Monthly Archives: March 2011

Keep Smiling!

This is one of those times when it just doesn’t pay to listen to the news—none of it is good.  Between a new war in Libya, earthquakes, Supermoons and the revelation that Lady Gaga’s boyfriend has written a soon-to-be-released book called The Drunk Diet, I decided that dwelling on the headlines would just add to the misery.  So I spent some time looking for something nice to talk about.

And guess what?  There are good things going on in the world and they crop up where you least expect them.

For example, the other day there was a segment on the news about how the people of Christchurch are coping with no plumbing in some parts of town, even though it’s been a month since the earthquake.  Getting water hasn’t been as serious a problem as not being able to use the toilet and improvising has been necessary.  

Anyone who has ever travelled in the third world is likely to be an expert on the question of finding an appropriate receptacle when you need one.  

I learned this lesson in many years ago in China.  We were stuck in a traffic jam and I suddenly found myself hit by the full force of some sort of exotic digestive ailment.  I delicately described the problem to the English speaking guide who communicated something to the driver.  Given that we were pretty much gridlocked meant that nothing really happened.  I again articulated my plight and indicated that there was a bit of urgency about the situation.

Whatever the guide said to the driver had the desired effect because he pulled out of traffic and onto the sidewalk and started showing some creditable Hollywood chase scene moves.  By this time, the scene in the car had become something like the back of an ambulance with the guide checking my vital signs and communicating to the driver who reacted accordingly with ever increasing feats of driving skill.

We finally screeched to a halt and the driver jumped out of the car.  He opened my door and pulled me out.  He grabbed my hand and started running down the street and then we ducked into an alley with many doors.  He pushed one open and I was moderately relieved to see that we were in a totally packed local restaurant.  He had a word with the proprietor and the crowd parted and the driver pulled me to the back of the restaurant, through the kitchen (another story altogether, from the little I remember) and then with a huge but toothless grin, pointed to a door.

You can’t imagine what a blessed sight that was.  But my relief was short lived.  Yes, it was a toilet, but the only fixture was a wall hung urinal.  And it seemed as if it had been hung for basketball players, not Chinese people.  Or anyone who needed something more at that point.

Well, to make a long story short, I did what I had to do.  And all I could think of was the cleaning people surveying the situation and asking themselves, “How did he do that.”

Actually, that was better than another facility that I saw a few days later, fortunately not under emergency conditions and therefore I was only an observer, not a user.  It was a raised platform of eastern style squat toilets—but there were no dividers, doors or anything providing privacy—just a row of holes in green Astroturf.  It looked like a putt-putt course with a bunch of guys reading the newspaper as they squatted over the holes. 

So I have some degree of sympathy when I hear that Christchurch residents are without plumbing.  The news is that the rest of New Zealand, and a lot of other places, have been stripped of chemical toilets and Port-a-loos and they’ve been sent to Christchurch to save the day.

Not only that, some residents, preferring privacy rather than sharing a community Port-a-loo have decided on a DIY approach and have dug what are called “long drops.”  As the name implies, a long drop is a deep hole in the ground.

The uplifting part of the story is the humour and good cheer that the people of Christchurch have maintained while putting up with what have to be fairly significant inconveniences.  For example, here is a song about the joys of using Port-a-loos done (sort of) to the tune of “Waterloo” by New Zealand musician Jazzy J:

A lot of people who went the long drop route decided that comfort, and more important, humour, would be a good way to make up for some of the inconvenience.  When some of the more creative and exotic long drop designs started getting noticed, someone started a web site called “Show Us Your Long Drop,” on which people were encouraged to post pictures of their creations.  Here are some photos from the web site to give you an idea of the sorts of things people were coming up with. 

This is the basic utility model:

While this one is called “Tim’s New Office”:

And you can’t beat this for pure elegance:

Or this for sophistication:

And Dr. Who fans will appreciate The Turdis:

I hope that I never have to make these sorts of alternative arrangements, but if I do I hope I will do it with the same sense of community, sharing, humour and good will that the people of Christchurch have shown.

Words That Should Be Given A Rest

So far, we’ve talked about words that are almost forgotten but shouldn’t be, words that sound like they mean something else , and now it’s time to talk about words that haven’t been forgotten, but should be.

You know what I’m talking about—words that are either so overused they’ve become meaningless, or are just plain irritating.

One of the big challenges in talking about words that should be used less frequently is to limit the discussion to words and not discuss the many phrases out there that are overused and therefore rapidly becoming meaningless.  Examples of overused, and under useful phrases are things like “at the end of the day,” or “having said that.”  Both are euphemisms for “I don’t care what you think, I’m doing it my way.”

But we’re going to keep it simple and just talk about words.  Here goes.

Basically—“Basic” means of, relating to, or forming the base or essence.  So, for example, it is not possible for a building to be basically finished if it is still under construction, because the essence of a finished building is that it is no longer under construction.  You see where I’m going with this?  A good rule of thumb is to never use “basically” if you can’t substitute “totally.”   While we’re on the subject, fundamentally is often overused in lieu of basically.  Fundamentally should never be used unless it is followed by the word “flawed.”

