Thursday, November 18, 2010

Proper Use of Knowledge

I had a very interesting weekend. I've been in Nottingham for the wonderfully fannish SF convention, Novacon. I've loved this convention since the very second time I attended. This year Sally came with us. I wasn't sure how much fun it would be for her given that, other than the next generation of fans in the approaching pubescent age and younger, the youngest person is probably in their thirties and the average age looks to be late fifties. As far as I can tell, though, there was enough amusement and book purchasing opportunities to make it a weekend well spent for her.

There were two stand out moments for me. Not Ken MacLeod interviewing Iain Banks though that was an amusing glimpse into a firm friendship and Iain's way of thinking. Not Julian's occasionally immoderate moderating of Iain Banks, Geoff Ryman and Charlie Stross's discussions about hard and mundane SF, fascinating though that was. Not even James Bacon with his endearing rendition of one of Bob Shaw's serious scientific talks although that was very wonderful. No, my moments were less comfortable though more enlightening than any of those.

The first moment came as I arrived at Tarn Thai on Friday evening, decanted from the taxi I had shared with Julia, Doug and Julian. Ian and Sally were waiting outside the restaurant although the rest of the party had gone in. 'There's a problem,' understated Ian. 

I looked at Sally who was hardly breathing in an effort not to cry. 'What's wrong?' I asked and the tight control dissolved into wild sobs. Horribly, I couldn't understand a word she said. Eventually I fathomed it. Her much loved science teacher from school, Mr Friedeberg, had died suddenly. He had been one of those teachers who hadn't lapsed into cynicism or despair but had continued to give huge amounts of time and effort to his pupils. Sally had benefitted from a great deal of extra help from him and her grade B in chemistry was a result of his enthusiasm and selfless dedication as well as her hard work and willpower. He made his subjects interesting and comprehensible, passing his enthusiasm on to the kids who responded by working hard to achieve, and by loving him. Apparently his funeral was so packed that there was no space left.

Once the first powerful torrent of grief had abated somewhat I called a taxi and the two of us went back to the hotel and sat in my room. She talked about the man and what had happened. Mr Friedeberg hasn't been the first important person in Sally's life to die. Both my father and Paul, her Dad's mother, have died but both deaths followed a long period of worsening health and increasing pain, both as a result of brain tumors. The deaths were slow and awful and ultimately a relief. There was plenty of time to say goodbye. Mr Friedeberg died unexpectedly. One of the things that bothered her when she was finally able to drink a mug of tea and reflect on the shock was that she had missed the funeral. When I spoke to her father the next day he said he had known about the death and the funeral but didn't think Sally would be interested and was reluctant to mention it. Augh!!!

OK, so that was my first stand out moment. The next evening we went out to Pappa's for a really substantial Greek meal; enough vegetarian meze for six served to Sally, June and me whilst the remaining five ate enough meat for many more people. We staggered back and Ian, Sally and I subsided on the sofas in the dimly lit back of the bar. We girls had made a bit of an effort with makeup so Ian snapped us with his new iPhone. They're interesting pictures, despite Sally's strange otherworldly silver eyes. Later in the evening Ian showed the pictures to Liam Proven who seemed more concerned than a technical problem might indicate. He suggested to Sally that she should get her eyes looked at, probably not a problem, but really. Do it! When Sally backed away he came and spoke to me. Initially he didn't want to explain but I pressed him. Apparently there had recently been a story about a toddler who, in her birthday photographs had one redeye reflection and one eye that reflected white. The white reflection was a result of cancer of the retina which displaced the capillaries that cause redeye. Very gently, after repeating that it was extremely unlikely, he told me that that type of cancer had a very good chance of cure if caught early enough, but the eyes would have to be removed. I looked across at Sally who was chatting to Julia. She was animated, happy and very beautiful. I can't begin to describe the dread and grief I felt. Liam repeated that it was very unlikely, that it usually happens to much younger children but that, really, to be on the safe side, I should make sure she got it checked. He wandered off leaving me ashen.

Five minutes later I'd explained Liam's warning to Ian and he'd immediately devised a scientific experiment. He dashed upstairs for his usual camera. Photographs of Sally with this displayed wonderful, lovely redeye. Photos of Julia with the iPhone had scary silver eyes. Somehow it must be function of how the flash works on an iPhone. My relief was almost as devastating as the fear. I didn't know what to do with myself. 

I would like to note here that Ian's reaction is one of the reasons why I love him so much. In a crisis he is calm, clear thinking and wonderfully practical. Laura Wheatly and Julia Daly, also practical and terrifically sensible, helped me calm down from my adrenaline high. 

So. It was a false alarm. I was utterly terrified for, as it turns out, no reason. Should Liam have kept quiet because the information would upset me? Good God no! I never want to have another trauma like that but half an hour of deep terror is trifling compared to losing my child. 
My final point is that information can often cause pain but without it we may make false choices with results that might range from mildly embarrassing to disastrous. Failing to pass information either shows a lack of respect for a person or cowardice. I never think it is better not to know. We can't be in control of our own destinies if we have no conception of reality. We can only gauge that by obtaining all the information and testing it. And then maybe seeking the support of understanding friends.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Finding a balance

Over a year ago now I took a two-week permaculture design course. It was fascinating, traumatising (who knew I had so many issues around the word ‘home’?) and, I thought at the time, life changing. And then I came home and fell immediately into default mode. Sigh…

I have a few issues with permaculture, and with Transition that grew out of it. It’s nothing to do with the ideas, which I think are useful and fundamentally sound. It is the monetising of it and the branding. Some of this may also be because I am not a belonger. In my life I have been involved in a lot of organisations, in some cases giving a lot of my time and energy to them, but I’ve never felt any real sense of belonging and the associated obligation that comes with belonging. The closest I come to it, outside of my family, is to fandom but, for me, fandom is Not a way of life. I regard it with wonder sometimes, amazed at the generosity of its component parts, the occasional infighting, the passion and the energy (in some cases) but perhaps because it feels like a huge extended family, I can take or leave the obligations. Recently I have thought that maybe I’ve wandered too far away from fandom because of the huge amount of time and energy work is consuming. Time to reconsider.

