Here you'll find all the newsletters I sent during the first half of 2006 (right up before we left for our second Middle Eastern trip).
Just a short note as we have been driving from Boringstoke to Paris all day yesterday and have been visiting people all over the place today. All is well, I can even see the Eiffel Tower from where I sit (it glimmers and glitters in the darkness like a huge diamond bracelet). We'll spend three days in or around Paris and then we'll go west, to the Atlantic coast.
* * Sorting out our Iranian visas turns out to be much more of a hassle than we were led to believe. The agency that's supposed to do this is not helpful at all; trying to get them on a phone line or send a fax is next to impossible and emails we send disappear mysteriously (supposedly these guys are the best agency for this sort of thing). But the general feeling over there appears to be one of utter apathy. Well, perhaps we should think about Georgia then... the Caucasian mountains seem to be a very nice territory for walkers:-).
Would be a pity though. But we (and they) have another three weeks to sort things out; perhaps all ends well.
* * From the Dept of Unintended Consequences: a top astronomer from Cambridge University has warned that star-gazing will be impossible by the middle of this century. Professor Gerry Gilmore said ground-based telescopes would be worthless if cheap air travel continues to boom and climate change increases cloud cover as predicted. He said to reporters: "You either give up your cheap trips to Majorca, or you give up astronomy. You can't have both." Hm... I have a suspicion that most people value Majorca higher than astronomy -- sad (or even unbelievable:-)) as this may seem to be for some of us.
Condensation from jets - contrails - contributes to the overall murkiness of the atmosphere, Gilmore added: "The rate at which they're expanding in terms of their fractional cover of the stratosphere is so large that if predictions are right, in 40 years it won't be worth having telescopes on Earth anymore." However, optical and infra-red astronomy on Earth will be the main casualties - radio telescopes are able to peer through cloud cover.
And Gilmore may be right: I have noted that it is almost impossible nowadays to show a child a clean, blue sky as we used to have them in the 70s... there's almost always a plane somewhere and with it a long condensation strip.
* * But there's always Hubble, our trusty space telescope, of course. NASA/ESA have released pictures and further information about a fascinating galaxy called the Pinwheel Galaxy (the name is a hint). This baby measures about 170.000 lightyears in diameter and is located in space in such a way that we can look on top (or bottom) of it. The Pinwheel contains roughly one trillion stars (that's about 160 stars for every human being currently alive). Some ten percent of these stars should be more or less similar to our sun. So there's a decent chance that among all these suns there are a few which support a planet with life on it.
That's a wild speculation, of course, but the photos (and the galaxy) are for real: http://www.spacetelescope.org/news/html/heic0602.html
* * Brush up your Latin: if you need some grand-sounding Latin phrase for your next report, email or CV, try this site: http://www.leasticoulddo.com/forum/lofiversion/index.php/t13912.html
* * Lovers of plants, especially orchids, should point their browsers to the Digital Orchid Library. This is an online collection of wonderful books about orchids... all pages are digitised and you can browse the whole collection, almost like in a library.
Among the book are "Genera et Species Orchidearum Novarum Quas Collegit, Descripsit et Iconibus Illustrativit", Sebastianapolis, 1877-1881; "L'Orchidophile: Traité Théorétique et Pratique sur la Culture des Orchidées", Paris: Auguste Goin, 1878 and "Stein's Orchideenbuch: Beschreibung, Abbildung und Kulturanweisung", Berlin: Verlag Von Paul Parey, 1892.
An amazing collection and truly a labour of love: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/orchids/
Okay, that'll do. I will send a short note from La Baule, especially if there's news on the visa front.
Have a nice week and do gaze the stars as long as it's still possible.
PS: She, a bit flustered: There's water in the carburettor. He, amused: That's ridiculous. She, annoyed: No, no, I am sure, there's water in the carburettor. He, condescending: You don't even know what a carburettor is! But okay, okay... I'll have a look. Where's the car? She, cool: In the swimming pool.
This issue sees another 30 newcomers to this newsletter. They mostly were introduced by a good friend of ours, an indefatigable Swede whom we met some eight years ago on Mount Kilimanjaro. How time goes by... and how strange that because we have met this man back then a good dozen people now read this stuff. Welcome!
* * We are still busy preparing our trip to TISL (Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon). It is quite possible that we spend more time in Iran than originally planned: the more we study the Iran travel guide the more we realise that we will need a lot of time to do that country justice. The good thing is that we've already been to Syria twice so we can more or less skip that... not Aleppo and Damascus, though. And then there's Hama and Palmyra... and the Crusader castles:-)
* * Aubrey de Grey is a man with a vision, some would say a crazy vision. His grand idea is that medicine and biosciences are now at a point where we can see (well, he can see:-)) that and how human beings will be able live almost forever. He talks confidently about a possible lifespan of 1000 to 5000 years and sees more on the horizon. He has identified seven different areas (and detailed plans) where we would have to do more research to achieve that -- but he is confident that it is feasible.
Now I am an avowed sceptic and this sounds pretty, err, far-fetched. On the other hand, that's exactly the sort of mad idea that gets my juices flowing. I am not (and will never be) in a position to say something definite about the scientific basis of de Grey's claims. It sounds all pretty feasible to my layman's ear and I have followed de Grey and his theories for more than a year now. The most amazing thing after all this time is that I have come across a lot of related commentary from the biotech/biosciences establishment (more negative than positive, of course) -- but not a single comprehensive attempt to refute his ideas and theories. And given the fact that de Grey is rather specific, it shouldn't be too difficult for an expert to refute him -- if he is indeed wrong.
