Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Deadly Pen

Whilst I was at the supermarket stocking up on ready meals, I went to their stationary section to get some pads of paper, and also ended up getting a Sainsbury's own brand "premium" fountain pen for £1.99 (on special offer).

Now, pens are dangerous things, so as you'd expect there was a health warning on the box. What do you think it said?

After all, pens have a pointed bit on the end, and you could poke yourself or someone else in a sensitive place:
Don't try this at home!

And they say that the pen is mighter than the sword. And swords are a health and safety nightmare.
"Woops! Sorry Mate, I just slipped."

In the wrong hands, a pen can be used to sign someone's death warrant. Or start a war.
Mary Queen of Scott's Death Warrant

However, the sole warning on this packet was something that had never occurred to me:
At least now I know what not to do.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Deadly Virus

The deadly virus that is my cold is still trying to kill me. The congestion has been keeping me awake, and so sapping my energy, but I had a better sleep last night, which suggests that it's easing up on my nasal passages and is going to start attacking my lungs.

Helena and I watched the new "War of the Worlds" film the other day. By "new", I am of course referring to the 2005 version starring Tom "Midget" Cruise and a cast of thousands of CGI effects.

The classic film version came out in 1953. They didn't have CGI in those days, and you could see the threads holding up the alien spaceships. Our hero in that film was Gene Barry, with Ann Robinson providing the eye candy and the screams.

Incidentally this is NOT the same Ann Robinson who's the dominatrix host of "The Weakest Link".

The other classic version of TWOTW was Orson Wells' 1938 radio adaptation. Despite the lack of Technicolor and CGI, this was the one that was considered most realistic by the audience, many of whom famously thought that they were listening to a real Martian invasion.

In both films the aliens invade and prove to be stronger than anything the world's human forces can throw at them. In the end they are killed by the same organisms that are currently making my life a misery - the deadly common cold. Sadly the aliens had spent so much time and effort perfecting their armour plating and their ray guns that they forgot to pack any Lem Sip.

The only problem with this plot is that no-one gets to make any contribution to the alien's destruction. Even if everyone had locked themselves in their basements and done nothing the attack would still have failed. This makes both films less exciting and provides less suspense than similar invasion films where the heros only just manage to prevent worldwide destruction by the skin of their teeth.

The new film is 2 hours long, which was a bit too much. Some of the special effects where cars and debris hurtle towards Tom seemed, well, wrong. It looks like all the crap is flying right into the foreground but somehow it doesn't reach where our hero is standing. Maybe it's meant to look unrealistic.

In the original film the main character is a scientist, but since neither science nor the US Army manage to defeat the marauding invaders, this doesn't really matter much, but it does help his love life, since Ann Robinson's character goes all gooey the minute she finds out who he is. He also gets a laugh at the vicar's party with the line "I was just thinking that if we could harness all of the energy expended in a barn dance, we'd be able to send that meteor back where it came from". I think I was born 50 years too late.

Although the new film was okay, I think on balance I prefer the earlier version. It's shorter and the geeky guy gets the girl. And Sir Cedric Hardwicke does the narration with his clipped British accent. Those were the days...

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Happy Holidays

So, how was it for you? I imagine that for most of you Americans, Christmas has climaxed already. Here, of course, it lasts for longer. Because Boxing Day fell on a Saturday, we get Monday off as a public holiday, so we're only half-way there.

As expected, I didn't venture out at all on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. On Wednesday evening I visited the pub, staggering home after closing, or rather sliding home because it was treacherously icy. I'm glad I had a lot to drink that evening, as had I been sober I might have injured myself.

As usual on Christmas Eve, I watched everyone's favourite seasonal film - Die Hard. This has to be the best Christmas film ever. It's just a shame that I'll have to wait 7 years before I can watch it with Helena. I also cracked open a bottle of Claret, and started on the stilton. Bizarrely, the label says that you've got to eat it within 3 days of opening. Or what? According to wiki, they spend 9 weeks cultivating the mould, so just how is it going to go off in the space of 72 hours?

Christmas wouldn't be the same without listening to at least part of Manos Tsilimidis' (aka "The awake man") Christmas Eve/Christmas Day Special on Greek Radio (10pm - 2am Greek Time). Every year I realise how much more Greek I understand.

The highlight of Christmas Day was having a traditional British roast. Actually, it was one that was labelled "Roast Chicken Dinner for One" and you did it in the oven, but it was very nice, especially when washed down with yet another bottle of Claret. And then more stilton.

I watched one of the DVDs I bought in Athens. There was a shop there selling ex-rental DVDs for €2 a throw, and I bought this one. I believe you can get it here by the name of "A touch of Spice", but don't believe IMDB when they say it's a comedy. It was a very artistically photographed film whose hero spends part of his childhood in Constantinople, but his family is forced to leave in 1963 when the Turkish authorities are, as on other occaisions, harrassing the "Greek" minority due to events in Cyprus. When they get to Athens, they find that they are treated with suspicion by the Greeks. Our hero has been interested in cooking from an early age (his grandfather had a shop selling spices), and food is juxtapositioned with life and with the universe. His grandfather hasn't followed the family to Greece since he's a Turkish citizen, and since he can't bear to leave "the most beautiful city in the world". Finally his grandson returns to his birthplace to bury him and to come to terms with the world that he left all those years before. The plight of the "Romioi" (people of Greek extraction from Constantinople) is both sad and fascinating. These are people who are culturally Greeks, but whose fatherland is Turkey, not Greece. There used to be a large population, but many were driven out after the events of September 1955 and 1963. The film was very successful internationally, and I think most people would find it interesting. The dialogue is in Greek, Turkish and English, so you have to watch it with subtitles unless you're trilingual.