So, yes. Where was I? Changing my life. I have continued to do stuff but it’s not to a plan, to a design, and as a consequence, it tends to drift into triviality and pointlessness. Given that I spend most of my time in systems management I am a big fan of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle but, despite my best intentions, I’ve never even got to the ‘plan’ stage. I’m not even sure that I’m having much of a positive effect at all due to my lack of organisation (how can I save the world if I can’t define what that would mean (or find my keys))? I’ve got a list of objectives. I’ve had them for two years. I’ve made no progress.

So, with a small amount of enthusiasm, I am looking at being part of Sharon Astyk’s Whole Life Redesign Project! Sharon identified seven areas she aspired to change. There are clear matches with my long ignored objectives.

Sharon’s suggestion - Domestic Economy
‘This is the territory of home life. Here's where we start thinking about what we want our home life to actually be like. For me, the critical requirements are less cluttered, less disorganized, a home that functions better in relationship to what I actually do and intend to do at home. I'd like to set up the house in order to be able to bring people here for some of my teaching projects, and also to use some of the space for farm projects.’

My version of this was ‘Comfortable Home’. Well, if I’m going to be totally honest it was ‘Home for Gracious Living’ but anyone who has been to my mildly squalid terrace house in Sheffield will know that it is unlikely that I could actually aspire to gracious living there. I’m a lazy housekeeper and I’ve not got huge quantities of cash available to transform it. I could, however, work towards the less lofty objective of a comfortable home.
As Sharon notes, clutter and disorganization make for both a less comfortable and a less thrifty home. I occasionally buy things knowing that, somewhere in the house, there is a perfectly adequate resource of the type I’m looking for, I just can’t put my hand on it. I’ve been in my house since June 2007. I still haven’t unpacked my last boxes. Part of the problem is that I accumulated a lot of stuff in the large marital home. I’ve moved to a much more modest house but not divested myself of all the trash I’d accumulated.
I mentioned this to Claire Brialey some time ago and said I was going to get rid of some books. She looked at me aghast. Once started on that road where would one stop? The Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare? And yet I have many books that I will never read again and would not recommend to anyone else. Why keep them? Ah yes, but the last time I got rid of a dreadful book, The Tides of Lust by Samuel R Delany I found a couple of months later that I wanted to quote from it in order to demonstrate how awful it was – beautifully written but really rather nasty. Similarly, Vivia by Tanith Lee. Tides was replaced – a friend sent me a copy. Vivia never left. I think perhaps what I should do is get rid of the mediocre books and keep the well-written trash. And yet, and yet…
I am truly a packrat in the traditional fannish way but I could really do with simplifying. I’m thinking of starting to actually use the library again rather than keep so many books. It also helps keep books in libraries relevant.
I made a start last weekend when Ian was in Washington. I assembled some more bookcases and got most of my books finally out of boxes. Once they’re all out I’ll start winnowing. James Bacon and John Dowd have a fostering service set up to place unloved books. I may well make use of it. This is a very big project but one that I would like to start on.

Sharon’s suggestion - Household Economy
This is the territory of making ends meet and meeting financial goals. My goals here are to up the portion of our personal economy that comes from barter and personal exchanges, to drop our expenses by 20% and transfer the money to savings and to infrastructure like insulation that will cut expenses in the longer term. I want to have a plan for dealing with money and benefits cuts that we expect on Eric's end.’

Strangely I didn’t have anything like this in my objectives despite the fact that this is one of the areas I have been working on quite hard in the last couple of years. It makes sense to add it in and I’ve called it ‘Economic Viability’.
Attaining economic viability has been a long hard struggle. I took ten years out with my children and when I finally went back to work it was for the same salary I had started on as a graduate many years before. It took a lot of hard work, hard nosed pushing and a master’s degree to get me back into the salary level that I could survive as a single parent again. When David and I separated and I moved to Sheffield I was quite comfortably off as long as I cut out all the luxuries I’d used to enjoy. I cut. Things were fine.
Then the Crash and the struggle. In order to keep the company viable we all took a 20% pay cut. I cut out half of my charity donations, I stopped using contact lenses, I stopped impulse buying, I stopped buying lunches, and I started using Zen Budgeting. This turned out to work very well, to the extent that I found I could live quite comfortably within these limits. Given that I have enough money but hardly any time I have decided, now I’m back to full pay, to work a four-day week. Should everything go horribly wrong again I would be hard pushed to live on a 40% cut though. That’d mean getting rid of the TV, Demon, the rest of my charities etc. This is definitely an area that I need to monitor.
(I should also mention, in this section, that we benefit from the Ian subsidy – for which I am very grateful, and which means I drink much nicer wine more often than I would otherwise.)

Sharon’s suggestion - Resource Consumption
This is the territory of what we use. Our lives are enhanced when we use less, and so are the lives of others and our environment - it is as simple as that. We've seen some creep in our energy usage, and we need to get it back down. Right now our family of six is using less than 1/5 the US average (and most of those are based on household numbers with the average US household being 2.6), but I want to get back closer to 1/10th which, while not a fair share, is a lot closer. We need to get back in the habit of accurate bookkeeping on our energy usage as well.’

My version of this was called ‘Living Lightly’ and I’ve been very poor at achieving anything. Last year I started on the Riot for Austerity but didn’t get very far with it. I found trying to convert everything a pain and I never took the time to set up a proper spreadsheet. This year I joined Sheffield’s CRAG, the Carbon Action Rationing Group. I have found this simply fascinating. As my friends would attest, I keep my house on the chilly side, use public transport all the time (except when I go somewhere in Ian’s car) and don’t fly and yet my carbon production to date this year is 1293kg. The UK per capita average is 4500kg so you’d think I was doing quite well but this was set up by financial year and there has only been temperate months so far. Also it doesn’t include carbon impacts generated by my business travel. Admittedly my house is old and draughty but there must be lots of people out there who never have the heating on and go nowhere in order to generate an average of 4500kg. Another one to make more effort over. I’m replacing my old leaky front door and hope that will help. I’ve got plans to insulate the floor. We’ll see.

