Thursday, December 17, 2009

French Russian Roulette

I come from a land of bayonet-fitting light bulbs.
Never gave it a thought.

In France, some light fittings are bayonet (called B22) but most are screw-in (small-diameter E14 or large-diameter E27).

With the B22, the 240 volt Live & Neutral connections go via the 2 little solder blobs on the end of the bulb, while the metal casing may be earthed, with luck, or more likely just "floating".

With the screw-ins, the 240v Live is connected to the single solder blob & the Neutral to the metal threaded case.

That means that as you insert the bulb & screw it in, your fingers are almost certainly touching the metal thread, which is in electrical contact with what should be the Neutral line of your home electrical circuit.
At that point, you want to be VERY sure that every
previous owner, electrician, non-electrician & handyman has been careful to make all the wiring connections in your house in the right order.
Otherwise you are holding 240 volts.

If, as is more than likely, your light bulb is in some kind of mobile fitting (table lamp etc) then it will almost certainly have a 2-pin plug.
That means that whether the bulb case is Live or Neutral depends on which way you happen to have put the symmetrical plug in the socket.
That's French Russian Roulette!

Of course, you would never try to change a light bulb without unplugging the appliance, or cutting the power at the fuse-box, would you?
With screw fittings, I certainly wouldn't!

Don't forget that simply switching off is not enough.
Who knows which wire the switch is in?

Parting thot: "Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom." - Phyllis Theroux

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


The long march to California is still in the early-planning phase, or at least in the early-learning & early-setting-up phases.

Another hurdle behind us today - I got our ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) clearance from the US Department of Homeland Security.
This is something you still need before you can get near the USA, even if you qualify for the Visa-Waiver Program.
Can't really complain, as it is free & only takes a few minutes.
The application procedure, on-line, didn't seem terribly in-depth somehow.
• Name?
• Birthday?
• Sex?
• e-mail?
• Country where you live?
• Passport number & dates?
• Arriving flight number?
OK – there was a trick question at the end where you had to give the passport number a second time…
I suppose that filters out a few undesirables.

Then there were some really searching questions.
But I didn't have to think very hard before answering, for instance:
• between 1933 and 1945 were you involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?
• are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?
• are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide?
If you have recently kicked the genocide habit, then presumably you are OK…

They must feel a whole lot more secure in The Homeland now they are protected by cunning questions like those!
Wonder how much they paid somebody to come up with that lot?
And do they pay somebody to read the answers?
Imagine the joy when he gets a "Yes"!

Parting thot: "Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers." - Tony Robbins

Oh, by the way; in case any Homeland Security personnel are reading this – it is meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek ( Thanks, guys!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Westward Ho!

We are planning a short trip to the west coast.
Of California, that is…

It is obviously going to be a rich source of inspiration for this blog.

An early item on the agenda was booking flights.
Scottish-based relatives who are heading to the same place at the same time, but got organized first, told us their best buy had been with Air France (surprise!) via Paris (!) booking through KLM, so it looked as though we were well placed to start.
Try as I would, I could find no good-value flights that way.
Or anywhere via Paris or any French airport.
After a lot of searching, my best shot was with British Airways, from Frankfurt via Heathrow!
This is crazy.

I can only think they must get some kind of subsidy from the Mafia for adding helpful baggage-snatching stops.
Or they are building-in some slack for future CO2 reduction...

Having found my best buy on Opodo UK site, I got through all the purchasing procedure, only to find they would not accept my UK-bank Visa debit card without a UK address.
Same result with my French-bank International MasterCard.
I phoned Opodo who told me that with non-UK addresses, they only accept American Express or International Visa.

I then tried the French Opodo site, but surprisingly it did not offer the same flights or anything very appealing.

In desperation, I found the German Opodo site did offer the same attractive flights, but 10% more expensive than UK.
That was still the best I could do, so we are now booked (unless my somewhat-sketchy German has betrayed me, that is).

European transparency still has a way to go…

Parting thot: "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." – Albert Einstein

Friday, November 6, 2009

Loft Story

It all started with stains on the ceiling & it finished with…
…well, ask me again in 20 years.

The damp stains on the landing ceiling, just after an exceptional downpour, obviously implied a leaking roof, so I climbed up into the loft space above & saw the leak where a chimney goes through the tiles, but couldn't work out why there was a leak.
Even a little roof leak makes you feel terribly weak & vulnerable these days, so I called out the nearest roof specialist, who quickly diagnosed & fixed some badly-fitting cut-away tiles round the chimney & some zinc flashing which needed re-shaping.
Seems to be OK so far, but it had seemed OK for 20 years before the big downpour too…

While they were looking, they also persuaded me I should have all the moss & lichen removed, which had just looked picturesque before, but apparently was a grave danger for my tiles and a potential cause of leaks.
Who knows?

Good salesmen anyway…
They even noticed I had a decent bit of roof just crying out for photovoltaic panels.
Which they also install.

Dubious at first, I dug a lot deeper into that one, found that current tax rules are very favourable & eventually did decide to go for a 3 kW installation.
But after consulting 20 specialists, I gave the job to somebody else, not the ones who first suggested it.
Officially kicked off last week, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear, or hoops to jump through, before the project is accepted.
Particularly the Historic Monuments Authority.
If all goes well, it could be installed early next year & in production late spring.
And paying back the initial outlay after 8 years.
And continuing to feed the grid & provide income for 20 years total.
I will cover this in separate posts.

