Fixing it before it brakes

There is an old adage which says “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  Apart from being a great way to wind up prescriptive grammar pedants, there is a lot of wisdom in that remark.

However, there is also an adage which says “A stitch in time saves nine” (i.e. if you fix a problem before it gets too big you can save yourself a lot of work later on).

When it comes to bike maintenance, it’s probably a good idea to find a balance between the two – to avoid unnecessary and potentially counter-productive futzing with stuff that’s working fine but to pick up on developing problems before they get too big, especially when it comes to important systems such as the brakes (arguably the single most important bit of a bike).

Flicking back through my last few cycling-related posts, I notice that the last time I mentioned which bike I was using (just over a year ago) it was my mountain bike.  At the time, my road bike was down for maintenance as I was unable to find a suitable freewheel tool to enable me to take the freewheel off the back wheel in order to replace a broken spoke.  Fairly shortly after that post, I gave up on looking for a freewheel tool, bought a cheap but reasonably effective pair of new wheels (so they would be a matched pair) and a freewheel with a standard modern fitting, and got the bike back on the road.  That was just as well, since a few months ago my mountain bike developed a problem with the bottom bracket (essentially, the thread on the shell seems to have stripped itself) which will probably be quite expensive to fix (if it’s actually possible) and I’m currently operating with just one bike again.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed my brakes were getting a bit sluggish (and they don’t have the greatest stopping power at the best of times, as they are only caliper brakes with fairly small pads, not nearly as good as the V-brakes on my mountain bike).  A couple of days ago I decided it would be a good idea to adjust them while I was still able to stop the bike (and I had a couple of other minor maintenance tasks to do at the same time).

As well as rotating the brake pads to achieve more uniform wear (there’s still plenty of rubber left on all of them but the front ones were wearing quite a bit faster than the back ones) and adjusting the spacing between the pads and the wheels, I decided it would be a good idea to change the rear brake cable since the old one was beginning to look a bit worn out.  I had bought a couple of replacement brake cables shortly after I last changed them (sometime last year, I think) as I usually like to keep spares of that kind of thing.

I’ve replaced quite a few cables on my bikes over the years and it’s a fairly easy job.  This time, however, I learned an important lesson about how not to do it.

Having slotted the appropriate end of the (inner) cable into the lever and fed it through the outer cable (which I wasn’t replacing), I connected it up to the brake caliper, adjusted it to give a decent gap between the brake and the wheel rim and then trimmed off the excess cable, leaving a couple of spare inches for adjustment.  I then went to test the brake and discovered that the cable had popped out of the lever while the tension was relaxed.  In order to get it back in, I had to undo it at the caliper end and pull it back through a bit.  Unfortunately it was a tiny bit too short to fasten safely in at that end once I’d got the other end reseated in the lever.

Rather than trying to attach it anyway and hope for the best, I decided the sensible course of action would be to chalk it up to experience and try again using my second spare cable.  This time, I made sure everything was attached at both ends and thoroughly tested before I cut off the excess cable!

The first cable wasn’t wasted either, as I decided to use that to replace the (much shorter) front brake cable which, although not as decayed as the back one, was beginning to show some signs of distress.  Hopefully both the new cables will last a reasonable while (at least until next Spring), and I’ve already ordered a couple more spares.

Blues on Bach

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while (or have explored its archives), or if you have ever seen my CD collection or my last.fm library, you may have noticed that I’m quite a fan of the music of Johann Sebastian “Mighty” Bach (bonus points if you pick up the literary reference there!) and also of jazz.

I have noticed quite often over the years how jazzy some of Bach’s music is.  My favourite example is the opening of Prelude No. 1 in C (BWV846) from the 48.  It basically consists of a bunch of broken chords but if you analyse the chord progression it is full of major sevenths and other chords that are usually more at home in a jazz setting than a classical one (in case you’re wondering, the first 8 bars are, ignoring inversions, C, Dm7, G7, C, Am, D7, G, Cmaj7).

It is, perhaps, therefore not surprising that several musicians over the years have sought to interpret Bach’s music in a more overtly jazzy style, nor that I enjoy listening to these jazz interpretations.

Quite probably the most famous is Jacques Loussier, a jazz pianist who devoted a large proportion of his career to playing jazz arrangements of Bach’s music.  I have a compilation album drawn from several of his original albums on this theme, which I love listening to.

The only other album I have of explicitly Bach-inspired jazz is by the Modern Jazz Quartet and is entitled Blues on Bach.  I have had this album for several years and played it quite a few times but only fairly recently noticed one particular feature of it.  The album has 9 tracks, all based more-or-less closely on Bach’s works.  Five of them have relatively whimsical titles that give some clue as to which piece they are built on (such as “Precious Joy”, which is a reworking of “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring”).  The other four are entitled Blues in X, where X is the key of the blues.  These are also based, fairly loosely, on Bach themes.

