Wednesday, 21 June 2017

6,000 shots in seven weeks

It's very difficult to keep blogging when on holiday! It's such a chance to do unusual things, and see unusual places, and meet people not ordinarily encountered. Combine a wish to get out and around, exceptionally sunny weather, and a photographer's eye, and pictures can and will get taken in profusion. They have to be dealt with. I've spent most of my holiday evenings on them - well, after cooking, eating and washing up, anyway - and I'm still five days behind.

Don't misunderstand me. I love taking photographs. I linger over them as I process them, and look at them again and again afterwards for all kinds of reasons.

I very often see details in my pictures that I missed when actually there in person. That's why I object to paying good money to visit something, and yet being denied the right to take pictures while there. In fact, if I know that in advance, I won't bother visiting the place at all. For instance, in Brighton they prohibit you from shooting the interior of the famous Royal Pavilion. Why? I mean the days when it would harm 'postcard sales' are long past. Possibly some aged fuddy-duddy on the governing committee has visions of the hoi polloi blitzing the place with flash bulbs - not realising that ordinary modern cameras and phones have fast lenses, and don't need flash of any kind. Anyway, I am not going to revisit the Pavilion again until their silly photo ban is lifted.

I personally think that the various organisations that run places like the Royal Pavilion just like inventing Rules. They don't really welcome visitors, only their cash. People endanger the vital preservation effort. They really want to be belligerently discouraging, repelling all boarders. Or failing that, herd the paying public - who are in any case mostly meek and well-behaved - into manageable groups with a no-nonsense guide in charge, making sure that we pay attention and touch nothing. But listening to somebody droning on about historical and artistic stuff that I already know something about, and not being able to wander about as I please, is to me as uncongenial as being forced to sit still and watch a film that may have generated several Oscars, but bores me stiff.

Another case in point. I'm now in Fife in Scotland, half-way through my long holiday, and yesterday I went to see Falkland Palace, a National Trust for Scotland property. All turrets and royal history. It was a lovely warm sunny day. I had notions of seeing the Palace first, then the famous Gardens. I flashed my English National Trust Life Membership card, and duly got in free.

But right at the beginning of the signed route upwards, via a spiral staircase, was a 'No photography' sign. What? No photography, when the English NT - clearly more enlightened in these matters - normally allowed you to take non-flash pictures? Hmph. Not impressed.

It would have looked a bit odd to back off and slink out right at the beginning of the tour, so I continued upwards and joined a small crowd of visitors in a nice room. I was warmly welcomed by the guide, who had started on a well-rehearsed lecture. But I stayed at the edge of the throng, near the door, thinking: did I want this? Was I going to shuffle with the crowd from room to room, and endure lecture after lecture, all the time unable to take pictures to make my visit memorable? I quickly decided to opt out. I turned, ignored the signed route, and departed the way I'd come. Fortunately, a coachload of fresh visitors had just arrived, and the ticket girl didn't see me escape. Outside, I illegally stepped over a chain and into the Palace Gardens. They proved to be very pleasant, and I shot away to my heart's content.

The old scroats who decide the Rules for Palace visiting need to change their thinking. Otherwise I won't be back.

Falkland Palace was an exception to my daily habit of blitzing every place that I've never been to before. I've done it even more than usual, since I discovered that Tigerlily, the new phone I acquired on 28th April, has a fantastic camera. In the seven and a half weeks since our first acquaintance, I've taken over 6,100 photos with her, a lot of them while on holiday. You can see why the necessary processing time on my laptop looms so large in my life! It's one reason why I always holiday alone. If I had a companion, they would feel lonely and neglected; and I would begrudge giving them any time. I'm very much devoted to photography. Not the equipment and the technicalities: I prefer to keep those very simple. But I do want an impressive collection of shots that perfectly recalls where I went, and fully captioned so that retrieval and publishing is easy.

Some day-trips have yielded an astonishing crop of pictures, in terms of both quality and quantity. Six days ago I walked around Newcastle for the first time ever. I went there by train from Alnmouth (quite an adventure in itself). I saw the central station, the riverside, the bridges, the Baltic arts centre, the old commercial heart of the city, the Cathedral. Then I took the Metro out to Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and Tynemouth. I averaged one snap per minute. The cream of the 400-odd shots taken will appear on Flickr, and in blog posts to come once home. Believe me, it took serious commitment to process those 400 shots, but it wasn't a hardship. I was in the mood to do it, well-fed and comfortable. I had Classic fm to listen to. It just went on and on for hours; but I enjoyed every minute of the task. And there are some striking shots to show for it.

This is the first rainy day I've experienced north of the Border. So I can actually find time for blogging! However, it seems unlikely that I'll be able to write many posts before I get home. The photo work comes first.

Sorry, I mean having a holiday comes first. I need to remember that.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Suspicion and envy in Scarborough

Much to my astonishment, I have wanted to use the camera on my new Samsung Galaxy S8+ smartphone for well-nigh every shot since taking the first few experimental pictures at the end of April. And now, almost 4,000 shots later (that's 4,000 shots in just six weeks), I am satisfied that the future lies in buying phones that feature a camera as good as this one.

That's quite a change of attitude on my part, towards cameras on phones. A couple of years ago I was prepared to scoff at them. No longer. In fact I think the camera I bought two years ago in 2015 - the Panasonic LX100 - will turn out to be the last 'conventional' camera I shall ever buy. In the future, it will only be necessary to buy a smartphone with a camera that suits my kind of picture-taking.

And those personal needs are pretty straightforward. A glance at my Flickr pages will instantly reveal the mix of subjects I regularly tackle. A phone with a good camera is adequate for almost all of it.

You see, you have to distinguish between the shots you actually do take, and the shots in dreams - you know, the sort of picture that the photo-equipment manufacturers splash across their webpages and glossy brochures, to feed desire for expensive, high-status equipment. The images captured by professionals might very well require 'proper' big-name beasts with monster lenses attached. But if all you actually do is wander around snapping things that catch your eye, or recording happy times with friends, then there is no need to tote such imposing kit. In fact, I rather think that only beefy men wanting to be thought 'real photographers' spend cash in that way. The rest of us, with no need to impress anyone, prefer to travel light.

