My iPad is an absolute essential part of my life. I use it each evening to watch Channel 4 News (with depression, anger and disbelief at the latest Brexit instalment). I sit on the sofa with it rather than in front of my computer and invariably write emails, watch rubbish on telly, look at photos, listen to music (played out on my speakers) – and generally pass the evening with it. Living alone, it is my companion, a buffer against solitude. Well, it and Poppy, of course…
So imagine the disaster when last week, when carrying my water, my iPad (minus its sleeve), a notebook and pen, and some medication from the bedroom to the main room, the iPad slid from my hand and tumbled to the floor, landing face down on the hard tiles. Yes, in one careless move I had smashed my iPad screen.
I then discovered that the the price of replacing an iPad screen has risen with each model. If I went to Apple it would cost 400 euros and the cheapest quote I could get in Montpellier was for 239 euros- for an iPad which is over three years old.
I swithered for a week and then I took a deep breath and bought a new iPad, for an astronomic price which I am to embarrassed to repeat here. I just could not bear shelling out all that money for what is, in the world of technology, an ageing piece of kit. I paid out even more as for the first time Ihave bought AppleShare insurance against breakages!
My partner in crime in the trip to the Montpellier Apple Store was my friend Dessa, whose collection of gadgets probably equals mine – we bought our Apple watches together. Embarrassingly as we entered the store several of the assistants greeted us like old friends.
The assistant who helped me set up my new iPad was a new acquaintance, a charming young man of Algerian descent. I know this because before long we were talking about Brexit and becoming French (he has double nationality now and said it was not difficult to obtain – times have changed, I fear). We then had the most extraordinary discussion in which he expressed sympathy with the Brexiteers and went on to praise Trump. That got Dessa (American/Dutch) really going, as she tried to convince him how wrong he was. I suspect he could have been a gilet jaune supporter, but he certainly stunned us. We parted amicably of course and he said how much he had enjoyed a challenging disagreement.
As for my old iPad, I have given it to my friend, Sonia, the ambulance driver. So it is going to a good home.
Now that Spring has come I am trying to improve my drone skills. Apart from a couple of ‘estate agent’ sorties, I am concentrating on improving my navigation manoeuvres over my own land.
It is not easy: I have to squint (in the sunshine) at the complex menu on my small iPhone screen, which works together with the remote controller – and at the same time, glance up frequently to ensure that my drone is not heading for trees – or freedom further afield … …
In order to improve my skills I have been following some online drone forums, which provide a lot of useful information (more comprehensible than than the instructions provided by the Chinese manufacturer, DJI). At the same time I am switched off by some of the comments by the predominantly male macho community. Inevitable, I suppose, if I choose to wander into a toys-for-boys world… …
Once again we are awash. Here is today’s newspaper warning. We are in the orange bit with symbols of heavy rain.
Black clouds are scudding across from the Mediterranean, the rain is coming down in buckets rather than drops, and every so often rolls of thunder add to the menacing air.
Sensible people stayed indoors, but I ventured out to help some friends with their computing problems (and got a good lunch in exchange). We were constantly having to turn off computers and internet connections as the thunder rolled around overhead.
Problems all solved – other than the ongoing one that Poppy does not understand that she must go out alone in this weather. She is very bored.
The reason for getting a drone was to take a different sort of photo. After one week I have managed to get the drone up several times, crashed it once, taken some jerky videos, but so far no photos.
I recognise that being able to take decent photos is somewhere further along the learning curve, but still, here are some examples of snapshots taken from the videos.
... and up
View north to Serres
West, to the Col de Mouzoules
Roof of my gite
Looking down at steps made by Arnard
Pilot directs drone to ground
Apart from the crash into trees beside a football pitch, I have confined myself to home ground, hoping that it would be easier to rescue a crashed drone. As the week progressed I felt adventurous enough to take it to my friend, Dessa, who lives in a stunning old hamlet, la Rouvierette, a collection of old houses running along a ridge looking down and over the valley of the Hérault below.
I discovered immediately that this would be a tricky site: there were too many trees round her house and I am not experienced enough yet to avoid them. It is unnerving when the drone disappears out of sight and I find squinting into my phone screen – the only way of tracking it – a bit of a challenge in the glaring sunshine. Concentration was made even more difficult when we were joined almost immediately by the neighbours’ children and then their parents. Still, fun was had by all.
What a wonderful weekend it has been: sunshine, no wind and temperatures in the mid-twenties.
Apparently the beaches round Montpellier were full of sun-worshippers. Here, people just rejoiced that for once the lovely weather coincided with the weekend.
It is extraordinary how here we leap from one extreme to the other – the unrelenting rain of ten days ago being replaced by a balmy Indian summer. The good weather is set to continue all week, albeit with cooler temperatures.
