Monday, 18 February 2008

Climb Every Mountain

It's typical really. Brother Tobias has climbed Cruachan, Suilven, Cul Mhor, Stac Polly, An Teallach and Healaval Mhor, not to mention Tryfan, Snowden, Helvellyn and a host of other mountains in Snowdonia, the Lake District and the Highlands. Some of them several times. And yet, even though he lived in Skye for 30 years, he never got round to climbing in the Cuillins.

I call this the 'Tower of London Effect'. If it's right next door to you, you never get round to seeing it, whereas a tourist will do it on day one and get a tee shirt.

What's the betting there are people in Chatham who have never made the pilgrimage to Luton Arches on Midsummer Day, to watch the first rays of the rising sun spill through the central span, streak across the darkened rooftops and strike the multi-faceted obelisk at the end of Sun Pier in a starburst of light?

There are probably folk in Ruabon who have never explored the one and a half mile tunnel linking the Ruabon Burn with Y Gardden hill fort - a marvel of Bronze Age engineering that later became the headquarters of the 'Wat's Dykers' movement in the mid eighteenth century (and from which they mounted their abortive campaign against farm mechanisation).

There may be Basildon residents who haven't tasted Basildon Bun - that delicious, iced, yeasty plait of saffron-coloured dough, redolent of cloves and ginger; Notts folk who've never marvelled at the 'Titania', the glider credited with making the first recorded flight in 1772, its wings coated with Nottingham lace as fine as gossamer; Maidstoners dismissive of that pearl of twentieth century town planning, Shepway Model Village, with its sinuous curves and grandiloquent vistas.

I don't suppose I'll ever get round to conquering a Cuillin now. I should have listened to Julie Andrews.

[To buy Basildon Buns, visit 'Bazzer's Bunny Bake' in Basildon High Street. See the Titania at the 'Wings above the Wolds Museum' near Thrumpton-on-Soar. For information on the availability of guided tours of Shepway Model Village, contact Maidstone Borough Planning Department on 01622 602234]

Where Low Energy Bulbs Will Mean Waste

The government's proposed ban on traditional incandescent bulbs promises to be a bit of a blunt instrument. People should be able to make informed decisions about what kind of bulb to use where. For example, we have to switch on a light each time we go into our pantry, which has no window. It contains the fridge freezer, food storage, bar, ironing board and sundry other essentials. I reckon we go in about two dozen times a day from about 6.30 am to about 11.30 pm. Each visit probably lasts an average of about 10 seconds, meaning the light is on for about four minutes in all.

We will be expected, and possibly required, to replace the present bulb with an energy saving one. According to the Energy Saving Trust, switching these on uses the same power as leaving them on for a couple of minutes. More worryingly, it admits that turning energy saving bulbs on and off shortens their lives and that, as they are energy expensive to produce, it is best to leave them on for a 'stabilising period' of 10-15 minutes at a time to help make them last as long as possible.

In the case of our pantry, and similar situations, it will therefore be cheaper to leave the light on all day. Even when that daily 17 hours is factored down to take account of the greater energy efficiency, we will still be using 64 times more electricity in that room than we are at present. Similar arguments will apply in many 'short-use' situations.

From long-habit and Brother Tobias' frugality, we turn lights on and off in this house as we go in and out of rooms or pass through and between them. The 15 minute rule is going to defeat this, and I can see that we will be leaving many other lights on throughout the evening. Kitchen, scullery, stairs, bathroom, halls, utility room, bedrooms and lavatories are all examples of lights that are regularly turned on and off. We'll probably have more than a dozen lights burning where we used to have a couple. (An added problem is the need to allow time for the energy-efficient bulbs to reach full output. This makes them potentially dangerous in some situations - for example, switched lighting of steps and stairwells).

Any legislation on availability and use of bulbs needs to be flexible enough to allow people to take informed decisions about which bulbs are appropriate for which locations, otherwise the incentive to save energy will be undermined.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Biscuits as Brain Food

I notice I haven't been blogging much lately (I'm observant like that). It about coincided with stopping snacking out on bad stuff, to try and lose the weight that's crept up on me. Or rather, around me. It's that Scottish penchant for sweet stuff, like cakes and biscuits.

They put something addictive in biscuits; I can go through a whole pack of custard creams, one by one, in that 'just one more' way custard creams have. And the different ways you can eat them is an added attraction. You know - bite one half off and then nibble round the other until you are left with a maximum filling, minimum biscuit scenario (keeping the filling intact whilst separating it from both biscuits is the holy grail); bite off the top biscuit and then scrape off the filling with your teeth; wolf the whole thing in one go; etc.

