Author: gazchap Page 3 of 10

Rooty-tooty, point and shooty

My Tuesday nights will now be taken up by my sport of choice – bell target shooting – so I thought I’d do a blog post tonight detailing what it is, how it works, why I find it so good and how you can get involved.

What is a bell target?

It’s not, as the name suggests, a target in the shape of a bell.

It is essentially a circular steel plate with a hole in the middle. The exact diameter of the circle varies between targets I believe, but the important things are that the hole in the middle should be 3/8ths of an inch wide (9.525mm) and that the target rings radiating out from that hole are spaced at 1 inch intervals (counting from the centre) – like the picture on the right.

The plate is usually painted with a thick white oil-based paint that doesn’t dry particularly quickly. This is so that, when hit, a mark is left in the paint by the impacting pellet.

Behind the plate is a mechanism that, when triggered, rings a bell inside the target box. The usual way of triggering this mechanism is to fire a pellet through the hole in the middle.

Resetting the bell position is either automatic (for posh new targets) or done by pulling a reset cord.

So, what do you need to do?

Basically, you just need to shoot a pellet through the hole, from a standing position, 6 yards away from the target. The sport is usually done with .177 calibre air rifles, which fire ,177 calibre pellets – 4.5mm. So there’s not a lot of wiggle room!

Exact scoring is different depending on the rules being played, but as an example, in the league that I shoot in you score 5.5 if you shoot clean through the hole (i.e. you don’t leave a mark on the plate) or 5.0 if you get the pellet through the hole but it leaves a small mark on the outer edge.

Scoring then goes to 4.5 if you leave enough of a mark that more than half of the pellet’s diameter is showing but is still within the next ring – and then 4.0 and below for each ring after that.

In our league, each shooter has seven shots, making a maximum score of 38.5. If a shooter scores 5 or above for all seven shots (but doesn’t score the maximum) he/she is said to have scored a “possible.”

What do you use to shoot?

As mentioned above, we use .177 calibre air rifles. There are a huge variety of rifles in use, some shooters still use traditional spring-powered air rifles, some use pneumatic air rifles that require the shooter to “pump up” a charge of air prior to each shot, and some (including myself) use “pre-charged” air rifles, that have a cylinder of compressed air (usually up to around 200 bar!) attached.

This is my rifle, a Feinwerkbau Model 700. I’ve had this gun for a good 10 years now, and it’s still just as accurate as it was the day I bought it:

Apart from the gun itself, there are also a lot of additional items of equipment that can be used.

The most obvious is a shooting jacket. Not all shooters use these, but most do as there are significant benefits to using them. A shooting jacket is a very rigid garment worn as a jacket (clue’s in the name!) that helps keep your upper body still when aiming. They come in a huge range of colours and sizes, and can be eyewateringly expensive (much like the rifles and pretty much everything else associated with the sport, to be honest!)

I’m still using a second-hand jacket that I purchased from another member of my team back when I first started in 2005. Natty threads, eh?

You can also get dedicated shooting trousers (which again, are very rigid and help to keep the lower half of your body solid and still) and shooting boots – which are also rigid, but crucially have elongated and completely flat soles so that you are not able to wobble from side to side as much on your feet.

I don’t use shooting trousers (although I do wear normal trousers, I don’t shoot in my pants*) and although I don’t have shooting boots, I do wear a pair of thick-soled “work boots” which I find achieve much the same effect.

Why do you enjoy it?

A number of reasons. Firstly, it’s very challenging both physically and mentally. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it, although my performance has been a bit lax the last couple of seasons, and you never really stop learning new techniques.

It is accessible to everyone, and inclusive too. Woman, man, pensioner, youngster, teenager or child, able-bodied or disabled – it doesn’t matter, you can come and have a go and see if it’s right for you.

There’s a great sense of “community” too. Shooting on the whole has received a lot of flak and negative media attention in recent years, thanks to tragedies like Dunblane in 1996 and Hungerford in 1987, and of course the seemingly never-ending spate of mass shootings over in the US. Shooting as a sport, however, is very rarely well represented in the media, despite it’s excellent (some would say impeccable) safety record. It’s not a great spectator sport, and the general negative view of shooting means that we’re all used to dealing with the stigma, yet shooters are, for the most part, some of the friendliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.

We’re always eager to introduce new people to what is unfortunately something of a dying sport too.

My team mates, and those on the teams that we shoot against, are all a great laugh. My team, Telepost, has a long standing “rivalry” with another team, The Breidden – who, I’m sad to report, often completely trounce us in matches, yet there’s never any ill feeling and we can all have a laugh together – even if sometimes we are a little jealous of their apparent ability – we’re half-expecting them to have a go blindfolded one of these days.

Where can I find out more?

Information is a bit sketchy on the Internet, as it’s not a hugely known sport. Nevertheless, there is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about the sport – www.belltarget.com.  It’s even where I took the image of the target at the top of this page from.

* fnarr fnarr, etc.

I had a dream

“Of becoming the finest retailer of washing sponges the US has ever seen.” – Martin Loofah King

Sorry, terrible joke, but it was the first thing that came to mind.

