Friday, October 25, 2013


Our walnut tree died in 2004.

Fortunately, I had put a dozen nuts in pots of earth & was able to select a decent-looking seedling to plant in 2005.

There followed some years of rapid growth but, of course, no nuts at first.

Last year, it produced for the first time - exactly 100 nuts & we were as pleased as proud parents!

This year - 253 beautiful big nuts.
But disaster - they are all too big for any of our nutcrackers!

No argument about the thumbscrew device above - they simply won't enter.
Less obvious for the ordinary 2-leg cracker - you can insert the nut, but the legs are too far apart to squeeze efficiently & crack the thick shell.

A quick check with a Vernier gauge showed we had nuts up to 38mm diameter.
So I looked on internet for nutcrackers for that size & was surprised to find nothing, except industrial or bench-top devices.
I remembered a likely-looking ratchet affair, which was probably the "Crackerjack".
But that is now a collector's item.

There seems to be a copy still on sale, but customer reviews show it is very fragile:

So, after hesitating about using a hammer, I am now using - a Mole wrench!

Not very elegant on the coffee table, but extremely effective.
It makes light work of the toughest shells & does not go on to crush the nuts.

What we need now is a "pretty" table-top Mole wrench...
Some quicker method of size adjustment would be good too - the screw is a bit time-consuming.

Parting thot: "When all's said and done, all roads lead to the same end. So it's not so much which road you take, as how you take it." - Charles de Lint

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Retractable, Double-Barrel What???

We recently spent several days each in Denmark & in Holland.
Countries which share a lot, like general flatness (if not downright concavity), lots of water, thatched roofs, ubiquitous cycle-tracks and friendly natives who speak better English than the BBC these days.

One area in which they are radically different though (apart from the Euro) is Public Loos.
In Denmark, it is hard to find yourself out of visual range of a WC sign & if you investigate you will certainly find something free, clean, tidy, unvandalized, well-lit, with loo paper, spare loo rolls, sink, water, soap & probably hand-drier.
In Holland, there seem to be no public WCs at all!
I finally went into a Tourist Office to ask what was the secret & was told "Railway Station".
Sure enough, if you can get to a station, pass the barriers, wait in the long queue & find a 50 cent coin, then you are happy.
Otherwise, you can try asking in a restaurant or café.
Several have notices specifying 50 cents to use the loo for non-customers.
Actually quite an intelligent solution if generalized & advertised.

For half of us, at least in big towns, there is a variety of pissoirs...
Usually of traditional French style - just a scroll of steel plate at midriff height & a nasty smell.
Sometimes more arty, like this elegant inclined affair with explicit logo.
Rarely, like the heading photo, an ultra-modern device, with 2 work-stations but little privacy.
When not in use, the whole thing retracts into the pavement!
At least you hope it is only when not in use...

I did a bit of Googling on this & found an old BBC article saying 3 of these devices were being installed in Newquay, Cornwall.
Not dated April 1st either.
More Googling showed they were closed soon after:

Parting thot: "There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs." - Thomas Sowell

Friday, June 14, 2013

See That No Sign?


This road (from Google Street View) is the D41 on the outskirts of Schnersheim, leading to Wiwersheim.I have used it about daily since 1989.
Until a few days ago there was a sign at the end of the footpath, saying "Schnersheim" but crossed out.
That meant the end of the 50km/h town speed limit & the start of the 90km/h country limit.
So after the tree, you could accelerate to 90...

Well, without telling anybody, they have just shifted the Schnersheim sign about 500m further up the road.
Because of a future industrial estate, I supose.

Now I do actually obey speed limits, but after 24 years practice, I find it just automatic to accelerate after the tree.
After all - the only thing warning me not to, is the absence of a road sign!

If I do happen to reach 90km/h & happen to hit a radar trap, it could cost me:
- 135 euros
- 4 points off my (so far clean) license
- 3 years suspension (and resulting insurance hike)
- confiscation of vehicle...

There should be something more than absence of a sign, to help protect me & thousands of other habitual users of the D41, against such penalties!

EDIT: Several weeks later, this section of straight road outside the actual village now has 70km/h signs - an excellent solution.

Parting thot: "There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs." - Thomas Sowell

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Speedo Musings: 2

The more I think about using the GPS as a speedo, the better it sounds.

