Tuesday, 20 October 2020


 This story is third hand, so there are probably some inaccurate details – like all my other stories.

My brother recently changed jobs and he needed to buy himself a new laptop. He's a mechanical engineer, his old job was something to do with oil rigs, his new one swimming pools. His new job required CAD software so he had to buy a laptop with massive RAM and a huge GPU. I'm sure most of my readers can already see where this is going... it sounds like a gaming PC. That is exactly what he bought, and he now turns up to business meetings looking like he's a pro-gamer. I don't actually know anything about the laptop, but I'd like to think that it has a wild coloured (or super low albedo matt black) case, grotesque angular design, giant cooling vents and a brightly illuminated logo on the outside. Lets hope that the keyboard has individually programmable coloured LEDs, that the WASD keys are made from a different material, and that the membranes are certified for 100,000 cycles.

Richard "I hope he starts playing KSP" B

Wednesday, 14 October 2020


 This weekend I had houseguests from out of town. We went to admire a little corner of Dartmoor and I was reminded of something that happened in my childhood.

I think I was probably about 10 or 12 and I was swimming and playing in the river at Cadover Bridge. An unattended toddler fell from the river bank and ended up face down in the water. I recognised that this was important and that I needed to act quickly. I swam as strongly as I was able to the stricken toddler and even though I was nearly out of my depth I grabbed it and lifted it clear of the water. Not long afterwards the mother noticed what had happened, ran to the river's edge shouting, and grabbed her child from me. I was frightened and disturbed by the harsh way she acted and hurt that there wasn't even a word of thanks.

Looking back I can imagine that she was upset and that the welfare of her child was her main concern, but my overriding memory of the event is that I was cross and upset at how harshly I had been treated. Some time later, probably only a quarter of an hour the family approached my mother and I with effusive thanks and I was bought an ice cream. I'm pretty sure that I accepted it with bad grace.

Richard "One star. Would not rescue again." B

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Impedance mismatch

 There is a long running joke in product development that the software team will fix the hardware errors in software, and more rarely that the hardware team will fix the software errors in in hardware. In the distant past I did something similar, but it was a temporary workaround. The software guy was on leave, and we couldn't register any of these prototype devices with the PCs because (I seem to remember) the sense of an interrupt line was inverted. I wired in a switch and an inverter just to keep us working.

This weekend I did fix what I consider to be a software fault in hardware.

Back in the day, when I was working for my favourite boss I had to research some ORM solution. He also came from an electronics background and he warned me that I wad going to find the term "impedance mismatch" and that it was going to annoy me. He was right.

My mum is very forgetful, so her radio needs to behave exactly as the radio she had 20 years ago did. It's hard to get one with physical preset buttons, but not impossible. It needs to connect to the amplifier and speakers which she's already familiar with, but the one we found has a headphone output, not a line level output. Domestic line level is 1v peak to peak into something like 100kΩ. Headphones are normally a few hundred ohms. If you want to plug an ipod, mobile phone or suchlike into an amplifier, it's normally good enough to just turn the headphone volume to maximum and connect it to the input on the amplifier.

My mum's new radio doesn't have a real volume control, it's a dial which goes round and round and sets the volume in software. When the radio boots up it sets the volume to the last setting, unless the last setting was > 50%, in which case it uses 50%. This is far too quiet and meant that my mum would have had to wind the dial around every time she turned the radio on. It was a procedure she struggled with and didn't seem likely to accept.

I set about building a converter which would connect the headphone output (all amps and no volts) to the amplifier input (1 volt and no amps). It couldn't be something with a power supply because that would also need to be switched on and my mum would forget.

On stage you often need the opposite. Let say there's a keyboard with a normal line out, but you want to run that signal 10s of meters across a (electrically) noisy stage and connect it to a mixing desk which is expecting a microphone (µA of current in a push-pull circuit and no volts). The humble DI box does that exact conversion for you. DI stands for "Direct Injection" because you are injecting the signal straight into the desk without having to use a microphone.

These days DI boxes are usually active devices, taking the power needed to run a little op-amp from the 48v that the desk offers to the microphone in case its a condenser (capacitor) mic that wants to charge one of its plates. In the old days, or if you were cheap when you bought your desk, or if you've got some naughty mics that won't tolerate the phantom power, then you have to use a passive DI box. A passive DI box is nothing more that a matching transformer with a centre tap on the low impedance side in a sturdy box. Of course I own some passive DI boxes, and their ratings are surprisingly close to what I needed. 600Ω on the desk side, 50kΩ on the instrument side. I just need to connect a pair of them back-to-front between the radio and the amplifier.

I do sometimes use my lounge for sitting around and watching the tv, but here it is configured for electronics work:


Heatshrink to stop the cables from tearing apart:

Several layers of heatshrink so that the chuck type strain relief can grab the tiny little headphone cable:

This is the finished cable:
And this is the contraption:


To answer your questions:
Yes, it worked very well thank you.
No the microphone plugs aren't made by Neutrik, they're cheap copies cut off from a snake I own.
Yes, it is rather cumbersome.

Richard "XLR" B

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Challenge Accepted

 During the height of lockdown I was working from home, I was bored and I was making a lot of video calls. I came to find it rude when the people I had to talk to had crappy audio on their computers and they had a lot of hum/buzz/echo/background noise or were hard to understand. During one meeting I said to my colleagues how much I liked talking to the gamers because they always have really good headsets. One of these guys explained that he was just wearing headphones as he didn't like a head-worn mic. From just outside frame he pulled a massive (presumable broadcast quality) mic on an anglepoise stand.

I used to run sound for various bands and have enough audio equipment scattered around the house to put on a small music festival. I said "Challenge accepted" and spent the night putting together a system of stands, mic and headphones that would look equally impressive for my meetings the next day.

These two flight cases contained most of what I needed.

This is a battery powered mic preamp to bring the level up to something that the computer could deal with. I didn't have enough space to use an actual mixing desk.

This is what I was talking on for my meetings the next day. The mic is actually a bass drum mic, but it deals with speech and (tenor) vocals very well. It's in a stand that's designed for the stage so it's far to heavy and sturdy to be convenient. The headphones, while excellent are also ear defenders so it is quite oppressive to put them on

Richard "telephony" B

Monday, 21 September 2020


 I received this lovely message last week from a friend of mine. "Welcome to the joyless but effective world of South Korean motoring".