I’m blogging pretty much as soon as I’ve woken up, as I don’t often remember my dreams and when I do it’s usually all gone out of my head within an hour, so I thought I’d better get this down.

I had a dream last night that I was in a world where Doctor Who actually existed, and more so, I was a star player in one of his adventures. Well, sort of. The dream ended before things got really exciting, so I’m afraid this post will have something of an anti-climax.

I’m not 100% sure why I dreamt about The Doctor – the only thing I can think of is that I was reading a thread about it on BeEx shortly before I went to sleep. On reflection, that actually seems to be a fairly safe bet. Mystery solved!

The Singularity Device

That’s just my little made-up title for the adventure.

I was dreaming in black and white – which in itself is a little weird – so I must have been taking part in a William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton serial.

I was a supermarket till operator, who just happened to be walking back home from work past a laboratory when I noticed that all of the lights inside were still on despite it being very late at night, and also the door locks had been forced open.

Against my better judgment, I went inside and investigated the disturbance, and found the aftermath of what looked like a pitched battle between the scientists that had worked there and some invading force. There were many dead bodies lying around, a couple of piles of ash, and one scientist who was still alive – barely. I rushed over to assist and he pointed towards an adjacent room and, with his dying breath, said something about safeguarding the “singularity device” and pushed a piece of paper into my hand.

I walked over to the adjacent room and peered inside – lots of equipment and a wall safe. The room had been ransacked but the safe remained locked.

I looked at the piece of paper – a code! I carefully made my way over to the safe, stepping over the detritus and battle-scarred furniture, and punched in the number from the paper. The safe bleeped and opened up, revealing a small, unassuming black box. The box had an antenna folded against it, a power switch, a red button marked “FIRE” and a protrusion at the top that kind of looked like a very short gun barrel.

Knowing a bit about science, and having a (very limited) idea of what a singularity was, I decided not to push the button but to instead keep it safe on my person and head home.

The next morning…

I was awoken by a very odd sound coming from my downstairs living room. A sort of “throm-throm-throm”, as if someone was running a bow across a violin in completely random directions.

I went down to try and find the source of the noise and was quite surprised to discover a blue police box sitting in the middle of the living room, with no obvious clues as to how it had got in.

Before I could think about it any further, the door opened and an elderly looking man in a blue jacket stepped out.

“Hello. I’m the Doctor,” he said, “and you are?”

I gave him my name, asked him how he’d managed to get into my house with his box, and more to the point, why he was in my house.

The Doctor explained his blue box – the TARDIS – to me, and how it could dematerialise and rematerialise without moving, how it was bigger on the inside and how it could travel through space and time. I didn’t really know how much to believe, but on the other hand, there was most definitely a blue box in my lounge that could not have got in in any other way short of wrecking half the walls to make a big enough hole.

He then went on to explain that he’d been following a unique energy signature, and asked me if I’d come across anything unusual in the last 24 hours. I hesitated, but explained the events of the previous night.

“A Singularity Device?”, he questioned, suddenly looking rather concerned. “May I see it?”

I handed it to him. He pulled out a weird looking probe thing from his coat and waved it over the black box. “Hmm, yes. And you say that somebody was after this? Did you see who?”

I told him that I hadn’t seen the attackers, but that I could take him to the laboratory and he could investigate himself. He agreed that this would be a good plan, so off we went. I had suggested we use his magic box, but he declined, stating “depending on who was after this thing, I may not want them to know I’m around.”

The return to the laboratory

We arrived back at the laboratory to find the entire scene had been cordoned off by the police. Police tape was everywhere, and officers were stationed at every entrance and exit, guarding the building.

The Doctor told me not to worry, and to follow him whatever happened. We walked up to the entrance, and the officer stopped us, asking to see some ID. The Doctor pulled out a wallet, opened it up and showed a piece of blank paper to the Sergeant.

“Ah, sorry Sir. I didn’t recognise you. Go on in.” he said, and lifted the police tape for us both to enter.

The Doctor immediately set about looking into every nook and cranny. The bodies had all been removed, but he was particularly interested in the piles of ash that were laying around. He got out his probe thing, which he’d since explained was something called a “sonic screwdriver” and waved it over the pile of ash in front of him.

“Just as I suspected,” he said, “this is the work of Daleks.”

He took me off to a quiet corner of the room and explained who the Daleks were, where they had come from and how they had come to be. Purely genocidal xenophobic creatures of hatred, dedicated to ridding the universe of anything that wasn’t a Dalek.

He surmised that the Singularity Device was an experimental weapon, capable of creating singularities – or black holes – wherever it was pointed, and that the Daleks were almost certainly interested in it as a means of destroying the Earth and all of the non-Daleks contained upon it.

Before we could decide what to do next, there were loud screams and a horrible shrill sound, not too unlike the typical “death ray” laser from science fiction films. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it was, and I got my first glimpse at one of these so-called Daleks as it rounded the corner in front of us.

Run!

It looked a bit like a salt and pepper shaker, was about five feet tall, and moved silently across the ground as if it was hovering ever so slightly above it. A weird looking stalk protruded from it’s “head”, which I assumed was some sort of eye, as the head span around to survey the area. Underneath, in its mid-section, were two metal “arms” – one that looked bizarrely like a sink plunger, the other like a kitchen hand whisk.

