If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday 31 October 2010

Oop North - Trip Report

I got back late last night and have spent today sorting out all the wet kit and giving the bike a much-needed clean and lube. Here's a little something about the trip. I will be posting something separately about the kit I was using, as I put a number of things to quite a severe test. Quite a long post, so if you're not interested, bugger off.

This was the longest trip I have done on the Bonnie, and indeed the furthest I have been on a bike in the UK for a long time: a total of 728 miles in two (riding) days. The weather forecast was fairly mixed, so I kitted up for a wet ride. Good decision. It was raining steadily on Thursday morning as I set off, and it rained for the first hour as I rode up through Wales. The rain stopped for a while and the ride from Bala to Chester was in beautiful sunshine - a glorious late October day. I stopped for a bite to eat at Chester Services (quality, medium - a burger's a burger, right?) and then headed off for the motorway stretch of the journey. And the rain came again. It wasn't a downpour, but the wind was rising all the time and the beating of the raindrops on the visor was steady and insistent. I had planned a fuel stop at Penrith, so I assumed the nearest thing to a racing crouch that an upright bike with a tank bag would allow, and got on with it.

I love the North of England, and I don't get up there very often now that both my parents are gone, so I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. I had planned a route up the M6 to Penrith, and then over the North Pennines to Haydon Bridge and into Newcastle on the A69. The return journey was down the A1(M) as far as Richmond, where I wanted to call in to see an elderly relative, and then cross the Yorkshire Dales and rejoin the M6 at Lancaster. All in all, plenty of decent scenery, some challenging roads, and a big lungful of North that my body had been craving for so long.

The M6 going North to Penrith goes over Shap Fell, which reaches 320m above sea level. That doesn't sound much, but the stretch is horribly exposed to winds from the West and the long incline going up to Shap Summit is bleak and lonely. It wasn't too cold when I was there, but the winds were gusting and the rain was steady, creating spray that made visibility difficult. Because the winds were from the SW, the spray kicked up by lorries was driven from left to right for Northbound traffic like me, which meant that passing any vehicle meant a leap of faith as you plough forward into a wet, grey wall. But I was dry and reasonably warm in my kit, so I pressed on, worried only about how far it was to Penrith and whether I had enough fuel. (Too wet to stop and take photographs, though.)

I turned off the M6 at Penrith and filled the bike at a service station on the outskirts of town. It was here I made my only mistake of the day. I was wearing waterproof gloves with thin thermal liners, and I had taken them off to do the necessary. Grappling with the tank bag and filler cap meant that my hands were wet, and I didn't dry them before I put my gloves back on. Within ten miles, the insides of the gloves were damp and my hands were getting chilled, and they didn't warm up again until I was sitting in the bar of the hotel. But the run up from Penrith on the A686 over Hartside Top and on to Alston was fantastic. It's a steep climb, up to 1 in 4 in places, with hairpins and steep drops, and technically challenging for a loaded bike. Thankfully, the rain had eased by now, and I was able to enjoy the spectacular views and the twisty road. The Bonnie isn't a very powerful bike, but it charged up Hartside like a bellowing boar. Even fully loaded (two heavy panniers and a stretched-to-bursting tankbag) the handling was sweet and confident. The new tyres I put on a few weeks ago (and patted myself on the back for having done so) got a full workout and are both now scrubbed to the edge of the tread.

The promise by the hotel of 'secure motorcycle parking' turned out to be a side door leading to a corridor full of rubbish. There was no way the Bonnie was going to get in there, even if I took the panniers off, so they agreed I could park in the staff parking area. The receptionist and her boss were sweet Geordie girls and couldn't have been more helpful, even opening up the kitchen to save me carrying my gear round the outside, and helping me out so that I could bring two big panniers, one tank bag, one helmet and a satnav into the hotel in one go. I returned to fix the disc lock onto the front wheel, but forgot to bring the yellowy-green coiled wire that goes from lock to handlebar to remind you that you have a big lump of metal on your brake disc. Still, I'll remember to take it off before I leave, no problem. I was too keen to get my wet kit off and hit the bar.

The wedding next day was a grand occasion, and I saw my youngest cousin married off in fine style. The evening 'event' was a disco, and was so crashingly loud that I lasted three minutes and then repaired to the bar. There I found all my other cousins, so we spent a long evening drinking the excellent Geordie Pride and catching up on things. This was time very well spent.

In the morning, I brought one pannier down when I went for breakfast, and I thought I would attach it to the bike and then bring the bike to the front of the hotel to make the rest of the loading easier. Pannier on, oil checked, bike fired up, ... crunch.

I had, of course, forgotten all about the disc lock. Fortunately, the damage was limited to the speedometer cable, which was mashed into fragments at its bottom end. It could have been worse - I know people who have broken brake discs and cracked fork legs doing the same stunt, which would have been the end of my journey. But I had the satnav, so I could always say that I knew my speed if the police asked. The 'mph' figure is in tiny six point type, behind a screen and a shiny plastic cover, so it's hardly obvious, but hey.

The TomTom told me that I had about 9 hours to home, but it didn't know that the previous evening, in the enthusiasm borne by the Geordie Pride, I had promised to visit two relatives who lived nearby before I left the area. It was a lovely morning, cool but dry, and the coast looked pretty good for a morning at the end of October.

It was almost mid-day before I was on the A1(M) heading South. I was determined not to waste time, but then I saw signs to something I have always wanted to see - Antony Gormley's Angel Of The North. I'm not a big fan of modern art, but this is simply stunning and I love it.

I high-tailed it down the motorway and got to Richmond in North Yorkshire by 1 pm. An old friend of my father's is in a care home there. We have kept in touch over the years, but I hadn't seen her since her sister's funeral four years ago, when she was 94, and I wondered what I would find. I needn't have worried. At 98, she was very frail and needed help to move about, but mentally she was still as sharp as a tack. She had been a primary school headteacher all her life and never married, but at 95 she was still living - alone, by now - in a cottage which was last modernised in about 1920. A coal fire for heat, everything done by hand, all cooking from local ingredients or the garden, and the village bus for transport. She did well to live independently for that long, but now she is coping well with 'assisted living' and showing no signs of slowing down just yet. I spent over an hour with her and - rather against my expectations - enjoyed myself enormously.

The next part of the ride was the bit I was looking forward to most of all. I left Richmond heading West and then turned right onto the B6270 to go up through Swaledale. This has got to be one of the most beautiful of all places on God's earth. And I got lucky. The weather was dry and bright, and the sun was low in the sky. This made all the dry-stone walls stand out from the hillsides, and gave a fabulous texture to the fields and hills.

God's self-build retirement complex

Near the hamlet of Low Row I had the only 'moment' of the entire journey. On a narrow, twisty section was a double bend left-right with a bridge with a blind crest in the middle. According to Roadcraft, I should have been well to the left approaching the bridge because of the blind crest, but I was enjoying the scenery and was towards the middle of the road. A big Audi (with those funny LED lower eyelashes) came round the bend and over the crest taking most of the road, and he missed my right foot by a matter of a few inches. His fault for coming round a corner on the wrong side of the road, but mine for not being prepared for it and positioning accordingly. Concentrate, Richard!