Anyway, this is a fascinating idea and project, even if it takes more than the timespan de Grey has allotted: it will happen, I have no doubt about that. But what would be the practical, moral, philosophical consequences if we could live to a thousand? Would we actually like to be able to do so (I think I wouldn't.) De Grey has not all the answers... but he has invested a lot of thought. This is an independent article about the man and his ideas:
And here is de Grey's own site:
* * This site is another of those which can seriously damage your productivity... only browse it if you have some time to kill! The guys behind www.worth1000.com (a picture is worth 1000...) are doing contests. That means people send in their Photoshop work or photos and can win a prize (nothing exciting). Worth1000 have many different categories: some are stupid, others strange (a few are adult oriented, though the site as a whole is certainly not). There are always two or three open contests in each section... and of course all the entries for ended contests are there as well: about cats, tying knots (really), musical creatures, movie posters with a twist... an amazing variety.
Well, with Photoshop nothing is impossible: we are talking first-class image manipulation here and some of the graphics are staggeringly beautiful, while others are seriously freaky... or touching, teasing, tantalising: whatever they are, all are fascinating. The same goes for the photos: this is professional stuff. Definitely one of those places where I can get lost:
(They even have invented a new sport: photoshop tennis! See the FAQs for an explanation.)
* * The Australian Cane Toad is a real pest. The animal was introduced 70 years ago in Australia to control the beetle population (oh, these optimists); nowadays the species is itself beyond control: large swathes of the Australian hinterland and its fauna are threatened by this ugly toad. However, the species has provided scientists with a rare example of evolutionary adaption (normally, such adaptions, especially in vertebrates, are supposed to take ages): the toad's legs are about 25% longer today than they were 70 years ago (as measured with the help of museum specimens).
The reason is simple. The toads form a front of animals that slowly expands westwards, so that the quickest frogs will have the unexplored (unexplored by Cane Toads, that is) Australian countryside all for themselves. And one way to be quicker than the other frogs is to grow longer legs (the scientists checked that longer-legged frogs are indeed quicker). So in just 70 years the Cane Toad has learned that longer legs help with survival. Interesting question is what the animals will do once they arrive at the western extremities of Australia -- develop web-feet?
* * Brain death by dull cubicle? That's the provocative title of an interesting blog article about how our working environment and habits can either help us to develop new neurons or damage our brains, depending on the "dullness factor". I have read quite a number of articles in the last couple of years that support such ideas... people, for instance, who speak two or more languages have a better chance of avoiding Alzheimer's.
Well, one of the things I learned as a young boy is that every human brain is delivered with a fixed number of neurons: we can only lose but not create them -- an idea I always found sad and counter-intuitive. Well, as it turns this is wrong: a lively, colourful, interesting environment can in fact stimulate the growth of new neurons and help maintain a high-octane brain (if there is such a thing). That, at least, is the gist of this article:
* * I have begun re-reading some of my old philosophy books (not books written *by* me, just stuff about philosophy I have on the shelves). I must at some point try to drill down to the original texts. Especially interesting would be David Hume (I am a Doubting Thomas myself and I just love his scepticism and the way he cuts merciless through layers of gobbledegook), Kant and Schopenhauer. But I am afraid the latter two will be heavy going. Perhaps I should incarcerate myself and their books on an island for a month or two. (Oops... *I AM* on an island! Oh well, perhaps I'll do some cooking... that's easier.)
* * While on the subject of philosophy... Harry Frankfurt: On Bullshit is a tiny book (more an essay, indeed) about the philosophy of, you guessed it, bullshit. Nothing too fancy, but it has some interesting things to say. The right sort of book for, say, a London-Paris Eurotunnel journey.
* * Dept for Patriotic Nonsense: it seems the German team actually "won" the Torino Olympics. They carried away more medals than anyone else... so even if our football side is now the butt of jokes not all is lost!
Okay, folks, that's it for this week. Next weekend we'll be in Paris... let's see what I can find for you!
PS: Bad news of the week: George W Bush has decided, with the hole in the US federal budget in mind, to turn off the light at the end of the tunnel. Good news of the week: Mr Bush has looked for but couldn't locate the switch.
The recipe of the week is a somewhat fishy thing. A sort of Shepherd's Pie but not with minced meat. Instead, salmon, haddock, cod, mussels... whatever in the way of seafood you can find is good for that. Plus a mixture of potatoes and herbs... tastes heavenly.
* * People can be hard, difficult, tense. Perhaps that's their method of protecting a core they almost never show, a core that is too soft for this world.
* * Here's what I most dislike about travelling: the two weeks before the actual start. There are, oh, seven or eight million small and big things to do and chances are that we forget some. The skill to hone is of course the ability to forget only the small things and do all the big stuff:-)
Well, however many days before I actually start preparing my stuff (for example, backing up my whole music collection)... the last few days are always a blur. On the other hand that makes the actual journey much more enjoyable... because the moment I hop onto the plane I simply don't care anymore. All falls away and even if the whole of Britain breaks down, I am off.
* * Backing up my music collection... yes, that is a thing that could turn my hair grey, if it weren't already grey. The amount of work I have put into encoding and perfecting my MP3 collection is such that I don't want to go through that again. So I backup the music, all 25 gigabytes of it... and then I backup the backup... well, you can probably see where this is leading to:-)
The funny thing is that in all the 25+ years I am now working with PCs I have never, not once, had a hard disk crashing on me or doing other nasty things (knock on wood). I am absolutely sure that this has to do with the fact that I do my backups R-E-L-I-G-I-O-U-S-L-Y. So if Murphy ever catches me with slipping a backup the old geezer will strike back, without mercy. I know it, I am sure of that. It's a game between him and me... but I intend to win:-)
* * Speaking of failing hard disks... what follows is *not* the sort of sound musical people will enjoy. Hitachi, one of the big players in the hard disk business, has a website with technical information about their drives. Among other questions is this: "How do I know whether the sound my drive makes is normal?" Helpfully, the Hitachi engineers have put online some typical sounds a sick drive produces: a sound file says more than 1000 words:-)
(The .wav files with the sounds are at the bottom of the page; some of them sound rather unhealthy indeed!)
