Saturday, June 30, 2007

Quesos de cabra

more delicious quesos de cabra

In the suite

Whee! Today is my first exciting day in the suite where I will be staying for the rest of my time here in Madrid.

Here is a picture:

suite 7

To take the virtual tour (picture of my private bathroom not included), visit this link

And try not to be too jealous, OK?

Friday, June 29, 2007

El segúrometro

WARNING: oddly idiosyncratic rant ahead.

I assume that one purpose of a blog is to function as a useful channel for venting. So that's what this post is about. Something I need to get off my chest. Something unashamedly geekish, I might add. So don't say you weren't warned.

Here's the thing. Every language has its peculiarities, and Spanish is no exception. For anyone trying to learn Spanish, one striking and frustrating feature of the language is its apparent obsession with the speaker's degree of certainty. Of course, it is possible in Spanish to utter a simple declarative statement: "Begoña wore a blue dress", for instance. As a general rule, such simple declarations of fact pose no particular problem.

Should you, however, depart from the realm of objectively ascertainable facts, then - to put it mildly - all hell breaks loose. For now you have entered into the shadowy world of opinion, conjecture, and supposition, a morass from which you cannot hope to emerge unscathed. For some odd reason, should you depart, even in the slightest degree, from a state of absolute certainty, a huge spectrum of expressions and idioms opens up before you, ranging from the mildest conjecture ("Maybe Begoña was wearing a dress. It could have been blue. I really couldn't say for sure") to a high degree of confidence ("I'm pretty sure Begoña was wearing that blue dress she wore at her sister's wedding") to near-certainty. Or anything along the continuum of probability from complete ignorance to absolute certainty. Here is a small sampling:
  • Creo que
  • Me parece que

  • Supongo que

  • Se supone que

  • Me imagino
  • Seguro que
  • Estoy seguro de que
  • Es seguro

  • Para mí

  • Yo diría

  • Eso es

  • Es probable que

  • Es posible que

  • Puede ser

  • Puede
  • Quizás

  • Tal vez

  • Probablamente

  • Posiblemente

  • A lo mejor

  • Igual

  • Lo mismo

and whatever you're having yourself.

What's the problem? Well, for one thing, some of these expressions are followed by the indicative, some by the subjunctive, some by either indicative or subjunctive (depending on, you've guessed it, the teachers' favorite copout, "the context"). And you'd better get it right, because if you don't you will immediately mark yourself as an ignorant foreigner, whose command of the language is surpassed by any Spanish ten-year old. Furthermore - and this is the kernel of my rant - apparently, each of the expressions above represents an exquisitely calibrated tick-mark along the spectrum of certainty. Even worse, there is complete unanimity among all teachers of Spanish that it is the responsibility of every educated person to be able to associate each expression with its corresponding degree of certainty, whether one is using such an expression oneself, or trying to understand what someone else is saying.


if we think of "F" a representing a state of complete certainty, and "E" that of total ignorance, or sheer conjecture, then apparently, it matters - a lot - to your average Spanish speaker, just where one's opinion lies along the spectrum in between. Hence the bewildering plethora of expressions, not to mention the hideous indicative-subjunctive wrinkle.

Gentle readers, I don't wish to brag. But I do have a Ph.D. in statistics, so it's fair to say that I know a thing or two about probability. When this odd Spanish fascination with specifying the exact nuances of a speaker's degree of certainty was explained to me, my immediate thought (after "you've got to be kidding me!") was how inefficient the whole system was. All those phrases, and still no guarantee that each speaker is measuring by the same yardstick: Jose's "me parece que" may or not correspond to the same degree of belief as Maria's, leading to confusion all around. So my INTJ brain immediately came up with a brilliant alternative - namely that everyone could carry a little calibrated semicircular disc, with a movable arrow, along the lines of the fuel gauge pictured above, simply move the arrow along the continuum until the desired certainty point is reached, and Bob's your uncle. Thus, if I am 71% sure that Begoña was wearing that damned blue dress, I can indicate as much with a simple flick of the wrist. No fuss, no muss, no confusion.