Just after the village of Muker, I turned left and went over the Buttertubs Pass. This was another steep, hairpin-rich, 1 in 4 climb and the views were again spectacular.

The so-called Buttertubs are at the top of the pass. They are limestone potholes about 20m deep, and are unusual in that their sides are vertical, so they look like the launch tubes for some vast Yorkshire Dales Space Defence System. I paused here for a while and then took off for the last part of the scenic run.

I made my way down to Hawes and then onto the Ingleton road. This crosses Ingleborough Moor and the terrain is not as pretty as Swaledale, but the road is downhill all the way, and the names I passed - Blea Moor, Settle, Horton-in-Ribblesdale - all reminded me of my caving days. The ground beneath you here is Carboniferous Limestone, and it's so full of holes it's like a Swiss cheese. Fortunately, the roads here are good, and so I kept up a high average speed in the faiiling light.

After Ingleton, where I filled the bike again, it was a short hop to the M6 at Lancaster, another burger at a service area, and then I turned the bike's nose to the South and pressed on. By now it was almost dark, and the busy M6 between Preston and Warrington (you are going between the massive conurbations of Liverpool and Manchester, and the traffic volume and behaviour reflects this) wasn't a lot of fun. But then I left the M56 and headed into North Wales, with home firmly in my sights, and things got rather quiet.

I like riding in the dark. Driving a car on an empty road at night is quite a pleasant experience, but on a bike you can add that the dark surrounds you for 360°, and over your head too. You feel quite exposed. Add to that the fact that if animals make a noise in the shadows, you hear it, and riding after dark is quite a sensory experience. And of course, once I had left Chester, the rain started again, and didn't let up until I was home and in bed. The single headlight of the Bonnie isn't brilliant, but it was enough to keep up a steady 50 mph for most of the way. (If you think that's pifflingly slow, remember that these are narrow roads, often only one-and-a-half lanes wide, very twisty and with stone walls either side. If you get it wrong here, you get it very wrong.) The only problem comes with sharp corners, where the bike leans far over and the road you are riding onto vanishes into the gloom outside the narrow beam. The only way to keep the road in view is to slow down and lean less, which is what I did.

What I hadn't reckoned with is the lack of petrol stations in rural Wales, and the fact that they see no need, even on major routes, to stay open much after tea-time. I was banking on there being a petrol station open in Bala, as I reckoned - no trip meter, remember - that I was going to run onto reserve before long, and I have not yet tested the reserve capacity of the bike. I think it's about 20 miles, but I haven't done the strap-a-gallon-to-the-back-and-run-until-it-stops test on it yet. To my concern, the station in Bala was closed and all the lights were off, and then to my dismay the bike stuttered and started to die. I flipped to the reserve tank, and as I did so I passed a sign saying 'Dolgellau 18 miles'. Oo-er.

I reckoned this should be possible - and there was no alternative. Really. It was 7.45 pm on a Saturday night, and as far as rural Wales is concerned, that means 'closed'. I knew for a fact that there was a Little Chef with a petrol station attached just outside Dolgellau, so I slowed right down to about 40 and stayed in top gear, hoping to get every last millimetre out of the remaining fuel. I rolled through Dolgellau and up the hill towards Machynlleth, and there was the Little Chef.

And there was the fuel station, with its lights out. Oh dear.

I saw that there was still someone filling a car, so I raced the bike in next to a pump, grabbed the fuel hose from the holster and stuck it in the tank before they could change their minds. Luckily, the girl behind the desk was a helpful soul, and answered my pantomime tilted head (?) with a nod (!). Phew. Once that precious liquid was in, I relaxed. I knew I had under 100 miles to go, so a full tank would do it with ease, even if I caned it all the way. It turns out that this station - and remember, this is probably the only big fuel stop for 50 miles in any direction, on the main North-South route through mid-Wales - closes at 8 pm on a Saturday, and I had rolled up at 8.05 pm. If the girl had cashed up quicker and gone, I would have had to sleep under the bike and wait for them to open in the morning. When I filled it, I found the bike still had about a litre (or 10 miles) left. Too damn close.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, and I arrived home at 10.45 pm. I was careful not to get the insides of the gloves wet this time, and I can report that when I got home not one drop of water had got inside my waterproof layer. I am pleased with that. I'd been on the road, in one way or another, for over 13 hours, and I expected that I would be utterly knackered and ready to drop. Not so - although I was happy to park the bike and turn myself to other things such as hot tea and a bite to eat, I was only a little stiff and could easily have done the same tomorrow. The MCN Ride Logger app on my phone recorded 377 miles that day.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Posting for Christmas

Over at Old Holborn there is a guest post by a postman, giving all kinds of advice about posting stuff, especially for Christmas. Well worth a read, as it's a laugh as well as useful.

Go there!

Oop North

Tomorrow I leave Westest Wales to go Northwards to Newcastle for a family wedding. I have a pretty route planned for the way there, and an even prettier one for the way back. The fuel tank is filled, the chain is oiled, the tyres are pumped up, and the wedding suit is crushed in to one of the panniers, along with the smartest shoes I possess. And a tie, probably.

I am taking the lapdog with me, as the hotel has indicated there is free wi-fi (probably in the bar so you will drink more, but that's fine by me). But it's a family occasion, and I don't get to see them very often, so I may post from Tyneside and I may not. Play nicely while I am away.

Oh, and by the way I am taking this with me:

It is in case anything needs lubricating while I am away.

In case you are wondering, it is no longer a can of WD-40 maintenance spray. It has had its insides taken out and replaced with a stainless steel flask, capacity about a quarter of a bottle. It is currently brimming with Famous Grouse.

It was made for me by one of my friends in Denmark, who is a fabricator by trade, and it has his name engraved on the base. Other than that, you cannot tell that it is not the real thing (until you pick it up, of course, as it is way heavier than it looks). If you take the red cap off, the white squirty button is still there; it just doesn't do anything. It would take a proper examination to discover that it wasn't an innocent can of light oil spray. Apparently, the Police in Denmark don't like people travelling with alcohol about their persons, so motorists and bikers have to resort to subterfuge if they want to take a snifter with them. I am taking it as a specific against hotel bar prices.

Anna wants to know if I dare to go into the main hotel bar with it and ask "could I please have some soda to go with this?"

Heh. I'll let you know.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Superglue Protester

I read about this case on JuliaM's blog this morning, but I have been too helpless with laughter to respond until the evening. Now I have a meal and a drink inside me, the fire is lit, and I have calmed down, I will attempt to make a comment.


Police are trying to trace a customer who barged past protesters who were glued to the doors of a bank. Protesters had stuck one hand to either side of a doorframe and linked their hands to create a human barrier across the entrance of RBS bank in Castle Square, North Street, Brighton, during the Smash EDO protest on the afternoon of Wednesday October 13.
(If you want to know who SmashEDO are, have a look here. They are a pretty violent bunch of activists - the name kinda gives that away - and the website is full of 'smash' this and 'target' that - all pretty much standard 1970s student activist talk. Apparently, they want to 'smash' EDO, a scandal-hit American defence company owned by ITT and they think that stopping Mrs Mop from cashing a cheque to pay for the milk will help. OK, so generic anti-war protesters, then.)

