Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Finding time to listen

I have found a new (to me) podcasting app Pocket Casts and it’s very good. It has solved all my podcasting problems: It gathers all podcasts in one app, whereas before I was bouncing between iTunes, Google, SoundCloud, and a browser. It keeps my spot in each podcast I’ve started, even when switching devices or playing through Sonos or Chromecasting. It can even cut silences out of each episode, making it each one slightly shorter.

Wait, did I say it solved all my podcasting problems? There’s one it’s likely only exacerbated, even with the seconds or minutes saved by cutting out silences: finding time to listen to all the ones I’d like to.

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Some people do this by listening on what they call chipmunk speed, playing it at a faster speed than recorded. I tried that, but I just don’t like the weird sound that results, even at only 1.5x faster.

I can’t attend to a podcast while reading, or having a conversation, or working (because fortunately my job’s not that boring), or writing, or anything else in which I have to attend to my thoughts. My commute is extremely short, which is wonderful in most ways, but means that it’s really not enough time to make much of a dent in a podcast episode.

And I just don’t want to give up my daily habit of listening to music while making dinner. I also don’t think they would be as good as soundtrack to my Monday night cleaning routine as my “high-energy songs” playlists.

“Know what would make my life better? Listening to music less often.”

— No one, ever.

So I found myself seeking out extra chores I can do, for which a podcast would be a useful adequate. Now, anything that can motivate me to do some tidying up is beneficial. But I still prefer cooking to tidying, so I also find that I’m now trying out more dessert recipes. The value of that is debatable.

(On the other hand, you can definitely overdo this podcast thing, as revealed in this article: I Listen to 35 Hours of Podcasts Every Week. Is That … Bad? Answer: yeah, kind of… And towhich I say… 35 hours a week! Jesus. When do you do… anything else?)

There seems to be podcasts about every topic under the sun, and I’m not always sure how I stumbled upon the ones I try to listen to semi-regularly. But here’s a sampling of them and what I like about them.

Psychology

These are nice because, being less attuned to current events, you can more cherry-pick through them and feel less pressure to listen to them soon after their posting date.

Under the Influence

Good old CBC Radio—the original podcaster! This particular series is by Terry O’Reilly and is on the subject of advertising, or “the art of persuasion”. Recent episodes have covered jingles (with a WKRP reference), use of celebrities (early Ellen Degeneres!), brand myths (no, little Mikey from the Life cereal commercial didn’t die of pop rocks + coke. In fact, he’s alive and works in advertising). I’ve always loved this show, but rarely catch it on the radio. Podcasts to the rescue.

Hidden Brain

Hidden Brain is by NPR: the CBC of the US! This is how it describes itself:

Hidden Brain helps curious people understand the world – and themselves. Using science and storytelling, Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.

One three-part series that actually changed my own behavior a little was on the subject of sleep: The “Swiss Army Knife” Of Health. It makes a pretty compelling case that while sleep feels like a waste of time, it’s really important. And that while those who routinely get only 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night might think they’re managing just fine, they actually aren’t. They just no longer notice how tired they are all the time. But they are chronically under-performing, both mentally and physically. To be at your best, you need an “uncompromising 8 hours of sleep.” Every day.

Pop culture

Pop culture stuff is timely, but not that timely, especially since I almost never see movies on opening weekends, read books when they first come out, or watch TV live (love my PVR). So I can go back a few weeks on the pop culture ones without them feeling irrelevant.

Backtalk by Bitch Media

This one, hosted by two young women, looks at all aspects of pop culture—music, TV, movies, podcasts, books, magazines—from a feminist perspective. I’ve gotten some really good recommendations from it, along with some great insights; for example, their episode about the movie Get Out pointed out a whole lot of racial metaphors and symbols that I had missed, and made me admire the movie even more.

The only issue? And I don’t know how to say this without coming across as a disapproving granny, but wow, they sure swear a lot. I know, there’s a lot for American women to be angry about right now, and you gotta speak your truth. I just feel the arguments might be a bit more effective if the colorful language was applied more judiciously.

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The Americans Podcast

Where Backtalk is very broad; The Americans Podcast is super-specific. It’s not about all the people living in the country to the South, but about the FX TV series by that title that tells the story of Russian spies in 1980s who pose as an all-American couple, complete with all-American children. As previously reported, Jean and I love it.

It’s currently in its sixth and final season, and I have just discovered this podcast, which contains interviews with the cast, crew, and creators of the show, and thus is strictly a post-episode listen, as it’s rife with spoilers. This season is setting up to be epic.

Politics

Political stuff, especially American, is just moving with break-neck speed these days. These are the ones I don’t like to wait too long after post date before listening.

Lovett or Leave It

Crooked Media was a response to the election of Trump. Most of its members used to work for President Obama in some capacity. So they’re not unbiased, but the aim is to have “better conversations about politics.” They have a ton of podcasts, and I’ve sampled various ones. But my favorite is Lovett or Leave It.

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Some sincerely cool Crooked Media merch

Lovett or Leave It is taped live Friday nights in front of an audience, who participates in some segments. It’s a humorous, improvised look at the week’s stories in US politics. To add to the many other sources of humorous looks at US politics. What’s different here, I guess, is that it’s a lot of super well-informed people cathartically doing things like playing a clip from Fox news, saying “OK, stop”, and responding to the stupidity. Or turning the ridiculousness into a game. Or spinning a wheel to decide which topic to rant about.

