This is the Future Calling …

November 29, 2017

Of all the aspects of the future that we were promised (hoverboards! teleportation! silvery jumpsuits!) it’s fair to say that ‘video calling’ wasn’t exactly the one I was hoping for. Still, I have to admit that when you need to have a three way conversation with your little sister in London and your big sister in rural France, it’s very handy. Or it would be handy if Skype didn’t have a user interface apparently designed to baffle even the most hardened techie (approximately 30% of all Skype conversations consist of people trying to make Skype work in my experience), and it would be even handier if all of the computers we were trying to connect up had actually turned out to have working microphones.

conference call

So welcome to the 21st century where, after only 15 minutes of fiddling about, we can now communicate seamlessly with two of us connected on Google Hangout, and the third dialled in on WhatsApp via her mobile phone, and propped up on a stand shaped like a strawberry cupcake. This actually worked surprisingly well, but we may need to work on the technology a bit before we have an important conference call with a client next week. Or at least, not giggle so much.

Then again, having gone through this or a similar palaver pretty much every time I need to make a video call, perhaps it’s a good thing that nobody’s actually invented teleportation yet…


November 26, 2017

Much as I love my bikes, this week has been testing the bounds of that love a bit, what with two puncturetastic days, yesterday’s adventure getting just one ice tyre on the big bike, about which the least said the better, plus the usual background niggles of wet gloves, oblivious drivers, and the fact that there’s a dead cat on the verge just as I’m at my slowest on the ride home which is getting deader by the day.*

waiting bike

Waiting at the start of the ride, wondering as usual if anyone will show up

Today, though, was the Bigtown Cycle Campaign’s monthly winter ride. We did originally try and pretend that there’s some sort of campaigning focus to these rides (encouraging people to ride year round, showing that cyclists can inject cash into the local economy …) but really they’re just jaunts, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We live in a beautiful part of the world, there are just enough cafes to go around for our winter schedule, and when the sun shines and a nice bunch of folk turn out, there’s very few better ways to spend a November Sunday afternoon than pedalling 20 miles at a gentle pace with a stop for soup, cake and hot chocolate (I may not be keeping the local retail economy afloat, but I’m doing my best for the local cafes), chatting all the way

And besides, when you finally get home (averting your eyes as you pass the ex-cat), you are then fully justified in collapsing onto the sofa with coffee and toast and only getting up again to put more fuel on the fire.

You don’t get that out of a Sunday drive.

bike shadow silhouettes

* I did try and find out if anyone was missing their cat – mainly because I’m a nice person and don’t want anyone left wondering what happened to their beloved pet but, if I’m honest, also partly because I was hoping someone would come and take it away so I don’t have to cycle past it every day…

N Plus Marathon Plus

November 24, 2017

Regular readers will probably be aware that if anyone’s keeping the UK retail economy afloat, it’s not me. The combination of a fairly frugal nature, a desire not to throw things away when they’re still usable, and (if I’m really honest) the ability to put off until tomorrow what really needed to be done today makes me a reluctant shopper. So you won’t be surprised to discover that, two and a half years since I was told that the Brompton back tyre needed replacing, and about six months since it developed a regular slow puncture, and approximately three months since I arranged with the bike shop that if I sorted out ordering a Brompton tyre, they would happily replace it for me (look, it’s a hub gear, it’s the rear wheel, and anything to do with a Brompton is extra fiddly) I have done nothing except look online at Brompton tyres, realised that I had to decide between various different types, gone ‘how much?!’ at the price of any of them and decided to sort it out another day.

hedgecuttings on road

So when our road was looking like this,* I have absolutely nobody but myself to blame when I got precisely 100 yards down the road yesterday before my Brompton’s back tyre went completely flat (it’s never a good sign when you try pumping it up and you can see the air bubbling out of the tyre in multiple places). This was unfortunate as I was on my way to catch the bus to catch the train to get to Embra for two different meetings which were more than two miles apart and for which a Brompton would have been very handy. Having had to route march a combined distance of almost 4 miles to make it to a meeting and then catch the last train home, I was pretty weary when the train finally pulled in.

