Monday, January 29, 2007

Those Web People.

“Yes, I’ll have to get my Web People on to that…”
How many times have you heard that response? I am starting to lose count. Contact someone to report that there is outdated or erroneous information on his or her website, or that a link doesn’t work, and it is highly likely that you’ll get that reply – or something like it. Frequently, it goes along with complaints about dilatory webmasters who have been given the information but have not yet gotten around to making the necessary changes. (As if it took more than three minutes to change a bit of text or fix a link and re-upload the page).
I haven’t yet tackled the people who informed me yesterday that the room I wanted to book in their fancy bed & breakfast inn will cost $10 more per night than the price currently advertised on their website. When I do, I bet they will tell me the price on the website was for the 2006 season (even though it doesn’t mention a year) and their 'Web Person' hasn’t updated the site yet. (Even though the inn's season ended last October).
So where are all these dilatory webmasters and mistresses? Probably on a nice island in the Caribbean, soaking up the sun and laughing at all the poor suckers who paid them thousands to marry their bits of deathless prose with pretty pictures and clever little mouseover buttons.
A few hundred years ago, doctors and lawyers used to write everything in Latin so that everybody else had to pay them for their know-how. A clever trick, that. These days, instead of Latin we have HTML.
Under general business law, if a bricks-and-mortar store has an outdated price label on some merchandise they are obliged to sell it to you at that price. But when you buy online, it is different. The large, online retailers, most of whom use automated pricing software, usually have wording on their sites that protects them from the results of pricing errors. So when you order something online and the price turns out to be higher than advertised you have no comeback unless you can prove that the vendor did it deliberately.
Meanwhile, those lazy, lotus-eating Web People are happily swimming and snorkelling on their island and people who are good at running fancy inns but can't write HTML are having to break the news to potential customers that oops, the room you set your heart on is going to cost you $10 per night more than you thought. Sorry about that. The site needs updating, you see. I'll have to get my Web People on to it...
If I wasn’t such a kind-hearted person who likes to think the best of everyone, I might have another phrase to describe it. Bait and switch.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Gardens of the Mind
Today is a special day. There’s a day like this every year – usually some time in January – and it is a day I enjoy very much. It is the day I place my seed order for the 2007 growing season.
I have two gardens. One of them is the garden that I see when I look out of the window, or when I put my boots on and wander up the path looking for something to pick. At this time of year, it is a rather dismal scene out there. The kale plants are trying valiantly to produce new leaves faster than we can pick them, but with the days still short, the light still scarce and the cold, north wind blowing, it is a real struggle for them, and they are looking leaner and stragglier every day. Likewise the spinach, though it huddles closer together and closer to the ground than the kale, as though it is trying to keep warm. There is still quite a lot of rocket (arugula) that had not quite gotten around to bolting when the cold weather came and is still hanging in there, its leaves more peppery now than they were back in the summer.
Elsewhere, I see the bare stalks of plants long dead, some half fallen bean poles with the brown and withered remnants of stems still wound around them and the early signs of a new weed invasion. A shrivelled bean pod lies, black and mummified, in the middle of a patch of bare earth. The only colour in this garden besides green and brown and black is a bright splash of orange where a lone calendula plant is flowering, happily defiant against the frosty nights and the cold, drab days.
But the other garden – well I wish you could see it. It is a glorious, multicoloured slice of heaven, bright with flowers, rich with vegetables and fruit, neat and tidy and yet natural-looking and abundant, a veritable cornucopia of delight.
In that other garden, the roses don’t have black spot, there are virtually no weeds (except a few dendelions, which I like to put in salads) and of course there is no slug or snail within miles.This garden, unfortunately, only exists for a short time each year. And no-one else but me can see it. It comes into being on this special day in January, as I pore over the illustrations in the seed catalogues and carefully, with much thought, place my order. It lasts until about July, when reality finally sets in and I admit, once again, that reality can never match the vision.
This year, I say to myself, it will be different. This year, I will pull the weeds before they are big enough to strangle anything. This year, nothing will get out of hand. This year, all my seed will germinate, the slugs won’t destroy the bok choy, the mice won’t eat those precious and expensive (only four in a packet) cucumber seedlings, no containers or hanging baskets will dry out, the Brussells sprouts will actually have proper sprouts on them instead of miserable little things the size of peas and there will be flowers blooming absolutely everywhere. You wait. This year, I really will create that other garden. The one I dream about every January.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Washing the Flagstones

