Monday, 21 December 2009

Let It Snow...

Woohoo! It was bloody cold yesterday, and the roads around us were gritted around 10pm, so I wasn't entirely surprised to wake up to see an inch or so of snow sitting on the ground. I rushed down to the little park at the end of the main road to get some piccies.

And when I got home, the flat had been invaded by hornéd Vikings (well, just the one, and she was quite cute).

Saturday, 19 December 2009

San Antón Market, Chueca

This is gonna be a rant about architecture and fake bricks. Sorry.

When we moved into Plaza de Chueca, Madrid a couple of years ago, there was a fenced-off hole in the ground directly opposite the entrance to the Plaza, on Calle Augusto Figueroa. A sign announced it to be the site of the new Mercado de San Antón (I have no idea if there had previously been a market on the site, and if there had been, what happened to it). While the Barceló market was only a few blocks away, we awaited developments with interest. The site appeared to be dormant for about eighteen months, when suddenly it sprang to life, in November 2008. The grotty graffiti- and fly-poster-covered fence was removed and replaced with a tall and shiny corrugated aluminium barrier (and a week later it too was bespattered by graffiti and fly-posters). Site huts were installed, followed a few days later by a tower crane that moved so much in the wind we were convinced it would not survive the construction process.

And a few days later, up went the sign with an 'artists impression' of what it would look like.

Oh. My. Giddy. Aunt.
What the fuck is that? It looks like the very worst of British municipal 'architecture' from the seventies - and I should know, I grew up in the town that invented it. I stared at the sign in disbelief, trying to analyse what this picture is telling me. Okay, Keefie, take a deep breath. Right. It looks like a two-storey monolithic podium. At the ground level, it's clad in black stuff: can't tell what it is. There don't seem to be any openings like doors or windows in it on the main street elevation. Above that, the first storey seems to be clad in pinky-red tiles or brick slips*, arranged vertically. Looks like the top floor splits into two chunks with a gap in the middle suggesting a light-well or atrium. And this level is clad in golden tile or brick.

I rush home to get my camera: I have to document this. It must be a mistake. The Municipality has held a design competition, and this was the losing entry but a junior clerk was given the job of ordering the sign and supplied the wrong image. Hohoho, how they will laugh when they realise the mistake.

After a lengthy delay while the contractors built two levels of underground parking, the concrete superstructure began to emerge. Oh. My. God. It wasn't a mistake, they were actually building the shite in the picture. At this point we felt obliged to move a long way away.

A few weeks ago, I was showing our visitors around central Madrid, and we went into Chueca. The building is very well advanced: only a few weeks from completion, I guess. It's far, far worse than the 'artists impression'.

Oh, man, this is just awful. My pictures probably don't do it justice, but you have vast expanses of one batch of brick slips, interspersed with a different batch that should be the same colour, but is different enough to make it look like the cock-up it is. And because the 'architect' has designed this abomination with no surface relief whatsoever, your eyes are drawn to the errors. The corners are awful: there's no pretence that this is real brickwork (because it very obviously isn't) - maybe the 'architect' thought he was making some kind of ironic post-modern joke, because if you were actually building this thing in brick it would fall down: the brick slips cladding the first floor are stuck onto the concrete as if they were tiles (which they are, of course): around the corner they are stuck on in a stretcher bond pattern. It's just too awful for words.

And look, look! Down that little street, how this blank, ugly facade says 'fuck you, hombre' to the delicately detailed buildings around it.

Well, you know, 'fuck you' can sometimes work extremely well in historic urban contexts. But the building doing the fucking had better be good enough (go to St Mary Axe in London and see how Number 30 just completely ignores its context, but you don't actually care because that is one helluva gorgeous building).

So, early next year this hideous affront to the fine-grained architecture of Chueca will open. Graffiti artists will abseil from the roof and decorate it. I might be one of them.

