April 2004

Oh, that’s fun.

This morning, I took delivery of the aforementioned bonkers German sports car, then like a good boss drove straight back to the office and parked it in a large puddle. No, really, I did. OK, so I did have a quick spin out at lunchtime. And then I joined the gang in the pub this evening via the not-exactly-direct route. But for the whole afternoon I only looked out of the window a few times. Barely at all, in fact.

Then tonight I took a spin up to Ilkley Moor, coming back over the twisty tops past the Cow & Calf rocks.

What a glorious thing. It’s surprisingly comfortable, the gearbox and I are beginning to come to an arrangement, and the noise is superb. The steering is rather too light, but round the twisty bits it’s a hoot… and you can’t sniff at 50mpg cross-country, which is what it reckons its doing.

There are still plenty of buttons with functions that are entirely obscure to me, and I’ve no idea what half the displays mean either. Now I’ve worked out how to turn on the extra speakers, however, the stereo doesn’t sound too shabby – but the soundtrack so far has mostly been glorious turbo twitter, which kicks in no matter what you do with the loud pedal. Tee-hee.

Yes, it’s a hoot. I shall enjoy my evening pootle up to Glasgow tomorrow. With a very wide grin.

Quite how I’m going to get my bike back home, I’ve no idea. I’ve not thought this through at all. Ah, well, never mind. Oh, and as it turns out, my mother does approve. I thought she might – she’s the petrol-head of the family, really.

So… as it turned out, the local Mercedes dealer was keen to sell me a Smart Roadster. Like, really keen. They ended up offering me a stupendous trade-in, and what with a price rise due in a week, it starts to look like I’ll barely lose money over another Cooper even if I only keep the thing for six months. So…

Let’s just say that my trip to Glasgow next weekend will not be a quick one. Ah, the joys of running in.

Metallic blue and silver, by the way. With the funky three-spoke wheels, and a surprising number of toys inside, including the all-important paddle shifters.

Now: remind me why I always seem to do this when I’m right in the middle of the busiest part of a production? I seem to recall taking delivery of the Mini, then immediately driving to a British Oxygen depot to pick up a cylinder, before driving to Rockingham. Which was a bit of a git, actually – track time going free, but only 300 miles on the clock and a 3500rpm redline.

Ofcom’s preliminary report on public broadcasting requirements for ITV1 appeared today. Of interest to me because the finally-agreed requirements will determine whether I still have a job or not. See, children’s programmes are not something ITV necessarily wants to do, they’re something ITV has to do under the terms of our broadcasting license. Yes, ITV is a public service broadcaster, at least in part.

This is a problem because CITV doesn’t cover its own costs – I believe the shows cost more than the advertising brings in. But we have to make them, so that’s fine. As part of Ofcom’s far-reaching broadcasting review, they’re assessing that burden – and so far, it looks quite hopeful. Basically, the cost is moderate, but the publicly-perceived benefit is fairly high. The preliminary report groups us with News and Current Affairs under ‘low-cost, high benefit’, which has to be a good thing. Even if we’re the most marginal element of that group.

The report’s rather interesting, actually – some refreshingly radical metrics in use there, and my cursory inspection has left me with the impression that the authors really know what they’re doing. I wish I had more time to study it, but we’re in the middle of rehearsals…

…for ITV’s cheapest children’s factual series, and one of the most popular. Stick that in your cost/benefit analysis, nyeurgh!

I nearly bought a car today. Which was a bit of a surprise, since I hadn’t intended to at all.

My Mini is three years old in October, and what with the combination of finance packages, waiting lists, and imminent filming, I need to decide fairly soon if I’m going to buy another one. Financially, I should have traded in the green Cooper for a Cooper S a year or more ago, but there we are. I didn’t in part because I’m still slightly torn between another (perky, amusing) Cooper, or a (fire-breathing, snarly) Cooper S. The latter’s supercharger makes a heck of a difference, with effects ranging from the predictably neck-snapping overtaking oomph through easier driving in traffic (there’s a wall of torque), to lower depreciation, to unimpressive fuel consumption and wince-inducing insurance quotes.

