Sunday, 30 August 2020

Another milestone passed - and a gripe about popular taste

I know for a fact that most readers of my blog don't bother with my Flickr site, despite the handy links off to the right on this page. Why there isn't a shared viewership, I do not know. Perhaps there are two kinds of people - those who like to read (I almost said 'a good read', but that would be immodest) and those who like to look at pictures. And the twain do not mix. I'm one who appreciates both words and pictures, and in this blog like to combine them. 

Well, the news is that the viewings of my pictures on Flickr have just exceeded three million. Here's the proof. Click on it to enlarge.

That's three million since February 2009, I hasten to add! Even so, surely a respectable total. Especially when you consider the vast number of pictures you can see on Flickr, and the hardly less vast number of people posting pictures there. 

I see that it took seven years to garner one million Flickr viewings (in January 2016), then only two more years to increase it to two million (in January 2018), and only one year and eight months to bring the total up to three million (now). So my Flickr site is getting viewed more frequently than it used to be. That's nice, but I rarely get to know who is looking at my shots, or why. Not many people leave a comment, and requests for a licence to use a picture are infrequent. And I don't know how long the picture was studied - was it passed over in a twinkling? Or considered for a minute or more? I'm disturbed that the shots I most like - the ones I'd like to be judged by - are never among the most looked at.  

The screenprint above says I have 32,322 pictures on Flickr, so that's an average of almost 93 viewings per picture. But this is a misleading statistic. Some pictures are tremendously popular, getting looked at thousands of times, while others are almost ignored. 

Being a 'Pro' Flickr user, I get to know how many people have viewed each shot. The five most popular photos are these, all from mid-2017. This is the most popular, with 5,988 viewings:

The next most popular is this one, with 5,973 viewings:

At number three is this shot, with 4,566 viewings:

At number four is another picture of the champion subject, with 4,537 viewings:

And trailing the rest is this, with only 4,174 viewings:

I don't know about you, but I find it weird that these are my five most popular photos on Flickr! 

The one of the cat (it's Poppy, the cat of my friends Jo and Clive) is certainly cute, but not especially worthy as a photo. I wouldn't include it in a portfolio, to show what sort of excellence I can achieve with a camera. 

Even less would I think of wowing a potential big-spending client with those two shots of the bridge. They seem pretty unremarkable to me. Yes, it was an historic bridge, spanning the river Coquet in Northumberland, taking the B6345 from Felton on the north bank to twin village West Thirston on the south bank. But I really can't see why these two shots have bagged the number one and number three spots - unless perhaps there is some local connection that makes people search for pictures of this bridge, and mine are the only shots they can find. Who knows. 

The 'foody' pictures - the oranges and the steak meal - are nice, but again, what's so special about them? (Incidentally, only these two pictures are in my personal 'best shot' collection - not Poppy the cat, nor the bridge) 

I'm glad that some of my pictures command attention, and lots of viewings. But I wish the shots that I'm really proud of got the top five positions, rather than the ones that actually did. 

It all proves something, of course. It proves that 'safe' and unchallenging pictures are the most popular of all. Which suggests that anything truly creative speaks only to a small minority, and can never attract much interest. Which, if I had the soul of a true artist, would be rather discouraging. 

Never mind. On with the next batch of shots, and a new goal of four million viewings!

Friday, 28 August 2020

Heavy metal

One aspect of any new camera that will be important is: how heavy is it? 

I don't want anything that I can't carry around comfortably all day, day after day. Remember, I always carry a bag containing my phone, and other things a woman needs, whether or not I take a camera along too. So I want to keep my total burden as light as possible. Nor do I want a big heavy camera pulling my clothing around in unflattering ways.  

My little Leica D-Lux 4 weighs half a pound, and I hardly notice that. I have a small bag for it, with a cross-body strap. Much of the time it's out of that bag, and in my hand. I often wander around with it like that, my fingers curled around its handgrip, all ready to switch it on and shoot.  

The larger Leica Q2 that I've been considering weighs one and a half pounds - three times what the little Leica does. Would that be a major problem for me? 

To refresh my memory of what carrying a larger camera might be like, I fetched my film-era Olympus OM-1N down from the attic, and assessed it for bulk and heaviness. I hadn't used it since going digital in 2000. It was a relic from a different era, but it still looked good, still looked the business. It was an excellent SLR in its day. 

