Monday, June 29, 2020


as i get ready to fall asleep, my mind inevitably finds things to mull over. tonight it was "how was my weekend?"

well, my weekend was good. but not in my usual sense of "good" - in one phrase: i did nothing.

well, technically i didn't "do nothing". i slept in (both days!), we saw a movie (horror, for a change - thanks to shruti noting it's a genre we have both avoided in the 5+ years we've known each other) and countless episodes of family guy (only a handful of seasons left!). i read stuff online (didn't touch my kindle though), took vicki for a spin (got stuck in traffic, didn't expect that!), ate (mostly) healthy, baked a wee cake, did our week's grocery shopping. and slept even more.

spent a lot of time thinking, talking about non mundane stuff, getting cosy, and just generally being together... but not doing anything particularly memorable.

perhaps having a good weekend is not about what we do, but what we feel.

and i feel rested and recharged.

and good.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

learning to drive: beyond handling the car

having gotten my theory in place, and myself behind the wheel once, it was time to actually learn how to drive.

driving is not about making the car do what you want it to do, driving is about knowing what you want the car to do.
 - kris, just now

so far i had learned how to start off, stop, and follow the road (i.e. steer). beyond this, the only bit left when it comes to handling the car is to change gears. the rest of my driving lessons were basically about what to do, and when. that's the fun bit!

at this point, the skills to learn aren't that many, and the practice required is far more. which means although i am over 50 hours from getting my driving license in this story, the stuff i had to learn isn't really that much!

I had already learned to follow the road. As long as there are no lines/paths I have to cross, that's the simple bit. Just follow the road!

actually, it's not that simple. a bit of safety and anticipation first:

while driving, you keep glancing in the rearview (no need to look at the side mirrors when driving in a straight line, following the road), and make sure the vehicle behind isn't too close. if it is, lightly tap the brakes so your brake lights flash without slowing the car down. that should remind the driver behind to keep space. stay at least a car length behind the vehicle in front when moving dead slow, half a car length behind when stopping for any reason (easy guesstimate is, you should see the tyres of the vehicle ahead, and a bit of road). when moving at normal speeds on dry roads, the distance to be maintained is two seconds: look at a fixed object by the side of the road, and when the vehicle ahead passes it, start saying to yourself "only a fool breaks the two second rule" at a normal speaking pace. if you pass the object before you finish saying it, you're too close. slow down, making sure the vehicle behind you is far enough as well - if not, tap your brakes until they give room. brake lightly when letting go of the accelerator so that the vehicle behind has a visible cue that you're slowing down.

if a pedestrian has their feet on the road or even one foot off the kerb, or is standing at the kerb at a zebra crossing, you have to stop for them. if someone looks like they might cross, be prepared for them to step on the road without warning. when approaching a traffic light that's green, prepare for it to turn amber/red. preparation involves checking your rearview for vehicles too close, and signalling to them with your brake lights if they are.

if you do have to stop for pedestrians/traffic lights, you first let up on the accelerator and press the brake. when the engine gets near stalling, clutch in all the way and shift down, releasing the clutch immediately. at higher speeds you may need to shift down to 2nd/3rd, let go of the clutch while braking, and eventually clutch again before coming to a complete stop. when stopped, the brake should be held down all the way. the moment you stop, shift to neutral and start counting to 3. if stopped for more than 3 seconds, engage the parking brake, and let go of the foot brake - this is to avoid dazzling drivers behind you. if the vehicle behind is still at a distance and approaching, it may be fine to lightly tap the foot brake to alert them that you've stopped.

one the light has changed or the pedestrian has crossed (and if there is more than one lane, the pedestrian needs to cross all the way across - if there is an island in the centre, you can start when the pedestrian reaches the island safely), it's time to get going again: shift back to 1st gear, find the biting point, and check all around the way you would when moving off from parked (except for the signalling bit), starting from over your left shoulder, and ending with over your right shoulder - your eyes should be back on the road ahead before you start moving. brake off, and get rolling! don't spend too long on the clutch - in most cases a second or at most two.

