Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?


Women in uniforms

CNV00014_3You might have seen the photos of the Ukrainian female border guards or passport control staff having makeovers ready to greet the football fans.

What you have to understand is that women in uniform over there always dress up to look their best.

Police women wear high heels on duty – as you can see from the photograph I took in Kyiv. I don’t know how good they are in a chase, maybe they just shoot you.

The female Polish border staff at Warsaw were the same. Big soviet style hats, tight short skirts, heels, guns and, the scary bit, rubber gloves.

Much the same in Italy I remember. Police women with big hats, big hair, big heels, shades, full war paint, and a gun of course.

Must confess though that my favourite photo is of these female Ukrainian soldiers (thank you Bohdan) and no, that’s not me with the camera!ukrainian_army

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UK broadband worse than Lithuania

and Moldova, and Bulgaria. South Korea, the global leader, narrowly pipped Lithuania with an average download speed almost three times that of the UK.

MacUser magazine isn’t one in which I would expect to find an article about Lithuania but there it was in the latest issue: “UK broadband getting faster, but still nothing to write home to Lithuania about”.

The good news is that UK average broadband speeds increased by 10% over the first half of this year, the bad news is that we still lag behind the rest of the world although retaining our global position at number 30. The article was about an Ofcom report on broadband speeds and how they actually compare with the advertised “up to” speeds (answer: not very well).

Web technology company Akamai surveyed countries with at least 25,000 computer users for its 2010 State of the Internet report.  Libya was slowest with an average of 328 Kbit/sec compared to China’s average of 1 Mbit/sec.

It also measured the world’s fastest cities and found 62 of the top 100 were in Japan, 18 in the USA, and 5 in South Korea. Only a dozen European cities featured: 3 in Romania, 1 in Czech Republic and 1 in Latvia. The UK didn’t make it into the top 100. This is probably no surprise if you remember pigeons being faster than BT.

But back to the former soviet republics. Speed tests for the first 6 months of the year showed that the average download speed in the UK was 10.65 Mbit/sec compared with Moldova’s 18.55, Romania’s 24.16, and Lithuania’s 30.83 (just behind South Korea’s 30.91 Mbit/sec).

Ofcom found that nearly all ISPs using copper-based connections advertised at twice the average speeds experienced by users. However fibre-based and cable-based connections were nearer the mark.


A kiss is just a kiss …

unless you are a German businessman. The Knigge Society, a body set up to preserve etiquette, is not happy and is complaining.

It says that kissing has become commonplace with men and women kissing each other in the office and in meetings.

Traditionally Germans are taught to keep a respectful distance (60 cm is recommended), to shake hands and briefly bow the head (they no longer suggest clicking your heels but you get the idea).

The Society’s advice is no kissing in the office. Apparently some people are even receiving two kisses French style!

It sees this as a form of terror and suspects there may also be an erotic element to it. The chairman of the society says he respects the French habit, and the Russian one of men kissing men – but that’s not the German way and is an affectation of the “In crowd”.

No we know the French are the most miserable europeans so you can’t blame them for a bit of lip exercise but it can get a bit confusing once you cross a european border.

I know this from personal experience. Some years ago I had been in Ukraine where everybody kisses everybody three times (how would the Germans cope with that I wonder) and shortly afterwards found myself in neighbouring Lithuania.

I was saying goodbye to a professional colleague and thanking her for inviting us to her university. I shook hands then kissed her on the cheek. At that point I wondered how many kisses was normal so asked if it was two or three. Her answer was none.

My English colleague thought this was hilarious and never lets me forgot (although I do wonder if she was winding me up as most Lithuanians, whilst not over-familiar are friendly when they get to know you).


Boob jobs attract staff

What can we offer you to renew your contract? Free language lessons? 5 weeks holiday? How about a free boob job?

A report in the New York Times described how nurses in the Czech Republic were offered such perks.

One nurse in the private sector who opted for the cosmetic surgery had breast enhancement and liposuction, worth over £3,000, which she would never have been able to afford on her €1,ooo a month salary – less than earned by a bus driver. … Read More

via SGandA on Management & Leadership edited with permission


Chernobyl was 25 years ago

The first time I went to Ukraine in 2003 friends took me to the Chernobyl Museum.

I can’t say I really knew a lot about what happened 130 km north of Kyiv, now Ukraine’s capital city, in April 1986.

But walking round the museum, seeing the remnants of everyday village life that survived – broken window frames, crucifixes, wall paintings, and then the hundreds of photos of children from the villages – some of whom seemed to be recognised by groups of school children also visiting the museum – it struck home what a human disaster this was.

