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Monday, 27 July 2020

On My Mother's Side

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

This quote from David Eagleman chilled me when I first read it. It implies a time when everyone I will ever know, including my son, have ceased to be. I’ve thought about it a lot since then as I do my genealogy research. So many names of so many people who are long gone from the Earth.

In our attic are several boxes of photos and documents left me by my mother, Renate Lilly (née Pniower). Much of it was in turn left to her by her own mother, Ruth Blume (née Hartmann), and some of that came from her mother, Else Sapatka-Hartmann. I won’t go on with this progression, but at least two documents date back to the 17th Century. It's a rich trove for an amateur genealogist, particularly as at least one ancestor did a lot of research themselves and wrote it all down.

I spent a fair few weeks going through everything, pulling it into some sort of order, and cataloguing it for my son for when he inherits it. When I’m gone, there may be nobody left who remembers what my grandmother looked like, and maybe also my mother. So I’ve been writing names and dates on the back of photos, labelling albums, grouping related photos into folders.

So many names came back to me from conversations my mother had with me. If only I’d paid more attention though. I remember her talking about her friend Inge Juchnowycz, but I don’t remember how the two of them were friends in the first place. Still, I found two photos of her, sent from Canada in the 1950s, and I’ve duly annotated them. Not that my son will have any interest in a friend of his grandmother, and perhaps I could safely just discard them, but once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.

Among my mother’s early photos was a card from 1939:

In February 1939 my mother was a pupil at Stoatley Rough School near Haslemere, so possibly she received this card on a school visit to Coultershaw Mill in Petworth. I made some enquiries, but if anyone now knows what these cards were for or why Gordon Gwillim was handing them out, I can’t find them.

My grandmother prepared two photo albums for my mother as mementos of their family. In these I found photos of her uncles, aunts, cousins, and also a baby sister who died aged just one, and whom I had never heard about. With a bit of work I was able to reconstruct the family tree enough to place these people, and then upload their photos into It may be a bit silly, but it feels to me that in some way they are not forgotten and so still live on.

Among my grandmother’s ancestors was a branch from East Prussia. Prussia was erased from the maps after WW2, and the place names I found in the papers are now in Poland. I was surprised and pleased to find that one of our ancestors has their own Wikipedia page, one Heinrich Friedrich Ernst von Corvin-Wiersbitzki, a major-general in the Prussian Army, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

My grandmother’s father was Alfred Georg Hartmann,

who was an arts reviewer for various publications. He used to clip out his reviews and paste them into scrapbooks, and these too have been handed down. There are dozens of them, all printed in Gothic German, none of which will probably ever be read again. Nevertheless I will hold onto them, for once they’re gone, they’re gone. A handwritten journal of his business trips, complete with records of all his illnesses, is of slightly more interest. I wondered why he would bother recording his temperature whenever he felt unwell, until I realised that he lived in an age before antibiotics, so dying from a fever was much more of a risk.

I had known that his wife, Else Sapatka-Hartmann (full name Minna Albertine Elisabeth Sapatka), 

was a painter. I hadn’t, though, realised that she was also an author, writing as Else Alberts. She kept a collection of acceptance notes from her publishers; more interestingly I found three different drafts of a children’s book called Hudi. It doesn’t look as if it ever made it into print. I wondered why she had bothered to keep all the drafts, but in a journal I realised that Hudi had been her pet name for her daughter, Ruth. She still used that name in a letter to her daughter written just a few months before she died.

The photos and papers are all boxed up again, safe in the attic. My Ancestry tree has one of its branches much extended, and the faces of long gone ancestors now look out at me. I know so little of their stories, by contrast, my descendants will potentially have reams of information about me, through my digital footprint. Including this blog.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Comparing Google Play Music and YouTube Music

My first online music subscription was with Napster, the legal version. I used it mostly at work, running it on my desktop PC. It worked reasonably well for a while, though tracks that were available one week did have a tendency to go missing the following week (including the only one that I actually paid for). However, napster.exe just got bigger and bloatier and slower, so I looked for an alternative.

Spotify was brilliant when I started on it, so much nicer than Napster. It always remained fast, but it annoyed me by slowly removing features I liked, and the UI design became increasingly difficult to use for someone whose eyesight has seen better days. When it changed to dark grey on a black background, I gave up and swapped to Google Play Music.

Now Google Play Music is being phased out. Google encourages us users to migrate to YouTube Music instead, and this I recently did. The rest of this article describes the experience.

First thing to say is that the transition was almost completely painless. The process took just a few minutes, and when I opened YouTube Music I could find all the tracks that I'd previously uploaded to Google Play Music. I could also find most of the music that I'd listened to but which wasn't uploaded; i.e., native tracks. Of course, I haven't checked that all the music came across, but this seems to be the state of things. Annoyingly, one thing that didn't come across was an album that I'd actually bought in Google Play Music. It's not available on YouTube, so that would have been that. However, I got round this bizarre situation by downloading the album from Google Play Music, then uploading it into YouTube.

How do the two apps compare? Well, the UI looks more modern in YouTube Music, and in terms of music playback quality they seem comparable. YouTube Music though is lacking several Google Play Music features that I miss, and doesn't seem to have added any that I've noticed.

