Things ain’t what they used to be

It wasn’t a good sign: the only people who had ever used my full name were my parents when I was young and had done something wrong, or my wife Helen, when I’d done something she didn’t like.  Perhaps there’s something I need to learn from that?

Anyway, it was rather disconcerting to be greeted with “Good morning Jonathan”, by our new, one-week-old fridge, in the stern tone of voice a head teacher would use to a naughty child.

Until two days ago, the fridge and I had been good friends and I was even becoming used to the idea that our domestic appliances were now trying to have deep, meaningful conversations with us. Although personally, I think this ‘Internet of Things’ has now gone a bit far, and ‘Things’ really ‘ain’t what they used to be’.

The fridge came pre-programmed with our family names, our likes and dislikes and even our behaviour patterns. On its first day I’d been greeted with “Hello Jon, I’m your new fridge and I hope to serve you and your family in ways that will improve the quality of your lives”.

Well that’s OK, I thought but I clearly hadn’t understood all of the implications. As far as I’ve been able to work it out, the fridge then managed to embark on a one-appliance fact-finding mission starting with data conversations with the bathroom scales, then the passive infra-red detector on the front door – which now seems to be able to measure my profile as I walk past, and to sneak the information back to the fridge and the scales. There also seems to be some sort of autonomous nutrition web-site involved somewhere, and between them they came to the conclusion that I needed to lose weight.

Two days after the fridge’s arrival, what I’m now calling F plus 2, a new exercise bike arrived. Now I didn’t order it, and Helen says she didn’t either. So the fridge or some other of our household appliances has gained access to both my internet buying account and my credit card. But, I’m willing to try out anything new, so it came out of the box and I had it assembled and ready to use only three hours later, even if that did result in a tirade of abuse from our so-called smart vacuum cleaner – for the mess I’d made on the carpet. I take my hat off to whoever programmed that machine, there were some words in there I’d never heard before, although their meaning was only too obvious and I’m not going to attempt to do any of the things it suggested.

I sat on the bike, set its programme for a gentle ride and was taken on a 45 minute journey from hell. Either I had set it up badly, or some other programme had taken over. The pedals clamped themselves onto my feet, and it took off at break-neck speed. They obviously design gym equipment with the idea that you’ll want to come back for more, as it kept telling me that (a) this was all for my own good and (b) that it was only following orders, that it had no choice and hoped I was enjoying the ride. Actually I wasn’t, and that was the last time I’ll ever lower myself onto that saddle.

That was Saturday morning, and I was due to meet Helen in town at 12 o’clock, but then the car wouldn’t start. It was OK later when Helen tried it, so why wouldn’t it start for me? Had something ‘got at’ the engine management system? I asked the house assistant – one of those devices that can play music and answer useless questions – what bus I needed to get into town as quickly as possible, and she said a Number 10, and it would be at the stop on the corner of Acacia Avenue in ten minutes time. Why did I just say she – when it’s just a small silver box?

After a fast walk to the bus stop, the live display unit there showed that the Number 10 had just been diverted to another stop, half a mile away. It was then I first began to wonder whether all these things might be in league with each other. As the famous saying goes – just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean these things aren’t out to get you.

Two days ago, or F plus Five, the fridge introduced me to some new features I’d not seen before. We started with a far-too upbeat (at least for me for at 7 am), “Hi Jon, it’s going to be a great day, why don’t you go for a refreshing bike ride before breakfast”. If you can now imagine a relatively normal adult person in conversation with a fridge, this is where it all began to go really wrong.

‘No thanks’, I said ‘I’m just going to have some breakfast and get ready for work, I have a lot on today’.   Now that shows how far I’ve gone – discussing my workload with a fridge –  probably the first step in being taken away somewhere, paranoid or not.

Anyway, that was not the right response. I was reaching in to get some eggs and bacon, when suddenly an alarm went off, a series of flaps and doors came down, and everything I wanted disappeared out of sight.

