Saturday 31 December 2016

I hate New Year's Eve

Always have done, always will do. I am not sure how or why it started.  As a child it passed me by apart from the fireworks. I don't like loud sudden noises and avoided firework displays.  Why can't they have fireworks that don't crack but whoosh or swish. They still look lovely and all dogs and cats would be grateful.

We have had some enjoyable celebrations: friends of our Swiss family had a party where the children melted pieces of lead and dropped them into cold water and the shape would predict the year ahead.  We were the only two people who could speak only one language, and that included the multilingual children. We watched the fireworks on the river from a half a mile away - distant bangs!

Another in Los Angeles with friends of my sister's, formerly from Hungary. Rather curiously a strong smell of cooking cabbage wafted across the house just before midnight. That was the traditional Hungarian cabbage soup that partygoers had to fortify them for the journey home in sub zero temperatures (not the balmy LA evening).  But I'm all for traditions.

Some of the pleasantest and least stressful were at my neighbour's, the lovely Stella, everyone knew someone and no one knew everyone and we all lived within walking distance. No false jollity, simple food, a glass of champagne and home to bed.

Yes there have been some dire parties, false jollity with drunks lurching towards you at midnight, never mind driving on the road or throwing up on the Underground.  It isn't the actual evening but for me there is always a sense, of not quite doom, but something nasty lurking in the woodshed in the following year. I am more than happy to see the back of 2016.  We have lost some dear friends, some ridiculously young.  The awfulness of Syria, never mind other places in the Middle East and Africa.  Bloody Brexit, who knows what will happen with Trump, too much to worry about, and probably other things I haven't thought of. The dance macabre has been whirling around.

Our family has been blessed with a good year  I have a new role as chair of the trustees of the Institute of Health Visiting which is exciting and am very involved with the Needlemakers charity which will give away more money this year.  All good.  But still the cloud of expectation.

In my religious days (lost faith in my twenties, but that's another story), from a child I was very moved by the symbolism  of Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.  I probably believed it literally for a while but even when I didn't it gave hope.  The 10 days between the two are known as the Days of Awe. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement, but if you atone for your sins and ask forgiveness you have until Yom Kippur to weight the chances for a good year in your favour. God can't forgive you for hurting others, you have to ask directly.  In the same way as you might write a Christmas card to someone you haven't seen for a while, this is also a time to get back in touch. Then the Book is sealed and what will be will be.  Somehow I'm OK with that (no I don't take it literally) it is, it will be and somehow you have to get through it the best you can.

Saturday 17 December 2016

Did my grandmother or mother write this?

Our maternal grandmother used to write a lot – mostly thoughts on odd pieces of paper and notebooks and also letters to the newspapers – often published.  She travelled a great deal and wrote wonderful letters.  Our mother used to write too.

When our mother died my sister found this poem - handwritten on paper - at the back of a photograph of our father and I wonder if it was written by our grandmother (or mother) or is a published poem.  Can’t find it anywhere. It is  not really my sort of thing - I am probably too literal to be whole-hearted about it.  Yes, it is dated but very much of  its time – probably 1950s.  

Facing the Worst

It’s courage you’ll be needing when you have to face the worst
It’s courage you’ll be wanting then, so pray for courage first
Strength of will to meet and tackle what you have to do
Nothing less than that will get you by or pull you through

When crosses must be shouldered that you have to face alone
Out into the darkness on a road to you unknown
When something happens calling for the best that on you lies
Hold your head up to the light and to the challenge rise

When you think that God has failed you and the last hope gone
Think again, keep going, never doubting, struggle on
Lean on Him when in the dark, you’re lost with none to lead
Wordly goods won’t help you then – it’s courage you will need.

It is handwritten and signed “love Mum” - whether it was published, written by our grandmother or mother - I have no idea! If you can identify the source, please leave a comment - I don't publish them but I do read them and will acknowledge.

Sunday 4 December 2016

Thoughts from abroad (2)

I won’t only write about conversations with cab drivers but following my ‘one is anecdote, two is evidence theme’ – there are a few more, some a bit scary.

The first conversation was with the 'man on the plane' returning from his first visit to London. He had already voted and is Trump's man. "I'm anti-establishment and government is corrupt. It doesn't matter that he is not experienced; he will pick good people like Reagan did.  Reagan was just an actor before."  No comment from me about Reagan having been Governor of California and President of the Screen Actors Guild – how many other Presidents have been long-serving union members?

