Feeds:
Posts
Comments

[INT., MY HOUSE, 4.45AM. SHYCAT AND BOSSYCAT COME CHARGING INTO THE ROOM]

BOSSYCAT: It’s morning! Morning! Hello! It’s morning! Time to get up!

SHYCAT: Hello! It’s morning! Hello! We love you! You slept through your alarm so we came to get you!

Startled ringtailed lemur

ME: What? What? I slept through the alarm? Oh my God, what? How did that happen?

BOSSYCAT: Ha ha, not really. We fooled you. It’s not really morning at all! April Fool! Good thing we’re so cute! Bye!

SHYCAT: She made me do it. Bye!

[CATS GALLOP OFF DOWNSTAIRS. I LIE AWAKE UNTIL THE ALARM GOES OFF]

Exploring The World Of Robots

I first came across “Exploring The World Of Robots” when my brother got a copy of it for Christmas at some point in the early 1980s, and we both loved it very hard indeed. The reason we loved it is simple. It was crammed full of facts about our marvellous robotic utopian future that was quite definitely coming up in just a few short years.

Seriously; this book made all kinds of promises. In the very near future, it alleged, we would all have robots to do boring tasks we humans didn’t want to both with, like the housework and building toy cars and so on. Fake-people robots would replace the always-hard-to-come-by sick people that medical students traditionally learn on, which would somehow make learning medicine a more effective process. (Somehow.) Strap-on robot exo-skeletons would give us superhuman strength, allowing us to lift one-tonne weights with ease. Robots would even come to church (I swear, I am not making this up) and tell Bible stories.

And my brother and I believed all of this, because 1) we were kids and didn’t know any better and 2) that was what the book said, damn it! It was the early eighties! The printed word had value and meaning! What did we have to believe in if we couldn’t believe what we read in books?

I know I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face.

I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face. It’s endlessly useful.

So: we both spent a good four or five years wondering when our Housework Robot would be delivered and when we could expect to get a giant robot exo-skeleton in our Christmas stockings. After a while, we realised it wasn’t going to happen, and forgot about it. Then a few weeks ago, my brother sent me a copy of this book in the post, with a note that read, “THIS ENTIRE BOOK IS COMPOSED OF LIES AND WE BELIEVED EVERY WORD OF IT”.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Here’s the first page:

Maid Without Tears

Maid WIthout Tears Head

Let’s ignore all the strange and terrible questions raised by this strange and terrible illustration. Let’s ignore the troubling implications of the name “Maid Without Tears”, and its suggestion that most domestic workers spend their time sobbing over how awful their lives are. Let’s not pause to speculate on why this robot is unquestionably female, or why you can take its clothes off. Let’s not ask ourselves why its skin is purple and its clothes consist of moon boots, a mini-dress and a bathing-cap. Let’s even skip over the mysterious fact that its god-damn head comes off for no apparent reason. No; the really important thing to focus on here is why we’re looking at an illustration.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for illustrations in fact-based books for children. Some things, like intestines and childbirth and dinosaurs and so on, are just inherently better when presented as drawings. But this isn’t intestines or childbirth or dinosaurs. This – the author assures us – is an actual robot that actually exists and is going to be on the market very soon. Surely if you were a robotics expert and you’d built such a thing, you wouldn’t be shy about being photographed?

"Maid Without Tears" also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

“Maid Without Tears” also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

Why is there no photograph? BECAUSE THERE NEVER WAS A BLOODY MAID WITHOUT TEARS ROBOT, that’s why. A quick glance at the Maid Without Tears clearly reveals that she(?) was a recycled version of the Miss Honeywell Illusion from the late 1960s, as documented by the brilliant blog Paleofuture.

Check out the date. Miss Honeywell made her fraudulent debut in 1968, and was apparently ridiculously unconvincing even at the time. The Piccolo Book of Outrageous Robotic Lies was published in 1978. That means that, a whole decade later, a professional writer for a well-respected publisher happened across a picture of a woman dressed in a robot suit, thought, “Yeah, that sounds plausible”, did zero further research, briefed some hapless artist to draw a picture of a scientist decapitating a robot and putting his hand inside her dress, then put it in a book for children and presented it as true.

