Walking back home: joy of serendipitous pavement art

It’s not a long walk home from aerobic dance class, just five small blocks, and I’ve walked that route hundreds of times. But it’s still full of beautiful surprises. Walk home with me now and I’ll show you what I saw tonight.

  1. Small bunch of grapes, elegantly squashed.
Grapes squashed on the footpath
Squashed grapes: bouquet with a juicy shadow

2. A question mark on the footpath.

A question mark on the footpath
Huh? Just what I was wondering.

3. A gloriously decorated parking spot.

Number 23 painted in white on asphalt, with white and yellow paint squiggles.
Carpark no. 23 comes with mysterious runes.

4. A tree with a splendid pair of antennae

Photo of tree with lamp posts behind that look like insect antennae.
Is it a tree or is it a very large insect?

5. Ngaio tree growing in the gutter: good luck, darling.


6. Road cones are a beautiful sight if you’re waiting for fibre-optic cable to reach your property.

Road cones in Queen Street
Road cones in Queen Street.

7. Before installing cable, workers put squiggles everywhere. But I don’t like the look of this one.

"dunk" painted in purple on the pavement
Purple prose: but what are they going to dunk?

8. Nearly home, and it’s crab-apples and lichen: cute, ay?

Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath
Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath

As my friend Dale says, ain’t life grand? If we are lucky enough to be able to walk, such visual delights are just around the corner. If our luck stretches to a smartphone, there’s a bonus.

I tend to notice very small things, and take pleasure in them. And I’ve got a theory about why this is so. I believe that’s an echo of a Japanese aesthetic, and I thank my time in Kyoto for this extra layer of delight.

Are you a search engine or a filing cabinet?

Spectacles on a small filing cabinet that reveals untidy files.
A folder for everything: nice idea, shame about the execution thereof

On first encountering the web in 1996, like most people I was fascinated by two key questions: how can I find information online and how can I enable my own web pages to get found? Like any poet trying to get her head around a problem I constructed real-life analogies—analogies that failed promptly, because a digital world is not a physical world.

By the time I got involved around 1995, Yahoo! and WebCrawler and Lycos were doing their thing, then came LookSmart, Excite, Altavista, Inktomi and Ask Jeeves. Their processes were mystifying, their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) even more so.

Two filing cabinets for the World Wide Web

But Yahoo! stood out. Why? Because in its early years, it didn’t rely on spiders (robots that crawl the web and index and catalogue every page). You could submit your website to Yahoo! for inclusion. Yahoo! used real live human beings to evaluate each site—is it worth listing? is it correctly categorised?—before listing it in a ginormous directory.

(You realise that I’m over-simplifying, of course. This is a little blog post, not a PhD thesis.)

Such a pedestrian system of indexing is unimaginable now, with over 1,860,000,000 websites—oh, seconds later, that figure is way out of date. But it was doable, and kind of comprehensible. You could imagine Yahoo!’s sub-contractors as working librarians in a monstrous ethereal library. You could send them your “book” and they would decide whether it was worthy of inclusion, and which Dewey number would apply. In other words, they were filing websites. There was a “place” for every website, a folder, or a sub-folder, and if every website was filed correctly, they could be quickly discovered.

DMOZ, or the Open Directory Project, was even more noble in concept. Their conceptual filing was performed entirely by volunteer editors. I don’t think they ever developed other layers of search technology, such as web crawlers. And DMOZ closed down in 2015.

Who are you?

search engines vs. filing

  1. Extreme filing cabinet types have a place for everything, and everything in its place.
  2. Extreme search engine types wander around searching plaintively for their car keys every day.  On a good day, they say “Keys!”, and five sets of keys leap into their arms.
  3. Most of us fall in the middle, doing our best to file things correctly and failing quite often.

All search facilities are cross-breeds using multiple methods

In the digital sphere, today most search engines combine a raft of criteria into a jealously guarded algorithm that changes frequently. If you were there in the early days, I’m sure you’ve noticed that results have improved exponentially as searchers, publishers, bloggers, developers and search engines refine their techniques.

On WordPress, for example…

  • Bloggers can give each blog post a Category (that’s rather like putting the post in a kind of folder dedicated to one type or topic of information).
  • Bloggers can list an unlimited number of Tags (other words or phrases that tell people and search engines what the page is about).
  • We can also write an SEO Description (a summary of what a particular post is about or for), a “slug” that gives us control over the URL, and an Excerpt.
  • WordPress makes it easy to provide titles, captions, alt-text and descriptions for every image we use.
  • WordPress gives bloggers advice about how to use all these fields. Not that bloggers follow guidelines as a rule: most of us do our own thing.
  • WordPress performs other magic Search Engine Optimisation tricks in the background, buried in code that most of us never see.