“I’m sorry Jon, but if you are not going to do today’s exercise, there are certain areas that become restricted, the areas available to you will now open”.

Three small doors slid back, to reveal a small tub of low fat yoghurt, a bottle of skimmed milk, and a clump of broccoli.

OK I thought, that’s nothing that can’t be cured with a screwdriver, and after using more energy than I would have done on the bike, I finally managed to lever open the bacon and the egg shelves, and looking back, perhaps I shouldn’t have gloated when I ‘broke’ open the butter draw for the toast I was going to have.

The fridge simply said, in a slow, even voice “There will be consequences, Jonathan”

I received three texts later in the day, the first from the fridge repair company who had come in response to an order from my house, and fitted new high-security doors and flaps in the fridge. The second was from my credit card company explaining that the high cost of the latest transaction for repairs had reached my credit limit, and would I not spend any more until I had made a significant payment. The final was from the fridge itself, which simply said ‘You were warned’.

Helen told me to go to the fridge and apologise, but at first I refused. Then as I walked past the front door, the infra red detector, which I didn’t know had a voice said “What a porker!’”

Now I still don’t think I’m overweight, so I went straight to the bathroom to use the scales. Have you ever heard a set of scales scream: “No, please don’t stand on me, you’re too heavy, you’ll break my springs”.

This had to be a conspiracy, led by the fridge and these things were trying to take control of my life. I finally gave in and promised Helen I’d apologise to them in the morning. What has happened to those days, when the only problems with the internet involved worrying about whether a virus was going to make it through to your bank account.

So I did it. I grovelled – to a fridge!! – and I suppose it worked, as in addition to the yogurt and the broccoli I was just rewarded with a small square of wholemeal bread and a teaspoon size drop of zero-fat spread.

Maybe I’ll try disabling the Wi-Fi router, would that work, do you think?

© Jeff Farrow, 2018


This month, in place of David’s story, we’re happy to include one written by David’s friend Jeff Farrow. In his day job, Jeff has been in the water industry for…some time, including being the Chief Engineer for the building of the London Ring Water Main.  Jeff and David share an interest in big engineering problems: they’ve spent more time than they would like understanding how and why cast iron breaks.  They also share an interest in the work of Isaac Asimov.  The Good Doctor’s 1957 story ‘Profession’ suddenly came to Jeff’s mind having lain dormant for…a number of years, and, well, read on…

Harry looked up at the giant screen, while still lying full length on the artificial pitch and trying to remember what had just happened. The stadium they had chosen for this final game was notorious for serious injuries, and he was beginning to understand why.

Crowd noise was generally a good guide, and it had been quite loud when the Clash happened, followed by the crowd’s equivalent of a sharp intake of breath and then silence, as they waited for the giant-screen replays – again, usually a good sign – 20,000 spectators all concentrating on their voting tablets.

It had not been a good month so far, leading up to this Quarter’s finals, and he’d only just made the team. But against the odds, he and the team had made it to the overall final, and a good score today, or better still a great score today would get him to where he needed to be. The all-important Quota for this Quarter had been set at ten, but with eight teams involved in the finals and 14 players and substitutes in each team, that made 111 other players, and therefore only a one in eleven average chance of Selection.

The 30 seconds or so after a Clash and before the video coming up on screen, were often the worst. With nothing to focus on during this time, except for the pain in his leg and the ever-present worry about serious injuries. The highest probability of all was always that the players towards the top of the Selection List would be out of the game and fail Selection due to serious injuries, at almost the last minute.

Selection was the most important thing in Harry’s and all of the players’ lives. Since the TV and Betting Companies had moved into ‘New Football’, this was where money and careers were to be made. Back in the past, when VAR had been introduced, the football clubs hadn’t realised what the natural consequences might be. Gamblers, viewers, and spectators had become more interested in the VAR than in the game itself, and although scoring goals and winning matches remained part of the overall betting system, the technical and visual merit of ‘Clashes’ had become far more important.

