Friday, July 31, 2009


This may be the last post I write on this, my trusty laptop that I have had since before I started this blog. As such, I wish to pay it proper tribute.

It wants to be a trusty laptop. I know it does. And it has been a trusty laptop, almost every single day for most of the three-and-a-bit years since I first took it out of the box and cuddled it. It has enabled me to shop, bank, and access services from my own home. It's provided entertainment and information and social contact, and has saved me from feeling completely cut off from the world.

But, time has worn on and three years of heavy use has taken its toll. Files are becoming corrupted, bits are sticking, and the fan is whirring away on overtime even when running nothing heftier than the original OS (Windows XP) and a single firefox window. The last couple of games I looked at buying, I did not meet the system requirements (although one of them I bought anyway, because of a limited-edition offer, and we seemed to more-or-less cope).

For the last few months, it's been 50/50 on whether my poor, overworked laptop will manage to complete the boot process, and over the last few days it has been getting worse still. Disturbing mechanical noises are coming from deep within the machine (although nothing is in there that shouldn't be) and we've reached a point where, in order to persuade it to boot, the operator must use the Etch-A-Sketch method - giving it a good shake and a couple of bangs to try and dislodge/reseat whatever is causing the problem. It pains me to treat my precious laptop so harshly, but we really have reached the point where anything I do to it is unlikely to make it worse. The time when it no longer works At All is unfortunately now within the forseeable future.

So, I'm shopping for a new laptop. I've set a fairly arbitrary budget of £500, as that's what this one cost. My "musts" are a decent size screen, a standard size keyboard, WiFi, and a CD reader. My "wants" are for the CD reader to also write CDs, and read (preferably write) DVDs; the capacity to play Sims 3 if I ever buy it; and the handy little memory-card-slot that enables me to just plug the memory cards from my camera straight in to copy my photos over; plenty of USB ports. I also want it to run Windows, partly because that's what I'm confident using, and partly because I want to be able to play my PC games. Recommendations welcome.

Acquiring new toys is always fun and exciting, but I do feel quite sad at the thought of parting company with this one. I will miss it. I'm not going to bury it in the back garden but the thought did cross my mind. It has been a good companion. Perhaps one day we'll resurrect it as a guest computer or something.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I am many, many things, but a culinary wizard is not one of them. Part of that can be placed squarely at the door of chronic illness - the way that "chop one onion" is for me not a quick aside in the flow of a recipe, but a hazardous undertaking that will require a sit down, a rest, and possibly a couple of sticky plasters - but even before I got ill, I would have a good swear at cookery books and online recipes. What is a "ricer"? Why do you assume I have fresh garlic in the house? If I'm "cooking until golden brown", what time should I put the vegetables on? Couldn't you have mentioned that the oven needs pre-heating before the "now put it all in the oven" stage?

So instead, I've focused on perfecting simple dishes. I am pleased to announce my latest accomplishment: Hot Buttered Toast And A Cup Of Tea.

You will need:

for the toast
two slices of Bread
a Butterknife
a Small Plate

for the tea
a Teabag
Milk and Sugar if you want them
a Cup
a Teaspoon

In addition you will require a fridge (or other means of keeping perishable dairy items chilled), a toaster (or other means of toasting bread) and a kettle (or other means of making water boiling hot). And an appropriate power source for these pieces of equipment, although possibly this is getting a little extreme for the planning...

Step One: Make the tea. While I acknowledge and respect the many regional variations on this theme, I tend to go for swilling a bit of hot water around the cup, chucking the water out, then dropping a teabag and two teaspoons of sugar into the cup before almost-filling it with hot water. Give it a stir, let it brew for a minute, then remove the teabag and add a splash of milk. One last stir, and it's done.

Top Tip: throw the water away down the sink, and throw the teabag away into the bin. The other way around doesn't work so well.

Step two: Prepare the butter. Now this is what's usually the problem. Leave butter out of the fridge, it doesn't keep properly, keep it in the fridge, it's rock solid. So what you do is:
  • Remove the butter from the fridge. Put the milk back in, while you're at it. Neatness is a virtue.

  • Using the butterknife, cut two slices of butter from the block, each about 2mm or 3mm thick.

  • Place the slices of butter on the sideplate.

and then the trick at the crux of the whole procedure:
  • Balance the plate on top of the hot cup of tea.

Leave it there for a couple of minutes while toasting your bread. This will be sufficient to warm the butter (so that it's spreadable but not melting) and also to warm the plate (so that your hot toast doesn't become cold toast after being on the plate for ten seconds).