*Brick slips - just like normal bricks - same material, same texture - but only a centimetre thick: used when you want to convey the impression of bricks in an unsuitably bricky context.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


Say what? Meh-hi-yo-nes. Mussels. I've fallen in love with them again. When we had our visitors a few weeks ago, I made a paella, and bought fresh mussels and langostinos from Mercadona (a supermarket near us: not quite near enough to visit every day, but well worth a trip for special things). I was amazed, nay, gob-smacked, at the prices of their seafood. And yes, I know I should have gone to the Mercado, but we were also after other stuff that the market doesn't have. Get this. One kilo of mussels for €1.80. Insane or what? Admittedly, they are not premium quality mussels: there'll be at least six stiffs in your bag, and the remainder will have beards like Rip Van Winkle and the shells will have more barnacles and fossilised pigeon shit than the Titanic. But inside they are fat, juicy, sea-flavoured lumps of yum (except for the wobbly shiny green bit, and I try not to think about what that actually is).

So, apart from sticking them in a paella, what can you do with mussels? I just lurve Moules Mariniere. Okay, it's French, but it's dead easy to make and packed with nutrition (no fat, no carbs, just a ton of protein).

You want the recipe? Okay, here goes:
All you need (for two people) is a kilo of fresh mussels, maybe half an onion, some chopped parsley and a couple of cloves of garlic. And some white wine. And some EVOO and/or butter.

To prepare the mussels (this is the slightly pain-in-the-arse, time-consuming bit): slap 'em in a bowl or sink full of cold water for at least half an hour. Throw away any that are open or that have cracked shells. Then de-beard them - grab hold of the beard and tug it towards the hinged end of the shell: don't do it the other way, 'cos that will rip the mussel to bits. Scrape off any crud from the shell with a sharp knife, and give them a good old rinse in clear cold water.

Chop your onion up finely and sautė in the butter/oil until a bit transparent. Throw in your minced / crushed / squashed flat and sliced garlic and stir around for a bit. Throw in some white wine - how much? I don't know: enough - maybe a glass or two - you want about a centimetre of liquid in your pan. Plop in the parsley. Turn up the heat, and when the wine is boiling, throw in the mussels. Turn down the heat so it simmers, cover the pan with a lid or sheet of metal foil, and leave it alone for about ten minutes. At this point you can sneak a look: if all the mussels have opened, they're done: if not, maybe give it a few more minutes. Any that refuse to open at all are stiffs: bin them.

When you think they're all cooked, remove the cover from the pan, take the mussels out with a slotted spoon and pop them into a bowl. Turn up the heat to max and let the liquor reduce to about 50% (there are those who advocate adding cream, in which case you'd want the liquor to cool down somewhat, otherwise the cream will curdle - and you'd have to put the cooked mussels into a warm oven, where they'll turn to rubber). When the liquor has reduced, throw the mussels back in, give 'em a stir round and serve.

This a real simple peasant dish: you can serve it with hunks of crunchy baguette, potatoes dauphinoise or chips and mayonnaise. Hell, you could even have a salad with it.

It's just the best thing.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

An Early Christmas Present

I've been using this MacBook for a bit over a year now. I think it's probably the best thing I ever bought, but the one thing I missed after making the transition from frustrated PC user to almost-evangelical Mac-user was the Google Chrome browser. This had been released a few months before I moved to Mac, and I loved it. No worries, though, a Mac version was in the works, and would be released 'shortly'. I've never done any Mac-specific programming, so I don't know how hard or easy it is. I kept checking with the website to see how they were getting on, but it was mostly Geek to me. I signed up to get an email telling me if they ever managed to complete the task.

Yesterday, I got my email: Chrome for Mac has arrived! Like a maniac, I rushed to download it. Easy-peasy, no problem.


