Monday, 31 January 2011

From famine to feast...

It's the way things work in this job.

December is usually the quietest month, although this one just gone was taking the piss frankly.

Now I have several pupils putting a lot of hours in at the same time, and I'm working seven days a week.

I'm happy to do this for a few weeks, but if I don't put some breaks in, I will start doing stupid things.

So if you see a driving instructor sticking his arse out of the window, you know I've been overdoing it.

Saturday, 29 January 2011


Using only the power of my mind, and a switch of sacred hazel, I can attract decorating tools.

The Force is with me!

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Sound of Silence

I had a driving test this morning, my 4th of 2011. So far this year I have a 100% pass rate. Four tests. Four passes. I have another one tomorrow morning, and I think that's where my run will end.

So I've been spending a fair bit of time at my local driving test centre.

In the past, there was a small, tinny loudspeaker shoved in a corner of the waiting room, and instructors and test candidates would be regaled with radio. My own preference was for radio 4, but generally the best I could hope for would be radio 2. More usually, it would be a local commercial radio station, so I'd have to suffer the adverts and the inane safe chart fodder tunes.

I hadn't even noticed it was missing, but it is. The speaker has been removed, and you could hear a pin drop.

The reason, I'm told, is the Performing Rights Society. If the DSA want to play a radio in their public waiting room, they must first purchase a license from the PRS. The PRS themselves have been busy visiting shops and offices, and threatening people with legal action.

So next time you're in the barbers, and all you can hear is the quiet snick of the scissors, this is why.

Using cars to sell music

sometimes, all you remember is the song.

I really can't remember what Babylon Zoo's "Spaceman" song was used to sell. Or Aqualung's "Strange and beautiful"

So who's selling what?

A change of direction?

Like all jobs, being a driving instructor has both good aspects, and bits that I could quite happily live without.

The good bit is that I generally find it fulfilling. It fits my abilities as an intelligent communicator, and the evidence of my proficiency is clear to see every time somneone succeeds in being able to do something when they were struggling only minutes earlier. I love teaching. I'm actually teaching an experienced teacher at the moment, and it's been an interesting experience for both of us. He sees something of his own methods in many of the things I'm doing.

I also enjoy driving. In particular, I enjoy the skilled driving that I've been trained to do, and which I'm training others to do every day.

And having a nice shiny new car to do it in is also nice of course.

But to be a driving instructor, you need to be more than just a teacher. You also need to be a salesman. It's a competitive industry, and unless you pay close attention to the business side of things, it's difficult to make a living.

Salesman/businessman is not a role that sits comfortably with me, and so I've struggled.

I'm now giving a huge chunk of my earnings to someone who is emphatically a salesman, and in return, he gives me work.

So in order to be able to do this job I enjoy so much, I need to find somewhere around £300-350 a week just to cover my overheads. When the work doesn't come in, as happened last month, I very quickly get into serious financial shit.

There are other things to set against this job too. Being messed around by my clients for one. Having to do my own tax is another. The ethics of helping ever more people to get themselves fully qualified to drive, given my understanding of issues such as climate change and resource depletion is yet another thing to consider.

So, a few months ago, I enquired about becoming a driving examiner.

The examiners are not self employed teachers. They are civil servants, and they get paid not to teach, but to assess in a uniform way, the driving of the candidates they encounter. They work to a rigid set of criteria, unlike the dynamic, extemporising role I currently occupy.

I find this somewhat depressing, but on the other hand, I don't have to give £130 a week to some bloke who's already a millionaire, and I don't have to put up with some dickhead from Birkenhead who's convinced that 10 minutes is more than enough notice for cancelling a lesson, and who thinks the £20 a lesson is bloody extortionate.

The response to my enquiry was an e-mail informing me that the DSA had no current vacancies for examiners, but that they would keep my name on file for 12 months, and let me know if anything arose.

I assumed that would be the last I heard. At some later point, I would send another enquiry and they'd keep that on file for 12 months too. But a week or two ago, I got a letter informing me that vacancies would shortly be opening, and so I looked at the appropriate webpage and found that there were indeed vacancies for examiners.