I paired it most often with a fast 50mm f/1.4 lens. I acquired it second-hand, and used it for years with no problems whatever - certainly no electronic problems, as this was a mechanical camera - but I didn't tote it around all the time. It was the smallest and lightest SLR around when originally launched back in 1973, but it was still a little too large and ponderous to carry all day long. All-metal, you see. As with any SLR, you got it out for a particular occasion, with particular shots in mind, then you put it away. It spent a lot of time in the boot of the car, ready for action if needed, but not casually carried around on the bare off-chance of a shot. 

Fast-forward to 2020. I slung the strap of the OM-1N over my shoulder and considered how it felt now. 

Gosh, I must have got flimsier over the years! It really felt quite heavy. I wouldn't want to hump this and my usual bag around all day. No wonder I had mostly purchased smaller, lighter cameras when I went digital. Polycarbonate and aluminium were so much easier on the delicate Melford anatomy. 

What did this tell me about the Q2's weight? The Olympus was only a quarter of a pound heavier than the Leica Q2. This meant that I'd certainly feel the Q2's weight. I'd feel it all the time.  

Would the Q2 seem hefty enough to inhibit my taking it with me, every time I went out? 

Perhaps it would be rendered ethereal and featherweight by that red Leica dot, and the mystical incantations of its Niebelung makers as they cast their spells at the Wetzlar laboratory/factory/sorcerers' cave. Perhaps I could take heart in the fact that the legendary Teutonic Heroes of old used to wield giant swords that must have weighed a ton. And although they were mostly men with rippling muscles, there were slender maidens in there too - and horse-riding female Valkyries - all using big magical swords with strange names. Heavy swords made of steel. Maybe they knew a special wrist technique.  

Some hope then that the Q2's weight would seem similarly negligible. 

And indeed, I hadn't noticed the Q2's weight much when handling it at Park Cameras a week ago. But I had been in an excited state. Might it be different, if the Q2 became my constant companion? Would its weight come to niggle me? And then irritate me?

So now there was another question mark to chasten any enthusiasm for the Q2. Not only was it super-expensive, and appeared to produce JPEGs that lacked vibrancy; it might prove too heavy for comfort. 

Oh dear.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

The sensible side of me has won - for now

No posts for ten days - and yet not on holiday? What have I been doing instead?

Well, all the routine household stuff has got done. My garden, front and rear, looks very presentable. Inside my home all is clean and tidy. At this very moment the only thing left to do today is to take my statin tablet with my late-afternoon mug of tea. I'm on top of things. I've even done my packing list for the upcoming caravan holiday in the West Country. 

Nor have I neglected my social life. Something else has consumed my time and attention. The Leica Q2 camera. 

No, I haven't bought one - but I very nearly did. I had to ponder the pros and cons for at least a week before finally concluding that for now I would be making a silly mistake to commit funds to its purchase. 

I did something very similar before, in 2008, when I bought a top-flight full-frame Nikon D700 camera, plus an extraordinary Nikon zoom lens to go with it, plus other Nikon accessories and a very nice backpack-style camera bag. At the time, and for a while afterwards, it seemed such a good idea. At last: a photographic kit to be proud of, that would take my photography to new places. But a colossal amount spent! And in less than a year I'd fallen out of love with my still-new equipment. Why? It was just too heavy and bulky. The weight was beginning to hurt my back. The bulk made me leave it at home on too many social occasions. I hankered after a smaller and lighter camera that I could carry at all times. That's why I bought my Leica D-Lux 4 camera in 2009. So handy was the little Leica, and so good its pictures, that it eclipsed the technically superior Nikon, and I hardly used the Nikon and its lenses again. I kept my Nikon kit 'for best', but in truth it was redundant, and I didn't mourn our parting when I sold it all in 2011. The only thing that survived of that adventure was the excellent Nikon software, which came free with the D700. I still use it today. 

That episode taught me a valuable lesson about throwing away thousands of pounds on a camera.  

You'd think that I would be incapable of repeating the same mistake. But no: when I began to focus on the Leica Q2 recently, I ignored the flashing red lights in my head. 

I'm sure I don't have a 'split personality' but it seems I have a sensible side and a daft side. The sensible side is normally in charge. But occasionally the daft side takes over for a while. I am glad to report that my sensible side is once more in the ascendant. But it was touch and go. I was so taken with the Leica Q2. There were days recently when I was on the verge of taking that easy drive over to Park Cameras in Burgess Hill, and buying the thing. Even now, I'm wistful. 

