Monday, 29 October 2018

JUST FOR THE TASTE OF IT [133]



Every so often, I will look in a shop that purports to sell American candy and drinks, or look online, to see if they have cans of Tab, the original Diet Coke, for sale. It has been over two years since I last tasted Tab, and over two years since the shop I bought it from had closed. A seller on Amazon is apparently selling two cases of twelve cans, imported to the UK, for nearly £60 – this is approaching wine prices, but unless I can find something for less, it may be my last resort. Is it the taste, or the thrill of the chase, that keeps me looking?

It’s not just me – even in its country of origin, people are getting desperate. Stories have been running about the largest independent distributor of Coca-Cola drinks in the US, covering fourteen states, deciding to discontinue Tab. With what remains on store shelves, supplies are drying up, and the search for its delightfully bitter aftertaste – a result of sweetening with saccharine, instead of the smoother taste of aspartame – continues into neighbouring states, and further afield.

Really, it’s not that surprising that Tab is easier to find – its original success threatened its company’s brand. Coca-Cola introduced Tab in 1963 as a zero-calorie alternative to, well, itself. It’s pink-coloured can was marketed to women, and its name, originally chosen from a computer printout of random letter combinations, because the name “Diet Coke” was considered heresy to the original drink at the time, was marketed to everyone with their weight on their mind. All of Coca-Cola’s zero-calorie drinks used the Tab name in the 1970s, including what became the diet versions of Sprite and orange Fanta.


However, diet Coke (originally with a small “d,” with the strapline “just for the taste of it”) was launched in 1982 at the point where the original Coke was losing out to the growing market of diet drinks – there was a diet Pepsi by then too. The taste was enough, making Diet Coke the fourth-biggest drink in the US by the end of 1983, and just to show the power of the Coca-Cola brand, taste tests showed people favoured Diet Coke from vending machines even when the cans actually contained Tab – no wonder present Tab cans take pains to tell you where they came from.

However, taste tests can lead you down a blind alley. The Tab formula was changed in 1984 to use the smoother-tasting aspartame, as used in Diet Coke, and an outcry reversed it – saccharine is just part of the taste. The New Coke debacle of 1985 repeated it, because more people said, in tests, they preferred a sugary version of Diet Coke. In both cases, habits were changed, and taste buds went mad. Now, in the face of replacing Tab with Diet Coke because you cannot get Tab anymore, the same thing will happen.

I would like to see where this goes. In the UK, there has been a conspiracy on social media that Coca-Cola Cherry has been withdrawn, when this is not the case – that doesn’t bother me, I have only ever bought it by accident. However, should something only receive a resurgence when there is a threat to take it away? I would rather not spend £60 on soft drinks, I know that much.

Monday, 22 October 2018

AND BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE TO FLY [132]


...aaand time’s up. At noon today (Monday 22nd October), the UK Government’s consultation on reform to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act ended – it was meant to end at 11pm the previous Friday, but a last-minute minute flurry of responses crashed the online portal – it had been open since 3rd July. I answered its questions two weeks ago, later than I really should have, but with the discourse, or argument, over transgender rights having become what they have over the last year in the UK, I would be doing a disservice to myself not to say something.

The proposed reform to the Act will update the process by which transgender people can apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate, so their correct gender can be recognised in law. I don’t have any irons in that part of the fire anymore – in fact, this week will mark one year since I received my certificate. The first thing I did with it was to update work, then obtain an updated birth certificate – the system for this is run, oddly enough, by the UK Passport Office.

The Government wants to make applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate a self-declaration process, already in place in the Republic of Ireland, Malta, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Portugal – the Irish application form is four pages long, not unlike applying for a passport. The current British form, meanwhile, has sixteen pages, and has a twenty-four-page guide on how to fill it in. When you send it away, you must also send two medical reports - one from a gender specialist confirming a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and another from your GP – a statutory declaration, signed by a solicitor, confirming I will continue living in my gender, and at least five types of document that prove you have been living in your gender for at least two years. I ended up sending practically everything I had, to avoid any doubt. The cost of making the application is £140 – once you add in the costs of acquiring medical reports, photocopying, special delivery for all your valuable documents, and finally getting your updated birth certificate, I spent nearly £200.

There has to be a better way. In my reply to the consultation, I said that all you needed was to supply the evidence that you were living in your correct gender, and that the two-year timeframe could be too inflexible. As it turns out, all that is needed in Ireland is the statutory declaration, which is pages 3 and 4 of their form. In both cases, there is a statement of intent: you won’t be doing this more than once. The hoops I had to jump through, under the “old” system, meant that I, and the approximately five thousand other transgender people that had to jump through those hoops since 2005, earned their right to feel happy in themselves, and would rather not have had to jump so many times.

I have heard too many arguments recently that trans self-identification will mean that men can use it to access women’s spaces inappropriately, as if the Gender Recognition Act, and the Equality Act, didn’t already make provisions for situations like this. The consultation asked many questions on whether I think there is a potential impact on everything from women’s refuges, the armed forces and public services, to sport, insurance and religious marriage. I found myself saying that these provisions can stay as they are, because they all require any issues to be dealt with by communication, and consideration, by adults. Someone can be questioned for unfairly providing access to a service, as much as unfairly denying access, whether that is to a transgender person or not. However, I did say that religious marriage cannot be stopped if it is found that one person in the couple has a Gender Recognition Certificate – I only found out that was a thing when I read the question.