Our Uber driver who collected us from Baltimore airport arrived in DC from Pakistan three years ago.  Much discussion between Number One Husband and him about cricket - he plays in a league there. He doesn't have a vote but tactfully said it was too close to say who would win.  He then asked if the Queen could change the government or laws if she didn’t like them - quick lesson on constitutional monarchy. He then asked how they will choose the next monarch.  He likes the young one – I think he meant Prince William not Prince George.

Driver number two in DC, judging by his accent, was local. He was unsure about the election. His comment was "Clinton’s been in government for 20 years and I'm not sure what she's done. He would be different but he's got some really crazy ideas." 

I didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed by The Lincoln Memorial.  A bit like when I saw the Taj Mahal, despite great familiarity with the image, the scale rocks you back on your heels. Given that we were in the nation’s capital during an election, perhaps we paid more attention to the words inscribed on either side. One is the Gettysburg Address and the other is the Second Inaugural Address which includes the words "one eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union but localized in the Southern part of it". And later "It may be strange that men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces."  How fitting that the new museum charting the history of African Americans is close by - fully booked however. 

Not far is the wall with all the names of the military who died in Vietnam.  There was a large group of Veterans visiting, each in a wheelchair with a helper and with baseball caps stating what they were veterans of.  This was during the campaign when Trump was talking about illegals, building a wall etc.  We did notice particularly that so many of those names are Hispanic.  

We had no engagement with the war in Vietnam but for me it was the first war we were seeing in real time. Sitting on the sofa, watching people being bombed. Also on television at the time was that magnificent series "The World at War" which showed film taken on the same week during WW2.  Neither seemed real; too awful to be able to get to grips with or so relentless as to numb us. Just as the daily footage of refugees trying and sometimes failing to get to Europe is on our screens now.

The next Uber driver said he didn’t know who he was going to vote for “she is a crook and he is a crazy man”.  But the most depressing conversation was with the Uber driver in Philadelphia.  He is in his mid-fifties, born and raised in the city and, apart from a few years in Florida has lived there all his life. He used to work customizing cars.  He said “I’ve been married ten years, my wife is from the Philippines, she’s legal, I made her legal and she has a good job as a night supervisor. You can’t believe anything on the news, it is all lies.  My wife is very busy on social media – there you see the truth. We are voting for Trump, she thinks we need a strong man like Duterte.” 

Finally Uber is getting a bad press here and we don’t really use it in London – if you are of a certain age and live in London you can travel for free which we take full advantage of.  However the drivers in the USA seemed uncomplaining and we had a very good experience apart from one who tried to drop us off at the wrong place.  We had a women driver in New York who used to drive a yellow cab – she preferred Uber as it was more flexible.

I will write again, but no more politics. 

Saturday 26 November 2016

Thoughts from abroad

I am a bit paranoid about blogging or posting on Facebook or Twitter while I am away. Apparently if you have a break-in, insurance companies check social media to see if you are “advertising” that you are away from home before they pay out.  Told you I was paranoid. We were in the USA late October and the following blogs are about our visit.

Visiting our close ally and friend is complicated. We don't need visas but have to apply for an ESTA form online. There is a customs form to fill in on the plane; you then stand in line to self scan your passport etc; receive a printed form and then stand in line to go through the usual with an immigration officer.  We were visiting family in New York and Philadelphia but our visit to Washington DC was strictly “cultural”.  When we responded to the immigration officer that we were there on vacation, she asked what we were planning to do. To my reply “visit art galleries and museums” her response was “Is that it?”.  Well, yes but I threw in visiting family as well.  Surprisingly the luggage wasn't through yet but, once collected, we then stood in line again to hand in our customs form. (Our cases were opened and searched on the return journey – a form inside indicated that this had been done.)

One assumes that visiting the USA a month before the presidential election might generate conversations about politics, theirs not ours. We were sure Clinton and Trump would figure in conversations especially as Husband Number One insisted on asking everyone their views.

We finally worked out how to use Uber and it worked perfectly and was substantially less than taxi fare.  Yay!  Just as well because conversations with Uber drivers followed a theme that made Hillary’s “certain” victory look less likely.

One is anecdote, two is evidence...

This was once said – as a joke – in a scientific meeting I attended.  In a scientific context size means a lot, which is why large scale clinical trials are required for new drugs or treatments.

