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Diary 2015

New Year

1 January 2015

Our New Year's Eve was spent à deux. Cosy blaze in the Godin; we started with blinis and either foie gras or a tasty crevette paté - just enough to act as an appetiser. I felt like a dry white wine but didn't have one, so I tried a dry sherry instead - bit of a poofter drink but its dryness went with the shrimp if not the foie gras. Then a capon boned and stuffed with morilles, plus asparagus and flat beans served with sauce au jus. Ice cream and raspberries to finish. The meat was washed down with a lovely gamay. No potatoes - so a simple, relatively light but quality meal, with the table graced by the lovely Christine.

I looked at the TV programmes but as usual they were all rubbish so I tinkered with the computer…

Winter Project

1 January 2015

A beautiful, sunny day in the Lot & Garonne - a crisp frost painted the grass with bluey-white givre which stayed all day in shadowed areas.
It was good to work in the open, too. My current project is to cut down a string of 22 cherry-laurel trees. These were formed from selected plants in the laurel hedge which were allowed to grow; they've now got thigh-size trunks and are 5 - 6m high. I was reluctant to remove them as they form an effective screen, but a) the hedge in the shade of them tends to die, b) they need trimming every year where they overhang the road, c) they are interfering with an overhead telephone wire, d) they make trimming the top of the hedge difficult and e) they are illegally close to the boundary.
They're relatively easy to fell, but since laurel is evergreen there's a lot of leafage to get rid of, necessitating frequent trips with the auto-portée and trailer.
It's quite hard work, so I've rationed myself to two or three trees a day to avoid over-taxing my back. So far I've managed five trees in two days. There was a hiatus this afternoon when I launched my spectacles into the leaf rubbish pile as a twig grabbed them! I found the errant specs eventually!

Winter Project Completed

19 January 2015

My Laurel Tree Cull took me three weeks of fine days but it's finished!

The actual felling of the little trees didn't take long, but the evergreen laurel makes a great deal of rubbish, and each tree had to be limbed and bucked for its wood.

I was really glad I bought a small Stihl chainsaw last year - for prolonged use on small stuff it's much less tiring than my big chainsaw.

Most of the trees were tangled up with the telephone wires and had to be dismantled, so the small saw was good to use up a ladder. Some had branches between cables, for this situation I used a notch plus a sloping felling cut that dropped the trunk of the tree a couple of metres before the tree itself fell, thus clearing the cables. It sounds dodgy, but it worked and I didn't have any excommmunicated neighbours berating me!

Several trees could only be felled into the road - I stationed Christine to warn traffic - but since it's an impasse there wasn't any!

One tree was a poor little nisgul - I found it had a chain wrapped around it to close an erstwhile gap in the hedge; the chain had effectively ring-barked it - there's a pic in the photo album.

Each tree gave a few useful, thigh-sized logs plus some kindling - in total there's quite a bit and I'm about halfway through stacking it. I've found laurel wood to be quite dense and it burns well.I feel well satisfied with my efforts; there's a more open and less claustrophobic feel about my park and I managed to survive quite a lot of work without too much back pain.

So what am I going to do now…?

Compaq Compacted

28 January 2015

Please spend a quiet reflective moment in memory of my Compaq Presario computer that I laid to rest in the Tip today. I bought it almost eleven years ago today from Auchan for the princely sum of €950. Sadly it failed to live up to expectations; it was badly constructed and full of buggy Windows XP software.

It finally got so slow that it was unusable and was replaced by a Mac Mini in 2010 which continues to function admirably.

I removed the Compaq's hard drive so that the identity thieves wouldn't be too inconvenienced in trying to get it to work, and surrounded it on its death bed by the plethora of diagnostic, anti-virus and back-up CDs that inevitably accompanies a Microsnot product.

I wish I could say that I wept a little tear with its passing, but all I felt was a feeling of relief at having rid myself of Bill Gates's best.

No wonder Apple make record profits.

Musical Monday Musings

2 February 2015

I get a kick out of the times when old and new technology meet in happy harmony. I've got a rack full of several hundred music CDs which just gathers dust; all the contents have long since been uploaded to iTunes on my Mac and hence to my iPod and now my iPhone.

Usually I play the iPod through either my big Sony amp and home-brew bass reflex speakers (which I made in the seventies), or through a small speaker dock.

