Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Visibly Dangerous - 1

Car engineering has made huge advances in the last 20 years.

But with regression in a couple of areas.

Most obviously in the driver's visibility out.
A few decades back, some cars were approaching the ideal visibility situation, where the driver's front/side view was effectively unimpeded.
This was achieved, for instance on the Citroen DS or the Lotus Elan, by having screen pillars thinner than the spacing between the driver's eyes, so that drivers, at least drivers with 2 eyes, had no blind spot at all.

Increasingly today, screen pillars are getting thicker.
For good reasons.
Mostly this is due to crash strength requirements & roll-over strength requirements.
Additionally, screen pillars are sloping more steeply, partly for styling reasons & partly for aerodynamic (fuel economy) reasons.
Sloping increases the horizontal section width & hence the effective thickness from a visibility viewpoint.
The situation is compounded in many people-carrier vehicles (Opel Meriva, Citroen Picasso) which have introduced an additional pillar each side.

Things are so bad now, blind spots are so big now, that not only pedestrians & cyclists but even cars can be hidden from the driver if they are on a collision course (approaching at a constant angle) as can happen particularly at roundabouts for instance.

I can see why intelligent & responsible engineers are taking design in this dangerous direction.
There is plenty of pressure (rightly) to improve crash safety, to improve fuel consumption, to produce attractive-looking vehicles people want to buy.
There is no pressure (wrongly) to improve driver visibility & hence active safety.

Who should be providing that pressure?
Consumer associations?
Insurance companies?

We may have to wait a long time!

Parting thot: "Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life." - Kant

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hopeful Times?

Nobody is suggesting the current financial/economic crisis is a good thing.

But it does seem to be throwing up some collateral benefits which, if well nurtured, could outlast & maybe even outweigh the obvious & immediate damages.

Before this crisis, who could have imagined Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, finding top management perks morally unacceptable?
Before this crisis, who could have imagined the possible disappearance of numbered bank accounts?
OK – we are not there yet…

On a different level, who could have imagined many, and senior, catholics starting to publicly criticize the Pope?
Of course that is not directly linked to the financial crisis, but I think there is a link, via the general feeling that things have gone too far, that it is time to speak up against outdated dogma and specifically by the Obama effect – yes we can!
If religions could come to be considered as providing helpful socio-cultural guidance instead of imposing compulsory dogma, then the world would have made a very big positive step.

I don't see much sign of that from the Muslim world yet.
But I hope.
I hope the Obama effect may even spread that far.

Parting thot: "Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world." - Joel Barker

Friday, March 27, 2009

Scott Flying Squirrel

In 1962, while I was still at school, I bought a motorcycle.
A 1934 Scott Flying Squirrel - a little-known 600cc water-cooled twin two-stroke masterpiece.
ANE 977 in the rather poor photo.

Actually, I paid £25 for a couple of large wooden crates which were supposed to contain all the parts of the bike which the previous owner had enthusiastically dismantled, less enthusiastically reconditioned & then run out of enthusiasm to rebuild.
In fact it was nearly all there, lacking only a few details like lights, number plates, switches & oil seals, so after quite a lot of late nights, it all went together & was soon running very well.

Scott had been making motorbikes since about 1908 & competed with some success in the Isle of Man TT races before the first world war.
His bikes at that time were quite unlike any others, mainly due to the water-cooled parallel-twin 2-stroke engines which were astonishingly small for their capacity & power, and architecturally very tidy at a time when other bikes looked like the rough assemblies of proprietary parts that they usually were.
Scotts kept the same engine layout, as an iconic "signature" until production fizzled out in the '70s.
They were always smooth & quiet while other bikes at that time were rough & noisy.
The "real" Scotts were the 2-speeders produced till the late '20s.
The later 3-speeders, including mine, began to get bigger & heavier & less, well – zen.

This is a cross-section of the engine from my 1934 owner's manual (I kept all my owner's manuals…) showing how the crankcase was kept so narrow by using overhung cranks with no outboard main bearings on the assembled disc crankshaft, with the flywheel & main chain drive & magneto chain drive exposed between the 2 inboard main bearings.
A truly neat &
original piece of design.
The Bugatti of Motorcycles, as somebody else remarked.

I ran the Scott for a couple of years with no real problems.
The work-of-art honeycomb radiator did leak a bit, needing state-of-the-art remedies including Colmans Mustard powder & egg white until I could get it resoldered.
Suspension was not a strong point, as the beautifully triangulated frame was rigid at the rear, while there was a girder fork with friction damping at the front.
Bumps were best avoided.

I wanted to include some Scott soundtrack in this post, as the trademark "yowl" noise was such a part of the attraction, but surprisingly Google has not unearthed anything decent yet.
This is the only one I found, but the sound is not as smooth & deep as I remember it:

This is a link to Steve McQueen's 1929 Scott 2-speeder, now in a museum.

