Author Archives: mattyyb

Mindfulness and Cycling.

cycling in Chianti

Wow it has been a long time since I have posted. I seem to have abandoned this blog but now is the time to get it up and running again as a platform where I can post my thoughts on random interests and things that strike me. This post is just some thoughts on my re-discovering the joys of cycling and how beneficial it is to one suffering from depression.

I suffer from depression and there are days when I can barely get out of bed such is the malaise that I am feeling. The doctor has prescribed pills but time after time he advised me that the best course of action is to do plenty of exercise. I tried swimming and walking but these were all pretty soon dropped. It was only after I was invited out for a day cycling on holiday in Siena (Buenenotte B & B: the best place to stay in Siena, ask for Luca) that I rediscovered the joys of cycling. I had gone out there to recharge using the last of the pittance I had scraped together teaching English as a foreign language. It had been a bruising year with only sporadic employment and severe bouts of depression. However cycling along through the forest tracks of the Via Pellegrinaggio, feeling the calf muscles ache, the warm sun on my back and the late summer breeze on my face, I felt carefree and happy, my problems left behind. Part of the joy was not only how open you are to nature when cycling  and how it seems to awaken all your senses to the environment, but also how it gives you and exhilarating sense of freedom. I felt like I was a young boy again, remembering the bike as my first real means of freedom to travel, to knock about with my mates and get out and experience nature.

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On returning to Britain I immediately cracked open my money box and found that I had just enough to buy a decent hybrid bike: a Dawes Discovery Sport 4 for £450. In the interim I had been studying mindfulness and with this fresh insight in mind, I thought back to the time spent in Italy and how carefree it made me feel. I am lucky enough to live in Kent in the South East of England and we have a great range of cycle paths and a wonderful varied scenery. I have ridden through narrow country lanes, feeling the warm sun shards shine though a canopy of leafy foliage, ridden coast paths with the calming voice of the surf in my ears with the gulls singing descant and the sharp tang of kelp and salt in my nostrils and ridden out to isolated country churches, parking up by rickety lych gates and sitting on old wooden pews taking in the quiet atmosphere and breathing in the age of the stones. The effort of the cycling, the rhythm of your breathing seems to wear away at all your fears and worries and you do become alive to not only the physical feelings, the aforementioned wind in the face, the warmly aching calves and the slightly laboured breathing on hills, but become much more aware of the sights and sounds and smells around you. With the added bonus of being able to cover greater distances than one could otherwise manage on foot, one gets to experience a greater variety too.

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I can honestly say that cycling mindfully has made a huge difference in how I deal with my depression. The darkness and the bleakness is still there and some days I struggle. However if I can force myself out on the bike (and overcoming that hurdle of wanting to do nothing is something that a depressive knows only too well), I know that I can leave my fears and worries behind and experience the carefree joy and wonder of a child again, feeling the speed, the wind on his face and discovering new things for the very first time. It is a wonderful tonic.

Our 1995 Mercedes C280

Well used but still looking good!

Well used but still looking good!

It was the hiring of a C180 Classic estate to haul my stuff to University that led to dad buying our 280. The previous trip in his aging and underpowered Granada 2.0i Ghia had been on long journey from Kent to Lampeter in West Wales. It coped well enough on the M4 but could barely cope with the windy, undulating road from Carmarthen up to the Little Market town with the UKs third oldest university institution. Following in my little Fiat Uno I could see the venerable old Pinto engine blowing out clouds of blue smoke on the inclines and dad bouncing in the driver’s seat willing it on. The Mercedes had come as a revelation. It was beautifully screwed together and, though not desperately powerful, coped with lugging a 19 year old student’s detritus without gasping and smoking, purring smoothly through its five gears. Dad loved it and was sorry when he had to hand the keys back.

