Saturday, 22 February 2014

Flash Fiction - The River

I've been dabbling in a bit of fiction writing over the last few years, very little has ever been worth even my re-reading but I've been working on a couple of things recently that might have slightly more to them. In the meantime I'm still putting words on the page just to get ideas out of my head so I can think about other stuff. 
For nothing more than curiousity's sake I've decided to start publishing these little bits of fiction (I think the term is "flash fiction") here. Feel free to comment or critique as you like.

The River

"Christ! Did you see that?"
"Someone just fell in!"
"What? Where?"
"By the bridge." I jump to my feet, looking across the scattered groups of people, lounging and sunbathing in the early heat.
"Maybe they've gone for a swim?"
"Fully clothed?" No-one else seems to have noticed. I scan around for a life ring, I've seen one already, I'm sure. There! I start towards it.
"No! Steve, that one!" She gestures to one further down the bank, "The current's going that way."
I set off towards the farther ring. People have started shouting and I am properly sprinting across the grass, shouting "Excuse me!" as loud as I can as I cut round (and sometimes though) the groups of people.
Always polite though, very British.
Someone has already got the ring off the stand when I get there, an older chap I realise as he looks up; knows what he should be doing, but struggling to work up the nerve.
“I’ll go,” I say, pulling my shirt off, “tie it on.” I’m already barefoot, I dump my phone and wallet on my shirt (I feel guilty about that fraction of a second delay, but I promise you it’s really quick). Grabbing the ring, I take two running steps and jump in.
Is this what it feels like to be a hero?
I hit the water hard and nearly lose the bloody ring. The drop is further than it looks but I snag the thin blue rope and start to swim out.
Fuck. I’m already being carried downstream, fast. The current is way stronger than I thought and how the hell are you supposed to swim with one of these things anyway? I wrap the rope around my arm and surge into the river.
I can’t see shit.
I look over my shoulder and she’s moving down the bank pointing. I’m already fifty metres downstream from where I jumped in. She’s on the tow path now, shouting at the old guy to untie the ring. It’s a good thing that she’s got the brains.
Change of plan, no point fighting this current, just cut across and try and intercept.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! The rope’s still tied on and now it’s hooked round my leg as well as my arm. A mouthful of water going down the wrong way. Coughing, spluttering, head going under again, rising sense of panic.
No. This is what it feels like to be a hero.
Released! The rope’s been untied. I roll onto my back and spew half-a-lungful of water out.
She’s still pointing where to go and I am unbelievably relieved to see the end of the rope in her hand.
Swim, check, swim, check, swim, check. I must be most of the way across? Why couldn’t the stupid bastard have fallen in on our side?
Suddenly her hands fly to her mouth and she’s not pointing any more. Must have gone under. I try to put on a spurt then check back. She’s pointing again, jumping up and down with frantic energy. Jabbing, not pointing now, I must be really close. I kick upwards as hard as I can to see further and catch a flash of something pale, something that might be an arm, as it disappears.
I’m tiring and desperate now and fling myself under the water, eyes wide, wide open.
There! Yellow t-shirt!
Grab. Slip. Grab. Slip. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Grab… got it.
Up, not far, gasping for breath. One arm through the ring, one under his armpits. He’s twitching thank fuck.
Suddenly I am surging through the water. Twisting, I can see that a bunch of people have taken the rope from her and there must be a dozen of them pulling me in. He’s slipping though, stupid bastards are pulling to fast and I’m struggling to hold him.
I kick and strain and heave and get my other arm down and under his arms; desperately I lock my fingers together, squeezing until my forearms are on fire.
There are people in the water now, taking the weight, untying the rope from my numb left arm.
She’s smiling at me and crying; I think I might be too.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A better city bike

I have three* bicycles, a road bike, a mountain bike and a town / hack bike**.
The one that is used most frequently (as opposed to the one that does the most miles or takes the hardest knocks) is the oldest, cheapest and ugliest of the three, a hack bike in the classic sense. It has mudguards, a rack, 28mm semi-slick tyres, a single-speed converter and security bolts on the axles. It also has a coating of grime so thick that it serves its own anti-theft protection purposes, but it's a few things away from a perfect city bike.
So what might a perfect city bike look like?
Well, one thing you can guarantee is that it would look nothing like the various ridiculous concepts that get splashed around every now and then. Take this one. Please just take it. With that much fancy carbon-fibre on show you can guarantee that if you don't someone else will. As long as it's not raining of course, because there are no mudguards. And as long as there's nothing to carry (no rack). And it's full daylight (no lights). And...
I'll stop there, you get the picture.

