Friday, 29 April 2011

Stifado, Solar System, Silence


Stifado is a Greek dish consisting of stewed meat (usually rabbit or beef) and onions. It's been around a quuarter of a century since I last had any, so I've no idea how close my first attempt to make it was. The terrible photograph I took doesn't make it look too bad, but I was so hungry that I wasn't going to mess around taking more than one:

Until now my culinary repertoire was limited to green bean casserole and pasta with green beans and pesto. However, I've recently invested in a slow cooker.

The Americans call this a Crock Pot (tm). The idea is that you bung a load of raw ingredients into this magic pot, forget about it for several hours (until you're hungry), by which time they have transformed themselves into an edible meal. Or rather about three meals due to the quantities involved, which means that you don't waste any ingredients like you would if you were cooking for one.

It's early days yet, but most of the meals I've done have been edible. And at £15, it's cheaper than another wife.

Solar System

Thanks mainly to the specific configuration of various celestial bodies, we've had two long weekends of public holidays in a row. Easter fell very late this year, meaning that we've had Good Friday and Easter Monday off last weekend, followed by May Day this coming Monday. Today was a public holiday due to some kind of royal celebration. I'm not sure exactly what this was since, no doubt due to an oversight, I wasn't invited.

It turned out okay, though. There was nothing on TV (even the Greeks were watching the royal celebration curtesy of the European Broadcasting Union), which gave me a perfect opportunity to play with my new computer.


My computer had started becoming unreliable, so I went shopping yesterday for a replacement. The first thing I did after unpacking it was to install Fedora Linux on it, and it's great. Compared to the old one, it's got three times more memory and a whizzy graphics card. The main advantage, though, is the noise it makes.

The old machine had a very large and very loud fan. Since I never turned it off, there was a constant and slightly annoying whirring in the lounge. By comparison, you don't know that the new computer is on, it's so quiet. Now the dominant sounds are the fridge and the gentle bubbling of the slow cooker.

Which reminds me. I must go and check on my dinner.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Twas in the Winter Sold

Whatever your religious beliefs, whether you have any, or whether you even celebrate this particular festival, the one thing that we all have to put up with at this time of year is the marketing.

Although we think of the commercialisation of the Season as something relatively recent, it's being going on for a long time. One of the best examples of this is the White Christmas. Are you sitting comfortably? If so, I'll begin our festive tale. You're not? Well, I'll still begin.

How We Got our White Christmas

In common with most people, I like to think that I'm immune from advertisers. Or at least, I like to believe that they couldn't sell me just anything. The advertisers on the other hand like a challenge, and in 1942, presumably as the result of a bet, someone decided to sell the idea of White ChristmasTM.

It was certainly a tall order. How do you get people enthusiastic about being stuck at airport terminals (Heathrow, this year's most popular winter destination), or stranded on frozen motorways (Get stuck into something different this Christmas), or spending Christmas without electricity (Give the Environment a gift this year and save on your bills)?

If you're going to advertise a snowy Winter Wonderland, there are all sorts of places you could go to make your advert. You could get pictures of Father Christmas roasting reindeer in Lapland, or skiers breaking legs in the Alps, but if you're like me you probably wouldn't think of going somewhere arid and sunny. Of course, this is why we're not rich advertising executives. No, they went to Hollywood.

Hollywood truly is a magical place. It helped that Hollywood was black and white 1942, since that made a White Christmas the brightest and most cheery thing on the silver screen. Bing crooned, and suddenly all the misery, death and destruction caused by extreme weather conditions was forgotten about. Every year people dreampt of a White Christmas. Of the sound of sleigh bells in the snow. Incidentally, if you sat by the fire and heard sleigh bells this Christmas, then either your double glazing wasn't working or you now have reindeer crap all over your house.

