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Christmas confusion

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas browses the Sunday morning market in Waterloo, Belgium

This Saturday, 6 December, was Saint Nicholas Day in Belgium. This is a tradition where, in the morning, Saint Nicholas visits the houses of children across the country, bringing presents. The idea is that the night before, you leave a beer for the great man himself and a carrot or two for his donkey, in a shoe by the fireplace. In the morning, you’ll find some treats in said shoe. I know, I know – you can’t exactly get an Xbox 360 into one half of a pair of Converses, but there you go.

For children in Belgium, the 6 December is traditionally the big gift-giving day. This is a good 2 weeks earlier that the British tradition, where Father Christmas comes down the chimney to deliver the presents early in the morning of 25 December. Children in Belgium are aware of Father Christmas, known as Père Noël, but the main man (and the Chief Gift-Giver) is Saint Nicholas. Children are always asking questions, so it won’t be long before my children start to ask about the difference.

Which is where it gets confusing. Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas are both men, both wear red, sport a white beard and both deliver presents. How they get there (a donkey vs Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and who tags along to help (elves vs a little black boy) are about the only things which mark out the difference between the two of them.

The increasing popularity of Father Christmas in countries like Belgium is seen by many to be just another example of everything that’s wrong with rampant capitalism – at the most basic level, he’s just a fat man concered with getting as many consumer goods into as many houses as fast as possible. It’s not as if the Saint Nicholas tradition is as a shining example either: his personal assistant goes by the name Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) with people playing him putting on blackface make-up for the role. (There are even dedicated online communities trying to change this.)

Christmas was never supposed to be this confusing.

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Ubuntu: 10 years on

Ubuntu is 10 years old this month, so I thought I would give it another try. I first used the Ubuntu operating system in 2006, and it’s become ever-more user-friendly since then. It’s a bit of a nostalgia trip as for me, as for many others, Ubuntu bridged a very particular gap. That gap was a history of failed experiments with Linux (too technical, incompatible hardware, etc.) and the unforgettable thrill of getting the thing working for the first time ever.

I’m also keen to get familiar with it again to see how it compares as an alternative to Windows 8, which from all the reviews seems to be a complete mess.

You can find numerous articles on the web which walk you through how to get Ubuntu and how to install it, so I won’t go into any detail except to say that it was easy to do 8 years ago and it’s still easy to do today.

My wireless broadband was recognised straight away by the installer itself, which means that you get the latest updates as you install.

Once it’s up and running, in the same way that with Windows or Mac you would install your favourite web browser, video player, music player, and so on, there are heaps of resources which tell you how to get hold of the right open source software to do want you want. It comes with Libre Office already, as well as Mozilla Firefox and some photo, video and audio tools. Other software is just a click or two away.

The huge Ubuntu support community have been providing very visual step-by-step guides for the last 10 years now, so they’ve got it down to a fine art. It’s thanks to these guides that I can install multiple applications in one go, and go off to make a cup of tea while all the necessary bits and bobs are set up.

Ubuntu 14.04 running on my desktop computer.

Ubuntu 14.04 running on my desktop computer.

I have a wireless printer, and again it took less than a minute to get it up and running. Printing and wireless used to be something of a nightmare in Linux, so it’s great to see both of these working without a problem. The scanning function needs an extra package to be installed – but once it was, it worked first time.

Ubuntu installs with its default interface (called “Unity”) which doesn’t use menus but instead you type directly to search for a particular application or file and even returns online products relating to your search (which has caused a fair bit of controversy in the past). I actually switched to a more traditional interface, which you can see in the screenshot above and which I installed with one command with a minimum of fuss, thanks to places such as the AskUbuntu  community who already have the answer to more or less any question I’ve thrown at them.

Overall, then, I’m impressed with the way that Ubuntu is still easy, still completely free, and still going strong after 10 years.