Unfortunately, these were in places like Canaerfon, Blackpool, Hyde, etc. To take these would require either a relocation, or an extremely long and tedious daily commute.

The closest is probably Sale, which is on the outskirts of Manchester.

As you can see, this would entail a round trip of almost 100 miles, and a couple of hours travelling time each day. The journey to work would take place in rush hour, so I would have to leave home at 7am every day to make sure I got there on time.

I took an early morning drive out there to see how feasible it was. The M62 was at a standstill in some parts, and it took about 100 minutes to get to where I was going (although I got a bit lost at one point due to a road closure)

Still, it's do-able. Many people have far more tedious commutes, and the journey home, well before the evening rush hour would be far less onerous.

So I've applied. I don't know how far I will get, and if I'm not accepted, well I can still do what I'm doing. But it's just possible that a few months from now, I'm going to be a civil servant. With a clipboard and a shirt and tie.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Journey in absentia

I just went out to see an exhibition in Frodsham.

Just before I went out, I pointed Google Earth at Lands End, in the far South West of England, and zoomed in to street view.

From there I could only go one way, so I weighted down the up arrow key and left it wending its way along the A30.

Now, two hours later, I'm back home. But where will Google Earth be? Is it smoothly scrolling through the Devon Country side? Has it taken to going round and round some roundabout somewhere?

No. It had parked itself in a car park in Penzance.


I will try the same thing from John O'Groats.

But there are limits to what Google Earth can do!

One of my pupils, Scott, told me a story the other day.

Scott's Dad called him excitedly, and told him to go out into the back garden. When he was out of the house, his dad shouted for him to wave his hands.

So Scott did as he was asked. Then his Dad came out.

"No. I cant see you" he said, disconsolately.

Turns out he'd just discovered Google Earth for the first time, and had zoomed in on his house. He'd fully expected the image to be in some way live.

Overall, I think I'm glad it isn't.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Road Movie!

For some weird reason, firefox doesn't like me editing this post with the video showing. Putting it into Edit HTML mode seems to have sorted things out.


Google Earth now incorporates Street View. Its rendering in Google Earth tends to be far smoother than the browser based version. So much so that it's possible to undertake a fairly coherent virtual journey. This I have done. The video below shows a part of what I did.


I'd like to imagine that this is what it would be like to drive after you've dropped a tab of acid. Somethng that I suspect would be extremely dangerous in real life, whatever Hunter S Thompson might say.

The journey takes you westbound along the East Lancashire Road, from the Golbourne Roundabout to the next major junction to the west, the M6 intersection. It's a journey I've undertaken many times in my life because when I was training to become a driving instructor, the training sessions took place close to Golbourne.

Funny how particular roads can have an impact on your life. The A41 is also of interest to me, as I posted last year, following a journey I undertook when I was 16.

The East Lancs road is technically called the A580. It connects Liverpool to Manchester, and is reckoned to be Britain's first Dual Carriageway. When I was travelling along it once or sometimes twice a week, a few years back, most of it was national speed limit, or 70 miles an hour. The last bit of national speed limit section is the bit in the video. It's now had a 60 mph limit introduced, so the entire journey is regulated by local speed limits of 40, 50 or 60 mph. The restrictions have been introduced mainly for road safety reasons, although I suppose fuel economy is also in the minds of the planners.

(saving at this point. Got more to add to this post shortly)

Monday, 10 January 2011

It's been over a month since I had a cigarette.

Note: I'm not posting to say "It's exactly a month". I wasn't thinking anything about it, but I thought about it now and looking back, I see I gave up on the 4th of December.

Do I feel better for it? Well I suppose so. I certainly don't feel any worse, and I'm about £10 a week better off.

A search for "tobacco" on Google Earth got me a letter.

Right next to the American Tobacco Campus is a spiral staircase thing that's as good a lower case "a" as I've ever found.

But I already have a lower case "a".

