Thursday, 29 September 2011

September...

...is coming to an end, and even though we are now having all the sun we were so NOT getting in July and August, the days are shorter and the mornings crisper, and everything points to the undeniable fact that The Summer We Did Not Have is well and truly over.
For two weeks or more now, we've had the most wonderful weather; it has been around and above 25 Celsius (that's 77 Fahrenheit, the very useful conversion tool I found on the internet tells me) most days, today being no exception.
This gave everybody, myself included, the chance to wear their summer dresses, skirts, short-sleeved tops and sandals, and the street caf├ęs and icecream parlours in town still attract quite a crowd.
Of course I am very grateful for this belated summer, and as far as I am concerned, it can keep going for another month - the cold, wet days and weeks will be here soon enough.

These pictures capture, I think, quite well what it is like here these days:

 


















Asters from my parents' garden.















A butterfly - it is an Admiral, I think - near my bedroom window (the picture is so lopsided because it wasn't easy to take; I did not want to go too close with the camera so as not to scare the butterfly off).

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Warming Up Round

It's that time of the year again - the pub quiz is back after the summer break!

My local is an Irish pub; I am friends with the landlord and it is at least twice a month that I spend and evening there. Chris, the landlord, has established Tuesday nights as pub quiz nights, and they have become so popular it is impossible to find a seat if you do not book a table in advance.

Over the past two years, a group of friends and I have evolved into a really good team, each of us with their own special area of knowledge: 
There is Brian, who travels loads, both for business and leisure, and knows plenty about sports. Chris (not the landlord) is really good at politics and current affairs. Gary is our expert for Roman and other ancient history, as well as being unbeatable in Maths. Martin speaks Russian and several other languages fluently, also knows a lot about sports, and is interested in what's going on in the world every day. Robert is very knowledgeable about movies and TV series, names of film directors, actors and so on. And myself - well, I read a lot, I know bits and bobs about history and geography and languages, but there is no area where I truly excel, it is more general knowledge, and lots of trivia floating about in my mind, which is precisely what is needed for the quiz. What we lack of is someone who is up to date with modern music - what is playing in the charts; neither of us truly follows that, so the music questions are always a bit tricky for us.
As we have a favourite round table in a corner of the pub, we call ourselves The Corner Shop.

The Corner Shop has come first in the quiz a few times already, and we're one of the top three almost every time. First prize is a bottle of (relatively expensive) whiskey; I don't drink that, and the bottle usually goes to the team member who made the decisive point. Second prize is four bottles of sparkling wine - now, that is a prize after my own heart! I really like sparkling wine, and with four bottles, I always get one, sometimes even two, because the men say they don't drink the stuff. Last year, my complete stock of sparkling wine for Christmas and New Year came from pub quiz wins. Third prize is two bottles of sparkling wine.

And last night, there were only the three of us - Brian, Gary, and myself -, so we considered it a warming up round. We came 2nd!!!
We really did well, and had it not been for the Lone Star team (our "eternal rivals") being about three times as big as our team, we would have come first. Four bottles for a team of three - well, we decided we keep one bottle each and give the fourth one to the third team, since they were in a tie with us and we won the tie question. They were very pleased and said how generous we are (we were indeed, weren't we!), and much fun was had by all.
It was a great night out with my friends, and I am looking forward to the next pub quiz; of course we can't make it every Tuesday, but I think in about three weeks we'll go again.

Me and my prize, last night.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Even More Catching Up: GamesCom 2011

So, it seems I am finally sitting down to start writing about one of the topics I already mentioned here, the GamesCom 2011, which took place in August.
Don't worry - in this post, I do not intend to bore you to death with an endless succession of pictures and details about Europe's biggest computer games show; if you really do want to see all the snaps I took in 2011 and previous years, you can do so here in the photobucket album, and all the official stuff can be found here: 
http://www.gamescom-cologne.com/en/gamescom/home/index.php