I think the latest 2017 generation of phone cameras is now good enough to replace an ordinary camera without the loss of any capabilty that matters. My 4,000 shots say it's true. Tigerlily's camera can deliver the kind of shot I want. Which is: impeccably exposed, richly coloured, and full of detail. And - vitally - with everything in focus. For I want to examine everything in the shot, and anything out of focus spoils the picture so far as I am concerned. In that I'm at odds with the current fashion, which favours having a narrow depth of field to make the main subject stand out in sharp focus, but the rest of the picture gently softened. A large sensor and a clever lens will achieve that. But no thanks. It isn't what I want.

But a smartphone can give me what I'm looking for. A smartphone is thin. This imposes restraints on the camera design, so that it's impossible to achieve a picture with some things sharp and some things deliberately blurred, unless you resort to clever software that creates a not-very-natural illusion of soft focus. You can't do it optically, unless the subject is right under your nose. Some must deplore this severe limitation. I embrace it. The output of smartphones is exactly what I want.

I was in Scarborough yesterday. It was a sunny afternoon, and I was wandering around with Tigerlily in my hand, and every now and then I'd take a shot, or a number of shots, of something I had noticed. It was very easy to do this with the phone. Easier in fact than deploying a regular camera would have been. Quite a number of people object to being in a shot. I don't know what's up with them. These people notice proper cameras. They peer and stare and often frown. They look stiff and unnatural. Oddly enough, they are often the last people you'd really want to shoot seriously. But by staring straight at you they call attention to themselves, and may spoil the shot.

But phones are almost invisible. They seem to be in everyone's hand. And so many people are taking fun shots with them. They are harmless gadgets. Phones are not threatening. They indicate - if noticed at all - that you are nothing more than a happy snapper taking a casual shot that won't be of any great quality. It's a shot that can't matter. So the self-conscious don't mind nearly so much, and (mostly) remain natural.

That said, I was getting a few stares. I wondered why. Was it the way I was taking my shots? I do compose them with obvious care. But then surely a lot of other people do as well. It wasn't because I was talking to Tigerlily, either. Saying 'capture' wasn't possible in the sea breeze, nor where the background noise was intrusive. Then it occurred to me. My phone was tethered to my wrist with the lanyard. That was something you might see and wonder about. Absolutely nobody else was using a lanyard with their phone. It was surely getting me noticed. Worse, it was perhaps making some people wonder whether what I had in my hand really was a phone. What else do people tie to themselves? Did they think it was a suicide bomb? Hmmm!

There was perhaps another more down-to-earth explanation as to why some people were giving me scrutiny. Tigerlily was a recently-launched and very, very expensive smartphone, and looked like no other. Perhaps they wondered what kind of swanky show-off madam, with too much money for her own good, was walking through the holiday throng? I'm inclined to put it down to ordinary human envy more readily than anything else.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

After the election

Despite being on holiday, I sat up very late in my caravan on General Election Night, all in accordance with family tradition.

Pre-election events had changed the picture, and I thought it was going to be no landslide victory for the Conservatives, and that the unfolding story would be well worth listening to (I was photo-editing with the radio on). It was. The first shock was the Exit Poll that said the Conservatives would be the largest party but lose their majority in the House of Commons. Many commentators immediately went into disbelief and denial about that. But the Poll was incannily accurate. And by the morning we saw that it had predicted the broad picture correctly, although it had not forseen the Conservatives' astonishing success in Scotland.

As a Conservative voter, was I dismayed? (That just might be a decent pun) No. But the result was bound to cause difficulties for running the country effectively, and playing a bold hand at the Brexit negotiation table.

But I wasn't altogether surprised. Labour had made the better running out in the country and on TV, and had deserved to win seats from the Conservatives on account of the sheer effort put in. I'm not saying that I'd have half-welcomed a Labour victory as an outcome well-earned. Certainly not. I'd have shuddered at the inevitable consequences of their grand spending plans. But they had put peoples' welfare at the heart of their programme - people young and old - and that looked so much warmer and more caring than the Conservatives' prudent but rather chilly programme.

It emerges now that the Conservatives had employed two senior outside consultants to advise on the best manifesto - and they messed up. But that's scapegoating. Everyone who allowed that manifesto to be published should take the blame, including of course Mrs May herself. There were things in it that should not have been there, some of them politically unwise (such as bashing older people), and apparently some things that were downright silly (was there really a promise to relegalise fox-hunting?)

Just as (touching on Brexit again) no deal would be better than a bad deal, no manifesto would have been better than a bad manifesto!

Well, the electorate was worried or took offence, the result is now plain, and the question is: where do we all go from here?

It's all very well for Labour to claim they are an alternative government ready to serve. Mrs May and her Conservatives did, very clearly, win most votes and most seats, and that's some kind of mandate to carry on. Labour isn't going to get a look-in. The DUP in Northern Ireland are going to inflate the not-quite-enough Conservative seat total, so that so long as both parties' interests continue to coincide - and so long as they don't fall out - the country will push ahead on Conservative lines, though not necessarily as the manifesto envisaged.

A lot of people are worried about the DUP, not so much for what they may demand for their assistance, but because they have in the past been strident and unprogressive, defending 'moral standards' that seem out of place in modern mainland and mainstream Britain. And I have to say that were I a lesbian, or a pregnant woman looking for an abortion, I'd be highly concerned about what they might be able to do to water down my legal rights. They will find however that getting a chance to exercise real power exposes them to scrutiny and potential censure from the country at large. If the DUP misbehaves, the consequences won't stay in the back yard of Northern Ireland: all the rest of the country will howl at them. I think they do see that, and will conduct themselves with discretion.

It looks as if IndyRef2 is dead in Scotland for now. The independence tide has decisively ebbed. I have personally never objected to any distinctive country running its own affairs under its own flag, but it's nice to know that Scotland isn't going to drift off into the Arctic anytime soon. So it's still the 'United Kingdom'. That's an achievement, although I'd say it was the Scottish Conservatives' leader's efforts that brought it about, and not Mrs May's.

