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...

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Don't Make Me Angry

In common with many of his films, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935) contains a McGuffin. This is the loot in a heist film, or the secret in a spy story. It's vital to the plot, but it doesn't actually matter what it is. The McGuffin in The 39 Steps is the details of a British engine which will presumably win us the next war. Instead of just writing down the information, they decide to smuggle it out inside the head of "Mr Memory", who makes his living on the stage, amazing audiences by reciting facts and figures on request. In the end the villains' plan is scuppered in a music hall where Mr Memory is appearing. He is fatally shot, though, and with his dying breath gives his final performance in front of the shocked crowd:
Mr Memory:

The first feature of the new engine is its greatly increased ratio of compression represented by R minus one over R to the power of gamma. Where R represents the ratio of compression, and gamma seen in an elevation, the axis of the two lines of cylinders, angle of sixty-five degrees. Dimensions of cylinders as follows: This device renders the engine completely silent. Am I right, sir?


Quite right, old chap.

Mr Memory:

Thank you, sir. Thank you. I'm glad it's off my mind at last.

Thus Britain's secrets are safe. Obviously the theatre was full of patriots who wouldn't dream of breathing a word to the Powers of Evil. Or possibly it was full of people like me, who wouldn't have remembered any of it. At least not by the time war was declared 4 years later.

I'd be a hopeless memory man. Some people talk about vivid childhood memories. I can't even remember what I had for lunch the day before yesterday. So my childhood is like a foggy haze. I don't know whether that's the same for most people, or whether I've just got a defective memory unit in my brain.

All of this is leading, of course, to yet more retro TV. I vaguely remember watching The Incredible Hulk when I was younger, but none of the details. So when they were offering the first two series for £15 a few weeks ago, I couldn't resist getting it. I think my local HMV sees me coming now, and makes sure there are plenty of budget 70's and 80's TV series on the shelves specially. They're certainly getting more of my money than they would otherwise.

Of course, where HMV will really cash in is on Series 3-5. Helena is now a Hulk addict, and so we are steaming through our box set. Which means that I'll have to buy the other 3 which I expect won't be on discount.

As with most of this retro-TV, it's a lot better than I imagined it would be. The only problem I have with it is the idea that just because this guy gets angry, he is able to turn into a completely different and green person. And that his trousers still fit the giant hulk. Helena is also amused by the fact that he always manages to retrieve his brown bag by the end of each episode.

Interestingly, the chap responsible for doing the TV adaptation wanted to make the Hulk red, but Marvel Comics wouldn't let him. He reasoned that people get red with anger.

The IncREDible Hulk

I'm not sure it would have been such a good idea...

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Back in Time

Those of you who have been reading this blog long enough to remember my post "How to Get Thinner and Age Slower" , about Enstein's Special Theory of Relativity, will already understand that travelling back through time is not supposed to be possible. The best you can do is control how quickly you travel into the future relative to someone else.

Sadly Einstein's theories have already been proved wrong by no less than the crew of the USS Enterprise, who often managed to get back to present day Earth from the future, probably when the show was running low of funds. And in any case, what did Albert know? He was, after all, only human.

As opposed to being a Time Lord. These impressive aliens can not only travel back and forth through time and space, but they can do so in something that resembles a 1960s police telephone box.

I grew up watching Doctor Who. In those days the TV license was probably only a fraction of what it was today, but they were still able to make 26 episodes a year of a science fiction programme. They did this by spending about 50p (sorry, I mean 10 shillings) a week on special effects and monster outfits. In fact, when the programme started, they used to film it "as live" with no cuts or outtakes, which probably saved them a few bob on wages and lighting bills.

By the time I remember it, Tom Baker was the Doctor, and the programme was in colour. They were, unfortunately, making it on video, but they did have a special effect called CSO (Colour Separation Overlay), which meant that you could film the actors against a blue screen and magically make it look like they were somewhere else. It would have looked totally convincing, except that people don't tend to walk around with blue Ready Brek-style glows around them. Not even Time Lords.

Most of the episodes past and present were novelised, and I eagerly read all of the stories that had been shown before I was old enough to watch (many before I was born, since the show started 7 years before that momentous event).

And then we went to live abroad, where they didn't have Doctor Who. However after a year or two someone in my class had a relative in the UK who sent him video tapes of the programme. He didn't have a video player, so he used to come and use ours.

I was 14 or 15 by then, and it seemed to be cheap and childish, and I stopped watching it. I came to the conclusion that I'd outgrown it.

Until last weekend. I was in the DVD shop looking for a copy of Friday the Thirteenth when I noticed that they were selling half-price Doctor Who DVDs. So I bought a couple which I remembered reading, but not watching.

