Sunday, 26 December 2010

Festive malarkey

So how was your Christmas...? Oh good. How lovely.

My Christmas has been pretty good too, as it happens.

On Christmas Eve, while Blight-of-my-life was out making sure that the horses weren't getting too excitable in the snow, I (finally) put up the Christmas cards.
The "Top Card" award this year was shared by my eldest brother, whose card was a print of one of his own paintings, and my erstwhile work colleague from sunny Devon, who had ensured that his card would be the first we got by sending it in January... and then sent another one that also arrived before all the other cards

Later that evening, my band played at a local pub.
I wasn't too keen on the idea of playing on Christmas Eve, as I thought it might be a bit like being Santa's support act; but it was actually really good fun. Inevitably we were duty bound to include something festive, so "Santa Claus is coming to town" was added to the setlist. We'd also been asked to play Blondie's "One Way or Another" especially for the landlady and it went surprisingly well, considering the minimal rehearsal that we'd given it.

Perhaps the best bit of the gig was an appearance by our special guest vocalist.
Our Lady of The Keyboards had put an armlock on her son Josh and he'd agreed to join us for the last two songs of the first set. As he's a professional performer (World tour with "Mama Mia" and more recently touring in "Dreamboats and Petticoats"), this was a bit of a treat.
It also knocked about ten years off the average age of the band.

Christmas Day itself was very uneventful.
Even though Blight had to see to the horses, I decided that I deserved a lie-in after my night of rock and roll excess and didn't surface until gone ten. At lunchtime, we ambled along to "The Crown" to meet Chemical Al and The One Wise Woman for our customary Christmas drink and then it was a brisk walk home for Christmas Lunch.

This year we had scrambled egg and beans on toast and shortly after that, I went to work.

And if you think that working on Christmas Day isn't much fun, then take a look at this.
This video was shot a few days ago, by Scubamanders, as I decanted the accumulated snow from the bowl. It isn't wildly dramatic, but it isn't something you see every day.

I've been doing this job for nearly ten years, but it was the first time I've done this particular operation.


Thursday, 16 December 2010

Great News...!

I know that you've all been on the edge of your seats, waiting for the news about "The Other" speaking clock.

Well, I am overjoyed to inform you that I've just 'phoned it and the time is now correct, so "Thus Communications" have fixed the problem.

My work here is done; another triumph for the Grumpy Old Men, I'd say.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Apologies to BT: The Speaking Clock is Correct

I'm starting to realise what it's like to be Boris Johnson. This is the second time I've had to publicly apologise in a month.

My previous post, stating that the Speaking Clock was four seconds fast, was not entirely correct. It appears that although the speaking clock messages that I was getting on our telephone system at work have been incorrect, the BT Speaking Clock service is running perfectly.
The most likely culprit for this peculiar problem probably resides somewhere in the telephone system of a third party communications supplier.

Some very helpful comments from one of my long-suffering followers, drew my attention to the fact that our telephone network is no longer a strictly BT operation, so it was quite likely that some third party complication could have nadgered the normally reliable service.
I also had a chat with a chap from The Greenwich Observatory. Although he explained that they are no longer "The Keepers of Time" at Greenwich, his assessment of the problem was in line with Jon's explanation.

Apparently you can effectively buy a speaking clock device for your telephone network. This uses a radio timing signal, broadcast from Anthorn in Cumbria, to keep it locked to the correct time. Unfortunately, if your speaking clock box loses the timing signal, it continues to operate but uses its own internal quartz crystal oscillator to keep on time. If this oscillator isn't running at the right rate, the thing will gradually drift off.

It's plausible that this is what's happened to the rogue speaking clock which I was using.

If it does get sorted out, I'll let you know, but until then,
"At the third stroke, it will be time to make a grovelling apology to BT... PIP...PIP...PIP"

The Speaking Clock is 4 seconds fast

Yesterday I discovered that the BT Speaking Clock was approximately four seconds fast.
But before you rush to your 'phone to check, remember that it is not a free service. I don't want to encourage anyone to increase the income of BT whilst proving the inadequacy of their service.

I spent a fairly frustrating time trying to report the fault, but as anyone who has tried to report a problem using an automated, multiple choice 'phone reporting system will appreciate, as soon as you have a problem that falls outside the normal options, you are snookered.
Eventually, I managed to negotiate my way through the various layers of, "Press one for Billing, press two for Broadband, Press three if you are losing the will to live...", until I was speaking to a human being.
I knew that she was almost certainly not the right person to deal with this particular issue, but I hoped that she might be able to contact the appropriate department.

It did not go terribly well.