Parting thot: "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." – Joni Mitchell

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Flat Beds - 2

More worrying than the Ikea non-flat bed…

Back in 2005, CC moved into a very nice flat in Rennes, which included a beautiful bed which folded up into a smart-looking wooden case on the wall.
Raising & lowering the bed was a one-finger affair, thanks to very strong springs which pull the bed up into the frame, or , to put it another way, pull the frame down onto the bed…
This means that the whole thing is like a giant mouse-trap, threatening to slam the wooden frame down on unsuspecting sleepers.
I thought there had to be a locking mechanism, for safety's sake, but there was absolutely nothing.
Survival depends on the frame being securely fixed to the wall.

The instructions for the bed say it must be fitted by a professional & never be fitted to a plasterboard wall.
It was fitted to a plasterboard wall.
With good, big, professional-looking fittings, but even so…

At about the same time, I saw this article in several papers, about 2 old ladies trapped in a similar bed in a Spanish holday resort:

I am ashamed to say that all I did was ask CC to keep an eye on the state of the fittings.
And breathed a sigh of relief when she moved out a couple of years later.

No doubt some other innocent is sleeping there now, waiting for the trap to spring.

There should be a law enforcing latches on this type of bed.

Parting thot: "Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences." – Norman Cousins

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Flat Beds - 1

For the last 10 years or so, the kids have been moving in & out of various flats, which has usually only involved me acting as removals van driver & "caution".
"Caution" means guaranteeing to put right any overdue rent or damage caused by offspring.
The worst part is having to copy out, by hand, a whole page-full of incomprehensible legal terms, conditions & liabilities, ironically designed to make sure you have really understood what you are letting yourself in for.

It has often involved me lending said offspring one or two months rent in advance when this has been required.
Which reminds me…

Quite often, the removal van activities extend to Ikea, But, Conforama etc to buy beds, wardrobes, shower fitting etc etc.

Only a few weeks ago, AA moved to a smaller flat, so had to buy a folding sofa bed & store her existing fixed bed with us for another day.

She researched the sofa-bed market extensively & decided exactly what she wanted – Ikea Beddinge sofa (well made, steel-framed mechanism) Havet mattress (suitable for everyday rather than casual use) Aubergine cover (practical colour without being drab brown) Underbed stowage box. Perfect!

So we took the Espace to Ikea & started ordering.
First problem was that the Aubergine colour (on display) was no longer available & was not going to be restocked.
So she reluctantly settled on Orange…
Everything else went OK & we loaded the car & dumped everything in the new flat.

A couple of days later AA said she had taken the Orange covers back & exchanged for Brown as the Orange took over the flat.
She also asked me to check the assembly of the mechanism as the bed did not open out flat, but both halves sloped towards the middle.
Like camping on a hillside, she said.
There was nothing wrong with the assembly, but the solidly-made mechanism had welded-on stops welded in the wrong place, which prevented full flat opening, for no good reason.

We assumed it was a quality problem & took the mechanism back to Ikea, where the (always friendly) after-sales people said they had had similar cases & gave us a credit-card to get a new one.
While we were there, we decided to look at the sofas on display.
They are all displayed in sofa mode, but when we converted them to beds, they were all sloping too!
After a lot of discussion (but no resistance or argument) they decided there was no solution & we took the whole lot back & got a full refund.

AA bought a less-well-made but flat-opening sofa from But.

I tried to contact Ikea France to point out they had made a mistake & were losing customers, but they don't have any e-mail contact mechanism, which I find astonishing.
Likewise Ikea UK & Europe, as they sell this sofa worldwide.
In the end, I found I could contact Ikea USA by pretending I had purchased via Ikea Direct, but the only response was a friendly-sounding "Thank you for your interest…"

I don't think they have learned anything.
Surprising for a company which seems so customer-oriented.

Parting thot: "Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being." - Goethe

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Remember Saddlebags?

Once upon a time, all bikes had saddlebags.

Either little ones, just for puncture outfits with tyre levers, patches, rubber solution, chalk, glass-paper and tiny little rubber tubes for the olden-days tyre valves.
And the bronze, dumbbell, 10-way spanner.
Or big ones for capes, leggings, sou'wester, thermos, ham sandwiches, ferrets or whatever.

When I recently bought my first new bike for decades, it didn't have a saddlebag.
It was only then that I noticed that no bikes have saddlebags now.
Apart from anything else, it is much more difficult to lean your bike against a wall without a big saddlebag.

So I decided to put my perfectly good 40-year-old, canvas-leather-&-wood, H.W. Carradice saddlebag on.
But it's impossible – saddles don't have saddle-bag fixing-loops any more.

I found a rigid plastic box with lid which can fit on a carrier, but it is the wrong shape for the space available under the saddle, so will only fit perched on the back of the carrier where it is unstable & insecure.

I notice most people seem to use rucksacks, so I tried that, but didn't like it at all.
It feels unstable.
Your back & the rucksack get terribly sweaty.
Every time you want anything out of the rucksack, you need to stop, take the rucksack off, hold it with one hand while holding the bike between your knees, take out the, say, camera, put the rucksack back on, take a ,say, photograph, then go through the whole procedure again to put the camera back.

