Saturday, 22 February 2020

A tale of two Sillies

The dogs' injections were due, so we duly took them to our local vets. It is a branch surgery and seems to employ a different foreign vet each time we go. This one was a petite dark-haired Polish woman whose English was heavily accented. She came to me first as I held Bronte while Ann sat with Byron, and proceeded to give Bronte a thorough medical check before giving the injection, which didn't worry Bronte at all. She then tried to give the nose drops for kennel-cough. Last year, Bronte squirmed so much that the first batch ended up in the fur of her nose, so this year I held her head tightly between my knees and my hands and between us we succeeded.

Ann and I then swapped dogs so I could do the same with Byron. Somehow, the vet didn't notice we'd swapped, so put her stethoscope in and turned to listen to Bronte's heart and chest. She continued to palpate her abdomen and check her teeth still with the stethoscope in, so couldn't hear Ann and I repeating, "that's Bronte - you've already examined her!". Finally, the vet advanced on poor Bronte to stick the rectal thermometer up for a second time! Luckily, she removed the earpieces in time and heard our pleas to leave the poor dog be, or Bronte might have got two lots of injections and nose drops.

We seemed to have acquired a large collection of bottles in the box by the back gate. I'm sure we could never have drunk so much wine between the two of us, so perhaps they were left from our last wine and cheese party. Be that as it may, we were going to Sainsbury's so I put the box in the back of the car with the dogs to take to the bottle bank. It was heavy with the many jammed-in bottles, and half full of water from the recent rainstorms. Unfortunately, at the first roundabout I was distracted by stray thoughts and touched the accelerator too hard to take a gap in the traffic. I knew the box had tipped over when there was an almighty clatter of glass, so stopped at the first chance to clear it up. Luckily none had broken, but bottles were rolling between the dogs' legs and the smelly water had soaked into the dogs' blankets which were saturated. We put the bottles back in their box and cleared up the mess as best we could. The dogs looked most disgruntled, but nothing much seems to surprise them these days.

Friday, 21 February 2020

They are listening...

A new message has been mailed from Google:

"Your service provider and data controller is now Google LLC: 
Because the UK is leaving the EU, we’ve updated our Terms so that a United States based company, Google LLC, is now your service provider instead of Google Ireland Limited.
Google LLC will … become the data controller responsible for your information and complying with applicable privacy laws. We’re making similar changes to … YouTube … and Google Play."

 We all know Google is the world's most powerful collector of data. This new message, coming so soon after we officially left the EU, suggests a deep and worrying undermining of our privacy by one of the world's most powerful data companies. Not only do they monitor everything we have ever looked up, now they are transferring the right to use and store such data from stringent EU rules to the much more lax US, where it can be shared round and sold on far more freely.

All this has suddenly resonated in light of grandson Luke's story that an unexpected message from Google had suddenly popped up on his computer, noting that he had a deep interest in coding and was young enough to want to go for an interview with Google.

Many of us now have voice assistants such as Amazon's Echo and Google Home. We might assume they only respond to the trigger words, such as 'Alexa' and 'OK, Google'. But we would be wrong: digital assistants are ‘awake’ even when users think they aren’t listening, and both companies have filed patents revealing the devices can be used as surveillance equipment for massive information collection and intrusive digital advertising.

Amazon is working to use Alexa to build profiles on anyone in the room to sell them goods. Future versions of the device will identify statements of interest, such as ‘Where shall we go on holiday? to target related advertising. Indeed, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has confessed that he unplugs his Alexa if he is discussing confidential information.

A Google patent application describes using its smart Home system to monitor and control everything, from what is watched on TV and hygiene habits, to meal and travel schedules and other activities. As part of its Street View, Google collected data from Wi-Fi servers in private homes to accurately pinpoint just where our servers were located. Even more worrying, Google was also able to download a lot of information just from the servers as it drove past them on Street View, including emails and passwords, medical histories, sexual preference, religion, and evidence of marital infidelity [evidence to Federal Communications Commission, 2012].

 Beware! I am now using a different (non-Chrome) browser and independent search engine to try and stop all my information being in the hands of one company.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

A wet Sunday in Cromer

With Mary Ann
 A happy day in Cromer meeting up with son Ben, Kaz and Luke who have taken a cottage for the week. Kaz won the chance of the cottage as second prize in a competition she entered. First prize would have been to stay in a mansion, but he cottage was so perfect I don't think they'd have enjoyed it more. It was an old flint-stoned fisherman's cottage, modernised but still a two-up-two-down, though with its extensions larger than a hundred years ago.

Byron and Bronte await their next command
Beside recently winning with his project in the British Physics Olympiad, Luke had more good news. He was researching something on Google for a computer project when a personal message suddenly popped up inviting him to enter a competition writing Java code. The winner will get a chance to be interviewed by Google. Luke is thrilled, and says his teacher, who has been programming for years, was jealous that he never had such an offer!