While I was up in the loft looking at the initial leaks, I was reminded of something I already knew, but didn't want to think about.
The roof insulation was a disaster.
The original owner had insulated all the roof space with rolls of fibreglass on tarred-paper backing sheets, stapled up under the 45° rafters.
In the part of the loft above the landing & bedrooms, quite a lot of that insulation was either torn, or hanging uselessly, or already fallen onto the joists & plasterboard ceilings below.
Moving about up there was very hazardous, with fibreglass hanging down and with no floor to walk on – just hidden joists with plasterboard ceiling between, waiting for unwary feet to pass through.
We also have 3 huge walk-in storage areas, beside the first-floor bedrooms, under the lower half of the rafters, and these areas were also insulated with the same fibreglass stapled to the rafters.
Although that insulation had not fallen off, it was extremely delicate & meant that any activity in the storage spaces had to avoid tearing the paper.
So we got several quotes for removing the old insulation & putting in something more effective & less fragile.
To cut a long story short, we now have thick insulation above the bedrooms & landing ceilings, under walkable boarding on the joists.
And robust boarding supporting & protecting the insulation under the rafters in the walk-in storage areas.
It is probably more effective & certainly a lot more convenient than before.

It did involve emptying all the storage areas though.
20 years of accumulated junk…
A perfect illustration of a variant of Parkinson's law: "Stuff expands to fill the space available".
As we pulled all that stuff out & stacked it to the ceiling in nearby fortunately-now-little-used bedrooms, we resolved to not, under any circumstances, put it all back afterwards!
So we have spent the last several weeks sifting through a mountain of old stuff and separating it into 3 fairly equal lots – keep, give, scrap.

"Keep" was supposed to be only what we thought we really were likely to want to use some time, but we soon realized there were useless things of sentimental value we definitely did want to keep.
But not too many…
"Give" included everything which could be of any value to anybody.
After our previous disappointing experience with Emmaus Strasbourg, we found another Emmaus at Mundolsheim, who took our Espace-full of bric-a-brac quite happily, without ostensibly throwing any of it away, not while we were there anyway.
"Scrap" was not as simple as that.
It involved dismantling as much as possible, to separate all the various categories of recyclable material, then a couple of runs with Espace & trailer to the dechetterie.

The results of that tidying-up are so satisfactory, that we are now attacking all the other, numerous, stacks of "might come in useful one day" stuff we have everywhere.
This will take some time.
And partly explains the paucity of recent posts here.

Parting thot: "Junk is something you throw away three weeks before you need it." - Anon

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Another little gem in French which makes you wonder how other languages can manage without an equivalent.

Literally, bilan translates as "balance" or "balance sheet" or "end of year statement" or just "result".
It derives from the Latin for balance or scales.

But it is in very common use, and invaluable, as meaning "the end result, having weighed up all the positives & negatives".
Such a fundamental & frequent concept…

English needs a single word for that.

Parting thot: "Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about." - Benjamin Lee Whorf

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Garden Shred

I have been thinking about getting a garden shredder.

Not to shred DS's floral borders or ravage next-door's gnomes, but to deal with all our loppings & prunings.
With a big collection of trees & bushes, this is not a negligible item.
At the moment, everything above compostable size has to be trailered to the dechetterie, where I am a frequent flyer.

Shredder fanciers reckon that not only do shredders make your piles
(of branches) disappear, but that the result can then be used to make good compost, especially mixed with grass cuttings which should not otherwise be added over-enthusiastically to the compost heap (particularly not when DS is looking).
Beyond that, the shreddies can be spread on flower beds, where they look tidy, keep down weeds & retain moisture, reducing the need for watering.
Sounds too good to be true.
Which it is.

They forget to mention the noise, the painful slowness, the need to wear all sorts of protection, the doubtful ecological "bilan" (no good translation for that), the frequent jammings, the need for resharpening, the fact that stringy stuff stops the cutter by wrapping round it & hard wood stops the cutter dead, or that the output can be anywhere between mush & chunks.
I learned all that several years ago when I first got interested & borrowed one.
I learned it again last year when my neighbour bought one, then a second, and now passes his loppings through both in succession...
So logically, I should just forget the whole thing & keep on trucking, or trailering.
But logic is boring.
I have let myself be persuaded that the latest & greatest new Bosch AXT 25TC shredder has reached an acceptable level of performance.
It even won a Glee prize (Look it up), for what that is worth.
Unfortunately, there is the price.
Bosch mention 499.99€ & our local DIY store has it for just over 500€.
No way.

Surprisingly, I couldn't find it significantly cheaper on Internet in France, Germany or Belgium.

Then I looked in UK & it is all over the place at less than £300, which is not much more than 330€ at today's rate.
Plus post & packing, of course, for a 30 kg packet.

And that is the point of this post, following on from the previous one about the growing significance of shipping costs for Internet shopping.