* * If my British friends want to make clear that something is never, ever going to happen they say "when pigs fly" (Americans seem to prefer "when hell freezes over"). Well, Britons of the World, you will have to look for something else now, as the following website proves: flying pigs abound; there are many other movable things as well. Amazingly, they're all made from simple cardboard!
The incredible thing is that most of the designs are downloadable: you get a simple PDF file which you print on thicker paper or cardboard. You also get detailed instructions; with these most of the design can be built in less than one hour, many even by children. And the best thing is that they actually work!
* * And while I am in playing mode... There is a huge website, called Abandonia, with literally tons of computer games. All these games are ex-commercial games that are not sold anymore... hence the term abandonware. There is everything there: adventures, 1st person shooters, flight sims, logic puzzles... you name it: this site has the potential to seriously undermine your productivity:-). The first link is for the English pages, the other two links go to the German and French pages, respectively.
* * Imagine you are Michael Morales, sitting on Death Row in California, and you have to read the following quote: "A US federal judge has ordered the state of California to make its lethal injections a less potentially uncomfortable experience for customers - or he will stop the planned execution next week of convicted rapist and murderer Michael Morales." See:
"A less potentially uncomfortable experience for customers..." ain't that an amazing way to describe what quite a few people would say amounts to legalised murder? I have the strange feeling that something is seriously wrong in the US of A. Then again, it's not the first time I have this feeling.
* * Nepal goes through a hard patch at the moment. Since King Birendra and almost his whole family were shot dead by his own son in 2001 (imagine Charles shooting Liz and Phil), the country is slowly falling apart. The current King, Birendra's surly looking brother, is turning the country into a dictatorship. But there's hope that Gyanendra will be swept away... I would not be astonished if the political parties and the maoists (who are definitely terrorists) succeed in getting rid of the monarchy (whether this is good news for Nepal remains to be seen).
There is a prophecy that the dynasty of the Nepalese Shahs will end with the 11th King. Birendra was the 11rh, so the prophecy is wrong. But hopefully only by one -- Gyanendra should be the last.
* * Something from Russia: a cape that is supposed to make you invisible. That's not out of a Harry Potter novel: there's a real patent. (The Americans and Japanese are working on very similar projects, though). Here is the article (however, the rather amazing photo in this article seem to come from the Japanese project):
* * The latest rumours re Iran say that we won't get ours visas. They are currently in the process of renaming everything: instead of Islamic Republic of Iran they will call themselves Islamic Republic of Uran.
No, that's of course utter nonsense. It seems to be no problem to arrange the visas: we should get them in Erzurum in Eastern Turkey.
That's it for this weekend, more will come next Sunday.
PS: This rookie has bought all the gear for ice fishing. Of course he's keen on testing his brand-new kit so he goes ice fishing. He starts drilling a hole through the ice when a loud booming voice says, "THERE'S NO FISH DOWN THERE!"
The rookie stops drilling, moves over a little and starts to drill again. The same voice booms, "THERE'S NO FISH DOWN THERE!"
So he moves a little further and is just about to drill when the voice comes again, "THERE'S NO FISH THERE EITHER!"
The rookie looks around, confused, and says, "What the heck... who are you anyway? God?"
"NO. I'M THE MANAGER OF THIS ICE RINK!"
No recipe this week... we're way too fat after all these excesses with the galettes and crêpes. What we need right now is a SLIM diet book:-)
* * Those who thought I was (in last week's newsletter) joking about Google and the moon... no, no, I wasn't! Please, point your browser at
and have a closer look (intrepid natures might even want to scroll up to the highest resolution which, among other things, proves that the moon is *not* made from green cheese).
* * Steel is an important raw material, computers, software and networks notwithstanding. So if you have steel, you can make money. And if you don't have steel, you can steal steel. A company in Germany did exactly that: they dismantled 5km (about 3m) of Deutsche Bundesbahn railways (the line was out of business, fortunately), that's a value of around 200.000 Euro. So if you need some money, go after one of these Railtrack lines. Who knows... it might even lead to more punctual trains:-)
* * While we're at the subject of steel and steal: here is a not entirely politically correct joke from Germany. What are German cars made of? Krupp-Stahl, of course. What are Swedish cars made of? Schweden-Stahl, of course. And what are Ukrainian cars made of? Why, Dieb-Stahl of course! (German Diebstahl = English theft). I hope my Ukrainian friends will forgive me... but this is simply too good a play on words to hold back.
* * There are software solutions for all sorts of problems. (One of these days they will invent a purely software-based coffee maker.) The following piece must be one of the more funny software solutions:
* * A couple in Britain has had their golden wedding anniversary a few days ago. (Yeah, these things still happen.) 50 years back, in 1956, the bridegroom, Les Lailey, had a brilliant idea: he would keep something from their wedding hamper and he and his wife (assuming she still was his wife then:-)) would eat this... thing all these 50 years later. Well, he did keep a tin of cooked chicken in jelly -- and a few days ago he indeed ate it (it seems the wife was rather less enthusiastic).
What's more, he actually survived the chicken that came from the fifties (don't laugh, all this is really true.) His wife Beryl commented drily that she was not too impressed with her husband's romantic gesture: “If it was a diamond ring or something like that, that would be different.” She's right: a diamond is forever, a chicken only for 50 years.
