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

- George Washington

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Now you can pay even less attention

According to the Beeb:
A convoy of self-driven cars has completed a 200km (125-mile) journey on a Spanish motorway, in the first public test of such vehicles.

The cars were wirelessly linked to each other and "mimicked" a lead vehicle, driven by a professional driver.

The so-called road train has been developed by Volvo. The firm is confident that they will be widely available in future.

The project aims to herald a new age of relaxed driving.

It may be relaxed, but to what extent is it 'driving' at all?  Are we 'driving' when on the bus or in a train?  Seems like the input is about the same.
According to Volvo, drivers "can now work on their laptops, read a book or sit back and enjoy a relaxed lunch" while driving.
Correction: drivers "can continue work on their laptops, read a book or sit back and enjoy a relaxed lunch" while driving.  Ask any motorcyclist, or indeed any car driver with moderate observation skills.

I nearly got taken out in Anna's car this morning.  A 90° blind bend on a tiny country road, van driver in the middle of the road, phone in one hand, enjoying a vigorous conversation, while he palmed the wheel round with the other. When he saw us he palmed the wheel further round with a squeal of tyres and sped off - still talking.

Death penalty for someone, one day.

Thursday 17 May 2012

Horses for courses

This post may read like a statement of the bleedin' obvious, but bear with me. I've had a kind of revelation.

On Saturday, I took the XT out for probably the longest day's ride I have ever done on it - 268 miles.  For the last 50 miles, I was alternately standing on the pegs and than leaning forward with my feet out behind doing a Superman impression, all to relieve the stiffness in my back and the aches in my legs.  Much as I love the XT, I have to confess that by the time I got home I was suffering and cursing the head-up, knees-out riding position.

On Sunday, I took the Sprint out for what was planned as a morning's outing, to grab a serious biking breakfast and do a few miles to scrub in some new tyres.  I met some of the Triumph Club in Llandovery and we partook of the West End Cafe's All Day Breakfasts.  No-one seemed keen on moving on (having third and even fourth cups of coffee) and I had to get to work that night, so I took my leave of them and, on the spur of the moment, decided to take the long way home. For reasons which I won't go into, but which involved a dodgy free iPhone Satnav app, an upside-down paper map, and some very poor signage on the Brecon by-pass, I got home several hours later, having visited Brecon (three times), Lampeter, Newcastle Emlyn and Cardigan.  Total distance 191 miles.

Now, after I got home from the Saturday ride (and curiously about 30 seconds after I had pressed Publish on the earlier post) I had a bout of cramp in my left leg which lasted about 15 minutes and was incredibly painful, leaving me sweating and limping pathetically.  I assumed this was at least partially as a result of the day's exertions, and was a little anxious that Sunday's ride might bring a return of the cramp, so I was very alert to any symptoms while I was riding.

Not a bit of it.  When I got home on Sunday afternoon, I could have turned round and done it all again. The Sprint makes riding fast and far so easy it's almost wicked.  The riding position is part of it - leaning forward, but not too much weight on the wrists, and the legs tucked up but not uncomfortably so - meaning that at any speed from walking pace to three figures the body is balanced and relaxed.  The other factor is the engine.  Plenty of power, enough to be relaxed at any reasonable speed, but always eager and willing.  At 65, the XT is working and lets you know it.  At the same speed, the Sprint is polishing its nails and whistling a jaunty tune while wondering what to have for tea. 

Logically, of course, this is completely predictable, and only goes to show that things which are designed to a purpose are better at doing the thing they are designed for than things which are designed for something completely different.  So far, so obvious.  Of course a sports tourer will munch distances in a way that a dirt bike cannot.  Equally, if the day had consisted of some green laning and forest tracks I would be saying how clumsy the Sprint was where the XT was smooth and adept.

What has rather taken me aback is how much the difference really is.  It's almost like they were different modes of transport altogether - like a passenger jet compared to a pogo stick.  This is the kind of knowledge that is always there in the brain (after all, the concept is hardly difficult), but which takes a practical demonstration to make 'real'.  I don't think I have ever done two substantial rides on such different bikes back-to-back in this way ever before, and I am still quite amazed at just how different they were.  I imagine readers who drive very fast cars will know what I mean.  100 miles changes from a distant goal to a mere waypoint on a longer journey.

Horses for courses: the XT is still the best commuter and shopping hack.

Saturday 12 May 2012

No brainer

While I was enjoying a fantastic ride with the XT500/Thumper Club (see previous post), a text from the lovely Jo (Secretary of the Triumph Owner's Club) inviegled its way into my telephonic inbox*.