When the toast is done, remove the plate from the top of the cup. Use the butterknife to transfer one warm pat of butter to each slice of toast, and spread. Cut the toast into your preferred shape.

Eat. Drink. Be happy. Leave the marinades to the experts.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

This call is being charged at £2 per minute

Today I woke up and looked through my BBC News twitterfeed to see the headline:

"Patients should be charged £20 to see a GP in a bid to limit demands placed on the health service, a centre-rig.."

Twitter and the 140 character limit. A slightly panicked click-through to the actual story reassures us that there isn't (currently) an intended government policy to charge people £20 for a ten-minute GP's appointment, it's just an idea that a "think tank" called the Social Market Foundation has come up with.

It's pre-9am on a Sunday, I'm still on my first cup of tea, and even so I can think of several things that are wrong with their proposals. Lord knows what this think-tank think they've been doing, but I don't think it was thinking.

First problem: "The group said it would not breach the values of the NHS as charges already applied to dentistry and prescriptions."

Yes, and I can introduce you to people who don't go to the dentist, don't have the necessary dental work done, don't fill their prescriptions, or try things like taking "daily" medications every-other-day, in the name of economy. Generally they end up bouncing on the safety net of emergency care, at an even greater cost to the NHS, once the problem that should have been dealt with in its early stages has been allowed to progress to a much more extreme (and harder/more expensive to deal with) level.

To my mind, charging for essential medical care like this is a breach of the values of the NHS. And just because there's one breach, doesn't mean it's permissible to add a few more.

Second problem: "[David Furness, the author of the report] said "It would get people thinking twice about whether the visit was essential."

Isn't it rather rare to just have one GP's appointment? Most people I know seem to have at least two. There's the first one, where they get told "Have some paracetamol/a bit of a rest/drink more water/make sure you keep it clean/etc, and come back next week if it hasn't cleared up/if it gets worse/if you develop a rash/etc." This is the one where before calling, you say to yourself "is this really bad enough that I need to see a doctor?" and probably the one Mr Furness is thinking about.

But then there's the second one a week later which goes "ah, you're still oozing/wheezing/vomiting, looks like you might be ill after all, let's get you some tests/medications." In an ideal world you'll get prescribed a short course of treatment which resolves the issue and trundle off into the sunset, £40 lighter but perfectly healthy.

Nice idea. However, if you don't get better, there's the third, fourth and fifth appointments, which go "we've got the results of your tests back, and now we need to give you medication/refer you for hospital treatment/send you for more tests/monitor you for a fortnight." Before making these appointments, Mr Furness wants you to think twice about whether it's really essential to carry on trying to establish what's wrong and how to treat it. See previous point about bouncing on the safety net of emergency care and allowing simple, treatable conditions to progress into complex ones.

Third problem: The 250-odd page report crashes my browser after ten minutes, but I did get a chance to double-check on exemptions. Mr Furness feels that instead of "arbitrary" exemptions such as pregnancy or retirement, exemptions from the fees should be based purely on "wealth". He defines "wealthy people" as everyone apart from "children and those receiving tax credits". I could not find any mention of provision for people on other forms of welfare or those on low incomes who are not entitled to or do not claim tax credits. I'm not sure how "children" is any less arbitrary than "pensioners" as a wealth-based category.

The time of my life when I had the most GP's appointments was at the beginning of my illness, when we were trying to figure out what was wrong with me. This makes sense and is not unusual.
This was also, obviously, the time when:
  • My job contract had ended and as I was signed off sick, I was not eligible for an extension or able to apply for other jobs. I therefore had no earned income. This makes sense and is not unusual.

  • As I was not working, I could not claim or receive tax credits. This makes sense and is not unusual.

  • I had not yet been approved to receive any benefits or practical assistance. I therefore had no income at all. This is also not unusual.

I was therefore not exempt, but also not in a position to hand over £20 per GP's appointment, at the time when I needed it most. My situation was not unusual at all. Also, I was ill. It's not the time to be dumping additional financial hardship onto people. This scheme may be designed to discourage the "worried well" from using up resources, but the people it will impact most are the people who are actually sick and in need of healthcare.

But Mr Furness's final, beautiful demonstration of idiocy had to be: "[he] said the think-tank was opposed to fees being levied on any form of emergency care."

The emergency care service has been creaking at the seams for years for various reasons, including the decreased "Out Of Hours" GP cover. Presented with a choice between phoning a free ambulance to come and visit you at home, or going out to attend a £20 GP appointment, what are most people going to do? I suspect that any savings Mr Furness's ideas might make GP-side would be dwarfed by the increased costs of emergency care.

