Incidental Thoughts
The following are my incidental thoughts about things in general. I just wanted to be able to state my opinions about just about anything that crosses my mind or grabs my attention. I'm not going to call it a blog, as, for one, I hate that overused word and two, I don't consider it to be a blog - just a collection of thoughts and statements, though I won't entirely reject the possibility of including the occasional explanatory picture.

At the top of the page you'll find an index to all the articles, in the order that I wrote them, and below that you'll find the articles themselves, most recent first.

Any comments, criticisms or thoughts about what I write? Please don't hesitate to dop me a line at alan {at}
(If you've already emailed me I'm afraid it won't have reached me as the address above was incorrect. I corrected it on 28 May 2017.)

No. 1 - CallMeAlan decides to record his thoughts for all to see!
(Monday 27 February 2017)

No. 2 - Code written, let's move along
(Monday 27 February 2017)

No. 3 - Upgrading a Mercedes audio system, to include Apple Carplay
(Monday 27 February 2017)

No. 4 - Car advertising on the radio - can I buy a car?
(Wednesday 01 March 2017)

No. 5 - Payment Protection Insurance - a lucrative racket for the unscrupulous
(Wednesday 01 March 2017)

No. 6 - Why do American TV series deteriorate?
(Thursday 02 March 2017)

No. 7 - A Mathematical Conjecture Examined
(Wednesday 08 March 2017)

No. 8 - An interesting beer observation
(Friday 24 March 2017)

No. 9 - A very embarrassing car problem
(Tuesday 28 March 2017)

No. 10 - The Horror that is Eggheads
(Thursday 20 April 2017)

No. 11 - The Mercedes Apple CarPlay - Update
(Thursday 20 April 2017)

No. 12 - Why are Americans so bloody awful?
(Wednesday 26 April 2017)

No. 13 - Spotify
(Thursday 18 May 2017)

No. 14 - Spotify and Eefje
(Thursday 18 May 2017)

No. 15 - A Serious Case of Theft
(Friday 26 May 2017)

No. 16 - Nuisances - Part One
(Sunday 28 May 2017)

No. 17 - Nuisances - Part Two
(Sunday 28 May 2017)

No. 18 - Born Free. Taxed to Death
(Tuesday 15 August 2017)

No. 19 - More About Spotify
(Wednesday 16 August 2017)

No. 20 - The Top 15 funniest jokes from theEdinbugh Fringe Festival
(Tuesday 22 August 2017)

No. 21 - An Exercise in Program Optimisation
(Wednesday 27 September 2017)

No. 21 : Wednesday 27 September 2017
An Exercise in Program Optimisation

How I achieved what I think is remarkable performance

Here in the UK we have a daily TV programme called Countdown. The major, and I think most popular, part of it is the letters game. Taking it in turns the contestants ask for 9 of either a vowel or a consonant, selected from a stock of letters which appear to have roughly the same distribution as Scrabble, ie, one Z, one X, but many Es, As, Ds, and so on.

From the resulting random 9 letters the contestants have to make the longest word they possibly can in 30 seconds, with, of course, a nine-letter word being the ultimate target.

As a professional analyst/programmer I viewed this whole process as an excellent software project: give the program the same nine letters and see what it could find. And how quickly - that was the aim of the exercise. The contestants have thirty seconds, I wondered if I could do it in less?

Where to start?
Clearly, before writing even the first if..then..else I was going to need a dictionary. In a very short time I found that it was possible to download plain-text dictionaries from numerous sources on the Interwebs. I downloaded a promising looking candidate, containing perhaps half a million words. This arrived as a an ASCII text file, and it was a simple matter to import it into a database table.

I had decided early on that I was only going to work with 9, 8, 7 and 6 letter words, so the next step was to delete words not of those lengths, which brought me down to 200,000 or so words. A table index rendered the list into alphabetical order.

On to the software
So I had my list of 6 to 9 letter words. The contestant has made his or her selection of letters and has BNETOHSID to work with, and 30 seconds to find the longest word he or she possibly can. One of the contestants finds HOTBEDS, 7 letters, but the other wins the points with HEDONIST.

Head scratching time. How the hell was I going to do this? After much thought I had the answer: add a second column to the words table in the database and populate it with the sorted letters of each word. Here are a few entries from the beginning of the table as it then appeared:

aardvark - aaadkrrv
abacus - aabcsu
abandoned - aabddenno
and of course:
hotbeds - bdehost
hedonist - dehinost

The first tottering toddling steps in the new program said:
Take the original selection and sort it: BNETOHSID gave me
BDEHINOST. Then all I have to do is look that up in the table to find the nine-letter word. No hits, of course. It seemed to be a fairly rare occurrence to actually find a nine-letter match.

So I needed to do an eight-letter word check. Easy - remove one letter from the sorted selection nine times, leaving 8 letters, and look the result up. So we worked with:

and so on. As it happened the first of these, formed by removing the first letter, found HEDONIST.

Seven letter words needed me to remove two letters each time, and of course six-letter words needed three to be removed.

Removing two or three letters turned out to need quite a bit of logical thought. Eventually I hit upon a statistical method to calculate the combinations, and discovered that there are 36 unique ways to choose 7 from 9, and 84 ways to generate 6 from 9.

Wow, I thought, all those table lookups - 130 to be exact. I mean the database is fast, but 130 operations on it? I began to wonder if I could match the 30 seconds the contestants were allowed.

