Thursday, 24 July 2014

Cool Space

A dilemma occurs over lunch: the weather is hot enough that any butter left in the butter-dish on the kitchen counter turns, in short order, into unpalatable goo. And yet, if we were to put the same butter in the fridge, it would be too rock-solid to make ham-and-raspberry sandwiches*. 

I found myself wishing we had a Beurrier-a-l'eau,one of those useful little devices that no self-respecting French kitchen would be seen without. And this got me thinking about France. 

Americans like to sneer that the French have yet to discover the delights of air conditioning. But have you ever noticed, on a hot day, how cool it is inside, for example, Chartres Cathedral? Heat energy soaks into the walls. When it gets there, instead of heating them up, it goes to work on evaporating years'-worth of accumulated dampness from them.

An air conditioning unit uses the same idea, but with an ugly twist. Instead of leaving the dampness floating around in the open air, only condensing once it has found a place (or a time, like 4:00 a.m.) cool enough to do so, the unit expends a lot of energy compressing the vapour it creates, so as to retrieve and re-use the liquid. The compression process produces heat, which is then dumped unceremoniously on to passers-by of the car or other space in which our transatlantic punter wishes to remain, well, cool.

In other words, the thick walls of Chartres Cathedral, and the entire French fleet of beurriers-a-l'eau, are quietly doing their job in a much more considerate and public-spirited way than typical air conditioning. As befits French dirigisme rather than American laissez-faire, in fact. They also give much less of a shock to a body as one moves from one space into another. 

After all this existential musing, I now recall that there is a
beurrier-a-l'eau lurking in a high-up cupboard here at Space: it was bought as a souvenir in, where else, France.

Looks as if it's time for lunch...

*At 32oC it is a touch too hot for Wensleydale-and-honey

Monday, 9 June 2014

Schrodinger's Bicycles

Wedged between the frame and brake cable of the bicycle that wasn't mine was my original note, now very faded after all the rain. Without thinking, I pulled it out and stuffed it in my coat pocket.

There were two reasons I could not bring myself to lay instant claim to the bicycle that wasn't mine: firstly, shifting it would require quite some physical force and I was on my way to a concert, and thus dressed in clothes which I wished to preserve free of rips, mud smears and oil stains; and secondly (and rather obviously) it wasn't my bicycle. I found the nearest person with a phone (to protect other people from the consequences of my absent-mindedness, I don't take phones to concerts) and called Rozzer Central once again. Having taken the details, they assured me they would deal with it.

Then, nothing happened. When nothing had continued to happen for two more days, I emailed Rozzer Central to enquire if they had at least re-united the bike with its owner. Their reply came as a bit of a shock.

It transpires that, at least here in Viking city (which, I might add, has somehow awarded itself the strapline "cycle-friendly"), the Police don't recover stray bicycles: that job is delegated to the Council. And the Council, in their turn, don't treat bicycles as objects of value, but as items of fly-tipping, to be got rid of pronto.

Which leaves me in the horrible position of not knowing whether my bike, or indeed the one that wasn't mine, are still in existence at all: they may by now have been melted down as scrap (probably in Sheffield).

The theory of continuity of bicycles may therefore have to be abandonned. The saddest thing of all is that, as I smoothed out the note to take a photograph for this blog, I noticed an addition in neat, pale pencil along one edge:

"This bike just arrived on my doorstep _ please keep!"

Friday, 30 May 2014

Probability Cloud

So I finished a turn of heavy digging at the Plot one Wednesday morning earlier this month. Tired, aching and frankly filthy, I staggered out of the gate. And there, where my trusty bike usually waits for me so that I can get home quickly and have a wash before lunch, was just an empty space!

I had to admit, on reporting the sorry tale to Rozzer Central, that I had never bothered to lock my bike. Nobody else does at the Plots, and my machine is plenty the worse for wear, unfashionable, and old enough to vote. It also happened to be covered in mud after a recent minor prang. Plus, it's so unusual that random people have recognised me just by seeing it in town.

An impromptu gathering of fellow Plotters decided that whoever took it was just having a laugh and would soon get bored and abandon it somewhere. Someone had the idea of putting up a notice simply saying that I missed it and it would be nice to see it back. I even found a picture of it, and put it up with my plea.

I happen to believe in the Theory of Continuity of Bicycles, which posits that the said machines don't, as a rule, simply vanish into thin air or change into, for example, lampshades or iguanas. And a bike like mine would not have been "stolen to order" and whisked off to Leeds, Manchester or the Continent. So for the next few days I went walkabout. Just, anywhere I could think of where a bike might be abandonned. The river path, the park, round the edges of playing fields, the local car-boot sale.

