Thursday 3 December 2009

Designed for Landfill

The Sony Walkman turned 30 years old this year, at almost the same time as I did.

Back in the old days a cassette walkman had big chunky buttons, with “Fwd” on one side, “Rev” on the other side, “Stop” in the middle and a bigger “Play” button somewhere equally obvious. They didn’t have a “hold” switch because those massive buttons were never going to be pressed down by accident unless you dropped it on all four of them at once. Doing that would jam them for a minute until you thumped each button one at a time which would generally un-jam them again, sometimes leaving them a little looser but almost always still working.

One happy day “Auto-reverse” came along and removed the need to take the cassette out to play the other side, and at about the same time they got a bit smaller and only needed one AA battery instead of two. As rechargeable batteries slowly came down in price I’m sure I was quite contentedly musically mobile for a while there.

Unfortunately this got me hooked early, and for about twenty years now I’ve combined the activities of walking and listening to music, taking my mind off the massive heavy rucksack I’m often carrying usually via something trashy with the bass boost on. CDs are too flimsy a format to ever really be portable, but they got me used to skipping tracks and I eventually switched to the instantly-obsolete minidisk format. I’m now thinking about getting an MP3 player, but I can’t find anything that isn’t almost completely unusable because of basic design flaws.

This is all I ask…

1) I’d like one that takes a standard sized interchangeable battery, preferably a single AAA, with as long a life as possible. Nothing affects my enjoyment of a music player quite so much as it being silent because the battery has run out, and being able to carry a spare charged battery is the only practical way of making the thing truly portable.

2) I want something reasonably easy to navigate by feel so I can keep it in my pocket out of sight. Not just because I don’t want to get mugged for it, but because I need to pay attention to small matters like crossing roads, looking where I’m going, and generally not ending up like those earphones in a pool of blood from the road safety ads.

3) It’d be handy if it could be reasonably rain proof, or at least come with a rainproof cover it can stay in while I use it. I need this because I live in the UK where it rains quite a lot, and I plan to go out in that rain quite a lot with a portable music player. That’s the whole idea of it being portable. If I wanted to stay at home where it’s dry then I’d use my computer instead. I had a waterproof Sony Sport Walkman in about 1988 so I don’t feel I’m asking for the moon here, but water resistant electronics don’t even seem to exist any more. What happened there? It hasn’t stopped raining.

4) I’ll have it in any colour that won’t show dirt too much. I’ll try not to actually drop the thing in any puddles, but I’m not going to wash my hands before each time I touch the stupid thing. Black works, any other darkish colour would do, white would be bottom of my list.

I’m struggling to find anything that meets even the first two criteria, and I’ve now started just looking for something with as many visible buttons on it as possible.

How does one operate an MP3 player which only has one button anyway? Presumably the sodding thing changes function all the time and you have to keep taking it out of your pocket to find out what the damn button actually plans to do next time you press it. Or each side of the same button does something different so that you have to get it the right way up in your pocket, guess which corner of the circular button you’re stabbing at and then wait a few tantalising seconds to find out whether you’ve skipped to the next track, turned the volume up, turned the volume down or skipped back to the start of the track you were in the middle of. You can be tantalised for even longer if the middle of the same big circular button also happens to be “Pause”.

Touch screens? Horrible! Fine, I guess, if you’re sitting somewhere warm and dry (because I guess you can’t wear gloves), devoting all your attention to dragging the pretty little animated icons around. Not so much fun if you want to go anywhere where you might have to look away from it for a minute or where anything might bump it unintentionally. So you can’t actually put it in your pocket and walk, drive, do the washing up, exercise, weed an allotment or eat anything to music.

And why the hell are these things all white now? WHITE?? They’re supposed to be portable, and yet if you’d like them to stay shiny at least until the novelty of having something new has worn off you can’t put them in a pocket, can’t touch them if you’ve been reading a newspaper, can’t put them down on any surface that might have any dust on it or in a room that might ever have had any children in it. And it must take the potential resale value down to a small fraction at a stroke, because after just a few weeks use it’s going to be a highly unfashionable shade of yellowy grey.

And is it really too much to ask for corners that won’t rub off? Coloured plastic has been around for quite some time now and is available in a vast range of colours, several hundred of which would make very nice colours for the casing of a small electrical device. It’s really not necessary to coat it with a metallic finish of any description, and it’s going to look much better in a few months time if it doesn’t have a coating that wears off all the corners.

But the battery situation is just unforgiveable. Having agreed - more or less - on things like standard time, which side of the road to drive on, and roughly how many volts are going to come out of a socket in a wall, humankind went on to produce battery cells for mass consumption in some common standard sizes. Both AA and AAA rechargeable batteries are easy to source, durable, easy to charge and easy to replace – they’re the quite blindingly obvious choice of fuel for a small portable electrical device. So why would anyone decide to put a completely non-standard sized rechargeable battery in a portable device and then seal it inside so it can’t be charged outside the unit?

