Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Those little worries

At the tail end of the last post I mentioned 'not worrying about trifles'. But of course you do.

I think I make a serious point when I assert that as you grow older little things bear down on you harder. I have several things on my mind just now, none of them particularly bad, but taken together they nag at my peace of mind. And yet you might call them trifles. Here are just the three main ones:

# I've now had Fiona's worn-out transmission problems fixed, but the coming year will see new things arising: (a) an expensive annual service in May, including a main-drivebelt change (it happens every 108,000 miles, and that point is approaching fast); (b) replacement of the rear brake disks and pads, likely on past form to be necessary sometime this year; and (c) the likely replacement of the exhaust system, which has lasted seven years intact but must surely start disintegrating soon. I have the money in place for all of this. So it is sorted. But what else might crop up?

# The back garden is starting to awake from its winter slumber. Last autumn Kevin next door and myself cleared the garden edges of unwanted shrubs and a mass of undergrowth, but soon I must have those parts dug over and leveled, so that I can extend the lawn sideways. Expense and effort. Can I get it organised? Can I find the cash for hired equipment, and a skip? I can't expect Kevin to do it all, so will I have enough personal muscle power - and stamina?

# The front and rear lawns will need regular mowing. But my mower man has just retired, and won't be available. I'll need to find another person at a price I can afford. And who will now trim my big rear hedge? I don't see myself doing any of this.

The issue of sheer physical strength feeds my gardening concerns big time. It's all very well losing weight and gaining slimness and better health, but it seems to have reduced my muscles as well. Not that I ever had a lot of muscle; but when I look at my slender arms nowadays I do wonder how on earth I am going to wield a spade to any great effect. Or control some machine. The notion of weight-training in a gym is abhorrent. I am going to be dependant on one or more strong men. Sigh.

The smallest thing is likely to seem a big problem, if I let it. A couple of posts ago I related how I fixed my printer. It was simplicity itself, once I had faced the crisis, researched what to do, and got on with it. But I almost let it get me down.

I think I am much worse now at taking things in my stride than I used to be. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I have always worried a lot, when faced with something I don't know the answer to. And yet most often I have found a way. Or time will resolve it. Or somebody has a bright idea I haven't thought of, and the way forward is suddenly easy and obvious. So really on past experience I shouldn't be worrying at all.

The long and short of it is that very few problems are insurmountable, and if they are, then I can take decisions and adopt a new course entirely. I keep on celebrating my independence and very high degree of personal control, with nobody to say 'no' to me. I should regard that as an asset, a reassurance that I have freedom of action, and can never get totally stuck.

The secret of longevity?

I have heard that women who attend church services live longer.

Well, it doesn't seem an unreasonable statement, because, after all, you see an awful lot of elderly women going to church.

Some, the truly devout, surely go for purely religious reasons. But I'm inclined to think that many go simply because the inside of a church is, for them, a comforting place to be, where they will be in the secure company of like-minded people. In other words, there's a strong social and mutual-support element. Perhaps there is even an element of status and exclusivity, considering that official membership of a church, with regular attendance, is perceived nowadays to be a rather special, uncommon thing within the local community.

But it's not just that. In that place of worship the congregation are duty bound to set aside all everyday cares and worries, and concentrate on the voice of the clergyman or clergywoman, and their message of hope and eternal life. That requirement to step away from ordinary concerns can be embraced as a welcome relief. And when you are old, and with many signs of mortality already evident, it's comforting to dwell on the notion of another life to come, better than this one, and populated with people who have already gone but are greatly missed. You may or may not truly believe it; but even the attempt to do so may be soothing.

A church service is anodyne or moving, depending on personal need and inclination, but in any event is a way of being in a safe space where, for a while, you can't be got at. It's a mental self-defence mechanism. I'm not surprised that those who attend, mainly women, and not always older women, find serenity there; and that the knock-on effect of serenity is a longer life.

The real surprise is that more people (of all kinds) don't pop into a church and use a soothing service as a way of relaxing their minds and lowering their blood pressure. And for 'church' read 'similar institution' and for 'service' read 'contemplation session'.

I'm guessing that finding the time is one reason why church attendance isn't very popular. Another might be that many people - myself for instance - are averse to joining anything if it will feel like getting 'sucked in', with quite possibly an onus placed on them to publicly declare where they stand, and to follow a party line. There may also be pressure to take on certain duties: new members of anything are generally vulnerable to 'being tested' and to have things shuffled off onto them.

There is also the problem of faith: it would seem dishonest and trivial to enjoy the health benefits of going to church if it were merely to seek a couple of hours' peace and quiet, and just mouth the prayers said, and not to celebrate wholeheartedly what the church stands for. I wouldn't do it.

And although a lot of people would, at least in casual conversation, claim to be totally (and rationally) atheist, it does nevertheless appear that the same people want to be thought of as spiritually aware, and intelligently open-minded about the notion of forces beyond their understanding or perception. In other words, nobody wants to be thought completely soulless - merely a dull earth-bound vessel full of temporarily-animated tissue cells, living a brief and painful life without any higher purpose. Mind you, I personally think that's exactly what all living things are - human beings included. But it doesn't stop me enjoying my existence, while it lasts.

I am clearly not a churchgoer. Should I then expect to die quite soon? Or will I survive to a great age? I rather think that living healthily, and not worrying about trifles, will best preserve the Melford tissue-cells - regardless of whether I sneak into a church service or not.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Working out holiday costs

One thing about my caravan holidays is that you can estimate the cost of them quite accurately. The day to day cost of groceries needed, lunches, admissions, and so forth will be just the same as back home - so I don't have to make any allowance for those things. Club site fees are extra of course, but I know how many nights I'm going to stay at each site, and exactly what those nightly fees will be.

