Sunday, 30 May 2010

I should have listened to Dr Kermode

If I was ever deluded enough to think I could become a contestant on 'Mastermind', one of my most likely choices for specialist subject would be "The End Of Civilization As We Know It, as depicted in popular works of fiction".

I've been keen on this type of story ever since I first read a tattered paperback copy of "The Day of The Triffids" that I found in the loft when I was about ten years old. It made me realize that there was a lot about my cosy life that I took for granted and while it was unlikely that we were in imminent danger of being over-run by carnivorous vegetables, "things could go wrong".
Since then, my world has been destroyed many times over, by various agencies. Alien invasion, polar ice-caps melting, global virus pandemic, asteroid impact and nuclear apocalypse. Anything that could go wrong, has gone wrong. And it's all been jolly entertaining too.

...until we get to "2012", which we watched the other night.

"2012" is a film from Roland Emmerich which must have sounded like a wonderful idea when they pitched it.
"Well it's about the end of the world, y'see. The earth's core goes wrong and there's like, earthquakes all over and cities slide into the sea and skyscrapers fall down and trains explode and the US President is very brave (and the Queen of England isn't) and more stuff blows up and planes fly through collapsing office buildings and then some guy saves his family from falling down a crack in the earth and ocean going liners capsize and even more stuff explodes and there's all these tidal waves and...and.....and.... more shit blows up. Oh and did I mention the President being brave?..."

This is a film with everything falling down and blowing up and drowning and burning that somehow manages to be dull. How on earth have they done that?
It is a movie that is so packed with CGI special effects that there's no space for anything else.

Is there a plot? Well, yes there is, but it's barely more than a flimsy thread from which hang an endless sequence of CGI set-pieces.
Are the characters believable? No. The actors in this film are little more than cyphers. Let's see what we've got. Heroic, but estranged father? Check! Russian crime lord? Check! Prostitute with a heart of gold? Check! Doomed scientists who weren't listened to when they warned us about what was going on? Check! Tibetan monks? Check! Plucky pet dog? Check!

Is it possible to care about anyone in the story? No. Once your single-parent family man has saved his children from the umpteenth computer generated and utterly unconvincing earthquake/tidal wave/exploding aircraft/collapsing shopping mall, you get a bit jaded. Even though the world is supposedly falling to bits, it's difficult to work up any sympathy for characters who are so obviously not in any real peril.
I felt that there should have been a disclaimer, similar to that of The American Humane Association at the end of the film , stating "No stunt persons were endangered during the making of this motion picture."
When a CGI aircraft flies through a collapsing CGI building in "2012", absolutely nobody is going to get hurt. When stunt pilot, Frank Tallman flew a twin engined Beechcraft 18 through a roadside advertising billboard in the film "It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world", there was every chance that he was going to get injured. It's a genuinely breathtaking and audacious piece of work.

To sum up. "2012" is a disaster movie and yet the level of disappointment that such an apparently thrilling spectacle actually delivers is well summed up in the BBFC consumer advice : "Contains moderate threat and one use of strong language".
It's supposed to be the end of the world, for crying out loud. I'd expect something more than "moderate threat".

When Mark Kermode reviewed this film, he went into full rant mode about how poor this film is.
I should have listened...

Frank Tallman (1919 - 1978)

The clip, showing this astonishing bit of flying is no longer available through YouTube, as MGM have blocked it.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 10: Wednesday 26th May

Well, He's done it!

At quarter past nine this evening, Frank reached John O'Groats after a covering a total distance of 925 miles since last Monday

His last day on the road was another outstanding effort.
As he set off, at 6:30 this morning, it was raining. His first message was pretty downbeat: "psng dn! cold wet hungry. Not happy", but half an hour later, things were starting to look up. As he cleared Slochd Summit at 1328 feet above sea-level he could see that there was a break in the clouds ahead of him.

When he reached Inverness, he stoked up with coffee and a big, fatty breakfast in the warmth of the cafe at Morrison's. He admitted that the fat probably wouldn't be helpful, but it certainly felt good.
At a little after 3 pm he passed Dornoch and turned North-East for the final push towards Wick. With the wind almost behind him he was beginning to believe that he could make it to the finish before nightfall.

