Thursday, 31 December 2009

The ghost of Christmas Past

 We've had a pretty quiet Christmas. Apart from the festive cards and the occasional box of Thornton's chocolate coated ginger, there's not much evidence at Cyber Mansions to indicate the season of feasting and family feuds.
It suits us just fine.

Of course, there was a time when the idea of such a seemingly dull and boring apology for a Christmas, without turkey and all the trimmings would have been unthinkable.

Probably the most extraordinary Christmas meal I've ever had was when I was sharing a house with some friends, back in the 1970s.
A couple of my friends had formed the nucleus of a band and over a number of months, they'd gradually accumulated the remaining musicians and sundry road-crew that were going to propel us all to the rock and roll lifestyle we so obviously deserved. We had rented a farm-workers cottage in the middle of an orchard in Worcestershire and when the number of people had become too big for the house, had put a couple of caravans in the back garden for extra living space.
The band rehearsed in a barn at the nearby farm.
We didn't have a lot of money, and until the band were gig-fit there was no real prospect of income from that quarter. For a lot of the time we lived there, most of us didn't have proper jobs. There was usually at least one person earning, but a lot of the work was casual stuff on the farm so we were always running on a ridiculously tight budget.

During that December, most of us had decided that although we could have scuttled back to our respective families for Christmas dinner, if not the whole festive season, it would be much better to have Christmas 'at home' together.

I can't remember if it had snowed that Christmas Day, but I have a vague memory of there being snow on the ground on the night we "acquired" our Christmas tree from a nearby wood.
The tree had been decorated by our bass player and it had pride of place in the living room; decked out in red and gold cardboard astrological symbols, it was bit unorthodox to those of us that were brought up with tinsel and fairylights, but it was the closest thing to normal festive decoration that we had.
There was an open fire, with an enormous log sullenly smouldering away, with just the occasional burst of more enthusiastic flame. Above the fireplace, the chimney breast was covered by a large temporary mural that I had drawn, with merry, seasonal caricatures of each of the housemates.
The crowning glory of the decorations, however, was created by the drummer.
He had connected up various coloured lights and electrical appliances to an industrial cam-operated, multiple switch. These were strategically placed around the room and activated by a concealed pressure pad under one of the sofa cushions. When somebody sat on the sofa, a sequence of bulbs lit up across the room as a concealed vacuum cleaner whirred into life, an electric fan set all the tree ornaments dancing and a pair of disco turntables burst into life both playing The Move's "Blackberry Way" slightly out of step with each other.
I'm not sure if it was awfully Christmassy, but it did have a sort of weird, magical quality.

As lunch-time came closer, and the smell of roasting turkey wafted through the house, we hauled a pair of trestle tables into the living room, and set out the cutlery, glasses and crackers.
And then the food was served. It was a magnificent feast.

OK, there was a small problem with the wine.
We'd bought a couple of bottles of wine, but we hadn't got a corkscrew. We couldn't normally afford to buy beer, let alone bottles of wine, so it's hardly surprising that nobody had even thought about how to open it. We rummaged through the kitchen drawers to no avail. It was hopeless, we hadn't even got a Swiss Army Knife.
We sat, scowling at the bottles...
Then someone had a brainwave

A quick visit to the tool shed produced a suitable bottle opener.
There can't be many Christmas meals where the sound of festive cheer is interrupted by the gutteral whine of a Black and Decker electric drill.

Incidentally, this was also the only time I'd seen somebody ensure that the Christmas pudding caught fire when the brandy was poured onto it, by giving it encouragement with a gas blowlamp.

Happy New Year Everyone!

Friday, 25 December 2009

A message from our sponsor

It's been nearly a year since I started this blog, so as it's Christmas Day, I'd like to thank everybody who has been following it.

Your comments and support have made it even more fun than I ever expected it would be.

At last! The perfect excuse to not do anything in the garden.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

The view from my window

I was talking to one of my brothers the other evening, on the 'phone, and he asked me,
"Just how high off the ground are you in the telescope control room?"
When I told him that the Control Room is in a building at ground level, and not actually on the telescope itself, he seemed quite disappointed.
If he'd been the first person to ask this question, I might have been tempted to give him a hard time, but it's not uncommon for people to think that we drive the telescope from a control cabin, perched high up on the structure like the operator of a building-site tower crane.

The working environment is a lot less spartan than that and although the view from the Control Room windows is dominated by the dish, we are a couple of hundred metres away from it.

In the Google-map view below, you can see the Control Building down and to the right of the Lovell Telescope, at the end of the straight path.

View Larger Map

For any astronomers out there, the position of the dish in the Google image would be typical for pulsar observations; generally South and close to the horizon.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Re-reading an old book in a new way

Unusually for me, I'm reading two books at the same time.
I know there are some people who will quite happily have several books on the go at once, but I prefer to stick with one at a time.

It happened by accident.
I've been reading "Stealing Light" by Gary Gibson, for about a week, but a couple of days ago, I was trying to remember a particular book I'd read many years ago. I'd been thinking about some of the worst names for characters in books and I had remembered Billy Danger. He was the hero of a story by Keith Laumer, so I did a bit of Googling, and spotted it in the list of his work in Wikipeadia. It was "Galactic Odyssey". I then discovered that the entire book is now available to read online.

As you will probably gather from the somewhat lurid cover, this was never going to be seen as a work to rival "Pride and Prejudice", but if you like straightforward, no nonsense space-opera, you could do a lot worse. Before I realized what was happening, I'd read the first couple of chapters.

It's the first time I've ever read a book online.

I doubt whether the experience will make me consider getting one of the various e-books that are appearing though. Real, paper books are still the most convenient way of reading a story.
When they produce an e-book that weighs less than a slim paperback, needs no battery and is robust enough to withstand falling onto the floor when it slips from your fingers as you doze off to sleep, maybe then I'll get one.

If anyone wants to suggest candidates for "The Most Crap Character Name in Fiction", I'll be delighted to read them.
Mind you, I reckon you'll need to do well to beat Angus Thermopyle and Marc Vestabule who appear in Stephen Donaldson's 'Gap' series.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


Every so often, Blight-of-my-life and I try to decide whether or not we should get a dog.

