Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Open Doors


There is a lot to be said for universal conventions.

Faced with the door handle above, nobody would hesitate before pushing the handle down to open the door (Would they? Anywhere?).
If there had been a roundish knob, rather than a handle, few people would hesitate before turning it anti-clockwise to open the door.
Similarly for the lock below the handle.
Most people would expect to turn it clockwise to lock the door & anti-clockwise to unlock it.
If it had been an inserted key, rather than a fitted knob, I think most people would still expect to use the same rotational senses.

For the second illustration, where the door handle is near the left edge of the door, most people would, I think, expect all the above directions to be reversed.

There is no logical reason for this, but society seems to have automatically & universally configured door furniture as though it had a sliding bolt, operated by the top edge of the handle, knob, key, etc.
This saves a lot of people a large number of tiny fractions of a second, and tiny wastes of mental & physical effort, every day.
It makes life just a little bit easier & more pleasant, at almost no cost.

Why, oh why, oh why, then, have cars adopted the exact opposite convention?
Why do I still have to hesitate, try to remember, then usually still get it wrong & have to try again, every time I lock or unlock my car doors?
Which crazy idiot started this trend & why did anybody at all follow it?
How can we fix it?
Apart from remote opening devices, that is.

Parting thot: "The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking." - John Kenneth Galbraith

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Harlequins


We seem to have quite a lot of ladybirds this year, which I thought was a good thing.

A couple of weeks ago, one of our plum trees had a lot of big juicy greengages split while still on the tree.
I was surprised to see all the split plums thronged by ladybirds.
First thought, "Good!"
Second thought, "I have never seen ladybirds eating fruit before…"

Then a neighbour said they were probably the newly-invasive Asian ladybirds.
A quick Google confirmed that they are, in fact, what are known as Asians here & Harlequins in UK.
http://www.harlequin-survey.org/recognition_and_distinction.htm
I had vaguely heard of them, but not realized they were here in force.
Now I know.

Sounds like bad news for aphids, but also for native ladybirds & other stuff.
How am I supposed to react to them?
Up till now I have regarded all ladybirds as particularly good things.
Carefully helping them out of swimming pools, verandas etc & back to aphid-infested bushes, of which we have only too many.
I suppose I just have to welcome them as part of life's rich pattern.

Parting thot: "Non-violence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him." - Martin Luther King Jr

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wot! No Helmet?


Found this charming monument in Bar-le-Duc.

From "the Grateful Cyclists of France" to Pierre & Ernest Michaux "Inventors of the Velocipede with Pedals".

Modern historians could probably find prior art somewhere, but the Michaux do seem to have been at least early users of the pedal & crank for propelling what then amounts to a bike in the 1860s.
One of their employees has a US patent for a pedal-powered boneshaker in 1866.
http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blbicycle.htm
http://bicycling.about.com/od/thebikelife/ss/History_3.htm

Presumably early cyclists, even in France, were better equipped than the chubby chappie on the monument.

In an unusual reversal of history, a modern bicycle maker has just removed the pedals from a beginner kid's bike to recreate the boneshaker, but with soft tyres & saddle.
The idea is that kids can learn steering & balance without all the hassle & injury potential of pedals.
Safer & more comfortable than a scooter.
Sounds plausible.
See Ridgeback Scoot.

Parting thot: "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." – Albert Einstein

Monday, August 17, 2009

Blue Cow Roundabout


Roundabouts have become a major feature of French roads in the last decade or so.

This is an excellent thing for safety, compared with any cross-roads junction, with or without traffic lights.
Personally, I find it a good thing for my nerves too, as any hold-up is obviously due to the amount of traffic & not to some absent idiot having screwed up the timing schedules for the lights.
I don't have any proof, but I suspect the overall waste of time & energy is lower for roundabouts than for traffic lights or Stop signs as well.

Having belatedly adopted roundabouts, the French are doing a nice job in decorating them.
Very few are left as vulgar pieces of traffic chicanery.
Most are lovingly adorned with ordinary or extraordinary floral stuff, which is very pleasing.
Sometimes with real or simulated historical remains or icons of local industry or folklore.
I think I shall have to start a collection of photographs on this topic…

Leaving Commercy (in the Meuse, which never sounds like a good thing to be in) recently, we were surprised to see a very original roundabout.
Not decorated, as might have been expected, with giant Madeleines (Commercy is the home of the madeleines referred to by Marcel Proust in "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu".) but with big blue cows.
And inexplicable wavy red lines.
And cascades.
And canon balls.

