Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Twas in the Winter Sold

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

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

How We Got our White Christmas

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

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

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

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

White Christmas: The Small Print

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

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

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

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

Bah, Humbug!

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

Monday, 22 November 2010

Survival Tips

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

Keep on the Move

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

Stay in Warm Places

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

Eat Well

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

Drink Well

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

Waste Electricity

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

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

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Murders, Hats, Senility


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bekas (centre) from a TV adaptation.

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

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


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


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

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Strange (and Strangely Familiar) New Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Driven to Drink

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

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

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

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

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

The nurses' uniforms are better, too

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

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

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

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

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

Have a good weekend.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

View from the Sofa

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

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

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

Reading a book

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

Solving all the Sudokus

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

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

Running my Life from my Netbook

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

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

Looking for Regular Expression Jokes

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

Falling Asleep

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

Getting Out More

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

I hope your weekend wasn't too hectic either.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Name's Bond

Recently I've started watching the James Bond series of films. I've never seen most of them before, which might surprise you, but I don't go to the cinema, since I prefer to watch films in the comfort of my own home, and I only buy DVDs when they're cheap, which means that I sometimes have to wait a while. A few weeks ago I found a box set of all 22 Bond films for £50, reduced from around £200. You can't go wrong at under £2.50 a film, right?

So far, I'm up to 1965 and Thunderball. The evil SPECTRE folks have stolen a NATO aeroplane carrying a couple of nuclear bombs. Luckily for our heroes at British and American Intelligence, they've decided to hide them at an idyllic island in the Bahamas. If they'd chosen somewhere without bikini clad secret agents and a plentiful source of Martinis, 007 would never have found them and Miami would have been nuked. And the world would have been spared from David Caruso's sunglass juggling act.

You don't have to get very far into one of these films to realise that plausibility wasn't given the highest priority by the moviemakers, but even so, I was disturbed by the ending of Thunderball. If you haven't seen the film, you might not want to read any further, as I'm about to reveal the ending.



I mean it. I'm going to tell you what happens at the end.


You would never guess...


...Bond finds the bombs and saves the world.

Anyway, at the end of the film, some random guy appears, tells the Bond girl (Domino - isn't that a bit masculine, or is it some kind of double entendre?) that he's disabled the bomb, and unties her (saving her from the evil baddie's cigar and ice torture routine). Just before the boat that they and 007 are travelling on crashes and blows up, Bond, Domino and Random Guy abandon ship. Random Guy complains that he can't swim, but our ever resourceful hero finds time to hand him a life belt, and come out with a hilarious one-liner as the boat speeds to the crash site.

After the explosion, Bond and Domino get into an inflatable dingy and are rescued. But what happened to Random Guy? The one who disabled the bomb and saved David Caruso? Did he not manage to get far enough away from the boat? This seems unlikely since it was travelling so fast that you'd have thought they sped the film footage up or something. Or is he still bobbing around with his lifebelt in the middle of the ocean?
Three would be a crowd

The person who comes up with the best explanation gets a holiday* to the Bahamas.

*Terms and Conditions

Judge's descision is final. No correspondence will be entered into unless bribes are involved.

Bribe must be provided in full before the judge is prepared to consider any change in winner

Winner must be prepared to participate in publicity for this blog, which may include being photographed with a stupid grin, being prepared to have details of their favourite M&M colour published, and being otherwise publicly embarrassed.

Winner must supply their own holiday

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Not Giving up the Day Job

Today, Helena and I went on our annual trip to the wildlife park. This is always an opportunity to get some great pictures of the wild, wacky, weird and wondrous world of animals. And we always fail to do so, one way or another. Last year, it rained and I didn't exactly distinguish myself with my impressive photography.

Helena now has a camera as well, so with two of us snapping away nothing could go wrong, right?

The first thing you need to remember, is to remember the cameras. David Bailey didn't get where he was by turning up to Vogue cover shoots without his equipment. On the other hand, they were lacking one vital piece of technology back in his heyday - the mobile phone.

