Thursday, May 31, 2007

English As The Preferred Language Of The EU

Still sorting through all my old papers. I found this in a file marked "EU : General". It's old, but for those who haven't seen it before, it is worth another trip out. English As The Preferred Language Of The European Union Having chosen English as the preferred language in the European Union, the European Parliament has commissioned a feasibility study in ways of improving efficiency in communications between Government departments. European officials have often pointed out that English spelling is unnecessarily difficult - for example, cough, plough, rough, through and thorough. What is clearly needed is a phased programme of changes to iron out these anomalies. The programme would, of course, be administered by a committee staffed at top level by participating nations. In the first year, for example, the committee would suggest using 's' instead of the soft 'c'. Sertainly, sivil servants in all sities would resieve this news with joy. Then the hard 'c' could be replaced by 'k' sinse both letters are pronounsed alike. Not only would this klear up konfusion in the minds of klerikal workers, but typewriters kould be made with one less letter. There would be growing enthusiasm when in the sekond year, it kould be announsed that the troublesome 'ph' would henseforth be written 'f'. This would make words like 'fotograf' twenty per sent shorter in print. In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reash the stage where more komplikated shanges are possible.Governments would enkourage the removal of double letters which have always been a deterent to akurate speling. We would al agre that the horible mes of silent 'e's in the languag is disgrasful. Therefor we kould drop thes and kontinu to read and writ as though nothing had hapend. By this tim it would be four years sins the skem began and peopl would be reseptive to steps sutsh as replasing 'th' by 'z'. Perhaps zen ze funktion of 'w' kould be taken on by 'v', vitsh is, after al, half a 'w'. Shortly after zis, ze unesesary 'o' kould be dropd from words kontaining 'ou'. Similar arguments vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters. Kontinuing zis proses yer after yer, ve vud eventuli hav a reli sensibl riten styl. After tventi yers zer vud be no mor trubls, difikultis and evrivun vud fin it ezi tu understand ech ozer. Ze drems of the Guvermnt vud finali hav kum tru. Danke schon und guten nacht.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Swimming In The Footsteps Of Charlotte Brontë

It is less than ten weeks until our holidays. Whilst the prospect of sitting in a steamer chair on a very large cruise ship heading for the Canary Islands is an attractive one, the thought of several layers of my fat stomach hanging over the side of the same steamer chair is not. A pre-holiday diet is called for.

So, for the last eight days and nine and a bit hours, I have been eating only things which are so unpleasant that (a) they must be good for you; and (b) they can't have many calories in them (this is based on the theory that it is the calories that make things taste nice). A second part of this distasteful regime is exercise. The only kind of exercise I can face without going weak at the knees through exertion and week in the head through boredom is swimming. So yesterday, the entire family re-joined the local Holiday Inn Spa for a nice limited period which will take us up until we go off on holiday.

I have been a member there several times before and I am used to the pool and used to swimming all those repetitive lengths. But, I have to admit, it is very pleasant to relax in the jacuzzi after swimming the required 37 miles (well it feels like that) and look through the large picture windows at the Calder Valley. If you look to the west you can see up the valley to the moors beyond Halifax. If you look east you can see down the valley towards Mirfield. I have often thought that Charlotte Brontë must have often passed this spot as she walked from Roe Head School (which she both attended and taught at and is only a mile or so from the Holiday Inn) home to Haworth (which is on the moors just beyond Halifax).

Last night I sat in the warm, bubbling water of the jacuzzi, looking down the valley to the old road where Charlotte would have walked. It was approaching dusk. The steam from the hot pool was misting the windows. And there was Charlotte, walking along, deep in thought, heading home to visit the Haworth Parsonage and her family. It is extraordinary what a lack of food and a surfeit of exercise can do to the mind.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Where Have All The Paragraphs Gone?