As Frank forged onwards, I went out to rehearse with my band. While we were setting up the gear, a text arrived from Wick, and at 9:15 the news came through that he had finally made it to John O'Groats.

When I 'phoned him, after our rehearsal had finished, he had already cycled back to Wick!
He was staying at a small hotel and was about to find the bar, so I didn't want to detain him for too long. He sounded understandably happy and thanked everyone who has been following his exploits for their support.

Of course doing the ride was the easy bit.
Now he's got to collect the sponsorship money...

View Larger Map

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 9

Contrary to what the date of this post would have you believe, this concerns Frank's progress on Tuesday 25th May 2010.

I'm working a series of Night Shifts this week, so as I was arriving home from work, Frank will have been doing his stretching excercises and psyching himself up for another day in the saddle. Suffice to say, I was fast asleep when the first of his texts came through from Perth, at about 11:20 am.

His next message marked the completion of 700 miles as follows:
"£7 rs sore! Legs OK. Right ankle going down... no up... no down. Oh yeah, it's on a pedal. Got caught talking to myself in Perth...."

By the time I'd woken up, at about 2:30 this afternoon, a third text had arrived announcing that there was less than 200 miles to go before he reached John O'Groats.

Another five hours and he had reached Aviemore, with views of snow on the mountains.

The last update of the day was from somewhere about 20 miles short of Inverness. He had found a pleasant spot to camp in a forest and was settling in for the night having covered 122miles. The roads had been good, but for a lot of the distance the wind hadn't been too favourable, so it had knocked down has average speed for the day to less than 13 mph.

He sounds as if he is in pretty good shape and with just* 140 miles left, it would take a something pretty serious to prevent him achieving his goal.

To quote Reallyfatbloke, "Franktastic".

* I can't believe I used the phrase "just 140 miles left"

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 8

It was suspiciously quiet this morning.

There were no text messages from our intrepid cyclist and I was starting to wonder whether he'd had some kind of crisis. Even though he's already broken the back of the journey, there are still several hundred miles to go before he gets to John O'Groats.
Certainly it seems  increasingly likely that he will complete the challenge, but it cannot be taken for granted.

By late afternoon, there was still no news until, shortly after five o'clock, I got a text to say that he had made it to Edinburgh. It also said that it was raining.
Although it was tempting to tell him how the weather was still warm and sunny down here in England, I decided that this would probably not be terribly welcome.

The last update of the day came through at 7:20 pm, as Frank crossed the Forth Road Bridge. I assume that the rain had stopped as I'm pretty sure he'd have mentioned it, had it still been falling.

It was particularly thoughtful of him to give me the opportunity to include a picture of the two Forth Bridges.
Cheers Mate.

Special Note:
Although this post is dated Tuesday 25th May, it actually refers to Monday 24th. 
It's a shift work thing.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 7

So after a night's rest at the campsite in Scorton, Frank set off again along the A6 near Lancaster.
At just after noon, I got a text informing me that he'd reached Shap and had therefore clocked up five hundred miles. The next message was less encouraging.

When my mobile bleated to announce another incoming text, it read; "Lying in field. Everything hurts. Birds circling overhead. I think they're crows. I've seen too many films not to know I'm doomed!"

I decided that I should adopt a positive motivational tone and responded with, "Errr... Sounds grim. Drink beer."

I think he must have taken my advice, because about three hours later he reported in from a campsite at Ecclefechan, with the news that he'd covered 102 miles today.
The climb at Shap had clearly been a major effort though, and it will have had a significant effect on the average speed for the day, which was a mere 11mph.

These aren't crows...

Saturday, 22 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 6

Once again, the first text message of the day arrived as I was having breakfast.
Frank was just setting off, but he wasn't expecting to make huge progress, as his ankles had swollen up. This was not encouraging news, because it was trouble with his achilles tendons that put paid to his previous attempt on this route. He reckoned he'd just aim for Preston and see how it went.

By the time I'd driven to Worcestershire and arrived at the rehearsal studio, there were two more messages.
The first was timed at 10:41, marking the passing of the 400 mile point, while the second had been sent from Wigan at 13:22. Not such dreadful progress  then.
The drummer I was rehearsing with was very sympathetic, as he'd done the same journey some years ago. He said that he'd never quite got over how when he'd reached Scotland, there was so much further left to go. I decided not to pass this depressing thought on to Frank.

