A tentative blog to test the temperature.
Ten years ago I was writing several blogs on various subjects - F1 motor racing, Music, Classic Cars, Great Romances and, most crushingly, a personal journal that included my thoughts on America, memories of England and Africa, opinion, humour, writing and anything else that occurred. It all became too much (I was attempting to update the journal every day) and I collapsed, exhausted and thoroughly disillusioned in the end.|
So this blog is indeed a Toe in the Water, a place to document my thoughts in and on WdC but with a determination not to get sucked into the blog whirlpool ever again. Here's hoping.
Yesterday, a conversation with Adherennium - Unwrapped brought to mind the following little tale that I wrote a while back. It occurred to me that I could get a free blog post out of it, so here it is.
“You need to get your ducks in a row.”
So said my boss as he turned away in dismissal. I left his office, wondering whether I would ever gain his approval. These humiliating visits to “the carpet” happened all too frequently and it seemed that, however I improved, the man was never satisfied.
And now I had a problem with ducks, according to him. Maybe this was the secret I had been missing all along. It was ridiculous but his statement was quite clear: I needed to line my ducks up in a row.
This was not going to be easy. For a start, I had no ducks. To get ducks in a row, you had to have some ducks. One duck would not suffice, obviously, and two seemed dubious. You could draw any line you wanted between two ducks - an arc, a squiggle, anything. It had to be three at least to make the row undeniable.
All I needed now was a few ducks. I visited a duck farm to find out prices and, very quickly, it became clear that I could not afford three full grown ducks. It would have to be day-old ducklings.
The farmer explained that day-olds were sold in batches of one hundred. He was very reluctant to sell me fewer than that but we haggled for a while and, eventually, I became the satisfied owner of six fluffy and noisy little ducklings. The farmer presented them in what looked like a pizza box with holes in it. I headed for home.
In those days I was still living with my parents and, after some discussion, it was agreed that I could keep the ducks in their basement. I bought a heat lamp to keep them warm, a bale of hay for the floor and some duck food from the pet shop. In what I figured was good practice for lining things up, I fenced off an area of the basement with a wall of boxes and junk. A cake tin filled with water and my duck nursery was complete.
My childhood reading of Konrad Lorenz now proved useful. According to the wise Konrad, the ducklings would become “imprinted’ with me as their mother and this proved to be true. They would follow me everywhere in a long line - as long as I kept moving. When I stopped, the group would descend into chaos, with each duckling wandering off on a mission of its own.
No matter what I did, I could not stop this annoying tendency towards anarchy. The ducks were growing, too, and it wasn’t long before I had the inconvenience of a line of waddling birds tailing me wherever I went. My mother began to complain about the mess deposited behind me as I moved about the house.
It had dawned on me as well that the idea of taking the ducks to work was not a good one. Visions of my ducks milling around me as I stood on the boss’ carpet yet again made that a no brainer.
The ducks were returned to the farmer and I had another think.
It was on a visit to my grandmother that revelation came to me. Her apartment was typical of a matriarch’s of the era, overdecorated and cluttered but padded and comfortable in its furnishings. As I flopped down into an overstuffed armchair in the living room, epiphany struck. On the wall facing me there flew, in a perfect straight line and decreasing in size from front to rear, three china ducks.
I remembered noticing the same arrangement of china ducks in every household of my grandmother’s generation. This, surely, was the object of my boss’ instruction to me: get your ducks in a row just as my grandmother has done.
In the excitement of my new understanding, I became quite persuasive and the old lady agreed to lend me the ducks - as long as I returned them undamaged. We found a small cardboard box and filled it with the ducks and some old newspaper. Once more, I headed for home.
The next day, the ducks accompanied me into the workplace, together with a hammer and some nails. Arriving early, I was able to hammer the nails into a wall of my office without being interrupted. A few moments more and the ducks were flying in an impeccable line behind my desk. I stood and admired them for a while, then took my seat and awaited the inevitable reactions of approval that must follow.
Things did not work out quite like that.
