Wednesday 31 December 2008

Terminal decline?

I am writing from a doomed laptop. As if the Blue Screen of Death episode wasn't enough, it has decided not to recognise its own sound card (whilst still making all the usual Microsoft noises), can't work its internal wireless modem and has begun to ignore the USB ports. Oh, and when I tried to view a file on my data-stick, it couldn't view it, attempted to "install new hardware", looped on trying to find a driver (there isn't one - it is only a flash drive), and seized up.

This has never been a 100% happy relationship. I bought the laptop blind in 2005, through a scheme at work, the year the British Government decided to give tax breaks to fund its "home computer initiative". There were only two laptop choices in the scheme and I rejected the Apple one on the grounds that it didn't contain a DVD-writer. So I ended up with this, a Fujitsu Siemens Amilo D. I can't recommend them. I've been disappointed from the day I opened the box.

From the start, switching it on was a nightmare. I thought the problem was the on-off switch, but it turned out to be a battery connection. (This is one machine that won't work unless it's battery is in its socket. And battery life is abysmal.) I spent an hour on the phone to Fujitsu sorting that out.

The current sound-card problems are just an extension of an intermittent problem it always had but was hard to demonstrate on demand: the first time I wanted to play back a recording to my singing class, it failed. It had worked fine the day before, but at class we only got the video playback without any audio. Since it was still under warrantee at the time, I got onto the help desk and naturally it worked perfectly.

And then there is the fact that it has always been too big and heavy. We've always had a desktop computer - I'd wanted a small, lightweight laptop that was easy to carry around with me. I've been using laptops for work since 1997, when "going out on audit" meant lugging around a Cannon 386 laptop equiped with Windows 3.1. Even that dinosaur was lighter than this one!

There is only one thing for it. It's time to buy a new laptop. We went window shopping yesterday. I saw some pretty netbooks (keyboards are two small for this touch typist). My inner-accountant thrilled at the new wide-screen laptops that come complete with a built in number pad (no more struggling to enter columns of numbers into Excel). But I've defined what I want: a 12-inch screen; minimum of 3GB of RAM; integrated webcam; 250GB hard disk; DVD-writer with Blu-Ray, Dolby surround sound, etc. Sadly, my budget is a bit lower than the price of my wish list, so I will have to compromise somewhere. But a girl can dream.

The next problem is what to do about Vista. I don't want it and I don't need it. I own licences for Windows XP and Office 2005. I haven't heard a good thing about Vista from any of the users I know. I want to wait for the next generation to be released, when all the bugs will have been sorted out, before I install it. Any suggestions as to how to rid myself of this blight?

- Pam (got to go. DH wants to go shopping.)

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Santa on Boxing Day

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. May the best of your past be the worst of your future!

- Pam

PS: I call the above image "Santa on Boxing Day". I lifted it from a website at the American University in Beirut years ago. Couldn't find it today on the internet to attribute it properly.

Monday 22 December 2008

It's the Economy. Stupid!

A month ago, the British Government issued its "Pre-Budget Report" (a.k.a. a mini-budget that covers government spending). If you click on the link and look at the fourth item down, you'll see that from midnight on 30th November 2008, VAT was cut from 17.5% to 15% in an effort to boost the economy.

This VAT cut is the Government's main weapon in fighting the current recession. They estimate that it will add a £20bn stimulus to the economy. How?

The theory put out by the spin-doctors is that the cut will lower prices in the shops, consumers will stampede snapping up cheaper goods and thus spend the country's way out of Recession. Looks good on paper, doesn't it? But will it work? I don't think so.

(VAT stands for "value added tax". If the business is VAT registered (i.e. all businesses with sales > £67k), then they can reclaim the VAT on goods/services they've purchased by offsetting it against the VAT payable on the sales they make. Therefore, they only pay VAT on the difference or on the "value added" to the goods or services by their business. VAT cannot be reclaimed on purchases for private use.)

From the moment I heard it, I've been trying to figure out how it will stimulate the economy. And each scenario I come up with, doesn't work. Here's why:-
  1. It misunderstands the way business thinks about VAT because in virtually all businesses it is excluded from decision making calculations. Cutting it won't affect a multi-national's decision to build a new factory - that will be decided by the cost of the capital needed to fund the investment. And few banks out there are making money available to borrow at an affordable price. If the VAT cut offers any advantage, it is to cash-flow only since it slightly lowers the amount of cash businesses have to pay out to their suppliers and/or to the VATman. Even this, though, comes with barbs attached: for the first month or so, businesses will still be paying out VAT at 17.5% on invoices received prior to the cut-off but will only be able to recharge their clients/customers VAT at 15%.
  2. A 2.5% discount is useless at enticing consumers back into the shops when the 25%-50% discounts already on offer have failed. This response to the VAT Cut was raised by most political and economic commentators: consumers aren't shopping because they're worried about jobs, credit card bills, the price of fuel and mortgages. Cutting VAT won't affect that behaviour because it is only pennies - it doesn't put a lot of real money in our pockets. When your credit card is maxxed out and you are worried that you won't have enough money to buy petrol to get to work at the end of the month, the last thing you're going to do is go out and buy a new dress! This is the reality we are living with: the average Briton is carrying £4,000+ in credit card debt; mortgage interest rates are still rising, even though the Bank of England Base Rate has fallen to 2% (those on variable mortgages are paying close to 7% interest); in the past 9 months, the price of petrol and diesel increased by a third with knock-on price increases for virtually everything that is shipped by road. (FYI, for routes out of London, public transport is frequently more expensive than driving.)
  3. Where will the additional money go? Out of the Country. Whilst grocery items (food, toiletries, etc) are either made here or elsewhere in Europe, much of the "discretionary spending" items (clothes, shoes, household goods) are made in China, Vietnam, India, Africa, etc. If the consumer does go out and spend on nonessential items, they'll be purchasing cheap goods made in China or India and ultimately their purchases will benefit workers/investors in those countries and not here. Just as in the US with George Bush's Economic Stimulus Package, it will stimulate their economies and not ours.
For my £20bn, I'd like the Government to spend the money on something concrete HERE instead of exporting it to China. This country is crying out for capital investment: new roads, new railway tracks, a mainline rail hub at Heathrow, additional housing stock, a new storm-water drainage system for London (to stop effluent being washed into the Thames/flooding homes each time it rains for more than 10 minutes) etc. Why not use the £20bn to directly fund capital projects here???

Instead of funding public works, the Government is actually cutting them. An example: because the private companies involved can't raise capital, the Government has CUT the number of apartments that will be built in the Olympic Village to the minimum allowable under the IOC athletes' housing rules. This is in a country where we need an estimated 250,000 more homes just to meet current demand, in a city where the premium for new builds is still 100% over the cost of the build.

The lower rate of VAT will exist for 13 months. What worries me is that the VAT cut is short term but the long term costs will be with us for many years. To quote from the BBC
"..[The Shadow Chancellor]..George Osborne said the government's package of measures would double national debt to £1 trillion.

"He said this would leave "a huge unexploded tax bombshell timed to go off under a future economic recovery".

"He said Chancellor Alistair Darling was giving away £20bn but taking back £40bn through tax hikes."

Ouch! I've heard commentators say that it will take at least 20 years of tax rises to pay it back. In addition, the increase in National Debt will handcuff our economy, decreasing prosperity long term. It also makes us more vulnerable to economic and political shocks worldwide. Remember, he who owns the debt, calls the tune. (Don't believe me? Check out the Oscar nominated documentary: I.O.U.S.A. recently featured on the BBC.)

This is going to be an interesting few months, particularly if I'm proved right.

- Pam

Tuesday 2 December 2008

I'm not a yarn snob. Really.

Towards the end of last week, I learned of a yarn shop not too far from here in Uxbridge, so on Saturday I went to check it out.

Baron's don't have a website and their address in the phone book just says "Market Square, UB8 1LH". I'm not that familiar with Uxbridge, so wandered around for a while before I realised that the Market Square has long-since been subsumed into the Pavilion's shopping mall. (Town planning vandalism, don't you think, building a shopping mall on the site of an ancient market?)

It turns out that Baron's is little more than an indoor, overgrown market stall. I felt pangs of disappointment - I was half-hoping to find a shop that might just, possibly, be that rare-to-Britain gold-mine, an American-style LYS - but wandered in anyway to check out their range. There was a lot of yarn crammed into a space that is maybe 12 feet by 8. They had some fun fur, a small quantity of wool, a little bit of cotton and a large amount of acrylic.