Maybe not all of you know that one of my favourite pastimes is to play The Sims, namely The Sims 2 and The Sims 3. Like a true Simmer, I started with the first game, and this is how it all came about: 
In November 2000, my husband (who back then was not yet my husband) moved from England to Germany to join me here. He was an avid computer games player and had been ever since his teenage years. I, on the other hand, had so far only used my computer to go on the internet, write emails and chat (that was, by the way, how Steve and I had got to know each other: in a Star Trek chat room in September 1999). When we started to live together, he introduced me to computer games - and soon we found out that I didn't like most of the ones he preferred. For some games, it was simply a question of not liking the idea of the game (to this day, I can't see the point of sneaking around corners and shooting monsters; this sort of thing does not give me a thrill), whereas in other games, I saw how limited I was by my lack of hand-eye-coordination. "Midtown Madness" was a game I sometimes played for a few minutes, since in that game, you are expected to race your car through, for instance, a digitalized version of London and deliberately crash into walls, lamp posts and other cars - that IS fun for a few minutes, because you fully well know you can never do that in real life and get away with it (and why should you want to, actually?).
Still, Steve wanted me to have more fun on the computer, and so when in one of the games-related email newsletters he regularly got they talked about "The Sims", a new game, he thought it sounded like something I would enjoy and bought it for me in January 2001.
And the rest, as they say, is history!

At first, it took us both some time to work out the game, but we soon found we both liked it, and it seemed to be made for the likes of me. Everytime a new expansion pack was released (twice a year), he bought it for me. It became "my" game a lot more than his, and in 2002, I signed up at the newly opened online forum on the official website. I liked reading about how others played their game, and often, I was able to help when they had game-related questions or technical issues.
This, unknown to me, did not go unnoticed, and after some time I was approached by someone from the company who produced the game, EA (Electronic Arts). They asked me whether I wanted to become part of the moderating team for the forum, and after I had talked it through with Steve, I accepted.

Well, some time later, EA decided they wanted members from the gaming community to promote the game on the show (back then, it was still called Games Convention) once a year, and I was approached once again. After I had gotten the OK from my boss (I had to take a week off, because the show is always from Wednesday to Sunday, and the Tuesday is needed to get everyone ready and up for their tasks), I accepted, and have worked at the fair ever since.
It is the biggest event for gamers in Europe, and it truly IS big.

Let me show you some pictures:
  
My working outfit for the whole week. Believe me, it can be quite nice not having to think about what to wear, for a change! But it also feels good getting into one's own clothes again when the job is done and the week is over.

My colleagues - the (mostly) visible part of the team working on EA's booth alone, almost 100 people. Not counted are the technicians and other people working behind the scenes. And that is just one (albeit the biggest) exhibitor at the show. 

The part of the team responsible for the section of the booth dedicated to The Sims. I am about twice their average age, but that did not stop us from working together really well.
  

View of the Sims section of the booth, before the fair opened. We had 20 places (consoles and computers) for people to play the game at.
 

Of course, EA does a lot more than just produce The Sims. The Battlefield series is one of the most popular ones. No visitor was going to get such a good, unobstructed view of the plane - this was just possible if you worked there and were there before the opening. 

This is what it was like for the visitors. Honestly, if it wasn't for me working there and getting paid, I'd not set a foot in there! Admission is not very high (10 Euro per person I think), but on a beautiful summer's day like we had there, I'd have 1000 ideas how to spend my time, and queuing for 3 hours to be allowed to play a game for 5 minutes (I'm not kidding you, that is what my colleagues had to put through where Battlefield, Mass Effect and Need For Speed were played) is certainly not one of them!
On the Saturday, which is traditionally the busiest day of the show, the gates were closed some time before noon because of safety concerns. Tens of thousands of visitors were turned away.

We didn't have quite such long queues, but we could not complain about lack of interest, either :-)
 

Before the show opened each morning, there were photo opportunities for us, the staff. My colleague here was one of our walking acts (yes, the Star Wars games come from the same company).

In the evenings, I was usually expected at some event or other, but I couldn't always be bothered and sometimes just went to relax, put my feet up and read in my hotel room. When you've stood on your feet for about 12 hours and have talked (or, rather, shouted - the noise level in the halls is quite high) to hundreds of people, you do not necessarily feel much like partying. But I went to the Community Party, and took this picture on the way there: Cologne's cathedral, seen from across the Rhine, at sunset.

