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Thursday, 12 May 2016

My Thoughts on the European Referendum

Among all the noise and fear-mongering coming from both sides in the Great European Debate at the moment, I thought I'd chuck in a few thoughts and conclusions of my own.

First, some facts.

  • If we leave the EU, we cannot possibly end up with better access to the european single market than we've got at the moment, but we can end up with worse.
  • Even though the rest of the EU sells more to us that we do to them, that's in absolute terms. As a percentage of exports, we are far more dependent on selling into the EU than they are on exporting to us.
  • If we leave the EU, the remaining countries will have strong incentives to make sure that any deal we get is unattractive. Otherwise it might encourage other countries to think of leaving.
  • Much of the EU regulation that people complain about would still affect us, if it involves selling goods or services into the EU. The only difference will be that Britain won't have any say in them.
  • The rest of the EU regulations are not going to be just swept away. Regulations written by civil servants in Brussels will be replaced by regulations written by civil servants in London.
  • Scotland looks likely to vote massively in favour of remaining in the EU. A survey this week suggests that 76% of Scots will vote to stay. If England votes to leave, that will encourage the Nationalists to demand another referendum to leave the UK.

Now, some reflections.

  • Exit campaigners express horror about EU membership involving our country having to give up some of its independence. This is ridiculous: everybody gives up some of their independence whenever they need to work with others for a common goal. What do they think marriage is?
  • I am not so sure that the Commonwealth is quite as enamoured of Britain as some Exit campaigners think. In the Caribbean, some countries are starting to demand reparations from Britain for the slave trade. In India there are calls for reparations for the damage British rule did to the Indian economy.
  • It is ironic that the politicians who tend to be most against Britain staying in a federal Europe are also likely to be in favour of Scotland staying in a federal UK. Also ironic in the other direction that politicians in favour of Scotland leaving a federal UK dream of an independent Scotland joining the EU.

Both the campaigns, In and Out, have been uninspiring so far, concentrating on fear and prejudice to make their cases. I would like to hear somebody arguing to stay in the EU on ideological grounds. For myself, I will be voting to remain in the EU. I've always been an Internationalist, and I hope that one day (not that I'll live to see it) the human race will become a single nation.

If that wasn't enough, there's also the remarkable coincidence that almost all the politicians campaigning for an Out vote are people I strongly dislike or disagree with. In the case of Donald Trump, both.

I was 16 when the country last voted on whether to leave. That vote was supposed to settle the matter of our European membership once and for all. So a final prediction: whichever way the vote goes, the argument will carry on.

Monday, 2 May 2016

A lesson in beer drinking

It's been months since my last post, and the title of this blog is starting to feel less and less appropriate. Maybe I need to change it to The Right Side of 60 while there's still time.

Two nights ago I opened a bottle of 8.1% strength beer. I won't mention the beer's name because it's probably not the brewery's fault what happened next. However, as a hint it's named after a nearby star, which was also the setting for a battle between Starfleet and the Borg in a memorable Star Trek episode: the one where Captain Picard has been assimilated and uses his knowledge of Starfleet tactics to... er. Anyway, so I open the bottle as I always do, and it goes off like a roman candle, beer gushing all over the work surface.

Two tea towels later and I'm on top of the situation, but most of the beer has gone. I carefully sip what's left. Perhaps it's the great strength of the beer, or maybe the bits of floating sediment that the bottle's instructions suggest I should have left in the bottle ("pour into a glass in one smooth action"), but I cannot warm to its flavour. Part of me wonders if the fountain effect wasn't a red flag.

Why was I even trying to drink an ale nearly twice as strong as normal? Well, it's an age thing. I don't mean that I like more alcohol as I get older. I bought the beer in the poorly lit back room of a beer shop (such an excellent invention—I never saw one until I got to York), and the print on the bottle was very small, and bizarrely I hadn't thought to take my reading glasses with me when I went shopping, so it wasn't until I got home that I discovered exactly what I'd bought.

I made it into my forties before I needed glasses. First for reading, then another pair for longer range, such as looking at a computer screen. The decline is slow but persistent, and now reading without glasses is a definite challenge, particularly first thing in the day; some mornings I have difficulty focusing on my breakfast cereal. In that dim shop, this bottle's label might as well have been written in Egyptian hieroglyphics for all the good it would have done me. In fact, that might have been better, for a couple of glyphs of legless Egyptians or a vomiting crocodile-headed god might have given me valuable clues about the alcohol strength.

