Archive for May, 2009

TomTom Club

Friday, May 29th, 2009

OK – I’ve had the new satnav five months now, and I did promise you a review…

I first decided to buy the TomTom One because I’d been running TomTom software on the PDA for years, and wanted to upgrade: the maps were out of date, and unlike the newer versions corrections weren’t available (I’ll come on to that): Also the PDA I was running it on was mind-numbingly slow when it came to adding new destinations. The TomTom One, with Traffic add-on, was on sepcial offer in Halfords, so off I toddled.

I like the fact that if you find something on the map that’s wrong, you can change it: almost the first time I used it, it tried to take me on a road that’s not publicly accessible – and it told me that the real public road to that destination was private. It was a matter of a few seconds to change the map, and all you have to do is connect the device to a computer that’s online, and you share the correction with all other users, and can download corrections submitted by other people.

The same thing applies to the Speed Camera add-on: This is a device that honks at you when a traffic camera is coming up: It tells you whether it’s a speed camera or a traffic light cam, and if a speed camera it reminds you what the speed limit normally is on that road. Again, user updates can be shared online.

About the only thing I don’t like is that the traffic plug-in isn’t as useful as you might think: It’s a separate bit of kit that plugs into the box and listens to local radio travel news: If there’s a hold-up on your route, it warns you about it and offers an alternative – which you can either accept or ignore in favour of the original route. In practice it takes a long time to lock on to the local station, and you can complete journeys up to half an hour without a lock ever being obtained. Worse still, it only works when plugged into a live 12V socket, so if you’re doing a stop-start journey – making multi-drop deliveries in town for example – it has to start looking for the local radio station every time you turn the engine back on. And finally, it only seems to know about unusual traffic conditions: it once warned me about a twenty minute delay caused by roadworks, but then re-routed me through a major traffic jam in a town centre: Because that jam is there every Saturday morning, the local radio weren’t reporting it and so the gadget didn’t know about it.

Aside from that, it’s just a couple of niggles: I’ve already downloaded a database of height restrictions, and I’d like to be able to tell the device to avoid these when it does route planning. At the moment you have to let it plan a route, then look for problems on the route and tell it to avoid those, and re-plan. Since when I use it for real I’m often either driving a minibus, or towing a 9 foot high caravan, it would be useful.

The only other thing is that at the moment you can have sound on or off: With sound off, you not only lose the sexy lady giving you route instructions, but also the alarms for a speed camera coming up, or a detected traffic problem. Since PF finds the spoken instructions a bit annoying (they keep her awake, and she likes to sleep when I’m driving!), it would be nice to be able to turn off directions but keep the warnings.

Would I buy another TomTom? Yes, although I’d like the features I’ve suggested to be included in a future upgrade. I don’t think I’d get the traffic gadget again unless it was made to lock on to stations much more quickly, and keep the lock when the power is turned off.

TomTom engineers…anyone reading?

It’s Not Fair…

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

…that I’ve had the tune of that darned Lily Allen song going round and round in my head for the last three days now. I don’t even like it…in fact I can’t think of anything by Lily Allen that I do like.

I wonder if it’s really true that you get earwormed by music you don’t like more often than music you do, or if it just seems that way? One way or t’other, it gives me a chance to recount the excellent musical insult I heard the other day: Bill Bailey, in his Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra was talking about the stage musical version of Mama Mia, which he generally didn’t think much of, and described as “Like being hit on the head with a piece of Ikea furniture…it hurts, but you have to admire the workmanship!”.

M’darling Purple Fred wants to go and see Mama Mia. Oh boy.

Learning Zone

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

I’ve started learning again :-)

I mentioned ages ago that I was thinking of studying again, and was considering some sort of environmental management qualification – these days, health and safety people are expected to have some environmental and quality management knowledge in their armoury. I used to be a quality manager so I could blag that if needed, but I’ve never done much environmental stuff.

The thing was, at the time I was thinking about it, there were only two occupational environmental qualifications available: A degree-level diploma, which taught you from scratch but was the equivalent amount of work to the health and safety diploma I’d just done, and was very expensive, or an open-book exam designed for experienced environmental people to prove what they knew.

But now, the examination board with whom I did the health and safety stuff have launched a certificate-level environmental qualification, which you can do by e-learning in about six months. Not only that, but if you signed up (with one training provider) before the end of May, you got a hundred quid discount!