So I tried wearing the rucksack on the front…
Strange looks guaranteed.
It feels more stable though.
Your back stays cool & dry.
Your front does not get sweaty as the rucksack hangs clear, allowing air circulation.
In fact it acts as a welcome windbreak so back & front stay about the same temperature.
Taking a photograph is a simple, quick, one-handed job, as is getting out a map or Mars bar, without stopping if need be.
You can see whether you have left any zips open.

On bumpy going, the straps can tend to slip forwards off your shoulders, so this is one still-open development item.
Any obvious solutions like cross-straps would make fitting & removal a pain, so I don't want that.
I think high-friction rubber pads, like ping-pong-bat rubbers, might be enough.
Bright idea required…

Or a saddle with loops!

Parting thot: "A new idea is often the result of two old ideas meeting for the first time." - AEP advert

Monday, March 23, 2009

Big Apple

What is happening to apples?

I have 4 apple trees which give me 6 varieties of apples.
I only recently discovered you can graft several different apple-tree-branches on one trunk.
This means you can avoid, or diminish, the perpetual plague of gardening – you have nothing, then you have too much of something, then you have nothing again.
You may not actually avoid a glut of apples, but at least you can introduce more variety into the glut that you somehow feel you should eat, so it is not so boring.

I deliberately don't thin my apples very much, so I end up with lots of apples around 80 gm each.
When I fancy an apple, that is about as much apple as I fancy.
I enjoy all of it.

But when we buy apples in the shops, they are all enormous.
Around 220 gm.
More than anybody would really choose to eat in one go?
You are tired of apples before you get to the end of one apple.
We have to negotiate before cutting an apple, to see if there are enough volunteers to eat it all.
Or cling-wrap some of it in the fridge for another day.

What market mechanism, or consumer conditioning, or genetic jiggery-pokery is causing this drift to gigantic apples?

How can we stop it?

Parting thot: “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” – George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nothing Broken

That was probably the best week's skiing DS & I have had yet.

Not just because ski-selling & ski-hire shops have at long last stopped insisting on kitting me out with skis longer than my one-week-per-year ski muscles can handle.
Not just because we no longer need to take kids to ski school at 10 o'clock, collect them at 12, take them back at 2, collect them again at 5, leaving no time to cover much ground – these days we catch the first lift open & ski all day with just an al-fresco lunch pause in any piste-side panini terrace we come across.
Not just because we no longer need to go in school vacation time, when the traffic jams on the roads are horrendous & the ski-jams on the pistes & queues for the lifts are painful – a couple of weeks later, there is all the room you could want, no waiting & it's much cheaper too.
Not just because we were in a typical French purpose-built ski resort, which has none of the warmth & charm of a Swiss or Austrian village, but compensates by allowing you to ski to & from the apartment door.
Not even because we were in Les Arcs, which is particularly well organized for interconnecting lifts & pistes, and is now connected to La Plagne by the world's biggest cable car to give even more scope.
Nor just because this year has seen exceptionally heavy snow falls, so that there was plenty left even as Spring arrived.

No – the main reason was that in 6 days, we had perfect blue sky & sun for all but a couple of hours and the sun was only behind significant cloud for about 20 minutes.

For somebody with my non-athlete muscles, this makes all the difference.
So long as I can see very clearly all the up-coming bumps, dips, icy bits, different surface textures etc, then I can ski reasonably well & without too much effort or risk.
As soon as direct sunlight is replaced by diffused light, then all the surface detail disappears & the brain is unable to prepare the muscles for what to expect or what to do next.
The result is a huge rise in muscle tension & reduction in safety margin, so that when I can't see very clearly then frankly I prefer not to ski.
If I have to, then I only ski very very slowly.

What surprises me is that nobody else seems to react the same way.
Other people flash through the white-out as fast as in bright sunlight.
I wonder if they are supermen or just the same people who keep their speed up in motorway fog?

Parting thot: "Don't look where you fall, but where you slipped." – African proverb

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Natural Break

Back soon..

While you are waiting, you could try:


The above youtube link was disabled due to copyright problems, but the original (Pipe Dreams by Animusic) is now available here:

Several other gems there too.

Throw More Shoes

This blog is not going to become political.

But I have to say how sorry I am that the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at GWB has been sentenced to imprisonment.

If he had received a fine instead, he would have ended up a millionaire from all the donations, including mine…

If more people threw preferably softish shoes at selected leaders, instead of blowing up innocent bystanders, the world would be a very much better place.

Parting thot: "People with feeble imaginations are the most sure of their conclusions." – Edward de Bono

Somebody Needs Certifying

But why did I need to send my sentimentally-valuable, original, hand-written birth certificate & marriage certificate back through the unreliable international post to HM Government in GB before I could get, in this case, a very small bit of pension?
Note that as of today I have neither the certificates nor the small bit of pension.

