Sunday, January 29, 2006

But baby it's cold outside - part 2

Halfway I saw this and thought of you, Karen. :-)

I don't know what it was saying, because at that point my mp3 was still working and I had Stewart singing into my ear. It's unlikely that the trees in this forest are marked to denote boundaries. The whole place belongs to the city of Cologne. Maybe it's a way for the forest warden to single out trees that are special?

I finally reached the small lake. Like the large one, it has frozen up.

The only thing that's missing is a sign: "Yes, we have vacancies":

By now the battery in my mp3 had died on me and I could hear a funny noise. A bit like a sonar or the songs of humpback whales. The little lake is clearly too small to be the home of one of those, so I looked around for the source of it. But after I had circled the lake a couple of times it was clear there was no artificial source. So I finally decided that it was the ice itself that was making the noise. What could be the reason? The lake is articifial, there are no natural banks. So as the ice grows it hits the wall that surrounds the lake and this causes it to break up. And while it breaks, it makes a noise. Does that sound plausible?

More swans and ducks in the little lake. They are beautiful and they know it.

But baby it's cold outside - part 1

Me and my shadow ventured out this morning to run in -4°C for 140 minutes (for the record: slow pace, about 15.5km). I am sooo proud of "us"!

I took the camera with me and made stops to take some pictures until unfortunately the battery was too low. I did not want my pulse to come down too much during these photo stops, so some of themmay be out of focused, because they were taken in a hurry. But I will put them here nevertheless. But there are so many of them, that I will split this post in two.

It was a beautiful morning, cold and bright, a clear blue sky.

The ground is frozen and there a patches of ices on the ground everywhere. I am not accident-prone, but this morning I kept my eyes to the ground more than I usually do. I may have missed some nice picture opportunities because of that...

The swans, ducks and other waterfowl have found the only spot in the large lake, that is not covered by ice. Or is it ice-free because of the birds? What came first, the egg or the hen?

Someone is feeding them frozen vegetables. Swans and ducks eat tomatoes? You live and learn.

There is not much people can go in for winter sports in our neck of the woods. Ice skating on the frozen lakes, for example.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

I am many animals

Yesterday at work we had a seminar on "behavioural studies". According to the guy who ran it there are four main types of behaviour. To visualise these he used animals: there is the lion, the owl, the horse and the monkey. If you are a lion, you are dominant, a risk taker and determined. Owls are meticulous, law-abiding and love detail. If you are a horse, you work hard, avoid conflicts and don't like to be the centre of attention. The monkeys on the other hand seek attention, are messy and unpunctual. Of course, there was much more to be said about each animal, but I have forgotten already. Apparently nobody is just one or the other of the above. But most people's behaviour will be dominated by one or two of the four styles. Each participant took a test to see which animal he or she is most. I am all four with almost equal percentages. Does this mean I am neither fish nor flesh or a Jack-of-all-trades? Apparently people like me are perfect team players and can do every job. (If you are predominately an owl, you are a perfect accountant, but a lousy salesperson.) I guess, that's good.

And today I found out, that I am also a camel. I bought new trainers and something that is called a "camel bak" (yes, it is spelt with a "k"). It looks a bit like a rucksack, but it is a drinking device developed originally for cyclists, who need to keep their hands on the handle bar. You carry the reservoir on the back and drink through a valve. I bought this because during the marathon it will be very important that I drink enough water. Currently I find it very hard to drink while I am running. It doesn't matter whether it's out of small bottles, large bottles or paper cups. The camel bak is the last and hopefully not futile attempt to solve this problem.

And of course, Mr Cat had to inspect this latest addition to our household immediately! Nothing escapes his notice...

Training results

This morning I was back at ZeLD, the centre for performance diagnostics, which is part of the University of Sports in Cologne. Those sports scientists have set up my training schedule for the London marathon and today we wanted to see how effective it has been so far.

I had to repeat the performance test that I took in September 2005 before the training started. The test monitors the heart rate, respiration and lactate at gradually increased running pace. I had to run on the treadmill for 5 minutes, wearing a respiratory mask and a pulse watch, both connected to a computer. When the 5 minutes were up, my trainer took a blood sample to check the lactate (he enjoyed that ... little vampire ... I am sure somewhere in his family tree there is Count Dracula). After that I had to run for another 5 minutes, only faster. And again, even faster. And so on, until I couldn't go on anymore.

The measured values are processed by a special software and a lot of fascinating ratios are calculated. Being a mathematician, I love the output! Lots of tables, charts and ratios!

