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2009
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November 30th; After Robin drives off to Budapest at lunch time, I am here alone for a night with 4 dogs, a cat, and the strange warm wind of a dusk that seems to start darkening already at 2pm. Around 9pm, halfway through watching all four hours on the internet of the BBC documentary by Adam Curtis about PR and advertising in the 20th century, 'Century of the Self', I go out to feed the dogs and put the fox terriers in the garage for the night. The warm wind is extraordinary. All the night-time country around seems to be heaving, rustling, restless and promising something, something soon. The last two nights, as I went to sleep in the library, I would switch the electric lights out and see a strange cool glow over the maps on the bottom shelf at the far end of the room. Each time, I realised it was the light of the moon, from just over the roof of Robin's stables out of the window behind my head. The Curtis documentary is interesting, and has his usual wonderful selection of archive footage. Only a couple of points jarred. A kind of social-democrat loyalty becomes clearer with each documentary, not far behind his calm, patient narrating voice. The twin philosophies of Freud & Reich are well, if crudely, explained. Some of the material on Bernays, Freud's Americanised nephew, whipping up popular outrage in the US press after a socialist gets elected in 1950s Guatemala, then helping to violently restore it to the control of the United Fruit Company, was new to me. Interesting to see film of the young Richard Nixon taking possession of the stash of (planted?) communist pamphlets, and learn that his Watergate plumber of later years, E. Howard Hunt, was in charge of the putsch. When Thatcher and later Blair in Britain adopt US election tactics (identifying swing voters by their emotional needs and life values), it sounds as if Curtis cannot quite choose whether this is a welcome break with the snobbery of the past or a loss of the tribal solidarities that the class-ridden Britain of the past used to support. When 1950s BBC producers call populist programming "groundbait" to pull viewers towards other shows thought "good for them", Curtis sneers that this is elitist. When Reagan's, Thatcher's, Clinton's election advisers take ordinary people's desires & feelings seriously on their own terms, Curtis grumbles that this is patronising and manipulative - in other words, not elitist enough.
After I watch all four hours, I finish off Robin's copy of 'Between the Woods and the Water', the second part (read the first this spring) of Patrick Leigh Fermor's elegaic reminiscence of his hike across Europe, aged 19, in 1934. In this book he crosses Hungary and Transylvania, and again stays with friendly shepherds in huts deep in the woods and impoverished aristocrats in decaying country houses. As he reminds us, he could not know all this would disappear for ever in yet another world war just a few years later. The book closes with a haunting vision of an island in the Danube between Serbia and Romania he visited, still inhabited by Turks speaking an old dialect, still using the pre-Ataturk Arabic alphabet, wearing the fez outlawed in Turkey itself, smoking hookah pipes. Cut off from the receding Ottoman Empire - a poignant vision of an era that vanished not long after. Soon after WWII this island was submerged under an artificial lake to feed a hydroelectric dam. Fermor's writing has a seductive lilt, but as this is partly built out of words obscure to me, I'm still a bit suspicious. Page 210 has the words 'kursaals', 'sabretaches', 'czapkas', 'villeggiatura', 'drugget' - all new to me. Context shows 'agaves' and 'cannas' on the same page to be plants, but they are new to me too. Quite funny, since he actually writes "the place was everything that the words 'spa', 'casino' and 'villeggiatura' conjure up." Perhaps villeggiatura conjures up an image for someone as well-read and multilingual as Patrick. Bringing together rare words lets him give a quiet, lyrical softness to the sentences because he allows himself a bigger vocabulary to choose lovely-sounding syllables from, and because their only-half-familiarity pushes us to notice their sounds more than we otherwise would. His passing mentions of love have a light, easy touch. There is for example a strange adventure where he and one host swim naked in a river, get laughed at by two country girls in traditional costume, chase them into a neighbouring field where there is literally a roll in the hay, all four laughing in the sun. The charm & delicacy of the moment is captured perfectly. The girls are suddenly named by paragraph two, and it seems clear that this was indeed.... a roll in the hay. Not long after, a married girl runs off with him for some days of clandestine sight-seeing. We watch Fermor learning to enjoy life as it comes, framing it with cheerfully amateur scholarship, fascination with exotic cultures and the romantic past. He describes pangs of guilt at staying for so long with hospitable gentry in their chateaux, but it is hard now not to feel he should have felt guilty in another way. Likewise his keen fascination with the traditional customs and costumes {all gone now, the conical fur hats, the broad belts, the baggy white pantaloons, any hats at all...} of peasants, labourers in fields, the shepherds and swineherds he meets, seems hypocritical and superior to the harshly egalitarian postwar eye. Even with such a light-hearted writer, it is hard to recapture the innocent, good-hearted curiosity with which it was once allowed to view other cultures, or indeed people in your own culture you knew to be poorer and unluckier than yourself. Children can still grasp this. It takes a humourless Briton of the post-NHS era to look, for example, at the affection depicted between Mary Poppins the governess and her chimneysweep friend as an insulting mockery of rigid class differences. Meanwhile, here is Fermor again, deep in the Romanian forest, surprising four does. "I must have been down-wind; they only looked up when I was fairly close. They turned in a flurry, heading for the underbrush and sailing downhill in great arcs until all their white rumps had vanished in turn; and, as they took flight, a russet stag, unseen till then, looked up with a sweep of horn that was spread far wider than the antler in my hand; and while the does were curvetting past, his antlers swung out of profile into full face like a ritual separation of twin candelabra."
