Business, Society

Movable Feasts & Extended Events

Xmas

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

When I was young Halloween was 31st October, regardless of the day it fell on, even if it was a school night, the same with November 5th. I was never bothered about Halloween, in fact I think I’m allergic to fancy dress of any kind, being averse to any kind of school play too – I couldn’t even be persuaded to play the dead Mr Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” and instead taking part in the choir, I much preferred singing – still do – I do wish there was a good local Karaoke.

Anyway, when I originally wrote this I couldn’t see the keyboard quite so well as I was almost in the dark to avoid the inevitable “Trick or Treaters.” My last home’s front door was up two floors and hidden in such a way as I’d often had to go downstairs to meet delivery drivers bringing parcels and take-aways. My new house’s front door is again hidden under a dark archway and it looks like my home is part of the neighbour’s house but I wasn’t taking any chances. The thing is it was a Saturday night, the 28th of October, three days before All Hallows Eve. Today is the third of November and my writing and the Jazz on the radio is being disturbed by fireworks. The same being increasingly true of other such days; in the UK we have what used to be called Guy Fawkes Night, remembering the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament which is now more usually called Fireworks Night, or more accurately Fireworks Week now as again it can cover two weekends, particularly if the 5th of November happens to fall mid-week. This year it’s on a Friday yet it’s started tonight.

Valentine’s Day used to be just that – a day. A day when people would send a card, anonymously once upon a time, but now it’s part of the selling season and regardless of what day of the week the 14th of February falls on the nearest weekend has become “Valentine’s Weekend” when people are encouraged to buy expensive gifts and go out for an expensive meal or have an M&S meal for two at home, it has even extended to encompass cars – a dealership’s radio advert suggesting that “this Valentine’s weekend” you might want to take your loved one to look at a new car.

Easter seems to vary in length as well as its religiously defined date and the eggs go on sale sometime in January while Christmas is similarly a week now and begins sometime in August and parents are encouraged by some companies to buy their kids Christmas Eve presents. Stag and Hen nights became weekends or even weeks depending on how far from home the event is, having moved from a few drinks in the local pubs, humiliating outfits and “bride to be” sashes, being tied to a lamppost and onto trips to Ibiza etc – mostly due to the inevitable modern phenomena of showing off on social media – having the most extravagant, expensive, event.

New Year’s Eve seems to have escaped extension, so far, if only because it’s so close to Christmas that many wouldn’t have recovered from the latter in time for the former.

Even Black Friday which spread to Britain a few years back has become Black Friday Week. I think the greatest example of Mission Creep I’ve seen so far was Wren Kitchens’ Black November sale…

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Psychology, Tech

Hey, What’s Your Name?

Google Home Mini

Image by antonbe from Pixabay

Our current group (party, gaggle, company) of smart-speaker voice assistants have real names, Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google.  Eh.  Why didn’t Google give their assistant a name, a proper name.  She clearly has a personality of sorts, even if it is pre-programmed, and apparently now has feelings to hurt if you swear at her or speak impolitely.  If she was a real person she would, I’m sure, be embarrassed by her name and people would say “did her parents have a bad sense of humour?”

It’s not just me being flippant, for me it just doesn’t feel natural saying “OK Google” or “Hey Google”.  I’m sure they think it sounds cool but imagine if everyone who meets you and asks you a question had to prefix it with “Hey Joe” or “Hey Sue” or worse still “Hey Human” it would get boring very quickly, for both parties.  As for “OK Joe” – that just sounds unnecessarily aggressive.  I think it’s the “OK” or “Hey” prefix that niggles, just asking “Google?” would be a little better, to be fair.

If we are to, in the future, have a natural verbal interaction with technology it has to be exactly that – natural – not an excuse to crowbar the name of the service provider into the conversation.  At the end of the day you’re likely to know you’re using a Google device.  Their approach seems to hark back too much to the original Star Trek’s “Computer…”

Hey Google, please grace your AI with a real name, those of us who feel daft saying “Hey Google” might use it more.  Personally, having lived in Newark, and more specifically worked with a certain Mr Johnson for twenty years, a natural way to summon her would be to say “Now then Mush, what’s the weather like today?”