By the time our rehearsal was over and we'd been for some refreshment at "The Plough" in Pershore, Frank had reached the campsite at Scorton where he will be spending tonight.

As I drove the hundred miles homeward, back up the M6, I struggled to get my head round the fact that for the last few days, Frank has been repeatedly covering the same distance on a bike.



Friday, 21 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 5

I got a text message from Frank as I was having breakfast.
The gist of it was that he'd made it to Biddulph Moor and would be having the rest of the day off.
OK, he was going to spend some of the time fettling his bike to make sure it was in tip-top shape for the second (long) half of the expedition, but at least it would be a day out of the saddle and a chance to recover in the comfort of his own home.

I decided to nip into Jodrell and pick up some mail. I had a quick chat with a couple of colleagues in the Control Room, collected my post and headed back to the car park.

Just as I was about to leave, Frank rolled up in his car.
He looked surprisingly fit for someone who's just cycled about 400 miles in 4 days. When I asked him what made him abandon trying to make it home yesterday, he confessed that he'd been getting pretty hungry at about six o'clock, so he'd stopped at a pub for a meal. It would have been rude not to have a beer while he was waiting for his fish pie to arrive, so he had a pint. It was very good. It was so good, in fact that he decided it would be much more sensible to have another beer and camp for the night, rather than over-exert himself.

So tomorrow he's off again, heading towards the wilds of Lancashire.
I, on the other hand, will be driving in the opposite direction, as I'm going to Worcestershire, to spend several hours in a studio in Pershore in "Prog Monster" mode, so the Twitter updates may be a bit few and far between.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 4

Details of Frank's progress were a bit sketchy today, but the first news that arrived was at about 10:30 this morning, announcing that he was leaving Monmouthshire and heading into Herefordshire.

When I texted my congratulations at escaping from Wales, his response was that he hadn't escaped, but had been thrown out of the country for smelling like he'd been sleeping in the corner of a field.

I was in the Stockport branch of PC World when his next meassage arrived, and it was a request to check the distance from Shrewsbury to Biddulph Moor. I made a quick 'phone call home and after a swift bit of Googling, Blight-of-my-life had the information Frank needed.
If he was going to make it home to the luxury of a night's sleep in his own bed, he would need to do about 20 miles to get to Shrewsbury and then a further 50 miles to Biddulph Moor. This seemed like a bit of a tall order to me, but he reckoned that he'd give it try.

Half an hour later, I received another text message that simply said "£3", to inform anyone who is sponsoring him at a penny a mile, that they now owe three quid. (I make that 300 miles, mathematics fans)

The final message of the day was just before 9:00 pm, announcing that he'd run out of steam at Hopton near Stafford and was camping in yet another field.

Sleep well...

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 3

First I need to tell you that neither of the alternatives I had given for Frank's fate at the end of yesterday were correct. The good news is that he wasn't eaten by the Beast of Bodmin Moor, but the bad news is that the campsite that I had suggested was so far off his route that it was completely inappropriate.
Rather than traipse off into the wilds of East Worlington, he found a secluded spot in a field somewher near Crediton and did a bit of "stealth camping".

According to his first message of the day, it started raining at about three in the morning, so it was pretty wet until around about eleven o'clock and progress along the A361 was comparatively slow. To make matters worse, all the campsites that he had failed to find the night before seemed to have maliciously re-located themselves.
He passed dozens of them before he'd reached Bridgewater.

At around about four o'clock in the afternoon, he was still close to Weston super Mare, so I fully expected him to find somewhere suitable to camp just South of Bristol.

Yet again I was wrong.
Shortly before nine o'clock, I got a text announcing his arrival at Chepstow, so he has not only blown through Bristol, but he has crossed the mighty Severn Estuary.
I am very impressed.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 2

Well it appears that today has gone rather well.

I've no idea what time it was when Frank set off from his campsite this morning, but his first text message came in at shortly after 9:30 as he passed Camborne.
By 1:30pm, he had made it as far as Bodmin Moor, but the best news was just a couple of hours later, when a text arrived announcing that the first hundred miles had been completed.

As he approached Okehampton, he began looking for a suitable campsite for the night but was thwarted several times by misleading signposts, so he decided that a better approach would be to nip into the Tourist Information Office in the town and see if they could direct him to a suitable site. Rather predictably, he arrived at the Office shortly after it had closed for the day.

