Thursday Dec 15, 2005

¡Hablo Español!

I finally passed my last Spanish exam!

This is such a relief. Now, after years of on-and-off studying, I have yet another degree: a Bachelor of Arts, also known as a BA, also known as "Bugger All", a snide comment we Engineering and Computer Science students had for Arts students who vacationed on campuses as if they were expensive dating agencies, implying that arts degrees are practically worth zilch when it comes to employment potential.

Having studied Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, I can fairly objectively say that engineering/science requires far more work than arts. However, I need to qualify that by adding that not all major subjects are equal, just as not all universities are equal. And a lot depends on aptitude. I don't think I have much of an aptitude for languages: English is my second language and I decided that I wanted to study a third language from scratch when I was 27 years old. It has been a difficult and frustrating undertaking, especially since I studied by correspondence from South Africa - where there are hardly any Spanish speakers. But not nearly as difficult as it would have been to study, say Russian or Mandarin - at least all the languages I know share a common (Latin) alphabet.

Also, I have always disliked pure theory and always wanted to practice what I learn, which is why I always scored above 80% for my programming assignments, while not doing as well as I should have in my theory exams. My entire Spanish education has been by correspondence with the aid of books and audio tapes. Now I really need to go and live in a Spanish-speaking country for a while to apply my knowledge. I've visited Spain twice so far, but I need to actually live and immerse myself in Spanish culture to really benefit.

Anyway, I'm glad and very relieved it's all over for now. I was going to read Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes this year to celebrate 400 years since the publication of, what some regard as, the world's first novel (La primera novela del mundo). I bought a copy of the original text a few years ago, glanced at it and gave up. Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare (they died on the same day), and the Spanish of the original text is just too archaic for my level of Spanish. So, I bought a few simplified texts when I visited Madrid in April. Now that I've passed my last exam, I am really motivated to read it, 'cos this time it will be for fun, not to study for a friggin' exam!

Also, now that I have all that behind me, I shall delight in gathering together all my Spanish notes, crumpling them up page-by-page, and throwing them (roughly) into a heartwarming Irish peat fire.

Monday Sep 26, 2005

Dublin Half Marathon

I ran the Dublin Half Marathon in Phoenix Park on Saturday. The conditions were ideal: cool, cloudy with a slight breeze, and there weren't too many hills on the route.

However, I made the mistake of running in brand new shoes, which started hurting me around 7 miles and left me with a huge blister at the end. Still, I managed to finish the run in 1:49:07 (according to my own watch), which I am very happy about. I managed to maintain roughly 8-minute miles for most of the run, reaching the 10 mile mark in 1:21:30 (compared to my 10 mile time of 1:29:22 a month ago).

Saturday was also our 5th wedding anniversary, which would have been a public holiday for us if we were still living in South Africa. According to "some", I should have given Elizabeth something made of wood... instead I bought her something else made from trees, with a bit of value-add: the Urtext edition sheet music for The Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, published by G. Henle Verlag.

During the afternoon we headed into the city center, but our bus was diverted due to a Rally for Irish Unity (a.k.a. Make Partition History) that was taking place along O'Connell street. With tired, blistered feet I wasn't going to stand around and watch, so we popped in to the restaurant at Eason's bookstore for lunch, when who would be sitting a few tables from us, but Gerry Adams himself.

As a "non-national" with relatively neutral/untainted political views on the North, but weary of living in regions of political conflict, I sincerely hope that today's announcement will contribute to long term peace in the North. Ireland is a beautiful country, and if South Africans with such diverse cultures and centuries of conflict could resolve their differences peacefully, then so can Ireland.

Thursday Sep 15, 2005

How to Blow Up a Whale

Last night I read that a beached Southern Right Whale had been euthanased near Cape Town. I seems like the event drew quite an interested crowd...

It's sad, but it seems like it was the only option. The sheer volume and weight of a whale makes it very difficult to deal with.

I used to live in a small village near Cape Town, called Scarborough, where the whale population has steadily increased over the years, and whale watching has now become a major tourist attraction.

