Saturday, 27 June 2015

Bus wankers

The daily commute has recently become significantly less stressful than it has been for a very long time, and this is due to the fact that I've started using the bus instead of driving.
The staff parking at work has been gradually reduced from very little to sod all or slightly less, which means that it has become necessary to park about a mile away and walk in. This hasn't really made much difference in the evening because the traffic heading out of the city at the end of the day is so heavy that it takes just as long to drive as it does to walk.
I've also sold my car and not bothered to replace it. I'd come to despise that damn Mitsubishi Colt. I bought it after the bike crash when I needed a cheap to run car with an automatic gearbox because I was unable to use my left leg. In that repect it was great because it enabled me to get to the hospital, doctors, and eventually back to work without relying on anyone else to ferry me around. Since then the little issues that bugged me about it grew into major irritations that made me just want to be shot of it. I'd driven plenty of automatics before and really liked them, but the autobox on the Colt just sucked. The old-school epicyclic transmissions with torque converters are lovely to use as long as there's a decent size engine bolted to them, but because they're so inefficient you end up using way more fuel than with an equivalent manual transmission.
The Colt's trasmission was one of those automated manual types that is basically a manual gearbox but with electric servos dealing with the clutch and shifting duties. This system is just as economical as a manual transmission, but it makes such shitty decisions about when to shift and takes so long to do so that it had a habit of leaving you without drive just when you were trying to slip out onto a roundabout, or it would decide to shift up when you were halfway through a bend causing the car's balance to alter dramatically. Not good. I ended up shifting manually (you could use it like a sequential shifter), but that didn't change the time it took for the system to change gear.
Then there was the poorly designed A-pillars which were so chunky you could easily lose an entire car in the blind spot at a roundabout or junction, and also the outrageous parts prices. The starter motor failed one time, leaving me stranded in a car park in Ely. Once I'd removed the starter motor back home, I found the cable linking the solenoid to the motor brush gear had corroded to the point where there was no longer any continuity. Most car starter motors cost around 80 - 90 pounds, but for this little bugger it was going to be just a tad under 300 pounds. There was no way I was going to pay that if I could get away with it, so I repaired it with some chunky cable I had lying around, a large cable tag, and a piece of terminal block. It was a bit of a bodge but it worked, and although it was fixed I was always waiting for the repair to fail.
So the car was sold within 24 hours of advertising it and I made the switch to using the bus, leaving us with just the Civic that the wife and I can share.

Public transport has never been something that I've really enjoyed on the odd occasion that I used it, so unsurprisingly there was a bit of an adjustment period. In a car you're in your own little bubble, whereas on the bus you're sharing your personal space with all sorts of people many of whom you may not necessarily choose to be in close proximity to. Let's face it, on any given bus journey there's going to be a certain weirdo element and all you can hope for is that the local nutter doesn't decide to inflict their presence on you.
The biggest benefit of bus travel however, is that all the stress of driving in rush hour traffic is being dealt with by someone else, leaving me to sit back watching the world go by with my headphones on, listening to all the music I'm not allowed to play at home unless I'm the only one there.
Granted, the bus is sometimes late, occasionally doesn't turn up at all, and the journey time is somewhat longer. But considering the stress and aggro on the roads, the trade off is worthwhile. The bus ticket costs about the same as I usually spend on petrol each week so there's no real difference in cost, plus it means that we don't need to have two cars. Perfect.

