Friday, 28 August 2009

Weekend Viewing

Up in Flames

I spent a fair bit of last weekend following the live coverage on Greek TV and radio of the forest fires that were rampaging through North East Attiki (near to Athens). Many people were evacuated, and hundreds of homes were either completely burned down or were damaged. Several countries sent help, including a helicopter and a team of firefighters from Cyprus. Satellite pictures from NASA showed the smoke getting as far as North Africa.

People didn't always heed the authorities' advice to evacuate, and those living in areas where the fire service didn't send planes and helicopters to drop water were understandably frustrated. In the end, though, the fires were contained, though of course at this time of year there are bound to be more around the country.

Yesterday a pilot died when his firefighting plane crashed, probably into electric cables. A similar accident cost two crew their lives in 2007, and was put down to human error. The planes can be in the air constantly during the daylight hours and have to try and dive low in smoky conditions, so it's not surprising that accidents happen.

Name That Tune

This week's random musical accompaniment to my life this week was Beethoven's Eroica Variations.

Beethoven was an expert at producing variations. Usually there is a theme, which is played first. Then variations of this theme follow. For example, Beethoven wrote some brilliant variations on the British National Anthem, and "Rule Britannia". Earlier composers were generally not as bold or creative, and very few composers have ever matched Beethoven's exuberance, and humour. I don't really know how music can be humorous, but his variations are. Even Albert Brendel says so. Syncopation is another strong feature of his works which is particularly noticeable in his variations.

In the Eroica variations, he starts off by playing not the tune, but the bass line on its own. Then he messes around with that a few times, before finally playing the main theme and its 15 variations.

The reason this is running through my head is that I played through the first few pages of this before giving up and playing Glenn Gould's recording of the work. I have to admit that his playing was just a bit better than mine, though I'm not so sure that his singing was...

Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Wordy Wednesday

The Arachnoid Wars

Someone sent me one of those spam chain emails the other day. It told the story of a Mexican cactus that a tourist bought, and some time after he got it home, exploded spewing out hundreds of deadly dinner-plate sized tarantulas all over his back garden. A spider had lain eggs inside the cactus which had then grown into these terrifying monsters. At some point they outgrew their home and made a collective bid for freedom.

It even had a picture of a dinner-plate sized taratula on a dinner plate. As if I hadn't been freaked out enough by the story. A quick check on google suggests that this is a hoax. If anyone knows different please do NOT tell me. People who spread terror in this way through our inboxes should be sentenced to spend a month naked in a sealed cell full of hungry tarantulas.

Recently, I have been trying to coexist with several spiders who have taken up residence in my flat. These have very thin legs, almost transparent, and tiny bodies. There was one in my bedroom for several weeks. Until Monday morning. I woke up really early to see a much blacker larger arachnoid grinning up at me. The last time this happened I resorted to boiling water. This time, I calmly got up, took my bedding and alarm clock into the lounge, got my work clothes out of the wardrobe, and went back to sleep on the sofa until it was time to get up.

I didn't see the spider again until late that evening, when it was on a wall in the hall. At which point it got eaten by the vacuum cleaner. The less scary one hasn't been seen since. So it was either devoured by the beast, or it ate one fly too many and morphed into it.

Thus ends my uneasy truce with eight-legged freaks. War has once more been declared.

Incidentally, for those of you who prefer to skip the words on my blog and just look at the pictures, I apologise for the lack of illustrations. By the time I'd trawled the net for spider images, I was freaked out.

Credit Crunch

You know the economy must be in a bad way when an armed bank robber escapes with only €10. When I first saw the headlines, I was worried that the banks were in more trouble than we thought, but it turns out that the robber was incompetent. Economically speaking, this is even worse. It's a bleak day for capatalism when people lose the will to rob one another.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

And then I woke up...

Those of you who are wondering why I haven't posted all week (what do you mean you didn't notice?) will I hope be pleased to learn that I'm still alive. At least as I type this. Or to be more accurate, semi-alive. I've only just got up, and I'm still half asleep. Normally I'd wait a day or so to wake up properly before attempting to post something, but I have to do a brain dump before I forget:

Last night I had an incredibly detailed dream.

I was working in an office - it might have been the real office where I work, or maybe somewhere else. A senior manager had turned up who normally worked in a museum in London (no, I don't understand this either. I've never worked in a museum), and everyone was wondering why he had decided to take a detailed interest in our office, and whether he would mess everything up by deciding to micro-manage us. He was known as the Colonel, and I pictured him as a very upper class retired military gentleman. Not the KFC guy.

I can't describe the Colonel properly, as I only heard the others talking about him. I had already prepared my opening line, something like "Well, I've heard of 'musuem pieces' but it's nice to finally meet one." Maybe I'll get the chance to use it tonight.

According to my colleagues, the Colonel brought a special white suit to dine in and silverware. He went through some complicated business of setting up his dining equipment, pressing his white trousers, presumably before putting them on, probably opening five bottles of wine and port (one for each course), and finally carving the meat. Then he took one taste and spat it out. I'm not sure what he did next. Maybe he got a sandwich from the shop.

