New Urban Exploration Site

Over the last few months, an increasing proportion of the posts I’ve written on here (not that there have been very many, which I’m hoping will change this year) have been urban exploration related. I’ve decided to give them a home of their own, as I doubt most of the people who are interested in them will be interested in reading the rest of this blog (and vice versa). So, I give you:

Gcat’s Urbex Site

All of the urbex posts from this blog have been moved across, but there are redirects in place so any links or bookmarks that used to point to them should automatically go to the right place on the new site. There are also many newly written posts describing my exploring adventures over (mostly) the past couple of years, so if that sort of thing interests you, do check it out ๐Ÿ™‚

 

Cycling

I’ve been enjoying cycling to work lately. It’s only about 3 miles from the new flat, so easily do-able. (The old one was 7 miles away. I suppose that’s also do-able in theory, but not for someone as lazy and unfit as me ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). It’s got more enjoyable since I replaced practically every part of my rusty old bike that could be replaced. Previously, going uphill made me feel like I was going to die of exhaustion, going downhill made me feel like I was going to die if something pulled out in front of me because the brakes weren’t very good, and going along on the flat made me realise I must in fact be dreaming because, as you quickly discover once you start cycling, there aren’t any flat bits in Edinburgh.

Since I started cycling, I’ve noticed 3 things:

  1. There aren’t any flat bits in Edinburgh. No really, there aren’t. Even the streets that seem pretty flat when you’re driving or on foot turn out not to be once you have to cycle on them. (I know I mentioned this already, but it seemed annoying enough to be worth mentioning twice).
  2. People really don’t expect cyclists to stop for them at zebra crossings! When I approach the crossing near my work in the car, people step out in front, expecting me to stop (quite rightly). But when I cycle up to it, they come to an abrupt halt on the pavement and look nervous, then look amazed when I actually do stop to let them cross. They smile and wave and thank me as if I’ve done them a great favour.
  3. At the smallest mention of cycling, some people will start practically frothing at the mouth and immediately coming out with “They should have to pay road tax!”, “They should be prosecuted when they go through red lights!!”, “They should have to pass a test!!!”, “They should be fined for riding on the pavement!!!!”. And so on.

It’s probably evil of me, but it amuses me no end when people get worked up about stuff like this. Their reaction just seems out of all proportion to what provoked it. What on earth, for example, would be the point in charging cyclists road tax? What material difference would it make to anyone else? I could be a smart-arse and point out that motorists don’t pay “road tax” either, they pay Vehicle Excise Duty, or that the roads are funded through general taxation rather than anything specific to road users. Instead I’ll just point out that the level of tax paid is now based on emissions per kilometre, and cyclists don’t cause pollution so it seems completely fair and reasonable to me that they don’t pay the tax. Zero-emission (and very low emission) cars don’t have to pay it either.

Going back a few years, the criteria was engine size. Pushbikes don’t have engines so there was no reason to charge them under the old rules either. Even if you based the tax levels on amount of wear and tear caused to the roads I’d be surprised if the damage caused by pedal cyclists was even measurable at all compared to what cars, lorries and buses do. It’s probably more on a par with the wear caused by pedestrians and no-one seems to be suggesting charging them to walk on the pavements or cross the roads. In fact I’m struggling to see any sort of reasonable objective criteria that would justify charging cyclists road tax. Emissions doesn’t work, engine size doesn’t work, wear and tear doesn’t work… maybe “how much they piss off Jeremy Clarkson” would, but that’s about it.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m a frequent driver myself and I know how easy it is to get wound up by people (pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers alike) doing stupid things on the roads. But I don’t feel the need to demand that whole groups of road users be punished through legislation just for annoying me. Yes, it’s irritating to see cyclists sneaking through a red light or along a pavement when you’re stuck in a jam, and maybe it seems like a double standard that they can usually get away with it and you can’t. But you have to get some perspective. Cars are massively more dangerous than bikes are – a recklessly ridden bike is annoying and sometimes inconvenient, but a recklessly driven car can be terrifying and life-threatening. Driving a car through a pedestrianised area, or going through red lights, or driving after a few drinks can very easily land innocent bystanders in hospital or worse. That’s why you need to pass a test before driving a car and why breaking those rules will get you fined or banned. Doing the same things on a bike, while inadvisable, is pretty unlikely to cause serious harm to anyone except the cyclist themselves. That’s why you DON’T need to pass a test before riding a bike and why the rules are not enforced so strictly. It seems quite reasonable to me.