That summer holiday I worked hard on him persuading him that the Granada was past its sell by date and that he really should treat himself to a C Class.  Not a new one of course dad, that would be too much of an extravagance but Kent Mercedes dealers often had a used car fair at the Kent County Show ground at Detling. I managed to drag him out there and we wandered around the fields looking at the cars with dad shaking his head and tutting over how expensive the cars were when we came across our beloved C280 Elegance.

It was sitting in the corner of the field looking understated amongst all the bigger and flasher motors that surrounded it but it was a gem. White was not in fashion then and the car was not getting much attention but 19000 miles, one elderly owner and £19K screen price, though expensive, was not beyond the realms of possibility. I remember that it was the salesman who drove (don’t ask me why now) and that he immediately took the chance to bury the throttle hammering us up Detling Hill with a muted wail from the 2.8 192 bhp straight six.

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Sixteen years later the C280 is still with us and a much loved part of the family. The car has worn its years well, though there are rust bubbles appearing around the wheel arches and door bottoms despite our very best efforts to counter them. This is nothing that cannot be remedied but at the same time, the car lacks the tungsten like durability of the previous Mercedes 190 in the body department. Another fault that has developed is a rear electronic window that now refuses to open but this is surely something that can be fixed as and when. Engine reliability has been faultless save for one incident several years ago when the engine proved difficult to start when warm and kept cutting out. Our (then) local Mercedes dealer declared that the car needed a new ECU (at a cost of over £1000) but the problem was finally traced to a faulty lamda engine sensor. In terms of performance the car still performs as it always has with the engine feeling barely run in at 121,000 miles. The engine fires with a muted hum, rising to 1500 rpm for a few seconds before gradually winding down to a 900 rpm idle as the engine warms itself up. It is best to sit through this as the initial high engine speed together with a very heavy throttle action means that moving off can result in a hare like lurch and chirrup of tires until one gets used to feather the pedal in a delicate manner.

116000 miles? Just run in for you sir....

116000 miles? Just run in for you sir….

Once one has managed to find equilibrium with the accelerator, progress becomes effortless. Most of the time it’s best to leave the four speed auto in Economy mode and use the ample torque of the engine (206 lb ft at 4500rpm) to waft about with the engine changing up at the earliest opportunity at around 2000rpm. Driving like this is extremely relaxing with the engine humming contentedly around town or smoothly building up to speed on a main road.   Selecting S mode on the box will hold on to the engine revs longer and gives more urgent progress. You need to firmly plant your foot to the floor both modes to get the box to kick down, but in this mode the engine is more willing to change up at 3500-4000 revs on say half throttle. The engine takes on a new character over 4000 rpm , no doubt due to its variable inlet valve timing, with the engine note changing from laid back baritone to a more urgent soprano as it closes in on the 6750 redline. Bury the throttle from standstill and the transmission will change up at the redline with the same smoothness as at part throttle and the acceleration still feels as progressive and smooth as when we first experienced the car sixteen years ago. The four speed automatic gearbox, like the engine, has been a paragon of reliability which is not something that can be said of the five speed, fully computerised box that replaced it. Handling wise the car is fairly softly sprung and the steering, a re-circulating ball set up is not really the last word in feel or directness. Yes the car can be pushed along if need be but it is not really behaviour that the car encourages. A far better approach is to take it easy in the corners and use the power of the straight six to make short work of the straights. In any case the car is far more effective as a “bahnstormer” than a B road blaster.

A sight unprepared boy racers should get used to.

A sight unprepared boy racers should get used to.

To sum up then our C280 is still soldiering on as strongly as ever at nearly 20 years of age and feels as though it could easily cope with another 20 too. Sure the build quality of this generation of car is not up to the peerless over engineering that prevailed at Mercedes in the 1980s but is still solid. It is also quite a rare car and also something of a Q car with its understated looks combined with a turn of speed that still has the ability to surprise. If you see a nice one out there don’t hesitate to buy it. Ours however is staying right where it is.

European Elections.

