Saturday, May 19, 2007

Elevator art

I normally have a fairly definite threshold of tolerance for museums, art galleries, and the like. Somewhere around the 100-minute mark, regardless of the quality of the art on display, my energy and enthusiasm begin to flag noticeably. By the two-hour point, I start to get downright cranky, and to look actively for the exits. Another quarter hour, and you can look for me in the museum shop, or - better yet - the cafeteria.

There are some notable exceptions. I'm not a complete philistine. The Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam - these are institutions which I would visit again and again, given half a chance.

Today I'm happy to add another cultural institution to that relatively short list. Near the Prado, but not a part of it, is the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, one vertex of Madrid's so-called "Triangle of art", the other two being the Reina Sofia and the Prado. A wonderful gallery, not so large as to be overwhelming, and filled with some truly astonishing art.

From Wikipedia:

The collection started in 1920 as a private collection by the late Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (1921–2002). He assembled most of the works from his relatives' collections and proceeded to acquire large numbers of new works to produce what is one of the world's finest private art collections. In 1985, the Baron married Carmen Cervera (a former Miss Spain 1961) and introduced her to art collecting. Carmen's influence was decisive in persuading the Baron to decide on the future of his collection and cede the collection to Spain. The museum was opened in 1992 after an agreement was reached between the Baron and the Spanish government. A year later the collection was bought outright.

The Baroness remains involved with the museum. She personally decided the salmon pink tone of the interior walls and in May 2006 publicly demonstrated against plans of the Mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón to redevelop the Paseo del Prado as she thought the works and traffic would damage the collection and the museum's appearance.

As you enter the permanent collection, you are faced with four life-sized portraits, of Rey Juan Carlos and Reina Sofia, and of the baron and baroness (the former Miss Spain). These are done in full, flattering "society" style, by a Spanish artist presumably well-versed in this kind of portrait. Inside, as part of the collection itself, there is another, superior, portrait of the baron, by Lucian Freud:

I wandered into this museum at 12:30 this afternoon, and didn't come out again until 5:45 pm. And only the last 30 minutes of that time was spent in the cafeteria. I scarcely noticed the time going by. Truly a wonderful afternoon. If you ever find yourself in Madrid, with limited time, this should be your museum of choice. It's a jewel.

The plain people of Ireland: Here! Aren't you going to explain the title for this post?

The management: Thank you for reminding me. Apparently much of the baron's family fortune was made in the elevator business. What Irish people call "lifts".

The plain people of Ireland: There's no call to be condescending, you know. We know perfectly well what elevators are.

The management: I beg your pardon. That was indeed rude of me. You are quite right. Please accept my apologies.

Friday, May 18, 2007

News items

Who are these slightly sweaty looking young men? They are Mikel, Basty, Javi and Ony, collectively known as DNASH. They did not win this year's Eurovision song contest in Helsinki. Though they cannot have embarrassed themselves quite as much as DERVISH, "performers" of the woeful Irish entry.

And these well-behaved young people? They are attendees at a punk rock concert, held last weekend in connection with the San Isidro festivities. Let me repeat that. A punk rock concert.
In an earlier post, I mentioned the incredible politeness of your average Spanish teenager and/or disaffected youth. This photo is submitted as further supporting evidence.

In other news from Madrid, municipal elections are rapidly approaching, and (literally) every few days another metro line is extended, or several new stations are opened. Hordes of street-cleaning vehicles are scouring the major thoroughfares, day and night. I think the current metro plan has been revised something like four times since the beginning of the month. One can only imagine the scenes of neglect and filth that are in store once the elections have come and gone.

The plain people of Ireland: Isn't that a coinky-dink? We're having elections here too next week. Sinéad thinks Bertie will pull it off, but 'tis time for a change, if you ask...
The management: (silenced by the sheer horror of the usage "coinky-dink")
The plain people of Ireland: Of course that was a dirty trick with that whole Sunday announcement thing and the Mahon tribunal.
The managment: (rallying) Fascinating and all though this discussion is, the most recent demographic information indicates that it could be of no possible interest to at least 97% of our readers. Accordingly, we shall have to pull the plug on this one. I bid you good night.


I forgot to mention that my Spanish got a fine workout at today's conference. All but two of the presentations were given in Spanish, and I deliberately avoided the English-speaking table at lunch. So it was gratifying when one of the professors, upon hearing that I planned to take Spanish classes until mid-August, delivered himself of the opinion that I already "dominated" the language very well.

