Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Tackling Technology's Small Print



I think.

I feel endlessly grateful to have grown up in an era where so much that would once have been considered fantasy or magic has become a part of everyday reality.

"They will never make a flat television screen that you can hang on the wall", lectured my Father, dismissing a science fiction film in the 1960s.

And Dad was an electrical engineer so his word and vision on such things was not something to challenge lightly.

My Mum and I knew better than to try.

Dad even thought Colour TV was a bit unnecessary. I had to go to friends to see that. Or press my nose to the glass outside the local dealers.

Transistors would never completely replace valves either, according to Dad. And there was an awful fuss when my Mum conspired to let me spend my saved up pocket money on a six transistor radio.


I don't know whether all this was why I held off buying a flat screen TV when the shops started filling up with them a few years ago. I had plenty of rationalisations for waiting besides any deep seated concern for his feelings in such a matter.

Nevertheless, shortly after he died, I went out and got one. A really big one. The biggest one in the shop.

There are times when I watch my 60 inch ultra flat LED television, hanging from two concealed hooks on the lounge wall, and I think of Dad for a moment.

And how any belief I may mistake for certainty today could be on borrowed time.

… though the jet packs and flying cars are still late arriving in the shops.


Any discussion of how much has changed in the last century could so easily become a list, so I'll just invite you to make your own.

Instead I want to focus on the cruel irony of technologies that arrive a bit too late to fully enjoy them.

Technologies that contribute, rather, to the reminder that the young always get to inherit (and take for granted) the goodies…

… whilst we have to contend with the increasing ignominy of feeling ever so slightly obsolescent, if not yet downright obsolete.

When displays were rare

I remember the time when displays on computers were an expensive rarity.

When I learned about Computer Science as a young undergraduate in the early 1970s, computers were mostly very large, consumed enough electricity to serve an entire street, and were fed with paper tapes and punched cards.

If you were lucky you might get the results back from something called a Line Printer (because it printed whole lines of text in one very noisy go), but I really did sometimes get the outputs on more paper tape, to be fed into a teleprinter if I wanted to read them.

Then came the screens.

For many years your choices were between a screen with 1920 characters or one with 2000 … though I did have to work with one make of computer which offered only 256. That's eight rows of 32 characters.

You could have the characters in fluorescent green, or fluorescent yellowy-orange, or a light blue that might pass for white in the right light.

But not all at the same time.

And the characters were at first always capitals. Then, if you were posh, some were a sort of approximation to upper and lower case, where the letters with tails, like 'g' or 'y' were hoisted above the baseline to fit in the exact rows where characters had to go.

These letters were made out of a matrix of dots. And the dots were comparatively huge. So it was quite hard on the eye to look at them for any time.

Disappearing pixels, disappearing text

One of the great advances of our computer age has been the rapid evolution from these crude display devices to what we have today.

With each new line of products the pixels have got smaller … leaving designers with the option between keeping text the same size, but with less raggedy edges, or cramming more text onto the screen.

The great thing now is the 'Retina' display … the idea of a screen where the dots are so small that, at normal viewing distances, the healthy human eye can't make them out.

It's rather like the best print in the poshest of books. The characters can have more fine detail and gorgeous curves.

It's also a strange milestone for display technology because once you've reached this point there is, almost by definition, nowhere further to go. There is not much point in making the points of light and dark any smaller for a given display, because the result for us humans watching is not going to get any better.

Love, hate

I love my Retina display iPhone. And I love my Retina display Macbook. They really are nice to look at.

However, no sooner has this technology arrived than I find it is me that could really do with the upgrade.

Give designers the wherewithal to put fine detail (like more text) on a small small screen and they will.

This probably doesn't matter when you're young and have 20-20 vision.

But now I find myself increasingly reaching for a magnifying glass to use the phone.

I wake up in the morning and I can't read the overnight messages because they are in a size of print small enough to delight the tricksiest of lawyers.

It becomes a routine reminder that my eyes, even with varifocals, aren't what they used to be.

Instead, the phone is in one hand whilst I peer through the magnifier held in the other.