My old Citroen Nemo was written off following an accident and the insurance company took it away. My only other car is a loud and uncomfortable open top sports car, so shopping for a replacement was somewhat trying. I wanted to try an estate car, and ended up choosing a Hyundai i40. It's 8 years old, but even so, it's so low spec that it's laughable:

  • 16" wheels.
  • AM/FM Radio with CD player.
  • Leather gear knob.
  • Electric windows.
  • Adjustable wing mirrors.
  • Heated rear window.

That said, everything works (except the lock on the fuel door), it's smooth, quiet and easy to drive. It's also exceptionally boring.

Richard "Joyless but effective" B

Friday, 11 September 2020


 This weekend I took my boss with me to a track day. I'm trying to make a favourable impression on him to improve my chances of getting a demotion.

It was an odd day. The driving was arranged in sessions with the same group of cars each time. There were several long stoppages, but all for breakdowns rather than crashes. A turbocharged Westfield (why such a thing exists I have no idea) made a loud bang and briefly produced a large orange ball of flame. It then span off the track dropping an entire sump of oil on a fast corner. When it was pushed back into the paddock large components were dangling from the engine bay and scraping along the tarmac.

I did my best to correct the ratio of breakdowns to crashes. Towards the end of the day we were told that we would get just one more 30 minute session, but that we would be allowed to make a driver change in the pit lane. I was in a well maintained and trustworthy car, but I needed to determine when I had been driving for 15 minutes. I don't know how long it takes to look down at one's watch, but when I looked up again I found that I was completely off line and heading off the track, full throttle, at about 80mph. I remedied the situation without incident, but I didn't impress my passenger.

Richard "No lap timing" B

Write Off

 My brother came to visit for the weekend and within an hour of picking him up at the station I had put him into quite a frightening car accident. I made a U-turn and the car behind hit me. It was hard enough that the sill is bent out of shape, the door will no longer close, and an airbag that I didn't know I had in the side of my seat went off and gave me a good thump in the elbow. At the moment I'm working with the insurance company to work out if we can write the car off without having to go through the indignity and expense of having a garage provide a quote to repair the damage.

To cheer ourselves up went out for a walk and accosted a young mother and her son. They were trying to fly a kite, but didn't know how. We re-attached the string (correctly), launched it, flew it for a while and then handed it back.

Richard "nosey weirdos" B

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Funeral Pyre

 This week I went for Sunday lunch in a horror film. My mum is confused and forgetful, so she'll do strange things and then forgot that she's done them. Rectifying these situations generally involves nothing more than carefully searching for or replacing lost objects or repairing the things that she's broken. On Sunday it was much weirder and nastier.

The back of her car contained thousands of flies and a soggy slithering heaving mass of maggots. The smell was indescribable and I was only just able to keep control of my stomach and lungs. I shovelled the whole sorry mess into a bonfire, boot carpet included, and burned it. Instead of eating lunch I went home, stripped naked in front of the washing machine and put everything I had been wearing through a hot wash. I had a shower and washed my hands in aftershave. I still don't think I'm free of the smell of it, and my appetite has been severely damaged.

It turns out that my mum had picked up a squashed hedgehog from the road (as though it were litter) and had left it in the back of the car during a heat wave.

Richard "ewww" B

Monday, 10 August 2020

Chairman of the Bored

 My life is boring enough at the best of times, but in the pandemic, pretty much nothing happens to me. This last couple of weeks for instance I have mainly been sitting in front of Netflix. I have binged through all 22+ hours of "Avatar the Last Airbender" and it is quite brilliant!

It should be terrible: It was made for children. It was made by Nickelodeon (Americans) but in the style of Japanese anime, and there's a lot of it.

The only criticisms that I can level at it are that some of it is a bit slow, and that some of the dialog and storytelling is a little bit obvious. However that only bothered me when I was so involved in it that I forgot it was written for twelve year olds. The magical world that it conjurs up is as big, as detailed and as rich as The Lord of the Rings. The story is set at the end of a hundred years war, but there are thousands of years of history just below the surface.

Even though it's for children it deals with very adult topics in a mature way. It deals with war, genocide, loss, corruption, honour, divided loyalties, personal growth and redemption. There's never a drop of blood shown or a swear word spoken, but the impact and gravity of the situations is gripping. In amongst all this there is simple clean humour. "She's got a giant mole" "What are you talking about? Her skin is flawless" "No she rides a giant mole monster".

In the same way that The Lord of the Rings or The Sandman is long enough that radical character development can seem natural and moving, two of the main characters are massively transformed throughout the story in the most compelling ways. What starts out as a one dimensional textbook villain becomes the most entertaining and admirable character in the whole thing.

Richard "find a child and go and watch it" B

Monday, 27 July 2020

Political Shield

I spend a good bit of time at the weekend drawing geometrical surfaces trying to better understand political opinions.

I recently watched a fascinating youtube video, I can't remember its name but it was on the channel "Short Fat Otaku". It was about how you define political opinions. I think it's clear by now that the traditional Left->Right scale is missing a lot of detail. For example I see the historical German National Socialists as extremely left wing (massive state control and  provision) whereas others see them as right wing because of their strict racial standards.

The Political Compass Test has added another axis, authoritarianism, and while it gives a better picture it  still seems myopic.

SFO presented a triangle, the corners of which represent Freedom, Equality and Tradition. People who's highest ideal is freedom are in the Freedom corner. People who value equality above all else (whether it's sexual equality, financial equality, racial equality, ...) are in the Equality corner. People who prize some traditional view of governance (Traditional Britishness, Christian Morals, White Ethnostate, One nation under an ayatollah, ...) are in the Tradition corner.

This triangle seems useful because it does help us to understand some of the division and confusion that we see. The people in the freedom corner can barely differentiate between the Communists and the Nazis because they're both anti-freedom, authoritarian, and happy to silence political dissent. The equality advocates see the Freedom corner and the Tradition corner as the same because they both stand in the way of the radical new structure that they wish to introduce. Both the classical liberals and the traditionalists rail against the overthrow of whatever structure the equality brigade are trying to tear down (patriarchy, capitalism, western democracy, meritocracy). From the Traditionalist corner, the freedom people and the equality people look indistinguishable.

