Thursday, April 30, 2009

Make ze Bridge

Another very common French expression "faire le pont", literally "make the bridge" is only applied to the situation where a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday and you decide to take off the Monday or Friday as well, to join the holiday up to the nearest weekend.
Which reminds me that "le weekend" has made it officially into French.

Understood, but less common is to "make the big bridge" when a holiday falls on a Wednesday & you join it to either weekend.

"Faire le pont" is so often handy that I am surprised there is not a similar expression in English, though I can see why it would be less used in American.

Parting thot: "A vacation should be just long enough that you're boss misses you, and not long enough for him to discover how well he can get along without you." - anon

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When I'm 64

Back in November last year, the respected & serious French National Institute of Statistics & Economic Studies (INSEE: produced a report which was picked up by all the TV stations & Newspapers.

Actually it was a huge report called "France, Social Portrait 2008" but the bit everybody jumped on was a 12-page sub-report ( called, roughly, "Happiness - Does it Depend on Age?"

Nobody was surprised that the answer was "Yes", but few expected the shape of the happiness graph, which has a trough at 45-50 and a big peak at 65-70.
Even the researchers had been surprised enough to try to "correct" it for income, marital situation etc, but with no success.

So I look forward to the next few years with more optimism than before, and hope somebody will find a way of jacking up the bit after 70 before I get there.

Parting thot: "Nobody on his deathbed ever said, 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'" – Robin Skynner?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


We are not great concert-goers.

We have fond memories of Proms and of Picnic Concerts at Kenwood in the '70s but since we have been in France – nothing.

That could probably be explained by having 4 kids.
When they were little, it was too much trouble to take them or to organize sitters.
When they were a bit bigger, the tastes of the oldest & youngest were so different.
Bigger still, the tastes of parents & kids clashed.
Now, we are just out of the habit.

Then there is the cost.
When I can watch almost anything anytime on TV for free, I instinctively assess the value of an hour's entertainment somewhere else at maybe 5€.
So when concerts ask 25€ (each) I am stretched to even consider it and when they go over 100€, well I can't imagine saying yes under any circumstances.
100€ would buy a colour printer-scanner & a small digital camera.
Or a trip round the world on Ryanair, maybe.

Recently, a new Zenith concert "hall" has been opened between our village & Strasbourg.
It is hard not to notice, as it looks like a giant, part-crushed gasometer & is bright orange.
The orange part is actually some sort of tent-like fabric, so it will be interesting to see how long it lasts & how scruffy it gets.
I will give it credit for being different & not boring, but really I think it is an ugly eyesore.
Like the Centre Pompidou in Paris, for which the British are responsible…
Obviously I don't deserve to be even let in to "artistic" locations.

The pictures here are from their free Open Day.
Even then I wondered why they were going to have 10 thousand paying customers queuing unprotected in the rain to get through not enough entrance gates.
But I admit that the orange half-light in the foyer was pleasant, in a camping sort of way.
As opposed to the undecorated concrete everywhere.
Or the hard plastic seats inside.
After a quick glance at the price lists, I assumed I was unlikely ever to go there again, and forgot all about Zenith.

Then a neighbour won some free tickets to "Lord of the Dance" & very kindly offered 2 to DS, presumably due to the Celtic link.
So we found ourselves seated within a few meters of the stage for this striking spectacle.
You can see & hear bits of it here:

I would have thoroughly enjoyed this show, sitting comfortably chez moi at a reasonable distance from a good TV screen, set to correct brightness & sound level.
Squirming uncomfortably on bottom-numbing hard chairs, looking awkwardly up at the small actors &/or big screens, shaken by way-too-loud sound systems requiring fingers in ears most of the time, was more impressive, but altogether less enjoyable.
Even for free.

At the time, I put the loudness down to the particular show & the fact we were right at the front.
I vaguely though it would be necessary to bring cushions & ear plugs if I ever won another free ticket.

But when the kids offered us tickets for a Circus show at the Zenith as a birthday present, I forgot the cushions & felt the earplugs would hardly be necessary.
How wrong I was.
We were seated half way back in the audience and sound had absolutely no significance to the circus acts, but it was again deafening – literally painful.

When I got home, I wrote to Zenith to point out that the sound level was not only unnecessary & unpleasant but positively unhealthy & that I would not be using their facilities again unless they fixed it.
Actually, I had no intention of going there again, but I wanted to do my bit to protect others, maybe my kids.
Their reply was that they had no control over the sound level, which was fixed by the performing companies.
They don't deserve to succeed.

We are unlikely to be great concert-goers any time soon.

Parting thot: "You can solve any problem, except the one you pretend you don't have." – Robin Skynner (approx. back-translation)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Triumph Vitesse

In 1968, concerned by the progressing rust on my Austin-Healey Sprite, I bought a 1964 Triumph Vitesse Convertible.
Not one of my better decisions.

The Triumph Herald & Vitesse range of cars, introduced in 1959, probably holds some kind of record for the number of highly publicised new features which turned out to be evolutionary dead ends.

To be fair, you have to put them into a 1959 context when British small cars (Standard 8, Austin A35, Morris Minor) were blobby affairs with little visual, technological, or behavioural appeal, just offering minimal mobility for grateful post-war families.
Against that background, the Herald, with its low build, huge glass area, frameless windows, tail fins, all-independent suspension, rack & pinion steering, remote gear shift lever, all-opening bonnet/wings etc, seemed like a space-ship.
Certainly the driver visibility set an excellent benchmark which has rarely been approached since & is unfortunately not likely to be again.
The driving position & steering were good too.
And the boot space & shape & accessibility.

