Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Good Riddance!

OK - back to frivolity.

Like everybody else, we have been progressively replacing our traditional (tungsten filament) light bulbs by more-economical & maybe more-ecological fluorescent ones, like this.

Initially reluctant because of the cost, size, weight, light quality & slow start of the fluo bulbs, we have had little choice, since the old bulbs have simply been removed from the market, starting with the biggest & brightest.

Admittedly, fluo bulbs have improved recently.
The cost is now reasonable.
Light quality is OK (with the right choice of color temperature).
Size can still be a nuisance.
Start-up time remains unpredictably long from bulb to bulb, but is always dismal & often very dismal.
Cold performance is bad & apparently always will be.

For these reasons, we have continued to use (from a small stock) tungsten bulbs for cold situations (outside) & for short-term situations where the start-up time really hurts (loos & corridors).

I have been watching the progress of LED bulbs with interest.
From being exotic, expensive & very limited in power, they have slowly crept into feasibility, starting from the lowest power applications.
Several years ago, I got a 1 Watt night-light.
That involved an internet search of strange sites, then shipping from Hong-Kong.
Last year, I found a 3.5W 250lm bulb (OK for a bedside lamp) in the local supermarket for a reasonable price.
Last week, I bought a 13W 1000lm bulb (OK for the dining room) in Ikea for €9.99.
They also have a 10W 600lm bulb at €6.99 & a 6W 400lm bulb at €2.99.

Still slightly oversize & overweight, these bulbs are otherwise very satisfactory, with good light quality (for me) & instant start-up.
They pay for themselves very quickly compared with tungsten bulbs.

So I shall not be buying any more fluorescent bulbs from now on - just LEDs.

The temptation soon will be to also replace the new fluo bulbs by LEDs!
But they last so long...
And have to be disposed of properly due to the mercury they contain.
Soon we will look back on fluos as a wasted journey.
And maybe an ecological error too.

All the LEDs I see are made in China.
Do we need a European initiative to make light bulbs again?

Parting thot: "Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence." - Lin Yutang

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Je suis Charlie

This frivolous blog deliberately avoids serious issues.
But it's impossible to ignore what has happened in France this week.
The absolute horror of the terrorist attacks.
The suspense of the live coverage of the police actions.
The unexpected & unprecedented public reaction, with over 3 million people calmly in the streets proclaiming liberty & tolerance.
An emotional & heartwarming outcome.
France is proud of itself again!

Of course, everybody expects there will be follow-up terrorist activity.
Many people hope, but don't dare to expect, that there might be some follow-up to the social/political gauntlet effectively thrown down by 3 million marchers.

It will be a pity if, next week, we get back to low-level political bickering.

Incidentally, we need to find some way to stop CNN-style live TV coverage giving vital information to criminals.
Ironic when we are all defending freedom of speech...

Parting thot: "Il ne faut pas les appeler fou - c'est insulter les fous." - Patrick Pelloux (about terrorists)

I "borrowed" the image from Ruben L. Oppenheimer, with thanks & admiration.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Panasonic Buttons

Some years back, I bought a Panasonic TZ6 "pocket zoom" camera.
It was extremely convenient and an excellent compromise between small size & decent quality with what was then a big zoom range.
One annoying fault was that the Program Control knob was right on the corner and only too easy to rotate accidentally, so you (I & lots of others - see internet) frequently took shots using the wrong program.

I foolishly fell off a cliff holding that camera, so when I was well enough to use a camera again, I bought its current replacement, a TZ18.
Panasonic had obviously listened to the many complaints about the Program knob, so had repositioned it to a more protected zone & I never had another incident on that score.

But my particular TZ18 had frequent problems with wrong focusing & dust inside the lens/sensor, in spite of very careful handling (& no cliffs).
It was repaired several times under the 2-year garantee - each time with a good loan camera & an extension to the garantee timing.
Only days after the extended garantee expired, it again developed dust & focus problems, so I assumed I would need to pay almost as much to get it repaired again as to buy a new camera, but the dealer (Boulanger) was very sympathetic & managed to come to some agreement with Panasonic whereby I got 100% of the original purchase price back (as a credit note)!

Disappointed by the reliability of the TZ18, but impressed by the service, I again bought the current replacement, which by this time was the TZ35.
Too soon to know about reliability, it initially feels & sounds "cheaper" than the older models.
It actually was cheaper too.
But then they no longer supply a mains battery charger, just a USB cable to charge the battery inside the camera.
Not progress for me, but I suppose that is convergence with smartphone habits.
Fortunately, I still have the charger & spare battery from the TZ6, so can carry on as before.
The big new irritation is that Panasonic has replaced the old slider switches for On/Off and for Shoot/Replay, by push-buttons.
An advantage is that you can now turn the camera on directly into replay mode without extending the zoom lens, simply by pressing the Replay button.
Obviously too, push buttons are cheaper & more reliable than sliding switches.
The problem is that they have made the On/Off button exactly flush with the top face, so it is impossible to feel where to press it!!!

So to turn the camera on, you need to look at it, or keep pressing in the hope of finding the right spot.
The right answer would have been to put the on/off button inside a finger-sized recess.
My for-now answer is to add a small bump on the button.
I wondered how to do that & ended up with a letter "I" in Dymo tape (remember Dymo tape?).
I had to cut round the "I" pretty closely to fit on the tiny button, but it works for now & I can easily locate & operate the button without looking or fumbling.

I just wish manufacturers would spend less effort rushing for frequent updates & more time checking that stuff works.

Parting thot: "Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good." - Thomas Sowell

Sunday, November 30, 2014

And Talking of Nutcrackers...