What of Mrs May? I feel quite sorry for her. Unless she finds a way to achieve something new and important, the poorish result of the election will have permanently damaged her. A leadership contest is bound to follow. Forget Messrs Gove & Johnson. I predict that one of the untainted younger women will succeed her.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Ebbor Gorge, Eastwater Cavern, and the Mendip Flood of July 1968

There are one or two leftovers from my last caravan trip. I'd better get them out of the way before setting off again!

This post is about a day out in the Mendip Hills, an upland area south of Bristol that includes the famous Cheddar Gorge. It's limestone country. That means that all rainfall disappears underground, and there are no running rivers on the Mendip plateau. Limestone is permeable: it's jointed, and the water finds its way down these joints, dissolving the rock as it goes. Over thousands of years it creates a system of caves linked by tortuous passageways, the kind beloved of potholers. It's a renowned area for potholing. Here's general map of the area covered by this post:


I have been in caves, but only the sort you walk into for a short distance, occasionally on a guided tour. Personally, I find them slightly oppressive. You can't help being aware of the weight of the rock above, and how dangerous it would be if there were a rock fall. You are also very well aware of the danger from water. It's easy to imagine a rain shower up on the surface leading to a rush of water through those passageways, and caves filling up, and hapless potholers being caught underground. Or indeed mere hapless visitors!

A little more on this theme later in the post.

I was meeting up with Angie and S--- for lunch one day last April at the Queen Victoria pub in Priddy, a classic Mendip village. There used to be another pub there, the Priddy Inn, but it was closed, having changed hands for refurbishment and a relaunch as a gastro pub with its own micro-brewery. That would be a step up from its old status, which was as an inn for hearty booted hill-walkers needing no-nonsense overnight accommodation. If the relaunch actually takes place, Priddy will gain an ambitious eatery that may put the village on the fine dining circuit. But it will have to charge prices that some won't like paying. And its atmosphere might not be pubby enough for many others. At the Queen Victoria they were confident that a revamped and upgraded rival wasn't likely to steal their customers. The lunch and drinks were very pleasant, and I tended to agree with them.

We were going to head south first, towards Ebbor Gorge. Whereas the plateau was mostly farmland with dry stone walls aplenty, and some far-reaching views, the edges of the Mendips featured several deep, wooded ravines like Ebbor Gorge. Here's myself, at the point where we began to head downhill:


It was April, of course! I wouldn't need to wear a jacket like that in the current warm weather.

The Gorge was very green, very mossy, and with bluebells coming out. How lovely to see them.


Our walk contemplated going only so far down the Gorge, just enough to get a feel for it. Then we'd head up to the plateau again, but at a different spot from where we came in. At the point where we stopped descending, it got narrow, rocky, and very steep. We watched some people coming up. It was clearly an unexpected climb for them:


You can imagine a torrent of floodwater from a sudden thunderstorm rushing through there!

Let's consult the map:


We'd come south from Priddy using the West Mendip Way, and had got to the footpath-crossing just below where it says Ebbor Rocks. Now we were going to head north-east using Monarch's Way to East Water. After that, to Priddy church, then back to our cars at the Queen Victoria.

It was proving to be a decent walk, in good weather too. The dry stone walls were picturesque. So were the trees that dotted the open landscape. 


At East Water, we struck off across the field to have a close look at Eastwater Cavern. Or at least the entrance to it. I was last here on 10th July 1968, a fateful day. I was aged sixteen, and I was one year into my A-Level Geography course. It was a special day trip by coach to limestone country from Southampton. 

The day was a washout. We were meant to study typical examples of limestone scenery, swallow holes among them, these being water-formed pits leading to cave systems, into which any temporary surface water drained. But the worsening weather rendered quite a lot of the day's programme impossible. 

Rain fell all day long, and that field was very sodden as we rather unwillingly left the warmth of the coach to inspect the Cavern, notebooks and pens in hand. I remember slithering down to look into the Cavern, which already had a little stream of water cascading into it. Actually climbing down into the Cavern was clearly out of the question, although I rather think that our Geography masters - an all-male team clearly used to trekking without oxygen or KitKats in the Himalayas - had had some such notion in mind. I felt saved by the wet weather, and secretly thanked the rain gods. But I still had wet feet, which was distressing enough. Getting half-drenched in some hole would have been a matter for tears. (I admit it, I was a complete wimp at the time) 

I'd never been back there since. But now, forty-nine years later, here I was with two friends - on a sunny afternoon too. The swallow hole seemed to have grown deeper! I didn't fancy climbing down, and stayed up top, with S---. But Angie was game, which is why she was able to take these shots, which are hers and not mine:


When I was there in 1968, there was an iron grating over the entrance, which I think some local caving body had padlocked to deny the reckless a chance to kill themselves. I wondered why it had since been removed. 

Hmm. Instructions for a cave rescue in the event of an accident or emergency. Definitely not reassuring! Surely nobody would want to go underground, if it were risky? Well, clearly some daredevils do. 

I had mixed feelings about coming here again. It wasn't a fond memory, which is perhaps part of the reason why I didn't join Angie at the Cavern entrance. She had no such problems, and in any event is a brave soul, and happier than I am with steep slopes. I'm still not a seeker of thrills and adventure! It's not just holes. I've never climbed a tree in my life. That said, I've stood close to many a cliff edge for the sake of a photograph.

Back in 1968, the coach motored on towards Cheddar, entering via Cheddar Gorge, already streaming with water. We were allowed a couple of hours to look around the packaged tourist attractions and the gift shops. The rain continued relentlessly. Not fancying the attractions and shops - and not having any money - I did climb up Jacob's Ladder, a long series of steep steps up the side of the Gorge, but the rain-swept landscape at the top was disappointing, and there was no view to admire. I went down again, and decided to wait out the next hour or more in the coach. To my surprise, everyone else was there well before me, and the engine of the coach was running, the driver impatient to go. It turned out that fears of a flood were growing, and the masters were very eager to depart, and get their charges out of harm's way. So in fact we all left much earlier than planned. I was the last back on board.  

