A tale of two phones, two years on

Well, not quite two years, but you get the idea.

Round here, I’m gearing up for the launch of the next Apple iPhone, and planning to pass my two-year-old 5 on to my oldest daughter. That means she’ll be able to pass the venerable 4 onto her younger sister. This is starting to seem a bit harsh on the younger one, but the actual handset of the 4 is only a year old (whole thing replaced when screen on old one died), and the big question is, of course, is a 4-year-old iPhone better than a 2-year-old Nokia?
No contest.
Two years ago, I wrote about the experience of receiving, unboxing, and configuring two phones in one week. The state of those two phones now, as I think about upgrading, is instructive.
My 5 is fully functional, on iOS 7, and capable of being upgraded to the forthcoming iOS 8. It has had a new screen (after I dropped it at Xmas), and a replacement battery (free of charge, and it would have qualified for the current battery replacement programme). For the two repairs, I made an appointment at the Milton Keynes Apple store, and picked up the fixed phone an hour or so later.
The Nokia 710 has never had a software upgrade. It was on Windows Phone 7 when I bought it, and almost immediately Windows Phone 7.5 came out — but the Nokia wasn’t qualified for the upgrade, and that was it. Meanwhile, even the 4-year-old iPhone 4 is on iOS 7.
The Windows Phone synch app, which I used in setting it up, has also stopped working, so we can’t reset or restore the phone in any way. Talking to my daughter, who doesn’t complain much but has a lot to complain about, it seems that most of the software on her Nokia has stopped working. She has deleted all her games to save space (because we can’t get the pictures off it and she doesn’t want to delete them). The music she downloads keeps deleting itself so she has to start again. Internet Explorer generally crashes on launch. But she can still use Twitter, so that’s a thing.
In terms of the hardware, the headphone socket stopped working some time ago, so she can only listen to music through the phone’s tiny speaker or via Bluetooth. And the screen is cracked, of course, but has never been fixed because what’s the equivalent of making a Genius Bar appointment, and it’s hardly worth it, given how non-functional the rest of the phone is.
So, there you are. This is why people pay a bit more for Apple kit.

Europa Park – white faced terror, yours for €40

The view from the car park
The view from the car park

As you can probably guess, I’m not a big fan of theme parks. I gather Europa is second-biggest in Europe, after Disney Paris, and it certainly attracts a lot of visitors. I was immediately struck by the efficient way the organisation handled crowds. Cars were filtered into the car park, directed where to park, etc., minimising the amount of faffing*. There was no queueing at the entrance, and our tickets (booked online and printed out) were processed quickly.

Even though we arrived at just past opening time, there were already people on one of the park’s main attractions, the Silver Star, which is very high, and which passes over the car park, so you could hardly not notice it. Once we’d walked quite a distance, there was already a 45-minute queue for the first ride. This is my most profound objection to theme parks. I’m not into adrenaline (and in fact don’t seem to get any such rush, even on the scariest rides), and I really don’t like putting my life in the hands of the low-paid customer-facing workers of an entertainment conglomerate. But leaving that aside, even to take the kids out for a day, I really object to spending 5-6 hours queuing for a total of around 20 minutes of “thrills”.

It was by the end of the day, as we approached Silver Star that the effects of accumulated boredom must have kicked in. I’d already sat out the Blue Fire, which looked too terrifying. It accelerates you to 100 kmh in under 3 seconds, and loops you upside down four times, at up to 3.8G. No. I also sat out the spinning gondolas of the Euro-Mir, which while not as fast as Blue Fire pulled up to 4G and spun you around: the original vomit comet could do no worse.

I’d pondered as much as I wanted to the clever design of the Park, the way they hide the end of the queue from you so that, even though you know it’s going to be a long wait, you don’t get that visual confirmation of just how long it’s going to be. I cracked a few jokes about gas chambers, how could you not? The idea of hiding the end of a queue and processing people efficiently and cynically, in huge numbers, stems from those dark days.

The food, also, was terrible, another sign of deep cynicism and contempt for the captive audience. Why should they bother with decent eats? The whole place had a knock-off Disney feel to it, which I feel is completely unnecessary. Some of us fucking hate Disney, so we don’t need to see the mouse and the mermaid and the princesses in their little daily parade.

I mainly went on the water rides, one of which (Atlantica Supersplash) was truly horrible, plunging you vertically into water from 30m height at 80 kph. I wouldn’t have minded a go on the wooden roller coaster, but the young people weren’t interested in that.

So I was bored, and tired, and wanting to go home with the minimum of fuss, so I joined the queue for the Silver Star, thinking, fuck it, how bad could it be?

Well, it was very, very bad. 130 kmh, ranging from weightlessness to 4G and vertical drops from 73m.