I have entered the measured values for heart rate and lactate from both September 2005 and today in Excel. As jpegs the graphs do not look as good as I thought they would, but you can get an idea of where I have improved and where I haven't. The blue line is the heart rate, the pink line is the lactate.

This is September 12th, 2005:

And this is today, January 19th, 2006:

You can see that the heart rate is almost unchanged, which surprised my trainer a bit. The lactate is lower now at the slower paces than it was in September, but we haven't managed to push this "to the right". A very unscientific way to say that I am currently not able to run long distances fast. So my trainer is going to revise the training schedule to improve my staying power at higher speed.

Overall I have managed to reduce the estimated time needed for the marathon by 20 minutes in about 4 months. If I was going to run the marathon today, it would take me 4 hours, 30 minutes and 37 seconds. He thinks, we can further improve that by some 10 to 15 minutes. Now that's not bad, is it? My ambition was not to die and to run it in less than 5 hours. Looks like that can be done...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

In bloom

I bought tulips on Sunday. At least I think that's what they are (avowing myself a complete ignoramus when it comes to botany). They have started to bloom...

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The cat - up close and personal

I sneaked up close to him, when he was a bit sleepy to take some pictures. When he is wide awake, I don't get a chance. I have taken numerous close-ups of his nose pressed against the lens...

From this close you can see that he is not a spring chicken anymore. But when he was young, he must have been a wild one. Look at his ear... The other one doesn't look much better. I bet, he left some permanent marks on his adversaries as mementos.

His foot seems to be ok again. You can see the claw that now permanently sticks out on his left foot. Doesn't seem to bother him, though.

No Strings Attached

Yesterday evening a newly qualified actuary and a newly qualified CIFAS went to listen to no strings attached's programme divide and conquer, renaissance music for string quartets.

It was wonderful. The concert took place in our dojo again. The mats, that we normally train on, were piled up to serve as low seats. The light was soft and just about bright enough for the musicians to read their music. I have heard no strings attached play a couple of times now and I love the "living room" kind of atmosphere of their concerts. Their performance is easy and unconstrained, there is none of the pretentiousness that classical concerts often have. Inbetween the pieces the band explains what you are about to hear and gives a bit of background information or - if their the song has lyrics - they'll read them out or summarise what they are about.

If you visit their website, there is a section called Musik, where you can listen to snippets of live recordings. It's worth it! Check out pounding down the brews, a programme of Irish and English drinking songs.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Project "Home Improvement"

Project "Home Improvement" is one my new year's resolutions. When we moved in here about three years ago, a couple of things - like the curtains - were left by the previous tenant. This was meant to be an interim solution...

It is probably going to take the whole year to make all the changes "necessary", but at least the project has started! New curtains have been found and ordered.

And today I bought a couple of plants for the bathroom. The bathroom is very large and also light, because it has a big window.
I have always thought that it would be nice to have some green stuff in there, too. The best plants for bathrooms are succulent and I have chosen a smaller ripsalis

and a zamioculea. I like the look of the young leaves that are still rolled up. The green is so much lighter. It will be fun to watch them unfold. I hope they don't do so over night.

Good news and bad news

The good news today is that I have passed the final exam of my further training. I am now a Certified International Financial Accounting Specialist. Hallelujah! And Pascale has passed her last actuarial exam (the one where I supervised her), so she is a fully-fledged actuary now! Congratulations!!!

The bad news is that I have lost my pedometer. It's the icing on the cake of my week! I have not been well for a couple of days, unable to continue my marathon training, tired, miserable... Now that the ped is gone, it feels like I have lost a limb. I have worn it every day, to control that I do at least 10,000 steps. Now it's gone and I miss it... It was like a tamagotchi (I never owned a tamagotchi, so I am just guessing). Until I get a new one I have deactivated my membership at
Nicki Waterman, otherwise Nicki would flood my inbox with emails reminding my to enter my steps. She can be very persistent! But she is also a great motivator. I did not expect much, when I joined. Certainly not "personal training". But it is actually good value for money, at least for me. I found, what I was looking for.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Bye-bye, Tom

Today was Tom's last day in the office. He is going back to Dublin after two years in Germany. A sad day indeed. I really enjoyed working with him (he is frightfully clever) and he is also fun to go out with. After a couple of pints he will break into song, his repertoire a daring combination of Irish folk songs and German carnival songs.

He is leaving with an addiction to German coarse rye bread. Which is why we gave him two packs of it as a farewell present (plus some souvenirs of Cologne, all of which had the Cathedral on it; is there nothing else here worth remembering?). We will probably have to send monthly "Care" parcels to ensure he doesn't suffer from withdrawal sydrome.