A selfie of Five Come to Cromer Beach
After a good lunch, we walked down to the beach. It was a fair trek, and the cliffs there are moderately high leaving me worried about walking back up them. The beach was moderately busy, but Luke and Ben took turns to run with the dogs - literally, and a long way. To Ben's surprise (though probably not anyone else's), the dogs just wanted more, for he couldn't tire them. One of the boats was called Mary Ann, so we couldn't resist a picture with it.

The rain came on and we settled for coffee at the end of the pier, then set off back to the cottage. Encouragingly, I could walk back up the cliff comfortably, so I must be getting stronger. At the cottage, Ben lit a log burning stove in the centre of the room. The fire blazed hypnotically and effectively, and the whole room was suddenly warm.

An unexpected message via LinkedIn invited me to be available for professional consultations with a company called GuidePoint - a large US company that provides expertise in all fields to firms wanting some professional input. It is hopeful that there may still be a future for work out in the big world. I have completed the application form; now I shall see if anyone is interested in my particular expertise. Today, also, I got a request from lastminute dot con to complete a satisfaction survey for my booking with them. This was the only opportunity to complain about my lost flight to Leiden, so they did not get a high rating. It will be interesting to see if they moderate my comment!

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

The Ghanaian secret to a long life

Returning to the airport at Hamburg, we were driven by a chatty Ghanaian who told us the secret of a long life. We praised his excellent English, and he reminded us that Ghana had been under British rule, and English was the first language. "Colonialism was the worst thing that happened to Africa," he said. "Until then, the whole of Africa, excepting the Arabic north, was built of independent individual tribes, each living in relative peace." He told us, they did not have much, but what they had they held in common, with a shared sense of hospitality; anyone could go anywhere in Africa and be offered food and shelter. They used little from the land that had supported them for thousands of years. Colonialism ripped that model apart, forcing peoples with different languages and tribal customs into politically divided countries, then leaving them to fight among themselves for power and control. He was one of eleven children, but when he returned home, he treated his possessions as his own, annoyed that they would borrow his things, but his family, who still held all things in common, called him arrogant and told him to stay in Germany.

He had lived in Hamburg for 31 years, and thought it the best place in Germany: "the only place where they accept everyone without prejudice." He extolled the many advantages of the city for a while then mentioned his father had lived well into his 90's and had had three wives. He once asked his father, "why did you have three wives?" His father told him, it was the secret of a long life. "Women just like to talk," he said, "morning to night, they talk talk talk! If you only have one wife, she will talk to you all day, and you get no peace. So you take a second wife, and then they talk to each other and leave you alone. Then, when the two wives start to talk together about you, you take a third wife, and they just talk about her! So you live your life in peace, and you get to a healthy old age."

The taxi-man had suggested to his wife that he ought to get a second wife. "The day you do that," she said, "is the day you write out your will and testament!" He did not suggest it again to her. She phoned him while we were in the car. "She is always checking up on me, to ask where I'm going and who I'm carrying," he said. "She gives me no peace!"

Looking up facts on Ghana when we returned, it certainly seems a delightful place. As Kate Bethel, an American student at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia, wrote: "How could people with so little be so happy? What I have realized in my short time here is it’s not the things you have that make you happy, but it really is the people and relationships. In Ghana, value is in your family and relationships above all else. People are not going to remember what you have, but they will remember how you made them feel. I think this is part of their key to happiness, and we should all take note." (quoted from: The happiest people in the world?)

Monday, 17 February 2020

Stuck at Heathrow

We were inevitably late leaving Hamburg yesterday, following delays from Storm Dennis, but were glad to get away with only an hour's delay. We had a bumpy landing in the strong cross wind, but then were stuck on the taxiway for over an hour waiting for a slot. The pilot informed us that the Heathrow computer system was down, and no planes could leave or approach any gateway! We felt most sorry for the people who should have made connecting flights. The flight attendants were visiting their seats to give the best advice they could; the couple in front of us had been going to Chicago, but were told they would not get away today, and must go to the information desk for more news.

So we sat there, just looking at the rows of gates at Terminal 5, each filled with a BA plane but none of which were moving. When eventually they did clear a gate and we went through to baggage reclaim, it was more chaos. All the boards announcing which carousel the bags would come up on were blank, and we were all queuing to see a man with a mobile phone taking verbal instructions and writing down carousel numbers by hand! Departures were even worse: all the indicator boards were down, and the entry gates to security were not recognising the bar codes of the boarding passes. People were being checked in manually, and the gate numbers were being written up on white boards. The news says it was an IT glitch, but that does seem improbable, and we suspect it was a major hack into the system. But these days, conspiracy theories always sound more plausible than reality.
Bartok, our new guinea pig

Getting back home, Andre and Edwin had prepared a meal for us, which was very thoughtful and welcome. Also, they have bought a new guinea pig to replace Pilot (see Christmas 2019). He is called Bartók, continuing our theme of naming animals after famous poets or scientists, or - something new - composers. He is very tiny, only six weeks old, but loves cuddles and nestles up to us seemingly fearlessly.