Anyway, a group of these protesters decided to cause some trouble for RBS in Brighton, and superglued their hands to the bank's door frame. A customer presumably got a little frustrated and pushed his (or her?) way in (or out). The results were predictably painful:
Detective Constable Rex Petty said: "The protesters' barrier prevented people leaving and disrupted the work of the bank, upsetting both staff and customers. The pair left after a customer barged past the couple, who unwittingly caused the protesters' skin to be left on the doorframe.
Now, to be fair, that must have been very painful, and will probably be painful for some weeks until the skin has grown back. Just a minute ...

Sorry, just had to get a tissue. My sides are aching.

OK. The police obviously haven't identified the man, as they are "keen to trace" him, as he "may be able to provide further evidence". I'll bet. They've arrested the two people involved in the protest, so they'll be after the customer for assault occasioning actual bodily harm, I would imagine. Can you imagine the judge's summing up?
As you deliberately glued your hands to the doorframe, you must have been aware that this was a risky enterprise, and that anyone wishing to transact his normal business in the bank might have become impatient and pushed past you. The consequence of losing all the skin off the palms of your hands was not unforeseeable, and I therefore judge that you are the author of your own misfortune, and that no offence has been committed. I award costs against you of £500 to RBS for disrupting their lawful business, and £500 to the NHS for wasting their limited resources. The inability to wipe your own bottom or indulge in the practice of onanism for three months is a penalty which Mother Nature and your own foolishness have prescribed for you, for that is beyond the remit of this Court.
It won't happen, will it?

If they catch the guy who did it, he will be in the slammer for GBH and the protesters will be up for some serious compo, mark my words. I mean, how very dare anyone push roughly past some innocent people who were only engaged in a perfectly legitimate protest against the war machine?

I hope they don't, as the guy is a fucking hero.

Praise of a Collie

One of my favourite poems. It's just popped into my mind.

Praise of a Collie

She was a small dog, neat and fluid-
Even her conversation was tiny:
She greeted you with bow, never bow-wow.

Her sons stood monumentally over her
But did what she told them. Each grew grizzled
Till it seemed he was his own mother's grandfather.

Once, gathering sheep on a showery day,
I remarked how dry she was. Pollochan said, "Ah,
It would take a very accurate drop to hit Lassie."

She sailed in the dinghy like a proper sea-dog.
Where's a burn? - she's first on the other side.
She flowed through fences like a piece of black wind.

But suddenly she was old and sick and crippled...
I grieved for Pollochan when he took her a stroll
And put his gun to the back of her head.

Norman MacCaig (1910-1996)

I first came across this poem when I was teaching a poetry anthology to a group of 15-year-olds for what was then GCE O-level. I loved it from the first time I read it, and everything of MacCaig's that I have read since has confirmed that opinion. He has an ability (not unique, but very welcome) of being easily accessible to the young but with plenty to engage the adult reader. He writes lyrically and sharply. None of it is deliberately difficult, which is not to say that it is bland or dumbed-down. The guy just had a way with words - look at the image 4 lines from the end. Those 10 words have stayed with me since I first read them. And the last stanza never fails to bring a lump to the throat.

More of it here, if you are interested.

Kerry McCarthy Gets Wrist Slapped Shock

Back in May, I posted this about the electoral irregularities of Labour's 'Twitter Tsar' Kerry McCarthy:
Old news now, but Labour's 'Twitter Tsar' (Gawd help us) as made a bit of a boob. On Thursday, she sent out a tweet, reading: "First PVs opened in east Bristol, our sample (numbers of votes cast against candidate names), #gameON!"

This is clearly illegal, as the Representation of the People Act 1983 forbids the publication or communication of any polling data before the close of the polls on election day. Publication of early returns may, of course, influence the result, which may be done routinely by countries like Zimbabwe, but is frowned upon here.

The Returning Officer has now handed the matter over to the Police, but I have a deep suspicion that this will be kicked into the long grass until well after the election. Anything we can do to express our concern is worth doing, so I wrote last night to the Returning Officer.

I quoted my letter to Stephen McNamara, the Returning Officer, and also his reply. I was right, of course, and the matter was kicked so far beyond Third Man and into the stands that it has only just been found by a spectator and lobbed back. But re-emerged it has, and Kerry has been severely dealt with. The sitting MP for Bristol East has been found guilty of interfering with the electoral process and ... given a caution. I know, because DS Terry Greenhow has written to me and told me:

Your communication regarding Ms Kerry McCarthy MP

I understand that you have expressed concerns or made a complaint about Ms McCarthy prematurely posting the results of a General Election postal ballot on Twitter. I hope you will accept our apologies for the delay in our response to you. As you would expect we had to carry out a thorough and complete investigation into this matter and it was further complicated by the need for it to be referred to a Special Case Team of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in London who have specific responsibility for deciding on investigations involving the electoral process and operate completely independently of the police.

However, the case is now concluded and the CPS have advised that Ms McCarthy should receive a caution from Avon and Somerset Police. This took place at a Bristol Police Station today 25th October 2010.

Your sincerely

Economic Crime Team
Avon & Somerset Constabulary
01275 816771

Well, a reply is better than no reply, and at least it shows that the system is working to some extent. Only two questions remain:
  1. Our electoral process is possibly the most precious thing (apart from the thousand-year-old Common Law) that we as a nation possess. How come a blatant interference with its workings by one of the electoral candidates, which could have resulted in swinging the result her way, is punished by a mere caution?
  2. As a sitting MP has now received a Police caution for interfering with the democratic process, which may have benefited her candidacy, how come she is still sitting as an MP?
There is a third question, which is how come the Labour Party hasn't expelled someone who was caught in this way and further tarnished the Party's reputation for electoral fairness, but I suppose that one answers itself.

Monday 25 October 2010

Made me laugh on a Monday

From Lamebook:


(Sorry for the image quality. It looked great before posting.)

Sunday 24 October 2010

Definition of Charity

The fuss being made by the Chairwoman of the Charities Commission (the erotically-named Dame Suzi Leather) over the Spending Review is quite an eye-opener. A flavour:
The government's spending cuts could cost voluntary organisations billions of pounds, the charities' regulator in England and Wales has warned.

Charity Commission chairwoman Dame Suzi Leather said cutting funding to charities that were providing key public services would be short sighted.
Whut? How can a cut in government funding be a 'cost'? An increase in the water rates to their headquarters, or a rise in fuel prices for their transport, might be costs a charity has to bear, but how can a reduction in revenue ever be classified as a 'cost'?

Of course, it is only a cost if you accept the new definition of 'charity' espoused by Dame Suzi and her cronies. A 'Charity' is now an organisation that carries out a social function, and is directly funded by the state. (That is when it is not a thinly-disguised propaganda vehicle to advocate government's chosen priorities at arm's length, like ASH or Alcohol Concern.) The only way this differs from a proper government department is that, in addition, some of the charity's income is derived from fundraising. That the government have bought into this is borne out by:
The Cabinet Office said it would help charities with funding shortfalls.
Of course. We have cut your funding, so we have to - er - restore your funding.

