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Blog : Posts from March 2007 : Page 1

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Skill

In which we think we know how to drive


I seem to be becoming a worse driver.

This isn’t by my own judgement, but by the judgement of other people. Specifically, more and more people seem to have started beeping me for doing The Wrong Thing. I’m not sure what the problems are. I always signal, I travel at a reasonable speed,* I try to drive assertively and take up the appropriate space on the road. There’s nothing wrong with the car, so far as I can tell. So why have people decided to start beeping me all of a sudden?**

H, incidentally, has suggested I should teach her how to drive. And I realised, thinking about it, that I have no idea at all any more how to drive, or rather, how to explain how to drive. The manuals I assume say something like: “press gently with your right foot and at the same time lift your left foot up until you start to feel the clutch engage, then increase power whilst raising your left foot smoothly and releasing the handbrake”. If you drive, though, you don’t consciously do all that; you just wiggle your feet a bit and you’re away. I have no idea how I would go about explaining all the various simultaneous processes to someone, in a car without dual controls.

* usually at the speed limit. Honest, officer. Ahem.

** or wave their fist and shout “Wanker!” like the cyclist the other day. OK, I pulled out in front of him. It was thick fog, he was wearing dull clothing, and didn’t have any lights on his bike, so when I started moving I had no idea at all he was there. Tosser.

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Oh no it doesn’t

In which FP gets hungry


The fog has finally lifted, and everything seems clearer all of a sudden.

Favourite blog of the week: Cake Tourism,* the blog about cake around the world. Mmmm, cake. Cake. Mmmmm.

Damn, I’m starving now.

* link via Washing-Up.

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This title will make sense with tomorrow’s post

In which summer breaks through the fog


When I write posts on here, I normally write the title first, then ramble on about it.

Yesterday, I managed to write a title, then ramble on about something entirely unrelated to the post I was meaning to write when I started. Which was, you might be able to guess, going to have been about the weather.

We’ve only just changed the clocks, shifted an hour, and already the character of the day seems to have entirely changed. Already, whatever the temperature is outside, it seems like balmy summer days are here again. Already that lazy, depressing summer evening feeling is back. It doesn’t last very long, because it’s getting dark again by half-seven still, but it’s there already.

The morning hasn’t sorted itself out yet. Every morning so far this week I’ve driven to work through thick fog, as if the weather is still trying to work out what to do, and is trying to hide its ignorance. Thick fog all the way, except when crossing the Big Expensive Bridge. Each end of the Big Bridge is befogged, but the middle, as the deck peaks, breaks out through the fog into bright yellow morning daylight.

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The Last Days Of Winter

In which we encapsulate things


Still recovering from my awful, hacking-cough cold. For The Mother, who thinks I have had bronchitis continuously since August, this is more evidence that I am leading a terribly dissolute lifestyle and need to stop having sex, stay indoors watching TV, and go to bed at 9pm every night just like she does.

In lieu of a proper entry, it’s time for One-Line Album Reviews. Hurrah! In which, FP tries to come up with pithy lines about some of the albums he’s bought recently.*

The Victorian English Gentlemen’s Club, The Victorian English Gentlemen’s Club: you can’t hum it, the same as you can’t pronounce the name after a few gin and tonics very easily; but it’s some good, chunky angular music to listen to in the car.

The Aliens, Astronomy For Dogs: Like The Beta Band doing rock, which isn’t too surprising really. Rather good.

Gossip, Standing In The Way Of Control: A bit much hype involved, which (also) isn’t surprising really. It’s not a bad album, but they’re not as good as, say, The Kills.

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, The Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager: Note to self: unlike TVEGC (see above), do not put this on in the car. You will fall asleep, probably at a busy motorway intersection, and kill hundreds of innocent pensioners on a coach en route to Southend.

And that’s most definitely enough of that.

* thus ruling out all the dronerock the Dronerock Fairy has been sending this way. Although the forthcoming Blonde Redhead album is rather good. Erm, so I hear.

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That photograph moment

In which we spy on beauty


Moments you wish you’d had your camera:

Driving, last night, in the dark, past a small cottage in the middle of the countryside. Torchlit, in the driveway, someone was shovelling sand. And in the torchlight it was beautiful, almost like a Joseph Wright painting.

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Budgeting

In which the rules of the game are set


Last year I realised the Budget Speech was coming, and tried to guess what would be in it. Because, all in all, it’s usually fairly obvious. More taxes on things the government would rather you didn’t do, like drive around (all those roads need mending, you know) and smoke (those hospital beds don’t empty themselves). Lower taxes on whatever is the political fashion of the moment, or whatever will pull in the currently-targeted voting sector (the well-off but not hugely rich middle classes, at the moment).

This year, I wouldn’t have had a clue what to guess at. It’s random, little bits picked from here and there, without much of a cohesive feel to the thing.

