mount_oregano: Let me see (MeAtWork)
Late one Friday when the fish weren’t biting, Dad decided we could spend our time better having a beer at the little tavern in Green Lake Terrace, Wisconsin, where we had a summer home.

From the comfort of a bar stool, he told me three secrets to success at work – and he’d had a variety of experiences in life. I’ve tried to carry them out, and they work:

1. Always stay as polite as you can for as long as you can. If you start out mad, where can you go from there? Besides, if you’re polite, calm, and rational, the person you’re dealing with will feel obliged to act that way, too, and this is more likely to get you want you want.

My dad added that this can require calculated self-control, and the point might come when politeness doesn’t work. He earned the nickname “the bastard” at work for his ability to be impolitely assertive in a self-controlled, calculated way when he had to. For example, once a machine was delivered that didn’t work right, and in heavy manufacturing, operating errors can kill people. The supplier refused to fix the machine. Finally, my dad talked to the supplier and explained in simple Anglo-Saxon words why they had to fix their machine, or else – and they finally understood what their situation would be if they didn’t.

My father, who would be 84 this month if he were still alive, didn’t teach me how to swear, but he taught me when to swear.

2. Always remember that the people who work for you have it in their power to determine whether you’re a success or not. Treat them as well as you can. If your employees hate you, they have no incentive to work harder than they need to. In fact, they might even make things fail out of spite – this has actually happened.

If your employees know you try your best to get them what they need, fight on their behalf with the powers that be, and respect them, they’ll go the extra mile. Experienced workers treasure a good boss. For some reason, my dad said, good bosses are rare.

3. Always tip bartenders. Bartenders remember regular customers who tip, and that means you’ll have a friend in the room.

For example, when my dad entertained clients, he could pre-arrange for his friendly bartender to quietly slip him non-alcoholic drinks while the others were getting what they ordered. It helped to be the clandestinely sober one during business discussions.

This secret to success extends to all kinds of people who don’t work for you but who have a working relationship with you. If you appreciate them, they’ll return the favor in their area of expertise. Be on good terms with janitors, for example. They know more about the building than you ever will.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website:
mount_oregano: Let me see (Let me see..)
I have a common name. “Susan” ranked big in the decade when I was born.

The surname “Burke” came to England and Ireland with the Normans and soon became common.

That’s why I can find a lot of other people with my name. I searched for “Sue Burke” at Facebook and gave up counting after 300. (A while back, at random, I became Facebook friends with two other Sue Burkes just because – delightful women, and very different from me and each other.)

“Sue” is also the largest, most complete, and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered, now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. I am Sue, fear me.

“Burke” is a verb, too: 1. to murder in such a way as to leave no marks on the body, usually by suffocation; 2. to get rid of, silence, or suppress.

That meaning comes from William Burke, who, with his partner William Hare sold bodies to a medical school for anatomical dissection. To get those bodies, they killed 16 people, usually by suffocation, before they were discovered. Hare turned state’s evidence, and Burke was hanged in 1829.

I don’t believe we’re related, which is a relief.

I’m also not related to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), which is too bad. He was the Irish orator, statesman, and philosopher famous for saying, among other things:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
“It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.”
“Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.”
“Education is the cheap defense of nations.”

No one I know had anything to do with the television show Burke’s Law, although the series was popular in our household. On the air from 1963 to 1966, it featured Gene Barry, who won the 1965 Golden Globe for his role as Amos Burke, a millionaire chief of detectives in Los Angeles who often declared his own rules during an investigation:

“Never ask a question unless you already know the answer. Burke’s Law.”
“Never confuse the improbable with the impossible: Burke’s Law.”
“If you must swim in dangerous waters, don't invite the sharks to lunch: Burke’s Law.”
“You never grow up, you grow old: Burke’s Law.”

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website,
mount_oregano: Let me see (Weather vane)
King Juan Carlos I did not want his son to “wither” like Prince Charles of Great Britain waiting for the crown to pass to him. So on June 2, after 39 years on the throne, he announced his abdication, and seventeen days later Felipe VI was proclaimed (not coronated) the new King of Spain.

Madrid’s mayor called on its residents to decorate their balconies with the flag to show support for the new King. A few in my neighborhood did, but most balconies went unadorned.

His new Majesty looked happy at the brief, “austere” ceremony, but that probably won’t last long. He’s already been called a dynamic force, a hope, fresh air – and a scapegoat.

These days all institutions have lost prestige, and the Crown has long been associated with the Catholic Church and politicians. Both poll poorly in Spain. Felipe left out a Bible, crucifix, and Mass from his proclamation, but he’s stuck with politicians.

The Constitution specifies (Article 64): “The acts of the King shall be approved [refrendados] by the Prime Minister of the government and, as necessary, by the appropriate ministers.” They even approve his speeches, which is probably why his and his father’s have always avoided controversy and the merest hint of inspired rhetoric. We don’t even know what Felipe really thinks.

Felipe could be a superman – he received excellent preparation for his new job – but he’s wrapped in Kryptonite chains. He’s subject to politicians who at best achieve mediocrity. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy earns a confidence rating of 23%, while Felipe got 58% right after taking the throne.

A lot must be done:

• Revitalize Spain’s political institutions. If the United States were like Spain, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would have hand-picked the candidates for Congress and Senate for their parties – no primaries, just backroom deals. Obama and Romney would pick their successors. This has been going on in Spain for decades: Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed at all levels of government. Corruption is rampant, and no one in office, from municipalities to the Prime Minister, has to care about what citizens think or want.

Not one word about corruption appeared in Felipe’s speech at his proclamation.

Articles by my friends Alana Moceri and Fernando Betancor get a little deeper into Spain’s problems with democracy.

• Revitalize the economy. Between 2007 and 2011, the poorest Spaniards lost 42.4% of their income and now earn €2,685 per year, while the richest 10% saw a 5.6% decrease, and the top 1% lost hardly anything, according to the OECD. This was the largest increase in inequality among the world’s 30 most advanced countries. Unemployment is still around 25%. The one thing that could save the economy in the long run is education, which is systematically being undercut both in finances and policy.

The word “unemployment” did not appear in Felipe’s proclamation speech.

• Negotiate a solution to the Catalonia independence movement. A survey taken right after Felipe’s proclamation found that 90% of respondents agreed that “what is really urgent now is to have the different political powers engage in dialogue and search for pacts and agreements to solve the country’s current problems.” They want him to intervene to persuade politicians to sit down and talk about this and other issues. But Prime Minister Rajoy has expressed reticence to the King’s involvement.