Writing the Code
I embarked upon writing the code. The program not only had to do all the grunt work in the background, but also had to display the results. It had to eliminate duplications (eg, if there are two Es in the contestant selection then there could be two identical hits in the list of seven letter words) and display the results in alphabetical order.

Finally I had a very crude bit of code which would do the database looking-up. I was surprised at how fast it turned out to be, and I then had no worries about it taking more than 30 seconds.

Cutting to the Chase!
Today, after numerous revisits to the code, optimising it and thinking very carefully about how to reduce the 130 table lookups, I think I have reached the ultimate in optimisation. Using lateral thinking and some clever (I think!) SQL there are now only 3 database queries instead of 130, and that alone speeded up the work by 90%. Wow.

So as of today I can type the aforementioned BNETOHSID into my program. I get no nine-letter words, but 2 eight-letter words, 14 seven-letter words and there are 73 six-letter words.

And I am very proud and extremely pleased to say that this search took……

0.007199 seconds.

Not bad really!

The computer is a Macbook
The database is SQLITE
The programming language is XOJO

No. 20 : Tuesday 22 August 2017
The Top 15 funniest jokes from theEdinbugh Fringe Festival

As voted for in a a public vote on a shortlist of gags picked by comedy critics.

1. "I`m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change" - Ken Cheng

2. "Trump`s nothing like Hitler. There`s no way he could write a book" - Frankie Boyle

3. "I`ve given up asking rhetorical questions. What`s the point?" - Alexei Sayle

4. "I`m looking for the girl next door type. I`m just gonna keep moving house till I find her" - Lew Fitz

5. "I like to imagine the guy who invented the umbrella was going to call it the `brella`. But he hesitated" - Andy Field

6. "Combine Harvesters. And you`ll have a really big restaurant" - Mark Simmons

7. "I`m rubbish with names. It`s not my fault, it`s a condition. There`s a name for it..." - Jimeoin

8. "I have two boys, 5 and 6. We`re no good at naming things in our house" - Ed Byrne

9. "I wasn`t particularly close to my dad before he died... which was lucky, because he trod on a land mine" - Olaf Falafel

10. "Whenever someone says, `I don`t believe in coincidences.` I say, `Oh my God, me neither!` - Alasdair Beckett-King

11. "A friend tricked me into going to Wimbledon by telling me it was a men`s singles event" - Angela Barnes

12. "As a vegan, I think people who sell meat are disgusting; but apparently people who sell fruit and veg are grocer" - Adele Cliff

13. "For me dying is a lot like going camping. I don`t want to do it" - Phil Wang

14. "I wonder how many chameleons snuck onto the Ark" - Adam Hess

15. "I went to a Pretenders gig. It was a tribute act" - Tim Vine
No. 19 : Wednesday 16 August 2017
More About Spotify

Why I deleted Spotify

In article number 13 on this page I extolled the virtues of Spotify, noting that for just the cost of a single physical CD per month you could get access to a whole world of music, for free. What was more, any music you saved to your playlists when browsing the application via your desktop machine was available on all your devices, providing you had the logged-in app thereupon - eg, on the iPhone.

I must revise my opinions about Spotify now. For a start, I don't think it sounds all that good via iPhone and CarPlay in the car. I have previously noted a high streaming rate in Spotify, but I reckon that must only apply to a desktop machine; I now think that Spotify via phone/CarPlay in the car must be at a much-reduced rate. I've tested the same song via this Spotify method and via it being resident on the phone itself and played via the Music app on every iPhone. The resident version sounds A LOT better. Spotify seems to degrade the low frequencies and make the treble awful tinny and thin, and the midrange frequencies muddy and compressed.

But, perhaps more annoyingly: you spend a while searching for music, add it to a playlist, check it's there on the iMac version and go out in the car. What? Where's my new bloody music? It has NOT appeared in the phone version of Spotify. Evidently it's a known issue. You have to unclick and then reclick some bloody button in the app.

Finally: you sit in the car, select a playlist. Normally you would expect the next step to be a display of songs in that playlist. But no, not always so. For some reason best known to itself Spotify decides to launch straight into the first song on the playlist - no display of the songs. Another known issue, and confirmed by various respondents when I complained about it on Spotify user forums.

So I've deleted it! At this time I am engaged upon a process of copying, via the truly godawful iTunes unfortunately, my favourites straight onto the phone. As for godawful iTunes, I have tried a couple of alternatives, which claim to offer direct access to the phone without iTunes. Unfortunately, for some reason, the songs go in as Voice Memos! Not a lot of good really.
No. 18 : Tuesday 15 August 2017
Born Free. Taxed to Death

Born Free.
Taxed to Death.

Yes, that's what I'm saying.

I'm sure it's not only we in the United Kingdom that can say this. I'll wager that many of you feel the same. Her Majesty's Government deem it necessary to tax us more and more heavily year by year, but, a nation of sheep that we are, we just accept it and say Oh well.

Most of the time we don't know how heavily we're being taxed, but just recently I had a first-hand example of one piece of what seems to be very heavy-handed taxation: tobacco.

Since I was 14, but for a few brief periods, I've been a smoker. I make no apology for this. I was at a Public School, as a boarder, at that age, and if you didn't smoke you were a soft wimp. I roll my own cigarettes - tobacco, paper, filter, lick, seal, smoke. All that fine ceremony. I usually buy a brand of tobacco called Amber Leaf, for around £21 for a 50 gram packet.

My daughter and her family were recently in France on holiday. Just before returning she got in touch to ask if I would like some duty-free baccy. Of course, I replied. She returned with a package of 10 x 50 gram packets and proudly handed them over to me as payment for delivering and collecting the family to and from Heathrow Airport.