The next bit is about T junctions: turning left or turning right.

in most T junctions (when approaching from the leg of the T) the leg of the T will have either: a solid line, a double dashed line, a single dashed line (all painted on the road), and optionally a stop sign (a red octagon) or a give way sign (in an inverted triangle) by the left of the junction.

a solid line or a stop sign (or both) mean you HAVE to stop before entering the junction - doesn't matter if it seems clear on approach. you stop before the solid line, taking the usual precautions - rearview etc.

a double or single dashed line means you have to give way to traffic going along the road you want to turn into. Same for the give way sign. double dashed lines mean visibility is reduced at the junction and you need to be extra cautious. either way, you have to slow down, till not more than 2nd gear, and prepare to stop (again, usual stopping precautions).

Turning left at a T junction

About 6 car lengths ahead of the junction, you start your observations: rearview (for vehicles too close), left mirror (for cyclists/motorcyclists following closely). if all looks safe, signal left, and then look over your left shoulder (all the way behind - chin over shoulder), left mirror, road ahead, road to your left, road to your right. when looking over your shoulder and in the left mirror, look out for motorcycles and cyclists. give them room, slow down, and let them pass/stop. by the time you're at the junction, the car should be at the left side of the lane (so somewhere between the parking position and the driving position), so start moving left if clear before stopping at the junction. it's fine to stop at a junction that does not say stop/have a solid line if unsure.

next, you have to make sure it's clear before you move. first, check the road you intend to turn into (ie the left of the T) - if there's no room for the car to fit there entirely, do not enter the junction - wait at the line. then, check the road from which vehicles are approaching the road you intend to turn into (ie to your right). you can only turn in if it's clear - the vehicle approaching should not have to slow down or anyhow change its path because you are turning. if in doubt, wait - however, waiting when it's clear or the vehicle is too far will get you a minor fault in your test, and two minors get you a major (which is a fail) - so it's fine when learning, but you need to get good enough at estimating distances and speeds before you give your test. the simple rule is:

"if you can walk across, you can drive across"

obviously this depends on you at least being able to judge how fast you can walk across a road, but hopefully you have more experience of walking across :D

there are a lot of other things you need to watch out for when turning into a road:

pedestrians - any pedestrian with a foot off the kerb gets right of way. once you stop, you can expect waiting pedestrians to begin to cross. even if they don't, they might cross at any time. if they start to cross, stop immediately. pedestrians could be crossing either the leg of the T or the arm of the T you're turning into - or anywhere, really. pedestrians on the road have right of way.

parked cars/other obstacles on your side of the road: they obscure your view. if from your current position, if things look clear, you need to perform the "moving off" sequence (biting point, left shoulder, all 3 mirrors, right shoulder), move a bit, look again. as soon as you see any reason to stop, stop immediately. this is called "peep and creep". if there are a lot of vehicles passing by, you might have to repeat this multiple times (stop, biting point, check all around, start each time) until you have a clear view.

parked cars/other obstacles on the opposite side of the road: they force oncoming vehicles to cross over on to your side of the road (if it's a 2 lane or narrow residential road). similarly, parked cars on the right side of your road would block cars turning into it - if a car has already started to turn, you shouldn't move until they stop, leaving enough room for your car.

basically if anything is in your path, stop. if anything is going to move into your path, stop. if you can't see if anything is in your path or going to move into your path, peep and creep. your actions should not cause anyone to slow down or do anything to avoid you.

Turning right at a T junction

Turning right is same as turning left, except that you signal a little earlier (10 car lengths in stead of 6), mirror your checks (ie obviously check right when you would be checking left for a left turn), and you have to make sure you are clear on both sides - no vehicles approaching from the right (ie the path you intend to cross) or the left (ie the path you intend to join). Again, peep and creep/stop as soon as you see something in your path. Can be quite time consuming, but that's how you do it. Also, you should be positioned toward the right of the lane (but not touching/crossing the lane marker) before entering the junction.

More turning stuff

If there is more than one lane in the junction, you need to stick to your lane. More on lanes later, but basically when turning from a single lane road onto a wider one, you're turning into the leftmost lane, unless prohibited (leftmost is a bus lane, etc).