I could have been a great writer, you know. Written one of the great books of the twentieth century. What stopped me, you ask? I'll tell you what stopped me. I was too bloody neat. On endless occasions I would sit down at the typewriter (for those of a more recent vintage, click here to find out what a typewriter is), write a brilliant couple of paragraphs, then tear it up because the end of the lines were uneven, or the middle bit of the letter "0" was inked in. No doubt what I suffer from is a sub-form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it doesn't neatly fit into any precise category and that is oxymoronic to us sufferers.
You might think that things improved once computers swept typewriters away. And in many ways they did. At least you didn't have to start at the beginning again if you made a mistake. At least you could get justified paragraphs without having to meticulously plan out the number of additional spaces to leave on each line. But us nf's (neatness freaks) can easily find fault with the surface order of the computer-generated page. I used to keep a database of press cuttings which I would cut and paste from on-line newspapers and news agencies. However, the short paragraphs which are commonly used in newspapers - and which look fairly natural when used with narrow columns - looked odd when pasted onto a full-size text page. They didn't look neat. I would therefore go through each article and re-format them. It took ages. It took so long that you never had time to read the resulting article. That's what its like being an nf.
The reason behind all this is that I am getting annoyed with Blogger. When I type the stuff in it is laid out beautifully with nice even double-row gaps between the paragraphs. You would expect nothing less from an nf. But then when it appears in its published form the paragraph breaks have vanished and what remains looks untidy. Un-neat. You can try re-editing it and adding multiple "return" strokes. On the preview screen the paragraphs seem as far apart as Hitler and Ghandi : when you view the published page they are as close together as Blair and Cameron. Such un-neatness being circulated around the globe under my name is anathema to me. It disturbs my thought process, interferes with my creativity.
Yes, I could have been a great blogger. I could have written one of the great blogs of the twenty-first century. If it hadn't been for the bloody neatness.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Living In A World Of His Own

"He lives in a world of his own" is a phrase which was frequently used when I was young. It would be used by teachers during discussions of my talents (or lack of them) with my parents. It would be used by my parents as some kind of explanation to relatives who would complain that I didn't say much. Actually, they had got it wrong. I wasn't living in a world of my own. The reason why I ignored most questions and conversations was that I was deaf (although neither I nor anyone else knew this at the time). And, as I was often unclear what people were saying to me or asking of me, I would adopt a kind of neutral, dreamy expression which, I hoped, would suit all occasions.
Whilst the defence of deafness can be used in answer to the charge of living in a world of my own fifty years ago, when the charge is made nowadays I simply have to plead guilty and come quietly. It's true. Increasingly I am living in a virtual world of my own. I blame the Fat Dog experiment. You may recall that four months ago I set myself the challenge of walking (accompanied by my good friend Amy the dog) from Los Angeles to New York. This would be the definitive exercise in virtual reality : a test of the extent to which virtual information could mimic the real world. Amy and I would do the miles : but they would be in endless circles around the streets of Brighouse.
There should be a health warning on all such experiments in virtual reality. Participants should be aware that - over time - the boundaries between virtual and actual reality become blurred. Let me give you a few examples.
On Friday, the chap came to read the electricity meter. As usual, Amy was bouncing up and down happy that she had met a new human being and anxious to add them to her collection of "Faces I Have Licked". As the poor man stood nervously just inside the front door, I shepherded Amy inside the front room, saying to her something like "Now Amy, let the poor man in, he wants to see the meter not you". I don't see this as a big problem, lots of people talk to their pets. It's not so unusual. The trouble was, after a couple of seconds, I opened the door again and shouted "What did you say? Don't be so nasty or there will be no chicken for you tonight". Again I didn't see this as a problem. Amy and I have lots of such conversations during the day. However, the man read the meter in record time and almost ran down the drive, stopping only at the gate to write something in a little book he was carrying.
Yesterday we were having dinner with friends. After the kids had left the table and gone off to sack Carthage or rape the Sabine Women or whatever they do these days, the conversation turned to what we had done during the week just ended. When it came to my turn I couldn't think what to say. This was not because I hadn't done anything - I had toured Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, spent a couple of days at the world-famous Castroville Artichoke Festival and seen some splendid birds at Elkhorn Slough Nature Reserve just outside Moss Landing. It's just that saying that made it seem like all that I had done during the week was sit in front of my computer like some sad nerd. And the real trouble was, that is what I had done. And thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Finally, earlier today I drew my son's attention to the latest "Birth Announcements" column in the newspaper. A child called Xander had just been born (congratulations Mr and Mrs Soliz) and as this is what we tend to call our son, I thought he might be interested. He took the page from me, looked at the heading at the top of the page and said "Why on earth are you reading the Birth Announcements in the Monterey County Herald?" Without thinking I replied "I like to keep up to date with local issues". And I can swear that the look he gave me - the raised eyebrows, the mixture of pity and embarrassment - was the same look my mother used to give me fifty years ago. If there had been anyone else in the room, he no doubt would have turned to them and said "He lives in a world of his own".
Join my world and catch up with the latest episode in the Fat Dog To The Big Apple adventure.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