This is all well and good, and I think it's a useful lense through which to examine one's own prejudices and the opinions of others. However, it upsets my sense of dimensional analysis. You can't represent three axes on a flat triangle.

My first assumption was that the three axes are orthogonal to each other. That gives us a three dimensional space in which you can plot political opinions. That doesn't help, there's a point where you care about nothing, and a point where you care about all three things to the fullest extent. Neither really makes sense.

My second assumption is that you have to care "so much" and all you can do is point the direction in which you care. In other words there is an arrow, starting at the origin, which is 1 unit long (I give exactly 1 shit) and a description of your political ideology is the direction of that arrow.

The rest of my weekend was spent worrying about what that surface looked like, and where the graduations fall on it. (The lines of iso-sentiment if you will.)

Here's a rough sketch of the surface that piqued my interest.

This is a moderately accurate projection of it, to show how the lines and regions intersect.

When my father described the Mercator projection to me, I was told to imagine that we covered the globe with pasty, slit it down the Pacific, and then rolled it out.

This is the best I can do as a flat projection of the surface. It is symmetrical and the areas aren't molested too badly, but the angles are all shot.

Richard "projection" B

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Gas Bill

My gas/electricity supplier is incompetent. The wrote to me asking for my meter readings, and as usual I emailed them straight back. They use their general customer services email address for meter readings, but they have a robot that reads the emails and extracts the meter readings. As normal I got back an email with the data that they had extracted, and a URL to visit to indicate that I was happy to proceed with those readings. The URL didn't work. In fact there was no page on the end of it. I did notice that they seem to be in the process of migrating to a different domain so I emailed them to tell them that their online service for confirming meter readings was broken.

Of course my email contained the trigger words "meter" and "reading" so the robot replied thanking me for my meter readings.

After several attempts I managed to send an email to their customer services to report a problem with their "m3t3r r34d1ng" service without triggering the robot to think that I was supplying meter readings.

While I was having this boring conversation with the robot, I was also trying to find a URL that would confirm my meter readings. I did have the GUID and a couple of other URL components to work with, and I know their old and their new domain. I didn't get it to work, but what I found out was horrifying. It's a Wordpress site, and there's a missing include in the user authentication section.

Richard "time to switch" B

Monday, 20 July 2020

Mallory Park

Last week I went on my first track day of the year at Mallory Park. Safety briefings have moved online so there is an enormous amount of hanging around to be done between signing on and driving the sighting laps. As is traditional I saw an obscure single seater that went on track once, spent half a day in the paddock being peered at, and had been trailered away by lunch. My favourite car was a race prepared frogeye Sprite with a tiny "toad of toad hall" aeroscreen. The weather forecast said there was going to be heavy showers so I went with wet tyres that I wanted to try out. It stayed dry all day, I think I was the only person in the paddock hoping for rain.

On the way home I ran out of petrol. The faultfinding of that particular problem was very annoying because even when the recovery service arrived the gauge was still reading "top of the red". Worse, the gauge is reading the same now that there’s half a tank of fuel in there.

Richard "fuel level sender" B

Monday, 6 July 2020


Last week I set the questions for the canteen quiz. Here they are in case you want to play along at home, or you want to use them.

1.1 At traffic lights, what colour comes after you see red and amber together?
1.2 In what country is the Ganges river?
1.3 What form did the Greek god Zues take when he seduced Leda?
1.4 How many claws on an ordinary domestic cat?
1.5 Where are the TT motorcyle races held?

(Name the book, play, film, poem, series, etc. that these well known quotes come from)
2.1 "To be or not to be?"
2.2 "I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."
2.3 "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."
2.4 "The best laid schemes of mice and men" (not the Steinbeck book. Will accept author or first line)
2.5 "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

(Name the song that these lines come from)
3.1 "Just a small town girl Livin' in a lonely world. She took the midnight train goin' anywhere"
3.2 "There ain't no love, no Montagues or Capulets just banging tunes and DJ sets"
3.3 "All the lonely people where do they all come from? All the lonely people where do they all belong?"
3.4 "Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth"
3.5 "There must be some kind of way outta here said the joker to the thief. There's too much confusion I can't get no relief"

(Give the common name for these fancy sounding dishes)
4.1 A traditional Cornish medley of steak and root vegetables, served en croute.
4.2 Slow cooked harricots in a rich tomato jus, served over pain grillé.
4.3 Extra fine sliced potatoes fried golden and presented in a diaphanous pocket.
4.4 A water-infusion of top-leaf camellia clouded with cows milk.
4.5 A layered snack of bread, Saddleback rashers, hearts of romain and love-apple.

(Name the book, play, film, poem, series, etc. that feature these buildings or establishments)
5.1 Nakatomi Plaza
5.2 Mos Eisley Cantina
5.3 Los Pollos Hermanos
5.4 Lassiters Complex
5.5 221b Baker Street

(Translate from American English to British English)
6.1 Elevator
6.2 Jelly
6.3 Median Strip
6.4 Suspenders
6.5 Hard Cider

(Identify what is being measured or graded)
7.1 Bogey, Par, Birdie, Eagle.
7.2 Toy, Miniature, Standard.
7.3 Smooth, Second Cut, Bastard.
7.4 Baby, Drawing Room, Full Size, Concert.
7.5 Score, Pony, Ton, Monkey, Grand.

8.1 What key do you press to pay your respects?
8.2 What do you do if someone is having a stronk?
8.3 Complete this phrase: "All your base ___ ______ __ __"
8.4 What film does this classic line of dialogue come from: "Oh hi Mark"
8.5 What's the name of an angry entitled woman who's unhappy with the service and wants to speak to the manager?

(You have 4 minutes to collect as many of these items as you can)
9.1 A hat.
9.2 A bucket.
9.3 Any bit of sports equipment with which you strike a ball.
9.4 Something older than you are.
9.5 Empty cardboard box.

10.1 How do you make a Venetian blind?
10.2 What do Blackpool donkeys get for lunch?
10.3 Why don't polar bears eat penguins?
10.4 What did the dyslexic pimp do?
10.5 What's Brown and Sticky?