Sky and I usually divide up the housework. He does the downstairs and I do the upstairs. But he was up in London for a few days, so this week I did his half as well. Which meant that I got to wash the kitchen floor.
I've never liked using mops, so if I have to wash a floor my preference is always to go down on hands and knees and do it the old-fashioned way. I find it rather satisfying, as a matter of fact. And washing our downstairs floor is especially satisfying because it is made of flagstones -- big, old, uneven flagstones made from black slate.
I love it that we have a flagstone floor. It is almost certainly the original floor that was put there when the cottage was built, back in 1733, and I enjoy thinking about all the people who have walked to and fro across it over the last couple of centuries and all the people (probably women) who have cooked their meals in our little kitchen and washed the flagstones the same way I did today, on their hands and knees.
The other thing I like about it is that the flagstones are continuous with the ones outside on the porch. Most people's houses seem to have a very definite separation between inside and outside and ours doesn't. And I like that. In these dark, cold days of winter, when I spend a lot of time indoors, I like the feeling that the inside, with its cosy fire, and the outside where the tree branches sway in the wind and the leaves of the honeysuckle (that I keep forgetting to prune) tap against the window, are -- in one way, at least -- all of a piece.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Dust to Dust (to Compost).

I saw something really interesting in the latest issue of The Ecologist, which came this morning. Apparently some folks in Sweden are working on a new, eco-friendly way of dealing with dead bodies. It's called promession. This means cooling the body in liquid nitrogen to a point where it is so brittle that when it is vibrated it turns to dust. The water is then evaporated out of it and any metal (like mercury from fillings) removed and what is left goes into a three-feet square, biodegradable box, which can be buried in a very shallow grave where it can decompose aerobically and become part of the topsoil within 6-12 months.
Sounds like a great idea.
I read more about it on the Internet. They have been trying it out with dead pigs, and it works a treat. So very soon it will be possible to do it with humans. But I couldn't find the answer to the main question I wanted to ask. Which was: in that case, do I really need a grave at all?
Whenever we have talked about funeral options, Sky has always said "Please just chuck me on the compost heap." He thinks it is awful that human beings, unlike other creatures, deny their bodies to the topsoil.
Obviously, since most of us these days live in cities, it would not be practical for everyone simply to lie wherever they fell, and there aren't enough vultures and carrion crows for us to have 'sky funerals', so burial or burning have always been our main methods of disposal. That is recycling too, of course, but in the case of traditional burial it is a much longer-term kind, since bodies way down in the subsoil rot anaerobically and very slowly, (which can create pollution problems with groundwater) and cremation increases carbon pollution.
With this new promession technology, if all that is left of us is a box of dry powder which will decompose easily when put in the soil, would it not be possible to do exactly what Sky is asking for and either mix it in with compost or use it as mulch in an orchard or field? I think that would be even better than having a shallow grave in a woodland burial site.
A town council in the Midlands is considering adopting the new technology when it is ready, and they invite questions on their website, so I submitted mine today.
I'll let you know what they say.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Our Global Network

Over and over again I am reminded of how important the Internet has become for me. Sky and I were watching a video on the BBC News website the other day about a couple in France who were celebrating their 78th wedding anniversary. They were both 100 years old and both seemed to be in good health. They were bright-eyed and lively. I don’t know how agile the husband was, as he remained seated throughout the short clip but the wife jumped up and went into the kitchen and seemed far more agile than some 80-year-olds I have met.
That got us thinking and talking about what it might be like if and when we get to that age. And that in turn made me think about what a vitally important role the Internet playes in my life – and has done for some years now.
We live in a fairly isolated, rural area and (by choice) have very few visitors. We have various activities that take us out and about but we also spend a lot of time at home. We absolutely adore the peace and quiet of our little cottage.
Yet I always feel totally surrounded by friends and acquaintances. I talk on the e-mail with people all over the world. I join in global discussions on all manner of things. I meet new and interesting people in cyberspace every single day. Often, I have the experience of discovering someone thousands of miles away who has so many of the same ideas and feelings as me that it feels like we must have known each other in some past life or something!
It is true that globalization – e.g. the globalization of trade and of entertainment -- poses huge dangers to many of the world’s cultures. Languages and customs that used to make a group of people unique are being lost, replaced by a mass-marketing consumer culture that flattens everything out and gradually turns the rainbow colours of our human tribes to monochrome sameness. Yet there is also this other thing that is happening. Thanks to the globalization of communication, people are reaching out, finding others from faraway places whom they would otherwise never had met, interacting, interconnecting. Nobody need ever feel lonely any more.
Even as I strive to minimise, in my own life, the effects of trade globalization, such as unnecessary imports (why import apples to UK when they grow so well here?), ‘food miles’ and so on, this other kind of global connectivity is one that I heartily welcome.
When we talked about how it might be to be 100, I said that there is only one thing I fear about it. And that is the fear of losing my ability to log on.