White Christmas: The Small Print

Being an advertising invention, White Christmas is like winter furniture sales - not what it seems. Just as the furniture people give you 50% off products that they've been selling at twice their proper value for the appropriate number of weeks at a representative store in somewhere no-one goes, like Wales, in the case of a White Christmas the devil's in the legal detail.

Here, for example, on Christmas Day there was snow all around, and everything was more or less some shade of white, but it wasn't a White Christmas. Even if it had been snowing, it might not have been a White Christmas. A drop of snow has to fall on the roof of the Meteorological Office in London for it to be an official White Christmas. That hasn't happened this century.

The reason for this definition, is of course, money. Every year Bing Crosby fans (victims?) lose thousands at the bookies betting on a White Christmas. And most years that elusive drop of snow fails to fall.

Which, considering how close we came this year, and how much misery our pre-festive snow caused us, and how much it's causing the US now, is probably not a bad thing.

Bah, Humbug!

Anyway, I hope you survived Christmas more or less intact. As usual, I had a quiet time, watched some Cypriot TV, ate a roast dinner ready meal washed down with a bottle of wine, and of course made a point of watching Die Hard on Christmas Eve - something I do every year. My Christmas properly began yesterday when Helena arrived to open her presents. Last night's rain washed all the snow away, so we're pretty much back to normal. If Bing had been British, he'd have sung "Wet Christmas" instead...

Monday, 22 November 2010

Survival Tips

Once again this winter the environmentalists have somehow managed to turn off global warming. Here, there's apparently even talk of snow. So as a public service, I give you my top tips for surviving the cold weather.

Keep on the Move

One of the best ways to avoid getting frozen is to keep moving - Ice rarely forms on non-stationary objects. This is why your car doesn't freeze up whilst you're driving it. People used to have to sit for hours wrapped up in blankets reading Charles Dickens, but these days with laptops, tablets and e-books, you can keep reading and blogging while you're walking around, doing star jumps or whatever.

Stay in Warm Places

The biggest mistake that many people make at this time of year is staying at home. It might be nice and warm with your central heating or your log fire, but heating costs are astronomical and rising all the time. You should get into the habit of using other people's heat. Shops are open for a large proporition of the day, and you can spend hours wandering round them. Ones in the US that have free wireless are especially good, as you can avoid the boredom that normally accompanies shopping (for men, anyway). Another option is to sell insurance or double glazing and take advantage of the fact that old people keep their houses particularly warm, as well as possibly being gullible enough to buy whatever you're peddling. If you think this is immoral, you could just pretend to be a salesman.

Eat Well

Calories get their name from the fact that our body burns the food we eat. Not being a biologist, I'm not completely sure how this works, except that we use the oxygen we breathe to keep the fires going. I don't really understand what happens to the smoke, unless that's expelled as some form of exhaust gas... Anyway, in order to maintain a healthy temperature you will need to eat plenty of combustible material.

Drink Well

Naturally as you're eating more, you will also have to drink more. No doubt a biologist could explain why the fluid doesn't put these internal fires out. The only problem with drinking more is that you might get too bloated. In order to avoid this you need to consume plenty of diuretics. Coffee and alcohol are ideal, preferably mixed together.

Waste Electricity

When you do finally go home after a hard day shopping, dining and pubbing, you will still need to keep warm. Remember the wise words of the environmentalists who'll tell you that electrical appliances can pump out tons of heat. Replace all of those energy-saving lightbulbs, leave your TV on standby and don't bother turning things off. You'll find that your heating bills drop dramatically.

That's a few ideas, but if you have any more please let me know.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Murders, Hats, Senility


I spend quite a lot of my time involved with murders. Not real ones, you understand, but the more enjoyable* kind that can be found in the pages of a book. The vast majority of the books I read are crime novels, and a good proportion of the DVDs I watch are TV and film adaptations of these, such as the wonderful Joan Hickson Miss Marple series that Helena and I are currently watching.