But the much-vaunted independent rear suspension turned out to be by swing-axles, which had been a bad-enough idea on VWs & Renault Dauphines, but were worse on a front engined car with much more variation in rear axle loading.
Every vertical movement of the suspension is accompanied by lateral movement of the road/tyre contact patch, so the car squirms over bumps.
Every change in suspension height, due to load or bumps or cornering, results in a change in camber angle of the tyre & hence cornering force, so handling is variable & unpredictable.
In extreme cornering conditions, the system becomes unstable & can lead to catastrophic loss of adhesion at the rear, as Ralph Nader publicised in "Unsafe at Any Speed" about the Chevrolet Corvair.

Also vaunted was the separate chassis (going against the post-war trend) with bolt-on body panels.
That did allow flexibility in easy introduction of multiple models (Saloon, Coupé, Estate, Convertible) & allowed the fully-opening bonnet/wings assembly, which were good points.
It soon became obvious, however that the panels were bolt-on, rust-off.
Even sooner, it was obvious that the flexibility extended to lack of rigidity of the body/chassis assembly, resulting in creaking & rattling & a general feeling of flimsiness.

Frameless side windows are a great luxury feature on great luxury cars, but can easily lead to water leaks, wind noise & stiff window winding if done less than perfectly.
Say no more.

The number of grease nipples needing frequent attention was greatly reduced.
Partly by using unlubricated plastic bushings, which rapidly wore out & needed replacing.
Partly by an odd arrangement on the steering pivots, where you were supposed to unscrew little plugs, screw in oil nipples, squirt in oil, remove the oil nipples & refit the little plugs.
Hard to think that was a smart move either.

An ingenious fuel reserve system was provided in the fuel tank placed vertically in one side of the boot.
The fuel outlet was via a J-shaped pipe rising at 45° to the top of the tank & equipped with a handle.
Turning the handle turned the end of the J either up (normal) or down (reserve – nearly another gallon).
Actually very simple & useful, but don't mention safety.

The steering column incorporated a telescopic section which was supposed to provide some protection in a collision & could also be used as an adjustment for the steering wheel position, but only with a spanner or preferably a torque wrench.
The dashboard was in a sort of matt-grey papier maché which was supposed to offer some impact protection.
The famously tight turning circle "better than a London Taxi" really deserved to be copied, but wasn't.

The Convertible model added, of course, the open-air option you love or hate (I love).
And kept most of the 4-seater capacity & boot space.
But seriously reduced the visibility to side & rear, especially as soon as the plastic windows lost their initial transparency.
And it reduced the structural rigidity even more.
What surprised me the most was how much more draughty it is in a 4-seater convertible than in a cosy open 2-seater with high sides & back panel.

Heralds had a 948cc 4-cylinder engine, later increased to 1147cc & 1296cc.
The Vitesse variant introduced a 1596cc straight 6-cylinder engine, probably one of the smallest ever.
That means much lower than optimal-sized cylinders, with resulting poor efficiency, compounded by more internal friction.
Compounded by the fact that this was (I think) a downsized version of a 2000cc engine, so was very heavy & bulky.
Performance was better than the Herald, but not so much as all that.
And handling was very nose-heavy.
Most L6 engines (think of BMW) at least manage to be beautifully smooth & a 1600cc one should have been smoother, but for some reason this one managed to be rough at high speeds, maybe due to crankshaft flexibility?
Later versions had a 2000cc engine, which was considerably quicker.

Gearboxes were universally 4-speed in those days (with no synchromesh on first gear) but many Vitesses, including mine, had a Laycock Overdrive unit, working on 2nd, 3rd & 4th gears, giving 7 gears in all.
This was the automotive equivalent of bicycle derailleur gears.
The normal 4 gears were operated by gear lever, clutch pedal & throttle pedal, as usual.
The Overdrive was operated by an electrical switch, which actuated a solenoid which allowed an oil pump to move a double-sided cone clutch, which engaged an epicyclic overdrive ratio, like changing the front chainwheel on your bike.
When things went right, this resulted in a smooth shift like a good automatic gearbox.
Often though, there would be a variable delay & some kind of thump or shudder.
Endless variations of throttle-pedal & clutch-pedal actuation had more or less good or bad effects on the process, depending on speed, slope, temperature etc.
Juggling with the gearbox & overdrive ratios was too much like 27-speed bikes.
My Overdrive never needed attention, but the addition of a lot of mechanical, hydraulic & electrical parts was unlikely to be good for reliability and the pumps, gears & clutches were bound to spoil efficiency.
The 5-speed gearbox was going to be a much better solution, one day.

I didn't have any problems with my Vitesse Convertible, but never liked it much either.
I did replace the transverse rear spring with a lowered one, which improved the handling & stability a bit.
The final versions ditched the swing axles for a proper multi-link system which presumably worked much better but presumably cost more than could have been afforded for the Herald.

I sold mine after less than a year, with no regrets.

Parting thot: "Imitation is the sincerest of flattery." - Charles Caleb Colton

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Back to Our Sheep

The very common French expression "Revenons à nos moutons", literally "lets get back to our sheep" means "lets get back to the real subject" after some digression.