Yes, yes - of course I understand the potential pitfalls. Before long the cool kids will be less than satisfied with the cumbersome, manually operated analog display. Inevitably, the gizmo will undergo the same kinds of developments as the wristwatch - digital displays, accessorization in different colors, use as a status symbol. Divers will want their instruments depth-proofed. But we know that these technological challenges can be met. And if the society cares so deeply about communicating the exactly nuanced shade of belief, then this solution seems like a bold, crisp, new alternative to the ambiguous thicket of phrases, moods, and tenses that currently ensnares the learner. ¡Hola, Juan! estoy 83.456% seguro de que Begoña ..... Of course, you'd still have the indicative/subjunctive choice to make. But a simple default rule (e.g. less than 50% - subjunctive, otherwise indicative) would work well.

Sadly, I regret to say that, when I have presented my proposal in class, it has been met with eye-rolling disapproval and dismissive contempt by sundry teachers. I can only conclude that the sheer genius-like simplicity of the proposal makes them nervous by threatening their job security.

Until this week, that is. We were (yet again!) reviewing the hideous list of phrases above and (yet again!) trying to figure out which took the indicative form of the verb, which the subjunctive. When suddenly, in the margin of the text, I noticed what - at first glance - appeared to be a thermometer:

Oddly enough, a thermometer that appeared to be graded from 0 to 100%. Then I read the word next to it. Sure enough, gentle readers, it said "segúrometro", and was being used to locate each of the phrases above along a spectrum of probability from 0 to 100%.

So here is the essence of my rant. For proposing a device already used in their own pedagogical materials I was subjected to mockery and abuse by my teachers. When (after all, I am an INTJ) I pointed out the injustice of this (in a good-natured way) - stares of bovine incomprehension. The complete isomorphism between the fuel gauge display and the thermometer display was apparently too much to grasp.

If you've read this far, thank you for your indulgence. I feel much better now that I've gotten that off my chest. Next post will be back to our regularly scheduled blogging, with some useful information about the wines of Spain.

El pintor de la luz

"El pintor de la luz". Horrifyingly, in English this phrase has been appropriated by one Thomas Kinkade (The Painter of Light TM), to the extent that Media Arts Group, the company that peddles his work to the public at large, has somehow managed to trademark the phrase. "How can such things be?" you ask. I have no idea. As this is a family blog, and I have no desire to be accused of contributing to the corruption of the artistic taste of any children who might be exposed to its contents, I will spare you any visual depictions of what Laura Miller, book critic for, describes memorably as:

Kinkade's weirdly compelling images of snug stone cottages whose unimaginably cozy interiors send an amber glow cascading out over their radioactively colorful gardens in the violet light of dusk.

For her entertaining review of Kinkade's literary efforts, follow this link:

The Writer of Dreck TM

Fortunately, where art is concerned, the Spanish are a little more selective. El pintor de la luz (not trademarked) refers not to el maestro de kitsch TM , but to the painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, born in Valencia in 1863. link for sorolla (83 paintings)

Why am I telling you about Sorolla this evening? Because he was the subject of this evening's culture class. Which reminded me that our trip to the Museo Sorolla was one of the high points of Paddy's visit a few weeks ago. The museum is located in the artist's former home, and is an oasis of serenity on one of Madrid's busier traffic arteries. In addition to being filled with Sorolla's work, and some wonderful period furniture, the house is suffused with a kind of joy - it is obvious that the family who lived there was a happy and loving one. Here is a link to the museum's website:

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida : el verdadero pintor de la luz.

Super laz-i-blog mode

Laz-i-blog mode is when I am too lazy to check the factual accuracy of whatever I write. Super laz-i-blog mode is when I am too lazy to bother to write anything of substance. Relying instead on cute pictures of my pets to carry the day.

boris on the carpet

sleeping beauty

waking beauty

The plain people of Ireland: Begob, but it looks like that marmalade cat is finally getting his weight under control.
The management: Silence, wretches! As I've told you before, Boris is not fat, he is merely big-boned. But now that you mention it, he does look a little slimmer - and more handsome than ever - in the picture above.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Live from Millstreet

Millstreet LTV2 : Episode 60 part 1

Millstreet LTV2 : Episode 60 part 2

As much as anything else that I could write or share with you, the two ten-minute video clips above illustrate what I will always miss about Ireland.