Besides, would you really want all the traffic laws to be enforced strictly all the time? For fairness you’d have to enforce them at least as strictly against cars. Some people would claim that the laws are already enforced with an iron fist against the poor beleaguered motorist, but it’s easy to see that that’s not quite true. If you drive at 31MPH in a town, or 71MPH on a motorway, do you always get a ticket for it? No, although it’s technically illegal, in practise you almost never get a ticket until you’re over the limit by quite a generous margin. If you park on a pavement or on a double yellow line in a quiet residential street but aren’t actually causing an obstruction, do you always get fined? Again, no… I’ve done it plenty of times and never been fined yet. The truth is, motorists get away with a lot of minor infractions that are theoretically against the rules but in practise aren’t likely to hurt anyone. Seems fair enough then if cyclists do too.

In the end, forcing cyclists to pay tax and pass tests, or punishing them for every trivial, harmless technical violation would just discourage people from cycling, and that would be a bad thing. Cycling has a lot of advantages… it’s healthy, it’s non-polluting, it saves fuel, it cuts congestion, and it’s much safer for other road users. We should be encouraging it, not discouraging it, because everyone benefits indirectly if more people cycle.

And anyway, if you’re still convinced cyclists get much better treatment, there’s an easy solution… bikes aren’t that expensive… come join us ;).

Edinburgh’s never-built inner ring road

(or Not-Lost Edinburgh).

I’ve been following the excellent Lost Edinburgh Facebook page for a while now. Though sometimes it does get a bit depressing to see pictures of all those amazing buildings and streets that either aren’t there anymore or have been ruined by more recent developments. But when I found detailed plans online for Edinburgh’s (thankfully never built) inner ring road recently, I realised how much worse it could have been. So this blog entry is a tribute to some amazing places that haven’t been lost.

The road plans fascinated and horrified me, a bit like a horror film that you somehow can’t bring yourself to stop watching. The audacity of them seems incredible now, although it was probably par for the course back in the 60s. Basically, as far as I can piece together from what I’ve read, the plan was to have an inner ring road (possibly a full three-lane motorway but definitely at least a dual carriageway) encircling the city centre, running through Haymarket, Tollcross, the Meadows, St Leonards, Waverley, Leith Street, Inverleith, Craigleith, and back round to Haymarket again. When I say “running through”, I really do mean right through. Many of these places would have been either destroyed or at least blighted forever under the plans. In a few places (such as under Donaldson’s School) the road was to be in tunnels, but these were the exception.

Here’s a map I made of the plans (only intended to give a rough idea of the route, may not be fully accurate):

ringroadmap

Here is a link to a scan of one of the original plans (frighteningly it says “Phase 1” at the bottom – if this was only phase 1, god knows what might have got wiped out by phase 2+), and here is a Google map where someone (not me) has added the road routes to a map of present-day Edinburgh (though I don’t think the branch going straight through Arthur’s Seat is supposed to be there. It was bad, but not quite that bad!).

In addition to the central ring, two other motorways would have branched off and joined up with major routes into the city. The A1 would have left the ring road at St Leonards and cut right down the side of Holyrood Park, obliterating the Innocent Railway route and passing very close to Duddingston Loch and the nature reserve. The M8 was also intended to come right into Edinburgh and terminate on the inner ring road. In contrast to the damage that would have been done by the ring road and the A1, this might actually not have been too bad – it was mostly planned to use vacant land parallel to the railway line (where the tramline is now being built) and the route of the old railway line into Princes Street Station (now occupied by the West Approach Road) so the demolition required would have been minimal compared to the other roads.

At first I wasn’t sure whether this was all a wind-up, or some over-zealous student project that wasn’t ever seriously intended to be built. But then I saw this. At some point, someone was serious enough about it to build a huge, detailed scale model of the road through the east end of the city, so it seems probable that the plans were actually genuine back in the late 60s.

