Pairi Daiza

On the last day of the long weekend round this neck of the woods, we decided to visit the zoo Pairi Daiza. It is considered to be one of the best zoos in Europe.

It's certainly worth the visit as it's a wonderful day out with lots of animals to see in a lovely landscaped environment. Animals being animals, not toys, means they are generally just lying around. However, they are still fascinating. The pandas are amazing. You do wonder how they ever survived, only eating bamboo, meaning they have to eat most of the time. Then they sleep the rest of the time. On top of which the female is only fertile three days in the year. Still, nature and evolution find a way!

I also bought some of the beer made locally in the Cambron Abbey. Tastes very nice indeed.

Here are some pictures of the visit. Sorry, no alternative texts at the moment for those with visual impairments.

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A week in France - Orleans

Our final full day in France was in Orleans, where we visited a friend. In fact it was the piano teacher of our daughters'. He's been living in Orleans for almost 30 years, having come as graduate student and worked his way up to professor of music, with all the benefits that brings - since it means being a state official. The idea was to watch a concert of his, unfortunately that did not happen.

Joan of Arc

The city of Orleans is all about Joan of Arc. There are statues to her everywhere. It also makes the place a very proud and independent city. We started our visit in the evening and had a stroll around the centre with an average dinner in a Thai fast food place. We did get a glimpse of the cathedral down the main boulevard.

View of Orleans cathedral, looking down a boulevard from a distance, with rows of houses and Ukrainian flags to either side

The next day was a guided tour of the city with our friend. It started off with the main statue of Joan of Arc on the main square. Before heading to Groslot gardens and past Hotel Groslot.

Statue of Joan of Arc on a horse

View of Groslot gardens with Cathedral peaking out in the background

Cathedral

We then headed into the Cathedral, which has Joan of Arc's story pictured in it's stained glass windows. You could also see all the local family crests hanging on the sides of the main area within the cathedral. Proud of their local heritage they certainly are.

View down the main alley in the cathedral with the different coloured family crests hanging from the sides of the high walls..

We strolled around the city some more, which has been well restored - apparently the centre was totally rundown and unliveable off the main streets thirty years ago. Now you can see lots of beautiful old houses with their wooden beams.

As commented by our friend, in Germany when they restore old buildings they make them look new, in France when they restore them, they still look old. Having grown up in Germany, I can confirm this difference.

An old restored house in Orleans, with orange brown wooden beams in it's structure.

Musee des Beaux-Artes

In the afternoon we decided to visit the museum of fine arts, just next to the cathedral. Fine art and looking at portrait after portrait of unknown people by artists you have not heard of is not my thing, but it still took me a good two hours to walk round the whole place. If fine art is your thing, this is apparently one of the best such museums in France, after the Louvre of course. Here are the two pictures I liked most.

Painting of castle ruins on a hill to the left, with tall tress to right and a boat on a lake in the background with the sunsetting in the distance.

Long, rectangular, blue and white modern art painting receding into the distance.

Return home

And so ends our week in France. The next morning we drove home. We thought we might stop in Reims and the Champagne region, but that will have to wait for another day - the weather was not playing nice.

The drive home was great. Due to the tolls, the French motorways are apparently not so busy away from the main cities. I put the car in cruise control and basically didn't have to touch the brakes or the accelerator, except for toilet stops.

Of course this comes at a price - just over 50 Euros once we exited the toll system near Metz, and hit the more overloaded, but free, part of the motorway.

A week in France - Blois

After leaving Versailles, we headed to Orleans to visit a friend and look around Joan of Arc's adopted home town. But first we headed to Blois, about 60km to the south west of Orleans. Blois used to be the official residence of the King of France, and has a castle to prove it!

Castle

The castle has been around for several hundred years and you can tell the parts that have been added over the centuries: all four sides of the castle are clearly from a different era.

Courtyard of Blois castle, looking onto its chapel.

We took the tour of the castle which was quite interesting. Turns out the decoration is all "fake", having been designed this way by the chief architect of the restoration a couple of hundred years ago. But it's very impressive nonetheless.

Old wing piano, not full size, against the blue tiled flour and red walls.

The most eery part of walking round the castle was standing in the room where Henry I, Duke of Guise, was assassinated. In the King's bedroom I believe it was. So here's a photo of the King's bedroom.

