Steve commented on my last post about how much better the CD player would be if the front buttons worked (thanks a bunch Steve, you suggested me a pile of work there!), and that joy2key and a cheap joystick would do this.

Sounds simple, so I grabbed a cheap joystick (a Genius MaxFire G-08XU), upgraded to Kubuntu (I was on an old version of Fedora, and decided it was time for a change), and off I went. Very early on, I found that this was not a common and well explained solution, so I thought I would explain how I got it to work…

First of all, a few thoughts on Kubuntu. It rocks. Doing an install, it just works (mostly), and it was easier than the last Windows install I did, because I didn’t have to go hunting for a million driver disks and set them up. Plus the fact that Kubuntu (or linux in general) comes with a nice batch of applications is good too, you don’t have to go hunting all over the net for that useful app you use to do x, you already have it.

So, following Steve’s suggestion, I downloaded joy2key. After a little initial confusion because Kubuntu does not have the joystick in the same place as joy2key was looking, I got joy2key to recognise the joystick and the button presses. The problem was I couldn’t manage to get it to talk to Amarok (the default media player). I was concerned that if I did manage to string it together, it would be held together with string, and wouldn’t just work. I needed to be able to just hit reset if the box crashed & have it come back up and playing.

So I found several other similar programs. All of these either had problems compiling (I think because of dependency problems beyond my abilities) or problems just working. I noticed a common feature of these utilities is that they did not seem to be being updated. This was worrisome to me, as I could see the hassles in getting them to work getting worse as they got older.

Just when I was about to give up, I found that Amarok has a plugin which does exactly what I need. It allows you to assign basic player commands to a joystick. I downloaded & installed it from within Amarok (only one new package required!), and it just works – assign the buttons and off you go. Sweet.

From there the process was simple, pull the joystick apart, and wire the buttons to the remaining ones on the CD player case (which were mostly still in place). It was a pretty simple job, and I kept it simpler by sticking to three buttons – pause/play, next track & back 30 seconds (back to start gave problems on the “all tracks random” playlist we run) – I couldn’t think of any other feature which would be useful.

The keyboard is still around, but is put out of sight, when we come home, all we have to do is hit the pause button to resume playing. If a song comes up we don’t like, fast forward. It just works. Excluding all of the time messing around failing to get various joystick to keyboard applications to work, it was a pretty fast process.

And before someone suggests it, no, I am not going to make a remote control for it, ok.

Oh, and while I was at it I swapped in a new HD, and found a great little IDE to USB adapter. Plug in the power brick, and you have a 100Gb USB drive. No nice case, so no use to carry around, but it will work well as a backup drive, and the adapter will come in useful to recover from any dead machines in the future.

On moving in with Susanne, I faced a minor problem. The purple cube that was holding my VIA Mini ITX PC blended in very well with what could be described as a bachelor’s apartment, but there was some resistance to its prominent placement in the new house. Given that I had burned all of my CDs to MP3 and decided that I quite liked never having to change the CD, this was a bit of a challenge. The computer obviously had to be located in close proximity with the stereo equipment, but blend in with it.

Serendipitously, at about the same time Susanne asked me if I could have a look at her CD player, as it was broken. I had a look at it, and confirmed that it was broken, and more importantly, it was beyond my abilities to repair & probably not worth paying someone competent to work on it.

At this point, I had the perfect case. Put the computer in the old CD player case, which by definition was suitable to put in the lounge. Now because I had only just moved in, I decided that I had better check whether it was ok if I trashed the CD player first, and got the green light!

First order was to pull everything out of the case & salvage anything which looked like it might be useful at a later point, leaving an empty shell.

As with my previous machine, I decided for simplicity and improved airflow, I would keep the back of the case open. Yes, this does mean that I need to be careful plugging & unplugging cables, as the motherboard is unprotected, but this happened infrequently enough that I decided that it would not be a problem. Yes it is ugly, but no it is not anywhere you look at with any frequency.

There is quite a lot of space in the case, but when I upgraded to a full size DVD burner, rather than the laptop size CD burner which was in there previously, things got a bit tight, and the layout needed to be adjusted.

The motherboard is mounted on standoffs, which unfortunately have to be different heights. When drilling these, do yourself a favour and use a slightly bigger drill than the screws need. That way you will have a little slack in case your marking was not 100% accurate.

The hard drive would not quite fit any other way so got mounted on its side at an angle. Not exactly asthetically pleasing, but it works. The hard drive is just screwed to the chassis using the normal mounting screws.

The only part which required special placement was the CD/DVD drive, which, as logic would dictate, was placed in front of the CD flap. As this was formerly a 5 CD cassette changer, there was a flap rather than a drawer to deal with. To allow me to open the CD flap to put a disk in, I needed to add a screw to the side to use as a handle. You also need to open the flap to reach the eject button for the CD. Not ideal, but it works.

So far so good. Now for the input device. If you are going to put a PC in your living room you need some flexibility with the input device. No matter how pretty or invisible the case, a great big beige keyboard attached by a cord is going to spoil the show. Wireless is the only way to go. The problem with this is almost every wireless keyboard about comes with a separate mouse. Perfect for getting lost. What I wanted was a keyboard with a trackpoint built in. Simple. Well, not so simple, but after much searching I found a no name keyboard fitting the bill. The only identifying marks are the model number – SK-7100. Best of all it was cheap. When the batteries get down, it is a bit erratic, but other than that it works very well. Ironically, the extra keys are not supported under windows, but are at least partially in Linux – in the Fedora keyboard setup, the model is listed.

It plugs into the standard mouse & keyboard plugs, and leads to a IR receiver with you put on top of your PC. Or pull it apart, shorten the cables, and glue inside the display of the case.

The CD case had a big ugly on/off switch which was not of the momentary type the motherboard wanted. That and the fact that while the button was at the front, the switch was at the back, made using the existing power button too difficult to be worth the effort. Instead I use two of the function buttons and with a little soldering and trace cutting, they now do the job. Unfortunately I can’t remember which is which most of the time, but if I am rebooting it, then something has gone wrong, so either one will work fine!

Externally, there is not a great deal indicating that the box is anything but an old CD player visible.

And when it is in place, it blends right in, just as required.

