Category Archives: Random idea

Stuff I keep forgetting to remember

It’s been five days since my return from my break in Chile and I remain well-rested, mentally de-cluttered and slightly browner than normal (even if I didn’t sunbathe, a hole in the ozone layer makes Chile ideal for roasting yourself.)

Within a week I expect normal levels of pale stressy-ness to resume. 

But on the off-chance that I can keep them in mind, here’s a few personal truths that I remember every time I go on holiday.

Less is Calming
Lighter is Better
Slower is Better
Structure is not only Good, it’s Necessary
Random works when Usual doesn’t

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Filed under Not in London, Random idea, States of mind, Time management

Merry FOMO

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping on your nose,
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

Ya, either that or you’re sitting in a cold place, with no fireplace and no choir, never mind people running around in silly costumes….

It’s that time of year again when even those of us who rarely suffer FOMO can get hit with a suprise attack. If you haven’t been invited to many (or any) Christmas cocktail parties or are looking forward to a somewhat lonely holiday season, it’s entirely possible FOMO has reared its ugly head to laugh at your misfortune. Or it could be the case that you’ve been partying non-stop but still feel FOMO breathing down your neck. We are not rational beings.

FOMO is the Fear of Missing Out.

It’s a monster born of envy and insecurity and the desire to be “where it’s at”.

Actually, it’s less about being there as it is about NOT being there. Not being where the action is means you’ve been rejected … or worse, simply overlooked and forgotten! Either way, you’re excluded.

The older we get, the greater the chances that we’ve “settled down” and, allegedly, part of settling down is is that FOMO retreats … regular attacks should wane. But Christmas is special. Christmas is when many otherwise contented people wonder why their lives are not like the ones we see on TV.

It’s that time of year when it’s not actually insane to shed a tear over a commercial for a discount supermarket.

The first time I really became aware of the power of FOMO was during my 20’s when I lived in Dublin.

There’s a movie in my mind — or more precisely, a scene with a soundtrack — which captures my own sense of life is elsewhere. The scene is the drive from Dublin city centre all the way to Howth, at night, along the coast road.

For those of you who don’t know the drive, most of it involves a very long flat road that follows the curve of a bay. On the drive out of town the water is on the right and on the left run terraced houses until you get closer to Howth when the houses begin to detach into larger, private affairs.

At night, sitting in the back of a taxi, the lamp-posts are like a very long string of faery lights that trace a path all the way out to that large rocky hill of a peninsula called Howth — which rises up like a mass of twinkling ornaments at the end of the line.

For a half-hour’s drive I’d stare at those lights as they trailed all the way to the promise of people out late and parties just waiting for my arrival.

When I was invited, that is. Sometimes I was and sometimes I wasn’t.

The music that accompanies this image in my head of the night drive to Howth is Bryan Ferry.

Roxy Music captures the quiet, almost abstract painfulness of FOMO — of a better life going on elsewhere. Without me. Roxy Music knew how to do insatiable.

And so even if I have left behind the angst of my 20’s in Dublin, certain moments catch me off guard. Especially at Christmastime. Just last weekend, after weeks of travelling, with more weeks upcoming and many consecutive nights of being out on the town (in London or New York and in 12 hours time, Dublin), I’d kept last Saturday and Sunday simple. I had almost no social plans. I  shopped and caught up with my sleep and my laundry. But I also walked down my street in the dark of evening and couldn’t help but peer into other people’s houses with a pang of “Why am I not at a party? Is it OK to be by myself when EVERYONE else is having fun and toasting the festivities?” Until finally, “Is my life just a sham?!”

The only consolation is that almost everyone feels this way at some point or another (or so I’ve been told).

And I suspect if I didn’t feel this way from time to time I wouldn’t be normal.

So to everyone out there who thinks everyone else is having a great time without them, Happy FOMO. I highly recommend you wallow in your grass-less-green with a toast to yourself and a little bit of Roxy music to mark the occasion.

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Filed under Events, Random idea, Social psychology

When is a factoid a lie?


Just recently a few of us from work were out to dinner at an Indian restaurant when someone (me probably) mentioned the word “factoid”. The man on my left is full of them. And I think I was re-counting the best factoids he’d ever passed along to me when he said, “you do know that factoids are not mini-facts or trivia, but pieces of mis-information?”