Gratifying?? Who are we kidding?? It was exhilarating, thrilling, a tremendous rush. So much so that I was composing little ditties in my head all the way home on the metro. I will spare you the full details, but phrases like "gonna conjugate, gonna dominate, gonna make Spanish my bitch" did feature...

The plain people of Ireland: You're getting quite a mouth on you this week, aren't you? Once again with the disrespectful language!
The management: Disrespectful, how, pray tell?
The plain people of Ireland: "Make Spanish my bitch". Sure that's very disrespectful to women.
The management: You say that because you think I am referring to "la lengua", a feminine noun.
The plain people of Ireland: Well...
The management: But, fools, I am doing no such thing. When I say "Spanish", clearly I am referring to "el idioma", or if you prefer, "el lenguaje", in all its masculine manliness. How, pray tell, is that disrespectul to women?

The plain people of Ireland: Now you're just twisting things around, and you know it.
The management: Sometimes it's just too irresistible, sabéis?

Universidad Rey Juan Carlos

Today I reverted temporarily to my former professional self and attended a one-day statistics workshop at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. As you can see from the photograph, URJC is "public, and ready for you". For a propaganda photo, taken from the university's official website, this picture is surprisingly accurate - it conveys quite well the hellish, searing heat which baked the campus today, as well as the sparsity of students. Imagine about a dozen or fifteen modern buildings (all erected within the last 10 years, though generally nowhere near as ugly as the boxes in the photo) , spread out across an imaginary rectangular grid, with huge amounts of open space between buildings. Bake this in the unforgiving glare of the harsh midday sun until everything attains the parched effect depicted in the photo. Then into this slightly post-apocalyptic landscape introduce a hundred or so students, and sprinkle them randomly around the campus.

Oh, heck - why not see for yourselves? This is the building where the conference took place:

It is imaginatively named 2nd department building. Below are (I'm not making this up) 2nd classroom building and 2nd laboratory building

URJC is just about ten years old. According to Wikipedia, there are over 17,000 registered students, not that you'd know it from these photos (nor from my visit today - 170 would seem closer to the mark). To be fair, the Móstoles campus is just one of three, so maybe all the students were hanging out elsewhere today.
Amazingly, this is not the only large public university built within the last 20 years here in Madrid. The Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (known as Carlos Tercero), also with a student body numbering roughly 17,000, was founded as recently as 1989. While I was in Granada, I opened El País one Monday, to be astonished by finding a face I actually recognized under one of the headlines. It turned out that the faculty and employees had, defying expectations, not elected a new rector from the law school, but had chosen instead Daniel Peña, a statistician.

Today's conference, a workshop on neural and evolutionary computing, was far more interesting than I had any right to expect. Unfortunately, the occasion was a sad one - it had been organized as a tribute to the life and work of Jorge Muruzábal, former head of the Statistics and Operations Research department at Rey Juan Carlos, who died last August following a massive heart attack. He was only 46. I attended the conference with a former colleague of mine from Genentech, who had worked with Jorge several years ago, when both were on the faculty at Carlos Tercero.

I've attended a few similar events over the years - fortunately, not too many. It seems to me to be a very difficult thing to get right - striking the appropriate balance between recognition of professional accomplishments and the opportunity to pay personal tribute. As with so many things here in Spain, today's tribute seemed to me to get it exactly right. Both of Jorge's parents, as well as his wife and her parents, and his brother, attended. The proceedings opened with a speech by the rector of the university, who took a good ten minutes to talk with the family at the coffee break; the vice-rector attended lunch and sat with the family, there was time for both professional and personal reminiscences. For me, perhaps, the most satisfying thing was that Jorge's doctoral adviser, an extremely famous, and highly prestigious, statistician called David Lane, had flown in to take part. His tribute to Jorge was extraordinarily gracious and generous, reinforcing my prejudice that graciousness is a hallmark of the really brilliant among academics.

A sad occasion, but an altogether satisfying celebration of a life in statistics. I did not know Jorge personally, but it was clear from today's proceedings that he was an extraordinary man, and a tremendous loss.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Las Cenizas de Angela

So, there I am, minding my own business in class this morning, when suddenly Luisa (all teachers' names changed here to protect the innocent) gets me full in her sights and informs me that she has been reading "un libro sobre Irlanda". I straighten up from my regular slouching position and give her the attention that this announcement requires. "Una historia muy triste". My heart sinks. I have a horrible feeling I know what's coming next.

"Las Cenizas de Angela"

Dear God. Has it come to this? I present myself, showered, clean-shaven, albeit a tad bleary-eyed, at 9 am on a daily basis (paying for the privilege of doing so, I might add), asking no more than to be initiated into the eternal mysteries of the subjunctive and the preterito pluscuamperfecto, only to be expected, yet again, to talk about Angela's fucking Ashes.

