I’ve accepted a new job, and for the first time in 15 years I’ll need to commute by car. A mere 8 or so miles, which I might occasionally cycle (though the half-decent cycle route is a lot longer) or even run (hey, it might happen) but realistically I need a car. We have a family car already, but I can’t take that to work everyday as the rest of the family need it, so car number two is required. Ideally a nice, reliable, every day driver, that’s comfortable, practical, good in stop-start traffic, and with great fuel economy.

So I fulfilled a long-held dream and bought this twenty five year old Porsche 944 S2.

Porsche 944 S2

It’s a beautiful thing, to me at least, though perhaps others see a relic of everything that was bad about the 80s. It’s a 1991 model from the end of the run, but basically an 80s car. It has a three litre inline four engine, putting out 211hp, that’s basically half of the eight cylinder 928 engine, with balance shafts to keep it smooth in four cylinder configuration. It has pop-up headlights. It even has a really very useable boot – seriously. Finally, and critically, there are two seats in the back that are genuinely big enough for my two kids. It’s lucky I and the wife have relatively short legs, so the front seats aren’t pushed back too far.

I was a bit worried about picking up the car and driving it back down the M1 to its new home, as the critical rubber timing belt has not been changed for 11 years, which is tantamount to engine suicide in these cars. If the belt breaks, the valves and pistons collide in a most unfortunate and expensive mess. The saving grace is that though the belt is elderly, it hasn’t done many miles – just 12,000. I will be having it changed and the whole car given a once-over by a local specialist ASAP. It’ll be interesting to see how much it ends up costing.

So what else is wrong with it? Lots! It’s a twenty five year old car, and I didn’t pay top-dollar so wasn’t expecting perfection. My inspection and test drive were a bit of blur, but here are the key things I picked up on.

  • Patches of lacquer gone in a couple of spots.
  • Some very minor dings, stone chips.
  • A small amount of rust bubbling behind front wheels.
  • Gear gaiter tatty.
  • Steering wheel tatty.
  • Some dash issues: ‘rosette’ grill slightly broken; trim lifting slightly.
  • Buttons worn – can’t make out the symbols on some of them any more.
  • Mats not secured well in the footwell because lugs they connect to are broken/missing.
  • Groan from steering at low speed.
  • Boot release switch doesn’t work.
  • No luggage blind or sunroof bag.
  • Some minor signs of oil from cam cover gasket in one spot.
  • Messed up rubber/foam thingy inside spring at front on one side.
  • Oil pressure gauge suspiciously showing 5 all the time when running.

These are all fixable or tolerable I reckon.

There was certainly enough good stuff to make me buy it.

  • Oil level and condition good.
  • Electrics all seem to work – though in my excitement I admit I failed to test every last thing.
  • Looks stunning from 2+ yards – i.e. the body is straight and paintwork pretty good.
  • Radio sounds good, with CD changer in the glovebox.
  • Tyres are brand new (Avon) and wheels in tip-top condition.
  • Very original – no nasty mods.
  • Drove nicely – comfortable cruising, smooth engine, decent gearbox.
  • Well kept history folder with each receipt in a plastic pocket. A good sign.

I should point out that for all its looks and sporty credentials, it’s not actually an especially fast car by modern standards. It doesn’t quite have the shove of the two-litre turbo diesel estate I normally drive – those turbo diesels are so torquey when the power whooshes in from the turbo. But it’s a beautiful classic, to be cherished and cosseted and most importantly, tinkered with! Expect more posts on the travails of old Porsche ownership as I get to grips with it, good and bad.

CQRSLaptopTablet
Allow me to wax philosphical for a moment with an observation about where computers and their operating systems are heading.

In the world of software development CQRS = Command Query Responsibility Segregation, which in its simplest sense recognises that it's sometimes better to use a different mechanism for reading data than it is for writing it. See Martin Fowler's exposition of the concept if you want to know more, but this post isn't actually about software development at all!

I reckon that we're at a critical juncture in the evolution of personal computing devices and that the CQRS principle is necessarily coming to the fore to save the human race.

