Saturday, June 28, 2008

Illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament?

I have spent the last couple of hours trying to track down the law that states that it is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament. I have heard about it from a friend, and doing a search on Wikipedia didn't yield any verifiable results.

There are three mentions of this in Wikipedia, two of them linking to two newspaper articles, one stating that this law has been voted the most ridiculous while the other that the practice is to mark St. Thomas' hospital as a place of death in cases anybody breaks the law and dies there. Neither of these articles provide the source, or the actual name of the law that would state this, and I have not found it in neither of the online law databases of the UK I have checked. I couldn't find that law either that would say that those dying in a royal palace have to receive a state funeral, the closest thing was the Coroners Act 1988, that states that inquests into the deaths of persons lying inside one of the Queen's palaces are done by the Queen's coroner; alas no mention of a state funeral.

While the third about Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, while seems to misquote his last words (either, according to the article "I am murdered" or according to the 10 Downing Street website "Oh, I have been murdered") states without providing a source that it is only illegal to die in the House of Lords.

Thus I have to think that this is probably an urban legend, though quite interesting nevertheless. Through my quest I have found the law that states that whales belong to the King.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Next semester subjects

The time has come again to chose the subjects for the next semester. As usual the servers of my school went down minutes before the system should have been opened. Its 3.5 hours later and finally I could apply for my classes, and though barely, but I could even squeeze in to some optional courses.

This is a frustrating period, as chance decides who can actually log in to the system and chose the subjects/exams he wants and who has to live on what's left. Even if one gets in to add to the frustration one has to face that the system is quite badly written.

Anyways, it seems next year I will be having a lot of lectures on the subjects of

  • security policy
  • international economy
  • British civilisation
  • international law
  • history (again...)

and others. I hope I can manage the workload as I have applied to study in a second university as well.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sonic screwdriver: boring

The sonic screwdriver is a device in the Doctor Who series that can open any door, scan for alien life or radio signals, deafen any enemy, lock any door, and rarely to drive screws.

As you can clearly see from this description, in the hand of the Doctor - the protagonist - it is quite a useful device in any situation. Unfortunately it is used constantly and too conveniently in almost all the episodes which makes it a very easy way out for the writers of the show. It makes them lazy as they don't have to invent any MacGyverisms as they can just rely on the good old screwdriver to get the Doctor out of any trouble the writers have put him in. I think it would boost the creativity of the whole show and thus its quality if it was written out of the show for a little while, as it was in 1982 when the then producer, John Nathan-Turner had the same opinion about it as I do now.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tom Sawyer Abroad

The sequel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Tom Sawyer Abroad that tells the tale of Huck, Tom and Jim travelling in a hot air balloon to discover the wonders of Africa.

The story was not as interesting as that of the prequel. The circumstances are obviously different, in the previous novel Huck and Jim were travelling on a raft in constant danger, while this time they are almost isolated from any danger in their balloon with which they can observe and evade any adversaries on land. The whole story is unbelievable in the sense that I can imagine a trip downriver the Mississippi in a raft, but hardly a pleasure flight over the Atlantic at speeds in excess of 300 mph.

I found it quite annoying that Jim, the freed black slave, is portrayed as uneducated and superstitious, who is usually given all the work (like mending the clothes, shovelling tons of sand, being sent on a threethousand-mile errand to fetch a pipe, etc.) and left out of most of the fun. These two aspects (no danger and the way the only black character in the book is portrayed) made this book a one-time read for me.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Huckleberry Finn

I finally read what I should have read ages ago, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Its an exciting adventure novel that for me showed what can one achieve with just cleverness and self-reliance, but the last chapters turned out to be a Kafkian absurd nightmare situation without escape.

Up until the point Huck and Tom reunite to rescue Jim from the Phelps' slavery is a backdrop that  was part of the time, even if its hard to imagine that people would keep other people as property. It gets harder to accept that Huck doesn't think for one moment that liberating Jim is not a crime. Huck treats Jim as a bit stupid; in the novel he and most other blacks are portrayed as superstitious and are looked down upon.

I cannot judge how much of this is true for the era, but I can decide that the last adventure of the book — where they make up an elaborate plan to help Jim escape — is just plain cruel. Tom Sawyer plays with Jim's life like it was nothing and has him suffer through the fantasies of his with horrible effect on the poor Jim. The worst of all is that Jim trusts them the whole time and goes trough the plan just because Tom is white so he must know better.

