Related Posts with Thumbnails

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Online Fraud

Online fraudsters are getting very sophisticated. My email account is subjected to a barrage of emails that are so expertly done that they look legitimate.

Dangers of Malware
Most online banking systems require a 2-step verification process. Recently, there is malware that will re-direct you to a phishing site that looks exactly like your bank's webpage. Here, you will log in using the password generated by your token. Crooks stand ready on the back end of that site. They immediately use your token to log onto the real site and make immediate transfers. Within 15 minutes, a lot of your money has left your account. See UOB's advisory on how to recognise this type of phishing site.

It is important to prevent malware from taking up residence in your computer.

Emails That Dupe You Into Clicking On Malware Links
Variously, these emails state...
(1) Unless you click on the link, your account will be deleted/suspended.
(2) Click on the link to get a good deal from NTUC / Cold Storage / Amazon.
(3) Click on the link to get a security update.
(4) Click on the link to read tips to guard against online fraud.

This morning, I received a very ORIGINAL one asking me to click on a link to read Pinterest's Privacy Policy.
I normally will simply delete such emails. Any unsolicited emails from Amazon, Pinterest, NTUC, CPF, Cold Storage, banks... whatever, I will immediately delete without reading. However, this morning, in order to write this post, I clicked on Show Details above.

Note the email address. It has been adulterated to read "@explore.pinterest". This email is therefore NOT from Pinterest.

Also suspicious is the requirement to click on a link to read the updated Privacy Policy. Why should I click on a link to read? The legitimate sites will usually just detail the Privacy Policy within the email because they too are aware of such malware links and do not want to confuse their own subscribers/customers.

Suspicious PayPal Emails and Calls
Almost on a daily basis, I had been receiving PayPal emails that look legitimate. These emails are from or These emails are NOT from PayPal. The adulterated email addresses make it clear. Recently, I logged onto the webmail service of my email provider and added all these suspicious emails to the Blocked Senders group along with a host of unwelcome advertisement email addresses. I also report the suspicious email addresses as "phishing" emails to my email provider so that it can block them from other people's accounts.

Use Apple Devices (but do NOT Jailbreak them)
We have transited everyone in the family to iMac, Macbook, iPad or iPhone. Old android or PC devices are never used for money transactions. If you do not jailbreak your Apple devices, the only way to load software is through Apple Store. Apple Store will test/qualify the new apps. Sometimes, viruses do get past Apple and make it into Apple Store BUT the moment it is found out, Apple will release iOS updates to deal with it.

These measures do not entirely remove the risk of malware loading onto our computers but they do reduce the risks by a lot.

Further, to be absolutely kiasu... if I receive emails from friends/contacts that look suspicious, I use ONE iPad to log into the webmail site and click to open. I don't even open it in the iPad email app itself. It is always the same iPad that I use for this. This iPad is never used for money transactions.

It is my Dirty iPad.

Suspicious Calls
I also receive calls from PayPal to verify details on the phone. I always tell them that I will never answer such questions on the phone.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Avoiding Crowds and Drawing Closer

For the first time in a long while, I had the energy to plan a holiday properly. Research and planning started 12 months ago. Bookings started 9 months ago. The highest rated AirBnB properties get booked up fast and I wanted to make sure that we could get the nicest lodgings at reasonable costs.

I had a lot of time to dig up lesser known attractions. It turns out that the whole family enjoyed the holiday because we went to places with no crowds and we were not ambitious in trying to squeeze in too many sights into the itinerary.

These holidays were not stressful. We had days when we did nothing but chill out together in the apartment, eat and sleep. We all wanted to rest. There was no drive to squeeze in as many sights as we could. We just made sure we were very selective about what we wanted to see and do.

Early December Is Low Season
More often than not, we were the ONLY people at the sights. Early December is low season in Spain. It isn't yet X'mas so the Spanish are not yet on holiday. Hence, if you pick sights and activities that appeal to the Spanish touring their own country, you can really be ALL ALONE enjoying the guide or the venue.

Surf TripAdvisor In the Local Language
I managed to find these lesser known sights by surfing TripAdvisor in Spanish. It takes a bit of effort to copy and paste into Google Translate but it was well worth it.

The trip went so well that I realise that it has drawn our family very close together. It was all happy. There were no disagreements nor any bickering even though there was laundry to do, dishes to wash, meals to prepare and things to pack away. It was just so much love.