The BBC has a cunning device which tells you how much better or worse off you’ll allegedly be, with all the various budget changes. I’m going to be a whole £25 per year richer, apparently. Which is fine – except that the calculator behaves as if all the changes were happening immediately. They’re not. All the things which will cost me money are happening straight away; all the things which will cost me less don’t happen for another year. Bugger.

The main purpose of the budget, I think, isn’t to keep Britain running smoothly or anything like that. It’s to make sure that Gordon Brown’s successor toes the line and does What Gordon Wants. A year from now the next budget will come along, with a different chancellor, but that promised tax cut still isn’t going to have come into effect. What chancellor, under Gordon (he assumes), is going to dare revoke it?

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The seaside

In which FP catches something


It was Scarborough that did it.

We had a lovely day, walking up and down the prom, eating candy floss in the car,* going up and down the cliff lift, avoiding the waves that were splashing up over the edge of the prom and over the road: the sea looked like an over-full bathtub. But it was the cold, biting wind, that left me feeling half-asleep and jammed up for the past couple of days, left me wishing I could stay tucked up in bed asleep for a week.

* so it didn’t blow away

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Ill

In which FP is unwell


Bleagh. Feeling rather under the weather. I need to snuggle up under the duvet and get some sleep.

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Money, money, money

In which we wonder how to pay for politics


The political news story of the week is all about money. Specifically, how should politicians be allowed to get theirs? Sir Hayden Phillips, who has been looking carefully, thinks political parties should receive more state funding. Which, really, means all of us paying for them.

That might seem like a bad idea. I, for one, don’t like politicians very much, and political parties even less – although I’m not sure how you can ever stop them forming, or if that would truly be a Good Thing. So you can understand why I wouldn’t want my money to be given to them, regardless of whether I believe in their dogmas or not.

On the other hand, though, what’s the alternative? If political parties are funded solely by their supporters, the richest party is the party of the rich. A huge, overbalanced proportion of this country’s wealth is in the hands of a tiny fraction of the people,* and that gives those people an enormous advantage when it comes to seeking political power. Restricting how much money they can raise is vital to prevent this. You can argue endlessly about how state funding should be distributed, what way is fairest, but you’re unlikely to come up with any system less representative than “give it to the people already with the most”.

* and it’s only getting worse

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Facing points (part two)

In which we go over some railway history


More notes on the Lambrigg and/or Grayrigg train crash from a couple of weeks ago. Continued from here.

As I said in the first part, it was known for many years that junctions are a dangerous thing. Any place where a train has a choice of routes to take is a danger point, and the railways, for a hundred years or so, got around this by avoiding them as much as possible. A freight train, going into a siding, would have to run past it, stop, and back up slowly into the siding.

This is a very safe and careful thing to do, but it is very, very slow. Trains take a long time to slow down, and a long time to stop. Backing up has to be done very slowly, too, and the whole operation blocks the main line for rather a long time. If the train could run directly into the siding, things would be a lot faster.

Similarly, if one line of a pair has to be closed for engineering works, trains have to run in both directions over the remaining line. The old way of doing this was very slow indeed – the train would have to stop, reverse backwards onto the other track, then reverse again so it was going forwards. All very fiddly and slow,* and it would have been easier if there was a faster way to do things.**

So, in the 1960s and 1970s, an awful lot of the rail network got simplified and redesigned. In particular, “emergency crossovers,” like the ones involved in the Lambrigg crash, were installed every few miles on the main lines. Essentially, all they were there to do was let trains switch across to the other track if one line had to be closed for maintenance. This, though, meant greatly increasing the numbers of relatively dangerous, maintenance-heavy facing points on high-speed main lines. Cost was no longer an issue – greater automation and mechanisation of the railways meant that all points were fitted with exactly the same locking equipment, so the legally-required and previously expensive locks on facing points were now provided for free. Maintenance still mattered, though.

Note that I said “relatively dangerous”. Facing points are maintenance-heavy, purely because they are intrinsically more dangerous than trailing points. This isn’t an issue, though, so long as the maintenance gets done. And, over the years, all points started to be given the same level of maintenance – there is in many ways no longer a distinction between facing and trailing points, maintenance-wise, because as I said above they nearly all have the same fittings.

So long as the maintenance gets done. That is the key. Railways just aren’t maintained in the same way that they used to be. There’s no longer a man walking every stretch of track, every day of the year, looking out for faults, like there used to be. If facing points aren’t maintained properly, they become dangerous, and they’re likely to cause accidents, such as Lambrigg and Potters Bar. The problem is, they’re vital to being able to run the railway smoothly and flexibly. If you want to run a flexible railway, it’s going to cost you more. You have to be willing to pay the price, however you want to pay it.

* there are lots of other rules involving people waving flags and people whose job is just to be unique, but I won’t bore you with them.

** This has nothing to do with the closing of alternative routes, incidentally, which people sometimes go on about as being a Bad Thing in connection with the rail network. Alternative routes are often a lot less useful than people like to make out.

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