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Kerbal Space Program

I haven't played video games since the days of GTA3 on PS2. After weeks of boredom I bought myself a computer specifically to play a very niche, 5+ year old game. Kerbal Space Program is about space exploration. The characters looks funny and childish and there are lots of silly jokes in it. Despite that it's a deeply technical and difficult game. You have to design rockets and spaceships (from a large collection of parts which stick together like lego) and fly them to other celestial bodies. The game doesn't place any limitations on your designs or flight profiles except for actual physics. Gravitational and aerodynamic forces are modelled accurately.  Physical and thermal stress and deformation of all the parts are modelled. The orbital mechanics is accurate and difficult.

Yesterday for example I was at a moon and realized that I had no idea how to initiate a transfer back to the planet because I was on a polar orbit (the plane was normal to the moon's orbit). The answers seem to be 1) wait ¼ of a month 2) spend a huge amount of Δv on inclination changes 3) if the gravity is low enough escape northwards and start from there.


My favourite thing about the game is what's called "emergent narrative". The designers didn't have script writers, and they never wrote any story lines for me to enjoy, but I find myself with a fascinating challenge that just emerged from the lower levels of simulation. I was in upper atmosphere doing about 3km/s when I discovered a design flaw with my vehicle. The strong experiment storage vessel bridged the gap between the crew capsule and the spent fuel tank that I was trying to eject. The explosive bolts had fired but the bottom half of my rocket was still tied on. When everyone survived and the experiments were recovered it felt like a real achievement.

Richard "Hohmann Transfer" B

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Problem Drinker

I used to go out with a girl who was so unused to drinking that she once woke up (on new year's day) and couldn't identify the mystery illness with which she had been afflicted. It was characterised by headache, nausea, thirst, dizziness and hypersensitivity to noise. It turns out I'm no better. When I visit my mum for lunch she will usually offer me a bottle of exceptionally week Dutch lager (I think it's 2.6%). She will have a small glass of sherry and I'll have the lager as an aperitif. A couple of weeks ago the brand of lager had changed. She didn't mean to do it, but she had tricked me into drinking a bottle of really strong lager (quickly) on an empty stomach. That afternoon I was unusually tired, but in a cheerful and confused way, and my motorbike seemed exceptionally heavy and difficult to operate. I didn't work out why I felt so weird until the next time I was visiting my mum and was offered another bottle of the export strength lager.

Richard "a.b.v." B

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

It Was This Big

How big is a spanner?  They all have some markings on them, but it's not always the gap between the jaws. For AF spanners the number written on the spanner is the gap between the jaws in inches (ignoring a little clearance so that it will actually fit over the bolt). For Metric spanners it's the same, but in millimetres. For Whitworth spanners the number is the size in inches of a hole, through which the shank of a well designed bolt would fit, and the head of that bolt would fit between the jaws. For BA spanners it's an arbitrary, usually even number that gets bigger as the spanners get smaller.

That's all well and good, but what does a measurement of length really mean? You've got a ruler, but you just assume that it's got the same measurements on it as all other rulers, how can that possibly be organised? Where did the first ruler come from? The factory that made your ruler had their tools calibrated in a laboratory. That laboratory had their tools calibrated by the National Physical Laboratory (or your country's equivalent) and the NPL compares their reference length against two scratches on a bit of copper stored very carefully in Paris. We've all just sort of quietly agreed that those two scratches are a good distance apart. When it comes right down to it, describing the size of something is just comparing its size to something else.

I had to buy a socket in the wildly inconvenient size of 1 and 5/16 of an inch (AF), while it does have this number on the socket itself, the packaging has a far less useful (although somehow more honest) description of the size. It says "Classic size for Hub Nuts on Mini, MGB and Triumph TR4". It's not a measuring convention that I want to start using in my tool box.

Richard "0.01959 Smoot" B

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

If the Cap Leaks

Car maintenance meets automotive history. The cap on the brake fluid reservoir on my sports car is leaking a little bit so I wanted to replace it. Caterham don't have them in stock, and they're overpriced so I decided to shop around. The threads for the cap are the old fashioned Girling/Lucas ones and the master cylinder is made by AP Racing. I could easily get a cap that would fit from any racing car supplier - hell you can buy a genuine Girling one from Demon Tweeks! The problem is that mine's a road car and it needs a fluid level warning switch (it doesn't strike me as a bad idea on a racing car even if it's not a legal requirement). The warning switch is integrated into the cap. I refuse to believe that Caterham are making their own reservoir caps, so the question becomes: where did they find a brake fluid reservoir cap that will fit an elderly British car, or a racing car, but has a fluid level float switch built into it?

Half a day of googling later and the answer is obvious: Late model classic mini. When they started making minis they would have been using Girling master cylinders, or something compatible. At some stage the law changed and they had to have a warning light for the fluid level, they didn't change the master cylinder, they just cut a hole in the cap and bodged a crappy float switch into it. The part number is GRK6009 and they're available from all the people that look after old minis. It looks like a rush-job, the design is terrible and the lands for the gasket are tiny. Frankly I'm surprised that it kept the fluid in for this long. I'll probably make my own out of a real cap and a modern float switch when I take the car off the road at the end of the year.

Richard "Yes I do believe that I can make a better job of it that Austin-Rover" B

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Oven Pride

I hate household chores at the best of times and one of my least favourite is cleaning the oven. That particular chore has just got even more annoying because of the brand name of the cleaner that was for sale in the Co-op.

In this photo you can also just about see my Joy Division oven gloves (I've got Joy Division oven gloves).

The magic of human memory and the way that a song can get stuck in your head means that now, cleaning the oven has a terribly annoying 80s soundtrack running around in my own head.

Richard "That's what my heart yearns for now" B

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Greener Light Harpoon Gun

The human consciousness is a tricky beast. It makes you feel like you're in charge the whole time whereas in fact most of the time it's making up excuses after the fact. "Why did you put your foot under that?" "I sort of thought I could stop it breaking after I dropped it." (it was fragile china or a heavy television). "How was the drive?" "Errm, I don't really remember getting here". Our picture of ourselves is made up of stories, most of them heavily embellished, but just sometimes you can find yourself doing something or getting somewhere and you can't make up a story for why you're there. "Why did I just come upstairs? I think I wanted to get something, never mind I'll go back down".