Because, obviously, anyone who wants portable music enough to buy one of these things is going to want to sit next to their computer all the time to recharge it. They take 3 or 4 hours to charge, so when the music suddenly stops half way to the 24 hour garage one evening, all you have to do is turn around, walk back home and sit next to a USB port for three hours and then you’re up and running again.

OK it means they can be ultra slim, but I can fit seven AAA batteries in the tiny fifth pocket of my jeans - it’d be well worth an extra 3mm width to be able to carry a spare battery around with me. For when the battery runs out. Which it is generally going to do while I am in the middle of walking and listening to something, rather than when I am conveniently sitting at home next to my computer.

Especially since some MP3 players have a battery life of an unbelievably low six hours - perhaps that’s so that you can’t actually get too far away from your PC before the battery runs out? I despair.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Google Number Ones

That pesky Merrick has tagged me for a meme:

"Give me five great things that your blog or websites rank number one in Google searches, then tag five other blogs. Bonus points if you manage to have any sexual content in the phrase."

So here goes - this blog is number one in Google searches for:

bastards and medium sized shards of glass
skinny nearly-naked women in the weird ice palace thing
singing "Jingle Fucking Bells".
Everything was methodically sniffed, the back doorstep was peed on
be rather odd at an otherwise very pointedly Jesus-free event.

Bonus points, I think, not only for sexual content but for the mental images conjured up if you imagine these as one continuous narrative.

Gonna pass it on to Ralph, Dr. Rob, Dr. Shroom, and... of all people writing anything on the internet I'd LOVE to see Charlie Brooker do this. He usually has at least five great, original, hilarious phrases with sexual content in everything he writes, and then he gets it all published in the Guardian. Still haven't tried his Spotify challenge though, so he'll probably ignore me.

That only makes four other people I'm tagging, so if anyone else would like to volunteer then feel free to add yourself.

Thursday 15 October 2009

The Road by Cormack McCarthy

Ohmygodohmygod - "The Road" is about to come out in cinemas, so if you haven't read the novel yet then you need to read it right now!

Seeing something on film puts someone else's images irrevocably in your head and makes it nearly impossible for you to create your own, so to get the most out of a novel you really have to read it before you see a film version. With "The Road," especially, the post-apocalypse setting draws on the reader's own fears and imagination so much that it's well worth reading before watching.

Basically a father and his young son try to survive in a world that, physically and socially, has been almost completely destroyed by some unspecified disaster. It's dark and horrible, with some nasty surprises, and a wonderfully intricate relationship between father and son. I hadn't realised until I saw a plug for the film that McCarthy had written it after becoming a father again in his sixties, which just adds layers to the play of love, fear and responsibility between them and makes the plot itself all the more poignant, even if you don't happen to already spend any time imagining what a post-climate change world might look like for anyone who survives that.

I warn you, there are spoilers for the book even in the blurb for the film, so beg, borrow or steal this book before you see it - do it now!

Sorry I can't find anything to link to that doesn't have at least some spoilers in it, and it's so well worth scaring yourself with in your own good time that I'm just going to link to Amazon so you can buy it.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

It's Nearly White Poppy Time...

I haven’t written here for a while, so instead of covering things I’m a bit late with I thought I’d skip ahead and remind you of something there’s still time to do something about.

It’s four weeks today until 11th November, when you’ll be surrounded by images of people wearing red poppies, marching, saluting and firing cannons, and when you might want to be wearing a white one instead.

So, here is where to get them, and here's a quote about why you might want to buy them from the Peace Pledge Union:
"The White Poppy symbolises the belief that there are better ways to resolve conflicts than killing strangers. Our work, primarily educational, draws attention to many of our social values and habits which make continuing violence a likely outcome.

From economic reliance on arms sales (Britain is the world's second largest arms exporter) to maintaining manifestly useless nuclear weapons Britain contributes significantly to international instability. The outcome of the recent military adventures highlights their ineffectiveness in today's complex world.

Now 90 years after the end of the ‘war to end all wars’ we still have a long way to go to put an end to a social institution, which in the last decade alone killed over 10 million children."

Previous posts about armistice here, here and here.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

My Furry Flat

Things which don't work so well with cat hair on/in them:

The filter in the washing machine
Hand-rolled cigarettes
The wheelie button on my computer mouse

Things which work better with cat hair on them:

The cat

So, should I shave the cat?? Just look at her about to sit on the sellotape here:

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Big Green 2009 Cancelled - "A Premeditated Political Decision"?

The Big Green Gathering, which I wrote about a while ago here and which should have been on again this weekend, has been cancelled at the very last minute in what seem to be highly suspicious circumstances.