We were lucky to get away. Later that day the rain got even worse, and the consequences - awful floods - made the national TV news. Some people must have been underground at the time, unable to get out. I didn't hear of fatalities, but reports now on the Internet recount how bad it all was. See for instance:


We were out of immediate danger by the time the coach edged through Wells. But it had been a scary thing. I couldn't help thinking that by climbing up Jacob's Ladder I had wasted time, delayed our departure, and had inadvertently put everyone else at risk. (Obviously, the coach couldn't leave without me. And I might have taken even longer to turn up) That notion sank in on the way back to Southampton. 

Thereafter I was very, very reluctant to do anything that might involve someone else rescuing me at their peril. 

I felt just the same when in Easter 1969 I was on the Isle of Arran in Scotland on an extended A-Level Geography Field Trip to study the geology there, which involved some pretty awful scrambling up the sides of mountains, and over sharp corries carved by glaciers. We were led by the same Alpha-male team, but they had the sense to see that I would only go so far, and it was no good pushing me further. So I was able to duck out of the worst, and just enjoy the sunshine, the wind in the heather, and chatting to the coach driver. Nobody offered me any scorn. I should hope not. I'd had the gumption to stand my ground and do something different. And I didn't mind being the only one to make a fuss. 

If I'd given in, and attempted things that I knew would scare me witless, I'd have become a problem for everyone, spoiling the day's expedition and diverting effort away from the purpose of the trek. So I felt my recognition of personal limits was thoroughly sensible and did us all a favour. And coming from a youngster, a mere student with no personal clout whatever, and far from home, it might have had - in an odd kind of way - certain elements of bravery. 

It wasn't the last time I stood my ground, although in my working life it didn't always go down so well. Big career fish don't appreciate opposition, and in 1996 I stood my ground again and got thoroughly hammered for it. You can't behave like a wimpy girly (or a stubborn old owl) in the adult world and get away with it. 

At least, not until you retire. Once that glorious event occurs, once you are free, and once there is nobody - not family, nor anyone else - who can push you around any longer, then you can insist on whatever you think best and wisest. Sure, you have to stand by your decisions. But you don't have to follow the crowd. And you can be as deaf as you please to other people's arguments, be they ever so eminent, so long as you have properly worked out your own plan and are prepared to follow it through, and will blame nobody else if you come unstuck. That's what I think being grown-up is all about.   

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

So...

Phew! The afternoon has turned very hot. I ought to be getting back to shifting and raking soil in the back garden, but I'll wait until it gets a little cooler. Meanwhile, I can spend time usefully on another post.

This one's about an annoying speaking habit that I've noticed in recent months. It may have been around for a much longer time, but lately it's become distinctly fashionable. I notice it because I listen to the radio a lot, and concentrate on what people are saying, and how they say it.

So, what's the issue for me? It's the little word I've just used: so.

'So' is a very useful word indeed. We all use it an awful lot. It's not just for sentences such as:

I didn't wake up this morning, so I was late for work.
I forgot to take my purse, so I had no cash with me.
I remembered not to go that way, so that's why I've got here on time.
You're much, much younger than me, so of course you wouldn't remember seeing him on TV.


In all these sentences, the first part explains the second part. Here, 'so' means 'and because of that'.

What about that sentence above, 'So, what's the issue for me?' It's similar to these:

So how did that important interview go?
So what were the results of those tests?
So did you get to see all the things you wanted to?
So who turned up in the end?


In these sentences 'so' seems to be a speech particle, a word one says when something has happened that you want to know about, and by saying 'so' you're picking up on that event or events, and signifying that you're about to ask what the outcome was. 'So' could be replaced here by noises like 'Aha!' or phrases like 'Tell me...'.

So far so good. (Look! Another use of 'so' - what a great little word it is!) But what is the particular usage that is now bothering me?

It occurs when someone asks a probing question that needs a careful answer. I listen to BBC Radio 4's midday consumer programme You and Yours most days, and the presenters often ask someone - a spokesperson for a trade body, for example - to explain why something has gone wrong for a group of customers, or why something can't be done to protect people from some malpractice. Whatever the presenter says, however he or she puts it, the person on the spot is as likely as not to start their reply with 'So...'. And not just the once. Every time they open their mouth it's with a 'So...'.

What's going on?

The 'so' they speak is absolutely redundant. It would make no difference if their reply omitted it. It's as if they were prefixing their reply with a 'Well...' or some other similar filler-word that buys time to think. Except that their reply is never hesitant. Not at all. It sounds confident of the facts, and aims to convince. The tone says 'I absolutely do know the true position here, and I'm going to give you a clear and frank reason why we haven't been able to help our customers.' And the 'So...' (which is a much more assertive noise than 'Well...') reinforces that confident tone. Clearly the 'So...' is meant to suggest that no further discussion is necessary. That's the explanation, it says, straight from the horse's mouth. Nothing else need be said about this. It's a speech particle to quell enquiry.

A couple of things here.

First, I have heard it only when somebody is being pressed to explain something, and their response has to have the ring of truth and authority. So it's being used in a moment of pressure. That might be important.

Second, perhaps coincidentally - or perhaps not - I've heard it only from the lips of men. And, moreover, men who sound educated, professional, and still young. The sort to bamboozle you with their quick minds and ways with words. (If any women - of any age or background - use 'so' in this way, I haven't noticed) I'm guessing that when such a man is facing questions, he wants to come back with a strong answer intended not only to defend his position, but to avoid looking incompetent in the eyes of his superiors or fee-payers. Losing face would be fatal. A measured response preceded with 'So...' can sound both well-considered and persuasive. And if it does satisfy the questioner, then it's job done, kudos earned, and other men duly impressed.

I don't mind an isolated use of 'so' in this way. But when it precedes every sentence they utter it becomes an irritating affectation that the speaker would do well to unlearn. And it sounds ridiculous when you hear exchanges on these lines:

Questioner: So you do admit it would be easy to recompense any overcharged customer?
Respondent: So I'm saying it can't be done without a change in the law.


I don't suppose this silly use of 'so' will fade away quickly. In fact I'm expecting it to gather further momentum. Then suddenly it will be dropped, when something newer and trendier takes its place.