We saw what looked like the ultimate nutcracker in a shop window in Spain, but the shop was shut & we moved on before it opened.

Then passing through Guarda (Portugal) we saw the one above & the shop was open, so we bought it immediately (€22).
The shop only had that one example & nothing else like it.
From memory, the Spanish one was similar, but maybe even more robust.
Assuming it was a common Iberian device, we then spent 3 weeks scouring hardware stores without finding anything at all...

Back home, the usual search engine doesn't find it either.
The nearest it gets is the American "Get Crackin":

It easily & efficiently handles our walnuts.
Size adjustment is instantaneous, by sliding the nut in the "V".
Effort is very low.
It is easy to control the movement, to avoid totally crushing the nuts.

But it doesn't look that festive on the table.
And you can't slip it in your pocket for the village "Nuts & New Wine" evenings...

Parting thot: "Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail." - Barack Obama

Friday, October 25, 2013


Our walnut tree died in 2004.

Fortunately, I had put a dozen nuts in pots of earth & was able to select a decent-looking seedling to plant in 2005.

There followed some years of rapid growth but, of course, no nuts at first.

Last year, it produced for the first time - exactly 100 nuts & we were as pleased as proud parents!

This year - 253 beautiful big nuts.
But disaster - they are all too big for any of our nutcrackers!

No argument about the thumbscrew device above - they simply won't enter.
Less obvious for the ordinary 2-leg cracker - you can insert the nut, but the legs are too far apart to squeeze efficiently & crack the thick shell.

A quick check with a Vernier gauge showed we had nuts up to 38mm diameter.
So I looked on internet for nutcrackers for that size & was surprised to find nothing, except industrial or bench-top devices.
I remembered a likely-looking ratchet affair, which was probably the "Crackerjack".
But that is now a collector's item.

There seems to be a copy still on sale, but customer reviews show it is very fragile:

So, after hesitating about using a hammer, I am now using - a Mole wrench!

Not very elegant on the coffee table, but extremely effective.
It makes light work of the toughest shells & does not go on to crush the nuts.

What we need now is a "pretty" table-top Mole wrench...
Some quicker method of size adjustment would be good too - the screw is a bit time-consuming.

Parting thot: "When all's said and done, all roads lead to the same end. So it's not so much which road you take, as how you take it." - Charles de Lint

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Retractable, Double-Barrel What???

We recently spent several days each in Denmark & in Holland.
Countries which share a lot, like general flatness (if not downright concavity), lots of water, thatched roofs, ubiquitous cycle-tracks and friendly natives who speak better English than the BBC these days.

One area in which they are radically different though (apart from the Euro) is Public Loos.
In Denmark, it is hard to find yourself out of visual range of a WC sign & if you investigate you will certainly find something free, clean, tidy, unvandalized, well-lit, with loo paper, spare loo rolls, sink, water, soap & probably hand-drier.
In Holland, there seem to be no public WCs at all!
I finally went into a Tourist Office to ask what was the secret & was told "Railway Station".
Sure enough, if you can get to a station, pass the barriers, wait in the long queue & find a 50 cent coin, then you are happy.
Otherwise, you can try asking in a restaurant or café.
Several have notices specifying 50 cents to use the loo for non-customers.
Actually quite an intelligent solution if generalized & advertised.

For half of us, at least in big towns, there is a variety of pissoirs...
Usually of traditional French style - just a scroll of steel plate at midriff height & a nasty smell.
Sometimes more arty, like this elegant inclined affair with explicit logo.
Rarely, like the heading photo, an ultra-modern device, with 2 work-stations but little privacy.
When not in use, the whole thing retracts into the pavement!
At least you hope it is only when not in use...

I did a bit of Googling on this & found an old BBC article saying 3 of these devices were being installed in Newquay, Cornwall.
Not dated April 1st either.
More Googling showed they were closed soon after:

Parting thot: "There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs." - Thomas Sowell

Friday, June 14, 2013

See That No Sign?


This road (from Google Street View) is the D41 on the outskirts of Schnersheim, leading to Wiwersheim.I have used it about daily since 1989.
Until a few days ago there was a sign at the end of the footpath, saying "Schnersheim" but crossed out.
That meant the end of the 50km/h town speed limit & the start of the 90km/h country limit.
So after the tree, you could accelerate to 90...

Well, without telling anybody, they have just shifted the Schnersheim sign about 500m further up the road.
Because of a future industrial estate, I supose.

Now I do actually obey speed limits, but after 24 years practice, I find it just automatic to accelerate after the tree.
After all - the only thing warning me not to, is the absence of a road sign!

If I do happen to reach 90km/h & happen to hit a radar trap, it could cost me:
- 135 euros
- 4 points off my (so far clean) license
- 3 years suspension (and resulting insurance hike)
- confiscation of vehicle...

There should be something more than absence of a sign, to help protect me & thousands of other habitual users of the D41, against such penalties!

EDIT: Several weeks later, this section of straight road outside the actual village now has 70km/h signs - an excellent solution.

Parting thot: "There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs." - Thomas Sowell

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Speedo Musings: 2

The more I think about using the GPS as a speedo, the better it sounds.

So I mocked-up how I think it should look, based on the TomTom Via 130 I am using.

You could keep the bottom band displaying next navigation action & distance.
But replace the map, most of the time, by a large display of the current speed limit, looking like a speed limit sign, of course.
Then, nearer the driver, an even larger display of the current speed.
This display should change format immediately above the speed limit & again significantly above the limit.

I would suggest white on green up to the limit.

