Engineering Hope

As a (lapsed) mathematician, I quite naturally look down on engineers (and everyone else not ‘fortunate’ enough to be a mathematician).  Nevertheless, I have spent quite a lot of time, over the years, hanging-out with engineers and I swear that, at times, you could believe they understand almost every word you say.  I do realise that people say the same thing about their cats and so I may be guilty of a similar misconception: but I challenge you to look into an engineer’s eyes and not start to imagine that some basic level of intelligence lies concealed beneath.

Despite the authorial conceit behind the opening paragraph, I constantly find myself impressed by the amazing devices those cunning artificers – the engineers – have brought into existence: whether at the bleeding edge of current technology or the extraordinary contrivances made by our ancestors.  While amazing things can be done by manipulation of quantum effects (which I like to think I vaguely understand), somehow I find modern consumer electronics less impressive than those examples of mechanical engineering where I can engage my senses with some visible moving parts. I have not infrequently found myself buying things just for their incredible engineering – which leads us nicely on to today’s little tale.

As this blog might (just) have mentioned, I perform much of my local travel astride a bicycle.  Whilst I am relatively light (a smidge under 13 stone, if you must know) for a man of my age, height and socio-economic status, bearing even my weight over the dodgy road surfaces of Southampton does take its toll on my steeds.  Earlier this week, I found the steering on my titanium bike made odd noises of protest when I attempted to change direction.  In a feat of technical analysis which continues to amaze me, I diagnosed the problem as a worn-out headset.  The headset being the mechanism that sits on top of the front forks and translates movement of the handlebars into a change in direction for the bike (and its surprisingly svelte passenger).

So, I took the bike off to the Hub Cycleworks who confirmed my diagnosis but who, unlike me, were (a) willing to get their hands dirty and (b) knew how to replace a headset.  As so often in our consumer-driving society, a range of replacements were available: from the cheap, nasty and disposable to the really quite expensive but much longer-lasting and offering replaceable innards.  I went for the latter option from a company encouragingly named Hope.  Largely this decision was driven by how beautifully the headset was engineered as the guys at Hub had let me feel one in its undressed (or naked) state.  Once you’ve run your finger round its ring, there’s no going back (and don’t get me started on its crown race and its cups).  For my money, bike porn is the only porn worth viewing.

This morning I wandered over to collect the bike with its gorgeous new silver headset and it is a thing of beauty and handles like a charm.  I think the ride may also have benefitted from some unplanned adjustment to the saddle which means it is no longer rather too high for me (as it had been for several years).

When I arrived home, I looked into the fine folk of Hope and their headsets on the internet and was in for a very pleasant surprise.  They manufacture in the UK, in the splendidly named town of Barnoldswick in Lancashire.  (Having now researched Barnoldswick, it looks like it might also make an excellent base for a holiday).  My headset was even milled on a CNC machine – which may not mean much to you, but one of my first ever jobs was working out how to schedule jobs on a Makino MC-series CNC milling machine.  Patriotism, nostalgia and my love of engineering satisfied in a single purchase: what more could a chap ask for?


The title of an album of short but quirky ditties by They Might Be Giants, ownership of which scored me a point on the Geek Test way back in the 1990s (not that I was short of points, of which more, perhaps, in another post).

However, the title actually refers to the fact that the weather is now officially wet (well, providing you are willing to accept me as an official source – and why wouldn’t you?).  As but one example, I spent a chunk of yesterday evening sitting in a pew next to a man with a cuddly ark: though I’m not sure what help a cuddly ark would be in the face of a biblical deluge.  As it turns out, the chap was planning to use the ark as a mike stand (though ultimately didn’t need it as he managed to source a more traditional mike stand) to record the Bridge Quartet performing Greig’s String Quartet (well worth recording) which goes to show that some folk can see a much wider range of possibilities in an object than can I: cuddly ark as mike stand – there’s some Olympic standard juxtaposition!