Luckily the "Cyberkim Tourist Advisory Service" was still open for business, so he 'phoned me and asked if I could have a quick look on-line for somewhere suitable to stop for the night. I found what looks like a reasonable place in East Worlington, near Crediton and gave him their telephone number. As I've heard nothing else since then, I am assuming that the campsite was suitable and that he is now safely tucked up in his tent, dreaming of the next 900 miles.

...unless he's been eaten by the Beast of Bodmin Moor.

Monday, 17 May 2010

End to End Frank: Day 1

Frank has texted a couple of progress reports today as he started his attempt to ride from Lands End to John O'Groats.
It doesn't sound as if the endeavour has started terribly well.

At some point during the train journey down to Penzance, some kids fell onto the enormous parcel that contained the component parts of his bicycle and some kind of damage was inflicted on the lever that operates the rear gear mechanism.
Although Frank is carrying the tools he expected to need to re-assemble and maintain the bike, it sounds as if the damage would have been easier to sort out with a more comprehensive toolkit.

Nevertheless, it seems that after a couple of hours of bodging, the gear change mechanism "sort of works" and Frank has made it from Penzance down to the tip of the country. Hopefully, he'll be getting a good night's sleep at the campsite somewhere near Sennan.

View Larger Map

Friday, 14 May 2010

On yer bike, Frank!... again.

Around about this time last year Frank, one of our electricians at Jodrell Bank, made an attempt at cycling from Lands End to John O'Groats. Unfortunately, it didn't go well.

At something like a thousand miles, this ride from one end of the country to the other is an ambitious undertaking. It's not for the faint-hearted, the unfit or the under-prepared and even then, things can conspire to make what is already a difficult challenge into an impossible one. I don't know what the final straw was that ultimately made Frank admit defeat somewhere near Bristol, but he was clearly pretty dejected by the experience when he returned to work, muttering about rain, wind and achilles tendons.

This year, he's having another crack at it.

Once again, as if it wasn't already a seriously tough proposition, he's doing it solo with no support crew and carrying a tent and camping equipment.

He's travelling to Penzance by train this Monday, carrying a large parcel that is absolutely not a bicycle and he expects to arrive at about tea time.
Once he's assembled his bike from the kit of parts that are in the large cardboard box, he'll head down to the starting point at Lands End, take the obligatory photograph and then get back onto the A30 and begin the long trek northwards.
Once he leaves Cornwall, his planned route is as follows:
  • A30 to Tedburn St Mary (just shy of Exeter)
  • North to Crediton
  • Tiverton
  • Taunton
  • Bridgewater
  • Bristol
  • M48 Severn Bridge
  • Chepstow
  • Monmouth
  • Hereford
  • Leominster
  • Ludlow
  • Shrewsbury
  • Market Drayton
  • Newcastle under Lyme
  • Biddulph Moor - for night at home and reorganise luggage in preparation for long days in Scottish mountains without supplies.
  • Congleton
  • Jodrell Bank - to allow work colleagues to make encouraging and supportive comments (unlikely) or to make tasteless remarks about his lycra shorts and attempt to hide bricks in his saddle-bag (much more likely) 
  • Knutsford
  • Warrington
  • Wigan
  • Preston
  • Lancaster
  • Kendal
  • Penrith
  • Carlisle
  • Lockerbie
  • Moffat
  • Biggar
  • Penicuik
  • Edinburgh
  • A90 Forth Road Bridge
  • Dunfermline
  • Kinross
  • Perth
  • Pitlochry (unless he's feeling really good in which case Blaigowrie and A93 through Caingorms)
  • A9 Inverness
  • Tain
  • A9 to John O'Groats
Just to apply a bit more pressure, Frank is off on this jaunt to raise money through sponsorship, for the Douglas Macmillan Hospice; a local, independent, registered charity who care for people (and their families) suffering from cancer and other terminal illnesses.
You can learn more about them at

So, if you should see him as he wends his way up the country, please give him a cheery wave and try not to knock him off his bike.

 I'm going to suggest that if he want's to make it even more difficult he could try doing it on this bike.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Western Digital Passport: Let's really annoy our customers

It's very tempting to go off into a massive rant about this, but I'll do my best to stay calm...

