Diary Of An ADI

A Driving Instructor's Blog

Microsoft OutlookI use Office and always have done. I like Microsoft, and see no reason to resort to using a hammer and small chisel to make cuneiform tablets for the purposes of communication just because I’m jealous of how big Microsoft is.

Anyway, yesterday I came home and discovered that a new Windows Insider update had come through, but the installation had failed. After re-booting, my system restored itself to the previous build, and I made a note to try the update later that evening. In the meantime, I checked my email, and deleted the stuff I didn’t want. It was then I discovered a stupid, drawn-out quacking sound each time I deleted a message. The problem – well, the change – was too recent for there to be any coherent information on Google.

In Outlook’s settings, there is nothing associated with sounds other than turning off the one you get when an email arrives. I’ve lived through the hell of that annoying chime every time an email arrives, and switched it off long ago. So I was stumped.

But then, the following day, and to add insult to injury, I found out that when I opened Excel and launched a spreadsheet, a new and very annoying sound had been added to that action, too.

Long story short. I disabled “Provide feedback with sound” in Excel’s Options >> Ease of Access panel, and that stopped Excel making noises. The big benefit was that this stopped Outlook doing it, too.


Driving TestIn April, I reported that the driving test will change from 4 December 2017. I won’t go into the details again – you can read them in the earlier article – but DVSA has published the amended Show Me, Tell Me (SMTM) questions on the GOV.UK website that it plans to use from December (the questions which are currently in use are available here).

The only real difference to the SMTM questions is that, from December, some of them will be asked while the candidate is driving.

As an aside, I had someone on test recently, and the examiner asked him to show how he would clean the windscreen if it was dirty. My pupil duly operated the front washers, at which point the examiner added: “how about the back one?” Sneaky! He demonstrated it, but that’s one of the new questions.

Anyway, I have some misgivings about asking questions on the move, since they will require additional multitasking by the candidate. I’ve got more than a couple who have a job monotasking as it is. I think I mentioned this a while back, but one of my current lot has a ball stud in her upper lip, which she is wont to fiddle with while she’s driving (well, she doesn’t anymore, as a result of the story I’m about to relate). On one particular lesson, we were turning right at a mini-roundabout. Given that roundabouts are her main nemesis, and that she had applied almost full lock to turn right in this instance, you would think that, when the ball fell off her stud at the precise moment she needed to steer back into the target road, she would prioritise her steering and not, for example, a headlong dive into the foot well to try and catch the ball. I expected the first option. She chose the second. I think I screamed.

The one particular question that seems to be winding up a lot of instructors out there is the one about testing the horn. The current question, asked at the start of the test whilst stationary, is:

Show me how you would check that the horn is working

From December, it will be asked on the move, and will take the form:

When it’s safe to do so, can you show me how you’d operate the horn?

This is getting a lot of ADIs into a tizzy, because they don’t understand the Highway Code or associated rules properly.

The Highway Code says:

Rule 112

The horn. Use only while your vehicle is moving and you need to warn other road users of your presence. Never sound your horn aggressively. You MUST NOT use your horn

  • while stationary on the road
  • when driving in a built-up area between the hours of 11.30 pm and 7.00 am

except when another road user poses a danger.

Law CUR reg 99

Let’s clarify what this means. This is the only part covered by the MUST NOT (i.e. there is an actual law):

You MUST NOT use your horn

  • while stationary on the road
  • when driving in a built-up area between the hours of 11.30 pm and 7.00 am

except when another road user poses a danger.

I’ve actually seen someone quote that section minus the two bullet point conditions, and proffer it as evidence that DVSA is wrong. They’re actually suggesting that it says “You MUST NOT use your horn except when another vehicle poses a danger”. Sometimes, I’m almost at a loss for words – then I remember the blog, and I’m not anymore. That is not what it says, and it is not what it means. And the rest of Rule 112 is completely advisory.

A private car park, your driveway, your garage, etc. are not “on the road”. The test centre car park is not “on the road”. If it was, how on earth could you ever legally test the damned thing to see if it was working?