Hundreds and Thousands

Hundreds And Thousands by Caro Wallis

I took lots of photos recently at my daughter’s birthday party. Over 100 of them, actually. It’s the same story with recent holidays and trips out. A long weekend to France, 139 photos. Last year’s holiday to Menorca, nearly 240 photos. The challenge is sorting through them all, especially choosing which ones you’d like to print. Not to mention backing them up all up – a typical batch of photos from when we went to the Ardennes comes close to 1GB, and that’s from a relatively short trip.

When digital photography first became popular, it was a big selling point that you could shoot as many photos as you wanted, click click click. Which is still extremely useful for all sort of reasons. Great for being able to capture live events, or for press photography, or just for experimenting with different techniques. Nothing like as expensive or time-consuming as all that would be if you used film.

To get myself back into editing, sorting and printing, however, I think I’m going to try an experiment by limiting the number of photos I take to the old 24 or 36 photos that you used to get with each roll of film. The prospect of sorting through 20 or so photos is much more appealing than sitting down to a folder with over ten times the number of images to work through.

What are your thoughts? Do you also feel like you’re sometimes overloaded with images?

[Image: Hundreds And Thousands by Caro Wallis licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Hoover sound

Do you ever notice how babies and young children are fascinated by the white noise of a Hoover? When my daughter was a baby, she was completely enthralled by it, and it was a good way to get her to calm down or to provide a distraction.

I needed to find a way that I could use the Hoover sound without actually having to plug the thing in every time. It’s not as if I’m going to drag the Hoover out in the middle of the night – it might have worked to calm the baby down but we would have ended up with screaming, crying neighbours instead.

So what I did was to record a sample of the sound and used Audacity to create a 10-minute track which I could then put into my iPod and burn onto a CD. It worked like a dream – the distracting white noise without needing to use the machine itself.

So I thought I would post the original audio file here for anyone else who might want to try it out:

Hoover Sound.mp3

(Right-click on the link and choose “Save target As…)

If you do use it, let me know how you get on in the comments below.

So I went to a Spa…and then this happened

Photo 22-09-14 10 56 41

So it is that I find myself, along with my wife of 3 days, in a Thermal Spa in Grimbergen, a chance to relax following our exhilarating, amazing wedding weekend. I’d originally booked the spa as a birthday treat for Zoe, imagining that she would go with one of her girlfriends, so when she actually said she would prefer to go with me, that’s how I ended up with an appointment for a Mother’s Day Special pedicure.

Now, I don’t have the nicest feet in the world, if I’m really honest.

So after sitting in some hot water outside for a bit, then sitting in a hot room for a bit, plus a lunch including a glass of the local brew, it was time to go upstairs to give our feet a treat.

We had to sit in this pre-pedicure waiting room drinking herbal tea with our feet in a bowl of oil. We did this to the soundtrack of dolphins and pan-pipes (you know, from a compilation like “Deeply Chilled Tones Vol. 8″, supposed to be relaxing but which ought to come with a warning: “The record company cannot accept any responsibility for damaged audio equipment as a result of prolonged exposure to this music.”) until we were called in.

Why do I always get the bad-tempered member of staff?

We started off on the wrong foot, or should I say, feet. My feet, to be precise. My woman asked Zoe, as if I were not in the room,

“Madame, has he washed his feet?”

“Yes, don’t worry, he’s been soaking them in the oil. Of course.”

I mean, honestly. Then we go through to the room where we have to lie on these beds. It doesn’t seem to be going too badly at the start, but then about 5 minutes in I look around and see that the woman dealing with my feet has a look on her face of utter, utter disgust. She looks like she’d be marginally happier sorting through last week’s rubbish bins.

Then she leaves the room. Just like that. I wonder where she’s gone? Has she been so repulsed that she has to go and get some fresh air? I feel a bit humiliated, really, lying there by myself having been left high and dry by my masseuse. Though not as humiliated as when she walks back into the room. She’s come back wearing surgical gloves.