These are my main complaints:

  1. You can't multi-select tracks
  2. You can't see how often you've played a track
  3. The total play length of a playlist is often abbreviated
  4. Syncing is no longer seamless

You can't multi-select tracks

This is far and away the most annoying missing feature in YouTube Music. Basically if you want to remove a 20 track album from a playlist, you have to remove each track in turn. There's no way you can select all 20 and then remove them in a single operation. It's such a simple thing to implement, and such a major pain to not have, that I am really at a loss to understand what Google were thinking about. I've got 42 tracks to remove from one playlist, and it would probably be quicker to delete the playlist entirely and then remake it.

No play counts

In Google Play Music each track shows how many times you've played it. I listen to a lot of new music, and I tend to add albums that have come to my attention to a playlist called Reviewing. It really helps that when I go into this list I can see which tracks I've actually listened to. Now in YouTube Music this simple feature is gone. I suppose I'm meant to keep a note somewhere; perhaps a Google Doc?

Playlist lengths

It's a small thing, but why can't YouTube Music tell me the exact length of a playlist? Adding up numbers, even 216 of them, is trivially simple. Google Play Music does it, so why not YouTube Music?

Syncing downloads

I have some playlists that I've downloaded onto my phone. With Google Play Music, the app was constantly synchronising this, so if I added more music to a playlist, it would rapidly be downloaded to my phone. For reasons unknown (unfortunately a familiar refrain now) YouTube Music doesn't seem to bother with this. It can't even get it right the first time, as I've found some tracks in supposedly downloaded playlists that aren't available. And there's no obvious way for a user to fix this.

With the exception of the multi-selection, these are fairly small issues; however, they're all features that were available in Google Play Music, and as that and YouTube are both Google products, it's really, really hard to understand why this functionality isn't also provided by YouTube Music.

Moving to another music provider is a major hassle, but I think I will now start looking around.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

A View from the Wrong Side of 60

When I started this blog I had just passed a landmark: I was fifty years old, and not particularly enjoying the fact. Ten years later unsurprisingly I reached sixty. Briefly I toyed with the idea of renaming the blog to reflect the passing decade, but to be honest, I wasn’t so bothered this time. I had learned from Aviva’s See how long you’ve got to live web page that it was nearly odds on that I would make it as far as ninety. My life didn’t seem so close to closing as it once had.

So I entered my seventh decade much more cheerfully than I entered the previous one.

But then last July I began my fifth decade of paid employment. God, that sounded dispiriting ! It didn’t help that so many of my friends had already retired, so by the autumn I had made up my mind to join them. On Friday 31 January I said goodbye to the office for the last time.

Some people supposedly don’t know what to do with all the spare time that retirement gives them, but I had loads of ideas, and luckily none of them were particularly expensive. They did tend to involve me being sat on my backside all day though, which didn’t sound very healthy. I had to make sure about that extra thirty years so I did some research. Turned out I already ticked most of the relevant lifestyle checkboxes, but the two most important were keeping physically active and socially involved. These would require a bit more effort. Still, I had seven days a week free, so how hard could it be to do regular exercise and meet new people?

By the end of March I was locked down at home sitting on my backside. My gym was closed, my U3A membership sat unused.

Luckily I’d anticipated the gyms getting closed, so I’d bought a dumbbell set from Argos the week before lockdown began. I’d expected the weights to be made of metal, but these ones were plastic. Obviously there had to be something heavier inside, though it wasn’t clear what. They each had a plug on them, but I declined the temptation to prise one off to have a look inside.

Anyway, they seemed to work fine, except that I noticed the occasional tickle on my scalp when the weights went over my head. It took a few weeks but I finally twigged that they’re full of fine sand. Also that the plugs could do with being a lot tighter.

Some of them have now lost enough sand that you can squeeze them and hear the remaining sand rubbing together inside. They’ll do for a long while yet, particularly as I am now handling them with a lot more care. Meanwhile I have to speculate how much of my muscle gain is just the weights getting lighter.

For aerobic exercise I decided to walk up and down our stairs every day for thirty minutes, quickly downgraded to twenty when I found out how hard it was. Actually the hardest bit is overcoming the tedium of the view of our stairwell; that and remembering to avoid the eighth step up, which really creaks.

The oddest thing about retirement was how quickly all the concerns of my previous job disappeared. I went home on the Friday, and I remember that evening still thinking about how to fix the last bug I’d been tackling. By Saturday though, all that was gone, and since then I’ve hardly thought about the project I worked on for a decade. I did program a bit in February and March, and I will again in the future, but surprisingly I haven’t missed exercising the computing skills I built up over forty years.

Not that I haven’t been releasing my inner nerd (never far below the surface anyway). I’ve taken it upon myself to relearn the fundamentals of Abstract Algebra, and now know once again the definition of Groups, Rings, and Fields. I dug out my university exam papers on the subject, and there is clear evidence that there was a time when I also knew what a homomorphism or a kernel group were. Yet when I met these definitions again recently I’m not sure there was even the sound of the faintest of ringing bells.

A common dream I’ve had in recent years involved finding myself back at university as a mature student. If this happened in reality I would be studying Biology, but in my dreams I’m doing Mathematics again, and always in the dream there is the worry that I will no longer be up to it. Based on my slow progress remastering the intricacies of Group Theory, my unconscious fears are fully justified. Nevertheless, back in real life I find the study engaging and enjoyable, and maybe I do still have my mathematical chops, because I’ve recently found myself waking up from dreams about cosets and quotient groups, and I’m pretty sure that never happened when I was a student.