Friday, January 31, 2014

Happy Chinese New Year!

Today, January 31, 2014 is the first day of the new lunar year according to the Chinese calendar.  The Chinese Zodiac (according to most Chinese restaurant placemats and confirmed by Wikipedia) has twelve figures, each corresponding to a year.  The Western Zodiac calendar (Aries, Taurus, Scorpio, etc.) also has twelve characters, but they are each assigned a month.  In the Chinese twelve-year cycle, we are finishing the Year of the Snake and beginning the Year of the Horse.  The Snake will return in 2025 and the Horse will cycle back in 2026.  People born under each of these Chinese signs are supposed to have traits related to their Zodiac animal, and affinities to people of each of the other specific signs.

From our event program:

"Horse-born people are high-spirited and lively.  Their vivacity and enthusiasm make them very popular.  With a deft sense of humor, Horses are masters of repartee.  They love to take center stage and delight audiences everywhere.  Sometimes rash and wilful, they can be prone to rapid changes of mood and, although seldom really explosive of temper, when they do see red, it is not a pretty sight.  Those who have suffered a Horse's rage will never feel quite the same about him again."

What event?  What program?

Program cover from Chinese New Year Festival in Dublin, Ireland 2014
This Program
We were fortunate and blessed to be invited by a member of the UCD Chinese student community to a celebration of Chinese culture and Chinese-Irish political relations at the National Concert Hall.  The event was organized and put on by the Chinese New Year Festival Committee.  Ireland has a large Chinese population (90,000 plus) and is culturally richer for it.  With such a sizeable community, Ireland (specifically Dublin) and her residents have access to Chinese art, food, and culture thanks to the support of the Chinese population.

The program began with a chorus of local students singing a traditional Irish song and a traditional Chinese song back-to-back.  After the welcome by the emcees (in English and Chinese) a performance troupe from Liaoning Province in China took the stage with some amazing, artistic, beautiful, and captivating performances.

Watercolor Horse from the Program of Chinese New Year celebration in Dublin 2014
Watercolor Horse from the Program
A group of dancers in elaborate and brightly-colored dress gave a series of dances throughout the night.  Their first dance, "The Harvest" introduced the audience to the eight-pointed handkerchief, which is tossed, juggled, and spun to create flashy illusions.

Chinese Handkerchief

A later performance by the dancers displayed amazing balance and posture as they danced on shoes with raised heels... in the middle of the shoe.

After the first dance, we were introduced to the acrobats and contortionists.  The first performance was a duet performance of two incredibly strong and flexible acrobats performing slow-motion acts of body-shaping and balance, several times balancing one atop the other.  One of the acrobats returned later for a solo performance titled, "The Rolling Lights."  This performance began with more incredible body shaping and folding in ways that made the whole audience gasp involuntarily.  For the finale, her partner brought out candle holders with electric lights to balance.  By the end, the acrobat had five lights, one on each limb and one balanced on her forehead.  With these five lights balanced, she rolled, stretched, and finally stood straight up after her partner had retrieved all the lights but the one on her forehead.  All of it done slowly and very artistically.  Incredible.

Another team performance by a different team was "Handkerchief Magic."  This act began with what I can only assume was a stand-up comedy act in Chinese.  The performer was dynamic and entertaining even if I couldn't understand the language.  His talent (besides the stand-up routine) was handkerchief spinning, which he did with larger and larger pieces with the help of his partner, until he needed to stand on two chairs to be high enough to spin (and keep spinning) a blanket-sized handkerchief.

I had never heard of the next kind of Chinese illusionism before last night, face changing.  This ancient art, performed in traditional Chinese opera, is a dance in which the performer wears brightly-colored masks- and using sleight-of-hand, switches masks throughout the performance.  The illusionist wears a cape and carries a fan, and uses these as misdirections and distractions as she runs, twirls, and makes mask changes faster than the eye can see.

The emcees introduced each act and filled the time between stage transitions with interpretations and descriptions of the artists we were watching.  One was Irish and the other Chinese, but both spoke English and Chinese, so everyone in the audience could understand and participate.  The year of the horse was referenced again and again as important for Ireland because of the popularity and high quality of horse breeding and horse racing here.  I had a feeling (as I often do at Irish events) that some of the jokes and references, particularly some those to horse racing on this night, went right over my head.  The Chinese emcee taught and practiced with the audience a phrase in Chinese meaning "swift luck" in English or, directly- "Luck when the horse comes in."  There's another horse reference, and the Irish emcee couldn't help but make a subtle reference to luck and horse race betting.  Even I could pick up that reference.

Building to the end of the show, two masters of Kung-Fu took the stage for an exhibition of this popular martial art in jumps, kicks, and hand-strikes.  Following that was a musical performance on the Suona, a traditional Chinese instrument much like a Western oboe, with a double reed and tone holes for fingering.  Unlike the oboe, the Suona has a wide brass bell, contributing to its very loud, bright, and projecting sound.  My music training was all been focused on Western music, so I was unfamiliar with this instrument, but I (and I'm sure most readers will) recognized the sound of the instrument as the melody voice in music played in Chinese restaurants- my total exposure to Chinese music and culture before this performance, unfortunately.

Here's a YouTube clip of another suona soloist.  Recognize that sound?

The dance troupe who had opened the night gave the final performance, a dance dedicated to the history and future of China.  After one more try at our new phrase in Chinese, the emcees wished us a good night and a happy Chinese New Year.  It was a great end to a great night.

Many thanks to the CNY committee, National Concert Hall, and our generous friend for the tickets.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Natural History Museum

On a recent (and rainy) trip to city centre, we made a stop to a museum we had kept hearing about but hadn't had time to stop in.  The National Museum of Ireland Natural History Museum is housed in the suite of buildings around Leinster House- home of the modern Irish Parliament.  The building of the museum itself was constructed in 1856 to display the collection of the Royal Dublin Society, then headquartered in nearby Leinster House.  The museum, being part of the fantastic (and free!) National Museum of Ireland is well-run, clean, and informative.

Just inside the front door are the real stars of the museum.  The full skeletal remains of three Giant Irish Deer stand regally and imposingly facing the entrance hallway.  These animals lived on this island and other parts of Northern Europe until about 10,000 years ago.  The antlers of these huge mammals have roughly the same size and shape of those of a full-grown bull moose (more on him later.)  What an animal this must have been to behold in prehistoric Europe.