I set up the pause, play and fast forward buttons on the keyboard to work with the MP3 player (XMMS), so the majority of the time that is all that needs to be done. This is just as well, as the resolution on the TV is too blurry to be able to read any details, unless you know what the options are. It is easy enough to run a few apps to get things running again after a crash, but not good enough for much more. I go in using for maintenance, and when I need to use it.

I think it would be a good idea to set the thing up so that the play, pause & fast forward buttons on the face worked (though the serial port?), but I haven’t looked at this yet. Equally at this point you could use some unused functionality on one of the other remote controls with something like The other improvement would be for the mp3 player & VNC to start running as soon as it is booted. Then it could be playing again after a lockup with one button.

The only problem I have had is the stock fan started running very noisily, so I replaced it with one of the same size I bought from Radio Shack. This worked nice and quietly for several months, until it nice and quietly seized, resulting in a cooked CPU. The fan on the new motherboard is noisier than I would like, but I am loath to make any changes for fear of blowing the motherboard again – the machine stays on all of the time.

The specs of the box are:
Via M10000 Nehemiah
120 Gb HDD
Running Fedora Core.
NEC 16x Dual Layer DVD burner

In case you haven’t heard, I just got married. One thing that I have noticed is that the girls always want to know about the ring, and the guys are less interested. Well, call be a big girls blouse, but the engagement ring bit is interesting.
When it came to asking Susanne to marry me, I knew that just cruising down to the local chain jewellery store and pointing to something at about the right price just wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted something different.
The solution of course was to design my own. Now this is very cool. Rather than picking a very small yet curiously expensive bauble out of a display cabinet, a guy actually makes it just like you want. The only thing which would be cooler than this would be to make it yourself, but I figure that an engagement ring is not the best thing to learn lost wax casting on.
After rejecting multiple diamonds before selecting the right one, I gave Brian (the jeweler) a crummy sketch on a postit note which he then had to decipher. From that, he sent a mockup which was a photoshop of an existing ring and a photo of my stone. All very clever, and let you get a very good idea of what the ring would look like, along with a couple of variations to think about. Cleverly I deleted all trace of these files to avoid getting caught (it was a surprise remember), so I can’t show them to you now.
But I can show you the real thing.

Apparently the jeweler liked it so much that it is one of the ones which comes up when you enter his website. I have no idea if it will stay, but if you click the picture you might be able to see it (it is only on the front page sometimes)
Oh, the stone is a fancy vivid yellow diamond. The colour in the picture is pretty true to the colour in real life.
Cool huh?
Although the first sentence kindof gave the ending away, I proposed to Susanne while we were on a dive one night in Belize. Most importantly she said yes. And I didn’t lose the ring in the fumbling. And because I was underwater I didn’t have any lines to mess up. All of that was a relief.

If anyone wants me to design any jewellery for them, I will be happy to do it for a very modest fee (worth a crack).
We have designed our wedding rings to match. Not as spectacular, but I think pretty cool.

And thanks very much to Brian Knox, the man who made the ring happen.

There are a lot of PCB CAD programs out on the web, often linked to PCB manufacturing companies, but if you are just making a small one off board, these seem like using a sledge hammer as a stapler. Quite possibly a lot of fun, but probably not for all of the right reasons.

The technique I use focuses on simplicity and tools everyone has. The first step of course is to draw the layout, then etch it.

Because I am new at this, I use pen and paper to design the layout of the pcb. One of the most useful guidelines I have seen around the web is to keep all of the IC’s aligned the same way, especially keeping pin 1 in the same place – this one makes it much less likely to screw things up when you are putting it all together. Given the basic layout, it is now time to make the actual PCB mask.

To do this, I load this bmp template into the nearest painting program, such as MS Paint. The template has a regular grid with the same spacing as your components. Note the pads on the right side of the template. These are the pads to use for the components. Just copy and paste them where they need to be. Use the blue grids for your alignment.

A couple of hints.
1/ Use the biggest pads you can, but make sure they do not touch. Bigger pads mean easier soldering.
2/ The square pads at the bottom are for IC’s. The big round pads are too big, and touch when they are placed in adjacent grids.

For the traces, just draw a line between the pads. How big? Bigger is better, just make sure there is a reasonable amount of space between them.

When you have got all of the traces on and are happy that the layout is good, it is time to get rid of the blue grids. If your paint program has a global colour change, then set the blue to be white. If not, just scrub them out. Having a white spot in the center of the pads will make it easier to drill them, as it will act like a punch mark. The grid marks are unlikely to cause too many problems if you don’t scrub them, but will look messy.

Having done this, print it out so that the scale is correct. You might be able to do this by setting the dpi, or you might have a ‘print at x scale’ option, this might take a little messing about to get the size right the first time, but then just remember the settings.

If all has gone right, you will have a sheet with a design which looks like this:

This circuit controls the rear window defog in my MX5 (Miata), I didn’t feel like paying a few hundred dollars for one, but a heated glass window is really nice in the Minnesota winter. If you look carefully, you can see that the IC was put in with round pads rather than the square ones. This worked, but was a pain to solder.

Now all you have to do is etch the board. This is simple enough once you know how that we shouldn’t really post the information on the internet for fear that everyone will learn to do it. All you have to do is print the layout on a laser printer, and then iron it onto your board.

Really, that is it. There are a couple of gotchas, and some explanations, but not much.

1/ Give your pcb a polish first using some fine sandpaper or similar – we don’t want oil from finger marks messing up our work.
2/ Only a laser printer will work, not an inkjet. Laser printers put a plastic layer on the paper, which they then melt onto the paper, so when you iron it, it will melt again and stick to something else, like our pcb blank. Inkjets fire liquid ink onto the paper.
3/ What sort of paper? There is some debate on this on the net, with preferences for brands of expensive photo paper. I use whatever paper is in the printer. This is generally whatever is on sale when it is time to buy new paper. The reason the type of paper is not important is I do not peel the paper off, but now you are getting ahead of yourself.
4/ It doesn’t take long to iron the layout onto the pcb. I have a ceramic tile I use as a plate, and set the iron on full heat. A couple of minutes making sure that there are no cool spots, and you are good to go. Make sure you ask your wife/girlfriend if you can borrow her iron first. If she says no, don’t get caught.
5/ When the paper is stuck to the board, then just drop it in a bowl of water with some soap added and let it soak for a while. I generally give it 20 minutes or so, then just scrub the paper off using an old toothbrush (you do have one of those in your toolbox don’t you? If not, don’t use your wife/girlfriends). You can be pretty aggressive, the toner is stuck pretty solidly to the board. It is good to make sure you get the paper out from the middle of the pads, this will make it easier to drill.