There were two main elements to a Clash in ‘New Football’. The violence delivered by one player on another – the ‘Hit’ – and the elegance and innovation of the ‘Dive’ of the other player.

These were difficult skills. There were legal and illegal Hits, with a wide range of scores. Dives had to entertain the crowd, but without being obvious.

Harry’s special skill was in being able to instantaneously tailor his Dive to the type of Hit he received and to the nature of the crowd who would be voting. He was considered to be above average in Diving, but sadly Hits still usually generated more points than Dives.

In his final semester at Sports Academy, Harry had made his choice to try to become a professional player. But it was an all or nothing decision; players who didn’t make Selection were on the scrap heap at 20, with the chance of other good careers closed to them. This was what gave Harry sleepless nights. He’d done really well during these past two years, and was now a regular first-choice player in a good team, but that still only placed him in the top 30 of this Quarter’s players, and he desperately wanted to get up into the top 10.

Although ‘New Football’ had now reached quite serious levels of on-pitch violence, there were still red and yellow cards to avoid. Some Hits were still outlawed, and Dives were only allowed after proper contact. If the VAR showed the Dive to be spurious or if the Hit was the wrong type, red or yellow cards could be given with serious consequences for a player’s score.

The referee was coming over to where Harry and Ricardo, his recent ‘opponent’ in the Clash, were lying, or in Ricardo’s case sitting, in the process of getting up. A yellow card now would be disastrous.

Maths was one of Harry’s strong points, and he used it now to take his mind off these thoughts and worries, and also from the rapidly developing pain in his left leg. He’d come into this game with a personal score of 73, which had placed him close to the top of the ‘List’ in his own team, but still only just in the Top 30 when all 112 players in the finals were considered.

One of the first big financial prizes for the Top 10 players after this game, was a place in the Championship Finals for the year, now always called the Olympic Finals. The big professional teams in the ‘New Premiership’ league almost always chose their new players for next season from the Olympics, so points today couldn’t be more important.

The Olympic Finals and the New Football Premiership league matches were played in front of 100,000 people, and were heavily sponsored by big world-wide gambling syndicates. A New Premiership player could make a fortune in a short playing career, and be set up for life.

Winning this game would be worth 5 points to each of his team, while a good Dive could earn up to 15 points and a good Hit up to 20, depending on the audience votes and also on the referee’s judgement.

Harry felt pretty safe for this Dive. The pain in his leg told him that this had been a real, and quite significant Hit with contact that should easily be picked up by VAR. He’d taken the ball right up towards Ricardo, going at top speed and leaving him no real option than to take him down. That was one of the skills needed by a good Diver – to entice the other player into making a seriously hard Hit, but in a way in which you could achieve a really good Dive without being hurt.

On balance, this time that hadn’t necessarily been too wise, as Ricardo was not known for subtlety or care in the Clash. He’d come in high, with both sets of studs horizontal above Harry’s knee level. Harry’s Dive had been as much about trying to keep his legs intact, as about winning points for elegance and style.

The ref was holding up a yellow card, which he waived at Ricardo, who had been above Harry on the List, so that was no bad thing; he would now get no points for this Hit, and also pick up a penalty of minus 5 for the ‘yellow’.

Meanwhile the crowd voting for Harry was being assessed and showing up as 14 on the big screens – so it must have been a pretty good Dive, at least in their eyes. The giant-screen showed the players’ scores in the latest Clash, and also the Top 50 scores. The addition of these points moved Harry above Ricardo, and up to 12th in the List. Ricardo was seriously not happy and the string of threats he made to Harry added a few more worries about how the game might end.

There were 25 minutes left on the clock, and Harry’s team were leading one – nil, although nobody cared about scores these days or who won or lost the game. With a bit of luck he could still make it to the Top 10. He stood up, tested the feeling in his leg, and ran into space calling for ball, hoping to set up another high-scoring Clash, preferably with someone other than Ricardo.

© 2018 Jeff Farrow