It’s partly informative, it’s partly therapy.

Oppo – Canadaland

This is a relatively new one, and it’s about Canadian politics! I was drawn to it because they seem to be especially covering wonky issues I get somewhat obsessed with, like carbon pricing, why doesn’t the NDP seem more viable in Ontario, and what’s up with Sikh politics.

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It features journalists Justin Ling and Jen Gerson, who are supposed to in “opposition” from left and right positions, but it took me two episodes to realize that was the idea, because neither of them is really that extreme or partisan. Which I think is good (and also kind of Canadian).


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I have not completely forgotten how to read

This Globe and Mail article, called I have forgotten how to read, was posted some weeks ago now, but the opening sticks with me [bold added by me]:

Turning, one evening, from my phone to a book, I set myself the task of reading a single chapter in one sitting. Simple. But I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. No stroke or disease clouded my way. Yet – if I’m being honest – the failure was also not a surprise.

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”

“Yes!“ he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”

He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

I identified with the gist of the remainder of the article, which is that the Internet has rewired our brains and made it difficult for us to focus on extended text, such as a book. Heck, even a brief Internet outage (maybe 2.5 hours) one Sunday left and my husband and I feeling like lost, disconnected souls, missing our regular jolts of online distraction.

But still, that opening example… You literally can’t sit and read one chapter? That just seems impossible. Like, how boring was this book you were trying to read? Maybe don’t go for Moby Dick or Middlemarch. Try some hot fiction. A lively bio, maybe.

On the other hand, if actually true, it’s made me feel slightly superior, because despite my web-addled brain and Twitter addiction, I still manage to read a book chapter pretty much every single day.

Sure, it takes a bit of conscious effort. No screens in the bedroom (other than an eReader), TV off by a certain time. And quite deliberately having at least two books on the go, so that my Internet-addled brain has variety and choice. Normally, I try to make sure it’s at least one fiction and one non-fiction on the go.

Here’s a few I’ve gotten through—or am working on—recently.

Caught by Lisa Moore

Nobody I’ve talked to seems to have of this book, even though it was supposedly a best seller. It’s a Canadian novel, set in 1978, about a young man convicted of drug dealing who escapes from prison. He then connects with his former partner in crime, who evaded incarceration, for another possible job. But he might not be evading the law as well as he thinks….

This was a well-written novel, with each chapter acting like a short story in itself, with its own suspenseful arc.

I was pleased to see that CBC has adapted the novel as a mini-series, and even more pleased that they’ve changed some plot elements in an interesting way. Now I don’t know how this version will end, as I’m thinking it can’t be the same as in the novel…

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Yes, it was about time I read this, and yes, it came to mind because of the popular mini-series, even though I only watched the first episode of that, because then the free Bravo preview ended, plus I found it kind of dark.

Compared with that one episode of the mini-series, the novel was not as depressing as I’d expected. The episode quickly presents the story of Offred’s capture and “orientation” into the life of handmaiden; the novel spends more time with her immersed in that life, with flashbacks occurring only later on in the book. And it’s overall less graphic, I suppose.

I “enjoyed” reading it, if that’s the right word? It kept me engaged, anyway. And not having seen the rest of the mini-series, I didn’t know how everything would play out.

Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK by Bonar Menninger

This a non-fiction work about what I think is the most convincing take on the Kennedy assassination: that the President was accidentally killed by one of his own security men. It documents the work of ballistics expert Howard Donaghue, who was asked to prove whether Oswald could possibly have fired three times in the necessary time span for him to have acted alone. Donaghue managed to replicate that feat, but wanted to do more research before giving his own stamp of approval on the official account. Hence begins years of research.

He discounts some of what conspiracy theorists insist prove their case; the “magic bullet” problem. He explains that by how Kennedy and Connolly were seated relative to one other, and by the type of bullet used. But he couldn’t buy everything about the official account, either, concluding, for example that the first shot did ricochet onto Kennedy but not Connolly. And he was especially troubled by the fatal head shot: both its trajectory and its effect. Leading to his eventual conclusion that it was actually fired from a different location and type of gun.

I know exactly nothing about gun and ballistics, of course, but the evidence laid out here just works better for me than any other I’ve heard. The official story, about one deranged man acting alone, makes it hard to explain why so many officials did act in such weird, suspicious, cagey ways—breaking Texas law by stealing away the body, later losing the President’s brain (!). But arguing that Oswald was either just a patsy or a party to some government conspiracy doesn’t work that well, either; he really did seem the deranged loner type to try something like this, and he did murder officer Tippet.

But that Oswald alone tried to murder the President, and that one of the security men reacting to the shooting tripped and accidentally fired? And that officials didn’t want the world to know that accident happened? Yes, that makes sense to me.

There was a documentary made about this theory in 2013. (The book was published in 1992.) Trailer below, but the whole thing seems to be posted on YouTube.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Someone had recommended Jo Walton to me as an author, and I picked this particular novel because it was the only one immediately available for borrowing (as an ebook) from my library. It’s a novel about a woman whose life starts off on one trajectory, then splits off in two directions based on a pivotal decision. After the setup chapters, the book alternates between what happens when she says “yes” versus what happens when she says “no”.