It caught sight of us, but before it could do anything with its new fleshy targets, the Doctor grabbed me by the hand and ran, pulling me with him.

We made it outside the laboratory to find that all of the police officers were now dead, clearly victims of these murderous travel machines.

The Doctor explained to me that the Daleks would most likely stop at nothing to get their hands – or plungers – on the device. The energy signature that he’d traced back to my house would likely be being traced by the Daleks as we spoke – they had probably returned to the laboratory because I’d removed the device from its safe and exposed the signature to their scanners. My house was probably crawling with Daleks.

Clearly the only thing we could do was try and hide the Singularity device again.

The Cold Room

I had an idea. The supermarket I worked at had a cold room, used for storing all of the frozen goods. It was large, was sealed shut by a big thick insulated door, and was kept at a temperature of -18°C. We could hide the device in there.

The Doctor had another idea – he wanted to bury it far, far underground. He asked if there were any rock quarries nearby, but I told him that there weren’t, and that it probably would have ended in tears anyway – they’re very dangerous places!

So, we made our way over to my workplace. I climbed into the cold room suit and walked in, closing the heavy door behind me.

In the middle of the room, on the floor, was a little “air conditioning” system of sorts, that helped to keep the temperature low. I opened up the unit and placed the Singularity device inside. I reasoned that this would keep it safe from prying eyes.

Suddenly, I heard that telltale “death ray” sound again, and more screams. I heard the Doctor shout to me to stay there, and that he would come back for me.

I figured that my body temperature would also be quite well hidden in this room, so I wasn’t particularly worried.

I stayed in the cold room for what felt like an hour, waiting until I could hear nothing except the quiet monotone hum of the cold room’s air conditioners.

I opened the door and stepped outside.

And that’s where the dream ended…

Talk about annoying, eh?

I vaguely remember dreaming about the Doctor and I discussing other options – posting the device off to a random address in another country so they wouldn’t know where it had gone, destroying the device (I think the reason we didn’t do that was in case the act of doing so created a singularity on Earth) and even just taking the batteries out.

All I could think about when I woke up though was simply that, if the Doctor and I had gone back to the laboratory in his TARDIS, we could have escaped in that, with the device, and it could have been kept safe in there for the rest of time.

But then, technically 99% of the Doctor’s adventures would be solved with judicious use of the TARDIS. But he never does. I guess because that wouldn’t make for a very exciting adventure…

We can go my way, or the Electric Highway

The eagle eyed amongst you will have no doubt noticed that I didn’t post yesterday, thus technically failing the “post every day in September” challenge that I’ve been setting myself.

However, I had a good excuse – I was driving, and as per my earlier post, I didn’t really think it was a safe (or legal) time to start tapping away on my keyboard.

If you read my last post, you will already be aware of my journey. I was to drive to Gloucester, to meet up with Katy, Aisling and – of course, Jem – in preparation for their Great Highnam Court Run – the inaugural 10K race around the Highnam Court estate.

Pre-trip preparation

Upon arrival at work yesterday, I immediately set about charging the LEAF. There is no dedicated charger at work, so I had to use the LEAF’s EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment) adapter to plug into a standard 3-pin socket (known to plug connoisseurs as the BS 1363 Type G, and arguably one of the best plug designs in the world – yes, I have an anorak)

Our office roof is covered with a large array of solar panels that pretty much power the whole office most of the time, so the charge was effectively free.

At the end of the day, and with my battery at 99% full, I set off home to feed the cats and get on the road.

Leg 1: Broseley to Gloucester

I set off for Gloucester at 7.15pm (I didn’t just feed the cats in the end, I had a shower and did a couple of chores too, in a (probably vain) attempt at making Jem’s life easier when she got home.

I’d already planned to stop off at Frankley services on the M5 to recharge, and did so with 35% battery remaining:

I thought I’d hate having to stop off and charge every so often, but it does actually provide a welcome break (no pun intended, especially given that the Frankley services are run by MOTO) and I took the opportunity to sit down with a coffee and read a bit of Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers on my nook.

35 minutes later, I unplugged and continued on my way – the rest of the trip was uneventful, and I arrived at my destination with 26 miles left on the guess-o-meter (range counter) – it took me a while to find the house though, thanks to what I can only describe as one of the strangest road layouts, coupled with one of the strangest house-numbering schemes I’ve ever seen.

Leg 2: The Race

Not much of a leg, this. Or at least, it shouldn’t have been. The idea was simple enough – drive to Highnam Court and drop the racers off, and then head over to Gloucester Services on the M5 to recharge in preparation for the journey back.

Gloucester Services is, incidentally, the nicest service station on the motorway – with Tebay Services (operated by the same group, Westmorland) coming a close second.

I got to Gloucester Services with just 8 miles left on the range counter, and dutifully charged up and took the opportunity to stuff a breakfast bap and a cappuccino into my face.