Police took out an injunction to stop the event going ahead, just days before the festival was due to open and while large numbers of people were already onsite building the massive infrastructure that a festival needs.

They'll have laid water pipes, put up marquees, made compost toilets, put up fences, built stages and bars, and generally spent a huge amount of time, effort and money already, and now won't see any revenue coming back in at all. There's no question that the festival will have done absolutely everything they could have done to satisfy the license conditions so it could all go ahead - the Big Green may well not survive the losses they will now suffer after cancellation.

On Sunday issues about security arrangements and traffic management apparently couldn't be resolved to the satisfaction of the council and the emergency services, and organisers had no choice but to surrender their licence for the event. Police have said "The event was not cancelled by the police or Mendip district council. The organisers voluntarily surrendered their licence yesterday; therefore it was their decision to cancel, not ours."

But it's obvious that such late cancellation was the last thing that festival organisers would have wanted to do, and the festival chairman Brig Oubridge has said that on the part of the police "It was a premeditated political decision made at least a week ago. There were going to be people from the Climate Camp here as well as Plane Stupid. It could be seen by police as a gathering ground of radicals."

The whole thing has started to smell an awful lot like what happened with the Smash EDO film. A campaign against an arms manufacturer in Brighton put out a film called "On The Verge" about their protests and the police harassment they'd suffered. Venues across the country which tried to show the film then suddenly had problems with their licenses from local councils, apparently after prompting from the police. Brig Oubridge's statement suggests that something very similar lies behind the cancellation of the Big Green.

It's highly sinister if local bureaucracy is being used by police, across forces, to disrupt activity that they dislike not for public order reasons but because it involves political opinions they disagree with. There's more at stake here than just this festival - John Vidal says in the Guardian that "Some observers believe the closure of the festival is part of a larger plan to crack down on all environmental protest." It's not just festival goers and stall holders who should be worried about how they spend their summers - political policing is everyone's problem.

As soon as the no doubt extremely stressed and worried festival organisers are able to tell their side of this story, a further statement will probably appear on the Big Green Gathering website. Until then, the one thing they’ll certainly need is as much solidarity in the form of cash as they can possibly get.

They’re asking for anyone who can afford it to consider donating the price of their ticket back to the festival rather than asking for a refund. I've just bought myself a BGG T-shirt from their online shop, which may become a kind of political statement depending on what emerge as the real reasons behind this year's cancellation, and which will bring them some much needed money in. You can also donate from their website if you have a credit or debit card, or cheques can be sent to:

Big Green Gathering Co Ltd
PO Box 3423

With much more of this story still to emerge, the London Climate Camp only a few weeks away and Ian Tomlinson still fresh in everyone's minds, it sure looks like it's going to be an interesting summer...

EDIT: Much more detail is now up in an article on SchNEWS here. It's absolutely astonishing.

ANOTHER EDIT: Bristol Indymedia is probably a good place to keep an eye on this story too.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Free Acid!

There are hundreds of different products for getting limescale off toilets, sinks and kettles, and they all basically involve acid, which dissolves limescale if you leave it to soak for long enough.

There are also a lot of people, like me, growing hundreds of times more rhubarb than they can really handle because the plants get very very big and there's a limit to the amount of rhubarb crumble one can eat in a year.

Rhubarb is incredibly acidic.

Can anyone think of any reason I shouldn't boil up a load of rhubarb and use it as an organic, eco-friendly and incredibly cheap kettle, sink and toilet cleaner?

Tuesday 7 July 2009

The Fabulous Wrecked Tent Project

On the last night of Glastonbury I fell asleep in Merrick's tent, with a trickle of rainwater falling on me right in the middle and a small pond growing at my feet. I was warm and tired enough to fall asleep/pass out quite quickly, but instead of counting sheep I drifted off dreaming about groundsheet patches and reinforced seams.

It's a lovely tent - a modern dome design which is easy to put up, flexes in the wind and is strong and sturdy, but made almost entirely of cotton rather than nylon so it breathes and shades like cotton bed sheets. It was bought for Glastonbury 1995 and has been well used since then, but it needs some serious repair work to keep it in service much longer.

As I recently ranted, I hate the way so many people throw things away and buy new replacements rather than repairing and maintaining what they already have, and this tent is such a nice object in itself that I just couldn't resist making a project of it. I thought I'd post my progress here in case it helps anyone else not have to buy a new tent, and in case anyone has any tips as I go along.

I took the tent home with me, but instead of drying it out the whole thing was so grubby that I threw it straight in the bath to wash it first. I started off by handwashing the fly sheet, which is about the thickness of good quality bedsheets and tough enough to scrub with a scrubbing brush. The water coming out of it was only a very pale shade of brown after about the sixth rinse, so I wrapped it in a sheet to keep the fittings safe and put it in the washing machine to spin it halfway dry before I hung it up.

