March 2, 2009

Brave new world

Filed under: Canal,Geek world,misc — Duchess @ 4:40 pm

I finally got the world wide web on my boat.

It was my project for this weekend. After two and a half years of a combination of fruitless research and fervent hope that someone would bring mobile broadband to my squatting mooring spot in rural Oxfordshire, one company was suddenly boasting absolutely, totally perfect, best of all possible broadband — at least at the pub. I read it on the internet, so I knew it must be true.

Saturday’s task was to go to the shop and buy the magic bit of kit that would connect me. But because Friday was my ex husband’s birthday and today would be my Baby’s birthday, I had first promised to make a cake (in my brand new cooker) for a joint celebration.

I am well known for my cakes. This is not because I am good at baking – I am not – but because a very long time ago in England if you weren’t good at baking everyone soon discovered it. If you were a woman over 21, certainly if you had a child at school, cakes were required. The only mixes available, a fine powder to which you added water, yielded an object designed to humiliate you, flat and tasteless with a cardboard like texture.

Proper women, women whose minor children weren’t on Social Services lists, produced something called a Victoria Sponge. It was plain and yellow and sort of vanillish in flavour and had jam in the middle and, if you were very profligate or very rich, cream or buttercream on top. Though it might be lopsided, it was homemade, and your children would therefore probably not be Taken into Care.

The skill I brought to this market was discovering which over priced specialist groceries in Oxford stocked devil’s food chocolate Betty Crocker mixes in the exotic foreign foods section. Don’t knock them till you’ve tried them. I’ve heard whole classes of children, reared on homemade, smack their lips and sigh longingly at my kids, Your Mum makes lovely cakes!

Saturday I whisked up the usual courtesy of Betty Crocker and rummaged in the cupboard for extras. There were some rather jolly decorative sugar balls in gold, silver, fluorescent green and shocking pink (best before July 06, but believe me, no germ would go near anything quite that metallic) and eight candles. One and seven make eight, so that means eight candles are just right for the Baby, who turned 17 today. And six and one make seven, plus one to grow on, makes eight. So eight is equally appropriate for the Ex, sixty one last Friday.

Sorted, as the Brits say, and I thought the cake looked very pretty.

My children were sceptical about the candle calculations, but the Ex, an economist, was impressed that I had finally acquired the important life skill of making any number mean anything I liked. If I could make 8 candles work for a birthday celebration for a 17 year old and a 61 year old I could definitely be due for a million pound banker bonus.

We planned to meet for brunch, once I arrived with the cakes and the Elder Daughter caught the bus from London. But the Elder Daughter is always a bit of a wild card, and like the Lawyer Sis, invariably has an interesting reason for being late.

This one involved emergency stops, ambulances, evacuation of elderly passengers, and replacement busses. Brunch became early dinner.

We decided on a new restaurant in Oxford so I could do my errands. Even at half past four and even in a recession, there was a twenty minute wait for a table. Meanwhile, since by Act of Parliament shops can only be open for 6 hours on Sundays I was running out of time. I grabbed a takeaway menu to phone in my selection, left the family queuing for a table, and raced around the corner to the mobile phone shop to sign up for technology afloat.

That took a bit of a while and the shop might just have traded over time, what with the Angry Man screaming that his phone didn’t work and it wasn’t his fault that his phone didn’t work and the shop assistant shouting back that it wasn’t his fault either and the customer replying what about his bus fare? and then several more shop assistants plus the manager getting involved and everyone shouting, You are not listening!

It turned out that though I was requesting only a 30 day contract they had to run a full credit check on me and besides had to prove that I wasn’t someone pretending to be me asking for a full credit check for a 30 day contract. In order to prove this they had to ask me some important security questions to establish my identity. Unfortunately I hadn’t the slightest notion of the answer to any of the questions. Although I am me, I promise.

Meanwhile, the police arrived to deal with the man whose phone didn’t work and though I was worried they might possibly arrest me as well for theft of my own identity, in the end neither of us was arrested. He eventually walked out with a new handset (= telephone) and I with a dongle (= expensive thing I stick into my computer that supposedly makes the internet work on my boat).