 

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I have neglected this blog over the past weeks. Various commitments and a some work teaching English means that I have not really had time to post. However I have been following the run up to Thursday’s European Parliamentary elections with some Interest. The thing that is dominating the headlines, not just here in the UK, but in France, the Netherlands and Italy too, is the rise of the “Populist” minority parties and their predicted success after Thursday. The reaction has been particularly strong in the liberal press which I tend to read and some of it has been pretty hysterical. However I have been giving the matter some serious and objective thought and I cannot help feeling that the chickens are finally coming home to roost.

I am pro European, I support the Common Market and I welcome a lot of the progressive legislation that the EU has passed, particularly in regard to workers rights. However I think that the project has been taken over and ruined by Ideological zealots who hold the principle of democracy in contempt. This is something that the political historian Perry Anderson draws attention to in a powerful essay on the disaster that has befallen Italy in the latest edition of the London Review of Books.The Single Currency was a pet project of these people and was forced through with blind eyes being turned when countries, mostly those who are in deep schtook now, cooked their books to get around the strict convergence criteria laid down by the EU. A monetary union between economies of dramatically differing strength with no common tax and fiscal policy was never going to work.

The response to the crisis from the Federalists has been predictable and bleak: there should be more integration, democracy should be further sidelined. Indeed the German Political Theorist Juergen Habermas in his book responding to the Crisis (The Crisis of the European Union: A Response: Jeurgan Habermas Polity 2012) speaks of  “Post Democratic Executive Power.” And no I am not making this up. In other words more unelected bureaucrats making decisions, no room for taking important decisions to the National Vote and no room for consultation by Nation State governments. I suppose I sound like Nigel Farage here but the fact is in these respects he is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. You only have to look at the speeches on Youtube made by people like the former Prime Minister of Belgium and now leader of the Liberal Group of MEPS Guy Verhofstadt. He is totally dismissive of of those who have elected him into public office and sees democratic process as inconvenient. Nigel Farage highlights this well in a speech where he tears into the Vice President of the Commission Oli Rehn , who stated that a general election in Ireland would be “inconvenient” until that country had sorted its finances out. One can also look at the attitude to the no votes from Ireland, France and the Netherlands on the European Constitution by the Commission and the Parliament.

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What worries me is that the fanatical federalists are destroying the EU that they are so passionate about. They are destroying its credibility amongst voters and on the world stage and are giving minority parties such as those run my Farage, Le Pen, Wilders and Grillo an open goal. To me there is a very real prospect now that the UK will hold a referendum and will vote to leave the EU. To me this would be a disaster but I am a democrat and the will of the British people would have to prevail. Looking at a less dramatic scenario where Britain manages to successfully re-negotiate its relationship with the EU. This will set off a house of cards where other governments will begin to demand the same and the whole projects foundations will become very shaky at the very time when consensus is needed. No wonder people in Brussels and Strasbourg are very jittery. However they only have themselves to blame.

 

 

 

 

2014 MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper D Three Cylinder Test

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I know it is a pretty poor show for someone who calls himself a car enthusiast but today has been the first time that I have got behind the wheel of a Mini of any description. I have been driven around in original minis back in the day when friends had them as first cars and they seemed a lot of fun (if low geared) but I never felt a huge urge to try one (my own first car, a Fiat Uno 45, being streets ahead on space and refinement if not in handling). The launch of the new Mini kind of passed me by too, namely because the old, old new MINI had no boot space and a rough old Chrysler engine and the old, new MINI (don’t worry even I’m confused at this point) was unaffordable in Cooper S form and had a pretty gutless 1.6 petrol engine and a DPF laden 110 bhp PSA/Ford Diesel engine that would not have suited my mainly urban driving patterns.

