Monday, 21 July 2014


Question:  What goes " *squawk* Pieces of seven!  Pieces of seven!"
Answer: A parroty error

The above joke is an old nerds' joke, reproduced here just in case there's a new generation of nerds that hasn't heard it.

The communications between computers, and between computers and other devices are regulated by protocols.  These are an agreed set of messages to be exchanged between the communicating parties, and rules for their use, to ensure that the data is communicated correctly.   There are many kinds of errors that can occur in sending data down wires or over airwaves; the protocols are designed to make sure the data gets there intact.

In typing this blog post, there will be a communications protocol between my keyboard and the PC; between the PC and my router; between the router and the ISP; and so on through every point before it reaches the Goole servers that host it.

There are also other protocols, such as end-to-end protocols, an example of which is one where the Google server lets my PC know that the data has been correctly delivered to the far end.  There is a button labeled "Save" on my screen, and if I press it, once the post has been saved successfully at the other end, I get a little message telling me so.   If the save is unsuccessful, it tells me that too.  That's an end-to-end protocol doing its thing.

The design of protocols has improved a lot over the years, because of their widespread use (especially in the internet), and they don't often fail.  They used to.  Failed protocols cause communications lines to "hang", and the computers end up doing a hi-tech version of:

Computer A "what?"
Computer B "what?"
Computer A "what?"   endlessly.

But, however well-designed a communications protocol you have, and however reliable it is at getting your message across, there is very little that can be done, (outside of the "cloud"), about the "man with a spade" problem:  A guy puts his spade through your cable/fibre optic, and you're stuffed.

The phone line to our house is suspended on telegraph poles that march alongside the street, past a few houses and into the village about a kilometre away.   The next-door-but-one neighbour is a farmer and last Tuesday evening he drove his big, bright yellow JCB into his driveway, snagging the phone line as he went, breaking it.  Normal service was resumed today.

It seems that having discovered a thick wire slumped across the entry to his field, he thought it would come in handy to stop his cows escaping.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Beer mats

The Le Mans Classic car event is held every two years, and it has been our pleasure to act as hosts to some members of the Morgan Sports Car Club (MSCC) when they attend.  Since the members don't necessarily know each other, nor have anything in common except owning a Morgan car and being at the event, some means of getting people talking to each other, to "break the ice" is a good idea.

The method settled upon by the organisers was, I thought, ingenious.  They printed up 12 different designs of beer mats, delivering 3 or 4 different designs to each of the different hotels, gîtes and places of accommodation where their members were staying.  Prizes were awarded to the first people to collect all 12 designs. So to win you had to swap and trade with other MSCC members staying in accommodation other than your own.

Did they work?  I think so.   The prizes were worth winning: car badges plated in ‘gold’ (gilt), ‘silver’ (nickel) and bronze, plus MSCC umbrellas (very welcome given the weather)....

As hosts, we were given a complete set.  We did think about auctioning them.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Use of English

Years ago I had a subscription to Punch magazine, its arrival was always a welcome bit of light relief on a Friday.  At one time there was a fuss being made about the difficulty of understanding certain documents sent out by the UK government, that used unnecessarily obscure language.  An article in Punch took the micky, suggesting that what was needed was, in fact, a more widespread use of "civil service-ese", and proposed a new version of a well-known English poem:

I can recall, in duplicate, the domicile of my nascency,
The exiguous aperture through which the sun's rays penetrated ante meridian....

My take is that statements coming out of the civil service (i.e. government) aren't necessarily intended to be hard to understand, but I believe they are often designed to mislead.  That is, if you draw any conclusion from them other than exactly what is said, you are likely to come a cropper.

A recent case in point is in relation to the government's desire to take money they believe might be owed to them, directly from your bank account, rather than having to go through the tedious process in a court of law, of proving that you owe it.   A statement ran along the lines of    "We won't take the full amount (claimed) if it leaves a total of less than £5,000 in the accounts."   Most people take this to mean that a victim will always be left with at least 5 grand, but it doesn't.   If it helps, consider what the government would have to do to break this rule: they would have to take the full amount claimed and thereby leave less than 5 grand in your account.  The rule doesn't say anything about what happens if they take less than the amount they claim you owe, so, for example, if you have £5,000 in your accounts and they think you owe £6,000 they can bleed you white and leave you with nothing.

Another one that is in the spotlight at the moment is "in the public interest".   This phrase is sometimes used to explain why the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) doesn't take action against some high-ranking person who is faced with allegations of illegal activities.  People think that it means "to the benefit (in the interest) of the general public";  that is not what it means at all.  It hinges on the word "public", that can be a noun or an adjective depending on context.  If it were to be interpreted as a noun, then "interest of the public" is a posessive phrase, the "interest" belonging to the "public", so there should be an apostrophe: "the public's interest".  There isn't, because "public" is an adjective.  A brief spell (*ouch*) with a dictionary reveals that one of the meanings of the word "public" as an adjective is "pertaining to government".  There we have it.  "in the public interest" means "to the benefit of the government".

I take the word "government" to include politicians, the civil service, and I suppose these days we have to include fake charities.  The CPS is staffed by civil servants.   Why on earth should anyone expect that they would turn on their own?   The amazing thing is, in my view, that people accept an explanation that boils down to "there's nothing in it for us".