I think this is only fair. When I moved back here from England, I was (and still am) addicted to prawn cocktail flavoured crisps. I became a vegetarian soon after moving back here, which could potentially have meant a moral conflict for me. But you and I may rest assured, prawn cocktail flavoured crisps have never been anywhere near a prawn. They are 100% artificially flavoured and hence suitable for vegetarians. Phew!

Well, he is leaving Cologne, but he is not leaving the company, so our paths will definitely cross again. See you soon, Tom!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The wine club gets scientific

Once a month a couple of wine enthusiasts meet in the cellar of a restaurant which is probably better known for its wine-cellar than the food that is served there (although it was rather favourably reviewed in the Gault Millau 2005). The owner is an acknowledge wine expert, who has written a couple of books about wine and has had the odd tv appearance.

Usually we discuss a vine variety or a producing region. This, of course, requires us to taste several different wines. And like experts we tilt the glass to check the colour, swivel the glass to smell the aroma, take a sip to taste the flavours and ... spit it out? Well, sometimes.

Yesterday however the subject matter was mildly off topic and somewhat scientific. The shape, size and color of a wine glass can affect your perception of the wine that's contained in it. We wanted to find out, just how much of a difference the glass can make. This is an interesting point, since lately you could get the impression that glasses need to have a unique size and shape for almost every wine variation or even vintage. This is clearly exaggerated, but where do you draw the line? After intensive testing we unsurprisingly concluded that the right glass does not turn plonk into choice wine. But it can influence your overall appraisal of the wine you are drinking.

Our experiment consisted of five different glasses: an ordinary water glass, the INAO glass, two different “white wine” glasses and two different “red wine” glasses. We tried four different wines; each one was poured into all of the glasses we tested (one at a time, of course). The result was astonishing. I expected the glass to have some effect, but was amazed to see just how much of a difference it can make!

The smell of a wine depends on the ratio of surface area and volume and hence strongly on the shape of the glass. Depending on how large the surface area of the wine in the glass is and thus how much of it is exposed to oxygen, different aromas and flavours can be more prominent.

The taste of the wine is determined by the way the wine flows onto the tongue and parts of the palate. This in turn depends largely on the rim of the glass. So wine can taste either sweeter (the taste buds for sweet are at the tip of the tongue) or more sour (taste buds in the middle and at the sides of the tongue) depending on which part is flooded first or most.

There are no “official” sizes or shapes of wine glasses you have to use to serve it the "proper" way. How many different glasses you actually "need", depends on your individual taste. If you do not want to be the next Robert Parker or Hugh Johnson, there is an all-purpose glass you can use for all wines. This used to be the INAO glass:

But nowadays sommeliers and other professionas use the "Chianti" glass made by Riedel:

If you are more of wine enthusiast, you probably want to have at least different glasses for white and red wine. Traditionally wine glasses with larger, broader bowls are used for bold red wines with bigger bouquets, and narrower wine glasses are used to concentrate the more delicate aromas of lighter white wines. (Yes, I "stole" this last sentence from someone else on the internet.)

If you speak German and are interested to read more about this, check out Thomas Vilgis' article “Turbulenzen hinter dem Glasrand”, published in “Häuptling eigener Herd”, issue 25. It’s both informative and entertaining.

“Häuptling kleiner Herd”, which translates into "Chief Little Stove”, is an interesting publication in general. It calls itself the only "culinary combat organ with jacket text" (it's a quarterly). You can get it from
Buch Gourmet or go directly to the bookshop of the same name, if you live in Cologne. They claim to be the oldest bookshop that also sells second-hand books and is dedicated exclusively to cookbooks.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Birthday brunch

Today I was invited to Yvonne's birthday brunch. She and her husband Peter are my Aikido teachers. So naturally there were lots of Aikidoka present. We managed to talk about other things than Aikido though.

This is a picture of Peter, taking a picture of me, taking a picture of him, taking a picture of me, taking a picture...

Years ago he bought this beautiful sitar in India:

I love the ornamentation on it. I guess the white piece at the bottom, through which the chord runs, is made of ebony. Not sure about the inlays. And finally, this is Olli trying to look like he knows what he's doing:

The new watchman

This little fellow is guarding my neighbour's garden now...

He is only about 30 cm tall. I think that's about 12 inches.

Friday, January 06, 2006

My week in sports

Since Monday I have run a total of 390 minutes (or 45.6 km). The only day that I did not run was Tuesday, because that's my Aikido day. The Flora London Marathon 2006 newsletter issue no. 9 from last week said: "by now you should be exercising at least 20 minutes a day, twice a week". Mmmh....