However when the motoring press announced last year that BMW would be fitting all new 1.5 litre twin scroll turbo triples in the MINI my interest was aroused. This was partly due to the fact that I like three cylinder engines for their off beat, throaty growl under acceleration and partly due to my interest in the current trend of downsizing and using soft turbocharging to meet emissions and economy standards whilst at the same time maintaining power and torque and improving drivability. The Ford 1.0 ecoboost is a standout engine in this respect, again a three cylinder, which pulls strongly from next to no revs which belies its diminutive capacity whist remaining smooth and quiet with it. I was therefore eager to have the chance of comparing the new BMW 1.5 litre engine with that of the Ford and the 1.4 litre four cylinder TSI engine of the VAG group. In the end I was lucky enough to have a decent drive in two Cooper models: the 114bhp 1.5 Cooper D with a manual box and the 136bhp 1.5 Cooper with a six speed auto. I will deal with them both in turn below.

The MINI Cooper D

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The first thing I noticed about the 1.5 Diesel triple is how smooth and quiet it is on start up. There is no diesel clatter worth speaking of at all and no discernible three cylinder shake as you come off of idle either. It fires with just as much civility as the petrol engine, probably a little more so, as the petrol (of which more anon) has a tuned exhaust note which gives a fruity burble at idle. Things did not go immediately well however as the gearbox was a real pain to get into reverse gear. True the car had only done 35 miles but it needed a really good shove to get reverse engaged and there is no push or lift indent with the box to confirm that one is in reverse gear. I noticed quite a few people before me moving forward when they wanted reverse and the sales girl who came with me admitted people were finding it a problem.

However once out of the parking lot and onto the road, things improved significantly. The manual box being short of throw and precise. The little 114bhp/270NM Diesel three pot is superb. Moving off you are swept off down the road with an instant, meaty surge of torque accompanied by a deep, baritone growl from the engine that sounds not dissimilar to a BMW six pot Diesel.  It does run out of puff at 4000 rpm though with that familiar “brick wall” effect in the power delivery common to so many Diesel engines, but such is the low down torque of the engine that there is absolutely no point in ragging the up to its 5000rpm limiter anyway but if you fancy it, it will do it smoothly and without fuss.

The big selling point of this engine though will be the fuel economy figures with BMW claiming a combined figure of 80 mpg. I always take these official Euro readings with a pinch of salt but the trip reading of 46mpg on a test route combining urban and a short stretch of dual carriageway does not sound too bad to me and I suspect one should be able to get 60mpg on a run with a bedded in motor.

In terms of handling the car was pretty impressive. Obviously I did not have a chance to throw the car about with a chaperone by my side but the car gripped well in roundabouts and accelerating on curved motorway slip roads and had very quick and precise steering which  tightened up further with the selection of the “sport” driving mode. I was expecting the Diesel car to feel fairly nose heavy too but not a bit of it, with the front going exactly where you pointed it with no feel of heft or delay. So yes the MINI Cooper Diesel: very impressive and great fun and, as you will see below, the choice between this engine and the petrol would be a real headache.

The MINI Cooper

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I was initially disappointed that the only petrol Cooper available at Arden Maidstone was fitted with the 6 speed auto box. However the sales guys informed me that they expect the auto to sell as well, if not better than the manual. It is actually one tenth of a second quicker to 60 (7.8 seconds) than the manual, has no CO2 emissions penalty and virtually identical fuel economy. Even so I like my manuals so I was prepared to be underwhelmed.  Nothing however could be further from the truth. The 1.5 litre 136 bhp engine produces its 220NM of Torque at only 1250 rpm and peak power at 4750 rpm (though it will rev to 6500) and so not only has an instant, torquey and lag free response very nearly as muscular as the Diesel but, unlike that engine will keep pulling where the Diesel begins to tail off. Given the fact that the engine is so flexible and the manual boxes ratios are so high, the auto to me seems the better option.

