Monday, November 30, 2009

Westward Ho!

We are planning a short trip to the west coast.
Of California, that is…

It is obviously going to be a rich source of inspiration for this blog.

An early item on the agenda was booking flights.
Scottish-based relatives who are heading to the same place at the same time, but got organized first, told us their best buy had been with Air France (surprise!) via Paris (!) booking through KLM, so it looked as though we were well placed to start.
Try as I would, I could find no good-value flights that way.
Or anywhere via Paris or any French airport.
After a lot of searching, my best shot was with British Airways, from Frankfurt via Heathrow!
This is crazy.

I can only think they must get some kind of subsidy from the Mafia for adding helpful baggage-snatching stops.
Or they are building-in some slack for future CO2 reduction...

Having found my best buy on Opodo UK site, I got through all the purchasing procedure, only to find they would not accept my UK-bank Visa debit card without a UK address.
Same result with my French-bank International MasterCard.
I phoned Opodo who told me that with non-UK addresses, they only accept American Express or International Visa.

I then tried the French Opodo site, but surprisingly it did not offer the same flights or anything very appealing.

In desperation, I found the German Opodo site did offer the same attractive flights, but 10% more expensive than UK.
That was still the best I could do, so we are now booked (unless my somewhat-sketchy German has betrayed me, that is).

European transparency still has a way to go…

Parting thot: "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." – Albert Einstein

Friday, November 6, 2009

Loft Story

It all started with stains on the ceiling & it finished with…
…well, ask me again in 20 years.

The damp stains on the landing ceiling, just after an exceptional downpour, obviously implied a leaking roof, so I climbed up into the loft space above & saw the leak where a chimney goes through the tiles, but couldn't work out why there was a leak.
Even a little roof leak makes you feel terribly weak & vulnerable these days, so I called out the nearest roof specialist, who quickly diagnosed & fixed some badly-fitting cut-away tiles round the chimney & some zinc flashing which needed re-shaping.
Seems to be OK so far, but it had seemed OK for 20 years before the big downpour too…

While they were looking, they also persuaded me I should have all the moss & lichen removed, which had just looked picturesque before, but apparently was a grave danger for my tiles and a potential cause of leaks.
Who knows?

Good salesmen anyway…
They even noticed I had a decent bit of roof just crying out for photovoltaic panels.
Which they also install.

Dubious at first, I dug a lot deeper into that one, found that current tax rules are very favourable & eventually did decide to go for a 3 kW installation.
But after consulting 20 specialists, I gave the job to somebody else, not the ones who first suggested it.
Officially kicked off last week, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear, or hoops to jump through, before the project is accepted.
Particularly the Historic Monuments Authority.
If all goes well, it could be installed early next year & in production late spring.
And paying back the initial outlay after 8 years.
And continuing to feed the grid & provide income for 20 years total.
I will cover this in separate posts.

While I was up in the loft looking at the initial leaks, I was reminded of something I already knew, but didn't want to think about.
The roof insulation was a disaster.
The original owner had insulated all the roof space with rolls of fibreglass on tarred-paper backing sheets, stapled up under the 45° rafters.
In the part of the loft above the landing & bedrooms, quite a lot of that insulation was either torn, or hanging uselessly, or already fallen onto the joists & plasterboard ceilings below.
Moving about up there was very hazardous, with fibreglass hanging down and with no floor to walk on – just hidden joists with plasterboard ceiling between, waiting for unwary feet to pass through.
We also have 3 huge walk-in storage areas, beside the first-floor bedrooms, under the lower half of the rafters, and these areas were also insulated with the same fibreglass stapled to the rafters.
Although that insulation had not fallen off, it was extremely delicate & meant that any activity in the storage spaces had to avoid tearing the paper.
So we got several quotes for removing the old insulation & putting in something more effective & less fragile.
To cut a long story short, we now have thick insulation above the bedrooms & landing ceilings, under walkable boarding on the joists.
And robust boarding supporting & protecting the insulation under the rafters in the walk-in storage areas.
It is probably more effective & certainly a lot more convenient than before.

It did involve emptying all the storage areas though.
20 years of accumulated junk…
A perfect illustration of a variant of Parkinson's law: "Stuff expands to fill the space available".
As we pulled all that stuff out & stacked it to the ceiling in nearby fortunately-now-little-used bedrooms, we resolved to not, under any circumstances, put it all back afterwards!
So we have spent the last several weeks sifting through a mountain of old stuff and separating it into 3 fairly equal lots – keep, give, scrap.

"Keep" was supposed to be only what we thought we really were likely to want to use some time, but we soon realized there were useless things of sentimental value we definitely did want to keep.
But not too many…
"Give" included everything which could be of any value to anybody.
After our previous disappointing experience with Emmaus Strasbourg, we found another Emmaus at Mundolsheim, who took our Espace-full of bric-a-brac quite happily, without ostensibly throwing any of it away, not while we were there anyway.
"Scrap" was not as simple as that.
It involved dismantling as much as possible, to separate all the various categories of recyclable material, then a couple of runs with Espace & trailer to the dechetterie.

