Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Rants of Spring



We are determinedly in the middle of spring, and it should make me happy.  That's the deal, right? At last the icy chills of winter are fading away, new growth, sunny days, all that sort of thing.

Well, I'm determined to put an alternative point of view forward.

Firstly, you have to start cutting the grass.  The grass hasn't been cut for six months, and so has taken on sufficient water to be shipped off to a drought-ridden country to supply a small family with water for a month, meaning that the lawn mower can't chop the grass, and merely chews it a bit, like a cow with Attention Deficit Disorder (as an aside, I wonder if anyone ever uses the word "deficit" in topics other than attention disorders and budgets).

Added to the challenge of cutting the grass is that randomly throughout the exercise of grass mastication your mower will encounter one of the various plastic toys abandoned in the garden in autumn the previous year, either forcing the mower blades to wail as they try to slice a mouldy water pistol into plastic salami, or, if you hit the toy just right, the blades and wheels combine to propel it flying frantically into the air, to be stopped heroically by your face.

And of course, everything is growing, not just the grass.  Suddenly every damn weed and bush in the garden decides that this is the moment to grow as quick and fast as they can, so suddenly spiky growths dart across paths to stab you in the ankle as you try to get a pair of secateurs to deal with them.

Then there's hayfever.  I fortunately don't suffer with hayfever, but my wife does, and it's not pleasant for me to endure her sneezing and running eyes.  I dare say that she's not overkeen on it either.

Insects are next - after a few pleasant months of insects either being dead or asleep, now they are taking once again to the air, ready to fly in my ears or walk all over my cheesecake.

The sun in the spring is a particularly curious beast, I find.  It's low enough in the sky that it blinds you when driving to work, and is extremely bright indeed, yet apparently gives no heat whatsoever, forcing a recovery of those winter sweaters that you had decisively put away.

At least we've now got past the week or so when you wake up "late" because of daylight saving time (British Summer Time in my country) and you're consistently late for work for a week because you're waking up at the time you've been waking up at for the last six months.

Nevertheless, I'll be complaining even more about summer.  Being English, complaining about the weather is an essential activity for myself, and I look forward to complaining about it being too hot briefly rather than the rest of the year, when it's too cold.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Day Zero

Today, dear readers, is day zero.  It is the last day before the counting commences.

It is the last day... that my wife is here.

To halt the dramatics, allow me to explain that she's off to Australia for three weeks to visit her sister and her partner - my sister-in-law has just given birth to a beautiful baby girl, and my wife will be starting her journey to Melbourne tomorrow morning to help out for a few weeks.  As I write this bags are being packed.

As a result, me and our son will be fending for ourselves.  We broke the news to him yesterday, but he seems more put out by the fact that he's going back to school after two weeks off than his mum not being around (this will change the first time he has an accident or I annoy him or something!)

In preparation for taking over the cooking duties, I made a huge vat of anonymous mash vegetables for freezing.


I had the bright idea, you see, that I could make a load of mashed potatoes, and mix in it some other vegetables, to get some nutrition into mine and my sons diets, to try to start off on the right foot and not be resorting to takeaways every night.

However, it's pretty obvious in the picture above that it isn't pure top-quality mashed potato, and I suspect I'm going to be eating most of that myself.  I did add some bacon into the vegetables when they were boiling to add flavour, interestingly while they didn't add any flavour to the vegetables the process did succeed in sucking all of the tasty bacon flavour from the bacon itself.  Eating flavourless bacon is odd, trust me.

So cross your fingers for these next twenty six or so days of freedom.  Perhaps by the end of it I'll have learned to cook!

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

A Day Out


I wasn't actually particularly planning on having a day out today.  Sure, I expected to leave the house sometime (the reason why will become shortly), but I didn't expect the day to turn out quite as it did.

So, my wife was at work today (which is particularly bad planning on her part bearing in mind that it's her birthday) and as our son is off school this week I had the day off to entertain him.

Now, one recent change to our lives is that we now have a regular house cleaner.  Once a week, on Tuesdays, we leave the house its usual state (that is to say, not quite bad enough for the Disasters Emergency Committee to begin running commercials asking for donations, but not far off) and we return to a beautiful and sparkling clean home.  I find this somewhat unsettling, and end up frantically tidying and wiping counters before the cleaners arrive, so that they can spend their time doing the more in depth cleaning that I am able to ignore, like cleaning under the sink or sandblasting the external brickwork.