The origin would appear to be a play from 1464 so it counts as pretty well-established.

Parting thot: "Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner." - James Bovard

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cooking with Gas

Distribution of piped gas, town gas or natural gas, is by no means universal in France.
It is certainly available in Strasbourg & is slowly spreading to surrounding towns & villages, but it has not reached us yet.

So, if we want to cook with gas, and we do, then we need to arrange our own supply.
This could take the form of a fixed external or underground propane tank, refilled occasionally by tanker lorry.
That solution would be economical & justifiable for more intensive use, but for our cooker (top only) we make do with small portable cylinders which we can exchange at the local garage, or many shops & even farms.
Kept internally in the basement, they can be butane which would not be suitable for colder external storage.
To avoid being stuck with a half-cooked Sunday dinner, we keep a spare cylinder too, ready connected with a switch-over tap.

For years, the only portable gas cylinders, in many colours & under many brand names, have been industrial-looking all-steel jobs holding 13 kg of gas.
When full, they weigh 24 kg which is really too much for safe or comfortable manhandling & must have caused quite a few back problems for users.

Recently, there has been a spate of new-technology gas cylinders, which hold about 10 kg of gas & weigh only about 16 kg when full.
That makes all the difference for safe & comfortable handling.
The new cylinders have glass-fibre wrapped plastic pressure vessels in a soft plastic outer protection which also includes carrying handles which surround & protect the supply valve.
Connection is by a snap-on pressure reducer which is much more convenient than the old left-hand threaded screw-on connectors & remote pressure reducer.

Slightly more expensive per kilo of gas, these cylinders represent a very real progress in consumer comfort, convenience & safety.
How nice to be able to report positively!
Hopefully we will not hear of any failures from the new & as yet unproven technology.

Parting thot: "Simplify & add lightness." – Colin Chapman

Friday, April 24, 2009

Top's not Tops

Every good day starts with a nice hot(tish) shower & shampoo.

These days, it doesn't take much shampoo, but I stick to the same pure & simple baby shampoo (Mixa-bébé) I have used for as long as I can remember.
Presumably from when we first had a baby & I had real hair.
I like the product, with no perfume, no colouring, no body-building, no nothing.

I also used to like the bottle, which was transparent so you could see how much was left, and had a particularly neat "rocker switch" cap.
The cap allowed simple one-finger opening & closing, had a not-too-large orifice for easy dosing, and allowed you to stand the bottle bottom-up when it was nearly empty, so you didn't need to waste time & hot water waiting for the last dregs to drain down.
The cap was so perfect that, logically, it should have become universal.

Instead, they apparently decided to standardize on another cap from the Garnier/L'Oréal parts bin.
Presumably it's cheaper.
It is a flip-top operated by a shallow-angled slippery blob which you can't open with wet hands.
Would you try to sell shampoo in a bottle you can't open with wet hands?
Nor me.

If you push really hard on the too-shallow angle of the slippery blob & you don't slip, it will sometimes open.
In that case, as likely as not, the sharp edge then uncovered will cut your thumb.

As if that wasn't enough, the same blob prevents the bottle being stood upside down.
Presumably to encourage you to throw away the dregs & buy a new bottle.
The same reasoning that leads to the over-large orifice so you usually end up with more shampoo than you need.

Until recently, we managed to keep several good old bottles & refill them from the nasty new ones, but they have gradually expired.
Now, every new bottle has to be attacked with nail clippers, to remove the shallow angle & sharp edge from the blob & leave a non-sharp lip which you can open with one hand & no blood.
This should not be necessary.

The latest bottle we just bought has added a little grippy tread pattern to the blob, so apparently they have at last noticed the problem.
I wait with bated breath & much scepticism, to see if it works.

Of course the bottle still will not stand upside down.

I tried several times to contact Mixa-bébé/LaScad/Garnier/L'Oréal about this, without finding any contact route.
While writing this post, I have at last found one, so will give it a try.
I will suggest that, if they can't re-introduce the old cap, they could at least take away the blob & replace it with a flat plate with blunt protruding lip, and maybe even use a smaller hole.
That would allow easy opening, safe opening, easier dosing & standing upside down – and should be a tiny cost saving too.

Somehow, I don't expect them to jump at it.

Parting thot: "Feedback: the breakfast of champions." - Ken Blanchard

P.S. Edit: After 7 months, still no answer from Mixa-Bébé.
As expected, the little grippy tread pattern did not help much & I am back to chopping the sharp lip off the blob...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Badly Licked Bear

This picturesque French expression "un ours mal léché" literally "a badly licked bear" is applied to an awkwardly rough sort of person with no social polish, badly brought up, maybe a rough diamond, but more rough than diamond.

Seems to have the same roots as the English expression "lick into shape", both deriving from an old belief that bear cubs were born misshapen & had to be licked into shape by their mothers.

Parting thot: "I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me." – Winnie the Pooh

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Point of View

I really love scenic views, particularly panoramic mountain views.
I find they have a powerful psychological/therapeutic/morale effect.
Help to put life's little problems into perspective.

Just behind our house is a hill from where, after a 5 minute walk, we have a 360° view including the Black Forest on one side & the Vosges on the other.
On a good day, we can see several identifiable peaks 100 km away.
That's one of the reasons we bought this house.