The only bad thing is that I've come down with a cold. The office was half empty this week, and I've hardly been out, so I think I must have got it from Helena. The cold itself isn't that bad (yet - Helena is cheerfully predicting that it will get a lot worse, based on her experience of it), but I find it vey difficult to sleep when I'm congested, so I had a sleepless night with wierd dreams. Though according to wiki that could be the stilton.

On Boxing Day Helena arrived, so the family side to the Yuletide Festival has begun. But that's a story for another day...

Wednesday, 23 December 2009


For the last week or so, Britain has been engulfed in some kind of cold pressure front, or whatever the weather people call it. I don't actually know, since I don't watch the British weather. What's the point of watching the weather on the TV when you can just look out of the window?

We haven't had snow where I live, but some of my colleagues have been snowed in. Apparently things are worse further South. At the weekend some trains got stuck inside the Channel Tunnel. When it's snowing underneath the sea, you know things are bad.

The weather has apparently caused havoc for people trying to go anywhere at Christmas. I wouldn't know because I watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles during my formative years and am therefore programmed not to go anywhere over the Festive Season.

The shops will be shutting for Christmas Day, so I've got in plenty of supplies. I even have a roast chicken ready meal for the 25th itself, as well as tins of Big Soup. Assuming that all goes to plan, I don't intend to step foot outside until Boxing Day, when Helena will arrive for her second Christmas of the year.

Not being religious, I like the peacefulness of these holidays. Nobody expects you to do anything other than sit around getting mildly merry. Not drunk, because even the drinking is done in a leisurely and peaceful fashion for once.

Whatever Christmas does or doesn't mean for you, I hope that you have a peaceful and happy time. If you must venture out into the snow, ice or whatever, please do so carefully and safely. If you must spend time with those relatives that you spend the rest of the year avoiding, please don't hit them too hard.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Χρόνια Πολλά.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Secret Santa

For this year's Secret Santa Extravaganza, organised by Bee, The person selected to be my victim, or rather the lucky virtual recipient of a virtual gift from me, was KB from Nonsense Words.

Since KB is working and therefore not at home so much to pamper the various dogs and puppies who end up at her place, I think it's only right that they should get something special this Christmas.

Rod Stewart's wife apparently paid £25,000 for her pets to have this luxury dog kennel made:

I think I might have enough to afford to buy KB something similar, if I raid all of the Monopoly games that are lying around my flat. If not, the dogs may end up with a bungalow. Made up of Monopoly boxes.

Merry Christmas!

Many Thanks to My Secret Santa Always Home And Uncool for taking the time and thought to produce an incredible virtual gift...

Monday, 14 December 2009

Christmas Yet To Come

Christmas has long been associated with time. Dickens' famous story "A Christmas Carol" features the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

One person who has ever less time is Santa. You're supposed to slow down in old age, but the poor bugger has to cope with an ever growing world population. Which means more children to get presents to by Chrismas Day.

And with the credit crunch he's being forced by the International Monetary Fund to lay off some of his elves, and put the work out to contractors instead. This is of course grossly inefficient, since most of the money he was paying his little helpers will now be going into shareholder's pockets.

Something's going to have to give.

Things were so much easier in the good old days before globalisation and Coca Cola. When he became an internationally recognised figure he persuaded the authorities to introduce time zones around the world. This innovation meant that Christmas morning happened 24 times, once an hour*, instead of just once a year. It gave him more time to get around the globe, and proved very popular with watch manufacturers.

* - This isn't strictly true, since some places, such as Afghanistan are half-an-hour ahead, but let's not get too technical.

But now there's a serious risk that some children will end up getting their presents late. Unless something is done. And I will now explain just what that something should be. (No, it doesn't involve Santa swapping his traditional bottle of Coke for a can of Red Bull).

I'd like to claim credit for the idea, but it was actually thought up thirty years ago by an American woman. Sadly, as she announced her brainwave to the world she made a serious slip of the tonuge and ended up appearing on those dreadful outtake programs.

I suggest you only watch the first minute or so of the above. The rest really isn't worth sitting through.

Anyway, that's the woman I'm talking about. One of the foremost visionary thinkers of our time. Unfortunately, she was blonde and had a Southern accent, so people assumed she was an airhead. What she actually meant to say was:

"They should have it every month."

In 1980 people might have thought she was a World Champion Airhead if she'd said that, but it turns out to be the solution to all Santa's problems. At least the problems that haven't already been cured by Viagra.

The idea is really just an extension of the time zones. Starting with GMT (obviously), the time zones are lumped into groups of two, and each time zone holds Christmas in a different month. So in the UK and Western Europe we'll still celebrate it in December, but in Chicago and Toronto the magical month will be April.

Australians will get July and August, and so they won't be able to make the rest of us feel jealous by opening their presents on beaches full of bikini-clad beauties.

Father Christmas will now have twelve months to deliver his goodies, which will mean an end to the seasonal imbalances in the Greenland economy, and employment all year round.

But what about the religious aspect? Well, no-one knows when Christ was born, and December was chosen because there was traditionally a big pagan piss-up around that time. Once all the pagans had been converted or burnt, the Christians could have moved it to any date. Only the monks had spent ages drawing up calendars on beautifully illuminated manuscripts, so they left it where it was.

Some people are so enamoured with the festival that they would like it to always be Christmas. Those individuals will now be able to become nomads who travel round the globe celebrating a perpetual Yuletide. For the rest of us, the Christmas season will actually get shorter.