(If you're interested: the 50-year-old tin will be sold at an eBay auction... let's hope Les uses the money as a down payment for a diamond ring.)
* * For those of you who have to survive long meetings and seminars, or boring conference calls, help is at hand. It's a simple game called BULLSHIT BINGO.
Before (or even during) your next meeting, seminar, or conference call, grab a blank A4 sheet. Divide it into columns, five across and five down. That gives you 25 empty squares.
Randomly write one of the following words or phrases in each block:
* synergy * strategic fit * core competencies
* best practice * bottom line * revisit
* expeditious * to tell the truth * 24/7
* benchmark * out of the loop * value-added
* proactive * win-win * think outside the box
* fast track * result-driven * empower (or empowerment)
* knowledge base * touch base * mindset
* client focus(ed) * paradigm * game plan
Check off the appropriate square whenever you hear one of those words or phrases uttered. When you get five blocks horizontally, vertically, or diagonally in a row stand up and shout "BULLSHIT!"
Regular "Bullshit Bingo" players report that meetings etc. are much more lively:-)
Anyway, this sort of problem calls for something called "disposable email addresses". I have used a service called dodgeit (see http://dodgeit.com/ ) for years now and I was (and still am) very happy with them. But there are many others around. Almost all of these providers are free and while some do require a registration others don't (dodgeit doesn't). Have a look at:
for a list and some further suggestions. (I will, in a forthcoming newsletter, also give some specific hints about how to avoid spam in the first place.)
* * This week we got our passports back from the Syrian Embassy here in the UK. We had the jitters for a few days, in case the Mohammed cartoons and the burning Danish embassies had made the Syrians nervous... but no, they gave us our multiple entry visas (which we need to go to Lebanon) without any problem. Now it's the Iranian visas and that will be much more interesting. For the visa photos Vero has to dress in a manner that is compatible with the Revolutionary Guidelines of the Über-Ayatollah: no miniskirts, no flashy make-up, no tight blouses, instead some sort of chador, so that her hair is hidden. Freedom of Speech? We want Freedom of Fashion! (Or as Vero remarked yesterday: it's probably just as well that there are no ice skating ladies in the Iranian team for Torino...)
But it seems that it's not that bad, once in the country. (It possibly can't be as bad as Algeria 1991, where almost all women we encountered looked like shapeless sacks of potatoes (this is really true: we have never before or after been in such a dispiriting place).
We'll keep you updated about our visa adventures. Till next week!
PS: Do we really need spell checkers? Hm... aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.
The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Amazing, isn't it?
Vero and I have added another seven people to this list: if that's your first newsletter, welcome and we hope you enjoy the show!
All is well in the Lauer household; once more this week's recipe comes from Vero. On 2nd of Feb the French honour the memory of Baby Jesus being brought to the temple. This day is called "Chandeleur" by the French (and, somewhat less poetically, "Groundhog Day" by the Americans). Of course, the French wouldn't be French if they hadn't invented some culinary connection. Learn all about that here:
(It's not much more than plain crêpes but Chandeleur sounds so much grander:-)).
* * Yes, I thought this might happen. In the last newsletter I mentioned a German Rock band, Rammstein. Well, more than just a couple of my German friends wrote back because Rammstein has, for a while at least, been put into the extreme right corner in Germany. Of course, Germany is especially sensitive when it comes to extremists from the far right, and rightly so.
So, are Rammstein neonazis? Rest assured. I think they're a provocative bunch (they want to be, of course), their music is often noisy, some of the lyrics (especially earlier stuff) border on the tasteless... but they are certainly not right-wingers. I would not have put them into a normally family-friendly newsletter:-) if I had thought otherwise.
* * A few of you may already know Google Mail, or even have an email account with them. Google Mail is indeed not a bad offer, mostly because it's a rather easy-to-use service and because they give everybody more than 2.6 gigabyte (yes, that's over 2600 megabytes) of storage. To get an account here in Europe you need an invitation from a member... but Goggle keeps showering me with invites. So, anyone who's interested, just drop me a line and I will send you an invite (I have over 60 invites left, I think that should be enough).
* * Let's stay with Google for a sec. This must be my single most used website... and by a wide margin. I use them a for all sorts of searches, for some sorts of mail, for translations, for maps of the Earth and Moon and many other things. The Google credo is of course "Do no evil" and I am sure they try very hard to keep this promise, as even the smallest breach would be an immense PR disaster (not to talk about the share price). Nevertheless, I read this week that a full 77% of all Google users (that's more than three in four!) don't realise that Google collects and stores personal information! A surprisingly high figure.
I don't want to badmouth Google, quite to the contrary: their services are worthwhile and in general well thought out and reliable. However, I hope that Larry Page and Sergey Brin stay as good-natured as they appeared in the past. It'll be interesting to watch how they handle China, as there they have not exactly heeded their own corporate motto there: obviously the pressure (or the lure) to be in what will soon be the biggest online market in the world is too strong. Then again, they have at least made their stance clear, much clearer than many others, like MSN or Yahoo!. (And! why! has! Yahoo! such! a! strange! name!?)
* * What is eStarling? Well, to explain that in two words is downright impossible. Basically, eStarling is a picture frame, one of these old-fashioned things where people put 2D representations of their loved ones. But eStarling is different. It's an *electronic* picture frame. That means it has Wifi, so it'll connect wirelessly to your PC and downloads photos (hopefully the right ones, not Aunty Betty in her sexy swimwear:-)).