A tap on the window

It was a childhood dream of mine to have large-scale Ordnance Survey maps on a mobile apparatus that I could have on my lap in a car. Back in the late 1950s I thought only of a paper map in a long strip, that rolled north and south. I couldn't see how it could be made to roll east and west also. I made do with real maps, bought in shops, that covered fixed areas. I never had a problem with folding them up, but it irked me that each sheet cost so much and covered so little of the country. A single map might be two or three times my weekly pocket money.

Once working, the personal map collection quickly grew. But the dream of having maps at various scales on a device that I could easily carry around with me never died. It was finally fulfilled in 2012, when I bought a tablet.

But a tablet wasn't quite the answer. It was a bit too large and heavy to take on a day out, and risky to use in a busy street. Nor was it weatherproof. Something like a proper solution wasn't long in coming: my first Android smartphone. And now I have my latest phone, with its large (but not too large) screen.

I still have a huge collection of paper maps, and I constantly consult the oldest of them for historical purposes. But I don't take them on holiday much. I've been trying not to since getting the tablet in 2012 - they clutter up the caravan. But it was never entirely practical to leave them home until I had the bright screen and long battery life of my smartphones.

I've always used a good road atlas. This is the latest-bought of the one I best like. I get a new edition every three years:


When touring, you need a road atlas like this to view a wide area of countryside, so that you can judge how far you can reasonably go. And, of course, choose the places to aim for. But on the road I rely on the phone. Most of my maps are downloads, and need no Internet connection to work. I use whichever scale is right for the moment - it's easy to switch between scales - and it's all there on a compact device that pops in my bag. So, contemplating a visit to Tyneside when I'm staying up in Northumberland in two weeks' time, I can summon up a succession of maps on my phone, each one suitable for a particular purpose:

 
 
 

All this is very practical, and very useful. Where could a problem possibly arise?

Well, there's none at all when at my destination, and walking around, or when on a train. But if I'm sat at the wheel of my car, I'm running a risk if I touch my phone and I'm seen by a police officer, or I'm caught on camera. For they've tightened up the penalties for using a mobile phone while driving, which includes checking your route when stationary at traffic lights. I'm certain that no distinction would be made between having the phone in your hands to make (or take) a call with it, and having it in your hands to read a map.

This doesn't faze me at all. In paper map days, you'd pull in, unfold the map (or consult the road atlas), then drive on. Now, in 2017, I shall have to do the same, but ideally cut the engine before consulting the phone, just in case I'm being observed. Then, after putting the phone away, fire up the engine and drive on. I don't think this procedure will be nuisance, but nuisance or not, I intend to avoid the attentions of the police. It would be galling to face an accusation of breaking the law, just because I was technically still 'driving' Fiona.

It's no answer to say that the police will surely have their hands full with more pressing matters. There will always be zealous officers who just happen to be looking, and feel duty-bound to act. How lucky do I feel? Not very. I don't want a tap on my window as I'm working out the best route.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Nowhere?

I was talking with a friend, and somehow we got onto the subject of Piers Morgan, whose present career has clearly escaped my notice. I really must make a greater effort to follow what well-known people like him are doing and saying. But there never seems to be a strong reason for doing so. So far as I am concerned, these media personalities might as well give up and go home. They make no difference to my life. That said, I don't mind Piers Morgan too much. He has polish and charm, and like all career TV conversationalists possesses a clever mind. But in this case he was flummoxed.

According to my friend - I never watch ITV, and I didn't see any of this - Piers Morgan was hosting ITV's Good Morning Britain, and was discussing life with two persons called Fox and Owl. I think I know who Fox is, but Owl is new to me. Both were describing themselves as 'non-binary' in relation to their gender. Piers was attempting to tease out what exactly they meant by the term, and whether it really had any meaning that everyday people might be able to understand. He failed to get anywhere until he pressed Owl to say what kind of prison would be the more appropriate if Owl were ever guilty of a crime and had to serve a sentence. Only two choices were possible, as the legal system was inflexible on the matter: there were men's jails, and there were women's jails, nothing else. As a non-binary person, which would Owl select as the better place to spend several years locked up in? It seems that Owl plumped for a female prison.

This is as much as I know about that TV conversation. I'm guessing that Piers Morgan followed up Owl's choice with a comment like 'Aha, then you do think of yourself as essentially female, and not as a completely genderless person?' Hoping no doubt to show that the 'non-binary' claim had no true reality, because while Owl might not be a conventional female, it still made basic sense to regard Owl as a female person, and it was a choice they would in this instance make themselves.

It's unclear to me whether Piers did really prove that point, and I have no idea what Owl said immediately afterwards to explain their choice of a female jail. Nor do I feel inclined to sit through the entire interview on catch-up TV. Still, it's interesting that there are people around who are not comfortable with even a minimum level of gender assignment, and have worked out a theory to account for their personal stance.

Well, I don't mind their having a non-standard self-perception. Not one bit. But I disagree that feeling different entitles you to jump the queue, to impose on other people, or to abandon ordinary social norms such as courtesy and kindness. And certainly not to claim, as a right, any kind of special treatment. I'd extend that to having a platform, such as a TV interview with a well-known presenter.

Somewhere in the course of the discussion, Piers Morgan apparently mentioned that there were currently some seventy terms used to describe all those who felt themselves to be something distinct from plain 'male' or female'. Seventy! What was going on?

I fear he was being deliberately obtuse. Human variation is huge. It's easily possible - if you want to do it, and put your mind to it - to invent a hundred distinct and nuanced ways to label people. Piers could have equally said 'What! Why only seventy?'

It's not hard to imagine a kind of 'gender spectrum', or perhaps a 'gender disc' - or even a three-dimensional and bumpy 'gender blob' - with most of the human population clustered in two large groups on it, but a sizeable number scattered elsewhere. Further along, or in between, or somewhere off to one side. In other words, every person alive would be somewhere, and their position (in a topological sense) would always be definable by co-ordinates. And this was where they had always been, whether they knew it or not. They might not be near either of the main clusters, but they'd still occupy a definite position that reflected their conscious self-perception, and their gut feeling about themselves.

This would be a gender model in which individuals recognised where they were in relation those cluster-people, the ones happy to describe themselves as simply 'male' or 'female'. And it should go without saying that all positions in this model would be as 'normal', and as 'good', as any other. Being a cluster-person would confer no special status. And the converse would also be true: being somewhere else wouldn't be special either.

