Friday, May 29, 2009

Last Post

There are some French customs I will never understand.
Among those that come round once a year, one comes round today.

French income tax is a self-assessment affair.
Everybody has to submit their declaration of income for each calendar year (Jan-Dec) by some deadline the following May.
Actually, if you do it on-line you get several more weeks, but that's for wimps like me.

For real hard-line paper-format submitters, the deadline is today.
In fact it's midnight tonight, to be exact.
As judged by the postmark on the envelope.

Now my reaction to that, in the days before internet, was to make sure I posted mine weeks before the deadline.
To avoid any trouble, like having to pay a penalty for lateness.
In fact, as the tax office was on my route to work, I decided to deliver it by hand, avoiding both the risk & the cost of the postal service.

But thousands of full-strength Frenchmen see it as a matter of honour, to post their tax declaration at the last possible minute, or even second.
Tonight, they will be driving specially to main post offices & milling around on the pavement to post their envelope at 23:59:59 or as near as possible.

Funnily enough, we never hear of anybody being penalized for getting 00:00:01 on their postmark, or even 00:10:00, so the tax authorities must have decided not to be as stupid as their brinkmanship-addicted customers.

Of all the ways I can imagine of showing disapproval of government, this is about the silliest.

Parting thot: "A fine is a tax for doing something wrong. A tax is a fine for doing something right." - Anon

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Naturally Enough

All six of us now have dual nationality – British & French.
Not counting subdivisions like English & Scottish, of course.
Looking back on it, it wasn't difficult or too expensive; it just took a long time.

Contrary to popular belief both in France & in UK, the kids, born in France to British parents, were automatically & only British with no option of French nationality for many years.
It was only when AA got to age 16 that she could first apply for French Nationality, which she wanted because she felt French & we wanted because it could be necessary for some career options, such as Civil Servant (no longer true).
In fact, for somebody born in France, it was very simple & almost automatic.
There was no problem keeping British Nationality as well, which made the whole deal less traumatic.

Similarly for the other kids, the procedures were simple & rapid.
But the rules & procedures changed each time, the last 2 kids being able to agree to parents requesting their naturalisation at 13.
Currently, for kids born in France of foreign parents, subject to minimum residence conditions, French Nationality is acquired automatically at 18, can be requested by the child at 16 or by the parents, with child's agreement, at 13.

This continual changing of the conditions, and the scare when the National Front candidate got to the last round of the Presidential elections, made us think more seriously about applying for French Nationality ourselves.
Maybe we should do it before it became very difficult or impossible?
Although UK citizenship seemed to give us just as much of everything as being French would, apart from voting in national elections, who could say if that would always be true?
Who could say that Britain would stay in Europe?
What were the chances of the National Front acquiring significant clout?
In any case, after 25 years here, we didn't look like leaving and were feeling more & more French in many ways.
So the idea of actually becoming French, without needing to stop being British, started to appeal sub-consciously, as well as being maybe a logical strategy.

We had already looked at it once, and given up after seeing the list of everything we needed to provide.

But in 2002 we decided to take the plunge.
At that stage, AA, BB & CC were already French but DD was only 12 so only British.
Our application, if successful, would cover DD too.

Pretty obviously, we needed to provide copies of UK passports & French cartes de séjour.
And original birth & marriage certificates.
Less obviously, we also needed originals of parents' birth & marriage
("where applicable") certificates.
Everything not in French had to have a French translation.
But not our own translation; it had to be from a certified (expensive) translator.
Kids' birth certificates & naturalisation certificates.
Deeds of the house.
Proof of kids' scholarisation.
Certificates of employment for previous 3 years.
Employment contract with occupation, dates & salaries.
Last 3 months' pay-slips.
Last 3 years income tax notices.
Some P.237 fiscal document that the local tax office had never heard of, but very obligingly invented, printed, stamped with several posh ink-stamps & signed for me.
I suppose I needed an electricity bill too, as you need that for most things when passport, carte de séjour & driving license are inadequate.
Presumably there must be a big market for forged electricity bills in France.

All that took some organising, and some expense for the new UK certificates & official translations, but it was not the horror story I had expected.

The horror story I had not expected was how long it was going to take from there on.
The Government brochure did warn that it could possibly take over a year, but we optimistically assumed we would be quicker because of our non-complicated position.
In fact the next thing that happened was that DD reached age 13; we applied for Naturalisation for her via the simpler children's procedure; she had to stand up in front of the Magistrates Tribunal & confirm she wanted to be French; and she was French.

At about that time, we heard that the only person dealing with "regular" Naturalisation in Strasbourg had been away on maternity leave, but was now back & had opened our file & found it was now out of date.
Could we please send up-to-date copies of all the incidental stuff we had managed to gather & send correctly last year?
Many months later, we were "invited" to the main Police Headquarters in Strasbourg, with all our original documents, to be interviewed by somebody from the DRRG (Renseignements Généraux, which is basically the Interior Ministry's Anti-Terrorist Intelligence Unit).
In fact there were no spotlights or waterboarding (at least, not for us) and we had a pleasant & very short chat about nothing in particular.
To such an extent that we wondered what information anybody could possibly have gathered from the interview.
Intelligence must be subtle.