Furthermore, the eStarling can receive emails with attached photos and will show them in a slideshow (up to 30). It can also download photos from Flickr, a photo website, via an RSS 2.0 feed. Of course it also supports WEP encryption and CF or SD memory cards. It can show JPEG and BMP files and has a full-featured TCP/IP setup supporting DHCP, Proxies and Manual IP. Reports that a few eStarling users were found fast asleep over the configuration software have absolutely no base in actual fact: http://www.thinkgeek.com/electronics/cameras/7edc/
* * Here is a list of once-banned books plus links to the full text, if available (courtesy of John Ockerbloom, University of Pennsylvania). There are the obvious things one would expect to find in such a list -- Moll Flanders, Lady Chatterley etc. -- but also stuff I was amazed to find in there, like James Joyce's Ulysses or Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
Or how about that: an illustrated edition of "Little Red Riding Hood" was banned in two California school districts in 1989 (sic: 1-9-8-9, 200 years after the French revolution). Why? Well, following the well-known story from Grimm's Fairy Tales we all know and love, the book shows the young and innocent heroine taking food and wine to her grandmother. WINE? YIKES! So the two concerned school districts -- and very rightly, in my considered view -- cited concerns about the use of alcohol in the story as the reason for the ban.
* * Xena -- who or what the deuce is Xena? Some people call it a rock, others the tenth planet of our solar system (you wouldn't believe how heated normally dry astronomers can discuss the question what exactly constitutes a planet and what doesn't...) But it becomes increasingly likely that Xena might indeed be no 10 (and a new home for a battled Mr Blair?).
A German team (under F. Bertoldi, from the University of Bonn and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy) has just produced the first calculations as to Xena's size and the... hm, *thing* seems to be about a third bigger than Pluto (3000 km v 2300 km). It also sports a moon (called Gabrielle: how nice) -- and these two facts make it rather difficult to argue that Pluto should be a planet and Xena shouldn't. I for one like the idea. Nine planets become boring after a while.
* * I have this week moved all my internet servers (web, mail) from one provider to another and for a short period (Thursday morning) mail delivery was disrupted. If you tried to send something and there was no answer, try again.
Let's hope that the current spat about Mohammed's turban doesn't make Iranians even more iffy than they are already. I am not so much talking about the Iranian public; I think the Iranians are very much like the Syrians: a very likeable and friendly people. No, it's officialdom, embassies, customs officers, police, I am wary of. Well, let's see.
At least we do not have the sort of problem this chap is having:
See y'all next week;-)
PS: A small DIY tip for people who have developed an unhealthy relationship with the snooze button on their alarm clock: a mouse trap, placed strategically on top of the clock, is a quite persuasive preventive measure -- no more rolling over, no more going back to sleep, no more oversleeping. Instead a loud howl that has the added advantage of also waking the whole neighbourhood...
As you have probably noticed (those pesky test messages from El Typo Stupido...) things are changing behind the scenes. The address list for this newsletter has grown a bit in the past few weeks and it will grow further, I think. I had to find a more sustainable way of doing things and so I switched from sending the mails with my email program to a set of Perl scripts on my web server. That also means that I can use the same lists while we're travelling.
The upside of that change is that the whole process is much more flexible now: as you can see, this mail is personalised, it was sent directly to your own email address (see the To: line) and not, as before, via Bcc:. Rest assured that nobody else will get hold of your email address (at least not from me).
This change also means that a few (very few) of you may see this newsletter for the very first time, although I am sending it since last November. How's that? Well, some internet providers block email (wanadoo/freeserve are especially obnoxious) if the recipient is not identical to the To: address because they simply assume that all such mail must be spam.
* * The recipe of the week comes courtesy of Vero who not only baked a galette des rois which we had yesterday (an evening out with friends) but also wrote a note about its history... and of course the recipe:
* * While I was playing around with my Perl scripts, Vero finished the bathroom; it looks very nice and sophisticated with these new dark-blue tiles, thank you. And Vero is now looking for other projects around the house. Perhaps I should suggest the landing and the staircase... (No, that's one hell of disgusting work, wouldn't even ask my worst enemy to do *that*. At some point we'll either hire one of these professional mischief-makers, err, carpet layers... or we will have to move house:-).)
* * "There is a fine line between recklessness and courage" sings Paul McCartney in his new album, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard". Good old Sir Paul. His music will never change very much and at first I was a bit disappointed with this album... but after a few listening sessions I think some of the songs are rather good. I like "Jenny Wren" especially.
Another recent musical find is the German Rock band Rammstein. During the Xmas 2005 dinner in Paris I talked music with one of our nephews and he really appeared to like them. So I thought why not give 'em a try? I expected their music to be too hard for my tastes, as "there is a fine line", to paraphrase Sir Paul, between hard rock (which I like very much) and boring, hammering metal (which I don't).
To my utter astonishment this album ("Reise, Reise") turned out to be a real eye-opener (or should that be an ear-opener:-)?). The music is very good indeed, maybe a bit on the theatrical and pompous side (I like Queen, so I can stand a bit of pomposity). There are lots of nice, hard riffs, but with quite some variety, nothing like the mind-numbing hammering most industrial strength bands seem to produce nowadays. Three immediate favourites from this album are "Dalai Lama", "Moskau" and "Morgenstern".
However, what I like most about Rammstein, what actually surprised me, is not the music, nice as it is. It's their lyrics. Most are intelligent and cleverly done, quite often even witty, while others are almost brutal in their dark, sarcastic immediateness. Very, very good... these guys are certainly wordsmiths. Alas, almost all their lyrics are in German, so many of you won't understand them (and, like most really good writing, a lot of it is rather difficult to translate). Very good album though I'm not sure about their earlier stuff: I will investigate.