After pulling away with a fruity rasp from the exhaust (windows wound down) the little car bounds forward on the tiniest touch of throttle even with the driving mode switched to “green”. and the changes are quick and smooth if not quite up to the standard of the best Dual Clutch gearboxes that I have tried. The green mode does leaden the throttle response a bit (and activates a stop start system that takes a bit of getting used to) but shifting into normal mode perks the throttle up a little bit and lets the engine rev a little more, something it is more than happy to do. Put your toe down and the box kicks down instantly and the little car rushes forward with a smooth and beautifully linear flow of power. The engine also sounds fantastic under full bore acceleration with a really raspy howl that sounds much better than any rival four cylinder in my opinion. It is not super quick by hot hatch standards but it is the willingness of the engine makes the impression and left me more than satisfied. This car too has a “Sports” mode which lights up the centre console like and 80s arcade game in red (no prizes for guessing what “green” mode does) gives you rpm and gear position and more importantly drops the box down a cog or two, and firms up the steering. It makes the car a lot of fun in the handling department and does feel a little bit more responsive in that respect than the Diesel, although the test route was the same and I did not have time to really push the car. One thing I would have liked to have had was paddle shifters on the steering wheel but they don’t appear to be available even as an option. If you want manual shifts you have to move the selector over and push forward to change up and back to change down which feels counter intuitive to me, but in truth I would be happy to drive this car under most circumstances in normal drive mode.

One concern would be the economy however. BMW are claiming 62.8 on the combined cycle but the trip computer showed a little over 25mpg after completing the same test route as the Diesel. That is way off what even the completely “pie in the sky” official figures suggest. I dare say though that this can be improved on significantly with lighter use as the consumptions curve on a petrol is much higher than on a Diesel (which operates on the same level of efficiency no matter what the revs) when you start to drive it hard.  I really would have to drive this car for a longer period over a greater distance to ease my mind about the economy however.20140315_143053

CONCLUSIONS

I like small nippy cars and am starting to think about replacing my 9 year old Skoda Fabia VRS and I can say that the MINI is now probably top of the list to replace it. The decision as to which model to go for though is tough and depends very much on your priorities and how many miles you do. The Diesel is over a grand more expensive than the petrol which feels similarly torquey, has more character and a wider operating range and I would be tempted to buy that and use the money saved to spec the excellent automatic box which makes the MINI a dream in traffic. However I must admit I was expecting to see better fuel economy and I think many people coming from a Diesel would not be satisfied with the real world figures of the petrol compared to the Diesel on back to back test. For me I think I would pick the petrol anyway as it fits in more with my driving patterns and I would not want the worry of a DPF but for others the choice will be a tough one.

What I can say though is that whatever version you go for, the new BMW  1.5 litre three cylinder engines are characterful and gutsy motors which I think will impress drivers and only add to the popularity of the MINI brand.

 

(Mis) Adventures in Chess

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One of my negative traits is that I am very prone to temporary fads. Like Mr Toad I launch into a new discovery with a wave of rash enthusiasm before it eventually loses its allure and I move onto something else. One of the more recent and more lasting fads has been the Royal Game. I learnt the basic moves of Chess as a youngster but never really took if forward after junior school. It was one of those things though that I had logged in the back of my mind in the “things I really ought to look into when I have the time” section along with studying Latin and taking up the Guitar (I am sure they will follow one of these days).

The opportunity arose when a net friend of mine was in hospital and, lying bored in his hospital bed, spent many hours chatting on Internet Relay Chat. The subject of chess came up and he mentioned that he enjoyed the game but did not have anyone to play with. The conversation moved on to the fact that I had always fancied taking up the game again but had always fought shy of Chess Clubs, thinking they were a den of highly obsessive geeky ticks (something not far from the truth if you have ever seen the film “In Search of Bobby Fischer”). However a few clicks around google and various app stores led me to two great correspondence  chess apps: Chess Time and Social Chess respectively and we both registered and played a few games.