Many of the 160,000 organisations the Charities Commission oversees provide key services for councils and rely on local authorities for funding.
So, remind me again - how are these organisations to be called charities? You see, to me the fundamental feature of a charity is that it relies on voluntary donations. If the funding isn't voluntary, it's not a charity - it's something else. And if an organisation calling itself a charity is funded (even partially) from central taxation or local government support, then that money is not given voluntarily. I wasn't asked whether I wanted to support it; the money was taken from me without my consent, and on pain of prison if I didn't pay. Call me old-fashioned, but to me that is slightly different from popping a couple of coins into a collecting box of my own free will.

I think Dame Suzi is confused herself, to be honest. In one paragraph, she refers to them as 'voluntary organisations' and in the next she talks about 'funding to charities'. Well, which is it to be? Either they are voluntary, or they are not. If they are funded out of central taxation, then you cannot claim that they are funded 'voluntarily'. Perhaps we ought to use the term 'Mixed Funding Organisations'. That would at least be honest.

She said: "If you cut the charities, you are cutting our ability to help each other, you are cutting what structures our neighbourliness. That is what Big Society is all about, so you are pulling the rug from under that."
Dame Suzi, do you really think that our ability to help each other, and the 'structure of our neighbourliness', whatever that is, only exist because the government pays for it to exist? If you believe that, then you have a very bleak view of human nature. What this tells me is that the whole 'Third Sector', as they like to call themselves, is totally bound up in government and government business. The boundary is blurred, and there is a lot of manipulation and rent-seeking going on in the fog. If a scheme to (say) help with youth unemployment is worth doing, then why isn't the government doing it in the first place? If something is regarded as worthy enough to be done, but not worthy enough to attract the free support of the public through donations, then you have to ask who is making the judgement on what is worthy.

Dame Suzi, a Labour Party member, was appointed to the Charity Commission in August 2006.

Why am I not amazed by this statement?

Here are a couple of TRUE charities: the RNLI and Help For Heroes.

Oh, and by the way - Dame Suzi is pulling down £105k p.a. for her 3-day week at the Charities Commission. Nice work if you can get it.

How the BBC reports the 'Cuts'

I have long felt that the BBC is significantly biased in its reporting of the news and its general output. There is a liberal-left mindset which seems to colour everything from the way it reports government business to the treatment of controversial issues such as the climate change debate. It's very subtle: nothing blatant that you could identify as a partisan statement, but subliminal things like the choice of speakers (or non-invitation of speakers) to represent opposing viewpoints, and even the tone of voice used in interviewing people who disagree with orthodox thinking. The BBC hotly deny any bias, of course. But there are little snippets of information that pull the curtain back, such as the famous remark by Jane Garvey, presenter of Radio 4's Woman's Hour, on 2 May 1997, after Blair's election victory:
"I do remember... the corridors of Broadcasting House were strewn with empty champagne bottles. I'll always remember that."
(BBC Radio Five Live, 10 May 1997)

If the BBC were found to be partisan in any way, this would create huge problems for them and the government. It is fundamental to the BBC's charter that the national broadcaster must be politically impartial, and if it were to be proved that the BBC were favouring one party over another, or one political viewpoint over another, then the legitimacy of the whole organisation, funded involuntarily by taxpayers of all political persuasions, would be called into question. We believe, in a democracy, that it is the freedom of the press which keeps governments in check; and one of the main identifiers of a totalitarian government is its ownership and control of the national broadcaster. But the BBC's output is so vast and varied, and accurate analysis of its assumptions and biases so complex and open to interpretation, that it is almost impossible to prove that the BBC is not neutral.

There was something very interesting over at the Biased BBC blog yesterday, however. A contributor has sent in word cloud images, generated from reporting of the Comprehensive Spending Review form four sources: the BBC, Sky News, CNN and Hansard. The images are not labelled, and you are invited to guess which one is a summary of the BBC coverage. I'm afraid it isn't hard to spot. The BBC reporting of Osborne's statement was overwhelmingly negative and concentrated on the notion of 'painful cuts'. (An equally-biased but opposite interpretation could have led with the idea of 'tough but necessary action to put the shattered economy back on its feet'.)

I'm not inclined to dismiss this as just a bit of rabid right-wing fluff. Word frequency analysis has been used in academic circles for a long time in proving or disproving authorship of disputed literary works, and it is based on sound statistical and linguistic principles. As long as the analysis is based on a sufficiently large data set, then the results are quite reliable. And this particular exercise is quite startling in its differentiation of the various sources.

I won't reproduce it here, but go and have a look. I think this deserves the widest audience possible.

Poll Results

Here are the official, validated and scrutineered results of the poll that has been sitting on your right for the past week. There were 24 responses, which makes this highly scientific.

Did you ever ride a motorcycle?

No way, too dangerous 3
Once or twice 1
Used to have one 6
Have one but rarely use it 5
Ride regularly 3
Ride every day 6

Quite encouraging. The fact that 1 in 8 would never go on a bike because of perceived safety fears is disappointing, of course, but reflects quite accurately what a lot of people think. I have offered a ride (take that the right way) to many friends and relatives over the years, and most have declined with a snort. "No way are you getting me on that bloody thing" is an approximation of the average reply.

20, or 83%, own a bike, or have owned one in the past. That's not surprising for readers of a blog that mentions bikes as the first item in its header image. But who are those poor souls, 11 in number, who either had one but got rid of it, or have one but hardly use it. Shape up, people!

(And, if you used to sprint about on a sporty little Honda but now satisfy your baser urges with a Jaguar, then just bear in mind that the bike is far more manly. Yes, I'm talking to you.)

The 9 people who ride regularly, or even every day, are the happiest and most fulfilled of my readership. I can tell that from just sitting here. (I suppose that should be 8, as one of them was me. I couldn't resist.) However, a total of 14, or over half, have a bike and use it sometimes. This is most promising.

Totally unscientific, pointless and a bit of a waste of time. Look out for the next one.

And thank you to everyone who took part.


I see I have been upgraded to Hurricane status.
With maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 km/h), Richard was centred about 95 miles east of Belize City, said the US National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Watch and learn.

Richard is moving north-west at about 12mph.

Not since I sold the Jawa, mate. Not since I sold the Jawa.

End of the Year

There's a real end-of-the-year feel about today. Because of the high autumn winds in Pembrokeshire, many of the leaves get ripped off the trees and fall to the ground to rot before they change colour on the branches. But the leaves that are still there are starting to turn. The Japanese maple that we planted a few years ago looks especially nice:

There's a clear blue sky and bright sunshine, and the wind is light, so we decided to take the dog to the beach. The sea was a fabulous turquoise blue, and the air was clear, enabling you to see for miles.

Newgale is a fantastic beach, with about two miles of smooth white sand and, especially at this time of year, rarely crowded. Today there were probably only 10-20 people within sight at any time, and at times, none.

I say there were few people around, but of course having a Labrador means that, of those few, none were unvisited and uninspected. He's a friendly old boy, and is especially fond of children, so he was in his element today. But, sadly, today also made it clear how age is catching up with him. He's always had problems with LSD (Labrador Selective Deafness, where he and only he decides what commands he is prepared to listen to), but today it seems as though real deafness is developing. It's the first time I have even known him not respond to the word 'biscuits'. His eyesight is now poor, and for him to see and chase a ball it has to be thrown directly in front of him. Anything thrown to the side, he just doesn't see.