I shall make this a democratic venture. Vote for your favourite! The new "a" is shown above. The old "a" is shown below.

None of the proceeds of this vote go to Simon Cowell.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Using Google Earth for something useful for a change.

Today I had an almost new pupil in West Kirby. Since we were having a double lesson, I decided to take him to the Croft industrial estate in Bromborough.

So onto the M53, and off at the Clatterbridge junction, then down through Spital to Bromborough.

Did lesson. Took him back.

Went back via Hooton.

But which is shorter? Which is quicker? Which uses the least fuel?

The difference in route starts at Clatterbridge and ends at the industrial estate.

Time to get my ruler out!

The light blue line shows the route when you come off the motorway at clatterbridge, and travel along urban roads to the Croft. The green line shows the route if you stay on the motorway to Hooton then travel along a 40 mile per hour dual carriageway to the same point.

I think it's fair to say that there's a clear winner in the "Shortest" category. 2.57 miles urban, against 7.15 miles on the quicker roads. I already knew the Hooton route would be longer, but I'm surprised to find that it's almost 3 times as long.

But which is quicker?

Well apart from 0.17 miles of motorway sliproad, the blue route is almost entirely 30 mile an hour urban stuff, punctuated by traffic lights, parked cars, zebra crossings, etc. A reasonable figure for the average speed on this route is perhaps 20 miles per hour. That's a mile every 3 minutes. So the blue route would take about 8 minutes.

The longer route consists of 0.75  miles at 30 miles an hour limit, 2.15 miles with a 40 mile an  hour limit, and about 4.25 miles of 70 mph motorway. The 30 mph bit is straight and wide, with just a single roundabout to slow things. So I'm going to assume an average speed of 25 miles per hour for this bit, meaning this would be covered in a little under 2 minutes. The 40 mph bit contains about 8 sets of traffic lights, so I'm going to say the 2.15 miles is done at an average speed of 35 miles an hour. And that works out at roughtly 4 minutes. Finally, 4.25 miles of motorway, done at slightly over a mile per minute (60 mph =1 mile per minute) would take about 4 minutes. Add these together and you get a nice round 10 minutes, so the long route takes a bit longer, even though the roads are faster. Not a huge difference in time though. If the speeds and times are average and approximate, there are times when it would actually be quicker to go this way.

Finally, although it's further to drive, and actually takes a little longer, is it possible that the green route uses less fuel?

Driving at a constant 30 miles an hour uses far less fuel than travelling at a constant 70. I did some experiments a couple of years back, travelling at different constant speeds along the same stretch of road, and recording the average fuel consumption. Unfortunately I can't find the figures now, but although the recieved wisdom is that the optimal speed for fuel economy is 56 miles per hour, this did not fit my experience at all. Travelling in a high gear, at a constant speed of 30 miles an hour used a lot less fuel than travelling in a high gear, at a constant speed of 50 miles per hour, which in turn used a lot less fuel than travelling in a high gear at a constant speed of 60 miles an hour.

The problem is that on urban roads, you're less able to drive at a constant speed. You're forever altering your speed. If you read the road well, you can keep stopping and starting to a minimum, but you can't eliminate the changes in speed completely. So the equation here is that the car is travelling at a speed that should be more economical, but this advantage is offset by less consistency in speed.

In order for the car to use less fuel on the longer run, it would have to use 3 times as much fuel travelling at speeds between 10 and 30 miles an hour as it does travelling at a fairly steady 70 miles an hour. At a constant speed of about 70, my car does about 38 miles per gallon. So I'd have to be doing about 13 miles to the gallon on urban roads for this to be the case.

And it isn't. I get somewhere around 40-45 mpg. Therefore the car uses far less fuel going the blue way.

So to summarise, in future, I will only ever travel between Clatrterbridge and the Croft industrial estate via Bromborough and Spital. It's superior in every way!

The Flipside of Dominic Hyde

I don't know what brought this to mind tonight.

