Saturday, July 18, 2009

Tour de France

I cannot raise the slightest glimmer of interest in, or enthusiasm for, the Tour de France.
Sorry about that.
Sad really, as it often comes quite close to us here.

In 1992, it passed 500 metres from our house, so we could hardly not watch it then.
I remember a long wait, several helicopters, lots of motorbikes, some noisy advertising vans & a quick whoosh as all the cyclists went past, followed by lots of cars with bikes on the roof.
Then lots of rubbish all along the road.
Even if they come right past the front door, I won't bother to look again.

Without wishing to be "pisse-vinaigre" (topic for future post?) I would be quite happy if it did not come too close again.
What you don't see on TV is all the road closures that go with it.
For half a day, or more, you can be pretty much isolated from nearby towns, or need to take enormous detours via underpasses to cross the official route.
Not the end of the world, but a significant nuisance for a lot of people.

One collateral benefit for a region can be the attractive aerial pictures transmitted worldwide.
Alsace did not even do very well there this time, as the weather was so execrably cold & wet.
Confirming the unjustified prejudices of Frenchmen everywhere.
The day before, we had been basking in 30°C sunshine.

Parting thot: "Oh God, if there be cricket in heaven, let there also be rain." - Alec Douglas Home

Friday, July 17, 2009

Vital Space

I was just looking through l'Auto-Journal for 16 July.
They have a 10 000 km test of a Peugeot 3008 (not to be confused with the 308).

One novelty caught my eye.
There is a head-up-display, which basically shows the vehicle speed digitally on a little transparent screen near the bottom of the windscreen.
Copied from military aircraft practice, if done properly this can keep the speed information in or near the driver's line of sight, without blocking out other vital stuff.
I think the above image is from a Peugeot Press release (it is all over the net) but other reviews include photographs showing that the screen is really better situated, below normal line of sight.
L'Auto-Journal seemed to like it, so I suppose Peugeot have done a decent job.
Previously, I thought of HUD as restricted to the BMW/Cadillac zone, so it is good to see it coming down market.
Something like this will surely become normal practice soon.

What was absolutely new for me though, was that they also display your distance behind the preceding vehicle, expressed simply in seconds.
L'Auto-Journal said of that (my translation) "We didn't find this function to be any use – it seems to be just a gadget".
I couldn't disagree more.

In my view, this function could be of enormous value in preventing accidents & incidents.
Most people (I suppose) know that leaving at least a 2-second gap is essential if you hope to avoid being involved in nose-to-tail pile-ups, yet almost nobody actually leaves that much gap.
The brilliant new Peugeot function should be made universal & compulsory.
With bright flashing lights & unbearably loud buzzers whenever the gap is held below 2 seconds!

And something even more dissuasive for lorry drivers.
Electric shocks?
Automatic licence shredding?

Parting thot: "There are no new accidents, just new victims." - Anon

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Not in Your Plate

The strange-sounding French expression "ne pas être dans son assiette" – literally "not being in one's plate" - actually means feeling out of sorts or out of place.

The explanation seems to be that the word "assiette", which now means plate, previously referred to where or how you sat to eat, before plates were used at all.

Parting thot: "To avoid sickness eat less; to prolong life worry less." - Chu Hui Weng

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Light Timers

If you live in an apartment block (which I don't), you must be only too familiar with corridors & stairways which are illuminated by lights on timer switches.

Basically a sound idea; when you enter an unlit hall or stairway, you push on the obvious, illuminated, light switch & the lights stay on long enough for you to get comfortably through that zone, then turn off to save electricity & global warming.

Except for some snags.

If the light is already on when you enter, you cannot usually reset for a new time period, but have to take your chance on sudden darkness at some mid point.
Not much of a problem in a corridor with frequent & obvious light switches, it can be a nuisance when light switches are too similar to door bell pushes, and dangerous for old people in stairways with switches only at top & bottom of stairs.
Can it be so difficult to provide a full reset with each switch activation?

Even that would not answer the infrequent but very inconvenient problem encountered when struggling to move bulky furniture slowly up staircases.
If you need light for a long time, you need a spare helper just for the light switch.