But enough background. Onto the not-lost places!

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This is Duddingston Loch, a tranquil wildlife reserve on the edge of the stunning Holyrood Park. Under the plans it would have had a motorway running right alongside it.

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On the Innocent Railway, now a popular traffic-free walk and cycle route into the city, Scotland’s earliest railway tunnel survives. The junction between the A1 and the inner ring would have been near the top of the tunnel and the A1 would have followed the old railway route along the edge of Holyrood Park for some distance.

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The Meadows. A lovely green space in the heart of the city, with imposing old tenement blocks on the south side and views of Arthur’s Seat. Always busy with pedestrians and cyclists, especially in the summer. Melville Drive, the road through the park, would have been turned into a motorway if the plans had gone ahead.

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Tollcross, a historic meeting of routes at the bottom of Lothian Road, with some impressive old buildings. The inner ring road would have had a large roundabout junction right here, which looks as if it would have taken out at least a block in every direction.

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A nice green stretch of the Water of Leith Walkway, behind the modern art galleries on Belford Road, offering a much-needed escape from the noise of the city. The motorway would have emerged from the tunnel under Donaldson’s and crossed the river at this point.

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Inverleith Pond, on the edge of Inverleith Park near the Botanic Gardens. The ring road would have gone either straight past the pond or straight through it, depending on which map you go by. It would then have converged with the river again, following its north bank opposite the Stockbridge Colonies closely for a while before crossing over again at Canonmills.

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Picardy Place roundabout, by the Omni Centre and the Playhouse at the Edinburgh end of Leith Walk, would have become a large motorway junction with an elevated roundabout.

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At Waverley Station there would have been another major junction, with motorway slip roads flying over the tracks to the east and replacing Market Street through the arch of the North Bridge.

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The Pleasance area certainly wouldn’t have lived up to its name as the inner ring road would have been built either on top of it or much too close for comfort for most of its length. It is likely that the courtyard (now part of Edinburgh University and a major fringe venue) would not have survived.

Although not part of the same scheme, there was also a proposal to turn the Union Canal into a motorway into the city at some point, presumably an alternative route for the M8 into the centre, similar to what was done with the Monkland Canal in Glasgow. This never came to pass either and the old canal (now fully restored) survives as a popular walking, cycling and boating route instead.

So there you go. People may somewhat justifiably bitch and moan about the disruption caused by the tram line construction, but the ring road plan was on another level entirely. It’s easy to complain about the traffic congestion as well, but it’s far from certain that the planned motorways would have helped much in the long term. After all, Glasgow does have a motorway network built right into the city, but the traffic levels have caught up and large parts of it are at a standstill again during rush hour. For all its flaws, having had a glimpse of the alternative, I’d much rather drive on Edinburgh’s antiquated road network as it is now.

Tunnels!

I’ve lived in Edinburgh for nearly 30 years and, especially recently, spent a lot of time around the south east side of the city, so I thought I knew most of what was there. I didn’t, for example, think there was a huge great disused railway tunnel that you could walk through right on the edge of Holyrood Park.

But whaddaya know. There is!

It was built for Edinburgh’s earliest railway line, the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, also known by the slightly curious name “Innocent Railway”. (Apparently this was due to the fact that it was horse-drawn at first rather than using steam engines, but I read an alternative theory that it could be because no-one was killed in the construction of the tunnel, sadly rare in those days).

The tunnel is over 500 metres long and dead straight, so you can see right through to the other end. It’s now part of National Cycle Route 1. We spent a happy twenty minutes or so messing around with long exposure photography in there last night. That red blur you can just see in the photo above is a passing cyclist. I also discovered what a difference the white balance setting can make:

I like tunnels for some reason. I expect Freud would have had something to say about that, but in my case I think it’s mostly a geeky fascination with old industrial sites, combined with a slightly childish desire to go and explore hidden places.