Usually we're all out of the house by 8am so we don't ever see the cleaner, but with school being off, we found the day didn't start quite as quickly as the norm, and in summary the cleaners found me asleep in bed at 11 in the morning, my son laid next to me watching the childhood tale "The Gingerbread Man" for the fifteenth time, in what I assume is an effort by him to watch all of the different animations of this story that can be found on YouTube.

Allow me to assure readers that I had indeed awoken some hours before, but my son had had a minor accident and was somewhat upset, so had retired to my bed for a brief "chill out" session, and I joined him to make sure that he was okay.  Once in bed of course I noticed a Bill Bryson book that I hadn't read for at least three weeks and started flicking through it, before succumbing to the temptations of an illicit midmorning nap.

Anyway, once awoken by the cleaners coming up the stairs, we quickly left the house without a clear plan of where to go or what to do - at least I didn't have a clear plan, my son probably did, but as it would probably involve running at moving cars whilst eating chocolate I wasn't convinced that he would have the best idea of how to spend the time.

So, we found ourselves at the Humber Bridge Country Park.  The country park is sited in an old chalk mine on the bank of the River Humber, and when I was young I remember visiting the park any number of times to prick myself with a nettle or fall down a steep wall or something.  I'm pleased to report that my son promptly climbed up a massive and steep face, and then commanded me to join him.  He didn't fall down anything either, which was an added bonus.

I do like the Humber Bridge Country Park, even though at the entrance it has a box full of leaflets that you can take to learn more about the park, and the park administrators have felt the need to put instructions on the box explaining how a leaflet can be safely obtained.  At the time of our visit, some local do-gooder group (The Holderness Annoying Young Persons Society, perhaps) had brought a dozen death-seeking children of indeterminate ages to the country park, all of which immediately launched themselves at every hazard they could find, hanging off railings, dangling legs off the tops of bridges, and bouncing inanely on play equipment.  My son didn't hesitate to join them, leaving me to chase ineffectually after them, and between periods of heavy breathing occasionally mustering just enough energy to shout at him to stop touching whatever he was touching or to not jump from whatever dangerous place he was onto the row of metal spikes directly underneath him.

We ended up staying at the park a good four hours or so, by which time we were both exhausted from a very enjoyable time running around.  In fact we were there so long, that by the time we got back home, I decided to invent a new meal - Tunch.

Aficionados of Brunch will recognise Tunch as a new fusion meal, where we take the "snacky" aspect of lunch (sandwich, crisps, yoghurt, perhaps a piece of fruit) and give it the "quantity" element of Tea.  Tunch for my son was essentially all the items mentioned, plus another yoghurt, and some sort of biscuit on a stick that he coerced me into buying at the supermarket after the country park (four hours of running around a park will weaken your defenses somewhat).

I attempted to apply the other aspect of Brunch, that is that by having Brunch you don't get to eat Lunch, so I did my best to take Tunch sufficiently staunch as to avoid the need for a separate tea meal.  This didn't work of course, my son seems to be able to eat constantly, except when asleep (and if he slept in a food preparation area I think he could continue eating even then) so the idea of skipping a meal just because he'd had a separate meal an hour beforehand was obviously unreasonable.

All in all an excellent day.  Now please excuse me while I sort out some supper.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Surprise - Election!


Abandoning the post I was writing (don't worry, it'll appear soon enough) I shamelessly leap onto a topic that is currently trending on Twitter.

The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has stated her intention to hold a general election in early June, in an effort to increase her parties majority as they start the Brexit negotiations.  I've always made an effort to be non-political in this blog and to not favour any particular party, so I'm certainly not going to comment on who should get your (or my) vote.

But it's excellent timing.  May has suffered from the accusation of being made prime minister without the public voting for her.  The main opposition party, Labour, appear to be in disarray.  The Liberal Democrats have not recovered from their time as the Conservatives junior partner in government.  Reasons for voting UKIP are fading as their main drive - to leave the EU - is already being delivered by the Conservatives.  And the SNP are as big a force in Westminster as they can ever hope to be, the best they can manage is to maintain their current numbers.