Car fuel for towing the caravan from place to place, and driving around unhitched, is also extra. It's the biggest unknown. How do I work it out?

Well, I keep a record of mileages covered, and the average fuel consumption according to Fiona's calculations. On a spreadsheet, naturally! Here's the part that recorded my 2016 caravan trips (click on it to enlarge):

That record updates the picture revealed in previous years. And I can base my initial 2017 cost calculations on it. It tells me that in 2016,

# On average, I towed the caravan 139 miles between one place and the next. The least distance was 57 miles. The most, a rather tiring 232 miles. 139 miles would in fact be the sort of distance I'm most happy with.

# On average, I drove 46 miles for every night I was staying at a caravan site. This is exploring the local area, with the caravan left behind at the site, as my base. If the weather is OK, I don't linger at the caravan. I want to get out and around.

# On average, Fiona achieved 23.7 mpg when towing, and 32.5 mpg unhitched and on her own.

I can use this data to estimate what an entire holiday is likely to cost. I need to know just one more thing: the distances between home and the sites I want to visit. For that I use a diagram I've built up from my mileage records. Here's a close-up of the bottom half:

As you can see, estimated distances are written in using pencil, then over-written in black ink once I've actually made the journey. It's easy to work out from the diagram what my towing mileage will be. The next outing, for instance:

Home to Lyme Regis in Dorset: 161 miles, as previously recorded after making the journey. 
Lyme Regis to Carnon Downs in Cornwall: estimated (from a road atlas) at 120 miles. 
Carnon Downs to Great Torrington in North Devon: estimated at 90 miles.
Great Torrington to Cheddar in Somerset: estimated at 100 miles.
Cheddar to Home: 152 miles.
TOTAL TOWING MILEAGE for the holiday - the initial estimate, anyway: 623 miles.

That towing mileage figure of 623 miles is what I want. I then insert that and other figures into another spreadsheet, which number-crunches everything and gives me an estimate of the overall fuel and site cost of my holiday:

I'm away 22 nights at a booked total site cost of £363.50

The towing mileage will be the 623 found from the diagram. And while on site, I expect to cover 990 miles (that's 22 nights x 45 miles per night). 

The diesel fuel cost while towing should be £152 (that's £5.60 per gallon x (623 miles/23 mpg). 

The diesel fuel cost while on site should be £173 (that's £5.60 per gallon x (990 miles/32 mpg). 

The spreadsheet works it all out, and tells me that overall I should expect to pay £688 for fuel and site fees. Which I round up to £700.

There is a hidden bonus for me. £700 may sound a lot, but it includes all fuel. And yet if I were still at home, I would have used up at least £3 per day by way of fuel. So that £3 a day becomes available instead for additional (and possibly frivolous) personal holiday spending. Let's say 22 x £3 = £66 to blow on something while I'm away, and still break even. I'll look forward to doing it. And it won't be £66 worth of ice cream!

The diagram covers quite a large part of the UK, right up to the extremities of Wales and the far north of Scotland:

It includes a few journeys that I haven't yet actually made. I would in each case have almost committed myself, but then found myself thwarted by illness or a lack of funds. However, it's merely a pleasure postponed. 

You can see how certain sites have become 'jumping-off points' for going off in various directions, such as the ones at Cirencester and Stamford. 

You can also see that Kent and most of East Anglia are not currently being visited. Kent is too close (and familiar) for a holiday. And the Essex and Suffolk coasts are hard to get to, partly because London is in the way, and partly because there is never a good time to use the Dartford Crossing. In any case, the more scenic west and north call to me far more strongly. 

(You know, that's a hand-drawn map. And it's getting scruffy. I really need to construct a digital version, showing sites and mileages just the same, which I can update easily and neatly. I must work on this) 

Resurrecting my printer

A few days back my printer stopped working. Catastrophe!

It's quite a beast of a printer, an Epson Stylus Photo 1400 from 2007. You can gauge how large it is from the ordinary yellow mug in this picture:

Opened out and ready to print, it seems even larger:

My printer is meant primarily for printing colour photographs up to A3 size, using expensive ink cartridges and proper photo paper. In its day it was almost the best you could buy, unless you were really going to town on your equipment. In fact it cost me £252 in September 2007, which was then quite a bit for an inkjet printer. It's nearly ten years old now, but has always produced faultless photo prints.

However, the only photo printing I have ever done with it has been for other people, on request. Never for myself. Most of its printing work - a considerable amount over the years - has been concerned with ordinary paper documents of one kind or another - typically bank statements - and letters I've written for stamping and physical mailing. This is well below its maximum capability, and I have often thought that I could have saved myself some money here. An ordinary document printer would have been sufficient. But there has always been the occasional call for photo printing, and I'd never want to fob people off with anything less than a top-notch response.

It has always been hooked up to my desktop PC via a USB cable. They are both of the same 2007 vintage. If I updated the drivers, I could get it to work with my 2016 Surface Book, but there is no pressing reason to do that. If I have something to print, I transfer the photo or document file to the desktop PC and print it from there. I don't want to burden my laptop with peripherals.

