Give me this at least

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This.

If I could make a bargain with the universe over what I was allowed to eat without causing an eczema flare-up, I wouldn’t ask for much.

It turns out, if I don’t eat butter I eat a lot less bread, and if I eat a lot less bread I eat a lot less cheese. I miss it, but most of it isn’t a deal breaker. The vast quantities of mature cheddar I used to get through were just gluttony.

It also turns out that the only thing I really miss about milk is the tiny amount I put in a morning cup of tea. I like to drink. Just one. Cup. Of. Tea. Per day. I’m not your typical British person (or teacher) in that respect. I don’t even like it in the afternoon, unless there’s a Fortnum and Mason Dundee cake in the vicinity.

So I will set wheat bread* aside. And I will forego butter. And I will put oat or almond milk on my cereal and peanut butter on my glutard toast.

But if I could have the following, please, universe:

  • Mozzarella (*on pizza, yes, made with wheat flour), no more than once a week;
  • Parmesan (with glutard pasta or in soup);
  • A tiny drizzle of milk in a single mug of tea, once per day.

That’s it. I’ll stir oat cream into my soups and try not to think about cheese on toast, and I’ll drive to Woburn Sands for glutard fish and chips, if I could just have a carbonara occasionally, and a Saturday pizza made with my own hands, and a mug of Yorkshire tea.

Is that too much to ask?

(Eczema is substantially reduced – currently getting by with aloe vera gel and a nightly Benadril.)

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Creams and potions and lotions

6102182sayL._SL1000_When you suffer from eczema, when you suddenly suffer from it in your mid-50s, you encounter a bewildering number of possible causes and cures. Some people, I note, seem to just live with it. My own mother always seemed to have a tube of Betnovate on the go.

But I’ve always been convinced that my own sudden onset eczema has an external cause, such as a food allergy or intolerance. Maybe it’s pollen. Maybe it’s stress (which is still an external cause). Maybe it’s a side effect of medication (most of the ones I take list “rash” as one of the possible side effects). Or maybe it’s gluten, or dairy, or bio washing powder, or simply heat or pressure from sitting or wearing elastic or a belt. Anyway, tracking down an actual cause seems nearly impossible. You’d be here to the end of time, trying to establish one using the scientific method.

Which brings us to the treatments. What you mainly want to do is stop the itch-scratch cycle. The guilty secret of scratching is that it brings a pleasurable relief. And if you scratch till it hurts, your spine releases serotonin, which brings relief, but also stokes the itch-scratch cycle. Strong steroid creams (on prescription) offer relief for several hours at a time (though sometimes take too long to work) and can clear up an eczema patch after two or three days, but in my case, the eczema just moves elsewhere. Most of my time is spent chasing it around my body.

But strong steroid creams are bad, and should only be used for a day or two. Chasing the eczema around means I’m not constantly putting the cream on the same spots, but I still don’t like to use it. Taking antihistamine pills seems to work, too, though they do seem to stop working for me after a few days. I’ve been taking Piriteze: two tablets, staggered over a few hours in the evening, can give me an itch-free night. But such a dose does leave me feeling a bit zonked. One tablet isn’t enough.

Looking for alternatives, you will come across many a web site making extravagant claims for various creams. I’ve tried a lot.

First, and most basic, is Dermol, which you can use as a moisturiser and as a replacement for shower gel. I get this in 500ml bottles on prescription. Used regularly, it can offer relief for a few hours: enough to get you to sleep, perhaps, though nothing stops you from waking up in the middle of the night itching like crazy. Dermol is good for spreading the steroid more thinly, and it absorbs well and is non-sticky.

Something similar is Cetaphil, which I think some people get instead of Dermol. I tried Cetaphil in mousse form, but felt it left my skin feeling slightly tacky.

Bog standard moisturisers like Vaseline Intensive Care can be used, and I’ve tried a Vaseline lotion with added Aloe Vera (and a Garnier equivalent). They’re okay, though no more effective than Dermol. The most pleasant moisturiser to use is Aveeno, especially the one with almond oil. Problem with Aveeno and the other commercial brands, they have too many SKUs, and almost nobody stocks them all. I also tried their after shower mist, which was okay, but didn’t seem to last very long.