That said, it's still going to be eight busy weeks until the election (assuming that the House of Commons votes for the early election).  Jeremy Corbyn seems to garner a significant amount of support from segments of the public, at odds with much of the Labour MPs at Westminster. And this is a significant U-turn from May, away from her past statements that there wouldn't be an election until 2020.

Nevertheless, the latest polls indicate a huge swathe of Labour seats potentially changing hands and going to the Conservative party in June, giving May the majority she wants to have the freedom to push hard on Brexit.

All of which brings me to thinking that it's a good time to mention this blog post about 5 things you might not know about working at polling stations, and this video about news on polling day :)



Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Weekend


Hi and welcome to this special Easter blog!  We've just got in from a couple of days away staying with family, and I wanted to write about the safari park, and in particular one certain exhibit.

We went to Knowsley Safari Park on Saturday.  We visited the same park last year (which was covered in this blog, read if you wish), and it's a really good wildlife park, I'd recommend visiting it if you can.

Now, one of the main attractions is a "Safari Drive", where you drive slowly around the park, seeing all kinds of different animals.  Quite often you would come to a standstill as a car in front would stop, and bring out a camera to take photos of the rhino, or springbok, or whatever was in the vicinity.  It's all very good, although when you're stuck behind a car because they're spending five minutes looking at an ostrich, and you've already seen half a dozen, it's a little tiresome.

Anyway, on the Safari Drive one exhibit of particular note is the baboon enclosure.  You are given two routes to drive on the Safari Drive, one outside the baboon enclosure (also known as "THE SAFE ROUTE") and one where you actually drive inside the enclosure.

Everyone picks the latter, although I suspect, this is without the complete and unreserved agreement of the owner of the car, who will have read the sign that says "Warning - The Baboons WILL damage YOUR car!!" and is thinking to themselves that maybe, just once, the safe route might be a wiser choice.

So, you go into the enclosure, and baboons climb on your car, and jump from car to car, and they're great fun.

And, as has happened to my car both times I've been there, they try to rip bits off your car.

Sometimes they go for rubber door seals, sometimes it's windscreen wipers.  On my car they particularly like the windscreen sprayers, they like to gnaw them off and then sit there chewing them, as though they're trying an unusual branding of chewing tobacco.  Now, I've been very fortunate that on both occasions I've got the sprayers back and been able to fit them back on my car, but I can understand that some drivers might get a certain amount of joy at the sight when they leave the enclosure.

Because when you leave the enclosure, there are two park keepers stood at the exit, entrusted with the important job of ensuring that the baboons don't escape.

And they each have equipment to help them with this endeavour - equipment, which can be best described, as long hefty sticks, ideal for sweeping baboons off car roofs.

Certainly the first time I drove round the exhibit, and I had three baboons on my car, who were doing their best to not only eat my windscreen sprayers but also yank out the rubber pipe that delivers water to the sprayer, the arrival of the two guys with clubs was enough to make the baboons drop the bits of my car they were eating and run away, no doubt anticipating a swing of a heavy stick in their direction.

I'm curious to imagine the job advert for the baboon enclosure.  It would go something like this, I like to imagine:

Wanted: Safari Park Warden Level 1 (Baboon Enclosure).  We are looking for people enthusiastic and knowledgeable about wildlife. Successful applicants must have good front line customer service skills, and be at all times friendly and presentable.  Applications from baseball players are particularly welcomed.

Alternatively, perhaps they just send someone down to the car park looking for people nursing baboon-damaged cars fresh from the Safari Drive experience, and ask if they fancy volunteering for an hour or so.  I imagine that they'd have some takers.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Probing Space


I've always been fascinated by space, when I was a kid I used to pore over astronomy books, reading about the findings of probes such as Viking 1 and 2.  I remember that I was really excited about the finding that the Mars atmosphere contained 1% oxygen (which apparently is wrong, I'm led to understand that it's actually 0.13%) because at the time I thought that it meant that, with some sort of oxygen extraction device, it could increase the feasibility of a Mars base.

