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

- George Washington

Saturday 31 December 2011

Sink One For Me

I have just got in from work and eaten. Shortly I will be going to bed ready for a 4.30 am start tomorrow. I have debated staying up and seeing in the New Year, or even just setting an alarm for 11.55 and doing ten minutes, but at my age lack of sleep is paid for dearly the next day, so I will sleep through the whole thing and miss the drunks and the breathalysers and the forced jollity and the morose staring-at-the-wall self-examination jags. It feels a bit wrong, though. I was brought up in the North of England, and up there we take the New Year seriously, with first-footing, lumps of coal and the whole thing. But I have never been all that committed to the idea of celebrating the clicking over of another mile on nature's odometer. Once it stopped being an excuse to snog all those girls who wouldn't speak to you for the other 364, it kind of lost its shine.

So, before I go to bed, allow me to wish you, and all of those you care for, a very Happy New Year, and all good fortune and good health for 2012.

And to all motorcyclists, may I wish a safe, prosecution-free and utterly bend-swinging 12 months. Especially those who are still riding in December.

You know who you are.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Need my head sorting out

Yep, it's confirmed. A few days standing out in the rain in November have wrecked my head.

I'd better clarify. While I was under orders to keep the garage clear so that the kitchen fitters would have somewhere to leave the flat-packs (after first getting it clear, in comparison to which the Augean Stables were a bit of light dusting) the poor old Sprint had to sit outside in the wind and rain. When the flat-packs were unflatpacked and installed, the garage became a kind of dumping-ground for bags of grout, fractions of floor-tile and odd bits of plastic whose purpose was never quite clear. This situation lasted for about six weeks in all, during which the weather was proper Welsh wet. The XT suffers this treatment all the time, of course, but seems to be able to shrug it off. This is one of the great advantages of using a trail bike as a drudge - they are built to get wet and mucky, and to fall over a lot, so a bit of rain and rough treatment is hardly going to upset them. Bearings are sealed, O-rings are everywhere, cables have little rubber boots on to keep the water out, and everything is designed to be as weatherproof and durable as posible. A two-wheeled Land Rover, if you like. It isn't that the Sprint is delicate (people I talk to in the forums run them year-round and to astronomical mileages) but it doesn't shrug things off like the XT does. It needs looking after.

And after six weeks of not being looked after, the steering had virtually seized. Moving the bars from side to side was like stirring a bucket full of stones. A bit of gentle toing-and-froing got it to move a bit easier, but it was clearly in need of attention. Rumour has it that the steering head bearings are not over-lavishly lubricated from the factory, so it's a failure that is waiting to happen. The schedule says to dismantle, clean, lubricate and adjust the head bearings every two years. The bike is 9 years old and there's no evidence it has ever been done, so it's not a surprise that things have gone wrong.

It was a dry afternoon here today, so I took it out for a gentle ride. Well, it started gently, anyway. It wasn't as bad as I had feared. The bike was quite rideable, but every corner was threepenny-bitted (should that be fifty-penced these days?) and cornering at speed felt none too secure. Even straight line riding was a bit weavy, but not bad enough to prevent some checking of the power curve. All in order there. So there's no putting it off or hoping it will get better on its own - something must be done. It's bang-on due for its 12,000 mile service now, and dealing with the steering head is part of the schedule, so it is now in the garage again and when I get a bit of time I will make a start. 12k is the big one, and there is lots to do. Luckily the XT is romping round like a teenager at the moment, so it's no hardship - and in fact a considerable luxury - to take the Sprint off the road and give it some proper attention while the XT continues its winter duties.

I suspect that cleaning and lubing the bearings won't be enough. They feel too far gone, so I will be ordering up a new set shortly.

Monday 26 December 2011

What Santa Brought

Well, blow me down, I'm the owner of a Kindle. Like this:

Despite misgivings since I first heard of them (I'm a lover of books - just look at my spare room - and that's the books themselves as well as the contents of the books), I'm getting on pretty well with it so far. The Kindle came with a voucher for my first purchase, so I treated myself to a book that has been on my wishlist but overlooked by my family and friends for ages now: These Are The Days That Must Happen To You by Dan Walsh. Endemoniada_88 will know it; in fact, I think he recommended it to me.

I'm already half-way through it, and the 'reading experience' is a little unusual but perfectly acceptable. I'll post a bit more when I have had the thing a bit longer, but first impressions are very good.

Oh, and the book is a cracker.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Pope berates Christmas 'glitter'

According to the BBC.

Says the most glittery man on television.

'Glittery'. Hmmm. No comment.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Grease and Seatings

I'd normally be asleep now ready for tonight's night shift, but something woke me at 11 am and I can't get back off. Presents to wrap, things to do and a 'see you soon' post to write for the blog. Back to work tonight at six, home tomorrow by about nine, and then I am off for three days. That's good.

I doubt if I will get near a keyboard until the festeringitivities are over, so here's this blog's Official Christmas Message:

To everyone who has read this blog, and especially those who have taken the time and trouble to comment and contribute to some lively, humorous and (occasionally) intelligent debate, and even more especially to those bloggers who are kind enough to include me in their blogrolls and bring me much-needed visitor numbers, I would say Thank You. And for the next few days, I hope you all say No to the world and its demands, and spend a bit of time doing things that matter to you with people who matter to you. If that means a big traditional family Christmas, or getting pissed and having athletic and risky sex with your next-door neighbour, or going off for a ride into the hills by yourself, or just reading a book, then I wish you well in the doing of it. And I'll see you back here when it's all blown over.

Someone at work gave me a black-and-white Santa hat with 'Bah Humbug' embroidered on the rim. I will be wearing that constantly until told to take it off. And, since I can't find a worse image for my Christmas Post, here he is again:

Happy Christmas!

Monday 19 December 2011


Leg-Iron owes me a new keyboard.
These days, clearing up after motorway crashes is a breeze. The police close their eyes and count to ten and when they open them, a Romanian gang has nicked all the wreckage.

I thought he already was ...

... dead, that is.

A triumph of the enbalmer's art. But they can never get the hands right.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Footwear for Christmas Shopping

What Not To Wear:

Grandma wearing Crocs with socks, grand-daughter wearing Tesco Value Ugg Boots.

Crocs are a horrendous crime against taste in any event. They look like those ghastly jelly sandals you had for the beach when you were a kid, but without the carefree style, panache and pretty colours. Not only do they look awful, but they make you think of sweaty, scaly feet and horn-like yellow toenails. Yuk. But to wear them with socks? Dear oh dear.

Ugg boots are an uggly shape and make the wearer look flat-footed, like a cartoon drawn by someone who has difficulty with the human form. But at least the real ones look well-made and like they might last more than ten minutes. These were from a pound shop, I think, and looked profoundly uncomfortable.

(Before you think I am making fun of people who are too poor to afford proper clothes, I should say that this was in a queue for the most expensive knicky-knacky shop in the area and they arrived in a newish 4x4. I was there merely because I knew what I had to get for my Secret Santee at work, and there was only one place to get it. Honest.)

How to do it better?

