Thursday, 13 August 2020

Only on the phone

Is it just me, or have others noticed a growing trend to develop new apps only for the phone in your hand, and not for the laptop on your desk, table, or lap? Here's a case in point.

My local medical practice - Mid Sussex Healthcare - is encouraging patients to download and install the new Airmid app developed by TPP. I'd already been using TPP's older SystmOnline app (also promoted by the practice, but not so strongly) for some time. 

SystmOnline was OK for reordering repeat medication, but otherwise rather limited. 

Airmid is however much more comprehensive, and lets me do all kinds of things. I can - of course - arrange appointments and order fresh medication. (Although in the post-coronavirus world, an 'appointment' generally means a phone conversation with one's doctor at a booked time). I can also view all kinds of medical facts about myself. So far as I can see, I have access to much of the entire online record available to the practice, going back many years. 

I'm chiefly interested in stuff like which vaccinations I've had, and the results of regular blood tests - annual and six-monthly - which I then copy onto my own spreadsheets, to build up a long-term picture. Interestingly, I can use the Airmid app to add personal information myself, such as self-measured weight, alcohol consumption, blood-pressure measurements and pulse measurements.    

The thing is, TPP have developed this useful (essential?) app for Apple phones and Android phones, but not for laptops and desktop PCs. There's no corresponding big-screen version. I think this is only a reflection of the fact that smartphone use has become close to universal. Most people now carry one, keep it on and connected, and consult it often. So it makes excellent sense to develop apps only for the phone - and only secondarily (or not at all) for any other kind of device. So one now has to own a smartphone to access medical services. 

There are consequences. One is that those who dislike tech, and doing things electronically, are going to be left out and become badly disadvantaged. That's actually quite a large and diverse group. It doesn't include me, but I frequently meet people who belong to this group, sometimes stubbornly, sometimes because modern tech just seems to them overwhelming and alien. And there are those who might wish to have a go, but simply can't afford the high cost of these devices. There are also those who have arthriticky fingers incapable of accurately hitting tiny buttons on small screens, and/or dodgy eyesight incompatible with those small screens.

The low-tech or no-tech folk in my own village must be very worried just now. The old, direct approaches to medical assistance have gone, removed when lockdown measures were put in place. It's no longer possible to pop into the surgery and ask a few questions. That's banned, because of the virus. Instead access is through a phone. The low-tech method being the old-fashioned landline phone - a less-than-perfect device if one's hearing is impaired, and it requires the patience of a saint to hold on and gradually work through the calling queue, and only then speak to a receptionist. 

'Seasoned techies' like me can submit a written request for a conversation with a doctor, either via the app, or by using a link to another online service from the practice website. Either way, familiarity with electronic devices and how to use them is needed. With the written request, you have to answer a structured online questionnaire. Mind you, it helps you focus sharply on what you really want to discuss, and it brings out what you already understand about your condition, and about any existing medication for it. The doctor can quickly peruse this, see how matters stand, and then decide whether a quick chat on the phone will do, or whether a face-to-face conversation and physical examination is required. 

For me, completing a typed questionnaire is much easier than trying to explain things to a receptionist, and I don't mind this way of doing things. But many will. They will miss the good old days, when a stroll to the surgery to see the doctor - for a pleasant chat, if nothing else - was part of their leisurely social round. But the new way must free up valuable time, and enable many more patients to be 'seen', all of which is a good thing. 

No doubt the practice doctors bless the pandemic for bringing in a streamlined new system for seeing patients without a lengthy and contentious consultation process. It takes pressure off them, and (for now) solves the problem of retiring doctors and ever-more patients needing attention. And it was all done quickly and painlessly. We won't be going back to the old way. 

For better or worse, every patient who possibly can will have to use a smartphone, and that app. 

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Exam qualifications

I went to an old-fashioned grammar school that from 1967 turned itself into a sixth-form college, gradually phasing out younger pupils. When I left in the summer of 1970 the process was almost complete. I was then very nearly eighteen, had taken my three A-Levels, and was awaiting the results. 

