Getting Silly: The Virus Doomsday Flashlight

What do you do when you have a lot of time on your hands, a whole case of “Altoid” style metal boxes for a project that never came to fruition, and a bags full of surplus electronics parts? If you’re me, you end up with stuff like this:

I used “doomsday” because I can’t spell apocolypse, appocololips, apocalypse by the way. Is this “project” silly? You bet. Don’t care. We all need to be silly once in a while.

So I was sitting around this morning staring at all this stuff on the shelves down here in my version of a mad scientist’s laboratory (I’m not really mad, only slightly eccentric.) wondering what I could do that would A) kill time because dear lord I was getting bored (so, sooo bored) after being in self imposed exile for weeks, B) be really, really cheap, C) be fairly easy to do because even though I was bored, I’m also lazy, and D) use up some of the junk I have laying around like that bag full of weird little switches. So there I was with a bunch of small metal boxes, a bunch of LEDs, a bunch of switches that aren’t good for much of anything, at least not for anything I normally tinker with, and I started thinking – ooo, it’s lunch time, let’s go eat.

But after lunch I thought hey, there is no such thing as having too many flashlights, is there? I mean whenever you need a flashlight either you can’t find one, or the batteries are dead, or someone took out the batteries to stuff in the remote for the TV or to power a robot or weather station or something. Even better, maybe MrsGF might stop wondering if she needs to call someone about my “problem” with accumulating various parts and gadgets and similar stuff if I actually use some of this stuff to crank out something remotely useful.

(Sidenote: LEDs are a lot of fun to play with, and cheap to boot. A few LEDs, some resistors, a 555 timer, a few transistors, maybe a microcontroller, and you too can have a lot of fun building really cool and utterly useless little gadgets)

So first I need a 3V power supply of some kind because the LEDs I got want to be fed about 3 volts. AA batteries work well for this. (So would AAA batteries, BTW) Two AA batteries together will put out 3V so… Oh, I didn’t have a battery holder thingie. Ah, well, no problem there. Just solder the suckers together. Solder the negative pole of one battery to the positive of the other with a hunk of wire, solder jumper wires on, and away we go. Instant battery pack.

Is this safe? Um, maybe? Probably not? Is it easy? Not really. It’s a pain in the neck. Solder doesn’t want to stick to those suckers. (Hint: scuff the surface of the battery with fine sandpaper. Seems to help the solder adhere.) But this is a doomsday flashlight, remember? You don’t need neat and tidy and professional looking, you just need something that works. Jury rigging is encouraged.

Speaking of jury rigging…

Solder splashes are an optional accessory. The leads are just twisted together here, but I did eventually solder everything together before I packed it into the box. You really don’t even need to solder anything. Just securely twisting the leads and wires together and wrapping everything in tape would be good enough.

What about actually making some light? That’s the easy part, really. A couple of resistors for current limiting, a couple of LEDs, and away we go.

Now for mounting the LEDs in that case. How the heck do we do that? I don’t have any of those fancy mounts… Well, we’ll just drill some holes just barely big enough to shove the LED through and add lots and lots of glue.

Now, to sort through this lot to find a switch that might work…

The problem when you buy bulk lots of stuff labeled “100 Misc. Switches, $1.99” is that the chances of you getting anything actually useable out of that lot is pretty slim. Still, we work with what we got. All of those are momentary contact switches that stay turned on only as long as pressure is applied to them, and they aren’t really suited for what I want. Unless… Ooo, I know! Use the lid of the case as the switch. Close the lid it puts pressure on the switch and turns it on. Open the lid and it turns off.

And this is what I ended up with. LEDs glued into holes drilled in the end of the case. Lots of plastic tape to insulate the wires. The batteries wrapped in tape and held in with a self adhesive velcro pad, and the switch glued to the top of the battery conveniently makes it exactly the right height to turn on when the lid is closed. Damn, that was lucky there because otherwise I had no idea how I was going to mount that switch. Ooo, can you say serendipity?

And, damn, it actually works??? Yeah, it does. Closing the lid puts enough pressure on the switch to turn it on. Open the lid and it turns off. And puts out a surprisingly large amount of light, too. Damn, I actually made something useful? Wow!

It also uses very, very little power. I put it on the meter and it draws about 0.005 amps. A set of AA batteries will probably keep this thing going 24/7 for a couple of weeks. Which is good because changing the batteries in this thing would be a royal pain in the neck, them being soldered in like that.