Anyway, I'd received an email from my credit card company, telling me that this month's statement was ready for viewing. I got it up on the laptop, downloaded the PDF file, popped it onto an SD card, then cut and pasted the PDF into the desktop PC's memory for permanent storage. This done, I next wanted to print a paper copy so that I could check the statement against my own running record of transactions, and reconcile the account balance on my record with whatever the credit card company said it was.

I turned on the printer, gave the 'print' command, and...whoops, no joy. The paper wouldn't feed. Damn.

I made sure the paper was properly loaded, and wasn't kinked or sticking together. There had - for some time - been the occasional refusal to feed sheets into the printer - but always curable by checking the paper alignment and feed angle. But this time none of these actions had done the trick.

I checked the printer settings. But they were as they should be.

Was the paper perhaps minutely too thin for the printer? I was using a budget pack of 80g/square metre white A4 business printing paper from my usual stationers. A fresh pack. Same paper weight as usual, but a different make. Hmm. Let's try really thick paper. I tried printing the first page of the credit card statement onto high-quality photo printing paper. Yes, that worked! Printing excellently as usual. So the printer wasn't actually broken. Or had suddenly become confused. It must be the paper. Perhaps I simply needed heavier, thicker paper for my statements (and letters)?

Back to the shop. This time I invested in a 500 sheet pack of white 100g/square metre A4 business printing paper. Back home, I popped a stack of this into my printer and expected success. Oh dear. Still no feeding going on...

Well, I urgently wanted to check my statement, so I quickly improvised an entirely digital method. I took screen prints - three needed - of each page of my credit card statement and pasted them into Paint, then saved them. These could now be drawn on, making marks onscreen with the special pen that came with my Surface Book. I simply ticked off matching items using the pen, flipping between the transaction spreadsheet and the saved PNG files. This done, and the statement balance reconciled, I binned the PNG files. The method worked, but it was something of a pain. The job would have been swifter and easier using paper prints and an ordinary pencil.

I needed to get my printer working again!

Since the printer dealt with photo printing as usual, the problem must be straightforward. Something that cropped up now and then with every machine. I researched the common problems of inkjet printers on the Internet, and quickly found what I wanted. There was a rubber roller, which pressed onto the paper and rolled inwards. If there was enough friction between roller and paper, the paper would feed. There would be no trouble with photo paper - it had a particular surface that the roller would grip well. But there might be issues with ordinary white paper. Dust on the paper or (more likely) the roller would reduce the friction, and the roller wouldn't grip properly, or not at all.

Did I need a new roller? No. It could be cleaned with a moist cotton bud - using plain cold water. Just don't go beyond 'moist'. Running water would be bad for the innards of the printer. And - need it be said? - first disconnect the printer from its power source!

As simple as this? OK...let's have a go...

It was easier than I thought. I found that the roller could be moved up and down with a firm fingertip while I wiped a barely-moist cotton bud over it. The bud clearly grew darker, so I must have taken off a fair bit of dirt or dust.

Everything looked dry, so I started the printer up again. This time it all worked. A perfect result.

So there you are: if flummoxed, always try looking up a solution on the Internet.

I had been seriously wondering whether this was the end of my printer, and I'd have to buy another. And if so, it would have to be a cheap one, which ruled out serious photo printing in the future. That wouldn't matter much to me, but it would to the people who sometimes wanted bespoke prints from me. I'd have to disappoint them. But it was all right.

Just as well! I'd recently bought an entire set of new ink cartridges, and now two packs of printing paper. A lot of that expense would have been wasted. I had nearly 1,000 sheets of A4 paper - far too much for my immediate needs. I decided to give the cheaper pack of 500 80g/square metre sheets to my nephew. If he didn't want them all for printing, his daughter - my great-niece - might like to draw pretty pictures on them.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Getting rid of my unwanted change

I really don't know why the Royal Mint continues to produce coins of negligible value. I mean the 'bronze' 1p and 2p coins, and the 'silver' 5p coin. None of them will buy anything, except in combination. But nobody wants to be paid with a collection of small-value coins. If I buy something costing 75p, and offer a medley of 1p, 2p, and 5p coins to the retailer I am likely to get a very sour look. Certainly not a 'Thank you very much, madam'.

Even the 10p coin is only barely worth having. I suppose it needs to be retained so that it remains possible to buy things that cost only 10p, 30p, 70p, or 90p. (You can use one or more 20p coins to buy things costing 20p, 40p, or 80p. And there is the 50p coin. And for slightly costlier things, you'd offer a £1 or £2 coin and get change).

Personally I think the 10p coin is a nuisance. It certainly doesn't pass the Bad Back test, which postulates a painful back that you will only bend, twist or stretch if something on the ground is worth reaching down for. I'd risk a little pain for a £1 coin. But I wouldn't for anything less, and certainly not for 10p.

Very old people clearly remember the extraordinary value that small coins once had, and the wide range of things you could buy with just a few pennies. I was too young to remember when the farthing (one quarter of an old penny) was last used for anything, but I do recall its 1959 demise. I missed it because on one side was a wren, a lovely little bird, and I mourned the disappearance of such a pretty thing. Nearly all of the old pre-1971 coinage was similarly distinctive, and was of a size and weight that suggested it had real value. Even a couple of old pennies (say the equivalent of the modern 1p) were sufficient for a postage stamp; and four of them (say 2p) were enough for a short phone call.

The smallest coin that can now be used on its own to purchase something is the 20p coin, which will still buy you an hour's parking in those few places where the local council hasn't decided to fleece the visitor who comes in by car. But precious little else.