Much depended on them. After a very good start as an eleven year old first former in 1963 - I was joint top of the form in my first year - my performance had slid steadily downwards. I hated school, and this was the consequence. I had become a reluctant participant, longing for freedom. I got poor marks in all my mock exams. I failed half my O-Levels, and achieved only scrape grades in the rest. I wasn't a troublemaker - in class I was a quiet, attentive pupil. It was the ethos and atmosphere of grammar school life that I so disliked. The rules, the compulsion. But I was a closet rebel only, nursing my real thoughts in secret.   

Mum and Dad were dismayed at my declining performance, but I revealed nothing to them. I'd already got into the habit of hiding many things from my parents that I didn't want them to know about. Mum and Dad were caring, intelligent people, and I'm sure they loved me. But with a teenager's cussedness I couldn't let them into my heart, and share all the dark things there. Instinctively I knew it would be a mistake, with awful consequences. It would place me in their power.

At the same time, I could clearly see that my future life absolutely relied on good A-Level results. So I worked my socks off getting them. Well, mostly! Exam days came and went. I had good feelings about some of them. But I knew when my efforts had been weak, and might not get me a pass mark. Fortunately I hadn't applied to go to university. I wanted instead to go to work, and start earning money, and (above all) escape the educational system and join the 'adult world'. The future still looked daunting, but armed with good A-Levels I'd get a head start as a new recruit.

I still have that slip of paper that told me my A-Level results: an A pass (with distinction, as it turned out) in Geography, a B for English Literature, and a B for Art. I knew that I could definitely have done more for the English and Art exams, and could have got an A grade for all three. But this slightly lesser result would still do nicely.

In fact it was much better than Mum and Dad had dared hope for. Finally, Mum had results to shout about to her friends. Dad glowed with satisfaction. And I breathed a sigh of relief - I was now bulletproof so far as getting a decent job was concerned, and from that would flow all sorts of pleasures. The results were also proof to myself that, if I wanted to, and worked for it, I could do well.

Well, that was 1970. This is 2020, fifty years later. I imagine that my three A-Levels wouldn't cut much ice now, after so long. I was never sure what they said about my intelligence, or suitability for a job. I grew to thinking that one's personality and personal qualities mattered just as much as paper qualifications. In my career I met many new recruits - I even sat on recruitment panels from time to time - and I was never impressed with applicants who may have possessed a string of good exam results, but had a limp or lacklustre personal presence, or poor social skills, or an unrealistic attitude that the world owed them a living regardless of personal effort or talent. Even so, many of them were taken on. Which showed that paper qualifications carried a lot of weight. 

And it seems that this remains the case. Hence the present frantic worry over this year's results, which have had to be cobbled together using a process based primarily on teacher's opinions. Many a student will be regretting that they didn't play the game, carefully keeping up an impression that they were serious about their subject, and deserving of a high grade. It has crossed my mind that my dismal mock exam results in the late 1960s would have doomed me to a poor job - or no job - if I were being grade-assessed now in virus-haunted 2020. 

Then there's the added problem of bias - the assumption that students from a poor background, or a 'wrong' background of any sort, or just the 'wrong' type of student - are somehow less intelligent, and unable to gain the highest academic grades. That wouldn't have been my problem back in 1970. I was white, middle-class, and I lived in a decent part of the city. My father was a senior Civil Servant. And I spoke well and behaved well, even if my academic performance was no better than average. That marked me out for good things in 1970. But in 2020? 

So much has changed. I've lost track of the way schools are organised nowadays, and how exams are run. I don't know what my three A-Levels would be equivalent to. Or - more to the point - what an employer might think of them. Whether they would mean anything. I suspect that if ever I had to find work, it would need to be on a self-employed basis, because no modern employer would want me. Either they would dismiss me as grossly unqualified - no degree - or assume (bias again) that being older I'd present too many health or attitude problems, and couldn't possibly fit in with a largely younger team, nor cope with 'modern technology'. Sigh.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Eat Out to Help Out

I've now had my first taste of the government's 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme to kick-start the catering industry during August. It seems to work well.  

I was down at Whitstable on the north Kent Coast with young friend Emma, who was once my step-daughter's school friend - so she's young to me! And yet, in just a few days she'll have clocked up half a century. You'd never guess. 

The trip to Whitstable, with a beach lunch there, and ice cream, and afternoon tea and cake, after a sunny stroll along the sea front to Tankerton, was therefore - taken together - my birthday treat to her. It turned out that the air-conditioned ride there and back in Fiona was part of it too - it was a very hot day, though fortunately with a slight breeze, which made it just about bearable.