Back home, I have discovered that it is the 1999 creation of eccentric-looking artist/sculptor Patrick Hervelin.
http://radeau.ivre.free.fr/artistesdos/CV-hervelin.html
And that it is called "Les Trois Godelles" (Godelle apparently being local dialect for cow).
But I still have no idea of the significance of any or all of it.
Definitely not boring, anyway.

Parting thot: "Art is making something out of nothing and selling it." - Frank Zappa

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vignettes


As you probably know, French Autoroutes use toll-booths, so payment is more or less per kilometre.
The predictable result is that far too many potential users, particularly lorries, avoid the autoroutes & prefer the old Routes Nationales.
So we have an excellent autoroute network which is relatively empty (Parisian lemmings might not agree on some July/August weekends) while single & dual-carriageway roads, towns & villages are clogged up by unnecessary traffic.
So the autoroute companies don't recover their investment fast enough.
So they keep putting up the prices.
And so on.

This is all a big nonsense.
Any considerations of safety, efficiency, pollution, global warming, balance of payments, health, noise, stress, etc, would say that you should shift as much traffic as possible off ordinary roads & on to autoroutes. (or railways…)
So any payment system should encourage, not discourage, every possible decision to go via autoroute.
Even if it means getting that payment from taxpayers, rather than from users only.
Or from duty on fuel.
Nobody seems to be even suggesting such a move yet, in France.

So, after an initial resentment, I find myself thoroughly in agreement with the various European countries (Switzerland, Austria etc) which have introduced per-time rather than per-kilometre payment, at least for visitors.
They handle this via windscreen stickers called vignettes.
The Swiss one is valid per calendar year, while Austria is more flexible, with a choice of 1 year, 2 months, or 10 days.
Having paid for your vignette, you are surely going to get the most out of it by using autoroutes wherever possible!

I have some minor quibbles with the Swiss vignette though.
It is not meant to be transferred from vehicle to vehicle, for whatever reason.
It is deliberately designed to stick ferociously to the screen and, when you try to remove it, to tear into dozens of tiny shreds which have to be scraped off one by one, using a thin blade, then alcohol to remove the vestiges of glue.
20 minutes of misery every year.

Like a lot of other people (I suppose) I have tried to overcome both these problems by sticking the vignette first to a thin transparent sheet & then getting that to stick to the screen.
It seems to work fairly well, depending on the intermediate sheet, but you know it is illegal & you know how silly you would feel if the hawk-eyed Swiss border guards noticed.

So when I had my broken screen replaced last week, I was intrigued to find that my Swiss vignette (not on any intermediate material this year) had been transferred in apparently perfect condition to my new screen.
I didn't think to ask them how they did it, but I probably will, next time I am in the vicinity.
Trawling through Google, I found various suggestions using solvents, but the most interesting solution seemed to be by heating with a hair-dryer.
Now I just have to wait till January to try it.

Parting thot: "Rules are written for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men." - Douglas Bader
But don't blame me if that does not go down well in court.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Smart?


A collateral benefit of the broken windscreen was that the repairers hand out free Smart half-cars while they replace your screen.

I had read enough reports on Smarts to know that it was going to be slow, noisy, bouncy, unstable & cursed with a slow & jerky automated manual gearbox.
Judged by the average new car, it was all of that, but not as much as I expected.

Note that this is not the current model.
For its intended urban/suburban usage, the performance is perfectly adequate & would never be an embarrassment.
It sounds too much like an old lawn mower when starting up or idling, but once on the move it is not particularly noisy & when pressed the engine noise is reminiscent of a Porsche 911.
This one had a few creaks & rattles, probably due to it not having one careful owner.
With such a short wheelbase, it unavoidably pitches sharply over speed humps taken slowly, but otherwise the ride is better than you would reasonably expect from its size & shape.
I would need to drive much further, faster & in different conditions before commenting on stability.
In normal circumstances it doesn't feel at all odd, but I would have serious doubts about coping with emergency avoidance manoeuvres or patches of ice & snow or standing water.
Certainly this is one vehicle which needs all the ESP it can get.

Then the gearbox.
I expected it to shift automatically, but this one only downshifted automatically to first gear after a stop or near stop and also shifted from 5th to 4th below about 40km/h.
Other shifts were manually triggered by the push-pull gear lever, against rather heavy spring loading.
The clutch is automated & the throttle is regulated during gearshifts.
The shifts on this example were not too rough but rather slow.
Clutch operation on starting was reasonable, but manoeuvring on slopes requires left-foot braking or use of the handbrake, to avoid sudden roll-back or sudden lurch forward.
This gearbox would be an irritation in long-term use, as it isn't automatic & doesn't do as good a job as the average user can manage with a manual gearbox.
Newer models are apparently better, and have an automatic mode.