• Reform the Constitution. Properly done, this could solve many problems and serve as a “Second Transition.” Felipe’s father, Juan Carlos, guided the country through the Transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy 39 years ago. Juan Carlos could make things happen back then because he had real power until he had a Constitution written and placed himself under it. Now the King is limited to “arbitrating and moderating” the function of its institutions. But a lot of political deals had to be cut in 1978, and the weaknesses of the Constitution and its institutions have become clear. Unsurprisingly, politicians don’t want to open that can of worms.

That’s why pundit José Ignacio Torreblanca warned of the temptation to expect the new King to implement a “Second Transition,” and said that Felipe “ought to avoid the role of superhero.” The King might be able to provide momentum, Torreblanca said, but it will take the efforts of the entire society to carry out the change.

But how can society change things if its political system deliberately stymies change?

What about a republic – no king at all? Thousands of people have protested for a republic since Juan Carlos announced his abdication. Yet, when polled, 62% want a referendum on the monarchy, but only 36% would vote for a republic. People just want a say in their government.

In the end, that’s the issue. People want more, better democracy. Better government. They hope Felipe VI can somehow change the course of the nation. But will he have the freedom to act? Or will he be under the thumb of bad politicians, just like everyone else?

I worry that if we have to ask, the answer is no.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website,
mount_oregano: Let me see (SpainAtNight)
On June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, a young Bosnian revolutionary killed Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austria-Hungarian empire, which at the time possessed Bosnia. The result: World War I, the “Great War,” which brought political upheaval and left 15 million soldiers and civilians dead – one of the deadliest conflicts in history and an enduring lesson in military error.

Why did they fight? Nationalism, for one thing. That ideology even emerged strengthened by the war, and it has kept causing more wars ever since – and despite the continued bloodshed, most people today consider nationalism right and logical. It seems identical to patriotism, but nationalism differs from patriotism in one small cancerous way. Patriotism means pride in your country, but nationalism limits who can be part of your country.

The French Revolution gave the ideology a kickstart two centuries ago, and eventually author Maurice Barrès, in the throes of nationalism, insisted that instead of being “citizens of humanity” its inhabitants should strive to be “Frenchmen of France,” a goal he thought of as more noble but was also smaller in striving and scope.

Nationalism celebrates a glorious past and it defines a nation as something composed of a single people who share a language, tradition, culture, geography, race, folk-tales, legends, national heroes, music, religion, and future. (All of which can be invented or at least consolidated if necessary.) Finally, nationalism says that a people – because it is a “nation” – deserves its own sovereign independent state.

What’s wrong with that? Edmund Burke (no relation) saw nationalism as the end of individuality. “The state is all in all,” he said, because under nationalism the state defines your language, culture, race, heroes, religion, favorite foods, and memory. The government gets the power to tell you who you are, and it can enforce that identity by law – if necessary, at the point of a gun.

In addition, it almost always teaches you that your nationality is superior to the rest and your nation is under threat by lesser nations, so you need a strong military. Since you are superior and have military might, you can and should expand your borders and colonize inferior people for their own good (and your own good, if they have nice resources). This is why Francois Mitterrand said, “Nationalism is war.”

But most dangerously of all, nationalism tells you who does not belong, who is the “other” and must be eliminated.

The idea of nationalism spread from France across Europe during the 1800s: to the Slavic people in the Balkans and, among other countries, to Germany. German nationalism was anti-French. French nationalism was anti-German. Both were anti-British. In Germany, nationalist antisemitism arose at the end of the 1800s claiming that Jews, a convenient “other,” were an exploiting, corrupting, and alien influence that would weaken the nation – and this idea turned genocidal in the 1930s and 1940s.

You can see where this is going.

Yet not every country has to succumb to this. The United States of America is one of several countries founded on a civic rather than nationalistic union. Its Constitution deliberately outlaws a national religion, a radical concept at the time of its drafting and still controversial now. It permits both anyone born in the country and immigrants to become citizens – not every country permits that. The founding philosophy glorifies freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights, and the United States has spent its existence trying to refine these ideals – again, not ideals that every other country shares.

World War I ended with the creation of seven new countries, but they always held minorities within them. One of those new countries was Yugoslavia. They were all Slavs, but they didn’t speak the same language or share the same faith, and this finally led to yet another nationalist war. Twenty years ago, Sarajevo was under siege, and thousands were dying from constant bombardment and sniper fire.

Right now, people are dying in the fight between Ukraine and Russia, one of many nationalist struggles underway in the world. Some of these fights remain political, others sometimes turn violent and even genocidal.

This is why when I hear people in the United States complaining about “Push 1 for English” as if it were an affront to the country to have several languages coexist, I despair. This is not patriotism. It does not reflect the founding principals of the country. It attempts to define the country by its language, as if the United States were France or Russia, as if those two countries were following a wise course. Instead, it is a tiny but toxic step down a well-trod nationalistic path that eventually leads to a sea of blood.

The military learned a lot from World War I. Civilians came away with the wrong lesson.

— Sue Burke

Nouriel Roubini also discusses this at Project Syndicate.
mount_oregano: Let me see (Sierra Nevada)
Everyone seems to want to visit the Cave of Altamira, but almost no one can – for good reason on both accounts.

In Paleolithic times, 18,500 years ago, pictures of bison, horses, and other animals were painted on the ceiling and walls of a cave in northern Spain near what is now the town of Santillana del Mar. One artist in particular possessed genius-level skill and used the natural uneven contours in one room’s ceiling to create vibrant works with a three-dimensional effect.

Then 13,000 years ago, a rock fall closed off the entrance to the cave.

The cave opening was rediscovered in 1868 by a hunter, but since there are many caves in the area, it didn’t seem important. In 1879, an amateur palaeontologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, investigated it looking for stone tools and brought his eight-year-old daughter María. She wandered into the room now called the Great Hall and came running back. “Look, Papa, oxen!”

This was the first find of Paleolithic cave art, and no one could believe it for two decades until more art was discovered. Although the same artist may have worked in other caves, Altamira remains the “Sistine Chapel” of prehistoric cave art.

That’s why everyone wants to see it. In 1973 alone, 174,000 visitors hiked through the modest-sized cave. But the art had been made with mere charcoal and natural rusty ochre pigments, and the presence of so many sweating, breathing, germ-covered human beings changed the cave’s climate and endangered its paintings. Since then visits to the cave have been restricted or banned altogether. Instead, in 2001, a museum and reproduction of the cave opened nearby, drawing an average of 250,000 visitors each year.