Although she was not actually rude, her reaction when I tried to report the problem was somewhat terse. I explained that I realized it was not really the sort of fault that she would normally be resposible for dealing with, but as there appeared to be no other way of getting in contact with the service provider, I was hoping she could either pass the message on herself or refer me to a more appropriate department.
Her response was, "What business is it of yours to tell us that the Speaking Clock is wrong?"
"Well, it is a service that I'm paying for, and it's supposed to be reliable... and not four seconds fast."
"How do you know it's wrong?"
At this point, I decided to keep it simple.
I could have explained that as I was in the Control Room at Jodrell Bank, I had access to two independant Global Positioning Satellite Clocks and our own on-site Atomic Clock, all of which were telling me that the Speaking Clock was wrong.
Instead, I just said, "I checked it against the Greenwich Time signal "pips" at 9 o'clock, broadcast by the BBC. And before you ask, that was the analogue service, not digital."

Now I have no idea whether this has been passed on to anyone in BT who is interested or capable enough to sort it out, but at 7:45 this morning it was still wrong.

I'll let you know when it's been corrected.

The "Station Clock" at Jodrell Bank

Friday, 3 December 2010

Thin ice

We are looking after our neighbour's dog Kiera, for a couple of days, so taking her out for walks has meant that I've been getting rather more excercise than is normal for me.

As if the novelty of being dragged about by an enthusiastic springer spaniel wasn't enough, the fact that we've had a pretty good covering of snow has made it even more entertaining. For a dog, even the most boring looking bit of hedgerow seems to take on added sniff-worthiness when it's smothered in snow, giving all the regular routes added value.

Most of our walks include bits of canal towpath, but as we've been having temperatures of ten below zero whole sections of the canal are frozen over. Narrow boats are ice-locked at their moorings and the ducks are skating about on the surface as they compete for scraps of bread. The only place where the water remains unfrozen is beneath the bridges and this where most of the ducks congregate when they've had enough of people laughing at them as they slither helplessly about on the treacherous surface of the ice.

Spaniels are typically keen to involve themselves with water, not to mention ducks, and Kiera is no exception to this rule, but there is no way that I'm going to allow her off the lead in these conditions. If you think that this is a bit unsporting, consider this.

A few years ago, a friend of ours was walking his dog along the towpath in similar icy conditions to those that we have at the moment. His dog was off the lead and had run onto the ice to harass the ducks. The ducks took a dim view of this and headed for the open patch of water near a bridge, so the dog followed. When the dog neared the clear patch of water, the progressively thinning ice broke under his weight.
The dog was unable to clamber up through the hole and vanished beneath the frozen surface.
Our friend tried to rescue the dog by breaking the ice, but by the time he had waded into the canal, located the unlucky creature and pulled him from the water, the dog was dead.

I was considering this unhappy tale as we strolled along the path, because on the loose snow lying on the ice covered canal were footprints where people had been walking.

The footprints were of an adult and a small child...

Friday, 26 November 2010

"Shackleton's Voyage"

Following the comment from Anonymous on yesterday's post, I thought I'd draw your attention to a rather interesting re-telling of story of The Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition  and of Ernest Shackleton's remarkable achievement.

"Eureka" were not a band that I'd come across before, but Amazon suggested that their CD, "Shackleton's Voyage" was something I might consider worth buying. I listened to the short samples of each of the tracks and was impressed enough by what I heard to order it.

If you are totally averse to Prog Rock or the very idea of a "Concept Album", you may well be strongly inclined to dismiss this piece, but as far as these sort of compositions go, I reckon that it is almost too accessible. If I was forced to compare it with any other album, I'd say that some of it was reminiscent of early Mike Oldfield. There are a few short spoken passages which may remind you of "War of the Worlds" and there is a particularly celtic feel to some sections.

I had a quick trawl through YouTube and found several clips from the album, so here is "Going Home". 

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Let's try not to get caught out...

Back in the early days of this blog, I posted about a particularly memorable occasion, when Blight-of-my-life and I were stranded by snow, on the edge of Dartmoor. As the weather forecast is threatening us with the first snowfall of this winter, it's time to check that my Emergency Kit is all packed and ready for any journeys in bad weather.

Now I don't want to give the impression that I'm some kind of survivalist or apocalypse-watcher, but just taking the trouble to carry a few extra things in your vehicle can make a major impact on your comfort and wellbeing if you are unlucky enough to get caught out by freak weather or some other transport disfunction.

The occasions when I have been least well prepared for being stranded have always been when it was cold, so here's what I try to ensure that I've got with me when I'm driving during the winter.

Extra Clothing: The Land Rover heater is notoriously feeble, so I tend to wrap up warm for normal driving, let alone when conditions are at their worst. To supplement this, I carry a spare long-sleeved thermal vest and thermal "long-johns", woolly hat, gloves, spare fleece and a water-proof cagoul. Another wonderful bit of cold weather clothing are salopettes. I wouldn't normally have bought these, as I don't ski, but I picked up a pair of these quilted over-trousers from a charity shop for a couple of quid.

Footwear: The sort of shoes that are comfortable or practical for driving may not be awfully good for trudging about in snow, so I keep my walking boots in the vehicle. If you can find space for a decent pair of wellington boots, they 're also handy if your journey is disrupted by flood water.