My intense interest in this admittedly most desirable camera must have begun two weeks ago. Then I made a bad error. I dropped into Park Cameras to take a close look at the Q2. Oh, they took me seriously. They unlocked the Leica display. I held it in my hands. I carefully assessed its weight (at least twice as heavy as the D-Lux 4, but less than half what the D700 had been: so perhaps no problem). I looked through the electronic viewfinder with my glasses kept on (a revelation: what a nice view, and despite the glasses I could see it all. I marvelled at the 'best focus' highlighting when in manual-focus mode). I had one or two technical questions to ask, and these were answered. It was all very satisfactory. The thing looked gorgeous, and felt gorgeous in my hands. But this was just a quick try-out, testing the water so to speak, to see whether we might get on. I wasn't going to buy on that occasion. I'd need to save up for it.

But I was hooked. I'd already read the obvious online reviews, which was why I already knew a lot about its technical capabilities and how the controls worked. Once home, I spent hours seeking out more. And in the days that followed, until yesterday, I read and re-read these online articles, watched videos on YouTube, and studied the all the sample photos taken with this camera, in order to decide whether this was my ideal next camera. 

Here's a list (with links) of the online articles I found especially worth reading. Taken together, they really gave a good idea what to expect: (Ken Rockwell unpacking a brand new Q2) (Ken Rockwell's actual Q2 review)

I remained smitten. But my sensible side was getting its grip back. I had to admit there were - from my personal point of view - two reasons not to buy the Q2. 

One reason was the staggering price. OK, one was buying supreme quality optics and a sensational build. And that famous red Leica dot on the front. But even so...£4,500 for just the camera? More like £5,000, after adding a spare battery, a suitable leather case, two high-capacity, high-speed SD cards, and new software for the laptop. Taking inflation into account, I'd be committing about the same amount of money that I ploughed into the Nikon D700 kit in 2008. 

Gosh, what a big hole in my savings a £5,000 spend would make! Surely it was unaffordable?

But I worked out that I could finance the purchase more sensibly by raiding my savings for only £2,500, and taking out a bank loan for the remainder, repayable over 18 months at £150 per month. Which meant no extra actual expense, just lower monthly savings for a year and a half. After that, my monthly savings would rise again to their previous level. 

I'd still be spending £5,000 plus some loan interest. That was money that wouldn't get saved, and its loss would probably rule out buying that all-electric car in 2025. I'd have to put the car purchase back by a year. But then perhaps the worldwide coronavirus pandemic had delayed Volvo's research and development? In which case, the car I wanted wouldn't be available in 2025 and I would, anyway, need to wait to 2026. 

So nothing lost - except, forever, £5,000.

The daft side of me was however still willing to purchase the Q2. But when I looked into the other reason for not buying, my sensible side reasserted itself. 

Cameras can certainly be 'objects of desire', and nothing makes one drool more than a German-made Leica, put together in Leica's mountain fastness by master-craftsmen Niebelungs insanely dedicated to their task. But the photographs are what really matter. I shoot JPEGs. That's because I take an awful lot of photographs. My JPEG workflow with the little D-Lux 4 is easily manageable. That's because JPEG file sizes are small, and they are quick to transfer to my laptop for processing, and quick to tweak to my liking. Nor do they take up an unreasonable amount of storage space.

So I would want to use JPEGs on the Q2. The JPEG file sizes would be larger - say 20MB instead of 4MB - so transferring them from camera to laptop would take four or five times what it does now: a minute, maybe two minutes, rather than seconds. The processing might be just as swift, however. Meaning correction of tilt, cropping, and small tweaks to shadow detail, highlights and sharpness. Yes, the end result would need extra storage space, but that wouldn't be a problem for a while at least.  

Would I use JPEGs on the Q2? No. Leica's in-camera JPEG processing is poor. The JPEGs all look too pale and too yellow. I think what is wrong with them could be fixed with a firmware update, but it hasn't happened yet, and Leica seem to want Q2 users to shoot RAW instead, using DNG files. But that means huge file sizes - 87MB per picture, which in turn means waiting forever for a batch of shots to come off the camera, and obliging me to invest in special RAW conversion and editing software. 

Extra expense! And extra time spent dealing with the workload! Unless, of course, I shot fewer pictures. But I don't want that - half the fun when shooting in a great location is blasting away to my heart's content.

It's this JPEG problem that has stopped me in my tracks. More so than the money. It's the chief reason why I won't be buying the Q2, nor any camera like it.

