Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Brompton Spoke

Lots of my posts have concerned old or very old cars, and I now consider their maintenance requirements to be laughably symptomatic of gone-forever "good-old-days".
Who can imagine having to crawl under the car every Saturday morning to attend to 15 grease nipples, or removing the cylinder head for a "de-coke" every six months?
When new cars now only get to see a mechanic every 2 years (surely that's too far in the other direction?).

So it has come as a bit of a shock to read the owner's manual for my new Brompton bike.
Nearly everything needs checking & readjusting "at least once, if not two or three times, during the first few hundred miles of use, when parts are bedding in…"
Especially (heavily underlined) Hub-gear adjustment, pedals & spokes.
Yes, on this new bike, you need to "run in" the spokes & recheck/reset the tension after the first few hours of use, and continue checking, less often, thereafter!
They must be joking!

I actually do have spoke spanners & in my dim & distant past have managed to re-tension several wheels (of old British bikes, naturally) and even sometimes got them running straight again & remembered to file off the now-protruding ends to avoid punctures.
But I can't imagine having to do all that to an expensive new commuter bike.
Two or three times in the first few hundred miles.

I feel like I have gone to sleep & woken up in 1950.
I shall be finding pools of oil on the garage floor soon!

Parting thot: "Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon." - Doug Larson

Monday, September 28, 2009

Brompton Ankles

Way back in June (18th) I mentioned I had ordered a Brompton folding bike.
It was in Brussels by the end of August, but I only managed to get it to Strasbourg last week.

First impressions are positive, as you might have hoped, considering the price!
It folds very neatly & that should be a good party piece after a bit more practice.

The way it parks itself with the back wheel tucked underneath is handy, if not exactly elegant, but who can walk away from a casually-parked 760€ bike these days?
I have not investigated, but I suppose one collateral benefit is that you can lock up the frame & both wheels with one small lock, if you fold everything completely first.

It doesn't feel as wobbly as other folders I have tried, though the stability is not enough to encourage any "no-hands" stuff yet.
A good surprise is the easy, efficient way it rolls on smooth surfaces – no doubt a direct result of the 90psi in the tyres.
Wobbliness & inefficiency were my main fears, so it's off to a good start.

The down side of the tyre pressures, and of the small wheels, is the "high-fidelity" ride quality – no detail of the road surface is lost in transmission!
Already, I am paying a lot more attention to even smallish pebbles & absolute attention to transverse gullies, the consequences of which are only too easy to imagine.
Obviously, mud, sand & gravel are out of the question.

The strange gears (very wide ratio Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub & close-ratio 2-speed derailleur) have an adequate range of 3.0:1 & acceptable (for me) spacing, but I would certainly prefer a decent 7/8/9-speed hub gear.
Or even a cheaper 5 or 6-speed hub with 3.0:1 range if such a thing existed (hint!).
I am getting the hang of compound changes – simultaneously up on the hub & down on the derailleur - but it all requires constant attention & detracts from the idle pleasure of just riding.

What I notice most often, is how vulnerable I feel with no mirror.
That's not a criticism of the bike, but a reminder to myself to get a vibration-free mirror (which won't interfere with folding…) asap.

What I notice most acutely, is the severe pain & bleeding in both ankles!
Caused by inevitable & predictable collisions with the stupid little parking wheels, cunningly positioned to be exactly where your ankles pass on every turn of the cranks.
I find this absolutely incredible.
How can you produce, for over 20 years, an expensive device which unfailingly, painfully, injures its owner?
It's not just me – try Googling "brompton ankles"…

Parting thot: "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." – Winston Churchill

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Battery Strategy

I am old enough to remember when "rechargeable batteries" meant big square things full of lead & acid that you could just pick up with 2 hands.
Imagine what mobile phones would have been like…

So I was initially impressed with the first Ni-Cad rechargeable cells which were the same size & weight as ordinary torch batteries, but cost a lot less to recharge than the ordinary cells cost to re-buy.
With 4 daughters in the early days of cassette-tape Walkmen (Walkmans?) the economics were striking.
But it gradually became obvious that the Ni-Cads did not age well.
We started to hear about "memory effect" & realized we couldn't recharge then until they were run down.
But if you run them down too much they never recover…
And the number of recharge cycles is limited, so you don't want to recharge if you don't need to.
Then the "leak-down" effect which meant the emergency torch was always useless when you needed it, even though it hadn't been used since recharging.
With further ageing, some of them developed very short lives & of course having one flat battery in a Walkman is like having all flat batteries in a Walkman.
So we got good at sorting & marking the weaker ones, which were OK at home but no good on the bus.
But oh, the arguments when certain daughters cornered all the best batteries!

After that the arrival of the more expensive, but less troublesome, Ni-MH cells came as a great relief.
Of course that meant new chargers as well as new batteries, and being careful not to mix them up.
But, in general, they are pretty satisfactory.
Little or no memory effect, so you can recharge without needing to run them down.
Still some "leak-down" though.
And supposedly a limited number of recharge cycles (but I haven't worn any out yet).
So they would be OK in Walkmen, but that need has long since fizzled out.