Nesting Material: A lot of drivers keep a car-rug or blanket in their vehicle, but I prefer to carry a sleeping bag. If you can't get home and have to sleep in the car or camped on some good samaritan's floor, a decent sleeping bag can make life much more bearable.

Food & Drink: Although it is recommended that you should keep a few energy snacks in your vehicle; dried fruit, nuts or similar, I usually don't carry these. The thing that will really cheer you up if you're stranded in the cold and/or darkness, is a hot drink. Just the act of brewing up will raise your morale, so I carry a small camping stove, methylated spirit fuel and matches. I keep a few tea-bags in a zip-loc bag, a sachet of instant hot-chocolate drink and I also try to pack a tin of soup.
Whatever you choose to drink, don't forget to take something to drink out of and keep a plastic bottle of fresh water in the car; (It's difficult to make tea without water)

Warning: It's a very bad idea to use a camping stove inside a vehicle. They are intended for outdoor use only. If the possibility of accidentally setting fire to your car isn't enough to discourage you, bear in mind that your stove will produce carbon monoxide and this can kill you.

Other Stuff: Rules for what you must carry in your vehicle vary from country to country, but even if it isn't compulsory for you to carry a First Aid Kit, a decent flashlight, a tow rope and a high visibility jacket, all of these are worth considering.

And finally...
Don't forget to keep some toilet paper in your vehicle, sealed in a polythene bag to keep it dry. If you ever need this and you haven't got any, you are heading for misery.
I'll not elaborate, just trust me on this.


Thursday, 18 November 2010

An apology to neighbours and fellow road-users

Yes folks, it was me... and I'm very sorry.

Driving home on Tuesday evening, I made a bit of a tactical error. I had reckoned that I would have sufficient fuel to get from work to the local Tesco filling station, where I could make use of a "5p Off, per litre" voucher when I filled up with diesel. As you will no doubt have realized, this was wrong. Like an idiot, I chose to not only ignore that little orange fuel light on the dashboard, but I also decided that the increasingly insistent whine from the rear of the vehicle, as the fuel pump struggled to slurp up the dregs in the fuel tank, wasn't a sign of impending trouble.

About half a mile short of the filling station, the inevitable happened. Without a single warning splutter, the engine simply stopped... just as I arrived at a roundabout, in the middle of Macclesfield in evening rush-hour traffic.
Fortunately, once I'd switched on the hazard warning lights, I was able get out and direct the traffic around my stricken vehicle. With the traffic moving (comparatively) freely again, I dug out the 5 litre can of diesel that I carry, and poured the contents into the tank.

Those of you who are familiar with diesel engines will know that putting fuel in isn't normally all that is required to get the motor going again if it has run out. A tedious operation, known as "bleeding", is usually called for. The fuel feed lines to the engine are progressively uncoupled, then fuel is pumped through from the tank until air has been purged from the system and fuel is flowing freely. It's a fiddly and filthy operation, even under the best conditions, so I was very relieved when, after giving the starter motor a serious work-out, the engine burst into life.

So everything was fine again. All I had to do was drive the remaining half mile to Tesco, fill the tank and then trundle home.
That's when the burglar alarm decided to kick off.

I'd just got rolling and had merged into the traffic flow when the piercing, 120 decibel siren began screeching from the engine compartment and my hazard warning lights began pulsing like a demented disco. As I was under the illusion that the burglar alarm system had been disabled some while ago, I was rather surprised at its sudden, miraculous resurrection. I was also wishing that I had kept the little radio transponder that controls the alarm on my key ring, instead of consigning it to the bottom of a drawer in the sideboard at home.
I was forced to drive the final few miles home, accompanied by a ghastly, pulsating din, a frantic lightshow and the puzzled looks of everybody within ear-shot.
I could almost read their lips as I passed. "What does that twat in the Land Rover think he's doing..?"

So, once again. I apologise.
Furthermore, I promise to not to allow myself to run out of fuel and cause traffic mayhem in Macclesfield, and I promise to sort out the burglar alarm system on my vehicle.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Normal service will be resumed, as soon as...

In the words of the song, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone"

We're suffering from the sudden absence of internet at Cyber Mansions at the moment and it is surprising just how irksome this is. Luckily, I still have access to the web at work, but domestically, we have been hurled back in time to the 1990's. The level of inconvenience varies and is wildly subjective. Blight-of-my-life is probably most put out at being forced to start watching weather forecasts on the TV instead of getting up-to-the-minute local forecasts from the Met Office, whereas I find the severing of contact with "Steam", where I have saved positions in a number of games, pretty annoying.

The cause of our exile from the cyberspace is "Mr Belkin", the wireless modem/router. ...and before you ask, Yes, I have tried turning it off and back on again. The computer can see that it is connected to an unidentified network, but no amount of instruction manual driven behaviour has any effect.
It is bereft of life... an ex-router.

To compound the misery, the offending unit is the heart of our domestic Wi-Fi network, so this has curtailed games of "Carcassonne", which I have been playing on my iPod, against a mate of mine in London. I've also had to reorganise our printer, which would normally be networked wirelessly, so that it is temporarily shackled to the PC with a USB cable.