Sharon’s suggestion - Farm and Subsistence
‘This category may be more relevant to us than some people, but everyone does some subsistence work. For us, we want the farm to be the center of our lives, and to integrate ourselves more into the farm - that is, we want as much as possible my work and our lives and the farm to be one thing. For a long time we've used Eric's work to subsidize the farm, but now it needs to be self-supporting, and that's part of that equation, while we also expose what we're doing in low input agriculture to other people. We'd also like to up the degree to which our subsistence activities teach and help others. Most of all, I want to do a full evaluation of all our projects, both so that others can begin to understand them, and also to make sure that we are doing everything we do as well as possible.’

This doesn’t have a real equivalent for me. I have no farm and no real interest in having one. I could make this ‘Productive Garden’ and try to do a better job of dealing with the slugs. This has been my intention anyway, and may be a good use of my extra day a week.

Sharon’s suggestion - Family and Community
‘This is a big one for us - the reason we considered moving earlier this year was the desire for a closer knit community - we had that but have seen some changes over the years. But the reality is that we've been allowing those changes to frustrate us, but haven't necessarily worked as hard as we could to compensate. So our goal is to spend more time working on our community building, and bringing our far-flung communities and our local ones into a state of connection. It is sometimes hard to be so far from our family, from close friends, but if we can build better on what's near us, we can reach out through a chain of links, rather than across a wide distance.’

This is a worry for me and I had it down, rather ridiculously, as ‘Maintaining Joyful Relationships’. I’m rubbish at this. Over the years I have lost contact with many lovely friends because I don’t find time to keep in touch. The exception to this is Sally, who I live with, my lovely colleagues at work and Ian. Luckily I have some great friends who I can pick up with easily. Again, I’m hoping that my extra day will give me some time to catch up with friends.
On the same subject, many of the important people in my life refuse to live next door to me or even in the same town. I am very disappointed in them! Jack is in Oxford, my family is in Leeds and Ian is in Motherwell, at least a four-hour train journey away. I worry about how the slow erosion of wealth and energy I expect will impact on these long distance relationships. I have no answer to this predicament but think that this is also an objective that I should concentrate on.

Sharon’s suggestion - Outside Work
‘If my children were hungry, I would and could do any work necessary - there is no doubt about that. But while my family lives on comparatively little money (we qualify for food stamps in our state, although we don't use them), we also have enjoyed the fact that we have the luxury of choosing our work. In many ways, we've had an enormous luxury - my writing and teaching and farming didn't have to pay much, because Eric was subsidizing them. Now my work may have to support us, but I still want, to the extent that's possible, to make what I do the right thing to do. I am enormously fortunate, in that I can earn money doing what I care about, and that I have had the luxury of giving things - my writing, my farm products, etc... away for free. Indeed, often the return of giving things away has been greater than those I use for money - but I don't live entirely outside the cash economy, unfortunately. So I need to balance my work - find the ways to make some money doing what I care about, while reducing expenses, so that I have the luxury of keeping giving things away.’

This one I called ‘Meaningful Work’. I’m very happy that I have work that is environmentally based and makes something of a difference. I say ‘something’ because I am working with the business community and some things are not up for discussion. I spend a lot of time talking about sustainability but what the government and business mean by sustainability is predicated on an economics based on growth, a concept that is not in any way consistent with sustainability. Still, it’s more meaningful than stacking supermarket shelves and better paid. My objective is, I suppose, to support businesses in moving towards sustainability, even if it is a watered down version.

Sharon’s suggestion - Time and Happiness

In the end, these balance sheets have to be even for me to begin to go forward. The good thing about this is that I know how easy it is to even up this part of the equation. My husband and children and the farm and gardens, friends and family give me a deep, inner core of happiness. Whether we stay or go, whatever changes we make, whatever we do without or give up, if I have some simple things - a little dirt (and I don't have to own it) and the loves of my lives in place, I am not afraid of the future, and I am happy. The thing that buys me the most happiness is time - but it doesn't have to be free time. Indeed, the thing that gives me the most comfort in the world is knowing that Eric and I can spend an entire day working in arm's reach of one another, with the boys helping and playing around our work, and know that at the end of the day, all of us, exhausted, will have found the time well spent. Finding time and finding happiness, are not, for us, a matter of more vacation time or things we want to try - they are simply the by products of trying to bring the pieces of our lives together.’

This is a part of what I have included under ‘Healthy Lifestyle’. I find getting a balance in time use very difficult. I’m not a fast worker and I have a personal requirement to produce work that satisfies my own standards, especially when I am training. It’s self-defense really. I don’t want to be embarrassed by not doing a good job. The problem is that this eats into my own time. That and the fact that wherever possible I travel by public transport for work. It gives me more productive time (I can work rather than just drive) but it takes longer and extends my working day. I’m tired all the time. My feet hurt, I’m overweight, I’m unfit and I haven’t the time to do anything more than try to catch up on my sleep and cook proper meals from scratch. Even that I’m not doing very well. Julia Daly has cooked a couple of splendid meals for us recently, the leftovers from which have been the basis of our meals for the rest of the week.

So, a whole host of things to think about, objectives in place and targets to set. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Assorted catastrophes

I’ve been a bit busy recently. That’s what I always say, of course, but I’ve been doing a lot of training so instead of having spare time to read and write about my deep personal passions I’ve spent every evening and all train journeys going though slides trying to remember what I’m supposed to talk about. Yesterday I had a horribly frantic scramble (on the train from Marylebone and later in the NiteNite in Birmingham) to get up to speed with the May 09 version of the Code for Sustainable Homes so that I could inform a select group of builders, local authority staff and the guy who manages training for the National Construction College all about how it works just two days before the 2010 version is released. I think I managed with the presentation but the exercises were a bit chaotic. The feedback forms were good though, even from the NCC guy. Usually I have a little furtive check of feedback, egoscanning for the tutor questions (knowledgeable? approachable?), on the train back but the train before mine had been delayed for over an hour and all the stranded passengers had jumped onto mine. There was no room in the seats and I ended up sitting on the floor in the wheelchair space between two grey suited guys standing primly and, of course, properly. Reading a Darkover book. Yes, I know, but I really rather like them. (I have always wondered why women SFF writers seem to love feudal societies.) The train was crowded enough that the trolley was stuck at the very back of the train, minimising my risk of severed feet. Yes, of course I go everywhere on public transport. It’s so relaxing! Masochist? Apparently.