The eatery was going to be The Forge, a large green-painted shack built right on the shingle, with all customers eating al fresco under umbrellas, either at tables or standing up at a barrel. 

We'd eaten there in previous summers, and knew that its fish and chips were very good indeed. In normal times the menu included lobster, and other sea food exotica, but we wanted only their standard fish and chips. They were doing 'Eat Out to Help Out', and this may well have stimulated trade. But The Forge is always popular regardless, and it was no surprise to find that all the tables were taken. That left the barrels. We secured one of those. 

The coronavirus measures had introduced a couple of changes. One of them was that any customers 'eating in' (as opposed to buying a takeaway) had to stay at their table or barrel and place their orders using a phone app, paying by card in the app. All this was clearly explained on a note stuck to our barrel. 

First, download and install the app. Okey dokey! 

Then, choose the food and drink required from the list in the app, plus any extras, and make payment. The phone signal wasn't great, but it was sufficient. It all went smoothly. 

And within minutes, I was able to go to a side-hatch and collect our drinks - two ice-cold cans of Diet Coke. Soon after, the food itself. There was a lot of it. Neither of us could finish all our chips. But we ate all the tasty haddock.

And look at the effect of the 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme!

So what would have cost £20.90 ordinarily now cost only half: £10.45. That paid for the rest of our refreshments while at Whitstable!  

If you don't know the place, it's rather attractive on the whole. There's a High Street full of interesting-looking shops, some of them upmarket. There's a long shingle-and-sand seafront, which on the western end used to be home to sundry boat-builders. Their quaint old buildings have been turned into quaint new flats and studios. In the centre, there's a harbour which still houses an active fishing fleet, although much of the former quay area has been given over to eating and shopping of the smarter sort. These shots from our visit will give you an idea:

In the bottom-most shot, Emma (left) is admiring the glassware of the stall owner (right), whose name was Aileen. I'd just bought a lovely blue glass pendant for Emma, as a small birthday present.

We had already encountered an old friend, a fisherman. Here's myself with him:

And here's Emma:

And here we are together in the same shot:

The seafront continues east towards Tankerton, with Herne Bay on the horizon. A very pleasant, sunny walk, with three tiers of beach huts on the slope up from the promenade, mostly well-painted and clearly much used.

Overlooking the seafront was a long greensward. Or at least, it's usually green. The recent hot weather had turned it rather brown.

By now we were more than ready for further refreshment, so I bought us both Cornish ice creams at a kiosk. I don't think they were doing 'Eat Out to Help Out', but I didn't begrudge the £5.00 I paid one bit.

Another half mile brought us back to Whitstable. The objective here was the Castle, a castellated mainly Victorian structure which is now the centrepiece of a park. 

We were glad to sit down. It had turned really hot. Amazingly, a bowls game was in progress nearby, on green grass too. You can see how the ordinary grass in the foreground has been desiccated by the sun. We ordered tea and cake, and once again the 'Eat Out to Help Out' discount was applied. The bill was only £5.20.


Thankfully, this welcome pitstop wasn't far from where we'd left Fiona in a side-street. I thought that anyone still basking on the beach would be regretting it - the sun was strong enough to make you dizzy, and turn you into a seared husk. Fortunately Fiona was soon blasting us with refrigerated air.

I was very glad I hadn't worn a summer dress that I'd bought especially for this outing. Here it is, another White Stuff purchase.

I would have been too hot in it. I wore a short denim skirt instead, with the top you see in the photos. The new dress will have its debut soon enough.

Thanks to 'Eat Out to Help Out' I hadn't spend very much on treating Emma, even including the cost of the pendant. But I'll make up for it. I've promised to treat Emma and her aunt Audrey to lunch at The Hydro Hotel in Eastbourne this autumn. I'll make sure it's a jolly good lunch.

A new definition of 'soon'

BT have today sent me an email, to remind me that my current broadband contract ends 'soon'. But it doesn't end 'soon' at all. It ends in December. That's four months away. And getting another contract is a quick and easy matter nowadays. You don't need to prepare months in advance.