For me, the job ended every evening when the fair closed - for others, it only just began - the cleaners were at work all night to get everything shiny and ready again for the next morning.
Another year has gone by, and I have no idea how many more GamesComs I will work at. Of course I will eventually either feel too old for that kind of fun myself, or EA simply won't ask me anymore - whichever happens first!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Read in 2011 - 21: Smart Choices

Was it a smart choice to read this book? Well, I needed some non-fiction to clear my mind of too much shallow sweetness and to engage it in something more challenging, and this "Smart Choices" by John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney and Howard Raiffa certainly did.
The big challenge came after I was about half way through and felt, frankly, bored with it. This is not due to the book being actually boring, but to me having had enough of the subject while at the same time still wanting to get to the last page without giving up.
It was part of the generous present given to me by a friend earlier this year, mentioned in my "Read in 2011"-posts before, and what prompted me to read it was not that I wanted or felt the need to learn how to make better decisions, but the hope that the book would give me some insight into how the human mind works when faced with decision-making. One or two years ago, I read Jonathan Lehrer's "How We Decide" and found it very, very interesting, and I suppose I was looking to repeat the experience with this work of three authors.

This time around, though, as the subtitle says ("A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions"), the emphasis is not so much on the neuro-scientific part of the process but on the practical application.

On that field, the book is doing very well. It shows a step-by-step procedure that can be followed for all kinds of decisions, whether they are of a personal nature or relate to one's professional life. Some parts of the process seem a bit more complicated and time-consuming than others, but later on it is explained that we should still strive to keep the whole thing simple and "know when to quit" - a very useful advice indeed!
I like the examples of how people have dealt with complex decisions. We meet, for instance, the Mather family who are faced with the question whether to move or renovate, something many of us have had to think about. Darlene, Drew and their son John reappear at the end of several chapters, applying that part of the process the chapter explained to their problem, and in the end they make a smart choice.

To avoid making this post overly long, let me just quote two short bits, one from the preface and one from towards the end:
We wrote Smart Choices to bridge the gap between how people actually do make decisions and what researches - including the three of us - have discovered over the last 50 years about how they should make decisions.

... always remember: the only way to exert control over your life is through your decision making. The rest just happens to you. Be proactive, take charge of your decision making, strive to make good decisions and to develop good decision-making habits. You'll be rewarded with a fuller, more satisfying life.
Oh, and there was one little paragraph that made me chuckle - it was as if the authors were saying their services (they all work in teaching and consulting institutions, companies and individuals regarding important decisions) were actually superfluous: 
Our advice: find someone to talk to about your decision problem - let your mouth start your mind. Once you get talking, you'll see connections you never saw before. All the better if you prepare for the session by jotting down notes beforehand. ... Often we find that our consulting clients benefit more from preparing to meet with us and from the self-generated insights that result from explaining their problem than from any direct advice.
And on this amusing note, my review ends here, and I'll move to what I found when I first opened the book: A book marker from a library in a place I've never heard of (see picture).
Things like that intrigue me, and my mind instantly starts to spin a story around the book, the library that once handed out these book markers, and the previous reader of the book. Finding out about the library was the easiest bit - a quick internet search lead me to their home page: http://www.belvoirmwr.com/Facilities/Library/
But who was Van Noy? And how did the book make the long journey from Fort Belvoir to my book shelf in a small town in South Germany?

That is, of course, a different story :-)

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Taking a Break

As mentioned earlier this month, there is still some catching up to do (yes, I still want to tell you more about the GamesCom and write about Patience, and Gratitude, and some other stuff such as Lost in Time and Space), but tomorrow afternoon, RJ and I will board the plane that is supposed to take us to Mallorca (or Majorca, as the island is probably named on your maps if you are neither German nor Spanish).

Ever since I have started on the new job on the 2nd of May, I have not had a proper break - the week in Cologne was too exhausting to count as a break, and although I am by no means stressed out (that's the great thing about my job: I can pace my tasks as I see them necessary, and even though I am employed, it often feels as if I am self-employed, or working free-lance, with no boss constantly looking over my shoulder. And believe me, I do work, even though urban legend has it that I do nothing but sunbathe on my window sill all day, coffe mug in hand), it will be nice to add another week to The Summer We Did Not Have, and have no worry in the world except for getting up in time so as not to miss breakfast.

Pukky will take care of everything here (well, she will have some help from my parents; she does not have thumbs, after all - which reminds me, have you ever had the chance to read my short story, "How the Cat Lost Its Thumbs"? - oh, look, I'm doing it again - digressing... just goes to show, I really can do with a break!).