This wasn't a bad effort:


... for lack of posting this last week. I have been working 12-hour shifts and trying to fit in extra days to make up my quota for the year, and there hasn't been time to do more than read the blogs and think 'wish I had said that'.

Today, tomorrow and Tuesday off, then it's back on nights. All my Christmas shopping to do in between. I am working Christmas Eve and will finish on Christmas Day at 8.00 am. I'm even working a couple of extra hours so that a colleague who has young kids can spend a bit of time with them on Christmas morning. I'm soft like that.

Meanwhile, radios at work have all been tuned to something called 'Smooth Radio'. I'm suspicious of any music described as 'smooth', because that usually means easy listening - something I do not find easy. They seem to be playing the same 10 or so songs (you all know which ones I mean, Bing Crosby to The Pogues via Slade and Wizzard) over and over again. It is driving me absolutely fucking mental.

I don't find Christmas very easy to deal with at the best of times, and I'd prefer to ignore it if at all possible. So the next time I hear "Feed The Waa-aaarld" will be imagining feeding Geldof his own eyeballs in vinegar.
So this is Christmas. And what have you done?
Buried an axe in your forehead, you hypocritical old wife-beater.

I will be issuing an Official Christmas Message just as soon as I find an image pornographic or scurrilous enough to make it worth while. In the mean time ...

I know it's adolescent, but ...

I did have a chuckle at this:
He was comforted in his final moments by his wife Dagmara and several nuns, his secretary was quoted as saying.
Great man, poor choice of words.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Spelling *does* matter

The BBC are usually fairly rigorous in at least one thing - they get the spelling and grammar of their output right most of the time. Pity they aren't as rigorous over their duty to be impartial and unbiased, but never mind.

But then I spotted this howler in an article on the follow-up to the 'cheating examiners' scandal:
Ofqual is to look at the issue - and that of companies linked with exam boards selling text books and study aides.
This is illegal. Selling people was made unlawful with the end of the slave trade. Although if the aide concerned was cute, I might overlook it.

From Merriam Webster:
AIDE, noun : a person who acts as an assistant
AID, noun : tangible means of assistance
I think study guides come under the second definition.

The sad thing, or course, is not that nobody pays much attention to this any more, but they don't see that it matters at all.


Extra bad-taste humour insert: apocryphal graffito in Boots The Chemist -
Don't they have enough to put up with?

Thursday 8 December 2011

Exam Cheats

I have been scandalised by the revelations from today's Telegraph that the exam boards are actively colluding with teachers to help children pass their exams. Scandalised, but not surprised. This is only the final stage of a process that has been going on for 25 years.

Declaration of interest: from 1977 to 1995 I was a teacher of English in several state schools, the last 5 years as Head of Department and Head of Faculty, where I had a lot to do with exams and exam boards. In mid-career, I was also an Assistant Examiner for one of the big Northern exam boards. I sat all their exams as a student in the 60s, and they were then known as the Joint Matriculation Board or JMB. With the introduction of GCSE in 1986 they merged with the regional CSE boards to become the Northern Examining Association or NEA and later, in a set of moves that would grace a City boardroom, merged with other boards to become their current incarnation, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance or AQA (pronounced 'aqua' to those in the know, apparently). My involvement was for four years over the introduction of the GCSE in the late 80s, where I examined about 1000 scripts a year in English Language and Literature.

When I was a wee nipper in the 60s, the exam board/school/pupil relationship was simple. You wanted to pass; your teachers wanted you to pass but were terrified of the exam board; and the exam board apparently hated everyone and wanted all but the brightest to fail. They ruled. Well, that's what we thought, and it kept everyone on their toes, and the schools were kept honest. These days, the kids still want to pass, and so do the schools, but the difference is that the exam boards are now leaning over backwards to get their pass rates as high as possible too. I can see three reasons for this:
  • One, the exam boards are stuffed from the top down with left-leaning right-on types, who are desperate to make sure that 'the kids' are encouraged to be successful, and never (or hardly ever) fail at anything. There is a distrust of the old 'standards' and a view that strictness is 'inappropriate' and 'elitist'.
  • Two, there has been a move from norm-referencing (where a certain percentage of the cohort get an A grade, the tranche below get a B, and so on) to criterion-referencing, where a candidate gains marks by demonstrating certain knowledge or skills, and if they demonstrate the qualities of an A grade, then an A grade they get, no matter how many others in the year do the same. Hence the difficulties the top universities have in discriminating between the merely good candidates and the excellent (see the Laura Spence débacle), and the necessity of the introduction of the A* grade.
  • Three, the exam boards have moved from being the dominant partner to being the customer of the schools. Unless they keep the schools signing up year after year, then they go out of business - and the easiest way to do that is ... well, it's not to be the strictest kid on the block, that's for sure. The move towards boards who were known to be 'easier' was well under way between 1985 and 1990, so it's nothing new.
And we all know where these things lead, don't we? Every year, results are better, standards have been 'proven' to have risen (after all, exam results don't lie, do they?) and everyone feels happy. The students for getting the grades they want, the teachers for having more proof of a good job done, and the government for presiding over a system that produces ever-rising standards.

Except it doesn't. No-one who has looked at an O-level paper from the 1960s and compared it with an equivalent GCSE paper from the last ten years can be in any doubt - in those days, exams were far, far harder, and asked much more from the candidates. I will give you just one example from my own experience, although there are thousands. (Incidentally, teachers will tell you that the exams today aren't easier, they just test different things. Well, yes they do, and that's the whole point.)

When I was an Assistant Examiner for NEA, I had to attend an examiner's meeting in the weeks prior to the exam date. We looked over the paper and, with the help of the Chief Examiner, decided on a mark scheme. It was at one of these meetings that I realised the way things were going. I can't remember the exact work in question, nor the exact questions asked, so you will have to rely on my memory to give the flavour of the paper. It was the Practical Criticism section from the Literature paper. In this, the student is presented with a poem or passage they have (in theory) never seen before, or at least have not prepared in advance. The poem or passage is therefore kept highly secret until the day of the exam. The candidates are asked to write a response to the work, to demonstrate the critical skills they have acquired over the course. For me, it is an excellent test of the candidate's ability. It's a bit like spending a year learning how to repair cars, and then being given a non-starter and told "fix that!" You're on your own, sink or swim.

I'll take as the poem one that I posted a while ago (The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy) so you can play the game along with the children. Go and read it, I'll go to the loo, back in five, OK?


You're back in the room.

