Sunday, January 29, 2017

You can never go home (there) again

I've been reading The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson.   He travelled around Britain, originally planning to travel from Bognor Regis and north to Cape Wrath but taking a lot of detours.   I'm halfway through the book now and one overall impression is his disappointment with how the former charming English sites and villages have changed and not for the better.   The memorable front gardens of English country homes have been paved and instead of flowers and shrubs are populated by wheelie garbage cans.   Pubs have disappeared, charming hotels are shut down and shopkeepers are ornery.   In some ways the author reflects what can happen to older/retired people who can develop the firm belief that things were better in the old days.  There's also something of the 'you can't go home anymore' about the journey that can be a lesson to us all.

I visited   Czechoslovakia  in 1996 three years after it split into two countries:   Slovakia and the Czech Republic.    One of the things I recall is that Hillary Clinton was there at the same time, by coincidence, and was visiting Prague Castle at the same time I was there with one of my daughters.   She was First Lady at that time and on a tour of Eastern and Central Europe with the goal of promoting emerging democracies of the former Soviet bloc., including also Estonia, Slovakia, Hungary and Finland.   There was little security other than a closed wrought iron gate as she emerged from a limousine, but this was well before 9/11.

There were few North American tourists in the Czech Republic and Slovakia at this time although we discovered that Western Europeans used to make brief trips to visit the cheaper dentists or obtain less expensive eyeglasses.    I had a phrase book which was of some use but I'm embarrassed now to admit that we never did figure out how to pay for the streetcars and buses so we didn't.   You entered near the back and I never saw a conductor or other money collector.   Maybe I should have tried harder; it wasn't my intention to deprive the state of any money.   I believe the fares were about five cents.  Generally, everything was cheap; I recall paying the equivalent of twenty-five cents as one museum entrance.

We were pick-pocketed on the Metro in Prague.   It was all very slick; the doors started closing suddenly and we were pressed from behind.   Since I wore a money belt, I lost nothing except a lipstick.  I won't forget the hateful expression in the eyes of the female perpetrator who had stepped off the train and onto the platform at the next station and kicked my rolling lipstick under the tracks, beyond retrieval.  My daughter's wallet was taken but she only had $10 in it and her newly acquired Driver's License.   Neither of us lost our Passports, almost the most valuable document when travelling.  A month after our return home, the Canadian embassy in Prague mailed the wallet to us.   It seems pickpockets dump the wallets, minus cash, in a mailbox and from there the post office forwards them to the applicable Embassy.

Another fascinating event occurred when we were heading home from an evening classical concert, waiting in the underground Metro for the train.   All was quiet;  there were only a few people seated on the benches.   All of a sudden a platoon of police in full riot gear marched in formation down the outside steps to a distance not far from where we sat.   They wore black leather hip length boots, full helmets and nightsticks/batons.    They  ended up in formation, about ten facing one way and ten the other, back to back, facing silently forward, shields up and nightsticks at the ready.   Perhaps I should have been frightened but it seemed a little unbelievable and none of them looked in our direction.

Within five minutes a train pulled up, packed with attendees from a Sex Pistols rock concert. I suppose the riot police were there in case they were needed or maybe just as a sobering influence.  They never changed their stance; it wasn't necessary and  the crowd dispersed quietly. 

There was another experience that week because, silly me, I had not purchased travel insurance, still somehow at that age when you assume you are indestructible.   I contracted conjunctivitis and my daughter bronchitis and how we solved that problem is another story.

Prague is a beautiful city but I suspect it has changed.   I'm reluctant to go back and end up complaining about how different things used to be.   It also doesn't seem likely that my adventures would be repeated, whether that's a good thing or not, I'm not sure.   

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Implanted devices


In A New Premise I explored a cashless society and the ramifications.  Here's the blurb:

In the near future a crisis erupts when terrorists change their target from buildings and people to the world money supply. They discover a way to duplicate all paper currency as well as credit and debit cards in a way that renders detection impossible. The markets are flooded with phoney products and chaos ensues. A new government emerges in the U.S. with tight control of economic markets, prices and wages. It introduce a new financial system using an implanted microchip. But is the 'grain', as the microchip is called, merely an implanted debit card or are there more sinister and hidden functions?
A New Premise follows five different people coping in a dysfunctional new world that seems to only work for the few elite.

It appears others are thinking along the same lines.   There's a type of tattoo that can tell you, for example, if you've had too much to drink.  It may be possible soon to share a remote control kiss by means of a special pad attached to your smartphone.

Implanted medical devices, like pacemakers, have been around for quite a while but nowadays Implanted devices can be connected to the internet to monitor and adjust pain relief for chronic sufferers.    It has been postulated that the smartphone of the future will be implanted in your head.   2023 is predicted as the year of commercial availability.

Do we scoff at these predictions?   Probably not.   Technological change has been so rapid and so all-encompassing that we are prepared to believe anything is possible.   

