Monthly Archives: August 2009


It’s that time of year again.  The annual cheese fair organised and promoted by Country Cheeses is in Tavistock. It’s a great opportunity for their suppliers (artisan cheese makers, most of them local) and consumers to meet.  A marketing and education exercise for them, and a learning and familiarisation opportunity for us.  Also there were a few local suppliers of things that complement cheese, from chutney to booze.

As usual, I went round it, with a view to expanding the list of cheeses I’ll be enjoying over the next year.  There are relatively few new (to me) cheeses that I like half as much as the ones I already know: I expect that comes of having been a customer of the shop for several years, and having been to past cheese fairs, so I’ve already had plenty of time to identify favourites.  Just a couple more for the buy-list.

What’s really new this year is a cheese-making demonstration, by a lady who is apparently a leading expert, and is consultant to many of the producers.  She took us through an accelerated process from liquid milk to curds, which she then put under compression as in making a conventional farmhouse cheddar.  Apart from cheddar, she also showed stretching mozarella, and briefly described variants like soft and herbal cheeses.  A fascinating demo!

Prisoners Dilemma and Boom&Bust

Bank of England prints new money, up to 20%[1] of the money supply.

Stock market rallies hugely, on thin volumes of trading.  Well, that at least has some merit, given quite how far it had fallen.

— But —

an unheard-of 18% fall in investment!  A nominal fall: against what should have to be a 20% rise to retain its value in real terms!  The productive economy is dropping out of competitive measures other than cost-cutting (notably staff costs).

And that 20% of new money gets soaked up by housing, where the price crash has halted since the spring, again on low numbers of transactions!

It’s a prisoners dilemma: do individuals use their money for the overall good, or for personal gain?  In a healthy society, the two would be, well, if not fully aligned, then at least not in stark opposition to each other.

You take out a big mortgage, get security, big tax breaks, and government bailouts if you lose your job.  You rent and save for a house, you get poor security, and you have to live on the savings (including investments) if you lose your job.  So here’s the prisoners dilemma: if the job’s not secure, get the biggest mortgage you can, and put those savings into a house!

Repeat over lots of prisoners-dilemma-victims and the economy takes a real hit: the tax-and-benefits system has hobbled it.  Not once but twice: the money sunk into a house is not being invested in the productive economy, and the homeowner has lost flexibility to move!

It seems to me we’re on a timeline with this escalating boom&bust:

2005: house prices take a small fall, quickly “corrected” by low interest rates, ~15% underlying inflation (M4 money supply), and pouring public money in.
— leading to —
2007: lenders start going bust
2008: house prices take a bigger fall, “corrected” at mindblowing expense to the economy
— leading to —
2010? government starts going bust
2010/11? house prices take a proper collapse, taking the currency and much else with them.

What to do about it?  Well, emigrating again has appeal.  Short of that, I’m putting ever more of what I have into assets that derive value from outside the UK.

[1] and counting, until they pull the plug on Denial.


I first recollect seeing the peacock in the spring of 2005, shortly after moving here.  He lives about 3 miles north of Tavistock, on one of my regular short (daily-exercise length) cycling routes.  On that occasion he was sitting on a gate and displaying a fantastic tail!  But he only occasionally puts in an appearance.

Today I had the ‘phone in my pocket as I cycled the route, and caught him on camera.  Unfortunately it’s not his most photogenic season, as he’s evidently moulted and looks rather tatty.  But still, pretty impressive for the UK 🙂


Frothing milk for cappuccino

When I returned to the UK after several years in Italy, the one Italian thing above all else I didn’t want to leave behind was their coffee.  Mostly espresso, but a cappuccino also makes a great breakfast or mid-morning drink.  So I bought an espresso machine, and relegated the old percolator to very occasional use.  And to be frank, if I drink percolated coffee in the volumes I did as a student, I feel overdosed on caffeine, so the mini-shot in an espresso not only tastes great but also leaves me feeling better.

The machine makes a decent espresso, and I use it pretty regularly for that.  Unfortunately it’s not so good for a cappucino, and I don’t know why.  The steam nozzle blows steam fairly impressively and creates a little froth on the milk, but nowhere near as much as in a proper Italian bar.

I’m guessing it might be something subtle involving the pressure and power of the steam against the shape of the nozzle, or somesuch.  I’m blogging it in the vague hope that it may find a reader who is a coffee expert and can suggest things to try.  Anyone?