However, the CPS does not have a monopoly on criminal prosecutions.  Anyone can do it, the CPS just does it on behalf of the government, using taxpayers' money.   It would really cheer me up, if, one day, a bunch of people, perhaps lottery winners, would fund a prosecution of some of those people who the CPS won't touch.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Fixing the mower

The grass here is not exactly what you'd call lawn; there are four separate areas, each one has a different makeup of weeds, stones, molehills and tree roots, all with a bit of grass thrown in.   I can't avoid passing the mower over a few stones, and the nasty crunching noise it makes tells me that the time I spent sharpening the blades has now been wasted.   Sometimes it hits tree stumps hidden in the grass, and sometimes it just stalls on random large solid things put there by malevolent pixies.

Recently, it threw in the towel when asked to deal with a particularly nasty tree root, and the central blade mounting sheared completely off its moorings.  Perhaps the failure was a long time in the making, perhaps it was just sudden and catastrophic.  Anyhow, I had to replace the blade mount before I could use the thing again.

Our local Espace Emeraude in Evron sells the brand, and can order spare parts.  They always say they'll be in the shop in three days and it always takes a week and a half.  But the service is otherwise good: I needed to buy four separate components; the housing, the inner spindle and two ball races and the engineer put them all together for me before I come to collect the mounting, ten days after I ordered it.

Taking the old mount off the chassis was interesting.  The mount was attached by four bolts, and on undoing them, the heads just sheared off, as if they were designed to.  Once all four were broken, the mount came away with no problem.  There were no nuts on the other end of the bolts, they just seemed to screw into the metal bracket; perhaps they were special self-tapping ones.  There was no thread on the new bracket, and I had no special self-tapping bolts either, so I attached it with four nuts and bolts with anti-slip washers.  I greased them up before use so I have a fighting chance of getting them off again if I have to.

Here's the old and new mounts.   The blade is fitted by mating it onto a flower-shaped boss made of soft metal (you can just about see it in the picture on the right) that is intended to bend in the case of sudden shock, I guess to protect the engine from damage.  On the old mount it is completely flattened.

The new mount fits easily into its proper place, and the blade turns freely.  I have tested the mower and it hasn't fallen off yet.  So far, so good.

And with thanks to my Dutch neighbours who let me borrow their mower for as long as I needed - much appreciated!

Sunday, 29 June 2014


There's a big garden show every year at the chateau at Chaumont, from about an hour-and-a-half's, to three hours' drive from chez us, depending on who's navigating.   The chateau itself is state owned, i.e. funded by taxpayers, but it seems to be operated on more or less of a commercial basis; you have to pay to get in.  I don't know how much loss or profit it makes.

The garden show is an exhibition of small gardens designed to illustrate a theme.  This year it's the seven deadly sins.   Easy:  I'd have done sloth:  plant up a lazy garden with just a few easy-going plants and wait for the weeds to cover it.  Trouble is, it would take a couple of years for the full effect, and the gardens are re-done every year.

I guess at the end of the day, I like plantings as plantings, and am not too impressed by arty-farty "themes".   Some of the gardens were interesting enough in their combination of plants, but for example, the garden planned using peach trees (fr: pêche) as a pun on sin (fr: péché)  left me cold.

There was one, designed as a sort of confessional, where the artist had written out various sinful things on cloth strips tied to poles.   The garden itself wasn't too bad, but the sins on display showed a tragic lack of imagination.

I was faintly amused by the one shown below.  Apparently, the prevalence of nicely-tended lawns around houses in the USA is causing a water shortage from all the watering them to keep them green, plus the release of herbicides and insecticides into the environment is adding to pollution.  The lawn below uses no herbicides, insecticides nor water, being entirely made of plastic.

That's not to say that the theme gardens were uniformly unappealing.  Here's a few pics of some that I liked.  The colours of the Heuchera leaves worked well for me, and this tropical lava-like environment perfectly captured an exotic atmosphere.

On the other hand, the grounds and gardens of the chateau are magnificent, and are used to display some large-scale artworks that work well in the context.  The flower beds are also wonderfully done, and imaginitive plant combinations provide texture, colour and movement.   The exception is the vegetable garden, that is not worth the very short walk to reach it.   Overall though, the gardens are well worth a visit, and probably a re-visit.

Friday, 20 June 2014


There's a bird's nest in the climbing rose by the lodge.  The parent birds have been busy flying to and fro, but this morning they were feeding the two fledgelings on a nearby branch.  I think it was their first flight today.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Twisty spiral

For reasons that are not appropriate to go into here, I find myself in the position of being asked to rescue, among other plants, a conifer that is struggling to survive.   Generally with conifers, if they are showing signs of distress, especially from water shortage, it is (nearly) too late to save them.   This one is in a bad way.

This is not a good time of year to be moving trees.  During the hot dry Summer, the tree is relying on the integrity of its root system to supply the water that evaporates off during the day.  Since moving a tree inevitably means disturbing the roots, the plant is immediately more vulnerable.

The first thing I did was dunk it into a dustbin and fill it up with water, to let the tree soak for a couple of days.  This brought some colour back to the leaves.   It's now in its final position (unless it ends up on the compost heap) and I'm hoping that with constant watering it will make it through the Summer and establish itself during the Autumn and Spring, for next year.

You can just about see that the previous owner has trimmed a spiral shape into it.  Assuming that it leafs out with more foliage, I intend to keep to this pattern - I have never done topiary before, so fingers crossed - and I hope that it will be a conspicuous marker at the entrance to the back part of the garden.

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