So I mocked-up how I think it should look, based on the TomTom Via 130 I am using.

You could keep the bottom band displaying next navigation action & distance.
But replace the map, most of the time, by a large display of the current speed limit, looking like a speed limit sign, of course.
Then, nearer the driver, an even larger display of the current speed.
This display should change format immediately above the speed limit & again significantly above the limit.

I would suggest white on green up to the limit.

Grey on yellow just above the limit.

Black on bright red (maybe pulsing?) above, say the speed-fine border (+5km/h or +5% above 100km/h?).

Maybe yellow on violet if the GPS doesn't know the limit??
Daltonians should be able to choose their own effects.

Other options could define when the speeds were & were not displayed.
I would suggest they should be shown except in the short zone (150-300 meters) before a navigation action, when spoken instructions are usually given.
With vocal commands, you could call up "Map" or "Speedo" as required too.

All that should be do-able for nothing with current GPS's - just the cost of a few lines of program...

Parting thot: "I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road." - Stephen Hawking

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Which Wine should One Serve with Baked Beans?

One evening a week, DS goes to gym classes, leaving me to fend for myself.

Fending tends to gravitate to putting half a frozen pizza in the oven, but has none the less required some reflection.
Firstly - how do you get half a frozen pizza?
Normally, you start with a complete frozen pizza, of course (though at this level of cuisine, "of course" is a presumptuous phrase).

Early attempts tended to end with numerous fragments of frozen pizza, which taste the same, but look even less professional.
The secret is to find a very strong, very convex kitchen knife, which you then press down very firmly across one diameter whilst rocking to move the pressure-point across the pizza.
A mezzaluna would be ideal, but we don't have one.
When sufficiently weakened (& all the culinary art is there) place the pizza so the edge of the work-surface is just under your new groove and press down (Seasoned glass & tile cutters will understand) when it should break cleanly into 2 perfect halves.

If so - don't forget to kick the bits of cheese out of the way before DS gets back.
If not - more rocking with the curved knife next time.

Then there is the cooking time & temperature.
In the end, I settled for what is certainly not the optimal-pizza method, but must be the quickest & cheapest.
Put the cold pizza on a low grid in the cold oven.
Put a non-stick tray underneath to catch the cheese.
Turn the oven to 220°C.
Return to TV or PC.
Wait for oven to ping or smoke alarm to warble.
Turn oven off & eat pizza.

Today though, I fancied something more "special".
So - 205gm of Branston Baked Beans (so much tastier than the well-known brand leader).
2min at 50% in microwave.
Simultaneously (so not for absolute beginners) plate in oven at 60°C & thick slices of bread in toaster at max (what happened to real men's toasters?).
Take plate, add toast, add butter, add beans, add dash of Lea & Perrins.
What more could you want?

Ah yes, this is France, after all, so - wine?

Unable to find any recommendation for accompanying BB's, I settled for a Cabernay Sauvignon.
It came out of a Bag-in-Box, which seemed appropriate somehow.

All this leaves me wondering if I am really as French as I thought...
This kind of behaviour would be judged worse here than lying about your Swiss bank account, I suspect!

Parting thot: "Perfectionism is spelled:    p  a  r  a  l  y  s  i  s" - Winston Churchill

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Speedo Musings

For 230,000km I have been staring (well - glancing) at this speedo on my cheapo Japanese car.
I find it very clear & easy to use.
The only negative is that it marks 20-40-60 etc whereas nearly all speed limits are 30-50-70-90-110-130.

Our latest, very expensive German car doesn't do nearly as well.

The speedo is not directly in front of the driver, so suffers parallax errors.
The numbers aren't so obviously aligned with their marks.
Worst - the scale suddenly changes, between 40 & 60 (presumably at 40?) so interpolation between numbers requires careful scrutiny & mental gymnastics!
Checking speed requires concentration & takes your eyes off the road for over a second.
Somebody should get the boot for this...

Directly in front of the driver is a screen with all sorts of useful but incidental stuff, like time & temperature, which would be better in the dash where everybody could see it.
That screen can also display driver-interest items like fuel consumption & range.
Or, it can display speed, digitally.
I found that surprising - until I tried it.
Then I found that checking my speed took the merest fraction of a second, without even needing to refocus or look directly at the number.
Now, I often have it set to digital speed and compare the 2 methods.
The difference in time & ease is so flagrant that there is absolutely no contest.
On safety grounds, legislation should encourage or impose (ouch! - see below) digital readouts.

