Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Last Rose of 2012

I snapped this Rose last weekend. I think it is probably the last one of this year. Winter is coming!

It's a TV Jim, but not as we know it....

What big TVs looked like the last time I had one...

So I recently purchased a new laptop and collected it on a Friday about two weeks ago at the Tottenham Court Road branch of PC World. I originally bought the computer online and after a few calls to customer services and a long walk in the rain to several different stores, I finally managed to pick it up. After that long-winded and traumatic experience, I did not actually turn the computer on until last weekend. It has been sometime since I bought a laptop and I was very surprised as to how advanced these pieces of machinery have become.

After years of using the same laptop that has faithfully served me well, I needed to buy a new one. This is, of course, because my old computer has got so slow, that it is quicker to write in this blog with a pen and paper than type online. Some technophobes would say this would be no bad thing, but after waiting so long for a document to open, I often just give up and go make a cup of tea instead. Yep, I was ready to join the technological revolution and get some up-to-date hardware. Also, my husband wanted a new computer and his patience is even shorter than mine, so we bought the laptop TOGETHER.

This big joint financial purchase is like a precursor to having children (except with less forgoing of sleep, nappies and responsibility). I reckon that if we can buy a computer together and keep our bonsai tree alive, then we can graduate to a pet and then maybe be trusted enough to care for a mini-human. The jury is still out on our bonsai tree. I am not sure it likes us that much, as it droops a lot and sheds brown leaves all over our coffee table no matter how much I water it.

So, off we popped to our nearest computer store: PC World in Brixton. As soon as we entered the store, I felt uneasy for a number of reasons. First of all, without being rude about Brixton (I do love the area), the PC World in the area feels like one of those stores where you could buy a piece of electronics technology and then be robbed immediately after walking out the door with it in your arms. Don’t get me wrong, Brixton is no way near as dangerous as it used to be and it is a seriously funky and interesting place. It has a lot of great restaurants and a really cool cinema. But…it doesn't always feel so safe. Maybe I feel this way about the area, because, when we have come to the corner of Cold Harbour Lane outside the KFC restaurant, we have routinely been offered drugs.
‘Want some E? Some Charlie? Skunk?’ they ask my husband, as if he needs an illegal substance just to be able to cope with being seen with a woman as strangely dressed as me (bright coloured tights, long tangled mess of hair). Sometimes they use names for drugs that I have never even heard before. I’m not real up to date on my contemporary illegal drug lingo, what with me being someone who only really takes paracetamol when I have a headache and drinks the occasional rum and coke in a pub. Caffeine is my strongest drug of choice. The streets around the PC World store, however are free from obvious signs of drug dealing but are also poorly lit, so you have to carry your new and expensive purchase across an expanse of dark concrete parking lot. Basically, it is prime real estate for muggers.

Then there is the fact that half the stuff in the store is exactly the kind of items that juvenile, bored, frustrated and opportunistic youths were looting during the London riots about a year ago. I am not totally unsympathetic to the plight of these youths. Being young, unemployed and de-motivated in an expensive city like London during a recession has gotta suck. But none-the-less, when my husband walked into the store and exclaimed excitedly, ‘Oh my god! Look at the size of those televisions!’....All I could think was: People bothered to steal these things during the riots?! They risked getting criminal records for 32 inch plasma screen TVs! It is just a screen for god's sake! You could look out of the window for much less hassle and money!
I guess the TVs probably did not mean that much to the looters, it might have just been the idea of stealing something or taking an item that was a symbolic statement of affluence. A pair of designer shoes would probably have done just as well.

Of course I am not sure that PC World in Brixton was actually looted in the London riots last summer. It just has that sad atmosphere of a palace of treasures surrounded by city dwellers who can never gain entry to it's gilded doors. I honestly wondered how many of the giant TV screens the store has sold to the neighboring population. Brixton, like a lot of areas of London, is filled with many poor people, gaggles of students sharing houses, young professionals with flatmates, middle-class families and a few sort-of rich people. I wonder how many of them have giant plasma TVs? Brixton lately has become more trendy and gentrified, but that does not always translate into extra cash available for expensive electronics. Also, how many people have enough space on their walls for these home cinema screens?