Another benefit of bus travel is the opportunities it provides for my favourite sport - people watching. It's always fun to look around and see the assorted characters at the bus station, and it was inevitable that I'd end up giving some of the more prominent individuals some sort of nickname. I've always done this - it's often been a way of injecting a quiet bit of humour into my inward musings on those around me. For example, there's 'Fag-Ash Lil' who always smokes a revolting cigarette while waiting for the bus in the evening, and 'Stonehenge' a tall twenty-something girl with big tits who spends her time lurking around the bus drivers like some psycho stalker, talking and laughing loudly which shows off the teeth that spawned the nickname.
Then there's 'Fugley', 'Pimp Daddy', 'The nauseatingly cuddly couple', 'Skanky' - a middle aged blonde woman with a sort of dreadlock hairstyle and numerous tattoos, 'Mrs Bucket' (just like the woman off Keeping Up Appearances), and 'Dim Sum' - a tiny old Chinese woman.
All this people watching to a background of 'Fields Of The Nephilim' or 'Linkin Park' has reduced my general stress level considerably, to the point where I get to work without already being wound up like a spring, and where my habit of reaching for an alcoholic drink the instant I walk through the door at the end of the day has actually started to dwindle a bit.
Now I'm getting used to it, bus travel is starting to be of benefit in many ways. One of which is that now I'm not driving to and from work every day, perhaps I might actually start enjoying driving again like I used to. Very handy, as I've got a long drive up to the Yorkshire Moors to undertake soon.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Fantasy garage

Occasionally there arises some sort of discussion during tea-break at work that makes you ponder something in greater depth than the usual throw-away comments and piss-taking. Nothing too deep and meaningful (we're blokes after all) but enough to get the grey matter ticking over.
In this case the question was simply what five cars would you choose to be in your dream lottery-win garage? It's a predictable question mulled over by blokes everywhere, but rather than just plumping for a fleet of Ferraris we figured even though it was a fantasy it would be more interesting to inject some level of realism. After all, no Ferrari is going to be much use if you want to carry a new fridge home from Currys, nor would you be silly enough to leave one parked on the street for fear of it getting keyed.

Everyone has their preferences, but my analytical approach wanted to ensure I had all likely eventualities covered.
First there needs to be a car that can be used on a daily basis - something practical, small enough to park easily in narrow city streets, unassuming enough to avoid unwanted attention, but still having the ability to put a smile on your face. To fulfil these requirements I'd choose a VW Polo GTi.
Second choice would need to be a van. We all have need of a van occasionally, so while I was ordering the Polo GTi I'd also be asking about VW's Transporter Sportline.
Next on the list would have to be something for track days and early Sunday morning blasts, and that would be a toss-up between a Caterham R500 Superlight and an Ariel Atom.
This leaves two spaces in the fantasy garage. Many people would pick some sort of exotic supercar, but as I'm not most people I'd rather have some sort of executive express - the kind of car you can drive 200-300 miles in quiet luxury and get out the other end feeling fresh as a daisy. A BMW 650i coupe will do nicely for that job I think.
Filling the last slot is tricky. There's a part of me that loves the idea of something outrageous like a Lamborghini Aventador, but frankly what's the point then there's nowhere to make full use of its capabilities unless you happen to live near the Nurburgring. The thought also occurs that a decent off-roader might be fun, but after much consideration I decided I'd rather have a classic car. Top choice would be some classic American muscle car like a 70's Dodge Challenger - otherwise I'd also be tempted by an old Escort RS2000. Either way, something old-school with carburettors, crap brakes, and the sort of handling that promises the need for a change of underwear when (or if) you get home.

So that's it - my fantasy five-car lottery-win garage. Oddly enough, it would probably remain a fantasy even if I did win the lottery because I honestly don't think I'd be able to bring myself to spend that sort of money on toys even if I could afford it.
The other week I saw a McLaren P1 on the road and my main thought was along the lines of "How many starving people in the world could that have fed?".
Big vulgar displays of riches leave me feeling cold and angry. Not from jealousy, but frustration at the level of selfishness they suggest. I certainly don't aspire to mansions and assorted frippery made of platinum and diamonds.
All things considered, my real lottery win garage would more likely contain a Ford Fiesta ST and a Ducati Diavel.
And as this is a pretty poor basis for a blog post I think I'll leave it there for now.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Out with the old, in with the old

Every so often something in life confuses the hell out of me, and it's not unusual for that something to involve some sort of trend - especially if that trend relates to fashion.
As far as I'm concerned, fashion is something that happens to other people. Clothes serve two purposes - keeping me warm and preventing me from being arrested. Granted I have enough dress sense to stop people pointing and staring; I just blend in with the general masses and don't draw attention to myself. But when it comes to what may or may not currently be fashionable, I'm happily clueless; content to ignore any passing fad and regarding anyone who succumbs to such things with a calculated mixture of pity and mirth.
While some fashions may admittedly be accompanied by quiet approval, particularly if they include such key features as short hems or low necklines, most simply leave me bemused.