Still, at least this has made my mind up to get the Marathon Pluses for the Brompton. They may not be entirely thorn proof, but they have proved a lot better than anything else. Especially if you can get someone else to fit them. Although that said, it was snowing last night and our drive looked like this this morning so it might actually be time for the winter spikes …

icy puddle

There’s a joke among cyclists that the ideal number of bikes is N+1, where N is the number of bikes the cyclist already owns. On the whole, I’ve resisted this tendency and have stuck with my two – the big bike and the Brompton – without too many envious glances at other people’s steeds. This is partly because I don’t do that many different kinds of riding, so I don’t need multiple bikes, combined with the aforementioned frugality and sheer idleness. But it’s also because I know that if I started multiplying the number of bikes I had then the ideal number would indeed be N+1, where N was the number of bikes I had sitting unrideable in the garage while awaiting some minor but fiddly repair …

* As I set out gingerly on the big bike (with the ice and snow mostly melted) to brave the Bastard Big Thorns on the way to get the paper today, I was greeted by the sight of the two farmers from down the road, carefully sweeping all the hedgecuttings up by hand. This actually made me feel quite bad (I had had a bit of a moan yesterday after the Brompton puncture even though it was largely my fault) although not so bad that I didn’t let them get on with it.

Slime vs Bastard Big Thorn: no contest

November 22, 2017

I was a little disappointed in my Slime inner tube when it failed me yesterday, but having investigated a bit more closely I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

You know how frustrating it can be, trying to track down the source of a puncture with nothing visible to the naked eye, and no sign of what might have caused the problem? That definitely wasn’t the case with this flat.

second thorn

First thorn

I think Slime works by centrifugal force – as you rotate the tyre, it is forced out of the hole under pressure and then sets to form a seal. That assumes that the hole is on the outside of the inner tube, and that the Bastard Big Thorn(s) didn’t end up going all the way through the inner tube and out the other side.

extracted thorn

This wasn’t even the one that caused the worst damage …

As it is, my backup innertube was a normal one, so it’s going to have to battle through the thorns unassisted.

mud under mudguard

At least this shows my mudguards are doing their job

As you can see from the state of my bike when I took the wheel off, the local farmers have not been very assiduous at sweeping either the mud or assorted hedgerow debris off our road. I have now cleaned my bike, but that’s going to last until the next time I cycle out of our front gate.

Our neighbour up the hill actually has his own petrol-powered mini road sweeper (it’s like a giant carpet sweeper) because he was sick of his car getting punctures. I have to admit, I was amused by this at the time, but I might have to borrow it if today’s rain hasn’t swept the worst of the hedgecuttings away.

Punctureproof in Scotland

November 21, 2017

“Well, at least it will give you a chance to test if your new jacket* is Waterproof in Scotland”, the other half observed as he watched me don waterproof trousers and gaiters ready to cycle down to the station on my way to Embra this morning. As bright sides go, this felt less than compelling but as it turned out, by the time I had wrestled all the various bits of conflicting velcro that hold my rain gear together, stuffed dry socks and gloves into my bag (the only thing worse than spending the whole day in wet socks is putting wet gloves on to cycle home), and got the bike out, the rain had eased off, which if I’m honest is the way that I always hope raingear will work.

Feeling pleased that I had cheated the Weather Gods out of a home win, I headed off, not hearing the wry chuckle of the Puncture Fairy who when hedgecutting season is in progress, laughs in the face of puncture resistant tyres and – it turns out – Slime-filled inner tubes. At least, that was the conclusion I reached as I got to the main road and registered the thumpa-thumpa-thump of a flat tyre. Pushing the bike hurriedly home to grab the Brompton and a lift from the other half, I discovered that my raingear may or may not be Waterproof in Scotland but is not Breathable when Pushing a Bike Up a Hill in a Hurry so either way I end up damp, but at least I did get the pleasure of hopping out of the car when we hit the first morning tailback in Bigtown, unfolding the Brompton and cycling merrily away from the traffic.

Tomorrow (which, if the Met Office’s rain warning is anything to go by, looks like a good day for testing if the house is Waterproof in Scotland, never mind my jacket) I shall have to track down the source of the problem and discover whether dealing with a slime-filled inner tube which didn’t do its job is as nasty as people say. And then on Thursday I get to go to Embra all over again to kick off the planning for next year’s POP.

Did I say that I hadn’t been all that busy recently? Silly me.

* It claims to be ‘tested on Cornish clifftops‘ but a) that is not Scotland and b) you notice it doesn’t say whether it actually passed the test …

To the Drivers of Bigtown: Thank you

November 20, 2017

I’m feeling uncharacteristically cheery just now, partly thanks to the staff of the shop in Bigtown who have finally worked out how to put a sock in the animatronic Santa, which still dances tirelessly to the Christmas music in his head as though at a silent disco but, crucially, no longer sings, and partly thanks to the people and coonsil of Doncaster who between them have named one of their new gritters Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machiney (the other one is called David Plowie).