When you scrub the paper off, you will have something which looks like this:

This board did not come out as well as usual, I think I got lazy with the amount of time I spent ironing it on. If you look carefully you might be able to see some gaps where the toner did not stick. No problems, borrow some nail polish (now you see why you didn’t use her toothbrush before) and touch them up:

Now you have a pcb ready for etching. Drop it in the ferric chloride, and wait. Make sure you read the instructions on this, it is pretty nasty stuff – just look what it does to your copper board & ask if you want it to do that to you. Once it comes out, use some fine sandpaper to sand off the toner, and you are ready to drill. It should look like this before and after sanding:

The drills you need are very small and as a result break really easily. You are best to use a drill press at the fastest speed it has and a vice. If you don’t have a drill press, use your dremel, if your drills are not the standard dremel diameter, you can pick up a chuck attachment like this, which will let you use most any size drills. As far as the pcb drills, anything you find at Home Depot is likely to be too big, and as they are very long, they break even more easily. Have a look around, you can buy surplus/refurbished drill bits relatively cheaply. You are likely to break them before they get blunt, especially if you don’t have a press, so I wouldn’t worry much about the quality. Always buy more than you need, because it is bloody annoying to get half way through drilling a board to break your last drill.

Voila, a finished pcb ready for assembly!

This method has a resolution of below 0.5 mm, so should be good enough for most projects.

I have just returned from a meal of prawns. This was not a mere meal however. The prawns, fresh from the lagoon, had swum through a sauce, the origin of which can only reasonably be explained by a bargain with at least a mid level deity. After their journey through the sauce of the gods, they had leaped onto a skewer, and were brought to me after a brief encounter with a grill. The more robust among them were still gently waving their legs, and quietly imploring “eat me, eat me.” I could not disappoint, for fear of incurring the wrath of the sauce deity.

Of course, one dish does not make a meal. After careful perusal of the menu, I had settled upon the intriguingly named, and even more intriguingly described “Le Colonel”. It was described as lemon glace and vodka. Curious as to how this was carried, off, I decided to risk my well being in the name of research. Imagine my surprise when I was presented with a wineglass full of a clear liquid & a scoop of ice cream. Now, I cannot be sure that the liquid was in fact vodka, for it has never before passed my tastebuds. At least not in an an inordinately long time. Possibly as long as last Tuesday. But there it was, exactly as it said on the tin. And damned good it was too.

Followed by an expresso, all was well in the world.

I can hear you asking, where was this meal? Is the boy not currently residing in Arizona, where the chances of being shot are much greater than the chances of finding good seafood?

Well yes, the boy is currently residing in Arizona, but as always, is managing to escape from his supposed residence on a regular basis, in this case to French Polynesia. A curious combination of a bad day at work & the realisation that some of my Airpoints were expiring led to a quest for inner fulfilment. Or at least a quest for some diving, a good meal, and no seppos.

After exhaustive research of the Air NZ route map, I determined that there were many islands in the Pacific within reach & likely to fulfil the first and third requirements. And then there were a couple of French colonies, well placed to satisfy the second as well.

So, I checked the flights and asked my boss for a week off. To this he has the habit of agreeing, asking where I am going, and then swearing at me and threatening to say no. One day he probably will, but this may also be the day I quit.

Let me tell you though, the pace of the trip was hectic. Living in a land with insufficient holiday entitlements forced me to limit it to a week. I arrived in Papeete at 3am, and was greeted by people playing ukeles. Very nice, but suspicious, especially at such an absurd hour. A breif interlude in the airport ensued until the busses started running to the ferry terminal.

This of course provided the reassurance that I was in the islands. The ferry was running on islands time, but the bus at the other side was not. The next one was in two hours, and would result in me missing the entire days diving – not an optimal solution.

Luckily, I was in the islands. While looking for alternative transport, I was generously offered a ride by some locals in the airconditioned comfort of the back of their ute (for those reading this in less favoured lands, this is a pickup). Sweet mate.

So, within a few hours of landing, I had a dive, lunch & was installed at the campground.

The following week went something like this:

7:15am picked up for diving

8:30am feeding the sharks. Mostly small (1m) black tips, but always a few larger (2-3m) lemon sharks, with a mouthful of pearly whites & friendly enough to flash you a smile as they cruised past.

Noon: diving is finished, time for lunch and various combinations of exploring, relaxing & dinner.

The shark dives did result in a little contemplation, as is normal when your morning caffiene fix is replaced watching sharks feeding at close quarters. The logic of training sharks to come when people jumped out of a boat still strikes me as a little suspect. But they were all very friendly, and there is something of a pickup about rolling out of a boat & into waters which are well stocked (infested is such a negative phrase) with sharks in the morning.

The usual fare resulted from the diving – pretty good hard coral, a couple of rays, a couple of turtles, tuna asking to become sashimi. In addition there was a ver amourous remora (how far up your leg would you let a suckerfish swim? Especially when you are on film). It is also worth nothing that turtles at times have difficulties distinguishing between food & the fingers holding it.

The other divers provided almost as much entertainment. Top of the list was the seppo who felt it was very important to tell us all how expensive the camera that she left at home was. This was almost as important as ensuring that her lipstick was in top condition, even on the boat out. Watching her take great pains to explain to the dive guide that she did not like sharks or morays and only wanted to see pretty fish. Well, there were pretty fish as well.

Our last dive was a true finale, a nice ray, four turtles, and at all times an honour guard of 20-40 black tip sharks. The only way to avoid seeing the sharks was to close your eyes. Apparantely this was quite disturbing to our seppo friend when she looked up from her clownfish to see she was surrounded by them. I will reluctantly admit, that they were possibly less of an honour guard in farewell than simply watching to make sure I didn’t steal anything on the way out.

So the mornings were flat out diving, leaving the afternoon crammed with the arduous tasks of lunch, going for a walk, sitting on the beach with a beer, going swimming with a beer (that beach got hot!), and pearl shopping.

Early in the game, I was shopping for a new hat (having lost my favoured hat to my great distress, though I am sure the releif of others who had to be associated with me when I was wearing it), and was distracted by the shiny baubels. At this point I remembered the words of my mother, whenever she hears I am going somewhere associated with pearls to get her a string. So there I was & saw the perfect piece for a certain Arizona babe (no not Mum). But alas, on closer inspection, the pearls were decidedly on the less than perfect side.