The most noticeable item of clothing that has recently become strangely popular with women is trousers or jeans with the knees ripped. Why? Anything that becomes trendy automatically gets its price tag multiplied by Pi, and for this inflated price tag people are buying clothes that I would automatically assume are due for the garbage.
To me, if an item of clothing is ripped, faded or got splodges of paint on, its next stop (depending on the absorbency of the fabric) will be either the bin or the shed for use as oily rags.
So in what sort of world does clothing that appears to have had a very hard life get put on a hanger in a High Street boutique to be flogged to a gullible fashion victim for twice as much as something that actually looks new by a very bored teenager with far too much makeup on.

I can't think of anything else offered for sale where the purveyor would actually get away with this sort of marketing ploy. This is a shame because if enough people could be convinced to be open-minded enough about it, it would open up virtually limitless opportunities for cashing in on those with more money than sense.
If clothes can be sold pre-damaged, then why not cars? Could your local Ford dealer charge extra for a Mondeo that has already had an array of car park dents put in and the alloys scuffed against a kerb?
Would a Rolex fetch more if the glass was already scratched? What about a pre-drunk bottle of scotch or half-smoked cigarettes?
There's a whole world of things to choose from, with the possible exception of condoms, but to be honest I suspect most people do have at least two brain cells to rub together and wouldn't be taken in by such obvious attempts to rip them off.
So how is it that the fashion industry is able to get away with it time after time without falling foul of Trading Standards?

Saturday, 13 June 2015

A day out of the comfort zone

It's been a busy day - and for me quite an unusual one. I've never been a fan of London, finding it far too busy and full of ignorant people who care about nothing but themselves, but as it seems that the entire country's railway network leads there it's the logical place for three old school chums to meet up when they're scattered across the southern half of England.
Andy and Steve are the only guys from school that I've kept in touch with, and every so often we make the effort to meet up for a day. Previous occasions have had varying degrees of success, partly due to the issues I have with crowds. Last time it was all going fine until we wandered into Covent Garden and I just completely lost my shit. One panic attack and a mad dash for freedom later it was all I could do to get the boys to get me back to Kings Cross so I could get the train home. I was a nervous wreck.
Determined not to risk a repeat performance, this time we decided to make sure we avoided the obvious tourist traps and actually have a plan of what we would do.

We met up at Kings Cross and jumped on the Northern Line towards Hendon where we'd planned to investigate the RAF Museum.
Not really knowing what to expect, we were amazed that anywhere with free admission could be so good. Although not up to the level of Duxford Imperial War Museum, this place was quite a surprise.
It's really well laid out with planes spanning the years from Bleriot to the Eurofighter, and an almost inexhaustible supply of other exhibits. We could probably have spent the entire day there, but stomachs were growling and although there was plenty to eat in the museum restaurant, we'd already decided to eat at Wagamama.
This was my first foray into Japanese cuisine, and I have to say I can't wait to repeat the experience. Luckily there's also a Wagamama in Cambridge so at least I don't need to go far to indulge myself.
Next stop was Hampstead for a walk on the heath, hoping to find a decent vantage point with views across the city. This met with limited success due to the amount of trees blocking the view and the question of exactly how much more walking my knee would be able to cope with, but the prospect of finding a pub for a nice pint of ale revitalised our efforts.
The Wells Tavern on Christchurch Hill provided the necessary refreshment, as it looked a decent place and was conveniently en-route to Hampstead tube station. Having happily declared that I'd get this round in, it was with some trepidation that I waited for the barman to announce the cost, imagining London's reputation for beer prices would leave me needing a second mortgage to fund three pints. It was the day's second big surprise when it turned out to be about the same as I'd expect to pay in Cambridge.
Returning to Kings Cross the three of us parted ways and I spent the time until my train was ready for boarding by people watching, which is always good entertainment. You really do see all sorts in places like that.