And you can be certain my camera will be going with me!

Regarding Mallorca as a place for vacation - I have never been there, and must confess I have lots of prejudice against it. Every time someone asks me where I'm going, I hesitate to tell them and feel almost as if I had to publicly admit that I am an avid reader of Germany's BILD paper (which I am NOT) - the BILD being the equivalent of the UK's SUN (sorry, don't know the equivalent for other countries; just imagine the worst tabloid piece possible). And then, every time I do admit that I am going, in fact, to Mallorca, I get the same reaction: Everonye invariably tells me what a great place they've heard (or experienced) the island is, as long as one does not go to the infamous place where the sunburnt Brits and Germans drink Sangria from buckets (I am not kidding you!) through long straws and are drunk non-stop for the entire duration of their stay.

Just as you can be certain that I'll take my camera, you can be certain that I am not going to drink Sangria at all (don't like the stuff), let alone with a straw out of a bucket. Instead, RJ and I are looking forward to walks on the beach and in the nature reserve close to the village where we are staying, the occasional dip in the Mediterranean (if it is warm enough for my liking) or the hotel pool, and generally doing NOTHING.

So, until next week Wednesday or so, I'll say good-bye!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Walk With Me

Last time I took you for a walk with me, most of you seemed to quite enjoy that, and so, if you like, you are welcome to join me again - this time, for a longer walk, so this post will beome a bit long with more pictures than what I usually post.

By now, I think all of my readers know about my parents' allotment - I have certainly mentioned it often enough here recently :-)
And almost exactly a year ago, my mum and I did just what we did yesterday: take the train from our home town to the town closest to where the allotment is, and walk the rest. You can compare the pictures from a year ago to current ones here.

This time, though, I wanted to document more of the actual walk, and show you who we met on our way.
Shall we set off, then?

Starting out maybe half a mile after the train station, towards the vineyards. Look at that glorious cloudless sky!

 These will be turned into Trollinger. For now, they just need a few more such sunny days!

We met this fellow in the vineyards. He wasn't bothered at all and simply walked away calmly when we got too close for his liking.



 Just some shots of the vineyards. I love those old dry stone walls.

 Reaching the top of the slope, a bench awaits those who need a break (we didn't, not yet).

What an abundance of apples! I hope they'll get picked and won't be left to rot, as sadly sometimes is the case when people can't be bothered to look after their orchards.

 On we walk across the sunlit fields...

 ...down through a little valley and uphill again...
 ...and from the top of the hill, we can already see the village where, a bit further out, the allotment is.

 We take to the right...
 ...and at the bottom of the hill we meet some horses:


 Walking on towards the village...


 ...and to the bridge that leads into the village, crossing a river called Murr.

 It is not deep enough for boats, at least not here, which is partly responsible for it being so clean and healthy.

Healthy enough for trouts! Can you spot them? There is one very clearly visible towards the top right corner of the picture, but if you look closely, you will find lots more.

 The heron patiently waits for some careless trout swimming his way.

Almost exactly a year ago, my mum took a picture of me at almost exactly the same spot. A lot has happened since then!

 Coming into the village.
 Entrance to their Town Hall, built in 1580.

 A typical house for this area.
 We cross the village...
 ...and get out at the other end...
 ...past more vineyards.


 These geese were not too keen on having their picture taken!

 But the beautiful flowers (are these called Morning Glory in English?) didn't mind.

 More uphill - but this is the last bit, there's only another 15 minutes or so to walk from here.

Not going past without saying hello to the donkeys! They are very friendly, obviously used to being treated kindly by humans, and their fur is very well groomed.

 Right! Last bit uphill...
 Almost there!
This is the path in the allotment area, my parents' is the second to last off the right side.
All in all, the walk had, once again, taken us about 2 hours for the 10 or so kilometers, at a leisurely pace, with two short breaks and some photo stops.
We were ready for coffee and cake now!

 The fig tree is still here (see last year's post).

 And so are the flowers...
 ...apples...
 ...raspberries...
 ...and peppers. My dad grows black, green and red ones.

View from the bottom of the garden towards the patio; you can just about make out the blue table cloth on the table where we sat for our coffee.

I am so glad that I spent this beautiful day mostly outdoors - we didn't have that many this summer, and who knows how many more there will be before it turns too cold for such a long walk.