Total cost on this, excluding the batteries, is maybe a buck at the most? Most of this stuff like the LEDs and the switches were bought in large lots as “surplus” in a moment of weakness when I was scrounging around on-line. (“Ooo, that’s a real deal! I’m sure I’ll need 1,000 miscellaneous LEDs in the future”) It took maybe half an hour to put it all together, and it only took that long because I’m easily distracted. And because it took me 10 minutes to find a roll of electrical tape.

World’s First Floating Dairy = Silliest Thing Ever?

Earning their sea legs, 32 cows have made agricultural history after boarding the world’s first floating dairy farm located in the Netherlands. Source: Cows Set Sail at World’s First Floating Dairy | Dairy Herd Management

I had to read this article twice before I realized that it wasn’t a belated April Fool joke and that they were serious about this. Yes, they’ve really built a kind of dairy farm on a barge floating in a harbor. Now I’ve tried to find out more information about this but all I’ve been able to find have been more PR fluff pieces, with little or no actual facts. The Beladon website link in the original story has been “in maintenance mode” for several days now (just what are they maintaining?) but there is a link to a site about the farm itself. Sort of. If you like more PR speak, that is. (You’ll have to use Google Translate) And again, there are no actual facts, just lots and lots of enviro-babble and grand statements and “oh my, aren’t we wonderful!” silliness, and things like that tend to make me a bit skeptical.

I also noted that there is no mention of exactly what this white elephant cost them to build in any of the stories I found. It took a bit of digging to find that out and again, as with everything else about this, everything was more than a little vague. The only numbers I found were from about three years ago when they first proposed this project. They claimed at that time it would cost about $3 million to build this thing. $3 million… To house just 32 cows. (And they claim that traditional farming is wasteful???) And I’d be willing to bet that when all of the bills are added up, this was considerably more than that.

But then nothing about this project makes sense if you look at it closely. They claim that we need different methods of farming going into the future, that raising cattle is extremely wasteful in terms of land use, has pollution problems, etc. And they certainly are right about all of that. But this project doesn’t solve any of those problems.

They claim that moving the cows offshore onto a barge eliminates the need for large spaces for cattle to be raised. But the biggest use of land when it comes to cattle isn’t housing the cattle, it’s growing food for them. Millions of acres of cropland is used just to raise grain, soybeans and hay to feed cattle. The cows themselves are generally housed in feedlots or housing units that actually take up very little acerage. Simply moving the cows off the ground onto a barge doesn’t do anything to eliminate the need to grow food for them.

Now they claim that they’re going to grow 20% of the cattle feed right there in a sort of greenhouse on the top level using LED grow lights, and, well, good for them, but it ain’t going to happen. Do they even know how much cows eat? The average milking dairy cow eats about 100 pounds of feed per day. That means they need about 3,200 pounds of feed a day for their small herd. So their little green house will have to produce 640 pounds of high quality cattle feed per day. Ain’t gonna happen, as I said. But even if they did, that means they still need to come up with 80% of the cows’ diet from other sources, and they claim that’s going to come from human food waste. And there is a huge problem with that. Human food waste doesn’t make very good cattle feed.

Cows evolved to eat mostly grass with a bit of grass seed (i.e. grain) mixed in. And not much else. Modern cattle rations include soybeans and corn and other grains for added protein, mineral supplements and a lot of other stuff that isn’t part of a cow’s normal diet, but is added to improve milk production.

Now I don’t know about you, but here at the house we don’t eat a hell of a lot of grass, and what grain we do eat is almost all in the form of various baked goods like bread. Human food waste is made up mostly of things like spoiled fruit and vegetables, spoiled or outdated, highly processed baked goods, bits of fat, gristle and meat, and all of it thoroughly laced with salt, fats from a variety of sources, and lots and lots of preservatives, “flavor enhancers”, texture modifiers and other things that, while edible, aren’t really, well, food. Not for people and certainly not for cows.

Granted, there are some human foods cattle can eat, but that material is going to have to be carefully selected (requiring labor and energy), is going to have to be processed (more energy and labor), is going to have to be tested (more energy and labor), other feed products are going to have to be added to make sure the cattle are getting a diet that meets their nutritional needs (still more energy, labor and added feed costs), and… Well, when you add in the labor, the energy, the supplements, etc., then add in the cost of running that LED lighted green house that’s supposed to produce 20% of the cows’ diet, this is going to be the most expensive cow diet of all time.