So today I’m going over the Pennines to deliver a Waste Awareness Course, which I could probably do in my sleep, and I’m taking the chance to write a little something. Daybreak over Manchester looks truly apocalyptic and that’s where my thoughts have been recently. Not over Manchester. In the Apocalypse. I’ve been reading a number of The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWK) books. Darkover Landfall (yes, I know!) and Alas! Babylon! being the most recent. We talked about them over dinner at Julia & Doug’s on Friday. Sally wanted to know what we meant by Cosy Catastrophe (CC).

Some of my favourite comfort books are cosy catastrophes. The quintessential cosy catastrophe is The Day of the Triffids (though the Kraken Wakes is more catastrophe and less cosy). Triffids is a lovely SF novel by John Wyndham, short but effective. The first part, where the hero wakes up on the morning after TEOTWAWKI, blind from an earlier accident, in a London obviously not right, is one of the creepiest pieces of writing I’ve come across. I never read this book alone in the house at night. The terror is contagious.

If this were only going into my fanzine I would leave Triffids at that, assuming that everyone would have read this seminal work of British SF, but some of my colleagues, non-fans, read the blog and, strange though it seems, need a quick explanation.

The Day of the Triffids was written during the cold war era, a time of fear and paranoia, a time when mass unforeseen death seemed quite possible. Was quite possible. Alas! Babylon! looked at this fear in a quite straightforward, nuclear war sort of way. Triffids was somewhat more oblique and the more frightening because of it. When, in my day job, I look at potential incidents and accidents they usually have more than one cause. It is the combination of a number of errors that result in massive spills, explosions etc. One error alone usually results in a ‘near miss’ rather than a full blown incident. Triffids is based on two such accidents and is the more believable because of it.

The first mistake was the development of triffids and their accidental dissemination across the world by industrial espionage gone wrong. Mobile and dangerous plants; plants with some level of intelligence and malevolence. These were my first introduction to GMOs and perhaps why I have always had reservations about them. The triffids were developed, nurtured and spread throughout the world because of the high-grade edible oil they produced. In Wyndham’s world, where it is critical that population and food production balance, it seems fine to ‘domesticate’ this dangerous creature, a plant that can and does kill and feeds off the nutrients from the rotting corpse. Yum.

The second mistake provides the ‘meteor showers’ that everyone watched the night before TEOTWAWKI. Perhaps a satellite weapon, watching the magnificent display resulted in blindness. The hero has been temporarily blinded by a triffid sting across the eyes and on the morning that the book starts, in the anxious and increasingly terrifying darkness behind the his bandages, he is waiting to find out if the damage is permanent.

So, two mistakes herald the end of the old comfortable and cosy world. Millions of people die, either through suicide and accidents due to their sudden blindness or by triffid sting as they stumble outside, unaware of their danger.

What makes it cosy? The way the story is told makes it rather cosy. The hero doesn’t lose anyone dear to him. He goes from being a lonely person in a dead end job to being far more important and far happier in the long term. The human race survives and does not sink into barbarism and chaos. The world is rather saved by this disaster – population is drastically reduced and those survivors have a whole world to repopulate. Nice. Alas! Babylon does the same for nuclear war. Earth Abides does the same for ‘plague’. These seem to be fantasies of stepping back from the edge of ultimate destruction and getting away from the dull and ordinary lives so many of us live.

I’ve always rather liked Cosy Catastrophes, even though I know that these are unlikely scenarios. In Earth Abides the water treatment plant delivering clean water continues working effectively for decades. In Triffids a lovely farmhouse overlooking the Downs is available for moving into without a dull job and a mortgage to support it. In Alas! Babylon! the hero has access to artesian water and enough warning to stock up. We have lived comfortable lives for so long, dependant on our cheap energy and complex systems, that we’ve forgotten what damn hard graft it is to deal with all our needs without such sophisticated assistance. In reality systems break down remarkably quickly when not fed with power or money. We saw that with the oil refinery blockades – a couple of days with no deliveries and we are short of energy for transport and even if we can get to the shops, the shelves are bare. The CCs I’ve mentioned have side-stepped this issue by having lots of people die off very quickly leaving lots of unprotected goods in unprotected shops. Any of us who have been too honest to shoplift might see the thrill of taking free goods without guilt. Even in these books the free cans don’t last forever and we regress to hard labour.

It’s a bit of a joke that fans think we are so clever that we would be the survivors in this sort of scenario when, more likely, we would be surplus to requirements. An ability to build a Civilisation in cyberspace is not the same as scraping a living and keeping the light alive in TEOTWAWKI scenarios. There are other TEOTWAWKI books that are not in any way cosy. Gudrun Pausewang’s book, Fall Out, is a short brutal book about nuclear disaster which has no sign of comfort; a step into horror. And this a kids book. The ultimate of the non-cosy catastrophes for me, is On The Beach, really the end of the human world, a slow and agonising process of waiting for death by radiation poisoning. I only read it once.

Ian frequently accuses me of being a survivalist and wanting to see TEOTWAWKI. Nope. I really don’t. I do a fair amount of research for my job and what I see is a looming disaster, a slow reduction of comfort and possibilities with none of the thrill of the cosy catastrophes. John Michael Greer calls if the long descent. I might call it The End Of The Glorious Future (TEOTGF). We are not the first civilisation to outrun our resources but we are the first global civilisation to do so. In the past, whilst one empire fell another endured for a while. Some ways of life were sustainable, some cultures survived. China was one of those. No longer, I feel, as they purchase resource all around the world and foul their own country to produce junk for us. How did that go so wrong?

We’ve worried about resource issues before. The Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful, the ‘Good Life’ back to the land movement were all part of a concern about resource. Had we actually taken action then we might not be facing these issues now. We are probably past peak oil, a point where there is still plenty left but it will never be so cheap and easy to obtain again. Why drill in high risk deep water areas, ruin aquifers by fracking difficult gas fields, pollute huge areas extracting tar sands, plant and subsidise the production of biofuel on fertile food producing land if not because the easy stuff has all been used? Much of the material we use in our ubiquitous electronic equipment has limited availability. We’re pumping our aquifers dry all over the World. There’s too many of us and we’re too greedy. Oh for a cosy catastrophe to leave me and my friends in proud possession of what’s left, but we’ve seen that that would not work. We only live in luxury now because someone somewhere is being exploited to make it possible. I wouldn’t be able to extract, refine and manufacture dysprodium magnets to make my personal wind turbine work. I never grow enough food to be able to rely on it. I’m unlikely to achieve more even if my life depended on it. My cosy catastrophe would decay very quickly into starvation, cold and darkness. I’ve got a dozen candles in the house. How long will they last?

