Diary Of An ADI

A Driving Instructor's Blog

Australian politician breastfeedingThis story on the MSN newsfeed (in The Telegraph) falls over itself in its gleeful demonstration of pro-feminism.

Some berk who has a real problem separating home life from work breastfed a baby whilst putting forward a motion to the Australian Parliament. If that wasn’t bad enough, the baby also took a dump in its nappy. No one seems to see any wrong in this (not officially, anyway).

Look at the stupid smiles on the faces of those looking on. It’s in Parliament, for God’s sake, and they’re all sitting around going “aaaaaah!”

I’ve told this story before, but years ago I was on a skiing holiday in France (or it might have been Switzerland). We had gone into a fairly smart restaurant one night for a meal, and at the table next to us was a family who were having a raclette (a big block of cheese that is melted and into which you dip chunks of bread or meat). They had a baby with them in a high chair.

We’d just had our main course delivered when I sniffed and said to one of my companions “I think that baby has crapped itself”. And it had. The woman took it to the lavatory and the stench of baby crap remained in the restaurant while we ate our meal. At the time, a small beer cost about three times more than a pint did in the UK, and that meal was similarly priced. If I remember correctly, the proprietor of the restaurant was feeding us free schnapps after our meal – and it didn’t occur to me until now that it might have been his way of apologising. To be honest, even if he’d have given us the meal for free, it still ballsed up an entire evening, the purpose of which was to eat after a hard day’s skiing, not to experience in this way.

I can state – as an absolute fact, with no worries whatsoever about being wrong – I should not have been subjected to that, and the family who’d taken the bloody baby in was a prime example of irresponsible parenting.

People with babies should not be allowed to take them to work, unless work is at Mothercare or some other place where hormone-addled people work. Breastfeeding in public is gross – the only people who like it are the same hormone-addled specimens, or (if they’re male) perverts trying to pretend they’re not. Anyone normal who says they’re cool with it is just lying, because a part of the body which is overtly sexual for about 95-99% of the time does not become OK to flash about in a restaurant (or in Parliament) just because it means its owner is “making a statement”.

If you have kids, you’re supposed to change what you do to help them grow up properly. You don’t carry on normally, force everyone around you to change, and have your kids grow up in spite of you. Which is what this Australian woman is doing.

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A Big MacThis is an Australian story, but it reports that McDonald’s over there is about to take “one of the biggest risks in the company’s history” by introducing fresh beef patties to its menu. Apparently, ordering one adds about a minute to your waiting time, since the fresh beef patties are prepared to order, whereas the normal type are made ahead of time and kept warm until required.

I had to do a bit of a double-take when I read that, because in the UK it seems to be standard practice for McDonald’s restaurants not to prepare anything ahead of time, and to cook everything to order. At the drive-thru, a simple order of a cheeseburger can get you a ten-minute wait in one of the bays. I have gone inside to demand my money back on more than one occasion, and I’ve complained to head office at least twice. To be fair, most branches have improved, but I absolutely refuse to say anything positive about motorway branches, because late at night they have to cook everything. There is nothing ready. But I digress: a whole minute is nothing in the UK compared to what is “normal” over here.

They already do these fresh beef patties in America:

A customer in Dallas named Tracy Moore told Reuters that she’s going to stop patronizing the fast-food chain, which she currently visits every day, if the wait time doesn’t improve.

“If it’s going to be that long every time, I won’t order it. I’d go elsewhere,” she said, after ordering the new fresh-beef Quarter Pounder at a McDonald’s drive thru and being told to pull into a parking spot to wait several minutes until it was ready.

She doesn’t know she’s born! Oh, what I wouldn’t give to only have to wait “several minutes”. Sorry, digressing again.

The article adds:

Improving service has been a primary goal of McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook over the last couple years. He has cut dozens of items from the fast-food chain’s menu to try and simplify and speed up kitchen operations.

I think he’s barking up the wrong tree, though he may be doing it deliberately, and attacking a secondary issue to protect the primary one.

In the UK, absolutely the only reason there is a delay to service is that there is nothing ready and they have to prepare it. They might have a few bits ready, but the days when the rack behind the counter would be stacked with carton after carton of Big Macs and other burgers are long gone. If it’s busy, they run out and you have to wait, and if it’s quiet there’s nothing ready anyway and you have to wait. The franchise holder – McDonald’s restaurants are all franchised – does it to reduce waste. No wait, let me rephrase that – he does it to save money.

Three key words in McDonald’s business are: SERVICE, WASTE, COST.

Once upon a time, service was far and away the most important aspect at McDonalds. As time has gone by it has passed through waste, and now sits firmly entrenched in cost. But what Steve Easterbrook seems to have forgotten (I know he hasn’t, really, even  if it looks like he has) is that fast food is low margin. You make money by shifting tonnes of the stuff, not by glamming it up, and you can’t shift any of it if there isn’t any to shift.