The information seemed to have been positive, because shortly (by our recalibrated time-scale) later, we had a communication from the Ministry of Labour saying "Yes – maybe".
In fact what they said was, "Il m'est agréable de vous informer que j'envisage de réserver une suite favorable à votre demande", which means roughly "I am pleased to tell you that I am considering pigeon-holing your request in the happy-ending box."
And that only 18 months after we first applied.

But we weren't out of the woods yet.
A heavy-bold paragraph said we had just 2 months to return yet another form, basically saying we were not joking & still really wanted to be French, honestly.
If we did that OK, then we should see our Naturalisation published in the "Journal Officiel" within 6 months.

Well, the Journal Officiel is a gigantic document published 6 days per week listing all that is new in French Government Laws & Decrees.
Fortunately you can consult it by internet ( until you get suspicious after finding nothing for ages & eventually find out that they don't include details of Naturalisation on the internet version.
So you find that all Mairies get a paper copy of the Journal that you can consult.
Except our Mairie opted out – probably being too small to hold all that paper.
Strasbourg Mairie gets it OK & kindly let me browse the cardboard boxes of their archives, reading all the Journals since the above letter.
I was surprised to see there were over 2000 naturalisations every week, but we were not amongst them yet.
Once I was up to date, I checked the latest J.O.s at the Mairie every couple of weeks, but still nothing.

The six-month deadline came & went.
After 8 months, I wrote to ask if there was a problem & the next day, crossing in the post, received a letter confirming that we were now French & that the notice had just been published in the Journal Officiel, which I was able to check & photocopy for our archives.
Strangely, DD's name was next to mine, although she had been French for ages, so we don't know whether she is now double-French or whether 2 naturalisations cancel each other, or…
But DS's name wasn't.
Until I thought to look under her maiden name – phew!

After that, in what seemed like no time, we received certificates signed by Chirac & Raffarin, genuine French birth certificates & marriage certificates, even a "Livret de Famille" which all real French families have.

The Livret de Famille is a very official-looking thing, like a double-sized passport, started normally at a marriage & with spaces for recording, with lots of official stamps, the deaths of each of the happy couple & the births & deaths of the first 13 children.
They could have saved some paper if they had asked.

Anyway, all's well that ends well, even after 26 months, and we are genuinely pleased & even proud to be French.
Though relieved not to have had to choose to drop being British.

When can we start to apply to be European?

Parting thot: "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." - Albert Einstein

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Bee or Not a Bee?

A couple of weeks ago, we were wandering, not for the first time, around the Robertsau Forest, more or less in Strasbourg.
This is a surprising find, a very large "natural" area tucked in between the European Parliament & the Rhine.

No doubt of great interest to botanists & well-documented nature-lovers (which we are not really, but there are lots of informative notices) it includes a wide variety of different habitats, notably landlocked bits of old Rhine, huge areas of wild garlic, a few wild horses, and even interesting statues.

One detail which caught our eye this time, was a little bee (see my poor illustration).

Something about its behaviour did not seem quite "bee".
Instead of going from flower to flower, it followed us at ankle-level then started hovering just above the dirt path, just touching the ground with its abdomen every few inches, without settling, as though depositing eggs or something in the dusty earth.
We couldn't see any sign of eggs or anything.
And it seemed to have a long, fixed proboscis & longer, thinner legs than bees.

Having noticed one, we then saw dozens during the day, usually with the same behaviour.
It's the only time we have seen, or at least the only time we have noticed, these insects.

Back home, it did not take long (thanks to Google) to find that they are not bees, but bee-flies (Bombylius major).
According to these 2 helpful sites (scroll down for illustrations & descriptions) the bee-fly uses its proboscis to get nectar from flowers, and the ones we saw were indeed laying eggs.
The eggs are covered in dust as camouflage, then left where the larvae can eat real-bee larvae.
Not so charming after all.

Some high quality photographs here:

Parting thot: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left." – Falsely attributed to Einstein?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Window Licking Good

Where Anglo-Saxons just go Window-Shopping, the more expressive, more sensuous/sensual French do "Lèche-Vitrines", literally "Lick-Windows".

Parting thot: "When women are depressed, they eat or go shopping. Men invade another country. It's a whole different way of thinking." - Elayne Boosler

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bayrol was Best

The chap who built, single handed, our swimming pool in 1999, supplied us with a cleaning set.
A telescopic pole and several tools which clip on the end.
An ordinary brush, a net (called a leaf rake) and a special brush with an adapter for a suction tube.

The ordinary brush, marked "Bayrol", worked fine and throughout the season was used several times per day & spent the rest of the time exposed to the elements next to the pool, as you would expect.
After about 6 years, the plastic stem, where it clips into the telescopic pole, broke when it was dropped, which seemed fair enough.