But nothing is quite so effective at providing a protective barrier for your skin as actual Vaseline petroleum jelly. Which is nasty and greasy, but lasts a long while and promotes healing.

When itching is at its height, aloe vera gel can be very useful in cooling the skin and relieving the immediate itching sensation. If you then apply another moisturiser on top, you might get relief from itching for a few hours.

I’ve also tried coconut oil, the only real benefit of which seems to be its pleasant smell, if you like that kind of thing. Doesn’t work particularly well as a moisturiser, however, and doesn’t help the eczema.

Finally, I’ve also tried cannabis-based cream, such as Atopicann, which contains hemp oil as well as coconut oil and zinc. No THC, though. It smells a bit like the Mytosil ointment we used to use for nappy rash: not very pleasant.

At the moment, the combination of antihistamine tablets,  aloe vera gel and Atopicann seems to be working to keep the itching at bay. And who knows, maybe giving up gluten and dairy is helping too. But probably not.

 

On giving up everything*

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How does this work, then?

Older readers will remember that I’d been controlling my eczema, reluctantly, by following a gluten-free diet. So well was this going that I started to play fast and loose with the strictness, reasoning that one pizza on a Saturday, made with a properly fermented 48-hour dough, was unlikely to cause more than the mildest of itches.

Even when the dermatology clinic tested my blood for the gluten allergens and reported “inconclusive” results, I stuck to the (almost) elimination diet on the basis that even if the effects were psychological they were no less real for that.

But the eczema made a gradual return, to the point that I asked for a refill of my steroid cream prescription.

At the end of March, I had a small slice of birthday cake on my wife’s birthday, and decided to go back to strict enforcement of the diet. Two and a half months later, and here we are. Still itching. And on a scale of 1-10 when anything below 6 is mild enough to resist scratching that itch, I’ve been 8-10 for weeks on end now, with big patches of eczema on the back of my legs, and my back, anywhere there might be extended periods of pressure. So the back of my thighs, for example: that’s worse when I’ve been sitting down, and the base of my back is bad especially after a car journey of any length. And around the waist band of my underwear, etc.

Went to the doctor (not the clinic, which had discharged me back when the eczema was under control), and he suggested I might try giving up dairy.

Groan.

*Once you remove anything with wheat in it from your diet, and then anything with milk in it, ugh. I now look at those “wheat and dairy free” labels ruefully, when once I used to wonder why the two so frequently went together. I tried, at first, a compromise, and went lactose free for a few weeks. This wasn’t too bad: there’s a pretty wide variety of lactose-free products, and they taste acceptable.

But that didn’t work of course, and so I now embark on the dairy-free part of my life, half-hoping this isn’t going to work. I mean, I like rice, and I’ll eat a bean salad, and I’ll grill some meat and so on. But I fucking hate that watery quinoa gruel, and all those bitty vegan options are just damp leaves. Soya and coconut cheese substitutes are gross.

I think I’ll try till the end of July, see if it works. And if it does, can I have a slice of bread to celebrate?

April in Paris

April 2018 Paris - 12My wife was running the Paris Marathon, so we were in Paris (and environs) for the weekend. Our place in France is about 5 hours drive from Paris, but B has a cousin who lives in the ‘burbs, and they very generously put us up for the weekend, and ferried us to and from the RER station, so we could catch the train without worrying about parking etc.

The RER was more or less unaffected by the national strikes affecting the SNCF network, so there was no issue getting into town. The RER is a regional network of commuter trains, something like the DLR, I guess, though the trains are long double deckers, so you’re less likely to spend a whole journey on your feet than you are in England.

Saturday was the day for picking up the race number and after we’d done that, we had a bit of a walk around. I didn’t want to queue for anything, or pay for anything, so we did just that, apart from at lunchtime, when I overpaid for an undercooked gluten-free pizza at a restaurant that offered that speciality. (There are a lot of pizza restaurants in Paris, by the way.)

The first spot I was keen to see was the Île de la Cité, for the simple reason that it’s a key location in my favourite Tim Powers novel, Declare. I didn’t have an epiphany, though, so we had a look at the queue to get into Notre Dame Cathedral (these kind of places always make me think of Don DeLillo’s Most Photographed Barn in America* in White Noise) and then crossed the Pont Notre Dame (bloke playing an accordion? Check), passed the Hotel de Ville and walked to look at the Pompidou centre.