Here’s another snippet of glorious mendacity:

Man in giant robot

“Inside this robot is a man.” Well, okay, if you say so. “When he moves his arms, the robot’s arms move too.” Wait, what now? We had this technology back in 1978? Are you absolutely sure about that? Because I kind of thought this was something we were only just getting to grips with recently. “[The robot] can pour medicine into a spoon, without spilling a drop.”

Seriously? Back in the late 1970s, someone had already built a robot with the same dexterity as a person? A robot that was controlled, not by joysticks or repetitive programming, but by the individual and idiosyncratic movements of an actual human hand? So where did this marvel of technology disappear to, then? Did we just leave it behind the sofa and forget about it?

Moving on:

Exoskeleton

Yes, you’re seeing that right; that’s a robotic exoskeleton, giving a puny human the power to lift a 1000kg weight with ease. Actually, I think I remember something like that. I think it came to market some time round about 1986? Some sort of gigantic loader thing, with arms, that gave you the power to lift really heavy stuff?

Oh wait, hang on a minute –

Ripley exoskeleton

By the way, later on in the book we get another look at the exoskeleton concept. The writer is so confident that this one is, like, for reals and stuff, that he even provides a rare reference – the Hardiman 1. Confusingly, he’s overlaid his Hardiman 1 picture onto a shot of Robbie the Bible-story-reading Church Robot, but that’s okay. I think we’d all be disappointed if I didn’t feature at least a little glimpse at the robot that liberated the Sunday School teachers of the world from their bonds of servitude:

I'll admit it: if I'd heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I'd probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

I’ll admit it: if I’d heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I’d probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

This one must be real, right? I mean, it’s got a name and everything! Wrong. The Hardiman 1 was apparently a total failure, with any attempt to use the full exoskeleton causing “violent uncontrolled motion”, which was so dangerous that “the exoskeleton was never turned on with a person inside”. (Anyone else think that was a missed opportunity?) The Hardiman inventors finally managed to make a single-armed version that would lift 340kg, but as the whole thing weighed more than double that, the Hardiman was given up as a bad job.

I found that out on Wikipedia, by the way. Remember this for later.

The really sneaky thing about this book is that not everything in it is a lie. Instead it contains a seductive blend of indubitable truths (there really were cruise missiles and chess-playing computers), half-truths (“Danger, Will Robinson…my Hardiman hooks are flailing wildly”) and sheer fantasy (Maid Without feckin’ Tears? We’re only just invented the Roomba! And Roombas are really crap!). There’s no distinction made between these three wildly differing types of information. Every single robot in this book is presented as a done deal, a real piece of kit, a thing you can buy right now.

Here’s why I find this culturally interesting; this book is thirty-six years old. That means this book (like me) is officially older than the web. It’s a relic of the golden age, when we all got our facts from reputable sources. Back then, information was treated properly. We learned from real books, written by professionally-trained researchers working to highly maintained standards, who would never (to pick a random example) cheerfully recycle a ridiculously transparent marketing stunt from a previous decade and present it as an apparent scientific breakthrough in the field of robotics.

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Remember this, kids. This is a book, from a traditional publisher with a reputation for quality, written by a professional writer, presented as scientific truth and sold to children. And last week my brother and I debunked it in under an hour, using this apparent snake-pit of lies we like to call the Internet. Remember this the next time someone of my generation or above starts going on about how much better it was when information was properly controlled, and gets all sniffy about Wikipedia.

Of course the internet is also full of poorly-researched lies presented as gospel truth, because it’s in the nature of human beings to present poorly-researched lies as gospel truth from time to time. But I think what I’m saying here is: I bet my kids won’t spend bloody years of their childhood waiting around those purple-skinned cleaning robots to finally turn up at all good retailers.

