Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Boom and Bust

With all the current wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the Greek economy, we are being bombarded daily with figures, percentages, spreads, and so on. In an effort to dispel some of this gloom and doom, I think they ought to look at more entertaining economic figures. Starting with skirts.

The hem-line has in the past been proposed as an indicator of how well an economy is doing. The theory says that hem lines are directly proportional to economic growth. That is to say that in good times skirts are shorter. I suspect that a similar thing holds for necklines - the lower the better.

I think I know why this works - skimpier outfits require less material. This means that more money is being spent and fewer of our scarce natural resources used up. And all the extra profit made on clothes gets spent back into the economy, causing a financial chain reaction.

Another suggested barometer is the Mars Bar. This is said to give a good indication of inflation. Apparently governments can give up surveying households' shopping habits and monitoring thousands of prices every month and just pop down to their local newsagents to see how much a Mars Bar costs. The important thing to remember, though, is that it's the price per gram that matters. Those sneaky people at Mars have a habit of altering the size as well.

The Mars Bar in more prosperous times

Finally we come to men's underwear. It seems that someone has been through men's drawers and worked out that the older and more worn out they are, the worse the economy is doing. Although you have to wonder why someone ever wanted to conduct such a study, this is good news for those of us who don't usually wear women's clothes. All I need to do to help the economy is buy some new underwear. Unfortunately, this isn't top of my spending priorities right now - maybe I'll wait until things start to get better. Also, I hate shopping for clothes. Why couldn't they have chosen DVDs or Guinness? Maybe I'll do some research...

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Digitally Revolutionised

The future is here. I have been digitally revolutionised.

Having got a printer/copier/scanner gadget last week at the supermarket, this time I picked up a digital TV box.

In Britain, we've had five terrestial TV channels for some time now. Two of these are provided by the state broadcaster, the BBC, and the other three are commercial - i.e, they have adverts and some programmes are sponsored. The BBC isn't allowed to advertise. In fact, when I was a child (i.e. not that long ago), they used to make a point of covering up brand names on any packaging that appeared on screen.

These channels are broadcast as analogue signals, and are being phased out in favour of digital channels which take up less bandwidth. This has allowed the government (or at least a government at some point in the past) to make a bit of ready money by selling the old frequencies to mobile phone companies.

If, like me, your TV predates this digital revolution, you have to get a box which is able to receive, decode and decompress the digital signals. These currently cost £20, which is a lot cheaper than buying a new TV, and the channels are virtually all free to view (one or two require a subscription).

I'm not sure when they're switching off the analogue signals in my area, but I think it's sometime this year. I don't think they've already done it, though there's always the chance that I wouldn't notice, since I don't really watch any of the five channels. I can't get Channel Five properly anyway, and that's the one that broadcasts CSI, so I rely on DVDs for my fix. And none of the programmes are in Greek, which is a real problem for me.

Instead of five stations, digital gives you 20 or 30 or something. And a load of digital radio channels, too. The main broadcasters all have extra channels and there is also home shopping, 24-hour news (CNN, Sky News and BBC24), and something called "Babe" channels that start at 1am. Why anyone wants to stay up late and watch films about talking pigs is beyond me. The main thing that's missing once more is Greek language TV. Oh, well.

Anyway, I got the box home and plugged it in. A Miss Marple story had just started on ITV3 (one of the digital-only channels). The quality is better than analogue, and many of the programmes are broadcast in proper widescreen. I can't remember the last time I sat and watched two hours of British TV.

I don't think that I'll be using it that much (perhaps the occasional Agatha Christie adaptation), but it's great to be digitally revolutionised. Instead of 5 channels I don't watch, now I'll be able to not watch 25. And in widescreen too.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

"Teleportation, all this kind of crap"

Years ago, I remember a few weeks when I used to stay up late (until just after midnight) to watch TV. They were repeating The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and then afterwards they would show one of the Prelude's and Fugues from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier (or WTC for short).

The story behind the WTC is all about out of tune pianos. Or rather, out of tune harpsichords. And organs. I don't want to go into hideous detail, but basically people used to tune their organs and other keyboard instruments so that chords played, in say, C major, sounded really good. However, if you tried to play in a different key, say, G major, you'd find that some of the notes were ever so slightly out of tune. By the time you got to unrelated keys such as Ab, things were so bad that if you were lucky if the audience didn't actually lynch you.

Consequently, composers wrote a lot of music in C major, but not very much for C sharp major. I'm not quite sure why this was a particular problem, but at some point clever people, such as J.S. Bach, realised that if you tuned your instrument so that all of the notes were slightly out of tune, then you could play equally well (or badly) in each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys. This method of tuning, called "Equal Temperance", has been used ever since.

Bach celebrated this technological milestone by writing 24 preludes and fugues in these keys. Then he wrote a sequel (the first lot must have sold well), consisting of another 24. The two volumes of WTC are often referred to as "The 48", for reasons that should be clear to those of you who didn't do too badly at Maths.

Anyway, in 2000 the BBC got 4 pianists to record the 48. That's 12 preludes and fugues per pianist for those of you who flunked arithmetic. Each pianist was filmed in a different venue. Some of the venues were really picturesque, such as the wonderfully ornate (if unfortunately named) Palazzo Labia in Venice.

The Russian-born pianist Andrei Gavrilov drew the short straw, and got to perform in the not-quite-opened New Art Gallery in Walsall. Like most British towns, they have planning restrictions which ensure that new buildings are in keeping with the traditional ones. In (say) Bath, this means that new buildings need to look like they're a couple of centuries old. In Walsall you have to make them as ugly as possible.

Before each of the preludes and fugues, the performer says a few words about the piece. Sadly, these bits are cut out of the DVD version, but not from YouTube. Gavrilov says it like it is. The C# minor prelude is indeed like something from another planet. The director of these films did a great job in making 48 heavy-going pieces of music look visually interesting. Even in Walsall.