Or at least I don't. I haven't entered into a host of subsidiary agreements with BT, the kind that might get set up if there is a TV or Sport add-on, say. That might present some difficulties. I just have plain broadband with no add-ons. There's a tie-up with my BT Mobile SIM-only deal, in that I receive a £5 discount on the monthly phone payment so long as I get my broadband from BT, and this would be withdrawn if I didn't stay with BT Broadband; but it doesn't in any sense 'lock me in'. 

So what are BT up to? They are of course are trying to hustle me into 'upgrading' to one of their latest Broadband packages before I need to. And (surprise, surprise!) they are all more expensive. I wouldn't necessarily be paying very much more, but any price hike is contrary to my Five Year Savings Plan. 

My default intention, when giving the next broadband contract serious attention in late November or early December - and not before - is to retain my present Fibre 1 package at the same cost as now, letting it run on out of contract (so that I can change to another plan - or indeed another provider - anytime without penalty). If that's not possible - say the existing contract can run on, but without the hefty discount BT gave me last time) - then I'll look at switching to a cheaper product, maybe with BT, but more likely with somebody else. 'Downgrading' does not seem to be a concept BT have heard of.

Incidentally, I have no quarrel with BT's performance as a broadband provider, but their Rolls Royce plans come at a Rolls Royce cost. I am not prepared to pay for a plan with bells and whistles I won't use. Even Fibre 1 (which is pretty basic now) is really too comprehensive, and (despite that hefty discount) too expensive for my modest needs. I certainly don't need the three key offers included in the sort of plan BT want me to 'upgrade' to: extra download and upload speeds; extra mobile data; and access to their 'home tech experts'. Nor do I need parental controls, Wi-Fi hotspot access, and BT's own internet security. And a big definite NO to their TV and Sport. 

All I want is moderately fast, reliable, no-frills broadband from someone whom I have confidence in. If BT can meet that straightforward brief at a pleasing cost, then I'll renew with BT. If they can't, then it'll be hello to a rival. 

And I'm quite prepared to play the normal silly negotiation games. It's worth the effort, when you look at the savings over an eighteen or twenty-four month contract period. I know what I need. I will stick to my guns, not be deflected, and get a decent deal if one is there to have.  

The ace up my sleeve is that I don't really need broadband at all. Nor even a landline connection. I can usually manage with 4G alone, and happily do so when away caravanning. It's a bit of a nuclear option, to abandon wires, but ten years from now we won't be using wired connections, and I'm just anticipating the future. And I will do it for the sake of saving more money for the big things I really want (an expensive electric car; and after that, an expensive makeover for my home). I might even enjoy the act of walking away. Up yours, BT! Hello, Freedom! (And never mind the days when there's no 4G signal at home!) 

But for the next four months, while I'm still getting broadband from BT, there will no doubt be more emails from them, ever more urgent in tone, building up to a crescendo as the end of the contract gets close. Their frantic marketing would be almost amusing, if it were not so irritating. 

I hope BT will read this, and make a note not to bombard me with their unnecessary messages. I will come to the table in my own good time.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Belas Knap, and the significance of gargoyles

I like visiting archaeological features in the landscape, but don't often get the chance. Sussex has some iron age hillforts, and some ancient flint mines, but little else. You need to go west and north to see standing stones, stone circles, burial chambers and the like.

When pitched at Burford, I looked closely at the map to see whether there was anything on the Cotswolds worth a look. Belas Knap beckoned. This was a long barrow: a long mound with burial chambers inside. I did a post about one of these, Wayland's Smithy, on 27th March 2016. That will give you a sneak preview. But they are all different. So I thought it would be worth the effort of seeing Belas Knap as well. The OS map suggested that as it was situated on the top of a steepish hill, there should be good views.

Here are three location maps. The first two show the general location - south of Winchcombe, east of Cheltenham. I was approaching Belas Knap via the road up from Charlton Abbots. 

The next OS map extract gives all the detail. I needed to park Fiona off the road, opposite where a footpath headed upwards through woodland to an open field - where the map shows '208' as the spot height. Entering the field, the path then leveled off to skirt its northern perimeter, before heading upwards again, and eventually to Belas Knap. 
As I got out of my car, I felt no qualms about the climb ahead. 
But a glance at the way ahead toned that confident smile down a bit.
And halfway up the first section of path (to the open field) I was feeling decidedly senior and unfit! I had to rest.  
It was cloudy and slightly on the cool side. Rain was forecast; but I reckoned that I could look at Belas Knap before any drizzle set in. In that I was wrong. A pitter-patter of rain began as I reached the open field. It was welcome in one sense - it was refreshing on hot skin. But I wasn't dressed for a soaking. 

