Generally Speaking

The Outer Hebrides – 5 – Harris

Harris is roughly the southern half of the northernmost, and by far the largest, island in the Outer Hebridean chain. Quite why the upper and lower halves of this island have different names – Lewis and Harris respectively – is far from clear (nobody suggests England and Scotland are different islands). But anyway, the part of Harris you arrive on from the South is connected to the rest of Harris by a narrow isthmus, and it is there that the small town of Tarbert, and the Harris Hotel we stayed at, are situated.

Another delightful contrast: this is an almost old-fashioned hotel, with high ceilings, gracious and comfortable public spaces, white linen on the tables, well-maintained gardens in front, and so on.

Tarbert itself is a slightly run-down sort of place. It is yet another ferry terminal, and road works to improve the marshalling area, next to the impressive distillery with its hundreds of casks (presumably empty) lined up outside, rather dominated the walk from the hotel to the centre, such as it was.

Having set out boldly without coats to explore the place we only avoided being caught in a heavy rain squall by walking back as rapidly as we could.

Sunday 14th – The Golden Road

Before exploring Northern Harris we decided to go back and take the ‘Golden Road’ which winds along the eastern coast of South Harris and which some more knowledgeable travellers had chosen as their route up from the ferry the day before. It was a stunning drive:

Driving along the ‘Golden Road’

From there we re-joined the main road and headed for a charging station, marked on the app as being in a small commercial area high above Seilebost beach.

This charger turned out to be the same type of smaller model, requiring the car’s on-board connecting cable, which I had failed to make work in Castlebay. And once again I found myself landed in endlessly circling instructions on its little screen, just as a perversely-timed rain flurry took the rest of the fun out of the occasion.

After which experience, even though the battery was still half full, topping it up became a priority. So when we got back to Tarbert the first thing we did was put the car on a charger – successfully. But another perfectly-timed downpour soaked me as I did connected up so that we were thoroughly wet when we darted into the hotel opposite in search of coffee. The staff inside declined any payment for the cakes we chose with our coffee, so we must have looked in a pretty sorry state as we hung our things on the radiator to dry.

Our Eilean Glas lighthouse walk on Skalpay island

The forecast for the rest of the day was fine so we decided to visit the Eileen Glas lighthouse, strongly recommended by one of the couples we had got to know through several meetings as we moved up the islands. But we misunderstood their description and assumed they had approached it via one of the walks we found on the Walkhighlands website.

So basically we underestimated what we were taking on, to the extent that I persuaded Lesley we wouldn’t need the coffee, water and snacks that we usually carried on our walks. But after walking for an hour and a half and nearly three miles of rough, steeply up and down peat hags, there was no sign of the lighthouse and I was wondering whether it would be more sensible to turn back.

…which would have been a big mistake – Fortunately Lesley was made of tougher stuff and we made one more ascent to a cairn from which we could at last see, not only the lighthouse, but the track our advisers had actually used which would afford us an easier, if still lengthy, way back to the car.

At last – the lighthouse and the track. (Skye on the horizon)

The couple who have owned and managed the lighthouse for forty years, staff the café there every day of the summer, living in isolation and having to carry everything half a mile from the road. Definitely something to enjoy while it lasts.

Red dots show we missed out the bit along the coast!

The walk back to the car along another winding and hilly road was tiring and we were very glad not to miss the way back to the car. Nearly seven miles in those conditions is quite enough for us now, but we were so very glad to have done it.

I’m James – I’m a Google-olic

“Okay Google. How many Google apps do I use on this phone?”

“No, Google, I didn’t mean, ‘How many apps are in the Google store?’ – although I admit 2.7 million is pretty impressive. (If true.) I meant how much of your stuff am I actually using?”

“No – wrong again Google Assistant – I don’t want to know which apps are using most battery…”

Give up – I’m going to have to work this out for myself.

The reason I want to know, by the way, is because of the warning last week by Gmail creator Paul Buchheit that ChatGPT is going to destroy Google’s business model within 2 years. It made me wonder how addicted I am, just in case it’s as serious as it sounds.

So, here we go:

I’ll start with Gmail because I use it for all my email. A dear, much missed friend introduced me to it years ago when it was still Googlemail and showed me the richness of its features – coloured labels for different categories of messages, group-mailing, filters you can set to do a host of clever things. All of which I now use and depend on. With its incredibly efficient spam filters and so on I am simply not aware of anything like it. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine losing the instantly-searchable archive of every email I have sent or received since (pause to check) blimey! 2006. Or indeed, how I would ever rebuild the list of Contacts if Google went to the wall.

I organise my entire life with Google Calendar. Using different coloured calendars for different categories of events, some of which are shared with other people. Individual events can be set to remind me in advance, some to repeat, and some have notes, addresses or whole documents (I only discovered this feature recently) attached. And whether I access from phone, tablet, laptop or desktop, I always see the latest version. Magic. And again there is a lovely, searchable ‘diary’ stretching back years.