Spot my dilemma. The Cooper isn’t as good a buy now as it was three years ago, but in many ways I’m happy with it and, while occasionally I’d like a little more ‘go,’ I’m not exactly crying out for a Cooper S. On the other hand, I know I’d have a heap of fun with an S… and that I’d begrudge the extra cash… and that I’d love the supercharger whine, and…

So today, inexplicably, I found myself turning into a Mercedes showroom to have another look at the Smart Roadster Coupé. Now, those who know me know I’ve always had a soft spot for small 60s/70s British sports cars. They’re small, they’re uncomfortable and impractical, they’re not very quick, and they’re all quirky as hell. The Roadster is exactly the same idea, only without the dodgy electrics and terrible crash-protection. Pretty much everything else is in place.

It’s a terribly clever package: the mechanicals of the Smart city car grafted into a very light, low-slung, divisively pretty little plastic body, crammed with every bit of electronics and safety kit you can imagine. The fact that the execution is flawed somehow adds to the charm, since the old MGs and Triumphs and Lotus were dodgy as hell, too.

So, there’s almost enough luggage room to convince me that I could live with the thing – except, there’s no way my bike will go inside. I’m right on the edge of the adjustments for the seat and mirrors, but in the end I do fit in, in surprising comfort. Except that my right leg is almost entirely unsupported by the seat. Which may or may not prove painful (the Mini isn’t very good in this regard, either).

Having briefly scared the living daylights out of me, the terribly jolly ex-Mini-owning salesman swapped seats with me. It is, of course, a hoot to drive. It’s far from fast – my Mini is only a ‘tepid’ hatch, but would still beat the Roadster to 60 by as much as two seconds – but sitting that low in a small car, one feels like a total hooligan while ambling along at 20. Which I have to say I like. Partly because it’s safer, but also because – well, any car can exceed the limits. The fun lies elsewhere than outright speed.

The engine is glorious. It’s the same 700cc, three-cylinder, turbo-charged beer can found in the familiar Smart, only here it’s kicking out 80hp and has developed the most amazing Porsche-like snarl. It burbles along inconspicuously enough until you floor the throttle, then all hell breaks loose right behind your head. Silly grin time… until the auto-upshift kicks in a tad too early. Ah, the gearbox. Sorry, a tricked-out semi-automatic with paddle shifts may be cool in theory, but it’s ruddy awful in practice. But it’s one of those foibles one would become accustomed to – and all little roadsters need an achilles heel of a quirk, surely?

Crashing through bumps is about as much fun as you expect – not a whole lot. But it’s not as harsh a ride as I’d feared, and besides, what do you expect? Your bum’s about six inches off the ground, of course you can feel the road.

None of the above quite gets to why I like the thing, though. Sure, it’s a modern interpretation of my favourite class of car; it goes round corners well; it has a terrific little engine; it has enough foibles to be interesting. No, what’s really clever is that it still hits 60 to the gallon on the motorway. As a demonstration that one can be a concerned consumer and still have fun, it’s without equal. I’m not claiming that any car is environmentally-friendly, but… look, in a world that seems to be moving inexorably towards US-style faux-off-road SUVs, the Smart Roadster makes a hell of a statement, and it’s one with which I whole-heartedly agree.

Have I ordered one? No. Poke around online, and you’ll learn that the things leak like sieves, the dealers are awful, and, like the demonstrator I drove, they have more rattles than my nephew. Heck, it even passes the acid test of any sports car: my mother disapproves of the idea. But oddly, I’d be willing to put up with all that. No, the problem is: they’re flat-out expensive compared to a Mini. While the Mini still boasts a waiting list of at least six weeks, I could have a Roadster next Friday, with almost exactly the spec I’d want, from stock. With a thousand pounds off before we’ve even started haggling.

Why? I’m guessing, because they’re not selling. Why? Because they’re too damned expensive to start with, I reckon. Result: depreciation is looking slightly frightening, despite the dealer’s reassurance. A Roadster would cost me thousands more than a Mini Cooper (S or not), and while I might be willing to put up with its flaws, I don’t think I’m willing to spend perhaps three thousand pounds on making a statement. I’m not that willing to put my money where my mouth is.