After a bit of a search, I gave in and asked for assistance. I was after sock-yarn, not just because that's my default purchase when in a new-to-me-yarn-shop but also because I have a pair of socks to make as a Christmas present. "Do you mean wool for darning socks?" was the response. "No, I mean wool for knitting socks, usually 4-ply", I replied. I got the feeling that knitting socks was an unusual concept, rarely encountered before. Still, the teenage shop assistant was good at her job - she found me the only sock yarn they had: Elle Machine Washable Sock Wool in brown. I'm not sure who was more surprised: her or me.

On the way home, I pondered my reaction to the shop's range of yarn. The vast amount of cheap acrylics and acrylic blends found me mentally wrinkling my nose and curling my lip in distaste. What made me such a yarn snob?

The first three or four garments I ever knitted were made in acrylic. It was cheap and my mother didn't want to waste money buying wool for a teenager who might never finish the garment she was making. Then, when I was 16 or so, I knitted my first pure wool sweater and I've rarely touched acrylic since.

When I think about acrylic, I think about yarn that squeaks when you knit it, yarn that feels plasticky and leaves your hands clammy as you knit. I use it occasionally in baby garments (normally Plymouth’s Encore which is 25% wool), but the 100% stuff? Haven't knitted with it in a long time and don't intend to. Emblazoned on my psyche is a belief that acrylics are cheap and nasty and that if I'm going to spend my time knitting, then I deserve better.

And 99% of the acrylics out there just aren't good enough. There are some beautiful yarns out there that are acrylic in all-but-name (I have some silky soft eyelash made by Elle that is so beautiful to handle, I just sit here and stroke it), but they are the exception. Good marketeers know that putting "acrylic" on a yarn label is the kiss of death to people like me - we won't touch it, but we might look twice if it's described as "microfibre" or even "polyamide" and included in a blend with wool or cotton. However, no matter what is on the label, if it feels like cheap acrylic, I won't use it. Why waste my money on something that makes my skin creep?

I think that's the crux of the matter - I believe I deserve to knit with decent quality yarn. Anything else isn't worth my time and attention. If valuing my handiwork makes me a yarn snob, then so be it.

- Pam (will probably go back to Baron's, sometime)

Saturday 29 November 2008

Don't gas me, please!

Why does anyone still use aerosol antiperspirant? I stopped when I was a teenager when, left coughing from a cloud of fumes, I finally read the label and thought "Do I really want to breath in this stuff? If it's designed to keep my armpits dry, imagine what it's doing to my lungs!".

Switching to a roll-on, I gave up on the scented varieties when a classmate asked me, "What is that perfume you're always wearing? It's really nice". It was Rexona - all I remember now about the scent is that it was the green one. Embarrassed, I sought out something non-scented.

Over the years, I've tried most brands of non-scented roll-on: Revlon (don't leave the cap off, it evaporates); Old Spice in a stick (sold for men, but it worked very well on me and there was no scent); Mitcham, etc. The most irritating fact about them is that they are marketed almost exclusively for men. Trying to find a non-scented roll-on? Look in men's toiletries. (As an aside, why do women still wear a scented antiperspirant when they're wearing a completely different perfume? Hasn't someone taught them about the fragrances clashing?)

For the last 6 years, I've used a crystal deodorant and been very happy with the results. Not only is it economical: each 125g crystal lasts about three years and costs about the same as two thingies of Mitcham; but there have been very few days when my nose has wrinkled and my brain has gone "Uh oh! I can smell me!" (certainly no more than with the other products I've tried). The best parts have been the lack of marks on clothing (what is it in antiperspirants that turn t-shirts to cardboard?), the lack of sting after shaving and the drying time (rub the dry crystal on shower damp skin and, before you've towel dried the rest of you, it's dry).

The biggest problem had been sourcing them. In 2002, when I first decided to use a crystal deodorant, I scoured the shops and supermarkets and couldn't find one: Boots, Superdrug, Holland & Barrett, The Body Shop, all came up bare. I eventually purchased my first two crystal sticks in my sister's local health food shop on a visit home ($4 each plus a £700 airfare). Now even sourcing them isn't a problem; following the increased interest in green products, all of those shops now stock crystal deodorants and Holland & Barrett even sell multiple brands.

The only time I didn't use my crystal deodorant was when I travelled - then I'd revert to a roll-on because I didn't want to risk damaging/wasting/losing my precious crystal.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago: last year, I "scored" a couple of sample packs of Nivea products which included a travel sized spray-on antiperspirant, so I took one with me when I went to Site. My God! The fumes! In my regular hotel, I developed a routine of spray on the damn thing in the bathroom and rush into the bedroom to dry off, closing the bathroom door to let the exhaust fan clear away the smell. Eventually, I'd return to the bathroom once it had dissipated.

For my October Site visit, I left it until it was too late to get a room at the regular hotel so had to stay at one of the weirder hotels in the neighbourhood. On the surface, this hotel looks perfectly OK - the rooms are clean and stylish, the menu is good, the staff friendly. Scratch the surface and you'll find weird bits. The owners have an animal-print fetish, using (probably) fake horses hide to decorate chairs, pillows, bed heads. This time, my bedroom had a bathroom alcove - there was no dividing wall between the bathroom and the bedroom! This time, there was no escaping from the fumes. NEVER AGAIN.

No wonder people have asthma attacks after using spray-on deodorants. No matter how careful you try to be, the fumes will get in your face. And without a powerful exhaust fan, they take forever to dissipate.

As for me: the Nivea spray ended up in the bin. I can no longer even tolerate its scent. I now have a travel sized crystal and that's what I'll be taking with me from now on.

- Pam

Friday 28 November 2008

Feeling my inner Nerd

I got distracted this afternoon. The plan was to finish work at 12.30, come home and take some FO photographs and put them up on the blog. The reality was leaving the office at 1.30pm, getting home just in time to enjoy listening to Kermode live, log on to the home computer and ....... Where did the time go?

The time went on a new-to-me blog that I've discovered: Nerd Girl a.k.a. Jennifer Gardy. Today's post will sound familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an environment where the deliverables don't rely on just following a process. Jennifer calls it "The Daily Grind of Trying to Find Nobel-worthy Results". If you substitute Spider Solitaire with "read Motley Fool" and "find Nobel-worthy Results" with "generate invoice", she could be describing my average day.

The second or third post on the blog distracted me still further. Where do I fit in the Nerd-Geek-Dork Continuum? Am I a Geek, a Nerd or (heavens, no!) a Dork? Nobody wants to be a Dork! We all know Dorks - the socially inept (usually) male who is OK on his own but you wouldn't want your friends to meet him.

I don't think I'm a Geek. When I was a Finance Systems Trainer, I used to joke "I'm not a geek, but I've played on on television". I've worked with plenty of Geeks. You ask them a simple question, like: if I do X in Credit Control, does that impact on Y? And two hours later, you still don't know the answer but you now now how Credit Control links up with the rest of Accounts Receivable, including which automatic accounting instructions are needed to drive the system.

I've always thought of myself as a bit of a Nerd. I like learning. I enjoy sitting in a classroom being taught something. I'm more likely to watch documentaries than soap operas on TV. If there is a topic I'm interested in (i.e. how people survived on the home front in World War 2), I'll read whatever I can get my hands on. But what divides me from being a Geek, I think, is that I don't preach about what I know. I don't think the rest of the world will be as interested as I am.

In trepidation, I did the test.

[ Drum Roll, please! ]

Ta Da!

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am 79% Nerd, 39% Geek and 35% Dork.

- Pam

Sunday 23 November 2008

Radio - someone still loves you!

Back in April, I was driving into work when I turned a corner and the usually crystal-clear car radio went "buzz!". Static. Interference. Call it what you will. I lost the AM stations and most of the FM stations in one right-hand bend. Disaster!

I'm an avid radio listener. Talk radio, rock music, pop music, classical - I listen to the lot depending on my mood. Most of the time, I listen to talk radio. Music is fine, but on long journeys I want information, company and entertainment not just background music. And in Britain, that means BBC Radio Five, which is only broadcast on AM and DAB digital frequencies. Radio Five delivers news and interviews, sports commentary, book review, film reviews and the occasional phone-in.

