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.