Of course, the readout should be bigger & nearer the line of sight.
Then it would not be necessary to look away from the road at all.

Another novelty with the new car (late adopter...) is a GPS.

Apart from its obvious function of navigation, the GPS provides 2 arguably-more-useful functions:
1. It indicates actual speed with (presumably) better accuracy than the vehicle speedo.
Certainly the difference is around 8%.
2. It indicates local speed limits, and does it very well.
Obviously it can't handle temporary limits & obviously it depends how frequently you update the data, but it seems to offer better reliability that any, even careful, human driver.

Which leads me to the conclusion that what I want, and what everybody needs, is a good, big, head-up display of GPS-accurate speed & of up-to-date local speed limit.
With a warning light...

That has to be achievable today & would save a lot of people a lot of time, money & maybe injury.

I am aware of alternative systems which actually read speed limit signs, but have my doubts about their reliabilty in real traffic conditions.

Parting thot: "What is ominous is the ease with which some people go from saying that they don't like something to saying that the government should forbid it. When you go down that road, don't expect freedom to survive very long." - Thomas Sowell

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Photographing Albert

I inherited a hundred-year-old unfinished oil painting of my Grandfather Albert, who died at age 36.

I never knew him, but you probably guessed that...

His painting has been lurking in our basement, mainly to frighten burglars.

But we brought him out recently, when a family member enquired about him.
And realized we did not have a photograph.
Cleaned the frame & glass, then took a photograph.

Except no - too many reflections in the glass, of course!
Even if you manage not to get reflections of the surroundings, you always get reflections of the photographer.
Or at least of the camera, hand, arm...

The only way (so far) of avoiding a camera reflection is to stand off-axis, just enough that the camera does not see itself in the mirror.

But you still see windows, wallpaper, clouds or whatever.

So we invented this method:

- Veranda with translucent roof for diffused lighting
- Albert with long side on ground, inclining towards camera
- Small trusty assistant, very huddled, controlling inclination
- Long black cloth on ground
- Black backdrop
- Camera off-axis
The anxious photographer instructs the huddled assistant to adjust Albert's inclination until he only sees the (invisible) reflection of the black cloth on the screen.

Yes - but the result is trapezoidal, obviously.
Perspective, innit?

Enter PhotoShop.
Or, in my case, the Linux free equivalent - Gimp.
I loath Gimp as having the most user-unfriendly interface I ever saw, but it does the job.
You can distort trapezoids to near-enough rectangles with only mind-blowing difficulty & frustration.

So there we are.

Ah - why an unfinished portrait?
Would you believe the artist was run over by a tram?

Parting thot: "A picture is worth a thousand words." - Napoleon Bonaparte

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Umweltzonen Nochamol...

Back in 2010, I commented on needing "Umweltzonen" car stickers to get into some German cities.
Back then, I got stickers for €6 each.

Having now acquired a new car, it seemed like time to get a new sticker, so I Googled a bit, struggled a bit with several sites in German, then found some sites with French or English options.

Since 2010, European solidarity seems to have receded somewhat & charges are now higher for cars registered outside Germany.
This site looked promising:
But the stickers work out at €29.90 (handwritten) or €39.90 (printed)!!

Various TuV sites appeared high on the Google results, so I tried this one:
Here, stickers are €5 if you collect, or €15 by post, according to the French-language version.
I couldn't find anything about stickers on the English-language one...

A different TuV site in English, offers stickers by post for €12.50:
so I settled for that one.
The procedure is a  bit odd, in that you have to download a non-saveable PDF order form, print it, fill it in, scan it & send it back as an e-mail attachment together with a scan of the registration document.
What I expected to happen next was an e-mail telling me which category I was entitled to & telling me how to pay.
What actually happened was I got a nice new (printed) sticker through the post... and an invitation to pay, preferably by bank transfer (with BIC & IBAN codes).

I wonder how many French (or UK) establishments send you the goods first & ask you to pay afterwards?

After paying for my new sticker, I re-read my 2010 post & idly clicked on the link:
Surprisingly, Berlin still seems to be offering stickers for €6, at least for German cars!
I didn't get far enough through the ordering process to confirm the price for foreign vehicles, but it might still be the best place to start!