All That Jazz

There used to be a UK radio station called Jazz FM. It was amongst the batch of early digital radio stations which were available via the new DAB radios and on-line. As digital radio became more accessible and the popularity of broadband increased, radio stations which catered for something other than BBC Radio One-and-a-half tastes where, at last, a practical possibility. As a jazz-lover, I - like many of my fellow fans - tuned into Jazz FM as soon as our sparkling new DAB radios were taken out of their boxes. And what a disappointment.

It wasn't that we had to get used to hearing some of the great legends of jazz in close proximity with adverts for car insurance or toothpaste. Many of us were veterans of American jazz radio programmes and therefore were used to commercial co-existence (although there was one particular advert for BUPA Care Homes which seemed a little too carefully targeted for my liking). It wasn't that we would have to occasionally share our platform with artists whose relationship with jazz was about as tenuous as Vera Duckworth's relationship with the Royal Family. It was the sheer volume of chaff that got you down. You had to listen to hours of lift-music to find minutes of the genuine articles. Soon, your brain was left atrophied, you got saccharine-tinnitus, and you tried to shift the dial back to Jazz Record Requests or the Best of Jazz.

When Jazz FM suddenly vanished off the digital air-waves last year, few jazz fans noticed and even fewer were upset. And equally, when a new Jazz Radio Station - theJazz - rose like a digital phoenix from the ashes, jazz fans were much more cautious and a little less willing to give it a try. It wasn't until last week - when I was scratching my head and trying to work out the meaning of life - that I tried the new station out via its web-based player. And it is better than I expected - certainly better than Jazz FM. It is still a shared platform, but the proportion of real jazz is much better than in the past. It still seems to be playlist-based (and therefore if you listen for long enough you tend to here the same tracks over and over again) but as long as you don't listen for too long that is not a problem. And it is still a bit wooden (as though someone is reading the links from the back of an envelope) but that will probably improve with time.

So my initial verdict is relatively positive. It's certainly worth a try and you will not be too disappointed unless you charge in with too many expectations. Turn to their website and give it a try.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Water Closet Library

I remember, many years ago, there used to be a Public Toilet in Keighley. It was a grand Victorian affair close to one of the main road junctions in the town. No shrinking violet, it was built along the lines of a minor castle. When it came to advertising its purpose, there was no self-consciousness, no little pictograms of skirts or trousers, no polite little abbreviations. In ornate letters which must have been a yard high, it declared "WATER CLOSET". In case you missed this, above the two entrances were emblazoned "MEN'S WATER CLOSET" and "WOMEN'S WATER CLOSET". I always admired this approach: it said a lot about the town. Keighley was no "powder room" of a town and it was proud of the fact.

My thoughts returned to that august building in Keighley when, a week ago, my attention was drawn to a competition being run by Long Barn Books for "the best new Loo book". Several people have been kind enough to suggest that my writing reminds them of the strain of defecation and therefore I might be uniquely suited to have a go. The competition rules require you to avoid books about loos themselves, bottoms or any unsavoury subject and to steer away from established market leaders in the world of loo books.