The saddest thing is the way he is deteriorating physically. He's always been big and strong, and very fast on his feet for a big dog. When he was about a year old, I threw a ball on the same beach and measured his stride length when he was chasing it. Between the front paw marks on each stride was a full 12 feet. He hardly touched the ground. Today, I did the same, and he managed about half that. He can still run, but you can see he is stiff and hurting. He's finding it hard to get in the back of the car now as well. I had to help him in both times.

It comes to us all, I suppose. I'm feeling my age myself these days. Nothing works quite as well as it used to.

I'm told that getting a puppy when your dog is old is a way to keep them young and sprightly for longer, so perhaps we need to start looking for a little pal for the old bugger.

End of the year, things coming to an close; a melancholy time.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Night Shots

I haven't done much night-time photography recently - in fact, not since I last used a film camera to capture Venice after dark. Tonight, there was a fantastic scene out of the living room window, of a full moon in a clear sky with plenty of clouds around for texture. I got out the DSLR and tripod and spent half an hour in the garden taking shots of the sky. Here's one:

The exposure was 20 sec at f9, and the clouds were moving quite fast, which created a flowing and fuzzy effect against the sharp and static trees. I thought it was quite atmospheric.

When I got back to the house, the bike was in complete darkness, so I thought I would try something I have never done before - light painting. I set up the camera on a long exposure (I let Mr Nikon work out how long - about 30 sec at a guess) and then waved a torch over the bike fairly randomly until the camera had captured enough light to call it a day. It's no work of art, but at least I have proved that the technique works. It really was dark - you could hardly see the bike at all. There are possibilities here. I might try some more of this on Bonfire Night.

The original images were about 3MB, and I wouldn't win any friends for posting them here, so regard these as thumbnails.

Rider Visibility

'Zaphod' made an interesting comment to a recent post, and rather than reply at length (as I think his comment deserves it) I thought I would start a new topic. The original post concerned the often negative consequences of 'safety' improvements, but the comments thread drifted somewhat into Risk Compensation Theory and road safety issues.

Zaphod said...

Does anyone have a viable solution to the "Sorry-mate-I-didn't-see-you" problem? Anger is justified, but doesn't actually help; and I see the point about lights and unintended consequences.

Riders always assuming that they haven't been seen, that's a bit unrealistic? I give bikers a nod when I'm waiting at a junction, so they know that I've seen em. That makes their life a little easier, but doesn't solve the big problem. And what about the one that I won't see, one day?

I read once that sailors are aware that anything on a collision course doesn't move relative to the background. That sounds a bit complicated, but it's important.

Car drivers- When coming out of a junction, don't just rotate your head. Move it about a foot, side to side. This gives your stereo vision an 18 inch baseline, instead of 6 inch. If you don't follow that explanation, just do it. It works. Make it a habit. Every little helps. Bikers don't want to die, and drivers don't want to kill.
I am assuming that Zaphod is writing from a car driver's perspective. My response would be:

A viable solution to the SMIDSY problem is indeed to ride on the assumption that you are invisible. If you assume that no-one has seen you, and that they may do anything within the laws of physics in front of you, then you are pretty safe from other motorists who actually haven't seen you. In effect, you have compensated for their lack of observation before the event.

To give an example which is a frequent occurrence near me at the moment: traffic lights controlling some road works on a major route, with long tailbacks of stationary cars and lorries occupying the nearside lane. A common error for riders is to see the offside lane clear and assume that they can ride up it as long as no-one is coming the other way because it's for opposing traffic, right?. What often happens is that a car driver gets frustrated and decides to do a U-turn and try another route. He doesn't check his offside mirror because no-one will be coming up behind him because it's for opposing traffic, right? (same error) and pulls out to make a sharp turn. The rider is caught unawares and T-bones the car in the side. He has effectively hit a solid stationary object, and the consequences for the rider can be severe. Oscar India described a similar incident here recently [1].

If the rider assumes a) that no other motorist is aware that he is there, and b) any other driver may do anything at any time, then the rider will perform this manoeuvre with great caution, by riding slowly past the stationary traffic, and as far away from the queue as possible - on the far side of the offside lane. If a driver does do something unexpected, firstly you are travelling slowly enough to be able to take avoiding action, and secondly the distance from the traffic queue means that you have the maximum room to work in.

That's the ideal, but none of us is perfect. If the situation happens on a regular basis (and I guess city riding and constant filtering are an extreme example), then the rider will travel a little quicker and perhaps a little closer - familiarity breeding contempt, and all that. That increases the risk, but it also increases the advantage of the bike to deal with congestion, so each rider will find his or her own level of risk/benefit ratio. But the principle remains - it's safest to assume that you are wearing a Harry Potter Cloak of Invisibility. To answer Zaphod's point - yes, it may be unrealistic to ride like that all the time, but riding according to the principle is by far the safest way to ride. And he is dead right in saying that anger (other than at yourself for your stupidity) serves no purpose in this kind of situation.

Nodding to acknowledge that you have seen a rider is appreciated - that's thoughful behaviour, and we would all wish that all car drivers were similarly aware of other road users. Personally, I will 'ride invisible' until I am sure that a car driver has seen me, either by such a nod, or by positive eye contact. After that, I will move a little more confidently, but still with caution. We have all known a situation where a car driver has looked us straight in the eye, and then pulled into our path anyway.

Zaphod's comment about car drivers moving their heads is a good one. Bike magazine did some research a few years ago in collaboration with SafeSpeed which demonstrated exactly this point. Recent car design, and especially the concern for protection in a roll-over accident, has led to the A-pillar of new cars (the one between the windscreen and the front windows) being much thicker than it used to be. This has two important consequences for car/bike interactions:
  • The A-pillar is thick enough to represent a bike-length at a distance of about 20m - in other words, at normal traffic separation distances, the bike can be completely hidden behind the pillar, and
  • The motion of a car pulling onto a roundabout and the simultaneous motion of a bike going round the roundabout can coincide so that the bike remains hidden for about 50m of travel - long enough for the driver to pull out and hit the bike which he has never seen, despite looking.
The advice that the magazine gave [2] was that drivers should do exactly what Zaphod suggests - look deliberately on both sides of the A-pillar, moving the head to do so. The main check should be round the front of the pillar, to avoid the risk of 'opposite tracking' a vehicle in the blind spot. Bikers can assist the process by being highly visible - high-viz clothing and headlights on dipped beam are the usual suggestions. I'm not a big fan of the high-viz approach, but I can see the logic here. Another thing riders can do (and I can recommend this, as it works) is to change course slightly. This works best if you are approaching a junction on a straight road, with a car waiting to pull out. The small profile of the bike and rider don't give enough information to the driver about approach speed and direction (compared to say a truck, which gets bigger very quickly as it approaches), but the eye is always attracted to something that moves from side to side. Just doing a gentle weave as you approach the junction makes you instantly visible to the driver. (He may just assume you are drunk or out of control, but the end result is the same: he knows you are there.)
Bikers don't want to die, and drivers don't want to kill.
This is spot on, and I am glad for a bit of debate that is co-operative rather than hostile. Car drivers can help by looking out for bikers, and bikers can help by realising that car drivers may not always have seen them for good reasons, and even if they have looked propely and not roar up into people's blind spots and act as if the whole world owes them safe passage.