However last Christmas I bought Xine a "Pure Flow" internet radio for the kitchen so she could listen to Radio 4 independently of the television's satellite channels. This also has Caskeid connectivity which allows hifi audio connection via wi-fi (not Bluetooth) by music via an app on smartphone or tablet.

So last Saturday, my duty cook day, I was using my iPhone to stream a "playlist to cook by" to Xine's radio; this time I'd chosen an old CD of remastered 60's stuff.

We don't normally have any music or TV accompaniment to our meals, but when we sat down to dinner, I used the iPhone to turn the volume low so it was just a background - but inevitably we talked about some of the music which we both remembered; Xine as a teenager and me as a new dad.

So Xine asked me who had recorded a particular song she remembered - and I found it mind-boggling that without leaving my seat I could search for it on the iPhone and play it and read the name of the group.

That song was recorded in December 1959 as a single; I find it incredible that it has survived all the transitions of technology from analogue to digital and from vinyl to CD to hard disk and wireless streaming.

In case you're wondering, that song was "What do you want to make those eyes at me for" - it was by Emile Ford and the Checkmates;

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Tree More Fellers

9 Feb 2015

A lovely, warm sunny afternoon - ideal for playing outside!
I decided to take down some very tall evergreen privet-ty trees which were too close to the house, leaving leaves and berries on the roof, taking the light from the guest bedroom and being a risk in high winds.
In view of the proximity to the house, I had to put a security rope on - to avoid climbing a ladder I put a slip knot in a rope and pushed it up the tree with a long bamboo pole, pulling it tight when the rope was high enough.
I took three trunks down, each about 40cm diameter - fortunately they all fell where intended.

Upgrading MacOSX from Mountain Lion to Yosemite

1 March 2015

I’ve just updated my mid-2010 Mac Mini- from Mountain Lion OSX 8.1.3 to Yosemite 10.10.2 (and skipping over Mavericks). I’d been waiting for a stable issue - and procrastinating because I was somewhat nervous about making a mess of it.

1) Boot Install Drive
I got myself a 16GB thumb drive with the intent of making a bootable installer as in http://osxdaily.com/2014/10/16/make-os-x-yosemite-boot-install-drive/
However I had second thoughts after reading the process, particularly the arguments on the syntax of the command line to install Yosemite on the boot drive. Why was I doing this? I did it when I installed Mountain Lion - and the thumb drive has just cluttered up my desk ever since. I have no other Macs to update - if I made a mess of the install I could restore from Time Machine and start again.

2) The download
This was an overnight process - it forecast 6.5 hours to download the 5GB+ - but it was waiting for me at breakfast.

3) The installation
The installation was forecast as 22 minutes - it took 50 minutes. Several times I thought it had hung, but close examination showed that the thermometer was moving, very slowly.

4) The post-installation boot
This got to about 30 minutes and half-way, when I decided the process had hung. I consulted the internet with my iPad - sure enough lots of people had experienced the same thing. The advice was to leave it as it might finish. At an elapsed time of 1h10m I gave up.
Several people had found that a manual reboot by switching off worked. I tried it and the thermometer display moved rapidly to its previously “hung” point, then carried on from there - success!

5) Initial Niggles
iMovie is a program I lose quite a lot; I had to update it to the latest version. It’s a big program - over a GB and took a long time to download. When downloaded the icon was still greyed out and it started a new download - which installed and opened OK.
My old iPhoto was not compatible and its icon was greyed out - I don’t use iPhoto much but decided to download the new version despite the new Photos for OSX being on the horizon. No problems.
A new printer driver for my Canon printer came with Software Update.
I checked the apps and third-party apps - all worked except for my free Cyberduck (an FTP utility). Either I paid for a new app from the app store or I downloaded a legacy copy of Java SE6 for OSX 2014-001. I did the latter and the free Cyberduck now works.

6) First Impressions
The icons are flatter but functional and more grown-up - who needs a stitched leather cover on an address book? The typeface is different but more compact and maybe clearer?
The GUI is slower than Mountain Lion - launching apps sometimes brings up the beachball. I went through the tips in http://osxdaily.com/2014/10/24/speed-up-os-x-yosemite-mac/ which made a small improvement.
The layout and appearance of iMovie is quite different, but it seems to incorporate all the old gizmos plus some new. It’ll be a good thing with which to test my 75-year-old resistance to change!
I’m chuffed with being able to drag PDFs into “Books” and for them to appear on my iPhone without having to use iTunes - useful for holiday documentation!