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Society, Transport

It Didn’t Register

Licence Plate

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Personalised registration plates are an anomalous thing, expensive (in this country at least) and often pointless.  There are those which are spaced as to indicate that they’re trying to spell something but I cannot for the life of me figure out what – the secret belongs to the owner and perhaps, for them, that may be the point.  I’m not against them in principle, I have seen some genuinely funny ones (which I can’t unfortunately recall) and personally toyed with the idea of replacing my old car’s full-length registration with “P6 ETC” but decided it wasn’t a pun worth £250.

The second group are those who spell out their name – and as Phil Jupitus once pointed out if you call out their name from the plate, Jim for example, “they don’t like it.”  So don’t get it then.  Maybe it’s just so they can remember which is their car, or their own name.  Last summer I regularly saw a car that had a registration that, I presume, was meant to spell – combining letters and numbers with a little squinting and imagination – “Jodie’s” but actually spelt “Jobies” which, if you’re familiar with the Scottish dialect, is something less pleasant – I thought the car looked ok.  I once saw a car with the owners initials following “XO07” once, it was an old Ford Mondeo, but then the secret service has, no doubt, had budget cuts.

Next are the truly pointless ones – the brand names, plates ending in BMW, for example and often beginning with the model number, or as near as.  Hundreds of Honda S2000s have plates beginning S200, while there will be limits on how many “O”s to follow it are available so many drivers appear to have S200s instead.  I once saw a Skoda whose numberplate tried very hard but was missing its terminal “A” being a “Skod”.  Ah.  The biggest issue with these plates is they fact that they tend to be stuck to the car roughly six inches from the front or rear manufacturer’s badges and model numbers.  The oddest thing I’ve seen was a plate that had clearly once been attached to a BMW X5 – it started with the model number then presumably the owner’s initials followed – but was at that point attached to a Skoda Octavia.  Downsized?

There are numerous miscellaneous messages and such like – I regularly saw a car with plates apparently saying “No Sweat” but due to the limitations of the letter combinations available actually said “Noo Suet”.  Either they were not aware of the stodgy cooking ingredient or they don’t like meat puddings or Jam Roly Poly.  Similarly I was passed by a fast Merc which had an apparently inspirational numberplate exclaiming “GOO BRUV”.  Goo?  The mind boggles. I have seen many with “Boss”, “SXY” and even one which was split in order that the centre four digits spelled “Asbo” (an acronym for Antisocial Behaviour Order in the UK).

Lastly, just a few weeks ago, I encountered the most existential registration I’d seen, ending in the letters “YRU” – well, I think we’ve all wondered that, at some point.

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Productivity, Tech, Work

No More Lines

This isn’t a campaign against schools’ repetitive handwriting-based punishments, nor against linear markings of any kind as such – they have their uses, keeping traffic apart on roads, for example.  No the lines I’m referring to are on paper.

When learning to write we had lined paper of course to keep us on the straight and narrow, to keep our exercise books tidy and stop the words flowing across the page like the Yorkshire Dales, but they naturally limit how much can fit on a page and how you can organise blocks of text.

I prefer to use plain paper notebooks now for writing notes.

At work I have an A5 plain-paper notebook and on each page I write things to do, notes when someone rings about something I need to find out for them etc and I have found that I can fit far more on each page this way, even appending information into a blank space to the right, or draw a fenced-off area in a blank space and write a small reminder or some other such snippet or list in it and not lose it. When a page is full any outstanding items are copied to the top of the next blank page and the process repeats. The bonus is that the information is retained in the book, unlike using post-it notes or scrap paper which gets lost or thrown away ten minutes before somebody asks if you’ve still got the information and you need to start sorting through a thousand paper balls and used tea bags.

For this blog I use a similar system but instead of a notebook I use a grey and green suede A5 six-ring binder that’s a nice addition to the desk and loose leaf paper that is removed and binned as soon as the notes are transferred to Evernote. I found I needed to do it this way as I usually think of things to write about when the computers aren’t on and I can’t risk that by the time I’ve started either of them up and then Evernote that I’ll have forgotten what I was going to… erm.. oh yes, say.