Grey on yellow just above the limit.

Black on bright red (maybe pulsing?) above, say the speed-fine border (+5km/h or +5% above 100km/h?).

Maybe yellow on violet if the GPS doesn't know the limit??
Daltonians should be able to choose their own effects.

Other options could define when the speeds were & were not displayed.
I would suggest they should be shown except in the short zone (150-300 meters) before a navigation action, when spoken instructions are usually given.
With vocal commands, you could call up "Map" or "Speedo" as required too.

All that should be do-able for nothing with current GPS's - just the cost of a few lines of program...

Parting thot: "I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road." - Stephen Hawking

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Which Wine should One Serve with Baked Beans?

One evening a week, DS goes to gym classes, leaving me to fend for myself.

Fending tends to gravitate to putting half a frozen pizza in the oven, but has none the less required some reflection.
Firstly - how do you get half a frozen pizza?
Normally, you start with a complete frozen pizza, of course (though at this level of cuisine, "of course" is a presumptuous phrase).

Early attempts tended to end with numerous fragments of frozen pizza, which taste the same, but look even less professional.
The secret is to find a very strong, very convex kitchen knife, which you then press down very firmly across one diameter whilst rocking to move the pressure-point across the pizza.
A mezzaluna would be ideal, but we don't have one.
When sufficiently weakened (& all the culinary art is there) place the pizza so the edge of the work-surface is just under your new groove and press down (Seasoned glass & tile cutters will understand) when it should break cleanly into 2 perfect halves.

If so - don't forget to kick the bits of cheese out of the way before DS gets back.
If not - more rocking with the curved knife next time.

Then there is the cooking time & temperature.
In the end, I settled for what is certainly not the optimal-pizza method, but must be the quickest & cheapest.
Put the cold pizza on a low grid in the cold oven.
Put a non-stick tray underneath to catch the cheese.
Turn the oven to 220°C.
Return to TV or PC.
Wait for oven to ping or smoke alarm to warble.
Turn oven off & eat pizza.

Today though, I fancied something more "special".
So - 205gm of Branston Baked Beans (so much tastier than the well-known brand leader).
2min at 50% in microwave.
Simultaneously (so not for absolute beginners) plate in oven at 60°C & thick slices of bread in toaster at max (what happened to real men's toasters?).
Take plate, add toast, add butter, add beans, add dash of Lea & Perrins.
What more could you want?

Ah yes, this is France, after all, so - wine?

Unable to find any recommendation for accompanying BB's, I settled for a Cabernay Sauvignon.
It came out of a Bag-in-Box, which seemed appropriate somehow.

All this leaves me wondering if I am really as French as I thought...
This kind of behaviour would be judged worse here than lying about your Swiss bank account, I suspect!

Parting thot: "Perfectionism is spelled:    p  a  r  a  l  y  s  i  s" - Winston Churchill

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Speedo Musings

For 230,000km I have been staring (well - glancing) at this speedo on my cheapo Japanese car.
I find it very clear & easy to use.
The only negative is that it marks 20-40-60 etc whereas nearly all speed limits are 30-50-70-90-110-130.

Our latest, very expensive German car doesn't do nearly as well.

The speedo is not directly in front of the driver, so suffers parallax errors.
The numbers aren't so obviously aligned with their marks.
Worst - the scale suddenly changes, between 40 & 60 (presumably at 40?) so interpolation between numbers requires careful scrutiny & mental gymnastics!
Checking speed requires concentration & takes your eyes off the road for over a second.
Somebody should get the boot for this...

Directly in front of the driver is a screen with all sorts of useful but incidental stuff, like time & temperature, which would be better in the dash where everybody could see it.
That screen can also display driver-interest items like fuel consumption & range.
Or, it can display speed, digitally.
I found that surprising - until I tried it.
Then I found that checking my speed took the merest fraction of a second, without even needing to refocus or look directly at the number.
Now, I often have it set to digital speed and compare the 2 methods.
The difference in time & ease is so flagrant that there is absolutely no contest.
On safety grounds, legislation should encourage or impose (ouch! - see below) digital readouts.

Of course, the readout should be bigger & nearer the line of sight.
Then it would not be necessary to look away from the road at all.

Another novelty with the new car (late adopter...) is a GPS.

Apart from its obvious function of navigation, the GPS provides 2 arguably-more-useful functions:
1. It indicates actual speed with (presumably) better accuracy than the vehicle speedo.
Certainly the difference is around 8%.
2. It indicates local speed limits, and does it very well.
Obviously it can't handle temporary limits & obviously it depends how frequently you update the data, but it seems to offer better reliability that any, even careful, human driver.

Which leads me to the conclusion that what I want, and what everybody needs, is a good, big, head-up display of GPS-accurate speed & of up-to-date local speed limit.
With a warning light...

That has to be achievable today & would save a lot of people a lot of time, money & maybe injury.

I am aware of alternative systems which actually read speed limit signs, but have my doubts about their reliabilty in real traffic conditions.

Parting thot: "What is ominous is the ease with which some people go from saying that they don't like something to saying that the government should forbid it. When you go down that road, don't expect freedom to survive very long." - Thomas Sowell

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Photographing Albert

I inherited a hundred-year-old unfinished oil painting of my Grandfather Albert, who died at age 36.

I never knew him, but you probably guessed that...

His painting has been lurking in our basement, mainly to frighten burglars.

But we brought him out recently, when a family member enquired about him.
And realized we did not have a photograph.
Cleaned the frame & glass, then took a photograph.