7) Conclusion
I’m glad that I plucked up courage to upgrade my Mac Mini before it’s overtaken by better hardware and more-demanding software - it wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be.

Tour of Sri Lanka

30 April 2015


There should be a word for the feeling you get when you realise that you’ve done something really stupid with potentially highly-expensive consequences. I got the feeling when I checked my wallet, halfway into a 150km drive between Colombo Airport and the hotel near Sigirya; I found that I’d left my bank card in an ATM at the airport! Oops!

My excuse was that we’d had a long flight with a six-hour stop at Istanbul and after over 24 hours of travelling I wasn’t thinking too clearly; OK, so maybe I’m getting a bit doddery too. Ça se passe à mon âge! And the ATM didn’t ask you to remove the card to get the money, like in European machines. And I had drawn 1,000 Rupees - which seemed a great deal of money - until a bit of mental arithmetic told me that it was a miserable €7!

Thankfully we were the only ones to be picked up from the Toulouse flight, most of our group had arrived earlier, so we had our driver to ourselves. He rang the bank at the airport; they checked the ATM, which had swallowed the card before it could be purloined. Nevertheless I blocked the card by phone as soon as I got to the hotel - fortunately we had other cards to use.


So our trip didn’t get off to a very good start, but from there on it was all good. Our tour group consisted of only 15 people and they were all very kind, friendly people, without much knowledge of English but a friendly tolerance of our attempts to converse - and since English was widely spoken in Sri Lanka we were able to help, on occasions, with a little translation. Ten days of immersion did wonders for our French fluency too!

The trip was organised by FRAM, a company known more for cheapo beach holidays than high-end long-haul destinations, but we were agreeably surprised by the local tour firm they used, “Authenticities”.

Our group spent 10 nights at five hotels, all the hotels were of a genuine four-star standard with excellent, large rooms, with good food to suit both western and eastern tastes.

The main transport was a modern air-conditioned coach, supplemented by 4WD, train, boat and even tuk-tuk where appropriate!

The scenery was magnificent and varied, from sandy beach through mangrove swamp and coastal plain, to cool hills and tea plantations.

We did lots of different things; temple tours, climbing Sigirya rock, visiting markets, spice farms, watching tribal dancing, artisanal shops, tea production, a train ride, two 4WD safaris, a turtle farm, mangrove swamp and even an hour or two on a poolside chair!

All the Sri Lankans we met, from tour guide to man-in-the-street, were friendly and helpful; if you had a problem they were all keen to help.

In conclusion we enjoyed the trip more than a similar tour of Thailand; Sri Lanka is just as beautiful and interesting but smaller and more friendly.


Is there anything we didn’t like?

Not much, the long connection delay in Istanbul was a pain to wait out - and it meant that we arrived late on the first day of the tour, thus missing a day; but it was our choice to avoid flying via Paris.

And you have to like lots of temples; in Thailand I invented the French word “surtempler” - to visit too many temples. It came in useful in Sri Lanka too!

The 4WD safaris had few photogenic animals other than elephants; I wished I’d brought a camera with a long lens for the bird life which included toucans and the like. We also did two safaris on the same day which was long, tiring and bumpy!

Oh, and there was my bank card foul-up; my phone stopped working as I’d blocked the card which tops it up. I was going to retrieve the card at the airport on the homeward journey but it was a full moon and the Sri Lankans have an alcohol-free bank holiday on every full moon… But when I arrived home there was a new card from my French bank waiting for me.

So I won’t bother you with more text; you may find the 12-minute video easier to assimilate; see http://youtu.be/uUJhMbzjZi4. Viewers of a sensitive sartorial disposition are warned that this video contains scenes of men wearing socks with sandals - this unfortunate practice was necessary to protect otherwise bare feet from the very hot ground on temple tours.


Finally, this is what one of our group, named Serge, had to say about the trip. I couldn’t agree more!

“Nous avons passé un très agréable séjour, bien sur nous avons eu un bon guide, une restauration correcte, de très beaux hotels, vu de magnifiques paysages, respiré des parfums et aussi des odeurs surprenantes, nous avons découvert une foule de choses … mais la richesse de ce voyage, ce sont aussi les gens qui composent un groupe, en l’occurence c’est pour nous l’occasion de vous remercier pour la cohesion et la bonne entente tout au long de notre circuit.”