So with the encouragement of m’dearest Purple Fred, I’ve enrolled on the course and signed up for the December exam. Progress reports to follow :-)

Worse Science

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

I’ve commented before on the rubbishness of Southampton’s local “newspaper”, the Southern Daily Echo.

And on the day I mentioned that I was reading “Bad Science” (i.e. yesterday), they neatly illustrated both their own rubbishness and the dangers of bad science reporting. Have a look at this story. So, our schools are filled with “deadly asbestos”, are they? So are most buildings dating from before the mid-nineties. Perhaps someone should tell the Echo that the schools’ central heating is driven by explosive gas (which is also an asphyxiant), and the electrical cables are stuffed to bursting with killer volts.

Even more worrying is the quote from “one leading teaching union” that “children’s lives are at risk until all asbestos is removed from schools”. The fact that the union isn’t named makes me think it’s a quote the Echo has invented, and I certainly hope so – the idea that the people responsible for the next generation’s education could come up with something so inaccurate and alarmist is the scariest part of the whole thing. We expect lazy research and hyperbole from Echo journos – but teachers are supposed to be clever (although there are stories in “Bad Science” that give the lie to that, as well).

Asbestos fibres floating free in air are dangerous: if inhaled they’re small enough to breach the body’s natural defences and penetrate to the lungs, where they can cause mesothelioma. Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) such as asbestos cement – which is almost certainly the form most of the asbestos in school buildings takes – are safe as long as they’re undamaged, and the safest thing to do is leave them in place, and inspect regularly to make sure they’re undamaged. Even if they are damaged, it’s far safer to repair and re-seal than remove.

Still, I don’t suppose that would sell many papers.

Bad and Dangerous

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

I’m in the middle of reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.

It’s generally about how poor scientific method and the withholding or masking of key facts are used to sell useless tat to the public. I’ll do a proper review once I’ve finished reading it, but in the meantime it reminded me of one of my favourite examples of odd selling technique.

But first, if you don’t know what a “rabbit ears” TV aerial is, have a look at some of these pictures

Some of those odd mail order catalogues – you know, the ones that arrive every couple of months even though you can’t remember asking for them – have been running, for years, an ad for a set-top TV aerial. It looks a bit like a tiny satellite dish with two bent rods sticking out of the top. The description gushes “Works by “RF” technology…Picks signals right out of the air, just like ordinary ‘rabbit ears’…you don’t pay satellite charges because you don’t receive satellite signals…” – and my favourite “Not technical razzle-dazzle, but a marketing breakthrough!”.

What I love is the total ordinariness of the product, made up to look like something flash, combined with the scrupulous honesty of the description. What the product is, is a normal set-top aerial for receiving analogue terrestrial channels (BBC One and Two, ITV, Channel Four, and if you don’t live in Southampton, Channel Five). Electrically it’s a Marconi dipole, similar to “ordinary rabbit ears”, with the elements made of a thicker rod which will slightly improve the bandwidth. The “satellite dish” has no effect on signals at all.

So lets look again at those claims:
Works by “RF” technology…
The nearest thing to any dishonesty, the quotes around RF implies that “RF” technology is something exciting and new. RF stands for Radio Frequency. It’s an aerial. How else would it work?

Picks signals right out of the air…
Well yes, it’s an aerial, that’s what they do. From Jodrell Bank to the rusty coathanger jammed in a fifteen-year old Cortina, that’s what they do.

Just like ordinary ‘rabbit ears…
In other words, it works as well (or as badly) as the previous product it replaces.

…you don’t pay satellite charges because you don’t receive satellite signals…
…or any of the satellite channels, of course. It’s a limitation made to look like a selling point – Bill Gates would be proud of these guys. And saving the best for last…

Not technical razzle-dazzle…
…or in other words, this product is in no way technically different to the product that preceded it…

…but a marketing breakthrough!
…but we’ve found a great new way to sell it to you!

UPDATE – I found a picture of it on this blog

At least these are harmless – at the very worst people have spent a few quid on a product that’s no better than what they had before, but probably isn’t any worse. Some of the examples in Dr Goldacre’s book are dangerous or fatal, and a lot more cunningly disguised.


Thursday, May 21st, 2009

German politician Gerhard Schroeder is known, in some unkind circles in his home country as “The Audi”. Not because he’s sleek and speedy, but because he’s been married four times. If you have trouble with that joke, a peek at the Audi logo might help.