So, again, what might a perfect city bike look like?
I think there are a few constants that would be welcome anywhere:
Integrated lights. Good ones, one that will do a job both to be seen by and to be seen, built into the bike so as to be theft-proof and running off a dynamo with a back-up battery for the traffic lights.
An integrated lock. I don't want a d-lock swinging off my handlebars and taking chips out of the paintwork, worse I don't want to arrive and realise that I've left my lock at home.
A belt drive. Whether linking to a hub-gear or a single-speed (we'll come back to that) a good city bike is one that you arrive on clean and presentable (or at least as much as you left the house). I want a nice clean belt-drive (this at least the bad-example above does get right) and I want it enclosed as much as practical. If I forget my bicycle clips I don't want that to mean that I need to buy a new set of trousers because of chain marks all down the right leg.
Some kind of secure compartment on the bike where my emergency toolkit can live without needing to stuff my multi-tool, pump etc into my pockets every time I go to the pub.
Integrated mudguards. This should be optional, not everyone lives in such a god-forsaken climate, but if you're selling a town bike in northern Europe then full guards, with mud-flaps should be there as an option.
An integrated rack. Again optional, but a key job of a proper city bike is to be able to transport stuff around. Personally I don't like cycling with a rucksack, give me somewhere for my stuff.
Security bolts on the wheel QRs. I don't want to be un-hitching a wheel every time I lock up, sorry, I just don't.
Tubeless tyres. Possibly a bit controversial this one, at the moment there isn't a lot of choice in road tubeless road tyres but, having switched to tubeless on the mountain bike about 5 years ago and not having had a puncture since, I'd like that same confidence in my city bike please.
Disc brakes. Again this is potentially a bit controversial but better modulation and more consistent braking in the wet is worth, to me at least, a slight weight penalty. Also brake pads are much cheaper to replace after a crappy winter than rims...

So if those are the constants, what are the variables?
Firstly I see two types of geometry being required; a sit-up-and-beg Amsterdam-style option for those who prefer to be upright and relaxed, and a more aggressive, compact set-up for those who like to go and play in the traffic and take a faster route (my preferred approach).
Secondly there is the variable of local geography; places like Cambridge, or York, or Amsterdam can be easily tackled on a single-speed bike. The topographies of Sheffield and Durham however, require gears.
Finally there is the matter of climate and all-year cycling; for some a full set of racks and mudguards is essential, for some lucky buggers (living in LA or Seville perhaps) rain is simply not worth worrying about and wet-weather protection is simply unnecessary mass.

From these variables I see a line of 8 bicycles being derived: two geometries, each offered in a hub-geared and single-speed version, with all 4 of these available in a fair-weather*** or all-weather flavour.

Below are some sketches suggesting how such a machine might look and work. Feel free to criticise the artwork but know that in doing so you are missing the point...

Integrated lights:

Front and rear would have two LEDs, a flasher and a constant. Both rears and the front flasher would be set up to disperse as much light as possible, the front constant beam would be correctly set up to light-up the road and not on-coming traffic. I think a 300 Lumen high-power and 150 lumen low-power should be sufficient for open roads and lit roads respectively.

Integrated lock and retention point:

A cable lock permanently attached at one end with a spring-retention mechanism to help with re-coiling the cable. The lock is designed to loop around a fixed object and lock on itself. I know it's not as secure as a D-lock but it has practical benefits and the lock you have with you is always better than the one you left at home. The rubber strap on the top-tube stops the lock head rattling around and is designed to be replaceable in the event of  it perishing.

Bottom-bracket locker:

Simple bit of bent aluminium, attached to the frame with some security-head torx or allen-bolts. The lid lock is the same as the one on the main cycle lock so only one key is required. Large enough compartment for a spare-tube, a multi-tool, some instant patches and a couple of CO2 cannisters with an adaptor. Again not perfectly secure, but nothing is.

