The limits of middle classness

A while ago we bought a Philips food processor and registered our purchase with Philips to get a free accessory box. It was nice to get the accessory box, but I’m beginning to think it was a Faustian pact. Since then Philips have bombarded me with emails of more products that I might like. Did I not know that they would do this? That the only reason they offer a free accessory box is to get hold of my email address? Yes, of course I did, but it’s what they offer that’s insidious, gadgets that try to worm their way into your affections.

On Sunday, for example (it’s reassuring to know that Philips works on a Sunday) they told me about an espresso machine – a device with beans-to-cup customisation and dynamic multi-media user interface. It remembers six unique user profiles and for each of those six,  up to nine customised beverages. To identify which of the six you are, it has fingerprint user recognition.

You merely put your finger on the recognition device and select from your choice of nine beverages and it grinds the beans precisely to specification, brews them for just how long you like it, adds the perfect amount of milk and froth, delivers it into your cup and goes off to clean and descale itself. How could one not love this machine?

Well, first off, I resented having to give my fingerprints to enter the USA. To get a cup of coffee, it’s outrageous. It’s the thin end of the wedge. What kind of society do we have where even coffee machines keep track of you?

Next, it costs £1,700. I don’t think I need say any more. £1,700, and you still have to buy the beans.

The eurozone is going tits up, the FTSE is dropping, the unemployment rate is rising. But don’t worry, the splendid chaps at Philips have brought out this terrific coffee machine, the cost of which covers what a 24-year old on jobseekers allowance is expected to live on for 33 weeks.

I suppose if I were a banker with a bonus to get rid of, it might appeal. If I won the lottery – no, I never buy a ticket so that won’t happen. Let’s keep this realistic – if I won a million on the premium bonds I might consider it. Diana wouldn’t even do that. If we won a million you could have the new Mercedes, she said, but I wouldn’t give the coffee machine houseroom. Where would we put it?

She has a point. The coffee machine would go ideally in one of those huge kitchen-dining rooms that everyone on ‘Escape to the Country’ seems to want. We have a more traditional arrangement – a tiny kitchen, but separate breakfast room, pantry and utility room. If we bought a £1,700 coffee machine, it wouldn’t fit in the kitchen. We would have to build a separate alcove for it in the breakfast room, a shrine to the stainless steel household god of coffee where we would light votive candles and genuflect to appease it on our way past to the kitchen, where we would shove a teaspoon of instant into a mug and pour on nearly boiling water.

You know you’re middle class when…

… the first of the coalition government cuts to affect you is the halving of the Feed In Tariff  for electricity generated by solar PV panels.

A few weeks ago, we called the chap from WREN, the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network, about getting solar PV panels on our roof. He came within a couple of days, gave us a quote within a week and a contract arrived from the installing company within another week, showing installation in mid-January. Unfortunately, the contract was slightly wrong, so the following Monday, I called the company. The guy who answered took on board my correction and then carefully explained that morning’s government announcement of the reduction in the FiT from 43p to 21p (expected, more or less) and the bringing forward to 9th December of the cut-off date for registering new installations to get the 43p – not at all expected. Everyone was working to 31st March 2012, the previously announced date. The company said it was trying to fit in all the contracted work by the new deadline, but it became apparent that they wouldn’t be able to include us. We could have applied at any time over the last two or three months and we thought we were in good time. Irritating.

… you’re irritated (that word again) that November is staying too warm to warrant fitting the winter tyres you bought in August.

After two winters when our large, rear wheel drive estate car couldn’t get up our drive on the snow, and needed a push from friendly passers-by to get from the kerb to the middle of the road after dropping off number two daughter at Uni, I decided to buy winter tyres for this year. I planned well ahead and bought a set of tyres and wheels, which sat in the garage for months. I was fully expecting to have to fit them at the beginning of November, if not before, when temperatures reached 7C. But we had a warm October and November has stayed mild, so I’ve been continuing on the old summer tyres, hoping they wouldn’t wear down to illegal in the meantime. I finally bit the bullet and swapped them this week. And if it stays warm all winter, with no snow or ice in the south-east or south-west, then you know who you have to thank.

Echoing Corridors

A couple of days ago I went up to London for a friend’s retirement party in Shell Centre. Ian seemed to have been hanging on for ages, managing to miss numerous opportunities to retire early, but finally calling it a day at the end of October, after 41 years service.

