Saturday, February 26, 2011

Up the Atomium

Expo 1958 in Brussels looked to the future with optimism and curiosity.  What would technology make possible; what could man become?  It was the first major fair after World War II, and countries from all over the world came to the 500 acre site to build Frank Lloyd Wright steel-and-glass box buildings and to fill them with their best works.

At the center of it all was the Atomium, nine spheres connected to mimic an iron crystal, and, today, the most visited tourist attraction in Brussels. It’s absolutely striking on approach, a gleaming sculpture highlighted against dramatic dark clouds.  Refurbished within the last ten years, the interiors feel fresh and up-to-date, highlighting the fair and exploring the implications of cosmology.  The top-most “Observation” sphere needs visual guides to the landscapes (the City Hall was nowhere to be seen among buildings crowding the horizon),and parking is very difficult, but these are minor omissions.

‘well worth a visit if you are in the city with a couple of hours to enjoy the exhibits and views.

 

 

Usual Disclaimers: I was not asked to write this review: I paid my own way and these are my own opinions and pictures.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

P&O’s “Spirit of Britain”

P&O Lines is bringing new superferries on-line to enhance the Dover-Calais commute.  About half again as large as the current ships, the Spirit of Britain started running this month (the Spirit of France will join in September).  Meanwhile, P&O is offering discount crossings (30 gbp each way for 2 people and a car) to introduce people to the new ship.

I bobbed back from Cambridge to Maastricht yesterday: a roll-y crossing on a wave-torn Channel, but a nice chance to explore the new ferry.  (Usual disclaimers apply: I paid my own way and was not asked to write a review, these are my own opinions).

Good stuff:

  • A new boat is a nice boat.  The floors, walls, paint, fixtures are immaculate.  It smells fresh and clean and there isn’t a blemish anywhere.  When I talked with some of the crewmembers, they really liked the new boar, and are taking a lot of visible care to keep things clean and polished.
  • Family area.  A large portion of the front seating is set aside as family space, with room to run and play, kid-friendly foods, and couches around tables.  It looks great; I hope that the families enjoy it (and that they use it!)
  • Food courts.  The dining choices are significantly upgraded.  There is a nice set of mini-services with Curry, British favorites, Soup ‘n Sandwiches, and Breakfast selections.  Their ‘specials’ offer minor discounts (and in one misleading case, no discount at all) for adding items to your tray.  The ‘fine dining’ brasserie is all wood and uniformed waiters in a setting that’s nicer than the Club Lounge.
  • Really nice crew.  Everyone is polite, eager to help, chatty, and happy.
  • Free WiFi.  Internet@sea, available throughout the ship, and *free* is wonderful.  It’s a satellite connection and gets slow at mid-crossing, but for e-mail and web pages, it’s great.  Video streaming and file transfers are much less likely to work, I didn’t try Skype.
  • Windscreens on deck.  The outdoor areas feature nice tables and wrap-around windscreens that will make crossing on windy days much more pleasant.  They also have a bar on the terrace, and a separate smoker’s terrace, so that it feels like an extension of the interior areas rather than the metal-and-pipe-beneath-the-lifeboats version.

Questionables:

  • Upstairs / downstairs.  The ship is laid out in horseshoe corridor arrangements, which means that you can’t stroll around the border of the ship in a circle.  I kept hitting dead-ends and getting to the right upper sections requires finding the right stairways – you can’t simply go up and around to get from the lounge to the food court.
  • Club Lounge.  14 gbp per person for a bit of quiet, free soft drinks, and a newspaper.  Nibbles for sale.  Not worth it unless the Family Lounge takes over the rest of the ship.
  • No color coding for the car deck.  Okay, it’s sort of stupid, but without knowing I’m in the green zone, I’m as likely to go to the wrong end of the car deck as the right one.  (Still, isn’t this the most gorgeous car deck you’ve ever seen?)
  • Duty-Free.  More accessible, but nothing special, either in size or content.
  • Stabilizers.  I was surprised how much the boat was rolling considering the moderate seas that we were encountering.
  • Bus-station seating.  The lounges along the side corridor have stools, tight armchairs, and square hummocks with central seatbacks like you find in airports and bus terminals.  I’m not sure why these are offered, except that the little armrests prevent people from lying down and going to sleep on them.

On balance, though, the good far outweighs the bad and this will make the crossings lost more comfortable.  Recommended, especially to try it at a discount while it’s still all nice and new.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Stalking the Fondant

fondant_au_chocolatA MasterChef standard asks a hapless amateur cook to create a fondant in 30 minutes.  Having conquered biscuits and pain au chocolat,  I felt equal to the challenge.  The experience is both much easier and much harder than it looks on television, but the method is well within the scope of any cook.

A fondant is a chocolate pudding, cake-y on the outside and runny on the inside.  Think of an inside-out chocolate-lava brownie: the warm chocolate sauce doesn’t appear until the muffin is  cut, when it flows surprisingly and delightfully onto the plate.  The recipe is straightforward, I used the one from local grocer Waitrose (I did half the recipe).

1) There are three parallel bits of prep.

Butter and flour the cups: this is important to get right because the finished pudding has to fall out after baking when the cup is inverted.  Be thorough.

Melt the butter and chocolate.  I just put a bowl on a rack over a pan of simmering water and let it sit.  Everything melts nicely and stays warm while I’m busy with other things – this is a snap.

Mix an egg, a yolk, and sugar.  This is a bit more tricky: you have to really whip the heck out of the eggs until it gets white and thick, almost like marshmallow.  I find that, with a hand mixer, it takes about 5 minutes and works best with a slightly undersized bowl that allows the beaters to get traction.