The apartment block we used for skiing this year had motion detectors in the corridors, so that lights came on automatically as soon as anybody entered the corridor & presumably could go off that much quicker afterwards.
First time I had seen them used like that & very satisfactory.
They didn't use the system in the stairways though.
Maybe it is too complicated to set up sensors with all the corners?
Or maybe nobody except us uses stairs when there is a lift?
Probably a reasonable compromise in that case.

I award a special prize to the public toilet in Poitou-Charente, which was absolutely pitch dark apart from one light on a too-short timer.
With the switch outside!

Parting thot: "You can't have a light without a dark to stick it in." - Arlo Guthrie

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Are You Better Now?

How on earth do you answer that common but ambiguous question?
When "better" can mean either completely recovered or just less ill than before.
Yes – I'm better, but I'm not better yet.

How can major, developed, international languages allow such ambiguities to continue for decades or centuries?

Like the American "can" & "can't" which sound almost identical yet mean exact opposites.
Especially silly when the original English pronunciation "carnt" avoided the problem.

Like the French "dessus" & "dessous" which look similar, are only one key-stroke apart, sound too similar, especially to foreigners, yet one means above & the other means below.
And they reappear in no end of compound expressions, creating confusion every time.
Or the French "plus" which can mean either "more" or "no more" depending on the context & an often unpronounced "ne".

Presumably all these foolish things survive because it is nobody's job to improve languages?
Well - maybe languages should have people paid to improve them?

Actually, French does have l'Académie française ( to look after it.
Consisting of 40 eminent & generally aged members (you might recognize Valerie Giscard d'Estaing & Simone Veil), the Academie's task is to follow evolutions in the language & decide which ones to admit to official status, to define a dictionary, and to provide members for related commissions.
As far as I know, they don't actually propose novel changes to overcome possible difficulties, or even encourage adoption of "improvements" from other French-speaking countries. (I may be wrong there).
If they did, it is hard to imagine how 99 in French could still be "quatre-vingt-dix-neuf" when French-speaking Belgians & Swiss have been using the more obvious & convenient "nonante-neuf" for so long.

Then again, the conservative uprising, when somebody recently suggested dropping circumflex accents, was so strong that maybe no imposed-from-above change is possible.
The only changes which succeed are additions of new technical terms & new youth slang, which can seep in below conservative radar.

So languages never get the intelligent improvements they so badly need.
How odd – for our main means of communication.

Surely it's time for a change.

Parting thot: "In language, the ignorant have prescribed laws to the learned." - Richard Duppa

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sunbeam Tiger

After a year with the Triumph Vitesse, I was ready for a change, so in 1969 I bought a beautiful, as-new, 1965 Sunbeam Tiger 260.

A couple of years earlier, Carol Shelby had transformed the AC Ace into the instantly-desirable & still-iconic Cobra, by swapping the little 4-cylinder engine for a 4.2 litre V8.
Dozens of little companies all over the word are building Cobra replicas even today.

Sunbeam were persuaded to try something similar on their pretty little 1.6 litre Sunbeam Alpine Tourer.
They ended up installing the same Ford 4.2 V8 engine and had the skill & surprising good taste to leave everything else visibly unchanged.
So instead of looking like some hacked-about racer, the Tiger looked just like any other Alpine, except for a thin chrome strip each side.
But had altogether different performance.

In no way a sports car, the Tiger was a very pleasant, fully civilised, 2-seater convertible, well built & finished, with decent windows, hood, removable hard-top, carpets, walnut dashboard, heater, radio, boot etc.
The performance was effortless in any gear & the typical V8 noise was well silenced, so performance could be used without ostentation.
One of the best Q-cars ever.

A long way from perfect though.
The big engine made it very nose-heavy, with serious understeer.
I improved mine a lot with bigger front tyres, and fitted the normal-sized rear tyres on wider Lotus Cortina wheels to reduce lateral sway.
Hard acceleration from rest often produced very bad axle tramp.
That is the one thing I think they should really have fixed before selling it.