20p used to be the equivalent of the pre-decimalisation four shillings (4/-), which would once, in the 1950s, have bought a week's assorted groceries. Even in 1979 and 1980 - I've just fetched my Expenditure Records for those years down from the attic - 20p would be enough for a cup of tea (8p), a short bus ride (10p), a cup of coffee (13p), a Bounty chocolate bar (13p), a library book fine (14p), a pint of milk (15p), the Seven Bridge Toll (20p), and almost enough for a small loaf of bread (21p). Ah, those were the days!

The National Psychology is such that a great many people hold that abolishing the smallest-value coins would instantly lead to a huge increase in the cost of living, every retailer automatically marking up their goods. In other words, prices would only be rounded up, never down. But even if this happened, would it actually make much of a difference? I for one would be quite happy to be rid of silly prices such as 99p, when charging £1 would be easier all round.

Meanwhile we are stuck with the entire range of decimal coins, only the half-penny having bitten the dust so far. Most have grown physically smaller, but that hasn't done much to diminish the irritation of having a purseful of metal that nobody really wants to be paid with. Nor the irritation of carrying them around. For a long time I have been emptying my purse every few days, and discarding all coins with a value under 20p. I put them in a special zip-up purse. I let the unwanted coins accumulate in this purse until it's time to donate them. Here is the purse, just after the latest donation, with a single 5p coin in it. It will soon fill up again.

This purse came with a dark-blue cotton top from a French designer that I bought in September 2009 from a boutique in Weymouth. I still have the top, but to this day I haven't been able to make sense of the phrase 'Mais il est où le soleil?'

In the past it was my invariable habit to donate my unwanted change to the Clare Project in Brighton. But my visits became rare. I last made a point of calling by towards the end of 2016, to give them about £3 worth of unwanted change, made up of 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p coins. But - as on previous occasions - there were mutterings that all these little coins were heavy and awkward to carry. Couldn't I exchange them at a bank first, for (say) three £1 coins, and a minimum of small change?

Well, no, I couldn't. That seemed unreasonable. It was a donation: why should I jump through hoops in order to give it? Besides, it wasn't all in 1p coins. There was in fact distinctly more silver than bronze.

I didn't want any of these coins, and thought that the Clare Project (as a deserving charity) should have them. You know, every little bit helps. I didn't see why I should queue in a bank, nor go to any special trouble.

It was hard not to feel somewhat miffed, my donation being only grudgingly accepted. And after calling by especially, at that. I strove not to take umbrage. But I decided that, for the future, I would look for another place to offload this cash. It still had to be some body or organisation who would make good use of it - another charity perhaps - but in any event, a place where I wouldn't get cavils in response.

I was in Burgess Hill two afternoons ago, and had that orange purse with me, fat with small coins. I'd brought it with me, certain that Waitrose would have a Charity Box in their store. I couldn't see it though. I asked. Oh no, Waitrose didn't accept cash donations. Hmph.

What about one of the charity shops then? But I'd left it too late: it was just past 4.00pm, and all the charity shops were shutting their doors.

Thwarted! But on reflection, it might all have been a good thing. None of the charities - although all of them 'worthy' - had any big appeal for me personally. I'd have a problem deciding which to donate to first. And I didn't want to get involved in any Big Conversation. I simply wanted to walk in, hand over the money, and leave. But what if I were asked for contact details, or pressed to discuss putting future donations on a more formal footing? I didn't want the embarrassment of being firm, to the point of rudeness if need be, where my anonymity was concerned.

Then I saw the Library. Aha! Surely they would have a donation box inside, for some local Good Cause. And I wouldn't have to explain or identify myself. In I went.

Yes, I had guessed rightly. I fed my coins in. Nobody paid any attention. Then I quietly left. Easy and simple.

I was sure my donation - another £3 worth - would be spread around whatever underfunded activities the Donation Box helped to keep going in these days of Council cut-backs. It would of course be a mere drop in the proverbial ocean. But even if all it did was pay for the tea bags used in one week by volunteer childminders, then that seemed good enough.

A pity about the Clare Project, but they made too much of a fuss. I still think they are a Good Thing for the people they serve, but my unwanted cash will now be going to Burgess Hill Library instead.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Let's go Kerbal

This is a spinoff from my last post on Randall Munroe's What if? scientific question-and-answer website and book. I found a link to another person called Scott Manley and his series of YouTube videos, which take up various design challenges, such as how to make a nuclear submarine fly like an aircraft.

Actually, I first looked at Manley's video of a computer simulation showing how an aircraft using controlled nuclear explosions to 'pump' its way through the skies might fare. It's here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwrLR2kv5KA&feature=youtu.be&t=1119.

Then I progressed to the flying nuclear submarine challenge, which is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dw8wjOz_Jtc. I found it hilarious. In fact I shrieked with laughter.

More Scott Manley videos await. I expect I'll enjoy those just as much. Which is why I'm mentioning them here, so that any reader can too.

I've always been interested in science, but only in a popular, non-academic way. I'm not mentally equipped to grasp the maths and all the concepts. Which is a great shame really. A scientific career, instead of one with the Inland Revenue, might have been more to my taste. And I'm certain Mum and Dad would have approved. Well before I was ten, I was an avid follower of every space satellite launch (e.g. Sputnik, Telstar) and then, a little later, the first manned space flights. I had a giant map of the Solar System stuck on my bedroom wall. And it wasn't just space exploration. I liked all kinds of science. Mum and Dad noticed this, and around 1960 started to give me money so that I could buy a new monthly magazine called Understanding Science. This grew over the years into twelve bound volumes. Here they all are in my bedroom at home in 1974:

There must have been a good reason why I had them up on the shelf in reverse order, but it escapes me now.