Now, if you look up CUR reg 99, the prohibited time period of 11.30-07.00 specifically refers to being “in motion” and on a “restricted road” (i.e one which has anything other than NSL assigned to it). So you are not breaking any law if you sound the horn on your driveway, etc. during that time period (or if you’re on an NSL road). You’d be a complete arsehole if you did it needlessly, but you are not breaking this law or Rule 112. There is absolutely nothing in CUR reg 99 or Rule 112 which says you can’t test the horn while you are driving during the day, or if you’re on your driveway, in your garage, or in a private car park – at any time. Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t do it if it going to confuse or annoy people, and although it is frowned upon to use the horn “aggressively”, even this does not go against CUR reg 99 or Rule 112 as far as any laws go.

What it boils down to is that examiners are not going to be doing anything wrong if they ask candidates to demonstrate the horn safely on their tests whilst driving along. The SMTM wording doesn’t state explicitly that the horn has to actually be sounded, either. It says “show me how” – and that could easily amount to a miming action, which most pupils seem to go for by default when asked, in my experience (even if they sound it, they do it as though it is going to bite them and it gets a brief “pap”). After 4 December, if someone tries to test it by giving it a 10-second burst, that would reflect very badly on their instructor in my opinion, as it already appears that some are preparing to make these changes as painful as possible to everyone concerned in order to register their protest.

All of mine are going to be taught as follows when we cover this:

If the examiner asks you to show him how you would test the horn, I want you to explain how you would do it and point to the bit of the steering wheel you would push. Ask him if he’d like you to actually do it. If he says yes, give it a quick toot if you think it’s safe to do it. DON’T do it on a bend, at a junction, or while there are pedestrians and other cars around.

And we will practice that during lessons, as we will the other on-the-move questions.

I think the problem with some ADIs out there is that they have been conditioned over many years of misunderstanding the rules to believe DVSA is breaking the law. Newer ADIs are naïve, eager to jump on the anti-DVSA bandwagon, and were probably trained by people who have these misunderstandings to start with, thus perpetuating the confusion. It would make life a whole lot simpler if they all just acknowledged their error and got on with the job instead of trying to defend the indefensible.

Remember the KISS principle. If it was absolutely forbidden to use the horn on the move, the rules would state this explicitly and unambiguously. They do not do so.

As I said earlier, I have misgivings about these SMTM changes just because I know that some of my pupils – past and present – would likely try to drive into a field as they shifted their entire focus from the road to the switch, dial, or button in question (some of them even try that when they see another vehicle, a dog or cat, a pigeon, or some other distraction for too long). I’m worried – perhaps needlessly – that some are potentially flaky enough to fall back to that when under pressure (and I’ve been proven wrong on many occasions, so it’s probably me). On the other hand, it provides a valuable teaching topic on lessons to make them able to do it properly.

Looking at it pragmatically, if someone can’t drive and operate the very controls they will need in the circumstances they will likely encounter when they pass their tests, they shouldn’t be on the roads. If they can’t do it safely on their tests after December, they won’t be. And that’s good.


I originally wrote this in 2015 and updated it in mid-2016. It has been popular again recently as a result of the Wannacry and Petya/NotPetya outbreaks.

I upgraded to Windows 10 [2014], and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. The only drawback to Microsoft’s “free upgrade” at that time was that you didn’t get an installation disk (though you can make your own), and it was just that: an upgrade. Hard disk internal view

I have been building my own computers for the last 15 years or so, and I like them running in tip-top condition. Windows has always suffered from what is known as “OS decay” (also called “software rot” and “Windows rot”). The simple fact is that ALL software is liable to degrade over time, and it isn’t just a Windows issue, and what happens is that all the juggling of files, upgrading, installing and uninstalling, software bugs, crashes, and so on, can cause a lot of small changes on a computer. Over time these may accumulate to such a level that the system becomes slow or unstable, and the only sensible way around it is to format your hard drive and do an absolutely clean install of Windows, followed by all your other drivers and software. Absolutely the last thing you want to be doing is upgrading a system which is already in bad shape. But that’s pretty much what you had to do with Windows 10 in order to take up the free offer.

