November and December 2018


Some years ago, I went to Italy. I saw some nice sculptures, and some tremendous frescoes – hey, why wait for plaster to dry before painting on it? – but what really stuck with me was some paper towels.

You must understand that paper towels are often emblazoned with patterns. Toilet paper is often embossed – with little pictures of dogs, for example, which is quite a strange thing to wipe one’s bum with, isn’t it? – and so are paper towels (also known as “kitchen paper”), sometimes with the added use of ink.

The Italian paper towels that really stuck with me were decorated with pictures of elephants holding watering cans.

I’m uncertain about a couple of things: whether the elephants were holding the watering cans with their trunks or their forelegs, and whether they were decorating the actual paper towels or the plastic packaging. As you might expect, I’ve done some research:

But there’s no evidence of either elephant mascot having brandished a watering can. And if it’s been scrubbed from the web, then I’m not surprised, because what message is an elephant using a watering can supposed to send out?

Elephants are renowned for their trunks, proboscises that can suck up water – a bit like what a paper towel can – and squirt it out – a bit like what a watering can can. Showing an elephant using a watering can, as if human-made technology is somehow superior to an elephant’s trunk, seems like some kind of imperialism. 1 2

Which makes me think of flypaper. Now, it’s taken me so long to finish writing this that the unpopular winged insects have faded into obscurity for the winter. But earlier, they would swarm all over any unattended biscotti, strudel, etc at a moment’s notice, so catching them seemed like the right thing to do. Nature has some fine ways of catching flies: there are the Venus flytrap and other carnivorous plants, and there are spiders’ webs. But we think we have to improve on that by covering strips of paper with invidiously sticky glue, and dangling them from the ceiling.

As you might expect, I’ve done some research, and found that the satirist Craig Brown wrote a frivolous piece for his column in the wretched Daily Mail: “Why I get a real buzz out of fly-paper”. Brown observes that flypaper is an effective means of stopping flies defecating on your custard slice, strawberry tart, etc, but that it’s unfashionable compared to alternatives such as electric flyswatters.

Sure enough, most shops don’t sell flypaper. My local convenience store, which has room for five kinds of hummus, sells fly spray but not flypaper. Like the perverse selection of pasta shapes – sometimes the only option is fusilli, the worst pasta shape – the availability of fly spray baffles me, because I don’t understand the appeal of spraying poison into the air. Brown writes:

Fly-sprays are always an option, of course, though whenever I use them they trap me in their fall-out: I look up towards the ceiling to check how many flies are spiralling to their deaths, and a great nuclear cloud of lavender-scented mist descends on my eyes, to a chorus of malicious chuckles from all the surviving flies.

Eventually, I found a retailer that retailed flypaper, and noticed that the most prominent language on the box was not English but German:

We’re so used to having special anglophone packaging, with foreign languages confined to small writing on the back – but apparently the English-speaking market for flypaper is too small. Meanwhile, German-speaking people seem to have more correct tastes in fly-extinction merchandise. (The Wikipedia article about fliegenfänger is a bit more detailed than the flypaper one.) Isn’t it interesting how different countries are different? Another difference being the use of elephant mascots by the paper towel industry.

Anyway, one of the readers’ comments on Brown’s article reads:

What a dull non story. 5 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.

  1. Unless the elephant has a disability, and the watering can is an assistive technology that lets it enjoy the same activities as able-trunked elephants. In which case we should celebrate this large mammal cyborg. 

  2. The depiction of the elephant standing on its hind legs, holding tools with its front foot, is also disquieting. A true elephant would walk on all four legs, and use his or her trunk to hold stuff. But the illustrators of the paper towel show it behaving like a human, as if it’s better and aspirational – two legs good, four legs bad. 

October 2018

September 2018

August 2018

July 2018

June 2018

May 2018

Fixing a hole

I ride a bicycle, to the extent that it’s probably “enthusiastically”. Among other things, this must mean I can make pronouncements about bicycling equipment. Great.

Getting a puncture is annoying, isn’t it? My usual commute is particularly bad for thorns and shards of stone – oh, woe unto me. But I suppose repairing a puncture – adhering a little patch of rubber to the punctured inner tube, fixing a hole where the air was getting out – is satisfying.

Relentless innovators haven’t relented in innovating in the field of puncture repair. A recent innovation is “quick” sticky patches which obviate the supposed drudgery of using a tube of vulcanising rubber solution. Some hucksters call these patches “glueless”, which is patently poppycock as there’s still glue involved – it’s just already on the patches.

