29 December, 2012

The dangers of iPods

I love my iPod Nano. It makes my hour-long bus journey to work so much more interesting. I listen to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme and turn up at work refreshed, relaxed and well informed. Result.

Yet I always take my iPod off as soon as I leave the bus. I don’t feel safe wearing it as I walk along the street because I can’t hear what’s going on around me. Can’t hear the traffic, can’t hear people coming up behind me, which makes me vulnerable.

But other people don’t seem to share my concerns. Not only pedestrians but also cyclists and even some car drivers wear their iPods as they travel. This seems crazy to me. How can it be safe to  negotiate a busy road when you can’t hear what’s going on around you and, worse still, are distracted by music or whatever else you might be listening to?

iPods may be hands free but, to my mind, they can still be dangerous in certain situations. It would be interesting to know whether any road traffic accidents have occurred that can be directly attributed to iPod-related inadvertence.

22 December, 2012

To Amazon or not to Amazon?

Our family has had a busy run up to Christmas this year. Busier than usual. This has been down in large part to one of our elderly parents having been in hospital for the past several weeks. It looks likely that she'll remain there well into the new year. This means that we have been more preoccupied than usual, and also more occupied than usual, driving down to the South Coast regularly at weekends to visit (a four-hour round trip) and having long telephone conversations in a bid to be as supportive as we possibly can.

And this has been in addition to the usual mad round of activities that any family with children experiences at this time of year -- St. Nicholas Day celebrations, two carol services, one music concert, two sets of school discos, and several Christmas parties at the last count.

Between us, my husband and I have a fairly large assortment of relatives, all of whom require Christmas presents to be bought for them, which means that we usually spend most of our weekends in December (and even some in November!) Christmas shopping. But this year, given our frequent trips to the hospital, browsing at leisure in town really hasn't been an option. Hence my grand solution when I had a spare few minutes at the beginning of December: for once, let's just go on to Amazon and buy a gift off everyone's wishlist. And we did. Not very imaginative, granted, but at least it got the job done and ensured that none of our family would feel bereft this Christmas.

This happened just before the furore about Amazon and tax avoidance broke. And then I felt a little bit guilty. Should I really be supporting a company that makes massive profits yet still tries to avoid paying its fair share of taxes? In the end, I stopped worrying. This year was an unusual year for us, and I'm sure that next year we'll be back to browsing the local stores. But Amazon is so convenient in so many ways. Why can't they be ethical (or even just pay their taxes like the majority of us) as well?

15 December, 2012

Work away days

I spent two days of last week in an expensive hotel, eating too much food, moving too little and feeling very, very bored. Apart from the boredom it sounds alright, doesn’t it? But actually the two days were a waste of my time.

The event was my work’s annual two-day away day (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) and the aim of this event is to give all participants an overview of the work that’s going on in our department as well as providing an opportunity for staff who don’t usually work together to get to know one another. In theory these are both Good Things, but in practice the reality is rather different.

For a start, my department is large—60+ individuals, all of whom are researchers working on complementary but highly specialised scientific research areas. By contrast, I am a project manager. I hold a PhD in Philosophy, but my scientific training ended three decades ago with an O Level in General Science. What this means in practical terms is that I sit through two days of talks and understand very little. At first I thought this was just me, but I soon found out that the science under discussion is so specialised that most people in the room don’t understand the talks. So, it’s arguable whether anyone actually does come away from the two days with an overview of what’s going on in the department, beyond a list of talk titles and a vague idea of general areas.
Having attended three away days now, I’m a bit of a veteran, and I try to fill the time constructively by taking my laptop with me and doing as much regular work as I can. But clearly my productivity is less than it would be if I were at my desk, with my equipment around me, able to communicate readily with my colleagues.

People certainly make an effort to get to know one another at these away days. A bit too much of an effort, if you ask me. After the formal sit down dinner at the end of day one, the hard core revellers make their way to the bar and drink continuously into the wee small hours. Enough said.