Sometimes, when turning, if you have "peeped and creeped" far enough, oncoming vehicles may slow down or stop to let you go. this still means you have to check both sides and for pedestrians, and that your exit from the junction is clear. Some drivers may flash their lights at you as a signal to go ahead. this is not an official signal, and hence is a hint, but cannot be used in itself as an indication that it's safe to proceed.

Approaching vehicles may have their turn indicators on, and that may indicate it is safe for you to turn (eg a car approaching from the right or left and signalling left). However, you are not allowed to act upon those signals unless you have seen those signals off before they were turned on - this is to eliminate the possibility that they have forgotten the signal on. Also, you should be able to notice them slowing down as they approach the junction. If they don't seem to be slowing down, ignore the signal and wait for them to pass.

phew! that was again a lot to cover in two hours - but at the end of it, I had a bonus: my instructor asked me drive home! he's obviously a very skilled instructor, as he literally had a hand on the steering, feet on his pedals, and eyes on his mirrors all the way! He was probably doing more of the driving than I did, but I felt amazing to be able to drive home on open roads. 4 hours down, I was grinning to myself as I parked and got off!

Speaking of parking - before opening the door, you need to look all around. Especially behind. I once got "doored" while cycling to work, and I will never forget it - extremely dangerous! The "Dutch reach" is no mandatory but helps - you reach the door lock with your opposite arm, forcing you to turn around while doing so.

Friday, June 19, 2020

the camera and the washing machine

I needed a new camera, as my trusty old Canon 1000d was well past its prime. None of the cameras I checked out appealed to me. my main problem was that I had a nice lens, and I didn't want to get rid of it because I purchased an incompatible camera. and I didn't want to buy another Canon, because I didn't like it. Dad told me that Fuji cameras are compatible with Canon lenses. I was surprised, as I had never heard that before.

I decided Fuji was perfect for me. And just like, that a Fuji SLR was in my hand. it was nice, a little more compact than the Canon, jet black plastic (in contrast, the canon's once-black body was now discoloured and faded). It also had neat red accents that looked pretty classy! I liked it.

The main thing though, was to try it out. And to make sure both lenses worked together. Yes, the Fuji lens had a way I could thread the Canon lens on, like an extension! Pretty cool. I threaded the lens on, and switched on the camera. I looked through the viewfinder and the image was a little blurry, but gave a pretty good zoom. I pointed the camera at a TV, which was probably hooked up to a computer, as it had a page from Wikipedia on the screen.

I realized the blur went away when I adjusted the focal length of both lenses to their maximum. I wondered if I would need to adjust the aperture to get a good shot, but the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced I did not need to do so, as the aperture was within the camera, and the lens was just open to let light pass through all the time.

I clicked a photo. It was in automatic mode, and it turned out pretty sharp and very highly zoomed - from about 20 feet away, the TV was so highly magnified that there were barely 5 lines of text in the photo.

I clicked a few more, checking what settings the camera selected while in auto mode. I took care not to touch the focus ring. 

I then had the idea that I should check the focus setting, and try different manual focus settings. Since there were two lenses stacked, there were two focus rings. I turned off auto focus and tried adjusting one ring. the image magnified even more, but also blurred. Beyond a point, I couldn't really tell how magnified the image was, as it was a complete blur - the text and background merged into a grayish frame, almost uniformly coloured. I tried turning the focus rings on both cameras to their extreme settings (not sure if I was focusing in or out), and as I was focusing the outer lens (the Canon one), the image abruptly started getting sharper. As it got sharper and I could identify the alphabet on screen, it turned out it had zoomed a lot more in the process. The entire frame was covered by just a few words - maybe 3 or 4. But funnily enough, the image was inverted! As I reached the limit of the focus ring, the image was perfectly sharp (in fact, so sharp that I could see detailing of the serifs of each letter on the screen (and they were quite detailed!).

I was very happy with the result. This was brilliant! I wasn't expecting using two lenses to produce such excellent results. I wanted to now take the camera out somewhere and click more photos. My only worry was that attaching and detaching the second lens on top of the first might end up scratching it, since both the glass surfaces were pretty close to each other and seemed like they would come in contact while being screwed on. I decided it would be safest to always use this camera with both lenses attached in this manner. 

I slung the camera with both lenses around my neck and went downstairs. Once downstairs, it was instantly familiar as I was at my parents place (although somehow the room I was in and the TV seemed completely unfamiliar).