But wait, I've just noticed that the label shows an illustration of two Neanderthal figures. Could this have been a coded hint about the expected level of my mental ability after finishing the bottle?

It also says that all their beers are naturally carbonated. Aha! Unexpectedly I realise I must from now on always read the instructions on beer. (Just as an afternoon of near terminal flatulence twenty years ago taught me the importance of reading the instructions on sugar-free jam.)

Old dogs can learn new tricks, provided they learn the hard way.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Flood of 2015

With 2016 just hours away, I feel safe in titling this post "The Flood of 2015".

The "ancient city of York", as the news reports style it, is used to flooding. Built at the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss, flooding literally comes with the territory. Indeed, it's in the very names of the local landscape: "Ings" is an old Norse name for meadows that flood, and around here you can find Clifton Ings, Rawcliffe Ings and Wheldrake Ings. In the centre of York, the Ouse routinely floods at Kings Staithes, providing wonderful photos of waters lapping at the Kings Head for lazy journalists.

But the weather we've had in the last week has been exceptional. This is a view of Clifton Ings from Clifton Bridge three days ago:

Flood meadow indeed!

On the other side of the bridge you can normally descend some steps and follow the riverbank into the City Centre:

Although we live just a few minutes walk from the Ouse, our home was not affected by the flooding. In fact, when I looked at the water levels on Monday it seemed to me that the Ouse would have needed to rise another two or three meters to threaten us. Then again, a street nearby flooded without any help from the river—if the sewers stop working, any road is at risk.

I haven't been into York to see the buildings that were hit by the Foss breaking its banks, but I imagine the consequences will be with us for several months to come. My heart goes out to everyone affected.

For myself, I now find myself noticing every slight dip and incline in the street, as I mentally track where rising waters would head. And the next time I see a blocked drain I will definitely be ringing up Yorkshire Water to let them know. The number to ring is 08451 242429. I wonder why it's not a free 0800 number.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Who was Francis Mary Harvey?

This is going to be a very niche blog post. I have just come across my Certificate of Baptism, issued a month before my adopted parents picked me up from the adoption society. Francis Mary Harvey is listed as my sponsor (i.e. godparent), and I would very much like to speak to her, if she's still alive.

The baptism took place at the Church of St Alban in Finchley on 6 July 1959, conducted by Rev. Thomas R Allan.

If anyone finds this page while searching for Francis Mary Harvey, please could you get in touch.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

How to get rid of Annoying Adverts in Android Chrome

I've tended to accept adverts as the price I have to pay for getting free access to websites, but in the last few months adverts have become so intrusive and annoying as to make some sites almost unusable, particularly on a mobile device. Here are some tactics you might be familiar with:

  • You arrive at a site and start reading something, then it jumps down to make way for an advert that's just appeared above it. You scroll down to find the bit you were reading, and it jumps again as another ad arrives. And then again.
  • While scrolling through an article, a video ad pops out of nowhere. And it's the same video you've been seeing all week.
  • The site freezes while some stupid ad downloads or something. The effect is the same whatever: you can't finish what you were reading.
  • While you're reading, a voice starts talking from a video that's decided to auto-play. On the York Press site you sometimes get two copies of the same video.
  • You're distracted by the animated ad that's playing just to the side of the bit you actually want to read.

Now I realise that the people who place ads are desperate to get you to pay attention to them, but I've pretty well given up on visiting some sites because of the appalling quality of their user experience. I'm trying not to mention The Verge or the Independent.

Today I decided to try a drastic remedy, but it seems to have done the trick: I turned off JavaScript and stopped the little sods in their track.

(This is for Android Chrome 45 on Android 5.1, but other web browsers will have a similar setting somewhere in their options.) Go into Chrome's main menu and pick Settings. Under Site Settings click on JavaScript. Switch it off. It's that simple.

On the downside, any web page that wants you to input text (I don't know, Amazon, say) won't work, but if you just want to read, this will completely block the really irritating ads. Simple ones that don't want to jump around will still be there, and you can pay as much attention to them as you always do. None, in my case. If you do need to use a web page that needs JavaScript to function, you can always just switch it back on while you're there.