Coins Out

Reject coins

It’s summer and it’s hot. When I get the kids from school, they’re cross and squabblish. So I take them down to our village beck and sling them in to cool off.

The beck with a duck

Our village beck is lovely. When the weather’s right we can all spend hours pottering around in it. Today, the weather is definitely right. Within about a minute of getting in the water, all three of us are happy and relaxed.

Becky in the beck

One of the kids’ favourite things to do is to prospect for treasure. For some reason, the river bottom is full of little fragments of dinnerware. Maybe previous villagers used to come down here and throw plates in when they were mad, I don’t know. Whatever: my kids love to dig around in the mud and the stones and find bits of plates and cups and so on, then carry them home in their socks with the plan that we’re going to make a mosaic with them. (To date we have never yet made a mosaic, but that’s okay. The joy is in the collecting.)

Playing in the beck 2

Playing in the beck

Today, we do loads better than that. Within minutes, my son comes bounding over to me brandishing a massive glass…thing…and begs me to interpret it. “It’s a lampshade,” I tell him, with no real evidence. He lays it on the side of the beck and returns for more treasure.

A lampshade, possibly

A lampshade, possibly

Within minutes, we find it. My daughter appears with a look of reverence on her face. “I think…” she can hardly speak with excitement. “I think I’ve found a glass bottle.” We rinse it off in the beck. I think she’s found a glass bottle too. Quite a pretty one. Today is a good collecting day.

Glass bottle, definitely

Glass bottle, definitely

Then my son comes back with something else. I can tell from the look on his face that he’s not sure about it.

“Look at this,” he says. “It looks like some sort of bone.”

Looks like a bone

Looks like a bone

“Goodness,” I say. “So it does.”

“So, what is it then?”

“D’you know,” I say, “I have absolutely no idea.”

We head home with the glass lampshade (possibly), the glass bottle (definitely) and the thing that looks like a bone. I wash them in the sink and then put them on the downstairs windowsill to dry. Then I sort of forget about them. The glass lampshade and the glass bottle and the thing that looks like a bone become part of the background.

Months pass. It’s next January and it’s cold. The British Gas boiler-man comes to service our boiler.

(Unsolicited plug for the British Gas boiler-man: he was ace. The boiler-man comes when he says he will, does everything he said he would, explains the paperwork, fixes our dodgy radiator for free with a part he happened to have on the van, tidies up after himself and leaves on time. This has nothing to do with the story and no-one is paying me to say this. I just mention it because it’s true, and it’s nice to acknowledge great service in public.)

Our boiler is in the downstairs bathroom. Naturally, this means the British Gas boiler-man spends time in there. Also in there are the glass lampshade, the glass bottle, and the thing that looks like a bone.

After he’s been there a while, I go in to offer him a cup of tea.

He is, as I mentioned above, ace. This is partly why I feel so bad when I see the look on his face. He is looking at the windowsill. Is he looking at the glass lampshade? No. Is he looking at the glass bottle? No. He is looking at the thing that looks like a bone. Rather belatedly, it dawns on me that there is a very good reason it looks like a bone.

Just like a bone

Just like a bone

He looks at me for a second, then looks back at the bone my son fished out of the river and which I carried home, washed and have kept on my windowsill ever since.

In any reasonable country, he would ask me, “What’s the deal with the bone on the windowsill, missus?” and I would reply, “Damn, I only just noticed. Here’s how that happened…”

But we’re British, so we don’t speak of it. Instead, I say, “would you like a cup of tea?” and he pretends to think about it for a minute and then says, “Um…no, thanks, I’m fine. But thank you” and then he gets on with fixing the boiler and I go and hide in the kitchen and no further eye contact is made between us and the bone is never ever mentioned again.

Eye of Sauron

Somehow it feels wrong that we found this at the bottom of an empty mug of tea. If there is such a thing as a sentient supernatural entity who is the essence of all evil on this earth, you’d think he’d pick a coffee-cup.