I’d like to finish this piece with a solution, a call to action, but this is not a problem, it is a predicament. There are no solutions only things that we do that minimise the misfortune. A bit. Curse you darkness!

We’ve got iPhones. Surely that is future enough for any of us. But I’d hoped for something more in my lifetime. I was hoping for the stars. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

All teched up

My phone died. Or at least the screen did. Which means that although I can still use it to make calls, as long as I remember how I named the number I want, I can't see my alarms. There is obviously a problem with this. The wake up alarm was set to 5.30 and I can't change it. This is not a good wake-up time for the weekend and it will be too late for Tuesday when I'm going to Solihull by train.

I've had this phone for three and a half years now. It's a Samsung and has always been just a bit rubbish but it has done what was required, made calls, held numbers, very occasionally taken photos and provided three alarms, one with a snooze. I wouldn't have changed it, no matter the functionality of fabulous new phones, whilst it did what I required. Without the screen it doesn't do this any more. 

Ian did a bit of research and we found that I could have an iPhone from Tesco at the best price. To be honest I don't love Tesco. I don't love any of the standard service providers either. I've been with Orange for ten years but it's really not because they're a good company, just that they're all a little bit shoddy and changing now would be disruptive. The kids both have Orange phones, my free wireless broadband is through Orange and I also have a mobile dongle from them. For me to move would either require Orange to be even more useless than they already are or for another company to be obviously better, provide a noticeably better service at a lower price and make it easy to move. Still waiting. So, despite calling in at O2, I ended up back at the Orange shop.

The young man (Daniel) who served us hid his irritation inadequately but sufficiently that we didn't walk away. The very mirror of Orange's technique. I was either going to buy an iPhone or something cheap as chips and go with the laptop/Touch/dongle combination that I've got at the moment. The cheap option that did what I wanted (flips like a Star Trek communicator) looked like it would fall apart after a couple of months. The iPhone was shiny. Daniel offered an Android. It was also shiny and had vibratory icons. The fact that the iPhone has billions of apps did not sway me, not being a collector, but the familiarity of it did. I've got a Mac and a Touch and have played with Ian's iPad so I already know how to use the system. And the iPhone was shiny. Very shiny.

So now I have a lovely new iPhone4. Apple only provide a 1 year warranty. I'm on an 18 month contract. Something to think about in eleven months. After eighteen months I can transfer to a sim only contract if I can keep the phone undamaged for that long. Given that the Samsung lasted twice the life of the contract that may well be possible. I'll put a note in my diary for a year and a half from now to renegotiate.

And now it's time to organise my address book and choose some new music. Maybe see if there are any actually useful apps available (I want MyRail Lite!) to go with MyBus, TrainSearch and Dropbox. What else would I do with a free Sunday?

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Today has been lovely. I’m not sure why early October is often so nice. The day started chill and misty and slowly cleared to a wonderful brisk sunny day. I had a sales meeting near Shipley at midday so I got to sit in the window drinking tea and watching the day emerge from the fog whilst trying to sort out my diary for the next three months. Yesterday I was horribly surprised to find that I was training in Pontypridd the Monday after Novacon and it seemed sensible to sort travel arrangements out and avoid similar nasty shocks. I’m working away from home three or four times a week up to Christmas so I’m going to see a lot of public transport and be eating way too much uninspired hotel food. I remember scoffing when a friend said, many years ago, that it is difficult to live a healthy life when you are always on the road. I should probably track her down and apologise. Even if you are super-organised (and I’m so not) it is difficult to eat well and take any regular exercise, especially when you are up at 5 to get to the venue and not back until after 8. Actually it is difficult to keep up with the washing too.

So, organisation done I smeared on a bit of make-up and scurried down to the bus stop. I’ve given up on the no. 4 for going to the station; it’s just not convenient any more, so I sat on a crowded 83, popular because Stagecoach is 20p cheaper than First. It was packed with students.

Where I live in Sheffield we mark the milestones in the year by student presence or absence. The difference is quite startling. Over the last few years the kids in the shared houses on my street haven’t been much of a nuisance to me but there is a new lot in infused with the energy of youth. They were still partying outside at 5am during Fresher’s week. I’m hoping they will have calmed down a bit by the time the windows are reopened for next summer.

The boys who sat behind me on the bus enveloped me an a miasma of curry&hangover breath. One hadn’t gone to be d until 5, the other had arrived back from an allnighter in Leeds, done a bit of work on his dissertation and was heading back into town to sleep through his lectures. I vaguely remember being able to do that, back in the distant land of youth. I listened in, unashamed. If they were going to share their aroma the least I expected was to be distracted by their conversation. Apparently Sheffield is THE place for Drum and Bass. Something to do with Tuesday Club? No idea. Having recently read King Rat I was not averse to the idea that D&B is a sophisticated and important musical form, but I haven’t pursued it. I lapsed into a malodorous daydream as they displayed their music knowledge to each other. I emerged back into consciousness when one started extolling the virtues of Eric Bibb. Gosh. I saw him a few years ago at the Robin Hood (RIP) near Merry Hill. He was, as the boy stated authoratively, excellent. This segued into praising the Alabama Three (not 3, not from Alabama). Apparently they are also really good but not likely to last much longer due to their age and unhealthy lifestyles. I’d like to have chipped in but I knew it was unlikely that they would welcome a comment from a frumpy woman considerably older than their mothers. The knowledgeable one veered off to impress his friend with his choice of research subject; biomimetics. Brand new idea! All about incorporating natural living material structures and techniques developed in the harsh environment of evolution into engineering solutions. Fascinating! There was a good TED talk on the subject a couple of years ago. As we debussed I caught a glimpse of their fresh faces and marvelled at how connected the world has become. So much information is available so easily that I could understand much of what they were talking about. How the world has changed! Crafts and skills are being lost or downgraded into hobbies but information that in the past would have been too esoteric for the likes of me is now so casually available that I can appreciate it. Sensawunda!