November 29th; Sunday on the Great Hungarian Plain. In the morning, I finish a book Robin has bought by Slavoj Zizek, 'The Metastases of Enjoyment', from 1994, an early example of his now very fashionable merging of Frankfurt School Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Even with the paragraphs of technical hand-waving, this is very enjoyable to read: Zizek Gives Good Theory. However, all the familiar judo moves of pomo argumentation are here: phrases like "inscribed in (abstract noun)", "sexuality can universalise itself", "structure into reality", "enlarge the domain of symbolic exchange", "gaze of the Other". As with Lacan himself, the weaknesses are in plain view for anyone not seduced by the basic Frankfurt & Freud technique of making the reader feel in on some terribly clever secret. Almost every argument is just an assertion that some position is really a proof of its opposite, or that a symbol of X is really a symbol of not-X or perhaps Y. The references to popular films, detective stories, Lacanian theory, Marx, Hegel, Kant, Freud, biographical anecdotes about famous people, references to Hitchcock - all these blend into a glittering surface of temptations to feel initiated and counterintuitive. While there is a real story to be told of how power & culture manipulate primitive psychological drives and are shaped by them in turn, whenever Zizek takes a brief break from weaving his silken web of insinuation and actually states a claim, his silliness snaps into focus. His suggestion that the Bosnian war happened as much because of "the gaze" of Western Europe as because of internal strains in Yugoslav politics (insofar as it's feasible to extract anything as interesting and vulnerable as a claim out of Zizek's writing) is clearly just false. Certainly, there is something important to be said about the West's role / its indecisive abstinence from and then incompetent intervention in / the 1990s Yugoslav wars. A certain point could be added about the Western European way of looking at political events and how this gaze helps to affect events. But to state, as Zizek does, that "Without the libidinal economy {his italics} of this victimisation, it is not possible to account for what has gone on in the last two years in Sarajevo." is embarrassingly wrong. Of course it's possible to account for it without that. Once a reader (refusing to be misled by Zizek's own use of the Hans Christian Anderson story) sees the emperor's lack of clothes, it is hard to go back. The spell of naive excitement writing like this can cast over the almost-well-read is broken. His chapter on Otto Weininger's misogynistic writing about women, for example, is pure sleight of hand. We learn that Weininger is hysterical. Oh really? Nowhere does Zizek actually simply say why Weininger is wrong, any more than he says why fascism or Stalinism are bad. I suppose this is because post-Frankfurt psychoanalytic thinkers are just too knowing & arch to be seen in public alongside ideas as gauche as good, bad, right or wrong. That is of course, unless they're framed by some smugly relativist reference to a "power relation". Later in the day, I finish the history book Jeremy 2 lent me, 'The Isles' by Norman Davies. This is a non-Anglocentric history of what, Davies convincingly argues, we are mistaken in calling the 'British' Isles. There are some wonderful tricks, for example using the French spelling for (French-speaking) monarchs in the Plantagenet dynasty, such as King Jean instead of King John. This has an intriguing effect on the Englishist rear-mirror view taught by most histories of Britain (usually presented as histories of England). About a quarter of the book is made up of reviews of each period's history books about Britain, and this - like the repeated harping on Celtic identities - becomes tedious by about halfway through. By the time we get to a point where Davies makes the claim that Germany and Italy were countries formed by a popular feeling of national togetherness in a completely different way to Britain (as if Bismarck had never schemed or Garibaldi had never battled), we begin to see how flawed Davies' thinking is. For an overview of a thousand years of history, the book is fatally stamped by the shallow mood of 'modernisation' from the publication date of 1999. Also, something of a personal grudge starts to show itself. Even after only a decade, by 2009 its High New Labour flavour makes this book sadly dated. As Davies breezily discusses Britain's absurd aristocracy, the near-inevitable triumph of Scottish and Welsh separatism, the UK's laughable constitutional oddities, the noble and exciting role of the EU, his modernising, eurorepublican prejudices are cruelly exposed. Clearly unread in most of human psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, philosophy, economics (though he seems to have a firm grasp of legal theory), Davies is, like so many people, the more out of date the harder he tries to be up to date. His excellent initial thesis is in the end undercut by the axe he spends his whole book grinding.
After dark, Robin & I drive out to visit and pay Marika. She repeats for the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th time her maudlin plea that Robin "temporarily" take charge of the 9 stray dogs [it was 7 yesterday] she has given shelter to - the council is taking her to court for disturbing neighbours with them. Then to the seamstress, who is very pleasant about being disturbed by two foreigners at 7pm on a Sunday evening.