I've just bought an external hard drive to use as a backup for data files.
I decided to get a Western Digital Passport.
It looked like it would be ideal. At 640Gb, it has a reasonable capacity for our requirements and it simply plugs into a USB socket on the PC. As far as the PC is concerned, it just looks like another hard disc drive, so you can just transfer the files you want to back up across to it with Explorer.
So far so good.

I plugged it in, the PC did all the "looking for suitable driver" business and everything was proceeding swimmingly.
Then it installed the "WD Smartware"...

WD Smartware is the Western Digital software that manages the backing up of files and, as such, it is a fine concept. As far as I can tell, it monitors the files on your PC and backs up any that have changed since they were last backed up. Even if the Passport isn't plugged into the PC, the software lurks in the background somehow and carries on looking for stuff that is overdue for saving.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to this seemingly sensible data security scheme. The WD Smartware appears to have clobbered the performance of my PC.
Bearing in mind that I didn't want a foolproof backup regime, simply needing an external drive where I could save data independent of the main computer, this is really very annoying.
If I'd wanted to have software on my computer that slows everything down and prevents me from getting the performance I expect, I'm sure there are hordes of miscreants who would be only too happy to infect my machine with a helpful virus or other malware. I didn't need to pay Western Digital for the privelege of having them cripple my PC.

I'm not the only person that is suffering with this.
The Western Digital Community Forum is seething with posts from angry customers demanding that there should be a way of removing the offending software. Whether anybody at WD will be inclined to give the customers what they want rather than what WD think is good for them remains to be seen.
Until that time (should it ever happen) I'm stuck with what is undoubtedly an excellent bit of hardware that I cannot use thanks to software that crushes the performance of the very machine that said hardware was bought to protect.

...yes, this is just how I'm feeling

Saturday, 8 May 2010

What lies beneath

I reckon that there's always something intriguing about the stuff that lurks behind the scenes at any workplace. I suppose that this may be one of the reasons why fly-on-the-wall documentaries are so popular.
What self-respecting nosey so-and-so wouldn't want to get a sneaky peek at the inner workings of an aircraft carrier or the back-stage business at a major theatre.

When I was a very small boy I was fascinated by those small doors that could be seen in wooden hoardings that surrounded building sites. Trailing along behind my Mum on a trip to the shops, I always wanted to linger in the hope of catching a glimpse of the exciting things that were going on behind those blank plywood facades. Occasionally these doors would be tantalisingly open and the wonderland could be seen. Cement mixers, piles of bricks, pneumatic drills and all the other paraphernalia of construction were briefly fully revealed.

I hadn't realized just how much I had been captivated by the mystery of what lay behind the door to the World of The Building Site until one day, nearly twenty years later, I actually stepped through one such door.
I was working on the redevelopment of the shopping centre in the middle of Stratford on Avon and my mates and I had just been for breakfast at "The Hatch" Cafe. As we clumped along Wood Street in our cement-crusted boots, up to the blank blue door, I noticed that we were being watched by a small boy, as his mother hurried him along the pavement. It was like travelling back in time and seeing myself. I could imagine him thinking, "I wish I could go through that door..."
I've never really had any grand scheme or a life plan, but at that moment I knew that I'd fulfilled some kind of ambition.

It's probably just as well that I've never had a Life Plan, because there is no way that I would have ended up doing my present job if I'd tried to follow any sensible career strategy. I think I just got very lucky
So here's a special behind the scenes picture of a part of Jodrell Bank that not too many people get to see.

This is the tunnel that runs from the Basement of the Main Building to the Annular Lab, under the Lovell Telescope. It lies beneath the concrete path you can see leading away from the foreground of the picture at the top of this post.

This tunnel is the main service duct for cables that supply electrical power for the telescope motors and the many control and data feeds that run from the receivers to the instrument racks in the Observing Room. It also provides a convenient subterranean route for our staff to get to the telescope structure.

One of the best things about this tunnel is that it wouldn't look out of place in many computer games.
Anybody who has played "Half Life 2" or "Deus Ex" will know what I'm on about.
It's also the kind of location that you find in the sort of film where someone always says, "I'll just go down and check the tunnel...", shortly before dying horribly.

If zombies ever invade Jodrell Bank, I know where they'll be coming in...