Even more so when, over the weekend Ian forwarded a piece written by Douglas Coupland, via Boing!Boing! He thought it would reflect my pessimistic worldview. How right he was. These are the comments that prompted him to forward the piece:

1) It's going to get worse
No silver linings and no lemonade. The elevator only goes down. The bright note is that the elevator will, at some point, stop.


6) The middle class is over. It's not coming back
Remember travel agents? Remember how they just kind of vanished one day?
That's where all the other jobs that once made us middle-class are going – to that same, magical, class-killing, job-sucking wormhole into which travel-agency jobs vanished, never to return. However, this won't stop people from self-identifying as middle-class, and as the years pass we'll be entering a replay of the antebellum South, when people defined themselves by the social status of their ancestors three generations back. Enjoy the new monoclass!

The ones that made a connection with me were these though:

10) In the same way you can never go backward to a slower computer, you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness
11) Old people won't be quite so clueless
No more “the Google,” because they'll be just that little bit younger.

32) Musical appreciation will shed all age barriers
33) People who shun new technologies will be viewed as passive-aggressive control freaks trying to rope people into their world, much like vegetarian teenage girls in the early 1980s
1980: “We can't go to that restaurant. Karen's vegetarian and it doesn't have anything for her.”
2010: “What restaurant are we going to? I don't know. Karen was supposed to tell me, but she doesn't have a cell, so I can't ask her. I'm sick of her crazy control-freak behaviour. Let's go someplace else and not tell her where.”

38)Knowing everything will become dull
It all started out so graciously: At a dinner for six, a question arises about, say, that Japanese movie you saw in 1997 (Tampopo), or whether or not Joey Bishop is still alive (no). And before long, you know the answer to everything.

What I find so fascinating is how I sort of expected all this technological stuff to be part of a utopia (ecotopia) where we all lived long and fulfilling lives. How come the sensawunda stuff is embedded so deep in dystopian shit. The one that really hit home was this:

5) You'll spend a lot of your time feeling like a dog leashed to a pole outside the grocery store – separation anxiety will become your permanent state

Yes! All the time that my loved ones are away I suffer separation anxiety. I thought this was just a symptom of getting older. I hoped it was.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Excuses, excuses...

No blogging available due to the new Tiffany Aching novel, 'I Shall Wear Midnight' and because yesterday's 'Made in Dagenham' and 'Single Father' both made me weep and I ended up with a miserable headache, and yes, and before that, 'Case and the Dreamer', the last of the Theodore Sturgeon collected stories. Later.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What I did on my holidays...

I seem to have been on holiday a lot recently. France, Edinburgh, and now, Whitby. It's a grand life. Mostly though it's because I didn't take any holiday at all before July and I'm trying to cram my hols in before my holiday year is up at the end of November.

So yes, Whitby. In the rain. Also Staithes, Saltburn, and Sleights. We struggled with the pronunciation of this last which was a bit of an issue because it was where we actually stayed. Is it to rhyme with sleigh or slight? It turns out, despite the spelling, that it is the latter. Ian provided me with a useful reminder with the phrase 'real or imaginary'.

The B&B where we stayed was fabulous. The Gramarye Suites were lovely. We stayed in the Fairy Room. Don't laugh. It was like staying in the non-rocketship end of an art show. Ian had met one of the artists at a con some years ago. The room was lovely. I've rarely stayed anywhere so welcoming. Molly and John have made the place delightful with really good coffee and tea in the room and fresh milk in the tiny fridge in the room (but big enough for a couple of bottles of wine as well), a bowl of fresh fruit in the room, refreshed daily. The breakfast we magnificent. I didn't try the fresh baked bread until the second day and really regretted not diving in immediately. I can only say I was distracted by the freshly squeezed orange juice, huge bowl of fresh fruit salad, beautifully cooked scrambled eggs and good strong coffee. I had to have a little lie down afterwards. Oh, and free wifi meant that we could look up restaurants in Whitby for our evening meals. The Moon and Sixpence turned out to be jolly nice, Ditto was good too but my vote went to Number 4 which looked a bit disconcerting in a parade of shops next to Costcutter but provided an excellent meal in a friendly atmosphere. The B&B was only 50 yards from the station into Whitby so we didn't have to face the carparking costs and Ian got to drink some rather nice wine. 

We did spend some time actually looking around the area. The weather was fairly miserable until the day we left (of course) but we enjoyed trudging through the drizzle. Plenty of odd street names to keep Ian happy. I think this is my favourite photograph although Dog Loup, Gun Gutter and Slippery Hill, all in Staithes, were snapped. We also rather liked the sign under the Cleveland Potash sign, 'CPL are proud to host Boulby Underground  Laboratory for Dark Matter Research - Searching for the missing mass of the universe'. Every area of outstanding natural beauty should have a place like this - ugly and industrial but presumably providing a few jobs, an important resource and a nice sign.

So, in conclusion, what I did on my holiday was eat with a bit of signspotting between meals.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Catching up...

It has been a tradition, over the last half dozen years, to write introductions to my fanzines which presented various perfectly reasonable excuses for the lateness of publication and, indeed, I have a fair number of archived introductions that were superseded long before the final publication dates. I'd sort of expected not to do this on a blog because there's always time to write a couple of lines. Well yes. However, as a 2nd Dan Procrastinator, I can still find myself way behind with my exciting life, as demonstrated by my finally posting the last day of the Fringe report a good fortnight after the event. One of the reasons is pressure of work, the other is that I've been reading a book that seems to require some comment but I'm not clever enough to write anything cogent. The book I've been struggling with is 'Prosperity Without Growth' by Tim Leggett of the Sustainable Development Commission. I have vaguely wondered whether this book is one of the reasons that the Commission, against all good sense, is being disbanded. Certainly working within the business community I find that the idea that we should reconsider our desire for growth and replace it with some type of steady state economics is heresy that must never be uttered. I've finished reading the book and intend to re-read it and make notes. There may be some cogent comments in the future. Don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, life has been full of excitement! I finally met Catherine's new chap, Martin, who seems to justify Sally's contention that he's a really nice guy. Which is, of course, a Very Good Thing.