So I had a purpose & the next afternoon I hired a scooter & went in search of the perfect shiny thing. After stopping for lunch of course – I would not want you to think that I undertook this in reckless abandonment of what is important in life. Many pearl shops later, there was no joy, and had endured a range of corny hard sell lines or just being ignored before coming to Ocean Pearl Gallery (it is my website & I shall plug who I want to), where Sabina suggested that she could make anything they did not have on display.

This begun the arduous task of choosing the pearls (empty a bag into a tray & start sorting through them like they were marbles), describing exactly the way they were to be mounted, trying a few alternatives… This is a most entertaining way to fill in a few hours. I have never commissioned jewellerly before & it is pretty cool.

Only 1200 years before you get your string Mum, but a pendant is a step in the right direction.

This took a couple of afternoons between my morning diving & my afternoon explore & lunch. They didn’t seem to mind me being slightly damp in their shop though, which was pretty good of them. They were also kind enough to suggest an alternate route for my walk home (after offering the obligatory transfer back to my hotel/campground). I think I messed up their customer demographics for the week.

Staying at the campground did have a few disadvantages though. Not least of which was a distressing lack of internet access and even available power points. The sunset over the beach wasn’t too bad though. But worst of all was the dawn chorus. There are a peculiarly large number of chickens in the area. And where there are chickens, there are roosters. Roosters which start to crow as soon as they are woken, in this case, at about 3am, probably by those bloody ukelee players. This was very unamusing.

I spent some considerable time (generally after about 3:15am) wondering about the efficacy of buying a shotgun and walking around encouraging every rooster I saw that noon would be a better time to start crowing, or at least just for the ukelee player to be a little quieter. But then I realised, that I was not in Arizona, and so could not simply buy a gun at the local Walmart.

So my thoughts reluctantly turned to other ways of reducing the noise. Would eating chicken at every meal reduce the numbers, or would they increase in response to the increased demand? This I thought was a risk not worth taking, so I contented myself with eating fish and cursing the chickens.

Of course a week was too short, but that was all I had before having to go back to work to pay for the next trip, somewhere, sometime.

short while ago I was wandering along, minding my own business, looking for a car park when I saw a ship. Nothing too surprising about this, I was on a wharf at the time, and the two often go together. I didn’t pay it too much attention at the time either. I was looking for a car park, & it did not offer one. The big masts and lots of ropes captured my attention for a longer span than most things do, but as I had mentioned, I was on a mission. And pretty tired, as it was about 4am. But then, right in front of me, I saw what could only be described as a sign.It said “car park” with an arrow. But it was a night for strange and mysterious signs, because below it was another saying “crew on the Endeavour”. I interpreted the mysterious signs to mean that that the ship was the Endeavour, and that I could get myself a ride on it. And that I needed to turn right to get a park.

I was in.

For those few of you reading this who do not live in the favoured lands, the Endeavour was the ship that Captain Cook discovered & mapped New Zealand, large parts of Australia & half of the Pacific.

Not being one to to rush in, I checked with my boss on Monday whether I could take a week off. The conversation went something like this “David, can I have a week off”.

“Yeah, when?” He is good like that, though I did hit him at 9am & he was probably still half asleep and thought I was asking if he wanted a coffee. That or he was just really glad to get rid of me for a week.

I had picked the sailing from Bristol to Jersey for a number of sound and important reasons. The food in Jersey is good. You can get duty free booze there. It was a week long trip – long enough, but not too long, and it was during a quiet period at work, so I thought I would be able to get the time off without having to quit, which is a little extreme for a short trip. And the weather is generally pretty good in November isn’t it?

So, I had a week sailing from Bristol to Jersey on the replica of an 18th century collier. The question you are all asking now is “What was it like?” (I know only cool people read my website, so I won’t have anyone asking “But why?”)

The Endeavour is operated by a non-profit organisation, which has the education of people as one of its major aims. I learnt a number of things, and probably the best way to describe the experience is to tell you some of the things I learnt:

I am not good at tying knots

I am not good at climbing high things (actually this was something I knew, but had reconfirmed. Again)

I do not learn best while up high things

I am good at hanging on to things

Tying knots while hanging on to things is difficult

With sufficient incentive it can be done

Tall ships involve a lot of high things

And tying things while you are up there

Hammocks are the most comfortable place to sleep in a rolling boat (the hammock stays level like a pendulum when the boat rolls).

Failing a hammock, solid wooden sea chests will do nicely if you are tired enough.

Likewise any mostly horizontal space out of the wind

Tying your own hammock is a powerful incentive to learn a few knots

A touque makes an adequate pillow (for those of you in the favoured lands, it also known as a beanie, but mine came from Canada, so it retains its original name)

The best spot on the boat is the fender lounge – out of the wind, horizontal & nice soft fenders to lean against.

Always coil rope clockwise

No firearms licence is needed to own a cannon

I want a cannon

It is a survey requirement for all Australian ships to have Vegemite (the 2nd mate told me, it must be true, though I was not complaining)

There are a lot of ropes on the boat:

They all have a name, just don’t ask me what they are.

So much for what I learnt. All of life is a learning experience, and we all know how exciting that is most of the time. What did we do? Basically we had three watches of about 12 people, and there was always a watch on duty. One night we got to sleep for a whole seven straight hours! The duty watch did everything from steering the boat to watching that the monkeys steering the boat weren’t about to steer it into something. Other tasks included climbing up the high things to pull sails up or down or generally piss about with them as the captain wished.

The observant among you will have noted that high things have been mentioned a couple of times. They deserve further comment. Every time the sails came up or down, a watch had to go aloft. The photo shows the situation nicely.

Simply climb up the netting on the outside. If you only have to deal with the mainsail (the bottom one), you climbed up to the narrowest point of the netting & stepped across onto the boom. Simple. It was never more than about a 70cm gap between the netting and the boom. Then you could clip yourself onto the safety line. From there you untied all of the ropes holding the sail up, or pulled it up & tied it up. If you were working on the topsail, you simply kept climbing. Yes, up the inverted bit to the fighting top (the flat platform. There you could stand and quiver for a while before climbing up some more to the next boom.

