Bored On The Fourth Of July?

Beach

Image by Terri Cnudde from Pixabay

Not really. I actually wrote this a few summers ago while I was on holiday and pretty much disconnected from the internet, something that many people can’t deal with anymore, as evidenced by people I see leaving shops or the Royal Mail parcel collection point and immediately reaching for their smartphones.

Instead I was using an energy efficient, wireless information transmission media to give me something to do when not watching ships go by, fishermen fishing or birds swooping around – reading books and magazines. It was great, relaxing, not feeling that I should be doing anything else. I did even less in the afternoon after arriving – simply sitting in the sun watching the occasional boat go by and listening to the waves and birds. Me and my folks had walked into the nearby town, eaten fish and chips by the sea and done some shopping.

I wasn’t completely electronics-free, I had access to a digital TV to watch Antiques Roadtrip and thousands of songs stored on my phone to listen to but mostly I was only doing these things later in the evening, after Cider-O’Clock, when the sun was setting and, to paraphrase the cricket, bad light stops reading. If I’d relied on internet streaming services I’d have no music or TV.

If I stood in the right place I could get a faint 4G signal and my phone beeped a few urgent notifications at me but I didn’t feel the need to leap on them like my life depended on them, like they were some kind of life-sustaining manna from the cloud. For many today though the lack of connection would be unbearable – no way to know what everyone else is doing, no way of telling anyone what they’re doing – OMG people will think I’ve disappeared, or that I’m upset with them, I’ll lose their interest, or worst of all, I’ll fall off their news feeds, arghh. Some people would even worry that they’d miss something important from their work, that they should be available, just in case.

People who spend too much time online call this a digital detox but for me it wasn’t too different from being at home really, though it was refreshing to be away from the lure of Ebay – bargain hunter that I am it’s easy to just sit looking for stuff I don’t really need or in the end never actually buy. As it was the holiday was timed perfectly as at home I was still sorting out and reducing unnecessary stuff following my house move so if I’d been at home I’d have spent every spare moment digitising paperwork to then recycle.

So as the Americans celebrated their independence day (no comment) I celebrated my independence from their digital monoliths with a cider by the sea and sunset.

Bunker Mentality

“…they shall beat their swords into plowshares” Isaiah 2:3-4

During the Cold War many nations dug holes into their lands, even tunnelling into mountains like frightened moles, to find safe places for their generals and governments to hide if the worst happened, the buttons were pushed and the general populations were unceremoniously fried. Who they thought they would have left to govern is anybody’s guess.

These “secret” bunkers are dotted around the country, often disguised – like the famous one, now open to the public, at Kelvedon Hatch which I thought was an appropriate name for the local village, which had as its entrance not a hatch but what was supposed to look like a farmhouse but most resembled… a standard MOD gatehouse. They have for the most part been abandoned now and sold off to any member of the public or bond villain in need of a secret lair.

Many have been turned into museums to educate future generations about the fear and madness we lived through, others have become homes, movie or game sets or glorified adventure playgrounds for grown-ups to play real-life versions of their video games.

Others have a new use that they seem pretty much designed for. Originally they were built to withstand both an explosive detonation, hence they’re physically strong; they were intended to support living humans so had electrical cabling, air conditioning and filtration and other utilities such as water supplies; then they had to withstand a by-product of a nuclear blast which is an electromagnetic pulse or EMP which tends to disagree with electrical equipment, especially computers. This was done by incorporating a metal cage into the outer structure, a Faraday Cage, which channels electrical energy around what’s inside it, like a car struck by lightning, protecting the occupants.

Theorists of future warfare have predicted that the best way to destabilise or even paralyse a country in the future would be to detonate a nuclear weapon above their enemy and simply wipe out their means of planning and communication – the computers and internet, basically. But it’s not just humans who can generate such destructive events, so can nature.

The sun ejects massive amounts of charged particles into space and we orbit through this flow, the solar wind, and it interacts with our planet, the particles are redirected around us and to the poles, causing aurorae in polar regions. These beautiful displays are also a hint of the destruction that can be caused when the Sun throws a tantrum, or perhaps burps more violently in our direction. A coronal mass ejection aimed at us throws an even larger amount of energetic particles at us and that can also affect electrical equipment – it knocks out satellites, overloads power grids and so on.