Then there are other questions I’d like answered, like where is the energy going to come from to operate this thing and what is that going to cost? This is going to be very energy intensive, far more so than a normal cattle housing operation. Robotic milkers, the LED lighted greenhouse, the sophisticated sewage treatment system on the lower level, heating, cooling, ventilation… This operation is going to suck up a lot of energy.

So, how much milk are they going to get out of this system so they can pay their bills? They claim they’ll get about 200 gallons a day out of those 32 cows, and while that sounds like a lot, it really isn’t. Running calculations are a bit tedious because the dairy industry doesn’t generally deal with gallons of milk, at least at the farm level. Farmers are paid by the pound, not the gallon. Milk weighs about 8.6 pounds per gallon, so 200 gallons would be about 1,700 pounds, and they have 32 cows so that would mean production of about 53 pounds of milk per cow per day, while the average dairy cow in Wisconsin produces about 64+ pounds per day on average and our best producing cows put out considerably more than that. So when you look at the cost per pound of milk, this operation is going to be ridiculously expensive to operate and extremely inefficient in terms of milk production.

And then why in the world float the whole thing on a barge in a harbor? How are they going to deal with storms, waves, flooding, connecting pipelines, electric cables, communications cables, etc. back to the mainland? All that is going to require special infrastructure that is going to have to be built from scratch and will be very expensive.

Now I’m all for experimentation and innovation. But there is nothing innovative going on here. Every single technology and technique that they’re touting here has already been tried and is already, if it’s useful, being used. Robotic milking? Already being done and spreading rapidly. Using human food waste? Already being done where financially feasible. Treating cattle waste? Already being done. LED growing lights? Been around for ages. There is literally nothing new here. All of the technologies and techniques being used here are already being used, or have been tried and discarded because they weren’t practical or economical, or, like putting cattle on a barge, are so fraught with problems and impractical on the face of it that no one would bother even trying.

Back in the Victorian era there was a fad where wealthy people would build ornate, ridiculous and rather silly structures on their estates for no other reason than they could. These structures were often technically advanced, attractive, even artistic. But ultimately they were useless for any practical purpose. These structures started to be called a “folly”. That’s what this is. A modern version of the folly. Interesting but ultimately useless and utterly impractical.

How To Draw A Cat (Recycled from old Tumblr account)

how to draw cat.png

I thought I’d put this one up here at the same time I posted it on the old Tumblr account but I can’t seem to find it here. So here you go, how to draw your very own cat.

I have no idea what was going through my head when I drew this. Sometimes weird stuff just pops up in my brain.

Zenn and the art of electric cars

No, I didn’t misspell “zenn” up there. This has nothing to do with buddhism, but instead the Zenn is actually an electric car. This thing, to be specific…

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“Zenn” stands for “zero emissions no noise” and it was an attempt by a French company to produce an all electric car. And Eldest Son (ES) has one of these — these things.

It’s not really a car, it seems. Technically it’s an LSV, “Low Speed Vehicle”, a classification of vehicle that was created by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration because they were bored or had too much to drink at lunch or something, because while LSV’s are allowed on the street, they are exempt from most of the safety standards real automobiles and trucks have to follow and these things are about as safe on the street as, oh, a tin foil and tar paper shack is in a tornado.

LSVs are restricted to a top speed of 25 mph, and can only legally travel on streets where the speed limit is 30 mph or slower. (I’m told there is a way to hack the computer on this thing to boost it’s speed up to a mind numbing 32 mph! Ooo!)

Now electric cars are getting a lot of press these days, things like the hybrids, all electrics like the sporty, high tech Tesla, the Leaf, etc. And they are fine vehicles, some of them are even outstanding vehicles.

The Zenn is not an outstanding vehicle. The body and chassis was made in France, shipped to Canada where, with the help of trained beavers, they shoveled a 30 hp electric motor into the thing. Well, okay, so they probably didn’t use trained beavers. But I do suspect moose were involved because Canadians enjoy messing with us down here.

The Zenn had a whopping 30 hp engine, it’s top speed was limited to 25 mph. You could squeeze 2 adults into it with some groceries. It ran on sealed lead acid batteries that gave a range of about 30 miles or so, less if you had a passenger or did something silly like, oh, turning on the lights or radio. Much much less if you did something even more silly like turn on the heater or air conditioning. (Note: the owner’s manual states that the car’s heater is not intended to actually, well, heat anything. It’s there only to defrost the windows.)