How much was the tobacco?, I enquired.
Eighty quid, was the answer.

Eighty? For what would normally be £210's worth of tobacco at my local supermarket? Good god, that means we're paying duty of £13 on one single pack of 50 grams! For some dried and sliced vegetable material.

Taxed to death alright.
No. 17 : Sunday 28 May 2017
Nuisances - Part Two

So I've just written about emails, and the anxiety and distress they might cause to many recipients - or amusement in my case. Now I'd like to talk about the telephone.

I do have a landline here; you have to if you want broadband. My experience from just about anybody I talk to is that nobody uses their landlines. Everybody nowadays is strictly mobile, so nobody actually has a phone plugged in. Except me. For some unknown reason I have (had) a phone. Nobody I know, personal or official, has the number, and thus nobody calls me; they all use my mobile. So when it rings I know that without any doubt it's a nuisance call.

The Indian Microsoft expert
This is the one where a man with an almost unintelligible Indian accent called Trevor (Trevor? India??) calls to tell you that according to their monitoring equipment your PC has a virus and is flooding the internet with naughty data packets, and he can help you to eradicate this virus. On the one hand, if you're pressed for time or doing something else, or on the other hand you can tell him you have an iMac and two Linux laptops (true) and he should therefore fuck off.

But I fondly remember this experience: I made suitable oh dear, oh no, noises and asked him for more information, and what we could do. He said he needed to log in to my PC remotely and clean it up. I would have to pay him, via PayPal, for the service. The amount wasn't stated, as it depended on how difficult the job was going to be. I said the computer wasn't switched on - should I switch it on now? Yes. So I made various keyboard noises and mouse clicks and kept him waiting while it supposedly booted. After a few minutes I said right, let's do it. He led me through a number of instructions which I pretended to get wrong, thus making him repeat them. I managed to keep this going for a good fifteen minutes. Then in answer to one particular instruction I replied that my iMac doesn't seem to have a Windows key, and suggested that he should go back home and give his mother a damn good seeing-to. Frustratingly, I heard just a click as the line disconnected. But I had the satisfaction of knowing that I wasted a good twenty minutes of this creature's time! Plus twenty minutes of the cost of an India to UK phone call.

Cold calls
Invariably, and to my disgust, they ask for me by name when I answer. How the bloody hell do they know my name? They proceed to tell me about the latest deals in some such product, or offer to do my PPI claim (as I've written about separately here), or invite me to participate in a simple marketing survey which you know will lead to a golden opportunity to purchase something. Following the call, and following whatever reaction you pass to the caller, if you dial 1471 to find out who called you, you'll either hear that the number was withheld, or it begins with zero-zero (I don't think any numbers actually do) or perhaps that it was zero-zero-zero-zero. These are good indicators that the callers were wankers.
Your reaction during the call could be nice - a simple no thanks, or if you're in a bad mood you can really go to town. But the truth is that the callers are mere pawns, spending their worthless days wearing a headphone and bothering people. But you can advise them to go and get a proper job, one in which they can serve humanity, rather than barging rudely into their privacy.

Many of these cold-calling bastards use auto-diallers. A computer is supplied with a list of numbers, which it dials. If you answer it, the call is passed to the next available otherwise-unemployable agent, who then proceeds to annoy you. Regrettably, the truth is that often all the agents are already being told by somebody that they should fuck off, and so all you hear is silence. This practice is illegal, and very large fines have been levied against companies who do this - 350 grand in one case.

The Telephone Preference Service is a scheme whereby you can register your number with them, theoretically opting-out from unsolicited marketing or sales calls. Unfortunately, if you DO receive a cold call, and you're TPS'ed, then the calling organisation has broken the law. So it might be worth, before telling the caller to fuck off, trying to find out the name of the company calling, so you can make a complaint via the TPS website.

So, following an experience just a few days ago with one extraordinarily rude (and almost certainly morbidly obese) Scottish bitch, when I had merely said I wasn't interested and by the way I'm on the TPS and you're breaking the law, and she said I was a fucking bastard and that she was going to call me every day, I unplugged the bugger. A painful tumour for her too I hope.

No. 16 : Sunday 28 May 2017
Nuisances - Part One

I'm with Gmail for my main email account, and it's very efficient at weeding out the rubbish, but keeping it temporarily in a Junk folder, so I can have a look at it, for a laugh.

It's absolutely and extraordinarily unbelievable that these pond life continue to this day to assure everybody that there's ten million dollars just waiting for them to collect it. There simply can't be anybody alive who hasn't heard about this, the so-called 419 scam - except the Nigerians themselves apparently, who persist in trying it on. Only yesterday I was contacted by email by none other than the Secretary General of the Federal Government of Nigeria, an awfully nice chap, who tells me that he's ordered the Nigerian High Commissioner to Canada to sign the necessary documents, whereupon the cash will be sent straight to my bank account. The only catch is that I need to supply my full bank details. Looks like I might at last be able to afford that handsome Hasselblad camera.

Eastern Europeans
I have no doubt that's what they are. But they assure me that my criminal record has been updated, my credit score is perfect, and that Veronika is offering me her pussy. She clearly doesn't realise I hate cats. All I have to do is click on a link. In many email programs if you just hover over these links you'll be shown where they're headed. I'm unlikely to want to visit in order to fix and clean my PC - even if I had a PC, which I don't.

