Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Talking to Machines

 Currently reading:  7 Days by Deon Meyer.  Murder mystery set in South Africa.  I am a big fan of Meyer.
Must read:  The Internet is not the Answer by Andrew Keen

I've just come back from the shops.  Only two cashiers were on duty and the remaining check-outs were self-service.  A supermarket employee approached me:  "come with me", she said.  I knew this trick having fallen for it once already.  'No thanks,' I said, 'I only deal with cashiers.'  She muttered something about "only trying to be helpful" and went away no doubt setting me down as a difficult behind-the-times customer.
Well, I'm not, as it happens.  I use technology where I consider it useful to me.   It's just that I am sick of companies taking our money and making us do all the work while their shareholders pocket the profits.

It started with the banks.  They take our money and then treat us like it's their property and we are only allowed to do things their way.  Yes, I do bank online.  My bank moved away two years ago so I hardly ever go there for anything as the shops will let me use my debit card to take out up to €100 in cash.  Yes, it is convenient except when I need advice or there's a problem about something.  Then I have to call the service number and cope with the robotic voice telling me what numbers to press.  If I had a choice, I would only use a bank which provides its customers with a personal service.  One that stayed open late at least once a week to accommodate the work force.
The idea of flitting through the supermarket and then checking everything out yourself apparently appeals to many people.  It fits in with the "no human contact" lifestyle we are slowly adopting.  When I'm out walking I see so many people with their earphones plugged in as they walk/jog along the seafront.  The thunder of the surf onto the beach, the calls of the birds and even the people they encounter are all lost on them.  They live in their own little world. 
Humans are gregarious by nature.  We need other people.  My problem is that you can go through the whole day and not speak to a living soul.  You can get your cash out of the wall, do your shopping and pay at the self-service check-out and go home again without exchanging a single word with another human being. Is this what we want?

I read a review of Andrew Keen's book The Internet is not the Answer in The Sunday Times and it is on my "must read" list.  His theory is that millions of jobs will be lost in the progress of automation and I am inclined to agree with him.  Of course you will still have the technicians and software developers but even they will dwindle in number as they are replaced by robots.  Even if only half his predictions come through, it's a scary thought.  Who knows, in the not too distant future even my blog will be written by a robot who thinks it knows what I want to say or my readers want to hear.


Saturday, 31 January 2015

Shrinking Toilet Paper and other Stories


Outside the sun is shining but there is an icy Northerly gale-force wind.  I am trying to psych myself up to go for a walk on the beach.  In the meantime though I have been popping in and out of websites to see how the world is doing away from the headlines.
I am indebted to BBC's magazine website bbc.com and to MessyNessChic link here for some out of the way stuff.

First of all there was the article on shrinking toilet paper.  Have you noticed that a roll doesn't go as far as it used?  Apparently quite a few people have and they have been writing to various newspapers/websites about it.  For a full report on this see link below.  It will set your mind at rest - someone in your household is not doing something strange with toilet tissue after all.

Washington Post article on shrinking toilet paper

How many times does your baby smile?  Seem like a good enough subject for a study to be done on it?
Eurekalert website writes that a new study examining temperamental differences between U.S. and Dutch babies found infants born in the Netherlands are more likely to be happy and easier to soothe in the latter half of their first year. U.S. infants, on the other hand, were typically more active and vocal, said study co-author Maria Gartstein, a Washington State University associate professor of psychology.
I have to ask:  why compare Dutch babies with American ones?  What's the connection and why not a study of babies from all countries?   Why is it important?  Are we going to have a baby smile competition at some point in the future and what happens if baby has colic/is teething on that day, how on earth are we going to get him/her to smile on the crucial day?  As if parents don't have enough worries trying to keep up with the - er?? - Jones' ?? Netherlands????
You can read all about it here Link

Thought I'd end on a nice note.  If you're a cat lover you're going to go awwwww when you see these photos of a cat bistrot in Rome called Romeow.  Go on, indulge....
Cool cats in Rome

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Tennis Twirling and other Thoughts

I love reading the BBC's magazine on its website, especially I like the feature "Ten Things we didn't know last week".  I came across this gem - some old and hopefully obsolete laws in the USA.  Here's the link and it's well worth reading: Slater's look at obsolete US laws
My favourite has to be in Ohio it's "illegal to disrobe in front of a man's portrait."  I seem to remember that somewhere there's a law against hanging out men and women's underwear together on the line. 