I've had a lot of time on my hands and I've been watching a lot of videos on YouTube. If you watch one video on a topic, the stupid algorithm will assume that it's your new obsession and recommend nothing else. I've been down myriad convoluted rabbit holes of information, and even though I have no interest in firearms I've so enjoyed the knowledge and enthusiasm of a couple of American gun-nuts that I've watched a lot of their videos. During a serious review of a collectable light harpoon gun (Yes the one used in "Jaws") the presenter managed to make me laugh with a fairly subtle "Jaws" reference.

"The manual contains no information about boat sizing"

I sent it to my friend, who also laughed, but then he asked me "Why were you watching a review of a harpoon gun?" and I couldn't really answer. I mean I remember enjoying a gun video on that particular channel, and I know that I've been watching several of them to pass the time, but how did I end up watching that first one? No Idea. It might have been something to do with military history? Some of the aeroplane videos I watch talk about their guns, maybe that was it? It probably didn't follow from motorcycle reviews or track day footage.

Richard "This was no boating accident" B

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Curiosity Killed the Cat

One of my colleagues works with artificial intelligence and machine learning. One of the time-series datasets that we've got access to, and that he'd like to make predictions from is about leisure centre bookings. He's been doubly screwed by the corona virus, not only is he locked up at home, but his data has an unexpected cliff edge in it, and all the predictions are meaningless.

My mum's cat did even worse. My mum rescued it from a neglectful junkie at the beginning of 2019 and it has blossomed from a scrawny terrified creature into a well fed, friendly and bossy companion. When all the traffic died down it started crossing the road and exploring the neighbourhood. Last week, on its way home it was hit by a car and killed. I buried it in the garden last week. Digging a hole big and deep enough to give a cat a dignified burial is surprisingly tiring, but it's also very compelling. You can't stop if the hole isn't wide enough for the cardboard box/ coffin, and you daren't stop until it's deep enough that you're absolutely sure that your old friend won't get dug up and eaten by vermin.

When I was in my late teens or early 20s I dug the grave for my favourite cat, and we planted a bay tree in his honour. This latest cat was granted a grave site surprisingly close to the Willy-cat memorial bay tree. I do hope that they aren't fighting over territory in the afterlife.

Richard "sexton" B

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Under Pressure

As I now ride a tiny little lightweight bike with cheap little tyres I was persuaded that I could and should change my own tyres at home. I spent £10.80 on tyre levers, gave it a try and failed.

Yet again my crappy arbour press came in handy, this time as a bead breaker. "I am become useful, the destroyer of seals."

I levered the old tyre off without any problems.

I put the new tyre on without any problems.

I couldn't get enough airflow to seat the beads with my footpump.

The machine at he garage did no better.

I turned another wheel into an receiver, pumped it up to 60psi by foot and connected it to my wheel. Still no luck.

I turned the pressure vessel of my week sprayer into a similar contraption and failed again.

Eventually I had to ask for help, and completely negated the point of the whole exercise.

I could just go and buy a little compressor, but I don't think it would help. You need a huge receiver and high flow rate couplings and hoses. The helpful man at National Tyres said that their compressors are set to 200psi and blow down a hose as thick as your finger.

My spite filled research led me to another technique for mounting a tyre: A small explosion. People are successfully mounting tyres in an emergency by setting light to a ring of brake cleaner or cold-start sprayed into the rim.

Even by my standards this is a bit dangerous and a bit rough. I have been researching nice safe butane explosions and I've built both a butane deliver system and a piezo igniter that will fit through an automotive valve stem.

Here it is successful test of using it to open a shoe box.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

He works his works, I mine.

In the 1980s all music studios forgot how to record the drums. The whole lot was so compressed that there was more feel and expression in the score than the recording, it was so heavily gated that you didn't get any idea what the kit sounded like, and it was all drenched in synthetic reverb.

Decades later (but still decades ago now) I happened to see a documentary about the recording of some charity single from the 80s. There was footage of Phil Collins playing the drums in a live room of the Abbey Road studios. Bizarrely when they showed this footage they played the sound that had been recorded on the condenser mic in the camera (rather than off the master tapes). I found it fascinating because you could actually hear the drums and what I learned is that they were really nice, and that Phil Collins played them beautifully.

I excitedly told this story to my friend who dismissed the whole fascinating business as "So your stunning revelation is that Phil Collins is a good drummer?".

This week the poem "Ulysses" by Tennyson came up. After I had had it explained to me I found it really moving and sad. I went a bit lockdown-emo. It's about getting old, and whether there's more to life than to carry on breathing. I was talking to the same friend about how our tastes are changing and our ability (to drink) is declining as we age. I quoted the last few lines of Ulysses and he was as impressed as I was. We talked about poetry and he said he wished he could write something that had a profound emotional reaction, but he can't.

His stunning revelation is that Tennyson is a good poet.

"We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Richard "lockdown-emo" B

Wednesday, 22 April 2020


Even a few years ago, a description of what I did this weekend would have sounded like the beginning of a dystopian sci-fi story. I left the house, as mandated by the government, only for two brief periods of exercise. I interacted with the faces and voices of my friends and colleagues on screens, communicating over a high frequency radio link and a world-spanning digital communication network. In another computer one of my friends set up a physical simulation of a table and a board game with its various cards, pieces, and pawns. A few of us connected to that server and played a game in which you try to save the world from a pandemic.

If I were reading that sci-fi story I would be struck by the absence of a clear villain. In the board game all the players work together against the board, the way the cards were shuffled determines how the game progresses. I would suspect that the author was trying to make some point about simulating the environment that you're currently in, and that the main plot was going to mirror the development of the board game. Either that, or what looked like character development with me seething against whoever the landlord had employed to mend my neighbours fence (they damaged my fence and encroached on to my side of the legal boundary) would turn out to be critical to the main plot. It'll be that property maintenance company trying to take over the world through bio-terrorism! It's barely worth reading the rest of the book now.