At some point, I bought just such a kit, offered by Meqix of Taiwan. It’s very fancy – some patches, some minimalist magnetic tyre levers, and some other items all fit neatly inside a sleek metal case. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s like if Jonathan Ive designed a puncture repair kit, but really it reminds me of one of Asus’s high-end laptops. It even comes with the world’s smallest zester, for … making your tyres citrusy? (Well, actually, it’s for preparing the surface of the inner tube for the patch – but sandpaper, also provided, is a better tool for doing that.)

It’s fine. I still have, and use, the levers – it’s nice that they’re magnetic, even though I suspect the magnetism of destroying at least one debit card. But the patches. They don’t help with the most dreaded part of repairing a puncture – levering the tyre off the wheel, and finding the hole. They don’t adhere to the inner tube very well. Traditional bring-you-own-glue patches do a better job, and give more satisfaction.

Which puncture repair patches do I like? Years ago, I had some dispiriting puncture repair experiences, with some low-quality backstreet rubber patches. I would fix a puncture, and then air would start leaking out from beneath the patch. Was I doing it wrong? Was I a bad person? Then I chanced upon some Rema Tip Top patches, and everything changed. It turns out that product review website The Wirecutter agrees, which is a nice affirmation:

After splitting very tiny hairs over 36 hours of testing, our official endorsement goes to the Rema Tip Top TT-02 patches, which do everything the competition does, but better. All of these patches have beveled edges; the beveling on the Rema is thinner and finer than what you’ll find elsewhere. All of the patches flex with the tube; the Rema flexes better. The edge of the patch is also ruffled, which makes the task of peeling up the patch from the glue more difficult because there’s more edge surface area to bond—that’s a good thing. You can save a couple of bucks by going with a generic brand, but I wouldn’t. There’s nothing more annoying than a failed patch at an inopportune moment.

So we have a good way to repair punctures, but what would be even better? No punctures at all. Can you tell where this is going? To be continued.

Bus Times

It started when I was a graduand. Needing something to fill the gaps between dark nights of the soul and job applications, I did what anyone would do and made something with open data.

Great Britain publishes some impressively comprehensive public transport data. It’s not perfect – the TransXChange format is the last word in steaming architectural astronautery – but it’s vastly better than nothing.1 So I made what I called, although for some months there were no actual times – an oversight for which I deservedly received short shrift. is a profound act of trolling. Immense detail on many bus services, street view, maps… but no times.

— David H 🐚 Rezzed 🔜 A Maze (@nachimir) 6 December 2015

Gradually, emails calling me a worthless, time-wasting prick encouraged me to develop new features, and I must say abusive email–driven development is as fine a methodology as any.

People kept finding and using the thing. In a time of brittle single-page web apps (like the one whose address is printed on every bus stop in the land), building an old-fashioned progressively enhanced website – everything having its own cool URL, accessible to search engine crawlers and mobile telephones – is a revolutionary act. And horrible programmatic advertising3 can actually be lucrative – well, it’s much more money than I deserve.

At some point, I added a contact form. And oh, in came the emails: I was no longer a worthless, time-wasting prick, but apparently I was the person to ask about lost property and to answer complaints about bus services. I’ve since added some words explaining that I’m not, and contact details for most bus operating companies, but nobody reads anything on the web.

And so here I am. Almost three years later, it’s a fine specimen of what insufferable jerks call a “lifestyle business”, a “passive income”, ugh, although I inexplicably maintain a time-zombie full-time corporate stooge job as well. March was the most successful month ever, as a cold wave disrupted transport and I found myself complicit in “disaster capitalism”.

What next? Development will continue. The entire history of everything is needlessly preseved on GitHub (here’s a link to the first commits).

  1. Here’s a good explanation of why it matters, and how impressive it is. 

  2. I bought – which used to house a similar cool independent website – at the end of last year, from some sort of domain name squatter. I had international expansion on my greedy mind. There was a sobering dip in traffic when I moved from to .org – it’s a modern parable – but things have picked back up now. 

  3. I fear that a lot of the money comes from advertising contemptible adware, “potentially unwanted programs”. Rome2rio piously blocked MyTransitGuide – an eminent PUP, bizarrely published by a company with Chelsea Clinton on its board – but there must be dozens of different ones, and Google’s tools for blocking them are inadequate. So I spinelessly take the money.