Edinburgh doesn’t have too many old tunnels. (Glasgow, being a more industrial city, has loads, but that’s a topic for a whole other post!). Most interesting is probably Scotland Street Tunnel on the old Edinburgh, Leith and Newhaven Railway. It ran 1,000 yards from Scotland Street Goods Station (on the site of which you can still see the blocked up north portal) down to Waverley. The south portal is now lost underneath Princes Mall but apparently a corrugated iron tunnel was put in when the mall was built to maintain access and ventilation; it exits near Platform 19 of Waverly Station. The main tunnel was closed to trains in 1868 but it’s still down there and was used as an air raid shelter during World War II.

There are two smaller tunnels further north on the route of the same line, at Rodney Street and Trinity, and like the Innocent Railway Tunnel you can walk or cycle through them. And there’s this one:

on the Water of Leith Walkway at Colinton Dell. It’s pretty short but it’s on a curve so you can’t see both ends at once, which makes it seem longer.

Finally, here’s Scotland’s first (and for a long time, only) canal tunnel under Prospect Hill at Falkirk:

Apparently there was no pressing technical need for a tunnel here, but the local landowner didn’t like the idea of the canal spoiling his view and forced the canal company to put it underground instead. And good for him, I say. It certainly made my walk through to Falkirk High Station a lot more interesting.

The roof seems a lot more porous than in any of the railway tunnels, probably because the middle bit is mostly just bare, unlined rock – there is a constant dripping of water into the canal as you walk through, and stalactites in places. This was the first time I’d been here since the Union Canal re-opened in 2002, and I was glad to see that the addition of electric lighting hadn’t detracted from the atmosphere of the tunnel too much.

 

Chocolate Fudge Cake… mmm…

When I’m in the kitchen while my girlfriend’s cooking, I still tend to feel a bit like the nurses you get in operating theatres, just standing there slightly in awe and fetching various utensils when the expert says “Knife, please”, plus of course trying not to spill or sneeze on anything important. But recently I’ve been getting a bit more adventurous with cooking myself.

One of my new favourite recipes is chocolate fudge cake, from a book called “The Big Book of Baking” (I think it’s this one, but Amazon are out of stock unless you fancy paying 20 quid or more for a used one… my copy was a kind Christmas present from Mari ๐Ÿ™‚ ). I made it for my workmates to mark my ten year anniversary of starting in my job… but I expect you could use the same recipe for a 9th anniversary or maybe even, with minor modifications, an 11th.

Ingredients for the chocolate fudge icing, waiting to be melted. There’s two and a half bars of solid chocolate in that pan! (along with other stuff, including a type of sugar I’d never even heard of before).

Starting to mix up the actual cake. Electric whisk… what’s that?

Icing is ready to be chilled! Just got to resist the temptation to drink it all instead.

Beating the eggs and adding them to the mix.

Finally adding the flour and cocoa powder. (Bonus fact: “cocoa” was my first word, apparently. It couldn’t be something normal like “Mummy” or “Daddy” with me, could it. Oh no).

The finished mixture!

The finished cakes!! (Note: only normal metal cake tins in my kitchen. None of these freaky looking silicone “tins” that look like they shouldn’t survive the oven ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

The finished cake, iced!!! (Stop laughing at the back. It may look a mess, but… but… ah, I don’t know how to finish that sentence ๐Ÿ™ ).

I didn’t actually get to eat any of the cake myself, though I did eat plenty of the icing. It seemed to go down well with my colleagues, one of whom said I should have a tenth anniversary more often. I said I would try.

 

You learn something new every day…

On Wednesday, for example, I learned that I don’t in fact need to go back to my own specific branch of Bank of Scotland just to pay in a cheque.

I was telling my girlfriend that I’d finally got round to claiming back my fuel expenses from the last hillwalking club trip I was on after nearly two months, and was joking that it’ll probably take me another two months to get around to going to the bank where my account is and actually paying it in, since it’s at the branch near my parents’ house and not all that handy for me now. She looked at me blankly and said, “Why do you need to go there? You can pay it into any branch!”.

I was pretty taken aback, having spent the last 15 years since I had a bank account dutifully going out of my way to go in there every time I needed to pay in a cheque. Now I find out, just in time for the phase-out of cheques by the look of it, that there was no need.