The one good thing about the demise of Mr Belkin is that it has forced me to make a decision to change over to Virgin Media. I'd been seriously considering changing from our current set-up of BT 'phone line and Orange ISP, but the usual, "Well, it's OK, so why bother changing?" kind of mind-set had prevented any decisive action.

So, now we wait for Sir Richard Branson's elves to come and reconnect us with the internet by the magic of optical fibre...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Sculpture: What's that all about...?

It's often tempting to dismiss contemporary art as self-indulgent nonsense. Sometimes it seems that all that an artist has to do, is cobble together a collection of odds and ends, stick it on a plinth and then give it a pretentious name. They then just sit back and wait for some gullible sap to pay them a ludicrous sum of money for it.

In spite of the feeling that in some cases this may well be true, I actually quite enjoy seeing contemporary art.
Even if I can't shake off the suspicion that the artist is just taking the piss, sometimes the thing that they have created can be so visually arresting, beautiful or downright unsettling, that I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Actually getting a really close look at a piece often reveals a level of care and detail that isn't obvious from a first impression. Yes, I enjoy looking at some of this stuff.

A couple of weeks ago, Blight-of-my-life and I went to Chatsworth House, to the fifth annual "Beyond Limits" exhibition of sculpture. From mid September to the end of October, Sothebys put a selection of sculptures on display in the grounds of this stately home, so for the price of entry to the gardens you can wander around and see some outstanding bits of art in beatiful surroundings. Seeing the works set against the background of the autumn countryside was a particular treat. It didn't do any harm that we picked a brilliantly clear day either.

Here are a just a few of the pieces.

"Leftover" : By Zadok Ben-David

 "Butterflies" : By Manolo Valdes

"Eve" : By Richard Hudson

If you fancy a look at some of the others, the site is well worth a visit..

Oh, and by the way...
...if you think that  this splendid chunk of bronze looks familiar, then I'm afraid you may be as sad a case as I am.

"Cubo 1" : By Arnaldo Pomodoro

Borg Cube from Star Trek: "Resistance is futile..."

Sunday, 31 October 2010

What time is it...?

I'd like to make an appeal to all of you lucky folk who have been wallowing in the luxury of an extra hour in bed, this morning.

Spare a thought for shift workers.

Yes, it's that time of year again, when we "put the clocks back" by an hour, taking us from the balmy days of British Summer Time to the dismal gloom of Greenwich Mean Time.

Why am I asking you to consider those of us that do shift work?

Well, here's the thing.
My colleague who was working the night shift last night, began work at 23:45 and would normally finish at 08:15, eight and a half hours later.
Unfortunately for him, at 02:00, he had to put his watch back to 01:00 and do the hour between 01:00 and 02:00 for a second time. Therefore he was expected to work for nine and a half hours instead.
Obviously, if someone always works night shifts, the situation is reversed in Spring, so they work for an hour less on the shift that the clocks are changed.
Our shift pattern is not fixed, however, so there is no guarantee that the person who wins in the Spring, will be the loser in the Autumn.

To help spread the misery (or joy), all of the Jodrell Bank Telescope Controllers have a "Gentleman's Agreement" to split these problematic hours between the two people working the Night Shift and the Day Shift.

It ought to have been simple enough, you'd think.
All I had to do was, get to work in time to let my colleague go home after he had done an extra half hour. It should have been especially easy as I actually didn't have to arrive at work until half an hour later than usual, even though the clock would show it as half an hour earlier.
The trouble was, that a few years ago I had the same set of circumstances and I got it hopelessly wrong.
A miscalculation with the time I was expected to get to work, combined with a mistake setting my alarm clock (a particularly smart model, which automatically resets itself to the correct time by picking up radio signals from an atomic clock somewhere) and the net result was that arrived at work one and a half hours early.
I really didn't want to witness for a second time, the complex and infuriating mixture of glee and pity that passed across my colleague's face when he realized what I'd managed to do.

This time it would be different..
I'd set the clock correctly. I knew when I was supposed to get up. I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. Blight of-my-life had double-checked the calculations. There was no way I was going to get caught out again.

Unfortunately, the brilliantly hi-tech radio-linked, bloody clock failed to pick up the radio signal that should have told it to change to GMT, and it woke me up an hour earlier than I'd intended, at five o'clock.

Next time I need to work out what time it is, I shall ask a man (and I use the term in its loosest sense) who knows.

Ready when you are, Eccles...

Monday, 18 October 2010

Another close call

It's been an unusually fruitful week for "Good News" stories.

The dramatic rescue of 33 Chilean miners after ten weeks trapped half a mile underground was as impressive as it was unexpected.

I've lost count of the number of times the news has featured stories of groups of miners, from China to Canada, who have perished following some underground catastrophe. Even when the stranded workers have been detected and are known to be alive, launching any kind of rescue or even establishing an emergency supply of food and water simply takes too long. The signs of life dwindle and the silence grows until all hope fades, the inevitable press statement is delivered and the pit-head crowds disperse.