After an initial think about the problem - whilst sat on the water closet one day - I came up with a shortlist of three ideas. I decided to try a sample section from each as a NFN posting and then let the great British public decide. Here then, is the shortlist :

A jolly romp through some of the madcap ideas which each had the capacity to change the world for better or worse but didn't do so because the ideas themselves were so intrinsically insane. See the example of the Saint-Simonite waistcoat posted last week. If this idea is the one which is submitted for the competition the challenge will be to work out the other 100!

Alan Burnett takes his analytical telescope to look at just a few of the extraordinary ways people spend their leisure hours. In addition to the Gordian world of the knot-head (see example from last week), he will venture into the murky realms of the lamp-post collector, the decorative soap maker, and the stick insect enthusiast (and many, many more). The problem with this idea is whether Alan Burnett would emerge sane from the other end of such an investigation.

Join us for a diagrammatic tour through religion, philosophy, science, politics, and soap operas. Can some of the most challenging questions that face mankind - what is the meaning of life, is global warming a real threat, was Tracey Barlow guilty of murder - be represented in diagrammatic form? The problem with this idea is that it is too much like hard work (the sample posted yesterday took days of effort) and the book - if it is small format as the publisher suggests - will have to be issued with a magnifying glass. Whilst there is no technical problem with such a solution (I recall once buying the Complete Oxford Dictionary reduced to just two volumes by means of micro-printing and it coming with its own magnifying glass) it might raise a few eyebrows if you were seen repeatedly entering the loo (sorry, water closet) with a magnifying glass.

Those then are the ideas. That is the shortlist. The idea has to be submitted to the publisher by the 14th June and therefore voting in this contest will close on the 31st May 2007. To vote, text, your choice (either IDEA, HOBBY, or CLOSET) to 07952 260402 (calls cost £2 plus standard network rates). You can also vote by leaving your choice as a comment on this posting.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Tired Of Life

Over the last few days I have become thoroughly tired of life. I have been longing for it to end, and yesterday I decided that if it was not over with by the end of the weekend I would abandon it and find something else to occupy myself with.

Before you order a Samaritan Hit Squad to come breaking the door down let me explain that by "life" I mean "the meaning of life". Last week I decided to test my theory that almost any problem could be simplified when represented in a diagrammatic form. The vision of my great life's work came to me as I walked Amy around the Crematorium : "The Meaning Of Life And Other Intractable Problems .... in Diagrams". I needed to attempt a sample page of this opus, and never been one to run from a challenge I decided to start at the very beginning with the meaning of life.

The one problem with a diagrammatic representation of every problem that has ever launched a headache is that the web doesn't do diagrams very well. To get an idea of where I have been for the last six days you will need to see the full size image which can be found on my website.

The big advantage of this venture is that the proposed volume will contain only the problems along with a variety of solutions. This will leave the coast clear for a follow-up volume which will provide the definitive solutions. Until this second volume is completed and published you may be interested to know that the final solution to the first problem outlined above can be obtained from me in return for a £5 cheque or postal order.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Cornucopia of Meaningless Hobbies and Other Trivial Ways of Passing The Time : Knots

I remember when I was a kid, eating Sunday lunch and listening to the Billy Cotton Bandshow on the radio. I particularly remember one song he used to play – and Alan Breeze used to sing – which was all about the pleasure of untying knots in a piece of string. And there is a pleasure in it – the pleasure of unravelling. When it’s raining outside and there is nothing decent on the telly, give me a pint of half-decent beer and a good knotted piece of string and I’m a happy man. I am tempted to suggest that people fall into one of two personality types which can easily be identified, based only on whether they would prefer to tie knots or untie them. We are all either ravellers or unravellers, constructors or deconstructors. However, when it comes to social organisation, to the willingness of people to shout their proclivity from the rooftop of Hobby Hall, the ravellers win every time. Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the twisted world of the knot enthusiast.