Four poster bed, with turquoise bedding in the King's bedroom

The views from the castle gardens are also impressive, looking out over the Seine and the rooftops of the city.

Panoramic view of the city of Blois, with the roof tops in the foreground, the cathedral to the right and the river Seine in the background

House of Magic

On the opposite side of the square to the castle, is the house of magic. Which every 15 minutes or so has dragons appearing in it's windows.

Six dragon heads reaching out of the large windows of the House of Magic in Blois

We decided to go in and were treated to a charming magic show, more geared towards little kids, but very interesting anyway. After that we explored the museum, about magic and the life of Robert-Houdin - illusionist and clockmaker.

Outside in the square between the house of magic and the castle, you can hang out in the bistros and also enjoy further views over the city. If you're lucky you will also see this black cat stroll past. Not sure if this is good or bad luck!

Black cat strolling past on the other side of the railings with roof tops and blue sky in the background.

The city itself

We didn't have much time to look around the city, but there is far more to see than just the castle and the house of magic. We did walk onto the bridge over the Seine and also ambled through the artists quarter just below the castle.

Blois is definitely worth more time than the single day we spent there.

View of the city of Blois with it's cathedral from the middle of the bridge across the Seine.

Narrow street between old houses with a sign across the top reading "Quartier des arts" (in french).

A week in France - Versailles

Just as we were leaving Paris for Orleans, we decided to make a hard right and head for Versailles, possibly the world's nest known castle. We managed to park right next to the entrance (we only realised the cost on leaving...) and walked straight up to the entrance, well we would have done had it not been for the queues.

Queues

Whilst trying to judge the time the queue would take and discussing the merits of getting a ticket to see the castle or not, we got to admire the golden gates and the magnificent castle behind them.

View of the Versailles castle through a hear shape in the gate made by two golden eagles

Eventually we decided it would be worth the wait so went inside the ticket shop only to be confronted by another queue to buy the tickets. The online shop was unusable on my phone, so we gave up and decided to have a look "out back".

Gardens

Interestingly there were no queues to see the gardens, so we walked up to the ticket stand paid our 11 Euros each and entered the rather impressive back yard of Versailles. Just this side minor annex would make most people proud.

A rather impressive side annex to the gardens of Versailles.

Fountains

In fact the Versailles gardens is a really a set of fantastic fountains linked to by equally impressive paths through the groves. The fountains have rather royal sounding names like Dauphin, Ballroom, Theatre of Water and Dragon pool. In fact the most impressive was in the Mirror pool, where we watched a wonderful fountain display accompanied by baroque music.

Fountains playing the mirror pool

But there were many others, which you can see at the end of this page.

Canal and Statues

We spent the rest of the wandering around the gardens. This included a nice lunch in the bistro next to the canal.

Rowing boats lined up along the pier of the canal.

There were plenty of statues to admire and lots of groves to wander through, before discovering yet another fountain!

White statue of a man holding a harp, against a blue sky.

All in all we spent around 5 hours in the gardens without even realising it. The castle will have to wait for another time. I leave you with two more images. The first looking down over the gardens from the castle, with the canal in the distance.

As described in the preceding text

The second a panorama view of the castle looking in the opposite direction to the previous image.

Panoramic view of Versailles castle in the distance with fountain pools on either side in the foreground and white clouds and blue sky above.

More fountain videos

The ballroom

Latona's pool

Neptune pool

Three fountains area

A week in France - Paris Day Two

Day two in Paris started well and we managed to get into town in a more reasonable time.

Sacre Coeur

In fact we went all the way to the Sacre Coeur on the Montmartre to get a nice view of the city. Unfortunately the weather was not good in the morning, so we spent some time sheltering from the rain showers in the local cafes and thrift shops.

Coffee table with empty glasses, coffee cups and a deck of cards

Eventually the weather brightened up after lunch, so we walked up the hill to the church.

Looking up at the Sacre Coeur from the bottom of the stairs

The view from the top is fantastic, but unfortunately the Eiffel Tower is hidden off to the right behind the trees, although from the right spot you can see it peaking out in all its grandeur.

Panoramic view of Paris under a dark grey cloud.

Just as we were sat on the steps, a deux chevaux drove past with it's exhaust banging on the ground. Paris at it's best. 🙂

Deux chevaux car painted in the colours of the French flag driving past the view of Paris from the Montmartre.

