Friday, 22 September 2017

Dissatisfactions 1 - Hair and weight

There are things niggling me. Let's begin with my appearance: my hair and my weight loss.

Hair first. On 5th August I wrote a post titled The Hairband which went into why I'd stopped wearing one. Under some urging from local friends, I'd agreed to go hairbandless for a little while, as a trial, and I've stuck with it. But never without reservation. Out in the wind, my unrestrained hair instantly flies about and looks a mess. The old hairband hadn't prevented the wind ruffling my hair, but there was a definite limit to the damage that could occur; and once indoors, or in the car, order was very quickly restored. And the old hairband always preserved the fringe, no matter how strong the breeze, but without it the fringe disappears, exposing an unlovely forehead that I'd rather keep concealed.

Where now is the semblance of shape and style that my hair used to possess? As I said in that earlier post, untidy hair can look flattering, even sexy: but I think this works best with thick hair and a younger face. At my age, I can't really get away with anything too casual. Frankly, not looking well-groomed north of my eyes is undermining my self-esteem.

I admit that there was nothing cool about the hairband. But it did its job effectively most of the time. I'm now in blustery North Devon, with the Appledore Book Festival imminent, and I want to look presentable - and not like a bag lady. There are events to attend in smart clothes, and I want my hair to look decently tidy. So this afternoon I'm popping into Barnstaple, and I'll buy a new hairband to wear. My friends back in the village won't like it, but it's my hair, and I want to restore an appearance that seemed to work well.

Next, weight loss. This is coming along pretty nicely. I haven't found it very easy to shed my exceess weight, but when weighed two evenings ago at Slimming World I'd managed to throw off two stones and three pounds since starting last November. That's thirty-one pounds, or fourteen kilograms. I'm happy with that kind of progress, slow though it is.

Importantly, I've worked out a good personal regime that includes a wide variety of nice things to eat that are nevertheless Slimming World compliant and - if I stick to plan - will inexorably lead to gradual weight-loss. I have also worked out which 'naughty' things I can start eating again, in order to arrest the weight loss and just hover at the weight I want to be. Of course, it's impossible to get through the average week without a social life, and those things that tend to go with seeing friends (meals out, wine), which all put the brakes on anything more than very gradual weight loss. Even so, I should get to my ultimate target during the next four months. That target is now three stones - forty-two pounds, or nineteen kilograms.

What's not to like about losing weight? Well, for a start, it is ageing. I have lost that my chubby round face and neck, and gained lines and wrinkles that were there, but stretched out and not so visible. My neck doesn't look good at all. Elsewhere, however, the Melford carcass definitely looks trimmer and slimmer and because of that a bit younger.

So it's younger body, but older face. Is that what I really want? I'm not entirely sure.

I do of course look and feel healthier, more supple, and I can bend more easily. And my joints must welcome not having to cope with quite so much heft. These are very important points in favour of weight-loss. Points that will stop me backsliding and throwing away the dedication and effort needed to get so far towards my target. But I don't want to end up healthy but haggard. I'm starting to think that three stones may be just a few pounds too much.

Now there's something else. My head hair, fine not coarse, and never thickly-growing, is getting a bit thin. There are no bald patches yet, but I can see from many past photos that my hair isn't as luxuriant as it used to be. Whenever I wash it, I seem to lose quite a number of strands. More than I used to. What's changed?

I'm older, of course. How thick should a woman's hair be at sixty-five? I'm on HRT, so it's not an oestragen deficiency. It could be heredity. My Mum had thinning hair in her old age. She added volume by perming it relentlessly, something I am not going to do. Nor will I saturate my hair with goo and spray, to artificially bulk it out.

I do wonder whether my hair is missing the things I have eliminated from my diet since starting my current weight loss endeavour - things like bread, butter, and cheese. At the moment, the hair-thinning is slight, but neverthelesss concerning and I shall keep an eye on it. If necessary, I shall stop losing weight and eat some bread and cheese again.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The iPhone X. Any real-world advantage?

Hmm. The iPhone X is now officially revealed, and it looks very nice, but not very different from my Samsung Galaxy S8+. Popped into a case, it will hardly be distinguishable. Will people say to me, 'Oh, is that the new iPhone X?' or will they say 'That's the Galaxy S8+, isn't it?' Assuming that people ever do take that kind of interest nowadays.