If I didn't have any birth or marriage certificates, I could order perfectly valid new ones, from same HM Government in GB of all places, just by saying who I am (as far as I can see from their web-site).
And paying £10 each, of course.

So, if I had thought of it in time, I could have kept my originals & just ordered new copies, paid for them, received them & sent them back again..

That means HM Government in GB already have all the information they could possibly want from the original documents they insist on me sending them..

Did I miss something somewhere?

Parting thot: "In a climate of confidence - people apply their intelligence. In a climate of distrust - people apply the rules…"

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scintillating Scotomas

Seven or eight years ago, I was in the office, working on a PC screen full of text as usual, when I realized I could not see correctly.
Wherever I looked, the central letter disappeared, as though I had been dazzled by a small bright light.
In both eyes.
I immediately thought of macular degeneration & panicked.

After a few minutes, the blind spot started migrating to one side, with central vision restored.
At that point I thought "stroke?" & went to the medical office where I was told to lie quietly in the dark.
After half an hour things seemed to be back to normal, so I gradually forgot about it.

A year or so later, the same thing happened again.

Since then I have had another 37 "attacks" & now recognize all the symptoms.

It always starts with loss of central vision in a small area, like one letter of text.
It is always EXACTLY the same in both eyes, a good clue to it not being an eye problem at all.
The blind spot always moves off-center, becoming an irregular 'C' shape if moving left, or reversed 'C' if moving right.

It can go more or less left or right, but never straight up or down – usually between 1 & 5 o'clock or 7 & 11 o'clock.
As it moves away from center, it increases in size & thickness.
It keeps moving in roughly the same radial direction & keeps roughly a 'C' shape.
As it increases on size & area, the blind spot fills with bright scintillating blue, brown & gold zig-zags, as though I had looked too close at the filament of a light bulb.

I can see the scintillation even with eyes closed, just like when dazzled.
It takes 30-35 minutes to disappear from the field of view.
For 10-15 minutes afterwards, I am aware of "something" undefinable – if I say visual numbness, that is as near as I can get.

Now I am used to it, I no longer need to stop any activity – I just need to deliberately "scan" if reading etc.

I have kept records, after the first couple of events, to try to correlate to time, activity, stress, mood, food & drink, temperature and so on, but I don't find any link at all.
Frequency is gradually increasing, which is a pity, but I can have events a couple of days apart & then not for 6 months.
Doctors didn't find any cause or offer any explanation.

Eventually, by Googling, I started to home in on "Scintillating Scotoma" which turns out to be quite common, though hardly anybody knows the term, and which matches my symptoms perfectly.
Apparently it is a type of migraine, though in many cases completely without pain.
The exact mechanism seems to be unclear.
Different people report varying degrees of relief with dietary changes, but my interpretation is that the results don't look significant.

Several hundred sufferers have found Edith Frost's website dedicated to this subject & have described their experiences – generally relief at finding they are not alone, crazy, or, apparently, seriously ill.
Nobody seems to suggest the condition degenerates to anything very worrying.
The site has now shifted to Google Groups at http://groups.google.com/group/scintillating-scotoma

Parting thot: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny..." - Isaac Asimov

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Like a Hair on ze Soup

"Tomber comme un cheveu sur la soupe."

Perfect French expression with no exact English equivalent.

The nearest is "fly in the ointment" but that is too strong & misses the "exquisitely bad timing" aspect.

Something which "falls like a hair on ze soup" is no great disaster, just a frankly unwelcome, incongruous, irritating detail, arriving at totally the wrong moment, which you can't just ignore, which you would unquestionably rather have done without, and which is going to spoil something you were all set to enjoy.

Like one kid coming out in a rash just as you have loaded the car to go on holiday.

Or your very friendly neighbour turning up with an offering of onions & the intention of a good natter, just as you were leaving for a great bike ride.

Or the phone ringing just as your favourite TV programme starts, although that is getting rarer these days.
Not because of the phone calls, but the TV programmes.

Parting thot: "One spot stains the whole dress." – Belgian proverb

Monday, March 9, 2009

Benchmarking Opportunities

You would expect globalisation to lead inexorably towards consumers everywhere having similar choices (which may or may not be a good thing) but also towards natural selection of the best & most efficient solutions chosen from everything developed all over the world, and towards inevitable doom for the worst solutions.
Wouldn't you?

It's easy to understand some changes taking a long time or never happening because of enormous existing investments and changeover costs, with questionable pay-back.
I don't expect Britain to start driving on the right in my lifetime or anytime.
I don't expect to find common electric plugs & sockets across Europe anytime soon, but I do expect some convergence, such as already happened between French & German systems.

They use the same 2 male pins on the plugs, but the French earth connection is a male pin on the socket with a female in the plug, while the German earth uses 2 spring fingers at the top & bottom surface of the socket, sliding on fixed contacts on the outside of the plug.
Sounds incompatible, but in fact it is easy to make plugs which work properly in both sockets, and most appliances now have such plugs.