It was quiet at first, but as the day wore on, the streets and cafés became a lot more crowded. We’ve always been early morning people, quite out of synch with French habits. It was clear that, even on a Saturday, people didn’t rock into town until lunchtime (even then, sitting down for lunch later than in rural France), and then set out for serious sightseeing and shopping in the afternoon.

I won’t complain too much about the undercooked pizza: it’s by no means the first such I’ve eaten in France, so can’t solely be blamed on the glutard crust, which does typically require a longer cooking time. My other half had a salad that she enjoyed, and at least they did Vezelay gf beer.

After lunch, we wandered around the left bank’s narrow streets, stopping for a Coke when the amount of walking we were doing threatened to ruin the methodical Marathon preparations. 

When we visited Berlin, my phone recorded 60,000 steps for the 3-day stay, and Paris wasn’t quite that extreme. By Saturday’s end, I’d walked 10km, had done nearly 16,000 steps. Given that B does about 1.5 for each one of mine, she was on 24,000. These prosaic details are what such visits are built upon. You either stand around in queues, sit around underground, or put in the miles. I always put in the miles.

Which is what I did on Sunday, with about 5 hours to kill while B ran the race. I checked in on her at 26km (near the Jardin des Tuileries), and then timed my arrival at the finish to coincide with hers. She took it easy, enjoyed the views, and suffered a lot less than she did for the London run last year.

Meanwhile, I walked from the Arc de Triomphe to the Paris Opera, and then down to Les Halles shopping centre. The streets were eerily quiet: a lot of the traffic had been cut off by the street closures, and I guess a lot of people were avoiding the area anyway. By the afternoon, Paris was back to its horn honking, impatient, irrational self as far as traffic was concerned. But I had the pleasure of crossing nearly deserted streets against the lights and enjoying the city as it ought to look more of the time. I’m a big proponent of banning motor vehicles from city centres altogether. There were bikes for hire all over the place, including those Chinese ones that just get left anywhere. I was tempted to download the app and use one, but I felt more confident navigating on foot, and didn’t want some dodgy bicycle hire company having access to my bank account.

I knew I’d need the loo at some point and also that France is extremely reluctant to provide decent public toilets, so my day revolved around arranging a couple of expensive pees. This started with the withdrawal of some cash, which was quite an operation. My wallet was zipped into one of the two rucksacks I was carrying, and I didn’t want to faff around with it while I was at the cashpoint itself, so I did all that down the street and across the road, and then wandered over to withdraw the money. The majority of people around at this time seemed to be shambling wrecks, people who looked through bins and talked to themselves, or yelled incoherently at passers by. This is not to say that Paris has more of a homeless problem than anywhere else. In fact, you can see more street people on a visit to Belfort than I did in Paris.

Two €10 notes weren’t going to get me a wee, so I then had to make change. Once I reached Les Halles, I found the target toilets: 50¢ entry, but nice and clean. Around the corner was a Starbucks, so I went and got myself a big Americano. What was I thinking, going to a Starbucks, underground, in the city of a million cafés? Well. No reason. But I sometimes can’t be doing with the faff of table service, and since I was on my own, I wasn’t obliged to. Also, shipmates, as bad as Starbucks coffee is, the French can’t make a decent espresso either, so let’s not pretend those pavement coffees are worth having. And, no, I didn’t want to sit on my own at a corner café. Instead of meeting an intriguing woman in that romantic setting, I was more likely to be approached by a dreadlocked homeless person.

Having filled up on the Americano, I pissed it away for 50¢, which felt like money well spent.

I then walked down the Seine to kilometre 26, waved at my wife, and then wandered into the Tuileries, waved at the Louvre pyramid, and found a place to sit down to eat some lunch.

I probably went for the second pee too early. But I needed to get across to the Avenue Foch for the fucking finish, so I paid 80¢ for the privilege of pissing near the Place de la Concorde. And set off along the Seine again. The closest I got to the Eiffel Tower was the Palais de Tokyo, from where I set off up the hill and down again to the crowded finish line.

I was there about 20 minutes before my other half. The grass was damp, so I sat on her pre-race jumper, which I’d had permission to throw away if it became too burdensome.