Official-looking emails
We've all received them, and many, for some reason, slip through the junk mail filters. How many of us have had anxiety attacks because our PayPal accounts have been frozen? Just this very morning I was assured, in a very correct-looking email which arrived at 16:31 yesterday from Amazon, that:
Recently there have been a large number of people theft attempts targeting our users
Listen turd, if you really want to fool people into logging in to their Amazon account (as they'd have us believe) you could at least try to get someone to look at your grammar.
Whatever, as I was safely looking at this email on my iPhone, I thought I'd click the Login link. To my delight and surprise the spoof site was already down, so someone's been quick off the mark in getting this particular one cleaned up! I have in the past followed these through, and logged in, and provided full details including name, bank account details including PIN, and credit card numbers. Good luck to the morons when they try to access the account of Mr Penisbeast Horsecock of 23 Testicle Avenue.
Unfortunately some of these emails are so-called joe-jobs, in which the perps have cunningly made it appear that the email came from a legitimate address. Amusingly, I was once offered Viagra by my ex-wife!

The Point
The point is that all these people are bloody idiots, completely and totally. I do know that in the past they've successfully milked some unfortunates of their money, but nowadays it must be an increasingly dry well, as ordinary folk realise what the truth is behind these attempts. We ordinary folk can only hope that the perpetrators get painful tumours.

No. 15 : Friday 26 May 2017
A Serious Case of Theft

We in The United Kingdom are daily subject to theft on a quite grand scale. Yet, apparently, we quite happily (in most cases) merely accept the situation. I understand that the same situation applies in Australia, for example, but at a much greater scale.

I refer to the price disparity for products sold in the United States and the UK. Look at a product on a US website and take a note of the price in dollars. Then price the same thing in sterling - the theory is that it should be $$ divided by 1.29 (rate as of today). Not so. A considerable premium is added, simply because we are not bloody Yanks.

By way of example I'm going to use software and hardware as examples.

Adobe allow one to rent rather than outright buy their software. Nice business for them, regular income, etc. Let's look at the photographer's package. In the USA you get LightRoom and Photoshop for USD 9.99 a month. We have to pay UKP 10.10. At 1.29 our 10.10 equates to USD 12.89. We have to pay an extra 2.90 a month. Why? Because Adobe is stealing from us, ripping us off. This is but one example. You'll find many other software vendors doing the same.

I'm using as an example DJI, manufacturer of the leading models of various drones, indisputably. Just the other day they proudly announced their new Spark, a little almost-toy drone. Announced price? USD 499. UK price? UKP 519. At a rate of 1.29 that's equal to USD 670, an additional 171 dollars. Utter theft; a ripoff. Stolen markup: 29%.

Other DJI models with the same calculations:

Phantom 4 Pro: USD 1499 / UKP 1589. Equivalent USD 2050. USD 549 more. Stolen markup: 36%

Mavic: USD 999 / UKP 1099. Equivalent USD 1418. USD 419 more. Stolen markup: 42%

Matrice: USD 3299 / UKP 2799. Equivalent USD 3610. USD 611 more. Stolen markup: a mere 19%

Please forgive me for this, but you thieving bastards!

I would welcome your justification for this, if you happen to read this.
No. 14 : Thursday 18 May 2017
Spotify and Eefje

So, continuing my Spotify theme, I bring a musical recommendation

Once you've dicked about with Spotify for a while, it begins to learn about the sort of music you like and offers you collections of pieces it thinks you might like. I have what many might call unusual musical tastes. My vocal music is pretty well 99.99% sung by females. Of that, perhaps 50% of it is sung in a foreign language, French mostly, but a smattering of Spanish here and there. Names like Axelle Red, Isabelle Boulay, Ana Tijoux, and wonderful Christine and the Queens are examples. Spotify understands this, and offers me various other similar candidates to listen to, and I've latched quite strongly onto a handful through this method of discovery. Jain, Jo Bell, Olivia Ruiz are examples.

Then one day recently, while I was doing something else, with one such collection playing, my ears registered a song which I liked immediately. It was by a lady called Eefje de Visser. Quick research revealed that she's Dutch, a singer/songwriter, and is BIG over there in Holland.

Love her. She sings her own songs exclusively in Dutch. Nobody ever claimed that Dutch was a pretty language. Indeed, to most British or American ears it sounds quite guttural and 'different'. But, for reasons irrelevant right now, I lived in Holland with my parents when I was 8 or 9, and, as children do, picked up the language quickly, and was fluent within 6 weeks of our arrival there. I can't remember much now, certainly not enough to understand Eefje, apart from a few words, but that doesn't matter, as she just sounds good!

She double-tracks her slow thoughtful balladic type of songs, and is given to deep lush reverberation. Instrumentally varied, from single guitar to full bands, she generates a very distinctive sound, all overlaid with her two voices. Give her a listen, go on.

No. 13 : Thursday 18 May 2017

As you will have noted in other articles here, I have a giant Mercedes Benz, and I spent a large fistful of folding currency on having an Alpine Apple Carplay head unit, plus various amplifiers and speakers, installed in it. It [now] sounds great. Apart from radio, which sounds thin and tinny - but I don't use radio in the car, and prefer to listen what I want to listen to, not what some DJ thinks I should listen to.

iTunes? iShite more like.
I had a reasonable collection of music, some ripped from CD, some purchased online, eg, from Amazon, and some 'borrowed' (definition unavailable, but we've all done it, haven't we?) All the music was collected on the iMac under the iTunes system. To listen to my music in the car I had to transfer it onto my iPhone. Have you used iTunes? Don't you agree that it must be THE worst piece of software EVER created? Sheer unadulterated bloody shite. There must be other ways, I thought.