Zoe nearly falls off the bed laughing.

The Battle of…where?

You’d think it’d be easy to talk about where you live.

What happens though if you can’t even pronounce the name? We’ve been living in Waterloo now for a year and a half, and we still have conversations (in French, it’s not a problem in English) that go like this:

“So, where do you live?”

“We’re out in Waterloo, actually.”

“Where?” “Waterloo.”


“No, Waterloo…Wah…TER…loo. Wah..TER..LOO. You know, with the lion.”

“Ah! Waterloo!”

It’s to do with the way the locals pronounce the name, with a particular emphasis on the “r” in the middle which is difficult for a non-native speaker of Belgian French to get exactly right. You don’t pronounce the first syllable “water” (as in, “tap water”) as you would in English, but instead in French it’s “wah-terr”. So we end up trying three or four different variations, with each one resulting in the person to whom we’re speaking looking as if we’re actually just making it up.

One day, I’ll be able to say where I live without repetition, hesitation or deviation. Until then, when people ask me it’ll probably be quicker to just point to a picture of Napoleon.

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David

Image: Wikipedia/Google Cultural Institute

Fun with 35mm film

I’ve had a lot of fun over the last week playing with some old-school 35mm film cameras, which remind me of the very first proper camera I used, my Dad’s old Nikon F-301. Using a film camera again reminds me of the patience you had to have when using film, the way you could set the camera up before each shot but have no idea until later on whether the settings had done the trick. No instant preview. No delete button. Not a histogram in sight.

[Image: Wikipedia/Red Boes

The different characteristics of film: “sunny” Kodachrome 200, “serious” Ilford Delta Black & White 400. At university, I spent a while in my first term in the darkroom on campus, trying to develop some black and white negatives. I can still remember the thrill of seeing the image appear onto the paper as if by magic.

I experimented with slide film, doing a photo shoot in Exeter Cathedral on a bright winter’s day. The challenge of getting it all right, because slide film is brutally honest about where you’ve not exposed properly. Getting the slides back in the post and marvelling at how real the images looked.

You can find all sorts of old 35mm SLR cameras on eBay these days. The flagship Nikon F100 is being sold for a tenth of its original price. I love digital, the convenience of “developing”, editing and printing digital photos, and the ability to share and discuss your hobby with others around the world. With 35mm film, though, there’s a chance to step back a bit and appreciate the history of how we got here in the first place. Next time you’re second-hand shopping, why not grab a bargain film camera and enjoy a bit of old-school photo shoots yourself?

Chaos in the kitchen

I’m not the most accomplished cook by any stretch of the imagination. Oh, I can make you a reasonable pasta dish and if you ask nicely, I might produce a decent Cottage Pie once in a while. Anything more complicated and I usually end up halfway through a recipe questioning the instructions aloud like a madman: “Simmer until tender?!” “Reduce by half?”, and so on.

So you can imagine what it’s like with me trying to cook alongside my two-and-a-half year old daughter Seren. Yep, utter chaos.

We tried baking a cake together the other day. Well, we did actually do the baking, but what came out of the oven couldn’t really be called “cake”, by even the most generous of descriptions. There we were, me trying to measure out some more butter on the digital scales – useless, useless things for measuring anything like butter. You put the butter on, but of course as you’re trying to hit the “reset” button because the stupid scales are telling you that your “ounce” of butter weighs in at 4Kg, the butter falls off the scales. Ah, the beautiful simplicity of old-school balancing scales, back in t’day!

Balance Scale (image: Nikodem Nijaki)

Balance Scale (image: Nikodem Nijaki)

Anyway, there’s me, swearing at the digital scales, while Seren is ever-so-helpfully putting the cake mixture bit by bit from the bowl onto the floor. “What are you doing?! Stop it!” I cry, “You’re supposed to be mixing! That’s not funny!”