Centre Pompidou

We headed back down the hill and into town using the funicular, which we only then realised was actually included in the local transport system.

Video taking the funicular down the Montmartre

In the afternoon we headed back into the centre of Paris. First to look at the Centre Pompidou and then to do some more thrift shopping.

Centre Pompidou in Paris, designed with the piping and services on the outside.

The walk also took us past the Hotel de Ville of Paris - it's townhall.

Paris townhall, seen from across the square

A week in France - Paris Day One

We arrived in Paris late afternoon on Saturday. Our hotel was about 20km to the south of Paris, chosen because it had free parking and was a rather miserable affair. Whilst everything was OK, the room was tiny, the beds were poor and the bathroom squashy. But it was cheap and close to public transport to get us into town.

Into town

So on Sunday morning we headed into town. First we had to get the tram line T7 from Moulin Vert and then switch to the metro line 7 at Villejuif Luis Aragon. Or that was the idea. Unfortunately the metro line was blocked due to a broken down train, so what should have been a 40 minute journey into town took about an hour and a half.

Pantheon

We started our journey at the Jussieu metro station and headed towards the pantheon.

Frontal view of the Pantheon with its six big pillars.

Notre Dame

After the pantheon and a first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, we headed towards the Notre Dame cathedral. This lead us past a flea market selling all sorts of worthless overpriced junk.

Flea market with tables full of bric-a-brac.

The Notre Dame was still being repaired following the fire in the spring of 2019. So we couldn't go in, or even get too very close to it. It still remains an impressive cathedral sitting in the middle of the Seine.

Notre Dame cathedral under repair, seen from a park and framed with trees on either side.

Louvre

Next we headed to the Louvre, the world's biggest museum. We skipped going in, deciding that deserved a holiday in itself. Mona Lisa will have to wait.

People milling around in the square in front of the Louvre with the glass pyramid in the background.

We continued on through the park, past the place de la Concorde and onto the Champs-Elysees.

Monument on place de la Concorde see from a distance.

Arc de Triomphe

We walked up the Champs-Elysees, a much more ordinary road than I was expecting, and on to the Arc de Triomphe. The Champs-Elysees was shut to cars that day, due to an open air cinema being prepared at the eastern end, just in front of the Arc de Triomphe. This made it a nice leisurely stroll.

View of the impressive Arc de Triomphe from across the round about.

We got to the roundabout in the centre of which is the Arc de Triomphe. It is certainly an impressive monument. We used the underpass under the roundabout to get to it and strolled around the bottom of it for a while.

Eiffel Tower

Next we headed to the Eiffel Tower. This led us past a statue of George Washington. So much for freedom fries.

Statue of George Washington on a horse with his sword raised in the air

Finally we reached the Eiffel Tower, just as the sun decided to make an appearance on what had up until then been a rather grey affair.

The Eiffel Tower from across the Seine with trees in the foreground

The Eiffel Tower really is impressive in its size compared to the rest of Paris. It sticks out like sore thumb, but a magnificent one! As you get close, the size becomes ever more apparent, until you are staring one of it's arched feet and feeling truly insignificant.

An immense arched foot of the Eiffel Tower

Looking up from the base of the Eiffel Tower as it reaches into the sky.

We finished the day's sightseeing with a coffee at a café in the gardens of "yet another museum" in Paris. In front of us was an elderly couple sharing a cocktail, with the man not letting go of the glass desperate for a drink and the woman making sure he does not drink it all himself! 🙂

Elderly couple sitting at a table in a garden café sharing a cocktail with two straws.

And so concluded our first day in Paris. We headed back to our hotel with yet more disruptions on the metro, arriving there around 10pm. Next time we will go by train to Paris and book a hotel in the centre, but this time we needed the car to carry on our journey after visiting Paris.

Dream Theatre Concert

This was a great Dream Theater concert I went to on Sunday evening at the Rockhal in Luxembourg. The fantastic opening act was Devin Townsend. It's been a long time since I went to a rock concert... too long.

Note: unfortunately the videos embedded on this page require javascript in order to work.

Rockhal

Rockhal is located next to Luxembourg university on an old steel works that is now creates a bizarre backdrop to the area.

Huge grey pipes of the steelworks overlooking a green coffee table

Futuristic heavy metal car sculpture hanging from the ceiling in the entrance hall to Rockhal.