OK, here's my imperfect recollection of the type of question that was asked:
Read the following poem by Thomas Hardy, a Victorian writer who (blah, blah etc, bit of background). It is about the sinking of the ship Titanic, which was (blah, blah, bit of history). You are advised to read it at least twice, and concentrate on working out the bits you find harder to understand. Then write a criticism (an essay in which you analyse the poem carefully from your own viewpoint), bearing in mind the following points:
  • The poet's use of rhyme in the poem, and its structure
  • The length of the lines, and the pattern they make
  • Why do you think Hardy chose to write in short stanzas (verses or sections)?
  • His use of words like "grotesque", "dim" and "slimed" - what is he trying to convey?
  • The contrast between the seabed landscape and the interior of the ship - what is Hardy trying to say here?
  • Why do you think Hardy uses capital letters for Immanent Will and Spinner of the Years?
  • Explore the different meanings of 'hemispheres' in stanza XI
  • What comment do you think Hardy is trying to make on the way people think of themselves and how important they are?
* Pyre - funeral fire
* Salamandrine - relating to a mythical lizard that was able to live in fire
* Opulent - rich
* Immanent - existing within something, inherent
* Consummation - a fulfilment or finalisation

This question is worth 20 marks, and you should spend approximately 45 minutes on it.
And, for comparison, the type of question set on the same poem in 1964:
Write a criticism of this poem. (20)
OK, I was exaggerating the first one, but not by much. The examiners were so keen to give every child the chance of saying something about the poem, that they virtually wrote the answer for them. It became a tick-the-box exercise. Rhyme, check. Rhythm, check. Imagery, check. Difficult word, look at the glossary. No need for the higher critical skills of close reading, wide vocabulary, mature understanding, comparison with other work after wide reading, or marshalling the thoughts into a cogent and structured response, or saying something fucking original in response to a great writer. Of course, some candidates impress you, even after this amount of spoon-feeding. The problem was that the dullard who merely followed instructions and remembered a few basics was getting 17 marks through sheer persistence. You could reward the outstanding candidate with 19 or even 20, but the difference between the average and the excellent could only ever be a couple of marks.

I questioned this at the examiners' meeting, to be told that all children needed to be given the chance to succeed, and that I was being elitist and unenlightened to complain. Some of them come from homes without books, you know, and we have to give them a fair chance. (Yes, we do, absolutely we do, but the way to do that is to teach them properly in the first place, not make the exam easier.) It was made clear that one did not question the wisdom of the Board, so I got on with it and did the best I could. An extra £500 a year when you have two small children to support is not to be sneezed at.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why standards are 'rising' year on year. We are testing different things, to be sure. We are now testing the ability to remember something when prompted. We used to test the ability to think critically. There's a big difference.

And that is why I am not surprised to hear that it has gone one stage further, and that examiners telling teachers "We're cheating. Probably the regulator will tell us off" and you should choose us because "you don't have to teach a lot".

And, of course, what happens at GCSE level trickles down to the infants eventually. The whole system has become corrupted. It needs root-and-branch reform.

The rot started under the Tories, of course - Mark Carlisle, Keith Joseph and Kenneth Baker. If another Tory, Michael Gove, can sort it out, he will be a hero to the likes of me. People who believe in education.

Bravo Telegraph for blowing it apart.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Rescue Cat has found the warmest place in the house.

"Grotesque double standards"

One. A gang of Muslim girls kick a white girl, who is lying on the ground, repeatedly in the head and pull her hair out, leaving a bald patch, while shouting "kill the white slag" and "white bitch". As the court deems the attacks out of character because the girls were "not used to drinking", they are given suspended sentences. The attack, which was caught on CCTV, was not held to be racially-aggravated. The victim has since had to give up her job due to panic attacks and flashbacks.

Two. A white woman on a tram delivers a foul-mouthed and ignorant tirade against "blacks" and "Polish", which is captured on video by another passenger and out on YouTube. Although her remarks were hostile and unpleasant, no-one was physically harmed during her outburst. She is currently being held on remand until 3 January - effectively already serving a sentence of over a month's imprisonment- and has had her child taken away from her. She is being held in a prison with the highest security rating, along with the most serious female criminals.

I'm trying to make sense of this. It would seem, in the words of Dr Sean Gabb in an excellent summary of the situation here, to be an example of "grotesque double standards". The perpetrators in both cases were young and female, so there are no 'gender issues' to take into account. Both cases involved racist attitudes, expressed openly - one as the justification for the attack and one as the basis of a verbal tirade.

There are only two differences between the cases to justify such disparate treatment, as far as can see. One is that the first case involved physical violence, whereas the second was merely a verbal rant. In any sane society, the violence would be punished far more severely than the verbal attack, but this appears to be reversed in these cases. The second is that one set of perpetrators were Somali Muslims and the other was a white working-class woman. Apparently, your racial origin is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Which is racist, but never mind that.

We're in a looking-glass world, folks.

Is iGoogle borked?

I have iGoogle as my homepage. I rely on it for news headlines, Google Reader, bookmarks, mail headers and a whole lot more. In modern terms, it's an important part of my 'online browsing experience'. Today, I get the page top (themed currently to a Gibson SG Special as played by Slowhand, nice) and the bottom bits with half a dozen contacts, and that's it. No middle, no gadgets, no nuffin. If I reload the page, the gadgets appear briefly and then disappear again.

Is it just me, or is Google temporarily borked?

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Another thought-experiment

Here's a truly shocking story from the Mail:
A gang of Christian women who attacked a passer-by in a city centre walked free from court after a judge heard they were ‘not used to being drunk’ because of their religion.

The group – three sisters and a cousin – allegedly screamed ‘kill the black slag’ as they set upon Ambaro Maxamed as she waited for a taxi with her boyfriend.

Miss Maxamed, 22, was left with a bald patch where her hair was pulled out in the attack and was left ‘black and blue’ after suffering a flurry of kicks to the head, back, arms and legs while motionless on the pavement.

Rhea Page, 24, students Tracy Page, 28, and Chelsea Page, 24, and their 28-year-old cousin Shaznay Smith each admitted actual bodily harm, which carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment.

But Judge Robert Brown gave them suspended jail terms after hearing mitigation that as Christians, the women were not used to being drunk. The Bible prohibits Christians from consuming alcohol, although Christian teachings permit its use for medicinal purposes.

After the sentencing, Rhea Page wrote on her Twitter account: ‘Happy happy happy!’, ‘I’m so going out’, and ‘Today has been such a great day’.

Yesterday Miss Maxamed, a care worker, called the sentence ‘disgusting’ and said the gang deserved ‘immediate custody’.

‘It’s no punishment at all,’ she said. ‘And for them to say they did it because they were not used to alcohol is no excuse. If they were not supposed to be drinking then they shouldn’t have been out in bars at that time of night.

‘Even after the police came and they all ran away, one of them came running back to kick me in the head one last time.

‘I honestly think they attacked me just because I am black. I can’t think of any other reason.’

None of the defendants was charged with racial aggravation.

Speaking at her home, Tracy Page said: ‘I’m not proud of it, it’s not something I want to talk about. I just want to get on with my life.’

When asked if she wanted to apologise, she replied: ‘What, to the public? I really don’t care.'
Yes, I've played around with the detail, like I did here, but the story is the same. The words quoted above make it clear to any fair-minded person that this was a racially-motivated attack. It does not help the cause of racial harmony (something I am very much in favour of, lest anyone wishes to call this post racist) when the law only sees racism coming from one side. People get the message - the charge of 'racism' is a tool to punish whites and no-one else - and they draw their own conclusions. Those conclusions lead to the rise of organisations like the BNP.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Ahead of the Bookies

I am possibly the only person in the UK who has gambled and has made money on it, to the extent that I am ahead of the bookmakers, and always will be. Here's how I did it:

I was about 13 years old, and hanging about at a friend's house one afternoon, doing nothing in particular. Probably smoking (his parents didn't mind) and eating those chocolate eclair things you got from the sweetshop. Another friend called round, accompanied by his 18-year-old brother. They said they were - gasp - going to the bookies and did we want to put a bet on?. This was such a wonderfully grown-up thing to be doing (it went along with other adult skills like going to the pub or carrying a cigarette in the corner of your mouth while doing something else) that we jumped at the chance, while appearing completely nonchalant.