This is in fact the way I personally look at things. Indeed, how I think of myself. I'm not necessarily at the very heart and centre of the 'female' cluster, but I'm definitely in that area on the blob. I always was; it's just that in later life I can see it clearly, and not obscurely.

An astronomical metaphor suggests itself. If you like, I've travelled long enough, and far enough, to look back and view the Gender Galaxy as a whole, and to understand where Planet Lucy is among all the stars and planets revolving slowly around the bipolar heart of that vast structure, all held together by a common gravity. And perhaps you can say the same.

What - like Piers Morgan - I find hard to grasp is the concept that a person could be 'nowhere' - or able to trickle around the gender blob like water, here one moment, and there the next. So that they might say 'I feel feminine' or 'I feel masculine' or 'I feel neuter' at different times, as the mood or impulse takes them. I just don't think that any ordinary person's self-perception really wobbles around like that.

But supposing it is possible, then life must be very trying for such a person. They'd have a point of view - and current behavioral requirements - that changed and fluctuated from hour to hour. They'd never have any proper self-control. They would never be able to build up a sensible, coherent life from a known fixed point. What goals would seem right? How could they develop any enduring personal relationships? Because to others they'd be unpredictable, their intentions unguessable, and altogether they'd be way too difficult to get on with. They'd also be unemployable, and always at odds with 'the system'.

And yet I've heard of 'non-binary' people who do have relationships and live fairly conventional lives. That makes me think that, for some at least (and to be clear, I don't mean Fox or Owl), adopting a 'non-binary' label may be a convenient way of gaining some leverage they would not otherwise enjoy.

That sounds like a blanket scepticism on my part of all 'non-binary' claims. But it's consistent with my general unwillingness to allow anybody a privilege or advantage based merely on a belief, no matter how sincerely held. There must be some obvious difference that matters. So I do say that a severely injured person has needs that trump the convenience of people with only sore fingers.

Data woes again

Whoops! I must do a post without pictures!

I'm very nearly up to my monthly data limit with BT, which is 25GB. You'd think this ample for somebody who doesn't stream films, and doesn't even watch much catch-up TV. But ever since starting to use my new smartphone Tigerlily I've been using her camera in preference to my 'proper' camera - which has data-use consequences.

With my 'proper' camera, the Panasonic LX100, I extract the SD card, pop it into the slot on my laptop, and transfer the photos that way (I like to do all my editing on the laptop). You can't do that with the tiny microSD card in the phone. So instead I've used a mixture of two other methods.

One of them is to connect phone and laptop by USB cable, and copy the pictures across. That's actually much the fastest method, and it doesn't involve raiding my data allowance. I use it if I've got more than twenty or so shots to transfer. The potential downside is extra wear and tear on the phone's USB socket, which of course is already in daily use for recharging.

But there are wireless methods too. Bluetooth is one way. Again, you don't eat into your data allowance with Bluetooth. And it's fine for just one or two shots. But it's a pain to transfer a lot of pictures, one by one. It's so slow. Life's too short.

That leaves the Internet, of two kinds: mobile via 4G, and home-based Wi-Fi.

If I have a strong 4G signal, I can use Vodafone's mobile Internet service. I just pop the shots taken with Tigerlily into Dropbox, and up load them to the cloud. Then, at my leisure, I can whip them out of Dropbox and onto the laptop for editing. I now have a 16GB monthly data allowance with Vodafone, which is enough to transfer about 4,000 photos. The only snag is having a good enough 4G connection, which is not always available when I'm on holiday and my caravan is pitched in deep countryside. Nor is it always available in Mid-Sussex, where I live. You city people have it so easy.

At home there is of course BT's Broadband service, the one with the 25GB data allowance. It's quite easy to use half of that up every month on everyday web-surfing, blogging, and updating spreadsheets. But until this month I wasn't using the other half. However, now that I'm getting photos off my phone and into Dropbox using my home Wi-Fi, I'm noticing a difference.

Here's the rough calculation: I've taken 1,400 photos with the phone over the last four weeks. They work out at about 4MB each, so I've uploaded 4 x 1,400 = 5.6GB to the cloud. And after editing, some of that has gone back to the phone (again via Dropbox), consuming yet more of my monthly data allowance. In round terms, I think my data allowance has had to absorb another 7GB of usage, representing photos uploaded, downloaded, and distributed. And suddenly I am in danger of exceeding my limit.

The monthly BT allowance renews on 1st June. That's only four days ahead. But to avoid BT's swingeing excess-limit charges, I'm presently having to ration my use of my home Wi-Fi. And that includes sending friends pictures by email. Grrrr.

I could upgrade my Broadband plan and go for Unlimited Broadband, but I don't see why I should. BT are expensive. They shall not have more.

I think my use of Tigerlily's camera for taking pictures will settle down a bit, and in future months I ought to stay within my 25GB limit with no great problem, but it's clearly something to keep an eye on.

Why, a financial issue like this could compel me to use the Panasonic as much as I used to!

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

My Postal Vote reprised

The last post related how my very first attempt to vote by post - the election of two local councillors - turned out to be rather difficult, although I got there in the end.

Well, the main voting papers for 8th June - the ones relating to the election of a Member of Parliament - arrived yesterday, and this time it all went very easily.


For one thing, there was none of that nonsense about tearing a big form into two bits along a line that wasn't clearly indicated. I got two smaller forms instead. That simplified the instructions at a stroke. In fact they were now reduced to a few short sentences, and everything was obvious:


There was still that odd quirk, where the smaller envelope was called Envelope A, and the larger one, the one you actually popped into the letterbox, Envelope B - and not named the other way around - but I coped.


There you are, one properly-sealed Envelope B. It'll reach its destination later today. So that's my General Election vote cast, for better or worse. It's no good anyone turning up on my doorstep to make me change my mind. Not even if they have a Hogarthian bribe to offer. The deed is done. 

These were the Parliamentary Candidates for the Arundel & South Downs Constituency:


A pretty decent range of candidates. And how did I vote? Oh, it'll be no surprise!