(Millstreet is a small town in west County Cork, near the Kerry border, perhaps best-known for hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993).

Shilling for Schweppes

That would be "shilling" as in the present participle of the verb "to shill", not to be confused with the defunct monetary unit "shilling" (en español : chelín) :

oscar winner shills for schweppes

Oh, Adrien, has it really come to this?

¿Sabes más que un niño de primaria?

¡ Que horror ! Madrid: 22:00 Thursday. I tune in to Antena3 for the final episode of "El Internado" (un lugar donde todo puede suceder) and what do I find? A Mark Burnett production:

¿Sabes más que un niño de primaria?

Two words: Jeff Foxworthy.

I am too outraged to write any more about this travesty right now.

The subjunctive in action

One important use of the subjunctive is to express a wish or desire. For instance:

use of the subjunctive to express a wish or desire

Note the use of the subjunctive form of the verb joder which, as this is a family blog, I am not at liberty to translate, the AngloSaxon form being considered offensive by many. The writer of the sign is expressing the wish that bankers and speculators engage in an activity which might be considered both obscene and biologically implausible.

Don Quijote

exciting text to follow, shortly. I promise!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What I've been Reading

The weekend before last I went to buy my first Spanish-Spanish dictionary, a milestone of sorts. Of course, I immediately spoiled the effect by wandering over to the section of the store with books in English and buying three. One of them was the collection "True Tales of American Life", edited and introduced by Paul Auster, in association with National Public Radio's weekend "All Things Considered" program. In 1999, NPR asked listeners to send in true stories, to be read on-air as part of the National Story Project. Response was overwhelming, and the book collects 180 of the submitted stories in one volume.

In the U.S., the title is "I Thought my Father was God, and Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project".

It is a wonderful book, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Here is - hands down - my favorite story from the entire collection. Since it treats of the redemptive power of mathematics, how could it not be?

Mathematical Aphrodisiac

by Alex Galt

In the days when John and I used to break up all the time, we made a decision to see each other only casually. Dates were okay, but no more than once a week. We were going to lead separate lives, getting together occasionally when the spirit moved us, but without worrying about commitment.

One day at the beginning of this period, we were sitting together on the floor of John’s one-room apartment. He was knitting himself a sweater and I was reading Fermat’s Last Theorem. Every now and then, I’d interrupt his knitting to read him passages from my book.

“Did you ever hear of amicable numbers? They’re like perfect numbers, but instead of being the sum of their own divisors, they’re the sum of each other's divisors. In the Middle Ages people used to carve amicable numbers into pieces of fruit. They’d eat the first piece themselves and then feed the other one to their lover. It was a mathematical aphrodisiac. I love that – a mathematical aphrodisiac.”
John showed little interest. He doesn’t like math much. Not like I do. It was one more reason for us to be casual.

Christmas fell during this period, and since I hate to shop, I was glad to be able to cross John off my shopping list. We were too casual for presents. While I was shopping for my grandmother, however, I saw a cryptic crossword puzzle book and bought it for John. We had always worked on the cryptic crossword puzzles at the back of The Nation, and for five bucks I figured I could give it to him.

When Christmas rolled around, I handed John the book – unwrapped, very casual. He didn’t give me anything at all. I wasn’t surprised, but my feelings were a little hurt, even though I wasn’t supposed to care.
The next day, John invited me over to his apartment. “I have your Christmas present” he said. “Sorry it’s late.”

He handed me an awkwardly wrapped bundle. When I pulled it open, a rectangle of hand-knit fabric fell on my lap. I picked it up and looked at it, completely confused. One side had the number 124,155 knitted into it; the other side had 100,485. When I looked up at John again, he was barely able to contain his excitement anymore.
“They’re amicable numbers,” he said. “I wrote a computer program and let it run for twelve hours. These were the biggest ones I found, and then I double-knit them in. It’s a pot holder. I couldn’t give it to you last night because I still hadn’t figured out how to cast off. It’s kind of geeky, but I thought you might like it.”

