Saturday, 31 October 2009

Reliable Transport (part 2)

This is a continuation of my previous post about motoring, where I wrote about my thoughts on reliability.

If you can stomach the idea, I'd even recommend driving a classic car. I'd recommend a classic VW - they're certainly simple and distinctive, and they have a simply HUGE community, easily larger than that of any other car. Parts are very readily available. But they're also rather over-priced these days - at least in the UK.
Looking around, there are plenty of old Minis (which are certainly fun to drive) and a few old Austin A30s and A35s, and some Morris Minors.There are a surprising number of old Triumphs around and some Ford Cortinas and Capris. There are also a good number of Mercedes and the odd Volvo or Saab. And there are also some 1980s cars too - they may not seem quite so 'classic' - but an 80's Mk1 Golk or Audi might make quite a good cheap and practical classic of the future.

Now you'll realise that a classic is different. Different to drive, different to use. It would probably be less fuel efficient than it's modern equivalent. It'll have lower performance, less safety features, less options and toys. But it can still make sense. An old car has at least already paid it's dues in terms of construction costs, whereas a new one has a huge resource cost just to build it in the first place. And if you don't drive too many miles an old car can come with a clear conscience and it can even be surprisingly cheap to run. (Check out classic insurance, it's surprisingly cheap. Also, some such cars even increase in value rather than depreciate.)

You'll need to consider maintenance of course, and availability of parts. Is there a local specialist garage that can help with such things? Are you going to be doing some work yourself? And if so, have you got somewhere to do such work? But none of these things should put you off the idea - really you ought to be able to find something which will work for you.

So now, I have a 1990 VW Caravelle - powered by a primitive golf-diesel engine. It is absolutely NOT a refined 'drivers' vehicle! But it is immensely practical and spacious, and it has 'community' - a whole bunch of ) And an 1993 Mercedes, which was both cheap (£1200) and over-engineered in the way cars sometimes used to be. (But these days cars are always designed for a market and built down to a price.)
I'd love to own an older bus again, like my old 1970 VW bus. And I'd happily swap my Merc for the previous shape (the W123) - and maybe sometime I shall.

I might also add that I'm quite a fan of walking. I try to walk to work a few times a week. And in theory, I'm keen on the idea of cycling; but personally I get a bit nervous around traffic when I'm on a bike.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Reliable Transport (part 1)

A few people I know have had car problems recently. (Possibly *most* of the readership of this blog actually.) And it gives me cause to think about why I drive what I drive... I drive older cars. If a car is not at least 12 years old, I wouldn't consider driving it...

"But Howard", people say, "all I want is a car that's reliable. One that gets me from A to B." - and there's the rub... Perhaps reliability shouldn't be measured in terms of how infrequently something goes wrong. But in how simple/cheap it is to fix when it does go wrong.

My first car was a VW Beetle. From 1967. And I learnt a lot from that car. I had adventures. I learnt the pain and anguish of rust & corrosion. I learnt how NOT to adjust the valve-train. I learnt how to do an engine swap after the original dropped a valve. (Lot's of expensive noises!) And I learnt all sorts of other interesting lessons.
But mostly I learnt the value of learning how things worked. And what was fixable and what was beyond my capability. And I learnt the value of simplicity.

These days I don't do so much car maintenance. Partly due to lack of facilities. Partly due to lack of time. And maybe I'm just not that good at those kind of skills anyway. But I still appreciate knowing how things work. And I don't tend to trust things which are too 'electronicky' or 'comes as a sealed unit mate' and needs experts or special tools or whatever.

I'm drawn to the "Makers Manifesto" idea. I'd like to live in a world where motor manufacturers were just a bit more altruistic, hacker friendly and less 'controlling' and money-grasping. There was a time when cars (and other things) were engineered with maintenance in mind (even user-maintenance!) Some cars were even designed to a specification rather than a market : VW Beetles, Citroen 2CVs, Land-Rovers certainly fit into that category.

So, what car to own... In the absence of a truly open-source car, I believe it might be best to seek out 'cars with community'. If there's a bunch of enthusiasts who can help you understand your car, warn you of pitfalls, give you advice - then all that might add up to a more reliable, enjoyable, richer experience of motoring. You might even make a few friends along the way. (And you didn't really need that built-in bluetooth/sat-nav/electrickery anyway did you?)

Saturday, 25 July 2009


How do you spot a geek?

Well, obviously there are all sorts of little cues and clues... But some of them are more than slightly odd, and I wonder where some of these traits come from.