I doubt I’ll change my mind. Shame. They nearly had me there. www.thesmart.co.uk, by the way.

I’ve been keeping this blog for a couple of years now (yes, that long); I’ve had a website since about 1996; I’ve been online properly since 1995; I first had an email address in 1990.

This is, it transpires, not only long enough to make acquaintances; not only long enough to lose touch with them; it’s also long enough to fall back in touch with them.

Several of the comp.sys.mac.games.flight-sim newsgroup crowd appear to read these meanderings (good evening, chaps – [salutes]); not only that, but one recent comment was from a guy who’s software I used to rave about back in the Newton days. He apparently stumbled here by accident, then recognised me as a sometime customer.

It’s curious – I’m used to bumping into old friends in the street and renewing old acquaintances, but online, it’s still unexpected. We’re the last generation who’ll be able to say that.

I think I’ve just entered the world of cult TV! For sale on eBay – a preview tape of The Big Bang series 3 prog 1.

Something I made is listed as a collectors’ item on eBay! How cool is that? I’m so excited!

Of course, I’ve dozens of these things – including even more rare offline rough-cut VHSs – kicking around back at home. So this is either a totally bogus auction, or a potentially significant source of income, depending on how it goes.

Kudos to Violet’s eagle-eyed sister for spotting the auction.

Long ago I elected not to take an aeronautics/astronautics degree, and instead embarked on the path that meandered via a hodgepodge course in physics ‘and stuff’ to my current mucking around trying to inspire eight year-olds to make interesting things out of yoghurt pots. I walked away from aero/astro because I wanted to work in the industry circa 1960, not 1995: I wanted to make things, to finish a project and move on to the next. Project timescales are now so stretched, one might typically see only a couple of aircraft from drawing board to sky in an entire career.

It’s curious to note that while aerospace has gone from measuring projects in years to decades, architecture has gone from lifetimes (cathedrals) to merely years. I’d suggest that architectural engineering is now a faster-moving and more exciting field than aerospace (Discuss, 20 marks). Either way, I’m happy I’m no engineer, and I’ve never regretted the decision I made back in 1990.

Nevertheless, every so often an aerospace project rekindles my boyhood fascination with fast things with wings. One such was ThrustSSC – I wish I’d not taken a (short, dull, badly-paid, frustrating) writing job I was doing at the time and gone out to Mojave to help de-FOD the course, or whatever. I could and should have been there.

Another such project is Scaled Composite‘s X-Prize entry, ‘Tier One.’ Burt Rutan, maverick engineer (now there’s a concept I like) and designer of barking sane aircraft like the Voyager round-the-world craft, has built a spaceship and air-launch platform. SpaceShipOne and White Knight, respectively, are quite unlike anything seen before, are quite quite barking, and make a whole heap of sense. And SpaceShipOne just went over Mach=2 and 100,000ft.

The goal is space. I, for one, will cheer when they make it. Good luck.

As a side-effect of trying to get video conferencing set up for my chums Gareth and Violet, I had to find out what firewalling router ports to open for iChatAV (short answer: UDP 5060, 5678, 16384-16403, and TCP/UDP 5190). Hence, I’ve finally got around to setting up my own router appropriately. Unfortunately, G&V’s firewall is so ancient, I couldn’t configure it as needed, so I had no idea if what I’ve done here actually worked or not.

Until Vinay called, from Colorado. Ruddy ‘eck! Better audio quality than a phone, similar latency, some very subtle anti-echo processing… once you get over the slightly weird feeling of talking to your Mac, it works wonderfully. And costs not a penny over your existing broadband connection, of course.

The only problem is that, like a phone call but unlike an instant message session, there’s no record of what’s said. Which is a pity, since Vinay was his usual entertainingly barking/erudite self. One bit I did manage to bash down before I forgot it:

“The people who are really good at social networking software are the secret police. They’ve been doing it since at least the days of ancient Rome.”