No I did not know that. I’ve been mis-using the word forever. And from the reaction from the rest of the table everyone else had as well. And so it was with pleasure that today I discovered that a renowned linguists also mis-uses it. (Not that I hate to be wrong by myself, but because it’s more interesting when lots of people are wrong all together.) On the subject of this weekend’s blog, I was flicking through one of the most influential books on the subject of what peers and school have to do with the nature-nuture debate (more on that tomorrow), when I stumbled upon the word-crime in question. There it was in the opening few pages of the book within the foreword  written by Steven Pinker. This Harvard Professor in linguistics made the following statement:

A strange factoid in our True-but-Inconvenient file is that children always end up with the language and accent of their peers, not of their parents

And so Pinker, like me and many others, confuses the real meaning of the world. If the file he refers to contains actual truths, then they cannot be factoids.

Yes, factoids are bit of trivia, but the point is that they aren’t true, they are just believed to be true because they’ve been repeated so many times.

Here’s what wiki had to say on the matter

factoid is a questionable or spurious—unverified, incorrect, or fabricated—statement presented as a fact, but with no veracity. The word can also be used to describe a particularly insignificant or novel fact, in the absence of much relevant context.[1] The word is defined by the Compact Oxford English Dictionary as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact”.[2]

Factoid was coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper”,[3] and created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean “similar but not the same”. The Washington Timesdescribed Mailer’s new word as referring to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact”.[4]

Factoids may give rise to, or arise from, common misconceptions and urban legends.

And the fact that so many of us mis-use the word makes it a meme as well! Which I wouldn’t have known had I not checked out memes during last weekend’s blog of confusing terms.

Until tomorrow, when we return to the issue of how school experiences shape our personalities.

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Filed under Random idea, Words

Material Girl (2)

OK, so back to the evening course that I’d wanted to take but never did.

The idea was that our professor would teach us about an era or maybe just a decade, like the 1920’s, by surveying what was happening at the time across very different parts of human society — literature, art, theatre, music, math, science, economics and current affairs.

We would examine the movements or themes or influences that ran across different disciplines. We would learn how what was happening in the arts might mirror or even influence what was happening in science, for example. Usually, it’s the other way ’round – we look to art to tell us what’s happening to the world. But our mad professor hinted at all sorts of patterns and connections that are lesser known or noticed. What did Stravinsky’s symphonies have in common with developments in mathematics? I have no idea. But our professor talked of this evening course where I might go to find out.

If you are a regular Panic Station reader you won’t be suprised that I was excited about such a course. I’m interested in the connection between things. I like variety and I want to know about how lots of seemingly not-connected-things connect. I want to know about these connections and I want this variety more than I want to know a lot about any one subject.

Am sure someone said something bad about this condition – something about being a jack of all trades, but master of none.

  • The Chinese put it differently – “equipped with knives all over, but none is sharp” 
  • The Iraqi’s say “the one who knows seven professions but is so unlucky” (probably more elegant in Arabic)
  • In Uruguay there’s “he who embraces too much, has a weak grasp”
  • In Spain, “knows about everything, understands nothing”
  • Or in Thailand, “Know like a duck” (what??)

Back to that digressing professor and his course … I’m not sure what the class would’ve been called. A cultural history perhaps? Apparently not, since that tends to involve studying customs and rituals. Maybe a social history? But that too means something more specific … the study of ordinary lives.

Beyond learning about the inter-dependence of art and music and law and science, the other reason I wanted to take the course is because there are certain historical and cultural ideas that I simply do not get. And the mad professor is exactly the sort of person who would have explained them well. He never pulled a “dinner table lecture”.

Dinner table lecturing is what one of my college professors used to do to us. He was our economic history professor. We were learning about the slave trade. What we read and discussed was very interesting, but listening to him was not.

It wasn’t interesting because he didn’t explain anything. He lectured like he might talk at a dinner table full of peers whom he was trying to impress. He alluded to big ideas with formal labels and built complex arguments for and against them, rather than remembering that we had no idea what he was talking about.

However much he digressed, our mad psychology professor would never do that! He was like a kind and patient grandfather. He shed light on things with stories and examples and he kept going until he could see that we could see what he meant.

And in addition to more information about his car accident, one of the things I had wanted the kind, patient professor to answer was this …


It’s something I’ve never really understood. And once a concept defies you, it annoyingly pops up all over the place. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t run into a reference to, but never an explanation of, the postmodern world.