With all this in mind the organisations who operate the banks of server computers that store all our online data and channel it around the world have started reusing many of these old bunkers to house their equipment and they’re perfect for the job. Mostly underground, kept cool, shielded from electromagnetic interference and even secure from intruders. The internet itself grew from a military project, and now even much of The Cloud’s physical home will do too.

The Psycho Path Test

…or how to restrain yourself after being nearly barged into the path of a speeding van.

Street

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

There are “Rages” for everything these days so I feel justified in adding another here – Pavement Rage. It’s not new but I’ll elaborate anyway. Some months ago I suffered yet another example of pedestrian selfishness. There is a road in the town centre which has pavements either side of a single traffic lane, the pavements used to be about one person wide but have been widened to accommodate two people side-by-side, which is fine until you get a couple walking along and you’re walking towards them and when you meet neither of them wants to move either in front of or behind their partner and you end up getting forced to step into the road, hopefully avoiding any traffic. You can’t even stand still as you’ll just get barged aside without so much as an excuse me. I don’t mind if the people are unable to step aside easily, such as the elderly or disabled but for two able-bodied people to refuse to give way to another person is just ignorant and it makes you want to scream sometimes. Hence the pavement rage.

Some other choice examples…

I was walking along a wide pavement when a family group was walking towards me, not one of them moved aside and I ended up stood in a flower bed as they sauntered past. Then a chap in Lycra leaving a shop gets on his bike on the pavement, starts pedalling and swerves right across in front of me, nearly knocking me over – without even the slightest acknowledgement or apology, he hadn’t looked before setting off so was probably oblivious to my presence anyway. Another evening while walking home in the dark I saw a light on the path ahead of me, hovering silently, moving rhythmically side to side, was it an alien presence? No, it was a woman on a bike, I stepped into a driveway to let her go past, nearly twisting my ankle and falling over in the process, and she rode past without so much as a “thank you”.

On a Saturday morning, walking along a wide pavement carrying two heavy bags of shopping I was approaching a woman with a pushchair and two kids, one on either side of her, taking up the whole width of the path, seeing that she had no intention of getting either of her kids to move out of the way I considerately stepped off the pavement and stood in front of a parked car – she then strode past again without so much as a thank you; because obviously she was entitled to take up the whole path and I was obliged to move out of her way so therefore she had no need to be grateful, how selfish I am.

The worst was when I was walking along the same narrow road mentioned above, eating a bag of chips and a couple were approaching from the other direction, they looked well-off from the way they were dressed and as they reached me the man, who was on my side of the pavement, nearest the buildings, had no intention of moving out of the way, having that typical modern arrogance and sense of expectation that other people should get out of his way, because he’s important. To avoid losing my dinner I had to swerve closer to the building and nearly fell against the window of a pancake shop. I immediately turned and shouted after them “well don’t mind me” but they ignored me, the look on the face of the woman who was sat just inside the same window told me she couldn’t believe the other man’s behaviour either.

These are all examples of how much of our society has become so self-obsessed, so arrogant and aggressive, that people have the expectation that other people should stop for them, or stand aside for them, that they’re sense of self-importance is so strong that they feel that they can just do whatever they want to and sod anyone else. Has it really become wrong to be considerate and polite?  I hope not.

[The title was of course inspired by that of Jon Ronson’s excellent and fascinating book, The Psychopath Test]

The Cycle Path Test

 

Cycle Path

Image by Pam Patterson from Pixabay

Near where I live runs a path along the former trackbed of the closed railway line from Newark to Nottingham. There are many old lines like this across the country – I’ve also walked on the path at Threlkeld in the Lake District and part of the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire. They are wonderful places to visit to experience the outdoors – mostly surfaced, level and easy to walk on for everyone, many like ours here are designated cycle paths as part of the Sustrans network that since the seventies has made at least something good from the Beeching annihilation of the railway network of the sixties.