That's how Dad would have voted. My Mum would have chosen the LibDem candidate, and on the first postal voting form - the one concerned only with local councillors - I put my Xs against the two LibDem people, ensuring that she too had her wishes represented in this most important of elections. (Most important? Think of the major events that will be taking place in the aftermath to these elections. The country is going to be repositioning itself not only in relation to Europe, but to the wider world also; and the economic and demographic effects will have a direct influence on what local councils will need to do. I am confident that the Conservatives will best represent Britain to Europe and the world, and therefore, in that sense, I've voted in what I feel are the country's best interests) 

But I was also voting for myself. Given continued good health, I still have a twenty- or thirty-year future to consider, and it matters hugely to me who is in charge, what kind of person they stand for, what their policies are, and their competence to deliver on them. 

I trust the LibDems to be sensible on local issues, but I think their national programme is a mishmash of middle-ground ideas, without dash or daring. 

Labour's vision is Utopian: you can't fault it on concern for their own people, and its social fairness. But I am old enough to have seen past Labour governments come to grief for reasons that could have been avoided. Reasons such as financial mismanagement, vicious in-fighting between Hard Left and Moderates, wrong decisions on international defence matters, and a general unwillingness to depart from the worn-out principles and prejudices of another age. 

Avuncular male chauvinism is still alive in the Labour ranks, and I resent it. Nor do I like their 'blame it all on the toffee-nosed better off' attitude. Do they mean me? 

Like any party, they have their nice people, the passionate ones with hearts so warm and human you could toast yourself on them. That's what the Labour Party ought to be like, all the way through. But it isn't. There are others whose minds and motives are darker. And I can't help feeling that in the darkest hearts there lurks a hateful doctrinaire programme of radical social engineering. The awful scenarios described in George Orwell's 1984 and Anthony Burgess' 1985 come to mind as a warning of where such a programme could lead. I really don't trust Labour, however reasonable and likeable some of their front people may seem. 

I admire the Green Party. What they say is right, and some of it will have to be the necessary reality at a future point. But not in the pressing here and now. 

As for UKIP, I hear that they want to be a Better Labour, the party that truly represents the Working Class. Or maybe something else. They have lost their old raison d'ĂȘtre, and presently seem a spent force without a distinct programme. 

So it's the Conservatives for me. They go lightly on top people and anyone entrepreneurial, to encourage them all to stick around and pay affordable taxes to HMRC. Unfortunately this also encourages the growth of a well-off class who don't give a damn for the less well-off. That's deeply unattractive. On the other hand, they also speak for the well-informed and socially responsible middle class - people like me. They are my natural party. The best fit. And I trust the Conservatives to pursue their programmes with conviction, and a willingness to adapt to changed circumstances. Above all, to cherish the welfare and freedoms of the individual.  

I voted for Labour only once, in 1997, when New Labour was the thing, and a youthful-seeming fresh face, Tony Blair, was its front man, and the Conservatives were drowning in sleaze after too long in power. I expected so very much from New Labour. But it didn't materialise. Labour did nothing of importance, despite its massive popular mandate. It was a golden chance frittered away; and we now know that many wrong decisions were taken. Above all, we ended up as America's puppet in badly-justified and badly-planned foreign interventions. 

So the local Conservative, Nick Herbert, gets my X. I've never met him. I have no idea what he may be like in his constituency work. Maybe one day I'll have a reason to find out. For now, it's a vote to add to many thousands, and it's the emphatic assertion of my right to influence national events at times like this. Voting is dreadfully important: if I didn't vote, I don't see how I could possibly express any opinion on the government that takes the reins after 8th June.    

Monday, 22 May 2017

My Postal Vote on 8th June


I won't be at home when the General Election takes place on 8th June, so for the first time in my life I have applied for a Postal Vote. The first pack - for the election of two local councillors - came a couple of days ago, and I've now dealt with it. It will get posted later today. This post is about that experience.

Another pack - for the election of a Member of Parliament for the Arundel & South Downs constituency - is due shortly, and having had a warm-up on the councillors, I should be able to cast my Postal Vote for an MP with a more practiced hand.

But my goodness, what a rigmarole it is! What a palaver. What a kerfuffle. I won't be doing this again in a hurry. And certainly not make it my usual method of voting.

I had thought it would all be pretty straightforward. And in principle it is. You download a pdf of the Postal Voting Application Form from the District Council's website. You fill that in. This generates a Postal Voting Pack. The complication begins at that point.

The Pack contains two envelopes - A and B - and a big form which you have to tear into two separate parts, both of which need to be written on or marked in the right way, in exact accordance with instructions on another piece of paper. Here they are:


These instructions, which (as you can see) include diagrams, seem clear and straightforward, but left me slightly unsure what to do. Perhaps they would pass every known Plain English test ever devised, and would win a Nobel prize for clarity. But - and it must be me - I hesitated an awfully long time before committing pen to paper, and then splitting that big form into two parts, because the instructions weren't all that comprehensible. At least not to me. Of course, being completely unfamiliar with the procedure, and a bit nervous about messing up, couldn't have helped.

I've had similar problems several times in my life, particularly my working life, whenever somebody has attempted to explain a simple idea in simple words. I lose the thread, and my mind goes blank. It's one reason why I think it's no good my ever having any kind of paid tuition: I'd miss the point, fail to grasp the blindingly obvious, hit a brick wall of misundertanding, and waste my money.

Working it out for myself, in my own good time, is the only way. And if I can't get my head round it, I will cut my mental losses and try something else.

Surely most people must find Postal Voting an absolute breeze. But I thought it was all far from easy. And it had to be done just so. It wasn't something I could leave to my intuition, or my 'best guess'. Perhaps proper online voting, with screen prompts and pop-up information boxes, might work better for me.

Filling in the big form wasn't difficult, although I couldn't see why it had to be one large form when two smaller ones would have been easier to deal with - because the top part was radically different in purpose from the bottom part, and they had to be torn apart along a line which wasn't at all well-defined.

The business of tearing it into two was in fact the major first crisis. Arrows indicated where to tear, but there were no perforations and no dotted line with a scissors symbol next to it. And close by was a definite fold in the paper which a person might take to be the correct tear-line.