Yesterday was supposed to witness my next step in the drone journey: a video clip taken above my house. Afterwards I took the card out of the drone and discovered that aerial footage was blank. I think I had failed to press the video button twice. Instead, all I got was a couple of minutes of a blurred image of an insect crawling in front of the drone, as it waited for takeoff on a rock beside me while I consulted the manual.
Another technical challenge is how to create clips of an acceptable size for the internet, rather than this simple screenshot.
I have just bought a drone! But before I explain further, I want to go back and reflect on how on earth I came to be even thinking of buying one.
I have always had a weakness for gadgets and machines. I suppose if I am honest this goes back to my teens, when I bought an elderly Lambretta 150cc scooter from the gym mistress and became the first sixth former to drive on two wheels to school.
The two wheelers became more efficient over the years: first a replacement Lambretta when at university, then better performing Hondas in Nigeria, then back a step in France, with a series of mobylettes with more character than efficiency, before Chris and I returned to Italian scooters, this time Piaggios.
In the meantime, of course, I acquired a succession of four wheelers. I have always loved driving, from my first car, a spanking new Mini when I was a reporter, a Peugeot in Nigeria (underpowered), a rusty old Renault 4 van in Scotland (I was particularly attached to this, holes in the floor, doors that fell off, and all), a sturdy Lada and then a boring family Renault 12, then a VW hippy campervan which walked rather than ran up the French hills, then a later one, which drove faster but did not have the same charm (but was equally unreliable), on to Citroens (much more reliable), and now, of course, my quirky two-seater Smart car (still capable of generating speeding tickets, I’m afraid).
Cameras have had the same chequered and varied journey. My childhood Kodak Brownie 127 produced a small number of dark, monochrome snapshots. It was replaced by a hand-me-down from my mother whose photos were equally dull and only marginally more in focus. It finally fell from favour when my friend, Wenol, and I were making our epic voyage through Africa, and I realised that not a single shot of the Victoria Falls had worked – the shutter had finally stuck on open. In the Zambia we hitched a lift with a crop sprayer who showed us his Pentax single lens reflex camera, and when we reached Nairobi, we both bought the same model (and as a result were so short of cash we nearly did not make it back to Europe).
When the children were young I graduated through a number of other SLR cameras, from black and white to colour, and as time progressed, moved into the world of digital photography – perhaps the biggest transition of all.
The biggest camera purchase of all was done on impulse. In 2003 I said goodbye to Chris and set off for my first trip to India. En route, in Montpellier, I bought a Canon DSLR, but it was several days before I dared to write to Chris to confess. My excuse? It would perhaps be the only time in my life when I would see the Taj Mahal, which deserved a better camera than I had. (Indeed I was very pleased with my photos of India and mounted an exhibition in our local village on my return). Ultimately it cost too much buying lenses for this first Canon and its successor, and they were too heavy. So I downgraded to what are known as mirrorless cameras and currently have a Sony a6500.
Meanwhile there was another strand to my techie journey: my progress through many (too many) computers and phones. It all started in the mid-eighties when I progressed from a BBC microcomputer to the purchase of my first Mac, which I was also using at work. I progressed through various generations of Mac till 2013, when I bought my most recent one, a laptop called a MacBook Air (with a giant monitor when at my desk).
But that is not enough. Oh no. Just as my camera journey has sort of moved back to something less powerful but more portable, so too in the world of computers and the gadgets that have followed. In the 1990s I briefly possessed an Newton – perhaps the first machine to have a go at handwriting recognition – before Steve Jobs killed off the Newtons. So, naturally, I was an early adoptee of the Apple iPhone and, later, iPad. Both tools which as a techy addict I regard as essential to enjoyment of life.
So there I was, ten years ago, adjusting to life after Chris’s death, relatively stable in my car ownership life. After Chris died I sold our scooters and replaced our Citroen van with the splendid Berlingo, which I only gave up last year because I needed to adjust to life after shoulder operations. But my world of cameras and electronic gadgets has not been so stable or, one might say, mature….
Over the last five years, I have been hospitalised over seven times, accounting for an average of over two months a year. Each hospital stay has one upside: I save the normal daily expenses (food, petrol, heating and so on). As I explained to one of my VSL (ambulance taxi) drivers, Sonia, I felt I had some justification in spending these ‘savings’ on consumer durables, compensating for the reduction in my mobility, bringing me another sort of enjoyment: mastering technology.
The other day Sonia reminded me of this, how when driving me back and forth from hospitals she witnessed my ‘excuse’ for upgrading my iPhone (I have the iPhone x which takes splendid photos), splashing out on an Apple Watch (I was egged on by Sonia, who already had an earlier model) and – again, encouraged by Sonia, this year’s reward for three hospital stays for my innards: a drone.