But now, if you’re very lucky, you can visit the cave again – the real cave, not the imitation. This year as an experiment, starting in February, five visitors are chosen by lot among those present one random day of the week to visit the cave in person, with a guide, for a mere 37 minutes, only 8 minutes in the Great Hall, wearing disposable coveralls, hats, face masks, and special shoes. They may not touch the rocks or take photos.

These visits will end in August, then their effect on the cave will be analyzed: rock and air temperature, microbiological contamination, humidity, carbon dioxide, and other possible changes.

Two of the first five visitors admitted they saw little difference between the original and the copy in the museum, except that the lighting was better for the copy. The head of conservation at Altamira, Gaël de Guinche, insists, however, “Nothing compares to the original. It isn’t just a question of the paintings, it’s the place, the humidity, the darkness, the cold, the experience itself.” He himself has visited the cave only twice “because I know it’s fragile.”

All the first visitors agreed on how impressive the original was and how bright and vivid the paintings were. One added, “The most exciting thing isn’t the cave. What truly impressed me is the passion of the people who take care of it.”

If you can’t get to Altamira, you can see reproductions in several places in the world, including an underground exhibit in the garden at the National Archeolological Museum in Madrid. I’ve visited a couple of times, since it’s only two kilometers from my house. An outer room explains the history and importance of the cave. An inner room displays a copy of the painted ceiling.

Although the lighting is subdued, you won’t believe you’re in a cave or even a pseudo-cave. It’s a cellar room. But the art is faithful, you can stay as long as you like, and reclining benches make staring upward a little more comfortable. And since nowhere near a quarter-million people visit each year, you can study the art in relative solitude.

Still, I can’t forget the time I “saw” another reproduction of Altamira’s art at the Typhlology Museum in Madrid. Run by ONCE, the Spanish National Organization for the Blind, the museum features, among other things, scale reproductions of national and international monuments that you can touch. This way someone who cannot see the Burgos Cathedral or Statute of Liberty can get some idea of what all the excitement is about.

The reproductions include a carved wood panel that is a scale model of the Altamira ceiling. Beneath my fingers, the figures rose magically from the natural contours of the stone, something hard to fully appreciate just by looking. The artist must have felt the rock and “found” the animals, then rendered them in pigment.

For good reason, the curators of Altamira will never allow anyone to fondle the paintings. While a visit to the real thing might be impressive, its most unrealistic copy helped me understand the paintings in a way that nothing else could.

The real thing might be overrated.

— Sue Burke

Cross-posted from my professional website:
mount_oregano: Let me see (NightFallsOnEurope)
I saw the movie Gravity in “versión original,” which in Spain means in the original language with Spanish subtitles. One subtitle taught an interesting lesson in translation. When Matt asks Ryan where she lives, “Where do you pitch your tent?” the Spanish subtitle read, “Where do you keep your toothbrush?” It was a good idiomatic translation. In Spanish, the word for tent is also the word for store, a usage dating back to medieval times when shopping was done at weekly or annual fairs where itinerant merchants pitched their tents. If that sentence had been translated literally, Matt would have asked her where her store was. So an alternative had to be found, and this sounded just as jocular in Spanish as in the original English.

Translation isn’t always so easy. Here in Spain, if something is very successful, it “leaves by the big gate.” This is a reference to bullfighting, where a matador who has a very successful fight is carried out of the main gate of the bullring on the shoulders of his crew, surrounded by cheering fans. You could translate it as “hits a home run,” but Spaniards don’t play baseball. You could just say “very successful,” but the verve of the expression gets lost in translation.

Similarly, there’s an expression, “They blamed him for everything. He even killed Manolete.” Again, this is a bullfighting reference. Manolete (1917-1947) is generally considered the greatest bullfighter ever. He was killed in the ring by a bull named Islero. To blame someone for Manolete’s death is a way of saying that the person is the culmination of all evil. I can’t think of any translation that would not be another lesson in loss.

I call my LiveJournal blog “Mount Oregano.” That comes from the Spanish saying, “No todo el monte es orégano.” “The mountain isn’t all oregano.” That means that any path up a mountain – that is, any task you undertake – won’t be completely easy and agreeable or even fragrant. Except that monte doesn’t exclusively mean mount or mountain. It can also mean uncultivated land covered with trees, thickets, or scrub. Or it can mean hills, or even the countryside in general – and in some of these senses, the saying makes more sense. Still, I’m sticking with “Mount” because “Scrubland Oregano” sounds like a weak title for a blog to me. “Oregano Hills” sounds okay but seems too far from the original, which can be a genuine concern in translation. This is a judgement call, however, and your opinion is as valid as mine.

One test for a translation is whether it both means the same as the original and has the same effect on the reader: If it had been expressed originally in the target language, how would it have been said? Sometimes this is a test with many right answers, but none of them are perfect.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website:
mount_oregano: Let me see (Guadarrama1)

I was eleven years old when Santa forgot me. I got up on Christmas morning and rushed down to the tree to see what he had left.

Of course I knew that Santa didn’t exist – or rather, I knew that Mom and Dad were Santa. But since I had a little brother and sister, the magical Santa still came to our house.

I found only one box for me under the tree, which meant it would be especially good. Instead, it was just a hat and scarf set, and not a very good hat and scarf set, or even a color I liked. I felt disappointed and most of all bewildered. For the benefit of the little ones, I acted happy, but I wasn’t.

Soon my mother called me aside and apologized. In the confusion of the holiday, she and Dad had miscounted gifts and realized late the night before that they had nothing for me from Santa, so Dad ran out and got something quick. She hoped I understood, and I did, I really did. I imagined Dad going to the only place open on late Christmas Eve night, which in those days was probably a gas station, and given the limited merchandise, he had made a good choice.

And yet I had to hide tears. I wasn’t unhappy with my parents. I genuinely appreciated the effort. I wore the hat and scarf, and they were warm.

What hurt me was the proof of something I had already suspected but hadn’t wanted to believe: the world had no magic, no guarantees. It was full of human beings who made mistakes. An innocently botched Christmas gift was trifling, but devastating mistakes were possible, too. Given time – and an eleven-year-old has lots of time ahead of her – devastating mistakes would happen. I got my proof that Christmas morning.