In the morning I’d got a phone call from my bank, Lloyds TSB, saying the branch manager had noticed the activity on my account and one of his advisors would like to speak with me about it. In the old days, this might have meant that I was going too much overdrawn and behaving in a financially irresponsible manner and therefore needed a talking to. Nowadays, the banks are not like that (“Overdrawn? Delighted, dear boy. And would you like this payment protection plan while we’re at it?”) and neither am I. What they had spotted was a largish sum in a savings account (and thus the potential to sell me more products). Would I like to make an appointment?

Normally, I would be disinclined to make an appointment, especially since it would cost me £15 in train and bus fares up to London, but since I was going into London already for the retirement do, and would pass right by my bank branch, I asked for a four o’clock slot and got it.

Since I now had more than one thing on, I decided to get out my suit to wear. I hadn’t worn a suit and tie since I don’t remember – oh, yes I do: last Friday at the Woking Liberal Democrats annual dinner. The time before that is the one I can’t remember.

Isabella called up the details of my accounts on her screen and asked if I had considered an “eSavings” account for the money, which would pay better interest than the savings account I was using. I used to have an eSavings account, but the bank unilaterally converted it to the present one a few months ago. I was quite happy with their action, since the eSavings introductory interest bonus had ceased and it paid me a better rate. I explained this to Isabella, but she assured me that I could open a new eSavings account and get the introductory rate again. So I did. That’s an extra 0.9%.

Isabella then went through the list of products I might like to consider. Tying up the money for a longer period wasn’t on because I need it liquid to pay for the new kitchen and extension at Treforest. (“That will be nice for your wife,” said Isabella, an unnecessarily gender-stereotyped remark, I thought. I mean, I like the new kitchen too; it makes emptying the dishwasher easier.)

I wasn’t interested in a credit card that gave me Air Miles, because I can’t be bothered to keep track of them and rarely fly anywhere these days. (I have air miles or flying points on BA, KLM and VLM left over from business trips and on Virgin from my holiday flight last year. I keep waiting for them to expire, since I don’t meet the criteria for retaining them, but every year the airlines change the criteria, so I’m still lumbered with them. Sorry – back to the bank.) I don’t need life insurance, I’ve paid off my mortgage, I am happy with my home and contents insurance, and I use up my ISA allowance elsewhere.

So at the end of the half-hour appointment I was happy at the extra 0.9% and I’ve no idea how Isabella and the bank felt about it.

It was still too early for Ian’s retirement do, so I called Kevin in my old department to see if I could come up and see him. He was aware that I was visiting Shell Centre so it wasn’t completely out of the blue. Fine, he said. I wandered round to the Tower entrance and made my way to reception. The receptionist found my name on a list on the computer. Was I here for the event, because that would mean using the other entrance? I was there for the event, I said, but first I wanted to see friends in the building, which meant using this entrance. The receptionist duly telephoned Kevin who came down to escort me through the building. (This is security, you understand, not recent memory loss.) As she gave me the visitor’s security pass, the receptionist explained that this pass would get me into the building, but was only valid for the Tower entrance. It would not get me out of the birdcage entrance (a name that persists in memory even though it no longer looks like a birdcage) after the party. No problem, we said, we will sort it all out.

The department looks much as it used to – the posters and diagrams I put on the wall by my desk are still there 19 months later – but emptier of people. Per, the boss, got a new job in Shell and moved out. David wangled a desk in the Tower, which means he won’t have to go to Canary Wharf. Lindsey also had moved on. Angus seemed to prefer a desk on the 8th floor in a project office, even though the project was long since over. Maral and Niall were out. That left Kevin himself, Ola and Alan, plus Arthur.

What had surprised me was the corridors. Most rooms were empty. The few people around lighted their way with mobile phone screens down dark corridors from one island of illumination to the next, like modern-day Indiana Joneses. The move to 40 Bank Street has started and my old department will be among the last to leave, on 25th November. Even Isabella had noticed fewer people going into the bank now. I was affected by a brief moment of nostalgia. But only a brief moment.

In contrast to the vast space they now occupy, Kevin and chums will have an allocated area, but not allocated desks. Personal space is abolished. They will have to pick a desk when they arrive in the morning and plug in their laptops and plug all the things like mouse, keyboard and headphones into their laptops. They are allowed two crates, maximum, in which to put their belongings for the move. I’m glad I’ve left.

At around five-thirty I made my farewells and headed for the party. The quick way was down the nearest lift, but I decided to go the long way round, out of the Tower, round the outside and in at the birdcage.  I didn’t fancy trying to explain my way out at eight p.m. after several glasses of wine when my visitor’s pass failed to work on the automatic doors. Had it been raining, I would probably have risked it, but it wasn’t.