The results of that tidying-up are so satisfactory, that we are now attacking all the other, numerous, stacks of "might come in useful one day" stuff we have everywhere.
This will take some time.
And partly explains the paucity of recent posts here.

Parting thot: "Junk is something you throw away three weeks before you need it." - Anon

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Another little gem in French which makes you wonder how other languages can manage without an equivalent.

Literally, bilan translates as "balance" or "balance sheet" or "end of year statement" or just "result".
It derives from the Latin for balance or scales.

But it is in very common use, and invaluable, as meaning "the end result, having weighed up all the positives & negatives".
Such a fundamental & frequent concept…

English needs a single word for that.

Parting thot: "Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about." - Benjamin Lee Whorf

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Garden Shred

I have been thinking about getting a garden shredder.

Not to shred DS's floral borders or ravage next-door's gnomes, but to deal with all our loppings & prunings.
With a big collection of trees & bushes, this is not a negligible item.
At the moment, everything above compostable size has to be trailered to the dechetterie, where I am a frequent flyer.

Shredder fanciers reckon that not only do shredders make your piles
(of branches) disappear, but that the result can then be used to make good compost, especially mixed with grass cuttings which should not otherwise be added over-enthusiastically to the compost heap (particularly not when DS is looking).
Beyond that, the shreddies can be spread on flower beds, where they look tidy, keep down weeds & retain moisture, reducing the need for watering.
Sounds too good to be true.
Which it is.

They forget to mention the noise, the painful slowness, the need to wear all sorts of protection, the doubtful ecological "bilan" (no good translation for that), the frequent jammings, the need for resharpening, the fact that stringy stuff stops the cutter by wrapping round it & hard wood stops the cutter dead, or that the output can be anywhere between mush & chunks.
I learned all that several years ago when I first got interested & borrowed one.
I learned it again last year when my neighbour bought one, then a second, and now passes his loppings through both in succession...
So logically, I should just forget the whole thing & keep on trucking, or trailering.
But logic is boring.
I have let myself be persuaded that the latest & greatest new Bosch AXT 25TC shredder has reached an acceptable level of performance.
It even won a Glee prize (Look it up), for what that is worth.
Unfortunately, there is the price.
Bosch mention 499.99€ & our local DIY store has it for just over 500€.
No way.

Surprisingly, I couldn't find it significantly cheaper on Internet in France, Germany or Belgium.

Then I looked in UK & it is all over the place at less than £300, which is not much more than 330€ at today's rate.
Plus post & packing, of course, for a 30 kg packet.

And that is the point of this post, following on from the previous one about the growing significance of shipping costs for Internet shopping.

I sorted out the half-dozen sites with the lowest take-away prices, around £280, then started digging for shipping costs.
Even within UK, shipping varied between free & impossible (to outlying places).
Not surprisingly, several UK sites do not ship to France.
For the others, the charge varied between £46 & £17.
£17 has to sound reasonable for 30 kg from UK to France, especially compared with 17€ for 48 gm from Germany to France (see previous post).
So I ordered a shredder from Garden Centre On Line, for £279.99 + £17.99 = £297.98

Actually, I ordered it on a Saturday by internet & paid by debit card from a UK account.
I have their confirmation of the amounts.
But the transaction failed because (& that took a long time to trace) our UK bank has been slightly mis-spelling our address for the last 20 years.
Just doubling an "L" which, coming from Lloyds, might have been a natural mistake or an in-joke.
In all that time, nobody had ever noticed & it had never mattered, but for on-line transactions, it matters.
So, after straightening out Lloyds, I had to order it again by phone, still at the same price, and the £297.98 was debited on Monday.
Imagine my surprise, as they say, to get an e-mail on Friday, saying: "Hi, Thank you for your order unfortunately the shipping cost for this item to France is 117.99GBP leaving a balance of £100GBP to pay please advise if you wish to ahead with this purchase and pay the additional shipping. Regards, Customer Service"
Having imagined my surprise, you can now easily imagine my reply, which certainly did not include paying another £100.
I would be interested to find out just what happened there, but I never will.

Next on my shredder-shop list was Lawson-HIS, so I checked their site again & it really did say £281.75 + £17 shipping (up to 30 kg, whereas Bosch says it weighs 30.5 kg).
I e-mailed for confirmation & they confirmed £281.75 + £17.08 = £298.83
Dubious, I asked them to please recheck the weight & shipping charges, which they did, so I ordered it from them.

My conclusions are that shipping charges can vary wildly.
That some sellers (the ones who ship free & publicise that clearly on every page) have understood the significance.
That others still have a lot of catching-up to do.
That there is a big potential for a very efficient distribution system, which has not been invented yet.