I am quite happy to use cycle paths whether they’re in the countryside or in the town, though it seems many people don’t seem to agree with cyclists using them. I have seen on so many occasions cars parked on cycle lanes and on the railway path I encounter people walking dogs or otherwise exercising who rather than returning my friendly “morning” and smile just scowl at me, I know what they’re thinking – I’m one of these annoying cyclists who rides on their footpath and integral dog toilet.

Even the ones who don’t think the place belongs solely to them seem oblivious to the fact that there might just be the odd bike rider around at some point.

One day I saw a man who had walked down one of the entrance ramps to the path, he hesitated at the edge of the path with his back to me and then just as I reached where he was he took two steps to his right, without looking behind him, straight into my way – I swerved round him while shouting “whoa”… and only narrowly missed ending up amongst the nettles.

Last Sunday I approached a group of four women taking up the whole width of the path, I rang my bell a number of times until one of them looked round and said “oh, sorry we didn’t see you there” or hear me, presumably. Then, as I passed between them she said “you’ll have to negotiate them now” – the ‘them’ in question being six big dogs, running free on the path ahead, without leads and quite a way away. As they tend to do the women called their respective pets’ names and I then suddenly had a group of dogs running in my direction and one heading straight for me, I had to stop completely, expecting it to actually collide with me. “You’d never think this was a CYCLE PATH” I muttered, audibly, as I set off again.

Ruined my Strava time on that segment too.

Further along at regular intervals were a number of small tied-up blue bags left on either side of the path, no doubt waiting for the dog-mess fairy to pick up later, as someone else will always clear things up won’t they… But that’s a whole other blog post right there.

[I’m all for recycling, hence the title’s unmistakable similarity to today’s other, related, post]

 

Of Stars & Smartphones

Stars

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have been interested in Astronomy and space in general for a long time, I remember the first Space Shuttle launch, watching Space 1999 and Blake’s 7, and Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night. I have only briefly owned a basic telescope but still like looking at the stars, especially now as where I live, on the edge of the countryside, has the advantage of darker skies at night away from streetlights. I find it very relaxing.

Recently I found that a moving light in the sky was the International Space Station – I felt I should have waved – and just the other night I looked out of the front window and saw the moon accompanied by two “stars” which turned out to be Jupiter and Saturn – the thought that these two bright points of light in the sky were two massive planets millions of miles away is still awe inspiring to me.

How do you find out what these points of light are though?

I still own two plastic discs which would be called old tech now called Planispheres which consist of a movable oval shaped window over a map of all the stars visible in the night sky from my latitude, you rotate the window round to match the date and time and it shows what stars can be seen then and where they are in the sky. Useful and non-dependant on batteries, it was still supplemented with technology.

In the nineties I received, attached to a computer magazine, a small program called Skyglobe. It was a pre-Windows program running in MS-DOS and gave a full, interactive view of the night sky on the computer, it could update in real time, showed the planets and the moon, the shapes of the constellations and you could even speed up time to see how the stars changed in the sky over the course of the year, all thanks to the wholly predictable nature of the motion of the Earth against the stars and planets. It was a fantastic piece of software, it had an elegant, uncluttered user interface that could be almost entirely hidden to just show the stars, operated via the keyboard, and it fitted on a single floppy disk. I still have a copy today that can be made to work, once you convince Windows to run it.

Even Skyglobe though has been superseded. On my tablet I now have a program (sorry, app) called Stellarium that looks fundamentally the same except that it has fancier graphics with a landscape rather than just a horizon line. This app can update in real time too, but to change the direction you’re viewing you can, of course, swipe and drag the image around rather than using arrow keys, it’s also just a little bit more portable than a PC with a CRT screen was before. One major change though is its ability to use the tablet (or phone’s) sensors to detect where you’re pointing it and show the same region of sky on the screen so you don’t even need to know which way’s north anymore.

Combined with telescopes that have been able to know where they are and point to any star you choose since the early 2000s amateur astronomy has embraced the digital – the old technology of mirrors and glass guided by new technology of GPS, smartphones and tablets and all driven by our fascination with knowing what’s out there.