The previously clean white sheet came out so dirty that I changed my mind and put it back in for a proper 40 degree wash with soap.

With the fly sheet drying outside on the line I started cautiously prodding the inner to see if I could get away with not washing that. The inner is awkward because it's stitched onto the groundsheet, but 14 years of mud, sweat, mildew, squashed insects and ...whatever that is... really did need to come out of it before I could do anything else.

Although it will look great (and breathe better) after a wash, cleaning it isn't just for aesthetic reasons. Tiny particles of grit stuck between fibres will eventually wear and break them - some of the smaller holes in the inner look as though they might have been caused this way - and patches of dirt will affect the tension and flexibility of the fabric, making it impossible to sew it straight or with a consistent tension. Wonky or badly tensioned sewing pulls in some places more than others which causes further rips, and the inner fabric is so fine that a little will make a lot of difference.

So into the bathtub it all went, the groundsheet bundled up out of the way making it look like I had a dead body in there, and out came blackish water and 14 years worth of Glastonbury mud. The fabric was too thin to withstand the scrubbing brush so there ensued much energetic squishing, and the rips meant I didn't dare lift any of it out of the water as the weight of it wet was likely to tear it even more.

After 11 or 12 changes of water I concluded that the really black bits were a permanent feature, they'd probably look better when it dried and they add character anyway, so I left it to drip in the bath for a while and then spread the groundsheet out in my bedroom, with a chair inside it to lift the inner up to dry as best I could.

I just love how doing things like this doesn't seem to strike cats as particularly unusual - Mizzy walked right past this enormous thing she'd never seen before which was taking up almost the entire room, and paused only for about half a second to determine that it was wet and therefore not interesting.

By morning it was dry enough to get it outside, and when I put the poles in to spread it out properly it dried out in ten minutes flat in the baking hot sun. The next job will involve either waterproofing it or taking revenge on it for soaking me at Glastonbury. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Mizzy Has Adventures

A neighbour was looking after Mizzy for me while I was away at Glastonbury, and he said that the first time he came round, when he opened the door and she realised it wasn't me, she "did the cat equivalent of bursting into tears." I'm sure she settled down after that, but since I've been back she's been super-cuddly, wanting to sit on me and lick me all the time which is very sweet and makes me feel we're nicely bonded now.

The weather is really hot and I've got a few days of wellie washing and drying out the tent to do at home, so today I put a collar on her with a bell and a tag for my phone number, and let her out of the flat.

Everything was methodically sniffed, the back doorstep was peed on, she tried out some paving stones for rolling around on and she let me catch her again at the bottom of the garden when I started getting nervous.

Having a little sleep now after all that excitement.

Friday 19 June 2009

Glastonbury 2009

I'm going to Glastonbury Festival on Tuesday, and I'm so excited I can't think about anything else any more. If you're going then don't forget to use the property lock-ups (which is where I'm working). If you're not then the weather forecast below will hopefully make you jealous.....

Thursday 11 June 2009

Easier Than Making a Decent Paper Plane

Daniel Harris of Freewheelers did a little impromptu survey of people on the Climate March last year to see how many had switched to renewable energy. Out of a random 53 of those people who had bothered to get out of bed, travel into Central London and march for the climate that day;
"7 people didn't know where their electricity came from; 24 knew they were using a non-renewable supply; 3 said they were moving to renewable electricity; and 19 said they were already on renewable thank you"
That's a bit rubbish, really. Only 36% of people marching for action on climate change had switched their own supply? It may be less exciting than dressing up as a parrot and a gorilla, but switching is a much more "direct" action and it's very much easier. I suspect that most people are just put off by misconceptions about how difficult it is to switch, given that almost no one understands much of the information given on their energy bills let alone which companies are "green" or which is the best tariff they offer.

But if you live in the UK and you want a green supplier then it's easy.

You really don't need to know what a kilowatt hour or a
standard energy unit is. You don't need to shop around, because there's only one company, Good Energy, offering 100% renewable electricity in the UK. You don't need to compare different tariffs because they only have one, and not only is it not rocket science, it's easier than making a decent paper plane.

The most difficult part is the very first step – you’ll need to find a previous electricity bill. This is tricky if your filing system is anything like mine, but do it for the planet…

That will give you both your meter number, which will be obvious because it looks like this;
and a rough idea of how much you spend per month on electricity. Go to the Good Energy website, click on "Join Good Energy" and fill in the form. It also asks things like your name and address, and they'll ask you to send them a meter reading as soon as you can, and that's it.

Uniquely among UK utility companies they actually answer the phone if you need to call them, so if you have any problems or if you'd rather do the whole thing by phone then you can speak to real human beings on 0845 456 1640.