My main usage of small rechargeables these days is for my camera, which is old enough to need 4 x L6s.
A freshly-charged set of 2300mAh Ni-MHs (if you see what I mean) will take about 200 shots.
I have a little pouch with 4 spare unused batteries to take over, which I carry on day-trips, and a small charger, which I carry on longer trips.
So that should be OK, right?
Well, no, it isn't.
As often as not, when the set in the camera runs out, I put in the set from the pouch, and – leak-down effect – they are flat too.
So I suppose I need to develop some special strategy for topping up the pouch batteries more often (how often?).
Or make a point of swapping the batteries over more frequently?

Apart from the camera, my other battery bugbear has been cordless drills.
My first one was a Black & Decker.
A puny device, but it worked OK for several years.
Except that when the battery ran down you had to stop work until it was recharged.
It was still in as-new condition when the Ni-Cad battery gave up the ghost.
At that point I discovered that the battery was non-removable & non-replaceable, so the as-new drill was junk!

I replaced it by a bigger Wagner drill with 2 removable Ni-Cads.
So I could recharge one while using the other.
And replace either when it expired.
Except, of course, for the "leak-down" effect, so that the spare battery was usually flat when you needed it.
And that one replacement battery cost more than a new drill with 2 new batteries.

So when both batteries were too far gone for reasonable use, I decided I did not want to go down that path again.
I spent a lot of money on a new Bosch drill with 2 Li-Ion batteries, which are very small & light for their capacity.
And supposedly have little or no memory effect.
And little or no leak-down effect.
So far, the absence of leak-down is astonishing & I am delighted with these batteries.
The spare is always ready & willing when the worker expires, even after several months.

Of course, they might explode, but then, nothing is perfect!

Parting thot: "In the beginning there was nothing. God said, "Let there be light!" And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better." - Ellen DeGeneres

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fiat 500

In 1970, after a year & a half with the Sunbeam Tiger, I knew I really wanted a Lotus Elan.

But I also knew that finding an Elan I could afford was not going to be easy, or quick.
Also, I couldn't afford to buy an Elan before selling the Tiger.
And Tiger buyers were not too thick on the ground.
And I couldn't manage without a car in the meantime.
So I decided to get a little, cheap, car as a bridging strategy, to cover the period of selling the Tiger & finding an Elan.

It would have been most sensible to go for some "commodity" like a Morris Minor, but, even then, sensible was not at the top of my priority list for cars.
So I bought a 1967 Fiat 500.
Only 3 metres long, with a tiny 2-cylinder air-cooled engine at the back, scooter wheels & swing-axle suspension, it is hard to get much smaller or simpler than this.
But Fiat managed to make it look very attractive. (They are now enjoying enormous success with the similar-looking new 500 as a Mini rival.)
Of course, it didn't need power steering or a brake servo.
And the performance was better than you would expect from looking at it.
And it came with a throw-open roof.

Generally & in retrospect, I found it a likable car & an admirable design exercise.
I remember it as doing most things better than expected, which is not saying too much, of course.
Certainly, I had to re-adjust my driving style & overtaking manoeuvres drastically when switching between the Tiger & the Fiat.
The worst thing was the low top of the windscreen, so that even I (not particularly tall) had the choice between crouching to look through the screen, or stretching to look through the roof!


The Tata Nano is a very logical development of all the basic ideas & layout of the Fiat 500 & it looks set for well-deserved international success, thanks to that simplicity.

Parting thot: "Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them." - Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Putting ze Rabbit

The less-than-obvious French expression "poser un lapin", literally "to put a rabbit", actually means to fail to turn up for an appointment, without any notice.

Usually employed in an ex-romantic context, when it translates as "to stand somebody up".

Parting thot: "Communication is Talking Listening Acting. Your actions will back you up or undermine everything you say." – DuPont Management

Monday, September 7, 2009

Twingo Quote

One of my favourite quotes, in French, is:
"Ce n'est pas en tappant plus fort à coté d'un clou qu'on l'enfonce."

I keep scratching my head for an equally efficient & punchy translation in English, but keep failing.
The best I can manage is:
"If you are not hitting the nail on the head, there is no point in striking harder".
It's not as good as the original.

The quote is by Yves Dubreuil, then head of the first Twingo project at Renault.
During my time at GM, I could have sent that message back up the communication channels every day.

The Twingo (original version) was produced from 1992 to 2007 and has been consistently & deservedly popular, at least in France & its selected marketing regions.
It was a smart attempt at a low-cost vehicle, being small, light, & simple, but also drastically avoiding options & variants.
All were 2-door (+ hatchback) 1.2-litre models.
There were never even any right-hand-drive versions, which explains the sad absence from the UK market, for which it would otherwise have been well suited.

Aimed primarily at young females (I suppose) it was overwhelmingly cute.
Sometimes insulted as a "jelly-bean", the styling was anti-macho un-aggressive, with a one-box layout, steeply sloping screen & baby-animal-eyes headlamps.
Practically, this resulted in really remarkable space efficiency (ratio of size inside to size outside) and feeling of spaciousness, together with huge glass area, low belt-line & outstanding all-round visibility.
Helped by sensibly small wheels.
As far as I know, it was the originator of sliding rear seats, so that the deliberately little space there could at least be optimised for the prevailing passenger/luggage ratio.