There was also a lot of walking around between this office and a warehouse where we were running a display of some sort. I don't know what. A museum display, possibly? You had to enter this warehouse via a large red door that swung up and down, like you get on most garages only a lot bigger, and this involved getting someone inside to open it, I think. I remember at one point that it had started to close and I dashed in, but some other people didn't want to in case they didn't make it in time.

To find out what happened next, please refer to the title of this post. If anyone has any suggestions about what all this means, I'd love to hear them. In the meantime, I'm going to put the kettle on and see whether I can get myself into a slightly less zombified state...

Sunday, 16 August 2009

My Revolutionary New Phone

Last week, I became the proud owner of a brand new telephone. I'd been considering replacing my old one for a while, and Helena and I happened to find ourselves at the appropriate shop due to a sequence of events that began with me waking up hungry that morning, suggesting that we get an early lunch at Burger King, and then noticing that there was a shopping centre across the road with signs advertising discount clothes, dragging my reluctant daughter over there in search of cheap trousers and quickly deciding I wasn't in the mood for clothes shopping (I never am).

So I came home with a phone rather than a new pair of trousers. In the end, I decided against an iphone because I found something that has all of the iphone's useful functions, but is much better.

  • Cheaper - At £30, I didn't require a mortgage.
  • Easier to use - Even I can work out how to make and recieve calls on this phone.
  • Has a built in bell. For some reason known only to apple, the iphone lacks one of these.
  • It's a design classic.

Talking of design, the phone that this is a replica of first came out in 1937 and was in use well into the 1950s. (The latest iphone will probably be out of date by next year). Helena loves it, as she's never used a rotary dial phone before.

I hardly use my landline, and might be tempted to get rid of it, except that I need it for internet access, and I have a nagging worry about relying on mobile phones in an emergency, since they don't work when there's a power cut. In any case, there's only one thing wrong with my new retro purchase. Sadly I still get 21st century marketing calls.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Wordy Wednesday - Wordy Game

Helena wanted to play scrabble yesterday. This entailed a visit to Toys 'R' Us, since we only had the Junior version, which she's now grown out of.

Despite playing with an "Open Dictionary" and getting some help, she was unable to beat me. I'm not sure why this came as such a surprise to her, considering that she was playing against someone with 28 years more experience of English.

Anyway, one of the benefits of allowing the free use of a dictionary is that you learn about words that you can't believe exist. Such as:

aa n a type of scoriaceous volcanic rock with a rough surface and many jagged fragments. [Hawaiian]

ee n (pl een) Scots form of eye.

oo 1. n Scots form of wool

oo 2. pronoun a Scots form of we

These Scots have got a lot to answer for. All definitions are taken from the Chambers Dictionary, which is published by a Scottish firm (of Scrabble players?).

Anyway, I'll just about buy the above as plausible, but the following definition, used by Helena to get 12 points, is going too far:

moy (Shakesp) n supposed by Pistol (misunderstanding a Frenchman's moi me) to be the name of a coin.

So now they're putting random nonsense made-up words in the dictionary??? I wonder if it's just because it's Shakespeare, or can anyone join it? If I put some stupid combination of letters in my blog, will it get a mention in the next edition of Chambers? Let's try it and see.

I had a dream last night that at a crucial point in a game of Strip Scrabble, I managed to beat my three gorgeous opponents with a real qycxbez.

qycxbez (BOV) n A massively high-scoring word played during a Scrabble game by a player who fools his less experienced opponents into believing that it's in the official dictionary, which he claims to have learned by heart.

I only once played an allegedly experienced scrabble player, and I'm sure that most of the weird 2-letter combinations he used were qycxbezes. (Note that the plural form of this word does not double the "z", since there's only one "z" in a standard Scrabble set. Note also that it's one of those few handy-to-know words that has a "q" in it, but not a "u").

I bet Shakespeare's turning in his grave, wishing that he were alive now to realise his full potential. Given his capacity for inventing words, he'd have been an unbeatable opponent...

Exercise for the reader:

What's the highest word score you can get for
qycxbez? If you place it in on a triple word square with the "x" on a double lettter, you make 141 points, but I don't know if there's a way to score more.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Key Product Placement

I was reading the other day about a desginer's interesting concept for a computer keyboard:

Each key has a brand name that begins with the appropriate letter. It's a fun idea, and I'd be tempted to get one, if they ever become available to buy. Or maybe they could get enough sponsorship from all of the companies to make the keyboard free.

We don't have set desks at work, and I recently started sitting at one which had a lousy keyboard. Sometimes keys wouldn't work at all, and other times I'd get two of whatever I typed. This was a major issue when it came to entering passwords, so I asked our IT people for a new keyboard. They offered me the choice of an HP keyboard, or a more ergonomic "Microsoft" one. I picked the HP one, partly because the other one was a bit dusty, but mainly because I couldn't bring myself to voluntarily use something with "Microsoft" printed on it. Most of our desks have the MickeySoft keyboards, and they're pretty good. Of course, they're not actually made by Mr Gates' company anyway.