This Is A Blog Post… With A Twist

Gourmet Burger

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Some things are fine as they are yet people think that they’ve got to be reinvented, altered, made edgier, to be trendy, to appeal to the “modern consumer” who wants new experiences, blah, blah, blah. So we end up with food with unusual ingredients – Salted Caramel, Salted Chocolate, Chilli Chocolate – when I was growing up that would be the description of a Choc Ice. If there’s a left-field ingredient and especially if there’s a high-end price tag then it’ll be popular, just as if you call a coffee with milk an “Americano” or a “Flat White” then those people who consider themselves cooler than everyone else will flock to have their branded wax cups with their names scrawled on the side visible for all to witness. I’m avoiding the word “hipster” here but, they know who they are.

I particularly dislike the phrase “with a twist“. I enjoy Fish and Chips, I like them with Mushy Peas (not a pea crush, or puree), or curry sauce (not a spicy jus, thankyou), what I really don’t want is a twist, as in “Fish and Chips with a twist” or a “Bakewell Tart with a twist” – which will again indicate some odd ingredient has been used, like chocolate in a Spaghetti Bolognese. Conversely though the same phrase has now become so fashionable amongst the media that even just having different normal flavours are described as being “a twist” such as the Lemon Bakewell, which isn’t really a Bakewell but I like them anyway – this shows that some variations can work, as long as they’re in harmony with the original, a pickled onion Bakewell would be diabolical.

The “re-imagined classics” though are made all the worse when you see the portion sizes – a tiny piece of battered cod sat on top of a log-cabin shaped pile of ten chips, chunky of course, with a small ramekin of pea puree and whatever makes the twist, a tiny piece of “Beef in Artisan Ale Gravy Pie” floating on a smear of mashed potato, or a handful of chips sprinkled with chunky sea salt in a miniature galvanised bucket with fake newspaper round the edge, to look “authentic“.

Some of the best food is simple, tasty and satisfyingly filling. There’s no “twist” that can make a tray of chips, smothered in curry sauce with a battered sausage perched precariously on the top after an evening of beverages at the local pub any better than it is.

And the twist is… no twist. Not even a slice of lemon.

A Pork Pie, Out of Place

Pies on a wall

Pies on a Wall image by Andy Vickers

I was once walking in the countryside of Yorkshire and saw two unaccompanied (presumably meat) pies on a dry stone wall, there was nobody within sight who could have left them there. What a waste of a good pie. A few years later and more locally…

I looked in the discounted items fridge in the supermarket, saw a twin-pack of pork pies and put them in my basket. Only much later at home when I thought that I’d need to eat them as they’d be near their “use-by” date did I look at them and realise they hadn’t been reduced at all, I looked at my receipt and I’d paid full price for them. Someone had apparently seen some cheaper ones in the fridge and instead of returning the ones they’d put in their basket to where they were on the proper shelf they’d just stuffed them on the discount shelf, for someone else to put back presumably, as it’s their job to repatriate such items, of course. I check for the yellow “oops” stickers religiously now, especially if something seems too good to be, er, reduced.

I wrote the above a while ago, but strangely I’ve been seeing this much more since the covid-19 lockdown period began, all I can think of for this is that people appear to follow the rule of not putting things back on the shelf once you’ve touched them but instead wait until they’re on an aisle where no-one can see them and then they dump the unwanted pack of chocolate deserts amongst the bread.

Unless it’s a secret tactic by the supermarkets to tempt you into buying things you might not have noticed. Hmm, maybe not.  Strange days indeed.

Stand There, Wave This

Cyclists

Image by stokpic from Pixabay

It’s probably not a new idea but I’ve only really noticed in the last few years because I’ve been watching the cricket and the Tour of Britain when it caused massive disruption, sorry, “brought valuable income”, to my home town. The idea in question is handing out flags and banners for spectators to wave during events where, unlike football, the spectators are unlikely to be wearing sponsor branded clothing.

Perhaps you’d expect people watching the Tour of Britain to be waving Union Flags as the cyclists sped past but no, they were enthusiastically waving little green flags in the faces of the lycra-clad pedellers. It soon became obvious that these flags carried the logo of the event sponsor. How does waving a piece of green sponsored plastic show your support to the event? Even national celebrations aren’t immune; I saw a clip of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations and there were people waving Union Flags, nothing unusual apart from the middle of the flag was covered with the “OK Magazine” logo.