What should have then happened was simple – drive back to Highnam Court, pick up the racers and then go back to the house before heading home. However, I inadvertently took a wrong turn and ended up travelling 16 miles out of my way, which kind of defeated the point of recharging, but never mind – it could have been worse – Jem and Aisling, while driving from Brighton to Gloucester last night, somehow ended up taking a wrong turn and arrived in Oxford somewhat bemused at how they managed to go so far out of their way. They eventually got to Gloucester an hour and a half later than planned.

Anyway, I went back to Highnam Court and after the race finished, we had a bit of a walk around the grounds and the lovely scenery within them:

Leg 3: Gloucester to Broseley

This was where it got interesting, although in hindsight there was no need to worry.

I left Gloucester with 54 miles on the range counter. My plan was to go back to Frankley services and top up there, but Frankley services is 44 miles away from where we were, and I wasn’t sure if it would make it, so I considered heading back down to Gloucester services (5 miles away)

However, when I got going, I figured that it should be fine – the range counter has been pretty accurate so far, so I threw caution to the wind and went for it.

Jem, driving separately of course, went flying off into the distance and left me for dust.

On the way to Frankley, I saw one of the matrix signs on the side of the road that read “SMOKE. SLOW DOWN” – not a message I’d come across before, but sure enough, upon rounding the corner I could see that the carriageway was covered in smoke, pouring out of what looked like either a Ford Galaxy or a Vauxhall Zafira that had caught fire on the other side of the motorway.

I felt sorry for whoever owned the car, and yet at the same time felt oddly smug that the fire was likely caused by diesel runaway or something like it, and that me, in my not-creating-thousands-of-explosions-per-minute car would never have to worry about such things.

I arrived at Frankley in good time and with a good 18 miles or so left on the range counter, no doubt helped by my driving at a steady pace and generally taking it easy – which makes for a far more relaxing drive. I plugged in and enjoyed a mocha latte and a few more chapters of Red Dwarf.

I then had enough charge to get me home, but I decided to stop off at Telford services on the M54 for a further topup as my back and legs were really starting to ache and I could do with the break.

216.9 miles. Zero cost.

Yup, that’s right. In total, from Broseley to Gloucester and back again (including the detour, and the associated journeys) I drove nearly 217 miles.

In my old M5, at 12 miles per gallon, that would have cost me £88 in petrol (at today’s prices of £1.08 per litre – had we done this journey when I actually owned the M5, when petrol was up at £1.42 per litre, it would have been a staggering £116.

In the LEAF, thanks in no small part to the Ecotricity Electric Highway (which is currently completely free of charge – again, no pun intended) and the solar panels on my office roof, the total fuel cost for this journey was a big fat zero.

“Totes amazeballs”, as I believe the cool kids say these days.

Home Alone

So, Jem has gone down to Brighton today as tomorrow is the BrightonSEO conference, in which she intends to network and learn some more stuff about the dark art that is search engine optimisation.

After she’s finished in Brighton tomorrow, she’ll be heading up to Gloucester to see friends and take part in the Highnam Great Court Run, a new 10K running race. I’m supposed to be going down to Gloucester tomorrow evening to meet up with everyone, and then I’m supposed to be taking part in a 5K running race at the same event.

However, my back problems continue unabated despite a session with an osteomyologist last night. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t run as I may possibly do my back further damage, so I’m not going to run. The problem that I find myself with now is that, as Jem has driven her Jazz down to Brighton, I have two choices of vehicle for the journey tomorrow – the LEAF, or the Celica.

The LEAF should, in theory at least, make the trip easily – it’s a 65 mile journey from Broseley, so in theory if I stop off at the Telford services at Junction 4 on the M54, I can topup my battery to 80% using the Ecotricity rapid charger there. That should give me a range of approximately 70 miles. I can potentially topup at Frankley services on the M5, followed by Gloucester services further down – but the viability of the entire journey relies somewhat on these chargers being operable, as there will be no means of charging the car at my destination (lack of parking near to the house.)

If I don’t want to risk running out of electrons on the side of the motorway, I could always go in the Celica.

Jem told me earlier that she had the key to the Celica in her bag with her in Brighton, so unless I can find my spare key, that option’s out. Even if I can find the spare key, I’m not sure I’d want to drive the Celica as the ride height of the car makes it very difficult (and painful) for me to get in and out of it when my back is like it is.

I wonder how many miles I could get out of a full battery if I drove at 45mph the entire way…

“Let off some Steam, Bennett!”

Points to anyone who recognises the quote, which bears only a tangential relationship with the topic of today’s post.

So, what is it? Is the topic movies? Movie quotes? Arnold Schwarzenegger? The family featured most heavily in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?

No – it’s Steam. And by that, I mean the digital software distribution platform, not the gaseous form of H2O.

Why would you write about that?

Well, truth be told, I’m running out of ideas a bit – it’s day 16 of Septemblog, I’ve written more posts on here so far this month than I have done for the past two years – I’m basically clutching at more straw than Worzel Gummidge in the throes of sexual ecstasy (with Mrs. Gummidge, obv.)

Still, someone mentioned Steam, and it made me think about how many games I have on my Steam account, and how many of them I’ve actually played. So, let’s get into statistics…

“Games, games! Everywhere I go – games! This is what my lifetime of achievement has been reduced to.”

Again, points to anyone who recognises the quote.