Would I buy one?
No, I don't think so.
I think they have pursued shortness beyond the point of diminishing returns.
I like very small, light, efficient, economical cars, such as the Japanese Kei cars, but for me there is a best compromise somewhere around 3.5m length and I would not get any benefit from the extra compactness of a Smart.
Maybe if we lived in a city?
Which is not going to happen.
Being strictly a 2-seater would often be a nuisance & I would always have doubts about stability in an emergency.

If the question is "How to make the best car in 2.5m?" then they have done a very good job.
But I don't think that is the question for many people.

Parting thot: "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Another French Viaduct


Word-association these days has "French viaduct" = Millau.
I have to admit I haven't been there or done that yet.
Maybe I should, before terrorists, tempests or tremors affect it too badly.
Or rusting cables, more probably…

On the way back from Troyes, we paused at Chaumont, where they are very proud of their 152-year-old 3-level viaduct.
I don't know where it stands in the viaduct pecking order, but it is big enough to be impressive, solid enough to be reassuring & harmonious enough to be pleasing.
And open to the public, free.

Trains take the top level, maintenance workers the middle and anybody else can walk across the lowest level.
With very light guard rails which would not dissuade anybody who wanted to walk off the side, for whatever reason.

See it (& other bridges) on coordinated postcards & stamps:
http://bridge-maximumcard.blogspot.com/2008/09/france-chaumont-viaduct.html

Parting thot: "If you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving, you don't actually live longer; it just seems longer." - Clement Freud

Monday, August 10, 2009

Photovoltaic 1


First of probably a long series on this topic…

We have been attracted by solar energy for some years, but each time we have investigated in any depth it has turned out not to make any economic sense.
Ecologically satisfying to do, but financially daft.
Last time, in 2006, the best estimates were that we might just recover our investment in about 17 years, if all went well, and that afterwards we might start to generate a little benefit.
But never as much as leaving the money in the bank.
Reluctantly, we decided, again, that saving the planet was beyond our means.

Disappointing, when we see so many solar panels as soon as we cross into Germany.

Now, however, things seem to have changed in France.
The government will give you a tax allowance of 8000€ (+200€ per dependent child) for an installation up to 3kWpeak.
That helps to offset the initial cost of about 20 000€.
Then EDF is contractually obliged to buy your production at a very advantageous (to you) rate, for the first 20 years.
They have to pay you 0.60€ per kWh (indexed) whereas they sell their kWh to you for about 0.10€ at the moment.
And there is no income tax on that gain.
The obvious & intended result is that nobody, except in isolated areas, will try to store & reuse their solar energy via expensive batteries, but a lot of people will sell all their solar power to EDF & continue to buy what they use.
And a lot of people will find it reasonable to install panels.
And a lot of people will find it profitable to set up making (well, maybe…) importing, distributing & installing solar stuff.
Of which an unpredictable proportion will be unprincipled sharks of course.

Optimistic estimates suggest getting your money back in maybe 7/8 years and that, over 20 years the overall performance could beat investing at 5% compound interest.
Assuming nothing goes wrong…goes wrong…goes wrong…
And we know how likely that is.
Credible sources say all current panels will almost certainly still have years of useful life left after 20 years.
That the inverter/controller will probably need replacing after 10-15 years, but that prices should have fallen a lot by then.
That it is possible to protect against lightning & power surges.
That there is nothing much else to give trouble.
Except the new idea of stealing solar panels.

But who can bet on an investment that depends on everything staying pretty for 20 years?
Are we still going to be around?
And the house?
And EDF?
France?
Civilisation?
The Planet?

Who knows?
But it really does begin to look as though we could get the satisfaction of doing our bit for global warming without obviously shooting ourselves in the financial foot.
Too much…

To be continued.

Parting thot: "Next to being shot at and missed, nothing is really quite as satisfying as an income tax refund." - F. J. Raymond

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bof!


How did we ever manage without "bof!"?

I just spent a long time searching dictionaries for a good definition & possible translation.
Definitions say something like "expression denoting apathy or lack of interest".
I didn't find anything like a convincing translation.

This little gem is one of the French expressions which we now use (very frequently) in its original form even when speaking English.
Basically it is a response to the question "What do you think about XXX?"
And it implies that your opinion is perhaps slightly below neutral or that really you couldn't care less.
If it is something you have just done, you are not going to bother to do it again.
If it is a proposition for a night out, well, you could go along with it, but it might be better to think of something else.