Then there was the gearbox.
Pleasant to use, in a ponderous sort of way, and with a nice "T-handle" to lift for reverse, it had a very much too high first gear.
Presumably to protect the rear axle & suspension from too much torque?
The unfortunate result was that, even with the big, lazy, flexible engine, it was impossible to inch along in slow traffic without slipping the heavy clutch all the time.

Famously, the engine was such a tight fit that the rear spark plugs had to be removed from inside the car via a rubber plug in the foot well area, but that was not a problem.

In spite of these significant design errors, the Tiger was a real pleasure to drive, to look at, to listen to & just to be with.
Full of "Feel-Good Factor".
I don't recall anything needing unscheduled attention.
I kept it 2 years, which was a long time in those days, and was very sorry to sell it.

Petrol was cheap enough that I didn't even check the consumption & nobody had yet heard of ecology or global warming.
Happy Days!

Googling for good links on Tigers, I was surprised not to find a single video of a smart, quiet, original-looking car.
They all seemed to have been chopped around with power bulges & air scoops, and to make loud rough noises, which is exactly the opposite of what gave the original car its particular understated charm.
Even the show cars below are often fitted with "sporty" bits which detract greatly in my opinion.

Parting thot: "If you have to measure an advantage, you don't have it." - ??

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Too Dark Glasses

Recently I got new sunglasses.

Of course it was not that simple.
As I now need progressive lenses in any glasses & as clip-on sunglasses are inconvenient in too many ways, I had to get sunglasses with progressive lenses.
No problem as, in France, sunglasses come "free" (Ha, ha – that will be the subject of another post) whenever you get new prescription glasses.
I got my glasses & sunglasses in "Grand Optical".
Because the sunglasses were "free", I didn't quibble too much when told I could choose the colour of the tint, but that the darkness was category 3 with no choice.

After several weeks of use, I found, as I had expected, that category 3 was much darker than I want.
OK in continuous strong sunlight but a nuisance if you need to go from sun to shade, when cycling or driving for instance.
I decided to bite the bullet & buy a category 2 pair for variable conditions.
The true price of "free" then becomes about 200€ in most shops, of course.

But when I asked about buying some category 2 glasses or maybe just lenses in Grand Optical, they spontaneously offered to try to "fade" my new category 3 lenses back to category 2.
By some mysterious overnight soak.
And it worked.

So I am a happy customer.
But I wonder why they don't offer an initial option, instead of a presumably more expensive rework.

Parting thot: "In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king." – Erasmus

Icon from

Saturday, July 11, 2009

White Van Removal Tool

Photoshop, and all the free clone photo-management softwares, include a "Red-Eye Removal Tool".

Mainly, I use free Picasa for simple fiddling with my snaps, and their red-eye removal tool works adequately now.
Before the latest updates, it only worked on un-zoomed images and tended to replace red pupils with square black blocks, which I rated less than adequate.

Actually, the camera also has red-eye prevention & red-eye removal tools, but these have more snags than advantages, so I don't use them.
The prevention method is to flash briefly then pause before flashing properly.
This slows things down too much.
The red-eye removal tool presumably works like the one in Picasa, but I prefer to make my own judgments.

Anyway, what I really need now is a similar "White Van Removal Tool".
I find that nearly every cathedral, ancient monument or scenic view has a white van parked in front of it.
It is not beyond the skills of Google/Picasa to devise something which will recognize a white van & replace it with extensions of the surrounding scenery.

I await the announcement with interest…

Parting thot: "It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?" - Winnie the Pooh

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


The other day, I had to close the tailgate (upward-opening rear door) of a Ford Galaxy people-mover, for its tiny Japanese lady driver, who could not reach the open door by about a foot.

This did not particularly surprise me, after 20 years of using a Renault Espace with a smallish wife & 4 growing children.
I was used to seeing various child antics, like jumping, swinging jeans, standing inside & hand-over-handing along the edge of the door until it collapses onto still-clinging child, etc.

On the other hand, I have seen tall men inflict painful & potentially serious damage on themselves, bumping into door edges which were too low for them.
And I have to be very careful to help our Toyota Yaris tailgate to open fully every time, as the gas struts are inadequate – an astonishing error by Toyota, not cured by replacements under guarantee.