I sorted out the half-dozen sites with the lowest take-away prices, around £280, then started digging for shipping costs.
Even within UK, shipping varied between free & impossible (to outlying places).
Not surprisingly, several UK sites do not ship to France.
For the others, the charge varied between £46 & £17.
£17 has to sound reasonable for 30 kg from UK to France, especially compared with 17€ for 48 gm from Germany to France (see previous post).
So I ordered a shredder from Garden Centre On Line, for £279.99 + £17.99 = £297.98

Actually, I ordered it on a Saturday by internet & paid by debit card from a UK account.
I have their confirmation of the amounts.
But the transaction failed because (& that took a long time to trace) our UK bank has been slightly mis-spelling our address for the last 20 years.
Just doubling an "L" which, coming from Lloyds, might have been a natural mistake or an in-joke.
In all that time, nobody had ever noticed & it had never mattered, but for on-line transactions, it matters.
So, after straightening out Lloyds, I had to order it again by phone, still at the same price, and the £297.98 was debited on Monday.
Imagine my surprise, as they say, to get an e-mail on Friday, saying: "Hi, Thank you for your order unfortunately the shipping cost for this item to France is 117.99GBP leaving a balance of £100GBP to pay please advise if you wish to ahead with this purchase and pay the additional shipping. Regards, Customer Service"
Having imagined my surprise, you can now easily imagine my reply, which certainly did not include paying another £100.
I would be interested to find out just what happened there, but I never will.

Next on my shredder-shop list was Lawson-HIS, so I checked their site again & it really did say £281.75 + £17 shipping (up to 30 kg, whereas Bosch says it weighs 30.5 kg).
I e-mailed for confirmation & they confirmed £281.75 + £17.08 = £298.83
Dubious, I asked them to please recheck the weight & shipping charges, which they did, so I ordered it from them.

My conclusions are that shipping charges can vary wildly.
That some sellers (the ones who ship free & publicise that clearly on every page) have understood the significance.
That others still have a lot of catching-up to do.
That there is a big potential for a very efficient distribution system, which has not been invented yet.

Parting thot: "The meeting of preparation with opportunity generates the offspring we call luck." - Tony Robbins

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fan Mail

One of several reasons for not updating this blog much recently, is that my PC has a temperature.

In the beginning, I thought I was hearing the fan more often, then I was sure I was hearing it more often & faster, then it seemed to be running fast most of the time, then I started to get spontaneous shut-downs.
Hard to ignore it any longer.

I opened the PC & hoovered all the fluff out, especially round the CPU, but it didn't make much difference.
I downloaded a free thing called SpeedFan which lets me monitor various fan speeds & associated temperatures.
It soon became obvious that the CPU fan was not starting up correctly, but I found that I could trick it into starting by rebooting after getting to a certain critical temperature.
That kept me happy for a while.
Running with the PC case open, I could see what the fan was doing & also found I could kick-start it by poking it with a sharp stick after again getting to the critical temperature.
That's how I am running today, with the case open, one eye on the temperature gauge & a sharp stick close at hand…

All of which is just a lead-in.

Without being able to diagnose things further, I felt the best move might be to replace the CPU fan.
Surcouf in Strasbourg, who supplied the PC originally, failed to answer several requests about it.
I managed to find the reference (thanks to a helpful forum) and even located an exact replacement on internet, at GNLA in Germany.
Amazingly, once you can find one, a new fan costs only 6.99€ but when I tried to buy one, the shipping charge was an additional 17€.
For a 46gm item.

Digging deeper, I found another one (new) on eBay France, sold from Germany again, at only 3.90€ plus 10€ shipping.
Hopefully that may fix my problem, if & when it ever arrives, that is…

The point of this post is to highlight the disproportionate influence of shipping in "modern" internet shopping.

When is hardware delivery going to catch up with the rest of the "free & immediate" search & buy process which is suddenly available to us & already seems so natural?
In speed & especially in cost?
I suppose it is a bit of a "chicken & egg" problem, in that there is potentially a huge market volume, waiting for a radically more efficient delivery system, waiting for a volume market to be really there.
Surely letter delivery must be shrivelling up these days, just as hardware delivery is pent up to explode?

Sounds like the sort of challenge Google might take on…
Heaven help the post offices & parcel carriers if they ever do!

Parting thot: "Nowadays the rage for possession has got to such a pitch that there is nothing in the realm of nature, whether sacred or profane, out of which profit cannot be squeezed." - Erasmus

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bike, Locks

The Brompton (folding bike) has come into its own this week.
We had a bit of anticyclonic Indian Summer, with no wind, lots of sun, blue skies, colourful trees & pleasant (12°C) temperatures.

Actually, I find even 12°C too cold for "normal" cycling as I sweat going uphill then freeze going back down again.
No doubt there are high-tech clothes which can deal with that, but I don't have them.
On the other hand, I find it simple to wear enough to keep warm on the flat.
Especially wearing my rucksack on the front as a wind-break.
Of course, wearing a rucksack backwards while riding a black banana with tiny wheels does cause some mirth among the natives, notably adolescent ones…

Anyway, that's why I look for flattish places to ride, especially when it's cold.
Which rules out starting & finishing at home, but leaves lots of possible trips along canals & disused railways, cheating by taking the bike there & back by car.

A good ride on Thursday started in Saverne, leaving the car in the free car park opposite the (now out of season, but still picturesque) marina.

When walking, we usually have to leave the car in isolated lay-bys or clearings, which always seems like asking for trouble, but with the bike it is easier to find a near-enough busy car-park.

From there, you can hardly fail to follow the Marne-Rhine canal up to the surprisingly-deep & usually-busy lock in the town centre & westwards to Lutzelbourg (if you come to Strasbourg, you went the wrong way).

There are good views if you climb to Lutzelbourg Castle, which is in ruins but is being extensively tidied up.
I gave them a miss this time on my flat ride.
There were plenty of good views at ground level.
Particularly brightly-coloured boats & trees reflected in calm canal water.

Next stop after Lutzelbourg, on our usual car-tourist-visitor trip, is the famous "Inclined Plane" boat lift at Arzviller.
This is the short-&-sharp method for boats to deal with the Col de Saverne.