Sometimes Santa simply forgets, a portent of calamities to come.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website:

mount_oregano: Let me see (Keep Calm)
How good are computer-generated translations? They’re getting better, but I decided to throw something complex at them, a sentence from Lope de Aguirre, El Loco del Amazonas [Lope de Aguirre, Madman of the Amazon] by Manuel Lacarta. The book is a biography of a Spanish conquistador. The machines got the common words well enough, but uncommon words, uncommon uses of words, inverted sentence structure, and metaphors were beyond them.


The original:
“Las guerras daban excusa a los peruleros para medros y rápidas ganancias, aunque, también, para perder la cabeza de sobre los hombros o andarse huido en las selvas entre las alimañas si no se acertaba el ganador en esa suerte de como lotería.”

Babylon (
“Wars gave an excuse for the peruleros for limitless ambition and rapid gains, though, also, to lose the head of on the shoulders or prevaricate fled in the jungles between the vermin was difficult if not the winner in that sort of as lottery.”

Google Translate (
“The war gave the Peruvians excuse for Medros and quick profits, but also to lose his head over the shoulders or beating fled in the forests between the vermin if not the winner was right in that sort of like lottery.”

Instituto Cervantes (
“The wars gave excuse to the peruleros for medros and fast gains, although, also, to lose the head of on the shoulders or walk escaped in the jungles between the alimañas if it did not hit the winner in this luck of as lottery.”

My translation:
“For the conquistadors in Peru, these wars provided a pretext for advancement and quick profit, though they might also result in sudden death or flight, wandering through the jungle amid its predators, for failing to guess the winning side in that lottery of fate.”


This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Machine Translation Without the Translation,” explains how Google Translate works and why it makes mistakes.


If you’re looking for a translator, here’s my LinkedIn profile:
mount_oregano: Let me see (Carmencita)

I don’t get back to the United States every year, so when I do, I find surprises. This year, I spent August 24 to September 8 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, visiting family and friends, and Chicago, Illinois, attending Chicon 7, the 70th World Science Fiction Convention. Here are some observations:

American steakhouses are a true culinary treasure and should be celebrated. Although Spain has great pork and seafood, its beef is tender but bland. That’s because in Spain, the animals are slaughtered a year younger than in the US, so their flavor is less developed. I yearned for some good American beef. And oh my God, is it good.

Speaking of food, I observed in several supermarkets that home cooking seems to be on the wane. I could have bought ready-made anything. Although there does seem to be an increased interest in cake decorating.

I know this may be hard to believe, but clerks and waiters exceed their European counterparts in service and amiability. Some of them even seemed to be enjoying their work. Maybe they weren’t, but they put on a convincing act.

Television commercials have not improved.

Politics in the US actually may not be more nasty than politics in many European countries, but television ads, which are far more numerous in the US, make the nastiness harder to ignore.

Milwaukee and Chicago are pretty — even beautiful — in ways rarely seen on television and movies, which is the chief way foreigners learn about the US.

The science fiction convention was a blast, but too big. With more than 5,000 people attending, almost everyone was there, but I couldn’t find many of the friends I had hoped to meet there.

In the US, seems to be no other setting for air conditioning other than “arctic wasteland.”

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website,

mount_oregano: Let me see (window)

Haiku is plagued by rules, some of which are false. Others are little-known but essential.

False: the idea that a haiku consists of 3-5-3 lines. I'll let Gabi Greve and Haiku Society discuss that. In Japanese, there is a count, but it's not exactly English syllables.

Fewer people know about the kireji, or "cutting word." In Japanese, these act sort of like punctuation or add grammatical structure, and function similarly to the volta or turn in a classic sonnet. The kireji cuts the poem into two parts. In Japanese, a kireji may indicate a question, emphasis, surprise, completion, probability, cause, or interrelationship.

In English, these words are sometimes represented by punctuation, such as colons, dashes, commas, ellipsis, exclamation points, or question marks (: — , … ! ?) or words like but, how, and, yet, now, this, still (and a lot more) or simply by a line break.

Kireji link two ideas. The best haiku have more depth than a simple observation; they link an observation, often about the changes in nature and its seasons, to something else.

Kireji also free the poet from the constraints of a sentence. Words can be left out, and fragments of sentences can be connected to create both emphasis and brevity. (If you love 17-syllable sentences, you may wish to investigate the poetic form of American sentences.)

How does this work? Here are some of my haiku, offered humbly to avoid plagiarizing other better poets:

hard to say:
which day did the robins
leave town?

Christmas eve —
the woman in the checkout line
blinking back tears

back to school —
even the playground trees
are taller

old man
thinks no one is watching
and limps
(Here and is the kireji.)

bus stop
an empty bench
and a bag lunch
(It's and again.)

songbird hatchling
dead on the sidewalk
but Spring does not pause

on last year's poinsettia
a red leaf
(line breaks)

open gate
a girl climbs the playground fence
(Here the kireji is anyway. The location at the end of the haiku brings you back to the beginning, and gives an emotional closure to the poem.)

These haiku also include the traditional immediacy and personal experience — I saw all those things and was inspired by them. Something happened in the context of something else that created a meaning beyond the words themselves.


Recommended resources for learning more about Haiku:

World Haiku Review archives

Happy Haiku Archives

— Sue Burke
Also posted at my professional writer's website:

mount_oregano: Let me see (euro)

How much cash do you have right now? Five cashes, twenty-two cashes?

No, you might have a lot of cash, twenty-two dollars....

That's because you can't count cash. It's a grammatical thing. English nouns come in two categories: countable and uncountable.

Countable nouns are usually the names of objects, concepts, people, and things that can be enumerated: books, potatoes, teachers, etc.

Uncountable nouns are usually liquids, materials, abstractions, languages, collections, and other things that do not occur separately: milk, information, sugar, advice, copper, weather, flu, etc.

(A few things, like stone, time, space, wine, and room, can be both countable and uncountable, and often their meaning changes depending on their use: We are out of room. We have seven rooms in our house.)

With uncountable nouns, you can use words like a little, a lot of, much, some, hardy any, no or classifiers like a pound of, a bottle of. For example: I have a bottle of wine. I have a little crackers and cheese. I have a lot of trouble planning parties. But you can't say: I have many cash. I have learned a few French.

With countable nouns, you can use words including a lot of, many, a few, some, and any. You can also make the nouns plural: You had a few dollars. Can you buy some apples? You will find many chairs and a few tables in the workroom. But you can't say: You have much teachers. You own little bluejeans.