However, I parted the two halves where indicated. The voting half, when turned over, didn't match the diagram well.


But it turned out that I had in fact made my tear in the right place. Although I knew that only because when fitting each of the two parts into their respective envelopes, the return addresses ended up exactly aligned with their windows. Phew!

Ah, the envelopes. It emerged that you had to put one inside the other, and post everything off in just one envelope. But you had first to get the right bits in each envelope. Oh, dear me! I was soon Confused.com and yearning for a reviving cup of tea!


Why wasn't the 'main' envelope, the one that swallowed the other and got posted, called envelope A? It was the more important envelope, at least from the point of view of my vote getting to the place where it would be counted. It made no sense.

At least there was a size difference between the envelopes, so even a batty old ditherer should see which had to go inside which. But they could have said simply:

# Put your voting paper with the Xs on it inside the brown envelope, and seal it if the return address shows in the window.
# Put the paper with your age and signature on it inside the white envelope. Now put the brown envelope inside the white envelope also. Seal the white envelope if the return address shows in the window. 
# Post the white envelope.

I'll have to go through this again in a few days' time, when the MP voting pack arrives. I expect to do better, but it's not a task I'm looking forward to.

Next time, I'll try to be at home when I want to vote. Even if I'd found this Postal Voting easy to follow, it's a sterile method. I like the electric atmosphere of Voting Stations on the big day. I like to be part of the unfolding drama. Casting a Postal Vote seems very, very tame. Almost sneaky, in fact, even though it's the same exercising of Hard-Won Electoral Rights.

Well, it's not for me.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Another weight-loss breakthrough

Earlier this morning - soon after I'd got out of bed - I weighed myself at home, nude and pre-breakfast. My electronic scales told me my weight was now 12 stones 13 pounds - 181 pounds - which meant that since the home-weigh on 31st October 2016 I'd lost 2 stones and 1 pound - 29 pounds, or precisely 13 kilograms. I'd burst through the two-stone barrier. How nice!

In fact this was half-expected. I'd had a good week with most meals cooked by myself at home, so that I'd had maximum control over what I consumed. I'd been able to stick to plan a bit more than is usually possible.

And here's what my main meals had looked like, beginning one week ago. All shots courtesy of Tigerlily, my Samsung Galaxy S8+ smartphone.

Lunch, Thursday 11th May. :


Evening meal at Jo and Clive's, later that day. Jo goes to Slimming World too, and made sure that her main and dessert were as syn-free as possible. But I had white wine and a gin and tonic to chase it down:


Lunch, Friday 12th May, at The Green Welly in Ditchling - my only other meal out this week:


Evening meal at home that same day:


Lunch and evening meal, Saturday 13th May:


Lunch and evening meal, Sunday 14th May:


Lunch and evening meal, Monday 15th May:


Lunch and evening meal, Tuesday 16th May. I did have a glass of white wine down in Brighton in the early evening - my only other dose of alcohol during the past week:


Breakfast, lunch and evening meal yesterday, 17th May:


Today's meal plan is this:


In close-up, so that it looks like a menu.


Items in bold have actually been consumed. Unbold means they are only planned, and I may need to change the detail, delete something, or insert some unplanned extras. As you can see, I've already sketched out tomorrow's menu. Thank goodness I love spreadsheets!

I must apologise to Rheya, my surfing friend from Guernsey, who will feel inclined to wipe me out of her life for buying and eating potatoes from Jersey, the rival Channel Island. She will at first blush think it a betrayal. It isn't: I'd eagerly eat Guernsey potatoes if I could find them on sale anywhere. The Jersey sort are just a poor substitute, for want of the real thing. What else can a girl do? At least they are from the Channel Islands, albeit the wrong one.

I've been refining my eating regime all along, and my 'standard day' now has only 7 syns in it, out of a total of 15 allowed. So I can fit in a glass of wine if I wish, and still remain virtuous. But I never reach for a drink unless it's a social occasion. My breakfast and late evening snack are invariable. I may be brain-dead at breakfast-time, and don't want to think about what to have. And the late evening snack has to be part of a going-to-bed ritual. I do add a cooked element to my breakfasts if I fancy it, although that tends to be mid-morning, or even at lunchtime. I follow this regime every day, whether at home or in the caravan. I'd hate to be staying anywhere else, in a hotel say, and not being able to keep to this optimum eating-plan.

As you can see, I prefer a hot lunch and evening meal - not many cold salads for this child! But in between, I snack on fruit - lots of it - and mid-afternoon I'll usually have a cold chicken drumstick to tide me over. At home I absolutely reject sweet desserts, chocolate, crisps, and all manufactured goodies that many people regard as harmless indulgences. I don't want to touch them. For one thing, my teeth and gums are in remarkably good fettle for my age, and I don't want to subject them to a sugary assault.

The thing is, I want to eat attractive, tasty food, and plenty of it. And I can. Nearly all the things in my home-cooked meals are heartily approved of by Slimming World, and not in any way contrary to a good weight-loss plan. Indeed, as measured by my electronic scales at home, in the last week I have lost three pounds eating all the things in the photos (and a lot more besides). The advice of Slimming World works.

Some might say I'm eating too much meat. Well, I highlight red meat and white meat on my spreadsheets, and try not to consume overmuch of the red variety. Nevertheless, I must be exceeding the current recommended weekly personal consumption of red meat. If this really proves to be unhealthy, then I will change my habits; just as I've reduced my bread, butter and cheese intake to almost nothing. But I don't want to forgo the particular nutrition that meat provides. There's a balance to be struck.

Nowadays I weigh myself at home on Thursday mornings, and get weighed again at the Slimming World group meeting the same evening, which will be tonight. I'm hoping that their scales will confirm a three pound weight loss. Or at least two pounds. I'm getting close to having my Two Stones Lost Certificate, which I'm eager to get! It's in the bag if their scales say 12 stones 12 pounds. My SW weight was 13 stones 1 pound last week, so it's possible. But not everything turns out as expected, and I may not 'officially' crash through the two-stone barrier until next week. Fingers crossed, anyway!

Sequel
Well, my 'official' weight loss at Slimming World was only one pound. Good enough. But it'll be next week for the Two-Stones Lost Certificate.