Giant Irish Deer at the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Giant Irish Deer
Sara knows I love seeing seals in the wild here.  I totally geek out whenever we are on a coast and I get even a hint of these cute sea mammals.  She called me away from staring at the predatory bird display to say, "Hey Buddy!" to this spotted little guy.

A stuffed seal on display at the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Stuffed Seal
Yes, the predatory birds exhibit waited for me.  After all, the animals in here have been stuffed for decades.  They'd still be there.  The birds exhibit (and many others from the museum) don't have a photo in this post- because we aren't uninhibited photo-machine-gunners.  A comprehensive museum like this with thousands of displays of all sizes would take hours or days to catalogue thoroughly.  Further, if we were that determined to collect photos, would we actually get to see any of the exhibits?  I mean, actually see them, not look at them through the camera display to do a double check of the zoom and focus.  Case in point-  I was looking at a large sea eagle (there's that raptor display again...) carefully.  I was leaning in to examine the length of the talons, the size of the wingspan, the shine in the eyes, and the variations in feather color.  When I stepped to the side, two younger museum-goers walked up to the display while having a conversation.  Each had a smartphone in hand.  Without really looking at the bird, both pointed the smartphones at the display and snapped a shot- without interrupting the (unrelated) conversation.  They checked the photo for focus (on the phone screen) and moved on, chatting all the while.

I wasn't disturbed or annoyed, mind you.  They weren't loud or obnoxious in their conversation, and they waited for me to step aside before moving in to take their pictures.  I just found myself wondering if they had actually appreciated the bird they had thought enough of to capture in a photo.  Just not my kind of museum-going.

One of my goals while living here is to see a live wild hedgehog.  I know I'm not in a very good place to see them, as I've heard they usually live outside the bigger cities and are mostly nocturnal.  This day I was happy just to see one of these native mammals that so fascinate me- even being from the land of raccoons, skunks, and opossums.

A stuffed hedgehog at the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
The ground floor of the museum is mostly dedicated to animals native to Ireland- both living and extinct.  From birds and mammals we continued to some of Cory's favorites- the fish.  Most of the fish were stuffed and mounted, but some (of extinct or threatened species) were models not created from a real organism.  I must register here my strong agreement with this responsible choice.  Taxidermy as a craft is mostly model-building anyway.  A well-constructed model of these organisms (as these were) gives the viewer a more-than-satisfactory idea of their size, shape, color, and characteristics.

Cory Checkin' out the Fish at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, Ireland
Cory Checkin' out the Fish
Not pictured for reasons stated above, the ground floor continues with displays of other aquatic and marine life, even (admirably) the not-as-beautiful-but-just-as-important-to-an-ecosystem organisms like worms, mollusks, shellfish, and other invertebrates.  The displays of preserved insects and spiders were covered with liftable leather covers- presumably to prevent light damage.

Thinking of responsible stewardship of wild animal populations... The next floor(s) house animals of the world beyond Ireland.  Just inside the entrance, a stuffed giant panda from nearly 100 years ago welcomes visitors.  Pandas, critically threatened and closely guarded by the Chinese government today, were apparently not so in the early twentieth century.  The specimen here in the museum was collected by missionaries to China and was one of the first stuffed pandas to reach museums in the western world.

Further down the floor, we are reminded that some threatened animal populations are still being poached and irresponsibly managed.  The rhinoceros in the photo below has had its horn removed to prevent its theft for sale on the black market.  Rhinos are still commonly poached and horns cut off for sale for their mythical medicinal properties.  Researches have found absolutely no evidence of these black magic remedies improving any medical condition.  These horns are, chemically speaking, one large, thick hair or fingernail.  Wanna grind up some finger and toenails into your healing potion?  Write me and I'll send you some of my own clippings.

In the meantime, a prosthetic replacement horn is being constructed for the rhino specimen in the museum.  Good on you, museum curator.  Bad on you, rhino poachers- and you, too, museum rhino horn thieves!

Rhino Waiting for a Nose Job at the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Rhino Waiting for a Nose Job
Near the temporarily hornless rhino is an elephant skeleton, with its record-setting tusk on display below.  Apparently elephant tusk theft isn't as much a concern as rhino horn smuggling.  Good thing, too- it was an impressive specimen and would have been a shame to miss.

A large elephant tusk at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, Ireland
One of the largest elephant tusks ever collected
Above the busy displays on the upper floor, I almost missed the huge whale skeletons as my eyes were darting from strange mammal to strange mammal in the central floor exhibits.  Humpback and fin whale skeletons hang over the floor case with the smaller members of the cetacean family- dolphins and porpoises.  Upon closer inspection, one can see the small vestigial bones of what were once the back legs of these marine mammals evolved from land mammals going back to the sea.  

Whale Skeletons hanging in the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Whale Skeletons
The specimens on this floor, as stated above, are collected from around the world.  Most of them are grouped by their families- Kangaroos and wallabies, anteaters, sloths, and others are shown with their relatives- sometimes both living and extinct.  I have to admit, though, among all those strange, new, and exotic animals, I had little nostalgic jolts every time I saw some of my favorite North American classics like raccoons and our buddy, bearded bull moose.

A moose on display at the National History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Don't mess with Texas Maine.
The animal displays were engaging and entertaining, of course, but I was brought many more big smiles watching some of the living human specimens in the museum- the kids.  Many young families were enjoying a Saturday out at the museum with the kids, and the kids could simply not get enough.  Mothers and fathers were often pulled in two or three different directions by their children desperate to get a closer look at that "Bear!" "Antelope!" "Elephant!" "...What is that!?"  I could imagine, and remember myself, some of that wonder and total euphoria felt by young kids around so many different animals.  They, the children are the real target audience of collections like this.  After all, they- the children- will be in charge of this world someday.  If we can educate them at a young age of the beauty, importance, and fragility of our natural systems- maybe the world won't have to worry about rhino poaching, overfishing, and habitat destruction.  Maybe I'm too optimistic...

For a more comprehensive look at the museum and its displays, get off this blog and go yourself!  It's convenient, it's free, and it's great.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Now Featured on Expats Blog Network

We here are proud to announce our new listing and affiliation with Expats Blog, an expat blogging community dedicated to serving current and soon-to-be expats.  The site links to blogs written by expats living in all corners of the world- from all corners of the world.  Tired of this American couple rambling on about their own narrow experience and viewpoint?  Try a blog by another American with a narrow viewpoint, or an Armenian, or and Australian.  The E.B. team update the site regularly with new blogs, forums, interviews and profiles of the bloggers, expat-related news stories, and yearly writing contests and blogging awards.