Initial thinking, Frame options and seat-tube cluster:

A basic upright frame and a compact variant. The kick up at the back of the compact top-tube is to ensure the rear light remains clear of any panniers or racks. The seat-tube cluster is designed so that the frame has a naturally compliant nature to offset the necessary size of the bottom-bracket area. Heavy use of hydro-forming is required but this can be done quite affordably now.
Throughout I have attempted to balance the requirements of integration with use of standard components, hence the lighting wiring doesn't go through the bars and stem, the rear light isn't built into the seat-post and the option remains to have a version without mudguards and rack so that standard after-market parts can be used.
I suspect you might not be able to hubs that have a dynamo / disc and gear / disc combo yet but I believe this will come along fairly quickly.

Looking at what's currently easily available it seems that Gazelle appear to be the closest I can find to this kind of approach but some bits really don't feel that integrated and the locks aren't really fit for purpose. They do seem like nice bikes though.

Anyway, that's my thoughts, what are yours?

* Well, 3 1/2 if you count my share of the tandem.
** This is widely recognised as the minimum number of bicycles by the way, if you were wondering.
*** N.B. Mounting points would still be included on the frame and forks of course.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Nokia Lumia 1020 review and comparison to N8

After a great deal of waiting I have finally got hold of the phone some of us have been waiting for Nokia to make for the last couple of years, the Lumia 1020, so I thought I'd write up a quick review on it.
For the most part I'm comparing this to my old N8.
This may seem a bit of an odd comparison (why not any of the newer Apple, Samsung, HTC or Sony phones for example?) but there are two simple reasons for this:
1) I suspect a reasonable number of people who bought the N8 for its camera have been hanging on for the 1020 for the same reason.
2) I do not own any of the other above-mentioned smart phones (though I did manage a couple of comparisons with an iPhone5 on the same night).

Physically the 1020 is a much bigger unit that the old N8 (on a par with a Galaxy S3), though it's actually slightly shallower at the deepest point. It still slides into your pocket easily enough but, with my average-bloke-sized hands it's really not as easy to use one-handed as the N8. The lens bulge seems to sit in a a bit of a funny place when you're holding it as well. From a design perspective I really don't like how they've chosen to house the additional gubbins; there are a number of alternative methods that would have produced both an easier-to-hold design as well as one that looked a bit sleeker.
A different design approach might also have allowed them space to fit in a couple of the nice hardware touches from the old N8, e.g. an expandable memory slot and the HDMI output.
Overall, of course, the phone hardware is much better - as you'd expect from a device several generations newer - the screen is a delight, both from a display and a touch perspective. Though it can register a false touch if you hover your finger too close. It being a dual-core processor (and newer software) everything runs much faster, with the possible exception of the camera start-up, it's a world apart in terms of regular use.

This is my first windows phone (I shouldn't think there are many people who are on their second) and I have to say that overall I've found it very easy to use and I'm more than happy with the operating system. There's a couple of things that took me a couple of attempts to find, and I miss the slide down access to wifi / data / silent but aside from that it's been very simple to figure out. The only things I had to look up were how to add a playing song to an already extant playlist* and how to close down apps when they're running in the background (a two-touch process rather than the old one-touch one).
On the app front, anyone coming from an android or iphone will find nothing like the same range and number of apps (it's much more like the symbian store) but so far the only thing I'd like to have but haven't got is a Strava app, but that wasn't available on symbian either so...

Anyway, the thing that most people wanting a 1020 will want to know about is:

The Camera:
It's good. Better than the N8 by a chunk actually. The reason for that bulky protrusion on the back of the phone is so that it can fit in a whopping great 1/1.5 sensor. Interestingly this is smaller than the old Pureview 808 (which had a 1/1.2) but still about 4 times the size of most other top-end camera phones and also larger than a lot of budget point-and-shoot cameras.
Some reviews will tell you that you can dump your compact camera once you have one of these but that is going to depend on what your compact was, if it was a cheapish one then this is probably true, if you've got something quite nice then you might want to do a bit more research.
I even read one review that claimed you wouldn't need your DSLR anymore - this is what's technically known as "bollocks". It's good, but let's not be ridiculous.