I am loath to suggest that knots are in any way trivial. If you have nothing better to do with your life, you can try the little experiment suggested by one of the knot tying websites and count how many times a day you either tie or untie a knot (In my case it came to a somewhat disappointing “three” and two of those were my shoelaces – and before you ask I pulled my shoes off without untying them). Whilst slip-on shoes and clip-on ties might be downgrading the importance of the mechanics of knots in our lives, scientists are increasingly focusing their attention on the importance of knots in our understanding of the very fabric of life on earth. For some time, mathematicians have devoted a good deal of time to what is known as “knot theory”. Mathematical knots are defined as “structures which embed a circle in 3-dimensional Euclidean space” and when represented in diagrammatic form have an uncanny likeness to the diagrams you can find in Boy Scout manuals. More recently, other branches of theoretical science have begun to study knots. Physicists are interested in knots because the latest theories of matter postulate that everything is made up of tightly coiled (and maybe knotted) loops of space-time, and biologists are interested in knots because the long, string-like molecules of DNA coil themselves up tightly to fit inside the cell.

The knot hobbyist however is more of the hands-on rope type of person. They take their lengths of rope and balls of string and from them they conjure the most astonishing creations. Enter the world of the “knot-head” (a descriptive term adopted by many American knot enthusiasts) and you are entering the world of the clove hitch, the sheepshank, the Turks Head, Monkeyfist and Jug Sling. With there ties, passes and bights they create coasters and picture frames, bell-pulls and key-rings, bracelets and decorative wall-hangings. Get a group of knot-heads together in the same room – which the various branches of the
International Guild of Knot Tyers does with astonishing regularity – and the passage of time is lost as loops of twine bind the participants together in happy fellowship. And if you are unfortunate enough to live too far away from your local knot tying chapter, there is, of course, a vibrant on-line community ready to welcome you. Currently there are over 1,000 members of the Yahoo knot-tyers discussion group. Recent topics have included the search for a formula for estimating cordage length (SL = (3.14 *(D+3*d)*L)/(d*S) was suggested by one correspondent) and which knotting book one would best like to be stranded on a desert island with.

The internet is also the source of another invaluable resource for the budding knot enthusiast – the animated knot diagram. Turn to any of the standard knot tying books – and these are more widely available than you might think, I found one in my local Garden Centre only the other day – and you will find a load of fussy diagrams showing endless loops and loose ends, with enough overs and unders to give even the most relaxed a thumping good headache. But turn to an
animated knot diagram and everything becomes clear. Thanks to one such presentation I am now sporting a tie featuring a full Windsor Knot.

Although the world of the raveller is well catered for in both the traditional and the on-line literature, us unravellers are an endangered, unsupported and unloved species. Whilst our friends are out attending knot-tyers supper parties we sit alone with our knotted string and our desire to open that which has been locked. Like Alexander the Great we take the sword of reason to the Gordian knot of modern living. And we do it in splendid isolation.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

101 Ideas Which Nearly Changed The World : The Saint-Simonite Waistcoat

Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, was a splendid chap. Of all the people who nearly changed the world, he was one of the most prolific. And whilst his plans and schemes came to nothing under his guardianship, a few of them did go on to change the world when adopted by less quixotic characters in the decades and centuries which followed his death. Such a destiny cannot, as yet, be claimed for one of his most engaging ideas – the Saint-Simonite Waistcoat – but the twenty-first century is still young and who knows what lies around the corner.

Henri de Saint-Simon was born in 1760 and had connections to one of the great French aristocratic families, but the connections were somewhat fragile and he was far from rich. Whilst still a teenager he travelled to America where he fought for the American colonists in their war of independence against Britain. During a convoluted return journey to Europe, he stopped off in Central America and drew up the first plans for a canal linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. Despite being a supporter of the revolution, Saint-Simon’s aristocratic pedigree resulted in his imprisonment during the height of the French Revolution. However, despite being a proponent of liberty, equality and fraternity, he managed to make a small fortune by buying confiscated land and later selling them at a profit.

Once the fortune had been spent, Saint-Simon threw himself into his writing and produced volumes of detailed plans for the harmonious future of mankind. He was not the kind of person to make do with a general theory when a detailed blueprint could be produced. Thus when he put forward the first proposals for a European Parliament, he carefully calculated the size and location of each constituency and the detailed roles of all the functionaries. And when he published his great work “Le Nouveau Christianisme”, he not only described the basic principles of his new religion – a religion which, blending science, technology and humanity, would underline the equality of mankind – but also stipulated the detailed design of the churches and the manner of dress of the devotees.