And if I look very carefully with the magnifier you know what?

I can see the pixels once more.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Wearing Questions


MANY YEARS AGO, I worked for an enormous multinational IT and Management Consultancy firm as a Principal Consultant.

My work for a succession of blue chip companies involved analysis of complex business needs, problem solving, encouraging consensus solutions and then project and programme managing the agreed plans.

The job was demanding … not least because clients paying over £2,000 a day for your advice have a lot of expectations.


And life in that kind of environment runs a lot more smoothly if you play the image game … fulfil a few stereotypes … in order to help tick the right boxes.

Although the work was intense, and although I was moonlighting in my hotel room at night by helping to build and run an important human rights campaign, I still also found time to get involved in setting up the UK version of the corporation's works council.

I also represented the whole UK workforce of 8,600 staff in the corporation's International Works Council too. I became a regular visitor to the Paris headquarters, as well as subsidiaries all over Europe.

Back in Britain, along with 11 other elected representatives, we thoroughly challenged the UK board on repeated occasions, adding to the stresses by usually having to work under non-disclosure conditions.

And in the end, the whole thing became too much for many of us. We woke up one morning to the surprising realisation that seven out of twelve of us had quite independently applied for a voluntary redundancy scheme which we had helped persuade the company to offer in place of a mandatory one.

Life changing

The seven of us all crashed out of the company at the same time. In my own case it was doubly embarrassing for the company as my peers had just re-elected me for another term.

Big fanfare re-election one day. Goodbye the next.

And that was the end of my career in consultancy at such a high level.

The end of working in IT consultancy overall, in fact. Time for a complete career change.

Thus it was that the company, perhaps a little chastened by reflecting on what had happened, decided to hold one last get-together for us departed consultants at a nice hotel in London.

There we ate and drank and were merry together for one last time … discussing with even greater freedom our views on what had just happened with the Directors who had been our colleagues.

But this story isn't about that.

Dress code

The next morning, nursing a hangover, I had arranged to meet another woman from my former team, as she was staying at the same hotel on assignment.

I stationed myself in the hotel lobby and was surprised when my erstwhile colleague's first words were, "I've never seen you in jeans before!".

Apparently my casual attire came as a great shock. She had always naturally only ever seen me wearing smart dresses or skirt suits.

I say "naturally" because, when at work, I wear work clothes.

And, although I have occasionally tried trouser suits, I had decided they didn't really suit me for work … and some men you encounter just don't like them.

I certainly would not be seen by a blue chip high paying client in the clothes I wear around the house, or in anything that would cause them to question my professionalism.

But I'll come back to those house clothes in a moment.


Women get a lot of this kind of policing. Often, surprisingly, by other women … who notice and appraise your clothing with far more expertise than men.

Having said that, I recall one evening's project team social in the same company where a male consultant of equivalent grade saw fit to lambast me about the colourful leggings I had chosen for a trip to the pub.

In terms of fashionista rules he was right, actually. The leggings had once been fashionable seven or eight years previously, and the herd had moved on. I should instead have been wearing black or grey, and then there would have been no raised eyebrows.

Nevertheless, I told him what I thought of his opinion. It was not a professional way to address a peer. And we proceeded to the pub.

Fast forward

Fast forward about 12-15 years, in very different working surroundings, and I find that things have not entirely changed.

Some months ago, whilst working in the NHS, a colleague once again remarked that they had only ever seen me in smart dresses.

I don't know whether they pictured this was how I clean the toilet.

In fact, my recent fondness for very stretchy and comfortable-fitting dresses from Phase Eight had become a bit of a standing joke, causing me to pause and question what I was doing whenever I saw and bought another one that I liked.

This was the point. I had found a make of clothes that worked well for me. The sizing was so reliable, and the fit so good, that I didn't even have to try dresses on in the shop. 95% of the time I could buy straight off the hanger. And I loved the way the cut of this make flattered my figure.

When a formula works that well, and fits with the kind of image you want to project in the workplace, why would you knowingly reject it?

But you never know with these kinds of questions whether the assumptions run deeper.