Ian’s party had what seemed like a quorum of the SOGs attending and quite a few other retired folks. There were some current workers as well, which was reassuring. That there still are current workers, I mean. The white wine was palatable, quite nice enough to drink several glasses of. I didn’t try the red, but I could see that others were not exactly turning down refills, so I guess it was okay too. There were various snacks, including a savage chicken-on-a-stick coated in invisible chili sauce that went straight for the back of the throat. After quite a long while, as these things go, it was time for the speeches. Hans (Ian’s not-Dutch erstwhile boss) said a few words and then delegated the reminiscences to Jeremy and Mike. With such skills he’ll go far. Ian then spoke, to rapturous applause.

Afterwards, I sought out the signature book and wrote a stunningly witty and not at all bitter comment about Spurs (Ian’s favoured football team) and their double-winning FA Cup victory over Leicester City in 1961. Don’t ask me to repeat it here. Don’t even ask me to remember it. I just know it was bitter and not at all witty. Take my word for it.

I caught the train home and didn’t have long to wait for my bus either. All in all, a most satisfactory way of spending £15 and an evening.

Techie Confessions

Sorry about this message…

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The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to the site owner reaching his/her bandwidth limit. Please try again later.

…which has been appearing for the last six days or so. I got over-excited with solving a problem on my new website and uploaded too many bandwidths – or something like that. What I had managed to do was copy the content of my old Mobile Me website and upload it onto this website as an archive. Naturally I was happy about that, since it meant the content wouldn’t get lost. But having found the solution, I needed to make some changes so that it made sense as an archive, and having made those changes, I uploaded it all again.

Within minutes, I received an email from my web host saying I had used over 85% of my bandwidth limit. Phew, I thought, that was lucky. Just sneaked in.

At five a.m. I received another email (though of course I didn’t see it until a sensible hour of the morning) saying I had used 109% of my limit and to contact system admin. Clearly there was a time delay in the emails, and the 85% was reached with my first upload, with the final one taking me over.

Contacting “system admin” proved difficult since I couldn’t find an email address or phone number for them, so I ended up phoning the sales line, who told me I could pay to upgrade my service to higher or unlimited bandwidth, or wait six days to 1st November when the new month’s bandwidth allowance started. Since I don’t expect to be uploading anything like that amount of data again (I only have the one archive) I took the cheapskate option.

But I’m back now.

In the interim, I satisfied my techie urges by (i) installing a new printer and making the wireless connection work on both my and Diana’s laptops and (ii) getting a ‘Homeplug’ system to work in our Cornwall house, Treforest.

Treforest is a large house. Unlike the Woking house which is pretty much cubic, where I can site the wi-fi router almost in the middle and reach all rooms with it, Treforest is long and thin with thick stone internal walls. We installed the new Sky broadband router in the breakfast room and the signal just about reached the extension, but not downstairs in the extension – and since downstairs in the extension is where Diana plans to have her study in future, that isn’t very helpful. So I moved the router to the extension, where there are convenient phone and electrical sockets. The signal now does reach downstairs, and back to the breakfast room, but dies before it gets into the sitting room. It wouldn’t reach upstairs to the bedrooms and certainly not into the loft where my future study is currently being constructed. (I didn’t test it, not wanting to take my laptop into a building site.)

This was a problem. I formed a tentative solution of having an ethernet cable put in while the builders are disturbing the upstairs and possibly running another router from the far end of it. Research on the internet showed that this should be possible, but seemed to involve adjusting settings and ensuring that IP addresses weren’t identical and other impenetrable jargon. The relevant chat rooms, once I found them, were full of people with complicated solutions and scathing comments about the hardware the original questioners were using, but I did find a reference to something called a ‘homeplug’ and followed it up.

A homeplug, it transpires, is a technology that allows computer network signals (even HD video) to be transmitted through the electrical wiring of your house or office. You plug a homeplug device  not much larger than a standard three-pin plug into a convenient electrical socket and connect it to your router with an ethernet cable. You then plug another homeplug device into another socket somewhere else in the house and connect it to your computer with an ethernet cable. Or, if you buy the Devolo starter kit that I did, the second homeplug is a wireless access point and you don’t need a cable. It establishes another wi-fi network with its own password. And it’s still only about twice the size of the normal homeplug

That’s it. And it works.

I set it up so that I had the second network live in the breakfast room, then simply unplugged the wireless homeplug, took it and my laptop into the sitting room and plugged it in there. I got connected instantly. The cost for the two plugs, a length of ethernet cable and a CD with the manual and some software was just under £90. If it turns out that my expected location for the wireless homeplug doesn’t reach all the rooms we want it to, we don’t have to faff around with more ethernet cables or signal boosters – we just buy more homeplugs.