On the down-side, from my point of view (but I am not young or female) they completely failed with their interior & exterior colour schemes and wheel trims.
Especially at first.
The early non-metallic paints were ugly flattish yellow, red, blue & green & looked like cheap polythene toys.
Fortunately, they gradually added better paints over the years.
The interior was deliberately "Fisher-Price" with big coloured plastic knobs & controls.
Well – I see the point, but would much prefer something less cheap-looking, at least the colours.

I think that, if they had added models with good metallic paint, better trim & smart wheels, right at the start, they could have captured what became the (new) Mini / Fiat 500 market.
Later on, with the Initiale model in 1998, they did all of that, but too little, too late – the cheap image had stuck for good.

No doubt the new 2007 model is a better car, especially in safety & durability, but it has completely lost the special charm of the original.

Parting thot: "Ce n'est pas en tappant plus fort à coté d'un clou qu'on l'enfonce." - Yves Dubreuil

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Our "friends" in Lorraine are very proud of their Mirabelles.
Small round yellow plums with not a lot of flavour.
Good enough for schnapps, certainly.
But, well – bof!
We have a couple of Mirabelle trees & make a few tarts & jars of jam every year, but with no great enthusiasm.
The main charm of the Mirabelle is that you can easily pick all the ripe fruit just by shaking the tree, when all the good ones rain down obligingly, leaving the not-yet-ripe ones for another day.
Should be compulsory for all fruit trees.

Here in Alsace, we have Quetsches.
These are proper-size plums with firm flesh & a sharp strong flavour.

We use them on all possible occasions – tarts, jam, crumbles, chutney, or just straight off the tree.
The basement is full of jars of jam & chutney, while the freezer has many bags ready for tarts & crumbles.

We have a couple of old quetsche trees, but it is often easier to just wander along the (disused) road & pick them at a more convenient height from the hedges. (Not orchards, just apparently self-set hedges).
I can't imagine how many tons of perfectly good quetsches go completely ungathered in Alsace, but it is a big number.

What a waste!

Parting thot: "I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice." - Abraham Lincoln

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Folding Stuff

How come some seemingly brilliant ideas go un-copied?

I regularly read car magazines & regularly look in disgust at the rear-seat folding arrangements of popular small cars.
Often, they involve tipping up the seat base, usually unveiling some extremely cost-reduced bits of sheet metal, wire & sponge.
Then, after probably struggling to remove & not lose the various headrests, the seat back can be lowered to form a sloping 'floor', probably a lot higher than the neighbouring boot surface.
Or sometimes the seat base stays put & the back just folds on to it, leaving an even higher & more sloping floor.
Hopeless, every one.

Yet Suzuki produced a really neat solution over a decade ago, on their extremely cheap, tiny, light & popular (in Japan) Wagon R model.
OK – they didn't address the headrest bit, but that would be easy to fix.
Their stroke of genius was to link the seat base to the back, so that, as you single-handedly flip the seat-back forwards, the seat base descends out of the way.
The back folds perfectly flat & perfectly in line with the existing flat boot floor.

Putting it all back is the same single-handed motion, in reverse.
Why does anybody do anything else?

Parting thot: "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." - Thomas A. Edison

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thatched Veranda

We like birds.

DS puts out seeds for them on winter mornings before she feeds herself, let alone anybody else…
She puts out shallow bowls of water, summer & winter, changing them as soon as they freeze over.
Recycling frozen bowls in a sunny veranda.

We have put up half a dozen nest boxes and had lots of success with redstarts.
And 2 hand-made ¼-spherical plaster igloos for swallows.
With no takers yet.

We even like pigeons, within reason.
But more & more pigeons have taken to nesting on the convenient horizontal beam ends under our wide eaves.
We can put up with the noise, the incessant cooing, and the surprisingly noisy wing beats.
But the mess is getting past a joke.
Especially on the once-translucent veranda roof.
Of course pigeons need to relieve themselves, but do they need to do it at home?
And be so prolific?
And couldn't they try to learn how to build a nest which stays together for a while?
My impression is that they just carry a bunch of stuff up there (noisily) then kick it around in the hope it might make a nest.
Whereas mostly it just falls on my veranda.
Which rapidly looks like a thatched cottage.

So, taking advantage of some roofers, here for another job, with ladders of aluminium & nerves of steel, we have put up "Eco-Pics".
Sounds like a green-washing term for what are very nasty-looking spikes which hopefully will dissuade, rather than impale, our pigeony ex-friends.
It seems to work, so far.
I have been able to wash the veranda roof & it stays clean, which is wonderful.

But we are having big pangs of conscience as we see & hear the pigeons making aborted approaches.
And stomping about gloomily in the garden.
I can see I am going to have to build a giant set of pigeon apartments somewhere where the mess won't matter.

Parting thot: "Whatever is begun in anger, ends in shame." - Benjamin Franklin