She, and as many as respond to her textual solicitations, will be meeting in the West End cafe, Llandovery at 10 am tomorrow for breakfast, followed by a group ride at 11.30 to ... well, no-one has decided yet, but in that part of Wales you are spoilt for choice. The problem is, tomorrow is a work day, but I don't start until 9 pm.

Normally, I would give myself an easy day in preparation for a 12-hour night shift, starting with getting up as late as possible.  However, there are a number of contraindications to this:
  • The weather forecast is good
  • Jo is great company, as are the other members who are likely to turn up
  • A mega-breakfast on a Sunday is never a bad idea
  • I fitted a set of Michelin Pilot Road 2s to the Sprint on Friday, and they need to be scrubbed in.

I think I have a solution.  Get to Llandovery for 10 am, meet the guys, eat an artery-clogging fry-up, ride home again, and have a kip in the afternoon.  If the agreed route involves heading towards Aberystwyth, I will join them for the first part and then head home down the coast road.  120 miles (or more) of Welsh twistery should see the shine off the new tyres, and the breakfast should put a smile on my face.  Work can go hang.  I'll get through it.

* While I was on the Rosslare-Fishguard ferry last week, and on the Internet At Sea service, my phone's browser defaulted to Google Norway for no discernible reason.  For this I learned that the Norwegish for 'inbox' is 'innboks'.  This pleases me greatly.

A little stiff ...

You at the back there, stop giggling.

It is the weekend of the (now) annual XT500 and Thumper Club International meeting, held (as before) at the Baskerville Hall Hotel, Clyro, in Powys.  I missed the first one in 2009, but made the last two.  This time, there was too much going on at home to justify a full weekend camping in the Welsh hills, so I just went up for the day.  This meant a 100-mile ride up there, a rideout with about 50 bikes, and a ride home again.  268 miles in total, which is the most I have ever covered in a day on the XT.  I think the previous record was the 100 miles from home to Clyro.  One thing is for sure: in its present configuration, it is not a long-distance tool.  My legs, arse and back are aching like buggery, and I don't think I will be able to stand up straight again.

The rideout was around the dams and reservoirs of the Elan Valley, close to Rhayader.  This is a favourite route of mine, and it was no hardship to do it again.  Proof, if any were needed, that there is no danger of a hosepipe ban in Wales:

You are looking at almost 10 billion litres of water here

(Actually that's wrong: there is no danger of a hosepipe ban in Birmingham, a source of considerable irritation to local people when the dams were constructed in 1893, and many hill farmers were forcibly evacuated and whole villages were drowned for the benefit of English consumers 73 miles away.)

After a coffee at some tea rooms at the old Erwood railway halt, I left the guys to it (for some reason I felt I didn't really need a barbecue and several bottles of genuine Belgian beer) and headed home.  My route took me across a wonderful bridge spanning the River Wye.  At first I thought it was a footbridge, but on closer examination it was indeed wide enough for one car, as long as the door mirrors were folded in.

It was built in 1922, and a cast iron sign at the entrance states that it is suitable only for vehicles up to five tons, on four wheels, and moving at a speed not exceeding four miles per hour.  The XT is one-sixth of a ton, has two wheels, and was travelling at considerably more than 4 mph, but we made it.  The views of the river from the bridge were spectacular:

The bridge can be found here.

The Yamahaha was obviously pleased at passing its exams on Wednesday, as it ran like a champ all day.  It's an honest, unglamorous workhorse and it brings a smile to my face every time I throw a leg over it.  I love this bike (have I said that already?) and will never sell it, but I'm not sure I would choose it if I had to be in Berlin by tomorrow tea-time.  My nether regions would never recover.  Here it is amongst friends and relations:

Friday 11 May 2012

Driving test petition

If you're not interested in the motorcycling content of this blog (and why would you be, you're normal, aren't you?), please read a little further anyway, as this concerns everyone who has an interest in road safety.

Motorcycles are very different from cars, which is why some of us are so fond of them as a mode of transport.  On the positive side, they are generally much more agile and manoeuvrable, a lot quicker off the mark, and cheaper to run than a car.  Riding is physical in a way that driving a car isn't, and this physicality is part of the pleasure.  There are numerous negatives: exposure to bad weather, greater vulnerability to poor road surfaces, and of course the risk of much greater injury in the event of an accident.  There are big differences in the way a bike needs to be ridden, as well.  Hard braking on a bike requires skill and practice, whereas in a car most emergencies can be dealt with by mashing the middle pedal and letting the ABS sort it out.  A few bits of gravel, a wet manhole cover or a spot of diesel on a corner might cause a small slide in a car as one wheel out of four loses grip.  On a bike, you're down on your side and heading into the scenery.