It’s funny when you consider that for each Big Mac costing £2.99, about £0.75 of that is gross profit to the restaurant, about £0.80 covers the materials, and the rest is down to labour costs. It’s even funnier when you consider that if a McDonald’s branch pisses me off, I won’t go in again for months (in the case of Clifton, years) just on principle. The manager’s decision not to risk having to throw away just over £2 guarantees he will lose £2.99 from me, and that woman in Dallas suggests I may not be the only one.

On a slightly different topic, a couple of the Facebook posts below the article made me smile.

Drewy Alf Phillips - a veganThis character is a vegan and he makes the assertion that eating meat and dairy gives you cancer. Someone challenges him, and he then goes on to declare that vegans do not need to take supplements as a result of not eating meat and dairy.

Actually, Mr Phillips, most vegan-friendly nutritionists and doctors – many of whom are vegans themselves – point out that Vitamin B12 supplements are pretty much essential for vegans, since this cannot be obtained reliably outside meat and dairy.

Organisations like The Vegan Society don’t make such a big deal out of things if they’re not important or significant.

This dietitian at Vegan R.D. goes further and suggests that as well as B12 supplements being important for all vegans, most should also take Vitamin D and Iodine supplements, and some should also consider Calcium and Iron.

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Interconnecting cogs and gearsThe only people likely to not realise the significance of technology in the world today – other than a few isolated tribes in the Amazonian rain forests – are Brexiters. Even if they’re technically capable of understanding, they won’t, because they’re blinded by their obsession to leave the EU no matter what the ultimate cost.

My view on Brexit should be well known by now. It was the stupidest decision this country has ever made, and it was largely made by the stupidest people this country has ever thrown into the gene pool. They should never have been given a direct vote on something they did not understand. And make no bones about it, in spite of what some may claim, the majority of Brexiters haven’t a clue about what they’ve done. All that mattered to most of them was the idea that Britannia would Rule The Waves again without any help from those damned foreigners, and that we would kick out anyone whose skin was not alabaster white by the afternoon of 24 June 2016. It was those two things, coupled with the lie emblazoned across that big red bus about spending £350,000,000 a week on the NHS, that carried the vote.

Since last June, having more or less resigned themselves to not seeing convoys of people being kicked out of the UK (yet – they still live in hope), they’ve spent much of the time accusing the media of “bias” every time it reports simple economic facts. The pound falls in value, reporting it is left-wing bias. Someone mentions the risk of losing access to the single market, it’s “remoaner bias”. Interest rates stay fixed, the BoE is anti-Brexit. There’s talk of interest rates going up, the BoE is anti-Brexit.

They are just too thick to understand that the economy isn’t controlled by a single light switch, but is more akin to a supercomputer, full of logic gates and conditional switches. A better analogy for what I’m going to say next is that it is like some huge steampunk device, composed of myriad interconnecting gears and cogs.

Brexit has been like someone ramming a huge spanner into it.

Most Brexiters will have been completely unaware of Galileo, a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) being developed by the EU. The fact that many Brexiters are probably also unaware (or certainly wary) even of GPS in the first place means that they will have also been unaware of its limitations. Civilian GPS resolution is limited to 4 metres at best, though the military can resolve to less than 10cm. Since it is controlled by the US, the service could be switched off at any time in any significant conflict scenario. Galileo GNSS, on the other hand, would offer the same resolution to all users, and this could be down to a few centimetres once it is operational. The USA has not been happy about this.

Galileo is a combined effort by the ESA and the European GNSS Agency. As a member of the EU, the UK has equal rights to work on EU projects, and SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd) in the UK has so far built navigation payloads for 22 of the estimated 30 satellites needed to form the Galileo system in space. SSTL will retain those equal rights right up until the day the UK officially leaves the EU.

And that’s where the potential shit hits the fan.

On Thursday this week, the contract for a further 8 satellites is to be signed at the Paris Air Show. However, SSTL is unlikely to have delivered all 8 of those by the time Brexit happens on 29 March 2019. At that point, it will become “illegal” for the UK – as a “third country” – to work on certain aspects of the Galileo system. Only a Brexiter could also fail to appreciate that it would kibosh any future involvement, or that the UK’s use of Galileo once it becomes operational would also become questionable.

Each Galileo satellite costs about €30 million (£26.5 million), and SSTL will be earning a significant chunk out of that right now. After Brexit, they probably won’t – not unless this issue is added to the growing list of Things The UK Must Demand From The EU during Brexit talks, and is resolved in our favour.

On a related note, another jingoistic outburst yesterday involving The Queen’s Speech reports that Britain will “shoot for the moon”.

One will focus on growing the space sector and would allow satellites to be launched from the UK for the first time, as well as develop scientific missions and manned vertical rockets.