Ten years of smartphones have rather dulled the capacity to feel more than mild curiosity about whatever phone is in somebody's hands. The subject has tended to become trivial, a mere conversation-opener, a chat-up line. One might as well remark 'That's a fantastic laptop/tablet/sports watch you've got there!' As if you would.

Smartphones do remain very personal devices, and they say something about one's tech savviness, brand loyalty, income bracket, and spending priorities. Or at least they can signal those things, if signalling to others is important. Grown-ups and serious users surely don't care.

But they are as ubiquitous as Ford Fiestas. It has become the norm to own a smartphone, high-end if possible, budget if not. Putting it in another way, you have to make an effort, a carefully-researched purchasing choice, and be capable of resisting the steering efforts of a shop salesperson, to end up with a completely simple, uncomplicated phone. Simple phones are undesirable, have no status, and there is probably not that much of a market for them. Who now aspires to own an 'old-fashioned' phone with a small screen and buttons to press? Senior folk, who only want to make voice calls, possibly read emails, and dabble tentatively with Facebook?

What about style? Well, iPhones previously set the pace here, but nowadays the necessary protective case has become the prime indicator of personal taste and sense of style.

The range of cases is enormous, from the lurid and tacky to the discreet and quietly luxurious. Cases conceal what makes a phone different from the rest. And cases quickly degrade with usage, so that after a year or two the average case looks tatty, dragging down the eye-catchiness of any phone. The signature features of my own phone - notably the curved edges of its screen - are half-concealed by the enveloping case. And the leather sleeve I made for it effectively hides my phone from view. Indeed, the same sleeve might contain my sunglasses - which, of course, is exactly its point: disguise. It may no longer turn heads to flaunt a high-end smartphone in public, but the upwardly-spiralling value of these devices when freshly launched (what, £1,000 or so?) makes them a hugely tempting target for theft, slick or brutal. One way to counter that is to hide it, or pretend the thing is actually something else.

No doubt Apple will sell a lot of its latest flagship. Its fan base isn't going to mutiny. They will cough up the required fee, and defiantly remain with a brand they love beyond reason.

And I can see that the Apple brand has a genuine pull, even though Apple has gradually become, in terms of sales, a one-product company. I don't personally find its image appealing. There's something about their approach to marketing, and their treatment of customers, that I find offputting. Not that I am by any means a cheerleader for Samsung. Samsung can flop as easily as any other company. And they have in the past. As many other companies have. Nobody is immune from disaster.

Really, purchasing preference rests on small differences that seem to hardly matter, but in fact do. I like being able to customise my Samsung phones so much. I do like using microSD cards, that I can transfer from phone to phone (at least for now). I prefer the letter 'S' to the letter 'A'.

When I last checked, Vodafone's deals on the Galaxy S8+ were scarcely unchanged from those of five months ago, when the phone launched. Clearly demand has been strong and it has sold well. That's five months of good profit for Vodafone, and of course for Samsung. Even if newer phones like the iPhone X divert attention, I expect the S8+ to carry on selling well because of its modern design, large clear screen, responsiveness, and good battery life. These all tick fundamental boxes. When all is said and done, the iPhone X offers nothing very different. There is just the Apple name, the Apple thing. I wonder if it will be quite enough.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Being different

The last post (on rejecting Facebook) has prompted this one. More and more I find myself caught in the middle of two opposing tendencies.

One is to let myself be part of the mainstream of life, taking my place as an accepted member of several interlinking circles of people, mostly local, and very definitely real-life. It's a world of older women in the main, of course - mostly women in their fifties or older, but with a sprinkling of younger women too. And to function in that milieu, a certain amount of conformity is needed. It doesn't seem contrived or unnatural. But extreme or disturbing behaviour is out of the question. To my surprise, I've managed to conform successfully, and there have certainly been rewards for doing so. Not only have I made a string of friends, there was (for instance) the joy of being voted (local) Slimming World Woman of the Year last month. How I treasure that accolade! Truly now a member of the Sisterhood. Especially as it was awarded as much for being an 'inspirational person' as for losing significant weight. (That's being 'inspirational' on what the people who voted for me could see and hear, without knowing my history)

But I feel the pull of the other tendency also - to be myself, to preserve my individuality, and insist on making plans that keep my life simple, solitary and free from entangling connections. And as I find myself sinking deeper into 'normality', so that contrary pull is becoming ever more insistent. I don't think it will ever become a stark choice - one life or the other - but striking a balance between integration with mainstream womanhood (and all that entails), and a freewheeling personal life in which I can at all times follow my preferences, is bound to become harder in the years to come.

