blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Living carefully

After a very pleasant dinner at Jean's and Michèle's new house yesterday we got talking to a friend of theirs, a specialist in Canadian Privacy Law, working for the government, who is quite horrified by the intrusion of the Internet into our everyday lives. Presumably a wary person in any case by virtue of her legal education, the more she finds out about the erosion of our privacy, the less she dares to use her VISA card: "I pay in cash if I can!" Chris alarmed her further by betting he could discover her email address in five minutes by means of googling, even though he had no idea what her surname was. He could, too.

This led to a wide-ranging conversation about identity theft, copyright laws, surveillance trends and privacy in general. At one point Jean said: the only answer is for us to lead a pure life.

It makes you think. Once upon a time it was the Bible or the priest in the pulpit who frightened us into behaving ourselves, with threats of Hell in the afterlife if we lapsed, with God the Big Brother who is always watching. Nowadays we frighten ourselves with the thought of being condemned by Public Exposure and the Law in this life, and we're pulled up short by the realisation that Google, Amazon, Facebook and company are keeping electronic tabs on all our emails, searches, downloads, files, photos, backups, passwords, etc.

Anyway, if we misbehave either on or off line—the trouble is, (i) we're only human, and (ii) misbehaviour is sometimes a matter of opinion—we're pretty sure be found out by one sort of police or another. There are very few hiding places. However much security protection we think we have and however much "anonymizing" is done, there's probably no longer any such thing as complete anonymity, now that we have the Internet. The identity of practically everyone is known, in one electronic way or another. To go incognito or disappear, or try to do so, we'd have to cut ourselves off from most of the tools for survival in modern society. 

Although Google's slogan, at present, is DON'T BE EVIL, I wonder what will happen if that ideal gets compromised, as ideals often have been in the past. George Orwell wrote a book about that, Animal Farm, which coincidentally has recently been erased from all the Kindle devices on which it had been downloaded!

Chris has been reading a book recently (an old fashioned book with real pages, not one of the e-books on his new Kindle) called Sailing from Byzantium ("one of the best books I've read for a while," he says) and just now asked me to check the meaning of Hesychasm. Hesychasm, originating among the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos in 14th century Greece, was a movement dedicated to contemplation. I have an idea that the Hesychasts might be of relevance to my drift.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Breaking the ice

This is not about smoothing over some awkward little moment at the start of a Christmas party. This is about hard physical effort.

From my on-line dictionary:

... they were all slogging away. WORK HARD, toil, labor, work one's fingers to the bone, work like a Trojan/dog, exert oneself, grind, slave, grub, plow, plod, peg; (informal) beaver, plug, work one's guts out, put one's nose to the grindstone, sweat blood; travail; (archaic) drudge, moil. (antonym) relax.

I mentioned in yesterday's blog post that everything outside has acquired a layer of ice. Today at the Rockcliffe Flying Club we became an ice breaking crew, trying to get rid of it. The new hangar, its floor measuring over 2800 square feet, has to be erected a.s.a.p. (because the old one is ... let's just say past its best). The replacement construction already has a metal frame, roof and back wall and since this afternoon, the wooden framework for another wall as well, but before our indomitable volunteers (Chris among them, hammer and nails at the ready) could build this, the floor had to be restored to normality by means of shovels, spades, brushes and wheelbarrows. I could almost have added, pickaxes. Indeed, we looked like a party of convicts sentenced to years of hard labour in some frozen in Siberia. There were my normally ladylike friends wielding a sledgehammer (until Don told us to desist in case we broke the concrete as well as the ice).

It's satisfying to have got rid of so much ice and snow in one day, but as we were working, I kept thinking of The Walrus and The Carpenter who

... wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"
"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

I know I ought to have taken a proper photo to illustrate this post, but forgot to take my camera along. To give some idea of its size, here's a picture of the hangar under construction in milder weather a few weeks ago. (Click to enlarge.)