I can see it now. Once the mandatory “democratic vote” involving school children has taken place to name the new launch system, the Rocky McRocketface Two-stage Payload Deployment System Mk I will eventually have the opportunity to do one of three things:

  • make it into space
  • explode over the North Sea
  • explode over somewhere else. Like Hull

I noticed some Brexiter commenting on Facebook yesterday:

Facebook post - Leslie Chiazzari DuckworthAt the moment, all Brexit supporters can do is try to make silk purses out of sows’ ears. Notice how, after informing everyone that the government wouldn’t be launching the satellites directly (no, really?) he skims over the massive logistical issues, which should be quite clear to any sensible person.

Satellite launching in Australia and the USA (and Russia, for that matter) is successful for one main reason, which can be demonstrated easily using ruler and a map of the world.World Map

Australia is over 30x bigger than the UK, and it’s population density is over 140x less. Woomera launch site is 4 miles from the nearest road (and there are only two of those in a radius of at least 150 miles), and 8 miles from the nearest town not including Woomera itself (and 35 miles from the only other one after that). The USA is over 40x bigger than the UK, and its population density is just a tenth of the UK’s. Cape Canaveral is at least 4 miles away from the nearest non-military town, and over 12 miles away from the nearest large town. Both of these launch sites have convenient oceans nearby, with nothing for thousands of miles.

In the UK, even in the middle of one of the national parks, you’re lucky if you’re further than a couple of miles away from any place where people are likely to be, even if they’re just passing through on bikes or having a cream tea in a cafe. And that’s especially true near the only coast line with enough sea to minimise the risk of pissing off the neighbours if a launch went titsup. Of course, there’s Scotland – and if we could persuade them to let us screw up some heathland, then there’d only be the matter of the weather, with rain, snow, and gale force winds for 360 days of the year.

Before we gloss over these risks, it’s worth remembering that the last mission we had any significant involvement with (the only one I can think of, actually, where we tried to land something ourselves) created a new crater on the surface of Mars. And we we weren’t even involved with the initial flashy, explodey bit. Launching rockets in the UK carries immense risks, and these never go away, since even with successful launch systems there is a risk of catastrophic failure every single launch. It happens even to people who are quite good at it, and who have a proven track record. We don’t.

If anything goes wrong in Woomera, the sand just gets a bit of browner. In the US, there’s a big splash. Over here, you could lose Cardiff.

And finally, there is the timescale and cost. Considering that the current government will be lucky if it lasts another 6 months with the way things are now, identifying a location, building the facility, developing rockets, testing them, then finally using them will take a decade or more. Assuming everything is a complete success at each stage – which would buck the trend for everyone else who has ever gone into this industry – the entire development sequence will only cost money. It cannot make money until it is successfully launching stuff into space. And even then, the implication is that it’s our stuff.

Each launch of the Ariane system costs about £150m. It cost billions to develop – and it took decades to develop.

Ironically, there’s already a bloody system in place. And it is called Ariane. And we’re walking away from it, to build our own as a result of our suicidal decision to leave the EU.

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TearsI saw a discussion about this on a forum. It was to do with terminated tests and “what happens next?”

On more than one occasion since I became an instructor, a pupil has done something which they know has resulted in a fail. And on more than one occasion, the examiner has persuaded them to continue with their test – even though the pupil wanted to stop – and carefully routed them back to the test centre. Also on more than one occasion, they haven’t actually failed (or if they have, it was for something else, and not what they originally thought).

Quite recently, a pupil of mine who is an excellent driver – but who is as mad as a bag of cats a lot of the time due to personal issues – had a meltdown and suddenly couldn’t even make the car move (she’s apparently taken her test six times previously).The examiner calmed her down, got her moving, and they came back to the test centre after about 20-25 minutes. I knew something was up, because when I’m at the test centre reading stuff online, I also monitor where the car is using my tracker, and I wondered why they were heading back so soon.

As an aside, that same pupil has recently exercised her mad as a bag of cats side by not turning up to a lesson she had arranged and confirmed, and not responded to my texts, or provided me with one of her immense range of carefully catalogued and indexed excuses. I suppose there’s only so many times you can lose your phone, or have it mysteriously not receive texts, or fall down the stairs, or off a chair, or into a hedge, and still have people believe you. She is now an ex-pupil, even though she doesn’t know it yet.

But back to the main thread. I do not give a flying f*** what the examiner writes on the test sheet in these cases. I don’t care if they tick the wrong box, apply the “incorrect” amount of pressure to their pen strokes, forget to flick their wrists properly as they mark a fault, add up the faults incorrectly, and so on. Some other instructors do, though, even where they acknowledge that the pupil was correctly failed.

Although examiners who abandon tests are supposed to stop the car, inform the candidate, then leave the car and make their way back to the test centre, many of them are human beings. This is especially true in Nottingham, and they will try as hard as possible to take the test to its natural conclusion back in the test centre car park. And yes, sometimes this may even happen if the test is effectively not completed for some reason.

I like it that way, and don’t need any arseholes trying to interfere with it.

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Our Silver Birch in June 2017This is getting a lot of hits this year (2017).

Back in 2014, our silver birch tree began to yellow and drop leaves in mid-June! We were worried, and Googling for an answer was next to useless.