All these titbits of information about the topic or function of one particular blog post provide more guidance for search engines, more information for readers as they search, and a higher probability that search results are relevant and listed in order of value to the reader.

In other words, the Filing Cabinet is incorporated into every search engine, and a Search Engine into every Filing Cabinet. This is inevitable, given that digital information does not suffer from the intrinsic limitations of a physical folder.

  • To cross-reference information, we had to pack at least two folders with identical information, for example one filed according to topic, one according to date. And we tagged items with coloured labels.
  • To file the entire contents of the world wide web, you’d need an outrageous number of categories, making the whole process almost pointless. Take DMOZ: On October 31, 2015, there were 3,996,412 sites listed in 1,026,706 categories. (Source: Wikipedia) One category for every four websites? Imagine a library organised like that, with four books per category.
  • To categorise sites perfectly, you would need to see the future.

Search engine technology permeates all our work


Search engines are everywhere, and their success is always connected to a vigorous effort at imposing order on the materials.

Every application that purports to organise our virtual office provides choices between Folders (they might be called Notebooks or Categories or any one of 40 other names) and Tags (again, every developer thinks up a new name for the same thing).

Can you think of any application you use that does not incorporate search? I can’t.

Filing cabinet habits are invaluable for real stuff

Putting everything in its place doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Instead we learn from painful experience that it does save time.

I’ve just appointed myself life coach to my 18-year-old grandson, who is suddenly in sole charge of organising his own studies, apartment, meals, money and his time. All alone. He’s doing great, but it’s an overwhelming task. You can picture it, I think? So he’s begun three tiny habits, each with a trigger, and action, and a reward. One is to put away every garment that he takes off. Reward: clear floor space and satisfaction—Nice work! he says. Yes: ideally, every garment will be put in its place, whether a chest of drawers or the washing machine. With such tiny gestures will order emerge from chaos.

I’m a fraud as a life coach, because I badly need to cultivate my own tiny habits. Organising my computer files is a work in progress and always will be. Folders feature strongly and I too drop stray files on the floor (desktop) every day. They all have a place—mainly in the trash.

What of our minds as we shift to instantaneous information feeds?

It’s easy to get sloppy about controlling our own information, now that search engines are brilliant. Yes, yes, excuse me but they are brilliant at what they do. Maybe you hate them but just think back 20 years and count your blessings! Maybe you fear them for their invasion and stealth, but it’s a tradeoff we make while fully informed of the risks.

So has the extreme efficiency of Google changed the way you work and read and think? I believe I’m more scatty. I flick across websites. I taste and taste and taste, half-hoping there’s something more appealing only one click away.

I don’t like this. I yearn for limits, constraints to my information guzzling. I dream of the old days when you had to know where to look.

I’ve recently deleted news apps and Facebook from my iPhone, disturbed by the constant updating on news sites and the random news items on Facebook. For my news I now rely on the radio, the odd newspaper in a cafe, and a couple of long reads per week. It’s a start.

I can’t blame search engines alone for this. But they play a part. I’ll use them forever, but  … mindfully? Bring on the tiny habits.


Exotic fabric finally finds its function: a TV cosy

Friends know that I’m a fabricaholic. A few years back they gave me this luscious blue, gold and purple fabric from Bangladesh.

It’s stiff when ironed, and crumples shortly afterwards. It’s semi-transparent and yet firm. Elegant, yet camp. Symmetrical, yet erratic.

Now, what to do with this cloth? For us fabricaholics, that’s never an issue. You keep it, doh! You store it in a cupboard and every now and then you take it out and experience it. Finger it. Touch it to your face. Lap up the colours, stroke the textures. Place it in the sitting room as an artefact on view. Meditate on it. Tuck it away again.

A beautiful fabric does not need to DO anything. It simply has to BE.

Nevertheless, this fabric has now been put to work. It has lost its privileged existence and does two jobs.

How are the mighty fallen!

One half of this glamorous cloth is now thrown over food on the dining table, to keep flies (and Ursula the cat) at bay.

The other half, with two seams, now tucks over my TV screen to soften its intrusive glare. I hate the way my TV used to dominate the room, a large black announcement that TV was the very purpose of this space, even the purpose of my day, of my very existence. Now the TV is disguised and robbed of its power by a strange garment. This showy, exotic fabric, once a magnet of attention, is now an invisibility cloak.