Richard "crude simulations all the way down" B

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Chopping board

This is my favourite chopping board, I bought it in the mid 90's. It's made of beech which has terrible dimensional stability so roughly every decade one of the glue joints will split. This time I decided to put dowels in rather than just reglue it.

I'm using a shooting board to hold the plane flat.

Drilling as upright as I can.



The plank that I glued back is seriously low.

I marked the holes more accurately than that. My best guess for where the error came in, is trying to feed a normal twist drill with a 118 degree tip angle into a bradawl mark.


At this rate it's not even going to last another hundred years.

Richard "where do you buy kitchen collimators" B

Tuesday, 7 April 2020


It seems most likely that the COVID19 pandemic is just an unlucky natural occurrence. Bats, like us are mammals, like us they live together in huge numbers, and like us they are wide ranging. As such they make a perfect breeding (and evolution) ground for viruses. If one makes a success of itself in the bat population, and it's adaptable enough to jump to humans, then it's really hit the big time!

There are people claiming that COVID19 is biologically engineered, and it's worth thinking about that idea for a moment. It would be an impressive feat of science, it would require enormous cruelty to deliver it into the population, and there would have to be a vaccine or cure available to the instigators. I will admit though that what's currently going on (destruction of the economy, overloading of medical resources, fragmentation of society, death and distrust) does look very much like a softening-up operation in preparation for an invasion.

So who would have done it? In recent weeks I have seen a surprising amount of anti-Chinese propaganda: They lied about the seriousness of the initial outbreak and put billions of lives in danger; their wet markets mix live and slaughtered animals and their filth; look at the horrible things that they eat; watch this video of a chinaman frying a dog alive; most impressively, they seem to have corrupted the World Health Organisation. These would clearly be false-flag propaganda operations, so I can only think that the Russians would be behind it.

I'm not a military strategist, but I did play some "Risk" as a child. I know that it's all very well trying to take Europe through Ukraine and Bellaruse, but while you're doing it someone else is amassing forces in Alaska and invading through Kamchatka. As it's already springtime, Alaska is warming up and the counter-invasion is feasible, so I really don't think it's likely that this pandemic was done on purpose.

And then what always seems to happen is that in the aftermath of the mutual destruction in Eurasia, someone who appeared to be out of the game will appear, resurgent, from Australasia and take the entire world. I for one welcome our new god-emperor Jacinda Ardern.

Richard "Collusion Hypothesis" B

Tuesday, 31 March 2020


We're now living in lockdown. I'm only allowed to leave the house to buy essentials (as infrequently as possible), to exercise (once per day), and to care for the vulnerable. It's a bit like Christmas day afternoon, and a bit like what I remember of the 1970s:

The streets are very quiet.
I'm already bored of all my toys.
None of my friends are allowed to come round to play.
We're not actually short of food and drink, but none of it is quite what I'd have chosen if the shops were open as normal.
The TV schedule is messed up.
One of the most compelling forms of entertainment is to go out for a walk.
Everybody is drinking more than they should.

Richard "see you back at school" B

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Panic Buyers

Over recent weeks it has become hard to find toilet rolls on the supermarket shelves. Rolls of toilet paper are physically large and very cheap so it only takes a tiny variation in the rate of buying for a supermarket to be stripped bare.

I wish that the invisible hand of the market would have acted more swiftly and more harshly. Imagine all the good things that would have happened if it suddenly cost £20 to buy 4 rolls of Andrex: Demand would have been reduced (Our selfish and easily panicked citizens would still be stocking up but their greed would have been tempered). Supply would become more efficient. If all of a sudden the Co-op could make a cool £50,000 by driving one lorry of loo rolls from a well stocked store to an empty one then it would get spread around the country to where it was needed in no time. Supply would be guaranteed. I would be holding out for the price to fall, but I would know that when I was half way through my last roll I could just walk to the shops and buy some more - at a price. Usage would be more efficient. People would suddenly find they can use less of the stuff when you hit them in the wallet.

Strawman: I can practically hear my NPC readers whining about the poor no longer being able to afford to wipe their bums. Think what they're really saying: That despite all the tools of taxation, national insurance, benefits and rebates they haven't been able to organise matters such that the poor and the elderly can afford basic necessities. The thing to do at this point is not to let them take charge of the national rationing or distribution of toilet rolls, they have already proved themselves incapable.

Strawman2: But if 4 rolls of toilet paper is more expensive than a bottle of whisky, won't the most disadvantaged in society do without it altogether? Maybe, and what business is it of yours to decide whether one of our citizens would prefer a tidy arse or a weekend bender?. You might be paternal, but you're an authoritarian villain all the same.

Richard "Von Mises" B

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Caterham front wheel bearings

One of the service jobs that comes up every 4 years on a Caterham is to repack the wheel bearings with grease. Somehow Caterham forgot to do it for me, so I did it myself. It's not a difficult job, but it needs some odd tools and a little bit of knowledge. Caterham felt so silly that they happily sent me the instructions and the parts that I would need.

The first thing you have to do is put the front of the car up on stands and remove the road wheel. The wheel nuts are 19mm hex and get done up to 74Nm.

The brake caliper comes off next.

The caliper bolt heads are E12 star drive.

They are not stretch bolts, so you are free to reuse them. They get done up to 90Nm ! New caliper bolts come with a dry patch of threadlock on the threads. If that has worn off apply blue threadlock.

As always, don't leave the caliper dangling on the hose. Support it on a precarious pile of tool boxes and bits of wood.

There's a castellated nut and a split pin holding the hub on. The split pin is 3/16 x 2".

The hub nut is a wildly inconvenient 1+5/16AF. If you're anything like me, then your imperial sockets stop going up in 16ths at 1+1/4 but you have a 3/4 Whitworth socket from a jumble sale which is very close to the right size. Laser Tools sell a 1+5/16 single hex impact socket for hub nuts like this.

The hub pulls off the stub axle. The inner bearing races are not secured in any way.

I know this grease must be good because it says "racing" on the tub and they've dyed it red. I believe the standard product for this job is Comma high performance bearing grease.

After you're put the bearings back together and put the hub back on the procedure is to spin the hub to distribute the grease, then 12FtLbs preload on the hub nut, then advance it to the next castellation. Provided that the bearing is neither tight nor sloppy, secure the hub not with a new split pin. I don't have the wherewithal to cut the end off the split pin, so I have folded it back on itself.