Luckily for you, neither of us forgot our phones, which means that you have some pictures to look at. You have to squint a bit and use your imagination, but they could be worse. All the pictures that appear here were Helena's with the exception of the last one. This is probably because she took over 70 photos, many of which didn't come out well, compared to my carefully composed 9. She's got the better technique. It's like the Vogue cover photographers who take hundreds of pictures, and chuck all but one of them away.

Every time we go to the wildlife park, I'm always struck by the incongruity of seeing camels wandering around Oxfordshire. Not only should there be sand and pyramids instead of grass and trees, but I love the irony of keeping animals specifically designed to go for weeks without water in Britain.

We got lucky with the lions. Usually they're roaming around their very well isolated peice of land, but of course their coats that are intended to camouflage them from their future lunch, which makes them hard to spot. Today, however, instead of lean mean killing machines prowling through the undergrowth, there was a guy with a strimmer. I bet he's very good. I'd be very consciencious if I were him. Because if he did a shoddy job they wouldn't have to worry about filling in lots of paperwork and bureaucracy to fire him, they could just "accidentally" leave one of the doors of the lion house open.

If you look through most of the lion house's windows, you can see cage bars about 4 feet away, with the animals behind those, but there is one window that looks directly in. On the other side, with it's face pressed against the glass was a lioness.

Now I'm sure that the glass is really thick and safe and all that, but I personally didn't feel comfortable inches away from the large cat. Helena on the other hand was happily snapping away. Sadly, the glare on the glass ruined those particular pictures.

There were a couple of new exhibits this year. When you see drawings or models of giraffes, they always look wrong, as if the artist of sculptor wasn't very good. When you see the things in the flesh, you realise that the orignals look wrong too.

The other new thing was the Madagascar exhibition, where you get to walk in amongst the lemurs.

And no trip to the park would be complete without a visit to the penguins.

There were loads of other wonders - scary snakes and spiders, rhinos, monkeys, exotic birds and creepy crocodiles, but sadly not all of the pictures came out very well, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Still, there's always next year.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Been There, Done That? Or Just Got the T Shirt?

I had to go to the supermarket this afternoon. I was down to my last lemon, and one lemon doesn't last 5 minutes in my flat. Since I've started substituting lemon juice for alcohol, I'm getting through far more of the former than I ever did of the latter. There are no limits to how much citric acid you can have in your blood and still be legally allowed to drive. And unlike vodka, no-one ends up being carted off to a drying-out clinic because they drink it all day. Healthy people even drink fruit juice with their breakfast.

In addition to fruit, the supermarket sells a wealth of other things. In the past, I've bought an all-singing-all-dancing-printer-scanner, a digibox (for the TV), and a salt grinder. Oddly, they don't sell lemon squeezers, though.

I also get most of my clothes from there, which saves me having to go into scary clothes shops. Recently, they've been selling T shirts with "retro" designs on them. At first, I assumed that they were just made-up logos. However, now they've got some old film designs, such as for Star Wars and Back to the Future, which I seem to remember from years ago. Of course, the ones talking about specific events might still be made up.

I used to be wary of wearing anything with a message or a design. After all, people who do are generally expressing themselves in some way or other. I have an Ubuntu T shirt that I wear to work, but I always wonder about people who wear things with oriental writing on them, as I'm sure that they say something insulting about the wearer, or suggest that he's into some kind of bizarre fetish. I suppose you're all right if you don't walk around in South Asia wearing it.

Now, though, I've decided that it's fun to wear things that you don't know anything about. I have a "World Frisbee Championship" T-shirt. Someone even started talking to me about frisbees in the coffee queue at work. I had to admit that I know considerably less about frisbees than Ubuntu. And just look at my latest acquisition:

Isn't it great? The only problem with it is the date, since I look far too young to have attended this particular gig, rave, concert or whatever it was. I can't help wondering about people who did attend, bought the T shirt, and who have lovingly looked after it for 40 years, only wearing it to very special 70's nights. They'll be gutted if they go to the next one and there are ten other people wearing them who picked them up for 6 quid at Sainsbury's.

Still, it makes a nice addition to my collection, which includes among other non-me things, a "NORTH DAKOTA PARK RANGER" shirt. Far better to have the T shirt, without having had to have been there.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Are We Gluing Coffee Pots? - and Lots of Randomness

My latest parcel of purchases from Greece arrived the other day. This consisted of:

Detective Novels - Two novels by Giannis Maris. He was Greece's answer to Agatha Christie, writing stories prolifically in the 50's, 60's and 70's. His detective is Captain Bekas.