Of course, this occurred while you were at sea, so the boat rolled some while you were up there, just to add to the entertainment. It did not roll suddenly violently, just quietly and sufficiently to make you very aware that you were 20 metres up the mast.

This photo nicely illustrates the disregard for vertical the boat had. This was taken, as you can see, when it was nice and sunny, not when it was blowing its guts out like that night.

This was, without a doubt, the second most scary thing about the trip. On a scale of scary things it rates about a 7, where the realisation that you have just run out of air and you are still 20 meters down is 5, and Wednesday night was about a 9.

On Wednesday night, we were in the middle of the English Channel. And the weather picked up. It turns out it did not pick up as much as the Captain was expecting, but that is nice in hindsight. It got to a force 8, gusting to 9. Also known as a gale, where twigs break off trees. For those of you who are more analytically minded, the wind speeds were 62-74 km/h. Gusting to about 90. The average height of the waves is about 5.5m

During a lot of this time, we were sleeping below decks in our hammocks. Or attempting to. While hammocks ride out a lot of the rolling of the ship, this only works until the ship heels over enough that the side of your hammock hits the ceiling. This is about 45 degrees over. The fact that you can hear things breaking and shifting on the deck (aka your ceiling) does not help the sleeping either.

That was a very long night. A significant part of it was spent reflecting on the fastest way to the survival suits in the event of the damned ship capsizing and the knowledge that given the water temperature out there, the survival time was number in minutes, and not many of them. Second to this thought was reflection on the fact that we had a GPS, engine & radar, so knew if we were about to run into something solid & could do something about it. These little accessories were things that Cook did not have.

The night passed, and we made it alive & unscathed, but damned tired. Travel has got easier.

The rest of the trip.

After Italy, we had a significant run of campgrounds without electricity & I stopped writing about things as they occurred. Next time I will buy a car adapter for my laptop. And probably a GPS navigation unit, because I am told that they don’t close their eyes. But here is a breif rundown of the remainder of the trip…

Croatia – with the best scenery from campgrounds ever, man I wish I knew more people who played Risk like that

Some great diving & being introduced to the local Brandy, made with 7 herbs and spices, some of which were even identifiable & legal.

Staying in an apartment overlooking the Adriatic

Slovenia – checking out the cows in the marketplace, and the dragons on the bridge

Then inland to Austria & Graz – more heavy metal.

Czech Republic – drinking Budweiser in Budvar

Scaring the locals as the person in the left hand (drivers) seat of the car struggled to read a map & while not letting it exit stage rear

Trying to figure out how to read the astronomical clock in Prague, as well as catching up with Sarah’s parents

Germany – staying at a campground at one of the former checkpoints into the city

Worship at a slightly more modern cathedral selected by myself, not Sarah for a change.

Ahh, Stuttgart. Great museums with inspiring exhibits.

Liechtenstein – the smallest country with the steepest & narrowest streets drivable on. Even if it did confuse the hell out of the locals, who seemed to think an engergetic stroll up them was a better idea.

Switzerland – how much?

Luxembourg – damn those swans.

Netherlands – I really cannot recall…

Belgium – I really really cannot recall. All I know is that beer brewed by monks is a sign from God. Probably that he loves you and wants to be happy. Especially when it appears to start at 8%

Plus the coolest town around – the Dutch/Belgian border meanders through the town with disregard for where the buildings are or any other apparent rules. Making it an idea spot for an international pub crawl & dead ants in two countries at once.

London – it was good to be sleeping in a bed & have electricty after 10 weeks without. But not for long because Ireland was beckoning..

Ireland – off visiting relatives I never knew I had & attempting to keep my Grandmother from causing too much trouble. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Gotta be a better way to travel around the Ring of Kelly than some tour bus eh Grandma?

Sarah had decided that her adrenaline gland needed a bit of a workout, so pointed us in the direction of Italy. Here we quickly learned a number of things about Italian roads and driving. Those little orange lights in the corners of cars are optional at best. Italians like decorating their roads with lines and signs and lights. Italians learned their roading design from the Romans. Straight is good. If there is a hill, go through it, if there is a valley build a bridge. In one day I have been through more tunnels & over more viaducts than I have ever been through or over before. The small tunnels are only half a kilometre long. But the thing we learned most is that on the Italian motorways you need to stay awake. Five cups of expresso awake.

The speed limit on these motorways is 130kmh. So everything is moving faster than this, often much faster, once providing a perfect example of the improvements Skoda have made to their cars over recent years. Skodas never used to get to 80mph, let alone pass Benzes that were cruising along at that speed. But not all of the traffic flies along the motorway at speeds variously greater than the speed limits, changing lanes without indicating, and sometimes just drifting around the lanes. For there are the trucks. They cruise along at a mere 90kmh or so, but occasionally pass each other, just to add that bit of excitement to the trip. They don’t indicate either.

With all of this overtaking going on, the Italians have developed a number of effective techniques to indicate that they may wish to pass you at some point in the future. Chief among these is simply sitting so close on your tail that they will be able to smell if you break wind.

But the worst thing about Italian motorways is the signposting. In a 2km stretch (ie one minutes travel time), there were two offramps, one onramp, and signs indicating which lane you needed to be in NOW! (the far one). Needless to say we missed that offramp the first time around. And of course rather than taking the “we will build offramps that people can take at motorway speeds, and slow down on the way out”, the Italians have taken the opposite approach. If you hit these offramps at 130 you are in Trouble. They start out as about 70kmh corners and get tighter. This is can be exciting.

It appears that the Italians now make up for the lack of gladiatorial shows by deciding not to install traffic lights at intersections. Or they just turn the ones they have off. But Italian traffic light techniques really do get amusing. The orange light means something, but I am not sure what. The red light means “stop unless you saw the previous green light”. If you do not move off the instant the light turns green, you are tooted. Streams of traffic in other directions or not.

Basically it appears that buying a car in Italy entitles you to a piece of the road as well. You do in fact own the road, so manoeuvres which may be considered slightly rude in other countries are perfectly acceptable, you do own this bit of road after all. This is of course the cause of some troubles to tourists, as they rely on borrowing parts of the road that Italians decide to lend them from time to time. Luckily for me, I was driving a Mercedes, which as we all know, comes with road ownership rights as standard. This allowed me, if not to fit in, at least make some progress.