So, I’d like to give a vote of thanks to all the drivers out there who – mostly – do their best not to kill me on my bike. Because it’s easy to forget that for every white van driver who overtakes me while they already had their left turn indicator on to turn into the industrial estate ahead, there are many many morewho hang back because there’s no point overtaking the bike when you’re going to turn anyway, or at least wait until it’s not a blind bend, and who fully cross into the other lane to pass me even though everybody knows bikes have no width at all. And who slow down (or even wait) when they see me approaching on a narrow single track road, and who wait rather than just nipping out of a side road when they see me coming even if it means getting stuck behind the bike. And who never park over the dropped kerb, and who obey the speed limit and who remember that an amber light means ‘prepare to stop’ not ‘go on son, you’ll make it if you put your foot down’. And who never so much as glance at their phones while they’re driving because they are at the end of the day, piloting a tonne of metal at speed around vulnerably breakable people. After all, there’s no reason to tar all drivers with the same brush just because a tiny minority of them drive like dicks.  It’s just you only tend to notice the ones who do…

Box Ticking

November 18, 2017
duns recycling

No reason for posting this photo except that I spotted this slightly disturbing sight on a visit to the Duns recycling depot and I felt it should haunt everyone else’s dreams as well as mine

Bzzt-bzzt – my phone vibrates with an actual phone call (I find if you leave it on silent, you rarely actually have to answer the damn thing, which suits me as I dislike telephone conversations and I consider my mobile to actually be a handy camera and Tweeting machine, which has an annoying bug whereby someone can interrupt you by wanting to talk to you on it) and it turns out to be someone ringing for feedback about our adventures with Home Energy Scotland.

This made me realise that although we had a visit from a home energy adviser back in August last year when we moved into the house, I never actually got around to writing about it for the blog, which is somewhat remiss of me. I had feared that I might just get some bored youth with a clipboard running by rote through the basics of low energy lightbulbs and turning down your thermostat and not overfilling your kettle – but what I actually got was a visit from a proper, massively well-informed, insulation and renewable energy geek who wouldn’t know a box-ticking exercise from a hole in the ground. He stayed for around two hours, during which time he clambered into every corner of the attic, found the places where our cavity wall insulation had gone in (something the actual bored-youth-with-a-clipboard who clearly did the home energy report for our house sellers had utterly failed to do), explained the ramifications of the Eskdalemuir Listening Station on the local windfarms and introduced me to the concept of the wind-driven rain index (our house is on the high end of it).

I imagine that there are people who would be run a mile at the prospect of two hours talking renewable energy and loft insulation, let alone wind-driven rain indexes, but I love nothing better than delving into a relevant subject with someone who knows their stuff, so I was keen to give my extremely positive feedback to the survey company who rang. This left the poor chap on the other end of the phone struggling to squeeze my responses into his pre-ordained boxes, although I think he was enjoying the challenge (Him: “Was it important for you to have your home energy advisor visit you in person?” Me: *enthusiastically describes how he found the injection points for the cavity wall insulation by looking under the windowsills* (top tip if you ever need to check your own home) Him: “So I’ll put that down as ‘very important’ then”).

attic space

Look, just because I found loft insulating fascinating to talk about, doesn’t mean I’ve actually cracked on and finished it

Anyway, the call reminded me that I had neither written the visit up, nor implemented more than the very basic recommendations that came out of the visit. The latter will take a little time, but as for the former – if you live in Scotland and want to make your house greener and warmer, then the service is absolutely free and definitely worth every penny and I highly recommend it.

Harey Christmas?

November 15, 2017

So I was all set to write another grumpy post today, having received yet another unsolicited letter from a legal firm that wants us to enrich them by agreeing to sue the electricity company over the fact that there’s a cable going over our property, something we should apparently see as a dreadful imposition rather than a source of free tree surgery.

So there was much muttering about parasitic capitalism as I cycled into Bigtown to brave the Christmas music,* cheered only moderately by encountering a chap out birdwatching by bike and then only moderately more by the silver flash of fieldfares’ wings as they flocked in the hedgerows on the way back.

But then, looking out of my study window on my return I was restored by the sight of not one but two hares sauntering about the garden. We have not had hares in the garden for ages – possibly too much gardening going on, with the construction of the greenhouse and other projects – and I was beginning to wonder if we had chased them off altogether. So it was encouraging to see them back, and hopefully more more than just a passing visit…

* It turns out that the source in the shop is in fact a life-size animatronic singing Santa which interrupts its renditions of Winter Wonderland with the occasional cry of ‘Merry Christmas everyone!’ Frankly, if it makes it through to Christmas without ending up beheaded and crucified in the local primary school playground, then that end of Bigtown will not have lived up to its lawless reputation.