For example. Yesterday, I saw a girl who was 'walking in a geeky manner'. (This is quite unusual, most girls don't walk like that.) It's true. And I know that I do it too. Maybe you do. I don't know how common this trait might be, but I have frequently wondered about it. I habitually tend to walk fast enough that some people struggle (slightly) to keep up. I don't mean that walking fast is an exclusively geeky ability, far from it; but I get the impression it's more common among geeks than in the general population. But I've never seen this idea discussed before and I could be wrong I suppose.

I'd like to point out that it's not a competitive thing. (Most geeks are probably not that competitive.) And on occasion, I've met people who think it IS competitive - which is rather irritating and off-putting.

I walk fast because I have a certain *focus* and a sense of purpose centred on my intended destination. (I don't walk fast if I have no sense of where I'm going or where I should be; although that's actually quite unusual.) Furthermore, it may be that I walk faster because in my formative years I spent less time walking with friends than many people and would often find myself walking on my own. This combination of solitude and purpose is possibly common among geeky types and could easily give rise to "walking in a geeky manner".

And along with this strange long, lunging gait (despite not being very tall) - as a geek, I do have that strange ability to 'spot other geeks'. Sometimes it's a nuance of dress-code, or a pattern of speech, or even an awkwardness in some social situations. But sometimes, it's just how someone walks...

But I wonder what other 'secondary' geeky traits there are of this kind?

Oh, yes. Puns. That'd be one for sure. Apologies to those who thought this was a post about electronic logic-gates. It's NOT.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

My Favourite

I know I'm a geek.
How do I know?
I have come to an ever-increasingly-solid understanding of the fact. I'm dead certain.

Yesterday, at work, I revealed another facet of my geekiness. I have a favourite isotope! (This isn't a necessary qualification for geekhood; but I think it seals the deal beyond any reasonable doubt.) So, which one? Carbon 14? Nope! Don't give me any of that Carbon 14 nonsense! Deuterium (Hydrogen 2)? Nope. Not Tritium either (Hydrogen 3). And it's not Uranium 235 or 238. No, no, no. It's Strontium 90.

Why? Hmmm. That's a more difficult question. But here are some supporting reasons...
  • It's a radio-isotope. (Did you think I'd want a stable one? - It emits Beta radiation)
  • It has a reasonable half-life of around 28 years. Not too long, not too short.
  • It's a product of nuclear fission of Uranium - which is kind of funky.
  • Chemically, it's a Group II element - similar in behaviour to Calcium.
  • And it sounds good, to say out loud. (It would make a half-decent expletive - in some circles, I'm sure!)

And how did they react at work? Strangely, they were impressed. (Not much, but a tiny bit impressed.) I think they must be getting to know me now...

Thursday, 25 June 2009


I have a strange aversion to some mainstream bits of popular culture. I find it hard to explain exactly why.

But you may notice:

I don't acknowledge the existence of that 1960's band whose name has something to do with Entomology. You know the one. I believe they were immensely popular way back in the day. In my own particular revisionist version of history they simply don't exist. Never did. Don't mention them to me. You'll just get a blank quizzical look.

I don't wear jeans. Well, not blue denim ones anyway. Black? Ok. Grey? Possibly. I even had a pair of blue-ish jeans once (but not made of denim)
I do have a blue-denim jacket too. But not an actual every-day pair of blue denim jeans.
I haven't worn such things since I was about 12 and I see no reason to change.*
I don't mind other people wearing them. But it's just_not_me. Ok.

Similarly, I tend to avoid products from Ford, Microsoft, Nestle, Sony & Tesco. **


It could be that I'm just a contrary b*strd.

* I think that once, I had to borrow a pair of jeans in order to do some hefty, dirty work. But that doesn't count does it?
** Some of these are for real rational reasons & some irrational.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Zombies - the Game

It's Easter - when we celebrate resurrection from the dead. So here's something I wrote a few years ago for h2g2.

We've often played this game, since the boys were small...

Imagine a number of people slowly staggering around, chasing a mass of screaming victims. Perhaps they're playing Zombies? A very silly game but potentially very good fun. The game is in fact a variation on a simple game of 'tag' - suitable for any large number of people, either indoors or outdoors.

What is Zombie?

The idea is that one person starts off as a zombie, who has to 'infect' the other players, simply by touching them. Of course, zombies have a slow lumbering gait, so they should be easy to escape from; but they keep coming. The typical zombie should have their arms stretched out in front of them slightly, together with a glazed expression and a stiff-legged walk. Just to make sure that people know what's going on, they might even murmur 'Zombieee' in a deadpan manner. And once they touch someone, that person becomes a zombie too, adding to the confusion and mayhem (as you are turned into a zombie, you might even emit a blood-curdling scream, just for effect).