When you have teenage children, you realise that having teenagers who spontaneously choose to spend time with the family is a rare blessing. Before the holidays, my heart ached because our children and we, seemed to live separate lives. They had their own friends and their own activities. They made time to spend with the family but out of a sense of duty. Smelly Boy spoke in grunts.

After these holidays, I think our children discovered that the 4 of us can have a rip-roaring time together. We clown around, laugh, tease and make jokes. It was non-stop happiness for the whole trip. Since our return, Smelly Boy lounges about in our Master Bedroom. The Daughter organised a family cake-baking activity today. We had a blast.

I think we have become addicted to each other! We really like hanging out together. I do hope this lasts. It is so precious that I shall tend this like the sacred fire of Vesta. I am so motivated to start planning the next holiday now!

The village square in Alarcón: we were alone there.

The citrus orchard at the Mesquita de Cordoba. There were so few people that it was easy to take pictures with no one in them.

Inside the Mesquita de Cordoba: not a soul in sight.

No one else at the Christopher Columbus' ships: we could play Pretend Pirates of the Caribbean to our hearts' content.

Just the pigs and us. No one else on the dehesa.

We went to Casa Battló at about 7.30pm (1.5 hours before closing time). By 8pm, the front desk will stop letting people in. As earlier people left Casa Battló and later entries were not allowed in, Casa Battló emptied out. It was almost empty as we walked around.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


It is X'mas, the time of the year to wish peace and goodwill to all. This X'mas, I want to give thanks.

Peaceful Country
We do have much to be thankful for. Our country is at peace. Compared to fleeing Syrians, Singaporeans are preoccupied with kacang putih concerns such as small classes. I know. I know. I know that I am obsessed with small classes of 15 in Primary school but the fact still is that we do have schools with too large classes to obsess about. The Syrian refugee children study in makeshift schools under tarpaulins. We worry about living children who have to breathe bad haze. Too many Syrian children are dead. They don't breathe, so the question of whether there are enough air purifiers in school is not even relevant. The Syrian children have no books and I worry about why the schools will not allow basic Kindle books (with no tablet features).

In the larger scheme of things, our problems are not so bad. Thank God for them.

Love. Love. Love.
I am thankful for a peaceful year. Smelly Boy did his PSLE 3 years ago. His PSLE burdened me. He was so young that he had not the wisdom to manage himself. I had to organise and supervise every thing, leaving him to work independently only under certain planned conditions. Even if I pretended not to be involved in every detail, I watched every detail like a hawk in order to step in to catch him before he fell short.

This year, I am thankful that he has matured into a tall (taller than his Father) youth of ever greater wisdom and stature. He finds favour with man. I hope that he finds favour with God too. My son is quiet and retiring... a youth of few words and quiet action. At the AirBnB apartments that we rented, I was so pleased at how he would quietly move to help me dry the clothes the moment I took them out of the washing machine. When hiking, I noted how he would squat at the top of the climb waiting to see if his sister needed a hand up. She usually did not, but my son was there for her anyway.

I am thankful that The Daughter made it back from her internship in Tel Aviv (during Israel's Operation Protective Edge) in one piece. There, she learnt to keep her head even as her Mother was losing hers. I rely increasingly on her calm and her good sense. My daughter is chatty and outgoing... a woman of happy words and a whirlwind of action. Throughout our Spain trip from start to finish, my daughter was thoughtful of her brother (and her parents) in a million ways. The last bite of some dish would be pushed to the one of us who particularly liked that dish.  Smelly Boy was made to navigate us through the Iberian countryside. He made mistakes and was upset. I noted how The Daughter quickly gave him comfort with gracious words.

I am deeply thankful that my children treat each other well and do not take each other for granted. Not once, in Spain, did I see my children fight for their own rights vis-à-vis each other. I saw them willingly and spontaneously give up their own rights, to please the other. I saw, in action, right before my eyes, God's measure of love come alive in my children. I was amazed because I had spent my entire life trying to love as God wishes, and I had failed again and again. How does a Mother teach her children to love in a way that she herself is incapable of? If such a rare and difficult thing came to pass, it must surely be God's grace, no?

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Gainful Employment
I am thankful too that The Husband has a job, and I have gainful employment too. 3 years ago, we had both steeled ourselves for early retirement (i.e., unemployment). We had prepared for that day, watching every cent. It has been a lifetime of discipline to not just stay within budget but 10% below budget. By grace of God, early retirement did not happen. The Husband now has a stressful job but he finds it full of meaning. My own work too, has meaning and brings me joy. I worry less about money now. I still worry, but less. This too, is God's grace. God's grace is good fortune undeserved. It was nothing we did. It was unexpected. Yet, it happened.