It’s not only her own personal life that veers in different directions in each case, but world history itself. Early on we learn that in one case, President Kennedy (him again!) was killed, while in the other he was not. So you initially think that one life will take place in “our” world vs. an alternative one. But no. Kennedy is killed is different way, and a whole other history follows (such as his brother not being assassinated and instead becoming President himself).

With the mix of two personal stories and two alternative world histories, I got totally caught up in this. My original plan was to read what I could doing the three-week borrowing period then check it out again later, but no, I found I really wanted to finish it! The only downside to that was that it meant reading the later chapters in rapid sequence, which got pretty confusing—there was so many characters (friends, children, partners, grandchildren), not to mention varying historical facts—to try to keep straight in each “life” at that point.

I was wondering how this would all come together in the end. The answer wasn’t entirely satisfying, but I didn’t regret the journey one bit.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

The current read, one I am still working on. (Plus, it’s a book club book, so discussion is to come.) Early part is a really sad story, told by a very funny person.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

Just anticipating this will be my next fiction read, as that is the Oscar-nominated movie that really had my heart this year. Whereas my brain said Get Out might have been the best in terms of ideas. But the Academy thought Shape of Water, of course—it was also good. Jean and I liked The Post also, but it was more conventional than the other five nominated movies I saw.

I did not watch the actual telecast, beyond the opening monologue. I had reading to do.

 


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Please save us, NDP, you’re our only hope

Given its persistence in my thoughts, apparently I need to write something about the strange goings-on in Ontario politics.

Setting the stage

To catch up people living elsewhere:

The Ontario Liberal Party is currently in power. It has formed the government since 2003—15 years. The official opposition is the Progressive Conservative (PC) party.

There is a provincial election in June.

With the Liberals, and leader Katherine Wynne, having persistently low approval ratings, the PCs appeared poised to win that election.

It was all kind of routine and dull. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But then the PCs decided to make it interesting

About four weeks ago, PC leader Patrick Brown was accused of sexual misconduct; specifically, of initiating intimate activity with women who were much younger (though of legal age), while they were inebriated. One of them worked for him.

Brown denied the accusations and vowed to stay on as PC leader. He was convinced to step aside by his staff, who resigned en massed, and by the rest of the PC caucus, who went on to elect Vic Fedeli as interim leader.

Fedeli then discovered serious problems within the PC party itself, including a sexual assault allegation against the president of the party and bogus membership numbers. There were more resignations.

The new PC party officers decided to have a quickie leadership convention, with a winner to be declared on March 10. Four candidates entered the race, include Doug Ford, brother of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford (gah!), and a woman (Tanya Granic Allen) who thinks children shouldn’t be learning anything about sex in school. (She was just endorsed by a white nationalist organization. That’s nice.)

Satirical take on Doug Ford’s leadership announcement. But he really did announce it in his mother’s basement, and he did used to be a drug dealer

And then last week, Patrick Brown came out swinging. He defended himself against the sexual misconduct allegations (including, in part, through statements from his girlfriend, 17 years his junior, whom he started dating when she was his intern. Umm…). He launched a defamation suit.

Oh, and he applied to be PC leader again, and has been allowed to run.

And then they blew up their platform

That Patrick Brown won the PC leadership in the first place was a surprise. He had been undistinguished backbench MP in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. But he won by getting a lot people to sign up as new members of the party to vote for him.

He ran for the leadership as being at least sympathetic to social conservative views, but as the election, he and his team gauged that to win Ontario, you had to be a bit more centrist. They came out with a platform to mostly… Keep doing what the Liberals had been doing. The only “radical” element was getting rid of the Liberal’s cap and trade system for carbon pricing, and instead adopt the federal Liberal’s carbon tax plan. They would use the greater revenues from that to reduce income taxes.

But one by one, all the PC leadership candidates have declared they will not support carbon taxes. And they are going to get rid of cap and trade, too. in Maclean’s, Mike Moffat outlines how Scrapping carbon taxes leaves a gaping hole in the Ontario PC platform. To not run a deficit, they’d have to cut spending by $16 billion instead of the originally planned $6 billion. And they simply won’t have any way to cut greenhouse emissions. Ontario just won’t.

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So much for that….

Except, as National Post’s Andrew Coyne has pointed out, A carbon tax is coming, no matter what the PC candidates say. Because if they do cancel cap and trade, then the Federal Liberal government says they are going to impose a carbon tax on Ontario (and give the revenues back to the province). While it’s always possible the Federal government will backtrack on that plan, none of the PC candidates can personally make that happen. Whining alone will not do it.

And that’s one of the reasons Patrick Brown stepped back into the race, he says: To defend his platform. For the record, I do not believe his motivations are noble; I think he’s just very ambitious and really wants to be Premier. But he’s not wrong in saying that the policy void of the rest of the candidates is irresponsible.

Problem is, responsible policies will not win you the PC party leadership. Compared with the general population, the PC membership has a much higher percentage of people who hate carbon taxes in a deep, passionate, and irrational way, and cannot be convinced to accept them as policy, no matter (for example) how big an income tax cut you offer in return. Saying what you need to say to get past the members in March, then pivoting to become mainstream enough to win in June, is going to be a challenge for whoever wins this.

Which proves that having a tiny minority of the population with special interests select party leaders is ridiculous. Elected members of the party caucus should be the one to decide who leads them. Member vote has been the practice long time in Canada; there’s no real momentum to change that now. But if that time ever comes, this will be a textbook case as to why it’s needed.