It was first shown in 1980, and repeated in 1982. I don't know which one I saw but I was either 12 or 14 when I saw it, and it stuck in my mind, although I could remember almost nothing of it.

So I looked for it, and found the whole 90 minute programme sliced up into 10 minute youtube sections, and I've just watched them all now.

They start with the one below and you should find links to next as each one finishes.

Conveniently, the next one starts by repeating the last few seconds of the previous one, which means there are no jarring little bits missing between the episodes.

I really enjoyed it. It's a simple enough science fiction story that is grounded not in big budget special effects, but in being a good story well told.

There's an excellent review (contains spoilers) of it at TV cream.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Where the names have no streets

What's the richest country in the world?

Ireland, because it's capital is always Dublin.

Aye Thang yewe.

I've spent a bit of time this evening floating around above the Irish Republic. I was actually looking for somewhere that I'd been to when I visited Ireland years back.

I came over on the ferry and needed to find a place to pitch my tent, but I was in the middle of a city. So I took a bus as far as it would go. It went south, and dropped me off in the middle of a housing estate near a hill. I found a nearby field and started to unpack.  A local girl saw me, and explained that if I did this, I'd probably get mugged/stabbed/set on fire so I packed up again and started walking up the hill.

I'd walked through customs with a bit of weed on me. I was totally casual about it, because I'd totally forgotten I had it with me. Anyway, they weren't stopping anyone. Just glancing at passports. But I'd had a bit of a toot on my pipe, and now here was this girl telling me that I'd be lucky to survive the night.

I got the fear, man!

Then a group of young people turned up. The oldest was in his mid teens. The youngest was about 8. They were passing a spliff around, so we had a talk and a smoke, and they told me to go right up the hill out of harms way. So this is what I did. I slept hardly at all that night, and spent the next day putting some miles between myself and wherever it was I'd stopped.

In fact just about everyone I met was nice to me. No bad stuff happened but everywhere I went, people were advising me, "Don't go to Cork. It's stab city". "Stay away from Wexford. They'll suck your eyeballs out and feed you to the nuns".

Anyway, that's what I've been looking for. A sink estate on the south side of Dublin with a hill just to the south of it. I suppose it would help if I could remember some place names. I ended up on the road to Naas the next morning.

Floating above Ireland, there are millions of little red circles with names next to them. In other parts of the world, these represent towns and villages and cities. In Ireland, they  mark the point where two hedges meet. Or the middle of a field.

Places like Quinsborough

Or Corbally

or Crooksling

or Lugg

twinned with Lugmore...

 Ah those crazy Irish people. Since they have all these towns, it's obvious that they need to build lots and lots of houses.

Oh, hang on...

Sunday, 2 January 2011

And again!

Some time ago, I attempted to use a limited amout of information to precisely locate where a photograph had been taken from.

At the time, what I could do with Google Earth was a bit limited because of the quality of the imagery, but now this part of the world has proper aerial photography, and not just crappy satellite pics.

The person that took the photograph actually told me pretty precisely where it was taken after he read my post,but could I have got close without him volunteering the information?

Most of the logic was correct last time. In particular, I identified the direction from which the photgraph was taken, and that's important because it helps me to find the road sign.

In fact there are two roadsigns visible on google earth that could be the one shown on the picture. I think the image uses some telephoto, and so what you see is foreshortened. This makes it more difficult to relate the sign to other features such as the trees and hedges.

Especially now that the image is clearer, I'm reluctant to say too much.

Let's just say, if I've got this right, the photograph was taken from a first floor window, and the window was facing the rainbow.

Sherlock strikes again!

Today, the weather was clement!  So I girded my loins, and wound my merry way to the allotment. I was digging up the last of the spuds, when I noticed a curious thing.

You can see the skyline of Liverpool from the allotment, and today, the concrete pole that used to be called St John's beacon, but what is now the Radio City Tower looked almost as if it were on fire,  except what appeared to be rising from it was not smoke, but cloud. This column of vapour rose from the horizon right up to the cloud base. I briefly toyed with the notion that someone had nuked Manchester, but that seemed unlikely, and there are no reports of such a thing occurring on the BBC's news website.