Good Health
I am thankful for good health. 3 years ago, I was so inexplicably weak that I thought I might die for reasons doctors could not fathom. Since then, God has taught me much about how to regain health and vitality through natural ways. This year, my health grows from strength to strength. Improvements were small at first. Small improvements snowball and the difference this year, with 3 years ago, is now stark. There is still some way to go, but there is hope. There was a time, when I had lost all hope. This too, is God's grace. Doctor after doctor claimed there was nothing wrong with me so how can healing come about if not by God's grace?

In its own quiet way, this year has been a resounding success indeed. I am most content.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Casa Battló

Most people go to Barcelona, Spain and head straight for the Sagrada Família and Park Güell.  Both were designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. Relatively fewer people are aware that a residential property by the same architect is available for visit. Compared to Park Güell and the Sagrada Família, a residential property is smaller and easier to appreciate in its entirety. I saw Sagrada Familia and Park Güell 20 years ago. I decided that Casa Battló would be more easily appreciated by the children. It is easier to link the building back to daily living.

Casa Battló was commissioned by a wealthy industrialist to remodel an existing townhouse. Even though it is a townhouse, it is all of 7 levels tall (if you count the roof terrace). The place is HUGE! It is the strangest house I have ever seen, with skylights that look like turtle shells, mushroom shaped fireplaces and a roof that looks like the back of a vividly coloured dragon. The doors and windows have no straight lines.

Casa Battló from the street. Picture from HERE.

Mushroom shaped fireplace.

Curved doors and windows.

The roof that faces the street is tiled with large format tiles. From street level, the whole roof looks like dragon scales.

The roof that faces the roof terrace is tiled in mosaic. This is because people can approach this side of the roof up close. Up close, it is the small format mosaic that looks like dragon scales.

Glass barriers on the staircase warp the view of the light well that brings light into the house to make it look like one is seeing the light well underwater.

The light well from 2nd floor looks uniformly blue.  To make the whole light well appear a uniform shade of blue from below, the tiles at the top of the light well are a deeper shade of blue to offset the strength of the light up there.

See the deep blue colour of the tiles at the top of the light well.

Casa Battló is also known as the House of Bones. Its facade has pillars that look like femurs.

Disappointment At Parador de Tortosa

It turns out that there are Paradors and Paradors. Not all Paradors provide the same standard of experience. At the Parador de Alarcón, our bedroom was actually within the ancient castle building itself. It had real castle windows.

The rooms at the Parador de Tortosa are actually in a new building constructed next to the old castle. You would agree that it is a quite different experience. Seriously, there is no way to imagine oneself a Rapunzel preparing to let down her hair if you stay on a 2nd floor in a new building with the layout of a motel. Of course, the thing is made to look like a period castle (carvings, huge wooden doors) but it is still very much a 2 storey motel like thing.

Towels, shampoo and toilet paper were all emblazoned with the Parador insignia but they looked out of place amongst the worn furnishings. Both Parador de Alarcón and Parador de Tortosa were rated 4 stars but Parador de Tortosa should be downgraded to 3 stars (or even 2).

Further, Parador de Tortosa was smack in the middle of a rather large town. The experience was really not quite the same as looking out of the windows to see hills, valleys and fields. Look out the window at Parador de Tortosa and you see a carpark.

No fun.

The worst thing was the smell! The lift lobby smelled of sewage pipe overlaid with air freshener. I could distinctly separate the 2 smells in the same space. The corridors leading to the rooms smelled of paint.

This said, it still gave us a frisson to be staying in a place that once belonged to the Knights Templar, the famous warrior knights whose mission was to escort pilgrims safely to the Holy Land. They ended up running Europe's first bank. Pilgrims leaving for the Holy Land would entrust all their valuables to the Knights Templar. As they travelled from town to town, they only needed to go to the local Knights Templar facility to draw out money to spend as they travelled along. The Templars would record the withdrawals and when the pilgrims got home, they could retrieve the balance of their wealth.

The Husband was especially tickled by the fact that the castle once belonged to not just any Knights Templar, they belonged to the Knights Templar of the King of Aragon. This was very confusing because The Husband was thinking of Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings and the Knights Templar from The Da Vinci Code.