But on a bike, you get the option of following the previous (now derelict) canal as it winds gently up through 17 now-gateless locks with 17 mostly-deserted lock-keeper's cottages.
Only 45 metres climb on 4 km of well-surfaced track (important with little Brompton wheels) brings you up to the level of the top of the inclined plane.
Apparently, before the inclined plane was opened in 1969, that used to take all day in a barge.

If you ride along the top canal to the inclined plane, you can look down it, but not walk or ride down beside it, unless you ignore the very large notice telling you not to use the nice little road there…
At the bottom, you are on the canal-side cycle-track back to Saverne again.

And home for tea.

Parting thot: "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important." – Martin Luther King

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Brompton Bits

I managed a 25 km ride on my new Brompton, without scalping my ankles.

But the concentration required, to keep my ankles out all the time & to pre-select then execute all those compound gear-shifts, meant I didn't really see much of the scenery.
OK – I was watching for gravel, pebbles, pot-holes & gullies too.
Honestly, it went much better than you could reasonably expect for a little folder on 16" wheels.

Soon noticed the saddle position was not quite high enough or far enough back, but there was sufficient adjustment available to fix that by inverting the saddle-clamp & sliding the saddle back.
Should be OK now.
While I was under there, I noticed the saddle has real old-fashioned saddle-bag fixing holes.

I think I will try filling-in or padding the little wheels so they are more ankle-friendly.
If that is not enough, then it may be a hacksaw job…

Reading the handbook a bit more, I notice they recommend new handlebars every 5000 miles because of potential metal fatigue in the aluminium.
Hope they are just protecting their *** (U.S.) / **** (U.K.).

Bought & fitted a "Zefal Spin" mirror.
I have a Zefal Cyclop on my normal bike & it has been very satisfactory where lots of other mirrors vibrate too much due to flimsy stems or fittings.
The Spin uses the same solid pivot system but with a smaller head.
That suits the smaller everything else of a Brompton (see illustration) but may prove too small in use.
Time will tell.
The Brompton will be a severe test for anti-vibration qualities!

One curiosity I have noticed is that if I back-pedal even slightly, then I can wheel the bike backwards without the pedals rotating any more…
Is this a cunning piece of design or a pending freewheel disaster?
Certainly it is very convenient to be able to manoeuvre the bike without the pedals moving.
If it had been a deliberate feature, I would have expected it to be mentioned somewhere.
Googling draws a blank.
I would like to know how this works (it sounds impossible) & why they do it without mentioning it.

Parting thot: "When it comes to sports I am not particularly interested. Generally speaking, I look upon them as dangerous and tiring activities performed by people with whom I share nothing except the right to trial by jury." - Fran Lebowitz

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Brompton Spoke

Lots of my posts have concerned old or very old cars, and I now consider their maintenance requirements to be laughably symptomatic of gone-forever "good-old-days".
Who can imagine having to crawl under the car every Saturday morning to attend to 15 grease nipples, or removing the cylinder head for a "de-coke" every six months?
When new cars now only get to see a mechanic every 2 years (surely that's too far in the other direction?).

So it has come as a bit of a shock to read the owner's manual for my new Brompton bike.
Nearly everything needs checking & readjusting "at least once, if not two or three times, during the first few hundred miles of use, when parts are bedding in…"
Especially (heavily underlined) Hub-gear adjustment, pedals & spokes.
Yes, on this new bike, you need to "run in" the spokes & recheck/reset the tension after the first few hours of use, and continue checking, less often, thereafter!
They must be joking!

I actually do have spoke spanners & in my dim & distant past have managed to re-tension several wheels (of old British bikes, naturally) and even sometimes got them running straight again & remembered to file off the now-protruding ends to avoid punctures.
But I can't imagine having to do all that to an expensive new commuter bike.
Two or three times in the first few hundred miles.

I feel like I have gone to sleep & woken up in 1950.
I shall be finding pools of oil on the garage floor soon!

Parting thot: "Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon." - Doug Larson

Monday, September 28, 2009

Brompton Ankles

Way back in June (18th) I mentioned I had ordered a Brompton folding bike.
It was in Brussels by the end of August, but I only managed to get it to Strasbourg last week.

First impressions are positive, as you might have hoped, considering the price!
It folds very neatly & that should be a good party piece after a bit more practice.

The way it parks itself with the back wheel tucked underneath is handy, if not exactly elegant, but who can walk away from a casually-parked 760€ bike these days?
I have not investigated, but I suppose one collateral benefit is that you can lock up the frame & both wheels with one small lock, if you fold everything completely first.

It doesn't feel as wobbly as other folders I have tried, though the stability is not enough to encourage any "no-hands" stuff yet.
A good surprise is the easy, efficient way it rolls on smooth surfaces – no doubt a direct result of the 90psi in the tyres.
Wobbliness & inefficiency were my main fears, so it's off to a good start.

The down side of the tyre pressures, and of the small wheels, is the "high-fidelity" ride quality – no detail of the road surface is lost in transmission!
Already, I am paying a lot more attention to even smallish pebbles & absolute attention to transverse gullies, the consequences of which are only too easy to imagine.
Obviously, mud, sand & gravel are out of the question.

The strange gears (very wide ratio Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub & close-ratio 2-speed derailleur) have an adequate range of 3.0:1 & acceptable (for me) spacing, but I would certainly prefer a decent 7/8/9-speed hub gear.
Or even a cheaper 5 or 6-speed hub with 3.0:1 range if such a thing existed (hint!).
I am getting the hang of compound changes – simultaneously up on the hub & down on the derailleur - but it all requires constant attention & detracts from the idle pleasure of just riding.