After my secretary came in and seemed to be stifling a giggle fit, a stream of visitors dropped in on me. Their reactions varied from smiles and shaking heads to open guffaws. I realised that I had miscalculated somehow. Before I could take down the ducks, however, the boss arrived and stood staring at them. I shrunk down in my chair at the coming storm.
When it came, it was not quite what I expected.
A wry smile spread across the boss’ face. “I see you’ve taken our little chat to heart,” he said. “You have a sense of humour after all, it seems. I had almost given up hope of you getting the point but the ducks have saved you. Well done, my boy, well done.”
It was the turning point in my career. At last I was able to relax and be myself. Everyone took my literalism for humour and I became known as the office wit. I have a lot to thank ducks for.
Word Count: 931
|American Idols (3)
Numero Tres: Microsoft Windows
Much of my time in America has been spent just as it was in England: in front of a computer. It was only twenty-five years ago that I began my education into computers and that I was successful in this was entirely due to the invention of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) and the mouse. I had glanced at computers prior to this and always been horrified at the strange code it was necessary to learn before one could even start. The discovery that I could now access the wonders of computing through a visual representation and a pointer was a revelation to me. I was hooked immediately and was soon spending all my time investigating the new world that had opened before me.
Now, I know that it was Xerox that invented the GUI, but they did nothing with it. I know, too, that Apple stole the idea and made it usable. But it was Microsoft that stole it yet again, made it usable and then sold the idea to the public. And that is what counted in the end. No matter how many versions he had to go through before he got it right, our friend Bill managed to persuade all of us to use his system. Apple have only their greed and poor organisation to blame for not dominating the market as Microsoft does.
This domination of Windows in the computing world affects the way we foreigners see America. Films and television have shown us what the USA looks like and how Americans speak. Now Windows teaches us about how they spell. No longer do we think in terms of programmes and dialogues, prioritise and harbour; nowadays we are getting used to programs and dialogs, we prioritize and find a safe harbor.
Windows is also the umm "window" to the internet for the vast majority of us. We see this ever-growing worldwide databank and debate forum through an interface designed by Americans. The language that dominates it is called English but is really American, and it's America that shapes the destiny and direction of the net (no bad thing - imagine if it were North Korea leading the way); and all by courtesy of this thing we call Windows. Love it or hate it, the fact remains - it's Windows that brings the net to the masses and vice versa.
I can see the Mac-users and Linux geeks standing and yelling at the back. To the Mac-users I have only this to say: you had your chance and blew it - get over it. And as for the Linux dudes, I can only suggest that they stop proliferating pretty GUIs to compete with Windows and look at the way Microsoft does things. Design a file system that makes sense to the layman, stop using meaningless filenames, copy the way Windows instals programs, stop imagining that networking is the driving force behind everyday computing and you might stand a chance, a very faint chance, of beating Windows in the end. In fact, if you do that I'll swap to Linux tomorrow. But until you geeks get your heads out of the sand and look at the way ordinary people use computers, you will never see Linux dominate as Windows does.
I am no great fan of Windows and the way it tries to think for us. But I do appreciate that without it computing would still be the preserve of the programmers and professionals. And I think we should honour it for what it is - America's way to bring computing to the world. We've cursed it and kicked it and bad-mouthed it for years - but let's face it: where would we be without it?
Like it or not, Microsoft Windows is an American Icon.
Word count: 623
|Enjoying the Now
I really ought to cut down on my YouTube wandering. Far too often I find myself wasting time by learning all about things I don’t need to know. Just yesterday I ended up listening to some British guy criticising Twinkies.
The gist of his argument was that he felt they tasted artificial. “They taste like plastic,” he maintained. While I can’t argue with these statements, I disagree with their premise. For a start, I see nowhere that contains the injunction that artificial tastes must be abhorred. In fact, it is quite possible for an artificial taste to be exotic, intense and attractive.