I sought advice: check the connections, particularly if it isn't the one originally installed. Apparently, they become loose. That made sense; it's not the original radio (a few Christmases ago, DH bought me one that played CDs instead of the original one which played tapes). But I couldn't figure out how to get it out, so took it to the garage and they had a go. Miraculously, they re-established reception of most of my channels. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than nothing. The mechanics suggested replacing the antenna at the next service - not just the aerial, but the whole thing. The next service came and went. "We're sorry, but we can't get the radio out, so we can't change the antenna." I was disappointed. The radio still worked, not brilliantly but at least I could hear most things, some of the time. It just wasn't reliable.

The CD player works, but there are only so many times I can listen to the same audio book before getting bored. Having bought a new MP3 player, I sort out podcasts. Radio Five does several: the book program, Mark Kermode's film reviews, various finance broadcasts, etc. I'm up to date with the shows I love, but sadly they don't keep an archive. More recently, I've sought out the various knitting podcasts out there: Cast-On, Yarn Thing (hello, Marly-mad-woman! I love listening to you), She Knits, and Knitty Nora are the most noteworthy.

Podcasts have opened up another window on the world for me. Most are amateur - people who just have something to say and want to share it with you. I've come to the conclusion that the best knitting podcasts are like the best blogs: it's like having a good conversation with a friend. Yarn Thing has to be the best of the lot: fun, entertaining and Marly's laugh is contagious. If you have never listened to a podcast, I suggest you start with Yarn Thing. My trips to Site are 4 hours each way - I've been up there three times in the last five weeks - and listened to the entire archive of Yarn Thing on the way. And I still want to hear more! Surely that is the best recommendation there can be.

- Pam (got to get the radio fixed. It's lost the AM stations again, so there's no football and no cricket in my car and I can't live without them.)

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Where was I before I was rudely interrupted?

Yay! My laptop is working. It took six weeks to sort out. I felt as if I'd had my voice switched off. Blogging from work isn't practical (or safe, job-wise) and I hate using DH's computer when he's around - I feel as if I'm depriving him of something.

What caused the Blue Screen of Death? A virus infecting the boot directory. Don't know where it came from, although I suspect it was attached to a midi-file player I downloaded. The advice I was given really didn't help the process, either; running CHKDSK broke the computer because it crashed in the middle and damaged the ability to run in Safe Mode. Here is what I learned:-

  1. CHKDSK will not solve the problem and could make it worse.
  2. If you have auto-reboot set up, disable it so that you can read the Blue Screen of Death. This option will appear when you start the computer and hit F8 (the same key that gives you Safe Mode). You need to record the error message (all gazillion digits of it), to help decipher the cause.
  3. The most useful website for information belongs to Dell. (My next computer will be a Dell.) Everything I learned to solve this problem, I learned from the Dell website last week, after DH's computer also developed the Blue Screen of Death. Dell has a downloadable fix that worked on DH's PC. Use "Safe Mode with Networking" to access and download.
  4. The second most useful place for information was McAfee. I emailed them asking what I needed to do to re-install their anti-virus software before I wiped the laptop. They also sent me a link to a fix, but by this time the laptop was so corrupted I couldn't boot in Safe Mode. Thank you McAfee, your customer service is superb.
  5. Windows XP has a special "reinstallation" mode which means you don't need to reformat your hard drive first - it overwrites the existing software leaving everything else intact. Put the Windows CD into the CD drive and then boot up the computer. Sadly, it Blue Screened in the middle of the reinstall, so I bit the bullet and went to Plan D.
  6. Plan D was to wipe the hard drive and reinstall everything, which I did last night. This was another option on the Windows CD.
  7. The most useless website for information belonged to Fujitsu Siemens, the makers of this expensive near-doorstop. Try searching it for "Blue Screen" - you will find absolutely nothing useful. Yet another reason why I won't buy another laptop from them.
  8. The most important thing you can do is run regular back-ups. When the Blue Screen of Death first appeared, I took a complete copy of My Documents and placed it on our external hard drive. It's better to use a program like McAfee, but I couldn't get that to work at the time.
- Pam (Did you miss me?)

Wednesday 8 October 2008

To the famous bloke in the Lotus

If you really want to remain incogneto, don't drive a flashy motor! if you must drive a green Lotus with a yellow go faster skunk-stripe, expect to be looked at. Honestly, I was checking out your car, not you.

I was queuing at the roundabout yesterday morning near work when I spotted a flashy car. So I had a look at the car and glanced at the driver. Recognised him from somewhere. Thought, "I know you". Had another look and realised it was an actor, who was a tad pissed off that he'd been recognised. It was Robert Powell.

- Pam

Quick update (posting from work)

To put it bluntly, I think my laptop is buggered. It's had the computer equivalent of a major stroke. Even CHKDSK can't complete before the Blue Screen Of Death shuts it down. I am considering taking it to the computer-doctors.

Posting from me will be intermittent for a while. Sorry folks.

- Pam

Saturday 4 October 2008

Bugger! I killed the laptop

I was mid-way through a post when it failed! It went into a re-booting loop. I've started it in safe mode, tried the "restore last good settings" feature (which failed) and am now backing up my files. I know, theoretically, that the next step is to reformat the damn thing and then reinstall Windows, etc, but I've never done it. Can anyone tell me what I'm to expect?

- Pam

Saturday 27 September 2008

Second fog

My prediction is that it will be a cold, harsh winter here in the UK. We didn't have much of a summer (it was wet and cold, even by British standards), but waking up to the second fog of the season this morning was still a bit of a shock. I'm wearing my knee-high ugg boots as insulation against the draught that breezes past the couch.

Since when did we get fogs in September? OK, I've only been here 19 years, but that is 19 Septembers. September is normally "good" weather: late summer days, warm, not much rain. Not this year. This year, I've been wearing my trench coat to work - and I drive(!) - complete with the warm lining zipped in. This year, we had our first fog nearly four weeks ago, at about the same time as the I-Knit-London-Day*.

I haven't blogged much this month. Not that I haven't had things to say - I frequently write blog posts in my head - but work sapped most of my intelligence so that when I finally sat down to write all that came out was "wibble". It was easier to reach for the knitting needles than the laptop in the evenings (even then, I couldn't cope with checking patterns so abandoned several things whenever I hit a pattern change). Oh, how I needed a holiday! I told one friend, "I'm too stressed out by work to even think about what I'm cooking for dinner!" (highly unusual for me, food being top of my mental agenda).

DH and I took this week off as annual leave. I've been looking forward to it for weeks. Our goals: sleep, rest, recuperate and spend time together. We've barely left the house. It's been wonderful. I now feel more "me".

The break has been great for my knitting, too. I've finished the third sleeve of the Must have cardigan and now only have to sew it up and knit the bands. (Remember, I didn't have enough of the original yarn so had to frog the first sleeve to integrate the new yarn.) I've also completed my [cough] crochetted [cough] pink, fluffy, double-ruffled scarf (using the charity shop yarn). And have been working on a pair of fingerless gloves using some leftover DK alpaca from my stash (I'm on version 3 - versions 1 and 2 were far too big for my small hands, so I've thrown out the pattern books). Photos and patterns** will be published in due course.

One thing is for sure, when the cold spell I'm predicting really hits, I will be prepared.

- Pam

* My big regret is that I didn't use that opportunity to buy more Alpaca for gloves. A couple of years ago, I knitted a pair of fingerless-gloves-mitten-combos in DK alpaca for my MIL (inspired by Subway Knitter's urban necessities). Now, I want a pair for myself. And I want to perfect the pattern I created then.

** Yes, patterns. I won't be compromising anyone else's copywright. I've taken ideas from other places but these designs are essentially mine. To some extent, all patterns are derivative (just look at the thousands of sock patterns published). What makes them unique is what the designer does with the components: "I'll take those sleeves, this cable and that neckline, please, with a side order of mohair trim".

Tuesday 9 September 2008


I saw my Dad tonight.

No, I wasn't seeing things. It wasn't a ghost (even though he's been dead since 1989). Rather, it was a double. I was watching the Jerry Springer episode of the BBC's excellent, Who do you think you are? which we videoed a couple of weeks ago. In it, Jerry talked to Tony Grenville of the Association of Jewish Refugees. Tony looks so much like my father, it is uncanny. He has his ears, his chin, his mouth.