I suppose it should have stood to reason when we began this blog in April 2013 that expat blogging would be a popular phenomenon on the internet, but we continue to be surprised by the number and quality of amateur expat blogs and bloggers in our community, and we are happy to be a part of this richly diverse group.

If interested in Ireland expat blogging in general, check out the Ireland blog page.

To see our blog profile and leave a comment or review, here's the link to do so.

We've also added the Expats Blog badge to our Affiliates and Features page on the site.

Ireland expat blogs

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

RTE Orchestra Horizons Series II

One week to the day after a spectacular (and free!) concert featuring Rhona Clarke, I was back at the National Concert hall to see RTE National Symphony Orchestra in the second of four installments of the Horizons Contemporary Music Series.  This week- the work of Waterford-based Marian Ingoldsby.

The program of the afternoon:

"Coloured Time"

Marian Ingoldsby- Overture (1994)
Webern- Variations for Orchestra (1941)
Marian Ingoldsby- The Heron and the Weir (2008)
Takemitsu- How slow the Wind (1991)
Marian Ingoldsby- Dance (2014)- RTE Commission / World Premiere

Before the concert, the composer sat down with Contemporary Music Centre Director Evonne Ferguson.  The interview began with some reflections about how the composer's style and voice have changed in the 20 years since writing the first piece on the program, Overture, and what it feels like to hear one's own work performed after so many years.  Ms. Ingoldsby replied that her style in the earlier works was heavy on big splashes of color and contrast from the orchestra, and hearing it transports her back to some of her own thoughts, feelings, and worldview all those years ago.

Her second piece on the program, The Heron and the Weir was inspired in her own hometown of Carrick-on-Suir.  She would often see a heron when taking evening strolls on the river walk, and tried (successfully, I might add) to capture that image of serenity, especially with the strong and pleasing woodwind colors (there's my concert band director coming out again!)

When asked about her world premiere piece, Dance, she admitted that the title came after the composition was finished, so it wasn't written as any particular kind of dance.  The ever changing rhythmic character of the piece would make the dancing, to use her word, "wonky."  The piece is a major direction shift from the other (more minimalist) pieces on the program, with vibrant, energetic, and unpredictable rhythmic pulse.  She even quoted the irrepressible Monty Python- "...And now for something completely different."

Regarding the other pieces on the program (from the interview and from her program notes), the composer says of Webern, (paraphrase) 'He develops ideas and melodies so cleverly, even in a tone row.'  Variations is a piece of startling complexity and simplicity.

Embedded here is another performance of that same piece, done by the Berlin Philharmonic.  The recording of this performance is available from NOVA on RTE Lyric fm (link at bottom of this post.)

Webern (and some of his contemporaries) composed in the Serialist style.  A tone row functions like the scales that we all know and love, but is composed of (usually) all twelve notes, often in (seemingly) random order.  This gives Serialist music a very uncentered, unpredictable, and sometimes (intentionally) uncomfortable feel.  

With the Takemitsu piece, we continue the theme of minimalist, nature (and bird!)-inspired music.  How slow the Wind comes from an Emily Dickinson poem:

How slow the Wind-
how slow the sea-
how late their Feathers be!

Again embedded for convenience is a different orchestra recording of the piece.

This is another complex piece built of very simple themes (a six-note statement is revisited over and over again.) It is "simple complexity."  Only in art can we use phrases like that and get away with it.

The program performance was fantastic.  The composer constructed a great and refreshing lineup of contrasts in her own work and that of Webern and Takemitsu.  The final, world premiere of Dance was indeed a breath-taking, barn-burning, bold brash bruiser- and was, indeed, "Something completely different."  I always love sitting in on premieres of new music.  To think that I am among the audience who hears a piece of music performed for the first time, ever is something special.  To also think that the good people at RTE and CMC give me (and the rest of the audience) a chance to be a part of these special premieres for no cost is truly remarkable.  

A big personal "Thank you!" goes out from me to the following for a wonderful (and did I mention again free!?) concert (with links!)-

RTE Lyric fm and the Sunday night show, NOVA.  Check this link to listen to this concert in full.  

Two more free performances!  January 28 and February 4, 2014.  Check the links above for times and tickets.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Christmas in Cork: Christmas Day Walks

After our long, wet, gloriously fun slog through Cork on Christmas Eve, we were hoping for a little bit more sun for our Christmas Day jaunts around the (hopefully quiet) city.  Our hopes were answered when, on Christmas morning, it was... well, like Christmas!  The sun was streaming in through our window and a close-hugging ground mist over the river suggested just a bit of crisp bite in the air.

First, we had to tackle our stockings and gifts, wrapped in very Spartan materials.  Why buy rolls of gift wrap that we won't be able to use up?  Brown paper from shopping bags and white tissue paper from packing materials made wonderful, practical gift wrap for us.

Christmas Gifts in Cork
Christmas Gifts
Time for breakfast!  We weren't sure how full the B&B would be around the holiday, but the dining room suggested they were close to capacity.  Lively travelers chatted up and ate delicious breakfast all round the comfortable room.  We started with some coffee, scones, toast, cheese, and fruit.  That's right, started.  The menu was impressive, and we ordered up some hearty food to help keep us going on a day when few restaurants or shops would be open.  Pictured below is the Eggs Benedict and Full Irish Breakfast (Egg, bacon, sausage, potatoes, mushrooms, white and black pudding, and a fried tomato.)

Eggs Benedict and Full Irish Breakfast
Eggs Benedict and Full Irish Breakfast
After our warm and filling breakfast, we hit the door and emerged to a beautifully crisp, sunny winter morning. The morning light had that mind-winter characteristic low-light color, which gave the impression of being much earlier than it was.  The temperatures had dipped just below freezing overnight, and the river near the B&B was covered with a heavy, swirling mist in the warming air.