After surviving some of Italys motorways, Sarah decided that her adrenaline gland was in fine form for a trip through the alps. She was wrong. These roads are great fun. Nice little hill on one side, a bit of a dropoff on the other, spectacular scenery, if a little blurry, the desire not to hold up any of those other cars around. The SL is not really designed for that sort of road, but stood up quite well. Though I don’t think that the passenger doorhandle used to be that loose.

While the SL is not really designed for shooting through the Alps, it is designed to grab attention. And in Italy it does. The number of second glances & outright stares is gets is amazing, even in its current bug splattered state (and it is very bug splattered – even the horizontal bit of the bonnet is covered in dead bugs). Then they see me & do a big double take. I figure they think I stole it.

We eventually headed into Milan for a bit of a taste of the fashion capital of the world. Or claims to be. Personally I think that there is one word missing from that phrase. Victim. This seasons fashions include sunglasses which look like they were designed by someone playing far too much playstation, distressed jeans (why pay extra for jeans which look dirty & torn?), and the silliest shoes that have been seen outside Imelda Marcos’s wardrobe. And yes that is just the guys. I know, I am not one to criticise peoples fashion sense, but these people…

But the worst thing about Italian cities is the motor scooters. Driving a car through a city where cars are outnumbered ten to one by the things, none of which obey any road rules, and seem to expect you to get out of their way is a one of lifes little experiences. I did shortly discover an effective means of dealing with them. Try to run them down & cut them up whenever you can. While it may not promote good Anglo-Italian relations, it does keep at least one side of the car free of the things trying to pass you. Which is useful if you intend to turn in that direction. Interestingly, the further south you went the more the riders relied upon hair gel for head protection. Mind you with the amount of gel some of these guys were wearing, in the result of sudden head/road impact, the road would probably come off worse.

Another thing which became apparent, is that the whole navigation/driver symbiosis works a whole pile better if the navigator keeps her eyes open. Map reading & direction giving is easier that way you see. To this day, I am not sure why Sarah decided that she would prefer to shut her eyes, but did at one point mention something about being on the side of the oncoming traffic.`

After a brief and uninspiring encounter with Milan (how can a fashion capital not have discovered architecture?), we headed south. Pulling into the campground in Florence, behind the oh-so original VW van full of kiwis & aussies, we set up base before exploring the centre of the Renaissance. Here Sarah found some art museum which kept her entertained for a while. There was also a pretty good science museum. Most of these artist types did useful things with themselves when they weren’t painting, and there was a pile of the stuff they did it with on display. And if anyone reading is interested in armour, the Stibert Museum is quite something. Less a museum than the contents of an eccentric gentleman’s attic. A damned big attic, with some really interesting stuff.

Continuing our zigzag route of Italy, we decided to pop into Ravenna to check out the mosaics. In the 5th century AD Rome was getting sacked, so the bosses decided to bugger off to Ravenna for a while till it all blew over. Of course you cannot hang out in a city without sufficient temple & churches, so they had to build a few.

For those of you who know, you will recognise that the 5th century was after the Romans had got the mosaic technique sorted, but before the paint roller was invented. Not content with putting pretty patterns on the floor (been done), they put them on the walls, and ceilings. Domed ceilings. These Italians seem to have a thing about putting stuff on ceilings. It is like the priests wanted people to go into their churches, raise their eyes skywards and think “how the hell did they get that there?, it must have been a miracle”. No doubt a few also thought “glad I stuck to tiling floors”. And by the way, the floor of the Sistine Chapel is quite nicely done, a little more quiet and understated than the ceiling.

For those of you in the know, Italy is home to two table top states – the Vatican & San Marino. So of course we had to visit them both. San Marino is a small mountaintop republic protected from sheer cliffs, impressive fortifications and an army of manic drivers. I think that in part of it’s history it prefers to forget, San Marino was a penal colony for Italians convicted of driving offences. To leave they must sell sufficient really tacky souvenirs to pay for a ticket back. Unfortunately none of these shops had anything about the history of the republic, and why it did not join with Italy when it was formed, so if anyone knows, can you let me know.

The Vatican of course, is in Rome, and no trip to Italy would be complete without a trip to Rome. Rome, capital of the empire which covered the known world. Rome, still with the parts which remained after the sackings handed out by barbarians, goths, popes, and various other people who didn’t forsee the value of the future tourist dollar. Rome, where you cannot turn without being run over by a moped. Rome, where not a building goes without a “Pope X was here” plaque. What remains of those buildings after they were stripped of their marble to build other buildings that is.

In a move which will surprise many, the Vatican moved with the times, and seems to have phased out the selling of indulgences, and replaced them with the selling of posters, books and some really tacky souvenirs. Then again the church never has been the arbiter of good taste, so the tacky souvenirs shouldn’t surprise. Unfortunately it appears that the Vatican doesn’t have the funding to provide decent explanations, or in a lot of cases, labels, for its varied collections, so if you are going to go, either buy a guidebook beforehand (or from one of the many conveniently placed stalls), or take someone who knows something about any of that stuff. Thanks Sarah.

Another little detail for anyone who is interested in heading to Rome to see how those ampitheatres managed to get so many people in and out and keep them entertained. Don’t. Go to Nimes, you can wander around all of the seating and passageways of the ampitheatre there. Then head to Pozzuoli (near Naples), where you can wander around all of the underground parts & figure out just how they got all of those animals up into the courtyard. Then head to Rome & have a look at what the ampitheatre must have been like before some Pope decided to turn it into a quarry.

Well, the time for another little trip has come around again. The insurance papers for the car arrived. The insurance papers for the car arrived again. Correct insurance papers arrived for the car. Thanks very much AA & Norwich Union, it only took 3 ½ months. My travel insurance company reluctantly agreed that perhaps they it was reasonable to expect scuba diving insurance to cover scuba gear, and so added it to my cover gratis. Very good of you Club Direct. The car was tuned up and gassed up and ready to go. All I needed to do was wait for my bank account to catch up. Like that was going to happen in a hurry, so roadways we headed.

Sarah had arrived from Perth to experience the joys of ten weeks of my driving in countries where rather than simply ignoring the road rules, I didn’t know them, and had only a very slight chance of meeting someone who was going to be able to explain them to me. I figured that giving her more than a day to ponder her decision wasn’t a good idea, so we headed off on Monday evening, and now you have a country by country review. Aren’t you lucky?