Most of the technical advice was North American, and focused either on the Bronze Birch Borer (a beetle that feeds on white birches), or trying to grow trees in arid and/or swampy regions. Our trees had none of the beetle infestation symptoms other than leaf drop, and although the British never shut up about the bloody weather, we were not growing ours in either a desert or a mangrove swamp.

Since I first wrote this article, I have discovered that yellowing can be caused by two different things. You can’t really do much harm if you just apply both remedies, though.

The type we had was where the leaves really do turn a bright, canary yellow – just like they do in Autumn – and begin to fall off the tree. It started in mid-June, and although the yellowing/leaf drop wasn’t as widespread throughout the tree as it is during Autumn proper, it was worrying all the same. I can’t honestly remember where I found this now, but somewhere in the hundreds and hundreds of forum pages and obscure “ask the expert” sites rattling on about the bloody Birch Borer I came across two ideas that made absolute sense, and which can be implemented without calling in David Attenborough and Rentokil.Fertiliser and Iron Treatments

Summer leaf-drop and leaf yellowing is caused either by a deficiency of nitrogen in the soil, or a deficiency of iron (or a combination of the two). You can remedy nitrogen deficiency using ericaceous fertiliser (for lime-hating plants, which is what birch trees are). It is available from various manufacturers (I use Miracle-Gro, as shown above), and can be bought from most decent garden centres and from many online retailers (including eBay and Amazon, where I get mine). It only costs about £6 a box, and there’s enough to manage a handful of trees for at least a year (you can also get liquid and slow-release varieties).

Bear in mind that normal fertiliser is no good – it has to be ericaceous – and you just dissolve it and water it in around the tree. Remember that the roots extend outwards quite a long way and you’ll need to cover a wide area. The slow-release granules of the same fertiliser are just sprinkled on the ground and watered in, and they apparently work for up to 3 months.

Leaves suffering from chlorosisLeaves that look like the images here are probably suffering from iron deficiency – known as chlorosis. This is easily dealt with by buying some sequestered (or chelated) iron (I use Maxicrop, as shown above). It comes as a liquid, and you can mix it with your fertiliser and water it in all in one go. Plants need iron to produce chlorophyll, and since chlorophyll is why the leaves are green, not being able to produce it means the leaves become less green and take on a yellowish hue, especially when lit from behind.

Close-up of leaves suffering from chlorosisNote also that you may see new leaves to be small and misshapen, instead of the classic Birch leaf shape, if you have a soil nutrient deficiency.

In our case, after a single application of fertiliser treatment, leaf drop stopped immediately in that 2014 season (after the already-dead leaves dropped). The tree even threw out some catkins, which had been absent up until then. In 2015, I started feeding every few weeks from March with both fertiliser and iron and we had no leaf drop at all. In 2016, it was the same, with very fat catkins hanging from the branches, along with quite significant new growth. As of May 2017 our tree is putting out a lot of new leaves and has lots of catkins. The photograph at the top is our tree as it looks in June 2017. And here’s a close-up of the leaves.

Close-up of our tree's leaves in June 2017Does that look healthy, or what? And we had a serious case of summer leaf drop in 2014!

You can also treat the area around your trees with iron sulphate. This replaces iron in the soil, too, but it also acidifies the ground over time, which is good for ericaceous plants. It’s also good for your lawn.

It’s funny looking back, but I used to think that if you planted a tree you just forgot about it and let it grow. In fact, it turns out you need to look after them almost as much as you would a tomato plant or an ornamental cactus! And judging by the number of hits I’m getting this year, a lot of other people are just discovering the same.

Let me stress: you have to keep the treatment going about once a month between March and September. And as a final footnote, be aware that in very hot weather or during drought trees can become stressed and a few leaves my yellow and drop. This isn’t too much of a problem, and a weekly deep-watering is all that’s required (hosepipe bans notwithstanding).

Can you rescue leaves which have turned yellow?

No, probably not. Not the ones which are canary yellow, anyway, since they’re already dead and will have to fall off the tree. How long that takes will vary, and a little wind can speed things up. The important thing is that by feeding the tree you can stop any further yellowing – and believe me, the first time you do it the effects will be quite noticeable.

I would imagine that chlorosis could be reversed if it is caught early, since the yellowing is not due to leaves dying – they’re just iron-deficient. In that case, you might be able to save some yellowed leaves by applying the chelated iron treatment. However, if not treated then the leaves do die and fall off easily once they are predominantly yellow.

Do you have to keep treating the trees?

Yes. If you don’t, the problem just comes back depending on how long the previous treatment lasts for, and that is dependent on how bad the deficiency is, how big your trees are, what else is growing there, and how your soil drains when it rains. Huge trees will suck up all the nutrients, and if you’re raking up and binning the leaves each year nothing gets returned to the soil. It stands to reason, really, but I was as blind to it as anyone else until I encountered the problem.

Treat your trees from March until September. Feed at least once a month (and water regularly in hot weather anyway, as they do need moisture).