However pretty the leaflets your current supplier sends you - even if it claims to be endorsed by the RSPB or Greenpeace - if you haven't done this yet then the very screen you're reading this from is unnecessarily damaging the environment, and it will continue to do so until you switch. Detail on whatever might have confused you about the "green" credentials of other suppliers is in Merrick's article "How Green is Green Electricity?"

But if all you need is motivation to just do it right now, imagine the embarassment of unexpectedly being asked to explain why you hadn't got around to it yet while wearing that parrot costume on a large climate change demo in the middle of London on a cold December day.

Thursday 4 June 2009

Don't Buy a "Green" Thing

There are so many “green” products out there – from eco ironing spray to solar powered cherubic water features – that it’s easy to miss the simple fact that avoiding a purchase entirely is usually the greenest choice of all. The truly green alternative to a mains-powered water feature, for instance, is not a solar-powered one with a huge manufacturing, transport and disposal footprint, but an entirely non-electric one (like this made from a bathtub rescued from landfill), or just doing without a water feature altogether.

Making something pretty by re-using what would otherwise be wasted is a nice idea, and there are loads of projects and websites on making funky clothes, jewellery and desk tidies from reclaimed waste. But how often are you likely to wear a newspaper dress, how many pen holders could anyone really need, and how much jewellery would you avoid buying new if you mastered the art of making bottle-top earrings instead?

We’re so hooked on consumption that we’re coming up with ideas to reduce it by essentially consuming more. We’re inventing more “needs” that we can satisfy with ideas borrowed from sustainable solutions, while forgetting that we already have real needs far more deserving of our efforts to meet them more sustainably.<

Along with this, almost all products which are actually useful have just about succumbed by now to the natural state of decay known as the Shoe Event Horizon, which caused global societal collapse on the planet Brontitall in “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams:*

“The foundation of the Shoe Event Horizon theory is that when depressed, people tend to look down, and when they look down, they see their shoes. To cheer themselves up, they might buy themselves a new pair. Thus, in a generally depressed society, demand for shoes will rise.

In the critical condition, demand for shoes rises faster than the capacity to make good quality footwear. As shoe quality decreases, the demand increases further because shoes wear out faster and need to be replaced more often; as the demand for shoes increases, cheap mass production causes shoe quality to drop even more. What results is a spiral of increasing shoe demand and decreasing shoe quality. Eventually, this destabilises the economy to the point where it is "no longer economically viable to build anything other than shoe shops", and planetary society collapses.”

It seems to me that it is no longer economically viable to manufacture anything much other than cheap, shoddy products that don’t properly withstand normal wear and tear, that are deliberately designed not to be repairable by the average user and that are inherently disposable, thereby ensuring the future purchase of replacements as often as manufacturers think they can get away with. The result is that we’ve stopped expecting anything to last, we don’t expect to have to form the habit of maintaining anything, it rarely occurs to most of us to even attempt to fix anything that breaks and we’ve largely lost the skills we need to do so even if we wanted to.

How come so many people who grow their own vegetables don’t know how to sharpen the tools they use? Why, when everyone knows they should only boil the water they need, do they not also know to regularly de-scale their electric kettle to prolong its useful life? How many people use an energy efficient light bulb in a lamp, but throw the lamp away when it stops working because they don’t know to check and change the fuse? How many of those designing exciting “eco” clothing ranges throw away good versatile T-shirts from their own wardrobes when they don’t know how to get rid of a stubborn stain?

Instead of making very beautiful bottle-top earrings and pen holders, perhaps we should concentrate on things we couldn’t just entirely do without – basic clothing, tools, lamps, kettles, bikes, taps, everything that serves a useful purpose and is a solution to a real need rather than an invented one. We then need to teach each other about how these things are made, which designs are most durable, how to fix them when they break and how to maintain them so they break less often.

Why has learning simple repair and maintenance techniques yet to become fashionable the way "eco chic" apparently has, and where are all the reduce-reuse-recycle-but-see-if-you-can-REPAIR-it-first sites?

I’ve made myself a new “repair and maintenance” tag for this kind of thing and I hope you all have nice sharp garden shears now. I'll try to find something else to fix while you're busy descaling your kettle.

* Sorry to stereotype but I imagine I’ll now get Douglas Adams fans commenting that they’ve memorised the entire text of HHG and the planet Brontitall isn’t in it, so thought I’d better just mention that it’s only in the original BBC radio show and that memorising the entire text of HHG isn’t likely to get you a girlfriend.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Introducing Mizzy

My good friend The Neighbour’s Cat suddenly and unexpectedly got sent to live with someone else just before Christmas last year. I had no idea she was going, didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, and for months afterwards kept thinking I’d glimpsed her out of the corner of my eye sitting on the windowsill or hiding behind the curtains.