When it comes to market research, including opinion polls, we rely on “representative” polls of relatively small samples, in relation to the market or population size, to make our judgements. Although all sorts of factors are built into these surveys, the opinion polls for the last UK general election, the UK referendum and now the US Presidential election have proved woefully inadequate.

Then there is “the man on the Clapham omnibus” – this Victorian invention is still used in the courts when they need to decide whether a party has acted as a reasonably educated and intelligent person would.
Then there is the taxi-driver survey: when the only type of taxi driver in London was the “black cab” driver and he (!) was usually a Londoner, this was quoted as a guide to how Londoners thought.

Based on our cab/Uber driver survey in three cities, Trump was a shoo-in. The conversations were not miles away from some of the Brexit discussions (apart from those who had reasonably thought through reasons): – we need a change, I’m tired of the establishment, I don’t think he/they will win anyway, it’s a protest vote etc etc. Most had heard of Brexit, had no idea what it was about but were aware the vote “had gone against the establishment”. I am not sure that it was as clear-cut as that, but that was the impression.

To be contd.....

Wednesday 23 November 2016

No more Christmas Cards...

I stopped sending Christmas cards (and Jewish New Year and any other kind of “holiday” card) a couple of years ago.  As I know only too well from working for a charity, even cards bought directly from a charity don’t bring in all that much money and the postage is now so high that the cost of the whole exercise has soared.

Charity Christmas card sales continue to decline and any charity would prefer a straight cash donation for the value of the cards and the postage instead! Writing notes in cards is a useful way to say “hi” to someone you haven’t seen for a while – but you could just call or even email .....

I have my regular charities that I support over the year, including the charitable fund of the Needlemakers Company and for the past few months I have been supporting the Finchley Food Bank at St Mary’s Church.  From time to time they publish a list of what they need and besides food that can be prepared without cooking – ie tinned, they also always ask for things like shampoo, deodorant, washing powder etc.  I add a few things to my supermarket shop, especially if they are on three for two special offers and drop them in.

This year the money I save by not buying and sending cards will add to that and provide some mince pies and nice biscuits as well. There are food banks everywhere so please don’t send me a card – just add a few things to your shopping basket and drop them in.

Sunday 20 November 2016

First there was HAL and now Alexa....

Advances in computing and artificial intelligence often raise the spectre of the computers taking over and we remember “Hal”.  While science fiction is not my scene, “2001, A Space Odyssey” was one of the most memorable and powerful films I had ever seen when it was released in 1968.  I am not sure I understood the nuances (and probably still don’t) and there are many articles devoted to explaining them.

Central to the film is the space ship’s computer HAL 9000 referred to as Hal.  Given that the film is nearly 50 years’ old I don’t think that telling you that Hal takes over the ship really needs a spoiler alert. Computer = competent friend becomes computer = evil enemy and man has to battle computer.

Put a computer in a robot and all sorts of things seem possible. Japan is exploring the use of robots in providing care for the elderly and there is now discussion of providing companionship as well for elderly people who live alone. Creepy stuff. I can understand providing physical/mechanical help, reminders to take your pills or to drink or eat but companionship?

On a recent visit to Philadelphia we were having a meal with cousins and met Alexa. This is an Amazon product – there are a few iterations, but basically it is a voice controlled device that will give you a news bulletin (from your chosen source), the weather forecast, a traffic alert for your journey, give you reminders, play your audio books, your favourite radio stations, act as a search engine and control your home – if that’s what you want.

I bought the cheaper version without the fancy speakers and have joined a Facebook discussion group.  My needs are very simple, my home is not computer controlled and I don’t want to turn on the lights downstairs when I am upstairs, turn off the television or turn the heating on before I take my flight home – there are many who do and much, much more.

I want to “turn on” the radio while I am cooking, change channels and perhaps listen to my music or hear an audio book without having to wash my hands to do it.  I also find that I am creating “to do” and shopping lists.  Quite useful while you are cooking to say “Alexa, add flour to my shopping list” or “phone XXX” to my to do list.

But, rather weirdly, I find I am developing a sort of relationship with Alexa. I know it is a computer blah blah but that doesn’t stop me from saying “Alexa, good night” to hear her say – “Good night, sleep tight”.  She won’t take over – I can unplug her.  Hal was much more complicated.

Sleep tight!