"Yeah, might do."

Friend's friend's brother got out the newspaper and showed us the list of runners. Towards the bottom was a horse (at least I assume it was a horse, not being very au fait with the details) called Midnight Marauder. The name had a certain ring to it, and I gave him a shilling to put on the beast on my behalf. Odds were 14 to 1, not that I understood what that meant.

The best thing for me would have been for it to have come last, but it didn't. It romped home ahead of the field, and the 'big boy' gave me fourteen shillings and - to my astonishment - my original stake back. It felt like a million dollars.

I went home and told my Dad. This was a mistake, as I should have remembered that he was from the clean-living, temperance end of working-class culture and despised gambling in all its forms. But he didn't tell me off. In what was a remarkably far-sighted response, he merely said "well, that means if you never gamble again, you will always be ahead of the bookies, and there's not many in England can say that".

I didn't, and I am, and I can.

I don't have the moral objection to it that he did, although I haven't seen families ruined and put out on the street as a result of it as he had done, and maybe I would feel differently if I had. No, my objection is purely practical - gambling is pointless, because you will always lose in the long run.

The secret is not doing it in the long run.

(There's a huge fuss going on at the moment about teaching children about gambling. If that teaching involves explaining how it all works, and that it is a zero-sum game, with the money flowing from the punter to those who own the game (bookies or, come to that, city traders) and never the other way round, then I am all for it.)

Monday 5 December 2011

Sweet! (or should that be 'suite'?)

I wrote recently about getting a new larger Givi topbox to match the small one that came with the Sprint. I now have two bikes with identical mounting plates, and two differently-sized* boxes. This is majorly convenient and adaptable: short trips and commutes on either bike, and longer trips or shopping expeditions on either bike. It's working well.

One thing remained: the keys. I usually attach the topbox keys to the ignition keys, as I would always be forgetting them otherwise. Swapping boxes over would therefore mean a lot of struggling and broken nails with swapping the keys to the other ignition set, and that just looks like a hassle too far for a system that was meant to be easy and convenient. Having the box keys on separate rings with a carabiner clip would be easier, but would mean labelling it all, and a lot of metalwork clanking about while the bike was in motion. No, that won't do either.

The other issue was the lack of a spare key for the small box. The Sprint came with one set of keys and a promise that the spare set were with the previous owner and would be found as soon as possible. I get a bit nervous if I don't have a spare set somewhere, so I pressed the dealer to get them from the previous owner (I was assured they were there and 'just forgotten'). However, after a lot of nagging and a series of variably-plausible excuses, I have come to realise that the spare set are not recoverable. A spare Triumph ignition key is on order and should be easily sorted, but a spare Givi key is not so easy. After a fair bit of research, it seems that Givi no longer sell individual keys. You have to buy a new lock.

You know that cheesy inspirational thing about when life gives you lemons, make lemonade? Well, I think I have just produced a pint ot two. For fourteen of your Earth pounds (£17 including postage), you can get a two-lock set: two barrels, two lock housings, two circlips and four keys. I ordered some from Motorcycle Planet after checking the part number of the set I needed with Givi - part number Z227, if anyone's interested - and a few days later they arrived. I was a bit nervous about fitting them. After all, it's locks, and that means deliberately difficult with some designed-in gotchas, doesn't it? But in the end it was simple, and I changed the locks in both boxes in about half an hour. The first one took 25 minutes, the second five, so that shows how easy it was after you have worked out what to do. And that included cleaning out road muck from the attachment mechanisms as well, and a quick lube of the relevant bits.

I'm not going to detail the procedure here, for obvious reasons. Suffice it to say that once you have the box off the bike and open, it's completely logical. I needed a cross-point screwdriver, a small electrical screwdriver (for the E-clip holding the thing together) and a pair of needle-nose pliers to snap it all back. You will need strong hands, too. Both for re-assembling the lock and for re-attaching it to the box, you need to hold things together against spring pressure, and on each lock I had to re-attach the lock to the box twice (lining it up better the second time) to get it to work.

Two words of warning:
  1. Before you take the E-clip off to release the lock mechanism, memorise how the thing looks, or even better take a photo. It can go back in at least 8 different orientations, and only one of those will work.
  2. Check the mechanism clamping the lid down, and the operation of the lock and attachment release before closing the box to check your work. If it closes and you have got it wrong, it's likely you will need to drill the lock out to open it again.
So now I have a set of keys for each bike, each with a Givi key that will open either box. Oh, and two spares. I believe that the modern term for this is 'suiting' the locks, but I just think it's sweet.

*See how I avoided giving offence there?

Thursday 1 December 2011

You've been Clarksonned!

I choked on my polenta when I was listening to BBC News over supper and heard some grim harridan talking about the offence she had taken (on behalf of her members, as I think she was something to do with a union) at Saint Jeremy's comments on The One Show.

I was going to write a foaming and angry post about how some people just need to get a life and see a jokey remark as just that, but then I saw this post by The Heresiarch and decided not to bother. He says it all far better than I could, and fillets UNISON's press release mercilessly.

I didn't think anything could make me think worse of trades union leaders than I already did, but their response has proved me wrong.


A bit like those the left makes about dancing on Thatcher's grave, or blowing up schoolchildren in the cause of climate change. Those were humorous, weren't they?

Weren't they?

How I got into all this

Via Sonja, I learn that Gary France has a post up describing how he got into motorcycling, and throws out the challenge for other people to do the same. So here's my tuppence-worth.

I think I've always treasured mobility. I had a tricycle very young, and then got onto two wheels as soon as I was able. I can still remember the moment I took to my wings on a bicycle. My Dad had his hand under the saddle as we wobbled along the road, then the coins in his pocket started jungling as he ran faster, and then the noise stopped. He had stopped running and I was still going - therefore, I was riding under my own steam. The feeling of euphoria and sheer bloody joy when I realised I could do it by myself was overwhelming, and I have never looked back. I cycled everywhere as a child (even running away from home on it once, and getting down the A1 and into the next county before I realised that I was hungry - I think I was 9) and getting a powered two-wheeler was an ambition from the age of about 12.

Parents forbade it, of course (and, looking back, rightly so), but I had plenty of friends with scooters and Cubs and C15s and Honda CB72s, so I got plenty of 'goes'. It was only a matter of time, and money, before I had my own.

The first bike was a Honda C70 in banana yellow, bought new from Watson Cairns in Leeds with a loan from my Dad. I was at University at the time, and the excuse was that it would save him all those tedious car journeys to take me there and back, but really it was just a chance to fulfil an ambition. I loved that bike, and it took me all over the place, but I hankered after something bigger. I passed my test on the C70 and soon afterwards traded it in for the only 'big' bike that I could afford, a Jawa 350 two-stroke twin. That bike deserves a whole post to itself, but suffice it to say that it got me a lot of places for three years and broke my spirit with its unreliability and general shittiness. One good thing was that it left me with a complete lack of fear about taking things apart to mend them, and the ability to strip a two-stroke and fit new crank seals, pistons and rings in a dark room with my eyes shut.