Thinking about it, I can’t actually remember why I didn’t think I could pay in cheques at a different branch. Most likely someone else who’d always believed it told me and I never questioned it because it sounded like the sort of irritating hoop that banks would make you jump through for no reason. Or maybe it used to be true in the old pre-computerised days but isn’t anymore.

I’m sure I used to have other similar beliefs that I eventually found out weren’t true. I was going to write a blog post about them but then I found I couldn’t remember any (apart from one that’s ridiculously technical and geeky). Shame. It would have been dead insightful and interesting and all that. Instead you’re stuck with this one ;).

Update: I can now confirm that it’s definitely true. Paid in my cheque at the Cameron Toll branch, a short walk from my office, and it worked! (Not that I doubted you, Laura ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

Hello, 2012

Well… it’s 2012 (Happy New Year!)… and I didn’t exactly manage to make any resolutions. (Maybe I should make a resolution to make resolutions for next year… or maybe not). I have some vague ideas of things I want to do more of or less of, haven’t quite formulated them into anything specific. But then I think last year I only had the vague ideas as well and 2011 turned out quite good overall, so maybe 2012 will too. (It’s already off to the best start to a year that I can remember).

The serious stuff:

  • Set goals for myself and track where I am with them. I started to do this in the second half of 2011 but I think it’s time to step it up a gear. It’s one of the best ways I’ve found to combat my terror of time passing while I waste it doing nothing.
  • Meditate regularly. It clears my head, which it is often sorely in need of. Again I started this already but should make sure I keep it up.
  • Lose the weight that I gained in the last few months. Back in summer I was nearly down to my target weight and was the lightest I’d been in nearly 10 years, but then I drifted away from the WeightWatchers plan. I should get back to it. I should also cook more decent food instead of eating junk.
  • Stop trying to please people who just aren’t worth it. This was pointless to begin with but it’s even more pointless now that I’ve got all these awesome people who are worth it in my life :).

And now that’s out of the way, on with

The fun stuff:

  • More piano playing. I’ve really enjoyed getting back to this and learning some more challenging pieces. I got a Chopin Preludes and Etudes book for Christmas so that should keep me busy for a while. (And I’m still ploughing on with Bach’s Fugue in A minor. Still finding it rewarding but doubtful I’ll ever be able to play it well enough to share it with anyone else).
  • Get back into dancing. I haven’t been in what feels like aaaaages. Will have to return to the New Scotland classes when they restart. And definitely must go to IVFDF again this year. It’s only in Aberdeen so there’s really no excuse.
  • More walking and photography.
  • More creativity. I’ve got more things I want to write about here, and more computeryย sort of projects I want to do. I’m planning to write about some of them very soon…
  • Go to more gigs, and hopefully a music festival. I was a bit worried that at my advanced age I wouldn’t find anyone to go to a festival with, but then a few days ago on MSN I randomly had a conversation that went something like this: “We’re thinking of going to a music festival this year”, “Oh cool, can I come?”, “Sure!” – so it seems it might fall into place without me really doing anything, which is always nice. I also want to go see Belle and Sebastian and MGMT, now that I’ve got Evanescence ticked off (yep, as I’ve mentioned before, I have strange tastes).

I think that’s enough for now ๐Ÿ™‚

 

I’m still alive, honest…

… though I’ll admit it doesn’t feel much like it when my alarm goes off some mornings ๐Ÿ˜‰

I’ve just been pretty busy and it looks like that’ll continue for another week or two. Knowing life it will probably continue til Christmas. At which point I can sleep through my two weeks off work to recover.

At least it’s mostly the good kind of busy with lots of stuff I enjoy. Last weekend Laura and I took full advantage of Historic Scotland’s special offer where you can get in free to lots of their sites if you print off a voucher from the net. So we had a very cheap (but very cold and windy!) day out down in the Borders, visiting three abbeys (Jedburgh, Dryburgh and Melrose) and the Smailholm Tower.

Then on Sunday we did Edinburgh castle too. It normally costs about fifteen quid to get in so it was well worth taking advantage of the offer.

Turns out we were the first people to visit five sites over the weekend (or at least the first to post the “secret” phrase on Historic Scotland’s Facebook wall), so we won their competition! (well, Laura did, she organised it all so I should give her credit). Looks like we might be having even more cheap weekend trips in the new year as the prize includes annual membership for both of us, as well as a VIP tour of Stirling Castle.