I can think of several instances of foods that have obviously chemical-induced tastes that render the thing irresistible. Britain itself has an outstanding example in something they call “mock cream.” This is used to fill all sorts of cakes and doughnuts as a substitute for cream. It is much sweeter than cream and, thanks to its name, quite open about its artificial nature. And it is much, much tastier than the real cream.
Also in Britain, there is the instance of “prawn cocktail flavoured chips.” I have tasted both these and the actual prawn cocktail and can say, without fear of contradiction, that the chips are greatly to be preferred. Not that I don’t like prawn cocktail - I love it. But the plain fact is that those chemicals added to the relevant chips are so tasty that prawn cocktail is my favourite chip flavour. It is my great sorrow that the flavour is unavailable over here in the States.
And then there is the matter of ProNutro. This was a breakfast cereal originally invented as food to feed Africa. Allegedly, it contains all that we require to live a healthy life. To support its philanthropic intentions, it was released to the public as a breakfast cereal and, since the sixties, it has been ever present on southern African tables. So well did it do that they decided to bring out flavoured variants.
First of these alternatives was chocolate. It was well received and the makers followed up by introducing banana flavour, This was the killer blow for me. My first taste produced the immediate response that the cereal attained new heights in the matter of artificial tastes. I could not help but express my delight by saying, “It tastes exactly like plastic!”
And here we have come full circle in our refutation of the aforementioned gentleman’s critique of the Twinkie. His criticism is entirely personal and dependent upon the mistaken belief that everyone must feel as he does. Far from it - I understand that taste must always be taken as a matter for the individual. The very fact that banana ProNutro is still marketed in Africa must indicate that enough people like it and therefore keep its sales figures high.
I am not alone. Artificial flavours give us a link to the technological progress that we are fortunate enough to enjoy. Through them we can feel just how in touch with the great machine of civilisation we are. If it tastes like plastic, you should at least feel honoured that you know what plastic tastes like.
One of these days I’ll show you how to like instant coffee.
Word count: 541
|Writing in Limbo
Not that I want to show off or anything, but you may have noticed that this blog has been nominated for a Quill for 2022. Noting the slowdown in production during 2023, I have just come up with an excuse. It’s all to do with that nomination. Not that I want people to stop nominating my stuff, but thoughts about it may be interfering with my continuing to update the blog.
The nomination covers 2022, as already stated. So, the way I see it, anything I add in 2023 should not be taken into account in any consideration of the blog for last year. But am I correct in this assumption? It makes some sense that items that require continual updating should not fall foul of the requirement that nominated items deal only with the relevant year. But, just because that seems reasonable to me, it doesn’t follow that everyone will see it the same way. It’s possible that I disqualify myself every time I add another post to the blog.
Don’t get me wrong - this isn’t a serious concern. However blogs are treated is a matter of little concern to me and I continue to update regardless. That’s what a blog has ro do, after all. Yet I did say “little concern,” meaning that there is a niggle at the back of my mind that interrupts any thoughts of updating the thing. And this tends to limit and mislead my thinking into areas that prevent new ideas.
So that’s my excuse. Today at least.
Word count: 255
|American Idols (2)
Numero Duo: Doppler Radar
In England we have weather forecasts (I debated for a while which word to use here - guesses, approximations, wagers, divinations? But in the end, as you can see, I decided to use the most polite term) on TV, just as they do in the states. Thanks to Sky (satellite) TV, we have weather guys who are just as enthusiastic and animated as any in America, as well as our more standard British variant, the stolid, sure and (apparently) dependable types.
Our weather charts, however, are poor affairs; basic, undetailed maps of our islands, planted with the occasional strange symbol of golf-balls falling from a cloud, happily-glowing yellow faces or overfed arrows invading from all directions. In the early days, some of these symbols would lose their grip on the map and fall, thereby adding to the general confusion. There is nothing more amusing than the discomfiture of a weather guy trying gamely to persuade a reluctant cloud to stay in place, whilst maintaining an unconcerned and authoritative patter.
