July 29, 2009

Onya Ron!

A brief post in tribute to someone who shall remain anonymous, but of whom I am in awe.
As I have previously mentioned, I spend an hour each week as a volunteer tutor in a free adult literacy programme, and for the last 6 months I've been delighted to work with Ron. After developing an unfortunate medical condition several years ago, he has to rely mainly on written communication, which was next to impossible due to his lack of confidence with spelling, grammar and punctuation.

But through a combination of courage, dedication, and a keen interest in reading books by good authors, he has gained enough knowledge and confidence to start writing his own stories. This week I tentatively suggested he might like to start a blog to present his creativity to a wider world, and I cannot describe my delight when he instantly agreed.
So now he is out there in the internet, and I am sure he will derive immense pleasure from seeing his words on the screen, when only a few months ago he found it hard to write even a sentence or two.

He has given me permission to link to his blog, called "Ronsworld". It is very early days for him, but what a long way he has come in a short time. I am honoured to know him.

[For those unfamiliar with Aussie slang, the title is a contraction of "Good on you, Ron". A heartfelt salute.]

July 25, 2009

Help! Help! I'm being repressed (in ODP/DMOZ)!

Why do some people have so much difficulty separating their identity from their position? Surely their own opinions and feelings remain independent from any paid or unpaid job they undertake? Or do they lose themselves in that role, and therefore come to see themselves as its embodiment?

This question has caused me considerable distress in the past year, because I have been villified for expressing concerns and criticisms about a position, as if I had personally attacked the incumbents themselves. The stridently defensive reactions of those who feel "attacked" have completely drowned out my protestations that my comments are neither personal nor derogatory, but simply an expression of dissatisfaction with the "system".

To indulge in some armchair analysis for a moment:
Perhaps those who hold such positions are well aware of the deficiencies inherent in their role, and this makes them particularly sensitive to criticism of it?
... Or perhaps they feel that having attained a certain status they are entitled to unqualified respect?
........Or maybe they are under such pressure from unseen directions that they have lost their sense of perspective?
............ Or maybe they just don't like me and my record?

As some very wise men once said:
King Arthur: I am your king.
Woman: Well I didn't vote for you.
King Arthur: You don't vote for kings.
Woman: Well how'd you become king then?
[Angelic music plays... ]
King Arthur:
The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some
farcical aquatic ceremony.
Dennis: Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! Help! I'm being repressed!
King Arthur: Bloody peasant!
Dennis: Oh, what a giveaway! Did you hear that? Did you hear that, eh? That's what I'm on about! Did you see him repressing me? You saw him, Didn't you?
Yep. Just like that.

July 22, 2009


A quick explanation is probably needed, in view of the disturbed people who might arrive here in some confusion after injudicious Googling.
In fact the word in the title is not a neologism, and can be found on other sites, but I am the first person I know to use it, so I take the blame for shamelessly combining a Greek suffix with an Old English root word to describe people strongly attracted to dogs. (In the most innocent way of course, and if any fetishists have read this far, please move along. There is absolutely nothing for you here.)

In my mind, dogophiliacs are slightly different from doglovers, in that many people claim to love dogs, but they often mean only their own, or ones similar to their own. Dogophiliacs, on the other hand, are irresistably drawn to dogs of all shapes, sizes and temperaments, although "Elwood", the World's Ugliest Dog 2007 (right), would admittedly be a challenge.

I am a lifelong dogophiliac, and although I can (thank goodness) effortlessly resist all the "doggy stuff" that canny marketeers tempt us with, I cannot pass up any opportunity to greet a dog, especially if it is looking at me in an interested way. I have to admit that both dogs and children frequently cast me funny looks, but I have never been inclined to go and greet children. ;-)

During a recent trip to the UK, where dogophilia is more widespread than anywhere else, I found that it works greatly to the advantage of the solo traveller. Many conversations with complete strangers started with "Do you mind if I say hello to your dog?", and because both the dog and the owner can tell a true dogophiliac from someone just being polite, this greeting is always received very well by both parties. It crosses all social boundaries too, and even the most patrician owner cannot help unbending a little when their pride and joy is suitably fussed over.

But a word of warning to those who might see such behaviour as an easy way to gain someone's trust for dishonest reasons - insincerity is very easily spotted by even the most gormless dog, and you'll be very lucky if your only reprimand is a look of cold disdain.

July 14, 2009

ODP/DMOZ Editors are real! (3)

The 4th (and last) editor I met in person during my recent holiday in the UK was also the most "famous", in that his name is far more widely known outside DMOZ/ODP than any other volunteer's - an unexpected downside of using one's real name.
I already knew that what is written about him outside the directory is complete and utter rubbish, but now that I have spent most of a day in his company, I can unhesitatingly say to his detractors that their puerile pronouncements and asinine accusations are not only slanderous but completely laughable. You should be ashamed of yourselves, and you are lucky he's not an American with a libel lawyer on permanent stand-by.