November 28th; Saturday on the Great Hungarian Plain. Zsuzsi & Bela invite me to join them in doing some paintings at the kitchen table, and before long Robin has produced a year-old marbling kit, and we are all producing intriguing swirly designs out of coloured oil floating on the surface of water in shallow trays.
November 27th; Go to Pannon with Robin, and find out that Pannon's rules have not improved after all, since I am expected to present identity documents every time I buy more internet access - the system Charles Clarke wants to have imposed on us all. Robin & I drive together into the Hungarian countryside after dark and find the four children at home for the weekend.

November 26th; Knocking around at home, sorting debris from the journey. A quite fun Nigel Godrich video for Beck, where, as usual, general mess & randomness are supposed to signify Bohemian complexity.
November 25th; Wake up in Budapest again. MariannPsy is bang on time at the shopping centre with her toddler Charlie, bless her. When we get to the Pannon telecom showroom inside, it turns out that they have improved their rules in just three weeks, and I needn't have got her help, because now no Hungarian identity documents are needed for me to get a new modem {a change for the better}. A good-natured curvy Pannon girl helps me buy & test the device, and then I find Mariann & Charlie outside in a nearby adventure playground. This is a place where all the wooden toys and structures are based on a Hungarian tale called 'Peter Green'. After a while Mariann manages to persuade Charlie to come out of the giant upturned boat/fish decorated with something like the Eye of Horus to accompany her home for lunch. Doing some dull leg exercises on the gyno-chairs at the gym, I finish reading 'Mill on the Floss', which Marion bought me some time back: in her opinion the best novel in English. Though I don't completely agree, I was a bit startled to find tears in my eyes at the dramatic tie-up-all-the-loose-ends closing scene of the book. Much as I enjoyed George Eliot's writing, well-drawn as the characters are, the novel is just too much about shame, pride, guilt, debt, money worries, thwarted love, gossip, stubbornness, and self-denial to be a fictional world I could enjoy escaping into. In the evening my neighbour Katalin quizzes me about British food delicacies. I try to explain the appeal of Marmite. She is much more drawn to the concept of chocolate-coated digestive biscuits.