And so to Saint-Simon’s contribution to the 101 Ideas Which Nearly Changed The World – the Saint Simonite Waistcoat. His detailed plans for the new communities which would adopt his philosophical teachings state that followers should all wear a particular type of reversed waistcoat, which laced up at the back. Thus they could only be put on and taken off with the help of a fellow human being. The garments would emphasise, in the most practical way, the inter-dependence which lay at the centre of the principles of brotherhood and equality. With inter-dependence reinforced, “evils will start to decrease, troubles to abate, wars to die away”.

By 1823, Saint-Simon had created a body of work which, he believed, would transform society and take it towards a new age of peace and prosperity. With appealing credulity, he informed the various leaders of European states that he was available to advise them on the way forward. Nobody replied and so he attempted to blow his brains out. He succeeded only in blinding himself in one eye, but shortly afterwards he died, a broken man. After his death devotees attempted to put his ideas into action and a number of Christian-socialist communities were established in Europe and America. His followers would wear the famous waistcoat which, by now, would have the words “le pere” stencilled across the front in praise of their founder. But within a few short years the communities had vanished and Saint-Simon, his ideas and his waistcoat had all been forgotten.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Jute Bag Jury

It is rare for me to take up the mantle of an environmental campaigner. I am largely unmoved by global warming, I positively seek out E numbers and I have never been able to tell an organic chip from one which has had its full complement of anti-pest chemicals. But occasionally a cause will come along which, in my eyes, appears un-hyped, eminently reasonable, and scientifically verifiable. And this is why I have turned my back on plastic bags.

It was the campaign run by the wildlife photographer, Rebecca Hosking, which caught my attention. She was filming sea turtles in the Pacific and found a number of them dying with plastic carrier bags stuck in their throats. On her return to England she started a
campaign which has led to her home town - Modbury in Devon - becoming the first place in Europe to ban the use of plastic bags for an experimental six month period.

According to the latest
Government figures over 8 billion plastic bags are used by UK shoppers per year. These figures are now seven years old so the total will, most likely, be much higher. It is difficult to avoid some plastic bags without becoming unnecessarily eccentric. I have not yet reached the stage where I demand that my half pound of Walls sausages are liberated from their plastic wrapper at the check-out. But it is easy to avoid the most conspicuous use of plastic bags - the ones which we carry our purchases home in.

Over the last week or so I have acquired a vast collection of jute bags - available at most supermarkets for less than a £1 - and these are what I now use for my shopping. In addition to the environmental benefit, there is something aesthetically pleasing about a jute bag. They put me in mind of sacks of flour. They transport me back to rural idylls, where the sun shines down for ten hours a day, and foaming pints of English beer quench the thirsts of bone-weary hop-pickers (this may, of course, have something to do with the fact that the jute plant is a close relative of the hemp plant). So, be like me, go jute - and see where you are transported to. Whilst you may live to regret it, the sea turtles may live to welcome your conversion to the cause.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

People and Places

You can't beat a good post Bank Holiday moan. My contribution to the genre is that I am fed up to the back teeth with people. Let me rapidly reassure the few remaining friends that I have, that I don't mean them. I don't even mean chance acquaintances nor people I pass on the street. I don't mean football crowds or NHS managers, call centre operatives or able-bodied idiots who park in disabled spaces. No, I am fed up with pictures of people.

There is normally nothing I like better on a sunny afternoon than settling down on my yellow balcony with what used to be called "a picture magazine". Back in the old days these were represented by the likes of "Life Magazine" or "Picture Post". The modern-day equivalents are, I suppose, the weekend glossies that fall out of most daily and Sunday newspapers. When these first appeared back in the sixties they were reasonably anodyne things containing articles on the hedgerows of Devon or Hadrian's Wall Revisited. But, as the cult of celebrity has slowly taken over the minds, dreams and television screens of modern man (and woman), they have become nothing more than minor show-biz fan-mags.