Friends have named my invention a TV-nightie (more accurately, it’s a dayie), or a TV cosy. What would you call it?

Daily prompt: Fabric


The way of the walker: walking mindfully

Children walk wonderfully. We ancients tend to get stuck. (Image Archie Somerville 1856)

bootcamp2015-small 2

Post written in 2015, in which I offer more sage advice to myself about the simple pleasures of walking

Walking is one peg in the exercise programme that was part of my boot camp for old age, my year of looking intently at darn near every aspect of my life.  And there’s more to walking than mindless locomotion.

For example, do you generally amble, dawdle, glide, limp, lurch, march, meander, mince, pace, perambulate, plod, prance, prowl, ramble, saunter, shuffle, skulk, stagger, stalk, stride, strut, stumble, swagger, toddle, totter, tramp, trudge or waddle?

And how would you know?

Oops, is that the walking dead?

Have you caught your reflection in a shop window lately? Did it take you by surprise? Was that a reflection of the real you, a recognisable you, moving a familiar body along the footpath? Or did you catch a glimpse of someone much older than you feel?

Any way of walking is better than not walking, and your way is your way, unique and beautiful. Our walking style is an expression of who we are. If we can walk at all, we are blessed.

Yet we can tinker with our walking style. We are not doomed to continue with any habits we dislike. At least some of them can be modified, if we choose.

A comparatively new aim for me is to be mindful as I walk, to be aware that I’m walking. Trust me, I’m no model: my level of awareness varies hugely. And that’s fine: if mindfulness becomes a guilt trip, what’s the point? Do it your way, whenever, however. It’s not a competition and there’s no exam. Meditating as you walk or hurry on an errand or stride out in company or hike up a mountain or wander lonely through a host of golden daffodils? It’s all good. The thing is to be conscious of what you’re doing, at least some of the time: which is both simple and unusual.

Four ways of walking mindfully

1. Do a formal “walking meditation”: this practice formalises mindful walking to the nth degree. It usually involves walking slowly along a short path, totally focused on just one thing: walking. The subtle movements of muscles and joints from the soles of your feet to your neck, the quality of every sensation, the way your head balances on your neck, the touch of your clothing, the air you breathe, the way your spine moves, the sun or wind on your skin…

I’m no expert on walking meditation, so let’s move on.

2. Notice just one thing about your body. Go easy on yourself. You don’t need to plunge into a full monastic meditation: just check off one body part as you move along. You could focus on your thighs or shoulders or feet for a few steps, or just track the movement of air over your skin. You might be surprised at what you discover. Often, I consciously relax my jaw, because that’s a problem for me. I don’t need my jaw to walk, so relax, dammit!

3. Just look softly, and notice what you see. Sometimes I focus on something straight ahead, sometimes on the peripheral vision. The more you look around, the more there is to notice. Children to admire, cats to be acknowledged, paint squiggles on the pavement, fuschia buds begging to be popped…

4. Tread lightly on your thoughts. Mindfulness does not exclude thinking: rather, it means becoming aware of your thinking. Generally I try not to work earnestly on problems while walking—but again and again I’ll go for a walk and mysteriously, a problem will solve itself. A new thought pops up out of the blue, and quite unexpectedly you see that problem from a different angle. Such moments are common with writers: that’s why so many writers have a dog or live by the sea!

Do you already practise some of these habits?

Want to extend your repertoire a little? Take it softly, softly. This is not a duty. It will not make you rich or famous, but it may be rather enjoyable.

9 more tips for walking young, safe, and happy.


How do people in their 50s, 60s and 70s use technology?

Infographic from AARP report on older Americans and technology.
Infographic from AARP report on older Americans and technology.

How do people in their 50s, 60s and 70s use technology? How do we differ from younger people in our use of communication devices and social media? A report by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) examines the current situation in the United States. Interesting!

Middle-aged and older people are no longer a bunch of reluctant beginners. We do use technology a lot, and we use it differently at different ages.

The infographic just scratches the surface: the report has different findings for subjects in their 50s, 60s and 70s. A few random facts:

  • Over half of people in their 70s use their computer for playing games
  • Most 50+ tend not to trust privacy protection on the internet, yet only a minority take steps to protect their privacy (I guess we’re not alone there)
  • Only 17% of those in their 70s use the internet to take webinars or classes, or watch how-to tutorials, a drop from 27% for those in their 60s
  • Among those under 70, text messaging has overtaken email as the tool most used to stay in touch

50+ use tech to communicate

How does your use of technology match the norms revealed in the AARP survey?