It wasn't a cheap magazine by any means, and those hard green folders were of course extra. But my parents must have thought the investment worth it, although they never actually explained to me why they had so much faith in my capacity to understand such a hard subject. I'm guessing that, even then, I could appear to be intelligent and perceptive without actually having any genuine flair or leaning towards whatever it was.

I was eager to please, which must have been taken as a good sign. And I did enjoy bits of what I read. I just lacked true penetration, and the proper Scientific Mind - which became painfully obvious at grammar school. As with nearly all my subjects, the masters considered me a model pupil, but strangely prone to missing the point; rather a dreamer. A puzzle to all. But, in common with Mum and Dad at home, they all refused to give up on me, and attributed my embarrassing exam results to laziness rather than a limited IQ. I imagine they tut-tutted for show, but clung to a belief that if only I 'snapped out of it', and worked hard, and heeded their advice, then l would show the expected brilliance.

Which to some extent was borne out by my rather decent A-Level exam results - the exam results that mattered - for which I did put in a concentrated spell of hard work during the last few weeks before I sat the papers. At last Mum and Dad could hold their heads high! And I could have done even better, if I'd read all of my set books for English Literature, and hadn't turned my Art still-life into an irreverent cartoon. I positively walked the Geography exam, getting a distinction for almost no effort at all.

None of this should be a surprise, to do so well at all my favourite subjects. It would have been properly a matter for amazement if I'd shone at Physics, Chemistry and Biology. But I was no supernova - just a black dwarf. I failed to get even an O-Level in a science subject. I got a scrape pass in O-Level maths, on my second attempt, and that was only through sheer luck on the day.

After leaving school in 1970, I could have turned my back on science and rational pursuits generally, but I didn't. Instead I grew much more interested, though limited as ever by my low-capacity brain. In the forty-seven years since I have honed my mind sufficiently to enjoy the propositions mentioned in the last post, and the videos mentioned in this one. It's probably Not Good Enough, but hey.

Let me end with Scott Manley's take on in-flight refuelling. What a hoot! Click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cwNTy479F8.

xkcd: What if?

I have no idea whether I have stumbled on something here that is already wildly popular, and I am merely revealing how sadly out of touch I've been, or whether this is an opportunity to draw attention to a highly amusing - and yet intriguing - scientific publication. (Probably I have been desperately out of touch...)

Anyway, this was new to me in September 2014, when I came across a freshly-published book on the shelves of Walter Henry's Bookshop in Bideford:

The book is a collection of oddball questions put to the writer, Randall Munroe, on his website xkcd (see https://what-if.xkcd.com/ - scroll down to get a full idea of how the website works) and his serious answers to the cream of those questions. Not only does he provide words, but pictures - illustrating the answers with matchstick men and girls, and more realistic drawings of whatever is under discussion, if that will reveal what happens more clearly.

The dust-jacket dinosaur drawing could be in response to the question 'What might happen if a Tyrannosaurus Rex were lowered into a hole in the ground containing a very hungry alien creature with tentacles, and presumably horrible razor-sharp teeth, who wanted to eat the dinosaur alive?' That's the kind of question that gets put on the xkcd website. Some are very fanciful, but none of them are totally silly when you give them some attention. Various principles of physics will need to be examined, and some weird thinking may be necessary, including (in this case) what the appalled but cunning T Rex might do to save itself. Well, what does a lizard do in a tight spot? More on that poor dinosaur in a moment. Let's look at some of the many other topics that Randall Monroe treats seriously and provides an in-depth response to.

For instance, questions like this:

As you can see, the question might be wacky, but the answer is not. Here are some others.

Apparently you can get airborne from a machine-gun recoil! More:

That one above is one of the more intriguing! The answer is quite a long one, with many world maps showing how things proceed. I'm not going to give it all away. You must find out! Yet more:

Randall Monroe doesn't answer all the queries submitted to his xkcd website, but the book does mention some of the more unusual or worrying ones he had to ignore:

The website also has links to various other webcomic artists that Monroe likes, and whose output he wants to share. Worth investigating.

Back to that T Rex. I couldn't trace the original question and the textual answer in the website archive, so presumably this was a drawing Munroe produced specially for the dust-jacket only. I really wanted to know what happened to the beast. Was it eaten? Or did it figure out a way to escape? I didn't find the answer until - only a few days ago - I took the dust-jacket off, revealing further drawings on the hard front and back covers of the book itself:

Ah! Two humans have used a crane to lift a (presumably highly sedated) Tyrannosaurus Rex over that hole, and are going to lower it into the tentacled maw of whatever dreadful creature lurks down there. Clearly the T Rex has just woken up, and realises its peril.

Clever dinosaur! It swings from side to side as lowering commences, and succeeds in touching down on the ground around the hole, though barely escaping the reach of those grasping tentacles. It quickly bites through the rope it's tied to, and races after a fleeing human. My money is on the T Rex getting itself a pleasant lunch, and possibly having seconds.

The alien creature is left hungry. That may of course prove dangerous. Nothing in the cartoon suggests that the creature, goaded by frustraton and an empty tummy, can't leap (or ooze) out of its hole and gobble up whatever comes immediately to hand, such as a dinosaur enjoying a peaceful post-prandial nap nearby.

Randall Monroe has a Wikipedia entry (which is more than I have) - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randall_Munroe.