The consultation has been taken by some as a referendum on transgender people, as if everything is to play for. Advertisements stating “Woman: Noun, Adult Human Female” have been taken down because of why they were placed, and not because of what they said. As a transgender woman, I could be accused of being a man infiltrating womanhood, of redefining what it is to be a woman, of reducing being a woman to being a feeling, of confirming the dominance of the patriarchy. Even worse, I could be told I am mentally ill, that I don’t know what I am, that people like me don’t really exist. All I can possibly know, in my experience, is this: when I realised what I was all along, why did my life become so much easier to understand?

The consultation is over, and the law-making must begin. I am not going anywhere.

[Update: “The New York Times” is reporting that the Trump is trying to redefine gender as being defined by genitalia at birth, stripping transgender people of the rights they have under the law. Firstly, that won’t happen – too many Americans will have too much to lose, and too many Americans are good people to allow it to happen. Secondly, what is the point of the word “sex” if you are planning to do that?]

Monday, 15 October 2018

AND PLAIN TO SEE THE FACTS ARE CHANGING [131]


Memories are short. Instant access to information via the World Wide Web has only been available to the general public since August 1991, with mobile and broadband internet only becoming commonplace in the last fifteen years. However, if you had the right television, instant recall of news, sport and financial updates, TV and radio listings and even recipes, was possible as early as 1974, before the first home computers appeared. Look down at your remote control, and the remnants of Teletext will stare back, marking where the information superhighway begins.

The world’s first teletext service was the BBC’s CEEFAX (“See Facts”), launched in 1974, following two years of testing technology developed by Philips, which had already launched the first consumer video recorders by then, and were readying what would become the LaserDisc and Compact Disc. The BBC had already been experimenting with “BEEBFAX” in the late 1960s, using TV transmitters to broadcast a page of information overnight, not unlike a newspaper page, to be printed on a fax machine-like printer at home. This project was shelved because the printer was too noisy, but with Philips proposing to use the screen, work started again.


The way teletext worked is down to how old televisions worked, in ways that are still well known to many. Put extremely simply, the reason not all 625 lines are broadcast to make up a TV picture is because the top and bottom of each field of lines is left blank to denote where the picture starts and ends, literally creating the “vertical blanking interval,” also known as the black bar that rolled down the screen on analogue TVs when the channel was not properly tuned in – horizontal blanking intervals also take up some of the width, and digital television makes sure you see none of this at all.

Teletext used the spare lines from the vertical blanking interval to broadcast a cycle of digital code that creates each frame of text. When you enter a three-digit code for the page you want, like 430 for travel news, you would then see the number scroll through the cycle as it is broadcast, until it reaches your page – popular pages were broadcast more than once. Each “magazine” of pages was broadcast on its own line, usually grouped by subject, to a maximum of eight lines – when subtitles for TV programmes were added from 1981, the page for this was usually placed at the end: it was originally 170, and eventually ended up at 888. Each page also had a number of frames, for longer news items and other stories, for which you may need the “hold” button on your remote control.


Later, hyperlinks to other sections of teletext were possible by red, green, yellow and blue “FastText” buttons. A “Reveal” button was also available for parts of pages, like revealing a punchline for a joke. Blocky pictures were also possible using the palette of eight colours, which included the black background, and breaking news could be left to scroll along the bottom of your screen while you continued to watch TV.

Ceefax would grow slowly at the BBC in the 1970s. Initially a staff of nine would write the original thirty-page magazine, broadcast on a single line, which were punched onto paper computer tape, and sent to a different floor of BBC Television Centre to broadcast them – updates only happened on weekdays, as everyone went home for the weekend. From 1981, the BBC Micro computer was used to create pages, and could be received at home with an adaptor – basic computer programs were also broadcast using teletext. Viewers in the UK will also be used to “Pages from Ceefax” filling in gaps on BBC television during the day when there were no TV programmes to show.


Of course, this is all gone now – digital teletext was introduced in 1999, using information from Ceefax, but by the time the end of analogue TV killed off Ceefax in 2012, it was using text from the BBC’s website, and some of the sections could only be found online, because it was just easier. A similar text service that used your phone line, Prestel, allowing you to buy items and view your bank account at home from 1976, had already ended by 1992, mainly because it was cheaper to  Even looking at the “BBC Red Button” service today through my TV, it is cut down even from when it began, almost to the point where there is no longer a need for it. However, teletext was built because a need for it was found, a need that continued to find ways to fulfil itself.

Monday, 8 October 2018

EVERY DAY I WRITE THE BOOK [130]

Monday

Is there any point to keeping a diary? You know what you did, and how you feel – is it for reference, or to confront yourself, or as a writing exercise? The last of these was my reason for having first begun a diary fifteen years ago, but also why it has petered out – I have other outlets for that sort of thing, outlets more than one person can see. I could do with a way to collate all those disparate thoughts you have during the week, those ideas that felt like a good idea at the timer, but they let you go before you remember to write them down.

