Monthly Archives: September 2013

Einstein couldn’t swim



It’s been a crazy sort of week. A really good week but at the end of it I find myself dithering around and at a loss to know what to write about. This is not unusual. But it’s usually because I have too many things to choose from. This time it’s different. This time my mind is a bit like those squares of soft plastic that come in the boxes of stuff you buy from Amazon. And I’m not talking about bubble wrap; that would be interesting, at least you can pop it.

In the past weeks I’ve written about the danger of using mobile phones when driving, public address systems in airports, my deceased cat Eric and his life as a spy, sausages, cows, coastlines and contemporary art. I also love to write about the wacky, mad things people do and strange unknown facts. So, while I get my head together for next week, here are some things I’ve just discovered. They’re the sort of things that brighten up my life and make me smile. The links to the sites where I found them are at the end of this post. So, Einstein couldn’t swim and …

Isaac Newton invented the cat flap

Walt Disney – creator of Micky Mouse – was afraid of mice

The Tory (Conservative) party was founded by a group of Irish Catholic bandits. The name comes from the Irish for outlaw or bandit. They’re certainly living up to their origins.

Virginia Wolfe wrote all her books standing up.

Pigs love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, except for the Mint Oreo flavour.

There’s a spider named after Harrison Ford.

Goethe could only write if he had an apple rotting in the drawer of his desk.

In 1980 Saddam Hussein was given the key to the city of Detroit.

Elephants purr like cats.

Bats always turn left when they leave their caves.

Tigers don’t just have striped fur, they have striped skin.

The Founder of Pringles was buried in a Pringles can.

Here are the links: – Article Review Writers, Huffington Post, RCASteel, Useless Facts, Freepages, Funology, The Archive.

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“All of a sudden my hand was empty.”


A couple of weeks ago I made a grown man cry.  He didn’t actually break down but had a hard job trying not to. Why? What did I do?

I made a speech.

I made a speech at my wonderful Early Birds Toastmaster’s club about the consequences of using mobile phones while driving. The purpose of that particular project, speech 9, is to persuade with power. I had some qualms about giving this speech to an audience of sensible, bright, intelligent people, as I did not believe that anyone who fits that description can possibly imagine they can control a car while holding the wheel with one hand, still less text at the same time, still less watch a video. I assumed I would be preaching to the converted. I was in for a shock.

I’d already had quite a shock when I researched the subject. I had intended to speak about holding phone conversations, specifically using hand-held devices and maybe mention texting. However, once I started to look into it I found that events had overtaken me. Not only is the use of phones in cars apparently accepted but texting is going the same way. It’s already endemic in the States but is rapidly taking hold here too. And it will come as no surprise to hear that the number of accidents and fatalities where phones were a contributory factor is rising steadily.

The thing that most alarms me and makes me despair is the creeping normality of it. Unbelievable as it seems nowadays, there was a time when drinking and driving was normal. Everybody did it. But the fatalities mounted, campaigns were instigated and gradually people’s perception changed. But not before many people had been injured or died needlessly. Though there will always be some people who ignore the dangers, nevertheless these days drinking and driving is just not acceptable. Sadly this is not the case with the use of mobiles and other devices.  You just have to look at some of the new car models – with screens on the dashboard and Internet access. Some do have ‘eyes free’ voice activation as a safety device – but still.

Anything you do in a car besides driving it is a distraction. You’re in control of what is in effect a lump of metal travelling at speed. Those seconds of inattention can kill or maim you or someone else and should that happen it’s guaranteed to change your life forever. When you are driving a car you need to have every single sense alert, to be listening as well as looking. If you are speaking on the phone, dialling, fiddling with the radio or Satnav or, God forbid, texting you are not alert. And although you may be the best driver in the world you have to allow for the fact that there will be at least one idiot on your stretch of road and, in all probability, more than one. You have to anticipate their movements so you can take avoiding action where necessary.

When I made this speech I deliberately made it personal. I wanted people to stop and think how they’d feel if they killed someone. If they killed a child, deprived a family of their dad, their mum, a brother, a sister. How would they feel if they killed a friend travelling in the car with them, or a member of their own family? Or, to look at it from a totally selfish point of view, a few seconds inattention could cost you your licence, your job, your home and could land you in prison. It might be you who will spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair, who ends up brain dead. It might be your family who has the expense of adapting the house and the agony of seeing you incapacitated.