English could do with an equivalent.
Or maybe it has, these days - probably in Texto.
It surely must be one of the most frequently used expressions for an indolent generation.

Parting thot: "Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all." – Winston Churchill

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Thrown Stone


We just spent a very pleasant couple of days wandering to & from Troyes.
Taking in the oddly-named Lac du Der & several places from the Michelin guide "Les 100 Plus Beaux D├ętours de France" which I mentioned previously.
We were very impressed by Troyes, particularly to see so many typical & well-preserved half-timbered buildings.
The above picture is from the Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troyes which says I can use it.

I have several similar views of my own, but all with the usual white vans in front.

Lac du Der is actually an artificial reservoir which helps to even out the level of the Marne & the Seine, at the cost of having flooded a lot of land & several villages in the '70s.
I don't want to get into any political arguments between Parisians & Ecologists, but for the vulgar tourist, the result is a very large (10 km long) & attractive piece of water with beaches, birds & boats and plenty of flat cycling opportunities.

From the "Detours" guide, we managed to fit in Toul, Commercy, Bar-le-Duc and Langres, so we shall soon need the guide to the 100 next-best detours.

The only black mark on the trip was a broken windscreen.
A direct result of irresponsible French road repair methods.
All summer, they fix the previous winter's damage by pouring tar on the holes & cracks, then throwing big stone chippings on top.
A large repair will get rolled flat, but they don't bother for small patches.
Then they go away & leave the traffic to flatten it down & to remove the excess chips.
Usually there will be a warning sign & often a 50 km/h speed limit, but not always.
The signs work fairly well for careful owner-drivers, but hardly at all for vans, lorries & commercial travellers.

This time, they had fixed about 10 km of quiet back-road with little patches every few yards & no signs as far as I remember.
I slowed right down every time we met traffic & mostly other people did too.
I was just congratulating myself on having carefully avoided meeting a rather fast lorry on a gritty patch when – bang - the next car threw up just one big chip & the screen had a 20 cm crack.

Back home I was relieved to find that my insurance now covers screen replacement at no cost to me, but of course there is a significant cost to the community.
I don't keep records, but I should think I need screens replaced or resin-repaired about every 4 years.
And always for exactly the same reason.
And I go out of my way to avoid freshly gravelled roads when I can.
And every new car model seems to have a bigger, more sophisticated & more expensive screen than the previous one.

If the road-menders were held responsible for screens broken immediately after their jobs, I think they would soon find a cheap-enough way to set the chips & to remove the excess before leaving their patch to the traffic.
But there is no incentive.
The motorist thinks he has a nice new screen for nothing.
The insurance companies pass on the cost spread over all their customers, so nobody notices.
The government probably thinks it's good for the GDP.

Do other countries handle this better?

Parting thot: "Accidents, and particularly street and highway accidents, do not happen - they are caused." - Ernest Greenwood

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Crazy Keyrings


I have, or have had, countless key-holders.
But never a really satisfactory one.

Yet it's a pretty universal device, with years of development time accumulated.
And wasted, apparently.

All the various spring-clip variants seem like over-kill & are inherently bulkier, heavier & more complicated than necessary.
They usually have the potential of suddenly opening completely if they snag on something, which can result in disaster.

Keys are often delivered with simple round-wire rings, usually spiral-wound with just over one complete turn & with rough chopped ends.
OK for temporary use & easy to open, for adding & removing keys, they are unsatisfactory in general use as the wire is usually too weak & deforms when pulled.
The sharp, unprotected ends are unpleasant to handle & often catch threads in pockets etc.

The most common device is a ring with just under 2 complete turns of wire.
Instead of a steady spiral winding, it is normal to find a sudden kink at the midpoint, which allows the ends of the wire to be sunken & not catch threads.
Often the wire ends are rounded & smoothed or polished so they feel pleasant.
But then they all go wrong with the choice of wire section.
Almost invariably, the section is such that you would break a finger-nail if you tried to add or remove a key without a tool (knife or screwdriver).
Occasionally, you find a 2-turn keyring with thin-enough wire that it can be opened with bare hands, but usually it is then too weak for general use & ends up distorted.
Yet there is no need for significant force holding the coils together; keys will not come off anyway.
The obvious answer is flat wire, which would allow separation of the ends by finger-nails, but still be strong & rigid enough to maintain the ring shape.
Still with nearly 2 turns, kink in the middle and nicely smoothed ends, of course.

The example at bottom right in my illustration is nearly there, but still too stiff for bare hands.

I suppose somebody, somewhere is making keyrings like that, but I have not found one.