I bought another brush, without paying much attention, and was disappointed to notice that the little springy 'A' piece which fixes all these tools to the pole, needed to be carefully inserted into the pole every time, otherwise it could end up pointing down & possibly rip the pool liner – an expensive disaster for a small piece of bad design.
So I had to glue in a retainer to stop that happening.
Also the brush would occasionally drop out of the pole, so you had to fish it out with the net if you were lucky.
If you were unlucky, you might poke the sharp end of the pole through the expensive liner.
So I had to replace the springy 'A' piece by the bigger & better one from the Bayrol brush, which I had kept for no good reason.
But after about a year, the pool surface started to get covered with floating white bristles.

Sure enough, all the plastic bristles in the "new" brush had become brittle & broke off at the slightest touch.

I looked around for a better new brush, but they all looked pretty similar except cheaper ones were all plastic & more expensive ones had metal stems & supports for the arms.
I bought a more expensive metal one.
Again, this needed modification to avoid dropping out.
Again, after one season, all the bristles were breaking off and floating nastily on the pool.
I took it back to the (exclusively pool) shop & complained.
They gave me another one as a goodwill gesture, but said it was unreasonable to leave a pool brush outside in the sun & rain…
That new one lasted a year, just like the previous one (left outside, of course – what else?).

So now, I have screwed the still-perfectly-good Bayrol plastic head & blue bristles to the metal stem of the last replacement brush & that combination works OK, but for how long?

The Bayrol leaf rake worked perfectly, as you would expect, for about 7 years before it started to develop holes in the net, due to rubbing.

So I bought a new rake from the same pool shop, choosing an expensive one that looked well made, from a respected name (Mareva Prestige).
Unbelievably, this just does not work well.
If you try to scoop leaves or insects from the surface, they largely get pushed away & flow round the frame instead of into the net.
If you try to scoop leaves or worms off the bottom, quite often the rake just rides over the top & leaves the rubbish behind.

So now, I have patched the holes in the old Bayrol rake & that is working well again, but for how long?

I have searched everywhere I can imagine, but there is no mention of Bayrol cleaning tools; they just seem to do chemicals now.
I wrote to Bayrol, saying how good their tools had been & asking if they still sold any or if the old ones were still available.
I got a rapid & polite reply from a Herr Doctor something, but he did not actually answer my questions.

I have given up on Bayrol & am still looking for decent quality, functional & durable cleaning tools.

Parting thot: "The more I see the less I know for sure." – John Lennon

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I don't have any trouble accepting that things I can see are not really there (see Scintillating Scotomas – 11th March post).

But, for no logical reason I am having more trouble convincing myself about things I can hear.

As I have said several times, we live in an extremely quiet village.
Quite often, when there is no other sound in the house, I can hear a faint, low-frequency droning hum.
You could imagine it was a very distant lorry on a long climb or a far-off big multi-piston-engined aircraft.
Or an idling diesel engine, the sort that sets windows buzzing.
Except it can last for hours or, sometimes, apparently days, varying in intensity & not being audible when there is other noise.
Nobody else can hear it.

I first thought it was some king of electrical mains hum, but it is still there if I turn everything off at the fuse box.
Anyway, I think the frequency is a bit lower than mains hum.
I have tried searching all around the house, but can never find any source or obvious loudest point.
The whole house seems to be resonating (faintly…).

I locked on to the idea it might be the TV satellite dish resonating in some light, steady wind conditions, and that seems to fit the observations roughly, except that I can get quite close to the dish anchor post & the noise is not stronger there.

Then today, on the BBC News webpage, I found an article about "the Hum", which is apparently a common complaint worldwide:
That sounds just like my experience, but a lot more severe.

Since then, I have heard about "the Bristol Hum", "the Taos Hum" and even found a dedicated Wikipedia page.

Weighing all the evidence so far, I have to conclude that there is probably no real noise & that it is just a sort of hallucination brought on by extreme quiet.

I shall have to try to convince myself, next time I "hear" it.

Parting thot: "Silence is the true friend that never betrays." - Confucius

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tick Here

Today we enjoyed one of our fortnightly hikes in the Vosges with the local sports & social club.

It was a fairly typical 17 km hike with 600 metres ascent (& subsequent descent to base).
As usual, we were the only ones (out of a small turn-out of 17; usually 25-30) without hiking poles & without posh specific hiking trousers (tough, thin, quick-dry, zip-off legs to make shorts, covered in pockets & gadgets).
As usual, DS was the only one without a specific hiking rucksack.
We find we can get everything we want for 2 into 1 rucksack, but everybody else fills 1 each, even when they are not carrying luxuries like Champagne bottles or big cakes, which they often are.

But we do have specific hiking boots (the club insists, and they are right).
And doctor's certificates guaranteeing we are fit to walk (needed every year for almost any organised physical activity & surely a waste of time & money in most cases).
And tick tongs (see illustration above).

This is one of the sad facts about Alsace now, and one all visitors should know about.
Ticks have arrived in Alsace, spreading from Germany & Eastern Europe.