But there is a problem on this machine. It's only ever been able to run Firefox: it has Opera and Safari installed, but they can never manage to connect to any websites. That never bothered me too much, but now I have Chrome, I really want to be able to use it. Intensive scouring of Teh Interwebz failed 2 giv me haz cheezburger. But I Percy-Vered (good ol' Percy, never lets you down), and came across a reference to having proxy servers set up. Oh my Gawdz: I know all about Poxy Servers as part of the amoral morality police in Dubai. Hmm.

So, I managed to track it down: yes indeed, this machine was set up to use the poxy server of its previous owner at his Uni. Goddam. So I deleted the poxy (the power!), and now all my browsers work, including Chrome. Yeehah!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Mobile Madness

I've been wanting a new phone for quite a while now: quite apart from the lust factor of a shiny new gizmo, my current phone is pretty knackered. Of course, being a geek, I don't just want any old phone, I want a top o' the range number that does all kinds of useless stuff. I want one that's as stylish and funky as the iPhone. In fact, I want an iPhone, but since Tellyfuckingfonica have exclusive rights to that gadget, I won't be getting one.

So, I've been researching the market, and what I want now (actually more than an iPhone), is a handset that runs Google Android, specifically with the HTC 'Touch UI' skin. So that restricts things somewhat. The HTC Magic is exclusive to Vodafone, and I'm with Orange: moving could involve a JazzTel-style debacle. But as I passed the local Orange dealer yesterday, I noticed an HTC Hero in the window: from only €9! I went in to enquire, carefully not building any expectation that I would actually walk out of the shop with a new phone.

The sales assistant said it was only €9 if you were a business or self-employed. My hope-rating increased to 2/10. I am self-employed (autonomo), and I can prove it! So we talked about packages and lock-ins - we're looking at €32/month, minimum 18 months. That's not bad at all. She gave me forms to fill in, and my hope-rating increased to about 5/10.

But the first question slayed me: did I want to keep the same number I had with my previous supplier, or get a new one. I asked where was the option to switch my existing contract with Orange to this one, and keep the same number? There wasn't one, because you can't do that. Hope-rating: 0/10.

But, she said, you can get the phone as an individual, but you'll have to pay something (I already knew from previous research, the 'something' starts at €209). She fiddled about with the computer. It turned out I have some Orange Points, so the 'something' is only €180. That's way too much right now, but maybe when a large outstanding bill gets settled, I'll do it. As an alternative, she offered the HTC Tattoo, which also runs Android, and is very cute. And 'only' €89 with my points. Hope-rating 1/10, I went away and checked out some reviews - they all admire the phone greatly, except for the crap touch-screen (resistive, rather than capacitive) that makes the thing virtually unusable. So I won't be bothering with that, even though I could get it from Vodafone for €29.

Y'know, phone companies really do get on my tits. Sometime soon, HTC or some other bugger will bring out a new phone running on Android. It might be offered exclusively thru Vodafone or someone else. As a new customer to them, I'll get the phone for almost nothing, and Orange will do nothing to stop me - they won't say 'oh, Keefie, don't leave; look, because we value your custom, you can have the HTC Hero for €9 after all'. I don't want to move to a new supplier: I've had no problems with Orange. But now they have the phone I want and won't let me have it for a sensible price.

I know these high-end phones are pricey: they are little computers, after all. In some ways, I think the UAE had it right. There was an open market in unlocked phones. You bought the one you wanted, stuck your SIM card in it, and off you went. The maze of offers, counter-offers, exclusives and value-adds here does my head in. And in this particular instance it hasn't increased my choice at all, in fact it's limited it to about zero.


So I thought, why don't I shut down my existing account with Orange, and then open a new one? I popped into the shop and suggested this, and the assistant said she couldn't see why not. So this evening I went yet again, armed with all the required documents. I'm buggered if I know what happened, but eventually she told me it would be €289 for the phone. WTF? What do you have to do to qualify for the advertised €9? She shrugged her shoulders - no idea. Feck. But it looks like there's tons of Android phones coming out in the next few months, so I'll just have to be patient and then take my business elsewhere.