We've come a long way since then.  We are now in the age of women having the same rights as men and no one turns a hair or raises a quizzical eyebrow.  Or have I got that wrong?
Yes, folks, we have Twirlgate - Eugenie Bouchard wore a stunning tennis outfit recently at the Australian  Open in Melbourne and was surprised when a reporter asked her to "twirl" to show it off.  She duly obliged amid a huge cheer from the crowd.  She said she didn't mind being asked but would prefer if people concentrated on her tennis.  Twirlgate upset a lot of feminists.  I must admit that I wasn't impressed either.  If you're on the red carpet for a movie award then fair enough but if you have put in all the training and hard work required to win a high level tennis match, then I think the focus should be on how you played and not on your outfit.

So how far have we come, exactly?  Has anyone asked Nadal or Federer to show off their tennis shorts or shoes or just give us a blast of those muscular legs?  Certainly the female tennis players are an attractive bunch as indeed are the males.  Should it make a difference, how you look?  Do you have to be super-sexy to get to the top of the corporation? I wouldn't like to take any bets on it.

But are women partly to blame?  In the UK there was a kerfuffle recently because one of the tabloids decided not to publish its Page 3 topless model pics.  Apparently a lot of male readers felt cheated.  And there was me, thinking people bought newspapers for the news they contain and not for a pin-up photo of a bare-breasted young woman lol.  A commentator on a French news channel said that "here in France you can see topless women on TV any time of the day and no one thinks anything of it."  One model said it was "just a job" and didn't know what the fuss was about.  Confusing, isn't it? 

Should we rely on our brains and professionalism instead of on our feminine abilities to wow the male sex?  Perhaps we're looking at this all wrong and we should be proud of flaunting our boobs and other attributes in order to get what we want.  Of course it's kind of hard for those of us who don't have much to flaunt.  And then there's that saying about the way to a man's heart being through his stomach.   Someone somewhere said if women thought this they were aiming too high.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Leaving home - what's the one thing you'd take with you?

Currently reading:   The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop and enjoying it.

Happy New Year everyone!

The New Year started off favourably for me.  I received my Irish driving licence a few days ago and was absolutely delighted.  The photo even looks like me!  I didn't expect to get it so fast but everyone in Germany was most helpful and all went without a hitch.  I think I may take off for a few days exploring this summer and hire a car now that I've got an up-to-date permit.  Connemara in the west of Ireland would be an idea.  Mountains and valleys stretching away in the distance and not much traffic except for the sheep placidly grazing the slopes.  Lovely!  But first there is my trip to Berlin in April with two friends.  I have seen Berlin when it was divided, have stood at Checkpoint Charlie and looked over the wall.  At that time the other side looked like a foreign country.  I've been back since then for the briefest of visits.This time will be different as I am acting as guide (of sorts).  Should be fun.

 This trip reminds me how important it is to have something to look forward to.  I've given up making Resolutions, yes I need to get rid of those pounds I put on over Christmas with all those mince pies and cake and yes, I will get rid of them but at my own pace and not under any pressure to do so within a given period of time.

I read an interesting article on the BBC's website today about people who had to leave home in a hurry and what they decided to take with them.  Most of them had little time to decide.  Their stories are poignant - here's the link:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-30655404 - and although they reminded me of my own choices when I had to pack up to move here, I realise just how lucky I am. Even so, I had to agonise over what could be transported and what I would have to leave behind.  I guess we all do that especially when we leave home as young adults.  Trouble is, over the years most of us accumulate a pile of stuff that holds a lot of memories.  I packed the paperback editions of my favourite novels but had to leave lots of hardbacks behind including The Oxford Dictionary or Quotations which I love dipping into at odd moments (yes, I've got a paperback version now) and loads of kitchen stuff which I sadly miss!  To me it's a revelation what you actually need and what you think you can't do without.  Anyway, I manage very well on my reduced household, if I'm honest.  I'm not at all sure what one item I would take with me if I now had to flee.  It most likely wouldn't be my books.  But what?  More than likely a blanket, I think. That would be practical, I could curl up in it at night, it would keep me warm if necessary or act as a sunshade.  

What would you take with you if you had to leave home for good in a hurry? I'd be interested to hear any comments.



Thursday, 18 December 2014

Happy Christmas to all readers of this blog

I am gearing up for Christmas. My trip to Germany and tour of the Christmas market have got me into the excitement of it all.  I love everything about Christmas starting with the first Sunday of Advent when the first candle is lit on the Advent wreath.  In Germany everyone has a festively decorated plate with oranges, nuts, apples and homemade (or shop bought in my case) cookies which they put out on the coffee table so that you can pick at all the delicious bits and pieces all afternoon.  The smell of woodland from the wreath combined with the aroma of gingerbread, cinnamon, cloves, honey and mulled wine really goes to my head!  Outside it is growing dark and it is so comforting to be in the warmth looking out at the houses with their Christmas lights.
Last evening I went to a church carol service.  It was all so peaceful and pleasant to be singing the old familiar carols and a few I didn't know. The church is really old and looks like something out of a nostalgic Christmas card. I walked the few blocks home afterwards feeling at peace with the world. 