(The reference to sailors and collision courses is correct, too. If you spot another vessel heading across your course, you take a compass bearing on it. If you take another compass reading in a few minutes and it is the same, then you and the other vessel are on a collision course. One or both of you should take avoiding action.)

[1] A good biking blog. He doesn't post often, but when he does it is always thoughtful and intelligent.

[2] Link to the SafeSpeed website here, which gives screenshots of all of the above, plus artciles by Spen King (designed of the Range Rover) and others, and a general review of the SMIDSY phenomenon. Worth a read.

Friday 22 October 2010


Last week, a regular visitor to this blog was kind enough to send me a couple of satnav cases (for using a car-type satnav on the bike) that were surplus to his requirements. The day that they arrived, I went out to a pub meet with the TOMCC. And there, another member was kind enough to give me a Scottoiler that he had installed on his own bike and didn't like. He didn't want anything for it either.

Anna always says "never two, but three" (she's superstitious like that), so I was waiting for a third desirable-but-entirely-free-of-charge goody to fall into my lap. Instead of that, something even stranger happened.

I went in to my previous employers this morning for an interview. It went reasonably well, but it will be a week before I find out if I was successful. I got home and was having some lunch when I got a call from a friend who I haven't spoken to for a couple of years. He is leaving his job as Regional Manager for a tourism company, and his employers have asked him to suggest someone suitable locally to replace him. He called to ask if I would mind if he put my name forward to them. As this job would pay a lot more, and come with a company car and other benefits, I didn't really hesitate to say yes. It sounds like a great job, but the timescales are wrong and it may not work out, so I'm not holding my breath. But it was nice to be asked.

Two nice bike freebies, and then two job opportunities, all coming just when I needed them.

Now I just need a bit of luck.

Thursday 21 October 2010


Just seen this:


Homeo Porn

I have a little gadget attached to this blog called Sitemeter. It's a free application that gives you the basic stats for your blog - number of visitors, where they are located, how long they stayed, and so on. (Don't worry, it only gives a general location, such as 'London', not '3, The Cuttings, East Cheam'.) One of the more amusing things to see is when people come to the blog from a Google search, because it tells you what their search terms were.

Today, I had a visitor from Bucharest. He (I assume it is a he) had arrived at this page, having searched in Google.ro for 'homeo porn'.

I hope he found what he was looking for. But I doubt it.

Autumn Leaves

Another low-carbon post brought to you by Gardeners For Global Warming:

Pitchforking Heaven

I posted a short while ago about a tool that was excellent because it simply worked, my splitting maul. I have been doing a lot of moving leaves about recently, and another tool that shines with sheer functionality is my pitchfork. As I understand it, a pitchfork is any fork with a long plain handle and thin, widely-spearated tines or prongs. However, Anna says that what we have is known in Pembrokeshire as an 'evel' (pronounced 'evil'), which has four tines, as opposed to a hayfork or baling fork, which has only two. Since I rather like having something in the shed that I can call 'evel', that's what it is.

Like the maul, it just works. I dump piles of leaves in a far corner of the garden and then set up the incinerator. The evel will transfer leaves from the pile to the flames most efficiently, with very little effort, and is capable of getting almost all of the leaves from the grass, leaving only a few to be picked up by rake and then by hand. The curve of the tines means that it slides under what you are picking up without digging into the ground, and their wide separation means that they don't clog up.

It's easy to use, it works brilliantly, it's effortless, and like the maul it has no moving parts. This one is a modern one, made by Bulldog, and the vibrant yellow handle makes it easy to find in a pile of garden rubbish, but one day I want a proper one. A really old one.

Hoggart gets it

From Simon Hoggart in the In-a-a-drug:

Labour has, on the whole, decided that the deficit isn't its fault. It has, you would imagine, been invented by the Tories purely in order to allow them the cuts which they are imposing with an odious relish.
It's curious. Every single time Labour get in, they wreck the economy. But people like them, because they give out sweeties. Every time the Tories get back in, they have to take unpleasant but necessary steps to put things right. And people hate them because they take the sweeties away.

On pure unadulterated, unspun statistics, Labour are always bad for the economy, and the Tories are always better. In a world governed by rationality, we would have a right-of-centre government all the time, because that's what gives most people the best results. And yet we keep voting for Labour and Tory alternately, because we vote by our perception rather than the facts. When we've had enough of the harsh medicine, we will vote for a 'little treat' again, because we're worth it.

H/t to Guido, who reads the Grauniad so I don't have to.

PS: My Dad knew Richard Hoggart, Simon's Dad (author of The Uses of Literacy), and thought he was a great bloke.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Freedom - the view 50 years ago

Over at Indysparings, I caught this cartoon, which seems strangely relevant to our times.

Well worth a watch.

Old Minolta Dimage Xi -any ideas?

Anyone able to troubleshoot digital cameras?

A few years ago (about 2003, I think), I bought Anna a new digital camera, a Minolta Dimage Xi. It's a superb little thing, with 3.2MP and a 3x zoom in a tiny metal casing, and it took some superb photographs. But every so often, it would take a shot that was a completely black frame. Not severely underexposed: no data, nothing - just black. Running the image through Photoshop showed there was nothing to work with. She re-read the manual and tried all the settings. Then I re-read the manual (sorry, that should be 'read the manual') and tried all the settings. No luck. Just one black frame in every (roughly) 50 shots. The only common feature we could find was that the problems occurred only in bright conditions and when shooting without flash. That is, it never happened using forced flash, or when flash activated on the 'Auto' setting.

Eventually, and after losing some irreplaceable photos this way, Anna got fed up with it and bought a new Panasonic (which has been superb, incidentally). The Minolta ended up in a drawer.

Last night, I came across it quite by accident and wondered if I might be able to resurrect it to take with me on bike trips. It would take much better shots than the iPhone, that's for sure, and it is only as big as a packet of fags. And it uses an SD card, and there is a built-in SD reader on the netbook, so transferring images for the blog couldn't be easier. I'm never very happy about taking the DSLR on the bike - it's a Nikon that is war-zone tough, but it's like having a pillion aboard. So I charged up the Minolta's battery last night and today I took it round the garden for a few test shots. All went well until I took a couple of the bike. The raindrops on the tank looked quite pretty in the strong sunlight, so I took one. Here is the result:

I took another shot immediately afterwards from the same position, but with flash:

What's going on?

It's not a show-stopper. All I have to do is review each shot after it has been taken, and re-take if it doesn't come out. From memory, it might take three blanks in a row and then will produce a good one (and then not do it for several days). But it's irritating, and I would like to fix it if I could.

Does anyone have the faintest idea what is happening here? Because the problem occurs randomly under certain specific conditions (strong light, no flash), I assume there is some fault in the electronics, but beyond that I am as ignorant as a new-born babe.


The Optimist says the glass is half full.

The Pessimist says the glass is half-empty.

The Engineer says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

Tuesday 19 October 2010


This evening, I go to the Triumph Owners' Motorcycle Club branch meeting in the pub in a village nearby. And when I get there, I think I am the only one attending, because there are no bikes in the car park.

And there are about ten bikers in the pub.

Reason? Well, the roads were a bit damp, and it was dark, and it's getting cold, and it had rained earlier, and ...

We're a Motorcycle Club, guys. We ride bikes. The clue is in the name.