So I suspected  a power station. But how could I be sure? I couldn't drive in a straight line from the allotment to St John's beacon, and then beyond. Too many buildings and fences and gardens and rivers in the way. But I could create a line using the power of Google Earth!

I made a placemark at the base of the beacon.

I made another placemark at the allotment.

Then I lined things up and let the "camera" drift eastwards.

We passed over Wallasey and Seacombe, then out over the river to the centre of Liverpool. Then out of the commercial heart of the city and into the suburbs. To Wavertree and Netherton. To Tarbock Green and Farnworth. And there! Directly in front of me was Fiddler's Ferry Power Station. I placemarked that too!

And as you can see, they line up perfectly. Google Earth was also able to tell me that the direct, as the crow flies distance from Allotment to Power Station is 15 miles. Or, if you prefer, 2,415,015 centimetres.

The wonders of modern technology!


Wait! There's more! Those 2 million centimetres took me over hill and down dale. And Google Earth knows exactly how up the hills were, and how down the dales were too. And it's given me a topological profile of the terrain between Love Lane Allotments and Fiddlers Ferry Power Station.

My life is enriched! Thank you once again Google Earth!

As you can see, the river Mersey is a flat, sea level bit to the left of the profile. We head down to it, and up away from it, soaring up to a rarified 225 feet above sea level in the Edge Hill area of the city. Watch out for nosebleeds and blackouts before you float gracefully down to a mere 50 feet above the briny towards the end of the trip. 50 feet lower than the starting point, at an average slope of about 1.5%. Nothing that a good stout pair of walking boots couldn't cope with.

Seriously, I've been using this thing for quite a long time now, without necessarily looking deeply at every aspect, so it's still got some surprising tricks up it's sleeve! To access this function, click the ruler button on the top bar (between the planet button and the email button) then simply click on a point and move your mouse pointer to a different point. You'll see a line. When you want to make the other end of a line, click again.

But you're not just limited to individual lines. You can do complete and complex journeys by combining lines to make paths.

As you can see from the picture above, I've just found that we drive 2.5 miles to do our shopping run at Asda. I could use Google Earth to work out  a shorter route. The possibilities are endless!

Drawing fire?

Well there I was, doodling away merrily, and it turned into something mechanical looking. I had some kind of belt driven contraption in mind, but it's just what it is... A doodle that developed from a blank canvas.

The trouble started when I saved my doodle. At a loss for what to call it, I called it "I found this in my garage. Anyone know what it is?"

I don't even have a garage. I certainly haven't found one of these things.

But then a question from another doodler attached itself to my picture.

"How big is it?"

My response was flippant.

"It depends how close you are" I said, with a nod towards Father Ted famously trying to explain to a perplexed Dougal that the cows were tiny because they were far away.

I thought that would be that. My obtuse response to a request for more information would tip people off that I wasn't seriously looking for an answer to my question.

When you log in to doodlebug, you go to a sort of start page, and that page contains a doodle. Usually a high quality, pleasing to the eye doodle. It stays for a day or two and then is replaced by another. None of my doodles have ever been selected for this honour.

Until now.

Site admin, obviously disappointed that my question had so far gone unanswered, have made my drawing the one that everyone sees when they log in. So far, it's been viewed almost 1,000 times. And I'm dreading the moment where someone asks me to post a photograph.

If it does develop into a full blown lets help the guy out sesh, I will have to fess up and say "hang on, that's just what I called it"

2011 starts with a kiss!

Can't say I'm a huge fan of Kiss. I was a bit of a metalhead whwn I was in my mid teens, but it's not really my thing.

They certainly know how to make an entrance!

What interested me was the use of Google Earth, blown up on a huge screen, and zooming from outer space to the venue itself. In this case, Manchester's MEN arena. I wonder if they did the same thing for their other dates.

U2 too are making use of Google Earth. They make a 3d model of their 360 degree stage setup thing, and you can go take a look on GE a week before each show.