Mind you, then he could get paid to write a report about how it would be a good idea to charge for that, as well.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Book Review

At the beginning of June, Tom Reynolds of Random Acts of Reality fame released his second book, More Blood, More Sweat and Another Cup of Tea (also known as BST2 for ease of tagging).

I eagerly ripped open the Amazon package, started reading, almost joined gentleman blogger extraordinaire Scaryduck in a typo-spotting spree, and announced my intention of doing a quick review just as soon as I got to the end...

... and suddenly lost more or less all of my ability with words. Seriously. In the last two months Steve's finished working, he's been off on holiday (biking/camping in Scotland), I've been off on holiday (back to Lowestoft to see friends and family), I've finished several knitting projects, I've enjoyed weekly excursions with my PA, been to a couple of parties and generally been living a pleasant and stimulating life, yet all I've managed to blog are a couple of half-baked rambles about my disability-enhanced shopping skillz0rs and a G1 app that I wish existed. I've also had difficulty reading, which is why it's taken me until now to finish BST2.

I'd be ashamed to admit that and probably would have brushed my intent to review under the carpet as "no longer relevant" if it wasn't for the fact that Tom is probably wondering why it has taken me so long to notice that he's been lovely enough to namecheck me in the acknowledgements as one of the regular commenters on his blog, and I'm therefore even more ashamed that I have not in fact been commenting at all since then.

Still. The book is now finished, and a review was promised, and so a review there shall be, half-baked ramble or otherwise.

The first thing about this book is that it's available for free online as well as for cash from Amazon and regular high-street bookshops. I quite like having a tangible copy, myself.

The second thing about this book is that it isn't really a "read it all in one go" kind of book - it's a series of self-contained blogpost-length entries with very little by way of continuity or story arcs. This makes it rubbish as a novel, but fantastic as a book for looking at for ten minutes at a time, while you wait for the bath to run or the oven to preheat. It would also be a good book for the bathroom (insert obligatory joke about soft pages) or to take on holiday, because it doesn't take an hour to "just finish the chapter" or "just see what happened to this person" while someone else is tapping their foot and waiting for you.

It is quite similar in many ways to the first book, as you would expect for an autobiographical account of the same job with the same company by the same person during the same decade. There is a slightly different feel to it though. The first book Tom was quite "angry young man", whereas in this one he seems more cynical, but also more stoical.

That said, if you haven't read the first book or the blog, then odds are you will start to get angry about some of the nonsense that Tom and his colleagues have to deal with day in, day out. I'm sure most of us could put forward a few stories about out-of-touch management, irrelevant targets, and clueless customers, but for most of us, there aren't lives hanging in the balance.

It's not all doom and despair, though. Tom's dry sense of humour provokes more than a few quiet chuckles, and there are plenty of positive encounters, often when least expected. So although you get caught up in the writing and grind your teeth about the morons with the inflated sense of entitlement, you also feel gratified when people's humanity shines through and absolutely jubilant when a life is saved.

Edited 12:08 12/07/09 to update link

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Google does everything

except a very simple thing I want it to do.

I've spent weeks, on and off, trying to find something to quickly and easily calculate mileage when I'm out with my PA, so that I know how much petrol money to pay her, and I can't do it.

We mostly go to the same dozen or so locations, but not in the same order and not all in the same day. For instance, on week 1, we might go from my house to the doctor's and then to the bank and then to the swimming pool and then to the shop and then to my house. On week 2 we might go from my house to the bank and then to the library and then to the park and then to my house. On week 3 we might go from my house to the shop and then to the doctor and then to the park... you get the idea.

Currently I calculate mileage by typing all the locations into the Google Maps "get directions" thingy, and then confirming which one I mean for most of them, and then making sure all the dots are where they should be, and adding them up. It only takes ten minutes, and it works well because it plots a route that accounts for one-way systems and suchlike, but it's getting tedious because it's always the same places that I'm having to type in again and again and again, and I have to do it on-the-go or as soon as I get home because by that point I'm really tired and I can't depend on being able to remember exactly where we went post-nap.

I played with the google "My Maps" thing and put a handful of my regular locations into a "local places".

What I want to be able to do is open that up and then drag-and-drop the locations I went to on a given day from my "local places" map into the "get directions" boxes, click OK, and get a list that looks like this:

My House to Doctor: 0.6m
Doctor to Shops: 0.2m
Shops to Park: 2.6m
Park to My House: 3.0m
Total: 6.4m

... which I can just copy and paste into the mileage sheet ready to send off to the salary service each month.

I don't understand how there can be a google app to make my G1 look like a Star Trek tricorder, but not one to calculate mileage. Geeks have expenses claims too, right?