Of course, things have moved on since then. We now have animated symbols that march around the map. On rare occasions, on some channels, there might even be a satellite photograph. But Doppler radar is, apparently, too complicated for the poor British public to understand - it is kept from us.
The British have a long-standing reputation for talking incessantly about the weather. For many years I held to this general belief but I have now discovered that we are mere amateurs at the game. When it comes to discussing weather, The Americans have us licked hands down. They can talk for hours on the subject, swapping details of temperature, rainfall figures, wind velocities and depths of snow. They never tire of the game and are quite ready to go through everything again if someone new comes along and wants to participate. These guys are professionals, believe me.
And so it should be. In Britain the weather is a deciding factor on what to wear for the day - in America the weather can often be a matter of life and death.
But I have drifted from my main intent; to sing the praises of Doppler radar. Here is something that only the Americans can appreciate - the ability to see the weather as it happens. The radar weather map shows exactly what the clouds are doing and we can follow the trend of their movement and see whether they are likely to affect us or not. There is no requirement that we trust the confident assertions of the weather guy; we can see with our own eyes what is happening. What a marvelous invention this Doppler radar is!
My first American Idol Award went to the fire hydrant - for reasons that only foreigners can understand fully, I'm sure. This time I thought it only fair that the Award should go to something the Americans know and love but that remains an unknown mystery to the rest of the world. Let's have a big hand, therefore, for the winner this time. Here it is folks, the Doppler Radar Weather Map!
Word count: 515
Numero Uno: The Fire Hydrant
The first time I saw an American fire hydrant I knew immediately that I had come across something that is more American than apple pie (after all, we have apple pie in England too). That first one stood in all its glory, slightly disappointing in that it was painted blue and yellow instead of the expected red, but undeniable in its bold stance, its funny little conical cap and its stumpy arms stretched out as if testing for spots of rain.
I insisted on taking photographs of my new discovery and my American friends laughed and thought me weird. But think about it. If you go to a different country you want to bring back something to prove that you've been there, some immediately identifiable symbol that everyone will recognize. It even helps you to believe that you have really been there and done that. And, in this little fellow, the fire hydrant, there is wrapped up all that is symbolic of America. If I were to show my photographs to anyone, anywhere, they would know, without speaking, that I had been to the states.
The rest of the world is saturated with things American. Coca-cola, McDonalds and the stars and stripes are everywhere. But my hero, the fire hydrant, stands solidly in his place and proclaims, through film, cartoon and documentary, "THIS is America." Nowhere else in the world is it possible to see this unassuming little character but he is instantly recognizable from Tahiti to Timbuctoo. He has a minor part in every movie about America, he makes appearances in every cartoon, every magazine. He is truly, beyond question, without doubt, an American icon.
Take a bow, little feller (if your stiff little back will allow it). I give you, folks, the American Fire Hydrant!
Word count: 302
|Question of the Day Again
Interesting question on QOTD today - how do you rate yourself as a good listener? I was reading through the answers when I began to notice something. The answers quickly became predictable, with almost 100% accuracy. To check on this, I did a little counting and this is what I found.
There were 14 answers when I began my investigation. Of these, six were male and the rest (8) were female. My impression had been that the answers were governed entirely by gender and this proved generally true. Of those who answered that yes, they considered themselves good listeners, five were female. Three females were ready to listen with a few provisos.
The six males were less consistent. Three of them gave flippant answers, apparently admitting to poor listening skills, and only three claimed to be good listeners, one with reservations on BS. The temptation to make a joke rather than answer the question seriously showed that three males (myself included) preferred being considered funny, rather than admitting to anything as personal as listening skills. Kudos to the guys who owned up to being listeners.
It’s a tiny sample statistically speaking, but I think we can glean from it that males and females are different. This should not be news to us as writers, although I’m sure we all have differing answers as to why this is so. Somehow I find that very comforting.
Word count: 233
Today, through Question of the Day, Lilli ☕️🧿 Busy w/Quills asked about smelling the flowers, both literally and figuratively. The first was easily dealt with as I had in fact smelled some flowers quite recently. It wasn’t my fault that they turned out to be plastic.