Do people assume, without a complete picture of what else is in your wardrobe, and your rationale for style and place, that there is something else behind your consistency?

Something odd?

Something they wouldn't assume about other women or venture to query?

All change

This is where it all gets ironic.

Because those smart dresses only come out when I have something 'smart' to do.

In fact, I get my standards of dress very much from my mother, who came from a generation that was never knowingly under-dressed in public.

She imbued in me a strong awareness of what to wear in the presence of others, whilst having a very different standard when relaxing in private.

I don't think anyone would have thought to question her about it though. Because, of course, there was no half-thought-out pop psychology theory looking for evidence in her case.

And now, as I am suddenly spending a lot more time at home and not charging people for my expertise so much, the balance of demand on my wardrobe has changed accordingly.

Comfort and convenience

As a creative worker, I am no stranger to doing some of my most creative work in my nightwear and dressing gown. Why risk losing a good waking idea by prioritising time to change into day wear?

So long as you're not hacking my web cam this should not concern you.

The rest of the time I wear mostly leggings and T-shirts … because these are comfortable, practical, easy to coordinate, easy to wash and (most importantly) cheap. If it is chilly I will add to these a fleece.

I like this combination particularly because it is easy to disappear.

Whilst I don't have a burning urge to merge completely as one of the herd, there are times when I have no particular desire to stand out either.

Looking distinctive is for when you are needing to be so.

In grannyland this is less and less called for though. So chain store casual clothes that everyone else is buying and wearing do make some sense in that respect.

And yet, even in this alternate universe that I've moved to, I discover that the style Police are still lurking ready to pounce.

I was chatting to a neighbour the other day. She was being quite complimentary. She noticed how slim I had become in recent months as the result of a very successful diet.

She reckoned I had a great figure and that my figure-hugging leggings really showed this off. I was duly flattered.

And then she put her head on one side and said,

"But how come we never see you in a dress?"

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Unmarried Conjunctions


Hello dears.

If there is one thing that outs you straight away as being a senior citizen, I've realised, it is an unnatural level of concern for grammar.

Thats' GRAMMAR with two A's, you'll note.

Not GrammEr with a totally alien "E".

And not to be confused with GrandMA, who could be an alien for all the difference it makes.

First rule

The first rule of this obsession, I realise, is that a good granny must throw out any sense of irony or self-awareness about their own use of the language.

The fact I'm writing this merely underlines that whole sentence.

But underlining is tacky, so don't do it.

Personal grammatical foibles are always perfectly reasonable, and any semantic confusion is entirely your failing, I'm afraid.

Modern teaching methods are to blame.

And texting.

Especially texting.

Rule two

The language is mine. I inherited it.

I reserve the right to harangue you about the "Grocer's Apostrophe",  but don't you dare take issue with me over the "Oxford Comma", unless you can prove you also watched Bonanza the first time round (on Sunday nights).

Sentences without verbs. Or objects.

These are mine to claim should I wish. Because I will be doing it knowingly and with mature irony.

You can do this too when you're old enough.

But not now.

For now you are simply a product of falling educational standards since the days when I was taught properly.

Any riffing you attempt with the language of your forbears (that's me) is simply ultra vires.

But don't say "riffing".

And I will slip Latin in there when I want, even though I didn't study it, just to emphasise my superiority.

Perfect storm

You'll realise by now that something must have set me off.

And on this particular occasion the epicentre of my swirling storm cloud of annoyance is the increasing use of the word "So" to begin the reply to a question.

You hear this a lot nowadays on the Today programme. Especially from academics for some reason.

Don't worry if you've not heard of the Today programme. Or Radio 4. It will come.

The typical scenario sounds like this:

Interviewer: "Can you explain how the Large Hadron Collider works?"

Expert: "So we have a large circular tube in the ground…"

This annoys me. It annoys me a great deal. And it does this at the very start of my day, which seems particularly unfair.

You see, the lovely little word "So" has more than one valid use in English.

It can be used to amplify a description.

Boyfriend: "Your hair smells so lovely tonight."