Devin Towsend

Devin Townsend on stage with his band against a dark red backdrop with shaded fans in the foreground

The band on stage against a grey background

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Dream Theatre

Dream Theatre on stage with a blue and green bakdrop and the keyboard rotated up at one end to be at heavy angle

Dream Theatre on stage again

Dream Theater on stage against a red backdrop with several yellow search lights flooding the stage

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Ride to Mersch

A simple slow ride to Mersch and back in the lovely weather, before the Dream Theatre concert. Around 18km in an hour and a bit.

View of sunny fields fields framed by shaded trees to the side and a bike in the foreground

Echternach 2 Circular Walk

A nice 7.2km walk around Echternach lake. It started off with a steep climb into the forest to one side of the lake. The path returns to the level of the lake after about 4km in the forest. It then winds around the lake, past the Youth Hostel and back to the starting point. It was a lovely walk on a wonderfully warm and sunny day and the dog had a great time.

The dog Angie playing in the leaves in the forest

Echternach youth hostel overlooking the lake on a sunny day

Overlooking the Echternach valley from forest above the lake

Path winding through a sunny forest

Looking down onto the large fountain in the centre of Echternach lake

Ride to Colmar-Berg

I cycled to Colmar-Berg and back, which is just under 40km. Took me three hours, including some breaks. Narrowly avoided a rain shower by cycling into the shower before it really started. It also meant going against the wind, which was tiring. On the way back everything was wet and there was unfortunately no wind in my back!

Mersch not quite circular walk

I was hoping to do another circular walk, this time the one around Mersch. Unfortunately we took a wrong turn near the beginning and ended up on a new part of the PC 14 cycle path heading to Schoenfels castle instead. Still it was a nice comfortable 7km walk taking about 2 hours at leisurely stroll with a dog more interested in smelling the flowers (and less pleasant things) than walking!

Here's a photo of the castle. Not exciting, but they apparently use it as a homeless shelter - or at least it houses the local homeless charity stemm.lu.

Schoenfels castle

Ride to town

I cycled into town today for the first time in well over a year, probably 18 months. And, who'd have thought it, they built a new cycle path right past Dommeldange Gare which saves you cycling through a particularly annoying part of town on your bike. Fantastic!

New cycle path going past the station

Designing Web Usability: a retrospective

Designing Web Usability

by Jakob Nielsen

This book was written by Jakob Nielsen almost a quarter of a century ago. It's been sitting untouched on my bookshelf for at least half of that time. Whilst in isolation due to covid, I decided to browse through it to see how relevant it still is.

"Further information on this book"

Preface

In the preface, to answer the question why he published this information as a printed book and not online, he gave three reasons:

  • Computers screens are not yet good enough to read so much content,
  • Web browsing is not yet straightforward enough compared to turning pages on a book,
  • Readers (and authors) are not yet comfortable reading through non-linear information.

He predicted 2007 to be the year books would be finally replaced by online information.

Looking back from 2022, none of his conditions are satisfied to the extent that books are no longer needed. there are still plenty of bookshops, selling plenty of books.

Whilst there has been improvement in all three, addressing them point by point:

  • only e-readers (such as the Kindle) are good and affordable enough for reading books on,
  • web browsing has improved immensely, but at times I wonder if it is going backwards. Certainly the browser back button is often broken due to poor site design,
  • readers are certainly more used to browsing the web in a non-linear fashion to find information quickly. I am not sure how keen they are on reading 300 page novels online though.

Below are my thoughts on each of the chapters in the book.

1. Why Web Usability

The basic point made here is that bad usability equals no customers. That you are not just competing with other similar services, but with all services on the web. If a user can't easily figure out how to use your services online, they might end up spending their time and money on another, unrelated service instead.

This point is certainly still very true. With one caveat, it doesn't apply to all the government services that are now online. If you need to file a tax return form online, you can only do this on the dedicated government site. It is probably why so many public sector websites had such poor usability, never mind accessibility in the past. But thanks to legislation the picture has now improved to the point where public sector websites have least detectable accessibility errors according to the latest WebAIM figures.

2. Page Design

This section begins by stating that site design is more important than page design from a usability perspective, because it is unlikely the first page a user lands on will be the correct one. This is still the case, even if Google (which had only just been founded when this book was published) does a good job at pointing you to the correct information.