I’d been thinking for ages about getting my own cat, and last week I finally took the plunge and answered a classified ad on Gumtree. Someone nearby needed a new home for a ten year old, overweight, black-and-white cat with dandruff, so I’m now sharing my flat with a fat old lady cat called Mizzy.

By pure coincidence she has very similar markings to Neighbour’s Cat, but measures at least twice as much around the middle and currently weighs about five kilos or 11lbs, which is a lot of cat. Apparently an “average” cat weighs about four kilos, which I worked out is roughly the equivalent of me weighing well over 11 stone instead of 9. She’s going on a diet.

She’s very chatty and friendly and lets me rub her belly, and her string chasing technique involves lots of amusing rolling over to use all four paws, so we’re getting along fine.

I’ll be adding her opinions to mine here if she has any interesting ones, although so far she’s still eating Go-Cat because I didn’t realise it was made by the evil Nestle, who she will be boycotting when we get to the end of the packet. She much prefers home-made toys like the string and a feather to the annoying jingly balls actually sold as cat toys, so that’s a good sign. We haven't discussed vegetarianism yet.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Sort Your Shears Out!

Everyone’s been clipping everything in sight since we’ve had some sunshine here. On Monday the council used a petrol ride-on mower for all the grassy paths, the neighbours had a gardener doing their lawn with an electric push-mower, all the housing associations sent their hedge-clipping-chainsaw-thing man round and almost everyone else I saw was laboriously hacking at hedges and undergrowth with blunt shears while sweating a lot. So it might be a bit late to tell you this.

It’ll all need doing again in about two weeks though, and the simple non-electrified garden shears that most of us use are about a hundred times easier and more effective to use if you maintain them properly, so here’s how to sort out a pair of shears:

First wipe them clean so you’re dealing with handles and blades rather than a layer of plant goo and grit. Little bits of grit will totally mess up the sharp edges and the pivot, so rinse them even if they don’t seem muddy, just in case.

Close the blades together, hold them up to the light, and look between the blades to see how well aligned they are. If the blades are bent away from each other even a tiny bit then at best they’ll only cut part-way through everything. If they meet at the pivot and the tip but there’s a chink of light in the middle then you’re holding a pair of self-blunting shears. Blades bent in towards each other will scrape their sharp edges together every time you close them, so they’ll be blunt in no time even if you just open and close them without cutting anything.

Bend the blades carefully back into shape until they pass each other very closely and lie flat against each other – you shouldn’t see any light between them sideways-on when they’re shut. I tend to do this by wedging one handle between my foot and the ground, putting a brick under the part of the blade I want to bend, another brick under the loose handle to stop the blades closing together, and then pushing with slow steady pressure on the blade until I can just feel it start to move. Don’t hammer blades or apply pressure too fast in case they snap, and check the chink of light between the blades every time you may have bent them even slightly – a little makes a lot of difference!

Once you’re sure they’re aligned properly, sort the pivot joint out. If they’re stiff you might have grit or gunk in the joint, which a scrub with an old toothbrush in warm soapy water will probably sort out. If it’s rusty then take as much rust off as you can with fine sandpaper and wipe clean with something dry. Then work some oil into the joint so it opens and closes easily. If they’re still stiff then it might be worth undoing the bolt to sand the parts you can’t otherwise reach, putting the bolt itself in Coca-Cola overnight before cleaning its screw thread with a toothbrush and soapy water, then drying and oiling the whole thing before putting it back together.

Finally, you need a sharpening stone. If you’ve ever chewed a piece of grass you’ll know that it’s very fibrous, and so are woody things like hedges. Clipping the stuff will blunt blades quite quickly, so they need sharpening up again every ten minutes or so to keep them cutting easily, otherwise you’ll spend lots of effort just bruising grass.

If they haven’t been sharpened for ages then it’ll take a bit longer first time, but once they’re done they’ll only need a few scrapes to get going again when they start to lose their edge. If they’re very blunt or if there are any nicks in the blades, take them to a locksmith-and-cobblers shop first and ask nicely if they’ll grind them on their machines before you use a sharpening stone for a smoother finish.

Get the sharpening stone wet, look at the blade to see where the tiny slope at the edge is, then drag that sloped bit across the stone – you don’t need to press very hard. If you then look again at the blade the part you’ve scraped will be shiny, so you’ll see easily if you’ve got the angle right and with a bit of trial and error you’ll soon work out how to get a decent sharp edge on a blade – ask a good chef to teach you how to sharpen a knife if you're struggling.

Go off and cut things, enjoy the nice clean slicey noise they’ll now be making, remember to sharpen again a little bit every ten minutes or so, and you’ll gradually stop thinking of shearing as really hard and difficult work.