Watch the segment (shown half way down this page). You never see a full frontal shot of his face but. Oh. My. God. The expressions! It was like watching my Dad 30 years ago. He has got to be a cousin.

How ironic that I saw this today. It would have been Dad's 93rd birthday today.

- Pam

Saturday 6 September 2008

Meeting a "rock star"

Today, I met the Yarn Harlot

and gave her some beer

in beer cozies (aka stubby holders).

We met at the I Knit London Day.

It was a brilliant day. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is lovely: funny, friendly, the sort of girl you'd love to be your best friend. A knitting rock star! There were hundreds of people queuing up to meet her

and she was lovely and gracious to each and every one.

Thank you for a great day, Stephanie. I'm tired* from shopping and queuing, you must be exhausted from talking and signing and being "on stage" for hours.

- Pam

PS: And a big "Thank you" to DH, who not only braved a day full of yarn and knitters (as a complete muggle), but also carried everything for me, gave me yarn(!) and took the photos.

* My back is killing me again.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Note to Self

When listening to MP3 player at work, do not dance along to The Divine Comedy's National Express. It is so not flattering, particularly since nobody else can hear it.

- Pam (super dork)

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Accessibility versus Dumbing Down

Last night, we attended another Proms Concert, this one a celebration of the life of Vaughan Williams on the 50th anniversary of his death. (A really good concert, BTW. Listen if you get the chance.) During the second interval, I had a chat with a friend who works in one of the Orchestra Departments at the BBC. To protect her identity, I'll call her "Scully".

Scully said that one of the biggest concerns within her part of the BBC is that classical music is considered elitist. The implied assumption is that only rich people listen to classical music and, therefore, the money would be better spent on something that is popular "down in da 'hood". So the orchestras have to fight for their existence.

All the way home, I steamed in indignation. I'm still having problems putting my indignation into words. I think it boils down to this: this country is still class ridden, with the biggest snobs being those who make assumptions about others likes and tastes based on class. Consider the rubbish that was written about James Blunt when he first appeared on the music scene; the press were suprised that someone of his background (Harrow School, Sandhurst, the Guards) would be into pop music (the implication being that "posh people" don't do pop music. Absolute tosh!).

I think I've mentioned before that I passionately resent people making assumptions about me. Australia is basically classless - if its society is stratified, then it's Middle Class vs Rich, and the only differences are where you live, what you drive and how much money you take home. In British terms, the suburb I grew up in and the local high school (where I first learned the flute) are probably working class. Nobody had a lot of money but it didn't matter - we weren't limited by our "class". My dad worked in a factory; the first time I went to the theatre, it was organised by their social club (Oklahoma, I think, at Her Majesty's Theatre).

If the BBC snobs have their way and cut the orchestras, then it's people like me who will suffer. I got into classical music because I was exposed to it at school. As a result, I learned the flute and sang in the choir. Our education district ran an annual music camp, filled with kids from Springvale, Frankston, Dandenong and Doveton - not wealthy suburbs by any means. I think I was 17 before I went to my first "professional" classical concert, with paid musicians, and where I wasn't involved somehow in the music making.

One of the best things the BBC does RIGHT NOW is to make classical music accessible to everyone. You just have to turn on the radio or the TV (NB: about half the Proms are televised on either BBC2 or BBC4). The BBC orchestras spend a lot of time and money on out-reach programs. They support the Proms, where the cheapest tickets are £6 and all children get in for half price. There are special "Family Proms" events where everyone gets a chance to make music and meet the orchestra. I'm not sure what else the orchestras can do.

To me, the real question is this: when real music lessons aren't available at school, how do you recruit the next generation of listeners/musicians? (The very basic music syllabus for the National Curriculum doesn't include learning how to read music.) Also, how do you break down the snobbery that assumes that to play classical music means you have to be called Tristram, own half of Surrey and dislike pop music?

If I was God for the day, I'd change the school syllabus but until that happens, we need a different solution. I puzzled over this for several hours. Classical music has to be made "normal", in a country where the focus for the last thirty years has been dumbing things down. If the snobs at the BBC had their way, they'd have the orchestral musicians playing "garage" to kids when they tour schools instead of Vaughan Williams.

Finally, I came up with a solution for the BBC. Insert some classical musicians into their working-class, soap opera, Eastenders. Portray the musicians as real people, practising their instruments and drinking in the Old Vic. Have them lug a cello through the street market on their way to work, playing for a professional orchestra. Give them a mockney accent like the rest of the cast. Have the drinkers at the Old Vic go along to a concert to support their mate (and don't turn it into a stupid comedy moment). Make classical music normal in the East End.

What do you think?

- Pam (out of time but not out of words)

Final Olympic Report

So how did you all do?

Me? I ended up invalided out. I pulled a muscle in my back and spent the weekend in considerable pain. It was only a little niggle last Wednesday, after I attempted a particularly poor Pilates DVD, somewhere below the tip of the right shoulder blade. The aerobics I did on Friday aggravated it and by Saturday morning, I had pains all across my right flank (sort of where the oblique muscles are). DH covered me in ibuprofen gel but I really only got relief after I remembered the heat-packs my sister gave me one birthday.

Still, I think I deserve a bronze medal for all that.

- Pam

Monday 25 August 2008

The unlucky sock

Remember the sock that I had to frog because it would fit an elephant instead of DH? Well, I've had more traumas with it. I was 2/3 of the way up the toe on Saturday when I noticed a hole about two inches below. Couldn't figure out how it was formed. For a few minutes, I debated whether to just run a thread around it/through it but it fell right where the edge of DH's foot would meet his shoe and would probably rub.

Reluctantly, carefully, I frogged it back, counting the rows below the toe decreases so that I could accurately return the sock to the same length. The hole was caused by an accidental yarn over, right where I'd moved from one dpn to the next. (To prevent a ladder, I always knit through the back of the loop in the first stitch, yarn over the needle instead of under, which makes a tight stitch that faces the right way. Somehow, I'd brought the yarn from the wrong side.)

I picked up the stitches and knitted frantically through yesterday's Olympic's closing ceremony. Since we had a Prom Concert last night, I was determined to have a new sock on my needles rather than run out of sock half way through the concert. At about 8pm (the concert was at 10), I grafted the toe. Big sigh of relief. "Great," I thought, "I'll just roll up a new skein of yarn and I'll be ready for tonight".

For some reason, at that point I compared the sock to it's pair. Yes, they were the same length and width. Good. But what was this? Uh, oh. Something didn't look right. In denial, I held them both up to show DH. Somehow, I'd managed to knit the toe sideways!

Thank God I hadn't woven in the end!

- Pam (frogged it back again, this morning. Third time lucky?)

Sunday 24 August 2008


It occurs to me that I haven't talked much about this year's Prom Concerts. We aren't going to as many as last year and have managed to miss two of the ones we were to attend, thanks to MIL's ulcer (all healed up now) and being far to knackered to drive into London for a 10pm concert (we listened to it instead on the radio).

Still, there are a few moments that have been blog-worthy, particularly the time when the man next to me asked if I always knitted at the Proms. "Yes," I said, wary that I might be about to get bollocked. "I saw you at the last concert we attended. We sat behind you. Did you enjoy the ...[insert forgotten composition here]...?". He then asked me about my sock, commenting "It isn't much bigger than last week!". OMG - I'm turning into one of the features of the Proms, the Knitting Lady!

Then there was the "Dead Cat" Prom, on Sunday 10th August. The program included two World Premiers:-
  • Sibelius Night Ride and Sunrise
  • Michael Berkeley Slow Dawn (World premier of this version)
  • Stuart MacRae Gaudete (BBC commission and world premier)
  • Elgar Enigma Variations (30 mins)
The Sibelius and the Berkeley were OK, not particularly memorable but not horrendous either. And the Elgar was a relief! ("Please Sir, play the Nimrod again!")

MacRae's Gaudete was music to slit your wrist by. There's no polite way to describe it. The soprano soloist sounded like a wounded cat mourning her lost territory. I can't blame the musicians - technically, it was a difficult piece and they acquitted themselves well. I'm not even sure I can blame the composer; his task was to take Ted Hughes' horribly depressing book of poems about death and turn it into classical music. Check out MacRae's programme notes.

Thank God for the Elgar. Helen had brought along her ?9-year old niece. If the concert had finished with Gaudete, the poor kid would have been left with nightmares.