While writing this, I found a Wikipedia article here which tells me that it is called a CEE 7/7 plug & is also used in Spain & Portugal so Europe has spread further than I thought.
Actually that only applies to the few electrical goods which need earthing, while the bulk of appliances in Europe nowadays have – shock & horror! – reverted to a simple 2-pin plug which is perfectly compatible with the above systems & is small & light enough to slip easy into your pocket without risk of serious injury.
Or to rewind into the Hoover without collateral ballistic damage.

Which brings me to UK plugs…
If Europe ever standardizes to UK plugs, I shall know it is time to abandon all hope!
The idea of incorporating a fuse, calibrated to the appliance in question, seems quite interesting.
If you wanted to re-invent that today, I assume you could do it without needing such a ludicrously big & heavy plug, often bigger than the appliance on the other end of the lead.
The idea of engaging the earth connection before the others is good, but we know from CEE 7/7 that you don't need to have an extremely inconveniently long earth pin on every plug to do it.
The idea of preventing children pushing things into live sockets is indispensable, but we know that does not really force you to put giant 3-pin UK plugs on small, well-isolated appliances.
So I think maybe Britain should wonder about biting the painful bullet & introducing more up-to-date plugs & sockets some day.
If you do – please think to go for something common with as many neighbours as possible.
Of course, I didn't need to say that, did I?

But the UK system has one good feature, which is the real subject of this post – sockets with switches.

Astonishingly, and proving conclusively that globalisation does not lead to levelling-up, switched sockets do not exist at all in France or Germany.
This is a perpetual inconvenience in that every time you stop using, say, the TV or PC, you have the choice between pulling the plug out, so it trails untidily on the floor, or leaving it plugged in, so it keeps using stand-by electricity.
Guess what most people do?
In spite of all the legitimate wailings of ecologists everywhere.
Not to mention that sockets are supposed to be at reasonable heights so old people can reach them conveniently & safely, but what good is that if the plug is on the floor?
You can always add an otherwise unnecessary extension lead with multi-plug adaptor.
For some reason these usually have switches, whereas wall sockets never ever do.
But adaptors end up trailing untidily on the floor too, taking their otherwise handy switches with them…

The solution I am trying out on my PC at the moment, probably illegal, is to use a multi-plug adaptor, with switch, fixed on the wall (by little sticky pads!) at dangling-finger height next to my chair, so I never need to pull the plug out & am not tempted to leave things on stand-by.
Effective but not beautiful.

How can it be that something so obviously useful and so universally available in one country can be totally absent from the countries just next door?
Within Europe?
In the Internet age?

Beats me!

Parting thot: " Seek always, for by looking for one thing you will surely find another - this is the path to wisdom." – anon

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Carpenter's Rule

Between the ages of 11 & 18, I was put in an educational straight-jacket called Dudley Grammar School.

The fact that it was boys-only should have alerted me that it was divorced from the real world, but it seemed normal at the time.

Run by an apparently fossilized headmaster, the school presented everything in a totally abstract & academic manner.
All subjects seemed to consist of tables to learn & regurgitate at exam time.
History was a list of names & dates of kings & battles.
Geography was a list of population numbers, average temperatures & rainfall.
Latin was a list of nouns, adjectives, verbs & conjugations.
French & German were treated exactly like Latin.

I don't think anybody mentioned that there were real live French people actually talking to each other in real live French, and not that far away!
Certainly nobody mentioned Germans – they were unmentionable in those days.

The words "useful" or "interesting" were never applied.

Incongruously, first-year pupils also did woodwork.
I can't imagine how that happened, maybe nobody told the headmaster.
The first term's project was a T-shaped garden dibber, with straight planed sides, square sawn corners, a 4 x 45° point and a mortise & tenon joint made with chisels.
I probably still have it somewhere - unused.
This was as near as we ever got to reality.

But we did learn one useful thing in woodwork, which I still remember & still use:
If walking around with a chisel, or anything similarly sharp, put & keep your index finger immediately behind the sharp bit.
The explanation was that your brain subconsciously keeps track of where your fingers are & hence where the sharp point is.
The result is that you don't accidentally puncture a passing pupil or chip the school chisel on some wayward wall.

It seems a meagre harvest from seven years of schooling, but better than nothing, I suppose.

Parting thot: "Measure twice – cut once." - Carpenter's rule

Saturday, March 7, 2009

On the Positive Side. . .

…it doesn't take half as long, these days, to cut my hair.

Parting thot: "Instead of complaining about the dark - light a candle." – Tibetan proverb

Friday, March 6, 2009


"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the good taste of the American public." said H.L. Mencken.
He could have economised on the "American".

I think of this every time I see TF1 – the main French TV channel.
Not that I see it very often.
To be more accurate; not that I see it very long, because I get to see it briefly every time I turn the TV on and until I can find the right remote-control unit to switch to a better satellite or TNT channel.
I suppose I could reprogramme the TV to start somewhere less inane, but that is job n°xxx on the to-do list.