Parting thot: "Taxes grow without rain." - Jewish proverb

Monday, February 4, 2013

Gutenberg Reflections

 A statue in Strasbourg commemorates Gutenberg, credited with inventing printing with movable type there in 1440.

So you would expect that by 2013 printing text would hold few secrets.

But an otherwise-excellent book I am reading fails the most basic book test - you can't read it.

Or at least, to read it you need to keep changing the inclination of the pages, or moving your head.

They got the bit about 'black ink on white paper' right, but then 'improved' that by making the ink nice & shiny.
So in reflected light, the text disappears.

Parting thot: "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." - Voltaire

Friday, January 25, 2013

Further Adventures with a Braun Shaver

A couple of posts back, I mentioned a Braun 3615 shaver which had never seemed to work from new.

After several more attempts, I decided it really didn't work at all & I had nothing to lose by opening it.

Inside, the electric motor drives a tiny crank, which drives a tiny connecting rod, which makes the various shaving blades oscillate.
At least it does if the connecting rod is connected to the crank, which it wasn't & apparently never had been!

Connecting it & reassembling (fiddly job, glad I have an illuminated magnifying glass) - I now have a shaver which shaves.
And trims.

Black mark for Braun quality control!

Parting thot: "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?" - Abraham Lincoln

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Station with Veranda

Strasbourg had a striking railway station, dating from 1883 - one of the 'German' periods.
In fact it still has & although we know it well as occasional users, we were surprised on a recent open day to discover, amongst other exotic details well worth seeing, the lavish 'Emperor's Salon', built to receive Emperor Wilhelm I but which he never used...

Today though, the 1883 stone facade is covered by an enormous glass veranda.

At the planning stage, the usual whiners complained that this veranda might detract from the classical elegance of the listed building.
Of course, they were soon silenced when it was scathingly pointed out that the veranda was going to be all glass & that glass is, well, you know, transparent - you can see through it, so no problem.
Well - score one for the usual whiners, as the facade is now quite invisible behind the tinted, sloping, reflective glass.
The result looks like a big blob of mercury.
Like you used to play with in the good old days before Minamata.

The veranda does do quite a decent job of providing much-needed extra space & weather protection for milling travellers, not only for the main-line station, but for the communicating tram station & car park, built just underneath.

Not a perfect job though.
From the start, there were problems with rain driving in, at the junction between the veranda & the facade and also between the many glass panels.
I think that has now been improved, if not actually solved.

Then there was all-pervading grit, which seemingly originated when the trams in the underground station dumped sand on the lines to improve braking performance.
Now, as each tram enters the station, it switches on a wheel-level fog-bank which settles the sand & iron filings near the rails, instead of allowing them to billow up into the veranda.

OK now then?
Well - no.
Having got rid of the grit, the shopkeepers now see a thick, black, sooty deposit all over their tables, chairs & sandwiches.
Not to mention in their handkerchiefs.
So yet another investigation is underway.
It's early days yet.
The veranda was opened in 2007.

Parting thot: "Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, January 20, 2013


One bit of weather I don't remember from Britain, but we see here occasionally, is Black Ice (verglas).

Formed instantly when rain falls on hard-frozen ground, it can develop into a skin up to maybe 1cm thick and is VERY slippery, especially while rain is still falling.
No amount of skill can make driving reasonable on black ice, unless you have spiked tyres, which are rare outside mountain areas.
Even walking is extremely risky & best avoided, especially for brittle crumblies.
Don't even think of cycling!

Well today, as forecast, we woke up to black ice & were thankful that we didn't have to go to work.
The only immediate inconvenience was that the morning paper had not been delivered at it's usual 05:30, for the first time in 25 years.
Trusty Marcel turned up with it later, wearing neat strap-on studs under his boots!

Black ice usually occurs when a warm front moves in after a very cold spell, so that the ice gets melted again after an hour or 2 by the new warm air.
But today it managed to rain while the ground-level air temperature has not gone above -1°C & is now falling again for the night.
So the ice has not melted all day & the forecast is for snow to fall on it.
Should be chaos on the roads tomorrow...

Parting thot: "You never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks" - Eskimo proverb

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Shave Sir - or a Rip-Off?