Helena and I watched our way through "The Hand of Fear" (1976), which starred Tom Baker as the Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah. I had expected to find it cheap and childish, which is why I haven't watched any sooner, but I thought that Helena would probably like it. However, it wasn't. Admittedly this one was filmed in a real nuclear power station, so there were fewer cheap sets than usual, but both Helena and I were glued to the screen for 90 minutes.

I sometimes wonder when I look at my life whether I'm ever going to live in the 21st century. I watch old films, old TV shows, I have my retro phone and play 80s computer games. Who says you can't travel back in time?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Wordy Wednesday - Bandwidth

You may have seen this story over the weekend. An IT firm in South Africa was experiencing problems with transferring large amounts of data over the internet between two of their offices, 50 miles apart. They decided to put the data onto a flash card and send it by carrier pigeon, and at the same time try and send the data electronically. By the time the pigeon got to its destination, they'd only downloaded 4% of the information via their ISP, which uses signals travelling at the speed of light.

Apparently South Africa suffers from a lack of bandwidth. This is, of course, a term that comes from radio communications. Although people talk about broadcasting on a particular frequency, depending on what that is, and on the information rate, a certain amount of space either side of that frequency is also used up in that broadcast, and this is referred to as bandwidth. Or something. I'm not fully up on all the gory details.

Because it's do with information rates, your radio station needs more bandwidth than someone sending Morse Code, and your TV station needs a lot more than either of them.

Faster Than the Speed of Light

Although they only sent 4GB an hour via this pigeon (forgetting about the time it took to load the data onto the card), they could presumably have sent 256GB just as easily - you can get 256GB cards that aren't very big these days. So the pigeon could have been sending data at the rate of 2 million Megabits/second. Compared with, say, the 1.5 Megabits that I get at home.

Someone has even worked out a way of using carrier pigeons to sent regular internet (IP) traffic. It's called IPOAC (IP over Avian Carriers), and is RFC 1149. All internet standards are documented in RFCs. This one was written for April Fool's day 1990, but it has apparently been implemented by some students.

Of course, the main problem with using pigeons is latency. They might transport a lot of data fast, but the round trip that takes your google search to California and back would be even slower than the South African internet. And not much faster than mailing them.

I've been rather busy this week, and tired in the evenings, but I have continued my rather painful piano playing by attempting to play the Maple Leaf Rag. Like that IT firm, I'm going at a fraction of the proper speed and still making mistakes. I found someone on youtube who does it much better. As I've said before, I love these videos that people make and send in, instead of just ripped-off copies of professional videos.

Please Note: This video doesn't work very well by carrier pigeon.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Not a Fan of Change

Now, I'm not generally one to moan or complain. Well, only sometimes. However the other day something funny happened when I did a google search. Everything I typed came out in a larger bolder font.

At first I thought it was my computer, but bizarre things don't usually happen on a computer that's not running Windows, and the same thing happened when I tried using google at work.

Some people are fanatic about fonts - you see them messing around with a new computer installation trying to get just the right one. They often get very excited about whether or not the fonts are aliased. Whatever that means.

I don't usually care. But I find it rather annoying when everything is in bold font. I did have a quick look at the preferences, but I couldn't see anything to do with unboldening fonts. What is the Greek for that anyway?

Google are great. They provide a range of wonderful services, including Blogger and Google Earth, and they have one of the best web home pages ever, and they have clearly taken a lot of trouble to keep it simple and resist turning it into Google Disney. The bold font won't stop me using their search engine exclusively. And of course I wouldn't be seen dead anywhere near "Bing". I don't mind the bigger bar. It's the bigger font I hate. Has anyone else noticed? Does anyone else care?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Wordy Wednesday - Losing One's Cool

You Jane, Me Tarzan? Me Not Remember.

It's the old, old story. A man met a woman. I don't know where, though I'm guessing it was in Holland, and I don't know the circumstances. Maybe he went to his local bank or post office. Maybe she was behind the counter. Maybe they were both in the waiting room of their local STD clinic, or perhaps she ran into the back of him at the traffic lights.

In any case, he hadn't met this woman before, but he was somewhat taken by her physical charms. Perhaps it was her well-endowed ears, or the way her thin top clung to the hump on her back, or the smooth curve of her seemingly endless nose. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

They only spoke a few words, before she asked for his address. Which is why I was guessing that they had just been involved in a minor prang. Anyway, what we do know is that he couldn't remember where he lived.

It could be that he was drunk, or concussed, or (like me) permanently in a daze, but he was shocked by this and reasoned that it must have been the attractiveness of the woman that had made him lose his mind. Being a psychologist, he set up an experiment to prove that it was all her fault.

