Archive for April, 2008

YouTube’d memories: Money, Money, Money

April 29th, 2008
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My first recollection of ABBA is linked with the song Happy New Year, likely because of that song having had a key part in some televised celebration that got etched in my memory. But this being a wrong season and all, I’ll put up the song that must have been the most popular of theirs in the late 70’s where I grew up. ABBA gained tremendous popularity in the USSR in their heyday and beyond, thus becoming one of the very few singing acts that were known well on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

It should be noted that while I am a fan, I only became such in the 90’s, with CD era in full swing. The recollections of my youth, including a reference or two to the group in contemporary movies, probably played a role in that.




Becky takes a GCSE exam

April 28th, 2008

In America, SATs are used as one of – and, occasionally, determining – criteria for gaining admission to a higher education institution. In England, the functional equivalent is called A-levels, and they carry enough social recognition, so that college graduates habitually list which of these examinations they passed on their CVs.

The main obvious difference between SATs and A-levels is that the former do not examine proficiency in specific subjects, while the latter are discipline-specific. The less noticeable difference is that SATs are open for all schoolchildren of a certain age, while eligibility for attempting A-levels at the final stages of your secondary education depends on doing well in earlier examinations called GCSEs.

I am going to skirt the debate on whether it is efficient or elitist to close the doors to higher education for a considerable percentage of children even before they attempt college-entry examinations. It is largely a fact, however, that you need at least 5 high grades on GCSEs in order to take A-levels.

Among the numerous GCSE disciplines, there are several dozen of modern languages. My enterprising eldest daughter figured out that one of those GCSE high grades was hers for the taking and scheduled herself for examinations in Russian language.

The exam can be taken over several sessions, concentrating on one skill at a time: speaking, writing, reading… So far, Becky has done only the speaking session. She had six topics on which to discourse to choose from, and the examination was basically a conversation between her and the tester, who was a native Russian speaker, no less. Becky ended up choosing the least-regimented “me, my family and my life” topic; the conversation was tape-recorded, and some central commission will eventually look at it and issue a grade, which will later be combined with similar grades for the rest of the skills to produce the final GCSE grade.

Becky says she did well, which is likely a correct assessment. I think the only area where she can stumble is the writing portion. Her approach to writing in Russian is to “write exactly as it sounds”, and, while Russian is a comparatively phonetic language, even true native speakers need to know quite an amount of grammar in order to be able to write properly. Hopefully, the overall grade is not weighted too heavily towards writing…

She did not prepare in any specific way, surmising that her fairly comprehensive command of the spoken language should be enough to pass with flying colors. The problem is, she is unlikely to spend any extra time studying for the rest of the sessions. Conscientious student as she is, she would definitely meet any extra studies with resistance.

Let’s not forget that it is almost a certainty that my children will enter the American system of higher education, rather than the British one. In that light, taking these exams is no more than a sort of training for some future tests. I am a bit torn between my inclination to view them from this angle and my expectation that the brilliant daughter of mine should ace any exam she takes…

P.S. I realize that there are some parallels between the British examination system, and how the Soviet schools used to work when I was a kid. We had mandatory exams in a handful of disciplines at the conclusion of our 8th grade (akin to GCSEs), after which almost all of the less-apt students left for vocational schools and such. Those who stayed for the two more years of high school had to take another handful of exams at the end of the 10th grade (not unlike A-levels), which played a bit part in determining how many university entry exams one had to take.

The vast majority of us still had to take exams directly at the higher institution of their desire; many of us had to do better than hundreds of other applicants in order to gain entry. Failure to do so often meant waiting at least a year for another chance…

Schooling, That's England

Book review: The Amber Spyglass

April 27th, 2008
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Oh man! I feel pretty let down by how the trilogy ended! I don’t exactly agree with Becky, since her view is more specific towards the last scene, but I am rather dismayed with how the overall story and all of its plotlines ended.

And the sadly ironic thing is, the third part of His Dark Materials trilogy finally rises to the level of engaging storytelling that I like to see in epic books. Landscapes are painted in detail, not briefly passed through. Things happen not just for the sole purpose of advancing the plot, but to make the world alive and substantial. Characters develop, even though most of it is due to revelations, as opposed to steady emotional progress.