November 24th; Leaving Dominik & Melanie after a leisurely breakfast, Robin & I drive across Austria in rather atmospheric rain. Breaking an old rule, I read in the car, to finish off the book which Kate sweetly gave me, 'Seven Experiments That Could Change the World' by Rupert Sheldrake. Amazingly, I do not get travel sick, not even slightly. One of the most ambitious of Sheldrake's books as he ploughs what has been his rather lonely furrow since a Nature review called his first early-80s work "a book for burning". He describes simple experiments in seven areas, as disparate as the fundamental constants of physics, the spatial sense of termite colonies, and whether people can feel amputees' phantom limbs through walls. The prose is simple and clear. He adds background on the famous Clever Hans calculating horse hoax which overturns the usual sceptical interpretation of it given in psychology texts. He describes some intriguing work on placebos which also undercuts the usual materialist line on cures that apparently work non-materially. The green diesel Benz performs well, and we reach Budapest just after 10pm.
November 23rd; Robin & I drive to see the nearby Schwabian Baroque sites at Obermarchtal & Zwiefalten, as well as drop in on an art gallery in a chateau where, though it is closed today, we meet a mysterious twinkly-eyed school teacher in the large, empty courtyard. Between the two abbeys, we find at 1.50pm a bakery that is closed until 2pm. We wait quietly in the parked Benz, with wild white clouds scudding across a blue windy sky, like a Constable painting animated at high speed. As those queer tinny bells they have in Germany tonk at some church round the corner, a woman unlocks the bakery door on the stroke of two. We return to dinner at Dominik's with Melanie's parents, Rudolf & Kirstin. Melanie's father, an engineer, plausibly solves a long-standing mystery for me about the single notch in the otherwise blank profile of the giant tyres designed for quarry trucks, though this website shows more than one notch per tyre.

November 22nd; Dominik drives us in his sand-coloured ex-Dutch-Army landrover to a nearby town for beers. We discuss windmills, restoration, & Nikolaus Pevsner. Later he shows us round the complex of buildings he has restored and not yet restored at their handsome house. Their lovable giant dog, a Brazilian mastiff bitch, has a kind of zap device in her collar, rather like the pain collars in the 1960s Star Trek episode about a planet run by brains in vats. This collar stops Gina from crossing the buried wire at the boundary of the property. However, the arrival of a flock of 600 sheep at the field next to the house late in the afternoon tests her doggy instincts to the limit, and she bounds through the invisible pain barrier so as to engage the sheepdog in combat. Dominik finds out the shepherd is invoking an ancient right to graze his flock in any field not marked out with a special exemption post, and is headed for a town an hour's drive away. Dominik asks him when the flock will get there, and the amiable shepherd says February. Another evening of intense, lively discussion.
November 21st; Breakfast with Andreas. Robin & I drive across southern Germany. On the autobahn, next to a petrol station in the dark of early evening, we find a deserted modernist chapel. It has a pondful of flames, chunky 2-block wooden seats, and an altar made out of solid rock. A little after 10pm we finally arrive at a small village near Ulm, reaching cheerful, welcoming Dominik & Melanie for a late dinner.

November 20th; Day in Cologne with Andreas. Andreas is working hard, setting up a social-networking website based around video. We meet Nuel & his wife & baby outdoors at a cafe for a late breakfast, and later look round the latest show at his gallery. In the evening we go with Andreas, Sophie & others to two art-gallery openings. One is a joint show by a Quebecoise who studied at Goldsmith's in London and paints a kind of cartoonish expressionism with another woman who Photoshops images of herself dozens of times into photographs of crowd scenes. The next features a woman sculptor who is interested in fragility & materials, at a smaller venue where the gallerist is also a woman. Anne, Nathalie, and Wolfgang take me back to the others, since we got separated, and we go to a large restaurant for dinner, where we are served by a brisk jolly waitress with a ghetto blaster tattooed down one forearm. At one point, an empty Cologne tram drives slowly past with all its lights on, a tape recorder in it barking at us to pay for newspapers, not steal them. At another point I notice that every single pedestrian crossing has not two but three lamps for people crossing the road: one green man, but two red men. Nathalie poetically suggests that in Germany, her country, the emphasis is always on what you cannot do. Robin, asked the same question later, more pragmatically suggests that the city council got a job lot of road-facing 3-lamp traffic lights, configured for red/amber/green, and adapted them for pedestrian crossings. This still leaves the question of why not green/green/red, or green/unlit/red, though. Narrow victory to Nathalie, I think.
November 19th; Robin picks me up from Kate's. First we drive just a few streets into Notting Hill to see Lisa. In a handsomely dark-panelled flat we eat meringues and see how one of Robin's abstract paintings fits in, while Lisa tells us in her soft South African accent about her travels. Robin is unable to resist a couple of pieces of striped wooden board she has thrown out during building work, so he carries them to the car. Then he & I drive out of London, confusing signs almost sucking us into the Dartford Tunnel the wrong way. We find a mid-evening ferry to Dunkirk. Though the crossing is rough, I do not feel in the slightest travel sick, odd to note. We drive across night-time Belgium and make it to kind Andreas's flat in Cologne at 2am.