It was the longest three minutes of my life.

That first ride we queued for was just a standard roller coaster in pitch dark, that was its USP. Well, the Silver Star was also in pitch dark, because I had my eyes closed for almost the entire ride. What I find terrifying, apart from the vertical drops the high Gs and the weightlessness, was the idea that I was trusting my life to a harness that was in use all day every day, 20 times every hour, week after week, year after year. It’s already 12 years old. So, let’s say 8 hours a day for 360 days a year, for 12 years: the harness that was holding me in as I was actually weightless has been used nearly seven hundred thousand times. You bet I was scared. The difference between Blue Fire and Silver Star was this. Sitting besides the Blue Fire reading my Kindle and drinking coffee, I could hear constant screaming. There was no screaming on the Silver Star. Just white-faced terror.


*Before we got there, however, someone faffing at the motorway exit caused a shunt, and a tailback on the slip road, which gave me concern. It happened to be one of those fast stretches of German motorway, so pulling out into the inside lane to bypass the crash was tricky, and one of the scariest things I did all day.

Thoughts on the Domane 4.5 (cycling bores only)

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 19.41.23

In thinking about my feeble legs and slow pace, I’ve neglected to discuss the actual bike, and how I’m getting on with it. It has only been in the last few weeks that I’ve spent serious amounts of time on it.

It was after struggling up these hills on my old bike that I determined that, if I were able, I would get myself a new one for this year. 


We won’t dwell much on the weight. A lighter carbon frame and lighter race wheels mean that this bike is lighter than the old one, but the rider isn’t. Suffice it to say that in spite of being much lighter, it doesn’t feel skittish or vulnerable to being blown off course by head- or crosswinds.


My feet are much more comfortable now, in the wide-fitting shoes and with the Time pedals and cleats. I’ve also suffered much less from back pain since I adjusted my riding style. Even my hip isn’t giving me much gyp, so the whole experience of riding has improved since the bike fitting. My biggest problem now is with my hands, which is largely down to gripping too tight around the hoods and not being relaxed enough in my riding posture. If I could achieve a relaxed style, I would probably fix any lingering back problems, too. I’ve noticed that gloves that are too loose get really uncomfortable on longer, sweatier rides, so I’ve a pair that will be relegated to lawnmower duty or the bin.

In terms of the clever design of the Trek’s frame, and its ability to absorb bumps in the road, it’s one of those things you have to force yourself to notice. You really do only feel the very biggest bumps in your backside (inadvertent potholes, manhole covers etc), and the rest of the time it feels very smooth. It struck me today as I descended a fairly bumpy road that the bike feels much more secure in situations like this, feeling planted on the road surface rather than jittering all over the place. I’m sure I hit at least one bump, hidden in the dappled light of the woods, that would have seen me flying into a ditch on the old bike, but the Domane stayed planted on the road.


Fantastic. Whenever I’ve needed them, they’ve been there, predictable, progressive, and assured. When I’m on the drops, I do find it a bit of a stretch to reach the levers, though.


Shimano Ultegra has been a revelation to me. If you’ve been asking yourself if the extra money is worth it, I can assure you that it is. Even after several months, even with me in charge of them, the gear changes remain smooth and undramatic, achieved with a bare tap on the shifter. Because of my well documented feet problems, I’ve adopted a high-cadence riding style, and I like to keep my legs spinning, without feeling like I’m putting undue pressure on the pedals. The Ultegra shifting means you can go up one and down one all day long without breaking rhythm and without fear. My previous bike had Tiagra, so I’ve entirely skipped the rite-de-passage of Shimano 105 in favour of the next grade up, so I don’t know how Ultegra compares to the more common 105, but I don’t really care. If you can afford it, go for Ultegra.


Charge Spoon saddle remains in place, and I’m generally happy with it. I’d love to try something fancy like a Brooks Cambium, but I’ve no real complaints about the Spoon, which looks especially good on my bike (see above).


I paid extra for the slightly padded Race Lite Isozone bar, and with the fairly padded bar tape, you could probably quite happily ride this bike without padded gloves. On the other hand, as I mentioned above, my hands are now the main source of pain, due to my tense grip. I probably don’t move around the bars as much as I used to, because I’m conscious of not wanting to adopt a more upright position, lest it gets my back hurting again.


I’ve only experienced cheaper, heavier entry-level wheels and these Race ones. Bontrager obviously have several ranges above these (Race Lite, Race X Lite etc). The bog standard Race seem okay. As with the saddle, I’d love to experiment with some of the much vaunted light ones, like the Bontrager Aeolus 5, which is supposedly their best climbing wheel, but I don’t have a spare £2000 right now. So I’ll stick with these. I can’t imagine spending as much again on wheels as the bike cost, unless I win the lotto.