Mist on the River Lee South Fork in Cork, Ireland
Mist on the River

Obligatory Cory-Looking-At-The-Water Shot on the River Lee South Fork in Cork, Ireland
Obligatory Cory-Looking-At-The-Water Shot
We passed on the River one of the many references to Cork being a "Rebel County."  Some quick Wikipedia checks reveal (very briefly, I'm sure) this nickname goes back to the 15th century, but more recently, Cork and her people played a prominent role in the Irish War of Independence, and it was an anti-treaty stronghold during the Irish Civil War- fought just after the War of Independance.  We had seen a lot of Cork Rebel signage and references when we watched the Cork v. Clare Hurling match at a pub near Croke Park stadium.  The Cork fans streamed to the stadium waving their red Rebel flags.  Disturbingly, a fair few of them were displaying and wearing flags of the Confederate States of America.  I understand the connection to "Rebels" with these flags, but flying the confederate flags in the States today (despite the loud crying of an ignorant and backwards minority) is a clear signal of racism, separatism, and white superiority.  I hope assume the people who use these American rebel flags don't know what those flags stand for, and would stop if they knew their hateful and painful history.  Maybe I'm just too sensitive.

Cork Rebel Sings along the River Lee South Fork
Cork Rebel Sings
Just beyond the River Lee South Fork (off of The Island) we could see a large church just up the hill.  It was St. Fin Barre's Cathedral.  A worship center of the Church of Ireland, the building dates back to 1879.  The gray stone stood out wonderfully on this cool, blue Christmas morning.

St. Fin Barre's Cathedral- Cork Ireland
St. Fin Barre's Cathedral- Cork
At the top of the hill, we stumbled upon another of Cork's most famous and historic sites- the Elizabeth Fort.  On top of the South hill, overlooking the whole River Lee valley the fort was built as a protective fortress for the English governors of Cork.  It was originally built in 1601, but rebuilt after several sackings in various uprisings and coups.  Today the site is mostly preserved in the walls.  There are some exhibits (all closed for Christmas, of course) to be seen, but the main gate was open for a poke-around in the parking lot.

Interestingly, we found this site totally by accident- not having done much research about Cork before our visit.  The plaque in the photo below is apparently a popular place, as we saw pictures of some politicians visiting Cork posing with the same plaque we had just curiously found.

Cory at Elizabeth Fort Cork, Ireland
Cory at Elizabeth Fort
Coming down from the hill of, we again crossed the South Fork of the river and snapped another photo of St. Fin Barre's from a distance.  The mist was mostly cleared by this time, but notice the church is slightly faded as the last of the fog was burned away by the (almost midday) sun.

View from the South Fork River Lee Cork, Ireland
View from the South Fork
We've already mentioned Beamish Stout, and we took a stroll past the historic brewery in which it is produced.  The brewery is open for tours, but not on Christmas Day.  

Beamish Brewery Cork, Ireland
Beamish Brewery
The narrow lanes around Patrick street, so busy with traffic, shoppers, and street performers on Christmas Eve, were nearly empty and silent on Christmas morning.  We had the neighborhood almost to ourselves.  Shops were quiet- except for the radio speaker in the doorway of one department store.  On a normal day, the music of that small radio would only be heard just outside the doorway, but in the quiet of the Christmas Day streets it could be heard echoing for a square block all around.  

A Murphy's Stout Sign on a pub in Cork, Ireland
Murphy's Stout Sign Dwarfing that of Guinness
We made our way to the River Lee proper and crossed the bridge to the North bank of the river.  On the bridge, we saw what I thought was one of the highlights of the trip, because I am a water-creature-nerd.  A big lump popped out of the river a ways from the bridge.  The photos we took were difficult because of the great distance and the angle, but the naked eye could see clearly- a seal.  Awesome.  After living in landlocked Iowa for so long, I still can't shake the novelty of living in a place where a sea mammal might just pop up into town as if to say,  "Merry Christmas!"

A seal pops up for air in the River Lee, Cork, Ireland
Hey Buddy!
 Nothing springs the appetite like a few hours (and a few miles) of walking on a cold, clear day.  We were ready for our Christmas feast, mostly purchased at the English Market the day before.  We tucked in to the cured meats, bread, cheeses and wine while we connected with some family members Stateside via video chat.

Meat, Cheese, Wine, and Everything Nice
Meat, Cheese, Wine, and Everything Nice
After our feast, we were again a bit restless.  We had warmed up, eaten some great food, enjoyed some great wine, sipped some hot tea, and there wasn't anything good on BBC or RTE- so we decided to take another (shorter) walk around town to see the city at night.

Cork Christmas Lights on Christmas Night
Cork Christmas Lights
Wow!  Were we ever glad we took that night walk.  Just like Dublin, Cork dresses its streets up with lights, trees, and decorations for the holiday.  On Christmas night, all the locals were inside enjoying the holiday with family and all the tourists were too full of food and drink to bother with the cold night- so we again had the streets almost to ourselves.  There were a few other people out who looked like they were just out to photograph the Christmas lights.  Smart plan, with the streets empty and quiet.  These clever devils could set up tripods in the middle of Patrick Street and take long-exposure night photos with no trouble.  We made a mental note to do the same thing next year, no matter where we spend Christmas!

Light ornaments on the street in Cork, Ireland on Christmas night
Tommy and Gap take the beauty from the scene...
Try to ignore them

Christmas Tree in Cork Ireland on Christmas night
Christmas Tree in Cork
After a pleasant walk to stretch ourselves out, we made our way back to the B&B.  The temperature had once again dipped below freezing, and the sidewalk along the South Fork was very slippery.  With the cold temperatures returned the mist over the river.  The fast current threw the fog up in big playful swirls and twirls.

Christmas Night Mist on River Lee South Fork in Cork, Ireland
Christmas Night Mist

At last, we had returned to the warm B&B.  We were to make our trip back to Dublin the next day, but we knew even then that this would be a Christmas that we would treasure forever.  Cork is a beautiful city, and we were sorry to leave it- but isn't that how one should always travel?  "Always leave 'em wanting more" is the phrase, and we believe it also fits with travel planning.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I'll Play Adventure Island 3: World 2

After a very long break, I finally got around to making the next world video on Adventure Island 3.  I've learned a lot about making Let's Play videos since way back then, so I may re-record the first world (I should probably call them islands...) at higher quality of video and gameplay.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Latest from Cory's Ciderlab

In between large batches of beer, when all my current bottle capacity is full, I like to experiment with small batches of cider.  I'll reiterate today that I really enjoy cider because the ingredients are cheap and can be easily purchased in small quantities at any supermarket.  I love brewing beer, but it is a bit more hands-on and ingredients are usually (for good reason) purchased in larger sizes for larger batches, as it takes about the same amount of time (and the same amount of dishes) to make 4L (one gallon) of beer as 20L (five gallons) of beer.