We do quite a bit of walking in these nearby hills, and when choosing a route, one with lots of viewpoints indicated will be high on the priority list.
We noticed, many years ago, that the marked viewpoints in the Black Forest were beginning to lose their views, due to new trees being allowed to grow just in front.
These days, France is catching up, and an increasing number of viewpoints, even marked on maps, even signposted, even equipped with nice benches by the "Club Vosgien", only let you gaze at close-up trees, just like you could anywhere else.

Of course I like trees & appreciate their invaluable contribution to our well-being.
I have lots & have planted more, and I consider myself reasonably ecological in most ways.
But I would really like to remove or reduce the small number which block otherwise breathtaking views.
Ready to plant some new ones on a one-for-one basis.
OK – two-for-one if you insist.
I think that would leave the world a better place.

Parting thot:"The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way." - William Blake

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The 7.58-o'clock News?

Nobody would be surprised to find that the French, and other Latins, are less fanatically punctual than, say, the British, Germans or Scandinavians.
Not being too bound to the clock is almost a matter of pride & self-image.
Like not being too bound to rules in general.
"Savoir vivre" if you like.

I have to admit that, personally, I still like the split-second timing I still see on BBC TV, even to the numerical count-down to the start of the news.
And I still find I am irritated by French TV channels' apparently voluntary inability to finish any political discussion program within half an hour of the advertised time, with all the knock-on (or knock-out) consequences for subsequent programmes.

But the detail which irritates, infuriates & bemuses me the most, several times a day, is that they keep starting the news programmes 2 or 3 minutes before the advertised time – yes, early.
Why would anybody want to do that, other than to smack their customers in the face?
It's like running buses or trains earlier than the timetable – customers who follow the rules miss out & legitimately feel cheated.

Parting thot: "Value is created by getting the right information to the right place at the right time." - George Huber

Monday, April 20, 2009

No Trouble at t' Mill

A few years ago, we bought a bread machine.
Not that there was anything wrong with the bread we could buy.
Quite the opposite in fact, even the local supermarket bread is really first class, with a lot of choice in interesting crusty brown seedy stuff as well as various baguettes, and there are several good bakers on our normal shopping routes too.
But there is nothing within 5 km & nothing open on Sunday or holidays or late at night, of course.
And we have a lot of holidays.
So it's handy to have the machine for emergencies, and just for playing with.
Of course we could (& do) keep emergency loaves in the freezer, but that's no fun.

Surprisingly, not only is the bread machine easy to use, but it works quite well & has produced hardly any door-stops, though I still can't get rid of a lingering yeasty taste.
Nor the irritating hole in the bottom, of course, where the loaf is cooked around the beater.

Having bought the machine, we then needed flour, preferably interesting flour with bits in.
This is not an area I had looked at much, but we soon found that our usual shops had a good selection.
Interestingly, they have not only the nationally known brands, but also flour from local mills.

That's how we discovered that there is a real live working flour mill just a couple of villages away.
We should have know about it already, because we often use the good Tarte-Flambee Restaurant next door, which is called "Le Moulin", but we assumed it was commemorating an ex-mill, not an alive-&-kicking one.

The illustrations here are from an open day, when the public could wander round all the antique wooden machinery driven by flat leather belts, just like something out of Charles Dickens (though it only dates from the 1920s).
They may look Dickensian, but they have a good website, understandably not in English, with all their 29 different varieties of flour, both bio & regular, and some interesting recipes, and even possible delivery.

A very satisfactory find & a good piece of local "industry" to support.

Parting thot: "Old bread is not hard. No bread, that is hard." – Swiss/German proverb?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Driving with a British Accent

When we came to France in 1977, we were appalled by French driving.
Aggressive, selfish & pig-headed, just about summed it up.
And this was around Strasbourg, not in notorious Paris.
Nobody (except visiting Germans) would ever give way for a pedestrian, even on a crossing.
Nobody would pause or slow enough to allow a car out of a side road if it didn't have "priority on the right".
Cars all seemed to have dents & scrapes which were not worth removing.
There were no roundabouts, except the famous one in Place de la Concorde in Paris, which had priority on the right so would lock solid as soon as there was enough traffic.
Just traffic lights which seemed to have only an advisory role.

There has been a huge improvement since then, and it seems to be accelerating.
Contributing factors have been the widespread adoption of radar speed traps (in spite of advanced warning signs for the fixed ones), widespread application of breathalyzer testing, hesitant then plethoric introduction of roundabouts, reduced speed limits in towns, speed humps & traffic-calming chicanes, etc.

None of the above really explains that not only the accident rate, but also the attitudes have changed.
I don't have an explanation either, and I just hope it continues.
That trend seems in opposition to the rapid increase in all other kinds of violent behaviour, particularly gratuitous violence by youths.

One certainly positive factor has been the introduction of "conduite accompagnee" (accompanied driving).
Previously, a learner driver, who needed to be 18 before starting, could only be on the road with driving instructors in dual-control cars, so typically only had 20 hours of driving experience, and in very restricted conditions, before taking the driving test & maybe being let loose on his own, with inevitable consequences.
About 20 years ago, they introduced "accompanied driving" which allowed 16-year-olds to take 20 driving lessons with an instructor, then to cover at least 3000 km with one or two named drivers over 28 (normally parents) with a couple of intermediate check lessons before sitting the driving test at age 18.
This has resulted in a big increase in pass rate & a big decrease in accident rate.
I think it has also meant that young drivers see driving in a family environment rather than as some macho rite of passage to adulthood.
Drivers passing their test after accompanied driving get better insurance terms & only need to display an "A" (apprentice) plate, with its associated lower speed limits, for 2 years instead of 3.

