Monday, June 30, 2008

Handcuffs and manacles

I get the impression that BBC correspondent Tom Peterkin is well pleased to report the demise of Hiatt's the Birmingham (Great Barr) maker of handcuffs and, in the past, other items designed to restrain. You sense the satisfaction in the tone of his writing.

Handcuffs are not the nicest of topics in a civilized society, yet they are part of the equipment that insures we have a civilized society, so they are essential. Now we will no doubt be sourcing our handcuffs from China and another 15 Birmingham skilled workers face less than desirable prospects for their future.

And the "city of a thousand trades" loses another one.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Chip and Pin or Swipe?

A couple of years ago the UK introduced credit cards with chips in them and the banks insisted that this would be the future. The chip allows a purchaser to enter a PIN number and do without a signature in order to make a transaction.

US credit cards don't have chips even though there may be a PIN associated with them. But the equipment in the UK can't handle a chip-less PIN credit card so swiping and signing is generally available. After three years of chip and pin there are times when a chip-less credit card presents problems, as we experienced today. Generally the problem is in stores that basically have a captive UK market. Any business remotely connected to tourism isn't going to reject a swipe card because to do so would be to reject a business opportunity.

I believe we can blame the banks for the intransigence we meet from time to time. They have told their customers not to accept swipe cards because they say there is more liability in accepting a signature than a PIN. I am not sure why that is the case since a PIN is easily stolen whereas a signature is hard to copy. But, of course, the banks know best! And to make the point they have told their customers that accepting a signature means that they, the banks, will not necessarily accept any liability.

These are the banks that make incredible profits when everything goes well and run to governments for bail outs when things go wrong. Perhaps mattresses work better!

Which is more dangerous, a car or a flag?

While Health & Safety is essential in many dangerous situations, the application of the rules often turns on the ludicrous. Case in point, the Mayor of Maidstone's car should not bear the flag of office in case it falls off and does someone an injury.

This is a case of tradition versus the absurd, so I hope tradition wins. But I don't bank on it.

But surely, the car is the danger - after all as a fast moving projectile it has plenty of opportunity to kill and maim, doesn't it? Perhaps the Mayor of Maidstone should be forced to walk, in which case she can carry the flag in her hand!

Accles and Pollock

It's a name that's hard to forget if you are a Midlander! I remember the story that this Black Country company boasted years ago (the company's web-site says it was 1963) that they had made the world's smallest diameter tube to prove to an American company that theirs wasn't. They did this by threading the tube through the American tube and then proving it was a tube by passing a wire through it.

But the history of the company shows that all this, surprise surprise, is history. A proud heritage has been lost.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A new camera!

I bought a new camera yesterday - what is known in Europe as a Canon IXUS 70, in the US a Canon Powershot SD1000. This is an entry level sub-compact point and shoot with some quite good credentials. And it really is small! My main reason for buying this camera was indeed its size - the Nikon D200 with large lens is just a bit awkward sometimes, even if it is a great tool.

Results will soon start to show up on Flickr.

iDay is July 11

The good news about the second generation iPhone 3G is not so much the technical improvements as the fact that better usage options are now available to would-be owners. For example, there will be a pay-as-you-go option in the UK. Admittedly the initial cost of the iPhone is steep but as an infrequent user of cell phone technology I will probably save a fortune over an expensive long term contract.

So, along with 300,000 others I have registered my interest. I did that last time, but I am a whole lot more serious this time!

Of course, O2 may still scupper my plans by insisting that I have a bank account that suits them and not me!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Chateau de Pressac, St. Emilion

A few days ago I made a comparison between two vineyards in France. I promised a more positive blog about another St. Emilion domaine, and here it is.

Chateau de Pressac is a classic St. Emilion vineyard, owning land that covers the three main terroirs of the appellation. The vineyard did not feature in any of my reference books so I wondered to myself why we were scheduled to tour this particular vineyard when there are so many to choose from.

