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Back Buzz - May 5, 2004

pumping heart Ritazza, Tamworth Moto Services, M42/A5 Junction 10, Green Lane, Tamworth, Staffordshire

Yes, I know, it's yet another motorway services review. (See my previous reviews here, here, and here.) But one never knows when one might find oneself cruising down the motorway in search of good coffee. One afternoon a couple of weeks ago my partner and I found ourselves doing exactly that. It wasn't really planned -- in fact the day had started off as any other day, when one wakes up planning to do whatever one normally does on a weekday which, in both of our cases, does not include driving down the motorway.

But spur-of-the-moment impulsiveness took over, and we found ourselves jumping in the car and driving down to Birmingham. Why, you might ask? Because it was a nice day, because I'd never been to Birmingham, but mainly because our German-speaking American friend Brian who lives in Cyprus had flown over in order to race a Formula 1 go-kart at the Birmingham Wheels qualifying trials.

It turned out to be one of those pleasant days where the gods seem to be watching over you and making sure that everything goes smoothly. Although we had no real idea where Birmingham Wheels was located we managed to find it with ease, even skirting the infamous Spaghetti Junction (also called the Gravelly Hill Interchange) with minimal trauma. At the go-kart park we spent the afternoon watching each of the 8 groups of drivers race through a practice run and then 2 heats. Brian, who in his high-collared jacket and sunglasses suggested a 16-stone version of Michael Schumacher, was in the fourth group. Sadly he didn't make the final group of qualifiers.

And then as we jumped back onto the motorway to brave the evening rush-hour traffic back to Sheffield we were surprised to find the traffic flowing free and easy the entire way. To gird our driving loins we decided to stop for a double espresso along the way. Not far from Birmingham is Tamworth, the same Tamworth associated with the Tamworth Two, a pair of pigs who escaped in 1998 as they were being dropped off at an abattoir in Malmesbury, Wilshire, and subsequently became porcine legends and the subject of a film. The fugitives, named Butch and Sundance, currently reside in relative peace and tranquility at the Rare Breeds Centre in Kent. Although they have probably never been to Tamworth themselves, it is their breed which is named after the village.

Needless to say we didn't run into any pigs at the Moto Services, located two miles from Tamworth. But we did find a Ritazza Espresso counter where we ordered our double espressos before retiring to a corner table. The Tamworth Moto Services building is very pleasant and clean with attractively coloured decor. For a motorway services it is also quite peaceful, with no obnoxious screaming kids or scolding parents and minimal traffic noise. In fact, it was difficult to believe we were actually at a motorway services, especially at 6:00pm on a Wednesday. Our espressos, needless to say, were quite pleasant and happily below the normal flesh-melting temperature of most motorway coffees. They were strong as well, instantly giving us that caffeine boost we needed to continue the journey home.

And my mother would be interested to know that Moto, the UK's largest motorway services provider, recently won the Loo of the Year Awards.

Speaking of driving down the motorway reminds me of an e-mail conversation with my Bay Area friend from a year ago:

This may be a question for Dr Science. I always thought that the "Wagon Train" effect -- where the wheels of a moving stagecoach seem to stand still or turn backwards -- was due to the sampling effect of film frames (or perhaps television screen refreshes). If a spoke is, say, at twelve o'clock in one frame and in the next frame a different spoke is slightly counter-clockwise from that position, the perceived animation will make the wheel turn seem to turn backwards. As a teenager I observed this effect on the reels of my tape recorder as it rewound under a fluorescent light, which I assumed pulsated more than an incandescent bulb. But this effect doesn't happen under natural light in real life, when you're viewing with the continuous perception of the human eye.

Or does it?

Last Friday on my way home from work I was driving on the freeway next to an SUV (it was a Range Rover, actually). As soon as it pulled up to my left my eye was immediately caught by the illusion that its front wheel seemed to be turning slowly backward, and the back wheel was turning rapidly backward. What was it, I wondered, about the geometry and optical characteristics of these wheels that tricked my eye into thinking they were spinning backwards? The light freeway traffic never brought us to a stop, so I was unable to inspect the shape of the wheel spokes, and I have not seen a similar vehicle since then. It remains a mystery. And I have not ruled out the possibility that the Land Rover company has designed a low-friction propulsion system that lets vehicles levitate across the highway as the wheels, just for show, spin whichever way the wind carries them.

I never thought this was a film or TV effect, because I've seen it in real life as well. Perhaps it just proves that movement, like time, is relative, or perhaps not even particularly relevant. The fact that we usually end up where we intend to go, which is usually at a later time than when we started off, might just be complete coincidence coupled with a bit of luck.

Okay, after our exchange about the car with wheels spinning backwards on the freeway, I believed you that the "wagon wheel" effect was not limited to movies and TV and stroboscopic lighting.

Then on Wednesday afternoon I drove across the Bay to our Burlingame office. As I waited at a stoplight at the end of the offramp I saw another large SUV -- this time a Cadillac Escalade -- waiting in a left-turn lane, perpendicular to my line of sight. The vehicle was motionless, but the shiny silver spokes on its wheels were turning forward at a steady speed. My light turned green, but I was afraid to proceed.

I never observed that effect on "Wagon Train". Are the latest luxury vehicles equipped with some kind of holographic projection system designed to confuse other drivers by presenting conflicting signals of direction and velocity? Are they trying to fake us into submission? Drive us to surrender our licenses and run screaming to the asylum?

Well, as Blood Sweat & Tears once said, what goes up must come down and spinning wheels goes round or something like that -- I suppose it's irrelevant as far as the universe is concerned which direction it goes around, as long as we all get to where we want to get, or wherever we're going to get, wherever that is.