* * I am not exactly a religious person (to put it mildly). One reason among many is the veritable flood of Gods and Goddesses mankind invented and inventorised throughout the millenia. Lock a group of people into a room for any length of time and they will create a few more Gods. Anyway, if you ever asked yourself how many Gods there are (2850 and counting), or what they're up to in their free time, if you ever wanted to know all about the most bizarre Mesopotamian goddesses, go here:
* * Heard this tidbit on BBC Radio 4: The UK Met Office proudly announced that the night from last Tuesday to Wednesday was the coldest in London for the last nine (!) years. The temperature reached was a stupendous -2.2C. Perhaps Londoners should, just for a day or so, switch capital with the poor deep-frozen Muscovites... (To imagine that our freezer with its bone-shattering -18C is actually 10C or so *warmer* than it has been lately in Moscow -- brr!) Yes, on most winter days the UK is indeed a warm spot on the map and Vero and I appreciate that very much.
* * Kids have always had their own language and slang (and rituals). SMS and computers have only strengthened and deepened this. And somebody at Microsoft thought that modern parents need a guide to the way (some) kids talk and write these days: http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/children/kidtalk.mspx
On a related note, if you ever stumble across an unknown abbreviation, an acronym or a strange combination of numbers and letters (like ROFL or SNAFU) you just can't figure out, well, check this site:
* * The following is apparently meant all in earnest. Have a look and scratch your head!
* * Speed camera bosses have apologised to a farmer after trying to fine him for doing 85 miles... in his tractor. Steve Crossman, who farms in Wiltshire (that's around the corner from us), was a bit puzzled when he received a ticket saying he and his tractor had been snapped by a camera -- but in Wales! Mr Crossman told BBC Wales: "It's a good tractor, but not that good. It can just about get up to 26mph, downhill that is. There's no way it could get close to 85mph." The ticket was retracted.
So please don't speed in your tractors, folks -- they'll catch you.
Okay, that's it once more... have a good week!
PS: Here's one from the Dept of Useless Rhymes: The difference between men and boys is the price tag on their toys!
Vero is currently doing our en-suite bathroom with new tiles (not real tiles, mind you, rather these flexible tile things, but pretty substantial ones). If I turn down the music (Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart) I can hear her cursing under her breath:-) but it's fair enough that she does it now, as I was the one who had to do *both* bathrooms eight years ago, when we moved in (blimey, eight years!). Anyway, I have, in the meantime, been busy with baking bread (onion) for the next week and something else... but I will come to that in a minute.
* * Because today is Big Recipe Day. Quite a few of you have written or phoned back with comments on the (too few) recipes I've posted so far. Well, man is, first of all, an eating animal: nothing goes without food:-). Anyway, the surprising (to me) favourite recipe seems to be... the bread stuff, believe it or not.
So here comes more. First we have Scottish oatcakes, the second thing I baked this weekend. These are simple biscuit-style things, but salty, not sweet. They are made entirely from oatmeal and they taste deliciously. I used to buy the stuff (Nairns Rough being my preferred make) but with that recipe I'll do them on my own: http://thomaslauer.com/diy/Scottish_Oatcakes
Next is Daube à la Provençale. This is a traditional French dish we have quite regularly. It's a rather simple recipe; the meat just has to simmer for ages... but when it's finished it tastes like heaven. Really. http://thomaslauer.com/diy/Daube_%E0_la_Proven%E7ale (If your browser, as some versions of Internet Explorer are wont to, has problems opening this page, go instead to: http://thomaslauer.com/diy/Recipes and click on the Daube link.)
* * The number of Chinese Internet users reached 111 million as of 31.12.2005, up from 94 million Internet users a year ago. (The figures come from the Chinese Internet Network Information Center, which oversees the .cn top-level domain.) Imagine what that means: there are now significantly more Internet users in China than British *plus* Spanish citizens, babies, pensioners and Prime Ministers included. This serves as a reminder how huge that country really is. We will see interesting things happening in the not-so-far future in connection with China. (By the way, more than half of all Chinese Internet users -- 64.3 million -- use broadband connections. Also an amazing number.)
* * Here's another funny story from the BBC's website, this inexhaustible font of news and tidbits. It concerns, hm... Ziggy, that's an African Grey parrot (though not yet a dead one), a lover called "Gary" and "smooching sounds". Have a look here and don't laugh out too loud: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4619764.stm
* * If you're based in the UK, you have certainly heard about and/or seen Wally, the whale which came up the Thames, all the way from the North Sea to London (Samuel Johnson would have understood that urge). So this item is perhaps more interesting to the non-British readers, those in Germany, France, India, New Zealand... (I should at some point produce a small map to show where all the readers are located.)
Anyway, the poor animal (18 to 20 feet long, around 5.5 to 6 metres) swam all the way through central London, almost up to the Albert bridge (there was indeed a scene on the telly of Wally blowing its tell-tale jet of water into the air... in front of Westminster and Big Ben: that was a hell of a surreal picture!).
But yesterday at 7pm the whale died -- while rescuers tried to ferry it back to the open sea -- and today a whole nation is in mourning. "It all ends in tragedy" is one of the more restrained headlines. This is perhaps the most astonishing fall-out of the whole saga (at least for a non-Brit): how Wally, the whale, has gripped the whole nation. All the newspapers, TV channels, internet blogs... they are all over the place. Vero just remarked that it is almost as if Queen Mom had died a second time. And she is right: it is, literally. I am amazed.
It is not that other nations wouldn't empathise with the animal and its fate... a whale swimming up the Rhine would move the Germans (romantic forest-dwellers that they are) almost to tears... but still it wouldn't be the same. The way Brits can sense and relate to the deep unfairness of the situation, to the absolute helplessness of the animal, their deeply felt "com-passion"... all this is difficult to put in words but it is there.