Sunday step total: 21,428

Saturday: 15,994

Total: 37,422

Total spent to pee: €1.30

Sights seen: lots.

Seine-side joggers who were visibly irritated by the presence of Marathon crowds: 3.

*Nobody sees the barn.

Apple and Education

Ibera - 4Apple held an education event last week at a ridiculously huge high school in Chicago. It was squarely aimed at what used to be one of their core (and most loyal) markets: K-12 schools in the United States. On this side of the pond, there have only been isolated areas where Apple gets a look-in. I used to be one of them, when I taught Media and Film Studies, but even then I didn’t have enough computers in the classroom for anything other than group work.

In these financially straitened times, Apple have been losing share to Google. Schools are starved of funds for ideological reasons, teacher salaries are rock bottom (also for ideological reasons), and Google offer both cheap computers (Chromebook) and a “free” suite of software that integrates with school systems.

Apple’s event introduced a new, cheaper iPad aimed at schools, which supports their (expensive) Pencil and has a suite of software aimed at school IT managers and teachers.

Now, if you take the iPad and consider what it can do, it’s great value. Whereas a Chromebook, like most cheap laptops, will fall apart within 3 years, an iPad will go on forever (as long as you don’t drop it). An iPad can be a still or video camera, and includes software to edit photos, create documents, and edit video or make music. Nothing in the Google suite of apps matches the quality of Apple’s software. Throw in the Pencil, and you can use the iPad across the curriculum. Which is not to mention the privacy concerns I’d have regarding Google and their “free” software.

It seems, however, that Apple has a problem when it comes to implementing class sets and multiple log-ins. Their user-switching tools are reportedly clunky. I don’t think, personally, that this is unique to Apple. I’ve watched students log into networked (PC) computers and (especially if it’s the first time they’ve used that particular machine), it can take a ridiculously long time. I’ve had students in my lessons who’d been issued with a laptop because of special needs, and they have sat waiting for it to log in for an entire lesson.

But if I was in charge of a budget and had the power to make things happen, would I buy iPads?

I don’t think I would. I’d replace suites of Windows PC and Chromebook computers with Apple in a heartbeat, but I’ve never been sold on the iPad.

Here’s the thing. A computer is only as good as its software, and while Apple’s software may be good (the best, even), here in the real world, teachers don’t have time to learn it. It’s not just budgets and salaries that are constrained, but time. You offer me a class set of brand new iPads (or even a one-iPad-per-child policy), and I’m going to shrug my shoulders. Those iPads are going to stay locked away, or in the students’ bags. Not only do I not have time to get to grips with the software I’d be using to assign work and set homework, but I don’t have time to design lessons and activities, or the inevitable administrative tasks that go along with setting class and homework.

We already get pointed towards online services that can be used for homework and resources. “It’ll save you time in marking,” they say. “It’s all marked automatically.” But it’s not just the marking time I don’t have. I don’t have the setting time, the thinking time, or the time to deal with the students who don’t do the assigned tasks (because, when a student doesn’t do the homework, you’re supposed to do something about it).

You think I’m whining. I teach seven different sets of students. Outside the extra time I choose to put in, I get 21 minutes per week, per class to plan lessons, set work, mark books, and do the admin for that class. Obviously, that’s impossible, so the extra time I put in is dedicated to those basic tasks.

So you can hand me the greatest IT tools in the world, the most amazing hardware and software, but I still don’t have time. It wouldn’t be so bad if the students themselves had any IT savvy, but it’s a rare student indeed who knows how to do anything beyond the basics. I spent 10 years teaching students how to use Page Setup and calling out, “You’ve got caps lock on,” when their log-in “wasn’t working.” These days, not being able to do something on a computer has replaced the dog as the the most common reason homework isn’t done. I’ve decided that life’s too short to watch any more people accidentally lose all the work they did in an hour, or not know how to resize an image. 

Amazon Prime vs. Netflix – which is better value?

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Remember The OA? It has that bloke from Star Trek Disco in it

I know what you’re thinking: it’s going to be Netflix, isn’t it? And you’d be correct, but not necessarily by the margin you’d expect.

I just reviewed my watch history on both services, and it was clear that I’d binged more shows on Netflix, by far, including back catalogue shows from other networks (Gilmore Girls, various Star Treks, Brooklyn 99 etc), but when it came to content exclusive to each service (Amazon Originals, Netflix Originals – both including some co-productions), it was much closer than you might think.