This time it was different. The men, who I was sure wouldn't survive, confounded expectations and all came back from the darkness.

Somewhat closer to home, I've just found out that my nephew Dan had a rather close call last November.
He's a medic in the Royal Army Medical Corp and has been serving in Afghanistan. While on patrol in Helmand Province, his group were ambushed by insurgents and took some casualties.
I can barely imagine what it must have been like, but in spite of sustained enemy fire, Dan and another of his team were carrying out an emergency tracheotomy on a wounded comrade, attempting to restore his airway. During the course of this technically demanding surgical procedure, Dan's helmet was hit by enemy gunfire.
A bullet punched through the front of his helmet and out through the back. Astonishingly, the bullet passed close enough to the side of his head to scorch a furrow through his hair without breaking the skin.
In spite of this, he carried on with the operation until they were able to get the wounded man airlifted out of the combat zone.

You can read the newspaper article on the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph website

For his courage whilst carrying out emergency surgery under such extraordinarily perilous conditions, Dan has been awarded  the Military Cross.
This honour is granted in recognition of  "an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land".

There is a sad post-script to this story.
In spite of all Dan's efforts, the injured soldier subsequently died of his wounds.
Sometimes it seems there's just not enough good luck to go round.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

...and it was all going so well

A few days ago, I decided that I'd post an update on the state of my model railway. OK, it's fair to admit that there hasn't been a lot of progress since I last mentioned it, but I had, at long last, got all the track stuck down.

I had got power to all sections of the layout and successfully run a locomotive over the whole thing. I'd even been tempted to video this, but had decided to wait until I had all the points wired up so that we wouldn't have "Hand of God" intruding into scene to operate the points when the engine was directed into a siding.

Before fitting the point motors, I realized that if I wasn't going to make it really difficult to route some of the wiring, I needed to make an extra access hole in the baseboard beneath the upper level. So I got out the power drill and a 19mm spade bit to bore some holes that would allow me to get the pad-saw in and cut a nice, hand-sized hole.

When the drill bit broke through on the first hole, I discovered an unpleasant design flaw in my grand scheme.

The drill bit burst through rather abruptly and overshot into the underside of the upper level. If it had just buried itself into the undersurface it wouldn't have been so bad. Instead of that, it simply knocked the whole upper layer off, leaving it dangling by the hideously mangled section of track spanning the gap which will, in due course, have a bridge across it.

This was a bit of a surprise.

I'd made a really good job of glueing the upper level to little wooden pillars and I've never had a problem with Evostick woodworking adhesive before. It sticks like shi... Well, let's just say it's very effective at sticking things together.
The problem wasn't that the glue had failed, it was the wretched MDF board. The surface had simply torn away from the body of the board.  The cohesive strength of Medium Density Fibre board must be feeble. It's probably harder to tear the skin off a rice pudding.

I should have used plywood.

So, a bit of a set-back.
I've cut away the wrecked section of track and will be replacing it when I've worked out how to prevent a similar MDF failure happening if I have another visit from Mr Hamfisted.

Where are you now, Isambard Kingdom Brunel?

Friday, 17 September 2010


When I was a kid, my parents had  just one wardrobe. I don't suppose it was particularly large, as wardrobes go, but to me it seemed enormous.
It was a great, looming wooden thing and although it wasn't terribly wide, the single door at the front made it appear somewhat taller than it was.

The wardrobe was covered in a pale, wood veneer and there were some carved bits of decoration framing the door. But the most intriguing thing about this piece of furniture was the curious pattern adorning the slightly curved face of the door. Worked into the veneer was a pale abstract pattern similar to an oak leaf. It was just the sort of pattern that could start to look like anything if you stared at it for long enough; a bird, a face, a monster...

As I grew up, I never really gave a lot of thought to the work that had gone into that pattern, although at some point I must have realized that it hadn't been an original feature and that it must have been something that my Dad had done. The glorious smoothness of the finish was typical of the care that he lavished on any of the wood-work that he produced.
Certainly your eye could be snared by the strangely ragged outline of this pale feature, but your fingertips would never detect any irregularity in the silky surface texture.
So it was clearly his handiwork, but the mystery remained as to why he'd created such an odd pattern.

The truth was that my Dad didn't actually choose the shape that was incised into what should have been an unblemished panel.

In 1940, my parents hadn't been married for very long and they were living in the East End of London. When The Blitz began in September of that year, they were just another couple of Londoners trying to survive the remorseless, nightly bombardments.
When the air-raid sirens sounded they retreated in the darkness to an Anderson Shelter and hoped for the best, as the bombs fell and the fires burned.
They were lucky. The house that they were living in wasn't destroyed, but during one particular night, the blast from a nearby explosion sent a shock wave through the house that toppled that mighty wardrobe onto the rail at the foot of their bed, gouging a huge hole in the pristine surface of its door.