Christmas carols, lights and shop displays will only be allowed in the month of Christmas, thus reversing the worrying trend of getting ever earlier each year. In addition, anyone wanting to avoid the whole thing will no longer need to go into space, but will simply be able to move a timezone or two away for a month. For example, Texans could go to Tegucigalpa, Brits to Greece, and so on.
Tegucigalpa - Jean Knee's Future Christmas Retreat

I hope that Obama, Coca Cola and Wallmart will read the letters I'm going to send them explaining the benefits of the Year-Long-Yule and set the appropriate wheels in motion, but in the meantime I'd be happy to hear your views.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

I wish...

This week, I've been watching some episodes of a TV programme called "4". The four in question are brothers living in Athens. Each was born in a different season, and each has a very different life. The series starts with a rare family reunion in aid of their mother's 60th birthday. At the end of the evening (and the first episode) their father goes off to his study and blows his brains out with a pistol. The four brothers find themselves drawn closer together, as their lives start to change radically.

One of the brothers stays at home looking after his two children whilst his wife devotes all her time and energy to her career. "Do you know how long it is since we last made love?", he asks her one night. "One month and 20 days". "You mean you're counting?", she asks. Women!

Another is (almost) happily married to a woman who wants the same things as he does. Except that he's beginning to wonder whether they have a problem since they can't come up with the baby that they both want. And he's met someone who appears to be even more compatible. After medical tests he finds out that he's firing blanks, but before he can tell his wife, she announces that she's two months pregnant. Oops.

The third brother is a musician who prefers one night stands to a serious relationship. Though that seems about to change.

The fourth (a chef) has a gorgeous girlfriend called "Tonia". Except that he hasn't. He just dreams about her. So much so that he's begun to believe that she really exists.

Now, I don't think I'm exactly grounded in reality. I love reading escapist fiction and watching entertaining films. Not the kind that agonise about mothers dying of cancer, or children getting gassed in concentration camps. I'm fairly withdrawn as a person, and I don't let the real world get me down as much as some people seem to.

On the other hand, I've never been like the chef. I don't live in a fantasy world. That's why I could never be a Trekkie, or one of those soap opera fans who believe that it's all real. I never had an invisible friend or a fantasy girlfriend.

On the other hand, I do live in this strange virtual Greek world where I know all about the weather and events in Cyprus and Greece, but haven't a clue whether I should wear a coat to work. In this virtual but very real world over the last few days, they've been marking the first anniversary of the fatal shooting of the teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos by police. A year ago this became a pretext for violence and destruction in the centre of Athens (and, to a lesser extent, other cities). This year the authorities, forewarned, seem to have been able to limit this, despite the anti-authoritarian thugs getting reinforcements in from all around Europe. Nevertheless, police have been injured by stones and molotov cocktails, and some cars have been burnt.

To make matters worse, the bin men have been on strike, so the city is literally full of rubbish. Piles of bags are strewn all about the streets, and the authorities have been worried the refuse might fuel fires started by the "demonstrators" and cause real damage.

Watching these pictures, I've been overwhelmed by a particular wish. In addition to wishing that people wouldn't perpetrate acts of sensless violence, and that there weren't bags of rubbish all over the place. I wish I was back in Athens...

Maybe I'm becoming a dreamer after all.

Another Athens Pic
Photo by caperboy at Webshots website (click on the picture to visit the site)

Monday, 30 November 2009

Greek For Tourists

The story so far: Our hero has taken the plunge and finally got round to going to Athens. He has successfully navigated his way to the hotel, and has succeeded in checking in. Now, driven by hunger, he is about to go forth into the city and stun them with his knowledge of the Greek language.

I've been learning Greek now for three years. At first I spent my spare time hunched over my computer, painstakingly reading news websites by looking up every single word in a dictionary. It sometimes took me an hour to read a couple of paragraphs.

Very gradually, things got better. Sometimes I went for whole sentences without reaching for the dictionary. Which meant that I needed another challenge. So I started downloading newspapers in PDF format. They are far wordier and use much richer vocabulary.

Later, I started ordering books online. And watching Cypriot TV. And streaming other things, and watching the odd film on DVD. nowadays I understand virtually everything on the TV news, and a reasonable amount of film dialogue. Enough to understand what's going on, anyway.

So getting a beer would be no sweat, right?


On the plus side of the equation is my three years of learning. However, there were also quite a few minuses:
  • I've never, ever, spoken to anyone in Greek. I've done quite a lot of reading aloud, but that's not really the same thing.
  • I'm not exactly the most confident of people, so it was very clear to everyone I met that I was nervous and unsure.
  • Aimilia Kenevezou and her colleagues in the RIK newsroom are professional TV people who speak very clearly. Sadly, I didn't find Aimilia or any of her colleagues moonlighting in the places I visited. Your average person behind a bar or in a cafe mumbles.
  • There are only about 3 or 4 different things that your average person behind a bar or in a cafe will ask you in any given situation. "Ice and lemon?", "Do you want fries with that?", and so on. Most of the time you can't hear them properly because of the noise and the mumbling, but you're able to guess. When, like me, you don't have a clue what they might actually say, you're stuffed. Especially if they put fries in your drink instead of ice.
  • My hotel was in an area with a high immigrant population, so I was talking bad Greek to people who were talking bad Greek back. Which increased my potential for starvation.
Nevertheless, somehow I managed not to starve and not to speak a word of English whilst I was there. The first evening, I went to a bar and after a fashion managed to get some Amstel. And some ouzo. On the second visit there I realised why I was having so much trouble communicating with the barmaid. It turned out that she was Polish, and was having difficulty with the language. Luckily she knew enough Greek to explain this to me.

