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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 Beaumont

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; 38 Hesper Mews, Earls Court, London SW6, 9 Nevern Square, London SW5, and 14 Beaufort Gardens, Kensington.

Friday, 15 May 2015

They still Make Letraset!

When I got involved in politics back in the eighties, one of the jobs I'd end up with was putting leaflets together: typing up the copy, then printing it off and sticking the individual pieces down onto an A4 sheet of blue graph paper. Blocks of text would be interspersed with cartoons and headings. The cartoons were photocopied from pages of stock art or previous leaflets; the headings you painstakingly constructed from Letraset®.

The end result looked like a school project by a primary school pupil, but at the printers it magically transformed into something that frequently looked semi-professional. The blue of the graph paper disappeared during the production process (though yellow turned dark black—not a mistake you made more than once), as did the edges where you'd cut out pieces of paper, and you got back 6000 copies of your leaflet. Next you had to stick them all through letterboxes, but that's a different story.

Letraset was transfers: sheets of letters and digits that you transferred onto paper by gently but firmly rubbing them with a ballpoint pen. The graph paper was especially useful at this point, to help you keep the characters in a straight line.

It might sound easy, but when you were trying to finish off a leaflet late in the night, it was all too common to miss a letter out or misspell a word, or be forced to admit that the letters were too crooked and you'd have to do it all again. Worse still was suddenly realising you'd run out of a crucial letter. "Cambridge City Council" was a real bugger for using up Cs, I remember. And Letraset was not cheap.

Eventually I got my first laser printer. Oh, the bliss. I could type anything I wanted and just print it out. No missing letters, no wobbly lines, and for next to nothing.

That was in 1995. Since when laser printers have come crashing down in price, and desktop publishing has made blue graph paper a thing of the past. So it was with some amazement that I discovered yesterday that you can still buy Letraset. Who uses it? And Why?

I could google it, but I suspect it's very much a niche market nowadays. I imagine council election re-enactment societies, where groups of hobbyists lovingly reproduce election literature of yesteryear. The hard way.