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Heroes and Villains January 23, 2012

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics.

Back in August last year, in my feckless petrol-headed way I celebrated the acquisition of a hugely complicated, willfully eccentric yet utterly gorgeous Citroën XM as my, ahem, daily driver. Until a couple of weeks ago the car had proved to be the unique and delightful, if ruinously thirsty driving experience that I’d anticipated and  returning to Leominster railway station where it’d sat during my seasonal hiatus points east I looked forward to it raising my spirits along with its clever hydropneumatic suspension at the turn of a key. Instead what I found was that some malevolent wretches had broken a window and in trying to drive it away, completely wrecked the ignition barrel, wiring and part of the dashboard. They’d also etched a particularly unpleasant  term for part of the female anatomy into the rear window, presumably because as its owner, I had the temerity to immobilise the car when I’d parked it.

Why they – and having been caught on CCTV later that evening wrecking then stealing another car I now know that there were three of them  – would choose such a rare vehicle that would’ve been impossible to sell without raising suspicion, I neither know nor care, but the consequences have been considerable and in some respects, illuminating.

Needless to say although ‘only’ 14 years-old, the XM was never a big seller for Citroën largely due to a reputation quickly tarnished by the unreliability of its complex electrics and hydraulics which, typical of its makers, had not been fully trouble-shot before its launch. Parts are therefore hard to source, very expensive and for that reason my insurance company initially threatened to write it off obliging me ultimately to withdraw my claim. But then via something called the Club-XM online forum I came across a retired engineer who has been collecting and breaking these cars with the noble intention of “keeping them going” until he himself no longer is. Not only did this prince amongst men offer to supply me with all the bits I needed, refused to take any payment for them, and delivered them to me on Waterloo Station where I spent a very agreeable hour being advised how they should be correctly fitted and certain infamous problems with these cars, remedied.

Recounting this to a friend, he correctly pointed out that this wonderful gentleman was of a dying breed and as with the grandly named Lancia Gamma Consortium, a rather more formal conflagration of chaps (and indeed, chapesses) of which I am a paid-up member, long may he and they continue their selfless efforts to ensure that these automotive eccentricities avoid extinction. One could argue that regardless of legal obligations, major manufacturers should actually want to see their cars running around decades after they’ve stopped building them, but that would be commercially naïve  – although it hasn’t harmed Porsche and Mercedes-Benz that you can still get most parts for cars they made 40, even 50 years ago.

The Gamma being laid-up, un-taxed for the winter (one sniff of a salted road and it’d dissolve into a pile of rust), I have unwillingly discovered the realities of rural public transport. So journeys that took me 30 or 40 minutes at the wheel have tripled or quadrupled in duration, often hanging around for hours in freezing termini to change buses, journeys tailored to timetables that seemed exultant in their lack of integration twixt buses, operating companies and railways or, indeed, my sleeping and eating habits. Perhaps no wonder then that despite being subsidised by public taxes, ticket prices were generally higher than comparative private transport costs, and most buses traveled virtually empty.  So should anyone excoriate me for justifying my need for a car here in the sticks, even one that I actually enjoy driving, then they can expect the shortest of shrifts.

And whilst I’m harrumphing, the nice lady cop who dealt with my case admitted that there’s no point claiming compensation from the culprits involved because they’re unemployed teenagers from what she coyly, if accurately described as “disadvantaged backgrounds”, who’ll probably just be fined… before going off and doing some more crimes, possibly some more of the archly acronymed TWOCs (Taking Without Owners Consent). Although I may be straying into Daily Mail territory here, I’d much prefer divine retribution: having something they loved and or needed rubbished, but that would probably involve slashing a pair of trainers or kicking an X-Box to bits which I doubt a judge would sanction. Nevertheless I intend to go to court and see what happens to them, if only to have my cynical prejudices confirmed. In the meantime I’m still without a working car, hugely out of pocket and pretty bloody angry.

But onto happier matters. Recent blogs bemoaning the grim fate of civilisation as we, or at least I know it prompted the same friend behind the ‘dying breed’ comment, to generously furnish me with a copy of The Rational Optimist by that well-known controversialist, Matt Ridley. Despite the occasional impression of reveling his own smartness, Ridley torpedoes many assumptions about what ails society and economic conventions and replaces them with some unassailable facts and well argued, if not always personally observed empiricisms. I must salute his thought-provoking alternatives to my own gloomy views of the future, although despite the munificence of my heroic engineer friend, I’m not entirely convinced of the innate goodness of mankind which underpins Ridley’s contention that optimism will triumph over pessimism.

Nevertheless I’ll try and give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the verdict handed out by the magistrates presiding over the case of my buggered-up car… if there’s a bus that’ll get me to the court on time.

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My World According to Apple January 4, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, Uncategorized.