My new paper, appropriately enough about galaxies in a journal called Galaxies, has brought two responses already from a Professor at Ohio state university, and another from a Professor of Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. It is always a surprise to get messages from such distant places, but very welcome of course when they are so supportive. It must be dreadful to get massive amounts of attention from people who just spit vile and the hatred of envy at the fame of people in the spotlight, like unfortunate Love-Islander Caroline Flack. Much though it's nice to be recognised by a couple of academics, I would hate any fame with that degree of attention, and am glad to live a quiet anonymous life in gentle Hundon.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Stuck in Hamburg

Yesterday we rose while still dark to fly to Hamburg. Edwin and Andre had treated us to the trip as a delayed Christmas gift, but they hadn’t reckoned with Storm Dennis chasing the heels of Ciara so rapidly. We got here easily to a fine hotel, and walked in the evening past the train station to find the little cafes and places that make eating out so interesting. Today we wandered through the old quarter, threading over the canals and cobbled roadways to the Ratenhouse (town hall) where a protest demonstration was in progress against the rising right wing AfD movement that is against Muslims and Gays. our trips to foreign cities always seem to coincide with some local protest. But at least they on the right side. We were glad we didn’t get caught up in a pro-fascist march.

Later we continued our walk to the Miniatur Wunderland, a huge collection of modelled countries filled with moving trains and vehicles and even a craftily modelled airport with planes landing taxiing and taking off into banks of cloud. It was every schoolboy’s dream.

Today, Sunday, we wait in our hotel for news of flight delays and cancellations from Storm Dennis, hoping we get back. Ann is busy already working on her contingencies - other ways back by land air or sea. We wait upon events.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Driving through Storm Ciara

We woke on Sunday to the howling winds of Storm Ciara, so drove out across the width of Suffolk to see for ourselves how bad it was. Ciara is an Irish name, meaning "dark" or "black haired", which should have been warning enough. Apart from a broken branch bouncing off the windscreen on to the roof, we arrived safely in Lowestoft and the car was unmarked. We did pass a lorry wedged across the road. It had swerved to avoid a fallen tree, but couldn't. The remains of the broken tree were lying on the pavement. The lorry had its front nearside badly stoved in. It had clearly just happened, for there was only the lorry driver and a helpful car driver in hi-vis jackets directing us round the wreckage while they awaited the police.

After a good lunch in the Victoria Hotel, we walked through the storm along the beach. The rain was almost horizontal, and bitterly cold as we got drenched, but the dogs loved it and were running round like young soaking pups. I was glad we had remembered to pack a spare towel to dry them, and some treats to cheer them.

Afterwards, we called at the Pier Hotel in Gorleston for coffee. I came out to find tiles blowing off the roof and smashing on the ground round us. Happily, the car remained undamaged. On the way back on the duel carriageway towards Norwich, the rain fell so thickly it bounced off the bonnet and roadway to resemble a thick fog, impossible to see through. I slowed to about 10 mph. Even a passing police car with flashing blue lights, was barely moving at above 20 mph. We were glad to be back safety home, for a warm bath and to dry out.

Lucy sent a text today asking if we had recieved the parcel she sent on Saturday. We hadn't, so tonight I went out with a torch to explore the grounds. I found the parcel hidden round the side of the house, where it had been fully exposed to the recent storms. She has sent us a gorgeous basket of goodies, including cake, chocolates, and little bottles of wine and whisky. I like my whisky straight with no ice or water. Luckily, the contents had remained dry and nothing was spoilt. 

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Winter sunrise over Hundon

Sunrise over Hundon
Wednesday: Another cloudless daybreak, with winter frost and a low mist on the hills. It has been the mildest of winters, without snow or fog or heavy frosts. Not a breath of air moves the trees beneath the perched birds, gathering in great numbers now to nest and mate, though I cannot pretend to identify them.

A pretty Thames walk
Thursday: Having failed to secure a flight through Lastminute dot con,  today we must drive down to the UK offices of Astellas near London, to return their computer and the pass for the building. The team sent me an email when I said I had been let down and couldn't get to Leiden, saying they were sorry not to say goodbye in person, and they had a card and gift for me!

We stopped near Windsor for lunch, overlooking the Thames with a good walk available for the dogs. The journey back though was the usual nightmare of rush-hour traffic, but on the doorstep on our return was a UBS parcel marked "extreme urgency!". It was the gift from the group at Leiden - a fine calf leather folder, with a thank you card of generous comments. All as welcome as they were surprising.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Lastminute dot con.