As wartime newlyweds, my parents didn't have lot. That wardrobe was one of the few items of furniture that they owned and there was certainly no way that they could afford to replace it.

So my Dad repaired it.
He patched the hole with wood filler, sanded it smooth and revarnished the door until the whole thing was better than new.

As it's the Seventieth Anniversary of the start of The Blitz, there's quite a lot of stuff in the media commemorating the events that took place and how they shaped our world.
There are countless stories of heroism or folly, of dreadful loss or extraordinary good fortune, and yet to me, the image of my Dad repairing that wardrobe represents the quiet determination of so many of the people who lived through the Second World War.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

It's curtains...

Bearing in mind that I've just returned to work after a couple of weeks holiday, you could be forgiven for expecting me to be relaxed and full of mellow good will. Unfortunately, instead of an uplifting and whimsical post about all the lovely things "wot we did on our holidays", I'm going to subject you to a brief rant about dry cleaning.

 [Oh dear... Where's everybody gone?]

We don't normally have much need for the services of dry cleaners, but after a lot of muttering and deliberating about whether to ignore the fabric care label on the living room curtains, Blight-of-my-life decided it would be more sensible to get them dry cleaned than risk bunging them in the washing machine.
After a few 'phone calls, it became clear that there is a surprisingly wide variation in the cost of getting curtains cleaned. To make things slightly more complicated, some shops quote for cleaning by weight of material, while others quote based on the size of the curtains per square metre.

After a only a brief struggle, the curtains were down, weighed and measured. A few calculations on the back of an envelope and it became obvious that the best deal could be had at one particular shop as long as the cleaning was priced by the square metre.

The curtains were duly bundled into the car, then while I suffered the mind numbing tedium of washing all the curtain hooks, runners and rails, Blight sped off to the dry cleaner's.

When she returned, she was not happy.
"Well, that was a complete waste of time."
"Why? What went wrong?"
"I've had to bring 'em back. They're still in the car"
"But why? Why wouldn't they clean them?"
"They couldn't take them because their computer's not working."
"What? I didn't realize that the cleaning was computer controlled..."
"It's nothing to do with the cleaning. It's the computer they use to calculate the cost of cleaning that's faulty."
"Couldn't they just work it out with a pencil and paper, like you did? Or even a calculator... It's only multiplying the area of the curtains by the cost per square metre, isn't it?"
"That's what I told them," she said, "but apparently they have to use the computer to do that. They're incapable of calculating area"
"But that's completely stupid."
"It's worse than that. They said they'd give me a price to clean them by weight. They weighed them and quoted me forty quid more than it would be by area."
"Bloody hell... No wonder you brought them back."

So there you have it.
A shop staffed by people who cannot multiply two lengths together to work out the area of a curtain.

Not all the muppets live on Sesame Street...

Sunday, 15 August 2010

A killer in the bushes

You see this pretty yellow flower?

Lovely isn't it?

It's a plant that grows all year round, but it looks at its best around now when the flowers are fully in bloom. At this time of year you sometimes see quite large clumps of it in fields or decorating the roadside verges.

It's called ragwort...

...and it's very bad news indeed.

Ragwort is poisonous and represents a major health risk to livestock in general and horses in particular. It contains an alkaloid that, once ingested, remains in the body. Sufficient accumulations of this poison can lead to blindness and liver failure. Even if ragwort has been cut down, the poison remains in the dead plant material so it is still toxic. The only safe way to dispose of it is to burn it.

I'm delighted to report that the Highways Department of our County Council (Cheshire East) are very good at dealing with ragwort. Every August they seem to have a blitz on it and you can see them digging it up and taking it away to be burnt. If everyone else made a similar effort, we might stand a better chance of eliminating scenes like this.

This image is from the World Horse Welfare website, where there's more information on how to help eliminate this lethal weed.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Another way to confuse chuggers

I'm not a great fan of "chuggers". Although they almost always make extraordinary efforts to be polite and cheerful, there is something rather unpleasant about being waylaid by an earnest young person clutching a clip-board, who tries to engage you in a conversation as a prelude to signing up to donate to their good cause.

It is not a job that I would want to do.
I'm sure that spending the day being ignored, avoided or abused must be a soul destroying experience. Not only are these people less welcome on a busy shopping street than that bloke miming getting out of a glass box, but they have to wear a hideous tabard as well.
I don't like what they have to do for a living but I have some sympathy for their situation, so I don't consider it fair to be rude or unpleasant if I get tagged

There are much better ways of making an encounter with a charity mugger a joyful experience, as I discovered yesterday afternoon.

I was strolling along one of the busier pedestrianised streets of Macclesfield.
I had just been to the library and as I had forgotten to take a bag with me, I had an armful of books.
I spotted the chuggers in the distance and as I got closer, it occurred to me that the largest book that I was carrying was a similar size to the clip-boards that the sales team were armed with.
I had an idea.