After the castle I met up with Oona and Mari and we had a wander round the Christmas markets until it got too cold for wandering.

I’m off to Braemar later today to do my first “proper” hillwalking in a while. Hopefully we won’t get snowed in and I’ll be back soon to write about the hills, or about the phone app I’m working on, or about my meditation course, or something. TTFN all.

Assorted Non-Feline Creatures

Tempting though it is right now to write a ranty post about technology in general entitled “Why Does Nothing Bloody Work Properly” or maybe “Thank You Firefox For Completely Buggering Up My Day”, I’m going to resist and write about something nicer instead. Namely my visit to the Butterfly Farm (now Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World) at the weekend. I hadn’t been there in probably over 20 years but we were in the area looking for something to do and I had my zoom lens on so it seemed a good idea. But as soon as we stepped in the door, the warmth and the rich smell of vegetation in there brought the memories flooding back.

Warning: there is a picture of a large tarantula in this entry. Don’t scroll down if you don’t want to see it!

I like butterflies, but they’re very hard to photograph. The one in the banner at the top of this page is the only decent butterfly pic I’ve ever managed to take in the wild.

In a confined space and with lots of fruit and nice flowers to tempt them it’s a little bit easier, but I still didn’t manage to get a proper picture of any of the beautiful blue ones with their wings open… they move too fast and don’t seem to like sitting still for any length of time.

Some of the creatures in the back section seem to be stretching the definition of “butterfly and insect” a bit…

The highlight was definitely the handling session. Doing the rounds today were a giant millipede, a python and a tarantula. Laura only handled the python but was brave enough to stay around and photograph me with the others.


The millipede was the weirdest and actually freaked me out more than the others. It was very hard and plasticky feeling and had more legs than should be allowed attached to a single creature.

The pythons seemed really docile and were obviously used to being handed around groups of small kids and not-so-small kids. But you could feel the power of their muscles flexing as they moved, it almost felt like touching some animatronic setup with a very heavy solid metal mechanism inside. I wouldn’t want to be around if one of them decided I was lunch and needed a good squeezing.

The tarantula (Rosie II) was also very placid and calm and seemed content to take her time wandering across all the outstretched hands. Her legs felt a bit like pipecleaners but without the sharp bit in the middle. I actually kinda like tarantulas which is possibly weird as the one thing in the place you’d never get me to hold is the house spider in one of the tanks. Maybe if house spiders were furry and ambled around slowly instead of freaking out and sprinting all over the place I wouldn’t mind them so much.

The only slight disappointment of the day was that they’d got rid of the bubbling mud that I used to love as a child. But I got to hold some awesome creatures so I guess that’s better than staring at a pale brown pool of seething liquid anyway.

Bus Tracker Bungles

It always interests me when new technology backfires in ways you couldn’t really foresee.

Take the bus tracker, for example. You wouldn’t think that having screens at the bus stops telling you pretty accurately when the bus is coming, as well as a mobile app to beam the times directly to your phone, could possibly make it easier for you toย miss the bus, would you? And yet there is not just one way, but two ways, in which it has caused me to miss buses I otherwise probably would have caught.

  1. Because I know exactly when it’s coming from the phone app, I cut it too fine and see it going past before I get to the stop. (This has happened several times now. Usually with the last bus of the night).
  2. Because I was so busy fiddling with my phone trying to find the right bus stop in the tracker app, I didn’t even notice my bus coming… and then going again. (This has only happened once so far. Well, only once that I’ve come out of my phone-induced trance quickly enough to see it receding into the distance, anyway).

OK, I’ll admit that those are both due to me being an idiot and not really the fault of the tracker. But the tracker has certainly opened up new, more high-tech ways for me to be an idiot ;).

(I’m off to Alton Towers tomorrow so hopefully I’ll post something more exciting early next week. Look on the bright side, at least I didn’t subject you to my interminable rant about the trials of upgrading Ubuntu to version 11.10! Or my other interminable rant about how much it cost to get my car door fixed…).