Richard "Silkolene RG2" B

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Dress Up

A couple of weeks ago my defence against some good natured mickey taking seemingly made me look even more silly than if I'd kept my mouth shut. One of my colleagues likes to make fun of how posh I am. We were talking in the kitchen about what we would wear when we went climbing. I said (honestly) that I literally don't own any clothes for exercising. My colleague said "Come on, I'm sure you have a set of flannels and a boater" and I, thinking I would sound more normal and everyman retorted "NO. I HAVE LINEN SLACKS FOR SAILING". It didn't have the desired effect.

If you've been to business school you've been taught the four things that go into starting a conversation. A polite greeting. State your own name. State your relationship to the person you're addressing. Explain your expectations. For example: Hi. I'm Richard. I ordered a radiator from you guys last week. I just want to check on the delivery date. And, rather perfectly: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Richard "plimsolls" B

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

You'll believe a man can fly

This story is in two parts. The first is for all the people that like me making a fool of myself, the second is for the tiny minority who are actually interested in working on cars.

At the weekend I changed the rear wheel bearings on my sports car and it involved the most ridiculous and painful pratfall. The hub nuts are done up tight, and one of them was slightly seized. I had a friend pressing the brake peddle while I was pulling on a breaker bar. I was straining as hard as I could, lifting with my legs, the tyre was starting to rise up off the ground and the breaker bar had a considerable bend in it. The hub nut gave up not with a creak or a sigh, but with a loud and sudden crack. I couldn’t help but to launch myself out of the garage and half way down the driveway. I landed heavily and painfully on the bar that I was still holding.

One of the bearings was easy to change. The other was not. The hub is on splines on the driveshaft. Behind the hub, the bearings are slipped over the driveshaft, the bearings are pressing into a strong carrier which is bolted to the rear suspension. I pulled the hub off the shaft with my little hub puller (it looks like a child's toy compared with what I had to use on a Renaultsport Clio) but the bearings and their carrier was stuck on the drive shaft. I didn’t panic at this point, I made a thing out of my hub puller and some long coach bolts thinking that it would pull the bearings and the carrier off the drive shaft. I was wrong. I had made a bearing puller, I pulled the bearing out of the carrier and left it on the drive shaft. It was at this point that I was nearly in tears because the car was up on stands, the bearing was destroyed and there was no was of putting the wheel back on, it seemed like I’d never be able to move the car again, or put my motorbike away, or close the garage door. My garage is narrow, but I was just able to get the drive shaft out and take it to the bench (dripping hypoid oil everywhere). With a blowtorch and a coldchisel I managed to get the inner race of the bearing off the drive shaft. Again it went with a bang and the hot bearing landed in the box of timber offcuts, but it didn’t quite set the whole garage on fire.

Richard "Jesus nut" B

Breaker bar - long handle
Hub - the bit that the wheel bolts on to
Splines - grooves
Bearing - spinny thing
Inner race - the middle of the spinny thing
Driveshaft - the bit that turns the hub
Coach bolts - long screws
hypoid - thick, smelly
Coldchisel - chisel for metalwork

Monday, 24 February 2020

Bad Workman

We have all heard the phrase "A bad workman blames his tools". In Portuguese they have a phrase with the same meaning, but the words are "A bad dancer blames his trousers". I swear I'd have looked really good up there if it weren't for these damned pantaloons!

I am such a believer in "a bad workman blames his tools" and so critical of my own abilities that it has taken me years to work out that my hacksaw frame is worn out. One of the tension pins is slightly scored so it doesn't pull the blade down firmly on to the platen. The blade wobbles and I blunt it more on one side than the other and end up cutting in circles. I always thought it was my fault.

Better than the Portuguese for "a bad workman..." is the Mandarin symbol for "penguin". Apparently they're a "business goose".

Richard "P-p-p-pick up a b-b-business goose!" B

Monday, 17 February 2020

Nice Butt

This weekend I had to learn all about rainwater collection systems. You might have seen big green water butts standing innocently next to guttering downpipes. What I didn't know is that they're evil, and that they're biding their time until they try to knock your house down. I assumed that the guttering downpipe fed into the butt, and that it then had an overflow that fed into a second butt, or back into the guttering. I was wrong. The "diverter" that you let into the downpipe has a weir in it, and an airtight pipe to the water butt. Water can either flow into the butt, or over the weir and down the rest of the downpipe. There are a couple of reasons why this system is better than mine. The pipe to the downpipe can be small and flexible, if the flow down the downpipe overwhelms the capacity of the flexible hose, then the rest of the water just goes over the weir and down the rest of the downpipe.

It's a great system when everything is new. Now imagine that this water butt (which weighs 160kg when it's full) has been out in the garden for a few years and has been subject to hundreds of hour of UV degradation and dozens of frosts. Either the crappy plastic stand breaks and you don't replace it with something exactly the right height, or the flexible hose perishes. If the butt has been lowered by more than a few mm then the top of the butt is below the weir and all the rainwater flows down the side of the butt. If the flexible hose has perished the same thing happens. You are now collecting all the rain off your whole roof and funnelling it into one corner of your patio to try to undermine the foundations of your house.

I suspect that there's a better system where all the rainfall for an entire town is gathered together. It could be filtered and treated on an industrial scale until it's drinkable and doesn't bread lava and bacteria and then it could be piped back to individual households who use as much or little as they see fit - no matter how much or little rainwater their roof collects... Oh wait...

Richard "mains water" B

Tuesday, 11 February 2020


Last week my sports car failed its MOT. The fault was "Excessive play in rear suspension linkage. Look I can move this with my hand. This one isn't even done up Richard." I was told to take it home and re-torque all the fasteners in the rear suspension before I re-presented it. The rear suspension on a Caterham like mine is quite interesting and quite simple. There's a strong horizontal tube that has the wheels on it. It doesn't have the differential in it to save weight. The tube is kept in the middle of the car by a triangular A frame that is bolted to the middle of the tube and to the chassis well in front of the wheels. To stop the tube from moving forwards and backwards there are a pair of "radius arms" that are bolted to the ends of the tube, and to the chassis well in front of the wheels (like the swing arm on a motorbike). If I was richer the for/aft position of the tube would be maintained by 3 part Watts linkages giving almost perfect vertical travel.