What I notice most often, is how vulnerable I feel with no mirror.
That's not a criticism of the bike, but a reminder to myself to get a vibration-free mirror (which won't interfere with folding…) asap.

What I notice most acutely, is the severe pain & bleeding in both ankles!
Caused by inevitable & predictable collisions with the stupid little parking wheels, cunningly positioned to be exactly where your ankles pass on every turn of the cranks.
I find this absolutely incredible.
How can you produce, for over 20 years, an expensive device which unfailingly, painfully, injures its owner?
It's not just me – try Googling "brompton ankles"…

Parting thot: "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." – Winston Churchill

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Battery Strategy

I am old enough to remember when "rechargeable batteries" meant big square things full of lead & acid that you could just pick up with 2 hands.
Imagine what mobile phones would have been like…

So I was initially impressed with the first Ni-Cad rechargeable cells which were the same size & weight as ordinary torch batteries, but cost a lot less to recharge than the ordinary cells cost to re-buy.
With 4 daughters in the early days of cassette-tape Walkmen (Walkmans?) the economics were striking.
But it gradually became obvious that the Ni-Cads did not age well.
We started to hear about "memory effect" & realized we couldn't recharge then until they were run down.
But if you run them down too much they never recover…
And the number of recharge cycles is limited, so you don't want to recharge if you don't need to.
Then the "leak-down" effect which meant the emergency torch was always useless when you needed it, even though it hadn't been used since recharging.
With further ageing, some of them developed very short lives & of course having one flat battery in a Walkman is like having all flat batteries in a Walkman.
So we got good at sorting & marking the weaker ones, which were OK at home but no good on the bus.
But oh, the arguments when certain daughters cornered all the best batteries!

After that the arrival of the more expensive, but less troublesome, Ni-MH cells came as a great relief.
Of course that meant new chargers as well as new batteries, and being careful not to mix them up.
But, in general, they are pretty satisfactory.
Little or no memory effect, so you can recharge without needing to run them down.
Still some "leak-down" though.
And supposedly a limited number of recharge cycles (but I haven't worn any out yet).
So they would be OK in Walkmen, but that need has long since fizzled out.

My main usage of small rechargeables these days is for my camera, which is old enough to need 4 x L6s.
A freshly-charged set of 2300mAh Ni-MHs (if you see what I mean) will take about 200 shots.
I have a little pouch with 4 spare unused batteries to take over, which I carry on day-trips, and a small charger, which I carry on longer trips.
So that should be OK, right?
Well, no, it isn't.
As often as not, when the set in the camera runs out, I put in the set from the pouch, and – leak-down effect – they are flat too.
So I suppose I need to develop some special strategy for topping up the pouch batteries more often (how often?).
Or make a point of swapping the batteries over more frequently?

Apart from the camera, my other battery bugbear has been cordless drills.
My first one was a Black & Decker.
A puny device, but it worked OK for several years.
Except that when the battery ran down you had to stop work until it was recharged.
It was still in as-new condition when the Ni-Cad battery gave up the ghost.
At that point I discovered that the battery was non-removable & non-replaceable, so the as-new drill was junk!

I replaced it by a bigger Wagner drill with 2 removable Ni-Cads.
So I could recharge one while using the other.
And replace either when it expired.
Except, of course, for the "leak-down" effect, so that the spare battery was usually flat when you needed it.
And that one replacement battery cost more than a new drill with 2 new batteries.

So when both batteries were too far gone for reasonable use, I decided I did not want to go down that path again.
I spent a lot of money on a new Bosch drill with 2 Li-Ion batteries, which are very small & light for their capacity.
And supposedly have little or no memory effect.
And little or no leak-down effect.
So far, the absence of leak-down is astonishing & I am delighted with these batteries.
The spare is always ready & willing when the worker expires, even after several months.

Of course, they might explode, but then, nothing is perfect!

Parting thot: "In the beginning there was nothing. God said, "Let there be light!" And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better." - Ellen DeGeneres

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fiat 500

In 1970, after a year & a half with the Sunbeam Tiger, I knew I really wanted a Lotus Elan.

But I also knew that finding an Elan I could afford was not going to be easy, or quick.
Also, I couldn't afford to buy an Elan before selling the Tiger.
And Tiger buyers were not too thick on the ground.
And I couldn't manage without a car in the meantime.
So I decided to get a little, cheap, car as a bridging strategy, to cover the period of selling the Tiger & finding an Elan.

It would have been most sensible to go for some "commodity" like a Morris Minor, but, even then, sensible was not at the top of my priority list for cars.
So I bought a 1967 Fiat 500.
Only 3 metres long, with a tiny 2-cylinder air-cooled engine at the back, scooter wheels & swing-axle suspension, it is hard to get much smaller or simpler than this.
But Fiat managed to make it look very attractive. (They are now enjoying enormous success with the similar-looking new 500 as a Mini rival.)
Of course, it didn't need power steering or a brake servo.
And the performance was better than you would expect from looking at it.
And it came with a throw-open roof.

Generally & in retrospect, I found it a likable car & an admirable design exercise.
I remember it as doing most things better than expected, which is not saying too much, of course.
Certainly, I had to re-adjust my driving style & overtaking manoeuvres drastically when switching between the Tiger & the Fiat.
The worst thing was the low top of the windscreen, so that even I (not particularly tall) had the choice between crouching to look through the screen, or stretching to look through the roof!