So, some details.
Firstly the phone comes with two camera apps, SmartCam and ProCam, built in. SmartCam takes a sequence of photos and lets you do funky things like removing background objects, correcting blinking faces, picking the best shot of a sequence etc. All very nice - and probably good if you have kids or do lots of other people photography - but I've never used it.
ProCam is a nice little app that gives you a bit more manual control of your photos. A series of simple swipe arcs allow you to make basic adjustments to white balance, focus (as well as tap focus), ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Whilst these are fairly basic they're actually very useful. Being able to ramp up the ISO at a gig for example (no flash required, especially as there's a mechanical stabiliser on the camera too) or being able to crank up the shutter speed for action shots.
Again, it's nothing like a proper set of manual controls on an SLR but it does allow you be much more creative than the competition.

Before I link you to some sample shots, a quick word on the output files. The 1020 saves two files for each shot, an unprocessed 41mp file and an over-sampled 5mp file for easier sharing etc. Weirdly if you look at the 41mp file it can look kind of blurry and out of focus. I don't know why this should be but frankly I've been sufficiently happy with the 5mp shots that I've never felt the need to export the 41mp version and try and play around with it. Anyway, for the comparison shots below, it's a 12MP N8 shot vs a 5MP 1020 shot as I figure that's what most people will use most of the time. (These shots have been uploaded to picasa, I'm not sure what compression they might use so this could be a bit of a dodgy comparison but I'm afraid I don't have any personal web-hosting to put the uncompressed files on).

Sunny(ish) day, outside, detail and inside shots:
N8 Outside, N8 detail, N8 inside
1020 Outside, 1020 detail, 1020 inside

Very low light (Dan Webster gig) shots:
N8 Stage, 1020 Stage.

A few shots to show different ISO effects in low light:
ISO400, ISO1600, ISO4000

A couple of other gig shots to show the zoom effect (again, very low light):
Low Zoom, High Zoom

The video is pretty handy too. Not having any other kind of camcorder I don't have anything to compare this to but here's a couple of clips you can make your own mind up about:
Low Light, Daylight and a Low light recording from the N8

And finally a couple of shots to show that with any camera, when the light is right, you just have to point it in the right direction:
Brough Castle 1, Brough Castle 2

So that's it for now, any questions or follow-ups, please shout.

* The reason I couldn't figure out how to do this was simply because you can't, well, not without plugging the phone into a PC and doing a drag and drop. This isn't just on the music player that comes supplied, but on any of the independent apps either - I find that to be a significant, and odd, omission.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Wheelsmith 50mm Carbon Clinchers - Review

This site has been very music focused over the last few months so it's probably time to address the balance with a bit about cycling. It would be cheap of me to make reference to my recent win in the tourdepance vuelta so instead I shall give you a quick review of a new set of wheels that have recently come into my possession.
[EDIT] N.B. This is just a first ride review, I'll be posting an update when I've got some proper miles on them and can talk about how they hold up.
These are they:
They're a set of 50mm Gigantex carbon clinchers in the new 24mm width, built onto wheelsmith's own hubs with Sapim CX ray spokes. You can find them in the price list at £740 inc shipping.
I went with clinchers because even the idea of the hassle of a tub puncture puts me off them. Carbon because I wanted something lighter than my current wheels, and deep section because they look nice and if there is an aero advantage to be had, I want it.

So in chronological order: firstly I cannot recommend highly enough the service from wheelsmith. I ordered them on the friday, they were built up that afternoon and arrived on monday afternoon. All the while Derek was also available to answer my dumb questions via e-mail after we'd had an initial chat on the phone.
Almost needless to say they're as true as the scales of justice both horizontally and rotationally.

Secondly then, some numbers. weight excl skewers but inc rim tape = Front 687g, Rear 828g, total of 1515g. Not too shabby at all for a pair of deep rim clinchers.
Wheelsmith supply them with some nice light titanium skewers that weigh 44g the pair and they also include a set of carbon specific brake blocks. More on braking later.
I stuck a new pair of 25mm Michelin Pro 4 Service Courses on and with skewers, tyres and tubes the total weight came to 2205g for the pair. They're replacing a set of Planet-X model Bs with Schwalbe Luganos that weighed in at 2665g so I've saved nearly half a kilo but it's a fine example of the law of diminishing returns.