Excellent wonderful Spotify. After just a few hours of trying the free version I subscribed to the full version, Premium, and so, for ten quid a month, I have access to literally any music ever, it seems. Best of all, I could sit at the iMac, generate playlists, which would magically be visible in the iPhone version of their app and thus be visible in the car head unit. I'd worried that quality might not be great - compression, etc - but no, music streams at 320 kbps, though you'll need 4G for this. All in all, it's magic.

So I use the desktop app on my iMac as the 'control centre', where I search, create playlists, etc. I have a little iPod, usually somewhere in the kitchen mostly. On this I have my Sonos speakers software, but this can interface to Spotify, and therefore I can play my Spotify music through my Sonos speakers. Finally, the Spotify app itself lives on my phone, where it's visible in the car.

It's truly magic. All the music you could ever want, at high quality, in all the places you listen to music. Ten quid a month - less the cost of one CD. You can't go wrong.

No. 12 : Wednesday 26 April 2017
Why are Americans so bloody awful?

I'm really not a big fan of Americans. I'm sorry to say that I find them stupid, undereducated, and really really loud. I mean really. I don't think the concept of 'shy' exists in the USA. They scream at the top of their voices without regard to anybody around who can also hear their inane mumblings.

Let me move on to some American annoyances.

All we Brits know that Americans can't spell. Is it laziness? In the case of words such as colour, which they insist should be rendered as color, it IS laziness - hey guys, let's lose one of the letters, I mean, the u isn't actually pronounced, is it? There are many other -our words in which they've dumped the u.

Then there's aluminium, that light yet strong all-purpose metal, which was named aluminium by its discoverer. There goes that u again, and thus not only do the Americans misspell it as aluminum but also pronounce it incorrectly as 'aloominum'. Yuk.

I wonder if 'lens' is THE most ill-treated word? I've seen lense, lenss, len and (see under General Grammar, below) len's. I'd love to see Len's new len's. To be fair this failing is shared amongst other nationalities too.

This is where we and the Americans really diverge. American pronunciation is rhotic, which means that every R is sounded, whereas we in the UK are, for the most part, not rhotic. There are exceptions to the latter in certain regional dialects, but in general we don't pronounce certain Rs, where the Americans do. Let's take, for example, colour (color, if you're a Yank reading this). Here we pronounce it as colah, no r-sound; they say colouR, where the R is sounded. I think this must be due to the large Irish influence in the original USA, because the Irish ARE rhotic.

The Yanks have a peculiar way of sounding some vowels, particularly the letter O. Let's look at compost, yoghourt and mocha as examples. Over here, the O in those words rhymes with the O in lost. Yet the Yanks insist on rhyming it with the O in most. Sounds weird. Other weird examples of this type of torture abound, but I want to mention Megan. The correct pronunciation of the first syllable of this excellent and ancient name rhymes with leg, which is correct. Why must our transatlantic cousins say it as Maygan? Wrong, entirely wrong. Indeed, if one was to follow strict general pronunciation rules it would more likely be pronounced Meegan.

General Grammar
Now this is where we get into really really annoying gross stupidity, ignorance, and, dare I say it, poor education. As a keen photographer, pilot and gadget freak I follow a handful of discussion forums. Naturally, since they're everywhere, the population of forums seems to be mostly American, and they have no fear about displaying their, shall we say, grammatical foibles extensively. It's not that they don't care who sees their torture of our language, it's more that they really know no better.

Some of their hideousness is best addressed via example:

This all seems to come across as me hating Americans. Well I hope it does, as that is the truth. I was unfortunate enough to live in New York for two and a half years, and this is where my descent into the maelstrom of utter revulsion began. I know, I know, NYC is not perhaps the best example of USA-ness - its inhabitants are rude, unpleasant and dour to an extent not seen, I'm sure, in the rest of the country.

No. 11 : Thursday 20 April 2017
The Mercedes Apple CarPlay - Update

I wrote a few weeks ago (entry number 3) about the new very expensive car audio replacement, switching the old Mercedes COMAND system for an Alpine with CarPlay.

Well. it's taken some time to get things right. I told you about the too-bright trebly sound and the difficulties in getting it to sound good.

Since I wrote the article I've had new Focal speakers fitted all round. The old Bose speakers in the doors, serving front and rear, were weak and elderly, I understand, and not performing well, and weren't able to handle any decent volume without clipping and distorting. The subwoofer was fine. The tweeters in the door frame panels were also replaced.

Much improvement, but still bright and somehow everything sounded, how can I put this, empty. I revisited the Alpine app, as previously illustrated, and dicked about until, now, at last, it sounds good. I've had to reduce the topmost treble equalistion almost to nothing to defeat the tinny sound, and the mids are somewhat boosted, but I don't mind all that as long as it sounds good, which it does.

So I can now really enjoy my current favourite artiste, Christine and the Queens, who, despite the plurality of the name, is a French lady. She sings in a mixture of French and English and boy, does she sound great. Check out her song Tilted. As an alternative I'm also enjoying the work of Tristan Prettyman who, despite the name, is a lady!

No. 10 : Thursday 20 April 2017
The Horror that is Eggheads

There's a TV programme in the UK called Eggheads. Normally it's shown weekdays at 6pm. I used to watch it with a reasonable amount of interest and enjoyment, but nowadays I only occasionally watch it while I eat dinner, and only to be horribly excruciated, because it really is an irritating and dreadful piece of rubbish.