Of course, individuals won’t match the stats: you and I use tech and social media in our own sweet way.

At a glance, I’m more active on social media than most 70+ users, a keen learner, half-hearted about password protection and other privacy measures, a heavy user of the smartphone, and typically, lacking wearables. Maybe my birth certificate is at fault.

How about you?

Read more about the AARP report on Tech and older adults

Read the full report: Technology use and attitudes among mid-life and older Americans

Read Ronni Bennett’s take on this report: Time Goes By is always a great read.
Technology alert: Time Goes By is a Typepad blog, and opens in a new window

An old dragon in the year of the dog

Japanese New Year card by Isshu Fujiwara: Year of the Dog 2018
Japanese New Year card by Isshu Fujiwara: Year of the Dog 2018

So, the Year of the Dog is underway now, and so is my next year of life. Last Saturday I had a bunch of super-special friends here for a party, knowing that at my age, every birthday is a gift, a stroke of luck, and should be celebrated to the hilt.

I checked my prospects for 2018 in a desultory way. I’ve thinking about messages for those born in a Year of the Dragon — in my case, 1940.  Let me quote a couple of sources at random. I have no idea whether they have any authority and that doesn’t matter: they are starters for fruitful contemplation.

It is advisable that anyone born in the year of the dragon wears either a red  string around his waist or wears red underwear or red socks all year for protections from any challenges the dog may want to throw his way.

Low profile is the name of the game for the Dragon this year. Undoubtedly the Dragon is a well-­respected character and one to always be ahead of the field but everyone deserves some time off and 2018 is an ideal time to do so.

It will be a wise Dragon who rests on his laurels and even takes a sabbatical this year. (Daily Mail)

Dragons are advised to exercise extreme caution this year. And also restraint. Do not retaliate, not yet. Tolerance is key. Even endurance. What you endure this year can be a harvest. (Kiss925)

Does this astrological advice make sense for me in 2018?

Well, yes, sort of. I’ve had a tough couple of years with stuff comin’ at me, and now would be a great time to step back and take it easy. Thank you, Dog.

A sabbatical? Sure! In the good old days when academics had sabbaticals as of right, the word meant taking time off from their job every seventh year to refresh and renew and research and write.

As I’ve just completed my 77th year, the timing is perfect.

Not sure about the red string.

The New Year card is by my friend Isshu Fujiwara, and features the aptly named terrier, Joy. This is her year and she is extra joyful.

Fermenting foods to soothe an older gut

Fermenting cabbage, tea, and milk at home
Fermenting cabbage, tea, and milk at home

So much fermentation in my kitchen! How come?

Old digestive systems grow a bit cranky and tender. And it’s so irritating when you realise you can’t handle quite as much coffee as in your wild and wicked years of youth. But that’s not why my kitchen has gradually become a bacteria brewery.

For years I’ve eaten various fermented foods, including yoghurt, sauerkraut, cheese, wine, umeboshi, and miso. Now that science is demonstrating their many benefits, I’ve started making my own. It’s kind of fun, and I only do the easy ones. I began with sour plum concentrate and then kombucha to control a lifelong acid reflux problem: beats medication hands down.

  • Sauerkraut is working away in that blue and gold bowl under a bag of water. This one is from red cabbage. Great with Hunter sausage and boiled new potatoes.
  • Kombucha (fermented tea) is brewing in the pottery jar topped with a dish cloth, and another batch is having its second brew in bottles: I added lemon and ginger this time for flavour and to create more fizz.
  • Yoghurt? Home made is best but it’s far too tricky, so I make yoghurt from a packet.

King Kefir: best of all fermented foods is the easiest to make at home

home made kefir in jars
Fermenting milk kefir is ridiculously simple

I make kefir from skim milk with added calcium, adding a dash of cream to thicken it up. But you really can’t go wrong. The long-suffering kefir starter grains are hiding in their own slimy milk in the smaller jar, ready to work on the next batch. Kefir on porridge, kefir smoothies — anything yoghurt does, kefir does better.

Fermented foods are yummy but what work do they do?

You’ll find heaps of research on the subject in the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, if you’re interested. For older people, the benefits may or may not include the following:

  • may help digestion
  • may prevent acid reflux
  • may moderate Alzheimer’s symptoms — one small study so far suggests this
  • may help with depression
  • may help to control diabetes.

And who knows what else? The mysterious, pervasive, holistic function of our microbiota is a hot new playground for scientific researchers in numerous fields.

More information from trusted sources about fermented foods