Tonight more snow will blow through the open spaces in windy gusts of 35 knots, so they say. I hope this doesn't mean that we'll have to do the same amount of work again tomorrow, because, as my grandmother used to put it, "my bones ache." The temperature is forecast to drop to minus 16 and it will "feel like" minus 24 in the morning.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Different worlds

Christmas Day at their house, as promised by Elva and Laurie, was very restful. Elva's decorations, like this poinsettia on the table, are simply done and very beautiful. While our turkey finished roasting, we walked up the hill, followed a homemade trail through the woods —neighbours' feet having trodden the snow down—then came back indoors to enjoy our meal. The dining room made a nice, warm contrast to the screened deck the other side of the patio doors, on which cane furniture was stacked, snow drifting around its feet, as in that scene from the famous film where Dr Zhivago and Lara break into his old summer house in mid winter.

Boxing Day today, and the outside world's transformed by freezing rain. Even ordinary things like the washing line in my garden become extraordinary.

Most of the day I've been playing with the gadget Chris gave me for Christmas which converts old fashioned slides and negatives on strips of film into digital photographs. We moved house so often in the old days that any storage system I once had has disappeared and the negatives have become inextricably shuffled, so that at one moment I pull out pictures of us in the Netherlands, in 1979, then at the next dip into the pile we're suddenly in Hertfordshire in 1987, or Wales, 1993, never mind the holiday destinations. All those different worlds, all the different people we used to be! The once ordered past has turned into a proper muddle, but it doesn't seem to matter.

The pictures below were taken in Apeldoorn, Shoreham-by-Sea, and Welwyn Garden City, in 1979, 1985 and 1987 (or so).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lilly, learning

"Unverfänglich" in German means "harmless, innocuous, inoffensive". I learned that word at our German group's viewing of the film Lilly unter den Linden earlier this month. Our hostess paused the film so that those in the know could explain what was going on in the scene where one of the main characters, Lilly's aunt, sings in a cabaret, in the 1980s, in Jena. It was strictly forbidden by the governing regime in the DDR to perform anything of a politically subversive nature, so the cabaret artists became past masters in the use of double meanings. They sang what were ironically known as "unverfängliche Texte", so Barbara told us, but their hidden meanings were not lost on their audiences (which usually included one or two Stasi spies). The film conveyed this very well.

Another moment worth remembering was when the 13 year old, recently bereaved Lilly asks her aunt if she believes in God.

"Glaubst du an Gott?

"Ich glaube an die Sehnsucht nach Gott," the aunt replies, "und an die oder den, der die Sehnsucht in unser Herz liegt. Ich weiss nicht, ob das Gott ist."

(Freely translated: I believe in the longing for God and in whatever it is that puts that longing into our hearts. Whether or not that is God, I don't know. An appropriate thought for Christmas Eve?)

Buying wigs

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I went into a wig shop and tried on some wigs. Wearing them felt like wearing woolly hats and for obvious reasons they are all voluminous and have fringes (bangs). Most of them made me look like a Thing From Beyond The Grave. The blonde ones looked marginally better on me than the dark haired variety, but none of them suited me and in any case I had no intention of buying any. I was having some lighthearted fun while the friend I accompanied was engaged in a far more serious search. She has a prescription for a wig which means that she pays no tax on the one she chose. The better quality wigs are not cheap.

About to start a course of chemotherapy in the new year my friend has no choice about whether to change her appearance or not. She has been told that very shortly her hair will fall out, and that is not so funny. Luckily she did find an artificial head of hair that really suited her although the interior may turn out to tickle or feel scratchy against her skin, in which case a 2 dollar skullcap will have to line it. It was made with "human hair from Asia", so the wig assistant told us, and must be washed with hydrating shampoo to keep it in good shape.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Millions more voices

Petition to the 110 Presidents and Prime Ministers at the Copenhagen talks last week:

We call on each one of you to make the concessions necessary to meet your historic responsibility in this crisis.[...] Do not leave Copenhagen without a fair, ambitious and binding deal that keeps the world safe from catastrophic global warming of 2 degrees

Close to 15 million people (including me) signed on-line, and after hearing the result of the Copenhagen talks, an AVAAZ supporter from Africa wrote

It takes a lot to get an elephant moving, but when you do it is hard to stop...the elephant is moving...

After signing the petition, supporters are invited by email to "join a global, instant translation multilingual live chat..." During the last couple of days I have been reading the multilingual messages popping up every few seconds since that suggestion was sent out and I estimate that there have been between 15000 and 20000 comments. Here's a typical selection:

Ein grosses Dankeschoen an alle Mitwirkenden. Lasst den Elefanten weiterlaufen, er ist hochintelligent. Viel Kraft und Gottes Segen.