Screen real estate

It then continues onto screen real estate in which most of the points made are still relevant. Don't waste space (which doesn't mean all white space is bad), use most of the available space for the content, minimise space dedicated to navigation and adverts (which if needed, should eat into the space dedicated to navigation). Whilst these principles still stand, unfortunately adverts rule the web and so few commercial pages follow them anymore.

Next up it discusses how to deal with screen resolutions, and the fact that you cannot predict your users' browser environment. The book makes the point that you should not assume too much about that environment and make sure your design can adapt to the most common environments, including being careful how you use non-standard components (thankfully this is less of an issue now). These points are still valid, in fact they are a pre-cursor to responsive design and graceful degradation I suppose.

It continues on to make the case for semantic markup which is now well understood even if not yet always implemented.

Download speeds

It also goes into quite some detail about download times and keeping these to a minimum (below one second). Whilst download times are no longer so relevant thanks to bandwidth improvements, the pure download speed problem has been replaced by the latency in the browser having to download many, often hundreds, of additional files and then process them before they can display a page. It means that despite all the advancements in browser tech, bandwidth, cloud caching and edge computing, very few websites meet the one second display time recommended here. That is a truly saddening turn of events. We've taken all the improvements in tech and made things worse.

Links

The book makes a lot of still valid points about links. The link titles should be meaningful and two links pointing to the same place should use the same URL, so the browser can indicate a link has already been visited.

On this last point, I would say this is no longer relevant. Nor is the point about making links blue or underlining them. Users are now used to the fact that anything can be a link and don't care too much whether they have visited a link or not. Not that this is a usability improvement, but it is the current state of web design. In fact these are now considered more to be accessibility issues than usability issues.

Quite a bit of discussion on the need for outgoing links and not to be afraid of them. I think this is now well understood by most site owners. A good point is made about incoming links. The only way to make these work, is to use permalinks. After 20 years the web is now awash with broken links, so it's kind of accepted that not all links work. But if an incoming link does not work, make sure to offer suitable alternatives on your error page to the user.

The book does make the point that site registration breaks incoming links and leads to loss of users. Interestingly it also states that micropayments might take care of this. Unfortunately this never happened. Facebook, user tracking and selling our data happened instead.

CSS, Frames and printing

The points on CSS and frames are probably no longer relevant. The web is mature enough to make good use of the former and scarce use of the latter, although iframes are making something of a comeback now.

It also covers how to make a webpage printable, although not using CSS, which probably wasn't standardised yet at the time. Instead it recommends linking to PDF (or PostScript) versions of the page. It does make the very important (and still 100% accurate) point that PDFs are for printing and not for reading on-screen. Don't make important information only available in PDF format.

3. Content design

Overall this section is still very applicable. Users don't like reading online. Keep it simple, keep it to the point, enable users to scan pages. Use clear headings, bullet points and plain language. And employ a "web editor" - writing for the web is a difficult skill that needs to be learned.

It covers the need for clear fonts and colour contrast and to avoid ALL CAPS content.

The section then spends a lot of time on multimedia content. A lot of the considerations are only partially relevant now, since bandwidth and smartphones have made multimedia an ubiquitous part of the web in 2022.

One point I disagree strongly with is that good sound can increase the user experience. Whilst true, it stems from the time when perhaps people browsed the web at home or in their own office. The point is also made that sound should be unobtrusive and quiet. Still it is infuriating when a website plays sound without me asking it to. If I start a video, or music file, I am happy to hear sound. Otherwise, keep quiet.

Finally, I am happy to see this point made about content:

Any time you use any format other than plain text and standard HTML, you risk depriving users with disabilities from being able to use your site.

4. Site design

This section hasn't really dated and thankfully the advice is largely followed nowadays. Key points are around the importance of an informative homepage, the scorn for splash pages and the pointlessness of under construction warnings. Websites are always under construction.

It goes on to warn about metaphors from the real world, such as the shopping cart, because the user might not always understand them. It does make the point that the online shopping cart had already back then become an interface standard and was no longer a metaphor.

Navigation and structure

The point is made that good site navigation is achieved when a user can answer the three questions:

  • Where am I?
  • Where have I been?
  • Where can I go?

I am not sure the second is still so relevant anymore, at least most designs now don't try to indicate this anymore, unless through the means of breadcrumbs. Also your browser history could tell you where you have been.