We have "accompanied" all 4 kids now, which has not been too stressful…
Of course, we tried not to pass on our less-good habits & short-cuts, so it was good for us too.
We had to fit in with most prevailing methods, even when we don't 100% agree, like staying down in 3rd gear all the time in towns, because otherwise they would not have passed their tests.
But we did add a couple of safety items which are never included here:
1.Keeping the clutch pedal depressed when starting the engine.
2.Using the handbrake for hill-starts.
The French are taught to do hill starts without handbrakes, by feeling for the clutch biting point, then jumping the right foot from brake to accelerator.
It works OK on slight slopes but almost invariably causes some roll-back on steep ones, often with engine stalling too.
It makes hill starts a critical affair when they don't need to be.
So we taught hill starts using the handbrake.

When one of the kids had a check lesson with a new instructor & used the handbrake on a hill, he immediately said "You must be British."
Apparently he teaches lots of non-French kids related to the European Parliament/Council & recognises the British because they use the handbrake at every stop & start.
That's one peculiarity I will stand up for.

Parting thot: "If at noon the King says it is midnight, admire the stars." – Persian proverb which I find very regrettable & the source of many problems

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Frog-Eyed Sprite

I graduated in summer 1965 & started work in October.
In those days, finding a job was easy – I applied to 7 car companies, got interviews at all of them & job offers from all except the one I wanted.
That was average.
I am sorry for people looking for jobs today.

By spring 1966 I felt I could afford to upgrade my car from the 1952 Jowett Javelin 6-seater saloon to something a bit newer & more appropriate for, & appealing to, a young, single, freshly-wage-earning engineer.
Logic & emotion met happily at a 1960 Austin-Healey Sprite Mk1, universally known as the "Frog-Eyed Sprite".
Except in America where it is the "Bug-Eyed Sprite".
That's my one above, trying to be a removals van.

If you had to sum up the Sprite in one word, it would almost certainly be "cute", or maybe "friendly" or just "nice" &/or "little".
Apart from being really small, it has the big eyes & hesitant smile of a Walt Disney baby animal, so the automatic reaction, even from old ladies, is "Ahhh!" – as was the case later with the 1992 Renault Twingo.

What a pity people think cars have to be "aggressive" to succeed now.
That is a tendency that needs reversing.
This illustration is from:

The Sprite was introduced in 1958 as BMC's entry-level sports car, because the MGs had grown too big, and it used a lot of Austin A35 parts including the 948cc engine (but with twin SU carburettors), gearbox, front suspension & rear axle.
Fortunately, it used the rack & pinion steering from the Morris Minor instead of the nasty steering box from the A35.
Rear suspension was unique, by trailing quarter-elliptic springs & trailing arms.

It was probably one of the earliest open cars with unitary body/chassis & the structure was simple & quite rigid.
The complete front end lifted for access to the engine, whereas there was no external access at all to the luggage, which was kept, unsecured, in the big space behind the seats, along with the spare wheel, jack, tools, hood, hood frame & side windows.
They were sliding plastic side windows in metal frames you could screw to the tops of the doors, or keep in plastic bags in the boot.
The doors had no locks or external handles – you simply reached inside & used the internal handles.
After the Morgan 3 wheeler, all that did not shock me as much as it would today.
It even had (non-retracting) 3-point seat belts, the first I had used, though I think they were an optional extra then.

Performance would usually be described as "nippy" which meant it went slightly quicker than the equivalent-engined saloon cars of the period.
Handling was very different from those cars though, due to the lower build, firmer suspension & very quick steering.
In fact I found the steering far too sensitive and with a tendency to over-steer, which made cornering an effortless finger-twitch affair, but needed watching.
My first, and very successful, action was to build an arm rest into the driver's door to stabilize the steering hand on bumps.
I tamed the twitchiness down progressively with slightly bigger rear tyres, much wider rear wheels & a front anti-roll bar.

There was a big market in performance-improvement equipment for most cars in those days, and particularly for the BMC engines used by the Sprite, A35, Minor, Mini etc.
One method was supercharging & Shorrocks produced a kit with a belt-driven vane-type compressor which could be very simply bolted on, increasing power by about 50% & halving 0-60mph time.
I found a kit, second-hand, in "Exchange & Mart" which was the '60s equivalent of eBay.
It was really as simple to fit as they said & I was soon enjoying hugely better performance, better flexibility, and reduced noise, but with, of course, heavier fuel consumption.
Predictably, I then had a big accident which could have been serious, but luckily wasn't.
I hope & believe I learned enough to avoid having any more…

After that, I ran the red Sprite, now with a second-hand white bonnet, for a couple of years, in which time it was thoroughly enjoyable, though increasingly rusty, as was the tradition with British cars of the '50s & '60s.
While I was fitting the white bonnet, I revised the fixings.
Instead of hinging at the back & opening at the front, which was a heavy lift & gave awkward access, I hinged it at the front & clipped it at the back with Triumph Herald latches.
This was much easier to manipulate & gave better access.
Don't understand why they did not do it like that originally.