The only thing we voluntarily watch on TF1 is the much-derided national institution known as Jean-Pierre Pernaut's One o'clock News.
Regularly accused by satirical media of being a government stooge due to relative absence of biting criticism of the incumbent lot, he naturally has to devote the first half of his news show to the usual daily litany of global & local catastrophies, just like all the other news shows, but then he puts balm on the wounds by a series of delightful cameos which renew your faith in humanity in general & French humanity in particular.
Little old ladies nursing sparrows with broken toes.
Volunteers keeping a village's last bar-tabac-boulanger-poste-poissonnerie-cordonnier going.
Somebody who built a cathedral out of old tooth-picks.
More seriously, visits to hidden historical treasures you instantly add to your "one day…" visit list.

Recently, there have been several cameos on the collateral benefits of the current crisis.
People driving littler cars & slower.
Increasing market for "pre-used" items which would have been junked previously.
Out-of-workers organising themselves to repair things nobody would have repaired last year.

So when DS (Mrs 2CV67) had a premature bout of spring cleaning last week (always a sign of something, but I don't yet know what this time…) and unearthed 6 giant bags of not-too-old clothes and several not-too-indispensable old Xmas presents, we naturally thought of giving them all a new lease of life & helping the new poor at the same time.
Feeling positive about it, we added 6 decent pairs of skis and a complete Canon colour printer, with installation CD, mains lead, PC lead & a spare set of new unopened ink cartridges.

The natural place to take things like that has always been Emmaus, which was founded in Paris in the terrible winter of 1954 to help the freezing homeless, by "Abbé Pierre".
It still provides shelter & work for otherwise homeless down-&-outs who collect, repair & re-sell whatever they can find.
Abbé Pierre was France's Favorite Personality for decades, until his death at age 94 in 2007.
That in itself says a lot for France.

So we stuffed all our goodies into our old Renault Espace, which can seat seven, but is usually stripped out as kids-flat removals-van these days, and drove 20 km to the nearest Emmaus.
There, we were welcomed by an inmate who took the clothes bags & Xmas present boxes inside somewhere.

Then he took the first 2 pairs of skis & chucked them accross the road onto a pile of old bricks!
When asked, he said "Nobody will be looking at skis until next winter…".
So I put them back in the car.

Then we queued up behind a nice lady carrying what she proudly told us was a complete working PC.
She was told to "Put it on that pile there." which was a heap of PC junk outside in the rain with no cover.
"Another group comes & collects them every week or so…"
So I put the printer back in the car too!

We drove home feeling most uncharitable, thinking "No wonder some people stay poor!"

We are now looking for a good home for 6 pairs of skis & a Canon colour printer.

Parting thot: " I only feel angry when I see waste. When I see people throwing away things that we could use." – Mother Theresa

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Nearly Steve McQueen

No, I never jumped border fences on my motorbike, nor roared irresponsibly through San Francisco in a Ford Mustang.
Or even wanted to, though close inspection of the green Sunbeam Tourer here overlooking the London Gliding Club at Dunstable Downs reveals the thin chrome strip which is the only clue that it is not a 1.8 L4 Alpine, but a 4.2 V8 Tiger.

The closest I got was to the "Windmills of your Mind" bit in "The Thomas Crown Affair" where Steve McQueen does some lazy, graceful glider aerobatics.

The entry in my log book says "Cleared for solo aerobatics on K8 & K13; stalls, spins, chandelles & loops ONLY" with "only" heavily underlined.
Nothing violent, low, fast, negative or dangerous.

That was still enough to allow me the greatest pleasure I ever found in flying or in any of the "sports de glisse".

OK, fully-developed spins can be viciously impressive by my standards (I don't like roller-coasters…) but every glider pilot has to master them anyway.
The real aesthetic pleasure is in the languorous loops & chandelles.
Carried out, hopefully, with the smooth grace of a lazy dolphin.

Everybody knows loops, you put the nose down (after a good look all round of course) & at 170km/h you pull smoothly up at 3G & watch the world turn round you.
If you do it right you still have slight positive G at the top so nothing drops out of your pockets & you try to make your 'O' nice & round & round & round (it's addictive...).

A chandelle starts like a loop, but instead of making an 'O' you make a 'U' - the glider pulls up vertically, then, just before it stops, yaws 180° to point straight down & accelerate back down the way it came, then pulls up vertically into another 'U' & so on, as long as you have safe height left.

I find something very appealing in this silent slow swooping, a world away from competition aerobatics which is all straight lines, square corners, sleight-of-hand flicks & unreasonable heights, speeds & attitudes.

Like I enjoyed watching ice skating when it was smooth & graceful, before it became boring bouts of speeding backwards punctuated by staccato spins you can only appreciate in a slow-motion replay.
Surely athletic.
Not aesthetic.
Is this progress?

Parting thot: "Do something new every day."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Go Vango!