Can heat and drought cause them to lose leaves?

Yes. If they are stressed you may get them dropping a few leaves. It’s a good idea to water them deeply during hot, dry periods. Once a week should be enough.

Is there any other way to deal with the problem?

You have to get nutrients and iron back into the soil. Yes, you could use your own mulch or bought compost, but obviously this is not so attractive in a normal garden (removing it is what got you here in the first place). It would also take longer to have an effect. But it would still work, given time.

When do Birch trees normally start to shed their leaves?

The short – and very obvious – answer is: in the Autumn. It can vary a little up and down the country (just as Spring tends to start earlier the further south you are), but in the Midlands they usually start to show sprays of yellow from early October. The leaves will begin to fall from that point – very lightly at first, then increasing as the yellowing spreads.

In 2016 (almost overnight during the first week or so into October), ours produced a lot of yellow on the inside, whereas the outer canopy remained green – it looked rather nice. The neighbours’ trees had much sparser canopies than ours and they had clumps of yellow all over.

Autumn officially begins in mid- to late-September and you probably can’t do much to fix your trees after August if you’ve got the early yellowing problem. I’d still recommend a good feed or two, but not beyond the end of September.

But be ready to start feeding from March.

How do you apply these treatments?

You make up the required solution as directed on the pack, then water it into the area specified. A single watering can is usually spread over 10 square metres (a medium sized tree probably requires watering over as much as 100 square metres). You can also buy mixer units which have a small tank and connect to your garden hose. You put the concentrate into the tank and the device mixes it with water as you spray the ground under your trees.

What I do is make up a concentrate in a 5L drum, then use 1L of that in a 15L watering can topped up with water. It’s quicker this way. I put 14 large spoonfuls of Miracle-gro and about 250mls of Maxicrop in the drum (marked with 1L divisions) and make up to 5L with tepid water. Once dissolved, I just pour out 1L into my watering can, top up from the garden hose, and evenly spread it over about 10-20 square metres, making sure I include flower beds as well as the lawn.

Although I haven’t used it yet, I have built an irrigation system which mixes the fertiliser/concentrate and feeds it to a garden sprinkler system. It consists of a venturi mixer and 5L container, and can treat around 30-40 square metres in a single go without any human intervention. I’ll post more next year when I start using it.

My tree is losing branches and twigs

If the tree is weak then it is understandable that twigs and branches might fall off. Once they’re stronger this will stop.

Another likely problem, though, is crows. Yes, the winged variety. From March they will be nest-building, and they are very, very selective in their choice of twigs for the purpose. We get great amusement watching a pair that have nested near us for the last 10 years or so. They will tear off a hundred twigs and drop them until they get the one they want. It’s nature, so we don’t worry.

Mind you, I’ve never seen a crow carry off a branch – they stick to the smaller stuff – so if your tree is dropping large branches you might need to get a tree surgeon in to have a look at it.

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Cheap wooden kneeling chairAs well as being a driving instructor I also do a lot of work on my computer (websites, programming, and so on). So being comfortable is very important.

I’ve used all sorts of chairs over the years, and ones with arm rests or which tilt drive me nuts. I’d much rather sit up straight. So for some years now I have been using one of those ergonomic kneeling chairs, as shown in the photo above. I find them very comfortable and versatile, but the ones I purchased have all had serious quality issues. It’s not surprising when you consider that the most expensive ones can cost upwards of £1,000. Spending around £50, like I did, was bound to raise questions.

The first two I had were made of wood, In spite of getting them from different suppliers, it was obvious that they all come from the same place of manufacture. They were identical to each other, and they both had the same eventual problem. To start with, no matter how well you assemble them (they’re flat-packed), the screws work lose and they start to squeak. For a while, re-tightening works, but eventually the threads will not grip and the movement gets worse until there is an actual wobble. Eventually – and it doesn’t take that long – the wood splits due to the movement and the chair is unusable. Furthermore, even from first use, it is quite possible for one of the castors to fall off while you’re sitting on it or moving it.

In desperation, the third one I bought was more expensive and made of metal. I thought that a metal chair would be indestructible, but I was very wrong indeed. It was clear that the metal version came from the same original source as the wooden ones. Now, that shouldn’t have necessarily been a problem if the metal box sections used had been sturdy, but they weren’t. To keep costs down, the box section was made from a light gauge of steel, and although it was less flexible than wood, this rigidity meant that stress was concentrated across a very specific area near the seat. After about a year I could detect movement and when I checked, the metal had simply cracked.Fairline arc welder and Black and Decker angle grinder

Anyway, like with most problems I encounter, I started to puzzle over how to get round it. I’d thought about drilling holes and fitting long bolts to act as supports – until I discovered how hard it is to drill holes in mild steel on something that is already assembled. The next thing that occurred to me was welding. I’d never done it before, and my only experience of it was my dad coming home with arc-eye on a regular basis when I was a kid (he was a welder, though admittedly on much bigger things), and I started thinking about hiring a welding machine. But then I found out how small and cheap they are. I picked one up for £50 from Makro. At the same time I also bought an angle grinder for £20 (more on that in a later article).