Cider is a different animal, and is easier cheaper to do wacky experiments that may or may not turn out well.  This batch is another experiment on my part that hopefully turns out tasting better than my stout rolls...?

I was inspired by some honey in our pantry that had crystallized in the cooler temperatures of the house.  I had tried to rescue the partial jar of golden crystals by heating the whole jar in hot water.  This softened some of the honey, but it recrystallized that very night.  I'm sure a really frugal cheapskate (not me, right??) would have kept it to heat and reheat whenever she needed honey, but that wasn't me... mostly because I could use it for brewing.  I would not let it go to waste.

We bought a replacement (and pretty cheap) jar of honey and I set the crystallized jar aside for the next brew.  I was bottling a small vodka bottle batch of cider this week (not worth a post, if that can be believed) and decided I'd set down more cider while my brew cycle was between big 20L batches of beer.  The honey would make a perfectly acceptable fermentable addition to the cider, as I usually add some extra sugar or other fermentable to my ciders for some extra kick and dry flavor.

At the supermarket, I was looking at the sugar selection to buy some brown sugar, my old cider standby, to add to the batch.  I had my hands on the regular brand of brown sugar when I saw another bag peeking at me.  It was 30 cents (per 500g, about one pound) cheaper than the brown sugar.  "Muscovado sugar?" I asked myself.  It was labeled as "unrefined cane sugar."  I had heard of beer and cider brewers using things like "invert sugars" and some unrefined sugars to enhance their brews without the harsh tastes that white refined table sugar will create in brews.  I was curious and it was cheap, so there wasn't going to be any argument from me.

Ingredients and procedure:

Approx 150g honey (softened in hot water)
Approx 250g (half the bag) Muscovado sugar
Approx 100mL (about 1/2 cup) brewed black tea (for tannins, discussed in another cider post)
1/4 teaspoon yeast nutrient (yes, I'm mixing Imperial and Metric measurements)
3L Sun Grown Apple juice (85 cents per liter- cheapest I can get without and apple tree)

1.  Mixed the honey, sugar, and yeast nutrient in a saucepan with some hot water over low heat until everything was dissolved.

2.  Poured some apple juice into the saucepan to cool the mixture to a plastic-water-bottle-safe temperature.

3.  Poured whole saucepan into the 5L plastic water bottle- followed with the rest of the apple juice.

4.  Topped up with cold water to approx. 4.5L and to bring the temperature down to 19 degrees C. (66 degrees F.)

5.  Sprinkled white-packet cider yeast from Homebrew West, my supplier.

Original gravity- 1.054.  Should finish out at about 6% alcohol by volume if everything ferments out all the way.

...And that's all she wrote.  It will go under the sink for a few weeks now to ferment out.  Check back here for the results and the taste test!

4.5L of hard apple cider in the fermenter before fermentation
Cider in the Fermenter

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Don't Try This at Home... Hops Muffins?


I like to experiment.  Tinker.  Poke and prod at the little things in life.  Sometimes I do some research before I tinker.  Sometimes I at least take time to ponder what might happen before I dive in to a new project.  Sometimes I do neither of those.  With mixed but always interesting results.

I enjoy brewing, and I enjoy cooking.  One day, I happened to be doing both activities on the same day.  I was bottling my first big batch of Irish Stout, and I had some nice soup-and-bread dinner plans for later.  After bottling the beer, I was left with a good, solid base of yeast trub at the bottom of my fermenter.  The trub is a pale brown creamy substance made of the solids that fall out of suspension in a fermenting batch of beer (or wine, or cider.)  Most of this is yeast cells, living and dead.  Trub (if proper sanitary measures are taken) can be added to a fresh batch of beer to get fermentation started quickly, and without having to buy another pack of yeast!  I wasn't going to be brewing any more beer that day, but I was going to be making some bread.

Hmmm... Stout bread!  What could go wrong!?  Turns out I forgot about something else that hangs out in the yeasty trub.  More on that later.  First, the method!

Scooping yeast trub from the fermenter
Scoop that Trub!
I had to get the trub out of the fermenter and into my dough.  I cleaned and sanitized my soup ladle and scooped out  some of that rich yeastiness.  I also got some of the stout which I had intentionally left in the fermenter because of excessive trub-iness.  I thought it would be great!

I added some warm water to my flour, yeast, salt, oil, and trub mix to make a thick dough.  I kneaded the dough just like I would any other bread.

Kneading the stout trub bread dough

Finished kneading the stout trub bread dough
Finished Kneading
I kneaded the bread to a smooth elastic ball and set it to rise.  Rise it did!  Just like using the pack of bread yeast.  "AHA!  It rose!  So much for buying bread yeast!"  I thought, triumphantly.  

Punching down the stout trub bread dough
Punching Down the Dough
It rose and I punched it down to shape for baking, just as I always do.  When I need bread fast, I will make rolls or "bread muffins" as we call them because I cheat with muffin cups to shape the rolls.  I shaped this malty-smelling dough into nice rolls and set it to bake.  They came out of the oven dark brown and beautiful.

Stout trub rolls finished baking
Stout Rolls!
All that was left was to butter one up and try it!  I couldn't wait.  They cooled, while I got my butter and knife ready.  I pulled one apart to study the nice dark crumb and roasted malt smell of the bread.  hmmmmm....  I buttered one up and tasted...

"WHOA HOLY BITTER!!  Yikes!  What is that!?"  I could taste the nice stouty malty taste, and the general deliciousness of fresh-baked bread in any form- but there was a gnarly bitter aftertaste just behind it.  "The hops!  Oh no!"

Indeed, I had forgotten what else lurks in trub- hops.  This batch included some dry leaf hops to boil for beer bitterness.  After boiling fresh hops, I strained the liquid into the fermenter, but a good bit of tiny hop particles traveled with it into the fermenter.  Usually no problem in the beer, because those solids fall out of suspension into... the trub.  I had a nice clear stout on top of a bitter hop bomb.  The rolls were close to unpalatable.

We tried some with our soup, but even the pleasant (whew!) soup could not dull the bitter hoppy kick of those rolls.  I didn't mind wasting the materials, it was really just a cup of flour, but it was a cryin' shame not to have homemade bread to go with soup that night.