I have recently had a contract with two companies, one of which had been extended for two months but was scheduled to end on 31 Jan. Unfortunately, on that same day, the other company also contacted me to say they wouldn't need me any longer, and the job would finish at the end of this month, so suddenly from two big contracts I will have none. C'est la vie in this game. But yesterday, all this was forgotten when we were treated to dinner with Edwin and Andre.
Enjoying the boy's hospitality

They a fantastic apartment in Cambridge. It sits on the second floor of a purpose-built modern block behind the Beehive centre, so they can walk or cycle into town or to the station, yet it has ample car-parking space and a large locked store for the bikes. On the inside, they have furnished it in a light, modern manner, comfortable, functional, and not over-cluttered, yet without being minimalistic. Last night they invited us for a full three-couse meal, beautifully made and presented. It was delicious. Afterwards, we played a game called "Overbooked" - clearly a favourite of Ed's who loves the operational side of airlines. This consists of four people, each with their own airline, and a model modern passenger plane onto which we had to arrange as many passengers as possible in various combinations, with overbooked passengers being "bumped off" - not a murder game, but a technical term for what airlines do when they overbook. Despite Ed's love of airlines, and skill with arranging timetables, it was Andre who won and Edwin came last!

Turning now to real airlines, I booked a day return to Schipol with Easyjet through to return my company computer. Today, I tried to print out the boarding passes required to make the journey, but Easyjet have no record of the booking! have taken my money, and run off with it - and there seems to be nothing I can do about it. I think they should be called Lastminute dot con.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Exit Brexit

Brexit comes at last
 Well, finally it's done. After all the debates and arguments, the procrastination, the negativity, the failure of imagination and lack of nerve, Britain has gathered her skirts and stepped boldly into her unknown future as an independent nation once again. The public spoke in 2016 with the referendum; and they spoke even more loudly with the European elections when so many Brexit MEPs were voted in. Then finally – because Europe, the establishment, parliament, the courts and much of the public services were not listening – we shouted so loudly in December that the world had to listen, if not hear. We wanted out - and huge numbers of us were prepared to vote for a right-wing, conservative party that promised to do just that.

Although I initially had some sympathy for the European project, and the ideal of a united nations of Europe, in practice it was trying to ignore centuries of differing opinions, traditions and customs by making individual nations into one homogenous bloc in some idealised image of a one nation state. This was never going to work well, and popularist cracks began to appear in the edifice of which Brexit is now the potent symbol. Everyone who voted for Brexit will have had their own reasons. My own attitudes swung towards it with Project Fear. Never had I heard such blatent propaganda to try to swing public opinion. This was no rational debate, and the more alarmist the statements, the more I rebelled against them. I simply could not see how they could all be true, with events predicted to be so dire that it was as though we would enter a nuclear apocalypse.

Finally, with a majority of our representatives constantly bickering and blocking any progress towards what so many in the country clearly wanted, I –like so many of my countrymen – yearned for a strong government again that could get things done. Like so many of us, my cross went to the Tories who, for all their faults, were talking sense. Indeed, when compared with the slogans of the Remainers with their "Bollocks to Brexit", even Jeremy Corbyn was talking sense, though of a somewhat uncommitted sort.
A large police presence, but a ruly crowd

So, last night, 31st January 2020, saw Ann and I join tens of thousands of others in Parliament Square to mark and celebrate an historic moment in Britain's history. The event was marked by a massive police presence - with innumerable police cars and vans, sirens, and a phalanx of mounted police. Yet the whole event was good-natured and peaceful with exuberance rather than drunkenness. Despite the BBC's efforts to portray Remainers as a potent presence, we saw no more than half a dozen, huddled together next to Downing Street, barricaded off from the vast crowds pouring past them down Whitehall who mostly ignored them, and certainly had no wish to fight them in this moment of victory.
Many young people
waving flags

Another lie propagated by the press was that the crowd was mostly older white people. Certainly, Ann and I were in that category, but the vast majority of that crowd was young, with a good smattering of non-whites amongst us. What was evident, however, was an overwhelming spirit of patriotism, a sense of a love of Britain and her heritage, like the Last Night of the Proms, with much flag waving, wearing of Union Flag costumes, and singing. Like it or hate it, that is a potent force that clearly underlay much of the Brexit movement. Politicians in the future will ignore it at their peril.
Brexit party London
It was like a New Year's party
filled with young hopeful people
many voices in foreign languages
many mixed nation's faces
the soft shaking hands
in a calm comradeship
and sweetening of spirit
burying the bitterness
the acrimonious argument
above all
was a feeling of relief
the civil war was done
but who had really won?