I haven't always had a bike since then. Like many others, marriage meant a proper car and I did without a bike for a year or two. And a period of serious illness later on meant that making monthly repayments on a bike I was not using was unsustainable, and at that point I truly believed my biking days were over. My balance had gone, and I didn't know if it would ever come back.

But I did get better, slowly, and soon I was back at work, this time in a training role for an advertising paper. The company acquired a biking website and installed a die-hard rider as its head honcho. Via company email, he asked for anyone with the vaguest interest to post bike reviews on the website, just to generate some much-needed content. I posted one, then two, then many more, and as I did so, I realised that I was missing motorcycling more than I could have imagined. A vague, hands-in-pockets, whistling-at-the-sky visit to my local dealership ensued, and a week after that a 3-year-old Yamaha XT660 was on my driveway. It had been ten years since I had last ridden, and that first ride was a strange affair. After ten years in a car I felt very vulnerable and small, but I soon got over that and was riding every day. Even so, I reckon it took me about a year to get my 'bike head' back on.

So here I am today, with an old scrapper of a trailbike for the commuting duties and a nice shiny sports-tourer for the faster days and longer rides. And I won't be giving it up again so easily.

Cold, dead hands, and all that.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Insert joke here ...

From the Beeb:

M1 shut after 'Marmite' lorry crash in South Yorkshire

A large-scale clean-up operation is under way after a tanker carrying more than 20 tonnes of yeast extract overturned on the M1.

The lorry, which was believed to be carrying Marmite, crashed and spilt its contents onto the carriageway at about 22:15 GMT on Monday.
I suppose you like this or you don't. Insert your own joke into the comments.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Another Evening with Lois Pryce

Lois, sitting on a fully-kitted XT550, owned by my mate Alun.

I wrote back in February about going to a talk by the two-wheeled adventure rider Lois Pryce, which was highly enjoyable, and ended up with my getting a wet arse when it rained during the evening, and I had vainly gone out on the XT clad only in jeans and a leather jacket.

Tonight I went to Garlands Motorcycles in my car. Well, it was drizzling, and the XT is freshly serviced, and it was late, and ...

OK, I was lazy.

The talk earlier in the year was about Lois's ride down the Americas from Alaska to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, the subject of her first book, Lois on the Loose. This time it was the second big trip, from London through Africa to Cape Town. I had read the account of this trip, Red Tape and White Knuckles, but it was good to hear all the stories first-hand. I was particularly taken by her account of being ordered to take a train through part of her journey through Congo, because the road to Brazzaville was over-run with bandits. She spent nine hours on a flat-bed railway carriage with her bike, surrounded by wild teenage Congolese soldiers, all drinking whisky and smoking cannabis, and trying to avoid their attentions. It's a truly chilling passage, and she admitted tonight that it was the most terrifying experience of her life, but brushed it off as a life-experience thing ... you know, "every time I have to make a difficult phone call, I think ..." But she's not very big, and she's pretty, and she was totally alone on that train (apart from the soldiers, drunk, stripped to the waist and carrying Kalashnikovs), and I dread to think how that night could have turned out.

If you ever get a chance to listen to Lois, make the effort and go. She's not the most polished speaker (a bit breathless and chatty for a good delivery to a large room), but she's highly entertaining and you will be in awe of her sheer persistence and good humour.

And you'll be thinking if you could possibly get six months off work, because we only live once.

Quote of the Week

Via Canajun, I found this quotation which I thought worth sharing, as it explains something that is hard to put into words. It's from Patrick Symmes' work Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend.
There are moments on a motorcycle when all the glory of motion is distilled into one purposeful package. Chasing curves over a swelling landscape, a motorcycle enters the pure expression of physics and is bound to the road in a way no car will ever know. The rider and machine are literally balanced on the infinitely thin line where centripetal force meets gravity. Despite this state of suspended disaster, the sensation of risk is largely a sensation; the motorcycle is in harmony with the road, and risk comes overwhelmingly from other drivers. Any moment of travel on a motorcycle is a light and essential moment, an agile rebuke to a life conducted in one place. The raw force of the engine is not hidden beneath a hood, but alternately purrs and growls a few inches from the knees, demanding the consciousness of power. Sealed behind glass, insulated by climate control systems and music, the driver of a car knows nothing about the directions of the wind, the lay of sunlight, the small changes in temperature between a peak and a valley, the textured noise of differing asphalts, or the sweet and sour aromas of manured fields or passing pine forests. Engaged in all the senses and elements, balanced in the present tense, a rider on two wheels can taste moments of oneness with the road.
I'm not a fan of Che Guevara, who had a very murky history and does not deserve the adulation given him by the ignorant and naive. And I haven't read the book, so I don't know what Symmes' take on his 'hero' is. But that passage says something that resonates with me.

Friday 25 November 2011

Pink Elephants

Anna sent me this, and it's too good not to share. A prize* if you can get through it without laughing.

* Your name inscribed in gold-effect magic marker on the Nowhere Towers Honour Board of Humourless Twats.

Boxing Clever

Glossary for the uninitiated:

Topbox: a plastic box mounted to the rear of a motorcycle, behind the seat. Varies in size from tiny to huge. Possibly the ugliest accessory one could ever fit to a bike, but the sheer utility dwarfs all other considerations. Shopping, commuting, leaving your kit with the bike when you want to walk around- a topbox makes all that easy, and is both secure and waterproof. Beats rucksacks or bungeeing stuff on by a country mile. Most are detachable, so you can leave them off if you don't need them that day.

Givi: Italian makers of high quality motorcycle luggage. Best quality is the Monokey range, which is double-skinned and very robust, but very expensive. More affordable is the Monolock range, which is sold as suitable for scooters and light bikes, and is equivalent to the Monokey range built lighter. Both share the same excellent one-key, one-handed locking and latching system, which is an icon of simplicity and good design. I have had a lot of Givi stuff over the years, and I haven't regretted buying any of it.

Oxford: British maker of middle-market motorcycle gear (luggage, clothing and accessories). Reliable stuff that won't break the bank, and that's it.

I hope you've got all that. There will be questions at the end.

When I bought the Sprint back in July, it came with a tiny little Givi topbox. Only 26 litres, it looked a bit like a large sandwich box and, frankly, a bit daft on the back of the sleek and muscly Sprint. But it was big enough for my work bag and also for my helmet, provided I didn't want to store a packet of Rizlas in there as well. So I kept it on there, at least while I was commuting on the big red thing.

When I was in the middle of negotiations over the change-over price of the Sprint against the Bonnie, I was offered a 44 litre Oxford topbox for half-price as an additional sweetener, as I had mentioned the pathetic size of the Givi box as a negative in the deal. I took the dealer up on that, as I knew the box on the XT (a horrible, cheap eBay special) was on its last legs. I fitted it to the XT and used it for commuting until this week. It's good enough, it holds two helmets and a lot of shopping, and it looks decent. But at the back of my mind was a niggle. The mounting plates for the two boxes are different, and they are not interchangeable. It's more-or-less definite that daughter No. 2 will be coming with me on a continental trip next year (the ostensible reason for changing the Bonnie for the Sprint), and that little Givi box was just not going to be enough.

