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Even Skyglobe though has been superseded.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.

Slow News Days

Press

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

I haven’t got much to say today so I’ll quickly mention newspapers that seem to be similarly afflicted.

Linda Smith once said on a B-series episode of QI “My favourite ever headline was “Worksop Man Dies Of Natural Causes.”

The internet era equivalent of the Worksop man are the people from across the country who have done some DIY on a budget. The Google News feed on my phone provides me with, at least once a week, a story from a local newspaper site wherein someone has given their kitchen, bathroom or garden a spruce up for less than it should surely cost by doing something novel and amazing – buying things from a cheaper shop. Gasp.

They’re generally along these lines: “Savvy shopper Tracy transformed her home using items from [insert bargain store name here]“, and the article tells us “she got a new look kitchen for just £200.” Sometimes you’ll “never believe how she did it.”

Why is this news? Why is it unbelievable? Why haven’t I got an article written about me? Just last night I had fish, chips and mushy peas for less than the chip shop cost by buying items from Asda and B&M Bargains. Chips shop quality mushy peas too. And I’ve given my living room a makeover using stuff from B&M and Ebay no less.

When there’s a two-hundred foot UFO hovering over the town hall, that’ll be news.

[Glances out the window, just in case.]

Paper Versus Pixels

Notebook

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

It has often been noted that ideas bubble up in the mind at inconvenient times: in the shower, on the toilet, when you’re just dropping off to sleep – it’s usually when your brain has few distractions, but it’s also when you’re often nowhere near anything electronic to make a note of them. I use Evernote to organise ideas and drafts for this blog and as I’m too stingy to pay the monthly subscription I can only use it on my desktop and laptop PCs, at home. Therefore when I think of something for a post I have to write it on a post-it note and I then end up with a small but colourful collage of three-inch squares of paper stuck to the desk.

The same is true of to-do lists and things to remember and shopping lists.

Before smartphones existed I had a Windows Mobile equipped PDA (Personal Digital Assistant, or Personal Organiser) which still failed to organise my life, through no fault of it’s own. More recently I’ve tried again, using apps on the phone and tablet but find that I tend to forget that I’ve put it on there whereas a piece of paper sits there, waiting to be dealt with, visibly. I have found the reminders useful though. I am tired of the clutter however so I’m going back to what I used to do before trying to go digital and using a single notebook that I can keep open on the desk to jot anything down on whether the computer is on or not and if I do use a random piece of paper – if I’m not at home when inspiration hits me round the chops for example – I can transfer it to the book when I get home and bin the scrap instead.

For some reason I’ve also found that if I have a list of titles, or brief ideas, for posts in a notebook I can flick through them and gain inspiration better than doing the same in Evernote.

I’ve had A4 and A5 spiral bound books before but now I’ve treat myself to a nice A5 six-ring binder as when I’ve typed up the notes I can remove the pages and bin them. I know I could do that with a spiral book but as I’ve said before I appreciate nice stationery and the posh binder looks neater on the desk, or on the tv unit in the living room.

I know that today I could even simply say “Hey Google add milk to shopping list” or “take a note…” so there’s not even any typing involved but somehow I just prefer actually writing the thought down, and anyway the virtual stenographer in a box would simply file the note away where I would forget about it again. Similarly, when it comes to reminders being able to just ask Google to set one up is handy. As for shopping lists I tend to use a basket and hold the list with the same hand as the handles so using my phone would be more of a problem anyway. When, one day you can make the Google assistant keep asking you, as you’re doing shopping “have you got the milk?” “Yes Google.” “What about the pasta sauce…” then it might be useful, or maybe not.

Beyond my inability to remember that Google Keep, or Microsoft Todo exist the paper notebook has the same advantages as a paper novel – it needs no batteries, it doesn’t have to boot up or sync with a server and as such it’s instantly accessible, as long as you’ve also got a working pen handy. Maybe this is why thirty-odd years since they became the yuppies’ trendy accessory-du-jour the Filofax is still with us.

A Tale of Two Ciders

Cider

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

It’s a Friday night in summer, half-past-eight and I’m listening to Jazz, watching the sunset and drinking a glass of Cider. It is one of my great pleasures.