Still, for it’s intended purpose, which was basically driving five or eight miles to your job or running to the local grocery store to get your organic free range humanely harvested almond milk for your morning bowl of kelp flakes, it would work.

But there were a lot of problems with the Zenn. The biggest of which is that it was, well, pretty much crap.

I drove this thing yesterday, and after I stopped laughing because I couldn’t believe they actually allowed this thing on the road, I realized that it is a bloody horrible car, and the only thing that surprised me about it was that it took nine years for the company to go out of business.

The ride is — well, awful. Every expansion joint, every dip, every stone, every defect in the pavement, every pile of squirrel poo, is transmitted directly from the rock hard tires and even harder suspension directly to the base of your spine. It handles just like a golf cart, with uncertain steering, odd twitches and peculiar vibrations adding to the excitement of the experience.

And that whole “no noise” thing they talk about? Uh, well, no. Okay, standing on the sidewalk watching it go by you don’t hear anything. That’s because they’ve funneled all of the noise into the interior of the car. My Corvette with the racing exhaust and headers and the stereo cranked up is quieter inside than this thing.

Then there’s the brakes. As in what brakes… It has a regenerative braking system, they claim. When you step on the brake, it goes into regenerative mode, supposedly taking the energy of your forward momentum and magically turning it back into electricity that gets dumped into the battery and slowing you down. So you put your foot on the brake and — nothing happens. At all. Rapidly going into panic mode, you push harder, and harder and harder, and still nothing happens. Until finally you put your foot all the way to the floor and the real brakes kick in and the car comes to an abrupt halt and you find out why they put seat belts in it, to keep you from going through the windshield when you stop.

You laugh a lot when you drive this thing. You have to because it keeps you from screaming in terror.

Let’s look at some of the other high points of this car.

It’s plastic. All of it. Plastic body, plastic, well, everything. Even the glass isn’t really glass, it’s plastic. The windshield is glass, but the side windows and rear windows are plastic, and not very good plastic, either.

As noted above, the heater doesn’t actually heat. It’s just there to defrost the windows. And the air conditioner, well, it sort of works? Kinda? Maybe? If you’re willing to put up with your range dropping by at least half.

Charge time isn’t utterly horrible. They claim it will recharge the batteries to 80% in about 4 hours, with a full charge taking 8 hours.

Oh, they would have sold you a fast charger that would give you a full charge in an hour.

For $9,000.

Yeah, $9,000 for a battery charger…

So, you ask, what did they sell this thing for? Five, six grand, maybe?

Uh, no. Try (cough cough) $18,000.

With the optional quick charger, this sucker would set you back $27,000. For a car with a top speed of 25 mph and a range of 30 miles, which is ridiculously uncomfortable to ride in, terrifying to drive, and which would crumple like a piece of paper if it were even bumped by a real road vehicle because it meets virtually zero highway safety standards.

Gee, I wonder why the company shut down…

ES picked this thing up for next to nothing. It needed new batteries, work on the electronics and other things. I figure he’s got about $2,000 invested in this vehicle so it isn’t like he’s stuck a fortune into it, and he’s using it every day. He commutes to work with it every day. And I have to admit that it’s cheap. He’s crunched some numbers and figures that as far as energy usage is concerned, he’d have to have a car that got at least 140 mpg to match the cost of the energy he uses with the Zenn.

And there’s another benefit as well. The sheer terror of driving this thing in traffic is better for waking you up than an espresso I.V.

Stupidity Roundup

Let’s face it, a lot of the things we do are stupid. They just are. There is no rational reason for some of them, a lot of good reasons why we shouldn’t do them, but we do them anyway. So let’s take a look at some of the stupid things we do.

And yes, before you ask, I’m bored again otherwise I wouldn’t have come up with such a ridiculous topic

Daylight Savings Time

It’s that time of year again when we shove the clocks ahead an hour in the spring. The insanity that is daylight savings time has been with us for many decades now, and while there might have been some valid reason for it back in the 1940s when we were in the middle of a world war, any rational reason to hang on to this ridiculous practice, if there ever was one, ended around the same time WWII did. Bloomberg has a neat little article about the fact that daylight savings time doesn’t help anyone and actually harms a lot of people so if you want to read it click here for the link thingie.

