything. For one thing, Milgram’s subjects were under immediate pressure to comply, unlike the majority of participants in genocide. And they didn’t hate and despise the people who were suffering (they thought).

In the Nazi Holocaust, people had already been educated to see the victims as “Üntermenschen”, subhumans; and this relates to another major flaw in human nature. We all have an instinct to identify “our” group and fear outsiders. Research has shown both that this xenophobia is completely inherent to the human psyche, and trivially easy to manipulate. Test subjects assigned randomly to a “team” always demonstrate an unconsious bias that their random team-mates are better people than those on other teams.

In fact, that’s exactly what fascists use to persuade people to do their dirty work: they use the random fact of your nationality to make you think that you’re part of their team. Are you “proud” of being whatever nationality you think of as yours? It makes you fascist-fodder.

These then are my two resolutions for International Holocaust Memorial Day: I will refuse to obey authority; and I will have allegiance only to one group, all of humanity.

The Long And The Short Of It

“Aspect ratio” is a common enough term, I think, even if a little technical. It’s simply the ratio of the width of something to its height. For me, that’s about 1:3.4 because I’m a tall, thin shape like most humans.

The early movie industry, back in the silent era, used a 35mm film with a ratio of 4:3 which also is supposed to reflect a person’s central field of vision. Television inherited 4:3 and used that format up until relatively recent times, but movie-makers decided to offer something which television couldn’t: widescreen.

The first wide movie standard was CinemaScope from 1953. It was 8:3 or twice as wide as television. The film industry scales the numbers so that the height figure is 1, making CinemaScope 2.66:1 in their terms. Common commercial formats today are 1.85:1 and 2.40:1. Television, meanwhile, has adopted 16:9 or what the movie industry would call 1.78:1.

Now that I’ve introduced aspect ratio, I’ll get to the point, which is that some people don’t get it. A common situation is that “old” 4:3 television is shown on a “new” 16:9 set, and there are a few options. In fact, my own set has several. Probably the best in most cases is simply to place the 4:3 image in the middle of the screen, with black bars down each side. You’re not using some of the set’s expensive pixels, but at least you can see the full original image.

Because an alternate option is to spread the image across the whole width and crop off the top and bottom. Since 4:3 is the same as 16:12 (multiply by 4) on 16:9 you only see 9/12 or 3/4 of the vertical — rarely what you want. One freaky-looking alternative on my television set is to fill the whole screen with an image which is stretched more the further horizontally you get from the centre. I don’t really use that.

But those people who don’t get it (and I know they exist, in fact I’m related to some of them) are quite happy to watch a 4:3 programme simply stretched across the wider, 16:9 screen. It makes everything look short and squat, and basically just wrong. Well, it does to me, instantly. In fact, it distresses me and I can’t watch it.

One place you come across the people blind to aspect ratio is on YouTube. Many a time I’ve looked for a video of one of my favourite bands, only to find that some idiot has converted it or uploaded it wrong. And does anyone add a comment to say that it’s incorrect, or even that the band concerned seems to have put on a lot of weight? Not ever.

So I went to YouTube to get you examples of what I’m talking about. The first “old” television show I thought of which would likely be uploaded was the BBC’s music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test. Sure enough, a proportion (sorry) of the clips featured short, fat musicians in a low-ceiling studio.

For example, here are squat Lynyrd Skynyrd live on stage. You see that logo on the wall at the right? It’s supposed to be circular.
Squat Lynyrd Skynyrd

And here are Gary Moore and Phil Lynott under the same, egg-shaped logo. Hardly looking their best.
Gary Moore and friends

But finally, here’s how it should be done. Bob Marley (no, his hair is supposed to look like that) nicely framed and in the correct proportions.
Bob Marley

If you can’t instantly see that the first two are wrong and the last one right, then you have the aspect ratio disability. I’m not sure if there’s a cure.

Abort, Retry, Fail.

WindowsI had a try of Windows 8 for the first time yesterday. It’s a disgrace that anyone (Steven Sinofsky) thought it was fit to release.

I borrowed my sister’s laptop to look at something on the internet. OK, start it up: the first thing you see is that array of squares. “Internet Explorer”. Fine: touch the screen there.

Oops. Yes, I knew it wasn’t a touchscreen PC, but I was duped by the use of a touchscreen user interface on it. Mouse, use the mouse. Click.

Ah, some sort of web browser. Good. It’s (slowly) loading a Microsoft home page though. I’ll stop it. Can’t find a stop button. Anyway, I’ll type in the address I want and hit return.