What I was sure of, while standing in the store, was how much TVs have changed since I have owned one. Yes, that is right, I do not own a TV. I last owned one right after university when I was 21. Even then, my flatmates and I never paid the UK TV licence and so we couldn't watch live TV and only used the unit to watch DVDs (usually scifi movies or period drama series). When I lived with my close uni friends (Rosa, Bella and Dee - the names have been changed to protect the innocent!), we had one badly functioning TV that only played VCR videos. We only had one video tape: Lord of The Rings, The Two Towers. The TV sat in the kitchen and we used to turn the film on while cooking dinner and eating breakfast or even while having a break between writing essays on Greek mythology (we studied Classics at Uni). We must have watched the movie about a 100 times. I can practically recite all of Frodo's dialogue from my daily dose of Elvish drama. I have of course watched TV at my parents' house and I currently watch films on DVD on my ancient laptop, but never had I seen such big TVs in a store before. I have obviously fallen behind the times when it comes to technological advances in TV viewing. They even come in 3D now! I felt a bit like a Victorian looking at a series of brilliant new washing machines while still clutching my trusty washboard and old mangle.

My husband excitedly exclaimed, 'They are so big! Some of them are the size of a dining table! You could eat off this one!' He eventually grew tired of ogling them and we soon graduated to not-caring, 'Pff! What a waste of money.' He scoffed. 'You'd have more fun going to the cinema.' (which is now almost as expensive and also comes in 3D ironically)
Off we trotted to the laptop section. After getting lost in the 'Speaker' section and the 'Digital Camera' aisle and then passing the 'High Performance Laser Printer' shelf, I began to feel a little overwhelmed. There were so many gadgets all around us and only the newest and best technology on sale. I began to feel that familiar feeling that all retailers love shoppers to feel. They wait in the stores, looking out for that moment, when you experience shopper's anxiety. Basically shopper's anxiety is when you are confronted with so much materialistic choice that you feel as if you should own it all. In fact you feel obliged to own it all. You think you might be missing out if you don't own it all. We needed all this stuff in PC World. To survive in today's technologically modern world we need to have a laser printer and some HD speakers with 3D screens and surround seismologic sound that also comes with your own personal robot who bakes eggs while whistling Christmas carols and heating your bathwater (okay, so I invented that last gadget to illustrate my point). All the electronics items lining the shelves were being marketed as if they were essential items that we must have. It was extremely important that we own iPhones, earphones, speakers, a TV, iPads, Galaxy tablets, external hard drives, bluetooth headsets and something called a smartpen and gaming mouse.

Except none of the above looked like they were built to last. If I buy a toaster, I want it to last a good 10 years (I need to have my bread crispy, my friends!) or more. I don't see the point of upgrading every couple of years. I feel the same about my laptop. I don't want to constantly to be having to buy the latest technology. I want these items to be built to be used over years of time. It would save me money and definitely be more environmentally friendly. Of course, I know that computer manufacturers probably don't care about this and PC World just want my money. But I also don't like feeling that I need all these gadgets to survive modern life. Sure, I don't want to go back to the washboard and mangle (I like my washing machine) and I am not a technophobe, but there is no need for gadgets to be instigated into every area of our lives. We should be able to mix our own cake batter with a bowl and wooden spoon instead of one of those posh electric cake mixers that I see advertised in cook books all the time. Put some pumping arm-action and effort into that cake for god's sake!

I guess I am just in favour of being choosy. Some things I do the old fashioned way, others I use technology for. I wrote this blog post on paper first in a pretty little notepad while lying on a blow up mattress at my parents' flat. Technology allows me to distribute my thoughts to a wider audience. Otherwise, each and every one of you would be getting an individual blog post in a letter from me delivered by Royal Mail. So while my husband and I use our new laptop, do let me know if you'd like an old fashioned hand-written letter, I'm getting out my feather quill pen!

Oh, and since starting this post, our bonsai tree is looking a lot worse for wear and may actually have died. I guess a pet is off the cards then.....

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Dreaming of sunnier days....

The winter weather has me dreaming of my holiday in Florence four months ago....