Up until quite recently, we didn't consider that it would be sensible as we were both working full-time, so the unlucky perisher would have been stuck at home on its own for great chunks of the day. Now that Blight has retired, we are in a better position to provide a good home for an unsuspecting animal.

Even though we have a couple of horses which live at a nearby farm where we own some land, we've never had domestic pets here at Cyber Mansions.
OK, we did have to look after the enormous jar of stick insects during the school holidays when Blight was teaching, but they are pretty low down on the "loveable companion" scale.
Even assuming you could figure out which was a stick insect rather than just a stick, they all tended to look a bit similar. It wasn't made any easier when I asked Blight if any of them had names.
"Oh yes." she said, "They've all got names."
"OK. What's this one called then?" I asked, pointing at what I hoped wasn't simply a dead twig.
"That one's called 'Sticky'."
"That's not awfully original... so what about this one?"
"That one's called 'Sticky' as well."
"Hang on a minute, are they all, by an chance, called 'Sticky'?..."
"Well... yes."

Stick insects were a bit of a disappointment.

But what about getting a dog?
What we need is to try one out from some sort of Rent-a-Dog service.
Fortunately, our next-door neighbour has gone away for the weekend, so we've volunteered to look after his dog, Kiera, for a few days.
Kiera is a springer spaniel. She's getting on a bit now, so she's not as barmy as she used to be, but she is still pretty enthusiastic about going for walks, so I'm getting more exercise than I've become accustomed to.
This must be 'a good thing'.

I've never really doubted that we will get a dog, but I expect that this weekend will make it sooner rather than later.

All I'll need to do then is talk Blight out of naming it 'Sticky'.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Sometimes you just get lucky

The weather was pretty miserable here yesterday; no sun at all, 10mm of rain and horrible squally winds. When you get a duff day like that, it makes you appreciate it when you have one like today.
OK, it is December in Northern England, so you can't expect miracles, but at about 8:30 this morning, when I was scheduling a run of pulsar observations, the low winter sunlight striking the Lovell Telescope looked lovely.

Then I noticed the vapour-trail...

I'm really glad I had my camera with me.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

"Misfits": You wouldn't want to be these super-heroes

I'm not going to push too hard to encourage you to watch this series, because I don't want my enthusiasm to put you off.

All I'll say is that I'm really impressed by it and I'll be very sorry when it finishes.

It's showing on "E4" at present, and all of the first four episodes are still available on the "4OD" website, so you should have time to catch it before it's gone.

(Apologies to anybody who reads this too late, or who is outside the UK. Hopefully you'll be able to see it on DVD)

Thursday, 3 December 2009


Here's something that I hadn't realised that I take for granted.
Shoes that don't let in water.

I've had these "Clarks Active Air" for a few years now and although they took a while to become really comfortable, they've been good shoes; black, shiny, sensibly smart. During hot weather, they haven't become intolerable and during the winter they've been warm, snug and, most importantly, dry.

So today, as I ventured outside to do the meteorology checks, I became aware of a most unwelcome, chilly squishiness under the sole of my left foot. There was that unambiguous wet sock feeling that I'd almost forgotten. It brought back the memories of every leaky wellington boot and accidentally submerged plimsoll that I'd ever had.
Sure enough, when I got back indoors and took off my shoes, the problem was immediately obvious. There was a hole, worn through the sole of one shoe.

Then I noticed something a bit odd (at this point, Horatio "CSI:Miami" Caine would be taking off his sunglasses and looking off to one side with that infuriating expression.)
The left shoe was much more worn than the right. This was a bit puzzling.
At first, I couldn't think of any reason why the wear was so obviously uneven.
I don't walk with a limp, run around in circles or do anything unorthodox with my feet.

Then I realized what had almost certainly caused it.

The clutch pedal on the Land Rover is extraordinarily stiff. It is so much harder to depress than the brake, that I've had to replace the pedal rubber three times since I've owned it. The brake pedal rubber is hardly worn at all. If the clutch pedal is taking that much wear, it's not so surprising that the shoe that operates the pedal also gets a disproportionately high degree of wear.

I guess it's just another variable to factor into the Cost of Ownership Equation for a Land Rover Defender.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Where's Captain Pugwash when you need him?

Has anybody got any idea how to classify this musical offering from "Alestorm"?

I've tried, but every time I get as far as "completely bonkers", I just start humming the chorus again. Absolutely marvellous.


Thanks to Wyrdwhorl, for posting it at Wyrdsongs.
(Albus Dumbledore was right about music)

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Here's a good tip... Ow!!

"Oooh, I don't think you wanted to do that..."
If there's a statement of the (literally) bleeding obvious, that must be it.

Without dwelling on the full, gory details, yesterday I made a fundamental mistake while using a Stanley knife to cut a sheet of cardboard; I failed to ensure that the tip of my fore-finger was behind the steel ruler that I was using as a straight-edge for cutting.
It bled very convincingly and even now, twenty-four hours later, it still stings like an utter bastard.

I haven't done something quite so gormless for a long while, but I suppose that it's one of those things that has to happen every so often to remind us that if we don't take care, inanimate objects will bite. Learning how to use tools safely is something that can be achieved without actual injury, as successful chain-saw operatives will confirm, but there's really nothing like pain for ensuring the lesson is properly reinforced.

I sometimes wonder what it must be like for parents. Just how can they bear to watch their children learn that fire, broken glass and all those other everyday hazards cause blood, pain and tears when they are not treated with the respect that they deserve.
I can't remember my Dad ever preventing me from using any of the tools in his workshop, but he must have had nerves of steel to allow me to use the electric drill when I was less than ten years old. I guess he must have shown me how to use it safely, but I was never aware of "being taught"; I just watched him do stuff and then he would go away and leave me to it.
When Reallyfatbloke acquired his table saw a few months ago, I asked him when he was going to teach his kids how to use it, because the fascination of the spinning teeth of a circular saw has a hypnotic attraction to the enquiring mind.
He went a bit quiet

So, to return to my lapse of concentration.
Blight-of-my-life was surprisingly sympathetic,
"Oh, that's really painful isn't it."
Unfortunately, she then went and spoilt it by saying it was my own fault for messing about with model railway stuff. (Yes, that's what I was cutting cardboard for. The model railway layout is back on course... Oh do stop sniggering and making 'anorak' jokes.)