One thing I don't want to happen is to find myself besieged by some man wanting to know me better and accept his attentions, whatever his motive. That would be so not what I'd want. Whatever his charm, whatever his gifts, whatever the material advantages on offer, I will always value independence far above a gilded imprisonment. I will be nobody's possession. I don't even want to be anybody's dream or aspiration. I must be uniquely me, beyond desire or imitation. And most definitely not an object of lust (reality check: fat chance), nor someone with assets to covet, a target for deception and robbery.

Another different, but related, scenario would be an offer from another woman to pool our resources and live enjoyably in a combined life with wide internal freedoms. But we'd have to like each other very much, and my own previous experience of teaming up with likeable people is that intimacy develops, and with it a certain enslaving mutual dependency. It becomes a kind of marriage. And absolute personal freedom is incompatible with marriage. Instead, there must be absolute loyalty to a common purpose. I haven't got it in me to commit to such a thing. I really don't want to try yet again, and inevitably fail.

So I feel different, and destined by temperament and self-knowledge to stay separate, and be in some way a permanent outsider. For me, that's a natural, comfortable position, and in no way a daunting prospect. It has its own advantages too, some of them rather enviable. But even if it were a way of life fraught with constant problems, I now know for certain that I would have to follow it willy-nilly, and never look for an escape.

Recently I've had the opportunity of watching several Super-Hero films based on Marvel Comic characters. Now there are a set of people who have no choice but to live strange lives. If they look like ordinary human beings, then protecting their identity and being careful about using their powers is paramount, and normal life is denied. If they look alien, then they absolutely must live secretly, hiding perhaps on some remote island. They won't be able to attend the local pilates class, nor have a good chat at Slimming World. They have no choice about it. Now that would be really sad!

Social networking and instant messaging

I'm starting to feel out of step with a lot of people, for not having a Facebook account. Apparently I am missing out on what's happening in other people's lives. And there's a suggestion that people are not going to send me special me-only messages if they have already posted something up on Facebook. They expect me to 'be on Facebook', and dip into what's going on, and generally be part of it all. And if I won't, then sadly I'll just have to miss out.

Well, judging from the trivia I often see when friends look up something they want to show me, I don't think I'm missing anything very important, although I do acknowledge that I'm standing apart from the rising generation of people - billions of them, I suppose - who share their lives online. For blogging isn't quite the same thing. Certainly, a lot of my life is there, in my posts, but you only get a disconnected picture, not a stream. And you don't see who all my friends and family are, and what they might be getting up to. And although the photos posted up on Flickr reveal where I've been, and what catches my attention, they share no confidences. I can inadvertently say silly or indiscreet things on the blog, but as each post has structure and has to be carefully composed, the likelihood of a slip is much smaller.

When writing about Facebook before, I've highlighted the distressing fact that its quick-fire nature promotes flippancy and encourages carelessness. Too often I see - on other phones - people I know undermining themselves with terse or stupid remarks, and offhand commentary that does them no credit. Facebook clearly has abundant potential to stir up dissent, and create disharmony and misunderstanding. A far cry from the original benign notion of linking up people, re-establishing contact, and letting them come together again. There are too many tales nowadays of damage done with hurtful or bullying messages, and untruthful rumours spread that trash reputations. Then there are all the dodgy opinions, misinformation, and gossip from people who claim some kind of peer-group connection, designed to influence or destabilise or subvert one's point of view. And Facebook's own policies on how it handles all the information fed into it by its users are open to question. It regularly changes its rules for handling sensitive data, and lets people down on protecting personal security.

I don't trust Facebook. What are its motives and intentions? It has become way too big and powerful. I have a gut feeling that it's wisest to keep a safe distance, as you would a dangerous and unpredictable beast, and not enter its cage just because most other people have. There is every good reason not to feed it with the kind of meat it wants - information about my life that it will secretly use (or misuse) for its own ends.

For similar reasons, I am most reluctant to sign up for Whatsapp - which is now of course owned by Facebook, and shares personal data with its parent company. These two apps together seem to me like overweening machines. Sign up and be bound to them, with no escape. No thanks.