Really, this shows the power of the human imagination to generate wealth. These famous movies live in our imaginations and those fortunate enough to own a physical embodiment of these figments of collective imagination sit on goldmines. Until The Hobbit came along and built their movie set on the farmland belonging to the Alexander family, the Alexander brothers were sheep farmers. Now, they are millionaires. Think of all the money people make from selling blue Elsa costumes to little girls!

This was our bedroom window in the Castle of Alarcón. See the 3 feet thick castle walls framing the window. It shows that the rooms are part of the ancient castle.

The rooms at the Parador de Tortosa were in a separately constructed new building. Looks like a motel, right?

The ancient castle structure held meeting rooms and dining halls.

A romantic dining corner in the Dining Room at Parador de Tortosa.

The Dining Room at Parador de Tortosa.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Castle Stay: Parador de Alarcón

The Spanish government runs a chain of 94 paradores all across Spain. Paradores are all historic properties (medieval castles, old Moorish palaces, ancient monasteries and nunneries) converted into luxury hotels. Paradores are expensive to stay in. So, I budgeted only 2 nights in paradores and made effort to find economical accommodation for the rest of the stay.

I booked us one night in Parador de Alarcón.

I knew it was a castle when I booked it but I did not know it was a castle in the style of Gondor (c.f., Lord of the Rings). The entire town sits high atop a hill and there are 2 rings of defensive walls. Much of the walls have collapsed but our car passed through the 1st gateway and later on, when we walked around the town, we saw the humongous 2nd gateway.

Passing through the 1st gateway, I wished so hard to be mounted on a horse with my posse of knights clattering grandly alongside me. Passing through that gateway, I did not want to be a Princess, I wanted to be a knight. Princesses don't get much fun, really - sitting up in the tower, sighing for their princes.

Paradors are Spain's best kept secret. Their existence is not yet common knowledge in the rest of the world. As a result, only the Spanish and foreigners who live in Spain seek out paradors to stay in. I found out about paradors 20 years ago on a backpacking tour of Spain. I somehow wandered into one and made a wish that one day, I could come back and stay in one.

The Parador de Alarcón dates from the 8th century. The first structure was built by the Moors. The Catholics later developed the structure to its present design. A river curls around the foot of the hill forming a natural moat. It is surrounded by 3 hills, each with its own defensive tower. This place was really well defended.

The rooms are toasty warm in winter. The marble floors in the bathroom are heated. Hardwood floors line the bedroom. The restaurant delivers almost as good value for money as Taberna Luque. This place far exceeded my expectations. Best of all, this place is so little known that there are no hordes of visitors. It is an authentic Spanish experience. Indeed, the concierge can ONLY speak Spanish.

Go HERE to book the Parador de Alarcón.

Our bedroom looks out of the walls lighted by the setting sun on the left side of the castle.

This is the main gate into the parador. The sign states that the Parador de Alarcón has been a parador since 1928.

Steps up to the castle.

The restaurant in this huge hall. Unlike most restaurants, where the breakfast is buffet, this hotel serves breakfast to the table. One feels very pampered indeed!

The bar in another huge hall.

Outside the castle, there are interesting trekking paths. December is great weather for trekking. It isn't too cold here in Spain.

Jamones Eiriz, Jabugo

The Jabugo region of Spain is famous for the production of jamon iberico de bellota (i.e., iberian acorn-fed ham). When my friend IP heard that I was heading off to Spain, she asked me with a touching wistfulness if I could bring back jamon iberico for her, and then she said shyly, "It is ok if you cannot bring back any."

Nonetheless, her entire tone conveyed a gourmet yearning that was most intriguing. I wondered, very curious, at this marvellous ham that could make IP's eyes turn skywards and her entire being tremble with remembered pleasure.

So, I went over to Huber's and bought myself 4 paper thin slices for SGD$10. Wow! That must be some pig because Huber's was selling it at $250/kg! I ate 2 slices, died and went to heaven. When I came to, the other 2 slices had disappeared.

If you drive about 30 minutes out of Seville, you will find yourselves smack in the middle of the dehesas. These are woodland pastures. We tend to imagine pastures as flat grassland for cows and sheep. However, there are animals that graze in woodland pastures (i.e., pastures with trees). Dehesas are woodland pastures that are planted with oak trees (holm oak and cork oak). Over 90% of the corks that are in wine bottles come from Spanish cork oak). Dehesas at higher altitudes also have melojo and quejigo oak. All these oak trees bear acorns. These acorns fall to the ground.