“It IS FUNNY!” she yells, glad of the attention and spooning more of the precious cake mixture onto the floor.

Having showed Seren how to carefully sift the flour into a bowl, she soon realises that as well as shaking the sieve gently, she can also shake it really hard with the result that there’s a lovely snowfall of flour. Everywhere. My back is turned for 20 seconds while I look for the sugar, and I hear: “Uh oh. Messy!”

“What’s messy?” (Calm. Measured. Don’t turn around straight away, but wait a second and…breathe.)

“Seren’s did put it EVERYWHERE.”

“Arrrgh! What a mess! I said do it gently!! GENTLY. I need to put the sugar in now and there’s no flour and…(breathe). Right, I’ll do the flour, you can put the sugar in. SLOWLY, OK? No, you can’t just eat it. Put it in the bowl nicely.”

We eventually get the cake mixture into a tin and into the oven, where in my distracted-by-a-two-year-old state (I think we were playing a game of ‘Let’s Pretend’ or ‘Let’s Pin the Blame on Papa’ or something) I forget to check on it. One hour later…well, let’s just put it this way: we had to close all the doors and open the big windows. The texture was the sort that, after one bite, you’re thinking, “Was that a tooth?”

Seren baking





The customer is always…

Ah, customer service in Belgium. We meet again.

The first was trying to replace a faulty Blackberry. The man in the shop was all too happy to replace it…with a cheaper model.

“Not a problem, sir. I can give you a Blackberry 9360 instead. Free of charge.”
“…but that model is about 200 euros cheaper, with fewer features and no touchscreen.”
“It’s a very reliable device, sir, we’ve had to order some more of these models due to the big demand from our customers. It’s your lucky day, though, sir, because I’ve just got a new delivery in. Today, in fact.”
“…great, but it’s not the model I’m looking for. I’m actually looking for the one that’s the same as the Blackberry I’ve got at the moment.”
“Which model is that then, sir?”
“The 9790, as I said at the beginning of this phone call.”
“If you’d like to come into our shop sir, I can replace that model for you, no problem.”
“Thank you. Is three o’clock this afternoon convenient?”
“Perfect, sir. See you then!”
“Just to confirm…you do have the 9790 in stock?”
“Let me just check sir….no, sir, sorry, we’ve got none of those models left I’m afraid. I was expecting more to arrive, today, in fact. Can you call back next week?”

Picking up a parcel here can also be equally trying. I’d been left one of those “We Called In But You Were Out” pieces of paper, which instructed me to go to the post office after a certain time on a certain date and my post would be waiting. So off I went.

“I’m sorry, sir. Your parcel isn’t here.”
“But it says on this piece of paper that it will be ready to collect after 11am today.”
“Have you checked the date properly?”
“Well, my diary’s usually pretty spot-on at telling me the correct date. That’s it’s killer feature, you see. Never lets me down. So yes, that’s today’s date.”
“I’ll just check my calendar…yes, you’re right, it’s the fourteenth.”
“Well, I’m glad we’ve got our dates aligned. What about my post?”
“I have no idea. Maybe the postman forgot to drop it off this morning…it could be that, couldn’t it?”
“I don’t know! I don’t work here, you do!”
“Can you call in at the same time tomorrow?”

Need an authorised technician to fix your TV?

“Hi, is that the Sony Service Centre?”
“Yes.” (No immediate offer to help, then.)
“I’ve got a Sony flat screen TV which needs looking at, would it be possible to request an appointment with one of your engineers?”
“…OK, thanks. Would he be able to come here on Friday morning, say ten o’clock?”
“We only carry out service repairs at the Service Centre.”
“So you don’t send technicians out to fix things? I have to bring the TV to you?”
“Slight problem there…it’s massive, this TV. It’s not like I can just pick it up and waltz over with it.”
“We only carry out service repairs at the Service Centre.”
“OK, thanks for being so flexible. Goodbye.”

How about you? How’s the customer service where you live?

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