I joined Steam on November 20th, 2004, so I’m coming up to my 11th Steamiversary. Apparently I was a relatively early adopter, as Steam’s initial release was in September 2003.

The first game that I bought through the platform was most likely Half-Life 2, and this would tally up with my registration date, as the game was released on November 16th. According to mysteamgauge, where I’m getting these stats from, I’ve played 0.64 hours of Half-Life 2, which isn’t right as I’ve completed that game and it took me a damn sight longer than just over half an hour!

The last game that I bought was Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015: Do You Still Shower With Your Dad? – a delightfully silly game written by one of the guys from the Making Games Megathread on the SomethingAwful forums. It’s also a game with a surprising amount of depth – and a not-entirely unsurprising amount of dong. I’ve played 0.1 hours of this, but I should really play a lot more as it’s quite enjoyable.

The game that I’ve played the most of is Far Cry 3, logging a total of 237.19 hours. I can definitely believe that, I spent far too long playing that game, completing every objective and raiding every outpost. Tremendously good fun.

Next up is XCOM: Enemy Unknown at a surprisingly-low 44.39 hours. I’m not sure that’s correct, as I feel like I’ve spent weeks playing that – but I could be getting it confused with the original UFO: Enemy Unknown (X-COM: UFO Defense for you Americans). The sequel to this, the imaginatively titled XCOM 2 (not sure if the subtitle is Enemy Known or not) comes out in February 2016, and I can’t bloody wait.

Totals

I have a total of 213 games on my Steam account, which – had I paid full price for all of them – would have been at least $3,500. However, Steam Summer/Christmas sales and Humble Bundles have meant I could acquire many of these on the cheap.

Of those 213 games, I have played approximately 85. That’s actually quite high, I wasn’t expecting it to be that much.

The total install size of all of my Steam games is a whopping 987.8 GB. But about 985 GB of that is Grand Theft Auto V.

Conclusions

I have too much money, and not enough time. A bit like Walter White.

A couple of my favourite jokes…

I’ve not got an awful lot of time to write an in-depth post tonight, as I’m going out shortly for shooting practice (information on which will most likely form the basis of one of my posts this week), so here are a couple of my favourite jokes.

Pork Pie Man

A man walks into a pub and asks for a pint and a pork pie.

The barman gives him his pint, and a nice fresh pork pie. He drinks his pint, picks up his pork pie, puts it on the top of his head and walks out, carefully balancing it on his noggin.

About 10 minutes later, he returns and goes to the bar. Again, the man asks for a pint and a pork pie.

The barman gladly serves him, and the man drinks his pint, picks up his pork pie, puts it on top of this head and walks out with it balanced on his head.

After 5 minutes, a second man walks into the pub and asks the barman for a pint and a pork pie.

The barman replies, "Sorry, we don’t have any pork pies left, will a packet of crisps be OK?". The man says ‘Sure, a packet of crisps will be fine.’

The second man drinks his pint, then takes the crisps out of the packet and starts balancing them on his head.

Unable to contain his confusion any longer, the barman asks "Excuse me, why are you balancing those crisps on your head?"

The man replies "Because there are no pork pies left!"

Orange Head Man

It’s business as usual for the barman (perhaps the one from the previous joke), and one day, he is cleaning his bar when an unusual customer walks in. The man is dressed in an expensive suit, has a beautiful supermodel hanging off each arm, and has a limo parked outside. Furthermore, the man has an orange for a head.

The customer sits down at the bar and orders everyone a drink. He pays for it from a roll of hundreds and manages to get the attention of every woman in the joint – despite having an orange for a head.

The barman is not a man to pry, but he feels compelled to ask about this man’s life.

"Excuse me," says the bartender, "I can’t help but notice that you’re obviously fabulously wealthy and irresistible to women, but you have an orange for a head. How did that happen?"

So the man told his story.

"A while back, when I was penniless, I was walking along the beach and saw an old lamp, half buried in the sand. I picked it up and gave it a clean, and out popped a genie! The genie explained that he had been trapped in that lamp for two hundred years, and that he was so grateful to me for freeing him that he would give me three wishes.

"For my first wish I asked for an unlimited fortune. The genie said ‘It is done!’ and from then on, whenever I needed money, it was there.

"For my second wish I asked for the attention of all the most beautiful women in the world. The genie said it was done, and since then I have been able to get any woman I wanted.

"For my third wish – and, this is the bit where I screwed up a bit – I wished that I had an orange for a head."

For all intensive purposes

No, this isn’t going to be a post about commonly mispronounced sayings and phrases, although that may form the basis of a future post – I suppose that depends on whether I could care less or not.

This post was inspired by this post that I came across today on Catherine’s blog, and I thought driving lessons and tests would make a good topic for today’s waffle.

Son, we can do this the easy way or the hard way

It was 2002. I was 19, and I figured now was the time to learn to drive. Up until now, the only exposure I’d had to driving was playing the Gran Turismo series on the PlayStation, and driving my brother’s Vauxhall Cavalier around the car park at Morrisons at the age of 15 – during which I vividly remember exclaiming, “This is nothing like Gran Turismo! How can they call it the ‘Real Driving Simulator’?! Beggars belief.”