The plain people of Ireland: Here! Steady on! There's no call for that kind of language!
The management: This is my effing blog and I beg to effing differ. So just keep out of this one, OK?

Let me elaborate. When AfA was published, it enjoyed great popular success in the U.S. One consequence of this was that, for about a six-month period, I could barely go out of doors without having to field questions, or hear opinions about this particular "book". Eventually I was moved to record my own opinion about this "work", which I share with you here in full:

But the worst offender of the last twenty years has to be the uniquely meretricious drivel that constitutes "Angela's Ashes". Dishonest at every level, slimeball McCourt managed to parlay his mawkish maunderings to commercial success, presumably because the particular assortment of rainsodden clichés hawked in the book not only dovetails beautifully with the stereotypes lodged in the brain of every American of Irish descent, but also panders to the lummoxes' collective need to feel superior because they have managed to transcend their primitive, bog-soaked origins, escaping the grinding poverty imagined in the book, to achieve - what? Spiritual fulfilment in the split-level comfort of a Long Island ranch home? And Frankie the panderer misses not a beat, tailoring his mendacity to warp the portrayal of reality in just the way his audience likes. No native Irish reader, myself included, has anything but the deepest contempt for this particular exercise in literary prostitution and the cynical weasel responsible for it.

And there, I would very much like to leave the matter for now. Except to apologize to the good people of Long Island, who surely do not deserve the implied contempt in the paragraph above. I regret that particular gibe, but nothing else.

As internet thread slang puts it, YMMV (your mileage may vary).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


If Madrid has a mascot, it's definitely this guy. This statue, right in the middle of the city, is known as "El oso y el madroño", which is universally translated as "The bear and the strawberry tree".

The plain people of Ireland: Wait a second! Do you think we came down in the last shower? Sure everyone knows that strawberries don't grow on trees - they grow in bushes.
The management: For once, an intelligent objection. Pray let me continue and I will explain.

The other, less confusing, translation would be "The bear and the arbutus tree". From Wikipedia:

Arbutus is a genus of flowering plants in the family Ericaceae, native to warm temperate regions of the Mediterranean, western Europe, and North America. North American members of the genus are called Madrones, from the Spanish name madroño. The European species are called Strawberry Trees from the superficial resemblance of the fruit to a strawberry; some species are sometimes referred to simply as the arbutus.

The Arbutus unedo tree makes up part of the coat of arms (El oso y el madroño, The Bear and the Strawberry Tree) of the city of Madrid. In the center of the city (Puerta del Sol) there is a statue of a bear eating the fruit of the Madroño tree. The image appears on city crests, taxi cabs, man-hole covers, and other city infrastructure.

The Arbutus was important to the Straits Salish people of Vancouver Island, who used arbutus bark and leaves to create medicines for colds, stomach problems, and tuberculosis, and as the basis for contraceptives. The tree also figured into certain myths of the Straits Salish.

The plain people of Ireland: Well isn't that interesting all the same. You learn something new every day. And of course Sinead's cousin Nuala had her wedding up at the Arbutus Lodge, you know 'tis there by the dual carriageway on the way into Cork. Very fancy, it was. The gardens were lovely altogether.

The management: Indeed. How delightful for her.

The plain people of Ireland: Of course there's no bears in Ireland. Unless you see...

The management: Pray continue. You interest me strangely.

The plain people of Ireland: Unless you see the bear with the chartreuse hair.

The management: What happens if you see the bear with the chartreuse hair.

The plain people of Ireland: If you see the bear with the chartreuse hair, there's nothing the doctor can do any more!!!

Fadeout, to the sounds of rustic thigh-slapping, as the PPoI double up convulsed with mirth at their own cleverness.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

How did you get here?

A couple of weeks ago, I installed a counter on this blog. This is free software which does essentially what the name implies - it counts the number of visitors to this page. No devious motives - just idle curiosity about the number of people who might read this blog - and it was free.

But sometimes you get more than you bargained for. It turns out that one feature of the counter allows you to plot recent visitors on a world map. A second feature is the ability to see, for those who reach the blog following a google search, just which search terms led them here (this ability may have something to do with the fact that was taken over by google a while back).

The combination of these two features is sometimes food for thought. For instance:

  • the Serbian visitor who reached the site, following a search on the "word" wicissitude
  • the Moroccan surfer who ended up on this blog page after a search which included the "word" bisit

(I will have to stop making up my own "words"). Then there was my favorite -

  • the visitor from Canberra, Australia, who stumbled across the site after a google search on the words Dickensian workhouse fare.