Merci de donner l'espoir que l'éléphant se met en mouvement. Canada

Gràcies a tots i a totes. Podrem canviar el món sense cimeres! Catalunya

Desde PERU nos unimos a este gran movimiento ..sigamos adelante!

Maraming salamat sa inyong lahat! Let us all keep fighting the good fight. Padayon! (Philippines)

Tackar Kiitän Merci (de la Finlande)

Köszönjük! Thank you from Hungary

it is a good move ... don't give up. Hargeisa, Repubic of Somaliland

شكرا وامتنانش

gracias por hacer visibles nuestros deseos.

Tusen takk!

grazie, grazie a tutti, da parte dei nostri figli e dei figli dei figli!

Go raibh mile maith agaibh. Tosach maith leath na h-oibre! (Ireland)

El Amor mueve al mundo.

I thank you. My children thank you. My grandchildren thank you. by Tom, U.S.

Chenoragaloutioun ner (= "Thank you" in Armenian)


Debemos mejorar nuestro mundo interior tanto como el exterior. Estamos en marcha.

Thank you to all those that acted for those that could not, and for enabling our collective voice to be heard. Please keep it up! England

A união faz a força, todos juntos contribuiremos para um mundo melhor

Elephants run through the bush making the paths.

...deze wereldwijde ketting

Samen zijn we sterk !

je suis émue aux larmes en lisant l'impact qu'a eu la campagne d'Avaaz. De me sentir reliée à tous ces gens que je ne connais pas, mais animés par le même espoir et le même amour.

The Copenhagen Conference was the first step towards a World Government, and the thousands of NGO´s assembled in front of the Conference building were the beginning of the beginning of a World Parliament.Thank God that we have reached this point.

Thank you for the well worth effort! sure the Elephant is moving!! Sri Lanka

Нам надо продолжать кампанию!

Il mondo in azione,con solo la forza delle parole come forza..

Il faut viser la Lune. Même si tu la rates tu iras dans les étoiles. (Burkina Faso)

Best wishes from Sweden...

Gracias de Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia)

great to know there's so many people of good will in the world. Festive greetings from Liverpool

Eskerrik asko (Basque) Eta elefantea ibiltzen hasi da

Makibaka!! Huwag Matakot (= "Fight, do not be afraid", in Tagalog)

good on ya all who gathered together, raised their voices and put pen to paper. Don't stop now. (Australia)

Many of us in Australia CARE! Thank you everyone, we're in this together.

"Nur wer selbst brennt, kann Feuer in anderen entfachen" (Augustinus)

I am a New Zealander, at present in Thailand, and have got all the members of the Class I am teaching to join Avaaz and help fuel this fight! It's truly great to see such people power- gives one hope!

Voices and faces

I mustn't keep my sister waiting to hear what on earth I've got to say about Bryan Adams, not the sort of person she expected to see me mention in my blog. I only intended to mention him in passing actually because I saw a photo of his face (taken by Yousuf Karsh) in an exhibition at our National Library and Archives as I was on my way to make myself acquainted with another kind of singer, Georg Ots. Both Adams and Ots had handsome faces, but it's the voices that people swoon over. Ots, recordings of whose voice were used in the musical parts of the film Georg sounded to me like Dmitri Hvorostowski, singing the sort of music that Richard Tauber used to sing, only in a lower register. Yes indeed, very different from Bryan Adams.

It struck me as interesting that Adams as a young man had one of the faces that appealed to Karsh along with such luminaries as Pablo Casals, Lawrence Olivier, Jessye Norman and Jean Sibelius! Because he (Adams) was (still is?) an object of adoration for Canadians, perhaps.

Another Canadian icon that may not be so well known outside Canada is k.d. lang. Chris and I were at a house warming party the other week where the host rounded off the evening by improvising on his new electronic piano, and the music he chose to play was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", most famously (so I gather) sung by the barefoot Ms Lang. Vija, a professional musician friend of mine, also present at the party, told us that this woman "has the best voice in Canada!"

I googled her when I got home, and although I don't exactly feel at home with Country and Western music I must admit k.d. lang has quality and what looks like integrity. I also took a closer look at the lyrics. I found them rather foreign to me, too, am obviously not 100% Canadian yet.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The product of an unfortunate habit

Nicola Vulpe considers poetry and fiction unfortunate habits ...

says the blurb on the back of his book

... which he has supported by working as a computer programmer, technical writer, senior manager in high-tech and university professor.