The keys are Bb (or B as it is called in German musical terminology), A minor, C minor and B (or H, as it appears in German) and the order of them, interspersed as they are between the other tracks, is no accident for – lo and behold! – they spell: BACH!

Incidentally, I’ve long harboured a suspicion that the German tradition of calling the notes B and H instead of Bb and B may have arisen from Bach wanting to be able to spell his own name musically, since the sequence A B H C D E F G (+ accidentals) seems considerably less logical than A B C D E F G (both in the placement of H out of sequence and the fact that that one should get its own name whereas other semitones have to be content with being called x-sharp or y-flat).  However, I’ve been unable to discover any hard evidence one way or the other (such as attested use of the note names before Bach’s time).  The Wikipedia article on musical notation doesn’t mention that possibility and indicates that the origin of the practice is unknown, suggesting it may be due to a resemblance between the letters b and h in Gothic script (see the article for quite a bit more detail).

You say “potato”

My recent burst of enthusiasm for salad has been continuing for the past few weeks and shows no sign of abating just yet.

As well as variations on the two salads I mentioned previously, I have been practising a bit of noodlesprucing on my basic potato salad, with very satisfactory results

Potato salad has long been one of my favourite salads; possibly this is at least partly because it never feels quite as worryingly healthy as many other kinds of salads but mostly I think it’s just because a well-made potato salad is a delight to the taste-buds (well, to mine, at any rate).

My basic potato salad recipe, which I’ve been making on and off for years, is essentially to boil up a handful of roughly diced potatoes (not too small chunks), drain them and let them  cool, then toss them in either salad cream or mayonnaise with a bit of seasoning, most often paprika (an idea I picked up at a party many years ago).  In the past, I think I’ve most often tended to use salad cream but this year I’ve worked exclusively with mayonnaise (shop-bought, although now I have a hand blender I might have another go at making some from scratch, if I can steel myself to the sheer amount of oil involved; last time I tried it I was using a hand whisk and it was very hard work, though produced quite tasty results) and have been enjoying that.

A week or two back, I prepared a potato salad in the usual way but also added a sprinkle of Vegeta (inspired no doubt by the Hungarian connotations of the paprika I was using) and a finely chopped spring onion or two. Aactually, as I recall, I used the white bits of two spring onions, saving the green bits to go in a green salad I was making at the same time.

That worked pretty well, so tonight when I was making up another potato salad I did the same thing (with one whole spring onion, finely chopped, this time) but also added a couple of fairly finely chopped radishes, as I happened to have a few to hand that needed eating.  The result was, I think, even better than before.

I’m not intending to prepare my potato salads like this every time from now on, but I’m hoping that having broken the mould  of my standard recipe I’ll be inspired to find different variations to keep things interesting.

Knowing me to a tea (or coffee)

I have made no secret, either on this blog or elsewhere, of the fact that I love both tea  and coffee.  However, it seems to be the case that many people, including some who know me quite well (or at least, have known me for a long time) seem to assume that I only drink one or the other.

Most often, I think, people get the impression I’m an exclusive coffee drinker.  Certainly it’s true that I like to start the day with a cup of fairly strong black coffee and that’s also what I’ll often opt for if I’m given the choice when I go to someone’s house for dinner or if I’m meeting someone for a chat at a local café (if it’s not a greasy-spoon venue that charges more for a cup of instant coffee than for tea, in which case I prefer the latter).

In fact, I probably drink more tea than coffee on an average day, as that’s what I’m more likely to brew for myself after my first morning coffee (though if people offer me coffee I’m generally more than happy to accept it).  Although I’m quite content with what would be considered a standard British cup of tea (with milk and, unlike coffee, I don’t dislike it with sugar, though I don’t usually bother) I tend to go more for slightly more delicate teas, generally without milk or other additives.  My tea cupboard at home probably contains on average somewhere between 5 and 10 varieties of tea, both black and green (and sometimes white).  I also drink quite a lot of rooibos and sometimes yerba mate, both of which I tend to think of as types of tea although I know that strictly they aren’t.  I’m not generally a big fan of herbal teas, though I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt from time to time and I do quite enjoy an occasional infusion of rosemary (which I think is supposed to be good for the memory, though I can’t remember for certain).

One group of friends that I regularly used to hang out with included a lot more tea drinkers than coffee drinkers, to the extent that quite often everybody else there would be wanting to drink tea (of the standard British variety with milk) and I was happy to go with the flow for the sake of simplicity.  At one point somebody I’d only known in that context saw me drink a cup of coffee elsewhere and was surprised as she’d assumed that I was a tea-only drinker.  Actually I still hang out with essentially the same group of people although we now seem to have more coffee and rooibos drinkers in our midst so I quite often go for one of those instead.