The argument that it somehow saves energy is completely bogus. When Indiana finally switched to daylight savings time in 2006, the state actually used more energy than it did before it adopted the time change. When you add in the spike in car accidents, other accidents, heart attacks and other adverse effects directly linked to the time change, there is simply no rational reason to support it and a lot of reasons to get rid of the damned thing.

So absolutely no one benefits from the twice a year time change. A lot of people are harmed by it. It doesn’t save energy. It is just a plain bad idea.

But we keep doing it anyway.

There was a bill in the state legislature here to try to get rid of it. It was promptly dismissed as being ‘trivial’ and not worth the valuable time of the state’s politicians. The same politicians who found the time to declare the polka the state dance, put through a bill to declare sandy loam as the state dirt and… Well,  you get the idea.

Butter Wars –

The butter war has been heating up in Wisconsin long after most people thought a ceasefire had been signed decades ago. Wisconsin’s agriculture business is enormously important, especially the milk business, and over the years the state has done some rather curious things to try to promote and even force people to use dairy products like butter. It was, for example, illegal until around 1967 to sell margarine in Wisconsin that was colored yellow. Well, to be fair you could, but it was subject to such a heavy tax that it made the product very expensive to buy if it was colored. Only margarine that was uncolored could be sold without being heavily taxed in the state, and since margarine is not exactly very appealing looking when uncolored, it didn’t help sales very much. Some makers of margarine, in an attempt to get around the law, sold margarine in plastic bags with a capsule of yellow dye inside. You emptied the yellow dye into the margarine and then kneaded it in the package to distribute the dye through the product. That was finally lifted in 1967, but anyplace that serves food to the public is required to serve butter to people unless they specifically ask for margarine. You can cook with margarine in the back, you can offer margarine packets along with butter packets at the table, but if you pre-butter toast or bread, it’s supposed to be done with real butter.

Well this time the kerfuffle is over Kerry Butter, an imported butter from Ireland. Now Kerry is a very fine butter. The stuff is excellent. I’ve had it myself. It’s way, way too expensive for me to buy it, you pay a pretty stiff premium for it, but it’s very nice, tasty butter. But because it isn’t graded the way state law claims it should be, it’s illegal to sell it in the state. Wisconsin is the only state that requires this type of grading. You can read about the whole thing here at Wisconsin Public Radio.

Snake Oil – 

There are a lot of scammers out there trying to steal your money by making phoney health claims about their products that it’s hard to know who you can trust any more. But every once in a while one comes along that’s so utterly ridiculous that even the government figures out what’s going on and steps in. You can jump to the Iowa Attorney General’s press release about it by clicking here. There is apparently a company out there that claims it makes a “drinkable” sunscreen, along with other “drinkable” products that do everything from “stabilizing bacteria levels”, whatever that means, to curing infertility, reducing hair loss and preventing acne.

There are two companies involved, Osmosis and Harmonized Water, both apparently owned by someone named Benjamin Johnson of Colorado. The companies produce a line of products that are… Well, they’re water, really. That’s it. Water.

But it’s special water…

The water is allegedly put through some kind of machine called a “harmonizer” that somehow imprints “frequencies” on ordinary water. The “drinkable sunscreen”, they claim will, with just a few squirts on your tongue, protect you from UV radiation by “generating scalar waves above the skin” before it even touches you, and you can buy a tiny little bottle of the stuff for about $40.

Scalar waves are one of the darlings of the “alternative medicine” and “free energy” conspiracy theorists and the like. You can build your own special transformer to make “scalar waves”. It’s not hard to do. You can pump a huge amount of energy into such a transformer and accomplish, well, nothing, really except covert your electricity into heat. These “scalar” devices basically produce two electromagnetic fields that cancel each other out and produce heat and nothing else. But an enormous mythology has developed about them that includes Soviet Union super weapons, weather changing devices, mind control devices.

I won’t go into all of the nonsense that some in the “alternative medicine” world have conjured up, but it involves “supercoil DNA” and mobius coils inside of your DNA that generates “scalar” waves… If you want to delve into it, wear your hip boots because the bull shit gets really deep, really fast. There is supposedly a “scalar wave laser” out on the market that uses “quantum cold laser rejuvenation technology” that can be used to cure, well, everything, it seems. From what I’ve seen these things are little more than the same lasers used for reading CDs and DVDs in a hand held package, and if you want to buy one they’ll set you back about $3,500 for what is basically a bunch of parts out of some DVD players that cost about twenty bucks. It’s also supposed to cure goat polio.