Even this simple version is good fun; but once you know the rules there are a number of interesting variations on this theme.

Firstly, 'spontaneous zombie'. There is no absolute need to 'announce' the fact that you are going to play Zombies. If you have a large enough crowd of friends, (all of whom know how to play) then at any moment someone could decide to start a game of Zombies. Imagine the hilarious confusion, when one person suddenly turning 'zombie' transforms the local pub, or your relaxing family picnic into a scene of chaos. (Picture, if you will, a group of complete strangers staggering around a shopping complex.)

Also, you might try to stop the zombie(s). You might allow one person to be a 'cleric' or 'anti-zombie' who is able to cure zombies, or you might think of other ways of stopping the zombie (water pistols or pillows perhaps?).

Of course the game doesn't really have a 'winner' in the conventional sense; although it does have a 'competitive' element. It's just fun to play!

Share and enjoy!

Friday, 27 March 2009

But Man Loved Darkness Rather Than Light

When I was a kid (shortly after the last ice-age) we used to have power-cuts. They were frequent enough for us to have an splendid looking oil-lamp, with a mantle, which would be brought out whenever we were suddenly plunged into darkness. And of course, we'd use candles or torches if we needed to go to the bathroom. I remember these power-cuts as being pretty good fun.

So, now I'm all grown up (allegedly) we have instituted "Power Cut Nights". We don't have them that often, and mostly in the Winter. We turn off the telly. We turn out the lights. We light candles and have a real fire - which is another thing I grew up with. And it feels good to do home-made family entertainment.

Sometimes we play games. Or just talk perhaps? We toast marshmallows over the candles, or teacakes over the fire. And I'm no musician, but I might try squeezing a tune or two from my Melodeon. (The boys are far better at music than me these days... so they really have something to contribute now.) And sometimes we could tell stories - either reading aloud from a book or maybe extemporised.

Anyway. This weekend is, apparently "Earth Hour", during which we are encouraged to turn off the lights for 1 hour from 8:30pm on Saturday 28th March. And I'd encourage you to do a powercut night too. Of course there's a serious point to all this, as described at; but please, don't forget to have fun.

Thursday, 26 March 2009


So What is this Folksonomy Thing?

Ok, so onto the Geeky subjects. For the last couple of years, I've become quite a fan of folksonomies. And yes, it is quite a cumbersome mouthful of syllables. (It's a portmanteau word derived from 'folk' and 'taxonomy' - meaning a system of categorising things by what people really call them.)

It's the idea behind 'tagging' as used on Flickr and (and yes, I like the old spelling of And ok, you can call it tagging if you want, but I like using long words just so long as I know what they mean.

So, a spade is a spade right? Yeah. You might call it a shovel, I guess. But you're probably out on your own if you want to call it a manual excavation device. The point is, it makes things easier to find, especially if you combine a couple of tags together.

Of course, such tagging systems do have some weaknesses: firstly of course, it demands that ordinary human beings put in the data. But people don't all share the same global terminology, let alone the same language. Even differences in spelling can cause some minor problems. But overall, the idea works pretty well... It makes it possible to find pictures on Flickr of (say) rusty red tractors - or whatever it is you're looking for.

So I've used Flickr, and then I got used to a similar system on for social bookmarking (in which you can also see how many other people have tagged a particular page, and even what tags they used.) - with the added advantage that you can get to the same set of bookmarks whether you're at home or in the office, or wherever.

But then, I got to thinking that it'd be pretty cool to be able to tag music too. And I even found a site that lets you add tags to music: It's quite likely you've seen it, maybe you use it too. And it does work. I really like the site. I like the recommendations. I also like the streaming - although I don't use that much. I like the social-networking side of it. I *really* like the way you can 'scrobble' all the music you play and it will build charts of what you like.


I think I'm alone in my use of tagging. Everyone else seems to tag music simply as 'Rock', 'Seen Live', 'Happy' and other similar stuff. Which is why I've had to start a personal crusade to tag everything I listen to "properly". (Well, what qualifies as 'properly' for me.) So, as well as genre, I tend to tag music by decade, musical-instruments used (one of the most important things to my way of thinking), perhaps time-signature or even country of origin or language.