I wonder if she'd have been a bit less callous if I'd done it whilst cutting a mount for one of her photographs...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

This is not an obituary

Some while ago, I was reading a blog posting about the uncertainty that arises when people "disappear" from their online environments and how anybody who spends time in the virtual realms should have a plan to allow their online friends know if they are going to be AFK* for a protracted period, in case their absence is assumed to be an indication of their Real World death.

The post had been prompted by the actual death of someone who, amongst other things, was a resident of "Second Life". They had been missed by their friends in Second Life, but it had taken some time before the news of their real-world death filtered into the digital domain. It had been difficult to verify the bad news as the use of avatars and pseudonyms creates a disconnect between the real and virtual worlds.

The conclusion of the post suggested that anybody who has a significant digital presence owes it to the people they know purely through online activity, to warn them if they are going to be intentionally off-line so that their absence isn't cause for undue concern.
To deal with the flip-side of the issue, cyber-folk are encouraged to arrange some type of "Digital Will" which ensures that in the event of their death, the news is circulated to all the various realms that they inhabit in cyberspace.

I think the idea has some merit, so if you are sociable online and run blogs, MySpace, Facebook etc. or you are a resident of SL or similar, it might be worth thinking about.

* Away From Keyboard

In the light of the foregoing, Id like to pass on the good news that, although Reallyfatbloke has dismantled his blog, he is still very much alive in the real world.
Mind you, his 'Wifey' has taken up playing the saxophone, so I'll keep you informed...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

As if there weren't enough distractions already...

Here's a bit of a diversion that one of my esteemed colleagues drew to my attention.

Thank you, Scubamanders.
(He seemed so sensible when he started working here...)

It's a web-browser game called "Crush the Castle", where you control a trebuchet to hurl rocks at various castles until they fall down and squash the hapless inhabitants.

There is no limit to the amount of ammunition you can use, but you are awarded medals for demolishing castles with just a few shots.

It isn't "World of Warcraft", but it's good for a laugh... and it is free

Thursday, 5 November 2009

OK, the "Father Ted" reference was a bit misleading

I was told by a work colleague, that the title of yesterday's posting was "confusing".

So for Mr Who-shall-remain-nameless and anybody else who has no idea what I was on about, here's the moment...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

With apologies to Father Ted

Here's a splendid thing that might make you say, "Cor blimey, that's smart" or something similar.
Follow this link, and then simply drag the slider beneath the image.

It's on the University of Utah website and there's no way I'd have normally come across it, so thanks to Tateru Nino for bringing it to my attention.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

"Life" : Another neglected gem.

I've just finished watching the second, sadly final, series of the rather wonderful "Life". If you've not come across it, this is an American police drama, starring Damian Lewis as Charlie Crews.

At the start of the first season, Crews is released from prison after serving twelve years of a life sentence. He had been wrongfully convicted of a multiple murder, but thanks to the efforts of his lawyer, DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. Having lost his job, his wife, his friends and nearly all contact with the outside world, he emerges from prison enlightened by the philosophy of Zen which has helped sustain him during his sentence. After successfully suing the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD, he is reinstated to the police department and receives about fifty million dollars in compensation.

OK. It all sounds pretty contrived, but there is so much scope within the somewhat peculiar boundaries that the whole thing works.

Each week there's a crime to solve, while the season story arc follows Crews as he tries to discover who was actually behind the murders that put him behind bars.
Throughout the series, Crews calmly navigates a world that has changed while he has been out of circulation. Mind you, even his Zen outlook is shaken by the perplexities of mobile 'phone technology. He's also obsessed with fresh fruit; "See this apple... you couldn't get an apple like this in prison... or any other fresh fruit."

They only made two seasons of "Life", so although I'm disappointed to see it finish, at least it has ended before the inevitable decline of the TV series that is past it's sell-by date.

I got hold of the first season as a boxed DVD set from my local library and as I was carrying it home, Andy from over the road saw it.
"Oh, 'Life'. We watched that when it was on. It's a bit weird though."
"Is it any good?"
"Yeah, but quirky..."
He paused for a moment, then continued, "but you'll like it."

He was right.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Did somebody say, "Let's rock"?

Playing at a venue for the first time is always a bit of a worry, so I was a little apprehensive about last night's gig at "The Old Millstone".
We'd never played there before and to make things slightly more alarming, Dave was on holiday, so we'd drafted in Corin from "Amandla" to play drums.

As is so often the case, I should not have been worried. It was a smashing night out.

The Millstone is probably one of the busiest pubs in Macclesfield and is sufficiently large to allow a band to play to a good size audience while allowing other, less musically inclined, patrons to drink in relative peace and quiet.

It was a bit of a novelty for us to have so much space to set up the gear. Usually with a pub gig, it's a major challenge to shoe-horn the drum-kit, bass stack, keyboard, PA, mixing desk, guitar gubbins, monitors and mic-stands etc. into the corner of a room that the landlord assures you is "where the bands usually set up".
Here we had the space that would normally have been occupied by a couple of pool tables. Luxury! Not only does it make it more fun to play on an adequate stage, but having a sensible amount of space makes it a hell of a lot easier to set up the equipment; you aren't perpetually falling over your band mates and trying to avoid getting poked in the ear with a cymbal stand.

The acoustics of the room were fairly easy to work with, so we didn't have any problems with getting the sound sorted out; we just played the stuff and had a good time. We all played our socks off and this was clearly well received by the crowd, if the enthusiastic applause and demands for an encore are anything to go by.
I'm definitely looking forward to playing there again.

As for any qualms about playing with a 'dep' drummer, I should have known better. Corin was, as always, a joy to play with. So special thanks to him for helping us out. I think he's far too sensible to be a drummer; they're all supposed to be raving bonkers.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Bunker mentality

I've never been terribly interested in History.