Search, the original thing that Google got so triumphantly right, is not really so indispensable to me because there are alternatives which supposedly avoid the adds and tracking. But then I have to bear in mind that that is how Google make their money and that is why everything they provide is free.

With that in mind I press on making my list: Google Maps gives me state-of-the-art route-planning/satellite navigation, complete with live traffic information – which is derived automatically, so I understand, from the movements of the countless Google users travelling about far below.

The closely-integrated Google Earth is that incomparable compilation of images which gives me, at the merest whim, an unprecedented satellite-to-birds-eye view of our planet. Or, if at night I care to look heavenward, Sky-map is there on my phone to tell me which stars I am looking at. Back here on the ground, Google Streetview, the product of a project of almost unimaginable ambition – involving special camera vehicles driving along virtually every road and backstreet in the world – lets me follow all those millions of routes, with 360°, zoomable vision, from the proverbial comfort of my armchair.

Google Drive provides a cloud base for office documents, including those in the in-house Docs and Sheets formats. When any of these are shared with members of organisations I belong to there is another kind of magic because we can all contribute to the ‘top copy’ in the cloud and watch each other’s edits, as they happen, ‘in real time’. And we are still years away from fully exploiting the potential of this revolutionary technology.

Google Translate is yet another extraordinary app, although I only use it occasionally and for a small handful of the 100 languages in its every-expanding repertoire. But when I do it is utterly amazing, dealing in the spoken word as well as text.

Although I do most of my reading from printed books, preferably beautifully produced ones, eBooks have their place too and for them I use Google Play Books. For podcasts I use Google Podcast. Working via Bluetooth directly to my hearing-aids they are a wonderful enhancement to any solitary walk.

YouTube and YouTube Music are both now owned by the parent company, Alphabet, so, although they are not free, I owe my videos and streamed music to Google as well. And I can play any music through our living room sound system because the unit came with Google Chromecast built in.

Then of course there’s Google Photos, another app I use almost every day, with innumerable clever features, and Lens is the way I scan barcodes and sometimes recognise and derive information about places and things.

Even more convenient than contactless credit cards, I now use my phone and Google Wallet (previously Google Pay) for touchless payments of all kinds.

Fit isn’t the full Fitbit of course, but it tracks my activity pretty well, and is surprisingly incentivising, and it came bundled with my Google Pixel phone. So I’m not looking that particular gift horse in the mouth.

The default browser on all my devices is Chrome. And last but very much not least, my mobile phone, in common with most mobile phones in the world, is powered by the Android operating system.

So the answer to my original question to Google Assistant should have been, ‘at least 24’, because I keep thinking of new ones to add to the list and I doubt I’ve finished yet. Anyway, it’s several times the number I was imagining when I started this exercise, and it is both astonishingly large and, if there is really some doubt about the future viability of Google, very alarming.

Clearly I have taken these services for granted as they have become deeply integrated over recent years into the way I live, move and have my being. In short, I need them. And I know I am not alone in this. In fact the only thing that is unusual about me is that I have taken the trouble to make this list, because I’m a bit of a nerd like that, and that I have begun to grasp the size of the potential problem. (Assembling all 24 icons was even more nerdish, and I hope you, the reader, are impressed by the beauty of the resulting display.)

The chaos of Elon Musk’s recent, bizarre acquisition of Twitter has awakened me, if not the whole world, to the intrinsic fragility of software-based IT corporations funded by advertising and controlled by unstable tycoons. It hasn’t happened to Twitter, yet, but the very word stability is anathema to the swirling climate of ephemeral corporations blasted into life by the invigorating tempests of Disruption.

But some human institutions do need stability and they do need to endure. The clue is in the word institution. Imagine if some corporation owned the rights to the English language, and to use it we could either endure a lifelong drizzle of advertising or pay for a premium subscription. And then that corporation was driven to bankruptcy by some ludicrously wealthy nutcase, and we were then required to converse in, to take an extreme example, Mandarin. Not good.

So I submit that Google, along with a few other IT corporations like Microsoft, have created services which have risen to the status of institutions – and the modern world really does need them to endure. But the modern world has got to work out how this may be achieved. As yet I haven’t seen the slightest sign that anyone is addressing this challenge, or even acknowledged the extent to which we are addicted to these services, unprecedented as they are in the history of humanity.

On with the celebration

It is of course deeply worrying that so many Americans voted to give Donald Trump another four years – after everything they know he is, and everything they know he has done. We wonder what can possibly have got into them.

But I think there is a dark side of human nature that is there, to greater or lesser extent, in all of us, and right-wing political messaging plays to that side and presses that hidden button with perennial effect.