On the boat it didn’t work. Not at all. Not even a tiny bit. So I trundled up the tow path with my laptop and my brand new dongle and my mobile (=cell) phone to see if it worked at the pub.  Nothing at all.

The whole pub took an interest while I telephoned for help and was connected to India and I argued with several helpdesk employees about whether or not a dongle could have a phone number. I maintained it could not. If it had a phone number, I could telephone it. What would that mean? Would it answer? How could it answer? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

They won. A very polite person simply asserted that a dongle must have a phone number and she would go ask her supervisor what mine was. When she came back she suggested I might like to make a note of the dongle’s number.  And then, though I did make a note of it, I never made any use of that phone number or entered it anywhere in the computer.  Nevertheless, once my dongle was allocated a phone number, it seemed it was happy and fulfilled, and I got connected, first at the pub, to everyone’s entertainment, and then on the boat too. 

In the early 90s, when the internet was pretty new, I first managed to get a computer online in the company I ran with my husband (I was always the geek in the family). Those days were before google and even before Internet Explorer. The brand new browser we used was called Mosaic. I don’t even know how we did it, but somehow we, in Oxford England, got connected to an archaeological museum in the University of California. There weren’t any pictures – God knows I didn’t expect any – just a list of what was in their collections.

It was one of the moments when I remember all the details – the time of day, the room, who was there. It seemed so extraordinary to me that I could be connected to a computer 8000 miles away.

These days I  am grumpy if I cannot buy a small toy on a Sunday afternoon without the intervention of Her Majesty’s constabulary, or the Indian sub continent, that will allow me to see, hear, and read information, or just chat, all over the world, while I float on the south Oxfordshire Canal, monument to nineteenth century engineering.

When did I become an unreasonable person?


  1. Well, I laughed till tears ran down, and when I read this to Jerry he wanted to know how this thing worked and whether you had an antenna and if so whether the slight movement that the boat might make would interfere.

    Comment by Old Woman — March 2, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

  2. What are the chances of me asking for a dongle here in the US and anyone knowing what I’m talking about?? Do you have to pay a monthly subscription on top of the price you paid for the device? Interesting.

    Comment by Midlife Slices — March 2, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

  3. I’m sure if one required a dongle in the U.S., depending on who you asked you’d either end up explaining yourself to a member of the local law enforcement or find yourself in the nearest red-light district.

    The thought that you can’t get a decent cake mix in Great Britain boggles the mind. Is cake flour and baking powder available? Dutch process cocoa?

    Comment by Jan — March 3, 2009 @ 8:13 am

  4. Oh, Duchess…you are, as the Brits say (or said when I lived there), brilliant.

    Comment by By Jane — March 3, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  5. “Jolly’ is such a jolly word! I love that word. And, dongle, that is perfect! I see that it could describe so many things…much better than my all around descriptive word ‘thingie’. So glad you’re connected, I should think you’re smiling a wide smile of satisfaction, rather like the cat who drank the cream. I would be, having navigated successfully Parliament rules and regs, an Indian help desk (bonus points here), the local law enforcement, and the perversities of technology in general. Hip Hip Hooray!

    Comment by Allison — March 3, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

  6. clever, witty, stream of consciousness style, weaving so much together in a short span…while the techie frustrations were very vivid, the cake making episodes were a delight to savour…I will be visiting more often…

    Comment by marylou — March 4, 2009 @ 12:28 am

  7. Thanks for making me laugh. If I went to my local (stateside) Radio Shack and asked for a dongle I wonder what kind of look I would get. Probably the same kind I got years ago when I went with a Brit girl to the butcher on our corner in San Francisco and she ased him nicely “Do you have scrag end of neck?”

    Comment by T P Perrin — March 5, 2009 @ 11:35 am

  8. […] Elder Son) phoned from Seattle just over a week ago.  I was on the boat, where I have recently sorted out internet access, but cell phone reception is a still a little […]

    Pingback by DuchessOmnium - Island to island » This post is not about shoes — March 24, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

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