After that Christmas, we were a lot of things, but we weren’t casual anymore. The ancient mathematical aphrodisiac had worked again.

Monday, June 25, 2007



Why does he look so much like a Simpsons character?

The plight of the mileurista

First things first. What is a mileurista, and why should we care? Under normal circumstances, I would give this question the careful, backed by the best google-research, answer it so clearly deserves. But circumstances here in Madrid are far from normal. Already today, I have been an active and dedicated participant during seven hours of classes, and spent an additional hour doing homework for tomorrow's classes. Actually, come to think of it, those are my normal circumstances here in Madrid. The result is that I am hecho polvo (literally "made into dust", colloquially "knackered"; do not confuse hecho polvo with a similar phrase, echar un polvo, whose meaning is left as an exercise for the diligent reader, and which should not be used in front of your abuela.) Accordingly, let the reader be warned that I am in special Laz-i-Blog mode, meaning that I not only reserve the right to make up stuff out of whole cloth, but intend to exercise that right freely in whatever follows.

The plain people of Ireland: This is an outrage!

The management: So what are you going to do about it? Sue me?

(indistinct sounds of muffled Hibernian indignation)

So, where was I? Oh, yes. A mileurista is someone whose monthly salary is approximately one thousand euros (1.000 €, as they would write it over here). A relevant figure because it represents the salary of a "typical" Spanish worker in their* twenties. As we are in Laz-i-Blog mode, let us accept the convenient fiction of the "typical" Spanish worker without further question.

Why am I telling you all this? Simply so that you will have a point of reference for the list of prices that follows. Because, clearly, the view of an affluent visiting foreigner (that would be me) is quite different from that of someone attempting to live in Madrid on a salary of 1.000 € per month. An approximate conversion factor is 1.00 € = $1.40.

  • Price of breakfast (cappucino + croissant) at Faborit : 2.15 €
  • Price of the same breakfast at Starbucks (sorry, eStarbucks) : 4 to 5 €
  • Ticket to see "eShrek Tercero" : 6.50 €
  • Cost of having 2 pants dry-cleaned : 10 €
  • Cost of having 5 shirts laundered and ironed (never again!) : 20 €
  • Cost of a haircut : 16 € + 2 € tip
  • Cost of a 3-star hotel room in central Madrid : 80 € + 7% tax
  • Cost of a 3-course lunch, including beer : 8.95 €
  • Cost of a beer in a regular Madrid bar : 1.75 to 3.00 €
  • Cost of a beer in a regular Seville bar : 1.10 to 2.00 €
  • Cost of having the nice man at the Corte Inglés relojería replace your watch battery while you wait : 5.25 €
  • Cost of the fan that Paddy bought as a present for ... : oops! I can't tell you that.
  • Cost to rent any kind of decent apartment in central Madrid : starts at 600€ per month
  • Cost of a bottle of water in any Madrid disco worth the name ª : 12 to 15 €

You begin to see why the poor mileuristas still live with their parents up to and beyond age 30.

* : yes, I know about agreement between subject and possessive pronoun, but his/her is an abomination.

ª: Remember, if trying to gain entry to a Madrid disco, the cardinal rule is: "no jeans, and no snickers". So, check your attitude at the door, bub!

The rain in e-Spain

"What is this E-spain?", you ask. "Some kind of Spanish website?". Well, no, not exactly. Perhaps a little vocabulary review will help clarify matters.

stress : estrés
striptease : estriptis
streaking : estriquin
dinner jacket : esmoquin
choke (car part) : estarter
spanglish : espanglish
statistician : estadístico/a
to snort (drugs) : esnifar
snob : esnob
slalom : eslalon
sphincter : esfínter
sponge : esponja
slogan : eslogan

Sting : eSting
Springsteen : eSpring-eSteen
Spain : eSpain