Take, for example, the Guardian Weekend Magazine from the 5th May 2007 (this was one of the offending magazines I took to the yellow balcony over the Bank Holiday). First I flicked through it, then I chucked it in the bin, then I rescued it, then I did a mathematical analysis of its photographic content. Leaving aside advertisements - advertisers are free to use whatever image they want, I have no argument with that - there were 46 significant photographs in the magazine (I have left out of the analysis little header photos and that kind of thing). To undertake the analysis I devised five categories : people, places, food/drink, material objects, and others. (If you are muttering to yourself phrases like "get a life, Burnett" or "he really should get out more", keep your bloody opinions to yourself). The result of the analysis was as follows:

Percentage of total photographs devoted to :
People 50%
Places 2%
Food/Drink 20%
Objects 17%
Others 11%

In other words, every other photograph we see is a celebrity's face grinning at us. When not faced with Juliette Lewis or Penelope Cruz or Keanu Reeves or Gordon Ramsey (whoever they are) we are bombarded with images of Polenta Cakes (with rocket salad) or hemp and parsley pesto. Escape food and faces and the chances are you will be looking at a fancy chair or a stainless steel coffee table. Enough is enough. Give us back places. We want the Lincolnshire coastline, the stiles of Dartmoor, the snickets of Hechmondwike, and the forests of Scotland.

There is another Bank Holiday weekend just around the corner. Not to worry, I have bought myself a copy of the National Geographic in anticipation.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


For those of you who hang upon my lips, you'll know our narrowboat has been converted to electric drive - with an on-board diesel generator charging the drive batteries as needed...

What you may not know is the the generator has a "VCS" - "Voltage Control System" - a box of electronics that is supposed to keep the output voltage of the generator constant so that - if need be - the batteries recharge at fantastic rate (up to 60 Amps) for their ideal charging voltage (about 87 Volts) AND, conversely, if the batteries are nearly charged the generator doesn't speed up.... in our case anything over 90V would speedily wreck them and, indeed, prolonged over-high voltage could cause them to explode (yes, really!!)

Well, I had a gut feeling the batteries weren't recharging as fast as planned and hoped and - when they were nearly charged - the voltage did merrily get up to 90V (no higher because I hastily turned the generator off and wiped the sweat from my brow whilst imagining popping noises...)

You've guessed it. Our VCS as supplied (second hand) wasn't working. So I fiddled around.. and fiddled around... and fiddled around... and consulted the chief engineer, Chris Baker, at Fischer-Panda (the make of the generator) - he's intrigued about our conversion and kindly answers all my questions but... it still didn't work....

I was slightly in despair. BUT I had discovered the "actuator" on the generator worked fine - it's a neat (and very simple) thing where an electric motor effectively operates the generator's accelerator. You drive it with little 12 volt pulses - voltage one way round for "faster", other way around for "slower". Indeed, being a belt & braces man I wired up a switch to check... yes, pulse the one way, generator got faster, other way, slower. So wonderfully simple I could have sat there all day - and ACTUALLY we don't need a VCS - just me flicking the switch whilst watching the voltmeter!!!!

I shall cut my pet homily to the bone that I don't really go for all this automated stuff if something can be done by hand - human consideration tends to be vastly superior to automated stuff, especially if something unexpected happens!

Nevertheless, I did realise that with all my hobby electronics I could probably dream up a substitute VCS... even better, I had ALL the components I needed (some people collect postcards - I accumulate electronic bits... not particularly intentionally, I've just got reams of stuff left over from previous experiments... and may I recommend electronics as a hobby for the impoverished, most components only cost a few pence each! And getting them to work as you want can take DAYS - it's a really cheap way of filling one's day! And terribly satisfying when things work...)

So, the photo above is my trial circuit at that moment - merrily producing pulses to (notionally) speed the generator up and pulses to set the accelerator to "low" upon switching the generator off. Since then, another little group of bits added to that blank bit of plugboard and, wow, it all seems to work. Pulse, pulse pulse to (notionally) accelerate the generator if the voltage drops by less than a volt, pulse, pulse, pulse to (notionally) slow the generator if the voltage rises by less than half a volt. Don't ask me why, the effects aren't symmetrical. I mean, by the way, don't ask me why or I'll tell you - that would take an hour or more and probably longer for the uninitiated. ....