If wishing to stay in touch with friends and family, I still don't see what's wrong with ordinary texting and emailing. I'm not going to abandon Gmail and Samsung's messaging app merely because some people consider them dull and untrendy.

In any case, I don't have the temperament to enjoy being part of a huge community. I hesitate to 'join in'. That's not to say that I haven't joined local real-world groups (like the pilates class, and Slimming World) to meet a definite purpose (so far, though, only a health-connected purpose), but I'm not the sort to belong to clubs, societies and hobby groups. Nor action groups and political parties. I don't want to be a member. I want to be my own person. And if that means being cut off to some extent from the mainstream, then so be it.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

What really matters to me

I overspent this month. There was the unexpected expense of the mower (£269). Then I compounded the financial damage by purchasing two tops, a long cardigan, patterned pants in some silky material, a pendant and a scarf, for a total of £250-odd. They were all from out-of-town boutiques that sell goods you can't commonly buy on the High Street. The tops, cardigan and pants were from a Danish maker. My friends approved heartily.

But suddenly I felt squeezed in the money department. And I felt unhappy that the end-of-2017 savings target I'd set for myself would be missed. 

I'm not a feckless and improvident person, and although there is always slippage in any plan one might make, this was - at least in respect of the £250 spent on clothes - an avoidable self-inflicted financial wound. I could have waited, gone elsewhere, and spent less. I'd had a genuine need for more smart clothes, with specific social events in mind. The items were lovely and went together in various combinations - and would combine with things I already had - so really I'd acquired several new outfits in one go. But I was, all the same, now a bit short of cash. 

I looked for ways to restore the feeling that I was in control, and would yet meet my savings target. There was a way. I had booked nine nights at a Club site in the New Forest in early November. This could be sacrificed. I'd intended to do all kinds of things in that week and a half, but all of it could be postponed to 2018. Or indefinitely. I went online and did the deed before I could change my mind. It didn't save me even £150, but it helped.

Still, I'd looked forward to that week and a half. I'd imagined how it would be, walking around the Forest, enjoying the wild ponies and all those autumn colours; revisiting Shaftesbury, Swanage, Bournemouth, Mudeford and Lymington; possibly lashing out to see the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu; and most certainly treating myself to a day on the Isle of Wight, preferably taking Fiona, but if need be doing it on foot, and catching one or two local buses. I was wistful for these things. But I couldn't afford it all. Something had to give.

I slept on it.

It's funny how sleeping on something modifies and clarifies your point of view. I awoke feeling that I'd done something rather daft. What was important? Did it really matter if reaching a savings target was postponed by a month? What was I saving for? To build up a cash fund for future expenditure. There would undoubtedly be plenty of unexpected costs - something would go wrong with house, car or caravan  - and I'd need to keep putting money away to cope with all that as it arose. But nothing specific was in sight except a new phone in 2021 and a new laptop in 2022. In the grand scheme of things, I shouldn't get upset about savings slippage.

I went back online and rebooked the New Forest holiday. I compromised a bit, booking seven nights rather than nine. Seven nights were enough. It saved me about £33 on the site fee, and maybe £10 for the fuel I might have used during the two days now lopped off the original booking. Not a lot then. But it was a nod towards thriftiness. And I could look forward again to the things I knew I'd enjoy. I was of course taking a risk that it would be seven cold and rainy nights, with the Forest completely sodden underfoot. But indifferent weather would be no problem at all - one can be photographically creative with Autumn mists, and damp vegetation, and empty, eerie beaches. 

Retired people (at least the ones with some spare cash, and sufficient free time) live for their holidays, and I'm no exception. Unlike younger people, you are highly conscious that your active years are passing rapidly, and must be used wisely. So, having made certain that one's house is suitable for less mobile living, the next priority is getting in all the travel experiences one hankered after in younger years when it just wasn't possible. That means getting away on holiday as often as one can afford. It really is 'now or never'. Serious illness and disability loom, and once they strike, the game is over. So it's important to go on holiday, and see the world - or at any rate see the best one's own country has to offer - while doing so is physically possible.

I don't see why any older person has to justify this, nor apologise for holidaying well while they can. The whistle gets blown on it all soon enough.

I'd been silly to be parsimonious about nine nights in the very next county. I won't make the same mistake again.