Arriving home from work one day I spotted a whale in the little bay. I rushed down to the beach and found that there were two whales, and I could hear the sounds they were making - not the beautiful lyrical sounds they use to communicate, but perhaps the sound of breathing - like air and water down a hollow pipe into an empty container - hard to describe but very eerie and beautiful. I sat watching in awe as the sun went down - wishing I could just swim closer and touch them... That night I slept under the stars again as I often did then - and until late that night I could still hear the occasional sound of the whales.

That same year, a dead whale washed up on the rocks at Scarborough. No one seemed to know what to do with it, so my landlords, Terry and Janice Corr, asked me to search for some advice on the 'Net. I emailed the WhaleNet mailing list with the question: "What does one do with a dead whale?" Someone responded with the story of the Expolding Whale. Well, I guess some people like guns and some people like blowing things up and some people want to solve the world's problems with brute force and ignorance. Believe me, a decomposing whale is a smelly affair. So I can imagine that chunks of rotting blubber flying through the air ain't a pretty sight. Anyway, we decided that explosives would definitely not be the way to go, and this led to the story of Misty.

Terry and Janice organised a talk by Lyall Watson, author of Supernature, at the Scarborough Community Centre. Lyall described in a captivating manner how he dived down to a whale mother with her calf nearby, and how she embraced him in the same manner she would do to protect her calf. As I sit here in my cubicle, surrounded by technology in a European city, I am reminded of the natural beauty of Africa that I used to live so close to.

Tuesday Aug 09, 2005


We visited Edinburgh over the bank holiday weekend. What a beautiful city! We stayed in a lovely backpackers in the Victorian suburb of Marchmont, just south of the Meadows. With a population about one third of Dublins', a few Universtities, a varied and undulating topography plus a few lovely parks and surrounding green areas - I wonder if I should make a move some day...

I've always been attracted to Europe for it's historical and cultural richness, and I've always felt an affinity towards the Irish and Scottish - perhaps due to the legacy of English colonialism in my own country, South Africa. So I would love to remain in Europe indefinitely without ever having to swear loyalty to Queen Betty or King Charlie.

Unfortunately, Dublin has been experiencing a property bubble for a number of years, which makes it nearly impossible for us to get a foot on the property ladder here. So perhaps Edinburgh might be an option for the future... besides, I had some Haggis while we were there and I really quite like it! I'm just not so sure about those bagpipes - though I guess they are mostly heard around tourist traps in the Old Town.

Wednesday Jul 20, 2005

Good Omens

All work no play... leaves precious little time for leisure reading.

Now that I have a break from studying, it's time to catch up on some reading. I've just finished and thoroughly enjoyed Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

What I love about reading is the way everyone forms their own image of the scenery and characters - unlike a movie where you are asked to switch off your imagination and consume sensory stimulations offered through the imaginations of others. Movies often spoil my enjoyment of a good book - the plot is changed for no apparent reason, or I simply don't like the creative interpretation. I love movies, especially some of the off-the-beaten-track, indie/cult types. But I prefer watching movies of books I've never read, and not watching movies of books I've already read and enjoyed. Making a good movie of a book is a difficult and subjective endeavour, and few directors succeed.

I learnt that one of my favourite directors, ex Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam, was going to make a movie of the book. Movies are seldom as good as the books, but Mr. Gilliam is a genius and I would have loved to see the result. Unfortunately production was cancelled due to a lack of funds.

He also tried to make a movie based on Don Quijote, which would have been fabulous now that we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of that great novel. Production was started in all seriousness, and got quite far, but was constantly riddled with mishaps until it was eventually cancelled. However, the material was sewn together in a documentary about the (non) making of the film, called Lost in La Mancha

Anyway, we have a few bookshelves full of books I haven't read yet, so it's time for me to catch up!

Monday Jul 18, 2005

UNISA exam results

I got my UNISA examination results, and I failed my Spanish exam - again!

This is so frustrating!

I started studying Spanish years ago for various reasons, but mostly to help fulfill my dream of travelling around Latin America one day. I started taking private Spanish lessons, but soon became frustrated at the slow pace. So, I decided to look at the formal Spanish program at the University of South Africa. I believe UNISA is the world's largest correspondence university, with over 150 thousand students, exam centres around the world, and degrees recognized internationally. While browsing the list of available courses, I decided, heck, why not just enroll for a full degree? Then I changed jobs for a startup, which consumed so much of my energy and time that I just didn't have the time left for studying in the evenings and on weekends anymore. Besides, I had moved to the lovely village of Scarborough outside Cape Town, with a fantastic view over the Atlantic Ocean in front of me, and mountain walks behind me. So for a few years I didn't study at all as I learned to bodyboard and paddle-ski.