Yes, gentle readers, I checked. You can google on the words mainly on the plain until morning and I doubt this blog will show up anywhere higher than 100 or so in the ranking. But type in the phrase Dickensian workhouse fare and it will pop right up, in 3rd place.

I can only hope that the Australian surfer enjoyed the visit. I may have to disconnect the counter. For, surely, this way madness lies.

What's it like?

I was on the phone to a friend in the U.S. the other day, and he stopped me in my tracks with a single question: "what's it like?" A simple question, but one to which I had no simple answer. For some reason, it reminded me of another question that people sometimes ask, which always stops me in my tracks, despite its relatively innocuous nature: "what do you do in your spare time?". I don't know why that question bugs me, but it does, for some reason. It's not that I don't find things to occupy myself in my spare time - of course I do, and I never seem to have enough "spare time" - it's something about being called to account for it, having to come up with a list of "spare time activities" that will pass muster, make me not seem totally weird, or a pathetic loner. Should I admit to - God forbid - liking to read? If I say, "listening to music", am I then obliged to come up with some acceptable list of the kind of music I listen to.

The previous paragraph could probably only have been written by an INTJ (see earlier post). There's the implicit impatience with small talk, coupled with the fatal tendency to overthink everything. At some level I understand perfectly that these questions are not conversational traps for the unwary, that they serve the role of conversation-fillers as much as anything else, and to allow myself to be tripped up by them is silly. But still, there's always that tendency to overthink things.

But I do think the question "what's it like?" is at least potentially more interesting than what I do in my "spare time".

The short answer is "It's terrific. I'm having a blast". And maybe I should just leave it at that. But if I did that, then this blog would be a whole lot shorter.

So I will return to the question of "what it's like". But right now, it's a glorious afternoon in Madrid. So I think it would be foolish not to take advantage. Hasta luego, folks!

The plain people of Ireland: That's it?! But you´ve said nothing at all. Taken your time about it too.
The management: Clever of you to notice. But it's best to leave my readers asking for more, don't you think?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Out and about on a Sunday afternoon

metro sign

Retiro Gardens, May 13th

naval museum

Costillas 10 : Cisnes 0

Despite my dictionary's assertion that "costillas" means "cutlets", let me assure you that it is used here in the sense of "ribs". As in barbecued ribs. The finger-lickin' kind. The kind I had for dinner this evening. "Cisnes", of course, means "swans". As in "Una noche en el lago de los cisnes" (Swan Lake). Or - in my case - una noche no en el lago de los cisnes. Rather, una noche en el restaurante de las costillas.

Yes, gentle readers. Once again my total philistinism with respect to the dance reasserts itself with full force. When I went out this afternoon, it was with the full intention of going to watch the free performance (in honor of the feast of San Isidro) of Swan Lake being staged tonight at the lake in the Retiro Gardens (Madrid's equivalent of New York's Central Park). Tamara Rojo. Carlos Acosta. The Ballet Nacional de Lituania. What's not to like?

Well: the 3-hour wait before entry to the bleachers, for one thing. The distinctly uncomfortable look of said bleachers, for another. The fact that I had forgotten my pullover, in a fit of optimism about the weather. The distance from the bleachers to the stage in the middle of the lake. The fact that I really detest ballet, if one is to be honest about these things. (I can tolerate it by closing my eyes and pretending I'm at the symphony, but that kind of defeats the point).

And the fact that it wasn't scheduled to start until 22:00. That's 10:00 pm, people! What about dinner? It's well and good for the madrileños to saunter into the evening well after midnight to look for a place to cenar (because you know that most of them are going to hacer el puente, and take tomorrow off). But I have class at 9:00 am tomorrow. And there was the consideration of dinner.

So, I regret to admit that the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. And speaking of flesh, for some reason, this total craving for meat descended upon me, right around the time that I was coming to the decision that waiting around was not for me. What good fortune, then, to stumble across the Restaurante Abanico, specializing in ribs, on my way back towards the apartment. Tasty, juicy, delicious ribs.

So, the score for the day - ribs 10 : swans 0. I'm sure Tchaikovsky would have understood.

El lavadero

the new washer-drier

Washer-driers may be scarce in España, but back in mi casa en san Francisco, things are looking good.

  • Having 4 gazillion wash programs: convenient.
  • Several different dry cycles : a boon.
  • Glass door to watch kittie expressions as they go through the spin cycle: priceless.

¿What's this? ¡ A laundry !

El lavadero

Definitely an improvement over the old system, though I miss the chance to gossip while doing the laundry.