Raisin the bar

Last summer, I brought along a box of Torq rhubarb and custard flavour energy gels. Of course, in reality any energy gel at all is overkill for a duffer like myself, but I do live in fear of the mid-ride bonk, and don’t fancy being stuck halfway up a mountain with even less than usual in my legs. Anyway, I found the Torq gels to be OK, but much too sweet. I actually prefer the more neutral-tasting SiS gels, which are isotonic, meaning you don’t need to drink water when you have one.
So this year, I got a box of blackcurrant SiS gels, plus several of their powdered energy drinks. In addition, I always have Zero tablets on hand, to make a sweet-tasting but calorie-free drink. To this mix, I added a box of chocolate chip Clif bars.
So I had a carload of mostly unnecessary sports nutrition, but it’s all part of the ritual, blah blah blah.
Early on, I discovered that the flapjack-like Clif bars are really hard to eat when you’re breathing hard, and even if you stop for a rest and a drink, you struggle to chew and swallow them. So I didn’t bother taking them for rides. Instead, I would supplement breakfast with the Clif bar, wait an hour or so, and then go out. They’re okay, but an expensive luxury, and I think a few fig rolls or an actual flapjack is probably as useful. Or a cheese sarnie, for that matter.
The blackcurrant flavour of the SiS gels is barely detectable, but that’s fine by me. They’re easy to get down, and don’t lie heavy on the stomach. I would generally take one on a ride a little bit before a big climb. On shorter rides, I take just one drink (SiS Go in Orange or Lemon Lime or SiS Electrolyte in Blackcurrant), whereas on longer outings, I’d take a second, made with the zero tablets.
As for the drinks, the electrolyte is very sweet-tasting (added sweeteners rather than extra sugar), but okay. I don’t like the orange flavoured Go drink, but the lemon-lime is okay.
Finally, every ride finishes with a recovery drink. Science has proved that chocolate milk is by far the best recovery drink, but I had some chocolate-flavoured SiS Rego, anyway, on the basis that if I had chocolate milk in the fridge, the kids would drink it before I could.
Verdict: none of this was needed, but what the hell. Cycling is supposed to be fun, right?

On re-reading Tim Powers’ Declare – again

Mild spoiler alert.Declare

I know the novel inside out and back to front by now, but every time I pull it off the shelf, I am soon lost in the pleasure of its familiarity. Declare is my desert island, indeed my dessert island book, and my love for it is as deep as my love for desserts.

It’s only because of Declare that I have read, and enjoyed, John Le Carré, David Downing’s Station series, countless other espionage thrillers, and devoured numerous books about Kim Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Spies. By now, I’m guilty of Cold War nostalgia, but there’s something about the era, and the Great Game, and the dead drops and signals and wilderness of mirrors that speaks to me.

This time, I only started reading it again because my daughter brought it on holiday with us, and I’m fed up of reading off screens. The other daughter brought Tim Powers’ other classic, The Drawing of the Dark, and I read that before even realising we’d packed Declare, too. My daughter had just started it when I spotted it. She left it lying around and I, er, annexed it.

Apart from all the spy stuff, of course, there’s Powers’ usual mix of almost-credible supernatural explanation for real-world events, and you’re always sent scurrying to look things up. Was that really…? And did they actually…? Otherwise irrational acts, unexplainable events, come sharply into focus. Philby and his pet fox, the head injury he received just before his defection, Stalin’s purges and executions of his illegal spy networks. I was in Broadway, near St James’ Park, not long ago, and I got a frisson just thinking about the spy game. One of the reasons the novel spoke so strongly to me was that it came out shortly after I finished my PhD, and it includes reference to parasites in radio communications, which was a big part of both my PhD thesis and my MA dissertation.

All of this is wonderful, but I think the thing that has its hooks deepest into me is the romance that is central to the novel between the protagonist, the hapless but courageous Andrew Hale, and his partner in weirdness and spying, the dedicated and equally courageous Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga. 

Elena is probably my favourite character in all of fiction, and I probably subconsciously named the woman in my novel French Blood after her. Recruited by the communists as a young teenager during the Spanish Civil War, she first meets Hale in wartime Paris, where she acts as his controller, his liaison with the illegal networks and generally bosses him around, knowing just that little bit more than he does about what’s going on. He’s barely out of boyhood and she’s a slip of a girl, a little bit younger, who has seen and suffered so much more than him. Early in their relationship, she declares that she’s married to the cause and will brook no romantic attachments. It happens anyway, as they flit around Paris avoiding the Gestapo. He, swept up in events that he knows little about, cares more for her than he does for any cause, and everything he does is to some extent designed to impress her – or keep her alive. One of my favourite lines comes from a scene in which she gets stern and exasperated with him for continually expressing romantic thoughts.