At the cricket fans wave boards with “4” on it when a player hits a boundary, again for no apparent reason – everyone actually paying attention would be aware of the fact that he’d hit a boundary – but just as prominent as the “4” of course is the series sponsor’s name which I will not repeat here as the only advertising on this blog pays for the hosting so I don’t have to. This has also spread to snooker now as at the 2019 World Championship crowd members were holding sponsored banners with “Ton Up” on it to wave when a player scores a century break, accompanied by, when I saw a bit of it, John Virgo hysterically screaming “ton ups, ton ups”… For no apparent reason.

These are examples of how people desperate to be part of what they’re watching, the selfie generation who have to show they were there, to prove it by being in the photo, are tricked into advertising for the sponsors in the hope that they might be seen on tv because they’re waving their bit of printed plastic while also feeling that they’re more involved, as people don’t seem to be satisfied with being passive spectators any more.

(The writing of this blog post was supported by Yorkshire Tea and a Kit Kat, by the way.)

Takeaway, The Sci-Fi Way

Chips

Image by Ande_Hazel from Pixabay

Ok, so we haven’t quite got to being able to ask a hole in a wall for a cup of Earl Grey, Hot, yet, but it feels kind of like we’re getting there.

There have been fast food apps for a while now of course but it’s only recently I’ve tried online ordering and it’s a revelation.  My local Chinese takeaway uses a web-based menu platform widely used by such businesses, independent of the big-name apps and it’s so easy to just select what you want, click “order” and wait for delivery, the system having already saved the credit card details in your account.  Too easy, perhaps.

It’s part of a bigger trend in shopping overall, an efficient way of buying from places that don’t require you to browse shelves, like our Argos catalogue stores in the UK or extra items from Supermarkets that they don’t stock in store.  In fact the term for this has become such a part of everyday parlance during the lockdown, as the only way some stores could operate, it’s now even used by people buying over the phone from us despite us not having an online ordering facility: “can I click and collect?”  Apparently you can even click and collect a car.

Back to the food though, it appears that now you can ask your smart speaker or whatever device you talk to to get you a takeaway, from a participating restaurant, and it will.  Of course there is the risk that using this technology for deliveries too much could lead to a sedentary lifestyle but for the occasional treat it’s great.

So the internet brings another past image of future convenience to life, along with my sweet and sour pork.

Reminiscing Isn’t What It Used To Be

Box of Memories

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

It’s easy to start reminiscing about the past, particularly when you see the world as it is and you know it used to be better.  The summers longer and always sunny, the TV was better and so on.

Back in the day [here we go again] you’d half-remember something, whether it was the name of an actor who used to be on such-and-such a show or you wonder whether a chocolate bar you used to like might still be available, somewhere, and then spend hours trying to remember the details, the names, the design, until eventually you started to think you’d imagined the whole thing.

I found the other day that again our connection to the world’s knowledge is there to help.  I have looked for a few of these things recently, for the life of me I can’t remember what most of them were but one was an exact quote from Linda Smith and another was a particular chocolate bar I liked in the eighties.  To find the quote I searched using a search term that included as much of what I could remember of the quote and the fact that it was from Linda Smith, Google instantly provided me with dozens of pages quoting the exact, er, quote.  It wasn’t that old a quotation but with my memory it felt like it.

The chocolate bar was less successful, in a way.  I could remember the name but no matter how I worded it there was no sign of it, as a side effect though the Google image search did bring up many memories of other long-lost chocolate products, often from newspaper articles entitled “21 Chocolate Bars You Wish They’d Bring Back”.  Half and hour lost looking at photos of old chocolate wrappers.  I have done the same after looking for a history of a building I used to live opposite and finding a whole archive of historic photos of the town in general – just one of the internet’s many rabbit holes to fall down.

It does seem that as time goes forwards, as people upload pictures of old packaging, digitise books, photos and even old Argos catalogues the internet’s repository of knowledge is stretching further back in time.  So today reminiscing isn’t just enjoyable it can be more accurate than ever.