Some links with pictures & information for the curious:

Although less than 50,000 were built, between 1958 & 1961, there seem to be lots still running, with enthusiasts' clubs all over the world.
Not surprising, for such a likeable, cheap, simple toy.

Parting thot: "Adults are just children who earn money." - Kenneth Branaugh

Friday, April 17, 2009

Not a Cat

The common French expression "pas un chat", literally "not a cat", is just about equivalent to the English "not a soul".
It means "absolutely nobody", typically in the street, at a meeting or somewhere people would be expected.

No idea where it comes from.

Parting thot: "Whatever you are, be a good one." - Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Knot Worth Knowing

I can't say that tying shoelaces has been a significant item in my life.

I don't remember being taught to tie them, I didn't do my share of teaching the kids to tie them, and I just do it automatically without thinking.
I tie them several times a day, sometimes simply & sometimes with an extra hitch.
They occasionally come undone, more often get a bit loose & need tightening, less often are tough to undo, usually if wet.

At least they did until, looking for the best way to lace hiking boots, I came across "Ian's Shoelace Site".
Yes, seriously:

If you have several hours to spare, you can browse just about everything there is to know about lacing & knotting shoes & boots there.
And I am sure you did not believe there was so much to know about shoelaces.

The gem is "Ian's Secure Shoelace Knot".
I have been using it for 2 years now, without any extra hitch, and have never had a knot come undone, loosen, or be difficult to undo.
I can't say this has changed my life, made me rich, brought me new friends, or taken inches off my waistline.
But it is one small, surprising, piece of daily satisfaction.
Worth a try.

You might be more tempted by "The World's Fastest Shoelace Knot" complete with video illustration.

Parting thot: "A small step in the right direction is progress; running around in circles is not."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Too Cryptic

Since Internet, I get to see UK & US newspapers again.
Or at least I get to browse headlines rapidly, then dip into a few articles every day.

What strikes me, coming back to English-language headlines after French ones, is how tortuously cryptic they are.
French headlines, mainly in the sports pages, occasionally go as far as a pun, but otherwise remain immediately comprehensible.
English (language) ones seem to be having a crypticity (no, it doesn't exist) competition.
Is there an Oscar for the most obscure, misleading, time-to-decipher-wasting headline?
Or is it just an in-joke between writers?

Here are a few I have collected.
Imagine you are a foreign, English-language student trying to wring meaning from these.
Or an automatic translation software writer (though I am certainly not suggesting we change our writing styles for them).
  • Immigration fuels rent rises
  • Blair set to outline quit plans
  • Phone links with LTTE-held area snap
  • Doctor training reform delay call
  • Dog attack boy stable in hospital
  • Stocks eye flat open
  • Hero guard slams crash fines for Network Rail
  • Ferry girl bar snub for wills
  • Kids' jabs bond aid
  • Rumsfeld exit lessens threat to nuclear sites, hardliners believe
  • Diana jury inquest move prominent
  • Poor forces housing 'for decades'
  • Democrats Search for Exit Strategy From Iraq Showdown With Bush
  • Dead biker family meet watchdog
  • Beau cop busted in ma-to-be's slay
  • Darling makes banks change pledge
  • Conkers win is double over French
  • Nato stretch spurs force rethink
  • Yahoo profit bolsters takeover defence
  • Norman stoic after Open near miss
  • House price plunge fuels recession fear
  • UK rate futures tumble as rate cut bets unwound
  • BBC prank calls row goes to Trust
  • Japan Stocks Post Best Weekly Rally in a Month
  • Saying Times implied McCain affair, lobbyist sues

Parting thot: "Writing distills, crystallizes & clarifies thought." - Stephen R Covey

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Co-Architect 2

Our nearest little town built a new library a couple of years ago.
It has lots of good books, records, magazines etc & very helpful staff, so we are very pleased to have it.

The architecture always struck me as odd, with wavy roof-line & uneven pink/orange paint, but I can accept that those are matters of taste.
At least it is not boring.
They seem to have got the steps & wheelchair access right too.

Less good is the sharp concrete wall next to the first parking space, which is just too low to be seen by drivers & just high enough to gouge bodywork instead of nudging tyres when you fail to see it, which lots of paying customers have obviously done already.

Then this door – aren't you supposed to think what is on both sides of a door when you design it?

If I decided to hide untidy-looking parked bicycles from easily-shocked eyes (and I wouldn't, because that provides cover for thieves & vandals) then I certainly would not choose a shoulder-high, flame-cut, unfinished, rusty wall of boiler-plate.
Would you?

At first, I thought it was a temporary emergency measure, but then I saw they had used the same technique as a hand-rail for adjacent steps & it is still there 2 years later.
The architect must have wanted it like that.

How can I trust his judgment on anything else?
This is just an insult to customers who may rub their hands & clothes on the rough, rusty surface, quite apart from making the new building look derelict already.

I can't imagine what they were thinking of when they designed the bottom corner of the building here.

The overhung wedge of earth is totally unusable & ungrowable & just catches wind-blown debris.
Why is it there?

This is the main entrance lobby.
It has a big radiator just behind the door to keep it warm.

But no automatic closing spring on the door.
There has been a notice on the door all winter, asking customers to kindly shut it.
Most of them do, but this is a library for small children too…
I never saw a door like that without a closing device.