I seem to remember enjoying the really early stuff, when it was all about molten lava, dinosaurs and stone-age blokes living in caves and bashing each other with clubs etc. but once the school curriculum got past the Romans (Chariots and fighting) and the Greeks (Galleys and fighting), it just stopped being fun.
As the focus of the subject shifted from whole societies and how the general population lived their lives, to the way the leaders of our country governed the people, I couldn't get excited about it at all.
(I hope that 'Good King Hal' doesn't take this too personally.)

Now, of course, I'm old enough that I've actually lived through quite a lot of historical stuff.
I can remember John F Kennedy being shot; I was still at Junior school, but my mum made me wear a black tie.
I saw the grainy, black and white pictures as Neil Armstrong took 'that' step and yes, I did go out into the garden and look up at the Moon expecting to see something had changed.
I met guys who had fought in the Vietnam War and also guys who had dodged the draft to stay out of it.
What I didn't know I'd lived through, however, was several decades when we had secret nuclear fall-out shelters built in strategic parts of the country.
We went to visit one on Tuesday.

Blight-of-my-life and I had been down to Essex for a party.
My cousin Maureen was celebrating her 80th Birthday and, quite rightly, felt that a bit of a knees-up was required, so we'd trundled down to drink beer and try to recognise various cousins and second cousins that I hadn't seen for many years.
Rather than drive straight back home the following morning, we decided to do the tourist thing for a couple of days. While we were looking for suitable places to visit, we came across a leaflet about "The Secret Nuclear Bunker" at Kelvedon Hatch.

I think it is one of the strangest outings I've ever been on.

The strangeness started well before we got anywhere near the place, when we saw the helpful road-sign, directing us to the "Secret Nuclear Bunker".

Following the directions, we wound our way down a twisting farm road to a large, virtually empty, parking area at the edge of some woods. We left the Land Rover and followed a footpath through the trees until we arrived at a large brick bungalow.
The building looked a bit shabby. There was no sign of a pay kiosk or anybody to take our entry money and apart from a couple of dog-eared signs pointing to an open door in the front of the building, there was little to confirm that we were at the right place.
We went in.

There was still no sign of anywhere to pay, but there was an enormous rack of those audio guide hand-sets that look like oversized mobile 'phones, with a notice instructing all visitors to take one and follow the audio guide instructions. Other signs explained that we should pay at the end of the tour and that although we would not see any staff, we would be constantly monitored by concealed TV cameras.
We smiled for the hidden cameras, picked up our guides and set off down the long concrete passage into the bunker.

We probably spent nearly three hours exploring. The atmosphere of the place is extraordinary. At first we thought that there were no staff in the entire facility, but then we spotted one bloke dusting the exhibits and another who disappeared through a door marked "No Admittance" into a room with a bunch of TV monitors flickering in the gloom.
Even the Cafeteria and Gift Shop at the end of the tour was unstaffed. There was simply a place to return the audio guides, and an 'Honesty Box' to pay for the tour and anything you might buy in the cafe.
We almost had the place to ourselves, as we wandered through rooms filled with generators and air conditioning equipment, the dormitories, communal bathrooms, communications centres, sick bay and mortuary.
The audio guide talked us through the construction and early years of operation in the 1950s, followed by the change of use to a Regional Government HQ that would be used in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain, until it was decommissioned in the 1990s.
It seems extraordinary, but when it was decommissioned, they simply closed the (blast) doors and left all the equipment exactly where it was; desks, phones, waste-bins... the lot.

As well as the original equipment, there are video displays running some fascinating films. Some of these were actual government films that would have been broadcast to the general public, explaining how we were supposed to make our homes secure enough to survive after a nuclear attack, although our hand-held audio guide made it pretty clear that all the filling of sandbags and collecting enough food and water for 14 days per person was probably less about protection and survival, and more about keeping the population busy while the government waited for us to die.

"The Secret Nuclear Bunker" is a seriously interesting place to visit, but it is not Disneyland.
It is very shabby, with an air of threadbare seediness that is somehow entirely appropriate.
To give an impression of how life would have been in the bunker, there are recorded voices and tannoy announcements and a motley collection of mannequins posed in various parts of the facility.
These mannequins are not for the faint-hearted. Often missing limbs, they are slumped behind dead computer terminals or sprawled in dormitory bunks, with their chipped and scabrous faces peering out from beneath hideous, ill-fitting wigs.
There's even a dummy Margaret Thatcher in the BBC Radio Studio; now that is scary.

The place has musty smell, which is not so surprising for a concrete tomb under a hundred feet of Essex hillside. I struggle to imagine what it would have smelt like if it had ever been used in deadly earnest. The thought of 600 traumatized people shut up in a hole in the ground for weeks, waiting for the food and water to run out is not a cheery one.

This particular bunker is one of a whole network of similar installations throughout the UK, so if you get the chance to visit this, or any of the others, I'd strongly recommend it.

"Wouldn't you prefer a nice game of chess?"

Friday, 2 October 2009

Set List

I've just read an email of the set list for the gig we're playing tomorrow night...
No. Wait a minute..., it's tonight.
Writing stuff in the early hours of the morning is always confusing.
So, whenever it is, 'Nightflight' will be playing at "The Hollins" in beautiful downtown Macclesfield and, now that I've got the set list, I know which songs we'll be doing.

When I joined 'Nightflight', four years ago, I was a bit surprised by the set list policy. Every other band that I'd been associated with had tended to have a fixed list of songs which were played in pretty much the same order at every gig. This band never does exactly the same set twice running and to add further uncertainty, the choice of songs is left until the day before the gig.
The main reason for this fuzzy arrangement is the number of songs that we actually know. Dennis and Sue have been playing for decades and have an extensive back catalogue of standard covers as well as a load of original compositions. At every change of line-up, the band's repertoire has been influenced by the differing tastes and styles of the various musicians. As time passes, some songs fall out of favour and new songs take their place but, rather like a comfy pair of old shoes, you can't bear to chuck them away. These songs remain in the repertoire's equivalent of the attic, waiting to be rediscovered, dusted off and perhaps given another outing.