If (and that's a big if!) I try this again, I'll do some research about measuring trub.  I did put in a good bit to this dough, thinking it harmless.  It probably would have risen with much less.  At the end of the day, I can always say about these experiments-

"As long as no one got hurt, it was worth a shot."

But don't try this one at home, kiddies.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Traffic Arrows

Look at the photo below.  Go ahead, take a long and healthy look at it.  The text of this post will wait...

Traffic arrow in Dublin
Which way?
Clearly some kind of street marking.  Looks like an arrow of some kind.  These markings are on many city streets, usually at road-merging locations like the one in the photo.  "What's the big deal?"  One might ask.  The big deal is in the direction, not the marking.

So we all know that traffic moves on the left side here in Ireland, The U.K., and a few other countries.  Pedestrians here have to get used to looking for oncoming traffic on the correct side, especially if they want to be bold jaywalkers ignoring crosswalk lights.  No problem there, as most corners with crossings are marked with paint on the street with warnings to "LOOK LEFT" and "LOOK RIGHT."  I am only guessing this is for the convenience and safety of visitors from Continental Europe and North America- who are all used to traffic moving up to run them down on the right side.

But what about that marking above?  We were utterly confused our first week here when we saw these "arrows" on the street, because cars always drove from the narrow point to the wide side of the arrow- making this not really an arrow at all... A reverse arrow?  Sort of...?

In The States, traffic arrows dictate the traveler go from the wide end to the narrow point, like an arrow from an archer's bow.  The point is the direction.  These markings look a bit like a pointing arrow, but traffic moves the other way.

Totally unresearched guess:  Going from the point to the wide side the symbol, if one really makes a stretch, looks like it is spilling or pushing out onto the street.  Can anyone else see that?  It takes some time.  Going from point to wide has an almost inviting visual connotation, as if the symbol is opening up in the merging lane to welcome and admit visiting cars to the new road- which may or may not be marked with a sign.

Does that mean that all direction sign arrows are reversed like this?  Well... no.

Again one will ask, "What's the big deal?  Why does this little minor difference that clearly works for these people warrant a (getting longer and longer) blog post?"

...I guess it doesn't, but it's fun to think now, after six months in Dublin, about all the little confusions, unanswered questions, and subtle-but-tangible differences we were experiencing.  I would point to this as a warning to foreign visitors driving in Dublin, but chances a foreign (American) driver in Dublin City will have much larger worries than simple little hollow arrows pointing the wrong way. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

RTE Orchestra Horizons Series I

Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE), the Irish government-run media, funds and keeps the RTE National Symphony Orchestra.  The orchestra keeps a busy schedule of performances throughout the year, many of them at the National Concert Hall.  I hadn't been to see the orchestra since arriving in Dublin, but had heard they do good work.  When I found out (with a tip from Sara) about the (free) Horizons Contemporary Music Series 2014 in the Dublin Event Guide, I said, "Free orchestra concerts?  Sign me up!"

The series of free lunchtime concerts runs over four consecutive Tuesdays.  Each concert features the work of a different contemporary Irish composer, including a world premiere piece commissioned by the orchestra.  What a great program to support current composers, keep fresh modern music coming, and display it for a grateful daytime public.  Before each performance, the composer sits down for an interview with the director of the Contemporary Music Centre to talk about the new commissioned piece and modern composing in general.

National Concert Hall, Dublin
National Concert Hall

The first concert of the series was titled, "Catching Fire" and featured the modern Irish composer Rhona Clarke.  Before the concert at the National Concert Hall, I caught her pre-show interview in a side room where she described her own growth and development as a composer.  The concert featured two of her pieces, one from 2006 and one world premiere piece.  She went into great and interesting detail about her composing process and how her sound and style have changed through the course of her career.

Ticket and Program for RTE National Symphony Orchestra
Ticket and Program

The concert was prefaced by the director of the Symphony, and we were off.  Her first piece from 2006, Where the Clouds Go, was described in the program as "...moves from moment to moment in a dreamlike way, fragments of melodic line appearing and disappearing again."  The piece made use of interesting mallet percussion and muted brass sounds that took me back to my concert band roots.

Next was a piece by composer Gerald Barry inspired by the work of Baroque French composers, specifically Couperin.  From the program, the piece " defined by direct, bold rhythms and well-defined melodic lines, which seem to echo fragments of melody from music of past centuries."  This work for string orchestra (a small ensemble of the string section remained on stage- standard practice) did indeed use a wide range of the sounds capable of being produced by the string section, with starkly contrasting statements throughout.

Go, Solo No. 1 for Orchestra was the oldest (!) piece on the program, harkening all the way back to the grand old year of 1992.  The title, Go was described as a dual play on words.  Go, in English of course, means Start, leave, and, most powerfully, move!  Go also references the ancient but still much played East Asian abstract strategy board game of simple rules yet endless complexity, Go.  The subtitle Solo for Orchestra comes, from the program, "...referring to the large orchestra as a single instrument and his handling of orchestral timbres and balance..."  The instruments of a full symphony can produce an unbelievable range of sounds and dynamics, and this fast-moving, hard-hitting bruiser exposed the audience to a good many, if not all, of them.

The headline performance was the world premiere of the new piece by Rhona Clarke, Shift.  This work was commissioned by the RTE for this concert series specifically, and the composer introduced the piece with the director of the orchestra program.  As described in the program, "Extended techniques, deliberately avoided in previous work, are embraced in Shift, using harmonics and noise elements in strings, and bowed, timbral effects on percussion... The concentration is on blocks of sound and on the polar opposites between arrhythmic and rhythmic material."  The piece does indeed make use of these "extended techniques," and serves as a contrast to her earlier work, Where the Clouds Go- especially in the mallet percussion.  Clouds made use of mallet instruments in their more benign forms, vibraphone with yarn mallets, xylophone with its characteristic cutting brightness.  Shift uses the bowed technique to give the comfortable sounding vibes and crotales harsh, shrill, haunting overtones.  The strings made use of the con legno technique of playing the strings with the wooden back of the bow instead of the horsehair bowstrings.  This creates a scratching, grating, and sometimes alarming sound.  When used artistically, it can be very beautiful, and it was here.

Thank you, RTE Orchestra for programming such a great series.  Check back to this blog over the next three weeks for my own recap of the remaining shows in the series.  If in Dublin, look up the remaining concerts and reserve your (did I mention free!?) ticket.  If interested in hearing this performance, the show was recorded and broadcast on RTE Lyric FM, check the player in the link below.