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Business, Gadgets, Language, Tech, Work

There’s No Answer to That

Telephone
Image by Here and now, unfortunately, ends my journey on Pixabay from Pixabay

The answerphone has been around for a while but I’m not sure that giving some people the ability to record their own answer message was a wise idea.

There are the ones who think it’s cute and sweet to get their kids to record the message – a real example, they sang “mummy and daddy are not at home, leave a message after the tone” really, slowly.  The rhyming is just about acceptable, the high pitched whine, not so.  Its OK if it’s nanna ringing but when you’re having to ring them three, four or eight times a day to try to arrange an installation or to try to get payment from mummy and daddy the little darlings’ singing gets irritating real quick. 

Though not as irritating as the man who was trying to sound like some kind of nineties “dude” –  please brace yourself – “Yo! Yo!  You’re through to Karl. If you wanna leave a message then you can, it you don’t then…” suddenly sounding like an eighties local radio DJ “…juuust hang up!”  I stifled my laughter, left a message and hung up.

The “insert name here” automated message can be interesting.  “Welcome to the telco messaging service…” the softly spoken woman intones, “DAVE” a gruff male voice barks, then the woman’s back”…cannot take your call, please leave a message after the beep”  One user completely missed the point and it went like this: “Welcome to the Sky messaging service, hi, I’m not available to take your call, leave a message after the beep, is not available to take your call, please leave a message after the beep.”  Hmm.

The telcos are not always so much better – one which shall remain nameless tries to be a bit ladish and overly informal by saying “…when yer done, just hang up”.  Picky, I know, but such things grate with me sometimes.  The other network issue is the overly lengthy message, “…please leave your message after the beep.  When you’ve finished recording please hang up (no shit, I was going to wait) or to change your message press hash” by now the person I was leaving the message for is trying to call me back and I haven’t even got as far as leaving a message.

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Music, Psychology

Whoopin’ an’ a Hollarin’ Live From Madison Square Gardens

I don’t like live albums generally, mainly because most of the ones I’ve heard have been by American artists in front of American audiences and what normally happens is the singer will start singing and then half the audience recognise what they’re singing and start whistling, cheering and shouting “yeah” at a volume that drowns out the music altogether.  This wouldn’t be so bad but they do it throughout the song.

Showing that you appreciate that they’re playing a song you like is fine but what’s the point when you can’t hear the song for all the hollarin’ goin’ on.  You might as well sit at home and listen to the album.  It seems, like so much such behaviour, to be about self again – a kind of exclamation of how much more you appreciate it than everyone else, a kind of competitive congratulating, as though the artist will notice you specifically.

I don’t mind the audience singing along however, I myself remember singing loudly, along with everyone else in the crowd, to “Vienna” when Midge Ure played a free live concert here in Newark many, (oh heck, many) years ago.  That felt like a magical experience, a shared experience, being part of the song as we were all in harmony with the singer on stage, but whistling and shouting “yeah” isn’t being part of it. 

I recently heard an artist interviewed in the sixties mention that audiences in the UK were different, more attentive – that’ll mean less hollarin’, I’d assume.

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Society, Work

Retail Impatience

I was in a short, socially distanced, queue in a major supermarket, at twenty past six in the evening, after work, a month or so ago.  The complete queue ahead of me consisted of a younger couple – the lad in baseball cap was clearly a gobby type, and between them and I was an unattended trolley, which it soon became clear belonged to a man who was breaking all distancing rules by leaning over the screen at a checkout, being too close to both the cashier and the customer being served at the time.  When he returned to the queue he was loudly making it clear to everyone including the couple in front that he’d been complaining that they weren’t getting served quickly enough.  Baseball-cap man then loudly pointed out that the male cashier was “…going even slower now ‘cos yoov said somefink to ‘im (s.i.c.).”   The wanderer then started exclaiming to baseball-cap man that he’d said to the cashier that “I won’t need to defrost anyfin’ when I get ‘ome, ‘cos it’ll be done before I leave ‘ere (s.i.c. too)“, or words to that effect, laughing loudly because he thought he was so amusing.