Except no - too many reflections in the glass, of course!
Even if you manage not to get reflections of the surroundings, you always get reflections of the photographer.
Or at least of the camera, hand, arm...

The only way (so far) of avoiding a camera reflection is to stand off-axis, just enough that the camera does not see itself in the mirror.

But you still see windows, wallpaper, clouds or whatever.

So we invented this method:

- Veranda with translucent roof for diffused lighting
- Albert with long side on ground, inclining towards camera
- Small trusty assistant, very huddled, controlling inclination
- Long black cloth on ground
- Black backdrop
- Camera off-axis
The anxious photographer instructs the huddled assistant to adjust Albert's inclination until he only sees the (invisible) reflection of the black cloth on the screen.

Yes - but the result is trapezoidal, obviously.
Perspective, innit?

Enter PhotoShop.
Or, in my case, the Linux free equivalent - Gimp.
I loath Gimp as having the most user-unfriendly interface I ever saw, but it does the job.
You can distort trapezoids to near-enough rectangles with only mind-blowing difficulty & frustration.

So there we are.

Ah - why an unfinished portrait?
Would you believe the artist was run over by a tram?

Parting thot: "A picture is worth a thousand words." - Napoleon Bonaparte

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Umweltzonen Nochamol...

Back in 2010, I commented on needing "Umweltzonen" car stickers to get into some German cities.
Back then, I got stickers for €6 each.

Having now acquired a new car, it seemed like time to get a new sticker, so I Googled a bit, struggled a bit with several sites in German, then found some sites with French or English options.

Since 2010, European solidarity seems to have receded somewhat & charges are now higher for cars registered outside Germany.
This site looked promising:
But the stickers work out at €29.90 (handwritten) or €39.90 (printed)!!

Various TuV sites appeared high on the Google results, so I tried this one:
Here, stickers are €5 if you collect, or €15 by post, according to the French-language version.
I couldn't find anything about stickers on the English-language one...

A different TuV site in English, offers stickers by post for €12.50:
so I settled for that one.
The procedure is a  bit odd, in that you have to download a non-saveable PDF order form, print it, fill it in, scan it & send it back as an e-mail attachment together with a scan of the registration document.
What I expected to happen next was an e-mail telling me which category I was entitled to & telling me how to pay.
What actually happened was I got a nice new (printed) sticker through the post... and an invitation to pay, preferably by bank transfer (with BIC & IBAN codes).

I wonder how many French (or UK) establishments send you the goods first & ask you to pay afterwards?

After paying for my new sticker, I re-read my 2010 post & idly clicked on the link:
Surprisingly, Berlin still seems to be offering stickers for €6, at least for German cars!
I didn't get far enough through the ordering process to confirm the price for foreign vehicles, but it might still be the best place to start!

Parting thot: "Taxes grow without rain." - Jewish proverb

Monday, February 4, 2013

Gutenberg Reflections

 A statue in Strasbourg commemorates Gutenberg, credited with inventing printing with movable type there in 1440.

So you would expect that by 2013 printing text would hold few secrets.

But an otherwise-excellent book I am reading fails the most basic book test - you can't read it.

Or at least, to read it you need to keep changing the inclination of the pages, or moving your head.

They got the bit about 'black ink on white paper' right, but then 'improved' that by making the ink nice & shiny.
So in reflected light, the text disappears.


Parting thot: "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." - Voltaire

Friday, January 25, 2013

Further Adventures with a Braun Shaver

A couple of posts back, I mentioned a Braun 3615 shaver which had never seemed to work from new.

After several more attempts, I decided it really didn't work at all & I had nothing to lose by opening it.

Inside, the electric motor drives a tiny crank, which drives a tiny connecting rod, which makes the various shaving blades oscillate.
At least it does if the connecting rod is connected to the crank, which it wasn't & apparently never had been!

Connecting it & reassembling (fiddly job, glad I have an illuminated magnifying glass) - I now have a shaver which shaves.
And trims.

Black mark for Braun quality control!

Parting thot: "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?" - Abraham Lincoln

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Station with Veranda

Strasbourg had a striking railway station, dating from 1883 - one of the 'German' periods.
In fact it still has & although we know it well as occasional users, we were surprised on a recent open day to discover, amongst other exotic details well worth seeing, the lavish 'Emperor's Salon', built to receive Emperor Wilhelm I but which he never used...

Today though, the 1883 stone facade is covered by an enormous glass veranda.

At the planning stage, the usual whiners complained that this veranda might detract from the classical elegance of the listed building.
Of course, they were soon silenced when it was scathingly pointed out that the veranda was going to be all glass & that glass is, well, you know, transparent - you can see through it, so no problem.
Well - score one for the usual whiners, as the facade is now quite invisible behind the tinted, sloping, reflective glass.
The result looks like a big blob of mercury.
Like you used to play with in the good old days before Minamata.

The veranda does do quite a decent job of providing much-needed extra space & weather protection for milling travellers, not only for the main-line station, but for the communicating tram station & car park, built just underneath.

Not a perfect job though.
From the start, there were problems with rain driving in, at the junction between the veranda & the facade and also between the many glass panels.
I think that has now been improved, if not actually solved.

Then there was all-pervading grit, which seemingly originated when the trams in the underground station dumped sand on the lines to improve braking performance.
Now, as each tram enters the station, it switches on a wheel-level fog-bank which settles the sand & iron filings near the rails, instead of allowing them to billow up into the veranda.

OK now then?
Well - no.
Having got rid of the grit, the shopkeepers now see a thick, black, sooty deposit all over their tables, chairs & sandwiches.
Not to mention in their handkerchiefs.
So yet another investigation is underway.
It's early days yet.
The veranda was opened in 2007.