A lot of the time, I felt like a total idiot, especially when people started trying to use sign language or speak to me in English. At which point I'd always repeat what they'd just said to me in Greek.

I did better in shops when I had to ask for something specific, or in the second had bookshop where I explained to the owner that I lived abroad and relied on buying new books on the internet, so it would be great to find some out of print books, and the subjects I was interested in. He even complimented me on my good Greek.

So linguistically speaking, the week was a learning experience for me. It proved that I need to watch more films and listen to more radio, so that I can get better at understanding less formal Greek. Then maybe next time I won't feel so hopeless.

Stay tuned for another installment of my Greek Adventure, coming soon...

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

All Greek

Several weeks ago now, I went to Athens. This was my first foreign holiday in about 12 years. I've been meaning to get around to going away, but of course I never did. And then one day I decided to see how much a seven day break would cost, by entering some random dates into Thomas Cook's website. I was pleasantly surprised by the result - £360 for flights and hotel seemed like a good deal, so I went ahead and booked something for real. In the end I paid £430 so that I didn't have to fly at crazy times.

I didn't really think about going anywhere else. There were several reasons for this:
  • I wanted to go to a Greek speaking part of the world.
  • They speak a dialect of Greek in Cyprus, which I'm nowhere near as good at understanding.
  • Melbourne is too far away.
  • I went to Athens when I was 15 and decided that it was the best city in the world. I should add that the only other city I'd been to at that point was London.
  • I'd read and seen more about Athens than Thessaloniki (Greece's second city), so it seemed more familiar somehow.
My flight got into Elevtherios Venizelos Airport late afternoon on a Saturday. I'd read all about the metro, and I knew that I could get very close to my hotel on it, so I headed straight for the station and bought my ticket using a machine, then went to the platform.

There were two trains there, and one of the train drivers seeing that I was looking lost asked me where I was going. I told him, and he directed me to the other train. My first ever verbal exchange in Greek was actually a success. Even if I did stumble over the words.

On my way to the hotel, I stopped at a kiosk to buy a copy of the paper. This was one of the things I had been looking forward to - having the newspaper in my hand instead of on a computer screen.

The kiosks are a great idea - they're outdoor newsagents, dotted around all over the place and sell papers, magazines, cold drinks, crisps and chocolate. And they're open all day until late. It can't be that much fun being cooped up in one for all that time, though.

I bought a real paper every day, of course, and some of them came with free CDs and DVDs. One of them was a CD of Greek music by Yiannis Poulopoulos. Here's one of the lighter tracks for your delight and delectation.

It's called "I have a boat with sails". Even though I've found the lyrics on the internet, this song is taking me ages to work out - I understand all the words, but getting the sense of it is much harder to fathom than most of the Greek I'm used to. Which means that I need to spend some time on songs, something I've not thought of doing until now.

Anyway, more about my holiday (and language issues) later...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Nothing Doing

Last week was rather stressful, due to family issues which are unfortunately ongoing (isn't old age cruel?), and I've been feeling zonked. Thankfully, as this week progresses, I'm beginning to get back to normal, and to wake up a bit.

So apart from the work and family stuff, what have I been doing over the last seven days? Well, I spent two of those days travelling by rail, which meant that I got a lot of reading done. I got through Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder in three days, which is very good going for me.

Yesterday evening, I went to the pub for the first time in about three weeks. It was good to catch up with people, but nothing very exciting actually happened, I'm afraid. You're probably going to complain that I'm not trying hard enough. I should have drunk a lot more and made a real idiot of myself to get some blogging material. I might do that another time. In fact, if I get really short of stuff to blog about, I could go to the next karaoke night, and post up a video of the event. For your sakes, I hope I don't get that desperate.

Otherwise, I've done very little. I've not been checking everyone's blogs as assiduously as I should, and I promise to do better. I'm also hoping that I will be able to find time to blog about my trip to Greece in the next few days. As they say, "Watch this space"

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

B is for Bat. And Ball. And Britain.

Over the last couple of days, the English language google has been celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. So today, as a sort of educational feature, I thought I'd take a quick look at one of the ways that Britain has shaped the world's sporting culture. The British have a long tradition of inventing sports, such as football, which was played on the streets of Medieval Britain, cricket, snooker, croquet, bowls, curling, golf, squash, rugby, etc. Actually, many of these games had origins elsewhere, but the modern versions and their rules were invented here.

The British have a very strong sense of fair play. When the Spanish sent their Armada to invade Britain in 1588 our defence forces were delayed from setting sail because Sir Francis Drake was in the middle of a bowls game, and the official rules did mention abandoning the game if it started to rain, but they said nothing about a war. It was okay, though, because the Spanish invasion was eventually cancelled due to rain. Or rather, storms to be precise, which led to the sinking of many of the Armada's ships. In accordance with the rules, the British were declared the winners.

Unlike the Americans, the British long ago made the mistake of letting foreigners play their games. The problem is that they've managed to get much better than us. This is especially true of the outdoor games, since people in drier countries (i.e. everyone else) actually get to finish them more often, whereas here of course they're usually rained off.

Tennis is a good example. It became popular in the mid 1800s, and the Wimbledon championship is still considered to be one of the main competitions. It's 32 years since a British player won the women's singles there, and 73 years since Fred Perry won the men's title.

With the popularity of tennis in Victorian times, people started to play a smaller version of it on their dining room tables, using a row of books instead of a net. This game was called Whiff Whaff. Eventually they constructed proper green tables with nets, and renamed it Ping Pong. Then they made the mistake of letting the Chinese play it.