The reason I bring this up is not just to reassure you that you’re welcome to offer me either coffee (as long as it doesn’t have sugar in it) or tea but due to an incident that occurred yesterday.  I was chatting to someone I’ve known for almost 15 years and happened to mention that I was about to make myself a cup of tea.  This surprised him as he’d assumed it was coffee-or-nothing for me; to be fair, we first knew each other when we worked together in a university maths department and I drank a lot more coffee and somewhat less tea than I now do (click on the picture below for a possible explanation).

Theorem machine

Musing on this encounter, it struck me how easily we can have a very limited and inaccurate perception of someone even if we’ve known them for a long time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it means that getting to know a person well can be a lifelong journey, which helps to keep things interesting, but it means we should be careful about jumping to conclusions (especially on more important issues than which beverage someone prefers).

PS if you were wondering about the title of today’s post, it’s a deliberate mangling of the idiomatic phrase “to a T”, which is used to mean “precisely” or “in great detail”.  I don’t think it’s often used in the context of knowing something to a T but I don’t see any reason why it can’t be.

Mugging Up

For quite a while now, probably at least since the start of this summer if not before, I’ve been wondering about the origin of the English word muggy, used to describe unpleasantly hot and humid weather. I’ve finally got round to looking it up…

According to the OED (or at least the Oxford Dictionaries website) it dates back to the mid 18th century and comes from mug, a dialect word (it doesn’t say what dialect) meaning “mist” or “drizzle”, which itself derives from an Old Norse word, mugga (evidently with the same meaning).

Wiktionary says more or less the same thing (minus the bit about coming via an English dialect). It also gives several synonyms – close, oppressive and sultry.

The latter is particularly interesting as, in addition to having a non-meteorological meaning of “sexually enthralling”, can (according to Wiktionary, at least) mean either “hot and humid” (i.e. muggy) or “very hot and dry”. The probable etymology is from the verb to swelter (itself coming from an Old English verb sweltan, meaning “to die”), which is used of suffering terribly, or perspiring, from great heat (with no reference to whether the heat is wet or dry).

Incidentally, today is St Swithun’s Day which, as I remember from a junior school assembly roughly 30 years ago, is traditionally supposed to determine the weather for the next 40 days (as in, if it rains today it will go on raining and if it doesn’t it will stay dry). Today has been, at least in my corner of North Wales, a lovely sunny day. Sadly, however, empirical evidence over the last several years suggests that this rule of thumb is not entirely reliable in these parts.

Back to Babylon

My Doctor Who read-through project has now restarted following a 3 month break which occurred in a fairly unlikely place – namely the middle of the Key To Time season.  I would usually aim to have my breaks in between seasons, and certainly not in the middle of one of the most cohesive story-arc seasons of the entire run of classic Who, but for various reasons I felt (mostly subconsciously, I think) that it would be good to go away and read/do other stuff for a while before coming back to the books.  I’m now hoping to get at least to the end of Tom Baker’s stories (only about 2 more seasons to go) before I have another break.

As well as this, I’ve just started another sci-fi related project that’s been on the cards for sometime, namely a re-watch of my Babylon 5 DVD collection, which encompasses the whole 5 season run of the original TV series as well as most (though, I think probably not quite all) of the spin-offs.

I first encountered B5, as the series is usually known for short, when it was first aired in the UK in the mid 1990s.  My attention was grabbed mainly by the fact that much, if not all the graphics work, was done on the Amiga, which was my computer of choice at the time (although they used rather higher-spec ones than my basic A500+).  As far as I can recall, I watched the first episode or two but wasn’t greatly impressed by it at the time.  I think it was probably being shown at a time that was awkward for me to watch it and I was busy doing my A-levels and getting ready to go off to university (where I was without access to a TV for most of the time), so I didn’t pay it much further attention at the time (a very similar story to what happened with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another series that I’ve subsequently come to appreciate greatly).

Fast forward a few years, to around 10 years ago, and I was invited by one of my friends who, like me, was a bit of an SF geek but, unlike me at that point, was also a fairly big fan of B5, to join him in watching the entire series which he had on a combination of VHS tapes and DVDs (actually, he may only have had the first couple of seasons when we started watching but I think he planned to collect them all and eventually did).  His enthusiasm was sufficient to get me to agree to watch a few episodes and pretty soon I was hooked.  We didn’t have a particularly regular B5 viewing schedule but I think we managed to get through the first 2 or 3 seasons fairly quickly, often watching several episodes at a time.