In conclusion I am happy that those times are over even if the positive aspects of the era — where one could find hospitable people in any home, if he was not shot first — are lost as well.

FeedBurner Support 2

FeedBurner hasn't lost all of its friendliness, as one would be lead to believe looking at the change in the way their technical support operates. There are no more letters signed "Your Friendly Neighborhood FeedBurner Support Team" but not all is lost.

I had an issue with one of their features not working with Blogger, and I have submitted the error outlining where, how it occurs and the exact error codes Blogger returns.

What response I got from Blogger? Zilch, nada, nothing.

Whereas in the FB forum at least a so-called "Community Expert" responded to check my IQ (not in so many words), and after finding me sufficiently intelligent forwarded my error report to the FB staff, and a member of their staff responded quite quickly.

It would have spared everyone's time if the vetting process was skipped, and I would have felt better if not a "Community Expert" were the one cross-examining my error report, but a staff member from the outset (even if this member of staff is the same person as the "C. expert").

In conclusion, I believe FeedBurner has not chosen the most consumer friendly way to deal with the increasing strain on their support department, but they are still the most human branch of Google I have come into contact with through the Feedback or Contact us buttons.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

FeedBurner adopting the "Google way" to deal with customers (Updated)

I use FeedBurner to analyse the traffic to my blogs. From time to time I have to contact their support department. In the past there was a contact form to fill out and a staff member would contact me personally in no more than 48 hours' time.

All this has gone since they have been acquired by Google. Now direct contact with their support team is reserved for issues involving the misuse or transfer of feeds, all other support questions are directed at their forum. To make things more complicated you have to register separately for the forum and then check back regularly whether anyone has bothered to reply to your post - usually they don't.

With further integration into Google they had transferred their forum to Google Groups (you have to manually click on a link on the forum's homepage to get there - so far you have travelled the Contact Us -> Forum -> Google Groups route without the chance to provide feedback or to ask questions). The welcoming message in their help group informs you that (emphasis added)

While this forum is intended as a place for FeedBurner users to assist one another, from time to time Google representatives, nicknamed FeedBurner Guide will post tips and clarifications.

So that is the de-evolution of friendly customer support into an impersonal corporate nightmare, the same as that of some bigger Google services. This has happened to a team that posted a photo like this on their flickr account:

[Update]: After having successfully resolved an issue in both the old and new ways of FeedBurner Support I have written a follow-up in which I shall point out that FB support is still better than Blogger support.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Horatio Hornblower

Soon after buying the first three books of the Horatio Hornblower series as a Christmas gift I have found myself entangled in the world of the Napoleonic era brought to life by C. S. Forester. The series follows the navy career of Horatio Hornblower, starting as a midshipman, who always finds himself in a middle of adventure and situations that seem impossible to solve.
The books all portray different encounters with the enemy or special missions, and also the struggling of Hornblower to care for his family whom he doesn't see most of the time and to not fail in the social scene. One would assume that the story gets repetitive after the first couple of books, but it doesn't. Every battle, every ship, every situation is different, the same escape strategy can't be used twice. The author has a big playground to move his protagonist, with all the high seas open to British ships and the rapidly changing political situation at the turn of the 18th century.
The series has proven to be a great source for expanding my vocabulary and knowledge of the era. Seafaring has its own vocabulary, a vocabulary that is not fully covered by my regular dictionary (which has nonetheless proven very useful for me over the years, yet I have outgrown it, it seems) thus making me resort to my Webster. The dictionary was a good place to start grasping the most necessary concepts, to fully understand them though I had to go to a naval museum. For me the Vasa Museum in Stockholm was a very good experience in this regard, having explanatory illustrations and text, actual equipment of the 17th-century ship with explanatory text of what-goes-where and does-what on the ship, and models to demonstrate sea manoeuvres like tacking.

Note about the availability of the series, and buying options:
  • In Hungary the first three volumes may be bought as a "Trio pack" containing the new edition in some shops of Libri. To my knowledge no volume has been translated and volumes 4 through 11 are not sold in Hungary, thus I had to order them from Germany (in general ordering the series from Germany might be the cheapest solution overall).
  • From you can order the whole series as part of three omnibus editions, and as separate volumes with quality covers and an introduction by Bernard Cornwell. You shouldn't read the introduction until you have finished reading the book, as it contains spoilers.
  • To my knowledge in the US the new and omnibus editions are mostly unavailable so the best choice is to buy the separate volumes with the old cover.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

I am currently reading the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey. It was written at the beginning of the 19th century and later revised a few decades later. I bought this book about a year ago, for about 3 euros, in the hope that it would be something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I have put of on reading it so far because the preface was about his disagreement with Coleridge about him having weak morals for becoming an opium addict while Coleridge claimed he was just a victim of his reuma. This second time I have skipped the preface and started with the novel itself, which also starts with Coleridge, but I read past it. It turns out this is a biographical novel telling the life of the author from the moment he has lost his father and has been entrusted in the care of different guardians. At the quarter mark there is still no mention of the opium-induced dreams as promised on the black cover.