Tablet computers are taking the world by storm, in case you hadn't noticed. Apple could barely make enough iPad Minis for me to be able to get my wife one for Xmas, though I did manage it at the very last minute, and shortly thereafter bagged one for myself too. Frankly it's bloody brilliant, but I use it predominantly for consuming rather than creating and I'm far from alone. This is partly because the human populace is inexorably dumbing down towards being fat blobs with brains wired directly into the 'net, consuming inane banter, amusing picture of cats and the latest celebrity news, 140 characters at a time. But that aside, it's just not very pleasant to write large quantities of text, manipulate images or perform other expansive creative works by prodding a tiny screen. Or even a big screen.

To write software, construct lengthy blog posts (ahem), edit movies, sequence the human genome or design great buildings requires a proper computer! On that basis I posit that there will always be a place for desktops and laptops, or indeed whatever replaces them but which necessarily has a non-trivial input mechanism. I genuinely worry that the market for serious computers will be increasingly neglected by the manufacturers, refocussing as they are on the mass consumer market, inevitably leading to the downfall of humankind. Perhaps I exaggerate – at least I hope so.

Now I've never used Windows 8, indeed I shudder at having to use Windows 7 on a daily basis at work, but I understand it represents something of a chimera. It is best known for its shiny, touchy, slidey 'Metro' UI, beckoning your greasy fingers to caress its tiles. However it also allows you to fall back into the more staid world of traditional Windows where presumably you can get some proper work done, as long as you have a keyboard and a pointing device other than your finger. I understand critics are conflicted about this hybrid approach, but it's CQRS writ large and may therefore be the way forwards. One way or another, at least some people will need to create great works. I do hope to be one of them, and to have the equipment to be able to do it.

BrickPath 2

I have a fair amount of lawn in my garden, which is looking pretty ropey right now, but I'm working on it! However I'm intending to convert a lot of it to more intriguing beds and paths. This project details one little part of that grand plan. In the picture above, I've removed the turf from a corner, which originally had just a narrow bed at the back against the trellis.

BrickPath 3

My plan was to put a curving brick path through this new area, leaving an eye-shaped island that will probably host a small tree and other planting high enough and rumbustious enough to make the path a little voyage of discovery. A very little voyage, but adding much-needed intrigue.

I started by using the garden hose to experiment with the shape of the path, using some bricks to get the width right. What a beautiful shape!

Those bricks, and indeed all the bricks I will use, are from the rear chimney on the house, which was removed in a recent loft conversion (the chimney, not the house). They are a mix of old handmade red clay bricks and nasty moulded modern things, but they have some character, including sooty marks, and I think mixed up they're going to look the part.

I'm not sure how well they will survive the harsh winters that seem to be the new normal. I strongly suspect they will suffer from frost damage and it will be interesting to find out whether it's the old or new that perform better. I have plenty left to repair the damage. For the record, ideally you'd use engineering bricks, but I don't have any and I feel it would lack the charm of a crumbling old brick path.

BrickPath 4

Having established the basic shape and scored a mark in the soil with the edge of a spade along the hosepipe, I dug it out about a brick deep plus a couple of centimetres for the sand. I also added 5cm or so on either side to give room for manoeuvre.

Theoretically I should use pegs in the ground, string and spirit levels to establish a perfectly level, flat path, but that's just not my style, and the two ends are not at the same level anyway. I used a couple of bits of straight wood and my eye to make sure that the soil bed was basically level with no major local bumps or hollows. Again I invoke 'rustic' as an excuse for my slapdashery.

BrickPath 5

Do you know why sharp sand is called sharp sand? Because the individual grains are all knobbly and 'sharp', compared to non-sharp sand which has smooth, rounded grains. This helps them to lock together and form a firm base. I've used four bags of sharp sand and with the aid of a rake and a piece of wood the width of the path dragged over it, I've turned it into a smooth base ready for my bricks. I spent quite a while trying to get this right, as it will be reflected in the final result.