Now one of the failings of many amateur photographers like me is thinking that somehow the kit will help you take better photos. Alas, this is not the case, but I still enjoy trying to improve. At present I am trying to take better photos using my combination of iPhone (the camera that is always in your pocket) and Sony. That ought to be enough of a challenge to keep me fully occupied (and indeed this winter I want to find a teacher to help me improve with the Sony).
But I have been seduced by the appeal of taking photos from above or, compensating for reduced mobility, just a little off the track I am on. I have dithered and researched and finally, last week, gave in. I bought the DJI Spark drone. DJI is the Chinese market leader in consumer drones, and the Spark is their cheapest model.
For those who have no idea what I am talking about, a consumer drone such as the Spark is like a small helicopter with a camera on board, capable of taking both photos and video. Here is mine, sitting beside my phone.
Just at present I am at stage one: learning how to fly the drone, petrified of losing it caught in trees, sinking into my pool or simply crashing to the ground.
I have spent ages watching ‘how to’ videos on YouTube (invariably by nerdy young men) and am just about mastering how to keep the drone above me and not inadvertently muddle forward with backward or up with down on my two joysticks.
Yesterday I dared take my first photo with it.
Not great, but the triumph was taking it and then transferring it successfully to my computer. I think it will be a little while before I progress significantly to stage two: taking decent photos.
Meanwhile I also have to take in all the rules about flying drones in France (not over towns or villages, not near airports or military zones, not above big crowd events, not over the Parc des Cévennes). All of these are completely understandable and defensible and, given the potential for privacy invasion or causing danger to others, my position as a drone owner is not easy to defend. So I won’t attempt to. Well, not for now, as I want to go out in the sunshine and master today’s self imposed task: how to make the gimbal move up and down, so the camera can look down, not just straight ahead.
This is not something one does lightheartedly, I am discovering. It is not just the business of opening a new bank account, but there are all those routine payments in and out of the account to transfer across.
So why did I do it? Well for some time I have the feeling that my current bank is not flourishing: staff change all the time, charges are higher than elsewhere, and their internet site is dire (important if, like me, you do mainly online banking).
Two recent events finally tipped the balance, the first a bit more frivolous.
On my recent UK trip I paid for trains, buses, cafes, taxis and supermarket trips almost exclusively using Apple Pay. And because I have the ultimate in luxuries, an Apple watch, I was able to do this without even opening my handbag. A double click of a button on the watch and then flash it in front of the payment device – et voila, the payment is accepted. Not only am I less likely to lose my phone or wallet, when opening my handbag, but Apple Pay is more secure than using a card: the actual credit card number is never given to the merchant. (Don’t ask me to explain how this works.)
For a year now I have been asking my bank if and when it was going to offer Apple Pay facilities, and the answer is always ‘we are talking with Apple’.
The other recent irritation was when I wanted to do a virement – transfer money electronically – to pay the association for which my cleaner works (rather than write a cheque and then drive a km to post it in the nearest postbox – or carry it around in my coat pocket and forget it). I could not for the life of my work out how to do this on the bank’s site. I asked the girl at the desk in the bank how to do it, and she was equally nonplussed, as was the young man who swanned in to help us both. Eventually they took my problem to their boss!
These two problems are not problems with my new bank: it has offered Apple Pay for some time and it is easy to see how to make a virement – or to set up a prélèvement automatique – a direct debit or standing order. In fact its website is a model of user friendliness compared with the old one.
The actual process of opening my new account has taken more time, plus two visits, than I expected, but this is because of an incredible amount of paperwork needed to verify my identity and financial circumstances. All made more pleasant by knowing the young woman who is doing all this. She is the daughter of people in the village of Serres, so we are on “tu” terms.
Well I now have my debit card, I’m about to sign up for Apple Pay, have sent a form to get my university pensions paid into my new bank. And the bank will look after the transfer of all the prélèvements. So hopefully next month I should be set up and will flash my watch at the till in Intermarché, my local supermarket.
If you have a problem with Orange, the main telephone supplier in France, and want to phone for help, you have to be strong, patient and have no other urgent appointments in your diary.
Or you have to travel 50 miles to Montpellier, take a ticket and sit patiently in the queue at one of their boutiques.
The Orange problems are compounded by an awful website, which is frequently down, takes you round in circles and is a little thin on actual phone numbers.
That’s the bad side of phone support. The good – most of the time, is that provided by Apple.
For some time I have had two Apple iCoud entities (my fault – an early error). Yesterday I decided to sort this out, transferring my cloud information (essential for synchronising my embarassingly large collection of Apple devices) from the cloud space starting francesallen to my second, starting computing.