If you’re computer-phobic, abhor digi-jargon and have zero interest in the different declensions of Intel processors, then maybe stop reading here. Ditto if you’re a committed geek to whom over-clocking and CPU architecture are meat and drink. Because I fall somewhere in between… but nearer the former than the latter, obviously.

Unfortunately however, I rather urgently need a new computer. And my inadequate grasp of what’s new and necessary to maintain the minimum standards of technological capability that my life demands, means that I’m panicking. I know, I know, I know – given my regular tirades against the digital enslavement we’ve quietly acquiesced to this past decade, and especially my brief interlude bereft of both my internet connection and mobile phone, I should bravely respond to the fast dwindling efficiency of my battered old laptop by abandoning such devices for good. But no. I am instead grudgingly acknowledging that most people only want to communicate with me by email, and that some of them are actually essential to what I grandiosely call my employment… never mind my reliance on Google as the encyclopedia of the airwaves. So I am once again at the computer crossroads, wondering whether to continue down Macintosh Boulevard or turn left along PC Pathway.

It’s an intersection I’ve stood at every five years or so since I acquired my first computer – a Ferranti Advance 86 – in 1985. Having recently launched my own magazine outfit, Advanced Publishing, my choice seemed literally appropriate, if not willfully cute, but the Ferranti was a hopeless mistake to someone so utterly un-nerdy. After a month of mounting frustration, which occasionally included smacking it smartly on its casing, rather as my dad did our first t.v. set when it went on the blink, I got rid of it and bought a Macintosh Plus. Which I loved, and on which I literally ran the company for a few years. As such, it and I were even featured in MacUser magazine, both vindicating my choice and initiating an enduring smugness over my addiction to Apples.

Sure, everyone knows that Macs are more user-friendly than PCs, but watching the BBC’s morbidly fascinating Steve Jobs documentary recently I discovered that Bill Gates’ had actually beaten him to the punch with an icon-based design. Except that the Microsoft version is really just a memory-hungry lash-up that prods an antediluvian MS-DOS system, whereas Mac’s OS was designed to be seamlessly icon-driven from the get-go.

So far, so commonly known, but it wasn’t until 2003 when my iBook’s  broke down and had to be driven to the nearest dealer some 50 bloody miles away in Tewkesbury, that I learnt how clunky Windows really is. At the time I lived with a gal who very kindly let me use her PC for the ten days it took for the diffident-bordering-on-rude kids – and they were of course kids – to repair my Mac, and fortunately Karen was away most of that time running her company in London (exclusively on PCs, of course) so she couldn’t witness me swearing at, crashing and constantly re-booting her PC… I may’ve hit it a couple of times, too. The reason, obvious to die-hard Maccas, was that Windows isn’t intuitive in the way that the Mac OS is, and one has to go through various alien rigmaroles to get it to do anything. And of course having a crap short-term memory, I instantly fortgot those rigmaroles.

However, and it’s a big ‘however’, the price you pay for the superior and more stable Mac set-up is, well, over twice the price of a PC. No wonder Apple, at $346billion, has a value higher than the GDP of many developed countries, because a MacBook Pro with a 15” screen has an RRP of £1549, whilst a Dell Latitude PC laptop with, as far as I can work out, roughly the same stable of gee-gaws, costs £649. Go do the math.

My current machine is the Pro’s immediate predecessor, a PowerBook G4 which thanks to something called its PowerPC processor isn’t up to an increasing amount of software, in particular BBC’s iPlayer, which means I can no longer catch up with CBeebies, boo-hoo.  Being perennially budget-conscious, or skint if you want to put it that way, I’m therefore having to seriously consider a PC-based laptop and learning a whole new way of digital life. Or buying secondhand… just like my current machine, bought in 2006 from an Australian publishing company that was going bankrupt. Needless to say this involved many late night screaming contests with an IT manager in Sydney who couldn’t understand why its casing was damaged in transit and its screen bisected by a thin orange stripe. Secondhand? Never again, then.

As miserable fate would have it, I also need a new mobile phone if I’m going to keep up with the techno-groovers. Because after my last one cracked under the pressure (quite literally, screen-wise), I bought another by then obsolete Motorola Razr on eBay last year, and now that’s knackered, too. Yes, I’d like a nice, sprauncey iPhone like all my posh pals, thus making Apple richer still since they cost lots more than the Android-based smartphones that ape them, but I’m scared witless of trying to ‘migrate’ (see how hip I am to the jargon?) the vital address and diary data from my Palm Pilot digital organiser (circa 2003) which is also worn out… but long since obsolete.

Yes of course I’ve trawled the web forums trying to glean how to bung my Palm data onto an HTC Wildfire or Samsung Galaxy, but you’ve got to be an über-geek to understand the process, much less actually execute it, although it does seem to be rather easier with an iPhone. So it looks as if not only are we all prisoners of technology, but those of us who’re idiot technophobes are also in permanent hock to Apple.

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