The other memorable Prom was this Friday night's:-
  • Mahler Symphony No.5
  • Stockhausen Punkte (1952/1962/1993)
  • Schubert Ständchen, D921 orch. David Matthews
  • Bei dir allein, D866/2 orch. Manfred Trojahn
  • Nacht und Träume, D827 orch. Colin Matthews
  • Das Lied im Grünen, D917 orch. Detlev Glanert
  • Beethoven Overture 'Leonore' No.3
If you get the chance, do listen* to the Mahler! I know it's 74 minutes long, but it was beautiful. And it's not a minute too long - you are left wanting more. Mahler would have made a good film composer. There is a funny story about the fourth movement: in the fifties, it was used as the theme for a movie. One of the studio execs was so impressed, he ordered the producer to use "that Mahler guy" again!

The Stockhausen, on the other hand... Skip it. It is 27 minutes of discord, based on his theory of pointillism. I can't fault the musicians - it is a very difficult piece to play and, as far as I can tell, they did a good job. But it is a discordant mess without any themes on which to hang your musical hat.

To me, the Stockhausen is an example of what went wrong with 20th Century music. Somewhere in the middle of century, composers (and critics) turned their backs on melody - it was uncool and old-fashioned. Critics still do it: film theme-music and musicals are sneered at for being "populist", as if only unpopular music can be considered any good. The more obscure, the better as far as they are concerned. I'm sure the Dead Cat music got full marks from the critics.

We've heard three new pieces this year, the two above and Jason Yarde's Rhythm and Other Fascinations. Only the Yarde was memorable for the right reasons: he focused on melody and rhythm. Whilst you can hear his jazz influences, he's composed something new and fresh. I bet he was slated by the critics. If you get the chance, keep an ear out for it.

Tonight, we're going to another late night concert: Bach's cello suites 1, 2, and 3. I'll let you know if it is blog-worthy.

- Pam

* You have until Friday 29th August to listen to the concert via the BBC's "Listen Again" service. It's in 3 downloads. Skip part two to miss the Stockhausen.

Friday 22 August 2008

Going for Bronze

Have you been glued to the Olympics, like me? Every morning, instead of my usual "BBC Breakfast" program, I've been watching the BBC's live coverage of the summer Olympics in Beijing. Throughout the day, at work, we've been checking the BBC's website for updates; "Have we won another medal yet?" is a common refrain from whomever has spent the last hour in a meeting. 7pm is the highlights program - another must watch.

Given my dual-country-status as an Aussie who has spent half her life in Britain, I'm particularly amused by the rivalry that has developed on the British side, where the Brits are happy but only because they have more gold medals than the Aussies. Throughout the last two weeks it's been "We've almost caught up with the Australians," "We're level on Gold medals," "The Aussies are ahead," etc. And this isn't just my husband teasing me; it's happening on the BBC, too. The current status:-

Gold 18
Silver 13
Bronze 11
Total = 42
Ranking 3rd


Gold 11
Silver 14
Bronze 16
Total = 41
Ranking 6th
I'm not bitter. Honest. When you consider that Australia's population is less than 1/10th that of the United States and about 1/5 that of Great Britain or France or Germany, coming 6th in the Olympics is a huge achievement. Especially when I remember the dark days of the Montreal Olympics, where we won one (1) single Silver medal and four (4) Bronze.*

For the Australian nation, coming home from Montreal with FIVE medals and no gold medals was a huge shock to the system, a real ego blow. There is a huge part of our national identity tied up in sport. We're a small nation at the empty end of the planet; not much sphere of influence there. Sport is one way of getting our collective voice heard in the big wide world. Virtually all our national heroes are sporting heroes (understandable when your recorded history only goes back some 200-odd years). Montreal was a turning point. It lead to the founding of the Australian Institute of Sport and the subsequent professionalising of much of Australia's sporting infrastructure. And 32 years later, I'm enjoying watching the results.

Ahem... Pamela. Stop avoiding the Question. How is your Olympics challenge?

OK, a confession. I've been avoiding blogging because I haven't been very successful at my challenge. I've been trying to figure out a way to put a positive spin on all this, but I'm failing. I'm not worthy of a gold medal. Or a silver. But I reckon my case for a bronze is still valid.

Over the last 15 days, there have been six when I didn't exercise/perform the challenge. I lost last weekend to a migraine (which finally wore off completely on Monday) and three days to laziness. By my reckoning, the migraine took me from gold (perfect score) to silver. It was beyond my control.

As long as I continue to exercise until the closing ceremony on Sunday, I think I still deserve the bronze. Yes, laziness reared it's ugly head, but I have managed to beat it back into it's corner during the majority of the days of the Challenge. And that is what an Olympic Challenge is all about really - picking a goal and fighting your way past the demons until you succeed.

- Pam (Come on Aussies Come on!!!)

*That's actually more than I remembered. I only remembered the Bronze in the swimming, and was checking out the name of the swimmer** on the Australian Olympic Committee website when I found the real tally.

**His name was Stephen Holland, a.k.a. "Super Fish".

Sunday 10 August 2008

Exercise Olympics: Days 1, 2 and 3 Report

(Well, maybe I'm cheating a little reporting Day 3 before it's finished but this will be my only blog-time today.)

Friday, I thought "Well, I've committed myself in public, I'd better get up and do something". My choice: Move More by Weight Watchers. This was the first time I'd had it out of the case. After listening to the introduction, I pushed the furniture back, dialled up an aerobic session and settled down to follow as best I could.

I don't know about you, but I buy exercise DVDs to "inspire me". To prove to myself that this time I am going to work out. This time will be different - see, I've got a shiny new DVD to prove it! And I'm determined to make it happen this time. Only, this time becomes last time and nothing changes.

Move More was a pleasant surprise. The designers have put a lot of thought into what their audience needs and wants: firstly, by designing a routine that changes each time you switch it on, and secondly, by noticing that none of us live in an exercise studio. This is a workout that can be done in a six foot square of cleared space. Also, it was easy to follow. OK, I'm not the most coordinated person, nor do I have much balance, so if I can follow a DVD on the first time through then it must be good.

The final thing to note is that the DVD doesn't contain one exercise style of workout - it contains three. You can chose a stretch and relax type workout, a tone and muscle building type workout or an aerobic workout. (These are my descriptions - WW calls them something else.) And you can choose the duration too, from 5 to 30 minutes.

For Day 2, last night, I did a stretch and relax workout. It was late, I was tired and self-conscious because DH was in the room. Once again, the workout was easy to follow, mainly floor work (so no "need to balance on one leg" stuff, yay!).

This morning's choice is going to be The Firm's Slim Solutions Yoga Workout, just as soon as I've had my second cup of coffee. So that's three days down, 14 to go.

- Pam

PS: I'd like to welcome those who've signed up so far: Nandy (hi sis!) and Fluff.

Friday 8 August 2008

The Exercise Olympics

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." The Olympic Creed


Blame the Yarn Harlot. It's all her fault for introducing me to the concept of taking on an Olympic Challenge whilst the real Olympics are on. In 2006, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee created the Knitting Olympics to run concurrently with the Winter Olympic Games. The concept was to take on an achievable knitting challenge - something that would stretch the participants but would still be do-able within the constraints of their skill levels and other commitments.

In a moment of inspiration/madness (delete as appropriate) yesterday, I decided that I would set my own Olympic Challenge for the duration of the Beijing Olympic Games. Only, this time, instead of it being knitting (any excuse), I'd make it based on exercise - the bane of my existence.

I am very aware that I don't get enough exercise. I've become more and more of a slug as the years have gone on. Oh, I've dabbled in yoga, own several pairs of dumbells (and am not afraid to use them), and I can still walk for miles, but I'm no way close to being fit. Or even to achieving the recommended daily minimum for aerobic exercise. It just doesn't happen. And I've made more New Years Resolutions to correct this than I can count.

So, for the duration of the Olympics - from today, 8th August until Sunday 24th August inclusive - I hereby vow publicly to achieve the following Olympic Challenge:
I, PipneyJane, will exercise for a minimum of 15 minutes every day during the Olympics, such exercise to be defined as a continuous activity or series of activities as directed by either an instructor or by an exercise video/DVD.
Anyone care to join me?

