Saturday, August 31, 2013

Winning a free holiday

A free holiday must be one of the most attractive and valuable prizes you can win, after a large sum of money and a free car. Here is the story of our experience of winning a free holiday.

Last summer we were on holiday in Rhodes. We were walking down a street and a girl in a blue t-shirt stopped us. She was from a tourism company called Aegean Blue, and her job was to persuade tourists to find out more about their holiday plan. First she asked some questions, and we fit their required demographic: married (or cohabiting) couples aged over 30, with full time jobs, home owners, and perhaps she also asked about owning a car.

She gave us each an envelope with a prize in it. Ivor got a free ticket for a local tourist bus, and I got a card with a picture of a key on it. She got all excited, saying that the key meant I had won one of the big weekly prizes, which included an iPad, a music player, and a free one-week holiday in one of the group's hotels. To find out which prize I had won, we would have to go to the sales presentation at Aegean Blue's offices and visit their local hotel. She got us a taxi to Ialyssos, a village just down the road, and we attended the sales presentation.

The idea was that you can buy the right to a certain number of weeks in advance, and then use them over the next few years in any of the chain's hotels. This is like time-share but more flexible, since it's not limited to one particular hotel. The sales rep explained the principle and showed us the hotel. When we got down to how much it would cost, we had to tell him that we couldn't afford it. He took it quite well, saying that of course they wouldn't want people who couldn't afford it to get into debt for sake of their holiday package.

Finally, the card I had received with a key on it was compared to a list of prizes, and we were told we had won a free week's accommodation. This was not conditional on buying their package, though we were told we would have to attend another meeting with a sales rep during the holiday.

This was exciting news. The group has hotels in Rhodes and Crete, and we decided to go back to Crete, an island we have visited several times before.

You can't look a free holiday in the small print, as it were. There was a registration fee of 99 Euros, and it did not include the flights or any meals (the hotel suites had a kitchen, and restaurant meals were available at extra cost), so we knew it would not be entirely free. However, it gave us an opportunity to visit Crete again and stay in a higher class of hotel than we usually do.

We booked our stay at the Village Heights Golf Resort for this summer. We later found out that Aegean Blue had been acquired by Diamond Resorts, a larger group, just a couple of months after we won the holiday, but this did not alter the terms of the free holiday.

During our week in the hotel we had the required meeting with the sales rep, and once again explained that we couldn't afford the sort of package they were offering. She accepted it and didn't bother trying to persuade us. We were also invited to a free dinner and entertainment evening, and nobody put any pressure on us during that event either. We had an enjoyable holiday and were treated just like the paying guests. The stories we had heard about pressure being put on people to buy various time-share packages just did not apply to our experience at all.

I will write more about the hotel itself in a later blog post.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ken MacLeod - Intrusion

Ken MacLeod, Intrusion, Orbit, 2012.

Ken MacLeod is the most political, or politically conscious, SF author I read. Politics is fundamentally about what is in the best interest of the individual, what is in the best interest of society (or sub-groups within society), and how to balance these interests.

Intrusion describes a near-future society where the state decides for individuals what is in their best interest. In a commentary on the theme of "health and safety gone mad", the state's concern for children's health has led to women having to wear a monitor ring that records their exposure to smoke and alcohol, both before and during pregnancy. Parents have to install cameras in the home. Everyone's behaviour and interactions are logged and monitored, and certain key words and contacts can get people into trouble.

At the same time, scientific advances known as Synthetic Biology have enabled the creation of a pill that fixes certain genetic problems in the fetus. This has not quite become compulsory, but it is considered the most responsible thing for mothers to do.

The story follows a young couple, Hope and Hugh, who are expecting their second baby. Hope refused to take the fix for her first child, and does not wish to take it for the second child, for reasons that are never quite clear, perhaps even to herself. This is where the balance of interests comes into play. Should an individual be allowed to choose for herself, when society in general has strong opinions about the interest of her children? Hope's MP makes this position explicit:

"The government isn't making choices for anyone. Like I said, it's enabling people to make the choices they would make for themselves if they knew all the consequences of their choices" (Intrusion, p. 149).