Unfortunately (or perhaps not) our plans were interrupted as life got in the way – mainly because he got married and then fairly soon moved away to the other end of the country (in fairness to his wife, who was (and is) also quite a close friend of mine, we did keep watching B5 together until they left North Wales, just not as frequently as before), which left me stranded somewhere around the end of season 3, just when the main story arc was picking up towards its exciting denouement.

My solution to this tragedy was to get myself a box set of the entire series as soon as I managed to find one at a reasonable price.  It didn’t take me too long after that to finish watching it and since then I’ve been waiting for a good time to start again from the beginning.  I have decided that the time has now come and, over the past couple of days I’ve watched the first few episodes of the TV series (forgetting that there was a prequel film and a pilot episode in my collection that I had intended to watch in the correct chronological order this time round).

It’s quite interesting to revisit the early episodes with a knowledge of where the story is heading and who the main characters are, in contrast to the blissful ignorance with which I approached the series last time round.  I don’t know how long it will take to get through the whole series, and I’m not in a particular rush to do so.

One notable feature of B5 is that it has one big story arc running through the whole thing and the creator (J. Michael Straczynski) knew where he was finally aiming for when he started, even if many of the actual details were fleshed out later.  That said, most of the episodes would actually work reasonably well as stand-alones (though some would probably be quite confusing without knowing the back-story; as I recall there are quite a few episodes which give sufficient exposition that you could catch up reasonably well without seeing everything from the beginning).  Actually, the story was apparently originally intended to run for 5 seasons but it looked likely it would be cancelled at the end of the fourth season so they had to cram two seasons’ worth of material into a single season in order to get to the intended finishing point by the season 4 finale, only to find that they did get a fifth season after all and therefore had to bolt a whole bunch of extra stuff on.  Certainly the fourth season feels a bit rushed and the final season is quite different from the earlier ones (with my favourite character – Ivanova – sadly absent and several other fairly major line-up changes).

If I had to make a shortlist of my favourite SF TV series, I’m sure that Babylon 5 would be somewhere very near the top (alongside Doctor Who and Firefly).

Salad Days

Despite indications I may sometimes give to the contrary (e.g. with jovial references to “token salad” when helping myself to a minimal bit of vegetable matter as part of a well-piled plate of food at a buffet), I actually quite enjoy eating salads.  However, it is rare for them to make up the bulk of a meal for me.

Yesterday was an exception.

I had been to the supermarket and picked up a couple of little gem lettuces and some salad tomatoes as part of a special offer on fruit and veg, along with a fresh pineapple.

My plan all along was to make them into salad as part of my dinner.  However, due to a sequence of events including an impromptu beach trip with some friends in the evening, I didn’t actually get round to eating much more than a few handfuls of Bombay Mix until I got home shortly before 11pm.  By this time I was fairly hungry and wanted something quick to prepare and not too heavy to eat before I went to bed.

A few minutes later, I had two delicious salads prepared which I then proceded to eat with a few slices of fresh bread.

I remember reading, several years ago, advice from a cookery guru (I think it was Nigella Lawson, though I’m not entirely sure) that you shouldn’t mix red and green in a salad.  Although I’ve enjoyed enough mixed salads to be firmly convinced that this advice can be safely ignored, I decided on this occasion to make two separate salads – one featuring the lettuce and the other the tomatoes.

My first salad was a version of my default salad, namely some torn-up lettuce leaves and various other ingredients tossed around in a DIY vinaigrette dressing.  On this occasion, the other ingredients were a couple of chopped spring onions, a few capers and a handful of bisected green olives.  The vinaigrette was a simple mixture of a fairly generous quantity of olive oil and a somewhat smaller amount of balsamic vinegar, seasoned with a bit of salt, pepper and rosemary and whipped up a bit with a hand whisk.

The other salad was a bit more experimental, although based fairly closely on my recollection of salads I’ve been served by other people.  I sliced up a couple of tomatoes and put them in a bowl, then sprinkled them with black pepper (freshly-milled, of course – Delia would be proud of me), dried basil, crumbled-up goat’s cheese and a dash of balsamic vinegar, garnishing the ensemble with a single basil leaf.

In total, it was probably no more than five minutes’ work to prepare both salads (and even less to eat them).  There was enough to save a bit for this evening too and, while they weren’t in quite such good condition after a day in the fridge, they were still very tasty.

In case you were wondering about the meaning of the term Salad Days (when not being misappropriated for blog titles), it is usually used to refer back to the bygone days of one’s youth.  Apparently (and I was not aware of this, despite having read the play at least once), the term comes from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, in which the eponymous heroine speaks of:

…My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…