I’ve done clean installs so many times on my own machines (and those of others, including over the phone when I worked in tech support) that I can usually do a format and have a clean machine running in a few hours. I have all my software’s installation files saved along with my software keys, which I just cut and paste as and when I need them. It sounds easy, but even when it’s your own system and you know what you’re doing, it’s still a bloody nuisance. You lose anything you haven’t backed up, and no matter how careful you are there’s always something you forget or misplace. I’ve never been 100% happy with doing it this way. It’s a right pain in the arse.

In the past I’ve toyed with using disk imaging software. The idea behind this is that you can effectively take a snapshot of your hard drive – with Windows and all your software on it – save it, and then copy it back (re-image) on to your disk at some point in the future if you need to. Each time you restore a saved image snapshot, you end up with a system which is in exactly the same condition it was in when you took the snapshot.

For some years I used Paragon software for creating backup images of my Windows installations. On paper, Paragon’s program was very good, but in all honesty it was the absolute pits when it came to doing an actual restore. It wasn’t at all user friendly, which is why I’ve tended to go for clean installs. But with Windows 10 initially being an upgrade rather than a standalone install, I decided that I really did need a proper disk imaging system once and for all.Macrium Reflect

After a bit of research, I found Macrium Reflect. It is available as a free version, and installs in a few seconds. I can’t believe I mucked about with Paragon for so long. I have since upgraded to the Pro version of Reflect.

When you first run Reflect it nags you to create bootable rescue disk (the Pro version also allows you to create a bootable USB stick), which you need in order to restore an image. Creating the rescue disk is very simple, and once you’ve done it you’re free to create your main image.

With my initial Windows 10 upgrade, what I did was this:

  • backed up all my important stuff (photos, documents, emails, etc.) to separate hard drives
  • ran the Windows 10 upgrade in order to activate my free licence
  • did a clean install of Windows 10 (which you can do once you have the licence)
  • installed my drivers
  • created a Reflect image of that system (“clean image”)

Then I installed all my software, activated it, and created another image (“clean working image”).

Periodically, I create a rolling image of my system as it stands at the time. If anything goes wrong in the short term I can restore that, but more serious issues might require me to use one of the previous two images.

A good example of needing to re-image my system stems from my participation in the Windows Insider Program. Due to a couple of cranky Insider builds, I decided I wanted a clean install. All I had to do was export my Outlook files (my other personal files are not stored on the C drive), then run the Macrium restore. It took about 5 minutes and I had a fully operational clean install from the “clean working image”. I then reinstalled any software I’d purchased since that image was made, and that was it.

Macrium Reflect is perfect anyone who wants to create a safe backup of their system. Just remember that you need somewhere to store your image files. My system has 8TB of storage across seven HDDs, but if you only have single HDD you’re going to need at least 20GB free space to create an image.

Doesn’t Windows’ own backup keep my files safe from Wannacry?

No. Windows backs up your personal files, not itself. If you get a virus, this will infect Windows and probably all your backed up files anyway.

Is a disk image safe from Wannacry?

As long as the image is clean (i.e. you didn’t have the virus already on it) then the image itself is safe to use. However, it would not be wise to keep the image on a networked drive where any virus could get at it. In the case of Wannacry, it encrypts everything – and I assume this would include .ISO images and anything else it found.

My images are stored in the cloud, and on spare hard drives and USB devices.

Why is imaging better than a full reinstall?

My own opinion is that it is a pain having to start from scratch with all your software when you do a full reinstall, whereas restoring an image yields a 100% functional system (or one that is close to 100% if you installed software after you made the image).

Bear in mind that a Windows installation DVD is about 4.7GB maximum capacity. A clean image of your hard drive following a clean reinstall will typically be about 20GB (over 5 DVDs). My clean working image is about 60GB (15 DVDs). Since DVDs can get scratched and become unreadable (especially ones you burn yourself), that method of storage is unreliable (in my opinion and experience).

You need to allow for these file sizes when you are backing up.


Grenfell TowerFollowing the Grenfell Tower Fire, everybody has gone nuts about fires and flats. It’s understandable and – as long as we don’t overdo it – completely sensible.