Viewers of motoring-related comedy show Top Gear might remember arch-clown Clarkson suggesting that the Audi has taken the place of BMW as the car of choice for people who get a kick out of acting like a**eholes. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but I certainly saw evidence in favour of the theory this evening.

On the bus home from the station – and in a bit of a rush because of getting to Hospital Radio – there was a loud blast of Audi hooter from behind: As the bus changed lane – to be in the right lane for the roundabout – Audi man had decided to accelerate to get past. Although at the speed he was doing he could’ve taken off and gone over, but that’s another story. Anyway, disgusted at finding himself and his fine German motor behind a Leyland bus, he let rip with his horn.

Not only, but also – at the next stop he pulled in behind us, ran to the front of the bus and started berating the driver. “You hit my car back there!!!”, in spite of a bus full of people all knowing that no collision had taken place. He continued to shout and swear, and point out non-existant damage on his car and on the bus, in the face of which the driver remained – at least all the time I was there – calm, professional and polite. In the end the Audi driver phoned the Police, at which point the bus driver apologised profusely and turned us all off the bus, saying he’d have to wait for the Police.

When I left, Audi man was on the phone to someone else, ranting about the “stupid (racist term) bus driver”. I got on a number four instead, which was very uneventful. The only consolation for being ten minutes late home is the thought that the Police now routinely breathalyse all drivers involved in accidents that they deal with – you have to hope that Audiboy is now in a cell and facing the prospect of waving goodbye to his licence.


Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Michael Martin, Speaker of the House of Commons, is resigning over the MP’s expenses furore.

While there’s little doubt that he hasn’t handled the situation well, I do find it a bit strange that the MPs themselves have been the ones demanding his resignation. It seems to me a little bit like “We’ve been naughty – you didn’t stop us – you must be punished”

The lunatics are truly running the asylum now.

New Experiences

Monday, May 18th, 2009

I had a new experience on Sunday.

Thanks to the lovely Purple Fred, I had my first experience of…

**suitable doom-laden backing track**

…clothes shopping with a girlfriend!

I was told I needed a new pair of trousers. To me, a new pair of trousers means a visit to “Man at Matalan”, finding a pair of black trousers that are the right waist size, trying them on to make sure they’re the right waist size, and buying them. Then giving them to my Mum and saying “Please can you cut two inches off the legs”.

Clothes shopping with a girlfriend starts with going somewhere more upmarket than Matalan, and getting at least three almost-identical pairs off the racks. Trying a pair on, and discovering that you’ve been a bit optimistic about the waist size, and starting again. Trying on at least five pairs, agreeing on two of them that you both like, asnd buying them.

Mind you, when I say “…that you both like…”, the decision also seems to involve the other three wives/girlfriends waiting outside the fitting rooms, who critique each other’s menfolk as well as their own. And the “buying” bit includes handing over a shedload of cash to the lady who does in-store alterations.

And then we bought PF a dress, a process made more traumatic than it need have been by the scary lady assistant, who whipped PF’s choices off her with a sweeping “Oh you CAN’T wear that! Go over to that section there, and I’ll be with you to help you in a minute!”. Mind you, I did like the one we finally got, with scary lady’s help :-)

And then we went to Homebase and looked at power tools, which was nice.

And on the subject of new experiences, I went to the gym on the way home, and one of the student types in the changing room was bragging about his own new experience: Apparently the night before, he’d had sex while sober for the first time.


Saturday, May 16th, 2009

I had an adventure today…I went to London on the train! Not something I do every day, and…

Eh? What?

Oh yes…it is something I do every day. But at least, it being the weekend, I was able to travel first class for £2-50 each way, which meant comfortable seats, a tray table big enough to spread out on, peace and quiet, and a mains socket to charge the PDA so I could catch up on some work.

The purpose of today’s visit was to go to a committee meeting of a charity I support, to offer some advice on their new Health and Safety policy. They already had the bones of one in place so we were more or less there in an hour, and I was free to leave…

Needless to say, I scored a cache on the way back to Waterloo! I’ve tried for The South Bank Lion several times when work has brought me to this part of the Nation’s Capital…and today, Bingo!

And next to Waterloo I spotted this sign, which I’d never seen before…



Friday, May 15th, 2009

So – to the National Health and Safety Expo at the NEC. I scored a geocache just outside the NEC…

Sidetracked – Birmingham International

…spotted some amusing spelling mistakes such as this one…


(there was also a book called “Affective Health and Safety Management”, but as the author and publisher were standing proudly next to it, I thought photographing their smelling pistake might be seen as taking the mickey).