So do the Liberals win again?

I’m not going to make that prediction. If nothing else, the PCs are gaining a ton more attention than they managed with Patrick Brown as uncharismatic leader, and the Liberals remain stubbornly unpopular. (That people say they actually dislike Katherine Wynne as a person is a puzzle to me, by the way. To me, she comes across very well, as knowledgeable, compassionate, and well-spoken. But maybe people are just tarring her with whatever Liberal policies they’re angry about.)

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Which seems to be mostly increased hydro rates? Although those date back to some bad contracts that previous Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty got us into, and that no party can get us out of. But the Wynne government has made some of their own bad decisions (along with some good ones, it has to be said): I’m not convinced that selling Hydro One was such a great idea. I’m not a fan of their LCBO-style plan for selling marijuana. Back-tracking on their promise to Toronto mayor John Tory in implementing tolls on the DVP and Gardiner was unconscionable. As is the amount of money they spend trying to get us to gamble more, online.

Overall, I think they could use a little time out here.

But I can’t see voting for that gong show of a PC party, either.

Our last hope? No, there is another

Ontario actually has a third party with seats in the legislature: The NDP.

Even before all this, I was leaning toward voting NDP. My MPP, Catherine Fife, is from that party and is a very good representative. She deserves to be returned to Queen’s Park.

But the party as a whole still seems to having trouble setting themselves up as a government in waiting. Even though they have the most popular leader. Even though the PCs are in a bit of a mess and people are tired of the Liberals. The NDP still seems to have trouble getting any attention, and keeping showing up third in “Who would you vote for” polls.

Could be a few reason for that, including having less money than the other parties, but they also seem notably light on the policy front. (Though what they have, on pharmacare and Hydro, seems sensible.) Maybe they should take a page from the Liberals, who have been known to crib from the NDP, and borrow some from other parties.

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Horwath, Wynne, and Brown (this is an older cartoon….)

Like, the Ontario Green Party has some excellent policies, such as having small business dispensaries sell marijuana instead a government monopoly.  (Also, Ontarians should consider voting Green, at least anywhere they stand some chance, like in Guelph.)

And / or, how about if the NPD gets rid of cap and trade, happily accepts the Federal government carbon tax, and gives everyone an income tax cut?

For one thing, it would be hilarious to see them debate the PC leader on that. And the NDP isn’t going to get any of the “I hate carbon taxes” vote, anyway. They could even put an NDP spin on it, and make sure all low-income people got a carbon tax credit.

An NDP government in 2018?

Look, it’s a long shot, it definitely is. But the past four weeks have shown that nothing in Ontario politics is as predictable as we’d thought.

 

 


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Walking the Basque country: Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1

A little interlude…

I mentioned that our hotel had some interesting architectural features, including a glass partition dividing the bathroom from the bedroom, which I had nearly walked into the first day.  Overnight Tuesday, I was awoken by the crashing sound of Jean hitting it from the bathroom side. I had assumed that he just hadn’t quite seen it, same as me, but there was a bit more to the story.

He woke up in the night to use the facilities and, seeing a familiar bowl shape in the bathroom, proceeded to sit on that. Only it wasn’t a toilet; it was a bidet. And he sat on it in such a way that he activated the faucet, spraying water both on him and the floor, which he then slipped on, causing him to crash into the glass door.

He wasn’t really hurt, and I’m still giggling about it.

Wednesday

Wednesday was our “free day”. After the included breakfast at our hotel—which was very good—we decided to head back into San Sebastian and spend more time in that city. We didn’t catch the “express” bus we were expecting, but it still got us there, just with some extra stops on the way.

Since we didn’t want to lose our hiking momentum, the first thing we did was climb up Mount Urgull behind the Old City to get some views. We also visited the free museum in the castle there, which covered San Sebastian’s rather lively history. (As an aside, I was still battling a cold this day, and concluding that Spanish nasal decongestant wasn’t quite as effective as North American. But overall the congestion didn’t stop me from doing anything.)

Streets of San Sebastian

Mount Urgull in the background of San Sebastian streets

When we descended it was around lunch time, and we had resolved to have a pintxo experience. Pintxo are what the Basque call tapas, but apart from the different word, they also serve them differently that in other parts of Spain. Instead of just ordering them from a menu, they prepare them and lay them out on trays all over the bar. You pick up a plate and go through collecting the items you want to try. You then order a glass of wine, enjoy, then traditionally pay at the end (though sometimes have you pay before).

Some recommend having just one item per bar so you can try lots of them, but given that I think you’re expected to order a drink at each place—well, we didn’t want to be that hung over. So we aimed to try two places.

The first was just a random pick among the many bars available. It was a pretty good assortment of appetizers, and a nice Rioja, and we even found a place to sit (though again, it’s more traditional to stand and eat).

For the second we decided to aim for one recommended the Rick Steeve’s book, called Bar Zeruko, which had an “award-winning chef”. And it is true that everything we had here was a step above the first bar. For example, after putting our items on the plate, they took them from us to get all items to the proper temperature and re-plated nicely with the appropriate sauces and seasonings. It was quite busy here (as most places were), but we shared a table with a nice Indian family.