This statement can be applied to many situations in our current reality. We have to ask ourselves about the assumptions behind the decisions that are made for us. 

Since MacLeod is really a writer of SF, even when his work appears to be a near-future thriller, there is also an interesting speculative element to the story, which is not explored in as much detail as the dystopian society and remains tantalizing in the end.

As in MacLeod's other novels, I felt there was a certain lack of healthy cynicism in the characters, and in some cases they were, or became, overly honest and trusting. This seems to be a matter of principle for the author. His characters tend to be driven by their ideology or opinions and refuse to compromise or dissemble the way normal people do. This can be admirable, but it sometimes detracts from their realism.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking novel about the meaning of freedom, and I recommend it to a wide range of readers.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Foster Dad John as a Role Model

For over a year now I have been watching the Foster Kitten Cam, which shows live video of mother cats and kittens being fostered before adoption. Foster Dad John takes in the cat family, usually shortly after birth, and keeps the mother and kittens in a special room. He provides shelter, food, and toys, but most importantly human interaction, so the cats become socialized.

I find John's attitudes and behaviour to be an inspiration, and consider him a worthy role model, not only as a cat fosterer but as a person. I should stress that I only know John's public persona, as expressed when he appears on the cam, on the chat, or on his Facebook page, The Critter Room. However, I believe this is a genuine reflection of his personality, and that he is almost certainly the same person in his private life, as a father, a friend, and a professional.

First, he is always very calm and very patient. These are qualities that are important when interacting with cats, but also in almost any social situation.

John puts the cats' well being as his top priority. This means that he is not broadcasting the cam for his own needs, but in order to observe the cats. His other aims in setting up the cam are to inspire other people to foster cats in need, and to educate the public about cats and kittens in general. This sort of dedication to the object of his work is something we can all learn. When you are doing something, do it for the thing itself rather than for your own needs. If you end up with a feeling of achievement and satisfaction, and perhaps receiving appreciation from others, these are positive side effects, but should not be the rationale for our actions.

Finally, John acts altruistically. Not only does he put the cats' well being first, he also cares deeply about the people who eventually adopt the cats, and about the cam's viewers. He wants to provide as many people as possible with positive interactions with cats.

John's role as a fosterer is not easy. He has to love the cats completely, and then give them up after two or three months when they go to adoption. He has done this almost 40 times now. In a post on his Facebook page, The Critter Room, on 24 July 2013, he writes:

The Plight of the Foster Care Provider

The first thing that people typically think about when they hear that someone is fostering kittens, puppies, etc. is “cute fuzzy babies!” It’s hard not to feel like rainbows & flowers when you’re looking at a tiny creature that only recently came into this world, still unable to care for itself.

For the Foster Care Provider, we feel the same way, but we also face a world in which the skies occasionally darken. It’s not easy fostering animals - you dedicate many hours of your own time, pouring a little of your very soul into each tiny creature, only to say goodbye to them a couple months or so later as they are adopted into what we hope to be a good home. Then there are times that the foster is too sick or too weak and despite our best efforts pass from this world.

Sometimes, we’re told to distance ourselves to prevent from being hurt - but that’s not possible, and we couldn’t even if we tried. People foster because they want to make a difference for an animal, to give them a better chance at finding a home to live out their lives with love & contentment. To best prepare the fosters for such a future, we have to spend time with them, interacting with them, showing them that it’s okay to trust people, to love people - which wouldn’t be possible if we kept our distance.

Fostering is chock full of rewards though! Watching the animal open their eyes for the first time, taking their first steps, learning to run before learning how to stop - the milestones of their development met. Watching a semi-feral transition from being extremely fearful to curling up in your lap to sleep, watching the eyes of their adopters light up when they first hold their new family member.
They fill our lives with glee as we take care of them until the day comes when we say goodbye - a day that is always bittersweet. For the first time fosterer, they look into their heart & soul, to see if it is strong enough to endure it again. If they find it so, they start the process anew. For some, their heart couldn't bear to part and they adopt their fosters - we dub them "Failed Fosterers" but there's never any malice in it for we secretly wished we did as well.

This expresses very well the attitude that makes Foster Dad John a good person.