Jingle Hell

November 13, 2017

Stopping at the shop on the outskirts of Bigtown this morning for the paper, I was repelled back out the door by the sound of Christmas music. I know that railing about Christmas music in shops (in November!) is a bit like railing against it being Monday, or self-service tills, or the book you were reading and you thought still had a chapter to go suddenly ending leaving you with a chapter’s width worth of book club notes and plugs for other books (seriously, though, publishers – stop doing this. How would you like it if the last two biscuits in the packet, which you had been counting on to accompany your morning coffee, suddenly turned out to be plywood models* of other biscuits in the biscuit manufacturer’s product range?) but it was combined with a hefty queue, made worse because the shop has installed a self-service till so now only puts one person on the other tills to deal with the people who want to buy lottery tickets or booze or tobacco or a bacon roll or buy a newspaper with a voucher or top up their electricity meter which, given the particular demographic this shop serves, is basically everyone.

Cycling onwards into town to the tune of Winter Wonderland, I was forced to use WH Smith’s where the standoff continues between the people of Bigtown and head office over the self-service tills, so the queues are equally long but where – undoubtedly due to some bureaucratic error – there was no Christmas music, except for the loop of Winter Wonderland which was by now irrevocably stuck in my head.

There’s much I miss about Papershop Village, including the ride there (something I failed to appreciate as much as I could have done at the time), the mordant humour of Papershop Bloke, the wry amusement of Papershop woman, the sweeties for sale by weight in little paper bags – but most of all the certainty that they would never ever install a self-service till and that hell would definitely have frozen over before they played any Christmas music.

It is at this time of the year that I constantly give thanks that I do not work in retail.

Sorry if you’ve now also got Winter Wonderland stuck in your head.

* Unless they’re Rich Teas, of course in which case it would be an improvement

Turning Left (Well, Right, Actually) in November

November 11, 2017

The other day I surprised a friend by saying that I wasn’t busy – by some strange configuration of events, I’ve got no work on at the moment and only light cycle campaigning duties, and while the garden (and, you know, writing) is taking up some of my time, I’ve also been enjoying the leisure and trying not to start any cycle campaigns by mistake, having made it almost all the way through 2017 safely so far.

setting off

That all means that I have absolutely no excuse not to fulfil my other New Year’s resolution and head off on my month’s micro adventure. The problem was where to go – I’ve done a reasonably thorough job of exploring the best routes around here. It was only yesterday when we were taking the scenic route to the garden centre that we passed this fork in the road and I remembered a little bit of unfinished business.

Fork in the road

“You come to a fork in the road …”

Years ago, when I first moved here and I was doing a bit of Open Street Mapping, I’d taken this right hand fork to explore a new road and been defeated by the resulting hill, having to get off and push (I thought I’d blogged about it, but I can’t find it). It was back on my old bike, and before I’d done as much cycling – or indeed taken to living up the side of a hill – so I was wondering if I could manage it now. Technically, this is not a new route, but as I had to walk the last section, it would be the first time I’d actually cycled it, assuming I made it, so I decided that would count. So today, with the sun shining, and almost no wind, and a morning to myself, was the perfect time to try.

November adventure

Top of the first hill. If anyone knows how to photograph climbs so they look impressive, rather than as flat as the Netherlands, let me know

First, I had to get there – which meant a hill in itself. The river valleys tend to run west to east around here, so any ride north or south normally means going up and over a hill. This is a road I’m getting quite fond of, despite its gradient, because there are few things lovelier than an avenue of beech trees, in almost any season.

november beech trees

Then, after a few more miles, I reached the fork in the road. The road wound up to the right, but as I started up it, wasn’t all that bad, to be honest. I began to wonder whether I’d just been terribly unfit back then when I’d been defeated by this road.

heading up

There was even a spot where it levelled off sufficiently to stop and take photos of the view of Bigtown in all its loveliness.

view from the road

And then I turned the corner and it kicked up enough that I had to give it the full Thomas Voeckler gurn (tell me you also make faces when you’re struggling up a hill on a bike…). As I battled up and round another corner, not only did it kick up again, but there were a couple out for a nice stroll who had to witness my hill-climbing face in all its glory.

‘Keep going’, the woman said, and I did – I made it. It wasn’t pretty, but I cycled all the way up. I don’t know whether because I’m fitter, have improved my technique (or my gurning) or if it’s true what Greg Le Mond didn’t say – “It doesn’t get any easier, you just get a better bike”. But I’m glad I’ve laid that one to rest all the same.

At the top

Sadly, this wasn’t the kind of hill where you get impressive vistas from the top – or even any sense of how steep the road was, but I stopped to take a few photographs anyway, once I’d finished leaning on my handlebars trying to breathe in all the air in Bigtownshire.

hill avoided

I remembered that I’d actually photographed this road from another vantage point which maybe gives you some idea. Trust me, it’s bloody steep.

Then it was just a matter of cycling home, where I noticed that the pipeline people appear to have started using their pipeline route as a handy shortcut. But that’s an adventure for another day – and a different bike …

pipeline road