Parting thot: "Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, January 20, 2013


One bit of weather I don't remember from Britain, but we see here occasionally, is Black Ice (verglas).

Formed instantly when rain falls on hard-frozen ground, it can develop into a skin up to maybe 1cm thick and is VERY slippery, especially while rain is still falling.
No amount of skill can make driving reasonable on black ice, unless you have spiked tyres, which are rare outside mountain areas.
Even walking is extremely risky & best avoided, especially for brittle crumblies.
Don't even think of cycling!

Well today, as forecast, we woke up to black ice & were thankful that we didn't have to go to work.
The only immediate inconvenience was that the morning paper had not been delivered at it's usual 05:30, for the first time in 25 years.
Trusty Marcel turned up with it later, wearing neat strap-on studs under his boots!

Black ice usually occurs when a warm front moves in after a very cold spell, so that the ice gets melted again after an hour or 2 by the new warm air.
But today it managed to rain while the ground-level air temperature has not gone above -1°C & is now falling again for the night.
So the ice has not melted all day & the forecast is for snow to fall on it.
Should be chaos on the roads tomorrow...

Parting thot: "You never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks" - Eskimo proverb

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Shave Sir - or a Rip-Off?

Decades ago, I had a simple Braun electric shaver which worked OK for many years & for which I occasionally replaced the necessarily-fragile foils without noticing the cost.

More recently I have been using Gillette GII wet-shaver blades for a better, quicker & quieter shave at home.
Soon followed by "compatible" equivalents for a quarter of the price.

In a few limited circumstances, I think a rechargeable electric shaver might be more convenient than wet shaving, so I have started to look again at electric shavers.

In fact, we bought a new Braun 3615 rechargeable shaver a few years ago, when my father forgot to bring his own shaver out for a visit, but he never liked it, hardly used it & left it here.
So I thought that was a ready-made solution for me.
Unbelievably, I have tried it several times & although it buzzes away & seems to be working, it has absolutely no effect at all on my beard, whether tested on half-day, one-day or two-day stubble!
I keep wondering if I am doing something wrong, or if it needs cleaning or something, but nothing I have tried makes any difference.
It simply does not shave.

Thinking I would try a new foil, though really not convinced that would make any difference, I found the reference in a manual I downloaded, but:
1. They stopped selling just foils & only sell complete heads.
2. I can't even find heads in France & might have to order from UK.
3. A replacement head costs about £20 plus postage.

So I wondered about getting a new, simple, rechargeable razor instead.
The cheapest "reputable" one I can see is a Panasonic ES-SA40-S503 at 36€.
I can't see any spare foils or heads for that anywhere.
Maybe they expect you to throw it away after a year?

Funny - I would have thought this was a mature market with cheap, satisfactory goods & services by now?
It isn't?

Parting thot: "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." - Napoleon Bonaparte

Friday, January 18, 2013


The illustration (from Wikipedia) is of the well-known mille-feuille multi-layered pastry.

The same term is often used to describe the  multi-layered French Administration system.

In our case, for instance, we have, at least:
- Village: "X" (400 people, but no actual administration, I think)
- Commune: "X-Y" (800 people, 2 villages, a mayor, local council, looks after planning permission, local roads etc)
- Community of Communes: "Com-com du Kochersberg" (new entity created in 2002, 28 villages, 26 communes, 20,000 people, looks after tourisme, sport, culture, refuse-collection so far, but probably more in future)
- Canton: "Truchtersheim" (24 communes, of which 19 happen to be in our com-com, over 20K people, electoral area choosing one representative at Department level)
- Circonscription: "4th circonscription of Bas-Rhin" (4 cantons, electoral area choosing one national MP)
- Arrondissement: "Strasbourg-Campagne" (8 cantons, including all our circonscription, 280K people, normally should have a sous-préfet, but ours doesn't. Not sure what it does, if anything.)
- Sous-Prefecture: "Strasbourg" (2 arrondissements in our case, main contact between people & administration, driving license, car tax, firearms etc)
- Department: "Bas-Rhin" (11 sous-prefectures, traditionally the first-level division of the state, since Napoleon, looks after main roads, education at college level etc)
- Region: "Alsace" (2-8 departments, 2 in our case, looks after tourism again, education at lycee level, transport, business)
- Metropole: "France" (96 departments [from 01 to 95 including 02 & 2a & 2b but not 20...] continental France + Corsica & nearby islands, looks after everything)
- Republic: "France" (101 departments, including overseas - La Reunion, Guyane etc as well as smaller territories like Wallis & Futuna)

Beyond that, we can look up to (& pay for, but I am not complaining):
- Eurozone: (17 countries)
- EU: (27 countries)
- Council of Europe: (47 countries)
- UN: (193 countries)

But the big news is that we are (maybe) going to get rid of one layer.
Alsace is taking the lead in a move to combine one Region & 2 Departments into one "Territory".
Theoretically, that could lead to big savings.
If all duplicated jobs & offices could be eliminated...
Practically, in the short term it will probably lead to a lot of squabbling.
The first decisions will need to deal with "where will the new entity actually be"?
From likely candidates of Strasbourg, Selestat, Colmar & Mulhouse.
Maybe we will end up with a travelling circus, like the European Parliament!
And negative savings?

In any case, us Alsatians do get a yes/no referendum vote, on 7th April.

Warning: Please don't blindly rely on anything in this post - confirm with other sources!

