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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.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Re-reading Big Cyril

As my book clear-out continues, I find an old copy of 'Big Cyril', the auto-biography of Cyril Smith, one time MP and now apparently also a serial child abuser. I remember this as being quite an entertaining read, back in the day. One bit sprang to mind, so I had a quick look in the index: "sacked from Boards of Governors of twenty-three schools", p 101.

Having been a Labour councillor in Rochdale, Cyril Smith had gone independent in 1966, costing Labour of control of the council. In 1972 they got it back and took action against him, dismissing him as Chair of the Education Committee, and "sacking" him from the Youth Committee, Youth Employment Committee, the Committee of Rochdale Youth Orchestra, the Committee of the Youth Theatre Workshop, and the Boards of Governors of twenty-nine (sic) schools, which I had visited so assiduously as Mayor. Yes, I'm sure he did.

It would be nice to think that someone in the Labour Party knew about his activities and was trying to put some distance between the youth of Rochdale and their future MP. However, I think simple revenge on the man who had deprived them of power for several years would be adequate explanation for their behaviour.

Interesting though how different this page reads in the light of the recent revelations.

Oh, wait. I've just spotted an index entry for Jimmy Saville. Smith met him and even appeared on his TV programme once. He has this to say about him: Jimmy Saville admits openly that his work as a disc jockey is a joke, but his record of public service and charity must be unequalled. Sadly it turns out it was, but for all the wrong reasons.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Speeding up my Nexus 7

I bought one of the original Nexus 7 models last year and, like many others like me, found it gets slower with use. There have been ups and downs. When it installed Android Kitkat it seemed to me to be running faster, while installing the new Google Now launcher made it pretty well grind to a halt.

Recently it's been getting worse again, and last week it reached the point where I felt I had to google the problem again (on a different machine) to look for some explanation. You get a lot of suggestions doing this, some more plausible than others, and some more work than others. I don't want to have to do a factory reset, nor I am thrilled by the idea of having to root my Nexus so I can run someone's clever "speed up your device" app. (To be fair, the app may indeed be really clever, it's the rooting bit I have issues with). In truth, the most common suggestions were ones I'd already tried, or they assumed you were running out of RAM or storage space, which I definitely wasn't.

So I went into Settings and tried to spot apps that were using up suspicious amounts of CPU time. Nothing obvious, and I was out of ideas, so I resorted to uninstalling stuff I don't use much. That didn't seem to help, until I disabled (not uninstalled, just disabled) Screebl Pro. If you haven't heard of this, it's an excellent app that senses when you're holding your device and then stops it switching off the display. Now I noticed a substantial improvement, and a week later the Nexus is still running well.

I have to mention that earlier today I thought I should do the reverse experiment and re-enable Screebl Pro. This had no apparent effect on the speed, which leaves me a little confused. It may be that it was something else I tried that did the speed up, but I only noticed it after disabling Screebl. Or it may be something about leaving Screebl on for a long time that made my Nexus 7 go so slowly. Either way, I thought I'd put this out on the web. If your Nexus 7 is moving like treacle and you've got Screebl installed, it's the work of a moment to try disabling it. If it works for you, great. Otherwise I'd suggest removing some apps.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

And a Farewell to Maps Too

Following on from my last blog, we are also throwing out the collection of maps and guidebooks we've accumulated during holidays to exotic (but more often less than exotic) lands. Who needs a phrase book now when you've got a smartphone in your pocket that can translate for you? And do we actually need to keep that city street plan of Budapest anymore? Even if we ever do go back there, Google Maps will help us get around far more easily than that map, which we've probably left behind in the hotel room anyway.

Like I noted in my blog on aerogrammes, maps and guides are fast becoming superseded by technology.

A Farewell To Books

So after the longest continuous period of my life spent living in the same house, we are moving into York in a few weeks time (subject to contract, etc., etc.). We’re not particularly hoarders, but after nearly 18 years, stuff has accumulated. In previous moves the question has been: what can’t we be bothered paying someone to move from one loft or garage into another? The question is even more relevant this time round, as we won’t have a garage anymore, nor much of a loft either. The cull begins.

Mostly I find getting rid of belongings quite therapeutic, with one large exception: my beloved books. I've been collecting since I was a child. I don’t know how many I’ve got, but the number will be well into four figures. There are shelves and shelves of books, with more books stacked up behind them if the shelf is deep enough. Other books sit in boxes in the loft, some unopened since they were put there in 1996.

It’s time for me to face some facts. I probably have enough unread books to keep me going till I die, and that’s assuming I don’t want to re-read any. In practice, nearly all the books I read from one month to the next are brand new ones, so what are the odds of me re-reading any or getting round to reading books which I bought in a book sale thirty years ago and have never opened since?

But it’s still going to be hard to reverse the habits of over four decades.

I begin to go through my collection. For some books it’s easy: they've fallen apart or the paper’s gone all orange, so they can go. Other’s are out of copyright, and it turns out I can get them for free off the internet. Bye, bye that copy of Little Dorrit, and the James Joyce book I was sure I’d read one day.

Dozens of others I haven’t looked at in 30 or 40 years. Yes, I enjoyed them at the time, but in truth I will never find time to read them again. All these can go too.

As the piles of culled books mount up I start to have doubts. Here I am going through hundreds of books that I know I read, even remember enjoying, but now can recall next to nothing of their contents. Reading is something that has taken up a substantial chunk of my free time, but if I can remember so little of it, what exactly was the point?

For the fiction it’s arguably not so bad: the enjoyment is largely in the reading itself. But I read a lot of non-fiction too; was it really a waste of time? Perhaps not—maybe I take in more than I realise. As a teenager I read Arnold Toynbee’s “Mankind & Mother Earth”, but never quite finished it. When I sat down a decade later to do the job properly, I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the author’s arguments I had taken on board, without realising their source. Osmosis might be my ally sometimes, though nowadays I make notes as I go through a book, and review them later to try to lock more of the book’s content into that space between my ears.

More doubts now: how can I be really sure I won’t want to revisit these books one day? Would it cost much if I did? A small and doubtless unrepresentative sample on the web provides some hope. Many of the titles are available on the Kindle for just two or three pounds. And wait, there’s more: there are now online subscription services for books. Like with Spotify for music, you can pay a monthly subscription to an online library and read as many of their titles as you want. Scribd charge $9 a month, and I see seven of the books I'm chucking out straightaway on their front page. Oyster Books is another one. There’s even a Mills & Boon subscription service (which I mention purely for the sake of illustration).

In fact, it dawns on me that I’m already using two limited book subscription services. For a decade or so I've been a subscriber to the O’Reilly Safari technical library (which has saved me a small fortune on books about programming), while my Amazon Prime subscription lets me “borrow” one book a month on my Kindle. Their choice of books is fairly limited (I've only used it once), but I'm happy to see that it does include several I'm chucking out. I suspect time is on my side here, and the availability of books by subscription will continue to expand. Not brand new ones perhaps, but that doesn't matter as it's the older books I'm interested in, like the books I bought as a teenager for 30 or 40 pence.

So it looks like technology is going to let me get rid of my books after all without too many sad goodbyes—more like "Au Revoir".