But I’ve gotten off topic here, haven’t I? The Iowa AG is going after the company for various reasons, including the fact “Doctor” Johnson hasn’t been able to practice medicine since 2001 because his license was yanked, that there is absolutely no evidence this stuff does anything at all, that the “testimonials” were largely written by people who sell the stuff themselves or have some other financial interest in the company… Well, the list goes on and on.

Well, That Got Weird Real Fast

So, we were having this conversation and I suddenly realized we were having a rather serious discussion as to what to do if Shub-Niggurath, The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young got in the basement with its thousand young. How do you get rid of a thousand baby outer gods? What do they even look like? What do they eat? Can you put out bait for them? Trap them?

Then someone came up with the idea of feeding them politicians. It probably wouldn’t kill either Shub-Niggurath or she/he/its thousand young, but at least we’d be rid of a few politicians..

That’s when I began to suspect I might have very peculiar friends. Indeed, there are suspicions that I might be peculiar myself.

Now, where did I put the Shub-Niggurath trap…

New Feature! Ask The Grouchy Farmer! This week, “Why Do We Use the Term ‘Horsepower’?”

Dear Grouchy,

Why do we use the term ‘horsepower’ to refer to the amount of work an engine can perform?


Interesting question. The use of the term goes back to the very early days of the internal combustion engine and Henry Ford. Before the development of the compact internal combustion engine, most work was performed by horses.

It wasn’t until Henry Ford came along that the engine became viable thanks to Ford’s experiments with biology and reproduction.

While the world primarily thinks of Ford as an engineer, administrator and inventor of the assembly line, Ford’s real claim to fame was in the breeding of horses. It wasn’t until Ford began to breed the ultra-miniaturized horse that small, compact power plants were available.

Ford developed a relatively compact, cast iron case in which could be installed several tiny, tiny treadmills, each powered by one of this ultra-miniaturized horses. (See Figure 1.)


(Figure 1. Henry Ford installing his miniature horses into the seven horsepower “engine” on  his 1920 era tractor prior to a long day’s work plowing the wolverine fields of northern Michigan.)

Modern breeding technologies, genetic modification and improvements in miniaturization technology that took place over the years have permitted engineers to shrink the size of the treadmills and horses to every smaller sizes, permitting the installation of four, five or even six hundred horses into an engine hardly bigger than a suitcase.

Of course there are drawbacks to the system. Mr. Ford discovered that the miniature horses had correspondingly short lifespans, able to live only for several hundred miles. This led to the development of the now almost microscopic horses to be delivered in liquid form through pumps located in almost every town in the country. This allowed owners of these new engines to quickly replenish the horses inside of their engines, as well as proving a food source for the ravenous beasts in liquid form.

The French Baby Story

For reasons I don’t fully understand myself, I’ve decided to tell the French Baby story. I’m also going to do something no author is supposed to do, which is tell you that you probably shouldn’t read this. It’s way, way too long. It rambles all over the place. It isn’t really all that amusing. It features two girls named Gretchen. The only pay off you’ll get if you manage to get through the whole, painful thing is a really, really bad joke.

Oh, and it also insults the French. But that’s okay because they started it.

I was going to put this up on my blog on Tumblr at first, but decided those poor people over there had suffered enough. It also doesn’t really suit that venue. So I decided to put it over here on grouchyfarmer where no one will ever be forced to read it.

Oh, and whether any of this is true or not is up to you to decide. I’m a firm believer in not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

So here goes nothing.

It was nineteen seventy-mumble. It was spring. I was sitting in an outdoor cafe about twenty miles from Nice, France. Sitting across from me were two quite beautiful but very intimidating young women, the Gretchens.

The Gretchens were Valkyries. No. Seriously. Valkyries. Or at least as close to Valkyries as I’d ever get. They were identical twins, almost six feet tall, impossibly fit, long, straight blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and if you’d put them in breastplates and winged helmets would have fit right into a Wagnerian opera.

Now the Gretchens and I had been together since the Channel crossing, where the three of us had shared a railing as we deposited pretty much everything we’d eaten during the last three days over the side of the ferry. British cuisine being what it is, it wasn’t much of a loss, really.