Parting thot - "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." - Napoleon Bonaparte

Saturday, February 25, 2012


 One neat aspect of our new ISP - Free! - is that their default setup not only provides a secure wifi network in the house, but also bleeds off a bit of semi-public Freewifi hotspot from each "box".


Having opted to provide that service (probably not very helpful out here in the sticks) I get a password which allows me to log in to all the other (3 million?) Freewifi hotspots throughout France.

What a good idea!

Parting thot: "A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?" - Albert Einstein

Friday, February 24, 2012

Free ! - by Name, if not...

I must have had my first taste of internet around the turn of the century.

Using an ISP called Oreka which had the strange business model of offering free internet access,
even including free telephone time!
But limited to 4 hours per month.
For a family of 6...

Internet access was a tense affair then, with forward planning, gurgling modems, stop-watches, instant deconnection as soon as you had what you wanted on the screen & Excel charts of accumulated time per person.
Not suprisingly, Oreka soon bit the dust.

Next, we used Liberty Surf, which was initially also free, but later merely cheap.
Libertysurf was taken over by Tiscali, which was then taken over by Alice, taking us with it at each step.
Still at the low-cost end of the market, we have been paying 29.99€/month for unlimited amounts of something we simply could not do without these days.

Now Alice has been taken over by Free! (the exclamation mark is theirs, not mine).
Not sure how you can get away with a name like that, without doing what it says on the packet, but free they are not.

I expected them to simply roll Alice into Free &  force us to bigger & better offers (TV etc) which we don't want, and it was a pleasant surprise when they only pushed gently, saying we could stay with Alice (for how long?) or switch to Free for the same price.

So, for the same 29.99€/month, they have just sent us a new "box" (ADSL modem/router/wifi) with twice the speed of the old one.
They also sent a pair of PowerLine plugs & a set-top box for TV, with Hard Drive & Remote Control, which does not cost us anything if we don't use it - which we won't & said we wouldn't when we signed up.
The waste seems criminal.
And we get a free mobile phone subscription with 60 texto's & 60 min call-time per month.

I can't see what they get for pushing us to switch.
But they obviously know better than me, as they are worth 5.2 billion (5200000000) Euros on the stock market & I am not.

So I will just grin & bear it.

Parting thot: "My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate." - Thornton Wilder

Sunday, February 12, 2012

From Dogpile to Duckduckgo...

After treating my PC to a slimming course with Lubuntu & a bit of muscle-building with extra RAM, I felt up to giving it an internal spring-clean.

Not that it is spring here yet -  12 nights in a row with temperatures between -8°C & -13°C.

One of the areas obviously needing a clear-out was browser bookmarks.
My bookmarks are well organised, but who needs 3500 bookmarks?

Like clearing out the attic, this exercise  brings back long-forgotten memories & it is only too easy to get side-tracked into re-opening chapters from way back when.

One area I didn't expect to reminisce over was the folder of Search Engines.
For the last 5-10 years (seems like always) I have almost exclusively used Google & had forgotten what came before.
But in my folder, I found all my previous favourites, like Copernic, NorthernLight, AltaVista, Lycos, LookSmart, Webcrawler, WiseNut, AllTheWeb, Go, MetaCrawler and of course the inelegantly named but effective DogPile.
More surprising was to find that most of these are still working, though probably just as fronts for Google, Yahoo &/or Bing.

I still find the performance of Google, particularly, to be amazing.
But I get more & more uneasy about their ubiquity.
I suspect their excellent motto "Don't be Evil" may be going the same way as Ubuntu's "It Just Works"...

I use Google's Blogger & Picasa photo-handler & Google Maps because they meet my needs best, but I don't really want to live in a Google bubble any more than I wanted an AOL bubble years ago.
So I am now using the ludicrously-named Duckduckgo as my main search engine.
The comments about "track" & "bubble" on their front page, maybe over-done,  do give food for thought.

But Google is only a click away - for the tricky stuff, where it is still best.

Parting thot: "It's better to be uninformed than ill-informed." - Keith Duckworth

Sunday, February 5, 2012


My "new" PC dates back to 2004, when it proudly boasted Windows XP, an AMD Athlon XP processor running at 2.15GHz, 256MB RAM & a 120GB hard drive.

If you are not totally gripped by the opening line, you should really just skip this post - see you later, I hope!

After a couple of years, I started to dabble in Linux, using Ubuntu which is probably the most user-friendly way to start.
Back then, their brilliant slogan was: "Ubuntu - it just works!"
For some reason, they don't use that any more...

Compared with XP, Ubuntu in those days was a mixed blessing.
Philosophically, I am all for the 'Free & Open' aspect, especially compared with the Microsoft near-monopoly, with all that implies.
That is reason enough to try it & to stick with it if possible.
Practically, some things worked better, others not as well.
Particularly, back then, it was a real struggle to get WiFi, Scanning & Printing to work well & reliably.
Generally, you had to expect to put in quite a bit of time & effort to keep things ship-shape, which for an enthusiastic retiree was not a problem.

One continuing issue which cannot be ignored is the 6-monthly upgrade process, which usually involves a very long download, quite a lot of little improvements & possibly some real disasters, like being unable to boot at all...
Actually, you can choose to avoid or defer this trauma by opting for the 'Long Term Support' cycle, where you only need to upgrade every 3 years.
But then you need to make a 3-year jump instead of a 6-month jump.

Over time, XP on my PC got slower & slower.
I still have XP (for sentimental reasons & as a life-belt & because it can still print photos fractionally better when really necessary).
But when I switch to XP, I know I may as well go away for 20 minutes while the anti-virus etc does its stuff, during which time the PC is nearly frozen.
And that is after an upgrade to 512MB RAM (OK - I know that is laughably small today, but read on).

