Adventures in software

Every time I start my computer, it comes up with the strap-line “in search of incredible“. This can be taken two ways, but I’ve been running this machine long enough to be quite sure that they aren’t going to find anything incredible anytime soon. Like the message on the back of the bottle top that says “better luck next time”. The computer is made by a multinational company, and like all multinational companies, the quality is deliberately varied according to the minimum that they can get away with in each state that they operate in. And this model was built in Argentina. No explanation needed.

However, it survives well enough to be worth the wait to replace it with something better next time we are allowed out of the country. So we keep cleaning it up and running the updates.

There is never a good time to download your software updates. There is also never a good time to change every piece of software that you ever relied on, all at once. So the middle of a pandemic seemed like as good a time as any, and last week I took a leap away from some of the monopolising, tax avoiding, government lobbying giants, and tiptoed into the less well documented but cleaner in every other sense, world of open source software.

I was already using Firefox as my main internet browser, and Duckduckgo as number one search engine, so it did made sense to take some next steps, although I might not recommend this experience yet to anyone who doesn’t have a handy geek on tap.

Our household operating systems now are all Linux. It hasn’t been too terrifying, if you get brave and go click around a bit, really it’s not that far removed from the Mac I had a few (ok 15) years ago. It does seem to suffer from separation anxiety though; before shutting down I now have to confirm in three different places that yes I really do want to power off (but it’s OK, I’ll be back tomorrow). And some of the communication messages were apparently written by Yoda; my favourite is “Automatic suspend, computer will.”

For writing documents, presentations and the like, I am testing libre office and WPS and not fully wedded to either, but that could also be that having spent the last donkeys years using a single product, anything else would require me to leave my comfort zone. I did think I would play with them gently over a couple of quiet weeks before I needed to produce anything serious. That was before I was returned my latest university assignment with feedback amounting to a complete overhaul and resubmission, so baptism with fire it is then.

Next project will be to look some more at photo editing. I have a photo editor courtesy of tame resident geek, which I’m not convinced about, although I haven’t played with it long enough to make come to a real conclusion yet. But I’m happy to hear any recommendations for good photo editing software compatible with Linux and operable by a tecnophobe.

A different gospel

Martin and Joni made their way across the city on a cold damp evening to help a member of one of our congregations who was struggling with her mobile phone to access a video that Hazel had made at church. While they were with her in her living room the TV was blasting out a well known United Statesian health and wealth preacher exhorting his congregation to ever greater giving in exchange for promises of ever greater blessing.

It made an impression on Joni in a “what on earth..?” sort of way. He came home and described what he’d seen on the TV, expressing his opinion that this guy’s gospel seemed to centre around different things to the gospel that Joni thought he’d understood. I suggested that what Joni and Martin had just done; crossing the city and showing an old lady that she was worth their time and effort to help her with a small problem, would seem to be quite a lot closer to the example of Jesus that we read in the Biblical gospels. Sometimes I have a glimmer of hope that some of the values that we think we’re teaching our kids might actually be taking root.

I can do small things

“But we live in a world that has lost its appreciation for small things. We live in a world that wants things bigger and bigger. We want to supersize our fries, sodas, and church buildings. But amid all the supersizing, many of us feel God doing something new, something small and subtle. This thing Jesus called the kingdom of God is emerging across the globe in the most unexpected places, a gentle whisper amid the chaos.”
― Shane Claiborne, The Irresistable Revolution; Living as an Ordinary Radical.

Sometimes, or most of the time, saving the world, caring for the environment, resolving world hunger, and being certain that whoever made my stuff isn’t keeping their workforce in slavery, feel like big and impossible tasks. Sometimes navigating our own household relatively unscathed through another week is enough of challenge that I couldn’t honestly tell you when I might be able to gather the extra time or emotional energy to be building the kingdom of God in Argentina.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when stuff looks hard, my tendency is to do nothing and hope that either it might look easier tomorrow, or better still, that it might go away altogether. Possibly a better idea is to start by doing something small. So here’s a couple of small things I did. Heck there’s a lot of us on this planet, if everyone who had the chance of doing something small, did it, and then shared the small things we did so folk could copy each other’s ideas, it might actually add up to changes worth making.

Drum roll. Or maybe cocktail sticks on a peanut roll…

I made chocolate spread and then I made peanut butter.

Neither chocolate spread nor peanut butter are a thing in Argentina. You can get them both if you look long and hard enough, and pay through the nose, and both will have travelled substantial food miles, and they come in plastic pots, which we can’t yet recycle here. So making them is definitely the better option for all of those reasons.