There was an article about running marathons in one of the Sunday newspapers last week. It said that the healthy thing about running a marathon is not the marathon itself, but training for it. It also said that it's quite dangerous. Again and again, young and apparently very fit runners die during the marathon. The main reasons are undiagnosed heart problems, running too soon after an illness and ... doping. The organisers of the Berlin marathon offer a "pre-marathon clinic" just before the race. Last year about 800 people made use of that, 170 of which were told they shouldn't run. I don't use doping (unless coffee counts), but I have never had my heart checked. I really don't want to die, so I will go and see a doctor before the race.

And my football club finally has a new manager. They fired the old one before Christmas and it took quite a while to find a new one. His name is Hanspeter Latour and he is Swiss. I have to admit that I had never heard of him before. But the first impression is good. Now all we need is some good new players and a bit of luck.

First close-ups

Ok, so here they are. My first close-ups. They are pathetic but I have a couple of excuses. Firstly my hand wasn't steady because I had just come back from running 130 minutes (or 14.4 km) and was knackered. And secondly the light isn't very good at the moment, both inside and outside the house (yes, I carried the plant outside to see if that would give a better picture). If you want to know, where the sun has gone, check out Rurality. It's obviously on holiday in Alabama!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Cat update

The cat is doing fine again! He spends most of his time lying on an old blanket on the sofa. As the vet predicted, he cannot retract the claw in the damaged toe. It's the middle one of that paw, so he is now permanently doing "the Effenberg", giving the world the finger.

Oh, and the picture has been taken from an unfavourable angle! He is not really THAT fat, only slightly overweight. And he is very big. One day I will measure him.


Brittlestar, soon-to-be the biggest Canadian act ever (watch out, Celine Dion! :-)), have released an EP called Pirates. It is a limited edition of 100 copies only! Mine is already #89, so hurry and order your copy at Brittlestar before they are sold out.

I have listened to it quite a bit over the last couple of days, mainly while I was doing the washing up (yes, there is a new cd player in the kitchen) and here is my two cents worth:

There are two new songs on it, called Pirates and The Wrong Girl. These are not the best Brittlestar songs I have heard (after listening to Waiting a lot over Christmas that's definitely Gasoline and The Long Weekend; oh yes, and I have made my peace with Passion Is A Hard Thing To Conceal - I still don't like the way it starts and think "passion" is pronounced in a funny way, but the rest of the song is actually very good), but they are good. I especially like the guitar on Pirates. That rocks.

In addition Stewart has covered one of Stephen Duffy's songs, The Darkest Blue from The Ups and Downs album. You can imagine that, being a Duffy fan, I was very sceptic, when I read this. I only bought The Ups and Downs a short while ago to further complete my collection. It is definitely not my favourite Duffy "opus", but The Darkest Blue is one of the better songs on it. The Brittlestar version is - in Andreas' categories for cover songs - a 2b. That is a cover that is more or less a re-recording of the original, perhaps with more modern instrumentalisation or sound, but on the whole nothing new and in the same league as the original. Not bad at all, Stewart (says the patronising me). I wonder, what Stephen thinks of it.

Finally there is yet another version of Goodbye on this EP. It's not as good as the original version, but has an interesting orchestral sound to it.

Any minute now

The Cologne zoo is expecting the birth of an elephant. The mother-to-be is called Kwaing Luin Htoo; she is an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) like all the others here. The Cologne zoo only last year opened the largest elephant enclosure north of the Alps. It comes with all mod cons, apart from freedom.

Since December 27th, 2005 Kwaing Luin Htoo has been having contractions (imagine that! a whole week!). You can watch how she is doing on the Elefantcam of WDR television. Looks like it could happen any minute now!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy birthday!

Today is not just the birthday of the new year, but also my brother's. He is 43 today. Happy birthday to both of you!

To celebrate my brother invited the family to lunch in one of our favourite restaurants. When we arrived there, we found it closed. So we decided to take a bit of a walk to another one. It was ... closed. Eventually we ended up in a place that did not look too promising (vegetarian selection on the menu almost non-existent), but we were pleasantly suprised. The food was very nice! Which proves again that you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover.

While we were walking through town in search of an open restaurant, we came past this house:

It's been built in a style typical for this part of the country. The green shutters are typical for this type of house. The front, where the entrance is, is covered in schistose (I hope that's the correct geological term). On the rest of the house you can see the timber-framed style called "Fachwerk". You will also find houses that are either completely covered in schistose or "Fachwerk" all over. I noticed this one, because of the mix. I think, it's quite beautiful.

Since I got my camera, I am constantly looking for photo opportunities. It's addictive.