All of us who work in retail will have had to put up with loud-mouthed clever-dicks like him at some point.  Emphasis on “dick”.  I wasn’t amused even though he looked round at me for affirmation in an “am I right?” kind of way, I expected him to start high-fiving everyone.  But no, I thought, you’re not getting any group approval from me, no matter how much you want to look like a supermarket hero, the shoppers’ champion.   Another man joined the queue behind me and was similarly agitated, probably in a display of group conformity – everyone else is complaining – “there’s not normally this many customers at this time of night” I wearily muttered to him.  In the end we all got through in a reasonable time, my BBQ chicken bake was still frozen when I got home. 

I felt like saying to all three of these individuals “have you worked in retail?…  no?… you should try it.”

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Gadgets, Productivity, Tech, Work

From Paper to Pixels, By Phone

Documents

Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay

One problem with email is keeping messages of interest beyond the confines of the email system.  Short of emailing them to another account it used to be difficult to save something interesting, useful or funny and the only option was to copy and paste into a word document.  I have many files of such amusements but also many printed emails of jokes and so on from previous workplaces.

Over the years I’ve tried to digitise piles of saved magazine articles and such like using a variety of desktop scanners and the one problem has been speed – the scanning process taking thirty seconds to a minute per page and then if I wanted to manipulate the text I’d have to run it through an OCR (optical character recognition) program to extract the words, taking even more time.

I’d finally decided to have another crack at the problem of a pile of funny emails stuffed in a box file and vaguely remembered seeing smartphone apps that can scan documents using the high-res main camera and save them as Adobe PDF files.  I searched and downloaded Adobe’s own app and it’s again amazing how technology has moved on.  As new phone cameras have improved in quality the images produced are crisp and clear so are perfect for document archiving.  When you start scanning the software automatically detects the edges of the document, photographs it, straightens it and then, best of all, before giving the option of scanning more pages or saving to PDF it OCRs the text too.

The end result is a portable document, or multiple pages in one file if necessary, which even has selectable text that can be copied into a word-processor document or spreadsheet, an ideal way of digitising and making all those previously fixed words editable and searchable again.  The very best thing though is it all takes a matter of seconds per page.  For anything that needs a bit more precision or detail – photos for example – I’d still use my high-res flatbed scanner.

It’s another example of how smartphones are becoming ubiquitous tools, the digital Swiss army knife, used to communicate, inform and amuse, entertain, create, record and archive.  All the processing power the scanning requires also underlines how far microprocessors have progressed, being able to do this in a tiny handheld box less than ten millimetres thick.  All the effort of scanning over fifty pages did leave my phone a little warm admittedly, so I decided to give it a bit of a rest and write this instead – on my big desktop PC.

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Gadgets, Music, Tech, Television

Timeshift

I can admit when I’m wrong, I don’t always like it but I can. When companies started talking about internet based on-demand TV I thought that the bandwidth requirements would overwhelm the technology, I was wrong and I’m really quite glad about that.

I haven’t signed up for any of the paid-for services but have found uses for the free ones. I’ve said before that I watch Antiques Roadtrip and as this is on while I’m at work I use the BBC iPlayer to watch it via a Roku on my TV, or on my tablet. Similarly I tended to relocate other shows to a time when there wasn’t anything else on the TV – or more recently on the radio, as I hardly use the telly anymore, or when I’m not busy doing something else.

It’s a far cry from when I was growing up – when the only technology we had to timeshift a programme was a VCR and a selection of tapes. The major problems, I remember, were remembering to set the timer; hoping that a power cut didn’t wipe the machine’s memory before it recorded whatever it was you wanted; finding a blank tape, or one you could reuse and ensuring that nobody wanted to record something else at the time. There was always the worry that someone would record over something you’d not watched yet. I do vaguely remember the broadcasters’ and manufacturers’ reminders that the VCR was only intended to temporarily timeshift shows like this.

After the VCR came other tech including hard-disc recorders, often including multiple tuners so you could record programmes from two or more channels at once, but these were soon rendered obsolete as well by streaming and catch-up services.