Tuesday

So how did Ceefax work anyway? And why did my mind make me think of this? And why am I now entertaining this as a subject for a future article, instead of looking it up? Teletext is still a recent history for most – oh yeah, that’s why it’s a good idea.

Wednesday

Of course, today is when you actually started writing your diary, in the hope that, when you read through it as preparation for the inevitable autobiography, you will have forgotten what kind of procrastinating person you once were, only to have that thought hit you once again.

Thursday

Of course, your energies were concentrating on work during the week, and there are times where you have nothing to write down, but the idea of skipping an entire day seems about as perverse as making a note that, by the way, nothing else happened – it may be easier to make a note of that having been the case, and move on.

Friday

A manager at work said I had a good speaking voice, but I then decided to say it sounded like it was full of disdain – it was rather a pointless call. I am not exactly sure why I said that, but it does sound like I was being too honest while making a joke. I don’t like taking phone calls. I’ve had the latest iPhone for two weeks, and made one call on it so far.

Saturday

Napping in the afternoon, I dreamt I was walking, then my right foot slipped, I fell forward – and I woke up. This joins other weird dreams of this week, which included retrieving papers, from a red post box in a high street, that I needed for when I was starring in a TV detective drama – a type of show I never, ever watch – and the dream where I found forty-five pence on the floor. I should have gone for a walk, but it was raining – that is, in real life.

Sunday

Wrote an article about “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning” for His & Hers Movie Reviews – it is their Halloween Horror month, and I rarely watch horror films, but I may write a horror film one day, or some sort of horror story. If science fiction portrays our anxieties about the future, then horror does the same for the present. 

Monday, 1 October 2018

I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME [129]


“If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view.”

“If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view.”

“If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view.”

This sentence has rattled through my head for the last week, because I have never heard anyone say something like this before. I also cannot think of a situation where you could get away with saying something like it. How do you respond to it? Am I allowed?

When writing about why I don’t like chat shows [link], I came across an interview gave to the “Mail on Sunday” newspaper in 2016 [link], just as a book on his encounters with Muhammad Ali was published. Even if I wouldn’t have made a point of tuning in to “Parkinson” in the 1970s, if I had been around then, I probably would have if Ali, or Billy Connolly, or Peter Sellers, or Kenneth Williams was a guest – some people are worth hearing, even if they are mainly there to promote something.

Although the article was to promote the Ali book, the headlines came from when Parkinson was asked if there were any moments in his career that he regretted. Saying he has been accused of being old-fashioned, Parkinson used the example of the 1975 interview he had with Helen Mirren, who was introduced on the show was the “sex queen” of the Royal Shakespeare Company and, after a theatre critic was quoted as saying Mirren was good at “sluttish eroticism,” Parkinson asked if Mirren thought her “equipment” got in her way of performing as an actress. After clarifying he was referring to her figure, Mirren replied, “Serious actresses can't have big bosoms, is that what you mean?”

The interview can easily be found online, and while it has since been decried as sexist since, it was perfectly fine for broadcast in 1975 – “it was OK at the time” is a phrase often heard in cases like this, usually because it may not be these days. In the “Mail on Sunday” interview, Parkinson said he may have overreacted, but he was reacting to the provocative figure Mirren presented. When asked if they had made up since, Parkinson said, “I don't want to. Nor does she. I don't regard what happened there as being anything other than good television. There is no need to apologise, not at all. She didn't want to do an interview and after about ten minutes I didn't want to interview her. There's no problem, it's not World War III for God's sake.”

For her part, Dame Helen Mirren, later quoted in an article for “The Telegraph” website [link], said, “That’s the first talk show I’d ever done. I was terrified. I watched it and I actually thought, bloody hell! ... I did really well. I was so young and inexperienced. And he was such a f------ sexist old fart. He was. He denies it to this day that it was sexist, but of course he was.”

This leads me to where I became unstuck. In his interview, Parkinson is reported reacting to the notion of his interview with Mirren being a defining moment of the “sexist” Seventies: You have to judge it by what happened in that time. If you didn't live in that time, you're not allowed an opinion in my view [my underline].... I’ve not done anything that I'm ashamed of. I can see everything in the context of the time I did it. I can think, 'Ooh, I wouldn't do that now.' But that doesn't mean to say I was wrong at the time.”

The interviewer, challenging that one sentence, writes, “if one of his guests had said that, he would have challenged them strongly,” but I wished it was challenged in this interview, although we do get the odd quote later, “Am I a sexist? No, I'm Yorkshire. I don't know what the answer is or what a sexist means, basically. I've been married for 57 years so something must be going right. I wouldn't say I'm a sexist at all.”

To be honest, I just needed to write about that one sentence, “If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view,” but I also needed to present the context in which that was uttered. I will go with Dame Helen’s reaction to the interview, because she definitely was there at the time, but to say you are not allowed to have an opinion on something is a red flag that needs as much oxygen as possible – if I said that to anyone, I would be demolished in response. Perhaps it is easier, for Sir Michael Parkinson, not to use his chat shows as primary sources.