Structuring the site according to user needs, not the company's internal organisation is a well made point. It is now better understood, but still not universally applied. The fact that the user is in control of where they want to go and not the site designer is also made and still very true. The need to reduce navigational clutter is also raised and has to some extent been addressed through expandable menus (eg hover menus, which have become "click to open" menus due to the lack of hover on smartphones).

Search

Since the book was written before Google completely redefined how finding information on the web works, the section on search is now not so relevant, except perhaps to intranets. I have yet to find an intranet with a decent search mechanism, often because the basic search algorithm considers all content equal. But keywords found in a page title are surely more important than when found in the main page content.

Finally URLs themselves are discussed. But other than trying to keep them alive as long as possible, I am not sure URLs are very relevant anymore. Whilst users do sometimes try to guess a URL (I know I do), since most of the web is now browsed on a smartphone it is probably less the case. In addition the prevalence of walled gardens and closed apps has made URLs less of a thing - with the exception that they need to work of course.

5. Intranet Design

This is more about the business need for a good intranet than the actual design. User testing is key, along with an appropriate level of investment. The economic loss of poorly designed tasks in an intranet can costs millions when replicated daily by 1000s of employees. Still very relevant.

6. Accessibility for users with disabilities.

Quite a short section, maybe reflecting that this was still a niche consideration at the time. It does make the point that various legislation actually requires certain websites to be accessible. The techniques mentioned are all still very applicable today.

Unfortunately the point was not heeded and accessibility (or lack of it) is still a major issue in 2022. This is despite the following prescient comment:

Those of us who plan to be around for a few more years also have personal reasons to promote accessibility because as we get older, we will experience more disabilities ourselves.

It looks like we only have ourselves to blame if we are unable to claim our online pensions due to accessibility reasons.

7. International Use

This chapter is interesting because it recognises that the web is global and you might need to consider the cultures and languages you design your site for. The points are still very relevant especially this one:

Make translations bookmarkable: different URLs should be used for different translations of the same content so it can be bookmarked in the correct language.

Overall I am not sure the problem of country / language / culture has yet been solved adequately on the web. Certainly not in any uniform manner that could be considered an "interface standard" such as the shopping cart. I am still too often displayed content in the wrong language because of poor assumptions and design choices.

8. Future Predictions

On the one hand this chapter is now largely irrelevant, on the other it is interesting to see if the predictions were correct. Many of the more specific predictions have not happened as predicted. Nevertheless, the underlying point that as the web becomes more common it will at some point be ubiquitous and change everything, has indeed happened.

The chapter does predict mobile devices, although fails to foresee many of the effects of this, especially with respect to the pros and cons of social media and the power of big companies that run them. It does predict that privacy becomes precious, however assumes that users will be willing to pay for this privacy. Unfortunately it seems we are at the moment only too happy to give away our privacy for free. But privacy awareness is raising and maybe this will change in another 25 years time.

The death of both browsers and newspapers is predicted. The former are still very much around, but having to contend with mobile apps and the power of the companies that profit from the app stores. The latter are clearly now struggling as a print media. Integrated media services are predicted to happen once bandwidth can support them. Welcome to the present day!

9. Conclusion: Simplicity in Web Design

The points raised here are still relevant today, but I feel the web is no longer something to be discovered and we spend less of our time trying to find new services and more of it simply using the ones we already know how to use. So the need to keep people on your site it's perhaps somewhat diminished.

The virtual real-estate land has been divided up amongst the big players. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple are the obvious ones. However, within most sectors there are now established winners (Netflix, Strava, Spotify) and whilst competition is still rife, it is impossible to break into this without billions in financial backing. And even when you do, the most likely outcome is that your patch of virtual space will be bought. ie You will either be acquired or forced out.

Conclusion

The book has dated very well. Most of the points are still valid. Sadly few of them are universally applied. Still some way to go then.

The State Of The Art

by Iain M. Banks

Interesting book of short stories, including one by the same name about the Culture observing Earth in the 70s. They decide to leave it in peace, as a "control" to better understand what happens to planets apparently intent on destroying themselves!

Overall I enjoyed the stories. They are far easier to follow than his larger novels. Except for the last one, which was incomprehensible and appropriately named "Scratch".