Is it desirable?   Will it be mis-used for purposes not intended?   Will our thoughts still be private?   I worry about the law of unintended consequences.   You could start researching that possibility here.  Cane toads were introduced to Australia to control destructive beetles in Queensland sugar cane fields but became more of a problem themselves.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Misery Porn, a controversial genre


Do you like to read Misery porn?   Or watch it in movies or on television?  Wikipedia's definition states:   

a genre of supposedly biographical literature mostly concerned with the protagonist's triumph over personal trauma or abuse, often during childhood. It is also sometimes called "pathography."   

The term has a definite negative connotation to it.  This approach seems to generate strong opinions and can provide strong sales for writers of the genre.  Sometimes written in first person memoir format and other times third person literary fiction the focus is one or more characters' miserable, painful and tragic life stories.  Child abuse, physical and sexual, is a frequent topic as is living with addicted parents, surviving terrible conditions in war, being forced into prostitution, suffering under extreme disability, poverty or misfortune.    

This article expands on this topic and includes references to many works, literary and TV and movie productions, that compete in the most miserable life contest.  Some claim to be true, some based on the truth with fictional elements and others are completely fictional.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara has a cover photograph of a young man looking to be experiencing great pain and misery and can fairly be called a warning for potential readers (according to reviews) but is actually one of a series of photographs of orgasm.  

The New York Review of Books describes plot development wherein "The sufferings recalled in the flashbacks are echoed in the endless array of humiliations the character is forced to endure in the present-day narrative: the accounts of these form the backbone of the novel."  Read further here.

Reviews on Goodreads here give mixed opinions.  Some cried as they were reading it, cried themselves to sleep after.     How do you feel about this genre?   Do you feel sympathy/empathy for the character(s)?   Do you feel relief/guilt that your life has been so much better?  Do you feel compelled to action to prevent future misery?  Does a dark cloud follow you for weeks as you contemplate man's inhumanity?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Skinny children, skinny dogs

Seeing skinny disheveled children and skinny dogs seems to be part of visiting developing countries. Unless, as many tourists do,  you end up in gated resorts benefitting from the climate and the amenities money can buy.     Going outside can be the difficult part.    Children are often selling something during hours when they should be in school.   Where does the money go?  No doubt they are told to try to sell things to foreign tourists, the ones with the money, by the people who feed them, hopefully regularly.   Surely, the country (and the people) benefit from tourism, we confirm to each other.  We don't like to feel sad or guilty while we're on vacation.

I once bought a bag of dog food in the town of Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica to feed to the group of dogs that frequented the town square.   They actually looked in good shape as they played on the grass.   I noticed later that each dog seemed to have claimed the sidewalk in front of a different restaurant.   They kept a certain space from the front door and disturbed no one.   I persuaded myself that they were fed the meat scraps at the end of the day.   I didn't see any sad looking children there though so perhaps this was a more prosperous area.

Guatemala is a place that is more impoverished than Costa Rica which has attracted more tourists and expats over the years due to its peaceful history and higher standard of living.  Guatemala has a history full of conflict and exploitation.  Guatemala City is home to the giant forty acre garbage dump where thousands people try to both live and eke out a living by sorting through the trash.  The Paper House is a middle grade book but readable by all ages and tells the story of a young girl who lives there.   As it is a children's book, it has a happy ending.  Probably not realistic.   This article gives more realistic detail.

I've written before about my doubts that monetary donations end up benefitting who the donor thinks they will.  I recently read a blog post by a well travelled blogger who buys/offers food to child vendors.   Perhaps that is a partial solution.  I support this organization, Knit a Square  which provides blankets, mittens and knitted toys to orphanages in South Africa.   We are asked to put $0 or $1 as the value on the package, not to humble us, but to keep down customs valuations.     

Sunday, January 1, 2017



Sufficient money to fund a small kingdom is invested in advertising by all and any means.   Advertising is omnipresent and unless you head off to the deep woods you are surrounded by it at every turn.  No space can remain blank when it could be used to promote the sale of some product or service.  Changing styles and venues there may be but the goal is the same:   to persuade the consumer to try or at least consider the purchase.

There's no doubt some ads are clever, amusing even.   I've laughed at some . . . the first time through. After thirty or forty viewings the humorous becomes annoying.   With some advertisements it seems obvious how they are trying to pull at our heartstrings, associating small children and puppies with their product.   I suppose it is an improvement from the past when curvaceous women in bikinis were draped across the latest model car.   If you want a look at offensive advertising from the past just google offensive advertising from the past.

There appears to be little if any connection between the department/company that prepares and executes the advertising campaign that the company that provides the product/service.   Promises are not fulfilled, misrepresentations are rife.   Particularly when a large one-time purchase is involved or a contract is being signed that will commit you to ongoing payments with no relief.    I have formed the impression that considerably more effort is put into cajoling the customer the first time around than is ever expended keeping the one who is already in thrall.    Car purchases, time shares, mortgages and  packaged vacations come to mind as items that can leave you stuck when all is not as promised.  

On-line reviews are a small prevention/recourse for consumers.   They are susceptible to fake reviews from competitors or trolls in general but when dozens of reviews repeat similar complaints I take heed.   I don't think I would stay in a hotel or make a large purchase without diligently checking reviews.   I do find often that you get what you pay for.   We're all looking for the deal;  champagne on a beer budget.   It happens just often enough for us to keep trying.