National Concert Hall
RTE National Symphony Orchestra
RTE Lyric FM performance of the concert

Monday, January 20, 2014

Christmas in Cork: Patrick Street in Patrick Sleet

After our very successful trip to Cork's famous English Market, we set out to find a fish and chips shop recommended by our B&B host.  The bright Christmas Eve afternoon was fading to gray, and rain had moved over the area.  Patrick Street (and the surrounding shopping/bar district) was clearing out as shoppers came in from the rain to celebrate the holiday with their families.

Undaunted by a little rain, we set off for our fish and chips.  The chipper was just off the main City Centre drag, up a steep hill.  The rain continued as we left "The Island" of Cork- the area between the River Lee and The South Fork River Lee- and headed up the hill.  As we climbed higher, the wind picked, getting stronger and stronger as we climbed higher.  The main center of Cork on the banks of the river is protected from the wind by high hills on three sides, and we were losing that protection fast.

The climb became something of a determined trudge as the rain turned to a heavy rain/light sleet mix with a strong headwind.  I almost didn't notice the subtle change as I looked desperately ahead for the neon sign of the chip shop.  My glasses were covered with persistent rainwater, but I heard the gentle "tick tick" sound of sleet on my coat turn into a not-so-gentle "TOCK TOCK TOCK" as the size and intensity of the sleet grew, each ice crystal making a hollow thunk on my black winter coat.  Oh how quickly the weather can change in coastal (or non-coastal!) Ireland.

At the top of the hill, after a mile climb through the sleet, we got to the chip shop.  As Poe said in The Raven, "Darkness there, and nothing more..."

"NO!"  They were closed for Christmas Eve.  We had made that long, hard trek to a closed chipper!  We didn't blame our B&B host, he wasn't sure if they would be open (or open late) on Christmas Eve, we just took a gamble- and lost.  Disappointed, (and cold, and wet, and sleety) we set off back down the hill toward The Island again.  The walk back down the hill was decidedly more pleasant than the walk up.  The wind (and rain, and sleet) were at our backs now, and the steep incline kept our pace up.

Back on The Island, we were hungry for... something.  Many of the restaurants were either closing up or jam-packed, leaving mostly fast food joints open to us.  We hunted through the streets for something to catch our eye, but we were so set on those fish and chips, we were almost too disappointed to choose something else.  After several laps around the Patrick Street area, we decided to duck in to Rockin' Joe's, Cork's answer to Dublin's popular Eddie Rocket's chain.  We both got large plates of burgers and fries (not called 'chips' in 1950's Americana restaurants here) with lots of Heinz ketchup.  Uninspired?  Maybe.  Warm and dry?  You betcha.

Rockin' Joe's Burgers in Cork, Ireland
Rockin' Joe's Burgers

After rockin' our burgers, the rain had slowed back to the misty, wet-air feel that is usually called "light rain" here.  We went back out into the Patrick Street neighborhood.  The shops were all closed by now, and the streets mostly empty, but all was not silent.  The pubs were all open- and lively.  We walked by several establishments, all filled with merrymakers celebrating Christmas Eve with friends and family.  The sun had been down since before 5 p.m., so the parties had started early.  Fresh off our burger, we popped in to one promising looking pub for an early-evening 'nightcap.'

We first ordered a round of a highly-recommended local stout, Murphy's.  We both love stouts and porters, so we were excited to try this Cork competitor to Dublin's Guinness.  Murphy's is marketed to be less bitter than Guinness, which I found to be true, but I also found it to be slightly more dry than a Guinney.  I did enjoy Murphy's, but I prefer the maltier (with more hop bitterness) Guinness to the dryer, less bitter Murphy's.

The pub scene was really hopping, with more and more holidaymakers pouring in from the wet, dark street.  We watched the bartenders struggling to keep up with orders of two hot drinks we hadn't seen before.  The drinks were served in tall glasses with handles with a slice of lemon, cloves, and a spoon.  Orders were coming in so quickly for them, one bartender was devoted to just cutting up lemons and sticking whole cloves into the rind of each slice.  After watching this ritual with our first drinks, Sara wanted to try one of "whatever they are all having."  I strolled up to the bar and asked, like the tourist I was, about these mystery hot drinks.  "Hot Port and Hot Whiskey."  Was the answer.  He described each one, but the ingredients were pretty simple.  Port or whiskey, hot water, lemon slice with cloves, and sweetener if requested.  Sara adventurously ordered the hot port, with a little sugar.  I ordered another local Cork stout- Beamish.

Beamish Stout and Hot Port in Cork, Ireland
Beamish Stout and Hot Port

Both drinks were (of course) delicious.  I enjoyed my Beamish (a bit maltier and sweet than Murphy's, still not as malty as the auld Guinness) but the Hot Port was a beautiful warming elixir for the cold evening.  We made some back-of-mind plans to include Hot Port on the menu of our New Year's Eve celebration.

After our second round, we decided to call it an evening.  It wasn't very late, but we had had a long day.  We had arrived at Dublin's bus station at 7:30 that morning, spent four hours on a bus, and were on our feet for the better part of six hours.  It was time to walk back to the B&B and relax with some (only some!) of our English Market snacks and get ready for Christmas morning.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

I'll Play Batman (NES) Level 5 and Ending

I got my Batman video files together to make the final edit and commentary only to find (to my horror!) all of the audio gone on the files.  I must have recorded them with the computer (or emulator) muted without realizing or remembering.  Oh well.

To stay on schedule, I had to re-record the final (hardest) level of Batman with no practice, having not played it for more than a month.  You'll all forgive me if the quality of play isn't up to snuff.

Next week, continuing with Adventure Island 3 after a loooong break on this blog.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Forbidden Planet Comic Shop

On one of my recent Dublin rambles, I set eyes on Forbidden Planet Comic Shop.  Sitting just South of the River and just West of O'Connell Street Bridge, the shop has a great location.  Inside, they honor their great location with a great comic shop.

What makes a great comic shop?  That varies greatly depending on who is asked.  Nerd-dom can be frustratingly elitist and unwelcoming to "outsiders."  Anyone who has seen the Comic Store Guy in The Simpsons is aware of some of the worst kinds of fan-rage and the geek elite.  People like Comic Store Guy don't seem to really like or enjoy anything in life, especially mainstream entertainment.  