It was only after this last that the thought occurred to me: a bike has a "probability cloud" of all the places it's likely to be found. Without realising it, I'd been gravitating to the places where my bike's cloud had been at its densest before it went missing. I'd missed out a whole semicircle of town, including the University, the nature reserve and the winemakers' kit shop. It was a long walk, but I was on to something. People I met on the hidden footpaths said things like "you often find bikes just left here, sometimes quite nice ones..."

Then it rained so much that I didn't go back to the Plot for over a week. And even that was only because I happened to notice the words "cycling music" on a flyer in the health food shop, and that it was happening just down the road, that very evening! So off I went. On the house's spare bike. And as I passed the Plot what should I spy embedded in the fence but...a bicycle? Which, to complicate matters further, wasn't mine?...

Thursday, 27 February 2014

A crisis in Space

Lately, backstage at the Erudite Space has turned into something of an obstacle course. Our crates of donations perch even higher and more precariously than usual, with bags more sitting in corners, under desks and even lurking in the dumb waiter. And still donated wares come. I start recalling the pictures in Dr Seuss books. No matter how rapidly we sort them, label them, sneak a quick peak at some of them (yes we've all been tempted...well, mostly me, actually), and then put them out on display...and indeed, no matter how enthusiastically our punters buy them, the piles still grow and the room for manoevre becomes ever more thin, divided and frankly triangular.

And then the lad who brings donations from the city's various drop-off points turns up with an entire carload of books. As I help unload, I notice what interesting tomes they are, and in what excellent condition compared with the usual fare from that quarter. It transpires they come, not from the drop-off points, but from a Canadian family, who are quitting Blighty and returning to the Great White Space.

"I can't blame them, with the weather we've been having..." and therein lies, apparently, the cause of the Erudite Space's predicament. Our sister shop on the coast, who usually take our surplus if we think it'll appeal to the Holiday Reader, are presently flooded out. There is no alternative route for excess donations that will still sell, and so here they all sit with us, patiently waiting 'til the coast is clear.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Instant Political Slogan Generator

We thought we'd get this one in first, here at Space, because it's best to get the campaign launched in good time. All that's needed to use it is a Birthday and a Surname, then simply look up the words in the table below.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Street corner gang

This may (or may not) be the World's Smallest Forest Garden. It measures about 2 metres by 2 metres and, to cap it all, the high wall to the left is shielding most of it from the sun, most of the time. So it is effectively North-facing.

The cast of characters, in order of altitude, includes:

1 Bramley apple tree (producer of prizewinning apples)
3 Redcurrant bushes (producers, with the help of some local strawbs, of prizewinning wine)
1 Blackcurrant bush
1 Gooseberry bush
Alpine strawberry ground-cover
1 Bramble (rather drastically cut-back, so not really visible)
3 Garlics (subterranean, ditto)

In five years I think I have had to pull up a total of 1 (one) weed.

The wall behind it protects it from the road and its many users. Including a Tesco van which recently (and very audibly) reversed into it.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Transcripts from several encounters in the Prime Minister's office have emerged. Nobody knows how the listening devices were smuggled in, but let's just say that there are now such things that can be concealed behind the label of a bottle of mineral water.

February 2003, Tony Blair’s office
- Energy Strategy, Prime Minister
- (reading) "Our Energy Future", Oh I see you've used my idea for a title after all
- Yes, we felt it conveyed a suitably positive feeling, Prime Minister. It emphasises the Legacy aspect. And of course, Green Jobs. The public are going to love it. That’s why we thought we’d turn it into a Consultation.
- Nice touch
- We've written Nuclear right out. We thought it would make for a cleaner look. Also stop people from saying you're too much like Thatcher. Clean break.
- Oh well done.

March 2003, Tony Blair’s office
- Delegation from Sheffield, Prime Minister
- Show them in
- Prime Minister, we’re here representing the workers from Forgemasters. It’s the finest forge in Europe. There’s only us and a Japanese lot that can make safe Pressure Vessels for nuclear power stations. We can make ordinary stuff as well but there’s buggers all over the world who can do that. We’re specialists. We’re the best. And if Britain doesn’t have a nuclear power industry, we’ll all be out of a job.
- I hear you. But, don’t you have a full book of orders from Europe too?
- Aye. But what are the Continental people going to think if we can’t sell stuff in our own country? They’re going to buy Japanese aren’t they, because their stuff can be seen working there.
 - I see.