Not only are they a nuisance, like mosquitos are here, but they carry several very nasty diseases (Tick-Borne Encephalitis, which is potentially fatal, & Lyme Disease for starters) which mosquitos here don't.

Official guidance leaflets suggest that prevention is better than cure, particularly as there is no cure for TBE at the moment.
Prevention officially involves covering the whole body in dark coloured & tight fitting clothing like you might see on a bee-keeper.
In those conditions, hiking would be a dying art, but maybe it will come to that one day.
Responsible, but more practical, people would say that covering the body is never going to be 100% effective and does hide any ticks which get through gaps, so recommend frequent mutual visual checks (unless you can see behind your own ears) & earliest possible application of the tick tongs.

Previously recommended methods of tick removal included tweezers, and smothering the tick with oil or alcohol, but these are now thought to involve too much risk of the tick throwing up into you, so are no longer recommended.
The tongs (selecting the size according to the tick) are inserted under the tick's "shoulders" and then gently rotated anti-clockwise until the whole tick is removed cleanly.
Apparently all ticks are right-hand thread.
If, for any reason, part of the tick's head is left in, then that becomes a medical emergency & professional help should be obtained as soon as possible.
Otherwise, the area should be cleaned with anti-septic & a careful watch maintained for the various symptoms.
Don't hesitate to consult a doctor quickly if you have either a red rash near the bite, or general 'flu symptoms, in the days after removing a tick.

More details:

Parting thot: "With me a change of trouble is as good as a vacation." - David Lloyd George

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Waste Disposal

Our rubbish tax includes a fixed charge & a per-capita charge, so we should be paying less these days, but that seems to be offset by the general increase in charges.
For our tax, we get a weekly household rubbish removal service, with a single 250 litre wheelie bin, which I suppose we could fill every week if we were careless enough.
We never have done, even when there were 6 of us, and now we usually have about 10 litres, mainly light food packaging.

Of course, we generate more waste than 10 litres, but we sort & transport the rest ourselves.
In the village, or actually between the 2 villages which make up our "commune", are a set of covered skips, some for glass, some for paper / cardboard / some-kinds-of-plastic-bottles, & one for oil.
4 km away is the "déchetterie" for several communes, with altogether bigger skips for most other things:
Metal / Wood / Cardboard / Garden / Rubble / Household-electrical / Aerosols / Batteries / Chemicals / Oil / Other.
Regular information leaflets encourage us to put as little as possible in our bins & to put everything else, as well sorted as possible, into the right skips.
This is well explained on ecological & economical grounds, so we do.

So, apart from the light packaging in the wheelie bin, we feed our 4 big compost heaps with whatever will compost.
Non-compostable garden stuff (we don't have a shredder yet…) gets trailered to the déchetterie about weekly.
Paper is the next-biggest item, thanks mainly to all the advertising which arrives twice per day (we haven't put a "stop" notice up yet…) & gets taken to the local skip in 100kg boot-fulls about monthly, together with cardboard, glass & plastic bottles.
All of which means we have to allocate quite a lot of space in the basement for temporary rubbish storage.

The occasional bigger item, dead washing machine, old swing frame, mattress or carpet for instance, has to be stuffed into our old Renault Espace, by bending or sawing if necessary, and taken to the déchetterie.
All the above is OK so long as we have the time, the health, the space, the trailer & the old car to handle it.
But what would/will happen if/when we don't?
Will we end up filling unused rooms with rubbish?

Until recently, there were several-times-per-year "monster" removals.
These were interesting occasions when everybody could put big unwanted stuff outside their house & get it taken away the next morning.
It was not unknown for neighbours to "recycle" the odd bike or chair during the night – and surely that was a good thing.
Should be encouraged.

But now, for economy reasons, the monster collections have stopped.
I think that is a pity.
There must be lots of people, particularly old people, who can't take old beds & cookers to a recycling centre miles away.
A once or twice per year collection would seem reasonable.

There is some discussion about the next steps in refuse collection.
Many places have one or more separate bins for recyclables, which are collected alongside the general rubbish.
A few are starting to charge by weight.
Both of those would be good progress.
Simply increasing the charges seems more likely & less constructive.

Parting thot: "A husband is someone who takes out the trash and gives the impression he just cleaned the whole house." - anon

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Smart Box

Various different thin cardboard Lipton Tea boxes have developed a simple all-cardboard lid latch which I find surprising, ingenious & very satisfactory.

The lid clicks shut, stays shut OK & opens easily with just the right amount of effort.

It's all done by a little folded-over tab on the box, which engages behind suitably cut-away tabs folded & glued inside the lid.

Well done!

Somebody else noticed it too:

Parting thot: "Show me a better way."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Short Sentence

I particularly dislike books, articles, poems, blogs, posts, or any type of writing, especially guides and manuals for technological equipment such as computers, cameras, scanners and printers, in any language, but, as I mainly see French and English, then usually in French or in English, though I imagine it could be worse in German, if only because of the additional problem, at least for me, of the excessively long compound words, containing sentences which, even if they may not be grammatically incorrect, are so lengthy, convoluted and complicated that you not infrequently need to re-read them several times before you can completely eliminate any, even slight, possibility that you may not have grasped the true meaning or may have, for instance, miscounted the number of mutually-impacting negatives, in which case you might have ended up with exactly the opposite conclusion from that which the author intended to convey.

