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Friday, 15 May 2015

They still Make Letraset!

When I got involved in politics back in the eighties, one of the jobs I'd end up with was putting leaflets together: typing up the copy, then printing it off and sticking the individual pieces down onto an A4 sheet of blue graph paper. Blocks of text would be interspersed with cartoons and headings. The cartoons were photocopied from pages of stock art or previous leaflets; the headings you painstakingly constructed from Letraset®.

The end result looked like a school project by a primary school pupil, but at the printers it magically transformed into something that frequently looked semi-professional. The blue of the graph paper disappeared during the production process (though yellow turned dark black—not a mistake you made more than once), as did the edges where you'd cut out pieces of paper, and you got back 6000 copies of your leaflet. Next you had to stick them all through letterboxes, but that's a different story.

Letraset was transfers: sheets of letters and digits that you transferred onto paper by gently but firmly rubbing them with a ballpoint pen. The graph paper was especially useful at this point, to help you keep the characters in a straight line.

It might sound easy, but when you were trying to finish off a leaflet late in the night, it was all too common to miss a letter out or misspell a word, or be forced to admit that the letters were too crooked and you'd have to do it all again. Worse still was suddenly realising you'd run out of a crucial letter. "Cambridge City Council" was a real bugger for using up Cs, I remember. And Letraset was not cheap.

Eventually I got my first laser printer. Oh, the bliss. I could type anything I wanted and just print it out. No missing letters, no wobbly lines, and for next to nothing.

That was in 1995. Since when laser printers have come crashing down in price, and desktop publishing has made blue graph paper a thing of the past. So it was with some amazement that I discovered yesterday that you can still buy Letraset. Who uses it? And Why?

I could google it, but I suspect it's very much a niche market nowadays. I imagine council election re-enactment societies, where groups of hobbyists lovingly reproduce election literature of yesteryear. The hard way.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Sinking Feeling

A decided drop in support for me recently. First my office chair settled slowly to its lowest position and wouldn't come back up again, then three days later my bicycle saddle decides to fall off.

I've had to replace saddles before when metal fatigue gets the better of them, and to be fair I had been hearing a creaking noise recently when I pedalled, but I thought it was coming from the pedals. However, when I had a closer look it turned out that the metal about to come away was not the saddle, but the tube that joins it to the frame. Interesting—you wouldn't think that would ever go. Still, it's a small piece, so I got my spanner and removed saddle + tube from the bike, and drove to the most convenient bike store.

They didn't find it as easy to replace as I'd hoped. In fact, they gave me a choice of two possible replacements: one just slightly too wide and one just slightly too narrow, but both far too long ("you can saw it down to size!"). I demurred, and headed off to a less convenient cycle shop. As this was the one where I'd bought my bike, a Gazelle Esprit, I figured that if they didn't know how to replace it, I'd probably end up having to buy a whole new cycle. As part of being less convenient, there is very little car parking anywhere near it. (Presumably they expect the bulk of their customers to arrive on two wheels rather that four.) So stopping at a public car park just five short minutes walk away, then realising I had no change for the ticket machine and that there were no shops nearer than five minutes away where I could get some, I spent the best part of the next ten minutes on my mobile trying to pay by credit card. It was a hassle, particularly as there is no Backspace key on a telephone keypad (which meant I had to start over), and listening to a recorded message when the wind's blowing past your ear is no joke either, but it was eventually achieved, and at least next time I won't have to set up an account first.

So five minutes after that palaver I'm looking for salvation in the cycle shop (appropriately named 'Cycle Heaven'). The shop assistant took one look at my saddle and went off to get the part I needed. Never have I felt so pleased to shell out £4.99 for a small piece of metal. At a stroke my bicycle is transmuted from large garden ornament back into trusty steed.

The office chair is proving harder to fix. I'd always known there must be a compressed air container somewhere in a swivel chair, but I hadn't realised it's actually the whole tube that runs between the five-wheeled base to the seat. On YouTube there are plenty of videos showing how trivially simple it is to replace this gas cylinder. You start by hitting the wheel unit with a mallet, and off it pops from the cylinder. Except, it turns out, on my model. Mine has a clip at the bottom to hold it in place. Fortunately I hadn't been using the mallet for very long before I guessed something was wrong. At the other end the gas cylinder goes into a hole in a metal assembly that is screwed into the actual seat. Again, the videos are agreed: you can try hitting the cylinder from the side to dislodge it, or twist it out using a pipe wrench.