Even though I woke up this morning not really wanting to go, I'm now sitting here glad that I did it.
Central London is a living nightmare for me, but spending time away from that bit reveals another side to the city which is far more acceptable. Having learned from this, I expect future meetings of the Swavesey Village College massive will take in other attractions away from the bustle of the tourist infested shopping extravaganza that is central London, and be all the better for it. Who knows, little by little perhaps eventually my comfort zone will get expanded. Don't hold your breath though.

Even a bit of war doesn't damped a Brit's ability to take the piss,
as this quote from Goering written on the side of a Lancaster proves....

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Smart technology, stupid people

There's a worrying trend amongst the younger generations to feel like there's no point in learning things from school or by reading books - if there's something they want to know they'll just Google it.
In a way they have a point. These days if there's something you need to know, all you have to do is pick up your laptop or even your phone, and you have a world of information at your fingertips. Whether you want to resolve an argument over which girl first played Becky in 'Roseanne', buy an obscure CD (because there are no decent record shops left on the high street), or learn how to build a jet engine from bits of junk in your shed, the internet has all the answers. Not necessarily the correct answers of course, but answers none the less.
I'm not putting technology down - far from it. Technology has given us MRI scanners, microwave ovens, satellite navigation, global communication, and the ability to indulge in a little porn without having to drive to an overnight petrol station miles from home where nobody knows you just to pick up a new 'jazz' mag.
On the other hand, many people become reliant on these things. Most of us are guilty of no longer remembering people's phone numbers, because we're so used to phones with contact lists - so much easier to select the name and press 'dial'.
It could be said that all these 'driving aids' in new cars is actually detrimental to some people's standard of driving. So many are relying on traction control, stability control and suchlike to electronically limit their inputs, that if you were to take them out of their four-wheeled Playstation and stick them behind the wheel of something like a TVR Cerbera, they'd be hurtling through the trees towards the next life in a ball of fire because they'd lost touch with the laws of physics.

It's also worrying from an engineer's perspective that the ability to manufacture things from scratch is becoming increasingly rare. Look around the average workshop and you'll find it mostly populated by blokes who are thinking seriously about where they're going to move to when they retire and are more likely to have a pin-up of Vivien Leigh on the back of their bench than a picture of Mila Kunis.
 The practical skills are increasingly being lost to a generation whos idea of making something involves drawing it up in SolidWorks before sending it to a 3d printer. Not that 3d printing is a bad thing - it's enabling us to make things previously either very tricky or downright impossible with traditional methods - but when the whole thing goes tits-up you still need someone who can pick up some hand tools and a piece of stock material and make it happen. Most PHD students are fantastic at designing some wonderful component for an experiment using CAD software, but you wouldn't dare let them loose in the workshop because they can't tell a lathe from a hammer. And they have the audacity to refer to themselves as engineers.......
To my mind technology is there to supplement the abilities I've built up, not to replace them. In a world where the simple act of writing and sending a letter is so alien to those whose communication skills are limited to Tweeting that they're in the pub, we have more and more people who're unable to think for themselves because they're so used to having some pocket-sized electronic gizmo to do it for them. Those who choose to take the alternate path of actually learning stuff and developing practical skills are often seen as weird or geeky - misfits to be ridiculed. If  someone decides to create welded steel wall art sculptures in their garage instead of watching X-Factor on the sofa while simultaneously slagging off the contestants with their peers on Facebook, then there must be something wrong with them.

I wish people would take their noses out of their smartphones for a while and look at the world around them; especially when they're walking blindly down the street oblivious to everyone around them. Learn how to find a book in a library before they all close. Be experimental in the kitchen with a pile of random ingredients without looking up a recipe on a cookery website.
Above all, I wish that technology was limited to that which is genuinely useful.
It used to be said that "necessity is the mother of invention". These days it seems that the mother of invention is little more than a commercial opportunity to sell a brainwashed population yet another useless device they never knew they needed.