‘“I really should report you for spontaneity,” she sighed.’

They are separated, over and over – theirs seems a doomed relationship – and at the very beginning of the novel (which takes place in 1963, before several flashbacks and a flash-forward), Hale, called back into the Game, is informed of a cover story which he knows will cause her to believe he has betrayed her and everything they have worked for since 1941. 

I won’t spoil it any more. I’ve recommended this book over and over again, and I guess I will keep doing so. Elena 4Ever.

Panasonic 45-200mm f/4-5.6 G Lens for MFT

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 20.53.28I suppose this lens has been knocking around for a couple of years now. It’s designed for the G-Series Panasonic cameras, has a micro-four-thirds mount.

Panasonic offer a slightly smaller and lighter less zoomy lens (for about the same price), which might be better suited for my Panasonic GM1, which is the dinkiest interchangeable lens system camera you can get.

Here’s the thing, though. Any zoom lens is going to look oversized on my little orange GM1, and the point of a zoom is the zoom. So I decided to go for the extra 50mm of focal length that this offers, and when I go out to take pictures with it, I’m resigned to the idea that I’m hefting a great wallop of a lens around with me. For all-day shooting, walking around as a tourist, street photography, or whatever, I’ll stick with the kit lens and leave this at home. But I always knew that would be the case.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 20.54.06I’m quite pleased with the performance of this lens. It has a fairly reasonable widest f-stop for a budget zoom, and it seems to focus quite quickly. It has a manual focus ring, and built-in optical image stabilisation, which can be switched off. I’ve managed some indoor shots with relatively slow shutter. This one, for example, is 1/15th of a second, hand-held.14887807295_4f4bafe097_z

I’m quite pleased with that. I might be able to go lower (I’ve managed 1/10th and even 1/8th of a second exposures with other cameras – I have steady hands), but we’ll see if the situation arises.

I paid €269 for the lens. I might have been able to find it a few € cheaper, but it was there in the shop and I could take it away with me. I’m hoping to get a decent shot of the Alps from the bottom of our garden, but believe it or not, we haven’t had clear enough visibility in the four weeks we’ve been here this summer.

There are a few more test shots in this Flickr album.

Expensive tastes

It was always the little things that bugged me, when it came to the original MPs’ expenses scandal. While the second-home flipping and duck shelter building was clearly beyond the pale, it was the packets of biscuits (or was it Jaffa cakes?), Mars bars and other petty cash items that revealed for me the deepest corruption and starkest illustration of them just not getting it.
You put a packet of biscuits on your expenses claim, it’s because you see them as something you’ve been forced to buy as a part of your job, perhaps to entertain visitors to your office. So let’s say you have a packet of Jaffa Cakes for 80p and you’ve got a meeting, and you lay on the teas and put the Jaffa Cakes on a plate. Let’s say I believe you. But, see, if I did that, I’d have to prove, somehow, that those Jaffa Cakes were a necessary business expense, and provide documentation. A lot of us work in places where free tea and coffee is but a distant memory. My particular place takes £2 a month off everyone, and we get emails moaning at us because some people use the milk in the morning on their cereal.
You provide me with a written testimonial from all meeting attendees that Jaffa Cakes were consumed and how many each person ate, I’ll consider your 80 pence claim, all right?
Moving on to the larger issue, let’s consider the minister who resigned because a £90,000 salary and £30,000 expenses weren’t enough for him to spend time with his family in Westminster. Let’s not dignify him with a name. Of course, £120,000 a year is plenty enough to live on, even in That London, as long as you lower your expectations.
The problem with Tories, of course, is that they’re obsessed with status, and – even if they aren’t – all want to pretend they’re part of the 1% (or the 0.1%!). This means, at the very least, a swanky London flat, a house in the country, private school for the kids, private medical insurance. Their idea of lower expectations is to choose one of the minor private schools.
Politics, of course, doesn’t bring you power and influence, so it’s an odd choice of career, except when you consider that being a minister opens doors to board rooms and gives you a ticket for the gravy train. So a resignation like this is simply a case of someone sticking out their thumb to get on. Imagine what it’s like to work in the House of Commons and overhear these bastards complaining about struggling along on 3x the average wage.
That they preside over a political and economic system that has Russian oligarchs and wealthy Arabs flocking to London to buy property and avoid taxes, creating a housing bubble that prices even themselves out of the market seems to be an irony too far for their tiny brains.
If I chose to work in London, I’d have to buy a rail season ticket out of my own pocket and commute – just like thousands of other people do. And if I was lucky enough to have a job that would subsidise a 4-nights-a-week bed in London, I’d have no right to expect that to cover the rest of my family. Furthermore, I’d have to pay for my own lunches, dinners, and Jaffa Cakes.