- Pam

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Current obsession

When it comes to sport, I am pretty much a true-to-type, die-in-the-wool, stereotypical Australian. Sport is our national religion. It is the one thing that unites all the disparate peoples and cultures that make up Australia. We have four codes of Football (Australian Rules, Rugby Union, Rugby League and Soccer), Cricket, athletics, rowing, sailing (even people who've never been on a boat in their lives follow the progress of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race), golf, surfing, cycling, horse racing (the Melbourne Cup is the only horse race in the world that has it's own public holiday), tennis, etc, etc. And in all of the sports I've listed, we're world class. When Australia takes a sport seriously, look out the rest of the world; we won't stop until we're champions.

It's summer, so I'm obsessing about Cricket. In particular, the international matches between England vs. New Zealand at the start of the summer, and England vs. South Africa now. If I could, I'd listen to every ball of every game. Sadly, I work in a radio black spot (last year, I purchased a DAB radio just to get Test Match Special but there is no reception here), and the IT Department have blocked radio via the internet.

Kim has "County" membership of Surrey Cricket Club. In June, we treated ourselves to a Girls Day Out - a One Day International at the Oval. It was a day that started with the threat of rain and became hot and sunny, so I went prepared for anything: hiking slacks that convert to shorts (similar to these), strappy top, cardigan, waxed Barbour jacket… We packed a picnic, knitted a bit, drank champagne, sobered up on Pimms, and had a really good day out.

Anyway, ever since the match, I've been pondering County Cricket Club membership and whether it is worth applying for "County" membership to Surrey. It would entitle me to free entry at all County games and priority booking of tickets for all Internationals. Whilst £150/year isn't expensive to watch one of my favourite sports, it isn't cheap if I don't use it. The Oval is at least an hour and a half away by public transport but their secondary ground at Guildford isn't too difficult to drive to (a lot of miles, though, and then there is parking to consider).

The enticing alternative, of course, is Middlesex County Cricket Club, who at least play some matches locally to our home. And, of course, their main home ground is LORDS the Headquarters of Cricket. The benefits are the same as for Surrey, but up until about half an hour ago, it had never even occurred to me that Middlesex membership might be a possibility. In my mind, I'd been confusing them with the famous "MCC" or Marylebone Cricket Club, with whom Middlesex share Lords. The MCC was never a possibility - it has a twenty year waiting list and then only if you get proposed and seconded by at least 4 existing members. (If you are a billionaire who donates £mega-millions, I'm sure they'll find a way to squeeze you in sooner.) Middlesex, on the other hand, is do-able at £133 plus joining fee.

Decisions, decisions.

However, the question still remains: if I became a club member, would I use it? I want it, but even if it only cost £20, if I don't use it then it won't be worth it. For now, I'll put it on my "wish list" and maybe save up for it via the Sanity Fund. That'll give me a couple of months to review the idea before I have to commit myself (I have to join before October - my BIL wants tickets to next year's Lords' test match between England and Australia).

[ sigh ]

- Pam (I wants it NOW!)

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Did they cover all the bases?

Whilst I was getting my hair cut on Saturday, I caught a glimpse of an article in the Daily Mirror, "Credit Card Family Forced to Live in a Vauxhall Astra".

A desperate family have been forced to live in their car after having their home repossessed.

Four-months pregnant Laura Whitney, 28, partner Richard Webster, 32, Jessica, seven, and Jack, two, have spent two weeks in their V-reg* Vauxhall Vectra. The couple could no longer pay their £62,500 mortgage, which has a 10.9 per cent interest rate, because their lender increased payments from £373 a month to £553.

Whilst I feel very sorry for the couple involved, the article is depressingly short of details. Apart from consulting the Citizen's Advice Bureau, what steps did they take to save their house? There are so many unanswered questions - maybe all those years of hanging around the Motley Fool have made me think differently, but if I'd done the interview these are the things I'd want to know and share with my readers:-
  1. What was their budget pre-reposession?
  2. And what about income? The article states that his income is £1,000 net a month. She will get child benefit (non-means-tested) of £130+ a month. The father of her first child should also be paying some form of child maintenance (unless, of course, the Child Support Agency is failing at it's job again).
  3. Did they make partial mortgage payments? Did they neglect other bills and prioritise the mortgage? Or did they leave the mortgage and pay the rest?
  4. Why isn't Laura working? "Richard works for Royal Mail and I will be happy to work again" is a pretty strong indication that she has been jobless for some time. What steps did she take to find a job before the house was repossessed?
  5. Do they have other debts? How will they pay those off? Did they prioritise those over the house?
  6. Did they claim all the relevant tax credits?
Basically, I'd want to know that they'd done everything possible to save their house before it was repossessed.

As it is written, the story just doesn't smell right. This is the UK, where there is a safety net (it's not perfect, but they'd qualify for a lot of assistance that is unavailable in other countries). They get free medical care; free prescriptions for the children and for Laura whilst she's pregnant/until the baby is a year old; ditto free dental care. The seven year old probably qualifies for free school lunches. They'd still have to pay council tax, utilities and telephone bills - no subsidies there.

Unfortunately, this couple won't be the last to have their home repossessed. By failing to answer the above questions, the Mirror missed the chance to subtly educate it's readers by providing sufficient information to help another family to save their home.

- Pam

* "V" registration cars were first registered in 1999.

Monday 28 July 2008

Good-bye Molly

This wasn't the post I planned to write tonight - a tale about how, yesterday, I'd got to dividing for the heel of last week's sock and then discovered that in my distraction at the hospital, I'd cast on and knitted 36 EXTRA stitches and hadn't noticed until I'd knitted 72 rows. (How didn't I notice I was knitting something that would fit an elephant instead of DH???)

Anyway, that went out the window when I got back from lunch to find an email from my sister (a.k.a. "Eldest Sis"). Eldest Sis broke the sad news that our Auntie Molly died in her sleep last Thursday, at the age of 89. She'd been living in a nursing home in Brisbane for the last three years. Auntie Molly had been my mum's youngest brother's wife.

I sat there at work feeling sad and distracted and angry. The anger was all directed at my mum for not maintaining closer relationships with her siblings and relations. They were in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth (amongst other places), we were isolated in Melbourne. There wasn't a stream of letters back and forth, nor were there frequent telephone calls (we didn't have a phone until I was at primary school). I don't know why this happened, except possibly due to the tyranny of distance.

I didn't really know my Aunt - and I regret that. I have a handful of memories from when we visited for a week when I was 10; and I spent the afternoon with her on my last trip to Brisbane in 2001.

What I do have are my mum's stories; they had been good friends back in the 1940's and '50s before mum moved down to Melbourne. There are loads of stories: how my tiny 4ft 8" aunt had to stand on a step to kiss her 6ft 4" husband; how she used to shop for her shoes in the children's department, often buying her clothes there, too, when she could get classic styles. Then there was the time mum and Auntie Molly went shopping for maternity clothes, when Molly was 7 months pregnant. A snooty shop assistant instructed mum to take her "sister to the children's department. We don't serve little girls here!". Molly turned around to protest and the shop assistant was rendered speechless.

I will always remember Molly as the matriarch: mother of 6 and grandmother to I-don't-remember-how-many. (Being 8 years younger than her youngest child, I fall somewhere between the two.) When we stayed with them in 1975, there was a big family party in the back garden. All the daughters and daughters-in-law brought food, while the boys manned the barbecue. Auntie Molly sat in the middle whilst the action happened around her, a bit like a conductor in front of an orchestra organising this daughter to fetch something, that daughter-in-law to pass around the plates. She was queen of all she surveyed.

Good-bye Auntie Molly and God-bless.

- Pam

Saturday 26 July 2008

That was the week that was

It's been a disjointed week and this will probably be a disjointed post. On the plus side, we got the remortgage approved (I still don't know for what the house was valued, so I suspect they just said it is worth what we say it is).

On the down side, DH's mum phoned last Saturday evening, "can you take me to hospital?". She'd been vomiting blood. The doctor had prescribed her a long course of anti-inflamatory tablets and she was three weeks in. The drugs had caused a stomach ulcer. We spent four hours in A&E until they finally admitted her to hospital. Apparently her Hb was 5. They gave her two units of blood on the Sunday, a gastroscopy on the Monday and discharged her on the Wednesday. She is much better. Her colour is healthier than it was a month ago.

I spent Saturday night stress knitting while we waited. DH and I'd been getting ready to go to our first Prom Concert of the year when she called, so I had a sock in my bag ready to knit. It calmed me down and kept me waiting patiently.