So let's have a look at what we're going to play.
First Set:
  • "Werewolves of London" (Warren Zevon) An unusual song concept, but a comparatively stress-free opener.
  • "Ghost Train" (Nightflight) The first of several songs from the recent CD. It's got a slightly tricky arrangement which nearly caught us out last time we played it at "The Hollins".
  • "It's a start" (Nightflight) A bit of ska.
  • "Don't stop believing" (Journey) This song gained some new fans when it was played during the final episode of "The Sopranos".
  • "One last summer" (Nightflight) Anthemic ballad.
  • "Dancing in the dark" (Bruce Springsteen) We've only recently rediscovered this one and it makes a good opening song. We'll see how it fares in the middle of the first set.
  • "Ton of love" (Nightflight) I've always enjoyed playing this. It was the first original song for which I'd had to create my own bass line.
  • "Parisienne walkways" (Gary Moore) Simply a lovely song.
  • "Go your own way" (Fleetwood Mac) Although I think we do this rather well, I personally don't enjoy playing it; relentlessly fiddly bass line which is a nightmare to recover if you lose your place.
  • "My generation" (The Who) You can't fault the irony of "hope I die before I get old..."
  • "The Chain" (Fleetwood Mac) Another 'bass player's benefit'. Formula 1 Motor Racing fans always like this too.
  • "Auberge" (Chris Rea) A good solid finish to the first half.

Second Set:
  • "Don't forget me" (Nightflight) A bit of reggae with some saxophone from Sue.
  • "Dancing in the streets" (Martha Reeves) We've only been doing this one for a couple of months, so it's pretty lively.
  • "Comfortably numb" (Pink Floyd) This always seems to go down well and I love playing it.
  • "The racers" (Nightflight) This is heads-down-no-nonsense-rock'n'roll, and it's a bit of a killer for me with an almost relentless assault of sixteenths (Many notes in a short space of time). The smell of scorching flesh will be my finger-tips.
  • "Nothing else matters" (Nightflight) This is a beautiful little song that Dennis wrote years ago. We've only gigged it a couple of times and it's still improving.
  • "Sweet home Alabama" (Lynrd Skynrd) Very popular with the punters, but Dennis enjoys it about as much as I like "Go your own way" i.e. not bloody much.
  • "Waltzer song" (Nightflight) I always think that this has a bit of a Dire Straits vibe to it.
  • "A bad case of lovin' you" (Robert Palmer) Crash-Bang-Wallop! Wailing guitar and loads of pointing.
  • "I saw her standing there" (Beatles) We tend to do this slightly faster than 'The Fab Four', so it has a bit of a punk sensibility and so it's even more of a giggle to play.
If anybody wants us to play for a bit longer, we'll probably do "Black night" (Deep Purple) and/or "Whole lotta love" (Led Zeppelin).
There's even an outside chance that we might sneak in "Holding out for a hero" (Bonnie Tyler). It's complete and utter cheese as well as being Dave's least favourite song, so it's always funny trying to cajole him into doing it.

Altogether it should be a fairly silly way spend a Friday evening.
See you there...

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

"There ain't no cure for the Glummertime blues..."

A couple of days ago we passed the Autumn Equinox and although our days have been getting steadily shorter for some time, we are now into the period when there's less day than night. I've always found this slightly depressing, but now, as someone who spends quite a bit of time working night shifts, the diminishing supply of daytime has become more significant. So it's, "Roll on Winter Solstice" when we can start to claw our way back into the sunlight.

As you'll expect, Blight-of-my-life and I employ completely different strategies to combat the onset of Glummertime.

Blight is a much more outdoors sort of person than me, so she has been getting stuck into preparing the new raspberry bed at her allotment, digging up the remaining potatoes and harvesting the tomatoes. I've been only peripherally involved with these activities. I've had to set out some boards for the raspberry bed and put up support wires, but most of my energy has gone into eating the fruit and veg that she has so lovingly grown. The tomatoes have been brilliant again, so all the aggro with the new greenhouse was worth it, but the melons were somewhat less successful; there was only one melon and we didn't realize it was ripe enough to eat until it had become too ripe to eat. Bum!

The potatoes have also been a revelation. People say it's not worth growing your own, but the flavour of a really fresh spud is impossible to deny. Grow some yourself next year and you'll become a believer too.

Another good result in the greenhouse were the Physalis (aka. Cape Gooseberry). It's the second year that we've had these weird things. If you've not come across them before, they look like a very small yellow tomato that has grown inside its own, tiny paper bag. The flavour is so subtle that I can't begin to describe it; it's not really like anything else. This isn't too helpful I know, but the best way to find out what they taste like is to try one. The variety which Blight grew this year had smaller fruit than last year's, so she decided to try making then into jam.

I don't think she'd done any sort of jam making before, so even without using an exotic fruit, this was already going to be a bit of an experiment. I have some dim memories of my Dad making rhubarb and ginger jam many years ago, so I was expecting the kitchen to become a no-go area, while it filled up with mashed fruit, vats of boiling sugar, steam and red hot jam jars.
This did not happen.
There wasn't a huge quantity of fruit, so everything was carried out at a much less industrial scale and after a few hours and very little anguish, the jam was declared "A Success".
It tastes excellent. If you want the recipe, it's at

My method for counteracting the pre-winter blues is less practical. I simply spend even more time huddled over the computer.
I'm currently playing "Champions Online", which was released earlier this month. If you fancy yourself as bit of a super-hero but haven't got the physique to wear spandex convincingly, you too may find it as uplifting as gardening and jam making.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Monopoly: The largest board-game on Earth?

I've never been terribly keen on the board-game "Monopoly". This probably goes back to the days when we played it as kids. You'd go round to a mate's house on a rainy day, spend a merry half hour dealing out the cash and arguing over who was going to have the Racing Car, before endlessly rolling double ones and "Going to (wrongly spelt) Jail". After an hour or so, everyone except whoever was playing the Banker would be getting a bit bored, so the game would degenerate into bickering and recriminations with the occasional competition to see who could make the tallest tower of hotels.

I find the enduring success of "Monopoly" rather depressing. If you ask anyone to name a board-game, this is usually the only one that they can think of. Nearly everyone has played it and if they didn't enjoy it, they are likely to have been put off board games for life. This is such a pity, because there are much better games to be found. Old favourites, like "Buccaneer" and "Formula One" were always more entertaining options, but if you want to try something a bit more modern, I'd strongly recommend "Settlers of Catan".