Something in one of Munroe's website answers led me on to Scott Manley, another discovery - next post.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Morocco and starry skies

Ah, Morocco! A fairly run-of-the-mill package holiday destination now, but years ago the very name of this North African country conjured up lurid images of Arab-French exoticism and danger. I have long said that the 1942 film Casablanca (starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and a host of other memorable actors) is my firm all-time favourite, with stirring romantic scenes that have become legendary - not to mention a song, As Time Goes By, and a defiant, lump-in-throat rendition of La Marseillaise that closes down Rick's Café Américain. And some older readers may recall Crosby, Stills & Nash's 1969 hit, Marrakesh Express. Or maybe it's only couscous on the plate that nowadays brings Morocco especially to mind.

For me, my first awareness of Morocco as an exotic and dangerous place was a TV series of the early 1960s. Vague memories of it popped into my mind just the other day. I'd found it enthralling, but I could never watch the whole hour of it, and in those long-gone days there was no way of recording any TV programme - unless, I suppose, you could somehow film the TV screen with a cine camera and a tape recorder. But that needed professional expertise and equipment. I had to miss half the programme because Mum and Dad had packed me off to an evening kid's club, and by the time I got home again, the first half was already over.

There was background. Mum had an old friend, and her young son and I were supposed to be great friends. Well, we sort of got on, but he was in every way a brighter spark than me, and I was comprehensively outshone. I found this irritating, but not so much as to make me say anything. I ought to have. But I was a compliant child, and didn't like to go against whatever the grown-ups had arranged. I was only ten, after all. Anyway, Mum's friend wanted her son to attend this kid's club, and I was there to join it with him and keep him company. Imagine how reluctant I was! But there was nothing to say, and I did as I was told. I felt like a fish out of water. It wasn't for me at all.

I wasn't happy or at ease in other children's company - I had put a stop to having birthday parties from age eight onward, much to Mum's social embarrassment, but my tearful pleadings had prevailed. Within a couple of years, however, Mum and Dad had reasserted their 'We know best' ascendancy, even though it must have been very obvious that I wasn't going to enjoy being made to attend a club that had Rules and Organised Activities, and Strict Persons In Charge. But I was unable to stop it.

I endured an hour and a half every week of that nonsense until Dad's promotion (and transfer) meant moving far away to Southampton. This was Deliverance for me. I quit that club with an inward glee and relish that would have offended if visible.

There was just one consolation. Actually two. I set off in daylight, but came home in darkness, under a starry sky. Light pollution was minimal in Barry in the early 1960s. You could see thousands of stars. And, because I was walking on my own, I could dawdle a bit, and stare upwards at the constellations until my neck ached or I was giddy. A child of 2017 doesn't normally have this privilege. They would never be allowed to go off alone in the evening, to walk deserted streets in the dark. But then I could, and I loved it. I dawdled mostly going to the club, not wanting to get there. It got to be a habit, and I was reprimanded more than once. I didn't care - how nice it would be if one evening I was told they'd had enough, and I was not to come again! So I worked on it. No success, though.

The other consolation was the chance to use one or other of my battery torches. I was fascinated by torches, and usually got a new one every Christmas. They didn't last long. The Ever-Ready batteries used then tended to leak, which quickly corroded the metal bits inside the torch, so that after a time the torch wouldn't light up. I had no idea how to put that right, nor what the scientific principles were that made torches work at all. If the battery didn't leak, it would run out of power after a few nights, growing dim, until all you had was an orange glow. On some homeward journeys it was a race against time to reach the back door of the house, and unlatch it, before all power went. The back door was in a narrow and utterly dark back lane - very creepy - and, being a timid child, I hated being caught without light in such a place. I didn't fear murderers. I was afraid of prowling savage dogs. I'd read plenty of stuff about phantom beasts too.

Dad's promotion and our moving to Southampton also meant I was able to quit another heartily-disliked institution that I had been signed up for against my will - the local baptist church's Sunday morning children's service. What had Mum and Dad been thinking of? I wasn't religious in any shape, manner or form - however quiet and reserved (and even fey) I may have seemed at the time. I wondered why my parents had believed I could ever enjoy the dull church services. What were they thinking about? It felt like a punishment. Besides, even at age ten I saw clearly that the world had flaws, that people made threats, and stole things, and could be cruel and very nasty. Adults and children both. And some of them were professed believers in God. I was already disillusioned, and couldn't take it on trust that all church-going people were saints with the highest motives.

It seemed (to my simple mind) that if all the people who were meant to be Wonderful Human Beings - but were actually very unpleasant - could end up in heaven just by saying the right things, or pledging themselves to the right beliefs, then Heaven must be full of horrible people. And you'd be meeting them again Up There for eternity, without escape! This made Going To Heaven a truly fearful prospect. I never articulated any of these thoughts, but they put me in a frame of mind where church-going felt like a waste of time at best, and at worst the gradual closing of a prison door. And yet there was no getting out of it. I went only to please my parents - taking along my little brother, who kept his own thoughts to himself. I guessed that my parents wanted us out of the house. Quite why was only dimly perceived.

Back to that TV programme that I could only catch the last half-hour of. Here I was, in February 2017, trying to recall it in better detail. Particularly the name. Fifty-five years afterwards.

I remembered only that it was exciting, dealt with smuggling or something like that, and had a one-word title that began with C. And that watching the programme came to an end when we moved to Southampton in the summer of 1963.