Many years later in the USA, Ping Pong was turned into the first arcade videogame. For some reason the manufacturers, Atari, called it "Pong", which you wouldn't have thought was a great choice of names. However, the game was successful and led to a home version and further games consoles. Today instead of "Pong" people play "Wii".

Anyway, Bee is the same age as Pong, which is why I didn't say what year the arcade game appeared. It wouldn't be polite since B is also for Birthday. I hope she has a happy one today.

Maybe in three years Google will have a celebration for Pong...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

"The Day of Crisis isn't here yet"

I returned from a great week in Athens to learn that in my absence there had been a death in the family. We're not a close family, but it's still a bit of a shock.

I'll post a full report of my holiday at some point in the near future, when I'm feeling less serious.

Anyway, I brought back some Greek films on DVD, and I thought I'd cheer myself up by watching one of them.

The film is titled "Η γυναίκα είναι ... σκλυρός άνθρωπος", which literally translated means "The Woman is ... a tough person". It was made in 2005. It's a comedy with Antonis Kafetzopoulos as the writer and director and who also plays the leading part of Johnny Maniatis.

I suppose at this point I should write


only I'm guessing that none of you are very likely to see this film, sadly.

The film is a day in the life of Johnny, the 50-year-old head of an advertising agency. His motto is "The Day of Crisis isn't here yet", but it's clear that his life is heading that way very rapidly. He is spending money he hasn't got, he desperately needs to secure an advertising contract for sanitary towels, and then there are the "tough" women in his life.

There's his mother, who visits the agency to get €2000 for her holiday. Money that Johnny hasn't got. Although she enters the building and starts up the stairs, she never gets to his office. The Greek Police send a couple of cops round, but they don't think they'll be able to help, given that they're swamped with other cases. However a €1500 cheque soon changes their attitude. Luckily for Johnny they don't attempt to cash it right away. The head cop (Kostas Triantafillopoulos) gives Johnny a lesson in criminology. There are only three reasons why a 72 year old woman disappears. Altzheimer's, kidnap or suicide. In turn each reason is believed to be the correct one (the scene with the cops comparing the photo to various corpses in the morgue is hilarious). As the titles roll, we learn what really happened.

Johnny has an 18/19 year old kleptomaniac daughter, Artemis, who is in trouble for shop lifting. And escaping from police custody with a bulgarian suspect who she tries to turn into an armed bank robber.

Johnny's girlfriend of seven years, Georgia, is a lawyer whose biological clock is ticking. She decides she's going to have a baby, and if our hero won't oblige then she'll find someone who will. She gives him a deadline. He has to meet her at 10pm in a restuarant for a romantic meal. If he doesn't turn up she plans to go in search of a suitable, em, donor. Her transformation in the restaurant's bathroom from smartly dressed lawyer into man-catching tart is brilliant.

The other women in Johnny's life are his ex-wife (Artemis' mother), his faithful secretary (Yiota Festa) and, of course, his mother's dog.

The film was a lot of fun, and is very nicely filmed, with lots of location shots in Athens and brilliant use of digital special effects. The DVD had a whole load of behind-the-scenes extras which give you some idea of the trouble they went to. The dog is in a lot of scenes, which must have taken forever to get right, and there's a really impressive road accident stunt, which looks just as scary when you see footage of them filming it.

If you get the chance to see it then do, otherwise you can use the above at dinner parties to amaze people with your knowledge of foreign cinema.


I remember this meme thing going around a couple of years ago where the idea is to generate a random album - band name, title and picture all being picked using randomised web pages.

You can find the rules on Kat's blog. Here's what I ended up with this time:

I only hope I'm not going to have to change my name to Jeremy Jones.

Saturday, 31 October 2009


Friday Evening: 7.25pm

I should have been writing a blog post for Wednesday, but I can't concentrate. My head is full of worries. In an attempt to help dispel these, I'm writing them here. After all this is a weblog, right?

I'm going on holiday. At least I should be, if things go to plan. The only problem is, I don't go on holiday. I never really have. The occasional trip to a seaside resort with the children when I was married, but not a holiday involving air going arboad. Of course, I sometimes travel on business to do courses and the like, but then everything is arranged for you, and I'm often there with colleagues. And even then I worry.

It's not as if I'm doing anything adventurous, like those people who take a single change of underwear, a couple of sticks, a mouldy Mars Bar and £5 and manage to hike to the South Pole and back. Via Everest, of course, with sightseeing trips to a couple of war zones.

No, all I'm doing is flying to Athens for a short break. What if the taxi gets here at 5.45 in the evening instead of the morning? I did tell them 5.45, not 4.45, didn't I? What if my alarm clock doesn't go off at 4am? What if my alarm clock goes off but I don't wake up? Did I check the batteries in the alarm clock?

I've no real plans, but at least the hotel is in a central location near a lot of the sights. If I end up getting the bus from the airport and walking from Constitution Square, will I be safe? Especially with the hotel being near the red light district. Why did I wait until after I'd booked it to find out about the red light district? And about the fact that the revolutionary terrorist types hang out not far from there (according to the US State Department's website)?

I got a great deal on the holiday, though the hotel has mixed reviews and is obviously of the cheap and cheerful variety. What about that review that mentioned cockroaches? And pubic hairs on the bed linen? Will I be able to sleep there? Or will I end up walking through the streets in an insomniac daze?

I paid slightly more than the cheapest price so that I could get flights at a reasonable time. What if my return flight's delayed and I get stranded at the airport after the last bus has gone?

Anyway, aside from all my worries, I'm looking forwards to visiting one of the great seats of civilisation, to being able to sit and leaf through newspapers printed on paper instead of a computer screen, not to mention sampling the local food and drink. And forgetting about work and responsibilities for a few days. What if I'm robbed and lose my money, credit cards and passport? I'll probably end up in a prison cell.