In the course of several years' acquaintance with him in ODP/DMOZ, Resource-Zone and other forums (I'm sure by now many readers will have guessed who it is), I formed the impression of a sincere and honest person who not only enjoys spending some of his leisure time on the Open Directory Project, but cares enough to try to answer other people's questions about it, however repetitive they may be. And I was right. He is and he does, with far more grace and patience than I can ever aspire to.
Not only that, but he correctly guessed the way I might like to spend a day with him, thoughtfully providing me with an assortment of dogs to fuss over, a wonderful pub lunch, a quirky English folk site to visit, and a marvellous walk along an empty ridge with views for miles.
As we used to say around here: I "dips me lid" to you.

... And yes, I am repeating to myself every day "It's only a hobby. It's only a hobby."
I'll let you know if it works. ;-)

July 09, 2009

A British Railway Rant

Privatised railways. Oh what fun.
In the last 4 weeks I have travelled on so many different trains I have lost count, but I have been keeping track (hah!) of the different companies, compiling a sort of league table. So for anyone contemplating a train-based holiday in the UK, it might be worth finding out a little more about the actual carrier, and not just the timetable.
Speaking of which, there are two excellent features of British train travel (think of this section as the Good news).
The "Train Tracker" Service provides detailed alternative itineraries for any journey you care to dream up, and works both online and by phone, where a very friendly and competent automaton listens attentively as you ask questions. He is very polite too, apologetically asking you to speak more slowly or more clearly if he fails to understand. You get the impression he really feels bad about having to ask.
The other good thing is the system whereby passengers can claim compensation for costs incurred by late trains. This extends to such things as missed flights, forfeited events tickets etc. Of course the umpteen page application form is designed to thwart frivolous requests, but at least it does make the companies take punctuality seriously.

Now the Bad news. The "system" is a mess. The standards of service vary so dramatically between different companies that they might as well be in different countries. You can step from a clean train with food service, helpful staff, and essential information about forthcoming stops, and then board an overcrowded filthy one with blocked toilets, no service (even on journeys of several hours), and a complete absence of information. How on earth is a tourist supposed to know where they are, or if the next station is the one they need?
There are no maps, no timetables, no announcements, and no visible staff. It's a matter of turning to fellow passengers with the irritating childhood question "Are we there yet?".
Complaints from the many people perched on their cases in the entry ways and corridors that they have paid £50 ($120) or more for a seat are met with the tired response that they have only paid to be transported from A to B. The cost does not include actually sitting down!
So, which are the best and worst?
Out of 10 different companies I used, some of them several times, there were 2 consistently better than the rest, and two who were undeniably the worst.

The irony is that the clear winner (in terms of comfort, on-board service, cleanliness and punctuality) is losing its franchise because of ongoing debts.
  1. National Express has the London-Edinburgh route, plus some others on the east coast, but they are behind with their (huge) payments to the government, so it seems I was very lucky to experience their wonderful service.
  2. In second place, and hopefully a bit better managed, is Virgin Trains. Clean, fast, comfortable and reliable, they came second only because they didn't have quite the level of onboard service offered by First National. But that probably means their figures balance better.
  3. ...
  4. ...
  5. ...
  6. (I won't bore you with these, ...
  7. ... and to be honest, I wasn't ever bored enough to complete the whole table.)
  8. ...
  9. The second last place goes to Scot Rail, on which I travelled for many hours without any means of getting so much as a drink of water. There were staff on board, but they sat reading and chatting among themselves, and requests for refreshments were answered with the unarguable "We don't do that". The route was spectacular, and the train relatively clean (with no refreshments available, rubbish was hardly a problem!), which placed them well above the dismal Arriva, but their complete lack of regard for their customers is hard to justify when all rail services are struggling to attract customers.
  10. Right at the bottom of this league table is Arriva Trains Wales, which seriously disappointed or inconvenienced me on every single one of the 6 trips I did. The blocked toilets and irresponsible overcrowding mentioned above were on Arriva trains, as were the absence of refreshments, information, and basic cleanliness such as emptying overflowing rubbish bins. They fell even further behind with a fatuous and patently insincere announcement "regretting" the late arrival of a train which was one minute late, and "apologising" for any inconvenience to passengers. This might have sounded a lot more sincere if the previous day they hadn't unexpectedly announced that the train would not be continuing on the scheduled route. We were told to collect our belongings and hurry (lugging our bags up and down two flights of steps) to a different train ... which then sat there for a further 30 minutes before finally leaving. There was absolutely no apology or explanation for this far more irritating delay and the considerable inconvenience it involved.

I love train travel, and I will use it on future UK trips, but the service will definitely need to improve before people consider this as an attractive alternative to using their car.