Chris now works on the same premises of this man in his guise as technical writer and he bought his novella out of curiosity. When I it arrived at our house I read it in one go, enthralled by it. The novella is called The Extraordinary Event of Pia H., the narrative having the logic and repetitive quality of dream sequences that progress from one event to another, from one place to another (actually several places: parts of Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Canada and 200 fathoms deep in the Pacific Ocean) without actually getting anywhere much. At the end of the book the narrator, or perhaps one of the narrators (you can't be sure) is still moving forward (or is it backward?) searching for the wife who vanished into thin air on page 1 after turning to admire a chicken in the Plaza Mayor of León. Great fun to read, with an underlying atmosphere of sadness.

It reminded me of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The quirks of various languages

The mathematician S.M. (Stan) Ulam wrote:

...there is a clarity to French which is not there in other tongues ...thoughts are steered in different ways. In French generalizations come to my mind and stimulate me toward conciseness and simplification. In English one sees the practical sense; German tends to make one go for a depth which is not always there. In Polish and Russian, the language lends itself to a sort of brewing, a development of thought like tea growing stronger and stronger. Slavic languages tend to be pensive, soulful, expansive, more psychological than philosophical... Latin is something else again. It is orderly; clarity is always there ... words are separated; they do not glue together as in German; it is like well-cooked rice compared to overcooked... When I speak German everything I say seems overstated, in English on the contrary it feels like an understatement. Only in French does it seem just right, and in Polish, too, since it is my native language and feels so natural.

Those fascinating comments appear in Ulam's autobiography, my husband's birthday present from his sister and brother-in-law. Chris bought himself a copy of Teach Yourself Ancient Greek the other day which looks well nigh impossible to me. It's got grammar notes like this:

When a reflexive sense is involved (i.e. when the reference is to the subject of the clause to which the noun-group containing the possessive belongs), the genitive of the reflective pronouns is used, again in the attributive position.

Anyway, not to be outdone, because my son now has a Chinese girlfriend, I have bought a BBC guide to Mandarin Chinese. What gluttons for punishment we are.

Did you know that the opposite of yes in Chinese is not yes (apparently the same words as for am / are / is and am not / aren't /isn'tbu shi?

Shi bu shi...? means Are you or are you not?

I spent a very interesting afternoon yesterday hearing a friend talk in French about Anton Tchekhov and tomorrow morning I'm off to see the German film of Lilly Unter Den Linden again, this time at the Ambassador's Residence. Next Tuesday Daniella (she's Romanian) is going to say goodbye to our Spanish conversation group, so I'll have to struggle away in Spanish there. Last time we met, Dawn told us that the polite Spanish word for you, Usted, abbreviated to Vd., is a corruption of a respectful but now obsolete way of addressing people as Your Mercy (i.e. Your Honour), vuestra merced, which prompted a Polish Canadian to tell us how, in Poland, people address one another, or used to, as Pan or Pani (like Monsieur... Madame) to show respect. It seems that those rules are still quite complicated. In Mandarin, too, nin is more respectful than ni. Oh dear, I'm afraid that's just reminded me of The Knights Who Say Ni in the Monty Python sketch.

Is English the only language that shows "you" no respect?

Monday, December 7, 2009

At the end of the day

Coming home late Saturday afternoon we saw this sky over the city, changing colour from minute to minute. I just caught it on time. The picture is of our street, Cathcart St., looking west-southwest across King Edward Avenue.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Memo to self

...that, when I have time, I want to blog about the quirks of certain languages (Mandarin, Spanish, Polish, French, Ancient Greek), voices (Georg Ots', k.d. lang's and possibly Bryan Adams') and words (Leonard Cohen's, Nicola Vulpe's and my grandson's), as well as the drawings and paintings of Miller Brittain. I have also been seriously thinking about travelling to Barcelona, Granada, Paris, Powys, Istanbul, Ancient Greece (as it were), South Carolina and New Zealand next year, and Hawaii the year after that, but I must face facts and not be so ambitious. I haven't even got time to write the blog posts elucidating all of this. Am also trying to design a kitchen and starting to worry about my next edition of Crosswinds.