The hotel has apparently got internet access, so I might be able to read some of my favourite blogs, otherwise you'll get an update in a week or so. What if I end up spending the rest of my life in an airport like Tom Hanks? What if...

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Man Who Said "No"

Today is the 28th October, which is celebrated as Οχι day in Greece. Οχι means "no". Ioannis Metaxas was Prime Minister of Greece, when a little after 3am on the 28th October 1940, Emmanuele Grazzi, the Italian Ambassador visited him at home with a message from the Italian government.

The message demanded that the Italian forces be allowed to enter Greece and take control of strategic locations, such as ports. If the Greeks didn't agree by 6am then the two countries would be at war.

Metaxas read the message, and without hesitation replied, "Then it's war." The ambassador started to try and persuade him, but Metaxas wasn't having any of it. "Οχι!", he replied, though as he showed Grazzi to the door he acknowledged "You are the stronger force."

Greece was eventually taken over by the Germans in April 1941, after a tough fight. Churchill, Roosevelt and even Hitler, praised the Greeks for their bravery. "We will not say that the Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks", declared Churchill.

I'm not sure if Ioannis Metaxas was related to Spyros Metaxas, who invented the famous Greek spirit half a century earlier. I saw some in a supermarket a few months ago, and bought a bottle out of curiosity. I'm not quite sure if you're meant to drink it, or wear it, as it has an aromatic taste, rather like aftershave. Unlike Ouzo and Retsina, I suspect this is one Greek drink I won't be able to get used to. Even if it does come in a fancy bottle.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Karmic Koala

I'm sure that you've noticed the Ubuntu countdown on my sidebar. You'd be amazed at how many emails I've received asking me to explain this. Precisely none. What's that? You're not amazed?

Since a lot of people are no doubt wondering about it but afraid to ask, I thought I'd provide an explanation ayway.

The Ubuntu folks produce a new release of their operating system every six months, and as well as giving it a number (9.10 means October 2009), they also name them after animals. Since Dapper Drake these have gone in alphabetical order, so because the last release was Jaunty Jackalope, this one had to be an animal beginning with K.

They didn't ask me, which is why Thursday's release isn't going to be Kinky Kitty, Karaoke Kingfisher or Knackered Kronosaurus. Instead they chose Karmic Koala.

Seeing the cute picture above, your first reaction may well have been the same as mine. What does koala taste like? Are they served in fast food establishments Down Under (Kebabbed Koala, anyone?). The answer is no. At least not legally, since they are protected. Apparently they used to be hunted for their fur - presumably an adult would have been just enough to make a pair of gloves and a matching steering wheel cover. Not that I'd condone such a thing. After all steering wheel covers are not only so last century, they also look stupid.

Anyway, what's all this got to do with something serious like an operating system? The answer is, more than you think. If you know about kebabs and steering wheel covers, then you already know more than enough to install Ubuntu on your computer. Eighteen months ago I didn't know how to partition a disk, or what DHCP was. I wasn't even sure that I wanted to replace Windows XP, since as a home user, it pretty much worked (it's in an office environment that it really sucks). It was annoying to use, though, with all the mouse clicks you need to do anything, and the stupid pop-up messages.

It wasn't until I'd consumed a large amount of vodka one evening that I felt brave enough to install Ubuntu on my computer. I'd never installed an operating system, and yet it was up and running in less time than it takes to get rid of the annoying sidebar in Windows Vista. And I've never looked back. I now have a computer that is easier to use, that gives me a nicer windowing system and is less prone to viruses.

I've just let Helena have my laptop on semi-permanent loan. My ex had been talking about us going halves on a computer for her, but I hardly use the laptop. The one thing I was sure about was that I didn't want her using a Windows machine, because of the risk of getting viruses or malware on there. She is quite happy using Ubuntu, since she already uses my computer at weekends, and she knows a lot more than me about enabling every last piece of window manager bling. I bet she could probably have installed Ubuntu too.

As it happens, I've had to learn a lot more about operating systems in my professional capacity in the last eighteen months. I now have a pretty good understanding disk partitions and network configuration. Before Ubuntu came along, I'd probably have needed that knowledge and more. There's a reason why it's currently one of the most popular distributions of Linux.

And after "Karmic Koala", what's next? Lusty Leech? Languid Lizard? Lunching Lion? None of these. Again, they didn't ask me. Ubuntu 10.04 will be Lucid Lynx.

Which means I've got 6 months to find some recipes for lynx...

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Wordy Wednesday - "With it" Dad

I'm sure you're all familiar with the stereotypical generation gap when it comes to "music". Where your parents or grandparents can't understand what it is about all this new-fangled noise that interests their younger relatives. What was wrong with the music from the good old days? That had tunes and stuff?

I never experienced this as a child. My father was a Country Music addict, and my mother had bopped to Cliff Richard and co in the 1960's, so neither was really in much of a position to criticise anyone else's tastes. I was also never very interested in following my schoolmate's fads, and by the time I was in my late teens was beginning to favour stuff written by people who have been dead for at least a century or three.

My grandmother, however, was liable to complain about modern music. This would have been in the 80s. It was just a noise. It didn't have any tune. You couldn't understand the words, and they didn't know how to dress properly. Not like Val Doonican, presumably, who was one of her favourite stars.

It's difficult to understand why all the pop singers didn't wear outfits like his. Of course Mr Doonican hasn't quite achieved legendary status, mourned by millions who view him as a saint. Not like Elvis Presley or Tammy Wynette. The main reasons for this are (a) he's not dead yet, and (b) he's probably going to outlive most of his fans.