My key evidence for this current thesis is that Sawston is now cut-off from Stapleford (the next village) to pedestrians unless they own wellies (or fancy wading without).  This is only the second time in the 5+ years I have lived here that the River Granta has burst its banks and flooded the sole pedestrian and cycle route which links the two villages.  On the previous occasion, the flooding was caused by a sudden thaw which led to a large volume of snow melt from the Alpine scenery for which Cambridgeshire is so justly famed.  This time the flooding is only 6-8 inches deep and is entirely rain based – but it was still enough to drench my feet as I tried to cycle into Cambridge yesterday.  I lack Paul Newman’s facility on a bicycle (well, I assume it was him as Butch Cassidy on the velocipede, rather than a stuntman) and the flooding was too extensive for me to keep my feet clear of the water (also, I hadn’t realised quite how deep it was).  On subsequent trips I braved the main road – more traffic, but drier feet!

I would suggest that it has been lovely weather for ducks – and, indeed, I’ve seen them swimming merrily in the fields all around Great Kneighton  – however, I see the RSPB is saying the weather has been bad news for our feathered friends with many eggs being washed away.

For those who have the misfortune not to live in the modern day Eden that is South Cambs, Great Kneighton is the name to be given to the wasteland that has been created between Trumpington and Addenbrooke’s once it is covered in houses or, perhaps more wisely given the depth of water now covering most of it, house boats (though the website does not mention this more sensible option – or the ready availability of water to the future residents).  One of the wetter parts of the site has been planted with a multitude of green plastic tubes which I assume contain the potential for future trees, though if so, I hope they are mangroves or some other swamp loving species or I fear the worst for the future of Great Kneighton forest.

The poor weather has also been bad news for the asparagus crop – though perhaps good news for those who have to spend any time in close proximity to the author.  Each year I seem to find that asparagus has a more serious (and rapid) effect on me, a few sticks is now enough for me to start sweating the rather strange aroma that I had previously only linked to micturition.

The final plank of my argument is that my ears have started producing abnormally large quantities of wax.  This is a problem that used to occur when I swam regularly – a habit I may be compelled to restart if the weather continues in its current mode!  I am now wondering if rather than a source of irritation, this is perhaps an evolutionary adaptation to keep my head water tight?

Still, here at GofaDM we are working hard to look on the sunny side and thinking of the boost to the UK’s waterproof and watercress industries!

It was bound to happen

I sighted the inevitable as I was cycling home from viewing plasticine pirates having an adventure with equally plasticine scientists (or misfits, if you are from North America where science is unacceptable to a significant portion of the population who seem to feel the neolithic was a step too far).  The film is a hoot – and do stick around for the credits which are as crammed with gags as the movie itself.

I saw one of the bounders (and I’m not talking pirates here) as I cycled past the railway station, twixt the busway, the Cambridge University Press and a number of near complete new blocks of flats.  There was little sign of nourishment for one of its kind in the area, so I assume that gangs of the little rotters attack green bins to service their habits (I fear we may have made things too easy for them, gathering together all those vegetable peelings and grass clippings in one place).

Yes, many years after foxes invaded our towns and cities I have now seen evidence for the urban rabbit.  It would seem that nowhere is now safe for the post-gloaming cyclist – one of these long-eared hooligans may try and hurl itself under your wheels anywhere: town or country.  I’m not worried about the bunnies, but I fear impact could cause the bicycle equivalent of a derailment with contusive consequences for yours truly.

Given the lapine plague the mild winter has unleashed, I strongly advise readers to eschew green clothing after dark.  I also worry that whole swathes of the country are being undermined by their tunnelling: the railway line south of Cambridge is looking decidedly iffy already.  So,  I have decided it is time that we fight back and retake our towns and countryside from the furry menace.  I am reclassifying the rabbit as a vegetable (they are, after all, made of vegetables in a very real sense) and will start eating them as soon as the shops reopen.  Can I urge my readers to do the same?  They are after all free range and seem “sustainable” – indeed, more than sustainable given how famously swiftly they reproduce.  In these days of rising food prices, the rabbit’s time has come – and if we start running short on coneys, might I suggest turning to the almost-as-plentiful wood pigeon?