The language is a bit difficult for me, as could be expected of a 19th-century text, but it is made less comprehensible by long passages about Greek and Roman writers and contemporary theologians and philosophers. In conclusion its not really an enjoyable read so far but I will continue to test my endurance, maybe it gets better as the author finishes confessing his childhood and gets to his actual experiences under the influence of opium.

[Update]:It turns out, there is a version of this novel (I presume the first edition, as the one I'm reading is the "improved one") that is only about 88 pages long, so if you're interested in the "good parts" you might just go ahead and by the Oxford edition.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Oxford humour

I've been leafing through my Oxford Dictionary of Politics, and there are a few entries where the editors or writers have used irony. Here are the two examples I've found so far:


Pair [...]. The term is most often used in international relations research, especially peace studies, where all dyads are examined to investigate the causes of war [...] It turns out there are few wars between Switzerland and Nepal.

Social choice:

Most work has been so mathematically uncompromising that neither politicians nor political scientists have understood it, nor have social choice theorists bothered to explain themselves.

The dictionary itself is very well written and I have found many interesting topics in it when I was studying for my exams and just had to take a break. I would usually start by looking up the topics I was studying and then just wander around until I realized again that I should be studying. Anyhow, my exams, and the fact that I ordered some other volumes of the Oxford Paperback Reference series should go in a different post.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Stardust: the movie

Just finished watching the movie version of Stardust. In the reviews I have read about the film people usually said that they have enjoyed it more than the book, and I am of that crowd, too. This book just makes the fairy tale and moreover its characters really come alive and shine. It has a great cast (including Ricky Gervais of the Office-fame and Robert De Niro) and a far better ending than the book. Without wasting too many words, I have to say, the book is good but the film is absolutely superb. I recommend it to anyone who likes adventure and imagined worlds, there should be more films like this for people to immerse themselves for two hours in a world where there are no worries and the hero and his true love live happily ever after.

Soul Music

I just finished reading Terry Pratchett's Soul Music, part of the Discworld series. It is about Death taking a vacation to forget after he gets fed up with remembering everything, even things that have not happened yet. With Death away this time - as opposed to the events of Reaper Man where people just don't die and life overflows everything - the granddaughter of Death is old enough to take over the family business. Meanwhile back in Ankh Morpork a new kind of music is changing the lives of those it touches, a Music With Rocks In. (Here the title Soul Music does not refer to the sound the souls make in hell, as in Good Omens.)

Unfortunately I have already read those books of Pratchett that are the best for me, so I wasn't surprised, that this wasn't as hilarious as the best ones of the series, that have the Watch feature in them. It has good characters, the presence of Death and young Susan make the book enjoyable. There are a lot of jokes and puns made at musicians but still I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction into the series.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Model European Union 2008

I am back from Strasbourg where I have been participating in the Model European Union 2008 event, which was basically a simulation of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, with the added fun of having lobbyists and journalists and spending 5 days in the actual building of the EP.

I was playing the role of a Conservative MEP from Latvia, and our two topics of discussion were the banning of the advertisement of alcohol products and the compulsory licensing of patents of pharmaceutical products so that they can be exported to least developed countries that couldn't manufacture or afford them otherwise. Though the proposals weren't 100% to my liking I thoroughly enjoyed discussing them, making amendments to them, voting and then hoping the Council would accept our changes. The other participants were mostly studying European studies or international relations, so there were only misunderstandings due to the complexity of the language of the proposals.

We spent the days in the building of the Parliament where we had breakfast (some croissants with coffee), debated in a smaller debating chamber interrupted with faction meetings in smaller conference rooms and coffee breaks.

We had lunch in the cafeteria: usually some sandwiches, but also very nice meals sponsored by the European Socialist and EPP-DE parties. Dinner was served in a student restaurant in the middle of the city, after which we usually had a party, either in Strasbourg or in the neighbouring German city of Kehl where the beer and taxi were cheaper.