An extra octave

We had the first rehearsal for Mahler’s 2nd symphony yesterday: we’re performing it for the final concert of the Totnes Festival, on 13th September.

It’s really a (huge) orchestral work, with just a short choral section at the end.  But what a section!  Most choral works expect singers to span up to two octaves, on average a little less.  This one expects nearly three octaves of us (basses): from bottom B-flat to top G.  This time ours is the most challenging range, though everyone has something high at the end!

What’s a lot worse is the scores.  To start with it’s small print, not in great condition, and all-in-all not very legible.  Then it’s written very confusingly, with each line laid out differently: different voices (including sometimes the soloists) sharing a stave, and jumps all over the place.  Well, in that regard, we basses get the easiest deal, being consistently the bottom line[1].  Finally, the poor old tenors get their lines in an arcane C clef that’s a challenge for everyone to read!

Some enterprising person had downloaded a different edition from the ‘net, that’s much more clearly laid out, and I think we may be copying it for the Tenors and rehearsal pianist at least.  But that brings its own problems: it shares neither page numbers nor rehearsal numbers with the library edition, and even the notes differ in at least one place.

The good news is that the choral section is short, and not very hard (except for the range)!  So it won’t be a problem to get it together for the concert.

[1] Except when someone thought “Zurückhaltend” was part of our words 😮

A generation on

This time 30 years ago, I had just left school, and was doing a summer job, to earn a few quid before going up to Cambridge.  I remember feeling a bit apprehensive at leaving the familiar behind.  That is, until I started the new life at Cambridge.  It was a fantastic time: lots of intellectual (and other) stimulation, coupled with a relaxed lifestyle and a great chance to pursue a range of interests (at least, those which don’t cost money).  Above all, a young man’s first experience of freedom!

Today I’ve just heard that my oldest nephew Tim has been accepted to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, and will read Maths at Cambridge.  Not the same college (he’s going to Clare; I went to Girton), but close enough to feel like something of a family tradition.  Tim had to wait until now to find out, because the entrance exams he took have moved to after the A-levels.

Congratulations Tim!

I know it’s a vain hope in older people to influence the young, but I still venture to hope Tim can experience the benefits of student life I enjoyed, while avoiding my mistakes.  In particular, my advice to any bright youngster starting at Uni: the hardest thing you’ll face is to unlearn what you learned at school, that you never have to work, and everything is far too easy.  You’ve just reached the point where “why are you patronising us with such trivia” no longer applies.

Mobile Maps

I’ve been using Nokia’s maps and GPS on my ‘phone for some time.  It works well on the road, but has basically no information other than roads (and while the roads data are good, other data such as rivers and railways are often inaccurate).  An annoying artifact of the software assumes you’re on a road, and tends to “correct” the computed fix if you’re not.  This leads to an illusion of greater accuracy, but ensures poorer reliability[1].

Recently I tried Google’s maps app.  It’s very pretty, and contains rather more information than Nokia’s, though it’s also much slower e.g. to zoom/pan.  From home it could see two GPS satellites, and computed a poor fix, nearly 200m away from me (I presume it combined the two GPS satellites with non-GPS info – maybe it knows individual mobile phone masts or something).  Surprisingly, the fix was consistent: it gave me the same incorrect position the next day.  But since that was from indoors, I gave it the benefit of the doubt: surely it’ll do better in the open.

Then I tried it while out walking.  No use: it insists on a data connection (does it need to ‘phone home)?  Unlike Nokia’s map, which asks for a connection on startup but works fine without one if I hit “cancel”, google’s refuses to proceed without it.  Bah, Humbug.

This morning I tried another variant: I fired up google maps at home, then kept it running as I went out.  No use: a short way down the road, it lost my WIFI and insisted on a new connection.

So, back to Nokia maps.

[1] A subject I do know about, both in theory (as a mathematician) and in practice (as someone who has done quite a lot of work in the field).

Worst of both worlds

I hear the ‘merkins are vigorously debating proposed healthcare reforms, and some of them are holding up our NHS as an illustration of what’s wrong with socialised healthcare.  And that a lot of nonsense is being talked.  Now apparently Daniel Hannan (a UK MEP) has appeared in the debate, talking of shortcomings of the NHS.  I don’t know what he said, but last time he was in the news he was talking sense!