And then I saw this post on the local BBC website. I’ll copy the text, since there’s no specific link to the actual post:

Fire extinguishers ‘go missing’ from Nottingham tower block

Fire extinguishers at a Nottingham tower block have gone missing from all the floors – sparking concerns over safety.

One Manvers Court resident told the BBC they are worried in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire – which claimed the lives of at least 79 people.

The Sneinton resident said: “All the fire extinguishers have gone missing from all the floors… there used to be fire extinguishers all the way up on every floor but they have all gone now.”

Up to this point, I assumed it must be vandals (if you know Sneinton, you’ll understand). But the BBC contacted Nottingham City Homes and got a response:

When asked by the BBC why some blocks no longer had fire extinguishers, Nottingham City Homes chief executive Nick Murphy said: “Each of our tower blocks has a current fire risk assessment, this makes sure we have identified all the fire risks in the block and that we have got measures to reduce those fire risks and we do that on the advice of Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service.

“In previous fire risk assessments, Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service has said leave putting out fires to the professionals.”

The bit at the bottom has been emboldened by me.

Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions here, but this seems to say that the Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS) has either said – or been misinterpreted as saying by Nottingham City Homes – that fire extinguishers should be removed because putting fires out is their job.

I can see this one running and running.

The cynical (but fairly knowledgeable on the subject) part of me is also shouting that fire extinguisher supply and maintenance costs money. Conversely, not having or maintaining them doesn’t cost any money at all. Frighteningly, it is quite possible that NFRS has said that extinguishers aren’t needed if they have carried out a fire risk assessment and drawn that conclusion. The only concrete law is that if you have them, they must be regularly maintained. No law says you have to have them.

I reckon a week – fortnight, tops – and there’ll be fire extinguishers back where they should be.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 the perils of 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 of the remedies I uncovered, 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. As I said, 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 usually 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, such as Miracle-Gro, 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 the ericaceous stuff – 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, such as Maxicrop, 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, eventually looking like those shown.

Close-up of leaves suffering from chlorosisNote also that a soil nutrient deficiency may also lead to new leaves being small and misshapen, instead of the classic Birch leaf shape. Some of ours were like that.

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 remember that we had a serious case of summer leaf drop during the same period 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 – iron sulphate kills moss and makes the grass come through much greener.

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.

It’s worth noting that a few isolated yellow leaves on a tree which fall in windy weather are not really indicative of a major problem. When you have sprays of yellow, or if you’re losing dozens of leaves in one go, that’s when you should take action.

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 container, 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 container (marked with 1L divisions) and make up to 5L with 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. I do it once every four weeks throughout the growing season (March-September).

For the iron sulphate, I dissolve 375g in water in the container made up to 5L, and again use 1L portions in my watering can made up to volume from the hose. I apply this treatment once a month or so – staggered with the fertiliser treatment. Iron sulphate will kill moss within a few hours, so don’t worry about any black patches that appear – it’s just dead moss, which can be raked out.

I try to time applications of fertiliser to just before (or during) rain to be sure it is fully watered in where the tree can get at it. Otherwise, I put the sprinkler on for a bit. I let the iron sulphate go to work on the moss and let the weather take a natural course – acidifying the soil is a longer term thing.

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.

Are the leaves changing early this year?

This was a generic search term used to find the blog in mid-July 2017. The short answer is no, they are not – not in July, anyway.

In hot and dry weather, many trees can become “distressed” and start to shed leaves. Silver birches are affected by this. Also, greenfly infestations can also cause leaves to die and fall. If a lot of leaves are turning yellow on the tree then you have a problem – quite possibly the one which is the main subject of this article. However, a few leaves falling is probably nothing much to worry about.

Update: As of the end of August 2017, it does seem that yellowing has started early this year on some trees. Some birches are showing sprays of yellow, and other tree types are showing sprays of red and yellow.

Update: Autumn yellowing has definitely started as of mid-September. Our Birch, and those of the neighbours, are starting to show sprays of yellow. Many other trees are showing yellow and red. It’s certainly earlier than in the last few years.


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