The knitting had the "appointment effect", too. Have you ever noticed, when you're waiting for an appointment and just get settled into your knitting, they'll call you in faster? Even if you're 15 minutes early? Well, I didn't do more than two rows in succession without someone coming in to the bay to examine my MIL or take blood or give her medication.

I worked from home on Wednesday so that I could collect my MIL from hospital. This is the first time I've seriously tried to do it, plugging the work laptop into our broadband and getting on with the job. (The last time I tried working from home, it was back when I had no work to do.) An interesting experiment. I found that I spent less time on the internet than when I'm sitting in the office. Also that, even losing 2 hours to go to the hospital, I got quite a lot done. (No, I'm not counting the two loads of laundry that line-dried.) The connection to the server was actually faster than the one I have at Site.

There were down sides: not having all my files around was a big one. Not everything has been scanned and stored electronically. Also, being invisible - maybe it's my paranoia, but I think that if you work from home you need to have concrete achievements to show for it because people can't see you on the phone to the client answering questions. Wednesday was a bitty day, one of those that whilst I did a lot, didn't result in much concrete output.

- Pam

Saturday 19 July 2008

Things that are more valuable than their price

Just over a week ago, I sent the bowl of the food processor crashing to the floor with my elbow. Naturally, with our hard as iron kitchen floor, it broke. After a bit of a search (3 separate attempts), I managed to find a replacement bowl online for £25 plus p&p. Of course, I could have purchased a new food processor but my inner-Fool rebelled at the thought of replacing a perfectly good machine when it only needed one part.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the things that I value far beyond their initial cost and I came up with a list of six things.
  1. As the inspiration, the food processor gets poll position. It gets used at least once a week. I'm always whipping up pancakes or muffins in the blender; cakes, doughs, breadcrumbs and nut-loaves in the main bowl. I don't know how much time or money it has saved me over the years since DH gave it to me as a birthday present, but I do know that there are things I wouldn't make without it to do the hard work.
  2. The freezer compartment of our side-by-side fridge/freezer. So much of what we buy ends up in the freezer, either deliberately (meat from our quarterly trips to the butcher) or as the consequence of other actions (an excess of lunch boxes filled on the weekend). I do not know how people survive without a decent-sized freezer.
  3. My little Samsung mobile phone. It's six years old and counting, too old to have a camera or a colour screen. I think it cost £120 new. I'm on pay as you go, so I've never paid a penny of line rental, but I've used it on most of my trips abroad (except to North America - it's dual band, not tri-band). Oh, and calls to Australia cost 20p a minute - is cheaper than using a land-line - always convenient for those "happy birthday" telephone calls to Oz.
  4. Our microwave-convection oven. Another £120 purchase, but this time 8 years ago. At the time, DH questioned why we needed a combi-oven, when we could pick up a microwave for half the price and we had a large stove with twin ovens (I think my response was an illogical but persuasive "Because I want one!"). Fast forward three years to when we moved into this house and we discovered that there was no 480-volt electric hook up for the stove (the hob is gas, the ovens are electric). Remodelling the kitchen is high on the renovations list, but until then the convection feature is getting a lot of use. I bake cakes in it, cook roasts, grill sausages, make pies, etc, etc. The usuable space is a bit small - at the most 12 inches by 8 high - and my main roasting dish is a 12-inch deep-crust pizza tray, but there isn't much that can't be cooked in there without a little planning.
  5. Every knitting needle and crochet hook I have ever owned. And the entire contents of the stash. Self explanatory to knitters. For non-knitters: knitting is far more than the act of "making a sweater". There is a large amount of entertainment value in the act of creating something from scratch, particularly if that act involves cables or lace.
  6. My sewing machine. Ditto point 5. I used to work off Great Portland Street, when it was still nominally London's garment district. Just around the corner from us was a little shop crammed with end-of-roll fabrics for £5 a metre or so. My fabric stash still holds several metres from those days (I have nowhere to sew.) I have made skirt suits from 3 metres of fabric, at a quarter of the cost of comparable items in the shops. Sure, it takes time and effort to sew an outfit but no more so than most people waste watching TV (knitters/crocheters excluded). The sewing machine was a gift from my mum, who taught me to sew when I was in pre-school.
- Pam (what about you? Could you list 5 items that add more value to your life than their initial price)

Friday 18 July 2008

Hurry Up Already!

We are going through the trauma of remortgaging the house. Our five-year fixed rate will expire in September and throw us at the mercy of the bank's variable rate, 3% higher than what we've been paying.

When we bought the house in 2003, we got the longest fixed rate deal we could - they don't do "whole of life" fixed rate mortgages here. Interest rates had bottomed out (the Bank of England base rate fell as low as 3.5%) and started their slow rise again and we thought we were lucky to secure a 4.39% fixed rate for five years. There were only a handful on the market. Several super-optimistic members of the peanut gallery thought we were mad: "What happens if interest rates go down again?" Of course, they never did.

This time around, there are actually some 10-year fixed rate deals around. Or should I say theoretically available. Thanks to the credit crunch and bank paranoia, the actual availability of mortgages changes on an hourly basis. It took our mortgage broker four applications to secure us a potential mortgage - the first three were withdrawn by the time he got the paperwork completed and submitted!

In theory, we have secured a 10-year fixed rate deal at 6.39%. All we need now is the survey. Which brings me to now. This minute. The surveyor is due between 10am and 12am today. It's 10.54 by the computer's clock. And I'm waiting for him to arrive. I wish he'd hurry up!

I HATE waiting.

At the best of times, this whole process has made me an emotional wreck, but the waiting around is making it worse. Everything hangs on the surveyor's visit. Absolutely everything. I won't be happy until he's been, and gone, and confirmed the valuation we want for the house. We need him to appraise the house at a quarter higher than what we paid for it - we are extending the mortgage so that we can do much needed renovations (including new gutters, a new boiler, and proper roof for the kitchen). These aren't luxuries. The flat roof over the kitchen is in a poor state. (Did you know that they use bitumen-covered felt as standard on flat roofs in this country? The life-span is 10 years.) I want to replace it with a proper, pitched roof.

Come on, Mr Surveyor! Hurry Up!

- Pam

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Coffee, I smell coffee

You don't have to be around me for long to learn that I love my coffee. I don't mind if it is instant or filter, but it has to be good coffee - none of those "International Ghost" pot scrapings for me! I frequently refer to it as "the elixir of life" and claim not to be human until I've had two cups in the morning (not strictly true, my work blend is half decaf).

I am not a coffee snob. The only reason I have a cafetiere at work is because their instant coffee tastes truly disgusting. At home, we drink own-brand, freeze-dried instant coffee most of the time, keeping the freshly-ground filter coffee to savour on the weekends. Our coffee beans are French, but only because Carefour's own brand beans are cheapest around. (Three kilos for less than €10 almost justifies the travel costs to Calais.)

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to go coffee-tasting for work. At the time, I worked for a cosmetic surgery clinic and we were tasked with finding a cheaper source of supply for tea and coffee. Maureen and I thought it was a good excuse so we went to the Monmouth Street Coffee House for a session in their tasting room. I learnt about the different roasts and how they affect the flavour; the different tastes which come from the various varieties of beans and how that taste changes depending on the roast; why coffee should be stored in the fridge or freezer; why it goes "off" fifteen minutes after brewing; that water decaffeination should be the process of choice when you are buying decaffeinated beans; etc, etc. (If you are ever in London, find the time for a visit. It's well worth it.*)

All of this is a long preamble to explain what kept waking me up on Saturday morning. We had friends staying over; I went to bed around midnight, DH came to bed some time after 3. I woke up at 4.30am, smelling coffee. My first thought was that DH had ground the coffee for the morning and the smell was drifting up the stairs.

The next time I woke up, I thought "That coffee smells strong, someone must have switched on the pot". I looked at the clock, discovered it was 5.30am (so highly unlikely), and went back to sleep before I could puzzle that one out. The coffee smell kept getting stronger. And kept waking me up! Somewhere in my sleep befuddled brain, I discounted the coffee pot theory and decided that DH must have got ground coffee on his hands. But I couldn't smell coffee on him. I puzzled this one for a while, drifting in and out of sleep.