I got a couple of lengths of mild steel flat bar from B&Q and set about welding some strengthening spars to my rickety chair. This was quite successful and the repair, albeit temporary, was good.

By this time, I had discovered that welding isn’t easy. Not at first, anyway. Striking an arc is pretty simple, but keeping it is a skill. Welding rods get used up very quickly, and it is easy to get one stuck. Welded metal gets very hot, the heat spreads quite a long way through a metal object. Paint is flammable, even when it’s nowhere near the actual weld.

As a result of this article, I’ve had a few hits from people using the search term ‘welding rod keeps sticking’ or some such. This can happen if you are holding the rod too close to the weld – the current is therefore lower, so I guess the weld is cooler and solidifies more quickly, hence the stuck rod. It is even worse if you’re so close that the rod keeps touching the weld, as this can cause the arc to extinguish – also resulting in a frozen rod. Also make sure you are using the right current setting for the thickness of rod you’re using.

But back to the story. The idea of building an ergonomic kneeling chair from scratch had been running around in my head for some time, and now that I knew how to weld, the idea started jumping up and down as well. I found a company called Metals4u on the Internet, and they will supply any quantity of metal you want, and their prices are very good. So the project was set to get going.

The project summary can be found here.

* Note that Metals4U asked me to remove the direct link to their site. As far as I understand it, as well as getting too big for its boots these days, Google also appears to have outgrown its brain and is penalising companies for links to their websites from “lesser ranked” websites such as mine. Their web address is metals4u dot co dot uk

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Another story from the newsfeeds a few weeks ago now. Apparently, DVSA is “threatening” to publish ADI pass rates because the national pass rate is “so low”, and they blame this on sub-standard tuition. Note that throughout this article, when I say “DVSA”, I mean the top end nearest to government, and not the examiners.

In 2015, I wrote about the “shake up” that was planned for the driving test that year (there’s one approximately every year, and they never get further than being reported in the tabloids). DVSA was coming out with the same crap back then, and I explained why it was a load of bollocks. This graph shows the trend in national pass rates between 2002 and 2015.Historical pass rates It’s currently at around 47%.

Test pass data from before 2002 aren’t easily available. However, you can build up a picture if you know where to look. Sketchy information taken from disparate sources reveals that even among the 246,000 people who took the very first test back in 1935 the pass rate then was only  63%. In 1935, the test was 30 minutes long, the Highway Code was no thicker than the instruction manual for a pencil, it included hand signals used by horse-drawn carriage riders, there were about six different road signs in use, and just under 2 million cars on the roads.

In 1950, the national pass rate was reported as 50%. It appears to have been also around 50% in the 1960s according to the BBC. As I said above, it’s about 47% now (with around 40 million cars on the road). So what’s the freaking problem? It’s been as low as 43%, peaked at 63%, and has wobbled around 50% most of the time in between.

What DVSA fails completely to understand is this. If you had a parallel universe, and selected a country of the same size and population as Britain, but which didn’t yet have a driving test system in place, the moment you introduced one you would have a pass rate somewhere around 50%. Even if you had a million perfect ADIs, then unless the population was also perfect, around half of them would still fail the driving test. It’s the natural balance, and the only way you could get a significantly higher figure would be to make the test easier.

The root of the issue is similar to the one involved in the annual school exam results fiasco. People are getting dumber as a result of declining educational standards, and yet pass rates are going up because the exams are being made easier. Well, as we now know, unless it sees sense before December, DVSA is currently in the middle of doing exactly the same thing to the driving test, by removing tricky manoeuvres and replacing them with ones my cat could do.

Now, I have no problem with my pass rate being published in principle. However, reality is a different matter.

I do not think for a moment that DVSA’s pass rate figures are accurate. Even if the ones they have pertaining to me are, I’m absolutely certain that those for some other ADIs won’t be. Quite apart from the inevitable errors in the DVSA’s own logging and reporting, there is the far more unsavoury matter of ADIs influencing results by not displaying their badges when submitting pupils to test, and therefore avoiding negative rep.

My badge is always (and always has been) displayed during the pre-test and when I have provided any tuition to a candidate going to their test, but this is not true of some other ADIs. Pass rates are so important to them that when they submit someone they think might fail, they take their badge out, but when a more able candidate is going, they leave it in. It means that higher pass rates may be recorded for weaker ADIs who have been hiding their badges, whereas honest ones who haven’t, and who are actually decent instructors, may well have lower recorded pass rates.

Then there’s the issue of “intensive courses”. These are big money-spinners, and their aim is to get someone to pass the test in as short a time as possible, usually for a premium price. For most drivers, there is no way they can learn to drive properly in a very short period of time – all they can do is learn to pass the test. Most of them will not be safe drivers if they pass. And yet intensives given to the right sort of person can have a higher rate of success than normal lessons given to typical learner. If you measure success in terms of “pass rate”.