One of the team was right in front of me, but instead of veering away and using traditional evasive tactics, I caught his eye and headed straight towards him.
Before he had a chance to open his mouth, I stepped up and said,
"Hi.", then pointing at the book I was carrying, said "would you like to buy this?"
He hesitated, taken off-guard.
"Er... No. No thanks."
"OK. Sorry to have bothered you."
I nodded farewell and before he had a chance to work out what had gone wrong, I walked on.

Sometimes it's the little things that make life worth living.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

I write like...

One of the good folk who follow this blog (thanks again, Mean Queen) was very complimentary about my writing style recently, so when East of North drew my attention to the "I Write Like" site, I thought I'd see what it came up with.

"I Write Like" is a site which claims to determine which author's style your own writing most resembles. All you have to do is cut and paste a chunk of text into the space provided, then click on the "Analyze" button for it to give you its verdict.

"Jolly good," I thought, "I'll try my most recent blog post and see what it makes of that."
As you can imagine, I was really pleased to discover that I write like Douglas Adams.

I write like
Douglas Adams
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Naturally, I wondered if it would give the same answer for other samples from the blog so I submitted another post for scrutiny.
This time I was likened to James Joyce.
"James Joyce! Blimey, how cool is that!", I thought.

Then it all went downhill.

A couple more posts were offered up for analysis and to my dismay they revealed that their style matched that of Dan Brown.
My dreams of being a literary giant were well and truly punctured.

Then, just for a laugh, I analyzed a business document that I had written and the result was...

Let me put it this way. If you were a manager and received a document that had been written in the style of the man described by Stephen King as "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.", how do you think you would react?

Yes, I write like H. P. Lovecraft.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Rarer than a Solar Eclipse

I quite often have to remind people that I am not an astronomer.
This is probably a less familiar disclaimer than "I am not a lawyer..." or "I am not a doctor...", but it is something that I need to say every so often, because there is a reasonable expectation that somebody who sits at the controls of the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank must be an astronomer.
It may surprise you, but employing an astronomer as a Controller to operate the Lovell Radio Telescope has traditionally been discouraged.
The reasoning behind this seemingly bizarre policy, is that you want the people who are operating the telescope to be focussed on the wellbeing of the instrument rather than the research that is being carried out.
For example. Someone who is keen to complete a particular astronomical observation might be reluctant to stop observing even though the strength of the wind has risen to a point where the structure could suffer irreperable damage.

In spite of not being an astronomer I do need to know some astronomy and so I have to refer to "The Astronomical Almanac". This is published each year and contains a vast array of data concerning the behaviour of the Sun, Moon, the Planets and Pluto, as well as coordinates of many different types of stars and galaxies.
Amongst the phenomena that are listed are any eclipses of the Sun or Moon and where they can be observed on the Earth's surface. I used to think that solar eclipses were pretty unusual but since I started working as a Telescope Controller, I've discovered that they happen comparatively often. Two years ago there were two total eclipses of the Sun, last year there was one, and if you were on The Cook Islands, Polynesia or the southern tip of South America just over a week ago you would have been ideally place to experience the phenomenon.

Something that is far rarer than an eclipse is getting all six Telescope Controllers together at the same time. For safe operation of our telescopes it is essential that there is always a Controller on duty, for every hour of every day of the year. This, of course means that on any day, three Controllers will be covering the eight hour shifts while the remaining three will be on rest days or on leave.

In the ten years that I've been doing the job I had never seen more than four Controllers in the same room at the same time, but last Thursday we finally managed to get the full set.

...and here's the proof.

They said it couldn't be done... 

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The family curse

Yes. I can reveal that our family is beset by a dreadful curse.

We seem powerless to resist the siren call of the bass guitar.

OK, it can't compete with the Hound of the Baskervilles, but there is something vaguely unsettling about the way it follows us.
It shows no respect for either age or gender and it can strike without warning at any time.

The first victim was the elder of my two brothers. He played bass in a group in Worcestershire around the end of the 1960s. As far as I can remember, they stuck together for a couple of years playing functions and some local clubs, although I never saw them play. I do remember the guitar he had though, a rather pleasing Hofner Blonde semi-acoustic.

It was several years after my brother had stopped playing that I fell under the spell. A friend of mine decided that a smart way to supplement our meagre wages would be to form a dance band. As we were living near Torquay at the time, he reckoned it would be a doddle to get some gigs during the tourist season. I had played acoustic guitar in folk clubs for several years, but I'd never considered playing in a band before, so I was quite surprised when he suggested that I join him. I probably could have resisted if he hadn't said the one thing guaranteed to sucker me in.
"You'd look great playing bass", he said, and I fell for it.

At the end of that summer, the band broke up and we went our separate ways. I moved to Cheshire and although I kept the Fender Jazz copy that had served me so well, it was exiled to the loft.
It seemed that I had shaken off the curse.