“This action requires ‘Internet Explorer On The Desktop’. Yes/Cancel”. So it’s not even a fucking real Internet Explorer. Yes, give me the real one please.

When I’d finished, I closed IE in the old, familiar Windows way, and — hey presto! — there was the Windows desktop, as in days of old. Except there was no “Start” button. I had to ask how to shut the PC down.

Perfectly obvious (?). You slide the mouse pointer to the far right, and select the cogwheel icon from the bar that slides out. That icon universally means “Settings”, except in this case that’s where you select the power-off function. Stupid.

A final point, emphasised by the fact that there seems to be two different pieces of software called “Internet Explorer” on the PC. People discuss getting a Microsoft-based tablet, or even a phone, for reasons of “compatibility”. Actually, nothing is compatible. Those are three different systems called “Windows”, for one thing, and the software on them — the browser, the office suite, the media player, and so on — is all different, in spite of being similarly, or identically, named.

You’d be better off with an Apple or Android tablet. At least that would be compatible.

Post-It Notes

PostboxPost Codes were introduced in the UK in the nineteen-sixties, although parts of Fermanagh weren’t absorbed into the system until the eighties or later.

Rather than adopting a five- or six-digit numeric system like most countries (such as the American Zip Code), the Royal Mail idiosyncratically developed a letter-plus-number system based on postal districts.

And it’s a fucking shambles. There is no consistent format – although the commonest is two letters, two numbers, space, one number, two letters (call it AA99 9AA), there are numerous variations. London formats are either AA9A 9AA or A99 9AA. Oh, wait a minute, they can also be AA99 9AA. Or A9 9AA. Other large cities — Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham etc. — generally have the A9 9AA form, but there’s no way to tell a priori if a city is “big” enough to be coded that way.

It’s impossible to design software that can validate a post code, except by exhaustively testing it against each known type, and Royal Mail introduces new ones from time-to-time, so you have to keep up. One programming website facetiously suggests that if you’re writing code to handle addresses, the only way to determine if a post code is correct is to have the software print and post a letter to it, and see if it arrives.

Royal Mail devoted a lot of advertising to educate the public in the post code scheme, and it’s become part of the fabric of life. Most of us add the post code when we address a letter.

Only one major organisation doesn’t use post codes: Royal Mail. The system is so unworkable that they had to develop a new, 5-digit numeric system called Mailsort for delivering mail.  Just like American Zip Codes.

Here Comes The Sun

Arch of Constantine, CanellettoToday, 28th October, is calculated to be the exact anniversary of the battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome, where rival Roman Emperors (and brothers-in-law) Constantine and Maxentius personally led their armies against each other in the year 312. Maxentius made some bad tactical decisions and his forces lost badly to those of Constantine.

The victory allowed Constantine to become sole Emperor of the Western Empire, and during his reign Christianity was first legalized (in 313, along with all other non-Roman religions) and then gradually grew in respectability and importance. (It is commonly thought that Constantine made Christianity the Empire’s official religion, but that step occurred much later under Emperor Theodosius.)

Late in life, and struck with a serious illness, Constantine registered himself as a candidate for Christian baptism, a process which would have required a period of religious instruction. However, he died soon after. Later Christian sources embellished the story of his death to the point where it’s hard to work out what really happened, but it’s certainly possible that he was baptised a Christian before death.

Christians of the time, and in later centuries, were so grateful for Constantine’s support that his pro-Christian measures tended to be exaggerated and his adherence to traditional Roman religion ignored. As with many prior and subsequent saints, fictional episodes and embellishments were added to the story of his life.

One of these is probably the best-known story about Constantine. Prior to the battle at the Milvian Bridge, it was said, Constantine had a vision or dream, in which God told him to have his troops put a divine symbol on the front of their shields. In some versions, it’s the cross. In others, it’s the Chi-Rho monogram. Constantine was told “Through this sign, conquer.” And the rest is history.

The preceding paragraph isn’t history though. It’s a Christian fairy story. At the time of the battle, Constantine was promoting the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, “the invincible Sun”. After the victory, the new government of Constantine commissioned a triumphal arch opposite and framing the large statue of Sol Invictus, with sculptures relating the story of the battle.

Constantine’s victory arch still stands in Rome, and you can read the graphic novel strip of his exploits in the sculptures. And there, in the section showing the battle at the Milvian Bridge, you can see that the soldiers actually do have a divine symbol on the front of their shields. It’s the Sun sign of Sol Invictus.