And do you know, I'm glad. The faithful D-Lux 4 deserves my ongoing commitment. It's delivering some cracking shots just now. I am so looking forward to unleashing it on the West Country for four weeks. Yes, it will do me proud. I have in fact just bought two new 8GB SDHC cards for it, and may treat it to a posh hand-stitched black leather case if I can find one online (no doubt Etsy will provide). 

I don't know how long the little Leica will last. Maybe for years yet. So be it. The sensible side of me knows a good thing when it sees it.  

But what a problem I might have if Leica issue another firmware update on the Q2, and the JPEG problem is fixed! I almost hope they don't.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Lucy's list of Favourite Music

I have about 1,800 mp3 tracks in my personal collection, all carefully selected, all significant to me in one way or another. Which ones are on my Favourites playlist? Shall I reveal?

Why not? These are the tracks that I would mention, if discussing my approach to life on some programme. There are only seventeen of them. Some appeal to the emotions. Others are calming. Here they are, in playing order: 

Edge of Night, otherwise known as Pippin's Song, from The Lord of the Rings film The Return of the King. I have two versions, one with the background sounds of battle, one without them.

Farewell, by Apocalyptica. 

The Watch Chimes, otherwise known as Carillon's Theme, from Ennio Morricone's score for the film For A Few Dollars More.

The Glasgow Love Theme, from the film Love Actually. I have two versions, by Craig Armstrong and Jacques Legrand.

La Route Est Dure, sung by Georgia Brown. This was the theme song for the 1970 BBC2 TV drama The Roads To Freedom, based on the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. 

Lady D'Arbanville, sung by Cat Stevens.

Like An Angel Passing Through My Room, by ABBA. 

The Love Theme by Vangelis, from the film Blade Runner.

Miserere by Allegri, sung by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. 

The hymn O Holy Night, sung by Aled Jones.

Parce Mihi Domine, sung by The Hilliard Ensemble with saxophone by Jan Garbarek.

Rejoice in the Sun, sung by Joan Baez, from the film Silent Running.

Soldier Blue, sung by Buffy Sainte-Marie, from the film of the same name.

Sparrow, sung by Mary Hopkin.

The main title theme to the film Where Eagles Dare.

It would be nice to provide links to this music, but Blogger won't let me. However, I dare say that many readers will if curious simply turn to the speaker in their room and say 'Alexa! (or Google!) Play me Sparrow by Mary Hopkin', or whichever of my favourites catches their eye. 

Although these are my favourite tracks, I wouldn't say they are typical of the others in my collection, which on the whole are much likelier to get your feet moving, or your hands reaching for that air guitar! It's a very eclectic collection. Half of it can arguably be dismissed as Top of the Pops fodder. The other half not so easily, I think.  

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Amazon, I apologise

Ah. I now see what Amazon have done. They've rearranged and redesigned their music offerings, and in the process the place where you can peruse old music, listen to 30 seconds of any mp3 track, and then purchase it, has been buried inside their Amazon Music app

I have to say, it took some finding. But it is there. And because I have found this out and can buy old tracks just as I used to, I feel I must apologise to Amazon for giving them a lot of stick. I'm not going to grovel, because the facility I wanted is not flagged up in any way, and isn't in their regular Amazon shopping app as it used to be. It's almost as if Amazon didn't want me to find it. But I can undeniably listen before I buy, which is what I thought they had stopped me doing. 

Here are the stages you have to go through.

First, you need to have installed the Amazon Music app on your phone. Here it is on the 'Music app' screen of my phone.

You fire it up, and tap on the three vertical dots (top right), choosing 'Store' from the drop-down menu, then 'Store Home' after that:

This brings you to the Home screen of the Music Store. Tapping on the magnifying-glass icon (top right) lets you type in what you're looking for. 

Here we are at the album in the previous post. Just a bit different from the other approach. Amazon give me a 'Go Unlimited ' option, which means a £9.99 monthly subscription, but nothing else to pay no matter how much music I listen to on this app. Or I can buy the entire album in mp3 form for £6.49. Or else scroll down to chose a particular track, or tracks, at 99p a pop. So I scroll down to Elenore. 

The grey circles around the track numbers (left edge) indicate pre-purchase listening time, so I tap against Elenore and listen to the music. Just as I used to do. Yep. It's the track I want.

If I now tap the box with '£0.99' on it, the 'BUY SONG' option now comes up. 