November 18th; To Kate's, south of the river. Attend an evening talk by her friend, Tom Fox, who is standing for Parliament on a general campaign to clean up British politics. Much better than a second speech should be. There's already enough fuss that the sitting Labour MP attends and asks a rather peevish question setting out his own credentials as an opponent of corruption. The crowd is solidly behind Tom and unimpressed by the MP. Del helpfully drives me back to Kate's in his white van.
November 17th; Last night lay down and slid into dreams of pirouetting helices of cubes, doubtless due to Nigel of Light's influence. Today quiet day of work in his kitchen - suprisingly the 3 modem now works well.

November 16th; Robin & I drive down to London. On the way, we stop off in Halifax to buy bacon sandwiches in a greasy spoon cafe called 'The Filling Station' where a cheery cackling woman offers Robin {I am in the car outside} some "pussy juice". In London after dark, I meet the Nigel of Light at Angel Islington.
November 15th; Kind Robin arrives in The Village. Exactly as Kate predicted, he is shocked by the loss of things I threw into the skip, and starts to rescue items.

November 14th; Skip arrives. Another day heaving furniture down stairs, cleaning, sorting, and moving stuff around. An old bit of film where the Sixties still look & sound a lot like the Fifties: shades of skiffle. Notice the girls' skirts & shoes. Some sensible remarks on sites like Facebook & Twitter, so often discussed without thought. As for the economy, a few people have noticed Bubble 2.0 is imminent - but why so few? Could it be more obvious?
November 13th; Ed drives me back from Halifax. We meet a friendly woman from a charity that {finally} is willing to take some of the furniture & crockery I want to give away. The boiler resets itself to non-working mode again, with or without power cuts.

November 12th; More work in empty house. Interesting article about depression: dandelion people and orchid people. Worth persisting to get past the leaden American writing.
November 11th; Today is the first Armstice Day in which no British soldiers who fought in World War One are alive any more. The last three Britons who served in the trenches died of old age this year. John & the Nigel of Darkness take the train over from Manchester to have lunch with me. John tells me that Kraftwerk used to have a telephone with no bell. They would pick the phone up each day at exactly 4pm, so if you needed to call them, you had to be calling them right then.

November 10th; Toil in empty house, deciding what to throw away, give away, clean or keep. Power cut darkens whole valley, resetting the hot-water boiler. Again. Pulled muscle in upper back still hurts each time I sneeze, cough, or breathe deeply. Nice.
November 9th; Read a short novel by Michael Dibdin, called 'The Tryst', set in the late 1980s. One psychiatric health worker in the story has the device a couple of friends of mine tried to sell back then - a dartboard portrait of Margaret Thatcher. The book alternates chapters about a woman psychologist with a bad marriage and a boy who lives with some violent glue-sniffing squatters respelt as "the stotters". Some excellent scenes, some good character depiction, and intriguing tense mood. The book ends a little weakly, almost magic-realist in flavour. Dibdin's instinct for his main female character begins to stumble at the close of this amospherically drab story of sullen state dependents and resentful state employees. A puzzling, haunting story within the story told by an elderly veteran of the First World War seems in some unexplained way to be the matching other half to the sulky mood of anti-Thatcherite Britain 70 years later.