Downstairs, I walked out onto the street from the pedestrian exit of the apartment. Karishma was waiting in her car. She said she was glad I decided to come for a drive instead of taking my bike out as I usually did.

As I was getting into the passenger seat, I noticed there was some sort of black tub, about 8 inches deep, filled with dirty looking water with some soap suds. It also seemed to have clothes in it, presumably Karishma's. Karishma told me to go ahead and sit, and showed me where I could place my feet. The tub was a washing machine, in the passenger side of her car, under the dash! And it seemed to be operating as we spoke as well!

I squeezed in, and as she was about to start driving, I asked her if soapy water would splash on me. She said it might.

I told her I didn't quite fancy getting dirty soapy water on myself, and decided to sit in the rear seat instead. 

I opened the door, and stretched my legs to get out without getting my feet into the washing machine. 

And that's when I woke up. 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

learning to drive in the UK: behind the wheel

So, back to my series: theory aside, it was time to get behind the wheel.

I had been cautioned that driving lessons could be expensive, but there were also a couple of friends who went with cheaper instructors and ended up failing their driving tests. I decided to go with reviews instead of banking on my personal network, and called the best rated guys in my area. While that worked out well for me, and I don't know of what groundwork they do regarding quality control etc, it was interesting to note that they operated more like a franchise - my instructor was simply passed on my contact details and handled everything else himself.

We started off by an assessment of my driving skills: he picked me up from home, drove till an isolated spot in a residential area nearby, and got me in the driver's seat.

The first thing you do is called the "cockpit drill"

The first thing he asked me to do was adjust my seat. The basic thing is that you should sit back all the way in the seat, back to the rest, and be able to hold the steering wheel comfortably, with arms neither cramped nor fully extended, and left foot should be able to push the clutch pedal all the way in. The seat position determines your feet, while the incline determines how you hold the wheel. This is the most basic requirement, but getting it perfectly comfortable is something I actually didn't get right consistently for a while - more on that later. Once in place, the seat-belt goes on (obviously).

The next step was adjusting the rearview mirror. The tip is to get it to a point where you can see the corners of both rear side pillars (so it's symmetrically aimed backward), and can see the entire rear windscreen, so a bit of edge from the top and bottom, or as close to that as possible.

The wing mirrors don't need adjusting as long as they're set up right, so I never had to deal with them, but it's important to check they're not folded in and offer a full view starting from the sides of the vehicle, and aimed horizontally (so not tilted upwards or downwards).

Cockpit drill done, the first time, it's important to find your spot on the road. To aid getting used to positioning, he placed a number of coloured dots on the dash, just below the windscreen. The car was parked about a foot away from the kerb, and he asked me to make note of which dot lined with my view of the kerb. I was to remember that as my reference when parking.

Interesting thing about the dots: We had them placed at various different parts of the car, and I had to use them as references for a lot of things. Things are obviously different when in your own car, but I think the precision of those dots is more important when learning, and to pass the test without any flaws (some of these things are an instant fail!)

Now comes the exciting bit: getting moving (also known as moving off). Turn the key in the ignition, once the engine is on, you're ready to go.

First off, the controls, for someone who doesn't know them (I did): the foot pedals are from left to right, clutch, brake, accelerator. The signals are the stalk under the steering wheel, and you push downward to signal left, upward to signal right, and bring back to the centre to cancel. Unless being used to change gears or signal, the left hand never leaves the wheel (and even then, the right hand never does). Hands should be in the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock position, and should never cross over to the other side, or cross each other.

The first step in moving off is finding the "biting point" - push the clutch in all the way, get the gear into first (stick to the left and forward, pushing firmly left until it won't go any more, and then forward until it won't any more, then let go of the gear stick, letting it get back into its resting centre position). Then gradually start letting go of the clutch until the bonnet rises slightly. In the tiny car I was learning in (a Nissan Micra), I could also feel noticeable vibrations once the engine was beginning to engage - but as I learned later, that's not always the case, and finding the biting point probably becomes second nature with practice. The bonnet needs to rise perceptibly, because if you begin to feel the vibrations but the bonnet doesn't rise, it's probably not engaged enough to hold the car on a slope, and that's going to end in disaster.