The Format
It's a quiz show, with two teams of four competing against each other. One team is The Eggheads, the professionals, its four competing members on any one occasion being drawn from a pool of eight. The other team, the amateurs, is a bunch of friends, colleagues, etc, different every episode. There are several rounds, each consisting of the quizmaster naming a subject area, whereupon the amateurs decide which of their members will take the round, who then picks one of the Eggheads to go head-to-head against. The losing opponent is then eliminated from further consideration. The final round opposes the uneliminated members of each going against each other. If the amateurs win they take home the cash, which increases by a grand each day it's not won.

The Questions
The questions are three-way multiple choice. The quizmaster asks the question, and choices A, B or C are given. At this point we encounter our first annoyance, with the currently answering amateur struggling to answer. The producers, it seems, encourage the competitors not simply to say their answer, but to waffle on for a bit. Hmmm, I'll eliminate A, but it could be B or C. Which? And so on. Generally speaking, the answer is wrong, or a lucky guess, because nine times out of ten they simply haven't a clue. During this waffling period we hear nonsense such as, well, it could be any one of them. Of course it could be bloody well any one of them! By definition one of the three answers is correct. We also hear, well, it's not my best subject. Why did you volunteer then? A very frequent word is 'again', as in, well, again, it's not my best subject. Often you'll hear them deciding to take 'an educated guess'. It's not a bloody educated guess you cretin, not if you're an accountant and the question concerns chemical elements!

The Eggheads
So we've covered a few of the amateur annoyances. Let's glance at The Eggheads themselves. As I said, four are chosen from a pool of eight regulars.

The other six include:
There are others, including a woman who must be at least 169 years old, and whose voice is now so shaky she can barely use it, plus the two newest Eggheads who, surprisingly, seem to be perfectly normal. Something went wrong when they selected them for the team.

The quizmaster is an oddity. He seems to be unfazed at having to repeat the same words over and over again, ie, those dictated by the producer ('Kevin, please take your place in our famous question room!') There seems to be no option for him to adlib a little. Except, that is unless he is patronizing a contestant ('Well done, that wasn't an easy question') or uttering meaningless rubbish such as 'Well done, it would have been so easy to get that one wrong.' What? You bloody buffoon - that's the whole idea isn't it?

So there you go, Eggheads, a truly unremarkable and deeply annoying televisual feast.
No. 9 : Tuesday 28 March 2017
A very embarrassing car problem

As you know, I drive a big black shiny 5 litre V8 Mercedes Benz. Since I bought it I've considerably upgraded the stereo system, having had an Alpine CarPlay system fitted together with, just last week, replacement front/rear speakers. In addition I've had the whole front brake system replaced, discs and pads, plus new tyres, and a few other niceties.

So when I collected the car this week from the speaker replacement installation job I noticed a strong smell of petrol as I got out of the car after parking in my carport. I smelt it again a couple of times and became worried.

Then, just yesterday, my daughter encountered severe traffic, ie, unmoving, on her way home from work. She phoned and asked me to pick up the little fella from playschool. I refused, saying I had this petrol leak somewhere, and wouldn't risk strapping the little guy in his car seat, just in case the whole goddamn thing caught fire.

I booked it in for inspection and repair at a local car servicing operation, delivered it this morning, then worriedly awaited the news - new petrol tank? New pipes? New petrol pump? How much was this going to cost me??

The phone rang. The verdict:

Some cretin didn't put the petrol filler cap back on. It was still in its little holder under the filler flap.

Good grief. You know the colour of the inside of a good rare steak? Well my face was redder than that.

No. 8 : Friday 24 March 2017
An interesting beer observation

The other day I poured myself a beer into my favourite glass. Before pouring I rinsed the glass out, just in case there might have been a spot or two of dust in in.

Soon after pouring I noticed that there were tiny white specks dropping from the foam at the top of the beer, and landing at the bottom of the glass. They were only about half a millimetre in size.

The beer looked and tasted fine, and peering into the rest of the beer still in the can it was totally clear. My conclusion therefore was that somehow these specks were being created there and then, on the spot, as it were.

I drank almost all the beer and fished out some of the specks. They were hard and crunchy. Ah! Limestone?

Now I live in a hard water area - as evidenced by the frequently clogged shower head, the kettle all scaled up, the expensive coffee machine cleaning stuff.

Somehow the beer was bringing dissolved lime out of the water and it was falling under gravity.

Well, I felt fine afterwards, so I think my conclusion is correct. Next day I poured my beer into a dry glass and all was fine.

How odd.
No. 7 : Wednesday 08 March 2017
A Mathematical Conjecture Examined

I like maths, and I also like programming.

For some time I've been wondering about a question, and the only way to answer it rigorously was to write a program to test it.

CallMeAlan's First Conjecture

Asks this question:

Are there any 3-digit prime numbers for which the reversed digits also form a prime number AND in which each of the three digits are also prime?

Example: take the number 468 (yes, I know it's not a prime - this is an example).
To prove the conjecture:
468 must be prime
864 must be prime
4, 6 and 8 must also each be prime. (Prime digits are 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 7)
Clearly 468 doesn't fit the bill in any respect.
Palindromic numbers such as 727 are excluded.

But are there any such numbers?

Yes, my software proves that there are only 4 such numbers:


Clearly the reversed digits of each of these also fit the conjecture, so you might as well say there are 8 such numbers, but I exclude them from this consideration. Quite interesting to note that there are no candidates containing a 2 as the middle digit (it wouldn't fit the conjecture if it was at either end of course) and I'm unsure why.