Rival: "You are so going to regret that."

It can stand for something that has previously been demonstrated.

Doctor: "Hold your arms up so."

But the real workhorse function of "so" is to operate as a conjunction.

Conjunctions are words that join two parts of speech that are logically related.

Child: "The jar fell off the table and broke into tiny pieces."

Teacher: "You got a low mark but I'm still going to pass you."

Resistance fighter: "Listen carefully for I shall say zis only once."

Shop assistant: "Please say if you would like it in red or in blue."

Narrator: "It was 10pm yet there was still light in the sky."

Marie Curie: "I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy."

And finally, to get to the point:

Me: "You have annoyed me dear speaker so I am going to write a long ranting blog."

What can be confusing is that "So" can sometimes start a sentence, as in this easily visualised spy story scene:

Bad man: "So, Mister Bond, will you tell me everything or must I demonstrate a devilishly clever way of making you talk?"

This is allowable, because the bad man is alluding to an unspoken phrase which doesn't need stating. Insert the missing phrase and "so" is revealed as a conjunction:

Bad man: "The directors have just spent a million dollars showing how you've come to be strapped to this absurd laser device so, Mr Bond, will you tell me everything…"

The conjunction is back with its precursor phrase. Order is restored. No ranty granny.

But (and, yes, that is yet another conjunction wickedly beginning a sentence), the cognitive jolt caused by starting a fresh idea with "So" just doesn't cut the mustard for me.

That is making "So" the equivalent of an unmarried conjunction, bringing up a child phrase all on its own without assistance (and probably sponging off grammar's equivalent of the state if you're a right winger).

Force majeure

None of this rant is going to make any difference, of course.

The linguistic die is already cast. Others are clearly copying this usage because they've heard it and think it is therefore normal.

I blame the people who run media skills courses in fact. It is the kind of thing they teach people to say instead of beginning their reply on-air with a less sophisticated verbal tic, like "Errrr…" or even an old fashioned "Well,…."

There's no point in trying to stop this. It will happen.

However, because I've pointed it out you will now notice it too.

In fact you won't be able to miss it. It's like buying a new car and suddenly seeing that model everywhere you look.

Only this one's really going to annoy you.

Which is good, because now I won't be alone.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Time Passes. So Do People. And Things


Hello again dears.

Well, call this serendipity I suppose.

Or call it the depths of despond.

In my great plan of things, my next epistle was going to introduce you to the grannies in my life...

…the role models who inhabited my childhood and created the template in my mind which I now find is in the wrong size, and not in the sale.

However, life has just dealt one of those blows which remind one of the passage of time …

… of being the wrong side of the Zeitgeist, whilst still the right side of the tomb.

And that means I'm going to write this first and the grannies will have to wait.

Woe, woe and thrice woe

Boots have discontinued my favourite own-brand body spray.

The one I've used religiously for at least a quarter of a century by my reckoning.

My LUCKY spray.

The spray which, when used before I meet people, makes me feel like everything's OK and all my boxes are ticked.

The spray which, cheap as it was, contributed to the million dollar feeling on those stressful occasions.


It's gone. Just like that.

I slipped out to buy three for two in the quiet post-rushhour retail park.

And I wandered empty-handed  up and down the aisles for five whole minutes before seeking assistance.

And then they told me. "It's been discontinued dear".

Because, apparently according to the assistant, "Nobody buys it any more".

"But I buy it", I screamed … maybe slightly too loud for mourning a cheap spray.

Yet I knew, even as I studied the face of the young assistant that I was yesterday's marketing demographic.

Deceased people

The discontinuance of things is there to remind us all, I guess, of our own limited marketing span.

"Oh her? She's been discontinued … there's no call for her anymore".

You notice it first with the obituaries of the famous people you grew up to know.

I reckon this began for me at least 20 years ago. And it's been gaining pace so fast that I'm now not sure who has kicked the bucket and who is merely out of view.

I mean, I know that Alan Whicker's gone. Tommy Cooper as well. I think the first shock was Harry Worth.

Most of the Beatles too. The Beatles FFS.