Well, the British and animals... one could write a very long book about that relationship and wouldn't get to the bottom of it. Here's one of many sites that deal with the whale: http://lewiswhalewatch.blogspot.com/
* * If you want to play around with some really ancient software (or show your kids how horribly user-unfriendly those early DOS applications could be) here are two amazing links. The first allows you to download an old pre-Windows version of Microsoft Word, free of charge (very unlike Microsoft, but true): http://download.microsoft.com/download/word97win/Wd55_be/97/WIN98/EN-US/Wd55_ben.exe
The other item is even older: the first version of VisiCalc for IBM PCs. This is stuff from the early eighties, a real archeological find: the computing equivalent of Tutankhamen's tomb. VisiCalc was the very first spreadsheet software around, originally written for the Apple ][ (ah, all the memories:-)). Again, this is a free download (and it even runs okay on today's PCs!) from the site the of Dan Bricklin, one of the original creators of VisiCalc: http://www.bricklin.com/history/vcexecutable.htm
And with that another week is gone...
PS: There are 10 sorts of people in the world -- those who can count in binary and those who can't.
Vero was in Berlin for almost the whole of last week, sorting out some strange radio bid Motorola Germany is involved with. She did an enormous amount of overtime (as did I: once the wife's out I'll sit in front of the computer as long as I can keep my eyes open... or even longer:-)). In fact, Wednesday evening Vero worked until three into the night (I admit I was already fast asleep). It's a long time that she left for four days in a row... normally (and thankfully) a contractor doesn't do these things. But this was one of these sky-will-fall-down emergencies where she had to come, whatever the cost... At least, she brought back some delicious German bread -- not so bad after all, this trip!
* * You have by now probably heard of Microsoft's next big version of Windows: a thing called Windows Vista. Microsoft's marketing gurus have thought long and hard about their new baby before they came up with this amazing name. And now we know why it took them so long: Vista is actually an acronym... and it stands for Viruses, Infections, Spyware, Trojans & Adware. At least, we have been warned! (Vero thought I should tell you that this is of course just a joke...)
* * Best books of 2005: For a long time I've toyed with the idea to keep notes about the books I am reading but I never did... mostly out of sheer laziness. But last year I made an effort and actually started a collection of short reviews for the fiction I read (I also talk about the occasional non-fiction title, but this is much less interesting). The whole thing turned out to be not as much work as I thought, so I think I will keep it up. The collected reviews for 2005 are here:
As a taster, here is a shortlist with my best reads of 2005:
1. Martin C Strong: The Great Rock Discography, Vol 7
2. Paul Auster: The Book Of Illusions
3. Ian McEwan: Atonement
4. Colum McCann: This Side of Brightness
5. Elias Canetti: Die Blendung (German, English title: Auto-da-fé)
* * A company called MSI is a big player in the motherboard business (a motherboard is not some diabolical device on which mothers are tortured. No, it simply carries the main electronics circuits in a computer and connects CPU, memory chips etc.). The MSI guys have a new board called K8N Diamond Plus (that's for Athlon-64 CPUs, for you PC buffs) with a rather unusual addition: on-board is not only the latest high-tech components money can buy but also one of these old, pre-war-technology vacuum tube (valve) amplifiers. Yeah, those glowing things that need an eternity to heat up and half a nuclear power station to function. Well, the gadget was obviously designed for *real* audio enthusiasts, those who need a *real* amplifier for their 48-bit soundcards and not some new-fangled transistor stuff.
* * Last week, when Armenian culture minister Ovik Oveyan experienced a power cut to his flat (probably caused by too many vacuum tube amplifiers in the neighbourhood...), he naturally complained to the Armenskiye Electroseti electricity company. However, power wasn't restored quickly enough for his tastes, so later the day he went to the offices of AE, with his son and two mates... to sort things out in person. To underline the urgency of the situation, he and his assault team man-handled two AE employees and, for good measure, gave them some quick pistol-round-the-head strokes (both employees needed hospital treatment). But at least his intervention worked: power was restored within half an hour.
Armenia's president Robert Kocharian got wind of this rather unusual attempt at self-help and, not surprisingly, gave Oveyan the boot "for behaviour inappropriate for a culture minister" (one asks oneself whether let's say the finance minister might have got away with it:-)).
Sadly, having to deal with ever more inadequate customer service, arrogant or even deaf calling-centre staff and a bunch of second-rate companies has no obvious solution: some part of me does actually sympathise with the ex-culture minister and his plight. Well, this seems to be the price we have to pay for greater efficiency, cheaper products and ever more choice.
* * If you have a few minutes to spare and want to produce something funny go here: http://www.hetemeel.com/einsteinform.php
On this site you fill a simple form with a witty saying (or whatever) and Einstein, as if by magic, writes it on the blackboard. The picture is yours to keep, just copy it to your hard disk. I had to do one myself, of course (not especially witty, though): http://thomaslauer.com/start/Funny_Pics
* * Folks, the following is *not* a joke and I am *not* trying to pull your leg. It sure does sound like a joke, but apparently it's genuine bona-fide science. Okay, so here goes: Taiwanese geneticists (no, no, not again South Koreans) have bred three piglets that glow green in the dark. Yes, indeed. This feat was accomplished by injecting jellyfish DNA into 265 pig embryos and then implanting those 265 jellyfished embryos into eight sows which in turn produced three glowing but otherwise normal piglets. (It seems even their internal organs glow green... imagine that!)
The whole thing's of course A Great Idea: we could now have dogs or guinea pigs (he, he) which will glow in the night (though perhaps not that ghastly green... maybe they should work a bit on the colour) -- we wouldn't need torches anymore! And all you Doubting Thomases:-), please go to the BBC site to see the glowing truth (yes, there are real glow-pig pics on the BBC site!): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4605202.stm
Okay, that's it once more... all the best for the coming week!