These very words are tossed into book clubs, movie reviews, random stuff I read … they can even make the nightly news. Which says to me, that I am alone in the world in not really understanding what a postmodernist one  is.

In an age of Google, you may ask why don’t just look it up.

Well I have and I do.

But a satisfyingly, straight-forward answer never crops up. I just get more and more confused by this very abstract idea.

What does this have to do with Madonna’s “Material Girl”? Not a lot, except that it’s the opposite of being abstract and I thought if I labelled these posts, “What the heck is postmodermism – part I, II and III” you might feel the same way as I do about the question and prefer not to get into the whole postmodern debate. Which is what I am about to do — just this one last time.

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Filed under Random idea, Uncategorized

Living in a material world … And I am a material girl … (1)

There once was this evening course that I was desperate to take. It was taught by a mad professor. That’s what people called him because of his hair (in competition with Einstein’s) and his teaching style (pure digression). While a psychologist, he was a philosopher and a historian at heart.

I met him in 2002 when I went to Birkbeck for a foundations in psychology class just before I went back to school (as we Americans say) to get a degree in it.

I never took the evening course that I so badly wanted to take because by the time the professor mentioned it to us, it was no longer on offer.

It would’ve been helpful had he included that detail in his mentioning, but he didn’t and so I kept an eye out for it in each new edition of Floodlight. I even wrote to him years later inquiring about whether the course might be on offer in the future, but I never heard back.

From a few straggly personal comments he threw into some of his lectures, it seemed that our professor once had a major car accident and that his entire body had to be re-built over the course of a year in hospital.

I always wanted him to tell us more about that. When did it happen? Like 2 yrs ago or 20? What did he look like before? Presumably just as burly but perhaps not as stapled together and dis-shevelled as he did now … or had he always dressed this way? Was this accident the reason that he tended to digress a lot? Had he been more orderly before his body got dis-ordered? Did the accident lead to a reduction in his workload and was it therefore responsible for the no-longer-available course?

So what was this course … and what does it have to do with Madonna’s “Material Girl”? More on these matters in the next installment of this weekend’s investigation into things I don’t understand but wonder about.

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Filed under Random idea

A talk with a stranger

Ok I’m a little bit proud of myself. Here’s why.

Striking up chat with strangers is so far away from my forte that some people might buy me a magnet that reads “Do I look like a f**king People Person?”

I do own that magnet and yes it was a gift from someone who knows me too well.

Not because I am not a people person (I am) but because I do not LOOK like one.

I look like a person in a tunnel of task who has no time for you. And mostly I don’t. Have time for you. Unless you respect I’m quite introverted and that I need advance notice that we’re about to engage in chat. Then, I’m good. I swear. I’m not task but the present — which is listening to you.

But the long and the short of it is that I do not give off an aura of openness. My body language doesn’t say “hey, come talk to me.” Ask anyone I went to high school with, ask my work colleagues, follow me around for about 5 minutes. My body language says, “I am Busy.”

So I was particularly proud of myself last night when I engaged a stranger in a full on tête-à-tête

The scene — I was on my way home. It had been a hard week and I’d a stack of reading and writing to catch up on, so I stopped for food at a place where the set-up is conducive to eating alone while working. [This is a subject onto itself … just how often I prefer to be alone while surrounded by people in a lively spot. I have haunts around the City where the staff take care of me and give me my usual tucked away spot so that I can do exactly this.]

I sat at this long bar-like table on the corner stool pictured in this photo. The room was dark and the place was packed. I ordered my tapas and opened my folder.

Across from me sat another lone eater. This can sometimes pose a problem. Especially when the other lone eater is doing something I would never dream of doing — eating alone with nothing to do but eat alone. He hadn’t a book or a newspaper or a folder of work. But he seemed contained. He wasn’t going to intrude on my comfort. The bread and chorizo and cheese that he ordered, however, did. My folder was getting squished and my own food hadn’t even arrived. But I pressed on.

My salad and patatas bravas showed up just as he finished his chorizo and the dance of plates surrounding my work space worked for a while. But then something happened. I got tired of working even though I wasn’t finished my meal and I started to consider my lone eater more carefully.