I was convinced that Stanley Baxter must have gone … just like Ronnie Barker. And then he pop's up in a documentary on the telly and you feel guilty for having written him off prematurely.

And I'm assured that Cliff Richard hasn't gone … and neither has Bruce Forsyth.

And, no, you don't need to say it. I know what you're thinking.

Deceased products

And, just as it is with celebrities, so too with products.

You just get used to a lipstick and then they change the range and you've got to try and find something similar all over again. How many times can you vary RED?

Clarins even decided last year, in their wisdom, to discontinue their clear lipgloss. Now I have to match a coloured one instead.

Now why on earth do that? Is there anything more basic and universal and timeless than clear lipgloss?

Some products are pure nostalgia, of course.

I can do a half hour talk on four a penny chews if you let me.

The "fruit salad" ones, mind. I was never into the Blackjacks.

And Spangles. And Jubblys. And Fruity Blue ice lollies.

You know you're getting on when they've discontinued your childhood.

And then...

You see, mark my words.

First they came for the celebrities.

Then they came for the fruit salad chews.

Then they came for the Boots "Natural Collection".

And when nothing you knew is left...

Monday, 29 July 2013

Hello Dear

Hello Dear.

That's gran-speak.

I'm not very good at it … any more than I'm capable of yoof-speak.

And there's no word, or guide, for how to speak when you're somewhere between yoof and gran.

So I think I'll just settle for whatever comes naturally.


I've mentioned gran-speak though, because I'm becoming aware of expectations.

I should probably have noticed it before.

But I decided to turn a blind eye.

No, er .. delete that. "Bind eye" is probably not a good turn of phrase here.

Avoidance? Denial? Oh go on then.


Am I qualified to speak on this subject?

Well, I have a Grandchild.

That, to me, would seem the most crucial of qualifications for granny-hood.

Three years ago, when my Grandson arrived, I would say that was probably my only qualification for the title.

In every other respect I looked at myself that day, hurriedly travelling to be at my daughter's bedside, and felt nothing like I was conditioned to think a granny should feel … or think … or look … or be.



Here's my Grandson, by the way.

The rules of the game dictate that I should show you his picture at this point.

His name's Harvey.

I love him to bits, especially as his personal character has emerged.

He's cute, isn't he?

And that question ensures you get to play by the rules of the game too. OK?

But I'm distracting you.

You DO know that, don't you?

More qualifications

Harvey arrived three years ago.

And the thing that's happened between then and now (besides the opportunity to celebrate three birthdays and three Christmases) is that I'm about to gain another qualification.

I'm on the glide path for my sixtieth birthday.

And that sounds awfully like a pretty good qualification for being just that bit more definitely granny.

Yes, age is a qualification.

In fact if you have enough age then you don't even need the Grandchild part.

You get to be a sort of honorary granny.


So, I've got nearly two qualifications now. A Grandchild and some age.

I still think I'm a borderline case though.

I haven't got any convincing wrinkles yet. That's a blessing.

There are no boiled sweets in my handbag.

And my only concession to the colour purple, so far, is the colour scheme on this blog.

I have a feeling that some of these will come though.

Which is why I thought I'd best start a new blog to share my thoughts about the process.

Before I have to ask a young person for help.


So what sort of granny am I then?

Well, I'm not the sort of granny who acts much like a granny.

Assuming there's a rule book at all.

I guess what I'm actually expressing is that I don't look in the mirror and see anything remotely resembling either my Father's or Mother's Mother.

Well, bone structure perhaps. But that's where it stops.

I don't see much that looks like the stereotypical grannies you see out and about either.

But then, I guess I don't know how many atypical grannies are passing by everywhere I go.

I'll explore this in a future blog, maybe.

I'm never going to be a run-of-the-mill granny anyway though.

And, actually, that is the part that (right now) I feel instinctively best about.


So, rather than fret about how to be how a granny should perhaps be.

I'll just continue being me, as I've always tried my best to do.

It may not be like anyone else's idea of a granny.

But let this be my Fanfare For The Uncommon Gran.