An Audiobook - I've never ever listened to an audiobook, so this is an experiment. The book itself is apparently a classic of early 20th Century Greek literature.

An old Dictionary - This was published in 1969, and is a dictionary of the old formal Greek that was abolished in the 1970s. It might be useful for reading older non-fiction works, though to be honest I mainly got it because I like dictionaries.

The Greeklish Dictionary - This isn't actually a dictionary, but a rather strange book consisting of modern idiomatic Greek phrases literally translated into English. I managed to find some of them (including "Are we gluing coffee pots?") in dictionaries, though you really need to come across them in actual use to understand them properly. Others, such as "Shit high and gaze", I have no idea about.

I was up until 4am last night (or should I say this morning?). Not because I was busy looking up strange Greek phrases, but because I had discovered a random web site. Appropriately named random.org, it is a site that provides randomness. It's run by a computer scientist at Dublin University, and it's the ideal place to go if you want to roll dice, toss coins, pick cards, generate lottery tickets, or run prize draws or electronic gambling (depending on which authority regulates your business).

It all started in 1997, when Mads Haar connected a $10 radio to an old Sun computer and started playing static through it. The radio was deliberately not tuned to any station and had to be cheap because the more expensive models tend to filter out the static. Contrary to what Windows users might believe, computers aren't very good at being random, since they're designed to behave in a predictable manner. If you want your computer to run games where real money is involved (or strip poker), then the last thing you want is any kind of predictability.

These days, he's got six radios and much more powerful servers, and is able to generate the equivalent of 18,000 coin tosses a second. If you go onto his site, you get a million bits free, and a daily top-up of 200,000 bits (up to the million bit limit).

I got the site to shuffle a pack of cards for me. This used up 335 bits. Of course, I then had to do some calculations to work out the least number of bits you need to do such a shuffle. Wouldn't you? I came up with 226, and then spent more time when I should have been sleeping trying to work out what they're doing that uses 335. Actually, if you keep shuffling it uses different amounts - other shuffles produced 322 and 401.

It's only now that I've written all this down that I realise two things. One is how sad all of this makes me sound, and the other is why the reality of computer shuffling might not work like the theory. At which point I'll have to leave this fascinating tale. I've got a card shuffling program to write.

"We'll say them", as they say in Greek...

Monday, 26 July 2010

Chrome Surfers, Blue Teeth, and Document M of the Building Regulations

I don't know if any of you remember Mosaic. It was one of the first browsers, back in the days when the web was just starting. In the days when men were men and wrote web pages in raw html. Before applets, javascript and flash. People didn't used to say "the web", but "Mosaic", as in "I've put my home page up on Mosaic".

What things were like before Mosaic

Things have come along way since those pioneering days, less than twenty years ago. Mosaic was superceded by Netscape, and then by Firefox, which introduced us to the joys of tabbed browsing now copied by all of its competitors. And even though much of the web's content is still the same, i.e. text-based, it is surrounded by flashing whizzy graphics.

And things are getting flashier and whizzier. Over the last year or so, my favourite news websites have gone from simple, fast-loading pages to Flash City, with tickertape and ever more annoying adverts. It got to the stage where I was finding it tedious to use them because Firefox would take forever to render them, especially if I opened multiple tabs.

I decided it was time to try something different, so I downloaded google's Chrome browser. The difference was instantly noticeable. The same webpages now load much faster, and the browser rarely hangs. Chrome doesn't have as many features as Firefox, which is a good thing. The problem with software is that it gets more and more clunky and difficult to use as they add more and more features. Chrome is much newer, and so hasn't got to that stage. Yet.

I've only been using it for a few days, but so far it seems to work fine. It even has a porn mode, for anonymous browsing. I've not tried it, but I'm told that people who are married find it useful. For buying that surprise birthday present, obviously.

Now the web is back to being almost as fast as it was back in the old Mosaic days.