You know that whole Horror-Movie trope where someone’s adorably off-beat child receives messages that warn of the imminent arrival of terrible dark forces bent on the destruction of all humanity holds dear? And, because horror-movie children seem to be Pictures people rather than Words people, they choose to express what they know through the medium of terrifying drawings? Only the parents choose not to act on it because they are busy cooking dinner or working on their tan or getting divorced or something?

Here’s what I found propped up on my seven-year-old son’s desk on New Year’s Eve:

Angel Devil Spiderman picture

My first reaction was “Ha ha, I hope this isn’t like one of those drawings in The Ring or Silent Hill or Children of the Corn or The Butterfly Effect and I am one of those dozy parents who completely misses the signs of horrors to come.” My second (possibly more rational) reaction was “Holy shit, I hope this really isn’t like one of those drawings in The Ring or Silent Hill or Children of the Corn or The Butterfly Effect and I am one of those dozy parents who completely misses the signs of horrors to come…better do some parenting here and see what’s going down.”

Extensive interrogation revealed the following:

1. The picture is of a devil and an angel
2. The devil has a pitchfork because he is bad
3. The angel has a halo because she is good
4. The thing in the angel’s right hand is a candle
5. Yes, he knows that being naughty isn’t a boy thing and being good isn’t a girl thing
6. Oh yes, and Spiderman. Spiderman is in it too
7. That, um, that blobby thing underneath. Can we talk about something else now?
8. The candle is because. [This was probed further, but no further information was forthcoming. Apparently the candle was its own justification]
9. It’s all drawn in black because it is
10. Because it is
11. Because it is!
12. This is all the information he wishes to share on the matter, or as he put it, “I think I’ve finished talking about this now, mummy. Let’s read The Faraway Tree and talk about Lego.”

Disclaimer: I wrote this review while participating in an influencer campaign by Mumsnet on behalf of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care and received a promotional item to thank me for taking the time to participate.

“I’d really like to try contact lenses,” my daughter tells me.

I look at her warily. She is eleven.

I got contact lenses when I was twenty-two. I’d just landed my first Real Job and was finally getting paid Real Money (unlike previous jobs, paying a special form of money that could seemingly only be spent on rent, food and cinema tickets). Contact lenses were my first grown-up purchase. I have worn them ever since. I’m not 100% sure, but it’s possible they would be my Desert Island Discs luxury item.

Desert Island

Nonetheless, when my daughter tells me she wants contact lenses, something very stern and determined inside of me says a firm No. I start trying to find ways to justify my position.

“They’re very complicated to put in,” I reply.

My daughter is too polite to say anything, but I can feel her disbelief. She’s seen me put my contact lenses in. She’s seen me take my contact lenses out. She knows exactly how much complexity is involved. Liquid eyeliner – now that’s a challenge. Contact lenses? We both know I can do it even when I’m not even awake enough to talk about cornflakes.

Woman asleep with head in toilet

“You have to use lots of different chemicals to keep them clean,” I offer.

“Do you use lots of different chemicals to keep your lenses clean?” Her face is very sweet and innocent. “Because I’ve never seen you do it. Can I watch you one time?”

Bollocks. She’s got me. I wear disposables. Furthermore, I have worn disposables for years. Now I come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I even saw contact lens solutions.

Oddly enough, nearly two decades earlier, my mother raised the same objection to me. To my mother, contact lenses were fiendishly complicated beasts requiring regular treatment with tablets and chemicals and split-second timing and, I don’t know, your own custom-built sterile lab space or something. I told her about one-step solutions and monthly disposables, but it was no good. Contact lenses worried her. Now I know how she feels.

Mad Scientist

“I’m quite grown-up,” my daughter tries. Perhaps she senses my weakness. “I think I can handle them. I manage my brace all by myself.”