The next step is making sure it's safe to move off: start from looking over your left shoulder (your chin should align with your shoulder, something I found quite awkward, but I see the importance of it now), then the left mirror, then the centre mirror, the road ahead, the right mirror, and then out from the right window, all the way till you're looking backward over your right shoulder, chin over shoulder. You're looking for anything that is or could be moving into your path. Vehicles coming from behind at any speed, pedestrians walking by, pedestrians who might cross, oncoming vehicles (especially if you're moving out on a narrow road or from behind a parked car or another obstacle).

He had me practice just looking around multiple times, which felt strange holding the clutch at biting point, but I guess it developed some sort of muscle memory as well).

At any point, if there is any reason to not move off, you wait (optionally pushing the clutch in - a chance to practice finding the biting point again!) and start again from looking behind over your left shoulder.

Once good with the drill of looking around, the next step is to look and signal in time - while looking from left to right, once looking through the right mirror, and if it's all clear, push the signal stick up to turn on the right indicator as you look over your right shoulder. If you see something in your right blind spot, you cancel the signal and start again. If not, you move your hand down to the parking brake lever, push the button on its end, pull it up a bit (that;s when the button will go in), and then push it down all the way. It's better to move your fingers out of the underside of the lever as it goes down, or you may not end up pushing it all the way down (the parking brake alarm will start beeping in that case). Done right, the car should immediately start moving. Turn the steering to the right (up to half turn, definitely not more) and straighten it immediately once in the middle of the lane. While straightening, it's easy to let your fingers push the signal stalk downward to cancel the turn signal. Simultaneously, let go of the clutch completely (no need to throttle when learning to move off on flat ground). And... we're driving!

Once we started moving, he guided me to the point where we were in the middle of our lane, and asked me to make note of which dot aligned with the kerb at that point - that was my reference when driving. For the lane marker, I had to mentally note how far off the headlight seemed from the lane markers when the left dot was aligned, so I had a reference on both sides. The lane marker wasn't going to be too accurate, but that's not as big a deal as getting the left alignment I guess. To illustrate:

positioning within your lane

Finally, the second most important thing (or possibly the most) - stopping!

To stop, you first check the road ahead, rearview, and then the left mirror, if it's clear (i.e. no vehicle approaching from behind, cyclist or motorcyclist trying to cut from the left, etc), signal left as you look over your left shoulder, and start to brake while moving left towards the edge of the road. Do not brake before signalling left, and once moving in, keep an eye on the "parking dot" to make sure you don't get too close. Push the clutch in (and push it all the way in) only once the car is about to stop, and hold the brake firmly. Cancel the left signal, put the gear into neutral, engage the parking brake (again button in before you can move it, and pull it up as far as it will go before letting go of the button). Once the parking brake is engaged, you can take your foot off the brake pedal, although hands should remain on the wheel unless doing something that requires you not to.

We also practiced using the wheel to turn left (it was a road that curved left, almost like a rectangle, so plenty of left turns). The important bit about turning was making sure the dot marking the left edge (green dot in the image above) stays on the kerb. Also, hands slide on the wheel one at a time, while the other one holds the wheel and pushes in the desired direction. Hands only move between 8 and 12 o clock for the left hand, and 4 and 12 o clock for the right hand. We spent a lot of time practicing this, and he told me I can even practice at home with a dinner plate - smoothly moving one hand into position while pushing/pulling with the other, then switching to pushing/pulling with the first hand while moving the other into position.

Phew, that was one long first day of driving! Two hours, to be precise. At the end, I was dog tired, quite stiff (I was pretty tense, somehow!) and waiting for my couch :D

Sunday, June 07, 2020

learning to drive in the UK

It's been about a year since I first got behind the wheel of a car as a learner driver, and soon it will be a year since I've passed my test! However, since I don't get to practice much, I figured I could do the next best thing: blog the process, so that I can have a revision of sorts.

Part of learning to drive also involved asking a few friends for advice and some valuable tips from my instructor. I hope blogging them can help others in a similar situation.