Now playing against friends on these apps is easy. You can have a nice little chat with the IM system and, even though I was beaten roundly, the said friend was gracious and and provided plenty of encouragement and support. Even with these informal games I found myself addicted to the drama of chess where one stupid and thoughtless move can have disastrous consequences and it soon became another one of Bod’s fads. I scoured Amazon and indulged in a book buying frenzy that led me to discover such chess writers with such exotic names as Nimzowitsch, Chernov and Pandolfini as well as discovering the great players such as Capablanca, Keres, Karpov and the strange but brilliant Bobby Fischer. All this is fine and dandy so far until I started taking on strangers on  the apps and finding out that the various openings and techniques that I had spent hours brushing up on in the instruction books were roundly ignored by the online players who played their own wild, yet brutally effective moves (whatever happened to “don’t bring your Queen out too soon”?) What is more I was losing regularly and hard and so in a fit of frustration I thought “Why not see how experts play their games?” A couple of days later “The Mammoth Book of Chess Games” through the door and I pounced on the packet as soon as it hit the mat, grabbed my lovely little mini chess set (another recent purchase) and began to plot the destruction my “enemies” (as many described themselves on the apps) using the genius of others.

Again this was all very well until one got into the variations. Of course one can follow the moves of the game and play through it on a chess board and learn a lot but the commentary of these books, which I hoped would instill in me some healthy pearls of wisdom, just made my head swim. Instead of talking through the game as played, the writers go off in a flurry of computer generated algebraic notation pondering what would have happened if the great Karpov had played QD3 instead of QD4 # (check) for example. All very well for a hard core expert but hopeless for a beginner. You need at least three boards just to follow all the variations in these books however try I did using the board, the computer and the ipad…and still I lost.

Despite this and unlike most fads I don’t feel as though I can let Chess go completely. I have never been a very logical or scientific person (and as for my ability in Maths, just don’t ask) but yet the logic and grace of the game of Chess has a poetic beauty that fascinates me in the same way as poetry fascinates in the way it can capture drama and emotion within the strict conventions or Metre and Rhyme. I don’t think I will be able to walk away from this game, it lures one back to try again in pretty much the same way as one is lured back to an attractive woman who plays hard to get. As long as one thinks one has a chance, one will keep on trying. So if anyone fancies an easy win or if you are a player of distinction, who has chanced upon this entry and taken pity on this poor wayfarer  through the game of Chess and who can give me some instruction, please look me up. I am Matteob on both Chess Time and Social Chess. Don’t get too cocky though, I am still reading and my luck may just change!

Welcome!

If dear reader you have stumbled upon this humble blog may I bid you welcome and explain a little bit of the intentions behind it as far as there are any.

I suppose I should start by saying I am one of life’s drifters. I have done history degrees, Law degrees , English language teaching degrees and have muddled though life without ever really finding a niche for myself. I suppose this is because I get bored easily if I have no new intellectual stimuli and loathe routine. On the other hand it means that I have picked up a wide range of interests which I frequently discourse (rant) upon on the net at large. Facebook friends, buddies on various forums and those on the twitter sphere have had to put up with my opinions on everything from politics to literature to legal/ human rights issues to motoring, travel and music.

I am also an obsessive diary/journal keeper to the extent that I am rapidly running out of space for the various ledgers and books that I have scattered about the place. Maybe if one was to put one’s thoughts in electronic form on the web, it would save box/shelf space if nothing else? It is for these reasons that I have long thought about starting a blog. I suppose I have asked myself the questions all would be bloggers ask at some point: who will read my stuff, is what I have to say relevant and is it worth the time and effort to maintain? Couple this with a nature that combines huge self criticism with low self esteem. It is for those reasons that I have held back until now. On the positive side I have received good feedback from people out there who really do believe that I have something useful to say. They may not always agree with it but feel that I make interesting points in an individualistic (is that polite for eccentric?) way and have encouraged me to take the plunge and start up a blog and so here it is. I hope to use this space to find my feet, talk about areas that interest me and hopefully will interest you too. Failing that at least the the writing of it will enable me to get things off my chest which will be a form of existentialist self help if nothing else.

Welcome if you have stopped  by anyway 😉

Brought to you form here surrounded by  a sea of random written detritus

Brought to you form here surrounded by a sea of random written detritus