Thursday 31 July 2014

An open-and-shut case

Here's an odd plant in the garden.  An annual, it seems to have adapted to heat by closing its flowers during the daytime.  In the early morning and evening they are open, making a fine display when massed, but by 11:00 they are all closed up.  When open the flowers are about an inch in diameter, maybe a bit bigger, and the pattern in the middle is a chocolate colour.  I must look up their name, because I have forgotten.

P.S. They are Madia elegans, a hardy annual, native of California.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Garden centre

Our to-ings and fro-ings during our break in the Vallée de Chevreuse took us back and forth past a garden centre several times (La Jardinerie de Chevreuse).   Since we are necessarily occupied quite a lot in gardening at home, we dropped in to take a look.   It could well be the best garden centre I've been in, certainly if the quality and variety of plants is the criterion.

There were indoor plants, greenhouse plants and outdoor plants, all of which seemed to be in excellent condition, kept in locations according to their needs for light, warmth, etc, and not just put on display when they were in flower.

I had been quite taken with the varieties of Heuchera that were used in one of the garden displays at Chaumont recently, and had been looking for some to try.  This garden centre had some superb varieties for sale.  We bought some.  And some pots that were going cheap too.   And a decorative grass.   And besides, how can I resist a garden centre that not only looks after its plants, but also has the most whimsical bit of garden statuary I have ever come across?  I'm not into garden statues, but that one I could make a home for.

Sunday 27 July 2014


We visited Chartes and its cathedral as part of our stay in the Valley de Chevreuse.  The cathedral is being cleaned and restored at the moment, a long and painstaking job that was started in 2008.  In the modern French way of doing things, it is to be restored to its original 13th century decor, removing the redecorations that were done in the 15th and 19th centuries, and using original materials where possible.  This all makes a spectacular difference to the inside appearance: the picture below shows a restored wall on the left and unrestored on the right.   The scaffolding is probably a major project in its own right.

The precinct around the cathedral is nice to explore too, but as if to make up for the majesty of the cathedral, the town hall just down the road is quite the ugliest I have seen in France, spectacular in its own way, extraordinary.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Vallée de Chevreuse

The Vallée de Chevreuse is a "Parc Naturel" that lies about 25 kilometres from Paris.  We had a short break there last week.  It's carefully managed, with mapped out and waymarked hiking and cycling routes so that the tourists don't do too much damage.  It's a pretty area, forested and dotted with towns, villages and chateaux.  "Chateau" is usually translated as "castle" but "stately home" is a better translation most of the time.  Proper castles built to withstand attack are easily identified as such.

Some such stately homes give the impression of being opened only grudgingly to the public, the owners chasing after the grants and tax benefits rather than wanting to offer a genuine visiting experience.  Others, such as the Château de Breteuil offer an interesting day out.   The building was taken over relatively recently with the intention of keeping it from decay, and turning it into an attraction.  The chateau's own web site will tell you everything you need to know about it, but my attention was drawn towards a woman scientist who I had never heard of.   Emilie de Breteuil, born in 1706, was the daughter of one of the barons who owned the place, she became Emilie du Châtelet upon marriage.

Her masterwork appears to have been the translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica into French.  No mean feat.  Granted, it's easier to follow someone's work than to do the original thinking, but firstly, the work was written in a sort of pidgin English/Latin and was hard to read in the first place, secondly you have to thoroughly understand what's going on or else you end up with a sort of mathematical "English As She Is Spoke", and thirdly, it remained the definitive translation into French until quite recently.  (According to Wiki, it remains the standard, but the Chateau Guide told us that it has been superceded by a new edition)

According again to our tour guide, Emilie became pregnant in her early 40s by her new lover, and did her best to stay awake all hours to finish the translation, believing she would not survive childbirth.   She was right.

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.

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