However, having come up the steepest bit of the climb, I wasn't going to waste the effort and tamely return to the car. So I pressed on, keeping to the edge of the field instead of taking a path (not marked on the map) which went diagonally across it, cutting out the corner and saving time - but exposing one to the rain, which had now intensified. I went from tree to tree a couple of hundred yards at a time, having a bit of a breather under each set of overhanging branches, until I got to the top of the field. There the path levelled off, and not too soon for me! It had been quite a climb. 

I wasn't alone: there were couples ahead of me, and some returning from Belas Knap. Or perhaps they were doing a longer walk. Looking back after meeting one couple (much more suitably dressed than myself) I took in the view northwards to Winchcombe. Rather good, despite the haziness.
The rain stopped as I reached another level bit at the top of the field. Just as well: the path ahead would have degenerated into a sea of brown mud if it had got too wet. Indeed, I did wonder how the steep path back through the woods would now be. Lethally slippery? Well, let's continue in style, and never mind the return leg.  

Ten more minutes, and I got to Belas Knap. I'd dried off by now.
It was in the care of English Heritage, and they had done their usual good job of presenting it in a state to be appreciated. An information board explained its history and what had been discovered inside. What looked like a grand entrance at the nearest end was in fact a dummy entrance, just for show. The real business, the funerary chambers, were further away, along the sides and at the other end. The plan suggested that the barrow was overlarge for the number and size of these chambers. Maybe more chambers could have been created as time went by, but never were. 

This was the dummy entrance, where ceremonies might have taken place.
Walking past it, and along the west side of this long barrow, I came to an open chamber that one could enter. Good shelter if it rained again! The roof was on the low side, though. I almost brained myself.

I sat down on one of the larger stones. It wasn't comfortable, but OK for a few minutes. It crossed my mind that these larger stones in the burial chamber bore a strong resemblance to those 'hangman's stones' I blogged about a few posts ago.

Outside again, I got on top of the long barrow to get whatever panoramic view it might offer. It was a little disappointing. What should have been the best long-distance view - to the east - was completely obscured by the modern trees. To the north was this:

To the west this:

And to the south this:
Let's suppose there were no nearby trees in the ancient landscape. The barrow still wouldn't have been particularly prominent on the skyline. A long low bump only - if you knew where to look. 

Still, it was very pleasant up on top of the barrow. The sun came out for a brief moment. Exhilarating.
Was it worth the climb? Considering that there wasn't very much to see at Belas Knap itself, frankly no. 

That said, the return hike was much nicer, and until I re-entered the last wooded bit, I had good views in my face all the way. I met a middle-aged couple coming uphill, as I was going down. He was puffing a bit. She was worse. 'Are we going the right way?' she asked me. 'Oh yes, just continue upwards to that far corner of the field, then it's a level path all the way to Belas Knap.' 'Upwards? A far corner?' she bleated with a sigh. 'Yes, but it's flat after that,' said her husband encouragingly. It was apparent that visiting Belas Knap was his idea, not hers. I hope they made it. 

Thankfully the rain hadn't turned the steep section down through the woods into a sea of mud. It was quite dry. That was a relief. 
Which way back to Burford? I decided to return via Winchcombe, which I hadn't visited for a long time. The big church caught my eye, and it was open. But you could only go a little way inside, most of the interior being roped off to prevent virus-contamination. But you could wander around outside. The gargoyles along the edge of the roof caught my eye.  
Strange things, gargoyles. Designed to frighten away evil spirits, or the Devil, I suppose. But to me they don't look frightening, just grotesque. But then I don't inhabit the medieval world, and haven't got a medieval mind. It might be that any mis-shapen face, any monstrous body, any image whatever that wasn't normal and perfect in form (and therefore godly) was something to be afraid of in those superstitious days. No doubt many got accused of being witches on their appearance alone, with dire consequences. A poor outlook, then, if one developed gargoyle looks in later life!