(I should just note that as I write this Ian has gone from playing jolly Cliff Richard teenpop of the fifties and sixties to Del Amitri's angstrock of the naughties. I Del Amitri.)

So work has moved into the heavy training timetable of Autumn. This is good in many ways. I like training very much as long as I know what I'm talking about. Unlike Ian I can't hold forth about subjects I'm totally ignorant of. Preparation is essential. But what I find I like is the pleasure of connecting with lovely people (not had a real grump for at least a year now) and the true joy of not having to write a report the day after. Last week I had a day in North Wales with a Welsh speaking civil engineering company (it's a long way from the middle of Anglesey by train), an extremely interesting day at the Building Research Establishment in Watford listening to how we should deal with refurbishing our decaying building stock, and a morning in Kettering. The week before was Bradford. Next week three days within easy travelling distance of Sheffield; Derby, Leeds and Bradford. I'm not bored.

(Dolly Parton now. 9 to 5 has given way to Stairway to Heaven...Um.)

More importantly, I've had a couple of fun weekends. Last weekend we saw the Moody Blues and Toy Story 3. Both of them gave a rather melancholy insight to the passage of time. Toy Story was rather more uplifting than the Moodies. This is what I scribbled immediately afterwards:

'Oh waily, waily, waily. We went to see the Moody Blues Sunday night and, as usual, it was pretty fab. Question was the first LP I bought and, though I’m not a musical afficianado, and have no real musical appreciation, I still like the Moodys lots. I had one of those evenings, though, when I felt strangely sad. One reason was because they stupidly projected photographs and videos from when whichever song they were playing was first produced. Also, some of the songs are terribly idealistic; eco-warriorish in many ways. It made me feel very old indeed and, unlike Graham Edge, I’m not 69. The average age of the audience was possibly not below 40 and we were all jolly comfortable. Possibly due to the padding we all carried with us.'

(Now we are listening to David Mitchell's Soap Box followed by Old Jews Telling Jokes.)

This weekend we went to see Barenaked Ladies and Scott Pilgrim versus the World. And we called in to see Margaret, Ian's ex-wife. All I can say, with jewish humour echoing in my ears, is that all these activities were hugely fun. Perhaps the best part of the gig was that Boothby Graffoe was the first support act. I'm particularly fond of Boothby and his animal friends and have missed seeing him at the Fringe. It was a joy to find him so unexpectedly accompanying, and accompanied by on the later songs, the Ladies. I bought one of his CDs. The BNLs were also jolly good but by that time the Manchester Apollo's seats were making me uncomfortable and my feet were twitchy. It is a tribute to their showmanship that I enjoyed them as much as I did. Fab!

I'm sort of thinking that our globetrotting friends will be back from Australia, getting over the jetlag and putting their photoalbums in order. I hope so. Is there anyone out there? 


The last of the Fringe - just for completeness

It feels like months since we came back from Edinburgh and I still haven’t written about the final day. So here we are.

We only had two shows on the last day and decided not to add any more so that I could have a quick meeting with my friend, June Strachan, and catch up on life & stuff.  Ian drove us into Edinburgh where we eventually found somewhere to park near the Stand and we headed for the Conan Doyle pub for a pint and a gossip. I’d never been in before and won’t be going in again. Ian and the kids started pilfering chairs from throughout the pub to give us enough seating around the one empty table whilst June and I went to the bar to order drinks. We’d got a pint of lager shandy for Ian, a pint of lager Jack and a glass of red wine for June before the barman started grumbling about needing proof of age from the kids. I gathered Jack’s student card which was deemed sufficient but Callum’s railcard, despite having his age and needing proof of age to purchase was not good enough. Sally didn’t have any identification at all. They only wanted soft drinks so I didn’t think it would be a problem but, no, apparently their young person cooties would affect the pub. I was very cross. Why was it so important to have documentation when our 18 year olds were accompanied by three obviously older responsible people? Why serve us at all without checking our compliance with their requirements? June handed her untouched glass back but we had to pay for the lager-based drinks, not least because Ian and Jack had necked them quite quickly. June and I stalked off to the Stand to get our drinks there with the kids. Ian and Jack followed shortly. Apparently the kids are allowed to exist there with their soft drinks.

Because of the faffing we were somewhat late in heading for the Stand. I find this a really uncomfortable venue but I wanted to see Stewart Lee so Ian and I scurried off with a bit of time to queue in the hopes of getting a seat with a back. There were about 3 left, scattered around the room so we sat apart. Five minutes before the start the kids were still not there. Already grumpy, I went and found them hovering outside, and heartlessly abandoned them to stand throughout the show. Unlike me, they bend, so they sat on the floor and I sat and huffed.

Luckily Stewart Lee was excellent. We have seen a lot of good comics this year but there was a certain amount of sameness about them. They were all talking about themselves and what they’d done. There’s nothing wrong with this. They were all worth seeing. And likeable. And safe. My only point in mentioning this is that Stewart Lee did not do that stuff. Stewart does something completely different. He tells stories. Recursive stories that draw you in, make you think, sharpens your perceptions. It’s not always comfortable. Not always likeable. Not all of it is funny although most is. What it is, is thought provoking and terribly interesting.  
My very favourite part was at the end when He reminisced about his contact with David Cameron, our new and deeply privileged Prime Minister. The story was deep and true and, as Andy Zaltzman catchphrases often, ‘OK, it’s not true but [his] point stands’.

Stewart Lee is performing in Grin Up North is Sheffield this October. He is booked into the Oval Hall, which is vast. I’d be interested to see whether it is possible to take this intimate little show into such a space.