The first occasion to wear some of those new Danish clothing items will be tomorrow evening at the golf club. After that, the Appledore Book Festival Friends' Lunch with crime author Ian Rankin in mid-September. More on that in another post.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Penguins

An online article I noticed yesterday on TechRadar prompted me to relive the famous John Smith's Extra Smooth Bitter TV ad from July 1996. This is the one that shows comedian Jack Dee extolling the virtues of that brew against a lurid bubble-filled background inhabited by oversized flame-spouting penguins. But more on that in a moment.

The TechRadar article was bemoaning Google's decision to crack down on apps that copied videos on YouTube. I didn't know any existed. Apparently there were several. Now they are all under threat, and may shortly become unobtainable, with the result that no ordinary Internet user will be able to download and keep their very own personal copy of something shown on YouTube.

I wish I had known sooner that this had been a possibility. It always irritated me about YouTube that although you could watch, you couldn't download. Now it looks as if that's how it will be forever, as Google clearly want to make YouTube's content inaccessible except through streaming.

The article is at http://www.techradar.com/news/a-number-of-third-party-youtube-apps-and-youtube-rippers-are-closing-down. They supply instructions on how to set up - at your own risk - one of the remaining apps that will capture and download a favourite video. I don't think I will be attempting that. Even if it proves technically successful, there is the legality issue to consider. Google clearly regard such downloading as near-piracy - the video equivalent of downloading music tracks one hasn't paid for - and I wouldn't want to invite trouble. (It is however tempting to set up the app in question, and see what it can accomplish...)

Naturally I fired up YouTube and checked what I presently had in my 'favourites'. Not much, as it happens. I am not an avid watcher or collector of videos. But I did have a few items bookmarked that I would consider downloading if I had the means to do so. Among them was the 1996 Jack Dee ad with the giant flame-belching and flipper-waving penguins.

This mustn't be confused with the 1993 series of John Smith's penguin ads, in which Jack Dee would be typically propping up the bar at a very quiet and traditional spit-and-sawdust Yorkshire pub, surrounded by squeaky little penguins whom he is easily able to put down and dismiss with his dry humour. The 1996 ad might be called The Penguins' Revenge. The penguins mock and menace him, as he strolls oblivious over a vast penguin belly, through a frothy and bubbly beer-glass landscape, up through the anus of a humongous penguin, emerging from its gaping mouth, and then finally stepping over beer can lids floating over a beery void. Unaware of his bizarre surroundings, and the near-misses of projectile penguins, he maintains a cool, detached and matter-of-fact delivery. The final custard-pie in his face - and he is still oblivious of this - is to pop him into a silly penguin suit as he walks off at the end.

All the time he believes he is doing his deadpan stuff on an empty set, merely holding a pint of John Smith's Extra Smooth Bitter in his hand, and taking the odd sip. At the end he is assured that the post-production team will project him into a normal pub background. But of course we see that they have an 'action sequence' in mind that he absolutely won't like.

Jack Dee later distanced himself from the penguins. The earlier John Smith ads had helped to make him a household name, but he must have felt that his future career was being hindered by the creatures. I went to see him at the Dome in Brighton sometime late in the 1990s, and his act (and our enjoyment of the show) was ruined by a loud heckler who kept asking him where the penguins were. He had ample reason to dislike them.

By the 1990s beer was no longer my favourite drink, but I thought the 1996 John Smith's ad with Jack Dee was very amusing. It had, at the time, been possible to capture ads like this on a VHS home video recording. And no doubt the variable-quality clips from that time that you can now see on YouTube were originally saved in that way. But nobody in a home environment could then have used a computer to make and preserve a modern video file, the mp4 video format being available only from 2001. What a pity.

And it wasn't going to be possible now. I wondered whether I might instead get the gist of the thing by taking a series of still screenshots on my phone. It would certainly convey the look and development of the 43-second ad, but there wouldn't be Jack Dee's voice, nor the music. Oh well, better than nothing. See what you think.


Nearly all the above were taken as screenshots on my phone. The taller shots were screen prints on my laptop - I thought the rendition might be better, but it isn't. Clearly the YouTube video was derived from a smeary, low-resolution VHS tape! I used to have software that would stretch the narrower shots vertically, but it wasn't compatible with Windows 10, and I'm not going to spend money on having that rarely-used facility.

Gosh, didn't Jack Dee look young then? Well, it was twenty-one years ago, and he was only thirty-five.

I wonder who played the penguins? Unless, of course, they were real...