Playing in San Sebastian

Another San Sebastian scene

We then walked over the San Telmo Museum, which featured art and exhibits on Basque culture. Jean was overtaken with an “afternoon sleepy time” feeling (maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the crashing into glass walls), so he mostly rested while I visited the exhibits.

We then bused back to Getaria.

No group dinner was booked this night, of course, but our attempts to find a place to eat were frustrating. Almost every place listed in Trip Advisor was closed this day. Still not entirely sure if that’s a typical for Wednesdays in October, or if it was because they were resting ahead of the national holiday the next day, when every restaurant was open again.

At any rate, we ended up eating at yet another Pintxo bar, even though I didn’t feel like having that kind of food again, which at any rate wasn’t anywhere near as good as either of the bars we’d been to at lunch. Jean was saved from dealing with my full grumpiness about this by the fact that someone else from the group joined us for dinner, so I had to act at least semi-civil.

We redeemed the evening slightly by then going to a small deli restaurant for dessert—at least those were quite good. I had molten chocolate cake and Jean had this very interesting lemon-lime sorbet with cava (sparkling wine) thing.

Thursday

Today’s walk was apparently the shortest of the trip, and ended with a walk on the beach. Our start was delayed a bit, though, as it was Spain’s national day, which meant reduced frequency of public buses. So our bus ride to the town of Zumaia departed a half hour after we were expecting it to.

Zumaia

Zumaia is not too hard on the eyes

That also meant that there were lots of other people out hiking on this beautiful day. We did part of the el Camino again (again the less popular part). Then we did some walking on rock formations called flysch.

Cathy on the cliffs near Zarautz, Spain

Life on the edge

We ended up walking back in town, early enough in the day to take a little coffee break. With the holiday, though, we had to split into two groups at different establishments.

We then went to hang out at the beach. (It was really a tough day.) A lot of people took their shoes off. A few were surprised by a rogue wave, though no damage done—just slightly wet pants.

Flysch at the Beach in Spain

Most of the beach looked like your regular sandy beach, but it did have this neat part, with more flysch

There were also some caves to explore.

from inside the flysch cave

We then headed back into town to find an ice cream shop, and wait for the bus back to Getaria.

Reward after a tough, tough day 🙂

The group dinner that night was at a restaurant where the waitress didn’t speak much English, which provided some challenges. Now I’ll mention that the vegetarian couple on our tour had limited eating options all week in these small French and Spanish towns; none had a concept of vegetarian entrees. But at this place they weren’t even able to get minimal accommodations, such as putting an egg instead of ham on a salad.

For the rest of us, the food was pretty satisfying, I think, but there was the strangeness that at every course, everyone received their food except one person, who had to wait another 10 minutes or so for theirs. Even though it was inevitably another one of what  someone else had ordered. Not sure what was up with that.

Jean and I ordered clams, done two different ways, as main courses—not realizing they were more of an appetizer size serving. And of course, served with no veg or starch. Very good, however. And did leave us with ample room for dessert.

For that menu, we took out the Google Translate app, which caused considerable giggling as one of the desserts was being translated as “panties”. (Very avant-garde of them, serving edible underwear.) I stayed away from that item and ordered a truffle tart, which was very good, not overly sweet. Jean ordered the same lemon-lime sorbet and cava dessert he’d had the night before, but didn’t find it quite as good here.

For wine with dinner, we had the local white, txakoli, which was nice and fresh.

Friday

Now might be a time to mention that I had missed packing a few clothing items I intended—forgot to get them out of the laundry and into my suitcase. Thus answering the question I usually ask myself when packing: Do I really need to bring so many clothes? The answer to that is YES.

It was just a daily annoyance trying to pick among the clothes I did have to find something clean enough, suitable for the current weather, which turned out to be warmer than the original predictions. So those people who say you only need two pairs and three shirts: You’re nuts! Clothes are not heavy. And you don’t want to spend your vacation time hand-washing them. Bring enough to cover your days away, already.

Anyway. On Friday I hiked in my oldest, rattiest hiking pants and re-wore my lightest T-shirt, as this was predicated to be the warmest day yet: 26 degrees + humidity. Two people on the tour decided to skip this one. Both of them had sustained injuries after booking this trip (one to a knee, another to both feet) and though they’d managed to complete all hikes to date, they had decided that was accomplishment enough.

For me, the runny nose had stopped, so that was a relief. (It really was a cold of short duration.)

We started by taking the bus to the nearby town of Zarautz, from which we walked back to Getaria. Zarautz was distinguished by having one of the longest beaches in the region.

Zarautz Beach

Zarautz from the Mountain

View of Zarautz from above

The hiking route took us by many vineyards, all producing the txakoli wine we’d had the night before. Stéphane said that none were open for visiting, though people did seem to be waiting at one of them? I dunno. Would have been interesting to visit if we could have.

On this walk we did get into a little bit of political discussion, on Brexit (they opined it was a bad idea, and the fault of older people who won’t have to deal with it), Justin Trudeau and Canada’s native problem (Jean brought that up—ssh, don’t air our dirty laundry), and hunting policies of various countries. It all stayed pretty civil except for the Londoner insisting that London economically supported the rest of the UK, which the Manchester folks didn’t appreciate. But it didn’t seem to create any permanent tensions.

I guess because the two slowest members were not participating, the walk (billed as 12 km, but measured at more like 10) was done before we knew it, and Getaria came into view before 2 PM. (We also felt, even though it was just a week, that we had definitely improved our fitness compared to the start.)