Now, recently NASA reported that there appears to be quantities of hydrogen gas on Saturn's moon Enceladus, created by significant hydrothermal activity on its sea floor, as well as observing plumes of what appears to be water on Jupiter's moon Europa.

However, there's one thing when it comes to space exploration that puzzles me - why do space mission people feel the need to end their spacecraft?

The twin GRAIL lunar research spacecraft were smashed into the Moon into two impact sites named Ebb and Flow. The European Space Agencies' Rosetta spacecraft was slammed into a comet.  The Messenger spacecraft crashed into Mercury. And the Cassini spacecraft is shortly due to begin a final series of complex maneuvers before being sunk into the depths of Saturn, to be crushed by the heavy atmospheric pressures of the gas giant.

Illustration of Cassini Spacecraft's Grand Finale Dive
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To be fair, the Cassini probe is hoped to carry out some unique research on its final descent into the planet.  And the Messenger one ran out of fuel.  But I'm not convinced that for at least some of these spacecraft the main intent of a crash landing isn't just to give an opportunity for one last press release, one high profile end to a long long story.  To give the mission team some closure.  And to be fair they probably deserve it after working on a mission for so many years.

But how much do these probes cost?  The Rosetta mission, for example, cost 1.4 billion Euros, while Cassini cost well over $3bn.  Seems like a lot of money spent on something if we ultimately wreck it - although, to be honest, I don't have a big issue with the cost, for me space travel is potentially one of the most important pieces of research that we can do, and as long as it completes its mission, I do think it's money well spent.

But what is more important to me is that I believe, in a few hundred years time, assuming that:
  • Humans don't destroy themselves and the planet
  • We actually manage to overcome our difficulties, and;
  • We expand our civilisation into space
I suspect that we might actually like to recover some of these ancient artifacts of what will be primitive space travel.  We'll consider the casual destruction of these probes as historical crimes, and historians will spend a great deal of time and effort deciphering designs and textbooks to recreate impressions of spacecraft lost to time.  That is assuming that we have records of these spacecraft at all.

Think of the Early Middle Ages in Europe, how it is often referred to as the "Dark Ages", because we have so little surviving documentation that tells us what happened.  Or more recently, thousands of TV and radio shows have been lost because until the 1970s it was quite common to record over old tapes, or not record them in the first place.  I know the BBC have put great effort into recreating episodes of classics such as Hancock's Half Hour and Doctor Who, of which original recordings have been lost.

It's not too hard to imagine someone, several centuries from now, spending decades carefully analysing a modern day space probe - perhaps one of the Mars Rovers - desperately trying to obtain clues about our existence from the probes we sent out into space. Basic stuff - what did we eat? Who were our leaders? And what is a "selfie"?!?

Curiosity Self-Portrait at Martian Sand Dune
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

So my view is that rather than giving these craft a glorious but brief end, we should instead stick a M-Disc full of information in it (along with a DVD drive to read it), and when a probe has finished its expensive mission our mission controllers should allow it to rest safely, enabling future discovery.

Extra reading:

https://www.nature.com/news/saturn-spacecraft-begins-science-swan-song-1.21813 

https://www.wired.com/2016/09/ode-rosetta-spacecraft-going-die-comet/ 

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/apr/29/nasas-messenger-spacecraft-to-crash-into-mercury-ending-mission 

https://www.universetoday.com/99035/end-of-mission-grail-spacecraft-impact-a-mountain-on-the-moon/ 

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Sunday

As previously mentioned, I've recently ordered some fabric samples online.  

A LOT of samples online.

I'm thinking of sewing them together into a little blanket or some such thing.  One thing I didn't realise is the extra freebies you get with them - alongside all the fabric samples I've also got a little pencil, two tea bags, a hot chocolate sachet, and one of those Lotus caramelised biscuits you sometimes get with coffees in bars (which I love - you can even get a Lotus biscuit spread in some of the supermarkets which is way over the top, but amazing in small doses).  If you ever want some mail to open which isn't the usual bills, order some free fabric samples.