Basically under construction not basically finished

Branding—I was under the impression that this is something done to cows and cowards.  But no.  It’s something that companies pay big money to consultants to improve.  I decided that the word is overused when I read an article about how the New Zealand tourism industry was reacting to the Christchurch earthquake.  “Inbound Tour Operators Council president Brian Henderson says some images of Christchurch would have to be taken out of the branding.” 

Cerulean—Maybe it’s because of the recent Academy Awards and Grammys and BAFTAs, but I’ve come across this word much more than I should.  It means blue, specifically the blue of the sky.  So it’s been used lately to describe everyone’s eyes or gowns.  It also crops up a lot in travel brochures to describe the ocean.  I think it’s pretentious.  Just call blue blue.

Innovative—It’s not this word’s fault that it is overused.  Technically it means “new” so unless you are a hermit, you should encounter the innovative with some degree of regularity.  Its use, however, should be curtailed when it is used incorrectly, i.e., to describe old things that marketing people want us to think are new.  So while Lady Gaga might be the “new” Madonna, I’m not sure she is all that innovative.

Landscape—According to my dictionary, landscape means a picture representing a view of natural inland scenery, the art of depicting such scenery, the landforms in a region in the aggregate or the portion of territory that the eye can comprehend in a single view.  I don’t have a problem if it’s used to describe a way of printing documents—after all, sometimes you need to adapt old words to describe new things.  But unless you are using it to describe bushes and trees or paper orientation, I think it’s part of the overused words landscape.  Like when a McDonald’s representative was quoted as describing happy meal toys from the Star Wars landscape.  Unless they were talking about a landfill where they’d probably ended up.

Literally—I might say that I’m literally tired of hearing people overuse literally, but that would, literally, be an example of how the word is improperly used.  Because if I were “literally tired” of something it would mean that energy was being drawn from me by its very existence.  It is ironic that one of the meanings of literally is “free from exaggeration or embellishment,” because it has become a sort of means of verbal exaggeration.   I was looking for an example of dubious use of the word and came across this wonderful sentence from the New Zealand Herald (which has a few other grammatical howlers as well):  “The distinctive shape, light and shadow created by a well-chosen pendant can literally transform a room with the flick of a switch, from the bigger is better approach to clusters of naked bulbs.”  I literally can’t decipher the literal meaning of that sentence.

Passionate and Sustainable—These words have been discussed before so we won’t talk about them now.  But no list of overused words would be complete without them.

Pushback—This word really describes the process by which airplanes back away from the gate.  A big tractor pushes them back, ergo, pushback.  But for some reason it has become a politically correct euphemism for disagree.  So when you tell your boss you want a raise because you work so hard he or she might say, “I’m going to pushback a little.”  In other words, you don’t get a raise.  Aside from the fact that it’s stupid, the other reason I don’t like this word is because of the mental image it creates.  If you don’t agree with me, I’d rather you said, “you’re wrong, and I’ll tell you why your wrong,” instead of trying to get away from me.

Robust—Basically, and I’m using that word correctly, robust means strong, vigorous and healthy.  It can also mean firm in purpose or strongly formed or constructed.  Let’s face it, it’s a versatile word and that has led to its overuse.  A recent scan through the daily paper discovered the following things described as robust: many aspects of the economy, a sports teams defence, a company’s recruiting process, a software company’s new product development process, the way the police responded to a problem and what space shuttle re-entry tiles need to be.  As I say, a versatile word.

And last but not least:  Awesome.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if everything weren’t awesome?

I’m sure you have a few others you could add to the list, but basically, I think it would be literally awesome if we made the communication landscape more robust by pushing back when people with passion in their cerulean eyes try to convince us that they have an innovative branding idea. 

Don’t you?

A Flight of Fantasy?

You remember last year when that JetBlue flight attendant in the US got 15 minutes of fame by telling off a passenger, grabbing a couple of beers and leaving via the emergency slide?

Well, flight attendant behaviour is back in the news.  The headline in the newspaper today was:

Toddler Placed in Plane’s Locker

Flight Attendant Sacked (A3)

Just as the editors of the newspaper hoped, the headline grabbed my attention and I immediately opened the paper to page A3 to find out more.  As I flipped the pages I wondered what sort of set of strange circumstances could have contributed to the kid getting stowed.

Of course my fervent hope was that the kid was being a perfect monster and that the flight attendant had taken pity on the passengers. 

Don’t tell me you haven’t thought of it before.

As is usually the case, however, the reality was neither as simple nor as satisfying as my expectations.  The mother, who, please note, is more key to the story than the kid, claims that on a Virgin Blue flight from Fiji to Sydney with her now estranged (emphasis mine) husband, the now unemployed flight attendant picked up 17 month old Riley and chucked him in the overhead bin. 

Just like that.

The airline offered the mother three free flights.  But she claims she is “too shaken” to redeem them.

The official story of the airline is that the father (the now estranged husband) had been playing peek-a-boo with little Riley and the game “involved the overhead compartment” and that somehow the flight attendant joined in.