We all do stupid things. We are all capable of being distracted but we can minimise the effect. I don’t use my phone in the car but that doesn’t make me a saint. I am just as likely as anyone else to get infuriated by other drivers, to get impatient to be tempted to take risks. When I do I have a technique that works really well. I imagine that I have family in the car with me or if not that the woman in the vehicle ahead is my sister, the man walking along the pavement is my dad, that the young boy riding the bicycle that’s holding me up is my nephew. Believe me, it puts everything in perspective. So I’m late for a meeting – is that worth a life?

The distinguished German film director and producer Werner Herzog has recently made a 35 -minute documentary sponsored by the American cell service provider, AT&T and also supported by other groups. Entitled “From One Second to the Next” it follows to ‘a series of public service TV commercials he has already directed for the company aimed at youngsters to get them to stop texting and driving. The fact that the mobile providers themselves are spending money to discourage this behaviour is significant and welcome.

The Herzog film is powerful. The image above is the first image in the film; in the voiceover the child explains that she was walking along the pavement with her brother, hand in hand and ‘all of a sudden my hand was empty.” Her hand was empty because her brother had been mowed down by a car driven by a young girl who was texting. The little brother ‘X’ is now a paraplegic. I urge you to watch. Please watch it. It’s so easy to think it may not happen to us or indeed that it’s all a big fuss about nothing. I don’t think you’ll think that when you’ve seen the film.

I was shocked by the research and I was even more shocked by the reaction to my speech. I thought I was preaching to the converted. I wasn’t. So many people came up afterwards and said that yes, they used their phones when driving and yes, texted as well. The phones were not a great surprise, the texting certainly was. I didn’t set out to make anyone cry but couldn’t help but be gratified that my words had evoked such a response. I was also gratified by the amount of people who told me the speech had jolted them, who went on to look at the video and resolved not to use their phones in the car again. Here’s the link to the film again – we should all watch it from time to time. Just to remind ourselves of the devastation that can be caused by a moment’s avoidable distraction.

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The Joy of Travel

No. 5 – Airport Announcements

I have no idea how many people pass through Stanstead every year – millions. Maybe  billions. I assume that most of them reach their destinations,with or without their luggage. Which is something of a miracle if my recent experience is anything to go by. The incomprehensible screeching that passed for public announcements would do a good job of shattering glass and put any self-respecting parrot to shame. As to fulfilling its purpose – forget it.

Where on earth do they recruit these people? What criteria do they use in interviews? Do they only select those whose voices are so sharp they could cut a diamond? Or maybe they choose perfectly normal people with perfectly normal voices, though with a preference for those on the shrill side and send them to boot camps. Boot camps where recruits are required to speak at a given speed – getting faster and faster as they progress towards their diplomas. Somewhat along the lines of the old speed typing tests except with a requirement to run the words all together so as to be indistinguishable, one from the other. With extra brownie points for slurring.

Bad as it was in the departure hall, the situation at the boarding gate was even worse. I was a going to try to replicate it here to try and give some idea of what it sounded like but the nearest I can get to describing the tone is the sound of nails being scraped down a blackboard or the high pitched shriek of metal grinding against metal – and not in a good way. The only two words I caught were ‘the back’.  Were we to were to board from the back (no sniggering please) or was the plane was for some unaccountable reason going to fly backwards or were we all to be herded back to departures? Impossible to tell. If we’d suddenly been rerouted to the moon we’d be none the wiser.

The long line of hopefuls milled about like sheep that were one dog short of directions. When I approached the desk I fared no better. I still couldn’t understand a word. All I achieved was more confusion, a cold stare and hurty ears. It wasn’t much better on board. Given the vital importance of some safety instructions this is less annoying than alarming. We are all a bit blasé these days about life jackets and whistles and stuff – we know its more to reassure us than a having any practical use. But the stuff about electronic equipment really does need more than a quick slur. And why not spell it out – mobile phones, MP3 players, iPads and computers can all make the plane crash. That at least might make some people sit up and take notice. That is if they could take those earphones out of their ears for three seconds.

The captain has just made an announcement. All I understood was that we are makings good progress, despite being bounced about like a celestial tennis ball. Whatever he did say was, I imagine, meant to reassure us. A bit pointless since he too seems to have been to boot camp with the rest of them. Bet he got top marks for slurring.

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