"Monopoly", of course, continues to thrive and is coming to a street near you, because the latest manifestation of the game, "Monopoly City Streets", allows you to play on a board that encompasses the entire planet. By marrying the principle of buying and selling streets to the global streetmap of "Google Maps", you can now play with real streets. You can buy the street where you live and build a massive block of flats on it and watch the rent roll in, or you can build a Factory or a Sewage Works on someone else's street and watch the property values plummet.

The game, which is free, has only just begun and runs until 31st January 2010, so if you sign up quickly you may be able to buy your own street before someone else nobbles it...

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

'Phone a friend?

We went to 'The Poachers' for the monthly quiz on Sunday night. It had been quite a while since we'd been able to get together enough people for a team of four, so typically we ended up with six, as Magical Dave and Alex were visiting from London.

The pub was as full as I've ever seen it, so it was fortunate that Reallyfatbloke and Chemical Al had got there early and nabbed a table large enough for our 'enhanced' team, although we had to raid the garden to get enough chairs for all of us to sit down.
While RFB was getting the beers, he said. "I had a look at your most recent blog posting."
"Ah, yes. It took me a while to work out how to do that.", I replied.
"What? Getting the video clip to work?"
"No. It was what to write that was the difficult bit. I wasn't quite sure how to get the right sort of tone."
After a slight pause, RFB said, "You were aiming for 'preachy', I presume?"
You can go off people.

The quiz itself was suitably humbling, although hardly any of the specialist rounds played to our combined strengths.
None of us had sufficient knowledge to recognise many of the (allegedly) famous bridges of the world from their photos. Once we'd got Tower Bridge and The Golden Gate Bridge we were pretty much down to, "Isn't that the really tall one in France where they went on 'Top Gear'?".
It was only slightly better on the "Name the Sports Stadium" round.
If it hadn't been for our knowledge of American State Capitals, films and wine, we'd have done a hell of a lot worse than the fourth place we actually achieved.

Oh, and here's an amusing thing if you want to annoy a Manchester City supporter.
One of the questions was: "Manchester City are sponsored by the airline, 'Etihad'. What is the English translation of the word 'etihad'?"

Answer: 'United'

Sunday, 30 August 2009

We shouldn't need to be reminded about this

If you can drive, sooner or later you will find yourself involved in a road accident.
Anyone who has been in a car crash or been first at the scene will tell you that it is a confusing and scary place to be.

Most road accidents are the result of human failings. Poor perception, bad judgement, loss of concentration, criminal recklessness, lack of care and plain stupidity are just some of the causes and contributory factors that can lead to something that will change peoples lives for ever.

Now, read that list again:
"Poor perception, bad judgement, loss of concentration, criminal recklessness, lack of care and plain stupidity".

Are you a driver? Have you got a mobile 'phone?

Do us all a favour...

Turn it 'OFF'.

"COW" A film by Peter Watkins-Hughes, for Gwent Police

Friday, 21 August 2009

Competition Time : Spot the Difference

Springfield Nuclear Power Plant Control Room

Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope Control Room

The similarities are quite uncanny, so I may have got these pictures muddled up.

You decide.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

"I don't believe it..."

I'm still utterly amazed at the nonsense I was treated to when I tried to get a telephone fault sorted out yesterday. Call me naive, but I expected better service from BT.

I'd been helping Jan, a friend from work who keeps an eye on Bob, her 96 year old neighbour. His 'phone had been on the blink for a couple of days; outgoing calls were OK but it wouldn't take incoming calls. Jan had rung me to ask if I'd report the fault, as whenever she'd tried, the people at BT seemed to dismiss the problem, as she was calling them from the 'phone she claimed was 'faulty'.

"If you report it, from another 'phone, perhaps they'll take it more seriously", she said.

So I went through the usual rigmarole of calling the Fault Line and wading through various options until I eventually managed to speak to a human being. I answered all her questions. I told her my name, the number of the 'phone I was calling from, the number of the 'phone with the fault, the name of the householder who had the faulty 'phone. I even had to explain my relationship with the householder with the faulty 'phone, although I can't think why that should have any influence on a telephone fault. At some point in the interrogation, I may have been asked to explain what was wrong with the 'phone, but it's quite possible that I dreamed that.
Finally, she ran out of questions.
"Great!", I thought, "Now she'll tell me when someone can fix the problem"
Did I mention that I can be a bit naive sometimes?

"I must tell you," said the BT woman, "that if we send an engineer to check the fault and it isn't a fault in our equipment, we will have to charge you a hundred and twenty-five pounds for the call-out."
"Er, what? "
"The fault could be in the house and not on the BT line."
"So how do I work out whether it's a BT fault?"
"You can check at the socket"
"Do you mean the telephone socket?"
"Yes... but it must be the main one, not an extension."
"OK... How do I check the socket?"
"You take off the socket cover, an-"
"Wait... Hold on a minute. Are you telling me to explain to a ninety-six year old man that he has to dismantle his 'phone socket so that he can find out whether your engineers will come and fix his telephone without charging him over a hundred quid?"
I've heard a few lame ideas in my time, and I've come across some poor customer service, but this was a new definition of "abysmal".
Struggling to retain my self-control, I decided to find out exactly what her suggested diagnostic procedure entailed.
"All right. I may be able to get someone to check the socket, but you'd better explain exactly what to do. I'll write it down"
"OK", she said "take off the socket cover. Inside the socket you'll find another internal socket."
"What, just like the normal one?"
"Yes. Plug the 'phone into that and see if it works. If it still doesn't work, the line is faulty and we will repair it free of charge."
"Thank you. We'll give it a try."
It was a relief to hang up.
I simply couldn't believe that I was being advised to dismantle part of a telephone installation by someone who had no idea of the condition of the equipment, let alone my knowledge or competence to take it apart.
Add to this the whole concept of threatening to charge your customers for a service which they reasonably think they already pay for...
I think that it's just despicable.

A couple of hours later, Jan and I managed to get another of our colleagues to nip round and have a look at Bob's 'phone and investigate the internal mysteries of the socket, but in the end Jan decided to have another bash at getting a BT engineer to visit.

Jan is clearly better than me at this sort of thing, because by the end of the day, a charming young man from BT had been round, and Bob's telephone is now in full working order.