Photos of the ill-equipped medical staff and rescue workers, helicopter rotors hanging from the ceiling, a cosmonaut style suit, rescue workers wearing just overalls and face masks. A reminder of a disaster which produced individual acts of heroism. And on the way out seeing the names of all the villages which had been evacuated and no longer existed.

In those days the Russians were able to keep it quiet and children continued their preparations for the May Day parade and it wasn’t until radiation was picked up outside the soviet union that the truth came out. Villages were evacuated, 30 high-rise blocks of flats in Pripyat abandoned. Exclusion zones were set up – zone 4, the most contaminated, stretched 30 km from the site and became known as the zone of alienation. A similar zone was established in neighbouring Belarus.

People were forbidden to live or work there unless dealing with the contaminated site when they worked in shifts. Gradually some people moved back in as the rural life was all they knew. Also many people who felt marginalised by society, squatters or self-settlers, moved there. Police had to clamp down on looters who were removing goods from the abandoned flats, ignoring the radiation levels – hot goods indeed.

Lithuania has a sister reactor to Chernobyl at the Ignalina plant in Visaginas, up near the borders with Latvia and Belarus. It was a condition of their entry to the EU that they decommissioned it – something many Lithuanians resented as the Russians who built it told them it was safe. Now Lithuanian is more dependent on buying energy from Russia which is also building a new nuclear facility in its Kaliningrad enclave in the Baltics.

Chernobyl is the worst nuclear accident to date with imprecise numbers of dead and the resultant fatalities. It rates as 7 on a scale of 0 – 7 in terms of how bad a nuclear accident can be. Thirty two years ago the Three Mile Island accident in America was rated as a 5, similar to the rating for the accident in Japan at Fukushima.

This week (13 April 2011) Fukushima accident has been upgraded to a 7. This is the highest level but experts say, because of the early action taken which prevented exposure for the local population and the fact that there was no fire as at Chernobyl, the impact will not be as serious as at Chernobyl.

I heard today that a farmer in Japan had committed suicide because he could see no future now that radiation had contaminated the ground where he and his neighbours grew organic vegetables. Reflecting on what happened at Chernobyl you can perhaps understand why. As if the earthquake and the tsunami had not wreaked enough damage, the nuclear accident will probably have more far-reaching effects.

Greenpeace say that milk and mushrooms are amongst foods still contaminated in Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster. Ukraine also needs over £500 M to build a new concrete shell over the plant as the existing one is leaking (Reuters 4 April 2011).

News today (20/4/2011) that donors have pledged half a billion euros to help construct a shield to cover the damaged reactor. It will be the biggest moveable structure ever built – over 100m high and 257m long x 164m wide.

Updated 24 May 2011: Ukrainian officials in Chernobyl have opened up the site and the 18 mile exclusion zone to tourists! After the tragedy 50,000 people were evacuated, although some have  returned illegally, but there is little left of value after 25 years of scavenging.

Visitors have to follow a specific route and strict guidelines but they can wander around the playground planned for the May Day celebrations and explore the ghost town of Pripyat and some of the tourists take their own geiger counters – just in case.


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Cornish pasties get protected status

Cornish pasties have now got protected status under the EU Protected Geographical Indication rules which lay down the composition and appearance of this working man’s delicacy. So, just like Cornish clotted cream, Cornish pasties can only be made in Cornwall.

There are 40 or so British food products similarly protected but we are way behind the French and Italians in this regard.

It is estimated that 87 million pasties are produced every year. From mid-March, when their protected status comes into force, they must have fillings of beef, potato, onions and swede, a light seasoning and no additives or preservatives. They are cooked in a semi-circular shape with a crimped edge and glazed with milk or eggs to give it that golden brown colour.

The pasty was ideal for the miners as it was a self-contained meal which they could easily carry. There are claims that they have found remains of them in caves going back 8,000 years but there is a 16c reference to them being served with claret at a civic banquet.

Some people claim they originated in the middle east and were brought to Cornwall by traders and pirates and this is where it gets interesting for me. I regularly visit Lithuania and I took a colleague in 2006 and we decided to visit Trakai. Trakai was the HQ of Grand Duke Vytautas in the 14c and where he built castles amongst the five lakes, one of which survives today (having been protected during soviet times by the local soviet commissar who actually tried to renovate it).