Friday, 5 October 2012

Facebook trying to connect to us without a computer...

So the above video is an ad for Facebook. Not that Facebook needs to be advertised since most people have heard of the social networking site already. There are those people who are on Facebook and there are those who aren't. And so far I think each individual in those two camps are probably fine with their 'status' as a user or non-user.

So who is this advert for?! Shareholders? Is it trying to raise the profile of the company so more people will invest in it? Or is it trying to improve the reputation of Facebook? It is as if the above advert is saying: See! Facebook is not a website where people spy on their friends, it is not a place where your privacy is routinely violated or where minor acquaintances project their deeply private inner-most thoughts on to your news feed. Nope, Facebook is like a chair. A bridge. It brings us together. Reminds us we are not alone in the universe. 

Sorry if I sound too sarcastic or hypocritical. I like Facebook. I have a profile on Facebook. I surf Facebook several times a week. I connect with friends and family who live on the other side of the world through Facebook. I post jokes and funny messages and sometimes I even express my frustration with, say, public transport or the IT system at work. BUT...I am aware of what it is. It is not real life. Seeing my friends' profile on Facebook is no substitute for seeing them in the flesh. Or even receiving a letter from them in the post.

My Facebook feed is mostly made up of news from different arts organisations, Time Out London updates and funny photos posted by George Takei (famous as being Sulu from Star Trek and more recently as a gay rights campaigner in California). I use Facebook as a way to find out what to do in London on the weekend or to email my friends who constantly lose their phones.

So when I see a video like this, I think...well...there are so many other ways to connect. Everyone in this advert is connecting without the use of Facebook and they all seem to be having a great time doing it (except for the one crying woman standing in her kitchen!?). Why use Facebook if you do have a spare chair for a friend to sit down on? Or a bridge to climb over, or a sunset to look at, or a plane to fly in? This ad just serves to emphasise how much more exciting real life is than anything that you can find on a computer.

Now on that note, stop reading this blog! And go for a walk outside!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Rainy Days are a commin' to London Town

Today it is raining in London Town. Not heavy tropical (interesting) rain but that wonderfully British grey drizzle that this country is so famous for. When the weather is this crappy, I really only feel like bedding down for the day under the duvet with a box of jaffa cakes and a historical novel about the Tudor royal family. But since I am working for my bacon as an administrator and have battled with our huge, but ineffectual, printer at least four times this morning, lying down in a bed and gorging on chocolate is not really an option (although highly desirable). The next best thing to lying in bed is lying in a hot bath and after that, blogging (the mental equivalent of cosying up your brain into some warm and comforting thoughts).

It rains a lot in London. During Autumn at least. In fact it was raining so hard last week, one of my students asked if this was the start of the 'English monsoon season.' Since he came from Thailand (where they do have seasonal rains), this was not a wholly ridiculous question. I explained to him, that as an island, we have some pretty strange weather year round and that it is not unusual for it to rain in the middle of June. In fact, a dear friend of mine, who is planning her wedding in May next year, has to seriously consider the weather if she wants to do something outdoors even though it will be Spring and should be lovely and sunny. As a rule, you always need a backup plan if you want to plan an outdoor event in the UK. Weddings need tents, picnics get moved indoors, festivals are enjoyed in a sea of mud and marathons are completed in the wind and rain. All year round!

This of course brings me to the fact that in England, the weather is the default subject of conversation. Whenever you feel the need to make small talk in the UK to break an awkward silence (as you have probably guessed, most silences for me are awkward), then bringing up the subject of the weather is excellent idea. 'Rainy day we're having eh?' 'My, it is muggy and humid today!' 'Och aye, looks like a storm is a commin'!' All great starters for a chat with someone who you don't know that well, or someone you actually don't like, but are thrown into spending time with. 