November 8th; Funny to think I originally became a futures trader intending to learn about financial markets and then develop trading software like this. Perhaps a narrow escape, all things considered. In Mytholmroyd, go to Saint Michael's Remembrance Sunday service, bumping into Graham & Daphne. Lovely lunch at theirs afterwards. Start work on clearing & sorting in house.
November 7th; Exhausting struggle to get out of London. On a day like today it just seems like a huge machine designed solely to steal my money. I get a bus from Battersea to Oxford Circus, buy some credit on my "3 Telecom" wireless modem, but realise I have to rush to King's X to get my train, so leave without getting the friendly salesman's help to check if my laptop is now able to connect to the internet. No signs at Oxford Circus Tube station upstairs to tell me the Victoria Line is not working so I find myself running through tunnels with two bags, finally arriving at King's Cross five minutes after my booked train has left, drenched with sweat. A completely unsympathetic woman employee at National Express then sells me an open ticket for 84 quid, making the extra day at Kate's to get a 37-quid ticket a day ahead pointless. I then try to connect to 3 Telecom and find I cannot. Four hours later, I have paid much more for a Vodafone modem, staggered back to the Oxford Circus 3 shop where a new assistant refuses to touch my laptop and treats me like a naughty customer, had a 2nd 3 assistant take pity on me and help me check it works on my laptop, then finally got on a train to find that my 3 Telecom connection doesn't work after all. Of course, the Jubilee Line on London Underground was also not working today. At last, at 4.30pm, I am on a train pulling out of the hateful mess of a city. I'm using my new Vodafone modem to reach the internet, of course, not "3". Finally, 9 and a 1/2 hours after leaving Kate's place, I arrive at the miserable little cottage in the rain in west Yorkshire. It now feels like my repair-hungry, uninsurable, damp-stained house, not mother's. Lucky me.

November 6th; Wake up very rested at Kate's in London, wrapped in a wonderfully thick, warm, & heavy curtain. This is where Robin & I arrived late last night. Look at Kate's copy of a book called 'Groovy Bob' about her step-uncle. She says the biographer Harriet Vyner was sneakily dishonest with the family. Vyner promised a study of Robert Fraser's influence as a gallerist on Pop Art and 1960s Swinging London, but instead raided their papers to fill the book with as much hurtful gossip about his life as possible.
November 5th; At a motorway caff in Belgium, eat lunch with Robin. Pick up a handsomely-made booklet about an art exhibition in nearby Leuven about the wonderful painter who inspired Durer, Rogier van der Weyden. Despite the proud remark that Leuven is the oldest university in the Low Countries, the clearly Dutch/Germanic name of both town & artist, and the fact that half of Belgium speaks Dutch, the booklet is in English, French, & German only. There's also a rather obvious translation error [even to someone who doesn't read German] in the title of the German section. This makes it say 'Passion of the Masters' instead of the correct 'Master of the Passions'. The website includes a Dutch/Flemish section, but repeats the German mistake in the Dutch. Most curious, Watson.

November 4th; We drive through more of Germany, and manage to meet Nuel at his new gallery in Cologne in the mid-afternoon. While Nuel finishes work, Robin & I visit an intriguing gallery called 'Kolumba' in a restored church building. It houses a mix of modern & ancient art from the private collection of the city's archbishopric. This includes some mediaeval painted panels, some 1950s fashion illustrator's pen & wash sketches of leggy girls with bob haircuts & almond eyes, and conceptual artworks by Joseph Beuys. Andreas joins us for a kebab later & drinks with friends, including Tonio, manager of a green business selling heat pumps & solar panels. I alarm a shy girl called Pippa with a perhaps rather upfront anecdote from last week about a blonde with a butterfly-shaped belt buckle.
November 3rd; Robin meets me at Blaha Lujza square for the drive to Germany. Hours of rain, forest-lined autobahns, & grey churning skies. Beneath an oak tree on a farm track somewhere outside Wurzburg, we bed down for the night in the car.

November 2nd; Long, busy day preparing for travel tomorrow. Book market still looks unpromising.
November 1st; With Mystery Friend 2 to walk round Kerepesi Cemetery as night falls on the Day of the Dead, one of the few annual holidays miserable enough to really get Hungarians' full attention. At one monument, a ring of 20 candles in jars and 10 people standing quietly in the dark attract our curious sympathy. We draw close, and I quietly ask the girl next to me in a low voice who the memorial is for. She gulps back a sob, looks at me reproachfully, and turns away, sniffling. At another stone, I walk up behind the gravestone, drawn by another 20 flickering red jar candles, and I find myself next to the tombstone, in the heart of a semi-circle of 6 or 7 Hungarians who appear, looming out of the blackness, standing round me in complete silence. Their ghostly white faces hover in the gloom. They stay motionless & blank-faced as I hastily retreat. During a rather frustrating day it becomes clear that my Vodafone modem is useless, Pannon is not open to sell me a competing device, and my PC laptop seems to no longer connect to Wifi hot spots.

Mark Griffith, site administrator / markgriffith at yahoo.com

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