The dates might help. The winter of 1962/63 was a severe one, and I would never have been allowed out in the dark on slippery pavements. So I must have been watching it in spring 1963. An adventure series whose name began with C. Set in Morocco, and about smuggling. I quickly found what I was trying to recall in Wikipedia. It was Crane. Somebody must have done an extraordinary amount of research, to put together the article - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crane_(TV_series). Astonishingly, there were even some photos to be found on the Internet, though how and why taken defies conjecture:

There's more information at http://www.cherishedtelevision.co.uk/crane.html, and a brief end-of-story YouTube clip too, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n59MFdTu8jw.

Well, I'm glad that I tracked all this down. Another piece of ancient personal history disinterred.

A pity that there are no box sets to watch, as with another contemporary TV series, Danger Man...

Friday, 17 February 2017

Microsoft's price increases

From the middle of 2012 Microsoft began selling its own computer equipment, not just software, under the 'Surface' brand. Over the last four or five years these offerings have been refined. They are all meant to be high-end devices, to show off in an exemplary fashion what Windows 10 can achieve. They are aimed primarily at business and creative professionals, but any ordinary mortals who feel they can justify the cost are also welcome to buy. And I suspect that these stylish devices have been selling well.

I bought one ten months ago - MS's Surface Book - which is their first version of a 'two-in-one' laptop design, meaning that you can use it as an ordinary laptop, but the screen detaches and can be used on its own, like a tablet. I only wanted to use my surface Book as a laptop, and to this day I have never yet separated the screen from the keyboard. But the facility is there if ever needed.

This is what my Surface Book looked like back in April 2016:

It was slim. It was minimalist and understated. It was a magnesium metal design classic. It was 'different'.

I was very pleased, and continued to be pleased, because setup proved easy and it has since given me faithful service with only minor glitches. Only two of those need be mentioned. I couldn't get it to update the Windows 10 OS automatically until I went into Settings and told my Surface Book a fib - that I was on an 'unlimited' Broadband at home, so that MS would download and install their updates overnight. The other glitch, ongoing but infrequent, is that when using the touchscreen and keyboard together, the screen may after a while become unresponsive. It's only an intermittent problem, and is instantly 'cured' by a restart.

These matters apart, I have only praise. My Surface Book - which (of course!) I have named Verity - has been a hardworking servant, fired up throughout the day, at home or away. Despite this intensive use, Verity continues to function perfectly and look pristine. There are no signs at all of any wear and tear. The keyboard, for instance, has not become grubby. And the screen still blows me away. The screen is - because of Verity's vital photo-editing duties - the number one feature so far as I am concerned. It surely remains the gold standard among laptop screens in this market sector. In TV terms it is a '3K' screen. I'm sure that will soon be bettered with true '4K', but that's a game of almost pointless oneupmanship on a thirteen-inch screen - a bit like the Pixel Wars that used to go on with digital cameras - and I won't be upgrading simply to have a slightly more pixel-dense display. The one I have is bright and vibrant, with correct colour rendition, and just right for my well-defined purposes.

So I love my MS laptop! But my goodness, I'm very glad that I spent half my savings on it last year, and not this. Because MS has just increased its UK prices, giving the fall in the value of the pound as their reason.

The price hike is significant. In late April 2016 I was buying the 256GB-memory Surface Book with an Intel Skylake i5 processor. The online cost for that version was £1,599. The price now is £1,849. That's £250 more. Phew! I don't think I would be willing to find £1,849 now. That would be all but £50 of my current savings balance gone in a flash! I'd have to strike a heavy compromise on cost, and look at a lower-spec model from another maker. And I dare say many other people would be in the same position.

That said, MS must have done their figuring, and they must reckon that despite a number of wannabe purchasers being put off, their product will still sell well. And I suppose another £250 won't be a brick wall to a successful professional, just an annoyance to be lived with.

I should add that the current Surface Book is the same machine that I bought in 2016, and the same as the one first launched in the US in 2015. The design is nearly two years old, and should by now be getting obsolete as a piece of top-end hardware. That it still isn't, that a Surface Book 2 hasn't yet appeared, says much about the original concept. It's amazing that it remains current, and that MS have not only not gradually reduced the asking price, but are now asking even more. Greed? Maybe. MS have always had that reputation for being overly pricey. But times are tough, and I don't believe they would risk a price hike unless they felt assured of maintaining both sales volume and sales value.

One's thing is certain. Had I not taken the plunge last year, and chosen a Surface Book then, I could not aspire to one now. I feel as if I've got something I shouldn't be able to afford. Rather like my car. Indeed, rather like my house. I've been very, very lucky.

Thursday, 16 February 2017


'Being OCD' has become a shorthand way if saying that someone is being over-meticulous with some minor thing that really doesn't matter, to the point of obsession, and deserves a little ridicule. Such as being very neat, or placing things just so, or getting fixated on something that 'normal' people don't as a rule worry about.

This isn't of course the clinical definition. True Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, also known as OCD, is a distracting condition that badly affects the everyday lives of a small minority. NHS Choices describes it succinctly at http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Obsessive-compulsive-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx. The text also draws the distinction between true, clinical OCD and its popular image. Another useful reference to look up is Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obsessive%E2%80%93compulsive_disorder. It's absolutely clear that to suffer from proper OCD is no laughing matter, and that nobody should treat a clinically compulsive person with ridicule and contempt. Especially as anyone can develop the problem.