After all, how else can I find that Hungarian Bluegrass Elvis-cover featuring Hurdy-Gurdy, Banjo and Tambourine?

The remaining problem, even with my solitary crusade, is that if I should try searching for music using such tags - all I find is stuff that I've tagged myself!

My crusade is possibly as nerdy as musical trainspotting.
But Im not downhearted. It's a labour of love.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Meeting Joe Strimmer

From the title, you might imagine that I lied about the name-dropping celebrity-chasing assertion I made in my last post. I certainly hope my blog doesn't turn into an exercise in shallowness of that kind. Nonetheless, the events of this week need to be addressed; specifically the Punks Not Dad gig at the Claude Hotel in Cardiff on Thursday.

When I first ran away from home at the tender age of 25, and moved to Cardiff, I quickly discovered what a fabulous live music scene there was in the city. I became fascinated by such fabulous bands as The Howling Sleepers, The Dostoyevskys, Railroad Bill, The Blue Horses, The Six-Sided Men - all based in Cardiff and mostly sadly defunct now. Many of these bands played at Cardiff's "Meltdown" - an organisation run by enthusiasts of live music and still going after over 20 years (albeit now monthly rather than weekly.) I went as often as I could - actually, I still do...

So, this Thursday, I found myself watching some old friends playing stupidly brilliant punk. Punks Not Dad sing wonderfully anarchic songs about sheds and lawnmowers and flat-packed furniture. The music is genuine punk: noisy, with brash chords and rough but humourous lyrics. They've successfully made the gap between teenage-angst and the anxieties of a 40-something seem like no gap at all. I'm sure some people wouldn't 'get it', the roughness might put some people off - but hey, it's punk! It's supposed to be this way! And yet, for some of us, perhaps their target audience - it really is nostalgic too, with a healthy dose of humour thrown in. If the music means anything to you at all, I'd recommend going to see them.

Of course, I managed to catch up with 'Joe Strimmer' too, I guess I've known him for 18 years or so now, and 'Sid Life Crisis' too for that matter. (I'd normally call them Chris and Dan, but hey...) And it seems there's been quite a bit of interest in their new venture recently, so I'd just like to wish them all the success they deserve.

On another, stranger, more random note, I also met another guy: Mark Ryan, who used to play with Adam and the Ants, way back. He was convinced that I ought to try doing some comedy, and you know, maybe I shall...

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Meeting Stan Lee

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to meet someone famous? (No, this isn't supposed to be some name-dropping celebrity-chasing blog-post.) I've scarcely met anyone of note. Or maybe I have, and completely failed to notice. In fact, that's reasonably likely; since I'm not very aware of fame or fortune; it's one of the many facets of my own bizarre naivete. Indeed, most of the people I think of as famous or noteworthy are:

1) Dead,
b) Famous for inventing or discovering something - NOT appearing on telly.

But there was this one time...

We had just been watching Spiderman 3 (I think) at the cinema in Cardiff. The film had just ended and we were walking out of the auditorium into the lobby area. It was reasonably late, and there weren't too many people around except for an old guy mopping the shiny floor. So he looks up at us and winks, saying "Great fim, huh?" as though he was personally proud of it. We agreed, of course and moments later it struck us... "Was that Stan Lee?" we asked each other. Of course, it couldn't be. Why would he be mopping a floor in Cardiff? But it DID look like him. And it was a situation just like the little cameos he has in all those superhero films.

Of course, it's not nearly as funny as seeing Dylan Moran in a second hand bookshop; but it was spooky. And what's more, we'll never really know; but we all remember it just the same way.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Episode 0 - Making Stuff Up!

An adventure in N+1 episodes.

And so it begins...

A blog.

I intend to explore a variety of geeky subjects - in a not-too-serious manner.

Firstly, let's make some stuff up. I enjoy making stuff up. If someone asks me a question, especially a mundane question, I tend to think for a moment "should I answer truthfully, or would it be more fun to make something up?" That's not to say that I'm *dishonest* exactly; on the contrary - I have a very honest nature and I'm not at all good at lying. But it's all tempered with a bit of playfulness.

Of course, there's also that "Ha-Ha-Only-Serious" (HHOS) trait, common to many geeks and hackers. The borderlands between serious and silly are not well defined; and sometimes it's easier to joke about something I feel strongly about. I suspect that I'll be covering a good number of subjects from pure fantasy to serious opinion - sometimes you might even be able to tell which is which. If you stick around, maybe you'll see what I mean...

By all means subscribe to the RSS-feed, and maybe leave a comment. That'd be lovely.