By the way, I bought six bags of sand from Wickes for the grand total of £10.86, and that was my entire spend on this project. The rest is bricks and tools I already had, and my own labour.

BrickPath 1

I figured it was best to lay one whole run the length of the path, to establish and tweak the basic curve. Then of course the subsequent runs are a bit longer each time around the curve, so we need half-bricks here and there to keep a good pattern going.

I used a bolster chisel and club hammer to cut the bricks by hand, which takes a bit of technique, a certain amount of practise and a lot of patience, especially when it's raining and you can't see through your goggles (you don't want brick chips in your eye). I think most people would find this the most challenging part of the project if they haven't done it before. You can get machines to do it nicely and with no effort on your part, which would be worthwhile if doing anything much bigger. A straight path would only require half-bricks at the ends of course.

BrickPath 6

Once I'd got all the bricks down it looked pretty good, but only then did I fork over the beds either side, being very careful not to disturb my new path. I had been agonising over whether to do that first or last. I feared that if I did it first I might loosen the firm bed for my path, compacted nicely as it was under the old lawn. Also, it would have made working around the path and seeing the edges a lot harder, so I'm glad I did it this way around.

BrickPath 7

Finally, I did that digging of the compacted soil, and packed it up to the edge of my bricks, ready to receive plants. Then I brushed more sharp sand into all of the cracks to finish off the path itself. That took a surprisingly long time and a few goes as the bricks settled and new holes opened up. Using very dry sand really helps it to fall down those cracks so I dried mine out in the sun before using it.

I'm very pleased with the result, but time will tell whether it's really any good. Next project is the planting either side of it.

Detail
I see irritating problems. Every tangible thing I use, every service I consume, I can't help but notice all the little things that could have been a bit better. And it really frustrates me when these are details that seem so very simple to fix.

For instance, when I buy a train ticket from FCC's machines at St Pancras I can't actually see the text on the card payment screen unless I squat uncomfortably, because it's low down and inset out of sight. I know it's low down so disabled/short people can use it, but at least provide a direct line of sight for the average sized person standing in front of the machine – i.e. 95% of your customers!

I recently bought a D-Link powerline networking kit on Amazon, which is a wonderful product by the way, that worked straight out of the box with zero configuration. But the Amazon page did not state that there were two ethernet cables in the box – though I suspected there might be and was explicitly looking for this information. Worse than that, it provided a handy link to buy the product along with two separately supplied ethernet cables. So I went with that (better safe than sorry) but lo and behold: two cables in the box and now I have two extras I paid for and don't need. I feel I have been poorly served by Amazon.

Often when travelling by train, announcements are made that are inaudible due to the low volume (compared to background noise) or muffled by unhelpful acoustics. But these are sometimes really very important announcements and there's precious little point making them if they can't be heard.

Whenever I visit the hairdresser they ask me what I want doing, and I struggle to articulate it, especially when it comes to the intricacies of the back of my head. Why don't they take photos and notes (in special hairdresser shorthand) so that they can sort me out consistently every time, even when it's somebody new cutting my hair. As far as I'm concerned this is a no-brainer.

There are many little disappointments just like this that I spot on a daily basis, with physical and virtual products and services and I'm increasingly wondering whether there's a way to turn this into a job: detail consultant. Available for hire by companies small and large, I would tell them what could be improved to give their customers a delightful rather than frustrating experience. It's not rocket science but apparently there's a gap for this sort of common sense supplied from an external viewpoint. Please form an orderly queue!

In fact I'm surprised that larger organisations don't have full time employee roles with exactly this mandate: roving throughout the company and in the field spotting and fixing these subtle issues. In a competitive world where bad publicity is only a Tweet away, this seems like a very good use of resources to my naive mind. If you have any pride at all in what you're doing that is.

Blocks
You might have noticed I've been a bit quiet on this blog for most of this year, though I've been doing rather better on my other blog: UK Nature Blog. That's the problem with having kids – suddenly you don't seem to have a lot of time spare. But there are upsides, and just enough time spare to revel in them! I am of course referring to the opportunity for pushing the limits with small childrens' toys! It was necessary to build this on carpet otherwise the two 'feet' would just slide apart.