Parting thot: "The meeting of preparation with opportunity generates the offspring we call luck." - Tony Robbins

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fan Mail

One of several reasons for not updating this blog much recently, is that my PC has a temperature.

In the beginning, I thought I was hearing the fan more often, then I was sure I was hearing it more often & faster, then it seemed to be running fast most of the time, then I started to get spontaneous shut-downs.
Hard to ignore it any longer.

I opened the PC & hoovered all the fluff out, especially round the CPU, but it didn't make much difference.
I downloaded a free thing called SpeedFan which lets me monitor various fan speeds & associated temperatures.
It soon became obvious that the CPU fan was not starting up correctly, but I found that I could trick it into starting by rebooting after getting to a certain critical temperature.
That kept me happy for a while.
Running with the PC case open, I could see what the fan was doing & also found I could kick-start it by poking it with a sharp stick after again getting to the critical temperature.
That's how I am running today, with the case open, one eye on the temperature gauge & a sharp stick close at hand…

All of which is just a lead-in.

Without being able to diagnose things further, I felt the best move might be to replace the CPU fan.
Surcouf in Strasbourg, who supplied the PC originally, failed to answer several requests about it.
I managed to find the reference (thanks to a helpful forum) and even located an exact replacement on internet, at GNLA in Germany.
Amazingly, once you can find one, a new fan costs only 6.99€ but when I tried to buy one, the shipping charge was an additional 17€.
For a 46gm item.

Digging deeper, I found another one (new) on eBay France, sold from Germany again, at only 3.90€ plus 10€ shipping.
Hopefully that may fix my problem, if & when it ever arrives, that is…

The point of this post is to highlight the disproportionate influence of shipping in "modern" internet shopping.

When is hardware delivery going to catch up with the rest of the "free & immediate" search & buy process which is suddenly available to us & already seems so natural?
In speed & especially in cost?
I suppose it is a bit of a "chicken & egg" problem, in that there is potentially a huge market volume, waiting for a radically more efficient delivery system, waiting for a volume market to be really there.
Surely letter delivery must be shrivelling up these days, just as hardware delivery is pent up to explode?

Sounds like the sort of challenge Google might take on…
Heaven help the post offices & parcel carriers if they ever do!

Parting thot: "Nowadays the rage for possession has got to such a pitch that there is nothing in the realm of nature, whether sacred or profane, out of which profit cannot be squeezed." - Erasmus

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bike, Locks

The Brompton (folding bike) has come into its own this week.
We had a bit of anticyclonic Indian Summer, with no wind, lots of sun, blue skies, colourful trees & pleasant (12°C) temperatures.

Actually, I find even 12°C too cold for "normal" cycling as I sweat going uphill then freeze going back down again.
No doubt there are high-tech clothes which can deal with that, but I don't have them.
On the other hand, I find it simple to wear enough to keep warm on the flat.
Especially wearing my rucksack on the front as a wind-break.
Of course, wearing a rucksack backwards while riding a black banana with tiny wheels does cause some mirth among the natives, notably adolescent ones…

Anyway, that's why I look for flattish places to ride, especially when it's cold.
Which rules out starting & finishing at home, but leaves lots of possible trips along canals & disused railways, cheating by taking the bike there & back by car.

A good ride on Thursday started in Saverne, leaving the car in the free car park opposite the (now out of season, but still picturesque) marina.

When walking, we usually have to leave the car in isolated lay-bys or clearings, which always seems like asking for trouble, but with the bike it is easier to find a near-enough busy car-park.

From there, you can hardly fail to follow the Marne-Rhine canal up to the surprisingly-deep & usually-busy lock in the town centre & westwards to Lutzelbourg (if you come to Strasbourg, you went the wrong way).

There are good views if you climb to Lutzelbourg Castle, which is in ruins but is being extensively tidied up.
I gave them a miss this time on my flat ride.
There were plenty of good views at ground level.
Particularly brightly-coloured boats & trees reflected in calm canal water.

Next stop after Lutzelbourg, on our usual car-tourist-visitor trip, is the famous "Inclined Plane" boat lift at Arzviller.
This is the short-&-sharp method for boats to deal with the Col de Saverne.

But on a bike, you get the option of following the previous (now derelict) canal as it winds gently up through 17 now-gateless locks with 17 mostly-deserted lock-keeper's cottages.
Only 45 metres climb on 4 km of well-surfaced track (important with little Brompton wheels) brings you up to the level of the top of the inclined plane.
Apparently, before the inclined plane was opened in 1969, that used to take all day in a barge.

If you ride along the top canal to the inclined plane, you can look down it, but not walk or ride down beside it, unless you ignore the very large notice telling you not to use the nice little road there…
At the bottom, you are on the canal-side cycle-track back to Saverne again.

And home for tea.

Parting thot: "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important." – Martin Luther King