I've got a pretty good Sunday ahead of me today, I'm taking my dad out for a few beers around Beverley (market town to the north of Hull), there's a few decent pubs (and a micropub) there so that should be a fun afternoon.  This morning will be taken up probably with a few chores, I have a huge pile of washed clothes to put away - which is actually sort of relaxing, I'll put something good to listen to on my phone and just steadily work my way through it all.

Hope everyone has a good Sunday!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Mousey Satisfaction


Today I'm writing about mice, the sort that you control your computer from.  It's a solidly geeky post, so if you don't want to read about mouse, here's a story about cats.

For many years, I used a Logitech G5 mouse.  The best mouse I ever used, it was hard wearing, a pleasure to use, accurate, looked reasonably cool (cooler than a standard office mouse yet not over the top with millions of buttons like some gaming mice)

The Logitech G5 mouse, beloved.  Image attribution: Cncplyr at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I think I got the G5 originally at a LAN party years back, and it didn't disappoint.  But sadly, eventually after many years of use (and I mean many - it lasted a lot longer than the Logitech G15 keyboard I bought around the same time, for three times the money!), it became less responsive and a replacement was in order.  I turned to a Microsoft Wheel Mouse.


Microsoft mice aren't something you'd immediately think of as a gaming mouse, but they're decent quality, reliable mice.  I did work experience for a few months at Hull College as a student, and at the time a Microsoft IntelliMouse was a good piece of kit to get your hands on.  Having an optical sensor rather than a ball made the mouse more accurate, not prone to jamming up with dirt, and couldn't be sabotaged by one of your college mates taking the ball out.

I had a Microsoft mouse in my box of computer bits, so it was put to work, and again was fine to work with for a while, until it too started to play up.

Then, like a fool, I thought "Hey, that Logitech G5 was amazing, another Logitech must be great!"

Not this one.

The Logitech M100.  It's evil, it clicks, and it's nasty.

Now before you think all Logitech mice are rubbish, this is one of their cheapest (if not the cheapest) one that Logitech offers.  Having a quick look at their shop, I see some REALLY nice mice.  But this isn't one - it's light, it's a little too small, it scrapes over the desk, and the scroll mouse making a really noisy clicking sound when in use, like a row of cockroaches being stood on.



I'm now using a Cyborg RAT 5 mouse which I got with my current computer, I wasn't overwhelmed by the shape of it when I first saw one of these (at another LAN party) but now I'm using one I have to admit it's pretty nice, it's solid and comfortable, and even has a nice little shelf to rest your thumb on in between clicks.  I'm finding it occasionally a little unresponsive but I'm not sure if that's down to the mouse or something computer-related.

One day, however, I will buy myself a really good Logitech mouse again.  One day.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Poppadoms and other ephemera

I'm really annoyed.

I hand wrote (and who writes by hand these days?!? It's a rare occurrence for me, at any rate) a blog post on Sunday.  Fast forward to today, and of course I can't find it.  I've been all the way through my big green exercise book, and there's no sign of it.

Ah well.  I shall endeavour to use a large variety of short and unrelated complaints to fill out a post.

So, poppadoms - they're very tasty, but who was the first person who thought "Hey, this spicy curry is all well and good, but what it really needs is a big crisp!".  It's like having a spaghetti bolognese with an unwrapped chocolate bar on the side of your plate.

I searched my Google Photos archive for "poppadom" and this photo of a half cooked pancake was the only thing that came up.  Now, I could search the internet for some public domain poppadom images, or just use this one...

Furthermore, I was aghast at the petrol station the other day, because I found that the pump in question can be set to dispense a certain amount of fuel - you can just press a few buttons, and the pump will deliver the requested quantity.

For me, it's one of the most important parts of car ownership is learning how to fill up to the pound, say to £35.00 exactly (long gone are the days when I could get away with a tenner a week for fuel). Having a button to press to guarantee that you'll hit exactly £35 seems like a bit of a cheat, there's no skill in that.  It's like at supermarkets where now they have a person with a big sign who points out the shortest queues - when I was growing up it was a question of strategy and skill to get to a short queue before anyone else spots it, elbowing old ladies out of the way, or lurking near a till that a shop assistant was possibly heading towards. Now any old fool can go to the shortest queue.

At least I have this to comfort me:



This would be chocolate lemonade jelly, and it's just as wrong as it sounds! :)


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