"Further information on this book"

Bulgarian speeding fine

So, in Bulgaria when you get a speeding fine, they don't tell you about it. They don't send you a letter. Instead at some, point later on, eg when renewing your passport, you get an official notification that you have a fine to pay, in our case from December 2020. When you then eventually go and pay it you're told the fine will be reduced by 30% if you pay. So our fine was either 70lv if we paid or 100lv if we didn't. Nobody could tell me what happens if you don't pay! All of this for going 72 in a 50 zone. And we weren't even in the country, at the time, but the car's in our name...

Wordle's end

For the last few months I've been playing Wordle quite regularly every morning. I've been recording this on my Wordle results page.

With time the game started getting a little tedious for me. I am not very much of a linguist so I was usually finishing the puzzle on my 4th or 5th attempt. Not bad, but hardly worth writing about 🙂.

So after 88 attempts, only 6 failures and an average of 4.48, I call it quits.

Thank you Josh Wardle for creating this beautiful waste of time! 👍

Vaccine Hesitancy

A very good article on The Guardian about why there is so much vaccine hesitancy: Why don’t some people want to get the vaccine? Here’s why | Musa al-Gharbi | The Guardian.

Changing narrative

My own view is that the changing narrative on the vaccines hasn't helped. Personally I am double vaccinated and soon to be boosted with a third shot. So I do not consider myself an anti-vaxxer. However, given the points in the article and having seen the changing narrative in favour of the vaccines over time, I must admit that it's not just about crackpots. Fact is that the vaccines are not as effective, in the long-term, as hoped and that many countries are now pushing for a second booster - ie a 4th vaccine shot. I don't mind this if it is voluntary, however if it is compulsory with vaccine passports, showing proof of continuous vaccination, being required to access basic entertainment facilities such as restaurants and cinemas I think I will also get fed up.

Individual Responsibility

Whilst we are far from getting the virus under control, it does seem like we are able to cope with it far better than two years ago. Booster shots should become a part of the annual flu vaccine for those who want it. Whilst I don't for second want to belittle covid, it is clear that the real danger is for the elderly and those with other underlying conditions. I include myself in this bracket. Forcing the younger generations, in some countries those as young as 13, into continuous boosters with a product which has no long term side-effect history seems exaggerated.

Big Pharma

The other issue is Big Pharma itself. On the one hand what they have achieved is fantastic, bringing to market an apparently safe vaccine, saving possibly millions of lives. On the other hand, the history of Big Pharma is not exactly one of openness and social responsibility. Rather it is about profit above all else. Sure companies should be profitable, but not at the expense of our collective health and social systems. It is why they are generally unwilling to fund research into diseases which could be cured by a one shot vaccine. Where's the long term profit in that? Rather they like to research far more profitable long term treatments such as Cancer research. Nothing wrong with Cancer research, but it is not the only deadly condition on this planet.

Conclusion

So there you have my thoughts. Let those who want to boosted, be boosted. Leave those who don't in peace. Let all of us get on with our lives. And maybe enforce our at least encourage continued mask use and improved ventilation in crowded areas.

Barcelona

Barcelona

A lovely warm week spent exploring Barcelona, despite it being the middle of February. It was great to get away from the permanent cold, damp and wind that is Luxembourg during the winter months.

Saturday evening

We arrived in Barcelona by plane around 7pm in the evening and got the metro to our rented apartment in the Eixample area of Barcelona. The metro journey was straightforward but needed two changes. There apparently aren't many lines going right across the town in the East - West directions.

After we had got there we walked around to find a place to eat and noticed that every second place was a ramen house. For a while we thought we'd landed in Asia, so decided to go with the flow and have some noodles for dinner which tasted lovely.

The inside of a ramen house in Barcelona

Sunday

We spent most of the day walking around town. We started with a metro ride from Girona (our closest stop) to Barceloneta. Here we strolled past the port with it's mega yachts and headed for the beach walk to have a look at the sea.

Mega yacht in the port of Barcelona

Palm trees on the beach with the sea in the background

Metal fish like sculpture

We circled back to the Barceloneta stop away from the beach, walking through the Parc de la Ciutadella and the Parliament of Catalunya.

Golden monument and waterfalls in Parc de la Ciutadella

Orange tree in front of the parliament of Catalunya

Then we stopped at the Brunch and Cake back in the port area for wonderful late lunch, before heading on to the Gothic Quarter and then walking up La Rambla to the Boqueria market.