The final act of the night and the fringe for us was Chris Addison. I saw him long ago (relatively) the last time he performed at the Fringe and he was good and talked about very interesting things but not this polished or relaxed (in a hyper sort of way). This was a return to comics talking about themselves but, unlike Susan Calman, John Bishop or Mickey Flanagan, he spoke directly to me about being middle class. It is, of course, an easy target but so much fun. We have, as he noted, mainly sorted out our prejudices. We might not secretly believe immigrants or women or gays are acceptable but we never say this and can usually keep a tight lid on this stuff, even internally. Give us a woman in Ugg boots, though, and we feel quite justified in smugly despising her. I find myself doing this to over-teched people (apart from Ian of course), quietly judging them; why do you have to have an iPhone when you obviously can’t afford decent clothes for your child, and so on, I will think poisonously. I laughed and laughed, ashamed but tremendously amused at the nastiness in my soul that he revealed in his perfectly likeable routine about himself. I guess that unlike John Bishop who invited me to wonder how I would react to success, and hope that I would cope so well, Chris invited me to look at his faults, see my own reflected and think about my behaviour. Only comedy can really do this so successfully. 

And so we finished wearily and headed back to Ian’s and then later back home. Callum hadn’t like Stewart Lee but seemed to have enjoyed everything else. The rest of us had really pretty much liked everything. Apart from Stewart there hadn’t been any edgy stuff this year. Perhaps a bit more next year.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

How your language affects your thinking

As a science fiction fan of many years standing I've been aware of the idea that your ability to deal with certain concepts is constrained by the language you speak. Apparently this is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which comes in a strong and weak version. The strong version posits that you cannot think things for which your language has no words.

One of my favourite books in my teenage years was Babel 17 by Samuel R Delany, based on the strong version of the hypothesis. This is a wonderful book in many ways whose central conceit was that your mind and intentions could be completely subverted by speaking and thinking in the constructed language, Babel 17, to the extent that you would betray your country and be unaware of it.

The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance has a similar central idea where societies are manipulated by the languages they are taught to speak. When I wiki'd Babel 17 the piece cited Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin and The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin along with The Languages of Pao as similar books. I don't quite agree with this.

Native Tongue and the follow up, The Judas Rose, are books written by a linguist with language as a central theme but although the women's language, Laadan, is transformational, it does not seem to make the ability to think about concepts impossible. Indeed, Suzette's language is designed to give words to things that are common experiences for women but which cannot be easily expresses in English and so necessitate endless words being used to try to approach the concept, in some ways the opposite of strong Sapir-Whorf as it is plain that the concepts can be approached but not with any grace or economy. I've just taken the book off the shelf to remind myself of some of the words given in the appendix. I particularly like to words beginning with 'ra', words about not doing or being something, and the words ending with lh which seem to imply intention for wrongness. Examples that I like:
ramime: to refrain from asking, out of courtesy or kindness
ramimelh: to refrain from asking, with evil intent; especially when it is clear that someone badly wants the other to ask
Another that I think very useful:
raheena: non-heart sibling, one so entirely incompatible with another that there is no hope of ever achieving any kind of understanding or anything more than a truce, and no hope of ever making such a one understand why ... does no mean enemy.  
This last gives a flavour of how I felt about my ex-husband, David. We could talk and talk and he would rarely understand what I was talking about.

So what got me started on this? I came across an article, via Ran Prieur's site, about language and how it affects thinking that is quite fascinating. It's called, 'Does Language Shape How You Think?' and it's well worth reading the whole piece. It gives a history of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and gives some very interesting examples of the weak SWH, that colour perception is influenced by words, e.g. if your do not have separate words for blue and green you will see them as essentially shades of the same colour, and in languages where objects are allocated sexes, this will subtly affect how you perceive the object. Examples are given of words allocated opposite sexes in German and Spanish. The really intriguing example is the difference in perceptions in languages who view direction as person centred (front, right, behind, left) and those that are geographic (north, east, south, west). The implications of this to the way we use our minds are huge. 

I wonder how many similar language based differences may eventually be discovered. Because our thinking is enveloped in our language I imagine it is difficult to see outside it. We all sort of assume everyone else perceives things the way we do.    

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Belated second fringe day

OK, I should have written up on the day but I didn't and now I'm trying to remember what we did. Keeping it short we went to the GRV to see Oompah Brass which was pretty fabulous and extremely loud. One, tuba, one French horn, one trombone and two trumpets (or cornets or something small and brass an loud). It was funny and the music was just amazing and I was glad we were sat at the back. The lederhosen was also jolly fine. But then from the back I couldn't see the knees. The A to Z spelled out, eventually, CDs only ten pounds. I didn't buy one guessing that my Macbook would be able to provide the same experience. I'd happily see them again though.

The next show was Axis of Awesome at the Teviot. We saw them last year on Lilian's recommendation and really liked them. This time we thought we'd give the kids a treat. Jack pointed out that this was the third music based show in two days but seemed happy enough at the end. You don't have to have any musical ability to appreciate the AofA. I sort of wonder why these Aussie musical comedy acts are so very good. Who could forget Eddie Perfect (yummy) or the Scared Weird Little Guys? We check for the SWLGs every year but they never come back. Sigh. AofA are not a replacement but splendid in their own way. Their four chord song has gone viral, as well it should. It's a fairly common idea, the hit songs are very simple and the music is interchangeable. I saw Pete Atkin do something very similar. AofA do it very well.

The final show was John Bishop with his show, Sunshine at the McEwan Hall. This was a very large venue and was sold out, unsurprisingly. Last time we saw him was last year in the Cocktail Bar at the Pleasance. It was the last Sunday, he'd just missed getting whatever the award was called last year and was just a little bit the worse for drink. Never mind, he was wonderful in that little venue and pretty damn good in this huge one. Ian and I were on the front row this time; the kids were too sensible to put themselves in such a vulnerable position but it wasn't a problem. John seems to be a very nice man, not prone to making people miserable. He asked who had seen him on TV. Everyone! Who had seen him at the Fringe before? About 20 people and our party was five of those.
Whether it translates into real life or not, John has a warm and friendly stage persona and you can't help but like him. He has suddenly become an overnight success after only six years of struggling and he deals with it with all the grace and comedy you would expect of a first rate comedian, how you would hope to behave if you suddenly met all the celebrities you had idolised over the years. He has a lovely turn of phrase and you completely buy in to his stories. We were sold the first time we saw him and he referred to a drive back from holiday where some hour in he realised his wife had been 'leaking sound' for the entire journey without it impinging on his consciousness at all. If you get the chance, go see John Bishop.