Chateau de Pressac, St. Emilion

Well, it turned out that my reference books are all out of date, with an average publication date in the late 1990s. It was 1997 when the Chateau de Pressac changed hands and things began to improve in leaps and bounds. So much so that the domaine is now classed as a "rising star" and can be expected to receive a significant upgrade in 2016.

The new owner met us for a catered lunch at the chateau and provided three wines to accompany the lunch. He explained that he had sold out of a "white goods" business to buy the chateau in 1997 and that this had become his new career and passion.

The first wine was a clairet, the Bordeaux rosé or summer wine that we had first discovered at Spec's in Houston. The clairet is actually the drink that the English favored when they owned this part of France and the word claret is derived from it, though claret is a full bodied wine. The clairet was excellent, a perfect accompaniment for the cold lunch which included slices of boudin noir (black pudding)!

The two reds were interesting and I wish I could write more about them. The were both blends of the same percentages of grapes but one was a Pomerol, the other a St. Emilion (from Chateau de Pressac). The consensus was that the house wine was much the better!

The owner talked about his methodology for improving the quality of wines. Attention is given to soil science and a full understanding of the terroirs of the vineyard means that the winemaker will have better quality grapes to work with as the years go by. One example of the care going into soil management comes from the paradox of excessive rain in a vineyard. Rain means fungus and mildew will follow, so spraying is necessary. But the equipment needed for spraying can compact the soil around the vines, causing the microbiology of the soil to change and potentially turn sour. A fine balance must therefore be maintained between soil management and crop spraying.

Chateau de Pressac, St. Emilion

Several of the vineyards were being re-planted with the right grapes - here the chateau has added small areas of two grapes not associated with St. Emilion but which are permitted - Carmenaire and Malbec. The latter has many other names, including Cot and, locally, Pressac! It is therefore fitting that this grape should be utilized.

The domaine has a good website with an English version here.

And the chateau is almost famous for its history - the 100 Years War ended here!

Omnibologist targeted as terrorist and/or pedophile!

This article says much about where we, as a society, are heading. An Omnibologist is simply a bus-spotter, a different sort of "anorak" from the train-spotter but just as harmless. Now one lifelong bus-spotter is hanging up his camera and notebooks due to police inquiries about his hobby. He is a suspected terrorist and/or pedophile for photographing a bus.

As a youth, in the age range 12 to 15, I was an avid train-spotter. Other than a few escapades involving trespass inside locomotive "sheds" I think the entire period can be encapsulated in the phrase "a healthy interest". So much better than hanging for hours around shopping malls, wouldn't you think?

Of course the problem perceived by so many in society today is that we are "supposed" to grow out of such interests (I seriously wish I hadn't as I would now have a fantastic photographic record of the end of steam in the UK). So older men taking photographs of buses now appear to be potential pedophiles!

The bottom line appears to be simple - the UK's involvement in anti-terrorism tactics brought on by a gung-ho attitude to save the world from Islamic extremism is affecting the simplest, most naive of hobbies enjoyed by honest, law-abiding people.

So next time you see an omnibologist, be nice to him.

Birmingham Central Library

So, the concrete "incinerator" is about to become a listed building!

As a natural bottleneck to pedestrian communication between Victoria and Centenary Squares, there is indeed something negative about the building, particularly those awful fast food outlets and false pillars in the concourse.

That being said, perhaps we should remember the good work that goes on inside the library, chaotic as it appears to the outsider. Our experience in the genealogy and historic maps sections has always been very positive and many other good works have been seen emanating from the place.

Jon Bounds at BinS thinks that the library should be preserved and all the buildings around it (no, not the Town Hall and BMAG!) be demolished to make a fabulous open space. I am inclined to agree. If we can preserve the New Street Station signal box as an example of 1960s architecture then the concrete collar needs to have other, more impressive, examples if we are to remember this catastrophic planning phase during the city's history.

And one other thought - last summer the flowers outside the library entrance were wonderful - I assume they are there again this year.