I've just finished reading Murder Behind the Scenes by Giannis Maris. This was a classic locked room murder. The leading lady is murdered just before the premiere of her new play. This rules out the film critics in the audience, who generally wait until after the performance. To complicate matters, she is found stabbed to death in her dressing room, which is locked from the inside.

Various ideas are suggested to the detective. Maybe the lock was tampered with? No, it doesn't look like it, and the key was still on the inside. There's a small open window above the door. Not big enough to fit a person, but perhaps the knife was thrown at the victim? The angle of the wound rules this out.

Perhaps it wasn't murder but suicide? The doctor examining the body says that this is impossible. So how did the murderer do it? Perhaps there's a way to get into the adjoining dressing room? A wooden partition or some such thing?

Yes, there is. And the planks of wood are fixed with nails from the other room. So the murderer could have got out that way and nailed them back on when he was finished. Providing that the murderer was the actress in the next-door room, or an accomplice which as the story progresses doesn't seem that likely.

The most interesting twist in the story is that our hero Captain Bekas doesn't solve the murder. The man who seems certain to be the guilty party is killed whilst trying to resist arrest, and everyone is satisfied that the case is closed. The real culprit confesses to a reporter, but swears him to secrecy so that his children won't have to face the social stigma of having a murderer for a father, and then kills himself. Thankfully for the reader, he explains what really happened with the locked room.

Bekas (centre) from a TV adaptation.

Now I'm reading Che Killed Himself by Petros Markaris, which involves a series of suicides which are really murders. The first one is carried out live on TV watched by millions of viewers, which seems to make the locked room problem look easy by comparison.

* At least, I assume it's more enjoyable to read about it than actually do it as I have never in my life had first-hand experience of the latter. Not so far, anyway.


This won't interest anyone else, but I like to record Geeky landmarks in my blog so that I can look back and see when I did this or that to my computers. Having had the 2008 edition of Ubuntu on my desktop for a couple of years, I decided to do an upgrade. Instead of the 2010 Ubuntu, I downloaded Fedora. This is a distribution of Linux related to the enterprise Red Hat Linux. Which is why it's named after a hat. I put Fedora on the computer as a learning exercise, but I've decided to keep using it. Ubuntu is still the easiest Linux to get up and running, and I am still using it on my netbook, but I'm really happy with my shiny new Fedora desktop.


I'm sure I had something else to say, but I've got a terrible memory these days - I must be getting old. Which reminds me - Happy Birthday, Bee!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Strange (and Strangely Familiar) New Worlds

You may have seen in the news that the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has died, aged 85. Most people (myself included) don't know much about the mathematical significance of his work, but are familiar with the pretty pictures derived from the Mandelbrot Set.

When I was a child, I used to spend a lot of time messing around with home computers. You used to get magazines with programs you could type in, and several of them had fractal drawing programs. Unfortunately, home computers weren't anywhere near as powerful as they are today, and a single, relatively low-resolution picture could take hours or even days to draw. I was never that patient.

Fortunately these days you can download software that lets you zoom around the Mandelbrot Set and other fractal sets in real time. Here's a screenshot I took from the xaos program:

Mandelbrot's strange but beautiful world is made from relatively simple looking equations, which is funny considering how complicated some of the equations get which attempt to describe our more familiar surroundings.

Talking about familiar worlds, I've been watching the cult 70's British TV show Blake's Seven.

I vaguely remember it from the first time round. As with so many of these old programmes, I'm surprised that it doesn't look a lot worse. Some of the special effects are a bit ropy, as are some of the plots, but it's still enjoyable. When I was off work the other week with an incurable upper respiratory infection (otherwise known as a cold), I spent a lot of time groggily watching one of the box sets.

The story is about a group of rebels who are fighting the evil Earth Federation. They've got a super hi-tech alien spaceship called the Liberator which is equipped with a teleport device - something that the Federation don't have.