Well, maybe I need a better wrench, or perhaps a better grip. No amount of brute force and WD40 had any impact on it. I decided eventually that there might be another clip to release it, but if so I would have to unscrew the assembly from the seat to get access to it. So I did.

No luck there either: there is absolutely no sign of the cylinder from the other side, and I'm at a loss to see how I can take the assembly apart to find it. So tomorrow I will have to shamefacedly take it back to the shop where I bought it, in pieces, and ask if they can replace the faulty component. At least now the chair will fit in the car more easily.

I shall watch very closely how they replace the cylinder. Who knows? I might even make a video of it.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Batman Returns!

Exciting news that the Batman TV show from the sixties is being released on Blu-ray. Apparently it's never been available before because of legal wranglings too tedious to repeat here but fully elaborated in the article.

When it was first shown on TV in the UK I was about seven or eight, at a guess, and it was the most exciting thing I'd ever watched. How many hours I spent re-enacting episodes with my brother. "Wham!", "Pow!" Holy roleplay models!

The plots were a bit confusing to start with, as Batman and Robin would finish each episode about to be horribly killed, but then in the next episode would be pursuing a completely different case. Then I realised that the closing line about not missing "next week's exciting episode" was leading me astray, because ITV were showing the program on Saturday and Sunday.

Then when they repeated Batman in the mid-seventies it was again compulsive viewing, but now I was old enough to start getting the show's many jokes and ironies, and wonder just how Batman managed to fit so many unlikely devices into his utility belt, or why none of the villains ever pulled off his mask, even though they managed to capture him at least once in every story.

That was the last time I saw the show. However, when I watched this trailer, and Adam West says the immortal line, "To the batmobile!", I felt an old thrill suddenly run through me as I spontaneously regressed more than 45 years. Holy nostalgia!

They're available at Amazon for £109.99. Holy cow!

Why so much? Well, there are 120 episodes for a start. I'd have guessed less than 50, but it was a long time ago. Plus, this is a "limited edition" box set, with a price presumably aimed at the real Batman fans. I think I can hold out for the more reasonably priced unlimited edition. Or maybe they'll come out on Netflix. To be honest, I very much doubt I'd be able to sit through all 120 episodes, but I'd certainly enjoy watching a few.

Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, Batmaann!

Now, I just need the Gnomes of Dulwich to come back.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Trouser shopping — a reflection

I do not enjoy trouser shopping. Other items of clothing either come in well-defined sizes, or a coat, say, I can slip on by the rack. Trousers are harder. You have to find some promising candidates, then go off to a tiny cubicle and get half undressed to try them on. And if you don't like those ones, you have to get redressed and start the whole thing over again. In my opinion, only shoe purchasing is more irritating, where you need to get someone to help you before you can even get started. (Unless you happen to only have a left leg, I suppose.)

My ideal would be to go into the store, take off my shoes and trousers, and then wander around trying on pairs until I found the ones I want. Well, you'd think people had never seen a man in underpants before!

What I look for in trousers has altered significantly in recent years (and I'm not talking about flexible waistbands, although these should not be sneared at). One thing I really dislike in trousers nowadays are buttoned flies. When I first bought a pair with buttons up the front I thought it was quaint and amusing, that is until I needed to get in there in a hurry. That's when I realised why humanity had invented zips in the first place. They're not much fun buttoning up either, especially in cold weather when your fingers are numb.

Went I went trouser shopping last week I had a newer consideration in mind: would the pockets be big enough to fit my next mobile phone, now that the tendency is for them to look like small tablets. I don't even know for sure yet that I want a 6" phone, but I do know that my phone has to be able to accompany me wherever I go. As if anticipating the recent announcements from Apple and Google, all the trousers I looked at had capacious side pockets.

Another sign of the times: in Debenhams they have a QR code in the changing rooms so that you could download their wonderful Debenhams app. And on one pair of trousers a tag suggested I might like to text a number to donate three pounds to a marine conservation charity. As I was just about to make a considerably bigger donation to Debenhams, I passed on that one. The connection between marine conservation and what I wear on my legs wasn't obvious; perhaps the idea is that people will feel less guilty about spending a large amount of money on clothing is they donate a small amount to charity, thus allowing them to spend even more on clothes.

Some things, though, never change. As usual it seemed that an army of similar sized people had visited the shops just before me, leaving mostly trousers too wide or too short for yours truly. Or I'd find some with plenty in my size, but I wouldn't be seen dead in them. Not that I'll get much say in the matter.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Who says gas bills are rising?