Parting thot: "If you drink and drive, you might as well smoke." - Anon

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pool Trivia


The standard pool brush, which I mentioned & illustrated in a previous post, does not quite clean into the edges & corners of the pool.
So you get a nice blue pool with less-nice dark lines in all the corners.
I haven't seen any devices on sale to handle this problem, except some brushes have bristles which wrap round more or less at the ends.
Mostly less than the one I use.

In the early days, we tried a hand-held sponge to clean the corners of the steps & even, by diving, some of the bottom corners.
This was more amusing than practical.
Next, we found a (new) loo brush was more convenient than the sponge, but still not ideal for the deeper bits.
It was fairly logical to see that the loo brush, attached to the telescopic pole used for the other brush & net etc, would be a good answer.
Some, but not all, loo brushes will insert into the pole OK, but will of course drop out if not retained.
All sorts of solutions can be imagined for retaining, including screws, clips, wedges, string, tape, velcro etc.
My junk box yielded a couple of bits of rubber, which allow the brush to be inserted & removed easily but provide enough resistance to stop it dropping out.
It's not terribly elegant, but it works very well.

The pool was supplied with a floating thermometer.
Which could usually be found under the cover when you wanted to know whether the pool was warm enough to take the cover off or not.
Or floating insolently in the middle of the pool so you needed to fish it out with the net to see the temperature.
Or getting in the way when swimming.
I tried attaching it with a cord, which was better, but it still got in the way.
The best solution so far has been to attach the thermometer to the skimmer surround with adhesive-backed Velcro.
Using a decent-sized patch of Velcro, the thermometer is not dislodged by normal pool agitation.
You always know where it is & it is easy to remove & replace, from in or out of the pool, cover on or off.
You have to know to peel the velcro open – if you pull the thermometer horizontally, you can unclip the skimmer surround (not a big problem – it clips back on OK).
The Velcro needs replacing every 2 or 3 years.

In parallel, I use an old digital thermometer to read the temperature of the water where it comes into the house to be filtered & pumped.
I actually used the inlet from the bottom drain rather than the skimmers, so it is usable summer & winter.
I didn't want to create a potential leak by drilling into the plastic pipes, and in any case the sensor is a thick disc shape which would need a big hole, so I just stuck the sensor to the outside of the pipe, then wrapped a lot of insulation all round it & several inches up & down the pipe.
That way, I think I am near enough to reading the temperature of the water inside the pipe.
OK, it's not the "exact" pool temperature (whatever that is – top? bottom? sunny? shady?) but it is very stable, reaches its stabilized reading (to 1/10 degree) within about 5 minutes after turning the pump on, and is generally 1-2°C cooler than the floating thermometer, presumably showing the true temperature at the bottom of the pool.
This device is extremely convenient for surveying pool temperature all year round & in all weathers, even when the winter cover & lowered water level make the floating thermometer inaccessible.

Parting thot: "The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us." – Paul Valery

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Swimming Uphill


For years, we have been aware that our pool has an uphill & a downhill.

It is noticeably more difficult swimming west-east than east-west & takes about one extra stroke.
This is surprising, as the circulating water enters on the west side & exits on the east side.
Compared with the pool cross-section, the water flow must be about negligible anyway.

A test confirmed that the anomaly is only present with the circulating pump on.
A further test showed that sizeable objects (full plastic jerrycan) floating just flush with the surface to avoid wind influence, move quite clearly east-west, wherever they start.
I concluded that there must be a relatively rapid circulating current, west-east at the bottom & east-west at the top, due to the jet effect of the water from the pump, which comes via 2 orientable nozzles in the west wall, both pointing moderately downwards.
So I thought I would see what happened if I set the nozzles more horizontal.

While fiddling about, I played with pointing them up, which gives a noisy fountain effect.
Less steeply up, gives a visible swirly current on the surface.
Angling that swirly surface towards the side wall of the pool, produces a significant current along the edge of the pool.
That immediately washes all floating insects, leaves etc rapidly along the pool & into the skimmers at the east end.
The difference in cleanliness of the pool surface is radical & stays that way as anything floating on the surface drifts towards either the north or south wall then gets swept to the skimmers.

Pity it took me 10 years to discover that.

The uphill/downhill effect is reduced too.

Parting thot: "Crystallizing my feelings about the game, I find that squash is less frustrating than golf, less fickle than tennis. It is easier than badminton, cheaper than polo. It is better exercise than bowls, quicker than cricket, less boring than jogging, drier than swimming, safer than hang gliding." - John Hopkins