Then another member of the family was ensnared. This time it was the daughter of my other brother. The curse had somehow skipped a generation, missing him but catching my niece instead.
To make matters worse, at around this time I was lured out of retirement by a work-mate who was learning to play the guitar and needed someone to play with. I retrieved my bass from the loft and discovered how much I'd missed playing it. I began practicing again. I bought a Rickenbacker 4003. I was invited to join a band. We played a few gigs. We split up. I joined another band...

...and we're still gigging.

A few of days ago, it was my eldest brother's birthday, so I 'phoned him for a bit of a chat.
It turns out that he's just got hold of another bass guitar and has started playing again.
After all these years of lying dormant, the curse has re-awakened and caught up with him.
He's just turned sixty-nine.

Happy Birthday mate!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

England Football Team .v. Nightflight

Well that's a bit unfortunate.

In a major upset, England's abysmally under performing football team have somehow managed not to get eliminated from the next stage of the FIFA World Cup. 

Their failure to get beaten by Slovenia yesterday has put them into the knock-out stages of the tournament where their next game will be against Germany at three o'clock on Sunday afternoon.

This is a cruel bit of scheduling, as it means that the game will take place at the same time as my band will be on stage, playing at the Langley Village Fete...

 "Nightflight" make a desperate attempt to cheer up disappointed football fans...

Monday, 21 June 2010

...while the sun shines

We had our hay baled yesterday evening.

The weather has been very cooperative this year, so we haven't had the usual stress of the grass being mowed then watching it laying in the field as a succession of rain storms sweep in and soak it.
Glumly fretting as the sodden crop fails to dry sufficently for it to be baled seems to have become an almost inevitable part of our summer.

This year we've been luckier. The grass was cut in the middle of last week and although we had a bit of a shower on Friday, the sun and a fresh breeze had dried it enough for it to be ready to bale today.

I quite enjoy haymaking.

The weather is generally pretty balmy and because you know you're taking part in a successful harvest, it's a genuinely "feel good" event.
We don't have an enormous amount to gather in, so even though manhandling the bales involves much more physical effort than I'm normally used to these days, it never takes so long that the novelty wears off.

... and as I usually get to drive the Land Rover with the trailer, I cunningly avoid most of the heavy lifting.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

"'Ello, I wish to register a complaint..."

It's funny the things that you take for granted.

There was a time when it was pretty hard work to get satisfaction from a retailer if the goods that you had bought were faulty.
If you took something back to a shop, you could generally expect scepticism and even outright hostility from the shop assistant for daring to return an item that had been unfit for purpose.
Getting your money back was often next to impossible even if you had a receipt, the original packaging and the bag that the assistant had put he wretched thing in when you bought it.

The phrase "The customer is always right", was a hollow sham.

I have a feeling that it was this environment and the recognition of the helplessness of shoppers that made Monty Python's "Dead Parrot Sketch" such a perfect creation.
In those dark days before The Trades Descriptions Act, anyone who had ever bought something that was a dud could sympathise with Mr Praline (John Cleese) as he struggled to get satisfaction from the pet-shop owner (Michael Palin).

Thankfully things are much more sensible these days, so the trip to Tesco's to return a pack of five pairs of underpants, was completely stress-free.
The amount that the first pair had shrunk when they went through the wash was obvious when compared with an unworn pair, so the lady at the Customer Service desk didn't hesitate to offer a refund and an apology for the inconvenience

The only difficulty I had during the encounter, was resisting the almost overwhelming temptation to put on a hilariously amusing, high-pitched voice as I explained the problem.

Oh... all right then.... here's that sketch again.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Heroes with an ASBO... and a BAFTA too

Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to see that "Misfits", which I quietly raved about a few months back, had not only managed to get a BAFTA nomination but actually won the award for the Best TV Drama Series.

Considering that they were up against such quality, BBC productions as "Spooks", "Being Human" and "The Street", this is not a trivial achievement.

When the series was originally broadcast, it didn't seem to get a lot of attention. I don't know whether this was due to the misconception that, in the wake of "Smallville" and "Heroes", it was just another super-hero series, or simply that it was shown on "E4" and so a little less obvious in the TV schedules. Whatever the reason was for this apparent lack of interest, I started to feel as if I was the only person who was following the exploits of the delinquent characters as they tried to come to terms with the powers that had been inflicted on them.

None of the characters were immediately likeable and some were so abrasive, objectionable or just plain creepy, that it was quite uncomfortable to watch. These were the sort of young people who, if they got onto your bus, you'd want to move to a seat as far from them as possible.

The super-powers that the characters were lumbered with by the deliberately cliche "Strange Electrical Storm" were nothing we hadn't seen before, and yet the way that the bewildered recipients of these unwelcome talents came to terms with them was entirely fresh. Another master stroke was not revealing the nature of some of the abilities, until well into the series.

After each episode I found myself thinking, "Blimey! That was good... they can't possibly keep this up."
But they did keep it up. Right to the very end of the final episode.

...and now I've discovered that there's second series coming in November.


Friday, 4 June 2010

...we certainly were

 I've just noticed the strap line on the poster for "2012"

Yes, we were warned...

...but I still wasted over two hours watching it.