I cannot avoid spoilers in this not-exactly-review, including events up to the very end of the story. If you plan to read the book yourself and are sensitive to the idea of discovering the plot on your own, please do not click on the link to the rest of the article.

Read more…


Prepare to be dazzled

April 26th, 2008
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In between enjoying the true spring day by going to the park and having lunch on the deck in backyard, we put together the gallery from our trip to see tulips in Holland.


Travel Album

No career in acting, apparently

April 25th, 2008
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So, Kimmy wanted to stage a play tonight, and as soon as I walked through the door upon my return from work, I was conscripted to play the Prince in Cinderella. Becky, apparently, demurred, so the play had only four characters, of which two, the Evil Stepmother and the Fairy Godmother, were played by Natasha. Kimmy directed and played the title character.

Along the lines of Disney’s animated movie, I was supposed at some point to trip over something, drop the glass slipper, despair over its shattered remains and exult when Cinderella pulls the second one from her pocket and puts it on her foot.

Now, only a few of my readers might be aware that in my youth I actively participated in student theatrical troupes, both in high school and college. I tend to think that I have a bit of acting talent, having fairly successfully portrayed diverse characters from Nagg in Beckett’s Endgame to Lenin in Brest Treaty. The current director disagreed.

As I was tripping, despairing and exulting as the script demanded, Kimmy looked at me condescendingly and pronounced:

“Daddy, you are such a bad actor!”


Cell phones are a plague

April 24th, 2008

First day of spring in our neighborhood? Too early to tell, but the day was sunny and warm, not warm enough to ditch the outer garments completely, but warm enough to wear only a light jacket. I was enjoying the portion of my evening commute where I have to wait for the train at Lewisham rather exceptionally… up until the point I got into the railcar.

As I positioned myself comparatively comfortably in the corner, a guy next to me was dialing his cell phone. After which he started shouting into it.

Oh, no, he was not angry at all. Nor was he in any way exuberantly happy, or even inebriated. It’s just that his manner of speech consisted of shouting. He said hello to his wife at a hundred decibels, informed her that he would arrive at the station with barely a change in intonation, then gave me a brief respite while he dialed his buddy’s number, after which he proceeded to having a small talk at the top of his lungs.

Is it ever possible to ignore a loud talker? Only if you have a habit of traveling with earplugs, which I don’t. I couldn’t read – or do anything, for that matter, except listen to the guy’s conversation. Everyone else around me was affected in the same way.

And did anybody say anything? Did I? Annoyed – and even obliterating – glances were thrown at the loud moron from all over the railcar, to which he was entirely oblivious. Several people – myself included – were visibly day-dreaming about taking a heavy hammer to his head. But not a word was uttered in rebuke, or even in an appeal to him to keep it down.

Remember my gassing up story? In it, I overtly posited that I do not like letting idiots be idiots without hearing from me that they are, well, idiots. Yet, on a commuter train, in the presence of an inconsiderate cell-phone jackass, I find myself time and again enduring the acoustic assault and not even attempting to confront the imbecile.

How come? I keep asking myself. I have this [un]healthy habit of replaying situations in my head afterwards in search of better outcomes, and politely asking Could you kindly keep your voice down, please? or obnoxiously inquiring Do I need to be a part of your conversation? should theoretically shame the offender into switching to a less intrusive timbre. The actuary in me, however, estimates the risk of having to ride in the same railcar with the same lout in the future, coupled with the risk of him becoming indignant at having been disturbed, continuing with his boorishness and then repeating it on future occasions just to spite me, and I calculate that it is not worth the hassle to try to teach the oaf some manners.

The rest of the people in the car with us must be simply better mannered themselves…

Do you have a way of dealing with inconsiderate mobile-phone talkers?



April 23rd, 2008

Just because I like it (and have no time to write otherwise).

Big kudos to my brother for showing me Notre Dame for the first time years ago…




Various stuff 04/22/08

April 22nd, 2008

A lot of bloggers do it, but I’ve never tried before. Seeing that between resumption of my new work duties and catching up on the variety of internet material, I have no time to actually write a post (there is a Champions League semi-final game tonight, so I won’t have much time when I get home either), I figured I could use this convenient cop-out and simply post a short compilation of fun stuff that I came across on the InterWebs.