2)  Fold the chocolate into the egg-sugar mix.

I love this part – it looks wonderful and the patterns change with each stroke of the spoon.  As the color gets even, add about two tablespoons of flour and give it a last stir to mix well.

 

3)  Spoon the mixture into the prepared cups.

Best to have a spatula and an extra pair of hands handy, and only fill the cups about 2/3 of the way – the mixture will rise and if it gets higher than the rim, it won’t come out of the cup easily.

 

4)  Bake the puddings.

Timing is everything.  In a 190C oven, I found that 15 minutes produces a thin cake and abundant lava; 19 minutes results in a solid cake.  Slightly under is better than slightly over – so I would go 16-17 minutes.

5)  Cool two minutes, then remove from cups.

I wait two minutes, then give a gentle stroke around the rim with a knife.  Moment of truth: cover with a plate, invert, tap the bottom of the cup with a knife, lift off using using a towel to protect your fingers.  If all goes well, the cup lifts off to reveal a chocolate muffin with a few scraps of flour on the edges. 

6)  Serve immediately.

Moment of truth 2: I can’t resist peeking, and cut to see if I get chocolate lava.  If so, I put powdered sugar, ice cream, or whipped cream on the others and serve in triumph.  If not, I have a little extra lava set aside from step 1 to pour over the top and can still declare triumph.

It took two practice rounds to get it right, but it’s all in the timing.  Extras keep well until the next day and microwave up nicely for a snack (although the lava will cook to cake).

Monday, February 21, 2011

A little light expat reading

LiteratureA few snips from the literature to start the new week:

  • * Speaking a second language can delay dementia onset for years. (The Independent)

Researchers in Toronto report a 4-5 year delay in onset of symptoms, better than can be achieved with any drug, if you go through the “mental gymnasium” of becoming bilingual.  I would expect that much the same would hold for expatriate experiences generally: exercising the brain at any level, throughout life, is good for you.

  • Emotional intelligence correlates of the four-factor model of cultural intelligence. (Moon)

Cultural intelligence (CQ) is defined as an individual’s capability in adjusting to a new cultural context and by their ability to work with people who have dissimilar cultural backgrounds and understandings.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) enables individuals to monitor the motions of others and their own emotional status, to  discriminate among these emotions and to use this information to guide thinking and actions.

Moon showed that the two are related to each other and that both predict expat success.  The four EI skills (self-awareness,  self-management, social awareness, and relationship management) complement the four CQ skills (Perceiving, understanding, adapting, and accepting cultural differences), and all are important in assessing fitness for international assignments.

  • Self-initiated foreign expatriates versus assigned expatriates.  (Biemann)

Self-initiated Expats start their international careers at a younger age, have a higher organizational mobility, and expect higher benefits from international experiences for their future careers. Moreover, career orientation remains relatively stable in Self-initiated Expats over different age groups, whereas it declines for Assigned Expats with increasing age.

Companies often complain that there is a lack of truly international managers and that traditional expatriate managers are more like “accidental tourists” than a group of employees that enjoys being relocated to many different places.  This characteristic applies particularly to Assigned Expats. 

While Self-Initiated Expats can be seen as truly global managers with a high willingness to move to other countries throughout their careers, this apparent advantage fades because they are also willing to change organizations regularly.

Not strictly an expat note, but it made me smile.

A good employer provides four basic things. First, it makes sure that everyone has a proper job to do. Second, it pays them fairly. Third, it makes employees feel that their efforts are recognised. And fourth, it gives them nice people to work with.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What are they thinking…

Tea PartyI’ve been reading the morning paper after a call with my parents, catching up on the week’s news back in the US.  I am discouraged about the turn of events, the battles for scarce funds and individual rights  in the state legislatures and the appellate courts, the anti-labor rallies in Wisconsin, the recent votes in the House against health care reform and to gut federal programs and state grants.

There’s no doubt that the populist Tea Partyers are making the most of the levers to power that they earned in the last election.

Yet, throughout, it’s astonishing to me that these people so blindly support people who support policies that are antithetical to their own self-interests.

  • A party that opposes unions, even though organized labor is a necessary balance against corporate excess and shareholder greed.
  • People who oppose policies that make it easier for them to own homes, to send their children to college, or to amass critical savings needed for their old age.
  • A party who opposes extensions of unemployment and low-income health aid that they rely on when time are hard.
  • People who decry socialized government-supported health care while they, themselves, rely on Medicare and Medicaid.
  • They support people who support American involvement in foreign wars, even though their sons and daughters are disproportionately the ones sent to fight and die.
  • A party who opposes the refinancing, reregulating, and reorganization of banks, auto companies, oil drillers, and other industries, encouraging free-market failures, blue-collar job loss, and global outsourcing.
  • People who side with the rogues in the financial industry, who continue to corrupt politics, regulation, and academia, cutting ordinary jobs and pensions while increasing their own salaries and bonuses
  • A party that opposes health care reform, leaving them at the mercy of insurers who refuse to pay legitimate claims, after they have paid into the system and are left with bills that they cannot pay on their own.
  • People who aim budget cuts directly at them while pushing tax and regulatory breaks to business and the rich under the false banners of job creation and economic growth.
  • They cheer blood sport in political debate in legislatures and the media, with shameless misinformation being thrown at every level,while discrediting responsible and informed voices and the truths of investigative reporting.
  • They support every-more intrusive measures to curtail privacy, expression, arts, and diversity while fretting endlessly about terrorism, Islamism, gays, and immigration.

These are the threats that these populists are fighting against.

Issues

…and their elected delegates are selling out their interests at every turn.

‘sorry to write a Sunday screed, but I just don’t understand what these people are thinking.