Then there are lots of underground car parks which are so low that a freely-opened tailgate will be scratched on the roof or damage the wiper system.
Not to mention temporary conflicts with long things being carried on roof racks.

Obviously something is wrong.

Manufacturers are probably trying to set opening heights to some sort of best compromise where not too many tall people will scalp or blind themselves & not too many small people will be stuck with an unclosable door.
But that is ridiculous.
Tallest heads are above shortest outstretched hands, so disaster is inevitable.
Would they try to fix driving seat position to some best compromise between tall & short drivers?
Of course not, they have to face up to a little design work & cost, and provide an adjustment mechanism.

In my opinion, tailgates, of which millions are sold every year, all need 2 design improvements:
1. Simple & convenient adjustment for opening height, both long-term for owner size & short-term for car parks etc. I imagine this could be some kind of cord & cleat arrangement like you find all over sailing boats or even anoraks & might cost 1€.
2. A hanging, but non-damaging, handle so children & vertically-challenged users can also close the door. With a bit of imagination, this could be an extension of the cord from item 1 & should cost 10 cents. It should be stowable so families without short members are not unnecessarily irritated by it.

I wonder why this has not happened.

Parting thot: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." - Darwin

Monday, July 6, 2009


As a mini-holiday, we just drove across France, mainly to see CC near Poitiers but also to look briefly at bits of France we had not seen yet.

Equipped with Michelin maps & Michelin Green Guide books, as usual.
Plus, unfortunately, a Campsite guide, as no campsites are shown on road maps.

This time, we also had a new-to-us Michelin guide "Les 100 Plus Beaux Détours de France" which we were given free in a local Tourist Office.
Covering picturesque & interesting smallish towns, we have so far found the places in this guide particularly well worth looking at.
Related website:

We took our trusty Vango tent & camped several nights, but chickened out whenever the forecast heavy storms & floods started to look too imminent.
In Britain, I suppose the obvious alternative to camping would be Bed & Breakfast, but in France the more available alternative is the wide range of Motels.
Generally found in unattractive, non-touristy, Commercial Zones of big towns, frequently next to Hypermarkets & MacDonalds, you are not going to choose them for their charming situations.
But they are cheap & effective overnight stops.

Best-known & cheapest is "Formule 1" which usually provides rooms with a double bed plus bunk bed, TV & wash basin.
Showers & toilets are communal, which I find perfectly acceptable in a campsite, but irritating in a motel.
Breakfast is a basic but adequate buffet, as much as you want for about 5€ each.
Next up the scale would be "Première Classe" which includes private toilet & shower for each room, with all rooms accessed from external stairways rather than internal corridors.
Typical customers at this level are white-van market-stall operators rather than tourists.
We have not tried "B&B" but they sound about like "Première Classe".
Significantly better again, but still inexpensive, are "Etap" with air conditioning & all rooms off internal corridors.
Here can be found regular business men & tidy-looking tourists of all ages & nationalities.
Moving upscale brings you to Ibis & Campanile which are hotels rather than motels.

This trip, we used one Première Classe & two Etaps.
The Première Classe was a bit scruffy, but better than a tiny ridge tent in a storm.
Both Etaps were impeccable.
Spotlessly clean & everything worked as intended.
The air conditioning was very welcome with outside temperatures touching 40°C.

Back home, I found an Etap e-mail inviting me to complete a customer satisfaction survey, including unlimited space for comments & suggestions.
Almost a guarantee of a good product, in my opinion.

Parting thot: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." - Anatole France

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Catch 22

We just visited CC near Poitiers.

As I noted previously, she has 2 Masters Degrees in Biology, with various "mentions", which might be imagined as an advantage when applying for relevant biology-type jobs.
But seemingly not.
There are suggestions she is over-qualified &/or lacking experience, so she can't get a job, to get the experience, to get a job…
Since it is difficult to unaward a Masters Degree, even in France, maybe the only answer will be to lie on her CV.
Invent a couple of years idle or in prison to account for the time lost at University.

In the meantime, she is looking after state-owned goats & her career plans include grape harvesting.
Maybe that will count as experience?
At least it opens the door to unemployment pay.

Things were much simpler in my day.

Parting thot: "Education. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding." - Ambrose Bierce