Walking in the Vinyards above the Village of Getaria

Walking the vineyards above Getaria

We got back, showered and changed, than had a drink with the group and Stéphane at the nice hotel lounge. No group dinner was booked for the evening, and the rest seemed to be leaning toward pizza at the deli. Jean and I decided to just do our own thing.

We ended up at a place called Txoko. After we’d been seated, given our orders, and had started drinking our txakoli, we noticed the rest of the group arrive! They’d changed their minds and decided to eat here as well. But we anti-socially stayed at our own table.

We got quite good service here, and splurged a bit on salad, followed by clams, then a shared grilled sole, one of the more expensive fish options. It was all very good and fresh, though. We were kind of excited that the menu said the fish came with potato and tomato side, but it was such a tiny portion, it was sort of hilarious. (Tasty, mind you.) For dessert I went with rice pudding and ice cream, while Jean had creme brulee.

Saturday

Today was the last day of the tour, so the only items on the agenda were hotel breakfast followed by shuttle to the Bilbao airport at 8:30. Jean and I were not flying out this day, however. We’d had trouble finding any reasonable flights back to Canada with a Bilbao departure time of 11:00 AM or later. So we booked a flight back on Sunday, and added in a night at a Bilbao hotel.

From the airport, we expected to take a taxi to that hotel, but the bus driver agreed to drive us and the other three people on the tour who had also extended it by a day, which was very nice of him. Our hotels were only 200 m apart.

Despite our morning arrival, we were able to check into our room. It was a more typical European size, but nice. It was the first of the trip with an actual double bed, rather than two singles pushed together, and with a coffee machine. (No face cloths or Kleenex still, though.)

Bilbao is known mainly for its Guggenheim Museum. But it was predicted to be the hottest day yet—high of 30—so we decided to start with a visit to the Old Town. We toured two churches here, but neither was that impressive—Basque churches are quite plain compared with the amazing ones in other parts of Spain. We also walked through the market.

Stained glass in one of the Bilbao churches

Then we headed in the direction of the Guggenheim. It’s architecturally very interesting, so we walked up and around both viewing bridges before going over to it ourselves.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao

Outside they have a spider sculpture that is pretty much exactly like the one at the National Gallery in Ottawa (it is the same artist). There’s also a puppy monument that, Jean informed me, was originally just a temporary exhibit, but the people of Bilbao liked it so much, the Museum bought it for its permanent collection.

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Some people on our tour who’d visited Bilbao on their free day had recommended the bistro restaurant at the Guggenheim, as did my Rick Steeves’ travel book. So we had decided to eat there. In looking for it, we followed the signs marked “Restaurant”. When we got to the entrance, there were a bunch of people crowded around the posted menu. I thought, we don’t really need to look at that, let’s just go eat.

Inside, though, was this very fancy, white linen sort of place. We were almost the only patrons at this point, and were outnumbered by wait staff. Then they handed us the menu.

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So, 110 Euros is about 165 Canadian dollars, otherwise known as notably more than we’d typically been spending for the both of us to have dinner on this trip. Should we just walk out and go to the actual bistro?

But it’s kind of awkward to just walk out, isn’t it? So we justified it. After all, we hadn’t managed to get into the fine dining El Cano restaurant we hoped to dine at in Getaria. We’d been eating cheap bag lunches all week. Let’s splurge!

My friends, all nine course were really exquisite, probably some of the best food we’ve ever had. And it was actually more than nine courses, as they started us off with an amuse of tuna, quail’s egg, and basil gazpacho. The house-made bread was herb, sundried tomato, and olive oil. Each item was sourced in a particular way that they told us about, shrimp from this particular cove where they were especially flavorful, baked beans elevated to gourmet levels but still reminiscent of baked beans.

We did not have the wine pairings, both because of cost and because we didn’t want to end up really drunk, but we each had two glasses that were really nice. I start with an orange wine, which is white wine given some skin contact so it gets colour, while Jean had a jura. He followed with a nice Rioja while I had a great blend of Pinot Noir and Txakoli wine, which I will never be able to find in Canada.

This would have been a great place to take food photos, as you can imagine the plating was also lovely, but Jean was a bit intimidated about doing that. Nearer the end of our meal, more people had arrived for lunch (most dressed somewhat casually, as we were), so I did take a couple with my phone.

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This was an extra dessert, not on the menu, of custard, macaroon, and chocolate beignet

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The coffee cups were interesting

We then went in to visit the exhibits. It’s all modern art, and not necessarily the greatest art collection we’ve ever seen, but I did enjoy this tall lighted work of cascading, thoughtful phrases; the huge Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe collage; the Basquiat works; and this super slow-mo film by the featured artist, that was strangely compelling.

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim this year, and to celebrate they were doing a week of special video, music, and light projections onto the building’s surface at night. When we left our hotel for dinner later, tons of people were heading in that direction to watch it. While waiting for our selected Italian restaurant to open, we saw some of the show.

And Italian food was a nice change, though the restaurant was quite warm. Afterwards, we tried to walk back to see more of the presentation (which repeated in 20-minute loops), but it proved rather complicated getting there, and once we did, it was too full of people to get to a good view. Oh well.