So, to get started: you need a learner's driving license. The process might be different between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but the basic guidelines are the same: you need to apply by filling a form, and supplying documentation of proof of identity and residence. I used my residence permit as proof of identity and a credit card bill as proof of residence. And wait till it arrives in the post.

Next up: you have to eventually prepare for and pass your theory test. While it's not mandatory to pass it before you get behind the wheel as a learner driver, having a good feel of the rules, road signs, recommendations, etc will obviously make things easier on the road. Also, since I love to read, this made the wait for my learner's license more bearable.

I prepared in what would probably be considered the wrong order: I stated off with "how to drive" by Ben Collins (the guy who, as the cover of the book wold remind you, used to be "the Stig" on Top Gear) - while his book was good, informative and entertaining, it was aimed at teaching people who knew the rules, how to be a "good" driver - and brought home the point that the two things are quite different. Next up: The DVSA's official highway code. Now this (e)book isn't new to me (I had read it online in 2017 when I was preparing for my 1500-mile motorcycle trip up and down the country, back when I could use my Indian license), but I didn't realize until some way into the print version of the book, that it was simply terrible: all the facts were in there, but it was incredibly badly structured. In fact, most of the stuff that would get you through the test was in the appendices! Either way, i read it from front to back (or the other way around). But I wasn't confident I would pass (and mock tests online suggested I wasn't doing great either). And there was the bit about hazard perception as well - there were a couple of free clips I could try online, but I was doing terribly at them, and the instructions were no good!

I then purchased a DVD: Driving Test Success Theory. I don't know what got me to this one (probably cheap + well rated). This was about the time I was starting my practical lessons, and my instructor said it didn't really matter as they're all about as good.

The application on the DVD had one page about passing the theory test. It was brilliant. It summarized in about 10 or 20 screens of text, what none of these books I had enthusiastically read could do: told me exactly what are the principles behind all the rules.

It also had question banks of all the possible questions that could be asked, but honestly, the UX sucked when it came to mock tests, so I eventually gave up on the DVD and did these online. Definitely much better UX there!

The hazard perception bit was tricky though. I literally took the mock and practice tests on the DVD until my eyes were sore. Like 60+ hours of them. The only way I could pass was by watching clips multiple times until I remembered from memory when the hazard appears. I was super scared and tense. Finally, I realized the problem: I was using my TV (hooked up to the laptop) as a screen, and the video resolution was not good enough, and I was too far from the screen to see minute details of hazards. In fact, I sometimes completely missed hazards thanks to my setup! Solution was to not use a TV but a regular monitor, and sit at the usual distance one would from a computer. After that, I was pretty good at those as well. One handy tip my driving instructor gave me, was to always click twice. Once when you think a hazard may occur, and one when you're sure it's a hazard. Also, the definition of a hazard is "anything that might require you to react to it" - so whether it's by slowing down, changing lanes, etc. Also, I found that two clicks is not adequate, as sometimes my first click was before the software registers the start of the hazard window, and the second click barely got me any points. So I would click first when I had a clue that a hazard could happen, second when I have a good sign a hazard will happen, and third when I can actually see the hazard unfolding before me.

I have read multiple times online that you get disqualified for a question if you're clicking repeatedly, and I know someone who actually failed because he was disqualified for too many questions, but I found the three-clicks rule worked well for me.

Also, when it came to the actual test in the test centre, the videos are not recorded but computer generated - I found movements and hazards in those videos to be quite exaggerated and hard to miss - definitely easier than the DVD's practice videos!

Most of my friends passed their theory test with just the practice questions, but I don't recommend that because honestly, driving is a matter of life and death. Practicing enough questions might get you good enough to pass, but I feel that a good, safe driver should have ALL aspects of their theory right in their head, never mind if you don't get a 100% in the actual test.

Back to my experience: I passed my theory test. Twice. Twice, because you have to retake the theory test for the motorcycle license as well (even though the content is virtually identical - few motorcycle maintenance related questions in addition to everything in the car test). I booked my tests for consecutive days, because I wanted to get them over with. I don't remember my hazard perception scores, but I literally aced the multiple choice questions, so there!

Also, once you pass your theory test, you have two years to pass your practical test (or you have to reteake the theory test), so at that point, the clock starts ticking!

Next up: let's get behind the wheel :D

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