Shoes, amongst other things, if you must know.

What I needed was a larger Givi Monolock box to go with the little one. Last week, I sold the wonderful Hepco and Becker panniers for a good price, so with some money sloshing around in my Paypal balance I pulled the trigger on a Monolock box of 47 litres. That's about as big as I am prepared to go. Today, I fitted the baseplate for the new box onto the XT after taking the Oxford one off. So now I have two bikes, fast and slow, and two topboxes, large and small, and each will fit on either bike. So I can have the little one on the XT for the commute and the large on the Sprint for touring:

Or the large one on the XT for shopping and the small on the Sprint for sandwiches/first aid/toolkit for a day ride:


The Oxford box is now on eBay and has two watchers already. As I got it for half-price, I might even make my money back. Out of the money raised by the sale of the H&Bs, I have been able to afford a pair of throw-over panniers as well. I'm hoping these will arrive tomorrow. Nothing can beat hard luggage for convenience and durability, but for something I will probably only use a couple of times a year I think it's a good compromise.

I got the XT serviced, too, and that's running like a happy little motorbike now, so it's been a good couple of days.

Must paint that garage door ...

Change and Decay, In All Around I See

From this week, bin collections have been changed from Tuesday to Friday.

This is going to take a while to bed in. After 20 years, my body clock (in 'weekly' mode) had just about got used to Tuesday.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Foggin' Stupid

I was commenting on a fine rant over at MajorGav's PetrolBlog where he rails against the use of fog lights when it isn't foggy (an amusing and timely article) when I realised that I had banged on so much in my comment that I had virtually written a new blogpost. So, with necessary amendments, here it is:


It's that time of year again, when both morning and evening commutes are in the dark, the weather is turning wet and chilly, and the road surfaces are getting trickier. I'd like to say a word to all car and van drivers on behalf of motorcyclists. Please, please, please make sure your headlights are adjusted properly and don't use fog lights, either front or rear, unless absolutely necessary. I know that some of you have them angled forward and call them 'driving lights' (what else would they be? Knitting lights?) but the result is the same.

We - bikers - don't have windscreen wipers, and what for you is a hard glass windscreen is, for us, a bit of soft plastic that scratches almost without touching - and costs 30 or 40 quid a pop to replace. Proper rain, paradoxically, is OK, as the water beads up and is blown off as long as you keep up a decent speed. But light rain or, worse, mist leaves a coating of cloudy droplets on your visor and cuts both visual penetration and contrast. Double that, treble that, if you have followed a lorry or bus which is sucking up a mist of road muck in its wake. 100 yards is enough. Bad enough when wet, but then it dries opaque.

Add an unlit road, and an approaching car with main beams on (or squinty dipped beams, or macho 'fog' lights) and you are literally riding into a black hole. You can see nothing, not the edge of the road, nor the surface, nor if there are any pedestrians tucked away in the shadows. The only answer is to pile on the brakes, slow down to a crawl and hope for the best.

The blazing rear fog light when it isn't foggy has the same effect (although the red is easier to deal with, and it's 21W x 2 rather than 60W x 4). In proper fog, a life-saver; in light rain or clear conditions a painful and annoying added hazard. But they are 'safety features', so it's OK to leave them on, right?

One thing about misused rear foglights that MajorGav didn't mention is the brake reflex on busy roads and motorways. You get attuned to the brightness level of everyone's rear lights, and when you see a much brighter one you assume someone up ahead is braking. You look, you react, and are ready to brake. When some muppet with a fog light on is up ahead, you keep seeing this between the other cars and the brain keeps twitching the brake reflex. That's annoying enough (the brain constantly going onto high alert for nothing) but it's also dangerous - after a while you become acclimatised, and then when somebody does brake in a genuine emergency, you just think "oh, it's that twat with the fog light again" and fail to react. Cue massive pile-up when nobody reacts in time.

Please just remember the Highway Code, Section 226:
You MUST use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres (328 feet). You may also use front or rear fog lights but you MUST switch them off when visibility improves.
It's not difficult: switch them on when the fog makes it hard to see, and switch them off when visibility gets better. Everybody's happy.

And having four lights at the front does not make your car go faster, or give you a bigger willy.


To my American friends ...

A very Happy Thanksgiving ...

And may all your turkeys be single-term ones ...

Wednesday 23 November 2011

More on swearing

Last night, I wrote a post about the rights and wrongs of swearing, and I have had some interesting and thoughful responses. I ran out of time (and didn't want the post to be over-long), so I kept some things back for a later post. Tonight is quieter, so I'm back on the topic. Two anecdotes, both perfectly true and from my own experience, which amused me greatly at the time and which I hope will provide a small distraction for my readers, although any great further insight into the difficulties of the topic is vanishingly unlikely.

1. Leeds, 1972

I was working in the summer as a hospital porter in St James's Hospital. My first proper, paid job and, curiously, one that I would happily go back to if circumstances decreed it. I was part of a portering team of about ten men, all much older than me and, on average, rough as fuck. I loved it.

One was called Ray, a gentle six-foot Yugoslav with a massive frame and huge, sad, cavernous eyes. He had come to England during the war as a refugee, I think, and on his arrival spoke no English. He immediately got a job in the hospital and learned his English there - amongst the portering team. Bad mistake. He swore like a sailor on shore leave, but there was no logic to it.
Hey, fucking you lend me that trolley, bloody.
I not coming fuck to work tomorrow bastard am I?
I liked the guy and we had many long conversations on the long night shifts, and gradually I worked out what had happened. He had picked up the meaning of most English words and could use them successfully. But he had also picked up that there were some words - perhaps 8 to 10 - which were essential to meaningful speech (at least as far as he heard it) but which appeared to have no semantic content whatsoever. I reckoned he worked on a quota system - shovel them in at random points in the sentence, and if there weren't enough, take a few on the end.

Looked at logically, from a language-learner's point of view, this is completely reasonable. Here we have some words that carry meaning and people understand, and here we have other words that seem to have no actual meaning (OK, what does the 'fucking' in 'fucking hell' actually mean?) but which everyone uses with great regularity. What to do, but put them in with the approximately correct frequency and hope for the best? Oops, I didn't use enough this time, fucking.

2. Hull, 1983

Teaching English in a very rough comprehensive, in the shadow of Hull Prison. Parents' Evenings were a quiet affair, as 90% of them never came within a mile of the school gates. But one night Darren told me that his parents were coming in to see me. Oh good, I thought, perhaps I can have a quiet word about Darren's language. Darren was 13 or so, and swore enough to make a docker blush. Nice lad, rough diamond, etc. His parents come along at the appointed time and were equally pleasant, not quite forelock-tugging, but certainly a little deferential, which was a rare treat.