Sunday

Sunday was just a travel day. We decided to avoid the stress of a fairly short layover in Paris by booking an earlier Bilbao flight, which meant getting up quite early, then having a long wait at the Paris airport. We were grateful for its decent wifi, and the comfy seats at the Starbucks, which was tolerant of us buying only the periodic latte.

The flight to Toronto was a couple hours longer than the one from Montreal had been, then on getting there, we had to wait a bit before landing. An early thunderstorm had prevented other planes from landing at their designated times, so our turn got pushed back a bit.

That then meant that more planes than usual were landing at the same time, which made customs a bit of a nightmare. They have this whole electronic scanning, take-your-photo thing happening now? (In Europe, they still just have a person look at your passport, you know?) Then even after that, slight wait for the luggage to be unloaded.

But it got there, we got there, drive home was fine, there you be.


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Tartuffe and 45

When the Stratford Festival decided to include Molière’s Tartuffe in their line-up of 2017 plays, they had no way of knowing how the US presidential election would turn out. But they were not about to miss the dramatic opportunities this afforded them.

Tartuffe was a comedic satire written in 1664, and was immediately controversial for speaking truth to power. It was banned after its first performances, but Molière fought for it, and five years, it was revived to great acclaim.

Stratford’s English-language production is set squarely in the present, with the characters listening to modern pop (much of it French), making lattes, and being distracted by their cell phones. The main nod to the age of the script is that all the dialog rhymes—which strikes me as an amazing feat of translation (by Ranjit Bolt).

In Tartuffe, the (white) father of the household—and his mother—are in the thrall of a recent house guest, the apparently pious Tartuffe. Everyone else—his wife, children, brother-in-law, and housekeeper—are appalled. Can’t the father see that Tartuffe is nothing but hypocrite and con man who cares for no one but himself? Doesn’t he care that Tartuffe’s rules are making their lives miserable? (That everyone other than the stepmother are played by people of colour is a clever bit of casting: so we have women, people of colour, and younger people in complete disbelief that the older white characters cannot see Tartuffe for what he is.)

For most of the play, none of the current political subtext is made particularly explicit. It’s only in the climatic final scene that a certain orange President is specifically alluded to.

The production was hilarious, and it was great to see this situation played out in purely comedic fashion. And that it all worked out in the end. If only real life were so simple.


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Books!

Vacation means more time to read, and I did get through a few works that I found worthwhile.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

md19789526807Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables, and like many people, I expect, the Anne books are the only ones of hers I’d previously read.

The Blue Castle was first published in 1926, but I first heard about it in 2017 on Twitter. Kady O’Malley (@kady) was highly recommending it, saying it’s a book she returns to annually.

I got it as an epub and, being out of copyright, it was very cheap, but also not formatted properly. It wouldn’t load at all on one of my devices, and on others, wouldn’t paginate properly. No matter; the technical glitches did not take away from the pleasure of reading it.

It’s the story of a young woman of 29, Valancy Stirling. Unmarried and expecting that will never change, she lives with her domineering mother, obediently and quietly following all house rules, though they make her miserable. She escapes only in her imagination, to a blue castle and the company of the man who lives there.

One day, in an act of minor rebellion, she goes to a doctor who is not the family physician, to find out about some chest pains that have been troubling her. The news is the worst possible: she has a heart condition that gives her only a year or so to live.

This leads to some serious introspection about how to spend her remaining days. She concludes:

I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed. After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth!

Therein lies the fun. Her domineering family thinks she has gone insane, and are now somewhat afraid of this previously meek creature who now speaks her mind and does what she pleases. With time she moves out. She meets a man. He has a house on an island. Things have a way of working out, which is not a surprising in itself, but the way in which they do is. A delightful read.

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

28964412And now for something completely different…

This 400 or so page tome indeed tells the history of Jon Stewart’s time on The Daily Show, in the words of the various people who were there: correspondents, writers, directors, producers, publicists, and Jon himself. You’ll need to have some investment in this show to find this behind-the-scenes look at how it unfolded over 17 years of interest.

For myself, I was surprised at how much of that 17 years I had watched the show. I knew I wasn’t there from the very start, when Jon took over from Craig Killborn—but I got in there pretty early, with Indecision 2000, Chapter 2 of the book.

The other surprising thing was how much melodrama and personality conflict was occurring, at times, behind the scenes in a show whose contributors don’t really make the gossip columns. I had heard about a few, like the problems between Wyatt Cynac and Jon, but most… Who knew?

Also striking was the horror they felt at what was going on in the George Bush administration. Of course, he was not a great President. But still, you can’t help thinking… Dudes, you have no idea

13 Reasons Why

mv5bytfmnzrlnwytmmfmni00ztfilwjhodgtogm5odq5ntgxzwuwl2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_This one is not a book. Well, it is a book, but I haven’t read it. What I have done is watch the Netflix series based on the book, some months after most other people did.

Though definitely aimed at young audience, Jean and I got totally hooked on this thing. Whenever we had some lounging time at our hotel on our week off, we’d put another episode on. We finished up shortly after we got home.

Partly thanks to the performances of the two leads, it seemed important to find out what part Clay had played in Hannah’s suicide. In the book (I read afterwards), Clay listens to all the tapes  in one night. In the series, he gets through only about one per episode, allowing the series to progress in both real time and flashback, which is often handled rather deftly.

I’m not sure how a season 2 of this will work, but I’ll likely be checking it out to find out.