Engineers Visit St Nazaire

1 July 2015

It’s difficult to forget World War II in St Nazaire; the submarine pens are a massive and almost perpetual monument to the town’s important rôle in support of the German Navy. The pens support a machine-gun nest that probably had a decisive impact in March 1942 on “Operation Chariot”, when a combined allied Army/Navy force rammed an old destroyer crammed with explosives into the dry dock gates, in order to deny the use of the dock as an Atlantic support facility for the battleship Tirpitz.

A large proportion of St Nazaire was destroyed during the war; it has been replaced by 1950’s buildings but there are large open areas which give the town an airy feel and there is a pleasant little beach.

Our group of 26 engineers and partners gathered in a hôtel in one of these open areas near the sub pens, intent on an engineering visit to the shipyards and to the Airbus fuselage facility.

As an electronic engineer I found the sheer scale of the shipyard overpowering; vast areas full of welded-steel deck modules waiting to be welded together to make leviathan ships. We saw the “Harmony of The Seas” - an enormous liner under construction for Royal Caribbean - and a new, record size - which can take over 6,000 passengers. The two Mistral-class helicopter carriers intended for Russia were patiently waiting for a new owner following the unilateral cancellation by the French government in protest at the Russian actions in the Ukraine.

Having visited the Airbus factory at Toulouse, it was fascinating to see the fuselage facility which produces the pre-fitted fuselage sections which are sent to Toulouse, either by air in the “Beluga” aircraft or by barge through Bordeaux and road from Langon. The impressive scale here was not only in the size of the sections such as those for the A380, but also in the rate of delivery; the production rate of the A320 is being raised from 44 to 50 of these big passenger aircraft per MONTH!

Jackets and posh frocks were brought out for the gala dinner on Friday. Next morning we toured the area, taking in La Baule, the Le Croisic peninsula and the Guérande salt pans, with a tour of the salt workings. I found this nostalgic; I had visited the area with my French pen-pal and parents some 60 years ago, when I was 16 years old!

Saturday afternoon was devoted to a tour of the charming mediaeval town of Guérande and its impressive porticos and battlements.

All in all an interesting weekend; many thanks are due to Peter Morgan of the IET for organising it! As I left the area I couldn’t help thinking of the 215 commandos of Operation Chariot who were left with no way home as their craft were destroyed by enemy fire - and of the 169 allied souls who were killed in the operation. It would be unfair not to mention the 360 German lives lost, mostly by the delayed detonation of 4.5 tons of high explosive hidden on the ramming vessel.

Nose Tone Unturned

6 August 2015

Would-be migrants to the South of France probably imagine long, hot summer days sipping gin & tonic around the pool. In reality, although the long, hot summer days do happen, the owners of crumbly French cottages are quite likely to be found working hard on property maintenance.

The central wall of my barn supports the apex of the rafters and is a tall and massive structure made in the traditional way, two outer skins of large stones with an armature of rubble and clay, and any holes pointed in hard-packed clay. What else? - in the era when this barn was built, the builders used the materials available to them on site.

Inevitably rodents, particularly loirs (dormice), live in spaces within the walls. I’d noticed that they’d dislodged some of the stones, making holes that needed blocking. In addition the first metre or so on one side is virgin bedrock - some of this had crumbled and the lower stones were developing an overhang. Some maintenance with some new stones and mortar was required.

I devoted one afternoon to a stone-collecting expedition in the cliff below our house - the limestone here is hard and dense and collecting it is hard work. I took the trailer down to the brico and got ¼ m³ of sand and mixed a mortier bâtard of 1/2/9 ciment blanc/chaux/sable. I chose suitable stone “jigsaw pieces” to fit the holes, bedding them down on mortar and holding them snugly in place with pieces of earthenware tile tapped into any spaces, then pointing the gaps. I didn’t replace the clay pointing where it was still working - in the barn function is more important than appearance.

One big boulder which would probably weigh a couple of tonnes was apparently hovering over a gap in the bedrock stratum - held in place by the side pressure, no doubt. I built a layer underneath this where each stone was keyed into the bedrock and held in place with mortar. I left a “letter box” to be filled in with supporting stones after the mortar in the first layer was set.
Next day I closed up the “letterbox” with carefully-selected stones, having replenished the rubble within the wall.

Although this work is hard, it’s pleasurable because it brings one into contact with the long-dead artisans who first erected the barn. It must have been a communal effort - there’s so much hard work involved. And how did they lift and place those big stones? Even a football-sized stone is a good lift for one man - how about that stone I supported today that must be a couple of tonnes? Oh for a retrospective video camera!