Bikers clearly have different needs from the car driver.  We are less easily seen, we fall over a lot more easily, and if we hit, or are hit by, something it causes us a lot more damage.  In the Highway Code we come into the category of 'Road users requiring special care'.  Sections 211 to 213 cover the approach to cyclists and bikers; briefly: look out for them as they are less easily seen, give them room when passing them (!), and be prepared for sudden changes of direction due to changes in the road surface.

All well and good.  So how many questions in the driving test ask for understanding about sharing the road with motorcycles?  Answer: zero.  I think, given that the Highway Code is so clear on the issue, that this is a bit of an anomaly.  Bennetts, the specialist motorcycle insurers, are backing a campaign to get bike-related questions included in the driving test.  There is a petition which, if it reaches 100,000 signatures, will be passed to Parliament for debate.  At present, there are 37,529, so it is well on the way.

If you feel that this would be a good idea, please pop along to www.bikerpetition.co.uk and add your name.  It's not going to cost anything (other than Parliamentary time, and what else would they be doing anyway?), and nobody is going to be compelled to do anything or stop doing anything.  The petition is just asking for a small change in focus in the structure of the driving test to ensure that the needs of motorcyclists are made a little bit more prominent.

If you do go and sign, you have my sincere thanks.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Straight through ...

... with no advisories.

The XT is officially certified as roadworthy for another 12 months.

To celebrate, here's a picture of the little scamp in its natural environment.

Five minutes after this photo was taken, I had to brake to give way to a car on a narrow bridge.  The rain had turned the dirt at the side of the road into greasy mud, and first the front and then the rear of the bike lost grip and started to slide about.  Easing off the brakes and gently re-applying saved the day, but it was a trouser-filling moment for the pilot.  The bike, of course, shrugged it off.  "I'm a dirt bike, you moron.  It's what we do!"

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Men of God

I've spent the weekend in Ireland, and have passed a large chunk of the time with my nose between the pages of the Irish Times.  In each day's edition, there are several pages dealing with the monstrous issue of child sexual abuse by priests, and the lack of any meaningful action by the Church authorities when the allegations came to light. In comparison, the matter has hardly been touched on by the British media.  The story, or stories, are truly heartbreaking.

I am not a Christian, but there are many passages from Scripture which strike me as speaking a profound truth about the human condition.  One, which I first read many years ago and which came to mind this weekend, is from Matthew's gospel:
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
I don't like to use the word 'evil', but nothing else comes close to describing the sheer amoral wickedness of it all.  I wonder what Jesus would have done: turned a blind eye to avoid a scandal, or raged in like a hurricane and overturned a few tables?

Thursday 3 May 2012

Oh no, not another dilemma ...

... you must be getting sick of them, ho ho.

The netbook hard drive is dead.  A dodo is alive and well, and in training for an Olympic event, in comparison.  I bought an 'enclosure', which lets me connect the netbook drive to another computer as an external drive, and I have found that my Lidl laptop doesn't even recognise that a drive is there.  Apparently, after much Googling, it seems that either the drive controller is toast or, worse, that the drive itself is damaged and beyond simple surgery.  Either way, to get my data back would involve sending the drive off to a data recovery outfit and paying about £300 and upwards to get the files back.

What have I lost?  About 6 months' worth of photographs.  A record of my weight loss since 1 January.  All the maintenance and fuel records of the bikes.  Microsoft Money files that I had painfully brought up to date after a period of financial neglect.  Backups of this blog.  Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing.  Just a fucking nuisance.  So data recovery is out.  The drive is going in the bin.  But what to do now?

Option 1: the Lidl laptop
It's actually quite a decent machine.  It's still host to some unpleasant scripts (which is why I got the netbook in the first place) which make its behaviour erratic, but as a piece of hardware I can't complain.  Screen's good, keyboard's good, internal stuff seems robust.  Option to back it all up, and then re-install Vista from scratch and carry on.  Cost?  If I can find the original Vista disk, nothing, but that's a major uncertainty.  I've had a complete clearout of the room that had all the computer stuff, and I can't remember seeing it.  So, let's say £60 for a new installation disk.  On a 3-year-old laptop that has wear marks where my wrists have been and a duff battery that means it is mains power or nothing.

Option 2: Resurrect the Netbook
Again, nothing wrong with the hardware.  The screen's covered in spots (do I cough that badly? Jeez) and the keyboard has crumbs under the keys, but nothing that a screen wipe and a vacuum attachment can't sort out.  New drive, £60.  Have an XP disk, so nothing for software, assuming I can get it to load (yes, I have invested in a USB CD drive).  Upside - very portable, neat little machine that performs way above what it looks as if it can do.  Holidays, bike trips, pop it in a tankbag and you have the internet anywhere there is a wifi hotspot.  Battery life is awesome - 6-7 hours at the last count.  Metallic blue cover looks pretty good too.  Downside - I don't think I ever used it where I could not have taken a full-size laptop quite easily.  And I got really fed up of looking at the World Wide Wait through that letterbox of a screen.  And the wifi card was really poor - signal 'very low' even within sight of the router.  And the keyboard was tiny, and most of my typing time was spent back-deleting errors because my man-size fingers couldn't cope with the My First Computer key spacing.

