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.