I've been quiet of late, due to my wife's pregnancy, and latterly the arrival of a beautiful baby girl – Emily. And that also means my paternity leave coincides nicely with the World Cup finals.

BabyEmilyFutureEnglandCaptain

 

ClausthalerLowAlcoholLagerBeer

It's been a while – sorry about that. I've been posting very nearly every day on my other site UKNatureBlog so check that out for wildlife including lots from my own garden.

I've also been busy preparing for the imminent arrival of my first child, which is exciting and already life-changing. For instance I've now joined my wife in not drinking alcohol as I may be required to rush her off to hospital at a moment's notice. Hence I have entered the murky world of low alcohol beer! So far we've sampled Becks Blue (zero alcohol), Cobra Zero (zero alcohol) and Clausthaler Classic (< 0.5% alcohol). And I must say that Clausthaler has been a revelation that wins out over the others. It doesn't taste watery and overly bitter (like the Becks) but it's not cloying and overly malty (like the Cobra). In fact it actually tastes like a fairly normal weakish French bottled lager to me, which is a fair feat when it leaves your head clear. I know it's German but it reminds me of Kronenbourg or St Omer in stubbies when camping in France for some reason.

Actually it's truly quite wondrous stuff as you can savour a cold beer or two on a summer's afternoon and not be in the slightest bit muddled or woozy for the rest of the day. It's just refreshing, tasty and beery. I picked it up in Waitrose on a whim, but I now know that it's actually the most popular alcohol-free brand in Europe and I can see why.

I learnt a lot about it from this very good and fact-filled review by a beer-craving pregnant lady, a few notables from which I'll expound upon here. Apparently they brew it in the same manner as other German purity-law beers, but with a special yeast that doesn't generate nearly so much alcohol. This sets it apart from most other low alcohol brews that pass normal strength beer through an osmosis process that knackers the flavour. Clausthaler claim that the small amount of alcohol in their beer is just enough to make it properly 'beery' compared to those with none. Anyway – Clausthaler is thoroughly recommended, though I'm still hoping to find some low-alcohol bitter in the supermarkets. The 30p a can 2% generic value bitter you see in the low-end supermarkets doesn't count as the alcohol content is clearly just the result of penny-pinching.

 

I like a bit of chocolate, but my peanut allergy means I have to read the labels very carefully. One major annoyance is when I find the text "may contain nuts" or similar. The dilemma I face is that peanuts are not technically nuts – they are a legume, more like actual peas than nuts. Honest, it's true. So, when I read "may contain nuts" does the manufacturer appreciate this distinction (in which case I am safe) or are they including peanuts as nuts, as the common man on the street would most likely expect (in which case I am not safe)?

I asked Cadbury what their position on this is. Here's what I sent them:

As anyone in your industry likely knows, peanuts are not technically nuts – they are a legume. Can you clarify whether Cadbury labelling (e.g. on Cadbury Clusters) that says "May contain nuts"  includes peanuts in its remit or not? On a technicality I would think not and that I (as a peanut allergy sufferer) could eat the product with impunity. However it might be that you interpret "nuts" to include peanuts. Some companies specifically say "tree nuts" to be clear when they means nuts but not peanuts. I'm keen to understand Cadbury's position here so I know what's safe to eat and what's not. Thanks in advance. Either way, it would be helpful to all nut and peanut allergy sufferers if the labelling could be made unambiguous and I'd appreciate a comment on that more generally.

The response from Cadbury (over a month later, after me chasing them):

Thanks for your email

Our Technical area advise Cadbury labels Nuts when referring to Tree nuts. We would label Peanuts separately as they are not a Tree nut as correctly pointed out.

So, there's your answer, for Cadbury at least. It's a shame they didn't see fit to comment on perhaps using "tree nuts" in their labelling in order to be unambiguous.