On the bike they look like this:
After much pressure (mainly from certain people who didn't do quite so well in the fantasy Vuelta) I have swapped the valve caps for black ones. Actually it wasn't much pressure at all, the yellow ones look naff.

Which brings us to thirdly, how do they ride?
Well despite my cunning attempt at a scientific control, this is where we leave all the numbers out of it and start getting into stuff like "feel" and "seemed like" and all that. If you're ok with that then read on, if you just want the numbers then that's your lot.

For the first ride I kept the tyres at the same pressure as I'd been running the (23mm) Luganos (but I might well drop this a bit, particularly over the winter) to try and minimise the variables and, with a similar aim in mind, headed out on a route we knew pretty well: fairly flat, 7-8 mph headwind on the way out, following on the way back.
Being a fair bit lighter I did feel the old "spinning up quickly" effect and generally stamping on the pedals resulted in a sprightly leap forward. Averaging about 18 mph or so outwards I cannot honestly say that the wheels felt any different to the model Bs on the flat. In order to provide an effective control I swapped bikes with my mate (also on an ultegra-equipped pro carbon but still with the old model Bs) unfortunately the change in set up made far more difference to the feel than any kind of kit change (though it did highlight my need to clean up my bottom bracket).
I did notice (or so I believe) the reduced weight going up the hills but I also noticed that as we picked up speed (between 30 and 35 on a couple of downhills - told you it was a flat route) that I was going quicker than I had previously. How much of that is psychosomatic I couldn't say. Similarly though, as we pushed on a bit on the way in, the faster we went the more my mate struggled to keep up. Last time we went out the boot was on the other foot.
Initial impressions therefore seem to back up the standard suggestion that the faster you go the more any benefits will take effect. This makes sense given that wind resistance increases as a square of your speed.

One final word on braking, I haven't used these in the wet yet, in the dry the braking has been fine, not noticeably different to my alloy rims. I will update this post when I've got some wet miles in.

Any questions?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Et tu McVitie's?

Dear McVitie's,
I am not happy with your new packet sizes, not happy at all. What, in the name of all that's holy, made you think that people who have been buying your products all this time would suddenly want fewer biscuits in the packet? Did you imagine that all across the country people were discarding, unwanted, the last half dozen biscuits in the packet? Throwing away your produce for fear of over-eating? Filling up store cupboards with the remnants of the packet twisted tight shut, never to be re-opened?
When I reach for a packet of dark chocolate hobnobs I want 300 grams of rich chocolately oatey goodness, not 262. If I want to eat an entire packet of dark chocolate digestives, and frequently I do, then I want to eat 400 grams of the king of biscuits, not 332.
For years we have had these measurements and whole journeys and adventures have been planned around the correct amount of biscuits being available in the packet.
My world has been rocked and I am most, most disappointed.
Yours Sincerely
Drew the-chocolate-fiend Stephenson.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

King of the meh

Is it me or has the King of the Mountains title become a bit devalued in the Tour de France recently?
The overall race lead is always going to be the daddy obviously but I'm certain I can recall, in my youth, a period where the polka-dot jersey was considered a bigger prize than the green jersey.
Now it seems to be a bit of an add-on, a bit like the white jersey for the best young rider. It's a nice thing to have but nothing to get too excited about.
Is this just because, with Cavendish regularly featuring in the points competition, the British press have given it that much more prominence? Or have we created that bias ourselves by focussing on the Manx Missile's success?
Has there been a bit of a dearth of top-flight climbers recently that has meant the competition has been swamped by GC contenders instead?
Or is it, as I opened with, just me? Is the polka-dot jersey still as important as it ever was to everyone else?

Monday, 8 July 2013

You turn your back for one minute...

And you get a fantastic piece of copyright fuckupery like this
Norwich city has, for some unexplained reason, installed a load of painted gorilla figures around the city.
Guess which one has triggered a copyright dispute? The Ironman one? The Batman one? The Optimus Prime one perhaps?
Nope, it's the Freddie Mercury one.
Really, what a fucking ridiculous claim and what a stupid thing to do by the The Mercury Phoenix Trust - seriously, what the hell do they think they're doing?
Simple, simple idiots.