The Iberian black pigs love these fallen acorns. In the months of September to December, the pigs gorge on these acorns. This period of acorn gorging is called the montanera. Acorns have a fair bit of oleic oil in them. These oils make their way into the pigs flesh, marbling it and giving it an aroma that cannot be replicated with spices. The pigs are pampered. The farmers allow nothing to stress these pigs. Even the way to the slaughter house is made stress free and slaughtering is done quickly and humanely in order not to stress the pigs.

Stressed or injured pigs affect ham quality. There is money to be lost if the pigs are not happy.

The farmers give each pig 1 hectare of woodland pasture all to itself. In its 2 years of piggy living, it does nothing but pig out everyday. In the montanera months (where the pigs feed solely on fallen acorns), the pigs put on 1 kg every day.

It is clear that these are happy pigs. They are very tame and friendly. The farmer gives them a mud pool to wallow in. The mud protects the pigs from insect bites. You see, nothing, not even mosquitoes are allowed to stress the pigs. There is fresh clean water and the farmer even puts in effort to ensure that the terrain goes uphill and down dale so that the pigs must exercise a lot as they search for acorns to eat. This exercise distributes fat among the muscle. The pigs also eat mushrooms and wild herbs, which also appropriately season the meat.

Trust the Spanish to think up a meat marination process that takes all of 2 years and starts from inside the pig!

An acorn from the cork oak tree.

The bark of the cork oak tree.

The cork bark that is used for corks.

After about 18 months, the pigs reach between 170kg to 200kg in weight. Then, it is slaughter time. The happy pigs are lead unwittingly (and still happy) to the slaughter house. The carcasses are cut into half and returned to Jamones Eiriz, where the 3 brothers Fernando, Manolo and Domingo begin the long process of curing the meat. Nothing is wasted. Every part of the pig can be eaten.

This is the salting room. The legs are buried in sea salt. They are kept there for a few weeks.

Next, the legs are hung up to dry for a few months.

As they dry under controlled temperatures, penicillin (a type of beneficial mould that preserves and flavours the meat) grows.

Once the penicillin growth is well under way, and the meat is reasonably dried, they are moved to another curing shed for a few years. It takes about 4 years to properly cure a leg of ham.

This is Manolo, one of the 3 brothers who run the farm. This farm turns over 1500 pigs every year. Manolo called the pigs for us. It appears that they only respond to Manolo's voice. When Manolo called them in the dehesa, the pigs came running. Manolo is posing with the sausages made from every part of the pig imaginable. There is even a blood sausage called the morcillo.

If you want to visit, you can email Domingo Eiriz Martin.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

El Ricio: Cowboy Town

There is an entire village in Spain that possesses no tarred roads. The ground is all sand because sand is easier on horses' hooves. The people in this village still use horses as a primary mode of transport.

A rather simple church stands in the middle of the village which houses a very special Madonna statue that dates from the 13th century. El Rocio is a significant place of Catholic pilgrimage. On certain festival days, it attracts millions of people from all over Spain and even the rest of the world, who come to venerate the Virgin Mary of El Ricio.

Inside the church, I found a Nativity Scene set up on a table measuring 36 sqm. It is the most kick ass big Nativity Scene I have ever seen. It needed 2 videos and 18 photos to capture its entirety.

Warming up the horse in the morning.

Drive the horse and buggy out to lunch.

Christopher Columbus' Ships (Replicas)

We drove out 1.5 hours to Palos de la Frontera, Huelva to see replicas of Christopher Columbus' ships. He set off with the Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina. I thought it would be an interesting history lesson for the children.

Instead, all we could think of was Pirates of the Caribbean. We had a whale of a time pretending to be Elizabeth Swann, Will Turner, Captain Barbossa and Captain Jack Sparrow.

It turned out that Christopher Columbus isn't all that he was made out to be. Firstly, he discovered America by accident, as he had intended to find Japan. Secondly, he was a very cruel man. He had no qualms about enslaving the friendly native peoples that he encountered, using the excuse of converting them to Christianity to condemn them to a life of hard labour. Once, he cut off the ears and nose of a man who had stolen some corn, and then condemned him to a life of slavery. On another occasion, he commended his brother for cutting out a woman's tongue and parading her naked through town, just for speaking badly of Christopher Columbus.

I have thus decided that I shall not visit Christopher Columbus' catafalque in the Cathedral of Seville. What an odious man!