Thursday, July 31, 2008

the new dumb

I've said this before but I don't tired of pointing it out. It is stunning how green has become the new dumb. Those caring for the environment and striving for a sustainable lifestyle used to be ridiculed as tree huggers. Now everyone professes to be one – mostly for the wrong reasons and often with unintended consequences.

Take British Gas, one of the major energy providers in the UK. Probably afraid of a bad reputation because of permanently rising costs to consumers, they chose to do something for their image. The consulting company they charged with that task came up with an ingenious and spectacularly flawed scheme, which I hesitate calling a solution. They decided to mail a set of four energy-saving light bulbs to each of their 18 million customers.

I'm one of them, and I had to go to the post office today to pick up the package that was too big to be delivered through my mail slot. When I entered, a frayed lady exited, all aggravated, muttering in exasperation, "Do I have to drive to the damn post office to pick this up?" Another angry customer, and the scheme already back-fired.

What about potential green credentials? I rode my bike to pick up the package, but the lady in front of me drove. In all likelihood, she was not the only one, burning gas to pick up light bulbs that she probably doesn't need. It's 2008, and if even the rusty chandeliers in the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus are fitted with fluorescent bulbs, one can safely assume that a large part of the general populace is set.

Another reason for the failure of this scheme is the sad fact that there are two incompatible types of light sockets in the UK. The modern screw socket coexists with the simpler bayonet socket. I have two of each in my apartment. My bayonet bulbs are all energy savers; the screw ones are incandescent. What I got in the mail are bayonet bulbs. I don't know how much energy went into making and mailing them. In any case, they will just lie on a shelf waiting for those presently giving light to expire, by which time they might be superceded technologically.

Nevertheless, British Gas sends out millions of light bulbs that are potentially not needed and might go to waste, destroying resources in the process and emitting tons of carbon dioxide – all in an attempt to appear green. How dumb.

Monday, July 21, 2008

best of dylan

Tomorrow I'm flying to Amman, Jordan. I still don't have any gifts for my hosts, two friends from grad school and their families, and I have my gas account and associated charges/rates to sort out, but at least I'm mostly packed. One thing that's missing is the Best-of-Dylan CD I promised my friend.

It's curious that I would be offering Dylan with a straight face. Back in grad school I had a roommate who loved this guy's music. I didn't see anything in it and couldn't keep that to myself. I made fun of the strange mumbling sounds coming out of my roommate's stereo, but at some point the Jack of Hearts caught my attention. A great story with a twisted plot, interesting characters, and rhymes that were spot-on.

Before we parted company, I copied the CD, Blood on the Tracks (much to the delight of Columbia Records, I would expect), started listening to the other songs, and Dylan slowly got to me. Over the last five years I bought seven CDs and Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home. I absolutely love the music and the man and am ready to defend my taste in much the same way as my roommate did back in Utah – by letting the music speak for itself.

Thus I promised my friend a CD with my favorite Dylan songs. When I did it, half a year ago, I had no idea what I was in for. Finding good songs is not hard. My list of favorites runs a good three hours. What's nearly impossible is to narrow it down, to pick songs to leave out. That's why the project is still ongoing – despite my friend's constant nagging. Now I'm working the night to get this done before I head for the airport tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

beetle juice

It used to be so common and so annoying. One goes out to by the latest fancy gadget, a cheap plastic toy or build-your-own furniture. Invariably, the box would contain an obscure sheet of paper detailing usefulness and operation of the purchased product. The sheet, made on an ailing copy machine, was mostly illegible, and there was no sense in the few decipherable words. Most were not in the dictionary, and they were not connected in any way Aunt Grammar would approve of. "Be tights part E with part I together", and your new table would be up in no time.

These days, such finds are rare. Be it that international competition forces manufacturers to put effort into translations or that automatic translation programs have improved beyond recognition. The effect is clear. Comprehensible instructions and manuals have become the norm.

I miss the old days somewhat. It was always amusing to derive sense from cryptic paragraphs, a little game and moments of fun that one didn't have to pay for. It came free with the object of desire.

Imagine my joy when I encountered a brilliant example of translation gone awry the other day at breakfast. I offered juice to my Spanish-speaking guest, asking ¿quieres jugo de escarabajo? She looked at me like I was mad. ¿Escarabajo? Are you sure? That's a beetle.

Well, I was pretty confident the juice wasn't supposed to contain beetles, but it clearly said so in the Spanish list of ingredients. I had originally bought the juice because it said rose hip in the English list of ingredients. What could be the cause of this discrepancy? Is there are second rarely used meaning for the word escarabajo? The dictionary says no. Helpfully, it informs us that rose hip is escaramujo, a word that is located exactly one entry down from escarabajo.

It's surprising that in the year 2008 a commercial operation is using a person to look up a translation in a dictionary – who promptly proceeds to get it wrong. would have found the right translation in seconds and without room for error, but then a beautiful concoction wouldn't have seen the light of day, the world famous beetle juice.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


I'm afraid that, at the current rate of going, this blog will sink into hibernation before the heat of summer strikes. You're reading my fifth entry in five weeks, and I apologize for the paucity of posts. This is not what I set out to do, now a little more than three years ago. I planned to force myself to write, write, write. (Un)fortunately, life offers so much more, some of which better remain hidden from public view.

What I can write about are the mean moments at a one-hour photo the other day. I needed passport photos. As I've been living visa-free for a few years now, it's been a while since availing myself of the services of a photographer. I remember the process of having a picture taken much differently from how it unfolded.

Inside the Shepherd's Bush Happy Snaps, the salesperson asked me to stand in front of a patch of solid pastel hanging on a white wall and grabbed the point-and-shoot lazing on the counter. At this point I should have probably left, but I held out – and it got worse. With trembling arms stretched out in front of her, she turned the camera on but no additional lights, then asked me to take my glasses off because the glare from the flash would otherwise ruin the shot. Convinced that any shot would inevitably be ruined I beat a hasty retreat.

This experience was wrong on so many counts. You don't hold a camera at arm's length, and if your subjects don't move, you use a tripod. You don't use a point-and-shoot if it's supposed to earn you money. For portraits, you use diffuse lighting and maybe an indirect flash, with light arriving far from the axis of the lens. For someone who likes to take pictures and knows, in theory, what it takes to take good pictures, this was a truly evil encounter.

Later in the day, I my picture taken by a loquacious but very friendly machine in the Imperial College student union. I paid very little and got what I expected from a photo booth. The next morning, I submitted two of these mug shots together with my visa application at the Syrian embassy. The heat of the desert is calling me. Don't expect to read much two weeks from now.