What was interesting is that only the radius arms had loose fasteners, and it's only the radius arms that you have to take the seats out and get inside the car to work on them. Coincidence? Or something less? I wonder whether Caterham forgot to nip them up when they changed the differential.

Richard "anti-sabotage lacquer" B

Wednesday, 5 February 2020


Last week I witnessed the birth of a wonderful new verb. One of my colleagues had borrowed his girlfriend's car to get to work. When he bought a new car he had to drive his girlfriend's car home and then get his dad to pick him up and take him to his new car so that he could then use that to give his girlfriend a lift home so that eventually she would be re-united with her car and he would be in the same place as his new car. He said "I'm off to towers of Hanoi my new car".  Most of my readers are computer programmers so you're probably already thinking how perfect it is. If you're not familiar with it, the Towers of Hanoi is a little puzzle with three pegs and a stack of different sized disks. You have to move the stack of disks from one peg to another. The rules are that you move one disk at a time, and that you can never put a bigger disk on top of a smaller one.

Computer programmers have almost always studied it because it's a beautiful example of recursion. The recursive solution is:
1) Move all but the biggest disk onto the spare peg. 2) Move the biggest disk to the destination peg. 3) Put the rest of the stack on top of it.
In step 1 and 3 How do you move the "rest of the stack" – you're only allowed to move one disk at a time? Just follow steps 1) 2) and 3)

Yesterday a friend drove from his house to an MOT station so that he could pick ne up there and take me home, leaving my boring car at the MOT station. This morning, after pushing my scooter out of its way I drove my sports car to the MOT station so that I could leave it there and get in my boring car to get to work.

Richard "Bring on the self-driving cars" B

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Day Off

Most people take a day off work to go somewhere nice or to do something special. I took a day off work to spend it it my garage in the middle of winter making brackets that I would rather have bought.

I thought that I would like to be able to change the windscreen on my Caterham to a little aeroscreen. The car is low powered and it runs out of go on the straights. The windscreen is large and flat and stands almost upright. I believe changing to the aeroscreen should give me another 10mph top speed.

Getting to the fasteners on the windscreen stanchions involves taking a lot of the interior apart so I don't want to be doing that at a track day. I bought a pair of brackets that should provide captive nuts for the windscreen stanchions, but they didn't fit. I cut them up and fiddled about with some box section and some polyurethane adhesive and made these. They do fit accurately but they took me hours to produce.

This is the aeroscreen (it's still got the protective film on), a motorcycle mirror and a bracket that I made to join them together.

One of the questions that you never get asked in a social situation is "do you own a press brake?" although I wish you did. In my case the answer is "I don't know, does this count?". This is a very hard extension bar, my aluminium bracket, and a bit of soft wood in a very large vice.

Richard "I wish I'd never started" B

Wednesday, 22 January 2020


This week I share with you an old favourite family story. I don't know exactly when this happened but you can make a fair guess from the vehicles involved. My older brother had bent one of the half shafts on his Ford Capri and was fixing it in a hurry. He got a replacement from a scrapyard in Devonport. He got to and from the scrapyard as a pillion on his friend's Z750, on the way back he had the half shaft in his lap sticking out each side of the bike. They came back through the city centre and were very very nearly involved in a nasty accident. The rider went to cut between two queues of cars at high speed. While the gap was big enough for the bike it wasn't big enough for the half shaft of a Ford Capri. It became clear to my brother that the rider had forgotten about his passenger's cargo and that he was just about to be stuck off the back of the bike and probably have his pelvis shattered in the process. He let go with both hands and JUST managed to get the long, heavy, cumbersome shaft upright before they shot between the cars. Like some kind of incompetent post-apocalyptic knight with his rusty scrapyard lance.

Richard "retro" B

Tuesday, 14 January 2020


This weekend I changed motorbike from a Yamaha TMAX (XP500) to a Honda Super Cub (C125). Obviously it's much smaller and slower, but I'm really pleased with it so far.

The clutch is automatic and the gearbox is upside down. I think you'd describe it as "One down, three down". It also has a Pacman door so that you can go round the back from 4th straight to neutral. As I've come from an automatic bike with a CVT I keep forgetting to put it into gear before I try to pull away. All my other motorbikes had the gearbox the right way up, so I quite often force it into the wrong gear during acceleration.

My least favourite change is the front brake. On the TMAX I had twin 4-pot callipers with high performance friction material and a 120mm front tyre. You could stand the bike on its nose with the pressure of two fingers and it felt like you could ruche up the tarmac in front of you if you wanted. It's not quite the same on the Super Cub. The mirrors are too close together and I've had to put one of them on an ugly extender. I also no longer get nodded at by bikers.

The fuel economy is absolutely outstanding, and the servicing costs should be low. It's fun to ride and it looks cute. The funniest features are an automatic clutch (so that delivery men have their left hand free to cold their cargo) and a heel pad on the gear lever (so that businessmen don't scuff up their smart shoes).

Richard "roll the power on gradually" B

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

New Decade

I know it's ridiculous to believe in good omens or to put meaning in random events, but I'm really hopeful about the 2020s.

You always try your best to make the best cup of tea that you can, you use the same ingredients, utensils, techniques and temperatures time and time again, but sometimes the tea is delicious, sometimes insipid, and usually mediocre. I have a friend who marks every cup of tea he is served out of ten. I believe that discretionary bonus points have sometimes been awarded, either for serving the tea with a chocolate biscuit or once for serving it topless.

I marked it myself, but the first cup of tea that I made this decade was a 9! It honestly was that close to Plato's perfect form for a cup of tea.

The first engagement in the culture war of 2020 (that I'm aware of) had a wonderfully positive and empathetic message. It was criticism of a mean spirited web comic about schadenfreude. The character New Guy was written as the butt of the joke, but because he had to question taking pleasure in other people's misfortune the author had accidentally created a very positive and caring character. All the edits, memes and criticisms are promoting empathy, friendship and fair treatment. https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/new-guy

Richard "What Would New Guy Do?" B