I envied how comfortable he looked sitting in a loud tapas bar on his own. Men can do this. Especially older men. And he was older (I hate to say, but maybe late 50’s to mid 60’s.) He wore a striped dress shirt, he had a nice watch, his face was tanned and rugged. I wondered if he was foreign. I’d overheard him saying something to the waitress about whether she was Hungarian. So I sat there for a few minutes daring myself to talk to him. I could ask him if he’s Hungarian! And then what? Even if he was, I had nothing ready to say about Hungary. My mind went blank which is what always happens whenever I try to compose small talk in my head. I am just not built for it.

I stared out the window and got lost mulling over just how useless I am, when a couple seated under the window drew my attention. It was clear that she was trying to squeeze past her dinner date to get free of the table to go to the ladies room but what I hadn’t expected is that this well-dressed, suited up business woman would swing her knee deep into the crotch of her companion to pull off the manoeuvre. I arched a brow and at the right second made eye contact with my lone diner who’d observed the same interaction.  We both smiled.

And that’s when he spoke to me. Who knows what he said. It was about what we’d just witnessed which then somehow lead to our favourite travel destinations, what’s wrong with the corporate world and how people always tell you what you want to hear, about being “hungry” enough to do what you really want to do with your life, about how Sarah’s Key was a brilliant movie no matter how many stories of the Holocaust have been told before.

The man had been killing time, waiting to collect his grandson. His grandson is a munchkin. Actually the lead munchkin — Marmaduke, with lines and everything. His stint on stage for last night’s Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium was due to finish at 8pm but in the preceding half hour I met an interesting person and he gave me some very good advice. “It’s all about eye contact,” he said.  That’s the secret to skipping the small talk and going straight to the good stuff.

And this the subject of this weekend’s blog — the ways we connect and disconnect from the strangers all around us.


Filed under London, Random idea, Relationships

Anyone for Solitaire?

I’m here on the Jersey Shore with my brother and his wife and kids (and our mom) for a week of sand dunes, smashing waves, sun lotion and iced coffee.

At night when the small people have been tucked into bed, the card games start. My brother won’t play because he’s too busy with his own kind of cards — index-cum-flash cards; he’s got an exam next week that’ll test over 623 pieces of small trivia. In addition to a stolen hour or two at night, he might also grab a half hour of sneaky study in the morning as our entourage hits the dunes.

Watching my brother steal time to study reminds me that the most significant upside to my single lifestyle is the amount of solitude I get to enjoy.

I’ve often wondered what’s going to happen to me when I meet the right person and settle down — I fear I might malfunction without all that time to myself. I’d rather not be single, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I do worry about this.

Solitude has been frowned upon throughout history. According to the National Geographicsolitary confinement as a form of punishment dates back to the 1700’s (and was introduced by the Quakers of all people.) Not-so-nice experiments have shown that monkeys are prone to psychosis if they end up with too much alone time. And because of what’s known as social desirability bias, if you score high on introversion on a personality test you’ll collect bonus points that bump that score higher. Because introversion is considered far less socially desirable than extraversion, the test designers assume you are inadvertently downplaying your little flaw.

The opening line on Wiki states: “Solitude … may stem from bad relationships, deliberate choice, infectious disease, mental disorders, neurological disorders or circumstances of employment or situation (see castaway).”


I spend most of time writing, researching and reading. And I love that. It’s my choice. My work matches my personality. But equally I need a daily dose of time with friends and family. About 24 hrs of no company is the most I can genuinely enjoy. But I could never be a teacher — extraverting all day long, and I’d suffer if I had to spend my day in meetings or working as a team.

But my most ideal state is being alone together.

I love blogging from the beach chair right now with my 20-month nephew quietly burying my feet in sand. I love reading my book surrounded by the diffuse sounds of other people’s chit chat. And in terms of being single, one of the things I miss most is reading the Sunday papers with someone special. Separately but together.

Recently I downloaded OmmWriter. Omm is like Microsoft Word except that it’s Zen. The screen is pure uncluttered blank – no toolbars around the edges. Omm let’s you select the sound of your typing (my favourite: the old fashioned typewriter option), the background theme and colour  (my favourite: a vista of barren trees covered with snow) and the backing soundtrack which includes options like nighttime crickets or chimes in the wind (my favourite: random household noises.)

With Omm, I create my own writing environment where I type on my trusty old typewriter looking out at the snow all the while surrounded by the comforting sounds of someone busy in the next room sorting through some papers or shuffling down the hall to make coffee.

I guess the makers of Omm must have known — plenty of us want to be alone. Surrounded by the comfort of company.

Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device


Filed under On writing, Random idea, Relationships