When it came to figuratively, however, I found that I had too many instances to mention. I realised that my days are full of stopping to smell the roses, whether they be the pattern of light created by a sunbeam through the branches of the tree outside the window to the floor of the corridor, the differing creatures to be found in abstract patterning of bathroom tiles, a cool breeze on my skin as I pass a partially open door to the outside, or a hundred other sudden glimpses of the infinite in the least and most humble moments of life.
The very admonition to “stop and smell the roses” is intended to awaken us to these moments in the general hurly burly of modern existence, to tell us that there’s still time during our busy days to enjoy moments of insight and pleasure such as these. And yet it seems to me that I’ve spent my life enjoying such moments. Indeed, it may be that I have spent more time in enjoying the world than in pursuing the adult pastimes of having a career and “getting ahead.” I am forever the child caught dreaming on the view outside the schoolroom’s windows.
When I wrote my answer to QOTD this morning, I thought everyone was like me, that I was merely expressing the experience of us all when I gave those few examples of distraction in the tiny dramas of life. Thinking about it afterwards, however, I realise that there must be many who are not seduced by the cascade of beautiful moments that constitute life. There would be no need of that wise saying about flowers were we all in the habit of smelling them anyway.
No, it seems that many of us don’t have time for such diversions. These would be those who become rich or are too invested in the rat race or, by ill luck, forced to spend all their days in arduous labour merely to survive. Good advice to those able to listen, we might think, and yet is it not a choice that we all make, to remain as a child in our perception of such simple yet beautiful things, or to knuckle down to the hard business of making a living? Easy enough for the rich man to answer with his ability to buy as many roses as he might wish, so who is the winner now?
I suppose it all depends on which race we decide to enter.
Word count: 460
I watched an episode today of The Cleaner (British TV comedy about a crime scene cleaner but not important to this post). It centered on the differences between life in the 1980s and the present, which reminded me of an old theory of mine.
Everyone knows that scientific progress is accelerating all the time so that there is more change in our lives than ever before. There was a time in my life when computers were near-mythical constructions that took up whole rooms in office blocks and phones were anything but mobile and were limited to phone calls only. I was alive when the first practical television services came into being.
My parents saw the movies get voices and their parents had the first experiences of moving picture shows. And before that, the generations saw little change apart from gas lighting becoming electrical and the invention of planes and the car. A couple of generations previous saw steam power begin the process of change.
Other than that, there was very little that changed for hundreds of years. The industrial revolution started an accelerating pace of invention and change that transformed our lives in ways that our ancestors could not even dream of. And this continued until we became accustomed to change and the demands to adapt that it forced on us.
Until the computer, that is. The computer was the last invention that seriously altered the way we live. We fool ourselves into thinking that things are still developing because we improve and tinker with the great inventions of the past, imagining that things like the internet, social media, driverless cars, GPS and robots on Mars are new inventions. But they’re not. They are merely refinements of ideas that were born over fifty years ago. The internet was not possible until the computer had been invented, mankind walked on the moon in the sixties.
To develop a thing is not the same as having the initial idea. To continue the pace of development, we would need to have a very important and culture-changing invention very soon. And I don’t see that happening. To me, it seems that we’re entering a period of decreasing change, of refining what we have and coming to terms with the changes that previous inventions have made.
So my theory is that it’s over. This grand advance into the future that we call progress is grinding to a halt as we run out of the fuel that is imagination. Not only do we find it impossible to think of some new breakthrough that will change civilisation beyond recognition, I see little evidence of a desire to venture beyond our present limits.
Which may be a good thing. It is certainly time for a rest, a chance to sit back and ponder just how much of the change we have wrought is really needed. We cannot uninvent anything, of course, but it might be advisable to consider some of the changes we have made that were not beneficial to any of us.
Not that it concerns me greatly these days. With a bit of luck, I’ll be long gone by the time progress turns out to be a monster that is out of control.
Word count: 536