Brunch and Cake restaurant

Tight lanes in between the buildings in the Gothic Quarter

Boqueria market, just off La Rambla

From there we turned east and walked to the Catedral de Barcelona just in time to catch a small concert and dancing celebrating Festes de Santa Eulàlia on the 13th February.

Band playing in front of the Catedral de Barcelona

Monday

Monday was a day of Gaudi pure. We started by walking up the Passeig de Gracia to take a look at the Case Batllo and then the Casa Mila.

Cases Batllo from across the street

Close up view of the entrance and balconies of the Casa Batllo

Casa Mila from across the street

Looking up at the balconies of the Casa Mila in the blue sky

After that we headed towards the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's most famous work and Barcelona's most outstanding landmark in the heart of the city. Construction was started in 1882 and it is still not finished.

Looking up at the Sagrada Familia with a crane working on it under the blue sky

It's quite an amazing site, which only gets even more fabulous on the inside.

Crucified Jesus hanging over the alter with the organs in the background

Blue and green stained glass windows

Red yellow stained glass windows

Looking up at the ceiling

Sunlit wing of the Sagrada Familia

Looking up at the pipes of the organ

An outside building of the Sagrada Familia

After the spending well over an hour at the Sagrada Familia, we headed for Parc Guell to finish off our day of Gaudi. We walked there via the lovely Gracia quarter where we stopped at another noodle bar for lunch.

Gaudi's house in Parc Guell

Gaudi style bridge in the parc

Fantastic view of Gaudi's structures in the parc, overlooking Barcelona with the blue sky and sea in the distance

Looking at the Sagrada Familia from Parc Guell, framed by the ring of an iron gate

Tuesday

A slightly later start followed by the morning walking around town before having lunch in the flat. Then we headed off to the Montjuic castle near the port of Barcelona.

Facade decorated with religious murals

Port of Barcelona

Red and yellow striped flag of Catalunya against the blue sky

We walked up the small hill through the nice park around the castle.

Moon above a castle turret, at dusk

View over the sea from the castle, with the moon in the distance

View of side of castle

We then got the cable car down

Cable car going down Mountjuic

In the evening we had the best meal of the trip, in a restaurant just off Ramble de Catalunya after strolling around Passeig De Gracia. Interestingly the place (Cafe and Tapas) gets lots of poor reviews on social media, but we enjoyed the service and the food. Maybe management has changed, or in the off season it is better, or we just got lucky...

Wednesday

In the morning we walked into town, past the Arc Triomf (which does not actually celebrate any specific Spanish victory) and onto the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Palau de Musica (palace of music).

Arc Triomf in Barcelona, built from red bricks

Extravagant façade of the Palua de la Musica in Barcelona

We went on the tour of the palace which was quite an exceptional experience, including a performance that was on-going for some local school kids. The concert hall has the most exceptional sky light. Definitely worth a visit, at least as much as all the Gaudi things around the city.

Inside the concert hall of the palace

View of the sky light in the concert hall from the side

Looking directly upwards at the sky light

We got around the palace just in time for lunch, so had a great lunch in the palace's wonderful café.

View of the palace's cafe

After lunch we headed to the Picasso museum, which had some interesting exhibitions on the life of Picasso, as well many of his painting, especially his early sketches. Obviously his more famous works are elsewhere.

Six paintings hanging on the wall of the Picasso museums

We finished off the day with a quick look at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, before heading home for dinner.

View of the front of the basilica

Thursday

This was a day trip visiting the Montserrat monastery, an hour's train ride west of Barcelona. So we headed to the Placa de l'Espanya to get the tickets and the train.

View of the Placa de l'Espanya, from the foot of Montjuic

View of Montserrat monastery, with the rocks in the background

We started off the visit with a look around the church, which included a lovely performance by the local boys choir.

Inside view of the church in Montserrat

We then headed up into the hills for a couple of hours some fresh air.

Looking down at Montserrat monastery from the nearby hills

View of the rock formations in the hills

Friday

The last and final day was also the warmest. So we spent the day walking round town and enjoying the beach walk in full sun. We had lunch in a Latin restaurant called FOC. Food was good, atmosphere very lively. Seemed to be the place to be for some food and beers.

View of the Barcelona beach front

An old pharmacy on La Rambla

Saturday

Our flight home left around lunchtime, so after waking up and packing, we got on the metro and headed to the airport in time to catch our flight.

Cover of the metro map, advertising Estrella beer