I selected 20 shows from each service that (give or take a couple of grey areas) you have to subscribe to see. On Netflix, these include some Marvel shows (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, 13 Reasons Why, Stranger Things, Manhunt: Unabomber, and The OA. Grey areas for Netflix include Star Trek Disco and The Good Place, and shows like Travelers and The Expanse.

On Amazon, the 20 included such things as Casual, Outlander, Bosch, The Man in the High Castle, Patriot (aka Sad Spies), Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Red Oaks, and American Gods. Grey areas include Mr Robot, Halt & Catch Fire, and Catastrophe.

To be fair to both services, I limited it to a top 20 and bumped out (where I could) shows that I watched and gave up on, or ended up hating. So, for example, the only two Marvel shows I quite enjoyed on Netflix were included, but the others weren’t. I also excluded movies.

I then scored each show out of 10, and gave it a multiplier based on the number of seasons available – but only if I’d watched them. So although Amazon are about to drop Bosch Season 4, I’ve only counted the three I’ve watched.

It’s clear that Netflix has more strength in depth, and I found myself bumping more shows from that top 20 list in order to include stuff I’d enjoyed more. With Amazon, on the other hand, once you exclude other networks’ back catalogue (Seinfeld), you find yourself scraping the barrel of forgettable filler and including the likes of Hap & Leonard, One Mississippi and Hand of God.

That said, the scores were much closer than I thought. Taking account of Season multipliers, Amazon rack up points for Casual, Outlander, Bosch, Mozart in the Jungle, Mr Robot, and Red Oaks. They seem to be better than Netflix at continuity. Looking back through the Netflix list, you come across stuff like The OA and other Limited Series, which occupy you for a few nights and then disappear forever.

Anyway, here are the totals. Netflix scored 217 points. Amazon scored 215. A narrow victory, but if I needed to cancel one of them, I’d still cancel Amazon first, and I’d struggle to recommend it to anyone over Netflix, unless the question was, which streaming service has the nastiest aesthetic? or, which service has the worst user experience?

Loaded

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A pile of steaming bullshit, yesterday

It’s time for one of those periodic I’m-not-one-to-blog-about-work-but… posts.

Teacher workload has been in the news, and I was just momentarily nonplussed by the reporting of a speech given by some empty suit to a head teacher’s conference. The reporting of this speech is along the lines of, this bloke promises not to introduce any major new reforms of examinations so that teachers can catch a breath.

Here’s a quote from the Graun’s coverage of the speech (which, to be fair to them, takes a different angle than the BBC’s straight parroting of whatever they were briefed to say):

Hinds had earlier earned applause when he said there would be no new tests imposed on primary schools and no overhauls of the national curriculum, GCSE or A-levels for the remainder of the current parliament, beyond those already announced.

So let’s unpack this. He said, no overhauls of the national curriculum, GCSE or A-levels for the remainder of the current parliament. Ha ha! So how long’s that? Does he mean current parliamentary session? In other words, no new reforms until, oh, at least until after the next summer holidays? So We have a whole seven months of respite? Or does he mean until there’s a general election? Which, given the state of this government, might be sooner than he thinks.

The sting in the tail of the Graun’s coverage of course was that phrase beyond those already announced. Because the inconvenient truth is that, with the exception of English and Maths, most subjects are only just starting to deal with the new back-to-the-50s specifications forced upon us by Gove. So teacher workload caused by new specifications isn’t going away for the remainder of the current parliament. It’s only just begun.

The other thing that bothered me about all this is that the audience, while they seemed fairly hostile to this particular Tory suit, were the people largely responsible for teacher workload: head teachers. They can pretend all they like that it’s the government who force all the shit upon teachers, but the truth is that the biggest problem in schools is school leaders who are susceptible to gimmicky ideas, don’t understand their own job, and cover up their ignorance with wave after wave of accountability nonsense as part of a target-drven culture of fear and conformity.