Impressions of Berlin

6 September 2015

Tegel airport is only a short bus ride from Peter’s Pad - now renamed “Ibis Gillis” - in Moabit, Berlin. Staying with Peter enabled us to get the flavour of Berlin from a resident’s point of view. It is a compact city with a very good transport infrastructure - we bought “Berlin Cards” apiece which enabled unlimited travel on the under- and over-ground railways and the buses, together with substantial discounts on tourist attractions - and we took not a single taxi, even though they weren’t expensive. Inexpensiveness prevailed throughout - we did some supermarket shopping which was noticeably cheaper than France.

The short (7 minutes) video http://youtu.be/t5I-DfgvUm8 gives my own, particular view on the city.

Lasting impressions are those of “space” (I suppose we can thank the allied airforces for some of the clearance!) - “greenery”; there are lots of urban trees and the big Tiergarten central park - and “enormous food servings” (we never did manage to eat a three-course meal - the main course was always too much!) Almost everyone spoke enough English to avoid me having to use my 1950s scientific German - and they were all very friendly!

But I missed the tranquillity of SW France - and the “Bonjour” when you meet a stranger walking the opposite way.

But we left lots of things undone - so we’ll need to return - if our host will have us…

Francis Cabrel

16 October 2015

I went to Agen to see this gig – it was my third, the others being Lonnie Donegan and Barbara Dixon! Unfortunately Christine was hors de combat with a bug picked up on the flight from Portugal…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJlcSOltyQM is a track from his new album “In Extremis”.

Douro River Cruise

5 November 2015

NB please also see a short (4 minute) video here.

River cruising is the essential low-stress holiday. We’d sampled it on the Nile from Aswan to Luxor, and drifting along with a gin & tonic at hand while photographing photogenic feluccas is hard to beat for relaxation.

The River Douro stabs a west-east channel of commerce over 900km into Iberia, of which the first 200 km is in Portugal. What was once a hazardous port wine route via dangerous rapids, using flat-bottomed “barcos rabelos”, has been tamed into wide and gentle waters by a series of impressive locks-cum-hydroelectric power stations - one has a lift of 36m!

We flew from Toulouse to Porto via Lisbon and joined our boat, the CroisiEurope Fernão de Magalhães (Magellan) at its mooring in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite bank to Porto.

The ship has 71 cabins on three decks taking up to 142 passengers, so it is a refreshing change from the “floating cities” of the sea-going cruise ship. The river boats are built to squeeze under low bridges and fit in narrow locks just 12m wide. Each cabin is adequately sized at 129 sq.ft. and includes all facilities.

The ship remained anchored for the first day - we had a walk along the river, which flows through a channel with high and precipitous banks encrusted with buildings. That afternoon we hitched a lift into Porto on one of the barcos rabelos - Porto is an attractive and impressive city with a lively atmosphere.

For the rest of the holiday we took in the wonderful scenery, enjoyed the evening entertainment and went on an excursion through a port-wine producing area, ending in a quinta belonging to Sandemans.

Good Things

Bad Things


An enjoyable holiday - but were I to do it again I’d try hard to get a direct flight.

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MOGS Lunch

9 December 2015

We took a three-day trip to Chelmsford so that I could join MOGS Christmas lunch before all the old geezers drop off the perch. It proved to be quite a painless trip, thanks to Ryanair, First buses and the Premier Inn – we even managed to catch up with Simon and family in the evening!

New Toy

11 December 2015

Took the unreliable Audi A6 to town and swapped it and a fat cheque for a brand new, shining Honda CR-V in a bright “Rouge Passion” colour.

Oh the lovely smell of a new car!

We're planning to drive it to Berlin for Christmas to see Peter who is otherwise on his own as Karen will be in Spain.

Berlin for Christmas

25 December 2015

Our trip to the yUK gave us time to reflect on the task of driving the 3200 km to Berlin and return for Christmas. It's the sort of challenge that I would relish, but perhaps when we're both in perfect health and preferably during the months of better weather.
So we resorted to KLM and the flight from Toulouse via Amsterdam.

We had a pleasant and relaxed time with Peter, even if the meals were somewhat chaotic, with Berlin shops closing for three days running.

And we managed to get to the top of the TV tower with a magical view of Berlin by night!

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