Cider used to be simple, it was an alcoholic drink made from Apples, but as with so many things now it has to have more variety to appeal to wider markets so now there are Raspberry Cider, Strawberry Cider and so on. They’re not Cider. In a shop once the man stood near me said into his phone “They’ve got a Pear Cider kit mush, just wondered if you want one,” “it’s not Cider, it’s Perry” I muttered under my breath. There used to be Sweet Cider and Dry Cider, and the likes of Scrumpy, but you still got progressively pissed, or merry at least, just at a different rate. And it all tasted of Apple.  Apparently even in France Cider has to be made entirely of Apples.

Our American friends have muddied the scrumpy even more with Apple Cider and Hard Cider – the first being pure Apple Juice (it isn’t Cider, yet) and the latter is, let me think, CIDER.

As a result of the different flavours my favourite brand of English Cider now has Apple Cider on the label, though it might surprise any Americans who were expecting a soft drink.

To take this to its ultimate conclusion will the famous novel featuring the drink in the title, in future, be renamed “Hard Cider with Rosie”?

But Cyclists Don’t Pay Road Tax…

Bicycle

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I enjoy driving yet I am currently on bike number five but car number four, I did, however start on bikes when I was at school – a Raleigh Striker, then an orange Grifter, then an Emmelle Alpine in white and green which I had with me until I moved to the centre of Newark, left it chained up outside and some nice person decided they’d prefer to relieve me of it and sell it for scrap for a few quid, after all why would I miss it, it’ll be insured, I could replace it, etc, the usual thieves excuses. I was gutted, angry. I replaced it for practical reasons with a folding mountain bike that I had to carry up three flights of stairs to store outside my apartment. When I moved again to where I had a nice secondary section of garden where my dad built me a bike shed to store it securely I took the opportunity for a change, to replace the folder which was too small and caused my back problems just from riding it with a suitable replacement for the Alpine.

I now have a really nice mountain bike having traded in my old one and being the right size is a pleasure to ride, I recently even realised that my new Orange bike is perhaps a subconscious homage to my earlier bike.  I’ve recaptured the enjoyment of cycling I had years ago.

Mostly.

Here are a couple of myths some people seem to believe: Cyclists don’t pay road tax, and cyclists are obliged to stop and get out of the way of cars when the car is on the cyclist’s side of the road because the car always has right of way.

I pay road tax on the car I can’t use during the week even if I wanted to because the fuel isn’t cheap and there’s nowhere to park at work, mainly because of people parking in the work car park who shouldn’t be there but assume that because it’s next to their houses without off-street parking they’re entitled to use it.

The other myth is something I encounter every day – on a street where along one side is residents’ parking that leaves the rest as a two-way single carriageway road. According to the highway code I have right of way when I’m passing the line of parked cars, especially when I’m on the correct side of the road for my direction of travel yet whenever a car comes the other way on what would be the wrong side of the road from their perspective they just come barrelling towards me and expect me to get out of the way, one idiot in a BMW was actually grinning and drove deliberately at me.

Which brings me to the other point – people seemingly finding it amusing to drive too close to cyclists and cutting us up at junctions – this happened where a car passed me and immediately swerved at speed across in front of me into a junction on my left I was approaching, just as I was thinking that was close the Transit van which was following the car did the same, I had to brake sharply, thanking Halfords that the bike had great disc brakes, I’d only had the bike four days. The thing is that it seems fashionable to hate cyclists and this fashion has become like a game to some drivers, like it’s expected to do your part in driving cyclists off the road by intimidation. As I mentioned earlier such drivers find it funny and so many drivers just seem to think that cyclists don’t belong on roads, hence the Road Tax reference.

I admit that many cyclists annoy me, the weekend tour-de-Nottinghamshire peleton wannabes riding in a three or four-wide pack on high-speed roads rather than single-file as instructed in the Highway Code for example, or the lads I saw once who ignored any traffic signals and shot across a busy four-way junction in front of two lanes of moving traffic, almost causing a pile-up. Then there are the ones who, perhaps on principle, won’t use cycle lanes where provided.

As a car driver and cyclist I see both sides and try to be considerate in both situations, for example while taking my government sanctioned daily coronavirus lockdown exercise I was aware of firstly a lorry behind me on a narrow road in the town and another time a car behind me on a country road. Both times I quickly found a safe place to pull off the road briefly and let them go past and both drivers waved thank you too.

There are some cyclists who ride stupidly, there are some motorbikers who do the same, there are some drivers who drive stupidly too. It’s not fair to tar everyone with the same brush.