If you're a native speaker, of course, you know all this automatically. That's because we don't think about grammar when we speak, we remember the groups of words that express our intent. An alert person who grows up surrounded by educated speakers could use perfect grammar without ever studying it.

But if you're learning English, countable and uncountable nouns will be yet another annoying detail to memorize and a source of frequent error.

Is English a difficult language to learn? Yes and no. It starts easy, with fairly direct grammar, and even if you say, "She want to eat many cheese for lunch," people are likely to understand you. But then English gets complex, with various classes of nouns, an excessive number of prepositions, confusing phrasal verbs, tricky participle phrases, and an infinite vocabulary.

So, after all these years, I still study grammar, if only to understand why I use the words I do.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my writing website:

mount_oregano: Let me see (Gredos1)

When I was a freshman in college, I read an excerpt of a book by the Spanish writer known as Azorín, which was the pen name of José Martínez Ruiz, (1873-1967). Mario Vargas Llosa has called him "one of the most elegant artisans of our language."

It changed the way I thought about writing.

The excerpt was from a chapter called "Theory of Style" in the book Un Pueblecito: Riofrío de Ávila, published in 1916. It's set in the little town of Riofrío de Ávila and deals with the experiences of the parish priest, Bejarano Galavis. Chapter 4 describes Bejarano's theory of good writing style — really Azorín's:

The snow and the water

[...]Look at the whiteness of that mountain snow, so smooth, so clear; look at the transparency of the water in this mountain stream, so clean, so crystalline. Style is this; style is nothing. Style is writing in such a way that those read it think: This is nothing. They think: I can do this.

And yet they — the ones who think they can — nevertheless can't do such a simple thing; this thing which is nothing may be the most difficult, the most laborious, the most complicated of all.

Directly to the things

Bejarano Galavis, in the prologue to his book, puts forth his theory of style. His declarations are categorical. "Clarity," our author says, "is the first quality of style. We do not speak except to make ourselves understood. Style is clear if it immediately conveys the things in it to the listener without making him pause on the words."

Let us retain this fundamental maxim: Directly to the things. Without words that slow us down, hold us back, make the road more difficult, we arrive instantly at the things.[...]

One who isn't an artist, who isn't a great stylist, who hasn't mastered technique, will always fatally tend to dress up his feelings and ideas with annoying accessories and fuss. He'll never understand that a style should not be rejected for being simple. "The quality of simplicity as a point of style isn't a term of contempt but of art."[...]

And the author adds: "Simple style has no less delicacy or precision than the rest." "Of all the defects of style, the most ridiculous is the one called overstuffed."

Obscure style, obscure thought

Everything must be sacrificed to clarity. "Every other circumstance or condition, like purity, measure, elevation, and delicacy, must cede to clarity." Isn't this enough? Well, for the purists, this: "It is better to be censured for grammar than to not be understood."

"It is true that every affectation is reprehensible, but without fear one can affect to be clear." The only excusable affectation is clarity. "It is not enough to make yourself understandable; it is necessary to aspire to be unable to be misunderstood."

Yes, the supreme style is serious and clear. But how to write seriously and clearly if one does not think that way?[...] Here lies the big problem. We are going to give a formula for simplicity. Simplicity, the extremely difficult simplicity, is a question of method. Do this and you will suddenly achieve great style:

Put one thing after the other. Nothing more; this is everything. Haven't you observed the defect of an orator or writer that consists in putting things inside other things by means of parentheses, asides, digressions, and fleeting and incidental considerations?

Well, the opposite is to put things — ideas, sensations — one after the other. "Things should be placed," Bejarano says, "in the order in which they are thought, and given their proper extension."

But the problem ... is in thinking well.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website:

mount_oregano: Let me see (Carmencita)

When I was born in 1955, fewer than 3 billion people lived on the Earth. According to the UN, that number reached 7 billion on October 31, 2011.

In my lifetime, the world population has more than doubled — and there was hardly a shortage of human beings on the planet 56 years ago. When my parents were born, there were only 2 billion people. In 1804, there was 1 billion.

We should hit 8 billion before 2030 and 9 billion before 2050.

I can't imagine a billion people, but I know what population growth has meant to me — this single memory, multiplied by everywhere:

When I was eight or nine years old, my friends and I would ride our bikes from our homes in Greendale, Wisconsin, to Boerner Botanical Gardens, about three miles away. (We were free-range children.) The quiet ride took us through suburbs and past farm fields and groves of trees.

The biggest crossroads was Grange Avenue and 76th Street. Grange, a two-lane country road, had a stop sign, and 76th didn't, but it had such scant traffic that an eight-year-old had no trouble peddling across it safely.

Less than a decade later, Southridge Mall opened at that corner, and more development followed. Now, as the photo from Google Maps shows, Grange Avenue is a four-lane boulevard and 76th has six lanes, and the crossroads can intimidate anyone not in an SUV. The fields have been paved over. The once-quiet country road bustles day and night.

And everywhere that I've lived and visited, the roads and shopping malls grow and grow endlessly.

That's what billions more people mean to me: more cars, more roads, and more malls — but fewer farm fields, fewer trees, and less peace and quiet.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website:

mount_oregano: Let me see (euro)

Late in December of 2001, I got my first euros, a "starter kit" bag of coins purchased at a bank with Spanish pesetas. I took them home and we admired them, all shiny and new. On January 1, 2002, we would begin to use them.

No more peseta, which had served Spain for 133 years. No more peseta prizes in the El Gordo lottery held every December 22. At the lottery drawing, the winning numbers and prizes are always sung, and in 2001, the audience began to sing along — singing goodbye to the peseta. Rarely do average citizens get to participate directly in such a grand historic event as the introduction of a new international currency involving fourteen European countries.

Euro-ready or not, nine days later, midnight struck! People lined up at ATMs on their way to New Year's parties to withdraw the new cash. The Madrid subway system discovered that its ticket machines were not quite euro-ready and didn't work with the new currency, so people got to ride free until that was fixed the next day.

Officially, the euro had existed as a non-physical currency starting January 1, 1999, so we had a long time to get ready. Despite all the preparation, on January 1 a waiter in France got confused and accepted a 5-denomination Monopoly bill as a 5€ bill: both are grayish, the same size, and have big 5's on them.

Here in Spain, we officially had until February 28 to shift over to the new currency, but it took only a few days. By law, we could pay in pesetas and get our change in euros, and that's how we did it: people would buy a 100-peseta cup of coffee with a 10,000 peseta note.

