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Back Buzz - September 13, 2009

pumping heartToppers Deli & Sandwich Bar, 49 Commercial Street, Halifax, West Yorkshire

Recently we gave a friend a lift from Sheffield to Cumbria. As we were taking the smaller and more scenic A-roads the journey took a good part of the day. By late morning as we were passing through North Yorkshire we fancied a caffeine hit along with some brunch, so we stopped in the market town of Halifax.

An important centre of England's woollen manufacture since the 15th century, Halifax is probably best known these days as the home of The Halifax Bank. The name Halifax is thought by some to be a corruption of the Old English for "Holy Face", stemming from a local legend that the head of John the Baptist was buried in Halifax after his execution. Seeing as how most of the legends of where his head ended up involve Jerusalem, Damascus, Rome, and Turkey, and a few years ago some experts believe they found his skull in a cave by the River Jordan, it's more likely that the name Halifax probably evolved from "holy flax", or possibly "hay ley flax", the Norse ley meaning "field".

The suburbs north of Halifax are noted for their local support of the far-right British National Party. But I wouldn't hold that against Halifax, because back in the 1980s when I used to visit friends in the extremely liberal, green, and cooperative-powered Oregon town of Eugene, it was hard to believe that some of the neighbouring communities were neo-Nazi strongholds. It's important to remember that any location on this planet may contain nuts.

We parked the car in downtown Halifax and took off in search of a cafe. We were drawn initially to Toppers Deli by the five tables on the front patio, one which seemed to have our name on it. Inside at the counter we pored over an extensive menu including breakfast, sandwiches, hot paninis, salads, jacket potatoes, soups, smoothies, and a self-serve salad bar.

And, of course, espresso. To accompany our meal Andrew and I ordered our usual double macchiatos while caffeine-free Olly asked for an instant decaf. (Sadly they don't offer decaf espresso drinks, but Olly wasn't bothered.) Our macchiatos, although served in regular coffee cups, were not bad at all: a good balance between smooth and robust. In fact, they were actually surprisingly decent. I quickly realised I could easily allow myself to thoroughly enjoy mine, which is what I ended up doing. It seemed the proper way to start off a scenic road trip, especially as we were destined in an hour's time to be fully engaged in an Abba's Greatest Hits singalong as we toodled through Lancashire and the Lake District toward our destination.

The food was surprisingly good as well. Andrew and Olly's full English breakfasts were big and featured light flaky muffins, and my feta and Mediterranean vegetable panini was really flavourful with an abundance of courgettes and aubergines. It was a lovely day as well, perfect for sitting out on the pavement and watching the bustling town swirl around us and pitying all those scurrying office workers simply because we didn't have to work today. It's good for the soul to gloat occasionally...

Speaking of commuters getting to their sad jobs reminds me of an e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from a year ago:

On Saturday I often listen to a program on NPR, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!", a quiz show that finds the humor in the week's news. This week's "Bluff the Listener" question involved descriptions of three possible new ways for Americans to lose weight -- two false and one true. They all seemed equally improbable to me: fat-eating bacteria, a treadmill that goes outside and propels you down the street so you can enjoy the scenery, or a hurricane-force indoor fan that turns every motion into an exercise, so you lose weight even lifting the TV remote.

The true one was the treadmill that propels you down the street. What an amazing concept! The faster you walk or run, the faster you end up going down the street! I'd like to try that. Just think -- you could leave your car parked at home and "walk" to work using nothing but your legs and this machine!

I imagine since this is a new invention it's quite expensive, and a lot of overweight people wouldn't be able to afford to buy one to get around. So I suppose they'll just have to keep driving their cars everywhere...

And speaking of transportation, here's another recent e-mail conversation about the need for noisy cars:

One morning as I was locking my bike to a parking meter a woman parking a Prius hybrid in a diagonal space asked if she could pull forward without harming the pigeons in her path. She was worried that they wouldn't hear her car under electric power.

Now, apparently, hybrid cars are recognized as a hazard to pedestrians, both sighted and blind. An article in the science section of last week's Economist reports:

"A bill going through the American Congress wants to establish a minimum level of sound for vehicles that are not using an internal-combustion engine, so that blind people and other pedestrians can hear them coming. The bill's proponents also want that audible alert to be one that will help people judge the direction and speed of the vehicle. A similar idea is being explored by the European Commission."

Great. Just when we come up with a vehicle that is auditorially unoffensive in normal operation, we're going to make it noisier. What should a Japanese hybrid sound like as it approaches? The beep-beep backup alarm of a lorry? A flock of geese? The woo-ooh, woo-ooh, ack-ack-ack of an anti-theft alarm? A high fidelity recording of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries?" How about a pack of Harley Davidsons? I'm always amazed that these seem exempt from any noise pollution laws. On my last ride out of Santa Maria on Friday I was passed by a group of them, and the combined thunderous roar was amazing. That would be funny to see a compact, environmentally friendly car coming down the road sounding like the Hells Angels.

But wait! Researchers at Lotus Engineering in the UK, have already been working on the problem:

"It is possible to create a different sound within a car from the one that is heard outside, says Colin Peachey, a chief engineer with Lotus. Manufacturers could create their own sounds according to how they perceive their models. Carmakers already take engine noises seriously enough to use acoustic engineers to tune exhaust pipes, especially for high-performance cars. Drivers of electric cars might in future even be able to select different engine sounds, and maybe download them like ringtones."

Oh, no! We're going to have hybrid cars coming down the road with speakers playing "La Cucaracha" or jingly versions of songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Aahhhhh! Not such a bad idea! If every Ford Ka on the road played "Ride of the Valkyries" when reversing, not so many people would make fun of them. And I'm sure any pigeon, even a slightly deaf one, would avoid a Prius that sounded like a pack of Hells Angels. If that's too offensive a din, what about a thundering herd of trumpeting elephants?

Hopefully, if the time comes when one can download hybrid-car enginetones, any tunes by Andrew Lloyd Weber will be banned. After all, we need to reduce incidents of violent road rage, not increase them.