Still on the subject of new technology, I took Helena to get a bluetooth USB adapter the other day. She wanted to transfer photos from her mobile phone to her laptop. Argos were selling them at half-price, i.e. under a fiver, so we got one and tried it on my Ubuntu netbook.

Like the web, wireless communications have also come a long way since the first Marconi wireless networks.

Nowadays they can get all this on a USB stick.

As far as I'm concerned, bluetooth is Voodoo black-magic, but Helena knew what to do, and we managed to get a photo off my phone and onto the computer. "Now disable bluetooth on your phone, before anyone tries to get into it.", she advised. I was impressed by her security-conciousness. Apparently the children all use bluetooth to transfer pictures and music in the playground. And for malicious purposes too, it seems.

This is the photo. It was taken on a recent visit to a local restaurant.

Notice the position of the hedge

We were sitting outside, and Helena suddenly looked over at the carpark. "That's awful!", she exclaimed. I turned round and looked at the two disabled parking spaces. "There should be enough space for the driver's door to open fully. How else will someone in a wheelchair get out? That goes against Document M of the building regulations."

I've checked, and sure enough, Part M of the UK Building regulations states that there should be 200m of hatched out space on the driver's side of every disabled parking space. As well as 200m at the back. It's amazing what useless information gets into children's heads. She's not interested in a lot of the more "academic" school subjects like science or maths, which has led me to question how she plans to earn enough money to look after her dad in his old age. How much do building inspectors earn, I wonder?

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


The Story So Far...

During a routine medical check, they discovered that my blood pressure was too high. I pointed out that to the nurses they shouldn't have been squeezing my veins so hard with that thing they wrap round your arm and pump full of air, but they weren't convinced. They extracted some blood, which you might have thought would help ease the pressure, but it didn't do any good. Eventually they decided I should see a doctor.

At the Doctors

Doctor: Says nothing, but looks expectantly at his patient.

BOV: They say I've got to see you about my high blood pressure.

Doctor: checking his patient's blood pressure: Hmmm. 160/88.

BOV: Waits.

Doctor: Yes. Yes. Well, that is rather high. Why is that?

BOV: You're the doctor.

Doctor: Yes. Yes. Hmmm. It was okay in 1998.

BOV: They say that I'm drinking too much and that I'm not getting enough exercise.

Doctor: What do you drink?

BOV: Alcohol.

Doctor: No, I mean, beer?

BOV: Beer, wine whisky, anything really.

Doctor: Anything you can get your hands on?

BOV: No, I didn't mean... I'm not an alcoholic.

Doctor: Hmm.

BOV: Look. I'm worried that I'm on the verge of death. I'm sure I'm about to have a heart attack.

Doctor: Yes. Yes. I can see that you are.

BOV: Clutches his chest and stops breathing.

Doctor: I mean, I can see that you're worried. You needn't be, you know. Clicks on the computer. Your risk profile isn't that high. Though they're underestimating your blood pressure. Clicks again. Is there any history of heart disease in your family?

BOV: They all died of heart attacks in their 50s.

Doctor: Oh dear. Yes, that's not good. It raises your risk by 50%. Clicks again. Yes. Yes. Here, you see? You've got about a 15% chance of having a heart attack in the next ten years.

BOV: 15 Percent??? That's the same as a turn of Russian roulette!

Doctor: I'm not sure what a bullet in your brain does to your risk profile. Clicks. Well, cut down on your drinking and come back in three months. If it's still too high we'll give you a pill.

So, I've swapped the demon drink for sparkling water laced with lemon juice. My body is responding to the lack of alcohol by making my sleep patterns even worse than usual. However, I'm still alive, which is something, and instead of worrying about my heart I'm now trying to find out what an overdose of citric acid does to you.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

21 Years Later

The other day, I finished reading "The Man Who Watched the Trains Go Past", by Georges Simenon, put it in it's proper place on my bookshelf (next to "The Yellow Dog" by the same author), and checked my store of unread volumes to decide what to tackle next.

Eventually I chose "The Dam", by Spiros Plaskovitis.

It's a novel that was written in 1961, and is about a dam. I don't really know any more than that. So far, we've been introduced to the dam, and to the workers who take care of it. Funny things are happening, but because they're outside their routine, they just ignore them. Until an engineer turns up unannounced and asks them where the cracks are. Cracks? What cracks?