We all had to do a lot of math to figure out equivalents: 166.386 pesetas equaled 1€. For a long time I saw befuddled elderly people in stores helplessly holding out a handful of euro bills and coins to check-out clerks, who would pick out the right amount. The euro had cents, like dollars, and my husband had to teach our landlord how to write a check with decimals. I knew that the copper coins would tarnish soon like US pennies, but Spaniards were dismayed when they saw the pretty coins turn brown.

But even before the euro began circulating, the problems had begun to surface. To avoid paying taxes on under-the-table earnings, many Spaniards kept significant savings in cash — suitcases full of bills. How could they exchange these for euros without paying taxes? They couldn't, so they began spending the pesetas. One December 2001 advertisement for diamonds simply showed jewelry and the tagline: "Honey, the euro is coming and I don't have a thing to wear."

But where they really stashed their cash was in real estate. Spain already had a real estate bubble, and this spending inflated it fast, with unhappy consequences. The video Españistán (with English subtitles) explains the bubble well, although very angrily. Building became uncontrolled. In addition, the European Union's financial policy of low interest rates designed to favor Germany's growth further fueled the real estate boom in Spain and other European countries.

Then, in 2008, the boom blew up. A US financial crisis spread world-wide, and although it hurt Europe in general, it specifically destroyed Spain's real-estate construction business. Suddenly, Spain's national budget went from surplus to deficit as the government coped with unemployment while revenues dropped. Recession struck Spain and other European countries. Then it turned out that Greece, with the help of Goldman Sachs, had lied about its government finances. Borrowing at the low interest rates had kept Greece afloat for a while, but starting in 2009, it couldn't pay back the money it had borrowed.

Meanwhile, many European banks held the toxic assets created in the US, as well as local mortgages and other real estate investments that had suddenly lost much of their value — but they didn't know exactly how much they had lost, since the investment securities were opaque. They also held Greek government bonds, and since banks had become weak, they couldn't afford to take a hit from Greece, which for some of them would have been a big hit.

The European Union responded by forcing the banks to do that, and a tottering system began to tilt. The fault, supposedly, lay with the PIGS — Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain — for having acquired too much debt due to unwise spending. In truth, Germany's government had high indebtedness, too, and its smaller banks had frightening balance sheets. In spite of that, financial speculators decided that Germany, whose economy was still robust, would never default, but the PIGS might, so speculators pushed up interest rates on those governments' bonds, which only deepened those countries' debts and troubles.

Social spending has always had ideological enemies, and the debt crisis let these ideologues claim that the error lay in bloated government budgets. Germany, who as it turned out unilaterally runs the European Union, demanded austerity budgets from those countries that slashed social spending in exchange for getting a little protection from speculators. In effect, this was like punishing a man for starving by sending him to bed without his supper.

That's where we are in January 2012. The problem is financial, not fiscal: banks, not budgets. But no one wants to deal with the thorny problem of a dysfunctional financial sector, and "morally upright" northern European countries don't want to pay for the supposed errors of southern Europe.

Simple mechanisms could solve this crisis fast, such as having the European Central Bank behave more like the US Federal Reserve and be a lender of last resort (in effect, printing money), permitting inflation, or issuing Euro-bonds. But Germany, specifically Angela Merkel, says no.

Instead, it's relatively easy to force budget cutbacks. And yet if budgets aren't the root problem, cutbacks won't solve the crisis. Cutting government spending will only deepen the recession, and things will only get worse.

The joy of a decade ago has given way to gloom, and in a recent survey, 70% of Spaniards said the euro has been of little or no benefit to Spain.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (SpainAtNight)
Some people in Spain wept with joy and many said freedom had at last arrived: on October 20, the same day that Gadaffi was killed, Spain's Basque terrorists declared a "definitive end to its armed activity." The group called ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or "Basque Homeland and Freedom") had been fighting for independence for 43 years and had killed 829 people — 58 since I moved to Spain in 1999.

I have learned lessons I never wanted to know, such as how to distinguish the sound of a bomb from thunder or fireworks. Bombs detonate at ground level, so the characteristic echo of aerial explosions is missing.

I learned to keep an eye out for suspicious parcels. We all did. One day I left my neighborhood newspaper shop to see police examining the underside of a van with mirrors, looking for a bomb. I hurried past as fast as I could without seeming afraid. Fear was a terrorist weapon I could try to fend off.

I learned how a terrorist organization like that sustains itself: extortion. Businesses in Basque Country were subject to a "revolutionary tax," and from time to time a business that didn't pay would be burned down or its owner would be shot.

But the death toll hardly encompasses the terror, since the killings were sporadic but the conflict was constant.

ETA might try to kill but fail — and yet do a lot of harm. A car bomb in a parking lot of the University of Navarra on October 30, 2008, injured 21 people, destroyed 20 cars and set fire to the main building on campus. And a reporter at blast site at dawn the next day heard no birds, though the area had plenty of trees and was usually was filled with song. But the birds had all been killed by the explosive shock wave or had fled in terror.

A car bomb at 4 a.m. on July 29, 2009, destroyed the facade of this Guardia Civil apartment building in Burgos. Miraculously, only 64 people were injured and none were killed. (Photo by EFE.)

One morning, my usual radio news announcer reported that he had received a letter bomb the day before: news media were targeted.

From time to time, organized mobs in Basque Country would suddenly attack specific offices or homes, or destroy buses or community centers. Many public officials, including small-town aldermen, had bodyguards.

Or the news might carry reports that the police had discovered yet another cache of arms or explosives, or had arrested more members and leaders of ETA — 400 arrests in the last eight years. In the end, dogged police work left the terrorists' organization so debilitated that it had no choice but to declare an end to armed struggle, though its spokesmen said "it did its job" and produced a "harvest."

Were we terrified? Here in Madrid, where politicians and ordinary citizens alike were targets, the mayor — every mayor — advised: "Go about your daily life with no changes, as if you were not afraid." But the real emotion was anger. Marches and demonstrations against ETA drew huge crowds.

Most people still can't believe it's over. The terrorists wanted an independent Basque Nation because they believed themselves racially distinct and superior to other Spaniards. They still believe that, and they could resume their bloody work at any time.

The peace here in Spain remains uneasy.

— Sue Burke

Free speech for Russia! ETA tried to quash dissent, too.