The worst thing they do is not acknowledge that each new initiative comes on top of the last new initiative. And because they would never admit that anything they introduced was a waste of time and effort, everything remains in place, festering away under the big pile of Things That Must Be Done. This pile of steaming bullshit, more than anything, is the source of workload pressure, and this is what’s driving teachers out of the profession. Every new school year begins with a long list of Things That Teachers Have To Do, and, from then on, new shit is piled on top of that on an almost weekly basis. These head teachers, let’s not forget, are all careerist bastard shitbirds.

Anyway, as Refusenik in Chief, I take pride in ignoring most of it. What you can’t get away with not doing, you learn to game. This has always been the main issue of Accountability Culture: everybody just games the fucking system to survive, so what’s the point?

If you switch your focus to self-preservation, you can survive teaching. Don’t be tricked into going the extra mile or bullshit about how to create inspiring lessons. Don’t take work home, don’t work more than 40 hours a week (stick to 35 unless there’s a parents’ evening) and never, ever volunteer for anything. And print this on a t-shirt: if their parents (and grandparents) cared, they wouldn’t vote Tory.

Melting Down is Good for Business

Rupert-Murdoch
Toxic masculinity, as embodied by Rupert Murdoch’s melting face

It’s been a week of meltdowns in the news, sure enough. Meltdown was the name of one of the CPU bugs that were revealed in the New Year. While people were still shitting their pants over the Great Apple Battery Scam (not a scam), Intel revealed something they’d been sitting on for a while, which was that the way their CPU chips works (by speculatively anticipating what they’re going to be asked to do next) leaves them vulnerable to exploits. This was trumpeted widely as a precursor to the End of All Things, Millennium Bug style, since just about anything with an Intel or ARM processor was affected, but (as of Saturday) we’re still alive. Still, you can smell the lawsuits from here, can’t you?

It was last May that all British Airways flights from two airports were cancelled because of an IT problem, and this is the kind of meltdown that pundits fear might ensue when a system vulnerability like this is revealed. More seriously, that same month saw “cyber chaos” in the NHS, as computer systems that hadn’t been updated from Windows XP were attacked over a weekend.

This is what I think of whenever people express concerns about Trump and his obsession with weapons and nuclear buttons. This past week of Whitehouse Meltdowns following the “revelations” in Michael Wolff’s book have been entertaining, and you can’t help but hope it takes us one step closer to the Hollywood Ending of this Presidency, which is when the American people collectively point their fingers in Trump’s direction and pause dramatically before saying, “You’re fired.”

While it’s clear that millions of people are going to suffer as a result of Trump’s “welfare for the rich” tax legislation and his “welfare for the rich” healthcare changes, I have less fear that he’s ever going to launch a nuclear strike. This seems like a cartoon fear of a cartoon president, a childlike clown who has no real power, and is simply going to end up being managed when the grownups take over. Trump is not Putin: he has no real power. Like the rest of the Republican Party, he’ll do the bidding of his corporate and media masters, the Ronald McDonald birthday clown of politics.

As well as being good for lawyers in class action or cease and desist lawsuits, these various meltdowns are good for the news business, as people addictively click on stories to read about how Apple or Intel are ruining their lives or how Trump’s hair is combed and lacquered. And I’ve noticed as an adjunct to all this that the papers are full of chin-stroking columns about the perils of social networking and screens. It’s all New Year New Me and Think Of The Children and, very helpfully, Black Mirror season 4. Same as it ever was, if you ask me. Ten years ago, I would chortle with my students about all the Facebook negging that the Daily Mail went in for, but like lawyers smelling Class Action, the newspapers are all smelling New Year’s Resolutions, as people try to detox from Trump and Bannon and Trolls and whatever that episode of Black Mirror was about.

Should we be worried about tech meltdowns? Probably. As rail commuters weep about paying nearly £8000 a year just to get to work, and our cars hit pot holes and have their own personal meltdowns, and the NHS suffers through yet another Winter Crisis, it’s clear that our infrastructure is fucked. And when it comes to IT, which is increasingly getting involved in every part of our lives, the infrastructure is all in the hands of corporations. So whether it’s your light bulbs, your front door, your fridge, or your TV, these CPU vulnerabilities are likely to strike anywhere. And the only way to hold these corporations to account is via the blunt instrument of the class action lawsuit. Because the politicians do not have their minds on infrastructure, do they?