The Tata Nano is a very logical development of all the basic ideas & layout of the Fiat 500 & it looks set for well-deserved international success, thanks to that simplicity.

Parting thot: "Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them." - Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Putting ze Rabbit

The less-than-obvious French expression "poser un lapin", literally "to put a rabbit", actually means to fail to turn up for an appointment, without any notice.

Usually employed in an ex-romantic context, when it translates as "to stand somebody up".

Parting thot: "Communication is Talking Listening Acting. Your actions will back you up or undermine everything you say." – DuPont Management

Monday, September 7, 2009

Twingo Quote

One of my favourite quotes, in French, is:
"Ce n'est pas en tappant plus fort à coté d'un clou qu'on l'enfonce."

I keep scratching my head for an equally efficient & punchy translation in English, but keep failing.
The best I can manage is:
"If you are not hitting the nail on the head, there is no point in striking harder".
It's not as good as the original.

The quote is by Yves Dubreuil, then head of the first Twingo project at Renault.
During my time at GM, I could have sent that message back up the communication channels every day.

The Twingo (original version) was produced from 1992 to 2007 and has been consistently & deservedly popular, at least in France & its selected marketing regions.
It was a smart attempt at a low-cost vehicle, being small, light, & simple, but also drastically avoiding options & variants.
All were 2-door (+ hatchback) 1.2-litre models.
There were never even any right-hand-drive versions, which explains the sad absence from the UK market, for which it would otherwise have been well suited.

Aimed primarily at young females (I suppose) it was overwhelmingly cute.
Sometimes insulted as a "jelly-bean", the styling was anti-macho un-aggressive, with a one-box layout, steeply sloping screen & baby-animal-eyes headlamps.
Practically, this resulted in really remarkable space efficiency (ratio of size inside to size outside) and feeling of spaciousness, together with huge glass area, low belt-line & outstanding all-round visibility.
Helped by sensibly small wheels.
As far as I know, it was the originator of sliding rear seats, so that the deliberately little space there could at least be optimised for the prevailing passenger/luggage ratio.

On the down-side, from my point of view (but I am not young or female) they completely failed with their interior & exterior colour schemes and wheel trims.
Especially at first.
The early non-metallic paints were ugly flattish yellow, red, blue & green & looked like cheap polythene toys.
Fortunately, they gradually added better paints over the years.
The interior was deliberately "Fisher-Price" with big coloured plastic knobs & controls.
Well – I see the point, but would much prefer something less cheap-looking, at least the colours.

I think that, if they had added models with good metallic paint, better trim & smart wheels, right at the start, they could have captured what became the (new) Mini / Fiat 500 market.
Later on, with the Initiale model in 1998, they did all of that, but too little, too late – the cheap image had stuck for good.

No doubt the new 2007 model is a better car, especially in safety & durability, but it has completely lost the special charm of the original.

Parting thot: "Ce n'est pas en tappant plus fort à coté d'un clou qu'on l'enfonce." - Yves Dubreuil

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Our "friends" in Lorraine are very proud of their Mirabelles.
Small round yellow plums with not a lot of flavour.
Good enough for schnapps, certainly.
But, well – bof!
We have a couple of Mirabelle trees & make a few tarts & jars of jam every year, but with no great enthusiasm.
The main charm of the Mirabelle is that you can easily pick all the ripe fruit just by shaking the tree, when all the good ones rain down obligingly, leaving the not-yet-ripe ones for another day.
Should be compulsory for all fruit trees.

Here in Alsace, we have Quetsches.
These are proper-size plums with firm flesh & a sharp strong flavour.

We use them on all possible occasions – tarts, jam, crumbles, chutney, or just straight off the tree.
The basement is full of jars of jam & chutney, while the freezer has many bags ready for tarts & crumbles.

We have a couple of old quetsche trees, but it is often easier to just wander along the (disused) road & pick them at a more convenient height from the hedges. (Not orchards, just apparently self-set hedges).
I can't imagine how many tons of perfectly good quetsches go completely ungathered in Alsace, but it is a big number.

What a waste!

Parting thot: "I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice." - Abraham Lincoln

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Folding Stuff

How come some seemingly brilliant ideas go un-copied?

I regularly read car magazines & regularly look in disgust at the rear-seat folding arrangements of popular small cars.
Often, they involve tipping up the seat base, usually unveiling some extremely cost-reduced bits of sheet metal, wire & sponge.
Then, after probably struggling to remove & not lose the various headrests, the seat back can be lowered to form a sloping 'floor', probably a lot higher than the neighbouring boot surface.
Or sometimes the seat base stays put & the back just folds on to it, leaving an even higher & more sloping floor.
Hopeless, every one.

Yet Suzuki produced a really neat solution over a decade ago, on their extremely cheap, tiny, light & popular (in Japan) Wagon R model.
OK – they didn't address the headrest bit, but that would be easy to fix.
Their stroke of genius was to link the seat base to the back, so that, as you single-handedly flip the seat-back forwards, the seat base descends out of the way.
The back folds perfectly flat & perfectly in line with the existing flat boot floor.

Putting it all back is the same single-handed motion, in reverse.
Why does anybody do anything else?

Parting thot: "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." - Thomas A. Edison

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thatched Veranda

We like birds.

DS puts out seeds for them on winter mornings before she feeds herself, let alone anybody else…
She puts out shallow bowls of water, summer & winter, changing them as soon as they freeze over.
Recycling frozen bowls in a sunny veranda.