It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that DVSA’s clever plan to steer learners away from “sub-standard” instructors is likely to steer them straight towards them instead, and result in less-able drivers out there on the roads. Such irony is lost on DVSA, and you start having nightmares when you think of the likely effect on someone’s career if DVSA publishes erroneous figures. Getting hold of your own pass rate as held by DVSA is a task requiring the same sort of effort that’d be needed to, say, climb Everest wearing just your underpants. If you found an error in the data, getting it corrected would be like that again, but with the added problem of frostbite on your dangly bits, since DVSA typically takes 10 days to respond to any email – if they respond at all.

Most ADIs keep a log of their own pass rates. I can absolutely guarantee that DVSA will have more than a few “official” rates which are grossly different. By the time they fixed them – if they ever did, since they’d need proof first – false numbers could easily have damaged someone’s reputation and business irretrievably.

My favourite pupil is one who learns quickly and who is confident and capable. My least favourite is one who is nervous, spatially challenged, and who has the attention span of a goldfish. I will teach them all, but that is definitely not true of other instructors out there. Difficult pupils will be dropped, and I often pick up those who tell me their previous instructor stopped answering their calls and texts, or couldn’t fit them into his diary. Others jump ship themselves, saying that they didn’t feel as if they were getting anywhere. This has a double-whammy effect on people like me – firstly, the number of “difficult” pupils on the market is disproportionately high, and that increases the chances of test failures for natural reasons; secondly, the other instructor has cherry-picked the more able pupils, meaning there is a higher chance of test success for him.

One look at some of the people on our roads and the reason that the pass rate isn’t 100% becomes clear. Many drivers don’t know what day of the week it is, and just getting the car moving is like advanced calculus to them. They don’t understand road signs (but they passed their theory test), they don’t understand roundabouts (but they passed their practical test), and they shit themselves every time they get behind the wheel. No matter how many times they have driven the identical school run or Tesco shop, the next time is like their first time. They make the same mistakes at the same junctions every time they encounter them, and they will happily approach a four-lane roundabout in the left lane when wanting to turn right every single time they go to work. They never learn, because they aren’t aware that they’re wrong. It is nigh on impossible for them to ever learn, because it’s just the way they are. They quite possibly see nothing wrong with doing it their way, because they feel safer in the left-hand lane and that is justification enough for the ensuing chaos as they signal to move across three other lanes at the last moment. Every. Bloody. Morning. They come to a standstill when negotiating speed bumps, signal when they shouldn’t, and don’t signal when they should. They stop for random reasons. They can’t park properly, and they don’t understand road markings, so yellow lines and school gates are fair game. They drive at a steady 40-50mph no matter what the speed limit is at the time, and they can be seen leaning forward, noses pressed to the windscreen, staring straight ahead, and hanging on to the steering wheel for dear life. If they’re female, they seem to attach more importance to flicking cigarette ash out of a tiny crack in the window than they do to driving in a straight line, and their rear view mirror is frequently angled down so that they can see themselves (you can tell when you can see their neck and chest instead of their eyes). When they stop at traffic lights the first thing they do is reach up and tousle their hair or flip the sun visor down to rub their faces using the vanity mirror. These types of people represent a significant proportion of all drivers on the roads today, and you have to wonder how the bloody hell they ever passed their tests.

DVSA needs to try to understand why the natural pass rate is “only” around 50%, and to stop keep meddling to try and increase it.

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This article was originally posted in September, 2010, but it becomes quite popular every year when Ramadan comes around. I had a pupil on test a while back who failed, and she mentioned that Ramadan had started as I drove her home. She insisted that she felt OK, but I couldn’t help wonder if it might have had some effect on her concentration otherwise she wouldn’t have brought it up.Ramadan Mubarak

Ramadan is the month of fasting for Muslims. During it, participants abstain from eating and drinking between the hours of sunrise and sunset. Technically, those fasting are not even supposed to drink water (there are exceptions for pregnant women or those with specific illnesses), and some participants take it more literally than others. At least one reader has had concerns that Ramadan has affected their driving, and in 2016 it was unusually long at 32 days. This year, it runs from 26 May to 24 June, so it is pretty much a whole month again.

Some years ago, I worked in Pakistan – in Karachi – for a short time and was there during Ramadan. Some people ate during the day, but very little, and some fasted properly – but in the main, whether they fasted or not, they just got on with things and worked normally. After sunset, though, the street vendors came out and it was scoff-out time (I have vivid memories of the sights and smells when I went to see Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s tomb one evening).

At the other end of the spectrum, when I worked in the rat race over here, Ramadan and other such religious festivals were used by some (not all, I must add) simply to avoid work. I remember some of my shop floor staff trying it on, and although we knew that they were doing so (having a smoke outside when you’re supposed to be praying is a bit of a giveaway), the employment and discrimination laws in this country pretty much tie the employer’s hands.