The BBC can't help it

I have just watched Emily Maitlis interviewing Liam Fox on the BBC News channel. I heard the exchange before I saw who was speaking, and I thought it was a row between Fox and some disgruntled Labour has-been harridan. She raised her voice, she interrupted, she spoke over him for whole sentences, she sounded outraged. I was pretty surprised to find it was a supposedly neutral news presenter interviewing on behalf of the state broadcaster.

Of course, she may have felt that she was only doing her civic duty by exposing the nastiness behind the Tory government's facade of calm reasonableness - I'm sure all of her colleagues would have thought she was behaving perfectly correctly - but to me it sounded totally unprofessional and shrill.

She's a bit of a babe, and she's obviously a clever girl, but tonight she let herself down badly. She was far from neutral, and if the BBC isn't neutral it can't claim to be a national broadcaster. Yet more ammunition for the cull. And she's off my Christmas list too.

Sharp Stuff

Today, we kicked out an old friend. This is a Sharp D6120 microwave oven. The interior light had failed, and replacing it would involve taking the casing off and grubbing about in the workings. I wouldn't have minded that, but we had a newer microwave, bought for the caravan but never used, and we decided to install that one and get rid of the old.

The Sharp pre-dated my involvement with Anna by a long way. She bought it in 1978, and it has been in constant use ever since. For a number of years, she did all the catering for a local yacht club, and took the oven in the back of her car every day during summer, to help with the preparation of meals for hordes of hungry sailors. It certainly saw some work. And, apart from the blown bulb, it has never failed.

It's quite a museum piece. It's very big and heavy, and the timer is a proper electro-mechanical device that ratchets when you turn it round, and does a nice 'ping' when the time is up. The 'ping' is a proper 'ping', too. Something hits something metallic and makes a 'ping'. It's not a bleep or a buzzer. It has seen internal fires, explosions and volcanic milk eruptions. It has never failed to do what it was asked. And now it's sitting in the trailer, waiting to go to the tip. I feel a bit guilty about this. I hate to throw away things that are in good working order. But we already had another one cluttering up another part of the house, and as new microwaves are cheap and easily available, I can't see anyone buying it or even taking it as a gift. It's old technology now - it doesn't do anything fancy, just heats things up for a specified time and then goes 'ping'. Who wants that these days?

It was bought just when microwaves were becoming popular, and cost a lot of money - Anna thinks it was between £200 and £250 in 1978. But it was obviously built to last. 32 years of service from any machine is good going: most cars would have been scrapped long before that.

I won't shed a tear when I take it to the tip later this week, but I will give it a small and unobtrusive salute.

Monday 18 October 2010

Aberlour 10-year-old single malt

A little while ago, I posted about The Balvenie Signature single malt whisky, which I bought in 2009, but kept for election night. Well, The Balvenie didn't quite do the trick. It tasted fine, but in the morning Gordon Brown was still convinced he could form a government and stayed put for several hours before conceding, so it can't have been that good.

My new best friend is this 10-year-old Aberlour. I thought that The Balvenie was going to be my all-time favourite Scotch, but I think we might have found a new No. 1. Soft and fruity, with a long finish*, it's the taste of Autumn. I could drink it until I turned into it. I've just had a look at their website (you have to prove you're 18 just to enter, which is quite exciting) and it seems that the 10-year-old that I have in front of me is in fact the junior of the range. There are 12, 16 and 18-year malts as well. It's probably a good thing that Morrison's don't stock them. I'd be ram-raiding them on a regular basis.

*I'm channelling Jilly Goolden here. Someone has to.

Justice delayed but not denied

I wrote in March, (and updated here) when the CPS decided there was 'insufficient evidence' to prosecute Baroness Uddin:
So Baroness Uddin will not be facing criminal charges over her designation of a flat she hardly ever visited as her 'main residence', in order to claim between £25k and £30k a year in attendance allowances for the House of Lords. The property was not, according to neighbours, occupied or even furnished. Constantly Furious points out that her claim for 2007/8, even at the maximum rate allowable, represents more days than the Lords actually sat. But no charges are to be brought.
Well, the good ol' House of Lords have shown themselves made of sterner stuff. According to the BBC, the House has demanded that she repay £125,349 in expenses unfairly claimed, and has suspended her until Easter 2012. She has also been suspended from the Labour Party.

In other news, Lord Paul (Labour) has offered his resignation from the Party after being suspended from the Lords for four months and being ordered to repay his overclaim. Interestingly, he has tried to play the race card on this one:
The Labour peer and donor Lord Paul "freely admitted" he never spent a night at the one-bedroom flat in Oxfordshire he designated as his "main residence" between late 2005 and end end of July 2006, the report said.

The report on his claims states: "Lord Paul explained his interpretation of the term 'main residence' by reference to his cultural background. He insisted that 'anyone coming out of India would not understand what main residence means'. He accepted that he had 'not once' looked at the guidance on the back of the claim forms."
The House of Lords Privileges and Conduct Committee report said:
... they could not claim, on the balance of probabilities, that he acted dishonestly or in bad faith but added: "However, his actions were utterly unreasonable and demonstrated gross irresponsibility and negligence."
In other words, bang to rights. I wrote at the time
Reminder: Lord Paul is a billionaire who gave £400,000 to Labour, and £45,000 to Gordon Brown's leadership campaign. Totally unconnected to this, he was made a peer in 2006 and a Privy Councillor in 2009, despite the allegation that he was spectacularly unqualified for either role.
Lord Bhatia (cross-bench peer, but a big Labour donor), meanwhile, has been suspended for eight months and has already repaid the £27,446 he overclaimed.
The committee found he did "not act in good faith" in the way he designated his "main home" - for the purposes of claiming an overnight allowance - nor in mileage claimed for journeys to that property, in Reigate.
All I can say is that I am delighted. I never thought we would see justice for the taxpayer in all the greasy corruption of the expenses scandal. Most of the others have got off lightly - and you could say that suspension and paying back what you stole is still a fairly lenient 'punishment' - or got away with it completely, but at least some form of justice has been done here.

Meanwhile, David Chayter (Labour), Elliott Morley (Labour) and Jim Devine (Labour) want their cases to be heard by Parliament and not a criminal court. They say:
... this is not an attempt to ''take them above the law'', but to ensure they are adjudicated by the ''correct law and the correct body''.
That's a bit like a gang of armed robbers saying it would only be fair if they were tried by a jury of other robbers, and judged against the laws of the criminal underworld. I hope and trust that the Supreme Court will see through this impertinent and self-serving stunt.

Can anyone see the common thread in all of the above - one factor that binds all of these thieving scoundrels together? Thank God we threw the whole nasty, corrupt lot out in May.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Unintended Consequences

I remember learning about the Davy Lamp at school. Twice, in fact. Once in primary school, where we learned about wonderful inventions that benefited the human race, and once in secondary school, as part of a physics lesson about oxygen and flame propagation.

The Davy Lamp was invented in 1815 by Sir Humphry Davy. In 1812, there was an explosion of flammable gas in a mine at Felling, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. A miner's candle ignited a pocket of methane, which caused an explosion in the coal dust present in the mine's atmosphere, which blasted through the galleries and erupted through the main shaft to the surface. 91 miners lost their lives. One of the things most feared by miners in the early days was 'damp' - gases in the air of the mine which were both undetectable and deadly. The main two were firedamp, which was basically methane and was highly flammable, and blackdamp, which was mostly carbon dioxide and was suffocating.