Unfortunately, due to an unfortunate combination of the lighting conditions at that desk and the angle of the keys on the HP keyboard, I can't read any of the letters and numbers on the keys. Because I touch type, this is not much of a problem, except that I now realise that I look down at the keys when I enter passwords and numbers. I must learn how to touch type numbers. The glare is so bad that I might as well have one of those Japanese "Happy Hacker" keyboards:

Years ago someone told me about people physically pulling out keys from their keyboard and swapping them with others. The idea was to stop anyone else using their desk when they were away. I've never seen this in the office, but I do have a colleague who uses a keyboard that's a bit like this one:

Presumably the idea is that your wrists don't get as strained as they do with the more normal flat design. I've always wondered whether a piano keyboard could be used for a computer. The standard one has 88 keys, which should be enough to be going on with.

I wonder what kind of music something like this blog post would make?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Wild Things

No, this has nothing to do with that film about sex, lies, murder, lesbian love and Bill Murray. This is the latest holiday report.

This morning was bright and sunny, and so Helena and I went to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. This is situated in Burford, about a million inches (17 miles) from Oxford. We got there mid-morning, and had an early lunch. As seasoned visitors, we know that the canteen always gets busy at lunchtime.

For once we remembered to take a camera with us. Unfortunately we didn't remember to take a decent photographer. Nevertheless, some of the pictures weren't total disasters. For example, here's an excellent one of a 7-legged 2-headed zebra.

At the CWP they have all sorts of creatures - lions, rhinos, monkeys, penguins, and so on. Sadly our visit was cut short by the weather, and we didn't end up seeing all of them. The clouds arrived and the heavens opened, which meant that we had to take refuge in some of the covered areas.

These areas house all of the really disgusting creatures - reptiles, bats and insects. The insect house is especially important, as I needed to check that all of the giant spiders were still there and hadn't escaped to terrorise the neighbourhood. I'm pleased to report that even the pink bird-eating tarantula was in its rightful place. If these things can catch birds, then there's little hope for us humans. The only spider picture that came out well was of one of the other tarantulas. Not pink, but still terrifying.

I did my best to get a picture of the ants for Bee, but ants are very small, even with an 8 megapixel camera.

I'm afraid that I failed to locate the aardvarks. I'm sure they have some, and I thought that they might not mind if I borrowed one to send to the ant-infested Bee. If it only it hadn't rained. Sorry, Bee.

There is a moral to this holiday report. Always check the weather forecast beforehand. Even if they're wrong, at least you've got someone to blame...

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Wordy Wednesday - Holiday Report

It seems that I'm in good company. All the other major European dignataries are on holiday as well. Gordon Brown has gone to Scotland to do volunteer work. Sarkozy is in the Riveria showing off his wife, and Vladimir "Gas" Putin is having an environmentally friendly holiday climbing trees and making friends with the locals.

"Do you come here often?"

So far the weather has been changeable, as expected. Yesterday was wet all day. I had arranged to go and see my mother today on the basis of the BBC's five day weather forecast, which on Sunday was showing a picture of a big yellow sun on a cloudless blue sky, suggesting something like this:

Sadly, when I got up this morning the view from my window didn't quite match this picture. it was still rather wet, even if the torrential downpours had stopped.

By the time we'd got ready and arrived at my mother's, it was at least looking a bit better, so she took us to the docks. Helena was thirsty, so we went to a "Costa" coffee place and had drinks. 2 iced fruit drinks and one coffee cost around £9! Still, when you're on holiday you expect to get ripped off, so I didn't complain.

I've often wondered what it would be like living on a narrow boat. There were a couple for sale at the dock, though neither had prices on them, but I bet they're cheaper than the trendy flats in the converted warehouses. There's something tempting about life on the canal.

There used to be a programme on TV about canals, in the days when I used to watch UK broadcasts, and there were all sorts of people like Toyah Wilcox, David Suchet and Prunella Scales and her husband extolling the virtues of boating holidays.

Living in one permanently is a different story, of course. Sadly, my office isn't on a canal route, and I suspect that internet access might be an issue. And where would my piano go?

After some consideration, I decided not to embark on a life on the water just yet. I'll wait until I've accumulated a few million and afford one of those yachts with the bikini-clad girls.

I suppose I'm not going to do that any time soon if I keep spending £3 a head on coffee. Still, the main thing is that our holiday has so far been enjoyable and relaxing.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Summer Holidays

Today is the start of my summer holidays. As usual I'm not going anywhere, but Helena is coming to stay, this year for two weeks. It's just as well that I didn't check the weather forecast before organising this, as I learned from the Cypriot news the other day that forecasters had been predicting a hot and sunny August in Britain, but that they'd now revised this slightly to say "rain and storms". I'd have been somewhat annoyed if I'd known earlier.

Yesterday was wet and miserable with torrential rain at times, so maybe the forecasters have got it right in the end. Although today has been dry and bright, so maybe not.

As long as we get a few reasonable days out, I won't complain. We've also got the last 17 Columbo episodes to watch, which should keep us going on the rainy days. I've also stocked up on reading material, with two parcels of books arriving from Athens yesterday.

Needless to say, I'll keep you informed of developments with regular holiday updates.