1. To start with, a hilarious outtake from the Bulgarian Idol. You have to watch until the end – it’s worth it! Tip of the hat to Nathan.



2. A friend of a friend just started a company that aims to provide instruction to aspiring movie-makers. I have no independent knowledge of the quality of the instruction, but I am sure that someone in my huge readership will be interested, so here is the link to thus far not very extensive Reel Classroom.

3. Finally, my inventive brother has posted a short compilation of his favorite movie scenes. A splendid idea, as always. I might follow the suit in the future. The first scene would feature near the top of my list as well.

Enough for the first time…

Idle Amusements

Back from Holland

April 20th, 2008

Simply going to the Keukenhof gardens for a few hours – which was the main point of our latest expedition – was worth the trip. There are literally thousands of varieties of tulips on display there, not counting the other flower species, of which there are plenty as well. Natasha was absolutely enchanted and the girls liked it too, but even the man of the family had to admit that the flowers were utterly beautiful.

What the garden does not provide is the perspective of an open tulip field. However, the approach to Keukenhof allows for a glimpse of that as well. The sight of stripes of differently colored tulips running the length of the field is altogether fantastic. At some point in our lives when we are able to travel without the children again, we will take a biking tour through the tulip country. Some day…

But tulip-viewing was not the only activity on this 48-hour trip. We also explored Delft by bicycle and foot; pedaled along the canals of Utrecht on a waterbike; and made a detour to Brussels on our way back for an all too quick visit to Mini-Europe. Detailed notes, as usual, will be posted in the Travelog within a few days, but for now I’ll just leave you with a picture of a beautiful girl beside beautiful flowers.


Keukenhof Gardens, Holland


Where we've been

YouTube’d memories: Rasputin

April 17th, 2008
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I’ve been a bit preoccupied at work this week – moving on to a different role, frantically extricating myself from the responsibilities of the old one, thank you for asking! – to find time for a full-bodied post. I’m leaving you with another of those YouTube’d memories instead.

My memory of this song is quite ex-contemporaneous. I am actively aware that Boney M was one of the few Western acts immensely popular – and fawned over, as the video documents, – in the USSR in the 70’s. I also know that a Russian-themed song must have been their biggest hit in Russia. My first recollection of the song, though, dates from my stay at our university’s Black Sea resort in the summer of 1990, where it got a lot of air at the discotheque…

Unfortunately, the final evocative “Oh, those Russians” is cut off in this video…



With that, we are off onto our next journey. Back in a few days.


Blog measured (2)

April 16th, 2008
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Surprisingly, my rating has “improved” from boring G.



Do you know why? Apparently, I have used the word “knife” several times (all in a book review), and the word “drugs” once. Go figure!

What’s more, the readability of the blog has matured from the earlier elementary school level.


blog readability test


Still, kiddie stuff!…

Idle Amusements

Blog measured

April 15th, 2008
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Not that it’s important – or trustworthy, really – but here is a virtual verbiage-ometer, as applied to my blog.


Do you talk too much in your blog?


More importantly, it appears that I cussed at least once on this website. The question is – which post? (It cannot be more than one, I simply have not produced that many yet.)


The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?


Via Jason.

Idle Amusements

More on British medical care

April 14th, 2008
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Basic medical help is free in the UK, we have already talked about that. You don’t need any identification to walk into a hospital emergency room or an NHS Walk-in Centre to get assistance. You may even be able to arrange an appointment with a local doctor when you need it, on availability basis.

If you live in the UK, though, you are expected to be registered with a GP (which means “general practitioner” and conversationally universally used in the abbreviated form). The idea is very similar to the primary care physician concept: Not only is your GP a doctor who knows you well and who possibly has been your physician for many years, but (s)he also guards the strings of the purse that holds the public money that might be spent on your treatment, having an important say on whether you need any, and what.

So, a Brit with a medical problem is likely to go see his/her GP for an initial consultation, and then, if needed, be referred to a specialist. The physicians’ pay – whether GPs, or specialists within NHS, – is mostly the function of the size of the practice, and the margin earnings rate for each additional visit is puny enough so that there is little incentive to see the patient more than minimally necessary. Plus, no doubt, every GP is incentivized to expend as little money as possible on treatments.