Feeling Smug

Foreign readers may be unaware of the fuel-based entertainment provided last week by the government here in the UK.  In response to a possible (not certain, mark you) strike by tanker drivers at the end of April, our sagacious leaders suggested that we all panic buy petrol and/or diesel now (at the end of March).  Fearing that this may cause insufficient chaos, they then went on to suggest that we should not stop at filling up our vehicles but should also stockpile fuel in jerry cans in our garages, outbuildings and – for all I know – houses.

Oh, what larks, Pip!  Long queues at every filling station (well, those that had not already run out of fuel) and huge amounts of unnecessary anxiety ahead of the holiday period.  By now, this whole country must be considered an explosion hazard, so can I suggest if any readers are planning to visit the UK that they take care with naked flames or sparks as the whole country could go up in flames if we’re not all very careful (you might consider packing a bucket of sand or fire extinguisher, just in case).  Personally, I’m worried about the forthcoming round-country trip by the Olympic torch: surely a major incident waiting to happen.

As the regular reader will know, my preferred forms of transport are the velocipede and train (depending on distance).  I do have a car, but as I only drive around 800 miles a year (as compared to the 4,000-5,000 miles covered on two wheels) I only have to fill-up two or three times per annum (depending on how much I’m willing to trust the fuel gauge).  Even then, I resent the whole process: driving is bad enough without the whole inconvenience of having to visit a filling station every six months (normally having forgotten where my car’s petrol cap is located) and worse still, they expect you to pay for the privilege!

Having bought some petrol in February, I should be set until September – and so have been able to watch all the recent excitement as a (rather smug) spectator.  If the banana boat drivers (or what ever the maritime equivalent might be) take industrial action, I will be in more trouble – but I’m sure I could find an alternative fruit to fuel my legs if I must.  However, I wouldn’t want you to think I am entirely heartless (even if I am) and I do recognise that many are dependent on more frequent visits to the purveyors of liquid alkanes through no fault of their own.  I was thus intrigued to see a survey carried out for the Independent which suggested that 4 out of 5 people blame the government for the crisis.  This led me to wonder (a) who was the fifth person (William Hague?) and (b) who do they blame?

The crisis also started me thinking about a route to a more sustainable transport system.  Given the huge importance of oil as an industrial feedstock, the strictly finite reserves in existence and the very long timescales for the planet to create any new stock it has struck me since I was a nipper as somewhat insane to just burn the stuff.  The massive increases in fuel costs in recent years seem to have had only a very modest impact on consumption – and none at all on the number of vehicles – so perhaps we need a new approach.  My wizard wheeze is to stop focusing on cost, and instead look at reliability of supply.  If the government can keep generating these crises on a random basis, I think the frequent and massive inconvenience caused could provide the push we all need to switch to electric cars (or back to steam!).

Wheeled epiphanies

In today’s Grauniad, or at least visible on the website today – I have yet to see a physical newspaper – there is an article about the Rev. Richard Coles.  The Reverend Coles is now a Northamptonshire vicar, and sometime host of the current Home Truth’s replacement, and was once a member of the Communards.  However, he is still best known to me from the Wildbeest Years – a Radio 4 sketch show from Dan Freedman and Nick Romero – where he played Robin Wood (the very camp leader of the Merry Men) with the catchphrase “What would you have me do?  Live a lie”.  For any other gluttons for punishment out there (and surely any readers of this drivel must be) I thoroughly recommend Dan and Nick’s work which still gains the occasional repeat on 4Xtra.

But to return to the plot, in today’s article the vicar of Finedon notes that he does much of his best thinking whilst out on his bike.  Despite my more limited belief in the big guy (or gal) upstairs, I also do some of my best thinking a-wheel – and, yes, I know my best thinking may not seem that impressive in an absolute sense given my normal cognitive level.  The solution to many a knotty problem has come to me whilst cycling around South Cambs.  This effect does not seem to happen in a car or bus, though I do often achieve cognitive peaks during live chamber music concerts (for some reason, recorded music doesn’t provide the same boost to cogitation).