The mother doesn’t say anything about a game of peek-a-boo and the now estranged husband is not quoted or referred to further in the article.

The bottom line is that a quick reading of the article doesn’t tell you what happened.  Or even if anything really did happen.  The mother asserts that little Riley was in the overhead bin for “up to ten seconds.”   And the article says that the rest of the passengers were laughing, which leads me to think that Riley was probably having fun,too.

But you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out the real story behind the story.

The incident occurred when Riley was 17 months old.  Today, when his story has gone public, he is 30 months old.  That means that his happened a little over a year ago.  During the incident, the now estranged husband was part of the picture, so presumably the estrangement has taken place since the incident.  And I’m guessing that custody might be an issue.

So the article dutifully closes with the mother’s plaintive recitation of how damaged little Riley is from his ten second sojourn in the bowels of the overhead bin.  She claims that she cried “for days” after the incident and that Riley has been seeing “specialists” because he suffers from “anxiety and withdrawal.”

Not only that, according to the mother, “He won’t leave my sight now.  He sleeps with me.  If I’m not in the same room as him, he will scream and yell, ‘Mum, mum, mum.”

Who can say how badly little Riley has been traumatized, if at all, but it seems a little unusual that this issue should surface a full year after it occurred.  And I can’t help but think that there is a hidden agenda.

Doesn’t Look Too Scary

He Who Laughs Last . . .

We last left the friendly sparrows snickering at my ill-conceived efforts to discourage them from nesting (and leaving other evidence of their presence) in the new nursery.  I had tried gentle persuasion.  I didn’t want to be the one to use force.  But no.  “Cooperation” is not in their vocabulary.

I waited until I was sure that all the little sparrows had grown up and flown the coop.  And then I activated Plan B.

In fairness to the sparrows, they were doing what comes naturally.  The root cause of the problem was that the builder had installed a fascia board that was too thin—there was a gap between the bottom of the board and the top of the corrugated plastic windows that line the main room of the building.  In sparrow language, the arrangement said “Come Live Here:  Comfort and Convenience.” 

Please ignore the picture to the left and note the nest tucked up under the board:

Plan B therefore involved removing the old fascia and installing a new larger board.  The only flaw with the plan was that it involved going up on the roof, taking out the old boards and installing newer—and heavier–timber.

I thought long on the problem from the safety of the ground and asked myself a series of pertinent questions.  Was it best to lean over the side of the roof or was it better to try to do the work face on while perched on a ladder?  How short would I have to make the sections of timber in order to be able to handle them?  Did I really want to get rid of the sparrows that badly?

I was saved when Rodney, our consultant ecologist informed me that he would help out.  He even went to the lumber yard and got the wood.   The boards were terrifyingly long and heavy but he assured me that handling them would be a “piece of cake” and that the whole exercise would take half an hour.

Rodney quickly answered two of my questions.  First, we would do the work from above and, in the interests of efficiency, would not cut the boards to manageable size.  The first task was to go up on the roof and remove the old boards.  The top boards, which lay on the roof are nailed to the vertical boards which were too short.  Using crow bars and armed with the energy you get from doing any fundamentally destructive job, we made short work of the old boards. 

Removal of the old boards afforded me my first glimpse at how extensively the birds had colonized the eaves.  The angles formed by the structure of the roof had created nice cozy rectangular boxes that were packed with nest material.  I don’t know how the birds could have gotten into the nests much less laid eggs and raised young.  I had to pry the stuff out of the crevices, all the while cantilevered over the edge of the roof. 

It would have been bad enough under normal circumstances but the stench was absolutely phenomenal.  Of course a lot of the stuff had extruded itself into the inside as well:

Once I had wedged most of the nest material out of the cracks I then water blasted the entire area with a high pressure hose.  It was the only way to get rid of all the encrusted guano etc.

The next day, after everything had dried out, we again went aloft to install the new boards.  The plan called for nailing in the side boards and then reinstalling the old top boards.  To do the job we had to determine where nails were needed by measuring, get them started by hammering them in halfway and then slinging the board over the side of the roof and holding it in place in defiance of gravity until we could pound in the nails the rest of the way. 

It would have been a totally impossible job with one person but the two of us managed it.  We did let the board slip once and more than a couple of nails flew off into oblivion but the job wasn’t that bad.  Not only that, because just last month I’d painted the roof white, we didn’t fry like eggs on the metal roof in the hot sun.  It was actually rather comfortable except you needed sunglasses!

In this picture I’m on the left and despite what you might think, I’m not in the fetal position because of acrophobia or ornithophobia.  I’m sighting along the roof line to check where the new boards need to be installed:

Here I am supervising Rodney.  Note the Styrofoam sheets put into the openings to further discourage avian incursions:

Installing the second board:

Although we now had a nice overlap over the siding I wasn’t going to take any chances.  We found some foam packing material that is flat on one size and shaped like corrugated material on the other side.  I packed it into the opening to prevent anything larger than an ant penetrating the defensive shield.

With that flourish, I have now declared victory over the sparrows.  They seem to have moved to a poplar tree at the other end of the driveway. 

I hope they are happy there!

Do I Have Your Attention Now?