I did get a pic of this rather ill-thought-out trademark, though.


I even spoke to some interesting people and scored some worthwhile freebies – including a book that normally retails for thirty quid!


Thursday, May 14th, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I tried a Japanese noodle soup, from the new Miso bar over the road. They only had half of the advertised flavours available then, so I ended up with vegetable dumpling flavour. It was a close contender for the least satisfying meal I’ve ever eaten.

But on the credit side, it came with a little plastic bottle of Wasabi sauce, in a doomed attempt to give the thing some interest: when washed out, this proved ideal for packing a handfull of vitamin pills ready to take on holiday, rather than transporting the whole pack. It also seemed quite useful in geocaching terms…

I really need a second pill pot, and today Mungo’s Miso Shop had Hoisin Duck flavour. Hoisin Duck being one of my favourite oriental foods, it HAD to be worth a try.

It was a close contender for runner-up in the least satisfying meal I’ve ever eaten. And they forgot to give me the little bottle of Wasabi sauce.

I am not a Criminal!

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

…and unlike most people I actually have to be able to prove it!

At work it’s easy: our HR department send my details to the Home Office, together with a form that I’ve signed saying they can ask anybody anything about me, and in a mere matter of months the all-clear comes through. For the various voluntary things I do it isn’t so easy, the average Hospital Radio station not having the resources of the Home Office Departmental Security Unit available to it. For these, I have a three-yearly Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check.

I’ve blogged before about how I’m not a fan of the CRB checks: they only pick up wrongdoers who’ve been caught, and encourage a false sense of security. From the user’s point of view they were a pain in the neck because you had to entrust all your personal documents to Royal Mail as you sent them off to a central checker to prove who you were.

This at least they’ve made easier, and you can now take your documents to the Post Office, where a skilled and experienced employee will confirm your identity, fill in a “veri-fy” form and send the whole lot off for you.

Some hope.

The skilled and experienced Post Office employee that I saw had never seen a veri-fy form before, and nor had the supervisor she consulted. He at least knew that there was a set of instructions they could consult, and between them they managed to make several mistakes in filling in the form, as well as dropping my driving licence on the floor (on their side of the counter) and claiming I hadn’t given it to them.

I think I spotted all their errors and persuaded them to correct them – I hope so, or I might not be going to New Wine this year. I’m going back to the same Post Office branch on Friday to collect my Euros – stand by for another ranty blog.

Eurothousands…well, Hundreds Anyway

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

I’ve been trying to sort out my Euros for the forthcoming Lanzarotty trip.

The Post Office sell them on line, which sounds like a jolly good idea: you purchase through the web site and they’ll either deliver your Mickey Mouse money to your home by post, or you can call into the Post Office branch of your choice and pick them up. And any Euros you don’t spend, they’ll buy back commission free!

But the minimum pirchase is £350 worth! As I said to the lady PF this evening, “Who needs £350-worth of Euros for a week away?”

“You do”, she replied.

Oh. I’ll get on and buy my Euros then :-) .


Monday, May 11th, 2009

Purple Fred and I won the Euromillions lottery last Friday!

Actually that statement is 100% of non-fact, and today’s blog is much more about me displaying daft tendencies than planning how to spend ten million Euros. I’m in a Euromillions syndicate at work, and there’s quite a few of us in it so we get loads of lines. Last Friday was some sort of mega-rollover, so I bought PF and me a line each.

Half past eleven on a Friday is way past my bedtime and we had an early start on Saturday, so it was Saturday evening before I tried to check the numbers. Then I was thwarted, firstly by being unable to find the TV remote so I couldn’t use Teletext, and then by PF’s internet connection being a little slower than my patience.

So we come to Sunday evening, and I’ve got the Euromillions website: I don’t know what you win for three main board numbers but I’m going to find out because that’s what we’ve got. Wahey!

Oh. Except for the fact that the “8” on the website isn’t one of the numbers drawn, it’s the date of the draw. Oh well, back to work tomorrow :-(


Friday, May 8th, 2009

There’s still one story from last weekend I’ve not regaled you with…

We’d done the two caches we intended to, and were on our way back to the caravan site when we spotted a hand-lettered sign advertising “BLUEBELLS”.

“Wanna go and look at some bluebells?”, I asked, knowing that PF especially likes bluebells.
“Sure, why not”, she yawned enthusiastically.

