Nerdy Granny. My tech journey

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.

My first ever drone photo

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.

Changing banks

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.

Telephone support: the bad and the good

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.


A COSTLY trip to Montpellier!

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).

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!


Ageing tech lovers

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.

My guilty secret

On Wednesday, my friend Dessa and I went to Montpellier, she for  a hospital appointment, me to my garage.  That all done with, the fun began.

Dessa and I are both gadget freaks and, to an extent, computing nerds.  We apologise about this and try to keep our enthusiasms to ourselves, as others find them pointless if not irritating. On Wednesday we both excelled ourselves: we each bought an Apple watch.

I had thought I was immune from temptation to this particular Apple product, but then last November in a journey from Montpellier in a taxi-ambulance, the driver, Sonya, showed me hers.  I was smitten, but very sensibly, put the tempting idea onto a back boiler. That was then.

Now, after over two months in hospital or convalescence, I have succumbed.  After all, I said to myself, I have saved the price of an Apple Watch on food and petrol bills during this prolonged hospital stay, and, I said,  I deserve it. Dessa went through a similar self-persuasion process.  Then the deed was done. Here is mine:

Yes, a watch, and at last I have one which I can see the time at night when not sleeping. My sister, Deborah, has this for a fraction of the price – not so stylish of course…

But it is so much more than a watch.  For Dessa (and to some extent me) the winning point was the ability to call for help, should we fall on our own land or elsewhere.  A prolonged press on one of the two buttons produces this menu:

I haven’t dare explore further, but apparently the SOS option means that the emergency services plus three people I nominate are notified that  I need help, giving my exact location thanks to GPS.

There are a host of other functions which I might claim to be ‘useful’,  while  there are others which are purely frivolous.

I get notified by a discreet buzz when there are incoming emails, messages, or phone calles and can read or reply on the watch – or wait till later to do so on other devices. I have just discovered that the dictation function is amazingly accurate when sending a message.  Obviously I would rarely do this, but it might be useful when out on a walk without my phone. More important, I don’t have to rush around (risking falling) hunting for my phone or scrabbling around in the depths of my bag to get it out in time. It is also handy having the next ‘event’ in my diary displayed (also with a reminder buzz).

I am very partial to the superb translation app called Converse (the FRE button,  top left on my watch).  I can either talk or write a phrase in English and – after a little delay – it is written and spoken back to me in French. (Yesterday I translated something for a friend into Mandarin Chinese!)

Apple is keen on health apps and I am already recording every time I drink a glass of water, watching my daily target of two litres getting closer (not doing so well today!) . My sleep patterns and heart rate are also constantly monitored, with detailed records sent to my iphone.

More frivolous, I am enjoying playing with functions such as the record button, the remote control to my iphone camera, and the identify the tune app, Shazam.  This latter actually frustrates me, as it is weaker at identifying classical music than its competitor Soundhound and is particularly bad at displaying the result on the watch.  So I am looking forward to the imminent release of Soundhound for the watch.

Sad, isn’t it, that these activities should give me such pleasure?  But there you are, and I would not attempt to defend this purchase on grounds of practical necessity. Other people buy jewelry or pretty clothes; I have my watch.


Another internet silence

Once again we have no internet service in the Clinique, but this time it has lasted three days and who knows when it will be restored.

On Monday this was forgivable as we were in the midst of a major inspection. But now it is hard to know whether the broken service is not repaired because of indifference by staff here or by the company in  Montpellier who manages the computers here.

Les Châtaigniers and the Clinique in Ganges have been acquired by a big group Oc Santé based in Montpellier, and I fear that like Maguelone last year we now have a service devised too remotely from its users. Here we are just a few internet users in a rural backwater.

I still have 3G internet access via my phone, but because of heavy usage while working on the Scottish Women database, I have used up my monthly credit. So I have just shelled out on a larger internet plan.

I’m writing this on my iPad (which has WiFi and Bluetooth, but no SIM card), and which is now ‘tethered’ to my phone (ie piggy backing on its 3g access) taking advantage of its access.

Computers again

Last week was a period of technological frustration. Yes, I know I am a geek glued to my computer. But thank god for computers and tablets and the internet to replace former activities if one  has reduced mobility.

Last week I was hit by two problems, the first entirely of my own making. Some of you may recall that quite a few years back I wrote a database to help my friend, Rose, in the management of the production of a dictionary of Scottish women, with  multiple authors to coordinate. This is now approaching the final stages of the second edition, when its task will be  to export a variety of things, including several indexes to the women and their areas of activity

Rose and I both use Macs and the database is written using a natty programme called Filemaker, which we have not bothered to pay to upgrade for several years now.  Last week I blithely updated my Mac to the latest version of its system software, and then discovered to my horror that Filemaker 12 was  too old to run on it. So I have had to buy two copies of Filemaker 16 (luckily on a limited buy one and get one free offer).

In between sessions of physio, I did my best to check that our database was happy when run with the new version of Filemaker – and then I had to convince Rose it was safe to switch .  Fingers  crossed we have got over this blip, albeit at a cost. Now Rose’s aim is to deliver the dictionary and its indexes to Edinburgh University Press by Christmas!

Downloading the new software and communicating with Rose in Edinburgh was hindered by the WiFi service for patients inexplicably breaking down for two days.  I tried not to be too demanding and managed to restrict myself to just two visits to the clinic administration.

The experience underlined how pathetically dependent I am on the internet,  not just for this dictionary work, but for all forms of information and entertainment – and even to download the next book on my kindle.

Anyhow, normal service has been resumed. I am once again happily wired up. Wirelessly.


No internet


I have had no internet since yesterday morning and it is driving me mad.
No newspapers, radio or television. No consulting wiki whenever Madame Bavarde comes up with irrefutable facts.
I’m putting this up via my iphone which of course has 3G as well as WiFi, but a limited amount – as I know to my cost after the Istanbul trip (where we were all using our phones’ GPS to find our way around).
I reported the WiFi wasn’t working and learnt it is managed by a business in Montpellier, but I was told not to hold my breath for immediate action. At supper I learnt that my newly arrived neighbour also could not connect to the internet, and I’ve urged her to report this. I suspect we are the only two patients to use the internet!

Technology rrrr

I spent too much time this morning emailing back and forth with my website hosts about my inability to access CPanel, which is essentially like the door into the engine room of a site, used for example to repair, modify or back things up.
They kept coming up with suggestions which irritated me because I wondered if they had read my emails. Why, for example, ask me to switch to using a PC when I had already told them I was in hospital with an iPad and my Mac was at home?
I think I was the one who finally got them thinking straight. Could there be a firewall blocking CPanel, I asked, or perhaps access from the hospital?
At last, we got somewhere and they confirmed that as they had put up no firewall, it was the hospital that was blocking use of CPanel. So, short of using up my phone’s rapidly diminishing 3G resources, not much more I can do.
What makes any activity on the internet trying is that the hospital’s WiFi service for patients is appalling. I think it is the same company providing the service as at Maguelone last year and it is all coming back to me how bad it was.
Logging on takes several steps including the usual rubbish password (which cannot be changed or remembered by your device). Any period of inactivity (going to the loo for example) and you are logged off.
Web browsing is painfully slow, and never mind watching English TV or a movie, forget even YouTube. The service is clearly seen as primarily for emails. Ok most people here may not be up to much more, but Skype or FaceTime should be seen as reasonable services.
If I ever get to Maguelone, which has the same software and configurations, I fear things may not have improved since last year.