No doubt things will either become clearer or more obscure - I've no idea what kind of novel it is, though I suspect it's not something I would have normally bought.

On the first page, there is an inscription with my name and a date. And a price (£9).

When I was younger, I used to write my name, place and the date in every book I bought. Since I don't keep diaries and can't remember much that happened to me longer ago than a few days, these inscriptions are pretty much all that remain of my younger self. When my father died, I was reading Anthony Trollope's "The Way We Live Now", and I wrote the date at the top of the page that I was on.

I've long since given up defacing my books in this manner, and of course nowadays I have a blog to record anything interesting that happens in my madcap life.

Anyway, back to "The Dam". From what little I remember, I was staying in London for a week with a group of students, and we went on various day trips by coach. One of these was to Cambridge.

Of course, I made a point of visiting the Mathematical Bridge.

Picture: Chris Millar. License

And being a University town, they had a large academic bookshop. As the 19-year-old me was intending to get down to some serious work learning Modern Greek in the near future (I'd only been putting it off for about 4 or 5 years at that point), I found the bookshop's small Greek section and picked a book. I'm not sure why I chose that particular one. Obviously not for its exciting cover. I do remember that I had to look up the title in a dictionary once I got home.

And now, 21 years later, the time has finally come. I've read ten pages so far, which is nine-and-a-half more than I've managed before. If I'd known then that it would take me this long, maybe I'd have saved my £9. After all, that was probably a lot of money at the time - it would have bought at least 6 pints (less than 3 today). Or maybe I'd have bought it and filled that front page with notes about my visit to Cambridge. So that instead of one solitary memory about a bridge, I'd have at least another blog post's worth. The problem with young people is that they just don't think ahead.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Flying the Flag

England really isn't a bad place to live, most of the time. It's generally safe, and the locals are reasonably friendly. However, every four years the locals get very excited about something called The World Cup. Britain is probably the only country in the world without a national football team. Instead most parts of Britain have their own international teams. The largest of these is of course England. At World Cup time English flags appear everywhere. Every other car is emblazoned with them, people have their hair dyed with flags on them.

I'm almost tempted to scrap my old TV and buy an HD flat screen, because they're being sold at reduced prices almost everywhere, so that England fans can watch their team lose in high resolution. The local pub drastically reduces prices of their pints during England games, which isn't ideal. You have to drink your cheap pint surrounded by normally rational people who have somehow turned into rabid animals. Who shout and scream when their team gets within 10 feet of the ball, and who look like they're ready to commit murder when the other lot score.

I'm not sure why the English are always so hopeful. They keep banging on about how they won the cup in 1966. If I was an England fan, I wouldn't want to draw attention to the fact that my team hasn't won bugger all for 44 years. A few weeks ago they were even beaten by Woody Harrelson. Not the best of omens.

I'm thinking of suggesting to the landlord that he reduces the pints during the games that no-one wants to watch - after all, that's when he needs the business.

There was such a game yesterday afternoon. It was a sunny day without a cloud in the sky. I was sitting outside having a leisurely lunch and a few pints, and reading a Simenon novel. There were only a few of the die-hard locals inside, half-watching the match. It was Greece v. Nigeria.

Now, I'm not a football fan. Nevertheless, I did watch the start, with the national anthems, and I might have wandered inside every so often, usually when there was a lot of cheering on the TV. And I caught the last 5 minutes. I didn't cheer, but I was happy to see that a country with 150 million people to choose 11 players from was beaten 2-1 by the Greeks, who are only 6% of the size. The Greeks who are currently suffering all manner of crap due to economic woes, who now have something to cheer them up.

Which is great. And now, since I've had enough exposure to football to last me the next four years, and I'm also a little sunburnt, I think I'll cut down on my visits to the pub for the next month or so, and keep my head down until it's all over.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Something in the Water

Picture by Roger McLassus [License]

Today I finally got round to registering at a new doctor's surgery. It's only taken me 6 years. On the two or three near-death incidents that I've had since then, I've had to drive 8 miles to the old place, whereas this one is 2 minute's walk away from my flat.