So I did some research and decided that, as I would be leaving college imminently and that a driving licence would help me find a job, doing an intensive driving course would be the way forward. I figured it would be easier to get it all done and dusted, rather than protract it out longer than needed. BSM (the British School of Motoring) were offering 30 hour intensive courses, with the driving test at the end, and I dutifully signed up.

The 30 hour lesson programme basically took place over the course of 5 days, but as the test was on the afternoon of the 5th day, with a two hour lesson beforehand, I basically had to cram in 28 hours of driving lessons over 4 days.

At the end of it, my instructor (Neville Blake, not sure if he’s still teaching!) was happy that I was test-ready and packed me off to the Driving Test Centre in Shrewsbury.

It didn’t go terribly well.

17 minors, 2 serious faults, 1 dangerous fault and a partridge in a pear tree

For context, if there’s anyone reading who doesn’t know how the UK driving test works, you are tested on a huge variety of driving tasks – it’s widely regarded as one of the hardest driving tests in the developed world.

If you make a mistake, that’s a minor fault. You are allowed to make up to 15 minor faults in your test and still pass, although if you repeat the same mistake too many times that can fail you.

There are also serious faults and dangerous faults, and just one of either of these is an automatic, instant fail.

The partridge in the pear tree is by-the-by.

I can’t remember what all of my minor faults were for, but I know I got at least three for “undue hesitation”, as I remember being a bit annoyed at being marked down for being too cautious, thinking that extra caution was a good thing. Of course, since then I’ve come to realise that good driving is not only about being safe and making progress, but also not impeding others who also want to make progress.

I’ve also forgotten one of my serious faults. The other one, however, is really annoying. I was driving down a narrow-ish road lined with parked cars, in a residential area. My speed was appropriate for the conditions, that much I am sure, but all of a sudden a small kid (is there any other kind?) rode out into the road on a little pushbike, shooting out from behind a hedgerow in his garden.

There was no way I could have predicted it – I couldn’t see movement under the hedge in the same way you’d be able to with a parked car – but I remembered my training and instinctively went to perform an emergency stop.

Unfortunately, I felt the brake pedal move away from underneath my foot as I went to stomp on it – the examiner had got there first. Again, if the examiner has to take physical action, it’s an instant fail. I was a bit aggrieved by this, as my reactions as a learner driver are bound to be a little bit slower than a seasoned professional, but never mind – the other faults meant I would have failed regardless, even if I’d completed the stop without help.

The dangerous fault was for pulling out of a (very short) slip road on to a dual carriageway and (apparently) causing a HGV to slow down to accommodate my manoeuvre. The fact I don’t remember even seeing the HGV is more worrying, so I’ll let that one slide.

So, what went wrong?

I was test ready. I felt ready. I knew the theory (I scored 35/35 on the theory test, although as that’s mostly just common sense I’m not sure how people don’t) and I could perform manoeuvres to perfection – even the parallel park, which I’m terrible at nowadays on account of hardly ever having to do it.

I think the problem I had was that I simply did not have enough “on the road” experience. 30 hours of non-stop learning would tire anyone out regardless of the
subject matter, so it’s hardly a surprise that I clearly didn’t take
enough in.

One of the first things my instructor said to me was that he wasn’t teaching me to drive, he was basically teaching me to pass the driving test, because you never stop learning how to drive. And he was right.

I stopped learning to drive after my test, until the spring of 2004 when I resumed lessons – one a week, this time with Geoff Young (who I think is still teaching, I see him about occasionally) and with lots of private practice in between to build up my “road hours.”

It turns out that there are a huge number of variables and scenarios that you will encounter when out on the road that learning to drive in such a short space of time just cannot prepare you for.

I passed my second driving test in August 2004, with just 4 minor faults this time. Interestingly, during this test, we came upon a “fresh” accident on a dual carriageway, and my examiner – to his credit – advised me on how best to deal with the obstruction as if he was my instructor, not my examiner.

TL;DR

My advice to anyone looking to learn to drive is, put simply:

  1. Don’t do an intensive course unless you’re 100% sure it’s right for you
  2. Get in lots of private practice
  3. Do your research, and choose a driving instructor that you get on well with (this guy comes thoroughly recommended if you’re in the Shropshire region)
  4. Don’t be disheartened if things don’t go as planned – as said above, you never stop learning so don’t worry too much
  5. Once you’ve passed, look into things like PassPlus or even Advanced Driving courses

And finally, enjoy yourself! Driving offers you unprecedented freedom to go and do whatever you want, it’s worth the effort.

Turning over a new Leaf

As I mentioned in one of my posts just the other day, I’ve been driving for 11 years now – I passed my test in August 2004. Since that time, I’ve gone through cars like most people go through underpants – 22 of them to be precise – pretty much two a year.

I started out with fairly small and slow cars, as would befit a newly qualified driver, and slowly progressed through to 500bhp monsters like the V10-powered BMW M5.

My tastes over the last few years have been for Vee-engined BMWs in general, to be honest – primarily V10 and V8 gas guzzlers, to be precise. The two V10 M5s would regularly achieve such heady heights of 12 miles per gallon – which, at today’s petrol price (£1.07 per litre), with my current work commute (18 miles each way) would see me spending a whopping £14.57 per day to get to work and back – assuming 20 work days per month, that’s nearly £300 a month – and that’s just for my work mileage, not even taking into account other journeys.