Now I can stop wondering.

No. 6 : Thursday 02 March 2017
Why do American TV series deteriorate?

No doubt about it, the Americans produce some great TV entertainment. I'm not talking about silly sitcoms, I have no time for them. I detest those which are filmed before an audience, in which said audience hoot and whistle like some demented animals when the star walks on stage - Cheers was a good example of this. Also, I abhor all those awful programmes featuring fat loud idiots with long beards who fix cars, etc, etc.

No, I'm talking about dramas. Some great stuff, much of which I've enjoyed for a long time. But I've detected some disturbing trends of late: they deteriorate over time. Lets' consider some examples:

It was never the most comprehensible story, and left more unanswered questions than it answered as it proceeded. But then we reached season 5 (of, I think, 6). It became unmanageable. I couldn't make any sense of it as it became more and more ridiculous. As I write I know at least 6 people who completely abandoned the series during the first two or three episodes of season 5. Even the delights of Evangeline Lilly couldn't keep me tuned in.

Grey's Anatomy
Now in season 742, or so it feels. I've been glued to this masterpiece since it started and have, in general, greatly enjoyed it, notwithstanding some characters whom I find quite unpalatable; let us merely mention in passing The Nazi in this category. But there've been some unenjoyments along the way. I detested that Denny Duquette fellow who died while in love with Izzy. This whole thread was drawn out for much too long, as an example. But as season 12 got under way I began to sense an underlying feeling of soap opera. It seemed to be less of a medical drama than a story about the various doctors and their love/hate lives. I'm hoping it picks up pace again and we can see more medicine.

The Walking Dead
Absolutely brilliant from the very word Go. But now we're into series 7 it's bogging down a bit, and we're seeing fewer walkers getting splodged. The episode of the other night was all about Eugene who, while quite fun, doesn't, I think, deserve a whole episode, particularly when Negan also figured quite heavily in the episode. I wonder if, like me, you find the whole Negan thing to be dragging on for too long? I really detest this strutting supercilious idiot, and really wish the increasingly ineffectual Rick or someone would shoot him in the head so we can move on. Played by the same guy who played that other fool in Grey's. Rick is, of course, an English actor, and I was amused recently to see him playing some ordinary English guy in that superb movie Love Actually!

Initially very enjoyable, and I really liked Carrie and Saul, who fitted well together. But since Carrie left the CIA or whatever it was, to go into private industry, it's become ho-hum and routine.

BUT ON The other hand ......
I will, to be fair, mention one or two other candidates for top of my 'good' list:

The Blacklist
Perhaps not awfully believable at times, it's nevertheless highly enjoyable, and the stories have remained buoyant and solid. I think Reddington is superb and who can deny Elizabeth Keen's glorious part. Only one small fly in the ointment at the moment - Mr Kaplan, who was left for dead after a bullet in the head from Red, and who clearly demonstrated that she was very much still alive. I reckon she's got it in for Red, and I'm highly anticipating the moment she returns.

And last, but most very definitely NOT least:
Breaking Bad
Absolutely perfect in every respect, a wonderful experience to watch (and I have watched it thrice). Great characters, beautifully drawn, from Walt, via Skyler and Jesse, even down to the slightly unlikeable Hank and his probably slightly insane wife Marie. Honourable mention to Gus Fring ... scary!!
No. 5 : Wednesday 01 March 2017
Payment Protection Insurance - a lucrative racket for the unscrupulous

You remember Payment Protection Insurance - PPI. It was an additional premium we all paid on loans and credit cards, etc, some time ago. Ultimately it was banned, being seen as unnecessary.

It emerged that, having been banned and viewed as 'not really right', it was possible to claim it back, every penny of it.

At that time I did a little research and found, online, a simple form which you could complete and send off to the lender as a claim for the refund. It took me twenty minutes and two stamps to fill in two forms and despatch them, with the result that within just a few weeks I received a handsome 5-digit several thousand pounds.

If you listen to radio, watch TV or have a mobile you'll have had your head flooded by unscrupulous thieving back-room 'businesses' offering to do it all for you. Once, only once, I responded out of interest to a spamming text message from some bunch of thieves and discussed what they could do for me. I asked what they would charge me for this service? "We will only take 35% of whatever we get back." I believe I suggested a really good place for him to insert his 35%.

35%. Or take 20 minutes and do it yourself? I think we have described a no-brainer here.

I'm writing this article now because last night, on television, I saw an advertisement from some knuckle dragging pond-dwelling imbeciles who were offering to 'do your PPI'. To my enormous distress I noted that the person presenting this advertisement was none other than the otherwise excellent John Cleese, he of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python fame. Why would such a celebrity stoop to the sewerage depths of advertising this sort of balls? It's beyond me, and has considerably reduced John Cleese in my estimation.

Claim it back yourself!!
No. 4 : Wednesday 01 March 2017
Car advertising on the radio - can I buy a car?

As I don't work now, having given it all up a few months ago, I'm hearing more radio than before.

Advertising for cars is ugly and highly irritating, and, apparently, buying cars is not possible.

First, the advertising. A thirty-second car advertisement will consist of about 15 seconds of reasoned argument as to why this car is utterly wonderful - why not come for a test drive? But then the final 15 seconds consists of some maniacal man or woman, who seem to hold the world records for rapid speech, reading out a mass of small print, in a dreadful irritating manner. Included somewhere in this nonsense are of course those immortally meaningless words:

Terms and Conditions Apply

What? What exactly does this expression mean? I mean, for heaven's sake, you've just spent 15 seconds of rapid fire talking reading out what I thought were terms and conditions?