Cross-posted from my professional website:
mount_oregano: Let me see (Gredos1)

For years I wondered about the shells in the marble in the hallways of our apartment building. What were they, when did they live? The brownish-cream stone had a lot of them, but I didn't know how to begin to investigate.

Then a friend happened to give me a fossil — and it was a match. I had a Gryphaea obliquata, an extinct oyster common in the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods.

That clue was enough to eventually identify the exact marble, called Ulldecona stone or Cenia stone, from the town of Ulldecona in Tarragona, eastern Spain. It had been formed in the early Cretaceous Period. At that time, eastern Spain lay under warm, shallow oceans. The shoreline lay close to Castilla-La Mancha, where La Huergina Formation and other fossil beds continue to yield important finds of dinosaurs and other animals.

Now when I wait for the elevator, I stand on the shore of that 130-million-year-old sea.

The oysters under my feet grow in vast colonies. They have two unequal shells, and the heavy curved lower shell keeps them upright on the soft seabed, while the upper lid opens to filter water for food and oxygen. Above them swim fish and ammonites — along with plesiosaurs, which look a lot like the Loch Ness Monster. Do I see one toward the horizon, its long neck arching over the waves?

A forest of ferns and pine trees rises behind me, and off in the distance, a Turiasaurus raises its long neck to munch on a tree. It's a sauropod the size of a small commercial passenger airplane ... safely far away.

Primitive birds, pterosaurs, and insects fly above me, and the buzzes and calls seem familiar. On the ground, frogs and shrews (my ancestors) scurry around.

I hear a heavy rustle. It's geologically too early for T-rex, but a variety of its smaller theropod cousins flourish — the Cocavenator, for example, not exactly a big Velociraptor with quills, but close enough.

Another rustle. It could be the wind in the ferns, a toad hoping after a beetle, or it could be a carnivore edging toward a new, strange prey that seems defenseless and distracted. Then something rumbles in front of me.

The elevator has arrived! I escape into the present. I'm the dominant species now — but the stone under my feet was once alive.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (crown)

I am holier than thou.

This summer I took a week-long vacation in Prague and Vienna, and while in Vienna, my husband and I visited the Hofburg Palace, specifically its Schatzkammer (Treasury) (indeed: a 25-room vault), filled with both secular and ecclesiastical treasure.

The secular hoard alone was worth the €12 admission price, especially the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, over 1000 years old and still sparkling like new with gold, precious stones, and pearls (in photo). The imperial red coronation mantle, embroidered with gold and studded with pearls, made in 1134, remains in perfectly wearable condition.

We also saw the crown of Rudolf II from 1602, and his scepter made from a unicorn horn with a head of gold, diamonds, rubies, and a large sapphire. We saw the cradle of the Napoleon's son, the King of Rome (more gold); the largest cut emerald in the world; and the treasury of the Knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece, whose members are all high nobility or royalty, so those endless riches were truly magnificent.

Never before and probably never again will I be surrounded by so much gold, diamonds, pearls, and enormous gemstones.

But all this was overshadowed by the glorious ecclesiastical treasures:

• two pieces of the Holy Cross (one quite large);
• the Holy Grail (they're wrong on that because the real one is in Valencia);
• one of the nails used on the Cross (at least thirty of the original three or four still exist);
• the Holy Lance used on Christ during the Crucifixion (one of four known);
• a piece of the tablecloth from the Last Supper; and
• room after room filled with exquisite jewel-encrusted silver and gold reliquaries with teeth, fragments of bone, vials of blood, a link from the chain with which St. Peter was bound, and other relics from an all-star manifest of saints.

As you know, relics emit a mysterious power to remit sins and grant indulgences, and their virtus is transmitted to those in their vicinity. Thus my soul benefited tremendously from that morning spent among them. In fact, it was probably beneficial for your soul just to have read this post.

You're welcome.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Weather vane)

In honor of August:

On August 6, 1881, Alexander Fleming was born in Scotland. He became a doctor and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps throughout World War I. When he returned, he began to search for new anti-bacterial agents because he had seen many soldiers die of infected wounds.

In September 1928, he discovered that a fungus had destroyed some of his experimental bacterial cultures. By the end of the month, he had cultured the mold and found that it produced a substance that killed many bacteria. Soon, he had named it penicillin after its genus.

It proved hard to grow and refine, but after he abandoned it in 1940, some chemists began to work on it to produce the world's first antibiotic for troops in World War II. By 1945, they had mastered mass production.

Penicillin has saved hundreds of millions of lives. The drug became one of the 20th century's most important discoveries and Fleming one of its most important people.

Why would this matter to bullfighters? They get gored a lot on the job, around once a year. Some injuries are minor, but all are dangerous.

Bull horns are rough and fighting bulls are not bathed before entering the ring, so the horns introduce bacteria and other infectious agents into deep wounds. Recovery can be difficult, but it was much more dangerous before antibiotics.

That's why bullfighters collected money to erect a monument in 1964 to Alexander Fleming. It stands outside Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, one of the biggest and the most important in the world.

Bullfighting has seen better days. Besides an anti-bullfighting movement, which has existed for centuries, the current economic crisis has meant cutbacks. A decade ago, Spain had about 2,000 bullfights a year. In 2010, there were 1,487. While surveys show that most Spaniards oppose a ban, most aren't interested in bullfighting, either.

If Ernest Hemingway were to come to a bullfight today, he wouldn't see many changes, and he wouldn't see many young faces in the stands. That's bad, says Manuel Molés, director of Los Toros program on SER radio. "We can't live without innovation."

Antonio Lorca, a bullfighting critic for El País newspaper, says the fiesta has lost its excitement. "Its star, the bull, has ceased to be a fierce and powerful animal and has become a sickly antagonist who provokes more pity than respect." Fighting bulls are no longer bred to be as dangerous as they used to.

"Today's bull is no good for this eternal fiesta based on thoroughbreds, on the fierceness and bravery of a powerful and challenging animal that creates fear and glorifies the bullfighter who manages to defeat it in passionate battle. But today there is no battle, not even a quarrel. At most, some childish and insipid capework worthy of a schoolyard."

He identifies the culprits: "There are too many ranches, too many bullfighters, too many businesses, and more importantly, too many egos and too much selfishness to allow the purity of the fiesta and the interests of the spectator to prevail."