A Man Called Ove

18774964This was our vacation audiobook, because it had really high ratings on Audible.com. (Highest rated ever, by the way, is Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.) It’s a translation of a Swedish novel, and has also been made into a movie (that we haven’t seen yet).

Its central character, Ove, a 59-year-old recently (and unwillingly) retired man, is initially pretty unlikable—unfriendly, blunt, critical. But he’s unlikable in an entertaining, often hilarious, way, so we can stick with him.

As the novel progresses, we learn more about what led to this point in his life. How he was raised. The people he’s lost along the way. His innate nature.

This is set against the event of a young family moving in next door and insinuating themselves into Ove’s life whether he likes it or not. His interactions with them, along with the gradually unfolding story of his life, makes Ove an increasingly sympathetic character. Even though he never becomes a warm and carefree one.


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We need to talk about Omar

Omar Khadr, who spent 10 years at Guantanamo Bay after being captured by US soldiers as a 15 year old, has been in the Canadian news this week because the federal government has apologized to him and agreed to a payout of $10.5 million for violating his human rights.

Many Canadians, including a number of prominent Conservative politicians, are upset about this. It’s fine to debate the amount, the timing of, the manner in which the settlement was announced. But so many of the arguments seem to be based on an an emotional response that ignores or denies a number of inconvenient facts. Which is what upsets me.

For instance:

1. He is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of throwing the grenade

See What if Omar Khadr isn’t guilty? in the National Observer for the full report (by a former prosecutor), but it points out a number of problems in the legal case, including:

  • Lack of any eye witness to the event
  • Inconsistent and inaccurate accounts by variou US military personnel about what happened immediately before and after the grenade was thrown
  • Photographic evidence that appears to exonerate Kadr

2. Whoever did throw that grenade wasn’t committing an act of terrorism

For details, see the “Is it a crime?” section of Unanswered questions in 8-year Omar Khadr saga, along with the Observer article previously referenced. But the point is, terrorism means attacking civilians going about their daily business. So, launching a grenade in a shopping mall or at a rock concert would most definitely be an act of terrorism.

But in this case, the grenade was thrown at an armed Special Forces soldier who was part of a team that had just spent four hours trying to kill everyone in the compound. (Note that I’m not accusing the US military of anything here, either: in attacking that compound, the US military was just doing their job, of rooting out al-Qaeda cells.)

But the response of survivors to that attack was just self-defense, wasn’t it? Or just… war? But, “murder in violation of the laws of war” is what Khadr was charged with. It is not part of the Geneva convention, but something that the George Bush administration brought in (and Obama upheld) after 9/11.

However, 1300 US service members have been killed in the war in Afghanistan. And Omar Khadr is the only person ever charged with “murder” for doing so. Suggesting considerable doubt, even by its drafters, about how valid a charge that is.

3. But killing a medic…

Could be a war crime, yes, but Speer wasn’t a medic. He was in training to become one. On that day, he was not acting as a medic, but as a combat soldier. (The media unfortunately often gets this one wrong, so no wonder many people think he was a medic.)

4. But Khadr confessed to the charge!

  1. Under torture, yes. Making the confession unreliable. We know that some of the other things Khadr told his interrogators, such as information about Maher Arar, were untrue. (Remember that the Central Park 5 also confessed, yet DNA evidence later proved that they were all innocent.)
  2. As part of a plea deal, fearing he’d face indefinite detention at Guantanamo otherwise. There was no trial. And Khadr is now appealing that conviction.

But at any rate… What Khadr did or didn’t do in Afghanistan is somewhat beside the point, because that’s not what the government compensated him for. It’s for what the Government of Canada did to him—or did not do for him—after he was captured.

Per Here’s what Canada is making amends for in the Omar Khadr case

Canada was complicit in the rights violations Omar Khadr experienced; most notoriously by allowing our intelligence officers to interview him knowing he had been softened up by his U.S. captors through their notorious “frequent flyer” sleep deprivation program, a particularly cruel form of mental and physical torture.

That was under the Chrétien Liberal government.

That was then exacerbated by the subsequent Harper Conservative’s government’s refusal to extradite him from Guantanamo. Canada was the only Western country to leave its citizen in place there for years, and the Conservative government fought his release to the bitter end.

And all worsened by the fact that Khadr was 15 was he arrested, after his conscription into al-Qaeda group by his father at age 11. (11!) Canada didn’t consider him old enough to drive, buy cigarettes, vote, get married, or join the army, yet somehow he’s not considered (still today) to have been a child soldier

The Supreme Court of Canada has therefore ruled that his rights were violated.

So, why the persistence in insisting he’s definitely guilty of terrorism and denying that his age at the time should be taken into account? Well, as might surmise from that whole “made him join al-Qaeda at 11” thing), his family really is terrible, as noted in this  great Colby Cosh column:

The intractable problem with Omar Khadr is simply his existence. The politicians who seem to crave (more of) his blood are, in an understandable way, trying to punish the behaviour of his father, and to retroactively abnegate the slack application of dual-citizenship principles that allowed Khadr Sr. to become Canadian while leading a double life as an international terrorist.

But the son is not the father.

In the interviews and documentaries I’ve seen of him, he seems like a remarkably decent man. (If you’re Canadian, or versed with VPNs, you can watch one yourself: http://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/episodes/omar-khadr-out-of-the-shadows). But that’s beside the point, too.

This is the point: