Paranoid Android

So, at last, I’ve joined the world of Android (no, I’m not a mad person in the Arizonan Dessert, convinced of Alien abduction – although…).  I am, in fact, talking about my new phone (this is the point where my friends yawn and switch off, as it’s been a constant source of updates on Facebook from me this week).  Let’s just say a lot of ooo-ing and ahhh-ing has been done.

On my quest to keep up to date with technology (and the fact that anything to do with communication is just right up my alley), I’ve purchased a poor man’s iphone.  This being an LG GT540.  I must stop calling it a poor man’s iphone because it’s stunning (and it’s a million percent upgrade for me).

I must admit that although I expected it to be good (especially since I was coming from a pay as you go Nokia handset that did, well, what a phone was supposed to do, phone people), I never expected it to be this good.

Not since my earlier ipad encounter (see “back to the future with ipad –  http://bit.ly/fHrN62) earlier in 2010 have I been so in awe.  Frankly, I couldn’t afford an iphone at this time, so after some careful research (and wooing by O2’s online help chat operator, Ross. OK, so he just answered my questions, it’s his job, but work with me here), I decided to go the route of an Android phone.  I’m pleased I did, just imagine what it would have done to me to pass go, straight to an iphone?  I am sure I would have had to lie down for a week in a darkened room to recover.

At first, I felt like everyone would find it silly and, like, so last year of me to be excited over this fairly new (old to some) technology, but I’m glad that I’m full of wonderment.  These days, everyone is so damn cool, this is amazing stuff we can do with the little black thing that fits in your pocket.  I feel positively elated!  I want to get excited about new technology or new discoveries.  I want to amazed, I want to woo and ahhhh.  Why not?

Needless to say, I have been downloading every possible App that I think I might need.  Of course, I’ll need “Cocktail Hero” to see me through the tricky days of either ordering a cocktail or heaven forbid, making one.  I absolutely need the Periodic Table, Retro Camera, Sky News, Wine Companion, Table of Elements, Compass, the genius “Find my Car” App, LED Flashlight and a set of Police lights complete with Sirens.  Duh!  It even tells me where my nearest pub is.  OK, so I knew that, I live in a village.

So, come on people, don’t be a Paranoid Android, grab your phone by the horns (I bet there’s not an App for that yet!) wake up and be excited!

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Death By Llama

The Sat Nav tells us we have reached our destination, but I’m looking around and all I can see is road and fields.  It’s some ungodly hour on a beautiful Sunday morning, and we are driving up and down the B3227 in Devon trying to find a Llama farm.

After a phone call and another attempt, we find a man on the side of the road, nailing a sign to a post.  It has an arrow pointing to our right with the word Llama on it.  The man looks like Phil Collins but we assume he is in fact the owner of the Exmoor Llama Farm we are trying to find.

We park up at an unassuming house on the side of the road, where we are led through the gate and enter on foot via a driveway leading to several acres of glorious land.  Here we get our first glimpses of the Llamas we will shortly be introduced to.

Phil, sorry Chris, asks if we would like any tea or coffee and since our bodies are still in Sunday morning shock, we accept with enthusiasm and are left for a brief while to admire these stunning animals and the surroundings.

The Llamas look on with utter disdain and because I am by nature, a cowardly, cowardly custard (or cowdy custard as I used to say as a kid), I begin to wonder if this is a good idea. Gingerly, I walk towards the fence.

 

Domingo the Llama

 

The first thing I notice is that they are extremely tall, at least 6ft and it takes me aback.  They are funny looking creatures, quite majestic, feminine like, with long eye lashes.  They look like a cross between a Camel, a Giraffe and some made up animal.  (I have images in my head of a God’s kingdom version of crime watch, with a cherub in police uniform and a sketch pad, trying to do a primitive photo-fit.  “No, no” God is saying “he was more like a kind of camel with fluff and no humps”.  Cherub is now looking at God like he is loopy loo).

I suddenly remembered that its Alpacas that I like, but this being a birthday gift, which I should have booked onto over a year ago, it’s a bit late to worry about that now.  Besides, how many people get to do Llama walking in the middle of the English countryside on their weekends off?

Chris’s Wife, Tracey, wades through the long grass to deliver some much needed refreshments.  It’s all very English with proper crockery and a wonderful array of biscuits (10 out of 10 for those).  We sit in the morning sun, sipping coffee and listening to an introduction to Llama’s and their behaviour.  I had no idea there was so much to learn!

Chris and Tracey keep five Llamas altogether, four males and a female; the Llamas also share the land with some ancient breeds of Sheep.  They have been keeping Llamas for two years but have been learning about them for some time before that.

The weirdest thing about Llamas is that they don’t really like each other (or anyone else for that matter).  They are herd animals but more through necessity.  In fact, they merely tolerate one another for survival.

Llamas constantly use their ears and tails to communicate with each other.  Apparently, when their ears are straight up in the air they are relaxed, pinned back is a sign they are stressed or uncomfortable and forward means they are inquisitive about something.

What really made me laugh, is that they kept invading each other’s personal space and at all times look as though they are about to “go” at each other handbag style.

 

“Move Doris” “No, you move first”

 

So, after being told we can’t stroke or touch them, they are easily spooked, they can kick, spit and they generally hate us, we look forward to our relaxing walk around the farm.

We step into the Llama’s Den.  Their ears are going ten to the dozen.  They crowd around us like a gaggle of women fighting to get into a Next sale.  It’s quite a comical experience, they step towards you, you do the same, and they step back.  (Do you Cha Cha Cha)?

They are not very tactile creatures and don’t like to be stroked (and if you do stroke them it has to be on the side of their neck with the back of your hand only).  So here we are, in the middle of a field, with a bunch of stressed out Llamas, whose ears are constantly pinned back (and we paid for this?).

The next problem we have, is that they don’t like to be harnessed – it gets better.  You have to catch them and corner them and there’s a knack to not getting them spooked.  I decide to sit this one out and leave it up to the boys.

They do get harnessed eventually and because the biggest Llama, the pack leader, the top, well, Llama as it were, is chasing us (apparently to assert his dominance and they get jealous), I let Chris lead mine out of the pen.

I finally take the harness and start to lead him down the trail.  Now, when I say start to lead him, what actually happens is that he doesn’t move.  I can see Andy and Chris way ahead of me, Andy’s Llama obediently following by the side of him.  I was told to gently tug on the leash and that they understand the command “walk on”.

These being very sensitive animals, you are unable to tug with any kind of force.  So, I tug gently, use the command; now, what was it again?  (Come on Mr Llama?  Please?  Oh, for God’s sake?), he digs his weird looking two toe hobbit feet in and we have a stand off until deadlock is broken by Chris, who comes to help me out.

We stroll along for a bit, mostly with me in the thick bracken and him on the nice even path, occasionally pulling me over to where ever he wants to graze.  All is gentle and calm, until he suddenly spooks himself by walking in the thick bracken.  The noise makes him jump, can you believe it?  He pulls ahead for a short distance with me in tow.

 

complete control

 

I really enjoyed the relaxed – about as chilled out as a Seal with an ice pick in it’s head – walk but I am glad that we arrive back at the pen safely.

The other Llama’s are now gathering near the fence to see what’s going on, vying for a look, all eyelashes and noses in the air, like a WAG’s outing.

I follow Chris and Andy into the pen, where thankfully my Llama is taken off of me by Chris.  The boys walk off to the other side and set our Llamas free.  Just before this, Chris handed me a box to look after.  I look down at it and when I look up, I am completely surrounded by Llamas.  They are so close, it feels like I have fainted and woken up with a crowd of people staring down at me.

I realise that the box handed to me is full of carrots and it quickly dawns on me that they too realise this.  With Emu like behaviour, they start furiously pecking at the box.

I panic a little.  Then I say “shoe” to the Llamas (who the hell says shoe these days?).  They are not so spooked now are they!  I shout for help, but the boys are busy talking and at that moment, I truly believe that I’m not going to get out of there alive.

I do of course get out alive and in the safety of the pub, I reflect on my war wounds and conclude that I had a truly wonderful time walking with Llamas.  It was one of my dreams to own, amongst other animals, a Llama as a pet, but I think I can cross that one off my list now!

 

Wait for me!

 

Further information: A two hour session including walking with the Llamas plus refreshments costs £30.00 for two people.  I went to Exmoor Llamas in Oakford, Devon (http://www.exmoorllamas.co.uk/).  You may not be the only people to attend and if there are two of you within a group you may have to share a Llama.  There are other walks and adventures available.

Conclusion: I highly recommend this experience to anyone.  Chris was an excellent host, great fun and the session was very informative.  I had a great time, despite my worries.  After all, I could get scared of a Nat!

Psoriasis: Made you look, made you stare …

I’ve re-written this piece about ten times so far.  It never seems to come out right.  Maybe it’s because it’s something that’s secretly still quite raw for me, even twelve years later.  Something that put me at the centre of attention, for all the wrong reasons.  Something that has had such an impact on the way I view people in general, that perhaps I can’t do it justice.

My hope in these Psoriasis diaries is not to make people feel sorry for us sufferers, nor to make them feel icky and uncomfortable but just to give an account of personal experiences that may lead to some understanding or helpful to someone who might need it (anyway it’s good for the soul to get it out).

It’s as much about understanding people’s reactions as it is Psoriasis and could be applied to lots of other conditions.

So, when, twelve years ago, I made my daily commute in the madness that is London, packed into a bus like a Sardine, I experienced ignorance, shock and fear at first hand.  I can tell you, that was pretty hard to bear at the time.  It’s now something that I am used to dealing with here and there (although I’m fairly clear of the condition at the moment) but people’s reactions will always fascinate me.

The phrase “I just wanted the world to open up and swallow me” is used far too often and doesn’t even cover it, but I think I’m safe in applying the phrase to this experience.

So there I am, clinging to the ceiling straps of the bus, armpits in my face (cue Alan Partridge, Lynx Africa scene).  Surly bus drivers, agitated people and those friendly London folk screaming at you to “MOVE DOWN THE BUS” at every stop, when it’s already packed to the rafters.  I had to get this bus or risk being late for work (again).

My skin was very dry that week and as the rough ride continued, people started to look furtively in my direction.  I didn’t think this strange, it’s a dog eat bus world in London on a good day and it’s best to just snarl back.

It wasn’t until I felt a wet sensation, that I realised what they were staring at.  No, I hadn’t wet myself (not this time anyway – I was sober!), they were all staring at the fact that my knuckles had cracked and split open and blood was trickling down my sleeve (thank god for black darlings!).

There was nothing I could do, the bus wasn’t going stop for me, (that would be unheard of) so I had to grin and bear it for the duration.

As the journey continued, the shock and fear on people’s faces was becoming obvious (they weren’t the only ones!).  They looked on with suspicion (ah, that great London trait) and no one bothered to ask me if I was OK.  One youngish girl stood looking me up and down like I was the mud on the bottom of her shoe or like she was about to catch some awful disease (you won’t get anything from my skin love, but I can’t guarantee the rest of me!  Not that I have any diseases, you understand, in fact, scrap that and move on!)

It wasn’t painful, so the best thing I could do was just to try and shut everyone around me out.  By this time, my face was as red as the blood from my very hand.  I carried on looking out of the window as we whizzed past buildings, just wishing it to be over.  With resentment and anger building up inside me, I fought back the tears.  There’s no way you are making me cry Mrs!  I thought, only Cilla’s “Surprise Surprise” can do that!

When my stop came, I couldn’t wait to get off that bus.  I can’t actually remember what happened after that journey, I guess I went into work, cleaned myself up and carried on as normal.

I do remember going home and having a good old cry (and a big glass/bottle/bucket of red, which I find always helps.  There’ll be loads of “good” Psoriasis sufferers now, screaming, alcohol?  That makes it 10 times worse!  Yes, but you got to live a life eh?).

I hadn’t thought about this much until last year, when I had to remember my worst incident for a campaign I took part in (but more of that another time).

And so the moral of the story is?  Yep, you’ve got it, Black is always in fashion, in my world, and consider carrying a clean hanky in case of emergencies!  Oh, but seriously though, err, nope, sorry, I think that actually is the moral of this story!

Stop, Look and Listen

“He’s terribly ill,” said Mrs P very upset, “he’s just come out of hospital”.  She then went on to explain the extent of his arthritis, how he, her son, had suffered so much being chopped about, poked and prodded by the surgeons.

“Oh dear,” I replied empathetically, “that’s awful”.  She then carried on telling me the in’s and out’s of past operations, hospital stays and the like.  I was half listening, multi-tasking, trying to work out the cost of what she was buying in the shop, conscious that there were other customers to serve.  However, in Somerset, we don’t like to rush people out of the door, so the conversation continues as I acknowledge the other customer waiting.  They can see she is an elderly lady and besides it would have been rude to interrupt her in mid flow.

My concentration had lapsed a couple of times I know, and coupled with having an industrial fan blowing in my ears, I knew I hadn’t caught the full conversation.

“Well,” she continues “it took two nurses to pick him up”.  Must be quite a large man, I thought (assumption number one).

“He wouldn’t move, he wouldn’t even get up to go to the loo and refused to eat anything but home roasted chicken,” she added.  Well, I thought, either he is seriously ill or he is one big Mummy’s boy! (assumption number two).

The somewhat one sided conversation continued in the same vein.  “In the end,” she gasped “they sent him back home with me, they said they couldn’t cope with him, he just wanted to be with his Mum”.  That’s a bit much, I was thinking, to send a seriously ill man home (assumption number three).

Intrigued, I probe further “Ah, how old is he then?” I asked, “8” she replied.  I was flabbergasted.  8?  How old was she when she had him for God’s sake?  I mean, I know people have them a lot older these days, but she can hardly manage the stairs, let alone procreation!  I’m stunned, and I know I look at her in a strange way.

She hesitated, then said “he’s very good for his age, I suppose”.  My mind was racing, who are we talking about, the father?  The son?

I sought to clarify, fascinated, so I ask “how do you mean?”

“Well, they usually only live until they are around 9 years old”, she informed me.  My imagination is now getting the better of me.  Does she mean her children only seem to last until this age?  I’m very confused and a little concerned.  Where are social services when you need them?

She continues her tale and tells me she has had four before, all only reaching the age of seven or eight, and began to tell me their names.

“So, let me see” she said “first there was Snowy, he died of a Brain Tumour, Blacky, he died of old age, Charlie had stomach problems and now there’s Fred”.

I ask “Will you have another one?”, “No, she said “I don’t think I could cope with the grooming at my age”.

Africa: Life Saving Peanut Product takes a Pasting

This is an article written for AfricanBrains: http://africanbrains.org/

I was reminded of an advert I saw as a kid, you know, the one for Peanut Butter.  The advert showed a bunch of kids opening a jar secretly.  When the jar lid came off, a godly golden shine glared from within.  The kids looked on in wonderment.  A relatively recent invention of a Peanut based paste, which could save the lives of millions of African children, means the sun really has got its hat on.

The paste, is packed with nutritional content, is easy to transport, easy to dispense and doesn’t need anything else to support it (i.e. water, refrigeration or electricity).  Mothers can also take a supply home, cutting down the need for expensive Hospital stays.

The product, called Plumpy‘Nut, is unassuming in its silver, red and white packaging.  On the outside, it looks like a nutritional snack bar you could buy from any health food shop in Britain today.  But this little packet, filled with an edible paste, is revolutionary in providing a ready to eat supplement, saving many children, on the brink of starvation.

Invented by French Doctor, André Briend, the company Nutriset (http://www.nutriset.fr/) now own the Patent.   The Patent covers the production of nutritional paste-type foods.  It means that they can prevent non-licensees from producing similar products.  This has sparked challenges to the Patent.  The argument being that the Patent is too broad.  Two non-profit companies have now filed a suit against Nutriset.

So, it begs the question, should this product be protected by a commercial Patent?  In brief, Nutriset say it is necessary to restrict the production, so that competitors in the US are not able to cash in on this opportunity.  From the other side, however, they say that there should be no restrictions on the development or production of humanitarian foods.  It’s a complex issue that takes some looking into.

The argument and invention have been well documented over the last few years and there is much to weigh up.  However, to a layman, such as myself, it is extremely hard to comprehend.  Surely, if you have a product that can save so many lives, you should be doing all you can to distribute it?

People around the globe have been starving all my life.  It’s been more than 20 years since Live Aid and those haunting news scenes burst onto our screens.  It’s unimaginable that we may have a solution in our grasp and even more unimaginable that it’s now embroiled in a feud of this kind.

Sources:

http://www.nutriset.fr/http://www.independent.co.uk/http://www.irinnews.org/http://www.nytimes.com/

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/,https://www.globalhealth.org/

The Wicked Witch of the West Country

Yes, I’m sure that’s how I’m known around these here parts, but guess what, I don’t care! (cue cackling laughter).

I have a bug bear and it’s screaming at me to off load it, whatever happened to parental control?  You can see it on your PC, you can see on your Sky box but you can’t see it on the ground.  As a shop owner, it’s a constant source of amazement and agitation, that a whirl wind can just come in and wreck your stock in a matter of minutes.

No, it’s not a natural disaster, nor is it a crime wave, it’s utterly useless Mr and Mrs Frampton-Major-Pong-Pong and their darling Millie’s and Tilliy’s.

I see them coming up the road, my shoulders tense, my breathing gets shallower, a snifter of Brandy comes out from under the counter and I get ready to do battle.  It’s so uncommon to see a well behaved 1-5 year old child in the shop these days, that I feel like getting the Champers out every time I come across one of these rare species.  Eureka!  I’ve found one, quick get the cage!

We are seriously thinking of introducing free, designer reigns to give a not so subtle hint to the Parents.  I used to have reigns as a child when being taken around a busy town centre.  I don’t remember feeling oppressed by this, physically I never suffered either.  With all the paranoia of child abduction, I’m genuinely surprised that these are not in general circulation.

These days we are not supposed to hurt the little darling’s sensibilities, but when they are in my domain, I feel compelled to step in and do the Parents job for them or risk some of our customer orders getting obliterated.  A short sharp NO usually does the trick (see Cesar Millan for further advice).  The child is usually so surprised that they a: have been told no or b: that anyone actually means it, and that it’s usually enough.

But what amazes me more, is some of the reactions from Parents, they can’t seem to believe that you’ve been so cruel as to deny them the right to have total disregard for people and their belongings.

It’s hard to concentrate on a consultation when you are  having to keep one eye on the menace running around screeching and grabbing anything in site (you can stop that now Dad).

With small independents like us, it’s an uphill battle to make a living but we’ve made our choice and that’s how it is.  However, unlike Sainsbury’s or the like, we can’t afford to write off stock as damaged, it comes out of our own pockets.  So, when it does happen, it hits us personally.

When are Parents going to feel embarrassed that they can’t control their children and take responsibility?  Why isn’t there the help out there for Parents who find themselves isolated and unable to cope?  I’m sure they don’t want the stress either, day in and day out.  I do have some sympathy, I’m not a complete Witch, it must be very hard, when you are tired and overworked.  I can empathise with that.  Perhaps, there should be child training classes, like there is for dogs?  Or perhaps next time, I should just pop them in my cauldron.  Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble!

Africa Calling: Freedom Fone

This is an article written for AfricanBrains: http://africanbrains.org/

With many Farmers in the developing world not having access to the internet or a computer, the ability to get information delivered and give remote communities a voice via interactive technology is a welcome arrival.

Many of us in the Western world will already be familiar with ringing up a call centre and confronted with a voice menu with options to choose from e.g. “Press 1 for scream”, but for Farmers located in rural Africa this type of technology opens up a vital world of communication.

Freedom Fone (http://freedomfone.org/) is a platform that uses an ordinary mobile or landline together with Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology, to deliver audio information in any language.  The technology allows a system to detect voice and keyboard input, which means people can listen and/or contribute audio content such as questions or feedback.  It’s simple, affordable technology.

Free calls can be made by providing a toll-free number and callers can contribute by leaving voice messages or listening to information updates.  Kubatana.net (http://kubatana.net/), the parent organisation of Freedom Fone, in Zimbabwe, says “there is no geographical or community size restrictions to the implementation”.

The technology could be invaluable to delivering critical and timely information in emergency situations.  For example, typhoid epidemics or providing support for victims of abuse.  This could also open up opportunities for companies to reach individuals who have valuable skills and business ideas to contribute.

Farm Radio International (http://www.farmradio.org), is an organisation which uses radio, in conjunction with partner broadcasters, to reach thousands of remote communities.  Under their African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI) project, they intend to introduce new technologies and have recently gone live with Freedom Fone on two radio stations in Tanzania and Ghana.

They reported that on one radio station, the hotline received 2,499 calls, with messages lasting anywhere between 10 seconds and three minutes.  Farmers rang in with their stories of what they had learnt from the broadcast.

However, the technology is not without its challenges, not least power, along with the quality of hardware used, staff training and callers being confused by how to use the system.  For example, after running an interactive poll at one of the radio stations, some callers were confused about how to submit a vote.  Aside from this, the initial response from all sides has been extremely positive.  Another project is planned to be run at Rite FM (http://www.ritefmonline.com/), a radio station outside the greater Accra region in Ghana.

Other future plans include the launch of Freedom Fone Version 2.5, due to be made available in December 2010.  This new version will include a function which allows a call back facility.  The idea being that this could allow users to purchase prepaid airtime, for unlimited monthly access.  Subscribers would be informed whenever useful or critical information appears.

To sum up, Bartholomew Sullivan, a regional ICT Officer for AFRRI, says “We believe that voice is still the richest medium for getting information to rural people.  The challenge is to also not cut out those people who are not super savvy and keep it as simple as possible”.

Related articles/websites/sources:

http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2010/08/how-freedom-fone-helped-create-participatory-radio-in-africa215.html

http://www.nten.org/blog/2010/08/31/press-2-chickens-innovating-radio-stations-africa

http://www.freedomfone.org/

http://kubatana.net/html/ff/ff_cont.asp

http://www.farmradio.org/english/donors/home.asp