Recently I took advantage of an Amazon Prime free trial to watch Star Trek: Picard, and then signed up for a month so I could finish it – not being a binge watcher myself. This was an extreme example of timeshifting, being almost a year after it came out – a bit easier than waiting for it to be repeated on normal TV. Not that TV repeats are all bad – I usually end up watching QI a year after it’s shown on the BBC on the Dave channel, which has itself been so successful in repeating that it now gets referenced on shows such as, er, QI.

Catch-up and live internet radio is just as useful for listening to a show that’s on too early or late at a time when another show you’re not interested in is on. It also comes in handy when you’re listening to live radio, for example last week’s Liza Tarbuck on BBC Radio 2, and you miss something that someone’s said. In this case I grabbed my phone, fired up BBC Sounds and rewound the show by a minute. Which is one of the benefits of all these internet based services – radio and TV: you can go back and look at something again, pause it and write something down, or, most importantly, take a break and make a cuppa.

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Health, Science, Society

A Shot in The Arm

Vaccine

Image by Ali Raza from Pixabay

It looked like a scene from a dystopian SF novel.  A long queue of slightly uneasy looking men and women, two metres apart, in a long cattle shed.  It was eerily silent…  No, it wasn’t, a elderly woman and her daughter behind me were talking about the Llamas the daughter had photographed recently on her phone, which was fine, in the circumstances.

This was the Newark-on-Trent mass vaccination centre for covid-19 and about twenty minutes earlier I’d received a text message asking if I could go straight away to have my jab a couple of hours earlier than my booked appointment.  So had everyone else – as the man on the entrance said “the last time we asked for early attendance nobody turned up, this time everyone has”.  But nobody minded queueing, because at least it was a lovely sunny, warm Spring Sunday evening and secondly, we’re British.

Many in the queue were there for a second dose of the Pfizer, only a few of us were having the first and as such we were fast-tracked through to the side administering the AstraZeneca vaccine.  The vaccinations, I should add, were carried out in one of the showground’s offices, alongside the cattle sheds.  The staff were friendly and efficient, many were volunteers, all doing a wonderful job and all should be applauded for being there doing this for our benefit.  We were all there, eager and grateful to get the jab, I even got a sticker to say I’d had it.  Which brings me to the other subject of this piece.

A friend put on Facebook a few months ago that he was Anti-Vax – he didn’t like how they cleaned the carpet and preferred a Henry vacuum cleaner instead, ba dum tish.  It’s a joke, much like the actual anti-vaxxers.

So many debilitating and deadly diseases, affecting anyone in the population like Covid-19, have been eradicated by vaccination, it’s the only way to get rid of them, wishes and positive thoughts have no effect on viruses like SARS-CoV-2, much as we’d like them to.  

Anti-vaxxers claim that their protests are about vaccine safety. During the protests, against all scientific evidence (which they also encourage us to ignore), they have made unfounded claims about the vaccine, and they say the vaccine kills people so we shouldn’t use it – have they not noticed that Covid-19 kills people.  If I’d been present I’d have liked to have said to them “Ok, I want figures, citations, references and peer-reviewed evidence”.

They claim it’s about civil rights, shouting “we want our freedom back” – but as previously regarding face masks and lockdowns, what civil rights, what freedoms have been taken away exactly? To this end what right have they got to tell us whether we should have a vaccine, what right have they got to try to deny it to those of us who want it, to try to intimidate and scare people at vaccination centres and buses into not having it – if you don’t want it shut up and take your chances. At the end of the day it’s mostly people just protesting against rules: their egos can’t stand being told that they’ve got to do something, or can’t do whatever they want to do. Others, of course, just want to cause trouble for the hell of it, to show how big and clever they think they are. 

Some of them though are just selfish and arrogant – someone who does work for us told me that a friend of his was going to have his vaccine “under protest” because “why should I have it just to suit other people.”  Then many of them are simply afraid of looking weak, still insisting that they don’t need protection, that they’re too tough to catch it, be affected by it or pass it to their family. 

If too many people refuse to be vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 then it will keep circulating amongst those who aren’t immune and we live like this forever; wearing facemasks and queueing in cow sheds every six months.  Thankfully most of us actually want our freedom from Covid-19 so the anti-vaxxers won’t win.

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