Which is why I use only short sentences.
And even phrases which are not sentences.
To keep things clean.
And simple.

I know it is "wrong".
But I like it like that.

I deliberately start a new line for each thought.
And a new paragraph quite often.
Just to open things up.
Make it easier to read.

I don't need to obey the "rules" here.
I know my sentences aren't.
I can pretend it's poetic licence, without pretending to be a poet.
So I do.

Parting thot: "When you have nothing to say, say nothing." - Charles Caleb Colton

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Look for Mid-Day at 2 o'clock

The somewhat obscure French expression "chercher midi à quatorze heures", literally to look for mid-day at 14.00 hrs, means to complicate things unnecessarily, or to see difficulties where there are none, or to fail to see the simple solution.

Might typically be applied to an Anglo-Saxon hesitating about driving the wrong way up a very little one-way street or parking quite briefly on a zebra crossing.

Near, but not exact, equivalent: "Making a mountain out of a molehill".

Parting thot: "If you add enough people to a project, one of them will show you why it can't be done."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pedestrian Crossings

A few years ago, I would have said pedestrian crossings in France were rare & purely symbolic.
Neither drivers nor pedestrians took much notice of them.

Recently, things are improving & not only are they being used & respected (to some extent…) in cities & towns but they are appearing even in villages.
The very minor cross-roads near our house has just been re-worked & now sports a full set of pedestrian crossings, with white stripes, lowered kerbs and even concrete dots for the visually handicapped.
Good work is also being done in locally narrowing roads & providing central refuges at the crossing points, which has the multiple purpose of reducing crossing distance, preventing overtaking there (except for those who overtake on the wrong side of the central refuge) & generally encouraging "calm" driving by the more tortuous road shape.
All very encouraging.

One thing still badly lacking though, compared with UK, is the zig-zag-lined space either side of the crossing, within which no parking is allowed.
In France, even the official, marked, parking bays often extend right up to the crossing on both sides.
With obvious serious risk for, especially, children unseen & unseeing until it is too late.

Benchmarking still has some way to go, even in Europe.

Parting thot: "Whenever there is a conflict between human rights and property rights, human rights must prevail." - Abraham Lincoln

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dimmer Switch

Our house was built in 1973, before we even moved to France.

It has a lot of walk-in cupboards as well as bathrooms, toilets & a basement which, typically here, have their light switches outside those rooms or cupboards.
As an aside, the British bathroom switch, on the ceiling & operated by a cord, has not reached France, so presumably the switches outside the "wet" rooms are some concession to electrical safety.
Anyway, once you put light switches on the opposite side of an opaque door from the lights, it is customary to include a warning tell-tale on the light switch to you don't have to keep opening the door to make sure you have not left the light on.

The original 1973 switches were the "Legrand Neptune" model shown at the top.
Legrand is the predominant & respected brand name in French domestic switchgear & Neptune is their entry-level range.
These switches don't look terribly elegant 36 years later, but they do their job perfectly.
Notably you can't fail to see the warning light, even in daylight.
And for walk-in cupboards, basements etc, you are just as likely to be using the internal lights when it is daylight where the switch is.
In fact, obviously, when you look at the switch you always look at it in properly-lit conditions.
We had 7 of those switches & 2 have failed, which after 36 years is very good, thank you!
Rating – "excellent" (for 1973).

When the first one failed, a couple of years ago, I replaced it by the new Legrand Neptune switch shown here.
This is a much neater switch & the switch ergonomics are perfect, as it has a big rocker pad with good protrusion of the edge you need to push, so any approximate, even blind, hand movement will find the rocker & operate it every time.
The warning light looks neater too, but it is not so obvious & quite easy to miss.
With a brighter warning light I would have rated this switch "very good".

When the second 1973 switch failed, I found they had again revised the Legrand Neptune switch to the one shown here.
Neater looking, with no visible screw heads, and still not bad for the actual switch operation (though the rocker is smaller & protrudes less than the previous one).
But the warning light is useless.
It is a dim green thing hidden in the rocker.
You can't see it in anything like daylight, so you have to go up to the switch & cup your hands round it to make sure.
In fact I have had to mount the switch upside down to see it at all.
With the switch mounted the "right" way up, and assuming it is below your eye level (reasonable assumption) you need to bend down to check it even in poor lighting.
I rate this switch "unacceptable".

I don't understand how a long-established major group can get such basic things so wrong.

Parting thot: "Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom." - Clifford Stoll

Saturday, May 9, 2009


In a previous post, "Emmaus", I was disappointed that I could not give things away, even to a well-known national charity organisation.
And I would still like to avoid taking useable things to the "recycling center" where they will only be recycled as raw material or landfill.