In between retches, we managed to introduce ourselves. The first one was Gretchen. The second one’s name was apparently “urrppaarrghh”. Not that it really mattered because if you said “Gretchen?” both of them would turn, look at you, and say “Ja? Vas ist los?” Which basically means something like ‘what’s up, dude?’ So I just called both of them Gretchen.

As you might guess from their Teutonic appearance and language, the Gretchens were German. They spoke almost no English at all, which was okay because I spoke almost no German at all except for an extensive collection of obscene words and phrases taught to me as a child by a very odd uncle. Oh, and I’d been taught how to count to 89 by a nazi wanna-be back in the seventh grade. And no, I don’t know how a seventh grader becomes a nazi. I didn’t want to know.

For reasons known only to themselves, the Gretchens decided they were going to travel with me. Perhaps they felt sorry for me. Or perhaps they felt it was their duty to keep an eye on me until the people at the asylum I’d escaped from came to get me. But for whatever reason, when we got off the boat in France, I found myself flanked by two Valkyries, each of whom could probably have bench pressed a Volkswagen without breaking a sweat.

I must admit that the Gretchens intimidated me. It wasn’t the language barrier. I was used to not understanding what people said because my grandparents and a lot of my aunts and uncles spoke German whenever they didn’t want us kids to know what they were talking about.

Still, I was grateful for their presence when we hit the shore and had our first encounter with the French authorities at customs.

Now the French Tourist Board tells everyone about how friendly the French people are. They wax poetic about the beautiful countryside, the incredible food, the amazing wine, the astonishing art treasures. Most of the people speak English. And they all absolutely adore tourists.

It’s a lie. All of it.

The French universally hate everyone who isn’t French, and from what I saw, they don’t like each other much, either. No one in France speaks English. Or at least they won’t to you. You can overhear a Frenchman speaking fluent English to someone, go up to him to ask directions, and he will shrug, launch into a lengthy rant, in French, insulting you, your mother, your dog, and make disparaging remarks about the size of your genitals before sending you in the wrong direction.

Now I’d been told that French customs was no big deal, more of a formality than anything else. The people who told me that were liars as well.

A very tiny man in a very small uniform, wearing a peculiar had and sporting a slightly obscene mustache glared at my passport. He called over another fellow who was even smaller, and had an even more disturbing mustache. He called over a third. One of them brought out a magnifying glass.

Meanwhile, my bags were being strip searched. Litterally. Everything was removed from them. One guard slit the linings of the bags open. Another rifled through the pockets of my clothes. All my tooth paste was squeezed out onto a tray and fingers were poked through it.

I had to turn out the contents of my pockets. Everything was removed from my wallet and examined with the magnifying glass. My parents were insulted, as were, I suspect, my genitals and my bad haircut.

The Gretchens, meanwhile, had breezed through customs. They hadn’t even looked at their bags. They were getting impatient and came over to see what was going on. THey stood on either side of me, arms folded, glaring at the head customs official.

Being on the wrong end of that glare was something no one would enjoy. Those cold, ice blue eyes probed the official’s black soul and found it wanting. The official started to get nervous. Gretchen 2 started tapping her foot impatiently. He started to sweat.

He barked something at his comrades. Everything was shoved hastily back into the bags. My passport was stamped, scribbled in and handed back to me. My ancestry was insulted, as were my shoes, and I was finally allowed in.

Now you’re probably wondering why simply having the Gretchens glaring at him made the fellow so nervous. To understand that you have to understand the French’s attitude towards Germany.

Once upon a time, France had a wee bit of a disagreement with Germany. You might have heard about it. It was called World War II. And the French are fully aware of the fact that if the Brits and Americans hadn’t saved their skinny Gallic asses they’d be singing “Deutschland Uber Alles” at football games instead of “La Marseillaise”. So while they hate the Germans just as much as they hate Americans, British, Australians, Russians and pretty much everyone who isn’t French, they’re scared of the Germans and don’t want to piss them off.

Oh, they’re not afraid Germany will attack again. Germany doesn’t do that kind of thing any more. No, what they’re afraid of is Germany coming down there and just buying the whole bloody country out of petty cash, and then charging them rent.

So we finally get to the train we’re to take to Paris. It lurches out of the station a half hour late. It runs about two miles, shudders to a stop. It backs up a few feet. There is a rather disturbing sound similar to a distant explosion. The train shudders.

An unintelligible announcement comes over the speakers which not even the French can understand, it seems. An Italian man traveling with his daughter shakes his head.