20 May

I had decided to take the Channel Tunnel to France for the simple reason that cars on ferries were no novelty, but cars on trains, hey, that was good enough to keep me amused for a while. As it turned out, the whole journey. Possibly even enough to decide to go back that way. But given that I bought a cheap (£20) day return ticket and didn’t, rather than a £150 single ticket, I may be avoiding them for a while. I wonder how good their data matching is.

Now that I have piqued your curiosity, I will have to explain a little about the train. If I haven’t, skip this bit. Basically, it is a really big train, with two levels, and you drive up a ramp, and then along the carriages until you get to the end. And then just sit in your car till the end of the trip, when you drive off. Sounds odd, and this photo explains it a little, but I will admit, not much. You had better look at it, there might not be too many more, you know me & photos.

Anyway, having successfully accomplished the my first navigation of the channel with car, our next task was the simple one of finding somewhere to stay for the night. More specifically somewhere to pitch the tent, on or near the beach, so I could watch the sun go down over the sea with a drink & a cigar. That sort of thing just can’t be done in London, & it sucks. It sucks bigtime. But it was ok, I had done some research. There were plenty of campgrounds & beaches south, so all we had to do was come out of the train & turn right & drive for a while.

Having given these instructions we headed off. And found a variety of small coastal villages. And eventually found a suitable campground. With the office closed. Odd, so we wandered around some more and found another. Again with a closed office, but someone inside. This time as we wandered around looked for the way in, the owner came out to see what these stupid foreigners wanted. When we said “a camp site please”, she launched into a small spiel about the time. I did my best look stupid but harmless look, and Sarah did her best apologies in French. It seems that the French she remembers best from school were apologies, I am not sure what that means about her efforts at school. But it was effective, and suitably chastised, we got ourselves a spot and headed beachward. Where objective 1 of the holiday was achieved. Things were looking good. Now we figured we should do some of the cultural & gastronomic stuff.

Heading into Bayeux, we had a squiz at their cathedral. As all European cathedrals are, it was big, old, had famous dead people in it and was generally impressive. And for extras it came with big cracks in the walls and scaffolding. Also in Bayeux were a curious number of embroidery shops. Not sure why though. And the museum with the longest & most circuitous route to get to its main (& only) exhibit. The tapestry was good sprint training though, if you wanted to keep up with the audioguide which you couldn’t pause or rewind.

Near Bayeux are the D-Day beaches, so we headed up to them & had a look at the Mullberry’s which actually made it across the channel. They are big concrete bathtubs, which were floated across the channel with the aim of pulling the plug to created a breakwater & with enough of them, a harbour. A number didn’t make it across and now make nice dive sites in the channel. One didn’t leave Portland harbour, and now makes a big concrete box in the middle, but a lot did, and still make a big harbour.

Needing to be fed, we headed to a nearby restaurant, where I was enticed by the lure of a regional speciality, tripe with vegetables in Calvados. I had never had tripe, and now I can see why. I am also a little more suspicious of the whole “local speciality” thing. It could easily be a ruse by unscrupulous restaurateurs to con gullible tourists & get rid of any old tripe. And it could even fool thoughtful and considering travellers such as myself.

Still, the next day was better. Here we were in the heart of a place called Calvados. I had once been told there was drink called Calvados, an apple brandy. And had even tried some, and it was judged to be not bad. I wondered if there could be a link. So we set out to determine if this was the case. This required Sarah’s first little lesson in the art of driving my car. This went fine. I managed to avoid throwing my toys out of the cot, and Sarah managed to avoid hitting anything.

But things were to improve, we found a place that made apple cider, pear cider, and even Calvados. I graciously allowed Sarah a small try of the pear cider, & I had a slightly larger try of the pear cider & a couple of different varieties of Calvados. We left much happier, with a couple of bottles of each. Sarahs driving had even improved with the practice.

And on a similar note, I must say that French supermarkets are great. Not only do they have a vast array of ludicrously priced alcohol, and cheeses of all variety (ordered by the tried & tested, smile, point “we”, “merci” approach), they have some great chocolate. I managed to buy one which had a safety warning. What the safety warning said, I have no idea, as it was in French, and my French is largely limited to menus, but I suspect that it may have something to do with the fact that eating 99% cacao chocolate is like being hit over the head with a chocolate brick.

After the warnings I had had, largely from my few English workmates, appeared to be false, I was beginning to like France. This place has promise. Now I hear that there is a town called Cognac…

And we found it. Wasn’t that clever of us. On the way we had a look at a couple of castles and some Chateux down some river valley or another and a few other things, but hey, that is not why you come to France now is it? Food & booze, people. Other than the principle of separation of powers of government, the only things I can think that the French have contributed to society. And they borrowed the idea of separation of powers. I did pay too much attention in those law lectures didn’t I?

Anyway, Cognac is a small town with eight or so major Cognac houses in the town itself. And then a pile of smaller producers in the surrounding areas. We started off the day by going & finding one of the smaller producers by the standard approach of driving around in circles until we found some signs. This was harder than it may seem, but paid off. Despite our lack of French & the distillery ladies lack of English, we communicated on a level that mere words cannot. BTW, for anyone touring this place, degustations means tastings. Good word to know.

Unfortunately we did break some social taboos in our attempts. We shocked the lady from the distillery by telling her that Sarah could not try anything cause she was driving (yes I did bring her for a reason), and she insisted it was ok, it would only be a little. So we tried Pineau, an aperitif made from Cognac & grape juice, and it was judged not bad. Then I moved onto the Cognac, & it was judged damned good. Damned good. After a couple of glasses to decide which was best, we left with a few bottles to add to the collection in the boot. But don’t tell any customs agents.

Having sampled the wares at one of the smaller producers, we headed back into town, ditched the car & headed off to the majors. The tour at Otard was very interesting, telling us a great deal about the history of the firm & the castle it was based in. Apparently just after the revolution, castles were going cheap in France, so a Scottish dude decide that this one would do nicely for him & set himself up a cognac house. Economies of course did have to be made, so the chapel was converted into a cellar where cognac could be aged. Our guide did not say if the angels share was higher in this room. And after a nice tour of the castle, was the main event, the tastings. Here they produced a bar full of glasses of their VSOP & said that if you wanted any of the others, just say. We did, and they were good. Good place Otard, much more generous than a number of the other houses. Though Larssons, while they do not do tours & such, were very friendly, and the woman on reception was eager to help.