4 years ago we moved to Ireland. Elizabeth had started a BSc in Computer Science, and I reckoned it would be a good time to resurrect my unfinished degree. I needed to finish 3rd year Spanish, consisting of 5 papers:

  • SPS301H Spanish for translation
  • SPS302J Spanish for oral communication
  • SPS303K Spanish for professional purposes
  • SPS304L Encounters with Spanish American culture and literature
  • SPS305M Reading and analysing literary texts in Spanish

I also needed a second major plus a least 2 more courses. Having done Psychology and Philosophy, I could have just carried on with one of them to complete my degree. Instead, since I have been interested in environmental issues, and would like to become familiar with GIS, I chose to do Geography.

Now, to compare the levels of difficulty between Spanish and Geography: I have completed all my 1st, 2nd and 3rd year Geography papers in less time that it will have taken me to complete only 3rd year Spanish!

I have passed 4 out of the 5 Spanish papers. Ironically, the paper that interests me the most, Encounters with Spanish American culture and literature, is the only one I keep failing. I started this whole degree based on my desire to travel and learn about Latin America, yet I can't even pass that exam. Some of the other papers were far more difficult than this one, especially the translation and literary analysis ones.

It is a very interesting paper covering the history and culture of Latin America from the ancient Maya, Aztec and Inca civilizations through the Spanish conquest, slavery, wars of independence to modern politics. The prescribed literature consists of the books "El coronel no tiene quien le escribe" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and "La muerte y la Doncella" by Ariel Dorfman. All together a pretty substantial amount of work which can be examined thoroughly.

However, the final paper contains only 3 questions, typically like:

   "Violence and repression are central themes in Marquez's novel. Discuss."

Yet that short question counts 40% of the total mark!

Compared to any mathematics paper that is well designed to test the breadth of your knowledge and judge your reasoning capabilities in an objective manner, this is a complete joke.

Anyway, I have asked for the paper to be re-marked. Hopefully I get the few extra percent I need to pass this exam... otherwise I'll just have to persist until I eventually pass.

Monday Jul 11, 2005

Half Marathon Man

or... How Not To Run a Race

I ran the 5 mile race (8 kilometres for us non-imperialists) in Phoenix Park yesterday morning, completing it in about 45:30 - quite pathetic as I have passed the 10 kilometere mark during a half marathon in less time.

Though, considering my training for the year so far consisted of 2 lunchtime runs last week, I'm not too disappointed.

So, now that I've done that, maybe I should keep up the training and do the 10 mile and half marathon races as well. I trained for and finished the Dublin City Marathon last year, but even though I've run 4 marathons and the Two Oceans ultra marathon, I just don't see the benefit of a full marathon anymore. I enjoy doing half marathons - I feel like I've had a decent workout without doing any damage to myself. But I really just feel so drained and sore after a marathon, and the last hour is always painful and I simply cannot enjoy it.

I was crazy enough to run my first marathon in 1997, after only ever having run as far as 16 kilometers. A colleague, Dave, needed to qualify for the Two Oceans, and convinced me on a Friday afternoon to run the Oudtshoorn Marathon the next day. After a busy work week, I drove us more than 400km from Cape Town, stopped to carbo-load with some pasta in Swellendam on the way, and arrived in Oudtshoorn around 11pm. We slept in the back of my pick-up, and got up at around 4am to catch the 5am bus to the 6am start at the Kango Caves. I remember passing the 16km mark and thinking that this was the furthest I had ever run before - and I still had more than twice the distance to go to finish the race! My knees were killing me towards the end as Dave kept encouraging me to continue. I was running in brand new shoes (BIG mistake!) and ended up losing five toenails. In the end, we finished the marathon in 4:12:00, which I would never have been able to do without Dave's help.

Why did I do it? Madness, I guess - or maybe just a sense of accomplishment, of getting to know my capabilities and shortcomings. Anyway, I'm glad I did it then, but I reckon I'll limit myself to half marathons from now on. And having blogged about it kind of makes me feel obliged to keep up the training now.




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