After a mere several hours down tiny country lanes, we reached a Forestry Commission enclosure which they’d opened to vehicles for the weekend, in exchange for a donation to the Lions Club: Instead of having to stop at the car park, you could drive anywhere you could get your car to, and enjoy the bluebells.

We stopped at the car park and had drinks from the Lions Club stall, and I browsed the map, only thinking of finding a more interesting route back to the caravan than using the main road.

“Hang on…there’s a geocache in these woods…” I started
“…and it looks like we can drive right up to it!”.

And that’s how, thanks to the Lions Club, we did West Woods as a drive by!

The Chain

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

I don’t listen to the radio much these days.

But every Thursday when I’m driving to Hospital Radio, the Radcliffe and Maconie show is on, so I sort-of listen by default. They do a feature called “The Chain”, where listeners write in and suggest a record which has a connection to the previous one in the chain: the connection can be in the lyrics, or through the performer, songwriter or whatever.

This time last week, they were playing The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”, which linked to the previous song by a line of lyric. I e-mailed in to say they should play Mr Blobby next – “because that’s sh*t as well”.

They didn’t use my suggestion :-(


Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

The lovely Purple Fred has pointed out that in a fit of modesty, I failed to tell you yesterday about my courage in the face of a herd of rampaging wild animals.

Doing the cache Chocolate Box Cottage on Sunday, we had to cross a field with a herd of young bullocks in, animals of which we’re both a bit nervous: cattle won’t deliberately hurt you, unless they’re cows guarding small calves, or some species of bull, and even then they’d rather you just went away. But young cattle are quite capable of crushing a human in play, or just out of curiosity, and when you’re laying on the ground with a crushed ribcage it’s not much consolation to know they were only leaning against you to see what happened.

So anyway, we were crossing the field (National Trust property and open to the public), and the bullocks in a fit of curiosity were ambling closer and closer: PF, exhibiting great courage, told me to stay between her and them. I think this was also about the time she asked “If you die, can I keep the pullover?”.

Mark Wallington, in Five Hundred Mile Walkies1, describes arm-waving and shouting as a pretty effective anti-cattle technique, so I thought I’d try it. All but one shoo’ed as instructed, and he followed his mates when I added “AND YOU TOO! GO ON, BUGGER OFF!”. PF was impressed at my bravery in the face of danger…come to that, so was I. The direction in which they ran was a bit more of an issue, as they were now standing exactly where we wanted to go, and the clever one I’d just annoyed was stamping his foot at us and snorting.

We retreated to a safe distance to see if we could work out an alternative route, and by the time we’d decided we couldn’t, they’d moved on. So we found the cache (well, PF found it…just another reason why I love her), and we’re still in one piece (each). So that’s OK :-)

1 Incidentally, if by a staggering coincidence the person who borrowed my copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies about six years ago is reading this…could I have it back please?

Mayday Mayday!

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Well I hope your Bank Holiday weekend was as good as mine :-)

The lovely PF and I joined the millions of other caravan-draggers on the country’s highways, although luckily for us we were going against the flow of traffic in heading away from the New Forest and south coast. We don’t dislike the New Forest – we’ve just decided it would be a bit daft to take the caravan somewhere within half an hour of home!

Anyhoo, we found a site where we could pitch among woodland scenery…

…and those of us who were up early enough could watch the baby rabbits playing. At least, that’s what PF told me.

We visited touristy things, we saw bluebells, we had pub lunches, we even found five geocaches on Sunday afternoon. PF doesn’t have much caravanning experience but she’s putting a brave face on things and getting on with it – guess that’s just one of the reasons why I love her so much :-) . In summary, a lovely bank holiday weekend.


Friday, May 1st, 2009

I’ve been doing a bit of research.

Some of you will know that this Autumn’s cachepedition with Rob ‘n Sarah is to feature an activity not totally related to geocaching: We’re going to climb England’s highest mountain, Sca Fell. Our chosen route is one that we did the first half of at the end of last year’s trip, so we’ve got a bit of experience, and this year we’re going to be faster and fitter than then.

Or all in bed with swine flu, but that’s by the way.

Anyway, I’ve had a look at the route, and from the parking point at the bottom to the trig point on the summit is 4.2 miles. 4.2 miles! This a bit less than twice the distance I walk to work every morning, so we’ll have no trouble with that at all.

There’s always the 2800 feet we have to climb – which is rather more than I do on my walk to work, even when the escalators at Waterloo aren’t working – but we’ll deal with that when we come to it.