We have put up half a dozen nest boxes and had lots of success with redstarts.
And 2 hand-made ¼-spherical plaster igloos for swallows.
With no takers yet.

We even like pigeons, within reason.
But more & more pigeons have taken to nesting on the convenient horizontal beam ends under our wide eaves.
We can put up with the noise, the incessant cooing, and the surprisingly noisy wing beats.
But the mess is getting past a joke.
Especially on the once-translucent veranda roof.
Of course pigeons need to relieve themselves, but do they need to do it at home?
And be so prolific?
And couldn't they try to learn how to build a nest which stays together for a while?
My impression is that they just carry a bunch of stuff up there (noisily) then kick it around in the hope it might make a nest.
Whereas mostly it just falls on my veranda.
Which rapidly looks like a thatched cottage.

So, taking advantage of some roofers, here for another job, with ladders of aluminium & nerves of steel, we have put up "Eco-Pics".
Sounds like a green-washing term for what are very nasty-looking spikes which hopefully will dissuade, rather than impale, our pigeony ex-friends.
It seems to work, so far.
I have been able to wash the veranda roof & it stays clean, which is wonderful.

But we are having big pangs of conscience as we see & hear the pigeons making aborted approaches.
And stomping about gloomily in the garden.
I can see I am going to have to build a giant set of pigeon apartments somewhere where the mess won't matter.

Parting thot: "Whatever is begun in anger, ends in shame." - Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Open Doors

There is a lot to be said for universal conventions.

Faced with the door handle above, nobody would hesitate before pushing the handle down to open the door (Would they? Anywhere?).
If there had been a roundish knob, rather than a handle, few people would hesitate before turning it anti-clockwise to open the door.
Similarly for the lock below the handle.
Most people would expect to turn it clockwise to lock the door & anti-clockwise to unlock it.
If it had been an inserted key, rather than a fitted knob, I think most people would still expect to use the same rotational senses.

For the second illustration, where the door handle is near the left edge of the door, most people would, I think, expect all the above directions to be reversed.

There is no logical reason for this, but society seems to have automatically & universally configured door furniture as though it had a sliding bolt, operated by the top edge of the handle, knob, key, etc.
This saves a lot of people a large number of tiny fractions of a second, and tiny wastes of mental & physical effort, every day.
It makes life just a little bit easier & more pleasant, at almost no cost.

Why, oh why, oh why, then, have cars adopted the exact opposite convention?
Why do I still have to hesitate, try to remember, then usually still get it wrong & have to try again, every time I lock or unlock my car doors?
Which crazy idiot started this trend & why did anybody at all follow it?
How can we fix it?
Apart from remote opening devices, that is.

Parting thot: "The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking." - John Kenneth Galbraith

Thursday, August 20, 2009


We seem to have quite a lot of ladybirds this year, which I thought was a good thing.

A couple of weeks ago, one of our plum trees had a lot of big juicy greengages split while still on the tree.
I was surprised to see all the split plums thronged by ladybirds.
First thought, "Good!"
Second thought, "I have never seen ladybirds eating fruit before…"

Then a neighbour said they were probably the newly-invasive Asian ladybirds.
A quick Google confirmed that they are, in fact, what are known as Asians here & Harlequins in UK.
I had vaguely heard of them, but not realized they were here in force.
Now I know.

Sounds like bad news for aphids, but also for native ladybirds & other stuff.
How am I supposed to react to them?
Up till now I have regarded all ladybirds as particularly good things.
Carefully helping them out of swimming pools, verandas etc & back to aphid-infested bushes, of which we have only too many.
I suppose I just have to welcome them as part of life's rich pattern.

Parting thot: "Non-violence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him." - Martin Luther King Jr

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wot! No Helmet?

Found this charming monument in Bar-le-Duc.

From "the Grateful Cyclists of France" to Pierre & Ernest Michaux "Inventors of the Velocipede with Pedals".

Modern historians could probably find prior art somewhere, but the Michaux do seem to have been at least early users of the pedal & crank for propelling what then amounts to a bike in the 1860s.
One of their employees has a US patent for a pedal-powered boneshaker in 1866.

Presumably early cyclists, even in France, were better equipped than the chubby chappie on the monument.

In an unusual reversal of history, a modern bicycle maker has just removed the pedals from a beginner kid's bike to recreate the boneshaker, but with soft tyres & saddle.
The idea is that kids can learn steering & balance without all the hassle & injury potential of pedals.
Safer & more comfortable than a scooter.
Sounds plausible.
See Ridgeback Scoot.

Parting thot: "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." – Albert Einstein

Monday, August 17, 2009

Blue Cow Roundabout

Roundabouts have become a major feature of French roads in the last decade or so.

This is an excellent thing for safety, compared with any cross-roads junction, with or without traffic lights.
Personally, I find it a good thing for my nerves too, as any hold-up is obviously due to the amount of traffic & not to some absent idiot having screwed up the timing schedules for the lights.
I don't have any proof, but I suspect the overall waste of time & energy is lower for roundabouts than for traffic lights or Stop signs as well.

Having belatedly adopted roundabouts, the French are doing a nice job in decorating them.
Very few are left as vulgar pieces of traffic chicanery.
Most are lovingly adorned with ordinary or extraordinary floral stuff, which is very pleasing.
Sometimes with real or simulated historical remains or icons of local industry or folklore.
I think I shall have to start a collection of photographs on this topic…

Leaving Commercy (in the Meuse, which never sounds like a good thing to be in) recently, we were surprised to see a very original roundabout.
Not decorated, as might have been expected, with giant Madeleines (Commercy is the home of the madeleines referred to by Marcel Proust in "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu".) but with big blue cows.
And inexplicable wavy red lines.
And cascades.
And canon balls.