Read more…

Why I am not ‘moving on’ from the Cummings affair

This is based on a letter I sent yesterday to my MP, who is a Conservative back-bencher and former Minister.

I cannot express how profoundly worried I am by the fact that Dominic Cummings is not only still in post, but still wielding extraordinary power in Westminster. I want to know what on earth this means. And I want to know what hold this deeply-sinister man had over the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, the Minister of Health, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that led them to trash their moral authority, and in the case of the Attorney General her clear duty under the Separation of Powers, by making public statements on the record in defence of what was so obviously indefensible behaviour.

They tried to take us all for fools, but it did not work because we are not fools. The resulting loss of the government’s moral authority, and its abject failure to punish Cummings’ gross irresponsibility, has been the cause, not only of further national humiliation in the eyes of the world, but of an unknowable number, possibly in the tens of thousands, of coronavirus deaths which could otherwise have been avoided.

‘Move on, nothing to see here’

I know the Prime Minister wants us to ‘move on’. I know he has declared the Cummings affair ‘closed’. But that is the trouble with throwing away your moral authority – you lose the right to respect for such appeals. If it had been me that had behaved as Johnson and the others have behaved, I would in addition have lost the right to something even more precious, something beyond price, my self-respect.

But in my small life, and in the small lives of my father, and of my closest friends, that reputation for honour, for integrity, has not been thrown away. And nor has that self-respect. And that is why we do not ‘move on’. And that is why the Cummings affair is not ‘closed’.

It simply beggars belief that with our proud history of scientific, medical and governmental excellence, the UK’s, and specifically England’s, response to the coronavirus pandemic has been one of the worst, or even by some measures the worst, in the entire world.

Mr Johnson has shown himself incapable of the slightest shame or apology for his dreadful performance. But as an intensely patriotic citizen, I personally feel a deep sense of humiliation for my country. While Johnson obviously thinks apology is a sign of weakness, people worthy of admiration see it as a strength. This government has brought shame on us all and all I could say to my own MP, who had been Minister of Education under Mrs May but escaped reappointment by opposing Johnson, was to congratulate him on his good fortune in not being part of it. The current attempt to shift blame onto senior civil servants just underlines the sub-Trumpian rottenness of these third-rate people, whose only qualification for office was their unswerving commitment to the imbecile cause of Brexit.

Which brings me to my explanation for the extraordinary immunity of Cummings. There is only one issue which is sufficiently massive to explain the bizarre dominion of this ‘unelected bureaucrat’ (to use one of the Brexiters’ favourite phrases). Having been the Director of the Vote Leave campaign, he has chapter and verse on aspects of the 2016 referendum which render its result invalid and he has threatened to spill the beans if he is sacked. That would cut the ground from under the government’s sole uniting cause and place them in a wholly untenable position. Avoiding that is more important to them than anything else. Even the health of the nation and its international reputation.

30 April 1966 – 30 April 2016

1966 Loch Ness


30 April 2016

Peter's party picture

Wonderful Golden Wedding anniversary party last night in Beech Village Hall with all the family and so many dear friends.
And now a beautiful, sunny morning.


We had no less than six copies of this card, from different people – they must have thought it was us!

News of the Paris Climate Conference

Family visitors from America with us for Christmas wanted to find out the outcome of the Paris Climate Conference. They had known it was going to happen and had been interested in the activities of the Alton Climate Alliance but had not been able to find any news of the outcome in the US media.

We were able to tell them that the conference had been an historic success, probably the most important international conference there has ever been, and was first item on the BBC news the next morning, occupied the whole front page of the Observer, half the front page of the Independent on Sunday and got a little mention, bottom right, in the Sunday Times.

Nowhere else that morning, almost needless to say, but perhaps we are still a relatively responsible country.

By Eurostar to Marseilles direct

Enjoying three days in Marseilles before joining the Alton Town Twinning Association visit to Pertuis. We are looking forward to staying with the couple we hosted last October.

Unlike the main party who will be arriving by plane tomorrow evening, we came all the way by high speed rail – Eurostar. 1,200km in just over six hours, arriving in the very heart of Marseilles and little more than five minutes walk from our lovely B&B. Smooth and quiet and incredibly free of hassle, the journey has left us feeling subtly but completely different from traveling by air. Premium tickets with good food and extra comfort cost us £180 down and going back standard will only be £60.


With three day bus/metro/tram passes we are finding getting about here very straight forward. Thus, today we visited the Calanque coast to the East by Metro, two buses, and a two and a half mile walk each way. No problem. No charge. Especially as the isolated beach cafe at the end is closed as it is a Wednesday in September – the owner’s message said he hoped we’d understand! So we made up with an extraordinary Haagen Das ice cream extravaganza down by the harbour when we got back.


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