For chocolate spread there are lots of recipes online, but most involve melting chocolate which is also kind of expensive here. So the recipe I used is two dessert spoons of unsweetened cocoa, two to three dessert spoons of sugar. Mix these into a thick paste with a very little boiling water. Add approx 100grams of very thick cream. The cream needs to be spreadable consistency otherwise the whole thing ends up too liquid. And that’s all. It keeps for a few days in the fridge on account of the cream. You could probably also grind up some walnuts and add them. We didn’t try that yet. I also like that we can buy our cream loose here, just take a cup to your favourite corner store and they’ll weigh it in. The same is true of grated cheese, breakfast cereal, raisins, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Peanut butter is even easier. And peanuts are grown just a hundred kilometres down the road from us. Take a handful of peanuts. I used about 200 grams of ordinary shelled unsalted peanuts with the bits of brown husk still attached. We buy those loose here too. Put them in the food processor for a couple of minutes. We don’t have a food processor, so I attacked them with the stab mixer which takes a bit longer and keeps clogging up so the whole thing took me probably five minutes instead of two and half. Watch them turn from nuts to bits to dust to paste. When it looks like the kind of consistency you would like to eat, turn the mixer off. Add anything else you’d like. We added a bit of salt and a bit of sugar. And on the second day we also added a drizzle of sunflower oil.

We probably didn’t change the world too much. But the kids are happy. And we saved some food miles. And four plastic pots a month from ending up in landfill.

A tale of two cookers

Our old cooker wasn´t the highest quality piece of equipment. Even new, bits started falling off it at an early stage. We were told this was because the black coating cracks when heated; er, like, it´s a cooker. OK, whatever. Consumers have lots of rights in law, but in practise it takes seven years to get a civil case to tribunal, so manufacturers can still be sure n0-one´s going to see it through. Twelve years later, all the black coating had long since dropped off, only two of the gas rings worked properly, and the oven was a white knuckle ride. To keep the gas flowing, the oven knob had to be wedged with a broom handle, and the flame sometimes went out, but the handy broom handle would keep the gas pumping out even without a flame, so if someone lit a match the whole thing would explode. It gave a new meaning to the concept of “living by faith”, and after the second time of nearly losing my eyelashes, and conscious of a news story where two teachers in a school in Buenos Aires were blown up by a dodgy cooker, we figured it might be time for a new one.

With perfect timing, we received a generous donation for the specific purpose of replacing our cooker, from a lovely lady who we are looking forward to being able to thank in person one day. With less perfect timing, the whole country closed for coronavirus about two minutes after the money arrived in our account. So for the last umpty weeks of lockdown we have been coaxing life out of the death-trap and looking forward to buying a new one. Finally our shops have been allowed to open under restricted conditions, and one of our first expeditions into town was to check out cookers.

That´s it from both angles. We chose something mid-range that appears to be better made than its predecessor. Time will tell, but so far it´s going great and no-one has lost any eyelashes.

Celebratory pizzas under construction. Pizza making is an art form in Argentina, they imported the concept from Italy and made it their own. Want pizza bases? Open a bag of flour. Want pizza sauce? Take an onion and three tomatoes and start chopping. If your Argentinian friend comes to visit in England or the USA you almost definitely shouldn´t try and serve pizza unless you´re sure you know what you´re doing.

Finished products about to be put to the test. Apologies for the bottle of wine to any friends in countries whose lockdown rules means they can´t buy alcohol. Good wine and permission to drink it are two of the many simple blessings of life in Argentina.

What if?

Here are a few unfinished and not very sophisticated things that I am currently thinking about. Feel free to add anything that might help via email or Facebook.

I’m pretty certain that covid19 is not the apocalypse despite all the headlines using similar terminology. Not any sort of Biblical endtimes apocalypse, nor the zombie variety, nor any other doomsday scenario. For the adults among us, we have already lived through a lot of bad stuff in our lifetimes. The main difference is that most catastrophic events were a long way away and we were barely aware of them because they were happening to other people. Writers and readers of apocalyptic, or indeed any other, types of headline, are almost entirely from the affluent Global North and therefore by definition, we have been shielded from experiencing the real effects of poverty, conflict, and disease. Basically we need to grow up and decentralise. I am not the centre of the universe; it isn’t all about me. Bad stuff isn´t intrinsically worse when it happens to us (or because we fear it might happen to us). Bad stuff that happens to other people is still bad stuff. The fact that we were asleep when it happened to someone else doesn´t mean that it didn´t happen or that it didn´t hurt.