Anyway, on to the younger generation. Helena's favourite band this week is "Muse". She usually finds my jokes hilarious, but I didn't get any laughs when I suggested that they got their name because the noise they make is similar to a cat's "mews". I spent ages thinking that one up, too. She also likes Michael Jackson and Johnny Cash.

We were in Pizza Hut a while back, and she suddenly said: "That's Muse's latest song." I listened, but I couldn't hear anything over the noise of the packed restaurant. I'm sure she can't have better hearing than me. It's not as if I'm getting old or anything, and she must have ruined hers by now listening to that new-fangled ipod thing. Don't get me started on ridiculously overpriced Apple products - it wasn't me that payed £100 for an ipod when you can get the same spec MP3 player for about £40. When I was her age, they'd just brought out the "Walkman", but it was so expensive that only Cliff Richard could afford one.

Later on she claimed to hear a Michael Jackson hit. She hummed a bit of it for me. "That's not Michael Jackson", I said. "That's a song called Eat It from the 80s." She wasn't convinced, but thanks to modern technology and You Tube, I was able to prove that I knew what I was talking about.

So as you can see, I can't be accused of being one of those old fuddy-duddy parents...

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

(not so) Wordy Wednesday

I made my weekly visit to my local pub last night. It was the usual mixture of some quiet time reading my book (useful when people I know aren't in there), chatting and copious quantities of Stella. I should add for any foreigners in the audience that Stella is a strong lager.

On my way home I picked up a cheeseburger, and as usual stuck a DVD on while I ate it. And as usual just managed to turn the DVD off before I fell asleep. I've watched most of the DVDs I own at least once, but I've watched the first twenty minutes of each of them countless times.

Although I woke up early this morning, I was tired and dehydrated, which meant that I went back to sleep again, woke up late and drank about a litre and a half of water before attempting to go to work. I don't tend to drink enough to be hungover, so once I was properly awake the day went okay.

This in turn means that I got home late this evening. And realised that I had a blog post to write. Hence it's not going to be the usual meticulously planned 15 chapter epic.

Anyway, I was over at Kat's blog, where she was commenting on some educational issues, and it occurred to me that all the people in Britain who do degrees like Media Studies and Egyptology would be far better off being trained to pull pints, flip burgers and clean toilets.

I'm not complaining about the service I got last night in the pub, nor about the tasty burger from the kebab shop across the road, nor particularly about the cleanliness of the pub's toilets. Nevertheless, these are three areas in which there is a definite skills shortage in this country. So much so that these jobs are often done by Polish immigrants. And people with degrees in Media Studies and Egyptology.

Sadly none of the people that make important decisions ever ask me, so I doubt things will improve. It's always the same story. Recently they appear to have decided to stop selling Noodle Town Instant Won Ton Noodles in our local supermarket, leading to an important deficiency in my diet. You'd have thought with the amount I was buying they might have at least run this by me beforehand. Oh, well, it could be worse. At least they've still got Green Beans...

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Wordy Wednesday - Ig Nobel Prizes 2009

This year's Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony was held last week at Harvard University. These are prizes that are offered for improbable research - things that are quirky, amusing or just baffling.

The Ig Nobel Peace Prize was won by a group of Swiss researchers who conducted experiments to determine whether or not it was better to have an empty or a full beer bottle smashed over your head. The answer was that both can fracture your skull, though the empty bottle requires more force to break it. They're missing the point, which is that using a full bottle is a waste of beer, and therefore more criminal.

Meanwhile, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, they've been looking into producing diamonds from tequilla. Presumably this process involves not drinking the tequilla. Isn't that illegal in Mexico?

My favourite, though, was an invention from Chicago. This is a bra that in an emergency can be converted into a pair of face masks. I'm not quite sure what kind of emergency this would be, but it would be interesting to see one. The picture below shows one of the inventors demonstrating it at the award ceremony:

This idea isn't just a potential life saver. It would solve the age old problem men always have with hooks and fasteners. Now you'd just have to shout "gas leak!". Definitely a worthy winner.

Monday, 5 October 2009

My Retirement Plan

I've decided that I'd better plan for my retirement. After all, I'm not getting any younger, and the way things are going, with all the pension funds disappearing and legislation to increase the age of retirement, my generation will probably have to work until we're all into 3 figures.

I could give up work, but sadly the retired and unemployed eat just as much as the working, so I'll need to find an alternative income. I've looked into several options:

1. Become a professional layabout. Benefits aren't exactly lavish, and they expect you to at least pretend you're looking for work. In fact, the workshy spend so much of their time going for interviews, courses and so on that they'd be better off getting a job. None of this seems very compatible with spending my time on a beach in Barbados.

2. Blackmail. I've been wondering how much money I can extort. There might be plenty of people in blogland who would pay me good money not to post ever again. If there aren't, just wait until I turn this blog into "Brian's Song and Dance Showcase", featuring daily videos with excrutiating performances by yours truly. Let's put it this way: I can't dance to save my life, and my singing is worse. Again, this seems like a lot of effort to go to not to work, and I'd probably injure myself in the process.

3. Computerisation. Program a computer to do my work and blog whilst I'm off somewhere sipping something cool and intoxicating.

Option 3 is clearly the best of the bunch. The only question is: Is it feasible with today's technology? Could a mere computer really be good enough to replace me?

British mathematician Alan Turing was a pioneer in the theory of computers in the 1940s and 50s. He managed to come up with various abstract models and rules which were not directly related to the particular technology of the time, but which were general enough to hopefully apply to any computer that could possibly be built.