They needed a co-architect & a check list.

Parting thot: "People think computers will keep them from making mistakes. They're wrong. With computers you make mistakes faster." - Adam Osborne

Monday, April 13, 2009

PDF Forms

French bureaucracy has been famously rigid & unhelpful for decades, but is now getting very user-friendly.
There is a "one-stop-shop" Government Administration website called, encouragingly, "Service-Public" which will point you to answers to almost any admin question:
They also answer individual questions rapidly & without too much "langue de bois".

We have been able to make income tax declarations on-line for several years & are even encouraged to do so by extended deadlines, waived requirements for justification end even, for the first few years, a cash incentive.
You can either do it all on-line in real time, or download the forms for tax and so on, in the usual PDF format.
With the PDF option, you can look at them at your leisure & fill them in & print them, all using free Adobe Reader software, which you can download from their sites (but everybody has already).

There is one irritating snag though, with their PDF forms & everybody else's PDF forms.
Sure, you could just print them blank & fill them in by hand, then scan them to keep a copy & send the originals by post.
I hope you wouldn't.
Much better is to fill them in on the PC, where you benefit from the automatic filling of many zones, automatic arithmetic between zones, better legibility etc.
But if you are using Adobe Reader, you can't electronically save the filled-in forms, so you would still have to print them afterwards, before scanning to keep an electronic copy & sending the original by post.
Worse, if you hit a snag part way through, and you always do, then you can't save your work & continue from the same point later on.

Well, you can.
But you need to use something better than Adobe Reader.
Adobe would say you need Adobe Acrobat at 417€.
Fortunately you can use the oddly named Cabaret Stage instead & it's free.

With Cabaret Stage, you can fill your PDF forms in on the PC, with all the advantages of automatic filling, automatic arithmetic & good legibility, plus you can stop & restart as much as you like and save the finished forms electronically for your records.
With luck, you could also send the completed forms as e-mail attachments, but not all correspondents accept that yet.

Cabaret Stage is a badly-needed piece of software which does not seem to have achieved the popularity it deserves.

Parting thot: "There are 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don't." - Paolo Massa?

Sunday, April 12, 2009


If we get any choice in reincarnation, I might like to try Architecture.

There must be something very satisfying about marking your territory with a nice bridge or skyscraper rather than by just lifting your leg if you are on the reincarnation "whatever" list.
But I must say I find the idea rather daunting.
You have to get so many wildly different factors right for so many wildly different customers & users & critics.
Sun, wind, rain, corrosion, fatigue, earthquakes, fire, flood, lightning.
Now also ecology, fuel usage, electricity production, sewage recycling, self cleaning.
Not to mention tagging & terrorism.
And demolition (when is that going to start for mortal sky-scrapers?).

At the same time, architects need to watch all the human-scale stuff, like steps, access for the handicapped, acoustics, toilets, heating & ventilation, lighting, glare etc.
It's hard to know how well they do on the big stuff, except we don't get daily news reports of big buildings or bridges falling down, so I suppose they are getting it right.
But it's painfully obvious that they screw up badly on the human-level details that you or I could do ourselves "le doigt dans le nez".

Even I know that steps only work if they are within certain limits of height & spread, and above all that there are absolutely no irregularities.
So how could famous architect Santiago Calatrava design Venice's new Constitution Bridge, for 15 million Euros (budgeted 4 million) with irregular steps which cause innumerable falls & twisted ankles, if not worse?
And fail to allow for wheelchairs or pushchairs?

It isn't as though bridges had just been invented – Venice has lots of beautiful ones which have been working well for centuries, though understandably without wheelchair access.
I can only think the architect was so engrossed in the aesthetics & anti-seismics that he forgot about the steps.

He is not alone.
There are 2 similarly curved new bridges in Strasbourg with the same problem.
One is outside the (impressive & excellent) new Malraux Library which is in converted old industrial buildings.
The bridge has irregular wooden steps with no visual clue as to where their edges are, so disaster is inevitable.

The other is the now-famous Mimram footbridge which you just saw on TV with Obama & Sarkozy & Co.
Interestingly, they have tackled, & maybe solved, the problem here by adding a long shallow chamfer to the corners of the steps (see illustration).

I would never have thought of that, but it seems to work, presumably by introducing "fail-soft" into the equation.
Going down, if you get "out of step" then you can feel the error but still correct it.
Going up, you do not stub your toe on the step.
Well done!

The new Malraux Library, for all its merits, has several other obvious & dramatic architectural failures.
There is a long access ramp up to the main door, with good steps & good wheelchair access.
But chamfering off either side of this ramp is a steeper ramp.
When winter came, lots of people slipped on the steeper ramps & broke bones, so they had to rope it off hurriedly.
The reception hall, where staff meet public, is at the bottom of an attractive, 6-floor high, open-plan well.
That's it in the heading picture.
When winter came, it was, of course, freezing cold & they had to hurriedly improvise a reception hall somewhere else.
The floors in the quiet public reading rooms have been lacquered with what is presumably a tough ultra-high-gloss epoxy varnish.
This is smooth & shiny and anybody trying to walk on it in soft rubber soles produces a loud piercing squeak at every step, indeed at every twitch.
On my first visit, I had to leave early because this was causing so much disturbance.

These things don't happen because nobody knows about them.
They are all well known & obvious.
They happen because nobody bothered to check a new proposal against suitable experience databases.