Funnily enough, I have had the best 'weather-chats' in various different lifts and elevators. I have an odd habit of speaking to strangers in lifts. There is something about spending time in a confined normally solitary space that makes me need to blurt out the most ridiculous things. Once you ask the individual in question which floor they want to go to, and then press the relevant floor button, I feel that this little exchange is the introduction to a mini conversation that should be continued. I once commented on the weather in the elevator of a bookshop I used to work in.
'Which floor would you like?' I asked 
'Number 2 please.' A middle-aged man replied stepping into the lift.
'Ah. Number 2.' I press the button and wait nervously as the lift jerks to life and moves slowly upwards. I twitch. Then I say, 'Awful weather we are having.'
'Yes, indeed.' He replies amiably
'I bet if we did not have the Thames Barrier, the river would flood' (what did I say that for!) 'Half of London would be underwater...with all this rain I mean...in fact this bookshop would be submerged....the books would be floating about...what a waste of reading material eh?!'
The man nods in a freaked-out sort of way and quickly exits the lift at level 2.

This habit has led to me meeting quite a few people in lifts. Recently I made friends with a member of faculty in the lift at work. He actually thought I was a PhD student, which pleased me no end. I must look clever! I thought with glee. I once got asked out on a date in an elevator. The guy invited me for dinner. But since he was the local homeless alcoholic on Charring Cross Road who used to frequent the bookstore I worked in, it was not that promising an offer. I declined as gently as I could. 'I'm not allowed to date,' I told him. 'My father forbids it.'
'Bastard!' he replied. I nodded sympathetically and directed him towards his favourite bookshop section: The car manuals.

I did also have one man in a lift offer to paint my portrait for me. He was a graphic artist. 'You would make a perfect Elf or Air Sprite.' he said handing me a card with raunchy sketches of dwarves and fairies on it. I again politely declined, explaining that my imaginary boyfriend would probably not like it. 

I also once calmed down a claustrophobic student in a lift that got stuck in the lift shaft at a student halls of residence. We waited for the engineer to rescue us by discussing which meal served in the halls canteen we hated most. She really thought the porridge and powdered eggs were bad, my worst dish was the deep fried blue cheese tortellini.

But aside from spending time in a lift during bad weather, one of the things I love to do best when it rains is go to a museum. London is filled with some of the world's best museums! And I strongly urge everyone to go visit them before the Conservatives win the next general election and cut the funding for the arts even more and start charging us all for entrance fees. My favourite museum suggestions this week are:

  • The Science Museum, specifically...the Cockroach Tour of the Science Museum! I am actually not massively fond of cockroaches (although really, who does like them?). But who would pass up the chance to dress up as one and walk around a museum?! Sounds fun eh! More details can be found: here (the video can be viewed above)
  • The Museum of London! This is the place to expertly explore London as a city with a gallery devoted to the Georgian pleasure gardens, re-created Victorian cobbled streets, prehistoric London artefacts and remnants from the Roman town of 'Londinium.' Held in the ugly and yet uber retro 60s building complex, The Barbican, the museum has a great shop and a nice cafe that serves great soup in the winter. Actually there is the burnt ruins of the city walls of Londinium in the parking garage of the Barbican - burnt and scorched by a siege of the city during Boudica's attack (she was Queen of the British tribe Iceni who rebelled against the Romans who were being quite unreasonable at the time). Best of all the Museum of London is free! (except for a few special exhibitions) http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/
  • The Welcome Collection! The Welcome Collection is a museum with a difference. It advertises itself as 'a free destination for the incurably curious' and certainly houses a whole host of strange objects and scientific curiosities. This month a new exhibition has opened at the Institute called 'Superhuman,' all about the commonplace human enhancements that we take for granted. The exhibition takes a broad and playful look at our obsession with being the best we can be. Items on display range from an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe to a packet of Viagra, alongside contributions from artists and scientists, ethicists and commentators. http://www.wellcomecollection.org/
  • And for luck....The National Portrait Gallery! A great art gallery filled with fantastic portraits of pretty much every famous monarch, statesman, actor, journalist, writer, artist, scientist and musician that has lived in Britain in the last four centuries. A perfect game to play on a rainy afternoon is to go to the gallery and guess who the portrait is without looking at the label. 'Is it Prince Charles?' 'Nope it is Iggy Pop!' 'I think it is Charles Dickens!' 'Nope it is Gladstone.' I am actually better at this game than this of course, as I know what all the above four people look like! http://www.npg.org.uk
So there you are! Lots of little treasure troves of interest for a rainy day in ol' London Town!