There was a form, of course, and in addition they wanted some proof of identity. Photographic ID to prove who I was, and some proof of my address. The only photographic ID I've got is my passport, so I took that. As far as proving where I lived, they wanted what is becoming the standard these days.

In this digital, security conscious age where credit cards and passports contain smart chips, holograms and so on, this proof is none other than the super-secure "recent utility bill". Because it's not like any 10 year old with a word processor could possibly forge one of those. Oh, no.

As I was tearing the flat apart hunting for bills, I was almost tempted to see just how good my all-singing-all-dancing-printer-scanner is. All my bills are paid automatically by Direct Debit, so when letters from the electricity or water people come, I tend to chuck them on a pile. Sadly, there's more than one pile. And every time I need to find something, the piles get disturbed so that the most recent items are not always on the top.

I managed to find a lot from 2008. This was obviously a good year for bills, or maybe I just opened more of them. Then I found one from May 2010, but it was an electricity bill. The problem there is that they always address them to the letting agent rather than me. Even though they have no difficulty taking the money out of my bank account. So I needed a water bill.

Since these bills are apparently all the identity theives need, it was reassuring to know that if they broke in, they'd never find one recent enough. Or perhaps they'd already done that and taken all of the 2010 ones?

Finally, the last envelope on the last pile had a suitably recent letter. I'm not sure what they would have done at the health centre if I couldn't find it. I would have had to explain about my piles, and they would have said that if I had piles I should see a doctor, but not until I'd registered.

As part of the registration process, they get a nurse to examine you. This is normal practice, but I'm scared in case they find something terminal. They also gave me a small container which they want me to fill. "It's only to dip." said the receptionist. I'm not sure what that means - once the water has left my body, I don't really care what they do with it, though I'd advise them to stick to humous or taramasalata.

I suppose this means that I can't go to the pub tomorrow evening (the examination is on Thursday). Though if I did it would save a lot of hassle, as I might as well just fill the container with neat cider, and cut out the middle man (and my digestive system). Alternatively, I could use tap water. I'm tempted to do that and see what they diagnose.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Ideal Home?

Reading through my favourite blogs, there seems to be a recurring theme for many of you. Homes. Bee's taken in another family member, Chris is swithering about whether or not to move out of his unique Manchester home (apparently instead of being timber framed it's made out of CD cases), and SHG is in the process of moving Cowbell HQ to a new location. Kat and her husband are still busy doing out what is to be their dream home, and VE has an exclusive report suggesting that the President of some former British colony (I forget which) is considering painting his house a less boring colour. I think he needs a few tins of that Tartan paint.

So I thought that as a service to my readers, I'd try and find this week's must have property.

I spent hours scouring the world for that ideal but unique home. Well, I would have spent hours, or even weeks if it weren't for those nice folks at google. Anyway, if anyone has a drum can you please roll it for...

The Nuclear Bunker

There are apparently loads of these for sale in the USA. In addition to the rather modest property featured in the video, someone has done some extensive renovation of a missile silo in New York State. Two private suites in a spring-loaded structure designed to withstand a direct nuclear strike would be ideal when those troublesome or quarrelsome relatives decide to pay a visit.

These underground structures stay at a constant temperature all year round, which is ideal for wine buffs, and no doubt saves on heating and cooling. And you won't have to worry about dry rot, termites, ex wives, burglars or Word War III.

There's loads of space, plenty of scope for DIY, and the best thing of all is having something like "Atlas F Missile Silo" as the first line of your address.

I must admit that although at first I thought this was all a bit silly, the idea of living in such a place is quite appealing. However, I've decided not to move just yet. Apart from the rather long commute to work (even if some of these places do have their own runways), there don't appear to be many pubs nearby.

How did on Earth did they expect to keep civilisation going in these bunkers without decent boozers???

Monday, 31 May 2010

Happy Holiday?

Today is the Late May Bank Holiday. For many people this means spending the day in traffic jams trying to get home from a rainy long weekend somewhere nice, or rather somewhere that would have been nice if it wasn't for the rain and the other hoards of people.

I'm planning to spend the day in a more relaxing but productive fashion. Naturally I'll be keeping up with events in the Greek speaking world, but I have also decided I should be more familiar with Mozart's opera Cosi Fan Tutte and I ordered a vocal score from Amazon which has just arrived.