We still don't know whether they'll try to sting Bob for the call-out, but I get the distinct impression that Jan is already preparing to launch a retaliatory strike on them if they do, God help them.

Dali makes more sense than BT

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Now that's what I call... Er, something...

This post concerns a phenomenon for which I don't know the correct name. The sort of thing I'm thinking about, is when you get two different types of musician working together. I had been under the impression that the name for this was "crossover music", but it appears that this is something rather different.

So, whatever they are called, these hybrid musical projects can be a bit risky. It's always going to be a toss-up whether a collaboration between stylistically diverse musicians will produce an inspired synergy or a hideous cacophony.

One of the finest of these unlikely unions, was the Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield in 1987 with "What have I done to deserve this?", successfully blending white soul and electro-pop. Arguably less successful, was the 1969 album "Concerto for group and orchestra" which was a live concert featuring Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing at The Royal Albert Hall; they played the same piece, in the same place, at the same time and yet somehow they weren't playing together.

To these examples of musical alloy and the many others that are already out there, I'd like to add the fusion of Scottish pipe band and Cornish Samba band...

I know what you're thinking, but have a look at this. It's curiously uplifting.

(If you're wondering how I came across this, my eldest brother and his wife are in the samba band)

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Comfortably numb

It's often a pleasant surprise to hear versions of songs that you've known for years, performed by other artists, so I was intrigued to discover a video clip of Pink Floyd's 'Comfortably numb', that was posted earlier today by Wyrdwhorl on Wyrdsongs, her other blog.

This is a song that my band has been gigging for several years, and it invariably goes down well with just about any audience. Whenever we play it, there are usually men-of-a-certain-age, singing along and often some discrete air-guitarists attempting those enormous string bends that make this a Dave Gilmour signature piece.

If you want to see what the combined might of prog-rockers "Dream Theater" and metal-monsters "Queensryche" have done with this classic,
click this link to Wyrdsongs

Thank you, Wyrdwhorl.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

What we did on our holidays

Blimey! Where did that go?

I've just had two weeks off and it's back to work tomorrow. I've never been terribly good at holidays. I forget to arrange time off work and then when I realize that I'm in danger of losing my holiday allocation and book a couple of weeks off, unless I've got a clearly defined activity mapped out, I'll just tend to loaf about all day until suddenly I notice that it's time to go back to work.
Blight-of-my-life has always been much better at holidays as she has spent virtually her entire working life as a school-teacher. She has never had to decide when to have a holiday; they just crop up at regular intervals whether you like it or not.
This year, I opted for a fortnight break right at the start of the school summer holiday.

As is the custom here at "Cyber Mansions", after several days of me showing no signs of organising anything like a proper holiday, Blight couldn't stand it any longer and asked,
"Well, are we actually going to go anywhere this year?"
"Err, yeah, I suppose so..."
After a longish pause, she said,
"Have you had any thoughts about where you might like to go?"
"Umm, not really. How about you? Any ideas?"
"I was hoping that you'd think of something for a change."

"Uh-oh", I thought, "This is probably going to be our traditional argument about why I never organise the holiday and how it would be nice if I came up with a suggestion once in a while."

I was right.

Fortunately, once we'd got that particular bit of unpleasantness out of the way, we plumped for a few days in Oxfordshire.

A few highlights:-
  • Guided walk around Oxford:Without a guide you could wander around the centre of Oxford for hours and have no idea of the splendid stuff that's lurking behind the closed doors of the colleges. You'd just think it was another conglomeration of the usual shops but with some interesting architecture at roof level (Yeah, that'll be the dreaming spires). The official guide has access to some of the colleges, however, so you get to see some of the beautifully kept courtyards, wood-panelled dining halls and chapels, as well as learning about some of the history and traditions of the place.
  • Probably the finest fish pie I've ever eaten:This was at "The Fox Inn", Boars Hill. I don't normally get wildly excited by food, but this was a bit special. The rhubarb crumble was pretty good too.
  • Fire Fly: No, not "Firefly" the Sci-Fi TV series. This "Fire Fly" is a reconstruction of a broad gauge steam railway locomotive from the 19th century, which is kept at the Didcot Railway Centre. We were lucky enough to visit on a "steam day", when they have locomotives working, so we got the full experience and trundled up and down the short stretch of preserved line, breathing in coal smoke and nostalgia.
  • Bike ride: We took a chance that the rain, forecast for late on Tuesday, would hold off and did a (mostly) leisurely 20 miles exploring the bridleways, cycle trails and back roads around Thame. For once, we didn't end up slogging across fields, following bridleways that have been subtly concealed by brambles, farm buildings and quagmires, although to ensure that the ride didn't deviate too far from the norm, Blight did manage to fall off when her front wheel found a cunningly concealed pot-hole.
  • Fleur de Lys, Dorchester on Thames: This is an excellent B&B and one of the friendliest pubs I've stayed at. While we were having a swift half in the bar after we'd signed in, we got into a conversation with one of the locals about Madonna, of all people. Throughout the evening, everyone seemed to be treated in the same friendly manner, to the extent that it was quite difficult to distinguish between the regulars and the visitors. We had several more swift halves. Not a surprise, I guess.
  • New boy: The day after we dropped in to see one of my nephews and his wife, we got a text to say that their second baby had been born. Apparently, their first son was born the day after some relatives had been visiting, so maybe there's some kind of "family catalyst effect" at work. Be that as it may, it's great news and Danny, his Mum, Dad and big brother are all happy and well.
All in all, a very good holiday.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Psychoville : Wonderfully unsettling

I just have to say something about "Psychoville", the pitch-black comedy drama that is on BBC2 at present. The end of the series is approaching fast, and each episode seems to head off into increasingly strange territory, so if you've not caught it and you fancy something a bit "off piste", try BBC iPlayer where all the episodes are available until the series concludes.
(Apologies to anybody reading this after the transmission dates, but I have no doubt that there will be re-runs and DVD releases, so you'll not be deprived of this malefic gem.)

This is the brainchild of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who's "The League of Gentleman" gave us the citizens of Royston Vazey in all their repellent glory, so from the outset you know you are not going to be chortling away in the leafier suburbs of sit-com land; It's very definitely not "The Vicar of Dibley".