Decades ago, I had a simple Braun electric shaver which worked OK for many years & for which I occasionally replaced the necessarily-fragile foils without noticing the cost.

More recently I have been using Gillette GII wet-shaver blades for a better, quicker & quieter shave at home.
Soon followed by "compatible" equivalents for a quarter of the price.

In a few limited circumstances, I think a rechargeable electric shaver might be more convenient than wet shaving, so I have started to look again at electric shavers.

In fact, we bought a new Braun 3615 rechargeable shaver a few years ago, when my father forgot to bring his own shaver out for a visit, but he never liked it, hardly used it & left it here.
So I thought that was a ready-made solution for me.
Unbelievably, I have tried it several times & although it buzzes away & seems to be working, it has absolutely no effect at all on my beard, whether tested on half-day, one-day or two-day stubble!
I keep wondering if I am doing something wrong, or if it needs cleaning or something, but nothing I have tried makes any difference.
It simply does not shave.

Thinking I would try a new foil, though really not convinced that would make any difference, I found the reference in a manual I downloaded, but:
1. They stopped selling just foils & only sell complete heads.
2. I can't even find heads in France & might have to order from UK.
3. A replacement head costs about £20 plus postage.

So I wondered about getting a new, simple, rechargeable razor instead.
The cheapest "reputable" one I can see is a Panasonic ES-SA40-S503 at 36€.
I can't see any spare foils or heads for that anywhere.
Maybe they expect you to throw it away after a year?

Funny - I would have thought this was a mature market with cheap, satisfactory goods & services by now?
It isn't?

Parting thot: "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." - Napoleon Bonaparte

Friday, January 18, 2013


The illustration (from Wikipedia) is of the well-known mille-feuille multi-layered pastry.

The same term is often used to describe the  multi-layered French Administration system.

In our case, for instance, we have, at least:
- Village: "X" (400 people, but no actual administration, I think)
- Commune: "X-Y" (800 people, 2 villages, a mayor, local council, looks after planning permission, local roads etc)
- Community of Communes: "Com-com du Kochersberg" (new entity created in 2002, 28 villages, 26 communes, 20,000 people, looks after tourisme, sport, culture, refuse-collection so far, but probably more in future)
- Canton: "Truchtersheim" (24 communes, of which 19 happen to be in our com-com, over 20K people, electoral area choosing one representative at Department level)
- Circonscription: "4th circonscription of Bas-Rhin" (4 cantons, electoral area choosing one national MP)
- Arrondissement: "Strasbourg-Campagne" (8 cantons, including all our circonscription, 280K people, normally should have a sous-préfet, but ours doesn't. Not sure what it does, if anything.)
- Sous-Prefecture: "Strasbourg" (2 arrondissements in our case, main contact between people & administration, driving license, car tax, firearms etc)
- Department: "Bas-Rhin" (11 sous-prefectures, traditionally the first-level division of the state, since Napoleon, looks after main roads, education at college level etc)
- Region: "Alsace" (2-8 departments, 2 in our case, looks after tourism again, education at lycee level, transport, business)
- Metropole: "France" (96 departments [from 01 to 95 including 02 & 2a & 2b but not 20...] continental France + Corsica & nearby islands, looks after everything)
- Republic: "France" (101 departments, including overseas - La Reunion, Guyane etc as well as smaller territories like Wallis & Futuna)

Beyond that, we can look up to (& pay for, but I am not complaining):
- Eurozone: (17 countries)
- EU: (27 countries)
- Council of Europe: (47 countries)
- UN: (193 countries)

But the big news is that we are (maybe) going to get rid of one layer.
Alsace is taking the lead in a move to combine one Region & 2 Departments into one "Territory".
Theoretically, that could lead to big savings.
If all duplicated jobs & offices could be eliminated...
Practically, in the short term it will probably lead to a lot of squabbling.
The first decisions will need to deal with "where will the new entity actually be"?
From likely candidates of Strasbourg, Selestat, Colmar & Mulhouse.
Maybe we will end up with a travelling circus, like the European Parliament!
And negative savings?

In any case, us Alsatians do get a yes/no referendum vote, on 7th April.

Warning: Please don't blindly rely on anything in this post - confirm with other sources!

Parting thot - "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." - Napoleon Bonaparte