Most of the planets look strangely like Earth. To be more precise, they look just like quarries, beaches and forests that you'd find in Britain. All of the inhabitants of these planets speak with British accents. I'm sure that this has nothing to do with the fact that this was a low budget British TV production, but just that this is what you'd expect the future to be like.

The planets are generally inhabited by humans because they are part of the Federation's Empire. It's not unreasonable to assume that such an empire would start in Britain - after all, the British are historically the world's experts when it comes to empires. And it's not unreasonable to suppose that humans would settle on Earth-like planets, with temperate climates. Just like in Britain.

The implausible part of all this is the teleport. It's a bit like the Star Trek one - the crew teleport to and from remote locations by standing in a special device that beams their atoms around like radio waves. In Blake's Seven they have to wear teleport bracelets, which also have communicators on them.

I'd imagine that if scientists ever perfect teleport technology (and they are working on it), you'd have to beam from one teleport machine to another, a bit like sending a fax. The idea that you'd want to send your atoms to some random location seems a little dodgy. For starters, how do they get reassembled at their location without another machine? How do you make sure that you end up standing on something, such as the ground or a floor, rather than ending up in mid-air? And it gets worse. How do you avoid teleporting into someone's bathroom, or some other potentially embarrassing situation?

The other problem that the Blake's Seven lot have is getting themselves teleported back up in an emergency or embarrassing situation. They have to radio back to the Liberator, and then someone has to be ready by the teleport controls. This is fine in theory, but usually there's some problem on the ship which means that the crew are somehow unable to do this. Until the last minute, of course. So why don't their magic teleport bracelets have a "Shit! Beam me back up now!" button?

Anyway, if you'll excuse me, it's time for me to teleport back to reality and get something to eat. I hope you had a good weekend.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Driven to Drink

I haven't posted in a while, because I was too busy dying. Which I think you'll agree is a reasonable excuse. Or is it?

I tend to worry about my health, especially when anything happens that I can't explain. I don't visit doctors very often, but when I do, it's usually because I'm afraid that The End is in sight. I realise that this is irrational - after all, if I really am that far gone, they probably won't be able to do anything for me. Nevertheless, rationality does not play much of a part in my health worries.

I have been living a slightly healthier lifestyle after discovering that my blood pressure was too high. I've been walking more (though still probably not enough), and drinking quite a bit less. This all went out of the window when I started getting various aches and pains.

A quick look on Wikipedia confirmed my worst fears - it was almost certainly something major and life-threatening. So I started to get worried. I started to go through my DVD collection to work out which ones I needed to watch first, and which ones might be better viewed through a morphine-induced haze near The End (I'm saving the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 till last, having twice failed to get past the first 10 minutes). Staying at home reading blogs just made me more aware of my aches, so I went to the pub more.

When I finally got round to booking an appointment with the doctor, he was very reassuring. It was nothing major. I should avoid doing any heavy lifting, and stop worrying. However, he did take two armfuls of blood for a range of tests just in case. You might think I'm exaggerating, but they started on my right arm and it dried up before they had enough. Why can't the NHS be more like Star Trek where they just wave a whirring scanner over you?

The nurses' uniforms are better, too

My brush with death still wasn't over. I was told I'd have to go back to the doctor because some of the tests had failed. Or passed, or whatever. I arranged for a doctor to phone (it was a Friday), but I managed to miss the call. I spent the weekend nervously sorting through my DVDs.

I went in on Monday. "I hear you've got some bad news", I said. "I wouldn't say that. Have you been drinking too much recently?", was his reply. "Well, actually, yes." He told me to drink less and go back to have another armful of blood checked out in a few weeks time.

So, reassured, I'm back to my more temperate ways - ODing on lemon juice rather than alcohol, and just going to the pub once or twice a week. Hopefully the next blood test will reflect this.

However, during my brief period of daily drinking, the pub had a Jack Daniels promotion. I've never really liked JD, but you could win all sorts of great prizes, allegedly to celebrate Mr Daniel's birthday. I was only after a T-shirt, but I had to get through several doubles to achieve this, winning badges and a hat along the way.