It is a grotesque and deeply uncomfortable show to watch but it works beautifully. All the major characters are uniquely monstrous and yet they could all exist in our cosy, normal world; they are all worryingly resonant.


Thursday, 9 July 2009

Potato fans rejoice!!

Strange as it may seem, there are people out there who have said to me, “why haven’t you told us anything about the potatoes recently?”

I had no idea of the responsibility that I had taken on when I started this blogging lark. I mentioned potatoes a couple of months ago and now I’ve got tuberophiles, or whatever you call potato lovers, demanding status reports.

The potatoes are actually doing pretty splendidly, as it happens, although their well-being hasn't been entirely threat-free. There are these rabbits, you see...

I'd better explain.
Those of you that have been paying attention have probably noticed that although our garden has sheds, lawn, ferns, greenhouses and the odd shrub and tree here and there, it doesn't have a vegetable plot.
"Where are the potatoes?", you cry.
Well they're not here, obviously

The vegetable plot is at a nearby farm, where Blight-of-my-life keeps a couple of horses. She decided to create an allotment ages ago, but only got round to preparing the corner of a paddock at the start of this year. It was pretty heavy going, as it has been grassland for years, but after stripping away the turf and some serious digging, the plot was ready for planting.
If that sounds like back-breaking hard graft, you'd be dead right... which is why I stayed well clear and left her to it.

Everything was fine, the plants were coming up nicely and then all the rabbits in the surrounding fields realized that there was this really nice patch of soil that someone had thoughtfully dug up for them, where they could make nice little burrows.
We could almost hear them.

"I say", said Hazel, "This is handy. We don't have to dig through all that wretched grass."
"Oh aye, it's brilliant", said Bigwig, shoving a potato plant out of the way.
"These spuds are a bit of a nuisance though"
"I think we should leave them alone,", said Fiver, with a worried twitch of his nose "There's something... 'funny' about this place."
"Oh give it a rest Fiver. Can't you just relax for once?", said Hazel
"Yeah.", said Bigwig. "Your Prophet-of-Doom routine's doin' my head in."

And so it went on.

Until last week, when we surrounded the entire vegetable patch with a sturdy fence covered with rabbit netting.

Hopefully now they'll sod off, back to Watership Down.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Send for The Nostalgia Police, now!!

Last Sunday's "Top Gear" included a challenge featuring the delights of buying and owning your first car.

Mssrs. Clarkson, Hammond & May were each given a budget of £2500 to buy and insure a car, as if they were seventeen year-olds.

I'd have thought that they needed no additional encouragement to behave like teenagers...

It did set me thinking though. It took me back to the first car that I owned...

I think it must have been 1973.
I had been working on a building site in Stratford upon Avon and living in nearby Alcester. A crisis had loomed, when the landlord of the place I was sharing discovered how many of us were living in his "single person's flat"; three of us were asked to move out.
Luckily, my parents were happy, or at least prepared, to let me move back to their place, but this meant that I would be living much further from work. At that time I hadn't learned to drive, so as there were no suitable trains or buses, my only practical option was cycling the thirty mile round trip each day.

A better solution had to be found.

Keef, one of the guys that I worked with, came up with the answer. He'd also been evicted from the flat in Alcester, and was now living at his Gran's house, three miles away from my parents.
"Look," he said, "I can drive, but I can't afford a car. You can't drive, but you can afford a car. You buy a car, learn to drive and while you're learning you get loads of practice driving us to and from work."

So I got a provisional driving license and bought a car.

It was a black, 1959 Austin A35 and I bought it from a little old lady in Stratford upon Avon for forty pounds. I have no photographs of the actual vehicle, but the wonderfully preserved example of the marque in the picture will give you the general idea.
"The Black Pig", as it became known was somewhat less well preserved.

Keef must have had nerves of steel, because he sat stoicly in the passenger seat every day that we trundled to work and back, with only an occasional sharp intake of breath or an understated, "You might want to give the next cyclist a bit more space...".
I'd like to take the opportunity to thank him here, for his encouragement and self-control.
He also managed not to look shocked or surprised when I subsequently passed my driving test.

Stuff I Learned With My First Car.
How to:-
  • clean a carburetter
  • cope with Birmingham rush-hour traffic on the M5.
  • decoke a cylinder head and grind valve seats.
  • replace a clutch.
  • smoke cigarettes.
  • use a starting handle without breaking my thumb.
  • work out which cylinder is misfiring by short-circuiting each spark-plug with a screwdriver.
  • install a set of windscreen washers. (They weren't fitted as standard in 1959)
  • replace a flat tyre in pitch darkness.
  • replace rusted bodywork with aluminium sheet and timber. (Don't try this at home kids)
  • negotiate with traffic police.
There was one more thing that I learned from my first car.

I never actually had any accidents in "The Black Pig", but during the time that I owned it, the bodywork became more and more decrepit. With one door-sill made of wood, the front wings held together by pop-rivetted plates of aluminium and the headlight mountings so rusted that if I stopped suddenly they were in danger of falling out like joke-shop eye-balls, it was never going to get through an MOT test.
At that time, no breakers yard would pay to take a vehicle that was in such poor shape, so I would have ended up paying them to take it. This seemed even more ridiculous, when my mate Brian told me that, if I were to take the equivalent weight of scrap metal to a breakers yard, they'd happily pay cash for it.

"Right-ho" I said, "Let's do that then."

I bought a 6lb felling-axe from an agricultural supplies store, and we set off to some nearby waste ground to dismantle the car. We simply hacked it apart with the axe. You'd be amazed at how easy it is to sever something as sturdy as a door pillar with a well placed axe blow. Door hinges, engine mountings, engine bulkhead, prop-shaft; you can cut all of them apart with very little difficulty.

In the course of an afternoon we chopped the car into bite-sized pieces, loaded them into Brian's van and then drove them to the scrap yard where they were weighed in as "light ferrous metal".
We didn't get a lot of cash for it, but we did make a (tiny) profit.
It was also good, brutal fun.
So what did it teach me?

Cars are very easy to break. A useful warning to any twenty year-old, I think you'll agree.