I used to have the (bad) habit of getting up at 8am or earlier, drinking only a cup of tea, not eating anything until I finished work in the late evening, then pigging out on kebabs or curries. Occasionally, during the day, my blood sugar would get so low that I’d crave something to eat there and then – at which point I could easily put away four Mars Bars and drink a litre of Lucozade! Someone who is very slight would probably not be able to get through the day without being affected at least partially – and this must also apply to those fasting during Ramadan.

If you are teaching Muslim pupils it’s worth discussing the subject with them – and just be open about it: they don’t mind talking about their religion – it’s people who think they do who have the problems. I’ve had several pupils in the past who were suffering during fasting, and in several cases we postponed lessons until it was over.

Irrespective of the reason for fasting, not eating could affect both lessons and driving tests because concentration could be impaired by low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia). This would apply to anyone who hasn’t eaten properly (remember that it could also be due to an underlying health problem, like diabetes, so I’d advise anyone who is experiencing such symptoms to check with their GP). Not being able to concentrate on driving during lessons is a waste of the pupil’s money whether it’s due to a cold, hay fever… or fasting.

Advice I’d give to anyone fasting during Ramadan is to take lessons or tests in the morning, and to eat properly when not fasting the night before. And I suppose it makes sense that anyone who isn’t fasting eats and sleeps properly, otherwise their lessons (or tests) could also be affected. In extreme cases, just put the lessons on hold until Ramadan is over.

As for the question about whether they should be driving or not, I think you need to be realistic. I’d say that 99% of white, non-Muslim UK drivers drive when they’re not feeling 100%, and Ramadan hardly turns most participants into hospital cases. I can’t see any automatic reason why people who are fasting for Ramadan shouldn’t drive.

Can I take my test during Ramadan?

Of course you can. However, you should consider how fasting affects you and your concentration. It might be better to plan ahead and avoid booking a test during Ramadan altogether. Alternatively, try to book an early test at a time just after you have eaten – or rather, before you start to get hungry.

Fasting during Ramadan affects my driving to work

Honestly, someone found the blog on that search term! The answer is simple.

If you are having problems, either don’t drive or don’t fast. What other answer did you expect? Some Magic Pill that makes it all OK? If you don’t feel well, don’t drive. And that applies whether you’re ill, drunk, menstruating, or fasting.

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Roasted cashew nutsI had a bit of a shock the other day. I won’t go into graphic detail, but let’s just say after I’d been to take a dump, I almost had another unscheduled one when I saw what colour my poop was! And I almost had a third when I Googled it.

The internet is a great thing, but it must be a nightmare if you’re a hypochondriac. I mean, you get a pimple, you look it up… and it could be cancer. You get a toothache and you look that up… cancer again. A headache? Yep, cancer – or possibly a stroke, a heart attack, cirrhosis of the liver, or mange. And so it goes on. Fortunately, I’m not a hypochondriac, although I could easily become one if I was to believe everything I read through Google.

You see, the way the internet works for most people is this. You have a headache and you Google it. Some online doctor says it means you have a brain tumour, even though you were hit over the head with a baseball bat that afternoon – which prompted you to look it up in the first place. Evidently, the baseball bat did more damage than is immediately apparent, because you now believe the online medic and are subsequently convinced you have a tumour. But you don’t.

I’m not like that. The secret to good Googling is to know what to believe and what not to. Or rather, to sift out the crap and dig into the facts. Sometimes, though, you have to go in the other direction and sift through the utter crap and siphon off the lesser crap.

That’s what I had to do here. My starting point was that I had done something sufficiently different from normal – namely, I made some salted, roasted cashews and ate some. Well, when I say “some”, what I actually mean was about 500g of them over a period of about 24 hours (and about two thirds of that in one go). As you can probably tell, I like cashews, and since I hadn’t had any for about a year, I suddenly got a hankering for some. They were nice, and I didn’t give it much thought until my stomach started rumbling an hour or two later.

When I Googled the subject of “stool colour and cashew nuts” I was surprised at how many results came up. There was no bona fide medical stuff (other than dire warnings about cancer and scrofula), but lots of cases of people questioning poop colour after eating cashews. So many, in fact, that there was absolutely no way that there couldn’t be a connection.

So, to anyone out there who almost faints when they look in the bowl and see pure white number twos, the answer is categorically yes: eating too many cashew nuts can do that to your poop.

[Disclaimer: if the problem lasts more than a day, go and see your GP. The cashew-related problem goes away once you’ve got rid of everything, but pale stools could be a sign of something else needing medical attention].

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Dumped baby rabbitSomeone dumped a baby rabbit in Bestwood. Its mother died, but it was rescued. It’s the cutest little thing.

Knowing Bestwood and its denizens, I’m surprised they dumped the rabbit. Most of them would have eaten it – and the box it was in, as well.

And I promise to stop posting this sort of cutesy stuff. If I’m not careful, I’ll be posting blurred selfies of me with a trout-pout.

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