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Storm the town hall!

Storming the town hall is part of the Carnival tradition in many parts of Germany, and this is what it looks like.

Sort of. Actually, an event like this normally attracts huge crowds, but our little village doesn’t normally make a big issue out of Carnival at all. This just has to be the smallest town-hall storming in the whole of Germany, although I am reliably involved that the town of Unna features Germany’s smallest Carnival procession, consisting of one man, a handcart and a plastic donkey.

Strictly speaking, tradition demands that this event takes place on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, but here it was a week early, the realities of modern life meaning that tradition sometimes comes a poor second. The reason, apparently, for this day being the one when the Carnival season really gets into full swing has to do with mediaeval Catholic liturgy: it was the last day before Lent that animals could be slaughtered for food. Friday was out, because meat was not eaten on that day; Sunday was also ruled out as it was the day of rest. And because in the Middle Ages Sunday was considered to begin at sunset the previous evening, this meant that Saturday was essentially a half day and there wasn’t enough time to get all the work done. Monday and Tuesday were theoretically possible, but since Lent began on the Wednesday, this would have meant a lot of meat left over which would spoil and go to waste.

All this information for your delight and edification, brought to you by hours of painstaking googling. You’re welcome.

My question for David Cameron

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: ask your country’s leader a question about his or her government’s policy.

It’s something that just started this year with YouTube’s World View program, and, well, I just thought I’d give it a shot.

I’m getting the hang of focusing now: notice how the background is slightly blurred, while my face is in such pin-sharp focus, you can see the really ugly blister on my lip. It’s been hanging around for a week now, although I think it’s starting to go away. I’d have waited for it to clear up, but there’s a deadline for World View entries and I didn’t want to miss it.

On speaking gibberish

Below is a video about the unfortunate case of TV news journalist Serene Branson, who suffered what has since been identified as a migraine live on air. She is, you may be relieved to know, absolutely fine, and despite rumours that she had a stroke, she has suffered no lasting effects and has made a complete recovery. It turns out that some types of migraine can actually mimic the symptoms of a stroke.

As she went live, reporting from the Grammys, the migraine took hold and affected part of the brain that deals with language, giving her a type of condition known as aphasia. At first she simply appears to stumble over her words, but within seconds her speech has deteriorated into total nonsense.

Although ultimately harmless, this must have been distressing; but what fascinates me is the gobbledegook itself. Apart from the fact that she ends up not pronouncing any recognisable words, all the syllables she utters are recognisable as standard components of North American English. It’s not a series of unintelligble sounds; it’s a series of syllables and even complete words, but assembled in a manner that is completely meaningless.

The first serious blunder is “virtation”, which isn’t an English word but sounds as if it should be. Not only that, but her intonation is preserved to such an extent, that even while she’s spouting random syllables, you can clearly hear the grammatical structure of what she’s trying to say. Listen to her final sentence: the rhythm and intonation are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an American journalist hastily handing over to the studio or a pre-recorded insert. Imagine that what she’s trying to say is, “Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of tonight’s event.”

Human language is one of the most complex phenomena ever studied, and experts have only scratched the surface of understanding, mostly through observing cases like this. There is no one language centre in the brain, but many different things working together: areas dealing with nouns, others with grammar, still more with other aspects of language comprehension and production, and they’re scattered about the brain. This is only one type of aphasia: there are even more bizarre types of aphasia, including one where the sufferer can understand spoken language and can converse normally, and can even read aloud, but cannot understand written texts. Think about that for a minute: imagine you can’t understand anything written down, but you can read it out perfectly.

We tend to take language for granted, but it’s quite possibly one of our greatest achievements. This is basically what happens when a small part of it stops functioning.

Bureaucracy (elimination of)

Oddly, I’t not sure where the inspiration for this video came from. You’d think it would be obvious, but aside from a general weariness of dealing with bureaucrats of various flavours, there’s nothing I can point to and say, “This is the reason.”.

If the truth be told, my main motivation for making this video was to make a serious go at chroma key. This is the technique whereby you film yourself in front of a certain colour — these days it’s usually green — and then, at the editing stage, remove that colour and replace it with something else.

What’s actually behind me is a cheap, green paper tablecloth, which works quite well. Surprisingly well, in fact. The other ingredient is a camera that performs well in low light.

It’s not perfect, and I actually made a small mistake (look towards the right of the main studio set). Ideally, I’d need a proper lighting setup: two lights illuminating the green screen, and at least one other light illuminating me separately. The pros use a small backlight to give the subject a sharp outline, making it even easier to key out the background, but that would be the icing on the cake, really.

In any case, I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. This is the ultimate low-budget chroma-key effect, using a decent consumer-grade camera, a piece of paper and a fairly basic video editor.

Hosni and me

Last night, the heating stopped. I restarted it. This morning, the heating stopped again, and wouldn’t restart at all. Turns out, our oil tank is empty.

This is a fairly major problem, as you can imagine. Not only do we have no heating, but we also have no hot water. How could we have let things come to this?

Simple. I just didn’t think about it, and my wife… well, my wife had thought about it, but was waiting for Mubarak to resign so that the price of oil would come down (as if the price for consumers would come down as magically as it went up). Basically, Egyptians, could you not have waited a bit longer?

Of course, the way things are in this house, the gauge on the tank is actually broken, so measuring the oil in the tank involves using a yardstick as a dipstick (which sounds like a line from a very bad hip-hop track) followed, in my experience, by a strange conversation. It began something like this:

Me: “The tank is empty.”

Wife: “What do you mean, ‘empty’?”

See? Already I am floundering. How do you answer a question like that?

Me: “I mean there is no oil in it.”

Wife: “But there must be some sludge in the bottom.”

Me: “All I know is, I put the yardstick in, it reached the bottom with a clang, and when I took it out again, it was clean.”

For a moment, I thought I was going to have to go back down there, remove the lid and clamber in, wearing a fedora and holding a torch and a whip, but luckily my wife was convinced that I had actually gone to the oil tank and not, as she had obviously feared, the bathtub.

Anyway, we’ve ordered some more oil, which will be arriving, we have been promised, sometime this afternoon. Meanwhile, the cats, resigned to their fate after half a morning’s plaintive mewing, are now snuggled up together, while I am reduced to eating hot Weetabix for warmth. Unfortunately, this has not resulted in the permanent warm glow promised us in our youth by Readybrek, but it’s barely possible to get Weetabox here, let alone Readybrek.