In this post I'm going to discuss the erroneously-named 'popular' notion of 'being OCD'. That is, the expression of personality traits or habits that seem mildly odd or eccentric, enough to provoke a bit of humorously-intended comment. In the last few years it's become something of a social phenomenon, to point out odd behaviours and pull someone's leg about them. Why this happens is a subject on its own. But first I'm going to put myself under the microscope, to measure whether I really qualify for a 'popular' diagnosis (or accusation) that I am 'OCD'. Bearing in mind all the time that I can't really have clinical OCD, because there is no anxiety driving the examples I shall give. NHS Choices says  - concerning persons suffering from clinical OCD - that:

Neat, meticulous, methodical people with high personal standards may be more likely to develop OCD, as may those who are generally quite anxious or have a very strong sense of responsibility for themselves and others

Well, I may be neat and methodical, but none of the rest!

So. What evidence might there be around my home, say, to give me away? Does a generally high standard of cleanliness and tidiness count? Surely that can be taken as normal for someone living alone, without pets, and with a paid cleaner to help. I do not personally dust my ornaments, polish my woodwork, sweep away cobwebs, hoover my carpets, wash my floors, or clean my basins and toilet pan. No scope for obsession there. You won't find me on my knees three times a day, in my pinny, polishing the brasswork to a mirror-like sheen.

What about cooking, washing up, and wiping kitchen tops? Well, I do heed hygiene in the kitchen, and will be careful to wash up knife, chopping board and hands, and wipe any surface I may have touched, immediately after handling raw meat and fish, and before I handle anything else. I can easily imagine bacteria spreading everywhere. But this is a taking no more than a standard, recommended degree of care, and in no way goes into obsessive territory.

Personal appearance? Sorry, no obsessions with a style, or wearing elaborate make-up - just the plain minimum.

Toilet habits, then? As needed. Not according to a ritual.

But I do consider myself vulnerable to gentle mockery where self-organisation and neatness is concerned. I took some photos around the house yesterday, with this post in mind. I touched nothing before the shot. I'm afraid it isn't good news. Look for instance at how these maps in my study have been arranged, with nothing out of place, and in perfect sequential map number order:

Only map obsessives might do that. And look at how I've stacked my DVDs in the lounge. Higgledy-piggledy? I think not:

And in the kitchen. Opening a cupboard near the cooker. Chaos, or properly-graded and positioned bottles, jars and packets? It's OCD I'm afraid, with nearly all the labels facing the same way:

And the midday washing up, already rinsed for easy finishing, and laid out neatly - not just piled in a heap:

Oh dear. And it gets worse. I've just taken some more shots today, to see if the above were flukes. They weren't. The interior of my car just now, which hasn't been brushed out for nearly three weeks:

Fiona is almost seven years old, and has done 98,000 miles, but always looks like that inside. The shopping bag always in the offside rear footwell. The umbrella always on the back seat in that position. The red water bottle is always in that spot at the front. No stickers, no soft toys, no old parking tickets, no clutter whatever. And kept that way. OCD.

Back indoors, there are further telling signs aplenty. In the bathroom, all is tidy and freshly-wiped:

Look how I've arranged things in the picture above. I always have it like that. If Theresa has disturbed the arrangement a little bit when cleaning, then I put it right. I can't help it.

In the lounge, my bag is always in this place on the orange ottoman, and my bobble hat and gloves rest on it just so. The Slimming World book always goes there on Wednesdays, so that I will see it (and pop it in my bag) before the following evening's group meeting. I suppose I could say that by having a definite habit about placing things, like keys, I can lay my hands on them when it matters. But it's not a reason that many people would find compelling.

Back in the kitchen, I look around and see only unnatural order. A kitchen top from a stage set:

And in the bedroom, my clothes neatly arranged on the radiator, warming up for me:

And finally in the study again, the table on which I am typing this post. All symmetry and clutter-free:

And these are not the things that most uphold the OCD reputation I have among my friends! That chiefly rests on my spreadsheets. Which is odd, because although I sometimes consult them in company - to look up some detail - I have really never shown anybody a single spreadsheet at any length. And most of the 980-odd items up in the cloud on Dropbox are not Excel spreadsheets at all, but Word documents. I'm guessing it's the way I organise them all, and the ease with which I can get at whatever I want to look up. Anyone looking at the screen as I fire up Dropbox on my laptop sees this:

Numbered subject categories! That's nerdy. Let's click on '0 Health and personal care':

What, detailed doctor notes back to 2000, and dentist notes going back to 1983? That's pushing it.

Now let's click on '1 Money'. This really is Spreadsheet City:

A spreadsheet for every analysis, and then more. Going back to the 1990s too. The knockout spreadsheets are the MD series, meaning 'Money Diary', my daily record of money transactions. Here's a recent week from the 'MD 2017' spreadsheet:

Colour-coded to death. Otiose, prolix and obsessive transaction detail, in strict order of occurrence. If the police, pursuing their urgent enquiries into the East Grinstead Hairpin Murder, ever asked me to state where I was on the morning of the 4th February 2017, I could look it up and say to them, 'Officers! I was lunching at the Café Paradiso in Chichester!' and they would have to retire in utter confusion. Or utter boredom. Whatever.

In a million similar ways, keeping a record like this clearly and obviously helps me to keep track not only of pennies spent, but where I have been. Which is handy if I should ever completely lose my memory, and need to reconstruct my life. You know, like Jason Bourne - but without the assassin background and the CIA making difficulties. Well, who knows; it could happen. It just needs a bump on the head. Or a hole in the head. You know.

Anyway, I rest my case. I may show a few signs of nerdiness - who doesn't - but I'm hardly OCD.