In 1974, I bought a small Vango Force Ten 2-person ridge tent.

It has seen quite a lot of use since then, has been through several sets of elastics, acquired a few patches on the built-in groundsheet & has faded to a thankfully much less violent shade of orange.

Checking it out before a recent trip, I inadvertantly & stupidly sat on the bundled tent & snapped the little plastic clip which holds the middle of the inner tent up to the ridge pole.
I borrowed a strap from a nearby pair of skates & that worked fine for the trip, but was not as neat or convenient as the original clip.

Out of curiosity, I Googled Vango & was pleasantly surprised to see they were still in business.
And had a 'contact' e-mail…
So, tongue in cheek, I contacted them, told them I was still using their 1974 tent & asked if they might happen have a spare clip lying around somewhere.

Not only did they have one, but they sent me a couple, free of charge, postage included.
That's what I call service!
I'm only too pleased to tell anybody about it.

Parting thot: "Only positive consequences encourage good future performance."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Animals on the Road

We do quite a bit of countryside walking these days & see more & more animals, especially deer & "sangliers" (wild boars).

We often see them dashing across fields, then dashing straight across roads...

There have been several news items on TV about the increase in sangliers all over Europe, notably Berlin & the local paper today says there are 5 times as many in Alsace as a few years ago.

So the risk of meeting an animal when you are driving is quite high & rising.

Another good reason to keep your speed down & your eyes open, in general.

I think it is worth preparing yourself beforehand so you can (maybe) react as well as possible when it happens.

The most important thing is DON'T SWERVE!
If you swerve, you are likely to:
- hit something coming the other way.
- push an overtaking car or motorcycle off the road.
- lose control of your car.
- turn over.
- run into a ditch.
- hit a tree.
All those are probably much worse than hitting an animal.

The next most important thing is to BRAKE AS SOON & AS HARD AS POSSIBLE.
The sooner & harder you brake, the better your chances are of not hitting something.
If you still hit something, you will be going as slow as was ever going to be possible, which is the best you can do for yourself & for the animal.
If you have not practiced braking hard, you almost certainly won't, so practice a couple of times somewhere safe, just to see.
If you don't hear & feel the ABS rattling YOU ARE NOT BRAKING HARD ENOUGH.
- that does not apply to old cars without ABS, like my 2CV.
- of course, you know if your car has ABS or not?

You probably won't have time for more than that.

If you do have time & are SURE there is no other traffic, then look at a bit of road with no animal on it & steer GENTLY at it if it is not going to head you off the road.
Murphy's law says the animal will probably move there anyway...
Concentrate on pointing in a safe direction rather than on avoiding the animal.

If you are going to hit an animal with long legs (deer...) it will probably come over the bonnet & through the windscreen.
This is definitely not a good thing.
If you see that coming.
Try to keep braking too!


Obviously you won't have time to remember this article while that is happening.

I think you CAN run through it in your head often enough (whenever you are on a boring straight bit of road) and imagine yourself doing it often enough, so that when it happens you have a better chance of doing the right thing & not panicking.

Worth a try!

Parting thot: "The harder you work - the luckier you get." - Sam Goldwyn

Monday, March 2, 2009

Japan: Parking

Well, can you think of a more efficient way to stack boats, with land at Tokyo prices?

As for bikes, well, you start by packing them pretty closely.

Then introduce another layer.

Then stack them in an
automated silo - which can go a very long way up & a very long way down.

Parting thot: "You show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder" - Janet Napolitano

Sunday, March 1, 2009

World's Worst Invention?

No - actually I was thinking of Bicycle Derailleur Gears!

Of course I understand derailleur gears are the lightest & most efficient way yet discovered for transmitting pedal power with a wide range of gear ratios & a fine-grained separation between available ratios.
They are the ideal solution for racing bikes.

But they are totally unsuitable for cycling's man-in-the-street.
Even more so for man-in-the-street's wife & children.

Especially when they are the usual 27-gear sort, with 3 chainwheels & 9 pinions to manoeuvre.
Especially when man-in-the-street has to try to explain about keeping the chain straight & not using the big wheels with the big pinions or the little wheels with the little pinions.
Especially when you need to explain that you can only change gear when pedalling forwards, so you always need to change gear before you need to change gear…
…Especially before you stop.
Especially when they are controlled by 2 push-pull selectors, where you need to pull the right one to change 'up' with the pinions but push the left one to change 'up' with the chainwheels.
Especially when, to get fine-grained progression, if you change up one chainwheel, you need to simultaneously change down 2 pinions.
Especially when you shouldn't do both simultaneously anyway, according to the instructions.
Especially when, every time you back-pedal, the chain comes off.
Especially when, every time your kid's bike falls over (Oh! They do that?) you have to spend an afternoon trying to straighten brackets & readjust selectors, but it never works quite the same again.
Especially when, whenever you try to ride through long grass, your 27-speed gearbox ties itself into an inextricable oily string ball.