The experiment involved measuring the mental capacity of students before and after chatting with someone. The male students who had just been talking to someone they found attractive achieved significantly lower scores than anyone else. In particular women aren't affected by men in this way. Presumably the men's mental capacity was fine once the blood had found it's way back to their brains.

I'm sure this is hardly earth-shattering news, though I wish they'd done the experiments here. I wouldn't have minded getting plied with gorgeous women in the interest of serious scientific research.

The full story is here.

Please Use the Other Toilet

I'm not a great fan of Stephen King. I've never read his novels, so I suppose I mean that I'm not a great fan of his films. Apart from the Shawshank Redemption. Unlike that one, most of them are concerned with the supernatural.

A colleague lent me a DVD of one of them, whose name escapes me now. Sadly, not because there's a stunning woman in my flat, but just because my brain is like a sieve at the best of times. In this film there is some kind of evil monster which first becomes apparent when some friends go on a hunting trip into the middle of nowhere.

Actually it first becomes apparent when one of the guys decides to use the facilities. The monster is somewhere in the plumbing and understandably doesn't take kindly to someone crapping on it. The result of all this is horrible and bloody. And fatal.

For most of us, this sort of thing only happens in Stephen King films. But in Australia, the contents of your toilet can quickly turn out to be deadly. At least, from what I know about Australian toilets. All of my knowledge about Australian toilets, and indeed Australia comes from lager adverts. I couldn't find any on You Tube about deadly spiders in the "dunny", but I'm sure they made at least one.

According to my extensive research, one might want to be careful about sitting down before making sure that there are no poisonous spiders or scorpions lurking somewhere on the porcelain. But even in Australia you would not expect to find a three metre python grinning up at you.

If it had been me in that situation, whatever bodily functions I went in there to perform would probably have happened spontaneously as I ran out of the room screaming, but our Ozzie guy lives in the bush, so I bet he calmly walked out and shut the door, went to another toilet, and then phoned the local snake expert, and arranged for an appointment.

The expert went round, but was unable to remove the snake, because it was tightly wrapped round the S-bend. He finally got it out on his fourth visit. I wonder how many days later this was. The snake was then released back into the wilds.

I've decided I won't emigrate to Australia.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Wordy Wednesday Goes Back in Time

My continuing effort to learn Greek means that I always have a book on the go. Despite the fact that my reading speed is much lower than in English, I am still reading more than I used to.

At the moment, I'm working my way through Herodotus' "The History of the Persian Wars.", translated from Ancient Greek by Angelos Vlachos. A lot of the book describes the cultures of the various peoples involved. Herodotus seems to have visited them all, and gives interesting details about their beliefs and habits.

For example, Egyptian women urinate standing up, and they are the ones who go off to the market and do business whilst the men stay at home knitting.

The Babylonians had a novel solution to the whole knotty problem of dating and marriage. Every year in each village, they'd have an auction of all the single women of marriagable age. They started with the most beautiful women, who would be sold to the highest bidder, and worked their way down. They shifted the less desirable ones by offering money to the "buyer" - the man who was willing to accept the least money got the girl. This was funded from the sale money, and helped poorer suitors get a decent start in life.

The buyers had to agree to marry the women, but there was a full money back guarantee if they subsequently got divorced.

Before any of my male readers book flights, I should point out that Herodotus was describing things as they were 2500 years ago, and I suspect that the Political Correctness Brigade have probably got these auctions banned by now.

In addition to the travel guide and the actual Persian Wars, Herodotus gives some historical background to the various kings, power struggles, and so on. Some of the stories are horrible - someone being "punished" by being invited to a banquet at which their child was the main course (they told the father after he'd finished eating and complimented the chef on an excellent meal).

Others are a bit more entertaining. I like the one where about a king who used to boast about how attractive his wife was was. He didn't think that his mate was suitably impressed, so he arranged for him to hide in the royal bedroom and get a glimpse of the naked queen. This was arranged as illustrated below.

Unfortunately what sounded over a few beers like a fun laddish prank went rather badly wrong for the king. The queen found out and was incensed. She told the king's friend that now he'd seen her naked, he couldn't be allowed to live, since he wasn't her husband. She said that he'd either have to do the honorable thing and top himself, or he could kill her husband, marry her and become king instead. It's not difficult to guess which option he chose. Herodotus explains that some cultures are a lot more prudish about nudity than the Greeks.

Anyway, I'm only about a fifth of the way through this rather large tome, so I'm off to continue reading about Egyptian sacrificial rites...