My last BMW, a 750i, which I sold on Friday night, got around 22mpg on average, so that’s better but is still £7.95 per day.

Plus of course, there was tax to consider – £505 per year for the BMW. Plus servicing and maintenance/repairs costs, which could have potentially been a wallet-killer on an older BMW – I once had to pay near enough £3,000 for a clutch and flywheel replacement on my first M5.

On top of all that, there’s the money to pay for the car in the first place. In other words, owning these damn cars hasn’t been cheap.

Something had to change.

Why don’t you make like a tree, and leaf?

So, it was with some excitement and also nervousness that I approached my local Nissan dealer a month and a bit ago and enquired about loaning one of their Nissan LEAF electric vehicles for a four day test drive.

I’d been following the development of electric vehicles with much interest over the last few years, a pal of mine up in Scotland* has long been a proponent of EVs, and often posted on Be Excellent To Each Other about his latest custom projects, but they never really appealed – probably because of the Clarksonist tripe often spouted about them.

However, the media coverage of the Tesla Roadster and Model S, and the frequent musings of Red Dwarf and Scrapheap Challenge star Robert Llewellyn, another strong advocate of EVs, made me sit up and pay attention.

Anyway, Greenhous Nissan in Telford were more than happy to loan me a LEAF for a few days. It ended up being a 48 hour test drive as they unexpectedly sold the demo car and had to have it back for preparation, but my experiences over the 48 hours convinced me that EVs are the future, and I paid a visit to the dealership the week after handing the car back and placed an order for my own LEAF.

I picked it up yesterday, and here it is, resplendent in the free Flame Red paint, because I was too much of a cheapskate to pay extra for metallic paint and the only other option would have been white – and cars don’t look good in white unless they’re also covered in Castrol livery!

So, let’s cover off a few of the questions that are often raised about electric vehicles – and again, as with my Eggheads appearance, I’ve been asked quite a few questions, so here they are in roughly the order in which I’ve been asked them the most:

Q. Electric? Have you gone mad? I thought you were supposed to be a “petrolhead” – the clue’s in the name!

A. Yes, it’s fully electric, and no I haven’t gone mad. As for being a petrolhead – I would argue that a petrolhead is someone who has an interest in cars in general, so that hasn’t changed. There’s no denying that the LEAF is interesting, and besides, I’m keeping the Celica.

Q. How far will it go on a single charge?

A. Official figures are 120 miles (on the New European Driving Cycle) but these figures are always a bit out of whack. Real-world usage by others suggest a realistic maximum of around 85-90 miles depending on driving style, weather conditions, outside temperature etc.

Q. That’s hardly anything!

A. Well, not compared to most petrol/diesel cars, no. But the LEAF will be fine for 95% of my day to day driving, and if I do need to make any longer journeys, then a number of options are open to me:

  • Use the Celica
  • Use Jem’s Honda Jazz
  • Rent a car
  • Borrow a car from Nissan themselves, they have a programme setup for this
  • Go in the LEAF, but plan the journey to include recharges

To be fair, I’d probably take one of the first two options simply for convenience – but they’re all viable.

Q. How long does it take to recharge?

A. That depends on the charger, and of course how full the battery is already. From 0% to 80% would take around 11 hours on a 3-pin domestic plug socket, or around 4 hours on a dedicated home charger, or 20-30 minutes on a rapid charger.

I’m having a home charging unit installed tomorrow (at a greatly reduced cost, as the Government provide grants for doing so) and Ecotricity have a growing network of rapid chargers installed at most motorway service stations, so a quick 20 minute stop off every hour and a half isn’t too much of a problem.

Plus there are loads of publically accessible charging points dotted all around the UK – see Zap Map for proof!

Q. It’s not the best looking car, is it?

A. It’s alright – the arse end is a bit challenging, but I quite like the look of it.

Q. What’s it like to drive?

A. At first, quite odd. It’s almost completely silent, it is incredibly smooth and vibration-free. Even at speed there’s almost no wind noise
and the ride quality is incredible. After taking my 48 hour test drive I got back into the BMW and starting the engine felt positively neolithic
with it’s loud burbling and vibrations – and I like the sound of V8s!

Q. How much money is this going to save you?

A. In terms of the cost of paying for the car, it’s about as much as I was paying for the BMW, but the LEAF is brand new. Consequently, it comes with a full manufacturer’s warranty so I don’t have to worry about paying for repairs. Maintenance is virtually non-existent thanks to there being almost no moving parts and fluids, so servicing costs are minimal. It costs me nothing in VED (road tax) as EVs are exempt, and even my insurance is cheaper.

The best part though is that to “refuel” I just have to plug it into my house, and I’ll end up paying around 2p per mile – meaning that my daily commute will cost me, at most, just 75p or so per day.