Before you all applaud loudly (some hope!), I now have to convert this trial circuit into solidly-soldered form. Of all things, I happen to have a bit of PCB (printed circuit board) will fit into the same box the original VCS came in... so, unless I tell people, nobody will actually know we haven't got a Fischer-Panda VCS!! Don't think I'm so modest, I'll tell just everybody (relevant) EVEN if they didn't want to know...

Oh, I'm supposed to be a house developer - that's OK, apparently - plans should be approved June 7th. Yawn... we have to wait a MONTH sitting on our backsides not able to do a thing?

Anyway, my news from nowhere is that the boat is likely to be working A1 OK - Waterways World have already agreed they'd like an article or two - in about two days I'll be ready to do proper tests. House stuff, June 7th to start.

I do wish people would realise what FUN it is to make a functional electronic circuit - unlike history or anything people can argue about, it simply works. No argument.

The Beauty Of Money

I like money. I was reminded of this fact yesterday when my labyrinthine exercise in filing away the accumulated possessions of a lifetime reached the letter "M". And sure enough, there is a file marked "Money". Inside the file - amongst other things - was a 1919 20 Kronen Austrian banknote. As you can see from the illustration, it is truly a thing of beauty.

The keen-eyed amongst us will spot that the note is dated 2 Janner 1913. However, the even-keener-eyed will spot the red overprinting - if you can't make it out it is DEUTSCHOSTERREICH - which pinpoints the date of issue as that brief period after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the western bits of the Empire re-invented themselves as German Austria. Officially, German Austria existed for less than a year and the provisions of 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye prohibited the use of the term and re-named the country Austria. Of course, that was not the end of the story ... but you didn't come here for a history lesson.

Whatever your opinions on German Austria may be, it cannot be denied that they could design a stunning banknote. I cannot imagine that, in years to come, people will have battered old cardboard files containing long out of date credit cards - kept for no other reasons than their aesthetic qualities. But, there again, one should never try and second-guess the potential eccentricity of true collectors. Think of my Uncle Frank and his bus tickets.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Creeque Alley Shuffle

When the American singer-songwriter Don Mclean was once asked what his song "American Pie" meant he replied "It means I never have to work again". This response should become the maxim of all those who search for meaning in popular songs - and I openly confess I am a member of that brotherhood - but we ignore such comments or simply search for a deeper meaning in the rebuff itself. All I need is to be exposed to a song with words that go slightly beyond the "moon in June" variety and I instantly grab my analytical pick-axe and go digging for a meaning. For those who suffer from this compulsion, the Internet is a wonderful place. I remember attending the shadowy dph's hundredth birthday party last year. During the course of the evening he and a friend took to the stage and sung and played a song called "The Weight" (originally popularised by The Band in the 1960s). It's the kind of song you know without knowing that you know it. If you know what I mean. As soon as I got home I cast family, food, sleep and a missed episode of Coronation Street to one side so that I could search for websites devoted to interpretations of the lyrics. And, as I knew there would be, there were several of them. What brings me to this topic is the fact that the "shuffle" mechanism on my MP3 player has become addicted to a song called Creeque Alley by the Mamas and the Papas. If you think you don't know it take a look at the clip on YouTube, you will probably recognise it. Now I don't blame my shuffle mechanism, it's a catchy tune and, because the words are not stuck in the "love-dove" groove, it is a prime candidate for interpretation. The most comprehensive interpretation of the song can be found on the site which is dedicated to nothing other than its meaning : I won't get into the analysis here, chase it up yourself if you are interested. But the fascinating thing is that part of the song is about Halifax (OK, Halifax Nova Scotia but who's counting) where I grew up and part of the song is about an alley in the Virgin Islands (the Creeque Alley of the title) where I myself once ate a fresh-baked croissant. Now is that scary or is that scary.