Since then, I have kept my eyes open & have recently discovered "Freecycle".
This is an American-based organisation, run by a network of local volunteers, which aims to help people to give stuff away via internet.
A sort of eBay for free things only.
The above site says they have over 6 million members in nearly 5000 local groups worldwide.
Sounds like it might be what I am looking for.

There are even 42 groups with 26,000 members in France.
But not an active one near Strasbourg.

So I suppose the question now is, "Can I be bothered to try to set up a local group?"

Parting thot: "There are three ways to get something done: do it yourself, employ someone, or forbid your children to do it." - Monta Crane

Friday, May 8, 2009

Down with Decibels

We are fortunate enough to live in a very quiet village.

Of course it is not all fortune; we chose to live in what seemed to be a very quiet village & good fortune has kept it that way, so far.
Nearly always, the loudest noise is birdsong, against a background of insect buzzing, and I can take a lot of that.
Sometimes you imagine you could hear the butterflies.

Actually, the loudest noise is the church clock, which is 100 meters away & chimes every 15 minutes, day & night.
We like it, and missed it on the rare occasions it has been out of action, but some guests have found it difficult to sleep with.
We have ear plugs for extreme cases.
Surprisingly for a tiny rural village, the 1784 church's clock is radio-controlled from Frankfurt, so when it wakes you up at 4 a.m. you know it is exactly 04.00 hrs & not a second later.

Then, every spring, another few resident or visiting idiots reach the age when they have to take all the stuffing out of their mo-ped's silencer and go paarp-paarp-paarping through the village.
Oh, how I wish for a very big fly-swat, Monty-Python style…
There are enough existing laws to prevent them, and enough Gendarmes too, and the proof couldn't be easier, but I have never seen a single case of a noisy bike being crushed, confiscated, impounded or even stopped & asked politely to get back to normal.

Less extreme, but far more frequent, are the lawn mowers, strimmers, chainsaws & leaf-blowers.
Here, I have to plead guilty, or at least a bit guilty.
I never had a chainsaw & consistently refuse my kind neighbour's offers to lend me his, preferring to saw calmly by hand, even though it takes 50 times longer.
I never had a leaf-blower & seriously think they should simply be outlawed as a public nuisance.
I have owned 3 strimmers, being initially impressed by their ingenuity, but have gone back to shears as the gentle snip-snip is so much better for my nerves & blood pressure than the scream of the strimmer.

But I am guilty on mowers.
In France, we are not talking about the typical British-garden hand-pushed cylinder-mower with its delicious swish-swish-swish soundtrack, part of the national heritage of well-oiled-machinery noises, along with treadle sewing machines & steam engines.
No, we mean 4-stroke (or worse, stinking 2-stroke) engine-powered high-speed-rotary-bladed mowers.
Why on earth are they allowed to be so noisy?

When I bought a ride-on mower 10 years ago, I got about the quietest on offer, but it was still rated at 100dB.
That is ridiculously noisy.

Last year, my 25-year-old Qualcast "small" mower, which I need for the bits the ride-on can't reach, finally expired.
I resolved to get the quietest-possible replacement.
Excluding electric, on practicality & safety grounds, and excluding sheep, on my-incompetence grounds.
As far as I could see, from extensive searching on internet & in garden shops, the quietest motor mower available was the Honda Izy 41cm.
Rated at 94dB.
But the ones I found in shops had 96dB labels on.
Eventually I found that 94 dB was the 2008 model & 96dB was pre-2008.
Nobody had the new one yet & even the official Honda agent was not prepared to order one until he had shifted his stocks of the old one.
Nobody could understand why I was bothered about 94dB when I could have 96dB now & 50€ cheaper.
After all, "who can tell the difference between 94 & 96 of anything?"
No shop or website included noise levels in the publicity arguments.
Even Consumer Organisations didn't count noise level as an important decision factor.
In the end, I managed to order a 94dB version from my local Renault dealer & I am very pleased with it.
It is quieter than many electric tools.

So why is it that there is a general belief that loud noises are a nuisance & unhealthy, yet there seems to be little or no pressure or incentive to make less noise?
If I go to buy a fridge or a light bulb, I can't avoid the big coloured signs showing me they are A, B, C, D, E, F or G for power efficiency.
But if I want to buy a mower, or an electric drill, or a kitchen blender, I need to look for the small print (if I am lucky) to find any information on noise levels, then I need to know that the sound-level scale used is logarithmic & that an insignificant-looking difference of 3dB represents a very significant doubling of sound intensity.

Until the logarithmic decibel scale is replaced by something simpler, like a big, obvious, coloured A-to-G label suitably tailored to each type of appliance & graduated with a rapid reaction to differences in the plausible range, then I don't think there is any hope of getting the general public to take an interest in the noisiness of its tools, at the purchasing stage.
Even then, faced with a choice between Euros & decibels, many people will, understandably, go for Euros.
If the noise only affected the user, that might be reasonable.
The problem is that the user saves Euros but the neighbours get the decibels.

