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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Biggles Flies Again

My son has just started reading a Biggles book. I used to collect the works of Capt W E Johns when I was roughly his age, but 'Biggles Defies the Swastika' is one of the few of those books that I can even vaguely remember. Biggles is in Norway in 1940 planning what aid Britain could provide in the event of a German invasion, when the Germans actually do invade, and he has to get out of the country posing as a Norwegian nazi. Quite how he hid his clipped British accent I forget.

I was surprised to see that the book was published in 1941, when it would have been extremely topical. In fact, given the lead times for publication, I wonder if Johns's narrative was as overtaken by events as was his hero. I would have read it nearer to 1970, when WW2 already seemed like distant history to me. And yet it was in fact no further in the past than the Falklands War is to me now, an event I can still remember in some detail. On the other hand, to my son the invasion of Norway is as far away as the Boer War was to me as a child.

His previous book was a Star Wars novel. Here we have a shared outlook, although he will never know the sense of wonder audiences experienced in 1977 when we first saw an SF film with decent special effects (pace 2001).

Stumbling Across My Mother

Last year I uploaded two photos of my maternal grandfather to this blog. I did it because, although he was slightly famous in his field, Google Image Search can't find a single photo of him.

It took a few weeks, but Google did eventually index the photos--but only for a few days. Since then a search for 'Georg Pniower' will bring up numerous images, including just about every other image on this blog of mine, even screen shots, but not those. I really have no idea of what algorithm Google uses that could exclude photos labelled 'Georg Pniower', while including one of me on the grounds that it lives in the same blog as a post mentioning Pniower.

I tried the search again last week. Still no photos of my grandfather, but imagine my surprise to see my mother, Renate, staring out at me, aged 12: a photo I'd never seen before.

Georg Pniower was half-Jewish, and when the Nazis came to power he and his family came under increasing threat of persecution. For safety he sent his daughter to a boarding school in Surrey set up for the children of refugees from Nazism. Stoatley Rough was a name I remember my mother mentioning often, though I don't think she ever visited it again, even though we only lived in Kent. Someone has created a web site about the school, with photos of the pupils, and so Google have included it in the results for 'Georg Pniower'.

Despite my grandfather's efforts to protect my mother, war broke out during the summer holidays in 1939 when she was back in Germany. Pniower thought twice about bringing her home, but the British Foreign Office reassured him that it would be safe. As we saw in Libya this week, competence is still something the FO aims for.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

08080 600832

This number has been ringing my mobile phone all week: twice a day sometimes. Twice I picked up the call, but both times I just heard office noises for a few seconds before being cut off. A Google search reveals fellow sufferers enjoying a similar experience, with a few getting to speak to a tele-salesperson.

Presumably whoever's responsible is auto-dialling several numbers at once so that they always have someone to speak to on the other end. However, when you're dialling mobile phones (or even a lot of non-mobiles), the recipient phone displays the incoming call's number. As it happens, I've added the number to my contacts under the name 'Spam' and I now refuse the calls. However, if I was prepared to answer the phone again and again until I finally spoke to a human being, I would by then be so hacked off by their cavalier approach that their chance of selling me anything would be zero.

And yet they keep doing this, so it must produce a return. I can only assume that there are people who will always answer the phone, no matter how obvious it should be that it's a waste of time. And maybe these are the same people who don't instinctively type the number into a search engine to see what comes up. Also this week, I got forwarded a hoax virus warning e-mail. The friend who forwarded it to me (and also to all the rest of their friends and acquaintances) suggested it might be a fake, but 'better safe than sorry'. It would have taken them ten seconds in Google to find out that it was a hoax dating back at least two years. Instead they propagated it to dozens more people, who all now have my e-mail address in their mail clients, as the BCC facility is also grossly under-utilised.

My son starts at secondary school in September, and I was pleased to note that the ICT course starts by teaching the children how to be safe on the internet. I sincerely hope that this includes a few common sense practices that will make the job of hoaxers and spammers a whole lot harder.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

A Farewell to Thunderbird

I have finally taken the plunge and abandoned using Thunderbird as my mail client. Running four different e-mail accounts, Thunderbird made it easy to download all my mail to one place, as well as allowing me to easily move messages between accounts, while the Lightning add-in did a fair job of handling my calendar. Unfortunately, Thunderbird had taken to hanging for several seconds at a time while I was typing, and this seemed to be becoming more frequent. Also, synchronising the calendar with my mobile was far from satisfactory.

When I recently changed my mobile for an Android model, the fact that three of my accounts were on GMail made it suddenly much more sensible to go straight to to see my messages, rather than downloading them to my PC's hard drive via Thunderbird. The only drawback was GMail's limited ability to create folders to put old messages in. Then a colleague explained how there was a Labs feature to allow child folders, and suddenly my last objection vanished.

(Incidentally, the feature is called 'Nested Labels'. Why is this still experimental? It's virtually a 'Make Program Usable' option, and it's standard in any mail client I've ever used.)

The fourth e-mail account is the one I have with my ISP. Nobody knows the e-mail address except them, which means all I get is the monthly 'your bill is ready' message, and the odd bit of marketing. I'll still use Thunderbird to check on those occasionally. The most recent mail from them was to tell me that they liked me so much as a customer that they'd spontaneously upped my download speed to between 8 and 24 Mbits. I checked straight away: still 6 to 7. But it's nice they're thinking of me.