Amongst other things he is famous for The Turing Test, which is one answer to the question of how to measure computer intelligence. There are two rooms, one of which contains a computer, and another contains a human. The tester can send written questions into each room, and receive written answers back, and he has to see if he can work out which is the computer, and which is the human. If he can't tell them apart, then the computer must be just as intelligent as the human being.

Obviously, if I could get hold of a computer that had passed the Turing Test, then the only problem remaining would be which plane to get on. Sadly, no-one has managed to program a computer to do this, despite a lot of attempts.

I'm not going to give up hope though. I don't need a computer that can pass for an intelligent human being in some lab test. My requirements are a lot simpler - I just need one that can be programmed to write a bit of software now and then, answer the odd email and write the odd blog post. The computer will pass the BOV test so long as no-one realises that I'm actually stretched out by some Caribbean pool.

What's more, all the technology I require already exists. For writing blogs, there is the buzzword generator. This produces random incomprehensible phrases of the sort that my readers are well used to.

For email, there is something called the "vacation message", or "out of office assistant". Because eloquence isn't really my thing, I just need to set that to give replies like "That's great Bee. What's the weather like where you are?", and people won't notice any difference.

In fact, technology can do better than this. The Eliza program was written in the 1960s as a computerised psychiatrist. It's actually very simple, and just picks out words from the user's input and throws it back at him or her. User: "I've got problems with my hippopotamus." Eliza: "Tell me about your hippopotamus.". And so on. Or sometimes Eliza would say something completely inane like "That's very interesting. Tell me more." Click on the link above and try it for yourself. It could save you a fortune in pschiatrist's fees.

It was enough to fool some users into thinking that they were getting help for their problems, and I'd use it except that it's a far better conversationalist than I am, so no-one would believe it was me.

So, that's my plan. One day I'll disappear and no-one will ever know. The more observant of you will have noticed the picture at the top of this post. It's not a Caribbean island. After all, who am I kidding? If I really do get the chance to do a bunk, I'll probably spend my retirement in an Athens coffee shop. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some programming to do...

Sunday, 4 October 2009

... And the result...

In case you were wondering:

The Socialists won the election with a convincing majority in the new parliament, making Giorgos Papandreou the new Prime Minister. The defeated PM, Kostas Karamanlis has already announced his resignation as party leader.

The Ecologists didn't manage to achieve the 3% of the vote necessary to get seats in parliament.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Wordy Wednesday - Election Special

First, the small print.

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not meant to be interpreted as serious political commentary. In fact, where possible the intention is the exact opposite.

Now onto today's idiocy...

As you may be aware, it's election time in a major European country. I'm not referring to the German one, where they rather boringly didn't give the job of chancellor to the woman with the best cleavage (or at least that's what she claimed in magazine adverts - maybe it was all hype).

The Italians are far better at that sort of thing.

I'm referring to an election that hasn't yet happened. One in which the beleagured Prime Minister, whose party's opinion poll ratings are the lowest they've been for some years, looks set to be replaced by the official opposition. Nevertheless the PM is in fighting spirit, defending his government's record and of course promising lots of good things in the future.

I'm sure that by now you will have guessed that I'm talking about the Greek general election that is taking place this coming Sunday.

The Greek system is similar to Britain's. The public elect members of parliament, and the party that has the most seats is the winner. As in Britain, they need to control over 50% of the seats in order to govern. If not, there's always the possibility of a coalition between two or more parties, but this generally doesn't happen.

Since Greece abolished its monarchy in 1974, they have a President who is elected by parliament for 5 year terms. Like the British monarch, the President doesn't actually run the country, but carries out duties as defined by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is usually the leader of the party with the majority in parliament, and is a member of that parliament.

Parliamentary elections must be held at least every 4 years, but the Prime Minister can call them at any time. The current centre right PM, Kostas Karamanlis, is 2 years into his second term in office, and it is expected that his socialist opponent, Giorgos Papandreou, will win an overall majority in parliament and replace him. However, polls aren't allowed to be published in the two weeks before the election, so we don't know what the current state of play is.

Bluffers Guide to the Elections

Party: Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK)
Leader: Giorgos Papandreou
Background: Giorgos Papandreou is the son of former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who was himself the son of former Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou.
Policies: Will undo all the mess left by the current lot. Will govern openly and without all of the scandals that have plagued New Democracy. Will give ordinary people a better deal.

Party: New Democracy
Leader: Kostas Karamanlis
Background Konstantinos Karamanlis (Kostas for short) is the nephew of former Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis.
Policies: Will continue to undo all the mess left by the Socialists last time they were in power. Will govern openly and with fewer scandals. Will give ordinary people a better deal.

Party: The Communist Party of Greece (KKE)
Leader: Aleka Papariga
Background: Comrade Aleka has been General Secretary of her party for around 20 years.
Policies: Against profiteering. A better deal for workers. Neither of the main parties have the answer.

Party: Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS)
Leader: Giorgos Karatzaferis
Background: Journalist, writer and politician.
Policies: Believe in God and Greece. Right wing. Wants to make Greece great again.

Party: Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA)
Leader: Alexis Tsipras
Background: Youngest of the leaders.
Policies: Wants the people to have a better deal. Neither of the main parties have the answer.

Party: Ecogreens
Leader (of the election campaign): Nikos Chrysogelos
Background: The ecogreens may or may not manage to get enough votes to have seats in the next parliament (they currently don't have any).
Policies: All environmentally friendly, unlike the main parties, neither of whom have the answer.

So whoever gets in, they'll have open scandal-free government offering a better deal to everyone. Or something like that. Now you can amaze all your friends with your extensive knowledge of foreign affairs...