Tuesday 22 June 2021

Stupid Wildlife

 Years ago one of my brothers spent some time living in rural France. A neighbour had a goat on a chain in his garden and when the goat would tangle itself up in the chain my brother would untangle it. It was apparently funny and charming to see my brother tenderly freeing the animal while berating it for its stupidity. The anti-caprine tirade was delivered in sweary English so the goat never understood a word of it.

On Sunday I found myself in a similar situation when I wasted hours trying to free a juvenile blackbird from my garage. I was furious with it and its stupidity, but I still wanted it to be reunited with its mother. My garage has a pitch roof. The bird hopped in through the door and was then scared when it saw me working at the vice. It's tree instincts kicked in and it went up into the rafters and wouldn't come down. My first attempt was to let its mother lure it out, she had a treat in her beak and was calling encouragingly, but it didn't work and she gave up after about an hour. I failed to trap it in a duvet cover, and I failed to frighten it towards the door. I spent another hour harassing it with a stick so that it could only rest on the lower level beams within sight of the door. It still didn't really work but the mother came back into the garage. With her calling it from below and my stick threatening it from above it did eventually leave. Team work!

Richard "Bird Brain" B

Tuesday 15 June 2021

The parable of the silent electric milkfloat.

I work in software, and one of the things that I designed and wrote gets a lot of fault reports and feature requests. It's too slow, it doesn't do what we want, it set the database on fire, these results don't make any sense, etc. I won't bore you with the details of the software, instead imagine that I had designed a vehicle. I designed a very specialised vehicle that was quiet enough not to wake people up when it drove past their houses in the night, that ran on electricity, and that could carry a good number of milk bottles.

The problem with my creation was that it started getting used. It was easy to understand, it shipped as standard with our product offering and my friend did an excellent job on the manual. All the fault reports I get involve people using it for things that I never foresaw or intended. There are silent-electric-milkfloat race series, silent-electric-milkfloat taxi services, fleets of them getting used for heavy haulage, people commute in them, people are building cranes and ambulances out of them.

I'm sure there's a profound lesson about specialisation, generalisation and availability here, but I haven't quite learned it yet.

Richard "There's nothing like the right tool for the job" B

Thursday 10 June 2021

Diagnostic Specialist

 In the same way that it's impossible to see through someone else's eyes, you can't experience someone else's taste buds. Even so I think that mine might be more sensitive than average. One of my school friends has become a very good amateur brewer and a few years ago he sent me a bottle of beer and asked me what I thought of it. I drank it carefully and emailed him my observations. Apparently I got a lot of things about his brewing process right. His message came back saying that he thought I might be one of those "supertasters" and that I should maybe change careers to wine tasting or perfumery.

At the weekend I correctly diagnosed a fault with a car by smell while driving past it at 50mph.

I was at a track day and a guy who I'm friendly with had broken down at the side of the track. We were red flagged and sent back to the paddock where we all started speculating as to what might have gone wrong with his car. I had noticed the unmistakable smell of hypoid gear oil and the smell of burning and smoke – but the car wasn't on fire and it looked undamaged. I theorised that he'd lost the oil out of his differential and that it had come into contact with the hot exhaust.

When he'd jacked the car it became clear that the differential case was cracked and that there was oil everywhere – including on the exhaust pipe.

Richard "Don't see no lights a-flashin', plays by sense of smell" B

Wednesday 2 June 2021


 This weekend I burned all the hair off one of my arms. I've seen people on youtube launching lemonade bottles by setting fire to an explosive mixture of alcohol vapour or propane. I had an empty plastic milk bottle and I own a propane blowtorch so I thought I would have a go at it myself. I am however an idiot. I assumed that it was a type of rocket and that as the exhaust shot out of the bottle conservation of momentum would shoot the bottle in the other direction. If I'd thought of some rough numbers I'd have seen that that couldn't possibly be the case. What does a plastic bottle weigh? 25g? 50g? What does a litre of air/propane weigh? Not much more than 1g. What's the specific impulse of gaseous propane? I don't know but it's going to be tiny. What's the nozzle efficiency of an open plastic bottle? Again I don't know but there is no nozzle. You'd have more chance of a stream of gas moving that bottle if you had an asthmatic child blow at it through a straw.

So what happened is that after a few attempts I got an explosive mixture of gas into the bottle and set light to it. The bottle stayed resolutely still and a brief plume of flame leaped from the open end and ran up my arm. It didn't hurt, the skin is slightly red in one place, but every hair was singed and curled up like a pig's tail.

The actual demonstrations that I had seen are a type of mortar where a "launcher" fits snuggly into the mouth of the bottle.

Richard "Don't try this at home" B