Over that same time, Ubuntu has got better & better.
Particularly it handles WiFi & Scanning & Printing acceptably & without too much fuss, though maybe not quite up to the standards provided by Canon & co for Microsoft.
An incidental but decisive advantage is that Linux does not need any anti-virus (don't ask me why not), which frees up a lot of my PC's little brain & muscles for real work.
So Ubuntu went from strength to strength - until the last upgrade.

There seems to have been a change in direction from 'above' (read millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, to whom all praise, at least before the latest course-correction).
Instead of "It Just Works", Ubuntu now seems to want to take on Apple & co (my interpretation, I don't know).
Their latest Desktop, called Unity, appears to be aimed at Smartphones & Tablets, rather than old desktop PC's.
Probably it looks "cool" & probably it has no end of visual effects, including transparent rotating cubes & wobbly windows or whatever.
But it is too complicated for my old PC which gets automatically downgraded to the "2D" version by some invisible hand, with no arguing.
The 2D version maybe still looks "cool"-ish (I wouldn't judge) but it is "ergonomically-challenged" in my humble opinion.

I spent a solid week beating my head against Unity, in which time I found it really locks out a lot of old habits, like click-to-open menus & user-customizable launchers.
Nearly everything you do requires several clicks plus typing in a search bar.
All the usual activities seem to need more actions & more personal memory, like "what was that application called, so I can ask for it?" instead of just picking from a list.

So, after a week, I decided to revert to the previous desktop style, now called Gnome-Classic.
That is another very good point about Ubuntu - you can keep the latest updated software, but choose the interface you use it with.
Gnome-Classic was nearly as good as my previous Gnome, but not quite.
In addition, I was noticing more & more that the PC was beginning to slow down in Ubuntu like in XP a few years back.
Open too many browser windows at once & it would grind to a near halt.
I reckoned it was time for another RAM upgrade (to 1GB) & ordered one.
It has not arrived yet.

In parallel, I started looking at other options, and found (I knew but had never investigated) that there are several "flavours" of Ubuntu, suitable for different users.
You can have it as Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu etc.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the all-singing, all-dancing but power-hungry & unergonomic Unity, there is a thing called Lubuntu.
Its motto could be, but isn't "Keep it simple, stupid".
It is aimed at the older PC & maybe at the older PC user, but they are too kind to say that.
It uses about half as much RAM & less processor time, so that everything works much faster on small-brained PC's.
It is more flexible for personalization, but (negative point) less user-friendly in its customizing tools.
A bit like stepping back in time in the Linux world.
After a week fiddling with Lubuntu, my PC is now as frisky as new, or better.
It should be a star by my standards, with its upcoming memory boost.
It looks & functions the way I want it to & I am a happy bunny again!

Of course, I could just fork out 500€ on a new PC & play with Windows 7 & Unity, but where is the challenge in that?

Parting thot: "So busy cutting through the undergrowth, we do not realize we are in the wrong jungle." - Stephen R Covey (7 habits)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Retirement without Threshold Effect?

With upcoming Presidential Elections in France, one of the recurring big topics is Retirement Age.

Having passed that hurdle some time ago, I don't follow the details very closely, but all the headlines talk about "Retirement Age" & "Retirement Age for Full Pension".

So there are endless battles between politicians all talking at the same time & all concentrating on whether THE retirement age should be 60 or 62 or whatever & whether you should get a FULL pension at 60 or 65 or more - or less in case of particlularly arduous jobs.

It has become, as they now say, a cleaving issue between left & right.

I don't understand why we/they don't drop the idea of "Retirement Age" & just leave everybody to decide freely how soon or late they want to retire.
In the internet age, it is obviously feasible to generate & update a smooth curve for every worker & make it available on a secure Government site.
Everybody could then see at a glance what pension they would get for any chosen retirement point, whether at age 25 or 125.
There should be no steps or preset ages, to avoid threshold effects.

Generally, threshold effects should be avoided in all taxation & benefits schemes.

This would save a lot of wasted time, energy & especially emotion.

Politicians could concentrate on other important issues.

I think there are plenty...

Parting thot: "The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to get the most feathers with the least hissing." - Jean Baptist Colbert

Thursday, January 19, 2012

All the 2's

1999 Suzuki Wagon R+ 1.0GL.
One (mostly) careful owner.
Never raced or rallied.

222222.2 km


Parting thot: "The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be." - Paul Valery

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Is that Quite Clear or only Quite Clear?

In physical or mental translation, we often stumble upon English-language quirks which we have just accepted for decades without really noticing.

The latest is the very common word "Quite".
Has it ever occurred to you that it has 2 mutually-exclusive meanings?
That everybody uses it without specifying which meaning they have in mind?
And that nobody ever seems to be confused as a result?
Some kind of miracle!

Here are pairs of meanings from various dictionaries:
1. Completely
2. A little or a lot but not completely
1. Absolutely; completely
2. Fairly; moderately
1. Rather; to a degree
2. To the greatest possible extent; completely
1. Fairly but not very
2. Completely
1. To the greatest extent; completely; entirely
2. To a large degree

I have a lot of sympathy for foreigners struggling with English.

Parting thot: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." - Napoleon Bonaparte

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Down the Drain?

Googling anything about coffee & plumbing, in English, will throw up pages, mainly American, of dire warnings about the dangers of blocking your drains if you put coffee grounds down.
Intuitively, that is easy to accept.