July 07, 2009

There's Nowt So Queer As Folk (3)

Last week I was ambling alongside a canal in Gloucestershire when I stopped to watch a swing bridge being hand-cranked open to allow two barges through. Having watched the operator exchange familiar pleasantries with the boatmen, I wandered over to chat to him. Sounding rather like HM the Q, I asked if he enjoyed his job and the people he met. Unfortunately he didn't like his job of 13 years, but "it's all I can do now, of course" (I didn't pry), and agreed that the boat people were generally friendly and easy-going. Correctly identifying me as an Australian (and not from Middlesborough as others have supposed ;-) ), he then asked about my holiday. On hearing that I had been in Scotland for 2 weeks and was now in England for 2 weeks, he nodded politely, but then advised me in no uncertain terms that if I'd come for an extra week I could have gone to Austria, because it was really nice there.
Feeling there was nothing I could offer in defence of this frightful lapse in my travel plans, I agreed sadly that I had probably not given it enough thought, thanked him kindly for his advice, patted his scruffy dogs ("One's a Whippet/Bedlington terrier cross, y'know.") and went on my way.
Fortunately, he waved cheerily at me the following day when I passed again, and the dogs stopped shouting at the boat-bound dogs long enough to give me a quick wag, so I think my poor travel planning had been forgiven.

In the same village I met Peter, walking his two tired and blissfully muddy border collies. Like many elderly men, he had more than enough time to stop for a chat, so we talked about the hot-air balloon race we'd seen passing over the village that morning, and agreed that neither of us would ever be seen in "one of them things".
Talk turned, as usual, to my holiday, and when I explained that I'd been on a walking holiday in Scotland he smiled knowingly and said "I expect it rained all the time, didn't it?". I agreed that we seldom had a bright sunny day in the 2 weeks I was there, at which he nodded triumphantly, explaining that he'd been to Scotland once and it rained the whole day he was there!
"It might just as well have been Cheltenham", he said dismissively.

ODP/DMOZ editors are real! (2)

In a recent post I mentioned the thrill of finally meeting a fellow DMOZ/ODP editor for the first time in my many years as a volunteer editor.
Well, I have now met two more, with another meeting planned for the day after tomorrow. I'm delighted to be linking faces and lives to mere nicknames. :-)
Last week I was somewhat embarrassed to accept the generous hospitality of an editor with whom I have had a long, respectful, but often rocky relationship within the directory. And over the weekend I was honoured to meet the whole family of an editor who shares many of my own values and concerns regarding the project on which we spend so much of our time.

Passions often run high among those of us who care a lot about the directory, so perhaps it is not surprising that one of my requests for meeting in person was turned down. Disappointing but understandable. However, I still think many perceived online difficulties can be easily resolved by "real life" meetings.

There's Nowt So Queer As Folk (2)

As explained in the first of this series, this anecdote is one of several collected during a recent UK holiday.

Even when things don't go to plan, there is often an unexpected gem on a holiday.
On one otherwise infuriating day it was the glorious presence of a stereotype on one of the many trains I took. He had a tweedy flat cap, hunched shoulders, a large watch, and a well-thumbed notebook in which he made copious notes every time we passed another train or a shunting yard. On the pretext of losing my balance en route to the toilet, I managed to peer over his shoulder, and sure enough, the pages were covered in squiggly numbers and times. Yes, he was a bonafide "Train Spotter".

But that was almost incidental to his sudden loud assertion that "Actually I prefer to sit on my own, thank you". This was directed at a boarding passenger who attempted to take one of the 3 spare seats around our hero. A spirited discussion then ensued, but Mr Train Spotter was implacable, and the other chap shuffled off down the carriage, muttering loudly about bloody people who think they own the bloody train just because they know the bloody engine number.

I was exchanging fascinated and appreciative grins with a lady across the aisle when the petulant voice rose again, explaining (apropos of nothing)
"I'm retired. And I'm not married, either."
Marvellous stuff.

There's Nowt So Queer As Folk (1)

Travelling alone by foot and public transport has several drawbacks, to be sure - it requires vast amounts of "waiting" time, and always involves interminable steps to negotiate with increasingly weighty baggage. But overall, it is a stimulating way to see another country, and opens up so many opportunities for meeting "the locals".
I am always much more extroverted on holiday, because I am confident that I will never see these people again, so I shed all self-consciousness and launch into many univited conversations. The result is always rewarding, sometimes surprising, and frequently memorable.
I will describe some of the best ones here - one at a time, so they can be savoured. :-)

The train trip from London to Edinburgh is a favourite of mine, but this time it was a little unusual because there was some unexplained problem near York which meant we had a long delay and were then joined by the passengers from two other trains. For the next leg of the journey it was very noisy and crowded, because one group was a bunch of primary school students from some small North Yorkshire town who had been on a field trip to the Viking Museum in York. They were very friendly, excited and chatty. You can imagine!
My "foony accent" amused them enormously, and we all enjoyed the guessing game about where I came from.

"Middlesborough", said one confidently. No, further away, I said.

"Ooooo Scotland!" said another. No, further than that, I said.

Brief silence, then in awed tones one ventured "London????".

I don't think they believed me for a second when I told them the truth, so from now on when anyone asks where I'm from, instead of "Australia" I intend to say "Middlesborough. Can't you tell?" :-D


Related Posts with Thumbnails