In many ways, being an architect is similar to being an airline pilot.
Both are highly complex tasks with long, expensive training for carefully-selected candidates who then have complete responsibility for millions of Euros & hundreds or thousands of lives.
It would be unkind to think that airline pilots have developed better safety procedures than architects because they are usually at the sharp end of the accident.
But they have the answer.
They have co-pilots & check-lists.

Before taking off, every time without fail, just like DS & I going on holiday:
You know where we are going? – Yup
Got the right maps? – Yup
Filled the tank? – Yup
Shut all the windows? – Yup
Handbrake off? - Yup
Nothing is too silly to check – it's the silly stuff that kills you.

Surgeons are just starting to adopt the same simple "degrading" practices & are immediately avoiding a lot of silly fatal errors.
An early study showed accidental fatalities reduced by 47%.

Architects need co-architects & checklists so that before submitting any project, they humbly confirm they have really, really remembered the steps, really remembered the draughts, really remembered the paint etc etc.

Don't tell me they already do.
It's patently obvious they don't.

Parting thot: "There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure." - Colin Powell

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Food Packaging

Illustration from

Nature has also done a pretty good job in packaging the banana.
Handy, easy-grip size & shape.
Fits reasonably in most bags & pockets.
Cunningly curved so it won't roll away.
Bright & attractive colour without being too shocking.
Built-in colour coding for "best by" date - ripeness & over-ripeness clearly indicated.
Easy opening with no tools & no finger damage or staining.
Progressive opening so you can hold hygienically by the packaging as the fruit is eaten gradually.
Mouth-sized cross-section.
No stones, pips, or runny, sticky juice.
Package folds flat when empty.
Rapidly bio-degradable.
No-extra-cost joke thrown in (but I never actually heard of anybody really slipping on one).
If they would make it re-sealable after half usage, I would give it a perfect 10.

How strange then, that the same company should have given us the orange.
They must have sub-contracted that one to a start-up & not bothered with any customer clinics.
Actually, the inner packaging is not bad.
The handy bite-sized segments contain the delicious but sticky juice in dry-touch membranes which are quite as effective as plastic sweetie wrappers but much less objectionable in the mouth.
The segments hold together well & separate easily when required.
But the outer packaging is a disaster.
That glaring, unsophisticated colour certainly makes the orange easy to find on the shelf, and equally difficult to hide everywhere else.
The spherical shape may economise on packaging material, which is to be commended, and brings ballistic abilities which are of doubtful relevance, but it results in a product which will not fit in most bags or pockets, and too easily rolls off tables & down hills.
Initial opening requires a knife, which then needs cleaning, or tough thumb nails, which then need very thorough cleaning.
There follows 10 minutes of misery trying to pick off the orange outer packaging, which oozes sticky staining oil and unerringly squirts strong acid in both eyes as it doggedly breaks into small pieces rather than sticking together so you can take it off in one go.
Then another 5 minutes picking off the pith.
The admirably named pith.
The final insult is that not only is the packaging not really biodegradable, but the company's own recycling teams (compost heap worms) turn up their noses at it & will go on strike if they find significant quantities in your heap, just like corporation bin-men everywhere.

It was admittedly a good marketing ploy to name the product after the striking colour, so that every time potential customers sit at flashing orange lights or see orange turn signals, they get free commercials drilled right in.
But they should have spent more money on product development & less on marketing.
Really, signing on all the Dutch national sports teams seems like overkill.
And sponsoring Ukrainian revolutions is ethically questionable as well as being probably counter-productive in some times & places.
As for being associated with French telephone companies, well, I don't see the connection.

Still, they did a better job with the orange than with the lychee.
I think they will have to go back to the drawing board with that one.
An outer shell like an armadillo.
When you manage to get that off then you are left holding a wet sheep's eyeball.
If you still feel like eating, then for goodness sake don't bite as nearly all the eyeball is in fact stone.
It will never take off.

Parting thot: "If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed." – Benjamin Franklin

Friday, April 10, 2009

Scattered Showers

We have had the good fortune of being able to take a skiing holiday most years.

This involves renting an appartment, which needed to be quite big when there were 4 kids but can be quite small these days.
Anyway, we have experienced 20 or 30 different appartments, in the design of which space-economy has always been an obvious preoccupation, sometimes taken to inconvenient extremes, and in the equipment of which you would imagine energy economy would logically be a significant & increasing preoccupation.

So it is surprising that every single one squeezed a bath into the limited bathroom space, rather than a more space-efficient shower cubicle.
Even more surprising is that most of those baths also included a shower head with flexible hose and some even included a wall fixture for attaching the shower head, but not one included a shower curtain.

So the choice is between taking a time-&-energy-wasting bath, or trying to shower while crouching in the bath holding the shower head in one hand, or having a good, efficient stand-up shower then spending 10 minutes trying to mop a flooded bathroom floor & hoping it has not seeped through to the appartment downstairs.

I just don't understand how we got there.

Parting thot: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!" - Andy McIntyre

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Spider on ze Ceiling

If your French friends say you have a spider on the ceiling (une araignée au plafond) they may not be commenting on your housekeeping.

The nearest English equivalent would be "bats in the belfry".

So either modify your behaviour or change your friends.

Parting thot: "A true friend stabs you in the front." – Oscar Wilde