Davy was a chemist (he discovered both chlorine and iodine), but was also an amateur inventor. He started a series of experiments to see if a naked light could be shrouded so that oxygen could still reach the flame, but the flame could not ignite any surrounding gases. The lamp which bears his name had a naked flame over a reservoir of vegetable oil, and the flame was contained in a gauze tube. The holes in the gauze were big enough to let in oxygen and methane, but would not let the flame propagate outwards.

The lamp worked very well. In the presence of methane, the flame would rise up in the lamp and develop a blue tinge. This would alert the miners to the presence of firedamp and allow them to avoid it or take corrective action, and also would give them light to work without the risk of explosion. Placed on the floor, where blackdamp accumulates, the flame would go out if the oxygen level went below 17%, which indicates the presence of Co2 but will still support life, allowing the miners to escape before the atmosphere became deadly. Although fragile, the lamp worked well and should have been a major factor in improving mine safety.

Except it wasn't.

After the introduction of the Davy Lamp, mine accidents increased. The lamp (which had to be bought by the miners themselves from the same company stores where they used to buy their over-priced candles) allowed mining in mines that had previously been closed for safety reasons. Also, methane itself is not toxic, so the presence of the Davy Lamp allowed mining to continue in places where firedamp was present. One spark from a metal pick or a hobnail, or one strand of the gauze rusting away from the shroud on the lamp, or a clumsy fall allowing the lamp to spill onto the floor - and another explosion occurred.

Mine explosions following the introduction of the Davy Lamp (numbers killed in brackets):
  • Oaks Colliery 1866 (388)
  • Wood Pit, Haydock 1878 (189+)
  • Trimdon Grange 1882 (69)
  • Hulton Colliery 1910 (344)
Davy saw his invention as a contribution to the saving of human life. The mine owners saw it as an opportunity to make more money by pushing mining operations into areas that previously were too unsafe. The net effect was to kill more people than before.

Modern Socialism

In my younger days (up to about age 25) I voted Labour and, if pressed, would have described myself as socialist. By that, I would have meant that I believed in a society that was fair, with equal opportunities, no unjustified discrimination, which cared for the poor and the needy, and so on. Fact is, I still believe in all of those things, although as I have got older I have revised my definitions of things like 'needy' and 'discrimination'. The reason I no longer describe myself as a socialist (and would punch your lights out if you did so) is that in the intervening 30 years I have seen a lot of life, read a lot of history, heard a lot of speeches, and I have revised my idea of what 'socialism' means. I now realise that it is not the fluffy, caring-sharing, all-round-niceness that I
used to think it was. It is an evil dogma, founded on the principle that the state is more important than the individual, and that freedom is only one of a multitude of aims - alongside full employment, literacy, tolerance and an end to poverty - which can be sacrificed in order to promote any of the others, instead of the foundation and bedrock on which all other policies should be built. It subsumes the individual into the larger state, whereas for me the individual is the only thing that matters. Everywhere in the world that socialism has been tried, it has produced poverty, oppression and misery. By their fruits shall ye know them.

Wrinkled Weasel has an excellent post on this subject, which I urge you to read in full.
For me, Gillian Duffy's services to humanity have a much wider symbolism. She symbolises the rift between the real working classes and the absurd caricature of socialism that Labour has become. Gillian Duffy didn't defraud the taxpayer. Gillian Duffy didn't take us to a war on the pre-text of a lie. Gillian Duffy didn't agree that we should incur so much national debt that her grandchildren will be paying for it.
Good stuff.

Motorbikes and Motorways

A comment on my previous post has made me think. Don commented that he avoided motorways wherever possible after a bad experience on one. Certainly you won't hear many bikers having a good word to say about them, and lots of car drivers hate (or fear) them too. Why is that?

For one thing, it is undeniable that motorways are the safest way to travel. Motorways account for only 3% of the KSI (killed and seriously injured) figures for the UK, and yet have around 20% of the total traffic. And they are getting safer: between 1998 and 2008, motorway traffic increased by 28%, whereas fatalities decreased by 9% over the same period. The reasons motorways are safer:
  • Despite the higher speeds, all traffic is going in the same direction
  • Central barriers to reduce risk of head-on collisions with opposing traffic flow
  • 'Hard' safety features like crash barriers and guard rails
  • Limited number of junctions, and joining traffic highly controlled
  • All bends are gentle, all gradients are shallow
  • Clear roadside zones with few obstacles to hit if you lose control
  • Hard shoulder for stationary or broken-down vehicles
  • Better quality and better maintenance of road surface
  • Vertical separation of crossing traffic
  • No access from private property
  • Good directional and warning signage
  • Prohibition of very slow vehicles and learners.
There is also the unquantifiable but noticeable advantage that, on a motorway, most people are on a longer journey and tend to be focused on the task of driving, rather than looking for a parking space, shouting at the kids, checking out shop windows, and so on. People can still be idiots on motorways, but they are idiots in a limited number of ways: pulling out without checking/indicating, for example, or lane hogging. Good observation and a restrained driving style can overcome most of these hazards. The infinite variety of ways in which motorists can be stupid on normal roads is reduced to a manageable number on a motorway.

Another thing in favour of motorways is the ability to maintain high average speeds. As long as a motorway is going in the direction you want, there is no quicker way of getting to your destination. It is easy to average 60-65 mph (not to be confused with cruising speed) on a journey with a lot of motorway miles, compared to a journey on A-roads, where an average of 45-50 mph is good going. (I'm talking about total, door-to-door journey times here.) Maintaining a cruising speed of around 80 mph is easy, safe and quite practical. There are regular and convenient places to stop and have a comfort break, although bringing your own food and drink is advisable from a quality and budgetary standpoint.

What's not to like about all that?

Well, the main objection is boredom. Mile after mile with nothing to look at but the number plate of the car in front. In a car, you can have music on, or the radio, or chat with your passengers. On a bike you don't even have that. Roadworks or congestion can mean long delays, although some of the worst delays I have experienced have been on A-roads. A lot of people find motorways stressful and competitive, although there is no need. Just chill out, be nice to everyone, and adopt a Zen-like acceptance of whatever happens. It works for me.

The biker's objection to motorways is that it's not what bikes are good at. Bikes love twisty roads, plenty of bends and variety. Bikes are not meant to spend much time in the vertical plane. Because the rear tyre has a curved profile to allow the bike to lean, riding upright concentrates all the wear in the middle section, leading to the tyre becoming 'squared off' and handling badly, as well as wearing out prematurely. (I'm talking about the UK here; in countries with huge distances and long, straight roads, the cruiser style of bike, which gains comfort and stability but loses manoeuvrability and dynamic performance, is more appropriate.) In addition, on a 'naked' bike such as mine, without wind and weather protection, sustained high speeds can be very tiring on the neck, arms and back.

So, for any journey where time is not critical, I will avoid motorways wherever possible. But if I need to use them, I will do so quite happily. There is no easier way of getting through large urban areas that you don't want to visit but merely pass through. And if there is congestion - well, a bike is the thing to be on.
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