Malaria is a mosquito borne disease that the world health organisation estimates affects between 300 million and 500 million people every single year and causes approximately 450,000 deaths every single year. In Argentina we don’t have malaria, but we are currently experiencing an outbreak of dengue, which is also a mosquito-carried pasasitic disease. Dengue is less lethal than malaria, killing 25,000 people per year, but it is also estimated to affect globally up to 390 million people per year, of which 96 million cases are deemed to be medically significant, and approximately half a million people go on to develop severe haemorragic dengue every single year. This is but one example of a human catastrophe that the Global north is mostly unaware of, because if the news ever covers it at all, it will be three lines in a column filler halfway down page 17. It also raises the question as to how much closer we might be to solving these and other problems if we were throwing covid-scale resources into finding the answers.

So what to do. What to do? I disagree with the folk who want to say that covid is sent by God. But that doesn’t mean he might not find a use for it. And I’m wondering if one thing that this time might be understood as is an invitation to stop. Just stop. As nature takes over the spaces vacated by human activity, social networks have exploded in a frenzy of motivational messages, pressure to do stuff, learn stuff, achieve stuff, keep to a lock-down timetable broken into half-hourly activities and keep ourselves and our children busy and achieving in order not to lose momentum and keep up to speed ready to explode out of the traps when the race resumes.

But what if momentum was exactly the thing we were supposed to lose? What if this time was given to us as an opportunity to ask ourselves the purpose of our frenetic race to self destruction? What if this was our chance to question our capitalist doctrines of productivity and measurable achievement?

We are so enmeshed in a system that measures the value of a person according to our perception of their production that we can’t stop doing it, even when the world at the moment requires that most of us produce frankly nothing. The world will not change one iota if I spend the lockdown knitting a life-sized replica of the Taj Mahal. And more importantly neither will my value as a human being.

I will not ruin the life-chances of my kids if they don’t learn quadratic equations this year. Personally I’m horrified by an advert I keep being pushed in Facebook on how I too could teach my two year old to read fluently if only I purchased this system. How about if two year olds were allowed to be two year olds and do normal two year old things like eating mud and draw on the wallls without profiteering twats playing on parents’ anxieties?

What if it was time to start by stopping and asking questions about what is important. What are we going to pick back up again? If I am fitting in seventeen meetings before lunchtime, how many of those people am I really seeing or hearing? Or more importantly, how many of them would say they had felt seen and heard? How far am I meeting my own need to believe that a lot of people need me? And possibly, which two of those people could I really make a difference to if I had some proper time for them?

The phrase “think globally and act locally” still needs a lot of unpacking, but I think it may be a key, to use this time of un-planning and un-doing to help us to ask on one hand, “What sort of post-covid world do we want to live in?” and therefore, “What can I do to make a small but real difference to that?”

Love in the time of Covid19

We are bored but healthy, for which we give thanks.

Necessity is the mother of invention. The oven is dead (I wrote about that before, we are really missing it until the shops open again) and it was Boyfriend’s birthday, so I went experimenting and discovered that it is possible to make cake on the stovetop, in what they call here a “baño maria” I don´t even know how to say that in English, it literally means Mary´s bath, probably shouldn´t think about that too deeply. It´s where you cook stuff in a pot (or cake tin) standing in a pan of water. There were two colours of sponge and lots of sweets. It worked great.

We would very much like to go to the plaza, or out cycling, horseriding, dogwalking, anything outside, which we aren´t allowed, but we have found that the flat roof of our house is a good location for alternative fun. The sunsets are pretty nice too from up there. Yesterday we were playing volleyball with some of the team on the roof and the rest on the patio, which might not have been the safest but was entertaining and everyone survived. Danny´s favourite rooftop game is pretending to be an extreme parkour runner, jumping over pipes, wires and chimneys.

The ancient bedspread which I cut a chunk off in order to make last year´s advent calendar came in handy again today to make not-very-surgical masks. The latest municipal ordinance is that anyone out in the street has to wear a face-mask, so I ran up a few this afternoon. I thought for about one and a half seconds about going into business but decided I´m better suited to rooftop olympics. It´s way more fun anyway. And probably more useful.

And not only have I participated in a couple of zoom meetings, and just about come out alive, but I even managed to set up a zoom account and organise a meeting. Not only did I not die of anxiety (despite thinking I might), but everything worked and there wasn´t even any bad language in the process. All of which is pretty amazing, and the fact that I even attempted all that probably means we have been shut in for a while. Needs must. This picture isn´t mine, alas, but it seems appropriate for the circumstances. What the Last Supper might have looked like by Zoom…

The lockdown diaries

So here we are in the second week of nationwide obligatory lockdown, hunting rabbits and carving daily notches on a stick…. It’s pretty civilised all told. Food shops are largly open so we’re not yet out in the fields with a bow and arrow. Our oven has died, but the four hobs still work and the microwave’s OK for making cakes. The cooker was due to be replaced anyway, we even have the money to pay for it thanks to a generous gift, but we just hadn’t planned for it to die right now when the shops are shut.