You will doubtless recall that this is the one about "wife-swapping". Two young men are madly in love with (and engaged to) two sisters. The men are convinced that their girlfriends are completely devoted to them and that they would be eternally faithful. Their older, world-weary friend says this is impossible. All women are the same. Faithless, fickle and flighty.

Eventually the question is settled in the time-honoured fashion by a wager. The men agree to let the old man set up an experiment. This involves them pretending to be called up to fight a war, disguising themselves as exotic foreign travellers, and then trying to seduce their own girlfriends.

But it all goes horribly wrong when they manage to seduce each others fiances. Don't you just hate it when that happens?

I wonder how you're planning to spend the day? I suppose most of you will be going to work. If so, then think of me relaxing in my armchair.

One of you will, I hope, be doing something special today. Or at least getting some time to relax. After all, it is her birthday. I'd like to pretend that's why we're have this Bank Holiday, but apparently they were started in 1871, which I think is a few years before she was born.

Happy Birthday, Jean Knee!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

...In His Counting House...

Some of you may be wondering how I've been spending my time recently, especially all of those extra hours freed up by not writing blog posts. There are several answers to this question, and today I'm going to talk about the first one.

I've been counting money.

Now, I don't indulge in lotteries or other games of chance, and I haven't got any rich relatives, so I've not suddenly become a millionaire. Sadly the money isn't mine, or anyone else's.

Instead, I've discovered the book "Amusements in Mathematics" by Henry Dudeny, which has been lovingly digitised by the Project Gutenberg.

This book is a classic of recreational mathematics. It was published in 1917, and consists of hundreds of puzzles. These are arranged into sections, and the first one concerns money.

Here is an example of the sort of puzzle that we're talking about:

A man left instructions to his executors to distribute once a year exactly fifty-five shillings among the poor of his parish; but they were only to continue the gift so long as they could make it in different ways, always giving eighteenpence each to a number of women and half a crown each to men. During how many years could the charity be administered? Of course, by "different ways" is meant a different number of men and women every time.

As I said, the book was published in 1917, and Britain's monetary system was non-decimal. A pound was divided into 20 shillings, each of which was further divided into 12 pence. Each penny was worth four farthings. A guinea was worth 21s (£1.05 in today's money). You won't be surprised to learn that lawyers charged their victims in guineas rather than pounds.

As in present day America, they had names for many of their coins, which were presumably designed to confuse foreigners. Coins like tanners, bobs, florins and half-crowns. Interestingly, despite the fact that the whole system was abolished in 1971 in favour of decimalisation, the old shillings and florins were still in circulation until the 1990s, when they made some of our coins smaller. Presumably to save money. And I don't remember seeing any, but according to WIki, the sixpence coin (confusingly worth 2.5 pence) was legal tender until 1980.

Although the system sounds confusing, the British managed to use it for about 1000 years, and like imperial measures, it was more human than decimal. They probably had very little inflation, which would have helped.

Armed with a list of coins and their values, I've been working my way through the puzzles. They're not particularly enlightening, but they are fun. Many of them can be solved analytically (i.e. you just write out the equations and solve), but he has all sorts of traps for the unwary. For example, the fact that you only need 47 cuts to divide a 48-yard length of cloth into individual yards.

Although I begin with a pen and paper, and fill sheet after sheet with calculations, it's also really useful to have the computer around when you end up with multiple possible solutions to check.

Anyway, I've almost run out of money to count. The next set of puzzles is entitled "Age and Kinship". Hopefully they won't all be the kind where Aunt Agatha is twice Harry's age, and 2/17 of Uncle Cuthbert when you reverse the digits. Or whatever. If they are, I might get bored and have to start writing more posts....

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Sports News

One of the more embarrassing things about being British is the fact that your country invented football. It's a game that seems to have almost everything wrong with it. It's so boring that no-one wants to watch it, but this combined with it's relatively short length (90 minutes) leads to the so-called fans resorting to violence.

Look at cricket. It's just as dull, but a game takes 3 days. Consequently, the spectators know they're in for a long haul and bring ample supplies of food, champagne and condoms. Everything is very civilised, they have breaks for things like afternoon tea, and so no-one gets hurt. Apart from the odd pigeon.