In France, it is a well-known "fact" that putting coffee grounds down the drain can often help unblock it & will certainly help prevent future blocking...

Different coffee or different drains?

I never saw a reasonable explanation for either result.

We have had a chronically partially-blocked drain for over 10 years, which seems to have been miraculously cured since we decided to risk the French approach.

No garantees, and these could well be famous last words...

Parting thot: "Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature." - Paul Valery

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Take Your Pick...

Back in the UK, I/we used to think 21st December was (about) the shortest day, so things would only get better from then on.
It was like the bottom of the trough.

Here in France, 21st December is - the first day of winter.
Three months of cold struggle before the beginning of Spring...

Think I will stick with my old idea!

Parting thot: "A pessimist is just an optimist with experience!" - Anon

Thursday, October 13, 2011


French has a number of well-known pitfalls for English-speakers.
Words which look as though they obviously mean one thing, but actually mean something else.

Probably the most frequently encountered is "eventuellement" which looks as though it should mean "eventually" (sooner or later; in the long run) but actually means "possibly" (maybe or maybe not).

Recently, I was confused when several Government Ministers started talking about plans to reduce deficits being "intangible".
I naturally assumed this French word meant the same as its identical-looking English counterpart (immaterial, hard to grasp or define) but that didn't make sense.

A selection of dictionaries showed that whilst basically meaning "untouchable", that can be used either in the sense of "immaterial & hard to grasp" or as "sacred & must not be altered".
The Ministers were using the second sense.

How can you spend 35 years immersed in a language & still discover blind spots?

Parting thot: "Language is the source of misunderstandings." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Only an Idiot...

...would drive into a bottomless 60cm-diameter hole in the pavement, in broad daylight, wouldn't you think?
So I don't know what my excuse is!

Actually, I blame Jean-Pierre Pernaud.
I mentioned previously that we often watch his 1-o'clock niaise program, in spite of our better judgement.
The day world war 3 breaks out, Jean-Pierre will still start with the weather, then an item about the cost of school satchels & maybe a piece about yet another village losing its last grocery shop, before mentioning that unfortunately...
But he does include good cameos on France & the French.

This week's series was on The Route des Vins in Alsace.

On Monday, they visited Niedermorschwihr & we realized that, although we have "done" the route des vins many, many times, we have never seen Niedermorschwihr or heard of its spiral church tower. 
So on Wednesday, we set off to have a look.
We drove to Colmar & followed a sign towards Ingersheim, only to realize we were heading east instead of west.
Wanting to consult the map (remember those?) & probably make a U-turn, I drove onto a wide pavement & stopped.
The need for a U-turn confirmed, I started to drive off & was dumbfounded, like a nonchalant bear falling into a bear-trap, when the supposed-earth dematerialised under the front of the car!
With the car resting on its sill, I thought we would need hoisting out, but in fact it backed out easily.
A careful look all round the tyre showed no obvious damage, but a couple of km further on, the heavying steering warned of partial deflation & I had to change the wheel.
Not surprisingly, the tyre had in fact been cut by the sharp edge of the cast-iron tree-surround it had just visited.

Oh well - chalk it up to experience.
Not too bad as the tyre had cost 65€ 49 000km ago & was about 60% worn.
Ah - but you cannot have more than 5mm difference in tread depth between tyres on the same axle...
So - make that 2 new tyres = 130€.
Then, I run all year round on Winter tyres (long subject of future post?) & my garage could not find any Pirelli SnowControl 190's in the 165/65-R13 size needed to match the other tyres.
It was 29°C at the time & they suggested trying again nearer Winter...
Checking Pirelli's websites, I found the situation was worse than that - they no longer make Winter tyres for 13" wheels!
Goodyear? - same thing!
Continental? - nope...

As far as I can see, the only 13" winter tyres available are from Firestone (not a favorite make) or from various third-world never-heard-of's.
I suppose that is the cost of the stupid fashion for ever-bigger wheels.
Come back Issigonis - all is foregiven!

Parting thot: "Qui trop s'excuse, s'accuse." - French proverb

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cash Out?

Back in March, we skied in Plagne Bellecote.
Not a very remarkable or innovative sort of place.
So I was surprised when, at a supermarket checkout, my change came showering out of a machine instead of being handed over by the cashier.
First time I have seen such an arrangement.

You also feed your coins into it, but notes still pass via the human interface.
They must have had a good salesperson pass through, as several of the (not many) shops there had the same device.

Yesterday, on a Brompton bike ride, I stopped for coffee & cake in a patisserie in Neuhof.
An even less remarkable & innovative place, to put it kindly...
And there, standing imperiously & incongruously in the middle of the counter, was the same "CashGuard" I had seen in Bellecote.

CashGuard's website http://www.cashguard.com/en/ says they are Scandinavian, have been in business for 20 years & sold over 16000 systems, so maybe I have just not been looking...
They point out advantages in hygiene, security, speed & accuracy.
Not mentioning that cashiers no longer need to be able to count...
I suppose most of what they say is broadly true.

But all of it will be rendered obsolete if Mastercard (& Visa?) get their way.

They just changed my credit card for a new one with contactless, PIN-less operation (http://www.paypass.com/) for amounts under €25.
Aimed at replacing cash for even the smallest transactions.
At participating stores only, of course, which so far is none.

Obviously, the possible success of this venture depends on them being willing & able to operate the system without charging shop-keepers too much.
Time will tell.

Although I strongly dislike the duopoly of Mastercard & Visa, I have to believe this is a more elegant solution than CashGuard's.

And hides a lot less croissants.

Parting thot: "The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled." - J K Galbraith