We are settling into something like a routine that involves getting up not too early, drifting into breakfast, followed by some school work in the mornings, lunch, then “siesta” essentially early afternoon downtime when we ignore the kids glued to screens for a while, then snack-time, board games or something similiar, a dip in the paddling pool for those who want it, posting everyone through the shower, more food, storytime and bed.

All the young people in the household have been set academic tasks, which they are tackling with varying degrees of enthusiasm(!) Probably the biggest surprise is Danny. We are having a lovely time doing his activities, and he is producing more in an hour at home than he has ever done in a day at school. I still might not want to homeschool him (or anybody else) for very long, but I’m thinking another month of this wouldn’t do him any harm at all, after which he might nearly be caught up with his peers anyway.

The boy and the rainbow

Danny’s undemanding approach to life is also boding him well in current circumstances. Yesterday evening he arrived in the kitchen at bedtime when I was making a jelly. “Is that for lunch tomorrow?” he asked me. “Yes” I said. “Oooh, aren’t we lucky?!” he said, absolutely genuinely. It’s at times like now when we’re grateful to have produced kids who think they’re having a good day because there’s jelly.

The other fortunate thing is that we didn’t get round to taking the pool down before all this happened. Normally I clean it and put it away when schools go back for the year. So the younger element and I are enjoying fresh air and exercise in it most sunny afternoons.

Simple pleasures

Summer afternoons

I remember being one of those kids who could always find something to do in the summer holiday and never wasted time wishing school would hurry up and start again. Not having a TV gave us a wide set of skills for self entertaining. Now our own kids are pretty similar, even though they do have access to screens. So, in the mornings we have mostly been at the riding school which is a fine location for different activities as well as riding, and in the afternoons we have done a variety of stuff as well as hanging out in the paddling pool when the temperature gets too much.

We went to see “El Robo del Siglo” (the robbery of the century) at the cinema. It’s an Argentinean film based on the true story of a bank robbery in Buenos Aires. It’s a good story, and it was nice to watch a film of a genre different from Hollywood plastic. Danny said “I didn’t understand that film. If they’re adults, and adults know that it is wrong to steal, why would they do it?” Fair question.

We rebuilt the Notre Dame! Last year when we visited Paris, we spent a whole day exploring the Notre Dame and really loved it. So Danny chose a Nanoblock model of the cathedral to build. We made it, and it was on display in his room, until a younger member of the household decided uninvited to take it apart. That was when we realised that we should have kept the instructions. I tried to figure out how it went using internet photographs, but my skills aren’t that sophisticated, so I contacted the manufacturer Kawada in Japan to ask if I could have replacement instructions. They said contact a distributer. So I contacted a distributer and they said they couldn’t do that. So I went back to Kawada and we toed and froed a bit until I said this is the first time I’ve bought a Nanoblock model so maybe you could see this as an opportunity to show me your great customer service. And a couple of days later I got a pdf attachment of the instructions to rebuild the Notre Dame for free and for nothing. So for the record I would like to say that when challenged, Kawada and their distributer Schylling have given us great customer service. And the model is really nice. We finished it yesterday. And I saved the pdf.

Danny the other evening appeared wearing long trousers, and a long sleeved hoodie with the hood pulled over his head, and his spiderman mask. Since it was still 37 degrees outside, I raised an eyebrow at him. And he said “I opened the office door and there was a bug and it tried to sting me, and I was afraid it might still be cross with me, so I’m in disguise.”  

Now I’m busy thinking about Scout camp, to be followed immediately by family holiday, leading into team conference, and I realised school will start pretty much as soon as we get back from all that, so I’m trying to be as prepared as we can be before we go away. The last few days we have been gathering signatures on the medical paperwork. This afternoon Joni went to the dentist. I am still recovering. The whole thing was reminiscent of a Horrid Henry story (Francesca Simon has been one of our favourite authors for many years). In fact we decided we should write a new chapter entitled Horrid Henry goes to the dentist, encorporating the line “Horrid Henry’s mum decided that his father would take him next time…”

A Time to Goof Around

The writer of Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

The same wise guy also says ” Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12) He’s right of course, and we’re taking him seriously. We here are in full summer mode, so there is also;

a time to swim
a time to ride
a time to enjoy our pool on the patio, a time to play, a time to eat ice cream, go to the plaza, watch films, stay up late, and a time to goof around.

Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.

Educational Games

We´re four weeks off the end of the academic year. Finally. Which is still something like ten percent of the teaching days, but the rhythm of Argentina´s academic year means that by this point no-one cares if anyone learns anything or not. I´m fine with that. I´m turning into the opposite of a pushy parent as far as formal education is concerned, returning to my woofty born-in-the-seventies roots of starting from kids’ interests and needs.

Joni is in his last month of primary school. He is looking forward to the summer holidays. I am looking forward to never stepping into that particular establishment ever again. In fairness, Joni has done fine there. But he´s also the kind of kid who would do OK anywhere – no behaviour issues, no academic difficulties, work done, folders up to date, gets on with everybody; a perfect sausage churned out from a sausage factory. Maybe that´s fine, maybe that´s their function, I just have an idea that a good school might offer something more. The thing that particularly draws my attention is that since we changed Danny to a different school, there isn´t a single member of staff willing to meet my eye, let alone talk to me, which has been more than a little uncomfortable for the last two years while Joni has still been there and I have still had to attend parents meetings etc, and heaven forbid that any staff might ask if Danny is still alive or how he´s doing, even though several parents still do. I find it infantile. I have tried to rise above it, but it´s wearing and I´m glad we´re nearly done.

Danny is also looking forward to school being over. Really he´d like to leave altogether, a mere decade or so before time! This year in 3rd grade he still mostly has short days, from 8 till 12, apart from Tuesdays and Thursdays which look more like the English system, from 8, with a lunch break and classes finishing at 2. Next year in 4th grade and above, he will go from 8 till 2 every day. The other day I told him, remember you need to go in for lunch and we´ll collect you at 2, and he said “No way, how many more times am I going to have to do this?” so I reminded him that next year he will have to do it every day. And he cried real tears “When will this torture ever be over…?” He doesn´t really hate school any more since he changed schools, but he´d be happy not to have to do it. And it hasn´t been a great year for him, it hasn´t been a disaster, but last year was his best year ever and this one has been mediocre by comparison. We´re hoping he might get a different teacher next year, he’s in a mixed 3rd-4th grade class this year, and we´re hoping he doesn´t just pass to the 4th grade half of the same class with the same teacher. She a nice enough person, but she’s never got the measure of Danny, and he requires a lot of creative thinking to get the best out of him, which is what his teacher had going for her last year, and this one hasn´t been a relationship made in heaven.

Meanwhile, thinking forward, we´ve finalised Joni’s secondary school place a couple of weeks ago. After lots of chopping and changing, we basically let Joni decide, given that it´s he who will have to put up with it every day. He made a short list of three, the agricultural school, the technical school, and finally he settled on the “proa” (say pro-a) which is a modern experimental style of school being trialled here.  We went along to the introductory meeting and he and we really liked the look of what they are trying to do which is way more funky and creative than anything we´ve seen in Argentina so far, with lots of project work based on student led initiatives.  Apparently the rest of the city thought the same, which may be an indication of the need to modernise the rest of Argentina´s creaking education system, as there were literally four people chasing every place.

In order to wittle the numbers down, they held an obligatory workshop for parents, which I attended, and an obligatory workshop for prospective students so Joni went along. There they split them up into groups and gave them taster sessions in Maths, English and programming. The secretary told me that she was sitting in on Joni’s english class, where the teacher asked a bunch of questions and Joni didn’t put his hand up, so probably the teacher thought he didn’t know anything so she gave him a piece of paper to read, which he did. The secretary said “I saw that teacher’s face…” Then the teacher said “I like your accent, are you studying English?” And Joni said no. Which is true but… evil child!! Finally, they did a names in the bucket draw for all those who had turned up to the two workshops, which while unsophisticated is probably fairer than the UK system at least from when I was last involved, where oversubscribed schools cherry picked middle class families according to the parents´ability to write an essay on the form (do they still do that?)  Anyway we were very fortunate that his name came up. And apparently the English teacher has forgiven him – they met in the corridor after the draw and she congratulated him on getting in and said she was looking forward to seeing him (exacting her revenge?) next year.

So that’s the round up of formal education. On the informal side, on Saturday we put our big paddling pool up on the patio for the summer and the younger element spent the weekend testing it out while it was filling:

Now it needs filtering and chorinating regularly to keep it going till February. And Joni took part in his first horse jumping event:

Proving that school isn’t always the most important place for learning things – heck, who needs quadratic equations if you can save your life in water, and gallop a horse over a pole without falling off?