If one is asking me what makes a great comic shop, it is very simple.  The shop has to be set up to appeal to "outsiders" and people like me, who would be a "verger?"  I enjoy reading (old) comic books, gaming, and a few other "nerdy" pursuits- but I would not consider myself anything like Comic Store Guy.  I enjoy comic shops that are well-lit and inviting.  I enjoy a good selection of comics, action figures, gaming books and games, sci fi/fantasy novels, posters, T-shirts with funny slogans, and other surprises.  I don't actually collect most of those things, but I do enjoy browsing them in a friendly atmosphere.  Forbidden Planet has a large showroom with a wide selection of just what I was looking for.

Forbidden Planet Comic Shop display window
Outside Display Window
What I do enjoy collecting from comic shops is old back issues of comics.  I don't look for comic titles specifically, but rather from a time period.  When I was in high school (early 2000's), I found a comic shop in Iowa with boxes of old comics from the 1980's and 90's for $1, sometimes less.  My friend and I began buying them up for some entertaining fast reads.  I found in them not gripping comic art and storytelling, but amazing advertisements, letters sections, and news from my childhood.

I was amazed at seeing ads for products I remembered but no longer exist, upcoming movies that I remembered wanting to see, snack food and drinks that would no longer be edible today (Surge soda?) and video games I had or wanted for my NES or Sega Genesis.  Many of the ads (or others in the same ad campaign) I could remember vividly.  "Mortal Monday" ads heralded the arrival of the new Mortal Kombat game to home systems.  80's and 90's sports superstars with impressive mullet haircuts like Joe Montana hawked their endorsed products from the yellowing pages.  

Older issues from the early 1980's still had comic book ad holdovers from the Golden Age of comics.  Multi-ad pages offered helpful lines like, "Are you too skinny for the girls?  This new Charles Atlas program will make you the King of the Playground in no time!  Just send..." and "Looking for extra income?  Sell GRIT newspapers to your family and neighbors, keep all these great rewards!  Just send..."  I have no living memory of GRIT newspaper, and I only know Charles Atlas from the reference in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, so these little bits of retro-youth Americana were sometimes entertaining, sometimes touching, and... sometimes a bit racist.  

Comics from this era had letters and fan art sections to print user feedback.  The letters from readers were usually pretty entertaining, and I could just about see myself as a boy of twelve in bib overalls and a bowl cut carefully drafting a letter with my yellow pencil to the creators of my favorite X-Men editors praising (or criticizing!) their work.  Seeing one's name in print in those days must have been a big deal.  Quite a change from the modern-day website comment section, no?  Speaking of comment sections, there is one at the bottom of this article, if you care to...

Someday I may make a project of scanning and collecting in a digital medium these (copyrighted...) gems, because sadly, reprints of back issues of comics leave out the ads (understandably) but they also usually omit the reader letters and responses, artist profiles, "This month at (comic publisher)" news pages, and the infamous Marvel Stan's Soapbox.  I'm sure licensing deals and little reader interest will keep many of these bits of treasure locked forever in the yellowing pages of aging comic books.

Kiss, Transformers, and Strip Magazine
Kiss, Transformers, and Strip Magazine
What did I find at Forbidden Planet that day?  Well, some retro-ish titles were available in F.P.'s own discount bin.  The Transformers issue cover looked just like some of the Marvel Transformers issues I have in storage right now.  The content is new, but I had to applaud their shot at a retro cover.  The rock band KISS still have active issues being published, and I found an old issue of a U.K. weekly comic magazine, Strip.  I'll be back for more next time I'm in City Centre with some time to spare.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Gedding some Bedding

When packing our meager selection of possessions, we had to rule out most of our larger pieces.  We know about most of the chunky hobby equipment like my 5 gallon fermenting vessels and most of our kitchen tools, but what about some often unseen but vital housewares like bedding?

Certainly we couldn't bring along our large comforter on this trip, nor was it nice enough to put into our parent's basements storage space, so along it went on our month-long road trip, never to be heard from again.  Same story with sheets.  Who knew what size bed we would find in the furnished apartment scene here in Dublin?  "Probably not queen size." was our thought, and we were correct.  Most of the apartments we looked at (and the one we chose) have double size beds.  We got some cheap double size sheets our first week here, along with pillows.  Blankets, or what we may have called a comforter back in Iowa, were another story.

We did bring along one homemade fleece blanket, one Iowa Hawkeyes fleece blanket, and Sara's Thesis Blanket that are all personal cherished treasures for us.  Treasures, yes.  Warm enough for the approaching Autumn?  No.  We had to find something warmer and fitting the double size bed.  Luckily, Sara was sharp enough to check the discount department store before buying anything too expensive.  She found something called a duvet.  That word sounded unfamiliar and suspiciously Frenchy to me when I first heard it.  Apparently they do their sleeping warmers just a bit different than we (I) were familiar with.

Duvet and Sheet Set
Duvet and Sheets
...So, the duvet is just the warm part of the equation.  The liner of the duvet cover.  We I didn't know much about the changeable duvet/duvet cover system, so we started using the duvet without the cover.  I remember saying things like, "Boy!  This sure was a cheap duvet.  It keeps very warm, but the material feels really rough and the seams don't seem very strong."  If only there were something with which to cover this cheap duvet-thing...

We later learned about the changeable duvet cover/duvet liner situation.  The duvets are rated on a scale of insulation, called TOG.  Higher TOG numbers are warmer duvets.  Duvet covers are softer and more durable, protecting the warm liner within.  Many duvet covers are more expensive than the duvets themselves.  The duvet cover is open on one end and closed with a series of buttons.  The duvet is stuffed into the duvet cover on the open side then the buttons are sealed up.  Once we bought a specific, dedicated duvet cover, the system all made sense.  We now have a washable, comfortable, durable comforter (as we would call it in Iowa) to keep warm at night.  After we purchased the duvet cover, I realized that we did have a duvet cover in our first bedsheet set, but we had been using it as a flat sheet.  "...So that's what those buttons are used for on the flat sheet!  I wondered why that sheet was so big for the bed!"  

Totally unresearched conclusions:  A lighter duvet is in the duvet cover during warm summer months while a heavier, warmer duvet is in the cover during the cold winter?  Duvet covers can be swapped out to match the current color palette of the bedroom set?

Whatever the trend, it was one more little change that was only recently solved permanently, mostly due to laziness and penny-pinching on my part.  It finally feels like, we have a real home or something... weird.