From my experience of the NHS, I can confidently assure our transatlantic cousins: yes it is the worst of both worlds.  We get no choice but to pay vast amounts for it in our taxes.  Yet if you have the misfortune to need health care, it’s a complete lottery, and you could get told to **** off.  And that’s not just rationing of expensive treatments I’m talking about!

I have one incident in particular in mind.  Just under two years ago, I had a serious medical scare: my eyesight went from normal to very poor indeed.  Within 48 hours it reached a point where I was bumping in to people on the pavement, and couldn’t sustain reading a book for more than a few words.

Now I’d call such rapid deterioration a medical emergency.  But apparently our NHS wouldn’t.  My NHS GP (“General Practitioner”, aka family doctor) couldn’t give me an appointment for a full two weeks (!), and the NHS eye hospital couldn’t see me without a referral from a GP.  Great!

So of course I paid out of my own pocket (a few years earlier, that would’ve been my food budget for the whole year).  OK, I don’t begrudge the optician his charges, but I seriously begrudge having to pay for the NHS when it’s simply not there when you need it.

I guess next time I get ill, I’ll just have to plan it in advance and make arrangements.

I’ve no idea whether Obama’s plans look anything like our NHS, and unfortunately his opponents clearly include some serious nutcases.  But if anyone sensible is listening, steer well clear of an NHS!

Pressure sales

Today I’ve been solicited for my signature on the dotted line, not once but twice!

First, it was someone at the door, who told me he was investigating why I was paying too much for my gas and electricity, and offering me a better tariff.  Or so his sales patter said: unfortunately he refused to back it up with any literature I could verify against my existing documentation. Since I refused to proceed without being able to view the brochure in my own time, we reached an impasse, and he put me down as happy to pay too much 😛

It was mildly amusing to see the high-pressure-sales training showing through: there were the shallow blind-the-sucker-with-jargon buzzwords, but he was also rather good at busking it when I departed from his script.  And when I (unintentionally) fed him a cue line, he jumped on it with vigour.  But I still have no idea why he insisted my current tariffs (which he didn’t know) were “foreign” while his were “british”: I wonder if their demographics tell them there’s a lot of xenophobia here?

He was wielding a Scottish Power badge, and (perhaps noting my beard and sandals) explained “we’re the ones operating all the wind farms“.  I happen to know that the UK power supplier with by far the biggest commitment to wind farms is Scottish and Southern Energy, so I took that with the pinch of salt it deserves.  I checked afterwards, and Wikipedia[1] tells me Scottish Power has indeed a very modest amount of wind and other renewable energy.

The second encounter was while walking along the street I met two ladies coming the other way.  One of them stopped me, and was collecting on behalf of the RSPCA.  Or rather, getting people to sign up for regular payments.  Now that’s a cause with which I have a lot more sympathy: a legitimate charity, and she was being more honest, less of a spinmaster.  And yes I can afford £6/month.  But coming fresh from the other encounter, I wasn’t feeling inclined to give someone I met on the street my bank details, no matter how good her cause.  I’m also concerned that, while I think she was genuine, a good charity is also a good mask for a fraudster looking for my details.

I think these two encounters are part of the Zeitgeist of contemporary .UK.  The doorstep salesman no longer a peddlar with the gift of the gab, but more a highly-trained shyster.  The charity mugger.  And the fact that either of them could have been not what he/she seemed, but a fraudster working for organised crime.

[1] OK, not 100% reliable, but it’s usually good, and there’s no crap to wade through to get to the information as on a corporate site.

External Discs

I have a disc.  It used to live in a regular desktop computer, but that died.  It has quite a few different partitions, and different filesystems on them.  And I want occasional use of it.

To resurrect it, and I’m contemplating buying an external hard drive enclosure.  Seems I can get one with USB and/or ethernet connection.  But that leaves me wondering: what does the computer see?  Does the enclosure expect to manage the disc and just export it in the manner of NFS or SMB?  Or does the computer see it as a local device at low level?  Should it be possible even to boot from it – subject to configuring a boot manager?

If the former, that’s pretty useless to me, as I’d expect to be hard-pressed to get it to grok all the filesystems on there.  If the latter then great: I can do without IDE support in a new barebones box.

Browsing vendor sites, I can’t see any mention of using them for an existing disc that isn’t windows or mac, even in the user reviews.

Dear Lazyweb, how can I tell whether I’m buying something useful?