Or, here's an idea: install a second web browser app and have one Javascript-enabled, and one not.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Do Pensions Keep the Post Office Going?

Since the rise of email, the amount of physical mail coming through my letterbox has declined to almost nothing, but a few intrepid letters still manage to get here. They're rarely interesting, and I suspect legal requirements are responsible for them being made out of atoms rather than bits, because probably a third of them now involve pensions and insurance.

For instance, last month I got a letter from the Clerical Medical Investment Group Limited explaining over six pages that, as they are now part of the Scottish Widows group, they were going to simplify their business by changing their name to Scottish Widows Limited. Then there was a load of stuff explaining in great detail that (I hope) this isn't going to affect my pension.

This week I got a letter from Scottish Widows plc about another pension policy. They are proposing to merge Scottish Widows plc (and six other companies) into Clerical Medical Investment Group Limited, which would then change its name to Scottish Widows Limited. Then the same six pages of legal bumf.

I know keeping customers informed is very important, but I can't help speculating on how much it's costing to let me know that the holding company for my pension is changing 'plc' to 'Limited'.

These are two of several of the many company pensions that I have acquired in the course of a varied career in the private sector. At least annually I get a letter from each of them keeping me in the loop about how much money they're holding for me, how much the transfer value is, and how much it might be worth when I retire (not very much). When I moved recently I had to contact each policy holder to let them know my new address. This takes less effort than it once did, thanks to corporate takeovers that have removed names like Guardian Royal Exchange or Commercial Union (and, soon, Clerical Medical). Talking to Standard Life though required two calls for my Standard Life two policies. Their customer service rep could easily update one of them online, but the other needed a letter from me, as it was in a different system. 

When I got its most recent update report I could see why. The printout looks like the sort of thing I was producing on my Amstrad PC1512 in the 1980s. Which coincidentally is when I joined that pension scheme. I can't remember the last time anyone else sent me a letter printed in Courier font. Now I imagine a room at Standard Life HQ where an ancient daisy wheel printer sits, connected to a computer that predates the internet. I just hope they both last out to my retirement date.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Judi Beamont

As I've mentioned before, I was adopted. My parents (the ones who brought me up, and who I therefore think of as my real parents) had told me about being adopted as soon as I was old enough to understand, and it never bothered me. It still doesn't.

There were, quite correctly, very few details about my birth parents. On my original birth certificate (you get a new one once the adoption is complete) it stated my birth mother's name, with the father section left blank. The adoption society that had placed me had given my parents a few snippets, so that I knew that my birth mother was short with brown hair and brown eyes, and that she was from New Zealand. In my twenties I had contacted the adoption agency after the law was changed to let adoptees get any facts that were held on them, and learned my birth mother's address in Wellington. I didn't act any further, and then largely forgot about it.

However, when I started researching my genealogy a couple of years ago, this small amount of information turned out to be all I needed to make contact with my birth mother's family.

My birth mother had died in 1995. I learned some details of her life and people were kind enough to send me what few photos there were of her, which let me build a picture in my mind of what she might have been like. Limited of course, after so many years. But how that has changed in the last week.

For a few years she worked on New Zealand TV, and now, through the kindness of relatives and friends, for which I will be forever grateful, I have a short DVD of some of her TV appearances. I am really quite stunned—what were the odds that I would actually get to hear the voice and see the facial expressions of this woman who died twenty years ago?

It makes her much more real to me. Not closer perhaps—our paths diverged a few weeks after I was born. I don't blame her for that; it was a different age, when being a single mother was far harder, and in any case, things turned out okay for me.

In some of the clips she's appearing in a Xmas special, probably in the mid-seventies. Most of her co-stars went on to achieve enough fame to show up in a Google search, even to have their own wikipedia pages (including Jan Russ and Myra de Groot, both later of Neighbours). She does not though. But one of the reasons I started this blog was to put information onto the web that I wish someone else had provided when I was looking for it.

So here, then, is some small record of my birth mother, Judith Ann Beaumont (11 Aug 1935 - 10 March 1995), or Judi Beaumont as she appears on screen, and also sometimes spelled Judy Beaumont or Judie Beaumont. Once of 13 Burrows Avenue, Karori, Wellington; 94 Torrington Park, Finchley; and 14 Beaufort Gardens, Kensington.