Perhaps the solution is simply to chill out. Enjoy the change of scene. Enjoy the free food. Forget my reservations. That’s what the rest of my colleagues appear to do. But still I can’t help feeling that something’s not quite right about all this. Where’s the return?

08 December, 2012

Twenty years of the text message revolution

I am reliably informed by Radio 4 that it’s twenty years ago this week that the first text message was sent. At the time no one envisaged—even remotely—how popular this technology would become. Around 150 billion text messages were sent in the UK last year, yet twenty years ago, it was Vodaphone’s intention to use SMS as an internal tool, a means by which its PAs could contact their bosses when they were on the move.

I've never really been won over by the text message revolution. Nor by mobile phones, for that matter. I’ve actually had a mobile phone from quite early on, acquiring my first brick-like model in 1999. But this was nothing to do with wanting to be ahead of the technological curve. Rather, it was because at that time I was commuting long distances in an ancient car and didn’t want to find myself stranded with no means of calling for help.

Some fourteen years later, I’m still not an enthusiastic mobile user. I’ve upgraded my old brick, but still have a pretty basic Nokia. No smart phone or advanced features for me. My mobile is mainly used for child-related purposes—the school can contact me if my kids are sick, and I can call school if I’m caught up in traffic and may be late for pick-up time.

There’s something that I dislike about the immediacy of mobile communication. I find it mildly irritating that you’re expected to be available and ready to take calls and messages 24/7. When I’m out of the house or office and away from my land line I rather like the feeling of being out of contact, of having a few moments’ precious time to myself, without the constant interruptions of modern life.

All of this will have to change, though, when my eldest child goes to secondary school in a few months. I know that if I want to be kept up to date with my offspring’s movements and whereabouts I’ll have to adopt texting wholeheartedly. And at that point I will (gritting my teeth!) have to purchase a smart phone. With the failing eyesight and lack of dexterity that accompanies middle age, I find typing on my phone’s tiny keypad nigh impossible.

One of the questions brought up by Radio 4 was what will replace the text message? Since technologies are fast moving and transient, high tech companies are always looking for the next best thing. One journalist suggested that perhaps ‘the great silence’ will follow the text revolution. Maybe the novelty of instant communication will simply lose its appeal. That would certainly fit with my current world view. But, in reality, I can’t quite believe it. Nor would I want this to happen. As I gear up to embrace 24/7 communication, the thought that my eldest child might not communicate with me while out and about and on the move fills me with dread.

01 December, 2012

Away from home!

My oldest daughter recently went away for a week-long residential trip with school. She's been away quite a bit by herself before--two nights away with school a couple of years ago, a few nights staying with her grandparents every summer holiday--but this was the longest period away by herself to date.

We went through the welter of preparations that were required in advance of the trip. Packing a huge suitcase filled with numerous sets of clothing suitable for outdoor activities. All of which had to be labelled, of course. Gathering together a mammoth-sized picnic for the three-hour coach journey. Providing any necessary medications to the class teacher. And then we dropped our daughter off very early on Monday morning, in time to catch the coach. We had to say our goodbyes at home beforehand, because no self-respecting ten-year-old will deign to kiss their parents in public, even if they won't be seeing them for a whole week.

And then she was there. Since the children aren't allowed to ring their parents (one of the aims of the trip is to increase their independence), all information comes via email from the school. We received a daily update telling us what the children had done the previous day and what was planned for the day ahead. The things they got up to were quite amazing--caving, canoeing, high ropes, mountain walking...

She arrived back late on Friday evening, having had a fantastic time and bursting with stories to tell us. We had missed her, but I'm not sure she had missed us, or not as much -- although she did say that she was pleased to be home.

All this excitement made me think back to my own school days, many moons ago. And it occurred to me that schools simply didn't provide these kinds of opportunities back then, especially not primaries. The best that I got was a French exchange trip at age fifteen. Things have certainly changed over the years...