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Balmoral Hotel

Calton Hill, best not mentioned <em>Picture: Andrewyuill</em>

Calton Hill, best not mentioned Picture: Andrewyuill

By Diane Maclean

As Edinburgh once more puts on its glad rags and prepares for the deluge, it would be inhospitable of us here at The Caledonian Mercury not to pre-warn visitors of a few hidden dangers lurking between the cobbles and the disintegrating tram-tracks. (That’s two dangers for starters and they don’t even make the list.)

As you pack your suncream and thermals, Alka-Seltzers and The Dictionary of Pretentious Quotes, factor these potential pitfalls into your preparation. As we say here: fail to prepare and prepare to… fall victim to the dreaded Edinburgh Festival madness. You have been warned.

Altitude sickness
The Athens of the North it may be, but if you’re seeking a European capital comparison you’d be better thinking of Rome. No, not because we’re suave, drive around on egg-blue scooters and have a pathological dread of efficiency – but because, like Rome, Edinburgh is built on seven hills.

Being of a Presbyterian nature, we don’t go in for namby-pamby names like Aventine and Palatine. Here it’s simply “the big hill that goes down to the Cowgate”, “the killer hill that goes down Broughton Street”, another few bigger and smaller hills – and Arthur’s Seat, the remains of a spewed-up piece of supervolcano where you get great views and can do fantastic roly-polies.

There’s also Calton Hill, but the less said about that the better.

Sex
You may think that here in the cold, dark north there’s a somewhat prurient attitude to sex – and in many ways you’d be right. John Knox’s “monstrous regimen of women” may well still believe that “sex is something you use to carry the coal in”. But not for nothing are Morningside’s elite referred to as dressed in “fur coats, nae knickers”.

The steely gaze of Protestant forefathers would discourage even the most ardent admirer, yet wander off Lothian Road and you find yourself in the midst of the “pubic triangle”, where sex shops and strip bars abound. So many contradictions, so much potential for a slap in the face. If in doubt, don’t risk it. Other than that, there’s not a Scottish lass or lad around who wouldn’t fall for this classic chat-up line: “If you were a burger at McDonalds I’d call you McBeautiful”. (The Caly Merc advises readers to use this gambit at their own risk.)

Time
The locals would suggest that during the Festival, time is illusory, with normal 15-minute journeys taking up to a fortnight. Time can be confusing for visitors, too. You could try turning to the locals to help, but they’ll just growl at you.

Daybreak is in the middle of the night and night-time doesn’t begin until after midnight. Your body clock is probably kaput, what with all the battered food, strong drink and getting repeatedly lost in the pubic triangle. Luckily, there is always the One O’clock Gun to keep you right – if, that is, the fright doesn’t kill you. Oh, and remember the clock at the Balmoral Hotel is kept deliberately fast in order to encourage tardy train-travellers to get a move on.

Wildlife
There’s the usual variety of animal life in Scotland’s capital. Beware the urban foxes (Stockbridge ladies of a certain vintage). Scarier, though, are the biggest and most brutal seagulls imaginable. Not only are these winged behemoths everywhere, but – even when not visible – their maniacal dawn cackling is enough to waken even the most comatose drunk. Brollies, when not needed for the rain, are to be encouraged to ward off both aerial attacks and seagull bombs.

If that wasn’t enough to worry about, there’s always the potential of jailbreaks from Edinburgh Zoo. Although it’s probable that the story of escaped wolves is a myth, the zoo has had problems in the past with its animals. As recently as July, a baboon made a partially successful bid for freedom.

Edinburgh is a city where if you think you’re seeing pink elephants, you might just be seeing pink elephants.

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LED streetlightPedestrians walking along Princes Street tonight probably won’t realise they’re witnessing the latest example in a technological revolution that’s gradually becoming visible in every area of our lives. It might even help to save the world, or at least destroy it more slowly.

After 18 months of consultation four street lights next to the Balmoral Hotel have had their lamps replaced by LEDs from Dialight. It’s the first trial of its kind in Scotland.

LEDs – light emitting diodes – have enormous benefits and what could have been one serious downside for Scotland. In street lights they reduce energy consumption by an estimated 50 per cent while increasing lighting levels by a factor of four.

Their responsiveness also makes them suitable for additional energy-saving measures. In quieter streets they can work with proximity sensors so they switch on almost instantly so pedestrians feel safer, but without burning power when nobody needs them.

You probably know the other advantage of LEDs. For decades they’ve shown whether electrical devices are switched on. How long is it since one of those lights “died” on you? In a street light their expected life is seven years and they’re relatively vandal-proof.

And their potential disadvantage for Scotland? That comes from their low power consumption which means they produce less heat than other forms of lighting. This led to a real fear that snow would not melt on LED-powered traffic lights and put motorists in danger. In fact, even in parts of America with more severe winters than Scotland, designs to stop the build-up of mini-drifts have proved effective.

And the onward march of LEDs continues. At last month’s massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas many of the most desirable gadgets featured screens made from “organic light emitting diodes” (OLEDs).

Compared with the LCD displays used for most televisions, computer monitors and mobile phones OLEDs have enormous advantages. They don’t need backlighting so displays can be thinner and lighter. They need less power and they look better with blacker blacks and a greater contrast ratio.

There are problems as well. OLED displays degrade relatively fast and unevenly so colour balance can be lost and screens can burn in, leaving a ghost effect. More importantly they are very expensive, Sony’s XEL-1, which just has an 11-inch screen will set you back £3,500. But prices will fall.

OLED technology is also being used in some novel ways. A Welsh company Lomox has developed LED wallpaper which it says could start to replace light bulbs by 2012. It’s reportedly 2.5 times more efficient than standard energy-saving bulbs and produces a more natural light. If the claims are true it could really revolutionise the way the world’s living rooms look.

And if the people sitting in those living rooms are turning down the light with a dimmer switch to watch a movie from a DVD player they can thank one man for all of them. Nick Holonyak Jr invented the first practical LED in 1962, the first household dimmer switch and in 1977 fabricated the first laser on a chip.