What should the spectator want? Salvador Boix, a musician who defends bullfighting, says danger is key to the spectacle:

"We live in a society of fear. Fear if it's cold in winter and hot in summer, fear of the nuclear threat, even more fears than society is actually suffering. The bullfighter incarnates the conquest of fear, the respect for his adversary, the will to overcome, qualities that are more and more rare. That's why I'd recommend going to a bullfight at least once. It will put all those fears behind."

Canal+ has video highlights of major bullfights at:

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (castle)

You can get to the Castillo de La Almeda (Poplar Grove Castle) in a half-hour from downtown Madrid, Spain, by subway . Go to the end of Line 5, the Alameda de Osuna stop, then walk a few blocks north to a hill surrounded by a wire fence and poplar trees. The entrance is off to the southwest side, a simple gate to a driveway flanked by a small wooden building. Its wide porch faces the ruins of the little castle.

Visits are free and open to the public on weekends, but don't expect crowds. I went on a Saturday afternoon last month and was about the only visitor during the hour I was there. The two men on the porch staffing the site seemed glad to see me and described the displays and the gravel path that takes visitors in a circle around the castle. They even offered me an umbrella to protect myself from the hot sun.

I set off through the field of weeds and wildflowers. Though the site seems humble, the path, its scenic overlooks, and display panels have been artfully arranged. The story they tell goes back to stone age times, when the abundant flint in the area attracted tool-makers.

At the first overlook, you see the moat and a wall of the castle. They offer an echo of the strength the building once projected. You can easily make out the flint rocks in the castle walls, the same flint used in many old constructions in Madrid, including its medieval city walls.

If you look behind you between the big new apartment buildings, you see a commanding view of the Jarama River as it leads to the Ebro Valley, specifically a view of an area long used as a ford and later the site of a bridge. Four thousand years ago, a Bronze Age village occupied this strategic hill, surrounded by a defensive trench and wood stockade. It left behind some recently discovered pottery and a burial.

After Rome fell,
Spain suffered barbarian invasions, and this hamlet disappeared. In 711 the Moors invaded and took most of the peninsula, which led to centuries of warfare and reconquest — and the central area of Spain became known as "Castile" for its many castles.

The Moors built 16 forts and watchtowers in the Madrid area, which communicated by smoke signals to control mountain passes and river valleys. When the Christians returned in the 1100s, they expanded that network and encouraged new settlers to create farms. A hamlet called La Alameda grew up around the hilltop, and around 1400, the powerful Mendoza family built the castle there.

Though small, it had stout curtain walls and a three- or four-storey main tower, and it was surrounded by a wide dry moat that reused the ancient village's defenses. By then, Spain's front against the Moors had moved far south, but frequent civil wars and peasant insurrections kept castles useful. The ruling aristocracy served as the military class.

The castle contained rooms for the family in the main tower on the west side. The rest of the castle had two floors along two exterior walls that included halls, a kitchen, and quarters for the guards. They faced an interior patio paved with bricks, and a wall of the west tower contained a well. The round east tower probably included a chapel.

Over time, the aristocracy grew less fierce and more frivolous. The little castle became property of the Zapata family, which held the title of Count of Barajas. Between 1555 and 1580, the castle was transformed into a rural palace, and its moat was widened and became a fashionable garden.

A fire damaged the castle in 1697, and it was never inhabited again. In 1785, the Duchess of Osuna got permission to "mine" the ruins for construction stone for nearby country homes like El Capricho. The noble Fernán Núñez family also used castle flint to build its pantheon next to the ruins. The castle was reduced to two standing walls, one tower, and foundations.

The site retained its strategic advantage. During the Civil War in 1936, Republican troops built a concrete machine gun bunker next to the ruins and opened small windows for rifles in the castle's remaining walls to protect the military command in the nearby El Capricho palace.

The walk has taken you around the east tower. The bunker and pantheon stand on one side of the path, and the castle walls, still stout enough for battle, stand on the other. After the war, the castle was forgotten and became a ruin in a city park.

In the 1960s, the Alameda de Osuna neighborhood began to grow into a dense residential area, and in 1986, extensive archeological work began to investigate and restore the castle.

Now the walk has circled the castle
and brought you inside to look at the two meter-thick walls that remain, with their once-grand brick windows — created during its palace stage — and the little gun-holes from the Civil War.

The rest, even the old garden in the moat, is bare dirt because archaeological digs continue. The city's Origins Museum organizes summer workshops for local teens who learn about archeology and add to the understanding of Madrid's past.

The castle has become grand museum exhibit illustrating four thousand years of history. Tourists are welcome but not expected, so the brochures and display panels aren't translated into English. If you have only a week in Madrid and want to see a castle, take a day trip to Segovia. That's where I take my guests.

This minor site is for locals, history buffs, and teens who want to show parents and friends what they did on their summer vacation. It's meant to provide direct contact with Madrid's long past as it is being recovered amid dirt and weeds and sun and pride.

Telemadrid's brief news story about the opening of the castle to the public, posted on YouTube:

— Sue Burke
Also posted at my professional website:

mount_oregano: Let me see (castle)

Arab and Islamic governments keep making news these days, among them Saudi Arabia, so I'll take this opportunity to tell how I saw the King of Saudi Arabia, His Majesty Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz al Saud, several years ago.

I was walking through downtown Madrid and happened to go past the Hotel Palace. It's one of the city's top hotels, the place where statesmen and stars tend to stay. I wasn't surprised to notice security agents outside — I'd seen that before — but I was intrigued by the enormous quantity of them, including Spanish and foreign agents and even Spanish soldiers. An exceptionally Very Important Person was staying at the hotel.

They let me keep walking up the sidewalk toward the entrance (although I got some careful looks) and I saw a big limousine under the carport. Maybe this VIP would come out soon. I crossed the side street and joined a couple of tourists waiting there to see who it would be. The street is old and narrow, and I was surprised that the security agents allowed us to remain so close, but there seemed to be two men in suits with nothing better to do than pretend to read newspapers while keeping an eye on us.

A minute later, a bustle told me that the VIP might be approaching — and out walked a man with a black mustache and goatee, wearing beautiful Arab robes, surrounded by an entourage. He was the walking definition of regal bearing.

He got in the car without a glance at us gawkers and his motorcade took off, sirens blaring. I didn't know who he was, but the next day I identified him as King Abdullah from a photo in a newspaper article.

That's the only royalty I've seen so close, and one brief glimpse isn't worth much, but I came away convinced that this man knew he was important and fully believed that he deserved his place in the world. If there is ever political change in Saudi Arabia, that attitude could matter.

— Sue Burke
Also posted at my professional website:

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