When I finally woke up properly, the coffee smell had dissipated. In the kitchen, I discovered that DH hadn't ground any coffee. More puzzlement. Looking out the window, I saw that it had rained earlier. Slowly, very slowly the penny dropped. D'oh!

Mental head-slap time! We live 3 miles from an instant coffee factory. Normally, you can't smell it here, but when it's about to rain you can. The one thing that hadn't occurred to my sleep befuddled brain was that I was smelling the coffee company! It must have been quite a storm, because the smell was the strongest I have ever smelt.

- Pam (Coffee? You called?)

* If you are into tea, then Fortnum & Masons is the best place to go to taste a wide variety of teas. Their Afternoon Teas are good, too.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Date to remember

Most people remember where they were on September 11th 2001, how they heard the news, who they were with, etc. For Londoners, yesterday, the 7th July, was another of those dates. Yesterday was the third anniversary of the London Bombings in 2005.

It sounds cliched but I can remember exactly where I was and what I did for the whole day. I was working from home in the morning, waiting for my new laptop and printer to be delivered. To use my work laptop, I had to plug it into the phone socket (it was still on dial-up), so I was tethered to the sofa, with the TV on in the background. BBC1 was showing one of it's house-buying programs.

The first mention of the bombings was from the delivery man who brought the printer (the laptop arrived separately, later). It was about 9.50am. He said there'd been an explosion on the Underground. My first thought: "Oh, God. Don't let it be our fault!". (The engineers I worked for had multiple large contracts with London Underground.)

At 10am, the news came on the TV and I watched as the truth emerged. Four explosions. Three different tube trains and a bus.

The laptop arrived at around 11am. This delivery man was less chatty. Worried. Frightened even.

I packed up and drove to work. Even though I was listening to the car radio, I remember an absence of noise. There was very little traffic and everyone was driving slowly. Nobody was in the fast lane. Everywhere, the matrix signs read:

Avoid Central London
Roads Closed
Turn on Radio

On the opposite side of the M25 a string of Surrey Ambulances headed towards the M4.

At work, the emergency plans had come into action. The IT department where I worked had set up a call centre, helping HR to track down every member of staff who either worked in our London offices or was known to be up in Town for a meeting. By 2pm, all heads were accounted for. Nobody was missing. Or injured. Nobody had immediate family among the victims.

By 3pm, our CEO had emailed every member of staff (all 15,000 of us) informing us that even if he had to walk there, he would be working in our Central London office for the next few days. And so would all the members of the Management Board. He left unspoken that if the board members didn't make it in, they wouldn't have jobs. But we all knew. I've always liked him for that - he wouldn't put the staff through anything he wasn't prepared to face himself.

I drove a colleague home that afternoon. He was quite shaken up, one of the more sensitive types. I think he'd have liked to have had a cry, if he could have got away with it. There were many people who felt like that on 7/7.

- Pam

Wednesday 2 July 2008

"UK life costs 'at least £13,400'."

The BBC Breakfast program this morning was all about a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on how much a reasonable standard of living costs in Britain today. Apparently, for a single person it's £13,400 per annum.

"A single person in Britain needs to earn at least £13,400 a year before tax for a minimum standard of living, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) says.

A couple with two children need to spend £370 a week and a pensioner couple need £201 excluding housing and childcare costs, the charity says."


I found the budgets fascinating. They used focus groups to establish what would make a reasonable budget for each group to live on, right down to a shopping list for groceries and the component amortized cost of the dustpan and brush used in the kitchen. The groups also decided what was a luxury item (and, therefore excluded) and what is a necessity.

The closest thing for us, I guess is the budget for a couple with two children. Total cost per week, excluding childcare £435.96. I've found myself studying the lists and comparing our real life to them.

Mr and Mrs Average spend more than we do on food and drink, eating many more biscuits (that's cookies for you Americans) and preprepared foodstuffs than we do. However, we spend double on housing costs - they pay about a third of our mortgage payment in rent. And I'm not sure if the assumption that the Averages live in a "band B" council house is viable. Since the big sell-off of council homes in the 1980's (sold to their occupants at a deep discount), getting council housing has been well nigh impossible for anyone with a reasonable income. The BBC were quoting living costs of £27,000 per annum for a couple with two children, which is approximately the average salary in the UK. At that level, the council housing officers would expect the Averages to rent private housing.

(NB: The "band B" thing is council tax, our local property based tax. Housing is banded based on values and each property of a certain type in an area is considered to be in the same band and is, therefore, taxed at the same rateable value. If the Averages have your standard three bedroom British house, it would fall into band D, at twice the amount in the budget.)

On the clothing front, I spend less than the £516 per annum clothing budget Mrs Average is expected to spend. If she asked me, I'd suggest that a) she shops the charity shops for some things, and b) she gets up at 4am on the 27th December and goes to the Next sale (doors open at 5am) for work clothes and smart casual stuff. That would give her more for money.

My favourite item from Mr Average's clothing budget is the £5 woollen hat, which is estimated to last for 5 years. Somehow, I don't think so - if it really is wool, it would cost more than that (even if Mrs Average did the necessary with the needles). And why does he have walking boots when his wife doesn't? And wellies, ditto.

OK, I've had my bit of fun. On the whole, I think these budgets are far more realistic than the figures the government bandy around and use to set benefits such as the state pension and unemployment benefit. At least with these budgets, you can live.

- Pam

Sunday 29 June 2008

Bug validation

We did a lot of work in the garden yesterday: destroying the old compost bin and deploying the new one, shifting the remains of the old shed to the dump, poisoning the ivy again. Sometime during the afternoon, DH turned to me: "Is that one of the beetles that landed on your neck on Tuesday?".

There, on the patio was a slightly squished black beetle, approximately 4cm long.

"Yes", I replied.

"No wonder you screamed!"

Gee. Thanks, Lover. Next time believe me when I say it was a big bug/spider/whatever.

- Pam

Friday 27 June 2008

Wool, glorious wool

“What’s that you’re carrying?”, DH asked when I got home last night.

“It’s an emergency wool parcel from Australia.”

The Cleckheaton Country 12-ply was on my desk when I got into work yesterday (thank you Tapestry Craft). It’s the right weight and the shade seems a good match although I won’t know for sure until I knit it up. The only major difference between the original yarn and the new is that the old yarn was more heavily plied – it really was 12 ply, with the four major strands being made up of three thinner strands plied together (sorry, I only speak pigeon “spinner”). The new Country 12-ply only has four strands plied together.

If my plan of attack works correctly, any differences won’t be noticeable at all. I’m going to frog the existing sleeve back to the cuff and knit it up again, alternating yarns every two rows. For the second sleeve, I’ll do the cuff in the old yarn and then proceed as for the first. This should leave me with enough yarn (I hope) to do the button/neck band in the old yarn. I figure that so long as the bands all match, it will fool the eye into ignoring any discrepancies in shading or plying that may be visible. The heavy patterning should work to my advantage in this because it distorts the light and creates tiny patches of shade on the fabric.

The Must Have Cardigan is still in the penalty box, but only because I have to finish my “interim project” first. I’m making a present for my MIL (so no pictures, sorry). It'll get interrupted again when my next Yarn Parcel arrives from the Yarn Barn of Kansas because I have to make not one, not two, but three Five Hour Baby Sweaters within the next couple of weeks. Two are definitely girl flavoured, so I ordered some Plymouth Encore in Baby Pink. I'll wait to see what flavour the third baby is; if it's a boy, I'll use up the Aqua that I have left over from last year.

There is a definite "thrill of the chase" to ordering yarn on-line. First you have the browsing: "what yarn will I use?" "Is it in my colour?" "Who stocks it?"; then you have the placing of the order (in my case, this usually includes the Ceremony of the International Postage, where Melissa at the Yarn Barn emails me to ask if that's all I want to order because "right now, your postage costs more than the yarn*"); followed by the long wait and finally the delivery! (On that last point, Mr Postman, could you hurry up, please!)

So much to knit, so little time.

- Pam

* My response, "Does that mean I have to buy more yarn? Such a pity. What will I do...." :o)

Tuesday 24 June 2008

To the beetle that landed on the back of my neck when I went to open the front door this evening:

I'm sorry, but I can only assume you deliberately chose to commit suicide. If not, then it was a big mistake on your part. At least your death was swift. Stupid on your part, but swift.

- Pam

(Honestly, it was two inches long and black. I only saw it upside down, after I'd flung it away from me. It just lay there until I squished it.)