Suitably stocked up we headed south in search of some history to go with the culture. This we found at Nimes, which has a great roman ampitheatre, which they still use today, or at least they still use part of it. It appears that the health & safety weenies have been at them a bit, because all of the high bits with no barrier fences between them and the hard low bits are not used, but this still lets them sit 7000 people. While you would think that the inside of an ampitheatre would be a simple thing, this was a veritable labyrinth, designed to get 27,000 people who know where their seat is in and out quickly and easily, and tourists who want to wander around looking at it all, hopelessly lost. But once you figure the layout out, it is a damned good ampitheatre to look at if you want to see how they got all of those people in and out. Very trick.

But there is more to France than just food, booze & old stuff. The Med called. I had some diving I wanted to do. Here I was disappointed. The hospitality which had been present so far through the trip ran out. I found myself a dive shop & cruised in & asked about doing some dives the next day. The guy there asked to see my certification & said that “…in France…” as I was had only the open water certification, I could only go on their bunny dive in the afternoon. But first I would need to get a medical certificate. The little details that I am legitimately qualified to dive to 39m, and that a medical certificate is unlikely to show up any fatal problems that the past 150 dives have not did not appear to be relevant. We were in France now, and we would do it the French way, or not at all. Anybody would think they invented the sport. Figuring that getting a French medical certificate for one dive was a bit of a waste of time, we headed off with dark clouds over the car.

These dark clouds were not really dissipated by the next stop, St Tropez. It appears that this playground of the rich and famous, is in real life the shopping mall of middle aged American tourists who are looking to experience the rich and famous lifestyle by proxy. That and there seemed to be a perpetual traffic jam both into and out of town. Mind you, there are worse cars to be stuck in traffic in on a fine & sunny afternoon.

A word of advice though, if you don’t like attention, don’t sail your motor yacht to St Tropez. Here even the act of a medium sized boat backing into the mooring attracted a sizeable crowd. Do these people watch people parallel park their Ferarris? Although, these yachts did provide yet more confirmation that loads of money does not confer good taste. The owner of Golden Cat, not content with having the largest boat in the harbour, had decided that he needed a personalised welcome mat. Very understated. The boat beside him had seen this, and decided that his 50 foot boat was obviously deficient for its lack of a welcome mat, and had rushed out to buy one. Unfortunately it appears that the only store open at the time was the warehouse, and so he returned with probably the cheesiest door (gangplank?) mat ever seen.

The next day in Monaco (yes, life is tough), it was more of the same boats. And a curious detail emerged. Common with St Tropez, none of the boats were registered in France. They were registered in the British Virgin Islands, Isle of Man, Jersey, Luxembourg & Cayman Islands. What do all of these countries have in common? Not a coastline, that is for sure. Still, if you own a boat that big, I am sure you have your reasons for registering your boat in small countries with an excess of accountants.

As might be expected, the average money density in Monaco was significantly higher than the surrounding countryside. Actually significantly understates the point. Sarah thought that she had seen more Ferraris, Bentleys & Lambourghinis in one morning than she had in the rest of her life. Mind you a fair number of them were just doing bogan laps. Still, if you can afford a Lambourghini & don’t have to do any of that inconvenient work stuff, why the hell not drive it around in circles all day. To me the summary of the place was one hotel which had two yellow Ferraris & a Bentley parked outside. In most places in the world, owning a Ferrari is something special. In almost all of the other places, owning a yellow one will ensure that you never just blend into the crowd. In Monaco, something more is required. Perhaps painting it matt black with flames down the side would do it.

So for a change the Benz just blended into the background of ordinary cars. This was quite useful at times though, as Monaco is a maze of one way streets, two way streets which look like one way streets, and inadequate signposting. When attempting to find the way out of town, when faced with an intersection where I didn’t know who had right of way, I decided to take the simple approach of following some locals. Unfortunately this was something of a miscalculation, for the locals I followed were driving motor scooters, which have their own road rules. In the ensuing Jag with local driver v. Benz with dumb tourist driver, the Benz won, without even any horn honking and excitable hand waving. Very restrained this lot. Maybe they should go to Italy for lessons, cause we were about to…

Now as I am sure you have figured out by now, I think the best thing about living in London is it is an easiest place to go on holiday from. And holiday I shall. And I think it is coming time for another little jaunt.

I have been having those nagging feelings that I have been living in London for over a year now, and other than a few weekend trips, and a week in Barcelona, I haven’t really got to the rest of Europe. This should be rectified.

So I had an idea. Buy a car & drive around Europe in Spring.

But as anyone who has done any of those getting stuff done courses knows, there is a step between an idea & doing. It is planning. Important details need to be sorted out. Here, I can fall back on the wealth of experience derived from every other Kiwi & Aussie who has come over here & done the trip around Europe. Key amoung these is the transportation issue. Experience has long shown that purchasing a classic example of 20 year old German engineering is the way to get around

There were of course, two choices.

Option 1:

VW Combi.

Seats, sleeps & contains cooking facilities for as many as liberalities and elbow room allows. Economical and generally reliable. Distant cousin of the bahnstorming 911. Plenty of room for dive gear, clothes, cooking equipment, tents, and any other essential or generally useful items. Often found painted in the kind of colour scheme that turns heads & makes drug dogs whine.


Admirably practical mode of transportation


It is a combi

Option 2:

Mercedes 380SL

Seating for two, one double amputee and a well behaved hampster. Reliable (at least it bloody well better be). Been known to engage in a little bahnstorming on weekends. Plenty of room for dive gear and a few essential clothes. Turns heads.


Not a combi.

Admirable means of travelling.


Gas is cheaper on the continent isn’t it?

The insurance – hey how big a risk is a guy who has had his UK licence for 6 months & buys a 3.8 litre convertible?

Tough call huh? I am sure that you are glad that the accountant in me won out. The Mercedes it was (when was the last time you saw an accountant in a combi?). And besides it’s a V8, every boy wants a V8, especially this one.

So now it is just down to minor details of planning a route & sorting out little administrative details. And saving some money after I spent it all on my car. At present these details largely involve a map & a whole lot of pins marking places which would be cool to go to so I can figure out a vague route. At present it goes something like this. Wander vaguely east via Cognac, Geneva, Stuttgart & a variety of places in between to Croatia. Then depending on money, time & inclination head north or west.

The reports on the trip are fairly limited, because I found that electricity in campgrounds is also limited, and this really knocked out my ability to write stories. Sorry.