Whether I succumb to a fatal illness next week or next century, this is quite possibly the only time you'll see me wearing a hat - I really can't stand them.

Have a good weekend.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

View from the Sofa

This weekend has been lazier than most - I have hardly moved from my sofa, except for trips to the kitchen to top up on lemon infused soda water, and of course to go to bed.

I'm not ill, and nor have I broken any bones. After a busy week at work and without any childcare duties (Helena stayed at home as she wasn't feeling well), it's great to spend a couple of days doing very little.

However much rest the body gets, the mind refuses to remain inactive, so here's a list of the exciting things I've been up to. For completeness, I've also added the unexciting ones as well. I'll leave you to decide which are which.

Reading a book

I'm currently half-way through Robert Canigel's biography of the early-twentieth century Indian mathematician Ramanujan. Ramanujan had little formal mathemtatical training, and failed to get through college, mainly because they wouldn't let him drop all the subjects that didn't interest him (i.e. all the ones that weren't maths). Whilst pretending to work as a clerk (he spent most of his day working on his maths research) he wrote letters to various eminent British mathematicians, since none of the ones he knew in India could understand any of his theories. One of the Brits, G H Hardy, replied and ultimately Ramanujan came over here to study and work at Cambridge. Never in the best of health, and terribly homesick, he got ill and died at the age of 32, leaving a huge number of theories which no-one understands how he came up with, and becoming one of the most famous mathetmicians and geniuses ever.

Solving all the Sudokus

Someone in the pub showed me a newspaper article about the world's hardest Sudoku puzzle. He thought I might want to have a go at solving it. He was a little surprised when I told him that I'd go off and write a computer program to do it. After all, sudokus are soulless computer generated puzzles, unlike crosswords, and are best dealt with by technology rather than pencil and paper. Another regular in the pub loves solving them, but he had to admit defeat on this one, which I think justifies my approach.

There are plenty of programs out there to solve Sudokus, but I wanted to write my own. It only took a few hours to write, and it solved the puzzle so quickly that I've not been able to measure its speed (less than 5 milliseconds, even on my netbook). Of course, it doesn't just solve that one, but any of them. Though if that puzzle really is the hardest anyone's come up with, it just goes to show what a waste of time they are.

Running my Life from my Netbook

One problem with living on the sofa is that I'm out of reach of my computer. So I've been using the netbook that I bought the last time I was in the US. I'm not finding it too hard to type on the undersized keyboard, and I've set things up so that I can log into my desktop computer to copy files and read my email (I won't bore you with why I want to do the latter). One thing I do find, though, is that it's easy to hit the mousepad whilst typing, which isn't always ideal.

The US keyboard layout is a bit annoying as well, especially when programming. Quite a few of the symbols are in different places. I could just use a UK layout, but that gets confusing if you look down at the keys at all. I have a similar problem with my desktop, since I now have a Greek keyboard which mainly uses the US layout as well.

Looking for Regular Expression Jokes

Regular Expressions are a way of specifying patterns for searching things, mainly in text. I was sure that there must be plenty of jokes based on them, but I couldn't find any. Probably I didn't manage to use the correct regexp. Still as always, xkcd had something just as good.

Falling Asleep

I started watching the next Bond film - You Only Live Twice. Either it was boring, or I was tired, or both, but I didn't manage to stay awake to the end, so I'll have to watch the last half again to find out what happens. No doubt he saves the world. I wonder whether I'll manage to watch the remaining 17.

Getting Out More

Having read all of the above, or even just looking at the pictures, you're probably thinking "He really needs to get out more". And you're probably right. So, whilst this isn't strictly speaking a sofa-based activity, I might just make it to the pub this evening, to give a splendid finale to a wonderfully restful weekend.

I hope your weekend wasn't too hectic either.