The Grand Duke brought a group of Karaites to Lithuania to act as his bodyguard and they settled in Trakai where they maintained their own community and language. They were probably from the Crimea but originated in Mesopotomia (now Iraq) and their religion was a mixture of judaism, christianity and possibly islam. They built a Kenesa, a Persian or Karaite synagogue, which is still there and one of the few surviving in Europe (the Nazis couldn’t decide whether or not they were jewish but they still had a hard time of it).

We were told we had to try a traditional Karaites dish called a Kibinas. So we found a cafe by the lake, ordered our Švyturis beer and kibinai. When it came it was delicious, a hot pastry filled with chopped meat and onions with a glazed finish, in a semi-circle with a crimped edge.

So a Cornish pasty? Check out the picture and make up your own mind where they originated.

Updated 15 March 2011: OK now I’ve tried the kibinai in Vilnius and I have to say they were delicious with a choice of fillings. I had chicken and beef, my colleague had chicken and spinach. And today in Rimi (like Asda) we had them again in the cafeteria with freshly squeezed orange juice for less than a pound. A few years ago we could only find them at Trakai and at the airport cafe. Then they modernised the airport and the homely cafe closed so it was a bit too far to pop down to Trakai for one. So it’s good the Kybinini has opened to offer these Mesopotomian cornish pasties.


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EU in a stew over Hungary

Hungary has just taken over the presidency of the EU for the next six months and already its hard-line Prime Minister has been criticised for introducing legislation seen as undemocratic – such as giving his government control over the media to maintain “balance”.

The German socialists are particularly unhappy with Mr Orban because of this and the European Commission is investigating it. The leader of the German Greens said Oban didn’t understand that the EU was; “born in a struggle against totalitarianism and liberty is freedom of expression”. The Hungarian Prime Minister, who opposed Soviet rule in Hungary, was unimpressed at being criticised by Germany.

Hungary marked the start of their presidency by sending over a huge (210 sq m)  carpet to be laid in the atrium of the Council of Europe’s HQ.The design depicts an historical timeline and shows Kings, artists, composers, scientists, and inventions like the ballpoint pen (invented by Lazlo Biro).

Unfortunately an 1848 map in the middle of the carpet shows Hungary as it was when it ruled over Slovakia, Serbia, Yugoslavia, Transylvania, and Romania (reflected in the old coat of arms).

This didn’t go down too well and an Austrian MEP even claimed that Hungary wanted to overthrow the 1920 Treaty of Trianon which forced it to give up 2/3 of its empire at the end of WWI.

Mr Orban’s government is popular – it was elected by a 2/3 majority –  and apparently many Hungarians have car stickers showing Greater Hungary. Hungary also upset its neighbours by offering citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in other countries.

Hungary is not alone in wishing to turn back the clock. Relations between Poland and Lithuania are strained. Poland supported Lithuania in the 1991 revolution but now Lithuanians are annoyed that Polish tourists in the capital Vilnius often refer to it as their capital Wilno and complain when locals don’t speak to them in Polish (the older generations tend to speak Russian as their second language  whilst the younger ones speak English) and that Lithuanian buses now have to have signs in Polish. On the other hand Poland complains that Lithuania is not offering Polish lessons in schools – which Lithuania categorically denies.

I have heard Russian tourists in Vilnius complain that it is full of Poles and some Poles still consider Lviv in Ukraine to be theirs too so it’s not always so friendly in post-soviet countries.

Hungarians are not unused to controversy and getting round the rules. In the 1940s the Russians set up Comecon (Council for mutual economic assistance) to coordinate economic relations across the soviet bloc and to centrally plan production. So each country was told what it could produce and what it couldn’t. Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania were allowed to make cars but Hungary was forbidden to. Although it had no existing car industry having a national vehicle was considered a symbol of patriotism in eastern Europe.

So Hungary found a solution using a Magyar speciality known as the “little gate” or kiskapu. When one door closes another opens, especially if lubricated by money. So under communism if X was forbidden but something similar to X but not actually the same thing was permitted – because it wasn’t banned. So Hungary produced a microcar: an enclosed vehicle with a petrol engine, steering wheel and gears, but which wasn’t an actual car because it was too small. And because it wasn’t a car to reverse it you had to stop the engine and start it again in reverse.

The cars were launched at the May Day Parade in1956 to great acclaim. Soon private inventors and engineers were designing a range of Magyar microcars; one was so small with a 50cc engine it was called the “motorised shoe”. One car was sponsored by the Ministry of Light Industry but unknown to the Ministry of Heavy Industry. One car had a body made from chicken feathers, pigs’ blood and shellac. Motorbike engines of different sizes were used and some could reach speeds of 80 kph.