A stunning letter from energy supplier SSE:

Although we've been in our new house for four months, it's taken that long for our new energy supplier, Good Energy, to take over the supply of gas and electricity from SSE, who were handling things when we moved in. In fact it had taken so long that we'd had interim bills from SSE, and duly paid them of course. As they'd estimated our usage, we received a refund for the electricity, but with the gas I reckoned we would end up owing them money at the end. And so we did: one whole penny.

It doesn't take much of a brain to work out that SSE will be costing themselves dozens of times this amount just by mailing to tell me. When I ring up their 0800 number to make the payment, that will cost them some more, and their bank will no doubt charge them a bit more for the privilege of receiving my penny. The blindingly obvious decision should be to write off final bills that are less than the cost of collecting them. So what's gone wrong?

Well, looking at the three pages of colour printout that allegedly "explain my bill in detail", I think the blame lies with those fiends incarnate, the computer programmers.

A couple of months ago the bill we received estimated a usage of £91.64. But now, the bill for that period has been revised to £57.31, with an additional bill from then to the date of termination of £34.34. Total: £91.65! But our final meter reading was eight units more than their estimate in August, and eight units surely cost more than £0.01, so I'm guessing that their billing software spotted that it wasn't worth sorting things out, and fudged the revised bill so that the final total would equal the amount we'd already paid. Alas, some rounding error has left them still short of that extremely expensive penny.

If I'm right, I should have received a final bill of £0.00. Still costly to tell me about, but they would at least have been saved the phone bill and the bank charge. No wonder they offer £46 a year off if you go paperless.

It says "If you'd like to discuss your payment options, please give us a call." Oh, I'm really tempted, but all my previous attempts to talk to a human being on their 0800 number have just resulted in my left ear getting very hot from having a phone jammed into it for 15 minutes. To add insult to injury, their muzak is exceptionally annoying even by muzak standards, and it's interrupted every thirty seconds by a voice telling me that I'm going to get connected real soon.

Now, I just need to remember to actually pay the bill.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Future—Today!

We watched the pilot episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" this week. Made in the year 1987 and set in the year 2364, I felt it held up quite well, allowing for some shaky characterisation that you might expect in a first episode. One bit made me laugh though. Commander Riker stops a crewman to ask if he knows where Data is. The crewman takes pleasure in showing him how you can tap a huge panel on the wall and then ask the ship's computer to tell you Data's location. It even displayed moving lights to point you in the right direction.

27 years ago the show's writers thought that this would be cutting edge technology in the late 24th century. Today millions of people have got the same technology sitting in their pockets. Out by three and a half centuries!

We haven't got holodecks yet, but VR headsets are starting to make a real impact, while 3D printers are clearly replicators in the making (no pun intended). Even more than when we were sending rockets to the moon, it feels like I'm living in the Future.

Guess it will still be a few years though before I can tell a kettle to make me a cup of "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot".

Thursday, 21 August 2014

A Curious Optical Illusion Caused by my Spectacles

Sat in a presentation a few days ago I started to get distracted by an odd effect outside. I was in an upstairs room sat on the other side of the room from the window. Outside was a golf course. I was looking at the tiny white dots on the green, presuming they were gold balls but unable to work out why they looked so small. Later on a miniature golfer landed a shot in a bunker. He recovered nicely, tidied up the sand with the miniature rake that had been left there, and moved on. Later still other miniature golfers came and went; some even had a miniature golf buggy.

During a break I wandered over to the window. Now that I could see the drop to the ground, everything looked the right size. It seemed that I had been misjudging distances, thinking things were nearer than they really were, so that they appeared shrunken. When the presentation restarted, I tried to make the golf course look the right size by sheer force of will. It didn't work.

The answer came to me half an hour later, when I happened to take off my varifocals—suddenly the golf course was looking normal. And when I'd stood up earlier, naturally I'd removed my glasses. At this point I confess to missing a bit of the presentation while I experimented pushing my glasses up and down my nose. There was no obvious magnification going on, and although the varifocals do make distant objects appear slightly higher up, I couldn't see how that could be confusing my brain in this way.

I think I worked out what was going on when I noticed how a bit of rough grass changed when I was using my specs: a blur of light green colours changed into distinct blades of grass. My theory is that because the glasses made things more distinct, my brain was fooled into thinking they must be much nearer than they actually were. The only thing that bothers me is that I've been wearing these specs for almost a couple of years now (note to self: book annual appointment at the opticians), but this is the first time I've noticed this effect. My guess is that it was a particular combination of circumstances that generated it, namely having in my near view something (the rough grass) that changed so dramatically when I was using my lenses.