Friday, June 20, 2008

High Speed Railways in Britain?

This just in. Why, however, is this only now being considered and who is going to pay for it all since all the profits from North Sea Oil have already been squandered? More questions than answers? Probably. Don't hold your breath, there's no timetable!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Buying wine "on the fly"

So, we are on the road and have several hundred miles to drive before arriving at our destination.  Those several hundred miles pass through wine country with "degustations" to the left and right.  What to do?

The best advice is:  do nothing!

But if you really have to stop and buy, make sure the place provides degustation, or tasting.  Otherwise you are simply walking into your local wine merchant's shop and relying on his advice.  And I am not sure tourists always get good advice!

Regional tourist information offices, like the one at Saumur, do have tasting facilities and they should be utilized to the full, though the amount of wine swallowed should, of course, be kept to a minimum.

But wine tasting should not be hurried.  So hurry on to your destination and hope you are staying in good wine country!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thoughts on Exploring Wine Country

This is a very general topic which I am going to illustrate by focusing on two areas in France - Azay-le-Rideau Appellation near Tours and St. Emilion Appellation near Bordeaux.  The former is not so well known, the latter world famous.  What surprised us is how much more enjoyable the former was in that we were able to dig much deeper into the mysteries of wine tasting and buying at a humble vigneron near Azay than we could on a fabulous tour around a Premier Grand Cru Classé winery at St. Emilion.

We visited a small and very popular brasserie in Azay-le-Rideau and tried a local rosé (made from the Grolleau grape) with dinner.  It was delicious!  Next morning I saw the vineyard on a tourist information map and made a mental note of it.  The wine radar worked perfectly and in no time we found the place, Domaine du Haut Baigneux, where the owner, Jean-Pierre Perdriau was returning from lunch.  He welcomed us into his tasting room and I explained that we had drunk his rosé and wanted to taste more.
Domaine du Haut Baigneux, Azay-le-Rideau
He then cleaned four wine glasses and disappeared into his cellar, retrieving a bottle of rosé and a bottle of white (made from Chenin Blanc).  We tasted both and agreed that the rosé was fine and that the white was excellent.  Jean-Pierre was of the opinion that his white would last at least 10 years but that the rosé should be drunk soon.  The white is certainly young and crisp and would probably keep well (except we won't keep it long, not having a cellar!)

We left, very happy with the chance meeting and the 18 bottles of wine in the back of the car, average price 6 Euros each.

Now, every time we open a bottle of Domain du Haut Baigneux we have that pleasant feeling of having been there, tasting the wine in its birthplace and meeting the owner.  The wine simply tastes that much better!

On to Bordeaux and the incredibly beautiful area around St. Emilion.  Some bottles sell for more than a thousand Euros each though we were not in the market for these at all!  But as part of our reason for being in France we were invited to a special tour of St. Emilion, ending up at Chateau Clos-Fourtet, one of the top fifteen Premier Grand Cru Classé vineyards in the area.
St. Emilion - Clos-Fourtet
The tour was excellent and it was indeed an honor to walk through the various rooms at the winery and then descend into the chateau's three levels of cellars cut into the soft limestone that also provides St. Emilion with its special terroir.  We ended up in the chateau's tasting room and were given a taste of the 2006 wine, recently blended and very young on the palate.

This is interesting, I thought, what a good idea to compare this with a mature vintage.  Except the mature wine never materialized.  And to make things worse, we found the tasting room was not a place where we could buy (or entertain buying) a case.  So we left, somewhat disappointed.  I am not sure that I would even consider buying a bottle of Clos-Fourtet should I see one on a wine merchant's shelf.

I have another story about St. Emilion which will place it in a much better light - but that will have to wait for a day or two.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Two weeks just flew by. . .

Where does the time go?  No idea.  I am now four weeks behind on Flickr and only one post this month.

So, expect some more photos from Africa, then a few from France and then some southwest England scenes.  When?  Not sure.