For me, this is clearly an area where government intervention is justified.
The French Government has recently shown that globally beneficial distortions of the car market (in that case with a significant reduction in CO2 output) can easily be induced by smart differential taxation.
As far as I can see, nobody is complaining.
No doubt a global reduction in noise nuisance could quite quickly be achieved by differential taxation on noise levels, starting with the big-hitters like lawn mowers.
Such a move would encourage the public to choose quieter mowers immediately, and encourage manufacturers to bother to reduce noise levels rapidly.
Probably with little or no net cost.

Once it works for lawn mowers, we should try it on barking dogs.

Parting thot: "Empty vessels make the most noise." - proverb

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fall in ze Apples

One of the strangest common French expressions is "tomber dans les pommes", literally to fall in the apples, which is the normal way of saying "to faint" or "to fall unconscious".

There are more refined alternatives, but they are rarely used in ordinary conversation.

The falling bit is OK, but I don't see where the apples come in.
I have not been able to find any convincing explanation for this odd expression which goes back over 100 years.

Parting thot: "The trouble with people is not what they don't know, but what they know that ain't so." - Josh Billings? Mark Twain? Will Rogers?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


For many years, ordinary computer users have really only had 2 choices of operating system:
a. Apple/Mac if you were heavily inclined towards publishing &/or were not concerned by the cost of your equipment.
b. Microsoft Windows for everybody else.

The near-monopoly position of Microsoft is by now so well known & so unhealthy that even the E.U. is reacting & taking small steps (with big-figure penalties) to unwind it.
I don't expect that action to affect the percentage of Windows users very much any time soon.

A similar near-monopoly position in web-browsers, where Microsoft's Internet Explorer had elbowed its way to the front, has taken a very big dent from the arrival & rapid adoption of a good free alternative, Mozilla's Firefox.
This success was partly due to better user satisfaction (tabbed browsing etc) partly due to better resistance to intrusion & partly due to a real philosophical desire to support "anything but Microsoft".

Similarly with Microsoft's almost universal Office suite of applications, Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc, a free alternative in the form of has appeared and is slowly building credibility & a now-sizeable customer base.
I think an honest assessment would say that these products are not quite up to the standards of their MS equivalents yet, so that the success can only be put down to economics & ideology.
Recent converts have included the French Gendarmerie & 400,000 other French Administration users, presumably more swayed by economics.

Inside this "Office" area, a small war is raging on document formats & it is probably safe to say that OOo ( has saved the world from having MS stuff a compulsory set of new document formats down our unwilling throats, but maybe that is speaking too soon.

Coming back to the main operating system, an alternative to Windows & Mac has existed for over 20 years in the form of Linux, but for most of that time it has been reserved for a relatively small number of geeks who liked getting their hands dirty (digitally speaking) & were happy to talk to their PC in its own language.
I have no competence to explain in more detail, but it seems that Linux has several fundamental advantages over Windows, which make it more robust to intrusion & allow it to run without anti-virus & firewalls.
There are countless articles explaining the advantages of Linux & describing the associated concepts of open-source software and community development.
In any case, the result is rapid development of apparently efficient, stable, flexible & free operating system & applications.

There have been several attempts to propose Linux to a wider public, but they have usually stumbled because of the steep initial learning curve required to deal with something which is not Windows.
Now, at last, one of these efforts – Ubuntu – seems to have concentrated enough expertise & money (sponsored by Mark Shuttleworth, South African millionaire Space Tourist in 2002) to develop & promote a version of Linux which is user-friendly enough, complete enough & well-enough supported & documented to be feasible for the general public.

I started using it in 2006, in parallel with Windows XP on the same PC.
At that time, there were still big problems of compatibility with some hardware (printers, scanners, wireless…) but the situation has improved steadily in that time, whilst still not being 100%.
Ubuntu is provided as a free download (or a free CD if you can't download) which you then burn to a CD & can try out, running from the CD with no commitment & no risk.
That will show you that actually using it does not require any significant geekiness.
Be prepared for some things to be different and, after acclimatisation, better.
Assuming you like it, the CD then includes everything required to install the Ubuntu Linux operating system on your PC, either alongside Windows (strongly recommended) or instead of Windows.
Obviously you should read & follow the instructions carefully!

Once it is installed & connected to internet, you can revel in the disconcertingly-named Synaptic Package Manager to browse a list of thousands of optional, free, officially-validated, downloadable packages which will let Ubuntu do just about anything you can imagine.
Clicking on any package brings up a list of everything else you might need to add, remove or update to make it work properly & further clicking gets everything downloaded & installed in one go.
If you wonder, for instance, which of many possible PhotoShop clones you might prefer, well try several, they are all free, then wipe out the ones you don't want, leaving Synapt (Synaptic Package Manager) to do all the dirty work of checking compatibility & clearing up afterwards.
This is a real pleasure.
The same Synapt keeps track of available updates for absolutely every package on your PC & will regularly offer you the latest approved versions.

The main Ubuntu system gets a programmed upgrade every 6 months, which will be offered by Synapt & which you can apply as soon or as late as you like in its 6-month window.
On the negative side, I have found that such upgrades sometimes bring new problems, and for this reason I currently keep 2 versions of Ubuntu available on my PC.