When I was a child we got a lot of Christmas cards and I loved looking at the various pictures:  snow covered streets, old churches with the warm yellow light of candles showing at the windows, horses and carriages and ladies dress in long skirts.  I really wanted my Christmas to be like that but mostly we didn't even get frost let alone snow and we walked to Midnight Mass.  I do recall one frosty starry night which held a special magic because I could imagine the shepherds guarding their flocks on such a night.
  
I can think of no better quote for this time of year than from Charles Dickens:  'I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.'
Happy Christmas to everyone wherever you are.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Fly-away

I am currently reading:  Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson and enjoying it very much. 

Last week I was in Germany to visit my daughter and grandchildren.  It always fascinates me that a two-hour flight means a total change of culture.  The things which bother everyone at home are not even mentioned.  Jane Austen remarks on this in her novel Persuasion when her heroine goes to visit her sister in a nearby village and is amazed at the difference in interests and concerns.

Something else had changed, too.  For my return flight I went to Terminal One at Frankfurt airport as I was flying Lufthansa.  Everything is now being automated at this terminal and I must say I didn't like it.  You now get your boarding card from a machine - well I don't have a problem with that - but then you weigh in your luggage yourself including affixing the baggage tag to it.  Security is followed by automatic passport control where your passport is scanned, you walk into a small space and wait for the green light which opens the door to let you through.  I felt like I was in a cow pen. Surely part of flying was that nice smiling ground hostess who took your suitcase, called your attention to your departure gate and wished you a good journey?  Having to do it all myself made me think I had been co-opted onto the staff and there was a chance I'd be asked to do some tasks before take-off - maybe steer the plane down the runway or something of that nature.

I guess I'm old-fashioned but I don't approve of a world where so much money is saved on staff and you are expected to do everything yourself as if the privilege of using the company just can't be compensated by paying for your purchases.  And it gets rid of jobs big time.  But the companies still expect people to have money to spend on their services.  This has never made sense to me.

Enough of my ranting for today.  On the brighter side, I may have my Irish driving licence next week.  I now have all the papers for it so the application should go smoothly.  It means a trip to the city so I can combine it with some (more) Christmas shopping.  Lovely thought.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A Driven Woman

I decided recently to get my German driving licence exchanged for an Irish one. Now that we in the EU are all one big happy family it should be easy peasy, I thought.  I checked out what I'd need in the way of documentation on the online website and made my appointment.  So far so splendid.  The lady on the other side of the desk looked through my stuff and picked up my tatty, dog-eared German licence.
'I've never seen one of these,' she said and up she got and walked away with it to confer with her colleagues.  I would have thought that in these days of data share the information should only have been a mouse click away.

Now, admittedly the licence is 30 years old and I never had it upgraded to one of those smart cheque-card-like jobs.  And I do look a bit older these days - yeah, OK, I look like the mother of that lady in the photo.  But it is me, I swear.  I remember exactly the day I got it.

It was Ash Wednesday and city traffic was light.  I didn't make too many mistakes following my first disastrous test a few weeks before on which I shall be discreetly silent. The driving inspector looked deeply into my eyes and said - wait for it - 'shouldn't you be wearing glasses?'   I hastened to assure him that I was wearing contact lenses and he really had no option other than to believe me.  He then signed the licence and handed it over to me, shaking hands with me as well.  It had all been prepared in advance and only needed his signature to make it legal.  I was so relieved I could have kissed him, well maybe not but I felt as if I'd been given a gold medal at the Olympics. I'd finally done it.  And thus I embarked on a fraught relationship with my driving and the realities of traffic and road signs, kamikaze pedestrians and your-driving-sucks-other drivers.

So how could this lady say she didn't accept this piece of paper which is proof positive that anyone can drive if I can?  That's what she did, though.  She advised me to contact the German driving licence people and get confirmation that they did issue me with this document 30 years ago.  So I went home, wrote a humble email to the people in Flensburg and now await their reply.  Maybe they'll be sympathetic, maybe they'll laugh their heads off, maybe they'll ignore me.  My driving future rests in their hands.  If they don't cooperate I won't get issued with an Irish licence.  I could of course sit my driving test here but I doubt if I'd pass it.

So will I be a driving woman or a driven woman?  I'm not taking any bets either way.