In the UK, we’re distracted, permanently, by Brexit meltdown. In the US, they’re distracted by Trump meltdown. And even if they weren’t, absolutely no politician ever is interested in building infrastructure projects that won’t come to fruition until long after they’ve left office in disgrace after putting their hand up someone’s skirt. So, in a sense, we can blame toxic masculinity for all of these meltdowns. Men are really too emotional for high office.

Lens me your ears

comaprison imageInternational lens crafters Hoya now offer a special type of glass for night driving called EnRoute. Gimmick, I hear you cry, and yet you will have noticed, as have I, how much harder driving at night is in the era of LED and halogen headlights. Talk about your law of unintended consequences. The big selling point of LEDs and halogens has always been that brighter, stronger pool of light in front of your car at night, which is bound to make night driving easier, right?

I find it hard to believe that anybody now finds it easier to drive at night. You could accuse me of getting older, sure, but my difficulties with night vision probably stabilised about 20 years ago. What causes me to utter the words Jesus Christ  or Jesus Fucking Christ multiple times when driving at night are the eye-searingly bright headlamps coming the other way. Doesn’t matter if you have the fanciest £1000 option Christmas tree lights on your car, you too are being blinded regularly – especially on dark, undulating, winding country roads.

I’ve often complained about the absence of cats’ eyes from French roads. Driving at night over there in wet conditions often involves moments where the white lines disappear completely, and you have no idea where the road is. I had a couple of truly hairy motorway moments this summer in thunderstorms, one of which was in broad daylight, and my problem with disappearing roads dates back at least 20 years.

But the journey we completed yesterday, 21 hours after we set out (on what is normally a 9–10 hour drive), may have been the worst yet.

I’m kicking myself for a series of poor decisions to start with. Poor decision number one was that I booked a 9 a.m. crossing — because getting through passport control (my greatest stressor) is dead easy at that time, but it meant leaving home around midnight. ‘Around midnight’, when my wife is involved, always ends up being ‘Around 11 p.m.’, which is when we set out. As usual, I checked Google Maps for the best route, and what I think of as ‘the Northern route’ was marked as one minute faster.

In other words, nothing in it, but on the basis of that single minute I chose to take the Northern route. A key advantage of this route is that more of the first two hours of the journey are on dual carriageways, whereas both of the two Southern routes involve two hour stretches on N or D roads, passing through multiple villages. Another advantage of the Northern Route is that it is mainly on N roads, so there are fewer motorway tolls to pay, which in these financially straitened times, might be important to me.

The N57 follows the Moselle valley, and winds and undulates considerably more than a motorway, and is not as well marked or lit, and the road surface is more variable than a motorway. I only ever seem to drive on it in the worst weather, so I don’t have good memories. What I was thankful for, given that we were setting out at the arse end of a bank holiday (it was still New Year’s Day when we set out), there were no lorries, and therefore much less spray than there would otherwise have been.

So the journey North was okay. By the time we turned westwards on the N4, lorries were starting to appear again. Still, I felt like we were going to reach Reims within about 4 hours, which is making pretty decent time. And we were within an hour of Reims, approaching Saint Dizier, when disaster struck.

A decision not made was to continue a little further than Nancy to Metz, where I could have joined the A4 autoroute, and travelled across to Reims that way instead. How much time would have been in that? Google wasn’t saying. Anyway, compared to the A4, the N4 is a piece of shit: a patchy, badly lit dual carriageway with invisible white lines, and — it turns out — massive (and notorious) pot holes.

The pot hole we hit at 70 mph — and it was that, around 110 kph, the speed limit, on cruise control — was so deep and so wide that it felt like driving into a brick wall. I had literally just been thinking, as I so often do, about how bad it would be to get a flat tyre in our shitty VW Touran diesel with its shitty — and expensive — “tyre repair kit”, which is what you get instead of a proper spare wheel. I had been thinking about the inconvenience and inevitable difficulties of a flat tyre at two o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere, France, when we hit the pot hole. There was a brief moment of almost hope that no damage had been done before the rear tyres — both of them — completely deflated.

So even if we’d had a spare, we were fucked.

Luckily, I pay over £200 a year for international driving cover through the AA, so we were covered.

But it was dark, and windy, and cold, and we were on an N road, not a motorway. There was no hard shoulder, so we were pulled into the side on a dual carriageway, and the lorries kept thundering past, some of them so close they weren’t even all the way into the outside lane. I made everyone, including the cat, step over the barrier and away from the car, and we stood there wrapped in blankets for an hour while we waited for the tow truck and a taxi.