I think it is high time to get our political and business leaders out on a bicycle on a much more frequent basis – it can only help boost the rather low quality of the thinking (or its complete absence) that seems to characterise their activities.  Perhaps they could also usefully provide more support to both cycling and live music (who ever had any useful thoughts at an airport? Other than to never go near an airport again): let’s get this country thinking its way out of recession!

I am about to head out for a thinking session myself – and it looks decidedly chilly out there.  Yes, after a winter characterised by Joke Frost, it looks like serious frost will be nipping at my nose this morning – and, let’s face it, I have a lot of nose for it to nip at!

The Right Tool

Not a description of the author (or, not intended as such – though you may wish to draw your own conclusions) though there will be a rather limited autobiographical element to the post.  My journey into Cambridge this morning led me to muse on the importance of having the apposite tool for each occasion.

In the first incident, one of my unvoiced prayers seems to have been answered – or, perhaps this blog has a rather wider mustelid readership than I had hitherto supposed. As I was cycling towards the area in which, during the hours of darkness, I am plagued by suicidal bunnies I saw a curious moving shape.  At first I thought it was a blackbird hopping about, but then it seemed more mammalian.  As I got closer, I could weaselly see that it was a stoat – behaving as an archetypal stoat should, i.e. leaping around like a complete eejit without an apparent care in the world.  I have occasionally seen stoats before – but only at night and running rapidly across the path some distance away from me. However, this time, even as I drew along side, it did not flee into the undergrowth nor did it try and hurl itself under my wheels, like a suffragette faced with the King’s horse, but continued to play in its own little world – offering me Springwatch-quality views (though in glorious 3D) of its antics.  Given the idiocy of the local rabbit population, I think it will become a very fat stoat in very short order: for foolish as they may sometimes look and dwarfed as they may be by their prey, stoats are the perfect tool for managing an overly populous warren.  I do hope it brings along some friends (or family) to partake in the plentiful local food supply as I fear it would find leaping much harder when morbidly obese after bunny-based over-indulgence.  With my new friend in residence, I am anticipating much safer night-time cycle rides in future. Truly, nature is a wonderful thing – and I like to think that GofaDM has done its small part in enabling the exploitation of this ecological niche.

After passing the stoat I was soon able to continue my journey into town on the new guided busway – or, more accurately, on the cycle path which runs adjacent to it.  The busway is the subject of much controversy in Cambridge (but, I suspect news may not have reached the world beyond) and is very late and over-budget (though unlike the virtual trams of Edinburgh, I think most of the cost over-runs have fallen to the contractors).  I cannot comment on its use as a busway – as I have never used it as such, and only once seen a bus doing so – but the cycle path is a marvel.  Beautifully smooth tar macadam with no motorised transport (and its associated paraphernalia: junctions, traffic lights, motorists et al) getting in the way.  (The absence of heavy motorised vehicular transport should also mean that the surface remains undamaged for a good few years to come.)  The busway makes for a much swifter and more pleasant journey as far as Cambridge station for the Sawston-based cyclist.  Only two minor niggles: some of the on/off-ramps haven’t quite been finished yet and the bridge to cross the railway as you join the busway has awfully steep ramps which offer the sort of gradient with which we Cambridgeshire cyclists are far from familiar (I have had to use previously neglected gears on my bike when the wind has been against me!).  Nonetheless, the busway is an excellent tool for the cyclist – one day I shall have to try its extent beyond Cambridge to the west and sample some of the excellent pubs that lie in that direction.

Eventually, the southern portion of the busway expires as you reach Cambridge station and I was forced onto the backstreets around Mill Road.  Here I found myself stuck behind a very slow moving Ferrari – eventually, I was forced to overtake it (I did try not to smile too broadly as I did so – though I fear I may have failed abjectly).  Whilst the Ferrari may be an excellent tool on the track, it is really not at home in the crowded back streets of Cambridge.  In that domain, my velocipede, at less than a fiftieth of the upfront cost and with vastly lower running costs, is the right tool.  Not only was my mode of transport quicker, but in the morning sunshine I could work on my tan whilst the stiff nor-westerly I’d been battling against on my journey provided free air conditioning, plus I was obtaining a free cardiovascular workout (or as I like to view it, a free pass to eat as much as I want come lunch-time).