No petrol, no battery, no mains lead, no fuel costs, no sweat.

Friday 10 April 2009

Ian Tomlinson - It Happens All The Time

I went to protest against the meeting of the G20 in London last week. I listened to a samba band, chatted to lots of lovely random people, ate slightly squashed sandwiches in the sunshine and was nowhere near where Ian Tomlinson died.

To briefly fill you in if you’ve been on another planet for the last week or so; someone who had nothing to do with the protests was walking home through it all, and was hit and pushed over by a police officer in riot gear. Video of this happening was recorded on at least two different cameras by other people nearby - which you can see here and here - and we’ll probably eventually see footage from CCTV cameras in the area too. It is pretty clear that it’s assault. He died in the street soon afterwards of a heart attack, and it seems that police officers actively hindered the efforts of a medical student to give him first aid, and then delayed an ambulance attending the scene to resuscitate him.

Plenty has already been written about the G20, the protests against it, the police tactics used and the press coverage of it all.

The one thing I don't think is being said enough at the moment is that the tactics and behaviour of the police last week were entirely routine. Just about every major protest I've ever been on, as well as many smaller ones, has been policed in more or less this way – in fact you can always spot a first-time attendee at any protest because they are the only people still expressing astonishment at what they see police officers do.

Kettling, crap (i.e. obviously arbitrary) arrests, police provoking violence, hitting people on the ground with batons, shoving very hard with shields and intimidating people who aren’t even involved happens at almost every protest. Lots of us simply expect it now. Most people who are attacked by police officers never bring a complaint - it’s not usually possible to identify individual officers after the event, and onlookers are often busy being attacked themselves rather than filming what is happening. But it happens all the time.

I’ve seen countless protesters with head injuries, because lines of police often raise their batons above their own heads to beat indiscriminately down on crowds of people, after pushing them back so they’re packed too close together to be able to avoid the blows.

Every time there is any liaison between protesters and police, we ask them to ensure that all officers’ identification numbers are kept clearly visible precisely so that we can hold them accountable for this behaviour. Every time they fail to do this.

They actively prevent people from recording their actions by filming or taking photos. Even people who realise that media coverage is biased often have little idea how profound and widespread the bias is. Unprovoked and disproportionate police violence is massively under-recorded and under-reported, preventing any individual case from being seen in its wider context of routine police brutality.

If Ian Tomlinson had not died last week there would have been no investigation. If there had been no footage of the assault then it would have been assumed that the police had acted reasonably, and the attack would have become one of thousands of police assaults which go completely ignored every year. It’s a matter of time before someone else dies, and a matter of luck whether anyone will manage to get clear footage of it next time.

I hope the investigation into Tomlinson’s death doesn't allow everyone to narrow the focus of discussion to just this one fatal incident. It's high time that the whole nature of the role of policing at protests is called into question and that some real accountability is forced on the police.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

Turn On, Plug-In, Opt Out!

Starting today, Google will be collecting information on the web pages you view in order to target advertising at you.

They don't need your permission - if you don't opt out then the law apparently allows them to assume your "implied consent". They also have little obligation to make sure you know they're doing this, which one might think would tend to make it rather difficult for you to choose to consent to it even if you wanted to. Anyway, now you know, so now you can choose to opt out.

In fact I hardly ever see any advertising on the internet any more since I got the almighty Adblock Plus for Firefox. Honestly, even if you're the least technical person in the universe, if you use Firefox then click here, click on "Add to Firefox", and let it install. It will tell you to restart Firefox, and then you need to click on a filter to tell it which ads to look for - pick the first US one if you're in an English-speaking country. That's it.

It's easy, I promise it won't go wrong, and I swear I only see advertising on the internet now when I use someone else's machine which doesn't have Adblock installed. Then everything is suddenly plastered in the stuff, which the normal user of the machine usually insists they "never really notice". If they really don't notice that amount of junk on the screen all the time then advertisers must practically have electrodes implanted directly into their subconscious. Give yourself a couple of weeks without the distraction of incessant advertising, and then see how cluttered and shouty other people's experience of the internet begins to seem.

Google, however, will still be collecting information about the pages you view in order to target advertising at you, even if you're not actually seeing the ads. It's the data collection aspect that I object to most, so I still want to opt out of their intrusive scheme and stop them virtually spying on me in the first place.

Trying to find out how to do this involved having to read pages and pages of corporate drivel about how to "improve your online experience" by letting Google show you "the most useful and relevant ads online" which can be "tailored to your interests" with a system based on "transparency" and "choice".

To save you the sheer annoyance, click here, and then click on the big blue thing that says "Download the advertising cookie opt-out plugin". If you have more than one browser then you'll need to do this in all of them, e.g. you need to do this once in Firefox, once in Internet Explorer, and once in Chrome or whatever else you use for browsing the internet. (If you're not sure then you probably only need to do it once.)