What great service. I mean, after the one-hour wait, it was terrific. We were taken to an Ibis hotel (basic, but modern and clean) and the car was towed to a garage, where two new tyres were fitted by noon the following day. We weren’t covered for the tyres (which aren’t included under “parts”, apparently), but the tow, the labour, and the taxi journey(s) and the hotel rooms were covered. As much as I’ve resented shelling out for this cover that we’ve never before needed, I was so glad to have it. And if it hadn’t been for the cat freaking out all night long, I’d have had a good night’s sleep on a comfortable bed in the Ibis.

The pothole was locally famous. The tow truck guy had picked up someone with exactly the same problem at the same spot two days before. And both taxi drivers were aware of it, too. I expect it’s that pothole that keeps the Saint Dizier local economy afloat.

Anyway, here’s my message to car manufacturers. Your LED headlights are a fucking blight on society, and your absent spare wheels are an absurd swindle to match your lies about ‘clean diesel’.

 

Instant Pharma

Winter_road_treatment_using_salt_brine
Yep, it can be done

The schools were closed, so I had a look online last night at the Kafkaesque appointment booking system and changed my doctor’s appointment from the 18th to this morning at 8:30. Latest symptom of my gradual falling apart: constantly watering eyes.

Which was ironic because walking down to the doctors in the snow this morning was even more treacherous than it might have been because, with my eyes filled with tears, I couldn’t see where I was placing my feet. You might be asking yourself, why was your original appointment (made two weeks ago) so far ahead in time? And the answer is, because the Kafkaesque system seems to release random tranches of appointments, so there’s a kind of lottery system: depending on when you log in, you might get lucky.

Which, I’m sure we all agree, is exactly how a local care health system should work.

I also tried this morning to phone and make a nurse’s appointment, as required, for my hypertension review. You can’t make those online, so you have to go through the hellish telephone tree instead. Now, I dialled on the E of Eight o’clock, when the system opens, and after pushing the virtual buttons on the telephone tree, found myself at position number THIRTY FOUR in the queue.

By the time I was walking carefully down the hill into town at around 8:15, I was at number 21, so I hung up – chancing that they would let me make an actual appointment at the actual reception.

I managed to do this – for January, wahey – and then sat waiting for my name to appear on the Screen of Shame in the waiting room. I’d arrived ten minutes early, and the delay (20 minutes after the surgery had opened) was given at 20 minutes. In the event, it was more like half an hour, which is pretty good work, if you think about it, to be half an hour behind after 20 minutes.

The waiting room was like a scene from the toddler version of Mad Max, with snot-covered, ear-infected kids squirming around and spreading their germs while their mothers conversed with unnaturally loud voices. Prescription obtained, the next step was to slide and slip to the pharmacy, which was closed because the pharmacist hadn’t arrived at work. Which meant slip-sliding away to the next pharmacy (Boots, as ever, being a last resort). I say slip-sliding because, of course, the pavements were treacherous with compacted, slushy snow and ice.

Should this be the case? Is this normal? The main road through town was actually relatively clear of snow. The gritter lorry only just came up our road a minute ago (and didn’t come as far as our house), but they appear to have cleared the main road yesterday. So cars were fine. Most of the cars I saw were huge 4x4s, naturally, so it’s nice for them that the road was cleared, isn’t it?

AllTractors-web
Yep, pavements snowploughs (and blowers) are a thing – just not where I live

Meanwhile, pedestrians, of which there were many, were left to fend for themselves. And you might shrug your shoulders and accept this as just the way of things, but it is most emphatically not. There are many reasons why the UK (England in particular) has never really felt like a European country. As a stark expression of our national values, the fact that pavements aren’t cleared while roads are is a clear indication that we don’t belong in Europe.

There are such things as pavement snowploughs and gritters. There are probably even some in this country – somewhere. But in a Tory-run area that has cut public services to the bone? In 4×4 country? I’ve even seen salt being applied by hand at pedestrian crossings in France.

Meanwhile, I’ll be off to the physiotherapist this afternoon, hoping I don’t slip and fall on my bruised tailbone – again.