Option 3: Lash out on a New Laptop
Cost £250 and upwards.  Windows 7, speed, modernity, pleasure of a new toy.

Decisons, decisions.  I have actually found an OEM Vista disk (thanks, Anna), so Option 1 is becoming more realistic (especially in view of the forthcoming France trip and the previous post regarding reduced pay).  But your thoughts, as ever, would be welcome.

Incidentally, huge thanks to commenter Ripper, who has been extremely helpful in talking me through the diagnostics on the dead hard drive and the mechanics of resurrecting the machine.  Cheers, mate, much appreciated.

My contribution to the Recession ...

The last six months have been fairly crappy from a work point of view.  I said a while ago that things were getting awkward, but I didn't go into any detail.  This was mainly because I know that my employers (or, rather, the marketing people) review the web regularly for business reasons, and if anyone had accidentally found that I was writing about work issues here I suspect it would not have gone in my favour.  Unlikely, given that I have never mentioned the name of my employer, but possible.  In a company where 'being negative' is a disciplinary issue, if I had been found letting fly with what I was really feeling I would have been down the Job Centre within the half hour.  We were in 'negotiations' and it seemed good judgement to keep a little bit schtumm about the situation.  Now, things seem to be resolving themselves, everyone's a bit happier, and life can go on.

What happened was this: the company is in a fairly desperate position financially, and the backers have started to lose patience and insist on real economies, especially on the payroll side of things.  Our 4-on/4-off rota system was deemed to be inefficient and wasteful, and we were told that we would be doing fewer hours, on a 5-on/2-off system, and with half the staff.  For me and the other supervisory staff, this would have meant a pay cut of around 2k per year, and a shift system that was chaotic and unpredictable.  Out of the nine of us, seven put in a formal grievance.  In my case, it was clear - I was contracted, in writing and signed on both sides, to work a 4/4 shift pattern and to be paid £x per year.  Any variation on that had to be agreed by both sides - and I didn't agree.  I joined Unite (holding my nose to do so, I must admit) and had their support during a series of meetings.

I'll say this now, and say it fairly and clearly - the Unite rep was supportive to me and combative with my employers (in a way that I would not have been), but throughout his contribution was for fairness and justice, and I was grateful for it.  None of this 'evil capitalist bosses' stuff - just a focus on my contract and my reasonable expectations from my employment.  I was very glad to have him there.

The next communication frm On High was that the matter had been referred back to the Board for 'further discussion'.  My guess is that they realised that they would have been marmalised if the matter had gone to court, and thought better of it.  The next proposal was different, and more in line with employment law.  We were all offered redundancy, or the opportunity to apply for new jobs, which were quite different from the old jobs.  My supervisory position has disappeared, but the 'new job' is surprisingly similar to the old one, only with additional responsibilities.  Heh.  I am now no longer salaried but paid by the hour, but I have kept the 4/4 shift pattern.  My pay will be cut by about £1,300 a year rather than £2,000, and I will be paid for additional hours worked, instead of the old system of Time Off In Lieu (TOIL - ho bloody ho).  I work only nights now, and there's a lot more to do; but if it's not a victory, at least it is less of a defeat.

However, the great thing from my point of view is the relief from the endless discussion.  Every shift from start to finish, and every time different teams met during handovers, all we talked about was The Situation.  Some guys have left to other employment, and the real 'negatives' have all taken redundancy, and what is left is a core of fairly good guys who just want to get on with it.  It's actually quite refreshing.  Last night I worked with a guy I haven't worked with before, and we talked about religion and death, amongst other things.  Quite a change.  I have enjoyed the last round of nights, although being out and about rather than supervising from the office means less opportunity to crank up the blog and say something irrelevant and pointless on a company computer.

Anyway, that's me: a bit poorer, a bit demoted, but still in work.  We're in a recession and I have taken a hit, but that's how it is, and I have vanishingly little sympathy for anyone in the public sector who bleats about how they haven't had a pay rise this year.  YOU HAVE A JOB AND A PENSION, FOLKS and there are plenty who don't have either.

All right, I am off to Ireland tomorrow for a few days, to sample the pleasures of a fabulous step-daughter and her family, a few pints of the black stuff, and the nutty but wonderful hospitality of the Irish people.  And no netbook - it is DEAD.  So communications will be minimal if not non-existent for the weekend.  See you after the jump.

And have a good one.
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