“I think they said they’re looking for volunteers to get out and push,” he said in English when he saw the puzzled look on my face.

The train shuddered again, and then backed all the way back to the station at about 2 miles an hour. We were herded off that train. It was dragged away and a different train was dragged over. We got on that one. The engine caught on fire.

Another engine was brought in and we embarked again. All of a sudden about a dozen police officers swarmed past the window towards the front of the train, dragging two members of the train crew with them. Hopefully to the guillotine.

A replacement crew was brought and away we went again.

Finally we reached Paris. City of lights! City of Beauty! City of Culture! City of Art!

Uh, well, no.

I’d planned on staying in a cheap boarding house for the few days I’d planned to be there. The Gretchens had other plans. I was hustled into a taxi. Curses and insults were exchanged between the Gretchens and the driver, and we finally arrived at, well, let’s just say it was beyond posh.

The crowd in the lobby parted like the sea before a pair of magnificent battle ships as the Gretchens stalked into the place as if they owned it. I suspect now that they did.

By that time I was starting to pick up a bit of German as I began to remember my high school German classes. Gretchen 1 told the fellow behind the desk that we required a two bedroom suite and if he pretended he didn’t have one he would be working at the local frog canning factory the next morning.

He never even blinked. We were escorted up to the very top floor of the hotel and into a suite of rooms that looked like something out of a fantasy movie. One of the bedrooms was given to me, the Gretchens took the other.

The Gretchens were hungry, and I was made to understand they would take me to a restaurant that was ‘less filthy’ than most. It was only a short distance from the hotel so we walked. It was a rather small place and smelled, well, odd. I’m not sure what it smelled like, but it wasn’t anything I would associate with food.

We were taken to a table and we waited. Half an hour later Gretchen 2 got a waiter’s attention by tripping him as he scurried by. I let them order for me because I hadn’t a clue. I just hoped it wouldn’t be snails.

Another half an hour went by. A waiter unceremoniously deposited an already open bottle of wine on our table and three glasses. Gretchen 1 eyed the bottle suspiciously. She sniffed it warily. She then picked it up by the neck as if it were some kind of dread disease and dropped it on the floor.

The waiter shrugged as if saying “Well, it was worth a try”, scurried off and brought up a still corked bottle and opened it at the table and poured a little into a glass. Gretchen 1 tasted it and seemed surprised that it was drinkable. Glasses were filled. Waiter went away.

Gretchen 2 was curious about the bottle. She examined it, and poked at a corner of the label with a fingernail. The label came off and under it was another label. Gretchen 2 began giggling. The restaurant had slapped a French label over a bottle of German wine.

The meal was edible. Barely. One dish looked like a used bath sponge covered in catsup. It pretty much tasted like a used bath sponge as well. Gretchen 1 amused herself by throwing snails at the waiters between courses.

The next few days were occupied by sightseeing. The amazing art was all out to be cleaned. My genitals were insulted on several different occasions. Taxi drivers scammed us, we’d all developed a hacking cough because of the smog, and terminal indigestion from the amazingly bad food. The only good meal we had all the while we were in Paris was at a German restaurant.

The taxi drivers were in a class by themselves. A 15 minute trip would end up being a 15 mile excursion through the most unsavory parts of the city, during which time our ancestors would be insulted, our morals called into question, and snide remarks were made about our shoes.

Once we got out of Paris things did start to get a bit better. The insults became less personal, the food got a bit better. The wine was always horrible, though. And some parts of France are genuinely beautiful.

So there we were, outside of Nice. In a few days we would be parting company and we were reluctant to do so. IN spite of (or perhaps because of) the bad food, horrible wine, insults and all the other stuff we’d gone through, we’d had a great time. The Gretchens had a wicked sense of humor, and had exactly the right kind of personality to deal with what we’d endured for the trip through France.

So we were at the cafe and feeling a bit melancholy. We’d be parting at Nice, the girls to return to Germany, me to go on to Italy. We would not, however, be disappointed about getting out of France.

Two young women were at a table near us, their babies screaming and screaming. It was really annoying, but the two women didn’t do anything about it.

I turned to Gretchen 2 whom I had been helping to learn English.

“Why are they crying like that? Why don’t they do something?”

“Ah,” she said, nodding wisely. “There is nothing they can do. They are screaming in terror because they have just been told they are French.”

And that is the French Baby story.

I did warn you, remember?