Q. Coming from a 7-series BMW, this must be like driving a Lada by comparison, right?

A. Not at all. It has just as many mod-cons as the 750i, and even some more on top. A BOSE sound system with Bluetooth audio capabilities and iPod/USB playback (not even the 750i had those!), heated seats, a heated steering wheel, reversing cameras (and even an “All Round View” camera which shows you your entire surroundings:

(picture from the teslamotorsclub.com forums)

Plus, of course, I can plug the car into the house to charge and have it set to warm itself up for me in the mornings so that by the time I get into it to go to work, it’s already nice and toasty warm – it’ll even turn the heated steering wheel on for me for 15 minutes before departure if it’s cold enough.

Q. It’s not really that environmentally friendly though, is it? I mean, the electricity is still being generated by coal!

A. Well, I’m not doing this for the environment (although it is a side benefit) – but consider that most internal combustion engines are, at most, approx. 20% efficient – i.e. for every litre of fuel they use, only 20% of the energy released goes towards moving the car. Electric vehicles are closer to 65% efficient – so even though fossil fuels are still being burned to power them, you’re getting more for less – and of course, as more green energy sources are used, electric vehicles become greener without needing to change anything on the car.

Q. Yeah, but if everyone drove electric vehicles, the National Grid would crumble under the strain!

A. Not really. It takes a huge amount of energy to refine crude oil into petrol and other fuels. If everyone switched to EVs, we wouldn’t need to refine as much oil so that energy usage would be brought right down, making more capacity for EV charging!

You’re a convert, then?

Yeah, pretty much. The technology can only get better, battery life (and therefore range) can only increase – it’s an exciting time to get in on the ground floor.

Hell, my lease on the LEAF lasts for two years and then I have to hand the car back (or buy it I suppose, but that won’t make much sense as technology will have likely moved on by then) – so in theory I may have even saved enough in fuel costs etc. that I’ll be able to switch it for a Tesla Model S

* hello, kalmar!

No-one would have believed…

…that in the first years of the 2010s, a new version of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds would be created that is inferior to the 1978 original in pretty much every way.

The original album – featuring the dulcet tones of the late Richard Burton as the Journalist, is my favourite album of all time, so the release of a new version in 2012 replacing Richard Burton with Taken star Liam Neeson raised my eyebrows.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Liam. He was great in Schindler’s List, Taken (although the less said about the sequels the better) and, to be honest, pretty much every film he’s ever been in.

But I just couldn’t picture him (or hear him, whatever the right term should be) as the Journalist.

Being a bit of a fanboy for Jeff Wayne’s most famous work (I even went to the O2 Arena in 2009 for the 30th Anniversary tour, which was at the time touted as being the last tour they would do – only for them to do another tour the year after) I have listened to the 2012 release and I just cannot find anything to like about it.

Wayne explores the characters a bit deeper than in the original, which I suppose can be considered a positive. But, for me, the revised audio (including the frankly odd addition of some "dubstep" style elements) just doesn’t really work and dates the album even more.

My main beef with it though, is that Liam Neeson just does not have the right voice for the role – he almost sounds like he’s phoning in a lot of his lines, there’s no gravitas to them. Richard Burton’s slow, methodical recital of the lines, with emphasis in all the right places, makes for a far more engaging experience.

One of the best examples of the differences, for me at least, is in the track Dead London. Compare the dialogue in the original against the new version below – start at 3:00 if the embed doesn’t automatically forward you to that point.

Dead London (1978, Richard Burton)

Dead London (2012, Liam Neeson)

Neeson’s enunciation and general timing is all off, for me, and a general lack of ‘feeling’ in what is being said. Burton’s speech and the pregnant pauses between certain words adds a whole other level of emphasis that really drives home the emotion in what the character is feeling.

It also doesn’t help that there are weird echoes applied to the end of many sentences in the new version.

Perhaps it’s just because I’m so used to Richard Burton’s voice that I can’t get on with it – please comment below with your preferred version, it would be good to find out if it’s just me being overly picky.

Those wonderful moments

I just had a ludicrously silly conversation with Jem that ended in her doubled over in laughter and me silently feeling very pleased with myself for causing it, especially with such inane rubbish.

I’ll attempt to transcribe the conversation here, but take this as fair warning – you really did have to be there, it won’t be anywhere near as funny writtten out.

It all started with Jem sniffing my armpit (don’t ask) and informing me that I smelt good. The conversation then went as follows:

G: I always smell good. [in French accent] It’s all thanks to Pong de Light Guard*

J: *laughs*

G: [after thinking that “Pong de” sounds a bit like “Pomme de”, and again spoken in a French accent] I’m working on my next fragrance, it smells like potato. I call it “Pong de terre.”

J: *laughter* You’re a ‘nana.

G: [French] Ah, non, that fragrance isn’t ready yet. “Pong de peel.”

J: *laughter* Oh dear.

G: I should really have gone with “Paco Banane” for that one.

J: *guttural moans*

G: [back to French] I think you’d also really enjoy my pea-flavoured fragrance, “Petits Pong.”

J: OK, that’s enough now.

G: Or my bean-themed product, “Pong tout.”

J: Please stop.

Sometimes, it’s the little moments that really make you appreciate the person you’re with.

* Not sure why I said “Light Guard” instead of “Right Guard” here, but in the interests of accuracy I’ve not bothered to correct it.

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