PS: Here's one more amazing bit of news from the Dept of Deep Science: Radioactive cats have been found to have eighteen half-lives.
So we're back home in B'stoke and I must say the French coastline was definitely prettier:-). But in roundabout two months' time we'll be on the road again, so I am not complaining. We have a free two-week spot between Vero's last day at Motorola and our Turkey/Iran/Syria/Lebanon trip: no clear ideas as to what we'll do with that but chances are we'll end up with some sort of last-minute trip, perhaps to Andalusia or the Canaries.
Or we might go to North Wales, rent a snug cottage and climb Snowdon via all the different routes. (If it doesn't rain, that is. Alas, rain is the usual state of affairs for Wales: the Welsh place name I heard about most often in BBC and other forecasts was Capel Curig... because it's more often than not the wettest point in the whole drippin' country. Yeah, on second thoughts, Spain doesn't sound that bad...).
* * It seems a lot of you did enjoy the Brazilian Bush joke. So many, in fact, that I am now seriously contemplating a second career as PPPP (Peddler and Purveyor of Presidential Puns). Till then, those in the mood for another nice Bush send-up can point their browsers here: http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/humor/hu.html
* * The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years: this is a list compiled by the staff of computer magazine PC World. It showcases many devices which are nowadays standard kit or have even completely vanished but caused, in their day, a sensation and created or influenced a whole industry. While I would not have chosen exactly the same 50 items, the list makes for a great read, especially if you can remember the actual gadgets (for instance, I will never forget my first electronic calculator, ca. 1974, which was indeed one of these clunky Texas Instruments SR-10s... yes, the red glow of the display... the clicking of the strangely formed plastic keys... it was love on first sight:-)).
The most intriguing feature of this list is perhaps the fact that only two companies (one is Japanese, the other American) have succeeded in getting more than two items onto the list. However, these two companies are jointly responsible for almost a quarter (!) of all fifty gadgets. That's creativity! Sadly, neither of the two is especially successful at the moment. Have a look at all the 50 gadgets: http://www.pcworld.com/resource/printable/article/0,aid,123950,00.asp
* * "Hell is other people." Sartre, of course. And probably we all have known moments in life where we couldn't help thinking that the chap was damned right. But most people, I think, would feel that other people are mostly, well, just nice to be around. Okay, meet the Japanese. Robots, whether as faked animals (like Aibo, the Sony dog, which is #44 in the list mentioned above) or in more or less humanoid form, are the rage over there. Why? Hm, it seems the Japanese find it much easier to deal with robots than with real people. There are many, many things one can do wrong in interacting with other humans (especially in Japan, it seems); what's even worse, you have to control your own behaviour rather strictly as long as other Japanese are around (some might wish that a few people in the West would control their own behaviour a little more along Japanese lines, but that's a different story:-)).
Anyway, dealing with a robot and so avoid contact to a human seems to be the easier alternative for quite a few Japanese people these days. At least that's the conclusion a lengthy article in the Xmas issue of The Economist draws about that matter. The article can be found here: http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=5323427
* * Let me use this opportunity to add a few admiring words about this special issue of The Economist. They always do a double issue at year's end (the poor lads and ladettes need a holiday as well); the "double" means that there is the normal collection of 70 or so articles about current world affairs PLUS a surprisingly large and surprisingly diversified mix of special reports about, well, almost everything imaginable under the sun. One never knows what they're up to for their special issue: it is almost a little Christmas present in itself to discover these special articles after the mailman has shoved the actual copy into the letterbox.
And the specials themselves are really a treat: I enjoyed literally every single one in the 2005 Christmas edition. They are without exception well written and always present food for thought... or a source of wonder or amusement (or even all three rolled into one). And the best is that most (if not all, I haven't checked every last one) of them are free to browse and read on the Economist website, even for non-subscribers: http://www.economist.com/printedition/index.cfm?d=20051224 (just scroll down to the heading "Special Report")
Very highly recommended, the lot.
* * The following item may help those of you who have one or more PCs that are shared (or used) by more than one person. It's a piece of software from Microsoft that's called the "Microsoft Shared Computer Toolkit for Windows XP". What it does is making sure that, whatever is done to a PC, nasty or otherwise, after the current user is finished, the system reverts to a pristine, clean state. Software of this kind is often used in Internet cafes between sessions but I think this sort of thing might also be useful for families with many kids as the Little Ones can (and do) mess up a computer faster than Bill Gates can say "oops"...
The toolkit is a free, amazingly small download (2.2 MB is almost nothing by Microsoft standards) but it does require Windows XP (Home or Pro). Check it out (there's also a helpful collection of FAQs on the site) and share your experiences: http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/sharedaccess/default.mspx
* * I'd never have believed I would say that but this week's news of Ariel Sharon being felled by a second stroke shocked me, indeed left me sad. Oh, I know about his disgraceful behaviour in the past and I am sure that some of his actions could bring him before the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague if only he would be measured with the same yardstick as, say, Slobodan Milosevic. (But the victors write history, right?)
And yet, for all that, he at least tried to do something constructive during the last year. And perhaps, if his poor body had held out for another three months, he could've changed the face of Israel politics for good by winning the upcoming elections and firmly establishing his new party. As things stand right now, that seems to be a very thin hope. Instead, I think, we'll see a lot more from that arch opportunist, Bibi Netanyahu. Then again, after Sharon was first elected, I was very pessimistic as well... so who knows.
* * Folks, that's it for the first week of 2006... if you happen to have something interesting to share send me a short note and I'll incorporate it into one of the next editions.
Hasta la vista
PS: Here's a final quick one, from the Dept of Word Play: Atheism is a non-prophet organisation.
$updated from: Newsletters 2006.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:12:47 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$