Tapping on that completes the purchase. Just as before. And, just as before, I can go to another part of the Amazon Music app and view (and play) what I've bought, which is now up in the Amazon cloud and will remain there for eons to come, till all mountains have washed into the sea, and Amazon is no more. But at any time I can download the track as a proper mp3 music file and install it on my phone - which I do at once - and it will get backed up to an external hard drive when I next do a regular Music Backup. In that way, I can play it offline whenever the fit takes me. Or copy it to another device. 

This new arrangement is actually better than the old, because it's all done from the Amazon Music app, and not kicked off on the ordinary Amazon shopping app first. Though maybe this was always possible, and I just never knew before. 

So there you are. I was wrong to castigate Amazon so much. Although I still don't trust them.

Friday, 14 August 2020

How I hate Amazon

This is about buying mp3 music tracks. I don't stream music by subscription. I want to buy and download an actual track, so that I can install it on my current phone, and (importantly) pass it on to future devices. 

Over the last ten years or so, Amazon became my main source of the 'old' music. I have been creating the 'soundtrack to my life', building on a smaller collection that I'd ripped from CDs some years back. 

I've bought a lot of mp3 tracks from Amazon all told. I've been looking for music from the 1960s onwards. But also music from even earlier decades that has come to my attention. You know: Gracie Fields, Glen Miller, whatever. 

Altogether, I presently have very nearly 1,800 digital tracks on my phone, covering the 1920s through to the present day. Most tracks, however, belong to the twenty golden years from 1962 to 1982, when music creativity was at its height. The most exciting era ever for music, whatever the genre.   

By now I've got most of what I want. But it's still worth searching for more. 

Until recently I could search Amazon's digital music archive, locate what I wanted, listen to a 30-second excerpt to make certain that this was really the song I wanted, and the right version, then if all seemed OK I'd buy it, and immediately download it to my phone from the Amazon Music App. Once downloaded, I could play the track offline on my phone - or since last year, on my JBL speaker, bluetoothed from my phone. 

I got very used to this search-buy-and-download routine. Every month I'd spend maybe a tenner on tracks I had found that I ought to include in my personal collection.   

But I can't do it any more. 

Amazon must have a new broom in their organisation, someone who has come up with a new money-making idea. It effectively stops me buying mp3 tracks from them, because I can't listen before I buy. This may not matter if I know for certain that it's the right track. But if not, I don't want to buy it and then find I've made a mistake. It'll only be 99p down the drain. But these little amounts mount up. And if millions of people like me are buying blind, and each waste 99p again and again, then Amazon will make even more money. I begrudge it to them.

Surely you must be able to listen before buying, you ask? No longer, unless you have a subscription. I'll take you through a search. It's for a track called Elenore by the mid-1960s group The Turtles, typical of what I want in my personal, offline collection.

I'm in the main Amazon shopping app, and type in what I'm looking for.

The results come up, just as they always have before.

But what's that? Listen with Music Unlimited? That's something new. I tap on the version I want.

Right. So it's 99p to buy, the usual price. But I'd like to hear it first. Until quite recently, I could tap on the name of the song and hear 30 seconds of it. But that's no longer possible. There's that blue button, though, which suggests I can tap on it and be taken through to Amazon's Music App, and hear the song there.  So I tap the blue button. And this is what I get.

Looks good, although this isn't as convenient as the old way. I now tap on the 'Listen with the App' button.

Ker-chink. It won't play. And that's because I'm not signed up to Music Unlimited. Indeed, I have no subscriptions with Amazon. But if I now relent, a subscription to Music Unlimited will cost me £9.99 a month. What? 

No way. It would be much cheaper to pay 99p now and then for any duff tracks I bought blind. But I'm damned if I let Amazon have even this. They are too greedy. 

And I don't want 60 million tracks at my disposal, if I do subscribe. It would be no compensation whatever. That's an impossible number of tracks to explore. I haven't got the time left in my life to wade through more than a minute fraction of them. Nor do I love music so much as to want to. I certainly don't want 'new music' pushed at me, either. It's not a patch on what was around decades ago.

So it looks as if my personal collection of downloaded mp3 tracks - the 'soundtrack of my life' - will grow no further, not if I rely on Amazon to provide. That leaves YouTube as my only other likely source. I have a Windows 10 app that will strip the music from a music video, and this has already been a fruitful source of rare tracks. But I'm not counting on being able to do this forever.  

Go on, I hear. Pay that £9.99 a month. It isn't much. And it wouldn't be, if I consumed a lot of music. But I don't. 


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.