This is true. Since she was eight, she’s been subjected to a binator, which made her dribble and forces her jaw forward and required her to learn to speak with her teeth clenched together. Of course, it has also worked miracles on her overbite and protected her from a lifetime of dental issues. Nonetheless, it was a hell of a thing to take on. Without her commitment and cooperation, it would never have worked.

“But you can see just fine with your glasses,” I suggest, and then I have to stop.

I can still remember the astounding surprise of my first pair of contact lenses. Under the supervision of the optician, I put them in. Then I walked all around York town centre, being amazed, and seeing stuff.

No smears! Peripheral vision! It is raining and yet I do not care because the raindrops are not coating the surface of my glasses and interfering with my field of vision! I am Seeing-Eye Woman; hear me roar! It was like magic.

rain on glass

“I’d really like to try contact lenses,” my daughter tells me.

“Why?” I ask. Maybe if I can find out her reasoning, I’ll be able to talk her out of it.

“You see,” she says, “I don’t like having to wear my glasses all the time. Sometimes I want to look different.”

“But glasses don’t make you look ugly,” I say.

“I don’t want to wear them all the time,” she repeats.

Damn, I think. I suspect I’ve just found the problem. Her problem, and also mine.

I want my daughter to be comfortable in her skin. I also want her to love her skin, and all the rest of her, just the way it is. It’s a tension I know we’ll come back to many times over the next few years. Being honest, this is the easy end of it. She’s not asking for a nose-job or high heels or silicone implants. She just wants to have the option to leave her glasses off and not walk into stuff.

Woman walks into pole

Over the next few years, I’m sure we’ll argue about her appearance on a regular basis. The words You’re not going out like that are going to come up in conversation. Out of all the things she will Not Be Wearing as part of her quest to look her best, surely her glasses shouldn’t feel like such a big deal?

And yet, contact lenses still feel like a step I’m not ready for yet. Why is it such a problem? Maybe because I’m afraid that if I let her have them, I’ll be sending the message Actually yes, glasses are unattractive and you should ditch them as soon as humanly possible.

Yes, I think that’s it. I’m afraid that if I let her have contact lenses, I’m giving her permission to look down on all her glasses-wearing friends and classmates. Before I’m comfortable letting her have contact lenses, I want to be really, really sure she’s totally absorbed and fully internalised the knowledge that glasses do not equal ugly. (Also, the important truth that glasses let us see where we’re going – a privilege many of our short-sighted ancestors would have given anything for.) I feel as though, in letting my daughter have contact lenses, I would be cheating her of an important life-lesson.

"In your FACE, cows and pigs and sheep and chickens and goats!"

“In your FACE, cows and pigs and sheep and chickens and goats!”

Now I write that down, I can see how stupid it is. Even the most dedicated contact-lens wearer will still be a glasses-wearer too. I wear my glasses every single day. Sometimes I wear them all weekend, along with my pyjamas. But still, but still…

I promise I will think about it, and I do. In fact, I think about it for weeks. I am still thinking about it when a Mumsnet survey pops up about vision correction. I have a woo moment and decide this is a sign from the universe.

A lot of the questions are about self-esteem. Essentially what they’re asking me is, Do you think your child likes that they have to wear glasses? I find these questions uncomfortable to answer. It feels too much like an admission that we’re now in the territory of worrying about body image and outward appearance. How has this come around so soon? She still sometimes plays with little plastic animals, for God’s sake. But she’s also nearly old enough for secondary school. I finish the survey, then hesitate a long time. Do I actually want us to be chosen for the trial?

The hell with it, I think. She wants to try them. They might not even pick me anyway. Let’s see what happens. I press “send”.

Uncle Sam pointing

My daughter doesn’t know about this yet, but when she does, I’m sure she’ll be thrilled. I’m still not sure I’m doing the right thing, but at least I’ve finally got to the bottom of what’s bothering me about the whole contact-lenses-for-my-daughter question and faced its absurdity. It’s time I accepted that contact lenses aren’t a cosmetic enhancement – they’re a corrective appliance. We’re going to try contact lenses, and see where it leads us.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,646 other followers