I told them about his work and what progress he was making, and as they were about to leave I told them there was something else I wanted to mention. His swearing. Now it's OK, not a big problem, boys will be boys and all that, but he does it quite a lot, and at the most inappropriate times. He'll find it a problem when he starts going for jobs and so on. Can you ... er ... have a word?

The response was muted. The mother looked embarrassed, and the father crestfallen. "We know he does it, but we're decent people and we don't know where he gets it from. I mean, if I ever hear him swearing at home I fucking belt the little fucker, but he never seems to learn."

He caught her eye, they both caught mine, and we all laughed for a good five minutes.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

Chomsky's famous sentence, published in his Syntactic Structures in 1957, which shows that a human utterance can be both completely nonsensical and grammatically correct at the same time. In other words, syntax and semantics are distinct and separate. It's part of a much larger and highly technical debate about the nature of language and our human capacity for communication, but I am not going into that here, because it is late.

I came across the sentence while studying linguistics in the 70s, and it has occupied a small and dusty crevice in my brain ever since. I was reminded of it while looking through Wikipedia for something related to a comment I was making on another site, which contained a reference to it, and I was drawn into reading the whole article.

Over the years, there have been several (usually unsuccessful) attempts to cast the five words into a sentence that would give them genuine meaning, but of course it is very difficult - impossible, in fact, unless one uses the words metaphorically. Stanford University held a literary competition in 1985, in which contestants had 100 words or 14 lines of poetry to make it meaningful. One entry, which may not have been the winner but should have been if it wasn't, was from one C M Street. I found it utterly charming and uplifting.

It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Public profanity

This post contains swear words. Be warned.

I'm very ambivalent about swearing. On the one hand, I do it all the time: the amount and the severity depends on whom I am with, from merely the thumb/hammer thing when in extremis, right up to potty-mouthery with certain characters at work, who wouldn't understand a word I said without regular interjections of oaths and curses. On the other hand, I was brought up not to do it, and I feel slightly cheapened whenever I find myself cursing. I suppose that's the point: swearing is intentionally transgressive, but in a harmless way, so from letting off steam to emphasising one's point in an argument it's a handy tool in the linguistic locker. I try to limit swearing on this blog to times when nothing else will do, as I simply don't know who might be reading it, and I have no desire to offend anyone unintentionally. But I don't buy the old headmaster's line that swearing is evidence of a poor vocabulary. A heartfelt utterance, laced with some ripe profanities, can be very expressive and also extremely funny.

I have no problem with swearing when it's done amongst people one knows will not be offended, although the degree will change with the audience. But I have to say that I find swearing as it is practised in 2011 - i.e. mouthing off like a docker no matter who is within earshot - pretty uncomfortable. The other day I walked by a car in a supermarket car-park, which had a sticker in the rear window saying (in a very jocular script) "Shit Happens". My first reaction was one of despair - it's such a banal thing to say, and I imagine is what passes for philosophy in the minds of some people. And the child seat in the back of the car made me depressed too. And then I wondered how I would have felt if my late mother has been with me. She wasn't a prude by any means, but she was a decent person and seeing that would have made her day that little bit worse. That's quite a mild example. I saw a youngish man the other day in town with a t-shirt that said, baldly, "Fuck You". I wouldn't be likely to approach him to ask the time, that's for sure. And perhaps that was his point.

Maybe he was a nice guy, and he wore the shirt as a joke. But that, in a way, is even more depressing. If I spoke to him and said that I found his t-shirt hostile and unpleasant, it's likely he wouldn't have a clue what I was on about. I should lighten up, learn to take a joke, perhaps even learn to let people 'express themselves'. I'm glad that we are a freer and less uptight society than we were in the 1950s, but people shouldn't confuse civility with deference, or good manners with emotional frigidity.

I was prompted to write this by an article in the BBC online magazine, entitled "Should swearing be against the law?" It's quite a good one, and delighted me because one of the commenters used the word 'phatic', which was an unexpected treat.

The problem with swearing is that it is highly dependent on context. What is said by a friend while chewing the fat over a pint can become very hostile, even threatening, when said by a stranger. And people don't like to feel threatened by strangers. It spoils your day.

It seems that people no longer realise, or even care, how their actions affect those around them. This issue of public swearing is only one example.

Monday 21 November 2011

Hell, and a Rigby

"Durr, whut?" comment of the week comes from a Mr Rigby, who was stranded at Heathrow Airport due to the fog which persisted there all day.
Matt Rigby, from London, spent the day at Heathrow having seen his midday flight to Moscow delayed and then cancelled.

[He] said: "We weren't even told it was due to fog, but I was able to figure it our for myself because it was pretty foggy out there."
He can probably tell you whether it is day or night without looking at his watch, you know.

Formatting Horribleness

An apology. When I post from work (as with the previous post), I am in a strange limbo, half-in and half-out of Blogger. I can sign in and create a new post, but as soon as it is published I am presented with the sign-in screen again. I can't comment here or anywhere else under my own identity, and I can't edit my own posts. In this limbo, Blogger takes liberties with my formatting (about which I am usually quite careful, as I like to keep the blog looking clean), putting several paragraph breaks on one side of a quote and none on the other, and line breaks in the middle of lines where there shouldn't be any at all. Worse, I can't get back in to edit or correct any of it. The infelicities have to stay until I get home and can access the blog on my regular machine (modest though it is) to put them right.

So if you see a post on here with odd formatting and lots of stupid errors, please accept my humblest, and I will be tidying them up later.

If I am awake.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Upholding Standrads of Litersy

From the BBC's online coverage of the results of the Spanish elections, i.e. after the polls ...
Are you in Spain? Are you be voting? How do you intend to vote? What are the key issues for you? Send us your comments using the form below.
Great copy-editing. And is it just me, or are these requests for 'your views' getting more common? Almost every story on the BBC website has this at the bottom. It seems like lazy journalism to me, or an over-reliance on the opinions of 'ordinary people'. If I want the opinions of ordinary people I will go to the pub - that is not what the BBC is for.

But it's a more general malaise within the Corporation. By the time a story has its quota of vox-pops from 'real people' and its 'correct' interpretation by BBC 'experts', there seems rarely to be time for the people involved to say their piece. The real news - the people involved speaking in their own words - takes a back seat.

Ask yourself - when did you last see an interview where the person just spoke their piece, or a story where the facts were laid out, without either a) Nick Robinson popping up to tell us what is really going on, or b) some Person on the Clapham Omnibus being asked what they think of it all?

5% story, 95% commentary - and half of that ignorant and half politically-biased. The BBC is an old warhorse that needs putting gently to sleep. It's lost its mission and its integrity.

"Are you be voting?"

No, I baint.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Beautiful Numbers

I hated maths at school. I think my brain wasn't ready for it, but the sheer abstractness of it put me off. I was bright enough to survive it, but I didn't love it. Now, of course, I think it is brilliant. I can't fill the car or bike without spending the next ten miles working out in my head the mpg figure from the miles recorded and litres put in. My mathematical understanding is at a very basic level, of course - arithmetic, algebra, 2D geometry, a bit of statistics, a bit of calculus - but I suspect it is better than most, and these days I find the subject both intriguing and compelling. (If it tickles you too, have a look at a book called Nature's Numbers by Ian Stewart, where he delves into the maths behind all kinds of natural phenomena from dripping taps to the arrangement of cells in a sunflower head. Amazing book.)