Part of the rapid-fire nonsense concerns finance - size of deposit, size of monthly repayments, blah blah blah. But then - listen quickly or you'll miss it - you might just catch this priceless gem, which is uttered even more rapidly:

You will not own the car

Excuse me? So you want us to pay 4 grand up front, and 200 per month for four years, but then the bloody thing isn't ours?? We have to give it back? Sometimes you'll also hear 'No ownership option'. Can't buy the thing even if you want to?

Another bit you might catch is the annual mileage limit, which may be, say, 7000 miles. So, again listening carefully, you might also hear:

Excess miles charged at 6.9 pence per mile

So if I inadvertently do 7500 miles in year two I owe you 35 quid, on top of the monthlies?

So, let's say I'm sitting on my 50 grand inheritance from Great Aunt Jemima - can I go out and buy a new car? Evidently the answer is: can I buggery.

Thank God I bought and paid for my Mercedes in cash, in full, before manufacturers all jumped onto this thieving nonsense.

No. 3 : Monday 27 February 2017
Upgrading a Mercedes audio system, to include Apple Carplay

I'm fortunate in not having to work. I gave the whole thing up in disillusionment about 10 months ago. My resignation present to myself was a fine Mercedes Benz CL500 coupe, shiny black. Although it's a reasonably elderly car (12), everything worked (except one tiny annoyance*) and its 5 litre V8 engine will get it to 60mph in under 6 seconds.

*(It has keyless stop/start etc. As long as the key is in your pocket you can open the doors, start the engine, etc - everything. However, the little button on the driver's door handle, which you press to lock the car, didn't. I've had a new handle fitted and now the key just stays in my pocket. But I digress.)

As a reasonably elderly car its sound system was rudimentary. Sure, it featured Bose speakers and amps and sounded mighty fine, but the radio itself was merely an FM radio, only able to play single CDs or (!) cassettes! The 6-CD changer in the boot took at least 10 minutes to load the discs if you switched them. The built-in satnav was white lines (roads!) on a black background. Very retro.

A little research revealed the existence of a specialist high-end car audio and security system supplier and installer just ten minutes down the road, so I took the car down there and, over nearly three days, they ripped out the old system and replaced it with an Alpine ILX-700 head unit, featuring Apple CarPlay. But not only that! The Mercedes features a car-wide fibre optic network, through which just about everything is controlled, and which also carries audio signals around. So the complete installation consisted of the head unit, three new Cerwin Vega amplifiers, and assorted adapters, and so on. Thus, three days.

Collected the car, and was delighted to see:

This isn't the place to describe CarPlay - you'll find plenty about it on the interwebs. Suffice it to say you can talk to the radio, telling it to play this track, album or playlist, and asking Apple Maps to get you to Glasgow. Siri.

But it hasn't been plain sailing. After a brief demo by the boss, I took off. Immediately I thought, hello, this is a bit tinny. And where's my bass? The Mercedes has a subwoofer, centrally situated just behind the rear seats. It was distressingly silent. Looking at the settings on the radio I spotted that someone had found it necessary to turn the bass right up as far as it would go, yet nothing. Clearly, the installation had not been properly tested.

Took the car back the next day and the guy fiddled with the amps, muttering something about that switch should have been set the other way. After half an hour of dicking about we achieved mighty, and I mean mighty toothache inducing bass. I drove off. Bloody hell, this is tinny and empty; great bass, but no substance.

I discovered and downloaded the Alpine TuneIt app, which provided greater control over how it sounded via a ten band graphic equaliser. I fooled around with this for a while and achieved something almost approaching acceptable, though this required what I consider to be extreme EQ adjustments:

Wouldn't you think that with a correctly working system any EQ adjustments would be quite minor? Not apparently so.

Then, when I went out yesterday, back to ultra-tinniness and, blow me down, no right-hand channel!

So as we stand this morning, just a few days later, we have:
-- Audio which actually sounds worse than if you played songs through the iPhone's own speakers!
-- Enormous tooth-shattering bass
-- Nothing whatsoever in the right-hand channel

Rather than phoning and attempting to explain, I emailed him last night describing all of this. Today, as of 11am, I have no reply.

I'll keep you updated.

No. 2 : Monday 27 February 2017
Code written, let's move along

This is all written in Active Server Pages (ASP), Microsoft's dynamic web page environment, supported by a MySQL database hosted on the server.

I write articles for this page with a desktop software program which lives on my Linux laptop. Once I finish writing an article I click the 'go' button and the data flies off to the database via the interwebs.

I think that at this point, as I write this article, all the code seems to be finished and working. Here's hoping you don't find any bugs!
No. 1 : Monday 27 February 2017
CallMeAlan decides to record his thoughts for all to see!

As I travel through life I often encounter situations which interest or annoy me. I decided I'd share my thoughts with you, dear reader, and hence this page, Incidental Thoughts.

I hope that occasionally you'll spot something you agree with, and perhaps get in touch by email about it (address at the top of the page). Or maybe you'll think I'm talking rubbish ... likewise, get in touch.

As well as describing certain annoyances - both in real life and maybe on TV - I'll be sharing ideas and discoveries. I recently had my Merdedes' audio system upgraded to Apple Carplay, and soon you'll find my description of the upgrading process. I will also be talking about TV and radio advertising, which seems of late to be reflecting trends I find distasteful. And so on.

I hope you find something of interest here.