After that they should bugger off and leave you alone, at least until the surgeons call round to give you that lobotomy you've implied your consent for by failing to let them know you didn't want it.

Sunday 22 March 2009

Eccentric-Looking Allotment Project No.97

We're without water on my allotment site again this spring because of a massive underground leak. My plot isn't looking as wacky as usual at the moment either, since the bender greenhouse has bitten the dust and I can't put the tipi greenhouse back up until I find new poles for it, so this weekend I've been ressurecting my solar still which should help on both scores.

Our water is metered and not as good for some things as rainwater, so I always collect the rain in loads of mismatched plastic containers I've pulled out of skips. But for the last couple of years we've had no rain for weeks at just the time I'm trying to plant my seedlings out, and with vandals wrecking our water supply I've had to carry water in from the carwash around the corner just to keep everything going.

So how to collect fresh water on site when it isn't raining and the taps don't work? "The Global Warming Survival Kit" by Brian Clegg had an idea I thought I'd try out.

I already had a big hole in the ground, about three metres square and 30cm or so deep, where the tipi greenhouse used to be. I dug a smaller, deeper hole in the middle to put a big plastic container in, and then stretched clear plastic sheeting over the top and held it down around the edges with bricks. The idea is that water evaporates out of the ground, condenses on the underside of the plastic sheet and runs into the middle, where small stones keep the lowest point directly above the container to catch it all.

I got a good few litres a day this way over the summer last year, and when it does rain the sheeting also collects lots of water in the top, so now I should end up with a decent supply of water whether it rains or shines between now and planting time.

Of course today has been cloudy and windy, just to annoy me.

Thursday 15 January 2009

I've Forgotten How to Blog!

I recently sent work-related e-mails from home and forgot to erase the automatic signature, which says The recipient noticed, and then several other work people turned out to have read it too, including my boss...

I’m sure I must have left the same signature at the bottom of something or other I’ve sent my mum at some point as well, although god knows whether she’ll have figured out what a “blogspot” is or what to do with it, especially since it doesn’t begin with “www…”

For some reason I mentioned this blog to my half-sister too, who I’ve never met but who I’ve been in contact with for the first time recently by e-mail, and on whom I’m very much still making first impressions…

And then, before xmas, I went to a big co-op party where, (at least as far as the more coherent parts of my memory of the evening suggest,) about three different people said they'd read something or other I'd written here. Although come to think of it those could all have been the same person wearing different wigs…

Now every time I sit down to punch random musings into my grubby keyboard, I keep imagining my boss, my mum, someone who’s going to be my sister and every Leeds activist I’ve ever met, all in different wigs, all gathered around the same computer screen waiting for me to do something worthwhile here to justify the publicity. It's been making it a bit difficult to write.

I feel quite a lot like a rabbit again, this time one caught in headlights.

What if I say something stupid?

I suppose that question implies that I don't think any of those people have ever heard me say anything stupid before, which is extremely unlikely given the rubbish I come out with in person when I don't even have to be able to spell any of it.

Anyway, deliberately pitching to specific audiences is for advertisers, I'd rather write about whatever I want and assume that only people who'll tend to like it will tend to read it. I guess really I just can't decide what to blog about, and the more I think about it the less I can prioritise.

Plenty of better-informed-than-I-am people are already writing about Gaza, on which subject it's as much as I can do to suppress a scream every time I hear words like "proportional" and "right to exist" - some things I get too pissed off to even rant coherently about.

The UK government has just given the go-ahead for a third ru
nway at Heathrow, which I probably will rant about when I've caught up on reading everyone else's rants and worked out what actually needs doing next about it.

And of course capitalism continues to eat itself, with some amusing and some scary consequences which so far haven't included me losing my job, being repossessed or having to do a masters degree.

So how to get this blog habit going again?

My most productive days often start with a lot of aimless but a
ctive flitting around, just feeling the caffeine kick in and tidying things up entirely at random whether they need it or not. I then usually start seriously doing about three or four things at once, while making huge lists of other things like taking the bins out and finding out where that smell is coming from (those two things are "on my list" right now), which I may or may not do when I lose momentum on any of my supposedly primary tasks, or if I somehow manage to actually finish any of them.

Sometimes I'll then suddenly be seized with a very specific project that I'm absolutely compelled to completely immerse myself in right this minute, develop and expand into all available physical and mental space, and concentrate on to the exclusion of everything else until it occurs to me that I haven't eaten for hours, I haven't slept for days and I haven't returned anyone's calls since last Tuesday. That's how shelving gets put up.

I think I'll have a good flit around, aimlessly tidy up this blog a bit and see what happens. Making a nice cup of tea is usually a good start.

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