Back home, I have discovered that it is the 1999 creation of eccentric-looking artist/sculptor Patrick Hervelin.
And that it is called "Les Trois Godelles" (Godelle apparently being local dialect for cow).
But I still have no idea of the significance of any or all of it.
Definitely not boring, anyway.

Parting thot: "Art is making something out of nothing and selling it." - Frank Zappa

Friday, August 14, 2009


As you probably know, French Autoroutes use toll-booths, so payment is more or less per kilometre.
The predictable result is that far too many potential users, particularly lorries, avoid the autoroutes & prefer the old Routes Nationales.
So we have an excellent autoroute network which is relatively empty (Parisian lemmings might not agree on some July/August weekends) while single & dual-carriageway roads, towns & villages are clogged up by unnecessary traffic.
So the autoroute companies don't recover their investment fast enough.
So they keep putting up the prices.
And so on.

This is all a big nonsense.
Any considerations of safety, efficiency, pollution, global warming, balance of payments, health, noise, stress, etc, would say that you should shift as much traffic as possible off ordinary roads & on to autoroutes. (or railways…)
So any payment system should encourage, not discourage, every possible decision to go via autoroute.
Even if it means getting that payment from taxpayers, rather than from users only.
Or from duty on fuel.
Nobody seems to be even suggesting such a move yet, in France.

So, after an initial resentment, I find myself thoroughly in agreement with the various European countries (Switzerland, Austria etc) which have introduced per-time rather than per-kilometre payment, at least for visitors.
They handle this via windscreen stickers called vignettes.
The Swiss one is valid per calendar year, while Austria is more flexible, with a choice of 1 year, 2 months, or 10 days.
Having paid for your vignette, you are surely going to get the most out of it by using autoroutes wherever possible!

I have some minor quibbles with the Swiss vignette though.
It is not meant to be transferred from vehicle to vehicle, for whatever reason.
It is deliberately designed to stick ferociously to the screen and, when you try to remove it, to tear into dozens of tiny shreds which have to be scraped off one by one, using a thin blade, then alcohol to remove the vestiges of glue.
20 minutes of misery every year.

Like a lot of other people (I suppose) I have tried to overcome both these problems by sticking the vignette first to a thin transparent sheet & then getting that to stick to the screen.
It seems to work fairly well, depending on the intermediate sheet, but you know it is illegal & you know how silly you would feel if the hawk-eyed Swiss border guards noticed.

So when I had my broken screen replaced last week, I was intrigued to find that my Swiss vignette (not on any intermediate material this year) had been transferred in apparently perfect condition to my new screen.
I didn't think to ask them how they did it, but I probably will, next time I am in the vicinity.
Trawling through Google, I found various suggestions using solvents, but the most interesting solution seemed to be by heating with a hair-dryer.
Now I just have to wait till January to try it.

Parting thot: "Rules are written for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men." - Douglas Bader
But don't blame me if that does not go down well in court.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


A collateral benefit of the broken windscreen was that the repairers hand out free Smart half-cars while they replace your screen.

I had read enough reports on Smarts to know that it was going to be slow, noisy, bouncy, unstable & cursed with a slow & jerky automated manual gearbox.
Judged by the average new car, it was all of that, but not as much as I expected.

Note that this is not the current model.
For its intended urban/suburban usage, the performance is perfectly adequate & would never be an embarrassment.
It sounds too much like an old lawn mower when starting up or idling, but once on the move it is not particularly noisy & when pressed the engine noise is reminiscent of a Porsche 911.
This one had a few creaks & rattles, probably due to it not having one careful owner.
With such a short wheelbase, it unavoidably pitches sharply over speed humps taken slowly, but otherwise the ride is better than you would reasonably expect from its size & shape.
I would need to drive much further, faster & in different conditions before commenting on stability.
In normal circumstances it doesn't feel at all odd, but I would have serious doubts about coping with emergency avoidance manoeuvres or patches of ice & snow or standing water.
Certainly this is one vehicle which needs all the ESP it can get.

Then the gearbox.
I expected it to shift automatically, but this one only downshifted automatically to first gear after a stop or near stop and also shifted from 5th to 4th below about 40km/h.
Other shifts were manually triggered by the push-pull gear lever, against rather heavy spring loading.
The clutch is automated & the throttle is regulated during gearshifts.
The shifts on this example were not too rough but rather slow.
Clutch operation on starting was reasonable, but manoeuvring on slopes requires left-foot braking or use of the handbrake, to avoid sudden roll-back or sudden lurch forward.
This gearbox would be an irritation in long-term use, as it isn't automatic & doesn't do as good a job as the average user can manage with a manual gearbox.
Newer models are apparently better, and have an automatic mode.

Would I buy one?
No, I don't think so.
I think they have pursued shortness beyond the point of diminishing returns.
I like very small, light, efficient, economical cars, such as the Japanese Kei cars, but for me there is a best compromise somewhere around 3.5m length and I would not get any benefit from the extra compactness of a Smart.
Maybe if we lived in a city?
Which is not going to happen.
Being strictly a 2-seater would often be a nuisance & I would always have doubts about stability in an emergency.

If the question is "How to make the best car in 2.5m?" then they have done a very good job.
But I don't think that is the question for many people.

Parting thot: "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." - Albert Einstein