Football, on the other hand, is so short that the only things the "fans" take with them are a 6-pack of lager and some home-made explosives. They've cracked down on the lager, so they drink all of them before they get to the match, which doesn't really help.

Now, however, the game is in the process of being completely turned around. They've managed to replace the players with robots. These robots are almost indistinguishable from their human counterparts, apart from the vastly increased speed at which their brains work. They bumble around the pitch, are as likely to kick each other as they are the ball, and they regularly fall over (this is known in football parlance as "taking a dive").

As you can see from the video, the robotic game is just as dynamic and exciting as the real thing. There's still a lot of work for the boffins to do, though. Now that they've got the players automated (saving millions on expensive salaries which are payed for by expensive TV deals, which in turn are payed for by people who adverts that are in turn payed for by the people who buy those products - beer and cars), they will have to make robot spectators.

This shouldn't be too hard. After all, if football players, who can earn between £1 million and £4 million a year, are not the sharpest knives in the drawer*, what about the spectators, whose average wage is around 2% of the players, and who are suckered out of £80 of it per match?

Think how many man-hours will be saved around the world by the complete roboticisation of football. It's not just the players and the spectators, but riot police and scarce hospital resources. Combined with cheaper beer and cars.


*An example of the kind of intellect the robot players are up against:

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Netbook Remix

Suppose you find yourself in a hotel in the West's most dangerous country. It's the weekend, and you've managed not to become a homicide statistic, despite the fact that you've not been in the state long enough to legally qualifiy for the AK47 that you need to protect yourself (that takes a whole week). More importantly, there's no prospect of getting home alive or dead, since someone's seen fit to let off a volcano in Iceland.

You're sure that unprovoked discharge of lava and ash must be in violation of International Law. Didn't they sign some treaty a few years back in Iceland? You can't remember, but it might have been one of those VALT (Volcanic Arms Limitation Treaty) things. Or was it? You could really do with internet access to answer these vital questions.

In addition, one of the local TV channels is showing hours of "Law and Order SVU" in the evenings, and (never having seen Law and Order before) you want to find out who that rather nice looking Assistant DA is.

Yes, internet access would be really useful. But wait... the hotel has free wireless. And one of those shops you passed on the way to the gun store was selling cheap computers. A place called Best Buy. It was full of geeky looking types, so it must be okay. You only hope they won't make you wait a week to get one.

Half an hour later, you're back in the hotel room with your new acquisiton. Half an hour after that you've gone back to Best Buy to get some headphones. Another 30 minutes and you're watching the Aimilia Hour, and you're learning to stop worrying and love the volcano. Or at least to not feel quite so isolated.

This is the EEE PC 1005HA. It's got 1GB of memory, and a 160GB hard drive. It's a lot easier to lug around than either a full-sized laptop or a dictionary, and it would have cost me about £200, but I got it for zero Pounds, because they let me have it for 300 of their Monopoly style funny money. They originally said it was going to be even less than that, but then they added tax. They like doing that. You can't even get a burger at the advertised price. I'm sure that taxing burgers is violating some Constitutional Right or something.

It came with Windows XP. This meant that before I could get onto the internet to check if my plane was flying and send hilariously witty emails to various people (apparently Bee laughed so hard she had to buy a new pair of jeans), I had to decide whether I wanted to update my system, whether I wanted to sit through a sales pitch for IE (the only options are to watch it now or later), whether I wanted to delete unused icons from my desktop, and delete the stupid popup box that informed me I'd just plugged in headphones (like I had done it in my sleep or something and needed to be told).

Needless to say, as soon as I was back home, I installed Ubuntu. They do a "Netbook Remix", which is designed to make better use of the small screen. I wasn't sure I'd want this rather than the normal desktop environment, but it's really rather good.

Now, if you'll excuse me I've got rather a lot of Law and Order box sets to get through (I'm still only on 1990)...

No doubt you're wondering about that volcano treaty. And what the US Constitution has to say about burger taxation. I was going to look it up after I'd finished searching for Diane Neal pictures... And I'm still intending look it up when I've finished...