I was therefore mildly thrilled to find this clip over at Rosie's place. It's a series of 15 unconnected pendulums (OK, Latin scholars, pendula) with monotonically-increasing lengths. (I looked this up and the explanation was way beyond my comprehension, but I suspect if the lengths were metal bars instead of pendula, there would be a musical relationship between them. Maths and music are intertwined. But that's a guess.)

"The period of one complete cycle of the dance is 60 seconds. The length of the longest pendulum has been adjusted so that it executes 51 oscillations in this 60 second period. The length of each successive shorter pendulum is carefully adjusted so that it executes one additional oscillation in this period. Thus, the 15th pendulum (shortest) undergoes 65 oscillations."

Set them going, and watch the patterns. Absolutely beautiful.

Friday 18 November 2011

Farage: "What gives you the right?"

While I quite like Nigel Farage, I sometimes wish that the anti-EU movement had picked someone less like a golf-club lawyer. He can sometimes come across as a bit glib and superficial. But this one (h/t to Guido) is a stormer.

"What gives you the right?" indeed.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Memo to Self

Richard, when you go out to eat, take your reading specs. You really can't do without them any more, especially in dim light and with a fancy foodie script on the menu.

All that shit about "my eyesight's fine, it's just that my arms aren't long enough, ho ho" doesn't wash any more.

Ordering the wrong thing because you can't be arsed to carry them with you would be silly, wouldn't it? And relying on your companion (who remembered hers, women, eh?) because "my God, the light in here is very poor" is neither manly nor exciting.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Ring of Kerry

We fully anticipated a day of driving rain and bitter cold, this being the Atlantic coast and mid-November. Instead, we had balmy weather and, if not bright sunshine, then at least high cloud and good light.

From the island of Valentia, looking seawards ...

About 8 miles out are the rocky outcrops of Skellig Beag and Skellig Michael, the latter the home to some very hardy monks between the 6th and 12th Centuries. There was a lot of sea mist. To the eye, this meant that the islands were distinct but black silhouettes, appearing to float eerily above the surface of the sea. Unfortunately, cheap Samsung optics were not able to capture this adequately, but you can see them if you squint ...

Protecting one of the passes since 1994 was Our Lady Of Grace Coomanaspig, who had a small receptacle for offerings ...

... but it would be more in hope than expectation, I think ...

Another breath-taking panoramic view among hundreds ...

... and another ...

The lakes in Killarney National Park, as the light was fading in the late afternoon ...

... and the day was drawing to a close ...

The weather was unreasonably kind, and we had a very satisfactory day. Not only was it mild and dry, but being mid-November we more or less had it to ourselves. I can imagine in Summer it could be appalling, as many of the roads are barely wide enough for a single car, never mind a coach tour, and apparently it gets packed, but for us it was a beautiful and uplifting place.

Tomorrow, the lakes again in good light, and a trip round the South-West corner to end up in Kinsale. The forecast, not unreasonably, is for lots of rain.

Bring it on - we have the kit, and haven't worn it yet.

Monday 14 November 2011

Clifden Farmhouse

I'm not going to bore you with every B&B I have stayed in on this trip, and every meal I have photographed before eating, but I want to post a recommendation for the first B&B we stayed in after we left Dublin, as the experience was really special:

Clifden Farmhouse
Hospital Road
Clifden, Co. Galway
00 353 (0) 95 21263

It's situated on a hill on the edge of the town, about 10 minutes' walk from the fleshpots of Clifden, as part of a working farm. That means it isn't pretty-pretty, but the views are spectacular. Here's the view one way ...

... and here's the other ...

Don't expect IKEA furniture and Laura Ashley curtains. It's clean and modern, but far from trendy. Just how I like it, in fact. Everything worked*, the bed was comfy, and the 'Full Irish' breakfast (same as a Full English, but further West) was an all-dayer. Best of all, the welcome was friendly, genuine and fulsome. I had phoned the owner, Mrs Coyne, the day before to book, but by the time we got there she had wisely decamped to Lanzarote for a well-earned break, leaving the operation in the charge of her daughters.

In the hospitality trade, there is a fine balance to be drawn between over-familiarity on the one hand and over-formality or, worse, unctuousness on the other. I'd rather be called 'mate' than 'Sir', I suppose, but rather than either of those I like to be greeted with polite but genuine friendliness. As if I matter, but not too much. The girls managing the B&B delivered this in spades, and we left with genuine regret.

I mentioned to Mairead that I wrote a blog with a mainly motorcycling audience, and asked if they had any objection to motorcyclists as guests. Not at all, not at all, was the response, so I asked if they minded if I gave a recommendation to any bikers touring the area. They said they were happy with that.

So, if you are touring the West Coast of Ireland and need somewhere to stay in the area NW of Galway, you would not be disappointed if you stayed here. Fabulous, remote and beautiful scenery, and a great place to lay your head and let the bike cool down a bit.

We'll be visiting the area again, and where we will stay is a no-brainer.

*I'm lying again. I couldn't get the iPhone or the lapdog to connect to the free wi-fi, although this has not been a problem elsewhere. However, since one of the brothers set up all the IT in the house and it works for everyone else, I'm sure this is something that could be resolved if it really mattered. For me, it didn't matter enough to make a fuss about.

Some Views of Ireland 2

Some stunning scenery, making me wish I had brought my Nikon DSLR. I'm having to make do with the iPhone (rubbish) and a finders-keepers Samsung P1000, worth about £20 if it was working properly, which it isn't. So any moody, muted colours and creative soft-focus shooting are not down to any talent of mine, but crap optics.

We drove from Dublin to Galway and then up a long and challenging road across some wonderfully remote bog and moorland to Clifden. I was happy on that road up to about 50 mph, but the White Van Man behind clearly wasn't, so I pulled off into a layby to let him through, nearly wrecking the front suspension on two huge concealed potholes in the process. The mountains were starting to close in.

The many small loughs here often have little islands in the middle, often with ruined buildings hidden in the scrub, and I had a pleasant fantasy involving a lottery win and complete retirement from the human race.

That evening, Anna expressed (or, rather, re-expressed for the ninetieth time) her desire to see the sun go down over Galway Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. This, and the shortened day, was the reason we took the motorway from Dublin rather than the pretty and winding option. However, a good look at the map persuaded us that this was not possible - not without a 30-mile walk, anyway - but we set off for an evening stroll in any case, just as the light was fading. For one thing, we found that Irish estate agents had not lost their sense of humour ...

... and that the Irish are protective of people's rights to walk a pretty walk without getting mown down by cars (the sign advising of a €150 fine for dog mess wasn't quite so photogenic) ...

We ended the walk with this view, the nearest we got to a Galway Bay Sunset. It was good enough.

Tomorrow will see us driving the Ring Of Kerry, and more moody, out-of-focus photo-opportunities, so keep checking back. This B&B has awesome wi-fi. The router is literally a foot from the bedroom door, and it's waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay better than what we have at home.

I think I'd rather just be a Baroness, thanks all the same...

If this is what they call you in Ireland...

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