Post from January, 2014


Friday, 31. January 2014 16:21

I’m reading Hemingway. Yay, me. Actually, when I say reading Hemingway, I mean his short stories. Yeah, I know, he wrote some great novels, but I’ve not read them. I read a lot of his shorts about ten years ago and now I’m reading them again. He’s brilliant, of course, which is why a lot of people say, “He’s brilliant”. He wrote in a minimalist style, which he described as the Iceberg Theory: he describes the surface details, but much of the story lies beneath the surface. To be honest, Hemingway’s surface details do it for me, I’m a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of guy, which means his shorts are a perfect lunchtime read. I’m not against looking below the surface, but that’s more than a lunchtime for me and lunchtimes tend to be short. I don’t get paid while lunching.

I wrote a very short story a few years back titled Hemingway’s Ashtray. If you’re interested, you won’t even need a lunch break, it’s a fag-break kind of story and you can read it here:

I read a lot of Heinlein in my twenties. Robert Heinlein, that is. Novel length. Perhaps best known for Stranger In A Strange Land, he was one of the so-called Big Three science fiction authors way back when, before Star Trek, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. In fact, I probably got bitten by the science fiction bug by reading the likes of Asimov and Clarke when I was in my teens, their short stories appearing in a magazine around that time. Heinlein came later to me.

He was a popular author back then, Old Heinlein. I once flew from Dusseldorf to Milan, and while I was waiting to leave the plane some American guy, who introduced himself as Randy, noticed I was holding a Heinlein novel and we talked Heinlein all the way through arrivals. It turned out he’d been in Dusseldorf for the same medical systems exhibition that I’d been to and was down in Milan for another one of the same, like me. I was there as an engineer to keep a particular piece of kit working during the exhibition and spent my time on the stand with the marketing team from the Italian national company, none of whom I’d met before. In fact, I knew no-one in Italy at all. They treated me well, these marketeers, they were good hosts, and I never had to pay for anything, not one dinner, not even a lunch.

A few days into the exhibition in Milan a group of people from an (apparently) important client company visited the stand. As the group moved onto the stand, Randy suddenly burst from the middle of the group and headed straight for me. He shook my hand and greeted me enthusiastically by name, like an old friend. It turned out he had a good position within the client organisation, and the way he greeted me threw my Italian colleagues into confusion, much to my amusement.

I read a Heinlein novel once in which a character kept shifting between alternate universes. Each universe was almost exactly like the previous one, but different in some important way. Years later, long after I was through my Heinlein phase – I’d read most of his stuff by then – I thought I’d give his novels another spin, so I went into town and walked around the bookshops (this was back in the days before we had Amazon and there was a choice of bookshops in town). I couldn’t find a Heinlein book anywhere. Not one. I tried again the next time I was in town. And the next time. No luck. It was as though I’d shifted into an alternate universe that was almost exactly like mine, but in which Heinlein had never existed. Fortunately, though today most bookshops around here tend not to carry many of his books (perhaps two or three), everything is available online. Even Heinlein. (Yay).

There are two things in particular that have stayed with me from Heinlein’s stories. The first is the word ‘grok’, which comes from Stranger In A Strange Land, and you probably have to read the book to really understand the word, though you’ll find definitions if you Google it. The second is TANSTAAFL. If you’re familiar with Heinlein you won’t need me to explain that. Not that Heinlein originally came up with it, but it appears more than once in his works, and it stands for There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. A simple concept and a simple truth, one that I’m often reminded of.

Speaking of lunch, there’s an item on the BBC web site news page today titled, Outrage after student lunches thrown out at Utah school. You may have seen it. If you haven’t, you can find it here:

The article centres on an incident in which a bunch of students queued up for and were served a school meal and went to the till, only to find that their parents were in arrears on meal payments. Someone at the school made the decision to take the meals away from the students. At this point the food, having already been served, could not be offered to other students, so it was thrown away.

Parents were outraged and said their children had been humiliated. One parent said the way the school handled the situation was needless and mean.  Two state senators vowed to address the school policies if the school officials fail to. One senator said it amounted to bullying.

Now, far be it for me to disagree with a senator, but I like to do a little root cause analysis in situations like this. Sure, you can take it up with the school. Go ahead. But it does say in the article that the previous day someone at the school had tried to contact parents who were in arrears to recoup payment because of the high number of negative balances.  That seems pretty reasonable to me, and not at all like bullying. Besides, you can change the school policy, but that doesn’t solve the problem of children taking meals when their accounts are in arrears. You see, the school policy wasn’t the real cause of the problem.

So we have to look at why the accounts were in arrears, and for that we have to turn to the parents, the same people accusing the school of being mean. If we want a solution to this problem, surely it’s the negative balances that need to be addressed. If you address those, the school policy doesn’t even have to change and the state senators can spend their time dealing with bigger issues. So come on, Utah parents. Take responsibility. Take responsibility for the humiliation your children suffered, take responsibility for making sure your childrens’ meal accounts are in credit, and stop blaming the school.  After all, TANSTAAFL.

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