There is an abundance of official & unofficial information & help, and an astonishingly lively & helpful forum.

Ubuntu will run on much smaller & older PCs than Windows Vista or 7, needing only 30% of the RAM size & 25% of the disk space, for instance (You might need to confirm those off-the-cuff figures).
In addition, there are special "light" versions (Xubuntu) which will run on next to nothing, if you want to play on a very old PC you have lying around.

Is it perfect?
- Of course not.
Is it as easy to get going as the Windows that came pre-installed on your PC?
- Of course not.
Does it work as well as Windows?
- Probably better in many or most ways, with a warning about some hardware compatibility.
Is it improving regularly?
- Yes, definitely.
Is it worth trying?
- Yes, if you are willing to put in a bit of effort, especially at the beginning.
- Yes, if you would enjoy feeling like part of a team, instead of like an unwelcome nuisance or a gullible sucker.
- Yes, if you prefer free to expensive.
- Yes, if you would like practically unlimited choice in how to do things.
- Yes, if you want to do your tiny, insignificant bit to squeeze Microsoft back to a useful size.

Parting thot: "Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don't need to be done." - Andy Rooney

Sunday, May 3, 2009

No Time Travel

I just got H.G. Wells' book "The Time Machine" out of the local library.
And am about to start reading it.

But as I picked it up, I had a sudden flash of disappointment.
Time travel will never exist, or at least not on this earth.

I would probably not be as categorical about any other currently-impossible activity, including levitation, inter-galactic travel, transmission faster than the speed of light, telepathy, contacting intelligent life elsewhere – you name it.
Science & technology seem pretty open-ended, especially if you project the time axis far enough.
But not for time travel.

Quite simply because, if time travel technology ever did become available, and even if there were some kind of protocol to avoid appearances & interferences, sooner or later there would have to be accidents or deliberate disobediences, and traces would be left.
Since no convincing traces have been shown, in centuries of recorded history & a decade of internet (and I don't believe anything significant could be noticed anywhere now without creating waves on internet), then I don't believe time travel will ever occur on earth.

Sorry about that.

A rapid Google shows that, of course, this idea is not original.

Parting thot: "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge." – Albert Einstein

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Belgium in Boots

We are quite close to Belgium, but for one reason or another we don't actually visit very much.

Historically, we used to dash through Belgium when driving to/from UK for Xmas, often in the dark, rain, snow, ice &/or fog, grateful for the free & well-lit motorways, where French Autoroutes are neither.
Based on that unfair sampling, we saw no particular reason to stop, slow down or revisit.
Ambling towards Belgium in a summer, exploratory mood, we would be more likely to get waylaid in Luxembourg, which is more obviously scenic & attractive.

So it was only recently that we spent a few days in Belgium and of course we found plenty to see & do in that time.
Bruges (Brugge) is all you would expect of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, in the words of Michelin, is worth the voyage.
Antwerp easily exceeded our modest expectations with its extravagant architecture.
Brussels, we knew would have a big mixture of old & new, but we were still impressed by the Grand
Place and by endless details in the domestic architecture.
Not to mention the pubs, which we miss in France.
But lots of the modern bits look like the endless faceless offices they are.

And the most surprising negative bit was the pavements.
I knew "Belgian pavé" roads were an old-time standard in roughness, reproduced in car proving grounds worldwide to test prototype durability.
But I had never heard that the pavements, for people to walk on, were the same or worse.
Even right in front of the Royal Palace, the stone slabs were chaotically uneven, broken, missing, rocking, so you needed to watch every footstep carefully.

I can't imagine what the rate of ankle injuries in Brussels must be.

But I strongly recommend high-laced hiking boots for any visit.

Parting thot: "To carry a grudge is like being stung to death by one bee." - William H. Walton

Friday, May 1, 2009

May not Work

Every year, journalists tell us how ridiculous France looks, because of all the working time lost in May.

Certainly, May 1st is a holiday (labour day).
Certainly, May 8th is a holiday (victory 1945).
Usually, Ascension day (a Thursday) falls in May.
Often, Pentecost Monday also falls in May.

Combine this with the very common habit of "bridging" to the nearest weekend when a holiday falls on Tuesday or Thursday & you might end up with 7 days off in May.
The nearest to this in the last few years was 2007, when May 1st & 8th were Tuesdays, and both Ascension & Pentecost were in May. This gave a probable 6 days lost in May (or gained – depending which side of the fence you are on) plus April 30th, which you can count or not, depending what you are trying to prove.
There was only one complete working week that May.

Self-flagellation over May, like over the 35-hour week, has become a national ritual.

But, of course, Ascension & Pentecost don't always fall in May.
Not everybody "makes the bridge".
When May 1st & 8th fall on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, there is no "bridge".
When they fall on a Saturday or Sunday, they are lost (or gained) with no compensation.
I didn't check, but I suppose there could be Mays with zero holidays.

I don't remember any journalists talking about that.

Parting thot: "Vacation is what you take when you can't take what you've been taking any longer." - anon