This is not straightforward, so I went online and booked to be phoned by someone at 12.15. On the dot I received a call from a helpful Irishman, who got me through stage one: to transfer data from francesallen to my Mac. This was taking so long that he told me to have lunch and then tackle stage two, to transfer the data from my Mac to the cloud computing in the afternoon.
This was supposed to be straightforward -except it wasn’t, and I did not have a phone number for the Irishman.
So I rang Apple France. This is where I hit problems starting with waiting ages for someone to pick up my call (bad luck, or are help systems in France intrinsically problematic?).
The first man did not understand my problem at all and I don’t think this was just a question of language. He eventually passed me to an English speaker, who turned out to be a Dutchman.
Things got worse here, as he quite clearly understood less than me about the problem, kept consulting documents – and coming up with obviously faulty information.
I was losing my patience and then at last, thank goodness, he passed me up a level, to an English supervisor called Andrew. Phew, all was going quite well – until I lost the telephone connection. All this abortive talk had used up my (fixed line) phone battery.
I phoned again (on my mobile). Once again a long wait, more inane music, and then another Frenchman who insisted on trying to understand the problem. I kept asking for Andrew, but presumably he was elsewhere. Finally I was put through to another supervisor, Dawn.
My saviour! Dawn, originally from Dunfermline in Fife, but now in Greece, turned out to be intelligent, knowledgable, easy to talk to, have a good sense of humour and was determined to solve my problems however long this might take.
We finally cracked it minutes before I had to leave for a cello practice. And Dawn emailed me her contact details should I hit more problems today.
Wow, now that is a telephone support system worth having.
One of my trips to Montpellier was so that the Mercedes (and Smart) garage could replace my faulty boot hinges. It turned out to be a more momentous day than this.
The faulty boot has been a growing problem for months: the boot would suddenly pop open or I would not be able to lock the car because the computer said there was a door not properly shut. At last the garage had the spare parts (they had been stuck in the north of Germany) and the boot is now fully functional, thank goodness. I was impressed by the way the garage rang two days later to check that I was happy with the repair (done under guarantee, thankfully).
Then I went on to the Apple Centre, where I had an appointment to replace the battery in my ageing Apple iPhone 6 at a reduced cost – part of Apple’s effort to counter the bad publicity about slowing down old phones.
Two hours later a technician came out of the back offices to confess to me that in the process of removing the old battery my phone had been broken. They would, they said, offer me a free replacement – of the same generation.
I was first taken aback, then thought, no, I don’t want to continue with an old model if I could use this as a negotiating tool to cut the price of the latest model. I did this, with some success: I have got an iPhone X for less than it would have cost me if I had accepted the Orange offer two weeks ago.
It still cost me so much that I am totally embarassed and will not confess how much. And I have broken the pledge I made to my daughters two weeks ago that I would resist this temptation. But boy, is it a beauty.
For those who think a phone is just – well, a phone, this was a ridiculous, foolhardy act. But for those who love high performance computers (which is what, after all, smartphones are) and, above all, high quality cameras that fit in your pocket, this is more understandable.
The first two photos I took – of Poppy licking her lips after finding some juicy crumbs, and of the flowers on Margaret’s table – impressed me instantly the high quality of the lenses and the new ability to blur the background (something that until now one has needed a zoom or telephoto lens to do).
Poppy licks her lips
Full moon over Mouzoules
7.30am, 1 day on and with camera shake
Navigating round the phone is much zippier than in previous models. But the feature I particularly like is face recognition. The phone is, as always, locked when inactive. But instead of having to punch in a code or try (often without success) to open the phone with one’s finger or thumb print, all I have to do is simply look at the phone and flick my finger up the screen. It can recognise my face – even at night!
I am very embarassed to confess that the Apple Watch is proving to be a passport for pensioners to join the club of young, gadget fans.
Dessa had already experienced this when the lad on the checkout desk at SuperU spotted her new watch, stopped sliding her veg across the scanner in order to launch into a lyrical praise of his watch and to show her the watch strap he had just bought for it!
Similarly yesterday, the younger kiné, Quentin, spotted my watch, showed me his, and we exchanged information about what apps we had on our respective watches. Again, this obsession (which I definitely do not share) with watch straps!
Quentin was able to one-up me, as his girlfriend (who turns out to be my Friday kiné, Leah) has just given him an Apple iPhone X. It is indeed beautiful and I lust after it, not least because of its camera.
For those who share my love of cameras it has two 12 megapixel camers. The main one has an optical zoom with image stabilization (copes with elderly photographer wobbles), variable focal aperture (meaning you can take photos with the background deliberately blurred). Its front camera is of a similar spec, but since I am not interested in selfies, this is irrelevant for me.
The only thing wrong with it is its price, which is obscenely high. So I am trying hard, very hard, to resist temptation and wait until I can negotiate a better deal with my phone supplier, Orange.