Read more…


Walking in the park and sleeping like a baby

April 12th, 2008
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The weather was not too bad in the morning, so we got together with a family of fellow Russian-American expatriates for a stroll around the Greenwich park. Becky climbed to the very top of an ancient pine tree, the younger kids rode scooters and ran around, the adults spent time acquainting with the new friends, even sat down on a bench for a while to bask in the warm spring sun.

This being England, of course, the weather quickly turned sour, and soon we had to seek refuge from a torrential rain under the branches of the same tree. The rain lasted all of fifteen minutes, the sun came out shining again… I’ve described the phenomenon ad nauseam before.

Our friends could not stay for long, so after they left, we went to Greenwich for a tapas lunch and spent some time browsing the market. When we returned home in the early afternoon, the girls decided to watch a movie, while I lay down on the bed, closed my eyes… and opened them three and a half hours later.

I can’t remember the last time I took an afternoon nap, honestly. And I did not feel that tired, really. Must be old age. In which I am sleeping like a baby!


The Wales pictures are finally here.

Also, did you see the two babes that I posted the other day?


YouTube’d memories: Live is Life

April 11th, 2008
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I’m not sure why I remember this song or what’s so great about it, but it was a famous European hit that got some playtime on the likes of Утренняя Почта (translated as The Morning Post, it was a Sunday staple of Soviet television). Which is why I remember it, I guess.

I have no knowledge of any other song by this Austrian group Opus.



No caption required

April 10th, 2008
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Click to enlarge.

Family Album

Same old topics: Driving and weather

April 10th, 2008
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The downside of having spring break holidays de-synchronized this year is that, while Becky went back to studies immediately upon returning from the American trip, Kimmy is now spending almost two weeks at home, with little to do and with Natasha having to come up with entertainment activities.

The upside? The morning drives to Becky’s school are so fluid, I am actually enjoying them, in I’d-rather-be-sleeping-but-since-I’m-not-this-is-the-next-best-thing kind of way.

Such is life in London so that when state schools go on holidays, the amount of cars on the road gets cut by more than half. I drove right up and through our neighboring roundabout at 7:20 this morning. On a normal day, I’d queue up half a mile from it, and end up crossing it at 7:27 at best.

After the weekend snow and a couple of really cold and horrid days, the last two days have been really pleasant and sunny, and Natasha and Kimmy actually spent a lot of time playing outside today. If the weekend is as nice, we might try for some as-yet unvisited destination…


Book review: The Subtle Knife

April 9th, 2008

I certainly went through The Subtle Knife much faster than through Northern Lights, which is partly of function of having more spare time on my hands in the absence of the rest of the family, but also a function of the second book being better than the first. The things that are important to me in a large-sized book all improved: The dialogues became conversations and not a vehicle to briefly state an important fact before moving on; the descriptions of places became multi-dimensional; and the action morphed from following a single main character obsessed with a single idea to following several undoubtedly converging plot lines and focusing on multiple characters along the way.

Read more…


No longer lonely

April 8th, 2008
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The family is safely back with me, and the usual routine of getting up earlier to drive Becky to school has kicked in already. Kimmy is fortunate enough to have a two-week school break still ahead of her, which means that Natasha will be quite occupied with keeping her busy.

Here’s a re-cap of my time on my own:

Read more…


The River IQ game

April 7th, 2008

Many of you may have seen this before, but it was long on my to-post list, so I figure I’d finally post it today.

I came across this test courtesy of my Father some nine months ago, and I must say it took me a while to arrive at a solution.

This is supposedly a test given to Japanese job applicants to gauge their IQ levels. The task is to transport a party of eight people across the river, following these rules:

  • No more than two people can be on the raft at any point,
  • Only Mom, Dad and the Policeman know how to operate the raft,
  • Mom cannot be left with any of the boys when Dad is on the other bank,
  • Dad cannot be left with any of the girls when Mom is on the other bank,
  • The prisoner cannot be left with any family member when the Policeman is on the other bank.

Dysfunctional family aside, – what is it with Japanese? – the first time you try solving this puzzle, I bet you will find yourself perplexed at some point.

Click the big round button to start – and good luck!


Idle Amusements