Anyway, back to not eating, not blogging. Maybe basic meals are body food, to generate heat and motion, make your hair grow, mow the lawn, etc. And snacks are brain food. Perhaps the old neural network needs sugar to keep it firing. At regular intervals. Biscuits for blogging. And I haven't lost any weight, so where was it going? To my head, obviously. I mean, name a fat philosopher. (You Kant, can you?) They're all skinny, ascetic rakes - in the garden tool, not the behavioural sense. Although...

I think I've stumbled on something here. After all, garibaldis and fig newtons were presumably called after their illustrious namesakes. I believe Maxim Gorky worked in a biscuit factory, and Wilde was very fond of chocolate fingers. After an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, even John Lennon once requested his fee in chocolate bath olivers.

And why not biscuits as brain food? They have proven medical benefits. Digestives or arrowroot fingers are a first choice for norovirus convalescents, for example, and everyone knows that ginger nuts prevent morning sickness. This could explain why the sweet-toothed Scots exported so many engineers and inventors. Brilliant but no doubt cavitied.

For further research I recommend vienna triangles and a visit to The Biscuit Appreciation Society. Apparently it has a membership of about 3,000,000, which is about 2,999,998 more than it expected. And if you would like to make biscuits your special subject, a good starting point is 'Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down', which has a comprehensive analysis of British and world biscuits, and some cracking biscuit adventures.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just going off to fantasise about licking iced gems off a wagon wheel.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Customer Care - How Not to Do It

When our children were babies the ubiquitous brand of plug-in baby monitor was the 'BugPlug'. Once they grew too old to need it, our BugPlug was recycled to act as a night-time relay between the garage/garden shed alarms and the house. (Clever, huh?)

One day we had a thunderstorm, and the sender unit stopped working. I unscrewed the casing and found, as suspected, that the fuse had blown. It was an unusually small fuse cartridge, and I was unable to source a replacement. So I contacted the company. The smarmy BF at the other end of the line cheerfully told me that they would service my unit for £18. (This was some years ago, and the price of the service was more than half the cost of a new unit). I said that it did not need a service, I just needed a replacement fuse.

"How d'you know you need a fuse?", the smarmy BF asked.

"Because the fuse has blown," I replied.

"How d'you know it's blown? he said.

"Because I've tested it," I said.

"That means you must've opened the unit," he said.

"Yes," I said. "You need to do that to discover the fuse has blown."

"In that case," he replied, "We can't service it. You have to buy a new unit."

"But a new unit costs around £30," I said. "The fuse I need is worth a few pence."

"We can't supply you with a fuse, because you've opened the unit."

"But if I hadn't opened the unit, I wouldn't know that I only needed a fuse, and you'd have charged me £18 plus postage to replace it."

"Yes, that's right. We can't take responsibility for people opening our units."

"But it's not your unit, it's mine. I own it. I don't expect you to take responsibility for it."

"Nevertheless, we can't help you. It's Policy"

"How f*$*^g ridiculous," I observed. "You're a bunch of profiteering ars!!4*%wipes!" (Or words to that effect)

As it happened I was able to deconstruct the old fuse and solder new fuse wire into it, taken from an audio fuse of appropriate rating. The monitor has functioned beautifully for ten years. I have spent the intervening period advising people not to buy Bugplugs, and the company seems to have ceased to exist. I'm glad. I hope I helped to achieve that.

Apart from the uncooperative arsewipery of the company, there was a potentially lethal implication. In refusing to supply replacement fuses (which are, after all, designed to blow and be replaced), people might have been tempted to replace the fuse with fuse wire of an inappropriate rating, or even bypass it, so risking burning their houses down. Possibly some did. BugPlug's 'policy' may have led to deaths.

By way of customer care contrast, our Yale night-latch stopped working a while back. I found that a small plastic component inside had snapped, and wrote to Yale asking the price of a replacement. By return of post they sent me not one but two replacements, no charge, compliments of the company. Yale won my respect and loyalty for the cost of a few pence, and I big them up whenever the occasion arises (you can tell what an interesting dinner guest I am).

By the way, Yale locks rock. Buy Yale. From the nice people at Yale. They look after their customers with a smile.

Pity they don't make baby monitors.