If we had grown up with hub gears & somebody had come along with derailleur gears as his latest & greatest idea, we would have treated him with the derision he deserved.
But it didn't happen like that.

Good hub gears have existed at least since Sturmey Archer's 3-speed patent in 1902!
That 1902 hub gear would not cause raised eyebrows if presented today and looks less of an antique, except for the selector, than any contemporary bicycle, car, aeroplane or domestic appliance.

So what happened?
I don't know, but it looks as though the industry, like some sleeping beauty, just went to sleep for a century.
And Prince Charming failed to show up…

Admittedly, by 1938 (…) there was a 4-speed version and the unbeatably ergonomic (for few ratios) finger-flick selector.
Admittedly, rain stopped play for the next 5 or 6 years.
But even so…

My first new bike (Dawes Double Blue) in 1955 had a 4-speed wide ratio (1.90:1 range) hub, which was still "state of the art" half a century after the first patent.
And provided exemplary trouble-free service.
Slick instant shifts any time – from standing still to under load (just click as pedals pass top-dead-center).
Never needed any attention or adjustment (except never-fails, no-tools, 10-second, visual-aided resetting after punctures or chain adjustment).

A 5-speed appeared around 1966 according to Sturmey-Archer History site, but I don't think this was ever very successful. (?)
A 7-speed figured just before the turn of the century & just before production was transferred to Taiwan, but has anybody ever seen one?

Meanwhile, on the 'far' side of the channel, unbeknown to me but detailed on SRAM's website http://www.sram.com/en/about/history.php - Ernst Sachs produced a 2-speed 'Torpedo' hub in 1904 & a 4-speed in 1913 & (under SRAM brand) a 7-speed in 1992.

Out of the blue, in 1996, Rohloff produced their astonishing 14-speed Speedhub, with 5.26:1 range (equivalent to usual 27-speed derailleurs) which is still available today in several versions & would be the answer to any cyclist's prayer but for a slight weight penalty & an insurmountable cost penalty of around 1000£/$/€.
If you can afford one – don't hesitate!
Presumably you need to employ an armed thug to stand by your bike whenever you park it…
Nevertheless, this hub has a deservedly strong following amongst serious trekkers.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it was left to the Japanese, as usual, to specify, develop & sell a viable more-than-4-speed hub for normal customers.
Shimano, of n-speed derailleur fame, risked shooting themselves in the foot in about 1995 by introducing the Nexus 7-speed hub aimed mainly at town bikes.
I saw them appear gradually in Germany, mainly on old ladies' 30kg shopping bikes.
I vaguely wondered about trying to build one into a light cross-country bike but never got round to it.

Then in 2003, in France (pinch me!) Decathlon offered the visually-challenged "Triban Road 5" bike, which despite its name had the Nexus 7-speed hub in a stripped-down 13 kg bike with solid forks, disc brake, cyclo-cross tyre sizes, no guards & nothing else – just what I was looking for, for my dry-weather, back-roads & not-too-rough-tracks usage.
I promptly bought one for 499.99€ which seemed fair enough & I haven't regretted it.

Except if I had waited another year, they were already on "special offer" for 199€ and were soon withdrawn, as obviously there is no market for out-of-town hub gears in France.
I have never seen another one (the bike) on the road.

Is the hub any good? – yes, unhesitatingly.
Is it perfect? – no.
The 2.44:1 range is not enough for serious hills or paths.
They have a reputation for fragility in heavy use, though mine is still as good as new.

So what now?
Shimano have introduced an 8-speed with 3.05:1 range & nearer bullet-proof durability, though they still warn against using it for "cross country races".
This seems to be the "best buy" today, if you can't afford Rohloff.

SRAM generated a lot of buzz over their upcoming 9-speed i-Motion hub with 3.40:1 range, which I think would be adequate for my needs, but it seems to be hanging at the buzz stage.
Sure, a long time after originally expected, they did get it into production in 2007, but inexplicably only in a ten-ton version with back-pedal brake!
They publicize a lighter freewheel version, but it is still 2.0 kg vs Shimano at 1.5 kg.
Initial reports suggested some quality/fragility concerns, hopefully just teething troubles…
I don't see any unheavy bikes
with this hub in shops or on websites.

I suppose I have to wait until, inevitably, Shimano brings out a smaller, lighter 9 or 10-speed competitor and actually gets it into bikes in shops.
Hope I am not too old to enjoy it then.

So why am I beefing about derailleur gears?

Because if nobody had invented derailleur gears, the needs of the marketplace would have forced development of better hub gears many decades ago.
The size of the marketplace would have justified development expenditure.
The volume of production would have reduced costs.
Competition would have reduced prices.
We would all be riding around with cheap, light, reliable 12-speed hubs with 5:1 range.
Nobody would remember the last time a chain came off.
The idea of juggling 2 contradictory shift controls would be laughable.

That's why.


While we are waiting, here are some hub gear reference sites to look at, with details of even more hubs that have come &, in many cases, gone:

Parting thot: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so." – Albert Einstein