A triumvirate of appropriate apparatus anecdotes.  What more could a chap ask for?  I fear it can only be downhill from here (or, as a cyclist, should that be uphill?).

Animal Crackers

I have known about the desire of some creatures for self-immolation since reading “archy and mehitabel” in the late 1970s – and, in particular, the “lesson of the moth” from 1927. But, as I have discovered over the last few weeks, moths are far from the only animals to seek a rapid escape from this veil of tears.

Infamously, lemmings are supposed to hurl themselves from cliffs – though I believe this is a foul slur propagated by the Disney corporation, who could find themselves in a whole heap of trouble if the rodents ever get lawyered-up (as I believe our American cousins would have it).

However, I refer to creatures rather closer to home – and which I encounter on my bicycle while trolling to and from Cambridge of an evening.  Unlike the electric light bulb which lured Archy’s moth to its untimely end, it is the siren song of the cycle path between Addenbrooke’s and Shelford which has led many a creature to its doom.

In dry weather and generally in the hours of daylight, a host of black beetles scurry across the cycle path – and more than a few succumb to the tyres of a passing bike – but, it is in the hours of darkness where the death toll really rises.  After any rainfall, snails to the left of the cycle path find a pressing need to visit the right, whilst those on the right feel compelled to sample the delights that they believe lie concealed on the left side.  I will admit that as a member of the human race, it is slightly unfair to cast aspersions on snails for this particular behaviour – one has only to look at any major trunk road to find people doing the self-same thing.

Snails are not known for their rapid motion and many hundreds (possibly thousands) choose to make this perilous journey after the sun has set.  As a result, my journey home is punctuated with sharp ‘cracks’ as each snail explodes under my wheel – and at times, these cracks can be so frequent as to resemble the fire from a Maxim gun.  I do not deliberately try and hit the molluscs – though do take some obscure pleasure in their destruction, viewing it is a form of weregild for the plants their kin have destroyed at Fish Towers.  Also, on the plus side, the snails are only endangering themselves – it would require a very large snail indeed to be a serious risk to the passing cyclist (and the Giant African Land snail – achatina achatina – is largely unknown in Cambridgeshire).

Rabbits though are a very different story.  These can be seen at all times – but in the greatest numbers after dusk.  Unlike those creatures lacking a backbone, the rabbits do not spend a significant amount of time on the cycle path itself.  No, as I cycle past, bunnies will stop whatever they are doing in an adjacent field and run tens of yards in order to hurl themselves under the wheels of my velocipede.  They are not easily dissuaded from this action.  Try to dodge them as I might, they are determined to end it all and that I should be the instrument of their destruction.  I’ve tried whistling, singing and extensive use of my bell (well, less mine and more the one fitted to the bicycle – I wouldn’t want you to imagine me accoutered like an Alpine cow as I cycle) – but this only seems to encourage the little blighters to seek oblivion at my wheels.   I know I tend to wear quite dark clothes but I have yet to carry a scythe and wear a cloak while cycling (to be honest, they would add too much wind resistance) and tend to wear at least some fluorescent garb at night, so I struggle to see why I am considered the coney angel of death.  I fear that whilst striking a rabbit would allow it to achieve its aim, it might also unseat me leading to unwanted bruising and abrasions.  Trains can be fitted with a cow-catcher to remove recalcitrant ungulates from the track in areas where they are a problem, but I have yet to see a coney-catcher accessory for the country biker.

I also fail to understand how rabbits have become so numerous (despite their legendary rate of reproduction) given their tendency to throw themselves at any perceived threat or potential predator.  Surely, evolution is supposed to weed out this sort of foolishness from a genome pretty rapidly.  I think Richard Dawkins is local – perhaps I should challenge him with this particular conundrum.  Is the stupidity of rabbits the unequivocal proof of the divine that so many have been seeking?