May 2003, Tony Blair’s office
- Delegation from the GMBU, Prime Minister
- Oh. Show them in.
- Prime Minister, we’re the biggest union in the country. We make boilers. We like boilers. We know you’ve gone off coal because of all this Global Warming lark but... the heart of a power station is a good boiler. Made by us. If you don’t have nuclear power, and go for this solar power and windmills instead, there’s no boilers, and we’ll all be out of a job. We won’t be able to pay our union dues then either...
- Oh I see. Well, hand me that report and I’ll see what I can do.

Late 2006, Tony Blair’s office
- Energy Review, Prime Minister
- Oh, thanks. How did you manage to get Nuclear in without making it all look...
- Er, we didn’t really I’m afraid. We handed the job to our best PR team but even they couldn’t make it look consistent. Just shoved it in as “an option”. Of course, it’s a Consultation, so we could argue in a few months that the Public don’t like it, but don’t hold your breath. The public seem to have become all cynical for some reason.
There are rumours that Greenpeace are going to go for a judicial review on it.
- Oh, good for Greenpeace. Erm, don’t quote me on that.

2010, David Cameron’s office
- so it looks like Operation Ugly Baby, Prime Minister
- Ugly Baby?
- Yes. At first, you publically support the idea. But you make sure that the particular instance of it that happens in practice is repulsive enough to create a wave of public outrage, which you are then seen to acknowledge by...
- Oh I see. What a jolly good plan!
- We’ve identified a site. West-country. Upwind from the entire of the rest of the nation. We’ve lined up the tender. German. Our statisticians have found that most of the people who actually vote are old enough to bear the Germans a grudge. We’ve tipped the Germans the wink that they can hire lots of foreign chaps on easy visas. Put them up in nissan-huts, that sort of thing. Tear down all the hedges without planning permission. If the Great British Public can’t get up-in-arms about all that, I’m a Dutchman.

March 2011, David Cameron’s office
- Latest from Japan, Prime Minister.
- Oh jolly good. You know, I’m beginning to feel a bit guilty for hoping that something like this would happen. Can we offer to send over some chaps from Sellafield to give them a hand?
- Oh and the Germans have decided to ditch nuclear and are expected to pull out at Hinkley. We’re trying to identify a country that is even less popular...
- That’s easy. Iran.
- Prime minister, all the really unpopular countries are already the subject of trade sanctions. We can’t be seen to be dealing with them.
- The French deal with them...
- Prime Minister, you’re a genius! France, of course. Oh, and China. Everybody’s jealous of their employment figures. We’ll bring them in without putting it to proper tender on OJEU, so the legal lot can tear it up. Let them carry on doing their digging without planning permission, so the locals can slow it down. Sponsor research into that Tsunami that happened in the Bristol Channel so the boffins’ll hate it. The Forces aren’t going to be happy about covering the extra security either, especially if we get them to cost it up so they know, and then ask the MoD to cut their budget.
- And if we offer a ludicrous price for the power, I think we can get the Treasury to stop it
- Oh that’s a good one Prime Minister. We’re already offering favourable loans and free insurance. The City won't touch it and the ABI hate it.

October 2013, David Cameron’s office
- Prime Minister, the Hinkley contract. 
- Ninety-two pounds? Index-linked?? Don’t you think that’s a bit too, obvious?
-We’re doing what we can, Prime Minister. We’ve got the Waste people to publish their costings and all their past mistakes. We’ve got them to admit, in public, that they haven’t a clue what to do with future waste. Our IT people have dug up a list of all the French accidents, I’ve no idea how. It’s odd, but no-one seems to care.
-What about Greenpeace?
-All their best people are stuck in Russia
-Friends of the Earth, then?
- They’re all busy with Bees.
- Why aren’t people listening? We’ve done our level best to show how dangerous, expensive, just how bloody lunatic the whole idea of nuclear power is, with the best reductio ad absurdem that I’ve ever seen in my life. Hinkley is a masterpiece of sheer awfulness. The only thing standing between us and this crap* now is the State Aid hearing. What if that fails?
-Prime Minister, I think we’ve identified the problem. It’s jobs. People are desperate for them, and they have a gut feeling that the more dangerous, expensive and irrational an enterprise may be, the more damage it does, then the more jobs it creates. Terrorists and wars create jobs for soldiers and security consultants, and in the same vein nuclear power stations create jobs for everybody from builders at the start to cancer care experts at the end. Renewable energy is of course far preferable: cheaper, cleaner. And there are green jobs, at the start. But when you’ve built your wind farms and pumped storage, and put up your solar panels and insulation, and your energy is rolling in, what then? No more work. People get scared. It doesn't help that they're all up to their eyeballs in debt. We’re in a bind.

*it can now be revealed that the original “crap” was nuclear, not green